Monthly Archives: November 1998

Lives of Performers

Of all Yvonne Rainer’s films, this 1972 first feature most clearly bridges her formidable career as an avant-garde dancer and choreographer and her subsequent work as an experimental filmmaker. Its 14 fiction and nonfiction episodes chronicle and/or comment on Rainer’s performances, using sound and intertitles in various inventive and unorthodox ways and concentrating on issues of power and gender that culminate in a reenactment of the movie stills that illustrate the published screenplay of Pandora’s Box, the silent G.W. Pabst film starring Louise Brooks. Rainer’s dry vernacular humor is also much in evidence, bouncing off her feminism: “Well you know, Shirley, that I have always had a weakness for the sweeping revelations of great men.” Shot in ravishing black and white by Babette Mangolte; Rainer will attend the screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 20, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

A Simple Plan

Sam Raimi’s provocative, in some ways rewarding, but ultimately disappointing attempt to make a mainstream art film (1998) harks back to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed in terms of story material. The characters of Scott B. Smith’s novel, which he’s adapted for the screen, receive an unexpected windfall and their lives are destroyed by it. It’s a suggestive premise, but Raimi and Smith lack the focus of a Stroheim or a Frank Norris (Stroheim’s source for Greed) to work out precisely what’s being suggested. The script dawdles, and in spite of a good castBill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton (who’s especially resourceful), Bridget Fonda, and Brent Briscoethe movie tends to amble around its points rather than drive straight toward the heart of the matter. It’s still a better-than-average melodrama with thriller elements, and it uses its remote midwestern setting almost as well as its actors, but don’t expect a fully achieved work. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Inheritors

An exciting and visually beautiful 1997 period film from Austria by writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, set in a farming village after World War I. A tyrannical farmer is found murdered, and in his spiteful will he leaves all his holdings to his peasants. A rival farmer tries to buy the farm at a discount, but the peasants rebel and decide to run the place themselves. An enormous number of ideas get played out in this bucolic mystery-action-comedy-drama–about class, collectivity, bigotry, and independence–but Ruzowitzky makes it work dramatically as well as intellectually; with some justice he calls the film an Alpine western, and his sense of place and landscape is especially sharp. Fine Arts. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

What Farocki Taught

Jill Godmilow describes this recent half-hour short as a precise remake, in color and English, of Harun Farocki’s 1969 black-and-white German film Inextinguishable Fire, and while I have some quarrels with it, this fascinating intervention is bound to generate some interesting debate (at this screening she’ll discuss it with experimental filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, which should throw the issues into even sharper relief). Farocki’s powerful film, never shown in the U.S. until recently, describes Dow Chemical’s development and manufacture of Napalm B and the effects of its use during the Vietnam war. By adroitly remaking the film three decades later Godmilow wants to call attention to a model of political filmmaking, though one might argue that she runs into trouble when she describes her own work as “agitprop” in the same sense that Farocki’s was: after all, he was addressing a contemporary issue, and in a sense her kind of political filmmaking is yet another excuse for avoiding our current problems. (A curious and fascinating coincidence: Elisabeth Subrin was remaking another 60s political documentary in the midwest around the same time, though her film, Shulie, showing later this month at the Film Center, fosters a more dialectical relationship between past and present.) On the other hand, Godmilow does a fine job of stirring the pot, and what she and Rainer say about this postmodernist experiment should be well worth hearing.… Read more »

Public Housing

This in-depth 1997 look at everyday life in Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing project, running 195 minutes, is one of Frederick Wiseman’s greatest documentaries to date. Few of the points in its epic analysis are obvious ones; though it gives the overall impression that public housing is like living in a concentration camp, the film favors exploration and understanding over finger-pointing and polemicizing. Wiseman presents a wide array of materials, and because you have to reflect on the film to realize how the various pieces of its design hang together, you’re liable to be thinking about it for months afterward. Wiseman will attend the screening, and the following afternoon, Saturday, November 7, at 1, he’ll take part in a panel discussion at the Film Center chaired by Studs Terkel and featuring CHA and other officials. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 6, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

The Inheritors

An exciting and visually beautiful 1997 period film from Austria by writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, set in a farming village after World War I. A tyrannical farmer is found murdered, and in his spiteful will he leaves all his holdings to his peasants. A rival farmer tries to buy the farm at a discount, but the peasants rebel and decide to run the place themselves. An enormous number of ideas get played out in this bucolic mystery-action-comedy-dramaabout class, collectivity, bigotry, and independencebut Ruzowitzky makes it work dramatically as well as intellectually; with some justice he calls the film an Alpine western, and his sense of place and landscape is especially sharp. (JR)… Read more »

The Siege

Edward Zwick’s liberal, semisuccessful efforts to upgrade our notions of the Civil War (Glory) and the gulf war (Courage Under Fire), aided in both cases by Denzel Washington, are roughly matched by his efforts here to make sense of Palestinian terrorists, at least from a relatively uncomprehending American point of view, in a 1998 thriller about their setting off explosions in New York City. On the other hand, the Arab American Action Network has understandably denounced the film for its demonizing stereotypes. The problem, as always, is that when you try to mix cliches with more complicated data it’s often the cliches that win out. Washington in this case plays a virtuous special agent of the FBIan organization that is treated here with hushed piety, at least in comparison with the muddled CIA (represented by Annette Bening’s case officer) and the relatively unscrupulous army (represented by Bruce Willis’s general). What emerges is a better than average assemblage of platitudes, with some occasionally witty and pertinent dialogue (by screenwriters Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Zwick) andyou guessed itplenty of explosions. The always interesting Tony Shalhoub plays Washington’s Lebanese-American partner, but like everyone else in the movie he’s playing a type, not a character.… Read more »

The Young Girls Of Rochefort

In choosing Jacques Demy’s greatest feature, one might argue strongly for Lola (1960), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), or the lesser-known Une Chambre en Ville (1982). But Demy’s most ambitious film and the one I cherish the most is this 1967 big-budget musical shot exclusively on location, a tale of various dreamers searching for and usually missing their ideal mates, who are usually only blocks away. The score is Michel Legrand’s finest, with various jazz elements, lyrics in alexandrines by Demy, and intricately structured reprises that match the poetic, crisscrossing plot. Demy pays tribute to the American musical yet mixes in accoutrements of French poetic realism: dreams and reality coexist more strangely and stubbornly than in most other musicals. The results may be quintessentially French, but the energy and optimism are clearly inspired by America, and Gene Kelly’s appearances are sublime. With Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Daniele Darrieux, George Chakiris, Grover Dale, and Michel Piccoli. In French with subtitles. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Celebrity

Woody Allen at his most inconsequential and insubstantial; don’t expect to remember this black-and-white throwaway of comic sketches five minutes after it’s over. The art movie reference this time is La dolce vita, and Kenneth Branagh has been enlisted to play Allen playing the Marcello Mastroianni part. Judy Davis, as Branagh’s estranged spouse, also plays Allen, at least until she starts imitating Mia Farrow. It appears that the widespread critical support of sexist and racist films like Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry has further emboldened Allen in depicting women as blow-job machines and blacks as sexual athletes; he knows in advance that most of the New York press will never desert him and probably will applaud his courage in the bargain. Others in the cast include Melanie Griffith, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing himself much as Quentin Tarantino did in Four Rooms), Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Michael Lerner, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, Hank Azaria, and Bebe Neuwirth (1998). (JR)… Read more »

Shulie

From the Chicago Reader (November1, 1998). — J.R.

Shulie-2

For the most part, this is a precise, shot-by-shot video “remake” of a little-known half-hour documentary film made in Chicago in 1967. The original film, made by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig, was a portrait of 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone as she was earning a BFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute, working for the postal service, and taking photographs (three years later she would publish The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution). The “remake” was made by Elisabeth Subrin (Swallow), a former grad student at the School of the Art Institute who worked with actors and detailed reproductions of Firestone’s paintings and drawings. This fascinating attempt at duplication ultimately has more to say about the 90s than the 60s: though it has some impact of its own as a document about prefeminist awakening, it?s more valuable as a commentary on what separates the past from the present. Kim Soss gives a good performance as Firestone, but her style of speaking is noticeably more guarded and unemotional, telling us a great deal about differences in everyday speech and body language 30 years apart.… Read more »

What Farocki Taught

Jill Godmilow describes this half-hour short as a precise remake, in color and English, of Harun Farocki’s 1969 black-and-white German film Inextinguishable Fire. Farocki’s powerful film describes Dow Chemical’s development and manufacture of Napalm B and the effects of its use during the Vietnam war. By adroitly remaking the film three decades later Godmilow wants to call attention to a model of political filmmaking, though one might argue that she runs into trouble when she describes her own work as agitprop in the same sense that Farocki’s was: after all, he was addressing a contemporary issue, and in a sense her kind of political filmmaking is yet another excuse for avoiding our current problems. On the other hand, Godmilow does a fine job of stirring the pot, and this fascinating intervention is bound to generate some interesting debate. (JR)… Read more »

Apocalyptic Visions: Films About The End Of The World

Five short films, at least one of which (Chris Marker’s 1963 La jetee) is a masterpiece. The other four are Christopher MacLaine’s The End (1953), Arthur Lipsett’s 21-87 (1963), Heather McAdams’s Fetal Pig Anatomy (1985), and Robert Flowers’s The Garden of Eden (1988). (JR)… Read more »

Blowjob

Andy Warhol’s 35-minute film from 1963 is a slow-motion sequence of a person’s face in close-up as he experiences fellatio. Like all Warhol work from this period, it’s well worth seeing. (JR)… Read more »

House On Haunted Hill

As unfashionable as it may be to say so, none of William Castle’s horror movies lives up to the promise of his early noirs, such as The Whistler and its sequels and When Strangers Marry. But if one had to pick the best of the campy horror films that made his reputation, this 1958 feature would probably be it, with or without its promotional gimmick of Emergo (an illuminated skeleton flying over the heads of the audience). Vincent Price plays a wealthy man who offers a group of people $10,000 to spend a night in his haunted mansion; Robb White wrote the script, and the costars include Richard Long, Carol Ohmart, and the ever reliable Elisha Cook Jr. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »