Monthly Archives: March 2020

CHRONIQUE D’UN ÉTÉ (CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER) (1961)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A joint effort by French ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch and French sociologist Edgar Morin (The Stars) yielded this remarkable 1961 documentary investigation into what Parisians — regarded as a “strange tribe” — were thinking and feeling during the summer of 1960. This was when the war in Algeria was still a hot issue, although many other topics are discussed as well, private as well as public. At first, everyone is asked, simply, “Are you happy?” More generally, the film catches the shifting emotional tenor of a few lives over a certain period.

The filmmakers treat their interview subjects with a great deal of respect and sensitivity. Among them are Marilou, an Italian emigre working as a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma; a French student named Jean-Pierre; a factory worker named Angelo; an African student named Landry; a painter and his wife named Henri and Maddie; and a pollster named Marceline assisting with some of the other interviews.

Not only do we see these individuals in diverse groupings, even on holiday in St.-Tropez;… Read more »

First Look: Faat Kiné

From Film Comment (January-February 2001). –- J.R.

I blush to admit that I’ve still seen only half the eight features to date of Ousmane Sembene, made over a 33-year period as a supplement to his dozen or so volumes of fiction. Yet considering how difficult it generally is to track his remarkable and varied work on film or video that comes ridiculously close to qualifying me as an expert. (The fact that it typically takes a couple of years for a new Sembene film to reach these shores is commonly perceived as an African as opposed to American form of inertia, but I would think the responsibility for this state of affairs might be shared.)

The first and in many ways still the greatest of all African filmmakers — give or take a masterpiece or two each by Yousef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others — Sembene, born into the Senegal working class in 1923, started out as a gifted novelist who turned to filmmaking at the age of 40 chiefly in order to address more Africans. Yet because he’s a storyteller who regards film more as an extension of his prose than as an abstract calling, one of the clearest pleasures to be derived from his work is his propensity for reinventing the cinema – his own and everyone else’s — every time he embarks on a new feature.… Read more »

Letter to Shigehiko Hasumi (December 2016)

Written for the Japanese literary magazine Eureka‘s special issue devoted to Shigehiko Hasumi in early 2017. — J.R.

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14 December 2016

Dear Shigehiko,

 

I’m indebted to you for a good many things, including my very first visit to Japan. This was eighteen years ago, in December 1998, to participate in a panel about Ozu that you organized for Shochiko in Tokyo, significantly titled “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” along with Jean Douchet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Thierry Jousse, and Tien-wen Chu. Undoubtedly the most luminous moment of that event for me was being approached in the lobby immediately afterwards by an elderly gentleman who spoke in Japanese to Hou and myself, shook our hands, and then walked away — a puzzling encounter that immediately (and appropriately) became explained to me via mime, as soon as Hou imitated for me the signature comic gesture of Tomio “Tokkankozo” Aoki, the younger son in I Was Born, But… — thus identifying the child actor discovered by Ozu who went on to enjoy a screen career that would eventually last seventy-five years, encompassing even Suzuki’s Pistol Opera. All of which made up for the disturbing fact that apparently none of the film students I spoke with at Tokyo University had seen any of Ozu’s silent films, even though all of the surviving ones were available on VHS.… Read more »

Romance of the Ordinary [on Chantal Akerman]

This was written for the January 26, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, a good five years before the premiere of at least one of my absolute favorite Akerman films: her non-fictional From the East (see the first photograph below; just below that is a smaller still from her subsequent From the Other Side in 2002, which isn’t exactly chopped liver either ). But in fact there were many high points and wonders from Akerman since then. — J.R.

THE FILMS OF CHANTAL AKERMAN

On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress — a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.… Read more »

The Undistributed

This appeared in the Chicago Reader in their Christmas issue (December 25) in 1992.  — J.R.

The presumption behind most ten-best lists is that they include items available to everybody. One can always look at such lists and say, “Too bad I missed such and such. Maybe I’ll catch up with it on video.” But few people seem to be aware that they may never catch up with a film, because it never made it to Chicago at all—either to theaters or to video stores. In a consumer culture like ours we aren’t supposed to think too much about what merchandisers choose to put in front of us; it’s better for business if we assume that new movies just fall from the sky into theaters and video stores—and that those that don’t make it don’t deserve to. However, I see a certain number of movies in other countries every year that don’t make it to town, and sometimes they’re better than the movies that do. Why this happens so often is a matter worth exploring briefly.

In 1938 the U.S. government filed an antitrust action against Paramount Pictures, objecting to the monopolies of movie theaters held by the studios. By the end of 1946 a court judgment enjoined not only Paramount but also Loew’s, RKO, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century-Fox from acquiring additional theaters.… Read more »

Is Ozu Slow?

The following is a lecture delivered at a symposium, “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” organized by Shigehiko Hasumi in Tokyo on December 11, 1998. The other participants, apart from Hasumi himself, were Jean Douchet (the keynote speaker), Hou Hsiao-hsien, his screenwriter Tien-wen Chu, and Thierry Jousse. I’m proud to say that Hasumi, my favorite Japanese film critic, has included a link to this text on his own web site, mube.jp. — J.R.

I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection which marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about the zebra they see on the screen — does it have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable fashion, a spurious, distracting, and no less innocent debate has been persisting about Ozu for years: is he a realist or a formalist? What seems lamentable about this debate is that it fails to perceive that cinematic forms and social forms are not alternatives in the world of Ozu but opposite sides of the same coin, so that it should be impossible to speak about one without speaking about the other.Read more »

The Pianist

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2002). — J.R.

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Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who managed to survive the Warsaw ghetto, won the top prize at Cannes and an Oscar for best director, and it’s easy to understand why: Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, is so authoritative in showing us what life there was like that this film makes more conventional heart tuggers like Schindler’s List shrivel to insignificance. He appears to follow Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Szpilman’s autobiography with scrupulous thoroughness, as well as with the special patience that it takes to show a passive and mainly unheroic victim surviving. All of Polanski’s films reflect the grimness of his war experience in one way or another, and this feature serves to clarify some of the emotions and attitudes found in the others. The results are masterful, admirably unsentimental, and never boring, if also a little stodgy. The Polish dialogue is rendered as English, the German is simply subtitled. R, 148 min. (JR)

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Silents Are Golden (Silent Ozu)

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.

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Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

at the Gene Siskel Film Center

It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.

One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist.… Read more »

Symbol Life [SWAN LAKE — THE ZONE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1991). — J.R.

SWAN LAKE — THE ZONE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yuri Illienko

Written by Sergei Paradjanov and Illienko

With Victor Solovyov, Liudmyla Yefymenko, Maya Bulhakova, Pylyp Illienko, and Victor Demertash.

One of the most fascinating things about Russian cinema is that we still know next to nothing about it. There are the socialist realist holdovers (Little Vera, for example, and Freeze — Die — Come to Life) and wannabe American releases (Taxi Blues), but the rest of the recent Soviet pictures that have made it to Chicago are interesting mostly because of what remains obscure and intractable about them — their refreshingly and, at times, bewilderingly different views of life and art.

The films that constitute the most obvious reference points in Soviet film history — a few key classics by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Vertov, and closer to the present, the films of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky — have practically nothing to do with what ordinary Soviet moviegoers see most of the time. Even worse, we can’t take it for granted that these avant-garde works necessarily represent the best that innovative Soviet cinema has to offer, or that what we see of the Soviet mainstream is necessarily the best either.… Read more »

L’age d’or

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1990). — J.R.

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Lagedior

Luis Buñuel’s first and most radical feature (1930) was banned for decades, and it continues to pack a jolt. Forsaking consecutive plot, the film is more like an anarchist bomb, starting off as a documentary before assaulting church, state, and society —particularly high society — in the name of eros. Funny, blasphemous, sexy, strange, subtle, and evocative in its use of sound, it’s also thoroughly Buñuelian, though without the bittersweet sense of resigned acceptance that characterizes some of his later works. Except for his 1932 documentary Las Hurdes, this ferocious act of revolt kept Buñuel virtually unemployed as a director for 17 years; when he finally returned as a narrative filmmaker, he delivered something quite different from the wild poetry of his first three films. In French with subtitles. 60 min.

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Berlin 89: Akerman, Rivette, Jost

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1989). — J.R.
 
 

The degree to which contemporary cinema has become a desperate recycling operation was pain fully evident in Berlin this year, where even the better films seemed mired in familiar habits. Aki Kaurismaki’s Ariel, a hard-luck story of an unemployed miner pushed into a life of crime, is basically a Warners B-film of the 1930s, cleanly told and decked out with a few 80s ironies, but really nothing new. Martin Donovan’s Apartment Zero, a baroque male-bonding thriller set in Buenos Aires, superbly acted by Colin Firth and Hart Bochner, offers a chilling and complex view of the American abroad, yet its precise genre positionings would be unthinkable without its cues from Hitchcock, Chabrol and Polanski.

For many colleagues, a major disappointment in the competition was Chantal Akerman’s first English-language feature, Food, Family and Philosophy in French (or Histoires d’Amérique in French), a string of monologues and jokes by Jewish immigrants, delivered against Brooklyn exteriors within hailing distance of the Manhattan skyline over what appears to be a single night.… Read more »

Two Frank Tashlin capsule reviews

Written for Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia (Éditions du Festival international du film de Locarno in collaboration with the British Film Institute [London]/Editions Yellow Now [Crisnée, Belgium], 1994). -– J.R.

 

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Clearly Tashlin’s most avant-garde feature, and probably his most political, thus his most misunderstood. Retaining the title, Jayne Mansfield, and advertising from George Axelrod’s Broadway play, but reportedly little else, Tashlin mounts a thoughtful and multifaceted polemic against the success ethic itself. (A key line: “Success will fit you like a shroud.”) The consequences are dazzling for his art but disastrous for his career. Made at Fox on the heels of The Girl Can’t Help It, the film provides a textbook illustration of George S. Kaufman’s maxim, “satire is what closes in New Haven.” Fortunately, before the balance sheets are counted, 50s America receives one of its two most devastating caricatures on film; the other is Chaplin’s A King in New York, made the same year. Paraphrasing Rossellini, both are the films of free men; fully anticipating Godard’s journalistic directive that you can – and must – place everything in a film, both filmmakers hit on nightmarishly topical New York dystopias set in the present, where, thanks to TV and advertising (rightly perceived as synonymous), the divisions between public and private are now fully obliterated.… Read more »

Oliver Twist

From the September 30, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Roman Polanski said he wanted to make a movie his kids could see, and clearly his take on the Charles Dickens novel, with its childhood feelings of panic and deprivation, is free of the postmodern irony most contemporary directors would have brought to the material. Working again with writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Polanski honors the craft of classical storytelling and never flinches from the book’s melodramatic extremes in portraying the horrors of poverty. Apart from Ben Kingsley’s elaborately detailed Fagin, there are no fancy actors’ turns, and the sets and costumes look splendidly (if sordidly) lived in, reminding one that Tess (1979), Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy, won Oscars in both categories. With Barney Clark as Oliver. PG-13, 130 min. (JR)

Oliver-Twist-Edition-Simple-DVD-Zone-2-876824934_LRead more »

Whose Current American Cinema?

Commissioned by and written for the Italian web site 8 1/2, published in September 2017. — J.R.

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When asked what I think about current American cinema, my first response is to ask another question: whose American cinema?  Because given the splintering of both the audience and all the possible venues for what we now call American cinema, it’s no longer possible to describe it as a single homogeneous entity.

Perhaps it was always wrong to describe it as such, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was still an American cinema that appeared to belong to everyone. Today we have only a series of separate niche markets and venues that seem to exist independently of one another. For the sake of both clarity and candor, I should confess that from 1987 through 2007, I was the principal film critic for the principal alternative newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Reader, which meant that I was professionally obliged to keep up with what was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as “current American cinema”. Since my voluntary retirement from that post, I’ve been a cinephile with no professional obligations, and my preferences in that capacity have been to systematically avoid films featuring superheroes, most horror films and war films, sports films, blockbusters, and most of the other releases mainly targeted for teenage and preteen boys.… Read more »

THE TENANT

From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976). — J.R.

Behind the credits, a face peering out through a window; a downward pan revealing a vertiginous drop to the courtyard below; a pan back to the window and round the court to another face, a girl’s, which quickly turns into Roman Polanski’s; a continuing movement past a chimney, across more windows-down one side of the building, over a railing and up another side — eventually coming round to the door leading to the street, which Polanski enters . . . If the remainder of The Tenant were as impressive as the first shot, we conceivably might have had a masterpiece on our hands. Nearly as concise as the extended crane shot opening Touch of Evil, it differs from the latter by arranging its arsenal of elements into a non-narrative pattern — a set of materials which, except for the girl turning into Polanski, are related spatially but nor chronologically, until Polanski’s entrance through the street door launches the story proper.

A naturalised Pole named Trelkovsky is interested in seeing a flat, and the unfriendly concierge (Shelley Winters) gives him a hard time about it, agreeing to take him upstairs only after he slips her some money.… Read more »