Yearly Archives: 2009

As seen from the U.K., “American Cinema”

Thanks to John Iltis, the estimable dean of Chicago film publicists, here is a link to a rather eye-opening piece from a few days ago by the London Telegraph‘s Sukhdev Sandhu about changes in Anglo-American film culture over the past decade. Some of the thoughts here seem to corroborate a few of my own recent observations about respective differences — a widening rift, really — in the reception and perception of both Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in the U.K. and the U.S. (in the latter case in particular, the cross-referencing of Heath Ledger’s character with Tony Blair). –J.R.… Read more »

Robin Wood’s Final Top Ten

Thom Loree, one of Robin Wood’s dearest friends, has sent me the following, and kindly given me permission to reproduce it here. This list was dictated to Robin’s friend John Anderson two days before he died. (Correction, 1/7/10: Thom has informed me that he misunderstood the date; this list was in fact composed “a few weeks” before Robin died, not  two days, although he was already “gravely ill at the time”.) Rio Bravo was clearly in the number one slot; the others weren’t ranked, and are given in the order in which he dictated them. –J.R.

Rio Bravo

Either I Can’t Sleep or I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Robin wasn’t articulating well, but probably the former)

Sansho Dayo

Tokyo Story

Ruggles of Red Gap or Make Way for Tomorrow

Code inconnu

The Reckless Moment or Letter from an Unknown Woman

Angel Face (something of a surprise, this)

The Seven Samurai

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange or La Règle du jeu

Thom adds: “No Hitchcock, curiously enough.”








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Ten Best Lists, 1972-1976

A list of lists, the first in a series of six, first posted on December 21, 2009. Some time ago, Eric Johnson kindly went to the trouble of compiling many of my old ten-best lists and placing them on his web site. I’ve pasted these in here with some corrections regarding sources and precise titles, and added a few others. (Beware of a few anomalies and oddities below, such as the films by Mizoguchi and Renoir that I’d happened to see those years in London. I’m sure I must have had some polemical slant in mind, but I’m no longer able to define this slant more than vaguely.)

In mid-June 2015, I’ve just discovered that Charley Varrick, #7 in my Village Voice list of 1973, was originally misspelled by me as Charlie Varrick. Having just reseen this very impressive masterpiece on a new German Blu-Ray, I can only add that it deserves a lot more recognition than I was able to give it at the time. — J.R.

The Village Voice, 1972 (ranked):

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
(Luis Buñuel)
L’amour fou (Jacques Rivette)
The Central Region
(Michael Snow)
Such Good Friends
(Otto Preminger)
Phantom India (Louis Malle)
Umbracle
(Pere Portabella)
Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertrolucci)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas)
Fat City (John Huston)
Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)

The Village Voice, 1973  (ranked):

Playtime
(Jacques Tati)
A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Who is Beta?Read more »

A Quote from a Famous General

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
–Dwight D. Eisenhower, from a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953
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WINTER DREAMS: Fitzgerald Meets Frankenheimer (& Sternberg & Cassavetes)

1957 was clearly a bumper year for John Frankenheimer on Playhouse 90: the eleven shows that he directed included The Ninth Day (January 10, the only one I can faintly recall having seen at the time), The Comedian (February 14), The Last Tycoon (March 14), and then a second F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, which I’ve just seen for possibly the first time, Winter Dreams (May 23), costarring John Cassavetes and Dana Wynter. (That’s Phyllis Love, another costar, in the above illustration.) All of which probably helps to explain why I considered Frankenheimer an auteur before I ever used that term, during my early teens, for his work on Studio One as well as Playhouse 90.

As masterful in way as The Comedian and The Last Tycoon, Winter Dreams departs from Fitzgerald’s material a lot more than The Last Tycoon by concentrating on the sort of details that the original story leaves out, involving (for instance) the hero’s parents and college room mate, and by ending many years before the story does. (The script is by James B. Cavanagh.) The tone is quite different, too; Fitzgerald’s 1922 story is a reverie whereas the adaptation is much more obviously obsessional.… Read more »

The Undermining of Intimacy: HOME and EVERYONE ELSE

It’s been over five months since I submitted this brief article to FIPRESCI for their web site, at their (characteristically urgent) request, in mid-June, just after attending the Seattle International Film Festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury. It seems pretty certain by now that they won’t be running it, because Seattle isn’t even listed among the fourteen “coming soon” festival reports currently promised on their site.This is basically why I’m running it here — so it won’t go to waste. — J.R.

The Undermining of Intimacy: Home and Everyone Else
By Jonathan Rosenbaum

As different as they are in other respects, one interesting facet shared by two tragicomic European features included in the New Directors Showcase at the Seattle International Film Festival, Ursula Meier’s Home (2008) and Maren Ade’s Alle Andersen (Everyone Else, 2009), is that they both show the gradual deterioration of intimate relationships that starts to occur between or among individuals in isolation from “everyone else”, after they start to become less isolated. In both cases, contact with the outside world seems to operate as a kind of contamination, although the possibility is posed in each case that the
sickness is already present from the outset, but needs the objectification provided by the outside world in order to become fully evident.… Read more »

Bright Star


What’s most disconcerting about Jane Campion’s affecting evocation of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, which I caught up with tonight in Edinburgh, is that it has an exquisite soundtrack for me — erotic, tactile, essentialist in the best sense — only when Keats’ poetry remains unheard. Whether it’s being recited by Ben Wishaw as Keats or by Abbie Cornish as Brawne, the issue isn’t how or how well it’s being recited, which I have no particular quarrels with, but the fact that it gets recited at all. I was admittedly grateful in a way to hear Wishaw recite all of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the final credits, despite the distracting musical accompaniment, even while a good half of the audience was leaving the theater, because there, at least, it wasn’t competing with Campion’s filmmaking.  But I’m less sure about the other employments of Keats’ writing in the film, even though the letters arguably seem more justifiable than the poetry, at least from a narrative standpoint.

 

One of Campion’s strongest suits has always been her eroticism, and the best part of A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times (as it often is, for him as well as for Manohla Dargis) comes not in the review proper but in the squib at the end appended to the MPAA rating: “It is perfectly chaste and insanely sexy.”… Read more »

Two Good Reasons to be Back in the U.K. (and three quotes)

 

1. Taking a British Airways morning flight from Edinburgh to London this morning, I was delighted to discover that a tourist-class seat entitles me to a full hot British/Scottish breakfast — omelet, sausages, ham, mushrooms, and potatoes, with coffee served in an old-fashioned ceramic cup, at no extra charge. Simply imagining such a thing on any domestic flight in the U.S. nowadays would be indulging in a decadent form of nostalgia.

2. The intelligence, wit, and sharp writing one almost takes for granted in portions of the weekly press here. After bemoaning the phony “knowing” tone of David Thomson pretending to be authoritative about Orson Welles’ life at the time of his death in my last Notes entry, it’s worth quoting from three pieces that I happened to read during my 90-minute flight, all displaying good thoughts as well as good prose. The fact that I happened to just see Fantastic Mr. Fox two nights ago, in the Scottish coastal village St. Andrews, made the latter two pieces, both reviews of the film, especially interesting:

a. From “Your Call is Not Important To Us” by Will Self (New Statesman, 26 October) on mobile phones: “As defined by the psychiatric profession, psychosis is a blanket term for inadequate reality-testing (an ugly coinage, but you know what I mean).… Read more »

Shirin

One of Abbas Kiarostami’s trickiest and most radical experimental works, this fascinating 2008 feature focuses on women spectators of a movie that we hear but don’t see—a lush and seemingly action-packed drama adapted from a famous Persian medieval poem by Nazami Ganjavi, “Khosrow and Shirin.” Typical of Kiarostami’s mastery as an illusionist is that he created the offscreen soundtrack himself, but only after he’d shot close-ups of Juliette Binoche and 112 Iranian film actresses watching the fictional film. (The makeshift audience contains some males too, but they’re never featured.) It’s as if Kiarostami had capitulated to the requests of his friendly critics that he make a movie with stars and an easy-to-follow story, then perversely turned the movie into a nonnarrative film. In Farsi with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

DOWN WITH LOVE (2003)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

One reason I took so long getting to see this movie (2003) was the number of friends who assured me it was nothing special. Most of them seemed to go along uncritically with the publicists’ claim, echoed by reviewers, that it was a simple point-by-point pastiche of three late-50s and early-60s comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall: Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). These films have never appealed to me in the slightest, though Mark Rappaport did an expert job of unpacking them in his 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. But Down With Love is also an affectionate satire of late-50s and early-60s studio glitz that often contradicts the pastiche. The filmmakers, who were too young to experience this era themselves, make plenty of errors, starting with a Fox CinemaScope logo (wrong studio and too late for that logo) and the snazzy rainbow credits (too hyperactive for the time). Then we get palatial Manhattan apartments (much more identified with How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 and The Tender Trap in 1955) and bubble-gum-colored media blitzes (as in Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more »

THE KING OF COMEDY (1982)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

I was slow to appreciate this masterpiece, which I now regard as Martin Scorsese’s best feature, and I credit Wim Wenders for convincing me that there was far more going on in this movie than I was initially prepared to see. Perhaps the key to this creepy fable about the American obsession with celebrity and media comes in the climactic comic monologue of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), brimming with self-hatred and shame about his family and his nondescript suburban/ethnic background, which in a way all of the preceding film prepares us for. The script by Paul D. Zimmerman, a onetime film critic at Newsweek, manages to be both non-specific and spot-on about everything that separates the haves from the have-nots -– a subject Scorsese seems to know like the back of his hand, and one made all the more complex by the fact that it’s often hard to separate the privileged from the deprived in this film (a fact spelled out by another troubling climax, the confrontation between Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard).… Read more »

WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1919)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

Nominally a rather silly satire about various fads in 1919 America ranging from Ouija boards and diverse superstitions to crackpot psychological experiments, this energetic Douglas Fairbanks comedy -– the first directorial effort of Victor Fleming, Fairbanks’s former cinematographer –- is chiefly a free-form adventure.

Like the projectionist’s dream in Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., this is basically an occasion for the star’s athletic stunts and choreographic bursts of ardor and enthusiasm, as well as various playful breaches of the ordinary rules of space and time. Most of the latter occurs within an extended dream sequence that virtually opens the film -– set in motion by a sinister secret experiment being conducted by a mad scientist on the wealthy and brash hero, Daniel Boone Brown (Fairbanks) –- but the climactic rain storm and flood at the end, as the film shifts from New York to the countryside, seems almost equally dreamlike and arbitrary.

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A Handful of World: The Films of Peter Thompson, An Introduction and Interview

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2009. Note: Peter Thompson’s complete work as a filmmaker, along with many extras, is available here. There is also a web site devoted to his work at chicagomediaworks.com   — J.R.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Peter Thompson the best Chicago filmmaker you never heard of. His half a dozen films, four shorts and two features, span 28 years, and their continuities and discontinuities with one another seem equally important. Pertinent to all six films are diverse aspects of Thomson’s background: as a classical guitarist who studied with Andrès Segovia in Siena, as an undergraduate and graduate student in comparative literature (University of California, Irvine), as a onetime Navy photojournalist who teaches photography at Columbia College Chicago, and even as a first cousin of the special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull.(Full disclosure: Thompson has been a friend for almost two decades — and a neighbor for roughly half that time — but it was my enthusiasm for his first two films that initially sparked our friendship.)

His shorts come in two pairs, each one a diptych. Two Portraits (1982, 28 minutes) is devoted to his parents and each portrait works with a minimalist expansion of limited footage juxtaposed with offscreen voices—those of Thompson and his late father in the first part, Anything Else, and those of his mother reading from her diaries in the second part, Shooting Scripts.… Read more »

Capitalism: A Love Story

It’s been ten days since I saw the new Michael Moore film, when I was in New York. Then and now, it struck me as being inferior to Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Bowling for Columbine, yet singular none the less in a way that only a Michael Moore film can be, less for its own qualities (cinematic, political, aesthetic) than for the unique cultural function it has. In a country that essentially has no news, only a series of screeds designed to either stroke or else violently refute or ignore one’s own particular biases (pace Rachel Maddow, cued laughs and all), Moore’s movies wind up teaching us things even if we don’t see them because of the way that certain second-hand kernels of information get filtered down to us. And I certaiinly include myself in this process. Capitalism: A Love Story taught me several things I had known either nothing or very little about — perhaps most importantly, Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a “second Bill of Rights” shortly before his death that ensured the right of individuals to have a job, a decent wage, and health care. Seeing that clip of FDR giving that long-suppressed and forgotten speech is reason enough to see this film. … Read more »

Two Bugs Bunny cartoons

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

RHAPSODY RABBIT (1946)

Bugs Bunny, dripping with mannerisms associated with classical music and attempting to perform Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody at a concert, is interrupted or distracted by problems with his sheet music, coughs from the audience, a carrot break, and a mouse living inside the piano with both a taste for boogie-woogie and a determination to outclass the rabbit and featured performer. James Agee celebrated this 1946 animated short by Friz Freleng at some length, calling it “the funniest thing I have seen since the decline of sociological dancing”: “The best of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before.”

WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957)

Eleven years after Rhapsody Rabbit, in 1957, the joint ingenuity of writer Michael Maltese and director Chuck Jones once again demonstrates how Americans can neither feel entirely comfortable with classical music and opera nor leave it alone, resulting here in a love-hate relationship to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen featuring Bugs Bunny in drag, a golden-helmeted Elmer Fudd, snatches of ballet and Nuremberg lighting, outlandish sets that exceed any possibilities of stagecraft, and what may well be the strangest assortment of abstract shapes to be found anywhere in Jones’s work.… Read more »