The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). I’m delighted that this prompted Adilkhan Yerzhanov to send me a very kind email along with a fresh link to his film. — J.R.
I’ve seen Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014) only once, and if I dwell on my inability to see it a second time for this review, this is only to pay tribute to the issues and complications of ownership, which are so basic to the film’s universal relevance.
One year ago, I wrote the following as part of my bimonthly column for the Spanish film magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine: “12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a ‘mentor’ to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate….Yerzhanov’s… Read more »
Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb. (When a flapper played by Leigh says to Kelly that April is her favorite month, he replies, “If you like it so much, I’ll buy it for you.”)
FRANKLY, MY DEAR: GONE WITH THE WIND REVISITED by Molly Haskell (New Haven/London: Yale University Press), 2009, 244 pp.
I’m glad that Armond White gave this book a favorable review in the New York Times, which it clearly deserves. But I wish he hadn’t muddied his kindness with lazy misinformation and lazier prose.
Misinformation: “Haskell gave up regular reviewing in the early ’90s, leaving criticism that seriously examined the big-screen image of women and the popular representation of female social roles to go underground — into academic studies where abstruse, tenure-seeking jargon is used to rebuff popular taste.” I’m not aware that Haskell ever left the kind of criticism White describes; unless one decides to make a very big deal out of her brief stint of teaching, she certainly didn’t go into “academic studies”, abstruse, jargony, or otherwise; and if White knows something that the rest us don’t about her rebuffing of popular taste, I wish he’d enlighten us further on this subject.
Prose: “Haskell intertwines her own history with Mitchell’s Georgia background, Leigh’s British origins and Selznick’s Jewish American determination.” (Whenever White gets around to identifying Haskell’s abstruse, jargony rebuffing of popular taste, he might also explain what Jewish American determination consists of — unless Haskell explains this herself, which I doubt.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin , September 1976, vol. 43, no. 512. — J.R.
Goodbye, Norma Jean
U. S.A./Australia, 1975
Director: Larry Buchanan
Hollywood, 1941. Ogled by her foster father and despised by her foster mother, Norma Jean Baker is thrown out by the latter and takes work in a factory. Raped by a policeman whom she earlier persuaded not to give her a speeding ticket, she is comforted by Corporal Ralph Johnson. He prompts her on how to behave when she enters the Miss Whammo-Ammo contest (which she wins), photographs her in cheesecake poses, and advises her in her efforts to become a movie star. They drive to Tijuana and make love, although she admits that her former experiences with men have prevented her from enjoying sex. He next introduces her to model agent Beverly, who finds her work posing for pulp magazine illustrations and introduces her in turn to agent Irving Ollbach, who takes her to a party in Palm Springs. There she is sneered at by casting director Ruth Latimer, raped by actor Randy Palmer (who first offers to give her a screen test), and mocked by the party’s host, the wealthy Hal James, who none the less later arranges for her to have an interview at Lion-Rampant pictures.… Read more »
Two volumes. Edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, with Pierre Sauvage. New York: McGraw Hill, 1983. $21.95 per volume cloth, $11.95 per volume paper.
On the whole, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 874-page, two-volume American Directors is closer in genre to Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary than it is to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. Like both predecessors, it is an encyclopedia of opinions first and facts second — although, to its credit, it has many more facts per entry (in filmographies and career summaries) than either of the earlier monoliths. Like the Roud and unlike the Sarris, it attempts exhaustive surveys rather than suggestive critical miniatures, and is authored by many hands. Coursodon wrote 66 of the 118 essays and co-editor Pierre Sauvage, who furnished all the filmographies, contributed 13; the remaining 39 are by 20 other writers.
Again like the Roud, the Coursodon stands or falls as a compendium more than as a book with a sustained viewpoint; consecutive or continuous reading is neither recommended nor viable. Overall, the criticism is homogeneous, perhaps too much so: the standard auteurist form of career survey — already a bit fossilized — as developed out of Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s Trente ans de cinéma américain (1970) and The American Cinema (1968) is so predominant here that other critical persuasions of the past two decades might as well have never existed.… Read more »
The following is from the [London] National Film Theatre’s program guide in December-January 1975-76, introducing a retrospective that I curated. If the valuation that I placed on Altman seems more idealized to me now than it did at the time, the fact that it came shortly after his best run as a filmmaker explains much of my enthusiasm. But my disillusionment with the media support of Altman already began to sour after I described at length the use of sound in a particular sequence from California Split to a BBC-Radio interview, only to discover that the broadcast version blithely substituted a different sequence from the film to illustrate my point, thereby reducing my analysis to gibberish. -– J.R.
While most commercial American streamliners turn all members of an audience into second-class passengers following the same route from an identical vantage point, Robert Altman’s multilinear adventures oblige us to take some initiative in charting out the trip -– supplying one’s own connections, and pursuing one’s own threads and interpretations in order to participate in a game where everyone, on-screen and off, is entitled to a different piece of the action.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealized description of an approach that is still in a state of development, and not every Altman film conforms precisely to this model.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1975 (vol. 42, no. 502). This film has also been called The Death Merchants and The Spy Who Never Was. –- J.R.
Tod eines Fremden (The Execution)
West Germany/lsrael, 1972
Director: Reza S. Badiyi
Returning to Hamburg from a business trip, corporation lawyer Arthur Hersfeld is mistaken for Baruch Herzog, a non-existent Israeli agent invented by Israeli intelligence, and his cab from the airport is run off the road. He is given a lift into town by Amina, a French journalist calling herself Janine who works in the Arab underground and proceeds to investigate Hersfeld after dropping him off. Meeting her again, Arthur tells her that he knows she’s a spy, but a mutual attraction nevertheless develops between them. After a man named Zui Adam is murdered outside his home, and his office and house are ransacked, Arthur is questioned at the morgue by Inspector Barkan, who has been investigating Arab terrorist activity. Ordered to Berlin to kill Herzog, Amina buys a plane ticket for Hersfeld as well, and they have an affair; she talks about her family having been driven out of their home by Israelis and he tells her about his Jewish background, having been raised in New York after his father was killed by the Nazis.… Read more »
Since I’m about to leave in a few days for visits to Madrid and Lisbon — to be followed, only four days after I return, to a separate trip to Bologna, Paris, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, in that order — I can’t pretend to do justice to either of these exceptional releases, apart from telling you that they exist, where they come from, and a little bit about them. The two excellent labels responsible for them — Cinematek in Brussels, Re:Voir in Paris — were kind enough to send me review copies at my request in each case. Ordinarily, I would (and should) have covered both in my “Global Discoveries on DVD” column in Cinema Scope, and the only excuse I can offer about why I haven’t is that both of them are sufficiently special to seem daunting. In fact, so far I’ve only sampled each package long enough to glimpse some of the riches that I’m still looking forward to savoring in detail later.
In other respects, I hasten to add, they’re really quite different from one another, apart from the fact that both have suggested to me, from disparate angles, the postulate that being regarded as an auteur qualifies in certain ways as a class privilege.… Read more »
5. LA FRANCE CONTRE LES ROBOTS (Jean-Marie Straub)
6. HER SOCIALIST SMILE (John Gianvito)
7. MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
8. SCHOOLGIRLS (Pilar Palomero)
9. VITALINA VARELA (Pedro Costa)
10. WOMEN ACCORDING TO MEN (Saeed Nouri)
Comment: The meditative and solitary aspects of film watching have increased during the pandemic, when many of us are exiled to our laptops, but fortunately, online platforms for post-screening discussions have grown as well. … Read more »
Originally published in Moving Image Source (posted online as “Hidden Treasures”), July 17, 2008. — J.R.
Ever since I retired a few months ago from my 20-year stint as film reviewer for the Chicago Reader, perhaps the biggest perk of all has been freedom from the chore of having to keep up with new movies. In practice, this translates into more free time to keep up with old movies. So returning to one of my favorite annual pastimes, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna — a festival that caters to people devoted to seeing old films in good prints — seemed only natural. Its 22nd edition, the fourth one I’ve attended, was especially rich.
Held in the oldest university town in Europe — hot and muggy this time of year, and full of labyrinthine back streets — the eight-day event mainly takes place at three air-conditioned cinemas during the day and at the Piazza Maggiore every evening, where the grand public shows up for outdoor screenings. (There’s also a jury that I’ve served on in previous years selecting the best restorations on DVD.)… Read more »
Note: A book collecting my other interviews, starting with one with Orson Welles — CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS: INTERVIEWS AND DIALOGUES — was published by the University of Illinois Press in December 2018. And my essay about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND concludes its companion volume, CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS 2: PORTRAITS AND POLEMICS, published by the same press half a year later.
I’ve already posted this link on Facebook, but am reposting it here because I think everyone who cares about Orson Welles should see and hear it. — J.R.… Read more »
A pretty good English documentary about the 26-month life span of the Sex Pistols, by Julien Temple, who tries to correct some of the false impressions left by his first feature, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which was made 20 years ago and privileged the role played by the punk band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. For my taste, this corrected version has way too many clips from Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I also would have enjoyed more animated material, since what we have is loads of fun. The period ambience (call it funk) is irresistible, but the main points of interest here are sociological rather than musical. 108 min. (JR)
My review of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable Inherent Vice, for Slate (August 3, 2009). Much less lamentable — actually quite good in spots — is Pynchon’s more recent Bleeding Edge, which I prefer to everything of his since Vineland. But even more lamentable, in my opinion, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which even after a second viewing strikes me on most counts as his worst film to date. (I’d been hoping for something more transformative, such as Norman Mailer’s superb film adaptation of his own worst novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) Despite a few glancing virtues (e.g., Josh Brolin’s Nixonesque performance) and the (so far) unsubstantiated enthusiasm of many of my smarter colleagues, Anderson’s film strikes me as being just as cynical as its source and infused with the same sort of misplaced would-be nostalgia for the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, pitched to a generation that didn’t experience it, as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. [Postscript, January 27, 2015: The first semiplausible defense of the film that I’ve read can be found here.] — J.R.
“In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there … or … if you were there, then you … or, wait, is it …” Once again, for his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, it sounds as if the author has furnished his own jacket copy, exploiting the doper humor that’s often been part of his signature.
Written for the FIPRESCI web site from the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008. — J.R.
The continuing mythological status of Orson Welles in the realm of cinephilia complicates the challenge of representing Welles on film in many different ways. It’s one of the clearest merits of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, to have met and grappled responsibly with many if not all of the issues of this formidable challenge.
Working uncharacteristically with a script written by others — Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting a novel by Robert Kaplow that I haven’t yet read — Linklater tells the story of a fictional high school teenager (played by Zac Efron, best known for his role as Link Larkin in the recent remake of Hairspray) in 1937 who by sheer chance lands a bit part as a lute player in Welles’s famous stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a highly edited modern-dress adaptation known as Caesar built around the conceit of the story taking place in contemporary fascist Italy, with a bare set illuminated by “Nuremburg” lighting. Linklater has obviously researched existing records of this production (which include photographs, a script published some years ago by Welles scholar Richard France, and at least two audio recordings of the play performed by essentially the same cast around the same time) in considerable detail.