Monthly Archives: June 2017

Meet Marcel L’Herbier

Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there, as “Obscure Objects,” on June 19, 2008. — J.R.

He’s hardly a household name anywhere, yet there’s still a striking discrepancy between the profile of filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier (1890-1979) in France and everywhere else —- almost as if a “not for export” label had been stamped on his forehead. Founder and head of l’IDHEC (l’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), the most famous French film school, for over a quarter of a century (1943-1969), as well as onetime director of the Cinémathèque Française (1941-1944), author of hundreds of articles, and a pioneer in French television who produced over 200 documentaries, he’s still better known today as the writer-director of about 50 films, mostly features. Yet none of these is easily obtainable in the U.S.

Probably the best known, formerly on VHS, is La nuit fantastique (Fantastic Night, 1942), a fantasy with Fernand Gravey as an innocent student literally pursuing the woman of his dreams (Micheline Presle) in his dreams. Both whimsical and disturbing —- with a happy ending even more troubling than anything that precedes it —- this nocturnal adventure conveys the dark, cavernous underside of the German occupation almost as pungently as Cocteau’s Orphée did retrospectively, eight years later.… Read more »

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June-July 2017). — J.R.

asphalt01

It might be excessive to claim that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) invented the heist thriller (also known as the caper film), but at the very least one could say that it provided the blueprint for the most successful examples of that subgenre that would follow it, including (among others) The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956), Seven Thieves (1960),  The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Reservoir Dogs (1992)—not to mention  such parody versions as Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and most of the latter films of Jean-Pierre Melville, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le deuxième souffle, (1966), and Le cercle rouge (1970). Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle was regarded as such a master text by Melville that one isn’t surprised to find over a dozen references to it in Ginette Vincendeau’s book about him. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, Melville once “declared that…there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in [John Huston’s masterpiece].”

In short, the reverberations in this MGM A-feature are multiple, although that doesn’t prevent it from still seeming fresh today.… Read more »

Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards 2017

Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards 2017

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Lucien Logette, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Chaired by Paolo Mereghetti.

 

PERSONAL CHOICES

Lorenzo Codelli: Norman Foster’s Woman on the Run (1950, Flicker Alley, Blu-ray). A lost gem rescued by detective Eddie Muller’s indefatigable Film Noir Foundation

Alexander Horwath: Déja s’envolé la fleur maigre (Paul Meyer, 1960, Cinematek/Bruxelles, DVD) and Il Cinema di Pietro Marcello: Memoria dell’immagine (2007-2015, Cinema Libero/Cineteca di Bologna, DVD). Regarding the latter: with this cinematheque-style DVD, subtitled in English and French, one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, whose work is still under-appreciated outside Italy, receives his rightful chance for global recognition.

 

Lucien Logette:

Tonka Šibenice (Karel Anton, 1930, Czech Republic, Národní filmový archiv/Filmexport Home Video, DVD)

One of the first Czech sound films. Like many great films of that era, it reflects several influences: expressionism, social realism, Kammerspielfilm, the art of Soviet photography, all used remarkably, without imitation. It contains all the great themes of the end of the silent period: the opposition between the city and the countryside, the misdeeds of modern society, frustrated loves ending in drama, themes served by an astonishing visual beauty.

Mark McElhatten: Kafka Goes to the Cinema (Munich, 4 DVD box set, Edition Filmmuseum).… Read more »

Paranoia Rising: Origins and Legacy of the Conspiracy Thriller (2017 revision)

An updated revision of a 1999 essay, commissioned by and posted on Slate on May 24, 2017. — J.R.

 

One of the paradoxes of conspiracy thrillers is that seeing the world as if it were as orderly and coherent as a work of art is both satisfying and terrifying. If everything makes sense, then it’s hard to avoid the premise that someone somewhere is creating that coherence–either God or an equally unseen puppet master. And the fact that we don’t see the strings being pulled means that our imaginations are invited to sketch them in, making us co-conspirators in the process: And opting out of this creative participation means accepting chaos: “If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia,” declares Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.

les vampires speeding car

 

lesvampiresbondage2

 

It’s a tradition that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s silent serial of 1915-1916, Les vampires, about a gang of ingenious working-class criminals headed by a beautiful woman and preying on the richa crime thriller evoked in Olivier Assayas’ 1996 dark comedy about a contemporary remake, Irma Vep.Read more »

Entertainment as Oppression

From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1988). — J.R.

1. A front-page story in the August 24 Variety begins, “Last week’s Republican National Convention garnered the worst network ratings of any convention in TV history.” An interesting piece of information, but not, as far as I know, one that was noted in daily newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, or on TV. Why does one have to go to Variety to discover this morsel of recent history? Perhaps it has something to do with Variety‘s status as a trade journal. Mainstream print and TV journalism may be part of the entertainment business, but they’re not generally about entertainment in the sense that a publication like Variety is.

The story in Variety goes on to report that both of this summer’s political conventions significantly boosted video rentals; a couple of large video rental chains reported increases in business between 30 and 57 percent. Do we interpret this as an opting for entertainment over news coverage, or as a preference for one kind of entertainment over another? Do we read it as a sign of desperate cynicism, or as a sign of healthy liberation? Or, if we read it as the latter, was it liberation only from the standard TV shows that the conventions were preempting?… Read more »

Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose recent unexpected death was a grievous loss.  — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

Problems of Classification: A Few Traits in Four Films by Ermanno Olmi

Written for A Man Called Ermanno: Olmi’s Cinema and Works, published by Edições Il Sorpasso (in Lisbon) in May 2012. A French translation of this essay has been published in Trafic #91, automne 2014. — J.R.

CAPA-EN-OLMI-copia

For me, the cinema is a state of mind and a process of analysis from a series of detailed observations.
— Ermanno Olmi, from a 1988 interview (1)

1

Ermanno Olmi first became well known as a filmmaker during the period in the early 1960s when the Nouvelle Vague and, more specifically, François Truffaut’s formulation of la politique des auteurs, were near the height of their international influence. Yet it seems that one factor that has limited Olmi’s reputation as an auteur over the half-century that has passed since then is his apparent reluctance and/or inability to remain type-cast in either his choice of film projects or in his execution of them. Indeed, the fact that he repeatedly eludes and/or confounds whatever auteurist profile that criticism elects to construct for him in its effort to classify his artistry results in a periodic neglect of him followed by periodic “rediscoveries”. And these rediscoveries are confused in turn by the fact that each rediscovery of Olmi’s work seems to redefine his profile rather than build on the preceding one.… Read more »

A Personal Account of an Adventure Called Film.Factory (expanded version)

Posted on Sight and Sound‘s web site 18 July 2013, and then expanded (by about 50%) at the request of Trafic‘s Raymond Bellour later that month for its French translation in Trafic #88, published in early December. This has also appeared in German translation in the September 2013 issue of Cargo, and a Spanish translation appeared in mid-August 2014 on Roger Koza’s web site. I’ve slightly updated the version here in a few particulars and added some photos. 

I returned to Film.Factory for my fourth two-week stint to date on October 24, 2015, this time to teach a history of independent cinema around the world. – J.R.

JR at FilmFactory

First of all, what is film.factory?

It’s usually thought of and referred to as a film school that’s been recently set up in Sarajevo, housed at the Sarajevo Film Academy. But Béla Tarr, who created it, isn’t happy with this classification. He’d rather call it a workshop or, as its name suggests, a factory that produces films in which he serves as a producer. And he’d rather speak of the sixteen filmmakers he selected late last year from fourteen countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Faro Islands, Iceland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.) and hundreds of hours of film-viewing for his three year-program — all between the ages of 22 and 38 — as “colleagues” rather than as students.… Read more »

Reactionary Humor and Southern Comfort (review of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES)

This book review appeared in the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News.

I was moved to repost this review by the generous recent reference to it made by Sam Jordison in the Guardian.

– J.R.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Foreword by Walker Percy

Louisiana State University Press, $12.95

Is it by mere chance, or through some form of subtly earned tragic irony, that this brilliantly funny, reactionary novel is being published during a reactionary period, apparently about a decade and a half after it was written? God knows what it might have been like to read this in the mid-’60s. I suspect it would have been less warmly received — one reason, perhaps, why it wasn’t published way back then.

What I mean by Reactionary Humor is the boring literary schemes of Tom Sawyer, not the expedient escape tactics of Huck Finn. Broadly speaking, it’s what we learn to expect from the perennial antics of Blondie and Dagwood, Amos and Andy, Franny and Zooey, Laurel and Hardy (and Marie and Bruce, in Wallace Shawn’s recent play), not to mention W.C. Fields, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Archie Bunker, and Woody Allen.

One can even say that Reactionary Humor is what we get from Don Quixote — a figure mentioned twice by Walker Percy (along with Oliver Hardy and Thomas Aquinas) in the foreword to this remarkable, posthumous New Orleans novel, whose author killed himself at the age of 32.… Read more »

The Lewis Contradiction

Written for the Viennale’s catalogue accompanying its Jerry Lewis retrospective in October 2013, where it appears in German translation. — J.R.

 

1. Why Did — and Do — the Americans Love Jerry Lewis So Much?

…Jerry Lewis’s face, where the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary. — Jean-Luc Godard on Hollywood or Bust, July 1957 (1)

The usual question — and by now a completely tiresome one — is, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis so much?” People have been asking this question — mainly rhetorically rather than with any genuine curiosity about the answer — for over half a century, yet if it was ever worth asking in the first place, this was only for roughly the first two decades of that period. As far as I can tell, this was a love that was first fully declared in detail (though it was far from being universally accepted even in France, then or later) in December 1957, when Robert Benayoun published an article in Positif entitled “Simple Simon ou l’anti-James Dean”, although earlier appreciations, Godard’s among them, had already appeared by then.

This was only about a month before Lewis, having ended his partnership with Dean Martin a year and a half earlier, and subsequently become his own producer on Rock-a-Bye Baby, purchased a mansion in Bel Air that had formerly been owned by the late Louis B.Read more »

Music For the Eyes [on Oskar Fischinger]

From the Chicago Reader, April 20, 2001; minor adjustments made on January 10, 2010. And for some major corrections and more up-to-the-minute additions, see the letter from Cindy Keefer that I’ve added to the end of this piece. — J.R.

Music for the Eyes: Films by Oskar Fischinger

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

While I was living in Paris in my late 20s I used to dream of making a film — if someone were to hand me an outsize check and give me carte blanche, which of course I knew would never happen. I had a project in mind. I wanted to film all of my best friends dancing as uninhibitedly and joyfully as possible alongside the Seine, and then I wanted to devote the next several years of my life to synchronizing their movements to an up-tempo number by Ahmad Jamal’s piano trio. Jamal was unfashionable among jazz critics — even though Miles Davis delighted in his music — and that only made the project more seductive.

The notion of combining music I loved and people I loved was the key to this idle fantasy. Furthermore, Jamal’s music made me want to dance and conjured up moving images, and I wanted to synthesize these sensations.… Read more »

Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958 (2-CD set, Gambit Records 69265).

 

You may have to be an Ahmad Jamal completist like myself to take notice of this 2007 expanded edition, which adds three 1958 Chicago studio cuts, totaling about eight minutes, to the 25 live ones that have already been available. The latter tracks appeared on two well-known Jamal LPs, Ahmad Jamal and the two-disc Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal, both recorded in September 1958 at Washington, D.C.’s Spotline Club in September 5 and 6, 1958.

If memory serves, the first of these was the first Jamal record I ever bought, when I was 15 or 16, and it’s never gone stale for me —- despite the scorn heaped on Jamal by sophisticated jazz critics such as Martin Williams in Downbeat. There’s always been a curious split between the Jamal idolatry of Miles Davis –- who joined forces with Gil Evans on their first joint album to virtually steal (rather than simply play homage to) two tracks from Jamal’s 1955 Chamber Music of the New Jazz, “New Rumba” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed,” and based his Quintet’s arrangement of “All of You” in ‘Round Midnight on Jamal’s on the same LP —- and the disdain of most jazz critics, who seemed to regard Jamal’s popularity with seething resentment, much as they resented Dave Brubeck during the same period.Read more »

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday. — J.R.

jr-15
Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

ROME OPEN CITY: History as Adventure

Commissioned by BFI Video for an April 2015 release. — J.R.

OPENCITY-Pina

Charlie Chaplin, the late Gilbert Adair liked to assert, doesn’t simply belong to film history; he belongs to history. And the same might be said for Roberto Rossellini’s first major feature, Roma città aperta. Even though it’s routinely regarded as a landmark in film history — the film that decisively put Italian Neorealism on the global map — one could argue that its lasting importance owes far more to the major role it  played in humanizing the Italian population for the rest of the world after  it emerged from over two decades of Fascist rule under Benito Mussolini.

We don’t hear much about that Fascist rule in Rome Open City, an omission that entails a historical simplification, albeit an understandable as well as an expedient one — not so much an expression of “first things first” as an expression of “second things first,” viewed by most audiences around the world from the vantage point of the war’s end. A project that was first conceived in August 1944, only two months after the Allies had forced the Nazis out of Rome, the film was driven primarily by a desire to expose the brutalities and indignities suffered by Romans under the German occupation as well as the discovery of a common purpose between the Communist and Catholic partisans who had opposed it.… Read more »

Phantom Interviewers Over Rivette (with Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky)

This originally appeared in Film Comment (September-October 1974).

I was shocked in December 2011 to learn of the death of Gilbert Adair, a close friend during the mid-70s (when both of us were living in Paris, and then for some time later, after I moved to London ahead of Gilbert). Although I can’t swear to this, it’s possible that this collaborative interview may be the first thing that Gilbert ever published; at least it’s the earliest piece of his that I know about. With Michael Graham — also, alas, no longer alive — Gilbert and I had subsequently collaborated on a lengthy production piece for Sight and Sound about Rivette’s Duelle and Noroît, recently reprinted in Arrow’s DVD box set devoted to Rivette, available here and here. — J.R.

 

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Last June, I invited two of my friends — Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky — to join me in an interview with Jacques Rivette. All three of us had been dazzled by Céline et Julie vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), to the point of considering it the most important new film we’ve seen in years, and it seemed exciting to extend our folie à trois to a meeting with the director.… Read more »