Monthly Archives: September 1987

Landscape Suicide

From the Chicago Reader (September 18, 1987). — J.R.


All of James Benning’s features can be regarded as shotgun marriages in which he attempts to wed his distinctive formal talents and interests — framing midwestern landscapes with beauty and nostalgia, using ambiguous offscreen sounds to create narrative expectations — with an intellectual and/or social rationale. Landscape Suicide is almost certainly his most successful and interesting foray in this direction since his One Way Boogie Woogie of ten years ago. Delving into two murder cases — Bernadette Protti’s seemingly unmotivated stabbing murder of another teenage girl in a California suburb in 1984, and Ed Gein’s even more gratuitous mass slayings and mutilations in rural Wisconsin in the late 50s — Benning uses actors to re-create part of the killers’ court testimonies, juxtaposed with the commonplace settings where these crimes took place. Boldly eschewing the specious psychological rhetoric that usually accompanies accounts of such crimes, he creates an open forum for the spectator to contemplate the mysterious vacancy of these people and these places, and their relationships to each other. The performances of both actors, Rhonda Bell and Elian Sacker, are extraordinary achievements, and the chilling, evocative landscapes have their own stories to tell; the fusion of the two creates gaps that not even the film’s confusing title can fill, but the space opened up is at once powerful and provocative. Read more

The Time to Live and the Time to Die

A reflective autobiographical film about filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s youth in the late 40s and early 50s; largely filmed in the same places in Taiwan where the events originally happened, this unhurried family chronicle carries an emotional force and a historical significance that may not be immediately apparent. Working in long takes and wide-screen, deep focus compositions that frame the characters from a discreet distance, Hou allows the locations to seep into our own memories and experience, so that, as in Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, we come to know them almost as intimately as touchstones in our own lives. Yet paradoxically, the unseen Chinese mainland carries as much weight in the film as the landscape of Taiwan: Hou’s Christian family left in 1948, and the revolution that followed made it impossible for them to return. Subtly interweaving everyday details with processes and understandings that evolve over years, the film conveys a density of familial detail that we usually encounter only in certain novels, and a sense of the tragic within hailing distance of Ozu. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 11, 8:00, and Sunday, September 13, 5:00, 443-3737) Read more

Naked Spaces–Living Is Round

Significantly, when Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha gives herself a director’s credit in her remarkable meditation on West African life and architecture, she places an X over the word “directed.” Why? Because a central aspect of her project is the dislocation of the authority by which we generally presume to understand the alien, and redirection and indirection are equally descriptive of what she is up to. A composer and a poet, she pans and cuts in irregular rhythms, continually stopping and starting, and rather than “direct” our focus and interpretation like an anthropologist, she interweaves three distinctly accented female voices speaking English, each of which conveys a different kind of discourse, traversing the images at different angles. Like the separate typefaces in Mallarme’s poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,” these voices and mesmerizing recordings of African music encircle and commingle with their subjects rather than attempt to capture them in linear/colonial/narrative fashion. (Sample: “The house is composed like the human body. The earth or clay is the flesh, the water the blood, the stones the bones, and the placid surface of the walls the skin.”) The results are both beautiful and instructive, a duet between filmmaker and subject, disclosures and enclosures, which remains perpetually fresh and unpredictable over the film’s 134 minutes. Read more

The Man Who Envied Women

It’s strange to recall that as a modern dancer and choreographer, Yvonne Rainer was known throughout the 60s and early 70s as a minimalist. For the past 15 years, she has been making experimental quasi-narrative films of an increasing multitextual density, culminating in this angry, vibrant film of 1985, which, in her own words, takes on “the housing shortage, changing family patterns, the poor pitted against the middle class, Hispanics against Jews, artists and politics, female menopause, abortion rights. There’s even a dream sequence.” Working with the speech and writing of over a dozen figures, ranging from Raymond Chandler to Julia Kristeva, Rainer also confronts and parodies male theoretical discourse (Michel Foucault in particular, sampled and discussed in extended chunks) as a mode of sexual seduction. Politics have been present in all her features, but usually folded into so many distancing devices that they mainly come out dressed in quotes. Here she allows the politics to speak more directly and eloquently, and it charges the rest of the film like a live wire–rightly assuming that we could all use a few jolts. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, September 10, 6:00, 443-3737) Read more

Summer Night

The full title of this Lina Wertmuller effort is Summer Night With Greek Profile, Almond Eyes & Scent of Basil. It’s more or less Swept Away II, with Michele Placido’s Sicilian kidnapper replacing Giancarlo Giannini’s deckhand, and Mariangela Melato playing an even richer member of the ruling class, who has the kidnapper kidnapped and brought to her lushly appointed island to launch some retribution and, eventually, some sexual games. Wertmuller remains as cheerfully cynical and vulgar as ever about class warfare, but to call her a thinking director, as some American critics were wont to do in the 70s, would be like applauding Sylvester Stallone for his semiological insights. Try to imagine an Ayn Rand epic recast as bawdy farce and you might get a rough idea of the sensibility on view; the lack of self-consciousness, which lends a certain thrust to the opening reels, eventually leads to tedium as the central conceit gets spun out endlessly. With Roberto Herlitzka and Massimo Wertmuller. (JR) Read more

Second Wind

A first feature by Dutch filmmaker Gerrard Verhage, previously known for his social documentaries, follows a group of intellectuals, confined by a thunderstorm to a house on the outskirts of Amsterdam, through an afternoon and evening, as long-suppressed emotions and problems begin to surface. A film that has been compared to Scenes From a Marriage as well as The Big Chill and The Decline of the American Empire, with a distinguished cast drawn from the Dutch stage. Read more

Nice Girls Don’t Explode

Don’t be fooled by the promising title: despite the presence of Barbara Harris, this 1987 effort was one of the unfunniest youth comedies in years. A protective mother (Harris) who doesn’t want to part with her daughter April (Michelle Meyrink) secretly rigs up explosives so that she’ll think it’s her hormones that are telekinetically starting the fires. Whatever comic premises Paul Harris’s script might have had, we’ll never know, because the leaden direction of first-timer Chuck Martinez sinks them without a trace. With the ubiquitous Wallace Shawn, more lugubrious than usual, as a friendless, eccentric arsonist, and William O’Leary as the boyfriend. (JR) Read more


What ever happened to movie plots? This 1987 first feature by celebrated English horror writer Clive Barker starts off with a potentially viable one, and shows some flair with cutting and framing that bodes well for the future. But at the point where the characters in this magic box/haunted house tale should be turning into something more than cardboard, Barker turns them into chocolate puddingpulling out all the stops, letting Bob Keen’s jazzy special effects take over, and asking plot, character, and logic to take an aimless walk around the block. None of this is the fault of the actors: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, and Sean Chapman are uniformly good for the little they’re asked to do. Minor grisly fun, but don’t expect the movie to linger when it’s over. R, 94 min. (JR) Read more

Hamburger Hill

The three critical questions to be asked of any movie are (1) what does it try to do? (2) does it succeed? and (3) is it worth doing? This film tries to make a conventional, apolitical combat story out of one of the most brutal battles fought in Vietnam, and succeeds impressively. Writer/coproducer Jim Carabatsos, drawing on his own Vietnam combat experience, trots out most of the cliches we remember from 40s and 50s war films and still manages to give them some ring of truth; director John Irvin leads 14 unknown actors through gritty action sequences and deft ensemble playing (Courtney B. Vance’s angry black medic is a particular standout). The question that remains is whether it’s worth doing another uncritical war-is-photogenic-hell excursionaccommodating the Vietnam experience to the same unquestioning, grunt-level perspective that sustained us through World War II and Korea while priming us for still more noble sacrifices by steadfastly refusing to look any further. Less pretentious than Platoon and more attentive to the Vietnamese than The Deer Hunter, this picture proposes with a great deal of skill and sincerity that we honor and respect the men who suffered on our behalf without even beginning to consider why they did so, or to what effect. Read more

Wolf At The Door

The wolf in question is painter Paul Gauguin, played by Donald Sutherland, and director Henning Carlsen is at pains to make him something of a stud. This French-Danish coproduction shot in English restricts its focus to Paris and Copenhagen, 1893-’94, between Gauguin’s two extended sojourns in Tahiti, when he is trying unsuccessfully to sell his work, hanging out with other Parisian artists (including August Strindberg, played with owlish wit by Max von Sydow), and coping with four womenhis former and present models (both of whom he is sleeping with), his unforgiving wife, and a 14-year-old neighbor with a powerful crush on him. Thoughtful and occasionally thought provoking, despite a rather patronizing treatment of the women, the film examines Gauguin’s jaundiced views of civilization and the high price paid for his own bohemianism. With Valerie Morea, Sofie Graboel, Fanny Bastien, Merete Voldstedlund, and a virtually unrecognizable Jean Yanne. (JR) Read more

The Wannsee Conference

A meticulous reconstruction of the meeting of 14 top German officials in a Berlin suburb on January 20, 1942, that set the Final Solution in motion. (Among those present were Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.) Directed by Heinz Schirk from a screenplay by Paul Mommertz, this docudrama was financed largely by German and Austrian TV and shown overseas in 1984. Convincingly done and predictably chilling, though it isn’t clear from the credits how much of the meeting is drawn from existing records and how much comes from the filmmakers’ imaginations. But it doesn’t teach us anything we haven’t already learned from much better films on the subject, such as Shoah. In German with subtitles. (JR) Read more

The Riverbed

Rachel Reichman’s independent black-and-white feature is a moody landscape piece that stays in the mind less for its minimal narrative (an alliance between a couple of drifters) than for its brooding, melancholy images. This could be termed school of Jim Jarmusch, but without the urban humor. (JR) Read more

A Prayer For The Dying


Mickey Rourke is an IRA terrorist tired of killing and looking for a way out of the United Kingdom; Alan Bates is a London mobster doubling as a mortician who offers him an escape route if he bumps off another crook; Bob Hoskins is a priest who witnesses the latter murder. It’s theoretically possible that there was once something more to this than the disjointed thriller now on view: director Mike Hodges and Rourke have both disowned producer Peter Snell’s extensive reediting of Hodges’s cut, which apparently strips down the atmospherics for action, and Bates and Hoskins have gone on record as preferring the original version as well. In the film as it stands, Bates is ghoulishly good, Rourke impossibly angelic, and Hoskins seemingly bemused by his part; neither intimations of The Informer and Odd Man Out nor Bill Conti’s wallpaper score can redeem the awkward cross-purposes. With a screenplay by Edmond Ward and Martin Lynch. (JR) Read more


Alan J. Pakula’s spellbinding 1987 film of Lyle Kessler’s play, adapted by the playwright himself from a Steppenwolf production, focuses on three powerhouse performancesby Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson as orphaned brothers holed up in a decrepit house in Newark, and Albert Finney as a big-time gangster who enters their world and transforms it. While the material never fully sheds its stage origins, Pakula and the actors play this all-male family romance for all it’s worth, and the tantalizing sense of unreality that hovers around the edges of the plot works as a kind of compression device for concentrating on the hermetically sealed world conjured up by the actors and decor, which begins in Algren-esque squalor and winds up as something resembling a middle-class household. Pakula works at his peak, and Finney has seldom been better. (JR) Read more

A Man In Love

Diane Kurys’s first English-language film concerns an adulterous love affair between a young American actor (Peter Coyote, resembling a young J.D. Salinger with Henry Fonda’s voice), playing the novelist Cesare Pavese in an Italian biopic, and an Italian-American actress (Greta Scacchi), whom he picks to play the last woman Pavese was involved with. Simultaneously romantic and silly, sincere and campy, the movie coasts along on the attractiveness of its leads and the flavor of its milieu, until it gets derailed by an oddball conclusion that conveniently sidesteps all the preceding dramatic conflicts. With Jamie Lee Curtis as the actor’s wife, Claudia Cardinale and director John Berry as the actress’s parents, and occasional weird echoes of Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, as well as Truffaut’s The Last Metro. Israel Horowitz assisted Kurys on the script. (JR) Read more