Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Invisible Orson Welles: A First Inventory (Part 2)

From Sight and Sound, Summer 1986 and my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. For the first half of this article, and a detailed account of how it came to be written, please go here.

In my synopsis of The Big Brass Ring, I erroneously identify Kim Meneker’s former lover as “a basket-case casualty from Vietnam” rather than from the Spanish Civil War. –- J.R.

TheDeep

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The Deep LH

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THE DEEP.
Not to be confused with Peter Yates’s 1977 feature of the same title, this adaptation of Charles Williams’s thriller Dead Calm, scripted by Welles, was shot in color off the Dalmatian coast at Hvar, Yugoslavia, between 1967 and 1969, with Welles, Laurence Harvey, Jeanne Moreau, Oja Kodar and Michael Bryant. Most of this film was shot and edited, but gaps remain due to the death of Laurence Harvey in 1973 and the still undubbed part of Jeanne Moreau. Welles, Kodar and others have regarded this as the least of his features, so one imagines that it has a low priority on the list of works to be completed and/or released — although, as Kodar points out, priorities may change on any project if investment is forthcoming.

At the Rotterdam film festival last January, Kodar, Dominique Antoine and I compiled a 90-minute videotape of Wellesiana to be shown there, and among the clips we included was a two-minute trailer for The Deep — an early action sequence including brief glimpses of all five of the characters on two yachts and an effective use of percussive jazz (bass and drums) on the soundtrack.… Read more »

The Invisible Orson Welles: A First Inventory (Part 1)

From Sight and Sound, Summer 1986 and my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (the source of the following notes in italics as well).

I was living in Santa Barbara when Welles died on October 10, 1985, teaching
what I believe was the first of the three Welles courses I taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lecturing on The Magnificent Ambersons  that same day. On November 2, I attended a lengthy Welles tribute held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles, and recall sitting with a few other Welles fans, including Todd McCarthy and Joseph McBride, at a restaurant for many hours afterwards, holding what amounted to a kind of personal wake.

This wasn’t long after I’d managed to read and acquire xeroxed copies of two late, unrealized Welles screenplays, The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle Will Rock, and one of the idées fixes I had after his death was that both of them should be published, along with the Heart of Darkness script (another fixation that had persisted since the early 70s); if memory serves, I even wrote a letter soon after Welles’ death to Paola Mori, Welles’ widow, expressing this wish, but never got a response.Read more »

Madadayo

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1998). — J.R.

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The Japanese title literally means “not yet,” a child’s response to the query “Are you ready?” in a game of hide-and-seek, and Akira Kurosawa’s 1993 film is his own way of saying the same thing. Written and directed by Kurosawa at age 83, this very personal film, set between 1943 and about 20 years later, concerns a retired professor (Tatsuo Matsumura), his circle of adoring former students (all male), his cat, and his wife. It?s full of moving moments, but unlike the exquisite Rhapsody in August (1991) it can’t be regarded as major Kurosawa. Basically a series of sketches drawn from the writings of Hyakken Uchida, the film periodically calls to mind John Ford’s The Long Gray Line as an extended valediction (one long birthday gathering seems to go on forever). Madadayo has the expressionistic simplicity of Kurosawa?s other late films, their distillation and intensity of emotion; one of the lengthiest episodes, about the loss of the hero’s cat, is especially powerful. There’s something undeniably hermetic and at times sluggish about the film’s style, but the sheer freedom of the discourse—the way Kurosawa inserts brief flashbacks into the narrative whenever he feels like it or ends the movie with a dream—is comparable in some ways to late Buñuel, and the film shares his poignant sense of wonder.… Read more »

Inside Pitches

This appeared in the March 20, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

 

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Michael Paxton

Narrated by Sharon Gless.

Primary Colors

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Elaine May

With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Larry Hagman, and Maura Tierney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Two highly partisan political movies are opening this week, a right-wing independent documentary and a left-wing Hollywood feature — though it’s not clear that the filmmakers of either would categorize their work in this way. Certainly it wouldn’t be any exaggeration to call both films the efforts of special interest groups — a movie about Bill Clinton put together by people who mainly qualify as his supporters and friends and a sincere hagiography of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand fashioned by many of her disciples and acolytes. How far they actually carry their respective loyalties is a different matter, however. Ultimately both movies flounder as well as triumph because of their insider points of view, though not always for the same reasons.

Whenever Ayn Rand’s name comes up, I have an impulse to scoff, an impulse I think is shared by many others.… Read more »

Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warrior

From Written By: The Journal of the Writers Guild of America, West (March 1998, Vol. 2, issue 3).

The first photograph here was taken during the summer of 1987, when I was the director of the Film Studies summer school program at the University of California, Santa Barbara and invited Sam Fuller to serve as our Artist in Residence. –- J.R.

JR with SF samfullerhappy

Many film lovers of my generation were introduced to him in an early party sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s already unruly Pierrot le Fou (1965), playing himself and smoking his signature cigar-a short, wiry firecracker ready to hold forth. Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo what cinema was, he said it was like a battleground: “Love. . .hate. . . action. . .violence. . .death. In a word, emotion.”

By the time the writer-director-legend Samuel Fuller died in Hollywood last October at age 86, his reputation as the last two of these hyphenates was fully in place. Celebrated for his gritty noirs, unglamorous war films, and eccentric westerns, he also turned up in bit parts in everything from The American Friend to 1941. Yet the fact that he’s still better known as a director and as a juicy screen presence than as a writer seriously distorts the meaning of his life and career.Read more »

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: A Dialogue Between the Authors (Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum)

 This appeared originally in Senses of Cinema, issue 17, November 2001. The book it appears in has subsequently reappeared in an expanded second edition.  — J.R.

The following is an extract from Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (University of Illinois Press, 2003) – one of the initial books in a series edited by James Naremore that is devoted to neglected contemporary filmmakers. Abbas Kiarostami contains separate essays by Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa followed first by this dialogue, then by an extended interview with Kiarostami conducted by both authors.

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September 3, 2001, Chicago

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: You were the one who originally had the idea of proposing that we do this book together. And maybe we should both consider why we thought it was a good idea.

MEHRNAZ SAEED-VAFA: Basically, as far as I remember, we had a lot of interesting dialogues about Iranian cinema and Kiarostami, and I thought it would be a great idea to put our effort into a book. We started our dialogue in 1992, at a time when Kiarostami was still was getting discovered in France, but unknown in the United States. And I respected you highly as a critic and I knew that you were respected among other readers outside the United States as well as inside.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: A lovely text by Jonas Mekas

R.I.P. Jonas Mekas, Patron-Saint of Cinema, 1922-2019. — J.R.

(from http://www.incite-online.net/jonasmekas.html)

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Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto
By Jonas Mekas

 

As you well know it was God who created this Earth and everything on it.  And he thought it was all great.  All painters and poets and musicians sang and celebrated the creation and that was all OK.  But not for real.  Something was missing.  So about 100 years ago God decided to create the motion picture camera.  And he did so.  And then he created a filmmaker and said, “Now here is an instrument called the motion picture camera.  Go and film and celebrate the beauty of the creation and the dreams of human spirit, and have fun with it.”

But the devil did not like that.  So he placed a money bag in front of the camera and said to the filmmakers, ‘Why do you want to celebrate the beauty of the world and the spirit of it if you can make money with this instrument?”  And, believe it or not, all the filmmakers ran after the money bag.  The Lord realized he had made a mistake.  So, some 25 years later, to correct his mistake, God created independent avant-garde filmmakers and said, “Here is the camera. … Read more »

Casualties of the Mass Market [THE VOICE OF THE MOON & CASINO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1995). — J.R.

The Voice of the Moon

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Federico Fellini

Written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ermanno Cavazzoni

With Roberto Benigni, Paolo Villaggio, Nadia Ottaviani, Marisa Tomasi, and Angelo Orlando.

Casino

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese

With Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, and L.Q. Jones.

If I had the choice of seeing either Martin Scorsese’s latest (Casino) or Federico Fellini’s last (The Voice of the Moon) a second time, I’d opt for the Fellini. Both films are relatively minor works by relatively major filmmakers, though Scorsese has described The Voice of the Moon as one of Fellini’s “better pictures.” But Fellini’s swan song has a sweetness and sadness because it represents a kind of local — that is to say national — filmmaking that seems to be quickly vanishing from the mainstream. It isn’t hard to understand why no U.S. distributor has picked up this 1990 movie: it’s too Italian, and it isn’t at all easy to follow as storytelling, because it digresses all over the place. Yet these qualities, which are part of the film’s charm and poetry, might have worked in its favor outside Italy 30 years ago, when audiences tended to be more curious about other cultures and other forms of storytelling.… Read more »

All The Vermeers In New York

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). This masterpiece about  money, love,and art looks even better today, over three decades after it was made.  Catch it now on MUBI before it leaves! — J.R.

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Jon Jost’s ravishing independent feature about art, money, and loneliness in Manhattan — beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Jost himself and with a wonderful, Gil Evans-ish big-band jazz score by Jon A. English — can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Jost’s earlier Rembrandt Laughing (1988), which dealt with several friends and acquaintances over several months in San Francisco. The main characters here are three young women who share a spacious apartment — Emmanuelle Chaulet (from Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends), Katherine Bean, and Grace Phillips — and a Wall Street broker (Stephen Lack) who loves the Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum. As in Jost’s other features, the narrative is elliptically constructed — the film seems more concerned with evoking a place, time, and milieu than with a dramatically shaped story — but there’s still a lot of lyrical passion and drama in the sounds, images, and characters themselves (1990). (JR)

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Nadja

From the August 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Dracula’s daughterand more specifically, Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) comes to Manhattan’s East Village in a quirky, lyrical independent feature by writer-director Michael Almereyda. It’s shot in luscious, shimmering black and white, with prismatic, pointillist interludes shot with a toy Pixelvision camera (also used by Almereyda in Another Girl, Another Planet, his previous feature), transferred to 35-millimeter without letterboxed framing. Produced by David Lynch, who turns up in a cameo, this offbeat horror item works much better as a dreamy mood piece with striking poetic images and as a semicomic appreciation of a few quintessential low-budget actors than as straight-ahead storytelling. In some ways it’s a throwback to the pathos of Twister, Almereyda’s first feature — a black comic treatment of various dysfunctional family members yearning for normality. With Elina Lowensohn, Martin Donovan, Peter Fonda, Galaxy Craze, Suzy Amis, Karl Geary, and Jared Harris. (JR)

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Orson Welles’s OTHELLO

My 1995 liner notes for the Voyager/Criterion laserdisc of Orson Welles’ Othello in its original, untampered-with form, which is unfortunately now unavailable commercially on DVD or VHS. The reason for this is stated accurately in a post at IMDB: “As Welles’ daughter [Beatrice] owns the rights to Othello, that’s the 1992 `restored’ version which she also helped on, it is the only one currently available for purchase in the U.S. (as she receives no money for the 1995 CR laserdisc, she forced Criterion to stop making it.)” A less polite way of putting it would be to say that she’s effectively made her father’s version of the film (as well as, more indirectly, his final feature, Filming Othello), illegal, so that she can make more money on her own version. (Postscript, 12 hours later: Sean Gandert has alerted me to an item posted on Wellesnet last August which suggests that Beatrice Welles has in fact sold the rights of the film to the Dax Foundation.) — J.R.

There are two ways of viewing the film career of Orson Welles which have tended, by and large, to be mutually exclusive. One can regard it as a fascinating but largely frustrating attempt to make mainstream Hollywood movies — an effort that yielded one indisputable triumph  (Citizen Kane) and five other brilliant if uneven studio releases (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and  Touch of Evil) hampered by dealings with studio management.… Read more »

Character Flaws [MAJOR PAYNE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 1995). I must confess that I’m immensely grateful that I no longer remember anything more than a stray detail or two about the dozen movies cited in the first paragraph, including the film under review. — J.R.

Major Payne *

Directed by Nick Castle

Written by Dean Lorey, Damon Wayans, and Gary Rosen

With Wayans, Karyn Parsons, Steven Martini, Andrew Harrison Leeds, Joda Blaire-Hershman, Stephen Coleman, and Orlando Brown.

It’s hard to remember when the mainstream releases have been as dismal as the offerings of the past few weeks. Admittedly, I haven’t seen everything, so it’s possible I missed the odd trick or two. But the rewards of The Quick and the Dead, Federal Hill, The Walking Dead, Losing Isaiah, Outbreak, Shallow Grave, Tall Tale, Circle of Friends, Bye Bye, Love, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Muriel’s Wedding, and Major Payne have been so paltry that I’ve been reluctant to search out further punishment. If there’s an element that unites this disparate dozen, it’s an absence of characters — an absence stemming from a lack of consistent vision of what characters are supposed to be.… Read more »

Black-And-White World [BLACK GIRL]

From the Chicago Reader, April 21, 1995. It’s lamentable that, although Black Girl is now available on DVD from New Yorker, the color sequence in it appears in black and white. (In fact, I only saw this sequence in color for the first time when I showed this film in a course on world cinema of the 60s that I taught in Chicago in 2008.) To see this sequence in color, order the film’s BFI edition from Amazon UK. — J.R.

Black Girl

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène

With Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Momar Nar Sene, Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine, Ibrahima Boy, and the voices of Toto Bissainthe, Robert Marcy, and Sophie Leclerc.

If you trace African film back to its first fiction feature, it is only 30 years old. Yet far from being underdeveloped, it begins on a more sophisticated level than any other cinema in the world. By some accounts Ousmane Sembène’s hour-long Black Girl was made in 1965, by others 1966, a characteristic ambiguity when it comes to African movies. Do you date them according to when they were made or when they were first shown? And given the scant and largely unreliable print sources that we have to check, how can we be sure about either date?… Read more »

Sex and the Single Codger (THE LAST GOOD TIME)

This appeared in the May 5, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Last Good Time

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Bob Balaban

Written by Balaban and John McLaughlin

With Armin Mueller-Stahl,Olivia d’Abo, Lionel Stander,Maureen Stapleton, Kevin Corrigan, Adrian Pasdar, and Zohra Lampert.

Bob Balaban, a native Chicagoan who’s best known as a prolific movie and stage actor, has directed only three features to date. I haven’t seen his second feature, My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which some people tell me I’m better off having missed, but Parents, his first, was one of the most auspicious debuts of 1989.

Despite the radical differences between Parents and The Last Good Time in terms of genre, subject, style, and tone, they’re clearly the work of the same filmmaker. Part of this has to do with a precise feeling for place and a profound grasp of what sitting alone in a room feels like, even when other people are present. The solitary character in Parents is a ten-year-old boy who’s living with his parents in tacky 50s American suburbia. The monstrous (if typical) ranch-style house where they live is seen basically just as the boy experiences it — an expressionist, wide-angle nightmare etched in “cherry pink and apple blossom white” (to quote the song heard over the opening credits) that matches his parents’ taste and hypocrisy.… Read more »

Work and Play in the House of Fiction

From the Autumn 1974 Sight and Sound. I’m reposting this here both to celebrate the New York revival of Celine and Julie Go Boating, which starts tomorrow, and to illustrate Armond White’s allusion to my “[sucking] up to French snobbery,” apparently by ascribing to this comedy “the charm and esprit usually associated with cinematic pleasure,” as he so patriotically and unsnobbishly puts it. — J.R.


In the spring of 1970, Jacques Rivette shot about thirty hours of improvisation with over three dozen actors. Out of this massive and extremely open-ended material have emerged two films, both of which contrive to subvert the traditional movie going experience at its roots. Out 1, lasting twelve hours and forty minutes, has been screened publicly only once (at Le Havre, 9-10 September 1971) and remains for all practical purposes an invisible, legendary work. (Its subtitle, significantly, is Noli Me Tangere.) Spectre, which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the first film — running 255 minutes, or roughly a third as long — was released in Paris earlier this year. And during the interval between the editing of Spectre and its release, Rivette shot and edited a third film, Céline et Julie vont en Bateau, 195 minutes in length, which surfaced in Cannes last May.Read more »