Monthly Archives: June 2021

Then and Now: The San Sebastian International Film Festival

This article appeared in the April 1989 issue of The Independent (vol. 12, no. 3); slightly tweaked in late January, 2010. –J.R.

Having attended the San Sebastian Film Festival on two separate occasions 16 years apart — in 1972 and 1988 — I find it surprising how little the basic ambience of the event has changed.. Apart from the fact that the festival has grown, the major differences that I noticed are those between Franco and post-Franco Spain. One no longers buys a copy of the International Herald Tribune on the Avenida de la Libertad only to find that a state censor has neatly clipped out an article or two from every copy. Even more noticeable, to the eyes as well as ears, is Basque, a language that was rigorously outlawed under Franco. One now sees it on street signs and hears it on TV. One of the many sidebars of the 36th International Film Festival at San Sebastian was even devoted to Basque films.

Sidebars, in fact, have for a long time been the festival’s strength. In 1972 there was a Howard Hawks retrospective, with Hawks himself attending as a jury member for the films in competition. Back then, the festival was held in July, and was still small enough to offer excursions for all the guests” a bus ride to Pamplona to attend the bullfight encouraged Hawks to divulge some of his favorite Hemingway stories.… Read more »

Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image

If memory serves, this essay, which first appeared in the Winter 1985/86 issue of Sight and Sound, and was later reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), took me at least a year to write — and maybe even longer than that — because of all the research it required. I’ve recently revised the title  slightly from “GERTRUD as Nonnarrative” to “Gertrud as Nonnarrative” because my basic argument concerns the character Gertrud rather than the film as a whole. — J.R.

There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.

Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle.… Read more »

Racism Here and Now (BETRAYED)

From the September 2, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

BETRAYED

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Costa-Gavras

Written by Joe Eszterhas

With Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, John Mahoney, Ted Levine, Maria Valdez, Betsy Blair, and Richard Libertini.

Although I liked Betrayed enough to make it a Critic’s Choice last week, a second look has convinced me that it has a fair number of strikes against it. Joe Eszterhas’s script clearly plows more than it sows, and sows (in a rather scattershot fashion) more than it reaps. The dialogue tends to fall back on so many familiar notions about simple farmers and hard-nosed federal agents that if less talented actors than Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, and John Mahoney were assigned the lines, I doubt that we could accept them even half-heartedly.

Costa-Gavras’s direction, moreover, is more competent than inspired; the film functions as a thriller, but only barely. What the movie has going for it, really, is a germ of an idea — but one that is potent enough to give this story a sharp and unsettling charge. That the movie deals with rabid American racism without hedging on either its ugliness or its intensity is itself an accomplishment of some note.… Read more »

Two Death Scenes of Jean-Pierre Léaud

Given the size and variety of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s filmography, 

there must be other memorable death scenes of his apart

from those in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA (1966) and 

Albert Serra’s La mort de Louis XIV (2016), half a century 

apart. My reason for settling on these two is that they 

demonstrate his prodigious range. In the first — a very bizarre 

piece of anamorphic Pop Art self-described as “a political film, 

meaning Walt Disney plus blood” — he plays “Donald Siegel”, 

the abused sidekick of gangster “Richard Widmark” (Laszlo 

Szabo), comically sporting a button that declares “Kiss me I’m 

Italian”. He’s dispatched in a garage by Paula Nelson (Anna 

Karina), a detective investigating her lover’s murder. After 

Siegel pantomimes committing murders of his own and other 

criminal adventures as they’re being recounted by Nelson in 

voiceover, she asks him, “If you had to die, would you rather 

be warned or die suddenly?” He selects the latter and as soon 

as she obligingly plugs him, he shouts out “Mama!” and staggers 

extravagantly in long shot across most of the garage floor before 

finally expiring. It all takes a little over twelve seconds, whereas the 

less showy, more minimalistic and iconic finale as the eponymous 

Louis XIV, shown mainly in regal close-ups, lasts for virtually all of 

the film’s 116 minutes.  –Jonathan… Read more »

Guys And Dolls

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

guysanddollsbrando

Conceivably the best picture Sam Goldwyn ever produced, this 1955 blockbuster musical has an undeservedly bad rep, largely because the two leads — Marlon Brando as professional gambler Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army recruiter Sarah Brown — aren’t professional singers. In fact, they both do wonders with Frank Loesser’s dynamite score because they perform their numbers with feeling and sincerity, and their efforts to live up to their material are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of their characters (as well as the songs themselves). In short, this may be the only Method musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a creditable job with the stylized, stagy sets and the pungent vernacular of the original Damon Runyon material (which he also adapted). Also on hand, and at their very best, are Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit), Vivian Blaine (as Adelaide), Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Veda Ann Borg, and Johnny Silver. 150 min. (JR)

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The Revolution Has Been Televised [Peter Watkins’ LA COMMUNE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 2002). — J.R.

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Watkins

Written by Watkins with Agathe Bluysen and contributions from the cast members.

Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right, and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy, and those are the films we don’t transmit. — TV executive in The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins

I’ve been a fan and supporter of Peter Watkins for most of my life. A remarkable master technician and social visionary whose early work is filled to the brim with focused rage, he has created some of the most troubling, thought-provoking, even shattering films I know. This has helped make him persona non grata in mainstream TV and cinema and also in art houses, among academics, at festivals, and on cable TV. When his name does come up in those diverse realms, he’s often accused of being paranoid — though that hardly explains his pariah status.

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Keeping up with his work is hard even for a sympathetic critic like me, and I can’t say I know it well.… Read more »

The Way We Weren’t (PLEASANTVILLE & AMERICAN HISTORY X)

This appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. Reseeing Pleasantville on DVD, I continued to find its diverse perceptions and confusions equally fascinating. On his audio commentary, producer-director-writer Gary Ross alludes to his childhood as the son of an activist screenwriter who was blacklisted, and part of what’s so intriguing about the film is the way its own theme of innocence crossed with sophistication is matched at times by its own multiple forms of ideological doublethink. Ross’s ongoing and seemingly untroubled assumption, for instance, that black and white film is innately artificial and stylized whereas color film is innately “realistic” makes me wonder how he can perceive MGM Technicolor of the 50s as being closer to reality (and thus presumably further away from fantasy) than all the black and white cinematography from the same period — or whether, for that matter, he can even distinguish sufficiently between the alleged “realism” of the contemporary color sections of this film and the subsequent expressionism of the hallucinogenic colors impinging on a 50s sitcom’s black and white to confidently declare that both of these kinds of color are automatically and unproblematically superior to black and white in representing reality accurately.Read more »

Dim Wits, Small Potatoes

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by James Bridges

Written by Jay McInerney

With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.

Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.

If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does.… Read more »

Code Unknown

From the Chicago Reader (June 28, 2002). — J.R.

CODE UNKNOWN

Aptly subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” the fifth feature by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.), his best to date, is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment comparable to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers. The film’s second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche in a powerful performance), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always keep up with what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. This is Haneke’s first feature made in France, and the title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses and apartment buildings in Paris — a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues.… Read more »

Memories of 1974

Written for a special retrospective issue of the French film magazine Positif at the request of editor Michel Ciment in June 2002. — J.R.

1974, the year in which I contributed a short article about -— and accompanying interview with —- Jim McBride for the avril [April] issue of Positif (no.158), was also the year in which I moved from Paris (where I had been living as a freelance writer, with mixed success, since 1969) to London (to work on the staffs of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound at the British Film Institute): a profound cultural shift, though not nearly as radical as it was moving from London to San Diego in early 1977.

Cinematically speaking, it was the year in which I discovered two of Jacques Rivette’s greatest films — Céline et Julie vont en bateau (seen initially as a workprint, tentatively entitled Céline et Julie vont en zizanie at several private screenings at Claude Lelouch’s Club 13, thanks to my friendship with one of the screenwriters, Eduardo de Gregorio) and Out 1: Spectre (initially at the Palais de Chaillot Cinémathèque, a press show where the 16mm projectors kept breaking down repeatedly; then many more times at Studio Gît-le-Coeur, only a short hop from my sunless flat on Rue Mazarine, where, along with Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky, I would later interview Rivette for Film Comment).… Read more »

One of My Favorite Things [On McCoy Tyner]

This was originally posted on November 22, 2010. Seeing the excellent, informative, and often moving  documentary Chasing Trane, which curiously includes more interview material with Bill Clinton than with McCoy Tyner, led me to repost this. — J.R.

McCoy-Tyner

On volume 2 of this superb two-disc set (One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note), recorded on Alan Grant’s “Portraits in Jazz” radio show on May 7, 1965, is a spectacular 13-minute piano solo by McCoy Tyner on “My Favorite Things” that covers well over half of the number’s almost 23 minutes. This solo is incidentally bracketed by some of Coltrane’s loveliest soprano-sax glisssandos on disc, but what amazes me about Tyner’s cascading tour de force is not only how he keeps it going in unforeseeable directions, but also how many different directions this consists of — tonal and atonal, rhythmic and melodic, calm and frenzied — and how steadily it builds to Coltrane’s second solo.

What follows is the final draft of a treatment for a documentary about Tyner that I coauthored via email with cinematographer John Bailey in late 2001 and early 2002, at the behest of producer Rick Schmidlin, with and for whom I’d worked as a consultant on the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.Read more »

Punch-Drunk Love

From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 2002). — J.R.

Punch-Drunk-Love

The fourth feature of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (after Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) is a stridently wacky romantic comedy that stands or falls on whether you find Adam Sandler funny as a small businessman working out of a warehouse in greater Los Angeles. He didn’t make me laugh once, and neither did his costar Emily Watson, though Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what amounts to a cameo, made me laugh once or twice. I tend to like quirkiness, but this arch effort is so eager to be quirky nearly everything winds up willfully mannered, from Jon Brion’s flashy percussive score to the hyperbolically absurdist plot. Still, I wouldn’t have minded the Hollywood schlock lurking behind the studied weirdness if I’d believed in any of the characters on any level. With Luiz Guzman. 91 min.[2020 postscript: This movie lingers in my memory more pleasantly than this capsule review suggests, which must mean something positive] (JR)

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Moonfleet

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 2002). For the record, Fritz Lang’s line in Contempt about CinemaScope being appropriate only for snakes and funerals is a misattribution of a wisecrack that actually came from Orson Welles.– J.R.

Moonfleet-well

Fritz Lang’s only film in CinemaScope (1955, 89 min.) is one of his most neglected features, at least in this country. (In France there’s a deluxe edition on DVD made especially for high school students.) A kind of 18th-century fairy tale about an orphan (Jon Whiteley) in Dorset who’s adopted, after a fashion, by a smuggler (Stewart Granger), this classy MGM production was adapted from a novel by J. Meade Faulkner by Margaret Fitts and Jan Lustig, and its dreamlike sense of wonder is equaled only in Lang’s German pictures. John Houseman produced, and Mikos Rozsa wrote the stirring score; the fine secondary cast includes George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, and Viveca Lindfors. (JR)

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L’appartement

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2002). — J.R.

l'appartement
I saw this French mystery thriller, the first feature of writer-director Gilles Mimouni, shortly after its 1996 release, and it left little residue. However, it has Romane Bohringer (Savage Nights), and that’s definitely a plus. Just before leaving Paris for Tokyo, the hero (Vincent Cassel), who’s engaged, thinks he spots an old flame (Monica Bellucci) in a cafe. He becomes obsessed with seeing her again, finds out where she lives, and hides out in her apartment — though he winds up having sex with Bohringer instead. In French with subtitles. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Horror Show [CYCLO]

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1996). — J.R.

Cyclo

Cyclo

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, and Ngo Vu Quang Hai.

Tran Anh Hung’s first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, redefined what we mean by “inside” and “outside,” architecturally as well as socially and psychologically. The same could be said about the vastly more ambitious and even more impressive Cyclo, which was shot in Ho Chi Minh City — unlike The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in a studio outside Paris — and is set in the present.

The Scent of Green Papaya — the first and so far only Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award — was inspired by the filmmaker’s memories of his mother and was set in 1951 and 1961. Tran said that his next feature would be based on recollections of his father. This led me to expect another period film, which Cyclo isn’t — but there’s no question that it’s a film about patriarchy. The first and last things the 18-year-old hero (Le Van Loc) says offscreen concern his late father — a pedicab driver who was run over by a truck — and there’s the sense throughout that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.… Read more »