This review appeared originally in Fanzine, 6/26/08. –J.R.
Given the size of his achievement, it’s astonishing that Jacques Tati made only half a dozen features, none of them bad. But if I had to single out any of these as a lesser work, I’d pick Trafic (1971), the only one that qualifies as compromised.
Others might select Parade (1973), Tati’s final film –– because it was mainly shot on video and virtually dispenses with plot by basically following the contours of a far-from-spectacular circus performance. But they’d be wrong. Though it’s the least known Tati feature and the most modest in terms of budget, Parade is by no means Tati’s least ambitious or adventurous film. In some ways it even qualifies as his most radical –– in its refusal to clearly separate life from spectacle or prioritize professional performers over unprofessional spectators. Unfortunately, the less analytical and more sentimental celebrations of Tati –– including the charming 1989 documentary by the late Sophie Tatischeff about her father, In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot, that’s a bonus on the second disc here –– tend to overlook this radicalism.
Trafic, on the other hand, represented a conscious step backward for Tati.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 2008). Criterion’s splendid new Blu-Ray of this film contains many juicy extras — including several recent Maddin shorts. — J.R.
It was just a matter of time before the eccentric independent Guy Maddin made a personal documentary about his Canadian hometown, and though he labels this a docu-fantasia, one still suspects he’s captured the real character of Winnipeg, especially its freezing weather. The movie is dominated by Maddin’s usual black-and-white photography, silent-movie syntax, and deadpan melodrama; he even casts Ann Savage [see first still below], who starred in Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B movie Detour, as his own mother (her dialogue is credited to Maddin’s usual cowriter, George Toles). In the narration Maddin claims that Winnipeg has ten times as many sleepwalkers as any other city in the world, and though he’s surely making this up, it conveys his own sense of entrapment amid the town’s dreaminess. 80 min. (JR)
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In the “Publications and Events” section of this web site, I’ve written, “I don’t know when `A Few Eruptions in the House of Lava,’ my commissioned piece about Pedro Costa’s 1994 CASA DE LAVA, will be appearing in a bilingual or trilingual collection about Costa edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo, the publication of which has been delayed many times. At some point I hope to print or reprint this essay on my site.”
I hope Ricardo doesn’t mind me jumping the gun. I sent him this essay in mid-January, and I’m moved to post it now as a sort of gesture of solidarity with COLOSSAL YOUTH having just appeared on the cover of the the summer issue of Film Quarterly – and James Naremore writing about it inside the magazine as his favorite movie of 2007. (2010 footnote: Ricardo’s collecion has been out for some time by now. It’s very beautiful, even if it’s only in Portuguese.) — J.R.
I know I’d go from rags to riches
If you would only say you care
And though my pocket may be empty
I’d be a millionaire.
My clothes may still be torn and tattered
But in my heart I’d be a king
Your love is all that ever mattered
It’s everything.… Read more »
I’m really sorry that in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s forthcoming and very welcome Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, three of my five favorite films of his are missing. I can be pretty specific about this because I recently ranked all the Oliveira films I’ve seen in order of preference for a lengthy article I wrote about him for FILM COMMENT, which is about to come out. The first five of my favorites, in descending order, are DOOMED LOVE (1978), BENILDE OR THE VIRGIN-MOTHER (1975), INQUIETUDE (1998), PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD (2001), and MON CAS (1986). The last of these (see first photo below) has never been shown in Chicago and I’ve never even been able to see it in an English subtitled version (assuming that one exists). BENILDE (see second two photos, below–both screengrabs from a mediocre video transfer, so I’m sorry they don’t look better) is a film I was able to bring to Chicago several years ago, when I selected it as a Critic’s Choice at the Chicago International Film Festival (which, if memory serves, has also shown INQUIETUDE and PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD); it still remains, to my mind, the most underrated and underseen of all of Oliveira’s major works.… Read more »
It’s the cruelest of ironies: newscaster Tim Russert, who died unexpectedly on Friday–taken to be the essence of all that’s honorable and serious about the TV news—has been used ever since as a substitute for the TV news, a means for excluding as much of it as possible.
In the mid-1990s, the trial of O.J. Simpson became such a media obsession that one could virtually say that most other news was suspended so that the TV news could be devoted around the clock to a single subject. The result was that TV news reporting got so far behind in keeping up with the other events of the world, especially foreign news, that it became clear after a certain point that it could never hope to catch up again. And of course it never has.
It would appear that ever since this alarming, infantile regression, TV news has been nakedly hungering for more O.J.-like events, as many as possible, that can crowd out all others. Whether this happens to be the deaths of Frank Sinatra or Ronald Reagan or events as consequential as Hurricane Katrina, the effect is always the same: to eliminate the world outside the single, all-encompassing event, which is then chewed over endlessly, not for hours but for days.… Read more »
RED-HEADED WOMAN, written by Anita Loos and directed by Jack Conway, with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris (1932, 79 min.)
I thought I was a Jean Harlow fan, at least after seeing her in DOUBLE WHOOPEE, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, PLATINUM BLONDE and BOMBSHELL (not counting her easy-to-miss bits in CITY LIGHTS and THE LOVE PARADE), but this abrasive late-Prohibition comedy, included in TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, volume one—“her breakthrough film,” according to James Harvey’s book ROMANTIC COMEDY—gives me some pause. In fact, I think the real auteur here is Anita Loos–who makes Harlow’s ruthless and promiscuous flirt both a successor to Lorelei Lee in her 1925 best-seller GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and a predecessor of Marilyn Monroe’s version of Lorelei in 1953.
Harvey rightly points out that Harlow’s character in RED-HEADED WOMAN is both a villainous schemer and a triumphantly comic golddigger, reflecting an overall uncertainty about how to regard her, which is why this movie has separate endings to accommodate each aspect. But this makes her at best a dialectic; by contrast, Monroe’s Verdoux-like performance is an improbable yet lethal synthesis, a reshaping of venal Lorelei to make her an image of the opulent 50s, not the flapper 20s or the Depression 30s.… Read more »
I no longer recall where this 2008 review was written for. — J.R.
ORSON WELLES AT WORK by Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas. London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2008. 320 pp.
Considering how much popular currency is enjoyed by works about Orson Welles that are poorly researched, possibly because they respond so dutifully to existing attitudes and mythologies about the man — most notably, David Thomson’s slipshod biography Rosebud and Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s Oscar-nominated but fanciful documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (both 1996) — a reliable book about his filmmaking that doesn’t stoop to special pleading is always welcome. This one, originally published in French a couple of years ago — in an ongoing series of beautifully and copiously illustrated coffee-table books that has already yielded Bill Krohn’s indispensable Hitchcock at Work — is special not just for the amount of fresh information it offers. It’s also invaluable because of the unusual perspectives its two authors bring to their subject.
Jean-Francois Berthomé, author of a definitive book on Jacques Demy, is also an expert on movie set design, the subject of another of his books. François Thomas, an Alain Resnais specialist, once wrote a dissertation on Welles’s sound work (in film, radio, TV, and theatre) that was over a thousand pages long.… Read more »
Fred Camper (one-person exhibition, Caro d’Offay Gallery, 2204 W. North Avenue, Chicago, June 14th–August 1st, 2008).
I haven’t attended this yet because it doesn’t even start until tomorrow. But I’d like to call attention to this beautiful photograph, and to the series it concludes, “Details 1: Largo Argentina, Rome, sheet 13″. You can access the entire series by going to Fred Camper’s website and clicking on the first image in the series, here. If you keep clicking, you’ll be carried through the whole series. [6/13/08] … Read more »
THE TENDER TRAP, directed by Charles Walters and written by Julius Epstein, with Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, David Wayne, and Celeste Holm (1955, 111 min.)
Last night, I started out watching SINNER’S HOLIDAY (1930), with the first film appearance of James Cagney, and wound up seeing all of THE TENDER TRAP (1955) instead. Not because the latter is necessarily superior in any way -– only because I was 13 years old and saw THE TENDER TRAP when it came out, whereas I was years away from even being conceived when SINNER’S HOLIDAY made its first appearance, which means that the 1955 movie has more personal significance.
I suspected that a prefemninist comedy about swinging bachelorhood like THE TENDER TRAP would turn out to look archaic now in its sexism, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, apart from the standard 50s dogma that marriage and family were the solutions to every problem, these suspicions were mainly misguided. If anything, the film takes considerable pains to undermine at least a few of the myths of swinging bachelorhood -– even if the spacious living room in Sinatra’s Manhattan flat is almost oversized enough to justify the parody version of such a place in the 2003 DOWN WITH LOVE.… Read more »
The best works in this essential program of recent experimental shorts are the longest. Pedro Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters (2007, 23 min.), a follow-up to his 2006 Colossal Youth, performs comparable wonders with its exalted yet mournful portraits of Cape Verdeans in a Lisbon suburb. Phil Solomon’s black-and-white, animated Last Days in a Lonely Place (2007, 20 min.) magically and mysteriously combines rain, material from the video game Grand Theft Auto, and patches of sound from Nicholas Ray features. Almost as effective in bringing together the cosmic and the mundane are two ten-minute wonders, Bruce Conner’s Easter Morning (which Conner shot in 1966 and misplaced) and a 35-millimeter blowup of Larry Jordan’s 1969 Our Lady of the Sphere. And there’s provocative work by Jeanne Liotta, Gyula Nemes, and Ben Rivers. The festival continues through 6/22 at Chicago Filmmakers, the Nightingale, and other venues; see chicagofilmmakers.org/onion_fest/onion.html or next week’s Reader for more. 99 min. Thu 6/19, 8 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
The final intertitle of Nina Davenport’s 2007 documentaryI had hoped for a happy ending . . . now I’m just looking for an exit strategyaptly suggests the parallel between the endless string of misjudgments that created the so-called Iraqi war and the ones that created this film about it. Spotting on MTV a 25-year-old Iraqi film student, Muthana Mohmed, whose school in Baghdad had been leveled by American bombs, Hollywood actor Liv Schreiber got the lousy idea of hiring him as a gofer on his lousy first feature as a director, Everything Is Illuminated, which was shot in Prague. Assigned to film Mohmed’s experiences, Davenport (who also had a crew filming his friends and family back home) soon found herself stuck with someone she didn’t like whose need to live his own life was incompatible with hers to finish her film. Nobody comes off well in this tragicomedy, about mutual exploitation by people who don’t know what they’re doing. But the eventual rude awakenings, among them Davenport’s, are thoughtful and enlighteningwell worth the wait. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
Recommended: LE SPECTATEUR QUI EN SAVAIT TROP by Mark Rappaport, translated [from English to French] by Jean-Luc Mengus, Paris: P.O.L, 2008, 240 pp.
There are 16 pieces here -– including a Preface, a concluding essay entitled “Confessions of a Latent Heterosexual (Complete with Illustrations),” and four sections in between consisting of a Hitchcock Cycle (three stories) and an Eisenstein Cycle (three stories, with Marlene Dietrich playing a significant role in one), interspersed with two sections of four stories each. Some of the topics: The son of Madame de…, Jean Seberg, “The Tourist Who Knew Too Much,” “My Life with Catherine Deneuve,” Gilda’s gloves, Silvano Mangano and Capucine, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Marcel Proust in Marienbad. Whether these are autobiographical fictions, fictional essays, and/or stories about other stories is a matter directly addressed in the Preface. (Don’t expect any conclusive answers.)
I can’t wait for this to come out somewhere in English–even though P.O.L, publisher of the quarterly film magazine TRAFIC (as well as the French translation of my own first book, MOVING PLACES, also done by Jean-Luc Mengus), has done a very handsome job with it. But in the meantime, you can access at least one chapter online — the last of those cited above, “Marcel in Marienbad”, half of whose illustrations I’ve borrowed here –- in the first issue of ROUGE, a journal to which Rappaport has made other, related contributions.… Read more »
BLAST OF SILENCE, written, directed by & starring Allen Baron, narrated by Lionel Stander (Criterion DVD).
An interesting period piece (1961), especially striking for its sense of place (Manhattan during the Christmas season), though I can’t accept this as the noir masterpiece some people are calling it–not when a recycling of generic clichés usually has to take the place of observation. Perhaps the most durable of its standbys is the gravelly voiceover of an uncredited, graylisted Lionel Stander (put to still better use in some of the Ben Hecht features cited below), reciting the freewheeling patter of a pseudonymous, blacklisted Waldo Salt. It was clever of Baron to graft this pair over his own lackluster inventions, even if Salt’s pseudopoetry is sometimes almost as pretentious as the kind heard in Gary Merrill’s voiceover in another documentary-style indy, THE SAVAGE EYE, made the previous year. But I could probably listen to Stander reading from the Manhattan phone directory–though there may be moments here when a few choice New York phone numbers might have enlivened Salt’s prose a little. Even so, none of it is nearly as awful as the interminable singing of a Village Gate conga-drum player named Mel Sponder, which Baron presumably indulges in the interests of “atmosphere”.… Read more »
Cable TV news on the night Barack Obama becomes the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, June 3, 2008.
I’m still trying to decide: Which is it that better deserves the label of Capitol of Doublethink–the United States, or television in general? On the one hand, there’s the doublethink of a seeming victory undermined by the refusal of Barack Obama’s main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, to concede defeat—- apart from a dropped hint that she would accept the slot of Vice President on the Democratic slate, which also conceals the implicit threat that she might withdraw her support if he doesn’t offer her that position. Maureen Dowd in her NEW YORK TIMES column this morning catches at least part of the anomalous drift pretty well:
“But even as Obama was trying to savor, Hillary was refusing to sever. Ignoring the attempts of Obama and his surrogates to graciously say how `extraordinary’ she was as they showed her the exit, she and a self-pitying Bill continued to pull focus. Outside Baruch College, where she was to speak, her fierce feminist supporters screamed `Denver! Denver! Denver!’”
On the other hand, absolutely no one I saw on any of the cable TV news shows last night—-friend or foe, partisan or nonpartisan, on CNBC or CNN or Fox-—is willing to call Barack Obama anything except an Afro-American, racially speaking, despite the fact that his mother was white.… Read more »
IN A DARK DARK HOUSE by Neil LaBute. Performed at Profiles Theatre, Chicago. Directed by Joe Jahraus. With Darrell W. Cox, Hans Fleischmann, and Allison Torem.
I attended this excellent production exactly a week ago, after discovering that it was playing in my neighborhood, only a few blocks from where I live. As a film critic, I’ve seen five features that LaBute has directed, and liked most of them: IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (the only one I didn’t like), NURSE BETTY (the only one he didn’t write or cowrite), POSSESSION, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS (probably my favorite).
This is a fairly compact three-act, three-character play without an intermission, each act running, if memory serves, for about half an hour. Each act begins with one character saying to another, “Go for it,” which is only one of the interesting rhyme effects. Most of it’s about the agonized and edgy relationship between two brothers, both in their 30s, although a teenage girl figures in the middle act, and this being a LaBute play, the onstage flirtation between her and the older brother, which may or may not lead to offstage sex, is really an act of aggression—the brother’s revenge against her offstage father (whom she may also want to get even with), a pivotal offstage character in Acts 1 and 3.… Read more »