Global Discoveries on DVD: The Importance of Not Being An Auteur

My column in the Winter 2021 issue of CinemaScope. — J.R.

Teaching an online course on Agnès Varda at the School of the Art Institute this fall for 39 students has put me in regular touch with Criterion’s superb 15-Blu-ray box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, every week. The packaging reminds me in some ways of the handsome 78 rpm albums I used to cherish as objects and totems in the mid- to late 1940s, when I was still a toddler, although Criterion’s version of this sort of assembly, held in a box, manages to be neater and more compact. There’s also a richly illustrated and annotated 200-page book inside the box, with essays by Amy Taubin, Ginette Vincendeau, So Mayer, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Rebecca Bengal, and excellent “program notes” on all the films by Michael Koresky. In short, plenty to keep a coronavirus shut-in busy, even without a course to teach. 

The course has gradually brought home to me the complexly ambiguous lesson that Varda wasn’t really or exactly an auteur, at least not in the boys’-club meaning of that term as it’s most commonly used. But not being an auteur gave her a kind of freedom and a form of elasticity denied to most auteurs.… Read more »

18 Thrillers You Might Have Missed…

Posted on DVD Beaver, July 2007; I’ve updated the links when necessary. — J.R.

Some genres are a lot more elastic than others. Our notions of what a Western or a musical consists of are reasonably firm. But thrillers tend to be all over the place, overlapping at various times with crime films, adventure films, heist films, noirs, mystery stories, spy stories, melodramas, and even comedies, period films, and art movies —- to propose a far from exhaustive list.

In order to demonstrate this overall versatility, I’ve come up with 18 recommended titles that I’m listing and briefly describing below, in alphabetical order. A dozen are in English, three are in French, and one apiece is in German, Italian, or Japanese. All but two are currently available on DVD, although in at least one case you’ll have to go beyond American sources in order to acquire it. And ironically, the two that are unavailable are both Hollywood classics —- one more indication of the degree to which some of the major studios and/or the inheritors of their treasures still don’t have a very clear idea of what they possess and keep out of reach.

(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

  Bad Day at Black Rock.
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Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fourth dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fourth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Taste of Cherry
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, and is even inconclusive about whether or not he succeeds, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. The film has remained in many ways Kiarostami’s most controversial film ever since it shared the 1997 paume d’or at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, in part because it entrusts so much of its meaning and power to the audience and the nature of its own investment in what it’s watching. Like many of Kiarostami’s other films, it’s centered around the simultaneously private and public experience of a character in a car giving rides to others, and just as the experience of watching a film in a theater combines private responses with public reactions, this is a film that speaks to both of these situations.… Read more »

The Lewis Contradiction

Written for the Viennale’s catalogue accompanying its Jerry Lewis retrospective in October 2013, where it appears in German translation. — J.R.

1. Why Did — and Do — the Americans Love Jerry Lewis So Much?

…Jerry Lewis’s face, where the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary. — Jean-Luc Godard on Hollywood or Bust, July 1957 (1)

The usual question — and by now a completely tiresome one — is, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis so much?” People have been asking this question — mainly rhetorically rather than with any genuine curiosity about the answer — for over half a century, yet if it was ever worth asking in the first place, this was only for roughly the first two decades of that period. As far as I can tell, this was a love that was first fully declared in detail (though it was far from being universally accepted even in France, then or later) in December 1957, when Robert Benayoun published an article in Positif entitled “Simple Simon ou l’anti-James Dean”, although earlier appreciations, Godard’s among them, had already appeared by then.

This was only about a month before Lewis, having ended his partnership with Dean Martin a year and a half earlier, and subsequently become his own producer on Rock-a-Bye Baby, purchased a mansion in Bel Air that had formerly been owned by the late Louis B.… Read more »

Paris Journal (January-February 1974)

From Film Comment. — J.R.

JULIEN: Have you ever thought that the true reverse angle, as one says in cinematography, of [Magritte’s] Madame Récamier, is the public much more than the painter at work?

— From the script of L’AUTOMNE

All but the last eight minutes or so of Marcel Hanoun’s L’AUTOMNE (AUTUMN) is filmed from a single fixed camera angle, which corresponds to the viewing screen in an editing studio.… Read more »

Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies

Published by DVD Beaver in August 2006. — J.R.

tenth-victim1-300x200

Even though I don’t have much of a head for science, and even though I agree with the field’s chief literary critic, Damon Knight, that “we have no negative knowledge” (meaning that we aren’t yet in a position to identify time travel as either science or non-science), I’d still maintain that the differences between science fiction and fantasy are important. (For Damon Knight’s criticism, see his superb though sadly long out-of-print collection In Search of Wonder.) Important enough, in any case, to make a list of favorite neglected SF movies distinct and separate from a list of neglected fantasy movies. So consider the following selection the first half of a two-part series.

French people tend to conflate SF and fantasy a little more readily than others do into a looser category known as fantastique which also manages to encompass Surrealism, some forms of satire and horror, comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels, among other things. But for the purposes of this particular exercise, credible extrapolations or fictions that at least pretend to have some relation to science —- by which I mean Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (admittedly a borderline case), The Nutty Professor, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but not Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Tiger of Eschnapur, or Eyes Wide Shut —- qualify as science fiction.… Read more »

Heaven’s Gate

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 2005); slightly tweaked in February 2014. — J.R.

HeavensGate

heavensgateCU2

Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic, about immigrant settlers clashing with native capitalists in 19th-century Wyoming, suffered a disastrous opening and was subsequently cut by 70 minutes; it became a legendary flop in the U.S., though the original 219-minute cut was widely applauded as a masterpiece in Europe. The longer version is impressive as long as the characters and settings remain in long shot; only when the camera gets closer do the problems start. The story is both slow moving and hard to follow, but the locations and period details offer plenty to ponder. Cimino’s handling of class issues is ambitious and unusually blunt, though it’s debatable whether this adds up to any sort of Marxist statement, except perhaps as a belated response to the (Oscar-winning) racism and xenophobia of his previous feature, The Deer Hunter. There’s no question that the same homoerotic — and arguably sexist — vision runs through both movies, as well as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the Cimino feature that preceded them. With Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Joseph Cotten, and Brad Dourif. R. (JR)

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen

From the September 28, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece, but also one of the great love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, September 29 and 30.

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Interplanetary Postmodernism [EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY]

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 1989). — J.R.

 

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Julien Temple

Written by Julie Brown, Charlie Coffey, and Terrence E. McNally

With Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans, Julie Brown, Michael McKean, and Charles Rocket.

One would like to think that this delicious new pop musical will finally give the talented English director Julien Temple the reputation and the commercial cachet that he deserves. Mainly known as a director of music videos for such groups as the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Boy George, Billy Idol, and Janet Jackson, Temple has also pursued a fascinating fringe career in movies throughout the 80s, starting with his celebrated film with the Sex Pistols in 1980 (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle), and culminating with his brilliant Absolute Beginners in 1985. Along the way there have also been The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, Mantrap, Running Out of Luck, It’s All True (a 1983 TV feature), and his virtuoso Rigoletto sequence in Aria, filmed in the kitschy splendor of California’s Madonna Inn.

On the basis of what I’ve seen, Temple is pretty much at the mercy of his material — although it’s worth noting that he appears to always or almost always work with the same gifted cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton.… Read more »

A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires

 Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007 (http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_undervalued_movie_satires.htm) .  — J.R.

 
 
One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.

 


With some significant exceptions—-Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking—-satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops.

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Five Easy Pieces [NIGHT ON EARTH]

From the Chicago Reader (May 15, 1992). — J.R.

 

 

NIGHT ON EARTH

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, and Matti Pellonpaa.

As the most popular American independent filmmaker around, Jim Jarmusch carries a special burden: his reputation makes his work particularly hard to evaluate. Other American independents who haven’t enjoyed his commercial success — he’s the only independent who comes to mind who works mainly in 35-millimeter and owns all his own pictures — envy and even resent him, questioning whether he offers a serious alternative to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, Jarmusch has come to be so identified with artistic freedom that it’s difficult to see how any of his movies can live up to his reputation.

“Jim Jarmusch’s planet is the Lower East Side,” began Karen Schoemer in an awestruck feature in the New York Times late last month. “Its bars, its bodegas and its pavement make up his home, his office and his hangout.” “The director finds drama in the ordinary” reads a pull quote in the following hagiography, and clearly so does the Times: it finds a special magic and potency in a run-down neighborhood simply because Jarmusch lives there.… Read more »

Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON is downloadable now, for free!

http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/too-much-johnson-work-print

My only (minor) quarrel with Scott Simmon’s excellent accompanying essay is his speculation about the reason or reasons why the film wasn’t screened at the Connecticut stage preview. According to the late Richard Wilson, who worked on the editing of the film, the summer theater had an inadequate throw for film projection. (See This is Orson Welles, p. 344 — which also includes the erroneous information that the only copy of the work print was destroyed in a fire at Welles’ Madrid villa in 1970). [8/21/14]

TooMuchJohnson

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List-o-Mania, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love American Movies

Based on feedback, I would guess that this article, which first appeared on June 25, 1998, is the most popular piece I’ve ever published in the Chicago Reader. (for further reflections about this piece 13 years later, go here.) Although it’s been featured as a separate item for several years on their site, I noticed that, thanks to some of their recent user-unfriendly retoolings of that site — which makes it much harder to access anything and everything, including this article — my own list of my 100 favorite films at the end of this piece and the AFI’s list of the supposedly greatest 100 films somehow got scrambled together. [Update, 7/25/09:  Checking back a day later, this now appears unscrambled.] This is mainly why I’ve decided to reprint the original piece here in Notes, with only a few minor modifications. I revised and expanded this piece still further in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, where it forms the sixth chapter. (I’m sorry that the English edition of this, which has a much better jacket, has become more scarce.) One of the main additions, on page 93, is a list of the 25 titles on the AFI list that I probably would have included on my own if I hadn’t wanted to create an all-new list for polemical purposes; six of these titles are illustrated at the tail-end of this piece.Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fifth dozen entries)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fifth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

The Red and the White
This 1967 feature was one of the first by Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó to have some impact in the U.S., and the stylistic virtuosity, ritualistic power, and sheer beauty of his work are already fully apparent. In this black-and-white pageant, set during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the reds are the revolutionaries and the whites are the government forces ordered to crush them. Working in elaborately choreographed long takes with often spectacular vistas, Jancso invites us to study the mechanisms of power almost abstractly (as suggested by the Stendhalian ring of his title), with a cold eroticism that may glancingly suggest some of the subsequent work of Stanley Kubrick. But this shouldn’t mislead one into concluding that Jancsó is any way detached from either politics or emotions.

For one thing, the markedly nationalistic elements in The Red and the White could be —- and were —-interpreted as anti-Russian, especially if one considers that the film was made less than a decade after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution, which left over 7,000 Hungarians dead.… Read more »

The Warmth and Artifice of MOANA

From the March 2016 issue of Artforum, where it appears under the title “Given Voice”. — J.R.

moana_prelim_poster_graphic

“Until recently,” wrote anthropologist Jay Ruby thirty-odd years ago, “the scholarship and popular press surrounding [Robert J.] Flaherty have tended toward two extremes—portraying him in mythical terms and ‘worshipping’ his films or debunking them as fakes and frauds and castigating him for a lack of social and political consciousness.” But the more balanced view of “Flaherty as a man of his time and culture” that Ruby saw succeeding these extremes still hasn’t fully taken hold, perhaps because the very meaning of the term “documentary” is still being debated. Even when we smile (or flinch) at some of Flaherty’s romantic conceptions, the comprehensive theoretical questions raised by his methods are ones we still can’t confidently say we’ve resolved.

 Moana

Documentary” was reportedly first used in English by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in a pseudonymous rave review of Flaherty’s second feature, Moana (1926). (Seeking to duplicate the success of Nanook of the North [1922], but in warmer climes, Flaherty set sail for the South Seas the following year, his entire family in tow, to shoot a film in Samoa.) Significantly, Grierson employed the novel term to register one of the film’s subordinate virtues: “Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value,” he noted.… Read more »