The Future is Here

Commissioned by BFI Publishing and published in the November 2014 Sight and Sound. This version is slightly tweaked. — J.R.

These-are-the-damned2

 

In an amusing, satisfying, and highly persuasive rant in Time Out in 1977, J.G. Ballard took on the cultural phenomenon of  Star Wars (1977), including some of its historical and ideological consequences. Noting that “two hours of Star Wars must be one of the most efficient means of weaning your preteen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others”, he also reflected on the overall impact of George Lucas’s blockbuster on science-fiction movies:

“The most popular form of s-f — space fiction –- has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr. Strangelove, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella, and Solaris — and the brave failures, such as The Thing, Seconds, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit, and fantasy.… Read more »

The Revolution Has Been Televised [Peter Watkins' LA COMMUNE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 2002). — J.R.

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Watkins

Written by Watkins with Agathe Bluysen and contributions from the cast members.

Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right, and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy, and those are the films we don’t transmit. — TV executive in The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins

I’ve been a fan and supporter of Peter Watkins for most of my life. A remarkable master technician and social visionary whose early work is filled to the brim with focused rage, he has created some of the most troubling, thought-provoking, even shattering films I know. This has helped make him persona non grata in mainstream TV and cinema and also in art houses, among academics, at festivals, and on cable TV. When his name does come up in those diverse realms, he’s often accused of being paranoid — though that hardly explains his pariah status.

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Keeping up with his work is hard even for a sympathetic critic like me, and I can’t say I know it well.… Read more »

Rock Bottom

From the June 10, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THE FLINTSTONES

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Brian Levant

Written by Tom S. Parker, Jim Jennewein, and Steven E. de Souza

With John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, Kyle MacLachlan, Halle Berry, Richard Moll, and Elizabeth Taylor.

When people come to see an entertainment based on another, earlier entertainment that they have affection for, there are things about it that people want to see. They want to hear Fred yell “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!” They want to hear Wilma and Betty say “Charge It!” They want to hear Dino bark “Yip, Yip, Yip, Yip, Yip” and knock Fred down and lick him silly. And we’ve done those things because we love them, too.  — Brian Levant, director of The Flintstones, quoted in the film’s pressbook

It’s quite possible that when someone writes the history of the first hundred years of movies — a period corresponding fairly closely to the 20th century — two decades of that century will be singled out as the most artistically barren: the first and the last. And the principal reasons for that barrenness may turn out to be related: in each decade film, rather than flexing its muscles as an expressive medium, was a relatively inert, inexpressive receptacle for works already fashioned, often in other media.… Read more »

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in.–J.R.

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.

I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks.… Read more »

Check Your Baggage [CRIMSON GOLD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 2004). As much as I share my colleagues’ admiration [in 2012] for Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, I must confess that I find it both depressing and somewhat insulting to Panahi that this is receiving more attention and praise in some quarters than his full-fledged films ever did, including such masterpieces as The White Balloon, The Circle, and Crimson Gold (not to mention Panahi’s more inventive and fruitful 2013 Closed Curtain, made under the same constraints as This is Not a Film). Which is why it seems worth reviving my review of the latter film. — J.R.

Crimson Gold **** (Masterpiece) Directed by Jafar Panahi Written by Abbas Kiarostami With Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheissi, Azita Rayeji, Shahram Vaziri, Ehsan Amani, and Pourang Nakhayi.

“War President” is an image. It is not a textual statement or rhetorical argument. An image is like an empty room and any message that one reads in that room necessarily came in the baggage one carried when one walked in the door. If I made an image of George Washington composed of images of the American dead from the revolution, would viewers likely take that image as an indictment of Washington?Read more »

Feeling the Unthinkable (25TH HOUR)

From the January 17, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. For those who care about such things, there are spoilers ahead. — J.R.

25th Hour

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Spike Lee

Written by David Benioff

With Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Tony Siragusa, and Levani.

I’ve complained a lot about Spike Lee as a filmmaker, before he made his remarkable Do the Right Thing (1989) and after. But the only time I’ve been tempted to accuse him of falling back on the tried and true was when he made Malcolm X and attempted to adapt his subject’s autobiography as if he were Cecil B. De Mille or David O. Selznick. I don’t mean that Lee hasn’t stubbornly stuck to the same stylistic tropes and mannerisms throughout most of his career — leaving them behind only when the occasion demanded it, as in his expert filming of Roger Guenveur Smith’s powerful performance piece The Huey P. Newton Story – but the stylistic consistency is his own. Moreover, taking on dissimilar projects he has always moved in exploratory directions, showing a lot of courage and initiative in his creative choices — even when they’re half-baked (as some are in Get on the Bus) or overblown (as in Bamboozled).… Read more »

War Is Swell [HOPE AND GLORY]

From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1987). — J.R.

HOPE AND GLORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by John Boorman

With Sebastian Rice Edwards, Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Derrick O’Connor, Susan Wooldridge, Sammi Davis, and Ian Bannen.

Disasters sometimes take on a certain nostalgic coziness when seen through the filter of public memory. Southerners’ recollections of the Civil War and the afterglow felt by many who lived through the Depression are probably the two strongest examples of this in our national history — perhaps because such catastrophes tend to bring people together out of fear and necessity, obliterating many of the artificial barriers that keep them apart in calmer times. When I attended an interracial, coed camp for teenagers in Tennessee in the summer of 1961, shortly after the Freedom Rides, the very fact that our lives were in potential danger every time we left the grounds en masse — or were threatened with raids by local irate whites — automatically turned all of us into an extended family. Considering some of the cultural differences between us, I wonder if we could have bridged the gaps so speedily if the fear of mutually shared violence hadn’t been so palpable.

The images that we inherit of other people’s disasters are often suffused by a similar nostalgia.… Read more »

Guilty by Omission

From the September-October 1991 issue of Film Comment; this was also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies. — J.R.

If one were to undertake a diagnosis of the cultural and historical amnesia that currently afflicts American society in general and the American cinema in particular, the suppression of radical politics as part of our history might be a useful place to start. It is a suppression that comes in many forms, many of them barely conscious.

When a radical youth movie — PUMP UP THE VOLUME — actually gets made and released in the United States today, a repudiation of the 1960s counterculture becomes an obligatory part of its argument, because otherwise many contemporary teenagers would dismiss it out of hand. And when the same film gets reviewed in the United States, even most sympathetic critics find it convenient to overlook the fact that the film is political, for fear of alienating the public. Or when a recent film about Vietnam such as JACOB’S LADDER has the rare courage to attack the Pentagon (unlike, say, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and CASUALTIES OF WAR), one can predict that, given the present climate in America, it will be attacked by some critics for being exploitative and unserious — and praised by others as entertainment — whereas the issues broached by the film won’t be addressed at all.… Read more »

Review of THE WRITERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR GUILD

Written for the Fall 2015 issue of Film Quarterly. — J.R.

The Writers jacket

The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and

Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

 

This is clearly a creditable, conscientious, intelligent, and

useful book, but I feel obliged to confess at the outset that

I don’t feel like I’m one of its ideal or intended readers. The

subtitle loosely describes its contents, but “A Business

History of Hollywood Screenwriters and Their Guild

would come much closer to the mark, even if it might make

the book less marketable to me and some others. And the

unexceptional simplification of the title and subtitle is part of

what gives me some trouble: it’s the business of Hollywood,

after all, to convince the public that “American screenwriters”

and “Hollywood screenwriters” amount to the same

thing. And the moment that any meaningful distinction

between the two collapses, then the studios, one might argue,

have already won the battle.

 

I don’t expect my own bias about this matter to be shared

by many of Film Quarterly’s readers. Writers who blithely

and uncritically toss about terms like “Indiewood” designed

to further mystify the differences between studio work and

independent work probably don’t think they’re working for

the fat cats, but from my vantage point as a journalist who

thinks that these distinctions deeply matter, they’re the worst

kind of unpaid publicists.… Read more »

Two French Godard Books: Informational Obstacles (and Teasers)

Here are two recent valuable acquisitions I’ve made via French Amazon — Antoine de Baecques’s 940-page biography of Jean-Luc Godard, the first one in French (after two in English, by Colin MacCabe and Richard Brody), published by Bernard Grasset, and Godard’s 107-page “book” version of (or companion to) his recent Film Socialisme, published by P.O.L, his usual publisher, and subtitled Dialogues avec visages auteurs (literally, “Dialogues with faces authors”).

It’s far too early to make any sweeping judgments about either book — which would be presumptuous for me to attempt to do at any point, given my less than perfect French — but a few first impressions are in order. De Baecque’s biography is full of interesting details, in particular ones drawn from formerly unavailable or unfamiliar documents, e.g., a letter from Pasolini to Godard about La chinoise, and, roughly two decades later, a letter from Godard to Norman Mailer about some of his plans for King Lear. But it also appears that De Baecque can’t be trusted very much when it comes to his handling of American criticism about Godard. A minor complaint (which I hope doesn’t sound churlish, given how flattering he is to me elsewhere in this book): he claims, based on the French translation of my autobiographical Moving Places, that I spent “half my time in Paris between 1966 and 1968″ seeing or reseeing Godard films on drugs; but in fact, apart from a couple of summer visits to Paris during this period (during which my Godard viewing goes unmentioned), my extended sojourn in Paris was between 1969 and 1974, and my accounts of watching Alphaville on grass and Band of Outsiders on acid on the pages he cites were actually in New York in 1965 and in London in 1970, respectively.… Read more »

Paradjanov on DVD

This was originally published in Cineaste in June 2003. —J.R.

It’s astonishing how little we still know about Soviet cinema in general and Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990) in particular, and it’s possible that Soviet history has something to do with this —- a desire not to remember pointing to an even more basic desire not to know. Considering what a teller of tall tales Paradjanov was himself, it seems inevitable that he would only add to the confusion while he was alive rather than clear up most of the muddle. Writing about three Paradjanov features that were showing in Chicago 13 years ago, I noted that his name couldn’t be found in Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia or in the indexes of books by Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, or John Simon (among many others), and lamented that as far as I knew, no one anywhere had yet written a book or monograph about him. I was writing only a month after he visited the west for the first time —- attending the Rotterdam Film Festival, where I was fortunate enough to be present —- and this was only four years after he resumed work as a filmmaker following something like 16 years of enforced silence, either as a prisoner or as a director whose proposed projects since Sayat Nova in 1969 had all been rejected.… Read more »

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.

Walt Disney:
The Triumph of the American Imagination

by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.

This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.

Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

From Cineaste, Fall 2003. — J.R.

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

by Peter Wollen. London and New York: Verso, 2002. 314pp. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $20.00.

One of the more interesting paradoxes of Peter Wollen’s writing career is that he was perceived as an academic well before he had a long-term teaching post whereas today, with a seemingly permanent berth in the critical studies program at UCLA’s film department, he’s more apt to come across as a journalist. Part of this has to do with the magazines he writes for, though it might be added that for better and for worse — and more for the better — there’s always been a breezy, nonpedantic side to his writing that makes it far more accessible and user-friendly than the work of many of his more theoretically-minded colleagues. Paris Hollywood, his latest collection, is an agreeable showcase for this quality — more so, in many ways, than Readings and Writings (1982) and Raiding the Icebox (1993).

There are, to be sure, some scholarly limitations to Wollen’s lightness of tone, at least when he falls too readily into certain easy generalizations. It may sound reasonable to write of Godard’s early work (in “JLG,” one of the better essays here), “He never once worked with a script-writer,” but only if one glides past the roles of Truffaut on Breathless and Rossellini and Jean Gruault on Les Carabiniers.… Read more »

The Actual Definitive Ultimate Director’s Cut (BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT)

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2007). — J.R.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut |****

Directed by Ridley Scott

It took 25 years, but the makers of Blade Runner finally got it right. Preceded by at least six editions, five of them seen by the general public, this “final cut” is the optimal form of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Neither a complex revision nor a simple restoration, it’s a retooling that presents the project as it was originally conceived. Although some of the violence has been intensified and stretched out, new footage isn’t really the point. The focus instead is on redressing technical errors and making other helpful adjustments, giving the film a fully comprehensible narrative. For the first time every detail falls into place.

Along with the equally pessimistic and misanthropic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner sets the standard for movies about androids in the post-Metropolis era. It presents a dark view of humanity where the artificial beings known as replicants (who tragically have a lifespan of just four years) command most of our sympathy. Like A.I., its roots lie in 19th-century literature — Frankenstein in this case, The Adventures of Pinocchio in A.I. — where mankind tries to produce an ideal version of itself, which suffers endlessly as a consequence.… Read more »

Democracy Through the Looking Glass [SECRET BALLOT]

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 2002). — J.R.

Secret Ballot

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Babak Payami

With Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Ab, Youssef Habashi, Farrokh Shojaii, and Gholbahar Janghali.

Secret Ballot is…a demonstration of the fact that society at large has much more integrity than the forces that govern it. This is as true in Iran as it is in the United States. — Babak Payami

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was one of the people who fell for the story that circulated not long after the invasion of Afghanistan that George W. Bush had asked to see a subtitled print of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar. It was sheer wishful thinking, the result of a hope that sympathy for the innocent Afghan victims of the American assault would somehow prevail over all the confusion and self-righteousness.

The sources of the rumor soon went silent, but it had already circled the globe. I searched the Internet and turned up allusions to it in France’s L’Humanité, Britain’s Guardian and Observer, and Australia’s The Age, as well as in Brazilian and Dutch papers.… Read more »