Yearly Archives: 2008

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

I’d read enough about this documentary, made over 11 years by Steven Sebring, to know not to expect a concert film. What I was less prepared for was the paradoxical view of my favorite punk star that emerges, making her seem like the ultimate postmodernist heroine — the edgy outlaw that, to all appearances, has never been in even modest rebellion against any part of her family, and modulates from angry iconoclast to contented Detroit housewife and back again with scarcely a bump. (At one point she avows that her principal claim to being a taboo-breaker as a child-rearing launderer is that she doesn’t use bleach.) It seems fairly evident that she’s very much in control of her own image here, and that image manages to encompass a sense of a rock star’s glamor while suggesting that she’s never shampooed her hair even once in her life.

Maybe the source of my confusion is her unusual capacity to shift back and forth repeatedly between ultra-theatricality and mundanity, which made the only concert of hers I’ve ever attended, in London in the mid-70s, a little off-putting. One moment she’d be leading the audience like a Dionysian Joan of Arc; the next moment, she’d be sitting on the floor cross-legged, apparently oblivious to the same audience, while playing idly with her guitar as if it were a kitten rather than a musical instrument.… Read more »

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, this beautiful documentary by John Gianvito (The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein) documents not only graves and memorials across the U.S. for people (both famous and unknown) who died in political struggles, but also the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites. The casual way Gianvito introduces us to these settings via sound and image, the varying cinematic means employed (including stretches of animation), and the powerful maximal effects he achieves from his supposedly minimalist agenda are all essential facets of the film’s haunting poetry. This was named best experimental film of 2007 by the National Society of Film Critics, but it also displays a strong passion for history–including film history, from Griffith, Stroheim, and Dovzhenko to Straub-Huillet. 58 min. a Gene Siskel Film Center. —Jonathan RosenbaumRead more »

Letter from Patricia Patterson to John Powers

I’ve just discovered that the comment concluding my Afterword to my article about Manny Farber on this site was grievously mistaken and misinformed. So I’ve just added this letter from Patricia—written in response to a John Powers broadcast about Manny on NPR’s Fresh Air—to my Afterword as a postscript, but I also would like to highlight it here.—J.R. [8/28/08]

Dear John Powers,

Manny was not a “Conservative,” a “Libertarian,” a “Republican,” an anything. In his early twenties he tried to join the Communist Party but they didn’t want him. During WWII he tried to enlist in the army but they rejected him. After inviting him to join, it took just one meeting for the New York Film Critics Circle to ask him to leave. He came home that night saying, “They fired me.” He also told me that even a therapist in Washington had “fired him” for not working hard enough. Manny was not a Republican because he never knew any. He didn’t quarrel with them because he was never around them. He quarreled with the people he knew: artists, writers, teachers, carpenters. When he saw smugness, complacency, and superiority — and often those qualities went together — then he would get going, and separate himself from them.Read more »

Sátántangó (the novel)

I’m a member of PEN, and Nick Burd, their Literary Awards Program Manager, just forwarded to me the following note from Barbara Epler at New Directions:

Dear Jonathan Rosenbaum,

I was reading through PEN’s very interesting “What are we missing?” forum, and saw your SÁTÁNTANGÓ suggestion, and just wanted to say we are waiting on the delivery of its [English] translation by the great George Szirtes, eagerly waiting, and will publish it as soon as we can. (We already have his translations of László [Krasznahorkai]’s THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE and WAR & WAR.)

I thought you’d be interested — and, by the way, we are always interested in hearing suggestions from readers who seem on our wave-length so if you have more ideas, please let me know.

All the best,

Barbara Epler
New Directions

P.S. (from JR): THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE is the 1989 novel that served as the basis for Béla Tarr’s 2000 film WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. And SÁTÁNTANGÓ (the film) has recently been released in a box set by Facets Video. [8/21/08] Afterword, 2012: The English translation of the novel has finally been published.

Read more »

Unfit for Publication

A good cable-news feature tonight from Rachel Maddow on Countdown about the boondoggle of bulk sales pushing a lunatic-fringe book of abusive misinformation, Jerome R. Corsi’s Obama Nation, to the head of the New York Times best seller list. The best antidote–a detailed 40-page rebuttal, Unfit for Publication–can be accessed for free at Obama’s website. Check it out; it should be disseminated as quickly and widely as possible.

Too bad that John Kerry didn’t do something similar in 2004 with the Swift Boat smear campaign, another Corsi job. And the fact that Obama’s campaign has responded this quickly and this thoroughly is cheering –even if one knows that this will barely make an impression on those idiots who’ll believe anything that’s shoveled between hard covers that they want to believe. [8/14/08]… Read more »

Christopher Columbus, The Enigma

One of the more puzzling features by the puzzling Manoel de Oliveira, this placid travelogue (2007) was adapted by him from an autobiographical book by Manuel and Silvia da Silva. A Portuguese man (Ricardo Trepa, the director’s grandson) emigrates to the U.S. in 1946, becomes a doctor, and returns home in 1960 to marry. In 2007, he and his wife (Oliveira and his own wife) tour various American and Caribbean historical sites to confirm his curious theory that Christopher Columbus was a Portuguese Jew; turning up at all these sites, and visible only to the viewer, is a mute, female angel carrying a sword and a Portuguese flag. Like some of Oliveira’s other minor works (The Letter, Belle Toujours), this intermittently suggests a poker-faced joke without a punch line. In English and subtitled Portuguese. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Day Of Despair

Manoel de Oliveira’s 1992 feature is his third related to Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, author of the novel Oliveira adapted for his masterpiece Doomed Love (1979) and a major character in Francisca (1981). Built around the author’s late correspondence before he shot himself in 1890, this is comparatively minor and minimalist, but it’s an affecting chamber piece. Oliveira slyly mixes documentary and fiction: actors appear in both contemporary and period dress, speaking alternately in first and third person, inside the author’s home (today a museum). The ironic treatment of aristocracy and romantic decadence found in Doomed Love is regrettably absent, but Teresa Madruga, as the most prominent character, Castelo Branco’s last mistress, delivers her lines with commanding passion. In Portuguese with subtitles. 74 min. (JR)… Read more »

Jacques Tati’s TRAFIC on Criterion DVD

This review appeared originally in Fanzine, 6/26/08. –J.R.

Given the size of his achievement, it’s astonishing that Jacques Tati made only half a dozen features, none of them bad. But if I had to single out any of these as a lesser work, I’d pick Trafic (1971), the only one that qualifies as compromised.

Others might select Parade (1973), Tati’s final film –– because it was mainly shot on video and virtually dispenses with plot by basically following the contours of a far-from-spectacular circus performance. But they’d be wrong. Though it’s the least known Tati feature and the most modest in terms of budget, Parade is by no means Tati’s least ambitious or adventurous film. In some ways it even qualifies as his most radical –– in its refusal to clearly separate life from spectacle or prioritize professional performers over unprofessional spectators. Unfortunately, the less analytical and more sentimental celebrations of Tati –– including the charming 1989 documentary by the late Sophie Tatischeff about her father, In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot, that’s a bonus on the second disc here –– tend to overlook this radicalism.

Trafic, on the other hand, represented a conscious step backward for Tati.… Read more »

Onion City Film And Video Festival Opening Night Program

The best works in this essential program of recent experimental shorts are the longest. Pedro Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters (2007, 23 min.), a follow-up to his 2006 Colossal Youth, performs comparable wonders with its exalted yet mournful portraits of Cape Verdeans in a Lisbon suburb. Phil Solomon’s black-and-white, animated Last Days in a Lonely Place (2007, 20 min.) magically and mysteriously combines rain, material from the video game Grand Theft Auto, and patches of sound from Nicholas Ray features. Almost as effective in bringing together the cosmic and the mundane are two ten-minute wonders, Bruce Conner’s Easter Morning (which Conner shot in 1966 and misplaced) and a 35-millimeter blowup of Larry Jordan’s 1969 Our Lady of the Sphere. And there’s provocative work by Jeanne Liotta, Gyula Nemes, and Ben Rivers. The festival continues through 6/22 at Chicago Filmmakers, the Nightingale, and other venues; see chicagofilmmakers.org/onion_fest/onion.html or next week’s Reader for more. 99 min. Thu 6/19, 8 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan RosenbaumRead more »

Operation Filmmaker

The final intertitle of Nina Davenport’s 2007 documentaryI had hoped for a happy ending . . . now I’m just looking for an exit strategyaptly suggests the parallel between the endless string of misjudgments that created the so-called Iraqi war and the ones that created this film about it. Spotting on MTV a 25-year-old Iraqi film student, Muthana Mohmed, whose school in Baghdad had been leveled by American bombs, Hollywood actor Liv Schreiber got the lousy idea of hiring him as a gofer on his lousy first feature as a director, Everything Is Illuminated, which was shot in Prague. Assigned to film Mohmed’s experiences, Davenport (who also had a crew filming his friends and family back home) soon found herself stuck with someone she didn’t like whose need to live his own life was incompatible with hers to finish her film. Nobody comes off well in this tragicomedy, about mutual exploitation by people who don’t know what they’re doing. But the eventual rude awakenings, among them Davenport’s, are thoughtful and enlighteningwell worth the wait. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

The unholy mix of George Lucas’s colonialist nostalgia and Steven Spielberg’s fluency with action becomes more self-conscious in this fourth Indiana Jones outing. In 1957, two decades after the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero (Harrison Ford) joins forces with his old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark (Karen Allen) and a young punk (Shia LaBeouf) to combat a Commie villain (Cate Blanchett, doing a variation on Garbo’s Ninotchka) in a remote corner of Peru. The character and plot contrivances are dumber than ever, but this is basically vaudeville, not narrative, and the thrills keep coming. (Once Indy has survived a nuclear blast early on, going over three waterfalls in a row without wetting his lighter is par for the course.) Spielberg’s extravagant action, much of it staged on what look like old sets from King Kong, includes pointed steals from The Naked Jungle (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), and his own Close Encounters, E.T., and A.I. PG-13, 124 min. (JR)Read more »

Bomb It

Genuinely global, multicultural, and multilingual in its urban perspectives, this lively documentary features graffiti artists talking about their work and illustrates their discourse with images shot in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Cape Town, Sao Paolo, Tijuana, and Tokyo. Filmmaker Jon Reiss also occasionally gives voice to people trying to eradicate graffiti. The relentless quick cutting and pop soundtrack are counterbalanced by the artists’ personalities and sociopolitical credos. Unlike Michael Glawogger’s more visionary Megacities (1998), this offers neither city symphonies nor overarching theses, but as the title suggests, the theme of rebellion predominates. Subtitled. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

In The City Of Sylvia/Some Photos In The City Of Sylvia

Two hypnotic and haunting 2007 features by Spanish experimental filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin, about the same romantic obsession. (The reference points are W.G. Sebald’s novel Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same title.) The silent Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (65 min.) uses black-and-white stills with English intertitles to recount an unseen artist’s return to Strasbourg to search for a young woman he met briefly 22 years earlier while making a Goethe-related literary pilgrimage. The far more elliptical In the City of Sylvia (84 min.) tells the same story with color, carefully articulated sound, and minimal, subtitled French dialogue; in this film the artist returns only six years after his pilgrimage. Both works are mysterious, beautiful, and primal. It’s a pity the first, an intimate study and scenario for the second, is being shown after only one screening of its more languid successor. (JR)… Read more »

Under The Same Moon

A Mexican illegal who’s been working in LA for four years (Kate del Castillo) scrimps and saves to hire a lawyer so she can become a citizen and send for her nine-year-old son (Adrian Alonso). He’s being cared for by his grandmother, but after she dies, the boy decides to sneak across the border. Your enjoyment of this picaresque tearjerker may depend on how much you can tolerate its shameless contrivances and didactic social realism, whereby the story exists only to illustrate the plight of illegal aliens. I was ultimately more moved than appalled, but it was a close contest. Patricia Riggen directed a script by Ligiah Villalobos. In English and subtitled Spanish. PG-13, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »