Monthly Archives: December 1989

Muhammad Ali, The Greatest

William Klein’s epic 1974 documentary about Muhammad Ali, aka Cassius Clay, at the height of his glory is an expansion and updating of his Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee (1965). The first section chronicles the subject’s activities and statements before, during, and after his celebrated fight with Sonny Liston; the second focuses on his match with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Shot in color and black and white, the film also concentrates on the media hoopla surrounding the fighter and the ramifications of his being made an American hero. A fascinating portrait even for those who aren’t interested in boxing, sustained throughout by Klein’s striking visual sense and intelligence. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mode In France

William Klein’s 1985 feature takes on the world of French fashion design. Split into 13 separate sketches, each of which is done in collaboration with a well-known designer (Kenzo, Lagerfeld, Daumas, Lacroix, Gaultier, Alaia, Castelbajac, Montana, Thomass, etc), this semisatire generally goes after glitzy excess, which is Klein’s usual stock-in-trade. The Thomass segment, which is probably the most interesting, offers interviews with various foreign models as if they were porn in peep-show arcades; the Kenzo episode offers models in a police lineup, film noir style; Alaia’s section features Grace Jones and Linda Spierring reading aloud from Marivaux and giggling, with a costume change every few lines. Although Klein’s eye is as sharp as ever, his feeling for narrative is somewhat fuzzy, and most of these sketches come across as rather shapeless. Yet the pronounced Frenchness of this film gives it a certain exoticism: unlike most French pictures of the period, this offers a pretty accurate portrait of Parisian pop culture in the 80s. (JR)… Read more »

The Little Richard Story

Made for West German television in 1980, William Klein’s very entertaining and energetic documentary portrait of the rock-and-roll idol was shot mainly in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s hometown, at a time when the singer was a media evangelist for a company selling expensive commemorative Bibles. Midway through production, Little Richard had a financial dispute with the Bible company and announced that he’d received a message from God telling him to walk out on the film. He promptly disappeared. Ordinarily, this would have left the film and filmmaker high and dry. But a deft use of archival footage of Little Richard in his prime, combined with Klein’s usual fascination with media fanfare including a hilarious procession of black and white Little Richard impersonatorsgives the film more than enough to sink its teeth into. And because this is William Klein, the teeth are sharp and the bite is sure. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Movie

The least that can be said for Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, made nine years earlier than his 1980 masterpiece, Out of the Blue, is that no other studio-released film of the period is quite so formally audacious. After the surprise success of Easy Rider, Hopper was given carte blanche by Universal Pictures to make this disjointed epic in Peru; although it was given a special prize at the Venice film festival, the film was withdrawn from circulation in the U.S. after a couple of weeks and has rarely been screened since. After working in a western directed by Samuel Fuller (playing himself), during which one of the lead actors (Dean Stockwell) has been killed, an American stuntman (Hopper) remains behind with a Peruvian woman. He is eventually drafted into an imaginary movie being made by the Indian villagers; before or after thisthe film isn’t very explicit about chronologyhe is enlisted in a scheme to find gold in the mountains. The curious thing about this freewheeling allegory is that it is simultaneously about many things (the fakery of moviemaking, mutual exploitation, ugly Americans in the third world, Hopper as Jesus) and nothing at all. The radically disjunctive editing, occasionally interspersed with flash titles such as scene missing and diverse hallucinogenic digressions, keeps breaking up the continuityoften with striking consequences, but ultimately leaving Hopper as the only constant reference point in the mosaic.… Read more »

Female Trouble

This 1975 feature is the best of John Waters’s movies prior to Hairspray and his ultimate concerto for the 300-pound transvestite Divine, whose character will do literally anythingincluding commit mass murderto become famous. As in all of Waters’s early outrages, the technique is cheerfully ramshackle, but Divine’s rage and energy make it vibrate like a sustained aria, with a few metaphors about the beauty of crime borrowed from Jean Genet. With Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as some doubling on the part of Divine that allows the star to have sexual congress with himself, giving birth to . . . guess who? 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blaze

This disappointing 1989 second feature by writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) stars Paul Newman as onetime Louisiana governor Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze Starr, a stripper who was Long’s mistress. Shelton still shows some flair for dialogue, and the materialmostly drawn from Starr’s as-told-to autobiographyis certainly ripe and colorful (Long was both an eccentric and a genuine visionary, as we know from A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana). But both Newman and Davidovich seem miscast, and despite their honorable efforts neither character registers with the punch that the story warrants. Shelton’s uneven script and fitful direction make much of the pacing sluggish, and while the movie draws some authenticity from its secondary castJerry Hardin, Gailard Sartain, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Garland Buntingand cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s feel for southern locations, the story itself seems to be taking place in a void. The sad irony is, although most of the major events in this movie actually happened, one never quite believes in them as they’re articulated here. (JR)… Read more »

The Big Picture

Christopher Guest’s hilariously canny 1989 satire about contemporary filmmaking in Hollywood was one of David Puttnam’s last projects at Columbia, made with the support of Steve Martin’s production company. The movie turns mushy and conventional whenever it tries to become serious (which fortunately isn’t too often), and ends with a querulous cop-out, but otherwise it’s pretty clear sailing. A prizewinning graduate (Kevin Bacon) of the National Film Institute (read: American Film Institute) is courted by the studios and gets a chance to direct a big Hollywood movie, but the bright ideas of the studio head (J.T. Walsh)whose office, incidentally, is said to be modeled directly after Spielberg’squickly make hash of his script, and other complications, personal as well as professional, follow. Director Guest collaborated on the screenplay with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean; Emily Longstreth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Short (at his absolute best as the hero’s agent), Teri Hatcher, and McKean costar, and Roddy McDowall and Eddie Albert, among others, offer cameos. (JR)… Read more »

Always

Simultaneously Steven Spielberg’s most personal film and his most tedious, this 1989 remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943), with the action transferred from World War II to a vaguely contemporary team of fire-fighting forest rangers, tells the story of a daredevil pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) who dies in an explosion, then returns as a ghost to guide a rookie pilot (Brad Johnson) in the air and into the arms of his own former girlfriend (Holly Hunter). John Goodman plays his best friend, and Audrey Hepburn is around briefly as an advising angel. After groping unsuccessfully for Only Angels Have Wings atmosphere with 1941 trimmings to frame its romantic love story, the movie settles down to some mawkishly earnest soul-searching, with Dreyfuss clearly standing in for Spielberg himself as a happy-go-lucky fellow who wants to do right by the people who go on without him. Despite the obvious sincerity of the project and the energy of both Hunter and Goodman, the disembodied quality of the production makes it far from involving: both the action sequences and the gags are surprisingly lukewarm for Spielberg, and the central dramatic situation — Dreyfuss hovering voyeuristically and paternally outside the action — seems too willed to flow naturally.… Read more »

Weapons of the Spirit

Pierre Sauvage’s fascinating personal documentary about the remarkable French town of Le Chambon, only 20 miles from Vichy, where the 5,000 inhabitants, most of them devout Protestants, managed to shelter 5,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation. Whatever one’s misgivings about the ultraconventional form of this documentary and the excessive use of music–which tends to register as so much lily gilding–the story that this film has to tell is such a remarkable and inspiring one that it still has the force of a revelation. Sauvage is a Jew who was born in Le Chambon in 1944, and as he interviews many of the surviving inhabitants of the town today, their simple and unpretentious goodness, which somehow managed to “subvert” even certain Vichy officials, gives us a look at that era that forces us to revise somewhat the conclusions reached in Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Hotel Terminus. Offering a healthy and bracing alternative to the ethnocentrism that informs so much commentary about the holocaust, this is a film that quite simply restores one’s faith in humanity. A presentation of the Jewish Film Foundation. (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, December 3, 6:00; also Deerbrook, Monday, December 4, 7:00; also Skokie, Tuesday, December 5, 7:00 and 9:00; 588-2763)… Read more »

Short Films

The only unifying principle behind this assembly of 16-millimeter and Super-8 shorts is that all are made by members, friends, or “reasonably close” acquaintances of Chicago’s wonderful Theater Oobleck. Yet for all the differences in style, theme, and technical proficiency, there’s a fair amount of homogeneity–at least among the films I was able to sample (about 75 percent of them). My favorites include Ross Lipman’s 10-17-88, which uses archival footage (including shots of European Jews during World War II), deft optical printing, and a fascinating musical collage by Reader staffer and former Ooblecker John Shaw to yield a densely layered combo of sound and image; Prunella Vulgaris’s crisp, six-minute Doors and Doors That Slam, narrated by and starring two Barbie dolls; and Laurie Dunphy’s Journalism Conducts a Tour, an acerbic account of what the media do to (and with) minds and bodies, with accompaniment by Al Jolson and an aggressively stuttering text. There’s also Frank Rawland’s goofy and silent Agoraphobia, Rachel X. Weissman’s grimly intriguing I Just Want to Talk to You, and some watchable home movies by several hands, among other items. Check it out. (Theater Oobleck, 3829 N. Broadway, Friday and Saturday, December 1 and 2, 9:00, 384-3346)… Read more »