Here is another one of my Paris Journals for Film Comment — the first one, I believe, after the magazine shifted from being a quarterly to a bimonthly publication. Once again, I think part of the reason for reproducing this now is its value as a period piece.
2019: A fascinating footnote about Solntseva: at a film festival in Spain a few years ago, Sergei Loznitsa told me that thanks to an opening of some of the KGB’s old files for public scrutiny, it was revealed that she had been a longtime member. Most of us know far too little about the Russian and Soviet past to begin to understand the reasons for this, but it seems possible that Solntseva may have actually joined the KGB in order to help protect her Ukrainian husband, who was reportedly under Soviet surveillance for most of his life. It does help to explain, in any case, how, after Dovzhenko failed to get so many of his own personal projects like Desna produced, Solntseva was able to direct three of them with lavish budgets and immense technical resources after his death.
Here are working links to these films:
These two short articles were written for the catalogue of the fifth edition of the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2004. Both are about neglected filmmakers who are or were also longtime friends of mine–although neither, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seen any films by the other, and they met for the first time at the festival, where complete retrospectives of both filmmakers were being presented. (I first met Eduardo in Paris in 1973, shortly after he’d finished working as a screenwriter on Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, and I first met Sara about ten years later in New York, shortly before I saw her first major film, You Are Not I, and decided to devote a chapter to her in my book Film: The Front Line 1983.) Her complete works apart from her 2017 Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat are now available in a wonderful two-disc package, which can be found here.
When I was asked to write these two pieces for the BAFICI catalogue, I opted to make them each exactly the same length (942 words) and to make them rhyme with one another in various other ways. Read more
My column for the Spring 2017 issue of Cinema Scope. – – J.R.
Probably the most important DVD release of last year, inexplicably overlooked by me when I made out my lists for Sight and Sound and DVD Beaver, is Josef von Sternberg: The Salvation Hunters (1925) and The Case of Lena Smith (fragment, 1929), a single all-region disc from www.edition-filmmuseum.com for 19.95 Euros. It includes a wonderful new 32-minute audiovisual essay on The Salvation Hunters by Janet Bergstrom, and a new score to Sternberg’s first feature by Siegfried Friedrich, but the real pièce de résistance here is the dazzling four-minute fragment from the otherwise lost The Case of Lena Smith, discovered by Japanese film historian Komatsu Hiroshi in a Chinese junk shop in Dalian in 2003. (See the Filmmuseum’s exhaustive 2007 book about The Case of Lena Smith for more details.) In Edgardo Cozarinsky’s 1995 Citizen Langlois, Langlois’ companion Mary Meerson is quoted as saying, “The Case of Lena Smith will reappear one day when mankind deserves it.” In the meantime, here is a fragrant glimpse of what undeserving mankind is missing.
Although most of the recent Blu-Ray releases of Olive Films have tended to steer clear of their previous auteurist commitments, Otto Preminger’s underrated if sometimes problematic 1969 Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is a very welcome exception. Read more
This was written exactly one week after September 11, 2001, at the invitation of the Chicago Reader‘s editor, but the first time it was published was on this web site on March 11, 2010. — J.R.
I was having breakfast in the restaurant of my Toronto hotel on September 11 when I heard President Bush on TV making his first statement of that day, from Florida. I saw the World Trade Center towers in flames, but it wasn’t until I resumed watching the coverage in the film festival’s press office a few blocks away that I actually saw them fall. It was an event that registered in increments for the remainder of the day and the remainder of the week — something that’s still going on. And evaluating whether the prospects of adjusting to the shock and horror are grim or hopeful seems largely a matter of thinking in short or long terms.
“Pearl Harbor” as a reference point is a good example of the grimmest and least helpful short-term thinking, literally predicated on a world that hasn’t existed for 60 years. (One variation, sadly coming from one of my brightest and most progressive friends: to compare what we’d like to do to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to what we did to the Japanese, by dropping Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — i.e., Read more
The merit of Mary L. Trump’s energizing and persuasive new book, The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, which usefully combines psychology with our national history, is its demonstration of the diverse ways that denial shapes not only much of our politics but most of our media. It might also be argued that, as Mary Trump periodically implies, the principal agent of that denial is capitalism, which trumps democracy (pun intended) whenever it can.
The main form of denial Mary Trump’s book is concerned with is related to the trauma caused by American genocide and enslavement and the myth of white supremacy that has sought to justify and sustain these practices, but it applies equally well to the history of this country’s obscurely motivated and ill-defined wars, most recently the military occupation of Afghanistan. The media’s emphasis on the messinessn of our military withdrawal is predicated entirely on capitalist assumptions that (1) messiness is always what people want to watch the most, (2) ignoring and in effect denying the messiness of previous unnecessary wars to make the end of the present one seem unique and unprecedented. Our other military occupations, and our eventual messy withdrawals (e.g., Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq) are made to seem irrelevant, and denying them helps to keep us watching the current messy withdrawal ahistorically, as if all of this has never happened before (and will never happen again), and (3) as Paul Krugman recently pointed out, people hate to admit that they’ve been wrong for the past two decades. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 14, 1997). — J,R.
Adapted by Ann Biderman from the popular Peter Hoeg novel and directed by Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions), this is a watchable conspiracy thriller, but, as with most conspiracy thrillers, the first half is a lot more watchable than the second: the more one discovers, the less interested one becomes. Playing a troubled and not very likable loner who’s half Greenlandic Inuit and half American, Julia Ormond—a lot more interesting here than she’s been on previous star outings—plays a spiky recluse obsessed with solving the mystery of the allegedly accidental death of a six-year-old Inuit neighbor. This leads to a complex investigation whose facts become steadily more outlandish. Others in the cast include Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, and, in a cameo, Vanessa Redgrave. Jorgen Persson’s ‘Scope cinematography is handsome; the imitation Bernard Herrmann score is by composer-by-the-yard Hans Zimmer, working with Harry Gregson Williams.
From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 2001). — J.R.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Spielberg and Ian Watson
With Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Jake Thomas, and the voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, and Chris Rock.
If the best movies are often those that change the rules, Steven Spielberg’s sincere, cockeyed, serious, and sometimes masterful realization of Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious late project deserves to be a contender. All of Kubrick’s best films fall into one vexing category — they’re strange, semi-identified objects that we’re never quite prepared for. They’re also the precise opposite of Spielberg’s films, which ooze cozy familiarity before we’ve figured out what they are or what they’re doing to us. If A.I. Artificial Intelligence — a film whose split personality is apparent even in its two-part title — is as much a Kubrick movie as a Spielberg one, this is in large part because it defamiliarizes Spielberg, makes him strange. Yet it also defamiliarizes Kubrick, with equally ambiguous results — making his unfamiliarity familiar. Both filmmakers should be credited for the results — Kubrick for proposing that Spielberg direct the project and Spielberg for doing his utmost to respect Kubrick’s intentions while making it a profoundly personal work. Read more
The following interview by Sara Donoso, printed in Spanish and English in Fotocinema no. 14 (2017), was conducted in Santiago de Compostela while I was serving on the jury of Curtocircuíto, the international festival of short films held there. I’ve taken the liberty of lightly revising Donoso’s English, and I’ve also retained her Spanish introduction.– J.R.
THE EXPANSION OF CRITICISM: AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, España
Crítico, ensayista y teórico de cine, la pluma de Jonathan Rosenbaum es de aquellas que practican el ejercicio de la resistencia; que se oponen a la clasificación, las etiquetas, al mundo del mainstream y a la cultura del espectáculo. Podríamos decir que es uno de esos críticos tal vez incómodos para algunos pero necesarios y reveladores para quienes aprecian el séptimo arte. Tras trabajar como principal crítico del Chicago Reader entre 1987 y 2008, actualmente sigue ejerciendo el ejercicio de la escritura cinematográfica a través de su página web, en la que no solo postea periódicamente reseñas de libros o películas sino que cuenta además con un archivo de publicaciones anteriores. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2000). — J.R.
Films by Luis Buñuel
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
It seems to be universally agreed that Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is the greatest Spanish-language filmmaker we’ve ever had, but getting a clear fix on his peripatetic career isn’t easy. The authorized biography, John Baxter’s 1994 Buñuel, isn’t available in the U.S., and the deplorable English translation of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983), is actually an unacknowledged condensation of the original French text. Better are an interview book translated from Spanish, Objects of Desire, and a recently published translation of selected writings by Buñuel in both Spanish and French, An Unspeakable Betrayal, which includes his priceless, poetic early film criticism.
A more general problem is that Buñuel is not only “simple” and direct but full of teasing, unresolvable ambiguities. A master of the put-on, he often impresses one with his earthy sincerity. A political progressive and unsentimental humanist, he was also, I’ve learned from Baxter, an active gay basher in his youth, and those who’ve read the untranslated but reputedly fascinating memoirs of his widow report that he was a very old-fashioned and prudish male chauvinist throughout his life. He was a onetime devout Catholic who lost his faith in his youth and was fond of exclaiming years later, “Thank God I’m still an atheist!” Read more
Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June-July 2017). — J.R.
It might be excessive to claim that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) invented the heist thriller (also known as the caper film), but at the very least one could say that it provided the blueprint for the most successful examples of that subgenre that would follow it, including (among others) The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956), Seven Thieves (1960), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Reservoir Dogs (1992) — not to mention such parody versions as Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and most of the latter films of Jean-Pierre Melville, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le deuxième souffle, (1966), and Le cercle rouge (1970). Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle was regarded as such a master text by Melville that one isn’t surprised to find over a dozen references to it in Ginette Vincendeau’s book about him. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, Melville once “declared that…there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in [John Huston’s masterpiece].”
In short, the reverberations in this MGM A-feature are multiple, although that doesn’t prevent it from still seeming fresh today. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 12, 1990). — J.R.
The 26th Chicago International Film Festival includes, at the latest count, 110 features and ten additional programs, spaced out over 15 days in two locations –a somewhat more modest menu than last year’s. Apart from this streamlining, it would be a pleasure to report some major improvements in the overall selection, but I’m afraid wanting isn’t having, and from the looks of things, this year’s lineup is not very inspiring.
About six weeks ago, when the festival issued a list of about 100 “confirmed and invited” films, I was hopeful. Based on what I’d already seen or heard about, the list was, barring some omissions, a fair summary of what was going on in world cinema, which is more than one could say for previous Chicago festival lineups. I pointed this out to a colleague, who replied, “Yeah, but let’s see how many of these actually turn up,” and I’m sorry to say his skepticism was warranted. Gradually, irrevocably, over half of the hottest titles were dropped from the list, including Kira Muratova’s remarkable The Asthenic Syndrome, Jean-Luc Godard’s La nouvelle vague, Nanni Moretti’s Palombella Rosa, Pavel Lounguine’s Taxi Blues, Charles Burnett’s soon-to-open To Sleep With Anger, Aki Kaurismaki’s The Match Factory Girl, Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgy, Otar Iosseliani’s Et la lumiere fut, and Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband. Read more
Written for the July-August 2017 Film Comment. This is the unedited version of my review. — J.R.
Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies
By Joseph McBride, Hightower Press, $38.50.
Anyone who’s read his astute critical biographies of Capra, Ford, Spielberg, and Welles knows that Joseph McBride is one of our most invaluable film historians. No less ambitious but more personal are his three most recent books, all brought out expertly under his own imprint and available from Amazon: his hefty Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit (2013), his very moving and painfully candid The Broken Places: A Memoir (2015), and now an even heftier volume collecting half a century’s worth of his film journalism and criticism, encompassing 56 separate items and almost 700 large-format pages. It’s the sort of old-fashioned bedside compendium and browser’s paradise that we seldom get nowadays from academic publishers—with a few rare exceptions, such as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’ delightful 2009 New Literary History of America (which included one of the better McBride essays reprinted here, “The Screenplay as Genre,” about Citizen Kane). McBride prefaces each piece with a contextualizing introduction, and part of what makes this volume fun is the informal history it offers of McBride’s own taste and career. Read more
Written for MUBI Notebook in April 2020. — J.R.
It’s disconcerting that the collected writings in English of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers currently sells for $852 on Amazon — or a whopping $980, if you opt for the paperback — while the only American book about him downgrades his work’s artistic value in its very title (Vance Kepley’s 1985 In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko). Look him up on Wikipedia, and you find that his name is shared by a poker player and a psychiatrist — hardly fit company for the epic, poetic Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), a pagan mystic whose masterful films look as wildly experimental, as dreamlike, as hysterically funny, as fiercely tragic, and as beautiful today as they did a century ago.
A Cold War casualty, often defined in the West as a Russian Communist and in Russia as a turncoat, this Ukrainian nationalist lived under KGB surveillance for most of his life — which may help to explain why his devoted second wife Julia Solntseva, who filmed many of his unrealized scripts after his death, had joined the KGB herself, possibly in order to protect her husband. And as one of his better Western explicators, Ray Uzwyshyn, has pointed out, “With regard to the non-Russian republics (i.e. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.
It’s fitting that the most existential of plays should function as a kind of test, and fortunate that the first Michael Almereyda picture to get full mainstream exposure should also turn out to be his best to date. But what’s being tested isn’t either Shakespeare or Almereyda but the present moment: that is, the film asks how and how much we’re capable of living in the world Shakespeare wrote about. Wittily and tragically updating the play’s action to corporate America in general and New York in particular, Almereyda is no Orson Welles, but he begins to seem like one when he’s castigated for not doing his Shakespeare like Kenneth Branagh; the censure recalls all the times square and professional Laurence Olivier was used as a reproach to Welles’s hip “amateurism.” This is gloriously amateurish, the way all of Almereyda’s best movies are, so it’s rewarding to see how Julia Stiles’s Ophelia harks back to Suzy Amis in Almereyda’s Twister, how some of the intimate interiors recall Another Girl Another Planet (his second-best movie), and how the use of video as a kind of Greek chorus to the action, an Almereyda specialty, bears special fruit in a postmodernist climate where “To be or not to be” is recited in the action section of a Blockbuster and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, better than you’d expect) lards his video production of The Mousetrap with all sorts of found footage. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 2, 1992). — J.R.
Far and away the best SF movie of the 80s, though a critical and commercial flop when it first appeared (1982), Ridley Scott’s visionary look at Los Angeles in the year 2019 — a singular blend of glitter and grime that captures both the horror and the allure of capitalism in the Reagan era with the claustrophobic textures of a Sternberg film — is back in a new version that more closely approximates the director’s original intentions, minus the offscreen narration and happy ending and with a few brief additions. Loosely adapted by David Webb Peoples (who later scripted Unforgiven) and Hampton Fancher from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story mainly concerns the tracking down and killing of “replicants” (lifelike androids) by the hero (Harrison Ford), and much of the film’s erotic charge and moral and ideological ambiguity stems from the fact that these characters — Joe Turkel, Sean Young, Darryl Hannah, Rutger Hauer, and Joanna Cassidy — are very nearly the only ones we care about. (We never know for sure whether Ford is a replicant himself, and one advantage to this version is that it makes this uncertainty more explicit.) Read more