The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

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 »

Hollywood Low (The Best Movies of 1992)

From the Chicago Reader (January 8, 1993). — J.R.

A few years ago, world cinema received a shot in the arm from so-called glasnost movies from the former Soviet Union — pictures that had been shelved due to various forms of censorship, mostly political, and were finally seeing the light of day thanks to the relaxation or near dissolution of state pressures. The thought of an American glasnost may seem a little farfetched. But if we start to look at the awesome control exerted by multinational corporations over what we see, particularly in mainstream movies, the definition of what is and isn’t permissible — or, in business terms, what is “viable,” which in this country often comes to the same thing — may seem comparably restricted.

The best movies of 1992 weren’t exactly censored; but given the profound lack of media attention they received they would have achieved much more reality in most people’s minds if they had been. And nothing short of an American-style glasnost would give these films the cultural centrality they deserve. Only three of them received extended theatrical runs in Chicago, and perhaps only one or two got so much as a mention on Entertainment Tonight or in Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Fantasy Films on DVD (and 2 more that should be)

Posted by DVD Beaver in October 2007; I’ve updated many of the links. — J.R.

TheTogerofEschnapur-web

As with science fiction, the focus of my previous article in this series, the definition of what constitutes a fantasy film is to some extent arbitrary. Not every account of The Tiger of Eschnapur would situate it within the realm of fantasy, though I’d argue that a sequence involving a spider’s web that’s woven in the entrance to a cave, and perhaps other details as well, warrant such a description. The some goes for Confessions of an Opium Eater and its sudden shifts into slow-motion; these are nominally justified as opium-induced perceptions, but when the hero suddenly falls from a building and does several rapid cartwheels in midair, it’s impossible to tell at which point the logic of dreams takes over. In other respects, accepting Eyes Wide Shut as a fantasy is more a matter of interpretation than a matter of pointing at any obvious genre elements. And of course the realm of horror, which overlaps with fantasy without necessarily becoming fantasy (as in the cases of The Seventh Victim, Psycho, and Peeping Tom, for instance), accounts for at least four of my selections—Vampyr, Night of the Demon, The Masque of the Red Death, and Martin.… Read more »

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

TheSearchers-winter

It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

 

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

thebigsky1

1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This isn’t simply the only Hawks western that doesn’t star John Wayne (not counting his uncredited and piecemeal work on Viva Villa!

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A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires

 Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007; I’ve updated several links. — J.R.

findmeguilty

One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.


With some significant exceptions —- Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking —- satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops.
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18 Thrillers You Might Have Missed…

Posted on DVD Beaver, July 2007; I’ve updated the links when necessary. — J.R.

Some genres are a lot more elastic than others. Our notions of what a Western or a musical consists of are reasonably firm. But thrillers tend to be all over the place, overlapping at various times with crime films, adventure films, heist films, noirs, mystery stories, spy stories, melodramas, and even comedies, period films, and art movies —- to propose a far from exhaustive list.

In order to demonstrate this overall versatility, I’ve come up with 18 recommended titles that I’m listing and briefly describing below, in alphabetical order. A dozen are in English, three are in French, and one apiece is in German, Italian, or Japanese. All but two are currently available on DVD, although in at least one case you’ll have to go beyond American sources in order to acquire it. And ironically, the two that are unavailable are both Hollywood classics —- one more indication of the degree to which some of the major studios and/or the inheritors of their treasures still don’t have a very clear idea of what they possess and keep out of reach.

(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

  Bad Day at Black Rock.

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The Language of Objects [THE WAR OF THE ROSES]

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Danny DeVito

Written by Michael Leeson

With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.

The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.

Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem.… Read more »

American Directors (1984 book review)

From Film Quarterly, Spring 1984. -– J.R.

 

AMERICAN DIRECTORS

 

Two volumes.  Edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, with Pierre Sauvage. New York: McGraw Hill, 1983. $21.95 per volume cloth, $11.95 per volume paper.

On the whole, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 874-page, two-volume American Directors is closer in genre to Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary than it is to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. Like both predecessors, it is an encyclopedia of opinions first and facts second — although, to its credit, it has many more facts per entry (in filmographies and career summaries) than either of the earlier monoliths. Like the Roud and unlike the Sarris, it attempts exhaustive surveys rather than suggestive critical miniatures, and is authored by many hands. Coursodon wrote 66 of the 118 essays and co-editor Pierre Sauvage, who furnished all the filmographies, contributed 13; the remaining 39 are by 20 other writers.

Again like the Roud, the Coursodon stands or falls as a compendium more than as a book with a sustained viewpoint; consecutive or continuous reading is neither recommended nor viable. Overall, the criticism is homogeneous, perhaps too much so: the standard auteurist form of career survey — already a bit fossilized — as developed out of Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s Trente ans de cinéma américain (1970) and The American Cinema (1968) is so predominant here that other critical persuasions of the past two decades might as well have never existed.… Read more »

Three of a Kind [NEW YORK STORIES]

From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 1989). — J.R.

NewYorkStories

NEW YORK STORIES

*** (A must-see)

“Life Lessons”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Richard Prince

With Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, and Patrick O’Neal.

“Life Without Zoe”

Directed by Francis Coppola

Written by Francis Coppola and Sofia Coppola

With Heather McComb, Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini, Don Novello, and Selim Tlili.

“Oedipus Wrecks”

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Woody Allen, Mae Questel, Mia Farrow, and Julie Kavner.

With the exception of the recent and disappointing Aria, there have been no films made of late that consist of thematically related sketches, compilations of episodes by one director or more. New York Stories may help make the form fashionable again. The arbitrariness of the standard running time of features, at least from an artistic standpoint, makes a good many movies needlessly padded and a few others shorter than they should be, while the difficulty in marketing shorts discourages most commercially established filmmakers from even attempting to work in the form. New York Stories came about because Woody Allen wanted to make a short and decided that incorporating it within an anthology would make it commercially feasible.

The usual argument made against sketch movies is that they’re invariably uneven — which is true enough but also rather beside the point.… Read more »

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi] (1976 review)

Apart from Woody Allen, “the American filmmakers” discussed in this review — which appeared in the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 43, no. 506) — were apparently Frank Buxton, Len Maxwell, Louise Lasser, Mickey Rose, Julie Bennett, and Bryna Wilson, all credited jointly with Allen  for the “script and dubbing” of the 1964 Japanese feature Kizino Kizi that was originally written by Hideo Ando. In recent years, Allen has routinely omitted this film from his filmography, but I persist in finding it one of his funniest. — J.R.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi]

U.S.A, 1966
[Director: Senkichi Taniguchi]

The wonderful surprise of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? — a modest exploitation exercise which predates Woody Allen’s career as a director, and has inexplicably taken a full decade to reach England — is how much mileage it gets out of what might seem to be a very limited conceit; for sheer laughs alone, it is arguably the most consistently funny film in which Allen has so far taken a hand. Undoubtedly a crucial factor in its success derives from the cheerful fashion in which the American filmmakers foreground their principal strategies. Unlike the dubious practice of an American TV cartoon series which slyly perpetuated the racist stereotypes of Amos ‘n’ Andy by assigning similar voices to animal characters, this 1966 jeu d’esprit avoids the chauvinistic possibilities inherent in a reverse procedure post-dubbing live-action Japanese actors with American voices, many of them evocative of cartoon animals — by  beginning with material that is already reeking with American influence, and by taking care to remind audiences of what is being done every step of the way.Read more »

Buried Treasures

From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).

To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….

“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur.Read more »

The True Auteur: RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT

This review was originally written for the long-defunct Canadian film magazine Take One during the same time that I was writing my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), and I’m sure that Pryor’s passionate form of self-examination and autocritique struck a very personal chord for me at the time. To contextualize this review a little further, I had recently written an angry attack on The Deer Hunter for the March issue of the same magazine, not too long after a reviewer in the Soho News had compared it favorably to Tolstoy. –J.R.

 

The True Auteur: Richard Pryor Live in Concert

 

Richard Pryor Live in Concert has nothing in particular to do with the art of cinema; it merely happens to be the densest, wisest, and most generous response to life that I’ve found this year inside a first-run movie theater. A theatrical event recorded by Bill Sargeant, the entrepreneur who similarly packaged Richard Burton’s Broadway production of Hamlet and a celebrated rock concert (The T.A.M.I. Show) fifteen years ago, and more recently filmed James Whitmore’s impersonation of Harry Truman (Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!), it is nothing more nor less than a Pryor stand-up routine given last December 28th at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California, lasting about an hour and a quarter.… Read more »

Festival Journal: N.Y. Film Festival, 1981

From The Soho News, October 6, 1981. I’m embarrassed to confess that over three decades later, I have no recollection at all about Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet apart from what I wrote about it, although I’m happy to report that the film is still in distribution, and available from Icarus Films. — J.R.

 

September 22: From a global or even a continental perspective, much of this year’s New York Film Festival belongs under the staunch division of Business as Usual. This basically means that the festival is involved in ratifying certain important discoveries (of ideas or filmmakers) that were made during the 60s or 70s, often by the very same members of the selection committee, rather than risking its self-image or self-composure in order to seek out many new challenges or talents.

This makes New York precisely the reverse of the more footloose, friendly, and unpredictable film festival in Toronto. There the specialty tends to be, rather, a flavorsome if occasionally warmed-over newness of look, sound, and/or signature: an underground movie about everyday life in the Watts ghetto (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep), a corrosive and shocking black comedy about the mourning business in Israel in relation to war memorials (Yaky Yosha’s The Vulture), a flaky German film based on a French best seller about Proust by his maid, played by Fassbinder alumnus Eva Mattes (Percy Adlon’s Celeste).… Read more »

ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). -– J.R.

ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY

‘Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust, Isaac Bashevis Singer ironically begins his Author’s Note, ‘I have lived for years in New York with refugees from this ordeal. I therefore hasten to say that this novel is by no means the story of the typical refugee, his life, and struggle. Like most of my fictional works, this book presents an exceptional case with unique heroes and a unique combination of events. The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates. If they fit into the general picture, it is because the exception is rooted in the rule. As a matter of fact, in literature the exception is the rule.’

Forewarned is forearmed: Singer’s tragi-comic 1972 novel is a holocaust story, but a far from typical one. Set in New York in 1949-50, it focuses on a Jewish survivor named Herman Broder who finds himself living what amounts to three separate, if sometimes distractingly overlapping lives as a direct consequence of the holocaust’s traumatic upheavals. In Coney Island, he is married to Yadwiga, his former maid in Poland, a non-Jew who kept him alive during the war by hiding him in a hayloft, and who now happily waits on him hand and foot.… Read more »

Out of the Mush [The Best Movies of 1990]

From the Chicago Reader (January 4, 1991). — J.R.

Looking over a list of all the new movies I saw in 1990, I was shocked to discover how forgettable many of them were — so much so that it took considerable effort in many cases for me to remember much more than their titles. Crazy People, Bad Influence, Opportunity Knocks, I Love You to Death, Short Time, Cadillac Man, Die Hard 2, Another 48 Hrs., Funny About Love, and Sibling Rivalry all started turning into mush as soon as I saw them. Summoning them up weeks or months later is a bit like trying to remember what I had for lunch on the days I saw them.

Maybe it’s my middle-age talking, but I think something else is involved as well. We’ve been told repeatedly over the past couple of years that the most serious problem affecting this country is not poverty, not AIDS, not violations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not a warmongering president or racism or misogyny, and not corporate and governmental skulduggery and deception — but the sale of harmful drugs. Yet during this same period Hollywood movies that will cause comparable amounts of brain damage have commanded almost as much space and attention in the media as all these problems combined.… Read more »