From the May 1, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. This marks the very beginning, the first baby steps, of my fascination with and research into the films of Yasuzo Masumura — an extended project that eventually culminated in a lengthy essay and a dialogue with Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi that’s included in a book called Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003) that I coedited with Adrian Martin. Although several Masumura films have subsequently become available on DVD in the U.S., the U.K., and France, including many of the films I discuss or mention here (e.g., Red Angel, Giants and Toys, and Manji in the U.S., Kisses in the U.K., and Tattoo in the France, the latter called Tatouage), I regret that several favorites — most notably A Wife Confesses and A False Student – continue to be unavailable outside of Japan (where Masumura has subsequently become a popular cult director). The first three illustrations and the very last one used here, incidentally, come from Tattoo [Irezumi] (1966) and A Wife Confesses (1961), respectively. –J.R.
To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research.” I’ve yet to come across a complete filmography of his work, but he’s said to have made 57 films, a dozen of which are showing at Facets Multimedia Center this week.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1998). — J.R.
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing 1997 feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. Kiarostami, one of the great filmmakers of our time, is a master at filming landscapes and constructing parablelike narratives whose missing pieces solicit the viewer’s active imagination. Taste of Cherry actually says a great deal about what it was like to be alive in the 1990s, and despite its somber theme, this masterpiece has a startling epilogue that radiates with wonder and euphoria. In Farsi with subtitles. 99 min. (JR)
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Throwing caution to the wind, producer-director-cowriter-star Warren Beatty sounds off about politics, delivering his funniest and liveliest film to date (1998). Beatty plays a senator up for reelection who suffers a nervous breakdown, takes out a contract on himself, and with nothing to lose finds himself blurting out what he actually believesmostly in the style of street rap. He addresses the lies of the government in general and the Democratic Party in particular, especially regarding black people, and once he starts hanging out with the daughter of Black Panthers (Halle Berry), whether the two of them will have sex becomes more of an issue than whether he’ll get reelected. This lacks the craft of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, but it offers a personal statement that may be just as important, and some of it equals Richard Pryor’s concert films in farcical candor and reckless energy. Coscripted by Jeremy Pikser; with Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Paul Sorvino, Don Cheadle, Amiri Baraka, and lots of enjoyable cameos. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
In Adam’s Rib (1991), adapting a contemporary novel, director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich revealed a fine sense of absurdist anomaly in probing personal relations in the former Soviet Union. Working six years later with Andrei Kourkov’s adaptation of another novel, he gives us a piquant story about an unemployed intellectual in today’s Ukraine (Alexandre Lazarev) that’s entirely worthy of its predecessor. The hero’s married to an advertising executive who’s about to leave him for another man, and when an old friend proposes hiring a hit man to rub out his rival, he agrees but flippantly designates himself as the victim instead. A few days later, after meeting a cheerful prostitute, he decides he wants to live after all, and hires a second hit man to rub out the first. It’s a well-told story of a society where, as one character points out, business relationships have replaced friendships, and Krishtofovich recounts it with dry wit and telling detail. (JR)… Read more »
I haven’t seen Whirligigs in the Late Afternoon (1996), the longest show on this program, but Lewis Klahr’s dreamlike work is so special that I’m sure it’s worth checking out. I’m especially partial to Altair (1994), a gossamer color noir culled from late-40s pages of Cosmopolitan and set to the strains of a section of the Firebird Suite, and Pony Glass (1997), a collection of kinky and gender-bending nightmares involving repressed homoerotic fantasies, Superman sidekick Jimmy Olsen, and such stray elements as a maple leaf and a turtle. But Klahr is always doing something slightly uncanny, whether he’s confusing a toy carousel with actual traffic in the silent Green ’62 (1996) or animating cutouts to the music of Berg in Lulu (1996). (JR)… Read more »
Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 account of taking drugs and behaving like an asshole in Las Vegas yields a singularly unpleasant 1998 feature from writer-director Terry Gilliam, though one with a lot of creativity and a scuzzy integrity of its own. There’s a good grasp of period, an impressive impersonation of the author-hero by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp, and a determination to honor the original in all its gross-out particulars. I assume that part of the idea here was to play in the ambiguous zones where Las Vegas tackiness, LSD hallucinations, Gilliam beasties, and lots of vomit become difficult to separate. It’s certainly distinctive, looking at times like Richard Lester put through a postmodernist blender, and Gilliam, an American expatriate since the 60s, skewers his native country with guts and zeal. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »
While not as terrible as his subsequent adaptation of Lord Jim, this 1958 Hollywoodization of the Dostoyevsky novel by writer-director Richard Brooks is pretty grotesque all the same. John Alton’s color cinematography and some candy-box decor and lighting fare a lot better than the cast (Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom, Richard Basehart, William Shatner, Lee J. Cobb, and Maria Schell). (JR)… Read more »
A pretty good survey of the diversity and range of inhabitants on the famous street. This video by David Simpson (who coproduced When Billy Broke His Head . . . and Other Tales of Wonder with journalist Billy Golfus) gets additional vigor and flavor from a wonderful prologue and epilogue narrated by Studs Terkel. 57 min. (JR)… Read more »
High-grade infotainment, even though it’s directed by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream), this is an intimate documentary of Woody Allen’s 1996 European tour with his Dixieland band, filmed at Allen’s instigation by his own production company, with Allen rather than Kopple retaining final cut, though it’s made to seem that Allen went along with the scheme rather than dreamed it up himself. On the plus side, it shows him at his most serious, as a dedicated (and better than average) clarinetist performing with an OK New Orleans-style band, and it provides some generous insights into his psychic background when his unsupportive parents greet him back in New York at the end. It also furnishes plenty of evidence of his outsize European reputation as he… Read more »
Art 1998 Chicago presents continuous showings of films that debuted at the Documenta X festival in Kassel, Germany, last summer. The Final Insult is Charles Burnett’s first foray into digital video, released in 1997 and running 55 minutes. It’s a fictional story about a homeless middle-aged man (Ayuko Babu of When It Rains) interspersed with a lot of documentary footage about the homeless, including several interviews. Both blocks of material have their own strength and validity, but they seldom mesh comfortably, and their juxtaposition tends to distract one from the subject at hand. Mother and Son (1997) is by the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov. Apart from the eye-filling black-and-white video Oriental Elegy Sokurov’s painterly, visionary side has seldom been more evident than in this gorgeous contemplation of a son caring for his dying mother. The story is minimal, but the color images are so breathtaking that there’s never a lax moment; even when the already slow action is reduced to a virtual standstill, Sokurov’s intensity insures that something is always happening, both on the screen and inside us. (This is only 73 minutes long, but if you’re hungry for plot, it will seem like an eternity.) In his taste and his patience, Sokurov may be our only truly 19th-century avant-gardist—which means in effect that his works are timeless.… Read more »
Bob Hope disguises himself as Casanova (Vincent Price) and bores the hell out of everyoneincluding 1954 audiences, who stayed away in droves. With Joan Fontaine, Audrey Dalton, Basil Rathbone, and Raymond Burr; Norman Z. McLeod directed. (JR)… Read more »
Brigitte Rouan’s 1997 comedy-drama opens with an image of a cat in heat. A 40ish book editor, wife, and mother (Rouan) falls in love with a hydraulics engineer about half her age (Boris Terral) and goes slightly gaga during and after their short-lived affair. In a contrapuntal subplot her lawyer husband (Patrick Chesnais) is defending an older woman who’s murdered her adulterous husband, and then goes gaga himself once he finds out about his wife. The film is pretty good at suggesting various mental states in physical and cinematic termsthe heroine floating on a motorized cloud, the husband experiencing a growing chasm between himself and his clientyet its greatest virtue could be its low-key reasonableness in showing how everyone copes with crisis, a modest and affectionate detachment that approaches wisdom. Rouan has acted in films by Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Bertrand Tavernier, among many others; as director, screenwriter, and star, she… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1998). — J.R.
Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) tended to alter his visual style with every film, according to the needs of the story; this 1958 effort is a heavy-duty satire about three competing candy companies trying to outdo one another’s promotional campaigns, and its garish and ugly color photography seems just as functional and deliberate as the beautiful black and white of A False Student and Red Angel. Against a backdrop of hysterical competition and industrial espionage, a slum girl with bad teeth is discovered and transformed into a mascot for one of the candy companies by a cynical porn photographer. The film has rightly been compared to some of Frank Tashlin’s pop-culture comedies, made in Hollywood around the same time, and though it’s probably less funny than Tashlin at his best, its anger is more savage and leaves a more corrosive aftertaste; the apocalyptic ending, for that matter, is worthy of Douglas Sirk. (JR)
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An intriguing but not entirely successful 1969 ‘Scope feature by the idiosyncratic Yasuzo Masumura, adapted from a famous novel by Yasunari Kawabata about a tea ceremony master (Mikijiro Hira) who becomes sexually involved with two of his late father’s girlfriends (one played by the great Machiko Kyo). Masumura (1924-’86) clearly had a feeling for kinky subjects of this kind, but here his mise en scene tends to be relatively flat and predictable. (JR)… Read more »
It’s entirely possible that Abbas Kiarostami, who’s been making films in Iran for about three decades, is our greatest living filmmaker. The problem isn’t that his films are esoteric, simply that they’re different from Western and other Iranian films alike, in the way they’re put together (without scripts and in most cases without professional actors), in the way they address us, and in what Kiarostami includes and leaves out. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987, 85 min.), one of his most popular films in Iran, is a miniature epic about a schoolboy trying to return a classmate’s notebook. Like the somewhat related Life and Nothing More (1992; also known as And Life Goes On . . .) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), both shot in the same section of northern Iran, this is a sustained meditation on singular landscapes and the way ordinary people live in them; an obsessional quest that takes on the contours of a parable; a concentrated inquiry that raises more questions than it answers; and a comic as well as cosmic poem. It’s about making discoveries and cherishing what’s in the worldincluding things that we can’t understand. In Farsi with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »