My column for the December 2019 Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
En movimiento: Denial Incorporated and Cinematic Substitutes
Given how much we watch [TV] and what watching means, it’s inevitable, for those of us…who fancy ourselves voyeurs, to get the idea that these persons behind the glass — persons who are often the most colorful, attractive, animated, alive people in our daily experience — are also people who are oblivious to the fact that they are being watched. This illusion is toxic.
—David Foster Wallace
Insofar as “political correctness” often functions as a sad form of compensation for political powerlessness — so that one winds up eagerly penalizing a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen for a real or imagined crime committed decades ago largely because one can’t find a way of getting rid of a Donald Trump in the present — the degree to which simple denial plays a role in governing one’s consumer choices needs to be recognized. What may be most significant about the flood of negative reviews in the U.S. given to Joker after both a slew of domestic mass shootings and the film winning a Golden Lion from Lucrecia Martel’s jury in Venice is how similar these reviews were to one another in both their phraseology and their arguments, comprising a herdlike form of collective expression that has to blame a movie for its frustration because it can’t (or at least won’t) blame the American gun lobby. … Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976, Vol. 43, No. 514. — J.R.
Ultima Donna, L’ (The Last Woman)
Director : Marco Ferreri
Cert—X. dist–Columbia.Warner. p.c—Flaminia Produzioni Cinema (Rome)/Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld (Paris). p—Edmondo Amati. p. managers–Maurizio Amiti, Roberto .Giussani. asst. d—Enrique Bergier, Bernard Grenet. sc–Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Dante Antelli. story–Marco Ferreri. collaboration on dial–Noël Simsolo. ph—Luciano Tovoli. col—Eastman Colour. ed–Enzo Meniconi. a.d—Michel de Broin. m—Philippe Sarde. m.d—Hubert Rostaing. cost—Gitt Magrini. sd. ed— Gina Pignier, sd. rec–Jean-Pierre Ruh. l.p—Gérard Depardieu (Gérard), Ornella Muti (Valérie), David Biggani (Pierrot), Michel Piccoli (Michel), Renato Salvatori’ (René), Giuliana Calandra (Benoîte), Zouzou (Gabrielle), Nathalie Baye (Girl in Shopping Mall), Soulange Skyden (Girl at Night-club), Carole Lepers (Anne-Marie), Daniela Silverio (Jane), Vittorio Ganfoni (Policeman with Dogs), Guerrino Totis. 9,799 ft. 109 mins. French dialogue; English subtitles.
French title—La Dernière Femme
Gérard, a young engineer whose wife, Gabrielle, has recently left him, meets Valérie, the attractive teacher at the factory nursery where he goes to collect his thirteen-month-old son Pierrot, and invites her home with him; she agrees, and is assured by her lover Michel thathe won’t interfere.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.— J.R.
The Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marzieh Meshkini
Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.
“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.
The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another.… Read more »
From the March 15, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by James Benning.
Experimental films usually attempt to rearrange our reflexes along with our expectations. James Benning’s 270-minute, 16-millimeter “California Trilogy” does that in part by obliging us to rethink the way we interpret “directed by” and “written by.” If “directing” refers to the placement of camera and microphone, then Benning — who works alone, recording image and sound by himself — directed these three films. And if “writing” means the choice and identification of subjects — including the way they’re represented in the credits — then Benning is also the trilogy’s writer.
Benning — who will attend the March 21 screening of his film at the Film Center — placed his name at the end of the final credits of El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi, the three 90-minute features comprising his trilogy. Each feature consists of 35 shots lasting 150 seconds apiece, followed by final credits also lasting 150 seconds. Thirty-six times two and a half minutes equals an hour and a half; multiply that by three and you get 270 minutes, or four and a half hours.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 1993). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by James B. Harris
With Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Lolita Davidovich, Viggo Mortensen, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Christine Elise, and Valerie Perrine
BODIES, REST & MOTION
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Michael Steinberg
Written by Roger Hedden
With Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Alicia Witt, Sandra Lafferty, and Sidney Dawson.
At least 30 or 40 years separate the sensibilities that underlie Boiling Point and Bodies, Rest & Motion, two current releases I suspect won’t be with us very long. The first, a quirky and at times oddly charming museum piece, is masquerading as a Wesley Snipes action thriller, but advertising — even wall-to-wall — isn’t everything. The writer-director, James B. Harris, who was born in 1928, produced the first three important Stanley Kubrick features — The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962) — and what’s most distinctive about this movie is its bittersweet aroma of 50s nostalgia and over-the-hill desperation, most of it wafting around a pathetically cheerful con artist called Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) who’s simply trying to stay alive.
There’s desperation aplenty in Bodies, Rest & Motion as well, but not the sort that has the weight of lived experience — or even the relative weightlessness of recollected innocence.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). — J.R.
Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie and first operetta, costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, contains the excitement of movies being reinvented, so that silence as well as sound becomes a brand-new plaything (in contradistinction to silent movies, which usually had musical accompaniment). A study in playfulness, this fantasy about a country preoccupied with its queen getting married actually has a dog barking out half a chorus of one number, perfectly in tune, and the precode erotics and sexual politics seem pretty advanced in spots. Secondary leads Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane offer some acrobatic low comedy as servants whose best song is called “Let’s Be Common”. 110 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). I’m sorry that I’ve unable to find a single image illustrating The Last Conversation. — J.R.
The Murder of Emmett Till
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Stanley Nelson
Written by Marcia A. Smith
Narrated by Andre Braugher.
Oporto of My Childhood
Directed, written, and narrated by Manoel de Oliveira.
The Last Conversation
Directed by Sally Banes
Written by Noel Carroll
With Galina Zakrutkina and James Sutton
Narrated by Patricia Boyette.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Kevin McMahon
Written by David Sobelman
Narrated by Laurie Anderson.
Echelon: The Secret Power
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by David Korn-Brzoza
Narrated by Francois Devienne.
It’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the way most documentaries treat their subject matter, because one has to assess what’s included in light of what’s left out — something we aren’t usually qualified to do. I’m much more comfortable evaluating documentaries on how well they draw us into their subject matter and on how well they work as cinema. On these terms I can confidently say that I’ve seen and heard about a lot of exciting new documentaries recently, including an American work I really want to see, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.… Read more »
From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein
Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi
With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.
1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?
Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 27, 2007). — J.R.
For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller — rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later — as Cukor’s fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. Screening in 16-millimeter; 95 min. Admission is free. a Sat 7/28, 7 and 9 PM, Univ.… Read more »
This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in. — J.R.
The Best Film of the Past Two Years
And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.
I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks.… Read more »
From the November 25, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Although this 1960 movie is usually accorded a low place in the Marilyn Monroe canon — understandably so, because the comedy and musical numbers never quite take off the way they’re supposed to, and the central plot premise is more than a little labored — it deserves to be reevaluated for the intelligence of Monroe’s performance and the rare independence of her character; this one was made after her brush with Actors Studio, and she isn’t playing a bimbo. Yves Montand costars as a reclusive billionaire who discovers he’s being parodied in an off-Broadway revue; he tries out for the part himself, incognito, and she’s the chorus girl who helps him along. George Cukor directed, in ‘Scope, and lent a certain glamour and polish to the proceedings. With Tony Randall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughan (whose number, “Incurably Romantic,” isn’t half-bad), and bits by Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly; Norman Krasna wrote the querulous script. 118 min. (JR)
… Read more »
Six years have passed since I wrote six essays on each of Jacques Tati’s features for Taschen’s recently released and massive five-volume book package The Definitive Jacques Tati, which actually includes eight contributions by me by reprinting my 1972 interview with Tati for Film Comment without its introduction and my 1983 essay “The Death of Hulot” for Sight and Sound. But I’m credited for nine items, because volume #2, Tati Writes, containing eight screenplays or treatments, includes the never-made Confusion, which erroneously lists me as one of Tati’s three coauthors, along with Jacques Lagrange and Dominique Bidaubayle.
Truthfully, I read this treatment, or some version of it, in French after a few sessions of working with Tati, when I was lent a copy to read overnight, but there’s absolutely nothing in it that can be attributed to me. It occurs to me, however, that my being falsely credited with its coauthorship must correspond to the way a lot of film history gets erroneously recounted and then repeated — basically because such misinformation invariably comes from institutions such as studios or publishers that try to rationalize gaps in knowledge and understanding — and because authorship is routinely assigned on the basis of who gets paid.… Read more »
This was originally published by the French film magazine Trafic in April 1997. (For a later commentary about episode 4a of Histoire(s) du cinéma, which focuses on Alfred Hitchcock, go here.) –J.R.
Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma
The following text derives from two particular film festival encounters: (1) a roundtable on the subject of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, held in Locarno in August 1995; (2) some time spent with Godard in Toronto in September 1996. I participated in the first event after having seen the first four chapters of Godard’s eight-part video series; unlike the other members of the roundtable — Florence Delay, Shigehiko Hasumi, and André S. Labarthe — I’d been unable to accept Godard’s invitation to view chapters 3a and 3b, devoted to Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, in Switzerland a few days prior to the event. A little over a year later, Godard brought these chapters and a still more recent one — 4a, on Alfred Hitchcock — with him to Toronto, where he was presenting For Ever Mozart, and showed me these three chapters in his hotel room over two consecutive evenings. We also had some opportunities to discuss the series (in English); some of our conversation was recorded, but much of it wasn’t.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). I think I underrated The Five Obstructions, which I now regard as my probable favorite of von Trier’s films, after having reseen it, remastered, on the DVD recently released by Kino Lorber. One obvious advantage to seeing it on DVD is that Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, is included in its entirety as an extra, and even though I find it less interesting than the various “remakes” included in The Five Obstructions, finally getting a chance to see it in its entirety makes the Leth and von Trier feature a lot more satisfying and interesting. — J.R.
The Five Obstructions
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
With Leth, von Trier, Claus Nissen, Maiken Algren, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Patrick Bauchau, and Alexander Vandernoot.
What the Bleep Do We Know?
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz
Written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman
With Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Robert Bailey Jr., Barry Newman, and Larry Brandenburg.
When is an “experimental film” not an experimental film? This might seem a niggling matter to the ordinary paying customer, but it’s a serious issue for artists who’ve devoted their careers and lives to experimental filmmaking, knowing that they’ve given up the possibility of a wide audience by doing so.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2001). Today (September 2, 2014), having recently reseen this movie, I’d probably give it a higher rating. — J.R.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Elizabeth Berkley, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, and David Ogden Stiers.
I don’t want to oversell Woody Allen’s 31st feature, which I happen to like. The script is full of holes, most of the one-liners are weak and mechanical, and the plot — a nightclub magician gets two of his hypnotized subjects to steal jewels for him — is so deliberately stupid and contrived that one can probably enjoy it only by pretending it’s a routine, low-budget second feature on an old-fashioned double bill, which is obviously what Allen intended. Yet it’s possible for a picture to be not very good and still be likable — something that doesn’t happen very often for me with Allen’s pictures. (It happened, momentarily, in Everyone Says I Love You — when Allen exposed his vulnerability by singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love.”)
The problem with most escapism nowadays is that even if it makes you forget who and where you are, it doesn’t really detach you from norms of the world you’re living in.… Read more »