Yearly Archives: 2021

REMEMBER MY NAME

This review appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. XXXII, no. 3). Consider it Part 1 of a two-part consideration of Alan Rudolph, carried out over a span of a dozen years, to be followed by my much more ambivalent take on Mortal Thoughts (1991) for the Chicago Reader, which deals with some of the same issues involving both class and music. (I suspect that Rudolph’s best movie remains Choose Me, but I’d have to see this again to be sure.) — J.R.

REMEMBER MY NAME

Director: Alan Rudolph. Script: Rudolph. Photography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Alberta Hunter. Lagoon Films.

Alan Rudolph’s second film was financed by Columbia, then written off as a disaster before it was released, but it has been running successfully in Paris for months and opens shortly in New York. It strikes me as the most exciting Hollywood fantasy to come along in quite some time. Admittedly, I am a Rivette enthusiast; I am fascinated by narrative suspension and indeterminacy, and tend to lose interest when a plot is laid out in full view, because I’ve usually seen it before. Remember My Name deliberately suspends narrative clarity for the better part of its running time, and never entirely eliminates the ambiguities that keep it alive and unpredictable — even though its themes, thanks to Alberta Hunter’s offscreen blues songs, are never really in question.… Read more »

En movimiento: Muratova’s Repetitions

This column for the 100th issue of Caimán cuadernos de cineis (Enero 2021) is basically an excerpt from and preview of a much longer essay about Kira Muratova written for the English feminist journal Another Gaze, and scheduled to run in its next issue early this year. Note: Arsenii Kniazkov has pointed out to me that Muratova is Ukrainian, so calling her Russian is a bit like calling Ousmane Sembene French.– J.R.

What is most provocative and sometimes pleasurable in both art and life can also sometimes be most maddening and aggravating. Kira Muratova’s films provide a good illustration of this principle because they have a disconcerting way of flirting with us and then slamming a door in our faces, sometimes even simultaneously. I’d like to suggest here that there’s a meaning and message behind her seeming madness — that a double-edged attitude of love/hatred towards both repetition and various institutions that promote an overall sense of continuity, security, and coherence, including family and the state, lies at the heart of her cinema, accounting for much of its bipolar energy.

In her Chekhov’s Motives (2002, also known as Chekhovian Motifs), perhaps the strangest and most aggressively eccentric of all her black and white features, her incantatory uses of repetition are especially evident.… Read more »

Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy [SEVEN, aka SE7EN]

From the October 6, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Seven

*** (A must-see)

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker

With Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John McGinley, Julie Araskog, Mark Boone Junior, and Kevin Spacey.

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Since when have designer vomit, mannerist rot, and other chic signifiers of gloom, doom, and decline become such comforting mainstays of movies? I’m thinking not only about Hollywood but about Western cinema generally. What brings on all the driving, dirty rain in Satantango (Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, which showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival) as well as in Seven, a stylish and affecting (albeit gory) metaphysical serial-killer movie? The facile solution would be to trace the gloom back to Blade Runner, film noir, maybe even to Prague school surrealism, though this would omit the Calvinist/expressionist vision of urban filth and the post-Vietnam psychopathology of Taxi Driver. In point of fact, it’s much more important to figure out the reasons for the strange allure of this grim sensibility than to worry pedantically about where it came from.

I’d ascribe at least part of this taste to the current inability to believe in or try to effect political change — a form of paralysis that in America is related to an incapacity to accept that we’re no longer number one.… Read more »

MASTER OF THE HOUSE

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s new dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.

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Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)

MOTH3

***

It’s all a matter of exquisite balance — between one shot and the next, between the first half of the film and the second half, between screen left and screen right.

Criterion’s dual-format edition of Carl Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House scores as a modern film because Dreyer always knows how to modulate all his characters, and his actors’ beautiful performances, even when they’re at their most archetypal, whether in domestic tableaux or in climactic close-ups.… Read more »

Film Style And Technology, by Barry Salt

From Wide Angle, vol. 8, no. 3-4, 1986. –- J.R.

FILM STYLE AND TECHNOLOGY:

HISTORY AND ANALYSIS by Barry

Salt, Starword, 3 Minford Gardens,

London W14 0AN, England, 1983:

paper, $ 15.00, 408 pages, lllustrations

It is a sad commentary on the

narrowness and inflexibility of current

academic publishing in film studies

that this major work had to be brought

out at the author’s own expense.

Handsomely produced and generously

priced, Film Style and Technology:

History and Analysis offers what is

conceivably the most detailed account

of film technology that we have had to

date, stretching from 1885 through the

Seventies, with roughly one chapter per

decade, and for this aspect of the book

alone, no comprehensive library devoted

to film history can afford to be without it.

In addition, the book’s innovative use of

statistical style analysis, while

problematical in relation to certain stylistic

issues, nevertheless introduces a new form

of rigor to film analysis that deserves to be

considered in detail.

If, as a “total” view of cinema, Salt’s approach

often seems constricted, it nonetheless yields

a wealth of potentially useful material to many

different kinds of film scholars. As Salt’s title

makes clear, a technological history of film

represents only one part of his enterprise.… Read more »

GHOST DOG as International Sampler

Written for a Criterion rerelease, released in November 2020.. — J.R.

Along with Dead Man, his previous narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai marks a quantum leap in the Jim Jarmusch universe — a discovery of history (both antiquity and tradition) that carries with it a sense of gravity and even tragedy missing from his first five features. And paradoxically, along with his embrace of antiquity comes an uncanny intimation of the future from a 1999 perspective — an anticipation of social media and their mythical assemblies of identities and fanciful hashtags, a full decade before Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence, all the more surprising from a committed Luddite who would subsequently opt for faxes over emaiand post only on Instagram.

Jarmusch’s special way of evoking contemporary online individualities is a mix-and-match game of movie-genre tropes (including a final shoot-out scene), references to particular films (e.g., pigeons kept on a New Jersey rooftop, from On the Waterfront), and diverse literary touchstones ranging from The Wind in the Willows to Frankenstein. It also involves mythical profiles that sometimes merge with (or at least suggest) star presences, something Jarmusch has long depended upon, including his evocations (and invocations) of Elvis in Mystery Train (1989) and Nikola Tesla in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and his uses of, among many others, Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits in Down by Law (1986), Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in Night on Earth (1991), Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer in Dead Man (the latter of whom briefly returns in Ghost Dog), Forest Whitaker and Henry Silva in Ghost Dog, Cate Blanchett (in two roles) in Coffee and Cigarettes, and Isaach de Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray in several films each. … Read more »

The Elephant in the Room: Nicolas Roeg’s INSIGNIFICANCE

This started out as an essay commissioned by Criterion for their 2011 DVD release and submitted to them in February. They weren’t happy with the result, so we agreed to disagree. — J.R.

When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. – Umberto Eco on Casablanca

My nightmare is the H Bomb. What’s yours? – Marilyn Monroe’s notes for her responses to a 1962 interview, first published in 2010

As I wrote in my capsule review of Insignificance for the Chicago Reader,

Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play — about Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) converging in New York City in 1954 — has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their clichéd media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon. The Monroe-Einstein connection isn’t completely contrived.Read more »

Gold Diggers of 1953: Howard Hawks’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.

For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. — J.R.

First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”

I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein

Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison.… Read more »

International Harvest [Films about Films]

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1996)..– J.R.

Typically British

Directed by Mike Dibb and Stephen Frears

Written by Charles Barr and Frears.

2 X 50 Years of French Cinema

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Anne-

Marie Mieville and Jean-Luc Godard

With Godard and Michel Piccoli.

I Am Curious, Film

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Stig Bjorkman

With Lena Nyman and Bjorn Granath.

100 Years of Japanese Cinema

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by

Nagisa Oshima.

Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema

***

Directed and written by Stanley Kwan.

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To celebrate the “100th anniversary of cinema,” the British Film Institute has commissioned a series of documentaries about national cinemas. Some of them are still being made, but the first 13 are showing at the Film Center as part of a series that started early this month with the three-part A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (excellent) and has continued with documentaries by Sam Neill on New Zealand cinema (witty), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos on Latin American cinema (ambitious but unsuccessful), by Edgar Reitz on German cinema (embarrassing), and by Pawel Lozinski on Polish cinema, realizing an outline by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (I haven’t seen it).… Read more »

Auteur or Idiot?

From Time Out (London), June 4-10, 1976. I’ve always had very mixed feelings about this commissioned cover-story piece, especially about its stupid and offensive title (not mine) as well as what I now regard as a certain conformist pandering to what I regarded as mainstream taste. As I recall, the whole piece was written very quickly, following the capricious whim of the magazine’s editor. I especially regret the way I fell into some of the mindless consensus of condemning The Day the Clown Cried without having seen any part of it, which by now has become a standard reflex in Anglo-American Lewis-bashing. I’ve corrected a couple of factual errors. -– J.R.

Who is Jerry Lewis?

A comedian who has acted in over three dozen films, eight of which he’s directed, himself.I became a fan back in 1949, when he first appeared as secondary comic relief in ‘My Friend Irma’, and followed him religiously through his countless vehicles with Dean Martin in the 50s. As I grew older, critics began to warn me that he was childish and self-indulgent, friends groaned whenever his name cropped up, and I discovered that he usually came across as a sanctimonious prig whenever he made personal appearances on TV.… Read more »

War Bonds [on COMING HOME, 1978 review]

From the San Diego Reader (June 15, 1978). Not one of my best reviews, and certainly not a favorite, but I’m reprinting it, after some hesitation, as part of the record, with only minor re-edits.  I came to write this through my acquaintance with Duncan Shepherd, the film critic for the San Diego Reader from 1972 until late 2010 -–  a protégé of Manny Farber who had followed him all the way from New York to southern California –- after I had been hired by Farber to return to the U.S. from London and take over his classes for two quarters in 1977 while he was on a Guggenheim fellowship, and then hadn’t been rehired there. Manny, as I recall, was mightily annoyed by this piece, and I can’t deny that some of our political arguments probably fueled the review, at least in part -– as well as some of the swagger in Farber’s prose, a regrettable influence on this occasion. (An afterthought: I was sharing a house with Raymond Durgnat around this time, and the “crazy mirror” metaphor in the final paragraph suggests to me now that he might have exerted some influence as well.) — J.R.

 coming_home

As a native of Alabama, I didn’t have to worry much about draft dodging in the late Sixties.… Read more »

Movie Mutations: Letters From (and To) Some Children of 1960

These are the original letters published in French translation in Trafic no. 24, Winter 1997 and subsequently published in English in a 2003 book edited by Adrian Martin and myself, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute). These letters have by now also appeared in Croatian, Dutch, Farsi, French, German, and Spanish. — J.R.

From Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago):

7 April, 1997

Dear Adrian,

 

Almost a year has passed since I wrote in Trafic* about “the taste of a particular generation of cinephiles — an international and mainly unconscious cabal (or, more precisely, confluence) of critics, teachers, and programmers, all of whom were born around 1960, have a particular passion for research (bibliographic as well as cinematic), and (here is what may be most distinctive about them) a fascination with the physicality of actors tied to a special interest in the films of John Cassavetes and Philippe Garrel (as well as Jacques Rivette and Maurice Pialat).” I named four members of this generation — Nicole Brenez (France), Alexander Horwath (Austria), Kent Jones (U.S.), and you (Australia). Each of you, I should add, I met independently of the other three, originally through correspondence (apart from Kent), although Kent and Alex already knew each other.… Read more »

On William Pechter

From Film Comment, July-August 1982. — J.R.

 

Movies Plus One by William S. Pechter, 246 pp., index, Horizon Press, $14.95.

Ever since certain American film critics have taken to collecting their own reviews and/or commanding their own screenings, the solipsistic nature of their profession has tended to grow. It is a tendency that crosses cult boundaries, characterizing the Neros of the profession as well as the Babbitts, the scarlet empresses as well as the Sylvia Scarletts. In her celebrated and lengthy attack on Pauline Kael in the New York Review of Books two summers ago, Renata Adler indirectly broached this problem by singling out the distressing evidence of one very gifted intelligence having run amok — a charge largely made on stylistic and rhetorical grounds, and persuasively shaped around the assumption that what was really at stake was not movies at all, but prose and the relation between writers and readers. The greatest, lasting value of Adler’s remarkable piece was its illumination of this sticky problem as a general tendency — not its ostensible project of bringing the reader the head of Pauline Kael, which gave it all its publicity.

For a wider application of what Adler was talking about, one need only turn to Kael’s arch-rival Andrew Sarris — a critic so adroit at exposing his own solipsistic stances that he’s never needed an Adler to point them out.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Ambiguous Legalities, Gambles, Lucky Breaks, and Box Sets (my 8th column)

From Cinema Scope, Winter 2005, issue 21. Much of this column is out of date — starting with the URL in the first sentence, which none the less does take you somewhere that’s related. — J.R.

My most fruitful recent discovery for ordering rare films on DVD is www.superhappyfun.com — a mysterious U.S.company whose name sounds oddly Japanese and who makes its own Region 0 DVD-Rs (“a movie that’s been ported over from VHS, tweaked with a time-based corrector, and recorded onto a consumer-grade DVD”), packed in envelopes rather than boxes to save costs and usually priced at $13 apiece. The prints used vary in quality and are ranked in their catalogue entries between 10 (best) and 4 (worst); I’ve found so far that anything below 7 borders on the dubious (such as my blotchy albeit subtitled copy of Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, assigned a 6).

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Park-Row

Among the treasures I’ve recently acquired are Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (the full version, with English subtitles, on two discs, for $15), The Exterminating Angel subtitled, The Girl Can’t Help It letterboxed, a couple of restored Ernst Lubitsch musicals (Monte Carlo and One Hour with You), Joseph Losey’s M, Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall, Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (which has no intertitles, so subtitles aren’t needed), Fuller’s Park Row, and Antonioni’s The Passenger.… Read more »

The Way We Were

From American Film (April 1982). — J.R.

The Film in History: Restaging the Past by Pierre Sorlin. Barnes & Noble, $21.50.

Feature Films as History edited by K.R.M. Short. University of Tennessee Press, $16.50.

Vietnam on Film: From “The Green Berets” to “Apocalypse Now” by Gilbert Adair. Proteus, $13.95.

What is a historical film? Sociologist and cultural historian Pierre Sorlin concludes a comparison between two French films about the French Revolution released during the mid-thirties — Abel Gance’ s Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise — with a succinct formula for his provocative working assumption in The Film in History. “A historical film,”  he writes, “is a reconstruction of the social relationship which, using the pretext of the past, reorganizes the present.”

It’s an interesting notion to try out on all the films that we regard as historical. To get a proper fix on Reds, for instance, one has to consider not only the years 1915 to 1920, during which the portrayed events take place, but also the much more immediate past, during which the movie was being formulated and put together, and the present, during which it is being seen and understood. Thus the relatively short shrift paid in the film to class differences – a fundamental issue in John Reed’s life — can be ascribed in part to the basically middle-class orientation of the student revolts in the sixties, which have a lot to do with the way that we currently regard radical politics.… Read more »