Written forThe Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
DUCK SOUP (1933)
Many reasons could be cited why this is the best of all
the Marx Brothers features, even though it was a
commercial disappointment when it was first released
in 1933. The last of the Marx Brothers movies in
which Zeppo -– the straight man among the brothers
and the youngest (who replaced Gummo, the one
who fulfilled this role on stage) –- appeared, it is perhaps
the only one whose anarchistic pleasures aren’t
crippled or interrupted by romantic and musical
interludes. (The climactic musical number here,
“Freedonia’s Going to War,” is an integral part of the
action.) Leo McCarey was inarguably the best director
the brothers ever worked with, and the ridiculing
of both nationalism and patriotism is more pointed
than most of their other satires. This comedy
also has the most beautiful (and beautifully abstract)
sequence in any Marx brothers picture, staged in
front of a mirror, developing a gag concept from
Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) and extending it
to hallucinatory proportions. It also includes the
second and possibly best appearance of Margaret
Dumont (Groucho’s ideal foil) in a Marx Brothers
picture, and also features Edgar Kennedy and Louis
Calhern in memorable parts.… Read more »
Stavisky. Arriving on the crest of the nostalgia boom, Alain Resnais’s new movie — his first in six years — is already destined to make a voluptuous splash. With a script by Jorge Semprun (who collaborated with Resnais on La Guerre est Finie) , a bittersweet score by Stephen Sondheim, and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the title role, Stavisky serves up the glitter of Thirties glamor in a style both graceful and elegiac. Its subject is Alexandre Stavisky, the celebrated high-finance swindler whose exposure led to the collapse of two French ministries. Before the law caught up with him, Stavisky held Paris in the palm of his hand, living in a kind of extravagant luxury from which legends are born. And it’s mainly the legend that fascinates Resnais in his ironic tribute to a certain vanished elegance: a roomful of white flowers, recruited at six A.M. to greet the awakening of Alexandre’s wife Arlette (Anny Duperey) in Biarritz; a continuous flow of champagne and jewels to spark the afternoons. Fans of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel may regret the absence of narrative innovation here. But Resnais still knows a lot about beauty, Belmondo has bushels of charm to spare, and together they paint a memorable portrait of bygone days — a historical fantasy tinged with sweet dreams and sad awakenings.… Read more »
From Time Out (London), September 13-19, 1974. –- J.R.
For Godard, French neo-realism was born with Jacques Tati’s ‘Jour de Fete’ in 1947. An even likelier candidate might be Jean Renoir’s ‘Toni’ (Everyman to Saturday), shot in southern France in 1934 with a cast of unknowns, and dealing with a community of immigrants who work in a stone quarry. Actually, it’s a melodrama about love and sex, jealousy and murder -– the sort of staples that have kept the cinema going for seventy years or so -– but Renoir invests it with a sense of character and place that gives it an unusually blunt and sensual impact. Neither romanticizing his workers nor turning them into rallying points, he accepts them as they are and follows them where they go. The plot is based on a real crime that occurred in Martigues (where the film was shot) in the early Twenties, Jacques Morier, an old friend of Renoir’s who was the local police chief, assembled the facts, and Renoir wrote the script with another friend, art critic Carl Einstein. The results are both stark and gentle, as well as sexy: Toni sucking wasp poison from Josefa’s lissome neck is a particularly fine moment.… Read more »
This essay was commissioned by the Australian DVD label Madman, for their 2008 release of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. In fact, I wrote essays about four separate Fassbinder films for them — the three others were Katzelmacher, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha. —J.R.
“I love movies. Pictures about passion—and pain. Lovely!
[…] “Discipline’s okay as long as you’re having fun.”
–Karin (Hanna Schygulla) in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
An early watershed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career as a filmmaker, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), his twelfth feature, might even be regarded as the first in which he explicitly “discovered” mise en scène. Adapting his own play —- which had premiered in Darmstadt half a year before, in June 1971, in a production directed by Peer Raben —- the film makes no effort to “open up” the original material in terms of its original setting, the flat of its title heroine, and it focuses on issues of camera placement and camera movement like few other Fassbinder films made before or since.
For Christian Braad Thomsen, who may be Fassbinder’s most authoritative critic, the film marks a significant turning point.… Read more »
Fans of Abbas Kiarostami who have been wondering when they’ll be able to see Five (2003) — his 74-minute, five- part experimental film without dialogue, all shot on the seashore while he was scripting Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold — should know that it’s recently come out in France on a well-produced DVD released by MK2 and readily available from French Amazon for just under 28 Euros. [2014 note: It’s now available on U.K. Amazon.] (Like other overseas DVDs, it’s playable on any multiregional DVD player, which includes a surprising number of stateside computers.) Apparently part of the reason for the long delay was Kiarostami’s slowness in producing a “making of” documentary, though what he’s finally come up with — his hour-long About Five, completed in late 2005, available with English subtitles on the same DVD — is quite fascinating. Responding to pertinent questions put to him by English critic and programmer Geoff Andrew, he views his own work with a lot of refreshing as well as helpful candor.
Much as the French DVD of The Wind Will Carry Us, also released by MK2 (and somewhat cheaper, even though it’s a two-disc set), includes a couple of mind-boggling Japanese documentaries (also with English subtitles) that have done much to enhance my appreciation of one of Kiarostami’s greatest films, his own account of his more modest Five is no less full of surprising revelations about the elaborate artifice that lurks behind most of his seeming causalness and off-handed methods as a filmmaker.
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1974 (vol. 41, no. 489). –- J.R.
Drummer of Vengeance
Great Britain, 1974
Director: Robert Paget
The American West, shortly after the Civil War. A rebel soldier who goes over to the Union army returns home to find his Indian wife and his son murdered — the former after having been raped — and their house burned to the ground by vengeful Confederates. Coming upon a wind-up toy drummer in the ruins, he vows to track down and kill all the men responsible. His usual method of revenge is to wind up the toy, place it on the ground, and ask his victim to make his play — whether armed or unarmed – before shooting him. He pays a carpenter to make the necessary coffins in advance and quickly dispatches six of the men he is after. The angry townsfolk, eager to be rid of the avenger (known only as the Stranger) and anxious for Sheriff Mason to apprehend him, are spurred on by the fanatical Bible-spouting of the town’s gravedigger — actually the Stranger in disguise. The Stranger also impersonates an Indian in a lance-throwing act in O’Conner’s Travelling Show in order to kill his next victim.… Read more »
The blighted relationships explored by a Prague psychologist with marital troubles of her own (Jana Janekova, excellent) are the focus of Vera Chytilova’s 2006 Czech feature, her best in many years. With its aggressively mobile camera and abrupt editing, the movie seems to lurch from one miniplot to the next as if in a punch-drunk trance. Like much of Chytilova’s best work (Daisies, The Apple Game), it sometimes verges on hysteria, but it’s clearly enhanced by the experience of screenwriter Katrina Irmanovova, a therapist herself. And her fictional patients evoke the letter writers of Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts in their cumulative misery, suggesting some poetic yet plausible version of the modern world. In Czech with subtitles. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
Stray Dogs (2013), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, is Tsai Ming-liang’s tenth theatrical feature. It was described by Tsai at its premiere as his last, and in many ways it’s his most challenging. Considered as the apotheosis of his film work to date — which also includes eleven telefilms made between 1989 and 1985, and ten shorts or segments of portmanteau features, culminating in the 2014, 56-minute Journey to the West – it constitutes a kind of nervy dare to the viewer, and to prime oneself for it, it might help to look at Journey to the West first.
Even though both films flirt with stasis, usually in the midst of extremely long takes, they’re also performance pieces that hark back to Tsai’s roots in experimental theater and television. And the performers are not only hired actors but also unsuspecting street pedestrians, places, weather conditions, the camera, and, perhaps most crucial of all, viewers watching the activity of all of the above. If Tsai’s films typically qualify as questions rather than answers, foremost among the questions is how we perform as spectators – a question that we’re obliged to pose in relation to all the materials offered.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 2005). — J.R.
Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Direction of Actors
Directed by Jacques Rivette
With Jean Renoir and Michel Simon
In 1966 Jacques Rivette made a three-part TV documentary titled Jean Renoir, Le patron (Jean Renoir, the Boss), and its 90-minute centerpiece has rarely been seen since. “A Portrait of Michel Simon by Jean Renoir, or A Portrait of Jean Renoir by Michel Simon, or The Direction of Actors: Dialogue,” screening on DVD this week at Alliance Francaise, is a missing link that’s key to understanding Rivette’s work. It’s a raw record of the after-dinner talk between one of the world’s greatest directors and his greatest actor, both in their early 70s, punctuated by clips from the five films they worked on together — Tire-au-Flanc (1928), On Purge Bébé (1931), La Chienne (1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), and Tosca (1941). It also includes occasional remarks by Rivette, the documentary’s producers (Janine Bazin and Andre S. Labarthe), and the stills photographer (the distinguished Henri Cartier-Bresson). The joy Renoir and Simon clearly share at being reunited is complemented by Rivette’s determination to exclude nothing, so that the “direction of actors” applies to him as much as to his two principals, each of whom can be said to be directing the other.… Read more »
Filmmaker of the Decade: The resurgence of the Nouvelle Vague highlights the most disquieting feature of the decade: the critical search for a new European art-house auteur, which seems to have settled on the pious admonisher, Michael Haneke. European cinema has finally found its Stanley Kramer.
—Film Comment, January-February 2010, p. 31 [1/15/10]
For those of you who might be wondering what has become lately of film critic Donald Phelps — the most gifted and exacting of Manny Farber’s disciples, especially when it comes to low-key acting and pictorial nuance — you should proceed at once to the web site of Comics Journal, where he’s been flourishing in his recent commentaries on movies, prose fiction (ranging from the science fiction of Henry Kuttner and Theodore Sturgeon to the mysteries of Fredric Brown to Calder Willingham’s first novel), and comic strips. I’m especially impressed by parts one and two of his majestic “Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne,” posted earlier this month — a detailed and rather astonishing appreciation of one of the most overlooked of Hollywood and TV actors, whose special qualities seemed to flourish in such relatively unsung and/or out-of-reach works as Joseph Losey’s remake of M (1951), a couple of black and white sketch films at Fox in 1952 (O. Henry’s Full House and We’re Not Married, where he costars respectively with Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe), Henry King’s Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), which inspires some of Phelps’ best prose, and Down Among the Sheltering Palms (“an amiable bargain-counter South Pacific,” 1953).… Read more »
What a pity that one of Eric Rohmer’s best features should have fallen between the cracks and never received a U.S. release. But what a piece of luck that the Museum of Contemporary Art should launch its series “Living Spaces: Films on Architecture” with a swell pair of French features: Jean-Luc Godard’s multilingual Contempt (see separate listing), which features a famous villa designed by writer Curzio Malaparte, and Rohmer’s conservative comedy of manners (1993), receiving its Chicago premiere. A provincial mayor (Pascal Greggory) gets a government grant to build a media center, and the film’s gentle mockery of the socialist politician, some of it articulated by his own mistress (Arielle Dombasle), shows how Rohmer must have influenced Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). Yet Rohmer exceeds even Stillman’s audacity by turning this wry fable into a musical in its closing minutes; nothing he does here is predictable, yet in retrospect it all seems logical and balanced. With Fabrice Luchini; a 35-millimeter print in stereo will be shown. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, Sunday, January 16, 4:00, 312-397-4010… Read more »
Commissioned (but never published) by the Guardian, circa 2005. A much-expanded version of this wound up as the final chapter in my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.
When Will — and How Can — We Finish Orson Welles’s Don Quixote?
When Orson Welles died in 1985, he left many of his films unfinished. Each one was unfinished in a different way and for somewhat different reasons. To the despair of anyone who has ever tried to market his work, no two Welles films are ever alike, even the theoretical ones.
But his Don Quixote, which he owned himself, is distinct from the others, for a number of reasons —- apart from the fact that something calling itself the Don Quixote of Orson Welles was put together in 1992 by Spanish hack director Jesus Franco, who did more to mutilate and distort Welles’ material than anyone had ever done to The Magnificent Ambersons or Mr. Arkadin.
It remained an active project for almost the last three decades of Welles’ life. Starting around the early 70s, Welles jokingly planned to call it When Will You Finish Don Quixote? And the question we used to ask Welles we now have to ask ourselves — namely, how can we find closure?… Read more »
SIN: SELECTED POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Sholeh Wolpé, Forward by Alicia Ostriker, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2007, 134 pp.
I came upon this book quite by chance yesterday, while browsing through a bookstore. Although I have three earlier collections of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry in English (BRIDE OF ACACIAS, translated by Jascha Kessler with Amin Banani, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1982; A REBIRTH, translated by David Martin, Costa Mesa, CA: Mesa Publishers, 1997; and REMEMBERING THE FLIGHT: TWENTY POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Port Coquitlam, B.C., Canada: Nik Publishers, 1997), and one book in English about her poetry (A LONELY WOMAN: FORUGH FARROKHZAD AND HER POETRY by Michael C. Hillmann, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press and Mage Publishers, 1997), all these books have been and remain extremely difficult to come by, and apart from the Hillman (jn an earlier edition), none of these is even mentioned in the “Recommended Reading” at the end of this new volume.
It’s a sad fact that while apparently you can go into any good-sized bookstore in Iran and expect to find translations of the major works of William Faulkner (or so I’ve been told by Iranian friends), finding any translated book by the most important Iranian woman poet of the 20th century (1935-1967) in even a large American bookstore has been virtually impossible up until now.… Read more »
Paul Fejos’s exquisite, poetic 1928 masterpiece about love and estrangement in the big city deserves to be ranked with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd from the same period, though it’s not nearly as well-known. Equally neglected is Fejos himself, a peripatetic Hungarian who made striking films in Hungary, Hollywood, Austria, and France in the late silent and early sound era before becoming an anthropologist — and making a few ethnographic films that are even harder to find. Lonesome, which has some dialogue, begins with a dazzling evocation, using superimpositions and diptychs, of the hero and heroine, who haven’t yet met, as they wake and pursue their morning work routines. They meet at Coney Island that afternoon, lose track of each other in a crowd, then are reunited back in the city in a surprising diptychlike scene. Fejos was already interested in ethnographic archetypes when he made this picture, which makes city life seem like a labyrinth in a fairy tale — as intricate and inscrutable, but also as enchanted. 69 min. The opening event of the weekend symposium “Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”; a 35-millimeter print will be screened. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St.,… Read more »