Temple of Dumb [INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1989). — J.R.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE * (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jeffrey Boam, George Lucas, and Menno Meyjes

With Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, River Phoenix, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody,

Julian Glover, and John Rhys-Davies.

Nazis are fun! Jesus is fun! Arthurian legends are fun! Third world countries are fun! Caves are fun! The Holy Grail is fun! Lots of snakes and rats and skeletons are fun! Chases are fun! Narrow escapes are fun! Explosions are fun! Indiana Jones is fun! Indiana Jones’s father is fun!

Put them all together and you get the third panel in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones triptych — more fun than a barrel of monkeys (or Nazis, chalices, snakes, rats, skeletons — whatever). Though Hitler, Jesus, women, the third world, and, by implication, most of the rest of civilization ultimately take a backseat to the uneasy yet affectionate relationship between a grown boy and his dad — and all those millions of people exterminated by the Nazis (for instance) don’t even warrant so much as a look-in — this is nothing new in the Lucas-Spielberg canon; it isn’t even anything new in movies. Read more

Penn & Teller Get Killed

From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 1989). — J.R.

Whether or not this goofy black comedy is a total “success” is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty different from anything else around. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising that is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, but it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (Biograph)

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BFI Monographs

From Film Quarterly (Summer 1979). Sad to say, the Aldrich and Ophüls books are now so scarce that I couldn’t even find their jacket illustrations on the Internet until a reader, Luke Aspell, generously furnished them to me. –- J.R.

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ROBERT ALDRICH. Edited by Richard Combs. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.25.

POWELL, PRESSBURGER AND OTHERS. Edited by Ian Christie. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $4.50.

OPHÜLS. Edited by Paul Willemen. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.50.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the current batch of British Film Institute monographs and the previous series issued under the now-defunct aegis of Cinema One (a joint effort of the BFI and the English publisher Secker & Warburg) is the relation of each to academic film studies. The Cinema One books, designed as popular laymen’s introductions to relatively obscure subjects, were lavishly illustrated with stills and frame enlargements, appeared both in paperback and hardcovers, and rarely proceeded beyond the format of one critic per subject.

The new line of BFI books, which appear only in paperback, are much closer to academic “casebooks”: the texts are usually longer, illustrations are omitted (apart from black-and-white stills on the covers), and the critical perspectives in most cases are multiple. Read more

Gentile Persuasion [SCHINDLER’S LIST]

From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 1993), also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

SCHINDLER’S LIST

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Steven Zaillian

With Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.

The ideological structures of Spielberg’s films “hail” the spectator into a world of the obvious that affirms the viewer’s presence (even while dissolving it), affirms that what the viewer has always believed or hoped is (obviously) right and accessible, and assures the viewer excitement and comfort in the process. The films offer nothing new beyond their spectacle, nothing the viewer does not already want, does not immediately accept. That is their conservative power, and it has spread throughout the cinema of the 80s. — Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (1988)

Confessions are in order. From Duel to Jurassic Park, there are few Steven Spielberg movies I admire, and none I fully respect — though I respond to a good many of them as obediently as any well-oiled automaton. My first look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually brought tears to my eyes. I can’t say that on reflection I felt much pride in this response, though the experience of becoming a boy again in relation to the imagined parental benevolence of the cosmos — which also happens with Ray Bradbury’s best early tales about Mars — may be morally preferable to feeding on the murderous xenophobia of Star Wars, released the same year (1977); at worst one winds up feeling silly rather than dirty afterward. Read more

En movimiento: Collaborators in Croatia (Godard and Welles)

My column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written on September 23, 2015. — J.R.

Viennale 2014.

 

 

OjaKodar-with-sculpture

Early last September, the first week of my visit to Croatia was occasioned by Tanja Vrvilo’s ninth annual “Movie Mutations” event in Zagreb, this time devoted to Godard. An illuminating highlight was the visit of Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s cinematographer and all-around technical assistant since Notre Musique. And my last three days in Croatia was a social visit to Oja Kodar at the Villa Welles in Primosten. Kodar was Orson Welles’ muse, companion, and major collaborator over the last two decades of his life, and, I’m proud to say, a valued friend in the three decades since then.

Both Kodar and Aragno qualify as the sort of major collaborators who complicate and even confound the sort of solid auteurist profiles that we usually associate      with both Welles and Godard — profiles that we also paradoxically associate with their uncanny capacities to engage with the creative imaginations of their viewers.  (“I like to think of myself as an airplane, not an airport.” Godard once said to me in   a 1980 interview, implying that the proper destination of one of his films is the spectator and where he or she wants to go, not Godard and his own preferred destination — and the same “open” and interactive principle applies to Welles and his own films.) Read more

Old Remake for a New City?

From The Soho News (June 11, 1980). Note: The “Hollywood assistant” quoted below was Meredith Brody, working at the time for A-Team. —  J.R.

Underground U.S.A.

 

A film by Eric Mitchell

 

St. Mark’s Cinema, midnight

“Sometimes I think most of the ’70s is being spent in

cars, discussing remakes,” a Hollywood assistant once

woefully remarked to me. She didn’t know how lucky she

was. Sometimes, in my less happy moods, I think that

most of the 80s will be spent in theaters, watching the

same remakes that were being discussed in the ’70s.

Willie & Phil –– Paul Mazursky’s remake of Jules and

Jim, set in the American ’70s — isn’t opening for a couple

of months yet. John Carpenter’s The Fog and several

other recent quickies have already remade Carpenter’s

Halloween, which was itself a partial remake of The Thing

(which Carpenter is now planning to remake more directly).

And to round off this minisurvey of new, original

thinking (if you want to exalt the conventional, call it

classical), the new Eric Mitchell film, the l6mm

Underground U.S.A., which already sounds like a remake

of Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. — is actually

described in its own pressbook as a remake of a remake:

“Taking the classic theme of Sunset Boulevard seen

through Heat,” Underground U.S.A Read more

Buried Treasures

From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).

To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….

“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur. Read more

Sexual Healing [ROMANCE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 12, 1999). — J.R.

Romance

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Catherine Breillat

With Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Rocco Siffredi, and Francois Berleand.


I’ve never put much stock in my powers of prophecy, but it seems I was more off the mark than usual nine months ago when I emerged from the world premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Romance, in Rotterdam, thinking it would create a sensation if it reached the U.S. I somehow forgot that most movie sensations are the fabrications of publicists. Audiences can create sensations — The Blair Witch Project proves that — but reviewers, who are usually closer to publicists than to audiences, are often the last people to notice. So maybe Breillat’s seventh feature did cause a sensation with audiences when it opened in New York several weeks ago, but if so, I don’t think it’s been reported.

Nine months ago I decided that Romance was a pretty reactionary movie for France — mainly because of an offscreen statement made by the heroine near the end (“They say a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother; it’s true”). But I still thought it might be seen as progressive in America, especially because its rare confluence of cinematic taste, literary intelligence, and hard-core sex might undercut the crippling puritanism of our movie codes, which usually equate eroticism with porn, sleaze, and stupidity rather than, say, art, health, and intelligence. Read more

“Doctor Kubrick”: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Movie

From the Bard Observer, March 30, 1964. The greatest teacher I’ve ever had, by far, was Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt, who taught for many years at Bard College, and this was one of the two pieces of mine in the Bard Observer that he made a point of telling me that he liked. (The other one was an extended personal report on the Montgomery March that had appeared the previous spring.) From my present vantage point, I think this may have been my first really serious film review. I’ve done a light edit on it while transcribing it. -– J.R.

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“Doctor Kubrick”: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Movie

By JON ROSENBAUM

The story is from Peter George’s Red Alert….A crazy American general sends a squadron of nuclear bombers to get in a first strike at Russia; after frantic efforts and unspeakable confusion, the American President manages to recall or have destroyed by the Russians all but one; this gets through and drops its bomb, which triggers off a nuclear death belt the Russians have secretly contrived; the picture ends with the world due to follow shortly.

— from a review of Dr. Read more

Casablanca

From the April 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R,

Part of what makes this wartime Hollywood drama (1942) about love and political commitment so fondly remembered is its evocation of a time when the sentiment of this country about certain things appeared to be unified. (It’s been suggested that Communism is the political involvement that Bogart’s grizzled casino owner Rick may be in retreat from at the beginning.) This hastily patched together picture, which started out as a B film, wound up getting an Oscar, and displays a cozy, studio-bound claustrophobia that Howard Hawks improved upon in his superior spin-off To Have and Have Not. Then again, we get Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio, and S.Z. Sakall, and Dooley Wilson performing “As Time Goes By”. PG, 102 min. (JR)

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Recommended Viewing: CELLULOID MAN

“A movie pours into us. It fills us like milk being poured into a glass.” — John Updike

  I must confess that the prospect of viewing a recent two-and-a-half-hour documentary (a recent DVD release of Second Run in the U.K.) about P. K. Nair, the fanatically devoted archivist who helped to found India’s National Film Archive in 1964, didn’t fill me with eager anticipation; the whole thing sounded somewhat esoteric and remote. But in fact, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s compulsively watchable and consistently entertaining Celluloid Man (2012) kept me enraptured throughout, not least for its evocations of cinema as a whole and not merely Indian cinema. Early on, when we see Nair addressing us in front of a screen showing Citizen Kane with French subtitles, followed a little later by the opening strains of the film’s soundtrack, it becomes obvious that the critical issues and passions informing Nair’s life are very close to those of his principal mentor, Henri Langlois. And even though the film has a lot to say and show us about the history of Indian cinema, personal and anecdotal (e.g., Ritwik Ghatak’s drinking habits and viewing tastes, Nair’s own history) as well as industrial, it’s the cinema as a whole and why it matters that provides its ultimate framework.
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First Look: Faat Kiné

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

Spielberg’s Audio-animatronic Lincoln

From the Jewish Daily Forward (November 9, 2012, for their November 16 issue). — J.R.

Lincoln-dark

My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.

Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.

Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985). Read more

Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1973). – J.R.

FILM AS FILM: Understanding and Judging Movies

By V.F. Perkins

PENGUIN BOOKS, 35p

Responding polemically to some of the more antiquated notions found in Rotha, Lindgren, Manvell, Arnheim and others, the title of Victor Perkins’ short and engaging book carries a sympathetic resonance. A major part of his enterprise is to clear away cobwebs from the attics of film theory and lay a few outdated texbooks to rest, and ‘Film as Film’ adequately summarizes the central thrust of his yarious charges. But as we know, theories arc usually debunked to clear the way for newer models, and as soon as Perkins’ own theory gets under way, his title begins to seem much more inclusive than anything he claims to offer in his text. Unavoidably, alternate titles come to mind: “Action as Presentation”, or, perhaps more to the point, ‘Movie as Movie’.

As Perkins indicates in his preface, ‘The examples discussed are not drawn from the (rightly or wrongly) accepted classics of Film Art nor from the fashionable “triumphs” of the past few years, but generally from films which seem to representwhat the Movies meant to their public in the cinema’s commercial heyday.’ Read more

NASHVILLE

Slightly tweaked from its original appearance in the Autumn 1975 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Nashville

‘A dialectic collage of unreality,’ remarked pop singer Brenda Lee, emerging from the Nashville premiere in August. After a summer full of humourless rhetoric in the American press about ‘the true lesson of ‘Watergate’, ‘the failure of our civilization,’ ‘the long nauseating terror of a fall through the existential void,’ and equally grave matters — most of it implying that a movie has to be about ‘everything’ (i.e., the State of the Union) before it can be about anything — it was refreshing to discover that someone, at long last, had finally got it right. Even if Lee’s comment was intended as a slam, it deserves to be resurrected as a tribute. For if Nashville is conceivably the most exciting commercial American movie in years, this is first of all because of what it constructs, not what it exposes.

From the moment we begin with an ad for the film itself — a blaring overload of multi-media confusion — and pass to a political campaign van spouting banalities, then to a recording studio where country music star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is cutting a hilariously glib Bicentennial anthem, Nashville registers as a double-fisted satire of its chosen terrain, and it would be wrong to suggest that its targets of derision are beside the point, even if the angle of vision subsequently widens to take in more than just foolishness. Read more