Monthly Archives: July 2019

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

Four Rooms

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 1996). — J.R.

Four Rooms

no stars

Directed and written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino

With Tim Roth, Sammi Davis, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino, Madonna, Ione Skye, Jennifer Beals, David Proval, Antonio Banderas, Lana McKissack, Danny Verduzco, Bruce Willis, Paul Calderon, and Tarantino.

Fair is fair. Though I’m calling Four Rooms worthless — an opinion that’s uncontroversial — it’s a better picture than, for example, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. In fact Four Rooms is rather interesting in spite of — or perhaps because of — its disturbing awfulness. Declaring a movie worthless usually means something beyond a strictly aesthetic evaluation; there’s something punitive and moralistic, even tribal about our disapproval and rejection. (The same sort of thing often happens when we call a movie “great”: the longtime absence of any movie for and about black women obviously has influenced the recent success of Waiting to Exhale.)

Maybe calling a movie worthless is a way of getting even. Many reviewers, myself included, were excessively dismissive of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — backlash against the media hype around David Lynch (including an appearance on the cover of Time) that built up expectations and could only lead to his immolation as a sacrificial victim.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Daniel Mendelsohn on the New Tarantino

Recommended Reading: “When Jews Attack” by Daniel Mendelsohn, a two-page spread in the August 24 & 31 issue of Newsweek, begins to help me account for what I find so deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid about Inglourious Basterds [sic sic — or maybe I should say, sic, sic, sic]. A film that didn’t even entertain me past its opening sequence, and that profoundly bored me during the endlessly protracted build-up to a cellar shoot-out, it also gave me the sort of malaise that made me wonder periodically what it was (and is) about the film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial, even though it proudly claims to be the opposite of that. It’s more than just the blindness to history that leaks out of every pore in this production (even when it’s being most attentive to period details) or the infantile lust for revenge that’s so obnoxious. When Mendelsohn asks, “Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into Nazis, that makes Jews into `sickening’ perpetrators?”, he zeroes in on what’s so vile about this gleeful celebration of savagery. He also clarifies the ugly meaning of Tarantino’s final scene when he points out that Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them — a fact I either hadn’t known before or had somehow managed to suppress.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: From Dreyer and Welles to Rappaport and Kastle (my 3rd column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #16 (Fall 2003). — J.R.

One of the more fascinating things about the linguistic options of DVDs in relation to their nationality is how often they confound expectations. It would appear that few countries show more indifference to other countries and their languages than the U.S., yet the DVDs with the greatest number of subtitling and dubbing options are often those on American labels. Conversely, when I visited Japan twice in the late 1990s, I was impressed by the cottage industries devoted to teaching foreign languages, which ranged from prime-time TV shows teaching conversational “business” English and Spanish to bilingual movie scripts sold in bookstores, some of them packaged with videos of the same films. But my recent efforts to hunt for Japanese DVDs with English or French subtitles have been in vain -— which is all the more frustrating when I come across listings for box sets devoted to Kiarostami and Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.

WhatsUpTLcredits

WhatsUpTL3

Attending Cinema Ritrovato, an archival film festival, in Bologna last summer, I went hunting for Italian DVDs and quickly discovered that those with Italian movies almost never come equipped with English subtitles (the restoration of The Leopard, which I noted in my last column, is a rare exception).Read more »

Mandingo

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1998); updated and upgraded in December 2012. — J.R.

One of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era, Richard Fleischer’s blistering and undeniably lurid 1975 melodrama about a slave-breeding plantation in the Deep South, set in the 1840s, was widely and unjustly ridiculed as camp in this country when it came out. But apart from this film, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1969 Slaves, and Charles Burnett’s 1996 Nightjohn, it’s doubtful whether many more insightful and penetrating movies about American slavery exist. (2012 note: Quentin Tarantino’s thigh-slapping Django Unchained — a film so historically whimsical that it can show us a slave who’s an expert marksman, can read, and even puts on sunglasses after he becomes a free man — clearly isn’t one of them; at best it’s another Tarantino True Life Adventure for ten-year-old boys — ten-year-old girls need not apply.)  Scripted by Norman Wexler from a sensationalist novel by Kyle Onstott; with James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, and Ken Norton. (For further and much more detailed edification on this subject, check out Robin Wood and Andrew Britton.) (JR)

Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Tips for Landlocked Yanks and Monolinguists (my 10th column)

From Cinema Scope No. 34, Summer 2005. — J.R.

As an avid collector of Hollywood musicals, I’ve recently been checking out which items in my collection with optional French dialogue also have French versions of the songs. My father used to teach himself foreign languages by reading translations of some of his favorite English and American novels (e.g., Light in August in German). It’s recently occurred to me that watching favorite Anglo-American movies with foreign subtitles —- something closer to reading a bilingual text —- might also be helpful, though watching a foreign-dubbed version undoubtedly helps even more when it comes to improving one’s speaking knowledge of a particular language. This is one of the many resources afforded by DVDs that most people ignore, myself included. Just as it never occurs to most North American DVD watchers to spend the minimal amounts of time and money needed to acquire a multiregional player and order DVDs from abroad, the linguistic extras available on a good many DVDs slip past most people’s ken because taking advantage of them lies outside their usual habit patterns.

In any case, once I started examining the fine print on the boxes of the musicals in my collection, I discovered that optional French dialogue is fairly common, though whether this includes French versions of the songs is something one can only learn by playing the DVD.Read more »

Law Of Desire

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1988). — J.R.

Law-of-Desire-19871

Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director’s working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover’s neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It’s typical of Almodovar’s wit that he casts a man as the little girl’s real mother and a woman as her false one. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Great Freaks of Nature [GREAT BALLS OF FIRE]

From the Chicago Reader (July 7, 1989). — J.R.

GREAT BALLS OF FIRE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jim McBride

Written by Jack Baran and McBride

With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Trey Wilson.

Given that Jim McBride’s film debut was a pseudodocumentary designed to look real (David Holzman’s Diary, 1968), and was followed by an actual diary film that was made to seem fictional (My Girlfriend’s Wedding, 1969), it should be no surprise that Great Balls of Fire, which purports to be a biopic of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, is actually a musical-comedy fantasy about virtually imaginary characters.

For those who accept the a priori assumption that most movies are simply dreams and lies, this is only business as usual; in fact, in playing fast and loose with the facts McBride and his longtime collaborator Jack Baran are working in a grand tradition peopled by the makers of most other simpleminded Hollywood biopics. The difference here is that the falsity of their concoction is made nakedly apparent: at least two-thirds of the picture resembles a feature-length music video, patterned in some ways after the rock musicals of 30 years ago.… Read more »

Joris Ivens’s Labor-Intensive Industrials

From the Chicago Reader (May 10, 2002). — J.R.

Cinema Without Borders: Films by Joris Ivens

A word of advice to film artists who want to get ahead: don’t move around too much. Film history often gets subsumed under national film history, so filmmakers who keep moving risk getting lost. And stay out of politics, since getting into them invariably puts you on either the winning or the losing side. If you’re on the losing side, many national film histories will write you out entirely; if you’re on the winning side, chances are your film will date faster than last week’s newspaper.

These somber reflections are prompted by what I’ve been able to piece together about the extraordinary career of the Dutch-born leftist documentary and experimental filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989) — who lived in so many places, did so many things, and made so many films he’s come dangerously close to being shut out of history. From the vantage point of America in 2002, I suppose he’d have to be assigned to the losing side, as mainly a mouthpiece for Marxist party lines from the 30s onward, though that would grossly oversimplify his career. Some of the causes he devoted part of his life to, including Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, are now discredited, with good reason, but that doesn’t mean the films he made on their behalf can simply be dismissed or are without interest.… Read more »

In Neuroses Begin Responsibilities—and Movies (Slate post)

 

In Neuroses Begin Responsibilities—and Movies

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Dec 26, 20016:19 PM

Dear David (and Roger, Sarah, and Tony),

I appreciate your evocation of Sept. 11 at the start of your letter—a defining moment for us all—as well as your conflicted thoughts about vigilantism, and how these impact on your movie tastes. For me, there’s no conflict of this kind, because I’m afraid revenge strikes me as something less than an adult aspiration or concern—accounting both for why I think Mandela’s South Africa is far ahead of the United States in this respect and why In the Bedroom, a very well-made film, doesn’t interest me much. (The only moment I recall making my pulse race was when Spacek slapped Tomei.) As you’re the first to point out, Osama Bin Laden is also obsessed with vengeance—though surely not just for “slights against his brand of Islam.” Other beefs might include the deaths of about a million innocent Iraqis (the American Friends Service Committee’s estimate last spring)—collateral damage that Madeleine Albright told us she had no regrets about, despite the fact that it arguably only strengthened Saddam Hussein—as well as many other lethal forms of meddling in the Middle East, some of them slights against both humanity and common sense.… Read more »

The Language of Objects [THE WAR OF THE ROSES]

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Danny DeVito

Written by Michael Leeson

With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.

The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.

Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem.… Read more »

Stage, Screen and Television [PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 1991). — J.R.

PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Christian Blackwood.

I’ve never seen Volker Schlondorff’s 150-minute made-for-TV film of Death of a Salesman (1985), which Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies awards high marks: “Stunning though stylistic remounting of [Dustin] Hoffman’s Broadway revival of the classic Arthur Miller play with most of the cast from that 1984 production. A landmark of its type. Executive-produced by Hoffman and Miller. Hoffman and [John] Malkovich both won acting Emmys. Above average.” But a friend who has seen it, and who loves the play, tells me that she disliked the film: all the actors seemed to be off on their own tangents, she said, and there was little interplay between them.

Whether the Schlondorff film is good or bad, Private Conversations: On the Set of Death of a Salesman, the 82-minute documentary that Christian Blackwood made about the making of it, is endlessly fascinating, for reasons largely irrelevant to the worth of the Miller play or this particular production of it. Part of the open-endedness of Blackwood’s film comes from the fact that if Schlondorff’s film works the reasons are here, and if it doesn’t work the reasons are here — perhaps in the same circumstances.… Read more »

LOVE ME TONIGHT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them.  — J.R.

Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight Love Me Tonight2 Love Me Tonight3

There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls —- the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers — the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.Read more »

Among the Missing (Malraux’s ESPOIR versus Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS)

It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score — started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945 — is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.

I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored.… Read more »

Barcelona Boogie and Pittsburgh Punk

From The Soho News (June 4, 1980). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Jackie Raynal was and is one of my dearest friends. — J.R.

 

Deux Fois

A Film by Jackie Raynal

Bleecker Street Cinema, June 9

Debt Begins at Twenty

A Film by Stephanie Beroes

Millennium, May 24

Recalling my four successive visits to the Cannes Film Festival in the early ’70s — when the daily glut of movies and accompanying hardsell was already enough to turn a hardened film freak into a deflated beachball — I still harbor fond memories of the kind of movies that used to spend my days looking for, and the ones that would savor for days more, days on end, once I found them. They were movies that allowed me and Cannes to slow down and linger a bit and regain our strength, and afforded us that pleasure by refusing to hype us into or out of anything that denied either of us the solipsistic joy of total self-absorption.

By taking their own sweet time (all the time in the world) to explore their own bittersweet fantasies, and allowing us to follow them only if we insisted, these movies were like little self-contained oases conjured up and plunked down improbably in the midst of camel stampedes, which is probably why so many of my colleagues hated them — and why most of you, in turn, have heard of so few of them, if any at all.Read more »