From my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles and the Chicago Reader (October 29, 1993). It seems a good time to revive this piece on the same day that I’m delivering the keynote lecture, on Welles, at the 14th annual conference that’s part of a film festival devoted to documentaries, both of which are called “It’s All True” (“É Tudo Verdade”), in São Paulo, Brazil. -– J.R.
I’m one of the people who receives an acknowledgment in the final credits of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, but in fact I regret the contribution I made to this film. During a phone conversation with Bill Krohn, one of the writers, directors, and producers, Bill told me that one of the French producers, Jean-Luc Ormières, was looking desperately for a composer for the documentary who wouldn’t charge too much money. I suggested Jorge Arriagada — the Chilean film composer who at that point had written the scores for something like a couple of dozen films by Râúl Ruiz, a filmmaker I greatly admire as well as a friend — and Arriagada wound up getting hired for the job. I recall having heard that Arriagada mainly worked for Ruiz because he liked to do so rather than out of economic necessity, and this fact combined with Ruiz’s own Welles worship and Arriagada’s South American background made him seem ideal. … Read more »
Like Gone With the Wind, Chen Kaige’s blockbuster–half a century of contemporary Chinese history (1925-1977) seen through the lives of two Peking Opera actors and a former prostitute–is worth seeing largely for its pizzazz: riveting performances, epic sweep and story telling, a bold and melodramatic use of color, and a capacity to generalize suggestively about large historical events through a few interlocking individual stories. Needless to say, there are certain limitations as well as advantages to this approach. The rather gingerly treatment of the homosexuality of one of the lead characters, while somewhat taboo breaking for a big-budget Chinese production, founders on a determination to make most of his sex life inscrutable, and the emphasis on violence in the early opera-training sequences sometimes has the effect of inflated rhetoric. Nevertheless, this is entertaining filmmaking on a grand scale. As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Miramax, which has been vocal about the injustice of the censor’s cuts made in China, has induced the director to cut 14 minutes out of the U.S. prints, making the film even shorter here than it is there. With Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li, adapted by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei from the former’s best-selling novel.… Read more »
A two-part film. The first part is an exemplary, scrupulously researched documentary about the making and unmaking of Orson Welles’s 1942 Latin American documentary feature It’s All True — a project doomed by a change of studio heads at RKO, but also by its radical politics: Welles’s problack stance and his focus on the poorest sectors of Brazilian life upset RKO and the Brazilian dictatorship alike. (His career never fully recovered from the ensuing studio propaganda, and this film represents the first major effort after half a century of obfuscation to set the record straight.) The second part is a simple editing together of the rushes of “Four Men on a Raft,” the most ambitious (though least well-known) of the film’s projected three sections, and the only one whose footage has survived nearly in its entirety. It’s the true story of four courageous Fortaleza fishermen who sailed more than 1,600 miles to Rio to protest their economic exploitation by the men who owned their fishing rafts, beautifully shot in black and white by George Fanto. Welles had intended to narrate the section himself, but the writers and directors of this documentary — the late Richard Wilson, who worked on the original film, and critics Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel — have wisely opted not to second-guess Welles, simply presenting the material as it stands and adding music and sound effects.… Read more »
The Chinese title of Dai Sijie’s semiautobiographical 1989 feature, filmed in the French Pyrenees with a nonprofessional cast of Chinese and Vietnamese emigres, means “bull sheds,” or rehabilitation centers. In a small town in China in 1966, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, a 13-year-old boy momentarily disrupts the local propaganda by playing a pop record–actually a love song from the classic 1937 Shanghai film Street Angels–as a way of flirting with a girl in the courtyard below, and as a consequence is sent to a remote labor camp in the Mountains of Eternal Life. Dai Sijie, trained as a filmmaker in France, makes the most of his spectacular settings and extracts from this story not so much a grim survival tale as a nostalgic and poetic idyll about childhood freedom–a sort of Chinese Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which a monk on the mountainside taking a vow of silence plays the nurturing and sacrificial role of Jim. Hampered at times by awkward performances and clumsy English subtitles, this is still a worthy companion to The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine as a contemporary reassessment of the Cultural Revolution, with an evocative and haunting lyricism all its own. Winner of the Prix Jean Vigo.… Read more »
If you’re looking for an alternative to the Chicago Film Festival, here’s a neglected movie from the past that’s better than most of the current festival entries. Of the many films by Ulrike Ottinger I’ve seen, this lovely and deliciously “irresponsible” 1979 camp item has given me the most unbridled pleasure. A nameless heroine (Tabea Blumenschein) arrives in West Berlin on a one-way ticket intending to drink herself to death, and three prim ladies known as Social Question (Magdalena Montezuma), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika Von Cube) stand around and kibitz. Thanks to the heroine’s extravagant wardrobe, the diverse settings, the witty dialogue, the imaginative mise en scene, and the overall celebratory spirit, Ticket of No Return is a continuous string of delights, worth anybody’s time. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Ilene Goldman. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, October 19, 6:00, 443-3737.… Read more »
As the 29th Chicago International Film Festival winds into its second week, a good many of its best offerings, including most of my own favorites either are still to come or will receive second screenings. My prime recommendations among those I’ve seen are Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague, Chantal Akerman’s From the East, Godard’s Helas pour moi, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, Jerry Schatzberg’s Reunion, Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Dusan Makavejev’s Gorilla Bathes at Noon, and Chen Kuo-fu’s Treasure Island. The first three qualify as “difficult” films, but who said festival films have to be easy? Treasure Island isn’t always easy to follow in terms of plot, but can be recommended for its beautifully shot, dreamlike evocation of contemporary Taipei.
Farewell, My Concubine, which I caught up with last week, can be described, for better and for worse, as the Gone With the Wind of Chinese cinema, except that its historical canvas, far from being restricted to a single cataclysmic event, covers half a century of upheaval and turmoil, from 1925 to 1977. The version being shown has been trimmed by 14 minutes by Kaige himself for U.S. distribution, apparently under the assumption that American audiences are more prone to fidget than the jury members at Cannes, who awarded the longer version top prize.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 8 , 1993). — J.R.
Let’s start with the bad news, which also happens to be the good news. With the erosion of state funding virtually everywhere and the concomitant streamlining of many film festivals toward certifiable hits — basically what an audience already knows, or worse, what it thinks it knows — there isn’t a great deal of difference anymore between the lineups of most large international festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, and even Chicago. By and large, the critics at Toronto last month, myself included, who thought it was an unusually good festival were those who hadn’t made it to the previous three big festivals.
Some films don’t make every list, of course. Luc Moullet, probably the most gifted comic filmmaker working in France, almost never seems to attract international interest, and I was disappointed to discover that his delightful Parpaillon, which I saw in Rotterdam, was passed over by Toronto, Chicago, and New York. The same goes for Robert Kramer’s Starting Place, which I saw in Locarno — a beautifully edited and moving personal documentary about contemporary Vietnam. I’m also sorry that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster and an intriguing American independent effort called Suture, both of which I saw in Toronto, are missing from the Chicago roster.… Read more »
Those determined to avoid the Chicago Film Festival and Luis Buñuel‘s long-neglected The Young One (see Section One for more information on both) won’t go too far wrong with Martin Scorsese’s ambitious and sumptuous film version of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about New York society in the 1870s. It manages to be both personal and true to its source, though it never quite comes together. Incorporating chunks of Wharton’s socially knowing prose in the narration (regally spoken by Joanne Woodward), it tells the story of a young lawyer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who’s engaged to marry a debutante (Winona Ryder) but who falls in love with her married cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer), a somewhat disreputable countess, and never succeeds in doing very much about it. As beautifully mounted as this production is, Scorsese has a way of letting the decor take over, so that Wharton’s tale of societal constraints comes through only in fits and starts. It’s a noble failure, though, with plenty of compensations, including a fine secondary cast that includes Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Stuart Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, and Norman Lloyd. Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Golf Mill, 900 N. Michigan.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 8, 1993). — J.R.
THE YOUNG ONE
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by “H.B. Addis” (Hugo Butler) and Buñuel
With Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton, Key Meersman, Crahan Denton, and Claudio Brook.
Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel had made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a black jazz musician from the north fleeing from a lynching, falsely accused of raping a white woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?
As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it could well transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that would naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might even enhance the freshness of his treatment — one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce.… Read more »
Daniel Schmid’s somewhat kitschy and decorative 1976 film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s controversial play, which some called anti-Semitic when it was first presented onstage because of its treatment of a Jewish businessman; another important character is a prostitute (Ingrid Caven) who serves as a mother-confessor to the businessman, among others. An interesting contrast to Fassbinder’s own films of this period, it eschews Hollywood melodrama as a model and tries for something more operatic; it’s probably one of Schmid’s best features. With Ulli Lommel and Irm Hermann. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1993). — J.R.
Luis Buñuel‘s two English-language films, this picture and the 1952 The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, are among the most neglected of his middle-period Mexican films — made between his early surrealist masterpieces (Un chien andalou, L’age d’or, Land Without Bread) and the late European features (Viridiana, That Obscure Object of Desire) that revived his world reputation. The Young One is a taut comedy-thriller from 1961, set on a game-preserve island off the Carolina coast, though shot, surprisingly, in Mexico. A northern black jazz musician (Bernie Hamilton), fleeing a trumped-up rape charge involving a white woman, arrives on the island and is briefly befriended by a young teenage orphan (Key Meersman), the granddaughter of a handyman who’s just died. An unfriendly game warden (Zachary Scott) who’s taken a shine to the girl tries to kill the musician; eventually a local preacher (Claudio Brook) and the game warden’s boatman (Crahan Denton) also turn up. A satiric look at both racism and sexual hypocrisy that refuses to take sides, this dark, sensual comedy of manners, adapted quite freely from a Peter Matthiessen story by the gifted blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler (under a pseudonym) along with Buñuel, is full of poetic asides and unexpected developments, revealing Buñuel‘s dark, philosophical wit at its most personal.… Read more »
A disconcerting mix of gritty realism and blunt contrivance, this is an English picture about a Pakistani country-western band in Southall, Londonan odd enough subject to hold our interest even if the story never settles down into a consistent strategy. The movie keeps twitching restlessly as it takes us through violent gang confrontations, diverse rebellions that recall 50s and 60s rock movies, asides on racism, some pretty good country-western numbers, and a potential love story between the Pakistani hero (Naveen Andrews) and a battered Asian housewife (Sarita Choudhury) that never really develops. The film’s humor mainly remains undeveloped as well, but at least director David Attwood and writer Harwant Bains keep things moving. (JR)… Read more »
For better and for worse, Ross McElwee’s compulsively diaristic films and his persona in them are relatively lightweight, whether McElwee’s exploring the contemporary south while looking for a girlfriend in Sherman’s March (1986) or dealing with marriage, the death of his father, and the prospect of his own fatherhood, as he is in this 1993 feature. The laid-back charm of his method is undeniable, but it can also wear thin. When his old, life-affirming friend Charleen (a McElwee regular) turns up to regenerate this movie after a long patch of glum musings, one is more than grateful. (JR)… Read more »
An entertaining 1983 documentary by Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, Mortal Thoughts) culled from more than 60 hours of footage chronicling debates between Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and LSD guru Timothy Leary at various campuses across the nation, as well as their personal exchanges during the tour. Part of the joke is how much they seem to have in common at certain points, despite their ostensible ideological and temperamental differences. (JR)… Read more »
Though I haven’t read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel that this James Ivory (director)-Ismail Merchant (producer)-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writer) feature adapts, informed sources suggest that the biting class commentary in the original is sacrificed here for a failed love story (1993). Certainly the two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, are adroit and compelling as the servants of James Fox’s befuddled lord and Nazi sympathizer, and Fox and Christopher Reeve (as the American who eventually purchases the lord’s estate) turn in fine performances as well. But Jhabvala’s tactics for revealing the lord’s Nazi sympathies are awkward and primitive, and the script’s violations of the butler’s viewpoint to show us more of Thompson’s life make for confusion. The actors keep this interesting, but as a story it drifts and rambles; with Peter Vaughan, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale, and Tim Pigott-Smith. (JR)… Read more »