Last month, roughly thirty-five years after its publication, the small, Denver-based publisher Arden Press finally declared my book Film: The Front Line 1983 out of print, with 192 copies remaining in stock. A commissioned work designed to launch an annual series surveying independent and experimental filmmaking, it yielded only one other volume after my own, David Ehrenstein’s equally useful Film: The Front Line 1984— which, like my book, can still be readily found at bargain prices at Amazon and elsewhere.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about some of the disgruntled patches of score-settling and related polemics in my book, although there are other patches that I still like. A few chapters have already been posted on this site, and I expect that others will follow.
To the best of my recollection, I found copies of this book on the shelves of only two bookstores: the long-gone Coliseum Books (1974-2007) just below Columbus Circle in New York, the same year (1983) it was published, and the first bookstore I ever walked into, quite at random, in Melbourne–still recovering from jetlag, and not quite believing my eyes–on the first of my three visits to Australia, in 1996. I’m sorry that I no longer remember the name of that store, because it certainly made my day.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, Vol. 43, No. 512. — J.R.
De Naede Faergen (They Caught the Ferry)
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Dist–Guild Sound & Vision. p.c–Ministeriernes Filmudvalg. sc–Carl Th. Dreyer. Derived from a work by Johannes V. Jensen. ph–Jørgen Roos. ed–Carl Th. Dreyer. sd–Jorgen Roos. l.p–(not credited). 408 ft. 11 mins. (16 mm.).
Behind the credits, accompanied by the ominous sound of three beats on a kettledrum, a ferry arrives at the Assens-Aarøsund landing. After some reverse-angle cuts between ferry and landing, a motorcyclist on board asks the captain about the next departure of the ferry on the other side of the island. ToId that it leaves in forty-five minutes but that he’ll never make it — the other ferry being seventy-five kilometres away — the man replies, “I must get it” and, with a female companion clinging to his waist, drives off the boat behind a line of other cyclists.
He quickly accelerates from 40 to 80 km. per hour, and his race down a country road is illustrated by moving shots which alternate his viewpoint (passing trees, close-ups of speedometer) with ‘objective’ angles (shots behind or ahead of his bike, close-ups of wheels).… Read more »
KISS ME, STUPID, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Wilder, with Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, and Cliff Osmond (1964, 126 min.)
A fresh look at one of Billy Wilder’s most underrated films clarifies for me two essential facts about it for the first time: (1) It seems likely that this masterpiece mainly received a C or “condemned” rating from the Legion of Decency because of its scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of American small-town life and the corruption of big-time media, not because of its depiction of sex per se. (2) Wilder’s return to the American Southwest after his earlier Ace in the Hole (1951) is in fact a return to these very same topics, seen with a no less jaundiced eye — something Wilder was apparently fully aware of, as signaled by a virtual quote of a shot from the previous film: Dean Martin in the driving seat of a car being towed replicates Kirk Douglas in the driving seat of his own car being towed.
If Robert Osborne on TCM is to be believed, the previous C rating bestowed by the Legion of Decency prior to Kiss Me, Stupid was eight years before — which would make it Baby Doll (1956).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.
Valley of Abraham
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira
With Leonor Silveira, Cecile Sanz de Alba, Luis Miguel Cintra, Rui de Carvalho, Luis Lima Barreto, Diogo Doria, Jose Pinto, and Isabel Ruth.
I think the most important intellectual discovery I’ve made in the past year came from the early pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. In a way, it’s an observation so obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: “Unlike the ‘long 19th century,’ which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress…there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population….Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.”… Read more »
From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. — J.R.
How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.
1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1987). –- J.R.
The Rotterdam Festival is gradually expanding in scope and attendance, while its survival seems to become increasingly polemical and precarious. Now in its 16th edition, the festival continues to honor its director Hubert Bals’ stubborn, utopian precept that, ‘An audience should be found for a film, not a film for an audience.’
Thus, while Libération critic Serge Daney was lecturing persuasively on the growing impossibility of critics mediating between films and audiences, it was possible to watch a videotape, Joan Does Dynasty, in which New York critic Joan Braderman, with the aid of Manuel De Landa’s computer graphics, does precisely that for the TV series.She appears in front of Dynasty in different sizes, shapes and positions, from diverse angles and with varying degrees of transparency, and delivers an exuberant, madcap critique of the show. Part of a cycle of low-budget, leftist media critiques known as Paper Tiger Television which appears on us public access cable and boasts more than a hundred titles in its catalogue, Braderman’s pungent intellectual stand-up is the likely formal masterpiece of a variable, slapdash series ranging from the unfocused and obvious (Peter Wollen on the U.S.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). MUBI has offered this film in the past. — J.R.
Scripted and directed by Ko I-Chen — a member of the Taiwanese new wave best known as an actor outside of Taiwan, particularly for his role in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story — this exciting 1997 feature, Lan yue, consists of five 20-minute reels designed to be shown in any order, so that 120 versions of the film are possible. (Ko wrote all five scripts simultaneously, on different colored sheets of paper.) In most respects this is a conventional, even commercial narrative feature, which makes for what I like most about it — it demands the viewer’s creative participation at the same time that it pretends to satisfy all the usual expectations. All five reels feature more or less the same characters and settings — including a young woman, a writer, a film producer, and a restaurant owner, all of whom live in Taipei and belong to the same circle — but in each reel the woman is involved with one of two men. One can construct a continuous narrative by positing some reels as flashbacks, as flash-forwards, or as events that transpire in a parallel universe.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1992). — J.R.
A dirgelike Hungarian thriller by Gyorgy Feher about the search for a serial killer whose victims are little girls. The striking visual style (high-contrast black-and-white cinematography by Miklos Gurban) and creepy pacing tend to dominate the plot so thoroughly that I found myself tuning the narrative out and not being terribly worried about what I was missing. While the slow-as-molasses dialogue delivery and camera movements superficially suggest Tarkovsky (or, closer to home, Bela Tarr’s Damnation), Feher’s script and mise en scene are considerably more mannerist — employed more to conjure an atmosphere than to convey a particular vision or a distinctive moral universe. The closest American equivalent to this sort of exercise might be Rumble Fish: sumptuous visuals that impart more filigree than substance (1990). (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (October 6, 1997). — J.R.
Another whimper from playwright Wallace Shawn about the fall of civilization — seen, as usual, more in terms of class than of intellect or aesthetics. References to such touchstones as John Donne and croquet contrive to suggest that maybe a little more than the takeover of the New Yorker by Tina Brown is at stake, but maybe not; the triumph of lowbrow vulgarity is perceived as the ultimate demise of mankind. Director David Hare films the play in its basic stage setting, three characters seated at a table, and trusts the pampered anguish of the material — the bemused and guilt-ridden but unquenchable sense of entitlement — to speak paradoxically for all of us. Mike Nichols, in his first screen performance, does a compelling job in the title role, his wide range of cartoon impersonations running the gamut from matinee-idol tics to scowls and nasal whines that evoke Shawn himself. Much flatter turns by Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser succeed only in flaunting the self-absorbed limitations of the play’s vision. If this is the way the world ends, I think I’d rather see it out with Schwarzenegger or Jim Carrey — anything but this dull pomposity.… Read more »
It’s depressing to recall that Karl Hess: Toward Liberty (1979) wound up winning an Oscar, but this was of course on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s first landslide election as Big Daddy/Rich Uncle. This polemic appeared in the October 8, 1980 issue of The Soho News, and might be considered one of the first glimmers of a more extended argument that would eventually yield the book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See two decades later. I’ve often speculated, incidentally, if my final sentence might have had anything to do with my never having been invited to the Telluride Film Festival — the current codirector of which, Tom Luddy, was working for Coppola at the time. (I can still recall an angry phone call from Tom during this period that insisted I was dead wrong in taking Coppola as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. Much later, I should add, in 1987, Tom himself produced one of Godard’s most underrated and neglected features, King Lear.) –J.R.
Hollywood or Bust
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
What do you want to know about the Seventh Annual Student Film Awards — presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and AT&T — that a critic could possibly tell you?… Read more »
Perhaps the closest I’ve come to writing theater criticism are the two reviews I did of the “American Film Theatre” productions of The Homecoming and The Maids in successive issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1976 — a good filming and adaptation of a good play and a terrible filming and adaptation of what I consider an even greater play. So I’m reproducing these two reviews back to back. — J.R.
U.S.A./Great Britain, 1973
Director: Peter Hall
An attempt, largely successful, to approximate Peter Hall’s original stage version of The Homecoming in London (1965) and New York (1967), with only two cast changes: Cyril Cusack as Sam in place of John Normington, and Michael Jayston as Teddy in place of two previous Michaels –- Craig (New York) and Bryant (London). The outsized living room continues to function as a sort of masterpiece of hyper-realism, and the cast remains uniformly superb; if memory serves correctly, Paul Rogers has made Max somewhat nastier this time around while Ian Holm’s Lenny has become marginally more charismatic, and both of these changes seem to work to the play’s advantage in terms of overall balance. The only concessions to “opening out” the action are a few establishing or continuity shots of the street outside, some pointless glimpses of Ruth taking her walk, and brief forays into the kitchen.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1999). — J.R.
Louis Malle’s seven-part, 378-minute 1968 documentary series is one of my favorites among his works. His upper-class misanthropy and morbidity usually alienate me, but this essayistic travel diary avoids any pretense of objectivity in order to present itself as a highly personal search — narrated in excellent English by Malle himself in the version I’ve seen, but in French with subtitles in this version. In the first episode he addresses the problem of everyone he meets in India describing the country in Western terms, then goes on to reflect on how his filmmaking affects his subjects; from there he takes in everything from a water buffalo being devoured by vultures to interviews with a few European hippies about why they’re in India. With his wide-ranging but rambling approach Malle undoubtedly misses or skimps on certain topics, but his mercurial intelligence keeps this lively and fascinating. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2006). — J.R.
Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece but also one of the greatest love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Also on the program: episode eight of the 1938 serial The Spider’s Web. Sat 9/2, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.
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From Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 494). — J.R.
Great Britain, 1974 Directors: Peter Neal, Anthony Stern
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Cert–X (London). dist–Focus. p.c–Al0K Pictures Ltd. p–David
Speechley. ed–Peter Neal, Misha Norland. m/songs–“Please Be Kind”
performed by Django Reinhardt; “The Man I Love” by George Gershwin,
Ira Gershwin, performed by Django Reinhardt; “Honeysuckle Rose”,
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” by and performed by Fats Waller; “Adagio in G
Minor” by Albinoni; “Don’t Be a Baby” performed by Ahmed Rai,
Betty Underwood; “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog” by and performed by
Meade Lux Lewis; “Cabaret Echoes” performed by Anthony Parenti’s
Famous Melody Boys; “Charlie Is My Darling” performed by Black
Dyke Mills Band; “No One But the Right Man Can Do Me Wrong”
performed by Sophie Tucker; “Animals’ Ball” performed by Lizzie
Miles; “My Canary’s Got Circles Under His Eyes” performed by Elsie
Carlisle; “Shy Guy” performed by Nat Cole Trio; “Londonola”
performed by Roy Fox; “Boogie Woogie at the Civic Opera” by and
performed by Albert Ammons; “My Old Man” performed by Lilly
Morris; “With My Little Ukelele in My Hand” performed by George
Formby; piece by Ivy Benson Orchestra. titles–Ray Cowell, Freeman
May Studio Ltd.