Yearly Archives: 2017

It All Adds Up [FOUR CORNERS]

From the Chicago Reader (December 12, 1997). — J.R.

Four Corners

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Benning.

I’ve been brooding a lot lately about the way in which many of the best movies around have been ravaged by “narrative correctness.” This is the notion fostered by producers, distributors, and critics — often collaborating as script doctors and always deeply invested in hackwork — that there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways of telling stories in movies. And woe to the filmmaker who steps out of line. Much as “political correctness” can point to a displaced political impotence — a desire to control language and representation that sets in after one despairs of changing the political conditions of power — “narrative correctness” has more to do with what supposedly makes a movie commercial than with what makes it interesting, artful, or innovative. Invariably narrative correctness means identifying with the people who pay for the pictures rather than with the people who make them.

Last year we had reviewers stomping on Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy and Tim Burton in Mars Attacks! for daring to move beyond their more lucrative formulas to try something different, though their crimes were crimes of subject and tone rather than of storytelling.… Read more »

DESERET

From the Chicago Reader (March 15, 1996). — J.R.

Deseret

Directed and written by

James Benning

Narrated by Fred Gardner.

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it “Here is a magnificent novel” is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and remarking, “Well, well, well; quite a slice.”

Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither is the Atlantic Ocean. — Dorothy Parker

One of the main characteristics of experimental films is that they tend to make hash of the terms we use to speak about narrative features, and James Benning’s haunting, beautiful, and awesome Deseret (1995) — his eighth feature-length film — performs this valuable function from the outset. To say that Deseret is “directed” and “written” by Benning requires some bending of the categories. He “directed” it insofar as he conceived the project, filmed the images, recorded the sound, and edited the sound and images; he “wrote” it insofar as he compiled and edited the texts that are read offscreen by Fred Gardner, though he didn’t write them. In a Hollywood film the directorial tasks described above would be carried out by a producer, cinematographer, sound recordist, editor, and sound editor; it’s anybody’s guess what the compiler and editor of the text would be called (researcher?… Read more »

Forbidden Fruit [The Best Movies of 1996]

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1997). — J.R.

Compiling a list of the best new (or “new”) movies that opened in Chicago in 1996, I’ve come up with 40 titles, half of which are foreign-language pictures. Many of my colleagues would regard choosing so many foreign movies as perversely esoteric, but it’s hard for me to fathom why. I willingly concede that this country has one of the strongest national cinemas in the world — probably the greatest, which is fully reflected in my including 19 American films in my list and only 5 from France; 3 from Taiwan; 2 apiece from England, Hong Kong, and Iran; and 1 each from mainland China, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam.

Of course I haven’t seen nearly as many non-American films as American, but I’ve made a stab at seeing those that have made it to Chicago. I have long been bewildered by how the majority of my colleagues almost never mention any cinema that isn’t English-language when they draw up their end-of-the-year lists. Is American cinema really that wonderful and non-American cinema really that awful? Of course not; the reason most reviewers don’t include foreign pictures on their lists is that they don’t see them.… Read more »

Myths of the New Narrative (and a Few Counter-Suggestions)

The following is taken from the online Moving Image Source, and the first introductiion is by David Schwartz. –J.R.

This essay was commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988 for a catalogue accompanying the month-long, 150-film retrospective Independent America: New Film 1978-1988. The ambitious series, which took place during the Museum’s inaugural season, was an attempt to make a statement not just about the state of experimental filmmaking at the time but also about the Museum’s wide-ranging programming philosophy.

The underlying idea was to showcase films that were cinematically inventive, works that broke boundaries in form and content, subverted conventions, and created new hybrid forms. In this way, the series revealed the inadequacy of such confining labels as “avant-garde,” “fiction,” and “documentary,” and it also tried to reinvigorate the notion of what it means to be “independent.”

Before the commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction (and before the rise of home video), independent filmmakers made and showed their films in a world truly apart from Hollywood. To get their work seen, they would travel for months, with their 16mm film prints in tow, to colleges and media arts centers across the country.Read more »

Pieces of the Action (RUN LOLA RUN)

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 1999). — J.R.

Run Lola Run

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Tom Tykwer

With Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu,

Herbert Knaup, Armin Rohde, and Joachim Krol.

A low-budget no-brainer, Run Lola Run is a lot more fun than Speed, a big-budget no-brainer from five years ago. It’s just as fast moving, the music is better, and though the characters are almost as hackneyed and predictable, the conceptual side has a lot more punch. If Run Lola Run had opened as widely as Speed and it too had been allowed to function as everyday mall fodder, its release could have been read as an indication that Americans were finally catching up with people in other countries when it comes to the pursuit of mindless pleasures. Instead it’s opening at the Music Box as an art movie.

Why try to sell an edgy youth thriller with nothing but kicks on its mind as an art movie? After all, it’s only a movie — a rationale that was trotted out for Speed more times than I care to remember. The dialogue of Run Lola Run is certainly simple and cursory, but it happens to be in subtitled German — which in business terms means that it has to be marketed as a film, not a movie.… Read more »

Spoiler Alert [ROADS OF KIAROSTAMI]

From the June 9, 2006 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that Roads of Kiarostami has appeared as an extra on the DVD of Kiarostami’s Shirin released by Cinema Guild. — J.R.

Roads of Kiarostami

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

The definition of what qualifies as commercial movie fare seems to have shrunk to works that appeal to teens and preteens. Meanwhile the definition of experimental film — which traditionally has meant abstract, nonnarrative, and small-format works produced in a garret — has been expanding to address wider audiences. An ambitious DVD box set released last year, “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941,” includes lavish Busby Berkeley production numbers and juvenilia by Orson Welles. And last year’s Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival opened with a dazzling 35-millimeter short by Michelangelo Antonioni, Michelangelo Eye to Eye.

This year Onion City’s opening-night program reflects this tendency even more: it includes a video by cult horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Tscherkassky’s radical reworking of footage from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 35-millimeter and ‘Scope, Andy Warhol’s two 1966 “screen tests” with Bob Dylan, and best of all Abbas Kiarostami’s half-hour Roads of Kiarostami.… Read more »

Blindsided [ELEPHANT]

From the Chicago Reader (November 7, 2003). — J.R.

Elephant

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Timothy Bottoms, and Matt Malloy.

Gus Van Sant’s startling and brilliant Elephant – a film that follows the activities of several high school students before and during a massacre like the one at Columbine — has its flaws, yet its virtues so outshine them that the years he’s spent lost in the wilderness can be forgiven. His four previous features weren’t exactly dead on arrival, though his 1998 remake of Psycho came alarmingly close. But the filmmaker responsible for such fresh early shorts as The Discipline of DE (1978) and My New Friend (1987) and such exciting early features as Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and My Own Private Idaho (1990) was almost nowhere in evidence in Good Will Hunting (1997), Psycho, or Finding Forrester (2000) and only faintly discernible in the experimental feature Gerry (2001). (In between were two satirical features, the uneven 1993 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and the more successful 1995 To Die For.)

Good Will Hunting, Van Sant’s first big commercial success, was a borderline sellout, and Finding Forrester was almost a complete one.… Read more »

Historical Meditations in Two Films by John Gianvito

This article appeared in the Winter 2008-2009 issue of Film Quarterly. I’m delighted that both of the films I write about here are available on DVD, although regrettably the current prices, at least on Amazon, are quite hefty. My suggestion is to keep looking for better deals elsewhere; The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein remains for me one of the key American independent American features of the past decade or so, and it’s hard for me to think of another that’s more personally important to me. — J.R.

HISTORICAL MEDITATIONS IN TWO FILMS BY JOHN GIANVITO

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

It’s been gratifying to see the almost instant acclaim accorded to John Gianvito’s beautiful, fifty-eight-minute Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), especially after the relative neglect of his only previous feature-length film, the 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001).

The more recent film — a meditative, lyrical, and haunting documentary about grave sites that won the grand prix at the Entervues Film Festival in Belfort in 2007 and both a Human Rights Award and a special mention at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2008 — also received an award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio and was named the year’s best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics.… Read more »

REAL LIFE (1979)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

The brassy and obnoxious show-biz type that
Albert Brooks plays in his first and funniest feature
(1979) –- so close to Brooks’s own public persona that
he’s called Albert Brooks –- professes to be impervious
to all the self-consciousness that engulfs him.
Even when he’s shooting an extended documentary
about the life of a “typical” family in Phoenix,
Arizona in the style of the infamous 1973 cinéma-
vérité TV series An American Family, he claims
that anything the family does in front of the camera is
“right,” without ever admitting that the acute self-consciousness
created by his film and camera crew
ultimately has more to do with movies than with real
life. Charles Grodin brilliantly plays the animal
doctor at the head of this family, and Brooks is so
skillful at juggling all the mannerisms of pseudo-documentary
and all the specious claims of pop psychology
that his periodic and compulsive regressions to
old-time show business -– whether it’s the big-time
pop vocal in the opening sequence or the conflagration
inspired by Gone with the Wind at the
end –- manage to be both welcome and ludicrous.… Read more »

TROUBLE THE WATER

Here’s the unedited version of a review I wrote for In These Times, published in their September 3, 2008 issue. — J.R.

I can’t quite follow all of the offscreen sound bites preceding the main title of Tia Lessen and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. But it’s clear from the media voices I can transcribe that they concisely present this documentary’s agenda — at the same time we see the intertitle “September 14th 2005/Central Louisiana” appear onscreen and then get our first glimpses of some of the people who’ll shortly become this documentary’s central characters, seated around a picnic table.

Two of the offscreen voices come from George W. Bush; the others all sound like they come from newscasters or interviewees:

1.… Read more »

Manuel De Landa [upgraded 9/14/09]

The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press, 1983), a volume commissioned as the first in a projected annual series that would survey recent independent and experimental filmmaking. (A second volume, Film: The Front Line 1984, by David Ehrenstein, appeared the following year, but lamentably the series never continued after that, for a variety of reasons, even though both volumes remain in print.) I have followed the format used in both books.

It’s worth adding that De Landa  abandoned filmmaking not long after this article appeared –- after planning, as I recall (but not shooting), a film starring his penis, to be entitled My Dick — and went on to pursue a distinguished academic career as a professor of art, architecture, and philosophy in New York, Pennsylvania, and Switzerland, with at least four books to his credit: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), and A New Philosophy of Society (2006). For this reason, I couldn’t originally illustrate this piece with any images from his films, as I did in Film: The Front Line 1983, until some frame enlargements were recently made from Incontinence,a month after this article was originally posted, by Georg Wasner of the Austrian Film Museum, to use in a catalogue for a retrospective that I programmed (see below).Most of the other illustrations either come from more recent periods or are used to illustrate some commercial films that crop up in my discussion, e.g.Read more »

Bushwhacked Cinema

The following was commissioned for and included in the 17th edition of the Time Out Film Guide, (2008), and is being reprinted with the publisher’s permission. Thanks also to John Pym, the book’s editor, who proposed that I write this piece so that it would come out before the Presidential election. –J.R.

BUSHWHACKED CINEMA

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

When the history of American movies during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (2001-2009) eventually comes to be written, one might hypothesize that the commercial development of the mobile phone during the 1980s and 1990s and the introduction of the iPod during the first year Bush took office were crucial in setting the stage for some of the basic conditions of that era. Arguably for the first time, one could easily sustain one’s ignorance about and indifference to one’s fellow citizens even while sharing the same public space with them–on the street or in other public locations dedicated to some form of transport: terminals, buses, subways, trains, planes, fairgrounds, theme parks, and, above all, cinemas.

So the phenomenon of a U.S. President who, to all appearances, preferred to remain blissfully (and strategically) ignorant about the news and the overall state of the world, and ran his office accordingly, was part and parcel of this growing trend to eliminate the public sphere from American life and subdivide the entire culture and society into `special interest’ groups and niche markets.Read more »

Looking Back in Anger [STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH]

From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 2004). — J.R.

Star Spangled to Death

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Ken Jacobs

With Jack Smith, Jerry Sims, Cecilia Swan, Gib Taylor, Bill Carpenter, Laurie Taylor, Reese Haire, Bob Fleischner, Jim Enterline, and Jacobs.

Young man, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. — opening intertitle of Star Spangled to Death

Ken Jacobs’s 1969 Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son – a 115-minute visual analysis of a 1905 short film with the same title, probably directed by D.W. Griffith cameraman Billy Bitzer — introduced me to the modernist appreciation of so-called primitive cinema, teaching me with its seven swarming tableau-like shots that these films were rich and complex and in no way deserving of the term “primitive.” When I saw his 1978 short The Doctor’s Dream, which intricately reedits a trite educational narrative with sound, it too knocked my socks off. The only other Jacobs works I’ve seen are a couple of “film-performance” pieces that use early documentaries projected in 3-D, and Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (1963), shorts devoted to the cavortings of performer and future filmmaker Jack Smith and a few of his cohorts in run-down Manhattan locations.… Read more »

Lies About Lying (INFAMOUS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 13, 2006). — J.R.

Infamous **

Directed and written by Douglas McGrath

With Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Peter Bogdanovich, Sigourney Weaver, and Hope Davis

Two recent features about Truman Capote, coincidentally made around the same time, concentrate on Capote’s work on his true-crime best seller In Cold Blood, about the slaying of a family in rural Kansas. Both suggest that Capote’s life and career were destroyed by the emotional strain of researching and writing that book, yet they’re fascinatingly different in what they try to do and in how they depict their subject. Capote – which professes to be based on Gerald Clarke’s standard biography of the same title — came out a year ago and won its lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Oscar. Infamous – which claims to be based on George Plimpton’s Truman Capote, a collection of gossipy sound-bites assembled in the same manner as his “oral histories” about Edie Sedgwick and Robert F. Kennedy — was released a year after it was completed to avoid comparisons with Capote. Now that it’s out, comparisons are in order — and not all of them are to Capote‘s advantage.… Read more »

Historical Meditations in Two Films by John Gianvito

 From Film Quarterly (Winter 2008-09: Volume 62, Number 2). — J.R.

Profit Motive

the-mad-songs-of-fernanda-hussein

It’s been gratifying to see the almost instant acclaim accorded to John Gianvito’s beautiful, 58-minute Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), especially after the relative neglect of his only previous feature-length film, the 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001).

The more recent film — a meditative, lyrical, and haunting documentary about grave sites that won the grand prix at the Entervues Film Festival in Belfort in 2007 and both a Human Rights Award and a special mention at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2008 —- also received an award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio and was named the year’s best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics. (Full disclosure: I nominated Profit Motive for the last of these awards, and headed the jury of the same Buenos Aires film festival in 2001, which gave The Mad Songs its top prize.)

The Mad Songs focuses on the irreparable effects of the first Gulf war in 1991 on three separate powerless people in New Mexico (which is where the film in its entirety was shot). Profit Motive focuses on the grave sites of several dozen heroes of progressive struggles throughout American history.… Read more »