A column for the Spanish magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. I believe it was written circa May 2014-. J.R.
En movimiento: Welles in Woodstock
I’ve recently returned from Woodstock Celebrates Orson Welles, a delightful two-day event in Illinois (16-17 May) organized by Kathleen Spaltro and commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Todd Theatre Festival held at the Woodstock Opera House in 1934, orchestrated by Welles at the age of 19 and sponsored by his mentor and one of his lifelong best friends, Roger Hill — headmaster of the Todd School for Boys, which Welles attended from 1926 to 1930.
When Welles graduated from Todd, Hill wanted him to attend Harvard while Welles’ guardian, Dr. Maurice Bernstein (whom Everett Sloane’s character in Citizen Kane was named after), hoped he would go to Cornell. But Welles, still under the spell of an article published by one of Chicago’s leading drama critics, Ashton Stevens (who wrote for the Chicago Herald-American, a Hearst newspaper, and was the model for Jed Leland in Kane), predicting that the young genius was destined to become a major actor, didn’t want to go to college. So a compromise was struck: Welles would travel to Scotland, Ireland, and England on a sketching tour before embarking on any formal education, writing letters home to chart his progress and his adventures. Read more
This was written in May 2014 for an Italian volume about fantastique cinema between 1980 and 2010 coedited by Antonio Gragnaniello. — J.R.
Speaking to Tom Milne and Richard Combs in Monthly Film Bulletin, the director of Aspern, Eduardo de Gregorio (1942-2012), avowed that “it was never meant to be a fantastique film”— which isn’t surprising given that its source, Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers, has no relation to that genre either. But it was regarded by several French critics as having some relation to fantastique, apparently for two reasons: because fantastique as opposed to fantasy is often regarded as a matter of style and/or atmosphere rather than content, and because the better known works of de Gregorio — such as his scripts for Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle, and Noroît and his own Sérail and Tangos volés—clearly belong to fantastique, while his work as a whole has clear links to both the 19th century Gothic tradition and the so-called “magical realism” of 20th century Latin American literature.
Even though much of Henry James’ dialogue is carried over into Aspern (translated into French), its basic plot — an obsessive literary scholar (the narrator in James’ tale) insinuates himself into the Venice household of an aged woman cared for by her lonely spinster niece with the aim of procuring her love letters from Aspern, a long-deceased romantic poet she was once involved with — undergoes several decisive changes in de Gregorio’s version, scripted by his partner at the time, Michael Graham. Read more
Labors of love can be executed well or badly, and one of the many pleasures of this new book from McFarland — quite apart from the fact that its author, Ben Davis, interviewed me at some length for it (full disclosure), and quotes me accurately — is that it’s done so well. This is above all a work of social history, and because the 34 years that it covers includes all of my own extended sojourns in Manhattan and environs (in particular, 1961-1963, 1966-1969, 1978-1983), I can vouch for its accuracy as well as its success in evoking a now-vanished film culture without ever succumbing to the distortions of nostalgia. (I was interviewed mainly about my adventures in programming at the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema, thanks to the support and assistance of Jackie Raynal and Sid Geffen.) The fine selection of photographs also helps a lot — although, thanks to the vagaries of the Internet, only one of these (the first) is posted below. [5/25/17]
From The Soho News (November 24, 1981). — J.R.
Nick’s Movies (Nicholas Ray retrospective)
The Public Theater through December 13
Fantasy and counter-fantasy are perpetually at war in the films of Nicholas Ray — accounting in no small measure for the highly charged heat, light, fury, beauty, and pain that most of them project. In its most brilliant representations — the separate divisions of Vienna’s saloon in Johnny Guitar (1954), an almost surrealist Western; the house and mind of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), an almost expressionist domestic melodrama — this graphic warfare actually becomes expressed in terms of discrete zones of action and confinement. “Down there I sell whisky and cards,” announces the imperious Vienna (Joan Crawford) on a stairway, gun in hand, to an itchy search party below that’s somewhere between a lynch mob and a sheriff’s posse. “All you can get up these stairs is a bullet in the head.”
Or consider another scene, one of the most memorable jaded love duets in movies, again spelled out through architecture and spatial balances as well as words and faces. Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) sits at a kitchen table, drink in hand, while Vienna stands behind him, on the other side of a serving window, also facing us. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976 (vol. 43, no. 512). — J.R.
Secret, Le (The Secret)
Director: Robert Enrico
Strangling a guard, David Daguerre escapes from his cell in an unidentified building, and thumbs a ride to Paris. He borrows money from a former lover and takes a train to the country, where he meets Thomas Berthelot while looking for a place to hide. Thomas and his lover Julia Vandal invite David to stay over at their house and he accepts. But he refuses to specify who is pursuing him and why, intimating only that he witnessed something he wasn’t supposed to, was confined and tortured as a result, and that he (and now the couple) will be killed if ‘they’ find him again. Although Julia is reluctant to keep him on as a guest, Thomas insists on protecting him as a kind of antidote to his uneventful life. even when David steals their revolver. After deciding to leave, David is held back by the arrival of several soldiers, although they later prove to be on maneuvers. Thomas then suggests driving David to Marmizan and taking him in his boat to Spain, and over Julia’s protests they all set out in the couple’s camper. Read more
The following was written for CITIZEN PETER, a very handsomely produced and multilingual 476-page book celebrating the late Peter von Bagh’s 70th birthday, in late August 2013, coedited by Antti Alanen and Olaf Möller. — J.R.
Peter von Bagh is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 1980s. So he has a lot to answer for — including, just for starters, my DVD column in Cinema Scope.
We’ve met at various times in Paris, London, New York, Southern California, Chicago, Helsinki, Sodankylä, and Bologna — and probably in other places as well, although these are the ones I currently remember. The first times were in Paris in the early 1970s, when he looked me up, and it must have been either in San Diego in 1977 or 1978 or in Santa Barbara between 1983 and 1987 that he convinced me to buy a multiregional VCR. Most likely it was the latter, where I was mainly bored out of my wits apart from my pastime of taping movies from cable TV, and Peter maintained that if we started swapping films through the mail, a multiregional VCR would allow me to play some of the treasures he could send me. Read more
The following was written in February 2009 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, which commissioned this and a few shorter pieces by me for it, including a short “sidebar” text about James Naremore’s On Kubrick, written in April 2010, which I’ve appended to our exchange. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, gave me permission to post it here, originally in September 2013….I obviously guessed wrong when I surmised here that Kubrick’s family would probably keep Fear and Desire “off the market”. — J.R.
Early Kubrick: An Exchange
By Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore
As you note in your book on Kubrick, he removed his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), from circulation at some point during the 60s. I know this couldn’t have been during the early 60s because I saw it for the first time in 1961 or ‘62, at the Charles Theater, a legendary, eclectic arthouse on the Lower East Side, when I was a freshman at NYU.
Even though our aesthetic and political tastes are pretty similar, one thing that divides us about Kubrick is that you tend to prefer his second feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955), to his first, while I opt for its predecessor. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 2004). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer.
Super Size Me
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Morgan Spurlock.
What do we expect from documentaries? Do we seek to be informed by them or merely entertained? If it’s the former, do we expect some guidance about how to process the information?
The documentaries I’ve seen lately have made me ponder these questions. For example, last week at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film I saw a fascinating Palestinian feature called Ford Transit (showing twice this week at Facets Cinematheque) that freely mixes fiction and nonfiction as if they were alternate routes to the same goal. I also attended the world premiere of a more conventional documentary, The Take, which was made for Canadian TV and may never screen here. Finally, there’s Super Size Me (which opens at the Landmark this week), a film that has been getting considerable attention since it premiered at the Sundance festival last January.
Let’s start with The Take, which was directed by Avi Lewis and written by Naomi Klein, who’s a columnist for the Nation and the Guardian and author of the international best seller No Logo, a journalistic account of the worldwide antiglobalization movement. Read more
From Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 3 (1980). I hope that Peter Lehman, who wrote the introduction to our interview and whom I haven’t seen in decades, doesn’t mind me posting this piece now.
I retain a very warm memory of Jerry Fielding; we were staying in Athens, Ohio at the same hotel during the Workshop on Sound and Music in the Cinema, which we were both attending, and we had breakfast together once or twice. I recall his conversation as both literate and dynamic, and especially compelling when he spoke about Sam Peckinpah, one of his favorite collaborators. Dan Carlin (1927-2001), whom I got to know less well, is also, alas, no longer alive. -– J.R.
Film Music: An Interview with Jerry Fielding and Dan Carlin
By Peter Lehman and Jonathan Rosenbaum
Jerry Fielding, Dan Carlin and Chris Newman were guests of a Workshop on Sound and Music in the Cinema presented by the Appalachian Regional Media Center in Athens, Ohio, October 5-7, 1979. The well-known Hollywood composer, Jerry Fielding, began studying music in his late teens with Max Atkins. Atkins was the music director and arranger at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Fielding’s hometown. Fielding moved to Los Angeles where he worked with some of the most famous big band leaders. Read more
I’m thrilled that my favorite academic film critic, James Naremore, finally brought out a collection of his critical and theoretical essays, and even more thrilled that its final section, “In Defense of Criticism,” includes an essay on me (along with essays on James Agee, Manny Farber, and Andrew Sarris, and extracts from Jim’s own ten-best columns for Film Quarterly between 2007 and 2010). Naremore’s essay about me ends with an email interview, and Jim has given me permission to reprint that text here. You can order his book, An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema — which also contains some wonderful material about Hawks, Hitchcock, Huston, Kubrick, Minnelli, and Welles, as well as about such topics as acting, auteurism, and literary adaptation — on Amazon. — J.R.
I took advantage of my friendship with Jonathan Rosenbaum to interview him on e-mail about the practical concerns or realpolitik of working as a film reviewer. His replies give us insight into at least one corner of the world of critical journalism:
JN: As a weekly film reviewer for the Chicago Reader, were you given the word length you needed for reviews? Was there any pressure, however subtle, to review big commercial films over art films and revivals? Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
Like William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel, as well as Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevant, Luis Buñuel’s 1954 Mexican version discards the original novel’s framing strategy of telling the story from the viewpoint of two outsiders—a regrettable elision in all three cases, because much of the novel’s power and meaning stem from this crucial distancing strategy. Yet Buñuel’s low-budget melodrama has a certain gothic ferocity that’s missing in the other versions; the results are mixed, but seldom unworthy of the master. With Iraseme Dilian, Jorge Mistral, and Lilia Prado; in Spanish with subtitles. 91 min.
I conducted two interviews with Michael Snow in the early 1980s. The first of these, commissioned by Film Comment‘s Richard Corliss (who sent me to Toronto in order to do it), was about Snow’s film Presents and ran in the magazine’s May-June 1981 issue. The second was commissioned by Simon Field’s excellent English magazine Afterimage. Both of these interviews were delightful experiences for me, and I feel privileged to have been treated by Snow during this period as a friend. (For a short while, I used to visit him once a year, whenever I came to the Toronto International Film Festival, and loved getting stoned with him — and then, most often, going to Chinatown for dinner.) —J.R.
The “Presents” of Michael Snow
A Breathless Intro
Lower Manhattan, 1981, the opening of a Canadian gallery, the onset of spring. Michael Snow’s photography/sculpture show at The 49th Parallel commences with Plus Tard (1977) – twenty-five lovely photographs, blurred and/or in focus, composing a critical/narrative tour of landscape paintings by the Group of Seven in Canada’s National Gallery. I speak to Snow for the first time since last June, when we met at a publication party for Regina Cornwell’s Snow Seen: The Films and Photographs of Michael Snow (PMA Books, $19.95); the second time since accidentally encountering him in Toronto in fall ‘78, when he invited me to attend one of his regular sessions with his free jazz group, CCMC; the third and fourth times since the Edinburgh Festival in late summer ’75 and ’76, when he premiered his last two films. Read more
I just heard the very upsetting news that the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside) was deprived today of his passport in Tehran, now making it impossible for him to leave Iran — reminding me, alas, of what happened to Pere Portabella in Franco Spain roughly half a century ago.
The two following short essays were commissioned by the Jeonju international Film Festival in February and March, 2009 and published in a bilingual catalog to accompany a Portabella retrospective held there in May.
It’s hard to keep up with all of Portabella’s activities these days, but his wonderful web site — which one can access in English, and which grows periodically in leaps and bounds — makes it somewhat easier to try. My most recent visit reveals that it’s now apparently possible to download several of his films on the Internet, directly from this site. I’m still eagerly anticipating the DVD box set that’s still apparently in the works, for which I wrote a commissioned essay (to be printed or reprinted in my next collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition: see Publications and Events on this site), but meanwhile here are a couple of commentaries about two of his early films — one of which, Cuadecuc, Vampir, remains my favorite of his works to date. Read more
From Film Comment (March-April 2009). — J.R.
Britton on Film
The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton
Wayne State University Press, $39.95
Even if you don’t agree with the claim in Robin Wood’s Introduction that Britton (1952-1994) “was, and remains, quite simply, the greatest film critic in the English language,” this hefty collection edited by Barry Keith Grant, 534 large-format pages long, certainly proves that Wood’s cantankerous Marxist disciple, who published mainly in Movie (U.K.) and CineAction (Canada), was a formidable figure. To my taste, the two best demonstrations of his intellectual and ethical strength are his separately published Katherine Hepburn: The 30s and After (1984), the best book-length study of a film actor that I know (misleadingly retitled Katherine Hepburn: Star as Feminist in its U.S. edition), and his passionate defense of Mandingo in Movie (1976), which single-handedly established that film’s importance amidst a chorus of jeers. And even if the absence of the first study from this book already makes its subtitle not quite accurate, the full range of Britton as both a polemicist and an analyst of everything from Detour to Madame de… to Jaws to Tout va bien is amply on display here.
One limiting factor here is the amount of space devoted to refuting such academic touchstones as Screen in the 70s and The Classical Hollywood Cinema — engaging with labyrinthine debates that seem less consequential now, at least to nonacademics like myself, than they did at the time. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 43, No. 504, January 1976. As with some of my other reviews from this magazine reproduced on this site, the credits and synopsis are omitted.– J.R.
Woman Under the Influence, A
Director: John Cassavetes
Beginning with Shadows, the films of John Cassavetes have been at once limited and defined by their anti-intellectual form of humanism, an unconditional acceptance of the social norms of his characters that exalts emotion and intuition over analysis and, in narrative terms, looseness and approximation over precision. Used as an instrument for delivering a thesis (as in Faces) and/or allowing actors to indulge themselves in fun and games (as in Husbands), it is a style which characteristically operates like a bludgeon, obscuring at least as much as it illuminates while confidently hammering home its proud discoveries. But when it serves as a means for exploration, as in Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence –- however halting or incomplete a method it may be for serving that function — it deserves to be treated with greater credence. Read more