Monthly Archives: June 2004

Response to a PEN E-Mail Forum (2004)

As a long-standing member of PEN, I’m periodically invited to participate in their “forums” for their occasional publication PEN America. This is my response to Issue 5 (volume 3) in 2004, devoted to “Silences”. –- J.R.

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Spider-man 2

Many critics are calling this an improvement over the first movie, and they’re probably right. But both are fairly routine minor variations on superhero tropes that have been around for over half a century, and as such I find them blending together into one ultimately forgettable (if agreeable) four-hour romp. As Dr. Octopus, Alfred Molina makes a more baroque supervillain than Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, but the other starsTobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmonsseem happy to be giving us more of the same. Sam Raimi’s direction, on the other hand, is even more fluent and well paced, integrating the hero’s spectacular acrobatics with the grueling horrors of being a working-class teen. PG-13, 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Mudge Boy

Traumatized by the recent death of his mother, a maladjusted 14-year-old farm boy (Emile Hirsch) undergoes a brutal initiation into masculinity at the hands of other local teenage boys, some of whom displace their own uncertainties about sex and gender onto him. Michael Burke wrote and directed this painfully well-observed and disturbing first feature (2003); it’s especially good in its handling of actors and its sharp feeling for characters who can’t even describe their own problems, much less analyze them. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sympathy For The Devil

Shot in 1968, this abstruse and fascinating film by Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes scenes of the Rolling Stones rehearsing and recording their satanic anthem with various protorevolutionary vignettes staged in and around London, among them an interview in which Eve Democracy (Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s wife at the time) perfunctorily answers every question yes or no. Godard’s original cut, released in 1969 as One Plus One, never allowed the full and finished song to be heard; here it plays out over a freeze-frame that was tacked onto the final sequence, a version Godard disowned, punching out the producer when it first appeared. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Joy Of Madness

I’m not sure I fully understand the title of 14-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf’s documentary account of the casting of her sister Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (see separate listing), but it’s not inappropriate. The Makhmalbafs, an Iranian family of filmmakers, trek through Kabul a bit like an invading army, trying to acquire actors from a reluctant populace for a progressive film about a young Afghan woman. Mutual misunderstandings and suspicions proliferate, often to telling and comic effect, with Samira and her father, Mohsen, sometimes playing bad cop and good cop to their prospective actors. In Farsi and Dari with subtitles. 73 min. (JR)… Read more »

Heaven Can Wait

Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it’s about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Also on the program: When Hell Froze Over (1926), a Mutt and Jeff cartoon by Budd Fisher. LaSalle Theatre.… Read more »

Fahrenheit 9/11

For once the hype is true: Michael Moore outdoes himself as a polemicist, surveying the presidency of George W. Bush as if our lives depended on it. He’s grown in ambition both as a documentary filmmaker and as a tactician, showing restraint and using other voices when necessary. (His depiction of the World Trade Center attacks of September 2001 is especially powerful.) To expect this eloquent and multifaceted statement of rage to be any more “objective” than our evening news would be naive–especially when Moore uses so many selected nuggets from the evening news to make his points. More generally, however, this Cannes prizewinner delivers a wealth of information that the U.S. major media have been skirting, and it registers with a good deal of common sense and simple humanity. There are plenty of laughs whenever Moore wants to twist the knife, but the bottom line is that he respects and trusts his fellow Americans a lot more than Bush does. 116 min. Reviewed this week in Section One. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Davis, Esquire, Gardens 7-13, Lake, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia

This essay was comissioned by the French magazine Trafic — founded by the late Serge Daney shortly before his death, and still going strong today — where I’ve served for many years as one of the advisory editors. Their 50th issue, published in the summer of 2004, was devoted to various answers to the Bazinian question, “What is Cinema?” This is also the title essay in my next collection, to be published by University of Chicago Press in the Fall of 2010. —J.R.

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

What is cinema?

Before one can even start to answer this question, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that one can’t formulate precisely the same definition of cinema for France and for other countries. And the reason why one can’t should be obvious: in France, an important part of this definition pertains to film as an art form—-a distinction that is generally perceived elsewhere only as a minority position, and sometimes even as an elitist one. But if, on the other hand, one were to ask the question, “What is cinephilia?”, it starts to become easier to come up with a definition that applies to everywhere. A seeming contradiction, it can perhaps be explained by saying that the “cinema” in “cinephilia” is not quite the same thing as “cinema” seen as a self-sufficient term, without reference to social forms.… Read more »

Messiah Of Evil

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote and directed this 1973 zombie movie several years before they attained universal infamy with Howard the Duck. Michael Greer and Marianna Hill costar, backed up by such reliables as Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr., and the sadly forgotten Joy Bang (Pretty Maids All in a Row, Cisco Pike). Also known as Dead People. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Down By Love

Can a film be a tour de force and still basically uninteresting? This 2003 Hungarian feature by Tamas Sas focuses on a young woman (Patricia Kovacs) who has been having an affair with her stepfather since childhood; living on his calls and visits, delivering monologues to herself as she putters around her flat, she waits desperately for him to end his marriage, which he keeps promising to do. Kovacs, an undeniably talented actress in her mid-20s, makes this a highly theatrical performance piece about female victimization, like Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice. All the other characters, including the stepfather, are glimpsed only elliptically, and Sas frequently fades to red to make the whole thing look even artier. In Hungarian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bitter Victory

Commenting on this remarkable 1957 feature in the Reader, Dave Kehr wrote, “Nicholas Ray’s direction of black-and-white CinemaScope, that freak child of the 50s, is consistently brilliant in this raw, confused masterpiece about two commando officers (Richard Burton and Curt Jurgens) lost in the North African desert after a dangerous raid. The moral parable fades into metaphysical speculation, as the desert is always there to lend an eternal perspective to the personality conflict. Extensively recut, the film barely makes sense on the narrative level, but Ray, as always, is able to illustrate what he cannot articulate.” Now a beautifully restored print with 21 minutes of added footage is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of a series on the war film, and while the long version is still a masterpiece, it also remains confused in some respects because of the producer’s perverse casting decisions. Jurgens, who had been earmarked for a smaller part as a captured German soldier, was instead given the role that Ray intended for Burton, and Ruth Roman was brought in as the apex of a love triangle involving the two soldiers. But the radical conception remains, and the movie is all the more pertinent during the agony of another desert war.… Read more »

The Shadow of SHADOWS: First Thoughts on the First Version

Written shortly after the Rotterdam Film Festival in February 2004 for Cinema Scope. It’s too bad that it hasn’t been possible for anyone (except for Ray Carney and his students, apparently) to see the first version of Shadows again since that festival, apart from the three short clips that Carney has posted here. (The reasons for this have been discussed by Carney on his web site, but not, alas, by Gena Rowlands, Al Ruban, and/or Seymour Cassel in any comparable public forum. I should add that all the photographs here, apart from production stills, are from the second version.)  — J.R.

In many respects, the most interesting movie I saw at the Rotterdam Film Festival last month was neither new nor a Golden Oldie, at least in any ordinary sense of either term, but a work that had been considered lost for almost half a century —- the original version of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ first feature, shot in the spring of 1957. Extensively reshot by Cassavetes two years later and re-edited into the film as we now know it, this shorter and rougher version was heralded by Jonas Mekas in 1960 as not only superior to the second, but a major aesthetic breakthrough, and we’ve had to wait 40-odd years to test the merits of his claim.… Read more »

All Quiet On The Western Front

Recently rediscovered and restored, this silent version of Lewis Milestone’s 1930 feature, with a synchronized score, is evidently the version that was begun first. The better-known sound version, which originally ran 140 minutes, is now only a minute shorter than this one, which doesn’t necessarily imply that the same footage has been used throughout. I haven’t seen this, but if its impact compares with the talking version’s, it should be well worth checking out. With Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim. 133 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Terminal

Tom Hanks hams it up in this Steven Spielberg comedy, as a sort of grown-up E.T. visiting the U.S. from a fictional eastern European country. After landing at JFK airport he learns that his native land has been torn asunder by civil war; able neither to return nor acquire a visa, he winds up living at the airport for a spell, becoming the pal of other disenfranchised little people who work there. Early reports suggested this might owe something to Jacques Tati’s Playtime, which proves to be true mainly in the product placement and a few bits of physical comedy. As usual Spielberg is too bored by everyday life to use his premise for anything but a fairy tale, whose cheap pathos suggests a bad Chaplin imitation. This grows progressively phonier and eventually devolves into Mr. Roberts, with Stanley Tucci filling in for James Cagney as an airport bureaucrat. With Catherine Zeta-Jones; written by Sacha Gervasi, Andrew Niccol, and Jeff Nathanson. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)… Read more »

Writers On The Borders: A Voyage In Palestine(s)

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish recruited eight writers from around the worldincluding China, Europe, the U.S. (Russell Banks), and South Africa (Breyten Breytenbach)to tour various high places of spirituality that have also been sites of Israeli aggression, and Samir Abdallah and Jose Reynes record their statements and discussions as well as their travels. This 2003 French documentary is more effective as a collective and sometimes eloquent act of witness than as a source of fresh information. In English and subtitled Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Mandarin. 80 min.… Read more »