From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). — J.R.
Gangs of New York
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, and David Hemmings.
For almost the first two-thirds of Martin Scorsese’s 168-minute Gangs of New York, I was entranced. I felt like I was watching a boys’ bloodthirsty adventure story — a blend of pirate saga, 19th-century revenge tale (three parts Dumas to one part Hugo), sword-and-sandal romp, and Viking epic poem, all laced with references to works ranging from Orson Welles’s claustrophobic Macbeth (the beginning of the prologue) to Pieter Brueghel’s spacious Slaughter of the Innocents (at the end of the prologue) and incorporating romantic touchstones from Potemkin (a stone lion), The Lusty Men (hidden possessions), Chimes at Midnight (thrusts and counterthrusts), and The Shanghai Gesture (prostitutes in hanging cages).
Scorsese once described his concept of the film as a western set on Mars, which adds two more playgrounds to the above list and helps explain the kind of historical fantasy he had in mind. I know little about New York’s early history, yet I was impressed by how thoroughly he wanted to steep me in its otherness. Read more
This appeared in The Soho News on March 11, 1981. A month earlier, I had launched a kind of weekly column there called “Declarations of Independents” that was in diary form — a bit like some of my Paris Journals and London Journals for Film Comment during the 70s –- and this was the third of these. — J.R.
Feb. 24: Why go all the way to the Thalia tonight to see five Screen Directors Playhouse episodes, all half-hour TV shows from the mid-50s? Two professional reasons spring to mind, both essentially recycling operations. As often happens in such cases, I feel myself split between the two — processes that honor my asocial aesthetics on the one hand, my social politics on the other.
Auteurist Retrieval technology (we’ll call it ART for short) — cultivated by me and a lot of other film freaks in the late 60s — is predicated on the pleasure of recognizing the taletale signs of favorite directors in all sorts of unlikely material. And what better excuse to put ART to work than patriarchal episodes by John Ford, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage, Tay Garnett, and William Seiter? Indeed, to narrow the focus down to the evening’s main event, what better specimen could one hope to find but a crisp 35mm print of Ford’s Rookie of the Year, made immediately before his masterpiece The Searchers, with the same scriptwriter (Frank Nugent) and no less than four of the same actors — John Wayne, Pat Wayne, Vera Miles and Ward Bond — playing central roles? Read more
Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), and the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from roughly The Merry Widow on, this is a movie about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the former been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Monday, January 27, 8:00, and Thursday, January 30, 6:00, 312-846-2800.
From the Chicago Reader (October 18, 2002). — J.R.
Adapted by Mel Dinelli from a Cornell Woolrich story, this is one of the most underrated B pictures of the 40s, perhaps because neither its director (Ted Tetzlaff) nor its stars (Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart) are strong calling cards today. Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a little boy known for telling fibs who witnesses a murder from a fire escape one night but can’t get anyone to believe him. This taut thriller (1949, 73 min) is almost as close to neorealism as to noir — the details of working-class city life are especially fine. (JR)
The article from the October 1982 issue of American Film is so quaintly and absurdly dated now that I can’t resist reproducing it. -– J.R.
The prospect of choosing ten French movies that I’d like to own on videocassette is pretty hard to resist –- even for someone who still doesn’t own a cassette recorder. And when I consider the losses that any great film is bound to suffer on a home screen, I find myself consoled by the opinion of Jean-Luc Godard, expressed, twenty years ago:
”Even with films like Lola Montès and Alexander Nevsky, something comes through on television, despite the distortion, the rounded screen, the lack of definition, the absence of color. . .With Lola Montès, what you lost visually you often gained by having your attention focused on the dialogue.If only part of the film survives. It will be enough to bring it across.”
Admittedly, Godard was speaking here about old-fashioned network transmission — and French television at that, which offered a higher visual definition, and no time-slotting cuts orcommercial breaks. Still, the overall thrust of his point, is true. Reproducing a classic film on cassette may do something drastic to its original purpose and format, but something essential remains. Read more
I hope I can be forgiven for promoting a piece of my own promotion. It seems worth doing in this case because an hour-long interview with me by Mara Tapp about my latest book, Discovering Orson Welles, taped for CAN TV19 and showing on Sunday, October 21, at 5 PM and then again on Monday, October 22, at noon, entitled “Unseen Orson Welles,” includes a silent, five-minute sequence from Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that is arguably the greatest sequence he shot for the film, even though it can’t be found in the execrable version cobbled together by Jesus Franco in 1992. It was shot in the mid-1950s in Mexico City, during the postproduction of Touch of Evil. It’s set in a movie theater, features child actress Patty McCormack as herself, Francesco Riguera (see photo) as Quixote, and Akim Tamiroff (perhaps Welles’s favorite character actor, who also appears in Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and The Trial) as Sancho Panza, and is fully edited by Welles.
“The Most Beautiful Six Minutes in the History of Cinema”
Louis Feuillade’s extraordinary ten-part silent serial of 1916, running just under eight hours, is one of the supreme delights of film–an account of the exploits of an all-powerful group of criminals called the Vampire Gang, headed by the infamous Irma Vep (Musidora), whose name is incidentally an anagram for “vampire.” Filmed mainly in Paris locations, Feuillade’s masterpiece combines documentary with fantasy to create a dense world of multiple disguises, secret passageways, poison rings, and evil master plots that assumes an awesome cumulative power: the everyday world of the French bourgeoisie, personified by the hapless sleuth hero, during the height of World War I is imbued with an unseen terror that no amount of virtuous detection can ever efface entirely. (Significantly, as in many of Feuillade’s other serials, the villains are a good deal more fascinating than the relatively square hero, although a comic undertaker and the leader of a rival gang are periodically on hand to help him out.) Because none of Feuillade’s complete serials is available in the U.S., this special screening helps to fill an enormous gap in our sense of film history. One of the most prolific directors who ever lived, Feuillade is today arguably a good deal more entertaining than Griffith, and unquestionably much more modern: his mastery of deep-focus mise en scene is astonishing, and its influence on Fritz Lang as well as Luis Bunuel and other Surrealists remains one of his major legacies. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 6, 1994). — J.R.
The best of the so-called Generation X movies that I’ve seen so far, this charming first feature by Rory Kelly about a circle of friends in their 30s, and the various complications that ensue when one of the bunch falls helplessly in love with a friend’s wife, owes much of its spark to collective effort, in the script as well as the performances. The film was written by Kelly and five of his friends — Duane Dell’Amico, Roger Hedden (author of Bodies, Rest & Motion), Neal Jimenez (writer and codirector of The Waterdance), Joe Keenan, and Michael Steinberg (director of Bodies, Rest & Motion and codirector of The Waterdance) — with each of the six scripting a separate scene organized around a gathering. A limitation of the collective social portrait is that one never learns what most of the characters do for a living, but the behavioral interplay is often funny and observant. The able cast includes Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It), coproducer Eric Stoltz (who starred in both The Waterdance and Bodies, Rest & Motion), and Meg Tilly; the striking and effective score is by David Lawrence. Read more
Made for West German television in 1980, William Klein’s very entertaining and energetic documentary portrait of the rock-and-roll idol was shot mainly in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s hometown, at a time when the singer was a media evangelist for a company selling expensive commemorative Bibles. Midway through production, Little Richard had a financial dispute with the Bible company and announced that he’d received a message from God telling him to walk out on the film. He promptly disappeared. Ordinarily, this would have left the film and filmmaker high and dry. But a deft use of archival footage of Little Richard in his prime, combined with Klein’s usual fascination with media fanfare — including a hilarious procession of black and white Little Richard impersonators — gives the film more than enough to sink its teeth into. And because this is William Klein, the teeth are sharp and the bite is sure. (JR)
Carl Dreyer’s last film, one of the most controversial movies ever made, would be my own candidate for the most beautiful, affecting, and inexhaustible of all narrative films, but it is clearly not for every taste — not, alas, even remotely. Adapted from a long-forgotten play by Hjalmar Soderberg written during the early years of this century, it centers on a proud, stubborn woman (Nina Pens Rode) who demands total commitment in love and forsakes both her husband and a former lover for a young musician who is relatively indifferent to her. It moves at an extremely slow, theatrical pace in lengthy takes recorded mainly in direct sound (although shot principally in a studio), and deserves to be ranked along with The Magnificent Ambersons, Lola Montes, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as one of the great haunted memory films. In a way, the meaning of this film partially hinges on the refusal and/or inability to compromise, and what this means over the range of an entire life (in this case, Dreyer’s as well as his heroine’s). The eponymous heroine may be regarded as a monster, a sublime and saintly martyr, or, most likely, as an impossible fusion of the two. Read more
This appeared as the lead article in the May-June 1974 issue of Film Comment — a somewhat pared-down revamping of my entry about Stroheim for Richard Roud’s belatedly published Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), and, if memory serves, the longest of my several contributions to that long out-of-print collection.— J.R.
Second Thoughts on Stroheim
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Total object, complete with missing parts,
instead of partial object. Question of degree.
— Samuel Beckett, “Three Dialogues”
Two temptations present themselves to any modern reappraisal of Erich von Stroheim’s work; one of them is fatal, the other all but impossible to act upon. The fatal temptation would be to concentrate on the offscreen image and legend of Stroheim to the point of ignoring central facts about the films themselves: an approach that has unhappily characterized most critical work on Stroheim to date. On the other hand, one is tempted to look at nothing but the films — to suppress biography, anecdotes, newspaper reviews, reminiscences, and everything else that isn’t plainly visible on the screen.
Submitting Stroheim’s work to a purely formal analysis and strict textural reading of what is there — as opposed to what isn’t, or might, or would or could or should have been there — may sound like an obvious and sensible project; but apparently no one has ever tried it, and there is some reason to doubt whether anyone ever will. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500.
It’s good to see Norman Mailer’s first three features just out in a two-disc DVD set from Eclipse (it would be great if Criterion could eventually do the same for Susan Sontag’s three fiction features), even though I regret that my two favorite Mailer films — his untitled, ten-minute experimental short from 1947 (recently discovered by archivist Michael Chaiken, who wrote the excellent and provocative notes for the Eclipse set, and which I saw last July at Il Cinema Ritrovato) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) — aren’t included. (Admittedly, I haven’t yet seen all of Maidstone, which Chaiken makes the most claims for, so these rankings on my part are still subject to revision.)…In his Eclipse notes, Chaiken describes Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? [sic] as “a filmed counterpart to The Armies of the Night“, which parallels my own observation here.Read more
The notion of the “testament” — the final work of a major filmmaker — is an important one to film lovers. It can be traced back to the 60s, specifically to the French New Wave and the forging in this country of the concept of the film auteur, a time when these and related phenomena were altering the official canons of movie culture. Starting next Tuesday, May 17, the Film Center of the Art Institute will present a weekly series of testaments to run through the end of June.
A lot of the movies included in “Testaments: Final Films of the Great Directors” were getting their first releases back in those days. And almost invariably, they were dying at the box office and at the hands of most mainstream reviewers, while a team of passionate and informed enthusiasts were singing their praises. Bloody religious wars were waged over these movies; in most cases, they’re still being waged.
Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), for example, and John Ford’s Seven Women (1966) are movies that separate the sheep from the goats as far as aficionados of their directors are concerned. Read more
It’s remarkable how over the course of just three nightlife features — Metropolitan, Barcelona, and this comedy set in the early 1980s — writer-director Whit Stillman has created a form of mannerist dialogue as recognizable as David Mamet’s, a kind of self-conscious, upper-crust Manhattan gab reeking of hairsplitting cultural distinctions. Fortunately, this time around the Ivy League characters project less of a glib sense of entitlement, making them more fun to watch, and Stillman himself gives more evidence of watching rather than simply listening. The characters include two young women in publishing (Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale) who find a flat together, their roommate (Tara Subkoff), an employee at the club where they hang out (the always interesting Chris Eigeman), a fledgling ad executive (Mackenzie Astin), a junior assistant district attorney (Matt Keeslar), and a lawyer (Robert Sean Leonard). Stillman does interesting things with all of them. 113 min. (JR)
Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch for his third feature, Quentin Tarantino puts together a fairly intricate and relatively uninvolving money-smuggling plot, but his cast is so good that you probably won’t feel cheated unless you’re hoping for something as show-offy as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. A flight attendant (70s blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, agreeably treated here like a goddess) gets caught smuggling gun money for an arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson in his prime) and has to work out her loyalties to him, her bail bondsman (Robert Forster, agreeably treated like a noir axiom), the law (including Michael Keaton), and her own interests. Robert De Niro does a fine character part, and Bridget Fonda is very sexy. Biograph, Burnham Plaza, Chatham 14, Esquire, Ford City, Gardens, Hyde Park, Lake, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, 62nd & Western.