From the Chicago Reader, March 28, 2003. I was shocked learn on January 30, 2010 about the freakish and accidental death of Karen Schmeer, the gifted editor of The Same River Twice as well as many of Errol Morris’s films (including my favorite, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control), in New York City, when she was hit by a car speeding away from a drugstore robbery — J.R.
The Same River Twice **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Robb Moss.
Stevie **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Steve James.
The first Chicago International Doc Film Festival is drawing to a close this weekend. Critics tend to make assumptions about the State of Cinema as if that were a knowable entity, generalizing on the basis of the few crumbs of pie the film industry and the media toss us. But we’re forced to face the inadequacy of those assumptions when something like this documentary festival demonstrates that the pie is a lot larger than we thought.
Two powerful documentaries screening this week — The Same River Twice, showing as part of the festival on Sunday at Facets Cinematheque, and Stevie, starting a regular run at Landmark’s Century Centre — make an instructive pair.… Read more »
This appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 26, 1991. Consider this review Part 2 of a long-term re-evaluation of Alan Rudolph’s use of music and his treatment of working-class people, preceded by my 1979 review of Remember My Name for Film Quarterly. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Alan Rudolph
Written by William Reilly and Claude Kerven
With Demi Moore, Glenne Headly, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, John Pankow, and Billie Neal.
For all his talent and sophistication, Alan Rudolph has frequently shown a romantic slant toward the working class that borders on stylistic gentrification. Even in my two Rudolph favorites, Remember My Name (1978) and Choose Me (1984), the ironic casting of a construction worker and his wife with real-life mod couple Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson and the creation of a dream-bubble ambience in a gritty bar suggest a kind of put-on.
Life is a dream, Rudolph always appears to be saying, and the more sordid and low-down the life is, the more seductive and precious the dream becomes. It’s a viable enough premise for a mannerist, and he invariably makes the most of this conceit; yet there are times when his taste for cardboard funk causes his worlds to totter like houses of cards.… Read more »
From the December 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Alan Rudolph’s 1994 feature about writer Dorothy Parker and the famous Algonquin wits she hung out with in the 20s certainly has its pleasures, but someone should tell Rudolph that, for all his skill and charm, period movies aren’t really his forte. As a clever postmodernist neoromantic, he’s much better at drawing on the moods of classic Hollywood to reimagine the present than at reinterpreting the past (as he also did in The Moderns, to similar effect). Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an impressive effort to copy Parker’s speech patterns, but her mannerist performance matches the claustrophobic ambience of the direction and script (by Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn) by conjuring up a profile rather than a life or milieu. At its best this movie manages to be very touching, especially in its handling of Parker’s passionate platonic friendship with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott); at its worst it shies away so steadily from her leftist politics that you will miss them entirely if you leave before the closing credits. With Matthew Broderick, Andrew McCarthy, Wallace Shawn, Jennifer Beals, Sam Robards, Lili Taylor, and Nick Cassavetes. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 14, 1997). –J.R.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Errol Morris
With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks.
To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest…that is the dream. –Stéphane Mallarmé
If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea of what poetry should be: an obscure object shaped and defined in successive increments by the reader’s perception and imagination.
Four men are interviewed separately in Morris’s film — a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) — and they recount the origins as well as some of the development of their passion for their work. Who they are apart from their work almost never comes up.… Read more »
This very lengthy essay was assembled in 2013 out of several previous pieces of mine, but I no longer recall the occasion for it. — J.R.
One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.
Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large.… Read more »