My column for the Spring 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Let me start with a correction and adjustment to the final entry in my last column, furnished by Chris Fujiwara and relating to the appearance of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 131-minute The Honey Pot (1967) on a Kino Lober Blu-ray:
“When I did my stint at the Frieda Grafe favorite films series at Arsenal in Berlin two or three years ago, they showed a good 35mm print of The Honey Pot that ran about 150 minutes. It had a BBFC [British Board of Film Censors] card on it and it came from Park Circus. (By the way I took detailed notes of the differences from the DVD version, which I had recently watched several times.)….The cutting that was done to the film to get it down to 131 minutes was quite extensive and elaborate. In a few cases whole scenes were cut out (including scenes with the three ex-lovers, and a scene showing Cliff Robertson at work as a male escort). But a good deal of the shortening was done by cutting out individual shots or parts of shots from scenes that are otherwise kept in. Not only the rhythm but also the tone and the thematic content of these scenes are changed, sometimes drastically….It’s… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 1992). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm
With Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, and Andrew Bryniarski.
Even the title of Batman Returns is something of a lie, referring not to the fictional world of the story — where Batman can’t be said to return because he’s never been away — but to the dent this sequel is supposed to make in our lives. But how much of a dent can it make when it has virtually no characters, no plot, no fictional world, no mise en scene, no ideas, no developed feelings, no inspiration, no adventure, no sense of inner necessity beyond its status as an investment and marketing tool? It’s arrested development on every possible level.
Like everyone else who squeezed into Webster Place’s after-midnight shows on opening night, I was primed for some sort of revelation, however minor. It didn’t have to be elation; a good dose of mean-spirited negativity might have sufficed. I was ready for anything that could qualify as a mood changer — or barring that, a simple harking back to the original Batman, which had plenty of flaws but at least could boast the demonic vigor of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and his nihilistic media crimes, and a certain obsessional uniformity of mood and decor.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 2, 1990). — J.R.
MEN DON’T LEAVE ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Paul Brickman
Written by Barbara Benedek and Brickman
With Jessica Lange, Chris O’Donnell, Charlie Korsmo, Arliss Howard, Joan Cusack, and Kathy Bates.
A central part of Paul Brickman’s talent as a director, apart from his skill with actors, is the use he’s made in his two features of the throbbing, semieuphoric rhythmic monotony of New Age music as a kind of figured bass to the melodic flights of his mise en scene. A master in orchestrating precise cuts, unorthodox camera angles, and camera movements that propel or embellish his story telling, Brickman may depend in part on slightly shopworn plots and familiar generic characters, at least as putative starting points. But he scores almost every time he articulates a fancy transition or highlights a telling detail, occasionally setting the story slightly adrift as he draws us into these lyrically abstract interludes. And the musical regularity of his scores — by Tangerine Dream in Risky Business (1983) and by Thomas Newman (son of Alfred and cousin of Randy) in Men Don’t Leave — tends to protect these well-crafted maneuvers, providing them with a kind of safety net (or, to alter the metaphor slightly, trampoline) from which he can make his expressive leaps.… Read more »
From American Film (September 1979). –- J.R.
Academic film conferences in the United States seem to be growing more plentiful every year. But there’s only one that can properly be called a theory conference, where theorists congregate, report on works in progress, and generally talk shop. It takes place in Milwaukee, at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Twentieth Century Studies, usually when there’s still snow on the ground. A few avant-garde filmmakers also traditionally turn up to show their latest wares and join in the discussions.
For academics, the conference functions as a combined brainstorming session, trade fair, and social gathering. For an interested outside observer, it can offer still another way of keeping up — by serving as a kind of barometer of intellectual currents in both films and film studies.
Last year the topic was “The Cinematic’ Apparatus: Technology as Historical and Ideological Form,” and the main attraction was papers by and discussions with many of the reputed superstars of film theory, ranging from Jean-Louis Comolli and Christian Metz [see below] to Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey. This year the title was “Cinema and Language,” and although there was a lot of both to be squeezed into four days, it was the movies shown that left the strongest impression.… Read more »
This book review, which I’ve alluded to previously on this site, appeared in the November 2, 1980 issue of The Soho News. —J.R.
Under the Sign of Sontag
Under the Sign of Saturn
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.95
If, dialectically speaking, every book can be said to have an unconscious — a repressed subtext — one can find glimpses of the unconscious of this one in the misleading flap copy that quotes from an interview (“Women, the Arts, and the Politics of Culture,” Salmagundi 31-32) and mentions the inclusion of a “famous exchange on fascism and feminism” (apparently with Adrienne Rich, in the March 20, 1975 New York Review of Books), both regrettably missing from this slim volume of seven essays.
These omissions betray the absence of a gritty, indecorous social context — a sense of Sontag existing in the world, not merely staging grand Platonic shadow-plays in the theater of her mind. Much as Illness as Metaphor (1978) was partially structured around her refusal to allude once to her own personal struggle, this book discreetly, indirectly dances around the notion that the subject of every essay proposes a different kind of mirror to the author, a speculative self-portrait.… Read more »
If memory serves, this essay, which first appeared in the Winter 1985/86 issue of Sight and Sound, and was later reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), took me at least a year to write — and maybe even longer than that — because of all the research it required. I’ve recently revised the title slightly from “GERTRUD as Nonnarrative” to “Gertrud as Nonnarrative” because my basic argument concerns the character Gertrud rather than the film as a whole. — J.R.
There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.
Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle.… Read more »
From The Financial Times (July 4, 1975); this was the first of my two annual weekly film columns for that newspaper, replacing Nigel Andrews as his “deputy” while he was away.
A couple of asides: I had attended the press conference at Cannes for The Panic in Needle Park, and recall being disturbed by the heartlessness with which Didion and Dunne described their dispassionate and seemingly indifferent “research” about New York addicts. And on the matter of Mizoguchi, I would no longer define Yang Kwei Fei as any sort of “masterwork,” and am still making up my mind about Street of Shame.–- J.R.
To score or not to score
The Panic in Needle Park (X)
Diagnosis: Murder (A)
Brewster McCloud (A)
Ugetsu Monogatari (X)
National Film Theatre
Of the two new releases on offer this week, The Panic in Needle Park is the better of an impossibly gloomy choice. Arriving here four years after its premiere at the Cannes Festival (where its female lead, Kitty Winn, was awarded Best Actress prize) — a delay apparently caused by its graphic depiction of heroin rituals being deemed unfit for local consumption — it offers at least one potential source of interest which was less evident in 1971: Al Pacino in his first major movie role.… Read more »
Most of what makes this 1986 Robert Mugge documentary, named after Rollins’ best early album and produced by his late wife Lucille (seen above), so special is Sonny Rollins himself — currently approaching his 87th birthday — as a performer and improviser and his irrepressible stamina and power, combined with his choreographic skill in standing, walking, leaping, and tilting every which way while he plays his tenor sax and pours out his endless inventions. I’ve often thought in the past that jazz vibes players are the most cinematic of performers, because they can only play vibes by dancing, but Rollins has the rare and paradoxical capacity of doing the same thing while looming before us like a veritable mountain. At one point we even see him breaking his heel after leaping from the stage but continuing to play while lying on his back.
The most memorable portions of Saxophone Colossus are two rollicking numbers, “G-Man” and (more abbreviated) “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” performed by Rollins with his quintet at Opus 40, the 6.5-acre environmental sculpture in Saugerties, N.Y. (see above) by the late Harvey Fite (1903-1976), who founded the fine arts program at my alma mater, Bard College. Less memorable to see and hear are portions of a concerto with a symphony orchestra performed at a premiere in Tokyo — not the sort of Third Stream monstrosity one might imagine, but still a composition that unavoidably reins Rollins in, both musically and gymnastically, at the same time that it inflates his cultural profile.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1993). — J.R.
Blues buffs have some genuine cause for rejoicing: Robert Mugge’s 1991 documentary about blues performers in the Mississippi Delta, made for England’s Channel Four, contains some of the best blues I’ve ever heard or seen on film. Using blues critic and historian Robert Palmer — accompanied by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) — as tour guide, the film proceeds from a sadly gentrified Beale Street in Memphis to funky Mississippi outposts like Holly Springs, Greenville, Clarksdale, and Betonia, where we’re treated to brief interviews with and extended live performances by Booker T. Laury, R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and the Playboys, “Big” Jack Johnson, Jack Owens, Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford. Palmer wears his erudition lightly, but he’s very good on the African origins of such things as the word “juke” and the homemade blues instrument called the diddly bow. This isn’t anything special as cinema, but if you’re into blues it’s a bonanza. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 15 through 21)
… Read more »
From the Boston Phoenix (September 15, 1989). — J.R.
This enjoyable documentary about American comic books takes up a subject so fruitful and entertaining, it’s surprising no one has ever made such a film before. Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann — whose previous cultural investigations include feature-length documentaries about avant-garde jazz (Imagine the Sound) and North American poets who sing and chant their works (Poetry in Motion), and who is currently preparing a feature about the Twist — dives into his chosen turf with the zeal and affection of a voracious fan.
Starting out with the inception of comic books, in 1933, Mann gives us breezy surveys of the superheroes (such as Superman, Batman, and the Fantastic Four), EC Comics (which produced the best horror and sci-fi comics in the 50s and spawned the original version of Mad), the underground artists (such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodrigues) who emerged in the 60s, and more recent figures such as Art Spiegelman, Sue Coe, and Lynda Barry, as well as the deliberations and operations of Raw, a contemporary publicatiin with a somewhat more self-conscious notion of the comic book as art.
Some of Mann’s funniest material is archival footage of anti-comic-book propaganda from the 50s, when Dr.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 1989). — J.R.
DAFFY DUCK’S QUACKBUSTERS
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon
With Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie, Sylvester the Cat, J.P. Cubish, and the voice of Mel Blanc.
It seems more a matter of confusion at Warner Brothers than either poetic justice or business acumen that has denied this triumphant new cartoon feature a theatrical opening in Chicago, although it has recently become available here on video. After a limited if successful run in a New York theater last fall and several scattered theatrical play dates elsewhere in the U.S., Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters has entered the vast no-man’s-land of new features that are available for the most part only on tape, never having received the mainstream attention routinely accorded to other, mainly inferior, Hollywood releases.
Recycled Hollywood classics are very much in evidence right now, in a variety of forms, but this postmodernist conflation — consisting of nuggets from nine earlier Warner Brothers cartoons, two more-recent ones, and a generous amount of new material — displays a critical intelligence and a creative energy that were not apparent in such previous compilations as The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales, and Daffy Duck’s Movie: Fantastic Island.… Read more »
From the Boston Phoenix (September 8, 1989). — J.R.
I haven’t seen Martin Donovan’s first feature, 1984’s State of Wonder, but his eclectic background in both fikm and theater suggests that a baroque thriller like Apartment Zero isn’t coming out of nowhere. Born in Argentina, Donovan began his overseas career in Italy, as an actor (Fellini’s Satyricon) and an assistant to Luchino Visconti (on Ludwig and Conversation Piece). Then he founded his own theater company in England, Nuvact Studio Inyternational (where his productions included Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and his own play, Osterich), before writing and directiung State of Wonder.
Apartment Zero marks Domnovan’s return to Argentina, and the film’s multinational cast and crew bring together co-workers from three continents. Its disquieting suspense plot begins with the bizarre bonding of a reclusive, repressed eccentric named Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth), who operates a film club in Buenos Aires, and a charismatic, mysterious American named Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), whom LeDuc takes on as a tenant to help cover his mother’s hospital expenses.
The movie takes its time developing its perverse plot — which involves a series of serial murders in Buenos Aires and the employment of foreign mercenaries in Argentina’s death squads.… Read more »