From the August 4, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. My thanks to Chris Petit for reminding me (on Memorial Day, 2010) that I wrote this. I’ve heard, incidentally, that Godard prefers the original title of JLG/JLG to its American release title, the one given here. — J.R.
Germany Year 90 Nine Zero
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Eddie Constantine, Hanns Zischler, Claudia Michelsen, Andre Labarthe, and Nathalie Kadem.
JLG by JLG
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Godard, Andre Labarthe, and Bernard Eisenschitz.
Like most of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) and JLG by JLG (subtitled December Self-Portrait, 1994) are annexes to his Histoire(s) du cinéma, a work on video in multiple parts scheduled to premiere in its finished form at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland in early August. (Four portions of this video have already shown at the Film Center.) Like the various parts of Histoire(s) du cinéma, these films (each about an hour long and being shown together at Facets Multimedia) are above all collections of carefully arranged quotations — interwoven anthologies of extracts from prose, poetry, philosophy, films, musical works, paintings.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 5, 1999). — J.R.
This neglected feature is one of Samuel Fuller’s most energetic — his own personal favorite, in part because he financed it out of his own pocket and lost every penny (1952). It’s a giddy look at New York journalism in the 1880s that crams together a good many of Fuller’s favorite newspaper stories, legends, and conceits and puts them in socko headline type. A principled cigar smoker (Gene Evans) becomes the hard-hitting editor of a new Manhattan daily, where he competes with his former employer (Mary Welch) in a grudge match full of sexual undertones; a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge trying to become famous; the Statue of Liberty is given to the U.S. by France, and a newspaper drive raises money for its pedestal. Enthusiasm flows into every nook and cranny of this exceptionally cozy movie; when violence breaks out in the cramped-looking set of the title street, the camera weaves in and out of the buildings as through a sports arena, in a single take. “Park Row” is repeated incessantly like a crazy mantra, and the overall fervor of this vest-pocket Citizen Kane makes journalism sound like the most exciting activity in the world, even as it turns all its practitioners into members of a Fuller-esque military squad.… Read more »
Despite the title, I assumed this drama about the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life would include something about his teachings, at least in flashback. But the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to two sound bites, and miracles and good works barely get a glance; director Mel Gibson stresses only cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots. The charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia hurled at the movie seem too narrow; its general disgust for humanity is so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seem to be welcoming the apocalypse (rather like the mass slaughter following the Mexican rebel’s torture in The Wild Bunch). If I were a Christian, I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me. With James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, and Hristo Naumov Shopov; Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood) collaborated with Gibson on the script. In Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew with subtitles. R, 127 min. (JR)
I’m afraid that going to see Monster’s Ball or Black Hawk Down for the purposes of this exchange isn’t even an option for me. Neither has opened yet in Chicago, and though the first and possibly the second got special screenings for local reviewers willing to go beyond Chicago for their 10-best lists, I feel my first duty is to address what Chicagoans can see in my own list for the Reader. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing Monster’s Ball because of my liking for Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, but the very thought of going to see any war film for pleasure right now gives me the creeps. Though, come to think of it, I’d probably rather see Black Hawk Down than even think again about Audition, one of David’s favorites — a movie whose view of mankind, including audience members, is for me a lot bleaker than anything found in A.I.
On the other hand, like Roger, I could cite some first-rate movies that exist mainly on television, such as Spike Lee’s A Huey P. Newton Story (which I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival), even if it’s basically a record of a powerful performance by Roger Guenveur Smith, or Code Unknown, which I saw on the Sundance Channel (where it’s been playing for ages) on Christmas Eve, and which opens here theatrically next week.… Read more »
Posted on Slate in late 2005. I’m sorry that the links no longer work. — J.R.
The New Global Movie Culture
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Dec 29, 2005 4:52 PM
So many films and so little time! Consequently, I hope you’ll forgive me if I skate past most of the titles that we’ve all been citing lately and jump to some of the bigger issues broached by Tony in his first letter, and by David and Scott more recently —specifically, the transformations of film culture that are taking place these days thanks to DVDs, the Internet, globalization, and related pleasures, and conundrums.
In fact, David, I regard you as something of a pioneer in your inauguration of this Movie Club seven years ago. This helped to usher in the idea of critical exchanges in cyberspace that’s been developing so rapidly ever since that I find refreshing new instances of it virtually every day. The irreplaceable Dave Kehr reporting “from the lost continent of cinephilia” on his wonderful new blog and including responses from others is only one of the first examples that spring to mind. Another is the international, auteurist chat group over at Yahoo!, which has been around somewhat longer, where they’ve been raking me over the coals lately — and with a great deal of intelligence and pertinence, I might add — about my skeptical comments regarding Malick’s The New World, which I’ve been making in Movie Club as well as there.… Read more »
Published on Artforum‘s web site on April 18, 2019, under the title “Leven Learn”. – J.R.
“The justification for [a] pretense to disengagement,” writes Dave Hickey in Air Guitar, “derives from our Victorian habit of marginalizing the experience of art, of treating it as if it were somehow ‘special’—and, lately, as if it were somehow curable. This is a preposterous assumption to make in a culture that is irrevocably saturated with pictures and music, in which every elevator serves as a combination picture gallery and concert hall . . . All we do by ignoring the live effects of art is suppress the fact that these experiences, in one way or another, inform our every waking hour.”To some extent, Patrick Wang’s dazzling two-part, four-hour comedy A Bread Factory (2018) — shot over twenty-four days in Hudson, New York, after ten days of rehearsal with well over sixty professional or semiprofessional actors — is an epic anthology of performance art, filmed both inside and outside a Hudson art center housed in a former bread factory. What makes it special are the peculiar dots connecting “inside” and “outside.” Inside the eponymous, fictionalized forty-year-old Bread Factory we find theater, film, music, sculpture, and poetry, and inside a trendy, new rival art center with corporate financing is a pseudo-Chinese couple called May Ray doing minimalist, rebus-like performance pieces with prerecorded laughter and applause.… Read more »
Documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty. — Agnes Varda, quoted in the press notes for The Gleaners and I
There’s a suggestive discrepancy between the French and English titles of this wonderful essay film completed by Agnes Varda last year. It’s a distinction that tells us something about the French sense of community and the Anglo-American sense of individuality — concepts that are virtually built into the two languages. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse can be roughly translated as “the gleaners and the female gleaner,” with the plural noun masculine only in the sense that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. The Gleaners and I sets up an implicit opposition between “people who glean” and the filmmaker, whereas Les glaneurs et la glaneuse links them, asserting that she’s one of them.
Gleaners gather up the leftovers of edible crops — grain, fruit, vegetables — after the harvesters are finished with their work. Varda la glaneuse films what other filmmakers have left behind after their harvesting. The link between the two activities is made graphic at one point when Varda gleans a potato with one hand while filming it with the other.… Read more »
With Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, and Lia Williams.
The King Is Alive, directed and cowritten by Kristian Levring, is the fourth film to have the dubious honor of qualifying for certification under the rules of the Dogma 95 manifesto, whose professed aim is to get back to the basics of realism — shooting, for example, in natural locations with handheld cameras, direct sound, and natural lighting. But what’s basic or realistic and what isn’t, in terms of film history and technique? The manifesto also insists that movies be shot in color, a rather ahistorical reading of what’s basic — unless one labels all possible uses of color in film realistic and all possible uses of black and white artificial.
If that’s the operative assumption, The King Is Alive triumphantly refutes it. The movie was shot with three digital video cameras — unlike Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration, which was shot with only one, and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (not a Dogma film, but made by one of Dogma’s founders), which was shot with a hundred — and that might make it seem new as well as passé.… Read more »
Part of a booklet accompanying a Jim Jarmusch retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, October 2001. -– J.R.
A child of the New Wave who spent time at the Paris Cinémathèque, was Nicholas Ray’s personal assistant on Lightning Over Water — and Sam Fuller’s costar in Tigrero [Mika Kaurasmaki] many years later — Jim Jarmusch has loved films even longer than he’s been making them. Signs of this love are fully apparent in his tributes to John Cassavetes, Fuller, and Robert Mitchum, as well as in a recent phone conversation I had with him about his selections of favorite films by others to accompany his own films at the Wexner Center.
I want to focus mainly on the pairings you’ve come up with. Why, for instance, show The Devil, Probably with Permanent Vacation, your first film?
I don’t really know. I saw The Devil, Probably a long time ago, and I’ve never seen it since. I remember it being about a young guy in Paris who’s suicidal. And it’s [Robert] Bresson. Before I saw this movie, when I used to go to Paris, I’d sit at the end of Île de la Cité, and I think that’s where the film ends.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 2001). — J.R.
Directed and written by Richard Linklater.
The cinema is an antiuniverse where reality is born out of a sum of unrealities. –Jean Epstein
I must have come across this statement by Epstein, a French theorist and filmmaker (1897-1953), in the late 60s or early 70s, but I no longer remember where. I’ve scanned his writings on several occasions since, but I haven’t found the quote. Sometimes I wonder if I read or heard about it in a dream — making it one of the unrealities Epstein is referring to.
Wherever the quote comes from, it applies beautifully to the animated feature by Richard Linklater that premiered at Sundance early this year and is currently playing at the Music Box. The movie is a string of paradoxes and reflections about what’s real and what’s not, about when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake, and the unusual way it’s put together seems calculated to complicate all of the issues it raises rather than resolve any of them. Over 25 days Linklater, one of his coproducers, and a sound person shot a first version of everything we see in this movie with two relatively low-tech digital video cameras in and around Austin and in San Antonio and New York — basically taping a lot of people talking and walking, as well as listening and sitting.… Read more »
Seeing this 1968 masterpiece in 70-millimeter, digitally restored and with remastered sound, provides an ideal opportunity to rediscover this mind-blowing myth of origin as it was meant to be seen and heard, an experience no video setup, no matter how elaborate, could ever begin to approach. The film remains threatening to contemporary studiothink in many important ways: Its special effects are used so seamlessly as part of an overall artistic strategy that, as critic Annette Michelson has pointed out, they don’t even register as such. Dialogue plays a minimal role, yet the plot encompasses the history of mankind (a province of SF visionary Olaf Stapledon, who inspired Kubrick’s cowriter, Arthur C. Clarke). And, like its flagrantly underrated companion piece, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it meditates at length on the complex relationship between humanity and technology — not only the human qualities that we ascribe to machines but also the programming we knowingly or unknowingly submit to. The film’s projections of the cold war and antiquated product placements may look quaint now, but the poetry is as hard-edged and full of wonder as ever. 139 min. (JR)
Broadly speaking, this is Richard Linklater’s French Cancan – that is to say, a humanist’s joyful exploration of the musical in which the actors’ personalities resonate as much as the characters they play. Or maybe it’s what Jean Renoir might have come up with if he’d remade Don’t Knock the Rock and cast 12-year-olds as the musicians. Though this seems like a personal film, Linklater was hired to direct a cannily commercial script by Mike White, about a rock ‘n’ roll loser (Jack Black) who, fired from his job and his band, impersonates his wimpy substitute-teacher roommate (White) to land a teaching position at an upscale elementary school. This infantile character hasn’t got a thought in his head except for rock music, but somehow he becomes a model teacher, and through stealth and sheer perseverance he turns his fifth-grade class into an inspired gang of rockers. The kids, all real musicians performing, are wonderful, and so is Black; Joan Cusack is both charming and funny as the principal. 108 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Ford City, Gardens 1-6, Gardens 7-13, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, North Riverside, 600 N.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2006). Fox has reissued this film in a two-disc edition, combining a Blu-Ray with a DVD of the film on a second disk — the latter including an audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger which clarifies and amplifies how well he understands the mechanics as well as the overall concept of his own film. He’s especially enlightening on the subject of late 19th century magic and how he incorporated many of his findings in the film, utilizing the expertise of several contemporary magicians, including Ricky Jay. – J.R.
Directed and written by Neil Burger
With Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, and Jake Wood
Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams. — Steven Millhauser, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”
At first glance Neil Burger’s first two features couldn’t be further apart. Interview With the Assassin (2002) is a scruffy-looking pseudodocumentary and thriller about two marginal characters — a young, out-of-work cameraman (Dylan Haggerty) and his 60-ish solitary neighbor (Raymond J. Barry), an ex-marine who claims to have fired the second bullet that killed John F. Kennedy. The Illusionist, based on a story by Steven Millhauser, is a lush piece of romanticism — a tale of enchantment set in turn-of-the-century Vienna about a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the son of a cabinetmaker, and his longtime relationship with Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess and the prospective fiancee of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), an old-fashioned villain.… Read more »
by Peter Wollen. London and New York: Verso, 2002. 314pp. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $20.00.
One of the more interesting paradoxes of Peter Wollen’s writing career is that he was perceived as an academic well before he had a long-term teaching post whereas today, with a seemingly permanent berth in the critical studies program at UCLA’s film department, he’s more apt to come across as a journalist. Part of this has to do with the magazines he writes for, though it might be added that for better and for worse — and more for the better — there’s always been a breezy, nonpedantic side to his writing that makes it far more accessible and user-friendly than the work of many of his more theoretically-minded colleagues. Paris Hollywood, his latest collection, is an agreeable showcase for this quality — more so, in many ways, than Readings and Writings (1982) and Raiding the Icebox (1993).
There are, to be sure, some scholarly limitations to Wollen’s lightness of tone, at least when he falls too readily into certain easy generalizations. It may sound reasonable to write of Godard’s early work (in “JLG,” one of the better essays here), “He never once worked with a script-writer,” but only if one glides past the roles of Truffaut on Breathless and Rossellini and Jean Gruault on Les Carabiniers.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 2000). One can access A Humble Lifehere. — J.R.
A Humble Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Alexander Sokurov.
I’ve seen at least a dozen of Alexander Sokurov’s works, but I’ve had a rough time getting a clear fix on him. For one thing, I didn’t recall having seen either A Lonely Man’s Voice (1978), his first feature, or The Second Circle (1990), yet when I checked I found I’d written reviews of both a decade ago. Is my brain a sieve? Or is it that many of Sokurov’s works are like passing mists on the verge of evaporating? Like his late mentor Andrei Tarkovsky, Sokurov is a mystical master of indeterminate zones — sometimes making it impossible to determine whether a shot is in color or black-and-white, whether it’s showing an interior or exterior, and whether it represents inner or external realities. So much uncertainty can make a film hard to remember.
For another thing, Sokurov is extremely prolific as both a filmmaker and a video artist — the only filmography I have available, dating from early 1991, includes 20 items — yet much of his career remains undocumented.… Read more »