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 »
Written for Moving Image Source and posted online November 6, 2009. — J.R.
It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that the essential film oeuvres of both Alain Resnais and Chris Marker commence with the same remarkable, rarely seen essay film from 1953 — a film whose direction is co-signed in the credits by Resnais (also credited for editing), Marker (script and conception), and Ghislain Cloquet (cinematography). (Cloquet [1924-1981], who went on to shoot most of Resnais’s other major films until his own camera assistant, Sacha Vierny, basically replaced him, also subsequently shot major films by Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, André Delvaux, Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Louis Malle, and Roman Polanski.) And it’s no less fascinating (and significant) to ponder the implications of the fact that the only Oscar-winning film of Resnais’s career came five years before this neglected early peak. The film in question was the 1948 documentary Van Gogh, and in keeping with the Academy’s procedures, the Oscar went not to Resnais, again the director and editor, but to the producer, Pierre Braunberger. Largely because I prefer to look at paintings from static vantage points and with my own itineraries, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with Resnais’s exploratory camera movements here and in Paul Gauguin and Guernica (both 1950).… 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 »
This review appeared in the December 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. For whatever it’s worth, my favorite among Rohmer’s features remains his most unjustly neglected Perceval le Gallois (1978), the feature he made immediately after this “tasteful” betrayal of von Kleist’s Die Marquise von O… –J.R.
Marquise von O…, Die
West Germany/France, 1976
Director: Eric Rohmer
Probably the most faithful of all the disciples of André Bazin, Eric Rohmer has shared his mentor’s philosophical fascination with “ambiguity” in his criticism and films alike. A position derived from Catholic existentialism which adheres to a “realist” aesthetic whose prime model is the naturalistic novel as exemplified by Dos Passos, Hemingway and Hammett, this orientation is clearly at the root of his version of Kleist’s masterpiece, which subtly betrays the awesome energies of the original while maintaining an overall fidelity to its plot and characters that is rare in contemporary cinema. Widely and justifiably praised for its immaculate direction, acting, and visual sophistication, it can none the less be regarded as a Jamesian re-write of the novellas that dims the passion of the latter with a form of delicate detachment quite in keeping with the tenor of Rohmer’s Contes Moraux. A minor omission like the very Kleistian blood “gushing” from the mouth of a would-be rapist whom the Count “smashes” in the face with the hilt of his sword — a detail which the film tastefully keeps off-screen -– reveals this strategy on a rather trivial level; and the splitting in half of the Count’s childhood anecdote about the swan of which he is reminded by the Marquise -– so that its conclusion now comes at the end of the plot -– can easily be defended as a sensible dramatic expedient.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, September 2004. This is also reprinted in my latest collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Although I suspect many would dispute this characterization, I think the period we’re now living through may well be the first in which scholars have finally figured out a good way of teaching film history. And significantly, this discovery isn’t necessarily coming out of academic film study, even if a few academics are making major contributions to it.
I’m speaking, of course, about the didactic materials accompanying the rerelease of some classic films on DVD. Three examples that I believe illustrate my thesis especially well are (1) the various commentaries or audiovisual essays offered by Yuri Tsivian on DVD editions of Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer (Milestone), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Kino International/BFI), and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Criterion); (2) the commentaries offered by David Kalat on Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Blackhawk Films) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Criterion); and (3) the various documentary materials offered on “The Chaplin Collection,” a twelve-box set issued jointly by MK2 and Warners and put together with the full resources and cooperation of the Charles Chaplin estate.… Read more »
From Film Comment (September-October 1975). Some of this article, especially the early stretches, embarrasses me now for its pretentiousness, but I think it still has some value as a period piece.
A few brief footnotes to my interview with Chaplin: (1) We shared a joint at one point while doing it; (2) her comments about working with Rivette made it seem a lot less fun and more difficult, at least for her, than working with Altman (she described it at one point as having to show Rivette various kinds of acting like a rug merchant to see which one he liked); and in fact (3) a few decades later, when I met her again at a film festival, reminded her of our interview, and asked her what she thought of Noroit, she told me that she’d never seen it. — J.R.
Or should I call this my NASHVILLE Journal? On March 19, I saw a monaural print in London at a private screening. Writing over three months later, shortly after its New York opening and a projected five before it’s supposed to surface in the rural West End, I can only wish it well on its way. Regular readers of this column may froth at the mouth if I drag Tati and Rivette into the case once more; in that case, froth away, folks — I’m sorry, but it’s Altman’s doing, not mine.… Read more »
From the December 10, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Atmospheric and underplayed in the tradition of Val Lewton (I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, The Seventh Victim), this British horror feature (1961) operates from the premise that witchcraft survives as an open secret among some women, in both benign and malevolent forms. A small-town academic (Peter Wyngarde) convinces his wife (Janet Blair) to stop casting spells to advance his career; he doesn’t believe in the occult, so he’s taken aback by the various disasters that ensue. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson are credited with the intelligent and efficient script, which adapts Fritz Leiber’s American novel Conjure Wife to an English setting. Director Sidney Hayes can be needlessly rhetorical at times, relying on a campus statue of an eagle to create a sense of menace (the UK title was Night of the Eagle), but this is still eerily effective. 90 min. (JR)
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I was interviewed by Estado de Minas, the largest newspaper in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, shortly before and in connection with my plans to teach a ten-hour course on Charlie Chaplin there in mid-August 2012. (They ran some of my comments on criticism but omitted what I had to say about Chaplin.) Here are their questions and my responses….The first photo below shows Chaplin in a London film studio with Cy Endfield (on the left). — J.R.
1. Questions about Chaplin:
Why do we still love Charlie Chaplin? What makes him so relevant in 2012?
These are questions that I hope my course will help to answer. Right now, one of my main reasons for wishing to teach this course is that I don’t know the answers to these questions.
Why do you think Chaplin must be reintroduced to contemporary filmgoers? Isn’t he universally recognized and understood enough already?
It would be presumptuous of me to speak about whether or not Chaplin is adequately recognized today in Brazil —or, for that matter, in any country that I haven’t visited and/or whose language I neither speak nor read. But to make a generalization based on my experience, I would say that Chaplin tends to be universally recognized today as a great performer, but very widely unrecognized, undervalued, and misunderstood as a filmmaker.… Read more »
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From the January 1, 1988. — J.R.
Despite the title, this film has virtually nothing to do with Thomas De Quincey’s book. But it happens to be one of the most bizarre, beautiful, and poetic Z-films ever made, and probably the only directorial effort of Albert Zugsmith that is almost good enough to be placed alongside his best films as a producer (e.g., Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind). Vincent Price stars as the black-clad 19th-century adventurer, involved in a San Francisco tong war and with runaway oriental slave girls; Linda Ho, Richard Loo, and June Kim also figure in the cast, and Robert Hill is responsible for the singularly pulpy script. A claustrophobic fever dream with strange slow-motion interludes and memorable characters, this is the kind of film that you remember afterward like a hallucination; not to be missed. Also known under the titles Souls for Sale and Evils of Chinatown (1962). (JR)
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From The Velvet Light Trap, spring 1996 (and reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). Given all the screenings of Out 1 that have more recently taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, with (almost) concurrent Blu-Ray and DVD releases in France, the U.K., and the U.S., this seems like a good time to repost this article. My still lengthier reflections can be found on the Carlotta digital releases in France and the U.S. — J.R.
On the Issue of Nonreception
What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent “top ten” list (1), I’m equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal — unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn’t simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can’t be said that either film has received much attention in France either — or elsewhere, for that matter.… Read more »
This article was originally published in Stop Smiling no. 27 (“Ode to the Midwest”) in 2006. It’s also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent
It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures —- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Time magazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act — just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think. But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak — a major star if not a major actress — had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1997). — J.R.
Though light-years away from anything resembling political correctness, this 1932 horror thriller is often magnificent, imaginative stuff — bombastic pulp at its purple best. Boris Karloff stars as the archvillain of the Sax Rohmer novels, a Chinese madman menacing an expedition to the tomb of Genghis Khan. Charles Brabin directed; with Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Jean Hersholt, and Myrna Loy (as Karloff’s daughter). 72 min. On the same program, chapter seven of the 1938 serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. LaSalle Theatre, LaSalle Bank, 4901 W. Irving Park, Saturday, February 16, 8:00, 312-904-9442.
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