Monthly Archives: June 2021

Local Color: Five American Touchstones

This was commissioned by and written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival — specifically for a booklet of essays entitled Grandeur Locale that they published in late January 1992. — J.R.

1. “We acknowledge with gratitude and admiration the spirit of cooperation of the 25,000 citizens of Phenix City, Alabama,” reads a title after the credits of Phil Karlson’s remarkable film noir, THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955), shot on location less than a year after the events it describes took place. “…To the Mayors and the City Commissioners, the Chiefs of Police, and the many thousand citizens of Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, who contributed immeasurably to the making of this picture…our sincerest thanks.” For once, the standard courtesy of such an acknowledgement becomes the literal truth. In many prints of the film, we meet four of the local, real-life participants in the story we’re about to see even before the credits come on. The singular accents and speech patterns of these people are literally the sound of my own childhood: I was thirteen years old and had lived all my life in Alabama when the film was released, and to see the film in 1955 was to experience some of the truth of my home state on the screen for the very first time. Read more

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003). Criterion has released a Blu-Ray of this film. P.S. If you hit and load the second and third illustrations below, you can see them move slightly. — J.R.

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I only recently caught up with Jaromil Jires’s overripe 1970 exercise in Prague School surrealism, now that it’s become available again, and I’m miffed that I had to wait so long. The 13-year-old title heroine, who’s just had her first period, traipses through a shifting landscape of sensuous, anticlerical, and vaguely medieval fantasy-horror enchantments that register more as a collection of dream adventures, spurred by guiltless and polysexual eroticism, than as a conventional narrative. Virtually every shot is a knockout — for comparable use of color, you’d have to turn to some of Vera Chytilova’s extravaganzas of the same period, such as Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. If you aren’t too anxious about decoding what all this means, you’re likely to be entranced. In Czech with subtitles; a 35-millimeter print will be shown. 77 min. Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Oporto Of My Childhood

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). — J.R.

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Manoel de Oliveira’s 2001 masterpiece explores the Portuguese city where he’s lived for more than 90 years, though it concentrates on the first 30 or so, suggesting that his childhood must have lasted a very long time. It’s a remarkable film for its effortless freedom and grace in passing between past and present, fiction and nonfiction, staged performance and archival footage (including clips from two of his earliest films, Hard Work on the River Douro and Aniki-Bobo) while integrating and sometimes even synthesizing these modes. He’s mainly interested in key images, music, and locations from the Eden of his privileged youth, and some of the film’s songs are performed by him or his wife — though we also get a fully orchestrated version of Emmanuel Nunes’s Nachtmusik 1. In Portuguese with subtitles. 61 min. (JR)

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A Shocking Death, and a Gratifying Message (“Still learning…”)

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I can’t remember the first time I met Gil Perez, but the first time I got in touch with him, which must have been in the late 60s, it was to reprint a remarkable essay of his about Murnau that had appeared in Sight and Sound for an anthology I was editing called Film Masters, a book that for various complex reasons never came out (although, if memory serves, it twice reached the galley-proof stage). I do recall that Gil was still a theoretical physicist at the time, in the U.S. but still relatively fresh from Havana, and he was most likely making his academic transition to film studies and film theory when we eventually met in New York. (See his Introduction to his magisterial 1998 The Material Ghost, “Film and Physics,” for more details.) Years later, circa the early 80s, we became neighbors in Hoboken, living only a few blocks apart, and we remained loosely in touch for the remainder of his life, during his various stints at William Paterson, Princeton, Harvard, Missouri, and, most permanently, Sarah Lawrence, where he ran the film history program.

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A slow and methodical writer, but also a prolific one, Gil wrote frequently about film for the The Hudson Review, The Yale Review, and the London Review of Books and less often for film and academic journals, and I was often envious of the way he was both welcome and able to hold his own as a public intellectual with a literary sensibility in those and similar venues, such as The Nation. Read more

Letter to Harper’s (May 2021)

The following letter was published in the May 2021 issue of Harper’s magazine. Violet Lucca, the Letters editor, invited me to respond to the March issue’s cover story, by Martin Scorsese, “on Fellini and the lost magic of movies”. — J.R.

The moment cinephilia links up with personal nostalgia, as it does in Martin Scorsese’s “Il Maestro,” intellectual distinctions become tenuous. He laments the devaluing of art as “content” by his dumb employers and people accessing cinema in their homes, yet he has no trouble admitting that he first saw La strada on TV with his parents. Moreover, he grew up with movies as an art form before having to wrestle with it as a business, whereas I grew up in a family of Alabama exhibitors and eventually underwent the reverse trajectory, discovering film art in New York around the same time he did. 

Scorsese’s clearly a cinephile who has done extraordinary and generous work in making world cinema more widely available, but you’d never guess this from reading him on the subjects of Fellini and contemporary film culture. Here he seems to confuse personal choices and predilections with history, but my choices as a consumer aren’t his.

For me film culture remains as vital in some ways as it was in the 60s when Jonas Mekas could put out a magazine plausibly pretending to celebrate all of it. Read more

Ten Skies

From the April 20, 2005 Chicago Reader. More recently, 16 years later, Erika Balsom, a Canadian film critic and teacher based in London, has just published a brilliant short book about this film, a sort of tour de force that I’ve liked enough to blurb. — J..R.

This 16-millimeter experimental feature (2004) by James Benning consists of ten upward views from a stationary camera, each ten minutes long and filmed with sync sound from his backyard in southern California. I expected something minimalist, but in fact this is remarkably full — a mesmerizing study in time, light, movement, and moisture that traces the shifting relations between clouds and earth, nature and people. Benning is so attentive that he teaches us how to look and listen, and once we adjust our plot-driven expectations, things that might have seemed static at first are revealed as constantly changing. If you’re expecting a test or an ordeal, you could be as surprised by this masterpiece, and as grateful for it, as I was. 101 min. Presented by Chicago Filmmakers. Sat 4/30, 8 PM, Cinema Borealis.

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Review of THE WRITERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR GUILD

Written for the Fall 2015 issue of Film Quarterly. — J.R.

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The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and

Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

This is clearly a creditable, conscientious, intelligent, and

useful book, but I feel obliged to confess at the outset that

I don’t feel like I’m one of its ideal or intended readers. The

subtitle loosely describes its contents, but “A Business

History of Hollywood Screenwriters and Their Guild

would come much closer to the mark, even if it might make

the book less marketable to me and some others. And the

unexceptional simplification of the title and subtitle is part of

what gives me some trouble: it’s the business of Hollywood,

after all, to convince the public that “American screenwriters”

and “Hollywood screenwriters” amount to the same

thing. And the moment that any meaningful distinction

between the two collapses, then the studios, one might argue,

have already won the battle.

I don’t expect my own bias about this matter to be shared

by many of Film Quarterly’s readers. Writers who blithely

and uncritically toss about terms like “Indiewood” designed

to further mystify the differences between studio work and

independent work probably don’t think they’re working for

the fat cats, but from my vantage point as a journalist who

thinks that these distinctions deeply matter, they’re the worst

kind of unpaid publicists. Read more

THE HOUSE IS BLACK

The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.

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The House is Black is the most acclaimed of all Iranian documentaries. It was directed by Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), widely regarded as the greatest of all Iranian women poets and the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century, who died in a car accident when she was only 32. It was Farokhzad’s only film, produced in 1962 by her lover Ebrahim Golestan (an important filmmaker in his own right, for whom she also worked as an editor, and who serves as one of the film’s narrators). The film observes the tragic life of lepers in an isolated leprosy hospital (a hell on earth and a nest of suffering and death) near Tabriz in northwestern Iran. The Society for Assisting Lepers commissioned the film, and the director’s intention was “to wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims.”

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Farrokhzad avoids infringement by creating a close relationship with the lepers, and by searching for the seeds of joy and vitality within the hopelessness. She depicts the inhabitants in their daily occupations, having meals, praying, the children playing ball and attending school. Read more

On a Particular Literary Blind Spot

Bellow book jacketI’m very glad that I recently purchased Saul Bellow’s collected nonfiction — a handsome, interesting, and useful book, even if I tend to regard Bellow as the most overrated of all the “major” contemporary American novelists (certainly talented and smart, but not terribly interesting when it comes to formal inventiveness). And among the many valuable discoveries to be made here is the fact that Bellow served as a film critic for the magazine Horizon in 1962-1963, a stint which yielded four separate columns —  on Morris Engels’ Lovers and Lollipops, on Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, and two think pieces, “The Mass-Produced Insight” (which quotes from his pal Manny Farber) and “Adrift on a Sea of Gore” (mostly about Richard Fleischer’s Barrabas).

I was especially interested in Bellow’s appreciative remarks about Buñuel. But here is where the attentions of his otherwise careful editor,  Benjamin Taylor, come up woefully short. Listing some of the more notable items in Buñuel’s filmography, Bellow comes up with two very puzzling titles, The Roots (1957) [sic] and Stranger in the Room (1961) [sic]. The second of these, which he discusses in some detail, sounds like he might be thinking of La Fièvre Monte à El Pao (1959), while the first is most likely La Mort en Ce Jardin (1956). Read more

A Few Further Reflections on GREED (as seen on TCM, 6/14/15–6/15/15)

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I hadn’t originally intended to watch this film again, for the umpeenth time, when it was shown late last night on Turner Classic Movies, but as soon as I noticed the exquisite tinting and the (uncredited but fabulous) music score on the print they were showing, I couldn’t resist. (Apparently — or at least hopefully — the same print is available for online viewing.)

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I can’t think of another film in the history of cinema in which hands are more expressive, in a multitude of ways — a motif that may be even more telling than the gradual evolution of Mac and Trina’s wedding photo, half of which eventually becomes the wanted poster for Mac’s arrest.

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Too much of the writing about Greed (mine included) has been concentrated on the legend of the filming and the subsequent cutting and not enough about what remains, entirely visible and triumphant, in what remains and is fully visible.

A lot has been written about the relationship between the fates of Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons in terms of their eviscerations, and not enough about the major differences between the ways that they’re edited in their surviving forms.(Perhaps the most neglected but significant common point between the films is the unerring sense of camera angles in the staging of both films.) Read more

Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth?

Written for and published by Slate on December 27, 2005. The other contributors to this discussion, whom I’m addressing, are David Edelstein, Scott Fondas, and A.O. Scott. — J.R.

From: Jonathan Rosenbaum Posted Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2005, at 2:13 PM ET

Holiday Greetings, David, Scott, and Tony, David, I appreciate your invitation to “shake hands and come out punching,” though I suspect our disagreements this time around may wind up having more to do with Steven Spielberg and Munich than they do with Terrence Malick and The New World. (See Edelstein’s top-20 list of 2005 films here.) Just to be contrary, however, let me start off with four agreements. Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, William Eggleston and the Real World, and Homecoming all belong somewhere on my own extended list of favorites — and I’d need an asterisk of my own for the penultimate title, David, because Michael Almereyda is a friend whom we share. Read more

Zazie in the Metro

From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 2005). Click on the second photo below. — J.R.

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Arguably Louis Malle’s best work (1960). Based on Raymond Queneau’s farcical novel about a little girl (Catherine Demongeot) left in Paris for a weekend with her decadent uncle (Philippe Noiret), this wild spree goes overboard reproducing Mack Sennett-style slapstick, parodying various films of the 1950s, and playing with editing and color effects (Henri Decae’s cinematography is especially impressive), though gradually it becomes a rather disturbing nightmare about fascism. Forget the preposterous claim by a few critics that the movie’s editing influenced Alain Resnais, but there’s no doubt that Malle affected Richard Lester — and was clearly influenced himself by William Klein, whom he credited on the film as a visual consultant. A rather sharp, albeit soulless, film, packed with ideas and glitter and certainly worth a look. In French with subtitles. 93 min. Sun 11/20, 3 and 5 PM, Facets Cinematheque.

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Douglas Sirk

DOUGLAS SIRK COLLECTION (ALL I DESIRE, THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW & INTERLUDE), German DVD box set.

 

My favorite Sirk film, SCHLUSSAKKORD (FINAL ACCORD, 1936), has yet to come out on DVD anywhere, but this attractively put together German box set of three digitally restored 50s Hollywood features, purchased via German Amazon, does include the similarly titled DER LETZTE AKKORD (INTERLUDE, 1956), which turns out to be the only stinker in the bunch, despite the fact that it’s in color and CinemaScope. (Even a diehard fan like Fassbinder admitted this kitschy item is “a hard film to get into”.) The other two -– both excellent, complexly nuanced, doom-ridden and hard-as-nails melodramas in black and white -– are the pictures Sirk made with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1953 and 1955 respectively, each of which charts her character’s belated and troubled small-town homecoming. In the first, set around the turn of the century, she’s a not-very-successful stage actress returning to visit her family in Wisconsin; in the second she’s a divorced and successful clothes designer looking up her one-time boyfriend (Fred MacMurray), who now has a family of his own (including a somewhat miscast Joan Bennett). Both are about as bleak as movies can get -– notwithstanding ALL I DESIRE’s studio-imposed happy ending, which is impossible to believe in anyway. Read more

Ernest Borneman

TOMORROW IS NOW by Ernest Borneman (London: Neville Spearman), 1959, 205 pp. There are few careers more fascinating and multifaceted than that of Ernest Borneman (1915-1995), a German-born psychotherapist and non-fiction writer who also wrote several novels (all in English), and whose other professions at various stages in his career included playwright, cameraman, screenwriter, writer for TV and radio, film director, prolific journalist, and jazz musician. I’ve tried to encapsulate a few things about him, including his work with Orson Welles and his discovery of Eartha Kitt, in a long footnote on pp. 3-4 of my book MOVIE WARS, where I quote from a brilliant 1947 essay of his, “The Public Opinion Myth,” in order to counter many of the assumptions underlying the test-marketing of movies. I’ve now read only two of his novels, all of which are out of print: THE FACE ON THE CUTTING-ROOM FLOOR (1937), his first and best known (though published under the pseudonym of Cameron McCabe), a flavorsome murder mystery that I treasure mainly for its dialogue as well as its 24-page Afterword about Borneman–written by the book’s editors, though containing a lot of interview material and a letter from Borneman, dating from 1979 and 1981, respectively. Read more

Viktor Shklovsky

LITERATURE AND CINEMATOGRAPHY by Viktor Shklovsky (Champaign and London: Dalkey Archive Press), 2008, 74 pp. Translated by Irina Masinovsky; Introduction by Richard Sheldon.

What’s unexpected about this early theoretical foray by the father of Russian Formalism (1893-1984), first published in 1923 and now appearing in English for the first time, is that it conveys pretty much the same emotion underlying “Moviegoer,” an essay by William Styron first published (in French, in the newspaper Le Figaro) in 1983 and now recently making its first appearance in English in Styron’s HAVANAS IN CAMELOT (see below): the anxiety of a literary writer feeling threatened by movies. (The same anxiety, incidentally, crops up periodically in other essays by Styron in the same book: in “`I’ll Have To Ask Indianapolis–’”, for instance, Styron records his consternation at receiving a dissertation in the mail entitled “SOPHIE’S CHOICE: a Jungian Perspective” -– a study containing the following explanatory footnote: “Where the movie was vague I referred to the book, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, for clarification.”)

Shklovsky: “If it is impossible to express a novel in words other than those in which it has been written, if it is impossible to change the sounds of a poem without changing its essence, then it is even more impossible to replace words with a grey-and-black shadow flashing on the screen.” Read more