Toni (1974 review)

This review appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Toni

France, 1934                                                   Director: Jean Renoir

 

Neither a major nor a minor work in the Renoir canon, Toni demands to be regarded more as an adventure of the director in contact with his material than as an integral and “finished” composition. If the symmetrical framing device of  the train arriving with fresh immigrants at the beginning and end of the film appears somewhat forced in relation to the whole, this is likely because Renoir began with notions of a social thesis and a Zola-derived sense of fatality from which his better instincts subsequently deviated. And it is the instinctual rather than the conceptual side of Toni that renders it a living work forty years after it was made -– a distinction that might serve equally well for Zola and Stroheim. Over and around the largely melodramatic plot is draped an expansive mood of leisurely improvisation, like an ill-fitting but comfortable suit of clothes, often permitting the accidental and random to take precedence over the deliberate, the individual detail over the general design. Thus the fleeting glance of a child at the camera in the opening prologue (when the newly-arrived immigrants walk into town), the grey haziness of Sebastian’s funeral procession, the muddy fadeouts and slightly bumpy pans are all part of the film’s charm and integrity.… Read more »

All The Vermeers In New York

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). — J.R.

ATV

Jon Jost’s ravishing independent feature about art, money, and loneliness in Manhattan — beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Jost himself and with a wonderful, Gil Evans-ish big-band jazz score by Jon A. English — can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Jost’s earlier Rembrandt Laughing (1988), which dealt with several friends and acquaintances over several months in San Francisco. The main characters here are three young women who share a spacious apartment — Emmanuelle Chaulet (from Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends), Katherine Bean, and Grace Phillips — and a Wall Street broker (Stephen Lack) who loves the Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum. As in Jost’s other features, the narrative is elliptically constructed — the film seems more concerned with evoking a place, time, and milieu than with a dramatically shaped story — but there’s still a lot of lyrical passion and drama in the sounds, images, and characters themselves (1990). (JR)

ATV2Read more »

Revisiting THE GODFATHER

This was written in December 2008, after Dana Linssen, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dutch film monthly  de Filmkrant, sent out a request early that month for contributions to what she called a “Slow Criticism” dossier, to appear in their special English-language newspaper at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in late January. I revived it in 2011 as my own contribution to the avalanche of journalism that had been appearing about Pauline Kael, capped by Frank Rich’s lengthy piece in the New York Times; it’s also included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, where it concludes the book’s penultimate section, “Films,” just before its final section, “Criticism”. There isn’t a piece about Kael in the final section, but this broadside helps to explain why.

One aspect of  recent journalism about Kael that seems to confirm the provinciality of American film criticism in general is the tacit assumption that “the world of film” in the U.S. is somehow (and automatically) coterminous and equivalent to global film culture — unless the assumption is simply that global film culture is too esoteric and inconsequential a subject to be worthy of discussion in the U.S. But it’s worth stressing that outside the English-speaking world, Kael’s critical status was and is pretty limited.Read more »

HARRY AND TONTO (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 492). -– J.R.

Harry and Tonto

U.S.A., 1974
Director: Paul Mazursky

Harry Coombs, an elderly widower who lives with his cat Tonto, is evicted from his West Side Manhattan apartment when the building is slated for demolition. After spending some time in the suburban home of his son Burt, where he tends To sympathize with the vow of silence taken by his grandson Norman over the objections of the latter’s parents and more conventional brother, he decides to visit his daughter Shirley in Chicago. Quarrelling with security officials at the airport about his carrying case for Tonto, he decides to go to Chicago by bus, but leaves the vehicle en route when Tonto refuses to relieve himself in the bus toilet. He buys a used car and picks up Ginger, a runaway- teenager, who decides to accompany him and persuades him to look up an old flame, Jessie, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she is residing in an old folks, home. In Chicago he re-encounters Norman, dispatched by Burt to bring him back to New York; but after a short stay with Shirley, he decides to drive West with Norman and Ginger.… Read more »

Looking for Nick Ray [upgraded, 1/23/2012]

From the December 1981 issue of American Film. I was quite unhappy with the way this article was edited at the time, but having discovered my original submitted draft quite recently (in mid-November 2011, 30 years later), I’ve decided to resurrect it here, including my own title. (Theirs was “Looking for Nicholas Ray”.)

My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980. – J.R.

By and large, the last three decades in the life of film director Nicholas Ray can be divided fairly evenly into three distinct parts.… Read more »

Preface to the Korean Edition of GOODBYE CINEMA, HELLO CINEPHILIA

Written in October 2012 for what was supposed to have been the first (and, so far, only) translated edition of my most recent collection, although it has never come out. There is, however, a Korean translation of my earlier collection Essential Cinema (with a new Afterword, available here).

In retrospect, I’m sorry that I didn’t find some way of mentioning Lee Chang-dong’s extraordinary Poetry (2010), my favorite Korean film [see all the stills below] — and one that, incidentally, helps to explain the reason for my alienation from most of the other South Korean films I’ve seen and their excessive reliance on rape and serial killers as subjects (something that I was embarrassed to bring up in this Preface, written at the request of the publisher). This film in fact addresses the theme of rape and its role in Korean society quite directly. — J.R.

My acquaintance with cinephilia in South Korea is limited. My only first- hand knowledge comes from my experience as a juror on Indie Vision at the Jeonju International Film Festival in the Spring of 2006 and my acquaintance over a longer period with the brilliant and discerning critic and programmer Un-Seong Yoo, who worked for that festival for many years and, more recently, was my fellow juror on the New Directors jury at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the Fall of 2011.Read more »

Geronimo: An American Legend

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1993). This film will be out soon on a Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.

Geronimo

Like Unforgiven, this is conservative revisionism with a rare bitterness of tone (1993). The subject here is the underhanded treatment of Apaches by the U.S. government, and perhaps because of where it’s coming from it’s a lot more convincing as history than liberal revisionist westerns like Dances With Wolves. Though the director is Walter Hill, the dominant personality is John Milius, who wrote the story and collaborated on the script with Larry Gross, and despite some narrative stodginess in spots, Milius’s sense of warrior nobility and his talent for writing juicy parts for actors serve the picture well. Recounting the final rebellion and surrender of Apache leader Geronimo in the 1880s, the film offers especially fine performances by Robert Duvall as a grizzled Apache scouter, Cherokee actor Wes Studi as Geronimo, and Jason Patric as a U.S. cavalry lieutenant assigned to bring Geronimo in, and Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, and Kevin Tighe are more than adequate in less showy parts. The Utah settings are spectacular, and the music is by Ry Cooder. (JR)… Read more »

LE VRAI COUPABLE: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3), in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine’s staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.

Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published — in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled “Joseph Mankiewicz” and “Pour un cinéma politique”, and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy.… Read more »

On Jean Renoir

From Film Comment (May-June 1976). For much, much more about Renoir, go here. — J.R.

JEAN RENOIR BY ANDRE BAZIN; translated by W. W. Halsey and William H. Simon. Delta Books, 1974. $3.25, 320 pages, illustrated, index.

JEAN RENOIR BY RAYMOND DURGNAT University of California Press, 1974. $16.50, 429 pages, illustrated, index.

JEAN RENOIR: Essays, Conversations and Reviews BY PENELOPE GILLIATT McGraw-Hill, 1975. $2.95, 156 pages, index.

MY LIFE AND MY FILMS BY JEAN RENOIR; translated by Norman Denny. Atheneum, 1974. $10.00, 287 pages, illustrated, index.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

. . . Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This approach accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention from these aims. This style is added to the script like rich paint liberally applied to a line drawing: often the colors obscure and spill over the lines. This approach also explains the effort required to enjoy half the scenes Renoir directs. Whereas most directors try to convince the viewer immediately of the objective and psychological reality of the action and subordinate both acting and directing to this end, Renoir seems to lose sight of the audience from time to time.Read more »

Reverence for Things Past [MY FATHER'S GLORY]

From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1991). — J.R.

MY FATHER’S GLORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yves Robert

Written by Jerome Tonnere, Louis Nucera, and Robert

With Philippe Caubere, Nathalie Roussel, Didier Pain, Julien Ciamaca, Therese Liotard, and Victorien Delmare.

Though I’ve had only limited acquaintance with Marcel Pagnol’s work as a filmmaker, it’s clear to me that he was an important if neglected figure in French independent cinema. He was not only a forerunner of the Italian neorealists and a playwright-turned-filmmaker who set up his own studio in Marseilles in 1933, but also an unusually devoted director of actors. He liked to film his favorites — people like Raimu, Fernandel, Alida Rouffe, and Pierre Fresnay — in static camera setups with lots of dialogue, theoretically ending a shot only when he ran out of film. It may seem a limited aesthetic, but for passionate proactor directors like Jean Renoir (whose 1934 Toni was produced by Pagnol) and Orson Welles it carried the force of a revelation, and the sunny Provencal settings provided a relaxed airiness and earthiness to the extended talk fests.

Pagnol’s output as a writer has become fashionable again, thanks to the popularity of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring – both based on Pagnol novels and directed by Claude Berri.… Read more »

On William Pechter

From Film Comment, July-August 1982. — J.R.

 

Movies Plus One by William S. Pechter, 246 pp., index, Horizon Press, $14.95.

Ever since certain American film critics have taken to collecting their own reviews and/or commanding their own screenings, the solipsistic nature of their profession has tended to grow. It is a tendency that crosses cult boundaries, characterizing the Neros of the profession as well as the Babbitts, the scarlet empresses as well as the Sylvia Scarletts. In her celebrated and lengthy attack on Pauline Kael in the New York Review of Books two summers ago, Renata Adler indirectly broached this problem by singling out the distressing evidence of one very gifted intelligence having run amok — a charge largely made on stylistic and rhetorical grounds, and persuasively shaped around the assumption that what was really at stake was not movies at all, but prose and the relation between writers and readers. The greatest, lasting value of Adler’s remarkable piece was its illumination of this sticky problem as a general tendency — not its ostensible project of bringing the reader the head of Pauline Kael, which gave it all its publicity.

For a wider application of what Adler was talking about, one need only turn to Kael’s arch-rival Andrew Sarris — a critic so adroit at exposing his own solipsistic stances that he’s never needed an Adler to point them out.Read more »

Jean Renoir: The World of his Films

From Film Comment (January-February 1973). This book can now be accessed for free here. — J.R.

Jean-Renoir-Columbia-University-Presscroppedre-sized

JEAN RENOIR: THE WORLD OF HIS FILMS by Leo Braudy. Doubleday & Co., New York, 1972; hardcover $8.95; 286 pages; illustrations, index.

I’ve often wondered why a disproportionate amount of bad film criticism comes from English teachers. One would suppose that anyone devoted to narrative, lyric and dramatic structures would have some sensitivity for and interest in movies, but look at the recent issues of literary magazines like Modern Occasions, Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books and see what they usually have to offer in their “movie chronicles”: bilious, solipsistic professors who waste their time at EASY RIDER and THE GRADUATE (or DEATH IN VENICE and THE GO-BETWEEN) and then conclude that film is a “low art” or an overrated medium because these works don’t live up to the claims of their publicists. Even a critic like Stanley Kauffmann — who should know better — will complain (in a recent  Film Comment) that “a list of memorable foreign films” for 1970 would only run to three or four titles, implicitly making the assumption that he’s seen all the likely candidates: a standard literary procedure, at least in America.Read more »

Inside the Vault [on SPIONE]

An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.

If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic  intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.

One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.… Read more »

Prewar Jitters [on Lang's MAN HUNT]

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.

Man Hunt

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Dudley Nichols

With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.

A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.

Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.

I only half agree with Gunning.… Read more »

Bird Watching

From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1988). — J.R.

BIRD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Joel Oliansky

With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, and Damon Whitaker.

CELEBRATING BIRD

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons

Written by Gary Giddins.

Two telling documents that we have about Charlie Parker, both from the early 50s:

(1) During a live radio broadcast from Birdland on March 31, 1951, there’s an electrifying moment when Parker leaps into his solo on “A Night in Tunisia,” combining cascading machine-gun volleys of notes — wailing 16th notes and dovetailing triplets — into what sound like two successive melodic somersaults, each one in a separate direction, that miraculously turn the rhythm around with shifting accents — an awesome tumble in midair over four free bars until he triumphantly splashes into the next chorus.

To understand the genius of that moment — a fusion of passionate acrobatics and spontaneous formal patterning — it might help to detect the evidence of rage that one hears just before the number begins. Symphony Sid Torin, an obnoxiously loquacious disc jockey, has been blathering at length about “Round Midnight,” the previous number played by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, which he has repeatedly called “Round About Midnight.” He is recounting a long, self-serving anecdote about Billie Holiday when Gillespie plaintively bleats out, “Let me play my number!” Momentarily coming to his senses, Sid turns to Parker and says, “What we gonna do, Bird?… Read more »