This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in. — J.R.
The Best Film of the Past Two Years
And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.
I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks. Read more
Manny Farber, one of his earliest critical defenders, once described Michael Snow to me as “a prince”, and there’s no question that he was a proud bohemian who carried his own sense of royalty within the art world with grace and style. European fans such as Jacques Rivette who mistook him for an “American” (he was born and died in Toronto) may not have understood that the state funding that allowed Snow to flourish in Canada wouldn’t have been as feasible in the U.S. It’s even been speculated that if Snow hadn’t filmed his 1967 Wavelength in a Manhattan loft during his extended New York sojourn, many of us might never have heard of him. It was basically the enthusiasm of New York critics—Farber, Jonas Mekas, Annette Michelson, and, perhaps most of all, P. Adams Sitney and his term “structural film”—that placed Snow on the map, even while such reference sources as Ephraim Katz’s A Film Encyclopedia and David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema failed to acknowledge his existence.
Starting out as a self-taught jazz pianist who evolved from Dixieland to bebop (and later, to free jazz), Snow turned next to painting, sculpture, instillations, photography, film (starting in animation), video, holography, audio, and conceptually shaped books such as Cover to Cover (1975) and High School (1979).Read more
Written for Volume 34, Number 3, Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below). — J.R.
I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’. A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s. Read more
David Cronenberg isn’t credited often enough for his literacy, which anchors him as a filmmaker much as Method acting can anchor some performers: he seems to immerse himself so deeply in the warped visions of certain writers that he re-creates their work whereas most literary filmmakers would simply imitate it. This tour de force, which Patrick McGrath adapted from his own novel under Cronenberg’s supervision, draws us into the consciousness of a schizophrenic (Ralph Fiennes) who’s been incarcerated for most of his life and whose boyhood traumas merge seamlessly with his current existence in an east London halfway house; apparently Cronenberg’s model is not only McGrath but Samuel Beckett in his early novels. The film asks us to piece together what really happened in the past, and even after two viewings I haven’t entirely succeeded, but I was floored by Cronenberg’s mastery of the material. Fiennes gives one of his finest performances; Miranda Richardson, playing at least three characters in the protagonist’s twisted vision, is no less impressive; and Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, and John Neville do excellent backup work. A lean and densely packed 98 minutes, this minimalist chamber thriller is at once hallucinatory and terrifyingly real. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2003). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Jeff Daniels
With Daniels, Matt Letscher, Harve Presnell, Dawn Wells, John Seibert, Guy Sanville, Kate Peckham, Sandra Birch, Michelle Mountain, and Will Young.
Super Sucker, the second indie comedy feature written and directed by actor Jeff Daniels, is a terrible movie. But that doesn’t prevent it from being interesting and even admirable as a grassroots phenomenon. I haven’t seen its predecessor, Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001) — based on Daniels’s play, which he produced at his own 160-seat theater in Chelsea, Michigan, the Purple Rose (named after the Woody Allen movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, which Daniels has cited as a turning point in his career). The movie version of Escanaba passed through Chicago at some point and received a listing but not a review in this paper. In fact, Escanaba received few reviews anywhere (although the making of the film was the subject of an article in Harper’s in late 2000). The longest notice appeared in the Detroit News, whose Tom Long wrote that the film “is decidedly a Michigan experience, and there are questions as to how it will fly in lands that know nothing of the Mackinac Bridge, pasties, and the Department of Natural Resources.” Read more
The skillful writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is mainly known for his corrosive misanthropy. Yet surprisingly, this accomplished 1947 noir turns that misanthropy precisely on its head without ever resorting to sentimentality or stereotypes. The milieus of a seedy music hall and police station in Paris are delineated with such richness and attentiveness toward the postoccupation climate that when the murder of a licentious film producer brings a police inspector (the great Louis Jouvet) into the music hall, Clouzot is able to reveal a complex and interactive working-class world in which cops and criminals are sometimes difficult to tell apart. The principal epiphanies in this tale emerge from Jouvet’s expressions of kinship with a flirtatious singer (Suzy Delair) and a lesbian photographer (Simone Renant), but there are also memorable portraits of the singer’s mousy pianist husband (Bernard Blier), a music publisher (Henri Arius), and several others. In French with subtitles. 106 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). I’m sorry that I’ve unable to find a single image illustrating The Last Conversation. — J.R.
The Murder of Emmett Till
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Stanley Nelson
Written by Marcia A. Smith
Narrated by Andre Braugher.
Oporto of My Childhood
Directed, written, and narrated by Manoel de Oliveira.
The Last Conversation
Directed by Sally Banes
Written by Noel Carroll
With Galina Zakrutkina and James Sutton
Narrated by Patricia Boyette.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Kevin McMahon
Written by David Sobelman
Narrated by Laurie Anderson.
Echelon: The Secret Power
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by David Korn-Brzoza
Narrated by Francois Devienne.
It’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the way most documentaries treat their subject matter, because one has to assess what’s included in light of what’s left out — something we aren’t usually qualified to do. I’m much more comfortable evaluating documentaries on how well they draw us into their subject matter and on how well they work as cinema. On these terms I can confidently say that I’ve seen and heard about a lot of exciting new documentaries recently, including an American work I really want to see, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. Read more
Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie and first operetta, costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, contains the excitement of movies being reinvented, so that silence as well as sound becomes a brand-new plaything (in contradistinction to silent movies, which usually had musical accompaniment). A study in playfulness, this fantasy about a country preoccupied with its queen getting married actually has a dog barking out half a chorus of one number, perfectly in tune, and the precode erotics and sexual politics seem pretty advanced in spots. Secondary leads Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane offer some acrobatic low comedy as servants whose best song is called “Let’s Be Common”. 110 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader, July 25, 2003. Having just reseen Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982) for the first time since it came out, I experienced a similar ambivalence to this subsequent anti-musical, for related reasons. — J.R.
A Woman Is a Woman
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Marie Dubois.
Even after 40 years I’m still not sure how I feel about A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature. The first time I saw it, as a college junior in New York, it was an unmitigated delight. But that had a lot to do with its arrival at a time when it seemed to validate ideas I and other cinephiles had about French and American film culture. It was the fourth Godard feature to open in New York (after Breathless, Vivre sa vie, and Contempt, his first, fourth, and sixth films), and the second in color and ‘Scope (after Contempt). The very notion of someone subverting the way big-budget Hollywood used canvas and palette while also taking pleasure in those elements carried an enormous charge (Contempt had been a bit too close to big-budget Hollywood to look like subversion). Read more
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
By Richard Brody
Metropolitan Books, 701 pp., $40
Will we ever get a critical biography of Welles, Kubrick, or Eastwood as good as Brian Boyd’s two volumes on Vladimir Nabokov? Probably not. Novelists basically have friends, relatives, and editors to be interviewed, but with high-profile movie directors, one also has to contend with countless employees, potential as well as actual. And the complications introduced by showbiz gossip about mythical and controversial figures are endless: While these stories make for compulsive reading, they interfere with criticism and scholarship.
With all that extra and unwieldy baggage in tow, a biographer may find it impossible to create a critical through-line that’s both persuasive and comprehensive. Even in the best books of this kind, either the life overrides the films (as in Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) or the criticism trumps the biography (as in Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall). And taking on a maven as prolific, innovative, and constantly changing as Jean-Luc Godard, biographer Richard Brody is clearly asking for trouble.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is that it’s 700 large-format pages long, yet winds up seeming too short — a tribute to both the author and his 77-year-old subject.Read more
by Colin MacCabe. Filmography and picture research by Sally Shafto. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 432 pp, illus. Hardcover: $25.00.
This isn’t an authorized biography of Jean-Luc Godard. But it appears to have qualified briefly as a book that might have become one after Colin MacCabe first embarked on it in the mid-Eighties. “Two years later,” he reports in his Preface, “he” — meaning Godard — “asked me how the work was progressing and this encouraged me to bury my own doubts and to prepare a very detailed treatment. By the early nineties, however, it was clear that Godard no longer had any faith in the project.”
MacCabe says nothing to explain this change of heart and loss of faith. A look, however, at one version of his detailed treatment — “Jean-Luc Godard: A Life in Seven Episodes (to Date),” published in Raymond Bellour’s 1992 Museum of Modern Art collection Jean-Luc Godard Son + Image, 1974-1991 — provides a plausible reason, especially if one zeroes in on the following passage in the second episode: “The South American journey came to an end [in Rio] when Godard’s father once again refused to support his son any longer. Read more
The last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, as he died in an auto accident only a few days after work on the musical score of this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby (fully evident in this fine restoration), this began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story complicated by the fact that the young woman becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder (one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom) to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. The two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” and another theme is the corrupting power of “civilization” — money in particular — on the innocent hedonism of the islanders. Read more
I’ve owned copies of Don’t Look Back and Nashville Skyline for decades, but I’d never describe myself as a hard-core Bob Dylan fan. Obvious as his talent may be, he often mixes metaphors and combines images in a way that skirts the edge of incoherence. And as the appointed spokesman for my generation — born in 1941, only a couple of years before me — he sometimes strikes me as little more than a series of shifting masks and poses. So I went into I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s ambitious new film about the man, fully prepared to feel out of step, and was surprised to find my misgivings addressed at every turn. Widely described as a tribute, it frequently comes across as a series of insults.
To call the film biographical is misleading. If anything, it’s a speculative essay that uses Dylan to comment on his audience and the 60s in general. Haynes, a graduate of the semiotics department at Brown University, isn’t really concerned with Dylan as an individual; rather he presents him as a cluster of signs and texts, spread across six characters embodying phases or distinct aspects of his early career. Read more
This appeared in the Chicago Reader on November 21, 2003. — J.R.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Larry Doyle
With Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, and the voice of Joe Alaskey.
Ever since the word “auteur” became part of the standard English vocabulary in the late 60s and early 70s there’s been some confusion about its meaning. In French auteur simply means “author,” and when François Truffaut started formulating a “politique des auteurs,” or policy of authors, in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-50s, he had in mind a critical policy that recognized the stylistic and thematic unity certain directors gave their films. And because politique means “politics” as well as “policy,” he was also implying a ranking of those directors.
In his early writings Andrew Sarris transformed these ideas into an “auteur theory” that focused less on policy and politics. This is where the confusion started, because it wasn’t clear to most people whether this was a theory about how films were made or about how they should be viewed and interpreted. Because the mainstream discourse centered on the powerful Hollywood studios, the theory came to be understood as focusing on how films were made, with the emphasis on film as a business. Read more
From the May 1, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. This marks the very beginning, the first baby steps, of my fascination with and research into the films of Yasuzo Masumura — an extended project that eventually culminated in a lengthy essay and a dialogue with Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi that’s included in a book called Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003) that I coedited with Adrian Martin. Although several Masumura films have subsequently become available on DVD in the U.S., the U.K., and France, including many of the films I discuss or mention here (e.g., Red Angel, Giants and Toys, and Manji in the U.S., Kisses in the U.K., and Tattoo in the France, the latter called Tatouage), I regret that several favorites — most notably A Wife Confesses and A False Student — continue to be unavailable outside of Japan (where Masumura has subsequently become a popular cult director). The first three illustrations and the very last one used here, incidentally, come from Tattoo [Irezumi] (1966) and A Wife Confesses (1961), respectively. –J.R.
To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research.” Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003); also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted to report that Wichita became available on DVD, and in the correct CinemaScope format, in 2009. — J.R.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Daniel B. Ullman
With Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Walter Coy, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Jack Elam, and Mae Clarke.
One reason why Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) remains a major but neglected Hollywood filmmaker is that elusiveness is at the core of his art. A director of disquiet, absence, and unsettling nocturnal atmospheres whose characters tend to be mysteries to themselves as well as to us, he dwells in uncertainties and ambiguities even when he appears to be studiously following genre conventions. In other words, his brilliance isn’t often apparent because he tends to stay in the shadows. As with Carl Dreyer, it took me years to fully appreciate the textures of his work, but now I can’t get enough of his films.
A case in point is Wichita(1955), Tourneur’s first film in CinemaScope and possibly the most traditional of all his westerns, showing in LaSalle Bank’s classic film series this Saturday.