Monthly Archives: June 2021

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the first dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the first dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Actress

Stanley Kwan’s 1991 masterpiece (also known as Ruan Ling-yu and Center Stage) is still possibly the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen; perhaps only some of the masterpieces of Wong Kar-wai, such as Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love (both of these also significantly period films) are comparable in depth and intensity. The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling-yu (1910-’35), 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, sexy, and mysterious than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, despite the fact that her difference from Ryan Ling-yu as an actress is probably more important than any similarities. In fact, she was basically known as a comic actress in relatively lightweight Hong Kong entertainments prior to this film, and Actress proved to be a turning point in her career towards more dramatic and often meatier parts.… Read more »

Crossing Kelly Reichardt’s Wilderness

Written for the Viennale in August 2020 for a late October publication called Textur #2 and devoted to Kelly Reichardt. — J.R.

  “More nameless things around here than you can shake an eel at.”

— King-Lu in First Cow

I suspect that the first important step in learning how to process Kelly Reichardt’s films is discovering how not to watch them. A few unfortunate viewing habits have already clustered around her seven features to date, fed by buzz-words ranging from “neorealism” (applied ahistorically) to “slow cinema” (an ahistorical term to begin with) — especially inappropriate with a filmmaker so acutely attuned to history, including a capacity to view the present historically — and, in keeping with much auteurist criticism, confusing the personal with the autobiographical. 

Interviewed by Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour, the coauthors of a monograph about her, Reichardt rightly resists fully accepting any of these categories,[1] however useful they might appear as journalistic shortcuts. (E.g., J. Hoberman on Wendy and Lucy in the Village Voice: “Reichardt has choreographed one of the most stripped-down existential quests since Vittorio De Sica sent his unemployed worker wandering through the streets of Rome searching for his purloined bicycle, and as heartbreaking a dog story as De Sica’s Umberto D.”)… Read more »

Jacques Rivette (1928-2016)

Written for the May 2016 Artforum. — J.R.

jaques-rivette-02-15x200_scrsc2a9robinholland

Although Jacques Rivette was the first of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to embark on filmmaking, he differed from his colleagues—Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut—in remaining a cult figure rather than an arthouse staple. His career was hampered by various false starts, delays, and interruptions, and then it abruptly ended in 2009 with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, six years before his recent death. But his legacy is immense.

 

His career can easily be divided into two parts, although it’s not so easy to pinpoint a precise dividing line between them. And for those who knew him well or even casually, as I did, it’s hard to prefer the first portion to the second without feeling somewhat guilty.

 

Common to both parts is a preoccupation with mise-en-scène and the mysterious aspects of collective work, offset by the more solitary and dictatorial tasks of plotting and editing. Rivette’s own collective work was frequently enhanced by improvisation—with actors, with onscreen or offscreen musicians, or with dialogue written just prior to shooting (either by actors or screenwriters)—while the more solitary work of plotting and editing emulated the Godardian paradigm of converting chance into destiny.… Read more »

MARTHA: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament

Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?

The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable.… Read more »

A Different Kind of Thrill (Richet’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13)

From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.

Assault on Precinct 13

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet

Written by James DeMonaco

With Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Gabriel Byrne, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Drea de Matteo, and Ja Rule

John Carpenter’s first solo feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), is an effective low-budget genre piece — a perfectly proportioned, highly suspenseful action story about a few individuals under siege. It’s derived in part from Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo: Carpenter directly quotes from the dialogue and action, and he jokily adopts the pseudonym of John T. Chance, the name of John Wayne’s character, as the credited editor. The film is also influenced by claustrophobic horror movies such as The Thing (which Carpenter subsequently remade), The Birds, and Night of the Living Dead, especially their depiction of how unstable group dynamics are affected by an impersonal menace.

After most of the employees of a police station in a Los Angeles ghetto have moved to a new building, the station is attacked by a vengeful gang that uncannily expands into a mob, to the accompaniment of Carpenter’s relentlessly minimalist, percussive synthesizer score. A black rookie named Bishop and two white secretaries are the only remaining staff, and once Bishop realizes they can’t survive without help, he frees two prisoners, one black, one white — both hardened criminals en route to the state pen.… Read more »

En movimiento: When Context Changes Content

Written in January 2014 for my 34th bimonthly En movimiento column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

Film history can be regarded as a succession of encounters between viewers and films in which particular conditions and contexts (pedagogical, historical, ideological, cultural, and/or circumstantial) tend to shape and even determine the content of what’s seen as well as ignored.  This produces many striking discrepancies and disparities when one shifts from one national culture to another.

The-10th-Victim Investigation

Almost half a century passed between the time I saw my first Elio Petri film (The 10th Victim, 1965) and the time I saw my second (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970), the latter occasioned by a recent DVD and Blu-Ray release by Criterion. I’m sure that many of the reasons for this are haphazard and without any particular significance. But a feature-length documentary about Petri (1929-1982) included in the Criterion release, revealing that he was a member of the Italian Communist party who consciously avoided making films that would type-cast him as an arthouse director, makes me realize that, as an American — even one who was living in Paris when Investigation came out — I was unconsciously affected by a Cold War context that kept most of Petri’s later films invisible to me.… Read more »

A Bankable Feast [BABETTE’S FEAST]

From the May 20, 1988 Chicago Reader.  — J.R.

BABETTE’S FEAST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gabriel Axel

With Stephane Audran, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gudmar Wivesson, Jarl Kulle, Hanne Stensgard, Bodil Kjer, Vibeke Hastrup, and Birgitte Federspiel.

Only when she had lost what had constituted her life, her home in Africa and her lover, when she had returned home to Rungstedlund a complete “failure” with nothing in her hands except grief and sorrow and memories, did she be come the artist and the “success” she never would have become otherwise — “God loves a joke,” and divine jokes, as the Greeks knew so well, are often cruel ones. What she then did was unique in contemporary literature though it could be matched by certain nineteenth century writers — Heinrich Kleist’s anecdotes and short stories and some tales of Johann Peter Hebel, especially Unverhofftes Wiedersehen come to mind. Eudora Welty has defined it definitively in one short sentence of utter precision: “Of a story she made an essence; of the essence she made an elixir; and of the elixir she began once more to compound the story.” — Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

When Ernest Hemingway accepted his Nobel prize in 1954, he was gracious enough to acknowledge that it should have gone to Isak Dinesen instead.… Read more »

Gypsy Melodies

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1995). –J.R.

Latcho Drom

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tony Gatlif.

If you haven’t heard of Latcho Drom — an exuberant and stirring Gypsy musical, filmed in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound in eight countries on three separate continents — you shouldn’t be surprised. Although the movie has been wending its way across the planet for the past couple of years and picking up plenty of enthusiasts en route, it has at least three commercial strikes against it, any one of which would probably suffice to keep it out of the mainstream despite its accessibility. The first two of these are the words “Gypsy” and “musical”; the third is the fact that it qualifies as neither documentary nor fiction, thereby confounding critics and other packagers.

These “problems,” I hasten to add, are what make the picture pleasurable, thrilling, and important; but media hype to the contrary, sales pitches and audience enjoyment aren’t always on the same wavelength. Though this movie is so powerful you virtually have to force yourself not to dance during long stretches of it, that fact doesn’t translate easily into a 30-second prime-time spot or a review in a national magazine (though CNN did devote a four-minute feature to Latcho Drom some time ago).… Read more »

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Commissioned by and written for a collection entitled Time, published in February, 2016 by Punto de Vista, Festival Internacional de Cine Documental de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. — J.R.

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Florence_0431. My first sixteen years (1943-1959) — growing up in northwestern Alabama as the grandson and son of Jewish movie theater exhibitors — ensured that time and cinema were alternately parallel and crisscrossing rivers that coursed through my childhood, along with the Tennessee River that separated Florence from Sheffield. Florence, where I lived, had three of the Rosenbaum theaters, at least until 1951, all within a three-block radius, while Sheffield, which I could see across the river from my back yard, had two more theaters, one around the corner from the other. For Southerners like myself, the past was always present, a kind of double vision that movies taught me as well — a camera’s recording of the past becoming the present of both a screen and an audience, which then in retrospective memory becomes the past as well. And for Jews like myself, the past was also identity — meaning one’s past, present, and future. This explains why Lanzmann’s Shoah represents a shotgun marriage between the present tense of existentialism and the past tense of Judaism.… Read more »

En movimiento: Critical Taste versus Criticism

My column for the June 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

lapeaudouce

Although we often collapse the two into a single entity, it’s important to acknowledge that criticism and critical taste are far from identical or interchangeable.  It’s instructive that Godard today considers Truffaut more important as a critic than as a filmmaker, and equally provocative to learn from both Dudley Andrew’s biography of André Bazin  and the fascinating, lengthy interview with Resnais in Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s 2006 book Alain Resnais: Liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds  (Cahiers du Cinéma) that Resnais originally functioned as Bazin’s mentor on film history during the German Occupation, especially on the subject of silent cinema, when he used to carry his 9.5 mm projector on his bicycle in order to show silent movies at La Maison des Lettres  on rue des Ursulines, and Bazin, still fresh from the provinces, hadn’t yet encountered silent films in general or the early films of Fritz Lang in particular.

The Love Parade window

Unlike Bazin and Truffaut, Resnais was of course never a critic. Yet his critical taste was clearly every bit as central to his own films as Truffaut’s or Godard’s critical tastes and positions were to their own oeuvres.… Read more »

SHIRIN as Mirror

Written in 2010 for the Cinema Guild’s DVD release of Shirin. — J.R.

It doesn’t do justice to Shirin to call it the most conceptual of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. But it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the most paradoxical. Not the least of its paradoxes is the way that it simultaneously confronts and defies the specter of commercial cinema, qualifying at once as his most traditional feature and his most experimental. By focusing almost exclusively on the fiction of women watching a commercial feature that we can hear but never see — a feature that in fact doesn’t exist, apart from its manufactured soundtrack — one might even say that Kiarostami, an experimental, non-commercial filmmaker par excellence, is perversely granting the wish of fans and friends who have been urging him for years to make a more “accessible” film with a coherent plot, a conventional music score, and well-known actors.

What’s perverse about this is that the plot in question, while drawing from a traditional epic, a medieval romance widely known in Iran, belongs to an unseen and imaginary film whose on-screen spectators are precisely those well-known actors. (Both men and women comprise this imaginary audience of 110 individuals, although the only viewers featured in close-ups are women.)… Read more »

Appendix from FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983 (part three)

My book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver: Arden Press), intended by its editor-publisher to launch an annual series, regrettably lasted for only one other volume, by David Ehrenstein, after two other commissioned authors failed to submit completed manuscripts. Miraculously, however, this book remained in print for roughly 35 years, and now that it’s finally reached the end of that run (although some copies can still be found online), I’ve decided to reproduce more of its contents on this site, along with links and (when available) illustrations. I’m beginning with the book’s end, an Appendix subtitled “22 More Filmmakers,” which I’m posting here in three installments, along with links and (when available) illustrations. — J.R.

Film The Front Line 1983

 

MAURIZIO NICHETTI is a name I happen to know strictly by chance. My last trip to Europe (and only trip to Italy) consisted of three days at the Venice Film Festival in 1979, where I was invited to participate in a conference devoted to Cinema in the Eighties. And as I noted in an account of that conference in the December 1979 American Film, one film that I happened to see during those three days, Maurizio Nichetti’s Ratataplan — a first feature with an onomatopoeic title based on the sound of a drum cadence — may have actually suggested more about the subject of the conference than any of the lectures I heard.… Read more »

Seeing Right Through Us [HOLLOW MAN]

From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Hollow Man

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Andrew Marlowe

With Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.

Apart from Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s enjoyably auteurist swan song, Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Hollow Man, was the only summer Hollywood release I’d been looking forward to. For one thing, I’d hoped it would give me an opportunity to reassess his previous works, most of which I now think I underestimated when they were released.

I was pretty hospitable to Total Recall (1990), but I awarded a black dot to Basic Instinct (1992), mainly because I was incensed about the calculations of Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million script (I’m leaving aside Verhoeven’s Dutch movies because the only one I’ve seen is The 4th Man). I declined to review Showgirls (1995) at length, noting somewhat puritanically toward the end of my capsule: “I suppose the overall theory is that male spectators will tolerate any amount of stupidity and unpleasantness for the sake of acres of tits and ass, but you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for putting such a theory to the ultimate test: if anyone emerges from this with a smile on his face he must hate women as much as this movie does.”… Read more »

Appendix from FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983 (part two)

My book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver: Arden Press), intended by its editor-publisher to launch an annual series, regrettably lasted for only one other volume, by David Ehrenstein, after two other commissioned authors failed to submit completed manuscripts. Miraculously, however, this book remained in print for roughly 35 years, and now that it’s finally reached the end of that run (although some copies can still be found online), I’ve decided to reproduce more of its contents on this site, along with links and (when available) illustrations. I’m beginning with the book’s end, an Appendix subtitled “22 More Filmmakers,” which I’m posting here in three installments, along with links and (when available) illustrations. — J.R.

Film The Front Line 1983

PAULA GLADSTONE. In Gladstone’s mainly black-and-white, hour-long, Super-8 The Dancing Soul of the Walking People (1978), possession and. dispossession both happily become very much beside the point. Shot over a two-year period, 1974-1976, each time the filmmaker went home to Coney Island (“I’d take my camera out and walk from one end of the land to the other,” she reports in Camera Obscura [No. 6]; “I’d talk to people on the streets and film them”), The Dancing Soul of the Walking People is basically concerned with the space underneath a boardwalk, a little bit like the luminous insides of a translucent zebra on a sunny day — an interesting kind of space, at once public and private, that is traversed by receding strips of light, camera pans, and people, in fairly continuous processions and/or rhythmic patterns.… Read more »

Muse Abuse [LIGHT SLEEPER]

From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1992). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note [in April 2018] that I’ve furnished the expanded edition of Transcendental Style in Film, coming out next month, with a favorable blurb about Schrader’s new Introduction, and that I regard his latest feature, First Reformed, as the best by far of his films to date (at least among those that I’ve seen), despite some persistent misgivings that are expressed in some of the remarks below. — J.R.

 

LIGHT SLEEPER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Paul Schrader

With Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Jane Adams, Paul Jabara, and Robert Cicchini.

The French New Wave of the 60s offers many examples of film critics of some substance who became filmmakers — among them Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. But the commercial American cinema of the 70s offers us only one, Paul Schrader (the only other contender, Peter Bogdanovich, was by his own admission more of a reporter and interviewer than critic before he turned to filmmaking). Yet Schrader has not made a wholly satisfactory transition. As a writer he made his mark on several important features — including Taxi Driver, Obsession, Raging Bull, and (in a minor way, not credited) Close Encounters of the Third Kind.… Read more »