The Attractions and Perils of Internationalism (2007)

My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system.… Read more »

Hollywood From the Fringes [INLAND EMPIRE]

From the January 25, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

INLAND EMPIRE ****

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY DAVID LYNCH WITH LAURA DERN, JUSTIN THEROUX, JEREMY IRONS, KAROLINA GRUSZKA, HARRY DEAN STANTON, AND GRACE ZABRISKIE

David Lynch’s first digital video, almost three hours long, resists synopsizing more than anything else he’s done. Some viewers have complained, understandably, that it’s incomprehensible, but it’s never boring, and the emotions Lynch is expressing are never in doubt. Asked many years ago about the origins of the nightmarish Eraserhead (1978), his first and best feature, he forthrightly replied, “Philadelphia.” If asked the same thing today about the no less nightmarish Inland Empire, he might say, “Hollywood.”

Many of my colleagues believe Lynch’s best early feature is Blue Velvet (1986), which I regard as a gripping but limited piece of designer porn. Like his more offensive Wild at Heart and his more charming TV series Twin Peaks (both 1990), Blue Velvet offers a vivid illustration of how a man can turn his most lurid puritanical obsessions into clout and big money — and get an audience to wallow in those obsessions without thinking about them very hard. It has little of the meditative integrity and private intensity of Eraserhead, but then little in his work before Inland Empire did.… Read more »

Adolescent Eye [on TWIN PEAKS, the first season]

The following article, which originally appeared in the April 20, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, without any star rating, is the only time I can recall writing at length in the Reader about an American TV series. (An edited version of this piece appears in a 1995 collection edited by David Lavery for Wayne State University Press, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, under the title “Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks“.) From a vantage point of almost two decades later, I wouldn’t be as quick today to insist that David Lynch’s work is devoid of any social commentary. What he has to say about the Hollywood community alone, especially in Inland Empire (2006), shows that he’s no longer as detached as he was.

Another invaluable tool for re-evaluation is the recent and superbly appointed Blu-Ray box set devoted to Twin Peaks. Despite some misgivings abiut the show’s second season (see, for instance, Martha Nochimson’s demurrals in her 1997 The Passion of David Lynch about some of the ways the show “perverted” Lynch’s original designs and conceptions), I continue to find much of it very absorbing. The same is true, so far, about the so-far uneven third season, despite the brilliance of the third episode.Read more »

Jarmsuch’s Lost America: The Pleasures of PATERSON

Commissioned by the French quarterly Trafic for its 102nd issue (Summer 2017). — J.R.

paterson-couple

 

1. Jarmusch as dialectician

 

For some time now, Jim Jarmusch has been operating as an

autocritical dialectician in his fictional features. Politically as

well as commercially, The Limits of Control offers a sharp

rebuke to his preceding film, Broken Flowers, by following

Bill Murray as a protagonist — a bored and diffident Don Juan

roaming across the United States to visit four of his former

lovers, in order to discover which one he impregnated with

a son — with Isaach de Bankolé as a protagonist, a hired

assassin in Europe pursuing Bill Murray in the role of Dick

Cheney as he hides out in a bunker until the assassin

finally strangles him with a guitar string. But even more

striking is the radical contrast between Jarmusch’s most

elitist feature (and in many ways my least favorite), Only

Lovers Left Alive, about a romantic, middle-aged married

couple played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston –

vampires named Adam and Eve who evoke junkies, rock

stars, and Pre-Raphaelite artists, living on separate

continents in Tangier and Detroit — and Jarmusch’s

most populist feature (and one of my favorites),

Paterson, about a younger romantic couple living together

in Paterson, New Jersey, a bus driver named Paterson

(Adam Driver) who writes poetry in his spare time and a

housewife named Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who cooks,

specializes in creating black and white décor and clothing,

and is learning to play the guitar.… Read more »

The Virgin Suicides

From the Chicago Reader (March 27, 2000). — J.R.

virgin-suicides-prom

A very curious and eclectic piece of work — fresh even when it’s awkward — that’s built around an unsolved mystery, like Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adapted from a Jeffrey Eugenides novel by director Sofia Coppola, and set in small-town Michigan a quarter of a century ago, it focuses on five teenage sisters as perceived by some of their male classmates; James Woods and Kathleen Turner play the girls’ parents and Giovanni Ribisi narrates. With Kirsten Dunst, Hanna R. Hall, Chelsea Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Josh Hartnett, Danny DeVito, and Scott Glenn. 96 min. (JR)

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Introduction to the Chinese edition of ACTING IN THE CINEMA

Written in mid-February 2013 for the publication of the Chinese edition of James Naremore’s Acting in the Cinema, which was scheduled for publication in China in 2014, although I’m not sure whether it’s ever been published there. (I still haven’t been paid for it.) This is the second Introduction I’ve written for a Chinese translation of a Naremore book; my previous one was for More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. — J.R.

In film criticism, acting tends to be the most neglected single aspect of cinema — one that’s especially difficult to describe and also easy to confuse with other skills and effects in filmmaking, to cite only two of the reasons for its neglect. Often not knowing whose creativity and whose creative decisions are the most relevant, we easily become confounded over issues of intentionality, agency, credit, and defining precisely what it is that we’re responding to, which becomes all the more difficult due to the mythological auras that surround famous actors.The few times that I’ve tried to write about actors myself in any detail, such as Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, Eric von Stroheim, and Charlie Chaplin, I’ve concentrated mainly on those auras, and in the case of the latter two, I’ve even found it hard to separate their acting from their writing and directing.… Read more »

Introduction to the Chinese Edition of MORE THAN NIGHT

The following essay was both commissioned and written in early June 2009. My thanks to the Chinese translator Zhanxiong Xu for giving me permission to publish the original English version here.

My subsequent Introduction to the Chinese edition of another book by James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema — written in February 2013, and currently scheduled to be published in Chinese in 2014 — is available here.  I’m also pleased to announce that a Chinese translation and edition of one of my own books, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See,  is currently in the works. — J.R.

Introduction to the Chinese Edition of More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

I

 

“The Chinese don’t accord much importance to things of the past,” Maggie Cheung maintained in an interview with a French magazine roughly a decade ago  (1), “whether it’s films, heritage, or even clothes or furniture. In Asia nothing is preserved, turning towards the past is regarded as stupid, aberrant.”

Interestingly, this statement helps to explain why so many of the most important Chinese films, at least for me, are concerned with the discovery of history, and represent various attempts to reclaim a lost past.… Read more »

Lost In Translation

From the August 29, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LostinTranslation

The Virgin Suicides (2000) revealed writer-director Sofia Coppola to be a genuine original, and now that she’s working with her own material the freshness of her vision is even more apparent. This second feature traces the brief romantic friendship between a jaded movie star and family man (Bill Murray), who’s in Tokyo shooting a whiskey commercial, and a bored young newlywed less than half his age (Scarlett Johansson), who’s waiting for her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to return from a trip. Coppola does a fair job of capturing the fish-tank ambience of nocturnal, upscale Tokyo and showing how it feels to be a stranger in that world, and an excellent job of getting the most from her lead actors. Unfortunately, I’m not sure she accomplishes anything else. R, 105 min. (JR)

LITRead more »

New Perspectives [LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA & THE DEAD GIRL]

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 2007). — J.R.

Letters from Iwo Jima ****

directed by Clint Eastwood

written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis

with Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Hiroshi Watanabe, and Takumi Bando

The Dead Girl ***

directed and written by Karen Moncrieff

with Toni Colette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy, Kerry Washington, Giovanni Ribisi, Piper Laurie, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen, Bruce Davison, Nick Searcy, and Josh Brolin

Given my usual aversion to war and slasher movies, I wasn’t instantly won over by either Letters From Iwo Jima or The Dead Girl. Both films display a fundamental decency and seriousness from the outset, but both are unrelievedly grim and full of booby traps. (At press time I was told that The Dead Girl may not open for another week or so.)

Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, one of the finest directors alive, looks at the World War II battle of his recent Flags of Our Fathers from a Japanese perspective. Letters From Iwo Jima opened in Japan around the same time its counterpart opened here, evidence of the nobility of his intention to address the people of both countries, not just us.… Read more »

Sexual Healing [ROMANCE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 12, 1999). — J.R.

Romance

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Catherine Breillat

With Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Rocco Siffredi, and Francois Berleand.


I’ve never put much stock in my powers of prophecy, but it seems I was more off the mark than usual nine months ago when I emerged from the world premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Romance, in Rotterdam, thinking it would create a sensation if it reached the U.S. I somehow forgot that most movie sensations are the fabrications of publicists. Audiences can create sensations – The Blair Witch Project proves that — but reviewers, who are usually closer to publicists than to audiences, are often the last people to notice. So maybe Breillat’s seventh feature did cause a sensation with audiences when it opened in New York several weeks ago, but if so, I don’t think it’s been reported.

Nine months ago I decided that Romance was a pretty reactionary movie for France — mainly because of an offscreen statement made by the heroine near the end (“They say a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother; it’s true”). But I still thought it might be seen as progressive in America, especially because its rare confluence of cinematic taste, literary intelligence, and hard-core sex might undercut the crippling puritanism of our movie codes, which usually equate eroticism with porn, sleaze, and stupidity rather than, say, art, health, and intelligence.… Read more »

Seeing Right Through Us [HOLLOW MAN]

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

Hollow Man

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Andrew Marlowe

With Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.

Apart from Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s enjoyably auteurist swan song, Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Hollow Man, was the only summer Hollywood release I’d been looking forward to. For one thing, I’d hoped it would give me an opportunity to reassess his previous works, most of which I now think I underestimated when they were released.

I was pretty hospitable to Total Recall (1990), but I awarded a black dot to Basic Instinct (1992), mainly because I was incensed about the calculations of Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million script (I’m leaving aside Verhoeven’s Dutch movies because the only one I’ve seen is The 4th Man). I declined to review Showgirls (1995) at length, noting somewhat puritanically toward the end of my capsule: “I suppose the overall theory is that male spectators will tolerate any amount of stupidity and unpleasantness for the sake of acres of tits and ass, but you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for putting such a theory to the ultimate test: if anyone emerges from this with a smile on his face he must hate women as much as this movie does.” More equivocally, I accorded two stars to Starship Troopers (1997); I was fascinated with what wasn’t American about this allegedly all-American blockbuster, but I may have underrated some of the ways it was actively anti-American in its ridicule of American clichés, tastes, racial preferences, and archetypes.… Read more »

Odd Couplings [BODY OF EVIDENCE & DAMAGE]

From the Chicago Reader (January 29, 1993). Since writing this, I’ve come to like Basic Instinct much more than I did. — J.R.

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BODY OF EVIDENCE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Uli Edel

Written by Brad Mirman

With Madonna, Willem Dafoe, Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Stan Shaw, Charles Hallahan, Lillian Lehman, Mark Rolston, Jeff Perry, and Jurgen Prochnow.

DAMAGE

* (Has redeeming facet

Directed by Louis Malle

Written by David Hare

With Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Ian Bannen, Leslie Caron, Peter Stormare, Gemma Clark, and Julian Fellowes.


The pointed absence of scenes of sexual intercourse in such recent releases seemingly calling for them as The Crying Game, The Hours and Times, and Scent of a Woman is curious when weighed against a tendency in some other movies, including two that opened recently, to highlight transgressive or dangerous sex. In Body of Evidence it’s not only bondage and sadomasochism but sex leading to the male partner’s cardiac arrest, an effect the female partner may have intended. In Damage it’s not only illicit sex between an older, prominent government official and his son’s fiancee, who has incest in her past, but also the unconventionality of their couplings: they often remain partly clothed, and the positions they assume border on the pretzellike.… Read more »

Kim Novak/Middle of the Night

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, written by Paddy Cheyevsky, directed by Delbert Mann, with Kim Novak and Fredric March (1959, 118 min.)

Just a brief postscript to my recently posted “Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent”. If memory serves, I hadn’t seen this profoundly depressing piece of New York Chayevsky realism since I was 16, when it came out. Now it comes across, for better and for worse, like another version of Mikio Naruse depicting the shallow rewards and prospects of the urban, aging lower-middle-class. What’s distinctly un-Naruse-like, though, is Kim Novak, who brings a nervous, almost hysterical energy to her part as the divorced, 24-year-old secretary, girlfriend, and fiancée of a middle-aged widower and garment-industry worker (Fredric March), almost as if she were trying her hand at a Method performance. The fact that I can only believe in her character part of the time stems from the fact that I can so easily see her trying. Still, the mood swings of her character are often terrifying and believable in a way that even seems to go beyond the demands of the material –- as if she were constantly trying on the part for size and then immediately changing her wardrobe in a fit of impatience.… Read more »

Dialogue Between Shigehiko Hasumi and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Howard Hawks and Yasuzo Masumura (Tokyo, 3 December 1999)

This dialogue is part of a section called “Two Auteurs: Masumura and Hawks,” included in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), a volume I co-edited with Adrian Martin. It was preceded by my essay, “Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress,” and, before the “epilogue,” it was followed by Hasumi’s own essay, “Inversion/ Exchange/Repetition: The Comedy of Howard Hawks”. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum: When did you first write about Howard Hawks?

Shigehiko Hasumi: In 1977, just after he died. At that time, Hawks was so underestimated in Japan that no film magazine wanted an article on him. I published it in a literary magazine.

JR: And is there a particular period in his career that you prefer?

SH: Yes, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to His Girl Friday (1940). Of course, his two films noirs with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), impress me deeply. But the comedies in this period seem to me the highest accomplishment of his mise en scène. For me, Hawks is essentially a filmmaker of comedy. In that sense, I could say also that my preference goes to the period between Twentieth Century (1934) and Monkey Business (1952).Read more »

Where They’re Coming From [WESTERN]

From the Chicago Reader (April 9, 1999). — J.R.

Western

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Manuel Poirier

With Sergi Lopez, Sacha Bourdo, Elisabeth Vitali, Marie Matheron, and Basile Sieouka.

The other day I received an E-mail from someone wanting to know how I could have described The Tree of Wooden Clogs as Marxist when it was so clearly a religious film. Actually Dave Kehr had written the capsule review of Ermanno Olmi’s feature 14 years ago, but I hastily E-mailed back that any Italian could tell you that Marxism can easily be seen as a form of religion. Afterward I realized that this response was flip. It would have been better to say that Catholicism and Marxism have had a long and complex coexistence in Italy, and that it was unrealistic to expect that they would be mutually exclusive as systems of belief; the career of Pier Paolo Pasolini is proof of how intimately the two can be intertwined, regardless of the contradictions involved. That led me to think about how the simple characterizations of European Marxism in this country foster such confusion. Shortly after this I happened to read Andre Bazin’s description of The Bicycle Thief as one of the great communist films — an aspect of the film I suspect couldn’t have been apparent to American audiences when it won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1949.… Read more »