Yearly Archives: 2020

Potent Pessimism [on Cy Endfield]

From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1992). For more on Endfield, see Brian Neve’s excellent new biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, as well as my subsequent Reader article about him and my essay “Pages from the Endfield File,” which grew out of the preceding two pieces and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. This particular piece has been upgraded in terms of illustrations. — J.R.

FILMS BY CY ENDFIELD

The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people — and himself first of all — with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved. — Jacques Rivette in an interview, circa 1967

Cyril Raker Endfield, who will turn 78 this November, is the sort of filmmaker auteurist critics like to call a “subject for further research.” To the best of my knowledge, he has directed 21 features — the first 7 in the United States between 1946 and 1951, the remainder in England, continental Europe, and South Africa between 1953 and 1971 — and worked on the scripts for most of them, as well as on the scripts of two Joe Palooka films (apart from the two he directed), a Bowery Boys picture (Hard Boiled Mahoney, 1947), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948), a prison picture called Crashout (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), and Zulu Dawn (1979), a sort of prequel to Endfield’s only hit, Zulu (1964).… Read more »

Beyond Bush-Bashing [BOB ROBERTS]

From the Chicago Reader (September 25, 1992). — J.R.

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BOB ROBERTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Tim Robbins

With Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Gore Vidal, Alan Rickman, Bob Balaban, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, James Spader, and Fred Ward.

With Unforgiven unexpectedly topping the box office charts and Bush bashing so popular now that even my favorite comic book, USA Today, seems to do it daily, this appears to be the season of demystification. But I wonder how far the public is prepared to take this process. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival four months ago, I’ve been looking forward to Tim Robbins’s directorial debut, described as an unbridled attack on the Republican glibness and greed of the past dozen years. Clearly the climate is ripe for some good old-fashioned muckraking. But how much of this involves a genuine change in national perception, and how much is it a merely seasonal media construction? As pleased as I am at the media’s apparent recognition of some of Bush’s crimes, it’s hard for me to understand how this squares with the media’s former position that these crimes never took place (as with Iran-contra) or didn’t matter (as with the savings-and-loan scandal) or were heroic deeds showing both restraint and maturity (as with the slaughter in the Persian Gulf).… Read more »

Recommended Listening

Where-Lies

Thanks to Second Run Features, here is a very lucid, informative, and well-recorded conversation between Chris Petit and Pedro Costa about the latter’s 2001 documentary about Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?), which took place at London’s ICA Cinema on January 9:

whereliesyourhiddensmileRead more »

One-Man Armada [on Luis Buñuel]

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2000). — J.R.

 

Films by Luis Buñuel

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

It seems to be universally agreed that Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is the greatest Spanish-language filmmaker we’ve ever had, but getting a clear fix on his peripatetic career isn’t easy. The authorized biography, John Baxter’s 1994 Buñuel, isn’t available in the U.S., and the deplorable English translation of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983), is actually an unacknowledged condensation of the original French text. Better are an interview book translated from Spanish, Objects of Desire, and a recently published translation of selected writings by Buñuel in both Spanish and French, An Unspeakable Betrayal, which includes his priceless, poetic early film criticism.

A more general problem is that Buñuel is not only “simple” and direct but full of teasing, unresolvable ambiguities. A master of the put-on, he often impresses one with his earthy sincerity. A political progressive and unsentimental humanist, he was also, I’ve learned from Baxter, an active gay basher in his youth, and those who’ve read the untranslated but reputedly fascinating memoirs of his widow report that he was a very old-fashioned and prudish male chauvinist throughout his life. He was a onetime devout Catholic who lost his faith in his youth and was fond of exclaiming years later, “Thank God I’m still an atheist!” Yet Orson Welles, who never met him, may have had a point when he said, “He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can, and, of course, he’s very Spanish.… Read more »

Raúl Ruiz’s Interactivity: Some Reflections on His Evolution

Written in late November 2011 for a book on Ruiz published by the Spanish Cinematheque. A shorter version appears with the Blu-Ray of the theatrical version of Mysteries of Lisbon released in 2012 by Music Box Films.  — J.R.

It was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article of mine about Raúl Ruiz quoted in several of his mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Marcel Proust’s Time Regained and Klimt.

This is why some of these latter films disappointed me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself frankly described to me in a 2002 interview as a “capitulation”. With money often comes anxiety about audiences and investors — and, even worse, not always being able to distinguish clearly between the two – and the cheerful freedom from this anxiety that characterized the extraordinary productivity of first two decades Ruiz spent as a Paris-based exile (roughly 1975 to 1997) seemed to be threatened by his escalation to higher budgets.… Read more »

Questions about Film Acting: A Dialogue with James Naremore

Written for the Savannah-based, online Cine-Files in May 2014, posted circa early June, and reprinted here, with their permission (and some added illustrations). — J.R.

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JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: For me, a key part of your argument in Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) occurs in your fourth chapter, “Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance,” when you argue that even a sincere expression of one’s feelings is an actorly performance, “because the expression of ‘true’ feeling is itself a socially conditioned behavior.”  Which then leads you to quote from Brecht:

“One easily forgets that human education proceeds along theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner a child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh….In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grow-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gesture, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” (69)

It seems to me that one reason why acting tends to be neglected in film criticism is that we can too easily confuse it with other elements — writing, directing, the ‘auras” of certain personalities, even certain casting decisions — in much the same way that we’re often confused or misguided about the sources of our own behavior (such as, are we weeping to express sorrow or to produce sorrow?) Or do you see this neglect stemming from other reasons?… Read more »

Something to Talk About

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2008). This was the last of my annual “ten best” pieces for the Reader. — J.R.

If I were playing by the usual rules, the contenders for my best of 2007 list would be drawn from the titles only millionaires could afford to promote. In that case, I would say 2007 was the worst year for new movies I could remember. But I’d be fudging, because I didn’t come close to seeing all the contenders.

Who did? Film Comment recently put together a list of eligible titles for its own annual poll. It’s 105 pages long, with roughly 23 films per page — more than 2,400 titles. “Major studios” released 119 films, or about one-twentieth of the total (I saw 33 of them), and 49 more came from “specialty divisions” (I saw 22 of those). “Independent distributors” were behind nearly 500 (90 of which I saw). The remaining 1,600-plus titles came out of festivals (where I saw about 50 not included in the other lists).

At least 30 of the movies I saw were so forgettable that I had to look them up in the Reader’s movie database to remind myself what they were about.… Read more »

En movimiento: Big History, Mixed Signals

Written in September 2014  for my December “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

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Big-History-Complexity-still

Last September, I ordered from Amazon a three-disc DVD box set released by Lionsgate called Big History consisting of 17 episodes lasting almost seven and a half hours.  My curiosity was spurred by an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times Magazine about billionaire Bill Gates enthusiastically discovering this package — a college course taught by Australian professor David Christian — while working out in his private gym, and then deciding to use this TV series to try to revolutionize the teaching of history in both American high schools and colleges.

Locke

Adieu-au-langage-Jean-Luc-Godard

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To my amazement, and in spite of all my qualms, Big History proves to be one of the most exciting things I’ve seen this year — not as moral instruction or as a technical tour de force (unlike Steven Knight’s Locke, which resurrects the heroism  of the great Westerns, or Godard’s Adieu au langage, which reinvents 3-D) and not as distilled and hallucinatory poetry (unlike Pedro Costa’s Horse Money), but as a series of lucid pedagogical lessons, especially welcome for someone like me who has always been weak in science.… Read more »

Paris Journal (Spring 1972)

From Film Comment (Spring 1972). — 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. Yet the paradox remains that, if one excludes television – an incomplete form of film-watching at best – Paris maintains a decisive edge in narrative American cinema. To list only a dozen of the current undubbed features, is there anywhere else in the world where one can see ANATOMY OF A MURDER, ALL ABOUT EVE, DUCK SOUP, EASTER PARADE, MODERN TIMES, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, SCARFACE, STAGECOACH, THE STRONG MAN, TABU, and THE WEDDING MARCH in a single week?

Aside from this particular kind of richness, there are pleasures, courtesies, and conveniences – as well as a few irritations – involved with Parisian moviegoing that one takes for granted here, but would not expect to find in the states.… Read more »

Letter to VIDEO WATCHDOG (1992)

This was (mainly) published in Video Watchdog‘s July/August 1992 issue, with an accidentally deleted passage included in the errata section of their September-October 1992 issue.  -– J.R.

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A brief note of clarification about my liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT -– cited and questioned by Tim Lucas at the beginning of his excellent article [VW 10: 42-60]. The only reason why I failed to mention a third and (in my opinion) better version of MR. ARKADIN in these notes –- a version discussed by Lucas elsewhere in this issue –- is that I was under strict instructions from Criterion not to bring this matter up. I reluctantly agreed to this suppression of information only because I knew I would be writing about this version elsewhere (in [the January-February 1992 issue of] Film Comment), and I’m mentioning this anecdote now because I think it dramatizes the thin line separating criticism from publicity in most liner notes -– a general problem that readers of this magazine should be alerted to.

I don’t wish to denigrate the often fine work done by Criterion in making many important works available, but I do believe that the level of scholarship that’s attainable in commercial enterprises of this sort varies considerably from case to case.… Read more »

JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1973 review)

From The Real Paper (January 17, 1973).

As I recall, this was my only contribution to this Boston alternative weekly, commissioned by the late Stuart Byron. He asked me to review the film because I was the only colleague of his who defended it when it was shown at the 1972 New York Film Festival, where everyone else, at least within his earshot, considered it an unmitigated disaster — which probably accounts in part for my defensive, almost apologetic tone, which I now regret. I suspect that part of my  problem with conceptualizing the film came from my confusion of “science fiction” with the French category of “fantastique,” which incorporates Surrealism and its tolerance for fantasy as well as science fiction. So it’s gratifying to see Manohla Dargis declaring the film a masterpiece at the time of its early 2014 run at New York’s Film Forum, and doing an infinitely better job of saying why than I was able to muster 40-odd years earlier, writing from Paris….Fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are urged to check out this film, in many ways its major inspiration. –  J.R.

 

At first glance, Alain Resnais’ fifth feature seems as sharp a decline from La Guerre est finie, his previous film, as that one was from Muriel.… Read more »

The Second Civil War

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 2006). — J.R.

The2ndCivilWar

Properly speaking, this skillful made-for-cable satire (1997, 100 min.) directed by Joe Dante qualifies as the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy, preceded by Matinee (1993) and followed by Small Soldiers (1998). Viewers who consider it the best of the threesome may have a point, though its lack of a theatrical run in this U.S. makes it somewhat better known overseas. Beau Bridges plays the governor of Idaho who decides to close his state borders to a plane full of Pakistani orphans fleeing a nuclear disaster, and the action is crosscut with national government deliberations (James Coburn as a Presidential advisor) and various kinds of frantic media spin (Dan Hedaya as a network news director). Barry Levinson set this project in motion, so the parallels with Wag the Dog aren’t accidental, but one of the essential ingredients brought to it by Dante, the least Swiftian of satirists, is that nobody’s a villain, even when behaving like an idiot and/or a hypocrite. (The governor, for instance, plays shamelessly to his xenophobic constituency while remaining smitten with his Mexican mistress, a reporter played by Elizabeth Pena, and the movie is determined to view him simply as a lovable asshole.) With Joanna Cassidy, Kevin Dunn, James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, the late Phil Hartman, Brian Keith, and other Dante regulars, including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, and Roger Corman.… Read more »

Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91). -– J.R.

It’s no secret that serious film criticism in print has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while ‘entertainment news’, bite-size reviewing and other forms of promotion in the media have been steadily expanding. (I’m not including academic film criticism, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field which has developed a rhetoric and tradition of its own-the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating recent book, Making Meaning) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, and in some cases supplanting the sort of work which used to appear only in print.

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran. The problem with these efforts is that they further blur the distinction between advertising and criticism, and thus make it even harder for ordinary viewers to determine whether they are being informed about something or simply being sold a bill of goods. What I have in mind are films about films and film-makers which seriously analyse or document their subjects.… Read more »

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: Jerry Lewis’s Masterpiece

It seems that I wrote (or completed) this in October 1999, for the American Movie Classics monthly magazine (I don’t recall which issue). — J.R.

 

The Nutty Professor (1963) — Jerry Lewis’s fourth and in some ways best constructed feature as writer-director-performer — is one of the finest versions of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story that we have, and not only because it happens to be the funniest. (It’s also the one with the best music: Les Brown’s band, and memorable versions of both “Stella by Starlight” and “That Old Black Magic”.) A good deal subtler than the raucous Eddie Murphy remake (1996), it illustrates the troubling perception that most of us prefer egotistical bullies to shy, sweet-tempered klutzes. It also provides us with an excellent opportunity for reassessing a multifaceted artist who has seldom received his due in this country.

Critical opinion has often described the overbearing Buddy Love, Lewis’s Mr. Hyde, as a reincarnation of Dean Martin, six years after the decisive breakup of the Martin and Lewis duo. Superficially this sounds like an ingenious notion, but in fact it misses the mark. Part of what’s so disturbing about Buddy Love — making his belated entrance about a third of the way through The Nutty Professor as a romantic stand-in for Julius Kelp, Lewis’s bumbling version of Dr.… Read more »

West Beirut

From the November 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WestBeirut

Quentin Tarantino’s cameraman, Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, wrote and directed this autobiographical first feature (1998) about his early teens in Beirut — set in 1975, during the onset of the country’s civil war — and cast his younger brother Rami as himself. In fact, Doueiri scores with every member of his wonderful cast, which consists of nonprofessionals in the child roles and seasoned veterans playing the grown-ups. This is one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen, largely because the characters are so full-bodied and believable without falling into predictable patterns. The excellent score is by Stewart Copeland. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)

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