Monthly Archives: June 2019

May the Formula Be With You

From the June 10, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Bob Dolman and George Lucas

With Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Billy Barty, Gavan O’Herlihy, Jean Marsh, Pat Roach, and Patricia Hayes.

As one of those spoilsports who actively disliked Star Wars when it burst on the scene 11 years ago, enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back (1980) even less, and happily managed to miss both Return of the Jedi (1983) and Labyrinth (1986), I can’t say that I approached George Lucas’s latest ecumenical blockbuster with expectations of much pleasure. Nevertheless, now that his latest fantasy epic has confirmed my nonexpectations, I can’t help but wonder why Willow has been getting such a drubbing from the same reviewers who responded to the early Lucas mega-hits with such enthusiasm. Is it really all that different from its predecessors?

Lucas’s reputation seems to be passing through the same sort of vicissitudes as Ronald Reagan’s: a few years of euphoric tub thumping while the future was getting steadily sold away under our feet, followed by recriminations and icon bashing, which seem motivated less by second thoughts than by certain automatic principles built into an economy of planned obsolescence.… Read more »


This appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. Reseeing Pleasantville recently on DVD, I continue to find its diverse perceptions and confusions equally fascinating. On his audio commentary, producer-director-writer Gary Ross alludes to his childhood as the son of an activist screenwriter who was blacklisted, and part of what’s so intriguing about the film is the way its own theme of innocence crossed with sophistication is matched at times by its own multiple forms of ideological doublethink. Ross’s ongoing and seemingly untroubled assumption, for instance, that black and white film is innately artificial and stylized whereas color film is innately “realistic” makes me wonder how he can perceive MGM Technicolor of the 50s as being closer to reality (and thus presumably further away from fantasy) than all the black and white cinematography from the same period — or whether, for that matter, he can even distinguish sufficiently between the alleged “realism” of the contemporary color sections of this film and the subsequent expressionism of the hallucinogenic colors impinging on a 50s sitcom’s black and white to confidently declare that both of these kinds of color are automatically and unproblematically superior to black and white in representing reality accurately.Read more »

Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth? (Slate post)

Posted on Slate, December 27, 2005. — J.R.


Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth?

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Dec 27, 2005 2:13 PM

Holiday Greetings, David, Scott, and Tony,

David, I appreciate your invitation to “shake hands and come out punching,” though I suspect our disagreements this time around may wind up having more to do with Steven Spielberg and Munich than they do with Terrence Malick and The New World. (See Edelstein’s top-20 list of 2005 films here.) Just to be contrary, however, let me start off with four agreements. Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, William Eggleston and the Real World, and Homecoming all belong somewhere on my own extended list of favorites — and I’d need an asterisk of my own for the penultimate title, David, because Michael Almereyda is a friend whom we share.

To be contrary in another way, I haven’t yet composed my full list for Slate —although I’ve already filed separate lists for the Chicago Reader (which will appear online on Jan. 6) and the Village Voice (which has already appeared online). With your patience and indulgence, I’d like to delay this ritual for another day or so, concentrating for the moment on the issue of what the four of us actually do for a living.… Read more »


Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.


Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 feature, his thirteenth, represents a bold departure from his previous work. It’s his first film to be set completely outside Taiwan,  the implicit or explicit subject of his earlier movies — most noticeably in his trilogy comprising City of Sadness, (1989), The Puppetmaster, (1993), and Good Men, Good Women(1995), but also in the bittersweet allegory of Son’s Big Doll, his seminal contribution to the 1983 sketch feature The Sandwich Man.  After focusing mostly on families and landscapes, Hou fashions a chamber-piece set exclusively in the interiors of Shanghai brothels in the late 19thcentury, adapted from a novel by Han Bangqing by his usual screenwriter Chen Tien-wen.


And after Hou showed striking stylistic affinities with Yasujiro Ozu, here’s a film whose long takes, camera movements, and concentration on prostitution suggest a Kenji Mizoguchi without melodrama. But insofar as Hou’s previous films deal with existential and historical questions of identity related to Taiwan as a country occupied and colonized at various times and in various ways by China, Japan, and the U.S., Flowers of Shanghai finds similar issues arising from interactions between prostitutes (the “flower girls”), their madams (or “aunts”), and their wealthy and powerful customers.… Read more »


Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.


In my early teens, I wrote a time-travel yarn in which time travelers revisit 1871 to determine whether Mrs. O’Leary’s cow really kicked over a lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire — their abrupt arrival startling the cow and thereby causing the self-same catastrophe. Despite claims to being historical, this two million dollar Fox epic (1938) — a quarter of whose budget went towards depicting this fire (which had taken 300 lives and destroyed two million dollars worth of property) — seems almost as fanciful about some of its facts as I was. But Henry King, as mythical about the Midwest as Ford was about the West and De Mille was about the Middle East, makes Chicago both a cauldron of corruption (the grandfather of Ben Hecht’s Chicago) and the site of his recurring theme — the coexistence of nihilism and decency, rebellion and domesticity, represented here both by the Cain-and-Abel dialectic of the O’Leary brothers (Tyrone Power and Don Ameche) and the two women who lord it over them, a showgirl-capitalist (Alice Faye) and their prudish mother (Alice Brady), the latter of whom owns the recalcitrant cow.… Read more »


Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Tim Lucas has helpfully and subsequently furnished us with the following on Facebook: “According to his autobiography, Roger Corman — then a script reader at Fox — retrieved this script from a slush pile and presented it to a producer acquaintance as having worth, given a proper rewrite. He did it himself, then presented it to the producer, who — without telling him — got the film greenlit as a Peck vehicle and took all the credit. Corman promptly quit his job and set about becoming a producer outside the Hollywood studio structure.” –  J.R.


Commonly described as an “adult” Western, The Gunfighter (1950)  differs from both the Freudian Pursued (1947) and the classical The Furies (1950).  Though it comes close to equating screen time with real time, without any rhetorical emphasis (as High Noon brings with clocks), its method is historical revisionism, postulating a “real” West that tragically undermines the ones we accept in other Westerns. It plays an intricate double game with genre expectations, satisfying some demands and implicitly chiding us for certain others. Significantly, the film’s first and final images are almost identical but register as antithetical in moral significance.… Read more »


 Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s 2019 catalogue. — J.R.



Subtitled “A Comedy about Life, Death and Freedom,” John Cassavetes’ most politically incorrect and machocentric movie (1970), made after the huge commercial success of his 1968 Faces and exercising both the creative control and the studio support it suddenly made possible, is arguably the most improvised and workshopped of his features. Inspired in part by the death of Cassavetes’ older brother Nick in 1957 at the age of 30, the film recounts what happens to a trio of 40ish east coast suburbanites (Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara) when their best friend dies and they decide to play hooky from their lives and families to recover their camaraderie and identities. But even though their collective flight seemingly has something to do with life, death, and freedom, there isn’t a Huck Finn in the bunch; they’re all Tom Sawyers, too desperate in their frantic fun and games to be as comic as they want to see themselves. Their fear of female assertiveness and their periodic brutality, as well as Cassavetes’ determination to follow the actors’ instincts and movements wherever they go without chalk marks are likely what inspired Elaine May to co-opt Cassavetes, Falk, and Husband’s cinematographer Victor J.… Read more »


 Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.


Along with the equally influential 2001: A Space OdysseyEasy Rider (1969) was one the key “trip” movies of the late 60s, making its music more expressive than its dialogue and defining a generational divide by cutting audiences into two.  As critic J. Hoberman has noted, the film “was above all fashionable” when it first appeared “and hence it dated almost immediately”. Yet arguably it is this datedness (unlike that of 2001) that defines much of its value today, as a time capsule offering certain parallels of hippies versus rednecks with current struggles between progressives and minorities versus reactionary Trump supporters.


Even though Easy Rider, according to auteurist protocols, is mainly associated with its director, costar, and cowriter, Dennis Hopper, it seems appropriate that it’s being shown in Bologna as part of a tribute to Peter Fonda, its producer, costar, and cowriter. Fonda actually originated the project by pitching its basic premise — a contemporary Western with motorcycles replacing horses as its two heroes, named Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) to suggest Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, emerge from a drug score to drive east across the country to attend the New Orleans Mardi Gras.… Read more »

Night Moves (1975 review)

This review of Night Moves appeared in the May 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. [September 11, 2009 postscript: Having just reseen Night Moves for the first time since it came out, I think it holds up remarkably well, in terms of its script and direction and almost uniformly fine performances. There's also some additional interest now in seeing Melanie Griffith in her first credited performance and James Woods, less impressive, in one of his earliest after Elia Kazan discovered him for The Visitors. As for Alan Sharp, it would appear that his filmography (which also includes The Hired Hand and Ulzana's Raid) warrants further investigation -- as does Jennifer Warren's.] — J.R.

Night Moves

U.S.A., 1975                                                 Director: Arthur Penn


Cert—X. dist—Columbia-Warner. p.c—Hiller Productions/Layton. p—Robert M. Sherman. assoc. p—Gene Lasko. p. manager—Thomas J. Schmidt. asst. d—Jack Roe, Patrick H. Kehoe. sc—Alan Sharp. ph—Bruce Surtees. col—Technicolor. underwater ph—Jordan Klein. ed—Dede Allen, Stephen A. Rotter. p.Read more »


From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

I must admit that the hyperbole of the last couple of sentences here embarrasses me now. But readers can judge for themselves, because this first feature by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen has recently become available as an extra on the BFI DVD of Riddles of the Sphinx. –- J.R.

Great Britain, 1974 Directors: Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen

The film is composed of five sequences, each preceded by a quotation. 1: “Ghost white like a not yet written page” (Mallarmé, “Mimique” ): A mime of Kleist’s Penthesilea, filmed in long shot from a fixed camera position. 2: “The shadows sprinkled in black characters” (Mallarmé, “Quant au livre”): A lecture on Kleist’s play, the myth of Penthesilea and the theoretical basis of the film, delivered by Peter Wollen while moving about a terrace and adjoining living room, the camera tracing an independent trajectory within the same confined space and occasionally approaching the index cards of notes left behind by Wollen at various stages in his route. 3: “Blazons of phobia, seals of self-punishment” (Lacan, after Vico): A succession of images relating to Penthesilea and the Amazons — paintings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, etc., including frames from a Wonder Woman comic book — separated by animated wipes and maskings, and accompanied on the soundtrack by Berio’s “Visage”.… Read more »

False Idol [NIXON]

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 1995). — J.R.


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Stephen J. Rivele,

Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone

With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, David Paymer, and Mary Steenburgen.

Did we really win the cold war? I know that capitalism prevailed on the economic front, but I’m less sure about the cultural front. I suspect a capitalist version of Stalinist culture has triumphed rather than any sort of democracy: Stalinist culture meaning calcified, state-supported art built around solemn, hulking father figures — something like Oliver Stone’s latest two-ton Christmas turkey, Nixon. If we recognize that Disney has effectively become the federal government, the rest of the scenario falls into place. Just as Stalin’s flunkies had to praise the official “masterpieces” of Stalinist art no matter how inert or uninventive they were, Nixon‘s producers (who’ve spent millions promoting the movie) have guaranteed that media savants are already describing Stone’s Nixon as a figure of Shakespearean proportions rather than the poorly cast, two-dimensional numskull decked out with a few grade-Z horror-movie traits that he is.

Toddlers have been treated a lot more like adults by the movies this year than grown-ups have.… Read more »

At War with Cultural Violence: The Critical Reception of SMALL SOLDIERS

Chapter Four of my book Movie Wars. It was originally written for Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman Class of 1970, a critical collection coedited with Bill Krohn for the Locarno International Film Festival in 1999, which came out in French and Italian editions. -- J.R.


During the spring of 1998, not long before the American release of Small Soldiers, I happened upon “The Toys of Peace,” a wise and wicked tale by Saki included in A. S. Byatt’s recent collection, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Set in 1914, it recounts the noble and doomed efforts of the hero to interest his two nephews, aged nine and ten, in “peace toys”: models of a municipal dustbin and the Manchester branch of the YWCA, lead figurines of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, and a district councillor. Forty minutes later, he looks in on the boys and finds that they’ve converted these objects into war toys: the municipal dustbin punctured with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannons, Mill dipped in red ink to approximate an eighteenth‐century French colonel, with a grisly game plan mapped out to yield a maximum amount of bloodshed, including the remainder of the red ink splashed against the side of the YWCA building.

Read more »

Reflections on “Rivette in Context”

From Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, Volume 1, No. 1, 2012 (a Spanish academic online journal, available at — J.R.

“Rivette in Context” had two separate incarnations, occurring a year and a half apart. The first consisted of 28 programs presented at London’s National Film Theatre in August 1977, to accompany the publication of Rivette: Texts and Interviews – a 101-page book I had edited for the British Film Institute while still working on the staffs of two of its magazines, Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound, in 1976.

This book included a polemical Introduction by me and translations — most of them by my London flat mate, Tom Milne — of two lengthy interviews with Rivette (one in 1968 that was centered on L’amour fou, the other in 1973 that was centered on the two separate versions of Out 1), three key critical texts by him (“Letter on Rossellini,” 1955; “The Hand” [on Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt], 1957, and “Montage” [with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre], 1969), and a brief, undated proposal of his from the mid-1970s (“For the Shooting of Les Filles du Feu” — the latter was the working title for a projected series of four features, never completed, that was subsequently retitled Scènes de la Vie Parallèle).… Read more »

THE LADIES MAN (1961) (upgraded, 5/25/13)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

Jerry Lewis’s opulent second feature as a director
(1961), in some ways his most ambitious (and his first
in color), is also the one that has the most to say
about his character’s sexual hysteria, intensified once
the hero discovers that he’s been hired to work as
houseboy in a boarding house full of sexy young aspiring
actresses -– all of whom are initially seen simultaneously
in their separate rooms as part of a single gigantic
dollhouse set occupying two soundstages at
Paramount. (To keep track of both this set and his
own performance, Lewis invented the video assist, a
filmmaking technique used in Hollywood filmmaking
ever since.) Furthermore, Lewis’s talent for freeform
psychic fantasy, which clearly distinguishes his
work from the social satire and narrative motivations
of Frank Tashlin, reaches a kind of apogee here when
he encounters a Bat Lady (shades of Artists and
) lurking inside a “forbidden” room, along
with the Harry James Orchestra. And his character is
no less free to dance with George Raft (playing himself)
in another sequence.… Read more »

American in Paris

This appeared in the December 8, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.


At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is under siege — and not only from yahoos like Jesse Helms, but also from certain anarchists, leftists, and intellectuals — the general paucity of information and understanding about national funding of the arts in other countries only helps to underline how isolationist this country has become in cultural matters. As a rule, our overseas news coverage and our access to foreign films both seem to operate according to the same chillingly reductive circular reasoning: if people don’t already know about something or understand it, they aren’t likely to be interested.

Thus reports last spring of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square routinely assumed that any popular sentiments in China that didn’t support the status quo automatically had to be “pro-democracy”; a lifetime of U.S. reporting has been devoted to the principle that only two political positions exist in the world, not three or six or 30 or 600. By the same token, most of the foreign films that we wind up seeing are those that support rather than challenge our generally clichéd notions of what other countries are like.… Read more »