From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.
Dusan Makavejev’s 1988 comedy, his first film to be shot in his native Yugoslavia in 18 years, is easily his most pleasurable work since WR: Mysteries of the Organism, albeit without the intellectual ambitions of that or any of his earlier Yugoslav works. The major premise here is that eastern Europe of the 20s is not something we know from history so much as from Hollywood — specifically the imaginary countries of Lubitsch and Million Dollar Legs during the 30s. The influence of Lubitsch (who once pointedly remarked that he preferred Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France) is apparent from the opening intertitle, and if the plot of Manifesto remains pretty inconsequential — a network of sexual and political intrigues involving murders, numerous sexual liaisons, an insane asylum, assassination attempts, and garden parties that never leads to any satisfactory conclusion — the sexiness, wit, lush rural settings, and style keep it bubbling throughout. Camilla Soeberg (Twist and Shout) is especially good as a wealthy and promiscuous political schemer; others in the cast include Eric Stoltz, Alfred Molina, Simon Callow, and Lindsay Duncan. (JR)
I’m grateful to have Kristin Thompson’s detailed and useful report on the Jacques Tati exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française, which closes on August 2nd and which I won’t be able to attend myself. But there’s one very small point in her account with which I disagree. I’m not referring to her spelling of Playtime as Play Time — a long-standing position of hers, based (I believe) on the styling of the film’s ads and opening title credit — because it’s possible that she’s been right about this while I and virtually everyone else have been wrong. (For me, the cinching argument either way would be how Tati spelled the title himself. I’m sorry that I never thought to ask him, during the brief period in 1973 when I worked for him.)
No, my disagreement has to do with the influence exerted by Tati on David Lynch, which Kristin deals with only parenthetically by noting that Lynch “might conceivably be said to reflect a Tatian influence only in The Straight Story.” I’m not disputing whether or not The Straight Story reflects Tati’s influence; as nearly as I can recall, this hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the film, and she might well be correct. Read more
DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS by William Styron (New York: Vintage Books), 1990, 84 pp.
HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS by William Styron (New York: Random House), 2008, 162 pp.
Two late autobiographical books by a writer I’ve always liked —- the first somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I came to it with the wrong expectations, the second a pleasurable surprise.
I guess what I was hoping to encounter in DARKNESS VISIBLE, Styron’s brief and somewhat sketchy account of his own excruciating bouts with depression in the 1980s, was some clarification or extension of what I found so powerful about his treatment of bipolar behavior in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979) -– specifically the depiction of Nathan, which seemed to derive from some deep personal understanding of this condition. But Styron points out early on that his own malady was “unipolar,” not the same thing at all. Still, I admire the scrupulous way he avoids leaping to too many conclusions about a condition that he’s still far from fully understanding.
The late essays collected in HAVANAS IN CAMELOT deal with such topics as a few amicable encounters with John F. Kennedy (the title essay), an apparent contraction of syphilis during his youth (as a fledgling Marine at a naval hospital in South Carolina), his friendships with fellow novelists (Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern), some late prostate trouble, and walks with his dog in his early 80s. Read more
For the Chicago Reader (August 23, 1991). Fortunately, I’ve been to Austin quite a few times since I wrote this review. — J.R.
Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable first feature takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (all of it scripted by Linklater, though it often seems improvised). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation on The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly localized sense of community. I’ve never been to Austin, but this movie certainly makes me want to pay a visit (1990). Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.
One can easily pick apart this Jane Campion adaptation of a thriller by Susanna Moore: it isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and certain details — like the heroine assigning Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to her inner-city high school students — come across as just plain silly. But I still consider this the best (which also means the sexiest) Campion feature since The Piano, featuring Meg Ryan’s finest performance to date and an impressive one by Mark Ruffalo. Scripted by Moore and Campion, it takes on the unfashionable question of what sex means for a single woman drifting into middle age, and what it says on the subject veers from the obvious to the novel. Campion is better with moods than with plot, and her capable handling of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and an uncredited Kevin Bacon) ameliorates the hyperbolic characters they’re asked to play. R, 118 min. (JR)
Here’s the substance of two emails I recently sent to an obit writer at the Tribune:
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.
This 1993 film by the eclectic and talented Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed) is a contemporary semitragic farce about a burly film actor who wants to act only in art films but is forced by his family’s economic demands to do a string of trashy commercial movies. His tormented wife, infertile and obsessed with having a baby, insists that her husband marry and impregnate a second wife, a deaf-mute Gypsy, to provide them with a child. What keeps this picture frenetic, apart from the hysterical action and satirical treatment of the Iranian media, is the couple’s surreal, high-tech home and Makhmalbaf’s hyperbolic, eccentric mise en scene, which fit together hand and glove (as they were undoubtedly designed to do). The three lead actors — Akbar Abdi (playing some version of himself), Fatemeh Motamed Aria, and Mahaya Petrossian — were all in Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf’s previous feature; there appear to be some cross-references (such as the hero’s Chaplin worship), but here the tone is more caustic, the inventiveness more pointed. The meanings of both films are less than entirely clear, but my hunch is that each is a comic allegory about the rift between traditional and contemporary Iran, in which class differences and cultural differences are equally pertinent. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1990). — J.R.
Although there are times when one feels that the filmmakers have bitten off a little more than they can chew, this is a bold, watchable adaptation (by director James Foley and coproducer Robert Redlin) of a noirish thriller by Jim Thompson that comes surprisingly close to capturing the grisly, hard-boiled, and unstable world of that author — thanks in part to a sharp feeling for sensual detail that includes everything from wet, squishy kisses to a scummy unused swimming pool. (Cinematographer Mark Plummer works wonders with light and scenery in striking ‘Scope compositions.) Jason Patric, calling to mind a slightly heavier James Dean at a low flame, stars as a former boxer who has escaped from an insane asylum; whether he’s actually nuts or merely on the edge is one of the central ambiguities that keep the plot moving, and the fact that he narrates the story off-screen in classic noir fashion only complicates one’s uncertainty. He falls in with a salty, alcoholic English widow (Rachel Ward) and a small-time con man and ex-cop (Bruce Dern) in southern California who are plotting to kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family, and paranoia and other complications start to unravel the trio’s uneasy rapport. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1999). — J.R.
An uncredited Jean-Luc Godard produced this 1997 third feature by the singular American independent Rob Tregenza (Talking to Strangers, The Arc), and along with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, Godard is certainly a presiding guru over this powerful if enigmatic view of life in and around a psychiatric hospital somewhere in rural, snowbound America. Shot by Tregenza himself (one of the best cinematographers on the planet) in black-and-white 35-millimeter ‘Scope — mainly in extremely long, choreographed takes that transpire with a minimum of dialogue but with an extremely inventive and original Dolby sound track — the film offers not so much a plot in the usual sense as a series of interlocking characters and events governed, like the film’s title, by polarities: sound and image, interior and exterior, sanity and madness, freedom and institutional captivity, society and isolation. According to clues planted in the clothes and decor (especially the cars), the action begins around 1945 and ends in the present or near future, but to confuse matters further the characters and their behavior remain unaging constants. Tregenza’s background in existential philosophy serves him well: every shot comprises an event, and most of them were shot only once, in a single take (as in Talking to Strangers), allowing change and contingency to shape the material. Read more
Narita: Heta Village
From 1967 to 1974 Japanese documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa lived with the farmers of Sanrizuka, whose village was targeted for demolition to make room for Tokyo’s Narita airport. Supported by radical students, the farmers protested their eviction, and Ogawa joined in, recording both the long-term struggle and the everyday life of the village. His intense involvement eventually yielded five films with a combined running time of about 15 hours; the 146-minute Narita: Heta Village (1973) is the second and final segment included in Doc Films’ retrospective of virtuoso cinematographer Masaki Tamura. Ogawa emphasizes the lifestyle and traditions the farmers are fighting to preserve, and both he and Tamura (a farmer’s grandson himself) show a deep sensitivity and responsiveness to these people. My favorite sequences include an interview with a woman while she slices a radish into the shape of a phallus (which she jokingly attaches to sweet potato “testicles”), a candid and affectionate conversation with an 86-year-old woman seated on her porch, and an opening sequence in which Tamura’s camera roams around a field to illustrate a farmer’s anecdotes. Subjective and highly empathetic, this documentary is less a statement than a friendly conversation: Ogawa can be heard frequently as both narrator and interviewer, the periodic intertitles are no less personal, and the villagers repay the filmmakers’ warmth by freely sharing their lives with the camera. Read more