This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
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
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
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
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)
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1988). — J.R.
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
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
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
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
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.
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