Thinking Inside the Box [CHILDREN OF MEN & PAN’S LABYRINTH]

Children of Men ***

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Pam Ferris, and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Pan’s Labyrinth ****

Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro

With Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones

Over the past few years three highly talented and ambitious young Mexican film directors — Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — have made their way into the American mainstream. All three seem to have managed this trick by defining themselves mainly in terms of genre, which isn’t surprising given the industry’s insistence that everything be defined according to pitches and formulas, all in 25 words or less — the consequence of a desire to exhaust existing markets rather than attempt to nurture or create new ones.

Cuaron’s done some children’s fantasy (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and literary adaptation (Great Expectations), a sex comedy/road movie/coming-of-age story (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and now an action-adventure/SF/war movie (Children of Men). His most ambitious movies seem to cram together several genres — or at least the suits’ notions of genres.… Read more »

Sexual Repression and Rebellion in the Early 1950s: Philip Roth’s INDIGNATION

Written for the Library of America’s web site The Moviegoer. The version published there on May 3, 2017  differs somewhat from the original version posted here, especially the ending. — J.R.

No less than seven features to date have been based on works by Philip Roth, and three of these have been directed by first-timers, all of whom previously made their cinematic mark in other professional capacities. Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) had a long and distinguished screenwriting career before directing his own adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1972, and Ewan McGregor acted in over four dozen features before directing American Pastoral 44 years later. James Schamus, a film professor at Columbia University, had over fifty producing credits — plus writing and producing credits on all but three of Ang Lee’s features — before he added direction to his producing and writing on Indignation. This has yielded what Stephen Holden in the New York Times has called “easily the best film made of a Roth novel, which is saying a lot.”

 

Schamus’s dexterity in navigating both commercial film production and academia has served him well on this project, enabling him to honor his source while rendering it both accessible and personal.… Read more »

Is the Cinema Really Dead? (second part)

The second part (roughly the second half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000); for the first half, go here. The illustration below is from the now out-of -print English edition.  — J.R.

Is the Cinema Really Dead?

MOVIE WARS

Susan Sontag’s essay “A Century of Cinema” — a generational lament whose validity for me both rests on and is partially thrown into doubt by its generational stance — has by now appeared in many languages around the world as well as in many different English-language publications, including the The New York Times Magazine (February 25, 1996), the “movie issue” of Parnassus: Poetry in Review (volume 22, nos. 1 & 2, 1997), The Guardian, and at least two book-length collections of essays. I’ve noted many interesting variations in this piece as it’s appeared in various settings, and assume that some of these represent subsequent revisions or afterthoughts on Sontag’s part. But the most striking differences appear between the first version published in America — in The New York Times Magazine, with the strikingly different title “The Decay of Cinema” — and all the others, and I assume that these, including the title, stem from editorial interventions, or at the very least collaborations between Sontag and her editor or editors at the Times.… Read more »

Is the Cinema Really Dead? (first part)

The first part (roughly the first half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000). The second half will be posted tomorrow; the illustration below is from the now out-of-print English edition.  — J.R.

Is the Cinema Really Dead?

MOVIE WARS 

[The] early nineties have not been as encouraging as the early seventies.. . . It is not as easy now to believe in the medium’s vitality or its readiness for great challenges. So many of the noble figures of film history aredead now, and who can be confident that they are being replaced? . . . .The author sees fewer films now. He would as soon go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game. [1994]

It has become harder, this past year, to go back in the dark with hope or purpose. The place where “magic” is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity, and floors sticky from spilled sodas. Forlornness hangs in the air like damp; things are so desolate, you could set today’s version of Waiting for Godot in the stale, archaic sadness of a movie theater.Read more »

ROOM 237 (and a Few Other Encounters) at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2012

MUBI’s posting of this film prompted me to repost the following. — J.R.

Like so much (too much) of contemporary cinema, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is at once entertaining and reprehensible. Alternating between the extravagant commentaries of five analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Julie Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner), it refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just “film criticism” and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery (assuming that one can distinguish between the two) -– that is, uncritically and derisively, with irony as the perpetual escape hatch. Thus we’re told, in swift succession, that The Shining is basically about the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, Kubrick’s apology for having allegedly faked all the Apollo moon-landing footage, the Outlook Hotel’s “impossible” architecture, and/or Kubrick’s contemplation of his own boredom and/or genius. Images from the movie and/or digital alterations of same are made to verify or ridicule these various premises, or maybe both, and past a certain point it no longer matters which of these possibilities are more operative. Unlike his five experts, Ascher won’t take the risk of being wrong himself by behaving like a critic and making comparative judgments about any of the arguments or positions shown, so he inevitably winds up undermining criticism itself by making it all seem like a disreputable, absurd activity.… Read more »

A Vigilance of Desire: Antonioni’s L’ECLISSE

A 2005 essay commissioned by Criterion for their DVD of Eclipse. — J.R.

 

Your vigilance as an artist is an amorous vigilance, a vigilance of desire.

— Roland Barthes to Michelangelo Antonioni, 1979

It’s lamentable that Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the most fashionable vanguard European filmmakers during the sixties, has mainly been out of fashion ever since. Part of this may be due to the sixties themselves — an era of artistic innovation when making ambitious films about the zeitgeist was still considered both possible and desirable — and all they’ve come to represent in ensuing decades. It seems that the curiosity and metaphysical doubts about the world, which resemble at times agnosticism about reality itself, are more easily tolerated when the glamour of that world is more readily apparent.

This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year at Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel — a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.… Read more »

It’s All About Us

From the August 11, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.

World Trade Center

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Andrea Berloff

With Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez, Armando Riesco, and Michael Shannon

The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the late 90s. “Schindler’s List was about 600 people who don’t.” Assuming the quote is right, Kubrick’s speaking about the Holocaust in the present tense and about a movie made half a century later in the past tense suggests something about his priorities.

They probably aren’t the priorities of Oliver Stone, whose ruthlessly circumscribed World Trade Center isn’t about the 2,749 citizens of 87 countries who got killed in the 9/11 assault on the Twin Towers and who are mentioned only in a title when the movie’s over. It’s about two citizens of one of those countries who survived, John McLoughlin and William Jimeno, both real-life Port Authority policemen. The story of what they experienced is gripping and inspiring, but however true it is to their lives — it’s hard to imagine any two men on the planet could be as conventional as the filmmakers make these heroes — the way it’s told restricts what the movie can say about the larger tragedy.… Read more »

Three Key Moments from Three Alain Resnais Films

Here are three of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007), each of which describes an extraordinary scene from an Alain Resnais film involving camera movement. (There’s also a pretty amazing crane shot in Wild Grass, by the way.) — J.R.

***

1961 / Last Year at Marienbad – The camera rushes repeatedly through the doors of Delphine Seyrig’s bedroom and into her arms.

France/Italy. Director: Alain Resnais. Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi. Original title:L’année dernière à Marienbad.

Why It’s Key: A climax of erotic reverie in a film of erotic reveries.

Alain Resnais’ most radical departure from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s published screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad is his elimination of what Robbe-Grillet calls a “rather swift and brutal rape scene”. In this ravishing puzzle film about an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) in a swank, old-style hotel trying to persuade another guest (Delphine Seyrig), also unnamed, that they met and had sex there the previous year, illustrated throughout by subjective imaginings that might be either his or hers, Resnais includes only the beginning of such a scene when the man enters the woman’s bedroom and she moves back in fear.… Read more »

The Actual Definitive Ultimate Director’s Cut (BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT)

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2007). For all its inventiveness and resourcefulness, I find the recent sequel too long and difficult to follow, but I love the appearances of Harrison Ford/Deckard and his dog. — J.R.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut |****

Directed by Ridley Scott

It took 25 years, but the makers of Blade Runner finally got it right. Preceded by at least six editions, five of them seen by the general public, this “final cut” is the optimal form of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Neither a complex revision nor a simple restoration, it’s a retooling that presents the project as it was originally conceived. Although some of the violence has been intensified and stretched out, new footage isn’t really the point. The focus instead is on redressing technical errors and making other helpful adjustments, giving the film a fully comprehensible narrative. For the first time every detail falls into place.

Along with the equally pessimistic and misanthropic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner sets the standard for movies about androids in the post-Metropolis era. It presents a dark view of humanity where the artificial beings known as replicants (who tragically have a lifespan of just four years) command most of our sympathy.… Read more »

Ebrahim Golestan (three capsule reviews & one essay)

Here is an essay about Ebahim Golestan that appeared in the Chicago Reader on May 3, 2007, along with capsule reviews of three Golestan programs that showed in Chicago the same week. I posted these shortly after reseeing the remarkable and criminally neglected Brick and Mirror at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, with Golestan, now in his early 90s, both present and eloquent in speaking about his work.  Note: if you hit the subtitled still below, you can see a very brief silent clip from Brick and Mirror. — J.R.

Brick and Mirror

A high point of Iran’s first new wave, this 1964 masterpiece by Ebrahim Golestan takes its title from the classical Persian poet Attaar, who wrote, “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror.” The philosophical implications of this are fully apparent in Golestan’s tale of a young man who finds a baby girl in his cab and spends a night with his girlfriend debating what to do with the infant. Though this black-and-white ‘Scope film superficially resembles Italian neorealism, especially in its indelible look at Tehran street life and nightlife in the 60s, its spirit is a mix of Dostoyevsky and expressionism: minor characters periodically step forward to deliver anguished soliloquies, contributing to an overall lament both physical and metaphysical.… Read more »

Response to a PEN E-Mail Forum (2004)

As a long-standing member of PEN, I’m periodically invited to participate in their “forums” for their occasional publication PEN America. This is my response to Issue 5 (volume 3) in 2004, devoted to “Silences”. –- J.R.

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A Preview

From the seventh issue of one of my favorite magazines as both a reader and a contributor, published in Spain and available at https://foundfootagemagazine.com for 20 Euros. By prior agreement, Found Footage pays me for my essays but asks me in return not to post them on my web site until years later. This is my latest contribution for them, just out. [4/13/21]

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TOUCH OF EVIL Retouched

Reprinted from my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles, but with illustrations added. (The first of these is a photo taken near Antibes, France, where the revamped Touch of Evil was scheduled to premiere, until Beatrice Welles threatened a lawsuit and halted the screening. Much later, she sent a letter of apology to Janet Leigh that I got to read at one point. Fortunately, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying a wonderful day with Janet Leigh, her daughter Kelly, and several others on the Côte d’Azur, capped by this photo of the Touch of Evil re-edit “crew” and then followed by a memorable dinner.)

The following —- an account of my work as consultant for Universal Pictures on the re-editing of Touch of Evil in 1997-98, based on a studio memo -— is the only thing I’ve ever written for Premiere. I knew one of the editors, Anne Thompson, from her previous stint as assistant editor at Film Comment, and when I proposed this piece to her, she checked with other editors at the magazine and reported back that there was a lot of enthusiastic interest. When I asked her what approach I should take, she urged me to write a first-person account of my experience of the project from beginning to end, which yielded a first version.Read more »

REAL LIFE (1979)

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.

The brassy and obnoxious show-biz type that
Albert Brooks plays in his first and funniest feature
(1979) –- so close to Brooks’s own public persona that
he’s called Albert Brooks –- professes to be impervious
to all the self-consciousness that engulfs him.
Even when he’s shooting an extended documentary
about the life of a “typical” family in Phoenix,
Arizona in the style of the infamous 1973 cinéma-
vérité TV series An American Family, he claims
that anything the family does in front of the camera is
“right,” without ever admitting that the acute self-consciousness
created by his film and camera crew
ultimately has more to do with movies than with real
life. Charles Grodin brilliantly plays the animal
doctor at the head of this family, and Brooks is so
skillful at juggling all the mannerisms of pseudo-documentary
and all the specious claims of pop psychology
that his periodic and compulsive regressions to
old-time show business -– whether it’s the big-time
pop vocal in the opening sequence or the conflagration
inspired by Gone with the Wind at the
end –- manage to be both welcome and ludicrous.… Read more »

The Limits of Memory [THE BLONDS & ROSENSTRASSE]

From the Chicago Reader (August 27, 2004). — J.R.

The Blonds

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Albertina Carri

With Analia Couceyro.

Rosenstrasse

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta

Written by Pamela Katz and von Trotta

With Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Martin Feifel, Jurgen Vogel, Jutta Lampe, Doris Schade, and Fedja van Huet.

It was a severe disappointment, Beyle [Stendhal] writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d’Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. — W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

I don’t know if some memories are real or if they’re my sisters’. –Albertina Carri in The Blonds

When I was in junior high school in the 50s I associated Stanley Kramer’s name — first as a producer, then as a producer-director — with offbeat, somewhat worthy highbrow ventures such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Death of a Salesman, High Noon, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.Read more »