It’s been almost two decades since I first discovered the fiercely independent, passionately committed, and poetically inflected cinema of John Gianvito via his 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001). Later that year, I headed a jury at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film that gave it our jury prize, but it’s mainly had an uphill struggle ever since being seen and recognized, most likely due to both its subject matter and its running time. John points out that I may have previously seen his 1983 feature The Flower of Pain, but if I did, I no longer remember it; ditto his portion of a 1986 episodic feature that he originated, Address Unknown.
The Mad Songs remains my favorite film of his, yet even though it was available for a spell on DVD, it currently lacks a distributor. A powerful act of witness about some of the tragic stateside consequences of the first Gulf War, it was made over a seven-year period, including two years of shooting in New Mexico — despite the fact that Gianvito is a Bostonian, where he currently teaches film at Emerson College and was formerly a curator for five years at the Harvard Film Archive.
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). It’s worth noting that (1) this stinker made a fortune, which suggests that many people must have liked it, and (2) cinemas were required to book it for extended runs regardless of whether or not people showed up or iiked it, making it the only movie showing for a lengthy time in many small towns that summer and thus making its profitability a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. — J.R.
With an outsized budget estimated variously at $12,600,000 (Variety) and £10,000,000 (Daily Mirror), three box-office favourites and a script deliberately written, according to co-author Gloria Katz, as “the most commercial thing we could think up”, Lucky Lady is both conspicuously overproduced and undernourished.
The presence of Stanley Donen seems to count for little in a project that might more logically have been entrusted to a computer. All it has to express, quite simply, are its deliberations: to combine as many saleable features as can be packed on a screen within the space of two hours. A little of everything is thus tossed into the mixture; and a great deal of nothing emerges out of the isolation and autonomy of the assorted elements.… Read more »
Written for the Dutch magazine de Filmkrant, I believe in early 2004. –J.R.
With Elephant, it’s a pleasure to welcome Gus Van Sant back to the land of the living. His film certainly has its flaws, yet its virtues so outshine them that his past few years in the wilderness can now be forgiven and mainly forgotten.
Gerry at least showed that, after the borderline sellout of Good Will Hunting and the all but unconditional sellout of Finding Forrester, Van Sant was still willing to take sizable risks. It was also interesting to hear him say he was inspired in those risks by such worthy role models as Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, and Jacques Tati — even if the evidence of their influence wasn’t visible, apart from an overall interest in landscapes and duration.
By contrast, at least two of the major influences on Elephant are plainly visible: Bela Tarr’s Satantango (primary) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (secondary). From Satantango comes a complicated overlapping time structure that repeats the same events from a variety of viewpoints, each viewpoint being articulated in mainly extended takes that follow various characters as they walk through many adjacent settings.… Read more »
The Roof of the Whale aka On Top of the Whale
(Hek dak van de Valvis/Le Toit de la baleine, Netherlands/France, 1981)
The Roof of the Whale– the film of Ruiz’s with the most pronounced ideological/political/polemical thrust – deals brilliantly with the plight of an anthropologist trying to learn the language of an obscure Patagonian Indian tribe whose last surviving members he has discovered. Beautifully and inventively shot in colour by Henri Alekan, the film proceeds less as narrative or as drama than as a prodigious stream of visual, verbal and conceptual ideas centring around this theme. The performances are either minimal to the point of indifference or deliberately curtailed (so that, for instance, Willeke van Ammelrooy, who plays the anthropologist’s wife, appears to have learned her speeches in English phonetically) and, despite periodic bursts of portentous music, suspense exists only on a purely formal level.Two sample narrative ideas, neither of which lead anywhere in particular: in a weird parody of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the anthropologist’s child – a creature of indeterminate gender – becomes pregnant after gazing into a mirror; as an apparent gloss on this event, his or her mother remarks that poetry is dangerous because ‘metaphors become a religion, and religion is the opiate of the masses’.
One of the very best features of the neglected Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet, this 1935 feature is, like some of his other talkies, a glorious musical of sorts. Codirected by S. Mardanov, it’s about two buddies, a sailor and a mechanic, who, shipwrecked on an island in Soviet Azerbaijan, both try to woo the same young woman, who runs a fishing co-op. Though seemingly light, it’s as intensely physical as Barnet’s preceding masterpiece, Okraina, and its melancholic undertow makes it distinctly different from the early sound comedies of Raoul Walsh that it sometimes resembles. In Russian with subtitles. 71 min. (JR)
Chantal Akerman’s greatest film — made in 1975 and running 198 minutes — is one of those lucid puzzlers that may drive you up the wall but will keep you thinking for days or weeks. Delphine Seyrig, in one of her greatest performances, plays Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian woman obsessed with performing daily rounds of housework and other routines (including occasional prostitution) in the flat she occupies with her teenage son. The film follows three days in Dielman’s regulated life, and Akerman’s intense concentration on her daily activities — monumentalized by Babette Mangolte’s superb cinematography and mainly frontal camera setups — eventually sensitizes us to the small ways in which her system is breaking down. By placing so much emphasis on aspects of life and work that other films routinely omit, mystify, or skirt over, Akerman forges a major statement, not only in a feminist context but also in a way that tells us something about the lives we all live. In French with subtitles. (JR)
Like Mystery Train and Night on Earth, this feature by Jim Jarmusch is a collection of short stories, but it’s funnier and more formally adventurous than either; it’s also ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. Shot in black and white over 17 years, its 11 episodes feature actors and/or musicians, usually playing themselves and hanging out together in cafes while consuming caffeine and nicotine. One recurring theme is the ethics and protocol of being a celebrity (explored most impressively by Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and by Cate Blanchett in a virtuoso double role as herself and her own cousin); another is the everyday tension that can develop between friends and relatives. Among the two dozen stars are Isaach de Bankole, Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes. R, 96 min. Music Box.
This essay was comissioned by the French magazine Trafic — founded by the late Serge Daney shortly before his death, and still going strong today — where I’ve served for many years as one of the advisory editors. Their 50th issue, published in the summer of 2004, was devoted to various answers to the Bazinian question, “What is Cinema?” This is also the title essay in my 2010 collection, published by University of Chicago Press. — J.R.
Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
What is cinema?
Before one can even start to answer this question, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that one can’t formulate precisely the same definition of cinema for France and for other countries. And the reason why one can’t should be obvious: in France, an important part of this definition pertains to film as an art form—-a distinction that is generally perceived elsewhere only as a minority position, and sometimes even as an elitist one. But if, on the other hand, one were to ask the question, “What is cinephilia?”, it starts to become easier to come up with a definition that applies to everywhere. A seeming contradiction, it can perhaps be explained by saying that the “cinema” in “cinephilia” is not quite the same thing as “cinema” seen as a self-sufficient term, without reference to social forms.… Read more »
With Hu Jingfan, Wu Jun, Xin Baiqing, Ye Xiaokeng, and Lu Sisi.
It’s strange and very telling that the film most highly regarded in the Chinese-speaking world –especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan — is hardly known outside China. Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small City, as it’s usually called in English, is a film I doubt I ever would have seen if a Chinese friend hadn’t sent me a subtitled copy taken from a rare showing on SBS, Australia’s state-funded multicultural TV channel, several years ago.
Once I discovered that Fei Mu’s black-and-white film lives up to its reputation, I mentioned it casually to a local Chinese film buff, who told me it was readily available at the video store he frequents in Chinatown. Why then are English subtitled versions so scarce? After all, the film was a key inspiration for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), which has been savored by non-Asians across the globe. And Tian Zhuangzhuang’s color remake of Fei Mu’s classic, Springtime in a Small Town (2002), showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is no less accessible.… Read more »
Snakes and Ladders
(Le Jeu de l’Oie: La Cartographie, short, France, 1980)
In the delightful Snakes and Ladders, ‘a didactic fiction about cartography’ made for French television to promote a map exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – a Borgesian metaphysical fantasy whose hero progressively discovers that France is a life-size board game (devoted to Snakes and Ladders or ‘The Goose’s Game’) – one has to deal with tatty special effects of Edward D. Wood Jr calibre, along with the brilliant conceits and two separate off-screen narrators, male and female. At the outset, the troubled hero (Pascal Bonitzer) – who is found to be vomiting out dice on one occasion, and shaken as dice by an enormous hand on another – discovers that ‘he is the victim of the worst kind of nightmare, the didactic nightmare.’ Some form of didacticism seems evident in every Ruiz project but, as with Borges, it is a didacticism that often parodies itself and becomes camp, yielding precisely the kind of nightmare that ensues when, through a delirium of literalism, thought becomes flesh and the universe becomes a brain dreaming of thoughts yet unborn.
From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2001). — J.R.
The Vertical Ray of the Sun ***
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Tran Nu Yen-khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Le Khanh, Ngo Quang Hai, Tran Manh Cuong, and Chu Ngoc Hung.
Last spring I was in Austin, Texas, on a film-festival panel about film festivals with the editor of a film magazine who’s also the author of a book on film festivals. “I don’t like foreign films or academic films,” he told me, a declaration that stumped me at first because it raised two vexing questions: (1) Why link “foreign films” and “academic films” as if the two had something intrinsic in common? (2) Had he seen at least one film from every foreign country in the world that produced movies and made his judgment on that basis?
After pondering other things he said, I came up with what I believe were the correct answers to both questions. (1) Foreign films and academic films were linked for him because both obliged him to think. (2) Of course not; what he meant by “foreign” was simply “not American.” Put these premises together and it’s clear he was saying he didn’t like movies that made him think, which is what non-American movies did — apparently even Bavarian porn, Italian splatter fests, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.… Read more »
From the July-August 2005 issue (NLR 34) of New Left Review. I wasn’t entirely happy with the way this article was edited, which is why I haven’t tried to write for the magazine again. — J.R.
Serge Daney, La Maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 1: Le Temps des Cahiers, 1962-1981
P. O. L.: Paris 2001
Serge Daney, La Maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 2: Les années Libé, 1981-1985
P. O. L.: Paris 2002
We could postulate three periods for the extraordinary flourishing of film culture brought about by the French New Wave: Before, During and After. André Bazin, of course, epitomized the first, as a founding editor of the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, a crucial contributor to auteur theory, and champion of postwar American films and Italian neo-realism against a stale French ‘quality cinema’. The Young Turks whom Bazin nurtured at the Cahiers — Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and the somewhat younger Luc Moullet — mainly defined the second period: teenage iconoclasts who picked up the camera to become the stellar practitioners of the following decades.
Serge Daney (1944–92), who started out as a disciple of the New Wave crowd and described himself as a Bazinian early on, stands as the most original commentator of the third period, which he helped to usher in and continued to redefine up until his death from aids in 1992.
This is second and (to date) final time that I did Cannes film festival coverage for The Village Voice, which ran in their June 29, 1972 issue. –J.R.
Surprises at Cannes: Huston redeemed, Tashlin reincarnated
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
CANNES, France — After 15 days of feeding in darkness, and blinking at the sun only between screenings, the Cannes Festival inevitably turns the persistent moviegoer into a blood relative of Dracula. regrettably, this year’s festival was long on celluloid — 700 films’ worth, according to Variety — but short on the lifeblood necessary to keep an honest vampire going.
Of the 34 films that I stayed to the end for, only one seemed to have the earmarks of an old-fashioned classic. Curiously enough, this came from neither Hitchcock nor Fellini nor Skolimowski nor Altman, but from john Huston — a director who has remained in limbo for so long that, until Fat City, it was hard to remember he still existed. Fat City may not be a great film, but it has the uncommon virtue of achieving practically everything it sets out to do.
Working in the U.S. for the first time since The Misfits, Huston returned to a milieu of failed boxers in Stockton, California, that he knew intimately as a young man, shot his story (from Leonard Gardner’s novel) in continuity, and wound up with what may prove to be his definitive statement.… Read more »
The following was commissioned by and published in Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz, Éditions du festival international du film de Locarno, 1994. — J.R.
“According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director because he has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You or The Awful Truth. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one. In fifteen years’ time, people will realize that The Girl Can’t Help It served then — that is, today — as a fountain of youth from which the cinema now — that is, in the future — has drawn fresh inspiration ….To sum up, Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can’t Help It and Design For Living, but a difference in kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘‘It’s Tashlinesque’.“
Jean-Luc Godard’s review of Hollywood or Bust in the 73rd issue of Cahiers du cinéma (July 1957) is founded on a frank prophecy, only a small part of which has come true.… Read more »
by James Naremore. Cambridge University Press, 1993. 202 pp, illus., Hardcover: $65.00. Paperback: $27.99.
The critical position of James Naremore is Frankfurt school auteurism, a seeming contradiction. That is, he shares the Marxist orientation of many Frankfurt school intellectuals but not their disdain for the artifacts of mass culture. (To be sure, not all Frankfurt school members can be characterized in quite so monolithic a fashion; see, for instance, the prewar journalism of Siegfried Kracauer published this year in The Mass Ornament.) As a consequence, Naremore’s work shows an interest in style and pleasure that runs against the puritanical grain of most American Marxists, without ever losing sight of the social and political issues avoided by most American auteurists.
This is an idiosyncratic and progressive book in a series, the Cambridge Film Classics, that has mainly been conformist and conservative, especially in relationship to non-American filmmakers. Its volumes always focus on a few “representative” features rather than complete oeuvres, and Naremore’s study of Minnelli focuses on Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, but only after an Introduction and first chapter that take up a quarter of the book and lay a considerable amount of contextual groundwork.… Read more »