PLACING MOVIES, Part 2: Touchstones (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site.

My original title for this section of the book was “Masterpieces,” but the editor, Ed Dimendberg, who had a much better sense of what was academically acceptable than I did, got me to change it to “Touchstones”. For the record, I still think that “Masterpieces” is better. — J.R.

PlacingMovies

It seems to me that one of the most underrated elements in criticism is quite simply information — relevant facts deriving from research — and how this is imparted to the reader in relation to other elements. Thanks to the prestige of theory in academia and the equally valued role played by rhetoric in journalistic criticism, facts often seem to be held in relatively low esteem in critical writing nowadays, but as long as criticism aspires to be a vehicle for discovery, it seems to me that research should play a much larger role than it normally does. I bring this matter up because the value of the information imparted in all the pieces in this section seems to me  inextricably tied to what I have to say about these films, and my analyses would be appreciably different without it — a factor that is probably most obvious when it comes to GERTRUD and OTHELLO.*

________________________________________________________________ *The review of the latter film — like the separate Welles essay in the next section — represents one of the many “spinoffs” of the long-term research that went into editing This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (HarperCollins, 1992).… Read more »

Feeling the Unthinkable (25TH HOUR)

From the January 17, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. For those who care about such things, there are spoilers ahead. — J.R.

25th Hour

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Spike Lee

Written by David Benioff

With Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Tony Siragusa, and Levani.

I’ve complained a lot about Spike Lee as a filmmaker, before he made his remarkable Do the Right Thing (1989) and after. But the only time I’ve been tempted to accuse him of falling back on the tried and true was when he made Malcolm X and attempted to adapt his subject’s autobiography as if he were Cecil B. De Mille or David O. Selznick. I don’t mean that Lee hasn’t stubbornly stuck to the same stylistic tropes and mannerisms throughout most of his career — leaving them behind only when the occasion demanded it, as in his expert filming of Roger Guenveur Smith’s powerful performance piece The Huey P. Newton Story – but the stylistic consistency is his own. Moreover, taking on dissimilar projects he has always moved in exploratory directions, showing a lot of courage and initiative in his creative choices — even when they’re half-baked (as some are in Get on the Bus) or overblown (as in Bamboozled).… Read more »

Starting Out in Film Criticism [from PLACING MOVIES]

The main introduction to my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1995), still in print. — J.R.

PlacingMovies

This book is intended as a companion and sequel to an autobiographical experiment I carried out in the late 1970s, published in 1980 by Harper & Row as Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. The present volume doesn’t require a reading of that earlier book — long out of print, though recently reprinted by the University of California Press so as to reappear alongside this collection; however, since many of this volume’s premises are predicated on either extensions or inversions of the premises of its predecessor, a few words about that book and the material it covers are in order.

MovingPlacesjacket

Most of Moving Places is concerned with my childhood in northwestern Alabama, specifically in relation to my family and what was known as the family business from around 1914 to 1960. This business began when my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, started operating his first movie theater in Douglas, Wyoming, and it existed until Rosenbaum Theaters, owned by my grandfather and managed by my father, was sold to a larger chain. I was born in 1943, and the family business afforded me a steady diet of free movies through the age of sixteen, when I went away to school in Vermont.Read more »

Displaced Agendas, Real Corpses: NIGHT WILL FALL

Written for Artforum (February 2015). — J.R.

Night-Will-Fall-Holocaust-Documentary1

Doomed by shifting postwar social and political agendas, the never-completed documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey — launched in April 1945 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and shelved in September — might have been the key nonfiction film on the subject had it been finished and shown as originally planned, as required viewing for German prisoners of war. Shot by trained GI  cameramen accompanying British, American, and Russian troops as they liberated the camps, it might even have served as the principal disclosure to the rest of the world of the hitherto unthinkable conditions these troops uncovered.

NightWillFall-inmate

Produced by Sidney Bernstein — an old chum of Alfred Hitchcock’s who would later produce, uncredited, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and I Confess (1953), and who persuaded Hitchcock to come to London to supervise the documentary’s postproduction — the film was halted by British embarrassment about the tangled fate of camp survivors (many of whom chose to remain in the camps, having nowhere else to go), combined with a reluctance to further demoralize the postwar German populace. But there was still enough of a desire to educate (or browbeat) the Germans to engage Billy Wilder to make a short film using parts of the atrocity footage, yielding Death Mills, which premiered in 1945 to five hundred viewers in Würzburg after a Lilian Harvey operetta, although only seventy-five or so remained to the end.… Read more »

Directions for Use

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the eleventh and last.

Note: The following index to Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980) cannot be used here for its pagination in relation to this particular web site, but the links provided lead directly to the relevant passages online.

Another note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

Directions for Use

An attempt to extend the usefulness and reduce the elitism of the standard index, in which the reader is enabled to trace certain connections and to discover or rediscover the traces of certain people, places, films, and other cultural artifacts, in motion and in circulation, whether cited or merely evoked in the text. A few supplementary bibliographical suggestions are also included.

A

Aaron, Judge Edward, 142 , 192

A Bout De Souffle. See Breathless

Academy Awards, 118 , 124

Advent screens, ix , 118 , 147 , 174

Advertising, x , 7 -8, 10 , 18 , 29 , 35 , 40 , 43 , 52 -53, 55 , 58 , 60 , 63 , 68 , 77 , 85 , 93 , 98 -99, 101 , 108-120 , 122 , 123 -124, 127 , 142 -143, 144 , 149 , 158 , 177 .Read more »

Made in Hoboken

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the tenth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

5—

Made in Hoboken

Douglas, Wyoming, 1914—three states away from where our old friend Gordon MacRae is still only a radical freshman or a freethinking sophomore at the University of Indiana—Bo is operating his very first movie theater, at the age of twenty-seven. Think of it: when Jonathan’s the same age, in 1970, he’s working fitfully on his second yet-to-be unpublished novel, completing his first yet-to-be unpublished book as an editor (a collection of film criticism he was commissioned to do), still living on the dregs of Bo’s inheritance, and dividing the first three months of the year among three countries: pursuing a heavy love affair in New York, having his appendix removed in London (and smoking hash with his brother Michael’s friends in a room called the Box), and taking acid all alone one beautiful spring afternoon in Paris, where he moved last fall, acid that suddenly prompts him to buy red paint, a roller, and brushes, and to go to work on his bedroom closets—a conversation with the wood, red saying one thing, grain saying another—and later sends him out the door and up rue Mazarine to the Odéon métro stop, a little after 6:30, to take the Porte de Clignancourt train as far as Châtelet and then the Mairie des Lilas train to République.Read more »

Station Identification II

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the ninth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Station Identification II

Yes, I need the Conquistador; and yes, I mistrust and sometimes despise him. At eight and ten, while watching On Moonlight Bay, I knew that I needed him, and I loved him, too; I’m sure that I even loved my servitude. Now I question how well he fulfilled his duties as a foster parent. I can’t deny that he kept me entertained and even busy, but whether he’s worthy of the sort of unquestioning admiration due to, say, Nigger Jim is a different matter. Right now I’d say that it was Uncle Remus who came closer to describing—or executing—his peculiar talents.

Now there was a traumatic experience. Walt Disney’s Song of the South , according to my real parents, was the first film they ever took me to (probably during its initial run at the Princess, April 8–11, 1947, not long after I turned four and less than a year after Bo taught me how to read).… Read more »

Rocky Horror Playtime Vs. Shopping Mall Home

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the eighth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

4—
Rocky Horror Playtime Vs. Shopping Mall Home

Seven weeks ago, when I received a call from Adriano Aprà in Rome inviting me to speak at this conference, I was in my hometown, Florence, Alabama, where my parents live today.[1] I have moved with all my belongings seventeen times in the past twenty years, and I will have to find and move to yet another place in New York as soon as I return from this conference. Nevertheless, I consider myself unusually fortunate, fortunate not only in being here—in this city and this country for the first time in my life—but in having a hometown to return to year after year: a fixed reference point. And fortunate in being the grandson of the man who ran most of the local movie theaters when I was growing up, which meant that I had virtually unlimited access to most of what was shown.… Read more »

If Looks Could Kill (II)

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the seventh.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

II

Of married ones and single ones
And families and daters
There’s fun for all of you this week
At the Muscle Shoals Theatres!

 

“Three Stripes in the Sun” is the name of one
That’s playing the Shoals today
It concerns an Army sergeant
Better known as Aldo Ray.

 

“Blood Alley” refers to the Formosa Straits
A dangerous part of the ocean
Where Communists, storms and Lauren Bacall
Keep John Wayne in perpetual motion.
—from Stanley Rosenbaum’s Sunday column, Florence Times , January 8, 1956

 

Sometimes it wasn’t the movie at all but the configuration that went with it, or came out of it, or burned straight through it like a dropped cigarette—the static image summoned up by title, poster, billboard, newspaper ad, review, or some other form of promotion. Or maybe it was the false yet enduring and prevailing expectation.Read more »

If Looks Could Kill (I)

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the sixth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

3—


If Looks Could Kill

. . . Can it be that everybody is looking for a way to fit in? If so, doesn’t that imply that nobody fits? Perhaps it is not possible to fit into American Life. American Life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.
—Harold Rosenberg

 

I

Mommy was away at Payne Whitney, a hospital in New York City, for the better part of a year, from the fall of 1953 through the summer of 1954. She went there after she had a nervous breakdown toward the end of summer, sometime after we drove back to Alabama from Indian and Forest Acres; she said she needed to get away from the house and four boys and Stanley for a while, and Bo offered to pay for Payne Whitney, where she hoped to get better.Read more »

Station Identification I

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

Station Identification I

The Conquistador has a heart condition. Despite the recent successes of some of his biggest exploits, the mounting fortunes, his exhaustion becomes increasingly apparent, showing up in the lines on his face, the heaviness of his stride. Out of respect to his power, position, and age, we breathe not a word about his deterioration, act as if everything is as it should be. Obediently we tote his luggage along with our own, slow our paces to his, and gaze with enchantment at the passing scenery.

Getting from here to there is all the Conquistador really cares about, and tough luck for whatever—and whoever—happens to be occupying the intervening spaces. Think of a country, an audience, a movie, a dream that is perpetually en route, refusing to stop anywhere and settle for a while; think of a life on the march that promises adventure, discourages reflection, and delivers the excitement of perpetual motion.Read more »

THE DEER HUNTER: Flabby Beyond Belief

This review, one of the most incendiary I’ve ever written, appeared in the March 1979 issue of the Canadian monthly Take One (vol. 7, no. 4). It’s probably over the top, but at least it’s sincere; I can’t recall another occasion when any acclaimed movie filled me with such absolute loathing. I can recall thinking, when Cimino subsequently collected his Oscar, that he should have said at the time, “I’d like to thank especially the Vietnamese people, without whose corpses this award wouldn’t have been possible.”

The film is currently screening on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, although I’m delighted to report that programmer Ehsan Khoshbakht had the brilliant idea of screening Cinetract 101 just before it. – J.R.

“You beat me, baby,” Francis Ford Coppola reportedly said to Michael Cimino, director of the $13 million The Deer Hunter, in reference to the fact that this new Vietnam atrocity movie has opened several months before Coppola’s Apocalypse Someday. Considering the degree to which slick media and its prize monoliths now seem to rule most of our cultural and ethical discourse, I wonder whether Coppola might have said the same thing to the Reverend Jim Jones if, after the Guyana “suicides,” the latter had been around to receive the compliment.… Read more »

ON MOONLIGHT BAY as Time Machine

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

2— On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine

A small Midwestern town in 1916, possibly in June. Behind a succession of pink and green credits that they will never see, acknowledge, or understand—a list of names and functions that fasten themselves to a Warner Brothers release, On Moonlight Bay , dated 1951—a family is seated in the dark parlor of a Booth Tarkington house, watching slides of themselves on a screen.

Taste it if you can: 1916. Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, a sequel to his very popular Penrod, has either just appeared in hardcover or is about to. Germany has declared war on Portugal, Russia has invaded Persia, 8,636 English and German sailors have perished in a naval battle off Jutland, and Gordon MacRae—whom we hear with Doris Day singing the title tune over the credits, but haven’t yet seen—has just completed his junior year at the University of Indiana, and is deeply shaken by all this strife in Europe.Read more »

The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the third.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

1: The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

1— Fifty Years of Show Business

image

[Ritz Theatre, Athens, Alabama]

 


Formal Opening Ritz On Monday, April 30

After five months of work the Ritz theatre, Athens’ latest amusement place, is now ready for the formal opening which will take place at 7:00 o’clock, Monday evening, April 30th [1928], the picture for that occasion being Mary Pickford’s latest screen production “My Best Girl,” followed by a comedy, “Fair and Muddy.

“Prior to the picture showing the following program will be given:

Master of ceremonies—W. E. Willis.

Music by Gene Carter’s orchestra.

Welcome from the city of Athens [Alabama] to Muscle Shoals Theatres, Inc.—Mayor C. W. Sarver.

Orchestra.

Welcome on behalf of the businessmen of Athens—C. D. Beisley, president Athens Chamber of Commerce.

Orchestra.

Response to addresses of welcome by Mayor W.Read more »

Prelude — What I Did on My Summer Vacation (September 1977)

The second part of my reprinting of Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980); this part appeared originally in Film Comment, and for this appearance I’ve added several illustrations.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. – J.R.

Prelude—
What I Did on My Summer Vacation (September 1977)

Imagination believes before knowing constructs. Believes longer than remembers, longer than knowing even conjures. Knows believes conjures a highway in Mississippi, August 10, on the way to Faulkner’s home in Oxford, tracing a literary pilgrimage from Florence, my hometown in Alabama, part of whose route might approximate the pregnant journey of Lena Grove on the opening pages of Light in August.

What has any of this to do with cinema? First, the car’s languid progress up and down a straight road flanked by forest: a trick of suspended time, pure movie and pure Faulkner. Then the hot moist afternoon light filtering through the branches into a milky pool of delicate focus, like the last scene in Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, making it easy to imagine in a tactile, even in a carnal way why Dreyer wanted to adapt Light in August, thinking Yes of course only Dreyer could have done it right, handled both sides of the dialectic, all the hot wood and cold flesh and embracing palpitant air, impregnable and inviolate.Read more »