Daily Archives: August 8, 1997

The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight

This was written for the Writers Guild magazine Written By; it ran in their August 1997 issue and was later reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.

My comparison of May with Erich von Stroheim, which may sound frivolous, is actually something I take very seriously. Both filmmakers are mainstream figures with the temperaments of avant-garde artists; Orson Welles’ description of Stroheim’s style as “Jewish baroque” also fits May’s quite well; and perhaps most significantly of all, both of these highly obsessional writer-director-performers create films populated almost exclusively by monsters, yet characters whom their creators clearly love. In this latter respect, May might even be considered more radical than Stroheim because one can’t cite a single villain in her four features — unlike, say, Schani the butcher (Matthew Betz) in Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Furthermore, for me, the two greatest Stroheim films, Foolish Wives and Greed, are echoed in many respects by The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, the two best films of May.

On the evening of June 27, 2010, in Bologna, Italy, I had the rare, unexpected, and delightful privilege of spending a couple of hours with May. It was a friendly conversation over dinner rather than any sort of interview, but she did tell me in passingĀ a few things about her life and work that I’ve added to this piece as footnotes.Read more »

Irma Vep

Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas wrote and directed this dark, brittle French comedy (1996), most of it in English, about a film company shooting a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent Les vampires. An unexpected masterpiece, Irma Vep was assembled so quickly that it has an improvisational feel and a surrealist capacity to access its own unconscious–two sterling traits it shares with Feuillade’s 1916 serial. A once-prestigious French director of the 60s (Jean-Pierre Leaud) casts a Hong Kong star (Maggie Cheung) in the role of head villainess Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”), and his sexual infatuation with the actress is matched by that of the costume designer who escorts her around Paris (Jacques Rivette regular Nathalie Richard). The feverish pace of the shooting seems to unleash everybody’s bad vibes as well as their desire, and Assayas follows the delirium as if he were at the center of a hurricane. What emerges is not only a memorable look at contemporary life in general (and international low-budget filmmaking in particular), but also a mysterious set of notations on how Feuillade’s hallucinatory masterwork might be translated into modern terms. An absolute must-see; with Lou Castel and Bulle Ogier. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, August 12, 6:00 and 8:00, 312-443-3737.… Read more »

Flaming Creatures

Flaming Creatures

Forget everything you might have heard about the late Jack Smith’s legendary bisexual, orgiastic, superlow-budget, experimental 1963 masterpiece–a lot more is going on here, artistically and otherwise, than either Jonas Mekas or Susan Sontag has ever suggested. This jubilant, celebratory 45-minute film holds up amazingly well; despite its notoriety and censorship during the 60s, it’s more than just an orgy of nude and seminude bodies–male, female, and transvestite. The camera and even the cheap, hothouse decor participate in the joyful free-for-all, suggesting both the privacy of a Josef von Sternberg wet dream and the collective force of a delirious apocalypse. But the simplest way to describe it is to call it a vision. Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, Thursday, August 14, 6:00, 773-327-5252. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »