2 Days In The Valley

From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1996). — J.R.

2-Days-in-the-Valley

The standard line on this actor-heavy, brain-light concoction by writer-director John Herzfeld (1996) is that it’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction, but it isn’t a tenth as good as either. It does, however, have a good many dog reaction shots, so if you happen to think the other two movies were lacking in those, credit Herzfeld for making up the difference. Crosscutting between various San Fernando Valley miniplots that prove to be interlocking, Herzfeld has a tolerable eye for filling a ‘Scope frame but a tin ear when it comes to creating dialogue; these are all characters we’ve met before, and most even seem bored with themselves. With Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Charlize Theron, plus cameos by Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)

2DaysRead more »

Michel Gondry: Coping with the Metaphysics of Overload

The following short essay was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in early 2007 for a brochure accompanying a retrospective (“Michel Gondry: The Science of Dreams”) presented between May 11 and June 23, and a Regis Dialogue that I conducted with him on June 23. –J.R.

What’s sometimes off-putting about the postmodernity of music videos is tied to both the presence and absence of history in them — the dilemma of being faced simultaneously with too much and too little. On the one hand, one sees something superficially resembling the entire history of art — often encompassing capsule histories of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film — squeezed into three-to-five-minute slots. The juxtapositions and overlaps that result can be so violent and incongruous that the overall effect is sometimes roughly akin to having a garbage can emptied onto one’s head. Yet on the other hand, radical foreshortenings and shotgun marriages of this kind often have the effect of abolishing history altogether, making every vestige of the past equal and equivalent to every other via the homogenizing effect of TV itself. Back in 1990, sitting through nearly eight hours of a touring show called “Art of Music Video,” I was appalled to discover that the two most obvious forerunners of music videos, soundies from the 40s and Scopitone from the 60s, were neither included in the show nor even acknowledged in its catalog’s history of the genre.… Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the sixth dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the sixth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Collaboration_Too-Early-Too-Late_007

Too Early, Too Late
This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no “characters” in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »

Art Imitates Love (THE SHAPE OF THINGS)

From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 2003). — J.R.

The Shape of Things

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Neil LaBute

With Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and Gretchen Mol.

The first time I saw Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things it packed a wallop. When I saw it again three weeks later it didn’t. Its force depends largely on a shock ending that transforms one’s sense of the characters, action, and overall theme with the authority of a masterpiece. Without this shock value, the film is still an infernal machine — designed, like LaBute’s In the Company of Men, to goad us into dark reflection — but its meanings tend to contract rather than expand.

Surprise endings either cancel out the impressions that come before, making the story seem contrived and artificial the second time around, or they enhance and complicate those impressions. The twist at the end of The Shape of Things comes closer to doing the first. The second time I saw it I felt I was watching the demonstration of a theorem more than the unraveling of characters, though it was only after having absorbed the disclosures of a first viewing that I became aware of certain interesting ambiguities.… Read more »

Home Truths [THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME]

From the September 13, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. This film was probably the most popular of the dozen features I showed to MA students in my World Cinema Workshop at Film.Factory in Sarajevo (September 15-19, 2014). — J.R.

The Asthenic Syndrome

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Kira Muratova

Written by Sergei Popov, Alexander Chernych, and Muratova

With Popov, Olga Antonova, Natalya Busko, Galina Sachurdaewa, Alexandra Ovenskaya, and Natalya Rallewa.

Every time I am asked what the film is about, I reply, quite honestly, “It’s about everything.” — Kira Muratova, 1990

Seven years have passed since I first saw Kira Muratova’s awesome The Asthenic Syndrome at the Toronto film festival, and while waiting for it to find its way to Chicago I’ve had plenty of time to speculate about why a movie of such importance should be so hard for us to see. Insofar as movies function as newspapers, this one has more to say about the state of the world in the past decade than any other new film I’ve seen during the same period, though what it has to say isn’t pretty. So maybe the reason it’s entitled to only one local screening — at the Film Center this Sunday — is the movie business’s perception that it must offer only pretty pictures.… Read more »

Splitting Images [THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH & LOST HIGHWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

Three Lives and Only One Death

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Ruiz and Pascal Bonitzer

With Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Arielle Dombasle, Feodor Atkine, and Lou Castel.

Lost Highway

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by Lynch and Barry Gifford

With Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Michael Massee, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Robert Loggia, and Richard Pryor.

By coincidence, two major features by two of the most talented postsurrealist filmmakers open this week, both convoluted parables about heroes with multiple identities. Though Raul Ruiz and David Lynch are separated by a world of differences — political, cultural, national, intellectual, and temperamental — both are expanding the options in filmmaking as well as filmgoing. Each offers a different kind of roller-coaster ride that manages to be bewildering, provocative, kaleidoscopic, scary, visually intoxicating, and funny.

Ruiz — a Chilean who moved to Paris in 1974 and who makes movies all over the world (in France, Italy, Taiwan, and the U.S. in the past year alone) — has made 90-odd films and videos to date, though he’s only five years older than Lynch.… Read more »

Top Ten [The 10 Best Films of 1988]

From the January 6, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

For me, the ten best movies of 1988 are the ones I would profit most from seeing again and the ones I’ve profited most from thinking about. Their value, in other words, lies not merely in the immediate pleasure they offered but also in their aftereffects — the way they set with me for weeks and months after I saw them, sometimes growing and ripening with time.

I tend to be wary of critics’ lists and awards that are unduly weighted toward recent films — particularly because it’s much harder to evaluate a movie at the time of its release than it is weeks, months, or even years later. Perhaps the key occupational hazard of film critics is the pressure to remain stuck in a continuous present, and to serve the whims of the marketplace by confusing what’s recent with what’s genuinely new. Measuring a given week’s offerings only against each other narrows the difference between criticism and advertising by basing everything on consumption — reducing the universe of films to the few releases that happen to be available for consumption at any given moment rather than reflection.

On the basis of my own reflection, it turns out that six of my favorite movies of 1988 opened in Chicago during the first half of the year; I saw a couple others either then or earlier, and the remaining two in July and September.… Read more »

Manuel De Landa (1983 profile)

This profile was published without title in the December 1983 issue of Omni, in a section simply called “The Arts”. -– J.R.

It makes perfect sense that Manuel De Landa, a thirty-year-old Mexican anarchist filmmaker who specializes in the aesthetics of outrage, inhabits a midtown Manhattan apartment so tidy and upstanding that it could almost belong to a divinity student. The point seems to be that if you want to shake the civilized world at its foundations, it helps your credibility if you wear a jacket and tie — especially if you speak with an accent that makes you sound like Father Guido Sarducci.For a talented artist who has an asocial image to sell and a highly social way of putting it across, it isn’t surprising that De Landa makes wild, aggressive films that leap all over the place while standing absolutely still. In The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1977) and Incontinence: ADiarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978),quarreling couples in tacky settings are subjected to all kinds of optical violence:The camera moves around them in the shape of a figure eight, or De Landa crazily cuts back and forth between two static shots of the principals screaming at each other — as if he were a mad scientist, controlling their shrieks with the twist of a knob.Read more »

Outfoxing the Film Industry

From the Chicago Reader (July 30, 2004). — J.R.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Directed by Robert Greenwald.

DVDs are bringing about rapid and substantial changes in the way we consume movies, and in film culture itself. A case in point is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which premiered July 13 on DVD and video rather than in theaters. You could have seen it at one of more than 3,000 “house party” viewings organized by MoveOn.org two Sundays ago, or you can just buy it online for $9.95 plus shipping as I did. There must be lots of others like me, because Outfoxed has been Amazon’s top-selling video title for over a week now, and the last time I looked it had 133 customer reviews.

Watching the muckraking examination of the Fox News Channel at home had its advantages: as soon as it was over, I was able to switch directly to Fox to see if it really was as awful as Greenwald’s documentary maintained. (It was.) There are also advantages to keeping a DVD like this on the shelf: you can refer back to certain points in the film for clarification. And facts aren’t all you might want to go back to: if it’s an art film, for instance, you can jump to a favorite passage — a camera movement, a facial expression, a composition, or the delivery of a line of dialogue — the same way you can open a book to revisit some favorite lines of poetry.… Read more »

Wild Game (1977 review)

This review appeared in the January 1977 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The American title of this film was Jailbait.– J.R.

Wildwechsel (Wild Game)

West Germany, 1972
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Cert – X. dist –- Contemporary. p.c –- InterTel (West German TV). In collaboration with Sender Freies. p – Gerhard  Freund. p. sup -– Manfred Kortowski. p. manager -– Rudolf Gürlich, Siegfried B. Glökler. asst. d –- Irm Hermann. sc –- Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Based on the play by Franz-Xaver Kroetz.  ph –- Dietrich Lohmann. In colour. ed — Thea Eymèsz, a.d –- Kurt Raab, m -– excerpts from the work of Beethoven. songs -– “You Are My Destiny” by and performed by Paul Anka. l.p –- Eva Mattes (Hanni Schneider), Harry Baer (Hans Bermeier), Jörg von Liebenfels (Erwin Schneider), Ruth Drexel (Hilda Schneider), Rudolf Waldemar Brem (Dieter), Hanna Schygulla (Doctor), Kurt Raab (Factory Boss), El Hedi Ben Salem (Franz’s Friend), Karl Schedit and Klaus Michael Löwitsch (Policemen), Irm Hermann and Marquart Bohm (Police Officials). 9,180 ft. 103 min. Subtitles.

Hanni Schneider, fourteen, gets picked up by Franz Bermeier, nineteen, and loses her virginity with him in a hayloft.… Read more »

Lanzmann’s Second Thoughts: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST

From the February 2014 Artforum; their title was “Beyond Good and Evil”. — J.R.

Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, 2013, 16 mm and 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein.

 

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, the latest of Claude Lanzmann’s footnotes and afterthoughts to his 1985 masterpiece, Shoah, functions even more than that earlier film as a dialectical palimpsest, so its successive layers — which remain in perpetual dialogue with one another — should be identified at the outset:

December 1944: Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi, is appointed by the Nazis as the third (and last) Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), a “model” or “showcase” ghetto set up in the former Czech Republic in 1941, his two predecessors having been executed the previous May and September. Murmelstein retains this position through the war’s end. Then, after spending eighteen months in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis, he is acquitted of all charges (although still widely despised as a traitor) and moves to Rome.

1961: Murmelstein publishes a book in Italian, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann, describing the suffering of the ghetto’s inhabitants.

1975: Lanzmann films an interview with Murmelstein over a week in Rome — the first interview that he films for Shoah, although he later decides to discard it, donating the unedited footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Read more »

Screwball Squirrel (1976 review)

The following was written for the May 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Screwball Squirrel

U.S.A., 1944
Director: Tex Avery

Cert—U. dist—Ron Harris. p.c—MGM. p—Fred Quimby. story—Heck Allen. col—[originally made in Technicolor]. anim—Preston Blair, Ed Love, Ray Abrams. m—Scott Bradley. 248 ft. 7 min. (16 mm.).

After beating up Sammy Squirrel — an effeminate Disney-like creature who purports to be the hero of the cartoon — Screwy Squirrel enters a phone booth and calls Meathead the dog to get another plot going. After an extended chase, Meathead tries to end the cartoon, but Screwy offers him one more chance to catch him. The results are immediately complicated by the fact that both confess to have been twins all along; a revived Sammy joins the group.

 

As Joe Adamson had ungrammatically but aptly noted, “Screwy Squirrel is Daffy Duck taken one step further that he absolutely has to.” A thoroughly demented character who lasted through five cartoons in the mid-Forties (Screwball Squirrel, Happy-Go-Nutty, Big Heel-Watha, The Screwy Truant, and Lonesome Lenny), he seems important in Avery’s career not so much for his own intrinsic qualities — monotonously aggressive mania and not much else — as for the wild bouts of anti-illusionist high jinks and comparable assaults on the audience that he provoked in his creators.… Read more »

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Commissioned by and written for a collection entitled Time [see below photo], published in February, 2016 by Punto de Vista, Festival Internacional de Cine Documental de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. — J.R.

Time

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Florence_0431. My first sixteen years (1943-1959) — growing up in northwestern Alabama as the grandson and son of Jewish movie theater exhibitors — ensured that time and cinema were alternately parallel and crisscrossing rivers that coursed through my childhood, along with the Tennessee River that separated Florence from Sheffield. Florence, where I lived, had three of the Rosenbaum theaters, at least until 1951, all within a three-block radius, while Sheffield, which I could see across the river from my back yard, had two more theaters, one around the corner from the other. For Southerners like myself, the past was always present, a kind of double vision that movies taught me as well — a camera’s recording of the past becoming the present of both a screen and an audience, which then in retrospective memory becomes the past as well. And for Jews like myself, the past was also identity — meaning one’s past, present, and future. This explains why Lanzmann’s Shoah represents a shotgun marriage between the present tense of existentialism and the past tense of Judaism.… Read more »

Lost in Auschwitz [SON OF SAUL]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2016). — J.R.

Son of Saul ****

Directed by László Nemes

 

“The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.” — László Nemes to Andrea Gronvall, Movie City News

sonofsaul

László Nemes’ Hungarian debut feature, Son of Saul, opening this week at the Music Box, is easily the most exciting new film I’ve seen over the past year, and a casual look at the prizes and accolades it’s received over the past eight months, starting with the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, shows that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Even my colleagues who dislike or dismiss the films concede that it’s a stunning technical achievement. But the moment one starts to describe what the film does, or even what it’s about, a certain amount of dissension sets in.

 

Nemes and his lead actor Géza Röhrig have consistently described their intentions as wanting viewers to experience viscerally and as accurately as possible what Sonderkommando members went through in Auschwitz in October 1944. These were the Jewish prisoners obliged to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, search their clothes for valuables before, during, and after they were being gassed, and then dispose of their bodies — carting them off, burning them, and then shoveling away their ashes, receiving in return slightly better food and quarters before eventually being exterminated themselves.… Read more »