Yearly Archives: 2009

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 »

Two George Landow/Owen Land Films

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.

WIDE ANGLE SAXON (1976)

This comic short by Owen Land from 1976 could
conceivably be regarded as the Hellzapoppin of the
American experimental film. Just as Hellzapoppin
alludes to the then-contemporary Citizen Kane,
Wide Angle Saxon includes a parody of Hollis
Frampton’s 1971 (nostalgia), called Regrettable Redding
Condescension
(alluding to Land’s own 1971 Remedial
Reading Comprehension), which is credited in
turn to one “Al Rutcurts” (i.e., the word «structural»
spelled backwards). But to complicate matters considerably
(if quite obscurely), Land (or George Landow,
as he was known at the time) converted to fundamentalist
Christianity shortly before making this film,
and we are told at the outset that this film’s nominal
hero, “Earl Greaves,” has recently had a religious
conversion as well.

ON THE MARRIAGE BROKER JOKE AS CITED BY SIGMUND FREUD IN WIT AND

ITS RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS, OR CAN THE AVANT-GARDE ARTIST

BE WHOLED? (1979)

Owen Land continues his obscure blend of deconstructive slapstick and

various issues arising from his then-recent conversion to fundamentalist

Christianity in this puzzling if hilarious 17-minute short, during which

a “panderer” in one of the textual interpretations of the Marriage Broker

Joke becomes corrupted into “panda,” and then two men in panda suits

proceed to make a structural film about Japanese salted plums -– or

something like that.… Read more »

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles)

Not so much a fantasy as a fantasia, Alain Resnais’ first novel adaptation, his second adaptation (after Mélo) and, unless my memory fails me, his fifth film in CinemaScope (after Le chant du styrène, Last Year at Marienbad, L’amour à mort, and Private Fears in Public Places), this brittle comedy may also be the most purely surrealist of all his films, especially in its emphasis on irrational impulses (as well as its non-sequitur final shot). And the fact that it’s often creepy (as well as very personal) is surely more of a plus than a minus; it hasn’t been acknowledged nearly enough that Resnais’ best and most beautiful films — including Statues Also Die, Toute la mémoire du monde, Le chant du styrène, Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, Marienbad, Muriel, Providence, Mon oncle d’Amérique, Mélo, and Not on the Lips, among others — usually turn out to be his creepiest. (An exception to this rule is L’amour à mort, which is exceptionally creepy but also far from Resnais’ best.)

Seen twice on Friday at the New York Film Festival — first at a press screening, then at the $40 opening — this is a film whose pastel hues and intricate color coding (e.g.,… Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS Reconsidered

Written for the BFI DVD release of The Gold Diggers in 2009. — J.R.

A quarter of a century after its initial unfriendly reception, it’s worth puzzling over why a film as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as Sally Potter’s first feature could have given so much offense to certain spectators in 1983. The recoil was so unforgiving in some quarters that Potter, after touring extensively with the film, came to seriously question it herself — or at least the wisdom of having made it, insofar as it was already threatening to end her ambitious career in filmmaking almost before it had properly started, thereby eventually persuading her to withdraw the film from circulation. (By contrast, the exceptional success of her 34-minute Thriller in 1979, an unpacking of Puccini’s La Bohème, made with many of the same collaborators — most notably Colette Laffont, Lindsay Cooper, and Rose English — had clearly heightened her expectations.) Now that it’s belatedly becoming available again on DVD, it’s more than entitled to a fresh look — including a consideration of what originally perturbed some people about it.

Even after one totes up all of the most obvious of the possible objections that could be raised against The Gold Diggers — boredom, anti-feminist backlash, envy of other independent filmmakers for Potter’s lavish funding from the National Film Board, pretentiousness, allegorical and metaphorical density, sheer difficulty (as Ruby Rich, a sympathetic analyst, put it in her 1998 book Chick Flicks, `Its commitment to narrative [is] minor’) — the inability or refusal of many viewers to grasp or even notice The Gold Diggers’ no less obvious and unassailable strengths continues to confound me.… 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 »

Masterpiece Alert (UN SOIR, UN TRAIN) (updated)

I just saw a great film tonight for the first time, the second feature of the Belgian surrealist André Delvaux (1926-2002), known in English as One Night…A Train, with Yves Montand and Anouk Aimée,which dates from 1968. It starts off as something quite ordinary and gradually gets weirder and crazier, winding up eventually somewhere in the vicinity of both Kafka and Tarkovsky (the latter in his Stalker mode). It isn’t available commercially, but you can download it for free, and with English subtitles, from The Pirate Bay, a very nifty site where you also can download Rivette’s complete Out 1 with English subtitles, and you can also watch the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

The film is adapted from a novella by Johan Daisne, who also wrote the source novel of Delvaux’s previous feature, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965). I’m less fond of that film than I am of Delvaux’s second feature and his third, Rendez-vous à Bray (1971), which I recently described on this site as my favorite Belgian feature. Rendez-vous à Bray is also based on a very mysterious novella, in this case a Gothic tale by Julien Gracq set during World War 1, although it isn’t really a war film.… Read more »

The Humanity of the Defeated: GERMANY YEAR ZERO

Written in September 2009 for a Criterion’s DVD box set devoted to Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy, released a few months later. — J.R.

Unlike the more aesthetically and intellectually conceived French New Wave, Italian neorealism was above all an ethical initiative — a way of saying that people were important, occasioned by a war that made many of them voiceless, faceless, and nameless victims. But this was, of course, a conviction that carried plenty of aesthetic and intellectual, as well as spiritual, consequences, including some that we’re still mulling over today.

Deliberately or not, Germany Year Zero concludes Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy by posing a kind of philosophical conundrum, a fact already signaled by its title, which he borrowed, with permission, from a book by French sociologist Edgar Morin. It was a title that stumped even Joseph Burstyn and Arthur Mayer, the American producers of Rome Open City and Paisan, and the fact that Rossellini, characteristically trusting his instincts, refused to say what he meant by it eventually encouraged them to back out of the project, which was largely financed by the French government.… Read more »

Alexis A. Tioseco, R.I.P.

I no longer recall who snapped this deliberately lopsided photo of Oliver Baumgarten (left), Alexis Tioseco (right), and me in spring 2007, when the three of us were the entire FIPRESCI jury at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Our prize that year went to an eye-popping masterpiece, Amit Dutta’s Kramasha (To Be Continued…), from India which later became one of the five late (2007) entries to my list of all-time favorite films in the Afterword of the second edition of my collection Essential Cinema — and discovering that great film with Alexis was for me the absolute high point of the festival.

As some of you have heard by now, Alexis, who was 28, and his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc, who was almost 30 and another very talented film critic, were murdered yesterday in their home in Quezon City, the Philippines, apparently by burglars. Nika, whom I also knew, but less well, had only recently moved there from Ljubljana, Slovenia; Gabe Klinger has just posted a very tender and affectionate piece about both of them a few hours ago. And for the moment, at least, one can still access Alexis’ excellent web site, Criticine. (Postscript, 9/3/09: Adrian Martin writes from Melbourne that Nika’s own Ekran blog, also [mostly] in English, which I haven’t encountered until now, “with many fine pieces, is still also accessible”.)… 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 »

TV News and the Myth of Public Opinion (Kinsley vs. Borneman)

Fourteen years ago, the underrated (or at least undervalued) Michael Kinsley reported in The New Yorker (“The Intellectual Free Lunch,” February 6, 1995, reprinted in his collection Big Babies) on a reputable survey that found that “75 percent of Americans believe that the United States spends ‘too much’ on foreign aid, and 64 percent want foreign-aid spending cut.” (“Apparently,” Kinsley added as an aside, “a cavalier 11 percent of Americans think it’s fine to spend ‘too much’ on foreign aid.”)

The same people were asked how much of the federal budget went to foreign aid, and “The median answer was 15 percent; the average answer was 18 percent.” But “the correct answer is less than 1 percent: the United States government spends about $14 billion a year on foreign aid (including military assistance) out of a total budget of $1.5 trillion.” When asked about how much foreign-aid spending would be “appropriate,” the median answer was 5 percent of the budget; and the median answer to how much would be “too little” was 3 percent, i.e. over three times the actual amount spent.

Kinsley then adds, “This poll is less interesting for what is shows about foreign aid than for what it shows about American democracy.… 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 »