Monthly Archives: June 2019

How film history gets rewritten [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

How film history gets rewritten

Posted By on 06.13.07 at 05:48 PM

out1-colorcollage-png.

I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute  Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.

What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor!

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Truffaut & Me & Bazin (a memoir, a review, and three letters)

The first and last parts of what follows are taken (and in a few cases adapted) from my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

In spite of my five years of living in Paris, my grasp of French has always been mediocre — a weakness that over the years I’ve come to regard as a sort of disability, because I’ve made many efforts to overcome it. That François Truffaut had a similar (and similarly embarrassing) problem with his English set the stage for a rather awkward and uncomfortable afternoon in London between the two of us — with his assistant Suzanne Schiffmann often serving as mutual interpreter — after I’d signed with Harper & Row to carry out a translation of Bazin’s book on Welles, as well as a new Foreword to that book that Truffaut was writing. Truffaut undoubtedly came away from that afternoon with some understandable skepticism about why I’d been hired to do this job, while I emerged, somewhat defensively, with the impression that he was closer to being a nervous and irritable businessman than the sort of critic and director that I had formerly revered.

I hasten to add that I wasn’t bluffing when I’d praised in print Bazin’s 1950 monograph on Welles in 1971 as the best criticism published about him —- or at least not entirely.Read more »

Now and Then [on APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX]

From the August 17, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Apocalypse Now Redux

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by John Milius and Coppola

With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Christian Marquand, and Aurore Clement.

It’s hard to think of many movies where the great, the not so great, and the simply awful coexist quite as brazenly as they do in Apocalypse Now. This was true in 1979, when the movie clocked in at 150 minutes, and it’s true 22 years later, when the new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, runs a third longer.

If anything, the longer version — not so much a rethinking of the material as an expansion, with a minimum of reshuffling, by the adept Walter Murch, who also worked on the original — is better and worse, emphasizing both the ambitious scope and the fatal flaws of Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement. Among the more substantial additions are a ghostly sequence set on a French plantation (featuring Aurore Clement and the late Christian Marquand) that tries, with mixed results, to poeticize the futility of outsiders, French or American, getting involved in the Vietnam war and a silly and rather inconclusive sequence involving a couple of Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp) that adds nothing.… Read more »

Two Portraits and Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen

From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.

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The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to Thompson’s late father, combines stop-frame images of him, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving their premiere here, create a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: “the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss.” In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr.… Read more »

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.

Walt Disney:
The Triumph of the American Imagination

by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.

This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.

Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »

A Force Unto Himself [on Hou Hsiao-hsien]

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 2000).

On October 5, 2014, I had the pleasure of introducing The Sandwich Man at the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhaustive Hou retrospective in Astoria. My late friend Gilberto Perez came to the screening and we had dinner afterwards; it was the last time I ever saw him. — J.R.

Films by Hou Hsiao-hsien

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. — Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night

How significant is it that neither of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers is fluent in English? Not very. But it might be logical. After all, most of the people in the world, including those in Iran and Taiwan, don’t speak English, even though that places them, in American eyes, in the margins, outside even the on-line global culture.

If being in the margins means being in the majority, it stands to reason that Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, as chroniclers of what’s happening on the planet at the moment, should both be poet laureates of the sticks — though they don’t have much in common beyond a taste for filming in long shot, pioneering direct sound recording in their national cinemas (in both cases to honor the speech patterns of nonprofessional actors), and a general sense of philosophical detachment.… Read more »

Shopping Mall Movies

From the July 1980 issue of Omni. Portions of this are derived from a lecture I gave at the Venice film festival the previous year, which is reprinted in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980). A lot of the terminology used here seems pretty quaint now. — J.R.

Speculating on what movies of the future will be like, it’s hard to get very far without some notion of the changing needs of the audience. A crucial part of this change can be detected in where we see movies. According to present signs, it seems pretty clear that most of the films we’ll see will be either in homes or in shopping malls.

“Once inside a mall, shoppers have few decisions to make,” the magazine Dollars & Sense recently noted. “Corners are kept to a minimum so the customers will flow along from store to store, propelled, as the developers say, by `retail energy’.” It’s a description that fits several recent movie blockbusters — and others we can expect to see in the future.

By contrast, the movie houses that traditionally cropped up near the centers of towns — public gathering places, not unlike the municipal squares they were often adjacent to — are quickly becoming nostalgic emblems of another era.… Read more »

ROLLERBALL (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1975. — J.R.

Rollerball

U.S.A., 1975                                        Director: Norman Jewison

A classic demonstration of how several millions of dollars can be

unenjoyably wasted, Rollerball postulates an unlikely future society

from which war, poverty, illness and individual initiative have all

magically vanished, but then resolutely refuses to show it, reserving

all its heavy hardware for the brutal mechanics of an exceedingly

dull sport that is presumed to make this invisible anti-utopia

possible. Featuring a noble savage hero who stumbles clumsily

after an obscure mystery like a donkey running repeatedly into a

brick wall — James Caan reprising his performance in The Gambler

without the literary quotes, in a comparable embodiment of

mindless masochism-and a Sphinx-like villain (John Houseman)

who glowers occasionally to illustrate which side he’s on, this

glib fable seems to be aiming at a simplified version of A

Clockwork Orange without any intimations of wit or satire to

carry the vague moralistic message. Futuristic extrapolation, apart

from the central conceit, is mainly restricted to a couple of

streamlined buildings and the same lettering design recurring

whenever possible; humor, aside from an irreverent (if

implausible) scene with Ralph Richardson as a computer

librarian, usually figures only unintentionally, for instance

when Jonathan E is informed that Moonpie’s brain has ceased

to function — the first indication in the script that it has ever

functioned at all; the multi-track musical accompaniment

principally comprises an anthology of classical favorites

used in previous films.Notwithstanding… Read more »

Jazz Soundies and other numbers from the 1940s

From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 510). –- J.R.

Nat King Cole Trio

U.S.A., 1948
Director: Josh Binney

Dist—TCB. p.c–All-American. p–Glucksman. m/songs–“Oo Kickerooni”, Rooney”, ‘”Now He Tells Me”, “Breezy and the Bass” performed by–Nat “King” Cole (piano, vocals), Johnny Miller (bass), Oscar Moore (guitar). No further credits available. 262ft. 7 mins. (16 mm.).

A musical extract from the Forties black feature Killer Diller — made, like Jivin in Be-bop, exclusively for black audiences — this short illustrates Cole’s remarkable piano playing in a concert, as well as certain aspects of the cooler and more commercial vocal style which he eventually adopted. A graceful, inventive soloist, whose style virtually bridges swing and bebop, with long, perfectly articulated lines which have influenced pianists for three successive decades, he also conveys an unmistakable stage presence — sitting almost perpendicular to the piano while performing difficult runs effortlessly in a manner that is nearly as ‘visual’ as Chico Marx’s. Moore and Miller also takes solos, and the latter is highlighted on “Breezy and the Bass”, a fast virtuoso piece based on the chords of “I Got Rhythm”; “Now He Tells Me” features Cole’s smooth mock-hip singing of the period, exuding a kind of throwaway charm that remains irresistible.

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A Russian in Hollywood [SHY PEOPLE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1988)….Seeing a more recent Konchalovsky picture, the powerful Holocaust drama Paradise, at Mar del Plata, I was reminded of what a terrific filmmaker he can be, which whetted my appetite to resee his powerful Runaway Train (a recent Twilight Time Blu-Ray that was waiting for me when I returned to Chicago). — J.R.

SHY PEOPLE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Written by Konchalovsky, Gerard Brach, and Marjorie David

With Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, and Mare Winningham.

I still have a lot of catching up to do with Andrei Konchalovsky. Out of his 11 or so features to date, the last 4 of which were made in the United States, I’ve seen prior to Shy People only 2. The Soviet Asya’s Happiness (1966), a film made with and about Russian peasants, was suppressed for many years because of its supposedly “gloomy” depiction of rural life but surfaced at the San Francisco Film Festival a couple of months ago. The other was Runaway Train (1985), costarring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca DeMornay and adapted from a script by Akira Kurosawa. But a couple of things are already becoming clear from this limited if striking evidence.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Flukes & Flakes

My column for the Spring 2019 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

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In retrospect, I’m sure that an important part of what excited me about John Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run, when I read it in high school circa 1960, was the fact that it was recounted in the present tense, thus giving it some of the immediacy of a movie—rather like the thrill of the opening chapter of William Faulkner’s Light in August, which I first encountered around the same time. As Updike himself later noted, the movieness of his present tense was a conscious strategy — he even thought of subtitling the novel A Movie — although ironically, it’s precisely this sense of now and its location in the Eisenhower era that is most conspicuously absent from Jack Smight’s flatfooted 1970 movie adaptation (available on DVD from Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection), which doggedly tries to be “faithful” in its own misguided fashion, even to the point of updating the action from 1959 to the present, but only comes across as conventionally shopworn as a consequence. What’s clearly lost isn’t only Updike’s sense of history, pop-culture references and all, but the vibrant weight of the eponymous hero’s existential decision-making.… Read more »

May the Formula Be With You

From the June 10, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WILLOW

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Bob Dolman and George Lucas

With Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Billy Barty, Gavan O’Herlihy, Jean Marsh, Pat Roach, and Patricia Hayes.

As one of those spoilsports who actively disliked Star Wars when it burst on the scene 11 years ago, enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back (1980) even less, and happily managed to miss both Return of the Jedi (1983) and Labyrinth (1986), I can’t say that I approached George Lucas’s latest ecumenical blockbuster with expectations of much pleasure. Nevertheless, now that his latest fantasy epic has confirmed my nonexpectations, I can’t help but wonder why Willow has been getting such a drubbing from the same reviewers who responded to the early Lucas mega-hits with such enthusiasm. Is it really all that different from its predecessors?

Lucas’s reputation seems to be passing through the same sort of vicissitudes as Ronald Reagan’s: a few years of euphoric tub thumping while the future was getting steadily sold away under our feet, followed by recriminations and icon bashing, which seem motivated less by second thoughts than by certain automatic principles built into an economy of planned obsolescence.… Read more »

Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth? (Slate post)

Posted on Slate, December 27, 2005. — J.R.

 

Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth?

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Dec 27, 2005 2:13 PM

Holiday Greetings, David, Scott, and Tony,

David, I appreciate your invitation to “shake hands and come out punching,” though I suspect our disagreements this time around may wind up having more to do with Steven Spielberg and Munich than they do with Terrence Malick and The New World. (See Edelstein’s top-20 list of 2005 films here.) Just to be contrary, however, let me start off with four agreements. Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, William Eggleston and the Real World, and Homecoming all belong somewhere on my own extended list of favorites — and I’d need an asterisk of my own for the penultimate title, David, because Michael Almereyda is a friend whom we share.

To be contrary in another way, I haven’t yet composed my full list for Slate —although I’ve already filed separate lists for the Chicago Reader (which will appear online on Jan. 6) and the Village Voice (which has already appeared online). With your patience and indulgence, I’d like to delay this ritual for another day or so, concentrating for the moment on the issue of what the four of us actually do for a living.… Read more »

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI

Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.

LesFleurs

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 feature, his thirteenth, represents a bold departure from his previous work. It’s his first film to be set completely outside Taiwan,  the implicit or explicit subject of his earlier movies — most noticeably in his trilogy comprising City of Sadness, (1989), The Puppetmaster, (1993), and Good Men, Good Women(1995), but also in the bittersweet allegory of Son’s Big Doll, his seminal contribution to the 1983 sketch feature The Sandwich Man.  After focusing mostly on families and landscapes, Hou fashions a chamber-piece set exclusively in the interiors of Shanghai brothels in the late 19thcentury, adapted from a novel by Han Bangqing by his usual screenwriter Chen Tien-wen.

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And after Hou showed striking stylistic affinities with Yasujiro Ozu, here’s a film whose long takes, camera movements, and concentration on prostitution suggest a Kenji Mizoguchi without melodrama. But insofar as Hou’s previous films deal with existential and historical questions of identity related to Taiwan as a country occupied and colonized at various times and in various ways by China, Japan, and the U.S., Flowers of Shanghai finds similar issues arising from interactions between prostitutes (the “flower girls”), their madams (or “aunts”), and their wealthy and powerful customers.… Read more »

IN OLD CHICAGO

Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.

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In my early teens, I wrote a time-travel yarn in which time travelers revisit 1871 to determine whether Mrs. O’Leary’s cow really kicked over a lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire — their abrupt arrival startling the cow and thereby causing the self-same catastrophe. Despite claims to being historical, this two million dollar Fox epic (1938) — a quarter of whose budget went towards depicting this fire (which had taken 300 lives and destroyed two million dollars worth of property) — seems almost as fanciful about some of its facts as I was. But Henry King, as mythical about the Midwest as Ford was about the West and De Mille was about the Middle East, makes Chicago both a cauldron of corruption (the grandfather of Ben Hecht’s Chicago) and the site of his recurring theme — the coexistence of nihilism and decency, rebellion and domesticity, represented here both by the Cain-and-Abel dialectic of the O’Leary brothers (Tyrone Power and Don Ameche) and the two women who lord it over them, a showgirl-capitalist (Alice Faye) and their prudish mother (Alice Brady), the latter of whom owns the recalcitrant cow.… Read more »