Yearly Archives: 2009

Michael Jackson and the Suspension of World History

Okay. I have to confess that Michael Jackson wasn’t an especially important figure to me, and in that respect it’s theoretically possible that I belong to some cranky minority that isn’t mourning his death around the clock. But even if he were as important to the history of music and art as Charlie Parker or Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra or Igor Stravinsky, I’d still find the sudden cable news blackout of everything currently happening in the world apart from his death a bit excessive and disturbing, and more than just a little infantile. It’s the same thing that happened in TV-Land when Sinatra and Reagan (two other revered entertainers) croaked, and one can sense a rather sickening feeling of happiness and excitement in the airways, uniting CNN, MSNBC, and, yes, even Fox News on the same euphoric wavelength that declares, in effect, and at long last, Iran doesn’t matter, the whole Middle East doesn’t matter, national health care doesn’t matter,  Governor Mark Sanford (who had everyone totally obsessed yesterday) doesn’t matter, Sonia Sotomayor doesn’t matter, global warming doesn’t matter, even Farah Fawcett doesn’t matter, because Michael is dead. What a blessed sense of release is to be found in this seeming collective grief, suddenly recognizing that we no longer have to worry or even think about the rest — or so, at least, assume CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News….… Read more »

The Online William K. Everson Collection (with updated links)

Thanks to a passing reference by Andy Rector on Girish’s excellent blog, I’ve just stumbled upon an invaluable online reference tool — the William K. Everson Collection, which has been set up by New York University’s Cinema Studies, where Everson taught from 1972 to 1996. As someone who used to attend some of the memorable screenings of The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society that were organized by Everson, at two or three of its separate locations, I’m especially delighted to recover some of the program notes he wrote for those events, such as those for F.W. Murnau’s rediscovered City Girl (a screening I attended) on March 2, 1970. In fact, the two most impressive individual archives to be found at this site are Everson’s voluminous program notes, beautifully cross-referenced and reproduced for easy access, and his collection of press kits. (There are also some other things here as well — including the photograph reproduced above, of Everson imitating Cesare in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set that was rebuilt inside the Cinémathèque Française’s Musée du Cinéma at the Palais de Chaillot.)

Everson’s immense value when he was alive was more his extraordinary generosity, the breadth of his knowledge as a film scholar, and his enthusiasm than his critical acumen, so there are times when one wants to quibble with some of the own opinions in his notes (such as his own quibbles about Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Stars in My Crown, for example).… 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 »

Recommended Reading: “Everybody’s Orson Welles”

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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 »

Jarmusch Unlimited: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

Even if he didn’t like Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, which I found immensely pleasurable and mesmerizing, I’m glad that Hollywood Reporter‘s Michael Rechtshaffen at least picked up on the fact that Bill Murray, who turns up very late in the film, is “channeling” Dick Cheney when he does. This is by no means a gratuitous detail. Trust a minimalist to make absences as important as presences. None of the characters in this movie is named, all of them are assigned labels in the cast list, and the only label assigned to Murray is “American”. Furthermore, unless I missed something, the European (specifically Spanish) landscape that Jarmusch and his cinematographer Chris Doyle capture so beautifully and variously, in diverse corners of Madrid and Seville, is otherwise utterly devoid of Americans of any kind — a significant statement in itself — until a foul-mouthed Murray makes his belated experience in a bunker, as ill-tempered as the American trade press is already being about this entrancing movie. Prior to that, we’re told repeatedly, in Spanish, by a good many others in the film, that he who tries to be bigger than all the others should go to the cemetery to understand a little bit better what life is: a handful of dust.… Read more »

On WINSTANLEY

The British Film Institute’s Roma Gibson recently contacted me about reprinting a review of Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1976) that I included in my “London Journal” for Film Comment (January-February 1976) with the BFI’s forthcoming DVD release of the film. I responded by requesting that she substitute a couple of lines from my Time Out capsule review of the same period for the last couple of lines in my already somewhat hyperbolic Film Comment review, and she agreed.

I thought it might be instructive for me to reproduce that composite review and then juxtapose it here with “Time Traveler” — my April 23, 1999 Chicago Reader review of Winstanley and Brownlow’s preceding feature, It Happened Here, which explains some of the polemical context that provoked some of the hyperbole in my earlier reviews.  —J.R.

 

 

 

There’s really not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it’s the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell (which it resembles in no other respect) and the best pre-twentieth-century historical film I can recall since The Rise of Louis XIV [Rossellini] or Straub-Huillet’s Bach film [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach]. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help it.… Read more »

A Piece of Folk Wisdom from Little Rock

I had a very pleasant time this past weekend in Little Rock attending the Arkansas Literary Festival and promoting my collection Essential Cinema there, at a very well-attended session hosted by the editor-in-chief of the Oxford American, Marc Smirnoff. I also enjoyed gobbling a good many hush puppies at Flying Fish, a hangout not far from my hotel on the river front. There was even an hour or two on Sunday, after the rain slackened, when I could take an old-fashioned streetcar ride across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock and back. This is where my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, once operated a movie theater called the Princess, roughly between 1916 and 1918, before he moved with his wife and son to Florence, Alabama and continued his career in movie exhibition there for another four decades. (My father had a dim memory of taking a streetcar from North Little Rock to Little Rock to see Intolerance when he was in the first grade.)

The only sour note I can recall during the weekend was making the mistake of opening a local newspaper while having breakfast Saturday morning and reading the lead letter to the editor, opposite the editorial page. This letter maintained that (1) hallucinogenic drugs were and should be illegal and (2) the worst of these drugs was socialized medicine, which, in spite of the wistfully misplaced idealism and delusions of people who believed in it, never worked and couldn’t work.… Read more »