Monthly Archives: May 2019

Godard Talking to Himself

From the August 4, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. My thanks to Chris Petit for reminding me (on Memorial Day, 2010) that I wrote this. I’ve heard, incidentally, that Godard prefers the original title of JLG/JLG to its American release title, the one given here. — J.R.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Eddie Constantine, Hanns Zischler, Claudia Michelsen, Andre Labarthe, and Nathalie Kadem.

JLG by JLG

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Godard, Andre Labarthe, and Bernard Eisenschitz.

Like most of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) and JLG by JLG (subtitled December Self-Portrait, 1994) are annexes to his Histoire(s) du cinéma, a work on video in multiple parts scheduled to premiere in its finished form at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland in early August. (Four portions of this video have already shown at the Film Center.) Like the various parts of Histoire(s) du cinéma, these films (each about an hour long and being shown together at Facets Multimedia) are above all collections of carefully arranged quotations — interwoven anthologies of extracts from prose, poetry, philosophy, films, musical works, paintings.… Read more »

Park Row

From the Chicago Reader (February 5, 1999). — J.R.

park-row

This neglected feature is one of Samuel Fuller’s most energetic — his own personal favorite, in part because he financed it out of his own pocket and lost every penny (1952). It’s a giddy look at New York journalism in the 1880s that crams together a good many of Fuller’s favorite newspaper stories, legends, and conceits and puts them in socko headline type. A principled cigar smoker (Gene Evans) becomes the hard-hitting editor of a new Manhattan daily, where he competes with his former employer (Mary Welch) in a grudge match full of sexual undertones; a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge trying to become famous; the Statue of Liberty is given to the U.S. by France, and a newspaper drive raises money for its pedestal. Enthusiasm flows into every nook and cranny of this exceptionally cozy movie; when violence breaks out in the cramped-looking set of the title street, the camera weaves in and out of the buildings as through a sports arena, in a single take. “Park Row” is repeated incessantly like a crazy mantra, and the overall fervor of this vest-pocket Citizen Kane makes journalism sound like the most exciting activity in the world, even as it turns all its practitioners into members of a Fuller-esque military squad.… Read more »

The Passion Of The Christ

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

The Passion-of-the-Christ film poster

Despite the title, I assumed this drama about the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life would include something about his teachings, at least in flashback. But the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to two sound bites, and miracles and good works barely get a glance; director Mel Gibson stresses only cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots. The charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia hurled at the movie seem too narrow; its general disgust for humanity is so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seem to be welcoming the apocalypse (rather like the mass slaughter following the Mexican rebel’s torture in The Wild Bunch). If I were a Christian, I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me. With James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, and Hristo Naumov Shopov; Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood) collaborated with Gibson on the script. In Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew with subtitles. R, 127 min. (JR)

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Interactivity as Art and Vice Versa: A BREAD FACTORY

Published on Artforum‘s web site on April 18, 2019, under the title “Leaven Learn”.   — J.R.

“The justification for [a] pretense to disengagement,” writes Dave Hickey in Air Guitar, “derives from our Victorian habit of marginalizing the experience of art, of treating it as if it were somehow ‘special’—and, lately, as if it were somehow curable. This is a preposterous assumption to make in a culture that is irrevocably saturated with pictures and music, in which every elevator serves as a combination picture gallery and concert hall . . . All we do by ignoring the live effects of art is suppress the fact that these experiences, in one way or another, inform our every waking hour.”
ABF-SirWalter 
To some extent, Patrick Wang’s dazzling two-part, four-hour comedy A Bread Factory (2018) — shot over twenty-four days in Hudson, New York, after ten days of rehearsal with well over sixty professional or semiprofessional actors — is an epic anthology of performance art, filmed both inside and outside a Hudson art center housed in a former bread factory. What makes it special are the peculiar dots connecting “inside” and “outside.” Inside the eponymous, fictionalized forty-year-old Bread Factory we find theater, film, music, sculpture, and poetry, and inside a trendy, new rival art center with corporate financing is a pseudo-Chinese couple called May Ray doing minimalist, rebus-like performance pieces with prerecorded laughter and applause.… Read more »

Precious Leftovers (THE GLEANERS AND I)

From the Chicago Reader (May 11, 2000). — J.R.

The Gleaners and I

Rating *** A must see

Directed and narrated by Agnes Varda.

Documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty. — Agnes Varda, quoted in the press notes for The Gleaners and I

There’s a suggestive discrepancy between the French and English titles of this wonderful essay film completed by Agnes Varda last year. It’s a distinction that tells us something about the French sense of community and the Anglo-American sense of individuality — concepts that are virtually built into the two languages. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse can be roughly translated as “the gleaners and the female gleaner,” with the plural noun masculine only in the sense that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. The Gleaners and I sets up an implicit opposition between “people who glean” and the filmmaker, whereas Les glaneurs et la glaneuse links them, asserting that she’s one of them.

Gleaners gather up the leftovers of edible crops — grain, fruit, vegetables — after the harvesters are finished with their work. Varda la glaneuse films what other filmmakers have left behind after their harvesting. The link between the two activities is made graphic at one point when Varda gleans a potato with one hand while filming it with the other.… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [THE KING IS ALIVE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 2001). — J.R.

 

The King Is Alive

*

Directed by Kristian Levring

Written by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen

With Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, and Lia Williams.

The King Is Alive, directed and cowritten by Kristian Levring, is the fourth film to have the dubious honor of qualifying for certification under the rules of the Dogma 95 manifesto, whose professed aim is to get back to the basics of realism — shooting, for example, in natural locations with handheld cameras, direct sound, and natural lighting. But what’s basic or realistic and what isn’t, in terms of film history and technique? The manifesto also insists that movies be shot in color, a rather ahistorical reading of what’s basic — unless one labels all possible uses of color in film realistic and all possible uses of black and white artificial.

If that’s the operative assumption, The King Is Alive triumphantly refutes it. The movie was shot with three digital video cameras — unlike Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration, which was shot with only one, and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (not a Dogma film, but made by one of Dogma’s founders), which was shot with a hundred — and that might make it seem new as well as passé.Read more »

Conversation with Jim Jarmusch (2001)

Part of a booklet accompanying a Jim Jarmusch retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, October 2001. -– J.R.

A child of the New Wave who spent time at the Paris Cinémathèque, was Nicholas Ray’s personal assistant on Lightning Over Water — and Sam Fuller’s costar in Tigrero [Mika Kaurasmaki] many years later — Jim Jarmusch has loved films even longer than he’s been making them. Signs of this love are fully apparent in his tributes to John Cassavetes, Fuller, and Robert Mitchum, as well as in a recent phone conversation I had with him about his selections of favorite films by others to accompany his own films at the Wexner Center.

J.R.

I want to focus mainly on the pairings you’ve come up with. Why, for instance, show The Devil, Probably with Permanent Vacation, your first film?

I don’t really know. I saw The Devil, Probably a long time ago, and I’ve never seen it since. I remember it being about a young guy in Paris who’s suicidal. And it’s [Robert] Bresson. Before I saw this movie, when I used to go to Paris, I’d sit at the end of Île de la Cité, and I think that’s where the film ends.… Read more »

Good Vibrations (WAKING LIFE)

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 2001). — J.R.

Waking Life

****

Directed and written by Richard Linklater.

The cinema is an antiuniverse where reality is born out of a sum of unrealities. –Jean Epstein

I must have come across this statement by Epstein, a French theorist and filmmaker (1897-1953), in the late 60s or early 70s, but I no longer remember where. I’ve scanned his writings on several occasions since, but I haven’t found the quote. Sometimes I wonder if I read or heard about it in a dream — making it one of the unrealities Epstein is referring to.

Wherever the quote comes from, it applies beautifully to the animated feature by Richard Linklater that premiered at Sundance early this year and is currently playing at the Music Box. The movie is a string of paradoxes and reflections about what’s real and what’s not, about when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake, and the unusual way it’s put together seems calculated to complicate all of the issues it raises rather than resolve any of them. Over 25 days Linklater, one of his coproducers, and a sound person shot a first version of everything we see in this movie with two relatively low-tech digital video cameras in and around Austin and in San Antonio and New York — basically taping a lot of people talking and walking, as well as listening and sitting.… Read more »

2001: A Space Odyssey

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2002). — J.R.

Seeing this 1968 masterpiece in 70-millimeter, digitally restored and with remastered sound, provides an ideal opportunity to rediscover this mind-blowing myth of origin as it was meant to be seen and heard, an experience no video setup, no matter how elaborate, could ever begin to approach. The film remains threatening to contemporary studiothink in many important ways: Its special effects are used so seamlessly as part of an overall artistic strategy that, as critic Annette Michelson has pointed out, they don’t even register as such. Dialogue plays a minimal role, yet the plot encompasses the history of mankind (a province of SF visionary Olaf Stapledon, who inspired Kubrick’s cowriter, Arthur C. Clarke). And, like its flagrantly underrated companion piece, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it meditates at length on the complex relationship between humanity and technology — not only the human qualities that we ascribe to machines but also the programming we knowingly or unknowingly submit to. The film’s projections of the cold war and antiquated product placements may look quaint now, but the poetry is as hard-edged and full of wonder as ever. 139 min. (JR)

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School of Rock

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

Broadly speaking, this is Richard Linklater’s French Cancan — that is to say, a humanist’s joyful exploration of the musical in which the actors’ personalities resonate as much as the characters they play. Or maybe it’s what Jean Renoir might have come up with if he’d remade Don’t Knock the Rock and cast 12-year-olds as the musicians. Though this seems like a personal film, Linklater was hired to direct a cannily commercial script by Mike White, about a rock ‘n’ roll loser (Jack Black) who, fired from his job and his band, impersonates his wimpy substitute-teacher roommate (White) to land a teaching position at an upscale elementary school. This infantile character hasn’t got a thought in his head except for rock music, but somehow he becomes a model teacher, and through stealth and sheer perseverance he turns his fifth-grade class into an inspired gang of rockers. The kids, all real musicians performing, are wonderful, and so is Black; Joan Cusack is both charming and funny as the principal. 108 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Ford City, Gardens 1-6, Gardens 7-13, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, North Riverside, 600 N.… Read more »

Cinema as a Social Act [THE ILLUSIONIST]

From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2006). Fox has reissued this film in a  two-disc edition, combining a Blu-Ray with a DVD of the film on a second disk — the latter including an audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger which clarifies and amplifies how well he understands the mechanics as well as the overall concept of his own film. He’s especially enlightening on the subject of late 19th century magic and how he incorporated many of his findings in the film, utilizing the expertise of several contemporary magicians, including Ricky Jay.       — J.R.

The Illusionist

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Neil Burger

With Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, and Jake Wood

Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams. — Steven Millhauser, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”

At first glance Neil Burger’s first two features couldn’t be further apart. Interview With the Assassin (2002) is a scruffy-looking pseudodocumentary and thriller about two marginal characters — a young, out-of-work cameraman (Dylan Haggerty) and his 60-ish solitary neighbor (Raymond J. Barry), an ex-marine who claims to have fired the second bullet that killed John F. Kennedy. The Illusionist, based on a story by Steven Millhauser, is a lush piece of romanticism — a tale of enchantment set in turn-of-the-century Vienna about a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the son of a cabinetmaker, and his longtime relationship with Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess and the prospective fiancee of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), an old-fashioned villain.… Read more »

These Magic Moments (THE NEON BIBLE)

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1996). — J.R.

The Neon Bible

Directed and written by Terence Davies

With Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Jacob Tierney, Denis Leary, Leo Burmester, Frances Conroy, and Peter McRobbie.

Two paradoxical facts about Terence Davies’s first film adaptation:

(1) It follows fairly closely The Neon Bible, a novel written by John Kennedy Toole for a literary contest in the mid-50s, when he was 16 — a decade before he finished work on his second novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, and about 15 years before he, still unpublished, committed suicide (A Confederacy of Dunces was published ten years later, The Neon Bible ten years after that). I don’t care much for The Neon Bible, a hackneyed mood piece set in a rural backwater of the deep south, but I think the movie, which seems 100 percent Davies, is wonderful.

(2) Of all the English-speaking films shown at Cannes last May, the two that got the most boorish and least comprehending reception by the English-speaking press were The Neon Bible and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, though for nearly opposite reasons. Jarmusch, who’s long been criticized for coasting along in Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth on the same kind of hip humor he virtually invented for Stranger Than Paradise, finally broke free and did something bold, original, political, dark, scary, outspoken, witty, and often beautiful — a black-and-white western that should be opening here sometime next month.… Read more »

Some Afterthoughts about Tarantino

I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture.

For me, assuming that it’s a message worth heeding or even an experience worth having is a little bit like assuming that Lars von Trier is closer to Sergei Eisenstein than to P.T. Barnum, as many of my colleagues also seem to believe — a genuine film theorist and not just a consummate con-artist who knows how to work the press.

I’ll concede that when Tarantino recently (and plausibly) faulted Truffaut’s The Last Metro as a film about the French Occupation that should have been a comedy, that qualified, at least for me, as a grown-up observation, and one that made sense to me. I just don’t see any comparable observations in his movie.

Part of the assumption of his defenders seems to be that no subject is so sacrosanct that it can’t be met with an adolescent snicker — including, say, the Holocaust or, closer to the present, 9/11.… Read more »

Pynchon’s Tangle

This review originally appeared in the July 14, 1997 issue of In These Times. — J.R.

Pynchon’s Tangle

Mason & Dixon
By Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt
773 pp. $27.50

It’s always been one of the paradoxes of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction that he combines the encyclopedic researches of a polymath with the rude instincts of a populist. V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, the stories in Slow Learner, Vineland, and now Mason & Dixon synthesize an awesome array of scientific and historical speculation  while steadily sabotaging, with a compulsive anti-elitism, every effort to marshal this material into the stuff of high art. Fusing studied literary pastiche with collegiate humor and flip song lyrics, philosophical soul-searching with barroom brawls and locker-room asides, Pynchon’s intricate and unwieldy narratives tend to define and confound boundaries in the same gesture. So it stands to reason that this epic about American origins, focused on a couple of low-level line drawers (the 18th century executors of the Mason-Dixon Line), winds up favoring sprawl over progression, digression over linear advance.

It’s surely too soon to post final verdicts about a novel that reportedly was almost a quarter of a century in the making.… Read more »

On TOO EARLY, TOO LATE

Excerpted from a chapter in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. — J.R.

Of all the films discussed at length in this book, Too Soon, Too Late (1981) is conceivably the one that has had the strongest impact on me, although I have seen it only twice.  After having seen it the first time, in Spring 1982, I was sufficiently impressed to put the film at the end of my “all-time” top ten list for Sight and Sound’s international critics’ poll later the same year.  Consequently, it seems paradoxical yet unavoidable that of all the films dealt with here, Too Soon, Too Late automatically qualifies as the most difficult and elusive to write about.  My two previous efforts have yielded only a few inadequate and hastily conceived sentences in the introduction to my Straub-Huillet catalog, and a somewhat more reasoned paragraph in the conversation with Jonas Mekas which opens this book.  The notes below cannot pretend to be more than an interim report;  further and more extensive analysis will have to await a future date:

(a)  First, a few concrete facts about the film.  For the first time in a Straub-Huillet film, the texts used are all read off-screen, making separate versions in different languages possible without any recourse to dubbing. … Read more »