Last month, roughly thirty-five years after its publication, the small, Denver-based publisher Arden Press finally declared my book Film: The Front Line 1983 out of print, with 192 copies remaining in stock. A commissioned work designed to launch an annual series surveying independent and experimental filmmaking, it yielded only one other volume after my own, David Ehrenstein’s equally useful Film: The Front Line 1984— which, like my book, can still be readily found at bargain prices at Amazon and elsewhere.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about some of the disgruntled patches of score-settling and related polemics in my book, although there are other patches that I still like. A few chapters have already been posted on this site, and I expect that others will follow.
To the best of my recollection, I found copies of this book on the shelves of only two bookstores: the long-gone Coliseum Books (1974-2007) just below Columbus Circle in New York, the same year (1983) it was published, and the first bookstore I ever walked into, quite at random, in Melbourne–still recovering from jetlag, and not quite believing my eyes–on the first of my three visits to Australia, in 1996. I’m sorry that I no longer remember the name of that store, because it certainly made my day.… 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 »
Written for and published in 10 To Watch: Ten Filmmakers for the Future, edited by Piers Handling and designed to accompany a program of films shown at the tenth anniversary of the Toronto Festival of Festivals in the fall of 1985. This was most likely the first time I attempted to write about Ruiz’s work at any length. –- J.R.
The sheer otherness of Raúl Ruiz in a North American context has a lot to do with the peculiarities of funding in European state-operated television that makes different kinds of work possible. The eccentric filmmaker in the U.S. or Canada who wants to make marginal films usually has to adopt the badge or shield of a school or genre — art film, avant-garde film, punk film, feminist film, documentary or academic theory film — in order to get funding at one end, distribution and promotion at another. Ruiz, on the other hand, needs only to accept the institutional framework of state television — which offers, as he puts it, holes to be filled — and he automatically acquires a commission and an audience without having to settle on any binding affiliation or label beyond the open-ended framework of “culture” or “education”.… Read more »
From American Film (October 1979). -– J.R.
The actors playing Chuckie and Mikey, a sinister vaudeville team dressed in matching tuxedos, top hats, and capes, are pretending to walk toward the camera. They move their feet without advancing anywhere. Behind them, a gigantic black-and-white blowup of a garden at Versailles, mounted on a platform, is slowly rolled away to further the partial illusion. Then they turn around and pretend to walk away from the camera, and the Versailles backdrop is slowly wheeled toward them. All this time the characters discuss a woman they have killed in Budapest.
“Think of it, ” Mikey says wistfully in a Russian accent. “I could have married a princess. ”
“All bourgeois dreams end the same way,’’ Chuckie replies in a disdainful tone. ”Marry royalty and escape.”
“OK, cut!” says Mark Rappaport, concluding the fifth and final take.
It’s the first day of shooting on Impostors, a macabre comedy by the Brooklyn-born independent filmmaker. The movie, Rappaport’s fifth feature, is being shot in his loft in the SoHo section of Manhattan, and spirits are running high. A young crew of about twenty persons — fifteen of them on the regular payroll — are clustered on one side of the loft.… Read more »
This essay, published in Film Comment in September-October 1976, represented one particular round in a series of initiatives and polemical forays I conducted on behalf of Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, which included getting it into the Edinburgh International Film Festival that year (and then writing about that festival at length in the Winter 1976/77 issue of Sight and Sound). One part of my effort was to engage the attention and interest of writers associated with the English theoretical magazine Screen, and this portion of the effort mainly failed: the principal response of the Screen writers who bothered to see it, as I recall in terms of their comments to me, was that it was basically warmed-over Cocteau and/or Franju — a reaction that I consider now, as I did then, to be rather obtuse and philistine. On the other hand, I no longer relish Duelle with quite the same fervor that I did at the time, even though there are certain moments in Jim Jarmusch’s very pleasurable The Limits of Control, that remind me of it. (Nowadays I prefer L’amour fou, both versions of Out 1, and Celine and Julie Go Boating — for me the peaks of Rivette’s work to date.) This article may be somewhat dated in other respects as well, but I still rather like the way that I use Barthes, the Tower of Babel, and Patti Smith.… Read more »
A chapter from Film: The Front Line 1983. — J.R.
Born in Konstanz, Germany, 1942.
What do I know about Ulrike Ottinger? Not much, but enough to make me want to know more. Admittedly, I’ve seen only her last two features. And on the basis of a single viewing about a year ago, Freak Orlando is a decidedly uneven film, definitely hit-or-miss in its overall thrust, and conceivably full of as many misses as hits. Like it or not, though, the film can be regarded as a kind of climactic summa of the performance-oriented European avant-garde film, from Carmelo Bene to Philippe Garrel to Marc’O to the collaborations of Pedro Portbella* to Christopher Lee – to cite the names of four leading figures of excitement and interest in this category whose careers I lost track of after moving back to the U.S. from Europe in 1977. Insofar as Freak Orlando can be regarded as the Monterey Pop or Woodstock of the European avant-garde performance movement, it’s a valuable and fascinating document to have, and one therefore has reason to look forward to its release in this country…Ticket of No Return, on the other hand, strikes me as a fully achieved work — one of the few true masterpieces of the contemporary German avant-garde cinema – making Ottinger an obligatory inclusion for this book.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, Vol. 43, No. 512. — J.R.
De Naede Faergen (They Caught the Ferry)
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Dist–Guild Sound & Vision. p.c–Ministeriernes Filmudvalg. sc–Carl Th. Dreyer. Derived from a work by Johannes V. Jensen. ph–Jørgen Roos. ed–Carl Th. Dreyer. sd–Jorgen Roos. l.p–(not credited). 408 ft. 11 mins. (16 mm.).
Behind the credits, accompanied by the ominous sound of three beats on a kettledrum, a ferry arrives at the Assens-Aarøsund landing. After some reverse-angle cuts between ferry and landing, a motorcyclist on board asks the captain about the next departure of the ferry on the other side of the island. ToId that it leaves in forty-five minutes but that he’ll never make it — the other ferry being seventy-five kilometres away — the man replies, “I must get it” and, with a female companion clinging to his waist, drives off the boat behind a line of other cyclists.
He quickly accelerates from 40 to 80 km. per hour, and his race down a country road is illustrated by moving shots which alternate his viewpoint (passing trees, close-ups of speedometer) with ‘objective’ angles (shots behind or ahead of his bike, close-ups of wheels).… Read more »
This review from the August 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin may represent my most exhaustive (and exhausting) attempt to extend the one-paragraph review format of that magazine almost to the point of infinity. – J.R.
Vampyr: Die Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of David Gray)
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Cert — A. dist -– Cinegate. p.c –- Tobis-Klangfilm-France (Berlin-Paris)/Dreyer Filmproduktion (Paris). p –- Carl Th. Dreyer, Baron Nicolas de Gunsburg. asst. d –- Ralph Holm, Éliane Tayara, Preben Birck. sc -– Carl Th. Dreyer, Christen Jul. Inspired by the collection of stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. ph -– Rudolph Maté, Louis Née. ed –- Carl Th. Dreyer. a.d –- Hermann Warm, Hans Bitman, Cesare Silvagni. m -– Wolfgang Zeller. English titles -– Herman G. Weinberg. sd -– Hans Bittman. Post-synchronisation -– Paul Falkenberg. l.p -– Julian West [Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg] (David Gray), Henriette Gérard (Marguerite Chopin), Sybille Schmitz (Léone), Renée Mandel (Gisèle), Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor), Jan Hieronimko (Doctor), Jane Mora (Nurse), Albert Bras and A. Babanini (Servants at the Manor).… Read more »
My column for the June 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
Although we often collapse the two into a single entity, it’s important to acknowledge that criticism and critical taste are far from identical or interchangeable. It’s instructive that Godard today considers Truffaut more important as a critic than as a filmmaker, and equally provocative to learn from both Dudley Andrew’s biography of André Bazin and the fascinating, lengthy interview with Resnais in Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s 2006 book Alain Resnais: Liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds (Cahiers du Cinéma) that Resnais originally functioned as Bazin’s mentor on film history during the German Occupation, especially on the subject of silent cinema, when he used to carry his 9.5 mm projector on his bicycle in order to show silent movies at La Maison des Lettres on rue des Ursulines, and Bazin, still fresh from the provinces, hadn’t yet encountered silent films in general or the early films of Fritz Lang in particular.
Unlike Bazin and Truffaut, Resnais was of course never a critic. Yet his critical taste was clearly every bit as central to his own films as Truffaut’s or Godard’s critical tastes and positions were to their own oeuvres.… Read more »
MUBI’s posting of this film has prompted me to repost the following. — J.R.
Like so much (too much) of contemporary cinema, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is at once entertaining and reprehensible. Alternating between the extravagant commentaries of five analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Julie Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner), it refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just “film criticism” and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery (assuming that one can distinguish between the two) -– that is, uncritically and derisively, with irony as the perpetual escape hatch. Thus we’re told, in swift succession, that The Shining is basically about the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, Kubrick’s apology for having allegedly faked all the Apollo moon-landing footage, the Outlook Hotel’s “impossible” architecture, and/or Kubrick’s contemplation of his own boredom and/or genius. Images from the movie and/or digital alterations of same are made to verify or ridicule these various premises, or maybe both, and past a certain point it no longer matters which of these possibilities are more operative.… Read more »
My column for the Summer 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
J.P. Sniadecki’s feature-length The Iron Ministry (2014), available on DVD from Icarus Films, is by far the best non-Chinese documentary I’ve seen about contemporary mainland China. (Just for the record, the best Chinese documentary on the same general subject that I’ve seen is Yu-Shen Su’s far more unorthodox—and woefully still unavailable — 2012 Man Made Place; a couple of snippets are available on YouTube and Vimeo.) Filmed over three years on Chinese trains, it’s full of revelatory moments, and not only in its surprisingly outspoken interviews: the non-narrative stretches, which compare quite favourably with the more abstract portions of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), are pretty stunning as well. Skip this one at your peril.
Second Run’s very first Blu-ray — Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2015) — is gorgeously transferred, and has splendid extras: Costa’s 2010 short film O nosso homem, essays by Jonathan Romney and Chris Fujiwara, an introduction to Horse Money’s introduction by Thom Andersen, and Laura Mulvey’s conversation with Costa at London’s ICA. The extras on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) are too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that just about every intertextual reference in this cherished object are teased out in one way or another.… Read more »
KISS ME, STUPID, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Wilder, with Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, and Cliff Osmond (1964, 126 min.)
A fresh look at one of Billy Wilder’s most underrated films clarifies for me two essential facts about it for the first time: (1) It seems likely that this masterpiece mainly received a C or “condemned” rating from the Legion of Decency because of its scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of American small-town life and the corruption of big-time media, not because of its depiction of sex per se. (2) Wilder’s return to the American Southwest after his earlier Ace in the Hole (1951) is in fact a return to these very same topics, seen with a no less jaundiced eye — something Wilder was apparently fully aware of, as signaled by a virtual quote of a shot from the previous film: Dean Martin in the driving seat of a car being towed replicates Kirk Douglas in the driving seat of his own car being towed.
If Robert Osborne on TCM is to be believed, the previous C rating bestowed by the Legion of Decency prior to Kiss Me, Stupid was eight years before — which would make it Baby Doll (1956).… Read more »
Published by Santa Teresa Press (in Santa Barbara) in 1994 (twenty years later, this book is still available on Amazon) and reprinted in Discovering Orson Welles in 2007, along with the following introductory comments:
Critic Dave Kehr once said to me that encountering The Cradle Will Rock after The Big Brass Ring was a bit like encountering The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane. I appreciate what he meant — especially when it comes to this script’s nostalgia and its sharp autocritique compared to the more narcissistic and irreverent surface of its predecessor. But I hasten to add that this script, unlike The Big Brass Ring, is more interesting for its autobiographical elements than for its literary qualities. Perhaps for the same reason, writing an afterword about it was more difficult.
On the subject of Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock,I’d like to quote excerpts from an article of mine that appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 24, 1999:
For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937.… Read more »
As far as I know, this is the only long review of mine for the Chicago Reader that isn’t on the Reader‘s web site, and consequently it wasn’t on this site, either, until I retyped it for inclusion here. It appeared in their May 17, 1999 issue. It’s also one of the pieces selected and translated into Farsi by Saeed Khamoush for the unauthorized collection of some of my Reader pieces that was published in Iran back in 2001. – J.R.
STAR WARS: EPISODE 1—THE
Directed and written by George Lucas
With Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor,
Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid,
Pernilia August, Ahmed Best, Frank Oz,
Samuel L. Jackson, and Ray Park.
Directed by Roger Nygard
The big question about the Star War series, and The Phantom Menace in particular, isn’t how much you like it but whether you love it. The issue is above all generational, and only secondarily a matter of aesthetic or ideological choices.
If you’re male and were born around 1989, the chances of you loving The Phantom Menace seem fairly high. If you’re male or female and were born around 1967, the chances of you loving it are probably almost as high.… Read more »
From the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News — only slightly tweaked almost three decades later. –J.R.
Douglas Sirk in Germany: Four Films
Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 15-18
It must have been in the late spring of 1959 — surrounded mainly be weeping matrons at a matinee of Imitation of Life in Florence, Alabama — that I first tangled with the considerable talents of major melodramatist Douglas Sirk. At the time, these were focused on the task of encouraging white middle-class segregationists and racists to weep bittersweet buckets over the sentimental death of an Aunt Jemima figure named Annie (Juanita Hall), a nas ole cullid lady (as those matrons would have put it) who — unlike her sexy and evil light-skinned, teenage daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) — knew her place, accepted her color as a necessary cross to bear, and then died of a broken heart when Sarah Jane rejected her.
Bearing in mind this particular praxis of Sirk’s last Hollywood film, I’ve always felt just a little querulous when armchair Marxists in London have patiently explained to me that Sirk was actually a Brechtian subversive back in the ’50s, boring from within — subtly and secretly criticizing our American values.… Read more »