The Director’s Cut

From the Chicago Reader (March 9, 2006). — J.R.

Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

Ironically, the two greatest works by the two most innovative filmmakers of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, were originally designed as TV series. Rivette’s 760-minute, 16-millimeter serial Out 1 (1971) was rejected by French state TV, and he spent most of a year editing it down to a 255-minute version to show in theaters, Out 1: Spectre (1972). Less a digest than a perverse variant — some shots were rearranged so that they had radically different meanings and contexts, and much of the comedy was turned into psychodrama — it’s the only version that’s ever shown in the U.S., though it hasn’t been screened for years. The original — almost certainly the best film ever made by anyone about the 60s counterculture and its demise — still shows periodically in Europe.

Godard’s eight-part, 264-minute video Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998), conceived and made over 20 years, has fared better, but it’s still pretty hard to come by. The only version ever sold in France is a lousy mono video transfer; a package of CDs and books in several languages transcribing major portions of the stereo sound track came out here years ago.… Read more »

Four Reasons Not to Trust Ten-Best Lists [Chicago Reader blog post, 2006]

Film Four Reasons Not to Trust Ten-Best Lists

Posted By on 12.18.06 at 09:40 PM

One of the most cherished fantasies in the world of movies is that around this time every year we critics are all dying to think about the best films of the past 12 months — as if listmaking represented some particular populist need for consensus rather than the industry’s desire to resell goods that have already been sold to us again and again (or, in this neck of the woods, to presell goods that haven’t arrived yet).

I’ll admit that one list engenders another, and that once the game starts in earnest, every critic wants to be part of the discussion. But consider some of the drawbacks:

(1) Piles of movies getting released at the end of this year in such a manner that critics (and some audience members) don’t even have time to take them in, much less think about them. (Maybe that’s exactly what the studios want–snap judgment is another practice that serves the industry more than the audience.)

(2) Contortions by critics outside New York and Los Angeles who don’t want to come across as rubes and so vote for movies that most of their readers can’t see yet.

Read more »

Numéro Deux

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1987). — J.R.

numerodeux-6frames2

Often juxtaposing or superimposing two or more video images within the same ‘Scope frame, Jean-Luc Godard’s remarkable (if seldom screened) 1975 feature — one of the most ambitious and innovative films in his career — literally deconstructs family, sexuality, work, and alienation before our very eyes. Our ears are given a workout as well; the punning commentary and dialogue, whose overlapping meanings can only be approximated in the subtitles, form part of one of his densest sound tracks. Significantly, the film never moves beyond the vantage point of one family’s apartment, and the only time the whole three-generation group (played by nonprofessionals) are brought together in one shot is when they’re watching an unseen television set. In many respects, this is a film about reverse angles and all that they imply; it forms one of Godard’s richest and most disturbing meditations on social reality. The only full ‘Scope images come in the prologue and epilogue, when Godard himself is seen at his video and audio controls. In French with subtitles. 88 min. (JR)

numerodeux3-couple1Read more »

DUELLE (1976 program note)

A program note written for the London Film Festival in 1976, held at the National Film Theatre in November. On November 17, at the first of two screenings, Duelle appeared as a double bill with the world premiere of Noroît, which was shown immediately afterwards, with Rivette in attendance. –- J.R.

Twhylight (Duelle)

FRANCE 1975

Labelled the second feature in [Jacques] Rivette’s four-part Scènes de la Vie Parallèle, Duelle is in fact the first to be completed. Like all the films in the projected series, it covers the ‘Carnival’ period between the last new moon of winter and the first full moon of spring: the only time when goddesses can appear on earth and have commerce with mortals. These goddesses are split between moon ghosts and sun fairies; in Duelle, we find a ghost (Juliet Berto) and a fairy (Bulle Ogier) competing for possession of a diamond known as the Fairy Godmother which can keep them on earth past their allotted forty days.With a non-existent word (the female form of a masculine noun) as title and an imaginary muth as starting-point, Duelle deliberately defines itself through contradictions and clashes, maintaining a perpetual disequilibrium of elements that equally flirts with and refuses the comforting balances of ‘classic’ narrative.… Read more »

Resistance Is Futile

From the May 26, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Army of Shadows

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, and Serge Reggiani

Around 1971 Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samourai and Army of Shadows), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”

Melville’s assertion — echoed by critic André Bazin and allegedly by Robert Bresson himself — may seem startling. Melville is best known for his eight noir features, all of them stylish and artificial in a way that seems utterly foreign to the more physical and neorealistic surfaces of Bresson’s work. But these differences are ultimately superficial. What the two filmmakers have in common is much more important: the styles, themes, and philosophical positions of both can be traced directly to their experiences during World War II.

Bresson spent nine months in a German internment camp in 1940-’41, before the occupation of France, and his imprisonment is alluded to in one of his greatest films, A Man Escaped (1956). Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, joined the resistance in the early 40s — changing his Jewish surname to Cartier and then Melville in homage to Herman Melville — and three of his 13 features, all made after the war, deal with the German occupation.… Read more »

Western Culture Coming and Going [THE CASE OF THE GRINNING CAT & WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?]

From the July 21, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Case of the Grinning Cat

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Chris Marker

Narrated by Gerard Rinaldi

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Frank Tashlin

With Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, and Mickey Hargitay

Two cheery, even hilarious works that are informed by a surrealist spirit are showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Each says plenty about what’s wrong with the world, yet neither has a villain.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is a wise, somewhat whimsical hour-long video — a political commentary on Western culture by independent French writer-director Chris Marker, who turns 85 next week. From 2001 to 2004 he taped ephemeral phenomena on the streets of Paris — graffiti, posters, political demonstrations, glimpses of cats and musicians in metro stations — as he explored issues ranging from 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq to more local concerns. It’s all framed by a reverie about cartoon Cheshire cats that mysteriously appear in unexpected places, rather like the proliferating post horns in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more »

CRUMB Reconsidered

Written in 2010 for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-Ray. This is the second of my essays about Terry Zwigoff’s documentary; for the first one, written 15 years earlier, go here. — J.R.

CRUMB-DVD

Now that Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is about fifteen years old, it seems pretty safe to say that it has evolved from being a potential classic to actually becoming one. But what kind? A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it.

 

In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well. An old friend of Robert Crumb’s, Terry Zwigoff shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the multifaceted density and sometimes disturbing nature of what he has to show and say over two hours seems partly a function of the amount of time he had to mull it over. It’s worth adding that he was in therapy for part of that time, which surely had an impact on the film’s searching thoughtfulness and on Zwigoff’s own investment in the material.… Read more »

The Significance of Sniggering (CRUMB)

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1995). This piece is quite separate from the essay I contributed to Criterion’s DVD of this film 15 years later, which will be reposted shortly. — J.R,

Crumb

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb in many ways looks like conventional filmmaking, yet it conveys a remarkable fluidity and density of thought. It may resemble a biographical documentary — unobtrusively shot by Maryse Alberti, gracefully edited by Victor Livingston — but it unfurls like a passionate personal essay. The subject is Robert Crumb, America’s greatest underground comic book artist — little known to most people born much before or after 1943, the year of his birth, because he’s shunned the mainstream as a money-grubbing swamp. Zwigoff, an old friend, shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the sheer mass of this two-hour film seems partly a function of the amount of time he’s had to mull it over.

A member of Crumb’s former band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and a fellow collector of rare 20s and 30s blues and jazz records, Zwigoff has previously made documentaries only on musical subjects — blues artist Howard Armstrong in Louie Bluie, a history of Hawaiian music in A Family Named Moe.… Read more »

LES RENDEZ-VOUS D’ANNA: Glum is Beautiful

This appeared in Take One, July 15, 1979 (vol. 7, no. 8). Check out Dave Kehr’s recent column on 70s Akerman in the New York Times for some other reflections. —J.R.

Chantal Akerman is a tough filmmaker to tangle with, make up one’s mind about or describe. One thing’s clear enough though: Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, her fifth feature, is the most assertive film by a woman that I’ve seen since Marguerite Duras’ Le Camion — and probably the most accessible that Akerman has made to date. It might wind up serving as a calling card for the rest of her work.

A film that assumes the ambition (and pretention) of taking the pulse of Western Europe while pursuing a narcissistic autobiographical meditation obviously isn’t going to win everyone over — particularly when every shot has the visual weight of a battleship and nearly every facial expression has enough glumness to sink one. Take that, Akerman seems to be saying, offering up yet another drab, anonymous hotel room or train station at night, each one lit with precise, uncanny radiance, and hammering these cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Milius and Peckinpah seem like frollicking pussy-cats in comparison.… Read more »

Catching Up with Godard (an interview)

From The Soho News, September 24-30, 1980. Their title (not mine) was “Bringing Godard Back Home”. This is the first of two interviews that I’ve had with Godard to date; the other one, 16 years later, can be found here. — J.R.

Jean-Luc Godard seems to be into transportation metaphors a lot nowadays. It’s been rumored that when Paul Schrader sidled up to him recently at a film festival and said, “I think you should know that I took something of yours from The Married Woman and put it in American Gigolo,” the Master coolly replied, “What’s important isn’t what you take — it’s where you take it to.”

Every Man for Himself, Godard’s first movie to open in America and show at the New York Film Festival in eight years, is first of all a vehicle designed to bring him back to us. It has all the ingredients that mainstream critics have been clamoring for: stars (Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc), clearly defined characters and plot, lush music, beautiful 35mm photography, flaky eroticism, humor. “I’m really making my landing on the earth of story,” Godard tells me at one point. “Like a plane.”

Can it be sheer coincidence that he seems to take up prostitution as a theme only when he’s working in 35mm?… Read more »

Every Critique for Itself

From the October 15, 1980 issue of The Soho News. I should note the influence on my viewpoint of sexual politics in this article exerted by Sandy Flitterman, a feminist critic and one of the founding editors of Camera Obscura, with whom I was living in Hoboken during this period (roughly, 1979-1983). I should also note that my swipe at Coppola provoked an angry call from Tom Luddy, who was working for Coppola at the time. — J.R.

Every Man for Himself
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard,
Anne-Marie Miéville, and
Jean-Claude Carrière


Gloria
Written and directed by
John Cassavetes

Tih Minh
Directed by Louis Feuillade

In the latest lovely, desperate film by one of the most brilliant filmmakers alive, Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself should be seen by everyone interested in movies or in life, without hesitation or delay. There are more ideas here per cubic second than one could find in a month of Paul Mazursky (or Ingmar Bergman) “think” pieces, and for this reason alone, Godard’s latest comeback is worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

Don’t let yourself get tripped up by the unfortunate masculine English title. The French that it strictly translates, Save qui peut (la vie), is genderless, save for the feminine article preceding the parenthetical “life”.… Read more »

The Lure of Crime: Feuillade’s FANTOMAS Films

Commissioned and published by Fandor in September 2010. — J.R.

Teaching silent film in the mid-1980s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was astonished to discover I was the first teacher there who had ever shown a film by Louis Feuillade. Sadly, there was a good reason: at that time, only one Feuillade film was in distribution in the U.S. — Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas) — and few if any of my teaching colleagues had ever seen it.

My own introduction to Feuillade, one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences in my life, was attending, on April 3, 1969, a 35-millimeter projection of all seven hours of his 1918 crime serial, Tih Minh, at the Museum of Modern Art -– along with Susan Sontag, Annette Michelson, and other enrapt friends and acquaintances. Part of the shock of that experience was discovering that even though Feuillade was a contemporary of D.W. Griffith — born two years earlier, in 1873 — he seemed to belong to a different century. While Griffith reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks forward to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and technological fantasies of the 20th century and beyond.

Read more »

A Few Things Well [A LITTLE STIFF]

From the Chicago Reader (September 6, 1991). — J.R.

A LITTLE STIFF

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins

With Zahedi, Erin McKim, Watkins, Patrick Park, Mike McKim, and Beat Ammon.

Minimalism seems to be getting a bad rep in some quarters these days, mainly from critics who identify that movement with the 70s and think that artistic styles should be up-to-date. But what if the artists themselves don’t identify with the overstuffed and unwieldy smorgasbords of 80s and 90s postmodernism? It seems to me that any serious assessment of minimalism has to consider what it manages to include as well as what it leaves out.

On both counts, Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins’s charming and delightful independent feature A Little Stiff, playing at the Film Center this weekend, beats what most commercial movies do with young romance hands down. Neither excessive nor undernourished, as its industry counterparts are prone to be, it strikes a happy balance. These filmmakers seem to know precisely what they’re doing every step of the way.

Minimal in budget as well as in style, form, and content — the entire production is said to have cost a mere $10,000 — this black-and-white 16-millimeter tragicomedy was shot by two UCLA film students chiefly on and around their own campus.… Read more »

Mudpie Modernism [on THE PERFUMED NIGHTMARE]

From The Soho News, November 26, 1980. — J.R

The Perfumed Nightmare

A film by Kidlat Tahimik

An odd, elusive 1971 Filipino filibuster, a first feature that somehow disassembles more than it assembles, Mababangong Bangungot (The Perfumed Nightmare) has a nearly total absence of “technique” — pacing, composition, acting, rhythm, budget — that is inextricably bound up with its subject, an all-around ambivalence about American knowhow. This makes it intermittently sluggish to watch, and theoretically fascinating to think about. Combining autobiography with fantasy, “magical realism” with cornball folklore and enchantment (with American technology) with disenchantment, it’s as unremittingly screwball as a house built of chewing gum wrappers and cigarette packs.

Don’t go expecting anything remotely decadent, despite the fancy title: the movie is as pure and innocent as the driven snow. (Or almost — the filmmaker, unlike his movie counterpart, spent almost a decade in Europe.) Kidlat Tahimuik, who wrote, produced, directed, and stars in this doggedly homemade production, presents himself as the driver of a brightly painted taxi-bus in his native Filipino village. He’s the proud possessor of a transistor radio, whose broadcasts lead him to become the founder of a local Werner von Braun Fan Club.… Read more »

Bunuel’s Neglected Masterpiece

From the Chicago Reader (October 8, 1993). — J.R.

THE YOUNG ONE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Luis Buñuel

Written by “H.B. Addis” (Hugo Butler) and Buñuel

With Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton, Key Meersman, Crahan Denton, and Claudio Brook.

Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel had made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a black jazz musician from the north fleeing from a lynching, falsely accused of raping a white woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?

As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it could well transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that would naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might even enhance the freshness of his treatment — one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce.… Read more »