International Sampler (GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI)

From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). — J.R.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.

Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.

Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons. When something goes wrong during a hit, Louie’s gang decides to wipe out Ghost Dog, who retaliates in order to defend himself.… Read more »

PATERSON

Commissioned by the Chicago Reader in late September 2016. — J.R.

Paterson-AdamDriver

Paterson-bulldog

The eponymous New Jersey town proves to be a hotbed of poetry and art in this comedy from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, thanks to his beautifully loony conceit that all ordinary Americans are closet poets and artists of one kind or another (even if they don’t always know it). The bus-driver hero (Adam Driver), also named Paterson, writes poetry, and his Iranian wife (actress and rock musician Golshifteh Farahani) goes in for black-and-white domestic design; they know they’re artists and are completely smitten with one another, but their neighbors in a local bar seem less fortunate. Like many of Jarmusch’s best films, this keeps surprising us with its minimal, witty inflections, at once epic and small-scale, inspired in this case by the book-length poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)

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Paterson-coupleRead more »

Five Easy Pieces [NIGHT ON EARTH]

From the Chicago Reader (May 15, 1992). — J.R.

 

 

NIGHT ON EARTH

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, and Matti Pellonpaa.

As the most popular American independent filmmaker around, Jim Jarmusch carries a special burden: his reputation makes his work particularly hard to evaluate. Other American independents who haven’t enjoyed his commercial success — he’s the only independent who comes to mind who works mainly in 35-millimeter and owns all his own pictures — envy and even resent him, questioning whether he offers a serious alternative to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, Jarmusch has come to be so identified with artistic freedom that it’s difficult to see how any of his movies can live up to his reputation.

“Jim Jarmusch’s planet is the Lower East Side,” began Karen Schoemer in an awestruck feature in the New York Times late last month. “Its bars, its bodegas and its pavement make up his home, his office and his hangout.” “The director finds drama in the ordinary” reads a pull quote in the following hagiography, and clearly so does the Times: it finds a special magic and potency in a run-down neighborhood simply because Jarmusch lives there.… Read more »

Conversation with Jim Jarmusch (2001)

Part of a booklet accompanying a Jim Jarmusch retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, October 2001. The same booklet included short texts by Jarmusch on Robert Mitchum, John Cassavetes, and Samuel Fuller, and Jim paired his own films with various favorites of his by others, which this conversation focused on. -– J.R.

A child of the New Wave who spent time at the Paris Cinémathèque, was Nicholas Ray’s personal assistant on Lightning Over Water — and Sam Fuller’s costar in Tigrero [Mika Kaurasmaki] many years later — Jim Jarmusch has loved films even longer than he’s been making them. Signs of this love are fully apparent in his tributes to John Cassavetes, Fuller, and Robert Mitchum, as well as in a recent phone conversation I had with him about his selections of favorite films by others to accompany his own films at the Wexner Center.

J.R.

I want to focus mainly on the pairings you’ve come up with. Why, for instance, show The Devil, Probably with Permanent Vacation, your first film?

I don’t really know. I saw The Devil, Probably a long time ago, and I’ve never seen it since.… Read more »

Bullet Ballet [PISTOL OPERA]

This appeared in the August 22, 2003 Chicago Reader, and has more recently been reprinted in the excellent Camera Lucida. On the afternoon of September 17, 2014, in Sarajevo at the Film.Factory, I screened this for the MA students and assigned them to create five-minute remakes. We screened most of the results nine days later at a party, and they were really dazzling — and all quite different from one another. — J.R.

Pistol Opera

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Written by Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura

With Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Nagase, Kan Hanae, Mikijiro Hira, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Yeong-he-Han, and Jan Woudstra.

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Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure that I understand it? I think so, since understanding is always relative and less than clear-cut. Look long enough at the apparent meaning of any conventional work — past the illusion of narrative continuity that persuades us to overlook anomalies, breaks, fissures, and other distractions we can’t process — and it usually becomes elusive. Yet it’s also true that we have different ways of comprehending meaning. I once watched some children listen to passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, possibly the most impenetrable book in the English language, and saw them burst into giggles, plainly understanding better than the adults that this was exactly the way grown-ups talked, only funnier.… Read more »

Displaced Agendas, Real Corpses: NIGHT WILL FALL

Written for Artforum (February 2015). — J.R.

Night-Will-Fall-Holocaust-Documentary1

Doomed by shifting postwar social and political agendas, the never-completed documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey — launched in April 1945 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and shelved in September — might have been the key nonfiction film on the subject had it been finished and shown as originally planned, as required viewing for German prisoners of war. Shot by trained GI  cameramen accompanying British, American, and Russian troops as they liberated the camps, it might even have served as the principal disclosure to the rest of the world of the hitherto unthinkable conditions these troops uncovered.

NightWillFall-inmate

Produced by Sidney Bernstein — an old chum of Alfred Hitchcock’s who would later produce, uncredited, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and I Confess (1953), and who persuaded Hitchcock to come to London to supervise the documentary’s postproduction — the film was halted by British embarrassment about the tangled fate of camp survivors (many of whom chose to remain in the camps, having nowhere else to go), combined with a reluctance to further demoralize the postwar German populace. But there was still enough of a desire to educate (or browbeat) the Germans to engage Billy Wilder to make a short film using parts of the atrocity footage, yielding Death Mills, which premiered in 1945 to five hundred viewers in Würzburg after a Lilian Harvey operetta, although only seventy-five or so remained to the end.… Read more »

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 »

Jarmsuch’s Lost America: The Pleasures of PATERSON

Commissioned by the French quarterly Trafic for its 102nd issue (Summer 2017). — J.R.

paterson-couple

 

1. Jarmusch as dialectician

 

For some time now, Jim Jarmusch has been operating as an

autocritical dialectician in his fictional features. Politically as

well as commercially, The Limits of Control offers a sharp

rebuke to his preceding film, Broken Flowers, by following

Bill Murray as a protagonist — a bored and diffident Don Juan

roaming across the United States to visit four of his former

lovers, in order to discover which one he impregnated with

a son — with Isaach de Bankolé as a protagonist, a hired

assassin in Europe pursuing Bill Murray in the role of Dick

Cheney as he hides out in a bunker until the assassin

finally strangles him with a guitar string. But even more

striking is the radical contrast between Jarmusch’s most

elitist feature (and in many ways my least favorite), Only

Lovers Left Alive, about a romantic, middle-aged married

couple played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston –

vampires named Adam and Eve who evoke junkies, rock

stars, and Pre-Raphaelite artists, living on separate

continents in Tangier and Detroit — and Jarmusch’s

most populist feature (and one of my favorites),

Paterson, about a younger romantic couple living together

in Paterson, New Jersey, a bus driver named Paterson

(Adam Driver) who writes poetry in his spare time and a

housewife named Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who cooks,

specializes in creating black and white décor and clothing,

and is learning to play the guitar.… Read more »

Creative Overload [on PIERROT LE FOU]

From the June 9, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

PIERROT LE FOU

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Graziella Galvani, Roger Dutoit, Hans Meyer, Jimmy Karoubi, and Samuel Fuller.

All the good movies have been made. — Peter Bogdanovich to Boris Karloff in Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)

Two or three years ago I felt that everything had been done, that there was nothing left to do today. . . . Ivan the Terrible had been made, and Our Daily Bread. Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it? I was, in a word, pessimistic. After Pierrot, I no longer feel this. Yes. One must film everything — talk about everything. Everything remains to be done. — Jean-Luc Godard in an interview about Pierrot le fou (1965)

After many years out of circulation, Jean-Luc Godard’s ninth feature is finally back, in a sparkling new 35-millimeter ‘Scope print, and the Film Center is celebrating with a week-long run. Looking at it again almost a quarter of a century after it was made, 20 years after its initial U.S. release, is a bit like visiting another planet; it’s an explosion of color, sound, music, passion, violence, and wit that illustrates what used to be regarded as cinema.… Read more »

Scopophilia

Some thoughts on Kon Ichikawa, from the June 3, 1988 issue of Chicago Reader. — J.R.

AN ACTOR’S REVENGE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Written by Daisuke Ito, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Natto Wada With Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Ganjiro Nakamura, and Raizo Ichikawa.

ALONE ON THE PACIFIC (aka ALONE ACROSS THE PACIFIC)

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Written by Natto Wada

With Yujiro Ishihara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Ruriko Asaoka, and Hajime Hana.

Scopophilia is a Freudian term that means the love of gazing, or pleasure in seeing. A punning use of the word often comes to mind when I consider the pleasures to be found in viewing ‘Scope movies. ‘Scope is movie buffs’ jargon for the anamorphic widescreen process known as CinemaScope (introduced by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1953 with The Robe) and a number of similar wide-screen formats; they dominated commercial filmmaking across much of the globe for well over a decade.

While a certain number of American movies today still make expressive use of this Band-Aid-shaped format — Shy People is an outstanding recent example — most directors consciously avoid it because they know that at least a third of the image will get lopped off when their work gets transferred to video.… Read more »

Free to Roam [DR. AKAGI]

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1999). — J.R.

Dr. Akagi Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Shohei Imamura

Written by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan

With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, and Masanori Sera.

If you saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry you may recall a joke told by the Turkish taxidermist:    When a man complains to a doctor that every part of his body hurts — “When I touch my chest, that hurts; when I touch my arm and my leg, my arm and my leg hurt” — the doctor suggests that what’s actually bothering him is an infected finger. Similarly, when we think about Japan we may be prone to confuse what we’re pointing at with the finger that’s doing the pointing — especially given how much of a role our   country played in the rebuilding of Japan after the war. (Perhaps significantly, scant attention is paid to Japanese movies about — and made during — the American occupation, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women, a period film whose theme of artistic imprisonment is clearly addressed to his contemporaries.)

Even when it comes to Japan before the occupation, we may tend to overlook or misinterpret American influences, seeing them instead as Japanese traits.… Read more »

Paranoia Rising: Origins and Legacy of the Conspiracy Thriller

From Scenario, Spring 1999, Vol. 5, No. 1. -– J.R.

The recent video release and cable premiere of Louis Feuillade’s silent French serial Les Vampires (1915- 1916), making it widely available in the United States for the first time in 80-odd years, clarifies the origins of the paranoid thriller in a particularly acute way. All the basic elements that we associate with movie conspiracies are fully present in Les Vampires, at least in some rudimentary form: high-tech surveillance techniques, secret lairs, hidden wall panels, intricately concealed weapons, elaborate disguises, diverse forms of mind and memory control.

This arsenal of paraphernalia and technology, suggesting that the ordinary world isn’t quite what it appears to be and that everyday life is full of concealed plots and hidden dangers, is surely a staple of this century that didn’t have to wait for video surveillance or the digital revolution before it took over people’s imaginations. Though the political casts of the designated villains fluctuate wildly according to the ideology of the country and period — ranging from the anarchist Vampire gang to the red spies of Cold War thrillers, to the nearly invisible capitalist tycoons of Cutter’s Way (1981), to the smug government bureaucrats in the significantly titled Enemy of the State — the evil designs remain more or less the same.… Read more »

The Sour Journalist and the Sweet Romantic: Billy Wilder in AVANTI!

A slightly edited version of the following essay was published to accompany a film series devoted to the favorite films of Frieda Grafe that was held in the spring of 2013  at the Arsenal in Berlin. I was also invited to Berlin to introduce the screening of Avanti! on April 28. (The next day, in response to my opening sentence, Volker Pantenburg was kind enough to email me a rough translation of Grafe’s brief remarks about Avanti! in her “Filmtips”: “AVANTI!, 1972. As in FEDORA, it is about a corpse, but here it’s more time-critical. The American Moloch is confronted with its European frontiers, the Mafia. And: the Indian summer of business men” ["business men" is written in English].). — J.R.

Prologue

As someone who can’t read German, I feel more than a little frustrated    that I can’t read Frieda Grafe on the subject of Avanti! But I know that she selected the film in 1995 as one of her thirty favorites — a fascinating, eccentric line-up that contains only one silent picture(Frank Capra’s The Strong Man, 1926) and only one film of the 1980s (Jacques Rozier’s Maine-Océan, 1986), to cite the first and last items on her list.Read more »

The Thrill is Gone [SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW]

From the Chicago Reader (March 14, 1997). — J.R.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Bille August

Written by Ann Biderman

With Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Emma Croft, and Mario Adorf.

In a couple of memorably grouchy essays published in the mid-40s, critic Edmund Wilson expounded on his impatience with detective stories, confessing that “I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails.” With a few honorable exceptions, such as Kiss Me Deadly and Cutter’s Way, conspiracy films have a similar drawback: the first half is more pleasurable than the second. I suspect the reason is that the thrill of sensing a vast, invisible network behind apparent chaos is more exciting and even satisfying than the prosaic explanation, which not only reduces possibilities and halts the imagination but, by creating closure, makes the whole experience seem rather disposable.

When conspiracy thrillers resemble detective thrillers — which is often — they have a built-in advantage, to my mind, because they typically approach the borders of fantasy or science fiction and play with the ambiguous line between the real and the fantastic.… Read more »

TIH-MINH, OUT 1: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials

From The Velvet Light Trap, spring 1996 (and reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). Given all the screenings of Out 1 that are recently taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, with (almost) concurrent Blu-Ray and DVD releases in France, the U.K., and the U.S., this seems like a good time to repost this article. My still lengthier reflections can be found on the Carlotta digital releases in France and the U.S.  — J.R.

On the Issue of Nonreception

What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent “top ten” list (1), I’m equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal — unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn’t simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can’t be said that either film has received much attention in France either — or elsewhere, for that matter.… Read more »