Orson Welles’ Alternatives

From the April 2015 Sight and Sound. Happily, both versions of both Macbeth and Othello are now available in the U.S. — J.R.

TheTrial-corridor-stripes

Who ever said Orson Welles’ filmography has to be neat? But one rudimentary way of bringing some order would be to distinguish between nine films he completed to his satisfaction (Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Fountain of Youth, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming Othello) and nine others he didn’t complete and/or lost control of (The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind).  Yet even this isn’t as neat as it sounds, because he completed two separate versions of both Macbeth (1948 and 1950 — the second at the studio’s request — to eliminate the Scottish accents and shorten the running time by two reels; both are available today in France) and Othello (1952 and 1953; neither, alas, is commercially available anywhere — only an alteration of the second version, edited for the U.S.… Read more »

New Waves from Europe

From American Film (February 1979). This article was specifically conceived as a sort of sequel/companion-piece to “Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three Innovators,” an article published in American Film almost half a year earlier. This plan was undermined in various ways by the editors, who gave it a title derived from a middle-class French comedy of the period  (“Jean-Luc, Chantal, Danièle, Jean-Marie, and the Others”) that caused Akerman herself to reproach me for the piece (assuming that I’d dreamed up that title myself). I no longer recall what my original title was, but I’ve tweaked this piece in a few other minor ways to make it a little less unbearable to me. (By and large, most of my articles written for American Film qualified at least partially as hackwork done to pay my rent.) — J.R.

If American avant-garde films are often chancy to come by, even the most exciting European examples are apt to be regarded in this country as only distant legends. To cite one characteristic but scarcely isolated phenomenon: The welcome once given by the New York Film Festival to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet hasn’t been extended to any of their recent films, and none of the movies of Chantal Akerman has have ever been shown here.… Read more »

Michael Snow

From Omni (September 1983). — J.R.

For a conceptual artist who’s more often concerned with representation than with straight entertainment, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow can be a pretty jokey fellow. In fact, of all the avant-garde artists I know, he may well be the one who laughs the most and the hardest. His longest and craziest movie — the 260-minute, encyclopedic “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen – contains a grab bag of assorted puns, puzzles, and adages, from lines like “eating is believing” and “hearing is deceiving” to a mad tea party where words and sentences recited backward are then reversed to sound vaguely intelligible. Even “Wilma Schoen” in the title is an anagram for Snow’s name. One of his shortest works, the eight-minute Two Sides to Every Story, is projected on two back-to-back screens, simultaneously showing the same events in the same room from opposite angles.

Just as typical, in the living room of Snow’s house in Toronto, where I recently interviewed him, is a front door that isn’t in use — or rather is in use, but not as a front door. Over the side facing inside the room is a life-size color photograph of a painting of the same door.… Read more »

The Cutting Edge

From The Movie, Chapter 108, 1982. -– J.R.

The earliest principles of editing shots together were perhaps no more simple or complex thanthose of bricklaying; they served, at any rate, to perform the same sort of basic architectural function. In an early narrative film by Georges Méliès, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902, A Trip to the Moon), elaborately staged tableaux in front of a stationary camera — the filmmaker himself called them ‘artificially arranged scenes’ — succeed one another through the medium of dissolves. A bevy of chorus girls waves goodbye to a rocket ship fired from a cannon (one tableau), the moon is seen approaching (another tableau, effected through a moving, artificial moon rather than a moving camera), and the rocket ship lands splat in the eye of the Man in the Moon (still another tableau). By the timeMéliès was making Le Tunnel sous la Manche ou le Cauchemar Franco-Anglais (l907, Tunneling the English Channel), five years later, his visual structures were more complex, so that an entire narrative could proceed in the form of individual split-screen diptychs. In each of them, an Englishman and Frenchman attempt to cross the channel towards each other from opposite sides of the screen.… Read more »

Criminal Genius [THIEVES]

This review of a major film, Andre Téchiné’s Les voleurs (Thieves), that was (perhaps typically, at least for this period) completely ignored in The New Yorker – along with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man from the previous year — appeared in the December 27, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Thieves

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné, Gilles Taurand, Michel Alexandre, and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Laurence Côte, Fabienne Babe, Julien Riviére, Benoît Magimel, Didier Bezace, and Ivan Desny.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

“Before Christ was a time of orgies. Then came love.”

“Love’s less fun.”

“Probably. In orgies you give your all. No more, no less. In love, it’s never enough. It’s always too much or not enough.” –a conversation in Thieves between a philosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) and a policeman (Daniel Auteuil) in love with the same woman

When was the last time you saw a movie that was truly for as well as about grown-ups? Whatever the virtues of Breaking the Waves, a mature point of view certainly isn’t one of them.… Read more »

Mixed Emotions (BREAKING THE WAVES)

From the Chicago Reader (December 6, 1996). – J.R.

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Breaking the Waves

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by

Lars von Trier

With Emily Watson, Stellan

Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge,

Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins,

Jonathan Hackett, and Udo Kier.

Ever since I first encountered Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in Cannes, where it won the grand jury prize, I’ve been debating within myself about it, because I find it simultaneously shameless, boldly original, contrived, highly affecting, transparent, cynical, hopeful, ironic, sincere, ugly, beautiful, and downright baffling. In a way, my debate isn’t so different from that of Bess (Emily Watson) — the innocent and high strung (or unstrung) young heroine who lives on the northwest coast of Scotland in the early 70s and for much of the film carries on a furious internal debate with “God,” speaking her own part in a squeaky high voice and God’s in a patriarchal low one.

Where Bess, a devout believer, has God, I, a nonbeliever, have the late Carl Dreyer, the film artist von Trier and I both revere above all others. And where Bess speaks to herself not as God but as her sense of God (which overlaps on rare occasion with her sense of Jan), I speak to myself not as Dreyer but as my sense of Dreyer’s achievement (which overlaps on rare occasion with my sense of von Trier’s achievement).… Read more »

HALLOWEEN (1979 review)

From Take One (January 1979). — J.R.

In order to do justice to the mesmerizing effectiveness of Halloween, a couple of mini-backgrounds need to be sketched: that of writer-director John Carpenter, and that of the Mainstream Simulated Snuff Movie——- a popular puritanical genre that I’ll call thw MSSM for short.

(1) On the basis of his first two low-budget features, it was already apparent that the aptly-named Carpenter was one of the sharpest Hollywood craftsmen to have come along in ages — a nimble jack-of-all-trades who composed his own music, doubled as producer (Dark Star) and editor (Assault on Precinct 13), and served up his genre materials with an unmistakably personal verve. Both films deserve the status of sleepers; yet oddly enough, most North American critics appear to have slept through them, or else stayed away. Somehow, the word never got out, apart from grapevine bulletins along a few film-freak circuits.

Dark Star proved that Carpenter could be quirky and funny; Assault showed that he could be quirky, funnu, and suspenseful all at once. Halloween drops the comedy, substitutes horror, and keeps you glued to your seat with ruthless efficiency from the first frame to the last.… Read more »

Filling in the Blanks [LE SAMOURAI & THE BIRTH OF LOVE]

From the June 6, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Le samourai Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Jean-Pierre Posier, and Catherine Jourdan.

The Birth of Love Rating *** A must see

Directed by Philippe Garrel

Written by Garrel, Marc Cholodenko, and Muriel Cerf

With Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Johanna Ter Steege, Dominique Reymond, and Marie-Paule Laval.

If much of French cinema can be said to derive from the famous Cartesian phrase “I think, therefore I am,” why does it yield so many realistic movies? Certainly fantasy remains central to a good deal of French art, past and present, but if you compare the films of early pioneers like the Lumiere brothers to those of Thomas Edison, you might conclude that the French have a certain edge in seeing clearly what’s right in front of them. I found that of the dozen French movies I recently saw in Cannes and Paris, six were strictly realist in a way that few American features are: a cheerful Pagnolian hand-me-down (Marius and Jeannette), a Blier road movie for grown-ups (Manuel Poirier’s Western), Manoel de Oliveira’s moving French-Portuguese self-portrait, which features Marcello Mastroianni’s last performance (Voyage to the Beginning of the World), an experiment in first-person camera involving adultery (La femme defendue), a mysterious meditation on rural French punks (deceptively titled The Life of Jesus), and a spirited comedy by and with Brigitte Rouan (Post-coitum, animal triste).… Read more »

Squaring the Circle

The following article was written for the June 8, 2001 issue of  the Chicago Reader, to coincide with the release of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle in Chicago — although a differently edited version was published. This is my original version, which I included in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 collection I coedited with Adrian Martin. (Lamentably but unsurprisingly, this was the only section of the book that was left out of the Persian translation of the book, published in 2015; no less lamentably, the outrageous overpricing of this book on Amazon functions as a kind of capitalist censorship.)

One indication of Panahi’s extraordinary courage, after his appalling incarceration in Tehran’s Evin prison back in March, was the fact that he expressly requested not to be accorded “special” treatment because of his status as an artist and filmmaker. It seemed worth reposting this article on December 21, 2010, not only because of the shocking sentence received by Panahi after his trial, but also to correct the original misdating of this article on this site and in Movie Murtations, which I learned about via David Bordwell’s site. — J.R.

Squaring The Circle

Last month, I was taken aback by an email from a colleague — not a cranky stranger — waiting for me at my office computer one morning.… Read more »

Familiarity Breeds Contempt [SCOOP]

From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2006). — J.R.

Scoop

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Scarlett Johansson, Allen, Ian McShane, Hugh Jackman, Fenella Woolgar, and Julian Glover

Unlike some of his more commercial contemporaries — including Harvey Weinstein pets Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — Woody Allen has always had the final cut on his movies. But then what are the corporate honchos risking with this indulgence? They know familiarity is one of many things that draw us to movies, and they know with Allen not to expect any surprises. Unfortunately the industry often behaves as if familiarity were the only attraction.

Match Point, Allen’s best movie to date, was criticized in some quarters because it transplanted many of his concerns from New York to London and because it had an uncharacteristic seriousness and precision. Scoop, its lame successor, is also set in London and also costars Scarlett Johansson as another American greenhorn (a journalism student instead of an aspiring actress) who becomes involved with another wealthy Englishman who has a country estate. And once again there’s the plotting of the murder of a girlfriend that calls to mind Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.… Read more »

Austin Notebook: South by Southwest, 2010

From the Summer 2010 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. 63, no. 4). — J.R.

The typical challenge of any film festival report is to create a fictional narrative out of thin air, or a meaningful proposition out of chaos. And this becomes even harder in an era when layoffs of various film reviewers have coincided with a continuing erasure of any clear line separating criticism from advertising in most mainstream venues. The task isn’t far removed from the sort of pretense routinely made by reviewers, myself included, who presume to write ten-best round-ups at year’s end, overlooking the pre-selections already made by distributors and marketers and often arriving at unwarranted global conclusions based on the very finite sampling of what one has seen. This becomes only more obvious and arbitrary when it comes to generalizing about the handful of films one sees at a festival out of several dozens or hundreds, and then creating a narrative thread or some sort of thesis that can connect them all like beads on a string — a process that for me stands out in even greater relief since I retired from regular reviewing in early 2008.South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, commonly known as SXSW, is a combined film festival and “interactive” media conference held for both cinephiles and film professionals, followed immediately by a music festival that’s even bigger.

Read more »

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Written in November 2017 for my  “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Although we routinely assume that social trends have a rational basis, the processes by which irrational forms of displacement also affect those trends are no less routinely ignored. For instance, it’s commonly thought that the Watergate scandal leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation as U.S. President was merely a matter of exposing his crimes, but it could also be argued that many of these crimes were already evident to U.S. citizens before Nixon won his last Presidential election. As Mary McCarthy would later theorize, it was because the public needed a scapegoat for the U.S. debacle in Vietnam that the Watergate crimes belatedly became important. And one might similarly theorize that the recent public exposure and condemnation of producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, which has led to many similar exposures of predatory sexual behavior by others in the film world (such as James Toback and Kevin Spacey) as well as in separate fields, has been a displaced response to the debacle of Donald Trump’s Presidency, not to mention his own primitive sexual politics, which were exposed by the release of a private tape during the Presidential campaign.… Read more »

Mamet & Hitchcock: The Men Who Knew Too Much

From Scenario, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1998. –- J.R.

“Hitchcock lives!” I was inspired to write at the head of my review of House of Games, David Mamet’s first feature, in 1987. Ten years later, Mamet’s fifth feature, The Spanish Prisoner, boasts plenty of Hitchcockian elements of its own. But this time I’m not as prone to employ the same assertion.

The difference has less to do with Hitchcockian influence than with the use of that influence — the issue of whether Mamet is borrowing something substantive from the Master of Suspense, or drawing upon Hitchcock only when it suits his strategies. But one of the salient differences I find between reading the script of The Spanish Prisoner and seeing it realized is the difference between finding a Hitchcockian thriller on the page and not quite seeing one on the screen. Both are clearly Mamet creations, but the first comes closer to showing Hitchcock’s special qualities in tandem with Mamet’s, whereas the second shows them shooting off in separate directions.

Put somewhat differently, the distinction has a lot to do with issues that seem central to any evaluation of Hitchcock as well as Mamet -– namely, the ethics and aesthetics of deception, which are intimately tied to the ethics and aesthetics of representing a real world where deception becomes possible.… Read more »

Arabian Knight

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

http://www.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/1/A70-554

The neglected Canadian animator Richard Williams directed and coscripted this mind-boggling London- made cartoon musical feature (1995), the first to be made in ‘Scope since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959. It’s a movie that’s been in and out of production since 1968, apparently because Williams mainly worked on it as a labor of love in between more lucrative projects (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Eventually he lost creative control, and it’s impossible to say whether the movie would have been more or less coherent without the postproduction interference: the storytelling is perfunctory, but the imaginative animation, which revels in two-dimensionality, is often wonderful — an improbable blend of Escher, op art, Persian miniatures, and Chuck Jones that shoots off in every direction and seems great for kids. Arabian Knight is a lot more memorable than either Aladdin or Pocahontas (though its cultural references are much more varied and confused). The cast of offscreen voices includes the late Vincent Price as the main villain, Matthew Broderick as the hero, a humble cobbler, Jennifer Beals as the princess, Eric Bogosian, Toni Collette, and Jonathan Winters as a disreputable thief. Margaret French collaborated on the script, and Robert Folk and Norman Gimbel wrote the songs.… Read more »

Black Widow (1954) on Blu-Ray

I’ve never thought that Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a New York whodunit in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, was a masterpiece, either at the age of 11 when I saw it in first-run or tonight, when I saw it on Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray, even if it held my interest both times, and even moved me at times (especially Reginald Gardiner’s character and performance). But I have to admit that the single thing I found most memorable about it in 1954 — the brassy yet awkward sort of intermission grinding the story to a halt in the eleventh hour in order to dare or challenge the audience to solve the mystery before the movie itself does — is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray.

Is this because 20th Century-Fox decided to delete this intertitle at some later date, or because Twilight Time decided it was too corny to keep? I hope it’s the former, because this label is usually pretty scrupulous about history and sticking to original versions, and indeed, part of what makes this movie watchable now (if not then) is how outlandishly dated it all is — its embarrassment about an unmarried woman’s pregnancy (which oddly places her boyfriend of roughly the same age completely beyond suspicion when she winds up murdered), its totally implausible bitch-goddess mythology (which Peggy Ann Garner can’t be blamed for, given the lines that writer-director Johnson handed her), its equally overdone diva misogyny (which Ginger Rogers arguably makes even worse than it has to be), the bored indifference of both script and direction shown towards Gene Tierney as the dutiful spouse, the goody two-shoes rectitude of Van Heflin playing Van Heflin, and the sheer palatial breadth of its Manhattan apartments (cf.… Read more »