From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1994). Also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
** FORREST GUMP (Worth seeing)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Eric Roth
With Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Humphreys, and Hanna Hall.
In the opening shot of Forrest Gump – a movie that might be described as Robert Zemeckis’s flag-waving Oscar bid — the camera meticulously follows the drifting, wayward trajectory of a white feather all the way from the heavens to the ground, just beside the muddy tennis shoes of the title hero (Tom Hanks). Forrest Gump, a slow-witted, sweet-tempered, straight-shooting fellow from Alabama with an IQ of 75, is waiting for a bus in a small park in Savannah, Georgia. Picking up the feather and placing it inside a book, he proceeds to recount his life story to various passing strangers; in the film’s final shot, over two hours later, we see a breeze carry the same white feather up and away.
These framing shots — a poetic statement about the vicissitudes of chance, how histories are made, unmade, and remade — are meant to say something about a half-century of American life, from the 40s to the present; and the tragicomic life of Forrest Gump, a saintly fool, is meant to embody those years.… Read more »
HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION by Thornton Wilder (New York: Harper Perennial), 2003, 240 pp.
In fact, the copy that I’ve just reread with pleasure for the second time is a first edition (New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1935). But Wilder as a novelist is so unfashionable that there’s nothing very pricey about this book in any shape or form. I persist in regarding Heaven’s My Destination as one of the truly great American novels, and I’ve pretty much felt this way ever since I first encountered it in the 1960s — and not just an archetypal middle-American road farce with memorable period settings (including trains, cars, hotels, campsites, boarding houses, bordellos, restaurants, and movie theaters) but also the potential basis for a great movie. It concerns a 23-year-old textbook salesman and devout Baptist from Michigan named George Brush, moving through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas during the height of the Depression, spreading havoc and consternation wherever he goes with his hilarious and maddening fanaticism. (A key line towards the end: “`Isn’t the principle of a thing more important than the people that live under the principle?’”)
I can’t really fathom why this incredible mini-epic has never been canonized — shunned by the Library of America, ignored by Alfred Kazin.… Read more »
From the January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
Director(s): Pedro Costa
Adieu au langage
Director(s): Jean-Luc Godard
Director(s): Steven Knight
Director(s): Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Director(s): Laura Poitras
Sadly, I’ve had to omit two exceptional Iranian films (Reza Mirkarimi’s
Today, Sepideh Farsi’s Red Rose), two exceptional performances by Juliette Binoche (Fred Schepisi & Gerald Di Pego’s Words and Pictures, Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria), Alain Resnais’ final feature (Life of Riley), and the belated appearance of Orson Welles’ unfinished and ancient but still-sprightly Too Much Johnson. But my top five continue to provoke and expand. Horse Money and The Owners need to travel more, and Locke, which feels like a classic heroic Western, deserves to be recognized as more than just a stunt or tour de force. Adieu au language re-invents 3-D and cinema, and Horse Money, like The Owners, Citizenfour, and Today (not to mention Borgen, in its own fashion). re-invents both the world and its moral prerogatives.
… Read more »
From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. (For some briefer and more recent comments about Carax’s Merde and Holy Motors, go here and here.) — J.R.
First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL
Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) accept beautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]
I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point.… Read more »
There’s a particular Parisian tradition that seems peculiar to French aesthetics involving a certain license to behave like a depraved lunatic and receive approval, endorsement, and other cultural rewards in return for this boorishness.(Many years back I tried writing about this subject, in a long review of My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud.) I suppose one very bourgeois way of describing this tendency would be to call it the aesthetics of self-indulgence combined with a gift for self-promotion, and though I don’t know French literature well enough to determine what poets might have established this trend (apart from such relatively modern figures as Baudelaire and Rimbaud), there’s no question that Jean Cocteau set down many of the terms and conditions of this tradition in cinema, along with the visiting Spaniards Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali — including, perhaps, a special talent for hustling up various forms of patronage.
Even though not all artists with these characteristics are French, much less Parisian, it could perhaps be argued that those who are commonly celebrated for these traits are typically appreciated either by French critics (Nicole Brenez writing about Abel Ferrara) or Francophile critics (such as Adrian Martin writing about Philippe Grandrieux, among many others).… Read more »
For me the most interesting “ten best” list included in the January-February 2009 issue of Film Comment is the dozen titles offered by my favorite Japanese film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi. And what’s especially interesting about his list is the inclusion of Leos Carax’s Merde – the middle episode in the three-part feature Tokyo! (2008), flanked by contributions from Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong. Decidedly over-the-top in both theme and style as well as execution, and starring former circus acrobat Denis Lavant, who also plays the lead role in Carax’s first three features — an actor who’s surely even more important to this filmmaker’s work than Jean-Pierre Léaud was to the early features of Truffaut — Merde is a provocation and something of an anomaly, even for someone as eclectic as Carax. (It’s also his first film of any length since his 1999 Pola X, his only major film without Lavant.)
Clearly inspired, at least in its opening stretches, by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s odd Jekyll-and-Hyde adaptation, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) [see below], Lavant plays a monster who emerges from the Tokyo sewers to wreak random and violent havoc on Tokyo pedestrians until he gets brought to trial, where he gets defended by an equally strident French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer, in a performance that’s almost as extravagant as Lavant’s).… Read more »
This fairly recent (and much more recently updated) piece is a sequel to my earlier “À la recherche de Luc Moullet: 25 Propositions,” originally written and published in 1977. –J.R.
Almost thirty years have passed between my extended defense of Luc Moullet in Film Comment and the long-overdue launch of the first American retrospective devoted to this mainly comic French filmmaker, who’s also a critic. But it was worth the wait. In the spring of 2006, “Luc Moullet: Agent Provocateur of the New Wave,” including eight of his 32 films, showed up at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center. And three years later, a complete Moullet retrospective was shown in Paris, accompanied by much fanfare, including the publication of a DVD featuring ten of his best short films, Luc Moullet en shorts, and three separate books: a lengthy interview with Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (Notre Alpin Quotidien, 130 pages) and a long-overdue collection of his film criticism (Pige Choisies [De Griffith à Ellroy], 372 pages), both published by Capricci, and a study of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (Le Rebelle de King Vidor: les arêtes vives), published by Yellow Now.
Moullet started out in the mid-1960s as a neoprimitive, brandishing his lack of technique while reflecting some of the tenderness of Francois Truffaut’s films of that period as well as some of the boorish satirical humor of Jean-Luc Godard’s.… Read more »
I had to retype this longish position paper — published in the November-December 1977 issue of Film Comment – in order to digitize it for the manuscript of my collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2010. Going over every word of it again made me painfully aware of how many typos and other errors it had in its previous appearance. [8/14 postscript: My deepest thanks to Andy Rector at Kino Slang for adding the grubby still that originally ran with this article in Film Comment, thereby allowing me to add it here myself.]
This essay has a literal sequel, “Moullet retrouvé”. –J.R.
À la recherche de Luc Moullet: 25 Propositions
1. “Every film by Gerd Oswald deserves a long review.” — LM, 1958.
2. Many of you, perhaps most, have never heard of the man. So much the better. Not all news gets into newspapers, and not all movies get into theaters. The sculptor Paul Thek once proposed an interesting solution to the newspaper problem to me: Get rid of all of them, except for one edition of one daily paper (any would do), and pass this precious object from hand to hand for the next hundred years –- then the news might mean something.… Read more »
Here’s a link to this short video — broadcast on March 3, 2019, and directed by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa — without Persian voiceovers:
I usually use Facebook to promote my posts here, but this time I’m doing the reverse. — J.R.
[03/03/2019]… Read more »
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Thea von Harbou, with Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Janesen, Karl Vash, and Lang
With Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Ellen Widman, Inge Landgut, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Franz Stein, and Theodor Loos.
It’s unthinkable that a better movie will come along this year than Fritz Lang’s breathtaking M (1931), his first sound picture, showing this week in a beautifully, if only partially, restored version at the Music Box. (The original was 117 minutes, and this one is 105 — though until the invaluable restoration work of the Munich Film Archives, most of the available versions were only 98.) Shot in only six weeks, it’s the best of all serial-killer movies — a dubious thriller subgenre after Lang and three of his disciples, Jacques Tourneur (The Leopard Man, 1943), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, 1960), and Michael Powell (Peeping Tom, 1960), abandoned it. M is also a masterpiece structured with the kind of perfection that calls to mind both poetry and architecture and that makes even his disciples’ classics seem minor by comparison.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 24, 1992). — J.R.
MY COUSIN VINNY
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Dale Launer
With Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio, Mitchell Whitfield, Fred Gwynne, Lane Smith, and Austin Pendleton.
WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Ron Shelton
With Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell, Cylk Cozart, and Kadeem Hardison.
“Why is this film so popular?” Michael Sragow asked a little plaintively about My Cousin Vinny in the New Yorker last week. Then he suggested an answer: “Perhaps because it gives Pesci a chance to combine his commercial signature, pop scabrousness, with old-fashioned virtues like ‘heart.’” This hypothesis implies that audiences go to comedies for highly esoteric reasons — just like some film critics.
Personally, I’d rather believe that My Cousin Vinny is popular for reasons that have more to do with reality and recognition — specifically, with an appreciation of American regionalism that most contemporary American movies never even attempt, much less convey. At least that’s what I like about the movie, and it’s also what I like about White Men Can’t Jump, the other most popular American comedy around at the moment.… Read more »
From the August 23, 1991 Chicago Reader. This review is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies (1995). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
With John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Jon Polito.
I’m not one of the Coen brothers’ biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of — was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country characters as Blood Simple, but it also had a sweeter edge and more visual flair. In both craft and stylishness, Miller’s Crossing was another step forward, and even if I never really believed in either the period ambience or the characters — the dialogue bristled with anachronisms, and Albert Finney’s crime boss seemed much too blinkered and naive for someone who was supposed to be ruling a city — the film nevertheless demanded a certain attention.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 2, 2004). — J.R.
André Bazin reportedly once hypothesized that if Hollywood were the court of Versailles, Gilda (1946) would have been its Phedre — which may just be a fancy way of pointing out the enduring greatness of a campy melodrama that, from certain points of view, isn’t even very good. Directed by Charles Vidor, memorably shot by Rudolph Maté, and written by Marion Parsonnet, it’s set in a highly fanciful Buenos Aires (with mountains), where a professional gambler (Glenn Ford) goes to work for a casino owner (George Macready) who then marries the gambler’s old flame (Rita Hayworth), thereby setting off the sickest and weirdest bout of repressed love and hatred (both hetero- and bisexual) you ever saw. And Hayworth, whether she’s performing “Put the Blame on Mame” (dubbed by Anita Ellis) or just being her glamorous self, was never more magnificent. With Joseph Calleia and Steve Geray. 110 min. (JR)
… Read more »
IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, and Dolores Gray.
Has there ever been a more deceptive title and ad for a movie than this Belgian poster for the depressive 1955 musical IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER? Not that the original title or the strained happy ending are exactly apt either. [I resaw this movie yesterday, on my last day at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and might have written about this sooner -– i.e., before I returned to Chicago -– if I’d been able to figure out a way to paste in photos on my laptop.] But in fact it expresses more negative feelings about American culture at mid-century than anything by Frank Tashlin. Tashlin, after all, always seems to love his characters, but what mainly typifies the satirical feelings here about television, advertising, and other forms of corruption are disgust, disillusionment, self-hatred, and anger. It seems characteristic that Kelly and Charisse, the romantic leads, never even get to dance together, and that Dolores Gray’s climactic number, “Thanks a Lot, but No Thanks” (see still), registers as a conscious ripoff of Monroe’s glacially bitter “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 21, 2003). — J.R.
This stunning 93-minute video (2002) by Canadian conceptual artist Michael Snow might be his greatest work since La region centrale over 30 years ago. Almost certainly his most accessible feature, it combines elements from virtually all his previous films: the inexorable camera movement of Wavelength, Back and Forth, and La region centrale; the encyclopedic cataloging of Rameau’s Nephew; the playful self-reflexivity of So Is This. This is also his first encounter with digital video, and it explores all the things DV can do to stretch, compress, and distort bodies, a subject Snow explores formally, comically, and at times even ideologically. (There’s a lot of dialectical play in the film between two distinct spaces: a very contemporary row of staffed computer stations, backed by windows overlooking a cityscape, and a completely sealed-off bomb shelter of a living room filled with 50s kitsch and inhabited by an all-American family, in which a TV set clearly “rhymes” with the computer screens.) Not counting the asterisk, the title refers to the tissue connecting the hemispheres of the brain, an apt reference given the prodigious and joyful inventiveness on display. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »