Written in July 2008 for an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to Washington, D.C. In a way, the recent Arrival might be said to qualify as a mystical remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I found it every bit as gripping. — J.R.
To get the full measure of what Cold War paranoia was doing
to the American soul, two of the best Hollywood A-pictures
of the early 50s, each of which pivots around its Washington,
D.C. locations – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and My
Son John (1952) — still speak volumes about their shared zeitgeist,
even though they couldn’t be further apart politically.
An archetypal liberal parable in the form of a science fiction
thriller and an archetypal right-wing family tragedy (with deft
slapstick interludes) that’s even scarier, they’re hardly equal in
terms of their reputations. Leo McCarey’s My Son John, widely
regarded today as an embarrassment for its more hysterical elements,
has scandalously never come out on video or DVD [2014 footnote, it’s
now available from Olive Films], though in its own era it garnered
even more prestige than Robert Wise’s SF thriller, having received
an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.… Read more »
A review from the May 26, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
POULET AU VINAIGRE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Dominique Roulet and Chabrol
With Jean Poiret, Stéphane Audran, Michel Bouquet, Jean Topart, Lucas Belvaux, Pauline Lafont, Jean-Claude Bouillaud, and Caroline Cellier.
In 1985, after seeing Claude Chabrol’s Poulet au vinaigre at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, I remember thinking: At last! The petit-maître is back in form, doing what he knows how to do best; here’s a Chabrol movie that’s sure to get an American release. (At that point it had been about seven years since Violette Nozière — which wasn’t one of my favorite Chabrol films — had opened in the U.S.) Poulet au vinaigre had sex, violence, dark wit, a superb sense of both the corruption and meanness of life in the French provinces, a good whodunit plot, Balzacian characters (including an interesting detective), and very nice camera work by Jean Rabier, Chabrol’s usual cinematographer. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but at the very least it was a well-crafted and satisfying entertainment that surely, I thought, would be enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, it already was being enjoyed by the audience I was seeing it with in Toronto.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1976, Vol. 43, No. 504. — J.R.
Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox)
West Germany, 1975
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Ce r t–X. dist–Cinegate. p.c–Tango-Film. p–Rainer Werner Fassbinder. p. manager–Christian Hohoff. asst. d–Irm Hermann. sc—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Christian Hohoff. ph–Mictrael Ballhaus. col–Eastman Colour. ed–Thea Eymèsz. a.d–Kurt Raab. m–Peer Raben. songs–“One Night” by Pearl King, Dave Bartholomew, performed by Elvis Presley; “Bird on the Wire” by and performed by Leonard Cohen. l.p–Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Fox” Franz Biberkopf), Peter Chatel (Eugen Theiss), Karl- Heinz Böhm (Max), Harry Bär (Philip), Adrian Hoven (Eugen’s Father), Ulla Jacobsen (Eugen’s Mother), Christiane Maybach (Hedwig), Peter Kern (Florist “Fatty” Schmidt), Hans Zandler (Man in Bar), Kurt Raab (Barman Springer),Irm Hermann (Mlle. Chérie de Paris), Barbara Valentin (Max’s Wife), Walter Sedlmayr (Car Dealer), Ingrid Caven (Singer in Bar), (El Hedi Ben Salem (Moroccan), Brigitte Mira (Shopkeeper),Bruce Low (Soldier), Ursula Strätz, Elma Karlowa, Evelyn Künneke, Marquart Bohm, Liselone Eder, Klaus Löwitsch.
11,077 ft.… Read more »
Written for Sight and Sound, November 25, 2018. — J.R.
- The Munich Filmmuseum DVD of Max Ophüls’ Liebelei & Lola Montez, especially for its restoration of the German version of the latter film.
- The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of Don Weis’ The Adventures of Hajji Baba, a triumph of sexy Hollywood nonsense that merits non-patronizing patronage.
- The Second Run Features Blu-Ray of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, an optimal edition of my favourite Czech feature.
- The Paramount eight-disc DVD box set of Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series — the shopping bargain of the year, making David Lynch’s transgressive look at the U.S. and even more transgressive contribution to mainstream TV much more accessible.
- The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray of Spetters, for Paul Verhoeven’s audiocommentary.
… Read more »
From the March 26, 2004 Chicago Reader. This may help to explain, at least in part, why I had no desire to see the Coens’ other remake, True Grit. (Two other reasons that come to mind: I didn’t like the original and I’m sick of American revenge plots, offscreen as well as onscreen.) — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by the Coens and William Rose
With Tom Hanks, Irma B. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, and George Wallace.
The day after I saw the Coen brothers’ remake I watched the original — the Ealing Studios’ The Ladykillers, a popular 1955 English classic directed by Alexander Mackendrick a couple of years before he directed Sweet Smell of Success in the U.S. I’d taped the original over a decade ago, long before American Movie Classics started recutting features and inserting commercial breaks. AMC may assume that any film in which English is spoken is somehow American, but The Ladykillers, scripted by William Rose, is so thoroughly English I doubt its humor could be fully understood without reference to the English character or 20th- century English history.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 21, 1990). — J.R.
If my paranoid suspicions are correct, Hollywood has embarked on a 12-year plan regarding the public consumption of trailers. The plan, which has become fully apparent to me over the past year, will come to fruition in the year 2000, and its basic goal, as I see it, is to turn movies themselves into full-fledged commercials that people will pay money to see.
When Back to the Future II ended with a trailer for Back to the Future III, it was a harbinger of what’s to come. The ever-increasing proliferation of sequels has already accustomed the public to the notion that any hit movie eventually becomes, at least retroactively, an advertisement for its inevitable successor. Now, through a three-point program that might be termed standardization-infiltration-expansion, Hollywood is force-feeding us a diet of trailers in an apparent effort to alter our modes of perception. Most movie trailers are now designed to resemble one another as closely as possible, from the discontinuous, scattershot cutting to the near-subliminal card of credits flashed at the end. They appear in a variety of fresh contexts — at the beginning and end of videotapes, on “commercial-free” cable channels, and as integral parts of some features, like the aforementioned Back to the Future II — and they crop up so repeatedly in their more traditional venues, in movie theaters and on network TV, that we may come to know certain trailers as intimately as we know certain family members.… Read more »
From Kevin Lee’s web site, posted circa 2004. — J.R.
The following questions for Jonathan Rosenbaum were compiled by myself and esteemed colleagues at the IMDb Classic Film Board. They were e-mailed to Rosenbaum on the occasion of the release of his book ESSENTIAL CINEMA. His responses appear after each question.
Q- I was actually quite surprised when I saw that your book argued for the necessity of canons, given your previous criticism of the AFI’s top 100 lists and how it institutionalizes popular taste in much the same way as any canon does. Also, you testify to the profound affect that the Sight and Sound top 10 list had on you during your college years (as was the case for me) — but couldn’t one say that this, or any list, may be as limiting in its own way (in the perspective it espouses) as the AFI list? If the goal is to encourage people to see as many things as possible, I wonder if any canon or list alone is up to that task. Would you agree to that the problem is not in these canons or lists but in our attitudes towards them (for example, I don’t think it was the virtue of the Sight and Sound list in itself, but your attitude towards it, that made it worthwhile)?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1994). — J.R.
** THE LION KING
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
With the voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Moira Kelly, Jim Cummings, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cheech Marin.
Though it’s somewhat less entertaining than The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, The Lion King marks a welcome and fascinating shift in the Disney animated feature. It may be just a coincidence, but Disney’s new live-action Angels in the Outfield, a multicultural remake of a 1951 baseball fantasy, marks the same kind of racial and ethnic reorientation. I’d like to think that the widespread (and justifiable) objections raised by Middle Eastern groups to the xenophobic stereotypes in Aladdin have finally led to some rethinking by Disney executives about how to handle such ethnic material. If my hunch is correct, these changes represent not so much a kowtowing to political correctness as a more accurate reckoning of Disney’s stateside and international audience.
The issue isn’t exactly reality versus fantasy, because all Disney pictures are fantasies. In real life a white orphan isn’t likely to be adopted by a black man even if the white orphan’s best friend is a black orphan who comes along with the bargain (as in Angels in the Outfield).… Read more »
A short review commissioned by Film Comment (July-August 2002), which left out the asterisk in the title. — J.R.
I recently read in a film festival report that Michael Snow’s new 92-minute feature was a bit longer than it needed to be. This conjured up visions of a test-marketing preview — cards handed out at Anthology Film Archives with questions like, “Would an ideal length for this be 82 minutes? An hour? Three minutes? 920 minutes?” For even though this may be the best Snow film since La Région Centrale in 1971 — a commemorative (and quite accessible) magnum opus with many echoes and aspects of his previous works — it enters a moviegoing climate distinctly different from the kind that greeted his earlier masterpieces. In 1969, the late, great Raymond Durgnat could find the same “mixture of despair and acquiescence” in both Frank Tashlin and Andy Warhol; today, on the other hand, avant-garde art is expected to perform like light entertainment.
Up to a point, Snow seems ready to oblige with his irrepressible jokiness —- a taste for rebus-style metaphors (often banal) and adolescent pranks (a giant penis hovering over a blonde’s backside) that makes this the least neurotic experimental film about technology imaginable — the precise opposite of Leslie Thornton’s feature-length cycle Peggy and Fred in Hell.… Read more »
The following was commissioned for a handsome hardcover catalogue to a comprehensive Robert Frank retrospective held in Graz, Austria by Diagonale in 2003. It was produced by Philippe Grandrieux (better known nowadays for his own films), for La Sept (French TV); C’est vrai! was its original (i.e., French TV) title.
I’ve slightly revised and updated this piece for its appearance here. –J.R.
“I’ve seen La chouette aveugle [The Blind Owl] seven times,” Luc Moullet once wrote of Raúl Ruiz’s intractable masterpiece, “and I know a little less about the film with each viewing.” Apart from being both intractable and a masterpiece, I can’t say Robert Frank’s One Hour has anything in common with the Ruiz film, yet what makes it a masterpiece and intractable is the same paradox: the closer I come to understanding it, the more mysterious it gets.
My first look at this single-take account of Frank and actor Kevin O’Connor either walking or riding in the back of a mini-van through a few blocks of Manhattan’s Lower East Side — shot between 3:45 and 4:45 pm on July 26, 1990 — led me to interpret it as a spatial event capturing the somewhat uncanny coziness and intimacy of New York street life, the curious experience of eavesdropping involuntarily on strangers that seems an essential part of being in Manhattan, an island where so many people are crammed together that the existential challenge of everyday coexistence between them seems central to the city’s energy and excitement.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991) — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by George Toles and Maddin
With Kyle McCulloch, Kathy Marykuca, Ari Cohen, Sarah Neville, Michael Gottli, and Victor Cowie.
Amnesia is a subject we associate with film noir of the 40s and 50s, and social commentators tend to link its use in such films — with their gloomy and murky moods, their amnesiac heroes’ helplessness — to some version of postwar angst. Now it appears that amnesia — both as subject and as metaphor — is making a minor comeback as a postmodernist theme. An early instance of this trend can be found in the fate of Tyrone Slothrop, the hero of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, who gradually gets phased out of the book as a visible presence once he starts shifting his attention from his inscrutable, troubling past to his immediate present. We learn that “‘personal density is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth….Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now … [and] the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may even get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even — as Slothrop now — what you’re doing here, at the base of this colossal curved embankment…”
It’s a paradoxical hallmark of postmodernist art to be preoccupied with certain aspects of the past while being closed off — whether through indifference or ignorance or (real or metaphorical) amnesia — to certain other aspects.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 15, 1996). — J.R.
Directed and written by
Narrated by Fred Gardner.
Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it “Here is a magnificent novel” is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and remarking, “Well, well, well; quite a slice.”
Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither is the Atlantic Ocean. — Dorothy Parker
One of the main characteristics of experimental films is that they tend to make hash of the terms we use to speak about narrative features, and James Benning’s haunting, beautiful, and awesome Deseret (1995) — his eighth feature-length film — performs this valuable function from the outset. To say that Deseret is “directed” and “written” by Benning requires some bending of the categories. He “directed” it insofar as he conceived the project, filmed the images, recorded the sound, and edited the sound and images; he “wrote” it insofar as he compiled and edited the texts that are read offscreen by Fred Gardner, though he didn’t write them. In a Hollywood film the directorial tasks described above would be carried out by a producer, cinematographer, sound recordist, editor, and sound editor; it’s anybody’s guess what the compiler and editor of the text would be called (researcher?… Read more »
This appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. Although my favorite Cecil B. De Mille film is the talkie version of Dynamite (1929) — I still haven’t seen the silent version, released around the same time — The Ten Commandments (1956) is probably the film of his that I’m most familiar with, along with the somewhat underrated Samson and Delilah (1949).
Part of what’s so remarkable about the scandalously underrated and neglected Dynamite [see still, above] is how real and serious it contrives to make the marital pairing of a coal miner (Charles Bickford) and a spoiled city heiress (Kay Johnson), even though brought about through preposterous plot contrivances, and how, in spite of De Mille’s conservative social and political biases, it assigns equal amounts of dignity and vulnerability to both classes. It’s also one of the most suspenseful and charged melodramas to have ever come out of Hollywood. — J.R.
The Power of Belief
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Cecil B. De Mille
Written by Aeneas Mackenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank
With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, and Vincent Price.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977. — J.R.
Director: (not credited)
Dist–TCB. p.c–Drew Associates. For the Bell System. p–Robert Drew, Mike Jackson. assoc. p–Harry Moses. p. co-ordinator–Jean Swain. sc–(not credited). ph–Abbot Mills, Juliana Wang, Ralph Weisinger. asst. ph–Bill Hanson. In color. ed–Naomi Mankbwitz. m.d–Donald Voorhees. songs–fragments of “When the Saints Go Marching fn”, “Hello Dolly”, “Rose”, “The Kinda Love Song” by George Weiss, performed by Louis Armstrong; “Con Alma”, “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” performed by Dizzy Gillespie; “I’m in a Dancing Mood” performed by Dave Brubeck; “Light in the Wilderness” by Dave Brubeck; “Forest Flower”, performed by Charles Lloyd. sd–Dave Blumgart, Stan Agol. narrator–Don Morrow. with–Louis Armstrotrg, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Iola Brubeck, Matthew Brubeck, Michael Brubeck, Catherine Brubeck, Christopher Brubeck, David Brubeck, Darius Brubeck, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, George Weiss. 1,921 ft. 53 mins. (16 mm.).
Interviews with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Charles Lloyd, interspersed with snatches of their music in rehearsal or performance.
An appalling example of how appreciation of jazz can be summarily crushed in the process of supposedly trying to promote the music, this American TV documentary follows the fatal course of rarely letting the music speak for itself for more than a few bars at a time, while encouraging each of the four musicians to pontificate at length about his life and art.… Read more »
From the March 1980 issue of American Film. – J.R.
It’s pretty apparent to anyone who meets avant-garde filmmaker Yvonne Rainer for the first time that she used to be a dancer. But one probably has to see at least one of her four challenging features in order to perceive that she used to be a choreographer, too. And it’s only after one considers her in both these capacities that one starts to get an inking of what her viewpoint and her art are all about.
The first time I met her — three and a half years ago, at the Edinburgh Film Festival — Rainer reminded me in several ways of writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag. It wasn’t merely the somewhat glamorous positions that both women occupy on respective intellectual turfs. There was also a kind of spiritual resemblance that seemed to run much deeper: voice tone, appearance, wit, grace, and coolness masking an old-country sense of tragedy and suffering.
In Edinburgh Rainer delivered a lecture called “A Likely Story,” about the use of narrative in films. In the course of her remarks, she made it clear that her own “involvement with narrative forms” hadn’t always been “either happy or wholehearted,” but was “rather more often a dalliance than a commitment.”… Read more »