Monthly Archives: May 2009

Recommended Reading: “Everybody’s Orson Welles”


Alas, the fact that you can’t access the Spring 2009 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review online means that a good many people, including other Welles fanatics, won’t bother to hunt it down in bookstores or order it online. But this is a pity, because “Treasures from the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan: Letters and Memos Mainly on Macbeth,” compiled and introduced by Catherine L. Benamou, is an important step forward in Welles studies. The two massive collections of “written, illustrated, recorded, and photographic materials pertaining to the writer-actor-director’s artistic career from around 1931 to 1985,” “totaling some one hundred linear feet,” have been in place for about five years now, even though they’re still being catalogued, and I’m proud to say I was the very first “outside” scholar who paid them a visit when I selected the photographs used on the cover of my most recent book, Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press, 2007).

These two collections consist of the Welles-related papers of (a) Richard Wilson, associate producer of Mercury Theatre projects starting with Too Much Johnson in 1938 and continuing until Wilson became a film director in his own right in the 1950s, and (b) Oja Kodar, Welles’ companion, muse, and major collaborator over the last two decades of his life and career, a sculptress who worked on his films in multiple capacities (though chiefly as writer and actress).… 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 »

Jerry Lewis Film Series in Los Angeles in June

If you’re in Los Angeles in June (I won’t be), you might want to check out The Cinefamily‘s Jerry Lewis retrospective (page down), playing on Saturdays. This culminates in his last feature to date, Cracking Up (the poster for its European version is seen below).

I’m cited in the ad for the latter film in the following way: “In some ways it comes off as so formally brazen that the end result of this Airplane!-style gag-fest was avant-garde enough to appeal to academically inclined critics and Lewis lovers — Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, sandwiched Cracking Up between Bresson’s L’Argent and Kiarostami’s Fellow Citizen on his list of best films of 1983 (the only English-language pick on the list).” I’m not sure what makes me “academically inclined,” but for the record, the (alphabetical) list of my favorite films of 1983 [in Essential Cinema] also includes, immediately below Fellow Citizen, Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Wenders’ Hammett, Dante’s It’s a Good Life [from  Twilight Zone: The Movie],  Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, and, a bit further down the list, Wenders’ The State of Things, Brownlow and Gill’s The Unknown Chaplin, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome — all of them “English-language picks”.… Read more »

A Last-Minute Tip for Chicagoans: A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Doc Films, May 18, 7 PM)

I’m sorry that the Chicago Reader in its current issue chooses not to acknowledge that it’s anything special or worthy of more than cursory notice, but  Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is probably the greatest Taiwanese film ever made, and it doesn’t turn up here often. Doc Films is showing it at 7 pm. Here’s my original capsule review, only slightly updated:

Bearing in mind Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, this astonishing 230-minute epic (1991) by Edward Yang (1947-2007), set over one Taipei school year in the early 60s, would fully warrant the subtitle “A Taiwanese Tragedy.” A powerful statement from Yang’s generation about what it means to be Taiwanese, superior even to his later masterpiece (and final film) Yi Yi (2000), it has a novelistic richness of character, setting, and milieu unmatched by any other 90s film (a richness only partially apparent in its three-hour version). What Yang does with objects — a flashlight, a radio, a tape recorder, a Japanese sword — resonates more deeply than what most directors do with characters, because along with an uncommon understanding of and sympathy for teenagers Yang has an exquisite eye for the troubled universe they inhabit. This is a film about alienated identities in a country undergoing a profound existential crisis — a Rebel Without a Cause with much of the same nocturnal lyricism and cosmic despair.… Read more »

QUO VADIS Revisited

“Is this the end of Nero?” cries Peter Ustinov towards the end of his superbly hammy death scene in Quo Vadis (1951). I can’t recall anyone ever accusing director Mervyn LeRoy, one of Sam Fuller’s favorite directors, of being an auteur, but this clear reference to Edward G. Robinson’s “Is this the end of Little Rico?” in LeRoy’s Little Caesar suggests some kind of sly skullduggery. Even more, I wonder if Ustinov’s eye-rolling Nero occasionally made some of the participants at MGM on this picture think of Louis B. Mayer, just as Leo Genn’s Petronius (see below) might have occasionally suggested Dore Schary.

The culmination of this three-hour spectacle, based on an international best seller (1895) by a Polish Nobel prizewinner is, of course, Christians getting thrown to the lions or roasted at stakes as scapegoats for Nero having recently burned down Rome so he could write a tacky musical poem about it — leading Petronius, his main yes-man, after suavely slitting his wrist, to dictate a witty, urbane letter to his studio head in his dying breath, proclaiming that it’s perfectly okay to wipe out the multitudes, but does he have to produce bad art in the bargain? Of course the Roman masses don’t mind at all about filling up the gigantic stadium to be amused and entertained by the slaughter of these Jewish martyrs, which they’re happy to cheer and laugh at, at least until Robert Taylor tells them not to and to cheer the overthrow of Nero instead.… Read more »

Two (Out of Three) Luc Moullet Books & One DVD

This is plainly a bumper season for Luc Moullet, who recently had an exhaustive retrospective in Paris, the release of a DVD featuring ten of his best shorts (some of which might be considered his best films), and the publication of no less than three books by him: a book-length interview with Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (130 pages) and a long-overdue collection of his film criticism (372 pages), both published by Capricci (who were kind enough to send me copies), and a study of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (Le Rebelle de King Vidor: les arêtes vives) published by Yellow Now that I haven’t ordered because the cost of postage from French Amazon and FNAC virtually doubles the 11,88-Euro price.

By luck, the two Capricci books and Luc Moullet en shorts (which I did pay for, postage and all) both arrived in today’s mail, and in some ways the real jewel in the bunch — or at least the item I’ve been spending the most time with so far — is the collection, Pige Choisies (De Griffith à Ellroy), which interestingly enough uses the titles of two of his best shorts, Essai d’Ouverture and Le ventre de l’Amérique, in his Table of Contents.… Read more »