Praxis du cinéma by Noël Burch

For its 100th issue (Winter 2o16), the French quarterly Trafic asked its contributors to select a particular book that had a formative influence on him or her. Here is my contribution. — J.R.

Praxis-du-cinema

Unpraxisducinema

I still have the original Gallimard edition, probably the most tattered and thumbed-through French book that I own, published in 1969, the same year that I moved to Paris from New York — the title missing the article (Une Praxis du cinéma) that is now found on the 1986 edition. I can even recall purchasing this book at Le Minotaure, a Surrealist bookstore on Rue des Beaux Arts, a short distance from my rented flat on Rue Mazarine, and the ridiculous advertising slip (against which Burch rightly protested), “Contre toute théorie,” that enclosed it.

plaisir_du_texte

filmculture-americandirectors

TheAmericanCinema

By this time, I’d already read — or at least tried to read, back in New York — earlier drafts of some of the chapters when they had appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma, and may have also read Godard’s praise of one of those chapters in one of his interviews. Due to a crippling disability in learning languages, much of which I still suffer from today, I had to read those chapters with the aid of a French-English dictionary, even though Burch’s French—the French of an American émigré — was far easier to follow than the French of Roland Barthes in Le plaisir du texte, published four years later, which eventually became my other key French text of this period.… Read more »

Theory of Film Practice

This book review appeared in the Winter 1974/5 issue of Sight and Sound. For illustrations, I’m including a contemporary photograph of the author, Noël Burch (seen here in Rotterdam with the late Allan Sekula) and two stills from Burch’s first and (probably) best film, Noviciat (1964 — only 18 minutes long, but including illustrations of a remarkable number of the formal procedures described in his book.

Shortly after this review appeared, I recall receiving a gratifying fan letter of sorts from James Leahy, a teacher at the Slade School in London and a devoted Burch disciple, at least at the time. — J.R.

Theory of Film Practice

THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE

By Noël Burch

Translated by Helen R. Lane

Secker & Warburg, ₤3.50 (paperback, ₤1.90)

Theory of Film Practice is at every point derived from and confirmed by the perception that film develops not through the contraints and coventions of an industry, but in opposition to them.” Thus Annette Michelson, in her exemplary introduction to this revised and updated English edition of Praxis du cinéma (1969), sets forth one salient fact about Noël Burch’s seminal work that clearly isolates it from the critical mainstream as we know it today.

There are many others: a total rejection of the illusionist principle which was expanded in depth by André Bazin (more precisely, extended into deep focus), and has subsequently been adopted as an unexamined postulate by most of his epigones; a ‘scientific’ approach that rigorously eschews journalism, sociology, literary analysis and the promulgation of moral concerns, however much it reflects Burch’s own aesthetic predilections; above all, an obstinate insistence on regarding films as sounds, images and the formal relationships between them.… Read more »

The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight

This was written for the Writers Guild magazine Written By; it ran in their August 1997 issue and was later reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.

My comparison of May with Erich von Stroheim, which may sound frivolous, is actually something I take very seriously. Both filmmakers are mainstream figures with the temperaments of avant-garde artists; Orson Welles’ description of Stroheim’s style as “Jewish baroque” also fits May’s quite well; and perhaps most significantly of all, both of these highly obsessional writer-director-performers create films populated almost exclusively by monsters, yet characters whom their creators clearly love. In this latter respect, May might even be considered more radical than Stroheim because one can’t cite a single villain in her four features — unlike, say, Schani the butcher (Matthew Betz) in Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Furthermore, for me, the two greatest Stroheim films, Foolish Wives and Greed, are echoed in many respects by The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, the two best films of May.

On the evening of June 27, 2010, in Bologna, Italy, I had the rare, unexpected, and delightful privilege of spending a couple of hours with May. It was a friendly conversation over dinner rather than any sort of interview, but she did tell me in passing a few things about her life and work that I’ve added to this piece as footnotes.Read more »

The Danger of Putting Our Cultural Destiny in the Hands of Business

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 1998. –- J.R.

Ever since a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened in my neighborhood in Chicago, I’ve been cultivating the habit of hanging out there, a bit like the way I used to frequent the public library in my hometown as a teenager. I often stop there not with a particular purchase in mind, but on my way to someplace else – a movie at the same shopping center, a nearby restaurant — or on my way home from work. The relaxed idleness offered by the roomy store and the various incentives to linger — the generous selection of hardcovers and paperbacks, the current magazines, the tables where you can spread your stuff out and read for as long as you want to, the Starbucks coffee bar, not to mention various appearances by authors and periodic meetings of discussion groups — create an alluring kind of community space.

It’s a kind of space that I haven’t found in public libraries in recent years, especially since the removal of card catalogues and easy chairs. Some younger people I know, who harbor no fond memories of public libraries, are enjoying visits to places such as Barnes & Noble as a new kind of experience altogether, a theme park that features words instead of rides.… Read more »

Toronto 1982

Originally published in Artforum (December 1982). — J.R.

The Toronto Film Festival, now in its seventh year, takes place over ten days every September. Proudly dubbing itself a “Festival of Festivals,” it actually deserves that moniker a lot more than the New York Film Festival does, and not only because it shows about five times as many films. Insofar as its giddy pluralism derives from an overlap of disparate and even antithetical individual tastes rather than from a distillation based on committee decisions, Toronto democratically permits those attending to select their own festivals out of an overflowing mixed bag. This year, apart from the main standbys –- nightly galas chosen by festival director Wayne Clarkson and a large international selection by David Overbey, a Paris-based American critic – the multiple events included retrospectives devoted to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Brazilian and New Zealand cinema and Berlin underground director Lothar Lambert, as well as a superb new package by Kay Armatage featuring a wide array of independently produced work. While Armatage rightly pointed to many of her own choices as films that take risks, her fellow programmer Overbey, operating from a somewhat different set of preferences, should also be credited with selecting both of the films that wound up locking horns with the prudish Ontario Censor Board – Lambert’s Berlin-Harlem 1974 and Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau.… Read more »

Jacques Rivette (1928-2016)

Written for the May 2016 Artforum. — J.R.

jaques-rivette-02-15x200_scrsc2a9robinholland

Although Jacques Rivette was the first of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to embark on filmmaking, he differed from his colleagues—Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut—in remaining a cult figure rather than an arthouse staple. His career was hampered by various false starts, delays, and interruptions, and then it abruptly ended in 2009 with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, six years before his recent death. But his legacy is immense.

 

His career can easily be divided into two parts, although it’s not so easy to pinpoint a precise dividing line between them. And for those who knew him well or even casually, as I did, it’s hard to prefer the first portion to the second without feeling somewhat guilty.

 

Common to both parts is a preoccupation with mise-en-scène and the mysterious aspects of collective work, offset by the more solitary and dictatorial tasks of plotting and editing. Rivette’s own collective work was frequently enhanced by improvisation—with actors, with onscreen or offscreen musicians, or with dialogue written just prior to shooting (either by actors or screenwriters)—while the more solitary work of plotting and editing emulated the Godardian paradigm of converting chance into destiny.… Read more »

Brand New Angles [2/DUO]

From the February 26, 1999 Chicago Reader. July 2014 postscript: This fascinating and neglected film, still my favorite among the Nobuhiro Suwa features that I’ve seen, has become available on a French DVD released by Capricci see the first image below — albeit with (optional) French subtitles only. You can also access a seven-minute extract with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tLlUHu1OCQ. — J.R.

2_Duo DVD

2_Duo-reverse

2-Duo

2/Duo

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nobuhiro Suwa

Written by Suwa, Eri Yu, and Hidetoshi Nishijima

With Yu, Nishijima, and Makiko Watanabe.

The first feature of Nobuhiro Suwa, a director of TV documentaries in his mid-30s, 2/Duo (1996) is the penultimate work in the Doc Films series “Japanese Cinema After the Economic Miracle: Masaki Tamura, Cinematographer.” Having seen only one other film in the series — Shinsuke Ogawa’s remarkable two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the lives of farmers protesting the construction of Japan’s biggest airport, Narita: Heta Village (1973) — I can’t give a comprehensive account of Tamura’s work. But judging from these two very different features, I suspect I might recognize his shooting style without seeing his name in the credits. Though Narita: Heta Village is a documentary and 2/Duo a fictional narrative, the style of both displays a highly intuitive engagement with the characters, expressed most clearly in the way Tamura places and moves his camera in relation to them, neither anticipating their actions nor dogging them, but navigating the spaces they occupy with an intelligence that manages to project empathy as well as independence — a rare combination.… Read more »

The Power of Belief

This appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. Although my favorite Cecil B. De Mille film is the talkie version of Dynamite (1929) — I still haven’t seen the silent version, released around the same time — The Ten Commandments (1956) is probably the film of his that I’m most familiar with, along with the somewhat underrated Samson and Delilah (1949).

Dynamite

Part of what’s so remarkable about the scandalously underrated and neglected Dynamite [see still, above] is how real and serious it contrives to make the marital pairing of a coal miner (Charles Bickford) and a spoiled city heiress (Kay Johnson), even though brought about through preposterous plot contrivances, and how, in spite of De Mille’s conservative social and political biases, it assigns equal amounts of dignity and vulnerability to both classes. It’s also one of the most suspenseful and charged melodramas to have ever come out of Hollywood. — J.R.

 

The Power of Belief

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Cecil B. De Mille

Written by Aeneas Mackenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank

With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, and Vincent Price.Read more »

Nihilism for the Masses [ROGER & ME]

From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 1990). — J.R.

RogerMe

ROGER & ME

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Michael Moore.

roger-and-me eviction

There’s no question that you should see Roger & Me if you haven’t already. Michael Moore’s comic documentary about the devastation of Flint, Michigan, resulting from General Motors’ massive plant closings and job layoffs is the most entertaining American documentary to come along in years. Better yet, Roger & Me is radical in its angry critique of the Reagan era — its legacy of corporate greed and its cheerful heartlessness — in a way that makes contemporary Hollywood movies seem cowardly and conformist.

The story of how Michael Moore, a journalist from Flint with no prior filmmaking experience, financed his first feature is an American success story with an inspirational value all its own. Moore sold his house and furnishings, organized local bingo games, invested his settlement from a wrongful-discharge lawsuit against Mother Jones (where he briefly served as editor), and collected hundreds of small investments from Michigan residents to raise his $160,000 budget. After the film became a popular hit and prizewinner at several film festivals last fall, it was picked up by Warners for $3 million and is already well on its way to becoming an independent sleeper.… Read more »

Are We Having Fun Yet?

From the Chicago Reader (June 7, 1996). — J.R.

Mission: Impossible

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne

With Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Phantom

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Simon Wincer

Written by Jeffrey Boam

With Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, James Remar, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

My Favorite Season

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Marthe Villalonga, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Chiara Mastroianni, Carmen Chaplin, Anthony Prada, and Michèle Moretti.

http://michaelmay.us/08blog/10/1023_phantom.jpg

I think that one never grows up emotionally. We grow up physically, intellectually, socially, and even morally but never emotionally. Recognition of this fact can be either terrifying or deeply moving. Everyone handles it in their own way. — Andre Téchiné

The principal pleasure of the Cannes festival for me was a two-week vacation from the “fun” of American movies. Maybe this fun — which points to our inability to grow up emotionally — would seem less oppressive if it didn’t also inform the American experience of news, politics, fast food, sports, economics, education, religion, and leisure in general; this kind of fun is less an escape than an enforced activity, a veritable civic duty.… Read more »

How film history gets rewritten [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

How film history gets rewritten

Posted By on 06.13.07 at 05:48 PM

out1-colorcollage-png.

I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute  Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.

What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor!

Read more »

A Few (Further) Demurrals About Films that Didn’t Make It Onto My Ten Best List

One of the most debilitating facets of contemporary media discourse, at least in the U.S., is the unspoken assumption that serious discussion about such topics as torture, mass murder, and slavery can only enter the mainstream public sphere once it becomes tied to the sale of a current movie, regardless of how inane or or superficial or inadequate its treatment of that subject might be. If our discussion of American slavery can essentially be licensed by Django Unchained, which appeared to be the case last year, then I suppose 12 Years a Slave could be regarded as a partial corrective, even after one factors in the restrictive aspect of focusing on the relatively exceptional case of a non-slave forced to become a slave for many years. For me, the treatment of slavery as something relevant to both the present and more than just the U.S., in Pedro Costa’s sublime Sweet Exorcist (his half-hour episode in Centro Historico), is a more valid corrective and carries much greater force, not least because it has some access to poetry –- which, I would insist, is a crucial source of knowledge -– and  beauty, and not merely to exploitation-movie assaults. Even though, paradoxically, Costa’s gives us the poetic insight without the concrete information that produces it.… Read more »

Unsatisfied Men

From the May 26, 2000 Chicago Reader. I must confess that I’m embarrassed by most of my other reviews of Claire Denis films on this site. Writing from the Trumsoe International Film Festival in Norway, where I’ve just been reseeing many of her films at a retrospective, I’ve been discovering how they invariably seem to improve on repeated viewings. (I’m also reprinting this piece on Beau Travail in my next collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition, which the University of Chicago Press will be publishing in September.)

Part of what’s both great and difficult about Denis’ films has been discussed perceptively by the late Robin Wood in one of his last great pieces, about I Can’t Sleep. And part of what I think is so remarkable about Claire, one of my favorite people, is a trait she shares with he late Sam Fuller, which might be described as the reverse of the cynicism of the jaundiced leftist who loves humanity but hates people. Fuller and Denis both show very dark, pessimistic, and even despairing views of humanity in their films, but their love of people and of life is no less constant. (Jim Jarmusch shows a bit of the same ambivalence in some of his edgier films, such as Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control.) —J.R.Read more »

En movimiento: The Season of Critical Inflation

My latest En movimiento column for the Spanish monthly Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, written for their January 2014 issue. An afterthought: Since one of my recent favorites is Blue is the Warmest Color, I’ve been struck by the curious double standard that’s been operating lately within the critical community whereby “harder” pornography of various kinds involving sex and/or violence (including Spring Breakers, The Act of Killing, 12 Years a Slave, and Claire Denis’ Bastards) are getting applauded by many of the same critics who skewer the “softer” pornography of Blue is the Warmest Color. – J.R.

gravity Am I turning into a 70-year-old grouch? Writing during the last weeks of 2013 — specifically a period of receiving screeners in the mail and rushing off to various catch-up screenings, a time when most of the ten-best lists are being compiled — I repeatedly have the sensation that many of my most sophisticated colleagues are inflating the value of several recent releases. And my problem isn’t coming up with ten films that I support but trying to figure out why so many of the high-profile favorites of others seem so overrated to me. All of these films have their virtues, but I still doubt that they can survive many of the exaggerated claims being made on their behalf.… Read more »

Hell on Wheels

From the March 1, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Taxi Driver

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Paul Schrader

With Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris, Steven Prince, and Martin Scorsese.

Perhaps the most formally ravishing — as well as the most morally and ideologically problematic — film ever directed by Martin Scorsese, the 1976 Taxi Driver remains a disturbing landmark for the kind of voluptuous doublethink it helped ratify and extend in American movies. Of all Scorsese’s movies, Taxi Driver – being screened this week at the Music Box in a 20th-anniversary “restoration” that’s in stereo for the first time — is for me the most seductive, though I wouldn’t call it either his best film (I’d choose the underrated The King of Comedy) or his most gut-wrenching (I’d pick the overrated Raging Bull). Most of the glamorous depictions of hell on earth and odes to stoical despair about a postapocalyptic civilization found in monuments to capitalist-urban squalor, including Blade Runner and Seven, can be traced back to Taxi Driver, and if it continues to exert an enormous claim on our imagination, this is surely because we continue to live in its vengeful, puritanical fantasies — as well as with the dire consequences of those fantasies.… Read more »