En movimiento: TWIN PEAKS Revisited

My column for the April 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Although I didn’t have the space to discuss this, it seems to me in retrospect that Jack Nance, even as a relatively minor character (Pete Martell), is as much the realistic backbone of Twin Peaks as he is the realistic anchor of Eraserhead — and, as such, he stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from such supernatural pasteboard characters as Bob (Frank Silva) and Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). — J.R.

TP-Jack-Nance

TwinPeaks-thentiremystery

The news that David Lynch and Mark Frost are preparing nine new Twin Peaks episodes — all to be directed by Lynch and set in the present, and to air on cable TV’s Showtime in 2016 — has coincided with the release of a beautifully designed Blu-Ray box set with ten discs, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and The Missing Pieces, devoted to the 29 episodes broadcast in 1990 and 1991 and the subsequent prequel theatrical feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and many extras. All this has prompted a re-evaluation of the series as a whole, which I’ve now seen in its entirety for the first time. A few critics have aided me in this quest—especially Michel Chion in his 1992 French book on Lynch, Martha P.… Read more »

Hollywood Low (The Best Movies of 1992)

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

A few years ago, world cinema received a shot in the arm from so-called glasnost movies from the former Soviet Union — pictures that had been shelved due to various forms of censorship, mostly political, and were finally seeing the light of day thanks to the relaxation or near dissolution of state pressures. The thought of an American glasnost may seem a little farfetched. But if we start to look at the awesome control exerted by multinational corporations over what we see, particularly in mainstream movies, the definition of what is and isn’t permissible — or, in business terms, what is “viable,” which in this country often comes to the same thing — may seem comparably restricted.

The best movies of 1992 weren’t exactly censored; but given the profound lack of media attention they received they would have achieved much more reality in most people’s minds if they had been. And nothing short of an American-style glasnost would give these films the cultural centrality they deserve. Only three of them received extended theatrical runs in Chicago, and perhaps only one or two got so much as a mention on Entertainment Tonight or in Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly.… Read more »

Sweet & Sour: Lubitsch and Wilder in Old Hollywood

This originally appeared in Stop Smiling‘s “Hollywood Lost and Found” issue (2007); it’s also reprinted in my latest collection. — J.R.

The Love Parade window

The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau, or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians, or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.

These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the 30s -— and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the 50s. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls.… Read more »

Made in Hoboken

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the tenth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

5—

Made in Hoboken

Douglas, Wyoming, 1914—three states away from where our old friend Gordon MacRae is still only a radical freshman or a freethinking sophomore at the University of Indiana—Bo is operating his very first movie theater, at the age of twenty-seven. Think of it: when Jonathan’s the same age, in 1970, he’s working fitfully on his second yet-to-be unpublished novel, completing his first yet-to-be unpublished book as an editor (a collection of film criticism he was commissioned to do), still living on the dregs of Bo’s inheritance, and dividing the first three months of the year among three countries: pursuing a heavy love affair in New York, having his appendix removed in London (and smoking hash with his brother Michael’s friends in a room called the Box), and taking acid all alone one beautiful spring afternoon in Paris, where he moved last fall, acid that suddenly prompts him to buy red paint, a roller, and brushes, and to go to work on his bedroom closets—a conversation with the wood, red saying one thing, grain saying another—and later sends him out the door and up rue Mazarine to the Odéon métro stop, a little after 6:30, to take the Porte de Clignancourt train as far as Châtelet and then the Mairie des Lilas train to République.Read more »

Irma La Douce

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 1995).  — J.R.    

irmaladouce

Billy Wilder’s soggy and uninspired 1963 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, minus the songs. Shirley MacLaine stars as a Paris prostitute with a heart of gold who falls for a former policeman (Jack Lemmon) who winds up as her pimp and, in disguise, her only customer. A good example of how a movie can be utterly characteristic of its maker and still fall with a resounding thud; with Lou Jacobi and Herschel Bernardi. (JR)

Irma6

Department of utter bafflement (February 2015): Thinking I might have missed something (the film was, after all, a smash hit, and was treated by Godard as if it were Wilder’s belated blossoming as a filmmaker, even making the ninth spot in his ten-best list for 1964, between The Nutty Professor and Two Weeks in Another Town), I recently made a return visit to this movie on DVD and found it just as unbearable as before, despite the charm of the Alexander Trauner sets.

Irma La Douce on the street

Wilder’s major gift, apart from symmetrically pointed plot construction (as in Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti!), was as a reporter on American bourgeois hypocrisy, and what seems most peculiar in this film is its misreadings of French manners and French bourgeois hypocrisy, which come across as purely American — Parisian pimps out of Damon Runyon (filmed on the same soundstages as Guys and Dolls, at the Goldwyn Studio) and a puritanical cop who seems to hail from the American midwest.Read more »

Moana (1975 review)

This synopsis and review appeared in the December 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin.

I’ve only just begun to familiarize myself with Moana with sound (see first still below), put together by the Flahertys’ daughter Monica, restored by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen (the Flaherty’s great-grandson), and posthumously released on Blu-Ray today by Kino Lorber. But I’ve already sampled enough of it — as well as all of Posner’s “short” (39-minute) history of the project, included along with other extras on the Blu-Ray — to view it as a major achievement, hopefully leading to a major reassessment of what I regard in some ways as Flaherty’s most neglected masterpiece. — J.R.

moana_prelim_poster_graphic

Moana

U.S.A., 1925
Directors: Robert J. Flaherty, Frances Hubbard Flaherty

Savai’i, a Samoan island. Near the village of Safune, Moana pulls taro root from the ground and peels it while his betrothed Fa’angase bundles leaves, his mother Tu’ungaita carries mulberry sticks and his younger brother Pe’a helps them. Setting off for the village, they set a trap for wild boar, the forest’s only dangerous animal, which they subsequently capture. Moana, Fa’angase, and Pe’a go spear-fishing, along with Moana’s older brother Leupenga. Back in the village,  Tu’ungaita makes back-cloth for a lavalava, a native dress. … Read more »

Alexis A. Tioseco, R.I.P.

I no longer recall who snapped this deliberately lopsided photo of Oliver Baumgarten (left), Alexis Tioseco (right), and me in spring 2007, when the three of us were the entire FIPRESCI jury at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Our prize that year went to an eye-popping masterpiece, Amit Dutta’s Kramasha (To Be Continued…), from India which later became one of the five late (2007) entries to my list of all-time favorite films in the Afterword of the second edition of my collection Essential Cinema — and discovering that great film with Alexis was for me the absolute high point of the festival.

As some of you have heard by now, Alexis, who was 28, and his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc, who was almost 30 and another very talented film critic, were murdered yesterday in their home in Quezon City, the Philippines, apparently by burglars. Nika, whom I also knew, but less well, had only recently moved there from Ljubljana, Slovenia; Gabe Klinger has just posted a very tender and affectionate piece about both of them a few hours ago. And for the moment, at least, one can still access Alexis’ excellent web site, Criticine. (Postscript, 9/3/09: Adrian Martin writes from Melbourne that Nika’s own Ekran blog, also [mostly] in English, which I haven’t encountered until now, “with many fine pieces, is still also accessible”.)… Read more »

Morality Movies (BROADCAST NEWS & WALL STREET)

This was published at the end of my first year at the Reader, in their Christmas issue. –J.R.

BROADCAST NEWS *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James L. Brooks

With Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, and Jack Nicholson.

WALL STREET ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Stone and Stanley Weiser

With Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Terence Stamp, Hal Holbrook, and Sylvia Miles.


Both Broadcast News and Wall Street score as punchy, energetic movies that are designed to feel as contemporary as possible without taking place in the literal present, and both pivot around a moral reckoning that accompanies economic cutbacks -– as if to remind us that this country’s Reagan-inspired spending spree, which tripled our trillion-dollar national debt, seems to be drawing to a fearful close. Apart from offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of their all-encompassing, hothouse professional turfs, both movies are built around the mise en scene of a moral crisis that splits the major characters apart –- each one charting a mutual seduction that leads to recriminations and the characters isolated in opposing moral camps. Yet the undisputed effectiveness of these films as entertainment seems at least partially predicated on fudging or at least mystifying the moral issues that they are bold enough to raise.… Read more »

Say the Right Thing

From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 1989). This was my second column about Do the Right Thing; my first one is here. — J.R.

It’s readily apparent by now that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is something of a Rorschach test as well as an ideological litmus test, and not only for the critics. It’s hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means, and it’s heartening as well as significant that the picture stirring up all this talk is not a standard Hollywood feature. Because the arguments that are currently being waged about the film are in many ways as important as the film itself, and a lot more important than the issues being raised by other current releases, it seems worth looking at them again in closer detail. I don’t mean to review the movie a second time, but I do want to address some of the deeper questions being raised by it. Ultimately most of these questions have something to do with language and the way we’re accustomed to talking about certain things — race relations and violence as well as movies in general.

Read more »

Around the World in 1,085 Pages

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2006). — J.R.

Against the Day | Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)

Thomas Pynchon’s 1,085-page Against the Day does a lot of things. Some it does well, some it does badly — and some are impossible to judge this early, though scores of people are trying, in the press and on the Internet. And it may still be beyond the capacity of most of us to judge a year from now. In some respects Pynchon remains as difficult to evaluate as globalization with all its facets and ambiguities.

This passionately anticapitalist book, which most likely took a decade or more to write, follows dozens of characters over more than two decades, starting at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and ending, more or less, in Paris in the early 1920s. Meanwhile it skips across the planet several times, stopping in, among other places, the Balkans, central Asia, Cambridge, Gottingen, London, New York, Paris, Telluride, Venice, and Vienna. Pynchon includes labor history, mathematical equations, ambiguously overlapping stories about alchemy and early photography, and the tale of an anarchist coal miner named Webb Traverse — who specializes in dynamiting railroads and who’s tortured to death by hired guns working for a robber baron — and the lives of his children.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.  — J.R.

How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.

1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange.… Read more »

Spike Lee Sees It All

From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1989). I reviewed the film a second time several weeks later, and this second piece will be reposted tomorrow (i.e., December 4, 2021).. — J.R.

DO THE RIGHT THING **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Savage, and John Turturro.

I can’t say that I’ve been an unqualified Spike Lee fan. His flair for publicity has tended to overwhelm his talents as a writer-director-actor, and the fact that he remains better known to the general public for his TV commercials than for either She’s Gotta Have It (1986) or School Daze (1988) points to an adeptness at working both sides of the street that has made it difficult to assess his work.… Read more »

Pynchon’s Prayer

From the Chicago Reader (March 9, 1990). — J.R.

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. –Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845-46)

A good many newspapers and magazines have accompanied their reviews of Vineland, Thomas Pynchon’s fourth novel, with the same 37-year-old photograph of the author grinning goofily from his high school yearbook. Given Pynchon’s refusal to be photographed or interviewed, there are touches of both desperation and petty vindictiveness in this compulsion to objectify and visualize, however inadequately, a novelist who chooses to be identified only through his writing.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Awards and Extras

Written for the Fall 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

dvd-papadakis

DVD Awards 2016, Il Cinema Ritrovato

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Lucien Logette, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although Mark McElhatten wasn’t able to attend the festival this year, he has continued to function as a very active member of the jury.)

BEST SPECIAL FEATURES

Coffret Nico Papatakis (France, 1963-92) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). A comprehensive and cogent presentation of a neglected filmmaker from Ethiopia and a singular cultural figure in postwar France who ran an existentialist cabaret, produced major films by Jean Genet and John Cassavetes, gave the German singer Nico her name, and made many striking films over four decades. (JR)

BEST DVD SERIES

Coffret Collection 120 ans n.1 1885-1929 (France, 1885-1929) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). To celebrate its 120 years of activity in the film industry, Gaumont has published a series of nine beautiful box sets that summarize the whole history of cinema. Divided by decades, the box sets consist of 20 to 35 DVDs with the most representative films marked with a daisy symbol. The editions include films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Dreville, Duvivier, Gabin, Louis de Funès, Pialat, and Deville, but also masterpieces by Losey, Fellini or Bergman that the French company co-produced.… Read more »