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.
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
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
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
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.
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
From the May 20, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
** (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
From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1995). –J.R.
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
My column for the June 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
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.
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
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
From the Chicago Reader (April 20, 2007). The severe sentencing of Jafar Panahi, the director of Offside, after this article was published has made his remarkable (and earlier) filmmaking more vital and relevant than ever. — J.R.
BLACK BOOK ****
DIRECTED BY PAUL VERHOEVEN
WRITTEN BY GERARD SOETEMAN AND VERHOEVEN
WITH CARICE VAN HOUTEN, SEBASTIAN KOCH, THOM HOFFMAN, HALINA REIJN, WALDEMAR KOBUS, AND DEREK DE LINT
DIRECTED BY JAFAR PANAHI
WRITTEN BY PANAHI AND SHADMEHR RASTIN
WITH SIMA MOBARAK SHAHI, SAFAR SAMANDAR, SHAYESTEH IRANI, M. KHEYRABADI, and IDA SADEGHI
The recent successes of such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Volver, and The Lives of Others at multiplexes is a welcome sign that art-house ghettos aren’t the only places for foreign-language films anymore. Art houses, like multiplexes, tend to foster certain expectations about the movies we go to see in them, and sometimes we miss out on what a film has to offer as a consequence. Paul Verhoeven’s big-budget drama Black Book, which opened last week at the Music Box and is now also playing at some more commercial venues, and Jafar Panahi’s low-budget comedy Offside, which opens this week at the Music Box, both confound expectations. Read more
| Commissioned by DVD Beaver, and published by that site in February 2010. I’ve updated or added a few links, delighted to report that all the unavailable items can now be accessed in some form or another.I was inspired to repost this after just reseeing Sternberg’s sublime Dishonored in Criterion’s handsome new Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood box set. I’ve also just reseen the lovely if politically incoherent Shanghai Express in the same package, and I wonder if it’s possible that the relative neglect accorded to Dishonored, by cinephiles and academics alike, may have something to do with the fact that it’s the Hollywood feature of Dietrich and Von Sternberg that has the most to say about the real world — not only because it begins and ends in Vienna, but also because, as an antiwar statement that a prostitute can do more for her countryman than a female spy can do for her country, it has the most effective strategies for combining genre elements with personal fantasies and moral convictions, in part through its diverse metaphors regarding art (Dietrich’s piano playing as it serves both passion and state) and glamor (a sword blade used as a makeup mirror in the final scene).|
From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.
Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.
The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.) Read more
This appeared in the August 16, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. I more recently had occasion to return to this film and some of my thoughts about it when I joined David Kalat to do an audio commentary on the expanded (and now nearly complete) version of Metropolis for the English DVD of Masters of Cinema. In fact, the essay below was used by Masters of Cinema in the accompanying booklet of their previous edition of the film, and an updated version of this piece appeared in the next one. — J.R.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou
With Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, and Heinrich George.
The internationalism of filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages. To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us.
We will realize it! — Fritz Lang, in an article published in 1926
Lang’s utopian rallying cry, written in Germany during the editing of Metropolis, is well worth recalling today. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1987). — J.R.
HOPE AND GLORY
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by John Boorman
With Sebastian Rice Edwards, Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Derrick O’Connor, Susan Wooldridge, Sammi Davis, and Ian Bannen.
Disasters sometimes take on a certain nostalgic coziness when seen through the filter of public memory. Southerners’ recollections of the Civil War and the afterglow felt by many who lived through the Depression are probably the two strongest examples of this in our national history — perhaps because such catastrophes tend to bring people together out of fear and necessity, obliterating many of the artificial barriers that keep them apart in calmer times. When I attended an interracial, coed camp for teenagers in Tennessee in the summer of 1961, shortly after the Freedom Rides, the very fact that our lives were in potential danger every time we left the grounds en masse — or were threatened with raids by local irate whites — automatically turned all of us into an extended family. Considering some of the cultural differences between us, I wonder if we could have bridged the gaps so speedily if the fear of mutually shared violence hadn’t been so palpable.
The images that we inherit of other people’s disasters are often suffused by a similar nostalgia. Read more
From the June 7, 1991 Chicago Reader. Try hitting the second and fourth photos here with your cursor. — J.R.
THELMA & LOUISE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Callie Khouri
With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, and Lucinda Jenny.
I’m not quite sure precisely when Thelma & Louise kicks into high gear. Does it happen when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a convenience store, or much earlier, when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a rapist (Timothy Carhart)? Does it happen when Thelma’s tyrannical husband (Christopher McDonald) steps on a pizza, or when Louise divests herself of her watch and jewelry in exchange for an old coot’s sun hat?
Whenever it happens, something starts to click, and the movie becomes mythical — mutates into a sort of classic before one’s eyes. This isn’t to say that it can thenceforth do no wrong; the flashback shots that punctuate the final credits are lamentable, a cheap attempt to add uplift to an ending that doesn’t need it. But the movie does take on a certain charmed existence, persuading one to forgive such lapses. After a rather slow beginning, this prosy film turns poetic; and when that happens, we’re no longer passive bystanders but active participants, along for the ride morally as well as physically. Read more
From Cineaste (December 2001).
For a long time, I hesitated about reprinting this, but learning about Ray Carney’s unspeakable treatment of filmmaker Mark Rappaport (as detailed here) eliminated my compunctions.
For more about Rappaport’s work, here are three of the many links on this site:
Cassavetes on Cassavetes
Edited by Ray Carney. London and New York: Faber and Faber, 2001. 526 pp., illus. Paperback: $25.00.
The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies
by Ray Carney. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 322 pp., illus. Paperback: $24.95.
John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
by Ray Carney. Second Edition. Walpole, MA: Company C Publishing, 2000. 64 pp., illus. Paperback: $15.00.
by Ray Carney. London: British Film Institute (BFI Film Classics), 2001. 87 pp., illus. Paperback: $12.95.
John Cassavetes: Lifeworks
by Tom Charity. London, New York and Victoria: Omnibus Press, 2001. 257 pp., illus. Paperback: $19.95.
As nearly as I can remember, I had two opportunities to meet John Cassavetes in the flesh, both times in New York, and I deliberately passed on both of them. Shortly after Faces came out in the mid-Sixties, a friend from my home town in Alabama who worshipped that film even more than I did — Shadows was still my own favorite then — came to town and found a way of contacting and then going to meet his idol, who was preparing Husbands at the time; he invited me to come along, and I declined. Read more