Monthly Archives: January 2020

Back in Style (Bertolucci’s BESIEGED)

From the June 11, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Besieged

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Bertolucci and Clare Peploe

With Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, and Claudio Santamaria.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Many times over the past three decades I’ve been close to giving up on Bernardo Bertolucci. The rapturous lift of his second feature, Before the Revolution (1964), promised more than he seemed prepared to deliver with the eclectic Partner (1968). Yet it was The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) rather than The Conformist (made just afterward and released the same year) that renewed my faith in his talent. Both movies, like Before the Revolution and Partner, were the flamboyant expressions of a guilt-ridden leftist, a spoiled rich kid with a baroque imagination and a social conscience that yielded dark and decadent ideas about privilege and guiltless fancies about sex. Where they differed for me was in the degree to which The Conformist succumbed to fashionable embroidery, a stylishness that took the place of style.

It was the relatively big budget The Conformist, an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel, that made Bertolucci’s name in the world market and so influenced American movies that Coppola’s Godfather trilogy would have been inconceivable without it. Read more

Three Comedies & Two Cartoons

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

In Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, which he directed
solo, he plays a lovesick movie projectionist who
climbs into the movie screen to solve a crime, walking
through several different kinds of movies and
landscapes in the process. Not simply a charming
dreamlike fantasy, this is also a lovely piece of
Americana circa 1924.

TWO TARS (1928)

A better-than-average Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
short about two sailors (or «two tars,» according to
the slang expression) on leave and their dates culminates
in an epic grudge match occurring in the midst
of an endless traffic jam, making this extravaganza
the ideal companion-piece to 1941. Supervised by
Leo McCarey and filmed by none other than
George Stevens, this was directed by Laurel and
Hardy regular James Parrott.

THE MUSIC BOX (1932)

Perhaps the greatest of Stan Laurel and Oliver
Hardy’s sound shorts (1932), which won them
an Academy Award, is a half-hour epic of sorts,
most of it devoted to their torturous efforts to deliver
a piano to a hilltop home. Read more

Strange Bedfellows [on NANOU & WE THE LIVING]

From the Chicago Reader (January 27, 1989). — J.R.

NANOU

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Conny Templeman

With Imogen Stubbs, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Christophe Lidon, Valentine Pelka, Roger Ibanez, Daniel Day Lewis, and Lou Castel.

WE THE LIVING

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Goffredo Alessandrini

Written by Anton Giulio Majano

With Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi, Fosco Giachetti, Emilio Cigoli, Cesarina Gheraldi, Giovanni Grasso, and Guglielmo Sinaz.

There’s obviously a world of difference between Nanou, a low-budget Anglo-French coproduction of 1986, playing this week at the Film Center, and We the Living, a big-budget Italian movie of 1942, adapted from Ayn Rand’s first novel, playing this week at Facets Multimedia. But in certain areas they have an interesting relationship to one another. Both films come to us filtered through diverse national contexts, and both are love stories in which intense political commitment plays a substantial role — a role that is erotic as well as ideological and ethical in its implications. Where they differ most strikingly is in their underlying political assumptions, and in the way their narratives relate to those assumptions.

Nanou, shot entirely on locations in France and Switzerland and utilizing mainly French dialogue, is nonetheless an English film, in style as well as overall conception. Read more

The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.

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A fascinating if irritating and ultimately unsatisfactory 1993 German documentary by Ray Müller about the remarkable filmmaker whose work provided Nazi Germany with its greatest propaganda. It’s important to know that this film was made at Riefenstahl’s own instigation, clearly designed to accompany her then recently published autobiography, and that she had veto power over who would be interviewed (don’t expect to see Susan Sontag here). Consequently this is more often self-portrait than portrait; like Hitler in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, she’s presented as a fully formed deity without family background or ideology except for a reverence for beauty and strength. Admittedly, compared to the Nazi industrialists who went unpunished, she has suffered disproportionately for her Nazi associations (albeit far less than any Jew who was gassed), and she deserves full recognition as an extraordinary woman; even in her early 90s she remained a courageous deep-sea diver, as the film shows. But at 182 minutes the film has only a few skeptical asides, and it shirks certain basic historical facts — allowing its subject to insist, for instance, that Triumph of the Will was a “straight” documentary, with no allusion to all the carefully crafted studio retakes. Read more

Can Films Be Fascist?

This originally appeared in the June 24, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader, with a slightly different title (“Can Film Be Fascist?”) —J.R.

** THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ray Muller.

*** THE EYE OF VICHY

(A must-see)

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Jean-Pierre Azema and Robert O. Paxton.

Last year, about the time that Ray Muller’s mediocre if watchable three-hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl was getting widespread coverage in New York, a European friend thoughtfully sent me a tape of Looking at “Triumph of the Will”, an excellent 45-minute BBC program designed to introduce Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film to a contemporary audience. Interviewing such commentators as Hugh Hudson, Annette Insdorf, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Budd Schulberg, and Brian Winston, the program offered diverse historical, ideological, and aesthetic perspectives without privileging any single point of view. Riefenstahl herself refused to be interviewed, yet her own self-serving interpretation of her career was included, as well as that of one of her American apologists — David Hinton, the author of a book about her, who argues, as Riefenstahl does, that Triumph of the Will should not be regarded as propaganda. Read more

SAFE and Sorry

A kind of ten-best meditation for Artforum, December 1995 (vol. 34, issue 4), that anticipates some of my arguments in my subsequent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See. Incidentally, I’ve since then come to value Showgirls (and, more generally, Paul Verhoeven) far more than I did 25 years ago, politically and otherwise. — J.R.

In October I compiled three lists for my own schizoid edification. The first consisted of the 50 best films I had seen this year at festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, and Toronto and as a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee (which entailed a screening of 100 more films in August). The second was my impression of what comprised the 50 most discussed films released in the United States this year; my third list was a selection of what I considered the 20 most important releases, whether they were widely discussed or not. Only one feature appears on all three lists — Todd Haynes’ Safe.

One reason for the lack of overlap between my three lists is that, unless it’s a big-studio product, a film usually takes at least a year to open commercially in the United States after its premiere at festivals, ensuring that we remain something of a last-stop backwater when it comes to most non-Hollywood movies. Read more

Us and Them [BLOOD IN THE FACE]

From the December 6, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

BLOOD IN THE FACE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway

If memory serves, it was around my junior year in college, during the mid-60s, when a conservative classmate took my brother and me to a John Birch Society meeting in Hyde Park, New York, held inside a trailer in a trailer camp. The friend advised us to conceal our identities as liberal Jews (he was half Jewish himself) and try to blend in with the surroundings, which we did.

It was a sparsely attended meeting. Before that we made small talk with the handful of other people present — including the couple who owned the trailer and a young man who identified himself as the son of communists and who cheerfully explained that the society had deliberately adopted the structure of the Communist Party, complete with cell meetings like this one and vows of secrecy. He and everyone else in the room seemed friendly, normal everyday folks, until the film projector blew a fuse just as they began to screen a movie.

Then the paranoid speculations began: they made extensive flashlight searches of the yard around the trailer, looking for spies and saboteurs. Read more

Criminal Genius [THIEVES]

This review of a major film, Andre Téchiné’s Les voleurs (Thieves), that was (perhaps typically, at least for this period) completely ignored in The New Yorker — along with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man from the previous year — appeared in the December 27, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Thieves

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné, Gilles Taurand, Michel Alexandre, and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Laurence Côte, Fabienne Babe, Julien Riviére, Benoît Magimel, Didier Bezace, and Ivan Desny.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

“Before Christ was a time of orgies. Then came love.”

“Love’s less fun.”

“Probably. In orgies you give your all. No more, no less. In love, it’s never enough. It’s always too much or not enough.” –a conversation in Thieves between a philosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) and a policeman (Daniel Auteuil) in love with the same woman

When was the last time you saw a movie that was truly for as well as about grown-ups? Whatever the virtues of Breaking the Waves, a mature point of view certainly isn’t one of them. Read more

The Road to Overload [NORTH ON EVERS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 2, 1992). — J.R.

NORTH ON EVERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

A good many of the fine points of the film business elude me. But if I understand some of the current rules correctly, it’s poison to use black-and-white cinematography, letterboxing (for framing wide-screen formats on video), or subtitles –unless they appear in music videos or, in the case of subtitles, in Dances With Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans, when they automatically become commercially desirable.

I cite these ridiculous rules of thumb to show just how fanciful most such commercial “rules” turn out to be. Producers, distributors, and exhibitors often claim that their choices are dictated by the well-researched desires of audiences; of course audiences counter that they can only choose from what’s put in front of them. In other words everyone passes the buck when it comes to explaining why black-and-white features can’t get bankrolled in this country and why foreign-language films have a tough time — only 1 percent of all movies shown here are subtitled. And the industry takes enormous pains to ensure that we don’t see letterboxing on TV or video — except on MTV. Read more

Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left For The East?

From the June 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Why-Has?

A much more serious treatment of Buddhism than Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, this 1989 Korean feature by Bae Yong-kyun (who produced, directed, shot, and edited) has become something of a cult film, and it’s easy to understand why. The title is an unanswerable Zen koan, at one point echoing the narrator’s queries: Who is Buddha? Who isn’t he? The skeletal plot concerns an old master, a young disciple, and an orphaned boy in a remote Korean monastery in the mountains, but the film’s main offering is its contemplation of and inexhaustible fascination with the natural world; indeed, we periodically have the sensation that the narrative has been suspended almost entirely for the sake of this meditation. Full of ravishingly beautiful images rather than ravishingly beautiful shots, the film conveys not so much a filmic intelligence as a Buddhist intelligence that’s being translated, step-by-step, into movie terms; the film seems to reach us from a certain remove, with positive as well as negative consequences. Count on something slow, arresting, and lovely, and if you’re looking for drama, expect to find it internally. 135 min. (JR)

WhyHas Read more

Screwball Squirrel (1976 review)

The following was written for the May 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Screwball Squirrel

U.S.A., 1944
Director: Tex Avery

Cert—U. dist—Ron Harris. p.c—MGM. p—Fred Quimby. story—Heck Allen. col—[originally made in Technicolor]. anim—Preston Blair, Ed Love, Ray Abrams. m—Scott Bradley. 248 ft. 7 min. (16 mm.).

After beating up Sammy Squirrel — an effeminate Disney-like creature who purports to be the hero of the cartoon — Screwy Squirrel enters a phone booth and calls Meathead the dog to get another plot going. After an extended chase, Meathead tries to end the cartoon, but Screwy offers him one more chance to catch him. The results are immediately complicated by the fact that both confess to have been twins all along; a revived Sammy joins the group.

 

As Joe Adamson had ungrammatically but aptly noted, “Screwy Squirrel is Daffy Duck taken one step further that he absolutely has to.” A thoroughly demented character who lasted through five cartoons in the mid-Forties (Screwball Squirrel, Happy-Go-Nutty, Big Heel-Watha, The Screwy Truant, and Lonesome Lenny), he seems important in Avery’s career not so much for his own intrinsic qualities — monotonously aggressive mania and not much else — as for the wild bouts of anti-illusionist high jinks and comparable assaults on the audience that he provoked in his creators. Read more

Fury

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1989). — J.R.

fury_mob

Sylvia-Sidney-in-“Fury”-1936

Unjustly accused of a crime, a man (Spencer Tracy) barely escapes a lynching and returns to wreak vengeance on the mob that nearly killed him. Fritz Lang’s first American film, made in 1936, remains one of his most powerful and fully achieved; the pitiless overhead camera angle, which carries such force in many of his other films, has a particular impact here when it appears in an impromptu documentary, a film within the film, of a near lynching that is used as courtroom evidence. Sylvia Sidney plays the hero’s fiancee, and the strong secondary cast is headed up by Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot, Edward Ellis, Walter Brennan, and Frank Albertson. Essential viewing, however bitter the aftertaste. 90 min. (JR)

furyposter1 Read more

In Loving Memory (THE SON OF GASCOGNE)

From the August 14, 1998 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that this film is still available on DVD. — J.R.

The Son of Gascogne

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Pascal Aubier

Written by Patrick Modiano and Aubier

With Grégoire Colin, Dinara Droukarova, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Laszlo Szabo, Pascal Bonitzer, Otar Iosseliani, Alexandra Stewart, and Jean-Claude Brialy.

It’s been a full quarter of a century, but I still harbor fond memories of a low-budget French comedy called Valparaiso Valparaiso, a first feature starring Alain Cuny and Bernadette Lafont that I saw at Cannes in 1973. A lighthearted satire about the myopia of romantic French revolutionaries, it details an elaborate hoax perpetrated on a befuddled leftist — a character so absorbed in the glory of departing for Chile to fight the good fight as a special agent that he doesn’t even notice the political struggle going on around him on the French docks when he leaves.

The film was so marginal that two years passed between its completion and its modest premiere at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and you won’t find it mentioned in any of the standard reference books. No, I take that back: Jean-Michel Frodon gives it a third of a sentence in his over-900-page L’Age moderne du Cinéma Français de la Nouvelle Vague à nos jours (1995), linking it with two other films of the early 70s inspired by the French Communist Party and critical of leftists. Read more

Pierrot Le Fou

pierrot-le-fou

pierrotlefou4

“I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple,” Jean-Luc Godard said of this brilliant, all-over-the-place adventure and meditation about two lovers on the run (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina). Made in 1965, this film, with its ravishing colors and beautiful ‘Scope camerawork by Raoul Coutard, still looks as iconoclastic and fresh as it did when it belatedly opened in the U.S. Godard’s misogynistic view of women as the ultimate betrayers is integral to the romanticism in much of his 60s work — and perhaps never more so than here — but Karina’s charisma makes this pretty easy to ignore most of the time. The movie’s frequent shifts in style, emotion, and narrative are both challenging and intoxicating: American director Samuel Fuller turns up at a party scene to offer his definition of cinema, Karina performs two memorable songs in musical-comedy fashion, Belmondo’s character quotes copiously from his reading, and a fair number of red and blue cars are stolen and destroyed. In French with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)

pierrotlefou8

pierrotlefou3 Read more

Final Bow

It’s really sad: Wikipedia had listings for no less than eight different men named John Berry when I originally posted this article, but the film director (1917-1999) wasn’t one of them (fortunately, this is no longer the case); and you won’t find an article about him in Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors, either. I can’t say I knew the man well. but I consider myself fortunate to have spent some time with him in a variety of places — including film festivals in Rotterdam and Vienna, in Paris, and even one enjoyable evening at a jazz disco in Taipei. His accounts of his experiences with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater -– which included several hours of holding up scenery during the shooting of Too Much Johnson — were priceless.

The following comes from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boesman & Lena ***

Directed by John Berry.

Written by Athol Fugard and Berry.

With Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, and Willie Jonah.

Director John Berry got his big start as an actor in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles then introduced him to film in 1938 when he hired him as assistant director on a silent slapstick film made to accompany and introduce portions of the stage farce Too Much Johnson. Read more