Monthly Archives: November 2003

The Cliffhanger

The idea behind this Exquisite Corpse experiment (2003) is intriguing: using the same cast, 11 separate Chicago crews taped successive segments of this 92-minute narrative, each with only a week to view the previous episode or episodes, then write and shoot the next installment in its own style. There’s some attractive photography in chapter two, bizarre camera angles in three, good acting in five, striking electronic music and color filters in seven, and other felicities along the way. But I found the convoluted storywhich has something to do with a snuff videoalmost impossible to follow until things began to coalesce in the final chapters, by which time I had lost interest. The problem is that the shifting styles and accumulating plot turns become distractions rather than serving the story as a whole. (JR)… Read more »

Cet Amour-la

Josee Dayan’s 2001 film about French writer Marguerite Duras (1914-’96) is based on an autobiographical novel by Yann Andrea, a onetime philosophy student 38 years her junior who spent 16 years with her as friend, confidant, lover, drinking companion, and secretary. It’s a curious blend of soap opera a la Beloved Infidel (Sheilah Graham’s account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days) and halfhearted portrait of Duras as a person and writer. Jeanne Moreau, who looks nothing like Duras but was a friend of hers, does a fine job capturing her personal style (including her alcoholic abuse of Andrea). But there’s something self-defeating about approaching an unconventional artist so conventionally, and the story becomes touching only insofar as it overrides much of what made Duras special. In French with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cowards Bend The Knee

The title of this 64-minute, 2003 video by Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary) refers to its having been commissioned as a gallery installation for the Rotterdam film festival, to be watched through a succession of arcade-style peep-show machines. Screening here as a self-contained work, it seems Maddin’s most personal project yet: the hero is a hockey player named Guy Maddin; his mother, like Maddin’s, runs a beauty salon; and Maddin even casts some of his own family members. But the overall feel is phantasmagoricpitched, like most of Maddin’s work, in the style of a half-remembered late silent feature or early talkie. (JR)… Read more »

When It Rains

One of my all-time favorites, this beautiful 12-minute short by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, The Glass Shield), made for French TV in 1995, is a jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts and one of those rare movies in which jazz forms directly influence film narrative. The slender plot involves a Good Samaritan and local griot (Ayuko Babu), who serves as poetic narrator, trying to raise money from his ghetto neighbors for a young mother who’s about to be evicted, and each person he goes to see registers like a separate solo in a 12-bar blues. (Eventually a John Handy album recorded in Monterey, a “countercultural” emblem of the 60s, becomes a crucial barter item.) This gem has been one of the most difficult of Burnett’s films to see; it screens with his fine feature To Sleep With Anger (see separate listing). Northwestern Univ. Block Museum of Art.… Read more »

Cowards Bend the Knee

The title of this 64-minute video by Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary) refers to its having been commissioned as a gallery installation for the Rotterdam film festival, to be watched through a succession of arcade-style peep-show machines. Screening here as a self-contained work, it seems like Maddin’s most personal project yet: the hero is a hockey player named Guy Maddin; his mother, like Maddin’s, runs a beauty salon; and Maddin even casts some of his own family members. But the overall feel is phantasmagoric–pitched, like most of Maddin’s work, in the style of a half-remembered late silent feature or early talkie. Also on the program are Maddin’s justly celebrated six-minute short The Heart of the World (2000), showing in 35-millimeter, and his five-minute Odilon Redon, or the Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (1995). Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Godard’s Myth of Total Cinema: HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA

Written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival in November 2003. — J.R.

In his biography of André Bazin, Dudley Andrew notes in passing that “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Myth of Total Cinema,” which he calls Bazin’s“first great essays,” were both composed during the French Occupation. I hope I can be forgiven for taking the meaning of the second essay’s title in a direction quite different from what Bazin intended–a direction inspired by the fact that we’re living today under a kind of Cultural Occupation imposed by advertising that currently approaches global dimensions, and which operates under the assumption of another kind of “myth of total cinema”. I’m thinking of the myth that the breadth and diversity of contemporary cinema in its present profusion are somehow knowable and therefore describable, something that can be analyzed in detail as well as evaluated.

Arguably, this was closer to being true during the first half of the 20th century, even though it took nearly all of those 50 years for film history and film criticism to reach the point of finding the very notion of such serious stock-taking desirable.Read more »

Blindsided [ELEPHANT]

From the Chicago Reader (November 7, 2003). — J.R.

Elephant

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Timothy Bottoms, and Matt Malloy.

Gus Van Sant’s startling and brilliant Elephant – a film that follows the activities of several high school students before and during a massacre like the one at Columbine — has its flaws, yet its virtues so outshine them that the years he’s spent lost in the wilderness can be forgiven. His four previous features weren’t exactly dead on arrival, though his 1998 remake of Psycho came alarmingly close. But the filmmaker responsible for such fresh early shorts as The Discipline of DE (1978) and My New Friend (1987) and such exciting early features as Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and My Own Private Idaho (1990) was almost nowhere in evidence in Good Will Hunting (1997), Psycho, or Finding Forrester (2000) and only faintly discernible in the experimental feature Gerry (2001). (In between were two satirical features, the uneven 1993 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and the more successful 1995 To Die For.)

Good Will Hunting, Van Sant’s first big commercial success, was a borderline sellout, and Finding Forrester was almost a complete one.… Read more »

Eden’s Curve

I’m sorry to say that Anne Misawa’s direction of her actors didn’t allow me to believe in Hart Monroe and Jerry Meadors’s story about a hunky, innocent freshman at a ritzy Virginia college juggling relationships with his troubled roommate, the roommate’s girlfriend, and his handsome poetry professor. The problem isn’t so much the plot as the labored performance style, though the crude dialogue didn’t help. A striking camera style and the blurry, leafy textures of the setting provide some visual distraction. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Brother Outsider: The Life Of Bayard Rustin

An eye-opening documentary (2003) by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer about the most sophisticated and charismatic of the civil rights leaders, enhanced by insights about why he became the most neglected. A onetime singer in Josh White’s quartet, the Carolinians, a communist between 1938 and ’41, and a conscientious objector imprisoned during World War II, Rustin (1912-’87) helped to school Martin Luther King in pacifismand persuaded him at an early stage not to own guns. Ultimately Rustin was driven to the margins of the movement for being outspokenly gay and refusing (on tactical grounds) to oppose the war in Vietnam. Without overemphasizing either of these factors, this intelligently balanced account offers a complex and nuanced portrait of a complex and nuanced individual. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Les Parents Terribles

Jean Cocteau’s filming of his 1938 play ten years later is both a lesson in mise en scene and an illustration of the paradox that accentuating the theatrical aspects of theater on-screen makes them quintessentially cinematic. (To my knowledge, the only other film that does this to the same degree is Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge.) The accomplishment becomes all the more impressive if one considers how mannered and affected Cocteau’s material is. The sheltered son of a middle-aged couple living with the wife’s unmarried sister falls in love with a young woman without realizing that she’s his father’s mistress, and the terror faced by the mother at the prospect of losing her son is matched by terror faced by the mistress in being exposed. The characters may seem outlandish individually, but collectively they bring credence to one another as the plot unfolds in two claustrophobic flats, and the cast is masterful: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Yvonne de Bray, Marcel Andre, Gabrielle Dorzoat. Cocteau cuts and moves his camera in ways that are both eccentric and definitive. In French with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Anything But Love

As a lover of musicals, I’m generally sympathetic to filmmakers who pay tribute to them, even when their emulations of the genre are more emotional than cinematic (or even musical). But Robert Cary’s tale of an aspiring nightclub singer (cowriter Isabel Rose) who’s nostalgically tied to her parents’ era is so lackluster both as an homage and as a story in its own right that I was already forgetting it before it was over. Andrew McCarthy is OK as a rehearsal pianist, resembling Steven Spielberg, who wins the singer’s heart from an insensitive phony (Cameron Bancroft), but the only reason for seeing this is Eartha Kitt, who performs an electric nightclub number before dispensing a few clumsy lines of worldly wisdom. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Elephant

Winner of two top prizes at Cannes, Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized drama about the Columbine massacre was generated by conversations with the teenage actors about their own lives, and reportedly none of the dialogue was scripted. Perhaps as a result this offers little insight into the motivations of teenage mass murderers, unless one counts such threadbare ideas as a TV documentary about Nazism idly watched by the killers. What interests Van Sant is why no one saw the massacre coming, and his exciting and rigorous structure follows several characters in overlapping trajectories and time frames (a method derived from Bela Tarr’s Satantango) so that we’re constantly noticing details we missed earlier. The effect is riveting and tellingnot always realistic (none of the characters carry cell phones) but often enlightening. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Citizen, Detective, Thief

Dawoud Abdel-Sayed’s 2001 hit Egyptian musical about three men who trade mistresses, information, and destinies over two decades has only half a dozen numbers over 135 minutes, but each one is pivotal to the thematic development and the satirical treatment of class difference and corruption. Undoubtedly the strangest occurs after the citizen’s maid and mistress steals the manuscript of his first novel and turns it over to the thief (Egyptian pop star Shaaban Abdel-Rehim), who burns it because he finds it Islamically incorrect and then has his eye gouged out by the enraged novelist; nurses and fellow hospital patients provide Abdel-Rehim’s musical and dancing backup as he laments his two-dimensional sight. As ambitious in its way as Scorsese’s Casino and no less violent in its abusive details, this is social criticism with a vengeance. In Arabic with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Year That Trembled

Writer-director Jay Craven adapted this indie feature from a novel by Scott Lax about the 1970 Kent State shootings and their aftermath, tracing the lives of many students as well as a local high school teacher (Marin Hinkle) who loses her job as a result of her antiwar activism. There are moments of awkward exposition, choppy continuity, and long-windedness, yet the overall feeling for the period is just right, and the performances are highly affecting, with old hands like Henry Gibson, Fred Willard, and Martin Mull interacting with younger players as deftly as the fictional story with the archival footage. This is more believable than most depictions of the period because the politics are informed by historical reflection; prompted by his own research, Craven changes one of Lax’s major characters into an agent provocateur on campus. With Jonathan Woodward, Charlie Finn, Lucas Ford, Sean Nelson, Jonathan Brandis, and Kiera Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie). 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Flower Of Evil

If you can figure out all the intricate and incestuous family backstory of this domestic melodrama by Claude Chabrol, there’s a certain amount to appreciate, though most of it’s more cerebral than emotional. Caroline Eliacheff, a child psychiatrist who worked with Chabrol on The Ceremony and Merci pour le chocolat, both of which I found more enjoyable, collaborated on the script with Louise Lambriches and Chabrol. The present-day plot circulates around an anonymous broadside delving into the Vichy family connections of a woman running for mayor in a town in Bordeaux (Nathalie Baye)a catalyst recalling the poison-pen letter in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 Le corbeauas well as the budding romance between her daughter and stepson, protected by a sympathetic aunt (Suzanne Flon), and the growing estrangement of her philandering husband (Bernard Le Coq). This kept me absorbed, but I was less than fully satisfied at the end. In French with subtitles. R, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »