Monthly Archives: September 2019

McCarthy’s Law: Review of IDEAS AND THE NOVEL

This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.

McCarthy’s Law

Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95

Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel.… Read more »

Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!

 

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This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression-era musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman, with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception owes something to Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights, but the editing and mise en scene are genuinely inspired and inventive. (The parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” must be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite, and Richard Day’s art deco sets are striking. 82 min. 2019 postscript: According to the late Pierre Rissient, much of this film’s brilliance can be credited to the preproduction work on it done by Harry d’Arrast. (JR)

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Slacker

For the Chicago Reader (August 23, 1991). Fortunately, I’ve been to Austin quite a few times since I wrote this review. — J.R.

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slackerconspiracynerdprettygirlbookstoregood

Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable first feature takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (all of it scripted by Linklater, though it often seems improvised). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation on The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly localized sense of community. I’ve never been to Austin, but this movie certainly makes me want to pay a visit (1990).… Read more »

In The Cut

From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.

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One can easily pick apart this Jane Campion adaptation of a thriller by Susanna Moore: it isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and certain details — like the heroine assigning Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to her inner-city high school students — come across as just plain silly. But I still consider this the best (which also means the sexiest) Campion feature since The Piano, featuring Meg Ryan’s finest performance to date and an impressive one by Mark Ruffalo. Scripted by Moore and Campion, it takes on the unfashionable question of what sex means for a single woman drifting into middle age, and what it says on the subject veers from the obvious to the novel. Campion is better with moods than with plot, and her capable handling of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and an uncredited Kevin Bacon) ameliorates the hyperbolic characters they’re asked to play. R, 118 min. (JR)

in_the_cut_03Read more »

Gentile Persuasion [SCHINDLER’S LIST]

From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 1993), also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

SCHINDLER’S LIST

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Steven Zaillian

With Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.

The ideological structures of Spielberg’s films “hail” the spectator into a world of the obvious that affirms the viewer’s presence (even while dissolving it), affirms that what the viewer has always believed or hoped is (obviously) right and accessible, and assures the viewer excitement and comfort in the process. The films offer nothing new beyond their spectacle, nothing the viewer does not already want, does not immediately accept. That is their conservative power, and it has spread throughout the cinema of the 80s. — Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (1988)

Confessions are in order. From Duel to Jurassic Park, there are few Steven Spielberg movies I admire, and none I fully respect — though I respond to a good many of them as obediently as any well-oiled automaton. My first look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually brought tears to my eyes. I can’t say that on reflection I felt much pride in this response, though the experience of becoming a boy again in relation to the imagined parental benevolence of the cosmos — which also happens with Ray Bradbury’s best early tales about Mars — may be morally preferable to feeding on the murderous xenophobia of Star Wars, released the same year (1977); at worst one winds up feeling silly rather than dirty afterward.… Read more »

Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1997). — J.R.

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After 30 years of cryogenic preservation, the title hero (a spin-off of James Bond and his clones) and his archenemy Dr. Evil — both played by writer and coproducer Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) — emerge in the present to match wits all over again. What’s really fun about this silly but spirited comedy isn’t just the ribbing of swinging London fashion and social attitudes but the use of the compulsive zooms and split-screen mosaics of commercial movies of the 60s (some of the funniest gags derive from camera placement). There’s a bit of fudging when it comes to the romantic interest: sidekick Elizabeth Hurley initially blanches at Austin Powers’s advances but succumbs as soon as he treats her to a night on the town in Las Vegas, complete with champagne and Burt Bacharach. But 60s (and 50s) icons like Robert Wagner and Michael York (playing someone called Basil Exposition) make this exercise in historical relativity even funnier. Jay Roach directed with just the right amount of period tackiness. With Mimi Rogers, Seth Green, and Fabiana Udenio (as Alotta Fagina). (JR)

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On Andrea Gronvall

Here’s the substance of two emails I recently sent to an obit writer at the Tribune:

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Once Upon a Time, Cinema

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1993). — J.R.

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An entertaining if somewhat uneven departure by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this 1992 film can be regarded in part as a kind of peace offering to the Iranian government after the banning of his two previous features. A fantasy about the birth of Iranian cinema, full of whimsical special effects and wacky magical-realism conceits, it’s centered on an early cinematographer (Mehdi Hashemi) — modeled loosely and rather awkwardly on Chaplin’s tramp figure — who introduces movies to the Persian court, gradually winning over the shah (Ezatollah Entezami) after the ruler falls for an actress (Fatemeh Motamed Aria, literally dropping from the screen into the palace). Quirkily inventive and unpredictable, the film concludes with a sentimental anthology of clips celebrating the history of Iranian cinema that calls to mind Oscar night; before this, much more interesting use is made of a silent film identified by Makhmalbaf as the first Iranian movie, Ebrahim Khan’s Hajagha, the Film Actor. In Farsi with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)

ONCE UPON A TIME CINEMA by Mohsen MakhmalbafRead more »

Low Budget, Real Life [MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND]

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

** MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Eric Schaeffer and Donal Lardner Ward

With Schaeffer, Ward, Lisa Gerstein, Dana Wheeler Nicholson, Debra Clein, Sheila Jaffe, John Sayles, Martha Plimpton, Phoebe Cates, and Casey Siemaszko.

As a member of the New York film festival’s selection committee, I’ve seen or sampled close to 150 films (shorts and features) this summer that haven’t yet opened in the United States, about a quarter of them American. And I’ve come to a few rough conclusions about the differences between new American movies and those recently made elsewhere, and had a few thoughts about trends in American studio and independent pictures. All of them are fairly depressing.

One major difference between foreign and American fiction features stands out: those made in other countries tend to be about how people live today, and those made here tend to be anything but. The few American movies that spring to mind as exceptions are already being regarded within the business as uncommercial — difficult, marginal works earmarked for “special” audiences.

This state of affairs is partly the result of new definitions of “universality” developed by the studios over the past several years, which generally suppose that the ideal movie viewer has the taste and sensibility of a ten-year-old boy: think of the well-received Speed, Forrest Gump, and True Lies, for instance, none of which betrays a view of the adult world any more developed than those in The Lion King and The Mask.… Read more »

The Actor

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

THE ACTOR by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

This 1993 film by the eclectic and talented Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed) is a contemporary semitragic farce about a burly film actor who wants to act only in art films but is forced by his family’s economic demands to do a string of trashy commercial movies. His tormented wife, infertile and obsessed with having a baby, insists that her husband marry and impregnate a second wife, a deaf-mute Gypsy, to provide them with a child. What keeps this picture frenetic, apart from the hysterical action and satirical treatment of the Iranian media, is the couple’s surreal, high-tech home and Makhmalbaf’s hyperbolic, eccentric mise en scene, which fit together hand and glove (as they were undoubtedly designed to do). The three lead actors — Akbar Abdi (playing some version of himself), Fatemeh Motamed Aria, and Mahaya Petrossian — were all in Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf’s previous feature; there appear to be some cross-references (such as the hero’s Chaplin worship), but here the tone is more caustic, the inventiveness more pointed. The meanings of both films are less than entirely clear, but my hunch is that each is a comic allegory about the rift between traditional and contemporary Iran, in which class differences and cultural differences are equally pertinent.… Read more »

Paris Journal, Spring 1972 (Paris moviegoing, MODERN TIMES)

This was the second column I wrote for Film Comment, when that magazine was still a quarterly. It became a bimonthly the following year, and for a span of about seven or eight years, I wrote a column for almost every issue: initially a Paris Journal, it later became a London Journal, and finally, after I moved back to the states, a column known as “Moving” that more or less concluded with a piece that became the “prelude” in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1995). –J.R.

 

According to the current issue of  Pariscope -– an indispensable guide to local moviegoing — 260 films will have public screenings in Paris this week: 217 at commercial theaters, and 43 at the two Cinémathèques. By rough count, only 67 of these (about one fourth) are French. A hundred more are American, and the remaining 93 are split between fifteen other nationalities. Of the non-French films, approximately 40% are subtitled; except for a dozen or so at the Cinémathèques that will be shown without translation, the rest are dubbed.

It is possible that New York is beginning to surpass Paris in the number of interesting films that one can see.… Read more »

Richie’s Ozu: Our Prehistoric Present (Part 3)

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Unfortunately, Richie’s division of Ozu into successive stages of ‘creation’ inevitably leads to the erection of a Platonic ideal, an all-purpose model of ‘the’ Ozu film — an unrigorous model indeed when what one concretely has to contend with are films, each with its own peculiar set of conditions and stresses. Since Richie has more production details about the later films, these tend to dictate most of the dimensions of the model, and the lost films implicitly become subsumed in the same homogenising process whenever Richie speaks about the entire body of the work. The usual approach is to lump together examples of certain aspects or procedures, leading to the formulation of such generalities as ‘the Ozu family’. This results in a profusion of catalogues, some quite nonsensical in presumed meanings and applications: ‘Another pastime to which the Ozu family is addicted is toenail cutting, an activity which seems worth mentioning because it occurs possibly more often in Ozu’s pictures (Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn) than in Japanese life.’ In the long run, individual works are made to seem important or unimportant insofar as they help or fail to exemplify the hypothetical model.

 

Problem No.… Read more »

Richie’s Ozu: Our Prehistoric Present (Part 2)

For the beginning of this article, go here

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While one could hardly claim that Days of Youth is a major work, it is at the very least an arresting one, and some of its comedy is on a par with the wonderful opening sequence of Passing Fancy (1933) at a naniwabushi recital (when a stray purse gets surreptitiously picked up, investigated, and tossed around like a beanbag by various spectators until the. entire assemblage, reciter included, is dancing about from an attack of lice). One would expect, then, that any serious Ozu scholar would pay some heed to it. Yet all that Richie has done in Ozu — apart from noting at one point that, like all of Ozu’s subsequent films, it shows actors directly facing the camera — is to expand his original commentary on the film (in Film Comment, Spring 1971) from five words (‘A student comedy about skiing’) to seven: ‘Another student comedy,  this one about skiing.’ And if one searches in his book for something about Tatsuo Saito — an actor who went on to play the father in I Was Born, But . . . (1932), and figured centrally in several of the twenty other Ozu films where he appeared — one finds that he isn’t even listed in the index; in fact, the only reference to him in the entire book is the observation that he ‘keeps rubbing his hip during various scenes’ in Tokyo Chorus.  … Read more »

Richie’s Ozu: Our Prehistoric Present (Part 1)

From the Summer 1975 issue of Sight and Sound. Due to the length of this piece, I’m running it in three parts. I’ve hesitated for years about reprinting this because of its harshness towards the very amiable and sweet-tempered Donald Richie (1924-2013), whom I eventually met and befriended in Tokyo a quarter of a century after writing this piece (and who generously forgave me for having written it after I offered an apology). Even though I can’t say I agree with everything I wrote here — I’m especially dubious about some of Burch’s arguments (and many or all of the passages I quote here from To the Distant Observer, which he was writing at the time, subsequently got edited out of the manuscript) — it holds up better than I suspected it would, which is why I’m posting it here. I tend to think now that the failings of Richie’s book on Ozu are more institutional than personal — that is, a reflection of his unfortunate virtual monopoly on critical discourse in English about Japanese cinema during that period. — J.R.

 

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A few years ago in New York, a lecture by Henri Langlois was announced at the Museum of Modern Art under the rough heading — I quote from memory — of ‘Why We Know Nothing About Cinema’.… Read more »

SHORT AND SUITE (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 492). — J.R.

Short and Suite

 

Canada, 1959 Directors: Norman McLaren, Evelyn Lambert

Dist—BFI. p.c–National Film Board of Canada. visuals–Norman

McLaren, Evelyn Lambert. In color. sp. effects–Arnold Schieman.

m–Eldon Rathburn. performed by–The Buff Estes Group. 450 ft.

5 mins. (35 and 16mm.).

A characteristically bright, giggly and pithy animated short in

the McLaren manner, Short and Suite would probably be better still

if it had more inspired music to work with. Begone Dull Care (1948-

49), thanks to the ebullience and effervescence of Oscar Peterson’s

piano, was closer to a duel than a gloss on a ‘text’; this more modest

foray into synchronized, syncopated doodling plays with and against

a less improvised, less distinctive form of jazz, which is certainly

enhanced and highlighted by the visuals, but is not exactly transcended

by them. Beginning with pink and blue splotches to illustrate the bass

notes, and then clean white lines to match those played by the piano,

the design resolves itself into shifting parallel lines as the clarinet

comes in. Sometimes the lines wiggle or pulsate in strict

accordance with the music (one line reflecting the melody, the

other the rhythm), sometimes they curl into other shapes that

suggest the equivalent of a separate melodic line.… Read more »