From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).
To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….
“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur.… Read more »
This review was originally written for the long-defunct Canadian film magazine Take One during the same time that I was writing my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), and I’m sure that Pryor’s passionate form of self-examination and autocritique struck a very personal chord for me at the time. To contextualize this review a little further, I had recently written an angry attack on The Deer Hunter for the March issue of the same magazine, not too long after a reviewer in the Soho News had compared it favorably to Tolstoy. –J.R.
The True Auteur: Richard Pryor Live in Concert
Richard Pryor Live in Concert has nothing in particular to do with the art of cinema; it merely happens to be the densest, wisest, and most generous response to life that I’ve found this year inside a first-run movie theater. A theatrical event recorded by Bill Sargeant, the entrepreneur who similarly packaged Richard Burton’s Broadway production of Hamlet and a celebrated rock concert (The T.A.M.I. Show) fifteen years ago, and more recently filmed James Whitmore’s impersonation of Harry Truman (Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!), it is nothing more nor less than a Pryor stand-up routine given last December 28th at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California, lasting about an hour and a quarter.… Read more »
From The Soho News, October 6, 1981. I’m embarrassed to confess that over three decades later, I have no recollection at all about Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet apart from what I wrote about it, although I’m happy to report that the film is still in distribution, and available from Icarus Films. — J.R.
September 22: From a global or even a continental perspective, much of this year’s New York Film Festival belongs under the staunch division of Business as Usual. This basically means that the festival is involved in ratifying certain important discoveries (of ideas or filmmakers) that were made during the 60s or 70s, often by the very same members of the selection committee, rather than risking its self-image or self-composure in order to seek out many new challenges or talents.
This makes New York precisely the reverse of the more footloose, friendly, and unpredictable film festival in Toronto. There the specialty tends to be, rather, a flavorsome if occasionally warmed-over newness of look, sound, and/or signature: an underground movie about everyday life in the Watts ghetto (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep), a corrosive and shocking black comedy about the mourning business in Israel in relation to war memorials (Yaky Yosha’s The Vulture), a flaky German film based on a French best seller about Proust by his maid, played by Fassbinder alumnus Eva Mattes (Percy Adlon’s Celeste).… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). -– J.R.
ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY
‘Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust, Isaac Bashevis Singer ironically begins his Author’s Note, ‘I have lived for years in New York with refugees from this ordeal. I therefore hasten to say that this novel is by no means the story of the typical refugee, his life, and struggle. Like most of my fictional works, this book presents an exceptional case with unique heroes and a unique combination of events. The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates. If they fit into the general picture, it is because the exception is rooted in the rule. As a matter of fact, in literature the exception is the rule.’
Forewarned is forearmed: Singer’s tragi-comic 1972 novel is a holocaust story, but a far from typical one. Set in New York in 1949-50, it focuses on a Jewish survivor named Herman Broder who finds himself living what amounts to three separate, if sometimes distractingly overlapping lives as a direct consequence of the holocaust’s traumatic upheavals. In Coney Island, he is married to Yadwiga, his former maid in Poland, a non-Jew who kept him alive during the war by hiding him in a hayloft, and who now happily waits on him hand and foot.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 4, 1991). — J.R.
Looking over a list of all the new movies I saw in 1990, I was shocked to discover how forgettable many of them were — so much so that it took considerable effort in many cases for me to remember much more than their titles. Crazy People, Bad Influence, Opportunity Knocks, I Love You to Death, Short Time, Cadillac Man, Die Hard 2, Another 48 Hrs., Funny About Love, and Sibling Rivalry all started turning into mush as soon as I saw them. Summoning them up weeks or months later is a bit like trying to remember what I had for lunch on the days I saw them.
Maybe it’s my middle-age talking, but I think something else is involved as well. We’ve been told repeatedly over the past couple of years that the most serious problem affecting this country is not poverty, not AIDS, not violations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not a warmongering president or racism or misogyny, and not corporate and governmental skulduggery and deception — but the sale of harmful drugs. Yet during this same period Hollywood movies that will cause comparable amounts of brain damage have commanded almost as much space and attention in the media as all these problems combined.… Read more »
Based on feedback, I would guess that this article, which first appeared on June 25, 1998, is the most popular piece I’ve ever published in the Chicago Reader. (for further reflections about this piece 13 years later, go here.) Although it’s been featured as a separate item for several years on their site, I noticed that, thanks to some of their recent user-unfriendly retoolings of that site — which makes it much harder to access anything and everything, including this article — my own list of my 100 favorite films at the end of this piece and the AFI’s list of the supposedly greatest 100 films somehow got scrambled together. [Update, 7/25/09: Checking back a day later, this now appears unscrambled.] This is mainly why I’ve decided to reprint the original piece here in Notes, with only a few minor modifications. I revised and expanded this piece still further in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, where it forms the sixth chapter. (I’m sorry that the English edition of this, which has a much better jacket, has become more scarce.) One of the main additions, on page 93, is a list of the 25 titles on the AFI list that I probably would have included on my own if I hadn’t wanted to create an all-new list for polemical purposes; six of these titles are illustrated at the tail-end of this piece.… Read more »
The following interview with Alessandro Stellino has just appeared, in Italian, in filmidee #15, along with Italian translations of three of my essays –- “Entertainment as Oppression,” “In Defense of Non-Masterpieces,” and “Work and Play in the House of Fiction”. What follows is an imperfect and approximate version of this interview in its original English — respecting the structure of the Italian version, although in a few cases reconstructing my answers when I managed to lose the original emails. The interview was conducted over many emails, and I brought it to a close when I declined to reply to the question, “If you could teach a course on film history with the most possible freedom in rewriting the canon, how would your program be?”, which effectively would have obliged me to create an entire syllabus. -– J.R.
In the introduction to Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, a book that has been particularly relevant for the founding of our magazine, you state: “It’s a strange paradox that about half of my friends and colleagues think that we’re currently approaching the end of cinema as an art form and the end of film criticism as a serious activity, while the other half believe that we’re enjoying some form of exciting resurgence and renaissance in both areas”.… Read more »
Jean Grémillon remains one of the major French filmmakers whose films are most egregiously unavailable on DVD, especially when it comes to versions with English subtitles — although I’m delighted to report that Criterion’s Eclipse recently brought out three of his greatest ones, all made during the Occupation, including the two that are discussed here and Remorques. This article appeared in the October 25, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. -– J.R.
Lumière d’été **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche
With Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, and Marcel Lévesque.
Le ciel est à vous **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Written by Albert Valentin and Charles Spaak
With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt, Léonce Corne, Albert Rémy, and Robert le Fort.
A friend and colleague, critic and teacher Nicole Brenez, says that the best film criticism consists of films critiquing one another. This may sound a mite abstract, but two very different masterpieces by the great, neglected Jean Grémillon, Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous, seem to offer a concrete example of this, as a critique of Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, which I wrote about last week.… Read more »
For Film Comment (January-February 2013). — J.R.
My first experience of Vienna — Christmas 1970 with my girlfriend, another American expatriate in Paris — felt mostly like an alienating visit to the lofty tomb of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Apart from The Magic Flute at the Opera and many favorite Bruegels a few blocks away at the Kunsthistorische Museum, the city seemed to belong exclusively to locals, only one of whom I slightly knew — Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Filmmuseum — and after a brief visit to say hello to him, our only cinematic activity was attending a commercial rerun and lousy print of Torn Curtain dubbed into German.
Over a quarter of a century later, thanks to the Viennale, my next encounter with the city was entirely different, introducing me to a vibrant alternative film scene differing from, say, the Rotterdam film festival by virtue of having so many gifted local experimental filmmakers around in the immediate vicinity (among others, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Kubelka, Lisl Ponger, and Peter Tscherkassky) and a much broader age group of passionate cinephiles turning up at the screenings. The latter scene was clearly the creation of such programmers as Alexander Horwath (Kubelka’s successor at the Filmmuseum and a onetime Viennale codirector) and Hans Hurch, a former assistant to Straub-Huillet who has been the Viennale’s inspired director since 1997.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 1996). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter
Written by Elizabeth White
With Hedy Burress, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Lewis, Jenny Shimizu, Sarah Rosenberg, and Peter Facinelli.
Escape From L.A.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell
With Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, George Corraface, and Cliff Robertson.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by John Norville and Shelton
With Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson.
It’s already pretty clear from reviews and head counts that Escape From L.A. is something of a box-office loser and Tin Cup something of a winner. And although I wrote what follows about Foxfire before I knew its commercial fate, my suspicions were confirmed with such a vengeance that it’s no longer playing in Chicago (keep your eyes peeled for a second run). All three films are worth seeing — at least if you’re willing to settle for something good, not great, during the usual prefall slump — but my preference for Foxfire and Escape From L.A. over Tin Cup isn’t simple contrariness. If you go to movies in the hope of finding something beautiful or imaginative or different, as I do, there’s simply no contest.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 2003). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by David Ayer and James Ellroy
With Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, and Jamison Jones.
A curious kind of double game is being played in Dark Blue, a cop thriller that sets out to “explain” the 1992 LA riots. For a good while I sat thinking, “At last — a movie that doesn’t mince words about police corruption and racism,” for even if it’s a decade late and a bit simplistic in some of its moral positioning, the story doesn’t soft-pedal the facts. (It even prompted me to think how useful it might be if someone in Hollywood delivered a thriller about the Enron scandal — not ten years from now but before the next presidential election.) But I soon realized that the attempt to wed a comfortable genre to an uncomfortable social agenda allowed another kind of soft-pedaling to take over.
The filmmakers — Ron Shelton directing a David Ayer script based on a James Ellroy story — obviously want us to swallow a bitter pill, but traditionally Hollywood genres, even the LA cop thriller, are sweet and don’t have much of an aftertaste.… Read more »
The following was put together for Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, a huge, large-format, 448-page (+ DVD) compendium put together by Nicole Brenez (in collaboration with Michael Witt) and published by the Centre Pompidou in 2006. I’ve decided to reproduce this assembly of texts exactly as I submitted it to Nicole. — J.R. [8/23/08] Ten years later, my account of Tregenza’s filmography needs to be updated with a fourth feature, Gavagai (2016). [8/23/18]
Preface to Five Letters from Godard Apropos of Inside/Out
Not much (i.e., not enough) is known today about the three features of American independent filmmaker Rob Tregenza, all 35 millimeter—-Talking to Strangers (1988), The Arc (1991), and Inside/Out (1997)—- and possibly still less is known about Godard’s activity as a film producer, specifically of the third of these films. It isn’t even alluded to in Colin MacCabe’s detailed biography, where the fact that Godard helped to finance Straub-Huillet’s 1967 Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach equally goes unmentioned.
It also seems probable that the last film review published by Godard to date is his one of Talking to Strangers (see Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, tome 2, 1984-1998, pages 355-356, where this text is undated, though it was written specifically for the Toronto Film Festival catalogue and published there in English in September 1996).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 1994). — J.R.
** THE ACCOMPANIST
Directed by Claude Miller
Written by Miller and Luc Beraud
With Richard Bohringer, Elena Safonova, Romane Bohringer, Samuel Labarthe, Julien Rassam, Nelly Borgeaud, and Claude Rich.
“About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.” — Charles Fort, Wild Talents (1932)
The Accompanist can be viewed as a producer’s film, as a writer-director’s film, and as a quintessentially French film. As a producer’s film, it is the latest in a recent cycle of French art movies involving classical musicians and including extended stretches of classical music — in other words, as a spin-off of Tout les matins du monde and Un coeur en hiver, both huge commercial successes, especially in France. As all three films have the same producer, Jean-Louis Livi, they can be regarded as “Livi films” rather than as the discrete expressions of three directors.… Read more »
From the January 13, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
*** (A must see)
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton
Movie gossip writer Peter Biskind described Woody Allen in the December 2005 Vanity Fair as “an artist without honor in his own country” (apparently Biskind’s ecstatic write-up in Vanity Fair doesn’t count). He went on to compare Allen’s fate to those of some of Allen’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin (assuming Chaplin’s “own country” was the U.S.). He added that Allen, who’s released 35 features to date, has made at least ten masterpieces “that can hold their own against” any of the four he credited to Robert Altman or the three he assigned to Francois Truffaut.
Altman, Bergman, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Welles have changed our view of the world and of movies. Allen, despite his output and great one-liners and excellent taste in cinematographers, hasn’t. “If I was the teacher, I’d give myself a B,” he modestly told Biskind. Given his indebtedness to Bergman and Federico Fellini, that B would have to be for effort and polish, not originality.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 22, 1999). For my earlier take on this film, written when it was released in London, go here. — J.R.
The Mother and the Whore
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Jean Eustache
With Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francoise Lebrun, Bernadette Lafont, Isabelle Weingarten, Jacques Renard, Jean Douchet, and Jean-Noel Picq.
I have a friend who had a wonderful idea: he wanted to have his right hand amputated. Very seriously. Went to see a surgeon, said, ‘How much does it cost, I’m ready to pay.’ He wanted to have a porcelain hand made to replace it. And in his home, in a room, in the very center of the room, to place his real hand in formaldehyde, with a plaque reading, ‘My hand, 1940-1972′. And people would come to visit, like they’d go to an exhibit.
— Alexandre in The Mother and the Whore
Is it permissible to disapprove of a masterpiece? I find Jean Eustache’s obsessive, 215-minute black-and- white The Mother and the Whore, playing nine times this week at Facets Multimedia Center, every bit as mesmerizing today as I did when I attended the premiere at Cannes in 1973. I must have seen it four or five times since, the last time in the early 80s.… Read more »