Not many recent films about heroism that one can still believe in. This is one of them. [12/11/10]
Yearly Archives: 2010
This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. — J.R.
To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future.… Read more »
They call it their “Self-Improvement” issue, and while flying today from Richmond to Chicago, I read three especially good articles about the sorry state of our nation, each one a pretty good substitute for the sort of news and editorials that we’re no longer getting. Here are teasers from each one:
From “Revolt of the Elites” (unsigned) in The Intellectual Situation (p. 15):
“Who…is guility of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.”
From “Caucasian Nation” by Marco Roth in Politics (p. 14):
“The robust case for dominating other people sounds awful to most American ears today. So the contemporary idea of ethnocracy relies instead on an opposite rhetoric of victimization. The simple-minded mantra we’re taught in grade school goes like this: blacks good because oppressed, whites bad because oppressors. So if whites suddenly became oppressed, even while remaining the majority, they would magically become good again. Many Americans are now being taught to think this way.”
From “The Two Cultures of Life” by Kristin Dombek in Essays (p.… Read more »
Two consecutive items from Harper’s Index (Harper Magazine, December 2010):
Percentage of Americans who believe that Stephen King wrote Moby-Dick: 4
Number of U.S. states in which it is legal to own a tiger without a license: 9
This piece by Gary Younge appeared a little over a week ago but is still relevant. Here are two particularly salient passages:
It is not unrealistic to believe that a country as wealthy as the US should be able to provide healthcare for all, a dignified life for its elderly, an infant mortality rate better than Cuba’s, a life expectancy higher than Bosnia’s, a foreign policy that does not hinge on military aggression, and an economy where fewer than one in seven live in poverty. What is unrealistic is to believe that any of those things can be achieved, or even seriously tackled, with just a single vote.
Republicans will head to the polls to elect people who will actually cut jobs and support bankers. Democrats may well stay at home because their candidate has not made things better, and in so doing make things worse. Neither disaffection nor rage are electoral strategies. But in the absence of an alternative, frustration has political consequences.
November 3: American voters have spoken, and the message appears to be to leave Tomorrowland for Frontierland while remaining in the same Disney theme park, albeit this time without any tickets.… Read more »
Commissioned by Criterion’s The Current, and published there on October 26, 2010. — J.R.
For many decades now, William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) and Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) have been major touchstones for me—not only separately but also in some mysterious relation to each other. I even managed to find a way of discussing these two works together over the first four paragraphs of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (I also published a lengthy essay about Gertrud, in which I make glancing reference to the novel). The fact that Dreyer once expressed some interest in adapting Faulkner’s Light in August — an interest he shared with Luis Buñuel (and with actors Zachary Scott and Ruth Ford, a couple who once actually held the film rights) — was part of the inspiration and pretext for my musings about Dreyer and Faulkner, but for me the affinities run much deeper.
Both are works I take pleasure in revisiting every few years — they seem to grow in density each time — and I had occasion to revisit both of them this fall. I’m presently teaching film at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and last month, after starting a weekly cine-club there with a colleague, we hit upon the idea of showing Gertrud as our first film after another colleague, filmmaker Rob Tregenza, said he’d always wanted to see it.… Read more »
From the October 2010 Sight and Sound. I regret a few errors that crept into this piece as originally published, all of which were my own fault and all of which are corrected here. — J.R.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention at the outset that Françoise Romand has been a good friend for over two decades. But I hasten to add that she became a friend because of my immoderate enthusiasm for Mix-Up (1985), her first film — one of the strangest as well as strongest documentaries that I know.
To make matters even more mixed-up, I should also point out that, on the region-free DVD bonus of this hour-long French documentary in English, Françoise, after interviewing herself in French, shows her filming of my talking head in English while I attempt to explain why I find her film so powerful and exciting. What follows represents another try.
Filmed over just twelve days, but recounting a multilayered real-life story that covers nearly half a century, Mix-Up recounts and explores what ensued after two English women, Margaret Wheeler and Blanche Rylatt, respectively upper-middle-class and working-class, gave birth to daughters in November 1936 in a Nottingham nursing home, and the babies were inadvertently switched.… Read more »
For me, the most valuable single piece of film criticism by François Truffaut — the one that has taught me the most — is a fairly early one, “Un Trousseau de fausses clés,” about Alfred Hitchcock, that appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 39, octobre 1954. I first encountered this article in an English translation (“Skeleton Keys”) that appeared in Film Culture (Spring 1964), then in Cahiers du Cinéma in English No. 2, 1966. I find it far more ingenious as well as useful as criticism than Truffaut’s over- fetishized “Une Certaine Tendance of Cinema Française,” and the part I remember best (I don’t have a copy handy, but trust my memory on this) is a detailed analysis of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in terms of “rhyming” shots and scenes, such as the two reproduced above. Many of these visual/ thematic rhymes involve the film’s two Charlies, a serial murderer of women (Joseph Cotten) and his young and beloved niece (Teresa Wright).
This is an essay that clearly helped to spawn Godard’s own best (and most detailed) work of film criticism — “Le cinéma et son double,” about Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man — as well as the structure of doubling shots and scenes in Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau.… Read more »
Having deliberately gone cold turkey with television since I shifted operations to Richmond, Virginia almost six weeks ago, I find it a strange experience to watch Erik Gandini’s 2009 documentary Videocracy on a small, multiregional DVD player — a hate letter of rage and disgust about Silvio Berlusconi, TV, and celebrity culture that premiered in Venice a little over a year ago and will be released on DVD in the U.S. by Lorber on September 27. (In the U.K., the DVD is being released by Second Sight.)
The reason why I’ve sworn off television, at least for the time being, is my own rage and disgust about the way that American television now caters to and encourages everybody’s rage and disgust about the state of the nation, whether this happens to be the Fox News version or the MSNBC version (the Fox News of the left), so that back in Chicago, even my respect for Rachel Maddow was getting tested nightly whenever she wound up with many of the same talking points as Keith Olbermann (or as Bill O’Reilly, for that matter). The aberration of Italian TV that’s being shown by Gandini is made to seem both better and worse: better because it seems more infatuated with euphoric and unabashedly childish fantasies, and worse because so many of these fantasies seem to consist of vulgar and sexist wet dreams of male empowerment.… Read more »
THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION: UNCOLLECTED WRITINGS by James Baldwin, edited and with an introduction by Randall Kenan, New York: Pant6heon Books, 2010, 307 pp.
I’ve only barely started to familiarize myself with this collection, but it’s already become apparent that this is far cry from what’s commonly known as “scraping the bottom of the barrel”. Indeed, as with James Agee’s collected non-fiction, one is discovering that the Library of America’s efforts at canonizing cantankerous eloquence is, let us say, a bit under-researched, to say the least (unless the problems are simply those of taste). Baldwin’s review for the Village Voice of Seymour Krim’s first collection of essays, the first thing I read here, is plainly superior to some of the things that went into the Library of America’s selection (and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what I regard as the strongest essay Agee ever wrote, “America, Look at Your Shame!”, even if it was never published during Agee’s lifetime, is criminally omitted from both of LOA’s two Agee volumes).
I’ve encountered some other treasures in The Cross of Redemption, even at this preliminary stage, but let me zero in here on a single prophetic statement contained in the first paragraph of a 1961 Baldwin lecture that Kenan quotes from in his Introduction:
Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too.… Read more »
Unavailable just about everywhere — except for on a SECAM French video that is now so scarce it sells for 100 Euros on French Amazon — Renoir’s gorgeous, sexy, and scandalously neglected second sound feature, a Simenon adaptation with Pierre Renoir as Maigret that is arguably the first film noir ever made anywhere, has finally made it onto DVD, with English subtitles no less, and available here. Thanks to Connor Kilpatrick for making me aware of this. (For a paragraph about this movie that I once wrote for DVD Beaver, go here and page down.)
Perhaps the biggest revelation of this film (and there are quite a few) is the young femme fatale lead, Winna Winfried, who according to Renoir was only 17 when she made it, her film debut. Her other film appearances were so few and far between that I’ve never met anyone who has ever mentioned seeing any of them. [8/24/10]
Yesterday, while reseeing François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time in years at the Gene Siskel Film Center, just before doing a Skype interview with Ray Bradbury in California along with Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller, I was struck for the first time how different Truffaut’s and Bradbury’s historical groundings were. Bradbury’s novel, first published in the early 50s, clearly reflected the Cold War, whereas Truffaut’s English-language film (his only one) of 1966, two years before his secret discovery via detectives that his father had been a Jewish dentist, seems largely informed by his childhood experience of the German occupation of France, which he would only depict directly 14 years later, in The Last Metro.
The most surprising aspect of this for me is that I never thought of it earlier — but it becomes especially clear during the scene in which Montag (Oskar Werner) and Clarisse (Julie Christie) in a cafe secretly spy through a window an informer pause before mailing his malicious report on a neighbor to the police/fire department (which in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is the same thing), meanwhile making comments on his behavior (some of which are reproduced below in the subtitles). It also seems evident in the number of old, early-40s books that one sees being burned in the many book-burning sequences, as well as in the dingy scenes set in old-fashioned basements, attics, etc.… Read more »
It’s delightful to have Kino’s new “deluxe” edition of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood romanticism, glamor, and lushness (as well as Technicolor), based on the film’s 2009 restoration, which I saw and Bologna and wrote about a little over a year ago. But while watching this edition’s extended comparison of the original with the restored version, I’m somewhat taken aback by the fact that the film I remember seeing in 1951, when I was still in grammar school, is closer to the unrestored version:
It’s obvious that the restored version is superior in terms of definition, lighting, and color. But rightly or wrongly, I remember the film in 1951 as being darker, at least in my mind’s eye — a film bathed in black more than auburn hues.
Could this be a matter of Proustian self-deception? Or could it point to a significant change in the film that I originally saw? I wish I knew. [7/8/10]
IL CINEMA RITROVATO
DVD AWARDS 2010
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Von Bagh.
BEST DVD 2009 / 2010
BY BRAKHAGE: AN ANTHOLOGY, VOLUME ONE AND TWO di Stan Brakhage – The Criterion Collection (USA)
Released by Criterion in a stunning Blu-ray edition this discerning selection of 56 films made by avant-garde visionary Stan Brakhage between 1954 and 2003 received painstaking transfers from preservations conducted by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive.
Our special award of distinction goes to this unprecedented project, which also includes documentation of Brakhage lectures and film salons and, in an accompanying book, concise essays and descriptions of the films.
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES (BONUS)
Our BEST SPECIAL FEATURES (BONUS) award goes jointly to:
(a) three recent Ruscico releases of classic Russian films (two previously unavailable films by Lev Kuleshov, ENGINEER PRITE’S PROJECT and THE GREAT CONSOLER, and Sergey Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s OCTOBER)—both for their innovative handling of printed and illustrated commentaries by scholars and for their subtitles in many languages, despite the unfortunate fact that all three releases are identified on their covers only by their Russian titles and (b) the Filmmuseum with Filmmuseum München and Goethe Institut Deutschland release of G.W.… Read more »