When I previously reprinted on this site my first Paris Journal for Film Comment, from their Fall 1971 issue, I omitted the entire opening section, largely because of its embarrassing misinformation (both naive and ill-informed) in detailing the background of the ongoing feud at the time between Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. But for the sake of the historical record, I’ve decided to reprint it now, along with a lengthy letter from Positif’s editorial board and my reply to it two issues later. — J.R.
Of all the gang wars waged over the past thirteen years between Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, the latest appears to be the most extensive and the least illuminating. When Truffaut ridiculed Positif for anti- intellectualism and self-serving vanity in 1958, Cahiers‘ orientation was Catholic-conservative while its leading rival was surrealist and leftist; the former enshrined Hollywood while the latter denigrated it as imperialist. When Positif launched a lengthy counter-offensive in 1962 (amply documented in Peter Graham’s anthology, The New Wave), the terms of the equation had already begun to shift: many Cahiers critics were already beginning to veer away from their backgrounds as they became filmmakers, and Positif was starting to develop a stable of its own Hollywood auteurs, like John Huston and Jerry Lewis.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1991). — J.R.
LITTLE MAN TATE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jodie Foster
Written by Scott Frank
With Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest, Harry Connick Jr., David Pierce, Debi Mazar, and P.J. Ochlan.
Part of what’s refreshing about Jodie Foster’s first feature as a director is its quirky style and vision; even the picture’s limitations have a certain offbeat integrity. In 90 percent of the movies we see the flaws are the same old flaws endlessly recycled (inherited like family curses, passed along like viruses): sentimentality, cliched characters and behavior, and stock attitudes, camera placements, and audience manipulations. Relatively free of these familiar blemishes, Little Man Tate winds up with a few of its own — “missing pieces” might be more accurate — but most of these problems seem to have been arrived at honestly rather than automatically imported from other movies.
The title hero is a boy genius named Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd) who occasionally narrates his own story, which transpires mainly between his seventh and eighth birthdays. He’s gifted in so many ways that, at least on the schematic level of Scott Frank’s script, he often seems like several boy geniuses jammed together: a self-taught reader by age one, he also quickly reveals himself to be a talented visual artist, a remarkable classical pianist, an original and accomplished poet, and a mathematical wizard who breezes through a college course in quantum physics when he’s seven.… Read more »
From the February 22, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Try to imagine Siskel and Ebert not as Chicago film critics but as a heterosexual couple in Baltimore, both of them general interest reporters whose combative instincts and political and temperamental differences become the focus of a TV show, and you more or less have the premise of this romantic comedy. Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins play the leads, and a real-life couple (Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver) direct the separate versions of their story (both scripted by Brian Hohlfeld). The attempt to tell the same story twice from separate viewpoints a la Rashomon or Les Girls doesn’t always yield as much ambiguity or complexity as one might wish. But on the whole, this is an honorable attempt to revive the feeling and ambience of a Hoilywood comedy of the 50s, complete with sumptuous romantic music (score by Miles Goodman), ‘Scope framing, and a magical last-minute resolution, and, as such, it’s pretty pleasurable to watch. With Sharon Stone. (Esquire, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Lincoln Village)
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If memory serves, this review provoked more hate mail than anything else I ever wrote for the Reader, very little of which engaged with my actual argument — a response I tend to correlate with this country’s unreasoning and irrepressible infatuation with and worship of serial killers as virtual religious icons (roughly akin to rock musicians who die of drug overdoses). But according to the Reader, it is also one of my most widely read Reader pieces. It ran in the November 8, 2007 issue, a little less than four months before I retired from the paper. — J.R.
No Country for Old Men | Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
November 8, 2007
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. —George Orwell
I tend to get flustered when people ask me what I look for in movies, so I’m wary of theorizing too much about what other people want from them.… Read more »
From the September 1, 1987 Chicago Reader. Criterion is releasing this film on a Blu-Ray with many extras. –J.R.
Try as he might, writer John Sayles has never been a natural filmmaker. But this sincere 1987 account of a coal miner strike and subsequent massacre in West Virginia in 1920 is so conscientiously detailed and so keenly felt and imagined — as well as attractively shot, by Haskell Wexler — that he deserves at the very least an A for effort. Simpleminded yet stirring, his depiction of a community of local whites, migrant blacks from the Deep South, and immigrant Italians gradually joining forces against the company bosses and their henchmen, under the leadership of a pacifist organizer, offers a bracing alternative to complacent right-wing as well as liberal claptrap. If Sayles’s bite were as lethal as his bark, he might have given this a harder edge and a stronger conclusion. But the performances are uniformly fine: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, Kevin Tighe (perfect in dress and physiognomy, but strictly one-dimensional as scripted), James Earl Jones, and Sayles; the regional accents are especially well-handled. 133 min. (JR)
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NEVER APOLOGISE: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS by Lindsay Anderson, edited by Paul Ryan, London: Plexus, 2004, 612 pp.
MOSTLY ABOUT LINDSAY ANDERSON by Gavin Lambert, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 384 pp.
I’ve never considered myself a particular fan of Lindsay Anderson, either as a filmmaker or as a film critic, so what am I doing recommending these two books? I wound up reading the Lambert memoir, which I now regard as perhaps Lambert’s most affecting book, for what it had to say about Nicholas Ray, but what it has to say about Anderson turned out to be pretty moving and compelling as well. And then running across a copy of Anderson’s collected film criticism, quite by chance, in a New York Barnes & Noble outlet last month eventually encouraged me to order a copy from Amazon U.K., which turned up today. Judging from the sampling that I’ve done so far, I don’t expect to agree with very much in it, but this is beside the point: as a mammoth film chronicle covering several decades, it seems comparable in importance, simply as a historical artifact, to the more recent Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, with plenty of flinty iconoclasm in its own right, as its title suggests.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). I can happily report that this expertly realized tour de force — a brilliant adaptation of what is essentially highly theatrical material, rehearsed and blocked to the nines — is now out on a Twilight Time Blu-Ray. For all its nervy desire to wear its sordidness, black comedy, and sheer roughness on its sleeve, which kept it from having a commercial success in the 70s and may still alienate some viewers now, this is basically a comedy about sexual vulnerability and shifting power plays between jaded Hollywood types with more bark than bite, and a surprisingly sweet aftertaste shining through all the harsh pseudo-toughness. — J.R.
John Byrum’s controversial first feature, made in 1976, stars Richard Dreyfuss as a burned-out Hollywood genius director of the 20s, reduced in the 30s to making porn films in his own mansion. Wittily scripted and engagingly acted (by Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Veronica Cartwright, and Bob Hoskins), the film restricts all its action to a few hours in the director’s mansion, and is peppered liberally with inside movie references. Chances are you’ll either be bored stiff by the conceits or exhilarated; personally, I found it gripping throughout. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.
Alain Resnais’ comeback in 1974 after five years’ absence (precipitated by the commercial failure of Je t’aime, je t’aime), and like many other of his films, it has improved with age. Scripted by Jorge Semprun (La guerre est finie, Z), it tells the true story of a notorious international financier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) whose ruin in 1933 led to a major political scandal and his own death. While the script isn’t always lucid — some attempts to counterpoint Stavisky’s destiny with that of Leon Trotsky, given political asylum in France during the time of the events covered, appear a bit forced — the power of Resnais’ evocative editing is as strong as ever. Using a gorgeous original score by Stephen Sondheim, elegant sets and locations, and beautiful color cinematography by Sacha Vierny, Resnais models his liquid, bittersweet style on Lubitsch, and the shimmering, romantic results are often spellbinding and haunting. With Anny Duperey, Charles Boyer (in what may be his last great screen performance), Michel Lonsdale, Francois Perier, Claude Rich, and, in an early cameo, Gerard Depardieu. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1994). — J.R.
After the extensive recutting of his The Big Red One and the virtual shelving of his White Dog, American writer-director Sam Fuller reluctantly chose creative exile in Paris. In many ways the most elaborate and ambitious of his post-American features is this 1989 noir, an adaptation (by Fuller and producer Jacques Bral) of a David Goodis novel that was shot in Portugal. It stars Keith Carradine as a famous pop singer who winds up on skid row after he falls for a mysterious woman and gets his throat cut by her gangster boyfriend; much of the story is told in flashback after he’s arrested during a race riot. Recognizably (and enjoyably) Fuller-esque in its caustic violence, its punchy yellow-press dialogue, and its campy sensationalism, the movie is hampered — to the point of becoming weirdly discombobulated — by its use of Lisbon locations to stand in for American ones; the experience is every bit as disconcerting as Anthony Perkins’s American accent in Orson Welles’s version of Kafka’s The Trial. The singular vision of Fuller in his late 70s, tied as always to his passionate and radical view of the U.S.,… Read more »
Written for the 99th issue of Trafic (Fall 2016) — a revision and slight expansion of two previous essays. — J.R.
The rapidly and constantly expanding proliferation of films and videos about cinema is altering some of our notions about film history in at least two significant ways. For one thing, now that it has become impossible for any individual to keep abreast of all this work, our methodologies for assessing it as a whole have to be expanded and further developed. And secondly, insofar as one way of defining work in cinematic form and style that is truly groundbreaking is to single out work that defines new areas of content, the search for such work is one of the methodologies that might be most useful. In my case, this is a search that has led to considerations of two recent videos by Mark Rappaport: I, Dalio — or The Rules of the Game (2014, 33 minutes), and Debra Paget, For Example (2016, 37 minutes). Both are highly personal works that also define relatively new areas of on-film film analysis, forms of classification that can be described here as indexing.
Rappaport was born in New York and he lived and (mostly) worked there until he moved to Paris in 2005, although his work with found footage started over a decade earlier with Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), followed by Exterior Night (made in Germany for German television in 1993), From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), and his 2002 short John Garfield. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1989). — J.R.
A very enjoyable documentary survey of American comic books, from their inception in 1933 to the present, by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (Imagine the Sound, Poetry in Motion). Newspaper comic strips such as Little Nemo in Slumberland, Krazy Kat, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, and Peanuts are omitted, but within the comic-book field, Mann’s reach is fairly broad, extending from diverse superheroes such as Superman and the Fantastic Four to EC Comics to underground artists such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodrigues to recent figures such as Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and Sue Coe. Jazzy graphic devices are employed to represent the work, including simplified animation and individual frames accompanied by the artists reading the captions and dialogue aloud, and the interviews are generally both lively and pertinent. Mann also gets a lot of amusing mileage out of archival footage of anti-comic-book propaganda from the 50s. One misses the kind of in-depth formal analysis given to comics by such overseas experts as Francis Lacassin, but otherwise Mann’s grasp of his subject is lively, penetrating, and affectionate. A Chicago premiere. (JR) (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 30 through July 6)
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From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.
This movie has its share of laughs, but it’s also Ron Howard’s most personal film, and clearly his most ambitious — a multifaceted essay in fictional form about the diverse snares of child rearing. The movie tries for so many things in so many different registers — there are a number of fantasy interludes and raunchy gags along with an overflowing cast of characters (including Steve Martin, Tom Hulce, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, and Dianne Wiest) — that the results are often unwieldy, but they’re certainly heartfelt: Howard’s grown-up sentimentality is the perfect antidote to the infantilism of Spielberg and Lucas and their disciples. The film never shies away from real problems, and the complex mix of comedy and seriousness in its treatment of the pitfalls of parenthood steadily grows in feeling and power. The movie may wind up being as messy as it argues that family life is, but it commands admiration and respect. The screenplay is by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story that they wrote with Howard (1989). (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.
Fans of Billy Crystal’s amphibian qualities may be amused, but the rest of us have to contend with a slavish Woody Allen imitation in this New York comedy scripted by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner (1989). Everything from the background music to the jogging dialogue strains to create the atmosphere of an Annie Hall or a Manhattan, with Meg Ryan in the Diane Keaton part, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as the best friends/other couple, and half a dozen elderly New York couples periodically discoursing cutely about how they met. The title couple meet on a drive from the University of Chicago to Manhattan in 1977, and the movie charts their gradual and grudging bonding up to the present. Very slickly and glibly put together, with a sharp eye for yuppie decor and accoutrements; even Woody’s habitual, fanciful vision of an all-white New York is respected. 95 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). — J.R.
John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller, a postnoir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when first released in 1976, and a recut, shorter version released two years later didn’t fare much better. This is the first, longer, and in some ways better of the two versions; it’s easier to follow, despite reports that — or maybe because — Cassavetes had less to do with the editing (though he certainly approved it). A personal, deeply felt character study rather than a routine action picture, it follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint — simultaneously an asshole and a saint — who recklessly gambles his way into debt and has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a personal testament; what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is its alter-ego relation to the filmmaker — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered showbiz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 27, 1992). — J.R.
Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie made me laugh more and much harder than What’s Up, Doc? ever did, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed “Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines,” “Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach,” and “Props in Revolt in Cleveland”; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easier to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »