Monthly Archives: May 2018

COCKFIGHTER (1974 review)

This is excerpted from my “Paris-London Journal” in the November-December 1974 Film Comment, written in August when I was starting work at the British Film Institute after living for five years in Paris.

I can’t recall now whether it was this review or my inclusion of Cockfighter on my ten-best list in Sight and Sound — or could it have been both? — that led eventually to Charles Willeford sending me a note of thanks, along with his a copy of his self-published book A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, a short account of his own hemorrhoid operation. Not knowing Willeford’s work at the time — today I’m a big fan, especially of his four late Hoke Mosley novels — I’m sorry to say that I didn’t keep this book, which undoubtedly has become a very scarce collector’s item.

But first, before reprinting the Film Comment review, here is my capsule review of Cockfighter for the Chicago Reader, written almost three decades later and published in mid-August 2003: “Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop).Read more »

Two-Lane Blacktop

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 2001). — J.R.

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This exciting existentialist road movie by Monte Hellman, with a swell script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and my favorite Warren Oates performance, looks even better now than it did in 1971, although it was pretty interesting back then as well. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the drivers of a supercharged ’55 Chevy and Oates is the owner of a new GTO (these nameless characters are in fact identified only by the cars they drive); they meet and agree to race from New Mexico to the east coast, though side interests periodically distract them, including various hitchhikers (among them Laurie Bird). (GTO hilariously assumes a new identity every time he picks up a new passenger, rather like the amorphous narrator in Wurlitzer’s novel Nog.) The movie starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract — it’s unsettling but also beautiful. 101 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown; film scholar Hank Sartin will introduce the film and give a lecture after the screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, February 27, 6:00, 312-443-3737.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Gee, Dad, It’s a Wurtlitzer (Review of SLOW FADE)

This book review appeared in the December 14, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Reader. For more on Wurlitzer, readers are invited to check out my reviews of Walker and Candy Mountain in the Chicago Reader, both available on this site, as well as a more comprehensive piece about his work as a novelist and screenwriter, published in Written By.  — J.R.



Slow Fade

By Rudolph Wurlitzer

Alfred A. Knopf: $13.95

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

The difference between the art novel and the Hollywood novel can be as vast as the reaches between the East coast and the West coast, and any effort to wed the two in a shotgun marriage is liable to blow up in one’s face. Slow Fade, while an exceptionally and deceptively easy read, is far from being an easy book — which is one of the best things about it. That’s probably what Michael Herr means by “dangerous” in his jacket-blurb patter: “Slow Fade comes out of the space between real life and the movies and closes it up for good. A great book: beautiful, funny, and dangerous.” Any novel that begins with one character losing an eye and ends up with another losing his index finger is bound to be fraught with scary Oedipal tensions, and Slow Fade goes out of its way to make the most out of them.… Read more »

Gold Diggers of 1953: Howard Hawks’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.

For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. — J.R.

First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”

I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein

Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison.… Read more »

On CinemaScope (by Roland Barthes)

This is a very short and very early article by Roland Barthes, one of his “Mythologies” that remains uncollected in English, that I translated in 1982, originally so it could be run with an article of mine, “Barthes & Film: 12 Suggestions,” that I published in Sight and Sound — although it wound up not appearing there due to a lack of space. (I did, however, use some extracts from it in an article I did for the same magazine two years later about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; both of these articles are reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.) Many years later, in 1999, James Morrison asked me if he could post it on the Internet, and you can still access it, along with an essay of his about it, here. — J.R.

  1. If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can’t define Henri Chrétien’s [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects. They are, in my opinion, surprising. The broadening of the image to the dimensions of binocular vision should fatally transform the internal sensibility of the filmgoer. In what respect? The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of the great dramaturgies.
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The Last Filmmaker

From the January 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Films by Robert Bresson

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, directors, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create….Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling.  — Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography

Among the people of my acquaintance who know a lot about film, most — perhaps all — consider Robert Bresson the greatest living filmmaker. Because he’s in his early 90s, the possibility of his making another movie — his last was L’argent (“Money”) in 1983 — is remote. (Most biographical sources place his birthdate in 1907, but reliable informants have told me that this very private individual shaved at least a couple of years off his age some time ago, apparently to extend his credibility as a working director with insurance companies.)

In spite of its importance, his work may have difficulty surviving, because most of it doesn’t “translate” to video. The reasons are complex, but for starters I would suggest that two central factors involved are sound presence and the framed image.… Read more »

From Bowles to the Bowery: Sara Driver in Hyper Drive

Written for a Sara Driver retrospective at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, held in early November 2011. — J.R.

All four of Sara Driver’s works belong to what the French call la fantastique — a conflation of fantasy with surrealism, science fiction, comics, horror, sword-and-sorcery, and the supernatural that stretches all the way from art cinema to exploitation by way of Hollywood. But it’s hard to find many other stylistic affinities between them, and only a few thematic overlaps. A 48-minute piece of Poelike horror set inside the mind of a schizophrenic in rural New Jersey (You Are Not I, 1981), closely adapted from a Paul Bowles story; a pulpy, scary feature-length fantasy about Oriental curses set over a few blocks in lower Manhattan (Sleepwalk, 1986); a gentle, nonscary comedy partly inspired by the whimsical 1937 Hollywood feature Topper, about the encounter between a jazz musician and two female ghosts in a small seaport town (When Pigs Fly, 1993); and a short documentary about the history and diverse arcane local details of Driver’s own neighborhood (The Bowery, 1994), which also served as the setting for the very different Sleepwalk.

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That doesn’t mean that there aren’t various connections between these works going well beyond the recurrence of various collaborators.… Read more »

An Altman [on A WEDDING]

From the September-October 1978 issue of Film Comment. — J.R.

An Altman

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman’s behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again -– articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors’ bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.

The execution of these pirouettes has never presented critics with much of a problem, for the level of craft is pretty consistent. (Some gags are funnier than others, but all get the same careful/offhand inflection.) What remains a bone of contention is their justification, which shifts more discernibly from film to film. M*A*S*H’s was that war could be fun while Brewster McCloud’s said that escape was impossible; Images and 3 Women depended on shopworn arthouse symbols while Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians put the American flag to comparable use.… 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 »

Tashlinesque

The following was commissioned by and published in Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz, Éditions du festival international du film de Locarno, 1994. — J.R.

“According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director because he has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You or The Awful Truth. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one. In fifteen years’ time, people will realize that The Girl Can’t Help It served then — that is, today  —  as a fountain of youth from which the cinema now — that is, in the future — has drawn fresh inspiration ….To sum up, Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can’t Help It and Design For Living, but a difference in kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘‘It’s Tashlinesque’.

Jean-Luc Godard’s review of Hollywood or Bust in the 73rd issue of Cahiers du cinéma (July 1957) is founded on a frank prophecy, only a small part of which has come true.… Read more »

Badlands (1974 review)

This appeared in the November 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The ironic aftermath of the final sentence in my review is that another five years would pass before the release of Malick’s second feature, and then 20 more before the release of his third. — J.R.

Badlands

U.S.A., 1973                                                        Director: Terrence Malick

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call the first half of Badlands a revelation -– one of the best literate examples of narrated American cinema since the early days of Welles and Polonsky. Compositions, actors, and lines interlock and click into place with irreducible economy and unerring precision, carrying us along before we have time to catch our breaths. It is probably not accidental than an early camera set-up of Kit on his garbage route recalls the framing of a neighborhood street that introduced us to the social world of Rebel Without a Cause: the doomed romanticism courted by Kit and dispassionately recounted by Holly immediately evokes the Fifties world of Nicholas Ray -– and more particularly, certain Ray-influenced (and narrated) works of Godard, like Pierrot le fou and Bande à part. Terrence Malick’s eye, narrative sense, and handling of affectless violence are all recognizably Godardian, but they flourish in a context more easily identified with Ray.… Read more »

Cult of Personality (LET’S GET LOST)

From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LET’S GET LOST ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bruce Weber.

Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.

This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker.… Read more »

Rotterdam: Fury in Akerman’s Flat [1985]

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1985). — J.R.

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With its continuing devotion to the independent and marginal, the Rotterdam Film Festival offered fewer peaks this year than last, but more than enough rolling happy valleys in between. Full-bodied retrospectives given to Jonathan Demme and Nelson Pereira dos Santos wove their way almost contrapuntally through the nine days of movies -– providing the selection with a sturdy populist backbone. Guided by the Langlois-like eclecticism and passion of director Hubert Bals, the festival virtually rebaptises every film that it shows under the banner of a relaxed, low-budget freedom that the Spielbergs and Coppolas can only dream about.

Pereira dos Santos and Demme are cases in point. From the sixteenth century (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman) to the post-nuclear future (Who Is Beta?) to the impoverished present (Rio, 40 Degrees; Vidas Secas), dos Santos’ films blend anthropological wit with neo-realist compassion. The sociological wit and Renoir-like warmth of Demme exude a comparable bias towards the downtrodden. Oddly enough, the two sensibilities nearly come together in the very different pop/folk musicals Estrada da Vida (1980) and Stop Making Sense (1984). Respectively a docu-drama about wall painters who make it big as country singers in Sao Paulo, and an on-stage concert performance by the Talking Heads, both films make striking use of flat colour backdrops to objectify and enhance the cultural clout of the performers.… Read more »

Love in the Time of Thatcherism [HIGH HOPES]

From the Chicago Reader (April 21, 1988). — J.R.

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HIGH HOPES

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Mike Leigh

With Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Dore, Philip Jackson, Heather Tobias, Leslie Manville, David Bamber, Jason Watkins, and Judith Scott.

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One of the most interesting things about Mike Leigh’s up-to-the-minute bulletin from Thatcher England is its title. Because this wonderful English movie is partly a comedy, and because it’s very much about the way that Londoners live nowadays, one would assume a title like High Hopes is ironic. Among most of my English friends, the expectations currently expressed about their country’s future couldn’t be much lower; and at first glance, there’s nothing in this movie to contradict their pessimism.

But take a second look at Leigh’s movie — which is sharp and funny and broad enough to warrant it — and you might find some reason for revising this opinion. England is after all a country of survivors, and one of the best ways of surviving in extreme situations (say, the London blitz) is to assume the worst and start from there. That’s what the leading characters and heroes of High Hopes do, a very charismatic, funky post-hippie couple named Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen).… Read more »

The Greatest Living Soviet Filmmaker

The following was published in the Chicago Reader on March 25, 1988. Criterion’s exquisite new edition of The Color of Pomegranates (see below) has prompted this reposting, even though a good many of the details, including the title, are now out of date. — J.R.

TheColorofPomegranates

THE FILMS OF SERGEI PARADJANOV

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

There are few people of genius in the cinema; look at Bresson, Mizoguchi, Dovzhenko, Paradjanov, Bunuel: not one of them could be confused with anyone else. An artist of that calibre follows one straight line, albeit at great cost; not without weakness or even, indeed, occasionally being farfetched; but always in the name of the one idea, the one conception. –- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

After 15 years of enforced inactivity, the greatest living Soviet filmmaker is finally back at work again, but it’s astonishing how little we still know about him––about his art, his life, or even his name. You won’t find him in Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia or in the indexes of books by Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffman, or John Simon (among others), and as far as I know, no one anywhere has ever written a book or monograph about him.

Roughly the first half of his oeuvre, made between 1958 and 1962, has never been exported.… Read more »