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 »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (June 5, 2008). — J.R.
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)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1989). — J.R.
** (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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1987). — J.R.
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)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1994). — J.R.
* MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont
With Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, and John Cleese.
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson, Frank Langella, Pamela Reed, and Judy Collins.
Through a perverse coincidence, Kenneth Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson worked simultaneously, on separate continents, on two lousy features about men usurping the reproductive roles of women. In many respects, these movies are radically different: Branagh’s pre-Thanksgiving turkey, misleadingly titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is the umpteenth screen adaptation of what is arguably one of the greatest feminist novels and perhaps the first serious example of science fiction. Thompson’s movie, a Thanksgiving release, is a Ivan Rietman “family-values” fantasy-comedy about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming pregnant — a high-concept obscenity that seems inspired by the combined successes of Twins (which also starred Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito) and Tootsie (which also contrived to show how men make better women than women, a project also taken up by The Crying Game).… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Summer 1975). I think I probably did a better job with The Godfather 33 years later, when I wrote something about it for Filmkrant. — J.R.
The Godfather Part II
‘I believe in America,’ declares an undertaker in portentous close-up at the start of The Godfather, appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to dispatch an act of vengeance on his behalf. The sequel begins and ends with close-ups of Michael (Al Pacino), Vito’s youngest son and successor: in the first his hand is being kissed off-screen by yet another supplicant; in the last he sits alone biting his knuckle, with his wedding ring clearly in evidence — an apt symbol of his solitary dominion, with the Corleone family virtually destroyed so that itshollow emblems and relics might be preserved. The most obvious achievement of The Godfather Part II (CIC) over its predecessor can be seen in the quiet authority of this framing device, which tells us everything we need to know about the fate of the Corleones without recourse to rhetorical hectoring; its most obvious limitation is that it essentially tells us nothing new.
Perhaps more than anyone else in Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola epitomizes the man in the middle.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 31, 2002). I’m pleased to remember that Studs Terkel, who knew Nick Ray, wrote me a friendly letter about this review shortly after it appeared — and that, years earlier (1995), when my first collection, Placing Movies, came out, he invited me to appear as a guest on his radio show. — J.R.
A kind of litmus test for auteurists, this philosophical adventure story set in turn-of-the-century Florida (1958, 93 min.) was Nicholas Ray’s penultimate Hollywood assignment, though he was fired before the end of shooting and barred from the final editing by screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), who produced the film with his brother Stuart. (In his introduction to the published screenplay, Schulberg doesn’t even mention Ray.) An ecological parable, it pits an earnest schoolteacher turned game warden (Christopher Plummer) against a savage poacher of wild birds (Burl Ives) heading a grungy gang in the swamps. Ray’s masterful use of color and mystical sense of equality between the antagonists (also evident in Rebel Without a Cause and Bitter Victory) are made all the more piquant here by his feeling for folklore and outlaw ethics as well as his cadenced mise en scene.… Read more »
An essay written for the Cinema Guild’s DVD, released in 2009. — J.R.
24 City is a documentary about the transformation of Factory 420 in
Chengdu from the secret manufacture of military aircraft engines in 1958
to, after the Vietnam War, a downsized and remodeled facility producing
consumer products, and then, more recently, into a privately owned
real-estate development called “24 City”. This sounds pretty
straightforward, but because it’s a Jia Zhangke film, it qualifies as an
adequate description only in the most skeletal fashion. Factory 420
employed almost 30,000 workers, so a lot of life experience and
displacement is involved in this multifaceted story — a good half-
century of Chinese history. And Jia is so desperate to discover the
truth of his subject that he’s willing to employ anything and
everything, including artifice, if this will bring him any closer
to what urban renewal is the process of quickly obliterating.
The theme of his film — of all his features to date, in fact — is
the displacement coming from historical upheavals in China
and the various kinds of havoc they produce: physical, emotional,
intellectual, political, conceptual, cultural, economic, familial,
societal. And sometimes the style involves a certain amount of
displacement as well, such as when he cuts from a speech in late
2007 about recent changes in “24 City” before a full audience in
an auditorium to a shot of an almost empty stairway that plays
over the same speech, with one figure climbing the steps on two
successive floors.… Read more »