From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
Roman Polanski’s first thriller after Chinatown — set in Paris, and cowritten with Polanski’s usual collaborator, Gerard Brach — describes the puzzling adventures of Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) after his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) disappears from their hotel room. It opens promisingly, with a fine sense of the disorientation of a monolingual tourist abroad and in trouble. But instead of things building from there, the energy gradually dissipates, and by the time the mystery is solved, it’s difficult to care very much. Polanski seems to have something in mind about American innocence and international power (the Statue of Liberty is used as a significant icon), but his usual surrealism is almost completely absent, and most of the visual motifs — the collection of garbage in the morning, the matching red dresses of Sondra and Walker’s loyal sidekick Michele (Emmanuelle Seigner) at the climax — register mainly as empty signifiers (1988). 120 min. (JR)
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My column for the June 2016 issue of Caimán Cuadenos de Cine. — J.R.
One of the frustrations about living in the U.S. these days is the virtual absence of TV news, replaced by a media circus built around the omnipresence of single events — the deaths of Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, or, this year, the U.S. Presidential primary elections. As with most Hollywood blockbusters, these circuses are designed to screen out the rest of the world, assuming that Americans are interested in sensation more than thought and can only focus on one momentous event at a time (which means that the delighted TV pundits can ignore the rest of the world with impunity). So it’s logical that everything Donald Trump utters or tweets gets more coverage than anything said by Barack Obama and that the same sound bites from Trump and the other candidates get endlessly recycled, thumbed over, and analyzed.
Consequently, it’s at once ironic and appropriate that the two most relevant and contemporary cinematic events that I’ve seen lately are both cable TV docudramas about media circuses of the 1990s, both of which offer certain insights into how a Frankenstein monster such as Trump was created thanks to the unholy marriage of celebrity culture and what subsequently became known as “reality TV”: a ten-part miniseries called American Crime Story: The People vs.… Read more »
From the March1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An unscrupulous rare-book dealer (Johnny Depp) is hired by a wealthy demonologist (Frank Langella) to track down and authenticate the remaining copies of a medieval illustrated book apparently authored or coauthored by Satan himself. This Roman Polanski feature, which he adapted with Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s best-selling Spanish novel El Club Dumas, is a head scratcher in some respects, a mystery thriller that gradually mutates into a metaphysical fable without adequately developing its characters. But it’s so visually striking, so compulsively watchable as storytelling, and so personal even in its enigmas that I found it much more pleasurable than any of the Hollywood genre films I’ve seen lately; despite the fact that it’s 132 minutes long, I felt more regret than relief when it ended. Polanski is one of the few remaining directors of craft belonging to the classic novelistic tradition of Welles and Kubrick, and if this picaresque adventure lacks the conviction of Bitter Moon, it’s at least as good as Frantic. With Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Barbara Jefford; the sleek cinematography is by Darius Khondji (Seven, Stealing Beauty). (JR)
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I still seem to be in a minority in preferring Family Plot to Alfred Hitchcock’s other late films, but after reseeing the film countless times, I’m not about to revise my opinion. It would appear that some of Hitchcock’s biggest champions, such as Robin Wood, have tended to dismiss the film because it isn’t sicker. I tried to respond to their criticism at least provisionally in the opening of this review, written for the summer 1976 Sight and Sound, which they ran as their cover story for that issue and which I’ve revised, but only minimally. — J.R.
“Everything’s perverted in a different way,” Hitchcock has noted; and perhaps no other filmmaker has illustrated this postulate better, by starting from precisely the opposite premise. Without a well-established sense of the normal, the abnormal doesn’t even stand a chance of being recognized, and the director has always made it his business to offer all the right signposts and comforts to guarantee complacency before proceeding to unhinge it. Yet one of the rules of the game is deception, and if the Master’s artistry has been identified more with rude shocks than with the subtler conditioning which makes them possible, one can be certain that this too plays a role in his overall strategies.… Read more »
The following interview took place in a hotel lobby in early February. My friend Kinga Keszthelyi, who arranged my visit to Budapest, is on the left, and Simon is on the right. — J.R.
From Movie Mutations to 1968:
An Interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum in Budapest
Jonathan Rosenbaum visited Budapest earlier this year to give a lecture about Abbas Kiarostami and Orson Welles. During this special seminar, he discussed the similarities in the two filmmakers’ relations to self-criticism and the dominating presences of investigations, interrogations and unsolved mysteries in both oeuvres.
I felt great liberation when I discovered Jonathan Rosenbaum’s criticism at the end of my teenage years. The stupidity of critics I was aware of at the beginning of my cinephilia actually led me to the nonsensical conclusion that I had to become a filmmaker to speak about other people’s films in an acceptable and intellectually satisfying way. On my first encounter with Jonathan’s work, I found what I didn’t know I was seeking and it changed my attitude forever. Having said that, it’s quite obvious that I was over the moon to be able to interview him.
I have been interviewing Alexander Horwath for the last two years about several topics and my main interest was to ask Jonathan about his book, Movie Mutations.… Read more »
From the January 13, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
With the help of Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman, Roman Polanski has adapted Dorfman’s three-character play about a former political prisoner (Sigourney Weaver) kidnapping a doctor (Ben Kingsley) whom she believes was her torturer, while her lawyer husband (Stuart Wilson) serves as a go-between. Even though he’s psychologically expanded his source, the material is a bit too schematic to work as much more than a scaled-down thriller. By plunking three characters down in a remote location beside a body of water Polanski revives some of the triangular tensions found in his Knife in the Water and portions of his Cul-de-sac, but this comes across as a less personal work than either of those films or Bitter Moon, and is intermittently hampered by the mental adjustments that have to be made in order to accept English and American actors playing South American characters. Even so, Polanski certainly gets the maximum voltage and precision out of his story and actors, keeping us preternaturally alert to shifting power relationships and delayed revelations. It’s refreshing to see this mastery in a climate where there’s so little of it around. Water Tower.
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From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1989). — J.R.
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh
With Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher.
As its lowercase title suggests, sex, lies, and videotape is an example of lowercase filmmaking: lean, economical, relatively unpretentious (or at least pretentiously unpretentious), and purposefully small-scale. Its having walked off with the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or — making first-time writer-director Steven Soderbergh at 26 the youngest filmmaker ever to win that prize — saddles it with more of a reputation than it can comfortably live up to. In a time of relative drought, it’s certainly a small oasis, but the attention it’s been getting befits something closer to a breakthrough geyser.
All the fuss may be a sign of panic over more than just movies. Sexual repression is reflected in various ways in current pictures, but this is the only one that deals with it forthrightly as its central subject — specifically, as the main preoccupation of its two leading characters — and broaches sexual problems such as impotence and frigidity in the bargain. I haven’t heard such giddy, unnatural-sounding laughter in a movie theater since The Decline of the American Empire hit the art-house circuit a few years ago — the same sort of forced, hyped-up hilarity at the mere mention of words like “fucking” and “penis” and “getting off.”… Read more »
My column for the March 2020 issue of Caimán Cuadernoas de Cine… — J.R.
Greasing the wheels of commerce is usually the chief reason for end-of-the-year movie polls, which, like the Academy Awards, only intensifies our ongoing cultural confusion of film criticism with advertising. This helps to explain why (and how) Harvey Weinstein became Janet Maslin’s favourite film critic in her 1999 Cannes coverage for the New York Times, devoting far more space to his (negative) opinions about the prizes than anyone else’s, including the jury’s. (The fact that his own films in the festival hadn’t won prizes was of course crucial.) Perhaps because the head of that jury was David Cronenberg, an intellectual, the need for anti-intellectual cultural arbiters to drown out such controversial choices was as pressing two decades ago as it is today. We all need to be told not once, but repeatedly, why Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is more important to the state of our civilization, our lives, our senses, and even our ethics than Vitalina Varela, and whereas this sort of gatekeeping function was once reserved for the Times and its consumerist equivalents, today its counterparts have included, among others, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif, and, alas, even Caimán Cuadernos de Cine.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976). -– J.R.
THE NEW WAVE
By James Monaco
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £9.95.
A writer whose methods immediately evoke the mood and dynamics of an energetic classroom, James Monaco restricts The New Wave to the five film-making alumni of Cahiers du Cinéma most often identified with that label: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette. Considering the dearth of books in English on the subject (only Peter Graham’s anthology and Raymond Durgnat’s early monograph — both long out of print, and the latter unmentioned in the present book — qualify as predecessors), it is a fertile field for any critic interested in organizing a lot of diverse material, and this task is handled by Monaco with grace and assurance; for its bibliography alone, this over-priced volume is well worth having. Beginning with an evocation of Rivette’s first encounters with Godard and Truffaut (and later Chabrol and Rohmer) at the Avenue de Messine Cinémathèque in 1949 or 1950, he proceeds to the films of each until, some 320 pages later, he has burrowed his way through over a hundred features and shorts.
Lots of grist for the mill; but what kind of product is the Monaco factory manufacturing?… Read more »
This review of Jacques Rivette’s weirdest film, from the Winter 1976/77 issue of Sight and Sound, is one of the few pieces of my significant writing on Rivette from this period that hasn’t already been reproduced either on the excellent web site devoted to Rivette, “Order of the Exile,” or on this web site (e.g., my essay for Film Comment about Duelle). Having spent five very memorable days during the summer of 1974 watching the shooting of Noroît, in and around a 12th century fortress on the Brittany coast (see “Les Filles du Feu: Rivette x 4″, an article I wrote with Gilbert Adair and the late Michael Graham, reproduced on “Order of the Exile”), this was a film that I found in some ways even more compelling as a project than as a realized work.—J.R.
If each new Rivette film marks a decisive break as much as a discernible development, Part III in the projected Scènes de la Vie Parallèle — the second film made in the tetralogy — reinforces this principle with a vengeance. Receiving its world premiere at the London [Film] Festival, immediately after a screening of Duelle (Part II of the cycle, discussed in my Edinburgh article elsewhere in this issue), Noroît has already occasioned the sort of extreme realignments provoked by Spectre after L’amour fou, or by Duelle after Céline et julie vont en bateau.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 2001). — J.R.
You may find Wes Anderson’s 2001 follow-up to Rushmore a solid piece of entertainment in the same general mode, but disappointing insofar as it moves the earlier film’s stylistic freshness into a kind of formula, increasing the overall cuteness while reducing the sense of adolescent despair. Not that the extended dysfunctional New York family of the title are happy campers by any means; like Salinger’s Glass family, they’re a disarming mix of prodigal talents, crippling incapacities, and diverging ethnicities. The movie’s affection for them all is certainly infectious, and the cast is wonderful: Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson. Whatever my qualms, it’s still one of the funniest comedies around. R, 108 min. (JR)
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This is the first review I ever did for Monthly Film Bulletin, around the same time that I started working for the magazine (at the British Film Institute, then on 81 Dean Street) as assistant editor, in late summer 1974; this ran in their September issue. –J.R.
Italy/France, 1973 Director: Federico Fellini
A small Italian town, during the Fascist period. The end of winter is announced by the arrival of manine, a white fluffy substance that blows into the province. That night, a large bonfire is built in the city square to celebrate the beginning of spring; a local resident recounts some of the town’s history. Volpina, the village whore, walks along the beach and flirts with construction workers, including Aurelio Biondi. At a stormy family dinner, Aurelio screams at his teenage son Titta for not working, and Titta is later sent b y his mother, Miranda, to the priest for confession. Asked whether he masturbates, he recalls and imagines several encounters with women in the town. A fascist rally is held to greet a visiting dignitary. That night, the police shoot down a gramophone from a church tower when they hear it playing a “subversive” song; prevented by Miranda from attending the rally, Aurelio is brutally interrogated by the police.… Read more »
From The Soho News (March 25, 1981). — J.R.
March 10: Permanent Vacation — a punk art film by Jim Jarmusch, with Chris Parker, visible in the Bleecker Street Cinema’s James Agee Room every weekend this month. A semi-promising beginning offers alternately deserted and busy city streets (crisply shot by Tom DiCillo), and a skinny existential drifter reflecting on the “newness” of rooms in his travels that fades away, replaced each time by dread: “The story is how I got from there to here — or maybe I should say here to here.”
The problem is, while trekking dutifully through enough architectural (and cultural) rubble to furnish at least a dozen other art movies, the movie mainly gets from there to nowhere, at a fairly leisurely crawl. Along the way are a few good ideas and jokes, most of them literary and underdeveloped (like affectless Beckett/beat conceits which evoke Wurlitzer’s Nog), one of them actorly (Frankie Faison), some of them musical (John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards). Chances are, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ve already found your way there.
March 11: Marta Meszaros’ Nine Months, a Hungarian feature made in color five years ago, now on at the Cinema Studio 2. … Read more »
Written shortly after the Rotterdam Film Festival in February 2004 for Cinema Scope. It’s too bad that it hasn’t been possible for anyone (except for Ray Carney and his students, apparently) to see the first version of Shadows again since that festival, apart from the three short clips that Carney posted here. (The reasons for this have been discussed by Carney on his web site, but not, alas, by Gena Rowlands, Al Ruban, and/or the late Seymour Cassel in any comparable public forum, as far as I know. I should add that all the photographs here, apart from production stills, are from the second version.) — J.R.
In many respects, the most interesting movie I saw at the Rotterdam Film Festival last month was neither new nor a Golden Oldie, at least in any ordinary sense of either term, but a work that had been considered lost for almost half a century —- the original version of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ first feature, shot in the spring of 1957. Extensively reshot by Cassavetes two years later and re-edited into the film as we now know it, this shorter and rougher version was heralded by Jonas Mekas in 1960 as not only superior to the second, but a major aesthetic breakthrough, and we’ve had to wait 40-odd years to test the merits of his claim.… Read more »
From the November-December 1981 issue of Film Comment. I was gratified to learn from David Bordwell, via his own web site (as well as an email to me), that he’s eventually come around to agreeing with my major complaint about his book. (For an update to his link to my subsequent essay about Gertrud, go here. However, his link to this essay no longer works, so here’s one that does.)
The photograph of Dreyer immediately below is by Jonas Mekas. — J.R.
The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer by David Bordwell. 251 pp., illustrations, index, University of California Press, $29.50
In relation to Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts, David Bordwell — an academic marvel who organizes huge masses of material with an uncanny sense of what can or can’t be assimilated –- should be considered a master of the teacherly text. His ambitious textbook written with Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), has rightly been regarded as a landmark to many film teachers — a sort of Whole Systems Catalog of formal registers in film that, like Dudley Andrew’s The Major Film Theories, makes a good bit of relatively difficult material accessible to students.… Read more »