Two particular (and very different) moments that I described for Chris Fujiwara’s Defining Moments in Movies (2007). — J.R.
1987 / Full Metal Jacket –- The closeup of a dying Vietcong woman, a sniper.
U.S. (Warner Bros. Pictures). Director: Stanley Kubrick.
Cast: Matthew Modine, Ngoc Le.
Why It’s Key: It condenses the film’s power into an intense, mysterious moment.
I had the rare privilege of seeing Stanley Kubrick’s last war picture — an adaptation of Gustav Hasford novel’s The Short Timers, about his experiences during the war in Vietnam — with war specialist Samuel Fuller, shortly after the film came out. He didn’t much care for the picture, he said afterwards, because he didn’t much like films about training, and besides, this movie wasn’t antiwar enough for his taste; he thought it might even encourage some teenage boys to enlist in future wars. Of course, Fuller had extensive war experience and Kubrick had none, which might have also played some role in forming his bias.
But one thing in the film that he loved without qualification was the close-up of the wounded Vietcong sniper at the end while she’s begging for Joker (Matthew Modine) to finish her off —- above all, for the look of absolute hatred in her eyes.… Read more »
This article was originally published in Stop Smiling no. 27 (“Ode to the Midwest”) in 2006. It’s also reprinted in my most recent book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent
It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures —- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Time magazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act — just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think. But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak — a major star if not a major actress — had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!… Read more »
This is the uncut version of a book review written for Stop Smiling no. 27 in 2006 (“Ode to the Midwest”), which had to be cut at the last minute due to space problems. My thanks to editor James Hughes for granting me permission to print the fuller version here. –J.R.
ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES by Alexander Nemerov. Berkeley: University of Calornia Press, 2005. 213 pp.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Most film criticism has been hampered by the habit of dealing with narrative movies strictly and exclusively in terms of their stories. What’s overlooked by this practice is the fact that virtually all films are made up of nonnarrative as well as narrative elements—what might be described as both persistence and fluctuation, or nonlinearity as well as linearity. Even though we often prefer to think we experience movies only as unfolding narratives—which is apparently why what most people mean by “spoilers” always relate to plot and not to formal moves—how we remember these movies is part of that experience, and this partially consists of static images.
Consequently, it could be argued that we need more art historians writing about movies and fewer literary critics who operate from the model of narrative fiction.… Read more »
From the March 1, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader
With Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris, Steven Prince, and Martin Scorsese.
Perhaps the most formally ravishing — as well as the most morally and ideologically problematic — film ever directed by Martin Scorsese, the 1976 Taxi Driver remains a disturbing landmark for the kind of voluptuous doublethink it helped ratify and extend in American movies. Of all Scorsese’s movies, Taxi Driver – being screened this week at the Music Box in a 20th-anniversary “restoration” that’s in stereo for the first time — is for me the most seductive, though I wouldn’t call it either his best film (I’d choose the underrated The King of Comedy) or his most gut-wrenching (I’d pick the overrated Raging Bull). Most of the glamorous depictions of hell on earth and odes to stoical despair about a postapocalyptic civilization found in monuments to capitalist-urban squalor, including Blade Runner and Seven, can be traced back to Taxi Driver, and if it continues to exert an enormous claim on our imagination, this is surely because we continue to live in its vengeful, puritanical fantasies — as well as with the dire consequences of those fantasies.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, , Vol. 43, No. 512. I believe that this is the first time I wrote about Moullet. — J.R.
Steack Trop Cuit, Un (Overdone Steak)
Director: Luc Moullet
Cert-U. dist–Connoisseur. p.c–Les Productions Luc Moullet/Les Productions Georges de Beauregard. p–Georges de Beauregard. 2nd Unit d–Pierre Guinle. sc–Luc Moullet. ph–André Mrugalski. 2nd Unit ph–Raymond Cauchetier. ed–Agnès Guillemot. 2nd Unit ed–Maryse Siclier. a.d–Luc Moullet. m–Frédéric G. Ploumepeux. English titles– Mai Harris. sd–Marielle Lesseps. cooking adviser–Alberta Laguioner. /.p–Françoise Vatel (Nicole), Albert Juross (Georges), Jacqueline Fynnaert (Françoise), Raymond N. Quinneseul (Samuel). 1,739 ft. 19 mins. Subtitles.
Returning home from school, Georges protests angrily to his older sister Nicole that she hasn’t yet prepared dinner. With both their parents away, she is in control of his pocket money, and threatens not to give him any for Sunday after he behaves boorishly. Claiming that the steak she has cooked is inedible, he goes next door and borrows sausages from their neighbour Françoise, which he gets Nicole to prepare. Afterwards, he plays footsy with Nicole at the table and talks to her while she puts on make-up and changes clothes, preparing to go out on a date.… Read more »
From the March 2016 issue of Artforum, where it appears under the title “Given Voice”. — J.R.
“Until recently,” wrote anthropologist Jay Ruby thirty-odd years ago, “the scholarship and popular press surrounding [Robert J.] Flaherty have tended toward two extremes—portraying him in mythical terms and ‘worshipping’ his films or debunking them as fakes and frauds and castigating him for a lack of social and political consciousness.” But the more balanced view of “Flaherty as a man of his time and culture” that Ruby saw succeeding these extremes still hasn’t fully taken hold, perhaps because the very meaning of the term “documentary” is still being debated. Even when we smile (or flinch) at some of Flaherty’s romantic conceptions, the comprehensive theoretical questions raised by his methods are ones we still can’t confidently say we’ve resolved.
“Documentary” was reportedly first used in English by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in a pseudonymous rave review of Flaherty’s second feature, Moana (1926). (Seeking to duplicate the success of Nanook of the North , but in warmer climes, Flaherty set sail for the South Seas the following year, his entire family in tow, to shoot a film in Samoa.) Significantly, Grierson employed the novel term to register one of the film’s subordinate virtues: “Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value,” he noted.… Read more »
This essay was commissioned in fall 2018 for an exhibition devoted to Michelangelo Antonioni in Tehran curated by Sami Astan. — J.R.
[Antonioni’s] trilogy was concerned with differing aspects of love as the medium of hope in our world. This film [Red Desert] is stripped to naked essence — hope or nonhope unadorned: the prospect of human life in the midst of whirling changes. We live, as we know, in the age of the swiftest transition in history, and all indications are that the speed of change will increase: in everything from household appliances to concepts in philosophy, the whole architecture of thought. Antonioni seems to be saying, without effervescent cheeriness, that what was valuable can be preserved or can be transmuted to a new viability: that the future may contain new, at present inconceivable, values. — Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, March 23, 1963
There seems little doubt that Red Desert (1964) represented a major turning point in both the art and the career of Michelangelo Antonioni, and not only because it was his first film in color. It also concluded his collaborations with Monica Vitti as his lead actress — in L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962) — apart from the sole and significant exception of The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) sixteen years later, which also worked with image (including color) manipulations.… Read more »
From Film Comment (January-February 1975). (January 23, 2012 update: Thanks, once again, to the ever-vigilant Ehsan Khoshbakht for spotting a few typos here and thus enabling me to correct them.)– J.R.
October 8: Victor Erice’s EL ESPIRITU DE LA COLMENA (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE). I’ve been trying all weekend to come up with an adequate description of this lovely Spanish film, but I can’t get anywhere. A colleague recently spoke of the film as “beguiling,” which seems like an honest start. Two remarkably expressive little girls, Ana Torrent and Isabel Telleria, see James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN at a traveling film show that stops in their village in Castille. Afterwards, Isabel explains to her sister that the monster is still alive — and indeed, he makes a brief appearance in the final reel. The girls’ father is a bee-keeper who broods over Maeterlinck, while the mother writes unexplained letters to someone in France. Isabel plays dead for a bit, and Ana believes her. Ana befriends a fugitive soldier who is eventually killed.
I don’t know what sense to make of either the plot or Erice’s beautiful honey-tone colors and honeycomb compositions, but I find the film haunting and rather spellbinding in a muted way, and emotionally it all seems to add up to something.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990). — J.R.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature in color (1964) remains a watermark for using colors creatively, expressionistically, and beautifully; to get the precise hues he wanted, Antonioni had entire fields painted. A newly struck and restored print of the film makes clear why audiences were so excited a quarter of a century ago by his innovations, which include not only expressive uses of color for moods and subtle thematic coding but striking uses of editing as well. This film comes at the tail end of his most fertile period, immediately after his remarkable trilogy consisting of L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse; Red Desert may not be quite as good as the first and last of these, but the ecological concerns of this film look a lot more prescient today than they did at the time. Monica Vitti plays an extreme neurotic married to industrialist Richard Harris, and Antonioni does eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround her, which are shown alternately as threatening and beautiful; she walks through a science fiction lunar landscape spotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities. Like any self-respecting Antonioni heroine, she’s looking for love and meaning — more specifically, for ways of adjusting to new forms of life — and mainly finding sex.… Read more »
From Filmmaker, Fall 1993 (vol. 2, #1). – J.R.
One reason why quieter, less obviously trendy North American festivals like those in Denver, Honolulu, and Vancouver attract me more as a critic than the hit-making events held in Sundance and Telluride is that they offer a genuine alternative to the feeding frenzies that accompany most current movie launchings — an atmosphere conducive to looking at movies without the usual starstruck distractions . By the same token, one advantage of Locarno over bigger and better publicized competitive European festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice is that it takes place in a more relaxed ambience, a space to think in.
Held in a lakeside resort town in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland in early August, where nightly outdoor screenings in the Grand Piazza for up to 7,000 spectators are the main public events, the festival also boasts exhaustive retrospectives, a Critics Week devoted to documentaries, an annual assortment of films about film, and many other sidebars and special events. One of the many specialty items this year was a series of clever, elaborate commercials for Bris Soap made by Ingmar Bergman in the early 50s.… Read more »
From the April 2015 Sight and Sound. Happily, both versions of both Macbeth and Othello are now available in the U.S. — J.R.
Who ever said Orson Welles’ filmography has to be neat? But one rudimentary way of bringing some order would be to distinguish between nine films he completed to his satisfaction (Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Fountain of Youth, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming Othello) and nine others he didn’t complete and/or lost control of (The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind). Yet even this isn’t as neat as it sounds, because he completed two separate versions of both Macbeth (1948 and 1950 — the second at the studio’s request — to eliminate the Scottish accents and shorten the running time by two reels; both are available today in France) and Othello (1952 and 1953; neither, alas, is commercially available anywhere — only an alteration of the second version, edited for the U.S.… Read more »
From American Film (February 1979). This article was specifically conceived as a sort of sequel/companion-piece to “Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three Innovators,” an article published in American Film almost half a year earlier. This plan was undermined in various ways by the editors, who gave it a title derived from a middle-class French comedy of the period (“Jean-Luc, Chantal, Danièle, Jean-Marie, and the Others”) that caused Akerman herself to reproach me for the piece (assuming that I’d dreamed up that title myself). I no longer recall what my original title was, but I’ve tweaked this piece in a few other minor ways to make it a little less unbearable to me. (By and large, most of my articles written for American Film qualified at least partially as hackwork done to pay my rent.) — J.R.
If American avant-garde films are often chancy to come by, even the most exciting European examples are apt to be regarded in this country as only distant legends. To cite one characteristic but scarcely isolated phenomenon: The welcome once given by the New York Film Festival to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet hasn’t been extended to any of their recent films, and none of the movies of Chantal Akerman has have ever been shown here.… Read more »
From Omni (September 1983). — J.R.
For a conceptual artist who’s more often concerned with representation than with straight entertainment, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow can be a pretty jokey fellow. In fact, of all the avant-garde artists I know, he may well be the one who laughs the most and the hardest. His longest and craziest movie — the 260-minute, encyclopedic “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen – contains a grab bag of assorted puns, puzzles, and adages, from lines like “eating is believing” and “hearing is deceiving” to a mad tea party where words and sentences recited backward are then reversed to sound vaguely intelligible. Even “Wilma Schoen” in the title is an anagram for Snow’s name. One of his shortest works, the eight-minute Two Sides to Every Story, is projected on two back-to-back screens, simultaneously showing the same events in the same room from opposite angles.
Just as typical, in the living room of Snow’s house in Toronto, where I recently interviewed him, is a front door that isn’t in use — or rather is in use, but not as a front door. Over the side facing inside the room is a life-size color photograph of a painting of the same door.… Read more »
From The Movie, Chapter 108, 1982. -– J.R.
The earliest principles of editing shots together were perhaps no more simple or complex thanthose of bricklaying; they served, at any rate, to perform the same sort of basic architectural function. In an early narrative film by Georges Méliès, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902, A Trip to the Moon), elaborately staged tableaux in front of a stationary camera — the filmmaker himself called them ‘artificially arranged scenes’ — succeed one another through the medium of dissolves. A bevy of chorus girls waves goodbye to a rocket ship fired from a cannon (one tableau), the moon is seen approaching (another tableau, effected through a moving, artificial moon rather than a moving camera), and the rocket ship lands splat in the eye of the Man in the Moon (still another tableau). By the timeMéliès was making Le Tunnel sous la Manche ou le Cauchemar Franco-Anglais (l907, Tunneling the English Channel), five years later, his visual structures were more complex, so that an entire narrative could proceed in the form of individual split-screen diptychs. In each of them, an Englishman and Frenchman attempt to cross the channel towards each other from opposite sides of the screen.… Read more »