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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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

Eric Hobsbawm on American Empire

The following, though written five years ago, still seems relevant enough today to merit quoting. It comes from my favorite contemporary historian, Eric Hobsbawm — specifically his short book On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (New York/London: The New Press, 2008):

“Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy. I believe it indicates a growing crisis within American society, which finds expression in the most profound political and cultural division within that country since the Civil War, and a sharp geographical division between the globalized economy of the two seaboards, and the vast resentful hinterland, the culturally open big cities and the rest of the country. Today a radical right-wing regime seeks to mobilize “true Americans” against some evil outside force and against a world that does not  recognize the uniqueness, the superiority, the manifest destiny of America. What we must realize is that America global policy is aimed inward, not outward, however great and ruinous its impact on the rest of the world. It is not designed to produce either empire or effective hegemony. Read more

Recommended Reading: “Otto Preminger and the Surface of Cinema”

Christian Keathley is currently writing a book about Otto Preminger. I don’t know whether this lucid theoretical essay, centered around a textual analysis of an early scene in Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949) — which appeared in the second issue of World Picture Journal last fall, and which I’ve just discovered (following a Paul Fileri lead in the new Film Comment) — will form part of this book. But it does suggest that Keathley will have plenty to say on the subject of Preminger.

Consider, just for starters, the end of his fifth paragraph, before he even gets around to Whirlpool:

The social issues under interrogation in Preminger’s films were not subtextual — they were the manifest content. Indeed, to point out that there is a subtext of incest in Anatomy of a Murder, Bonjour Tristesse, and Bunny Lake is Missing is merely to state the obvious. As a result, since the early 1970s, Preminger has been a severely under-examined filmmaker.

And when Keathley analyzes the sequence from Whirlpool, charting the dialogue and gestures between a kleptomaniac (Gene Tierney) and her psychiatrist husband (Richard Conte), he has more to say about Preminger’s mise en scène and its power than just about anyone I’ve read on the subject. Read more

On Scalping [+ postscript]

It seems significant that a good many defenders of Inglourious Basterds that I’ve been reading happily buy into the popular myth that scalping is basically something that indigenous Americans did, full stop.  It seems that we non-indigenous Americans are still in almost complete denial about our own heritage of genocide in North and South America, which came much closer to succeeding than even the Nazi efforts with the Jews did — an estimated 70 million victims. I assume that some of the indigenous Americans who are still around must be aware of this obscene misrepresentation, but why should we care what they think?

Anyway, here’s some useful information gleaned from the Internet:


Scalping: Fact & Fantasy

—By Philip Martin

Stereotypes are absorbed from popular literature, folklore, and misinformation. For instance, many children (and adults) incorrectly believe that fierce native warriors were universally fond of scalping early white settlers and soldiers. In fact, when it came to the bizarre practice of scalping, Europeans were the ones who encouraged and carried out much of the scalping that went on in the history of white/native relations in America. Read more

Recommended Reading: VINCENTE MINNELLI: THE ART OF ENTERTAINMENT

VINCENTE MINNELLI: THE ART OF ENTERTAINMENT, edited by Joe McElhaney, Detroit: Wayne State University Place, 2009, 458 pp.

In spite of my disappointment that Mademoiselle — Minnelli’s extraordinary centerpiece in The Story of Three Loves and surely one of his greatest films — gets virtually ignored here, this is a terrific critical collection, so I’m very grateful to Girish Shambu’s blog for calling my attention to it. Among the many treasures to be found here are what appears to be the very best French criticism about Minnelli, expertly translated by Bill Krohn, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, and Brian O’Keefe, including Raymond Bellour (on Brigadoon), Serge Daney (separate pieces on The Pirate and The Cobweb as they each appear on French TV), Jean Douchet (separate pieces on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Two Weeks in Another Town), Emmanuel Burdeau (who also has two pieces), and Jean-Loup Bourget. There are also sturdy contributions by, among others, Krohn himself, Scott Bukatman, Thomas Elsaesser, Adrian Martin, James Naremore, Dana Polan, Robin Wood, and two essays apiece by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, David A. Gerstner, and the editor, Joe McElhaney.

Back in the mid-1980s, I published a survey about Minnelli’s work on video, titled (I believe) “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which I seem to have misplaced — something I’m mentioning now only because I’ve often thought that this particular phrase from William Butler Yeats perfectly describes Minnelli’s auteurist thematics. Read more

Racist Shorthand in the U.S.

An extraordinary piece of chicanery by Kelefa Sanneh entitled “Discriminating Tastes” heads off  the Talk of the Town section in the current (August 10 & 17) issue of The New Yorker. The subject is the alleged “reverse racism” or “anti-white” bias of President Obama, as kicked off by his controversial offhand remark last month that a policeman who arrested a man in his own home “acted stupidly”. This was later described by Fox News‘s terminally stupid Glenn Beck as a revealing exposure of Obama’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Not even once in this article does Sanneh bother to mention or even acknowledge the fact that Beck and so many other commentators are so eager to suppress and/or obfuscate — that Obama is half-white. As far as this article (and, it would appear, an alarming amount of other American punditry) is concerned, Obama is simply and unambiguously (and irrevocably) “a black President,” not someone who was born to a white mother and a black father. So in other words, according to this peculiar argument, Obama harbors a “deep-seated hatred” not only for his late mother but for half of himself — although this latter portion of the equation is almost never brought up. Read more

Recommended Reading: Hoberman on IN A LONELY PLACE

Recommended Reading: An excellent piece about In a Lonely Place, and Nicholas Ray more generally, by J. Hoberman in this week’s Village Voice. My only (minor) quarrel is with the following phrase: “An ex-Communist who was never persecuted, and must have wondered why…” From Bernard Eisenschitz’s definitive biography, one can pretty clearly surmise that Ray was protected from the Blacklist by Howard Hughes, for whom he was a sort of patch-up man, semipermanently on tap — something he must have been perfectly aware of. [7/17/09] Read more

The Ayatollahs Have Spoken

“Michael Jackson’s unforgettable memorial proved a moving high point in a saga that has captivated the world,” reads a headline in the July 17 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Since that’s (unsurprisingly) their lead story, this must mean that the Jackson memorial, whatever and whenever it was, must have qualified as entertainment — and that anyone and everyone who wasn’t captivated and entertained by it doesn’t belong to the world.

An interesting and highly diverse demographic — including, among others, me and my best friends, all the members of the Taliban, and, I presume, most of the people in China. I wonder if we could start a new religion based on this common ground. [7/11/09] Read more

Recommended Reading: Interview with Jia Zhangke by Dudley Andrew

Just because it isn’t available online doesn’t mean that Dudley Andrews’ interview with the great Jia Zhangke in the Summer 2009 issue of Film Quarterly isn’t the most aesthetically and politically eye-opening piece I’ve read so far anywhere about this filmmaker. And the fact that 24 City is on the cover, also illustrating James Naremore’s second annual ten-best piece for this magazine (which isn’t online either), should serve as a further incentive. [7/05/09] Read more

Rhetoric about Iran: Americans Learning from Their Mistakes

The most gratifying aspect of Peggy Noonan’s eloquent article last Friday in the Wall Street Journal isn’t merely the belated sign that sane and grown-up conservative thought is finally being heard on the subject of the Middle East, in contrast to the obtuse bellicosity and stupid posturing of John McCain and others. Even more, it’s a sign that some Americans are finally beginning to learn something from American mistakes — above all, from the peculiar conviction that American self-aborption is the only thing urgently needed in the world outside the U.S., and that any sign of tact, calm, and/or reticence automatically translates into weakness. (I hasten to add that Noonan’s voice hasn’t been the only sensible one recently coming from the right; I’m emphasizing it only because it seems the loudest and clearest of these voices.)

I would love to see this dawning wisdom take one crucial further step — the recognition that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 weren’t simply, exclusively, and unproblematically “attacks on America”, whatever that means. They were attacks on people, many of whom weren’t American. Assuming otherwise, as so many chest-beaters did and still do, means playing into the hands of the fanatics who committed these murders and perversely honoring their supposed wisdom and one-dimensional view of the world for the sake of throwing out every other possible reading of what happened. Read more

Easy Virtue

A wealthy young Englishman (Ben Barnes) marries an American widow he meets in France (Jessica Biel) and brings her back to his family estate, causing various kinds of havoc. Noel Coward’s drawing-room comedy was loosely adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928 but is seldom revived these days; assigning it to Australian cult filmmaker Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) seems perverse, but if you’re looking for a simple-minded farce with campy overtones, this 2008 feature might be your dish. Elliott retains the 20s setting, improbably makes the widow a sports-car racer from Detroit, drastically changes the plot in other ways, adds lots of tunes by Coward and Cole Porter (along with more recent hits like “Car Wash”), and awkwardly introduces a few gags involving a dead dog. The only characters who seem anchored in some form of reality are the hero’s parents (Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth) and former fiancee (Charlotte Riley); all the others, from siblings to servants, are standard-issue eccentrics or the subjects of running gags. PG-13, 96 min. –Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more