Monthly Archives: January 2020

Snowbound: A Dialogue with a Dialogue

This is the second of two interviews I’ve had with Michael Snow. (The first, “The `Presents‘ of Michael Snow,” can be found elsewhere on this site.) Commissioned by Simon Field, it ran in the Winter 1982/83 issue (no. 11) of the excellent English magazine Afterimage, a special issue called “Sighting Snow,” and it concerns both So Is This and Presents. I’ve incorporated some but not all of the additions from the version of this article that was reprinted in my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press). I regret some of the hectoring tone of my political rhetoric here, and it became clear to me after Film: The Front Line 1983 was published that Snow objected to some of this rhetoric in the book even more, thus curtailing some of our friendship that had prevailed beforehand. – -J.R.

Snowbound: A Dialogue with a Dialogue

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

A few specifics about what follows. Last September 15th, I taped an interview with Michael Snow at his home in Toronto. Read more

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

Joe Dante Calls the Toon

This appeared in the Chicago Reader on November 21, 2003. — J.R.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Larry Doyle

With Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, and the voice of Joe Alaskey.

Ever since the word “auteur” became part of the standard English vocabulary in the late 60s and early 70s there’s been some confusion about its meaning. In French auteur simply means “author,” and when François Truffaut started formulating a “politique des auteurs,” or policy of authors, in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-50s, he had in mind a critical policy that recognized the stylistic and thematic unity certain directors gave their films. And because politique means “politics” as well as “policy,” he was also implying a ranking of those directors.

In his early writings Andrew Sarris transformed these ideas into an “auteur theory” that focused less on policy and politics. This is where the confusion started, because it wasn’t clear to most people whether this was a theory about how films were made or about how they should be viewed and interpreted. Because the mainstream discourse centered on the powerful Hollywood studios, the theory came to be understood as focusing on how films were made, with the emphasis on film as a business. 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

A Funny Kind of Tribute [I’M NOT THERE]

From the Chicago Reader, November 22, 2007. –J.R.

I’m Not There 

Directed by Todd Haynes

I’ve owned copies of Don’t Look Back and Nashville Skyline for decades, but I’d never describe myself as a hard-core Bob Dylan fan. Obvious as his talent may be, he often mixes metaphors and combines images in a way that skirts the edge of incoherence. And as the appointed spokesman for my generation — born in 1941, only a couple of years before me — he sometimes strikes me as little more than a series of shifting masks and poses. So I went into I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s ambitious new film about the man, fully prepared to feel out of step, and was surprised to find my misgivings addressed at every turn. Widely described as a tribute, it frequently comes across as a series of insults.

To call the film biographical is misleading. If anything, it’s a speculative essay that uses Dylan to comment on his audience and the 60s in general. Haynes, a graduate of the semiotics department at Brown University, isn’t really concerned with Dylan as an individual; rather he presents him as a cluster of signs and texts, spread across six characters embodying phases or distinct aspects of his early career. Read more

Magnificent Repression [on FAR FROM HEAVEN]

From the November 22, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Far From Heaven

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, and James Rebhorn.

It becomes apparent that in this context, for practical purposes, “Sirk” does not denote a mood or a philosophy or a set of plot elements, but rather a repertoire of technical decisions. With that lexicon of effects, new sentences can be written. — Geoffrey O’Brien, writing on Far From Heaven in the November issue of Artforum

Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven — a revisionist pastiche of the Technicolor melodramas Douglas Sirk made for Universal Pictures in the 1950s — was easily, and in some ways deservedly, the most popular movie among critics at the Toronto film festival in September. Though less obviously a tour de force than many flashier recent art films, such as Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature Russian Ark, it’s no less impressive as a technical achievement.

Despite the Toronto buzz, Far From Heaven may not become a hit, even in art theaters (though I’ve heard it had a strong opening week at the Landmark). Having twice discussed it with audiences (as part of Talk Cinema screenings at Northbrook and Pipers Alley), I’ve seen how it can divide viewers. 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.

the-wonderful-horrible-life-of-leni-riefenstahl-1-1

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

THE LATE MATHIAS PASCAL (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). A tinted restoration of this film was presented at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato with a beautiful, large-orchestra score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock a few years back, and I must say that this very impressive presentation substantially transformed my original skepticism, fully demonstrating how much difference a serious archival restoration can make. And Flicker Alley has brought out this version on a lovely Blu-Ray, which I can heartily recommend. — J.R.

Feu Mathias Pascal
(The Late Mathias Pascal)

France, 1925
Director: Marcel L’Herbier

Miragno, Italy. Acting on behalf of herself, her son Mathias and her sister-in-law Scolastique, Maria Pascal authorises agent Batta Maldagna to sell her property; worried about her debts, he sells it at one-sixth its value. Mathias’ shy friend Pomino, secretly in Iove with Romilde Pescatore, asks Mathias to propose to her on his behalf at a village fête. Discovering that she is-in love with himself, Mathias marries her instead, but soon finds his life made miserable by his shrewish mother-in-law, who holds sway over Romilde. He goes to work at the chaotic municipal library, where his time is largely spent contriving to catch rats. After the nearly simultaneous deaths of his mother and infant daughter, he flees to Monte Carlo, where, by following the advice of a gambler who tells him to bet on 12, he unexpectedly wins a fortune. Read more

Tabu

From the August 2, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

tabu-f-w-murnau-cine-ibere-fundacao-ibere-camargo

tabu2

The last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, as he died in an auto accident only a few days after work on the musical score of this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby (fully evident in this fine restoration), this began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story complicated by the fact that the young woman becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder (one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom) to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. The two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” and another theme is the corrupting power of “civilization”  — money in particular — on the innocent hedonism of the islanders. Read more