Monthly Archives: September 2020

Popcorn Punditry [THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW]

From the Chicago Reader (June 4, 2004). — J.R.

The Day After Tomorrow

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff

With Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok, Kenneth Welsh, Jay O. Sanders, Austin Nichols, and Perry King.

http://uploads.kidzworld.com/article/19701/a4090i0_the-day-after-tomorrow-anim.gif

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 »

Control Room & Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel

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.

Route 181

ControlRoom

“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 »

Orson Welles’ Failure vs. David Thomson’s Success (updated, 10/25)

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 »

A Note on Media Urgency and the News As We Know It

Unlike all of my previous social media posts, this one is important. I don’t mean to say that I thought my earlier Facebook posts were wanting in importance when I wrote them and sent them out blindly to everyone; even rereading them now, I can taste their urgency. But the logic of the marketplace — that yesterday’s groceries are today’s piss and excrement (which is why and how Rachel can and will promise a “big show tonight,” never a small one, just like Ed Sullivan in the 1950s) — decrees that things can only seem important when they become part of the present tense and therefore become susceptible to our buying power, our hallowed credentials as treasured customers with digestive systems. The staying power of nondigestible items isn’t worth thinking about. But saying that this particular one is extra-important now ensures that it will become expendable tomorrow. So you might want to save this post for later and then throw it away.… Read more »

Greedy Speculations

From The Guardian (August 31, 2002). Having more recently attended a 35-millimeter screening of Greed (not the longer version put together by Rick Schmidlin) at the St. Louis Humanities Festival, on April 6, 2013, I was delighted to see all 240 seats in the auditorium filled (another twenty were turned away); most of the audience remained and were clearly enrapt, and the majority stuck around for an hour-long discussion afterwards.

Thanks to the very generous help of a reader, Abe Slaney, in clearing up the format problems in this post, I’m reposting it. — J.R.

Legends about the ‘complete’ Greed have existed ever since Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reduced Erich von Stroheim’s footage to ten reels and released the results in 1924. What they released, containing the only surviving footage, is scheduled to be shown twice in the National Film Theatre’s Stroheim retrospective.

Rick Schmidlin’s four-hour reconstruction on video of what the film might have been, also showing twice at the NFT, should be regarded as a study version. It suggests what some of the longer versions of Greed might have been like, though it isn’t in any way a replica of any of those versions. Schmidlin’s main sources, apart from the ten-reel version and a new score, are Stroheim’s ‘continuity screenplay,’ dated March 31, 1923, and hundreds of rephotographed stills of missing scenes — sometimes with added pans and zooms, sometimes cropped, often with opening and closing irises.

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Vengeance is Theirs [on MYSTIC RIVER]

From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 2003). — J.R.

Mystic River 
** (Worth seeing) 
Directed by Clint Eastwood 
Written by Brian Helgeland 
With Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Laura Linney, Adam Nelson, Emmy Rossum, and Cameron Bowen. 

The critical community has spoken: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a masterpiece and a profound, tragic statement about who we are and the inevitability of violence in our lives — a pitiless view, in which violence begets violence and the sins of the fathers pass to later generations. 

Presumably these qualities are also in Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, which I haven’t read, but it’s the movie that’s drawing most of the superlatives from American critics. The acclaim started after the film premiered at Cannes, when much of the griping American press seemed to see it as a vindication of American filmmaking, an answer to the terrible state of cinema in general. Some of those critics may have seen it as a vindication of U.S. patriotism as well — one reason it’s likely to rack up plenty of Oscars. 

The last Eastwood movie that provoked biblical language and allusions to Greek tragedy was Unforgiven (1992), which also saw violence as both awful and unavoidable — our destiny and perhaps even our birthright.… Read more »

Preface to the Argentinian edition of MOVIE MUTATIONS (2002)

The following was written specifically for the first (and much shorter) edition of Movie Mutations, a collection of nine letters published in Spanish translation by Ediciones Nuevos Tiempos as Movie Mutations: Cartas de cine in the spring of 2002 at the 4th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, and revised only slightly for its publication here. (It originally appeared in English in the online Senses of Cinema, May-June 2002.) — J.R.

***

March 23, 2002

Dear Quintín and Flavia (1),

I guess it must seem excessive, starting off a book of letters with yet another letter –- and rounding off a neat dozen of them with an unlucky thirteenth in the bargain. Skeptics who will find the following correspondence too chummy and cozy for comfort are apt to be equally or even more irritated by this Preface, but I can’t see any way out of this dilemma. When you, Flavia, asked me to write this less than a week ago -– emailing me that as the instigator of a project called “Movie Mutations”, I should be the one to introduce it in its initial book form — my first rude response, uttered only to myself, was, “But haven’t I done this already?… Read more »

What Masumura Does With Our Madness

Here’s part of the text I wrote for an audiovisual appreciation of Yasuzo Masumura’s Black Test\ Car and The Black Report for an Arrow Video DVD & Blu-Ray of those films, released in August 2020. — J.R.

What Masumura Does with Our Madness

Jonathan Rosenbaum

There’s a dialogue exchange in Billy Wilder’s Cold War comedy One Two Three where someone asks, more or less rhetorically, “Is everybody corrupt?”, and the reply is, “I don’t know everybody.” 

Billy Wilder was a cynic, but I’m not entirely sure that we can categorize Yasuzo Masumura that way as well. Certainly his vision of society was just as dark, but I think he also qualified as an intellectual more than Wilder ever did—and conversely, Wilder qualified as more of a journalist, because that’s how he started out professionally. Also, Wilder tended to make his characters heroes or villains whereas Masumura sometimes, as in Black Test Car, makes virtually all of his characters villains. (If he makes a few of the characters superior to the others—such as an executive who tears up a payoff check, or a woman who rejects her fiancé after he forces her to prostitute herself in order to spy for his company, or her fiancé once he finally reforms himself at the end of the film—this is only because they feel more disgust than the others do about becoming scumbags.)… Read more »

Cecil Taylor All The Notes

From the May 14, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Any musician of Cecil Taylor’s caliber deserves sustained attention, but the jazz great doesn’t get it in this rambling assortment of alternating sound and music bites. Taylor is a nonstop pontificator of varying interest as well as a brilliant and virtuosic avant-garde pianist, but director Christopher Felver treats his music and his remarks as equally relevant, cutting between them — or away to still photographs — as if determined not to focus too long on any one thing. On piano Taylor employs an idiosyncratic technique, sometimes using his elbows as well as his fingers, and I’d hoped the camera angles would reveal this; apart from a brief shot behind the final credits, however, Felver shows almost everything except the keyboard. At least the other talking heads have things to say, including Elvin Jones, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and Al Young. 71 min. (JR)

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The Vanity of Autodestruction: WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

Written for the Abril 2012 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

Nick was a gambler — a gambler who often lost.

— Susan Ray in Don’t Expect Too Much

One of the paradoxes of Nicholas Ray’s legend is that in order for it to function, he can’t be regarded simply as either a Hollywood director or as a struggling maverick, but as both. Seen exclusively as the former, he becomes the faceless but coherent and competent metteur en scene of A Woman’s Secret (1949) or Flying Leathernecks (1951). Seen exclusively as the latter, he becomes the personal but incoherent auteur of We Can’t Go Home Again (1973).

A similar problem has informed the career of Ray’s most important disciple, Jean-Luc Godard, another tormented romantic widely regarded as a leftist visionary when he made La chinoise and Week End in 1967, when his work was still sufficiently close to commercial cinema to reflect some of its slickness and glamour. But following May 1968, once he deliberately divested himself of that slickness and glamour and his films had to be judged on their political insights and their political utility alone, he was no less appropriately regarded as misguided and obtuse.… Read more »

A New Leaf

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995); corrected and updated in September 2012. — J.R.

ANewLeaf-May

ANewLeaf-Matthau-Coco

Writer-director-star Elaine May’s first feature (1971). Not all of it works, and the studio cut some of the darker elements (including a murder sequence that May avows was one of the funniest things Jack Weston ever did), but it’s still an often brilliant and frequently hilarious comedy. Walter Matthau, cast wildly against type, plays a spoiled playboy suddenly deprived of his wealth who plots to marry and murder a wealthy, klutzy, and clueless botanist (May, playing sort of a female Jerry Lewis). May’s savage take on her characters irresistibly recalls Stroheim; she’s at once tender and corrosive (as well as narcissistic and self-hating). This is painful comedy, to be sure, but there’s a lot of soul and spirit behind it. With James Coco, George Rose, and William Redfield. (JR)

ANewLeaf-WestonRead more »

William Styron vs. Richard Burton, Viewed Posthumously

Written for Moving Image Source‘s “Moments of 2012”, posted January 10, 2013. — J.R.

This holiday season, part of my light reading has consisted of browsing through two new doorstop-size books, each over 600 pages long, Selected Letters of William Styron and The Richard Burton Diaries. The differences between them have been both telling and surprising, at least to me. Both men were heavy drinkers and literary pontificaters who spent much of their social lives hanging out with celebrities, but Styron—the more prestigious and respectable of the two, and admittedly the one I respected more before broaching these two volumes — proves to be an utter, sanctimonious bore, seemingly more interested in career management than in life, while Burton, forever the shameless hack actor, has both an interest in life and a wry sort of humor about it that sparkles on every page.

Admittedly, there’s not necessarily much correlation between artistic talent and the way one communicates with one’s self or with friends, acquaintances, and relatives. My own semi-admiration for Styron stems mainly from what I remember favorably about Set This House on Fire and Sophie’s Choice two of his less respectable efforts, according to this country’s literary tastemakers, but possibly more because of their perceived subject matter than because of their dramatic achievements.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Thomas Frank on Spielberg’s LINCOLN

I’m immensely grateful to Thomas Frank in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s — an article you can’t access online unless you subscribe, so please, run out and buy this issue if you can (if you don’t already have it), and turn to “Team America” on pp. 6-9 — for clarifying how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2005 best seller and prizewinner that Spielberg and Kushner credit as their main source. When I gave Lincoln one of its few negative reviews in the Forward last year, I only had a short time to write my review after seeing the film and before I flew to the Viennale, and despite the fact that I already had Goodwin’s doorstop/monolith within my clutches by then, there wasn’t enough time for me to dope out how much of what bothered me about the film was ascribable to her book. Frank’s column, even though it doesn’t mention the ideological similarity of Lincoln and Schindler’s List that I’ve written about elsewhere (both movies, as I see them, are ultimately defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism, corruptions and all, and not only defenses of corruption in politics), leaves little doubt that the popularity and prestige of Goodwin’s book aren’t simply matters of rewarding intellectual integrity and/or historical perspicacity.… Read more »

The Triumph of Publicity Over Public Discourse

My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.

The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters.I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret.… Read more »

IL CINEMA RITROVATO DVD AWARDS 2013

Originally posted on July 7, 2013. — J.R.

IL CINEMA RITROVATO

DVD AWARDS 2013

X edition

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh

Because we were faced this year with an embarrassment of riches, we adopted a few new procedures. Apart from creating three new categories for awards, we more generally selected eleven separate releases that we especially valued and only afterwards selected particular categories for each of our choices. We also decided to forego our usual procedure of including individual favorites because doing so would have inflated our choices to seventeen instead of eleven, which is already two more than we selected last year.

Our first new category is the best film or program at this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato that we would most like to see released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Our selection in this case is the French TV series Bonjour Mr Lewis (1982) by Robert Benayoun.… Read more »