Monthly Archives: May 2021

Orson Welles at Work

I no longer recall where this 2008 review was written for. — J.R.

ORSON WELLES AT WORK by Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas. London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2008. 320 pp.

Considering how much popular currency is enjoyed by works about Orson Welles that are poorly researched, possibly because they respond so dutifully to existing attitudes and mythologies about the man — most notably, David Thomson’s slipshod biography Rosebud and Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s Oscar-nominated but fanciful documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (both 1996) — a reliable book about his filmmaking that doesn’t stoop to special pleading is always welcome. This one, originally published in French a couple of years ago — in an ongoing series of beautifully and copiously illustrated coffee-table books that has already yielded Bill Krohn’s indispensable Hitchcock at Work — is special not just for the amount of fresh information it offers. It’s also invaluable because of the unusual perspectives its two authors bring to their subject.

Jean-Francois Berthomé, author of a definitive book on Jacques Demy, is also an expert on movie set design, the subject of another of his books. François Thomas, an Alain Resnais specialist, once wrote a dissertation on Welles’s sound work (in film, radio, TV, and theatre) that was over a thousand pages long.… Read more »

Jean Harlow/Anita Loos

RED-HEADED WOMAN, written by Anita Loos and directed by Jack Conway, with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris (1932, 79 min.)

I thought I was a Jean Harlow fan, at least after seeing her in DOUBLE WHOOPEE, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, PLATINUM BLONDE and BOMBSHELL (not counting her easy-to-miss bits in CITY LIGHTS and THE LOVE PARADE), but this abrasive late-Prohibition comedy, included in TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, volume one—“her breakthrough film,” according to James Harvey’s book ROMANTIC COMEDY—gives me some pause. In fact, I think the real auteur here is Anita Loos–who makes Harlow’s ruthless and promiscuous flirt both a successor to Lorelei Lee in her 1925 best-seller GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and a predecessor of Marilyn Monroe’s version of Lorelei in 1953.

Harvey rightly points out that Harlow’s character in RED-HEADED WOMAN is both a villainous schemer and a triumphantly comic golddigger, reflecting an overall uncertainty about how to regard her, which is why this movie has separate endings to accommodate each aspect. But this makes her at best a dialectic; by contrast, Monroe’s Verdoux-like performance is an improbable yet lethal synthesis, a reshaping of venal Lorelei to make her an image of the opulent 50s, not the flapper 20s or the Depression 30s.… Read more »

Tim Russert/Dennis Kucinich

It’s the cruelest of ironies: newscaster Tim Russert, who died unexpectedly on Friday–– taken to be the essence of all that’s honorable and serious about the TV news—has been used ever since as a substitute for the TV news, a means for excluding as much of it as possible.

In the mid-1990s, the trial of O.J. Simpson became such a media obsession that one could virtually say that most other news was suspended so that the TV news could be devoted around the clock to a single subject. The result was that TV news reporting got so far behind in keeping up with the other events of the world, especially foreign news, that it became clear after a certain point that it could never hope to catch up again. And of course it never has.

It would appear that ever since this alarming, infantile regression, TV news has been nakedly hungering for more O.J.-like events, as many as possible, that can crowd out all others. Whether this happens to be the deaths of Frank Sinatra or Ronald Reagan or events as consequential as Hurricane Katrina, the effect is always the same: to eliminate the world outside the single, all-encompassing event, which is then chewed over endlessly, not for hours but for days.… Read more »

My First Reviews (1958)

Barring only the one time I took over my father’s weekly promotional movie column in my home-town newspaper in March 1957 (briefly excerpted in my first book, Moving Places, on pp. 123-124), which doesn’t exactly count, this must be my first published film criticism, even though my name was misspelled. (The correct spelling was Jonny.) It appeared in The Stimulator, my biweekly high school newspaper (published at Coffee High School in Florence, Alabama), on October 16, 1958, when I was 15, a sophomore. Phil Stanford, incidentally, was a senior and good friend at the time. I’m nearly positive that the title wasn’t my own, and if this “column” had any sequels, I have yet to uncover them. (Esoteric footnote: “The Tri-Cities” in this period consisted of Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, before Muscle Shoals City grew, thanks to its recording studios, from the size of a modest speed trap, thereby yielding The Quad-Cities.) — J.R.

Front Row Center

By JOHNNY (sic) ROSENBAUM

This column, which will alternate with Phil Stanford’s, is to be devoted to reviews of movies, television programs, and the occasional plays put on in the Tri-Cities.… Read more »

Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (book review)

The following review of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), signed by one Nancy Rothstein and entitled “Placing Movies”, appeared in the May-June 1981 issue of Film Comment. In point of fact, this was written by me, with the full knowledge and complicity of editor Richard Corliss, following precedents in the same magazine that had by then already been set by Robin Wood (criticizing his own book on Alfred Hitchcock under the name George O. Kaplan in an article entitled “Lost in the Wood”) and, unless my memory is now deceiving me, by Raymond Durgnat (although I no longer remember any of the specific details in Ray’s case). To be fair, Robin took on his own disguise in order to express some of his own serious misgivings about Hitchcock’s Frenzy. My own motives were somewhat more mercenary, or at least self-promotional; at this point, Moving Places had received very few reviews anywhere, and the publisher, Harper & Row, not only wouldn’t advertise the book but also wouldn’t allow me to do so at my own expense.

I figured that the specific challenge of creating a fictional reviewer (“Nancy Rothstein is working on a book about the Hollywood careers of Eisenstein, Brecht, and Renoir,” read the note in Contributors) made the exercise more interesting than it would have been otherwise.Read more »

My Winnipeg

From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 2008). Criterion’s splendid new Blu-Ray of this film contains many juicy extras — including several recent Maddin shorts. — J.R.

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It was just a matter of time before the eccentric independent Guy Maddin made a personal documentary about his Canadian hometown, and though he labels this a docu-fantasia, one still suspects he’s captured the real character of Winnipeg, especially its freezing weather. The movie is dominated by Maddin’s usual black-and-white photography, silent-movie syntax, and deadpan melodrama; he even casts Ann Savage [see first still below], who starred in Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B movie Detour, as his own mother (her dialogue is credited to Maddin’s usual cowriter, George Toles). In the narration Maddin claims that Winnipeg has ten times as many sleepwalkers as any other city in the world, and though he’s surely making this up, it conveys his own sense of entrapment amid the town’s dreaminess. 80 min. (JR)

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Passing Fancy

passing fancy

Inspired partly by King Vidor’s The Champ, this silent 1933 masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu takes place in a Tokyo slum, where a slow-witted, good-hearted, heavy-drinking day laborer (Takeshi Sakamoto) tries to deal with his rebellious son (Tokkan Kozo). It opens with one of the funniest stretches of slapstick Ozu ever filmed, though the remainder is colored by Chaplinesque pathos. As the loving and lovable father, Sakamoto creates one of the most complex characters in Japanese cinema, and Kozo (who played the younger brother in I Was Born, But…) isn’t far behind. The milieu they inhabit is perfectly realized, making this a pinnacle in Ozu’s career. In Japanese with subtitles. 103 min. Dave Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment. Sun 2/6, 3 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Paths of Glory

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

PathsofGlory-girl

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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Diary of a Mad Black Woman

If memory serves, the following review, written in mid-February 2005, is the only submitted film review  I ever wrote for the Chicago Reader during my more than 20 years on the staff which the paper’s editor chose not to run. I’m posting it now not in order to contest in any way her judgment in this matter — given the possible unwitting offense that this short article might have caused, it was probably sound — but for the (admittedly limited) documentary interest of such a review in its own right.  For the record, my capsule review of the same movie appeared in the Reader on February 25, 2005. — J.R.

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN  *
DIRECTED BY DARREN E. GRANT
WRITTEN BY TYLER PERRY
WITH KIMBERLY ELISE, STEVE HARRIS, PERRY,
CICELY TYSON, SHEMAR MOORE, TAMARA TAYLOR,
AND LISA MARCOS

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Once I started recovering from the shock of the hyperbolic jive of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, I had the the sensation I’d just been eavesdropping on a subculture and a franchise I previously knew nothing about —–a discourse in which a particular audience was being knowingly stroked, serviced, and gratified. As playwright, producer, performer, and sometime director, Tyler Perry belongs to that branch of ethnic theater scornfully known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” aimed almost exclusively at black audiences.… Read more »

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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Major Dundee

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2005). In 2013, Twilight Time brought out a two-disc Blu-Ray of both versions of the film. — J.R.

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Director Sam Peckinpah went over budget during production of this 1965 epic western and was fired, so this restoration, based on a scholarly assessment of his intentions, can’t really be considered a director’s cut. But it’s 12 minutes longer, its story is easier to follow, and its score is closer to what Peckinpah had in mind. Still as flawed as its title hero and a bit out of control, it’s a powerful and provocative account of a disgraced Union officer (Charlton Heston) reluctantly joining forces with Confederate prisoners (including Richard Harris) to kill or capture an Apache who led a massacre in New Mexico. It may not approach The Wild Bunch, but after the soldiers cross into Mexico the film takes on weight and flavor that suggest major Peckinpah, and both Harris and Heston (who gamely gave up his salary to keep Peckinpah on board, at least for a while) contribute some of their finest work. With Senta Berger, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. PG-13, 136 min. Music Box.

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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.

the birds melanie

The Birdsoverhead

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The Birds 22-last shot

 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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The Birds junglegym3

thebirdsschool

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 »

3 Days at the Kitchen: Notes of a Videophobe

From The Soho News (October 29, 1980). — J.R.

What attracted me to sign up in advance for a symposium called “Television/Society/Art,” put on at the Kitchen and NYU last weekend, was the opportunity to see and hear some old friends, encounter some new people, and maybe even get some new ideas (about what I should be reading and seeing, if nothing else): a bargain for the $10 registration fee.

Presented by the Kitchen and the American Film Institute and organized by Ron Clark, a senior instructor at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, the three-day event inevitably threatened a few dead spots — particularly to a virtual videophobe like me, who largely regards the medium as a kind of wicker basket holding a few magazines that I’m neither interested in reading nor quite ready to throw away. On the other hand, the fact that some of the invited panelists seemed to share the same bias made me suspect that I’d feel right at home.

The symposium got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with the presentation of a lumbering keynote paper entitled “Television Images, Codes and Messages” by Douglas Kellner, a teacher of philosophy at the University of Texas’s Austin campus.… Read more »