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
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
| 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
These are two films that I encountered recently quite by chance. I came across Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto (2010), a pithy and often humorous historical account of the postwar Yugoslav film industry, because the filmmaker herself sent me a copy last month; and I just now caught up with Maximillian Schell’s My Sister Maria (2002) because my Viennese artist friend (and sometime Chicagoan) Roxane Legenstein contacted me about it just after the New Year, wondering why it hadn’t been better received in the U.S.
Let me try to answer Roxane’s query first. Just about everyone I know accepts the premise that fiction and its various trappings can be used as a legitimate vehicle in support of the truth, but there are few documentaries that test this premise quite as radically as Schell’s lovely and vibrant portrait of his aging sister, which goes even farther than Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water (1980), about the last days of Nicholas Ray. My Sister Maria includes many clips from Maria Schell’s acting career in both Europe and Hollywood, and some speculations about her recent mental condition as well as details about her running up so many debts that Maximillian had to sell a late Rothko painting in order to settle them all. Read more
It’s delightful to have Kino’s new “deluxe” edition of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood romanticism, glamor, and lushness (as well as Technicolor), based on the film’s 2009 restoration, which I saw and Bologna and wrote about a little over a year ago. But while watching this edition’s extended comparison of the original with the restored version, I’m somewhat taken aback by the fact that the film I remember seeing in 1951, when I was still in grammar school, is closer to the unrestored version:
It’s obvious that the restored version is superior in terms of definition, lighting, and color. But rightly or wrongly, I remember the film in 1951 as being darker, at least in my mind’s eye — a film bathed in black more than auburn hues.
Could this be a matter of Proustian self-deception? Or could it point to a significant change in the film that I originally saw? I wish I knew. [7/8/10]
Yesterday, while reseeing François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time in years at the Gene Siskel Film Center, just before doing a Skype interview with Ray Bradbury in California along with Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller, I was struck for the first time how different Truffaut’s and Bradbury’s historical groundings were. Bradbury’s novel, first published in the early 50s, clearly reflected the Cold War, whereas Truffaut’s English-language film (his only one) of 1966, two years before his secret discovery via detectives that his father had been a Jewish dentist, seems largely informed by his childhood experience of the German occupation of France, which he would only depict directly 14 years later, in The Last Metro.
The most surprising aspect of this for me is that I never thought of it earlier — but it becomes especially clear during the scene in which Montag (Oskar Werner) and Clarisse (Julie Christie) in a cafe secretly spy through a window an informer pausing before mailing his malicious report on a neighbor to the police/fire department (which in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is the same thing), meanwhile making comments on his behavior (some of which are reproduced below in the subtitles). It also seems evident in the number of old, early-40s books that one sees being burned in the many book-burning sequences, as well as in the dingy scenes set in old-fashioned basements, attics, etc. Read more
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). -– J.R.
ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY
‘Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust, Isaac Bashevis Singer ironically begins his Author’s Note, ‘I have lived for years in New York with refugees from this ordeal. I therefore hasten to say that this novel is by no means the story of the typical refugee, his life, and struggle. Like most of my fictional works, this book presents an exceptional case with unique heroes and a unique combination of events. The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates. If they fit into the general picture, it is because the exception is rooted in the rule. As a matter of fact, in literature the exception is the rule.’
Forewarned is forearmed: Singer’s tragi-comic 1972 novel is a holocaust story, but a far from typical one. Set in New York in 1949-50, it focuses on a Jewish survivor named Herman Broder who finds himself living what amounts to three separate, if sometimes distractingly overlapping lives as a direct consequence of the holocaust’s traumatic upheavals. In Coney Island, he is married to Yadwiga, his former maid in Poland, a non-Jew who kept him alive during the war by hiding him in a hayloft, and who now happily waits on him hand and foot. Read more