Art School Is Murder

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 2006). — J.R.

Art School Confidential

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes

With Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Joel David Moore, Ethan Suplee, Steve Buscemi, and Anjelica Huston

The 2001 live-action Ghost World was the first collaboration involving director Terry Zwigoff, cartoonist Daniel Clowes, and John Malkovich’s production company. Art School Confidential is the second. It’s far more ambitious than its predecessor and suffers from too many ideas rather than too few, making it an inspired, fascinating, and revealing mess. Holding it together is the same anger about the way art is taught that gave so much edgy life to the scenes with Illeana Douglas in Ghost World. Even if one disagrees with some of its points, as I do, it offers plenty to mull over.

Both films faintly echo a four-page catalog of Clowes’s gripes called “Art School Confidential” that appeared in his comic book Eightball. (Having taught courses in film and critical writing in a university art department in the mid-70s,I can testify that art-world careerism was the main preoccupation of both my students and my colleagues.) Clowes clearly felt alienated as an art student and has been spewing bile ever since.… Read more »

Spoiler Alert [ROADS OF KIAROSTAMI]

From the June 9, 2006 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that Roads of Kiarostami has appeared as an extra on the DVD of Kiarostami’s Shirin released by Cinema Guild. — J.R.

Roads of Kiarostami

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

The definition of what qualifies as commercial movie fare seems to have shrunk to works that appeal to teens and preteens. Meanwhile the definition of experimental film — which traditionally has meant abstract, nonnarrative, and small-format works produced in a garret — has been expanding to address wider audiences. An ambitious DVD box set released last year, “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941,” includes lavish Busby Berkeley production numbers and juvenilia by Orson Welles. And last year’s Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival opened with a dazzling 35-millimeter short by Michelangelo Antonioni, Michelangelo Eye to Eye.

This year Onion City’s opening-night program reflects this tendency even more: it includes a video by cult horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Tscherkassky’s radical reworking of footage from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 35-millimeter and ‘Scope, Andy Warhol’s two 1966 “screen tests” with Bob Dylan, and best of all Abbas Kiarostami’s half-hour Roads of Kiarostami.… Read more »

From PLAYTIME to THE WORLD: The Expansion and Depletion of Space Within Global Economies

This essay started out as a lecture given on the final day of “Urban Trauma and the Metropolitan Imagination,” a conference organized by Scott Bukatman and Pavle Levi and held at Stanford University on May 5-7, 2005. Then it was reprinted in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, edited by Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman, New York/London: Routledge, 2009, and it’s  appeared in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010). — J.R.

My subject is the presence or absence of both shared public space and virtual private space in two visionary and globally-minded urban epics made about 37 years apart, on opposite sides of the planet — Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Jia Zhangke’s The World [Shijie] (2004), coincidentally the fourth commercial feature of each writer-director. Both films can be described as innovative and very modern attacks on modernity, and both have powerful metaphysical dimensions that limit their scope somewhat as narrative fictions. I should add that they both project powerful yet deceptive visions of internationalism that are predicated both literally and figuratively on trompes d’oeil, specifically on tricks with perspective and the uses of miniaturized simulacra. (I’m referring here to both emblematic sites, such as the Eiffel Tower in both films, and the scaled-down skyscrapers used in the set built for Playtime.) In this sense, among others, both films are social critiques about what it means to impose monumental façades on tourists and workers — visitors and employees — who continue to think small.… Read more »

Kwik Stop

From the Chicago Reader (October 11, 2002, and then again on June 24, 2005, when Roger introduced it and led a discussion about it). Happily, this film is still available from Amazon and on YouTube, and in memory, it seems to get better and better all the time. — J.R.

kwikstop2

There are so many curves and anomalies in this unpredictable low-budget independent feature (2001) by Chicago actor Michael Gilio that I’m tempted to call it an experimental film masquerading as something more conventional. If it’s a comedy — and I’m not sure it is — there are far too many close-ups, though this is also very much an actors’ film. If it’s a road film — and I’m not sure it is — it never gets very far on any given route, though that’s surely deliberate. Two characters (played by Gilio and Bullet on a Wire‘s Lara Phillips) are opaque — they meet at a convenience store where she’s shoplifting, then go on a cross-country trip toward LA, until things start to get weird — and two (played by Karin Anglin and the charismatic Rich Komenich) have backstories. This movie is about the interactions between these characters, and though I’m still trying to figure out what all the pieces mean, there’s no way I can shake off the experience.… Read more »

Return to Beauty [BEYOND THE CLOUDS]

From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 2000). — J.R.

Beyond the Clouds

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (with Wim Wenders)

Written by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Wenders

With John Malkovich, Ines Sastre, Kim Rossi-Stuart, Sophie Marceau, Chiara Caselli, Peter Weller, Fanny Ardant, Jean Reno, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Irene Jacob, and Vincent Perez.

Chicago has had a plethora of film festivals lately — Women in the Director’s Chair, Polish Movie Springtime, Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Asian American Showcase. This is probably good for filmmakers who want their work shown, but I’m not sure it’s a boon for moviegoers. For one thing, the screening of so many films at once makes it easy for good work to get lost. Billions of dollars are now spent annually making and promoting a few dozen movies — most of them dogs — that the media obligingly make visible and label important, and everything else is consigned to relative oblivion. The most any obscure film can hope for — good or bad, major or minor — is to compete with all the other obscure films. This is tantamount to tripling the number of passengers in steerage without increasing the provisions: more people get to travel, but everyone gets brutalized in the process.… Read more »

A Couple of Kooks [MY BEST FIEND]

From the Chicago Reader (February 11, 2000). — J.R.

My Best Fiend

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by Werner Herzog.

What’s the difference between artistry and bravado? This isn’t a question I generally feel inclined to ask, but I’m compelled by the work of Werner Herzog, who scrambles the two until it’s difficult to tell which is which. My Best Fiend – Herzog’s documentary feature about his tumultuous collaborations with Klaus Kinski, the mad actor with whom he made some of his most notable films — also compels questions about Kinski’s bravado and artistry, and suggests that it might not always be easy to distinguish his from Herzog’s.

One might call My Best Fiend, which is playing this week at Facets, the art-movie equivalent of writer-director Blake Edwards’s Trail of the Pink Panther. Edwards and Peter Sellers reportedly were at each other’s throats throughout their many collaborations on Pink Panther comedies — largely, it appears, because of Sellers’s hyperbolically neurotic behavior. Herzog and Kinski had a similarly volatile relationship, which ended only after Kinski died, in 1991. Herzog got his revenge by releasing outtakes of his difficult star, much as Edwards continued to fiddle around with unreleased footage of Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in Trail of the Pink Panther.… Read more »

Backwaters [SHOWER]

From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2000). — J.R.

Shower

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Zhang Yang

Written by Liu Fen Dou, Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan, and Cai Xiang Jun

With Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu, He Zheng, Zhang Jin Hao, Lao Lin, and Lao Wu.

In these pages last week I wondered whether adapting Marcel Proust was the best way for the talented Raul Ruiz to spend his time. Later I heard from some colleagues who write for suburban papers that their editors had forbidden them to review Time Regained — a standard form of censorship that made me wonder whether my expressing misgivings would encourage the editors to believe they were justified. Especially stomach turning was the spurious reason they reportedly gave: that people in the burbs wouldn’t care about such a movie.

But what else would persuade a suburbanite to travel all the way to Chicago to see a film if not something like Time Regained? Surely not a chance to see The Patriot on a slightly bigger screen (democracy at work: we can choose where to see bad summer movies). I suspect that the contempt these suburban editors have for their readers is a form of fear: if they admitted that better fare was available elsewhere, the studios might get annoyed and withhold some of their advertising dollars.… Read more »

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 2000). — J.R.

DiscreetCharm

Luis Bunuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to have a meal together is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and flawlessly executed of all his late French films, produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carriere. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with narrative itself. One of the things that makes this film as charming as it is, despite its radicalism, and helped Buñuel win his only Oscar, is the perfect cast, many of whom bring along the nearly mythic associations that they acquired in previous French films (Delphine Seyrig, Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel), as well as many Buñuel regulars (Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau). Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious. A restored 35-millimeter print will be shown (101 min.). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 11 through 17.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum

THE DISCREET CHARM-stage

 … Read more »

Juha

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.

JuhaWEB

When I heard that Aki Kaurismaki was making a silent black-and-white feature, I expected something arch and postmodernist. Yet in spite of a few flashes of mordant humor, some wonderfully spare sound effects, and a few minimalist lighting schemes that suggest 50s Hollywood, this 1999 film is a moving pastiche whose strength is its sincerity and authenticity. A fallen-woman story set in the present, featuring a farm couple and an evil playboy from the city who lures the wife away, it conveys the sort of purity and innocence associated with silent cinema storytelling, including a love of nature and animals, a taste for stark melodrama, and an emotional directness in the acting — evocative at various times of Griffith in the teens and Murnau in the 20s. Accompanied by a live orchestra at the Berlin film festival, the film is now furnished with a music track featuring the same score and musicians that’s essential to its power. No other film by Kaurismaki has affected me as much as this one, but if you don’t love silent movies it may come across as a pointless exercise. With subtitled Finnish intertitles. 76 min. (JR)

juhaRead more »

Kiss Me, Stupid

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.

This vulgar Billy Wilder comedy scandalized the Legion of Decency and large segments of the American public when it came out in 1964. At the time Wilder pointed out that the film is about human dignity and the sanctity of marriage, but its undisguised contempt for the American hinterlands and the success ethic makes the sexual element seem dirtier than it actually is. Dean Martin plays a carousing parody of himself, stranded in the godforsaken town of Climax, Nevada, while a desperate songwriter (Ray Walston), hoping to sell him a tune, tries to get him shacked up with a prostitute (Kim Novak) impersonating the songwriter’s wife (Felicia Farr). This restoration includes the original ending, which originally played only in Europe, followed by the forced ending that played in the U.S. Both Martin and Novak are at their near best, and the undertone of small-town desperation in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is effectively captured by Walston and his sidekick, Cliff Osmond. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope. 126 min. (JR)

Jacques Tati, by David Bellos

From the Summer 2000 issue of Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 3. — J.R.

Jacques Tati

by David Bellos. London: The Harvill Press, 1999. 382 pp., illus. Hardcover: £25.

In some ways, this is a better biography of Jacques Tati than we had cause to expect from anyone — certainly a more cultivated one than the useful if relatively lowbrow efforts of James Harding in English (1984) and Marc Dondey in French (written with the assistance of Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff, 1993). So it’s all the more regrettable that no American publisher or distributor to date has shown any interest in making this English book available. Even more unexpectedly, the author — who currently teaches in the departments of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages at Princeton — is best known for his work on Balzac (a survey of French criticism over the second half of the nineteenth century) and Georges Perec (a major biography and a good many translations). In fact, there are even a few unforced allusions to Balzac and Perec threaded through this text.

But why Tati? Conceding in his Preface that he isn’t a film critic, a film buff, or a filmmaker manqué, Bellos makes no claims for offering any “last word” about “one of the outstanding creators of the 20th century,” but admits to some curiosity about the sturdiness of the few films Jacques Tati made as an oeuvre — “a set of films which, taken together, is much more than the sum of its parts.” I would argue that this is a quality Tati shared with Dreyer, Welles, and Kubrick — a capacity to keep changing while deceptively maintaining the same inner logic so that years would sometimes pass between these filmmakers’ innovations and the public’s capacity to absorb them.… Read more »

Weird and Wonderful [KIKUJIRO]

From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 2000). — J.R.

Kikujiro

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano

With Beat Takeshi (Kitano), Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Yuko Daike, and Kazuko Yoshiyuiki.

I’m finally starting to understand Takeshi Kitano’s movies, though given that his specialty seems to be a mixture of violence, slapstick, and sentimentality, I’m not sure I’ll ever be a convert. Still, I found Kikujiro (1999) — his eighth feature, showing this week at the Music Box — much more affecting than the other three features I’ve seen.

One of the fascinating things about Kikujiro, which has virtually no violence, is that it seems both more mainstream and more experimental in form than the other Kitano movies I’ve seen. It changes style so often that it all but eliminates narrative. It’s divided into sections like a photo album, with photos and captions doubling as chapter headings. It has intricately choreographed expressionist dream sequences, extended gags in extreme long shot that all but convert the main characters into balls ricocheting through pinball machines, and absurd physical gags in medium shot (e.g., the hero tries to swim) that take the form of frozen tableaux and provoke blank stares from other characters.… Read more »

Not Playing in a Theater Near You

From In These Times (March 31, 1997). Some of the material here wound up in my book Movie Wars, published in 2000. -– J.R.

There’s a new kind of factoid at large in this country on the subject of foreign films. At a time when Americans have retreated into cultural insularity and isolationism as seldom before, one repeatedly hears the same list of reasons for foreign films’ near invisibility in this country: The quality of world cinema is at an all-time low; Americans can no longer bear to sit through movies with subtitles; Americans went to European movies in the past only in order to see bare skin, and ever since American movies became sexually explicit, this market has drastically dwindled; and there are no exciting new movements in world cinema to compare with Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, Brazilian cinema novo or the new German cinema. That none of these claims (with the arguable exception of the second) is even remotely true shouldn’t be too surprising, because the “experts” who give voice to them typically define their expertise institutionally:

If the statement is being made in the New York Times, Esquire or The New Yorker, then it must have some factual basis.… Read more »

Feudal Attraction [JU DOU]

From the Chicago Reader (April 19, 1991). — J.R.

http://www.filmsondisc.com/images/ju_dou.jpg

JU DOU

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Zhang Yimou, in collaboration with Yang Fengliang

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Wei, Zhang Yi, and Zheng Jian.

JuDou

Like most people reading this, I know next to nothing about the history of China, which is thousands of years older than the U.S. and has a population over four times as large. In high school I was required to take courses in Alabama and American history; world history was an elective, but if that course had anything to do with China, I no longer recall any details. I also managed to get through seven years of college and graduate school without further edification on the subject.

I suspect that most people in China are comparably uninformed about the U.S. When my youngest brother was in Kenya in the late 60s, he spent time conversing with some Red Guard members who were stationed there, and used to have friendly arguments with them about where Coca-Cola, which they liked, came from; they were convinced it was a product of Kenya. It was difficult for them to accept that anything they liked came from the U.S., just as it’s difficult for many of us to accept that anything we like about China (e.g., the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square — routinely and misleadingly labeled prodemocracy in the American press) isn’t American in origin.… Read more »

Vietnam Dispatches

From The Movie No. 82 (1981). — J.R.

The war in Vietnam created in the United States a national trauma unparalleled since the Civil War, and its after-effects may prove to be every bit as enduring in the American consciousness. It was a war fought not only with guns and napalm in Southeast Asia, but with placards and truncheons on campuses and streets in large cities throughout the western world. It became the largest, most crucial issue of a generation — virtually taking over such related matters as black protest and the youth-drug subculture — but Hollywood was afraid to deal directly with it, even on a simple level.

Hollywood has traditionally done its best to avoid contemporary politics and especially political controversy, largely for commercial reasons. There is always the danger that a shift in public opinions or interest, between the time of a film’s production and its release date, may render a film with a ‘timely’ subject unmarketable in the long run, or sooner; and few producers are ever willing to take such a risk. The profound divisions created by the Vietnam War in American life were too wide, in a sense, to be commercially exploitable — at least while America remained actively involved.… Read more »