From Time Out (London), October 1, 1976. As I point out in my first collection, Placing Movies (1995), my flip comparison of moviegoing and sex in the latter part of this article led Robin Wood in the Times Educational Supplement (22 October 1976) to virtually link me with the downfall of Western civilization: “The implicit trivialization of art and life is the ultimate stage in our alienation.” This was some time before he declared Celine and Julie Go Boating a masterpiece on his own terms, bringing in a feminist perspective that my own appreciation sorely lacked.–- J.R.
The Plot Thickens
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jacques Rivette is the most important director working in the narrative cinema today. And Celine and Julie Go Boating, while it may not be his most important achievement, is by commonconsent the most enjoyable and accessible of all his movies to date It is also the first of his films to open commercially in England In over a decade. The two movies he has made since, Duelle and Noroît, will both be shown at this year’s London Film Festival — along with Sérail, the first feature by Eduardo de Gregorio, Rivette’s scriptwriter.
Considering the fact that all of Rivette’s most exciting and innovatory work has been made over the past ten years, one might well ask why it has taken so long for any of this work to be released here.… Read more »
From the September 28, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece, but also one of the great love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, September 29 and 30.
From Paris Journal, Film Comment, Summer 1972 (excerpt). –J.R.
Nearly two decades have elapsed between the making of Samuel Fuller’s PARK ROW and its premiere at the Cinema Mac-Mahon. In the interim, Fuller has gone from being a cause célèbre in France to a critical industry in England, where no less than three books on his films have already appeared. A major limitation of this overkill, which is threatening to “assimilate” Douglas Sirk as its next victim, is its absolute humorlessness — a quality that was rarely present in Godard’s or Luc Moullet’s writing on either director in the 50s. Reviewing Sirk’s A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE, Godard affirmed that “ you have to talk about this kind of thing…deliriously, you can be quietly, or passionately delirious, but delirious you have to be, for the logic of delirium is the only logic that Sirk has ever bothered about.” In addition to being about as delirious as the London Times, most of the English writing about Sirk and Fuller suffers from myopia as well. Compare Moullet’s three half-pages on Sirk’s THE TARNISHED ANGELS (Cahiers du cinéma #87) to Fred Camper’s 25 pages in the recent Sirk issue of Screen: the former, for all its giddiness, develops a persuasive stylistic link between Faulkner’s rhetoric and Sirk’s mobile camera; the latter, for all its sobriety, fails to mention the words “Faulkner” or “Pylon” even once.… Read more »
Even though I don’t have much of a head for science, and even though I agree with the field’s chief literary critic, Damon Knight, that “we have no negative knowledge” (meaning that we aren’t yet in a position to identify time travel as either science or non-science), I’d still maintain that the differences between science fiction and fantasy are important. (For Damon Knight’s criticism, see his superb though sadly long out-of-print collection In Search of Wonder.) Important enough, in any case, to make a list of favorite neglected SF movies distinct and separate from a list of neglected fantasy movies. So consider the following selection the first half of a two-part series.
The widespread distrust of film theory still persisting in mainstream criticism is scarcely confined to Anglo-American film culture. Less than a decade back, when Noël Burch’s Praxis du cinéma -– later translated as Theory of Film Practice –- first appeared in France, someone at Gallimard hit on a rather demented sales pitch, and the book was marketed with a wraparound banner boldly proclaiming, ‘Contre toute théorie.’ The curious science fiction tone of this declaration highlights a subterranean bias which informs most film reviewing on and off the continent: the idea that theory is an option best left to dusty academicians, while everyone else is better off operating on free-floating intelligence and intuition. Ironically, this is an assumption which expresses a theory of its own: that knowledge is essentially empirical. And the definition accorded to ’empiricist’ by the Concise Oxfordmay be worth at least considering:'(person) relying solely on experiment; quack.’
In all fairness to ‘anti-theorists’, it should be conceded that science and art are hardly the same thing. If a sizeable part of our knowledge of the former is grounded in theory, the parti pris underlying our knowledge of cinema tends to be a much more random affair, a generally murky blend of half-examined predilections and working hypotheses.… Read more »
The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 82 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. While never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous, haunting otherworldliness. It was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versions — French, English, German, and Danish; most prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.) (JR)
A department store clerk (Clara Bow) tries to live according to the tenets of Elinor Glyn’s book about sex appeal (also titled It) and winds up marrying her boss. This fast and funny silent comedy of 1927 has one of the great lines of the period — “Hot socks! Here comes the boss!” — and as Dave Kehr has pointed out, it “launched Clara Bow as a star of extraordinary dimensions (most of them around the hips).” Directed by Clarence Badger, with Antonio Moreno, William Austin, Jacqueline Gadsdon, a young Gary Cooper, and Glyn herself, who worked on the script with Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. A real treat. (JR)
It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist.… Read more »
My first meeting with Samuel Fuller is chronicled in this interview/essay published in the July 9, 1980 issue of The Soho News and was reprinted in my recent collection Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues. Seven years later, while concluding my academic career at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was placed in charge of running the film studies summer school program, I was still crazy about Fuller, and invited him to serve as our “visiting artist”, which led to our becoming friends from that summer until his death a decade later. I did my best to try to capture his singular way of talking in this article. For my title, I’m using the headline on that issue’s front page, not the title given inside (“Sam Fuller Reshoots the War”). — J.R.
When I enter his suite at the plaza, he’s finishing lunch, expressing his regret about missing Godard at Cannes, remarking on the absurdity of prizes at film festivals, asking me what Soho News and Soho are. (The one he knows about is in London — he fondly recalls a cigar store on Frith Street.)
It isn’t hard to figure out why Mark Hamill affectionately calls him Yosemite Sam, or why Lee Marvin simply says he’s D.W.… Read more »
From The Soho News (August 4, 1981), very slightly tweaked on January 27, 2010. –J.R.
The Celluloid Closet:
Homosexuality in the Movies
By Vito Russo
Harper Colophon Books, $7.95
Want to read the first comprehensive study in English of homosexuality in the movies? Go hunt up Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes (1972). Prefer a more theoretical and political, less coterie-oriented approach? Try Richard Dyer’s first-rate Gays and Film (1975), which includes Caroline Sheldon on lesbians, Dyer on stereotyping, and Jack Babuscio on camp. Like something even more up to date, dealing with the “textual incoherence” of recent Hollywood movies like Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar from a gay lib perspective? Check out Robin Wood’s interesting and fruitful article (no pun intended) in the current issue of Movie.
Where does this leave Vito Russo’s serious and ambitious The Celluloid Closet — which incidentally bears the same subtitle as Tyler’s book? Not so much in the lurch as the above list may imply. As the best researched and illustrated book on the subject — entertainingly and intelligently written in epigramatic journalese, and clearly backed up by years of patient fact-finding and interviewing — it deserves to be considered a significant reference point and a source of reference in the years to come.… Read more »
A “critic’s choice” from the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1996). — J.R.
This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts, all recounting the same story but set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, with certain differences regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and milieu. Though it lacks some of the behavioral charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces its own likelihood to fail as an experiment in the second episode, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — not only because it takes the most risks, but also because it gives the mind more to do in the process. The actors include Martin Donovan and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself in Tokyo. The whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 8 through 14.
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 1987). — J.R.
Genre specialist John Carpenter returns to the principle of confined space that he used as a disciplinary structure in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing in this horror thriller set in an abandoned church. The main difference here from earlier Carpenter films is the heavy metaphysical baggage: a team of graduate students and teachers (including Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, and Jameson Parker) in physics and science is summoned by a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) to study an ancient religious manuscript that proves to contain differential equations (long before such equations were developed), and a canister containing a green liquid that proves to be seven million years old. Mathematics combines with demonology to produce a variant on Night of the Living Dead, and while the church is playfully called Saint Godard’s, the pivotal use and significance of mirrors spawned by the canister liquid might make Saint Cocteau’s a more appropriate appellation. While the dense significations of the script (credited to one “Martin Quatermass”) may get a bit thick in spots, Carpenter’s handsome ‘Scope images generally make the most of them, and some haunting poetic notions — such as video images from the future that appear as recurring dreams dreamt by the church’s inhabitants — figure effectively in the plot.… Read more »
D.W. Griffith’s last film (1931) was unquestionably dated when it was released at the height of the Depression, both as an antidrinking polemic — probably fueled in part by Griffith’s own struggles with alcoholism — and as a Victorian melodrama. Yet today it emerges as one of his most powerful and intensely felt works — not merely a heartbreaking story and a portrait of the Depression at its grimmest, but a poignant summary of everything that Griffith could do with a camera, even in low-budget, unspectacular circumstances. With Hal Skelly and Zita Johann. 87 min. (JR)
Alain Resnais’ masterpiece, easily his best film in years, is bound to baffle spectators who insist on regarding him as an intellectual rather than an emotional director, simply because he shares the conviction of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson that form is the surest route to feelings. In his 11th feature, he adapts a 1929 boulevard melodrama by a forgotten playwright named Henry Bernstein, and holds so close to this “dated” and seemingly unremarkable play that theatrical space and décor — including the absence of a fourth wall — are rigorously respected, and shots of a painted curtain appear between the acts. None of this is done to strike an attitude or “make a statement”: Resnais believes in the material, and wants to give it its due. Yet in the process of doing this, he not only invests the original meaning of “melodrama” (drama with music) with so much beauty and power that he reinvents the genre, but also proves that he is conceivably the greatest living director of actors in the French cinema, and offers a way of regarding the past that implicitly indicts our own era for myopia. (Mélo is certainly a film of the 80s and not an antique, but it may take us another 20 years to understand precisely how and why.)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1988). — J.R.
Stan Brakhage’s convulsive personal and silent documentary about a Pittsburgh morgue, made in 1971, is one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film. Included on the same program — along with a lecture by Chuck Kleinhans, professor of film at Northwestern University — are three other shorts that are not conventionally regarded as horror films, but that will be considered in relation to that genre: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s ground-breaking experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943); Chris Marker’s innovative science fiction film La jetee (1964), which tells its story almost exclusively in stills; and Celia Condi’s 1982 combination of soap-opera characters and dark humor, Beneath the Skin. (JR)