Monthly Archives: July 2021

Vietnam: Long Time Coming

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.

vietnam_ltc

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 »

Sexism in the French New Wave

From Film Quarterly (Spring 2009). — J.R.

 

One way of looking back at the sense of male privilege underlying much of the French New Wave would be to consider Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a belated commentary on it. I’ve long regarded that masterpiece as a late-blooming, final flowering of the New Wave, especially for its referentiality in relation to cinephilia and film criticism. For one thing, it glories in the kind of compulsive doubling of shots and characters that François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette himself all discovered in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. But it also puts a kind of stopper on the New Wave in the way it both underlines and responds to that movement’s sexism through the services of its four lead actresses, all of whom collaborated on its script: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier. Every male character, both in the story proper and in the film-with-in-the-film, is viewed as absurd, both as a romantic fop and as a narcissist who ultimately elicits the heroines’ scorn and ridicule: the patriarch (Barbet Schroeder) in the Phantom Ladies over Paris segments, playing his two phantom ladies (Ogier and Pisier) off against one another; and, in the story proper, Julie’s small-town suitor (Philippe Clévenot), Céline’s boss (Jean Douchet), and various male customers at the cabaret.… Read more »

Response to Patrick McGilligan’s Woody Allen Poll [slightly updated]

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.)

whatsuptl3

annie-hall

broadwaydannyrose

1989-oedipus-wrecks

mmm3

What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Annie Hall

Broadway Danny Rose

Oedipus Wrecks 

Manhattan Murder Mystery

2.  What do you believe about the allegation by Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, that he sexually molested her?   

            c.  Undecided.

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?

No.

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 »

Vietnam Under Glass [THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA]

From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1994). — J.R.

*** THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-khe, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hoi, and Tran Ngoc Trung.


Until fairly recently, films from the Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking world have had next to no distribution here; so it’s worth noting that three such movies have been nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: Farewell My Concubine from Hong Kong, The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan, and The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam. The first two of these have already opened in Chicago, and the third — in some ways my favorite in the bunch — is starting a run this week at the Fine Arts. What overlapping interests — economic, cultural, artistic, ideological — are being served by this sudden upsurge in attention?

Interestingly enough, none of these Oscar nominees qualifies purely and unambiguously as a movie representing the country officially attached to it. Though Farewell My Concubine was produced in Hong Kong, all its action takes place in mainland China, and it was directed by a celebrated “Fifth Generation” filmmaker, Chen Kaige. The Wedding Banquet, a Taiwanese-American coproduction, has a Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, but it’s set in New York City and much of its dialogue is in English.… Read more »

My Movies, Myself [VENICE/VENICE]

From the Chicago Reader (January 22, 1993). –J.R.

venice_keyart

VENICE/VENICE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Henry Jaglom

With Jaglom, Nelly Alard, Suzanne Bertish, Melissa Leo, Daphna Kastner, David Duchovny, and Diane Salinger.

Quite early in Venice/Venice writer-director-actor Dean (Henry Jaglom, transparently standing in for himself) tells an interviewer at the Venice film festival that there are two kinds of narcissists. The bad kind love only themselves, but the good kind use their self-love as a stepping-stone to loving others.

Dean (and Jaglom) obviously regards himself as the good kind of narcissist, and clearly we’re supposed to agree. But what about a third kind of narcissist, a kind Dean doesn’t mention — the narcissist whose self-love is a stepping-stone to loving others but who loves others only because he regards them as versions of himself? This is the universe of Henry Jaglom, a new-age, touchy-feely universe where everyone — everyone who matters, that is — talks and thinks and loves and hangs loose in the same manner.

The giveaway of this kind of narcissism is a series of talking-head montages of real-life interviews with women discussing the ways that movies have affected their fantasies about romance. One such montage begins the picture, and others occur again and again throughout.… Read more »

WR, Sex, and the Art of Radical Juxtaposition

In memory of Dušan Makavejev (1932-2019). Commissioned and originally published by Criterion for their DVD of WR: Mysteries of the Organism in 2007. — J.R.


Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, it was generally felt among Western intellectuals and cinephiles that cutting-edge, revolutionary cinema came from Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Among the touchstones were Jean-Luc Godard’s films in France, Newsreel’s agitprop documentaries and their spin-offs (like Robert Kramer’s Ice and Milestones) in the United States, such diverse provocations as Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and Godard’s 1+1 in the United Kingdom, and, in Latin America, films like Lucía (Cuba), The Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina), and Antonio das Mortes (Brazil).

By contrast, the wilder politicized art movies coming out of Eastern Europe at the time — such as those of Vera Chytilová, Miklós Jancsó, and Dušan Makavejev — were treated as curiosities, aberrations that wound up getting marginalized by default. The fact that they came from Communist countries made them much harder for Westerners to place, process, and understand; in most cases, an adequate sense of context was lacking.

Part of the problem was a certain intellectual as well as sensual impoverishment arising from the one-dimensional view of Communism fostered by the cold war, even among some of the better-educated leftists and cinephiles, which tended to lump together the Eastern European countries as if they were all part of the same stereotypical gray wasteland.… Read more »

Same Old Lefty Claptrap [SILVER CITY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 16, 2004). — J.R.

Silver City

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and Written by John Sayles

With Danny Huston, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, James Gammon, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, Mary Kay Place, Billy Zane, Sal Lopez, Ralph Waite, Miguel Ferrer, and Michael Murphy

Almost 60 years ago, in the essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made observations about bad writing that have lost none of their relevance. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” he wrote. “The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.”

Ready-made phrases in the news — “smoking gun,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “war on terror” — tend to hurry listeners or readers along instead of encouraging them to think.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Prizewinners, Also-Rans & Others

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-BluRay

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:

pintille-thickbox

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 »

Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard

From the Summer 1972 issue of Sight and Sound. This was my first contribution to that magazine. — J.R.

Godard’s collected criticism (1) is many things at once: informal history (1950–1967) of the arts in general and film in particular, spiritual and intellectual autobiography, a theory of aesthetics, a grab bag of puns. For those who read the pieces when they first appeared — chiefly in the yellow-covered Cahiers du Cinéma and the newspaper format of Arts — it was frequently ill-mannered gibberish that began to be vindicated (or amplified) when the films followed, retrospectively becoming a form of prophecy:

 

Each shot of MAN OF THE WEST gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the Western, exactly as Matisse’s portraits reinvent the features of Piero della Francesca . . . in other words, he both shows and demonstrates, innovates and copies, criticizes and creates.

 

For those who encounter the films first, it is likely to seem like an anthology of footnotes serving to decipher and augment what may have once seemed like ill-mannered gibberish on the screen. But for those more interested in continuity than cause and effect, it rounds out a seventeen-year body of work — from an article on Joseph Mankiewicz in Gazette du Cinéma to the “Fin du Cinéma” title concluding WEEKEND — that has already transformed much of the vocabulary and syntax of modern narrative film, further illustrating a style that has passed from avant-garde to neoclassical in less than a decade.Read more »

Women of Substance

From the Chicago Reader (August 10, 2001). — J.R.

ghost-world

TheDeepEnd

 

Under the Sand

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Francois Ozon

Written by Ozon, Emmanuele Bernheim, Marina de Van, and Marcia Romano

With Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot, and Alexandra Stewart.

Ghost World

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes and Zwigoff

With Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, and Stacey Travis.

The Deep End

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

With Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat, Josh Lucas, and Raymond Barry.

 

It’s often said that strong roles for women are rare nowadays, but three new movies — Under the Sand, Ghost World, and The Deep End — have the virtue of handing a juicy, sympathetic part to a talented actress and letting her run with it. All three are directed by men, which raises the question of whether women will find these portraits as potent and sensitive as I do. Yet even if they qualify to some degree as male fantasies, I’d argue that they’re more in touch with our everyday reality and our history than a male fantasy like Apocalypse Now Redux.… Read more »

Sex Drive [on CRASH]

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 1997). — J.R.

CRASH

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill, Yolanda Julian, and Cheryl Swarts.

“Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.

“Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.”

These are the last two paragraphs of J.G. Ballard’s introduction to his 1973 novel Crash. They point to a seeming paradox that lies at the heart of David Cronenberg’s masterful film adaptation as well as the original — the idea that pornography, by virtue of being political, can play a cautionary role rather than, or in addition to, a prescriptive one.… Read more »

Form Counts [MIX-UP, ANATOMY OF A RELATIONSHIP, & GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN]

Françoise Romand’s Mix-up is surely one of the greatest films I’ve ever reviewed, and I can happily report that it’s become available in recent years on DVD (which isn’t to say that it isn’t still grossly neglected); you can even find it on Amazon in the U.S. This article appeared in the February 26, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader, and eventually it led to my becoming friends with Romand. — J.R.

MIX-UP

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Françoise Romand.

ANATOMY OF A RELATIONSHIP

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno

With Moullet and Christine Hébert.

GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Les Blank.

While the issue of representation is at the cutting edge of most debates about film, it usually gets posed in relation to fiction features; documentaries, ranging from Shoah to the evening news, are commonly exempted. The unspoken assumption that nonfictional form is a discardable, see-through candy wrapper — a means of organizing and containing information, which can safely be ignored once we get to the goodies inside — not only keeps us ideologically innocent but limits the kinds of content we may find permissible in documentaries.

Many valuable documentaries, of course, exist chiefly to let certain voices be heard that might otherwise remain silent: Carole Langer’s Radium City, about a radioactive town in Illinois, is one such example, and Deborah Shaffer’s powerful account of the Sandinista struggle, Fire From the Mountain (which is playing this week at Facets), is another.… Read more »

Searching For Bobby Fischer

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1993). — J.R.

Searchingfbf

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)

SFBFRead more »

Muddled Americans [TRACK 29]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1988). — J.R.

TRACK 29

** (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 »

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1977 review)

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 »