Light Sleeper

From the August 1, 1992 Chicago Reader.

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Despite a steady rise in his craft as both a writer and a director, Paul Schrader is still light years away from his mentor and model, Robert Bresson. His persistent ludicrous efforts to remake Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket in Hollywood terms have already given us Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, and they’re as doomed as ever in this portrait of a Manhattan drug dealer (Willem Dafoe) desperate to clean up his act. (Now Schrader appears to be trying to remake Taxi Driver, complete with excremental metaphors, nocturnal views of New York, and droning offscreen narration by the hero.) But Susan Sarandon (who improves even more with age than Schrader does) is so good as Dafoe’s boss, and the dialogue is so literate for such a familiar story, that there’s a lot to admire — it’s Schrader’s best film — as long as one can get past the transcendental claptrap (e.g., a New York Post headline reading a”Fall From Grace”) that Schrader sheds compulsively. With Dana Delany, David Clennon, Victor Garber, and Mary Beth Hurt. (JR)

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Business as Usual at Cannes (2009)

This is the 13th one-page column I published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their July-August 2009 issue. — J.R.

Writing from Chicago in May, during the Cannes film festival, I’ve been reflecting lately how much  this festival remains a spectator sport even for those who don’t attend it. I’ve attended it nine times in all, 1970-1973 and 1994-1998, and my most enduring impression about it is how quickly everything that happens there gets turned into some form of business — a process that is both hilarious and somewhat horrifying.

Two immediate examples come to mind which occurred during my first and most recent visits there. In 1970, I attended the world premiere of Woodstock, only five days after four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. Michael Wadleigh, the hippie director — a tall, commanding figure dressed in suede — dedicated the film to those four students and to “the many deaths to come” in the ongoing political struggles of the period. When the screening was over, he stood by the exit and calmly handed out black arm bands to anyone who wanted to wear one. I wore one myself for a day or two.… Read more »

Jean-Luc Godard as Airplane

Commissioned by New Lines magazine the day that Godard died (September 13, 2022), and published by them without this title two days later. — J.R.

“He wasn’t sick. He was simply exhausted,” someone close to Jean-Luc Godard told the French newspaper Libération. But not so exhausted that he couldn’t confound his public, including his fans, one last time, by deciding to end his life by assisted suicide — that is to say, to end it nobly, willfully and seriously, even existentially, rather than fatefully and inadvertently.

Godard was hated as much as Orson Welles by the commodifiers who could find no way of commodifying his art, of predicting and thereby marketing his next moves as they could with a Woody Allen or an Ingmar Bergman or a Federico Fellini. And in the end he fooled us one last time by following his own path rather than ours. Was his way of dying a selfish act? Yes and no. It yielded an honest and considered end rather than an involuntary one; it tells us who he was (and still is).

I first encountered Godard’s work when I was 17 and saw À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) in New York. But I didn’t meet him in person until 1972, when I tried to interview him and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Paris about their co-directed Tout va bien (Just Great).… Read more »

Reply to Cinephilia Survey (2009)

My response to a survey in Framework (Volume 50, No. 1 & 2, Spring & Fall 2009). I’ve retained only the first part — the question part — of Jonathan Buchsbaum and Elena Gorfinkel’s Introduction to the survey:

This dossier on cinephilia gathers responses to the following question:

“What is being fought for by today’s cinephilia(s)?

At the end of La Cinéphilie (2003), Antoine de Baecque wrote that classical cinephilia died in 1968, following the failure of cinema to film the political events of that year. Since that time, still according to de Baecque, the terrain of cinephilia changed radically as television and publicity/ advertising ‘invaded the domain of images.’ The proliferation of images has only accelerated with technological change ever since, hurtling through the internet and telecommunications.

Whatever the current status of cinephilia, certainly there are new cinephiles, even if they no longer hone their passion primarily in film theaters. But what is being fought for in this new generation of cinephilia? What causes animate cinephilia today and how are these new modes different from the ‘classical cinephilia’?

If, in particular, the Cahiers du Cinéma critics won their battles for auteurism, now part of most critics’ lingua franca, are there new critical paradigms of emergent polemics to complement, replace, or contest the earlier cinephilia?Read more »

One Key Event & Two Key Scenes (March 2009)

Three brief entries commissioned by Chris Fujiwara and submitted in March 2009 for the updated Italian edition of his stupendous 2007 collection Defining Moments in Movies, entitled Cinema: 1000 Momenti Fondamentali. — J.R.

Key Event

Rossellini goes to India

Roberto Rossellini’s extended trip to India comes at the end of his richest period as a filmmaker in which his various staged encounters between fiction and non-fiction were most adventurous. At  the war’s end he was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany, but once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues came to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. Other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed.

When he traveled to India at age 51, Rossellini worked concurrently on his masterpiece India Matri Buhmi (1959), a set of interlocking tales and commentaries which Jean-Luc Godard once called “the creation of the world,” and a ten-part television miniseries that was broadcast in both France and Italy the same year.… Read more »

Welfare

From the September 1, 1994 Chicago Reader.

One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. 167 min. (JR)… Read more »

Addressing the Present (2009)

This is the 11th one-page bimonthly column that I published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it appeared in their March 2009 issue. — J.R.

Tomorrow I start teaching the final semester of a course and film series I’ve been offering at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute devoted to world cinema of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.  To provide a segue between the Depression of the 30s and the 40s, I’ll be starting with a double feature devoted to economic desperation, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945).

Two of the most popular films I showed last fall were Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (1932) and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). I selected them before last year’s economic recession started, and the congruence and relevance of certain themes — remorse about warfare and spurious patriotism, crowded family apartments and neglect of the elderly — probably added to their appeal.  But the contemporary impact of films is always difficult to predict. I’m convinced that a significant part of what inspired Clint Eastwood to make Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima was the U.S. occupation of Iraq,  but this relevance wasn’t discussed in the press.… Read more »

No. 16, Barkhor South Street

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

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The fascinating thing about this award-winning feature-length documentary (1996) by Duan Jinchuan from mainland China is that it often seems to approximate the work of Frederick Wiseman in showing us the everyday workings of contemporary society — although the society in this case is one we generally know little about. The focus here is on a neighborhood committee in Lhasa, Tibet, where citizens go to settle family disputes, petty thieves and other delinquents are chastised and advised, community finances are computed, and street vendors are regulated, among many other activities. This doesn’t register like a thesis-driven film, though the preparations for an official ceremony celebrating the Chinese occupation of Tibet towards the end certainly has its creepy side, and one that implicitly rhymes with the other forms of patriarchal rule that one has witnessed in most of the preceding segments. (JR)… Read more »

Public Housing

From the November 6, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

This in-depth 1997 look at everyday life in Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing project, running 195 minutes, is one of Frederick Wiseman’s greatest documentaries to date. Few of the points in its epic analysis are obvious ones; though it gives the overall impression that public housing is like living in a concentration camp, the film favors exploration and understanding over finger-pointing and polemicizing. Wiseman presents a wide array of materials, and because you have to reflect on the film to realize how the various pieces of its design hang together, you’re liable to be thinking about it for months afterward. Wiseman will attend the screening, and the following afternoon, Saturday, November 7, at 1, he’ll take part in a panel discussion at the Film Center chaired by Studs Terkel and featuring CHA and other officials. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 6, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Belfast, Maine

From the Chicago Reader (2000). — J.R.

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Frederick Wiseman’s patient, four-hour unpacking of a small town in Maine confirms the impression of his previous masterpiece, Public Housing: that the masterful documentarian of High School (1968) and Welfare (1975) has now become a masterful essayist. Or maybe he’s been an essayist all along but has lately begun exercising his intelligence and organizing his documentary materials in increasingly subtle and nondidactic ways. What seems different and special about his recent work is its avoidance of easy theses. He picked as his subject this seaside community of 6,000 inhabitants, 99 percent of them white, because he lived a few miles away. He explains his approach as follows: “To document both change and continuity brought about by economic pressure on everyday life in Belfast, I examine its institutions and everyday practices. I also take a look at places where people interact: family life, commerce, public services, and public places.” My favorite scene is a high school teacher’s brilliant lecture on Moby-Dick that throws a great deal of light on everything else, but a lot of what I remember most vividly is the documentation of the daily work involved in preparing and packaging seafood — none of it boring to watch.Read more »

There’s Somebody Out There

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1999). — J.R.

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I recently heard about an American teenager visiting Wales who insisted on calling the Welsh people she met English. When it was pointed out to her that the Welsh didn’t like being identified that way, she said she was sorry but that’s what she’d been taught in school — and it would be too complicated for her to change what she called them.

Given the isolationism of Americans, which seems to grow more pronounced every year, an event like the Chicago International Film Festival has to be cherished. This year it’s offering the city 108 features from 31 countries — 32 from the U.S. and 76 from elsewhere, 49 of them U.S. or North American premieres, as well as five programs of shorts and five tributes. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of fresh, or stale, air from diverse corners of the globe — even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. However you look at them, they’re proof that Americans aren’t the only human beings and that the decisions Americans make about how to live their lives aren’t the only options — at least not yet.… Read more »

Interview with Oja Kodar (2015)

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My 2015 interview with Oja Kodar in Woodstock, Illinois:
https://vimeo.com/149237341

PASSWORD: Woodstock

Note: A book collecting my other interviews, starting with one with Orson Welles — CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS: INTERVIEWS AND DIALOGUES — was published by the University of Illinois Press in December 2018. And my essay about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND concludes its companion volume, CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS 2: PORTRAITS AND POLEMICS,  published by the same press half a year later.

I’ve already posted this link on Facebook, but am reposting it here because I think everyone who cares about Orson Welles should see and hear it. — J.R.Read more »

Notes on Charles Burnett

Commissioned in December 2008 by London’s National Film Theatre or the  South Bank — I can’t recall now which of these appellations it was using then  — for a small Burnett retrospective. These notes were written according to precise specifications, as indicated in the word lengths mentioned below. — J.R.

Charles Burnett

1. 35-word stand first

Versatile yet focused, Charles Burnett offers an in-depth portrait of the ghetto community he grew up in, South Central Los Angeles, in an oeuvre that’s both witty and tragic, continuing to expand and surprise us.

2. 350-word introduction

Born in Mississippi in 1944 but raised in Watts, Charles Burnett is a filmmaker as steeped in his community as William Faulkner was in his. But he hails from an invisible community, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the supreme living masters of American cinema should also be among the slowest to gain recognition.

That he’s worked memorably for both Miramax (The Glass Shield, 1994) and the Disney channel (Nightjohn, 1996) has only helped to give him a scattered and confused mainstream profile, typically omitting such bold independent experiments as The Final Insult (a 1997 digital video about the homeless, mixing documentary, fiction, and poetry) and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (a 2003 TV essay that fictionalizes and dramatizes many conflicting versions of its title figure — a Virginia slave who led a 1839 revolt that slaughtered 59 whites).… Read more »

Communications Problems and Canons

The fifth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000).  As James Naremore aptly notes about my work in his collection An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2014), I have revised my attitudes towards watching films on home video formats considerably since I wrote this over a decade and a half ago. -– J.R.  

 Les Vampiresbat

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In 1998, Water Bearer Video issued in a boxed set of four cassettes the complete ten-episode silent French serial Les vampires. Directed by  Louis Feuillade in 1915 and 1916 and starring the great actress Musidora as the mysterious Irma Vep, this monumental and exciting crime fantasy is one of the key works in the history of cinema — seminal in its influence on moviemaking as a whole, and to my mind considerably more watchable, pleasurable, and even modern from certain perspectives than the contemporaneous long features of D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Yet astonishingly, this major work had been unavailable in the United States for over eighty years, ever since it ran commercially as a serial in American movie houses; apart from a few exceptional archive and festival showings from the sixties onward, not a single episode was distributed in any form.… Read more »

Female

From the September 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, a real-life married couple at the time of this 1933 feature, star as the tyrannical head of a major auto company and the independent-minded guy who comes along to challenge her and win her heart. Before it (and its heroine) abjectly cop out in the closing minutes, this hour-long precode feature offers a bracing feminist fever dream of a young woman commanding a huge corporation and a stable of attractive young men, whom she invites over to her house for one-night stands. Breezily directed by Michael Curtiz and William Dieterle; with Johnny Mack Brown, Ruth Donnelly, and some very sumptuous set design — Depression fantasy of the good life at its most hyperbolic. (JR)

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When the Wind Blows

From the Chicago Reader (February 3, 1989). Twilight Time has recently  (2014) released this film on Blu-Ray, with many extras. — J.R.

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The point of director Jimmy Murakami and screenwriter Raymond Briggs’s rather original English animated feature is to get us to think the unthinkable — to imagine the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust. But rather than force this bitter pill on us, they create a very funny and believable elderly English couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. These two are still mired in memories of World War II, but when nuclear war hits they are eager to do all the proper things and to follow the instructions in the government booklets correctly. Rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, the filmmakers make all their essential points by sticking to this isolated couple in their country cottage, following them step-by-step through the experience. Aided by a realistic style of animation that incorporates some live action, by occasional stylistic changes that allow for more abstraction in some fantasy interludes, and by the expert speaking voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, the movie succeeds impressively. It’s rare that a cartoon carries the impact of a live-action feature without sacrificing the imaginative freedom of the pen and brush, but this one does — and does so well that we are even persuaded to accept the didactic framework.… Read more »