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
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1975. — J.R.
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
From the June 10, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
* (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
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
From the Chicago Reader (September 21, 1998). — J.R.
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)
From the December 22, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
List in the Pocket
With both a year and a decade now drawing to a close, the number of lists indicating the best and the most seems greater than ever. So pronounced, in fact, is this listomania concerning the 80s that in many cases it had already moved into full gear by late October, while the decade still had a good nine or ten weeks to go. The Tribune‘s Sunday arts section, for example, got its critics to come up with their ten-best lists for the 80s in time for an October 22 publication date, while the movie magazines Premiere and American Film, which plan their issues much further in advance, hit the stands with their own hit parades in early November.
Should we attribute these premature evaluations to a general eagerness to have the 80s over and done with? Whatever the reason, a recent movie list issued by Baseline, “the entertainment industry’s information service,” based in New York and Beverly Hills, offers some additional causes for gloomy reflection. The list in question gives us “the top ten turkeys of the 80s.”
Once upon a time, a “turkey” was a bad film, and a movie that lost money was a “bomb.” Read more