Monthly Archives: May 2021

Paths of Glory

From the August 10, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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The 1957 film that established Stanley Kubrick’s reputation, adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson from Humphrey Cobb’s novel about French soldiers being tried for cowardice during World War I. Corrosively antiwar in its treatment of the corruption and incompetence of military commanders, it’s far from pacifist in spirit, and Kirk Douglas’s strong and angry performance as the officer defending the unjustly charged soldiers perfectly contains this contradiction. The remaining cast is equally resourceful and interesting: Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Ralph Meeker, and the creepy Timothy Carey, giving perhaps his best performance. Banned in France for 18 years, this masterpiece still packs a wallop, though nothing in it is as simple as it may first appear; audiences are still arguing about the final sequence, which has been characterized as everything from a sentimental cop-out to the ultimate cynical twist. 86 min. A restored print will be shown. Music Box. (JR)

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All By Myself

From the January 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

Christian Blackwood’s fascinating documentary portrait of Eartha Kitt not only offers a multifaceted sense of its subject — as professional entertainer, private individual, political activist, and self-commentator — but also treats each of these facets in a kaleidoscopic manner. The relationship between Kitt’s champagne-and-furs persona and her traumatic deep-south upbringing is especially suggestive; by the end of the film, one may not be sure how much of Kitt is self-invented, but the sense of dialectical exchange between the aspects of her personality keep all of them intriguing (1982). (JR)

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The World

From the Chicago Reader (July 29, 2005). — J.R.

Suggesting at different moments a backstage musical, a failed love story, a surreal comedy, and even a cartoon fantasy, this beautiful, corrosive, visionary masterpiece by Jia Zhang-ke (2004) is a frighteningly persuasive account of the current state of the planet. Set in an eerie Beijing theme park — a kind of Chinese Las Vegas, with scaled-down duplicates of the most famous global landmarks — it follows a bunch of workers as they labor, carouse, couple, and uncouple, but it’s really about propping up extravagant illusions through alienated labor. Jia, only 35, is the most talented director, and one of the most respected, in mainland China — though this film is his first to get an official release there. In Mandarin and Shanxi dialect with subtitles. 139 min. (I will introduce the 4:20 PM Saturday screening and lead a discussion afterward.) . Music Box

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THE BIRDS

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2018. — J.R.

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 A subtle, complex follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, Psycho, his 50th feature (1963) is quite different — and not just because this apocalyptic fantasy is his most abstract film, as Dave Kehr has noted, but also because his shift from black and white to widescreen color works in tandem with the abstraction. The same abstraction extends to cosmic long shots worthy of Abbas Kiarostami that seem posed more as philosophical questions than as rhetorical answers. And as soon as we notice that the flippant heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), has been color-coordinated, thanks to her blond hair and green dress, with the two lovebirds in their cage that she’s bringing to Bodega Bay as part of an elaborately flirtatious grudge match waged against a disapproving stranger, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), it’s already clear that Hitchcock has something metaphysical as well as physical in mind.

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What keeps his scare show so unnervingly unpredictable is that the explanation we crave for why birds have started to attack humanity is never forthcoming. (Hitchcock said in interviews that The Birds was about “complacency,” without spelling out whether he meant that of his characters, his audience, or both.) Read more

Thelma & Louise

From the May 24, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A coffee shop waitress (Susan Sarandon) and a beleaguered housewife (Geena Davis) in the southern sticks take off for a weekend holiday and eventually find themselves fleeing from the law and society in a buoyant and satisfying feminist road movie directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Callie Khouri. Scott, who usually offers a style in search of a subject, makes the most of the southwestern landscapes in handsome ‘Scope framing and shows an uncharacteristic flair for comedy in fleshing out Khouri’s script with a memorable cast of male rednecks (including Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, and Timothy Carhart); his eye may get a little fancy and fussy in spots, but this is still his best picture since Blade Runner, and Sarandon and Davis bring a lot of unpredictable verve and nuance to their parts. Classic genre movies are a scarce commodity nowadays (Miami Blues is probably the most recent one), and this gutsy crime thriller and female buddy movie qualifies in spades. See it. (Ford City, Golf Glen, 900 N. Michigan, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place) Read more

THE PRODUCERS

Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s catalogue in June 2018. — J.R.

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 “My movies rise below vulgarity,” Mel Brooks once allegedly declared. No movie of his better illustrates that proposition than his first and most successful feature (1967), which won him an Oscar for best original screenplay and, over three decades later, was remade first as a Broadway musical (by Brooks himself) and then as a movie (directed by Susan Stroman) based on that production. Yet it was originally deemed unreleasable due to its bad taste by Embassy Pictures, then given an inauspicious premiere in Pittsburgh.  It won a second life only after Peter Sellers — who’d originally been cast in the leading role of Max Bialystock (before apparently chickening out) — saw the film privately and bought an ad in Variety arguing for a wider release.

The eponymous heroes, Bialystock (Zero Mostel)  and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) — a bombastic gigolo who gets old ladies to invest in his failed Broadway shows and a hysterical, mousy accountant, respectively — decide to rise below vulgarity themselves in order to make a bundle by producing a costly, sure-fire flop, a show so awful and offensive that it can only fail, so they can thereby pocket the surplus on all the investments, only to discover that Springtime for Hitler winds up as a satirical hit. Read more

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934)

Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s catalogue for June 2018. — J.R.

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Americans know that Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” means “Make America white again”—a nostalgic longing for the repressive 50s, when Eisenhower spent as much time golfing as Trump does today, and when black men were caddies rather than players if they were visible at all. This is the America that warmly greeted Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in 1959, and when I saw it in a whites-only Alabama theater, this was with sobbing white matrons responding to the film’s deeply conservative message about knowing your place. Consequently, when I was informed by armchair Marxists in the 70s that the film was a work of Brechtian subterfuge, I recalled that the film was released during the Civil Rights movement, when Sirk’s bitter ironies were far too subtle to affect the status quo. As Sirk noted himself, “Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan `black is beautiful.’ In Alabama, this isn’t called Brechtian, it’s called scaredy-cat.

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Twenty-five year earlier, John Stahl’s original adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s then-current (1933) novel was also conservative, but because the Depression was a far more progressive period than the conformist 1950s, it comes across today as considerably more enlightened. Read more

A Notorious French Conspiracy Exposed

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The following sentence is spoken in Variety writer Peter Debruge’s informative and interesting audiovisual essay “Abel & Gordon The Quest for Burlesque,” included on Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray of Lost in Paris (to be released on December 4):

“There are all kinds of styles from within the burlesque tradition, from the blatantly silly likes of Jerry Lewis, for which the French notoriously have a far greater appreciation than Americans do, to the more refined French comedian Pierre Etaix, who did most of his pratfalls in a suit and hat.”

There are two rather strange assumptions lurking behind this commonplace sentence. Let me bypass the one that defines refinement strictly according to class and clothes and focus on the seemingly more innocuous one about Lewis, which in fact exposes the secret conspiracy accounting for the release of two to three Jerry Lewis features a year during the 1950s — namely, the fact that France was surreptitiously funneling millions of dollars in production costs to Paramount and Hal Wallis so that they could jointly service the French market, all unbeknownst to Americans, who were staying away from the Martin and Lewis pictures in droves. Consequently, one can only surmise that the estimated 80 million people who saw Sailor Beware, Martin and Lewis’s fourth feature, in 1952, consisted of the entire population of France and only 20 million or so Americans, and the fact that Living It Up a year later made more money than Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront, or The African Queen can only be explained by the hyperbolic activities of Lewis’s French fans. Read more

En movimiento: Two picks from Elaine May

A column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted in May 2021. — J.R

One of my major recent activities, probably shared by most of my readers during the pandemic, is finding “new” (that is to say, unfamiliar) films to watch online. So, after reading a 1970 interview with the usually publicity-shy Elaine May in the New York Times, where she cited “Holiday for Henrietta” (La fête à Henriette, 1952), a film I’d never heard of, and Anchors Aweigh (1945), an MGM musical I only dimly recalled from childhood, as particular favorites, along with The Wizard of Oz (1939), I treated the first two of these idle references as recommendations, meanwhile wondering if they might also provide certain clues to or predictions of May’s own filmmaking practices in A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1985), and/or Ishtar (1987).

Well, Anchors Away at least offers some predictions. It costars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on leave in San Diego and Hollywood—Kelly a brash extrovert and womanizer, Sinatra a shy introvert, anticipating the respective male duos of Nicky (John Cassavetes) and Mikey (Peter Falk) in May’s third feature, and even the blatant casting-against-type of Chuck (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle (Warren Beatty) in her fourth. Read more

Death of a Cyclist

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Ironically, Juan Antonio Bardem (1922-2002) might be better known today as the uncle of actor Javier Bardem than as the master of sound and image that he is. Antifascist filmmakers who stuck around during Franco’s reign are often forgotten outside Spain — unlike Luis Buñuel, who came back just long enough to make a few films and then left again. A communist, Bardem stayed, struggled, and was jailed more than once; he was in prison when he won an award at Cannes for this creepy, claustrophobic 1955 melodrama. An adulterous couple (Alberto Closas and Lucia Bose) in a country-club milieu accidentally run over a cyclist and flee out of fear that their relationship will be revealed; their guilty paranoia opens many sores while awakening the man’s social conscience. As in Bardem’s still greater Calle Mayor (1956), Death of a Cyclist follows the antifascist strategy Henri-Georges Clouzot used in Le Corbeau for Vichy-era France, transposing the ugliness of power relations in a repressive society to the spheres of sex and gossip. In Spanish with subtitles. 99 min. a Wed 1/24, 5:30 PM, and Thu 1/25, 9:40 PM, Music Box.

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Potamkin (in more ways than one, a preliminary report)

It’s hard to think of a major American film critic who’s more flagrantly neglected than Harry Alan Potamkin (1900-1933), a globetrotting Marxist poet and intellectual whose prodigious output as a critic, found in the over 600 pages of The Compound Cinema (New York and London: Teachers College Press [Columbia University], 1977) — a posthumous collection edited by Lewis Jacobs — covered only the last six years of his life (1927-1933).

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It seems that this neglect can be attributed to such interlocking factors as Cold War mentality (Potamkin was a Communist, albeit not a Party member), anti-intellectualism, pro-Hollywood bias, and a reluctance to deal with silent cinema, all of which place Potamkin firmly at loggerheads with the overrated Otis Ferguson (1907-1943), who typically gets thirty pages in Philip Lopate’s boringly mainstream American Movie Critics anthology versus Potamkin’s measly eight. But Potamkin, who could be as witty as Ferguson on occasion, was also an angry polemicist who made a few enemies (check out his vitriolic pan of Shanghai Express as racist and fascist claptrap, for New Masses, or see Jay Leyda’s rave review of The Compound Cinema), which probably didn’t help matters. Whatever the causes, the fact that I can’t even find a photograph of Potamkin on the Internet (including the one by Irving Lerner included in The Compound Cinema) or a Wikipedia entry for him seems entirely characteristic. Read more

Jazz Goes to the Movies (at Il Cinema Ritrovato)

At Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in the summer of 2015, Ehsan Khoshbakht and I launched  a “Jazz Goes to the Movies” program, and reproduced below are our catalogue descriptions of what we showed. — J.R.

Jazz Goes to the Movies

Now that jazz is no longer assumed to be automatically synonymous with decadence and the forces of darkness, it can finally be experienced and evaluated on its own terms, and we can begin to look back on a century-long partnership of jazz and film with a certain objectivity. Both are relatively new arts roughly contemporaneous with the 20th century, having grown out of socially disreputable origins and having fought for serious recognition.

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Part of this partnership has yielded the “jazz film,” a subgenre basically devoted to the recording of performances. But there are also successful collaborations between the expressive possibilities of jazz and film. And the ways in which jazz has been used in movies invariably tells us a great deal about the social, ethnic, aesthetic, and cultural biases of diverse societies and periods. The various responses of film producers to integrated jazz groups in the thirties, forties, and fifties, provide a kind of thumbnail social history. Sometimes black musicians were forced to play off-screen while white stand-ins mimed their solos and sometimes white musicians were kept in the shadows to appear black. Read more

Recommended Reading: Adrian Martin’s MISE EN SCÈNE AND FILM STYLE: FROM CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD TO NEW MEDIA ART

This book can now be purchased as a paperback for just under $28.00 (or less) on Amazon. — J.R.

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It’s a genuine pity that this remarkable new book — a kind of summation and extension of Adrian Martin’s work in film analysis and the history of film criticism in Australia, France, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. over the past two decades — is commercially available only at the whopping price of $80.75 on Amazon — or $76, if you’re willing to settle for a Kindle edition. As a longtime friend, colleague, and collaborator of Martin’s, I was fortunate enough to receive a free inscribed copy, but most of the rest of you will have to either shell out a fortune or wait for a softcover edition. All I can do now, really, having received this book only yesterday, is signal just a few of its many riches. Girish Shambu, Adrian’s irreplaceable coeditor at LOLA, has already posted a helpful summary of the book’s “four [interests] that animate the work” on his web site, so the most I can hope to do here is cite just a few treasured and brilliant passages that already have either sent me back to the films and texts being discussed or extended my current (re)reading and (re)viewing lists:

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Edward Yang has died at 59 [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Edward Yang has died at 59

Posted By on 07.02.07 at 02:49 PM

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First Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema, who passed away at age 84 on June 9, and now the Taiwanese master Edward Yang. We’re losing our giants.

Many of Sembene’s major literary works are out of print (including Tribal Scars, a wonderful collection of stories that includes “The Promised Land,” which his first feature, Black Girl, was based on; purchasing this essential paperback on Amazon now costs about $49). Only four of his ten features are available on English-subtitled DVDs, all of them recent releases. Even Black Girl, the one that still moves me the most, is available only in an imperfect copy. (The film’s color sequence, which I’ve never seen in color, is printed in black and white.)

The situation regarding Edward Yang’s films is even worse: only the last of his seven features, albeit one of the best, Yi Yi, is available on Amazon. The one I consider his greatest, A Brighter Summer Day (pictured) can be found extralegally or semilegally from at least a couple of different sources, as I explain in my current DVD column in the summer issue of Cinema Scope.

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Goodbye, Dragon Inn

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 2005.) — J.R.

Goodbye Dragon Inn

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For all its minimalism, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 masterpiece manages to be many things at once: a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a failed heterosexual love story, a gay cruising saga, a melancholy tone poem, a mordant comedy, a creepy ghost tale. A cavernous Taipei movie palace on its last legs is (improbably) showing King Hu’s groundbreaking 1966 hit Dragon Inn to a sparse audience (which includes a couple of that film’s stars) while a rainstorm rages outside. As the martial-arts classic unfolds on the screen, so do various elliptical intrigues in the theater — the limping cashier, for instance, pines after the projectionist, even though she never sees him. Tsai has a flair for skewed compositions and imparts commanding presence to seemingly empty pockets of space and time. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese with subtitles. 81 min. Music Box.

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