Monthly Archives: May 2021

Neil LaBute

IN A DARK DARK HOUSE by Neil LaBute. Performed at Profiles Theatre, Chicago. Directed by Joe Jahraus. With Darrell W. Cox, Hans Fleischmann, and Allison Torem.

I attended this excellent production exactly a week ago, after discovering that it was playing in my neighborhood, only a few blocks from where I live. As a film critic, I’ve seen five features that LaBute has directed, and liked most of them: IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (the only one I didn’t like), NURSE BETTY (the only one he didn’t write or cowrite), POSSESSION, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS (probably my favorite).

This is a fairly compact three-act, three-character play without an intermission, each act running, if memory serves, for about half an hour. Each act begins with one character saying to another, “Go for it,” which is only one of the interesting rhyme effects. Most of it’s about the agonized and edgy relationship between two brothers, both in their 30s, although a teenage girl figures in the middle act, and this being a LaBute play, the onstage flirtation between her and the older brother, which may or may not lead to offstage sex, is really an act of aggression—the brother’s revenge against her offstage father (whom she may also want to get even with), a pivotal offstage character in Acts 1 and 3.… Read more »

Watching Kiarostami Films at Home

This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. P.S.: This essay is included in the much-expanded second editition of Abbas Kiarostami (2019), a book I coauthored with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa.– J.R.

To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future.… Read more »

Barack Obama/TV Commentators

Cable TV news on the night Barack Obama becomes the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, June 3, 2008.

I’m still trying to decide: Which is it that better deserves the label of Capitol of Doublethink–the United States, or television in general? On the one hand, there’s the doublethink of a seeming victory undermined by the refusal of Barack Obama’s main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, to concede defeat—- apart from a dropped hint that she would accept the slot of Vice President on the Democratic slate, which also conceals the implicit threat that she might withdraw her support if he doesn’t offer her that position. Maureen Dowd in her NEW YORK TIMES column this morning catches at least part of the anomalous drift pretty well:

“But even as Obama was trying to savor, Hillary was refusing to sever. Ignoring the attempts of Obama and his surrogates to graciously say how `extraordinary’ she was as they showed her the exit, she and a self-pitying Bill continued to pull focus. Outside Baruch College, where she was to speak, her fierce feminist supporters screamed `Denver! Denver! Denver!’”

On the other hand, absolutely no one I saw on any of the cable TV news shows last night—-friend or foe, partisan or nonpartisan, on CNBC or CNN or Fox-—is willing to call Barack Obama anything except an Afro-American, racially speaking, despite the fact that his mother was white.… Read more »

Allen Baron/Lionel Stander

BLAST OF SILENCE, written, directed by & starring Allen Baron, narrated by Lionel Stander (Criterion DVD).

An interesting period piece (1961), especially striking for its sense of place (Manhattan during the Christmas season), though I can’t accept this as the noir masterpiece some people are calling it–not when a recycling of generic clichés usually has to take the place of observation. Perhaps the most durable of its standbys is the gravelly voiceover of an uncredited, graylisted Lionel Stander (put to still better use in some of the Ben Hecht features),  reciting the freewheeling patter of a pseudonymous, blacklisted Waldo Salt. It was clever of Baron to graft this pair over his own lackluster inventions, even if Salt’s pseudopoetry is sometimes almost as pretentious as the kind heard in Gary Merrill’s voiceover in another documentary-style indy, THE SAVAGE EYE, made the previous year. But I could probably listen to Stander reading from the Manhattan phone directory–-though there may be moments here when a few choice New York phone numbers might have enlivened Salt’s prose a little. Even so, none of it is nearly as awful as the interminable singing of a Village Gate conga-drum player named Mel Sponder, which Baron presumably indulges in in the interests of “atmosphere”.… Read more »

Mark Rappaport

Recommended: LE SPECTATEUR QUI EN SAVAIT TROP by Mark Rappaport, translated [from English to French] by Jean-Luc Mengus, Paris: P.O.L, 2008, 240 pp.

There are 16 pieces here -– including a Preface, a concluding essay entitled “Confessions of a Latent Heterosexual (Complete with Illustrations),” and four sections in between consisting of a Hitchcock Cycle (three stories) and an Eisenstein Cycle (three stories, with Marlene Dietrich playing a significant role in one), interspersed with two sections of four stories each. Some of the topics: The son of Madame de…, Jean Seberg, “The Tourist Who Knew Too Much,” “My Life with Catherine Deneuve,” Gilda’s gloves, Silvano Mangano and Capucine, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Marcel Proust in Marienbad. Whether these are autobiographical fictions, fictional essays, and/or stories about other stories is a matter directly addressed in the Preface. (Don’t expect any conclusive answers.)

I can’t wait for this to come out somewhere in English [2021: you can ccess it now online in English here, and both parts of Rappapot’s The Secret Life of Moving Shadows are also available on Amazon]–even though P.O.L, publisher of the quarterly film magazine TRAFIC (as well as the French translation of my own first book, MOVING PLACES, also done by Jean-Luc Mengus), has done a very handsome job with it.… Read more »

Actress

From the April 9, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A masterpiece by Stanley Kwan, the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen (also known as Ruan Ling Yu and Center Stage). The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling Yu (1910-1935), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shot — all to explore a past that seems more complex, mysterious, and sexy than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, and a large part of what Kwan does as a director is to create a kind of nimbus around her poise and grace. (If I had to pick Kwan’s Hollywood equivalent, I’d opt for George Cukor.) Kwan also creates a labyrinth of questions around who Ruan was and why she committed suicide — a labyrinth both physical (with beautifully ambiguous uses of black-and-white movie sets) and metaphysical — and keeps these questions perpetually open. You should be prepared for a picture that lasts 146 minutes and invites you to relish every one of them — not only the stylish beauty of an imagined Shanghai film world of the 30s, but also the flat abrasiveness of Kwan chatting with Cheung on video about what all this means and coming up with damn little.… Read more »

THE TENDER TRAP: David Wayne/Celeste Holm (upgraded)

THE TENDER TRAP, directed by Charles Walters and written by Julius Epstein, with Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, David Wayne, and Celeste Holm (1955, 111 min.)

Last night, I started out watching SINNER’S HOLIDAY (1930), with the first film appearance of James Cagney, and wound up seeing all of THE TENDER TRAP (1955) instead. Not because the latter is necessarily superior in any way -– only because I was 13 years old and saw THE TENDER TRAP when it came out, whereas I was years away from even being conceived when SINNER’S HOLIDAY made its first appearance, which means that the 1955 movie has more personal significance.

I suspected that a prefemninist comedy about swinging bachelorhood like THE TENDER TRAP would turn out to look archaic now in its sexism, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, apart from the standard 50s dogma that marriage and family were the solutions to every problem, these suspicions were mainly misguided. If anything, the film takes considerable pains to undermine at least a few of the myths of swinging bachelorhood -– even if the spacious living room in Sinatra’s Manhattan flat is almost oversized enough to justify the parody version of such a place in the 2003 DOWN WITH LOVE.… Read more »

Azazel Jacobs

From Cinema Scope No. 50, Winter 2012, as part of a feature, “50 Best Filmmakers Under 50”. — J.R.

Azazel+Jacobs

Many reviewers of Azazel Jacobs’ four features understandably place them in a direct lineage from his father Ken’s work. Both filmmakers are clearly preoccupied with interactions and crossovers between fiction and nonfiction — although the same could be said of everyone from Lumière, Méliès, and Porter to Costa, Hou, and Kiarostami. And both are remarkable directors of actors/performers, even though, in the case of Ken, projectors and found footage have performative roles along with people. The dialectics forged by opposite coasts and mindsets — corporate Hollywood vs. flaky New York Underground, claustrophobic obsession/fixation versus airy and uncontrollable street theatre — are equally constant.

Most reviewers are quick to point out that Azazel is more committed to narrative than his father. It’s easy to see what they mean, but some of their assumptions are worth questioning. If part of what we mean by “narrative” is plot and incident, there may be more of both contained in the intertitles of Ken’s The Whirled (1956-63) than there is in the main action of Azazel’s second feature The GoodTimes Kid (2005). If part of what we mean is “character,” then the work of both filmmakers is overflowing with it, from Jack Smith’s manic cavorting in many of Ken’s films to Diaz’s exhilarating dance in The GoodTimes Kid, not to mention John C.… Read more »

Anthony Mann/Laurence Harvey/Mia Farrow/Steve Brodie/Audrey Long

A DANDY IN ASPIC, directed by Anthony Mann (and Laurence Harvey, uncredited), with Harvey and Mia Farrow (1968, 107 min.) + DESPERATE, directed by Anthony Mann, with Steve Brodie and Audrey Long (1947, 73 min.)

Spurred by some comments from Brad Stevens in the chatgroup “a film by,” I finally catch up with Anthony Mann’s last film, A Dandy in Aspic –– a convoluted spy thriller set in London and Berlin that was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey, after producer-director Mann died in the middle of shooting. It appears that most of the handsomely framed London exteriors are Mann’s work while the excessive use of zooms in the Berlin exteriors and elsewhere are most likely the work of Harvey. Anyway, this is an interesting test-case for auteurists, because, as Stevens notes, there are plenty of thematic as well as stylistic traits here that one can associate with Mann, but at the same time -– dare I say it? -– much of the film strikes me as as being terrible in spite of this. The key problems for me are the lead performances by Harvey and Farrow, both of whom strike me as being so far adrift from recognizable human behavior that one can accept their characters only as theorems and/or abstractions, metaphysical or otherwise.… Read more »

Barack Obama/The New Yorker

Seeing two kinds of discourse in a head-on collision can sometimes be instructive, and the current flap over the cover of the July 21 issue of The New Yorker offers a good illustration of how divided against itself this country can be. I’ve been thinking lately that America At War With Itself has been such a constant in our national life for so long now—at least since the JFK assassination—that many of us are ready to take it as permanent and unchangeable. One might even argue that if Barack Obama proposes a radical change in the way our political life is conducted—one that transcends the issue of whether or not he’s a “conventional” politician—this transpires in the way that he suggests trying to put an end to that war by looking for common aims and interests. Which means nothing less than a change in the national discourse. This is the real war that he’s trying to end–not the alleged “war” in Iraq that isn’t really a war at all but a military occupation. (The fact that it isn’t really a war starts to become clear as soon as one seriously tries to define either victory or defeat coherently. What could either possibly mean if one doesn’t bother to factor in the will of the Iraqi people–which is precisely what most of the American media have been failing to do?… Read more »

Pete Kelly’s Blues

Now that Jack Webb’s glorious PETE KELLY’S BLUES has finally become available on DVD, this seems like an appropriate time to exhume my Chicago Reader film blog post about it in 2007, now happily out of date, and update the links:

The market value of a missing movie
February 16th – 9:31 a.m.

Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb.… Read more »

The Last Mistress

From the October 11, 2007 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

It’s characteristic of the virtues and limitations of French sexual provocateur Catherine Breillat (Romance, Anatomy of Hell) that they usually derive from the same source—the fearless determination to skirt the borders of camp. In her avowedly free adaptation (2007) of Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel about the protracted amour fou between a foppish narrator-hero (androgynous Fu’ad Ait Aattou) and his Spanish mistress with a taste for blood (the pouty Asia Argento), both of whom are periodically married to aristocrats, she revels in the kind of overripe French romantic and mythical filigree that the material seems to invite. She may be serious about creating period ambience, but she also can’t resist patterning her heroine after Marlene Dietrich’s Concha in The Devil Is a Woman (even though Argento sometimes suggests Maria Montez in the pleasure she takes in her own company) and using as a location for the hero’s modest country estate what appears to be the same 12th-century fortress in Brittany used in The Vikings(1958) and Jacques Rivette’s Noroit. With Michael Lonsdsale, Roxane Mesquida, and Claude Sarraute. In French with subtitles.

Read more »

Zhangke Jia, Poetic Prophet

This was written for a brochure to accompany a retrospective held by Northwestern University’s Block Cinema in January 2008. — J.R.

ZHANGKE JIA, POETIC PROPHET

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

What is it about Zhangke Jia that makes him the most exciting

mainland Chinese filmmaker currently working? It might be

oversimplifying matters to describe this writer-director, born in

1970, as a country boy. But the fact that he hails from the small town

of Fenyang in northern China’s Shanxi province clearly plays an

important role in all his features to date. (I’m less certain about what

role it plays in his two recent documentaries, Dong [2006] and

Useless [2007].) Like William Faulkner and Alexander Dovzhenko,

Jia is a hick avant-gardist in the very best sense — someone whose

outsider/minority status enhances both his humanity and his art.

Working in long, choreographed takes, and mixing realistic accounts

of working-class life with diverse forms of cultural shock and fantasy

ranging from animation to SF to rock, he already qualifies as a poetic

prophet of the 21st century, and not only for China.

He attended the Beijing Film Academy, where he

completed his first film, the one-hour Xiao Shan

(Going Home, 1995). I haven’t seen it, but according

to critic Kevin Lee, it’s about a country boy and

unemployed cook in Beijing who wants to go home for

the Chinese New Year and runs into numerous obstacles,

and it utilizes literary intertitles (which also crop up in

his last two features).… Read more »

A Few Eruptions in the House of Lava

In the “Publications and Events” section of this web site, I’ve written, “I don’t know when `A Few Eruptions in the House of Lava,’ my commissioned piece about Pedro Costa’s 1994 CASA DE LAVA, will be appearing in a bilingual or trilingual collection about Costa edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo, the publication of which has been delayed many times. At some point I hope to print or reprint this essay on my site.”

I hope Ricardo doesn’t mind me jumping the gun. I sent him this essay in mid-January, and I’m moved to post it now as a sort of gesture of solidarity with COLOSSAL YOUTH having just appeared on the cover of the the summer issue of Film Quarterly — and James Naremore writing about it inside the magazine as his favorite movie of 2007. (2010 footnote: Ricardo’s collecion has been out for some time by now. It’s very beautiful, even if it’s only in Portuguese.) — J.R.

I know I’d go from rags to riches
If you would only say you care
And though my pocket may be empty
I’d be a millionaire.

My clothes may still be torn and tattered
But in my heart I’d be a king
Your love is all that ever mattered
It’s everything.… Read more »

Manoel de Oliveira

I’m really sorry that in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s forthcoming and very welcome Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, three of my five favorite films of his are missing. I can be pretty specific about this because I recently ranked all the Oliveira films I’ve seen in order of preference for a lengthy article I wrote about him for FILM COMMENT, which is about to come out. The first five of my favorites, in descending order, are DOOMED LOVE (1978), BENILDE OR THE VIRGIN-MOTHER (1975), INQUIETUDE (1998), PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD (2001), and MON CAS (1986). The last of these (see first photo below) has never been shown in Chicago and I’ve never even been able to see it in an English subtitled version (assuming that one exists). BENILDE (see second two photos, below–both screengrabs from a mediocre video transfer, so I’m sorry they don’t look better) is a film I was able to bring to Chicago several years ago, when I selected it as a Critic’s Choice at the Chicago International Film Festival (which, if memory serves, has also shown INQUIETUDE and PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD); it still remains, to my mind, the most underrated and underseen of all of Oliveira’s major works.… Read more »