Declarations of Independents

From The Soho News (February 11, 1981), slightly revised. This is the first of my ten Soho News columns with that title, and the only one without a subtitle. — J.R.

Jan. 23; Arriving at the Collective [for Living Cinema] too late to absorb either of Gail Camhi’s 1980 quickies, I’m plunged almost at once into her lovely 22-minute Bellevue Film (1977-78), also silent, which is just what its title and program note say it is: “A look at physical therapy, having profited from it.”

What’s lovely about that?, one might ask, although no one at this crowded screeni9ng seems to be asking it. Russian Formalism associates art with defamiliarization, “making strange”. Gail Camhi seems to be doing just the reverse – showing how ordinary, say, amputees and their stumps and artificial limbs are, making them familiar and banal presences rather than fearfully charged objects. Yet by removing (to some extent) myth and other forms of fantasy from a hospital ward, she may actually be inviting the aesthetic imagination to relocate itself elsewhere in the film – not merely banishing this imagination to purgatory, as some arguments would have it.… Read more »

Christmas In July

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1990). — J.R.

christmas in july

christmasinjulywalburn

Preston Sturges’s second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.) is in many ways the most underrated of his movies — a riotous comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious but impoverished office clerk (Dick Powell) is determined to strike it rich in a contest with a stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”). He’s tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and proceeds to go on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like much of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more completely than most 30s pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that it eventually becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, Sturges’s supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and he uses it like instruments in a madcap concerto. (JR)

Christmas-in-July-deptstoreworkersRead more »

Anthropological Auteur

As I recall, this article, published in the November 2, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, had two immediate consequences for me. The first was that the late Gene Siskel, an acquaintance of mine from press screenings, refused to speak to me for several years, and I was no longer able to attend any more press screenings in Chicago held mainly for him and Roger Ebert. The second was that on November 11, when Rouch appeared at the Film Center, he publicly thanked me for my article, which I don’t believe had ever happened to me before with a filmmaker. So one might say that I lost an acquaintance (at least until Gene decided to forgive me several years later, after I attended a tribute to him and Roger at the Music Box) and gained a friend. —J.R.

 

LES  MAÎTRES FOUS

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Rouch.

THE LION HUNTERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jean Rouch

With Tahirou Koro, Wangari Moussa, Belebia Hamadou, Ausseini Dembo, Sidiko Ko ro, and Ali the apprentice.

JAGUAR

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Rouch

With Damoure Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, and Illo Gaoudel.

Anthropologists of the year 2090 — if humanity still exists and is still sufficiently divided, sufficiently colonialist and hierarchical, to need anthropologists — may look with wonder at that revealing artifact of late-20th-century multinational capitalism, the American newspaper.… Read more »

Beautifully Fake and Just Plain Phony

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 2007). — J.R.

NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY ****

DIRECTED BY CHARLES BURNETT | WRITTEN BY BURNETT, FRANK CHRISTOPHER, AND KENNETH S. GREENBERG

WITH CARL LUMBLY, TOM NOWICKI, TOMMY HICKS, JAMES OPHER, WILLIAM STYRON, ERIC FONER, MARY KEMP DAVIS, OSSIE DAVIS, EKEWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL, AND BURNETT

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER *

DIRECTED BY MICHAEL POLISH | WRITTEN BY MARK AND MICHAEL POLISH

WITH BILLY BOB THORNTON, VIRGINIA MADSEN, BRUCE DERN, MAX THIERIOT, TIM BLAKE NELSON, BRUCE WILLIS, KIERSTEN WARREN, AND RICHARD EDSON

Very little is known about Nat Turner, the black slave in Virginia’s Southampton County who led a revolt by more than 50 other black slaves in August 1831. Over two days they slaughtered 57 white men, women, and children, and after the rebellion was suppressed, 60 to 80 slaves were summarily executed and mutilated. As one historian notes in Charles Burnett’s hour-long TV documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), screening Sunday at the DuSable Museum of African American History, we have precise information about Turner’s victims but know almost nothing about the slaughtered blacks.

Most of what’s known about Turner is based on his unverifiable “confession” to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray, before he was executed.… Read more »

McCarthyism Made Simple [GUILTY BY SUSPICION]

From the Chicago Reader (March 22, 1991). — J.R.

GUILTY BY SUSPICION

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Irwin Winkler

With Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Barry Primus, Gailard Sartain, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, and Martin Scorsese.

There are plenty of bones one can pick with Guilty by Suspicion, the first Hollywood feature devoted in its entirety to the film-industry blacklist (The Front dealt with TV). Of course there are plenty of bones one can pick with just about any movie, if one is so inclined. But critics, at least, seem more inclined to be so inclined with movies that deal with political subjects. This is not to say that most critics reprove such movies on political grounds; on the contrary, they usually harp on other aspects. But one still winds up feeling that it’s frequently the politics that gets their hackles up.

Having seen this movie more than a week later than most of my colleagues, due to some interesting circumstances that I’ll discuss later, I’ve had ample opportunity to read and (more often) hear some of their carping, most of it hyperbolic invective about the acting and directing. Some of them have expressed so much antipathy for the picture that I went to the first screening at Webster Place last weekend expecting the worst.… Read more »

Digging Up Nazis: A Comedy [THE NASTY GIRL]

From the Chicago Reader (March 15, 1991). — J.R.

THE NASTY GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Michael Verhoeven

With Lena Stolze, Monika Baumgartner, Michael Gahr, Fred Stillkrauth, Elisabeth Bertram, Robert Giggenbach, and Hans-Richard Muller.

We’re told at the outset of Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl that Anja Rosmus inspired this film. What we aren’t told is who Rosmus is or how closely this film is based on what happened to her in the 1980s.

Born in 1960 and raised in the Bavarian city of Passau — where Adolf Hitler spent part of his childhood and where Adolf Eichmann was later married — Anja Elisabeth Rosmus, the daughter of two schoolteachers, had a comfortable, middle-class, Catholic upbringing. When she was 20, she won first prize in a national essay contest, writing about privacy and public freedom in European politics and history. The following year she entered another national essay contest, this time settling on a local topic: “An Example of Resistance and Persecution: Passau, 1933-1939.” Having been brought up to believe that her hometown was a bastion of resistance against the Nazis, largely through the efforts of the local Catholic church, she thought she was undertaking a project that would enhance local pride and was surprised by the defensiveness and hostility she encountered from certain quarters outside the church.… Read more »

When Bad Films Happen to Good Actors

From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1988). — J.R.

MidnightRun-ad

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by George Gallo

With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.

midnightrun02

There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case. It assumes further that one can easily isolate such separate aspects of movies as photography, direction, script, and acting while experiencing and judging their combined effects, the movie as a whole — it assumes, that is, that one can reverse the filmmaking process and, through powers of sheer induction, come up with precise recipes, the same way that producers and packagers do.

Like a butcher slicing up a carcass and pricing its various parts, the film reviewer typically regards each movie as a collection of individual expressions, each one to be rated on a separate evaluative scale. Of course, some of the greatest films tend to elude such divisions: how can one separate Chaplin’s acting from his directing in Monsieur Verdoux, or Tati’s directing from his script in PlayTime?… Read more »

Putting Back the Ritz

The following was written at some point in the early 1980s, as a kind of postscript or pendant to my first book, the autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed.,  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). I was living in Hoboken at the time, and secretly in love with another writer whose first name was Veronica. A slightly altered and doctored version of this piece eventually turned up in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s English anthology Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpant’s Tail, 1990). The version here has also been altered and doctored a little, and I’ve added all the photos, including those of the Ritz before and after its 1985 restoration. — J.R.

Putting Back the Ritz

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Between about 1947 and 1951, when the Ritz Theater in Sheffield, Alabama was still open (it was built in 1928 and received an Art Deco upgrade for talkies about five years later), my main encounters with the place, between the ages of four and eight, were on trips with my father across the river to pick up the final reports on the daily receipts on all four of the Rosenbaum theaters our family owned in Sheffield and Tuscumbia.… Read more »

Orson Welles’s Essay Films and Documentary Fictions: A Two-Part Speculation

From Cinematograph, vol. 4, 1991; reprinted in both Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism and Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

AboutFakes

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.

– Orson Welles, quoted in Collier’s, 29 January 1938

Two propositions:

1. One of the most progressive forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.

2. One of the most reactionary forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.

How can both of these statements be true — as, in fact, I believe they are? In the final analysis, the issue is an ethical one. In support of 2, there are docudramas that use spurious means to grant bogus authenticity to fiction (MISSISSIPPI BURNING is a good example), and documentaries that employ fictional devices in order to lie more effectively (e.g., the studio retakes in Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, which are well documented in Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich).Read more »

Once It Was Fire: Introduction to a Straub-Huillet Retrospective (1982)

Prior to the recently held retrospectives devoted to Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet, the only previous such retrospective was held on November 2-14, 1982, at New York’s Public Theater. I curated this event, which also included a selection of films by others made by Jean-Marie and Danièle to show with their own. For the occasion, I also edited a 20-page, tabloid-sized catalogue, long out of print, and what follows are (1) the full program as planned and (2) my introduction. Regarding (1), I recall now that there was one last-minute addition, their recently completed short film En rachâchant (see second photograph below), as well as some last-minute omissions or substitutions that are noted in the text below. Regarding (2), I should emphasize that a lot has changed and developed over the past three decades, both in myself and in Straub-Huillet’s work –- in both cases, I’d like to think, for the better. It’s cheering to note that no less than three very substantial books have appeared over the past several months devoted to their work, two in English  — their Writings (as translated and edited by Sally Shafto, published in New York by Sequence Press), and an excellent critical collection edited by Ted Fendt for the Austrian Filmmuseum — and a mammoth collection in French, Internationale Straubienne, published jointly by Editions de l’Oeil and the Centre Pompidou (to accompany their own retrospective, which may be still in progress).Read more »

Theory of Film Practice, by Noel Burch

From the Village Voice (February 28, 1974). -– J.R.

 

Theory of Film Practice

A book by Noël Burch

Praeger, $3.95 and $8.95

 

These comments were written before the release of Tati’s ‘Playtime’. Even if they still hold true for films in general, they are not applicable to Tati’s film, the first in the history of cinema that not only must be seen several times, but also must be viewed from several different distances from the screen. In its form, it is probably the first truly ‘open’ film. Will it remain an isolated experiment? Masterpieces somehow eventually assert their authority and become models.”

– “Theory of Film Practice”

 

It seems oddly appropriate that “Theory of Film Practice” should appear in Cahiers du Cinéma that same year (1967) that “Playtime” opened in Paris, and also that they should arrive in America at approximately the same time. Films that re-define the language and syntax of cinema are rare in any period, and it is hardly surprising that books that do the same are even less common.

Both works, emerging out of years of reflection, stand defiantly apart from the surrounding landscape, inviting us to share that broad perspective. Each offers us a fresh garden of possibilities in the midst of a familiar terrain by drawing us into a kind of creative collaboration that requires, at least implicitly, that we become film makers.… Read more »

Fats Waller (1976 review)

This appeared in the July 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 43, no. 510). 8/25 correction/ postscript: Ehsan Khoshbakht, who provided me with some more illustrations, informs me that (a) Sedric is playing tenor sax, not alto, (b) that a fourth Waller soundie that wasn’t included in the compilation I reviewed, “Your Feet’s Too Big ,” was actually the first one, and that (c) the photo at the bottom of this post, which I included just because I like it, actually comes from Stormy Weather. —J.R.

Fats Waller

U.S.A., 1941
Director:
Warren Murray

Dist—TCB. p.c—Official Films. m/songs–“Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “The Joint is Jumpin’” by Thomas “Fats” Waller. performed by–Fats Waller (piano, vocals), John Hamilton (trumpet), Gene Sedric (alto sax), Al Casey (guitar), Cedric Wallace (bass), Wilmore “Slick” Jones (drums), Myra Johnson (vocals). No further credits available. 314 ft. 9 min. (16 mm.).

A collection of three “soundies” made in the early Forties — mini-films designed to be shown on tiny screens inside jukeboxes — this entertaining short displays Waller’s showmanship at its flashiest.… Read more »

The Tower Of The Seven Hunchbacks (with an emailed postscript)

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1987). — J.R.

Edgar Neville — an aristocratic Republican filmmaker and writer who was friends with everyone from Lorca and Chaplin to Ortega y Gasset and Lacan — is one of the great undiscovered auteurs of the Spanish cinema. This remarkable turn-of-the-century fantasy, which suggests an eerie encounter between the tales of Borges and the early melodramas of Feuillade and Lang, starts off as a supernatural mystery as the hero (Antonio Casal) is persuaded by a one-eyed ghost to solve the case of his murder. This leads him first to the ghost’s niece (Isabel de Pomes) and eventually to a hidden underground city beneath the old section of Madrid that contains an ancient synagogue and is presided over by hunchbacked counterfeiters. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, this hallucinatory fiction ends rather abruptly and never manages to account for all the mysteries it uncovers, but as pure, primal storytelling it is as creepy a spellbinder as one could wish for (1944). (JR)

On November 27, 2017 I received the following email, sent from Spain:

You refer to Edgar Neville in your online review of TOWER OF THE SEVEN HUNCHBACKS as a “Republican”. He was actually one of the other guys, if you know what I mean.… Read more »

Murder (1975 review)

I believe this is the last of my reviews of early Hitchcock films for the Monthly Film Bulletin that I’ve transcribed, after The Ring, Blackmail, and Number Seventeen; this one appeared in the July 1975 issue. –J.R.


Murder

Great Britain, 1930                                                     Director: Alfred Hitchcock

 

Hitchcock has described Murder as his “first and only whodunit”, accounting for his antipathy to the form with the complaint that it “contains no emotion”, and bringing to mind Edmund Wilson’s comparison of reading several with unpacking “large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”. Certainly the most evident lack in this 1930 movie — apart from the creakier aspects of the play which it adapts — is the sort of emotional continuity and momentum of controlled viewpoints which sustained Blackmail so brilliantly the previous year, and the more dubious cerebral rewards offered in their place are not quite enough to fuse its comparable experiments into a consistently workable style. After an effective, rather UFA-inspired opening (prompted, no doubt, both by Hitchcock’s work at the German studio in the mid-Twenties and by the fact that he concurrently shot a German version of Murder entitled Mary), which features a lengthy dolly past the windows of neighbors responding to a mysterious commotion, the film mainly tends towards a stagier conception of dialogue units which the various stylistic departures often inflect rather than unify, thus usually registering as isolated “touches”.… Read more »

Number Seventeen (1975 review)[correction added]

This review from the August 1975 Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 42, no. 499) probably features my first use of the word “diegesis“, which I must have learned about very shortly before. (As I recall, it was Laura Mulvey who explained to me what the term meant.) I’m not at all confident now that I absolutely had to use it.

An email sent on 9/4/09 from Adrian Martin: “Great to re-read your MFB pieces, which were among the earliest writings of yours I encountered as they appeared ! But your memorable NUMBER 17 piece raises a great historic mystery that has often plagued me, and which (I now realise) you may be at the centre of !! And that is the mysterious (mis)spelling of ‘diegesis’ – that is definitely the correct spelling, via the Greek root – as ‘diagesis’, which (as I recall) ran rife through FILM COMMENT and SIGHT AND SOUND for a while in the mid to late 70s (after a while, it seemed like some editorial superimposition by Corliss or Houston or whomever). It seemed to me, at the time, as the biggest symptom of the non- communication between film journalism and the theory academy! But maybe you have another version of where ‘diagesis’ came from ??Read more »