Monthly Archives: May 2018

Two-Lane Blacktop

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

two-lane_blacktop_poster-2-xl

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

Two-Lane_Blacktop-1971-MSS-067Read 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.
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.

/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/when-pigs-fly.jpg

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 »

Love in the Time of Thatcherism [HIGH HOPES]

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

high-hopes-title-still

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.

HighHopes-kitchen

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 »

LE SECRET (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976 (vol. 43, no. 512). — J.R.

LeSecret-poster

Secret, Le (The Secret)

France/ltaly, 1974

Director: Robert Enrico

LeSecretStrangling a guard, David Daguerre escapes from his cell in an unidentified building, and thumbs a ride to Paris. He borrows money from a former lover and takes a train to the country, where he meets Thomas Berthelot while looking for a place to hide. Thomas and his lover Julia Vandal invite David to stay over at their house and he accepts. But he refuses to specify who is pursuing him and why, intimating only that he witnessed something he wasn’t supposed to, was confined and tortured as a result, and that he (and now the couple) will be killed if ‘they’ find him again. Although Julia is reluctant to keep him on as a guest, Thomas insists on protecting him as a kind of antidote to his uneventful life. even when David steals their revolver. After deciding to leave, David is held back by the arrival of several soldiers, although they later prove to be on maneuvers. Thomas then suggests driving David to Marmizan and taking him in his boat to Spain, and over Julia’s protests they all set out in the couple’s camper.… Read more »

Mommie Dearest

From the Chicago Reader (August 23, 2002). — J.R.

mommie-dearest

In spite of its reputation, and thanks in part to Faye Dunaway’s remarkable performance as Joan Crawford, this 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir about her driven, abusive mother is arguably too good to qualify as camp, even if it begins (and fitfully proceeds) like a horror film. Director Frank Perry, who collaborated with three others (including producer Frank Yablans) on the script, gives it all a certain crazed conviction. With Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, and, as Louis B. Mayer, Howard da Silva. PG, 129 min. (JR)

tumblr_mxzregAwXA1rf540bo1_500Read more »

The Mattei Affair (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 497). — J.R.

Caso Mattei, Il (The Mattei Affair) Italy, 1972
Director: Francesco Rosi


27 October, 1962. The private plane of Enrico Mattei, president of ENI (Ente Nazional Idrocarburi), flying from Sicily to Milan, crashes in Bascape, killing the pilot Bertuzzi, the Time-Life reporter McHale and Mattei himself. An account follows of both the investigation into the causes of this accident (a mystery that remains unsolved) and of Mattei’s public career, revealing that diverseindividuals and organizations (from the Mafia to the CIA) had reasons for wanting to see him dead. His controversial position grew out of his efforts to use his state oil organization, AGIP, to compete with private individuals, and to deal with Third World oil-producing countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) in terms more advantageous than the 50-50 arrangement offered by the major oil companies. This project began in April 1946, when a small methane deposit was discovered in the village of Caviaga, and Mattei decided to exaggerate and exploit its value as a coal substitute in order to create his organization and gain an economic and political foothold. In the investigation running parallel to a re-enactment of his career (the latter culminating in his visit on the day of his death to Gagliano, Sicily, where he is acclaimed as a popular hero), Mauro De Marro, a Sicilian journalist reconstructing the last day of Mattei’s life for the purposes of the present film, suddenly disappears, apparently kidnapped — another unsolved mystery.… Read more »

A Time to Lie (CROSS MY HEART)

From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.

MSDCRMY EC002

CROSS MY HEART

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Armyan Bernstein

Written by Armyan Bernstein and Gail Parent

With Martin Short, Annette O’Toole, Paul Reiser, and Joanna Kerns.

Like a 3-D movie, in which the illusion of depth is utterly dependent on the spectator’s rigidly foursquare frontal viewing position, Armyan Bernstein’s Cross My Heart is flat and fuzzy around the edges; tilt your head slightly, and the roundness of the characters vanishes immediately. But because the characters holding the center of the screen are nearly always Martin Short and Annette O’Toole — consummate pros commanding and regulating the space between and around them like two generals at a summit conference — there’s rarely any reason to look aside; our attention is riveted.

For all their charisma, one wouldn’t have thought O’Toole or Short capable of such mastery on the basis of their separate and earlier outings. Despite his frequent brilliance on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, mainly as a parodist of narcissistic TV and movie personalities ranging from Dick Cavett to Jerry Lewis (by way of Katharine Hepburn), Short was both literally and figuratively dwarfed by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos, although admittedly all three amigos were mainly stranded by the anemic comic material.… Read more »

Cold Water

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2002). — J.R.

L'EAU_FROIDE

coldwater

Not long before embarking on his comedy Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas directed this powerful 1994 feature about doomed teenage love as part of the excellent French TV series All the Boys and Girls in Their Time, in which various filmmakers (including André Téchiné, Chantal Akerman, and Claire Denis) dramatized stories set during their teenage years, scoring them with the pop music of the period. Assayas’s contribution, perhaps the most affecting in the whole series, takes place on the outskirts of Paris in 1972. (Having lived in France during that period, I can report that his grasp of its countercultural lifestyles is uncanny.) Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet are letter-perfect as two 16-year-old delinquents from broken homes — the former periodically sent to an asylum by her Scientologist mother and boyfriend, the latter raised by a single father (New Wave regular Laszlo Szabo) — and when they run away together, one can’t imagine that they have anywhere else to go. The beautiful and heartbreaking plot culminates in a party at and around a country house, and Assayas’s sustained treatment of this event — the raging bonfire, the dope, the music and dancing — truly catches you by the throat.… Read more »