Monthly Archives: November 2020

Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (book review)

This review was written in June 2004 for the Guardian — who paid me for the piece but then chose not to run it — before I read Nicole Brenez’s remarkable book on Ferrara, translated into English by Adrian Martin and published by the University of Illinois Press in 2007. (This same book came out in French, published by Cahiers du Cinéma.) The Stevens book is also still in print, and still very much worth reading and having. –-J.R.

Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision
by Brad Stevens
367pp, FAB Press, £16.99

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

I have to confess I’m a slow learner when it comes to Abel Ferrara — even though his talent is hard to shrug off, and the degree to which some of my smarter colleagues swear by him has made him impossible to ignore. For many of them, one sometimes feels Ferrara isn’t so much a major filmmaker as the major filmmaker. But this is a wild man whose first official feature, in which he plays the title role, a starving painter in lower Manhattan, is called The Driller Killer (1979) — and whose first unofficial feature, made three years earlier, is a porn item called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. Read more

El Sopar

From the October 5, 2007 Chicago Reader. I was pleased to find this review quoted in the expanded second edition of Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination (2020), just out. — J.R.

In this 50-minute political documentary (1974) by Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella — made the year before Franco’s death, on the same night that the militant anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed — five former political prisoners, four men and a woman, whose combined prison terms lasted over 50 years, are seen meeting over a meal in a Catalonian farmhouse (the title means The Supper in Catalan) to discuss political strategies and the effects their prison terms have had on their political commitments. This is mainly a political and historical document, but just as Portabella’s more experimental films (Cuadecuc-Vampir, Umbracle, Warsaw Bridge) are never entirely divorced from politics, this political film has its own formal concerns, most of them related to camera movements and sound recording, as well as the pregnant silences that eventually overtake the conversation. In Catalan and Spanish with subtitles. (JR)

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A Mankless Credit

Herman Mankiewicz is undoubtedly the victim of a credit thief, but the thief in question isn’t Orson Welles but director David Fincher, brandishing and “delivering” the screenplay of his late father Jack. All the best lines in this script come from Herman, but Fincher Sr. is allotted the only writing credit because that’s the way money (not writing) is supposed to work in Lotusland. Yet we’re supposed to credit Mank for telling us how Old Hollywood thought about itself (and incidentally about us too–assuming that we must be idiots for buying into all their lies, Louis B. Mayer’s as well as Fincher’s). I got tired very quickly of all the witty lines, by Herman and Jack alike, thinking, “Can’t somebody, just once, speak half-normally? Is cynicism the only spice we’re allowed to taste, Hecht and Company by the bucketful?” Yes, I know (spoiler alert), the white wine came up with the fish, and all I could think about, almost to Mank‘s bitter end, was when Jack would finally work in that climactic line. Finally, climactically, at the bitter end, natch. Give that dead man an Oscar. Read more

The Consequences of Fame (in response to a 2009 New York Times symposium)

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?”

Roman Polanski

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

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

The Son Of Gascogne

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1998). — J.R.

Pascal Aubier directed this sweet and winsome 1995 French comedy. A 20-year-old tour guide (Gregoire Colin) in charge of Georgian singers giving a Paris concert pretends to be the son of a famous (but fictional) French New Wave director named Gascogne alleged to have left behind an unseen masterpiece when he died in the mid-70s. This impersonation momentarily gains him admission to the French film world, an identity, and even the love of a young Georgian woman, who accompanies him around Paris in a giddy sequence in which they reenact famous scenes from French New Wave classics. Part of what makes Aubier, a middle-aged filmmaker, tolerant about this deception is his hero?s tender years; charmed and intimidated by the mythology of the New Wave, the boy finds that the only way he can become heroic, to himself and to others, is to become part of something that ended around the time he was born. This reveals a telling postmodernist dilemma for cinema as a whole, not just the French cinema: directors like Quentin Tarantino require allusion and imitation for their very existence, not simply as a means of getting ahead or being fashionable, and this romantic and alluring story dives gracefully yet forcefully into the heart of this dilemma. Read more

60s Wisdom [CANDY MOUNTAIN]

From the August 11, 1988 Chicago Reader.  — J.R.

CANDY MOUNTAIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer

Written by Wurlitzer

With Kevin J. O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, Roberts Blossom, Leon Redbone, and Dr. John.

Is it my imagination, or has “60s” become less of a dirty word lately? Appearances can be deceptive, but in recent movies as diverse in quality (as well as in subject matter) as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Young Guns, and Tucker, we seem finally to be acknowledging that certain 60s values persist in our minds and habits as something more positive than war wounds. The recognition comes slowly and begrudgingly, though — almost as if the Reagan era has kept it under lock and key, and plastered it over with warnings about freak-outs, burnouts, and death. So when something that might be called 60s wisdom makes an appearance in our midst, it deserves to be treasured and savored rather than hastily filed away. At some time in the future we may find uses for it.

Although it’s pointedly set in the present, Candy Mountain has so many links to the 60s in terms of its ambience and attitudes that it seems to exist in a slightly blissed-out time warp — a charmed and charming “other place” that perceives the harshness of the present through a warm and misty (though not necessarily self-deceiving) haze. Read more

Ready To Wear (Prêt-à-porter)

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 1994). — J.R.

After Health probably the worst of Robert Altman’s Nashville spin-offs, disappointing in the thinness of its characters and the overall toothlessness of its satire. Altman and cowriter Barbara Shulgasser take on the French fashion world, and among the many plot strands are an amorous reunion of old lovers played by Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren (with a direct allusion to one of their scenes in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), a rivalry between three fashion magazine editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman) hoping to hire a top fashion photographer (Stephen Rea), a liaison between two designers (Richard E. Grant and Forest Whitaker) depicted with a kind of snickering homophobia that seems 20 years out of date, an impromptu romance between two American reporters (Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts), a Marshall Field’s retailer who likes to dress in drag (Danny Aiello), an unconvincing corporate takeover involving Anouk Aimee (the closest thing to a real character in the movie), Rupert Everett, and Lyle Lovett, and an idiotic roving TV interviewer (Kim Basinger). Many of these strands appear to be setups for surprises or payoffs that either never come or are muffled when they do (some last-minute cutting by Miramax probably didn’t help). Read more

Paris Belongs To Us

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1997). — J.R.

Though more amateurish than the other celebrated first features of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette’s troubled and troubling 1960 account of Parisians in the late 50s remains the most intellectually and philosophically mature, and one of the most beautiful. The specter of world-wide conspiracy and impending apocalypse haunts the characters — a student, an expatriate American, members of a low-budget theater company rehearsing Pericles — as the student tries to recover a tape of guitar music by a deceased Spanish emigre who may have committed suicide. Few films have more effectively captured a period and milieu; Rivette evokes bohemian paranoia and sleepless nights in tiny one-room flats, along with the fragrant, youthful idealism conveyed by the film’s title (which is countered by the opening epigraph from Charles Peguy: Paris belongs to no one). With Jean-Claude Brialy. In French with subtitles. 140 min. (JR)

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All and Nothing [IRREVERSIBLE & AMEN.]

From the March 14, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Irreversible

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Gaspar Noe

With Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, and Philippe Nahon

Amen.

** (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.

http://content.internetvideoarchive.com/content/photos/657/027606_46.jpg


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

The Man Who Wasn’t There

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2001). — J.R.

manwhow2

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)

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Is He or Isn’t He? [K-PAX]

From the Chicago Reader (November 2, 2001). — J.R.

K-Pax

**

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

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

TM

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

Tony Tony Tony [on THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS]

Posted on Artforum’s web site, 12/23/09. –- J.R.

 

Terry Gilliam’s ambitious fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, set to open in the US on Christmas Day, already did well in some parts of Europe when it premiered there in October—notably Italy and the UK, where it placed third during its opening weekends in both countries. I saw it the first time myself in Saint Andrews, Scotland, with an appreciative audience in early November. The lead character, Tony — played by the late Heath Ledger and three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), who were called in when Ledger died halfway through the filming — is partly conceived as a spoof on Tony Blair, though one wonders whether this conceit will register with much clarity for the American audience. But it’s also unclear how much this will matter, given all the other points of attraction (such as Tom Waits as the devil and Christopher Plummer as the Methuselah-like Parnassus). Far more relevant, it seems, is the way Gilliam has ingeniously adapted the avant-garde multiple-casting ploy of everyone from Yvonne Rainer (Kristina Talking Pictures [1976]) to Todd Haynes [2007]) in terms of his own mainstream fantasy plot. Read more

McCarthy’s Law: Review of IDEAS AND THE NOVEL

This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.

McCarthy’s Law

Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95

Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel. Read more

Stormy Waters

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)

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