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.

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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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Reasons to Believe [SEE YOU IN THE MORNING & SAY ANYTHING…]

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 1989). — J.R.

SEE YOU IN THE MORNING

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alan J. Pakula

With Jeff Bridges, Alice Krige, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, George Hearn, Theodore Bikel, and Linda Lavin.

SAY ANYTHING . . .

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe

With John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Pamela Segall, and Jason Gould.

Optimistic movies that are halfway believable — that base their hope on plausible characters and events rather than Hollywood magic — have become something of a rarity. These days the only optimism we seem able to abide comes from “inspirational” fantasies such as E.T. and (to cite a more current example) Field of Dreams, which offer little more than the satisfaction of infantile wish fulfillment. So the appearance of two better-than-average movies with optimistic attitudes, both of them personal romantic comedies credited to single writer-directors, is an encouraging sign at a time when the commercial American cinema seems to be teetering on the edge of a faceless, mechanical void.

There’s nothing really startling about either Say Anything. . . , Cameron Crowe’s first feature, or See You in the Morning, Alan J.… Read more »

The Last Seduction

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1995). — J.R.

TLS

Linda Fiorentino proudly and impressively mounts the throne of bitch noir goddess in this 1994 feature directed by John Dahl (Red Rock West) from a Steve Barancik script. There’s really not much to keep the picture going apart from her unbridled ruthlessness, but there’s plenty of fun to be found in that delectation alone. After goading her husband to pull off a dangerous drug deal and then running off with the loot, leaving him to the mercies of a deadly loan shark, she picks up another unsuspecting (if ambitious) fall guy in a small-town bar and schemes some more. Unlike the classic noirs, this is grounded in neither a recognizable social reality nor a metaphysical sense of doom — just a lot of sexy attitude, humping, and heavy breathing. But it’s an entertaining and caustically humorous thriller if you like that sort of thing. With Bill Pullman, Bill Nunn, Peter Berg, and the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh. 110 min. (JR)

fiorentino-last-seductionRead more »

Toni (1974 review)

This review appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Toni

France, 1934                                                   Director: Jean Renoir

 

Neither a major nor a minor work in the Renoir canon, Toni demands to be regarded more as an adventure of the director in contact with his material than as an integral and “finished” composition. If the symmetrical framing device of  the train arriving with fresh immigrants at the beginning and end of the film appears somewhat forced in relation to the whole, this is likely because Renoir began with notions of a social thesis and a Zola-derived sense of fatality from which his better instincts subsequently deviated. And it is the instinctual rather than the conceptual side of Toni that renders it a living work forty years after it was made -– a distinction that might serve equally well for Zola and Stroheim. Over and around the largely melodramatic plot is draped an expansive mood of leisurely improvisation, like an ill-fitting but comfortable suit of clothes, often permitting the accidental and random to take precedence over the deliberate, the individual detail over the general design. Thus the fleeting glance of a child at the camera in the opening prologue (when the newly-arrived immigrants walk into town), the grey haziness of Sebastian’s funeral procession, the muddy fadeouts and slightly bumpy pans are all part of the film’s charm and integrity.… Read more »

Geronimo: An American Legend

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1993). This film will be out soon on a Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.

Geronimo

Like Unforgiven, this is conservative revisionism with a rare bitterness of tone (1993). The subject here is the underhanded treatment of Apaches by the U.S. government, and perhaps because of where it’s coming from it’s a lot more convincing as history than liberal revisionist westerns like Dances With Wolves. Though the director is Walter Hill, the dominant personality is John Milius, who wrote the story and collaborated on the script with Larry Gross, and despite some narrative stodginess in spots, Milius’s sense of warrior nobility and his talent for writing juicy parts for actors serve the picture well. Recounting the final rebellion and surrender of Apache leader Geronimo in the 1880s, the film offers especially fine performances by Robert Duvall as a grizzled Apache scouter, Cherokee actor Wes Studi as Geronimo, and Jason Patric as a U.S. cavalry lieutenant assigned to bring Geronimo in, and Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, and Kevin Tighe are more than adequate in less showy parts. The Utah settings are spectacular, and the music is by Ry Cooder. (JR)… Read more »

Reverence for Things Past [MY FATHER’S GLORY]

From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1991). — J.R.

MY FATHER’S GLORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yves Robert

Written by Jerome Tonnere, Louis Nucera, and Robert

With Philippe Caubere, Nathalie Roussel, Didier Pain, Julien Ciamaca, Therese Liotard, and Victorien Delmare.

Though I’ve had only limited acquaintance with Marcel Pagnol’s work as a filmmaker, it’s clear to me that he was an important if neglected figure in French independent cinema. He was not only a forerunner of the Italian neorealists and a playwright-turned-filmmaker who set up his own studio in Marseilles in 1933, but also an unusually devoted director of actors. He liked to film his favorites — people like Raimu, Fernandel, Alida Rouffe, and Pierre Fresnay — in static camera setups with lots of dialogue, theoretically ending a shot only when he ran out of film. It may seem a limited aesthetic, but for passionate proactor directors like Jean Renoir (whose 1934 Toni was produced by Pagnol) and Orson Welles it carried the force of a revelation, and the sunny Provencal settings provided a relaxed airiness and earthiness to the extended talk fests.

Pagnol’s output as a writer has become fashionable again, thanks to the popularity of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring — both based on Pagnol novels and directed by Claude Berri.… Read more »

Bird Watching

From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1988). — J.R.

BIRD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Joel Oliansky

With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, and Damon Whitaker.

CELEBRATING BIRD

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons

Written by Gary Giddins.

Two telling documents that we have about Charlie Parker, both from the early 50s:

(1) During a live radio broadcast from Birdland on March 31, 1951, there’s an electrifying moment when Parker leaps into his solo on “A Night in Tunisia,” combining cascading machine-gun volleys of notes — wailing 16th notes and dovetailing triplets — into what sound like two successive melodic somersaults, each one in a separate direction, that miraculously turn the rhythm around with shifting accents — an awesome tumble in midair over four free bars until he triumphantly splashes into the next chorus.

To understand the genius of that moment — a fusion of passionate acrobatics and spontaneous formal patterning — it might help to detect the evidence of rage that one hears just before the number begins. Symphony Sid Torin, an obnoxiously loquacious disc jockey, has been blathering at length about “Round Midnight,” the previous number played by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, which he has repeatedly called “Round About Midnight.”… Read more »