From a 1989 catalog that I did for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein. — J.R.
William Klein on His Film Work
Klein made the following remarks in a telephone conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum in early November 1988.
On Broadway by Light (1958) and Orson Welles
I did this book on New York: black-and-white, grungy photographs. People said, ‘What a put-down — New York is not like that. New York is a million things, and you just see the seamy side.” So I thought I would do a film showing how seamy New York was, but intellectually, by doing a thing on electric- light signs. How beautiful they are, and what an obsessive, brainwashing message they carry. And everybody is so thankful for this super spectacle. Anyway, I think it’s the first Pop film.
Afterwards, I went from New York to Paris on a boat. We were on the pier with all our suitcases when I saw Orson Welles with a cigar and a little attaché case – that’s all he had as luggage. I went up to him and said, “Listen, I’ve just shot a film. Would you like to see it?” I showed it to him in the boat’s movie theater, and he said, “This is the first film I’ve ever seen in which the color is absolutely necessary.” Read more
A highly intriguing if not always fully successful first feature (1990) by independent writer-director Hal Hartley, shot in his hometown on Long Island, gives us, among other characters, a mechanic mistaken for a priest (Robert Burke) returning from a prison sentence, a politically alienated teenager (Adrienne Shelly), and the teenager’s mercenary redneck father (Christopher Cooke). Fantasies about global annihilation obsess the teenager, fantasies about money obsess her father, and fantasies about a pair of murders apparently committed by the mechanic obsess almost everyone else. The unvarnished quality of some of the acting limits this effort in spots, but the quirky originality of the story, characters, and filmmaking keeps one alert and curious. With Julia McNeal, Mark Bailey, and Gary Sauer. (JR) Read more
One of the rare fiction features about the jazz world made by a black filmmaker — and arguably much more important than Mo’ Better Blues, though it’s rarely shown. This 1977 film by Larry Clark, written by Ted Lange, follows a young saxophonist (Nathaniel Taylor) recently released from prison who tries to deal with the political aspects of his profession with the help of an older musician (Clarence Muse). Original and thoughtful, this is a very special first feature, with a feeling for the music that’s boldly translated into film style. (JR)
Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner Archive, four DVDs)
The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Criterion, fifteen Blu-Rays).
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (Second Run Features, two Blu-Rays)
Kira Muratova’sSecond Class Citizens (one Russian DVD).
Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (Grasshopper Film, one Blu-Ray, one DVD)
I’ve ignored precise dates because Johnson-Trump have brought history to an impasse, and one country’s 2019 release might not even arrive in the mail before 2020. I’ve included A Bread Factory even though it includes my own public interview with its writer-director. Teaching a course in Varda made me appreciate that she knew how to generate her own best extras (none of which, alas, I could show on Zoom). The final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deserves recognition for resurrecting the Hollywood musical to serve the specific needs of the present while triumphantly proving that sitcom characters can actually grow. English subtitled Muratova is most easily tracked on YouTube, and I can’t even identify the Russian label of this welcome DVD release.
Here’s where the original post is, dated June 7, 2007, which has a better layout as well as 17 hyperlinks. This is basically a piece of postmodernist fiction, for better and for worse. –J.R.
The Origins of Goofus McPherson
June 7, 2007 – 12:08 p.m.
Goofus: a Latin declension of the middle-class Disney mutt, best known for his unbuttoned longjohns and his stammering, guttural dim-wittedness. McPherson: the lovesick, necrophiliac cop played by Dana Andrews in Laura. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Walt Disney hired Otto Preminger to remake his own noir as a cartoon, a sort of animated True-Life Adventure. Or that Otto Preminger, opting for an animated remake himself, farmed out part of the work to the Disney studio, which took it upon itself to undermine the class status of Detective Lt. Mark McPherson by turning this gumshoe into a bourgeois fall guy and a dumb-ass canine to boot, meanwhile converting the Vincent Price character into some version of Lumpjaw the Bear, who was even dumber than Goofy, and which suggests refashioning Gene Tierney in the title role of the sweet missy as Lulabelle.
Why the Latin declension? Let’s call it an all-too-American cultural as well as psychosexual trade-off. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1994). Whatever it is, “avant-garde cinema” it isn’t. — J.R.
This gory, postmodernist fruit salad may be the most misogynistic piece of noir since Body Heat, though as in Basic Instinct a certain amount of giddy dominatrix worship — in this case focused on Lena Olin as an evil mobster — gets mixed into the brew of producer Hilary Henkin’s script. It’s the sort of fancy-pants movie that can have a wealthy hoodlum (Roy Scheider) threatening its hero (Gary Oldman), a crooked cop on the take, by recounting an anecdote about Robert Lowell. As in The Grifters, another exercise in Hollywood noir directed by a non-American (here it’s the Hungarian Peter Medak, who works mostly in England), one can’t easily tell whether this is taking place in the 40s or half a century later; but with so many baroque plot moves and narrative devices, and so much self-consciously ornate dialogue and voice-over narration, you’re not supposed to notice or care. The film certainly held me, and even fooled me in spots (when it wasn’t simply confusing), but when the whole thing was over I felt pretty empty. It would be facile to say it substitutes style for content; actually, it substitutes stylishness for style. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1992). Reseeing the film recently in a splendid new Blu-Ray edition from Twilight Time, I now regard this as Cy Endfield’s greatest film — and one the best war films ever made, a magnificent epic that succeeds on many levels. — J.R.
The only commercial hit made by Cy Endfield, the neglected, blacklisted American writer-director who emigrated to England in the 50s — an epic and visually quite impressive account of an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors on 105 British soldiers in Natal in 1879. While the incident is recounted wholly from the British viewpoint, the film is not racist, as some charged when it was released in 1964. Reflecting Endfield’s career-long refusal to plumb his characters’ motivations, it presents all the events at face value, not even delving directly into the causes of the Zulu attack. (Reportedly, Endfield tried to compensate in the script he wrote for the 1979 Zulu Dawn, directed by Douglas Hickox.) While it might be argued that Endfield’s greatest work (i.e., Try and Get Me!) shows a political and social lucidity about class divisions and group behavior that is only hinted at here, the handling of action and spectacle and the direction of actors are truly masterful. Read more
A revisionist look at the last 67 days of Vincent van Gogh’s life by the highly talented writer-director Maurice Pialat (The Mouth Agape, A nos amours, Under Satan’s Sun), with singer-songwriter-actor Jacques Dutronc — the Bob Dylan of Paris and the lead in Godard’s Every Man for Himself — in the title part. Ironically, this 155-minute French art movie shows the painter’s existence, including his sex life, to be a lot happier than is generally depicted — much sunnier, in fact, than Vincente Minnelli’s or Robert Altman’s films on the same subject; in any case, it certainly qualifies as a personal work. (The period re-creations of Jean Renoir and John Ford remain the key reference points.) While the results shed little light on van Gogh’s painting, some painters I know are smitten with this film, and the mise en scene and the period flavor are both quite remarkable. With Alexandra London, Gerard Sety, Bernard le Coq, Corinne Bourdon, and Elsa Zylberstein (1992). In French with subtitles. (JR)
From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.
My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good. Read more
Tom Stoppard freely adapts, directs, and all but destroys his own enjoyable and provocative absurdist play about two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), victims of a drama taking place in the wings that they can neither understand nor control. Critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that the play may have been the first to use another play as decor; if so, then the film uses two plays — Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — and often the consequences are even more confusing than Stoppard could have intended. I can’t imagine a play less suited for a film adaptation, although Stoppard might have turned this to his advantage had he confronted that paradox. Instead he tries to open up a work that depends upon a sense of claustrophobic limbo, then undermines that approach by focusing the camera so tightly on the characters that he muddles our sense of spatial continuity. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is something semi-inexplicable that happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while the screenplay turns it into something they’re obliged to chase after; unfortunately, Stoppard’s sense of film is so inferior to his feeling for the stage that he makes the same compromises and reductions a Hollywood hack might have brought to the material. Read more
A delightful if fanciful treatment (1991) of the events leading up to the romance between assertive George Sand (Judy Davis) and prudish Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) — roughly from 1836 to 1838 — that also involves such artists as Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), and Eugene Delacroix (Ralph Brown), as well as Liszt’s lover and Sand’s friend Marie d’Agoult (Bernadette Peters) and Sand’s former lover Felicien Mallefille (Georges Corraface), a tutor to her children. James Lapine, best known as the director and librettist of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods, fluidly directs a lively script by his wife Sarah Kernochan, and a generous number of piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt are smoothly integrated into the story. Especially good in the cast are Davis (adept in translating Sand’s boldness in dress and manner into body language) and Anna Massey as her mother. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). This is available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.
Francois Truffaut’s free adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s masochistically doom-ridden Waltz Into Darkness, in ‘Scope and color, yields an unsuccessful but sympathetic exploration of the filmmaker’s underrated darker side. A wealthy tobacco planter (Jean-Paul Belmondo) sends for a mail-order bride, and the mysterious lady who turns up is not the woman he was led to expect but Catherine Deneuve. Stately and languorous in its dreamy melancholy, though never entirely convincing, this 1969 picture is full of movie references — even the cabin at the end of Truffaut’s own Shoot the Piano Player figures centrally. But perhaps its ultimate justification is that of Truffaut’s other morbid films, such as The Bride Wore Black, The Story of Adele H, and The Green Room: a doomed romantic protagonist (in this case Belmondo) who goes the limit. In French with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)
A fascinating 1988 film essay about photography by Harun Farocki, one of Germany’s most interesting independent filmmakers. Farocki combines the freewheeling imagination of Chris Marker with the rigor of Alexander Kluge, and his materialist approach to editing sound and image suggests both Fritz Lang and Robert Bresson. Central to the argument of this film are some aerial photographs of Auschwitz taken by American bombers looking for factories and power plants and missing the lines of people in front of the gas chambers — which are contrasted with Nazi photographs and images drawn by an Auschwitz prisoner, Alfred Kantor. Farocki’s provocative reflections on these and related matters and his highly original manipulation of music make this an excellent introduction to his work, which has seldom been visible in this country. In German with subtitles. 75 min. (JR)
What a pleasurable experience it is to pass directly from a slew of end-of-the-year screeners, most of which I can’t watch to the end, to a 1933 King Vidor opus that still isn’t commercially available on DVD. (According to Scott Simmon, Raymond Durgnat’s coauthor on King Vidor, American, this is Vidor’s most underrated movie; Durgnat opts for Ruby Gentry.) A characteristic virtue of this character-driven adaptation of a Phil Stong novel set in farming country is a shot devoted to a dog wandering into a Sunday morning church service during the sermon, noticing that the place is full, and gradually sitting down under one of the pews. It’s the sort of inessential detail that I wouldn’t expect to find in any contemporary movie. I have no way of knowing whether or not this was scripted, but considering how little it has to do with the plot, I suspect it wasn’t—that Vidor happened on such a shot as an afterthought. Apart from the economy of 30s features, this sort of meandering poetry seems increasingly rare in today’s movies. [12/20/08] Read more
As a fan of the directorless Theater Oobleck dating all the way back to its second show in Chicago (David Isaacson’s riotous Three Who Dared: A Play on the Movies, in June 1988), with particularly fond memories of Jeff Dorchen’s The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard (December 1988) and Ugly’s First World (October 1989) as well as Mickle Maher’s When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? (January 1990), I regret having somehow lost touch with their singular repertory of literary and political shotgun marriages in recent years. A recent visit to Dorchen’s brilliantly excessive Strauss at Midnight at the the Chicago DCA Theater (66 E. Randolph), which runs through July 19, reminded me of how much heat and liberating anger and laughter they can generate.
This play has something to do with Saul Bellow (Isaacson), posthumously still tainted by his former association with Allan Bloom (Troy Martin), and, through Bloom, with Leo Strauss (David Shapiro), condemned to a hell in which he has inhabit the same quarters as Neil Simon’s Odd Couple (Brian Nemtusak and H.B. Ward doing fine, surreal spinoffs of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), not to mention Niccolo Machiavelli (Scott Hermes) and In the Heat of the Night‘s Virgil Tibbs (D’wayne Taylor). Read more