From Sight and Sound (Summer 1973). – J.R.
FILM AS FILM: Understanding and Judging Movies
By V.F. Perkins
PENGUIN BOOKS, 35p
Responding polemically to some of the more antiquated notions found in Rotha, Lindgren, Manvell, Arnheim and others, the title of Victor Perkins’ short and engaging book carries a sympathetic resonance. A major part of his enterprise is to clear away cobwebs from the attics of film theory and lay a few outdated texbooks to rest, and ‘Film as Film’ adequately summarizes the central thrust of his yarious charges. But as we know, theories arc usually debunked to clear the way for newer models, and as soon as Perkins’ own theory gets under way, his title begins to seem much more inclusive than anything he claims to offer in his text. Unavoidably, alternate titles come to mind: “Action as Presentation”, or, perhaps more to the point, ‘Movie as Movie’.
As Perkins indicates in his preface, ‘The examples discussed are not drawn from the (rightly or wrongly) accepted classics of Film Art nor from the fashionable “triumphs” of the past few years, but generally from films which seem to representwhat the Movies meant to their public in the cinema’s commercial heyday.’ Read more
From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).
To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….
“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur. Read more
In most respects, I’m delighted and honored that a version of the following essay was published in Issue Two of the journal Music & Literature, which is devoted to László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr, and Max Neumann, In fact, this essay was commissioned by the editors of this handsome special issue, and my only reason for posting my original version is that a few stylistic edits were made, in what I’m sure were sincere efforts to clarify some of the entanglements in my lengthy sentences, that unfortunately yielded some embarrassing factual errors in the piece, as well as a few significant cuts. (It now appears that I read portions of the French translation of Krasznahorkai’s novel before I ever saw Tarr’s film and that Erich Auerbach’s great book Mimesis now includes an analysis of Light in August that no one has previously read; and the remarkable observation from Dan Gunn that I quoted has been deleted.) So, just to keep the record straight, here, for better and for worse, is exactly what I wrote. More recently, in mid-January 2015, I belatedly received a copy of this article with the above Introduction reprinted in Scalarama, a publication put together by Stanley Schtinter to accompany a tour of Sátántangó in the U.K. Read more
From The Soho News (June 11, 1980). Note: The “Hollywood assistant” quoted below was Meredith Brody, working at the time for A-Team. — J.R.
A film by Eric Mitchell
St. Mark’s Cinema, midnight
“Sometimes I think most of the ’70s is being spent in
cars, discussing remakes,” a Hollywood assistant once
woefully remarked to me. She didn’t know how lucky she
was. Sometimes, in my less happy moods, I think that
most of the 80s will be spent in theaters, watching the
same remakes that were being discussed in the ’70s.
Willie & Phil –– Paul Mazursky’s remake of Jules and
Jim, set in the American ’70s — isn’t opening for a couple
of months yet. John Carpenter’s The Fog and several
other recent quickies have already remade Carpenter’s
Halloween, which was itself a partial remake of The Thing
(which Carpenter is now planning to remake more directly).
And to round off this minisurvey of new, original
thinking (if you want to exalt the conventional, call it
classical), the new Eric Mitchell film, the l6mm
Underground U.S.A., which already sounds like a remake
of Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. — is actually
described in its own pressbook as a remake of a remake:
“Taking the classic theme of Sunset Boulevard seen
through Heat,” Underground U.S.A Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 1989). — J.R.
Whether or not this goofy black comedy is a total “success” is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty different from anything else around. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising that is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, but it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (Biograph)
From Sight and Sound (November 1991). -– J.R.
Play it again
The Cult Film Experience: Beyond AII Reason
J. P. Telotte (ed), University of Texas Press,
$36, 218 pp.
“It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino and Barthes”, Umberto Eco wrote in 1984. “But that day will come”. J. P. Telotte’s collection reminds us that Eco’s sad day is already well behind us — though it turns out to be Eco himself rather than Calvino or Barthes who provides the principal theoretical back-up.
Serious analysis of film cults can be traced back to a 1932 essay by Harry Alan Potamkin, but you won’t find Potamkin’s name in Telotte’s index. Indeed, apart from some cursory acknowledgments, the book fosters the impression that the arrival of film cults coincided with the burgeoning of film studies in the early 70s. This suggests that academic film study is itself an unacknowledged form of cult activity predicated on repeated viewings by a fetishistically inclined minority audience which reappropriates the film in question for its own specialized purposes.
One of these purposes is institutional, which accounts for the academics’ frequent recourse to the self- validating and ahistorical term ‘classical’ to dignify both mainstream movie-making and established film theory. Read more
The avoidance or frequent absence of history on the Internet is often a problem, but I’ve rarely seen it exploited so shamelessly and cripplingly as it is in a post supposedly “celebrating” Godard’s 82th birthday that quotes fifteen filmmakers on the subject of Godard, including Godard himself, arranged alphabetically from Chantal Akerman to Wim Wenders.
Let’s start with the first sentence in the first quotation, from Akerman: “You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner.” Is this the Godard of For Ever Mozart, the Godard of Film Socialisme, or a much earlier Godard? It’s impossible to understand, much less evaluate what Akerman is saying, without knowing the answer to this question. Pretend that this doesn’t matter and you’re pointlessly sliming both Akerman and Godard, for no good reason.
Five quotes later, we get, “Luis Buñuel: I’ll give him two years more, he is just a fashion.” Obviously, this statement was made when Buñuel was still alive, which means he had to have said it at some point between, say, 1960 and 1983. Lots of leg room in there — about 30 features’ worth.
And one quote later, from Godard himself: “I am not an auteur, well, not now anyway.” Read more
A Critic’s Choice from the April 9, 1999 Chicago Reader. Seeing Luigi Zampa’s wonderful To Live in Peace (1947) yesterday, for the first time, at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, I discovered the same theme attached to an earlier and more “popular” war, expressed largely in comic and even farcical terms. — J.R.
Essential viewing. This documentary about a group of American and Vietnamese war veterans, many of them disabled, bicycling 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is many things at once — act of witness, account of a multicultural exchange, sports story, journalistic investigation, and mourning for the devastation of war. Ultimately it may be too many things to yield a cumulative effect, yet its scenes of former soldiers struggling with the meaning of the war are the most moving ones on the subject since Winter Soldier (a wartime agitprop film in which Vietnam veterans confessed their “war crimes”). The corporate sponsorship of the bicycle marathon adds many ironic layers, but the emotional encounters it permitted seem more important than anything else I’ve seen about our involvement in Vietnam. Coproduced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and directed by Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn, and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams). Read more
Preparing a book about Woody Allen, biographer Patrick McGilligan sent out a poll to me and many others, and here are my responses to his questions:
THE WOODY ALLEN POLL
1. What five Woody Allen films do you hold in the highest regard?
(List the five in any order. One equal point will be assigned to each of your choices for the cumulative total to be listed from 100 participating critics and scholars.)
What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
Broadway Danny Rose
Manhattan Murder Mystery
2. What do you believe about the allegation by Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, that he sexually molested her?
3. Have the Dylan Farrow allegations, or his marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn – either or both – affected your view of his film?
4. How has his over-all legacy been affected? Comments are welcome.
I’ve always thought he was overrated (cf. my “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen”). If his reputation and legacy as an artist have been tarnished by these unconfirmed charges or his marriage, this only illustrates the public’s lack of seriousness about art. I find Allen’s far more confirmable shame and embarrassment about his working-class origins and his middle-class values far more relevant to the importance and (lack of) depth of his work. Read more
From Cinema Scope issue issue 60, Fall 2014. — J.R.
DVD AWARDS 2014
XI edition (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna)
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON BLU-RAY:
Late Mizoguchi – Eight Films, 1951-1956 (Eureka Entertainment). The publication of eight indisputable masterpieces in stellar transfers on Blu-ray is a cause for celebration. If Eureka is not exclusive in offering these individual titles, what makes this collection especially praiseworthy and indispensable is the scholarship, imagination and care that went into the accompanying 344-page booklet. Over 60 rare production stills are included, many featuring Mizoguchi at work. Striking essays by Keiko I. McDonald, Mark Le Fanu, and Nakagawa Masako are anthologized along with extensively annotated translations of some of the key sources of Japanese literature that inspired some of Mizoguchi’s late films. The volume closes with tributes to the great director written by Tarkovsky, Rivette, Godard, Straub, Angelopoulos, Shinoda, and others. Tony Rayns provides spoken essays and some full-length commentaries.
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON DVD:
Pintilie, Cineast (Transilvania Films). An impeccable collection devoted to eleven films by an important and neglected maverick Romanian filmmaker, masterful and acerbic, with invaluable contextualizing extras concerning his life, work, and career drawn from ten separate sources. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1993). — J.R.
One of the craftiest and most satisfying pieces about gender politics to come along in ages (1993) — all the more crafty because audiences are encouraged to see it simply as a movie about a seven-year-old chess genius, based on Fred Waitzkin’s nonfiction book about his son Josh. Very well played (with Max Pomeranc especially good as Josh), shot (by Conrad Hall), and written and directed (by Steven Zaillian, who also scripted Schindler’s List), it gradually evolves into a kind of parable about how a gifted kid learns to choose his role models and choose what he needs from them. The part played by gender in all this is both subtle and complex, relating not only to chess strategy (e.g., when to bring your queen out) and the personality of Bobby Fischer, but also to the varying attitudes toward competition taken by his parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen) and two teachers (Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley). It makes for a good old-fashioned inspirational story, absorbing and pointed. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1988). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Dennis Potter
With Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Sandra Bernhard, and Seymour Cassel.
As a rule, I tend to be favorably disposed toward non-American movie depictions of American life, at least as a source of fresh perspectives. If we accept the premise that the U.S. continues to function as a stimulus for fantasy projections all over the world, here as well as everywhere else, it stands to reason that European projections about America would at least have the virtues of relative distance and detachment. Consequently, movies as diverse as Bunuel’s The Young One, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Passer’s Born to Win, Demy’s The Model Shop, Wenders’s Hammett and Paris, Texas, and even — to cite two recent and contentious examples — Konchalovsky’s Shy People and Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe have things to tell us about this country that we would never learn from the likes of John Ford or Frank Capra. The truths of these movies may be more oblique and specialized (and harder to encapsulate) than those of our semiofficial laureates, but at least they give us some notion of how we look to outsiders. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin , vol. 44, no. 516, January 1977.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Herzog’s reputation and constructed myth as a mad genius. Here are my capsule reviews for the Chicago Reader of Lessons of Darkness (1992) and My Best Fiend (1999), respectively (on other occasions, I’ve sometimes been more supportive of his work):
In his characteristically dreamy Young Werther fashion, Werner Herzog generates a lot of bombastic and beautiful documentary footage out of the post-Gulf war oil fires and other forms of devastation in Kuwait, gilds his own high-flown rhetoric by falsely ascribing it to Pascal, and in general treats war as abstractly as CNN, but with classical music on the soundtrack to make sure we know it’s art. This 1992 documentary may be the closest contemporary equivalent to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, both aesthetically and morally; I found it disgusting, but if you’re able to forget about humanity as readily as Herzog there are loads of pretty pictures to contemplate. 54 min.
Werner Herzog’s surprisingly slim and relatively impersonal 1999 feature charts his relationship with the mad actor Klaus Kinski on the five features they made together. Though Herzog has plenty to say about Kinski’s tantrums on the Peru locations of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and even interviews other witnesses on the same subject, he says next to nothing about his own involvement — such as why he hired Kinski in the first place or how the overreaching heroes Kinski played for Herzog were clearly modeled after the director, metaphorically speaking. Read more
My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.
I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Dudley Nichols
With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.
A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.
Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.
I only half agree with Gunning. Read more