Yearly Archives: 2021

REAL LIFE (1979)

Written for The 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.

The brassy and obnoxious show-biz type that
Albert Brooks plays in his first and funniest feature
(1979) –- so close to Brooks’s own public persona that
he’s called Albert Brooks –- professes to be impervious
to all the self-consciousness that engulfs him.
Even when he’s shooting an extended documentary
about the life of a “typical” family in Phoenix,
Arizona in the style of the infamous 1973 cinéma-
vérité TV series An American Family, he claims
that anything the family does in front of the camera is
“right,” without ever admitting that the acute self-consciousness
created by his film and camera crew
ultimately has more to do with movies than with real
life. Charles Grodin brilliantly plays the animal
doctor at the head of this family, and Brooks is so
skillful at juggling all the mannerisms of pseudo-documentary
and all the specious claims of pop psychology
that his periodic and compulsive regressions to
old-time show business -– whether it’s the big-time
pop vocal in the opening sequence or the conflagration
inspired by Gone with the Wind at the
end –- manage to be both welcome and ludicrous.… Read more »

The Limits of Memory [THE BLONDS & ROSENSTRASSE]

From the Chicago Reader (August 27, 2004). — J.R.

The Blonds

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Albertina Carri

With Analia Couceyro.

Rosenstrasse

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta

Written by Pamela Katz and von Trotta

With Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Martin Feifel, Jurgen Vogel, Jutta Lampe, Doris Schade, and Fedja van Huet.

It was a severe disappointment, Beyle [Stendhal] writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d’Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. — W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

I don’t know if some memories are real or if they’re my sisters’. –Albertina Carri in The Blonds

When I was in junior high school in the 50s I associated Stanley Kramer’s name — first as a producer, then as a producer-director — with offbeat, somewhat worthy highbrow ventures such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Death of a Salesman, High Noon, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS: A Preview

This originally appeared in the twelfth issue of Camera Obscura (Summer 1984). I’m delighted that a DVD of Sally Potter’s overlooked, neglected, and scandalously undervalued masterpiece is finally available, from the British Film Institute. I wrote a short essay for the accompanying booklet. –J.R.

The Gold Diggers: A Preview

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sally Potter’s much heralded British Film Institute production has been encountering a lot of resistance since it premiered at the London Film Festival late last year. When I saw it at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early February, its presence even there was regrettably nominal: screened only once, and in the Market rather than as a festival selection, it was received rather coolly, and many of the critics present left well before the end. Finding the film visually stunning, witty, and pleasurably inventive throughout, I can only speculate about the reasons for the extreme antipathy of my colleagues.

Historically, The Gold Diggers demands to be regarded as something of a proud anomaly. While it contains many familiar echoes of avant-garde performance art (including music, dance, and theater), its only recognizable antecedent in the English avant-garde film tradition appears to be Potter’s own previous Thriller. (An English language film which is international in conception as well as execution, it is marginal in the best and most potent sense of that term.)… Read more »

The truth about “It’s All True” [Chicago Reader blog post, 3/23/07]

Posted By on 03.23.07 at 08:07 PM

 ItsAllTrue-carnival

I’d like to beat the drum a little for a terrific new book just published by University of California Press, Catherine Benamou’s It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, which is far and away the definitive book on It’s All True, Welles’s doomed documentary project about Latin America in the 1940s. Maybe the fact that the same publisher is bringing out a book of mine about Welles in a couple of months gives me a special interest in the subject; I should also note that Benamou, who’s been working on her book for well over two decades, is an old friend. (She also arranged recently for the purchase of two major Welles collections by the University of Michigan, which are going by the name “Everybody’s Orson Welles.” I was privileged to be the first visitor to this mountain of material in Ann Arbor last summer, which is where I collected the stills used on my own book jacket.)

Some readers may be put off a bit by Catherine’s academic language, but the fact remains that so much fresh and even startling information is available here—information that corrects countless myths—that if you care about Welles at all, you can’t afford to ignore this book.

Read more »

Conspicuously Absent or Apt to be Overlooked

My “Global Discoveries on DVD” column for the Winter 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

For now the truly shocking thing was the world itself. It was a new world. and he’d just discovered it, just noticed it for the first time.

— Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book

I: Some Conspicuous Absences

As a rule, this column has been preoccupied with what’s available in digital formats, but I’d like to start off this particular quarterly installment with a list of some of the things that aren’t available, at least not yet. This alphabetical checklist is by no means even remotely exhaustive and is entirely personal, based on a few of my recent experiences:

statues

aimer-boire-et-chanter

Alain Resnais (two titles): The two most glaring lacunae here are Resnais’ first major film and the last of his features, neither of which can be found yet with English subtitles. Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), written by Chris Marker, a remarkable half-hour essay film about African sculpture, also qualifies as his own first major film work –- its beautiful and corrosive text is the first one Marker chose to print in his (still untranslated) two-volume 1967 collection Commentaires. It appears that the film’s unavailability on DVD or Blu-Ray in subtitled form can be attributed to two forms of censorship -– French political censorship when the film first appeared (which lasted for several decades), and North American capitalist censorship (which is apparently still in force).… Read more »

King of the Hill

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.

The most impressive thing about Steven Soderbergh’s third feature (after sex, lies, and videotape and Kakfa) — an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s childhood memoirs, rich in period flavor — is that it’s set in Saint Louis in 1933, roughly three decades before Soderbergh was born, yet it offers a pungent and wholly believable portrait of what living through the Depression was like. Soderbergh gets an uncommonly good lead performance out of Jesse Bradford as the resourceful 12-year-old hero, living in a seedy hotel and steadily losing the members of his family: his kid brother (Cameron Boyd) gets shipped off to an uncle, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) to a sanitarium, and then his German father (Jeroen Krabbe) goes off to try to make money as a door-to-door watch salesman. We also learn a fair amount about the hero’s neighbors (Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody) and schoolmates, and Soderbergh does a fine job of keeping us interested and engaged without stooping to sentimentality. This is a lovely piece of work. Fine Arts.

king_of_the_hill

kingofthehillRead more »

City Without Tears [Tsai Ming-liang’s THE RIVER]

This appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the April 14, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE RIVER **** Directed by Tsai Ming-liang Written by Tsai, Yang Bi- ying, and Tsai Yi-chun With Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen Shiang-chyi,Chen Chao-jung, and Ann Hui.

1. I wouldn’t know how to plunge headlong into a single approach towards a film as strange and as shocking as The River — Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, playing this week at Facets Multimedia — so a series of alternative perspectives seems desirable. The problem is, even starting off by labeling this movie a masterpiece reminds me how such an assertion in some cases amounts to a gamble more than a certainty, however much one may prefer to pretend otherwise.

What’s my alibi for this lack of confidence? First of all, a sense that when one encounters something as downright peculiar as The River, the first impulse is not to assert anything at all but to ask, “What the hell is this?” And to pretend to answer such a question, one ultimately has to fall back on one’s experience before even attempting an analysis.

In my case, I’ve experienced The River twice, both times in less than ideal circumstances: with German subtitles at the Vienna Film Festival two and a half years ago, and, just before writing this, a copy of an English commercial video, with English subtitles, that a friend was kind enough to make for me when I discovered that there wasn’t any other way I could see this film again before reviewing it.… Read more »

Godard: Anarchy or Order? (Letter to THE NEW YORK TIMES, 1968)

From the Sunday, March 24, 1968 New York Times (“Movie Mailbag”). Coincidentally, I had just taken a bus in Manhattan with a friend the previous night to see Godard’s La Chinoise at an avant-premiere screening in Philadelphia, and before boarding the bus back, I bought the Sunday Times and found my letter published there prominently. — J.R.

 Le-Petit-Soldat

Godard: Anarchy or Order?



TO THE EDITOR:

I SUPPOSE one should be grateful for The Times’s belated “recognition” of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly after a record of disapproval that has helped to keep much of his work unseen and misunderstood in this country for nearly a decade. But Eugene Archer’s slick comments are painfully inadequate for anyone who knows and cares about Godard’s films. and misleading for anyone who doesn’t. Adhering to a hallowed Times tradition, Archer is informative and interesting whenever he sticks to objective facts about Godard’s career; it is only when he turns to the films themselves that he shows his naivité.

Essential to his understanding of Godard are three questionable assumptions:

l) In order to be an artist, a filmmaker has to be a “dramatist,” not an “essayist.”

2) Godard’s films are composed of arbitrary and unstructured selections of material (“Godard…shoots anything that strikes his fancy and edits it into his film”).Read more »

The Farber Mystery

From Moving Image Source (www.movingimagesource.us), posted September 22, 2009. Also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

Following James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (2005), and American Movie Critics (2006), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber is the Library of America’s third and so far most ambitious effort to canonize American film criticism — a daunting task that’s been lined at every stage with booby traps, at least if one considers the degree to which film criticism might be regarded as one of the most ephemeral of literary genres. And this is certainly the volume that adds the most to what has previously been available; by rough estimate, it easily triples the amount of film criticism by Manny Farber that we have between book covers.

As Karl Marx once pointed out, quantity changes quality, but this doesn’t entail any lessening of Farber’s importance. I would even argue that both the nature and evolution of his taste and writing over 30-odd years, before he gave up criticism to concentrate on his painting, still make him the most remarkable figure American film criticism has ever had.

Bringing a painter’s eye to film criticism and couching even his most serious observations in a snappy, slangy prose, Farber was the first American in his profession to write perceptively about the personal styles of directors and actors without any consumerist agendas or academic demonstrations.… Read more »

Zona and Noriko Smiling: Two Literary Voyages into Film Analysis

A slightly edited version of this article entitled “Devotional Reading” appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of Film Comment. For whatever it’s worth, I find Geoff Dyer’s taped interview about Stalker on Criterion’s Blu-Ray  more perceptive than anything in this book. I  guess he’s had more time to think about it by now. — J.R.

There are at least two intriguing recent trends reflected in the publications of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Pantheon, 2012) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011) — book-length studies of masterpieces (Stalker and Late Spring, respectively) and film criticism by amateurs (both of them prestigious literary Brits). A couple of much older attitudes underlying both is a view of cinema as literature by another means and, conversely, a view of film analysis as a literary and linear pursuit.

It’s obvious that what links these two trends historically is the phenomenon of home viewing, which has made every viewer a potential “expert” for the first time. Prior to VCRs and DVD and Blu-Ray players, the only tools available for studying films at length were 16 mm projectors and moviolas, most often belonging only to “professionals” of one kind or another.… Read more »

Love in the Time of Terror [Sally Potter’s YES]

This appeared in the Chicago Reader‘s July 8, 2005 issue. — J.R.

Yes

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Sally Potter

With Simon Abkarian, Joan Allen, Shirley Henderson, Sam Neill, Wil Johnson, Gary Lewis, Raymond Waring, and Stephanie Leonidas

Yes. A film that irrefutably deserves its title. A film of affirmation. Which is not the same as a story with a happy ending…. If the places in this story become characters, what is the scene? The area of world politics today, nothing less, is the scene — and, above it, the sky to which everyone, at one moment or another, prays. — John Berger

Apparently sales of poetry go up in times of war. — Sally Potter

Many people feel a sense of helplessness about the ongoing war in the Middle East, feelings they’re often unable to articulate, much less address. Sally Potter’s Yes shows one way these feelings can be processed, and in doing so overturns some of the usual assumptions about what movies can and should do. It won’t please everyone, and the sensitive topics it touches on may make some viewers mad enough to spit.

Yes is a post-9/11 love story, set chiefly in London, about a passionate adulterous affair between an Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen), who’s unhappily married to an English politician, and a somewhat younger Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian), who’s unmarried and used to work as a surgeon in Beirut.… Read more »

Bushwhacked Cinema

The following was commissioned for and included in the 17th edition of the Time Out Film Guide, (2008), and is being reprinted with the publisher’s permission. Thanks also to John Pym, the book’s editor, who proposed that I write this piece so that it would come out before the Presidential election. –J.R.

BUSHWHACKED CINEMA

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

When the history of American movies during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (2001-2009) eventually comes to be written, one might hypothesize that the commercial development of the mobile phone during the 1980s and 1990s and the introduction of the iPod during the first year Bush took office were crucial in setting the stage for some of the basic conditions of that era. Arguably for the first time, one could easily sustain one’s ignorance about and indifference to one’s fellow citizens even while sharing the same public space with them–on the street or in other public locations dedicated to some form of transport: terminals, buses, subways, trains, planes, fairgrounds, theme parks, and, above all, cinemas.

So the phenomenon of a U.S. President who, to all appearances, preferred to remain blissfully (and strategically) ignorant about the news and the overall state of the world, and ran his office accordingly, was part and parcel of this growing trend to eliminate the public sphere from American life and subdivide the entire culture and society into `special interest’ groups and niche markets.Read more »

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »

Poet of Loneliness (WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?)

From the March 1, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

What Time Is It There?

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang

Written by Tsai and Yang Pi-ying

With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien, Cecilia Yip, and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

After hearing the adagio of a Schubert chamber work: there is nothing more beautiful than the happy moments of unhappy men. This might serve as a definition of art. — The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan

Toward the beginning of his essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald notes that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” That might well describe the agenda of a poetic and philosophical Taiwanese-French feature, Tsai Ming-liang’s glorious two-part invention What Time Is It There?, which premiered at Cannes last year and is opening at the Music Box this week (assuming the theater reopens after some trouble with health inspectors). It feels more contemporary, at least from a global perspective, than any other new movie in town, and central to it is an examination of separateness and togetherness, unity and disparity in two separate countries in two separate parts of the world.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION

THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION: UNCOLLECTED WRITINGS by James Baldwin, edited and with an introduction by Randall Kenan, New York: Pant6heon Books, 2010, 307 pp.

I’ve only barely started to familiarize myself with this collection, but it’s already become apparent that this is far cry from what’s commonly known as “scraping the bottom of the barrel”. Indeed, as with James Agee’s collected non-fiction, one is discovering that the Library of America’s efforts at canonizing cantankerous eloquence is, let us say, a bit under-researched, to say the least (unless the problems are simply those of taste). Baldwin’s review for the Village Voice of Seymour Krim’s first collection of essays, the first thing I read here, is plainly superior to some of the things that went into the Library of America’s selection (and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what I regard as the strongest essay Agee ever wrote, “America, Look at Your Shame!”, even if it was never published during Agee’s lifetime, is criminally omitted from both of LOA’s two Agee volumes).

I’ve encountered some other treasures in The Cross of Redemption, even at this preliminary stage, but let me zero in here on a single prophetic statement contained in  the first paragraph of a 1961 Baldwin lecture that Kenan quotes from in his Introduction:

Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too.Read more »