Yearly Archives: 2019

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL + WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES

My contribution to MUBI Notebook’s Fantasy Double Features of 2019 (posted in late December). — J.R.

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NEWAn Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, China)

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OLD: Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)

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Some of the differences between the late Hu Bo (1988-2017) and his mentor Béla Tarr may be just as important as their similarities. The latter made black comedies whereas An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu’s only feature, doesn’t find anything to laugh about. Even though the metaphysical and novelistic cast of both artists allows them to treat a group of lost individuals as a cosmos, with Tarr’s visible whale carcass in Werckmeister Harmonies apparently rhyming with Hu’s offscreen elephant, the compulsion of Tarr to follow his characters isn’t the same thing as Hu’s compulsion to embrace his own by moving ahead of them in the process of encircling them. Both ultimately offer blistering sociopolitical critiques of their respective societies in spite of their metaphysical trappings. The task of making blighted, hateful, and mean-tempered fools lovable is an essential part of both Satantango and Elephant, but what makes the latter fools slightly more redeemable is the degree to which they try to connect with one another, even if the results are futile.… Read more »

En movimiento: Denial Incorporated and Cinematic Substitutes

My column for the December 2019  Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

En movimiento: Denial Incorporated and Cinematic Substitutes

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Given how much we watch [TV] and what watching means, it’s inevitable, for those of us…who fancy ourselves voyeurs, to get the idea that these persons behind the glass — persons who are often the most colorful, attractive, animated, alive people in our daily experience — are also people who are oblivious to the fact that they are being watched. This illusion is toxic.

—David Foster Wallace

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La Scala Woody Allen, Milan, Italy - 02 Jul 2019

 

Insofar as “political correctness” often functions as a sad form of compensation for political powerlessness — so that one winds up eagerly penalizing a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen for a real or imagined crime committed decades ago largely because one can’t find a way of getting rid of a Donald Trump in the present — the degree to which simple denial plays a role in governing one’s consumer choices needs to be recognized. What may be most significant about the flood of negative reviews in the U.S. given to Joker after both a slew of domestic mass shootings and the film winning a Golden Lion from Lucrecia Martel’s jury in Venice is how similar these reviews were to one another in both their phraseology and their arguments, comprising a herdlike form of collective expression that has to blame a movie for its frustration because it can’t (or at least won’t) blame the American gun lobby. … Read more »

THE LAST WOMAN (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976, Vol. 43, No. 514. — J.R.

Ultima Donna, L’ (The Last Woman)

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Director : Marco Ferreri

Cert—X. dist–Columbia.Warner. p.c—Flaminia Produzioni Cinema (Rome)/Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld (Paris). p—Edmondo Amati. p. managers–Maurizio Amiti, Roberto .Giussani. asst. d—Enrique Bergier, Bernard Grenet. sc–Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Dante Antelli. story–Marco Ferreri. collaboration on dial–Noël Simsolo. ph—Luciano Tovoli. col—Eastman Colour. ed–Enzo Meniconi. a.d—Michel de Broin. m—Philippe Sarde. m.d—Hubert Rostaing. cost—Gitt Magrini. sd. ed— Gina Pignier, sd. rec–Jean-Pierre Ruh. l.p—Gérard Depardieu (Gérard), Ornella Muti (Valérie), David Biggani (Pierrot), Michel Piccoli (Michel), Renato Salvatori’ (René), Giuliana Calandra (Benoîte), Zouzou (Gabrielle), Nathalie Baye (Girl in Shopping Mall), Soulange Skyden (Girl at Night-club), Carole Lepers (Anne-Marie), Daniela Silverio (Jane), Vittorio Ganfoni (Policeman with Dogs), Guerrino Totis. 9,799 ft. 109 mins. French dialogue; English subtitles.

French titleLa Dernière Femme

Gérard, a young engineer whose wife, Gabrielle, has recently left him, meets Valérie, the attractive teacher at the factory nursery where he goes to collect his thirteen-month-old son Pierrot, and invites her home with him; she agrees, and is assured by her lover Michel thathe won’t interfere.… Read more »

Under the Chador

From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.— J.R.

The Day I Became a Woman

***

Directed by Marzieh Meshkini

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.

“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been    anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.

The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another.… Read more »

TOUCH OF EVIL: From Program Picture to Classic (2002)

Published as “Classic Touch” in the January 2002 issue of AMC: American Movie Classics Magazine….The last photo reproduced here is of the whole crew of the re-edit team at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998. — J.R.

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Considering all the rereleases in recent years of studio classics that are
labeled “director’s cut,” it must seem like every studio picture has one.
But the phrase is often a marketing term, and therefore potentially
misleading. There are some movies, including a few great ones, that can’t
be released in “director’s cuts” because the director was never accorded
final cut in the first place. At least five of Orson Welles’s European films
and three of his Hollywood features have director’s cuts, but Touch of
Evil (1958), his last Hollywood movie, isn’t one of them. (For the record,
his three director’s cuts are all in the 1940s: Citizen Kane and two
separate edits of his Macbeth.)

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Admittedly, there was less studio interference on this noir thriller than
there had been on Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger,
and The Lady from Shanghai. Welles was allowed to direct and rewrite
the script only after he’d been cast as the heavy, a crooked cop — mainly
through the intervention of lead actor Charlton Heston, who played an
honest Mexican cop.… Read more »

James Benning’s CALIFORNIA TRILOGY

From the March 15, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

California Trilogy

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

Experimental films usually attempt to rearrange our reflexes along with our expectations. James Benning’s 270-minute, 16-millimeter “California Trilogy” does that in part by obliging us to rethink the way we interpret “directed by” and “written by.” If “directing” refers to the placement of camera and microphone, then Benning — who works alone, recording image and sound by himself — directed these three films. And if “writing” means the choice and identification of subjects — including the way they’re represented in the credits — then Benning is also the trilogy’s writer.

Benning — who will attend the March 21 screening of his film at the Film Center — placed his name at the end of the final credits of El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi, the three 90-minute features comprising his trilogy. Each feature consists of 35 shots lasting 150 seconds apiece, followed by final credits also lasting 150 seconds. Thirty-six times two and a half minutes equals an hour and a half; multiply that by three and you get 270 minutes, or four and a half hours.… Read more »

Desperate Characters [BOILING POINT and BODIES, REST & MOTION]

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 1993). — J.R.

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BOILING POINT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by James B. Harris

With Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Lolita Davidovich, Viggo Mortensen, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Christine Elise, and Valerie Perrine

BODIES, REST & MOTION

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Steinberg

Written by Roger Hedden

With Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Alicia Witt, Sandra Lafferty, and Sidney Dawson.

At least 30 or 40 years separate the sensibilities that underlie Boiling Point and Bodies, Rest & Motion, two current releases I suspect won’t be with us very long. The first, a quirky and at times oddly charming museum piece, is masquerading as a Wesley Snipes action thriller, but advertising — even wall-to-wall — isn’t everything. The writer-director, James B. Harris, who was born in 1928, produced the first three important Stanley Kubrick features — The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962) — and what’s most distinctive about this movie is its bittersweet aroma of 50s nostalgia and over-the-hill desperation, most of it wafting around a pathetically cheerful con artist called Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) who’s simply trying to stay alive.

There’s desperation aplenty in Bodies, Rest & Motion as well, but not the sort that has the weight of lived experience — or even the relative weightlessness of recollected innocence.… Read more »

The Love Parade

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). — J.R.

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Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie and first operetta, costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, contains the excitement of movies being reinvented, so that silence as well as sound becomes a brand-new plaything (in contradistinction to silent movies, which usually had musical accompaniment). A study in playfulness, this fantasy about a country preoccupied with its queen getting married actually has a dog barking out half a chorus of one number, perfectly in tune, and the precode erotics and sexual politics seem pretty advanced in spots. Secondary leads Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane offer some acrobatic low comedy as servants whose best song is called “Let’s Be Common”. 110 min. (JR)

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What’s Up, Doc?

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). I’m sorry that I’ve unable to find a single image illustrating The Last Conversation. — J.R.

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The Murder of Emmett Till

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stanley Nelson

Written by Marcia A. Smith

Narrated by Andre Braugher.

Oporto of My Childhood

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed, written, and narrated by Manoel de Oliveira.

The Last Conversation

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Sally Banes

Written by Noel Carroll

With Galina Zakrutkina and James Sutton

Narrated by Patricia Boyette.

McLuhan’s Wake

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Kevin McMahon

Written by David Sobelman

Narrated by Laurie Anderson.

Echelon: The Secret Power

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by David Korn-Brzoza

Narrated by Francois Devienne.

It’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the way most documentaries treat their subject matter, because one has to assess what’s included in light of what’s left out — something we aren’t usually qualified to do. I’m much more comfortable evaluating documentaries on how well they draw us into their subject matter and on how well they work as cinema. On these terms I can confidently say that I’ve seen and heard about a lot of exciting new documentaries recently, including an American work I really want to see, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.… Read more »

Dream Stuff [on MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA]

From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein

Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi

With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.

1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?

Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »

Sylvia Scarlett

From the Chicago Reader (July 27, 2007). — J.R.

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SylviaS

 

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For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller — rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later — as Cukor’s fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. Screening in 16-millimeter; 95 min. Admission is free. a Sat 7/28, 7 and 9 PM, Univ.… Read more »

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in. — J.R.

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.

I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks.… Read more »

Let’s Make Love

From the November 25, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Although this 1960 movie is usually accorded a low place in the Marilyn Monroe canon — understandably so, because the comedy and musical numbers never quite take off the way they’re supposed to, and the central plot premise is more than a little labored — it deserves to be reevaluated for the intelligence of Monroe’s performance and the rare independence of her character; this one was made after her brush with Actors Studio, and she isn’t playing a bimbo. Yves Montand costars as a reclusive billionaire who discovers he’s being parodied in an off-Broadway revue; he tries out for the part himself, incognito, and she’s the chorus girl who helps him along. George Cukor directed, in ‘Scope, and lent a certain glamour and polish to the proceedings. With Tony Randall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughan (whose number, “Incurably Romantic,” isn’t half-bad), and bits by Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly; Norman Krasna wrote the querulous script. 118 min. (JR)

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The “Definitive” Jacques Tati?

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Six years have passed since I wrote six essays on each of Jacques Tati’s features for Taschen’s recently released and massive five-volume book package The Definitive Jacques Tati, which actually includes eight contributions by me by reprinting my 1972 interview with Tati for Film Comment without its introduction and my 1983 essay “The Death of Hulot” for Sight and Sound. But I’m credited for nine items, because volume #2, Tati Writes, containing eight screenplays or treatments, includes the never-made Confusion, which erroneously lists me as one of Tati’s three coauthors, along with Jacques Lagrange and Dominique Bidaubayle.

Truthfully, I read this treatment, or some version of it, in French after a few sessions of working with Tati, when I was lent a copy to read overnight, but there’s absolutely nothing in it that can be attributed to me. It occurs to me, however, that my being falsely credited with its coauthorship must correspond to the way a lot of film history gets erroneously recounted and then repeated — basically because such misinformation invariably comes from institutions such as studios or publishers that try to rationalize gaps in knowledge and understanding — and because authorship is routinely assigned on the basis of who gets paid.… Read more »

Cukor and Sensuality

Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on  the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.

(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)

Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s.… Read more »