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 second dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece, about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to sit down and have a meal together, is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and executed of all his late French films. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams, dreams within dreams, and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with the very processes of narrative illusion and narrative continuity themselves — their rewards as well as their compulsions, their pleasures and their frustrations.
Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious, the various episodes involving these and other characters (including Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur) are like an anthology of Buñuel’s themes, favorite gags, and recurring nightmares. The film was produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, perhaps the two most essential friends and collaborators in the flowering of Bunuel’s late period, though Buñuel regulars Rey, Frankeur, and Julien Bertheau might also be cited.… Read more »
April 7: The Story of Three Loves (1953) at the Regency. It’s been over 27 years since I last saw this luscious, kitschy technicolor trio of thematically related sketches — awkwardly and arbitrarily stitched together on an intervening ocean liner — and it impresses me even more now than it did at age 10. Its terrain is neither Hollywood nor Europe, exactly, but a glossy MGM compromise between American dreams of Europe and European emigré dreams of America. And the fascinating thing about it today is the degree to which pop existentialism composes its principal form of hard aesthetic and social currency, in all three of its delirious parables about love and art.
In the London-based “The Jealous Lover” (scripted by John Collier, directed by Gottfried Reinhardt), ballerina Moira Shearer learns she has a weak heart that prohibits further dancing. Subsequently inspired, however, by the florid imagination and genius of director James Mason, she devotedly and ecstatically dances herself to death.
“Mademoiselle” offers Vincente Minnelli’s mise en scène of a Rome-based fantasy about an 11-year-old Ricky Nelson patterned somewhat after Daisy Miller’s twerpy kid brother. Secretly infatuated with his governess, Leslie Caron, he is enabled by the magic of an obliging American witch (Ethel Barrymore) to become Farley Granger for one enchanted, Cinderella-tense evening.
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 2003). — J.R.
Mystic River ** (Worth seeing) Directed by Clint Eastwood Written by Brian Helgeland With Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Laura Linney, Adam Nelson, Emmy Rossum, and Cameron Bowen.
The critical community has spoken: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a masterpiece and a profound, tragic statement about who we are and the inevitability of violence in our lives — a pitiless view, in which violence begets violence and the sins of the fathers pass to later generations.
Presumably these qualities are also in Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, which I haven’t read, but it’s the movie that’s drawing most of the superlatives from American critics. The acclaim started after the film premiered at Cannes, when much of the griping American press seemed to see it as a vindication of American filmmaking, an answer to the terrible state of cinema in general. Some of those critics may have seen it as a vindication of U.S. patriotism as well — one reason it’s likely to rack up plenty of Oscars.
The last Eastwood movie that provoked biblical language and allusions to Greek tragedy was Unforgiven (1992), which also saw violence as both awful and unavoidable — our destiny and perhaps even our birthright.… Read more »
The deal went something like this: Clint Eastwood convinced Warners to let him make his ambitious movie Bird, about jazz giant Charlie Parker, by agreeing to grind out another Dirty Harry film in exchange. But because he was evidently less than enthused about the prospect of perpetuating the series, he chose to make this umpteenth episode pivot around the issue of the sickness of the media’s pandering uses of violence, as if to exonerate himself from his own doubts about the Dirty Harry cycle. It’s a sincere but ultimately pathetic instance of the pot calling the kettle black, with Eastwood trying to distance himself from the source of his appeal with his left hand while catering to it with his right. The results are an episodic thriller that certainly has its moments, but eventually peters out into dull formula standbys; Eastwood’s Harry seems weary of his own sarcastic witticisms, and the ones here won’t make anybody’s day. Patricia Clarkson, Evan Kim, Liam Neeson, and David Hunt costar; the script is by Steve Sharon. (JR)
The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema”,ARTPAPERS,Vol. 13, No. 5,September/October 1989,pp. 6-10.
The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian to introduce screenings of a dozen recent American independent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same seminar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics.
It is virtually impossible to treat recent American independent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film.… Read more »
Dandy, The All-American Girl (subsequently retitled Sweet Revenge)
Written by B.J.Perla and Marilyn Goldin
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Juke Girl is an unassuming Warner Brothers program filler — a Depression movie made in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan as a young socialist hero from Kansas and Ann Sheridan in the tough-and-tender title part. It reminds me of something that Manny Farber said in a recent lecture about what people looked like in 30s films, when “every shape was legitimate,” as opposed to the more constricting notions about what people are supposed to look like in 70s films — a model that remains in force today.
As a general rule of thumb, I think one can argue pretty plausibly that any Warner Brothers Depression film, however minor, has something going for it on a social/aesthetic level that can’t be found in any over-publicized New Hollywood glitz production, however major. This is less monolithic a judgment than it sounds, especially if one considers the radically different notions of audience involved.… Read more »
Commissioned by BFI Publishing and published in the November 2014 Sight and Sound. This version is slightly tweaked. — J.R.
In an amusing, satisfying, and highly persuasive rant in Time Out in 1977, J.G. Ballard took on the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars (1977), including some of its historical and ideological consequences. Noting that “two hours of Star Wars must be one of the most efficient means of weaning your preteen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others”, he also reflected on the overall impact of George Lucas’s blockbuster on science-fiction movies:
“The most popular form of s-f — space fiction –- has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr. Strangelove, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella, and Solaris — and the brave failures, such as The Thing, Seconds, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit, and fantasy.… Read more »
An adulterous, womanizing investigative journalist (director Clint Eastwood), on the wagon and somewhat over the hill, inherits an assignment to interview a man convicted of murder (Isaiah Washington) hours before he’s slated to be executed at San Quentin, and he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Eastwood as a director generally alternates more adventurous projects (Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart) with bread-and-butter fare like the Dirty Harry movies, and this hokey thriller, reeking with 30s prison-movie stereotypes and High Noon countdowns, may be the price we have to pay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The storytelling is as crafty and streamlined as ever, but the story itself, adapted from a novel by Andrew Klavan, is so shopworn that not even three better-than-average screenwriters (Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff) can overcome the cynical and absurd contrivances. Eastwood himself, pushing 70 but cruising women in their early 20s, counts on more goodwill than I can muster. I wasn’t bored, but my suspension of disbelief collapsed well before the end. With Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and James Woods. (JR)
Written in May 2014 for De Lumière a Kaurismäki: La clase obrera en el cine, coedited by Carlos F. Heredero and Joxean Fernández and published by Colección Nosferatu in 2014. — J.R.
Writing about the reception of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in pre-Hitler  Germany, Hannah Arendt noted (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) that “The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters.The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral[First comes food, then comes morals],” was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it.”… Read more »
Souleymane Cissé’s extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing fantasy is set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) long before it was invaded by Morocco in the 16th century. A young man (Issiaka Kane) sets out to discover the mysteries of nature (or komo, the science of the gods) with the help of his mother and uncle, but his jealous and spiteful father contrives to prevent him from deciphering the elements of the Bambara sacred rites and tries to kill him. Apart from creating a dense and exciting universe that should make George Lucas green with envy, Cissé has shot breathtaking images in Fujicolor and has accompanied his story with a spare, hypnotic, percussive score. Conceivably the greatest African film ever made, sublimely mixing the matter-of-fact with the uncanny, this wondrous work won the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes festival, and it provides an ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is, next to Ousmane Sembène, probably Africa’s greatest director. Not to be missed. 105 min. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday, January 4, 6:15 and 8:15; Saturday, January 5, 4:15, 6:15, and 8:15; Sunday, January 6, 4:15 and 6:15; and Monday through Thursday, January 7 through 10, 6:15 and 8:15; 312-846-2800.… Read more »
This final chapter in my book Discovering Orson Welles is a lecture delivered in Valencia, Spain, on November 17, 2005, at a conference, “Don Quixote and the Cinema,” held at San Miguel de los Reyes, a convent built during the seventeenth century, making it roughly contemporary with Cervantes’s novel. The same building was used as a prison during the Franco era and functions today as a municipal library, Biblioteca Valenciana.
Given my virtually nonexistent grasp of spoken Spanish, I regretted that the event wasn’t more international; as far as I know, my paper was the only one requiring the services of a translator. The only other non-Spanish participants in the three-day event were a French man and an Italian woman, both of whom seemed to be fluent in the language.
Thanks to the generosity of the conference’s organizer, Carlos F. Heredero (the cowriter of Orson Welles en el País de Don Quijote, cited in my introduction to chapter 15, and an academic scholar and critic whose specialties include Spanish cinema and Wong Kar-wai), I was able to route my trip to Spain through Madrid before the conference and then briefly through Barcelona afterwards. In Madrid I made arrangements to spend three days at the Filmoteca Española looking at the Quixote material mentioned in chapters 19 and 20, but I was severely disappointed to discover that the ten hours I’d arranged to see mainly consisted of material from the TV series Nella Terra di Don Chisiotte and/or bits and pieces of what might be called the wreckage left by Jesus Franco’s disposal of the other footage, not including anything shot in Mexico.… Read more »
The Film Center’s ongoing retrospective of the work of Italy’s greatest living filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, offers two noteworthy programs this Friday night. First is perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Antonioni’s early features, Lady Without Camelias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), a caustic Cinderella story about a Milanese shop clerk (Lucia Bose) who briefly becomes a glamorous movie star. One of the cruelest and most accurate portraits of studio moviemaking and the Italian movie world that we have, it’s informed by a visually and emotionally complex mise en scene that juggles background with foreground elements in a choreographic style recalling Welles at times. Though it’s only Antonioni’s third feature, and it’s episodic structure necessitates a somewhat awkward expositional method, this is mature filmmaking that leaves an indelible aftertaste.
Then comes a program of shorts made between 1947 and 1953, mainly “apprentice” works, though no less impressive and commanding for all that; the only conventional and fairly forgettable one is the last in the program, The Villa of Monsters (1950)–to be shown, unlike the others, only with French and German subtitles. Perhaps the most significant stylistic trait to be found in most of the work here is the pan suddenly linking foreground with background, the animate with the inanimate.… Read more »
From Film Comment (January-February 2001). –- J.R.
I blush to admit that I’ve still seen only half the eight features to date of Ousmane Sembene, made over a 33-year period as a supplement to his dozen or so volumes of fiction. Yet considering how difficult it generally is to track his remarkable and varied work on film or video that comes ridiculously close to qualifying me as an expert. (The fact that it typically takes a couple of years for a new Sembene film to reach these shores is commonly perceived as an African as opposed to American form of inertia, but I would think the responsibility for this state of affairs might be shared.)
The first and in many ways still the greatest of all African filmmakers — give or take a masterpiece or two each by Yousef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others — Sembene, born into the Senegal working class in 1923, started out as a gifted novelist who turned to filmmaking at the age of 40 chiefly in order to address more Africans. Yet because he’s a storyteller who regards film more as an extension of his prose than as an abstract calling, one of the clearest pleasures to be derived from his work is his propensity for reinventing the cinema – his own and everyone else’s — every time he embarks on a new feature.… Read more »
Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was the most experimental and adventurous of all the French New Wave directors, but he has rarely been recognized as such, perhaps because he stood apart from his (mainly younger) colleagues in other respects as well. Unlike Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, he wasn’t a critic or a writer, although as a teenager during the German Occupation of France he was already serving as a mentor to their own critical mentor, André Bazin, by introducing him to silent cinema in general and Fritz Lang in particular. He also preceded them all as a director in the eight remarkable non-fiction shorts he made between 1948 and 1958, the first of which (Van Gogh) won him his only Oscar. Indeed, the moment one compares these innovative shorts to the early sketches of Godard, Rivette, et al., the clearer it becomes that Resnais was already a courageous radical, both formally and politically, long before such a position even occurred to his colleagues. And one could argue that he was also already a film critic and film historian on his own elected turf, namely sound and image, even if he didn’t exhibit his exquisite cinematic taste in writing.… Read more »
This article was commissioned by the Torino Film Festival to accompany a John Cassavetes retrospective in November 2007, and was published there in a substantial catalogue/collection in Italian translation. I’m sorry I can’t do a better job of illustrating this: apart from some pictures of Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Carol Kane, there are no appropriate images available to me. I’m grateful, in any case, to Jim Healy and Emanuela Martini for asking me to write this. — J.R.
Cassavetes’ Prelude and Postscript: The Original Shadows and A Woman of Mystery
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I consider myself unusually fortunate in having been able to see the original version of Shadows in January 2004. Shot in the spring of 1957 and screened publicly only four or five times, the first completed version of the first film of John Cassavetes had been considered irretrievably lost for almost half a century.
More specifically, I saw the first of two public projections at the Rotterdam International Film Festival of a good video transfer of the rediscovered 16-millimeter print, presented by Ray Carney, the man who rediscovered the print. After these two screenings, objections were raised by Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, with the result that subsequent public screenings have been forbidden by her.… Read more »