Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films

From DVD Beaver (posted December 2007). — J.R.

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The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.

Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.

 

The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down.Read more »

Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent

This article was originally published in Stop Smiling no. 27 (“Ode to the Midwest”) in 2006. It’s also reprinted in my most recent book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.  — J.R.

Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent

It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures  —- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Time magazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act — just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think. But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak — a major star if not a major actress — had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!Read more »

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

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It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

 

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

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1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This isn’t simply the only Hawks western that doesn’t star John Wayne (not counting his uncredited and piecemeal work on Viva Villa!

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Sweet & Sour: Lubitsch and Wilder in Old Hollywood

This originally appeared in Stop Smiling‘s “Hollywood Lost and Found” issue (2007); it’s also reprinted in my latest collection. — J.R.

The Love Parade window

The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau, or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians, or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.

These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the 30s -— and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the 50s. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls.… Read more »

Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies

Published by DVD Beaver in August 2006. — J.R.

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Even though I don’t have much of a head for science, and even though I agree with the field’s chief literary critic, Damon Knight, that “we have no negative knowledge” (meaning that we aren’t yet in a position to identify time travel as either science or non-science), I’d still maintain that the differences between science fiction and fantasy are important. (For Damon Knight’s criticism, see his superb though sadly long out-of-print collection In Search of Wonder.) Important enough, in any case, to make a list of favorite neglected SF movies distinct and separate from a list of neglected fantasy movies. So consider the following selection the first half of a two-part series.

French people tend to conflate SF and fantasy a little more readily than others do into a looser category known as fantastique which also manages to encompass Surrealism, some forms of satire and horror, comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels, among other things. But for the purposes of this particular exercise, credible extrapolations or fictions that at least pretend to have some relation to science —- by which I mean Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (admittedly a borderline case), The Nutty Professor, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but not Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Tiger of Eschnapur, or Eyes Wide Shut —- qualify as science fiction.… Read more »

Doing the CALIFORNIA SPLIT

From Stop Smiling No. 35 (its gambling issue, guest edited by Annie Nocenti), June 2008.  — J.R.

“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-1960s. This has always struck me as being one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split, released in 1974 —- a free-form comedy about the friendship that develops and then plays itself out between two compulsive gamblers, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), and the first movie ever to use an eight-track mixer — it starts to make some weird kind of sense.

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What’s an eight-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks developed by Jim Webb, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for all the 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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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 »

THE YOUNG ONE: Buñuel’s Neglected Masterpiece

This is an expanded version of an article published originally (on October 8, 1993) in the Chicago Reader; the Australian DVD label Madman commissioned this longer piece in  the summer of 2009. — J.R.

 

Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a jazz musician from the north fleeing from a southern lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?

As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it might conceivably transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might enhance the freshness of his treatment -—one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce.Read more »

Sentimental Journey [on LARGER THAN LIFE]

If this Chicago Reader review from November 15, 1996 is of any interest today, I suspect this is more because of what it has to say about Australia and the U.S. than because of what has to say about a rather forgettable Bill Murray comedy. —J.R.

 

 

Larger Than Life

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Howard Franklin

Written by Roy Blount Jr., Pen Densham, and Garry Williams

With Bill Murray, Janeane Garofalo, Matthew McConaughey, Keith David, Pat Hingle, Jeremy Piven, Lois Smith, Anita Gillette, and Linda Fiorentino.


They say an elephant never forgets, but what they don’t say is, you’ll never forget an elephant. – Bill Murray in Larger Than Life

Farmer has bought an elephant at an auction. Gives him to Tom, Huck and Jim and they go about the country on him making no end of trouble. – from Mark Twain’s working notes for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Are you still suffering from postelection malaise? I’ve just gotten back from a couple of weeks in Australia, where voting is compulsory, and for all the complaints I heard about the downsizing of government services and ugly efforts to renege on aboriginal land rights and change immigration policies, the political atmosphere seemed decidedly less alienated and despairing than it does here.… Read more »

Recommended Viewing (and Listening): SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS on Blu-Ray

Saxophone Colossus

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Most of what makes this 1986 Robert Mugge documentary, named after Rollins’ best  early album and produced by his late wife Lucille (seen above), so special is Sonny Rollins himself — currently approaching his 87th birthday — as a performer and improviser and his irrepressible stamina and power, combined with his choreographic skill in standing, walking, leaping, and tilting every which way while he plays his tenor sax and pours out his endless inventions. I’ve often thought in the past that jazz vibes players are the most cinematic of performers, because they can only play vibes by dancing, but Rollins has the rare and paradoxical capacity of doing the same thing while looming before us like a veritable mountain. At one point we even see him breaking his heel after leaping from the stage but continuing to play while lying on his back.

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The most memorable portions of Saxophone Colossus are two rollicking numbers, “G-Man” and (more abbreviated) “Don’t  Stop the Carnival,” performed by Rollins with his quintet at Opus 40, the 6.5-acre environmental sculpture in Saugerties, N.Y. (see above) by the late Harvey Fite (1903-1976), who founded the fine arts program at my alma mater, Bard College. Less memorable to see and hear are portions of a concerto with a symphony orchestra performed at a premiere in Tokyo — not the sort of Third Stream monstrosity one might imagine, but still a composition that unavoidably reins Rollins in, both musically and gymnastically, at the same time that it inflates his cultural profile.… Read more »

Deep Blues

From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1993). — J.R.

DeepBlues

Blues buffs have some genuine cause for rejoicing: Robert Mugge’s 1991 documentary about blues performers in the Mississippi Delta, made for England’s Channel Four, contains some of the best blues I’ve ever heard or seen on film. Using blues critic and historian Robert Palmer — accompanied by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) — as tour guide, the film proceeds from a sadly gentrified Beale Street in Memphis to funky Mississippi outposts like Holly Springs, Greenville, Clarksdale, and Betonia, where we’re treated to brief interviews with and extended live performances by Booker T. Laury, R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and the Playboys, “Big” Jack Johnson, Jack Owens, Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford. Palmer wears his erudition lightly, but he’s very good on the African origins of such things as the word “juke” and the homemade blues instrument called the diddly bow. This isn’t anything special as cinema, but if you’re into blues it’s a bonanza. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 15 through 21)

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Indexing versus Taxonomy: I, DALIO—OR THE RULES OF THE GAME and THE THOUGHTS THAT ONCE WE HAD

Commisssioned by the bilingual, semi-annual Spanish journal Found Footage Magazine for their second issue, published in April 2016. 

One good reason for reposting this essay now is that Thom Andersen  recently read it for the first time and has pointed out a few errors. I’ve added his comments as a postscript. – J.R.

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The rapidly and constantly expanding proliferation of films and videos about cinema is altering some of our notions about film history in at least two significant ways. For one thing, now that it has become impossible for any individual to keep abreast of all this work, our methodologies for assessing it as a whole have to be expanded and further developed. And secondly, insofar as one way of defining work in cinematic form and style that is truly groundbreaking is to single out work that defines new areas of content, the search for such work is one of the methodologies that might be most useful. In my case, this is a search that has led to considerations of two recent videos, Mark Rappaport’s 33-minute I, Dalio—or The Rules of the Game (2014) and Thom Andersen’s 108-minute The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015). Both are highly personal works that also define relatively new areas of on-film film analysis, forms of classification that can be described here as indexing (in this case, indexing and commenting on the career of a French character actor, Marcel Dalio) and taxonomy (in this case, illustrating portions of a taxonomy offered by a French writer, Gilles Deleuze, as applied to a partial and idiosyncratic yet fairly comprehensive history of cinema).   … Read more »

Looking Down on the Little People [RADIO DAYS]

This is the very first long review I ever published in the Chicago Reader. It was published in their March 13, 1987 issue, about five months before I moved to Chicago from Santa Barbara and started working as their regular film critic, and writing this piece  was part of my audition for the job. (They commissioned two other pieces from me, neither of which they ran, as part of the same audition; both of these reviews — on Oliver Stone’s Platoon and on Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight – are now available on this site.)

This article has never previously appeared online, on the Reader’s website or anywhere else. It ran originally with the same black and white still reproduced here. Readers familiar with my essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” written about three years later, may notice that I borrowed a few passages in it from this review. My original title for this review, “Woody’n You,” was rejected by the Reader editors, who didn’t catch or dig the jazz reference. — J.R.

*RADIO DAYS

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Diane Keaton.

It’s hard to think of a contemporary American filmmaker who is more universally admired than Woody Allen –- a fact that may say more about us than it says about Woody. … Read more »

Family Plot (1976 review)

I still seem to be in a minority in preferring Family Plot to Alfred Hitchcock’s other late films, but after reseeing the film countless times, I’m not about to revise my opinion. It would appear that some of Hitchcock’s biggest champions, such as Robin Wood, have tended to dismiss the film because it isn’t sicker. I tried to respond to their criticism at least provisionally in the opening of this review, written  for the summer 1976 Sight and Sound, which they ran as their cover story for that issue and which I’ve now revised, but only minimally. — J.R.

Family Plot

“Everything’s perverted in a different way,” Hitchcock has noted; and perhaps no other filmmaker has illustrated this postulate better, by starting from precisely the opposite premise. Without a well-established sense of the normal, the abnormal doesn’t even stand a chance of being recognized, and the director has always made it his business to offer all the right signposts and comforts to guarantee complacency before proceeding to unhinge it. Yet one of the rules of the game is deception, and if the Master’s artistry has been identified more with rude shocks than with the subtler conditioning which makes them possible, one can be certain that this too plays a role in his overall strategies.… Read more »

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

From Cineaste, Fall 1995. – J.R.

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

by James Naremore. Cambridge University Press, 1993.  202 pp, illus., Hardcover: $65.00. Paperback: $27.99.

The critical position of James Naremore is Frankfurt school auteurism, a seeming contradiction. That is, he shares the Marxist orientation of many Frankfurt school intellectuals but not their disdain for the artifacts of mass culture. (To be sure, not all Frankfurt school members can be characterized in quite so monolithic a fashion; see, for instance, the prewar journalism of Siegfried Kracauer published this year in The Mass Ornament.) As a consequence, Naremore’s work shows an interest in style and pleasure that runs against the puritanical grain of most American Marxists, without ever losing sight of the social and political issues avoided by most American auteurists.

This is an idiosyncratic and progressive book in a series, the Cambridge Film Classics, that has mainly been conformist and conservative, especially in relationship to non-American filmmakers. Its volumes always focus on a few “representative” features rather than complete oeuvres, and Naremore’s study of Minnelli focuses on Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, but only after an Introduction and first chapter that take up a quarter of the book and lay a considerable amount of contextual groundwork.… Read more »