Monthly Archives: January 2019

Notes on a Conversation with Welles (1972)

The following notes appeared in the same issue of Film Comment (November–December 1972) as “The Voice and the Eye,” at the end of my regular column, titled “Paris Journal,” which typically dealt with several different topics. Though these notes largely replicate things said elsewhere by Welles, two details for me stand out as significant additions to the record: that Welles regarded his Don Quixote as nearly completed in 1972 -— which corresponds fairly closely to the conclusions of “Don Quixote: Orson Welles’s Secret” by Audrey Stainton (who worked “on and off” as Welles’s secretary in the late 1950s) in the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound — and that he remained convinced that the deleted footage of Ambersons was destroyed by RKO (a belief I regretfully share, though legends continue to circulate about another copy of the longer cut that may survive somewhere in Brazil).

2014 footnote: The information that The Deep was “completed” by 1972 seems contradicted by the apparent fact that Jeanne Moreau never dubbed her part. -– J.R.

In the course of a conversation with Orson Welles about his Heart of  Darkness script, which is detailed elsewhere in this issue, I asked Welles about his more recent projects.… Read more »

Prospero’s Books

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1992). — J.R.

Prospero's Books

Poor John Gielgud tried for years to set up a film version of The Tempest that would record his performance of Prospero; he finally had to settle for director Peter Greenaway. Gone is any sense of drama or character; the cluttered spectacle yields no overriding design but simply disconnected MTV-like conceits or mini-ideas every three seconds. Don’t expect to enjoy Shakespeare’s poetry: aural distractions constantly intrude, from sound effects, echo chambers, and Michael Nyman’s neoclassical Muzak. And don’t expect to enjoy Sacha Vierny’s exquisitely lit cinematography: double exposures, ugly rectangular overlays, graceless quick cutting, and lots of nude or semiclad extras cavorting in clunky modernist choreography drain all the pleasure from that as well. On the other hand, if you share Greenaway’s misanthropy, you might get some kicks out of watching a cherub piss on everyone in sight. With Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, and Isabelle Pasco (1991). R, 124 min. (JR)

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Discovering MARGARET

Written for FIPRESCI’s web site (fipresci.org)  on November 7, 2012. — J.R.

The potential everyday glibness of journalism is surely one of the key factors that distinguishes film reviewing from film criticism. This was painfully brought home to me shortly after reseeing at the Viennale the 150-minute version of Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, the winner of my jury’s FIPRESCI prize, almost a year after first encountering the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. In between these two viewings, I saw Lonergan’s 186-minute cut of the same film on a Blu-Ray containing both versions of the film, prompting me to write the following paragraph in my latest column for the Canadian quarterly Cinema Scope:

“I’m grateful to Kenneth Lonergan for clarifying in interviews that the 150-minute Margaret, which I saw in December 2011 and the 186-minute cut, which I saw in July, are both ‘director’s cuts,’ and now that Fox has released both in one Blu-Ray package, it’s hard to say which version I prefer. Both are brilliant messes and finely distilled renderings of the New York Jewish upper-middle-class zeitgeist circa 2003, regardless of whether one regards Anna Paquin’s teenage heroine as someone to identify with (apparently the writer-director’s position), or as monstrous, or as both (my position).Read more »

Three on a Mensch [on ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY]

From the January 19, 1990 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

Written by Roger L. Simon and Mazursky

With Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston, Lena Olin, Margaret Sophie Stein, Alan King, Judith Malina, and Mazursky.

It’s a truism of film criticism that the best movie adaptations of novels usually aren’t taken from the best novels. A good novel, like a good movie, has its own raison d’être, and attempting to translate one person’s novel into another person’s movie usually entails removing the novel’s raison d’etre or at least transmogrifying it beyond recognition. A classic example of misplaced piety, in the sense of a movie trying to follow a novel too closely, is Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967): despite the fact that characters, settings, and entire textual passages from Joyce are all dutifully delivered and rendered, Joyce himself is absent from the movie. The personal, historical, and formal determinations of the book have nothing to do with those of the director of the film, working almost half a century later. The gap between Joyce’s reasons for writing Ulysses and Strick’s reasons for adapting it is so cosmically wide that the two sets of motivations aren’t even on speaking terms.… Read more »

Love and Politics [THE RUSSIA HOUSE & HAVANA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 14, 1990). Note: Twilight Time has recently released The Russia House on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Written by Tom Stoppard

With Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, Ken Russell, David Threlfall, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.

HAVANA

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Written by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel

With Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Raul Julia, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, Daniel Davis, and Tony Plana.

The Russia House and Havana are both lavishly mounted love stories, packed with action and developed in relation to political intrigues abroad. What’s surprising about both is that although they’re Hollywood movies to the core, the American characters aren’t exactly the good guys.

In The Russia House the only important American characters are villains, while the hero is British and the heroine Russian. In Havana the hero is as American as they come, and he certainly behaves heroically, yet the film as a whole raises doubts about whether he has missed the boat, historically speaking. We entertain fewer doubts in this respect about the heroine, a Swede with an American passport who’s married to a Cuban.… Read more »

Pink Panther, Dead Horse

From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.

SON OF THE PINK PANTHER

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by Edwards, Madeline Sunshine, and Steve Sunshine

With Roberto Benigni, Claudia Cardinale, Herbert Lom, Debrah Farentino, Robert Davi, Shabana Azmi, and Burt Kwouk.

Son of the Pink Panther is the eighth or ninth Pink Panther movie, depending on how you keep count — the press materials choose to ignore Bud Yorkin’s 1968 Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin, a flop that pleased no one. It also represents the third time writer-director Blake Edwards has resumed the series after announcing it was definitively over. The first dormant period was 1965-’74, after the successive and successful releases of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. The second, 1979-’81, followed The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) — which were even more successful at the box office than the first two.

Peter Sellers, the star of the series, died in 1980. But with a perversity and cynicism matched only by commercial greed, Edwards managed to grind out two more Clouseau films in the 80s, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which I’ve never managed to bring myself to see.… Read more »

8 1/2

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

8 1_2-car

8 1_2 leg

If what you know about this exuberant, self-regarding movie comes from its countless inferior imitations (from Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and The Pickle to Allen’s Stardust Memories to Fosse’s All That Jazz), you owe it to yourself to see Federico Fellini’s exhilarating, stocktaking original — an expressionist, circuslike comedy about the complex mental and social life of a big-time filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck for a subject and the busy world surrounding him. It’s Fellini’s last black-and-white picture, and conceivably the most gorgeous and inventive thing he’s ever made — certainly more fun than anything he’s made since. (The only other Fellini movie that’s about as pleasurable would be The White Sheik.) With Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimee (1963). A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 7 through 13.

8 1:2

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Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray

From the Autumn 1973 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Surfacing in Cannes in the worst of conditions — not quite finished, unsubtitled, shrieking with technical problems of all kinds, and dropped into the lap of an exhausted press fighting to stay awake through the fifteenth and final afternoon of the festival — Nicholas Ray’s WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN may have actually hurried a few critics back to their homes; but it probably shook a few heads loose in the process. Clearly it wasn’t the sort of experience anyone was likely to come to terms with, much less assimilate, in such an unfavorable setting, although the demands it makes on an audience would be pretty strenuous under any circumstances.

Created in collaboration with Ray’s film class at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and featuring Ray and his students, the film attempts to do at least five separate things at once: (1) describe     the conditions and ramifications of the filmmaking itself, from observations at the editing table to all     sorts of peripheral factors (e.g., a female student becoming a part-time prostitute in order to raise money for the film); (2) explore the political alienation experienced by many young Americans in the late 60s and early 70s; (3) demystify Ray’s image as a Hollywood director, in relation to both his film class and his audience; (4) implicate the private lives and personalities of Ray and his students in all of the preceding;    and (5) integrate these concerns in a radical form that permits an audience to view them in several aspects  at once.… Read more »

Michel Gondry: Coping with the Metaphysics of Overload

The following short essay was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in early 2007 for a brochure accompanying a retrospective (“Michel Gondry: The Science of Dreams”) presented between May 11 and June 23, and a Regis Dialogue that I conducted with him on June 23. –J.R.

What’s sometimes off-putting about the postmodernity of music videos is tied to both the presence and absence of history in them — the dilemma of being faced simultaneously with too much and too little. On the one hand, one sees something superficially resembling the entire history of art — often encompassing capsule histories of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film — squeezed into three-to-five-minute slots. The juxtapositions and overlaps that result can be so violent and incongruous that the overall effect is sometimes roughly akin to having a garbage can emptied onto one’s head. Yet on the other hand, radical foreshortenings and shotgun marriages of this kind often have the effect of abolishing history altogether, making every vestige of the past equal and equivalent to every other via the homogenizing effect of TV itself. Back in 1990, sitting through nearly eight hours of a touring show called “Art of Music Video,” I was appalled to discover that the two most obvious forerunners of music videos, soundies from the 40s and Scopitone from the 60s, were neither included in the show nor even acknowledged in its catalog’s history of the genre.… Read more »

Home Truths [THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME]

From the September 13, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. This film was probably the most popular of the dozen features I showed to MA students in my World Cinema Workshop at Film.Factory in Sarajevo (September 15-19, 2014). — J.R.

The Asthenic Syndrome

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Kira Muratova

Written by Sergei Popov, Alexander Chernych, and Muratova

With Popov, Olga Antonova, Natalya Busko, Galina Sachurdaewa, Alexandra Ovenskaya, and Natalya Rallewa.

Every time I am asked what the film is about, I reply, quite honestly, “It’s about everything.” — Kira Muratova, 1990

Seven years have passed since I first saw Kira Muratova’s awesome The Asthenic Syndrome at the Toronto film festival, and while waiting for it to find its way to Chicago I’ve had plenty of time to speculate about why a movie of such importance should be so hard for us to see. Insofar as movies function as newspapers, this one has more to say about the state of the world in the past decade than any other new film I’ve seen during the same period, though what it has to say isn’t pretty. So maybe the reason it’s entitled to only one local screening — at the Film Center this Sunday — is the movie business’s perception that it must offer only pretty pictures.… Read more »

Top Ten [The 10 Best Films of 1988]

From the January 6, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

For me, the ten best movies of 1988 are the ones I would profit most from seeing again and the ones I’ve profited most from thinking about. Their value, in other words, lies not merely in the immediate pleasure they offered but also in their aftereffects — the way they set with me for weeks and months after I saw them, sometimes growing and ripening with time.

I tend to be wary of critics’ lists and awards that are unduly weighted toward recent films — particularly because it’s much harder to evaluate a movie at the time of its release than it is weeks, months, or even years later. Perhaps the key occupational hazard of film critics is the pressure to remain stuck in a continuous present, and to serve the whims of the marketplace by confusing what’s recent with what’s genuinely new. Measuring a given week’s offerings only against each other narrows the difference between criticism and advertising by basing everything on consumption — reducing the universe of films to the few releases that happen to be available for consumption at any given moment rather than reflection.

On the basis of my own reflection, it turns out that six of my favorite movies of 1988 opened in Chicago during the first half of the year; I saw a couple others either then or earlier, and the remaining two in July and September.… Read more »

Manuel De Landa (1983 profile)

This profile was published without title in the December 1983 issue of Omni, in a section simply called “The Arts”. -– J.R.

It makes perfect sense that Manuel De Landa, a thirty-year-old Mexican anarchist filmmaker who specializes in the aesthetics of outrage, inhabits a midtown Manhattan apartment so tidy and upstanding that it could almost belong to a divinity student. The point seems to be that if you want to shake the civilized world at its foundations, it helps your credibility if you wear a jacket and tie — especially if you speak with an accent that makes you sound like Father Guido Sarducci.For a talented artist who has an asocial image to sell and a highly social way of putting it across, it isn’t surprising that De Landa makes wild, aggressive films that leap all over the place while standing absolutely still. In The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1977) and Incontinence: ADiarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978),quarreling couples in tacky settings are subjected to all kinds of optical violence:The camera moves around them in the shape of a figure eight, or De Landa crazily cuts back and forth between two static shots of the principals screaming at each other — as if he were a mad scientist, controlling their shrieks with the twist of a knob.Read more »

Outfoxing the Film Industry

From the Chicago Reader (July 30, 2004). — J.R.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Directed by Robert Greenwald.

DVDs are bringing about rapid and substantial changes in the way we consume movies, and in film culture itself. A case in point is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which premiered July 13 on DVD and video rather than in theaters. You could have seen it at one of more than 3,000 “house party” viewings organized by MoveOn.org two Sundays ago, or you can just buy it online for $9.95 plus shipping as I did. There must be lots of others like me, because Outfoxed has been Amazon’s top-selling video title for over a week now, and the last time I looked it had 133 customer reviews.

Watching the muckraking examination of the Fox News Channel at home had its advantages: as soon as it was over, I was able to switch directly to Fox to see if it really was as awful as Greenwald’s documentary maintained. (It was.) There are also advantages to keeping a DVD like this on the shelf: you can refer back to certain points in the film for clarification. And facts aren’t all you might want to go back to: if it’s an art film, for instance, you can jump to a favorite passage — a camera movement, a facial expression, a composition, or the delivery of a line of dialogue — the same way you can open a book to revisit some favorite lines of poetry.… Read more »

Wild Game (1977 review)

This review appeared in the January 1977 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The American title of this film was Jailbait.– J.R.

Wildwechsel (Wild Game)

West Germany, 1972
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Cert — X. dist –- Contemporary. p.c –- InterTel (West German TV). In collaboration with Sender Freies. p — Gerhard  Freund. p. sup -– Manfred Kortowski. p. manager -– Rudolf Gürlich, Siegfried B. Glökler. asst. d –- Irm Hermann. sc –- Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Based on the play by Franz-Xaver Kroetz.  ph –- Dietrich Lohmann. In colour. ed — Thea Eymèsz, a.d –- Kurt Raab, m -– excerpts from the work of Beethoven. songs -– “You Are My Destiny” by and performed by Paul Anka. l.p –- Eva Mattes (Hanni Schneider), Harry Baer (Hans Bermeier), Jörg von Liebenfels (Erwin Schneider), Ruth Drexel (Hilda Schneider), Rudolf Waldemar Brem (Dieter), Hanna Schygulla (Doctor), Kurt Raab (Factory Boss), El Hedi Ben Salem (Franz’s Friend), Karl Schedit and Klaus Michael Löwitsch (Policemen), Irm Hermann and Marquart Bohm (Police Officials). 9,180 ft. 103 min. Subtitles.

Hanni Schneider, fourteen, gets picked up by Franz Bermeier, nineteen, and loses her virginity with him in a hayloft.… Read more »

What’s up, Doc?

From The Movie, Chapter 33 (1980). -– J.R.

It was in 1940 that a brisk, buck-toothed city rabbit first sank teeth into carrot. briefly paused, gazed with indifferent aplomb at a lisping country rabbit-hunter with a shotgun and coolly inquired: ‘What’s up, Doc?’ This official debut of Bugs Bunny occurred at the beginning of A Wild Hare, one of nine cartoons that were supervised that year by Fred (known as ‘Tex’) Avery, a brilliant animator from Dallas who was working for Warner Brothers. The cartoon won an Academy Award nomination and the durable comedy team of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd promptly went into business.

 

‘That darn wabbit!’

Bugs Bunny, first seen in Porky’s Hare Hunt (1938), had a complicated cross-bred genealogy. Remembering the ‘What’s up, Doc?’ expression from his high-school days in Texas, Avery had decided to place it in the mouth of a sharp Brooklynese rabbit who knew everything. Avery later recalled in an interview:

‘So when we hit on the rabbit we decided he was going to be a smart-aleck rabbit, but casual about it, and I think the opening line in the first one was, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?,’ And gee, it floored ’em!… Read more »