Radical Humanism and the Coexistence of Film and Poetry in THE HOUSE IS BLACK

This article began as a lecture delivered on April 1, 2001 at the conference “Women and Iranian Cinema,” held at the University of Virginia and organized by Richard Herskowitz and Farzaneh Milani. Two years later it appeared in French translation in Cinéma/06, then in a booklet accompanying Facets Video’s DVD release of The House is Black in 2005, and it has also appeared in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010). — J.R.

The Iranian New Wave is not one but many potential movements, each one with a somewhat different time frame and honor roll. Although I started hearing this term in the early 1990s, around the same time I first became acquainted with the films of Abbas Kiarostami, it only started kicking in for me as a genuine movement — that is, a discernible tendency in terms of social and political concern, poetics, and overall quality  – towards the end of that decade.

Some commentators — including Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa — have plausibly cited Sohrab Shahid Saless’s A Simple Event (1973) (1) as a seminal work, and another key founding gesture, pointing to a quite different definition and history, would be Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990) (2).… Read more »

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

From Cineaste, Fall 1995. – J.R.

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

by James Naremore. Cambridge University Press, 1993.  202 pp, illus., Hardcover: $65.00. Paperback: $27.99.

The critical position of James Naremore is Frankfurt school auteurism, a seeming contradiction. That is, he shares the Marxist orientation of many Frankfurt school intellectuals but not their disdain for the artifacts of mass culture. (To be sure, not all Frankfurt school members can be characterized in quite so monolithic a fashion; see, for instance, the prewar journalism of Siegfried Kracauer published this year in The Mass Ornament.) As a consequence, Naremore’s work shows an interest in style and pleasure that runs against the puritanical grain of most American Marxists, without ever losing sight of the social and political issues avoided by most American auteurists.

This is an idiosyncratic and progressive book in a series, the Cambridge Film Classics, that has mainly been conformist and conservative, especially in relationship to non-American filmmakers. Its volumes always focus on a few “representative” features rather than complete oeuvres, and Naremore’s study of Minnelli focuses on Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, but only after an Introduction and first chapter that take up a quarter of the book and lay a considerable amount of contextual groundwork.… Read more »

Inside/Out

From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1999). — J.R.

Inside-Out-1997.avi

An uncredited Jean-Luc Godard produced this 1997 third feature by the singular American independent Rob Tregenza (Talking to Strangers, The Arc), and along with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, Godard is certainly a presiding guru over this powerful if enigmatic view of life in and around a psychiatric hospital somewhere in rural, snowbound America. Shot by Tregenza himself (one of the best cinematographers on the planet) in black-and-white 35-millimeter ‘Scope — mainly in extremely long, choreographed takes that transpire with a minimum of dialogue but with an extremely inventive and original Dolby sound track — the film offers not so much a plot in the usual sense as a series of interlocking characters and events governed, like the film’s title, by polarities: sound and image, interior and exterior, sanity and madness, freedom and institutional captivity, society and isolation. According to clues planted in the clothes and decor (especially the cars), the action begins around 1945 and ends in the present or near future, but to confuse matters further the characters and their behavior remain unaging constants. Tregenza’s background in existential philosophy serves him well: every shot comprises an event, and most of them were shot only once, in a single take (as in Talking to Strangers), allowing change and contingency to shape the material.… Read more »

Narita: Heta Village

Narita: Heta Village

narita-heta-village

From 1967 to 1974 Japanese documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa lived with the farmers of Sanrizuka, whose village was targeted for demolition to make room for Tokyo’s Narita airport. Supported by radical students, the farmers protested their eviction, and Ogawa joined in, recording both the long-term struggle and the everyday life of the village. His intense involvement eventually yielded five films with a combined running time of about 15 hours; the 146-minute Narita: Heta Village (1973) is the second and final segment included in Doc Films’ retrospective of virtuoso cinematographer Masaki Tamura. Ogawa emphasizes the lifestyle and traditions the farmers are fighting to preserve, and both he and Tamura (a farmer’s grandson himself) show a deep sensitivity and responsiveness to these people. My favorite sequences include an interview with a woman while she slices a radish into the shape of a phallus (which she jokingly attaches to sweet potato “testicles”), a candid and affectionate conversation with an 86-year-old woman seated on her porch, and an opening sequence in which Tamura’s camera roams around a field to illustrate a farmer’s anecdotes. Subjective and highly empathetic, this documentary is less a statement than a friendly conversation: Ogawa can be heard frequently as both narrator and interviewer, the periodic intertitles are no less personal, and the villagers repay the filmmakers’ warmth by freely sharing their lives with the camera.… Read more »

The Bed You Sleep In

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995). — J.R.

tbysi

This 1993 feature certainly has its flaws — including a wholly unnecessary literary quotation that appears on-screen at the worst possible moment — but it’s still one of maverick independent Jon Jost’s most forceful efforts to date, in part because it stars the most talented actor he’s ever worked with, the resourceful Tom Blair. Mainly known as a stage actor and director, Blair also starred in two of Jost’s best earlier features — as a wandering, jobless malcontent in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and as a misguided, bullying real estate speculator in Sure Fire (1990). Here he rounds out a loose trilogy of Jost’s corrosive, speculative self-portraits by playing a more sympathetic and ostensibly less alienated character, the owner of a lumber mill employing 60 workers, though the consequences of his situation prove to be even bleaker — and this time they can’t be so confidently traced back to his own character. A tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film that alternates between all-American landscapes (many of them composed as diptychs) and an unraveling nuclear family, this is as evocative and apocalyptic as Jost’s cinema gets — a film full of unanswered questions that will nag at you for days even as it makes fully understandable the sort of feelings about this country that drove Jost into European exile not long after it was completed.… Read more »

There’s Somebody Out There

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

rosetta

I recently heard about an American teenager visiting Wales who insisted on calling the Welsh people she met English. When it was pointed out to her that the Welsh didn’t like being identified that way, she said she was sorry but that’s what she’d been taught in school — and it would be too complicated for her to change what she called them.

Given the isolationism of Americans, which seems to grow more pronounced every year, an event like the Chicago International Film Festival has to be cherished. This year it’s offering the city 108 features from 31 countries — 32 from the U.S. and 76 from elsewhere, 49 of them U.S. or North American premieres, as well as five programs of shorts and five tributes. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of fresh, or stale, air from diverse corners of the globe — even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. However you look at them, they’re proof that Americans aren’t the only human beings and that the decisions Americans make about how to live their lives aren’t the only options — at least not yet.… Read more »

Sextette

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1988). — J.R.

Sextette

Mae West’s swan song to cinema at age 86 is one of the world’s all-time worst movies, but that doesn’t detract at all from its immense charm and lewd fascination. Based on West’s own play, produced by two wealthy English fans in their early 20s, directed after a fashion by Ken Hughes (reportedly many hands were involved), and including such standbys as Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Dom DeLuise, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Walter Pidgeon, Rona Barrett, and George Raft, this inept but heartfelt 1978 tribute to West’s talent and worldview often defies description. It’s amateur filmmaking at its most delirious, complete with a rousing production-number version of “Hooray for Hollywood”; West herself remains visibly sedated but indefatigably game throughout. 91 min. (JR)

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Poto And Cabengo

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1988). — J.R.

69891-poto-and-cabengo-0-230-0-345-crop

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s first solo effort as a filmmaker after a long period of collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard surpassed all of his previous work hands down. The putative subject is a pair of young female twins in southern California who have apparently invented their own language, and while this personal documentary explores this subject in some detail, it proves to be about a great deal more: Gorin’s own exile, the lower-income white culture of San Diego, the American Dream, and language itself. A memorable, innovative effort, packed with wonder and invention (1979). (JR)

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Burden Of Truth [SLING BLADE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 25, 1997). — J.R.

Sling Blade

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton

With Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, J.T. Walsh, Natalie Canerday, Lucas Black, James Hampton, Rick Dial, and Robert Duvall.

There is no point in rendering something realistically unless it is to make it more meaningful in an abstract sense. In this paradox lies the progress of the movies. — Andre Bazin

In one of the unfortunate casualties of film history and criticism, writer-director-performers are generally approached as performers and/or directors first and as writers second, yet it’s often the writerly impulse that gives birth to both the performance and the direction. Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin are seldom regarded as the writers of Foolish Wives and City Lights respectively, but without their scripts neither the performances nor the films themselves would exist. Orson Welles, habitually described as a director and actor, insisted throughout his career that he always started with the written word, not with free-floating ideas for “shots.”

So it was a matter of some satisfaction to me that Billy Bob Thornton wound up getting an Oscar last month not for his lead performance in Sling Blade or for its direction but for his script.… Read more »

Toddler Time (THE WHITE BALLOON)

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1996). — J.R.

The White Balloon

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi, and Parviz Shahbazi

With Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Anna Bourkowska, Aliasghar Samadi, Mohammad Shahani, and Mohammad Bahktiari.

In Iran the first day of spring is New Year’s Day, the celebration of which starts at a different time of day every year, and among the objects used in the celebration is a goldfish, which symbolizes life. The plot of Jafar Panahi’s extraordinary first feature, The White Balloon (opening this week at the Music Box), involves the adventures of Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), a seven-year-old girl who has her heart set on buying a new goldfish for the celebration, insisting that the ones her family already has are “too skinny.”

Only 85 minutes long, the film unfolds in real time and almost exclusively in exteriors along a few blocks of Tehran the morning of the New Year. The film opens in a market, where Razieh’s mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) is shopping; she collects Razieh, who’s carrying a blue balloon, and they walk home together. Nearly all of the film’s other major characters — and even a couple of minor ones — are fleetingly glimpsed during this prelude, though we don’t recognize any of them yet.… Read more »

Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France.… Read more »

Revenge Is Bitter [BUFFALO '66]

From the Chicago Reader (August 7, 1998). — J.R.

Buffalo ’66

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Vincent Gallo

Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall

With Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara, Kevin Corrigan, Mickey Rourke, Roseanna Arquette, and Jan-Michael Vincent.

Vincent Gallo has proved himself a good actor in many films — in Arizona Dream, The Funeral, and several Claire Denis movies. But the first feature in which he functions as director, cowriter, composer, and star is a pathological curiosity. Candidly and painfully personal, Buffalo ’66 seems to spring from the kind of fantasies that inform movies almost exclusively — though vanity publishers offer similar opportunities. For me the film creates more embarrassment than sympathy, but at least it’s a kind of embarrassment that’s instructive. Its genre — narcissistic self-hatred reconfigured as a sense of entitlement — is far from exclusive to American movies, though it’s especially common in American independent efforts. Part of the self-hatred comes from the sense that it’s a disgrace to be poor, a sense more common in this country than in most other places, and poverty gives the film a distinctive musty odor — an ambience evident in such settings as a bowling alley and a cheap motel room.… Read more »

Crap Shooting [SNAKE EYES]

From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1998). — J.R.

Snake Eyes

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp and De Palma

With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, and Luis Guzman.

For me, part of the fun of Snake Eyes is the genuine satisfaction of seeing Brian De Palma finally arriving at his own level. Whatever the merits of his imitations and appropriations — of 50s Hitchcock in Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double, 60s Antonioni in Blow Out, and 30s Hawks in Scarface – and his inflations of TV standbys (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), they’ve always suggested he was riding into town on somebody else’s horse. Now, however, he seems more apt to make the 90s equivalents of B movies: such films as Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Snake Eyes are generic stylistic exercises that reveal he’s digested his sources rather than simply devoured and regurgitated them. Though he remains too much of a mannerist to approximate the modest craft of Roy Ward Baker in Don’t Bother to Knock or Richard Fleischer in The Narrow Margin -- thrillers of 1952 that in their adept use of real time and limited settings suggest parallels withSnake Eyes – De Palma’s technique seems more focused for a change.… Read more »

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about “remakes” of independent documentaries, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. – J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

Two Movies for the Price of None [James Benning's UTOPIA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.

Utopia title

Utopia

Rating *** A must see

Directed by James Benning

what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks.… Read more »