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 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 (June 17, 2005). — J.R.
Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel follows up her distinctive debut feature, La cienaga (2001), with another tale whose feeling of lassitude conceals a subtle but deadly family dysfunction. It’s set in a specifically Catholic milieu, hovering around a medical convention at a small-town hotel, and once again a swimming pool serves as a kind of center for floating libidos. As Martel points out, the movie is about the difficulties and dangers of differentiating good from evil, and it requires as well as rewards a fair amount of alertness from the viewer. A theremin plays a prominent role in the story. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 106 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1988). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jim Abrahams
Written by Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel
With Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Michele Placido, Daniel Gerroll, and Barry Primus.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Harry Kleiner, Hill, and Troy Kennedy Martin
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Larry Fishburne, and Gina Gershon.
The silly season of summer releases is fully upon us, that time of year when expensive potboilers tend to be the only movies out there demanding our attention. Two interesting-sounding films that might have enlivened this year’s doldrums — Zelly and Me and Stars and Bars, both associated with David Puttnam’s brief stint as head of Columbia — have been unceremoniously dumped by their distributors in suburban Hillside. Paul Mayersberg’s perversely fascinating Nightfall — a head-scratching, low-budget blend of Isaac Asimov, Raul Ruiz, Jasper Johns, and psychedelic Corman movies of the 60s — departed for oblivion (or perhaps for video) before I could review it. What’s left on the table, apart from the delightful Bull Durham, are two mindless romps, each of which makes use of that veritable standby, the double plot.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.
One hundred million dollars and 141 minutes’ worth of comic book action from Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer-director James Cameron, most of it pitched at the level of the good-natured imperial arrogance and high-tech nonsense associated with the James Bond films. The obligatory birdbrained plot has something to do with Schwarzenegger as a secret agent — an identity kept from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and teenage daughter — who neglects family duties in order to pursue Arab terrorists and tango with Tia Carrere, who works for them, until wife and daughter get sucked into the various intrigues. The comedy is extremely broad (with Curtis eliciting almost as many laughs as Schwarzenegger), the action sequences are as well crafted as one can expect from Cameron, and the meaning is as root basic as anyone would wish. If the gulf war gave you an insatiable taste for burning oil and burning Arabs, this extravaganza will tide you over for at least a couple of days. With Tom Arnold (as the hero’s wisecracking sidekick, delivering one-liners with a nasal Alan Alda-ish edge), Bill Paxton, Art Malik, and Eliza Dushku. (JR)
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From Sight and Sound (Spring 1980). -– J.R.
Now that criticism and advertising are becoming harder and harder to separate in American film culture, the notion of any genuinely spontaneous movie cult becomes automatically suspect. It implies something quite counter to the megacinema of Cimino, Coppola and Spielberg — a cinema that can confidently write its own reviews (and reviewers) if it wants to, working with the foreknowledge of a guaranteed media-saturation coverage that will automatically recruit and program most of its audience, and which dictates a central part of its meaning in advance.
For a long time in the U.S. (as elsewhere), certain specialized minority interests that get shoved off the screens by the box-office bullies have been taking refuge in midnight screenings, most of them traditionally held at weekends. But what seems truly unprecedented about the elaborate cult in the U.S. that has developed around Friday and Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, over the past three and a half years, is the degree to which a film has been appropriated by its youthful audience. Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that this audience, rather than allow itself to be used as an empty vessel to be filled with a filmmaker’s grand mythic meanings, has been learning how to use a film chiefly as a means of communicating with itself.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 2006). — J.R.
A neo-noir in the tradition of Chinatown, this fine collaboration between director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos) and writer Paul Bernbaum revolves around the mysterious 1959 death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played the title role in the TV series The Adventures of Superman. The shooting was ruled a suicide, but conspiracy theories persist, and the film uses flashbacks to meticulously work out the possibilities (including two murder scenarios) while the fictional story of an investigating detective (Adrien Brody) provides suggestive counterpoint. The period details and performances are uniformly superb (Bob Hoskins is especially good as MGM executive Eddie Mannix), and the major characters are even more complex than those in Chinatown. With Diane Lane, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, and Molly Parker. R, 126 min. Century12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Davis, Gardens 1-6, Lake, Norridge, River East 21, Webster Place.
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From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 2005). — J.R.
Steven Spielberg’s shamelessly hokey version of the 1898 H.G. Wells yarn about murderous invaders from outer space starts off as a nimble scare show like Jaws. The special effects are good, and Tom Cruise isn’t bad as an alienated father fleeing with his kids. But such virtues are overtaken by a surfeit of narrow escapes and meaningful reflections about people’s behavior in war, complete with allusions to 9/11 and the Holocaust. Spielberg’s calculations turn out to be more prominent than any effects they could possibly produce, and the less pretentious 1953 version by producer George Pal emerges as more likable. With Tim Robbins, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, and Morgan Freeman in the offscreen James Earl Jones ”This is CNN” role. PG-13, 118 min. (JR)
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The longest chapter in my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press) — which only recently went out of print, though it’s still available from Amazon. I’m sorry that some of the illustrations aren’t of better quality. I’ve done a light edit on the text.
Considering that Benning by now probably has dozens of features to his credit rather than merely four, and that some of these are staggering achievements, I’m not at all sure if my judgments of three decades later would be the same. It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve written about a good many of his subsequent films, including (on this site) Landscape Suicide (1987), Used Innocence (1989), North on Evers (1992), Deseret (1995), Four Corners (1998), Utopia (1998), El Valley Centro (2000), his California Trilogy (2000-2004), Ten Skies (2004), One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (2005), and RR (2009), often at some length. It’s a pity that most of these films aren’t readily available, but I’m happy to report that the Austrian Film Museum (https://www.edition-filmmuseum.com/) , which published the first substantial book about James Benning in 2007, has launched the long-overdue project of restoring and releasing Benning’s work on DVDs — beginning with American Dreams (lost and found) (1984) and Landscape Suicide, in a two-disc set with a 20-page booklet, for 29,95 Euros, and followed by several more such packages.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 13, 2007).
Both of these films, the more recent One Way Boogie Woogie 2012, and Benning’s earlier 11 X 14 will all become available soon in one two-disc DVD set from www.edition-filmmuseum.com/. — J.R.
Titled after Piet Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, James Benning’s experimental masterpiece One Way Boogie Woogie (1977) consists of 60 one-minute takes shot with a stationary camera in an industrial valley near his native Milwaukee. The film strikes a graceful balance between abstraction (either found or created) and personal history, with ingenious uses of on- and offscreen sound, and it plays like a portfolio of 60 miniature films, each a suspenseful puzzle and a beautifully composed mechanism. A few years ago Benning returned to his hometown to fashion this shot-for-shot remake (2005), planting his camera in the same places and, whenever possible, using the same people. It screens on a double bill with the original, and though it’s not on the same level, it’s a poignant and fascinating companion piece. Sat 4/14, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Film Studies Center.
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