Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Deadman

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1991). Happily, this film can be accessed  for free at http://ubu.com/film/ahwesh_deadman.html –– J.R.

Running 37 minutes, Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s free and liberating (as well as liberated) 1989 adaptation of Georges Bataille’s untranslated story Le morte is one the most exciting and accomplished experimental film I saw during the 1990s. It charts the adventures of a nearly naked heroine who leaves the corpse of her lover in a country house, goes to a bar, and sets in motion a scabrous free-form orgy before returning to the house to die. The film manages to approximate the transgressive poetic prose of Bataille while celebrating female sexual desire without the usual patriarchal-porn trimmings. Equally remarkable for its endlessly inventive sound track and its beautiful black-and-white photography, it bears the earmarks of an authentic classic. The relationship between the visual storytelling, the ornate printed titles, and the occasional voice-over is both subtle and complex, mixing tenses and cross weaving modes of narration with a unique fusing of abandon and rigor. (JR)

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2 Days In The Valley

From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1996). — J.R.

2-Days-in-the-Valley

The standard line on this actor-heavy, brain-light concoction by writer-director John Herzfeld (1996) is that it’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction, but it isn’t a tenth as good as either. It does, however, have a good many dog reaction shots, so if you happen to think the other two movies were lacking in those, credit Herzfeld for making up the difference. Crosscutting between various San Fernando Valley miniplots that prove to be interlocking, Herzfeld has a tolerable eye for filling a ‘Scope frame but a tin ear when it comes to creating dialogue; these are all characters we’ve met before, and most even seem bored with themselves. With Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Charlize Theron, plus cameos by Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)

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THE AMERICAN CINEMA Revisited [on Andrew Sarris]

I’m saddened that Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) didn’t live longer than 83, even though he had a very rich and rewarding career as a film critic.

This book review appeared in the sixth issue of Cinema Scope (Winter 2001) and is reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

The American Cinema Revisited

Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic:
Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris

Edited by Emanuel Levy
The Scarecrow Press, 2001

Ironically, my enemies were the first to alert me to the fact that I had followers.
— Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a Cultist (1970)


One of the main emotions aroused in me by the 40 or so contributions to the millennial Festschrift Citizen Sarris is nostalgia –- specifically, a yearning for the era three or four decades ago when something that might be described as a North American film community was slowly emerging and recognizing its own existence.

This was just before academic film studies, radical politics, drugs and diverse other developments splintered that community into separate and mainly non-communicating cliques and ghettos, accompanied by an intensification of studio promotion that eventually took infotainment beyond its status as a minor industry and into an arena where advertising was coming close to defining as well as monitoring the whole of film culture, thus phasing out individual voices -– or at the very least bunching them together in sound bites, pull quotes, bibliographies and adjectival ad copy. Read more

We’re All Connected [SHORT CUTS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 22, 1993). — J.R.

SHORT CUTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt

With Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Madeleine Stowe, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, and Tom Waits.

Annie Ross — the tough and resourceful British-born jazz singer Kenneth Tynan once called “a carrot-head who moves us and then brushes off our sympathy with a shrug of her lips” — projects the kind of caustic soul that seems made for a Robert Altman film. And nothing in Altman’s 189-minute Short Cuts moves me quite as much as her rendition of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” sung and swung over the final credits, which roll past a set of overlapping maps of Los Angeles.

The number meshes with the movie in unexpected and mysterious ways. Its trout-fishing motif sends us back to one of the film’s key episodes and its aftermath — a trout dinner for two couples on a terrace overlooking LA that expands into an all-night party, a recapitulation of many of this movie’s other motifs and themes: Jeopardy, clown costumes, makeup, marital infidelity, partying, unemployment. Read more

A Touch of Class [GOSFORD PARK]

From the Chicago Reader (January 18, 2002). — J.R.

GosfordPark

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Julian Fellowes

With Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Watson.

GosfordPark9

Critical consensus about any movie is impossible, but judging from end-of-the-year polls, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is widely recognized as a masterpiece. Perhaps because the English period setting and the mainly English cast encouraged the septuagenarian Altman to curb many of his smart-alecky tendencies, he can finally be credited with something resembling a mature comedy-drama — that is to say, a measured and balanced one — for the first time since the 70s.

For all his many accomplishments, Altman sometimes doesn’t know when to stop underlining dramatic points, or exposing the silliness and vanity of his characters, or piling on miniplots. This makes it all the more impressive that he’s now given us a beautifully proportioned work in which 30 fairly well defined characters don’t seem excessive, most of the plot points aren’t hyped, and the director’s ridicule, while far from absent, isn’t allowed to dominate our own responses. Read more

The Caine Mutiny Court-martial

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1992). — J.R.

The-Caine-Mutiny-Court-Martial-1988

A vast improvement on Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 The Caine Mutiny, directed by Robert Altman for TV in 1988. Both are adaptations by Stanley Roberts of Herman Wouk’s ultraconservative novel, but the Dmytryk essentially honors the promilitary message of the original (navy captains should be obeyed even if they’re insane) while the Altman version ridicules it. One of Altman’s best works of the 80s; with Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Brad Davis, Peter Gallagher, Michael Murphy, and Kevin J. O’Connor. (JR)

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The Dance of PLAYTIME

My liner notes for the Criterion DVD of the restored, 65 mm version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, written in 2006. This also appears on Criterion’s web site, but, following the cue of an anonymous commentator there, I’ve corrected a confusing error that mysteriously appeared only in this online version of the essay. (It isn’t in the essay that’s included with the DVD.) — J.R.

GIF by Fandor

I suppose it could be argued that I saw Playtime for the first time in ideal circumstances — as an American tourist in Paris. Yet to argue this would mean overlooking the film’s suggestion that, like it or not, we’re all tourists nowadays — and all Americans in some fashion as well.

It’s a brash hypothesis, arguably somewhat middle-class and rooted in the assumptions of the 1960s — but then again, a great deal of what’s known today as “the sixties” can be traced back to the vision and activity of middle-class Americans. I was certainly enough of a middle-class American tourist to find myself bemused as well as amused by this account of a day spent in a mainly studio-built Paris — and sufficiently intrigued by the seeming absence of focal points during several busy stretches to return to the movie a couple of times. Read more

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1995). This date is a guess and an estimate; the Reader gives the date of this capsule as a decade earlier, a couple of years before I started writing for the paper. — J.R.

The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers midstream to burying them with voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; adding insult to injury are the merely adequate performances (by contemporary piano duo Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) of two unabridged Monk tunes. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts by friends and family of the mental illness that plagued his final years aren’t very illuminating — though here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there’s virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Read more

On a favorite film review

From Sight and Sound (October 2008), in response to a poll query about what film criticism had had the greatest effect on me and inspired me to become a film critic — J.R.

From Penelope Houston’s review of Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961-62 issue of Sight and Sound:

…And so she goes to the midnight meeting with the stranger, sits waiting rigidly for the clock to strike, leaves with him. But about this ending there is no sense of exaltation or relief. She goes because she has no choice, because for her all the possibilities have narrowed down to a single decision, but she has no idea where she is going. The stranger’s final words offer no comforting clue: “It seemed, at first sight, impossible to lose yourself in that garden… where you are now already beginning to lose yourself, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” The film’s last shot is of the great chateau; and, with its few lighted windows, it no longer looks like a prison but like a place of refuge.

I read this review in my late teens, before I saw Resnais’ glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope. Read more

24 City

As evidenced by everything from Trouble the Water to WALL-E to Wendy and Lucy, the disastrous effects of unchecked capitalism may be the most urgent contemporary theme in movies. The brilliantly innovative Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, The World, Still Life) has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience. This beautiful and challenging documentary looks at a military factory in Chengdu that’s shutting down to make way for a luxury apartment complex, and in interviewing five former workers and three fictional characters (played by Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and his frequent collaborator Zhao Tao), Jia manages to convey how three generations are affected by this change. In Mandarin with subtitles. 112 min. (JR) Read more

God as a Litigant

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Chambers’ may appeal after his suit against God is tossed out
BY CHRISTOPHER BURBACH
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

You can’t sue God if you can’t serve the papers on him, a Douglas County District Court judge has ruled in Omaha.

Judge Marlon Polk threw out Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers’ lawsuit against the Almighty, saying there was no evidence that the defendant had been served. What’s more, Polk found “there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant.”

Chambers had sued God in September 2007, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent God from committing acts of violence such as earthquakes and tornadoes.

The senator said today that he is considering an appeal of Polk’s ruling.

“It is a thoughtful, well-written opinion,” Chambers said. “However, like any prudent litigator, I want to study it in detail before I determine what my next course of action will be.”

Polk dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, which means it can’t be refiled. But his ruling can be appealed.

Although the case may seem superfluous and even scandalous to others, Chambers has said his point is to focus on the question of whether certain lawsuits should be prohibited.

“Nobody should stand at the courthouse door to predetermine who has access to the courts,” he said. Read more

Tex Avery/Floriane Place-Verghnes

TEX AVERY: A UNIQUE LEGACY (1942-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing), 2006, 214 pp.

I love the last line in Dr. Place-Verghnes’ Acknowledgments -– a tactful understatement which demonstrates both that she wears her academic armor lightly and that she’s temperamentally suited to dealing with someone like Avery: “I reserve a particular sentiment for Warner Brothers Inc., without whom and their point-blank refusal to grant copyright authorisation, this volume would have contained multiple images from Tex Avery and others’ cartoons in support of the textual content.” (Actually, she does cheat a tad by reproducing or at least imitating a classic Avery image on the book’s cover–two giant bulging eyeballs as they appear in one of the Wolf cartoons.)

It’s too bad she didn’t publish this book online–in which case I presume she would have had as little difficulty in illustrating the graphic brilliance of Avery as I’m having here by scavenging diverse items from the Internet. For starters, here are three more characteristic samples:

One of the more interesting challenges in viewing Avery’s vintage MGM work is learning how to process various aspects of their racism and sexism without overlooking their good-humored humanity or drowning in political correctness. Read more

Global Discoveries on DVD (my 1st column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #14 (Spring 2003). It’s interesting to note that many of the releases that I discuss here are still available, if not always readily available. All of my recent columns, by the way, starting with issue #40, can be found on Cinema Scope‘s web site. — J.R.

A FEW PRELIMINARIES. The word is still getting out about the riches that are currently available to cinéphiles owning DVD players that play discs from all the territories —- players that are by now readily available at affordable prices to anyone with enough initiative to go looking on the Internet. But it might be added that the number of previously scarce films that can now be purchased in North American Territory is already quite substantial.

Combine these two opportunities and you have the pretext for a new column, which will be devoted not to DVD players (that’s your problem) but to DVDs that are currently available. This will follow the capitalistically incorrect premise that once you move beyond your own designated territory, the world becomes your oyster and a different sort of place from the one that assumes that you’re necessarily trapped as a consumer by the choices offered within your own national borders. Read more

A Dialogue about Death by Milan Kundera

“I must admit,” the Bear said in an icy voice, “that I have indeed always considered death a  tragedy.”

“And you were wrong,” said Paul. “A railway accident is horrible for somebody who was on the train or who had a son there. But in news reports death means exactly the same thing as in the novels of Agatha Christie, who incidentally was the greatest magician of all time, because she knew how to turn murder into amusement, and not just one murder but dozens of murders, hundreds of murders, an assembly line of murders performed for our pleasure in the extermination camp of her novels. Auschwitz is forgotten, but from the crematorium of Agatha’s novels the smoke is forever rising into the sky, and only a very naive person could maintain that it is the smoke of tragedy.”

–Milan Kundera, Immortality (1990) [10/4/09] Read more

A Note on Mass Murder as Child’s Play

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I don’t believe that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, or Carter ever used the terms “good guys” or “bad guys” in public speeches, at least not without any trace of irony. Whether this started with Reagan, the first Bush, or the second, these terms have finally become coin of the realm in the campaign speeches of both McCain and Palin, seemingly as acceptable indexes of reality. If Obama and Biden have more recently used these terms unironically as well, out of some misplaced sense of self-defensiveness, then this may rule out the possibility that I’ve been idealistically entertaining, that Obama may be the first full-fledged grownup to have run for President in several decades.

I hasten to add that calling people you want to obliterate “bad guys” is hardly the same thing as calling Hitler and/or Stalin and what they stood for “evil”. The latter is an ethical position of some kind; the former is a reference to games played (and concepts played with) by children. And not being able to tell the difference between the two — which may bear some relation to not being able to tell the difference between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, or between any of the leaders deemed as “bad guys” and any of the civilians who would likely be the first to be hit by any bombs or missiles — is clearly related to a child’s desire to make contemporary warfare understandable in the same simplistic terms as Star Wars, thus helping to account for CNN logos and James Earl Jones intoning station identification. Read more