Monthly Archives: April 1990

Rotterdam: New director, old traditions

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). — J.R.

Despite worries that the passionate eclecticism of the late Hubert Bals in steering the Rotterdam Festival would be a hard act to follow, Marco Müller, in his first year as director, maintained the festival’s maverick spirit and cozy intensity while adding his own personal stamp. Increasing the usual number of films by 50 per cent may have taxed his staff, but publishing excellent bilingual monographs (on Ritwik Ghatak, David Cronenberg and Gennadi Sjpalikov) gave the audience a good head start.

Best of all, Müller continued the Rotterdam tradition of offering a slew of uncommon pleasures unavailable elsewhere. Where else could one find André Labarthe’s TV interview-portraits of directors, the multiple versions of Straub and Huillet’s The Death of Empedocles and Black Sin (as well as the premiere of their intriguing 51-minute Cézanne), Nanni Moretti’s daffy and lively Palombella Rosa, and perhaps the best films to date of Eduardo de Gregorio, Wayne Wang and Otar Iosseliani?

The work by American independents was especially strong and varied. Leslie Thornton’s freakishly disturbing and still-in-progress Peggy and Fred in Hell, split between film and video, plants two odd children in an apocalyptic black and white universe of found objects, found footage and lost meanings, perpetually reinventing culture as it slips from their (and our) grasp.… Read more »

The Real Presence & Snakes and Ladders

Film Still

Part of the brilliance of Raul Ruiz rests in his capacity to take on routine documentary assignments for French television and turn them into mind-bending fictions. That’s what happened with this provocative hour-long 1984 film about an actor at the 1983 Avignon Theater Festival; it ingeniously balances reporting on an actual event with Ruizian yarn spinning. Even more impressive is the accompanying 20-minute 1980 short Le jeu de l’oie (Snakes and Ladders) — which was commissioned to promote a map exhibition at Paris’s Pompidou Center — an awesome and hilarious metaphysical fantasy with the tattiest special effects this side of Edward D. Wood Jr., and one of the most purely pleasurable works in the Ruizian canon. Taken separately or together, these gems provide a perfect introduction to the imaginative and labyrinthine universe of a prodigious filmmaker. Ruiz, a graceful and easygoing commentator on his own work, will introduce the films and answer questions at the Saturday screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, April 20, 6:00, and Saturday, April 21, 6:15, 443-3737)

Imagine the Sound

The first feature of Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (Poetry in Motion, Comic Book Confidential) may be the best documentary on free jazz that we have. Produced with Bill Smith, editor of Coda magazine, the film consists mainly of interviews with and performances by four key musicians: solo pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, trumpet player Bill Dixon (performing with a trio), and tenor saxophone player Archie Shepp (playing with a quartet); Taylor and Shepp also read some of their poetry. Mann is attentive to the visual impact of the music (Taylor’s piano playing, for instance, virtually qualifies as a form of dancing) and its diverse biographical, musical, and ideological underpinnings (the musicians are all highly articulate). Essential viewing and listening for free-jazz devotees (1981). (Southend Musicworks, 1313 S. Wabash, Sunday, April 8, 7:00, 939-2848)… Read more »

Sweet Bird Of Youth

Richard Brooks’s 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was somewhat bowdlerized, but at least it’s intelligent and entertaining within its chosen limits. His second Williams adaptation (1962) is literally a form of emasculation that offers little indication of what made the original play interesting (especially in Elia Kazan’s stage production), despite the fact that Paul Newman and Geraldine Page are called on to reprise their original roles — as a hustler returning to his southern hometown and a Hollywood has-been — and do a fair job with Brooks’s hopeless script. With Rip Torn and Ed Begley (both encouraged to overact stridently), as well as Shirley Knight and Mildred Dunnock. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Suspended Vocation


One of Raul Ruiz’s earliest French features an adaptation of Pierre Klossowski’s autobiographical novel about the conflict between rival doctrinal factions within the Catholic Church — this is also one of his most intractable, though some critics regard it as one of his best. It takes the form of a film within a film, involving the making of a film in 1971 that is an amalgamation of two earlier unfinished films made in 1942 and 1962. Alternating between black and white and color, and shot through with Ruiz’s deadpan humor and his taste for labyrinthine structures, it addresses the quintessentially Ruizian theme of institutions — how they function and how they survive (1977). (JR)… Read more »

Storm Over Asia

Soviet filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin’s last silent film (1928, 144 min.) focuses on a Mongolian uprising against British occupation forces. Like most of the other Pudovkin silents, this shows much more narrative flow and sweep than the contemporary films of Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, but it tends to look a bit more rickety today. One has to turn to Pudovkin’s first sound film, the relatively scarce (but much more interesting) Deserter, to encounter experimentation and poetry that still look radical. (JR)… Read more »

Signed, Lino Brocka

A fascinating documentary portrait of the remarkable Philippine filmmaker Lino Brocka by Christian Blackwood. Considering how articulate Brocka is about his own lifehis impoverished background, his work as a Mormon in a Hawaiian leper colony, his homosexuality, his growing activism as an opponent of the Marcos regimeand his films, Blackwood has wisely chosen to make the most of this a self-portrait, with Brocka describing his life and work, and lucidly commenting on (and often translating) clips from his films (1987). (JR)… Read more »

Short Time

Dabney Coleman plays a Seattle cop on the verge of retirement who, because his urine sample gets switched with that of a black bus driver, believes that he has only two weeks to live. Hiding this from his family (Teri Garr and Kaj-Erik Erikson), he is determined to die in the line of duty so that they can collect on his hefty life insurance, but naturally he keeps failing to get killed. This tacky premise, which encourages us to be indifferent to the fate of the dying bus driver, is actually just an excuse for a couple of fair chases and some unfelt stretches of Capracorna thoroughly soulless romp that is distinguished neither by its script (John Blumenthal and Michael Berry) nor its direction (Gregg Champion). With Matt Frewer and Barry Corbin. (JR)… Read more »

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Indescribably awfula serving up of Beatles tunes by Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees with the ugliest visuals imaginable, directed with more glitz than good sense by Michael Schultz. It also features such hands as George Burns, Donald Pleasence, Steve Martin, and Earth, Wind & Fire. If you like the Beatles and you like movies, do yourself a favor and stay away (1978). (JR)… Read more »

What Price Glory?

An energetic, silent World War I comedy-drama by Raoul Walsh that focuses on the rivalry between officers Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in France, adapted from a popular play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson. A lot better than John Ford’s 1952 remake, this is Walsh at his spunkiest. With Dolores Del Rio, William V. Mong, and Phyllis Haver (1926). (JR)… Read more »

Too Beautiful For You

Your Schubert is a pain in the ass! Gerard Depardieu declares at the end of Bertrand Blier’s latest comedy drama about amour fou, remorse, and jealousy, meaning that the sadness of the music is more than he can bear. The problem is, in spite of all the stylishness that makes this one of Blier’s most accomplished films, the fundamentally antiartistic attitude underlying it makes his Schubert a pain in the ass too, if only because this reading of the composer is so mechanical. Car dealer and garage owner Depardieu, married to a beauty (Carole Bouquet), falls madly in love with his plain-looking temporary secretary (Josiane Balasko), and, as in Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Menage, the pain and irrationality of passionate love is the main bill of fare. What’s different this time is that Blier tells the story in a highly fragmented, partially achronological and subjective mannera bit like early Resnais, but without the radical implications, the beauty, or the accomplished writing that made Resnais’ early features so remarkable. Flashbacks dovetail into fantasy sequences and flash-forwards function like reveries, with the camera gliding past dinner tables like a busy bee. It’s not always easy to tell which scenes are real and and which ones imagined, but none of this matters very much in the long run.… Read more »

Three Sad Tigers

Raul Ruiz’s first completed Chilean feature (1968) is not one of his best works, but it does showcase his peculiar trait of elaborating a plot that is flattened into incoherence or irrelevance for the sake of a labyrinthine formal structure. Filmed in Santiago almost exclusively with a handheld camera following a number of not very interesting characters, it was inspired in part by Mexican melodramas — demonstrating that Ruiz saw himself working in relation to a B-film tradition from the beginning. (JR)… Read more »

The Territory

Something of a film maudit for director Raul Ruiz, whose career is already pretty subterranean. Done in English (coscripted by the English novelist and film critic Gilbert Adair), shot in Portugal (though set in southern France), and coproduced by Roger Corman, it concerns a group of Americans who wind up in a small medieval town, get lost when they go on an excursion, remain lost for several months, and eventually revert to cannibalism. In the middle of the shooting, Wim Wenders turned up at the same location to start filming The State of Things, and a good many of the cast and crew members decamped for the Wenders film. That meant Ruiz’s film had to be completed well ahead of schedule, and unfortunately the picture suffers from the haste. But the plot and ambience are still intriguing, and the picture is certainly recognizably Ruizian in both its metaphysical framework and its dark humor (1971). (JR)… Read more »

Rosalie Goes Shopping

Like Percy Adlon’s previous Marianne Sagebrecht vehicle Bagdad Cafe, this is a fanciful, gentle satire about American life seen from a Bavarian angle. This time Sagebrecht plays Rosalie, a Bavarian-born housewife in Stuttgart, Arkansas, who has a slew of kids and is married to a pilot (Brad Davis) whose faltering eyesight is used as a rather heavy-handed metaphor for what this movie is basically aboutthe sweet naivete of American consumer society in the 80s. The possessor of 37 credit cards, numerous bank accounts and fake IDs, and a computer, Rosalie keeps her family happy through diverse scams straight out of Reaganomics. And they all delightedly watch TV commercials together, simultaneously reciting the familiar patter verbatim. Full of bizarre camera angles and lighting schemes, the movie is rather weak from a narrative standpoint, and a running gag about Rosalie’s confessions to a priest (Judge Reinhold) grows mechanical and tiresome, but if you liked Bagdad Cafe, you’ll probably be charmed. Scripted by Adlon with his wife and coproducer Eleonore Adlon and Christopher Doherty; with Alex Winter, Patricia Zehentmayr, John Hawkes, and Erika Blumberger (1989). (JR)… Read more »


Sidney Lumet returns to his special stomping groundthe workings of the New York Police Department and justice system, and how they’re affected by racial antagonisms and ethnic loyaltiesin a richly detailed, caustic thriller, adapted by Lumet himself from a novel by Hispanic judge Edwin Torres. The plot centers on the investigation of the killing of a Hispanic hood by a respected police lieutenant (Nick Nolte) that is carried out by an idealistic assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton), himself the son of a highly respected policeman; a major witness to the killing (Armand Assante) is involved with the investigator’s former girlfriend (Jenny Lumet), a mulatto who left him years earlier because of his own unconscious racism. The film runs for 134 minutes, but Lumet keeps things moving with his sharp eye (and ear) for New York detail and his escalating sense of liberal outrage. Hutton seems miscast in the lead part, and the villains (Nolte and Patrick O’Neal) are rather two-dimensional, but the other characters are persuasively delineated; Assante, Lee Richardson, Luis Guzman, Charles Dutton, and Paul Calderon are especially effective. (JR)… Read more »