The Great Divide [FROM THE OTHER SIDE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 2003). — J.R.

From the Other Side **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Chantal Akerman.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost  to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

— from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, quoted on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty

More than 25 years ago, when I was living in a beachside bungalow in a suburb of San Diego, I eventually realized that the bungalow across the alley was a halfway house for Mexicans who’d just made it across the border. I had to figure this out on my own because none of my neighbors ever even alluded to the place or what it was. The constant arrival and departure of new faces was perfectly obvious yet completely unacknowledged—in fact, everything in the surrounding Elysian landscape seemed to encourage one not to observe it. The halfway house was there but not there, like the Mexican ghettos in other parts of suburban San Diego — too decorous to prompt a second look. If people needed to go there in search of cheap labor, they concentrated on what they were looking for.… Read more »

Notes on a Conversation with Welles (1972)

The following notes appeared in the same issue of Film Comment (November–December 1972) as “The Voice and the Eye,” at the end of my regular column, titled “Paris Journal,” which typically dealt with several different topics. Though these notes largely replicate things said elsewhere by Welles, two details for me stand out as significant additions to the record: that Welles regarded his Don Quixote as nearly completed in 1972 -— which corresponds fairly closely to the conclusions of “Don Quixote: Orson Welles’s Secret” by Audrey Stainton (who worked “on and off” as Welles’s secretary in the late 1950s) in the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound — and that he remained convinced that the deleted footage of Ambersons was destroyed by RKO (a belief I regretfully share, though legends continue to circulate about another copy of the longer cut that may survive somewhere in Brazil).

2014 footnote: The information that The Deep was “completed” by 1972 seems contradicted by the apparent fact that Jeanne Moreau never dubbed her part. -– J.R.

In the course of a conversation with Orson Welles about his Heart of  Darkness script, which is detailed elsewhere in this issue, I asked Welles about his more recent projects.… Read more »

Prospero’s Books

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1992). — J.R.

Prospero's Books

Poor John Gielgud tried for years to set up a film version of The Tempest that would record his performance of Prospero; he finally had to settle for director Peter Greenaway. Gone is any sense of drama or character; the cluttered spectacle yields no overriding design but simply disconnected MTV-like conceits or mini-ideas every three seconds. Don’t expect to enjoy Shakespeare’s poetry: aural distractions constantly intrude, from sound effects, echo chambers, and Michael Nyman’s neoclassical Muzak. And don’t expect to enjoy Sacha Vierny’s exquisitely lit cinematography: double exposures, ugly rectangular overlays, graceless quick cutting, and lots of nude or semiclad extras cavorting in clunky modernist choreography drain all the pleasure from that as well. On the other hand, if you share Greenaway’s misanthropy, you might get some kicks out of watching a cherub piss on everyone in sight. With Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, and Isabelle Pasco (1991). R, 124 min. (JR)

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Discovering MARGARET

Written for FIPRESCI’s web site (fipresci.org)  on November 7, 2012. — J.R.

The potential everyday glibness of journalism is surely one of the key factors that distinguishes film reviewing from film criticism. This was painfully brought home to me shortly after reseeing at the Viennale the 150-minute version of Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, the winner of my jury’s FIPRESCI prize, almost a year after first encountering the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. In between these two viewings, I saw Lonergan’s 186-minute cut of the same film on a Blu-Ray containing both versions of the film, prompting me to write the following paragraph in my latest column for the Canadian quarterly Cinema Scope:

“I’m grateful to Kenneth Lonergan for clarifying in interviews that the 150-minute Margaret, which I saw in December 2011 and the 186-minute cut, which I saw in July, are both ‘director’s cuts,’ and now that Fox has released both in one Blu-Ray package, it’s hard to say which version I prefer. Both are brilliant messes and finely distilled renderings of the New York Jewish upper-middle-class zeitgeist circa 2003, regardless of whether one regards Anna Paquin’s teenage heroine as someone to identify with (apparently the writer-director’s position), or as monstrous, or as both (my position).Read more »

Scenes From A Mall

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1991). — J.R.

scenes-from-a-mall

A middle-aged couple (Woody Allen and Bette Midler) in southern California celebrating their 15th anniversary go to a shopping mall, and they proceed to decompose and recompose their relationship on the basis of various revelations. Although this only runs for about 90 minutes, it’s the emptiest and most long-winded movie Paul Mazursky (working here with his frequent cowriter Roger L. Simon) has ever made, a disappointingly steep descent after his Enemies, a Love Story. The characters never come to life, and restricting almost all of the action to a gigantic mall only makes the narrowness and boredom of the movie more obvious. Mazursky has returned with a vengeance to his special universe where the upper middle class is the only thing that exists, and this time he has absolutely nothing to say about it. (JR)

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High Season

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). — J.R.

High_Season_poster

Clare Peploe’s accomplished and intelligent first feature is a sunny tale of expatriates set on the Greek island of Rhodes, with a cast of characters and a set of crisscrossing destinies that occasionally suggest Graham Greene in one of his happier moods. The people include a talented professional photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) faced with the possibility of having to sell her house, her teenage daughter (Ruby Baker) and ex-husband (James Fox), an art historian who is her oldest friend (Sebastian Shaw), a tradition-minded Greek peasant (Irene Papas) and her rebellious son (Paris Tselios), and an English couple on holiday (Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville). Many of these characters are not who they initially seem to be, and there are various forms of comedy in how they relate (or fail to relate) to one another. For spectators who recall Mazursky’s Tempest, this is a much better and smarter handling of many of the same elements, done this time for grown-ups — pleasurable and diverting throughout. (JR)

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Three on a Mensch [on ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY]

From the January 19, 1990 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

Written by Roger L. Simon and Mazursky

With Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston, Lena Olin, Margaret Sophie Stein, Alan King, Judith Malina, and Mazursky.

It’s a truism of film criticism that the best movie adaptations of novels usually aren’t taken from the best novels. A good novel, like a good movie, has its own raison d’être, and attempting to translate one person’s novel into another person’s movie usually entails removing the novel’s raison d’etre or at least transmogrifying it beyond recognition. A classic example of misplaced piety, in the sense of a movie trying to follow a novel too closely, is Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967): despite the fact that characters, settings, and entire textual passages from Joyce are all dutifully delivered and rendered, Joyce himself is absent from the movie. The personal, historical, and formal determinations of the book have nothing to do with those of the director of the film, working almost half a century later. The gap between Joyce’s reasons for writing Ulysses and Strick’s reasons for adapting it is so cosmically wide that the two sets of motivations aren’t even on speaking terms.… Read more »

Love and Politics [THE RUSSIA HOUSE & HAVANA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 14, 1990). Note: Twilight Time has recently released The Russia House on Blu-Ray. – J.R.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Written by Tom Stoppard

With Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, Ken Russell, David Threlfall, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.

HAVANA

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Written by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel

With Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Raul Julia, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, Daniel Davis, and Tony Plana.

The Russia House and Havana are both lavishly mounted love stories, packed with action and developed in relation to political intrigues abroad. What’s surprising about both is that although they’re Hollywood movies to the core, the American characters aren’t exactly the good guys.

In The Russia House the only important American characters are villains, while the hero is British and the heroine Russian. In Havana the hero is as American as they come, and he certainly behaves heroically, yet the film as a whole raises doubts about whether he has missed the boat, historically speaking. We entertain fewer doubts in this respect about the heroine, a Swede with an American passport who’s married to a Cuban.… Read more »

Unwarranted Heaviness (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING)

From the Chicago Reader (February 12, 1988). — J.R.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson, Pavel Landovsky, Donald Moffat, and Daniel Olbrychski.

Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.   — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The semibearable heaviness of Philip Kaufman, at least in his last three features – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, and The Right Stuff — is largely a matter of an only half-disguised didactic impulse, a notion that he’s got something to teach us. For a filmmaker as commercial as Kaufman, this impulse becomes worrying chiefly because we emerge from his movies not knowing anything essential that we didn’t know before we went in. We’ve submitted ourselves to a certain intelligence, grandiosity, and slickness, and we may well have been entertained — Kaufman has undeniable craft as a storyteller — but it’s questionable whether we’re any wiser.

There’s nothing at all disgraceful about this. But the suggestion that we’re supposed to be getting something more than intelligent entertainment from a Kaufman film — which seems to hover over every frame like an admonition, almost a threat — leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.… Read more »

Pink Panther, Dead Horse

From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.

SON OF THE PINK PANTHER

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by Edwards, Madeline Sunshine, and Steve Sunshine

With Roberto Benigni, Claudia Cardinale, Herbert Lom, Debrah Farentino, Robert Davi, Shabana Azmi, and Burt Kwouk.

Son of the Pink Panther is the eighth or ninth Pink Panther movie, depending on how you keep count — the press materials choose to ignore Bud Yorkin’s 1968 Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin, a flop that pleased no one. It also represents the third time writer-director Blake Edwards has resumed the series after announcing it was definitively over. The first dormant period was 1965-’74, after the successive and successful releases of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. The second, 1979-’81, followed The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) — which were even more successful at the box office than the first two.

Peter Sellers, the star of the series, died in 1980. But with a perversity and cynicism matched only by commercial greed, Edwards managed to grind out two more Clouseau films in the 80s, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which I’ve never managed to bring myself to see.… Read more »

8 1/2

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

8 1_2-car

8 1_2 leg

If what you know about this exuberant, self-regarding movie comes from its countless inferior imitations (from Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and The Pickle to Allen’s Stardust Memories to Fosse’s All That Jazz), you owe it to yourself to see Federico Fellini’s exhilarating, stocktaking original — an expressionist, circuslike comedy about the complex mental and social life of a big-time filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck for a subject and the busy world surrounding him. It’s Fellini’s last black-and-white picture, and conceivably the most gorgeous and inventive thing he’s ever made — certainly more fun than anything he’s made since. (The only other Fellini movie that’s about as pleasurable would be The White Sheik.) With Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimee (1963). A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 7 through 13.

8 1:2

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Kieslowski’s RED

From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1994). — J.R.

Red

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski

With Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Frederique Feder, and Jean-Pierre Lorit.

A film of mystical correspondences, Red triumphantly concludes and summarizes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy by contriving to tell us three stories about three separate characters all at once; yet it does this with such effortless musical grace that we may not even be aware of it at first. Two of the characters are neighbors in Geneva who never meet, both of them students — a model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) and a law student named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit )– and the third is a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who lives in a Geneva suburb and whom Valentine meets quite by chance, when she accidentally runs over his German shepherd.

Eventually we discover that Auguste and the retired judge are younger and older versions of the same man (neither of them meet, either). Another set of correspondences is provided when, in separate scenes, Valentine and the judge are able to divine important facts about each other: he correctly guesses that she has a younger brother driven to drug addiction by the discovery that his mother’s husband is not his real father; she correctly guesses that he was once betrayed by someone he loved — which also happens to Auguste during the course of the film.… Read more »

Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray

From the Autumn 1973 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Surfacing in Cannes in the worst of conditions — not quite finished, unsubtitled, shrieking with technical problems of all kinds, and dropped into the lap of an exhausted press fighting to stay awake through the fifteenth and final afternoon of the festival — Nicholas Ray’s WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN may have actually hurried a few critics back to their homes; but it probably shook a few heads loose in the process. Clearly it wasn’t the sort of experience anyone was likely to come to terms with, much less assimilate, in such an unfavorable setting, although the demands it makes on an audience would be pretty strenuous under any circumstances.

Created in collaboration with Ray’s film class at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and featuring Ray and his students, the film attempts to do at least five separate things at once: (1) describe     the conditions and ramifications of the filmmaking itself, from observations at the editing table to all     sorts of peripheral factors (e.g., a female student becoming a part-time prostitute in order to raise money for the film); (2) explore the political alienation experienced by many young Americans in the late 60s and early 70s; (3) demystify Ray’s image as a Hollywood director, in relation to both his film class and his audience; (4) implicate the private lives and personalities of Ray and his students in all of the preceding;    and (5) integrate these concerns in a radical form that permits an audience to view them in several aspects  at once.… Read more »

2 Days In The Valley

From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1996). — J.R.

2-Days-in-the-Valley

The standard line on this actor-heavy, brain-light concoction by writer-director John Herzfeld (1996) is that it’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction, but it isn’t a tenth as good as either. It does, however, have a good many dog reaction shots, so if you happen to think the other two movies were lacking in those, credit Herzfeld for making up the difference. Crosscutting between various San Fernando Valley miniplots that prove to be interlocking, Herzfeld has a tolerable eye for filling a ‘Scope frame but a tin ear when it comes to creating dialogue; these are all characters we’ve met before, and most even seem bored with themselves. With Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Charlize Theron, plus cameos by Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)

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Michel Gondry: Coping with the Metaphysics of Overload

The following short essay was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in early 2007 for a brochure accompanying a retrospective (“Michel Gondry: The Science of Dreams”) presented between May 11 and June 23, and a Regis Dialogue that I conducted with him on June 23. –J.R.

What’s sometimes off-putting about the postmodernity of music videos is tied to both the presence and absence of history in them — the dilemma of being faced simultaneously with too much and too little. On the one hand, one sees something superficially resembling the entire history of art — often encompassing capsule histories of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film — squeezed into three-to-five-minute slots. The juxtapositions and overlaps that result can be so violent and incongruous that the overall effect is sometimes roughly akin to having a garbage can emptied onto one’s head. Yet on the other hand, radical foreshortenings and shotgun marriages of this kind often have the effect of abolishing history altogether, making every vestige of the past equal and equivalent to every other via the homogenizing effect of TV itself. Back in 1990, sitting through nearly eight hours of a touring show called “Art of Music Video,” I was appalled to discover that the two most obvious forerunners of music videos, soundies from the 40s and Scopitone from the 60s, were neither included in the show nor even acknowledged in its catalog’s history of the genre.… Read more »