Movie Mutations: Letters From (and To) Some Children of 1960

These are the original letters published in French translation in Trafic no. 24, Winter 1997 and subsequently published in English in a 2003 book edited by Adrian Martin and myself, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute). These letters have by now also appeared in Croatian, Dutch, Farsi, French, German, and Spanish. — J.R.

From Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago):

7 April, 1997

Dear Adrian,

 

Almost a year has passed since I wrote in Trafic* about “the taste of a particular generation of cinephiles — an international and mainly unconscious cabal (or, more precisely, confluence) of critics, teachers, and programmers, all of whom were born around 1960, have a particular passion for research (bibliographic as well as cinematic), and (here is what may be most distinctive about them) a fascination with the physicality of actors tied to a special interest in the films of John Cassavetes and Philippe Garrel (as well as Jacques Rivette and Maurice Pialat).” I named four members of this generation — Nicole Brenez (France), Alexander Horwath (Austria), Kent Jones (U.S.), and you (Australia). Each of you, I should add, I met independently of the other three, originally through correspondence (apart from Kent), although Kent and Alex already knew each other.… Read more »

August Humor

From the Soho News (August 20, 1981). — J.R.

Film India: Indian Film Festival Museum of Modern Art, through August 23

Buster Keaton Film Festival Lincoln Plaza, through September 19

Directed for Comedy Regency, through October 17

Honky Tonk Freeway Written by Edward Clinton

Directed by John Schlesinger, opens August 21

 

AUGUST 7: The first movie I see for this column isn’t a light comedy, but it sure puts me in a sunny mood. The prospect of a three-hour Indian film in Temil with no subtitles is a little off-putting, I would say -– wouldn’t you? On my way into the sparsely populated auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art this afternoon, I hear not one but two separate senior citizens crack jokes about what a nice opportunity this is for a nap.

And yet, just as Indian film buff Elliott Stein has predicted, I have surprisingly little trouble following the plot and action of Chandralakha (1948). The quaintly illusionistic charm of a black-and-white movie like this, about a good and bad brother vying for the throne in a mythical kingdom – with a large palace protected by a drawbridge –- is part of its primal pull from the beginning.… Read more »

18 Thrillers You Might Have Missed…

Posted on DVD Beaver, July 2007; I’ve updated the links when necessary. — J.R.

Some genres are a lot more elastic than others. Our notions of what a Western or a musical consists of are reasonably firm. But thrillers tend to be all over the place, overlapping at various times with crime films, adventure films, heist films, noirs, mystery stories, spy stories, melodramas, and even comedies, period films, and art movies —- to propose a far from exhaustive list.

In order to demonstrate this overall versatility, I’ve come up with 18 recommended titles that I’m listing and briefly describing below, in alphabetical order. A dozen are in English, three are in French, and one apiece is in German, Italian, or Japanese. All but two are currently available on DVD, although in at least one case you’ll have to go beyond American sources in order to acquire it. And ironically, the two that are unavailable are both Hollywood classics —- one more indication of the degree to which some of the major studios and/or the inheritors of their treasures still don’t have a very clear idea of what they possess and keep out of reach.

(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

  Bad Day at Black Rock.

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Our Girl in Burma

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1995). — J.R.

Beyond Rangoon

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John Boorman

Written by Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein

With Patricia Arquette, U Aung Ko, Frances McDormand, Spalding Gray, Tiara Jacquelina, and Victor Slezak.

Reviewing Salvador Dali’s autobiography half a century ago, George Orwell wrote that Dali “grew up in the corrupt world of the 1920s, when sophistication was immensely widespread and every European capital swarmed with aristocrats and rentiers who had given up sport and politics and taken to patronizing the arts. If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back.” Offended by the sort of sophistication that he associated with mindless tolerance, Orwell recorded his own puritanical outrage at the brutal shenanigans of Dali and his apologists: “It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of benefit of clergy. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘art’ and everything is OK. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are OK; kicking little girls on the head is OK; even a film like L’age d’or is OK.”

Unfortunately, Orwell hadn’t seen Buñuel’s 1930 masterpiece and had been misinformed about it; it’s subsequently been demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, Dali had little to do with it.… Read more »

The Violent Years

From The Movie No. 71, 1981. — J.R.

From Psycho and Spartacus (both 1960) to The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider (both 1969), the Sixties might be regarded as the period when screen violence gained a new aesthetic self-consciousness and something approaching academic respectability, at least in the public mind. To put it somewhat differently, the contemporary spectator of 1960, shocked by the brutal shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho as an event — without observing that it was a composite film effect created by several dozen rapidly cut shots –- would have been much likelier to notice, in 1969, the use of slow motion in the depiction of several dozen violent deaths in The Wild Bunch.

The key film document of the decade, endlessly scrutinized and discussed, was not an entertainment feature at all, but the record of an amateur film-maker named Abe Zapruder of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963; the close analysis to which this short length of film was subjected was characteristic of a changing attitude towards the medium as a whole.

In the Sixties many established cultural, social, and political values were radically thrown into question, at the same time that the media -– including television and pop music as well as cinema — were becoming closely examined in their own right.… Read more »

“New Hollywood” and the 60s Melting Pot

This essay — commissioned originally in the mid-1990s by Alexander Horwath for a collection in German published by the Viennale, and later published in 2004 by the Amsterdam University Press as The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, coedited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King — overlaps with various other pieces of mine, and is obviously out of date in some of its details, but it seems worth reprinting for some of the arguments it draws together. And it’s been fun hunting up illustrations for it on the Internet. — J.R.

“New Hollywood” and the 60s Melting Pot
Jonathan Rosenbaum

Let me begin with a few printed artifacts, all of them from New York in the early 60s: two successive issues of the NY Film Bulletin published in early 1962, special numbers devoted to Last Year at Marienbad and François Truffaut; and three successive issues of Film Culture, dated winter 1962, winter 1962-63, and spring 1963. Cheaply printed but copiously illustrated, the two special numbers of the NY Film Bulletin are the 43rd and 44th issues of a monthly, respectively twenty and twenty-eight pages in length. The Last Year at Marienbad issue consists exclusively of interviews with Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and editor Henri Colpi, all translated from French magazines, and a briefly annotated Resnais filmography.… Read more »

Roeg’s Gallery

R.I.P. Nicolas Roeg, 1928-2018. From The Movie no. 85, 1981.– J.R.

It is surely more than just a coincidence that director Nicolas Roeg has used leading pop stars and rock personalities in three of his five features to date. The sheer satanic presences of Mick Jagger in Performance (1970), of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and, to a lesser extent, Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (1980), all have something slightly magical about them — as if they held the implicit promise that unusual and outsized events were going to take place around and, in large measure, because of them. Boldly delineated in each case like the demonic princes of dark impulses, they are offered as guides and portals into the decadent fantasies which these films often traffic in. As Roeg told critic Harlan Kennedy in an interview:

What I find interesting about singers is that they all have the qualities of performers but they’re untouched in terms of acting. They’re not from the New York school of this or that: they’re not from the London theatre….So many actors have lost their intent, their beginnings. They’re not this travelling group of players that one evening is a king, another evening is a beggar.Read more »

He’s So Heavy [COLD HEAVEN]

From the August 14, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

COLD HEAVEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Theresa Russell, Mark Harmon, James Russo, Talia Shire, Will Patton, Richard Bradford, and Julie Carmen.

The sexy, volatile cinema of Nicolas Roeg might be said to operate under a kind of curse. Born in London in 1928, Roeg entered movies as a clapper boy at the age of 22 but didn’t become a cinematographer until his early 30s. After shooting such interesting films in the 60s as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, and Petulia, he directed his powerful and still-dangerous Performance (in collaboration with Donald Cammell) in 1968, but then had to wait two years for Warner Brothers to release it.

After Roeg’s first solo directorial effort (Walkabout, 1971) came his first and only commercial hit (Don’t Look Now, 1973). He followed that up with two controversial cult items (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, 1979). In 1982 he made a feature (Eureka) that had a very limited release. Next in line was Insignificance (1985), then another feature with virtually no theatrical life in the United States (Castaway, 1986), then a third limited release (Track 29, 1988).… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Fantasy Films on DVD (and 2 more that should be)

Posted by DVD Beaver in October 2007; I’ve updated many of the links. — J.R.

TheTogerofEschnapur-web

As with science fiction, the focus of my previous article in this series, the definition of what constitutes a fantasy film is to some extent arbitrary. Not every account of The Tiger of Eschnapur would situate it within the realm of fantasy, though I’d argue that a sequence involving a spider’s web that’s woven in the entrance to a cave, and perhaps other details as well, warrant such a description. The some goes for Confessions of an Opium Eater and its sudden shifts into slow-motion; these are nominally justified as opium-induced perceptions, but when the hero suddenly falls from a building and does several rapid cartwheels in midair, it’s impossible to tell at which point the logic of dreams takes over. In other respects, accepting Eyes Wide Shut as a fantasy is more a matter of interpretation than a matter of pointing at any obvious genre elements. And of course the realm of horror, which overlaps with fantasy without necessarily becoming fantasy (as in the cases of The Seventh Victim, Psycho, and Peeping Tom, for instance), accounts for at least four of my selections—Vampyr, Night of the Demon, The Masque of the Red Death, and Martin.… Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (third 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 third dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Salt of the Earth
This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. Regrettably, its best-known critical discussion in the U.S. is in Pauline Kael’s final essay in her first collection — a 1954 broadside in which this film is ridiculed as “propaganda” alongside a forgettable cold war thriller, Night People, that’s skewered as “advertising”.… Read more »

Desperate Measures [OUT OF SIGHT & THE BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1998). — J.R.

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Out of Sight

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Scott Frank

With George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, and Catherine Keener.

The Brigands: Chapter VII

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Otar Iosseliani

With Amiran Amiranachvili, Alexi Djakeli, Dato Gogibedachvili, Guio Tzintsadze, Nino Ordjonikidze, Keti Kapanadze, and Nino Kartsivadze.

Which would you rather see? A Hollywood thriller with hot stars whose director is so alienated from his material that he’s reduced to a kind of ingenious doodling while his characters disintegrate? Or a witty, despairing French-Russian-Italian-Swiss art movie set in 16th-century Georgia, Stalinist Georgia, contemporary Georgia, and contemporary Paris, whose writer-director is so much in command of his materials that he can plant the same actors in all four settings yet provide a seamless continuity?

My question is mainly rhetorical because it’s already been decided for most people reading this. Out of Sight, a major Universal release written by Scott Frank and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is playing all over town and will be around for weeks; The Brigands: Chapter VII, written and directed by Otar Iosseliani, doesn’t even have a U.S.

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Two Deaths

From the October 1, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

TwoDeaths

I don’t know anything about the novel this Nicolas Roeg made-for-BBC film is drawn from — Stephen Dobyns’s The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, adapted by Roeg’s longtime collaborator Allan Scott — but its mixture of metaphysical fireside tale and kinky guilt tripping reminds me of Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva. During a bloody 1989 student uprising in an unnamed country that seems to be somewhere in eastern Europe, a successful doctor (Michael Gambon) is holding his annual dinner for three of his former schoolmates and recounting in flashbacks the story of his sexual obsession with a schoolteacher (Sonia Braga) who despises him but now lives with him as his slave. As his three male guests relate their own sexual secrets and soldiers and police periodically break into the house, the pattern of an after-dinner parable laced with vague allegorical undertones gradually takes shape. The results are engaging (if unpleasant) as story-telling — and alternately striking and pretentious as only a Roeg film can be. With Patrick Malahide, Ion Caramitru, Nickolas Grace, and John Shrapnel. (JR)

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Crass Consciousness [EDTV]

From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1999). — J.R.

EDtv

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

With Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Hurley.

I tend to like Ron Howard movies. They’re usually energetic, Capra-like popular entertainments that respect the audience — not a common virtue these days. Howard is one of the few remaining filmmakers from the Hollywood studio tradition who can be counted on to offer honest diversion without making any undue claims for what he’s doing — and I include everything from Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift to Splash and Cocoon, from Gung Ho and Parenthood to the underrated Far and Away, Backdraft, and The Paper, and even dubious efforts such as Willow and Apollo 13. Even when his films are satirical, as Gung Ho is, they don’t offer their commentaries from the top of soap boxes, and their messages are sweet tempered rather than caustic.

EDtv conforms to this pattern, though it runs up against a current conundrum — how can one criticize the excesses of the contemporary media without blaming the audience?… Read more »

Pushing Tin

From the Chicago Reader (April 20, 1999). — J.R.

Though this comedy-drama about a macho feud between two New York air-traffic controllers (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) is never entirely believable, it’s consistently lively, offbeat, and unpredictable, suggesting at times the improbable fusion of Howard Hawks and Sigmund Freud. Inspired by an article by Darcy Frey in the New York Times Magazine, the screenplay by brothers Glen and Les Charles (creators of the TV show Cheers) piles hyperbole on top of frenzy in spelling out the heroes’ frenetic lifestyle. In particular, it focuses on the putative wife swapping (involving Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie) that emerges from the rivalry. Cusack may be called upon to hog too much of the limelight, if only because the story is mainly told from his point of view, but director Mike Newell’s flair for mixing and matching his entire cast seldom falters. (JR)

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Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

From the Chicago Reader (May 1999). — J.R.

Not bad for a toy commercial, and the SF settings, however familiar, are even more impressive than the gadgets and beasties. The casualties are narrative momentum (at least compared to episode four) and the actors — Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park — who are stilted and humorless but can’t be blamed, since George Lucas’s mind was on the digital effects. (An overgrown Jamaican reptile of indeterminate gender named Jar Jar Binks has been created specifically to tell the audience when it’s OK to laugh.) At great expense, Lucas has finally succeeded in duplicating his low-budget models (mainly serials and westerns of the 50s) in emotional range as well as in action. The digital effects help him realize this sincere aim, but the campy whiffs of pseudoprofundity are strictly analogical and exclusively the writer-director’s, and in a way they’re every bit as charming as the simplicity. PG, 133 min. (JR)

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