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
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
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)
From the Soho News, October 20, 1981. Girish Shambu’s post on Facebook about Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont de Nord having “just popped up at both MUBI and Fandor on streaming” led me to unearth my original review of the film, which I’ve neglected to scan or post before now. — J.R.
At a juncture like this. the New York festival splits into disassociated sections for me. One part furnishes a launching pad for a commercial venture that scarcely needs it, while the other is furnishing us with a tantalizing glimpse of movies that something called Commerce is otherwise steadily denying us. (Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said for the highly uneven collection of shorts shown with the festival features. It’s hard to know when or if my own two favorites — George Griffin’s Flying Fur, a wild burst of contemporary animation energy set to an old Tom and Jerry soundtrack, and Clare Peploe’s beautifully shot comic English sketch, Couples & Robbers, about a middle-class straight couple and an upper-class gay couple and how their lives and goods interact –- might turn up again, so I’m grateful to the festival for letting me see them.)
With Truffaut’s La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du nord (North Bridge), both New Wave veterans are giving us mixtures that we’ve seen in their works before. Read more
From The Soho News (August 4, 1981), very slightly tweaked on January 27, 2010. –J.R.
The Celluloid Closet:
Homosexuality in the Movies
By Vito Russo
Harper Colophon Books, $7.95
Want to read the first comprehensive study in English of homosexuality in the movies? Go hunt up Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes (1972). Prefer a more theoretical and political, less coterie-oriented approach? Try Richard Dyer’s first-rate Gays and Film (1975), which includes Caroline Sheldon on lesbians, Dyer on stereotyping, and Jack Babuscio on camp. Like something even more up to date, dealing with the “textual incoherence” of recent Hollywood movies like Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar from a gay lib perspective? Check out Robin Wood’s interesting and fruitful article (no pun intended) in the current issue of Movie.
Where does this leave Vito Russo’s serious and ambitious The Celluloid Closet — which incidentally bears the same subtitle as Tyler’s book? Not so much in the lurch as the above list may imply. As the best researched and illustrated book on the subject — entertainingly and intelligently written in epigramatic journalese, and clearly backed up by years of patient fact-finding and interviewing — it deserves to be considered a significant reference point and a source of reference in the years to come. Read more
The following was written for the Monthly Film Bulletin — a publication of the British Film Institute, where I was serving at the time as assistant editor — and it follows most of the format of that magazine by following credits (abbreviated here) with first a one-paragraph synopsis and then a one-paragraph review. (For his resourceful photo research, thanks once again to Ehsan Khoshbakht.)–J.R.
Black and Tan
U.S.A., 1929 Director: Dudley Murphy
Dist—TCB. p.c—RKO. p. sup—Dick Currier. sc—Dudley Murphy. ph—Dal Clawson. ed—Russell G. Shields. a.d—Ernest Feglé. m/songs—“Black and Tan Fantasy” by James “Bubber” Miley, Duke Ellington, “The Duke Steps Out”, “Black Beauty”, “Cotton Club Stomp”, “Hot Feet”, “Same Train” by Duke Ellington, performed by—Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra: Arthur Whetsol, Freddy Jenkins, Cootie Williams (trumpets), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Joe Nanton (trombone), Fred Guy (banjo), Wellman Braud (bass), Sonny Greer (drums), Duke Ellington (piano), (on “Same Train”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”) The Hall Johnson Choir. sd. rec—Carl Dreher. with—Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra, Fredi Washington, The Hall Johnson Choir. 683 ft. 19 min. (19 mm).
Duke Ellington rehearses his “Black and Tan Fantasy” for a club date in his flat with trumpet Arthur Whetsol until interrupted by two men from the piano company, sent to remove the instrument because he has fallen behind in the payments. Read more
Written for the New York Times‘ online “Room for Debate: The Polanski Uproar” on September 29, 2009, in response to the following question:
“The recent arrest of Roman Polanski, the film director who fled to France from the United States in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, has caused an international ruckus. The French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, and the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, both issued statements of support for Mr. Polanski. But many others in France have expressed outrage at that support and said he should face justice for the crime.
“While it’s clear that the film industry forgave Mr. Polanski long ago, should society separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior?”
I’m not at all in favor of giving artists free passes when it comes to their personal morality. But in the case of Roman Polanski, anyone who’s bothered to follow the history of his case in any detail is likely to conclude that (a) he’s already paid a great deal for his crime, (b) the interests of journalism and the entertainment industry in this matter usually have a lot more to do with puritanical hysteria and exploitation than any impartial pursuit of justice. Read more
With Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, and Philippe Nahon
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Costa-Gavras
Written by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg
With Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Muhe, Michel Duchaussoy, and Fontana Ion Caramitru.
Why link an arty exploitation picture about rape, murder, and revenge with a sober adaptation of Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, a 1960s German play about the failure of the Vatican to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust? One reason is to point out a critical difference between them. In Irreversible Gaspar Noe elects to show us everything — two faces being smashed to bloody messes, the heroine being raped and beaten for an agonizing ten minutes — while in Amen. (which played last week at the Music Box) Costa-Gavras shows his hero Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a newly commissioned SS lieutenant with a conscience, watching the gassing of Jews through a peephole with other officers but refuses to show us any part of what Gerstein sees.
The difference here concerns more than just etiquette. In the terms propounded by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), it concerns ethics. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2001). — J.R.
Joel and Ethan Coen stay true to their bent for dense heroes and neonoir, and to their unshakable conviction that life usually turns out to be splendidly horrific. Here they’ve cast Billy Bob Thornton as a self-effacing small-town barber in the late 40s who’s slowly enmeshed in a doomed crime plot. Apart from a couple of screwy Coen-style flashbacks, several fancy plot twists, and a few other postmodern indulgences, this is straight out of James M. Cain, though the high contrasts of Roger Deakins’s glorious black-and-white cinematography suggest at times Fellini’s 8 1/2 more than noir classics. Thornton seems born to play the sort of slow-witted poet of the mundane that the Coens find worthy of their condescending affection. It’s a story that’s easier to rent than buy, but it does look good on the big screen. Others in the cast, all pretty effective, include Frances McDormand (in the Barbara Stanwyck part), Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini. 116 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 2, 2001). — J.R.
Directed by Iain Softley
Written by Charles Leavitt
With Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard, David Patrick Kelly, Peter Gerety, Saul Williams, and Celia Weston.
The last chapter of Robert Lindner’s best-seller The Fifty-Minute Hour, which I read when I was a teenager, was the first thing I was reminded of while watching K-Pax, a movie about a New York shrink at a psychiatric hospital (Jeff Bridges) treating a brilliant man (Kevin Spacey) who calls himself Prot and claims to come from a planet called K-Pax. In each story a psychiatrist finds himself seduced into half believing the SF projections of one of his patients, and part of the allure of that setup — like the case studies in an Oliver Sacks collection — is that we’re invited to flirt with the poetic notions behind some of its suppositions.
Based on a novel by Gene Brewer and written by Charles Leavitt, I can’t discount the undeniable pleasure of watching Spacey and Bridges act up a storm, but a lot of what makes this movie watchable and compelling is precisely what’s bogus about it: it gives in to a desire to generalize about people who are mentally ill — a group that doesn’t necessarily include Prot — and to feel satisfied and astute about those generalizations. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.
The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us through the courtesy of Clint Eastwood as 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 in midstream to burying them under voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; and, adding insult to injury, the film also takes pains to give us two Monk tunes performed only adequately by a contemporary piano duo (Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) in unabridged form. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts (by friends and family) of the mental illness that accompanied his last years are usually not very illuminating — although here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there is virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Read more
From the September 23, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.
Dave Kehr has rightly called Jean Gremillon Jean Renoir’s only serious rival in the prewar French cinema, largely on the basis of Gueule d’amour (1937), Gremillon’s first film with Jean Gabin. But the director released three comparably impressive features during the occupation, starting with this 1941 drama, Remorques, about a gruff, married salvage-boat captain in Brittany (Gabin) falling for the recently estranged wife (Michele Morgan) of a ruthless captain whose merchant ship he’s towing to safety. Gabin and Morgan may have been the hottest couple this side of Bogart and Bacall, and despite some awkward use of miniatures in the early stretches, this benefits from stormy atmospherics, masterful characterization, and expressive use of sound. The script was adapted successively by Charles Spaak, Andre Cayatte, and Jacques Prevert from a novel by Roger Vercel. With Madeleine Renaud. In French with subtitles. 81 min. (JR)
How many, already, have been condemned to premature deaths for having borrowed the master’s tools and thereby played into his hands? — Trinh T. Minh-ha
Uncertainty is a difficult premise on which to build a documentary, although there are times when it may be the only honorable perspective. To be without certainty usually means to be without authority, and it is the position of authority that generally determines the form and address of the documentary as we know it.
As a rule, we depend on the solidity of an authority figure in order to feel unified and legitimized as spectators. No matter how many people may be behind the filming or taping of a news broadcast or documentary, and no matter how many people may be watching it, the pretense of some form of one-on-one communication between spectacle and spectator is nearly always maintained in order to facilitate the “transmission of information.” Whether it’s an anchorperson addressing the camera, a voice-of-God narrator providing offscreen commentary, or an interview subject addressing an interviewer who becomes our surrogate, the illusion is always fostered that information is traveling directly from an authority to an individual spectator, who is made to feel authoritative in turn because of the implied intimacy and directness of address. Read more