Monthly Archives: February 2007

Three idle questions about the Oscars [Chicago Reader blog post, 2/27/07]

Posted By on 02.27.07 at 11:19 PM


Why wasn’t a single reference to George W. Bush made by anyone — including Ellen DeGeneres in her gently laid-back stand-up routines? Probably for the same reason that I rarely heard Bush mentioned by anyone in conversations when I was recently in Rotterdam, Toulouse, and Paris. Why beat a dead horse?, the deceased in this case being the fate of the world, or perhaps innocent civilians in Iran, not a spry but clueless leader. Once it’s become accepted and mutually acknowledged that the overall will of the world’s population and the will of the American people — insofar as either will can be correctly inferred — has almost no bearing on what Bush decides to do, speaking out of rage and impotence about a stupid dictator’s whims won’t accomplish very much. So instead of cracking jokes about how Clinton risked impeachment for getting a blow job while Bush risks nothing but a little wrist-slapping for endangering the survival of the planet as well as his own country, DeGeneres brings out a vacuum cleaner. The closest she ever got to evoking Bush was implying at one point that more of the American public voted for Al Gore.

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The True Story Of Jesse James

Though hardly Nicholas Ray’s sturdiest effort, this 1957 ‘Scope western began as one of his more ambitious conceptions, with an unorthodox narrative structure and deliberately theatrical sets. Both ideas were rejected by 20th-Century Fox in favor of genre conventions, and the experience helped to precipitate Ray’s departure for Europe (he left even before the editing was completed, to embark on the much superior Bitter Victory). Ray’s special feeling for young mavericksin this case Frank and Jesse James (Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner)is still apparent, and one brief sequence offers a brilliantly compact lesson in anarchist economics. With Hope Lange, Agnes Moorehead, and John Carradine; the script is mainly by Walter Newman. 92 min. (JR) Read more

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Charles Burnett’s brilliant 2003 TV documentary about Nat Turner, the black slave in Virginia’s Southhampton County who led an 1831 revolt that resulted in the slaughter of 57 white men, women, and children and then, in retribution, the slaughter and mutilation of 60 to 80 slaves. Interviewing two dozen historians and theorists, half of them black, Burnett treats all their interpretations, many of which he dramatizes, as equally crediblea radical but plausible approach given how little is known about Turner. He’s most interested in charting how the interpretations were arrived at and why those of white and black commentators often differ, and that allows him to offer an exemplary history lesson on why, for a nation unable to come to terms with the legacy of slavery, Nat Turner remains a troublesome property. 57 min. (JR) Read more

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her

The most intellectually heroic of Jean-Luc Godard’s early features (1966) was inspired by his reading an article about suburban housewives day-tripping into Paris to turn tricks for spending money. Marina Vlady plays one such woman, followed over a single day in a slender narrative with many documentary and documentarylike digressions. But the central figure is Godard himself, who whispers his poetic and provocative ruminations over monumentally composed color ‘Scope images and, like James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, continually interrogates his own methods and responses. Among the more memorable images are extreme close-ups of a cup of coffee, while another remarkable sequence deconstructs the operations of a car wash. Few features of the period capture the world with as much passion and insight. In French with subtitles. 95 min. (JR) Read more

Lessons Of Darkness

In his characteristically dreamy Young Werther fashion, Werner Herzog generates a lot of bombastic and beautiful documentary footage out of the post-gulf war oil fires and other forms of devastation in Kuwait, gilds his own high-flown rhetoric by falsely ascribing it to Pascal, and in general treats war as abstractly as CNN, but with classical music on the soundtrack to make sure we know it’s art. This 1992 documentary may be the closest contemporary equivalent to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, both aesthetically and morally; I found it disgusting, but if you’re able to forget about humanity as readily as Herzog there are loads of pretty pictures to contemplate. 54 min. (JR) Read more

The Dead Girl

Unrelievedly grim, this searing second feature by TV actress Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car) guides an unusually able cast through a five-part feature that’s closer to a collection of interconnected short stories than to a novel. The episodes all revolve around the brutal murder of a young woman, and Moncrieff’s psychological and sociological perspective on the characters–and on the sickness and unhappiness that seem to bind them together–is almost always acute and never merely sensational. With Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy, Kerry Washington, Giovanni Ribisi, Piper Laurie, Mary Steenburgen, and Josh Brolin. R, 93 min. (JR) Read more

Breaking And Entering

Juliette Binoche won an Oscar for her role in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The English Patient (1996), but in many ways I prefer her soulful performance here: portraying a Bosnian Muslim working as a tailor in London, she’s reason enough to see Minghella’s contrived though absorbing 2006 feature based on his original script. Jude Law (earnest but a bit overtaxed) plays a dissatisfied landscape architect living with a Swedish woman (Robin Wright Penn) and her troubled teenage daughter; his office in the King’s Cross area is twice burglarized by Binoche’s teenage son, and the complicated interactions involving class and culture that ensue between all these characters remain fascinating even when they seem overly schematic. (It’s too bad Minghella’s usual editor, Walter Murch, wasn’t around this time; some of the overly obvious crosscutting suggests the meddling of producer Harvey Weinstein.) R, 120 min. (JR) Read more

Bless Their Little Hearts

Scripted and photographed by Charles Burnett and directed by his former film-school classmate Bill Woodbury, this wonderful neorealist look at a working-class black family in South Central LA (1984) is worthy of being placed alongside Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Passionately recommended. 80 min. (JR) Read more

Secret Beyond The Door

Fritz Lang’s third thriller with Joan Bennett (after Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window), a Freudian version of the Bluebeard story, is probably the most psychoanalytically oriented of his features, and because it’s Lang, the murkiness is mainly a strength. Silvia Richards, who later worked on both Lang’s Rancho Notorious and King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry, is credited with the script, adapting a story by Rufus King. With Michael Redgrave and Ann Revere. 99 min. (JR) Read more


As a publicity stunt, a pop superstar (Emmanuelle Seigner) turns up at the small-town home of an obsessive teenage fan (Isild Le Besco) and the girl responds by fleeing to her room. Soon afterward she runs away from home and manages to get taken in by her idol as a kind of resident groupie and gofer sent to reclaim the star’s clothes from her estranged boyfriend. But what starts out as a kind of edgy variant of The King of Comedy devolves into something closer to All About Eve in cowriter and director Emanuelle Bercot’s hands. The limiting factor, despite serious performances by the two leads, is that neither character is entirely believable; the star’s imagined as a standard-issue diva, while the fan oscillates a bit too neatly for my taste between hysteric and conniver. In French with subtitles. 115 min. (JR) Read more

Wavelength And Back And Forth

Michael Snow’s two early masterpieces of inexorable camera movements, metaphysical speculation, and painterly meditations. Wavelength (1967) is a stuttering 45-minute forward zoom across a Manhattan loft in which a man’s death and the subsequent discovery of his corpse, both presented in sync sound, provide two of the on-screen events; an electronic sine wave moving steadily up a musical scale accompanies the camera’s journey. In Back and Forth (1969), also titled as arrows pointing in opposite directions, a camera pans right to left and left to right across a classroom at varying speeds over 52 minutes while various events intervene and a clapping sound marks the start and end of each trajectory. A great Canadian conceptual artist who works in several media, Snow has achieved perhaps his greatest international fame with these films and his subsequent three-hour epic of camera movement, La Region Centrale (1971). (JR) Read more

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Maurice Tourneur (The Blue Bird, The Last of the Mohicans), onetime student of Auguste Rodin and father of the better-known Jacques Tourneur, was one of the most talented and cultivated directors of the silent era, and like his son made films in both Europe and the U.S. This 1917 American feature with Mary Pickford was an enormous commercial success when it came out, and is reputed to be one of his most visually inventive as well. 99 min. (JR) Read more

Frank Lloyd Wright: The Mike Wallace Interviews

I saw this 1957 interview with the architect when it was originally broadcast, and it’s the most indelible portrait of Wright’s crusty personality that I know. (At one point, goaded by Wallace’s baiting, he makes a crack about the cigarette Wallace is smoking — the brand of which happened to be the show’s sponsor.) Well worth checking out. 53 min. (JR) Read more

RE-Defining Video: Work by Kyle Canterbury

This dazzling program, the first devoted to Michigan artist Kyle Canterbury, features two dozen experimental videos, all but one silent, ranging in length from 34 seconds to 11 minutes. Most feature some play between representation and abstraction, with subjects encompassing nature, domestic and public spaces, and politics–A Video depicts George W. Bush’s features decomposing. I don’t feel fully qualified to evaluate Reader critic Fred Camper’s claim that Canterbury has already “done for video something like what [Stan] Brakhage has done for film.” But such pieces as Color Shifts, Building in Detroit #2, 7 New Videos #3, 7 New Videos #7, and LX evoke for me some of the graphic power of the very different Oskar Fischinger, which goes to show the diversity of Canterbury’s work. And he does some things with rhythm and texture I haven’t seen before in film or video. What’s all the more astonishing is that he was only 16 when he made most of these pieces–he’s 17 now. a Sat 2/3, 8 PM, Chicago Filmmakers. Read more