Monthly Archives: March 2003

Mcluhan’s Wake

At first I was put off by the hagiographic and metaphoric aspects of this 2002 Canadian documentary about communications essayist Marshall McLuhan (1911-’80); director Kevin McMahon and screenwriter David Sobelman seem to regard their subject as Moses, Hegel, and Northrop Frye rolled into one. But I was won over by the film’s mimetic process, as McLuhan’s endlessly suggestive (if sometimes fruitless) probes are matched by fragmented voices intoning all the praise and criticism that have circled his work (among the commentators are Gerald O’Grady, Lewis Lapham, Neil Postman, Laurie Anderson, and McLuhan’s son Eric). Ultimately this adds up to a comprehensive and highly ambitious study of McLuhan’s life, thought, and influence. 94 min. (JR) Read more

Echelon: The Secret Power

A creepily effective French documentary by David Korn-Brzoza (2002, 82 min.) about the international surveillance networks that have proliferated since the mid-1940s, featuring interviews with former spies from Canada, England, New Zealand, and the U.S. With its cloak-and-dagger music, percussive electronic signals, jazzy computer graphics, and deft split-screen effects in ‘Scope, this film sometimes seems to enjoy the terrifying visions it illustrates. But I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, and some of the epigrams are memorable (Too much power can be synonymous with loss of control; Everyone’s at it, so you can’t denounce your neighbors). Understandably, American snooping gets the most attention, though the French aren’t excludedmight one concoct a paranoid scenario explaining why Australia gets so little play? In English and French with subtitles. (JR) Read more

The Murder Of Emmett Till

Stanley Nelson’s 2002 documentary retells the powerful story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who visited Mississippi in 1955, made the mistake of insulting a white woman, and was abducted, tortured, and killed. I was grateful for the attention paid to Till’s mother, Mamie, whose insistence on displaying her son’s mangled corpse to 50,000 fellow Chicagoans dramatized the miscarriage of justice when a Mississippi jury acquitted the known killers. But Nelson’s frequent use of spirituals on the sound track is needlessly sappy, and Marcia A. Smith’s script is parochial in some respects. She concludes that the Till case sparked the civil rights movement, which is certainly accurate, yet many subsequent horror stories fanned the flames. She also implies that white southerners unanimously supported such atrocities, omitting any mention of Alabama reporter William Bradford Huie, who bribed Till’s killers into confessing and later made a career of defying southern racism. 53 min. (JR) Read more

Sweet Sixteen

Ken Loach’s 2002 feature about a poor 15-year-old boy living in a seaside town in western Scotland is a real heartbreaker; like The Bicycle Thief and Rebel Without a Cause, it confronts the tragedy of someone trying to be a good person who finds that the world he inhabits won’t allow it. Liam (played by teenage soccer pro Martin Compston) has a mother in prison; his sister loves him but can’t understand why he gets into so many fights, just as his mother’s lover can’t understand why he refuses to slip drugs to his mother in prison. Paul Laverty’s script, which won the best screenplay prize at Cannes, never sentimentalizes Liam, yet it fully draws us into his world. I’m not prone to like socially deterministic films of this kind, yet Loach is so masterful at squeezing nuance and truth out of the form that I was completely won over. The Scottish brogue is subtitled. 106 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, Saturday, March 22, 5:30, and Monday, March 24, 6:15. Read more

I Like The Ones With Sex

I guess I do too, which is why I chose to review this program. But Micaela O’Herlihy’s 14-minute Thunder Perfect Mind, a choppy experimental film mixing found footage with elliptical glimpses of a cavorting New Age prostitute, is too arch and self-conscious for my taste. In her 58-minute video documentary Bad Girls, Marielle Nitoslawska interviews smart and articulate women on the subject of porn, including film theorist and former Chicagoan Linda Williams, French feminist Luce Irigaray, filmmaker Catherine Breillat, performance artist and porn star Annie Sprinkle, and several directors of erotic films, including some who work for Lars von Trier’s Danish porn studio. Much of this is fun and interesting, though only occasionally both at the same time. (JR) Read more

Unapologetic Lives

Two video documentaries. The shorter of the two, Tanaz Eshaghian and Sara Nodojoumi’s I Call Myself Persian: Iranians in America (2001, 27 min.), takes on a fascinating topic, but the execution is pedestrian talking-head stuff. Among the better heads on display are Edward Said and the artist and filmmaker Sharin Neshat. Lu Lippold’s The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall (2002, 59 min.) is an absorbing portrait of the bohemian writer and activist, an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Central and South America. After living in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico for decades, Randall sued to have her American citizenshipwhich she had previously renouncedreinstated, incurring a lengthy deportation battle with the U.S. government. Randall, her mother, her daughters, and poet Adrienne Rich are better at telling Randall’s story than the awkward narration. (JR) Read more

Who’s Minding The Store?

Jerry Lewis’s fourth solo feature directed by his gifted mentor Frank Tashlin (1963) takes place in a department store that Lewis’s ditzy character winds up destroying. The backup cast is unusually good (Agnes Moorehead, Jill St. John, John McGiver, Ray Walston), and Tashlin exploits to the fullest his vision of appliances running amok. 90 min. (JR) Read more

The Safety Of Objects

Adapted from a book of stories by A.M. Homes, this third feature by Rose Troche is a series of interlocking tales about dysfunctional families and individuals living in one suburban neighborhood. Three weeks after seeing this film, I could barely remember it, and given Troche’s precise grasp of character and milieu in her much more cheerful Go Fish, it’s difficult to fathom why this movie is so flat and unconvincing. Maybe the stories work individually on the page, but collapsed together as they are here, and played like too many wild cards, they come across as contrived and forced; not even the highly stylized opening, which introduces us to the various families by way of a few dollhouses, makes the contrivances any more palatable. Among the sad characters are a mother (Glenn Close) doggedly nursing her comatose son while her teenage daughter (Jessica Campell) enters her in a silly radio contest in a mall, an alienated lawyer (Dermot Mulroney) who winds up playing cheerleader to the mother in the contest, a teenager (Alex House) in love with his sister’s Barbie doll, and the bored kidnapper of a little boy. The actorsincluding Mary Kay Place, Robert Klein, Moira Kelly, Patricia Clarkson, Kristen Stewart, and Timothy Olyphantare skillful, but what they’re given to work with mainly defeats them. Read more


I still haven’t seen or read Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 German play The Deputy, which caused quite a stir when it first appeared and has intrigued me ever since I read Susan Sontag’s essay about it. But whether or not this English-language adaptation, scripted by Jean-Claude Grumberg and director Costa-Gavras, is faithful to the play, it’s an absorbing and compelling account of a historical episode that should be better known. Like the play, the film focuses on the efforts of SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) and a young Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassovitz, playing a composite of several people) to enlist the Vatican in exposing the Nazi death camps to the world. The most controversial part of the story is Pope Pius XII’s failure to take a stand against the camps as he did against Nazi euthanasia, which the film examines in detail. A sober and serious docudrama, this follows the example of Shoah in refusing to show or represent any of the death-camp horrors, leaving this up to the viewer’s imagination. 130 min. (JR) Read more