MASTER OF THE HOUSE

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s new dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.

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Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)

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***

It’s all a matter of exquisite balance — between one shot and the next, between the first half of the film and the second half, between screen left and screen right.

Criterion’s dual-format edition of Carl Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House scores as a modern film because Dreyer always knows how to modulate all his characters, and his actors’ beautiful performances, even when they’re at their most archetypal, whether in domestic tableaux or in climactic close-ups.… Read more »

Cult Confusion (HAPPY TOGETHER)

From the Chicago Reader (January 23, 1998). Today I would probably rank this movie much higher. — J.R.

Happy Together

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Wong Kar-wai

With Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen.

At some point in the mid-90s Wong Kar-wai’s exciting and hyperbolic style lost its moorings. Whether this happened between Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994), during the two years it took to make Ashes of Time (1994), or between the latter two films and Fallen Angels (1995), Wong’s powerful organic flow, which makes Days of Being Wild his only masterpiece to date, has atrophied into a slag heap of individual set pieces.

Many of these set pieces are thrilling enough in their own right. Fallen Angels has plenty of them, spaced out like showstoppers in a vaudeville revue, though their effectiveness tends to diminish, their frenetic intensity ultimately becoming monotonous. Like the mannerist tics comprising Wong’s style — the use of different characters as narrators; the momentary freeze-frames punctuating Christopher Doyle’s slowed, slurred, or speeded-up cinematography; the shifts between color and black and white; and the bumpy transitions between garish forms of lighting and visual texture — his set pieces always provide a lively surface activity.… Read more »

Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warrior

From Written By: The Journal of the Writers Guild of America, West (March 1998, Vol. 2, issue 3).

The first photograph here was taken during the summer of 1987, when I was the director of the Film Studies summer school program at the University of California, Santa Barbara and invited Sam Fuller to serve as our Artist in Residence. –- J.R.

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Many film lovers of my generation were introduced to him in an early party sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s already unruly Pierrot le Fou (1965), playing himself and smoking his signature cigar-a short, wiry firecracker ready to hold forth. Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo what cinema was, he said it was like a battleground: “Love. . .hate. . . action. . .violence. . .death. In a word, emotion.”

By the time the writer-director-legend Samuel Fuller died in Hollywood last October at age 86, his reputation as the last two of these hyphenates was fully in place. Celebrated for his gritty noirs, unglamorous war films, and eccentric westerns, he also turned up in bit parts in everything from The American Friend to 1941. Yet the fact that he’s still better known as a director and as a juicy screen presence than as a writer seriously distorts the meaning of his life and career.Read more »

Making Mincemeat of Movie Sound and Movie History

 

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I find it astonishing, really jaw-dropping, that Midge Costin’s mainly enjoyable Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound can seemingly base much of its film history around a ridiculous falsehood — the notion that stereophonic, multi-track cinema was invented in the 70s by the Movie Brats, Walter Murch working with his chums George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who finally allowed the film industry to raise itself technically and aesthetically to the level already attained by The Beatles.

In other words, let’s forget all about the stereo sound used by Walt Disney in some of the theaters showing Fantasia (1940) and then the multi-track speakers heard in hundreds of other theaters across the country throughout much of the 50s showing scores of films in CinemaScope, Cinerama, and Todd-AO, by pretending that none of this ever happened or existed. In its place we get a new version of events in which Apocalypse Now becomes the pioneering feature that did for Hollywood something like what The Jazz Singer did decades earlier. Or so we’re seemingly asked to assume.

To be fair, this documentary isn’t so much concerned with film history per se as it is with introducing a general audience to what sound work in commercial cinema consists of, and the creative contributions made by a few talented individuals–tasks it performs pretty well.… Read more »

A Protest about the List Business

As pointed out by Elena Gorfinkel in a provocative recent polemic, the end-of-the-year movie lists that so many of us promulgate and live by are actually the handmaidens — or maybe we should say the whores — of consumerist capitalism. It’s possible that we’re always too eager to follow their bidding rather than our own (or, more precisely, to make their bidding our own).

One of the most obvious injustices of institutional dictates in this process is to demand “best” lists from many of us, perhaps even all of us, before any of us can properly comply in an educated manner. In my case, the following worthy contenders (among others) were all seen by me after I had to turn in a list of the best films of the year (in roughly descending order of presumed merit):

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An Elephant Sitting Still

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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Dark Waters

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Marriage Story

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I hasten to add that this is still near the end of November. I’m expecting to receive and access even more Academy screeners and Vimeo links to consider over the days to come.

Last year, the same thing happened. I only caught up with my favorite film of 2018 —    Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory, ignored by most of the official gatekeepers — long after all the lists had been due.… Read more »

Truth is Stronger Than Fiction (THE FINAL INSULT)

Even though the following review for the Chicago Reader, originally published on March 27, 1998, is fairly mixed, it seems worth reviving as a reminder of how neglected significant portions of Charles Burnett’s work continue to be. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing The Final Insult again and reconsidering it. (James Naremore gives it a thoughtful treatment in his excellent recent book on Burnett.)

It’s worth noting that When it Rains is now happily available on DVD, along with Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, even though one has to look for it (its placement isn’t made clear on the jacket), on the two-disc set of Killer of Sheep, which also includes two separate versions of My Brother’s Wedding. —J.R.

The Final Insult

** Worth seeing

Directed by Charles Burnett

With Ayuko Babu and Charles Bracy.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Given the difficulties he had in the 70s and 80s getting his films made and seen, Charles Burnett [see photo at end of article] seemed in danger of becoming the Carl Dreyer of the black independent cinema—the consummate master who makes a film a decade, known only to a small band of film lovers. Seven years passed between Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother’s Wedding (1984), and then another six before To Sleep With Anger (1990), which tried and failed to make a dent in the mainstream, as did The Glass Shield (1994).… Read more »

Hollywood’s Jazz

From the March 1978 American Film, when Hollis Alpert was still the editor. If memory serves, this was my first contribution to this magazine. I suspect that the not-quite-accurate title wasn’t mine; like American Film and its parent organization, the American Film Institute, its agenda tends to be needlessly and provincially restricted to American industrial product, unlike those of, say, the British Film Institute or the Cinémathèque Française.

One important informational update: David Meeker’s invaluable reference book has more recently been expanded into an even more invaluable online reference tool that can be accessed here. – J.R.

Cuing the audience into the threat of impending violence in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), director Richard Brooks has very different aces up his sleeve. In the earlier film, he uses jazz — a blaring, evil-sounding Stan Kenton record. It’s played on a jukebox by Josh (Richard Kiley), a mild-mannered jazz buff and schoolteacher, who is mugged by a gang in an alley while the song is still playing. In the more recent film — where, incidentally, Richard Kiley plays the heroine’s bombastic father — Brooks uses disco singles blasting away in bars, and a strategically placed strobe light.… Read more »

Sexual Discourse [THE PIANO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 10, 1993). — J.R.

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THE PIANO

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jane Campion

With Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, and Ian Mune.

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Given how sexy and volatile it is, it’s no surprise that The Piano is a hit. It’s also no surprise, given the strong-arm tactics of the distributor and the hype of some reviewers, that a certain critical backlash is already setting in, as evidenced by a lucid and considered dissent by Stuart Klawans in the Nation and a rather lazy dismissal by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic. People like myself who are passionate fans of Jane Campion’s previous work may be somewhat churlish that many other people are finding their way to her work only after it has become juiced up, simplified, and mainstreamed — like the people who bypassed the dreamy finesse of Eraserhead on their way to the relative crudeness of Blue Velvet. It’s certainly regrettable that viewers who weren’t interested in seeing Campion’s 1989 film Sweetie until after they saw The Piano now have to contend with a lousy video transfer that doesn’t begin to do justice to Campion’s colors and compositions.… Read more »

Divine Inspiration (THE APOSTLE & KUNDUN)

From the January 30, 1998 Chicago Reader. Since I barely remember Kundun today, I’m pretty sure I must have overrated it, at least in relation to The Apostle (which I remember far better today, even in its truncated version). –J.R.

The Apostle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by

Robert Duvall

With Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Walter Goggins, Rick Dial, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Kundun

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Melissa Mathison

With Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tencho Gyalpo, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Geshi Yeshi Gyatso, and Robert Lin.

For all their obvious differences, both Kundun and The Apostle are spiritual but nonreligious movies about religious leaders, suffused with a perpetual sense of mystery and driven by an abiding curiosity that provokes our own curiosity as well. As a commercial property, each film amounts to an act of defiance, judging by their critical reception so far. Many mainstream critics have stepped out of Kundun asking, “What could Scorsese have been thinking of?,” and some have come out of The Apostle complaining that it’s basically an ego trip for its writer-director-star.

Both reactions perversely miss the point, telling us more about stereotypical commercial expectations in general than about either project in particular.… Read more »

Elmer Gantry

From the October 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. A personal note: This was the first film I ever saw in Chicago, when I was 17. I saw it at the Chicago Theater in between two train rides — the first from Sheffield, Alabama to Chicago, the second from Chicago to a Jewish camp in Wisconsin. — J.R.

Elmer Gantry Lancaster giving sermon

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Elmer Gantry Jean Simmons as Sister Falconer

Burt Lancaster on the Bible-thumping circuit, in Richard Brooks’s juicy (and considerably watered-down) 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. Brooks was the ultimate vulgarizer of serious literature, as his versions of The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim made clear; this is somewhat better only because of Lancaster’s energetic performance, which won him an Oscar, and a few bits of colorful period ambience. Other Oscars went to supporting actress Shirley Jones and to Brooks for his highly dubious script. With Jean Simmons and Dean Jagger. (JR)

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The Ten Best Films Directed by Women

The most conspicuous absence in the following list of  ”the ten best films directed by women” requested by the BBC is Elaine May; clearly I should have included either Mikey and Nicky or The Heartbreak Kid.

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BBC: The best films directed by women:

 

1.The House is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1963)

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2. The Enchanted Desna (Yulia Solntseva, 1964)

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3. Mix-up ou Meli-melo (Françoise Romand, 1986)

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4. Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

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5. The Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989)

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6. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989)

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7. From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002)

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8. You Are Not I (Sara Driver, 1981)

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9. Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

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10. Aragane (Kaori Oda, 2015)

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Into Barbarism

Into Barbarism

The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Jonathan Rosenbaum at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014.  Mr. Rosenbaum and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.

I’m the odd person out in this gathering because I’m not an academic, although I teach periodically in various, most often relatively unacademic, situations. And plus, I could be described as a failed academic. Before I came to Chicago I was teaching for four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but prior to that I actually began my failed academic career in the U.S. where Robert Pippin had his background, at UC San Diego. And in between I was an adjunct at NYU at the School of Visual Arts, etc.

My academic background, actually, was in English. I was an English major as an undergraduate and in graduate school I did everything but a dissertation in English and American literature. But then I went to Europe and ended up being a journalist. And the reason why is that I had reached the point of alienation in graduate school where I was actually making a point of reading college outlines rather than the literary texts because I didn’t want them ruined—I wanted to read them in my own time, whereas what they needed in terms of my papers could better be fulfilled by reading the college outlines than by actually reading the texts.… Read more »

A Stranger Among Us

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1992). — J.R.

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There’s apparently something about Hasidic Jews that makes normally talented and reasonable filmmakers — David Mamet in Homicide, screenwriter Robert J. Avrech (Body Double) and director Sidney Lumet here — turn otherwise straightforward thrillers into harebrained hootfests. The best that can be said for this movie, which stars Melanie Griffith as an underground cop who lives with the Hasidim of Brooklyn while trying to solve the murder of a jewel merchant, is that apart from the talents of Griffith and Eric Thal (who plays a young Hasidic Jew she mildly flirts with) it has some educational value as a form of exposition about a fascinating subculture. The worst is that most of the other actors (and characters for that matter) get bent out of shape while trying to conform to the contours of the dotty plot. With John Pankow, Tracy Pollan, Lee Richardson, Mia Sara, Jamey Sheridan, Burtt Harris, and a lot of quotes from the cabala. (JR)

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Falkenau, the Impossible: Samuel Fuller Bears Witness

From the Chicago  Reader (December 2, 1988). — J.R.

Falkenau the Impossible

The very first film ever shot by the great American director Samuel Fuller was an amateur effort: as a U.S. army officer he filmed the liberation of a Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia. French filmmaker Emil Weiss had the excellent idea of reviving this footage, getting Fuller to comment on it, and showing us various relevant locations in Europe today. Fuller’s commanding presence — as a speaker, thinker, and moral conscience — makes this an unforgettable and indelible experience. On the same program with this new short feature is a 1944 Nazi film I haven’t seen but that sounds like the most horrifying film ever made: Kurt Gerron’s The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. A fake documentary produced by the Third Reich as propaganda, the film fabricates an image of Jews living and working happily in a model city. In fact, the film was made by Jews — virtually or literally at gunpoint — and, after it was finished, the director and cast were exterminated in Auschwitz. Fuller’s statement in Falkenau stresses the necessity of remembering the truth of the death camps today, and of denouncing the lies and fabrications of earlier and more recent Nazi apologists, the most chilling evidence of which would seem to be offered in this propaganda feature.… Read more »

A Year at the Movies [1988]

From the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1988). — J.R.

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The Puttnam Problem

Some of the year’s most ominous film-industry developments followed directly from the forced departure of David Puttnam as head of Columbia Pictures. During his brief and controversial tenure at Columbia, Puttnam — the outspoken Englishman who produced Chariots of Fire and other “quality” films — had attempted to reverse the overall trend in Hollywood of assigning more power and artistic control to stars and less to directors and writers by developing low-budget projects that weren’t completely subject to the whims of stars and their agents.

After Puttnam’s departure, the desire to discredit his strategies at Columbia was so pronounced that most of his projects were deliberately sabotaged through a flagrant lack of promotion — demonstrating once again that the major aims of Hollywood are often not so much the making of money as the fulfillment of various personal forms of vanity. (Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is a good example of the sort of serious Puttnam project that was virtually foredoomed at the box office by the pressure of anti-Puttnam sentiments.) Adding insult to injury, a series of anti-Puttnam articles appeared in the trade magazine Variety, which attempted to appease Puttnam’s enemies by demonstrating that his films were commercially unsuccessful, conveniently overlooking the fact that very few of them were given even a sporting chance to succeed.… Read more »