Monthly Archives: July 2017

On the Denied Politics of THE HURT LOCKER

I’m really tired of hearing from American reviewers that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “isn’t political”. This specious and even insulting claim is clearly part of their effort to convince people to see the movie, and I’m at least sympathetic to that part, since the film is far and away the best new American commercial feature I’ve seen in months — the best constructed and the most thoughtful and entertaining. It’s also the best commercial American film about the so-called “war in” (I prefer “occupation of”) Iraq, at least since In the Valley of Elah, on which writer Mark Boal also furnished much of the material.

First of all, the notion that any American film made today with an Iraqi setting could possibly be apolitical in any shape or form strikes me as being extremely naïve and myopic. Secondly, I can’t imagine what could make the notion of an apolitical film on this subject sound even remotely attractive. Are we really that helpless and hopeless?  And are we so blinkered in our perceptions of what politics consists of that we think it’s limited to how we vote in elections? (Spoiler ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.)… Read more »

Talking Back to the Screen (Toronto 1992)

From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.

My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good.… Read more »

RED PSALM (1971)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A recent documentary about communist musicals called East Side Story (Dana Ranga, 1997) assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill-equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklós Jancsó’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature. That is to say, within its own specially and exuberantly defined idioms, it swings as well as wails.

Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback to quell the uprising, Red Psalm is composed of only 26 shots. (With a running time of 84 minutes, this adds up to an average of three minutes per shot. Jancsó’s earlier feature from 1969, Winter Sirocco, is said to consist of only 13 shots.) Each long take is an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies that constantly traverse, join, and/or divide the separate groups.… Read more »

Deep in the Tarr Pit [THE TURIN HORSE]

From Film Comment (September-October 2011). — J.R.

Recalling the incident in Turin that reportedly occasioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s final breakdown into madness — his weeping and embracing a cab horse that was being beaten by its driver for refusing to budge — Béla Tarr’s regular screenwriter, novelist László Krasznahorkai, has noted that no one seems to know or ask what happened to the horse. But The Turin Horse is only nominally concerned with this riddle. It’s more concerned with the horse’s driver and his grown daughter, who live in a remote stone hut without electricity, subsisting on an exclusive diet of potatoes and palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) while a perpetual storm rages outside, then arbitrarily subsides, over a carefully delineated six days. Their abject life remains fixed by a few infernal routines, such as dressing, undressing, drawing water from a well, or looking out the window. (One exterior shot of the daughter doing just that towards the end of the film will haunt me the rest of my life). What passes for plot gradually becomes even more minimal by the driver’s horse first refusing to pull the wagon, then refusing to eat.… Read more »

Commercial Correctness

I can happily report that some portions of the following — which originally appeared in the December 24, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader—are out of date, because all the films reported here as unavailable (I Want To Go Home, The Decalogue, The Lovers of Pont-Neuf) have subsequently become available. —J.R.

We all know what political correctness is — though the nuances of the term may vary depending on whether you’re inside or outside academia and whether or not you regard it as exclusively the preserve of the left. (Personally, I consider Rush Limbaugh and Andrea Dworkin both charter members of the club.) Commercial correctness in movie ideology, however, has yet to be defined, even though it currently engulfs both the entertainment industry and the audience.

Political correctness can be defined as the demand by members of an oppressed minority—or at least those like Limbaugh who consider themselves equivalent to members of an oppressed minority—to be treated with respect. Commercial correctness, on the other hand, can be defined as the demand of members of a reigning majority—or at least those who consider themselves equivalent to members of a reigning majority—that minority works and positions be treated without respect.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

The Color of Paradise

From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 1998). — J.R.

Jour de fête

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jacques Tati

Written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and Rene Wheeler

With Jacques Tati, Paul Frankeur, Guy Decomble, Santa Relli, and Maine Vallee.

Every Tati film marks simultaneously (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati; (b) a moment in the history of French society and French cinema; (c) a moment in film history. Since 1948, the six films that he has realized are those that have scanned our history the best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of few films (all of them good), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ’68). There is hardly anyone else but Chaplin who, since the sound period, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he isn’t filming, and, when he’s filming, to be precisely up to the moment — that is, just a little bit in advance. Tati: a witness first and last.Read more »

Searching for John Ford

This review appeared originally in Cineaste, Fall 2001. — J.R.

Searching for John Ford

by Joseph McBride. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. 838 pp., illus, Hardcover: $40.00

Only sixty pages longer than his other lengthy biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992), Joseph McBride’s Searching For John Ford is, in fact, a very different sort of book, and not only because the size and importance of Ford’s work is considerably greater. The earlier volume — a devastating act of demystification that sought to dismantle not only a populist hero, but also the national mythology that virtually willed him into existence — made the value of Capra’s films appear almost secondary. It was suggested, moreover, by Gilberto Perez that McBride even seemed to gloat over the failure of Capra’s farm — that the author’s apparent animus toward his subject spilled over into his cultural critique. For me, the self-deluding aspects of Capracorn — in contradistinction to the erotic splendors of Capra’s best Thirties work — made such a relentless assault on the mythology both useful and necessary.

One might argue that Ford’s career, by contrast, is much too varied and complex to suit any such monolithic agenda, moral or otherwise.… Read more »

The Example of KATZELMACHER

This is the last in a series of four essays I wrote in 2008 about Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The others, on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha, have already been posted on this site. — J.R.

Katzelmacher is only the second feature of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet the gulf that separates it from its predecessor, Love is Colder Than Death, is enormous. His first feature, shot over 24 days in April 1969, was later described by its writer-director as the first of his “cinema” films, apparently because its minimal story about petty gangsters seems conceived in relation to genre films. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June, where it was roundly booed and received mixed reviews; it seems fairly safe to conclude that if Fassbinder had made nothing else, most of us would never have heard of him.

This is no doubt why Fassbinder’s somewhat mysterious epigraph for Katzelmacher, credited to his friend and collaborator Yaak Karsunke, reads like a directive to himself: ”It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” Another directive, more ironic, crops up in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue — “We need a bit of order here” —- which has formal as well as political implications.… Read more »

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: half a dozen responses

In my more than 20 years at the Chicago Reader, whenever an old film came to town that had a Reader capsule on file by Dave Kehr, my long-term predecessor at that paper (who left the paper in the mid-1980s), I always had the option of either using that old capsule or writing a new one. On almost every occasion when this happened, I opted for the former — for my money, Dave was and is the best capsule reviewer in the business, bar none. But when it came to The Best Years of Our Lives, I eventually decided that I had to write a new one. Below are the two capsules in question:

Perceived in 1946 (to the tune of nine Academy Awards) as a sign that the movies had finally “grown up,” William Wyler’s study of a group of men returning to civilian life after the war was a tremendous commercial success and helped to create Hollywood’s postwar highbrow style of pseudorealism and social concern. The film is very proud of itself, exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can, thanks to accomplished performances by Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, who keep the human element afloat.… Read more »

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

It’s really a pity that the version of California Split that eventually came out

on DVD, due to musical clearances, had to eliminate some of the play with

Phyllis Shotwell’s songs alluded to here. (For a much later consideration of

this film, including these changes, go here.) — J.R.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT

 

 

U.S.A., 1974Director: Robert Altman

In a poker game at a gambling casino near Los Angeles, Charlie

Waters, a winner, is accused by Lew, a sore loser, of playing in

 

cahoots with the dealer, Bill Denny. Bill and Charlie become

acquainted afterwards in a nearby bar and get cheerfully drunk

together; outside, they are beaten up by Lew (with the help of

friends), who makes off with their winnings. Charlie invites

Bill to stay over at his house, which he shares with two

prostitutes, Barbara and Susan. In the morning, Bill returns to

his job on a glossy magazine but is persuaded to take off that

afternoon and join Charlie at the racetrack, where they make

a small fortune on one of Charlie’s hunches. Wanting to celebrate

with Barbara and Susan, they pretend to be policemen in order to

intimidate the girls’ transvestite client “Helen” and persuade

him to leave, then go to a prizefight.… Read more »

Tony Tony Tony [on THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS]

Posted on Artforum’s web site, 12/23/09. –- J.R.

 

Terry Gilliam’s ambitious fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, set to open in the US on Christmas Day, already did well in some parts of Europe when it premiered there in October—notably Italy and the UK, where it placed third during its opening weekends in both countries. I saw it the first time myself in Saint Andrews, Scotland, with an appreciative audience in early November. The lead character, Tony — played by the late Heath Ledger and three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), who were called in when Ledger died halfway through the filming — is partly conceived as a spoof on Tony Blair, though one wonders whether this conceit will register with much clarity for the American audience. But it’s also unclear how much this will matter, given all the other points of attraction (such as Tom Waits as the devil and Christopher Plummer as the Methuselah-like Parnassus). Far more relevant, it seems, is the way Gilliam has ingeniously adapted the avant-garde multiple-casting ploy of everyone from Yvonne Rainer (Kristina Talking Pictures [1976]) to Todd Haynes [2007]) in terms of his own mainstream fantasy plot.… Read more »

In Space, No One Can Hear You Sweat [Soderbergh’s SOLARIS]

From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 2002). Soberbergh’s Contagion confirms his bottomless cynicism, as well as the cynicism of those reviewers who seem to like him because he expresses their jaundiced views. I continue to find that same cynicism lethally dull and all too familiar. — J.R.

SOLARIS

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh

With George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Ulrich Tukur.

It’s easy to scoff at Monarch Notes, but before I quit graduate school in disgust I reached for them every time I thought a professor might be ruining a literary masterpiece for me — and vowed to read the work later, on my own time, for my own reasons. As a teacher, I also used them when I suspected a student of plagiarism, and they did help me spot an offender or two. But having read the outlines, I rarely read the works — the crib had robbed me of the desire.

If you haven’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 SF masterpiece Solaris, can’t see it Friday night, November 29, on Turner Movie Classics, and don’t want to watch the just-released DVD or wait for the Music Box’s rerelease in January, you might find Steven Soderbergh’s remake intriguing and compelling, because the story it tells is certainly haunting.… Read more »

Outsider Artists

From the January 19, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

 

 

Cafe Lumiere

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Written by Hou and Chu T’ien-wen

With Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara, Kimiko Yo, and Nenji Kobayashi

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Albert Brooks

With Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, and Fred Dalton Thompson

“It’s very difficult to cross national borders and shoot a film about a different culture. How many films have you seen that do that successfully? There are very few. The reason is very simple. When we look at films [about our own country] made by foreign companies, they’re not accurate. . . . But it’s an interesting challenge.”

This could be Albert Brooks talking about the making of his funny new feature, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, most of it filmed in New Delhi. But it’s actually Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien speaking about Cafe Lumiere, which was shot in Japan. Both filmmakers are pushing 60, and both prefer filming in long shot and extended takes. And both their movies are acute, measured observations of contemporary life and thought, whether we happen to be based in LA or Tokyo.… Read more »

Waking Up to the World [30 FRAMES A SECOND: THE WTO IN SEATTLE]

From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2000). More recently, Naomi Klein, one of my heroes, has written about some of the more salient differences between the WTO demonstrations and the more recent ones on Wall Street: see, for instance, this article, as well as others on her website.  — J.R.

30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Rustin Thompson.

If I had to review Rustin Thompson’s video documentary 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle in only three words, I’d say it’s honest, energizing agitprop. Some readers may regard this as an oxymoron, but it’s one account of the Seattle events I’ve been waiting for, receiving its world premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival this Sunday at 1:30 PM. Yet the information it has to convey is almost entirely of the you-are-there variety — there’s no genuine analysis. It evokes 60s demonstrations in a number of ways — including such standbys as bare-breasted, body-painted teenyboppers and burning dollar bills — and pays particular attention to the music performed by demonstrators (one folksinger even sounds like Arlo Guthrie), coming much closer in feeling to something like Woodstock than to radical 60s documentaries produced by Newsreel.… Read more »