Monthly Archives: March 2021

The World as a Circus

I continue to find it astonishing that a film as important as Jacques Tati’s Parade continues to be ignored and unrecognized by most critics. This article about the film was published in the December 1, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

PARADE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jacques Tati

With Tati, Karl Kossmayer, the Williamses, the Veterans, the Argentinos, Pia Colombo, Johnny Lonn, Bertilo, Jan Swahn, Bertil Berglund, and Monica Sunnerberg.

1. Jacques Tati’s last feature, Parade (1973), is about as unpretentious as a film can get. One of the first films to have been shot mostly in video (on a shoestring budget for Swedish TV), it’s a music-hall and circus show featuring juggling, music, gags, pantomime, minor acrobatics, and various forms of audience participation. Though it might seem a natural for TV––and in fact has been shown on TV, as well as theatrically, in Europe––it has never been broadcast in this country. Most critics who have seen it, including many passionate Tati fans, regard it as minor and inconsequential. (A striking and valuable exception is Kristin Thompson, whose article on it appeared in the film journal the Velvet Light Trap three years ago.) When, in 1984, a severely mutilated version––missing at least 15 minutes, including the crucial and sublime epilogue––was released in England, London reviewers who scream bloody murder if slasher films are slightly trimmed couldn’t be bothered to raise even a minor protest. Read more

A Slightly Pregnant Man

From Oui (April 1975). –- J.R.

The Slightly Pregnant Man is the English title of Jacques Demy’s latest film, although a literal translation of the French would be more appropriate — The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon. The event is pregnancy, and what makes it so important is that its baby’s carrier is not Catherine Deneuve, who plays the mother, but Marcello Mastroianni, who plays Poppa.

The first question you or I might ask is how Mastroianni manages to get pregnant in the first place, which is something Demy declines to answer. Instead, he tries to coast along on a jaunty score by Michel Legrand (who composed the music for Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Without the basic question answered, The Slightly Pregnant Man doesn’t really work, but it is a weird kind of fun. We get to watch Mastroianni get sick in a movie theater, rush to the doctor and receive the wonderful-terrible news. He gets exhibited to a medical convention, marries Deneuve (in order to save the child embarrassment) and –as you can see — begins to model male pregnancy clothes for a maternity firm. The clothing manufacturers are overjoyed — they’ve just discovered a great new market for their products.

Mastroianni gives up his job as a driving instructor, since he’s forced to model full time. Read more

Sleepwalk

From the January 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Sara Driver’s first feature — a luminous, oddball comic fantasy about ancient Chinese curses and Xerox machines, set in Manhattan’s Chinatown and its immediate environs — may well be the most visually ravishing American independent film of its year (1986). Set in an irrational, poetic universe that bears a certain relationship to Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, this dreamy intrigue breaks a cardinal rule of fantasy by striking off in a number of directions: an executive barks in the street, a young Frenchwoman (Ann Magnuson) loses her hair, and machines in a copy shop start to purr and wheeze on their own initiative. The moods that are established are delicate, and not everyone will be able to go with them, but Driver, the producer of Stranger Than Paradise, sustains them with beauty and eccentric charm. Suzanne Fletcher, who also starred in Driver’s previous 50-minute You Are Not I, makes a compelling (if unconventional) heroine, and Lorenzo Mans’s screwball dialogue develops some engaging hallucinatory riffs. (JR)

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ZULU (and KHARTOUM) on Blu-Ray

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In a double whammy, Twilight Time has recently brought out splendid new Blu-Rays of two exceptional widescreen colonialist epics, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964, set in 1879) and Basil Dearden’s Khartoum (1966, set in 1883-1885). Both come equipped with extensive and informed audio commentaries by screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman, who are joined on Khartoum by film historian Julie Kirgo, a writer who also contributes essays on all of the Twilight Time releases, including these two.  The first of these movies now strikes me as one of the very greatest of all war films (a genre that I’m not generally partial to), even when it presents combat as potentially noble, succeeding equally in intimate details and in spectacular overviews, whereas the second is at most an intriguing star vehicle for Charlton Heston (as British officer Charles Gordon) and Laurence Olivier (as Sudanese Arab leader Muhammad Ahmad, who dubbed himself the Mahdi), both playing egomaniacal religious fanatics whose two scenes together are the best in the film (although Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone also gets in a  few choice bits). The audio commentary in this case is notable for how critical and even disdainful it often is — something that I suspect Criterion would never tolerate on any of its own releases. Read more

Le paltoquet

From the June 10, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

One singular virtue of the French cinema compared to our own is the possibility of low-budget, offbeat projects that well-known actors are willing to participate in. Michel Deville’s very theatrical adaptation and direction of a whodunit novel by Franz-Rudolf Falk isn’t especially compelling as story telling, but it allows one to see eight of the best movie actors in France — Fanny Ardant, Daniel Auteuil, Richard Bohringer, Philippe Leotard, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Claude Pieplu, and Jean Yanne — acquitting themselves honorably; Ardant and Piccoli are particularly delightful. Better yet, it permits the neglected and prolific Deville to forge an interesting stylistic exercise in mise en scene, restricting most of the action to a cavernous bar resembling a warehouse. The dialogue bristles with breezy wordplay that is not easily translated (the title means “the nonentity,” and refers to Piccoli’s ambiguous role as bartender), but Deville’s ingenious use of ‘Scope framing in charting out the space keeps things lively, fluid, and unpredictable (1986). (Facets Multimedia Center’, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11, 9:00; Sunday, June 12, 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, June 13 through 16, 9:00; 281-4114)

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Absolute Beginners

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1987). Twilight Time brought out a lovely Blu-Ray edition of this, and it looks even better to me now than it did in 1987. — J.R.

absolute-beginners

A fascinating attempt by rock video director Julien Temple to do several things at once — adapt a Colin MacInnes novel, show the London youth scene in 1958 (while dealing at length with the racial tensions of the period), build on some of the stylistic innovations of Frank Tashlin, Vincente Minnelli, and Orson Welles, and put to best use a fascinating score by Gil Evans that adapts everything from Charles Mingus to Miles Davis. A mixed success, but an exhilarating try (1986). With David Bowie, Keith Richards, and James Fox. 107 min. (JR)

absolute-beginners-1 Read more

Fassbinder’s Latest Weenie

From The Soho News (September 10, 1980). I’ve slightly altered the printed title (from “Fassbinder’s Weenie”) to remove the crude sexual double entendre which tended to be that weekly newspaper’s specialty. — J.R.

thethirdgenerationThe Third Generation

Written, photographed and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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By and large, there appear to be three basic kinds of professional film buffs in Manhattan: asocial, Dracula-like countenances mainly interested in films; plastic, starfucking groupies mainly interested in filmmakers; and a few paranoid dinosaurs mainly interested in power. (Wishing to remain alive, I leave it to the discerning reader to determine who is which.) And according to Rainer Werner Fassbinder — a particular favorite of the second group — there are three generations of terrorists in Germany.

“In whatever way every citizen was capable of developing some kind of understanding for the actions and motives of the first and second generation of terrorists — or maybe not — to understand the motives of the third generation is more than difficult,” Fassbinder is quoted as saying, in the more than difficult pidgin English assigned to him in the pressbook. “To act in danger but without perspective,” he adds a little later, “the ecstasy of adventure experienced in the absence of ulterior motive;  this is what motivates The Third Generation.” Read more

Personal Views: Explorations in Film

From Film Quarterly (Summer 1980). –- J.R.

PERS0NAL VIEWS: EXPL0RATI0NS IN FILM

By Robin Wood. London: Gordon Fraser. 1976.

It’s a pity that Robin Wood’s first collection of essays, published in England four years ago, has had to wait this long to find a US distributor (ISBS, Inc., PO Box 55, Forest Grove, OR 97116). Very much of a transitional work between Wood’s justly celebrated auteurist monographs (on Hitchcock, Hawks, Bergman, Penn and Satyajit Ray) and his recent, more ideologically based film studies. Personal Views: Explorations in Film inevitably loses some of its intended impact by arriving here out of sequence. And for those like myself who feel that the essays in this volume do not represent Wood’s work at its strongest — weighted, as many of them are, more toward the adoption of certain positions than toward their subsequent implementations (and other consequences) — they are more often useful as “stepping stones,” in establishing the backgrounds of some of Wood’s current arguments, than they are as independent studies in their own right.

In broad terms. what this book chronicles in some detail is Wood’s discovery of –and engagement with – some of the theoretical issues in film theory that were being broached in Screen in the early seventies, including those which directly challenged many of the pre-suppositions of his own earlier work. Read more

Venetian Panels [“Cinema of the 1980s” conference at the 1979 Venice Film Festival]

From American Film (December 1979). I’ve trimmed this a bit.  — J.R.

“Production alternatives, linguistic and symbolic mutations, new models of the entertainment spectacle, new forms of film consumption, the relation between various media, the financial state of various film industries…”

In the words of an introductory brochure, these were some of the topics and problems to be explored at an international conference, “Cinema in the 80s,” set in the midst of the Venice Biennale. For the thirty-odd speakers, myself included, who had been flown all the way to the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido, there was plenty to think about while overcoming jet lag.

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The conference’s three days were devoted to language, industry, and audience, in that order. Simultaneous translation (of a sort) over earphones offered versions of each speech in Italian, French, English, German, and Spanish. Despite these noble efforts, the conference inevitably evoked a Tower of Babel at times. Bringing together academics, critics, and filmmakers from half a dozen countries, thre sessions helped to clarify how far most members of each profession are today from speaking a common tongue. Specialists and experts on their elected turfs, they often respond like fish out of water when confronted with film people of different sorts. Read more

On Transes

From “Festival Journal,” The Soho News, October 13, 1981. Transes recently became available on a French DVD released by the World Cinema Foundation. –- J.R.

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October 1: The best new movie I see all week is a particular favorite. I’ve been told, of Susan Sontag’s. I share much of her enthusiasm for the French/Moroccan coproduction Transes, directed by Ahmed El Maanouni, if only because this movie has some of the best sound-mixing and most infectious music I’ve heard in ages. Both of these are central aspects of its subject, the North African tour of an indigenous pop group called Nasa El Ghiwane, which comes from the Casablanca ghetto and sings about extreme poverty – a genuinely subversive male quintet whose popularity has spread like wildfire since the 60s. Originally banned from Moroccan radio and TV, they can automatically command an audience of 20,000 wherever they play in Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia.

The movie starts wonderfully by establishing direct continuities between the music and the Casablanca ghetto (the latter traversed from a car window) -– a sequence that was almost cut by the local government until the powerful Nasa El Ghiwane group intervened; and the transitions throughout between both physical and aural subjects are handled with a remarkable ear and eye. Read more

Glissements Progressifs du Plaisir & Don’t Touch the White Woman

I suspect that the easiest money I’ve ever made in my

entire life as a writer was the year I mainly supported

myself, 1974-75, during my fifth and final year of living

in Paris, by writing capsule film reviews for a monthly

magazine in English called Oui — a joint publishing

effort of Hugh Hefner in Chicago and Daniel Fillipachi

(the publisher of Lui and, for a long stretch in the 1960s,

Cahiers du Cinéma) in Paris. At a time when I was struggling

to make ends meet -– my inheritance money having run

out, and my other freelance jobs being few and far

between -– my life was virtually saved by Terry Curtis Fox,

a Chicago-based associate editor of Oui, who engaged

me to write reviews for the magazine on a regular basis.

If memory serves, this paid $50 a review (a fortune

at the time), and I could pretty much select which films

I wrote about as long as the two-page section of the magazine

called “Prevue” could meet its monthly “tits and ass”

quotient with its illustrations, which the magazine gathered

on its own. So I wound up writing about the latest films of

Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson, Carmelo Bene, Maurice

Pialat, Alain Resnais, and everything else I could find that

interested me, usually averaging two or three reviews per

issue, starting off with the latest films of Alain Robbe-

Grillet and Marco Ferreri in their May 1974 issue. Read more

Forbidden Fruit [The Best Movies of 1996]

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1997). — J.R.

Compiling a list of the best new (or “new”) movies that opened in Chicago in 1996, I’ve come up with 40 titles, half of which are foreign-language pictures. Many of my colleagues would regard choosing so many foreign movies as perversely esoteric, but it’s hard for me to fathom why. I willingly concede that this country has one of the strongest national cinemas in the world — probably the greatest, which is fully reflected in my including 19 American films in my list and only 5 from France; 3 from Taiwan; 2 apiece from England, Hong Kong, and Iran; and 1 each from mainland China, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam.

Of course I haven’t seen nearly as many non-American films as American, but I’ve made a stab at seeing those that have made it to Chicago. I have long been bewildered by how the majority of my colleagues almost never mention any cinema that isn’t English-language when they draw up their end-of-the-year lists. Is American cinema really that wonderful and non-American cinema really that awful? Of course not; the reason most reviewers don’t include foreign pictures on their lists is that they don’t see them. Read more

Death as a Foreigner

Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Death Takes a Holiday, based on a 1924 Italian play hy Alberto Cassella, doesn’t regard itself as a comedy. But its realization is founded on what I take to be an unconsciously comic premise: the notion that Death, as played by Fredric March–who comes to Earth as a human for three days to enjoy a holiday in a mansion full of wealthy guests–is a foreigner. Admittedly, Death is actually impersonating a deceased foreigner, Prince Sirki,, in order to consort with humans, but March already has a foreign accent even before he assumes this disguise.

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Why? Arguably this is because Death as a metaphysical reality is both exotic and romantic in the movie’s terms, which is apparently part of what makes the Prince so alluring to Grazia (Evelyn Venable). By the same token, whenever March seems to periodically lose his foreign accent and become as American or as pseudo-English as the other swells is when we’re asked to perceive him as a mortal.

In short, Death taking a holiday gives our mortality a reprieve and Death returning is something like a foreign invasion. [3/20/21] Read more

BRATS & HOG WILD (1975 reviews)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975. — J.R.

Brats
U.S.A., 1930
Director : James Parrott

Cert–U. dist–Kingston. p.c/p–Hal Roach. For MGM. story–Leo
McCarey. dial–H. M. Walker. ph–George Stevens. ed–Richard Currier.
l.p–Stan Laurel (Himself/His Son), Oliver Hardy (Himself/His Son).
732 ft. 20 mins. (16 mm.).

While Laurel and Hardy try to play checkers, they are repeatedly interrupted by the fights and antics of their two sons, miniature replicas of themselves; eventually they send them up to bed. After putting on their pyjamas, the kids continue to wreak havoc: as Hardy Jnr. looks under the bed for a mouse, it crawls on to his bottom, and Laurel Jnr. fires at it with a toy gun; Hardy Jnr. howls in pain, and Laurel Jnr. fills the bathtub to offer him relief, leaving both taps on. They spar with boxing gloves before their fathers appear once more, and Hardy is persuaded to sing them a lullaby; when one of the kids asks for a glass of water and Hardy opens the bathroom door, the room is flooded.

A clever use of double sets — each room scaled separately to match the respective sizes of fathers and sons — and a baby Hardy without a moustache aren’t really enough to make this more than a minor Laurel and Hardy effort, although there are a few compensations along the way, most notably Laurel’s adage that “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make a pencil lead”, and Hardy’s lullaby, which quickly gravitates into a scat-yodeling exercise. Read more

The Epic That Never Was

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

I-Claudius-Laughton-1937

If it had ever been completed, Josef von Sternberg’s big-budget 1937 adaptation of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius for Alexander Korda might have been his masterpiece. But a series of calamities plagued the production, and all we have left today are some tantalizing rushesand this excellent 1968 British documentary about the doomed project hosted by Dirk Bogarde, which includes many of these rushes and interviews with surviving participants, including Graves, Sternberg, Merle Oberon, and Emlyn Williams. But the best reason for seeing this film is the glimpse we get of Laughton’s extraordinary performance as the crippled, stuttering, and otherwise afflicted Claudius. An actor who underwent torturous preparations for some of his roles, Laughton drove Sternberg and others crazy with his agonizing over getting this part right. But when he finally locked Claudius into place, he produced what is arguably the greatest piece of acting in all of sound cinema: better than Brando, better than Olivier, better even than Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. The evidence is there to be seen (and heard) in two stunning scenes — Claudius groveling at the feet of Caligula to save his own life, and, even better, his assuming power over the Roman senate — and the film lets us watch him building and refining this monumental role step-by-step. Read more