LES IDOLES, Marc’O’s film version of his theater piece, originally opened in Paris in May, 1968, when many of its spectators were out in the street and presumably had other things to think about. It was released again early this year; but after a nominal run in one of several new mini-cinemas that have springing up lately all over the Left Bank, it seemed to vanish into oblivion a second time, only to re-emerge in a neighborhood house in early February, where it is currently playing. Talent does usually seem to find a way to reassert itself. Marc’O’s sarcastic parody about the making and merchandising of pop has nothing particularly profound or original to “say” about its subject, but it happens to have three of the liveliest performances in the modern French cinema.
Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Pierre Clementi, as the three pop stars, dive into their parts with such enthusiasm and expertise that the screen comes alive with their electric energies, and one can only speculate on how much more spectacular they must have been on the stage. (Despite some clever attempts at adaptation, LES IDOLES stubbornly remains another variant of filmed theater — a good thing to have, under the circumstances, but like Shirley Clarke’s ingenious recording of THE CONNECTION, it cannot really offer an equivalent to the excitements of a live performance.)Read more
Here’s my Cannes coverage for Film Comment‘s September-October issue in 1973, the fourth year I attended the festival.
A couple of apologies: (1) In my haste to defend Some Call it Loving against Andrew Sarris’s and Molly Haskell’s scorn, I managed to forget or overlook the fact that one sequence, in a nightclub, does feature some nudity; and (2) I no longer find my curt dismissal of History Lessons at all persuasive — in particular my claim that it duplicates the style and/or methodology of Othon. — J.R.
If TOUCH OF EVIL, as Paul Schrader has suggested, is film noir’s epitaph, jean Eustache’s LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN (THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE) may well turn out to be the last gasp and funeral oration of the Nouvelle Vague — the swan song of a genre/school that shatters its assumptions and reconstructs them into something else, and newer model that is sadder but wiser and tinged with more than trace of nostalgic depression. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, for that matter, may be the Western’s epitaph, or at least one of the prettier flowers to have grown out of Tombstone Gulch. In very different ways, all three films tell us a lot about what growing older feels like and chide us both for what we are and what we used to be. Read more
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.
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
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
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)
Trying to find a useful way to discuss Serge Daney in an Anglo-American context, it’s hard not to feel a little demoralized. I recently looked up the letter I wrote to a university press editor in early 1995, not very much shorter than this one, enumerating -– to no avail -– all the reasons why bringing out a collection of Serge’s film criticism in English was an urgent matter and a first priority, almost comparable in some ways to what making Bazin available in English had been in the ’60s.
I believe this might have been the longest “reader’s report” I’ve ever written for a publisher. I was trying to persuade the editor to publish a translation of Daney texts that in fact had already been commissioned and completed in England, but, for diverse reasons, had never appeared in print. All the texts chosen came from Ciné journal and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. I thought this translation needed some revision to make it more graceful and user-friendly, and I would have preferred a broader selection. Read more
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
— from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, quoted on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty
More than 25 years ago, when I was living in a beachside bungalow in a suburb of San Diego, I eventually realized that the bungalow across the alley was a halfway house for Mexicans who’d just made it across the border. I had to figure this out on my own because none of my neighbors ever even alluded to the place or what it was. The constant arrival and departure of new faces was perfectly obvious yet completely unacknowledged—in fact, everything in the surrounding Elysian landscape seemed to encourage one not to observe it. The halfway house was there but not there, like the Mexican ghettos in other parts of suburban San Diego — too decorous to prompt a second look. If people needed to go there in search of cheap labor, they concentrated on what they were looking for. Read more
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)
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.
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)
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.
Long before the advent of Slavoj Zizek, U.S.
academic Joan Braderman in 1986 offered a bracing
exercise in standup theory and comic deconstruction
in this half-hour unpacking on video of the most successful
nighttime soap opera on television, which is
said to be the favorite series of one hundred million
people in 78 countries. Utilizing some of the special
effects of codirector and coeditor Manuel De Landa
to project herself literally into Dynasty and thereby
critique its cultural and ideological underpinnings,
Braderman manages to mix appreciation with scorn
in almost equal quantities.
(1984), C,Director: Volker Schlöndorff. With Jeremy Irons, Ornella Muti, Alain Delon, Fanny Ardant, and Marie-Christine Barrault. 110 min.Subtitled. Cinematheque (Media). $59.95.
They said it couldn’t be done, and strictly speaking, it hasn’t been. Proust is ultimately as unfilmable a writer as they come, and any attempt to translate his work to the screen has to be a chancy undertaking. But if we approach Swann in Love as variations on a theme by Proust — a work in its own right, and not an effort to translate the untranslatable — then director Volker Schlöndorff’s elegant film emerges as much finer than critics have admitted.
Clearly, any work as labyrinthine as Remembrance of Things Past — or even Swann in Love, the lengthy, self-contained section of the first volume on which this film concentrates — has to be drastically simplified and formally revamped in order to fit within the borders of a feature film. The solution adopted is to focus almost exclusively on the events of a single pivotal day in the plot. Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons). a wealthy Jewish art critic of 19th-century Paris who moves in aristocratic circles, discovers over this day that his infatuation with the courtesan Odette de Crécy (Ornella Muti) has grown into a jealous obsession. Read more
(1972), C, Director: Werner Herzog. With Klaus Kinski, Roy Guerra, Del Negro, and Helena Rojo. 90 min. Subtitled. Continentai, $39.95. ****
Among contemporary movies that aspire to create the resonance of myth, there are few more compelling than this 1972 masterpiece. Directed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the film stars Klaus Kinski in the title role. At once a 16th century Peruvian adventure story about the legend of El Dorado and a somewhat indirect parable about modern imperialism, Aguirre, Wrath of God can be regarded as one of the key influences on Francis Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now. The fact that Herzog himself launched a treacherous journey through the backwaters of Peru in order to film his tale helped to popularize the notion of the director as mad Faustian conquistador. When Herzog himself attempted to surpass Aguirre a decade later with Fitzcarraldo, another insane, “historic” journey up the Amazon, the result was only a pale dilution of the original.
The film opens with a printed title that perfectly establishes the aura of legend: “After the conquest and sack of the Incan empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon tributaries. Read more
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.
The Third Generation
Written, photographed and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
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
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