Monthly Archives: July 2020

Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomalies and Experiments (my 9th column)

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2005, issue 22). The down side of reproducing my old DVD columns is that many of the links are bound to be out of date and no longer functional; the up side is that they offer some kind of history of what used to be available (or unavailable). — J.R.

With the exception of a few film buffs at some of the more discerning labels, and still fewer at the major studios, decisions about what older films to release on DVD, as well as when or why, are often capricious to the point of absurdity. So asking why some things are readily available and some things aren’t is a bit like asking an illiterate about his or her reading taste. Some time ago, I was contacted about contributing to the extras of an ambitious DVD being planned for Elaine May’s infamous and underappreciated Ishtar — a project developed with loving care by some maverick film buffs at Columbia/Tristar over many months, eventually soliciting the unprecedented cooperation and input of May herself.

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It seemed like a golden opportunity for some thoughtful studio revisionism — especially in light of how much this prescient farce has to say about the dangerous blunders of American innocence and stupidity in the Middle East and how blind American reviewers were to this aspect of the movie back in 1987.Read more »

Purple Noon

From the June 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A very elegant and watchable 1960 French thriller starring Alain Delon in his prime, this film was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by director Rene Clement and screenwriter Paul Gegauff, best known as Claude Chabrol’s key script collaborator in the 60s and 70s. The Hitchcockian theme — transference of personality — is given almost as much mileage here as in Hitchcock’s own Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, as Delon decides to take over the identity of a spoiled, wealthy playboy he’s been hired to bring home to his father. Henri Decae’s color cinematography is dazzling, and the Italian and Mediterranean locations are sumptuous. With Marie Laforet, Maurice Ronet, and PlayTime‘s Bill Kearns. 118 min. (JR)

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Red Psalm

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East Side Story, a recent documentary about communist musicals, assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklos Jancso’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature; within its own idioms it swings as well as wails. Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback, it’s composed of less than 30 shots, each one an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies. Jancso’s awesome fusion of form with content and politics with poetry equals the exciting innovations of the French New Wave in the 60s and early 70s. The music, ranging from revolutionary folk songs to {Charlie Is My Darlin’,} will keep playing in your head for days, and the colors are ravishing. The picture won Jancso a best director prize at Cannes, and it may well be the greatest Hungarian film of the 60s and 70s, summing up an entire strain in his work that lamentably has been forgotten here.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Morris Dickstein, New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 598 pp.

How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read. Even if he doesn’t always accord full justice to the ideological and ethical underpinnings of some Depression novels (I’m perhaps the only one on the planet who regards Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, my supreme favorite, as a communist novel, at least existentially), Dickstein is almost always deepening my understanding of whatever he happens to be writing about. [9/28/09]… Read more »

East Side Story

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1998). — J.R.

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EastSide

The words “communist musical” may call to mind tractors and factories —  both of which are certainly in evidence here — but this fascinating and enjoyable 1996 documentary by Romanian-born filmmaker Dana Ranga and American-born independent Andrew Horn presents the singular genre as a conflict between capitalist glitz and socialist poetry, revealing both the Marxists’ tragicomic attempts to beat the West at its own game and the homegrown folksiness of their efforts. Reportedly only 40-odd musical features were produced in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and Romania prior to the collapse of communism, and roughly half of them are excerpted here. Ranga and Horn interview writers, directors, stars, and ordinary viewers of communist musicals, as well as one prestigious film historian (Maya Turorskaya, best known here for her book on Andrei Tarkovsky). The selection of clips isn’t everything it might have been — I regret the absence of any examples by Alexander Medvedkin, some of which are glimpsed in Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, and eastern European critics have cited other omissions. But Ranga and Horn’s insights into communist film production and their story of how the communist musical triumphed or withered in its various settings offer plenty of food for thought.… Read more »

Three Seats For The 26th

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

3PLACES

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For viewers like me who harbor passionately fond memories of Jacques Demy’s 1967 tribute to the American musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy’s 1988 musical (his last film) is clearly worth seeing, even if the recommendation has to come with reservations. While Michel Legrand’s score for The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of the greatest for any musical, his comparably jazzy and airy work for the this one is only a pale reflection of his best. Similarly, the references to touchstones such as Silk Stockings, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon are all too fleeting, in striking contrast to the full-scale tributes in the earlier film to West Side Story, An American in Paris, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The difference between the two is partly a matter of scale and budget, and partly that the more recent film centers on Yves Montand, an eminence grise who looks more and more like Milton Berle. Playing himself, Montand arrives in Marseilles to launch an autobiographical musical revue that he plans to take on a world tour. He spends his spare time looking for an old lover, a onetime prostitute now a baroness (Francoise Fabian), whose husband is in jail for theft and whose 22-year-old daughter (Mathilda May), who knows nothing of her mother’s past, has a burning desire to make it in show biz.… Read more »

A Place in the Pantheon: Films by Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Bela Tarr

The movies of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr — half a dozen features in all — are divided into two parts. His first three films are socialist realist cries of rage, much of their style influenced by John Cassavetes. The 1979 Family Nest is about a young couple forced to live in a one-room apartment with the husband’s parents; the 1981 The Outsider focuses on a shiftless, heavy-drinking violinist who fathers a child with one woman and marries another while working sporadically in a hospital and at a factory, then is called up for military service; and the 1982 The Prefab People is about an unhappy family of four: a frustrated wife, two kids, and a disaffected husband and father (another heavy drinker) who plans to take a two-year job in Romania, much to his wife’s distress.

The second half of Tarr’s oeuvre, its style influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky, moves beyond socialism and realism to look with mordant wit at something more universal: a form of moral decay, perhaps, but with metaphysical implications. Whereas the first half of Tarr’s output is mainly shot in raw close-ups, the second half is largely shot in detached medium and long shots.… Read more »

The Importance of Being Sarcastic [SATANTANGO]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1994). — J.R.

**** SATANTANGO

(Masterpiece)

Directed by Bela Tarr

Written by Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai

With Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Erika Bok, Peter Berling, Miklos B. Szekely, Laszlo Fe Lugossy, Eva Almasi Albert, Alfred Jaray, Erzsebet Gaal, Janos Derzsi, and Iren Szajki.

If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Bela Tarr’s Satantango surely belongs in their company. Showing Sunday as part of the Chicago Film Festival, this very dark Hungarian black comedy has more than a few tricks and paradoxes up its sleeve. Shot in black and white, with a running time of just under seven hours (it’s designed to be shown with two short intermissions), it boasts a decrepit, squalid rural setting enveloped in constant rain and mud and a cast of about a dozen greedy, small-minded characters, none of whom has any remotely redeeming qualities. Yet over two separate viewings it has provided me with more pleasure, excitement, and even hope than any other new picture I’ve seen this year.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Since the film surfaced at the Berlin Film Festival in February and was enthusiastically heralded by J.… Read more »

On Ozu

This is the first thing I ever wrote about Ozu’s films. I’ve subsequently come to value Hen in the Wind much more than I did in 1972, above all as an expression of Japanese’s humiliation after the end of the war and during the American occupation. — J.R.

From Paris Journal, Film Comment, Summer 1972 (excerpt):

A recent screening of eight Ozu films at the Cinémathèque was, for Paris, an event of some importance. To date, not a single film by Ozu has received distribution in France, and local ignorance about his work extends to such places as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, which in their combined 368 issues have failed to publish a single article about him.

A particular revelation was WIFE FOR A NIGHT, which contradicted at least half of the received ideas that have been circulating about Ozu elsewhere. One of the ten silent films that he made in 1930, this remarkable American-style thriller begins and ends mainly in exteriors: a desperate robbery and escape at night, the criminal being led away at dawn. Virtually all of the intervening action is contained in the robber’s one-room flat, where he, his ailing daughter, his wife, and a policeman stand nervous vigil over one another for the night’s duration.… Read more »

Almanac Of Fall

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In his first three films Bela Tarr — conceivably the most important Eastern European filmmaker currently working — betrays an impatience with cinematic style, focusing almost exclusively on content, but that tendency was radically overturned with this 1984 feature, whose taste and intelligence are specifically (and exquisitely) cinematic and revealed Tarr as a master stylist. Set entirely in an apartment inhabited by an elderly woman, her son, his former teacher, the old woman’s nurse, and the nurse’s lover, the film consists mainly of intense two-part dialogues and encounters largely concerned with the old woman’s money. The remarkable use of color depends on a lighting scheme that divides most areas (and characters) into blue and orange, and the elaborately choreographed mise en scene is consistently inventive and unpredictable, making use of highly unorthodox angles and very slow camera movements. As in Damnation (1987), the mise en scene often seems to be composed in counterpoint to the action, but the drama itself (whose Strindbergian power and sexual conflicts are realized with an intensity and concentration that suggests John Cassavetes) carries plenty of charge on its own. 119 min. (JR)

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The Connection

A Chicago Reader capsule (1990). — J.R.

I saw the Living Theater’s legendary production of Jack Gelber’s play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it’s about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke’s imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play’s single run-down flat. It’s presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks, and the music is great,. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. (JR)

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An Actor’s Revenge

Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed — though in Japan, interestingly enough, it’s never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film’s use of ‘Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the death of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the sound track. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa’s favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations — the more stage bound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes.… Read more »

Traveling Avant

From the Chicago Reader (June 18, 1993). — J.R.

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An ode to fanatical French cinephilia in 1948 — the generation immediately preceding the New Wave, to which writer-director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin, cousine) belonged — this is a must-see charmer not only for crazed film buffs and Francophiles, but also for anyone wanting to follow the adventures of a passionate romantic trio of scruffy bohemians in their early 20s in a Paris that no longer exists. Like the New Wave figures who followed them, the young men in this milieu write about movies and aspire to be directors; as critic David Overbey put it, they live through film references: “They even take girls to bed talking about Howard Hawks’s women and wake up feeling like Bogart.” Much of the idealistic effort they display goes toward setting up a cineclub that shows rare films, though there’s also a certain amount of suspense involving a treasure trove of old movies the characters steal. Conventionally made, though potent and heartfelt in its feelings of personal nostalgia, this movie makes effective use of its cast of young unknowns: Thierry Fremont, Ann-Gisel Glass, and Simon de la Brosse (1987). Tacchella will introduce the film and answer questions afterward; cosponsored by the French consulate of Chicago.… Read more »

Salt of the Earth

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.

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A rarely screened classic of 1954, the only major American independent feature made by communists. A fiction film about the strike by Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico against their Anglo management, informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of this period, it was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others. As Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe (it was selected, for instance, as the best film shown in France in 1955), but it has never received the stateside recognition it deserves. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, February 24, 6:00, 443-3737.… Read more »

L’avventura

From the Chicago Reader (May 14, 2003). — J.R.

The controversial, highly charged 1960 masterpiece that put Michelangelo Antonioni’s name on the international map. It’s a work that requires some patience — a 145-minute mystery that strategically elides any conventional denouement — but more than amply repays the effort. The ambiguous title adventure begins on a luxury pleasure cruise. The disconsolate girlfriend (Lea Massari) of a successful architect (Gabriele Ferzetti) mysteriously disappears on a remote volcanic island, and the architect and the woman’s best friend (Monica Vitti) set out across Italy looking for her, becoming involved with each other along the way. In the course of their epic travels, Antonioni paints a complex portrait of a crisis in contemporary values and relationships. His stunning compositions and choreographic mise en scene, punctuated by eerie silences and shots that linger expectantly over landscapes, made him a key Italian modernist director of the 50s and 60s, perhaps rivaled only by Rossellini. This haunting work — the first in a loose trilogy completed by La Notte and L’eclisse — shows him at the summit of his powers. In Italian with subtitles. (JR)

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