The principal source of this article — written for American Film, and published in their October 1978 issue — was a fairly lengthy phone conversation I once had with Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, when I was living in San Diego. More specifically, this happened while I was teaching in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, and booked The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. for one of my film classes. I can no longer call whether this was for my course called Paranoia or for one of Raymond Durgnat’s classes that I took over for him after he unexpectedly and rather mysteriously returned to London in the middle of a quarter. (He was also a big fan of the film.)
Geisel, the main auteur of the film (at least as I saw it), also lived in San Diego, and hoping that he could come to the class as a guest lecturer, I managed to get ahold of his address and wrote him a letter. By way of replying with a friendly refusal, Geisel called me one day at the house in a Del Mar canyon that I was subletting at the time (along with filmmaker Louis Hock and, for the time he was around, Ray Durgnat) and politely begged off, explaining that his relation to this movie was rather traumatic.… Read more »
Children of Men ***
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Pam Ferris, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Pan’s Labyrinth ****
Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro
With Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones
Over the past few years three highly talented and ambitious young Mexican film directors — Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — have made their way into the American mainstream. All three seem to have managed this trick by defining themselves mainly in terms of genre, which isn’t surprising given the industry’s insistence that everything be defined according to pitches and formulas, all in 25 words or less — the consequence of a desire to exhaust existing markets rather than attempt to nurture or create new ones.
Cuaron’s done some children’s fantasy (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and literary adaptation (Great Expectations), a sex comedy/road movie/coming-of-age story (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and now an action-adventure/SF/war movie (Children of Men). His most ambitious movies seem to cram together several genres — or at least the suits’ notions of genres.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.
This third compilation of clips from MGM musicals — introduced, like its predecessors, by many of the leading performers (June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams) — has so much pleasure to offer that any purist quibbles seem minor. Not only have writers-directors-producers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who worked as editors on the two previous films, come up with heaps of wonderful and fascinating new material (excluded numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Cabin in the Sky, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, and even I Love Melvin); they’ve also introduced a welcome critical note into the proceedings, demonstrating how dubious some of MGM’s aesthetic decisions were and allowing Horne to voice some of her own misgivings about the bigoted policies that limited her activity. Indeed, after Horne introduces her own clips, her terse introduction to an unused Judy Garland number from Annie Get Your Gun, “I’m an Indian Too,” doesn’t have to allude to the number’s racism because in the context she’s established the evidence speaks for itself. The original screen ratios of the films are generally respected — the rule apparently is broken only when the filmmakers are doing a montage or want the dramatic benefits of a full screen even if it means cropping the image.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). — J.R.
Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »
Although it’s belatedly become available on Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (along with two other particular favorites, The Big Heat and 5 Against the House), Murder by Contract (1958) doesn’t quite qualify as an undiscovered gem. But it’s certainly neglected in terms of some of its singular virtues, including a sharp Zen-like wit and a minimalist style. And what tends to be most neglected is its satirical treatment of business as murder. This is a theme it shares with Monsieur Verdoux — which makes it all the more fitting that a climactic sequence of the film was shot in Chaplin’s old studio lot, on what remains of an exterior set used for The Great Dictator.
At least two of the main creative talents working on this black comedy about capitalism, director Irving Lerner and uncredited screenwriter Ben Maddow, were blacklisted leftists, and the terse portrayal of a hitman (Vince Edwards, the star) as an independent contractor working hard to buy a house on the Ohio River to share with his unseen girlfriend — a sort of Haliburton or Blackwater operative avant la lettre, hired by an equally unseen Cheney, and calmly regarding his work like a self-improving Zen master — is at times downright hilarious.… Read more »
Posted on DVD Beaver, July 2007; I’ve updated the links when necessary. — J.R.
Some genres are a lot more elastic than others. Our notions of what a Western or a musical consists of are reasonably firm. But thrillers tend to be all over the place, overlapping at various times with crime films, adventure films, heist films, noirs, mystery stories, spy stories, melodramas, and even comedies, period films, and art movies —- to propose a far from exhaustive list.
In order to demonstrate this overall versatility, I’ve come up with 18 recommended titles that I’m listing and briefly describing below, in alphabetical order. A dozen are in English, three are in French, and one apiece is in German, Italian, or Japanese. All but two are currently available on DVD, although in at least one case you’ll have to go beyond American sources in order to acquire it. And ironically, the two that are unavailable are both Hollywood classics —- one more indication of the degree to which some of the major studios and/or the inheritors of their treasures still don’t have a very clear idea of what they possess and keep out of reach.
(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)
This review appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. XXXII, no. 3). Consider it Part 1 of a two-part consideration of Alan Rudolph, carried out over a span of a dozen years, to be followed by my much more ambivalent take on Mortal Thoughts (1991) for the Chicago Reader, which deals with some of the same issues involving both class and music. (I suspect that Rudolph’s best movie remains Choose Me, but I’d have to see this again to be sure.) — J.R.
REMEMBER MY NAME
Director: Alan Rudolph. Script: Rudolph. Photography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Alberta Hunter. Lagoon Films.
Alan Rudolph’s second film was financed by Columbia, then written off as a disaster before it was released, but it has been running successfully in Paris for months and opens shortly in New York. It strikes me as the most exciting Hollywood fantasy to come along in quite some time. Admittedly, I am a Rivette enthusiast; I am fascinated by narrative suspension and indeterminacy, and tend to lose interest when a plot is laid out in full view, because I’ve usually seen it before. Remember My Name deliberately suspends narrative clarity for the better part of its running time, and never entirely eliminates the ambiguities that keep it alive and unpredictable — even though its themes, thanks to Alberta Hunter’s offscreen blues songs, are never really in question.… Read more »
From Stop Smiling No. 35 (its gambling issue, guest edited by Annie Nocenti), June 2008. — J.R.
“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-1960s. This has always struck me as being one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split, released in 1974 —- a free-form comedy about the friendship that develops and then plays itself out between two compulsive gamblers, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), and the first movie ever to use an eight-track mixer — it starts to make some weird kind of sense.
What’s an eight-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks developed by Jim Webb, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1996). In a recent and rather interesting book about Mike Leigh published by the University of Illinois Press, Sean O’Sullivan takes exception to this review (among others), with intriguing results. — J.R.
Secrets and Lies
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Mike Leigh
With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Elisabeth Berrington, Lee Ross, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Michele Austin, and Lesley Manville.
I’ve seen Secrets and Lies three times since it premiered at Cannes in May, and each time the movie’s apparent rough patches have seemed smoother — clear evidence that writer-director Mike Leigh knows exactly what he’s doing and why. But whether his knowledge and a viewer’s recognition of it make this comedy-drama a masterpiece is another matter. Some of my hipper colleagues feel a little suspicious about the film’s mainstream pitch, wondering whether the whole thing finally goes down a bit too easily, given Brenda Blethyn’s quavering histrionics, the upbeat conclusion, the snugness of the whole concept. But I can hardly begrudge a filmmaker as talented as Leigh a way of conveying his gifts to a wider audience; after all, Secrets and Lies doesn’t represent the same sort of coarsening of a filmmaker’s vision as Jane Campion’s The Piano, coming after Sweetie.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1994). — J.R.
You can figure out a lot about the differences between our culture and French culture by comparing two current series of low-budget TV features about teenagers. The French series, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age”), produced by the French “cultural” channel Arte, has yielded half a dozen features, most of them first-rate. The idea is for the filmmaker to make a fictionalized version of his or her own teenage years set in the appropriate period (different in each film) and to include at least one party scene in which pop songs of that era are used. (The series is financed in part by Polygram, which has furnished the appropriate recordings.) The first of these, Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta and Me, showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival; four others were programmed at the festival last month — Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, Cedric Kahn’s Too Much Happiness, and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels – but unfortunately the first and best of these was canceled at the last minute. One more, Claire Denis’ Boom Boom [later retitled U.S.… Read more »
The following was written at some point in the early 1980s, as a kind of postscript or pendant to my first book, the autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). I was living in Hoboken at the time, and secretly in love with another writer whose first name was Veronica. A slightly altered and doctored version of this piece eventually turned up in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s English anthology Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpant’s Tail, 1990). The version here has also been altered and doctored a little, and I’ve added all the photos, including those of the Ritz before and after its 1985 restoration. — J.R.
Putting Back the Ritz
Between about 1947 and 1951, when the Ritz Theater in Sheffield, Alabama was still open (it was built in 1928 and received an Art Deco upgrade for talkies about five years later), my main encounters with the place, between the ages of four and eight, were on trips with my father across the river to pick up the final reports on the daily receipts on all four of the Rosenbaum theaters our family owned in Sheffield and Tuscumbia.… Read more »
From Cineaste (Fall 2006). — J.R.
Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans
by Simon Callow. New York: Viking Adult, 2006. 528 pp., illus. Hardcover: $32.95.
“It seems to me there is a plain, if many-layered, truth to be told,” Simon Callow writes in his Preface to the second volume of his Welles biography — noting his impatience with academics whose sense of the truth is so far from plain that they can only countenance the term between quotation marks. It’s an understandable position for him to take, but he doesn’t always stick to it himself, and it’s hard to see how he could. In his second chapter, he asserts that, although no evidence supports Welles’s claim that Booth Tarkington had been his father’s best friend, it doesn’t matter at all “one way or the other; what is significant is that Welles believed it to be true, and wanted it to be true, and his conception of [Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons] is certainly an idealized version of his father.” In other words, Callow is privileging one kind of truth over another — like all of us who write about Welles, including those pesky academics. Like it or not, it comes with the territory.… Read more »
I’d like to beat the drum a little for a terrific new book just published by University of California Press, Catherine Benamou’s It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, which is far and away the definitive book on It’s All True, Welles’s doomed documentary project about Latin America in the 1940s. Maybe the fact that the same publisher is bringing out a book of mine about Welles in a couple of months gives me a special interest in the subject; I should also note that Benamou, who’s been working on her book for well over two decades, is an old friend. (She also arranged recently for the purchase of two major Welles collections by the University of Michigan, which are going by the name “Everybody’s Orson Welles.” I was privileged to be the first visitor to this mountain of material in Ann Arbor last summer, which is where I collected the stills used on my own book jacket.)
Some readers may be put off a bit by Catherine’s academic language, but the fact remains that so much fresh and even startling information is available here—information that corrects countless myths—that if you care about Welles at all, you can’t afford to ignore this book.
… Read more »
My “Global Discoveries on DVD” column for the Winter 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
For now the truly shocking thing was the world itself. It was a new world. and he’d just discovered it, just noticed it for the first time.
– Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book
I: Some Conspicuous Absences
As a rule, this column has been preoccupied with what’s available in digital formats, but I’d like to start off this particular quarterly installment with a list of some of the things that aren’t available, at least not yet. This alphabetical checklist is by no means even remotely exhaustive and is entirely personal, based on a few of my recent experiences:
Alain Resnais (two titles): The two most glaring lacunae here are Resnais’ first major film and the last of his features, neither of which can be found yet with English subtitles. Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), written by Chris Marker, a remarkable half-hour essay film about African sculpture, also qualifies as his own first major film work –- its beautiful and corrosive text is the first one Marker chose to print in his (still untranslated) two-volume 1967 collection Commentaires.… Read more »