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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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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

My Favorite Films of the 1930s

For a special section devoted to the 1930s, the Spanish magazine Miradas de Cine, conducting a poll for its 89th issue, asked me to select my 15 favorite films of that decade and also to pick five that I thought were overrated. Here are my choices (listed chronologically):

favoritas:

Laughter (d’Arrast) • City Lights (Chaplin) • M (Lang) • La nuit du carrefour (Renoir) • Ivan (Dovzhenko) • Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo (Ozu) • Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian) • Scarface (Hawks) • Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch) • Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (Milestone) • L’Atalante (Vigo) • Judge Priest (Ford) • King Kong (Cooper & Schoedsack) • Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey) • Zangiku monogatari (Mizoguchi)

sobrevaloradas:

The Front Page (Milestone) • 42nd Street (Bacon) • Swing Time (Stevens) • Bringing Up Baby (Hawks) • Ninotchka (Lubitsch) [8/11/09]… 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 »