Yearly Archives: 2019

Tribal Trouble [CALENDAR]

From the Chicago Reader (August 19, 1994). — J.R.

**** CALENDAR

(Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Arsinee Khanjian, Ashot Adamian, and Atom Egoyan.

In terms of craft, originality, and intelligence, there are few young filmmakers in the world today to match Atom Egoyan — a Canadian writer-director with a bee in his bonnet about video, photography, voyeurism, sexual obsession, troubled families, and personal identity (not necessarily in that order). But of his half-dozen features to date, the only one I’m comfortable calling a flat-out masterpiece is his fifth, Calendar — in some ways the least premeditated or worked over of the bunch. (Its successor, Exotica, which showed at Cannes in May 1993, will probably surface in New York later this year, which means it probably won’t get to Chicago before next summer.)

There are various ways of categorizing Egoyan’s six features, but perhaps the most useful involves distinguishing between the relatively low-budget ones, which happen to be my favorites – Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), and Calendar (1993) — and the slicker, more expensive ones: Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Exotica (1994). Though all these movies have similar preoccupations and many have similar formal structures, a few distinctions between them are worth noting.… Read more »

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

I’m reposting this as a sort of adjunct to David Bordwell’s excellent two-part study of Manny Farber (available here and here). And my relatively recent review of Farber on Film can be accessed here.

This very personal essay was written in 1993 for my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. I’ve updated a few facts, all placed in square brackets, and corrected some typos, including one that appeared on the first page of the essay in the book, much to my irritation (as well as Manny’s) ….The photograph at the very end of this piece, before the new Afterword, taken by Andy Rector, shows Manny and Patricia with Gabe Klinger. — J.R.

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?” Manny Farber was once asked in an interview. “It’s practically worthless for a critic,” Farber replied. “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” A few years later, in another interview — published in French, so I can’t quote from it verbatim — he expressed his irritation with Pauline Kael writing about RAGING BULL as if she knew what was good or bad in every shot, in every scene.… Read more »

Getting Personal [CARO DIARIO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 1994). — J.R.

Caro Diario (Dear Diary)

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Nanni Moretti

With Moretti, Jennifer Beals, Carlo Mazzacurati, Renato Carpentieri, Antonio Neiwiller, and Mario Schiano.

How many movies put us in touch with real people as opposed to stars and characters? Not very many, perhaps because we tend to go to movies to escape people — or at least to encounter them in more circumscribed and protected ways than we would in real life. Thanks to movies and TV, a good many of us think of some real people as heroes, villains, and other stock figures; witness the recent election campaigns.

One form of literature, and by extension, one form of film that’s designed to place us directly in contact with individuals is the personal essay. According to writer Phillip Lopate — an expert theorist and practitioner of the form whose invaluable anthology The Art of the Personal Essay was published earlier this year — “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue — a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.”

Lopate is also a sensitive film critic and in the winter 1992 issue of the Threepenny Review devotes one of his own essays to defining, describing, surveying, and celebrating “a cinematic genre that barely exists” — namely, the personal film essay.… Read more »

Ethereal Girl [WHO'S THAT GIRL]

This was the first long review I wrote for the Chicago Reader after I started working there, but its publication was delayed for almost a couple of months until October 30, 1987 because the film was pulled from distribution just before we were going to press.  – J.R.

WHO’S THAT GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by James Foley

With Madonna, Griffin Dunne, Haviland Morris, John McMartin, and John Mills.

The current spate of recycled movies is only the latest stage in a process that has been in force for almost three decades, ever since the French New Wave launched the idea of a self-devouring cinema. Broadly speaking, the movement started out as esoteric polemical criticism (in print and on-screen) in the 60s, gravitated toward name-dropping and flag-waving testimonials in the 70s, and has finally degenerated in the 80s to an insidious kind of self-censorship that uses the past — and a severely delimited version of it at that — as a kind of stopper to prevent too much of the present from leaking through.

It’s a cynical truism of journalism that any story with 100 percent new information is virtually unusable. In order to provide the reader or spectator with a safety net, most of the story has to be based on old information, even if much of that old news turns out to be out of date or false.… Read more »

Ford Rambler: Review of Tag Gallagher’s JOHN FORD

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1987). –- J.R.

JOHN FORD: The Man and His Films

by Tag Gallagher

University of California Press/$35

‘I shall almost always be wrong, when I conceive of a man’s character as being all of one piece.’ Appearing at the outset of Tag Gallagher’s massive critical biography of Ford, this quotation from Stendhal serves both as apologia and as fair warning to readers hoping to find a unified portrait of its subject. Written over the past two decades, Gallagher’s exasperating yet invaluable compendium of diverse thoughts and data may lack the coherence of previous Ford studies by Anderson, McBride/Wilmington, Place and Sinclair (among others). Yet in its outsized efforts to do justice to the contradictions and complexities of the man and his work, it still offers a range of information and insight that dwarfs all competitors.

For one thing, Gallagher certainly goes beyond his predecessors in contriving to grapple with all the surviving films, most of which he arranges in four periods: The Age of Introspection (1927 35), Age of Idealism (1935-47), Age of Myth (1948-61) and Age of Mortality (1962-65). Believing Ford’s best films (Pilgrimage, Judge Priest, Stagecoach, Young Mr Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, Mogambo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Civil War, Donovan’s Reef and 7 Women) to lie in all four periods, Gallagher is able to tease out a surprising number of threads that recur throughout the oeuvre.… Read more »

Rainer’s Persistence of Memory

From the Santa Barbara News & Review, October 24, 1985.–- J.R.

The Man Who Envied Women, introduced by filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, will be shown at 8 pm Monday, Oct. 28, Isla Vista Theatre II, Embarcadero Del Norte. Free admission.

It doesn’t really do justice to Yvonne Rainer’s exhilarating The Man Who Envied Women to call it avant- garde — or even the best feature to date by New York’s most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker. To do that is to consign it to a gilt-eged ghetto presided over by experts. The fact that Santa Barbara is fortunate enough to be getting this movie in advance of both New York and Los Angeles — and with Rainer herself in attendance -– shouldn’tmean that we need any big-city explicators to crack the surface of her intellectual vaudeville. Admittedly, there’s enough theoretical discourse on display to choke a horse, and two actors rather than one (a favorite Rainer ploy) portraying the title character — a complacent, womanizing academic named Jack Deller whose second wife, a nameless voice, leaves him in the opening moments of the film. But the delightful thing about Rainer’s word and image salad is that its deliberate overload virtually guarantees that if we miss a particular gag or argument, we’ll find its near-equivalent lying in wait for us a few minutes later.… Read more »

Painter Pics [FRIDA & WOLF AT THE DOOR]

From the Chicago Reader, September 4, 1987. — J.R.

FRIDA

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Paul Leduc

Written by Leduc and Jose Joaquin Blanco

With Ofelia Medina, Juan Jose Gurrola, Salvador Sanchez, and Max Kerlow.

WOLF AT THE DOOR

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Henning Carlsen

Written by Carlsen, Christopher Hampton, and Jean-Claude Carrière

With Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow, Valerie Morea, Sofie Graboel, Fanny Bastien, and Merete Voldstedlund.

We live in an increasingly visual culture, but there are signs that we haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. We still confuse image with event and one medium’s capabilities and limitations with another’s, falling into the trap of assuming that everything is seeable, hence realizable on a TV or movie screen. We still let our (not all that) new toys decide for us what it is we’ll say and how it is we’ll say it. Don’t believe the Sunday supplements: we won’t truly have entered the age of visual literacy until we can turn on the television in the evening and see not one single image of a politician waving from the doorway of an airliner.

When that day comes, we’ll probably discover that the film biographies of painters have vanished as well.… Read more »

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Curiously, the Chicago Reader’s web site dates this capsule review in October 1985, two years before the film was made. I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1987, and believe I reviewed it not too long afterwards. — J.R.

Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable — as goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos (although the women here also do pretty well in that department), and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process.… Read more »

The Life of Oharu (1975 review)

This review appeared in the March 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.


Saikaku Ichidai Onna (The Life of Oharu)

Japan, 1952                                                                Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

According to scriptwriter Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi’s ambitions for The Life of Oharu were largely stimulated by the prize accorded to Kurosawa, a relative newcomer, for Rashomon at Venice in 1951. The bet paid off, and Oharu was awarded the Silver Lion at Venice in 1952, thereby inaugurating Mizoguchi’s international reputation at the age of fifty-six, four years before his death. Differing substantially from Saikaku’s novel –- a looser collection of episodes narrated by an elderly nun recalling her decline from a promising youth, and ending with a scene of a prostitute entering a temple and hallucinating the faces of former lovers in the idols there -– Oharu’s script gravitates round the feudal persecutions of one woman. It appears that Mizoguchi was something of a Stroheim on the set -– requiring that the garden of  Kyoto’s Koetsu temple be “rebuilt” instead of using the nearly identical original location, and firing his assistant, Uchikawa Seichiro, when the latter complained about making last-minute changes in the positions of the studio-built houses for the scene of Bunkichi’s arrest.… Read more »

One of My Favorite Things [On McCoy Tyner]

This was originally posted on November 22, 2010. Seeing the excellent, informative, and often moving  documentary Chasing Trane, which curiously includes more interview material with Bill Clinton than with McCoy Tyner, led me to repost this. — J.R.

McCoy-Tyner

On volume 2 of this superb two-disc set (One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note), recorded on Alan Grant’s “Portraits in Jazz” radio show on May 7, 1965, is a spectacular 13-minute piano solo by McCoy Tyner on “My Favorite Things” that covers well over half of the number’s almost 23 minutes. This solo is incidentally bracketed by some of Coltrane’s loveliest soprano-sax glisssandos on disc, but what amazes me about Tyner’s cascading tour de force is not only how he keeps it going in unforeseeable directions, but also how many different directions this consists of — tonal and atonal, rhythmic and melodic, calm and frenzied — and how steadily it builds to Coltrane’s second solo.

What follows is the final draft of a treatment for a documentary about Tyner that I coauthored via email with cinematographer John Bailey in late 2001 and early 2002, at the behest of producer Rick Schmidlin, with and for whom I’d worked as a consultant on the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.Read more »

On LINCOLN and ARGO : “Useful” Omissions

Written for the February 2013 issue of Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, as one of my bimonthly columns for that magazine (“En movimiento”). It continues to amaze me how American movies who preach the inescapable inevitability of corruption in American life   — Citizen Kane, the Godfather films, and now Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are invariably regarded as more profound and much likelier to wind up as Oscar fodder than those that  are less resigned to accepting corruption. — J.R.

 

 

 

Two inordinately praised big-studio releases of the holiday season, Lincoln and Argo, seem to depend in part on the innocence of the American audience in order to score their ideological successes. The first of these, a high-minded art movie, starts with a familiar subject, while the second –- which, I must confess, I’ve only sampled — incorporates the relative unfamiliarity of Iranian culture as part of its action-thriller mechanics. That both films have been overpraised seems hard to dispute; “Long after its commercial run, Lincoln will remain an invaluable teaching tool,” Joe Morgenstern declared characteristically in the Wall Street Journal, while Rex Reed, no less typically in the New York Observer, called Argo, “A movie that defines perfection.Read more »

Richard Linklater as Global Regionalist [on BERNIE]

My 27th column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as Cahiers du Cinéma España, which appeared, I believe, in their July-August 2012 issue. — J.R.

I have a habit as a critic that I suspect irritates some of my readers. When I find that my opinion about a new film differs substantially from that of the mainstream, I sometimes theorize that the reasons for this must be ideological. In this manner, I speculated that the immoderate fascination of other Americans with the mad serial killers of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and No   Country for Old Men (2007), which somehow seemed motivated by a twisted identification with them -– and especially with the capacity and eagerness of these psychotics to kill innocent people without any compunctions — were related to the fact that these films came out during the first  and second Gulf wars, when Americans were killing innocent people with no compunctions at all, and sometimes even exhibiting comparable displays of glee about this mindless activity.

More recently, I’ve been puzzling over the fact that Richard Linklater’s latest feature, Bernie, a masterpiece that has been clearly delighting many of the audiences that come to see it, was only released after many delays, wasn’t sent to Cannes, and has been doing poorly at the box office —  a fate similar to that of Linklater’s previous feature, Me and Orson Welles (2011), another treasured project which took him many years to finance, and one also dominated by a remarkable central performance (Christian McKay as Orson Welles, Jack Black as Bernie Tiede).… Read more »

Afro-Pop [MOZART QUARTER]

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1993). — J.R.

MOZART QUARTER

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Bekolo

With Serge Amougou, Sandrine Ola’a, Jimmy Biyong, Essindi Mindja, Atebass, and Timoleon Boyongueno.

I cannot tell a lie. I couldn’t follow all the plot details of Mozart Quarter – Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s delightful comic fantasy about contemporary sex relations in a working-class neighborhood in Yaounde, Cameroon — even after I saw it a third time. Some of my confusion was probably due to the subtitler’s effort to render part of the French African dialogue in American inner-city slang — an understandable goal, but one that sometimes sacrifices lucidity for superficial familiarity and occasionally produces outright gibberish. Another problem is that certain Western cultural artifacts have meanings specific to the oral story-telling culture out of which Mozart Quarter arises.

Yet this wasn’t an obstacle to my enjoyment of the film, which is playing five times this week at the Film Center; on the contrary, it operated more as an incentive. If the common liberal error in understanding non-Western societies is to assume they’re exactly like us and the common conservative error is to assume they’re nothing like us, any movie that confounds both sides is bound to have a few things to teach us.… Read more »

SHOAH & Ten-Best Documentary List

Written for Sight and Sound‘s documentary film poll in their September 2014 issue, and posted online with partial corrections (and some new errors, such as spelling James Benning’s RR “Rr”). . Two unfortunate differences between my ten-best list and the one they published on paper is (1) the exclusion (through an oversight) of my 9th selection, Peter Thompson‘s Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen (although online they now list only Universal Hotel and exclude Universal Citizen) and (2) my specification that I was referring only to the French version of Rossellini’s India — a version that I vastly prefer to the Italian version, though more as fiction than for any “documentary” reasons (which applies to most or all of my other choices). This gives an added truth to James Benning’s own bold contribution to the same poll, well worth quoting in full: “Titanic (Cameron). This is my only vote: an amazing document of bad acting. And, I might add, all films are fictions.” –  J.R.

SHOAH

shoah

 

 

 

There are documentary filmmakers who plant their stakes within existing traditions and those for whom cinema has to be reinvented. Claude Lanzmann clearly belongs in the latter category. Of course cinema already had to exist in order to allow Lanzmann to make Shoah (1985) — named after the Hebrew word for annihilation — but he also had to rethink what cinema could be.… Read more »