In August 2010, the editor of Seminary Coop’s The Front Table (an online arm of what may be the best academic bookstore in the U.S., located on the University of Chicago campus) emailed me and asked for a contribution to their series “What I’m Reading” in conjunction with the publication of my new book at the time, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I promptly sent him the following, which I don’t believe they ever published. — J.R.
What I’m Reading: Jonathan Rosenbaum
Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake. The title novella in this recent, posthumous collection, perhaps the scariest fantasy I’ve ever read, was first encountered by me in my teens, on its first publication, in a 1956 Ballantine paperback called Sometime, Never, where it was published alongside stories by two other Englishmen, William Golding and John Wyndham. I find it every bit as dreamlike and as chilling now as it was then. And it inspired me to finally start reading
The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. This fantasy epic trilogy in slow-motion, most of it set in a castle that appears to be roughly the size of Manhattan, among characters obsessed with their duties and rituals, has beautifully vivid and magically precise prose, and it’s attractively packaged with two introductions (by Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess) and 140 pages of critical assessments.… Read more »
From The Soho News (June 24, 1981). — J.R.
Rediscovering Warner Brothers
Thalia, Thursdays through Aug. 27
High Heels (Dr. Popaul)
Written by Paul Gegauff
Based on a book by Hubert Monteilhet
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Dandy, The All-American Girl (subsequently retitled Sweet Revenge)
Written by B.J.Perla and Marilyn Goldin
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Juke Girl is an unassuming Warner Brothers program filler — a Depression movie made in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan as a young socialist hero from Kansas and Ann Sheridan in the tough-and-tender title part. It reminds me of something that Manny Farber said in a recent lecture about what people looked like in 30s films, when “every shape was legitimate,” as opposed to the more constricting notions about what people are supposed to look like in 70s films — a model that remains in force today.
As a general rule of thumb, I think one can argue pretty plausibly that any Warner Brothers Depression film, however minor, has something going for it on a social/aesthetic level that can’t be found in any over-publicized New Hollywood glitz production, however major. This is less monolithic a judgment than it sounds, especially if one considers the radically different notions of audience involved.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 2004). As much as I share my colleagues’ admiration [in 2012] for Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, I must confess that I find it both depressing and somewhat insulting to Panahi that this is receiving more attention and praise in some quarters than his full-fledged films ever did, including such masterpieces as The White Balloon, The Circle, and Crimson Gold (not to mention Panahi’s more inventive and fruitful 2013 Closed Curtain, made under the same constraints as This is Not a Film). Which is why it seems worth reviving my review of the latter film. — J.R.
Crimson Gold **** (Masterpiece) Directed by Jafar Panahi Written by Abbas Kiarostami With Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheissi, Azita Rayeji, Shahram Vaziri, Ehsan Amani, and Pourang Nakhayi.
“War President” is an image. It is not a textual statement or rhetorical argument. An image is like an empty room and any message that one reads in that room necessarily came in the baggage one carried when one walked in the door. If I made an image of George Washington composed of images of the American dead from the revolution, would viewers likely take that image as an indictment of Washington?… Read more »
This essay, a revised and updated version of my article “The Seven Arkadins,” was commissioned by the Australian DVD label Madman for their DVD of Orson Welles’ Confidential Report, released in 2010. — J.R.
Mr. Arkadin “was just anguish from beginning to end,” Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in their coauthored This is Orson Welles, and probably for this reason, Welles had less to say about this feature — known in a separate version as Confidential Report — than any of his others, either to Bogdanovich or to other interviewers. Editing This is Orson Welles in its two successive editions took me the better part of a decade (roughly, 1987-1997), and one of the biggest obstacles I faced throughout this work was the paucity of specific details that Welles was willing to offer about this film. It was plainly too painful a memory for him to linger on, and he even spoke of being blocked in remembering certain particulars.
Broadly speaking, the features of Welles fall into two categories: those he finished and released to his satisfaction and those he didn’t. In the first category are Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming “Othello”.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003). — J.R.
Spike Lee’s best feature since Do the Right Thing. Though none of the major characters is black, it’s one of Lee’s most personal and deeply felt works, and the fact that it’s based on someone else’s material — David Benioff’s adaptation of his novel — makes the film all the more impressive. The narrative follows a former drug dealer (Edward Norton) spending his last 24 hours in Manhattan before beginning a seven-year prison term, though it’s also very much about the people closest to him: his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), two best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and father (Brian Cox). The film persuades us to think long and hard about what prison means, and Lee has shaped it like a poem that builds into an epic lament, especially in a beautiful and tragic closing that risks absurdity to achieve the sublime. With Anna Paquin. 134 min. (JR)
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From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.
“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”
I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature.… Read more »
This article was written in 2006 — specifically at the request of Ghatak’s son Ritaban, whom I met at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea in the spring of that year. I was serving on one of the festival’s juries and also lectured with Ritaban at a screening of The Cloud-Capped Star during a Ghatak retrospective. Ritaban was then planning a critical collection about his father’s work, as a kind of follow-up to a collection of his father’s writings about cinema (Rows and Rows of Fences, published by Seagull Books in Calcutta in 2000) and asked me to contribute an article to it. But once I emailed this piece to him about half a year later, I never heard from him again, leading me to conclude that the critical collection project was suspended. So eventually I submitted this to my friend Adrian Martin, coeditor of the online Rouge, who published this in their 10th issue in 2007, about a year later. — J.R.
Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I have no way of knowing if Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it.… Read more »
From the Jewish Daily Forward, January 31, 2013. — J.R.
I’ve seen only two features written and directed by Michael Roemer — Nothing But a Man (1964) and The Plot Against Harry (made between 1966 and 1968, but released only in 1989). Either of these suffice to make him a major American filmmaker. And two other Roemer scripts I’ve read — one of which he managed to film (Pilgrim, Farewell, 1982), the other of which he hasn’t (Stone My Heart — undated, but apparently from the late 60s and/or early 70s) — show equivalent amounts of conviction, originality, density, and courage. But there’s a fair chance that you’ve never heard of him. And I think one of the reasons why could be that he’s a man who knows too much.
What do I mean by this? Partly that these films are politically incorrect (meaning that they all grapple with life while posing diverse challenges to people who think mainly in established and unexamined political and ethnic categories) and partly that in filmmaking we often confuse advertising and hustling with other kinds of talent — most obviously when it comes to the Oscars, but also when it comes to how we categorize and package various achievements.… Read more »
Written for Volume 34, Number 3, Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below). — J.R.
I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’. A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s.… Read more »
From The Forward, April 18, 2013. — J.R.
The American Jewish Story Through Cinema
By Eric A. Goldman
University of Texas Press, 264 pages, $55.
Eric A Goldman’s look at about a dozen Hollywood movies released between 1927 and 2009 can be recommended especially to readers who don’t flinch when they ponder his book’s title. For me, the very notion of postulating such a thing as “the” American Jewish Story — as opposed to, say, “an” American Jewish story (meaning any American Jewish story, of the author’s own choosing), or, better yet, multiple American Jewish stories — is already somewhat problematic. But in fact, Goldman is usually too thoughtful to be quite as categorical as his title threatens. Stories told in and by movies are basically what he’s thinking and talking about, and usually these are ones about American Jewish assimilation: characters stepping beyond ghetto and ethnic boundaries to contemplate such things as intermarriage and other forms of wider acceptance while repositioning historical memories and a sense of cultural identity.
I wish that the movies he picked for close examination, such as “The Young Lions,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Avalon,” were more engaging to me as art. I should admit that it was his book that finally induced me to catch up with the original, Al Jolson version of “The Jazz Singer” (at the age of 9 or so, I saw the 1952 Danny Thomas remake) and made me seek out Jerry Lewis’s strange 1959 made-for-TV version, with Molly Picon, no less, playing his mother.
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From the Jewish Daily Forward (November 9, 2012, for their November 16 issue). — J.R.
My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.
Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.
Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985).… Read more »
This is my Introduction to The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
I cannot tell a lie: the initial concept and impulse behind this retrospective weren’t my own. More precisely, they grew out of a series of email exchanges between myself and Hans Hurch and/or Alexander Horwath last April. Everything started when Hans proposed that I select a program devoted to American film comedy, “not as a history or anthology of the genre but in a more open and at the same time more concrete way…not [to] just dedicate it to comedy as such but to various aspects, different forms, ideas, and functions of the comic – from the earliest works of American cinema to recent films.”
Over three months later, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve fulfilled this proposal, at least if one can accept a fairly loose definition of “earliest” (i.e., 1919 –- which is already a good quarter of a century into what might be described as the history of American film, describing my own limitations better than the limits of my subject.) As for the most recent films in the list, technically these are Idiocracy (2005) and My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (2008), but psychologically and existentially I would probably pick Mr.… Read more »
From Scenario, Spring 1999, Vol. 5, No. 1. -– J.R.
The recent video release and cable premiere of Louis Feuillade’s silent French serial Les Vampires (1915- 1916), making it widely available in the United States for the first time in 80-odd years, clarifies the origins of the paranoid thriller in a particularly acute way. All the basic elements that we associate with movie conspiracies are fully present in Les Vampires, at least in some rudimentary form: high-tech surveillance techniques, secret lairs, hidden wall panels, intricately concealed weapons, elaborate disguises, diverse forms of mind and memory control.
This arsenal of paraphernalia and technology, suggesting that the ordinary world isn’t quite what it appears to be and that everyday life is full of concealed plots and hidden dangers, is surely a staple of this century that didn’t have to wait for video surveillance or the digital revolution before it took over people’s imaginations. Though the political casts of the designated villains fluctuate wildly according to the ideology of the country and period — ranging from the anarchist Vampire gang to the red spies of Cold War thrillers, to the nearly invisible capitalist tycoons of Cutter’s Way (1981), to the smug government bureaucrats in the significantly titled Enemy of the State — the evil designs remain more or less the same.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 8, 1995). — J.R.
I Am Cuba
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnet
With Luz Maria Collazo, Jose Gallardo, Sergio Corrieri, Maria Gonzalez Broche, Raul Garcia, and Jean Bouise.
Undeniably monstrous and breathtakingly beautiful, ridiculous and awe inspiring, I Am Cuba confounds so many usual yardsticks of judgment that any kind of star rating becomes inadequate. A delirious, lyrical, epic piece of communist propaganda from 1964 — at least three years in the making and 141 minutes long–it is simply too campy and too grotesque to qualify as a “masterpiece,” but I’d probably care less about it if it were one. A “must-see” may come closer to the mark, but it certainly isn’t a must-see for everybody. This movie has been rattling around in my head since I first encountered it 16 months ago, yet I can’t say it won’t enrage some people and bore others. Worth seeing? Has redeeming facet? Worthless? It fits all and none of these categories. To put it simply, the world doesn’t make allowances for a freak of this kind.
A Russian-Cuban production, it reportedly was hated in Russia and Cuba alike in the mid-60s, at least among government officials; in Cuba it was commonly known as I Am Not Cuba.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). I was disappointed to hear from one of the audio commentators on the Criterion DVD of Solaris that he regarded the lengthy highway sequence as one of the film’s “weaker” sections; for me it’s one of the highlights, both as a provocation and as a “musical” interlude that becomes an occasion for hypnotic drift. — J.R.
SOLARIS **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Friedrich Gorenstein and Tarkovsky
With Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, and Sos Sarkissian.
“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.… Read more »