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 »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). — J.R.
Gangs of New York
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, and David Hemmings.
For almost the first two-thirds of Martin Scorsese’s 168-minute Gangs of New York, I was entranced. I felt like I was watching a boys’ bloodthirsty adventure story — a blend of pirate saga, 19th-century revenge tale (three parts Dumas to one part Hugo), sword-and-sandal romp, and Viking epic poem, all laced with references to works ranging from Orson Welles’s claustrophobic Macbeth (the beginning of the prologue) to Pieter Brueghel’s spacious Slaughter of the Innocents (at the end of the prologue) and incorporating romantic touchstones from Potemkin (a stone lion), The Lusty Men (hidden possessions), Chimes at Midnight (thrusts and counterthrusts), and The Shanghai Gesture (prostitutes in hanging cages).
Scorsese once described his concept of the film as a western set on Mars, which adds two more playgrounds to the above list and helps explain the kind of historical fantasy he had in mind. I know little about New York’s early history, yet I was impressed by how thoroughly he wanted to steep me in its otherness.… Read more »
This appeared in The Soho News on March 11, 1981. A month earlier, I had launched a kind of weekly column there called “Declarations of Independents” that was in diary form — a bit like some of my Paris Journals and London Journals for Film Comment during the 70s –- and this was the third of these. — J.R.
Feb. 24: Why go all the way to the Thalia tonight to see five Screen Directors Playhouse episodes, all half-hour TV shows from the mid-50s? Two professional reasons spring to mind, both essentially recycling operations. As often happens in such cases, I feel myself split between the two — processes that honor my asocial aesthetics on the one hand, my social politics on the other.
Auteurist Retrieval technology (we’ll call it ART for short) — cultivated by me and a lot of other film freaks in the late 60s — is predicated on the pleasure of recognizing the taletale signs of favorite directors in all sorts of unlikely material. And what better excuse to put ART to work than patriarchal episodes by John Ford, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage, Tay Garnett, and William Seiter? Indeed, to narrow the focus down to the evening’s main event, what better specimen could one hope to find but a crisp 35mm print of Ford’s Rookie of the Year, made immediately before his masterpiece The Searchers, with the same scriptwriter (Frank Nugent) and no less than four of the same actors — John Wayne, Pat Wayne, Vera Miles and Ward Bond — playing central roles?… Read more »
Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), and the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from roughly The Merry Widow on, this is a movie about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the former been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Monday, January 27, 8:00, and Thursday, January 30, 6:00, 312-846-2800.
Written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival in November 2003. — J.R.
In his biography of André Bazin, Dudley Andrew notes in passing that “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Myth of Total Cinema,” which he calls Bazin’s“first great essays,” were both composed during the French Occupation. I hope I can be forgiven for taking the meaning of the second essay’s title in a direction quite different from what Bazin intended–a direction inspired by the fact that we’re living today under a kind of Cultural Occupation imposed by advertising that currently approaches global dimensions, and which operates under the assumption of another kind of “myth of total cinema”. I’m thinking of the myth that the breadth and diversity of contemporary cinema in its present profusion are somehow knowable and therefore describable, something that can be analyzed in detail as well as evaluated.
From the Chicago Reader (October 18, 2002). — J.R.
Adapted by Mel Dinelli from a Cornell Woolrich story, this is one of the most underrated B pictures of the 40s, perhaps because neither its director (Ted Tetzlaff) nor its stars (Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart) are strong calling cards today. Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a little boy known for telling fibs who witnesses a murder from a fire escape one night but can’t get anyone to believe him. This taut thriller (1949, 73 min) is almost as close to neorealism as to noir — the details of working-class city life are especially fine. (JR)
The article from the October 1982 issue of American Film is so quaintly and absurdly dated now that I can’t resist reproducing it. -– J.R.
The prospect of choosing ten French movies that I’d like to own on videocassette is pretty hard to resist –- even for someone who still doesn’t own a cassette recorder. And when I consider the losses that any great film is bound to suffer on a home screen, I find myself consoled by the opinion of Jean-Luc Godard, expressed, twenty years ago:
”Even with films like Lola Montès and Alexander Nevsky, something comes through on television, despite the distortion, the rounded screen, the lack of definition, the absence of color. . .With Lola Montès, what you lost visually you often gained by having your attention focused on the dialogue.If only part of the film survives. It will be enough to bring it across.”
Admittedly, Godard was speaking here about old-fashioned network transmission — and French television at that, which offered a higher visual definition, and no time-slotting cuts orcommercial breaks. Still, the overall thrust of his point, is true. Reproducing a classic film on cassette may do something drastic to its original purpose and format, but something essential remains.… Read more »
I hope I can be forgiven for promoting a piece of my own promotion. It seems worth doing in this case because an hour-long interview with me by Mara Tapp about my latest book, Discovering Orson Welles, taped for CAN TV19 and showing on Sunday, October 21, at 5 PM and then again on Monday, October 22, at noon, entitled “Unseen Orson Welles,” includes a silent, five-minute sequence from Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that is arguably the greatest sequence he shot for the film, even though it can’t be found in the execrable version cobbled together by Jesus Franco in 1992. It was shot in the mid-1950s in Mexico City, during the postproduction of Touch of Evil. It’s set in a movie theater, features child actress Patty McCormack as herself, Francesco Riguera (see photo) as Quixote, and Akim Tamiroff (perhaps Welles’s favorite character actor, who also appears in Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and The Trial) as Sancho Panza, and is fully edited by Welles.
“The Most Beautiful Six Minutes in the History of Cinema”
Louis Feuillade’s extraordinary ten-part silent serial of 1916, running just under eight hours, is one of the supreme delights of film–an account of the exploits of an all-powerful group of criminals called the Vampire Gang, headed by the infamous Irma Vep (Musidora), whose name is incidentally an anagram for “vampire.” Filmed mainly in Paris locations, Feuillade’s masterpiece combines documentary with fantasy to create a dense world of multiple disguises, secret passageways, poison rings, and evil master plots that assumes an awesome cumulative power: the everyday world of the French bourgeoisie, personified by the hapless sleuth hero, during the height of World War I is imbued with an unseen terror that no amount of virtuous detection can ever efface entirely. (Significantly, as in many of Feuillade’s other serials, the villains are a good deal more fascinating than the relatively square hero, although a comic undertaker and the leader of a rival gang are periodically on hand to help him out.) Because none of Feuillade’s complete serials is available in the U.S., this special screening helps to fill an enormous gap in our sense of film history. One of the most prolific directors who ever lived, Feuillade is today arguably a good deal more entertaining than Griffith, and unquestionably much more modern: his mastery of deep-focus mise en scene is astonishing, and its influence on Fritz Lang as well as Luis Bunuel and other Surrealists remains one of his major legacies.… Read more »
Commissioned and published by DVD Beaver in 2007. In 2015, Ehsan Khoshbakht and I put together a sidebar for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy, “Jazz Goes to the Movies,” and then a reconfigured version of this a few months later at the Festival on Wheels in Ankara, Turkey, which led both of us to revisit many of these titles and releases. — J.R.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of jazz films — documentary records of particular jazz performances and narrative films that incorporate jazz in some fashion, in their soundtrack scores and/or in their stories. But in some cases, identifying which films belong in which category is simply a matter of personal taste. Consider, for instance, Black and Tan and St. Louis Blues, two landmark jazz shorts directed in 1929 by Dudley Murphy —- a fascinating figure who straddled the avant-garde and the mainstream, having both collaborated with Fernand Léger on Ballet mécanique and Paul Robeson on The Emperor Jones and directed several Hollywood pictures, and who’s been receiving some belated recognition lately thanks to Susan B. Delson’s excellent biography, Dudley Murphy: Hollywood’s Wild Card (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). I would argue that Black and Tan, which stars Duke Ellington, is important chiefly as a narrative film, whereas St.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1994). I’m delighted that stills from these and other Vietnamese films have finally become available on the Internet — which didn’t appear to be the case in October 2010, when I participated in a panel related to the first of these films in Washington, D.C. — J.R.
*** THE LITTLE GIRL OF HANOI
Directed by Hai Ninh
Written by Hoang Tich Chi, Hai Ninh, and Vuong Dan Hoang
With Lan Huong, Tra Giang, The Anh, and Kim Xuan.
*** THE GIRL ON THE RIVER
Directed and written by Dang Nhat Minh
With Minh Chau, Ha Xuyen, Anh Dung, and Tran Van Son.
** THE RETIRED GENERAL
Directed by Nguyen Khac Loi
Written by Nguyen Huy Thiep
With Manh Linh, Doan Anh Thang, Hoang Cuc, and Tran Van.
“16 January 1990
“UNITED NATIONS FORCES ATTACK IRAQ, LAYING THE FIRST BLOW ON SADDAM HUSSEIN . . .
“In Powershift [Alvin] Toffler discusses power in its three forms, violence, wealth and knowledge. Now that knowledge is in the hands of everyone, all people, all Nations, television and satellites have forever made it impossible for one group to manipulate the knowledge of what is happening; World television is bringing this vital knowledge to everyone without being diminished.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 6, 1994). — J.R.
The best of the so-called Generation X movies that I’ve seen so far, this charming first feature by Rory Kelly about a circle of friends in their 30s, and the various complications that ensue when one of the bunch falls helplessly in love with a friend’s wife, owes much of its spark to collective effort, in the script as well as the performances. The film was written by Kelly and five of his friends — Duane Dell’Amico, Roger Hedden (author of Bodies, Rest & Motion), Neal Jimenez (writer and codirector of The Waterdance), Joe Keenan, and Michael Steinberg (director of Bodies, Rest & Motion and codirector of The Waterdance) — with each of the six scripting a separate scene organized around a gathering. A limitation of the collective social portrait is that one never learns what most of the characters do for a living, but the behavioral interplay is often funny and observant. The able cast includes Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It), coproducer Eric Stoltz (who starred in both The Waterdance and Bodies, Rest & Motion), and Meg Tilly; the striking and effective score is by David Lawrence.… Read more »
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 »
Made for West German television in 1980, William Klein’s very entertaining and energetic documentary portrait of the rock-and-roll idol was shot mainly in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s hometown, at a time when the singer was a media evangelist for a company selling expensive commemorative Bibles. Midway through production, Little Richard had a financial dispute with the Bible company and announced that he’d received a message from God telling him to walk out on the film. He promptly disappeared. Ordinarily, this would have left the film and filmmaker high and dry. But a deft use of archival footage of Little Richard in his prime, combined with Klein’s usual fascination with media fanfare — including a hilarious procession of black and white Little Richard impersonators — gives the film more than enough to sink its teeth into. And because this is William Klein, the teeth are sharp and the bite is sure. (JR)
Carl Dreyer’s last film, one of the most controversial movies ever made, would be my own candidate for the most beautiful, affecting, and inexhaustible of all narrative films, but it is clearly not for every taste — not, alas, even remotely. Adapted from a long-forgotten play by Hjalmar Soderberg written during the early years of this century, it centers on a proud, stubborn woman (Nina Pens Rode) who demands total commitment in love and forsakes both her husband and a former lover for a young musician who is relatively indifferent to her. It moves at an extremely slow, theatrical pace in lengthy takes recorded mainly in direct sound (although shot principally in a studio), and deserves to be ranked along with The Magnificent Ambersons, Lola Montes, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as one of the great haunted memory films. In a way, the meaning of this film partially hinges on the refusal and/or inability to compromise, and what this means over the range of an entire life (in this case, Dreyer’s as well as his heroine’s). The eponymous heroine may be regarded as a monster, a sublime and saintly martyr, or, most likely, as an impossible fusion of the two.… Read more »