Monthly Archives: February 2020

Cannes, 1995

Adapted from “Journal de Cannes,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Trafic, no. 15, été [summer] 1995. — .J.R.

From 1970 to 1973, when I was living in Paris, it was still possible to write Cannes coverage for two magazines, stay in a cheap hotel, and not lose too much money, and last year I was able to start attending again thanks to being on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival. Despite the opening of a new Palais des Festivals in 1983 and the closing or remodeling of various cinemas, the most significant changes to be found here after two decades could arguably be summed up in a single phrase: what we mean when we say “contemporary cinema,” entailing not only what we include but what we leave out. In theory, all the beauty and horrors, the contradictions and paradoxes of world cinema are crammed in two weeks over a few city blocks. But in practice, how can we say with any confidence that Cannes is an accurate précis of anything except the international film business (which includes the press)?

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the biggest difference between the seventies and nineties in Cannes is the matter of whose opinions count the most.… Read more »

The Sound of Silence

Commissioned by Stanley Schtinter in the summer of 2019 for the limited LP release of Carles Santos’ soundtrack score for Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc in early 2020. I received a copy of this LP from Stanley earlier this month — on the final day of a Portabella retrospective in London that began in November, when I gave a lecture at Close-up and Portabella himself, who’d just turned 93, was amiably present.  – J.R.

cuadecuc-vampir

Masterpieces have many possible ports of entry. My own passport into Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) — first seen multiple times at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 1971 and then celebrated in my festival coverage for the Village Voice – was composed of rampant cinephilia crossed with political ignorance, as well as a fascination with William S. Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961-1966), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962-1967) to create scrambled syntax (echoed in Portabella’s capacity to shift his narrative focus within single shots from the Dracula story itself to the filming of it). I knew then that Portabella, one of the Spanish producers of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, had his own passport confiscated as punishment by Francoist Spain, accounting for his absence in Cannes, and that his film was mostly a silent documentary of the shooting of an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by one Jesus Franco, accompanied by musique concrète.… Read more »

DOCTOR DEATH: SEEKER OF SOULS (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 490). — J.R.

U.S.A., 1973
Director: Eddie Saeta

Before dying from an accident, Laura Saunders’ last words to her husband Fred are, “I’ll come back”. Unable to accept her death, Fred visits a number of fake spiritualists and death cultists until a classified ad (“Control your own reincarnation”) leads him to Tana, a friend and former lover of Dr. Death who brings Fred to one of Death’s ‘demonstrations’: a girl scarred by an accident is willingly sawed in half so that her soul can pass into the undamaged body of another women. Death dubs the reawakened corpse Venus and promptly becomes her lover, incurring the jealousy of Tana, who subsequently throws acid in Venus’ face. At a later meeting with Fred, Death explains that he discovered his power — based on a formula kept in an amulet around his neck — 1000 years ago, and his soul has survived ever since by passing into a succession of bodies of various races and both sexes belonging to his murder victims, He offers to revive Laura’s corpse with another woman’s soul for $50,000 and Fred agrees; but when Tana is garishly murdered for this purpose, Fred is appalled, and after Death fails to animate Laura’s body, asks him to keep the money and abandon the project. … Read more »

STAVISKY (production story)

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1973/4). For a subsequent production story about this film written for Film Comment, devoted mainly to a day of studio shooting, go here. –- J.R.

Since the beginning of October, Alain Resnais has been shooting Stavisky, his first feature since Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). ‘When Jorge Semprurn first spoke to me about making a film on Stavisky,’ Resnais said recently, ‘I admitted to him that at the age of twelve, in the Musée Grévin, I stood dreaming before the wax figure of this character, whom I compared to an Arsène Lupin swindling the rich and helping the poor.’

Actually, Serge Alexandre Stavisky (born in Russia as Sacha) was a swindler who sold 40 million francs’ worth of valueless bonds to French workers, but he moved about in high circles. In spite of a shady past, he was generally known in the early 1930s as a respectable financier with first-rate political connections, associated with the municipal pawnshop of Bayonne. When his fraud was discovered in December 1933, he promptly fled, and the police caught up with him in Chamonix the following month. According to official history, he either committed suicide or was murdered by the police, although the latter explanation appears the likelier one: the Paris press rather implausibly reported that he fired two bullets into his head.… Read more »

Bad Blood

From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 2000). — J. R.

mauvais-sang-image-3-1541008253-600x310

One festival brochure describes this 1986 feature as a “dazzling film noir thriller,” yet the distinctive talents of French director Leos Carax have relatively little to do with storytelling. The vaguely paranoid plot concerns a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help them steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus, but the noir and SF trappings are so feeble that they function at best as a framing device, a means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in the wonderful leads, Lavant and Juliette Binoche, which comes to fruition during the former’s lengthy attempt to seduce the latter, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true source of Carax’s style is neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema, with its melancholy, its innocence, its poetics of close-up, gesture, and the mysteries of personality. Bad Blood uses color with a sense of discovery similar to that found in the morbidly beautiful black and white of Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, and its naked emotion and romantic feeling are comparably intense.… Read more »

Aparajito

From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.

Aparajito2

The second installment of Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, fully comprehensible on its own terms, suffers at times from its episodically constructed plot, which follows Apu from the age of ten in the holy city of Banaras (in 1920) to his early adulthood in Calcutta. It also bears the traces of technical problems, which led to a virtually one-to-one shooting ratio for many scenes. But this also happens to be my own favorite film in the trilogy, as well as the reported favorite of Ray’s fellow Bengali directors Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Its treatment of death — specifically the death of Apu’s father toward the beginning of the film and of his mother near the end — is among the most beautiful, mystical, and precise handlings of that subject in all of cinema, worthy of Mizoguchi; in a way the film is little more than a careful contextualizing of these two astonishing sequences. An adaptation of roughly the last fifth of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novel Pather Panchali and the first third of his subsequent novel Aparajita, this benefits as much as the rest of the trilogy from the ravishing “commentary” of Ravi Shankar’s music.… Read more »

Sound and Vision (Films by Marguerite Duras)

From the September 15, 1995 issue of Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Films by Marguerite Duras

It’s surely indicative of the scarcity of Marguerite Duras movies that even a dedicated fan like me has managed to see only seven of them — and for one of those I had to drive 100 miles, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. No Duras film has been distributed in the United States for years, and in preparing this article I wasn’t even able to obtain a complete filmography; my own provisional list includes 20 titles, stretching from La musica in 1966 to Les enfants in 1982.

If one extends this list by adding adaptations (by herself and others) of Duras literary works, the scripts she wrote for other directors, and two films by Benoit Jacquot revolving around Duras, the figure is 31 films, most of them features. So it’s no small achievement that Facets Multimedia (which, thanks to the efforts of Charles Coleman, has recently featured such adventurous fare as Manoel de Oliveira’s Valley of Abraham and an exhaustive Nanni Moretti retrospective) will be showing a dozen films from this list over the next couple of weeks, most of them in brand-new prints and most of them four to six times.… Read more »

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.

http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/large/hash/f5/ff/f5ffe791b8f30b6648204da0e79ac12e.jpg

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.

Acting-in-the-Cinema

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.

BigHistory-title

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

horsemoney-ventura

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 »