An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.
If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.
One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Dudley Nichols
With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.
A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.
Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.
I only half agree with Gunning.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1988). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Joel Oliansky
With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, and Damon Whitaker.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons
Written by Gary Giddins.
Two telling documents that we have about Charlie Parker, both from the early 50s:
(1) During a live radio broadcast from Birdland on March 31, 1951, there’s an electrifying moment when Parker leaps into his solo on “A Night in Tunisia,” combining cascading machine-gun volleys of notes — wailing 16th notes and dovetailing triplets — into what sound like two successive melodic somersaults, each one in a separate direction, that miraculously turn the rhythm around with shifting accents — an awesome tumble in midair over four free bars until he triumphantly splashes into the next chorus.
To understand the genius of that moment — a fusion of passionate acrobatics and spontaneous formal patterning — it might help to detect the evidence of rage that one hears just before the number begins. Symphony Sid Torin, an obnoxiously loquacious disc jockey, has been blathering at length about “Round Midnight,” the previous number played by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, which he has repeatedly called “Round About Midnight.” He is recounting a long, self-serving anecdote about Billie Holiday when Gillespie plaintively bleats out, “Let me play my number!” Momentarily coming to his senses, Sid turns to Parker and says, “What we gonna do, Bird?… Read more »
Commissioned for a 2011 collection in French devoted to the work of Marylène Negro. My friend Nicole Brenez, who engineered this commission and who translated this piece into French, added a couple of footnotes that I’ve adapted and appropriated here. — J.R.
“I don’t believe in a cinema of literary narrative,” Abbas Kiarostami says in Around Five (2005), “but I don’t believe that cinema can exist without telling a story.” He elucidates this paradox by arguing that viewers consciously or unconsciously impose their own narratives, even on still photographs. And indeed, Roads of Kiarostami [see illustration below], a 32-minute film which Kiarostami also made in 2005, largely consists of imposing his own narratives on his own black-and-white photographs, all of which show roads passing through landscapes. The imposed narratives in this case consist of zooming in and out of or panning across these photographs, which are initially connected to one another by lap dissolves, and then of Kiarostami speaking in voiceover about how and why these photographs came to be taken.
To contemplate roads passing through seemingly uninhabited landscapes — which is what Kiarostami mainly does, and is what Marylène Negro does in her 22-minute film Seeland, also made in 2005 — is fundamentally to ask two different questions: what is nature with and without mankind, and what is narrative?… Read more »