Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose unexpected death was a grievous loss.  …I’m sorry that I forgot to mention The Young One, surely one of the most neglected and overlooked of all great Southern films, explored in detail elsewhere on this site. — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June-July 2017). — J.R.

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It might be excessive to claim that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) invented the heist thriller (also known as the caper film), but at the very least one could say that it provided the blueprint for the most successful examples of that subgenre that would follow it, including (among others) The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956), Seven Thieves (1960),  The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Reservoir Dogs (1992)—not to mention  such parody versions as Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and most of the latter films of Jean-Pierre Melville, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le deuxième souffle, (1966), and Le cercle rouge (1970). Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle was regarded as such a master text by Melville that one isn’t surprised to find over a dozen references to it in Ginette Vincendeau’s book about him. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, Melville once “declared that…there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in [John Huston’s masterpiece].”

In short, the reverberations in this MGM A-feature are multiple, although that doesn’t prevent it from still seeming fresh today.… Read more »

Vietnam: Long Time Coming

A Critic’s Choice from the April 9, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Essential viewing. This documentary about a group of American and Vietnamese war veterans, many of them disabled, bicycling 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is many things at once — act of witness, account of a multicultural exchange, sports story, journalistic investigation, and mourning for the devastation of war. Ultimately it may be too many things to yield a cumulative effect, yet its scenes of former soldiers struggling with the meaning of the war are the most moving ones on the subject since Winter Soldier (a wartime agitprop film in which Vietnam veterans confessed their “war crimes”). The corporate sponsorship of the bicycle marathon adds many ironic layers, but the emotional encounters it permitted seem more important than anything else I’ve seen about our involvement in Vietnam. Coproduced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and directed by Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn, and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams). Three Penny.

– Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Bellissima

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Luchino Visconti’s early films is this hilarious 1951 comedy, tailored to the talents of Anna Magnani, about a working-class woman who is determined to get her plain seven-year-old daughter into movies. A wonderful send-up of the Italian film industry and the illusions that it fosters, delineated in near-epic proportions with style and brio. With Walter Chiari and Alessandro Blasetti. (JR)… Read more »

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

This appeared originally in the July 23, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Eyes Wide Shut

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Madison Eginton, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Sherbedgia, Leelee Sobieski, and Abigail Good.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: “Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life — especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had” — i.e., at least since 1968, when he asked his wife to read it. This more or less matches the opinion of Frederic Raphael, Kubrick’s credited cowriter, as expressed in his recent memoir, Eyes Wide Open. But I would argue that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece worthy of resting alongside Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kafka’s The Trial, and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.… Read more »

The Limey

Many of Steven Soderbergh’s better films seem to exist in the shadow of their predecessors. For all its freshness, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his first feature, was a replay of many self-referential movies about movies dating from the 60s and 70s. The Underneath was a more direct remake, of the 40s noir Criss Cross, and it was an interesting variation rather than any sort of improvement. Yet part of what’s so good about The Limey (1999, 91 min.), a contemporary thriller starring Terence Stamp as an ex-con avenging the death of his daughter, is the way it evokes Point Blank, which is still John Boorman’s best movie. The complex play with time, the metaphysical ambiguity, the stylish wit and violence, and the cool sense of LA architecture all evoke that singular Lee Marvin vehicle. For that matter, a lot of flashback material about the hero as a young man comes straight out of Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967). But with or without a sense of where it all comes from, this is a highly enjoyable and offbeat thriller — better to my taste than Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, though similarly quirky in how it sets about telling a story.… Read more »

Mind Wide Open

I can’t recall when this was written or what occasioned it (apart from the initial reviews of Eyes Wide Shut when it opened in 1999). — J.R.

Much of the negative critical response to Eyes Wide Shut came from indignant New Yorkers who felt their city had been misrepresented — worst of all, by a native of the Bronx and onetime Manhattan resident who had dared to expatriate himself. “It’s difficult to make a movie about a city you last set foot in 35 years ago,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice, sidestepping the hypothesis that Kubrick’s last film might be about something else — some elusive, shifting city of the mind, perhaps, as shared by the fearful dreams and imaginations of a married couple. Similarly, Stuart Klawans’ complaint in The Nation that he couldn’t buy “a Village jazz club with a tuxedoed headwaiter and a last set ending at midnight” overlooks the possibility that Kubrick couldn’t either, any more than he could believe in an intersection in that same Village of Miller and Wren — two nonexistent streets even when he lived in the city.

The film is full of such “off” details, and not simply because all of it was shot in an English studio.… Read more »

True Enough (BOYS DON’T CRY & THE STRAIGHT STORY)

From the October 22. 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boys Don’t Cry

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

With Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, and Jeannetta Arnette.

The Straight Story

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, James Cada, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The docudrama may be the key dramatic form of the 90s because of the extent to which its simplifications influence the way we make sense of the world around us. Not that we didn’t already have a habit of simplifying and therefore fictionalizing facts. There are perfectly good reasons most of us prefer to believe that one day in December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because her feet were killing her, thereby launching the civil rights movement. This story has a germ of truth, but Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had mapped out their basic strategy for the Montgomery bus boycott at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee well before this incident. Still, the more folkloric, more dramatic version of the episode is the one that sticks — and the one that’s repeated by people who want to explain the civil rights movement in more forcible, more legible terms.… Read more »

Defenseless [THE LUZHIN DEFENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 2001). — J.R.

The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris

Written by Peter Berry

With John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson.

In Slate last March two film critics with literary backgrounds, Phillip Lopate and A.O. Scott, argued about Terence Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth – an exchange that only illustrated how hard it is to settle questions about fidelity to novels. Lopate, who’s been involved with film much longer than Scott, called it his favorite American film of 2000. Scott, whose readiness to bone up on movies since he started reviewing them for the New York Times has been invigorating, didn’t seem blind to some of the film’s virtues, but he was much more concerned with what seemed reductive about it.

Having read Edith Wharton’s novel for the first time just before I saw the movie, I found myself agreeing to some extent with both critics. The film is inferior to Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible, all three of which strike me as essential works, though they’ve received much less attention from the mainstream, perhaps because they’re further from conventional narrative.… Read more »

French Revelations [on LE DIVORCE]

From the August 8, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Le Divorce

*** (A must-see)

Directed by James Ivory

Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory

With Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Melvil Poupaud, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine, Jean-Marc Barr, Nathalie Richard, Bebe Neuwirth, and Stephen Fry.

Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and their regular screenwriter-adapter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem to have a special affinity for Americans in Paris, the subject of three of their five most recent films – Jefferson in Paris (1995), A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), and now Le Divorce. The first of these is one of their worst features, while the second and third are among their best. So their special affinity doesn’t seem to matter as much as the quality of their material and their particular feeling for it. In the case of Le Divorce, their fidelity to the civilized attitudes of Diane Johnson’s novel makes this one of their most sophisticated and entertaining features to date.

The novel is narrated by Isabel, a 19-year-old film-school dropout from Santa Barbara who’s gone to Paris to visit her older stepsister Roxy, a poet married to a French painter and pregnant with their second child.… Read more »

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003): In Memoriam/In Celebration

From the April 18, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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I was slow to appreciate the multifaceted greatness of the late Stan Brakhage, this country’s major experimental filmmaker, in part because he and some of his supporters originally presented his work in terms so grand they seemed to split his audience into believers and atheists. This memorial screening of ten Brakhage films, the prints of which were all loaned by local enthusiasts, extends from Desistfilm (1954) to Stately Mansions Did Decree (1999), and though it omits two of my favorites from his middle period — The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) and Scenes From Under Childhood (1970) — it offers a useful 75-minute survey for people unacquainted with his work. For me the real revelations are the 90s films: the breathtaking The Chartres Series (1994), the self-avowed “last testament” Commingled Containers (1996), which marked Brakhage’s return to photography after years of painting directly on celluloid, and the literally dazzling Stately Mansions Did Decree. All three exhibit the same painterly brilliance found in his Ellipses Reels 1-4 (1998), and taken as a whole they suggest an overall development from chamber pieces to grand orchestral works. Completing the survey are Mothlight (1963), Door (1971), The Riddle of Lumen (1972), The Roman Numeral Series III (1980), Egyptian Series (1983), and I…Dreaming (1988), the latter one of his rare sound/image experiments.… Read more »

Art School Is Murder

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 2006). — J.R.

Art School Confidential

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes

With Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Joel David Moore, Ethan Suplee, Steve Buscemi, and Anjelica Huston

The 2001 live-action Ghost World was the first collaboration involving director Terry Zwigoff, cartoonist Daniel Clowes, and John Malkovich’s production company. Art School Confidential is the second. It’s far more ambitious than its predecessor and suffers from too many ideas rather than too few, making it an inspired, fascinating, and revealing mess. Holding it together is the same anger about the way art is taught that gave so much edgy life to the scenes with Illeana Douglas in Ghost World. Even if one disagrees with some of its points, as I do, it offers plenty to mull over.

Both films faintly echo a four-page catalog of Clowes’s gripes called “Art School Confidential” that appeared in his comic book Eightball. (Having taught courses in film and critical writing in a university art department in the mid-70s,I can testify that art-world careerism was the main preoccupation of both my students and my colleagues.) Clowes clearly felt alienated as an art student and has been spewing bile ever since.… Read more »

Spoiler Alert [ROADS OF KIAROSTAMI]

From the June 9, 2006 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that Roads of Kiarostami has appeared as an extra on the DVD of Kiarostami’s Shirin released by Cinema Guild. — J.R.

Roads of Kiarostami

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

The definition of what qualifies as commercial movie fare seems to have shrunk to works that appeal to teens and preteens. Meanwhile the definition of experimental film — which traditionally has meant abstract, nonnarrative, and small-format works produced in a garret — has been expanding to address wider audiences. An ambitious DVD box set released last year, “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941,” includes lavish Busby Berkeley production numbers and juvenilia by Orson Welles. And last year’s Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival opened with a dazzling 35-millimeter short by Michelangelo Antonioni, Michelangelo Eye to Eye.

This year Onion City’s opening-night program reflects this tendency even more: it includes a video by cult horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Tscherkassky’s radical reworking of footage from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 35-millimeter and ‘Scope, Andy Warhol’s two 1966 “screen tests” with Bob Dylan, and best of all Abbas Kiarostami’s half-hour Roads of Kiarostami.… Read more »

From PLAYTIME to THE WORLD: The Expansion and Depletion of Space Within Global Economies

This essay started out as a lecture given on the final day of “Urban Trauma and the Metropolitan Imagination,” a conference organized by Scott Bukatman and Pavle Levi and held at Stanford University on May 5-7, 2005. Then it was reprinted in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, edited by Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman, New York/London: Routledge, 2009, and it’s  appeared in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010). — J.R.

My subject is the presence or absence of both shared public space and virtual private space in two visionary and globally-minded urban epics made about 37 years apart, on opposite sides of the planet — Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Jia Zhangke’s The World [Shijie] (2004), coincidentally the fourth commercial feature of each writer-director. Both films can be described as innovative and very modern attacks on modernity, and both have powerful metaphysical dimensions that limit their scope somewhat as narrative fictions. I should add that they both project powerful yet deceptive visions of internationalism that are predicated both literally and figuratively on trompes d’oeil, specifically on tricks with perspective and the uses of miniaturized simulacra. (I’m referring here to both emblematic sites, such as the Eiffel Tower in both films, and the scaled-down skyscrapers used in the set built for Playtime.) In this sense, among others, both films are social critiques about what it means to impose monumental façades on tourists and workers — visitors and employees — who continue to think small.… Read more »

Kwik Stop

From the Chicago Reader (October 11, 2002, and then again on June 24, 2005, when Roger introduced it and led a discussion about it). Happily, this film is still available from Amazon and on YouTube, and in memory, it seems to get better and better all the time. — J.R.

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There are so many curves and anomalies in this unpredictable low-budget independent feature (2001) by Chicago actor Michael Gilio that I’m tempted to call it an experimental film masquerading as something more conventional. If it’s a comedy — and I’m not sure it is — there are far too many close-ups, though this is also very much an actors’ film. If it’s a road film — and I’m not sure it is — it never gets very far on any given route, though that’s surely deliberate. Two characters (played by Gilio and Bullet on a Wire‘s Lara Phillips) are opaque — they meet at a convenience store where she’s shoplifting, then go on a cross-country trip toward LA, until things start to get weird — and two (played by Karin Anglin and the charismatic Rich Komenich) have backstories. This movie is about the interactions between these characters, and though I’m still trying to figure out what all the pieces mean, there’s no way I can shake off the experience.… Read more »