Monthly Archives: May 2002

The 17th Parallel

The title refers to the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and this 1968 feature by the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens offers a chance to spend a couple of hours with some of the villagers and soldiers we were bombing the hell out of back then. Ivens, along with his companion and collaborator Marceline Loridan, lived among the Vietnamese for two months, dodging our ammo and shooting whatever he could. In contrast to the lush colors and Dolby rock music of Apocalypse Now Redux (which was filmed in the Philippines), this is in grainy black and white with sync sound, so it has all the advantages and disadvantages of being real. The film shows underground bomb shelters being built, bombed, repaired, and used, and some of the sequences shot there are unexpectedly beautiful. By the end of the film, you may feel you’re getting to know a few things about this community: the card games played by the children, the work in the fields, the diverse preparations (both practical and ideological) for the aerial bombardment. Have a look at what we did, if you can bear to do so. 113 min. (JR) Read more

Films By Joris Ivens

Three characteristically lyrical short films by the great Dutch documentarian: The Seine Meets Paris (1957, 32 min.), with a commentary written by poet Jacques Prevert and spoken by singer Serge Reggiani; . . . A Valparaiso (1963, 37 min.), about the Chilean port city, with commentary by Chris Marker; and The Mistral (1965, 30 min.), about the wind in southern Francea theme that anticipates Ivens’s final masterpiece, A Tale of the Wind. (JR) Read more

Billie Holiday: The Long Night Of Lady Day

John Jeremy (Born to Swing) is the most able of English jazz documentarians, and his 1984 portrait of the great jazz singer, made for British television, is probably the best film or video treatment she’s received so far. 96 min. (JR) Read more


An impressive program consisting of short films that alter and subvert found footage in various ways: Bruce Conner’s unforgettable Report (1967) and his subsequent Television Assassination (1995), which I haven’t seen; Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966); Warren Sonbert’s Noblesse Oblige (1981); and Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 (1991). The full program lasts 113 minutes. (JR) Read more

On An Island With You

Esther Williams finds romance with naval officer Peter Lawford to the strains of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra in this quintessential Technicolor MGM-musical package (1948). Shot on location in Hawaii. Richard Thorpe directed; with Jimmy Durante, Ricardo Montalban, Marie Windsor, and Cyd Charisse. 107 min. (JR) Read more

Films By Joris Ivens, Program Four

One of the most ambitious as well as most widely seen documentaries ever made, Joris Ivens’s Song of the Rivers (1954, 90 min.) lyrically celebrates the labor movements alongside half a dozen of the world’s great rivers: the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. Given the amount of coordination necessary between separate film crews, 32 cinematographers, and many other collaborators (including Bertolt Brecht, Paul Robeson, and Dmitri Shostakovich), Ivens’s experiences as a world traveler and his skills as an editor made him ideally suited for the job. On the same program, Ivens’s clandestinely filmed Indonesia Calling (1946, 22 min.), about the exiled Dutch East Indies government in Australia, which cost Ivens his Dutch citizenship. (JR) Read more

Films By Joris Ivens, Program Three

Joris Ivens’s fine and powerful The Spanish Earth (1937, 52 min.)possibly the best documentary we have about the Spanish civil war, along with Andre Malraux’s L’espoirhas music by Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein and commentary written as well as read by Ernest Hemingway (it was originally read by Orson Welles, and at least one print of that version still exists). Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos, and Dorothy Parker raised money to make the film, which is showing with the equally celebrated 1939 Ivens documentary The 400 Million, a 53-minute account of China preparing to struggle against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria that includes rare footage of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. (JR) Read more

The New Guy

A high school outcast (D.J. Qualls of Road Trip) decides to get himself expelled and winds up in prison, where a street-smart cell mate (Eddie Griffin) teaches him how to whip people with nothing but a dirty look. This dumb little comedy, the first feature of director Ed Decter, sometimes suggests Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. It isn’t very good, but it doesn’t seem to care, which turns out to be rather refreshing. David Kendall wrote the script; with Zooey Deschanel, Eliza Dushku, Illeana Douglas, and Lyle Lovett as the hero’s father. 100 min. (JR) Read more

Films By Joris Ivens, Program Two

I’ve only seen three of these five short films, but all three are exciting and essential viewing, displaying Ivens’s talent as a poetic as well as socially conscious filmmaker. The Bridge (1928, 11 min.), his first famous film, focuses on a bridge in Rotterdam, while the brilliant 13-minute Rain gives equal attention to a rainfall in Amsterdam. Ivens had to hide from police to make Borinage (1934, 30 min.), about a coal miners’ labor struggle in Belgium, and though he was commissioned to make Philips Radio (1931, 30 min.), his first sound film, by the Dutch factories of the eponymous electronics company, the film is a critique as well as a celebration of the industrial processes involved (and surely one of the greatest industrials ever made). New Earth (1933, 30 min.), partly about the creation of a new lake in the Netherlands, is similarly ambivalentand equally impressive. (JR) Read more

Films By Joris Ivens, Program One

Two early and key sound documentaries by the great Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. Komsomol (1932, 50 min.), which I haven’t seen, is a tribute to young workers in the Soviet Union as they build a blast furnace in the Ural Mountains. Also known as Song of Heroes, it was the first collaboration between Ivens and composer Hanns Eisler, and reportedly the first film ever made by a foreigner in the USSR. Power and the Land (1940, 33 min.), the first of Ivens’s many American films during the 40s, was commissioned by Pare Lorentz for the U.S. Film Service, cowritten by Ivens, Edwin Locke, and Stephen Vincent Benet, shot in part by the great Floyd Crosby, and scored by Douglas Moore. A stirring look at the coming of electricity to post-Depression farms, it concentrates on a particular family in Ohio that Ivens lived with, and it’s not unworthy of James Agee and Walker Evans’s classic book about Depression sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Critic Elliott Stein has rightly called it Norman Rockwell without the mush. (JR) Read more


Sad to say, this strident satire about media hypocrisy and overkill, by French-Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand, makes Bamboozled look pretty good. It follows a model (Jessica Pare) on her rapid rise up the ladder to successyou can’t describe any part of this movie without landing in clichesand its contempt is so overpowering it’s hard to laugh at anything. Sitting through this barrage of all-purpose insults aimed at obvious targets was an unenlightening chore. With Dan Aykroyd, Charles Berling, Robert Lepage, Camilla Rutherford, Thomas Gibson, and Frank Langella. 100 min. (JR) Read more

Loving Jezebel

A charming, albeit slightly overextended (even at 81 minutes) multiracial sex comedy, this first feature by writer-director Kwyn Bader works as well as it does mainly because of its charismatic cast, starting with Hill Harper as the hero who recounts his youthful adventures with various Jezebels (i.e., other men’s women). Among the women who stand out are Nicole Ari Parker, Sandrine Holt, and Laurel Holloman. Nothing extra special, but I had a nice time. (JR) Read more

Pantaleon Y Las Visitidoras

Francisco J. Lombardi’s 2000 adaptation of a Mario Vargas Llosa novel, also known as Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, reminds me of some of the duller John Ford hagiographies of the 50s about military men, such as The Wings of Eagles. A rather stiff captain in the Peruvian army, happily married and regarded as a moral exemplar, is ordered to put together a unit of young prostitutes to service soldiers stationed in remote parts of the Amazon jungle, once it’s tacitly decided by the higher-ups that local rapes diminish when the men are less sexually frustrated. The captain eventually loses his cool after falling for one of the women, and his failure to bribe a corrupt radio journalist leads to a potential scandal. This is nicely put together as storytelling, but the degree to which the prostitutes are sentimentally patronized by the film while the army officials are defended even in their hypocrisy smacks of the worst middle-class conformity. In Spanish with subtitles. 137 min. (JR) Read more


Is it possible for a movie to be intoxicatingly pretty without quite attaining beauty? Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1997 fantasy about the nomadic Ghashghai of southern Iran, who weave colorful carpets that tell stories, is a delightful treasure chest of colors, costumes, landscapes, magical-realist details, and very simple charactersall of whom tend to have the allure of trinkets and living legends. This romantic parable seems less personal than Makhmalbaf’s more troubled urban dramas (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed, A Moment of Innocence), but it’s also more accessible, and the magical moods keep one fairly spellbound. Hints of a lament about the sacrifices made by a young woman for her family and against her romantic nature (she longs to marry a mysterious stranger who rides after her tribe) are never supported with a clear take on the patriarchy that oppresses her, but the fairy-tale seductiveness piques one’s imagination throughout. In Farsi with subtitles. 75 min. (JR) Read more

Bay Of Angels

I’ve never been persuaded that Jacques Demy’s second feature (1962, 79 min.) ranks alongside the masterpiece that preceded it (Lola) or those that followed (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). It was made during a preproduction delay on Umbrellas and has all the advantages as well as the drawbacks of a relatively hasty preparation. Alternately lighthearted and melancholy, it’s a striking look at obsessional behavior, as a bank clerk on holiday in Nice (Claude Mann) gets involved with a compulsive gambler (Jeanne Moreau); even Michel Legrand’s theme music has a hint of repetition compulsion. The film was clearly influenced in certain particulars by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and in many ways it’s darker than the other early Demys, even the explicitly tragic Umbrellas. Moreau gives an interesting performance despite — or is it because of? — the fact that she’s dressed like a camp icon, whereas the sheer drabness of Mann’s character makes him a very Demy-like exemplar of the quotidian. After Raoul Coutard’s exquisitely lit black-and-white ‘Scope work in Lola, cinematographer Jean Rabier fills the wide-screen frame with sadder gray tones — beautifully restored in 2000 by Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda — that provide an ironic counterpoint to the lush casino, hotel, and beach settings of the Cote d’Azur. Read more