From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).
To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….
“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur.… Read more »
This review was originally written for the long-defunct Canadian film magazine Take One during the same time that I was writing my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), and I’m sure that Pryor’s passionate form of self-examination and autocritique struck a very personal chord for me at the time. To contextualize this review a little further, I had recently written an angry attack on The Deer Hunter for the March issue of the same magazine, not too long after a reviewer in the Soho News had compared it favorably to Tolstoy. –J.R.
The True Auteur: Richard Pryor Live in Concert
Richard Pryor Live in Concert has nothing in particular to do with the art of cinema; it merely happens to be the densest, wisest, and most generous response to life that I’ve found this year inside a first-run movie theater. A theatrical event recorded by Bill Sargeant, the entrepreneur who similarly packaged Richard Burton’s Broadway production of Hamlet and a celebrated rock concert (The T.A.M.I. Show) fifteen years ago, and more recently filmed James Whitmore’s impersonation of Harry Truman (Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!), it is nothing more nor less than a Pryor stand-up routine given last December 28th at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California, lasting about an hour and a quarter.… Read more »
From The Soho News, October 6, 1981. I’m embarrassed to confess that over three decades later, I have no recollection at all about Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet apart from what I wrote about it, although I’m happy to report that the film is still in distribution, and available from Icarus Films. — J.R.
September 22: From a global or even a continental perspective, much of this year’s New York Film Festival belongs under the staunch division of Business as Usual. This basically means that the festival is involved in ratifying certain important discoveries (of ideas or filmmakers) that were made during the 60s or 70s, often by the very same members of the selection committee, rather than risking its self-image or self-composure in order to seek out many new challenges or talents.
This makes New York precisely the reverse of the more footloose, friendly, and unpredictable film festival in Toronto. There the specialty tends to be, rather, a flavorsome if occasionally warmed-over newness of look, sound, and/or signature: an underground movie about everyday life in the Watts ghetto (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep), a corrosive and shocking black comedy about the mourning business in Israel in relation to war memorials (Yaky Yosha’s The Vulture), a flaky German film based on a French best seller about Proust by his maid, played by Fassbinder alumnus Eva Mattes (Percy Adlon’s Celeste).… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). -– J.R.
ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY
‘Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust, Isaac Bashevis Singer ironically begins his Author’s Note, ‘I have lived for years in New York with refugees from this ordeal. I therefore hasten to say that this novel is by no means the story of the typical refugee, his life, and struggle. Like most of my fictional works, this book presents an exceptional case with unique heroes and a unique combination of events. The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates. If they fit into the general picture, it is because the exception is rooted in the rule. As a matter of fact, in literature the exception is the rule.’
Forewarned is forearmed: Singer’s tragi-comic 1972 novel is a holocaust story, but a far from typical one. Set in New York in 1949-50, it focuses on a Jewish survivor named Herman Broder who finds himself living what amounts to three separate, if sometimes distractingly overlapping lives as a direct consequence of the holocaust’s traumatic upheavals. In Coney Island, he is married to Yadwiga, his former maid in Poland, a non-Jew who kept him alive during the war by hiding him in a hayloft, and who now happily waits on him hand and foot.… Read more »
Based on feedback, I would guess that this article, which first appeared on June 25, 1998, is the most popular piece I’ve ever published in the Chicago Reader. (for further reflections about this piece 13 years later, go here.) Although it’s been featured as a separate item for several years on their site, I noticed that, thanks to some of their recent user-unfriendly retoolings of that site — which makes it much harder to access anything and everything, including this article — my own list of my 100 favorite films at the end of this piece and the AFI’s list of the supposedly greatest 100 films somehow got scrambled together. [Update, 7/25/09: Checking back a day later, this now appears unscrambled.] This is mainly why I’ve decided to reprint the original piece here in Notes, with only a few minor modifications. I revised and expanded this piece still further in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, where it forms the sixth chapter. (I’m sorry that the English edition of this, which has a much better jacket, has become more scarce.) One of the main additions, on page 93, is a list of the 25 titles on the AFI list that I probably would have included on my own if I hadn’t wanted to create an all-new list for polemical purposes; six of these titles are illustrated at the tail-end of this piece.… Read more »
For Film Comment (January-February 2013). — J.R.
My first experience of Vienna — Christmas 1970 with my girlfriend, another American expatriate in Paris — felt mostly like an alienating visit to the lofty tomb of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Apart from The Magic Flute at the Opera and many favorite Bruegels a few blocks away at the Kunsthistorische Museum, the city seemed to belong exclusively to locals, only one of whom I slightly knew — Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Filmmuseum — and after a brief visit to say hello to him, our only cinematic activity was attending a commercial rerun and lousy print of Torn Curtain dubbed into German.
Over a quarter of a century later, thanks to the Viennale, my next encounter with the city was entirely different, introducing me to a vibrant alternative film scene differing from, say, the Rotterdam film festival by virtue of having so many gifted local experimental filmmakers around in the immediate vicinity (among others, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Kubelka, Lisl Ponger, and Peter Tscherkassky) and a much broader age group of passionate cinephiles turning up at the screenings. The latter scene was clearly the creation of such programmers as Alexander Horwath (Kubelka’s successor at the Filmmuseum and a onetime Viennale codirector) and Hans Hurch, a former assistant to Straub-Huillet who has been the Viennale’s inspired director since 1997.… Read more »
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From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 1996). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter
Written by Elizabeth White
With Hedy Burress, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Lewis, Jenny Shimizu, Sarah Rosenberg, and Peter Facinelli.
Escape From L.A.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell
With Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, George Corraface, and Cliff Robertson.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by John Norville and Shelton
With Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson.
It’s already pretty clear from reviews and head counts that Escape From L.A. is something of a box-office loser and Tin Cup something of a winner. And although I wrote what follows about Foxfire before I knew its commercial fate, my suspicions were confirmed with such a vengeance that it’s no longer playing in Chicago (keep your eyes peeled for a second run). All three films are worth seeing — at least if you’re willing to settle for something good, not great, during the usual prefall slump — but my preference for Foxfire and Escape From L.A. over Tin Cup isn’t simple contrariness. If you go to movies in the hope of finding something beautiful or imaginative or different, as I do, there’s simply no contest.
From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 2003). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by David Ayer and James Ellroy
With Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, and Jamison Jones.
A curious kind of double game is being played in Dark Blue, a cop thriller that sets out to “explain” the 1992 LA riots. For a good while I sat thinking, “At last — a movie that doesn’t mince words about police corruption and racism,” for even if it’s a decade late and a bit simplistic in some of its moral positioning, the story doesn’t soft-pedal the facts. (It even prompted me to think how useful it might be if someone in Hollywood delivered a thriller about the Enron scandal — not ten years from now but before the next presidential election.) But I soon realized that the attempt to wed a comfortable genre to an uncomfortable social agenda allowed another kind of soft-pedaling to take over.
The filmmakers — Ron Shelton directing a David Ayer script based on a James Ellroy story — obviously want us to swallow a bitter pill, but traditionally Hollywood genres, even the LA cop thriller, are sweet and don’t have much of an aftertaste.… Read more »
The following was put together for Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, a huge, large-format, 448-page (+ DVD) compendium put together by Nicole Brenez (in collaboration with Michael Witt) and published by the Centre Pompidou in 2006. I’ve decided to reproduce this assembly of texts exactly as I submitted it to Nicole. — J.R. [8/23/08] Ten years later, my account of Tregenza’s filmography needs to be updated with a fourth feature, Gavagai (2016). [8/23/18]
Preface to Five Letters from Godard Apropos of Inside/Out
Not much (i.e., not enough) is known today about the three features of American independent filmmaker Rob Tregenza, all 35 millimeter—-Talking to Strangers (1988), The Arc (1991), and Inside/Out (1997)—- and possibly still less is known about Godard’s activity as a film producer, specifically of the third of these films. It isn’t even alluded to in Colin MacCabe’s detailed biography, where the fact that Godard helped to finance Straub-Huillet’s 1967 Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach equally goes unmentioned.
It also seems probable that the last film review published by Godard to date is his one of Talking to Strangers (see Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, tome 2, 1984-1998, pages 355-356, where this text is undated, though it was written specifically for the Toronto Film Festival catalogue and published there in English in September 1996).… Read more »
From the January 13, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
*** (A must see)
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton
Movie gossip writer Peter Biskind described Woody Allen in the December 2005 Vanity Fair as “an artist without honor in his own country” (apparently Biskind’s ecstatic write-up in Vanity Fair doesn’t count). He went on to compare Allen’s fate to those of some of Allen’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin (assuming Chaplin’s “own country” was the U.S.). He added that Allen, who’s released 35 features to date, has made at least ten masterpieces “that can hold their own against” any of the four he credited to Robert Altman or the three he assigned to Francois Truffaut.
Altman, Bergman, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Welles have changed our view of the world and of movies. Allen, despite his output and great one-liners and excellent taste in cinematographers, hasn’t. “If I was the teacher, I’d give myself a B,” he modestly told Biskind. Given his indebtedness to Bergman and Federico Fellini, that B would have to be for effort and polish, not originality.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 14, 1997). — J.R.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Bille August
Written by Ann Biderman
With Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Emma Croft, and Mario Adorf.
In a couple of memorably grouchy essays published in the mid-40s, critic Edmund Wilson expounded on his impatience with detective stories, confessing that “I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails.” With a few honorable exceptions, such as Kiss Me Deadly and Cutter’s Way, conspiracy films have a similar drawback: the first half is more pleasurable than the second. I suspect the reason is that the thrill of sensing a vast, invisible network behind apparent chaos is more exciting and even satisfying than the prosaic explanation, which not only reduces possibilities and halts the imagination but, by creating closure, makes the whole experience seem rather disposable.
When conspiracy thrillers resemble detective thrillers — which is often — they have a built-in advantage, to my mind, because they typically approach the borders of fantasy or science fiction and play with the ambiguous line between the real and the fantastic.… Read more »
This book review was the first thing I ever wrote for The Soho News, a small-time weekly competitor of The Village Voice that I wrote for every week for about a year and a half (1980-81), reviewing books as well as movies on a fairly regular basis. I did 68 pieces for them in all, and this first effort, as I recall, was a kind of trial balloon. — J.R.
The Greening of Switzerland
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party
By Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, $9.95
“The meat is excellent, but I have no appetite,” remarks the noble, grief-stricken narrator of Graham Greene’s opulent 21st novel — plain old Alfred Jones, a middle-class voyeur like us — at the climactic title party, in response to a query from the wealthy title host and villain. Then he adds more confidentially, to the reader, “I helped myself to another glass of Mouton Rothschild; it wasn’t for the flavor of the wine that I drank it, for my palate seemed dead, it was for the distant promise of a sort of oblivion.” The same sort of delicious oblivion, one might add, that we normally expect from a new Greene novel — which is the sort that the latest one amply supplies.… Read more »
From the July 8, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
JOHN HUSTON & THE DUBLINERS
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Lilyan Sievernich.
The on-location production documentary, a movie chronicling the shooting of a movie, is a fairly recent phenomenon, although its equivalent in print has been around much longer. (For instance, Micheal MacLiammoir’s Put Money in Thy Purse, about Orson Welles’s Othello, and Lillian Ross’s Picture, about John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, were both published in 1952.) One usual difference between the written and the filmed reports is that the latter tend to be inside jobs financed by the producers of the features in question, and consequently are promotional in nature rather than critical: Chris Marker’s short feature about the making of Ran and Ron Mann’s documentary about the making of Legal Eagles are two recent examples, and Lilyan Sievernich’s hour-long account of John Huston shooting The Dead belongs in this category. Yet there are a few things about Sievernich’s film that make it rather special.
Huston was 82 and very close to dying when he made The Dead, and everyone connected with the film was acutely aware of it. He directed from a wheelchair, was hooked up to an oxygen machine for his emphysema, and generally viewed the actors on the set from a TV monitor.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.
Rarely shown in the U.S. these days, this 1941 film of the wildly deconstructive stage farce with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson is still regarded as a classic in Europe, and it lives up to its reputation. The credit sequence establishes the wartime mood with its vision of hell as a munitions factory (where demons preside over the packaging of Canned Guy and Canned Gal), which is shortly revealed as a movie soundstage, the first of many metafictional gags. Very belatedly the movie gets around to telling a spare musical-comedy story (with swell numbers by Martha Raye and the jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and “Slam” Stewart, and some very acrobatic jitterbugging), but the main bill of fare is manic nonsense that almost makes the Marx Brothers look sober. H.C. Potter directed; with Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, and Elisha Cook Jr. 84 min. Sun 1/23, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
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From the Chicago Reader (October 6, 1989). — J.R.
THE LITTLE THIEF ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Claude Miller
Written by Annie Miller, Claude Miller, and Luc Beraud
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bezace, Simon de la Brosse, Raoul Billerey, and Chantal Banlier.
The French cinema has perhaps never been more desperately in the doldrums than now, and this slump is best represented by the trips down memory lane that seem to be a major preoccupation in current French movies. Never entailing research or reevaluation, these simplified, nostalgic foreshortenings of the past often pare away much of what makes that past interesting.
Claude Miller’s The Little Thief (La petite voleuse) is a case in point because it purports to be, at least in this country, the last work of the late Francois Truffaut. (I’m told that no such claims were made about the film when it opened in France, and can understand why; even French amnesia doesn’t ordinarily extend quite as far as our own.) The film was developed out of a long-nurtured Truffaut project that Truffaut considered filming at various points throughout his career; a 30- or 40-page treatment (accounts differ) he wrote with Claude de Givray served as Miller’s starting point, although by all accounts this story has been extensively reworked and embellished, and even given a new ending.… Read more »