Yearly Archives: 2020

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

From Cineaste, Fall 2003. — J.R.

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

by Peter Wollen. London and New York: Verso, 2002. 314pp. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $20.00.

One of the more interesting paradoxes of Peter Wollen’s writing career is that he was perceived as an academic well before he had a long-term teaching post whereas today, with a seemingly permanent berth in the critical studies program at UCLA’s film department, he’s more apt to come across as a journalist. Part of this has to do with the magazines he writes for, though it might be added that for better and for worse — and more for the better — there’s always been a breezy, nonpedantic side to his writing that makes it far more accessible and user-friendly than the work of many of his more theoretically-minded colleagues. Paris Hollywood, his latest collection, is an agreeable showcase for this quality — more so, in many ways, than Readings and Writings (1982) and Raiding the Icebox (1993).

There are, to be sure, some scholarly limitations to Wollen’s lightness of tone, at least when he falls too readily into certain easy generalizations. It may sound reasonable to write of Godard’s early work (in “JLG,” one of the better essays here), “He never once worked with a script-writer,” but only if one glides past the roles of Truffaut on Breathless and Rossellini and Jean Gruault on Les Carabiniers.… Read more »

The Cell

From the August 15, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

If you thought virtual-reality thrillers and spin-offs of The Silence of the Lambs had run their course, guess again. Jennifer Lopez, who looks great in a rubber suit, keeps putting one on in order to enter the unconscious of a serial killer/mad scientist-genius (Vincent D’Onofrio) and discover where he’s hidden his latest victim; meanwhile, hot and bothered FBI agent Vince Vaughn is also on the case. There’s almost no plot here and even less character — just a lot of pretexts for S-M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia. Tarsem Singh, a specialist in commercials and music videos (assuming one can distinguish between the two), directed a script by Mark Protosevich, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste costars as the voice of reason, present to offer an occasional change of pace. 107 min. (JR)

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The Newton Boys

From the Chicago Reader (April 10, 1998). — J.R.

The Newton Boys

TheNewtonBoys-train

Not to be hyperbolic, but Richard Linklater’s first big-budget movie may be the Jules and Jim of bank-robber movies, thanks to its astonishing handling of period detail and its gentleness of spirit, both buoyed by a gliding lightness of touch. Linklater, Clark Lee Walker, and Claude Stanush (who also worked on the script of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men) have adapted Stanush’s oral history about the Texas-born Newton brothers, who between 1919 and 1924 became the most successful bank robbers in the U.S. The film may occasionally bite off a few more narrative strands than it can chew, but that’s merely the flip side of its generosity and energy. You can keep your L.A. Confidential; here’s a vision of the American past that I’m ready to climb inside. Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke play the brothers; with Dwight Yoakam and Julianna Margulies. 600 N. Michigan. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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The General and Sherlock Jr.

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

sherlock-jr

 

A rare chance to see Buster Keaton’s two greatest features on the same program. In Sherlock Jr. (1924) — his most imaginative and freewheeling work, as well as one of his funniest — he plays a movie projectionist who falls asleep during a detective movie and dreams that he literally walks into the screen, with surreal and bewildering consequences. In The General (1926), probably his most beautiful effort, he plays a railroad engineer during the Civil War whose train is stolen by Union soldiers, who also kidnap his girlfriend (Marian Mack); Clyde Bruckman codirected. Both are indispensable viewing.

 

 

 

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Historical Panic Mode

It’s infuriating to keep hearing people smugly and narcissistically remark on TV about what a “historic” period we’re currently living through. Presumably this is in sharp contrast to their (i.e., our) less significant predecessors. Yet truthfully, what these people really seem to mean by “historical” is “hysterical”. [12/18/20]… Read more »

The Suspended Vocation

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One of Raul Ruiz’s earliest French features an adaptation of Pierre Klossowski’s autobiographical novel about the conflict between rival doctrinal factions within the Catholic Church — this is also one of his most intractable, though some critics regard it as one of his best. It takes the form of a film within a film, involving the making of a film in 1971 that is an amalgamation of two earlier unfinished films made in 1942 and 1962. Alternating between black and white and color, and shot through with Ruiz’s deadpan humor and his taste for labyrinthine structures, it addresses the quintessentially Ruizian theme of institutions — how they function and how they survive (1977). (JR)

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How Hip We Are [WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING]

From the Chicago Reader (July 6, 1990). — J.R.

WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John Boskovich

Written by Sandra Bernhard and Boskovich

With Sandra Bernhard, John Doe, Steve Antin, Lu Leonard, Ken Foree, and Cynthia Bailey.

Once upon a time, before postmodernism came along, art tended to be about reality and the world — not always, to be sure, but more often than today. Then a group of professors and hucksters (as well as huckster-professors) got together and said, “What are reality and the world except particular versions of what we used to call art? And anyway what do we know about the world apart from what we see on TV, which is a form of popular art? The subject of art has always been other art, and postmodernism — unlike modernism, which is old hat by now, and all art prior to modernism, which is even older hat — is up-to-date art about other art. And what’s up-to-date is what sells.” Or words to that effect.

If capitalism is devoted in part to developing new markets, and advertising and journalism are devoted to promoting them, then postmodernist criticism is a means of backing up that promotion with hard intellectual currency.… Read more »

A Cut Above [HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER]

From the Chicago Reader (April 14, 1989). — J.R.

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McNaughton

Written by Richard Fire and McNaughton

With Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, and Tom Towles.

Properly speaking, the slasher movie made its debut almost 30 years ago, with two features by middle-aged Englishmen, which coincidentally opened on separate continents within a few months of each other — Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which premiered in England in May 1960, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which opened in the United States three months later. The parallels between these two movies remain striking — especially their puritanical and voyeuristic underpinnings, which give us sexually repressed heroes whose morbid scopophilia (pleasure in gazing) leads directly to their brutal murders of women. And both occasioned critical protests of rage and disapproval when they first appeared.

But it was Psycho and not Peeping Tom that went on to launch a subgenre and receive exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis. And from the vantage point of the present, it is probably the shower murder of Psycho rather than the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin that has become the most chewed-over montage sequence in the history of cinema. But how much concrete edification has grown out of this close study?… Read more »

Documentary Expressionism: The Films of William Klein

From a 1989 catalog that I wrote most of for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein (an interview that accompanied this piece will also be posted on the site in a couple of days). I worked for Klein briefly in 1973, when I was living in Paris, translating a script of his called Demain la ville from French to English so that Elliott Gould, who was being considered as one of the leads, could read it. (A portion of this script was later transformed into Klein’s The Model Couple.)  — J.R.

Anybody who pretends to be objective isn’t realistic. — William Klein on cinéma-vérité (1)

I have a great feeling of nostalgia for the expressionist film. Although I don’t know why I say nostalgia: such films are still being made, and as far as l’m concerned we can never go beyond expressionism. Bill Klein’s Mr. Freedom, for example, is a completely expressionistic film. Maybe that’s why it provoked such violent reactions: some people just can’t accept having reality transposed to another level. — Alain Resnais (2)

One of the limitations of conventional film history, with its subdivisions of schools and movements, is that many interesting filmmakers who are unlucky enough to exist apart from neat categories tend to disappear between the cracks.… Read more »

William Klein on His Film Work (1988 interview)

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 »

Life Is A Dream

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1989). — J.R.

Also known as Memory of Appearances, this ambitious feature by the extraordinary and prolific Raul Ruiz relocates portions of both versions of Calderon’s Life Is a Dream — the sacred and profane versions, written many decades apart — in a provincial movie theater, where a Chilean revolutionary tries to recall portions of a secret code drawn from the text, gets interrogated by the police behind the movie screen, and imagines himself as a participant in some of the genre films he’s watching. If this sounds confusing, it’s nothing compared to the multileveled games with the imagination that Ruiz plays throughout this intriguing labyrinth, where vestiges of science fiction, musical comedy, western shoot-outs, and costume dramas rub shoulders with themes and lines from Calderon. The important thing to keep in mind is that, however murky the proceedings may get, Ruiz is basically out to have fun, and as one of the supreme visual stylists in the contemporary cinema, he can guarantee more visual surprises and bold poetic conceits than we are likely to find crowded together elsewhere. Cheerfully indifferent to the modernist notion of a masterpiece, he conflates the profound with the tacky in a liberating manner that turns both into a witty carnival of attractions (1986).… Read more »

Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen And Two Portraits

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.

The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to his late father, combines stop-frame images of the latter, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving its premiere here, creates a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss. In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr.… Read more »

The Unbelievable Truth

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

TheUnbelievableTruth

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 »

Passing Through

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

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)

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We Are What We Spend: Presence and Absence in VITALINA VARELA (for TRAFIC)

An alternate version of my essay on the Costa film, written in May 2020 for Trafic. — J.R.

It isn’t necessary to have seen anything else by Pedro Costa before encountering his title heroine in a film of her own, but if you saw his previous feature, Horse Money, you’ve already met her—a striking, angry middle-aged woman from Cape Verde who finally found the money to fly to Lisbon to join her long-absent husband, only to discover that she just missed his funeral. Settling into his rickety, crumbling house and trying to come to terms with her grief, keeping company mainly with a semi-mad priest (Costa regular Ventura), she’s precisely the kind of person that the world and movies tend to ignore and evade, yet Costa’s epic portraiture, beautifully lit and framed so that it builds an exalted altar to her, invites us to luxuriate in her hushed presence. Audiences tend to have an easier time with this dark reverie than critics because it takes us somewhere very special and respects us far too much to tell us why.

How to explain the appeal of a movie named after a real person, a displaced “non-professional” who is also its star?… Read more »