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 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 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 »
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 »
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 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 »
From Monthly Film Bulletin , September 1976, Vol. 43, No. 512. — J.R.
Director: Michael Snow
Dist–London Film-makers Co-op /Cinegate. conceived and executed by— Michael Snow. In colour. ed–Michael Snow. sd–Darvin Studio. with— Allan Kaprow, Emmett Williams, Max Neuhaus, Terri Marsala, Donna Aughey, Joyce Wieland, Louis Commitzer, George Murphy, Dr. Gordon, Liba Bayrak, Anne Scotty, Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, John Giorno, Paul Iden, Alison Knowles, Jud Yalkut, Susan Ay-O, Mac, students in the HEP program at Farleigh Dickinson University. 1,872 ft. 52 mins.
Alternative title—Back and Forth
The camera pans back and forth across an outside wall of a classroom while a man crosses part of the field. The pan resumes inside the classroom in a fixed trajectory, revealing an asymmetrical area including part of a blackboard and a door on a far wall, two pairs of windows on the wall closer to the camera, and desks in front of the blackboard; trees, building and occasionally passing vehicles are partially visible through the doors and windows.
Throughout, one hears the sound of the camera’s mechanisms, including a loud report at the beginning and end of each pan. Various cuts emphasise that certain parts of individual pans, or entire pans, or a number in series, were filmed at different times.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 493). –- J.R.
Director: Michael Snow
Dist–London Film-makers Co–op. conceived and executed by—Michael Snow. In color. ed–Michael Snow. song—“Strawberry Fields Forever” by John Lennon, Paul McCartney. performed by—The Beatles. sd–_Michael Snow. l.p–Hollis Frampton (Man Who Dies), Amy Taubin (Woman on Phone). 1,538 ft. 45 min. (16 mm.).
A camera zooms across the length of an 80-foot urban loft, beginning from a distance approximating the camera’s fixed. Position — where most of the room is visible — and proceeding towards the four vertical double-windows, three intervening sections of wall space, desk, chairs and radiator on the opposite side, accompanied on the soundtrack by a sine wave gradually progressing from its lowest note (50 cycles per second) to its highest (12,000 cycles per second). The zoom mainly proceeds through a series of periodic jerks, between occasional shot changes, while the images pass through a variety of colored filters, film stocks, and qualities and degrees of processing (positive and negative)and light exposure (controlled by the camera, four light fixtures on the ceiling, and the time of day). It is interrupted four times by a visible human event, and during each of these the sine wave is overlaid with synchronized sound: (1) A woman and two men enter the room, and the former directs the latter to set a bookshelf down against the wall on screen left; all three leave.… Read more »
Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast (1897-1968) made eight films, all between 1927 and 1935, and apparently some of these are lost. (He was fired from the early talkie Raffles — which seems to retain a few d’Arrastian qualities — and replaced by George Fitzmaurice, and reportedly he also did some uncredited work on Wings.) I’ve seen three of his films — the two briefly described below (both for the 2009 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) and Topaze (1933) — and all of them are pretty remarkable. (The latter is a Pagnol adaptation with one of John Barrymore’s most touching performances.) As far as I know, the only one who ever wrote about this figure in any detail was Herman G. Weinberg in Saint Cinema. According to Pierre Rissient, who knows a lot about d’Arrast (and passionately denies that he was antisemitic — a gossipy accusation I’ve sometimes heard about him, presumably as a partial explanation for why he fought as often as he did with producers), d’Arrast also had a lot to do with the preparation of one of my favorite musicals, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! (1933), which wound up being directed by Lewis Milestone.
The following capsules were written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2009.… Read more »
Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
A bickering husband and wife (John Hubbard and
Carole Landis) switch bodies and lives (but not voices)
after encountering a Buddhist curse. Hal Roach
directed this extremely odd 1940 comedy -– the only
feature I’ve selected not because it’s good, exactly
(some would regard it as pure camp), but because of
how singular and uncanny it is as a kind of freakish
prelude to Adam’s Rib, with gay undertones to spare.
(Not surprisingly, the Catholic Legion of Decency
found it “objectionable”.) It’s adapted from a novel
of the same title by Thorne Smith (1892-1934), who
became one of the most popular sources of erotic
fantasy and whimsy used in Hollywood movies of the
30s and early 40s (in Night Life of the Gods, Topper
and its sequels, and René Clair’s I Married a Witch,
among others). The secondary cast is also notable:
Adolphe Menjou (actually given top billing),
William Gargan, Mary Astor, Donald Meek,
Franklin Pangborn, and Marjorie Main.
ADAM’S RIB (1949)
This comedy, directed by George Cukor from a script by Ruth
Gordon and Garson Kanin, is probably the best of all the features
pairing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500. — J.R.
W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings
Director: John G. Avildsen
Cert—A. dist–Fox-Rank. p.c–20th Century-Fox. exec. p–Steve
Shagan. p–Stanley S. Canter. p. manager–William C. Davidson. asst. d
–Ric Rondell, Jerry Grandey. sc–Thomas Rickman. ph–Jim Crabe.
col–TVC; prints by DeLuxe. ed–Richard Halsey, Robbe Roberts. a.d—
Larry Paull. set dec–JimBerkey. sp. effects–Milt Rice. m–Dave Grusin.
songs–“Hound Dog” by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, sung by Elvis
Presley; “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” by Calvin Carter, James
Hudson; “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry; “Bye Bye Love” by
Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant; “I’m Walkin’” by Antoine “Fats”
Domino, Dave Bartholomew; “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Lee Perkins;
“Mama Was a Convict” by Tom Rickman, Tim Mclntire; “A Friend” by
Jerry Reed; “Dirty Car Blues” (traditional), performed by Furry Lewis.
cost–Dick LaMotte. titles–PacificTitle. sd. rec–Bud Alper. sd. re-rec—
Don Bassman. stunt co-ordinator–Hal Needham.… Read more »