Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2018. — J.R.
A subtle, complex follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, Psycho, his 50th feature (1963) is quite different — and not just because this apocalyptic fantasy is his most abstract film, as Dave Kehr has noted, but also because his shift from black and white to widescreen color works in tandem with the abstraction. The same abstraction extends to cosmic long shots worthy of Abbas Kiarostami that seem posed more as philosophical questions than as rhetorical answers. And as soon as we notice that the flippant heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), has been color-coordinated, thanks to her blond hair and green dress, with the two lovebirds in their cage that she’s bringing to Bodega Bay as part of an elaborately flirtatious grudge match waged against a disapproving stranger, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), it’s already clear that Hitchcock has something metaphysical as well as physical in mind.
What keeps his scare show so unnervingly unpredictable is that the explanation we crave for why birds have started to attack humanity is never forthcoming. (Hitchcock said in interviews that The Birds was about “complacency,” without spelling out whether he meant that of his characters, his audience, or both.) What we get instead, as one possible parallel to Psycho, is murderous violence as an arbitrary dramatic premise.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.
Denzel Washington (Cry Freedom) stars in this new British thriller by Martin Stellman about a black veteran who returns from nine years in the British army to encounter poverty and racism in London. A West Indian by birth, he finds that he is unable to renew his passport because of a new law, and a series of other misfortunes and injustices gradually force him against his will into a life of crime. Effective radical agitprop, relentless in its anger, this film is more outspoken about contemporary racism in England than any other feature that comes to mind; the story is structured a bit like a Warner Brothers thriller of the 30s, and the script (by Stellman and Trix Worrell), direction, and performances all give it a powerful impact. With George Baker, Amanda Redman, Dorian Healy, Geff Francis, and Bruce Payne. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 1991). — J.R.
THE SHELTERING SKY ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci
With Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, Eric Vu-An, and Paul Bowles.
Ever since the 60s the adjective “personal” has been frequently used in relation to commercial movies, and it has almost always been used as an expression of praise. As a reaction to the relatively “impersonal” directorial styles of a Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, or David Lean, the celebration of the “personal” styles of directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock ushered in a critical bias that favored the director’s subjective involvement in his or her material — an involvement that is often autobiographical in its implications (such as Ford’s feelings for the Irish and the military, or Hitchcock’s sexual repression and his fear of imprisonment) — over the self-effacement that has often been regarded as both the norm and the ideal of conventional filmmaking.
But in order to argue that the films of supposedly “invisible” stylists like Hawks were highly personal, many auteurists wound up overstating their case, arguing in effect that any director with a discernible “personality” was automatically better than any director without one.… Read more »
Commissioned by the University of Chicago Press and written in September 2016; published in November 2017. — J.R.
For all the differences between the history of cinema and the history of the Internet, one disturbing point they have in common is the degree to which our canons in both film and film criticism are determined by historical accidents. Thus we’ve canonized F.W. Murnau’s third American film, City Girl (1930), ever since a copy was belatedly discovered in the 1970s, but not his second, The Four Devils (1928), because no known print of that film survives. Similarly, we canonize Josef von Sternberg’s remarkable The Docks of New York (1928), but not the lost Sternberg films that preceded and followed it, The Dragnet (1928) and The Case of Lena Smith (1929). And it’s no less a matter of luck that all my long reviews for the Chicago Reader, published between 1987 and 2008, are available online, but none of Dave Kehr’s long reviews for the same publication, published between 1974 and 1986—a body of work that, together with Kehr’s columns for Chicago magazine in the 1980s, strikes me as being the most remarkable extended stretch of auteurist criticism in American journalism.
I hasten to add that, unlike the missing films of Murnau and Sternberg, Kehr’s writing for the Reader and Chicago has never been lost.… Read more »
This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 17, 1990). — J.R.
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
Directed and written by Allan Moyle
With Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, Annie Ross, Cheryl Pollak, and Andy Romano.
It’s hard to talk seriously about the 60s today, because TV and a lot of assholes have almost ruined it. When I taught film courses in southern California in the mid-80s, I was appalled to discover that college students thought of the 60s as a traumatic, troubled period — a time characterized by young people losing their way, freaking out on bad acid trips, denouncing their parents, getting killed in Vietnam, and protesting the way American society was being run and abjectly failing at it. For students of the 80s, the golden age was the repressive, bland, stultifying 50s, when staunch family and property values were both firmly in place — the mythical past that Uncle Ronnie and all his furry friends comfortingly evoked.
Many of these students didn’t realize — and some of them still don’t — that the 60s was a more prosperous period than the 50s, economically as well as spiritually. Some people actually had fun at demonstrations and on hallucinogens, and they often accomplished and learned important things in the process.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). — J.R.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.
Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.
Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons. When something goes wrong during a hit, Louie’s gang decides to wipe out Ghost Dog, who retaliates in order to defend himself.… Read more »
From The Soho News (October 29, 1980). — J.R.
What attracted me to sign up in advance for a symposium called “Television/Society/Art,” put on at the Kitchen and NYU last weekend, was the opportunity to see and hear some old friends, encounter some new people, and maybe even get some new ideas (about what I should be reading and seeing, if nothing else): a bargain for the $10 registration fee.
Presented by the Kitchen and the American Film Institute and organized by Ron Clark, a senior instructor at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, the three-day event inevitably threatened a few dead spots — particularly to a virtual videophobe like me, who largely regards the medium as a kind of wicker basket holding a few magazines that I’m neither interested in reading nor quite ready to throw away. On the other hand, the fact that some of the invited panelists seemed to share the same bias made me suspect that I’d feel right at home.
The symposium got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with the presentation of a lumbering keynote paper entitled “Television Images, Codes and Messages” by Douglas Kellner, a teacher of philosophy at the University of Texas’s Austin campus.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1995). — J.R.
Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject)
Directed and written by Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Luc Godard
With Godard and Miéville.
A 48-minute video that’s premiering in Chicago ten years after it was made, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject) is so far in advance of most films and videos made today about the essential properties of both media that it makes not so much Chicago but contemporary Western culture feel like an intellectual backwater. It was commissioned by and originally broadcast on England’s Channel Four, and although most of Godard and Miéville’s talk is in French and subtitled, the funding source is acknowledged in several ways: by the video’s English title, by English intertitles throughout, by many stills from Hollywood pictures (including Frankenstein, Scarface, Rear Window, and the 1948 Joan of Arc) employed as punctuation, by an early sequence of Godard speaking in English on the phone about business arrangements for his film King Lear, and by a brief but moving exchange in English between Godard and Miéville that concludes the work.… Read more »
This was published at the end of my first year at the Reader, in their Christmas issue. –J.R.
BROADCAST NEWS *** (A must-see)
Directed and written by James L. Brooks
With Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, and Jack Nicholson.
WALL STREET ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stone and Stanley Weiser
With Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Terence Stamp, Hal Holbrook, and Sylvia Miles.
Both Broadcast News and Wall Street score as punchy, energetic movies that are designed to feel as contemporary as possible without taking place in the literal present, and both pivot around a moral reckoning that accompanies economic cutbacks -– as if to remind us that this country’s Reagan-inspired spending spree, which tripled our trillion-dollar national debt, seems to be drawing to a fearful close. Apart from offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of their all-encompassing, hothouse professional turfs, both movies are built around the mise en scene of a moral crisis that splits the major characters apart –- each one charting a mutual seduction that leads to recriminations and the characters isolated in opposing moral camps. Yet the undisputed effectiveness of these films as entertainment seems at least partially predicated on fudging or at least mystifying the moral issues that they are bold enough to raise.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, June 20, 2003. The posthumous Schuller-conducted premiere of Epitaph, incidentally, alluded to below, is now available on DVD, and is warmly recommended. — J.R.
Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Don McGlynn.
The sheer impossibility of encompassing jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-’79) in a single film limits Don McGlynn’s ambitious 1997 documentary, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, from the outset. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it — it’s playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Mingus’s second wife, Celia Mingus Zaentz, will lead a discussion after the June 27 screening — but if you don’t already know something about the man’s music this may not be the ideal place to start. I’d recommend instead one of his best early albums — The Clown, Tijuana Moods, East Coasting, Mingus Dynasty, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (the best one with Eric Dolphy), or Mingus at Monterey.
No single book has succeeded in doing full justice to Mingus either. Maybe it’s because he had a genius for straddling musical categories such as traditional, modern, avant-garde, jazz, and classical (as Gunther Schuller points out in one of this film’s interviews, Mingus studied Arnold Schoenberg’s music in his teens, during the 30s, when few people here were familiar with it).… Read more »
Written for the 11th issue of the bilingual, online La Furia Umana (January-March 2012) to introduce a Joe Dante dossier. — J.R.
One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.
Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1996). — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Charles Burnett
Written by Bill Cain
With Carl Lumbly, Lorraine Toussaint, Beau Bridges, Allison Jones, Bill Cobbs, Kathleen York, Gabriel Casseus, Tom Nowicki, and Joel Thomas Traywick.
Words are freedom, old man. ‘Cause that’s all that slavery’s made of: words. Laws, deeds, passes: all they are is words. White folks got all the words, and they mean to keep them. You get some words for yourself and you be free. — the character Nightjohn
I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had. But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him because he isn’t a hustler, he’s never had a mainstream success, and all his work to date has been difficult to pigeonhole. Born in Mississippi in 1943, though raised since infancy in Los Angeles, he was one of several key black filmmakers — including Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodbury — to attend UCLA’s graduate film program in the 60s and 70s. His first film to circulate widely, the remarkable 1977 Killer of Sheep, won prizes in 1981 at Berlin and Sundance (before it was known as Sundance) and was one of the first titles selected for the Library of Congress’s Historic Film Registry.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 496). Blythe Danner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, where I had the privilege of seeing what a gifted actress she already was (I remember especially her performance of one of the lead roles in Jean Genet’s The Maids) and the pleasure of accompanying her once or twice on the piano when she performed as a jazz singer (in particular, on “‘Round Midnight”). — J.R.
U.SA., 1973Director: Sidney Lumet
Bastrop, Texas. The lives of three characters, narrated by each in
turn. 1925, Gid (Anthony Perkins): Gid and Johnny (Beau Bridges)
are friends whocompete for the favors of Molly (Blythe Danner),
who likes themboth. When Gidproposes to Molly, she replies
that she’d rather have sex with him for its own sake, not as part
of a marriage contract, and invites himto join her in a nude swim,
but he refuses. She goes to a dance with Eddie (Conrad Fowkes),
another local boy, and Johnny picks a fight with him. Gid sleeps
with her for the first time, and is shocked to discover she isn’t a
virgin. On a train to the Panhandle to sell his father’s cattle, Gid
attacks Johnny for sleeping with Molly and not proposing to her, but
then discovers that Eddie slept with her first.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977. — J.R.
Director: John Guillermin
The Petrox Oil Company sends an expedition by ship into Micronesia, hoping to find petroleum deposits on uncharted Skull Island. Group leader Fred Wilson and scientist Bagley believe that the vapor surrounding the island may come from oil, but Princeton University paleethnologist Jack Prescott — a stowaway — suggests animal respiration, and talks of ancient accounts of Kong, a prehistoric monster. Dwan, a prospective starlet and sole survivor of an explosion that destroyed a film producer’s boat en route to Hong Kong, is picked up before the ship reaches the island. Ashore, Wilson, Bagley, Jack and Dwan come upon an enormous wall and a native ritual in which a girl is about to be sacrificed. That night, as Dwan is about to keep a sexual rendezvous with Jack, she is kidnapped by natives and offered as an altar gift to Kong, a forty-foot ape who arrives and carries her away. While Jack penetrates the jungle with a rescue team, Wilson learns from Bagley that the island’s oil deposits won’t be usable for another 10,000 years, and begins to think of capturing Kong for use in Petrox publicity.… Read more »