Why I Like TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE: A Conversation with Justin Bozung

The following is a slightly revised and rearranged dialogue recorded for a podcast in January 2014 and reworked a little over a year later for a  book by Justin Bozung about Norman Mailer’s films, and then cut from the book due to a lack of space the following year. I’m told it will appear eventually in a 2018 issue of the academic journal Mailer Review. –- J. R.

 Mailer in Provincetown

Tough-Guys-Dont-Dance

JUSTIN BOZUNG: My first question for you is, Why in the hell are you and I the only two people in the world that love this film?

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: Well, we aren’t quite the only two — there’s also my friend Mark Rappaport, who, like Mailer, is both a filmmaker and a writer. But it’s true, there aren’t many others. And I can’t speak authoritatively about why other people don’t like the film, but I will say that I’ve never been a fan of Mailer’s three previous films. And I use the word “film” deliberately and advisedly, because Tough Guys Don’t Dance is above all a movie; it’s the only thing of his that has some resemblance to Hollywood. And he has a flair for it.

I saw what I believe was one of its first screenings, soon after it was (probably) shown at Telluride, at the Toronto Film Festival.… Read more »

Talking Back to the Screen (Toronto 1992)

From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.

My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good.… Read more »

War Porn [JARHEAD]

From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 2005). — J.R.

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Jarhead

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by William Broyles Jr.

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, and Skyler Stone

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When Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 people argued over its politics. I always thought it was mainly prowar, so I got some satisfaction from seeing an early scene in Jarhead that shows marines at their Mojave Desert base in 1990 watching the movie on video. Itching for the gulf war to start, they whoop it up during the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence, in which the cartoonish Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore ecstatically launches an air attack on a Vietnamese village to the strains of Wagner. Director Francis Ford Coppola, a known liberal, plainly saw the scene as disturbing, but screenwriter John Milius, a known hawk, has often suggested that he saw it as a hoot.

Like most of the good things in Jarhead – a somewhat muddled adaptation by writer William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) of Anthony Swofford’s best-selling 2003 memoir — the reference to Apocalypse Now comes from the book, which alludes to movies in its first paragraph.… Read more »

Getting It Both Ways (AMERICAN BEAUTY)

From the September 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

American Beauty

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Alan Ball

With Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, and Allison Janney.

American Beauty is a brilliant satirical diagnosis of what’s most screwed up about life in this country, especially when it comes to sexual frustration and kiddie porn. Or American Beauty is a hypocritical piece of kiddie porn, brilliantly exploiting an audience’s sexual frustration and turning it into coin. Take your pick.

Paradoxical as it sounds, both of these statements may be true. American Beauty is, after all, a Hollywood movie, like The Graduate (1967) and Risky Business (1983), two somewhat comparable historical markers that gleefully conflate social criticism and fantasy wish fulfillment so you can’t tell them apart. Whether American Beauty will become a hit like those earlier movies is hard to predict, but if it doesn’t it won’t be for lack of trying. Like The Graduate, it sympathizes with rebellion and satirizes complacency, but that doesn’t stop it from taking digs at sexually deprived middle-aged women as if they were somehow the root of all evil.… Read more »

Cheap Thrills [ROAD TO PERDITION]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 2002). — J.R.

Road to Perdition

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by David Self

With Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dylan Baker, and Liam Aiken.

It’s based on a graphic novel, which automatically precludes charges of arty pretension — something we all know is found only in literary works and foreign films, not Hollywood movies and comic books. It aims to do for Irish-American crime in the midwest what the Godfather trilogy did for Italian-American crime on the east coast (it uses Rembrandt lighting and fancy period decor, and it aims to be a grand metaphor for the American experience and family ties in general). It offers an array of primed-for-Oscars performances, two of them by former Oscar winners (Tom Hanks and Paul Newman). It recounts a classic tale of revenge, a classic coming-of-age story, and a classic account of bonding between fathers and sons. It dishes up gobs of carefully choreographed, deliberately excessive violence and bloodshed, and then, in the 11th hour, repudiates both — which calls to mind a touchstone like Bonnie and Clyde, as does its populist celebration of Good Country People.… Read more »

The Solitary Pleasures of STAR WARS

From the Autumn 1977 Sight and Sound.– J.R.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” reads the opening title, over vast interstellar reaches of wide-screen space. “I’ve seen the future and it works!” declares a happy teenager on his way out of the movie to a TV reporter in Los Angeles — oddly parroting what Lincoln Steffens said about Russia over fifty years ago, before Ford Motors gave the slogan a second lease on life. “Another galaxy, another time,” begins the novel’s prologue more noncommittally, carefully hedging all bets. But confusion between past and future, however useful to the tactics of George Lucas’s STAR WARS, seems almost secondary to the overriding insistence that whenever this giddy space opera is taking place, it can’t possibly be anywhere quite so disagreeable as the present.

“Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film,” Lucas has said, “I realized there was another relevance that is even more important — dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps — that you could still sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures.” Although garbage and killing are anything but absent from STAR WARS, and stealing hubcaps is around in spirit if not in letter, Lucas’s aspiration is easy enough to comprehend, even after the social interests of his THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI.… Read more »

Excessive Use of the Force

This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.Read more »

Raymond Durgnat

Originally published in the May-June 1973 issue of Film Comment; it’s reprinted, along with my 2002 Afterword, in my latest collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. (The following paragraphs are now slightly out of date, but I’ve retained them as records of where things stood at the time.)

Reprinting this piece has been prompted by two exciting pieces of news: the relaunching of a Raymond Durgnat website, thanks to the efforts of one of Durgnat’s old friends, Sue Ritchie, and the long, long overdue second edition of Durgnat’s irreplaceable 1970 book A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Influence, which the British Film Institute is bringing out next month, thanks to the efforts of another old friend, Kevin Gough-Yates, who provided a new Introduction (and has also been behind the earlier creation and the recent recreation of the Durgnat website).

The website, at raymonddurgnat.com, currently includes a biographical sketch, a very detailed, hefty, and rather awesome bibliography, four poems by Ray (all of them veritable collectors’ items), four “additional resources and links,” a Raymond Durgnat Forum that awaits commentary from visitors, and nine full-length articles that can be linked through the bibliography. One hopes that many more attractions, especially texts, can be added in the future, for a world is still waiting to be found in Durgnat’s writing.Read more »

A Depth in the Family [A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 30, 2005). The last illustration, incidentally, is from the graphic novel that this film is based on.,,,See below for screenwriter Josh Olson’s recent response to this review. — J.R.

A History of Violence

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Josh Olson

With Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt, and Heidi Hayes

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a happy family man running a diner in idyllic small-town Indiana, with a lawyer wife (Maria Bello), a teenage son (Ashton Holmes), and a little girl (Heidi Hayes). One night he responds so deftly and definitively to the violent threats of two killers that he becomes a local hero. A Philadelphia mobster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) hears of the story and soon arrives in town claiming that Tom has another name and background — that he was once a gangster himself who mutilated one of Fogarty’s eyes with barbed wire.

Is A History of Violence a popular genre movie, soliciting visceral, unthinking responses to its violence while evoking westerns and noirs? Or is it an art film, reflecting on the meaning, implications, and effects of its violence, and getting us to do the same?… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Items That You May Not Know About

From the Spring 2012 issue of Cinema Scope. Some of the facts here may be out of date, so prospective customers should proceed with caution. — J.R.

The arrival on DVD of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three solo features — Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) — has been long overdue, and it’s possible that part of the delay can be attributed to how unclassifiable and original these nonfiction films really are. The first of these has something to do with young twin sisters who were believed to have developed a private language between them, the second has something to do with both Manny Farber (as both a painter and a film critic) and a group of model train fans, and the third has something to do with the members of a Samoan street gang. But apart from Gorin’s presence and (quite diverse) Southern California settings, they’re very hard to describe or encapsulate, much less generalize about as a “trilogy” in any ordinary sense, which is part of their enduring fascination. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil [1982], which roams freely across the planet, already available with La jetée [1962] on a Criterion DVD and now out on a Criterion Blu-ray with the same materials — including terrific monologues by Gorin about both films that show how finely attuned he is to their special qualities, both as a friend of Marker and as a film essayist in his own right.) Criterion’s Eclipse has now issued all three as its 31st package, but in a refreshing departure from its usual “no-frills” format, this set includes three essays by Kent Jones — a longer one included with Poto and Cabengo about all three films, and shorter pieces with and about the other two — that are thoughtful explorations and meditations in their own right.… Read more »

Spanish Master

From Sight and Sound (June 2011). Portabella continues to be the most flagrantly unseen and overlooked of major contemporary filmmakers, for reasons suggested in this sketch.  — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum voyages into the elusive and intriguing worlds created by Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella

Among the lost continents of cinema — major films and artists that have perpetually eluded our grasp because they fall outside the usual institutional frameworks that we depend upon to ‘keep up’ with cinema — there are few contemporary figures more neglected than Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella.

Born into a family of industrialists in Barcelona in 1929, Portabella has remained closely tied to that city’s art scene for most of his life, especially as a patron and friend of other Catalan artists. One of these was Joan Miró, the focus of a major retrospective at the Tate Modern this summer and the subject of five of Portabella’s shorter fiIms from the late 1960s and early 70s. (The two I’m most familiar with are Miró L’Altre, chronicling the artist’s painting and subsequent erasing of a mural at the Colegio de Arquitectos de Catalunya, and Miró 37/Aidez L’Espagne, which similarly explores a ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’, this time of Spain itself during the mid-1930s, via newsreel footage.)

Portabella’s relation to cinema has taken many different shapes.… Read more »

National Society of Film Critics Awards (2016) & Two Comments (2017)

SPECIAL CITATION for a film awaiting American distribution: Sieranevada (Romania) Cristi Puiu

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FILM HERITAGE AWARD: Kino Lorber’s 5-disc collection “Pioneers of African-American Cinema

pioneers

BEST ACTOR

*1. Casey Affleck (65) – Manchester by the Sea

2. Denzel Washington (21) – Fences

3. Adam Driver (20) – Paterson

Manchester-By-The-Sea-4-Casey-Affleck

BEST ACTRESS

*1. Isabelle Huppert (55) – Elle and Things to Come

2. Annette Bening (26) – 20th Century Women

2. Sandra Hüller (26) – Toni Erdmann [tied with Bening]

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

*1. Mahershala Ali (72) – Moonlight

2. Jeff Bridges (18) – Hell or High Water

3. Michael Shannon (14) – Nocturnal Animals

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

*1. Michelle Williams (58) – Manchester by the Sea

2. Lily Gladstone (45) – Certain Women

3. Naomie Harris (25) – Moonlight

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BEST SCREENPLAY

*1. Manchester by the Sea (61) – Kenneth Lonergan

2. Moonlight (39) – Barry Jenkins

3. Hell or High Water (16) – Taylor Sheridan

Manchester-By-The-Sea

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

*1. Moonlight (52) – James Laxton

2. La La Land (27) – Linus Sandgren

3. Silence (23) – Rodrigo Prieto

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BEST PICTURE

*1. Moonlight (54)

2. Manchester by the Sea (39)

3. La La Land (31)

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BEST DIRECTOR

*1. Barry Jenkins (53) – Moonlight

2.… Read more »

Review of Five Books about John Cassavetes

From Cineaste (December 2001).

For a long time, I hesitated about reprinting this, but the news about Ray Carney’s unspeakable treatment of filmmaker Mark Rappaport (as detailed here) eliminated my compunctions.

For more about Rappaport’s work, here are a couple of the many links on this site:

http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2014/05/40758/

http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2015/05/mark-rappaport-2/

– J.R.

 

 

Cassavetes on Cassavetes
Edited by Ray Carney. London and New York: Faber and Faber, 2001. 526 pp., illus. Paperback: $25.00.

The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies
by Ray Carney. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 322 pp., illus. Paperback: $24.95.

John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
by Ray Carney. Second Edition. Walpole, MA: Company C Publishing, 2000. 64 pp., illus. Paperback: $15.00.

Shadows
by Ray Carney. London: British Film Institute (BFI Film Classics), 2001. 87 pp., illus. Paperback: $12.95.

John Cassavetes: Lifeworks
by Tom Charity. London, New York and Victoria: Omnibus Press, 2001. 257 pp., illus. Paperback: $19.95.

As nearly as I can remember, I had two opportunities to meet John Cassavetes in the flesh, both times in New York, and I deliberately passed on both of them. Shortly after Faces came out in the mid-Sixties, a friend from my home town in Alabama who worshipped that film even more than I did — Shadows was still my own favorite then — came to town and found a way of contacting and then going to meet his idol, who was preparing Husbands at the time; he invited me to come along, and I declined.… Read more »

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). — J.R.

The-Killing-of-a-Chinese-Bookie

John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller (Gloria was the second), a post-noir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when it was first released in 1976; two years later, he released this recut, shorter, and equally good version, which didn’t fare much better. Actually more a personal and deeply felt character study than a routine action picture, it follows the last days of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint who recklessly gambles his way into such debt with the mob that he has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a summation of Cassavetes’s view of what life is all about. In fact what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is that Cassavetes regarded him as his alter ego — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered show-biz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama.… Read more »

Faithless Re-creation

From the Chicago Reader (January 29, 1999). — J.R.

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Gloria

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Steven Antin

With Sharon Stone, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Starr, Bonnie Bedelia, and George C. Scott.

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I don’t much relish remakes, especially of movies I like — I’ve avoided seeing the new Payback, a retooling of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) — but the idea of Sidney Lumet remaking John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980) with Sharon Stone seemed to offer possibilities. After all, Cassavetes wrote the script for MGM thinking someone else would direct it; he wound up directing it himself for Columbia only because his wife, Gena Rowlands, was the star and the studio asked him to. “Look, I’m not very bright,” he insisted in an interview. “I wrote a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters. And I don’t even know any gangsters. Gloria has a wonderful actress and a very nice kid [John Adames] who’s neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic. He’s just a kid. He reminds me of me — constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment.” Later he added that when he began shooting Gloria, “I was bored because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began….All my best work comes from not knowing.”

gloria-rowlands

Enjoyable hokum at best, Cassavetes’s movie draws a lot of confidence from old-fashioned Hollywood tropes.… Read more »