Fables of the Reconstruction: The 4-Hour GREED

From the Chicago Reader, November 26, 1999. —J.R.

There’s surely no more famous lost film than Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a silent film made in 1923 and ’24 and released by MGM in mutilated form in late 1924. If you believe the hype of Turner Classic Movies, what’s been lost has now been found —- even though the studio burned the footage it cut almost 75 years ago, in order, according to Stroheim, to extract the few cents’ worth of silver contained in the nitrate.

TCM’s ad copy states, “In 1924, Erich von Stroheim created a cinematic masterpiece that few would see — until now.” This is a lie, but one characteristic of an era that wants to believe that capitalism always has a happy ending, no matter how venal or stupid or shortsighted the capitalists happen to be. What TCM really means is that at 7 and 11:30 PM on Sunday, December 5, it will present a 239-minute version of Greed, which is 99 minutes longer than the 1924 release. The 99 minutes aren’t filled with rediscovered footage: instead the original release version has been combined with hundreds of rephotographed stills, sometimes with added pans and zooms, sometimes cropped, often with opening and closing irises.… Read more »

Memories of Jill Forbes

Written for a posthumous tribute to Jill Forbes in the fall of 2001. — J.R.

Reading the apt words of David Edgar and Keith Reader about Jill, I can agree with a paradoxical fact about her that they both touch on in different ways: that she was painfully shy as well as totally fearless. For a long time, I used to think that this singular combination of traits was quintessentially English, but now I’m not so sure; maybe it’s just that Jill embodied and lived this contradiction in a very English way, sometimes even making it seem like it wasn’t a contradiction at all.

Thanks to having saved my appointment books, I can pinpoint precisely when I met her: standing in line to see Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse in Paris, at Studio Action Lafayette, on February 23rd, 1973. When we met again only four days later, it was to see another silent film, Monta Bell’s The Torrent, at the Cinémathèque. We saw lots of films together that spring, including Superfly, Shanghai Gesture, An Affair To Remember (which made me cry and which she and her brother Duncan both thought was a hoot), A Day at the Races, Forbidden Planet, and Suspicion.… Read more »

An Eccentric, Indescribable Bounty (PASSAGE DU CINÉMA, 4992)

 First of all, what is it?

Passage du cinéma, 4992

165 x 240 mm. PlanoPak Weiß 50 gr. (Papyrus). 992 pages.
ISBN 978-2-9544708-0-1. 35 euros. Septembre 2013.

Composition, choix des fragments et montage : Annick Bouleau
Conception graphique : Le Théâtre des Opérations
Édition : Ansedonia, association Loi 1901

“the only book to recount the history of cinema” — Jean-Luc Godard, in the English-language pressbook for Goodbye to Language, p. 22

Not simply a book, but an interactive, multimedia art project by French experimental filmmaker and teacher Annick Bouleau (you can go here for her extensive filmography), the centerpiece of which is a book in French, a copy of which Bouleau was kind enough to send to me. (For the many other aspects of this project and her work, one could easily spend days navigating Bouleau’s web site.) It took her a decade to assemble it. [2019: In July 2019, while I was visiting Paris, she recognized me on the street and introduced herself.] 

What are the contents of this book (seen below in manuscript form)?

A title page, dedication, acknowledgements, Introduction (“Mode d’emploi”), Table of Contents (an alphabetical listing of hundreds of topics, from “abandon” to “zoom,” with corresponding page numbers), and a one-page reader’s manual (“Vade-mecum du lecteur”), followed by 967 double-column pages of 4992 entries. … Read more »

DOWN WITH LOVE (2003)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

One reason I took so long getting to see this movie (2003) was the number of friends who assured me it was nothing special. Most of them seemed to go along uncritically with the publicists’ claim, echoed by reviewers, that it was a simple point-by-point pastiche of three late-50s and early-60s comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall: Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). These films have never appealed to me in the slightest, though Mark Rappaport did an expert job of unpacking them in his 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. But Down With Love is also an affectionate satire of late-50s and early-60s studio glitz that often contradicts the pastiche. The filmmakers, who were too young to experience this era themselves, make plenty of errors, starting with a Fox CinemaScope logo (wrong studio and too late for that logo) and the snazzy rainbow credits (too hyperactive for the time). Then we get palatial Manhattan apartments (much more identified with How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 and The Tender Trap in 1955) and bubble-gum-colored media blitzes (as in Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more »

Films of the Future [on Pedro Costa]

From the Chicago Reader (November 15, 2007). — J.R.

Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa Gene Siskel Film Center, 11/17—12/4

The cinema of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw essences — souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It’s not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn’t stories — though untold or partially told stories pervade all six of Costa’s features. It’s fully realized moments, secular epiphanies.

Born in Lisbon in 1959, by his own account Costa grew up without much of a family, and famly life — actual or simulated — is central to his work. All his films are about the dispossessed in one way or another. As the Argentine film critic Quintín puts it, he’s “a cool guy — very rock ’n’ roll” (in fact he was a rock guitarist before he turned to filmmaking). “At the same time,” Quintín continues, he is “quietly telling whoever will listen that cinema is exactly the opposite of what 99% of the film world thinks, and he is getting more radical every day.”… Read more »

High and Low: Eisenstein’s IVAN THE TERRIBLE

Written for Criterion’s Current (web site), April 21, 2009. — J.R.

I recently had occasion to show Ivan the Terrible in a course on forties world cinema I’m teaching at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, and found it more mind-boggling than ever. This has always been the Eisenstein feature that’s given me the most pleasure — the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made as well as a showcase for the Russian master’s boldest graphics. But ever since I first saw it in the 1960s, this is a pleasure I’ve often had to apologize for, thanks to the vagaries and confusions of cold-war thinking. This thinking maintained that Eisenstein caved into Stalinist pressures, denounced the montage aesthetic that was central to his best work, and turned out an archaic, made-to-order glorification of a dictator.

Part of the problem has been reconciling the film’s multiple paradoxes — how much it functions as Eisenstein’s autocritique and apologia as well as an attack and glorification of Stalin, meanwhile combining elements of both high and low art at virtually every instant with its tortured angles and extreme melodrama. (Though portions of Part II could be termed inferior to Part I, the moment the film switches to color, using Agfa stock seized from the Germans during World War II, it moves into dizzying high gear, reminding us that Walt Disney was one of Eisenstein’s favorite filmmakers.)… Read more »

PANDORA in Bologna

Originally posted in June 2009. — J.R.

Reseeing an old favorite, Albert Lewin’s delirious Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), towards the end of my penultimate day at Il Cinema Ritrovato, I’m struck once again by how its lengthy, climactic period flashback appears to replicate, anticipate, or at least closely parallel, visually as well as thematically, the murder of Desdemona by Othello in Welles’ Othello, made at almost precisely the same time. Could Lewin have seen the Welles film, or is the resemblance merely coincidental? Even if I had all the precise production information for both films, it would probably be impossible to figure out. [7/3/09]

Read more »

Trial and Error (on Jim McBride)

This was written for Artforum‘s web site, and appeared there April 3, 2009. — J.R.

A considerable part of what’s most fascinating and enjoyable about Jim McBride’s early films is also what’s most dated and therefore forgotten about them. So it seems pertinent that McBride’s first two films, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969), an especially (and provocatively) dialectical twosome, are available on a DVD released in the UK by Second Run (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes) but can’t be found on their home turf.

The first of these movies virtually launched the American pseudo-documentary long before postmodernist skepticism ungracefully redubbed the form “mockumentary” (and only a couple years after Peter Watkins’s more earnest pseudo-documentaries Culloden [1964] and The War Game [1965], made for the BBC). The title hero (L. M. Kit Carson) — a compulsively diaristic filmmaker who offers his own life for inspection, scaring away his girlfriend in the process — is, like McBride himself, smitten with the textures of the present moment, which ultimately makes him a doomed figure. Some 1960s audiences found him so compellingly believable that they could even accept Holzman, in the final sequence, having lost his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade — even though it is left unexplained how these abject substitutes could get conveyed to us on film.… Read more »

A Dialogue about Abbas Kiarostami’s SHIRIN

The following piece appeared in the October 22, 2009 issue of the Chicago Reader. Due to a technical error which was belatedly corrected (in March 2010), the Reader omitted Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s name as coauthor, but I’ve restored it here. — J.R.

Shirin

Kiarostami Returns

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa discuss the Iranian master’s first film to screen in Chicago since 2002.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Introduction

It’s been six years since Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and I published Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press), about Iran’s most famous and most controversial filmmaker. The book combined the perspectives of myself, an American film critic with a Jewish background, and Mehrnaz, an Iranian-American filmmaker and teacher with an Islamic background, on Kiarostami’s films, which are neither narrative features nor documentaries but something in between. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986), Close-Up (1990), Life and Nothing More . . . (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) keep altering the balance between what’s actually seen in a story and what’s implied or imagined, and this is part of what continues to make Kiarostami such a contested and fascinating figure. Building, perhaps, on his talent as a visual artist (he’s a photographer, painter, and graphic artist) and his interest as a chronicler of Iranian life, he’s been a nearly constant innovator in both form and subject matter.Read more »

Reflections on “Rivette in Context”

From Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, Volume 1, No. 1, 2012 (a Spanish academic online journal, available at http://www.ocec.eu/cinemacomparative/pdf/ccc01.pdf). I’m reposting this after fixing a broken link. The Introduction to this long out-of-print book can be found here.– J.R.

“Rivette in Context” had two separate incarnations, occurring a year and a half apart. The first consisted of 28 programs presented at London’s National Film Theatre in August 1977, to accompany the publication of Rivette: Texts and Interviews — a 101-page book I had edited for the British Film Institute while still working on the staffs of two of its magazines, Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound, in 1976.

This book included a polemical Introduction by me and translations — most of them by my London flat mate, Tom Milne — of two lengthy interviews with Rivette (one in 1968 that was centered on L’amour fou, the other in 1973 that was centered on the two separate versions of Out 1), three key critical texts by him (“Letter on Rossellini,” 1955; “The Hand” [on Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt], 1957, and “Montage” [with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre], 1969), and a brief, undated proposal of his from the mid-1970s (“For the Shooting of Les Filles du Feu” — the latter was the working title for a projected series of four features, never completed, that was subsequently retitled Scènes de la Vie Parallèle).… Read more »

Two Films at the French Film Festival

Originally posted in 2010. — J.R.

The first still above comes from writer-director Yves Hanchar’s Sans rancune!, the second from cowriter Sophie Hiet’s and director-cowriter Julie Lopes-Curval’s Mêres et filles, also known as La cuisine and Hidden Diary. Both of these highly involving 2009 features about parents and personal legacies were shown at the French Film Festival held in Richmond, Virginia last month — a sort of pedagogical as well as cultural event presented by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond that took place over four days (March 25-28), and where I was privileged and delighted to be a guest.

These two films certainly weren’t the only interesting things I saw at the festival. (Among the more notable items were Philippe Lioet’s touching and beautifully acted Welcome, a story about the growing bond between a Calais swimming instructor and a Kurdish teenager trying to reach a girlfriend in England illegally by swimming across the English channel — a very popular film in France that was nominated for ten Césars last year but sadly won none of them; a very eclectic essay film about motorcycle racing, kids, and movies by Pierre-William Glenn, the remarkable cinematographer who shot both Truffaut’s Day for Night and Rivette’s Out 1; and, strangest of all, Le train oú ça va…, an “intimiste” and domestic 3-D short by Jeanne Guillot, whose masters thesis for La Fémis, arguing that 3-D films need not be spectacular, was translated into English and posted on the festival’s website.)… Read more »

The Way We Laughed

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2002). — J.R.

The_Way_We_Laughed_

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, this 1998 feature by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, Lamerica) wears its art, as well as its heart, on its sleeveso much so that I feel guilty for not liking it more. It explores the idealized love of an illiterate Sicilian worker (Enrico Lo Verso, who has the eyes of a rain-soaked basset hound) for his literate kid brother (Francesco Giuffrida) after they immigrate to Turin, but that love is supposed to spell out the meaning of his entire life, with other details (work, parents, wife and kids) made to seem strictly incidental. The same sense of hyperbole extends to Amelio’s arty and gloomy evocations of the period (1958-’64), though the literary way this is split up into six sections, each focusing on a single day and bearing its own one-word title, is rather elegant. In Italian with subtitles. 128 minutes. (JR)… Read more »

THE GREEN FOG and the Maddin Mist

From the March 2019 issue of Found Footage. — J.R.

As a critical commentary on cinematic depictions of San Francisco, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog, conventional match cuts that approximates Scotty’s tailing of Madeleine as various cars follow various other cars down assorted San Francisco streets, sometimes passing locations that are familiar from Vertigo or other movies, we’re getting the bare bones of thriller and mystery mechanics without any of the thrills or mysteries, in contradistinction to all the musical signals. And when we see Karl Malden enter a florist shop, and converse (again wordlessly) with the florist, it seems appropriate that the piece of paper that the florist shows to him shows us the green fog yet again, Maddin’s signifier of the genre’s rhetoric of mystification. 

For some of the Hitchcock aficionados who helped to replace Citizen Kane with Vertigo in the last ten-best poll of Sight and Sound, the affectionate ridicule of The Green Fog may seem like an act of sacrilege, especially when we get a panoply of San Francisco cathedrals that are treated as interchangeably as all the cars and streets. But it might also be argued that Maddin’s apparent scorn is in fact a kind of impious critical appreciation for all the tricks of romantic mystification that he and Hitchcock have in common.… Read more »

Then and Now: The San Sebastian International Film Festival

This article appeared in the April 1989 issue of The Independent (vol. 12, no. 3); slightly tweaked in late January, 2010. –J.R.

Having attended the San Sebastian Film Festival on two separate occasions 16 years apart — in 1972 and 1988 — I find it surprising how little the basic ambience of the event has changed.. Apart from the fact that the festival has grown, the major differences that I noticed are those between Franco and post-Franco Spain. One no longers buys a copy of the International Herald Tribune on the Avenida de la Libertad only to find that a state censor has neatly clipped out an article or two from every copy. Even more noticeable, to the eyes as well as ears, is Basque, a language that was rigorously outlawed under Franco. One now sees it on street signs and hears it on TV. One of the many sidebars of the 36th International Film Festival at San Sebastian was even devoted to Basque films.

Sidebars, in fact, have for a long time been the festival’s strength. In 1972 there was a Howard Hawks retrospective, with Hawks himself attending as a jury member for the films in competition. Back then, the festival was held in July, and was still small enough to offer excursions for all the guests” a bus ride to Pamplona to attend the bullfight encouraged Hawks to divulge some of his favorite Hemingway stories.… Read more »

Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image

If memory serves, this essay, which first appeared in the Winter 1985/86 issue of Sight and Sound, and was later reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), took me at least a year to write — and maybe even longer than that — because of all the research it required. I’ve recently revised the title  slightly from “GERTRUD as Nonnarrative” to “Gertrud as Nonnarrative” because my basic argument concerns the character Gertrud rather than the film as a whole. — J.R.

There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.

Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle.… Read more »