From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.
For all his formidable gifts as a performer, Mike Nichols is celebrated mainly as a film director who delivers the goods — which means something only if the goods are worth delivering. Here he’s applied himself to Patrick Marber’s play about two men (Jude Law and Clive Owen) and two women (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman) seducing, betraying, and punishing one another in various combinations. (The women never get it on, but in the film’s funniest sequence Law flirts with Owen while posing as Roberts in a chat room.) As in Nichols’s previous chamber works of romantic and sexual flagellation (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge), the actors are brilliant, the dialogue extremely clever, and the direction assured. But by the end I couldn’t have cared less about any of the characters (2004). R, 98 min. (JR)
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Written in September 2009 for a Criterion’s DVD box set devoted to Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy, released a few months later. — J.R.
Unlike the more aesthetically and intellectually conceived French New Wave, Italian neorealism was above all an ethical initiative — a way of saying that people were important, occasioned by a war that made many of them voiceless, faceless, and nameless victims. But this was, of course, a conviction that carried plenty of aesthetic and intellectual, as well as spiritual, consequences, including some that we’re still mulling over today.
Deliberately or not, Germany Year Zero concludes Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy by posing a kind of philosophical conundrum, a fact already signaled by its title, which he borrowed, with permission, from a book by French sociologist Edgar Morin. It was a title that stumped even Joseph Burstyn and Arthur Mayer, the American producers of Rome Open City and Paisan, and the fact that Rossellini, characteristically trusting his instincts, refused to say what he meant by it eventually encouraged them to back out of the project, which was largely financed by the French government.… Read more »
This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3), in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine’s staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.
Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work
Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published — in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled “Joseph Mankiewicz” and “Pour un cinéma politique”, and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 22, 1990). — J.R.
THE GANG OF FOUR
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent
With Bulle Ogier, Benoit Regent, Laurence Cote, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, Ines de Medeiros, and Nathalie Richard.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento
With Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, and Faviola Elenka Tapia.
In nearly half his films, 6 features out of 13, Jacques Rivette allows his characters only two possibilities. One is work in the theater, specifically rehearsals — an all-enveloping, all-consuming activity that essentially structures one’s life and assumes many of the characteristics of a religious order. The other, more treacherous possibility is involvement in a real or imagined conspiracy outside the theater — a plot or (the French term is more evocative) complot that is hard to detect yet seemingly omnipresent, sinister yet seductive for anyone who strays from the straight and narrow path offered by the rehearsals. Art versus life? Not exactly; a bit more like two kinds of art, or two kinds of life.
Both possibilities convey a sense of forging a fragile meaning over a gaping void.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 1996). — J.R.
My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud
Directed by Gerard Mordillat
Written by Mordillat and Jerome Prieur
With Sami Frey, Marc Barbe, Julie Jezequel, Valerie Jeannet, and Charlotte Valandrey.
Gerard Mordillat’s 1993 French feature My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud, showing this week at the Music Box, can be regarded only nominally as a biopic. Adapted from the diary of an obscure poet, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud (which is also the film’s original, superior title), it tells the story of the poet’s relationship with Artaud over a two-year period, from May 1946 to March 1948, when Artaud died at the age of 52. In 1946 Artaud had just returned to Paris after nine years in an insane asylum, and Jacques Prevel befriended him and procured drugs for him, mainly laudanum, opium, and chloral. But the film has relatively little to say about Artaud’s work, except in passing, and virtually nothing about Prevel’s writing apart from his diary. Shot in beautiful, crisp high-contrast black and white, the movie certainly has something to do with the “life and times” of this bohemian duo — and Sami Frey and Marc Barbe do creditable jobs as Artaud and Prevel.… Read more »
Here are ten of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). – J.R.
1990 / Close Up – The motorcycle ride of Makhmalbaf and Sabzian.
Iran. Director: Abbas Kiarostami. Cast: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hossein Sabzian. Original title: Nema-ye Nazdi.
Why It’s Key: A convicted imposter finally meets the man he’s been impersonating, and they set off together to visit the family that was fooled.
Hossein Babzian, a bookbinder, emerges from a jail sentence for having impersonated famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to ingratiate himself with the well-to-do Ahankhah family, pretending he was planning a movie about them. He’s greeted by the real Makhmalbaf, arriving on his motorbike to take him to visit the Ahankhahs, and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and his crew, who have arranged this meeting, are filming the entire encounter from a distance. We hear them saying that Makhmalbaf’s lapel mike is faulty, and notice that the dialogue between Makhmalbaf and Sabzian (“Do you prefer being Makhmalbaf or being Sabzian? I’m tired of being me”) periodically becomes inaudible — on the street, after Sabzian climbson the back of the motorbike, and when they stop briefly for Sabzian to buy flowers for the Ahankhans.… Read more »
Not on the Lips
Directed by Alain Resnais
Written by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain
With Sabine Azema, Isabelle Nanty, Audrey Tautou, Pierre Arditi, Jalil Lespert, Daniel Prevost, Lambert Wilson, and Darry Cowl
Alain Resnais’ latest feature, Not on the Lips (2003), apparently won’t be shown in commercial theaters in this country. I can’t think of another French movie that’s given me as much pleasure in years—it’s his best since Melo (1986) and surely his most accessible to American audiences. It is showing twice this week in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union festival, and its U.S. distributor, Wellspring, will bring it out on DVD on March 22. DVDs are now more profitable than ticket sales, so I suppose it’s understandable that Wellspring doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a theatrical release. But this movie’s gorgeous visuals are still best seen first on a big screen.
In any case, this delightfully eccentric film of a 1925 French operetta, with its English subtitles laid out in rhyming couplets, can be enjoyed in any format. It has a harmonically rich score, which Resnais calls “brisk and hilariously jubilant,” and it’s brilliantly orchestrated by Bruno Fontaine, featuring counterpoint by Maurice Yvain that’s as lively as the wordplay in Andre Barde’s lyrics.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope #20 (Autumn 2004). — J.R.
One of the most flagrant lacks in most jazz films is the spectacle of musicians listening to each another. Back in the early 60s, when I was frequenting a lot of downtown Manhattan jazz clubs, some of my biggest thrills came from visiting spots where many of the best and most attentive listeners were those on the bandstand —- not only the classic John Coltrane Quartet at the now defunct Half Note, where McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and the serene leader were all meditating on one another’s solos in a kind of trance, but Lennie Tristano at the same club taping his own sets with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and then playing them back in the wee hours, while he sat alone at the bar. Sitting a few seats away from him one night, I felt I was getting an education in listening by observing this prodigious blind pianist’s highly physical responses, both positive and negative, to his own solos.
No less precious was the opportunity to attend the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place one weeknight when Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones were all holding forth in alternation with Teddy Wilson’s trio for (I kid you not) the price of a one-dollar admission, at least for students.… Read more »
This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.
Considering how romantic it is, how sad and funny and charming, it is a sobering fact that François Truffaut’s second feature –- and the first one that qualifies as a quintessential New Wave expression — was a disaster at the boxoffice. Indeed, if this eccentric adaptation of David Goddis’s 1956 crime novel Down There illustrated any general commercial principle, this may be that one subverts overall genre expectations at one’s peril. For Tirez sur le pianiste is a film noir that literally turns white (through such images as piano keys or a snowy hillside) when the plot is at its darkest, and one that sometimes interrupts the viewer’s laughter with a disquieting catch in the throat.
The opening sequence already sends out bewildering crossed signals. A man fleeing in panic through dark city streets at night collides with a streetlight, then finds himself talking quite calmly with a sympathetic stranger –- a character who exits the movie immediately thereafter -– about the latter’s love for his wife. Moreover, while the fluid and flexible black-and-white cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is in the anamorphic process Dyaliscope, the ambience is cramped and cozy in the best low-budget tradition.… Read more »
A program note for the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival. — J.R.
In this intense drama of courage and humanity in the face of the brutality of slavery, a plantation slave named Nightjohn (Carl Lumblv) defies the law by teaching another slave, a l2-year-old girl named Sammy (Allison Jones), how to read and write. The only other slave on the plantation who even knows the alphabet had a thumb and forefinger chopped off as punishment. Working with a theme akin to that of Ray Bradbury’s novel (and François Truffaut’s film) Fahrenheit 451 – though it’s given a substantially different edge by being set in the past rather than the future — Nightjohn views illiteracy as a central adjunct of slavery. The film isn’t merely a history lesson about people who lived some 165 years ago but a story with immediate relevance. Part of what’s so wonderful about it is its use of fairy-tale feeling to focus on real-life issues, not to evade or obfuscate them. Nightjohn’s ambience is placed at the service of myth — myth that embodies a lucid understanding of both slavery and literacy. Sammy and Nightjohn may sometimes come across as superhuman, but the world they inhabit and seek to change is in no sense fanciful.… Read more »
From the November 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Widely regarded as Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece (though I’d place it below The Pearls of the Crown), this 1936 tour de force can be regarded as a kind of concerto for the writer-director-performer’s special brand of brittle cleverness. After a credits sequence that introduces us to the film’s cast and crew, Guitry settles into a flashback account of how the title hero learned to benefit from cheating over the course of his life. A notoriously anticinematic cineaste whose first love was theater, Guitry nevertheless had a flair for cinematic high jinks when it came to adapting his plays (or in this case a novel) to film, and most of this movie registers as a rather lively and stylishly inventive silent film, with Guitry’s character serving as offscreen lecturer. Francois Truffaut was sufficiently impressed to dub Guitry a French brother of Lubitsch, though Guitry clearly differs from this master of continental romance in that his own personality invariably overwhelms his characters. In French with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)
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This was written for and published in Stop Smiling no. 34, a special jazz issue, dated February 2008. –J.R.
Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Jazz musicians who like to cross-reference the history of their art rather than simply steal licks from their role models are probably even more plentiful than film directors who do “homages” to favorite sequences and directors. The musicians also generally do a better job of mixing their own style with that of their models than Hollywood directors do when they strive to reproduce particular shots. Closer to Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais than to, say, Peter Bogdanovich or Brian De Palma, they invariably bring something of their own to the table, transforming our sense of the original in the process. Every time Dave Brubeck chooses to shift to stride piano, he’s saying something sweet about his predecessors, and whenever Charles Mingus gave us patches of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, or Charlie Parker in one of his multifaceted compositions, he was doing a more elaborate version of the same thing.
Some jazz pianists — including a few of the most distinctive ones, like McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett — even go so far as to put together entire albums composed of “tributes” to some of their colleagues.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray of this film has a lot of interesting material about the changes made by Truffaut to Bernard Herrmann’s score. — J.R.
Despite the dedication of this 1967 film to Hitchcock and the use of his most distinguished collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Francois Truffaut’s first Cornell Woolrich adaptation — the second was Mississippi Mermaid — is most memorable for lyrical moods and poetic flights of fancy that don’t seem especially Hitchcockian. Jeanne Moreau stalks gracefully through the film, wooing and dispatching a series of men like an avenging angel whose motivating obsession is spelled out only gradually; among her prey are Claude Rich, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, and Charles Denner. Basically an exercice de style, and a good one at that. In French with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (February 9, 1990). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles.
Mastery is a rare commodity in American movies these days, in matters both large and small, so when a poetic master working on a small scale comes into view, it’s reason to sit up and take notice. Jim Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1984 and catapulted him from the position of an obscure New York independent with a European cult following — on the basis of his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) — to international stardom.
As the first — and so far only — filmmaker informed by the New York minimalist aesthetic to make a sizable mainstream splash, Jarmusch had a lot riding on his next films, and he has acquitted himself admirably. He hasn’t sold out to Hollywood or diluted his style, and, unlike most of the few other contemporary American independents to make it big, he has managed to maintain rigorous control over every aspect of his work, from script to production to distribution.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1989). I was extremely disappointed in the revised version of this film that was released about sixteen years later, which I also reviewed in the Reader, because I believe it essentially effaced or distorted many of the virtues I found in the original film. (One can find my arguments about this here.) — J.R.
Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn.
By and large, painting and cinema have always tended to be uneasy bedfellows. To film a stationary canvas with a stationary camera is to deprive the viewer of both the movement possible in film and the movement possible to the viewer of a painting in a studio or gallery. On the other hand, to find a stationary canvas with a camera in motion is to impose an itinerary on the painting in question, thereby limiting the reading of the individual viewer.
While there are a handful of interesting and respectable art documentaries in the history of film, such as Alain Resnais’ Van Gogh (1948) and Gauguin (1950), and Sergei Paradjanov’s recent Arabesques Around a Pirosmani Theme – all three of which significantly happen to be shorts — the overall failure of film to record a painter’s work without recourse to a gliding Cook’s tour or a mincemeat dissection of the work in question has been far from encouraging.… Read more »