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

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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 »

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 »

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 »

American in Paris

This appeared in the December 8, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE FILMS OF WILLIAM KLEIN

At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is under siege — and not only from yahoos like Jesse Helms, but also from certain anarchists, leftists, and intellectuals — the general paucity of information and understanding about national funding of the arts in other countries only helps to underline how isolationist this country has become in cultural matters. As a rule, our overseas news coverage and our access to foreign films both seem to operate according to the same chillingly reductive circular reasoning: if people don’t already know about something or understand it, they aren’t likely to be interested.

Thus reports last spring of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square routinely assumed that any popular sentiments in China that didn’t support the status quo automatically had to be “pro-democracy”; a lifetime of U.S. reporting has been devoted to the principle that only two political positions exist in the world, not three or six or 30 or 600. By the same token, most of the foreign films that we wind up seeing are those that support rather than challenge our generally clichéd notions of what other countries are like.… Read more »

My Love, My Bride

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.

Lee Myung-sei’s delightful Korean comedy about the trials and tribulations of a young married couple (Park Joong-hoon and Choi Jin-sii, both charming and resourceful actors) offers eloquent testimony to the stylistic importance of Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It, Artists and Models, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) as an international legacy. Tashlin’s background as an animator — his graphic talent, his formal ingenuity, his taste for bright primary colors — and his flair for satire of contemporary lifestyles both seem fully present in this lively and inventive feature. It isn’t that Lee has necessarily seen or studied Tashlin’s work, but Tashlin’s bag of tricks has become an automatic part of everyone’s resources, and this comedy fully exploits it (1991). (JR)

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Working-Class Hero [CINDERELLA MAN]

From the Chicago Reader (June 10. 2005). — J.R.

Cinderella Man

*** (A must see)

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldman

With Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill, and Ron Canada

Ron Howard is an exemplar of honorable mediocrity. His films are conventional and stuffed with cliches, but their nice-guy liberalism is more sincere and nuanced than their tropes would lead one to expect. In his better efforts — Night Shift, Far and Away, Parenthood, The Paper, and now Cinderella Man — the sense of conviction is so passionate that the truth behind the cliches periodically emerges.

This is Howard’s first feature since the award-winning A Beautiful Mind, and the storytelling is fluid and gripping. He has plenty of cliches to peddle about boxing and working-class virtues in the midst of deprivation during the Depression, and the visual rhetoric in which he couches those cliches even give them a metaphysical dimension. The decor is as underlit as it is in Million Dollar Baby, and the cinematography’s even more mannerist in fetishizing darkness to project an aura of doom and desperation. In the deftly staged prizefight sequences, Howard goes even further than Clint Eastwood did in rendering subjective impressions in expressionistic terms.… Read more »

Revisiting THE GODFATHER

This was written in December 2008, after Dana Linssen, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dutch film monthly  de Filmkrant, sent out a request early that month for contributions to what she called a “Slow Criticism” dossier, to appear in their special English-language newspaper at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in late January. I revived it in 2011 as my own contribution to the avalanche of journalism that had been appearing about Pauline Kael, capped by Frank Rich’s lengthy piece in the New York Times; it’s also included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, where it concludes the book’s penultimate section, “Films,” just before its final section, “Criticism”. There isn’t a piece about Kael in the final section, but this broadside helps to explain why.

One aspect of  recent journalism about Kael that seems to confirm the provinciality of American film criticism in general is the tacit assumption that “the world of film” in the U.S. is somehow (and automatically) coterminous and equivalent to global film culture — unless the assumption is simply that global film culture is too esoteric and inconsequential a subject to be worthy of discussion in the U.S. But it’s worth stressing that outside the English-speaking world, Kael’s critical status was and is pretty limited.Read more »

Pecker

From the Chicago Reader (September 21, 1998). — J.R.

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John Waters’s laid-back comedy and ultimate anti-New York statement (1998) concerns a young sandwich maker (Edward Furlong) whose amateurish photos of his working-class life in Baltimore are discovered by the New York art world (mainly through a dealer played with wonderful understatement by Lili Taylor). Waters builds to a didactic message that he underlines with Disney-esque dream dust (in various colors), as if to protect his sincerity with the disclaimer of self-mockery. Always a better writer than director, Waters makes me laugh even when he’s dawdling, and though this is no Hairspray there’s a lot of good-natured funny stuff here about the hero’s sugar-addicted kid sister, his fag-hag older sister (Martha Plimpton), the girlfriend who runs a laundromat (Christina Ricci), and other local eccentrics. It’s a low-key effort compared to a hyperraunch festival like There’s Something About Mary, but that movie could never have existed without Waters’s shining example. (JR)

peckerRead more »