Monthly Archives: October 2000


From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.

Alain Resnais’ first feature in English (1977, 110 min.) focuses on the imagination, dreams, and memories of an aging British novelist (John Gielgud) over one night as he mentally composes and recomposes his last book, using members of his immediate family — Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner, and Elaine Stritch — as his models. Although David Mercer’s witty, aphoristic script can be British to a fault, the film’s rich mental landscape is a good deal more universal, with everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s werewolves to a painted seaside backdrop providing the essential textures. Like all of Resnais’ best work, this is shot through with purposeful and lyrical enigmas, but the family profile that emerges is warm and penetrating, recalling the haunted Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night rather than the pieces of an abstract puzzle. The superb performances and Miklos Rozsa’s sumptuous Hollywood-style score give the film’s conceit a moving monumentality and depth, and Resnais’ insights into the fiction-making process are mesmerizing and beautiful. This is showing in a 16-millimeter print, but later in the evening the Film Center will present 35-millimeter prints of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Muriel (1963).… Read more »

Charlie’s Angels

The angels are newDrew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liubut the mythology of the old TV show, with John Forsythe intoning the offscreen Voice of God (i.e., Charlie), remains the same. The first third or so offers all the dominatrix fantasies one might wish for, but then fantasy gives way to the aggressiveness of the special effects and optical effects, which reflect the background of the director, McG, in commercials and music videos and offer something like mild but frequent electric shocks. The plot fluctuations guarantee a costume change every few minutesat least until the closing stretch, when the movie becomes simply another James Bond derivativeand they might be enough to keep you interested. Bill Murray makes a fairly funny Bosley, and Tim Curry, Kelly Lynch, and Crispin Glover all do pretty well as heavies. The script is credited to Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dark Days

With no prior training in film, 21-year-old Londoner Marc Singer set out to make this 16-millimeter black-and-white documentary about the homeless people living in the tunnels under New York’s Penn Station. Singer’s six-year quest–including a brief stint of being homeless himself–deserves notice, and in a way I’m disappointed that the film omits it. But what’s most remarkable and fascinating here are the squatters, who do a pretty good job of explaining themselves without any outside narrator (and who, in countless ways, assisted Singer in shooting the film). The lives of these people inside their shacks are full of surprises (one keeps several dogs as pets, another shaves with an electric razor and a broken mirror) as well as grim confirmations (the self-loathing misery of a crackhead who lost her children in a fire), but the things we don’t know about them also significantly shape our experience of the film. Their underground sojourn came to an end when Amtrak evicted them and the Coalition for the Homeless found them normal housing. Despite its title, the film seems excessively (or at the very least prematurely) cheerful in its closing stretch. Still, this is an eye-opening tale of how part of our population lives, and as an authentic image of material suffering it makes something like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark seem even more dubious.… Read more »


I had fun with this Harold Ramis remake of the 1968 Stanley Donen comedyabout an obnoxious nebbish who strikes a Faustian bargain with the devilas long as I didn’t worry about the character of the nebbish, played by Brendan Fraser, who starts off unbelievably stupid and winds up ridiculously enlightened. Much more believable and witty is the devil, incarnated by Elizabeth Hurley as a steamy babe, while the beautiful and ethereal woman the nebbish dreams about, adequately played by Frances O’Connor, isn’t much more than a prop. Each of the seven wishes the nebbish is granted yields a separate comic sketch in which he fulfills his fantasy but doesn’t gain his prizethe same structure as the original, which was British and basically consisted of sketch humor by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. The only washouts are the sketches in which the hero is supposed to be sensitive or intelligent and witty, these being nothing but assemblies of stupid stereotypes. In other words, this is well crafted and mindless in the best Hollywood tradition. Larry Gelbart and Peter Tolan collaborated with Ramis on the script. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Communications Problems and Canons

The fifth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000).  As James Naremore aptly notes about my work in his recent collection An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2014), I have revised my attitudes towards watching films on home video formats considerably since I wrote this over a decade and a half ago. -– J.R.  

 Les Vampiresbat

les vampires speeding car

les vampires sleeping bodies

In 1998, Water Bearer Video issued in a boxed set of four cassettes the complete ten-episode silent French serial Les vampires. Directed by  Louis Feuillade in 1915 and 1916 and starring the great actress Musidora as the mysterious Irma Vep, this monumental and exciting crime fantasy is one of the key works in the history of cinema — seminal in its influence on moviemaking as a whole, and to my mind considerably more watchable, pleasurable, and even modern from certain perspectives than the contemporaneous long features of D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Yet astonishingly, this major work had been unavailable in the United States for over eighty years, ever since it ran commercially as a serial in American movie houses; apart from a few exceptional archive and festival showings from the sixties onward, not a single episode was distributed in any form.… Read more »

Something’s Missing

Last week I congratulated the Chicago International Film Festival for failing to attract more Hollywood studio interest, thereby making it easier for us to see good movies without being pressured by hefty advertising budgets. But this week I feel obliged to point out that the Chicago festival’s organizers probably wouldn’t have minded more Hollywood hoopla. I’ve noticed over the past several years that they tend to hold most of their high-profile events during the opening weekend, reserving many of the less glitzy items for the second week. Perhaps they believe that if they can persuade the public to come to something in the first few days, the remainder of the festival will take care of itself.

As a sworn opponent of this kind of “opening night” snobbery, I can’t help noting that some of the most significant, if less glamorous, movie events occurring in town this week have nothing to do with the festival. Two of Alain Resnais’ lesser-known experiments with musical form are playing at the Film Center; one of them, the 1984 Love Unto Death, has never been shown in Chicago before. Two even more scarce and seminal French experimental films, both from 1968, are playing at Facets Multimedia Center: Jackie Raynal’s Deux fois and Philippe Garrel’s La revelateur–neither of which is likely to come this way again.… Read more »

Deux fois

This seminal 63-minute experimental film by French director Jackie Raynal kicks off Facets Multimedia Center’s weeklong retrospective on the “Zanzibar collection,” a group of mainly political films financed by heiress Sylvina Boissonnas between 1968 and ’70. Raynal, a film editor working for most of the French New Wave directors, made Deux fois in black-and-white 35-millimeter during a visit to Barcelona and its environs, with herself as the main performer in practically every sequence. Instead of a story it offers a flow of sequential events that formally rhyme with each other, so that the title (“two times”) becomes a succinct reference to her method–though some things in the film appear three, four, or five times, always with distinct variations. Years later, faced by a team of feminist film theorists, Raynal admitted that the film is partially about “the representation of the image of woman as a sign,” but apparently in the more footloose, less gender-conscious 60s she was more interested in exploring the sexy forms of duplicity between various sequences, their secret points of accord and strongest points of tension. It’s a film about coupling (a man appears with Raynal in many of the sequences) but also about flirting with camera and spectator alike.… Read more »

The Audience is Sometimes Right (Part Two)

The concluding chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000).
Due to the length of this Conclusion, it’s being posted in two parts. — J.R.

Q:   In Chapter Five, you argue that the cable channel Turner Classic Movies does a more responsible job of preserving our film heritage than the American Film Institute, citing what they’ve recently done in “restorations, revivals, documentaries about film history, and even in presenting foreign-­language movies.” Of course TCM has vastly more economic and material resources at its disposal than the AFI does, which suggests that big business versus state funding isn’t always the enemy.

A: Yes, and I’d stand by that comparison — although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that TCM has any sort of edge over the Cinémathèque Française, especially when it comes to varied and knowledgeable programming of world cinema (which includes certain categories like experimental film that TCM completely ignores). I had to wait for years in Chicago before I could get TCM, and friends of mine in New York and Los Angeles had comparable problems. Now that we have it, it’s certainly a boon to get the sort of balance between structured and unstructured programming of older films that the Cinémathèque has often specialized in.… Read more »

The Audience is Sometimes Right (Part One)

The concluding chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000).
Due to the length of this Conclusion, it’s being posted in two parts. — J.R.

Conclusion: The Audience Is Sometimes Right


     “What is your feeling towards your audiences — towards the public?”                     

     “Which public? There are as many publics as there are personalities.”

                                   — Gilbert Burgess, “A Talk with Mr. Oscar Wilde” (1895)




QUESTION: Aren’t you laying yourself open throughout this book to the charge of sour grapes?

ANSWER: What do you mean?

Q: I mean attacking critics like Janet Maslin and David Denby because you’d so obviously like to have their jobs yourself.

A: If that’s really your impression of what lies behind my arguments, then my arguments have failed. There’s a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and I consider myself fortunate that I don’t have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications — including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael as well as Maslin and Denby — ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they’re empowered by those institutions, they’re disempowered as independent voices.… Read more »

Lost Souls

Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, directs his first feature, a supernatural thriller that seems bent on remaking The Exorcist with some of the stylish look of Seven. Alas, look is everything here and storytelling and characters are next to nothing, so what emerges is oddly ineffectual and uninvolvingvisually striking set pieces set loose in a void. The plot has something to do with a famous writer (Ben Chaplin) who doesn’t believe in the devil but who gradually learns from a believer (Winona Ryder) that he’s scheduled to turn into the Antichrist himself. With Philip Baker Hall, Elias Koteas, and John Hurt; Pierce Gardner and Betsy Stahl are credited with the script. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ladies Man

Not a rerelease of Jerry Lewis’s second-best feature, alas, nor even a remake, though it comes from the same studio. Instead, Paramount deemed it wiser to give us a stridently unfunny minstrel show, insulting to audience and cast alike, starring Tim Meadows as a talk-show host and philandering black stud who has a lot of angry husbands chasing him. When the husbands briefly break into a musical comedy number, I thought for a moment that director Reginald Hudlin was giving Kenneth Branagh in Love’s Labour’s Lost a run for his money, but I suspect the challenge here was different: to see if he could direct a movie blindfolded and wearing earplugs. With Karyn Parsons, Billy Dee Williams, Tiffani Thiessen, Lee Evans, and Will Ferrell; Meadows, Dennis McNichols, and Andrew Steele worked on the script. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Pola X

I haven’t read Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities, but it’s reportedly director Leos Carax’s favorite novel. What there is of a plot to this 1999 modern-dress adaptation, which Carax wrote with Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Pol Fargeau, concerns a wealthy author (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard) living in Normandy in semi-incestuous content with his mother (Catherine Deneuve). Upon encountering a soulful eastern European war refugee (Katerina Golubeva) who claims to be his half sister, he runs out on his wealthy fiancee (Delphine Chuillot) and retreats to a funky part of Paris to write another novel. There’s clearly some sort of self-portraiture going on here. A 19th-century romantic inhabiting a universe as mythological as Jean Cocteau’s, Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood, The Lovers on the Bridge) has a wonderful cinematic eye and a personal feeling for editing rhythms, and his sense of overripeness and excess virtually defines him. He’s as self-indulgent as they come, and we’d all be much the poorer if he weren’t. Characteristic of his private sense of poetics is this film’s final dedication, near the end of the closing credits, “to my three sisters”–it appears on-screen for less than a second. Pola, incidentally, is the acronym of the French title of Melville’s novel; X alludes to the fact that Carax used the tenth draft of the script.… Read more »

Beautiful Losers

What defines a successful film festival? Judging by the noises the media make about this topic, a successful festival is one that launches some Hollywood producer’s latest studio release–and allows him to expand his swimming pool. Anything that might get in the way of such a project–the art of film, say, or the curiosity of a festival audience about what’s happening elsewhere in the world–is to be discouraged in the pages of the trade papers, which generally set the tone for the mainstream.

By this standard, out of the seven festivals I’ve attended so far this year–in Rotterdam, Austin, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Pesaro, Montreal, and Toronto–only the last was a solid success, and the 36th Chicago International Film Festival, which begins screening its hundred or so programs this weekend, will be another flop. No swimming pools will be expanded as a result of any of its screenings–not even its few prerelease showings of Hollywood movies, most of which will open commercially a week or so later.

I’m grateful. I won’t be bugged by local publicists or any of their west- and east-coast associates who in late August start deluging me with calls, E-mails, and faxes about interviewing actors and directors in Toronto in September–publicists who know that I don’t do infotainment junkets but are apparently so browbeaten by their bosses they feel they have to ask me anyway, sometimes repeatedly.… Read more »

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

After making what are still probably their two best features, the Coen brothers came up with their worst (2000), a piece of pop nihilism about three convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) on the run. Fargo dealt with their home state (Minnesota) and the present and The Big Lebowski with LA at the time of the gulf war. But when it comes to Mississippi and the Depression, the Coens are so contemptuous they can’t even come up with characters. What they really seem to care about are yuppie collectibles, like Robert Johnson albums. A movie’s in trouble when its best sequence is a whimsical musical number featuring the Ku Klux Klanwhich the Coens seem to regard as yet another antique. With John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Life As A Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease

Fans of Woody Allen’s noncomic features might well go for this glum spiritual study of a physician adjustingmainly with dignity and common senseto his own death from inoperable cancer. Despite the jokey title, this has only a modicum of wisecracks, and its mordant Polish wisdom, while genuine, mainly seems all too familiar. It begins with a medieval-looking film-within-the-film about a horse thief and the religious guide who prepares him offscreen for death by hanging, then shifts to the doctor on the movie’s location; he remains the focus thereafter, as he gradually learns about his terminal illness. I’ve never seen any of Krzysztof Zanussi’s most famous films, which are highly respected, and perhaps I approached this picture with the wrong kind of expectations. It certainly isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Zbigniew Zapasiewicz is commanding as the hero; Krystyna Janda costars. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »