Monthly Archives: February 1988

School Daze

While it lacks the controlled energy and the sense of closure found in She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s second feature-length “film joint” is much more innovative, ambitious, and exciting: a full-scale tackling of class warfare within the black community, set in a mainly black college in Atlanta, that explodes in every direction. The conflicts are mainly between the light-skinned, upwardly mobile Wannabees, who belong to fraternities, and the dark-skinned Jigaboos, who feel more racial pride; the issues between them range from the college’s investment in South Africa to straight versus nappy hair (the latter highlighted in a gaudy, Bye Bye Birdie-style musical number). Lee, who seems slightly closer to the Jigaboos, takes care not to stack the deck on either side (although he’s less than friendly to the college administration); the movie’s address is basically to the black community, but white spectators looking for an education in black issues could do a lot worse than visit this movie and get pointers from the diverse factions in the black audience, who follow it almost like a sporting event. The film runs about two hours, and like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, it’s definitely ragged around the edges; the musical numbers (scored by the writer-director-producer’s father Bill Lee) are extremely variable, and the overall continuity is fairly choppy.… Read more »

Fire From the Mountain

A stirring and informative account of the Sandinista struggle, made up almost exclusively of personal testimonies from Sandinistas, this documentary by Deborah Shaffer–who won an Oscar in 1985 for her Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements–is loosely based on Omar Cabezas’s book about his own training as a guerrilla fighter in response to the Somoza dictatorship. The physicality and mythical dimensions of the guerrillas’ experiences in the mountains are an important part of the story here, but the film includes much more: newsreel footage and Nicaraguan witnesses speak of American invasions throughout this century, and the commentaries of Cabezas (now vice-minister of the interior of the new Nicaraguan government) and others are intelligent and pointed, moving beyond slogans to give a detailed portrait of their history, problems, and aspirations. Music is provided by bassist and composer Charlie Haden. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, February 26 and 27, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, February 28, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, February 29 through March 3, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »


While it lacks the range and analytical bite of his previous Images of Germany (1983), Hartmut Bitomsky’s 1986 feature documentary about the enormous auto route built by the Nazis does create some interesting reflections on this massive and monumental project. Alternating archival footage of the construction and contemporary interviews with some of the workers with kitschy propaganda films made by the Third Reich, which attempted to “sell” the Autobahn to a recalcitrant public, Bitomsky puts together a kind of cultural history that may be long-winded and dry in spots, but that still adds up to an absorbing document about a monument designed to provide “not the shortest but the noblest connection between two points.” (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, February 19, 6:00, and Saturday, February 20, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Rise of Louis XIV

One of Roberto Rossellini’s supreme masterpieces, and perhaps the greatest of the TV films that mark his last period. Made in 1966, the film chronicles the gradual steps taken in the Sun King’s seizure of power over 21 years; the treatment is contemplative, wise, and quietly humorous, and Rossellini’s innovative trick shots to integrate the real decor of Versailles are deftly executed. The color photography is superb. (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, February 14, 8:00, 702-8574)… Read more »

The Serpent and the Rainbow

An unusually ambitious effort from horror movie specialist Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street), filmed on location in Haiti (as well as the Dominican Republic), this genuinely frightening thriller follows the efforts of an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) sent by a U.S. pharmaceutical company to find the chemical mixture used in “zombification”–the voodoo practice that renders victims apparently dead while still alive and conscious. Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (as in Altered States), and working from a screenplay by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun inspired by Wade Davis’s nonfiction book of the same title, Craven is better with atmosphere and creepy ideas here than with fluid story telling. But it’s nice for a change to have some of the old-fashioned virtues of horror films operative here–moody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they show–rather than be splattered exclusively with shocks and special effects (the latter are far from absent, but a bit more economically employed than usual). Cathy Tyson, the prostitute in Mona Lisa, plays the hero’s Haitian guide–a psychiatrist alert to some of the cultural ramifications of voodoo–and Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings, as other agents of the hero’s dark education in prerevolutionary Haiti, are effective as well.… Read more »

Sans soleil

Chris Marker’s 1982 masterpiece, whose title translates as Sunless, is one of the key nonfiction films of our time–a personal and philosophical documentary that concentrates mainly on contemporary Tokyo, but also includes footage shot in Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, and San Francisco (where the filmmaker tracks down all of the original locations in Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Difficult to describe and almost impossible to summarize, this poetic journal of a major French filmmaker (La jetee, Le joli mai) radiates in all directions, exploring and reflecting upon many decades of experience all over the world. While Marker’s brilliance as a thinker and filmmaker has largely (and unfairly) been eclipsed by Godard’s, there is conceivably no film in the entire Godard canon that has as much to say about the present state of the world, and the wit and beauty of Marker’s highly original form of discourse leave a profound aftertaste. A film about subjectivity, death, photography, social custom, and consciousness itself, Sans soleil registers like a multidimensional poem found in a time capsule. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, February 7, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »


One of those films that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Music video director Mary Lambert draws on the themes rather than the forms of her metier to give us an art movie that promises the satisfactions of a thriller, but delivers instead a kind of allegory out of Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The story follows five days in the misadventures of a daredevil acrobat (Ellen Barkin) who runs out on a scheduled publicity stunt in the U.S. in order to see a former lover (Gabriel Byrne) in Spain, suffers a bout of amnesia, and then has to piece together the missing days, with the help of a few decadent jet-setters she runs into, including Julian Sands and Jodie Foster (the latter of whom provides the film with some much-needed verve). Martin Sheen, Isabella Rossellini, and Grace Jones are also around in secondary parts, and Miles Davis provides a score that is a bargain-basement version of his Sketches of Spain album. The screenplay by Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, is an embarrassment, but Barkin and Lambert both dive into it as if it were food for thought and caviar to be savored.… Read more »

She’s Having A Baby

Kevin Bacon plays Jake Briggs, a young man terrified of marriage and even more frightened by the fact that his wife Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) is pregnant. This John Hughes comedywritten, produced, and directed by the individual probably most responsible for bringing complacent sitcom sensibility to moviesbranches out from previous efforts by including a good many fantasy sequences and flashbacks. The problems faced involve career, meddling in-laws, keeping a house in the suburbs, and overextended credit. One could play a depressing little game matching this movie with Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend as an indication of how low ordinary movies have sunk since the early 50s. The viewpoint of the older generation (Spencer Tracy in the earlier films) has been supplanted by that of the nerdy young husband (Bacon), but the conformist middle-class context and the undercurrents of castration anxiety (revealed in dream sequences) remain basically the same; the main difference is that the earlier model had some vestiges of soul and wit beneath its reactionary humor. Even though Kristy is seen mainly through the uncomprehending eyes of Jake, McGovern manages to fare better with the cliches thrown at her than Bacon does; but neither has a prayer of scoring at a game whose rules and players might have been dreamed up by a computer.… Read more »

The Serpent And The Rainbow

An unusually ambitious effort from horror movie specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), filmed on location in Haiti (as well as the Dominican Republic). This genuinely frightening 1988 thriller follows the efforts of an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) sent by a U.S. pharmaceutical company to find the chemical mixture used in zombificationthe voodoo practice that simulates death while leaving the victim alive and conscious. Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (a la Altered States), and working from a Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun screenplay inspired by Wade Davis’s nonfiction book of the same title, Craven provides more atmosphere and creepy ideas than fluid storytelling. But it’s nice for a change to see some of the virtues of old-fashioned horror filmsmoody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they showrather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects (far from absent, but employed with relative economy). Cathy Tyson plays the hero’s Haitian guidea psychiatrist alert to some of the cultural ramifications of voodooand Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings, as other agents of the hero’s dark education in prerevolutionary Haiti, are effective as well. (JR)… Read more »

The Savage Innocents

Victimized by a rather insensitive reception at the time of its release (1959), Nicholas Ray’s epic film about Eskimo life and its remoteness from civilized values represents his firstand, in many ways, most ambitiousattempt to break free from the Hollywood studios and forge an independent route. Scripted by Ray himself, and shot on location and in studios in several different countries, the film contains one of the few bearable performances of Anthony Quinn; the Japanese actress Yoko Tani plays his wife, and a dubbed Peter O’Toole plays a government official. Couched in the form of a parable, this is one of Ray’s most powerful films about honor and alien folkways, and the icy landscapes are hauntingly beautiful. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »


Set in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, Frederick Wiseman’s feature-length documentary of 1969 is one of the most powerful in his continuing series of investigations of various American institutions. Most of the emphasis in this setting is given to the emergency ward and outpatient clinics. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »


John Waters’s 1988 musical comedy set in 1962 Baltimore represented a good many firsts for the celebrated underground bad taste writer-director-producer: his biggest budget, his first period foray, his first PG-rated movie, and his first real brush with politicsthe issue of integrating a local TV dance show in Baltimore during the height of the civil rights movement. The cast includes Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Divine (in a dual role), Jerry Stiller, Ruth Brown, and cameo appearances by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora as beatniks. Not only Waters’s best movie, but a crossover gesture that expands his appeal without compromising his vision one iota; Ricki Lake as the hefty young heroine is especially delightful. With many arcane dance steps and hit singles from the period. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wuthering Heights

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

Like William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel, as well as Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevant, Luis Buñuel’s 1954 Mexican version discards the original framing strategy of telling the story from the viewpoint of two outsiders—a regrettable elision in all three cases, because much of the novel’s power and meaning stem from this crucial distancing strategy. Yet Buñuel’s low-budget melodrama has a certain gothic ferocity that’s missing in the other versions; the results are mixed, but seldom unworthy of the master. With Iraseme Dilian, Jorge Mistral, and Lilia Prado; in Spanish with subtitles. 91 min.

–… Read more »

The World Of Gilbert And George

English performance artists Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, who have been appearing in tweed suits and making bizarre forays into the art world since 1968mysterious appearances and performances that are somewhere between dry social analyses and deadpan put-onshave made their own film about their activity, shot by German cinematographer Martin Schafer (1980). On the same program, Helene Klo<-daw<-sky's U.S. documentary about the controversial political collage painter Sue Coe, Painted Landscapes (1986). … Read more »


Like Alex Cox’s previous films (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), this delirious fantasy about William Walker, the American who ruled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857, is all over the place and excessive, but as a radical statement about the U.S.’s involvement in that country it packs a very welcome wallop. The witty screenplay is by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer (Nog, Slow Fade), whose previous screenwriting forays include Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Ed Harris plays the crazed Walker, Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) is his deaf-mute fiancee, and Peter Boyle is Cornelius Vanderbilt. Deliberate and surreal anachronisms plant the action in a historical version of the present, and David Bridges’s cinematography combined with a liberal use of slow motion creates a lyrical depiction of carnage and devastation. Significantly, most of the film was shot in Nicaragua, with the cooperation and advice (but without the veto power) of the Sandinista government, and Edward R. Pressmanwhose previous credits include Badlands and True Storieswas executive producer. One can certainly quarrel with some aspects of the film’s treatment of history, but with political cowardice in commercial filmmaking so prevalent, one can only admire this movie’s gusto in calling a spade a spade, and the exhilaration of its anger and wit.… Read more »