Yearly Archives: 2021

The Spirit Of St. Louis

From the November, 8, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Not one of Billy Wilder’s best efforts (I wonder if it was motivated by his desire to show his ideological “correctness” during the Red Scare, by celebrating a much-beloved antisemite), this lengthy 1957 account of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, shot in CinemaScope, still has some interest because of James Stewart’s performance, which is very nearly a one-man show. With Patricia Smith, Murray Hamilton, Marc Connelly, and a score by Franz Waxman. 138 min. (JR)

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The Immortal Story

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1996). This film is now readily available in the U.S. and the U.K., and while writing an essay about it for the Criterion release, I came to treasure it a lot more than I did when I wrote this capsule. — J.R.

This rarely screened hour-long Isak Dinesen adaptation by Orson Welles — his first release in color (1968), originally intended for a never-completed anthology film — is far from one of his most achieved works. But thematically and poetically it exemplifies his late lyrical manner, and it provides clues as to what his most treasured late project — another Dinesen adaptation called The Dreamers, for which he shot a few tests — might have looked like. Set in 19th-century Macao (though filmed modestly in France and Spain), this parablelike tale stars Welles as a lonely and selfish merchant who gets his Jewish secretary (Roger Coggio) to hire a courtesan (Jeanne Moreau) and a sailor (Norman Eshley) to reenact a story. It’s awkward in spots yet exquisite. (JR)

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Praxis du cinéma by Noël Burch

For its 100th issue (Winter 2o16), the French quarterly Trafic asked its contributors to select a particular book that had a formative influence on him or her. Here is my contribution. — J.R.

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I still have the original Gallimard edition, probably the most tattered and thumbed-through French book that I own, published in 1969, the same year that I moved to Paris from New York — the title missing the article (Une Praxis du cinéma) that is now found on the 1986 edition. I can even recall purchasing this book at Le Minotaure, a Surrealist bookstore on Rue des Beaux Arts, a short distance from my rented flat on Rue Mazarine, and the ridiculous advertising slip (against which Burch rightly protested), “Contre toute théorie,” that enclosed it.

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By this time, I’d already read — or at least tried to read, back in New York — earlier drafts of some of the chapters when they had appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma, and may have also read Godard’s praise of one of those chapters in one of his interviews. Due to a crippling disability in learning languages, much of which I still suffer from today, I had to read those chapters with the aid of a French-English dictionary, even though Burch’s French—the French of an American émigré — was far easier to follow than the French of Roland Barthes in Le plaisir du texte, published four years later, which eventually became my other key French text of this period.… Read more »

No Joke [MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 19, 1996). — J.R.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie 0 (no stars)

Directed by Jim Mallon

Written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, and Bridget Jones

With Beaulieu, Nelson, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, and the voices of Mallon and Murphy.

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The premise of the recently discontinued cable-TV series on which this film is based is more or less as follows: a blustering mad scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) plots to take over the world. His plan? According to the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie press book: “Find the worst movies ever made, show them to the entire population and bring the planet to its knees.” He kidnaps Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) to serve as a guinea pig, takes him to the Satellite of Love, and makes him and his three robot pals — Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Crow — watch the Worst Movies Ever Made. But Mike and his friends confound the experiment by talking back to the screen and making wisecracks. We watch the movies too — or parts of them, since the lower portion of the screen is partially blocked by the silhouettes of Mike and two of the robots.… Read more »

Ibsen and an enema of the people

 This appeared in The Soho News (August 18, 1981). – J.R.

Beatlemania

An Enemy of the People

Directed by George Schaefer

Public Theater

 

Beatlemania — The Movie

Directed by Joe Manduke

A cherished personal project of Steve McQueen, who served as executive producer as well as lead actor, Henrik lbsen’s An Enemy of the People, scripted by Alexander Jacobs, is a lot more appealing and less forbidding than its cultural aura might suggest. That McQueen was unable to get this 1977 film released prior to his death is unfortunate yet unsurprising; given the absence of outlets for movies of this kind in the United States, I would have thought that cable might prove to be its ideal resting place. But at least for us Manhattan country folk, it’s once again thanks to the underappreciated services of the Public Theater that we’re able to see it at all. 

McQueen made this movie when he knew that he was dying of cancer and decided that he wanted to be remembered for something more than his blue-eyed beefcake parts. An advocate of Laetrile cancer therapy -– banned by the FDA, and usually pegged as “controversial” in this country – McQueen had to go to a Mexican clinic to get the treatment he wanted and must have had plenty of reasons to identify with Ibsen’s persecuted, innocent, and idealistic hero.… Read more »

War of the Poses (OLEANNA)

From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

*** OLEANNA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by David Mamet

With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.

David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.

To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case.… Read more »

Early Robert Kramer: Paralysis as Plot

`Written in late 2020 for a Re:Voir DVD release. — J.R

Seen as a troubled diptych, Troublemakers (filmed in Newark during the fall of 1965, two years before the riots) and In the Country (1966) offer, respectively, public and private glimpses of the political frustrations faced by young white radicals in the United States during this volatile period. Robert Kramer–producer, writer, and director of the second film–receives no credit on the first, but he’s one of the more vocal radicals appearing in it, expressing some of the same disillusionment with mainstream, workaday politics that the second film is also wrestling with. The son of a Park Avenue heart specialist and a textile designer, Robert attended private schools, Swarthmore College, and Stanford, carrying around his privilege like an albatross, as a guilt-ridden handicap to overcome.

The implicit hope that led members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)–including the very young Tom Hayden, Kramer, and filmmakers Norman Fruchter (sound) and Robert Machover (camera and editing)–to join and/or recruit the efforts of black activists in their Newark ghetto and the explicit bitterness of a nameless, fictional white radical couple (William Devane and Catherine Merrill) retreating to and brooding within their privileged rural isolation need to be viewed as reverse sides of the same countercultural coin.… Read more »

Arresting Images [THE BLOODY CHILD]

From the September 27, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

the-bloody-child

TheBloodyChild

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nina Menkes

With Tinka Menkes, Russ Little, Sherry Sibley, Robert Mueller, and Jack O’Hara.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

For several weeks I’ve been arguing with myself about The Bloody Child, the fourth film and third feature of Nina Menkes — a maddening, obsessive minimalist movie that fails to satisfy me but refuses to leave me alone. This deeply threatening American experimental feature, which has yet to find a distributor, is getting its first extended run anywhere at Facets Multimedia Center this week. Facets recently brought out on video all of Menkes’s previous films — The Great Sadness of Zohara (1984), Magdalena Viraga (1987), and Queen of Diamonds (1991) — and I’ve been seeing and reseeing them as well, mainly because I can’t decide what to do with them either. “For me,” the director has said, “cinema is sorcery,” and there’s little doubt in my mind that all of her work — the worst as well as the best — casts a spell.

All four films star Menkes’s sister Tinka, who’s also credited as coconceiver and coeditor (there are no writing credits on any of them); Nina is credited as producer, cinematographer, director, coconceiver, and coeditor.… Read more »

Nightfall

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). . — J.R.

Whether you like this or not — and it’s quite possible that you won’t — this has got to be one of the weirdest and most original movies around. Written and directed by former film critic and scriptwriter-turned-director Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), whose previous solo feature never hit these shores, this is produced by Julie Corman, wife of Roger, and harks back to a lot of 60s Corman productions in various ways, for better and for worse; it also may be the first U.S. exploitation film to show the influence of Raul Ruiz in its striking use of colors and color filters, and Jasper Johns springs to mind in relation to some of the set painting. Mayersberg’s starting point and putative focus is Isaac Asimov’s famous SF story, set on the planet Lagash, where it is always daylight, shortly before its civilization collapses; David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Andra Mylian, and Alexis Kanner head the cast, and much of the action and decor reflect a series of interesting solutions for representing an alien culture as cheaply as possible. If you’re looking for something different, make sure to catch this oddity.… Read more »

Review of WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX: The Annotated Screenplays

From Sight and Sound, July 2017. — J.R.

WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX

The Annotated Screenplays

Edited by Sarah Gleeson-White, Oxford University Press, 949 pp., ISBN 9780190274184

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

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 We know that Faulkner was no cinephile, but it’s less known that he referenced Eisenstein in The Wild Palms and cited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as two of his favourite films (along with High Noon) in a 1958 interview. One also can’t read the present-tense opening of Light in August without noting its cinematic immediacy, which suggests that consciously or not, Faulkner learned a lot from the movies.

Yet when it comes to his screenwriting, it’s closer to alienated, assembly -line labour than any significant form of self-expression. Editor Sarah Gleeson-White, a Sydney-based literary scholar, is well aware of this problem, beginning her Introduction with contradictory statements from Faulkner about how seriously he took this work (both of which, unsurprisingly, sound perfectly sincere) while noting that he wrote around fifty Hollywood screenplays between 1932 and 1954. That Faulkner was fully capable of working simultaneously on both his novel Absalom, Absalom and Hawks’ The Road to Glory is also duly noted. But Gleeson-White’s ambivalence about what actually constitutes screen authorship is reflected in the fact that several photographs in her commentaries are devoted to Faulkner’s Fox collaborators and none at all to Faulkner himself.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for films that have subsequently become available; there are in fact quite a few of these, and, unless I’ve missed something, only one title that isn’t currently available, The Argyle Secrets. — J.R.

Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.

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OddManOut

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It’s also important to stress that “noir” isn’t a genre; it’s a category that’s applied retroactively to films with certain traits in common — a practice started by French critics and eventually continued by us Yanks and others. (Check out James Naremore’s definitive 1998 book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.) This makes it something more flexible than a genre, and I’ve tried to honor this factor in some of my choices.


In the following list I’ve managed to make peace with myself by appending one
SBA title (which stands for “should be available”) to each one that you can currently buy, in the same general category, with brief explanations added.Read more »

Review of WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA

Written for Sight and Sound (March 2017). — J.R.

Product Details

 

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA

The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

By Noah Isenberg. W.W. Norton & Co., 334 pp. US$27.95. ISBN 9780393243123.

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Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

 

I’ve never been asked to select my favourite ‘guilty pleasures’ in movies, but I suspect that if I were, Gone With the Wind and Casablanca — two highly accomplished and engrossing pieces of dubious Hollywood hokum — could easily head the list. Yet it’s one of the signal virtues of Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca to suggest that the true sources of Casablanca’s popularity place it well beyond the racial and racist subtexts of Gone With the Wind.

 

In the case of the latter film, we have the benefit of Molly Haskell’s Frankly, My Dear (2009), a superb critical and ideological unpacking of both the Margaret Mitchell novel and the David O. Selznick blockbuster. Isenberg, an academic and a scholar more than a critic — director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at New York’s New School, and best known among cinephiles as an Edgar G. Ulmer specialist — hasn’t given us the same sort of book as Haskell, although he’s produced a volume that’s equally accessible and nearly as valuable in explaining the appeal of a popular classic.… Read more »

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

From the August 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Adventures_of_Baron_Munchau

Terry Gilliam’s third fantasy feature (1989) may not achieve all it reaches for, but it goes beyond Time Bandits and Brazil in its play with space and time, and as a children’s picture offers a fresh and exciting alternative to the Disney stranglehold on the market. The famous baron (John Neville) sets off with a little girl stowaway (Sarah Polley) on an epic journey to save a city in distress; among the other actors are Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Valentina Cortese, and Robin Williams in a wonderful uncredited cameo as the Moon King. PG, 126 min. (JR)

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Two Nervy End-of-the-Year Pictures

I’m still doping out what I think of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gran Torino, although I did see the latter in time and liked it enough to slip into some of my end-of-the-year ten-best lists. (Since my thoughts and inclinations tend to change over time, I’m reluctant to keep recycling the same list every time I’m asked for one.)

Having just seen Benjamin Button, I still don’t know whether I might have included it in any of my lists, but I have to admit that I suspect I already prefer it to all of Fincher’s other films, with the possible exception of Se7en. It took me a while to warm to the weird premise and some of the grotesqueries it involves, but I think part of what impresses me is how nervy it is in playing out the poetry of the conceit for all that it’s worth and letting all the social-historical elements—from two world wars to Hurricane Katrina (and not overlooking the degree to which it sidesteps all the racial issues)–take a back seat to the love story. It’s also more impressive to me visually than Fincher’s other works. Whatever one concludes about the story and all its ramifications, he certainly knows how to fill a frame.… Read more »

En movimiento: Film Noir as Escape Hatch

 A column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted May 28, 2018. — J.R.

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The commodification of film categories that publicists otherwise find difficult to market — especially “independent,” “restoration,” and “film noir”—often involves a certain amount of deception when it comes to existential identities.

“Independent” became a commercial category only after moguls maintained that the Sundance Festival was devoted to celebrating films without studio backing — even though “success” at Sundance meant a studio sale that typically entailed a loss of independence. “Restoration” is a label that absurdly gets slapped onto all sorts of real or alleged upgrades of older films, such as one with a newly mutilated and reconfigured soundtrack (the 1992 rerelease of Orson Welles’ Othello), a re-edit (the 1998 Touch of Evil), a belated first edit (the posthumous 2018 The Other Side of the Wind), and sometimes merely a new print. And “film noir” — a term whose meaning has already been slippery to begin with, applied retrospectively to a group of films said to share certain stylistic, formal, and thematic traits — now functions ahistorically and sometimes deceptively while increasing the market value of a given feature by obfuscating its politics.

On Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948), Peter Cowie’s interview with Hervé Dumont — whose book on the director should be shelved alongside Chris Fujiwara’s book for the same publisher (McFarland) on Jacques Tourneur — primed me perfectly for my second look at this masterpiece.… Read more »