Monthly Archives: October 2016

Carpenter’s Gothic [IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS]

From the February 3, 1995 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

In the Mouth of Madness

Rating *** A must see

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Michael De Luca

With Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, and Charlton Heston.

In the Mouth of Madness isn’t John Carpenter’s best horror movie to date, but it may well be his scariest. What makes it nightmarish isn’t so much its premise — a man set loose inside the mind and writings of a crazed hack novelist — as the many elliptical details that the premise occasions: things that go bump in the head, fleeting suggestions of horrors that brush the edge of our attention and perceptions, like the peripheral events in bad dreams.

In this respect, Carpenter seems to have entered David Lynch territory — an unlikely development, but then Carpenter’s career has been full of unlikely developments. In early features like Dark Star (playing this Tuesday at the University of Chicago) and Assault on Precinct 13, he was a playful auteurist making the rounds of popular genres, nodding to masters like Hawks and Hitchcock along the way. After establishing himself as a suspense and horror specialist in Halloween, his first hit, he took an abrupt right turn into gritty (and implicitly libertarian) action kicks in Escape From New York, then virtually drowned in special effects in his remake of The Thing.… Read more »

Negotiating the Pleasure Principle: The Recent Work of Adam Curtis

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2008 (Vol. 62, No. 1). I’ve recently watched Curtis’s powerful and eye-opening Bitter Lake (2015) as well as his somewhat more paranoid HyperNormalisation (2016), also readily available for free on the Internet, which generally maintain the high level of the work discussed here.  — J.R.

There’s been a steady improvement over the course of the three most recent BBC miniseries of Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self (2002, four hour-long episodes), The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004, three hour-long episodes), and The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, three hour-long episodes) —- both in terms of their intellectual cogency and persuasiveness and in terms of the interest of Curtis’s developing, innovative style of filmmaking. One might even contend that each remarkable series has been twice as good as its predecessor. Even so, a closer look at Curtis’s filmmaking style starts to raise a few questions about both the arguments themselves and the way that he propounds them. (Regarding Curtis’s earlier TV series — such as the 1992 Pandora’s Box and the 1999 The Mayfair Set, which I’ve only sampled, and won’t be discussing here —- one can already see some of the thematic and stylistic seeds of his more recent work there.)

I’m certainly not the first one to address these issues arising out of Curtis’s work.Read more »

ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES (book review)

This is the uncut version of a book review written for Stop Smiling no. 27 in 2006 (“Ode to the Midwest”), which had to be cut at the last minute due to space problems. My thanks to editor James Hughes for granting me permission to print the fuller version here. –J.R.


ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES by Alexander Nemerov. Berkeley: University of Calornia Press, 2005. 213 pp.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Most film criticism has been hampered by the habit of dealing with narrative movies strictly and exclusively in terms of their stories. What’s overlooked by this practice is the fact that virtually all films are made up of nonnarrative as well as narrative elements—what might be described as both persistence and fluctuation, or nonlinearity as well as linearity. Even though we often prefer to think we experience movies only as unfolding narratives—which is apparently why what most people mean by “spoilers” always relate to plot and not to formal moves—how we remember these movies is part of that experience, and this partially consists of static images.

Consequently, it could be argued that we need more art historians writing about movies and fewer literary critics who operate from the model of narrative fiction.… Read more »

Tales from the Vault

This piece appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 10, 2004. One particular reason for reviving it now is the happy news that The Exiles (see first illustration below) and all the Val Lewton horror films, including The Seventh Victim, which were relatively scarce items when they showed back then at the Gene Siskel Film Center, are now readily available on DVD, in excellent editions. Due to its lack of the usual auteurist credentials — specifically, the mediocre reputation of Mark Robson — The Seventh Victim continues to be the most neglected of Lewton’s greatest films, but it’s no longer hard to find. Burn, Witch, Burn is now out on Blu-Ray, and it seems that A Tale of Two Sisters is currently available in multiple editions in the U.S. and elsewhere — J.R.

The Exiles **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Kent Mackenzie

With Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, and Rico Rodriguez

The Seventh Victim **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Mark Robson

Written by Charles O’Neal and Dewitt Bodeen

With Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage, Tom Conway, and Mary Newton

A Tale of Two Sisters * (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Kim Jee-woon

With Yeom Jeong-a, Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, and Kim Kab-su

Burn, Witch, Burn *** (A must see)

Directed by Sidney Hayers

Written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont

With Janet Blair, Peter Wyngarde, Margaret Johnston, and Anthony Nicholls

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Few movie-industry executives -– and not just in the U.S.… Read more »

The Haunting

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). This film is now available on a Blu-Ray from Warners, with an excellent audio commentary by Robert Wise, all four of the lead actors, and screenwriter Nelson Gidding. And for the record, a recent look confirms that it isn’t at all “stiff in the joints”; Jack Clayton’s The Innocents may be more accomplished, but this is still a rousing, intelligent, and provocative horror film.– J.R.

TheHaunting

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Robert Wise’s 1963 black-and-white ‘Scope translation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was pretty effective when it came out; it may be a little stiff in the joints by now, but it’s still a much better scare show than the stinker remake, and clearly aided by Wise’s skill as an editor. With Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Julie Harris. 112 min. (JR)

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On Location with John Carpenter’s THE THING

From the July 1982 issue of Omni. As with all the other commissioned pieces I wrote for the Arts section of that magazine, this originally ran without a title; I’ve also done a light edit on this version. Another version of this article appeared in Cahiers du Cinema, with a different title (if memory serves, this was “Beware of Imitations”).

While I was living in Europe in the 70s, I managed to watch portions of the shooting of films by Robert Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer), Alain Resnais (Stavisky…), and Jacques Rivette (Duelle and Noroit), but my trip to Alaska and British Columbia in December 1981 to watch a little bit of the shooting of John Carpenter’s The Thing was surely my most elaborate on-location visit, even though what I actually saw was much briefer in this case — hardly any more than an hour or two at most. And I didn’t even get to speak to Carpenter during my visit; absurdly enough, by arrangement with the film’s publicist, the interview in this piece was conducted over the phone several days later, with Carpenter calling me from Hollywood, after I returned to Hoboken, making the cassette recorder I had carried on my trip completely unnecessary and some portions of this piece necessarily deceitful.Read more »

Escaping the Numbers Racket (2008)

My sixth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their April 2008 issue (No. 11). — J.R.

A personal highpoint for me at the 42nd annual voting session of the National Society of film Critics, held in early January, was successfully proposing two of the awards given that afternoon. One was for the best experimental film of 2007, which went to John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind — a beautiful 59-minute documentary about cemeteries and memorials in the U.S. commemorating political struggles, made by the writer-director of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), a dedicated independent who might be described as an “amateur” filmmaker in the very best sense of the word (much as Jean Cocteau could be described in the same fashion). The other prize, the “Film Heritage Award,” went jointly “to Ford at Fox, a 21-disc box set from Fox Home Video” and “to Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive for the restoration of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and other independent films”. I should add that only the first of these two awards was my own idea; for the Film Heritage Award, I was simply conveying and arguing on behalf of the proposal of an absent member of the National Society of Film Critics, Dave Kehr (a critic who writes the excellent weekly DVD column for the New York Times).… Read more »

HALLOWEEN (1979 review)

From Take One (January 1979). — J.R.

In order to do justice to the mesmerizing effectiveness of Halloween, a couple of mini-backgrounds need to be sketched: that of writer-director John Carpenter, and that of the Mainstream Simulated Snuff Movie –a popular puritanical genre that I’ll call thw MSSM for short.

(1) On the basis of his first two low-budget features, it was already apparent that the aptly-named Carpenter was one of the sharpest Hollywood craftsmen to have come along in ages — a nimble jack-of-all-trades who composed his own music, doubled as producer (Dark Star) and editor (Assault on Precinct 13), and served up his genre materials with an unmistakably personal verve. Both films deserve the status of sleepers; yet oddly enough, most North American critics appear to have slept through them, or else stayed away. Somehow, the word never got out, apart from grapevine bulletins along a few film-freak circuits.

Dark Star proved that Carpenter could be quirky and funny; Assault showed that he could be quirky, funnu, and suspenseful all at once. Halloween drops the comedy, substitutes horror, and keeps you glued to your seat with ruthless efficiency from the first frame to the last.… Read more »

Watch for BERNIE (twice upgraded)

 

I guess I must have been simply naïve when I concluded, after seeing and flipping out over Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys 14 years ago, that everyone else would like it as much as I did. But frankly, I’m even more bewildered by the critical coolness being shown now in some quarters towards Bernie, a masterpiece which might be regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Newton Boys, only one that runs still deeper and is in some ways even more accessible: another edifying film about locals from a part of East Texas that Linklater obviously knows like the back of his hand and deeply cherishes, and another one that ponders the notion of justifiable or defensible crime without ever deserting a sturdy moral code.

The writing (by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose non-fiction article, which first appeared when The Newton Boys was in post-production, inspired the movie) is so good that the humor can’t be reduced to simple satire; a whole community winds up speaking through the film, and it has a lot to say. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other celebrations of small-town American life that are quite as rich, as warm, and as complexly layered, at least within recent years.… Read more »

Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing [NAKED LUNCH]

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 1992). — J.R.

NAKED LUNCH **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Michael Zelniker, and Nicholas Campbell.

And some of us are on Different Kicks and that’s a thing out in the open the way I like to see what I eat and vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be. Bill’s Naked Lunch Room . . . Step right up. Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?” — William S. Burroughs, introduction to Naked Lunch (1962)

The first time I read William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—or at least large portions of it — was in 1959, a few months after its first printing, in a smuggled copy of the seedy Olympia Press edition fresh from Paris. As I recall it was missing most or all of the accompanying matter — the introduction (“Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”), “Atrophied Preface” (“Wouldn’t You?”), and appendix (“Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs”) — that gave so much body, flavor, shape, and outright usefulness to the Grove Press edition published in the United States three years later.… Read more »

Ebrahim Golestan (three capsule reviews & one essay)

Here is an essay about Ebahim Golestan that appeared in the Chicago Reader on May 3, 2007, along with capsule reviews of three Golestan programs that showed in Chicago the same week. I posted these shortly after reseeing the remarkable and criminally neglected Brick and Mirror at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, with Golestan, now in his early 90s, both present and eloquent in speaking about his work.  Note: if you hit the subtitled still below, you can see a very brief silent clip from Brick and Mirror. — J.R.

Brick and Mirror

A high point of Iran’s first new wave, this 1964 masterpiece by Ebrahim Golestan takes its title from the classical Persian poet Attaar, who wrote, “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror.” The philosophical implications of this are fully apparent in Golestan’s tale of a young man who finds a baby girl in his cab and spends a night with his girlfriend debating what to do with the infant. Though this black-and-white ‘Scope film superficially resembles Italian neorealism, especially in its indelible look at Tehran street life and nightlife in the 60s, its spirit is a mix of Dostoyevsky and expressionism: minor characters periodically step forward to deliver anguished soliloquies, contributing to an overall lament both physical and metaphysical.… Read more »

Moviegoing at Cannes: Classics without labels (1971)

This page of festival coverage in The Village Voice (June 17, 1971) appeared (without any photos) after my second trip to the festival; if memory serves, my first trip there, in 1970, yielded no writing at all. One complication about this piece is that Amos Vogel and I jointly discovered after arriving at the festival that a separate editor at the Voice had given each of us the assignment of “covering” the festival. After Amos checked back at the front office about this, it was agreed at the Voice that we both write coverage, about separate films, which we wound up doing for two years in a row.

I think this article manages to convey some of the political flavor of the early 70s, although it’s worth adding that all the films listed here with the exception of Sontag’s Brother Carl are currently either available on DVD or are about to be (e.g., Portabella’s Cuadecuc – Vampir, identified here incorrectly as Vampyr). Indeed, strange as it seems, the most “out of date” detail here is a single shot I describe in Cuadecuc – Vampir (“a ghoulishly made-up actress making a face at someone between takes”), which Portabella inexplicably (and lamentably) has subsequently removed from the film.Read more »

Surprises at Cannes: Huston redeemed, Tashlin reincarnated (1972)

This is second and (to date) final time that I did Cannes film festival coverage for The Village Voice, which ran in their June 29, 1972 issue. –J.R.

Surprises at Cannes: Huston redeemed, Tashlin reincarnated

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

CANNES, France — After 15 days of feeding in darkness, and blinking at the sun only between screenings, the Cannes Festival inevitably turns the persistent moviegoer into a blood relative of Dracula. regrettably, this year’s festival was long on celluloid — 700 films’ worth, according to Variety — but short on the lifeblood necessary to keep an honest vampire going.

Of the 34 films that I stayed to the end for, only one seemed to have the earmarks of an old-fashioned classic. Curiously enough, this came from neither Hitchcock nor Fellini nor Skolimowski nor Altman, but from john Huston — a director who has remained in limbo for so long that, until Fat City, it was hard to remember he still existed. Fat City may not be a great film, but it has the uncommon virtue of achieving practically everything it sets out to do.

Working in the U.S. for the first time since The Misfits, Huston returned to a milieu of failed boxers in Stockton, California, that he knew intimately as a young man, shot his story (from Leonard Gardner’s novel)  in continuity, and wound up with what may prove to be his definitive statement.… Read more »

TOUCH OF EVIL Retouched

Reprinted from my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles, but with illustrations added. (The first of these is a photo taken near Antibes, France, where the revamped Touch of Evil was scheduled to premiere, until Beatrice Welles threatened a lawsuit and halted the screening. Much later, she sent a letter of apology to Janet Leigh that I got to read at one point. Fortunately, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying a wonderful day with Janet Leigh, her daughter Kelly, and several others on the Côte d’Azur, capped by this photo of the Touch of Evil re-edit “crew” and then followed by a memorable dinner.)

The following —- an account of my work as consultant for Universal Pictures on the re-editing of Touch of Evil in 1997-98, based on a studio memo -— is the only thing I’ve ever written for Premiere. I knew one of the editors, Anne Thompson, from her previous stint as assistant editor at Film Comment, and when I proposed this piece to her, she checked with other editors at the magazine and reported back that there was a lot of enthusiastic interest. When I asked her what approach I should take, she urged me to write a first-person account of my experience of the project from beginning to end, which yielded a first version.Read more »

THE SALESMAN

Commissioned by the Chicago Reader in September 2016. — J.R.

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This gripping Iranian melodrama by writer-director Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning A Separation) focuses on a couple acting in a Tehran production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. One should probably resist the temptation to read some subtle message into this exotic premise, because Farhadi (unlike Abbas Kiarostami) is neither a modernist nor a postmodernist but something closer to Elia Kazan: topical, sharp with actors, mildly sensationalist (this is about the consequences of a woman being attacked by a stranger while taking a shower), alert to moral nuances, but lacking a full-blown vision of his own. As in A Separation, Farhadi privileges a woman’s viewpoint without either sharing or exploring it.  (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
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