Mise en Scène as Power Struggle: THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT

This essay was commissioned by the Australian DVD label Madman, for their 2008 release of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. In fact, I wrote essays about four separate Fassbinder films for them — the three others were Katzelmacher, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha. —J.R.

“I love movies. Pictures about passion—and pain. Lovely!

[…] “Discipline’s okay as long as you’re having fun.”
–Karin (Hanna Schygulla) in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

An early watershed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career as a filmmaker, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), his twelfth feature, might even be regarded as the first in which he explicitly “discovered” mise en scène.  Adapting his own play —- which had premiered in Darmstadt half a year before, in June 1971, in a production directed by Peer Raben —- the film makes no effort to “open up” the original material in terms of its original setting, the flat of its title heroine, and it focuses on issues of camera placement and camera movement like few other Fassbinder films made before or since.

For Christian Braad Thomsen, who may be Fassbinder’s most authoritative critic, the film marks a significant turning point.… Read more »

Abbas Kiarostami’s Five is finally available [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/29/06]

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 08:00 AM

Five-driftwood

Fans of Abbas Kiarostami who have been wondering when they’ll be able to see Five (2003) — his 74-minute, five- part experimental film without dialogue, all shot on the seashore while he was scripting Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold — should know that it’s recently come out in France on a well-produced DVD released by MK2 and  readily available from French Amazon for just under 28 Euros. [2014 note: It’s now available on U.K. Amazon.] (Like other overseas DVDs, it’s playable on any multiregional DVD player, which includes a surprising number of stateside computers.) Apparently part of the reason for the long delay was Kiarostami’s slowness in producing a “making of” documentary, though what he’s finally come up with — his hour-long About Five, completed in  late 2005, available with English subtitles on the same DVD — is quite fascinating. Responding to pertinent questions put to him by English critic and programmer Geoff Andrew, he views his own work with a lot of refreshing as well as helpful candor.

Five-ducks

Five-moon

Much as the French DVD of The Wind Will Carry Us, also released by MK2 (and somewhat cheaper, even though it’s a two-disc set), includes a couple of mind-boggling Japanese documentaries (also with English subtitles) that have done much to enhance my appreciation of one of Kiarostami’s greatest films, his own account of his more modest Five is no less full of surprising revelations about the elaborate artifice that lurks behind most of his seeming causalness and off-handed methods as a filmmaker.

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DRUMMER OF VENGEANCE (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1974 (vol. 41, no. 489). –- J.R.

Drummer of Vengeance

Great Britain, 1974

Director: Robert Paget

 

DrummerofVengeance-adThe American West, shortly after the Civil War. A rebel soldier who goes over to the Union army returns home to find his Indian wife and his son murdered — the former after having been raped — and their house burned to the ground by vengeful Confederates. Coming upon a wind-up toy drummer in the ruins, he vows to track down and kill all the men responsible. His usual method of revenge is to wind up the toy, place it on the ground, and ask his victim to make his play — whether armed or unarmed – before shooting him. He pays a carpenter to make the necessary coffins in advance and quickly dispatches six of the men he is after. The angry townsfolk, eager to be rid of the avenger (known only as the Stranger) and anxious for Sheriff Mason to apprehend him, are spurred on by the fanatical Bible-spouting of the town’s gravedigger — actually the Stranger in disguise. The Stranger also impersonates an Indian in a lance-throwing act in O’Conner’s Travelling Show in order to kill his next victim.… Read more »

Pleasant Moments

The blighted relationships explored by a Prague psychologist with marital troubles of her own (Jana Janekova, excellent) are the focus of Vera Chytilova’s 2006 Czech feature, her best in many years. With its aggressively mobile camera and abrupt editing, the movie seems to lurch from one miniplot to the next as if in a punch-drunk trance. Like much of Chytilova’s best work (Daisies, The Apple Game), it sometimes verges on hysteria, but it’s clearly enhanced by the experience of screenwriter Katrina Irmanovova, a therapist herself. And her fictional patients evoke the letter writers of Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts in their cumulative misery, suggesting some poetic yet plausible version of the modern world. In Czech with subtitles. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Performing Spectators: The Audience as Stray Dogs

Written for Cinema Guild’s Blu-Ray of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, released in mid-January 2015. — J.R.

STRAYDOGS

Stray-dogs-signs

Stray Dogs (2013), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, is Tsai Ming-liang’s tenth theatrical feature. It was described by Tsai at its premiere as his last, and in many ways it’s his most challenging. Considered as the apotheosis of his film work to date — which also includes eleven telefilms made between 1989 and 1985, and ten shorts or segments of portmanteau features, culminating in the 2014, 56-minute Journey to the West – it constitutes a kind of nervy dare to the viewer, and to prime oneself for it, it might help to look at Journey to the West first.

journey-to-the-west-monk-climbing-dark-stairs

journey-to-the-west-subway-stairs

Even though both films flirt with stasis, usually in the midst of extremely long takes, they’re also performance pieces that hark back to Tsai’s roots in experimental theater and television. And the performers are not only hired actors but also unsuspecting street pedestrians, places, weather conditions, the camera, and, perhaps most crucial of all, viewers watching the activity of all of the above. If Tsai’s films typically qualify as questions rather than answers, foremost among the questions is how we perform as spectators – a question that we’re obliged to pose in relation to all the materials offered.… Read more »

Changing Direction [JEAN RENOIR, LE PATRON]

From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 2005). — J.R.

Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Direction of Actors

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

With Jean Renoir and Michel Simon

In 1966 Jacques Rivette made a three-part TV documentary titled Jean Renoir, Le patron (Jean Renoir, the Boss), and its 90-minute centerpiece has rarely been seen since. “A Portrait of Michel Simon by Jean Renoir, or A Portrait of Jean Renoir by Michel Simon, or The Direction of Actors: Dialogue,” screening on DVD this week at Alliance Francaise, is a missing link that’s key to understanding Rivette’s work. It’s a raw record of the after-dinner talk between one of the world’s greatest directors and his greatest actor, both in their early 70s, punctuated by clips from the five films they worked on together — Tire-au-Flanc (1928), On Purge   Bébé (1931), La Chienne (1931),  Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), and Tosca (1941). It also includes occasional remarks by Rivette, the documentary’s producers (Janine Bazin and Andre S. Labarthe), and the stills photographer (the distinguished Henri Cartier-Bresson). The joy Renoir and Simon clearly share at being reunited is complemented by Rivette’s determination to exclude nothing, so that the “direction of actors” applies to him as much as to his two principals, each of whom can be said to be directing the other.… Read more »

Richard Combs on Michael Haneke

Filmmaker of the Decade: The resurgence of the Nouvelle Vague highlights the most disquieting feature of the decade: the critical search for a new European art-house auteur, which seems to have settled on the pious admonisher, Michael Haneke. European cinema has finally found its Stanley Kramer.

Film Comment, January-February 2010, p. 31 [1/15/10]

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The Apotheosis of Donald Phelps (and David Wayne)

For those of you who might be wondering what has become lately of film critic Donald Phelps — the most gifted and exacting of Manny Farber’s disciples, especially when it comes to low-key acting and pictorial nuance — you should proceed at once to the web site of Comics Journal, where he’s been flourishing in his recent commentaries on movies, prose fiction (ranging from the science fiction of Henry Kuttner and Theodore Sturgeon to the mysteries of Fredric Brown to Calder Willingham’s first novel), and comic strips. I’m especially impressed by parts one and two of his majestic “Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne,” posted earlier this month — a detailed and rather astonishing appreciation of one of the most overlooked of Hollywood and TV actors, whose special qualities seemed to flourish in such relatively unsung and/or out-of-reach works as Joseph Losey’s remake of M (1951), a couple of black and white sketch films at Fox in 1952  (O. Henry’s Full House and We’re Not Married, where he costars respectively with Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe), Henry King’s Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), which inspires some of Phelps’ best prose, and Down Among the Sheltering Palms (“an amiable bargain-counter South Pacific,” 1953).
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The Tree, the Mayor and the Media Center

The Tree, the Mayor, and the Media Center

What a pity that one of Eric Rohmer’s best features should have fallen between the cracks and never received a U.S. release. But what a piece of luck that the Museum of Contemporary Art should launch its series “Living Spaces: Films on Architecture” with a swell pair of French features: Jean-Luc Godard’s multilingual Contempt (see separate listing), which features a famous villa designed by writer Curzio Malaparte, and Rohmer’s conservative comedy of manners (1993), receiving its Chicago premiere. A provincial mayor (Pascal Greggory) gets a government grant to build a media center, and the film’s gentle mockery of the socialist politician, some of it articulated by his own mistress (Arielle Dombasle), shows how Rohmer must have influenced Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). Yet Rohmer exceeds even Stillman’s audacity by turning this wry fable into a musical in its closing minutes; nothing he does here is predictable, yet in retrospect it all seems logical and balanced. With Fabrice Luchini; a 35-millimeter print in stereo will be shown. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, Sunday, January 16, 4:00, 312-397-4010… Read more »

When Will — and How Can — We Finish Orson Welles’s DON QUIXOTE?

Commissioned (but never published) by the Guardian, circa 2005. A much-expanded version of this wound up as the final chapter in my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

When Will — and How Can — We Finish Orson Welles’s Don Quixote?

When Orson Welles died in 1985, he left many of his films unfinished. Each one was unfinished in a different way and for somewhat different reasons. To the despair of anyone who has ever tried to market his work, no two Welles films are ever alike, even the theoretical ones.

But his Don Quixote, which he owned himself, is distinct from the others, for a number of reasons —- apart from the fact that something calling itself the Don Quixote of Orson Welles was put together in 1992 by Spanish hack director Jesus Franco, who did more to mutilate and distort Welles’ material than anyone had ever done to The Magnificent Ambersons or Mr. Arkadin.

It remained an active project for almost the last three decades of Welles’ life. Starting around the early 70s, Welles jokingly planned to call it When Will You Finish Don Quixote? And the question we used to ask Welles we now have to ask ourselves — namely, how can we find closure?… Read more »

Forugh Farrokhzad

SIN: SELECTED POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Sholeh Wolpé, Forward by Alicia Ostriker, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2007, 134 pp.

I came upon this book quite by chance yesterday, while browsing through a bookstore. Although    I have three earlier collections of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry in English (BRIDE OF ACACIAS, translated by Jascha Kessler with Amin Banani, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1982; A REBIRTH, translated by David Martin, Costa Mesa, CA: Mesa Publishers, 1997; and REMEMBERING THE FLIGHT: TWENTY POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Port Coquitlam, B.C., Canada: Nik Publishers, 1997), and one book in English about her poetry (A LONELY WOMAN: FORUGH FARROKHZAD AND HER POETRY by Michael C. Hillmann, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press and Mage Publishers, 1997), all these books have been and remain extremely difficult to come by, and apart from the Hillman (jn an earlier edition), none of these is even mentioned in the “Recommended Reading” at the end of this new volume.

It’s a sad fact that while apparently you can go into any good-sized bookstore in Iran and expect  to find translations of the major works of William Faulkner (or so I’ve been told by Iranian friends), finding any translated book by the most important Iranian woman poet of the 20th century (1935-1967) in even a large American bookstore has been virtually impossible up until now.… Read more »

Lonesome

 

Paul Fejos’s exquisite, poetic 1928 masterpiece about love and estrangement in the big city deserves to be ranked with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd from the same period, though it’s not nearly as well-known. Equally neglected is Fejos himself, a peripatetic Hungarian who made striking films in Hungary, Hollywood, Austria, and France in the late silent and early sound era before becoming an anthropologist — and making a few ethnographic films that are even harder to find. Lonesome, which has some dialogue, begins with a dazzling evocation, using superimpositions and diptychs, of the hero and heroine, who haven’t yet met, as they wake and pursue their morning work routines. They meet at Coney Island that afternoon, lose track of each other in a crowd, then are reunited back in the city in a surprising diptychlike scene. Fejos was already interested in ethnographic archetypes when he made this picture, which makes city life seem like a labyrinth in a fairy tale — as intricate and inscrutable, but also as enchanted. 69 min. The opening event of the weekend symposium “Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”; a 35-millimeter print will be screened. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St.,… Read more »

Lord Love a Duck

From the Chicago Reader (August 23, 2002). — J.R.

George Axelrod’s 1966 black comedy about sexual hysteria and the American dream presents a view of southern California that rivals Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust in its savagery and satirical insight. Tuesday Weld, in a career-defining performance, plays a luscious high schooler whose Mephistophelian classmate (Roddy McDowell) promises to get her everything she wants, and though the movie is sometimes too dark to be simply funny, a good bit of it is flat-out hilarious. Lola Albright is especially good as Weld’s mother, and the scene in which Weld and her father (Max Showalter) shop for sweaters may top Kubrick’s Lolita (as well as Nabokov’s) in its sheer audacity. Axelrod, directing his first feature, collaborated with Larry H. Johnson on the screenplay, adapting a novel by Al Hine; with Ruth Gordon, Martin West, and Harvey Korman. 102 min. (JR)

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Welcome, Stranger [UNCLE NINO & BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE]

From the Chicago Reader (February 18, 2005). — J.R.

Uncle Nino

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Bob Shallcross

With Joe Mantegna, Pierrino Mascarino, Anne Archer, Trevor Morgan, and Gina Mantegna

Because of Winn-Dixie

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Wayne Wang

Written by Joan Singleton

With AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, and Eva Marie Saint

An uninvited guest joins an already stressed household, causing pandemonium and upsetting the neighbors as well. The preoccupied, absentminded father assumes this obstreperous if good-natured invader is visiting only temporarily, but on and on he stays, irritating almost everyone apart from the young daughter. Eventually the interloper wins everyone over and brings them all together.

That’s the familiar plot of not one but two current commercial releases, both wholesome family pictures. The visitor in Uncle Nino, which opened last week, is the title hero (Pierrino Mascarino), an elderly Italian peasant with a minimal knowledge of English who flies to the U.S. to visit the family of his nephew Robert (Joe Mantegna) after his brother, Robert’s father, dies. The visitor in Because of Winn-Dixie, which opens this week, is also the title hero, a stray dog in a small town in southern bayou country that’s taken in by the ten-year-old heroine, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of a Baptist preacher (Jeff Daniels).… Read more »

The World in a Beijing Theme Park

From the Chicago Reader (July 29, 2005). — J.R.

The World

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and Written by Jia Zhang-ke

With Zhao Tao, Chen Taishen, Jing Jue, Jiang Zhongwei, Huang Yiqun, Wang Hongwei, Liang Jingdong, Ji Shuai, and Alla Chtcherbakova

The title of Jia Zhang-ke’s 2004 masterpiece, The World — a film that’s hilarious and upsetting, epic and dystopian — is an ironic pun and a metaphor. It’s also the name of the real theme park outside Beijing where most of the action is set and practically all its characters work. “See the world without ever leaving Beijing” is one slogan for the 115-acre park, where a monorail circles scaled-down replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, London Bridge, Saint Mark’s Square, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids, and even a Lower Manhattan complete with the Twin Towers. Extravagant kitsch like this may offer momentary escape from the everyday, but Jia is interested in showing the everyday activities needed to hold this kitsch in place as well as the alienation in this displaced world — and therefore in the world in general, including the one we know.

Jia, with his choreographed wide-screen long takes in long shot, may be the best cinematic composer of figures in landscapes since Michelangelo Antonioni.… Read more »