Monthly Archives: May 2020

Closer

From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.

Closer

For all his formidable gifts as a performer, Mike Nichols is celebrated mainly as a film director who delivers the goods — which means something only if the goods are worth delivering. Here he’s applied himself to Patrick Marber’s play about two men (Jude Law and Clive Owen) and two women (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman) seducing, betraying, and punishing one another in various combinations. (The women never get it on, but in the film’s funniest sequence Law flirts with Owen while posing as Roberts in a chat room.) As in Nichols’s previous chamber works of romantic and sexual flagellation (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge), the actors are brilliant, the dialogue extremely clever, and the direction assured. But by the end I couldn’t have cared less about any of the characters (2004). R, 98 min. (JR)

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LE VRAI COUPABLE: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3), in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine’s staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.

Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published — in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled “Joseph Mankiewicz” and “Pour un cinéma politique”, and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy. Read more

The Past Recaptured

Not on the Lips

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain

With Sabine Azema, Isabelle Nanty, Audrey Tautou, Pierre Arditi, Jalil Lespert, Daniel Prevost, Lambert Wilson, and Darry Cowl

Alain Resnais’ latest feature, Not on the Lips (2003), apparently won’t be shown in commercial theaters in this country. I can’t think of another French movie that’s given me as much pleasure in years—it’s his best since Melo (1986) and surely his most accessible to American audiences. It is showing twice this week in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union festival, and its U.S. distributor, Wellspring, will bring it out on DVD on March 22. DVDs are now more profitable than ticket sales, so I suppose it’s understandable that Wellspring doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a theatrical release. But this movie’s gorgeous visuals are still best seen first on a big screen.

In any case, this delightfully eccentric film of a 1925 French operetta, with its English subtitles laid out in rhyming couplets, can be enjoyed in any format. It has a harmonically rich score, which Resnais calls “brisk and hilariously jubilant,” and it’s brilliantly orchestrated by Bruno Fontaine, featuring counterpoint by Maurice Yvain that’s as lively as the wordplay in Andre Barde’s lyrics. Read more

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960)

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.

Considering how romantic it is, how sad and funny and charming, it is a sobering fact that François Truffaut’s second feature –- and the first one that qualifies as a quintessential New Wave expression — was a disaster at the boxoffice. Indeed, if this eccentric adaptation of David Goddis’s 1956 crime novel Down There illustrated any general commercial principle, this may be that one subverts overall genre expectations at one’s peril. For Tirez sur le pianiste is a film noir that literally turns white (through such images as piano keys or a snowy hillside) when the plot is at its darkest, and one that sometimes interrupts the viewer’s laughter with a disquieting catch in the throat.

The opening sequence already sends out bewildering crossed signals. A man fleeing in  panic through dark city streets at night collides with a streetlight, then finds himself  talking quite calmly with a sympathetic stranger –- a character who exits the movie immediately thereafter -– about the latter’s love for his wife. Moreover, while the fluid and flexible black-and-white cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is in the anamorphic process Dyaliscope, the ambience is cramped and cozy in the best low-budget tradition. Read more

NIGHTJOHN (1997 program note)

A program note for the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival. — J.R.

Nightjohn

In this intense drama of courage and humanity in the face of the brutality of slavery, a plantation slave named Nightjohn (Carl Lumblv) defies the law by teaching another slave, a l2-year-old girl named Sammy (Allison Jones), how to read and write. The only other slave on the plantation who even knows the alphabet had a thumb and forefinger chopped off as punishment. Working with a theme akin to that of Ray Bradbury’s novel (and François Truffaut’s film) Fahrenheit 451 — though it’s given a substantially different edge by being set in the past rather than the future — Nightjohn views illiteracy as a central adjunct of slavery. The film isn’t merely a history lesson about people who lived some 165 years ago but a story with immediate relevance. Part of what’s so wonderful about it is its use of fairy-tale feeling to focus on real-life issues, not to evade or obfuscate them. Nightjohn’s ambience is placed at the service of myth — myth that embodies a lucid understanding of both slavery and literacy. Sammy and Nightjohn may sometimes come across as superhuman, but the world they inhabit and seek to change is in no sense  fanciful. Read more

The Story Of A Cheat

From the November 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Widely regarded as Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece (though I’d place it below The Pearls of the Crown), this 1936 tour de force can be regarded as a kind of concerto for the writer-director-performer’s special brand of brittle cleverness. After a credits sequence that introduces us to the film’s cast and crew, Guitry settles into a flashback account of how the title hero learned to benefit from cheating over the course of his life. A notoriously anticinematic cineaste whose first love was theater, Guitry nevertheless had a flair for cinematic high jinks when it came to adapting his plays (or in this case a novel) to film, and most of this movie registers as a rather lively and stylishly inventive silent film, with Guitry’s character serving as offscreen lecturer. Francois Truffaut was sufficiently impressed to dub Guitry a French brother of Lubitsch, though Guitry clearly differs from this master of continental romance in that his own personality invariably overwhelms his characters. In French with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)

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Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer

This was written for and published in Stop Smiling no. 34, a special jazz issue, dated February 2008. –J.R.

Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jazz musicians who like to cross-reference the history of their art rather than simply steal licks from their role models are probably even more plentiful than film directors who do “homages” to favorite sequences  and directors. The musicians also generally do a better job of mixing their own style with that of their models than Hollywood directors do when they strive to reproduce particular shots. Closer to Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais than to, say, Peter Bogdanovich or Brian De Palma, they invariably bring something of their own to the table, transforming our sense of the original in the process. Every time Dave Brubeck chooses to shift to stride piano, he’s saying something sweet about his predecessors, and whenever Charles Mingus gave us patches of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Lester Young,  or Charlie Parker in one of his multifaceted compositions, he was doing a more elaborate version of the same thing.

Some jazz pianists — including a few of the most distinctive ones, like McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett — even go so far as to put together entire albums composed of “tributes” to some of their colleagues. Read more

The Bride Wore Black

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray of this film has a lot of interesting material about the changes made by Truffaut to Bernard Herrmann’s score.  — J.R.

TheBrideWoreBlack

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Despite the dedication of this 1967 film to Hitchcock and the use of his most distinguished collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Francois Truffaut’s first Cornell Woolrich adaptation — the second was Mississippi Mermaid — is most memorable for lyrical moods and poetic flights of fancy that don’t seem especially Hitchcockian. Jeanne Moreau stalks gracefully through the film, wooing and dispatching a series of men like an avenging angel whose motivating obsession is spelled out only gradually; among her prey are Claude Rich, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, and Charles Denner. Basically an exercice de style, and a good one at that. In French with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)

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Painter at Work

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1989). I was extremely disappointed in the revised version of this film that was released about sixteen years later, which I also reviewed in the Reader, because I believe it essentially effaced or distorted many of the virtues I found in the original film. (One can find my arguments about this here.) — J.R.

GOLUB

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn.

By and large, painting and cinema have always tended to be uneasy bedfellows. To film a stationary canvas with a stationary camera is to deprive the viewer of both the movement possible in film and the movement possible to the viewer of a painting in a studio or gallery. On the other hand, to find a stationary canvas with a camera in motion is to impose an itinerary on the painting in question, thereby limiting the reading of the individual viewer.

While there are a handful of interesting and respectable art documentaries in the history of film, such as Alain Resnais’ Van Gogh (1948) and Gauguin (1950), and Sergei Paradjanov’s recent Arabesques Around a Pirosmani Theme — all three of which significantly happen to be shorts — the overall failure of film to record a painter’s work without recourse to a gliding Cook’s tour or a mincemeat dissection of the work in question has been far from encouraging. Read more

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2001). — J.R.

John Carpenter at his most enjoyable generally means ‘Scope, working-class sass, kick-ass antiestablishment heroes, typecast villains who individually suggest quiet serial killers and collectively resemble hordes of whooping savages, a minimalist music score by Carpenter himself, and an overall affection for the way action movies looked and sounded 50 years ago. This movie — an action romp in which cops and prisoners go up against vengeful martian spirits on a colonized Mars in the year 2176 — adds a few more likable ingredients: a flashback structure with several overlapping points of view, great use of Ice Cube and Pam Grier, lap dissolves, and a notion of shifting alliances that keeps things hopping. (Natasha Henstridge as the head cop is pretty lively too.) As in many other Carpenter movies both good and bad, a lot of the cramped settings can be traced back to the original version of The Thing. With Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy; Larry Sulkis collaborated with Carpenter on the script. 98 min. (JR)

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Bridge Over Troubled Water [THE GRADUATE]

This review originally appeared in the March 28, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader.-— J.R.

The Graduate **

Directed by Mike NicholsWritten by Buck Henry and Calder WillinghamWith Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross,William Daniels, MurrayHamilton, Elizabeth Wilson,and Brian Avery.

If I feel myself as the producer of my life, then I am unhappy. So I would rather be a spectator of my life. I would rather change my life this way since I cannot change it in society. So at night I see films that are different from my experiences during the day. Thus there is a strict separation between experience and the cinema. That is the obstacle for our films. For we are people of the 60s, and we do not believe in the opposition between experience and fiction. –- Alexander Kluge, 1988

The Graduate opened in December 1967, the same month the first successful human heart transplant was performed. It was a few weeks after the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde and about three months before the launching of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Among the albums that came out the same year were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free. Read more

Social Criticism

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 1988). — J.R.

COLORS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Dennis Hopper

Written by Michael Schiffer and Richard Dilello

With Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Maria Conchita Alonso, Randy Brooks, Grand Bush, Don Cheadle, Glenn Plummer, and Rudy Ramos.

REPENTANCE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze

Written by Nana Djanelidze, Tengiz Abuladze, and Rezo Kveselava

With Avtandil Makharadze, Zeinab Botsvadze, Ketevan Abuladze, Edisher Giorgobiani, Kakhi Kavsadze, Iya Ninidze, and Merab Ninidze.

For several weeks now, I’ve been trying to get a fix on what irritates me so much about Colors. Seeing it again recently, and then seeing Repentance for the first time the next day, a few hours before I started this review, gave me the beginning of an answer, and it isn’t a pretty one. If these films can be said to represent what “social criticism” currently means in the respective cultures of the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and, after a certain amount of boiling and scraping, I think that they can — then it seems to me we’re in trouble.

It’s been estimated that over 60 million Russians have already seen Repentance, the most prominent of all the belated, post-glasnost Soviet releases — scripted in 1981-82, filmed in 1984, and apparently shelved for only two years prior to the thaw. Read more

Oh Rosalinda!

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

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger transfer the plot of Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus to postwar Vienna for a 1955 musical filmed in Technicolor and ‘Scope. Not one of their best movies (cf The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death), but it’s certainly an engaging mannerist oddity that calls to mind such contemporary cross-references in delirium as Frank Tashlin and Vincente Minnelli, and the cast — Anton Walbrook, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, Dennis Price, and Ludmilla Tcherina — is occasionally as enterprising as the candy-box decor. (JR)

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Prisoners of War

This appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Bitter Victory

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Written by Rene Hardy, Ray, and Gavin Lambert

With Richard Burton, Curt Jurgens, Ruth Roman, Raymond Pellegrin, Anthony Bushell, Andrew Crawford, Nigel Green, and Christopher Lee.

Jane Brand: What can I say to him?

Captain James Leith: Tell him all the things that women have always said to the men before they go to the wars. Tell him he’s a hero. Tell him he’s a good man. Tell him you’ll be waiting for him when he comes back. Tell him he’ll be making history. Bitter Victory

This week, as part of its series devoted to war films, the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a restored version of Nicholas Ray’s little-known masterpiece Bitter Victory—a powerful, albeit flawed, black-and-white CinemaScope feature set mainly in Libya during World War II. This 1957 film offers a radical reflection on war, and its relevance to the current war in Iraq goes beyond the desert settings and references to antiquity.

Many films are regarded as antiwar, including ones that proceed from antithetical premises; in the 60s a popular revival house in Manhattan liked to run a double bill of Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory. Read more

Skidoo

Otto Preminger took LSD before making this demented, vulgar 1968 screwball musical about hippies taking over the world, in which his own trip is re-created as Jackie Gleason’s. This isn’t exactly funny, and it’s the last Preminger film one would pick to convince a skeptic of his talent, but it’s fascinating throughout. The satirical plot pits hippies against corporate gangsters lorded over by someone named God (Groucho Marx in his last film performance), whom Gleason used to work for. The cast mainly consists of aging TV stars (Gleason, Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang) and Hollywood has-beens (Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Fred Clark). Preminger’s celebration of the counterculture may be peculiar (Channing serves as the major go-between and, oddly enough, the sanest character), but it’s certainly sincere. Don’t miss the hallucinatory Garbage Can Ballet — the apotheosis of this cheerful garbage can of a movie — and the sung credits at the end. 98 min. (JR)

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