Not the Same Old Song and Dance

  • From the Chicago Reader (November 27, 1998), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema and on the BFI Blu-ray of the film. In his audiovisual essay on the latter release, Geoff Andrew rightly corrects my error, below, of describing the ax murder victim as Demy’s Lola, not von Sternberg’s Lola Lola. — J.R.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Geneviève Thénier, Henri Crémieux, and Jacques Riberolles.

As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my 30-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago — helpful considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation — a large-scale tribute to Hollywood musicals shot exclusively in Rochefort in southwest France, and an unabashedly romantic paean to American energy and optimism that’s quintessentially French. It has a score by Michel Legrand that’s easily his best, offering an almost continuous succession of songs with lyrics by Demy, all written in alexandrines (as is a climactic dinner scene that’s spoken rather than sung); choreography that ranges from mediocre (Norman Maen’s frenchified imitations of Jerome Robbins) to sublime (Gene Kelly’s choreography of his own numbers); and perhaps the most beautiful dovetailing of failed and achieved connections apart from Shakespeare and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, shot during the same period.… Read more »

Allusion Profusion [ED WOOD & PULP FICTION]

From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1994). This is also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

*** ED WOOD

(A must-see)

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

With Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, George “The Animal” Steele, and Vincent D’Onofrio.

*** PULP FICTION

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino

With John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, and Tarantino.

[The media] ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it.

— Serge Daney, Sight and Sound

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. — Orson Welles

In Vamps & Tramps, Camille Paglia’s latest collection of sound bites and press clips, one finds an extended account of her long-term obsession with Susan Sontag, including the following nugget: “She is literally being passed by a younger rival, and she’s not handling it, I’m afraid, very gracefully. . . . I am the Sontag of the 90s, there’s no doubt of it.”… Read more »

Introduction to a Proposed Collection

[IN DREAMS BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES: A JONATHAN ROSENBAUM READER]

This is an introduction to a proposed collection of mine that hasn’t yet found a publisher. I’m posting it now in order to use it in a workshop that I’m conducting at Kino klub Split (June 17-22) in Croatia that’s based on certain concepts proposed in this book. –- J.R.

So complex is reality, and so fragmentary                                      and simplified is history, that an 
omniscient observer could write an 
indefinite, almost infinite, number of 
biographies of a man, each emphasizing 
different facts; we would have to read 
many of them before we realized that 
the protagonist was the same.
               Jorge Luis Borges, 1943

I get a great laugh from artists who 
ridicule the critics as parasites and 
artists manqués —- such a horrible joke. 
I can't imagine a more perfect art form, 
a more perfect career than criticism. I 
can't imagine anything more valuable to 
do, and I’ve always felt that way.
                     Manny Farber, 1977

First, a few ground rules. Because most of us live in a culture where our marketers also tend to be our preferred epistemologists, editors, and censors, I want to override their usual restrictions that govern collections of this kind by drawing upon my literary criticism and my music criticism (mostly of jazz) as well as the film criticism that I’m usually known for, meanwhile charting some of the potential and actual interactivity between these arts in order to define some of the attributes of my own particular niche-market, at least as I’m defining and addressing it here.… Read more »

Review of Peter Biskind’s SEEING IS BELIEVING

 

From the Autumn 1984 Film Quarterly. I reviewed this book at Biskind’s request, and my position was hampered by the fact that he was the main editor of American Film at the time, where his commissions were essential to my livelihood. Our relationship became even more strained after I was all set to review the book and he then informed me that he wished I weren’t reviewing it. — J.R.

SEEING IS BELIEVING: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties By Peter Biskind. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. $22.95 cloth, $10.95 paper.

The first thing to be said about Peter Bis­kind’s ambitious and long-awaited study of ideology in Hollywood movies of the fifties is that it can’t be dipped into at random with­ out a considerable amount of confusion setting in. Without the benefit of Biskind’s careful construction and preparation, the unwary reader who plunges in midstream is bound to be bewildered or dismayed by many of the political labels, whereby Thieves Highway, for instance, is designated as a “right-wing film,” or High Noon and The Blob as “radical films.” Even in the Introduction, which tends to be more cautious than the rest of the book, several eyebrows are likely to be raised by the followingsentence: “The films of Robert Aldrich can usually be counted on to be somewhere on the left, just as the films of Elia Kazan are frequently in the middle, while those of John Ford are to the right of his and those of Alfred Hitchcock are to the right of his.

While nothing in Seeing is Believing quite succeeds in eliminating all the booby-traps contained in the above declaration, the book is a lot more reasoned and reasonable than any sort of scattershot spot-checking might suggest. Examining the… Read more »

American Beauty [on Chris Petit’s NEGATIVE SPACE]

From the May 12, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader.  –J.R.

Negative Space

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Chris Petit

With Robert Mitchum, Manny Farber, Dave Hickey, and (as narrator) Petit.

There aren’t many films or videos about film criticism, especially ones that perform the actual work of film criticism. An interesting and ambitious exception is Chris Petit’s Negative Space (1999), an experimental 39-minute video made for BBC TV that’s being shown for free by Chicago Filmmakers at the Chicago Cultural Center this Friday, along with Petit’s The Falconer (1998). Named after the only book by film critic, painter, and teacher Manny Farber — a 1971 collection reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998 — Petit’s video wrestles with American landscape and culture, irony, memory, Las Vegas, the beginning of a new millennium, death, desert, film versus video, J.M.W. Turner’s painting, several movies (including Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy), as well as two critics, Farber and Dave Hickey. Petit also looks at Farber as a painter and an art critic and Hickey as an art critic, a resident of Las Vegas, an appreciator of Farber, and a commentator on American culture.… Read more »

The Sound of Silence

Commissioned by Stanley Schtinter in the summer of 2019 for the limited LP release of Carles Santos’ soundtrack score for Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc in early 2020. I received a copy of this LP from Stanley earlier this month — on the final day of a Portabella retrospective in London that began in November, when I gave a lecture at Close-up and Portabella himself, who’d just turned 93, was amiably present.  — J.R.

cuadecuc-vampir

Masterpieces have many possible ports of entry. My own passport into Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) — first seen multiple times at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 1971 and then celebrated in my festival coverage for the Village Voice — was composed of rampant cinephilia crossed with political ignorance, as well as a fascination with William S. Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961-1966), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962-1967) to create scrambled syntax (echoed in Portabella’s capacity to shift his narrative focus within single shots from the Dracula story itself to the filming of it). I knew then that Portabella, one of the Spanish producers of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, had his own passport confiscated as punishment by Francoist Spain, accounting for his absence in Cannes, and that his film was mostly a silent documentary of the shooting of an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by one Jesus Franco, accompanied by musique concrète.… Read more »

A Personal Account of an Adventure Called Film.Factory (expanded version)

Posted on Sight and Sound‘s web site 18 July 2013, and then expanded (by about 50%) at the request of Trafic‘s Raymond Bellour later that month for its French translation in Trafic #88, published in early December. This has also appeared in German translation in the September 2013 issue of Cargo, and a Spanish translation appeared in mid-August 2014 on Roger Koza’s web site. I’ve slightly updated the version here in a few particulars and added some photos. 

I returned to Film.Factory for my fourth two-week stint to date on October 24, 2015, this time to teach a history of independent cinema around the world. — J.R.

JR at FilmFactory

First of all, what is film.factory?

It’s usually thought of and referred to as a film school that’s been recently set up in Sarajevo, housed at the Sarajevo Film Academy. But Béla Tarr, who created it, isn’t happy with this classification. He’d rather call it a workshop or, as its name suggests, a factory that produces films in which he serves as a producer. And he’d rather speak of the sixteen filmmakers he selected late last year from fourteen countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Faro Islands, Iceland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, the U.K.,… Read more »

The Preminger Enigma

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1995). — J.R.

One of the strangest things about the elusive career of Otto Preminger (1905-1986) is that it remains elusive not because of the man’s invisibility but because of his relative omnipresence in the public eye. Though never as familiar as Alfred Hitchcock, he cut an imposing figure in the media, registering much more than either John Ford or Howard Hawks. Preminger was well known for his Nazi roles in Margin for Error (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953), for appearing in TV guest spots on Batman and Laugh-In and numerous talk shows, as a colorful player in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and for grabbing headlines as the man who defied the Production Code of the 50s and the lingering Hollywood blacklist of the 60s while grandly mounting well-publicized movie versions of best-sellers like Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal. Since he was one of the first of the high-profile American independents after the heyday of Griffith and Chaplin and moved from Hollywood to New York in the early 50s and never shifted his home base later, in most people’s minds he was more producer than director.… Read more »

Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

This appeared Cinema Scope no. 11 (summer 2002). — J.R.

“You can’t smell email,” Raúl Ruiz insisted to me the night before we had this interview at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, explaining to me why he didn’t have any truck with the Internet. He added that lately he’s been collecting various first editions, excommunications, and death sentences, many of them from the 19th century and earlier, and he can smell all of them.

At first I was surprised by this old-fashioned form of resistance, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raúl is basically a 19th century figure. His largely Borgesian canon of 19th and early 20th century English and American writers (Chesterton, Stevenson, Wells, Harte, Hawthorne, Melville, et al) and his taste for rambling narratives and tales within tales smacks of a Victorian temperament.

I first encountered Ruiz’s work during my first trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival, in 1983, and it was there where we first became friends three years later —- as well as where we had this interview on January 26, in the lobby of the hotel where we were both staying. (Raúl had a small DV camera with him, and from time to time would idly shoot people coming through the hotel’s revolving-door entrance from where we sat a few yards away –- something, he explained, that he needed for his new Chilean TV series.)… Read more »

PINK FLAMINGOS

Written for the 2022 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Because I miscalculated the requested word length, this is much longer than the version that they wound up using.– J.R.

PINK FLAMINGOS

Dare I say it? John Waters may be the closest thing North Americans have to a contemporary successor to Mark Twain, especially if we regard the latter figure more as a multifaceted public entertainer than as an artist (which is indeed how Twain’s contemporary audience generally perceived him)—in other words, most often as a genial host, and not exactly as a poet. This helps to account for why Pink Flamingos, the deliberately sleazy 1972 feature that made Waters famous, owed the greater part of its fame to the fact that it ended with a chubby drag queen named Divine (named after the hero[ine] of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, whom most of the star’s fans most likely never read or even heard of) gobbling up dog shit. And because Waters’ gifts as a writer and standup humorist have always tended to surpass and overwhelm his talent as a film director — something that was already apparent in Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (1981), the first of his many entertaining books–we remember his early films more for their eccentric cast members and their cockeyed premises than for the style of their mise-en-scene.… Read more »

Saying It With Stars

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 2005). — J.R.

Crash

*** (A must see)

Directed by Paul Haggis

Written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco

With Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Dashon Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Nona Gaye, and Michael Pena

Mindhunters

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin

With Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Val Kilmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Kathryn Morris, Christian Slater, LL Cool J, Patricia Velasquez, and Cassandra Bell

Monster-in-Law

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Robert Luketic

Written by Anya Kochoff and Richard LaGravenese

With Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, and Wanda Sykes

We tend to make trade-offs between reality and fantasy when we watch movies, buying into some questionable premises because we want to honor others. Despite shared assumptions and conventions, we have different thresholds for what we find believable — or an acceptable version of what’s real. We’ll settle for a certain amount of contrivance, but our tolerance has limits, determined in part by age, taste, and experience and in part by whether we like the rest of the movie enough to stretch our standards.… Read more »

Potent Pessimism [on Cy Endfield]

From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1992). For more on Endfield, see Brian Neve’s excellent new biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, as well as my subsequent Reader article about him and my essay “Pages from the Endfield File,” which grew out of the preceding two pieces and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. This particular piece has been upgraded in terms of illustrations. — J.R.

FILMS BY CY ENDFIELD

The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people — and himself first of all — with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved. — Jacques Rivette in an interview, circa 1967

Cyril Raker Endfield, who will turn 78 this November, is the sort of filmmaker auteurist critics like to call a “subject for further research.” To the best of my knowledge, he has directed 21 features — the first 7 in the United States between 1946 and 1951, the remainder in England, continental Europe, and South Africa between 1953 and 1971 — and worked on the scripts for most of them, as well as on the scripts of two Joe Palooka films (apart from the two he directed), a Bowery Boys picture (Hard Boiled Mahoney, 1947), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948), a prison picture called Crashout (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), and Zulu Dawn (1979), a sort of prequel to Endfield’s only hit, Zulu (1964).… Read more »

Farewell to Dennis Hopper (R.I.P., 1936-2010)–and Farewell to Linda Manz (R.I.P., 1961-2020)

This obviously wouldn’t be an appropriate time to revive my negative review of Hopper’s Colors in the Chicago Reader 22 years ago, which can easily be accessed by anyone who might be interested. But I’d like to reproduce a couple of short paragraphs from it about my favorite Hopper film, which I continue to cherish:

To make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me, I recently took another look at Hopper’s previous film, Out of the Blue (1980). Here was proof, if any is needed, that a celebrated burnt-out case came back to establish himself as the legitimate American heir to the cinema of Nicholas Ray — a cinema of tortured lyricism and passionate rebellion that reached its fullest flower in the 50s, as if to match the action painting that was roughly contemporary with it. Hopper managed to remake Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (the film in which Hopper made his acting debut) in terms of a working-class punk (Linda Manz), an androgynous heroine whose grim fate suggested an Americanized version of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. Casting himself, moreover, as her dissolute father, Hopper gave himself a disturbing part that seemed to update his role as Billy in Easy Rider.… Read more »

Culture in the Year of 2020

Written in response to the following invitation from Diego Moldes Gonzalez (whom I’ve never met) in Madrid: “What is the definition of ‘culture’ for you? How is the culture of the 21st century similar and different from the culture of the 20th century?” This was revised slightly on November 22. — J.R.

As a beneficiary of both Internet culture and the imperial culture of the United States (which becomes imperial whenever it vainly calls itself American culture, which is often, thus implicitly appearing to enfold much of North America and all of South and Central America as secondary satellites), I continue to be subject to the market-driven capitalist culture that strives to pick the pocket of my unconscious and thereby invisibly steer my purchases (or, more precisely, the events that constitute my being purchased), defined as my existential identity. Thus, because I’m defined as an anti-Trumpian, the media fills me with anti-Trump rather than the desired absence or disappearance of Trump. In other words, Trumpians and anti-Trumpians get served two alternate versions of the same exclusive diet of Trump and daily coronavirus casualty figures, popularly known as the daily news, and choosing between these two unvarying diets is being deceptively labeled a form of democratic choice and a representative form of “American culture”.… Read more »

The Mattei Affair (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 497). — J.R.

Caso Mattei, Il (The Mattei Affair) Italy, 1972
Director: Francesco Rosi


27 October, 1962. The private plane of Enrico Mattei, president of ENI (Ente Nazional Idrocarburi), flying from Sicily to Milan, crashes in Bascape, killing the pilot Bertuzzi, the Time-Life reporter McHale and Mattei himself. An account follows of both the investigation into the causes of this accident (a mystery that remains unsolved) and of Mattei’s public career, revealing that diverseindividuals and organizations (from the Mafia to the CIA) had reasons for wanting to see him dead. His controversial position grew out of his efforts to use his state oil organization, AGIP, to compete with private individuals, and to deal with Third World oil-producing countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) in terms more advantageous than the 50-50 arrangement offered by the major oil companies. This project began in April 1946, when a small methane deposit was discovered in the village of Caviaga, and Mattei decided to exaggerate and exploit its value as a coal substitute in order to create his organization and gain an economic and political foothold. In the investigation running parallel to a re-enactment of his career (the latter culminating in his visit on the day of his death to Gagliano, Sicily, where he is acclaimed as a popular hero), Mauro De Marro, a Sicilian journalist reconstructing the last day of Mattei’s life for the purposes of the present film, suddenly disappears, apparently kidnapped — another unsolved mystery.… Read more »

Sights and Smells and…

From The Soho News (July 2, 1980). This was my first encounter with the delightful and inspired couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, subsequently known for their wonderful found-footage films, e.g. From the Pole to the Equator (1987) and Prisoners of War (1995). — J.R.

One interesting thing about aesthetic hybrids — movies with smells, or jazz posing as film criticism — is that nobody knows what to do with them, critics included. Whether these unusual and unlikely yokings represent examples of useful, exploratory or merely wishful thinking is essentially a matter of personal taste. In the two instances under review, a crucial factor in determining one’s taste is packaging, pure and simple — how and where an audience gets placed.

Apart from isolated experiments — including a recent one by Les Blank, reportedly utilizing the odors of red beans and rice — it seems that commercial efforts to link smells with movies have mainly come in two separate, pungent waves. A couple of early talkies, Lilac Time and The Hollywood Revue, played around with the idea in a few theaters; the latter, a plotless musical, climaxed with a snoutful of orange scent to go with “Orange Blossom Time,” performed by Charles King and the Albertina Rasch ballet company.… Read more »