Monthly Archives: September 2018

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)

Read more »

Metaphysics and Slapstick [THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN]

From the March 17, 1989 Chicago Reader. At least in memory, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to remind me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. — J.R.

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam

With John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Winston Dennis, and Valentina Cortese.

CHANCES ARE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Emile Ardolino

Written by Perry Howze and Randy Howze

With Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher McDonald.

I can no longer recall whether any of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was read to me as a child. But there’s no question that these tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymous (the Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).… Read more »

Self-Portraits [TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM & THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST]

This originally appeared in the August 19, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler

With Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Martin Landau, Frederic Forrest, Mako, and Dean Stockwell.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Paul Schrader

With Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Verna Bloom, Randy Danson, and Andre Gregory.

While it might initially seem like a shotgun marriage to consider together movies as different in tone and subject as Tucker: The Man and His Dream and The Last Temptation of Christ, it is worth noting first of all that these films represent comparable watersheds in the careers of their respective directors. Even if we put aside that Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are contemporaries (born in 1939 and 1942, respectively) with Italian and Catholic backgrounds, and that both became star directors during the same period — with Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972 and Scorsese’s Mean Streets in 1973 — we are still left with the fact that their latest features are both intensely personal projects, nurtured by their creators over many years and through a number of vicissitudes.… Read more »

Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema (1989 lecture)

The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema”,  ARTPAPERS,  Vol. 13, No. 5,  September/October 1989,  pp. 6-10.

The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organ­ized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Cal­ouste Gulbenkian to introduce screen­ings of a dozen recent American inde­pendent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same semi­nar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics. 

 UniversalHotel

It is virtually impossible to treat recent American inde­pendent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film.Read more »

Good Cop, Bad Cop (MIAMI BLUES & Q&A)

Since writing this for the April 27, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, I’ve become an even bigger fan of Charles Willeford’s four Hoke Moseley novels; some of their virtues remind me of John Updike’s novels about Rabbit Angstrom. My favorite of these Moseley novels remains Sideswipe. — J.R.

MIAMI BLUES

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by George Armitage

With Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nora Dunn, Charles Napier, Obba Babatunde, and Shirley Stoler.

Q&A

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Sidney Lumet

With Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Patrick O’Neal, Lee Richardson, Luis Guzman, Charles Dutton, Jenny Lumet, and Paul Calderon.

The ambiguous power and image of the policeman stand at the center of two better-than-average crime pictures playing at the moment, both of them the work of writer-directors adapting novels by others. Part of the merit of these two otherwise very different movies is that neither one depends on either of the compulsively overworked subgenres that currently dominate the scene — the cop-buddy action thriller derived from TV or the hunt for the serial killer derived from Dirty Harry.

I have less of an aversion to the cop-movie genre per se than to what this genre has become.… Read more »

Ebrahim Golestan’s Epic Tragedy of the 60s: BRICK AND MIRROR

Written for a booklet distributed at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival.J.R.

 brickandmirror

Most people reading these words have likely heard about the Iranian New Wave, which conjures up such names as Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi. But until recently, Westerners who have heard about the first Iranian New Wave, whose names include Farrokhzad, Golestan, Kimiavi, and Saless, have been few and far between. Apart from the belated availability in the West of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 short film The House is Black, this watershed prerevolution movement in Iranian cinema has almost been lost to history due to the abrupt European exiles of many of its other major artists — Ebrahim Golestan to England, Parviz Kimiavi to France, and Sohrab Shahid Saless to Germany. (Bahram Beizai, Dariush Mehrjui, and Amir Naderi are among the few filmmakers who might be stylistically associated with both waves, but given how seldom their own prerevolution films are seen nowadays, apart from Mehrjui’s The Cow, it’s difficult to say much about them.) Arguably even more innovative as well as more modernist than the second New Wave, and virtually contemporaneous with the French New Wave, Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1963-64), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973), and Saless’ A Simple Event (1974) are masterworks that continue to speak to the present like few other films.… Read more »

The Tyranny of Sensitivity

From The Soho News, July 18, 1980. Also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995). — J.R.

John Cassavetes, Filmmaker and Actor Museum of Modern Art, 20 June — 11 July


Nineteen years ago, when I was a high school senior making one of those boring, difficult adolescent transitions — from being a social outcast in my hometown in the Deep South to being a social outcast as a southerner at a New England prep school — I had the good fortune to discover John Cassavetes’s SHADOWS at the New Embassy at Broadway and 46th. It was near the beginning of my spring vacation, which meant that I could return to this movie again and again, during the same week or so when I was getting my first looks at BREATHLESS, THE RULES OF THE GAME, ROOM AT THE TOP, SPARTACUS, THE MISFITS, and TAKE A GIANT STEP.

Art in our time, Harold Rosenberg once wrote, appeals either to other artists or “to introverted adolescents, to people in crises of metamorphosis, a small-town girl who has met an intellectual, a husband forced to give up drinking, a business man who feels spiritually falsified, all these being, like the audience of artists, more attentive to themselves than to the work.” And D.… Read more »

Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose recent unexpected death was a grievous loss.  — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

Everywar [THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 1990). — J.R.

THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY

*** ( A must-see)

Directed by Bob Hoskins

Written by Hoskins and Nicole De Wilde

With Dexter Fletcher, Hoskins, Zoe Nathenson, Dave Hill, Ian Dury, and Zoe Wanamaker.

An offbeat and highly original English film that’s been very slow making the rounds — Bob Hoskins’s The Raggedy Rawney (1987) — may be in trouble commercially. It didn’t even show in England until about two years after its completion, and it took an additional year to reach Chicago. Now that it’s here, it has at least five serious handicaps:

(1) At first glance, hardly anyone has any idea what the title means. (“Rawney,” a rather specialized word not found in most dictionaries, roughly means “magical madwoman.”)

(2) As an actor, Hoskins is basically known for his roles in contemporary settings, usually within a noir context — either as a gangster (as in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa) or as a detective (as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). His part in The Raggedy Rawney, as a sort of gypsy leader, plays off neither of these associations, nor is it the lead role.

(3) Inspired by a legend told to Hoskins as a child by his grandmother that reportedly can be traced all the way back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1443), the movie is nonetheless given a setting so vaguely defined that the best description I’ve seen yet (published in the synopsis in Monthly Film Bulletin) is: “Sometime during the first half of the 20th century, in a European country at war.” On the other hand, if it were set during the Hundred Years’ War, that probably wouldn’t have helped; the best film that comes to mind that dealt with that war — John Huston’s A Walk With Love and Death (1969), starring his daughter Angelica in her first major role — was possibly the biggest flop of his career, and it’s virtually impossible to see nowadays.… Read more »

East Coast Journal (1975)

From Film Comment (May-June 1975). -– J.R.

February 28: Heathrow Airport, London. As soon as I step on the plane, TWA’s Muzak system has seen to it that I’m already back in America. Listening on the plastic earphones to blatant hypes for GOLD on two separate channels, the soundtrack of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT on another (where “fuck” is consistently bleeped out, but “fucker” and the sound of Jeff Bridges getting kicked in the face are dutifully preserved), it becomes evident once more that America starts and stops where its money reaches, and that “going there” means following the money trail. It’s over two years since my last visit – my longest sojourn abroad, during which I’ve had to miss the splendors of Watergate and depend on such things as Michael Arlen’s excellent TV column in The New Yorker for accounts of shifts in the national psyche — but TWA tells me in its own quiet way that nothing essential has changed.

On the plane I read Pauline Kael’s pre-release rave about Altman’s NASHVILLE, and and it certainly does its job: I can’t wait to see the movie. But why does she have to embarrass everyone by comparing Altman to Joyce? It’s just about as unhelpful (and unsubstantiated) as her earlier comparisons of, say, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS with Ulysees and THIEVES LIKE US with Faulkner, which confuse more than they clarify.… Read more »

Cinema Stylists, by John Belton

From the Summer 1984 Film Quarterly (Vol. XXXVII, No. 4). I can happily report that some copies of this book are still available on the Internet. — J.R.

CINEMA STYLISTS

By John Belton. Metuchan, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1983. $19.50.

From the outset, in his Introduction, John Belton makes the organizing stance of Cinema Stylists admirably clear. Revised auteurism — that is to say, non-vulgar and non-biographical auteurism, an auteurism brought more in line with the qualms of Barthes and Foucault (and subsequently Wollen) about authorship, and tempered with some of the notions about authorial presence in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction — is the dominant (if not exclusive) mode in this collection of over three dozen pieces, written over the past fourteen years. With the specters and examples of Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris hovering over his shoulders – his right and left consciences, as it were – Belton lacks the stylistic fluidity of either of his mentors, but has certain sound academic virtues which match and occasionally surpass the capacities of both.

A champion of the underdog film as well as the neglected figure, Belton can be seen going to bat in Cinema Stylists for Robert Mulligan, Edgar G.… Read more »

Surviving the Sixties

From Cinema Scope no. 17 (Winter 2003); reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties

by J. Hoberman (New York/London: The New Press, 461 pp., 2003.


“You know, I’m not someone who ever survived the Depression,” the great American film critic and painter Manny Farber once said to me, back in the late 1970s. “It’s not the sort of experience you ever really get over.” This was in part a gentle rebuke to someone born after the 1930s who tended to romanticize that era —- seeing glimmers of communal warmth and common cause leaking through all that picturesque poverty, especially in Hollywood pictures. For me, the 1930s were a legendary period —- the time in the U.S. when socialism came closest to being a mainstream position. Indeed, the next two decades in American history might be viewed as a series of desperate holding actions against the dreams nurtured in that epoch.

By contrast, the 1960s was a period of prosperity that nurtured outsized utopian dreams of its own —- dreams so grandiose that the succeeding decades up to the present could be viewed as another set of fearful responses.Read more »

Movie Love (on CINÉMA CINÉMAS, 1982-1991)

From Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], posted March 5, 2009. The last time I checked, the box set Cinéma Cinémas was still available from French Amazon, for 25.56 Euros. — J.R.

How does one distinguish American cinephilia from the original, hardcore French brand? Based on an exchange I had with French critic Raymond Bellour and several other friends a dozen years ago — a round of letters first published in the French film magazine Trafic that later grew into a collection in English that I co-edited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia — there’s some disagreement about how serious a role French cinema actually plays in “classic” (i.e., French) cinephilia. According to Raymond, spurred in part by remarks from the late Serge Daney — a mutual friend and the founder of Trafic — modern French cinephilia was from the outset basically American, as suggested by the archetypal question, “How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian?”:

It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory. This is what necessarily divides me from Jonathan, in whom cinephilia was born, like in everyone else, through the nouvelle vague, but who, as an American, takes the nouvelle vague itself as an object of cinephilia — whereas the cinephile, in the historical and French sense, trains his sights on the American cinema as an enchanted and closed world, a referential system sufficient to interpret the rest.Read more »

Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1973). – J.R.

 

FILM AS FILM: Understanding and Judging Movies

By V.F. Perkins

PENGUIN BOOKS, 35p

Responding polemically to some of the more antiquated notions found in Rotha, Lindgren, Manvell, Arnheim and others, the title of Victor Perkins’ short and engaging book carries a sympathetic resonance. A major part of his enterprise is to clear away cobwebs from the attics of film theory and lay a few outdated texbooks to rest, and ‘Film as Film’ adequately summarizes the central thrust of his yarious charges. But as we know, theories arc usually debunked to clear the way for newer models, and as soon as Perkins’ own theory gets under way, his title begins to seem much more inclusive than anything he claims to offer in his text. Unavoidably, alternate titles come to mind: “Action as Presentation”, or, perhaps more to the point, ‘Movie as Movie’.

As Perkins indicates in his preface, ‘The examples discussed are not drawn from the (rightly or wrongly) accepted classics of Film Art nor from the fashionable “triumphs” of the past few years, but generally from films which seem to representwhat the Movies meant to their public in the cinema’s commercial heyday.’ What is meant by this is not, say, Gone with the Wind, King Kong or Casablanca, but rather the films of Preminger, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Brooks, Fuller and Nicholas Ray — in short, an abbreviated paraphrase of the pantheon that dominated the pages of Movie in the 1960s.… Read more »