Monthly Archives: March 2018

Esoterica

The year is 1921, the place Sylvia Beach’s celebrated Shakespeare and Company, publisher of the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rue de l’Odéon, Paris. The figures, reading from left to right, are John Rodker, James Joyce, Sylvia Beach, and her younger sister Cyprian — the only one shown reading, to whom Sylvia dedicated the first edition of Ulysses.

In a review of Sylvia Beach’s letters by James Campbell in the March 19 issue of the Times Literary Supplement I learn that Cyprian “played `Belles Mirettes’ in the French silent film series Judex“. After some rummaging around, I discover that, in fact, `Miss Cyprien Giles’ played Gaby Belles Mirettes, a member of a criminal gang, in La Nouvelle Mission de Judex (1918), the only one of Louis Feuillade’s major crime serials I’ve never seen, and, according to the Internet Movie Database, appeared later in The Fortune Teller (1920), L’aiglonne (1921), and L’amie d’enfance (1922). And from Campbell’s review I learn that “she later lived with a somewhat better-known actress, Helen Jerome Eddy” (see photo below) — an actress who lived from 1897 to 1990 and who, according to the same IMDB, appeared in 130 films (not always credited) between 1915 and 1947, including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Man’s Castle, and Bride of Frankenstein.… Read more »

Social Climbing (THE AGE OF INNOCENCE)

This remains one of the most controversial reviews I ever published in the Chicago Reader (it ran in their September 17, 1993 issue) — occasioning many outcries, especially for my use of the term “drooling paisan” (although many others also quarreled with my point about apostrophes). No one, however, seemed to have had any quarrels with my treatment of Edith Wharton. — J.R.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Stuart Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, and Norman Lloyd.

Martin Scorsese clearly intends The Age of Innocence — his close adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about wealthy New York society in the 1870s — to earn him a bouquet of Oscars. But the high literary tone was somewhat blown for me by the opening title, immediately following a lush credits sequence of flower blossoms unfurling behind dainty fabric: “New York City, the 1870’s.” That superfluous apostrophe doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that Scorsese is the ideal interpreter of Edith Wharton.

Fortunately the movie improves after that, but never to the point that one can entirely forget that slip at the beginning. If the project winds up a noble failure, testifying throughout to Scorsese’s resourcefulness in plowing through an impossible mission — much better to my taste than Cape Fear, and considerably more likable (if less successful) than GoodFellas — it may be because the subject is diametrically opposed to what he usually does best as a filmmaker.… Read more »

Orson Welles: The Consumerist Version

Published under a different title in the online Barnes and Noble Review (May 18, 2010). — J.R.

John Baxter’s new Foreword to the 1956 novelization of Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, aptly called “No Pilot Known,” correctly discloses on its penultimate page that the novel was actually written in French by one Maurice Bessy, who adapted Welles’s original screenplay. This fact is verified by the recent recovery in France of the correspondence between Welles and Arkadin’s producer, Louis Dolivet. But none of this has prevented the novel’s latest edition, like all the previous ones, from trumpeting the name of Orson Welles as sole author on its cover.

This should come as no surprise. How can a publisher expect to sell the uncredited English translation of a French novelization of an unfinished film, especially if the novel was written by a forgotten film critic? For starters, it has to assume, contrary to Welles, that the film is (or was) finished. This is also why the Criterion box set, released in 2006, insists on calling itself The Complete Mr. Arkadin, even though Welles wasn’t able to complete any single version of it.

The task of rationalizing Welles’s idiosyncratic working methods and fractured film career in consumerist, marketplace terms has invariably led to many obfuscations.… Read more »

Subversion and Sexiness in Three Hollywood Depression Comedies

As much as I admire Ernest Lubitsch as a subversive force in 30s Hollywood, especially for The Man I Killed and Trouble in Paradise, I keep coming back to a particular anti-Lubitsch argument made to me by Elaine May, of all people, the one time I was lucky enough to meet her (in Bologna the summer before last). According to her argument, if I remember it correctly, Lubitsch pretended to be more daring, free, and worldly and less middle-class than his films actually were; her main example was Heaven Can Wait, which I suspect irked her in part on feminist grounds. When I asked her if she meant that Lubitsch was roughly akin to someone like H.L. Mencken, she said, “Exactly.”

I remembered this conversation when I recently went through Criterion’s excellent two-disc edition of Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), including an interesting interview with Joseph McBride about the script that I saw before reseeing the feature, and William Paul’s superb analysis of both Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living, which I saw just afterwards. McBride is very good about Lubitsch’s collaboration(s) with Ben Hecht (screenwriter) and Noel Coward (playwright), and Paul is especially acute about the way the usual terms of praise heaped on Lubitsch (such as “sparkling” and “frothy”), which often relate to food and drink metaphors, are actually instruments for undermining the seriousness beneath his playfulness.… Read more »

Toronto 1982

Originally published in Artforum (December 1982). — J.R.

The Toronto Film Festival, now in its seventh year, takes place over ten days every September. Proudly dubbing itself a “Festival of Festivals,” it actually deserves that moniker a lot more than the New York Film Festival does, and not only because it shows about five times as many films. Insofar as its giddy pluralism derives from an overlap of disparate and even antithetical individual tastes rather than from a distillation based on committee decisions, Toronto democratically permits those attending to select their own festivals out of an overflowing mixed bag. This year, apart from the main standbys –- nightly galas chosen by festival director Wayne Clarkson and a large international selection by David Overbey, a Paris-based American critic – the multiple events included retrospectives devoted to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Brazilian and New Zealand cinema and Berlin underground director Lothar Lambert, as well as a superb new package by Kay Armatage featuring a wide array of independently produced work. While Armatage rightly pointed to many of her own choices as films that take risks, her fellow programmer Overbey, operating from a somewhat different set of preferences, should also be credited with selecting both of the films that wound up locking horns with the prudish Ontario Censor Board – Lambert’s Berlin-Harlem 1974 and Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau.… Read more »

’tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris

From the Chicago Reader (June 5, 2008). — J.R.

Tis Autumn

A director and writer of fiction films (The Thing About My Folks, Two Family House) as well as a jazz pianist, Raymond De Felitta tracked down the great, forgotten bebop singer Jackie Paris, befriended him, and in this documentary tries to get to the bottom of why his promising career never clicked, despite tours with Charlie Parker and Lenny Bruce. What emerges is inconclusive and sometimes awkward — especially when Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Whaley, and Nick Tosches get enlisted to recite news stories and reviews — yet also haunting and heartbreaking for what it shows about the scuffling disorder of some jazz careers. When the voice-overs don’t compete with the music, Paris is a spellbinder even at 79 (though I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to about his guitar playing and tap dancing), and his classic singing of Skylark sent shivers up my spine (2006). 100 min. (JR)

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Bringing Back the Depression Musical

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1989). — J.R.

TAP

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Nick Castle Jr.

With Gregory Hines, Suzzanne Douglas, Savion Glover, Joe Morton, Dick Anthony Williams, “Sandman” Sims, Bunny Briggs, and Sammy Davis Jr.

One of the more poignant effects of contemporary Hollywood has been the virtual extinction of at least two of the major genres that served as industry staples during the 30s, 40s, and 50s: the western and the musical. When attempts are made to resurrect these old standbys, a certain self-consciousness often makes itself felt. Such “last westerns” as Once Upon a Time in the West and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and such “last musicals” as All That Jazz and Pennies From Heaven tend to wear their obsolescence on their sleeves, representing themselves as last-ditch attempts to revivify forms that are no longer part of the present tense, but only nostalgic emblems of an earlier era.

Other recent approaches, however, have avoided such self-consciousness, and behaved as if the genres in question never really left us. Young Guns was a fairly forgettable attempt to bring back the western that populated a conventional example of the genre with several youthful male stars.… Read more »

Privileged Moments (REMBRANDT LAUGHING)

From the Chicago Reader (September 29, 1989). — J.R.

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REMBRANDT LAUGHING

Directed and written by Jon Jost

With Jon A. English, Barbara Hammes, Jim Nisbet, Nathaniel Dorsky, Janet McKinley, Kate Dezina, and Jerry Barrish.

“The essence of Jean-Luc Godard’s La femme mariée,” John Bragin wrote in the mid-60s, “is the transmutation of the dramatic into the graphic.” While this formula doesn’t account for everything in Rembrandt Laughing, Jon Jost’s ninth feature, I think it provides a helpful clue to the overall direction taken by this masterful, elliptical account of a little over a year in the lives of a few friends in San Francisco.

For all his mastery and originality as a maverick independent, Jost has often alienated audiences with the harshness of his themes and the apparent distance from which he views his subjects and his characters. A 60s radical who spent over two years in federal prison for draft resistance, he has lived without a fixed address for most of his 26-year career as a filmmaker, and the alienation as well as the clarity stemming from his wanderlust has seeped into many of his fiction features. These have often centered on isolated individuals: a private detective in Angel City (1977), a drifter out of work in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) [see two images below], a drug dealer in Chameleon (1978), a Vietnam vet in Bell Diamond (1987).… Read more »

That’s Entertainment! III

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.

This third compilation of clips from MGM musicals — introduced, like its predecessors, by many of the leading performers (June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams) — has so much pleasure to offer that any purist quibbles seem minor. Not only have writers-directors-producers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who worked as editors on the two previous films, come up with heaps of wonderful and fascinating new material (excluded numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Cabin in the Sky, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, and even I Love Melvin); they’ve also introduced a welcome critical note into the proceedings, demonstrating how dubious some of MGM’s aesthetic decisions were and allowing Horne to voice some of her own misgivings about the bigoted policies that limited her activity. Indeed, after Horne introduces her own clips, her terse introduction to an unused Judy Garland number from Annie Get Your Gun, “I’m an Indian Too,” doesn’t have to allude to the number’s racism because in the context she’s established the evidence speaks for itself. The original screen ratios of the films are generally respected — the rule apparently is broken only when the filmmakers are doing a montage or want the dramatic benefits of a full screen even if it means cropping the image.… Read more »

A Prophet in His Own Country [Jon Jost retrospective]

From the Chicago Reader (May 8, 1992). — J.R.

JON JOST RETROSPECTIVE

Last week Jon Jost, a Chicago-born independent filmmaker, was having the first commercial run of his career — All the Vermeers in New York, his tenth feature, at the Music Box. Typically, he couldn’t be around for the event because he was busy shooting his 12th feature in Oregon.

The Music Box engagement launches a Jost retrospective that continues at Chicago Filmmakers on weekends for the remainder of this month. It’s the most exciting and important American retrospective to hit town since the Music Box’s John Cassavetes series last fall, though like that series it isn’t quite complete: only about half of Jost’s shorts — most made in the 60s and early 70s — are included, and two of his features, Bell Diamond (1985) and Sure Fire (1990), are omitted. (Sure Fire may open here in the fall if enough people go to see All the Vermeers in New York.) Still, it’s the most comprehensive show of Jost’s work that’s ever come to Chicago, and it offers a great chance to catch up with a singular career that has been more subterranean than most, even among American independents.… Read more »

Cinemeteorology [Serge Daney on TOO EARLY, TOO LATE]

Here’s a piece by Serge Daney that I translated back in 1982, for a catalogue accompanying a Straub-Huillet retrospective that I curated in New York that fall. Danièle Huillet sent me the original review in French, suggesting that it be included. Too Early, Too Late, shot in 16mm, remains, for me, one of their two most beautiful landscape films, along with the much later Operai, Contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2001), making it all the more regrettable that neither of these favorites is available on DVD, even in France. [2018 note: Happily, both films are now available on French DVDs.] I’m also very sorry that the frame reproductions included here couldn’t be any better. — J.R.

What do John Travolta and Jean-Marie Straub have in common? A difficult question, I admit. One dances, the other doesn’t. One is a Marxist, the other isn’t. One is very well-known, the other less so. Both have their fans. Me, for instance.

However, one merely has to see their two films surface on the same day on Parisian screens in order to understand that the same worry eats away at both of them. Worry? Let’s say passion, rather — a passion for sound. I’m referring to BLOW OUT (directed by Brian DePalma) and TOO EARLY, TOO LATE (co-signed by    Danièle Huillet), two good films, two magnificent soundtracks.… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [EL VALLEY CENTRO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 1999). — J.R.

El Valley Centro

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by James Benning.

El Valley Centro, James Benning’s latest feature, is a fairly minimalist effort consisting of 35 shots, each of them two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California’s Central Valley. About halfway through I found myself, to my surprise, thinking about Joseph Cornell’s boxes, those surrealist constructions teeming with fantasy and magic — dreamlike enclosures that make it seem appropriate that Cornell lived most of his life on a street in Queens called Utopia Parkway.

Benning’s films are typically about farmland, deserts, or industrial landscapes. The two features preceding this one are Four Corners, shot around the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, and Utopia, shot in desert country starting in Death Valley and heading south across the Mexican border. Benning hails from Wisconsin, and most of his early films are made up of midwestern landscapes. He moved to the west coast several years ago to teach at Cal Arts, and ever since he’s been shooting various kinds of midwesternlike emptiness and decay in the western states. Two years ago he started offering free December screenings of his new films at a private loft in Wicker Park, when he was back for the holidays, and apart from screenings at Cal Arts, these have been the films’ American premieres.… Read more »

Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three lnnovators

From American Film (September 1978). -– J.R.

Talking about avant-garde film these days raises a quandary. For one thing, no one can agree on precisely what the label means. Start by asking the proverbial man on the street what an avant-garde movie is. Chances are, if you don’t get insulted, the description that’s offered won’t exactly be a heartening one.

On the other hand, address your query to “an avant-garde filmmaker,” and you’re just as likely to get a moralistic distinction between art and commerce — or between art and entertainment calculated to shrivel your own sense of seriousness to the size of a pea.

The fact that there are such disagreements about simple definitions only helps to keep the term loaded and half-cocked. A Cuban director at a film festival once allegedly shunned an American director’s gesture of friendship by saying, “I only talk to people with guns. My film is a gun; your film isn’t. ” In analogous fashion, the mere concept of avant-garde film is often used as a gun by friends and foes alike. This scares off countless spectators who fall in between these categories — less committed souls who understandably run for cover as soon as any shots are fired.… Read more »

The Self-Aware Action Hero [on LAST ACTION HERO]

From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.

LAST ACTION HERO

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.

The word is out:  Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”

I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble.… Read more »

Point Blank

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1987). — J.R.

POINTBLANK

point-blank-year-1967-usa-director-john-boorman-lee-marvin-angie-dickinson-eywbt7

John Boorman’s modernist, noirish thriller (1967) is still his best and funniest effort (despite the well-phrased demurrals of filmmaker Thom Andersen regarding its cavalier treatment of Los Angeles). Lee Marvin, betrayed by his wife and best friend, finds revenge when he emerges from prison. He recovers stolen money and fights his way to the top of a multiconglomerate — only to find absurdity and chaos. Boorman’s treatment of cold violence and colder technology has lots of irony and visual flash — the way objects are often substituted for people is especially brilliant, while the influence of pop art makes for some lively ‘Scope compositions — and the Resnais-like experiments with time and editing are still fresh and inventive. The accompanying cast (and iconography) includes Angie Dickinson, John Vernon, and Carroll O’Connor; an appropriate alternate title might be Tarzan Versus IBM, a working title Jean-Luc Godard had for his Alphaville. 92 min. (JR)

POINT BLANK

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