Pedro Almodovar’s poorly made 1990 follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has an offensive premise and a pathetic, almost pleading desire to outrage our sensibilities with it. A 23-year-old simpleton (Antonio Banderas), released from a mental asylum where he’s lived for most of his life, kidnaps a small-time movie actress and junkie (Victoria Abril) he’s fallen for after a brief encounter during one of his many escapes from the institution. He firmly believes that in time she will return his affection, and — what do you know? — he proves to be absolutely right. If someone made an equivalent black comedy about a victim of racism falling in love with his or her oppressor, people would really be outraged, but I guess it’s OK if you’re simply trashing a trashy woman. There’s also a feeble subplot here about the actress’s director (Francisco Rabal) and sister (Loles Leon) that goes nowhere. The two lead characters are cardboard constructions, which sinks the film into tedium despite enough nudity to earn it an X rating. 111 min. (JR)
Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Mel Johnson Jr., and Marshall Bell.
The most influential SF movies of the past two decades are still very much with us, not only as landmarks but as continuing influences on newer release. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave us a whole slew of standbys, from the use of familiar brand names in outer space to a sense of visual design that, as critic Annette Michelson once put it, dissolved the very notion of the “special effect” as it was previously understood. In 1977 Star Wars popularized the notion of SF adventure as continuous action; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same year brought a certain pop religiosity (or perhaps one should say pseudoreligiosity) back to the genre, a combination of De Mille and Disney that sanctified Spielberg lighting as a means of bestowing halos on deserving characters, creatures, or locations.
Alien (1979) revitalized the claustrophobic horror-film dynamics of The Thing (1951), internalizing the monstrous and echoing David Cronenberg’s feature of 1975, They Came From Within. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by James Benning
what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded
Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1994). — J.R.
Chantal Akerman’s haunting 1993 masterpiece documents without commentary or dialogue her several-months-long trip from east Germany to Moscow — a tough and formally rigorous inventory of what the former Soviet bloc looks and feels like today. Akerman’s painterly penchant for finding Edward Hopper wherever she goes has never been more obvious; this travelogue seemingly offers vistas any alert tourist could find yet delivers a series of images and sounds that are impossible to shake later: the countless tracking shots, the sense of people forever waiting, the rare occurrence of a plaintive offscreen violin over an otherwise densely ambient sound track, static glimpses of roadside sites and domestic interiors, the periphery of an outdoor rock concert, a heavy Moscow snowfall, a crowded terminal where weary people and baggage are huddled together like so many dropped handkerchiefs. The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves — the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear. Read more
This was written in September 2010 to introduce the Czech translation and edition of my book about Dead Man (BFI, 2000). — J.R.
During the fifteen years that have passed since Jim Jarmusch’s sixth and most ambitious feature premiered in Cannes, it’s been gratifying to see its critical reputation steadily rising, especially in the U. S.And during the last two-thirds of this period, after this book made its first appearance, I’ve been pleased to see its constituency growing. It has subsequently had a second edition in English, which appeared in 2008, and a French translation, by Justine Malle, published by Les Éditions de la Transparence in 2005. Now that it’s coming out in a Czech edition, it’s worth mentioning (but not dwelling too much on) the fact thatJarmusch’s paternal grandparents were Bohemian, although they never spoke any Czech in his presence. (He also told me, with some hesitation, that his mother’s parents may have been Irish; he isn’t even sure about this.) I was in Cannes in 1995, and the several walkouts during the picture that I witnessed were hardly unprecedented, especially for a demanding film of this kind at this festival. But for many years afterwards, the film qualified as a film maudit, and not only because its own American distributor, Miramax, appeared to want it to fail, after it became clear that Jarmusch had no intentions of following any of its suggestions for re-editing (specifically, those of Harvey Weinstein) — an attitude in striking contrast to that of Weinstein protégé Quentin Tarantino, misleadingly identified as an independent filmmaker, who seemed quite happy to forego final cut in exchange for getting Weinstein’s unlimited support. Read more
Eric Rohmer died in early 2010 at the age of 89. (See Dave Kehr’s very fine obituary in the New York Times.) Although my support for his work was often guarded, I hope that I did justice to his importance in this August 20, 1999 piece for the Chicago Reader.
I was distressed more recently to read A.O. Scott assert about Rohmer, in an article about him in the New York Times, that “some aspects of late-20th-century life -– most notably, politics –- were absent from his palette”. This immediately made me think about L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque(1993), one of Rohmer’s best and most neglected features, although, as Kent Jonessubsequently noted on Dave Kehr’s blog, otherRohmer filmswith(direct or indirect) political content could also be noted.As usual, it appears that Scott is doing what many readers want from the Times‘ film writers: to assure them that their ignorance about certain matters is an “educated” ignorance, even if it isn’t. –J.R. [1/13/10]
Autumn Tale Rating *** A must-see
Directed and written by Eric Rohmer
With Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt, Didier Sandre, Alexia Portal, Stéphane Darmon, and Aurélia Alcaïs. Read more
In August 2010, the editor of Seminary Coop’s The Front Table (an online arm of what may be the best academic bookstore in the U.S., located on the University of Chicago campus) emailed me and asked for a contribution to their series “What I’m Reading” in conjunction with the publication of my new book at the time, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I promptly sent him the following, which I don’t believe they ever published. — J.R.
What I’m Reading: Jonathan Rosenbaum
Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake. The title novella in this recent, posthumous collection, perhaps the scariest fantasy I’ve ever read, was first encountered by me in my teens, on its first publication, in a 1956 Ballantine paperback called Sometime, Never, where it was published alongside stories by two other Englishmen, William Golding and John Wyndham. I find it every bit as dreamlike and as chilling now as it was then. And it inspired me to finally start reading
The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. This fantasy epic trilogy in slow-motion, most of it set in a castle that appears to be roughly the size of Manhattan, among characters obsessed with their duties and rituals, has beautifully vivid and magically precise prose, and it’s attractively packaged with two introductions (by Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess) and 140 pages of critical assessments. Read more
This was my second posting for the Chicago Reader blog post, although it might have been the first one I wrote (and the second to have been edited) — I can no longer remember for sure. –J.R.
Film history that is open to the present
Tue, Nov 14, 2006 at 4:07 PM
Last month Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, sent me a press release about an ambitious and audacious retrospective he’s presenting throughout November entitled “Notre Musique,” devoted to “forty major works of fictional and documentary cinema made between 2000 and 2006.” “Film museums are often — and justifiably — viewed as places where an awareness of the historic foundations of contemporary cinema can evolve,” he begins. “Yet a reverse perspective is equally important — an approach to film history that is open to the present.” His selection, he adds, “is not so much influenced by the best-known or `most-discussed’ films of recent years but rather by the unbroken capacity of cinema to bear witness to life on this planet [his emphasis] — not just in the sense of documentation but also as an illumination of circumstances that habor a potential for change.” What he’s put together, in short, is a group of films that are supposed to bear witness, politically and responsibly, to the present moment — a daring gesture if one considers Jacques Rivette’s plausible statement in a Cahiers du Cinéma roundtable over 40 years ago, that it’s virtually impossible for a critic to know the long-term value of a film when it first appears. Read more
It’s interesting to see how some of the most difficult and challenging examples of art cinema have become increasingly popular over the past decade. Back in the 60s and 70s, Robert Bresson was virtually a laughing-stock figure to mainstream critics, and someone whose films characteristically played to almost empty houses. Yet by the time that he died, a retrospective of his work that circled the globe was so successful in drawing crowds that in many venues—including Chicago’s Film Center — it had a return engagement. Much the same thing has happened with Andrei Tarkovsky — another uncompromising spiritual filmmaker, and one whose films are even tougher to paraphrase or even explain in any ordinary terms.
I’m just back from a trip to the east coast where I was gratified to find, when I turned up to introduce a screening of Jacques Rivette’s 252-minute L’amour fou (1968) in Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, that the film was playing to a nearly packed house. (Incidentally, this galvanizing love story about the doomed relationship between a theater director and his wife, played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier, has never looked better to me, though I’ve been a big fan since the early 70s.) Read more
Criterion has just released Overlord on Blue-Ray. Here are my two separate reviews of the film, written over three decades apart — for Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500, and for the Chicago Reader,June 2, 2006. — J.R.
Great Britain. 1975
Director: Stuart Cooper
Cert–A. dist-EMI. p.c–Joswend. p–James Quinn. p. manager—
Michael Guest. sc–Stuart Cooper, Christopher Hudson. ph–John
A response to a poll, from Sight and Sound (January 2007). – J.R.
In order to write briefly about five films that I first saw in 2006 that are especially important to me, I have to violate a taboo against acknowledging works that aren’t (yet) readily available. More specifically, the first two on my list haven’t yet been seen very widely outside of film festivals and/or the countries where they were made, while the last two, even more rarefied, have only been shown under special circumstances, in both cases because their filmmakers are under no commercial pressures to release them and would like to oversee and monitor their exhibition. Although I’m aware that this may irritate some readers, I’d rather address them like adults than succumb to the infantile consumerist model of instant gratification, according to which works should be known about only when they can be immediately accessed. After all, some pleasures are worth waiting for.
Alain Resnais’ dark, exquisite, and highly personal adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears of Public Places, which I saw at film festivals in Venice and Toronto, is eloquent testimony both to how distilled his art has become at age 84 and how readily Ayckbourn’s examples of English repression can be converted into French equivalents. Read more
With Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok, Kenneth Welsh, Jay O. Sanders, Austin Nichols, and Perry King.
Roland Emmerich’s latest summer blockbuster is an exceptionally stupid movie. Of course the consensus is that summer blockbusters, even ones that come out in the spring, are supposed to be stupid. But occasionally a summer blockbuster is also expected to offer some food for thought. The Day After Tomorrow, the latest big-budget SF disaster flick, broaches — or stumbles over — the issue of global warming, or what I prefer to call Bush weather, a topic that’s surely worthy of some reflection.
Al Gore declared that this movie was at least an honest fiction about global warming — unlike the fictions about the subject emanating from the White House. Using a stupid movie to call attention to a serious problem put him in a less-than-dignified position, but if he hadn’t tied his arguments to a stupid movie the news media might well have ignored him.
When JFK came out in 1991, all of a sudden, decades after the event, the New York Times and other papers decided the assassination of John F. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 11, 2004). It’s worth adding that Control Room can be seen now in its entirety on YouTube, which also has excerpts from Route 181; and further information about the latter film, go here. — J.R.
“We’re human, unlike the Arabs,” says an Israeli soldier in Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (2003), which screens this week — along with Writers on the Borders: A Voyage in Palestine(s) (see separate listing) — as part of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival. The remark sums up the bias of Western media in covering Baghdad and the West Bank, a bias that makes both Route 181 and Control Room, a new documentary that isn’t part of the festival, eye-opening experiences. The first film, named after United Nations Resolution 181 (which divided Palestine into two states in 1947), is a road diary following the two directors, Michel Khleifi of Palestine and Eyal Sivan of Israel, along the resulting boundary; it gets closer to the everyday facts of Arab-Jewish relations in all their complexity than any other documentary I’ve seen. Its three discrete parts — covering the south, the center, and the north — run 84 minutes each and can be seen in any order (separate admissions apply, but a rebate is offered to those who view all three). Read more
It’s obvious by now that David Thomson is never going to relinquish his unwarranted and unvarying baseline assumption about Orson Welles (see his column in today’s Guardian) that he was a failure whose life and career consisted of nothing but “decline”. Why? Because what Thomson means by success is precisely what he’s achieved himself: uncontroversial popularity and acclaim, taking popular and comforting positions that irritate no one except for a few diehards like me. If failure actually means failure to tell people what they already think and failure to support what they already believe, then I can only agree — Welles was a failure through and through. Unlike Thomson, a glorious success whose career can be described only as continuous ascent into the stratosphere. If only Welles could have turned himself into a David Thomson, goes the apparent assumption, then everybody would be happy. [10/23/09]
Postscript (10/25/09]: In a state of relative calm, I’ve just reread Thomson’s column, and can see that, okay, he’s trying to imply that Welles might have conceivably been happy when he died even without having millions in the bank. Fair enough. But his insufferable pose of pseudo-knowingness about matters he knows little or nothing about, which also suffuses every page of his Welles biography, continues to gall me.”He Read more