I guess I must have been simply naïve when I concluded, after seeing and flipping out over Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys 14 years ago, that everyone else would like it as much as I did. But frankly, I’m even more bewildered by the critical coolness being shown now in some quarters towards Bernie, a masterpiece which might be regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Newton Boys, only one that runs still deeper and is in some ways even more accessible: another edifying film about locals from a part of East Texas that Linklater obviously knows like the back of his hand and deeply cherishes, and another one that ponders the notion of justifiable or defensible crime without ever deserting a sturdy moral code.
The writing (by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose non-fiction article, which first appeared when The Newton Boys was in post-production, inspired the movie) is so good that the humor can’t be reduced to simple satire; a whole community winds up speaking through the film, and it has a lot to say. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other celebrations of small-town American life that are quite as rich, as warm, and as complexly layered, at least within recent years.… Read more »
From The Forward, April 18, 2013. — J.R.
… Read more »
The American Jewish Story Through Cinema
By Eric A. Goldman
University of Texas Press, 264 pages, $55.
Eric A Goldman’s look at about a dozen Hollywood movies released between 1927 and 2009 can be recommended especially to readers who don’t flinch when they ponder his book’s title. For me, the very notion of postulating such a thing as “the” American Jewish Story — as opposed to, say, “an” American Jewish story (meaning any American Jewish story, of the author’s own choosing), or, better yet, multiple American Jewish stories — is already somewhat problematic. But in fact, Goldman is usually too thoughtful to be quite as categorical as his title threatens. Stories told in and by movies are basically what he’s thinking and talking about, and usually these are ones about American Jewish assimilation: characters stepping beyond ghetto and ethnic boundaries to contemplate such things as intermarriage and other forms of wider acceptance while repositioning historical memories and a sense of cultural identity.
I wish that the movies he picked for close examination, such as “The Young Lions,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Avalon,” were more engaging to me as art. I should admit that it was his book that finally induced me to catch up with the original, Al Jolson version of “The Jazz Singer” (at the age of 9 or so, I saw the 1952 Danny Thomas remake) and made me seek out Jerry Lewis’s strange 1959 made-for-TV version, with Molly Picon, no less, playing his mother.
The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has very kindly given me permission to post it here. —- J.R.
Shelley Winters performance as Lolita’s Charlotte Haze offers one of the best refutations of the notion that Kubrick was a misogynist who could depict women only as bitches like Marie Windsor in The Killing or as bimbos. (Maybe Christiane Kubrick in the last scene of Paths of Glory, then known as Susan Christian, is another counter-example, but unlike Charlotte, she hardly has time to register as a character.) Winters’ overbearing yet highly vulnerable culture vulture, who has to bear the full brunt of both Humbert Humbert’s patronizing and his private scorn, is portrayed with genuine warmth and sympathy — indeed, more of both than can be found in Nabokov’s novel or original screenplay.
This friend and one-time flat mate of Marilyn Monroe, whose stint with the Actors Studio preceded and probably encouraged her own, Winters (1920-2006), born Shirley Schrift, has suffered no less from the stigma of playing dumb blondes when Hollywood sexism was at its height, implanting the similarly false impression that she was as dumb and as unlettered as her characters.… Read more »
1. Taking a British Airways morning flight from Edinburgh to London this morning, I was delighted to discover that a tourist-class seat entitles me to a full hot British/Scottish breakfast — omelet, sausages, ham, mushrooms, and potatoes, with coffee served in an old-fashioned ceramic cup, at no extra charge. Simply imagining such a thing on any domestic flight in the U.S. nowadays would be indulging in a decadent form of nostalgia.
2. The intelligence, wit, and sharp writing one almost takes for granted in portions of the weekly press here. After bemoaning the phony “knowing” tone of David Thomson pretending to be authoritative about Orson Welles’ life at the time of his death in my last Notes entry, it’s worth quoting from three pieces that I happened to read during my 90-minute flight, all displaying good thoughts as well as good prose. The fact that I happened to just see Fantastic Mr. Fox two nights ago, in the Scottish coastal village St. Andrews, made the latter two pieces, both reviews of the film, especially interesting:
a. From “Your Call is Not Important To Us” by Will Self (New Statesman, 26 October) on mobile phones: “As defined by the psychiatric profession, psychosis is a blanket term for inadequate reality-testing (an ugly coinage, but you know what I mean).… Read more »
My column for Caíman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted on March 21, 2019. — J.R.
It’s tiresome to keep hearing from several American colleagues what a lousy year 2018 supposedly was for movies — “movies” being virtually equated with Hollywood crap in much the same way that “the world” is often equated with the U.S. (with Cuarón, Farhadi, Pawlikowski, and a few others occasionally accorded the dubious status of honorary Americans, usually on the basis of their Oscars). Given how much non-American cinema one can see nowadays via streaming, this is an inexcusable way of allowing the big companies to keep their stranglehold on what passes for film culture, making it easier than ever to miss out on what matters.
Even so, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t recognize the brilliance of Christian Petzold until recently, when I saw Transit (2018) — having previously seen only his Ghosts (2005) and Barbara (2012). Having now accessed, in swift succession, his Phoenix (2014), Yella (2007), Jerichow(2008), and Barbara again — I feel that it’s the dreamlike, hallucinatory surfaces (both aural and visual) of Yella, Phoenix, and Transit more than the literal places and spaces of Jerichow and Barbara that best capture Pertzold’s investigations into historical and existential identity.… Read more »
This originally appeared in the January 10, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. It seems worth reprinting as a kind of adjunct to my overview piece about Oshima, written for Artforum in 2008 and also available on this site. –J.R.
Directed and written by Nagisa Oshima
With Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, and Yoichi Sai.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Mark your calendars. Over the next six weeks, the Music Box is offering three eye-popping masterpieces from Asia. This is a welcome sign–-as is the popularity of the breezy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the multiplexes–-that American theaters and audiences are finally recognizing that a lot of the best movies come from the other side of the planet and that there’s as much diversity among them as there is among ours.
Yi Yi, which opens March 2, is a three-hour feature set in contemporary Taiwan. It was just voted best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, the first foreign-language picture to receive this honor since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran 15 years ago. Its writer-director, Edward Yang, is one of the two or three undisputed masters of Taiwanese cinema, and the Film Center gave us a full retrospective of his work in 1997.… Read more »
The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has kindly given me permission to post it here. — J.R.
The reasons given most often of why Stanley Kubrick collaborated in 1979 with this woman on the script for The Shining are confirmed by Johnson herself (in an essay about her eleven weeks of work with him, “Writing The Shining” — one of the best accounts of working with Kubrick that we have): her 1974 psychological novel The Shadow Knows, which he briefly considered adapting, and her expertise about Gothic fiction. To this one should add her sharp critical intelligence, apparent in both her fiction and her non-fiction. The latter ranges from her superb 1982 collection Terrorists and Novelists to her 1984 Life of Dashiell Hammett, and from her introductions to novels by the Bronte sisters, Stendhal, Wharton, and Voltaire to her canny 2005 guidebook Into a Paris Quartier.… Read more »
From The Soho News (January 14, 1981). — J.R.
“When I came to New York in September,” English avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist Peter Gidal tells me, “I noticed that almost every film review that I read used food metaphors and digestion metaphors to talk about art and cinema. Because consumption, digestion and predigestion is the dominant mode in this country. It’s just one signifier of the attempt to break with materialism and process, and to anthropomorphize everything.”
An “English” label should be assigned to Gidal only after some qualification. Born in 1946, he grew up in Mount Vernon, N. Y., and Switzerland and attended Brandeis University before settling in London in the late 60s. Although his accent sounds more redolent of Manhattan than of London, he has spent only two of the past 21 years in the U.S.
Regarding his opposition to food metaphors (as well as narrative), he recalls a drinking cup that he used as a kid for drinking milk. “It had a house on the outside, and on the inside, as you gradually drank, you could see the words, ‘The End.'”
“Which ties up with the idea of closure,” I suggest pedantically, referring to a discussion we’ve been having about Action at a Distance, his latest film.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 8, 1993). — J.R.
A few years ago, world cinema received a shot in the arm from so-called glasnost movies from the former Soviet Union — pictures that had been shelved due to various forms of censorship, mostly political, and were finally seeing the light of day thanks to the relaxation or near dissolution of state pressures. The thought of an American glasnost may seem a little farfetched. But if we start to look at the awesome control exerted by multinational corporations over what we see, particularly in mainstream movies, the definition of what is and isn’t permissible — or, in business terms, what is “viable,” which in this country often comes to the same thing — may seem comparably restricted.
The best movies of 1992 weren’t exactly censored; but given the profound lack of media attention they received they would have achieved much more reality in most people’s minds if they had been. And nothing short of an American-style glasnost would give these films the cultural centrality they deserve. Only three of them received extended theatrical runs in Chicago, and perhaps only one or two got so much as a mention on Entertainment Tonight or in Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly.… Read more »
This originally appeared in Stop Smiling‘s “Hollywood Lost and Found” issue (2007); it’s also reprinted in my latest collection. — J.R.
The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau, or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians, or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.
These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the 30s -— and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the 50s. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls.… Read more »
I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the tenth.
Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.
Made in Hoboken
Douglas, Wyoming, 1914—three states away from where our old friend Gordon MacRae is still only a radical freshman or a freethinking sophomore at the University of Indiana—Bo is operating his very first movie theater, at the age of twenty-seven. Think of it: when Jonathan’s the same age, in 1970, he’s working fitfully on his second yet-to-be unpublished novel, completing his first yet-to-be unpublished book as an editor (a collection of film criticism he was commissioned to do), still living on the dregs of Bo’s inheritance, and dividing the first three months of the year among three countries: pursuing a heavy love affair in New York, having his appendix removed in London (and smoking hash with his brother Michael’s friends in a room called the Box), and taking acid all alone one beautiful spring afternoon in Paris, where he moved last fall, acid that suddenly prompts him to buy red paint, a roller, and brushes, and to go to work on his bedroom closets—a conversation with the wood, red saying one thing, grain saying another—and later sends him out the door and up rue Mazarine to the Odéon métro stop, a little after 6:30, to take the Porte de Clignancourt train as far as Châtelet and then the Mairie des Lilas train to République.… Read more »
My column for the April 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Although I didn’t have the space to discuss this, it seems to me in retrospect that Jack Nance, even as a relatively minor character (Pete Martell), is as much the realistic backbone of Twin Peaks as he is the realistic anchor of Eraserhead — and, as such, he stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from such supernatural pasteboard characters as Bob (Frank Silva) and Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). — J.R.
The news that David Lynch and Mark Frost are preparing nine new Twin Peaks episodes — all to be directed by Lynch and set in the present, and to air on cable TV’s Showtime in 2016 — has coincided with the release of a beautifully designed Blu-Ray box set with ten discs, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and The Missing Pieces, devoted to the 29 episodes broadcast in 1990 and 1991 and the subsequent prequel theatrical feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and many extras. All this has prompted a re-evaluation of the series as a whole, which I’ve now seen in its entirety for the first time. A few critics have aided me in this quest—especially Michel Chion in his 1992 French book on Lynch, Martha P.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 1995). — J.R.
Billy Wilder’s soggy and uninspired 1963 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, minus the songs. Shirley MacLaine stars as a Paris prostitute with a heart of gold who falls for a former policeman (Jack Lemmon) who winds up as her pimp and, in disguise, her only customer. A good example of how a movie can be utterly characteristic of its maker and still fall with a resounding thud; with Lou Jacobi and Herschel Bernardi. (JR)
Department of utter bafflement (February 2015): Thinking I might have missed something (the film was, after all, a smash hit, and was treated by Godard as if it were Wilder’s belated blossoming as a filmmaker, even making the ninth spot in his ten-best list for 1964, between The Nutty Professor and Two Weeks in Another Town), I recently made a return visit to this movie on DVD and found it just as unbearable as before, despite the charm of the Alexander Trauner sets.
Wilder’s major gift, apart from symmetrically pointed plot construction (as in Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti!), was as a reporter on American bourgeois hypocrisy, and what seems most peculiar in this film is its misreadings of French manners and French bourgeois hypocrisy, which come across as purely American — Parisian pimps out of Damon Runyon (filmed on the same soundstages as Guys and Dolls, at the Goldwyn Studio) and a puritanical cop who seems to hail from the American midwest.… Read more »
This synopsis and review appeared in the December 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin.
I’ve only just begun to familiarize myself with Moana with sound (see first still below), put together by the Flahertys’ daughter Monica, restored by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen (the Flaherty’s great-grandson), and posthumously released on Blu-Ray today by Kino Lorber. But I’ve already sampled enough of it — as well as all of Posner’s “short” (39-minute) history of the project, included along with other extras on the Blu-Ray — to view it as a major achievement, hopefully leading to a major reassessment of what I regard in some ways as Flaherty’s most neglected masterpiece. — J.R.
Directors: Robert J. Flaherty, Frances Hubbard Flaherty
Savai’i, a Samoan island. Near the village of Safune, Moana pulls taro root from the ground and peels it while his betrothed Fa’angase bundles leaves, his mother Tu’ungaita carries mulberry sticks and his younger brother Pe’a helps them. Setting off for the village, they set a trap for wild boar, the forest’s only dangerous animal, which they subsequently capture. Moana, Fa’angase, and Pe’a go spear-fishing, along with Moana’s older brother Leupenga. Back in the village, Tu’ungaita makes back-cloth for a lavalava, a native dress. … Read more »
I no longer recall who snapped this deliberately lopsided photo of Oliver Baumgarten (left), Alexis Tioseco (right), and me in spring 2007, when the three of us were the entire FIPRESCI jury at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Our prize that year went to an eye-popping masterpiece, Amit Dutta’s Kramasha (To Be Continued…), from India — which later became one of the five late (2007) entries to my list of all-time favorite films in the Afterword of the second edition of my collection Essential Cinema — and discovering that great film with Alexis was for me the absolute high point of the festival.
As some of you have heard by now, Alexis, who was 28, and his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc, who was almost 30 and another very talented film critic, were murdered yesterday in their home in Quezon City, the Philippines, apparently by burglars. Nika, whom I also knew, but less well, had only recently moved there from Ljubljana, Slovenia; Gabe Klinger has just posted a very tender and affectionate piece about both of them a few hours ago. And for the moment, at least, one can still access Alexis’ excellent web site, Criticine. (Postscript, 9/3/09: Adrian Martin writes from Melbourne that Nika’s own Ekran blog, also [mostly] in English, which I haven’t encountered until now, “with many fine pieces, is still also accessible”.)… Read more »