Monthly Archives: January 2021

Chicago

A bored festival report that I did for Cinemaya, Winter 1991-1992. -– J.R.

The Chicago International Film Festival is now 27 years old, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the U.S. because its founder, Michael Kutza, has remained its director, it might be said to have retained its overall focus — or, in fact ,the lack of focus — since the beginning, which might be described as an emphasis on quantity rather than a discernible critical position. (Having moved to Chicago in 1987, I’ve been present only for the last five festivals, but local critics who have been around much longer assure me that it hasn’t gone through any radical changes.)

To cite one instance of what I mean, it is the only festival that comes to mind that has consciously and deliberately programmed bad films on occasion for their camp appeal. Certain other titles often appear to be picked at random, and the festival has at times shown enough inattentiveness to various year-long non-commercial film venues in Chicago to reprogram certain films that have already been shown at the Art Institute’s Film Center or Facets Multimedia Center.

One hundred and twenty features were scheduled at the festival in 1991, and while a few of these never turned up, there were still many more films shown over 15 days in mid-October than the critics knew what to do with.… Read more »

Naked Lunch

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1992). — J.R.

David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece since Videodrome breaks every rule in the book when it comes to adapting a literary classic — perhaps On Naked Lunch would be a more accurate title — but justifies every transgression with its artistry and sheer audacity. Adapted not only from William S. Burroughs’s free-for novel but also from several other Burroughs works (e.g., Exterminator and the introduction to Queer), it pares away all the social satire and everything that might qualify as celebration of gay sex, yielding a complex and highly subjective portrait of Burroughs himself (expertly played, under his William Lee pseudonym, by Peter Weller) as a tortured sensibility in flight from his own femininity, who proceeds zombielike through an echo chamber of projections (insects, drugs, and typewriters) and disavowals. According to the densely compacted metaphors that compose this dreamlike movie, writing equals drugs equals sex, and William Lee, as politically incorrect as Burroughs himself, repeatedly disavows his involvement in all three activities. Maybe it’s Cronenberg himself who’s doing all the disavowing; like David Lynch, his imagination seems to depend on ideological unawareness, but here, at least, it produces the most ravishing head movie since Eraserhead.… Read more »

Hoodlum Soldier

From the Chicago Reader. I’ve lost track of when this was published, but I know it wasn’t in October 1985, which is listed on the Reader’s web site — over two years before I joined the staff there.  I would guess this probably appeared around fourteen years later. — J.R.

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I’ve seen about a dozen of the 57 features directed by the fascinating and criminally neglected Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), and while no two are alike in style, many are socially subversive and most skirt the edges of exploitation filmmaking. This 1965 black-and-white ‘Scope comedy is also known as Yakuza Soldier; Shintaro Katsu, star of the popular Zatoichi films, plays an amiable, earthy yakuza thug drafted into Japan’s war with Manchuria prior to World War II, during which his main companion, the story’s narrator, is an intellectual with a similarly jaundiced view of military discipline. Made a year before the even more remarkable violent antiwar film Red Angel, this film features a lot of slapping and bone crunching, all of it administered by Japanese against other Japanese; significantly, the violence involving Manchurians is ignored. The irreverent ambience at times suggests Mister Roberts, with the pertinent difference that desertion is regarded as a sane and reasonable response to a soldier’s life.… Read more »

Out of the Darkness [Endfield’s INFLATION & THE ARGYLE SECRETS]

From the Chicago Reader, January 15, 1993. — J.R.

INFLATION

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Cyril Endfield

Written by Endfield, Gene Piller, Michael Simmons, E. Maurice Adler, and Julius Harmon

With Edward Arnold, Horace McNally, Esther Williams, and Vicky Lane.

THE ARGYLE SECRETS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Cyril Endfield

With William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, Barbara Billingsley, Alex Fraser, George Anderson, Mary Tarcai, and Kenneth Greenwald.

It’s a virtual truism that rewriting history entails — and to some extent derives from — rethinking the present moment. Just as the recent change in presidents can be linked to the public’s revised reading of the last 4 (or 8 or 12) years, our highly selective sense of film history is determined not only by which films have survived but also by the present-day concerns that dictate what interests us about the past.

Illustrations of this principle can be found in three separate programs showing this week at the Film Center. The first two are part of an invaluable series, “Romanov Twilight: Early Russian Cinema,” running throughout this month. I haven’t previewed the films for these programs — Yakov Protazanov’s two-part Satan Triumphant (1917) on Saturday at 4:30 and Evgenii Bauer’s Yuri Nagorny (1916) and V.… Read more »

The Spirit Of St. Louis

From the November, 8, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Not one of Billy Wilder’s best efforts (I wonder if it was motivated by his desire to show his ideological “correctness” during the Red Scare, by celebrating a much-beloved antisemite), this lengthy 1957 account of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, shot in CinemaScope, still has some interest because of James Stewart’s performance, which is very nearly a one-man show. With Patricia Smith, Murray Hamilton, Marc Connelly, and a score by Franz Waxman. 138 min. (JR)

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The Immortal Story

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1996). This film is now readily available in the U.S. and the U.K., and while writing an essay about it for the Criterion release, I came to treasure it a lot more than I did when I wrote this capsule. — J.R.

This rarely screened hour-long Isak Dinesen adaptation by Orson Welles — his first release in color (1968), originally intended for a never-completed anthology film — is far from one of his most achieved works. But thematically and poetically it exemplifies his late lyrical manner, and it provides clues as to what his most treasured late project — another Dinesen adaptation called The Dreamers, for which he shot a few tests — might have looked like. Set in 19th-century Macao (though filmed modestly in France and Spain), this parablelike tale stars Welles as a lonely and selfish merchant who gets his Jewish secretary (Roger Coggio) to hire a courtesan (Jeanne Moreau) and a sailor (Norman Eshley) to reenact a story. It’s awkward in spots yet exquisite. (JR)

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Praxis du cinéma by Noël Burch

For its 100th issue (Winter 2o16), the French quarterly Trafic asked its contributors to select a particular book that had a formative influence on him or her. Here is my contribution. — J.R.

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Unpraxisducinema

I still have the original Gallimard edition, probably the most tattered and thumbed-through French book that I own, published in 1969, the same year that I moved to Paris from New York — the title missing the article (Une Praxis du cinéma) that is now found on the 1986 edition. I can even recall purchasing this book at Le Minotaure, a Surrealist bookstore on Rue des Beaux Arts, a short distance from my rented flat on Rue Mazarine, and the ridiculous advertising slip (against which Burch rightly protested), “Contre toute théorie,” that enclosed it.

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TheAmericanCinema

By this time, I’d already read — or at least tried to read, back in New York — earlier drafts of some of the chapters when they had appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma, and may have also read Godard’s praise of one of those chapters in one of his interviews. Due to a crippling disability in learning languages, much of which I still suffer from today, I had to read those chapters with the aid of a French-English dictionary, even though Burch’s French—the French of an American émigré — was far easier to follow than the French of Roland Barthes in Le plaisir du texte, published four years later, which eventually became my other key French text of this period.… Read more »

No Joke [MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 19, 1996). — J.R.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie 0 (no stars)

Directed by Jim Mallon

Written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, and Bridget Jones

With Beaulieu, Nelson, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, and the voices of Mallon and Murphy.

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The premise of the recently discontinued cable-TV series on which this film is based is more or less as follows: a blustering mad scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) plots to take over the world. His plan? According to the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie press book: “Find the worst movies ever made, show them to the entire population and bring the planet to its knees.” He kidnaps Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) to serve as a guinea pig, takes him to the Satellite of Love, and makes him and his three robot pals — Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Crow — watch the Worst Movies Ever Made. But Mike and his friends confound the experiment by talking back to the screen and making wisecracks. We watch the movies too — or parts of them, since the lower portion of the screen is partially blocked by the silhouettes of Mike and two of the robots.… Read more »

Ibsen and an enema of the people

 This appeared in The Soho News (August 18, 1981). – J.R.

Beatlemania

An Enemy of the People

Directed by George Schaefer

Public Theater

 

Beatlemania — The Movie

Directed by Joe Manduke

A cherished personal project of Steve McQueen, who served as executive producer as well as lead actor, Henrik lbsen’s An Enemy of the People, scripted by Alexander Jacobs, is a lot more appealing and less forbidding than its cultural aura might suggest. That McQueen was unable to get this 1977 film released prior to his death is unfortunate yet unsurprising; given the absence of outlets for movies of this kind in the United States, I would have thought that cable might prove to be its ideal resting place. But at least for us Manhattan country folk, it’s once again thanks to the underappreciated services of the Public Theater that we’re able to see it at all. 

McQueen made this movie when he knew that he was dying of cancer and decided that he wanted to be remembered for something more than his blue-eyed beefcake parts. An advocate of Laetrile cancer therapy -– banned by the FDA, and usually pegged as “controversial” in this country – McQueen had to go to a Mexican clinic to get the treatment he wanted and must have had plenty of reasons to identify with Ibsen’s persecuted, innocent, and idealistic hero.… Read more »

War of the Poses (OLEANNA)

From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

*** OLEANNA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by David Mamet

With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.

David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.

To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case.… Read more »

Early Robert Kramer: Paralysis as Plot

`Written in late 2020 for a Re:Voir DVD release. — J.R

Seen as a troubled diptych, Troublemakers (filmed in Newark during the fall of 1965, two years before the riots) and In the Country (1966) offer, respectively, public and private glimpses of the political frustrations faced by young white radicals in the United States during this volatile period. Robert Kramer–producer, writer, and director of the second film–receives no credit on the first, but he’s one of the more vocal radicals appearing in it, expressing some of the same disillusionment with mainstream, workaday politics that the second film is also wrestling with. The son of a Park Avenue heart specialist and a textile designer, Robert attended private schools, Swarthmore College, and Stanford, carrying around his privilege like an albatross, as a guilt-ridden handicap to overcome.

The implicit hope that led members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)–including the very young Tom Hayden, Kramer, and filmmakers Norman Fruchter (sound) and Robert Machover (camera and editing)–to join and/or recruit the efforts of black activists in their Newark ghetto and the explicit bitterness of a nameless, fictional white radical couple (William Devane and Catherine Merrill) retreating to and brooding within their privileged rural isolation need to be viewed as reverse sides of the same countercultural coin.… Read more »

Arresting Images [THE BLOODY CHILD]

From the September 27, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

the-bloody-child

TheBloodyChild

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nina Menkes

With Tinka Menkes, Russ Little, Sherry Sibley, Robert Mueller, and Jack O’Hara.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

For several weeks I’ve been arguing with myself about The Bloody Child, the fourth film and third feature of Nina Menkes — a maddening, obsessive minimalist movie that fails to satisfy me but refuses to leave me alone. This deeply threatening American experimental feature, which has yet to find a distributor, is getting its first extended run anywhere at Facets Multimedia Center this week. Facets recently brought out on video all of Menkes’s previous films — The Great Sadness of Zohara (1984), Magdalena Viraga (1987), and Queen of Diamonds (1991) — and I’ve been seeing and reseeing them as well, mainly because I can’t decide what to do with them either. “For me,” the director has said, “cinema is sorcery,” and there’s little doubt in my mind that all of her work — the worst as well as the best — casts a spell.

All four films star Menkes’s sister Tinka, who’s also credited as coconceiver and coeditor (there are no writing credits on any of them); Nina is credited as producer, cinematographer, director, coconceiver, and coeditor.… Read more »

Nightfall

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). . — J.R.

Whether you like this or not — and it’s quite possible that you won’t — this has got to be one of the weirdest and most original movies around. Written and directed by former film critic and scriptwriter-turned-director Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), whose previous solo feature never hit these shores, this is produced by Julie Corman, wife of Roger, and harks back to a lot of 60s Corman productions in various ways, for better and for worse; it also may be the first U.S. exploitation film to show the influence of Raul Ruiz in its striking use of colors and color filters, and Jasper Johns springs to mind in relation to some of the set painting. Mayersberg’s starting point and putative focus is Isaac Asimov’s famous SF story, set on the planet Lagash, where it is always daylight, shortly before its civilization collapses; David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Andra Mylian, and Alexis Kanner head the cast, and much of the action and decor reflect a series of interesting solutions for representing an alien culture as cheaply as possible. If you’re looking for something different, make sure to catch this oddity.… Read more »

Review of WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX: The Annotated Screenplays

From Sight and Sound, July 2017. — J.R.

WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX

The Annotated Screenplays

Edited by Sarah Gleeson-White, Oxford University Press, 949 pp., ISBN 9780190274184

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

William-Faulkner-at-Twentieth-Century-Fox-The-Annotated-Screenplays

 We know that Faulkner was no cinephile, but it’s less known that he referenced Eisenstein in The Wild Palms and cited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as two of his favourite films (along with High Noon) in a 1958 interview. One also can’t read the present-tense opening of Light in August without noting its cinematic immediacy, which suggests that consciously or not, Faulkner learned a lot from the movies.

Yet when it comes to his screenwriting, it’s closer to alienated, assembly -line labour than any significant form of self-expression. Editor Sarah Gleeson-White, a Sydney-based literary scholar, is well aware of this problem, beginning her Introduction with contradictory statements from Faulkner about how seriously he took this work (both of which, unsurprisingly, sound perfectly sincere) while noting that he wrote around fifty Hollywood screenplays between 1932 and 1954. That Faulkner was fully capable of working simultaneously on both his novel Absalom, Absalom and Hawks’ The Road to Glory is also duly noted. But Gleeson-White’s ambivalence about what actually constitutes screen authorship is reflected in the fact that several photographs in her commentaries are devoted to Faulkner’s Fox collaborators and none at all to Faulkner himself.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for films that have subsequently become available; there are in fact quite a few of these, and, unless I’ve missed something, only one title that isn’t currently available, The Argyle Secrets. — J.R.

Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.

MySonJohn-Jeffersonmemorial

OddManOut

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party-girl-club


It’s also important to stress that “noir” isn’t a genre; it’s a category that’s applied retroactively to films with certain traits in common — a practice started by French critics and eventually continued by us Yanks and others. (Check out James Naremore’s definitive 1998 book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.) This makes it something more flexible than a genre, and I’ve tried to honor this factor in some of my choices.


In the following list I’ve managed to make peace with myself by appending one
SBA title (which stands for “should be available”) to each one that you can currently buy, in the same general category, with brief explanations added.Read more »