Yearly Archives: 2020

Gee, Dad, It’s a Wurtlitzer (Review of SLOW FADE)

This book review appeared in the December 14, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Reader. For more on Wurlitzer, readers are invited to check out my reviews of Walker and Candy Mountain in the Chicago Reader, both available on this site, as well as a more comprehensive piece about his work as a novelist and screenwriter, published in Written By.  — J.R.

 

 

Slow Fade

By Rudolph Wurlitzer

Alfred A. Knopf: $13.95

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

The difference between the art novel and the Hollywood novel can be as vast as the reaches between the East coast and the West coast, and any effort to wed the two in a shotgun marriage is liable to blow up in one’s face. Slow Fade, while an exceptionally and deceptively easy read, is far from being an easy book — which is one of the best things about it. That’s probably what Michael Herr means by “dangerous” in his jacket-blurb patter: “Slow Fade comes out of the space between real life and the movies and closes it up for good. A great book: beautiful, funny, and dangerous.” Any novel that begins with one character losing an eye and ends up with another losing his index finger is bound to be fraught with scary Oedipal tensions, and Slow Fade goes out of its way to make the most out of them.… Read more »

Robert Frank’s ONE HOUR (1990)

Commissioned by and published in Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, a 2009 German retrospective catalogue published in English. You can see a few brief glimpses of the video in the fascinating recent documentary Don’t Blink — Robert Frank. It was produced by Philippe Grandrieux for French television. — J.R.

“I’ve seen La chouette aveugle seven times,” Luc Moullet once wrote of Raúl Ruiz’s intractable masterpiece, “and I know a little less about the film with each viewing.” Apart from being both intractable and a masterpiece, I can’t say Robert Frank’s One Hour [also sometimes known as Sixty Minutes)  has anything in common with the Ruiz film, yet what makes it a masterpiece and intractable is the same paradox: the closer I come to understanding it, the more mysterious it gets.

My first look at this single-take account of Frank and actor Kevin O’Connor either walking or riding in the back of a mini-van through a few blocks of Manhattan”s Lower East Side — shot between 3:45 and 4:45 pm on July 26, 1990 — led me to interpret it as a spatial event capturing the somewhat uncanny coziness and intimacy of New York street life, the curious experience of eavesdropping involuntarily on strangers that seems an essential part of being in Manhattan, an island where so many people are crammed together that the existential challenge of everyday coexistence between them seems central to the city’s energy and excitement.… Read more »

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1977, Vol. 44, No. 516. Both this film and Mekas’s earlier diary film Walden (1969) have been released together on a Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. –- J.R.

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

U.S.A. ,1975
Director: Jonas Mekas

Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c /p/sc/ph–Jonas Mekas. addit. ph–Charles Levine, David Brooks, Peter Beard, Ken Jacobs. Part in colour. ed–Jonas Mekas. m/songs–including piano music by Chopin, “Abschied” by Schubert, traditional Lithuanian music, “Kiss of Fire” by Lester Allen, Robert Hill, excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal”,“How Deep Is the Ocean” by Irving Berlin, music by Lucia Dlugoszewski. sd/narrator–Jonas Mekas. with–(Reels 1-6) Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas; (Reel 2) Prof. Pakstas, Juozas Tysliava, Stepas Kairys, Zadeikis, George Maciunas and family, Faustas Kirsa, Aleksandra Kasuba, Vytautas Kasuba, Vladas Jakubenas, Jeronimas Kacinskas; (Reel 3) Gideon Bachmann, Dorothy Brown, Sidney Grief, Lily Bennett, Storm De Hirsch, Louis Brigante, George Fenin and son, Arlene Croce, Edouard de Laurot, Ben Carruthers, Leo Adams, Sheldon Rochlin, Frances Starr, Robert Frank, Peter Bogdanovich, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Bremser, Ged Berliner, Dick Bellamy; (Reel 4) Gretchen Weinberg, Herman Weinberg, Dick Preston, Dwight Macdonald, Shirley Clarke, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Robert Hughes, Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, David Stone, Jules Feiffer, Naomi Levine, David Reynolds, Paul Goodman; (Reet 5) Peggy Stefans, Herman Weinberg, Gretchen Weinberg, Marty Greenbaum, Peter Beard, Ed Emshwiller, David Stone, Taylor Mead, Sheila Finn, P.… Read more »

A Personal Account of an Adventure Called Film.Factory (expanded version)

Posted on Sight and Sound‘s web site 18 July 2013, and then expanded (by about 50%) at the request of Trafic‘s Raymond Bellour later that month for its French translation in Trafic #88, published in early December. This has also appeared in German translation in the September 2013 issue of Cargo, and a Spanish translation appeared in mid-August 2014 on Roger Koza’s web site. I’ve slightly updated the version here in a few particulars and added some photos. 

I returned to Film.Factory for my fourth two-week stint to date on October 24, 2015, this time to teach a history of independent cinema around the world. — J.R.

JR at FilmFactory

First of all, what is film.factory?

It’s usually thought of and referred to as a film school that’s been recently set up in Sarajevo, housed at the Sarajevo Film Academy. But Béla Tarr, who created it, isn’t happy with this classification. He’d rather call it a workshop or, as its name suggests, a factory that produces films in which he serves as a producer. And he’d rather speak of the sixteen filmmakers he selected late last year from fourteen countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Faro Islands, Iceland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, the U.K.,… Read more »

Problems of Classification: A Few Traits in Four Films by Ermanno Olmi

Written for A Man Called Ermanno: Olmi’s Cinema and Works, published by Edições Il Sorpasso (in Lisbon) in May 2012. A French translation of this essay has been published in Trafic #91, automne 2014. — J.R.

CAPA-EN-OLMI-copia

For me, the cinema is a state of mind and a process of analysis from a series of detailed observations.
— Ermanno Olmi, from a 1988 interview (1)

1

Ermanno Olmi first became well known as a filmmaker during the period in the early 1960s when the Nouvelle Vague and, more specifically, François Truffaut’s formulation of la politique des auteurs, were near the height of their international influence. Yet it seems that one factor that has limited Olmi’s reputation as an auteur over the half-century that has passed since then is his apparent reluctance and/or inability to remain type-cast in either his choice of film projects or in his execution of them. Indeed, the fact that he repeatedly eludes and/or confounds whatever auteurist profile that criticism elects to construct for him in its effort to classify his artistry results in a periodic neglect of him followed by periodic “rediscoveries”. And these rediscoveries are confused in turn by the fact that each rediscovery of Olmi’s work seems to redefine his profile rather than build on the preceding one.… Read more »

Entertainment as Oppression

From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1988). — J.R.

1. A front-page story in the August 24 Variety begins, “Last week’s Republican National Convention garnered the worst network ratings of any convention in TV history.” An interesting piece of information, but not, as far as I know, one that was noted in daily newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, or on TV. Why does one have to go to Variety to discover this morsel of recent history? Perhaps it has something to do with Variety‘s status as a trade journal. Mainstream print and TV journalism may be part of the entertainment business, but they’re not generally about entertainment in the sense that a publication like Variety is.

The story in Variety goes on to report that both of this summer’s political conventions significantly boosted video rentals; a couple of large video rental chains reported increases in business between 30 and 57 percent. Do we interpret this as an opting for entertainment over news coverage, or as a preference for one kind of entertainment over another? Do we read it as a sign of desperate cynicism, or as a sign of healthy liberation? Or, if we read it as the latter, was it liberation only from the standard TV shows that the conventions were preempting?… Read more »

The Classical Modernist [on Manoel de Oliveira]

Reposted to mourn the death in 2015 of a titan, at age 106. From the July-August 2008 Film Comment, with the subhead “Negotiating the singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira on the eve of his 100th birthday “. — J.R.

 

Films, films,
The best resemble
Great books
That are difficult to penetrate
Because of their richness and depth.

The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
And art
complicated.
— Manoel de Oliveira, “Cinematographic Poem,” 1986 (translated from the Portuguese)

Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.
— Eric Hobsbawm,
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991


To insist that all great filmmakers contain multitudes is to risk a counter-response — that the same might equally be said of the not-so-great. Just as much labor can be expended on bad work as on good, and this applies to the labor of viewers and filmmakers alike.… Read more »

Spike Lee’s Best Movie? [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Spike Lee’s best movie?

Posted By on 01.01.07 at 01:53 PM

If my 20 best list for the past year could have been based purely on artistic criteria rather than on packaging and marketing categories, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts — which premiered on HBO on two consecutive nights in late August, a year after the tragedy in New Orleans—would have belonged somewhere near the top. Although I missed the third act at the time, I’ve recently watched the whole thing on the recently released three-disc DVD box set — which adds a fifth act called “Next Movement” as well as a slide show of photographs called “Water Is Rising,” accompanied (like the documentary itself) by a Terence Blanchard jazz score—and the experience as a whole is so powerful that I’m tempted to call this over four-hour documentary Lee’s masterpiece to date. For its remarkable cast of characters, its comprehensive and even epic treatment of a major catastrophe in all its multidimensional aspects, for its political and ethical clarity (as well as its focused and wholly justifiable anger), and above all, for its soul, it shows a maturity and balance that may be unparalleled in Lee’s work.
Read more »

When Fable and Fact Interact [INDIA MATRI BHUMI]

From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2007). — J.R.

INDIA MATRI BHUMI ****

DIRECTED BY ROBERTO ROSSELLINI

WRITTEN BY ROSSELLINI, SONALI SENROY DAS GUPTA, FEREYDOUN HOVEYDA, AND JEAN L’HOTE

WITH A NONPROFESSIONAL, UNCREDITED CAST

From the beginning film has owed part of its fascination to its ambiguous marriage of documentary and fiction. Just after the war Roberto Rossellini came to prominence as a filmmaker through combinations of this kind. His best-known early works, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), are associated with the style popularly known as Italian neorealism, but through the 50s Rossellini experimented with increasingly adventurous mixes of reality and invention, culminating in 1959 with India Matri Bhumi, whose title means “India, Mother Earth.” It’s a sublime symbiosis of fable and nonfiction that poetically inter-relates humans and animals, city and village, society and nature.

At war’s end Rossellini was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany. But once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues started coming to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. The Bergman films flopped both critically and commercially, though for the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema they were models of personal independent filmmaking that would help spark the French New Wave.… Read more »

Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

This appeared Cinema Scope no. 11 (summer 2002). — J.R.

“You can’t smell email,” Raúl Ruiz insisted to me the night before we had this interview at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, explaining to me why he didn’t have any truck with the Internet. He added that lately he’s been collecting various first editions, excommunications, and death sentences, many of them from the 19th century and earlier, and he can smell all of them.

At first I was surprised by this old-fashioned form of resistance, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raúl is basically a 19th century figure. His largely Borgesian canon of 19th and early 20th century English and American writers (Chesterton, Stevenson, Wells, Harte, Hawthorne, Melville, et al) and his taste for rambling narratives and tales within tales smacks of a Victorian temperament.

I first encountered Ruiz’s work during my first trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival, in 1983, and it was there where we first became friends three years later —- as well as where we had this interview on January 26, in the lobby of the hotel where we were both staying. (Raúl had a small DV camera with him, and from time to time would idly shoot people coming through the hotel’s revolving-door entrance from where we sat a few yards away –- something, he explained, that he needed for his new Chilean TV series.)… Read more »

Spur of the Moment [BEFORE SUNSET]

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 2004). — J.R.

Before Sunset

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke

With Delpy and Hawke.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.”
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time….
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”

— from W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1937)

Richard Linklater, like Wong Kar-wai on the opposite side of the globe, is a lyrical and elegiac filmmaker. In many of his films, as in many of Wong’s, the subject is time — the romance and poetry of moments ticking by, the wonder and anguish of living through and then remembering an hour or a day.

Future generations may look back at Linklater and Wong as poets laureate of the turn of the century who excelled at catching the tenor of their times. In Days of Being Wild and Slacker, Ashes of Time and The Newton Boys, Happy Together and Dazed and Confused, and In the Mood for Love and Before Sunrise they’re especially astute observers of where and who we are in history.… Read more »

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 2005). Nine years later, having recently reseen this fabulous film on Blu-Ray (a beautiful job from Warners, with many enticing extras), I would currently maintain that what I formerly called the “key cinematic sources” should probably have been called key cinematic cross-references — to which one should add Raul Ruiz’s City of Pirates for its own shot which purports to be a view of someone’s teeth from the inside of his mouth. — J.R.

charlieandthechocolatefactory

charlie2

Tim Burton finally fulfills the promise of Beetlejuice (1988) with this imaginative masterpiece, adapted from the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl but characterized by Burton’s special feeling for color, architecture, and nightmarish dislocation. Adapted by John August, this schematic fable of five children invited to tour a mysterious candy factory is well served by the surrealistic design, Johnny Depp’s mannerist performance as the androgynous chocolate tycoon Willy Wonka, and the deft digital wizardry that multiplies actor Deep Roy into the entire workforce of the Wonka factory, performing crazed production numbers. (Among the key cinematic sources here are the ice cream factory in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions and the hyperbolic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) There’s a streak of moralism, but it never becomes as sticky as the candy because the invention never flags.… Read more »

A Man Escaped

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 2005). — J.R.

a-man-escaped

Based on a French lieutenant’s account of his 1942 escape from a gestapo fortress in Lyon, this stately yet uncommonly gripping 1956 feature is my choice as the greatest achievement of Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s foremost artists. (It’s rivaled only by his more corrosive and metaphysical 1970 film Au Hasard Balthazar.) The best of all prison-escape movies, it reconstructs the very notion of freedom through offscreen sounds and defines salvation in terms of painstakingly patient and meticulous effort. Bresson himself spent part of the war in an internment camp and subsequently lived through the German occupation of France, experiences that inform his magisterial grasp of what the concentrated use of sound and image can reveal about souls in hiding. Essential viewing. In French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)

 … Read more »

Mortu Nega

From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

One of the best contemporary war films I know is this singular 1988 feature, the first by Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes (Po di sangui). The first half, as elemental and as unadorned as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, concentrates on women fighting alongside guerrillas at the end of Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence in 1973, attacked by Portuguese helicopters as they travel on foot close to the border. The second half, more diffuse and at times more rhetorical, deals with the ambiguous conditions of the war’s aftermath. The title means “those whom death refused,” and true to that notion the heroine (Bia Gomes) has been fighting for about a decade. Gomes (no relation to the director) manages to convey the loss of her children in a wordless and underplayed moment that shook me to my core. Flora Gomes appears in a cameo as president of a postwar sector. 93 min. Film Center, Saturday, August 12, 4:00, and Thursday, August 17, 6:00.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Read more »

Lessons From a Master

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Abbas Kiarostami

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

This month is an unusually rich one at the Film Center, especially for work that’s generally unavailable. Every Thursday there’s a classic film noir, with the rarely screened ultraminimalist Murder by Contract (1958) a particular highlight. Every Friday and Tuesday there are features by the late mannerist maestro Jean-Pierre Melville — an innovative director of French art movies (The Silence of the Sea, Les enfants terribles) who eventually became a specialist in American-style gangster films (Le doulos, Second Breath, Le samourai) and a homoerotic cult favorite of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. (Catch Melville’s 1965 Second Breath this Friday and marvel at the bizarre sensibility and consummate craft that combine to lovingly duplicate the texture of a cheesy, nondescript Columbia Pictures noir of the 50s.) And best of all is a program devoted to Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, including his four major features, over the next two weekends.

Both the Melville and the Kiarostami retrospectives are close to being complete. The missing Melville titles are 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (his only short film, 1946), When You’ll Read This Letter (1953), and The Elder Ferchaux (1962), but no less than 11 features are showing this month.… Read more »