Monthly Archives: June 2018

If Looks Could Kill (I)

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the sixth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

3—


If Looks Could Kill

. . . Can it be that everybody is looking for a way to fit in? If so, doesn’t that imply that nobody fits? Perhaps it is not possible to fit into American Life. American Life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.
—Harold Rosenberg

 

I

Mommy was away at Payne Whitney, a hospital in New York City, for the better part of a year, from the fall of 1953 through the summer of 1954. She went there after she had a nervous breakdown toward the end of summer, sometime after we drove back to Alabama from Indian and Forest Acres; she said she needed to get away from the house and four boys and Stanley for a while, and Bo offered to pay for Payne Whitney, where she hoped to get better.Read more »

Station Identification I

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Station Identification I

The Conquistador has a heart condition. Despite the recent successes of some of his biggest exploits, the mounting fortunes, his exhaustion becomes increasingly apparent, showing up in the lines on his face, the heaviness of his stride. Out of respect to his power, position, and age, we breathe not a word about his deterioration, act as if everything is as it should be. Obediently we tote his luggage along with our own, slow our paces to his, and gaze with enchantment at the passing scenery.

Getting from here to there is all the Conquistador really cares about, and tough luck for whatever—and whoever—happens to be occupying the intervening spaces. Think of a country, an audience, a movie, a dream that is perpetually en route, refusing to stop anywhere and settle for a while; think of a life on the march that promises adventure, discourages reflection, and delivers the excitement of perpetual motion.Read more »

THE DEER HUNTER: Flabby Beyond Belief

This review, one of the most incendiary I’ve ever written, appeared in the March 1979 issue of the Canadian monthly Take One (vol. 7, no. 4). It’s probably over the top, but at least it’s sincere; I can’t recall another occasion when any acclaimed movie filled me with such absolute loathing. I can recall thinking, when Cimino subsequently collected his Oscar, that he should have said at the time, “I’d like to thank especially the Vietnamese people, without whose corpses this award wouldn’t have been possible.”

The film is currently screening on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, although I’m delighted to report that programmer Ehsan Khoshbakht had the brilliant idea of screening Cinetract 101 just before it. — J.R.

“You beat me, baby,” Francis Ford Coppola reportedly said to Michael Cimino, director of the $13 million The Deer Hunter, in reference to the fact that this new Vietnam atrocity movie has opened several months before Coppola’s Apocalypse Someday. Considering the degree to which slick media and its prize monoliths now seem to rule most of our cultural and ethical discourse, I wonder whether Coppola might have said the same thing to the Reverend Jim Jones if, after the Guyana “suicides,” the latter had been around to receive the compliment.… Read more »

ON MOONLIGHT BAY as Time Machine

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

2— On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine

A small Midwestern town in 1916, possibly in June. Behind a succession of pink and green credits that they will never see, acknowledge, or understand—a list of names and functions that fasten themselves to a Warner Brothers release, On Moonlight Bay , dated 1951—a family is seated in the dark parlor of a Booth Tarkington house, watching slides of themselves on a screen.

Taste it if you can: 1916. Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, a sequel to his very popular Penrod, has either just appeared in hardcover or is about to. Germany has declared war on Portugal, Russia has invaded Persia, 8,636 English and German sailors have perished in a naval battle off Jutland, and Gordon MacRae—whom we hear with Doris Day singing the title tune over the credits, but haven’t yet seen—has just completed his junior year at the University of Indiana, and is deeply shaken by all this strife in Europe.Read more »

The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the third.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

1: The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

1— Fifty Years of Show Business

image

[Ritz Theatre, Athens, Alabama]

 


Formal Opening Ritz On Monday, April 30

After five months of work the Ritz theatre, Athens’ latest amusement place, is now ready for the formal opening which will take place at 7:00 o’clock, Monday evening, April 30th [1928], the picture for that occasion being Mary Pickford’s latest screen production “My Best Girl,” followed by a comedy, “Fair and Muddy.

“Prior to the picture showing the following program will be given:

Master of ceremonies—W. E. Willis.

Music by Gene Carter’s orchestra.

Welcome from the city of Athens [Alabama] to Muscle Shoals Theatres, Inc.—Mayor C. W. Sarver.

Orchestra.

Welcome on behalf of the businessmen of Athens—C. D. Beisley, president Athens Chamber of Commerce.

Orchestra.

Response to addresses of welcome by Mayor W.Read more »

MOVING PLACES: A LIFE AT THE MOVIES Acknowledgements & Looking Back at MOVING PLACES & Dedication

I will be reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the first.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Acknowledgments

For specific, invaluable, and diverse forms of assistance to me in preparing this book, I owe particular thanks to Lizzie Borden, Meredith Brody, W. L. and Diane Butler, Ian Christie, David Ehrenstein, Aston and Mae Murray Elkins, Manny Farber, Carolyn Fireside, Sandy Flitterman, Vicki Hiatt, Penelope Houston, Allan Kronzek, Lorenzo Mans, David Meeker, Cynthia Merman, Patricia Patterson, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schmidt, Allan Sekula, Wally Shawn, Charles Silver, David Sobelman, Bobby Stewart, Beulah Sutton, Amos Vogel, and Bibi Wein;

the staffs of the Florence Public Library, Florence, Alabama; the Information Department at the British Film Institute in London; the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.;

and National Endowment for the Arts, for an Art Critics Fellowship Grant which permitted me to launch this project in 1977.… Read more »

For Queen And Country

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.

ForQAC

Denzel Washington (Cry Freedom) stars in this new British thriller by Martin Stellman about a black veteran who returns from nine years in the British army to encounter poverty and racism in London. A West Indian by birth, he finds that he is unable to renew his passport because of a new law, and a series of other misfortunes and injustices gradually force him against his will into a life of crime. Effective radical agitprop, relentless in its anger, this film is more outspoken about contemporary racism in England than any other feature that comes to mind; the story is structured a bit like a Warner Brothers thriller of the 30s, and the script (by Stellman and Trix Worrell), direction, and performances all give it a powerful impact. With George Baker, Amanda Redman, Dorian Healy, Geff Francis, and Bruce Payne. (JR)

FQACRead more »

Lost in the Desert [THE SHELTERING SKY]

From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 1991). — J.R.

THE SHELTERING SKY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci

With Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, Eric Vu-An, and Paul Bowles.

Ever since the 60s the adjective “personal” has been frequently used in relation to commercial movies, and it has almost always been used as an expression of praise. As a reaction to the relatively “impersonal” directorial styles of a Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, or David Lean, the celebration of the “personal” styles of directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock ushered in a critical bias that favored the director’s subjective involvement in his or her material — an involvement that is often autobiographical in its implications (such as Ford’s feelings for the Irish and the military, or Hitchcock’s sexual repression and his fear of imprisonment) — over the self-effacement that has often been regarded as both the norm and the ideal of conventional filmmaking.

But in order to argue that the films of supposedly “invisible” stylists like Hawks were highly personal, many auteurists wound up overstating their case, arguing in effect that any director with a discernible “personality” was automatically better than any director without one.… Read more »

Excessive Use of the Force

This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,'” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.Read more »

Reinventing the Present [PUMP UP THE VOLUME]

From the Chicago Reader (August 17, 1990). — J.R.

PUMP UP THE VOLUME

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Allan Moyle

With Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, Annie Ross, Cheryl Pollak, and Andy Romano.

It’s hard to talk seriously about the 60s today, because TV and a lot of assholes have almost ruined it. When I taught film courses in southern California in the mid-80s, I was appalled to discover that college students thought of the 60s as a traumatic, troubled period — a time characterized by young people losing their way, freaking out on bad acid trips, denouncing their parents, getting killed in Vietnam, and protesting the way American society was being run and abjectly failing at it. For students of the 80s, the golden age was the repressive, bland, stultifying 50s, when staunch family and property values were both firmly in place — the mythical past that Uncle Ronnie and all his furry friends comfortingly evoked.

Many of these students didn’t realize — and some of them still don’t — that the 60s was a more prosperous period than the 50s, economically as well as spiritually. Some people actually had fun at demonstrations and on hallucinogens, and they often accomplished and learned important things in the process.… Read more »

Morality Movies (BROADCAST NEWS & WALL STREET)

This was published at the end of my first year at the Reader, in their Christmas issue. –J.R.

BROADCAST NEWS *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James L. Brooks

With Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, and Jack Nicholson.

WALL STREET ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Stone and Stanley Weiser

With Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Terence Stamp, Hal Holbrook, and Sylvia Miles.


Both Broadcast News and Wall Street score as punchy, energetic movies that are designed to feel as contemporary as possible without taking place in the literal present, and both pivot around a moral reckoning that accompanies economic cutbacks -– as if to remind us that this country’s Reagan-inspired spending spree, which tripled our trillion-dollar national debt, seems to be drawing to a fearful close. Apart from offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of their all-encompassing, hothouse professional turfs, both movies are built around the mise en scene of a moral crisis that splits the major characters apart –- each one charting a mutual seduction that leads to recriminations and the characters isolated in opposing moral camps. Yet the undisputed effectiveness of these films as entertainment seems at least partially predicated on fudging or at least mystifying the moral issues that they are bold enough to raise.… Read more »

Joe Dante, Anonymous King of the Post-Cult Cinema Community

Written for the 11th issue of the bilingual, online La Furia Umana (January-March 2012) to introduce a Joe Dante dossier. — J.R.

One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.

Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large.… Read more »

Chains Of Ignorance [NIGHTJOHN]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1996). — J.R.

Nightjohn

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Charles Burnett

Written by Bill Cain

With Carl Lumbly, Lorraine Toussaint, Beau Bridges, Allison Jones, Bill Cobbs, Kathleen York, Gabriel Casseus, Tom Nowicki, and Joel Thomas Traywick.

Words are freedom, old man. ‘Cause that’s all that slavery’s made of: words. Laws, deeds, passes: all they are is words. White folks got all the words, and they mean to keep them. You get some words for yourself and you be free. — the character Nightjohn

I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had. But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him because he isn’t a hustler, he’s never had a mainstream success, and all his work to date has been difficult to pigeonhole. Born in Mississippi in 1943, though raised since infancy in Los Angeles, he was one of several key black filmmakers — including Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodbury — to attend UCLA’s graduate film program in the 60s and 70s. His first film to circulate widely, the remarkable 1977 Killer of Sheep, won prizes in 1981 at Berlin and Sundance (before it was known as Sundance) and was one of the first titles selected for the Library of Congress’s Historic Film Registry.… Read more »

LOVIN’ MOLLY (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 496). Blythe Danner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, where I had the privilege of seeing what a gifted actress she already was (I remember especially her performance of one of the lead roles in Jean Genet’s The Maids) and the pleasure of accompanying her once or twice on the piano when she performed as a jazz singer (in particular, on “‘Round Midnight”). — J.R.

Lovin’ Molly

 

U.SA., 1973Director: Sidney Lumet

Bastrop, Texas. The lives of three characters, narrated by each in

turn. 1925, Gid (Anthony Perkins): Gid and Johnny (Beau Bridges)

are friends whocompete for the favors of Molly (Blythe Danner),

who likes themboth. When Gidproposes to Molly, she replies

that she’d rather have sex with him for its own sake, not as part

of a marriage contract, and invites himto join her in a nude swim,

but he refuses. She goes to a dance with Eddie (Conrad Fowkes),

another local boy, and Johnny picks a fight with him. Gid sleeps

with her for the first time, and is shocked to discover she isn’t a

virgin. On a train to the Panhandle to sell his father’s cattle, Gid

attacks Johnny for sleeping with Molly and not proposing to her, but

then discovers that Eddie slept with her first.… Read more »

King Kong (review of remake, 1977)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977. — J.R.

King Kong

U.S.A., 1976
Director: John Guillermin

The Petrox Oil Company sends an expedition by ship into Micronesia, hoping to find petroleum deposits on uncharted Skull Island. Group leader Fred Wilson and scientist Bagley believe that the vapor surrounding the island may come from oil, but Princeton University paleethnologist Jack Prescott — a stowaway — suggests animal respiration, and talks of ancient accounts of Kong, a prehistoric monster. Dwan, a prospective starlet and sole survivor of an explosion that destroyed a film producer’s boat en route to Hong Kong, is picked up before the ship reaches the island. Ashore, Wilson, Bagley, Jack and Dwan come upon an enormous wall and a native ritual in which a girl is about to be sacrificed. That night, as Dwan is about to keep a sexual rendezvous with Jack, she is kidnapped by natives and offered as an altar gift to Kong, a forty-foot ape who arrives and carries her away. While Jack penetrates the jungle with a rescue team, Wilson learns from Bagley that the island’s oil deposits won’t be usable for another 10,000 years, and begins to think of capturing Kong for use in Petrox publicity.… Read more »