A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires

 Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007; I’ve updated several links. — J.R.

findmeguilty

One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.


With some significant exceptions —- Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking —- satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops.
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Defenseless [THE LUZHIN DEFENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 2001). — J.R.

The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris

Written by Peter Berry

With John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson.

In Slate last March two film critics with literary backgrounds, Phillip Lopate and A.O. Scott, argued about Terence Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth – an exchange that only illustrated how hard it is to settle questions about fidelity to novels. Lopate, who’s been involved with film much longer than Scott, called it his favorite American film of 2000. Scott, whose readiness to bone up on movies since he started reviewing them for the New York Times has been invigorating, didn’t seem blind to some of the film’s virtues, but he was much more concerned with what seemed reductive about it.

Having read Edith Wharton’s novel for the first time just before I saw the movie, I found myself agreeing to some extent with both critics. The film is inferior to Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible, all three of which strike me as essential works, though they’ve received much less attention from the mainstream, perhaps because they’re further from conventional narrative.… Read more »

Hollywood or Bust

It’s depressing to recall that Karl Hess: Toward Liberty (1979) wound up winning an Oscar, but this was of course on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s first landslide election as Big Daddy/Rich Uncle. This polemic appeared in the October 8, 1980 issue of The Soho News, and might be considered one of the first glimmers of a more extended argument that would eventually yield the book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See two decades later. I’ve often speculated, incidentally, if my final sentence might have had anything to do with my never having been invited to the Telluride Film Festival — the current codirector of which, Tom Luddy, was working for Coppola at the time. (I can still recall an angry phone call from Tom during this period that insisted I was dead wrong in taking Coppola as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. Much later, I should add, in 1987, Tom himself produced one of Godard’s most underrated and neglected features, King Lear.) –J.R.

Hollywood or Bust

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

What do you want to know about the Seventh Annual Student Film Awards — presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and AT&T — that a critic could possibly tell you?… Read more »

THE EXPANSION OF CRITICISM. AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

I recently came across this bilingual publication for the first time at academia.edu. It appeared originally in Fotocinema no. 14 (2017). I’ve taken the liberty of improving some of the English (mainly mine). My thanks to Sara Donoso for her careful and thoughtful work. — J.R.

FOTOCINEMA, nº 14 (2017), E-ISSN: 2172-0150 321 REVISTA CIENTÍFICA DE CINE Y FOTOGRAFÍA

THE EXPANSION OF CRITICISM. AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

LA EXPANSIÓN DE LA CRÍTICA. UNA ENTREVISTA CON JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

Sara Donoso

Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, España

[email protected]

 

Crítico, ensayista y teórico de cine, la pluma de Jonathan Rosenbaum es de aquellas que practican el ejercicio de la resistencia; que se oponen a la clasificación, las etiquetas, al mundo del mainstream y a la cultura del espectáculo. Podríamos decir que es uno de esos críticos tal vez aprecian el séptimo arte. Tras trabajar como principal crítico del Chicago Reader entre 1987 y 2008, actualmente sigue ejerciendo el ejercicio de la escritura cinematográfica a través de su página web, en la que no solo postea periódicamente reseñas de libros o películas sino que cuenta además con un archivo de publicaciones anteriores.

Como autor y editor, ha contribuido a través de diferentes proyectos a la difusión y dignificación del cine más allá de los circuitos comerciales, siendo responsable de títulos como Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004) o Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010).… Read more »

The Homecoming & The Maids (1976 reviews)

Perhaps the closest I’ve come to writing theater criticism are the two reviews I did of the “American Film Theatre” productions of The Homecoming and The Maids in successive issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1976 — a good filming and adaptation of a good play and a terrible filming and adaptation of what I consider an even greater play. So I’m reproducing these two reviews back to back. — J.R.

Homecoming, The

U.S.A./Great Britain, 1973
Director: Peter Hall

An attempt, largely successful, to approximate Peter Hall’s original stage version of The Homecoming in London (1965) and New York (1967), with only two cast changes: Cyril Cusack as Sam in place of John Normington, and Michael Jayston as Teddy in place of two previous Michaels –- Craig (New York) and Bryant (London). The outsized living room continues to function as a sort of masterpiece of hyper-realism, and the cast remains uniformly superb; if memory serves correctly, Paul Rogers has made Max somewhat nastier this time around while Ian Holm’s Lenny has become marginally more charismatic, and both of these changes seem to work to the play’s advantage in terms of overall balance. The only concessions to “opening out” the action are a few establishing or continuity shots of the street outside, some pointless glimpses of Ruth taking her walk, and brief forays into the kitchen.… Read more »

Ibsen and an enema of the people

 This appeared in The Soho News (August 18, 1981). – J.R.

Beatlemania

An Enemy of the People

Directed by George Schaefer

Public Theater

 

Beatlemania — The Movie

Directed by Joe Manduke

A cherished personal project of Steve McQueen, who served as executive producer as well as lead actor, Henrik lbsen’s An Enemy of the People, scripted by Alexander Jacobs, is a lot more appealing and less forbidding than its cultural aura might suggest. That McQueen was unable to get this 1977 film released prior to his death is unfortunate yet unsurprising; given the absence of outlets for movies of this kind in the United States, I would have thought that cable might prove to be its ideal resting place. But at least for us Manhattan country folk, it’s once again thanks to the underappreciated services of the Public Theater that we’re able to see it at all. 

McQueen made this movie when he knew that he was dying of cancer and decided that he wanted to be remembered for something more than his blue-eyed beefcake parts. An advocate of Laetrile cancer therapy -– banned by the FDA, and usually pegged as “controversial” in this country – McQueen had to go to a Mexican clinic to get the treatment he wanted and must have had plenty of reasons to identify with Ibsen’s persecuted, innocent, and idealistic hero.… Read more »

Best Seller

From the Chicago Reader (September 25, 1987). — J.R.

Image result for Best Seller 1987

While it may not add up to anything very profound, this paranoid thriller is put together with so much craft and economy that a significant part of its pleasure is seeing how tightly and cleanly every sequence is hammered into place. Brian Dennehy is Dennis Meechum, an incorruptible police detective who doubles as a successful crime writer; James Woods is Cleve, a hit man who doubles as a corporate executive, and who wants Meechum to write a nonfiction best seller exposing his ruthless and respectable former boss — a philanthropist tycoon who has stealthily slaughtered his way to the top. Dennehy’s square and skeptical cop is an adroit reading of a dull part, but he makes a wonderful straight man for Woods’s fascinatingly creepy yet sensitive killer — modeled in part on Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, with a comparable homoerotic tension between the two men. Tautly and cleverly scripted by Larry Cohen, crisply shot by Fred Murphy, and directed by John Flynn without a loose screw in sight, this is first-class action story telling, stripped to its essentials: no shot is held any longer than is needed to make its narrative point, and the streamlining makes for a bumpless ride.… Read more »

Phantom India

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1999). — J.R.

phantomindia_01_original

Louis Malle’s seven-part, 378-minute 1968 documentary series is one of my favorites among his works. His upper-class misanthropy and morbidity usually alienate me, but this essayistic travel diary avoids any pretense of objectivity in order to present itself as a highly personal search — narrated in excellent English by Malle himself in the version I’ve seen, but in French with subtitles in this version. In the first episode he addresses the problem of everyone he meets in India describing the country in Western terms, then goes on to reflect on how his filmmaking affects his subjects; from there he takes in everything from a water buffalo being devoured by vultures to interviews with a few European hippies about why they’re in India. With his wide-ranging but rambling approach Malle undoubtedly misses or skimps on certain topics, but his mercurial intelligence keeps this lively and fascinating. (JR)… Read more »

Life on the Edge [DRIFTING CLOUDS]

From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1998). One thing that has recently led me to reconsider my estimation of Aki Kaurismaki is this superb, engaging appreciation of him by Girish Shambu.– J.R

Drifting_clouds_DVD_cover

Drifting Clouds

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Aki Kaurismaki

With Kati Outinen, Kari Vaananen, Elina Salo, Sakari Kuosmanen, Markku Peltola, and Matti Onnismaa.

It might be risky to generalize about national character after visiting a country for only a week, but the particular kind of self-deprecating humor in all six features I’ve seen by Aki Kaurismaki was equally apparent during my recent visits to both Helsinki and the Midnight Sun film festival in Sodankyla. Kaurismaki and his older brother Mika, also a filmmaker, are the founders and guiding spirits of this festival, and its artistic director is one of their best friends, so the humor I’m describing is probably a type that flourishes under their eccentric auspices.

Roughly speaking, this attitude derives in part from the belief that Finns are perceived as the Poles of Scandinavia. Their language shares more roots with Hungarian and Estonian than with Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian, and Helsinki, by virtue of being only a few hours from Saint Petersburg, may have more links with Russia than with its Nordic cousins.… Read more »

The 31 best movies of 1994

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). — J.R.

satantango-furniture1

Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »

Wallflower’s Revenge [THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL]

From the February 19, 1993 Chicago Reader. I may have underrated this movie. — J.R.

THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Aki Kaurismaki

With Kati Outinen, Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari, Vesa Vierikko, Reijo Taipale, and Silu Seppala.

Here’s what Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki has written about The Match Factory Girl:

“Suddenly, last spring, I was running aimlessly around the city, talking too much and twisting and shaking my head in the most ridiculous way.

“The next day I spent lying silently under my bed and hated myself bitterly. In revenge I decided to make a film that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.

“Later, I named this piece of junk The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan Tytto), as the name is long enough to be easily forgotten.”

A few glosses on the above:

(1) It’s typical of Kaurismaki, who’s given to dandy’s gestures, that we don’t know what he means by “revenge,” though we certainly know what the film’s mousy title heroine, Iris (Kati Outinen), means by it.

(2) The statement clearly asks to be read as a series of hip disclaimers: “running aimlessly,” “talking too much,” “twisting and shaking my head in the most ridiculous way,” “this piece of junk .… Read more »

Capra’s Catastrophe

This review of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934) first appeared in the August 7, 1992 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

BROADWAY BILL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Frank Capra

Written by Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman

With Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Helen Vinson, Clarence Muse, Raymond Walburn, Walter Connolly, Margaret Hamilton, and Frankie Darro.

Though it’s surely a coincidence, the theatrical rerelease of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill and the simultaneous publication of Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success are mutually enhancing in a number of ways.

FrankCapraTCOS

Capra’s 1934 Christmas release was made for Columbia, bought by Paramount, and withdrawn from circulation over 40 years ago, when Capra was preparing a remake called Riding High (1950) — a Bing Crosby musical with virtually the same plot and dialogue that was so unmemorable that despite numerous TV screenings the film critic for the Boston Globe claimed last month that it had never been made at all. The much feistier Broadway Bill, by contrast, has never turned up on TV, and apart from a few archival airings has remained unseen for over half a century. A breezy if edgy racing comedy laced with some serious ingredients, it isn’t nearly as good as The Bitter Tea of General Yen or It Happened One Night, both of which preceded it, but on the other hand it isn’t as cloying as the worst parts of its successors Mr.Read more »

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

Actress

Stanley Kwan’s 1991 masterpiece (also known as Ruan Ling-yu and Center Stage) is still possibly the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen; perhaps only some of the masterpieces of Wong Kar-wai, such as Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love (both of these also significantly period films) are comparable in depth and intensity. The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling-yu (1910-’35), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shot — all to explore a past that seems more complex, sexy, and mysterious than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, despite the fact that her difference from Ryan Ling-yu as an actress is probably more important than any similarities. In fact, she was basically known as a comic actress in relatively lightweight Hong Kong entertainments prior to this film, and Actress proved to be a turning point in her career towards more dramatic and often meatier parts.… Read more »

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2006). — J.R.

TheBitterTeaofGeneralYen

a-barbara-stanwyck-bitter-tea-boxset-dvd-review-pdvd_011

Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece but also one of the greatest love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Also on the program: episode eight of the 1938 serial The Spider’s Web. Sat 9/2, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.

IBTOGYRead more »

Working-Class America in American Cinema of the Depression and New Deal

Written in May 2014 for De Lumière a Kaurismäki: La clase obrera en el cine, coedited by Carlos F. Heredero and Joxean Fernández and published by Colección Nosferatu in 2014. — J.R.

blondecrazy

Writing about the reception of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in pre-Hitler [1928] Germany, Hannah Arendt noted (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) that “The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters.  The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral  [First comes food, then comes morals],” was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it.”

My subject is “the presence and/or the protagonist of the working class in the American cinema of the Great Depression and the New Deal” (during the 30s and early 40s), so why am I evoking the German responses to a German play a couple of years prior to this period?Read more »