Interrogating the 60s [on THE SECOND HEIMAT]

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 1994). I haven’t reseen The Second Heimat since then, and it would be interesting to discover how it holds up today. — J.R.



Directed and written by Edgar Reitz

With Henry Arnold, Salome Kammer, Daniel Smith, Noemi Steuer, Armin Fuchs, Martin Maria Blau, Laszlo I. Kish, Frank Roth, Anke Sevenich, Franziska Traub, Michael Schonborn, Hannelore Hoger, Susanne Lothar, Alexander May, and Peter Weiss.

Why is it so hard to be happy? — Clarissa in the seventh episode of The Second Heimat

The 60s and early 70s reveled in long, ambitious works — movies and music alike — epic, multilayered statements that through their unwieldy lengths alone challenged and disrupted the flow of everyday life. In jazz there were Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in rock Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, We’re Only in It for the Money, and Tommy, and when rock and movies came together in Woodstock (1970) the running time was three hours — about as long as a marijuana high.

An interesting paradox: to go to a long concert or long movie during that period was to be “somewhere else,” but that didn’t necessarily mean to escape.… Read more »

The Self-Aware Action Hero [on LAST ACTION HERO]

From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.


** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.

The word is out:  Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”

I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble.… Read more »

Point Blank

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1987). — J.R.



John Boorman’s modernist, noirish thriller (1967) is still his best and funniest effort (despite the well-phrased demurrals of filmmaker Thom Andersen regarding its cavalier treatment of Los Angeles). Lee Marvin, betrayed by his wife and best friend, finds revenge when he emerges from prison. He recovers stolen money and fights his way to the top of a multiconglomerate — only to find absurdity and chaos. Boorman’s treatment of cold violence and colder technology has lots of irony and visual flash — the way objects are often substituted for people is especially brilliant, while the influence of pop art makes for some lively ‘Scope compositions — and the Resnais-like experiments with time and editing are still fresh and inventive. The accompanying cast (and iconography) includes Angie Dickinson, John Vernon, and Carroll O’Connor; an appropriate alternate title might be Tarzan Versus IBM, a working title Jean-Luc Godard had for his Alphaville. 92 min. (JR)


point-blankRead more »


From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1994). — J.R.


(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont

With Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, and John Cleese.


(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

Written by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson, Frank Langella, Pamela Reed, and Judy Collins.

Through a perverse coincidence, Kenneth Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson worked simultaneously, on separate continents, on two lousy features about men usurping the reproductive roles of women. In many respects, these movies are radically different: Branagh’s pre-Thanksgiving turkey, misleadingly titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is the umpteenth screen adaptation of what is arguably one of the greatest feminist novels and perhaps the first serious example of science fiction. Thompson’s movie, a Thanksgiving release, is a Ivan Rietman “family-values” fantasy-comedy about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming pregnant — a high-concept obscenity that seems inspired by the combined successes of Twins (which also starred Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito) and Tootsie (which also contrived to show how men make better women than women, a project also taken up by The Crying Game).… Read more »

Witness to the Persecution [CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS]

From the Chicago Reader (June 13, 2003). — J.R.

Capturing the Friedmans

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Andrew Jarecki.

It’s disconcerting to be appalled and even slightly nauseated by a masterpiece. But Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans is a documentary, and so it’s disconcerting largely because of its subject matter — it shocks us with the truth.

Yet if Capturing the Friedmans were less shapely and less of a masterpiece, I’d find it less troubling. Both times I’ve seen it I’ve felt that by the end practically everyone associated with the film seems tarnished in one way or another: the ostensible subjects (the Friedmans, an upper-middle-class Jewish family in the Long Island town of Great Neck), the members of their community who helped destroy much of their lives, the filmmakers, and the audience. We’re all tainted by the graphic exposure of family wounds, diminished by what we think and feel — and by what we don’t think and don’t feel. Frankly, I’m not sure whether the film deserves to be applauded or attacked for this.

The film’s story, most of which transpires over a dozen years, begins on Thanksgiving in 1987. Arnold Friedman — a highly respected and popular middle-aged schoolteacher who gives piano and computer lessons at home, and who, as Arnito Rey, led a mambo band in the late 40s and early 50s — is arrested for possessing child pornography and subsequently charged with sexually assaulting dozens of his former computer students.… Read more »

The Rack/Time Limit/John McCain

THE RACK, written by Stewart Sterm and Rod Serling, directed by Arnold Laven, with Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman (1956, 100 min.)

TIME LIMIT, written by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, directed by Karl Malden, with Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, June Lockhart, Rip Torn, Martin Balsam, Carl Benton Reid, and James Douglas (1957, 96 min.)

I’ve recently reseen these two taut black and white 50s melodramas about the impending courtmartials of American POWs in North Korea who broke under torture, including brainwashing, and became traitors–characters played respectively by Paul Newman and Richard Basehart, and interrogated by Wendell Corey and Edmond O’Brien in the first film, Richard Widmark in the second. Indeed, there are so many close similarities and parallels between these films and their existential issues that I’ve often mixed them up in my memory, although it’s now clear after reseeing them that Time Limit, the only film ever directed by Karl Malden, is by far the better of the two. The Rack is adapted by Stewart Stern from a 1955 TV drama by Rod Serling that aired on the United States Steel Hour; Time Limit is adapted by Henry Denkler from a 1956 play that he coauthored with Ralph Berkey.… Read more »

Berlin 89: Akerman, Rivette, Jost

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1989). — J.R.

The degree to which contemporary cinema has become a desperate recycling operation was pain fully evident in Berlin this year, where even the better films seemed mired in familiar habits. Aki Kaurismaki’s Ariel, a hard-luck story of an unemployed miner pushed into a life of crime, is basically a Warners B-film of the 1930s, cleanly told and decked out with a few 80s ironies, but really nothing new. Martin Donovan’s Apartment Zero, a baroque male-bonding thriller set in Buenos Aires, superbly acted by Colin Firth and Hart Bochner, offers a chilling and complex view of the American abroad, yet its precise genre positionings would be unthinkable without its cues from Hitchcock, Chabrol and Polanski.

For many colleagues, a major disappointment in the competition was Chantal Akerman’s first English-language feature, Food, Family and Philosophy in French (or Histoires d’Amériquein French), a string of monologues and jokes by Jewish immigrants, delivered against Brooklyn exteriors within hailing distance of the Manhattan skyline over what appears to be a single night.… Read more »

Handmade Realism [BELL DIAMOND]

From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1987). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jon Jost

With Marshall Gaddis, Sarah Wyss, Terri Lyn Williams, Kristi Jean Hager, Dan Cornell, Hal Waldrup, Ron Hanekan, Alan Goddard, and Anne Kolesar.

The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality. — James Agee

1. Jeff Doland (Marshall Gaddis), a Vietnam veteran in Butte, Montana, sits watching a baseball game on TV. Passing through the kitchen, he tells his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss) that he’s going out to pick up some more beer. Cathy continues to unpack groceries and switches on a tiny toy train that runs in an elaborate loop on the kitchen table. Jeff returns with a six-pack and resumes watching TV. Cathy comes into the room and announces that she’s leaving him.

Bell Diamond‘s point of departure is about as ordinary and as banal as a plot can get — and not much happens after it, either. Neither Jeff nor Cathy is especially interesting or attractive or articulate, and the same can be said of the rest of the characters in this mainly eventless movie.… Read more »

Thinking about (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber

This piece had a somewhat tortured history. Commissioned but rejected by Artforum (for reasons that were never explained) circa 1982, it first appeared in a special issue of New Observations (#36, 1983) edited by the late Gilberto Perez, entitled “Horses, Hegel and Film,” where by necessity the illustrations were relatively sparse. In its present form, it first appeared in the 12th issue of the online journal Rouge in 2008. — J.R.

1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 361. ‘The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing’, Manny Farber replied in 1977 to an interviewer inquiring about the relationship between his dual activities as a painter and film critic. (1) The remark points to a two-part obsession that by now has persisted for more than four decades. A master at perceiving the delicate nuances of brutal facts, Farber has always had an uncanny knack for hitting on truths in a language of wisecracking braggadocio that eliminates any possibility of a dispassionate or precise scientific observation. With his feet firmly planted in the anonymous turf of an underground termite (to conflate two of his favourite terms), Farber paradoxically aims at a notion of bull’s-eye that can exist only in a marketplace context where objects and ideas compete for our attention.

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Philosophical Treatises of a Master Illusionist: A Conversation about Abbas Kiarostami

This is a slightly different edit of a dialogue proposed and inaugurated by Ehsan Khoshbakht on July 5, 2016, edited by him, and published in the British Council’s online Underline magazine on July 8. — J.R.


Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), arguably the greatest of Iranian filmmakers, was a master of interruption and reduction in cinema. He, who passed away on Monday in a Paris hospital, diverted cinema from its course more than once. From his experimental children’s films to deconstructing the meaning of documentary and fiction, to digital experimentation, every move brought him new admirers and cost him some of his old ones. Kiarostami provided a style, a film language, with a valid grammar of its own. On the occasion of this great loss, Jonathan Rosenbaum and I discussed some aspects of Kiarostami’s world. Jonathan, the former chief film critic at Chicago Reader, is the co-author (with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa) of a book on Kiarostami, available from the University of Illinois Press. – Ehsan Khoshbakht


Ehsan Khoshbakht: Abbas Kiarostami’s impact on Iranian cinema was so colossal that it almost swallowed up everything before it, and to a certain extent after it. For better or worse, Iranian cinema was equated with Abbas Kiarostami.… Read more »

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday (February 26, 2013). — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

How To Live in Air Conditioning

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1985). This is a revised and expanded version of a lecture given at the Rotterdam International Film Festival’s Market in early 1985, the second year I attended the festival. Some of it’s obviously very dated now (hopefully in a way that’s historically instructive) and some of it anticipates a few of the arguments made in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See 15 years later. The late Huub Bals, director and presiding spirit of the Rotterdam festival, asked me to give this talk, and, as I recall, it was well attended; the audience members included, among others, Eszter Balint (the female lead in Stranger Than Paradise), Bernardo Bertolucci, Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch, and Rudy Wurlitzer. –- J.R.

A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford — there is a marginal difference in styling.Read more »


This review appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. XXXII, no. 3). Consider it Part 1 of a two-part consideration of Alan Rudolph, carried out over a span of a dozen years, to be followed by my much more ambivalent take on Mortal Thoughts (1991) for the Chicago Reader, which deals with some of the same issues involving both class and music. (I suspect that Rudolph’s best movie remains Choose Me, but I’d have to see this again to be sure.) — J.R.


Director: Alan Rudolph. Script: Rudolph. Photography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Alberta Hunter. Lagoon Films.

Alan Rudolph’s second film was financed by Columbia, then written off as a disaster before it was released, but it has been running successfully in Paris for months and opens shortly in New York. It strikes me as the most exciting Hollywood fantasy to come along in quite some time. Admittedly, I am a Rivette enthusiast; I am fascinated by narrative suspension and indeterminacy, and tend to lose interest when a plot is laid out in full view, because I’ve usually seen it before. Remember My Name deliberately suspends narrative clarity for the better part of its running time, and never entirely eliminates the ambiguities that keep it alive and unpredictable — even though its themes, thanks to Alberta Hunter’s offscreen blues songs, are never really in question.… Read more »

COCKFIGHTER (1974 review)

This is excerpted from my “Paris-London Journal” in the November-December 1974 Film Comment, written in August when I was starting work at the British Film Institute after living for five years in Paris.

I can’t recall now whether it was this review or my inclusion of Cockfighter on my ten-best list in Sight and Sound — or could it have been both? — that led eventually to Charles Willeford sending me a note of thanks, along with his a copy of his self-published book A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, a short account of his own hemorrhoid operation. Not knowing Willeford’s work at the time — today I’m a big fan, especially of his four late Hoke Mosley novels — I’m sorry to say that I didn’t keep this book, which undoubtedly has become a very scarce collector’s item.

But first, before reprinting the Film Comment review, here is my capsule review of Cockfighter for the Chicago Reader, written almost three decades later and published in mid-August 2003: “Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop).Read more »

Paris Journal, Spring 1972 (Paris moviegoing, MODERN TIMES)

This was the second column I wrote for Film Comment, when that magazine was still a quarterly. It became a bimonthly the following year, and for a span of about seven or eight years, I wrote a column for almost every issue: initially a Paris Journal, it later became a London Journal, and finally, after I moved back to the states, a column known as “Moving” that more or less concluded with a piece that became the “prelude” in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1995). –J.R.


According to the current issue of  Pariscope -– an indispensable guide to local moviegoing — 260 films will have public screenings in Paris this week: 217 at commercial theaters, and 43 at the two Cinémathèques. By rough count, only 67 of these (about one fourth) are French. A hundred more are American, and the remaining 93 are split between fifteen other nationalities. Of the non-French films, approximately 40% are subtitled; except for a dozen or so at the Cinémathèques that will be shown without translation, the rest are dubbed.

It is possible that New York is beginning to surpass Paris in the number of interesting films that one can see.… Read more »