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
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 (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)
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 (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.
From Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 494). — J.R.
Great Britain, 1974 Directors: Peter Neal, Anthony Stern
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.