Monthly Archives: January 2018

R.I.P., with thanks: FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983

Film The Front Line 1983

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.

FTFL1984

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 »

THEY CAUGHT THE FERRY (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, Vol. 43, No. 512. — J.R.

De Naede Faergen (They Caught the Ferry)

Denmark, 1948
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 »

VAMPYR (1976 review)

This review from the August 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin may represent my most exhaustive (and exhausting) attempt to extend the one-paragraph review format of that magazine almost to the point of infinity.  — J.R.

Vampyr: Die Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of David Gray)

Germany/France, 1932
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer

Cert — A. dist –– Cinegate. p.c –- Tobis-Klangfilm-France (Berlin-Paris)/Dreyer Filmproduktion (Paris). p –- Carl Th. Dreyer, Baron Nicolas de Gunsburg. asst. d –- Ralph Holm, Éliane Tayara, Preben Birck. sc -– Carl Th. Dreyer, Christen Jul. Inspired by the collection of stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. ph -– Rudolph Maté, Louis Née. ed –- Carl Th. Dreyer. a.d –- Hermann Warm, Hans Bitman, Cesare Silvagni. m -– Wolfgang Zeller. English titles -– Herman G. Weinberg. sd -– Hans Bittman. Post-synchronisation -– Paul Falkenberg. l.p -– Julian West [Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg] (David Gray), Henriette Gérard (Marguerite Chopin), Sybille Schmitz (Léone), Renée Mandel (Gisèle), Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor), Jan Hieronimko (Doctor), Jane Mora (Nurse), Albert Bras and A. Babanini (Servants at the Manor).… Read more »

En movimiento: Critical Taste versus Criticism

My column for the June 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

lapeaudouce

Although we often collapse the two into a single entity, it’s important to acknowledge that criticism and critical taste are far from identical or interchangeable.  It’s instructive that Godard today considers Truffaut more important as a critic than as a filmmaker, and equally provocative to learn from both Dudley Andrew’s biography of André Bazin  and the fascinating, lengthy interview with Resnais in Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s 2006 book Alain Resnais: Liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds  (Cahiers du Cinéma) that Resnais originally functioned as Bazin’s mentor on film history during the German Occupation, especially on the subject of silent cinema, when he used to carry his 9.5 mm projector on his bicycle in order to show silent movies at La Maison des Lettres  on rue des Ursulines, and Bazin, still fresh from the provinces, hadn’t yet encountered silent films in general or the early films of Fritz Lang in particular.

The Love Parade window

Unlike Bazin and Truffaut, Resnais was of course never a critic. Yet his critical taste was clearly every bit as central to his own films as Truffaut’s or Godard’s critical tastes and positions were to their own oeuvres.… Read more »

Kiss Me, Stupid/Billy Wilder

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 »

Summer Camp [STAR WARS: EPISODE 1 — THE PHANTOM MENACE & TREKKIES]

As far as I know, this is the only long review of mine for the Chicago Reader that isn’t on the Reader‘s web site, and consequently it wasn’t on this site, either, until I retyped it for inclusion here. It appeared in their May 17, 1999 issue. It’s also one of the pieces selected and translated into Farsi by Saeed Khamoush for the unauthorized collection of some of my Reader pieces that was published in Iran back in 2001. — J.R.

STAR WARS: EPISODE 1—THE

PHANTOM MENACE

**

Directed and written by George Lucas

With Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor,

Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid,

Pernilia August, Ahmed Best, Frank Oz,

Samuel L. Jackson, and Ray Park.

TREKKIES

0

Directed by Roger Nygard

The big question about the Star War series, and The Phantom Menace in particular, isn’t how much you like it but whether you love it. The issue is above all generational, and only secondarily a matter of aesthetic or ideological choices.

If you’re male and were born around 1989, the chances of you loving The Phantom Menace seem fairly high. If you’re male or female and were born around 1967, the chances of you loving it are probably almost as high.… Read more »

Wright in Japan [Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan]

This originally appeared in the July 22, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve slightly extended it here, pictorially as well as verbally, on February  8, 2010. — J.R.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION: **
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S
BUILDINGS AND LEGACY
IN JAPAN

DIRECTED BY KAREN SEVERNS
AND KOICHI MORI
WRITTEN BY SEVERNS
NARRATED BY AZBY BROWN AND
DONALD RICHIE

It’s widely known that Japan had a profound influence on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. But how many of us have the chance to discover that the reverse is also true? According to the commentary written by Chicago native Karen Severns for Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s  Buildings and Legacy In Japan — a 128-minute American documentary (2004) she made with her Japanese husband Koichi Mori, which also exists in a Japanese version —- the effort to distinguish between emulations and imitations of Wright in Japanese architecture criticism is no small affair, and “At one point, there were 32 Wright-related terms in the [Japanese] architectural lexicon.”

One could posit a certain analogy between this oscillating cultural exchange and a process set in motion by some young, maverick French film critics in the 50s. Their eccentric enthusiasm for some Hollywood directors produced a new kind of French cinema and French film criticism, and this wound up influencing 60s Hollywood and American film criticism in turn.… Read more »

Hollywood Unchained [SPARTACUS]

From the May 10, 1991 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

SPARTACUS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo

With Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and John Ireland.

“It has acres of dead people, more blood and gore than you ever saw in your whole life.

“In the final scene, Spartacus’s mistress, carrying her illegitimate baby, passes along the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified men on crosses.

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it.”

Despite these dire warnings from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper — and another from the American Legion, which sent a letter to its 17,000 local posts urging people to boycott the movie — Spartacus, released in 1960 and reportedly the most expensive movie ever shot in Hollywood, eventually turned a profit. It was even the top money-maker of 1962 after it went into general release — thereby, I suppose, making Commie symps of all of us who went to see it. It was the Kennedy era, and the blood and gore on view were pretty tame by today’s standards; for the record, the number of crucified men — rebel slaves — while high, is a good bit shy of 6,000.… Read more »

A View From The Past [VALLEY OF ABRAHAM]

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 »

Benilde, or The Virgin Mother

If memory serves, I wrote this for the Chicago International Film Festival’s catalogue in 2003 after I selected it as a Critic’s Choice to be shown at that festival. — J.R.

My first encounter with the stupefying talent and singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira — who turns 95 this December, and has been making at least one remarkable feature a year since 1990 —- was in 1981, when I saw his 1978 masterpiece Doomed Love, one of the greatest literary adaptations in the history of cinema. And when I had a chance to explore his work further, it was Carl Dreyer, the greatest of all narrative filmmakers, whom de Oliveira seemed to resemble the most: an eccentric, obsessive modernist who managed to make about one feature per decade during the sound era after starting out in silent cinema. At least that’s how it looked in the early 80s, when Doomed Love was only his fifth feature, and the film that immediately preceded it, Benilde (1975), was especially evocative of Dreyer in its spiritual ambiguity and its stylistic intensity, including its unabashed theatricality. It was adapted from a play of the mid-40s by José Régio — a writer who had enormous personal importance for de Oliveira, having written passionately about his first film, Douro, faina fluvial (1931), and then gone on to become a treasured friend and role model.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

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 »

The Universe in a Cellar (THE WIND WILL CARRY US)

This appeared in the December 8, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Wind Will Carry Us

****

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Written by Kiarostami and Mahmoud Ayedin

With Behzad Dourani, Farzad Sohrabi, Shahpour Ghobadi, Masood Mansouri, Masoameh Salimi, Bahman Ghobadi, Noghre Asadi, and Ali Reza Naderi.


Paradoxically, Americans still tend to demonize Iranians at a time when Iranian cinema is becoming almost universally recognized as the most ethical in the world. It’s another sign of how limited our understanding of life outside our borders is — which only makes the varied and comprehensive images of Iranian cinema more precious.

It’s true that censorship has helped shape Iranian cinema, but that censorship has had interesting consequences. Women film characters are required to wear chadors, but ordinary Iranian women don’t wear them indoors — which has led to a good many films being set mainly or exclusively in exteriors and focused on public life and social appearances, including all of Abbas Kiarostami’s features since his 1990 masterpiece Close-up. The pivotal title sequence of his most recent feature, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), opening at the Music Box this week, is set in a dark cellar — and that has a lot to do with what makes this scene metaphysical and momentous and poetically charged, even though practically nothing of consequence happens there.… Read more »

Blue-eyes Is Back [LAWRENCE OF ARABIA]

From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 1989). — J.R.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by David Lean

Written by Robert Bolt

With Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, and Omar Sharif.

Thanks to a meticulous restoration carried out by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten, working with a team of specialists that ultimately included director David Lean himself, Lawrence of Arabia has been rereleased in all its original glory in a version that includes some footage that wasn’t even seen by most of the film’s earliest audiences (the original road-show version, released in late 1962, was cut by about 20 minutes before it went into general release). I won’t dwell upon the complex detective work carried out by the restorers, except to note that in order to make the version currently playing as complete as possible, the original actors even redubbed some of their lines, which were then electronically altered so that their present voices would sound like their voices 27 years ago. Lean was also permitted to make a few minor modifications in the editing, so that the definitive version of this epic about the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence and his unorthodox military career is actually a “final cut” that incorporates practically all of the material that was in the original version.… Read more »

A Bankable Feast [BABETTE’S FEAST]

From the May 20, 1988 Chicago Reader.  — J.R.

BABETTE’S FEAST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gabriel Axel

With Stephane Audran, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gudmar Wivesson, Jarl Kulle, Hanne Stensgard, Bodil Kjer, Vibeke Hastrup, and Birgitte Federspiel.

Only when she had lost what had constituted her life, her home in Africa and her lover, when she had returned home to Rungstedlund a complete “failure” with nothing in her hands except grief and sorrow and memories, did she be come the artist and the “success” she never would have become otherwise — “God loves a joke,” and divine jokes, as the Greeks knew so well, are often cruel ones. What she then did was unique in contemporary literature though it could be matched by certain nineteenth century writers — Heinrich Kleist’s anecdotes and short stories and some tales of Johann Peter Hebel, especially Unverhofftes Wiedersehen come to mind. Eudora Welty has defined it definitively in one short sentence of utter precision: “Of a story she made an essence; of the essence she made an elixir; and of the elixir she began once more to compound the story.” — Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

When Ernest Hemingway accepted his Nobel prize in 1954, he was gracious enough to acknowledge that it should have gone to Isak Dinesen instead.… Read more »

Gypsy Melodies

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1995). –J.R.

Latcho Drom

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tony Gatlif.

If you haven’t heard of Latcho Drom — an exuberant and stirring Gypsy musical, filmed in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound in eight countries on three separate continents — you shouldn’t be surprised. Although the movie has been wending its way across the planet for the past couple of years and picking up plenty of enthusiasts en route, it has at least three commercial strikes against it, any one of which would probably suffice to keep it out of the mainstream despite its accessibility. The first two of these are the words “Gypsy” and “musical”; the third is the fact that it qualifies as neither documentary nor fiction, thereby confounding critics and other packagers.

These “problems,” I hasten to add, are what make the picture pleasurable, thrilling, and important; but media hype to the contrary, sales pitches and audience enjoyment aren’t always on the same wavelength. Though this movie is so powerful you virtually have to force yourself not to dance during long stretches of it, that fact doesn’t translate easily into a 30-second prime-time spot or a review in a national magazine (though CNN did devote a four-minute feature to Latcho Drom some time ago).… Read more »