From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2001). — J.R.
Like John Singleton’s other features, this is far from flawless; at 129 minutes it’s longer than it needs to be, and the music hits you like a sledgehammer at moments when any music at all is redundant and something of an insult. But the characters are so full-bodied and the feelings so raw and complex that I’d call this the best thing he’s done to dateby which I mean the most convincing and serious, telling us at least as much about everyday life in South Central Los Angeles as did Boyz N the Hood, his first movie. The title character, well played by Tyrese Gibson, is a 20-year-old with a pronounced Oedipus complex who lives with his 36-year-old mother (A.J. Johnson), has fathered two kids with separate girlfriends (Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass), and starts to feel crowded when his mother falls for a reformed gangster (Ving Rhames, also especially good). Sexually explicit both visually and aurally, this shows rare inventiveness in exploring one character’s fantasies during an orgasm. With Omar Gooding and Snoop Dogg. (JR)… Read more »
From Film Comment (July-August 1977). After I returned to the U.S. early that year after seven and a half years of living in Europe (Paris and London), my “Paris Journal” and “London Journal” column in Film Comment became “Moving,” a preoccupation that eventually yielded the title of my first book, Moving Places.
Note: the 35 mm screening of JEANNE DIELMAN alluded to here was set up by Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson on the University of California, San Diego campus while they were working on the last of their essays. -– J.R.
How to keep moving in the same way that this column must travel — from La Jolla, to Richard Corliss in Cannes, to Film Comment in New York, to wherever you happen to be reading it? Now that TV Guide generally has to take the place of Pariscope, [London’s] Time Out, the New York newspapers, shall I write about the breathneck beginning of Sirk’s SLEEP, MY LOVE, the parallels with Preminger’s WHIRLPOOL,a wonderful exchange between Don Ameche and Hazel Brooks (”Doesn’t sound like my girl…” “You have a lot of girls. This is one of them”), or scenes that unexpectedly and mysteriously take place in the rain?… Read more »
From The Soho News (September 3, 1980). –- J.R.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Written and directed by Fred Schepisi
Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally
For a good 80 percent or so of its running time, the experience
of seeing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith affords a
salutary, beautiful shock. Films that are even halfway honest
about racism — Mandingo and Richard Pryor Live in
Concert are the most recent examples that spring to mind
— are so unexpected that they’re often accused of being racist
themselves, perhaps because of the deeply rooted taboos that
they expose and violate.
There’s no question that Fred Schepisi’s powerhouse Australian
movie — adapted from a novel by Thomas Keneally (who plays a
small but significant role as a lecherous cook), and “based on real
events that took place in Australia at the turn of the century”
(just before the federation of Australian colonies) – is agit-prop,
ideologically slanted. But then again, it’s hard to think of any
other current release — including, say, The Empire Strikes
Back and Dressed to Kill -– that isn’t.
The aforementioned hits perform in part the not-so-innocent
task of turning contemporary objects of confusion and disgust
(recent architecture and sex, respectively) into occasions for
exhilarated lyricism.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). It’s worth noting that Japanese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, so that the film is also known as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, which is an equally accurate translation. — J. R.
Though not the best known of Kenji Mizoguchi’s period masterpieces, this 1939 feature is conceivably the greatest. (For me the only other contender is Sansho the Bailiff.) The plot, which oddly resembles that of There’s No Business Like Show Business, concerns the rebellious son of a theatrical family devoted to Kabuki who leaves home for many years, perfects his art, aided by a working-class woman who loves him, and eventually returns. Apart from the highly charged and adroitly edited Kabuki sequences, the film is mainly constructed in extremely long takes, and an intricate rhyme structure between two time periods is developed by matching camera angles in the same locations. Never before or since (apart from The 47 Ronin) has Mizoguchi’s refusal to use close-ups been more telling, and the theme of female sacrifice that informs most of his major works is given a singular resonance and complexity here. Demonstrating an uncanny mastery of framing and camera movement, the film also has a complexity of characterization that’s shown with sublime economy.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). — J.R.
Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Rene Vienet (and Doo Kwang Kee)
Written by Vienet (and Ngai Hong)
With Pai Paiu, Chan Hung Liu, Ingrid Wu, and the voices of Jacques Thebaut, Patrick Dewaere, Michelle Grellier, and Dominique Morin.
“This is a situationist film. This is not a situationist film,” begin Keith Sanborn’s notes to Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — a French film in color being shown at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday in a subtitled, black-and-white, letterboxed video version. I think Sanborn, an experimental filmmaker, is referring to the fact that Vienet’s film was made in 1973, the year after the Situationist International disbanded and two years after Vienet — who joined the situationists in 1963 — resigned from their ranks.
I don’t know much about the situationists, but according to critic Peter Wollen they formed out of a split within an earlier radical artistic and political group, the lettrists, who sort of took over the mantle of the French avant-garde from the surrealists after World War II under the leadership of Isidore Isou. The “dissident Revolutionary Lettrists,” as Wollen called them, were led by two young filmmakers, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, who went on to become situationists.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 25, 1999). — J.R.
An Ideal Husband
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Oliver Parker
Written by Oscar Wilde and Parker
With Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, John Wood, Lindsay Duncan, Peter Vaughan, and Jeroen Krabbe.
Reviewing a collection of Oscar Wilde’s critical writings almost 30 years ago, Cyril Connolly made a useful distinction between “Wilde” and “Oscar,” the two sides of the same man. “Wilde is Wilde in these essays and seldom ‘Oscar,'” Connolly noted with justifiable admiration. “The change is beneficial. In some cases he is both: thus The Soul of Man Under Socialism in places seems almost inspired; it is a breath of fresh air in which the idealistic aspects of Socialism (or Christian Democracy) have seldom been so well expressed — in his denunciation of private property for example.
“Then ‘Oscar’ intervenes. ‘There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.‘”
Connolly goes on to explain, “When I think of ‘Oscar,’ it is against a background of servants, of butlers announcing him and footmen with salvers, of a hansom cab hired by the day, the driver nodding under his tarpaulin while Wilde and Bosie display far into the night.”… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
Seeing this singular 1968 American experimental feature by William Greaves a second time (on video; the first time was in 1981, in its original 35-millimeter format) has led me to value it more, though arguably the fact that it loses relatively little impact on video constitutes one of its limitations. Greaves, a pioneering black actor whose career stretches back to postwar films made for black audiences as well as the underrated Hollywood feature Lost Boundaries, went on to direct over 200 documentaries, host and executive produce NET’s Black Journal, and teach acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For this eccentric venture, he got two white actors to play a quarreling couple in Central Park and proceeded to film not only them (in both rehearsal and performance) but also himself and his camera crew and various other people in the vicinity, often juxtaposing two or three camera angles simultaneously in split screen in the final edit. The crew’s own doubts and speculations about the film being made were also recorded later and edited into the mix. The couple’s quarrel is vitriolic and singularly unpleasant, the acting variable, the collective insight into what Greaves is up to mainly uncertain.… Read more »
From the February 18, 2000 Chicago Reader. This piece is reprinted in my forthcoming Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University of Chicago Press), appearing this fall. — J.R.
Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Martin Arnold
With Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Fay Holden.
Wearing suspenders, Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy steps behind his mother (Fay Holden), clutching her left shoulder and right forearm with his two hands, and firmly kisses the back of her neck while she slowly nods her head with a stoic, worldly-wise expression. In a series of stuttering, staccato jerks, he does the same thing again, to the throbbing strains of eerie, ghostly music. Then he does it a third time, pausing first to rock back and forth from one foot to another a good many times, as if he had ants in his pants. When he kisses the back of his mom’s neck this time, his lips seem to remain glued there. This embrace, his barely perceptible jaw movements, and her steadily bobbing head all conspire to suggest something vaguely obscene and depraved. Could Andy have become some kind of Dracula, sucking blood from his mother’s neck? Or do the slow pumping rhythm and repeated nervous thrusts represent some kind of sexual motion?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 1990). — J.R.
MR. HOOVER AND I
Directed and written by Emile de Antonio.
1. “Born Pennsylvania U.S.A., in intellectual surroundings and coal mines. Went to Harvard. Became, and still is, a Marxist, without party or leader. Started making films at age of 40 after having avoided films most of his life. Favorite film is L’age d’or.” Emile de Antonio’s self-description was written around 1977 for a poll organized by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and eventually published in book form as The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films. Under the category of most important American films, de Antonio listed, in order, The Birth of a Nation, It’s a Gift, A Night at the Opera, The Cure, The Immigrant, One A.M., The Kid, Big Business, The Navigator, and Foolish Wives, and added the following comment:
“Most American films were and are like Fords. They are made on assembly lines. John Ford is not an artist any more than Jerry Ford is a statesman. Harry Cohn said it all and the Capras jumped.
“Comedy was spared all that. Irreverence was possible because the booboisie didn’t know it was being laughed at.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1990). — J.R.
DOCUMENTING THE DIRECTOR
It’s no secret that over the past few years, while “entertainment news,” bite-size reviews, and other forms of promotion in all the media have been steadily expanding, serious film criticism in print become an increasingly scarce. (I’m not including academic film interpretation, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field that has by now developed a rhetoric and a tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning, published last year.) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, in some cases supplanting the sort of work that used to appear only in print.
There are plenty of talking-head “documentaries” about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios — currently clogging cable TV, but what I have in mind is something quite different: analytic films about films and filmmakers. Many of these films are shown in film festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic film courses, but very few of them ever wind up in commercial theaters, with the consequence that they’re rarely reviewed outside of trade journals.… Read more »
… Read more »
A footnote to the following (February 7, 2018): I now regard Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane as the best of all the Welles biographies to date — at the very least, the most thoroughly researched. — J.R.
Film Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles
I sent the following letter to the Atlantic last August. I’m not surprised it wasn’t published. But I can’t resist reproducing it now that Benjamin Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, has shown further signs of his David Thomson idolotry while writing about Cary Grant in the current issue. This time Schwarz calls Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, the “finest reference book on the movies.” (He also offers some other debatable critical judgments, such as calling Sylvia Scarlett “a mess of a picture” rather than an exciting forerunner of the French New Wave in its daring mix of genres.) But before getting to his assertion about Thomson’s book, let me reproduce my letter:
“It seems sadly characteristic of the mainstream reviewing of film books in general and those about Orson Welles in particular that nonspecialists routinely take precedence over specialists — and that biographers who forgo original research for the sake of speculation or invention, and even admit to doing this, can be deemed superior to actual scholars, at least if their biases match those of the reviewers.
… Read more »
Film A Staggering Statistic
Check out the June 26 post on Dave Kehr’s blog for an important piece of news and a staggering statistic.
The important piece of news is the launch of the Turner Classic Movies database, TCMDB, a potential alternative to the often less-than-reliable Internet Movie Database. (Sitting on a panel in Austin with Monte Hellman several years ago, I heard him recount writing to the IMDB to inform them that some of his film credits on the site were incorrect, only to be informed by them that because he wasn’t a qualified film scholar they couldn’t make the required corrections.)
As Dave points out, the TCMDB “has as its core the unsurpassable AFI Catalog of American Feature Films, previously accessible only with a $50 AFI membership (or through certain libraries). For those who don’t know it, the AFI Catalog is a towering work of scholarship that covers the period 1893 to 1971 in exquisite detail, with full credits, reliable plot summaries and significant side notes.” I can only concur with Dave. Indeed, there are times when I think that the only two irrefutably towering achievements of the American Film Institute are David Lynch’s Eraserhead, produced on its west-coast premises, and this reference work.
From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1994). — J.R.
** EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES
Directed and written by Gus Van Sant
With Uma Thurman, Rain Phoenix, John Hurt, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Angie Dickinson, Sean Young, Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, and Carol Kane.
Sissy Hankshaw, born with oversize and decidedly phallic thumbs that inspire her to become a compulsive and virtuoso hitchhiker, never stopping anywhere long enough to pitch a tent, works occasionally as a model for a decadent New York queen known as the Countess, who uses her in feminine-hygiene-spray ads. He wants her to appear in a commercial featuring a flock of whooping cranes that periodically migrate through his dude ranch and beauty salon, the Rubber Ranch, and he sends her there, not realizing that the cowgirls running the place are on the verge of seizing it and turning it into a radical feminist collective with a different set of priorities.
This is the central premise of Tom Robbins’s 1976 hippie novel, though it hardly begins to describe its proliferating characters and issues. For starters, there’s a Mr. Natural sort of guru hiding out in the mountains overlooking the Rubber Ranch — a Japanese American known as the Chink, who periodically has sex with one of the cowgirls, Bonanza Jellybean, and eventually impregnates Sissy, and who maintains a Rube Goldberg sort of timepiece that was bestowed on him by a group of renegade Indians known as the Clock People.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 3, 1994). — J.R.
** LITTLE BUDDHA
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Mark Peploe, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Bertolucci
With Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, Ying Ruocheng, Jigme Kunsang, Raju Ial, and Greishma Makar Singh.
“Nirvana” is a word that comes from Sanskrit, the Reader’s Encyclopedia informs me, meaning “blowing out, extinction”; in Buddhist teaching it refers to “a complete annihilation of the 3 main ego-drives, for money, fame, and immortality.”
Bernardo Bertolucci has said that his aim in Little Buddha is low-key. Of the third film in his self-described orientalist trilogy, following The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), he says, “My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can’t teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism.” But Little Buddha is a multimillion-dollar project designed to make money and to exploit and perpetuate Bertolucci’s fame while catering to the viewer’s desire for immortality. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nirvana, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought, plays a reduced role in Bertolucci’s “emotional discovery,” whereas reincarnation as a means of immortality plays a major role.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.
* BLOWN AWAY
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach
With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.
In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.
There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away).… Read more »