This originally appeared in Film Comment (September-October 1974).
I was shocked in December 2011 to learn of the death of Gilbert Adair, a close friend during the mid-70s (when both of us were living in Paris, and then for some time later, after I moved to London ahead of Gilbert). Although I can’t swear to this, it’s possible that this collaborative interview may be the first thing that Gilbert ever published; at least it’s the earliest piece of his that I know about. With Michael Graham — also, alas, no longer alive — Gilbert and I had subsequently collaborated on a lengthy production piece for Sight and Sound about Rivette’s Duelle and Noroît, recently reprinted in Arrow’s DVD box set devoted to Rivette, available here and here. — J.R.
Last June, I invited two of my friends — Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky — to join me in an interview with Jacques Rivette. All three of us had been dazzled by Céline et Julie vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), to the point of considering it the most important new film we’ve seen in years, and it seemed exciting to extend our folie à trois to a meeting with the director.… Read more »
These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the third dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Salt of the Earth
This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. Regrettably, its best-known critical discussion in the U.S. is in Pauline Kael’s final essay in her first collection — a 1954 broadside in which this film is ridiculed as “propaganda” alongside a forgettable cold war thriller, Night People, that’s skewered as “advertising”.… Read more »
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (with Wim Wenders)
Written by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Wenders
With John Malkovich, Ines Sastre, Kim Rossi-Stuart, Sophie Marceau, Chiara Caselli, Peter Weller, Fanny Ardant, Jean Reno, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Irene Jacob, and Vincent Perez.
Chicago has had a plethora of film festivals lately — Women in the Director’s Chair, Polish Movie Springtime, Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Asian American Showcase. This is probably good for filmmakers who want their work shown, but I’m not sure it’s a boon for moviegoers. For one thing, the screening of so many films at once makes it easy for good work to get lost. Billions of dollars are now spent annually making and promoting a few dozen movies — most of them dogs — that the media obligingly make visible and label important, and everything else is consigned to relative oblivion. The most any obscure film can hope for — good or bad, major or minor — is to compete with all the other obscure films. This is tantamount to tripling the number of passengers in steerage without increasing the provisions: more people get to travel, but everyone gets brutalized in the process.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, March 1, 1999. (This is erroneously dated in October 1985 on the Reader‘s web site, about two years before I joined the staff.) — J.R.
An unemployed worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) in postwar Rome finds a job putting up posters for a Rita Hayworth movie after his wife pawns the family sheets to get his bicycle out of hock. But right after he starts work the bike is stolen, and with his little boy in tow he travels across the city trying to recover it. This masterpiece -– whose Italian title translates as “bicycle thieves” -– is generally and correctly known as one of the key works of Italian neorealism, but French critic Andre Bazin also recognized it as one of the great communist films. (The fact that it received the 1949 Oscar for best foreign film suggests that it wasn’t perceived widely as such over here at the time; ironically, the only thing American censors cared about was a scene in which the little boy takes a pee on the street.) The dominance of auteurist criticism over the past three decades has made this extraordinary movie unfashionable because its power doesn’t derive from a single creative intelligence, but the work of screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, director Vittorio De Sica, the nonprofessional actors, and many others is so charged with a common purpose that there’s no point in even trying to separate their achievements.… Read more »
Here is a chronological list of many of the book reviews and longer pieces on literary and related subjects found on this web site, with links added in a few cases; capsule reviews of films are omitted, and this list is otherwise far from complete:\, especially regarding many more recent posts
A capsule review requested by and written for MUBI’s Notebook in conjunction with an ongoing series at New York”s Film Forum. — J.R.
Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932): A surprising amount of Howard Hawks’ unstable, weirdly graceful universe is informed by the imminence of death and the proximity of offscreen space, tied to the risks of tangling with sudden impulses. Few of his films are more aware of this encroaching void than Scarface, where X is made to mark the offscreen spot around every narrative corner. This frighteningly brutal black comedy, the least romantic of his crowd-pleasers — a much better gangster film than any of the Godfathers, especially when it comes to confronting reality — was made when people were far less deluded than they are today about the fact that their lives and destinies were being controlled by crooks. What makes it bleaker than Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo is the small and indecisive role friendship is allowed to play in holding back the darkness; perhaps only Land of the Pharaohs betrays a comparable nihilistic bleakness. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
Written for the Criterion dual format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition of The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in a box set, “The Essential Jacques Demy,” in July 2014. This essay is also posted on Criterion’s web site. — J.R.
Broadly speaking, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is loved in France but tends to be an acquired taste elsewhere. From a stateside perspective, its launch in the U.S. in April 1968 was relatively inauspicious and uncertain. In the New York Times, Renata Adler began her two-paragraph notice by saying, “The Young Girls of Rochefort, a musical that opened at the Cinema Rendezvous, is another of those strange, offbeat movies produced by Mag Bodard in which a conventional, gay form is structured over what would be, in its terms, a catastrophe.” (The three other Bodard films she had in mind were Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur, Michel Deville’s Benjamin, and Demy’s previous film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.… Read more »
Born July 24, 1944, San Mareno, California. Died May 23, 2013, Chicago, Illinois.
Here’s something I said at a special tribute to Peter held in his presence at Columbia College, on October 4, 2012:
“For me, Peter Thompson is one of those special filmmakers who reinvents cinema for his own purposes, a trait that he shares not only with people like Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Jacques Tati, but also with filmmakers like Chaplin, Welles, and Kubrick.
“On some level, all of Peter’s films are mysteries and detective stories, but ones in which Peter is inviting us to join him in becoming the detectives, not in giving us puzzles that he knows how to solve but in inventing new ways for us to share in his curiosity. You might even say that part of the mysteries of his films is determining what they’re about, because in addition to reinventing cinema they might be said to reinvent things like subject matter and research as well as still more difficult-to-define entities such as poetry and history and truth.
“Peter has been a friend for about two decades, but I hasten to add that we became friends because of my enthusiasm for his early work, which existed before we ever met.… Read more »
I was 11 when I saw William Dieterle’s 1954 adaptation of the Robert Standish novel Elephant Walk, which was apparently aimed at the female market, and I loved it, though I don’t know what I’d think today. A sort of gothic melodrama in Technicolor about a young bride (Elizabeth Taylor) adjusting to life on a Ceylon tea plantation and the weirdness of her husband (Peter Finch), it climaxes in an elephant stampede. Dana Andrews costars; John Lee Mahin wrote the screenplay. Vivien Leigh was originally cast in Taylor’s part; reportedly you can see her in a few long shots. 103 min. (JR)
Something of a film maudit for director Raul Ruiz, whose career is already pretty subterranean. Done in English (coscripted by the English novelist and film critic Gilbert Adair), shot in Portugal (though set in southern France), and coproduced by Roger Corman, it concerns a group of Americans who wind up in a small medieval town, get lost when they go on an excursion, remain lost for several months, and eventually revert to cannibalism. In the middle of the shooting, Wim Wenders turned up at the same location to start filming The State of Things, and a good many of the cast and crew members decamped for the Wenders film. That meant Ruiz’s film had to be completed well ahead of schedule, and unfortunately the picture suffers from the haste. But the plot and ambience are still intriguing, and the picture is certainly recognizably Ruizian in both its metaphysical framework and its dark humor (1971). (JR)
From the August 23, 1991 Chicago Reader. This review is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies (1995). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
With John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Jon Polito.
I’m not one of the Coen brothers’ biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing — their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of — was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country characters as Blood Simple, but it also had a sweeter edge and more visual flair. In both craft and stylishness, Miller’s Crossing was another step forward, and even if I never really believed in either the period ambience or the characters — the dialogue bristled with anachronisms, and Albert Finney’s crime boss seemed much too blinkered and naive for someone who was supposed to be ruling a city — the film nevertheless demanded a certain attention.… Read more »
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Von Bagh.
BEST DVD 2010 / 2011
Segundo de Chomón 1903-1912(Filmotecade Catalunya [ICIC]/Cameo Media s.l.) EL Cine de La Fantasia. A production by Cameo and Filmoteca Catalunya.
The first edition of a long awaited series devoted to the great Spanish master of magic films, hand coloring and technical special effects. Offering 114 minutes of 31 astonishing titles, complete with a 111-page tri-lingual book containing an informative essay by Jean M. Minguet and credits on each film and the 12 different archives that provided restored prints. (http://www.cameo.es/portal/tabid__13173/consulta__De%20Chomon/default.aspx)
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES (BONUS)
The Night of the Hunter(Criterion: www.criterion.com)
For the invaluable and detailed film record of Charles Laughton directing his only feature, drawing from the more than eight hours of outtakes discovered by Bob Gitt and including fascinating rehearsals in which Laughton acts out some of the roles himself.
MOST ORIGINAL CONTRIBUTION TO FILM HISTORY
Orphans 7 – A Film Symposium (New York University’s Orphan Film Symposium, www.orphanfilmsymposium.blogspot.com)
For bringing to the attention of DVD watchers a rich and fascinating area of film history: so-called “ephemeral” films, including amateur films, activist filmmaking, industrial films, etc.,… Read more »
Now that I’ve finally read Robin Wood’s fascinating posthumous novel, an odd thriller involving amnesia, I’m pleased to report that it’s much better than I expected it to be, both as a page-turner and as what I would describe as a critic’s novel — even though the latter quality only became fully clear to me in the book’s closing pages.
The story as a whole can be described as a shotgun marriage or as a conversation — or perhaps as some of both — between a model of prose fiction that is literary, high- modernist, and intellectual and another model that is nonliterary, populist, and nonintellectual. These models and positions are represented by the novel’s two leading characters, a man and a woman respectively, the latter of whom is the story’s principal narrator and thus represents Wood’s own preferred position. It would be difficult to say much more about this without introducing spoilers — an especially heinous crime according to the nonintellectual model, and one that should clearly be avoided when it comes to the gradual revelations in this plot — but the degree to which the story as a whole represents a running debate between these positions reflects many of Wood’s own positions and tastes as a critic, which ran all the way from modernist art films to exploitation horror films — both of which are reflected, in different ways, in Trammel Up the Consequence.
One thing suggested by Sanford Schwartz’s editing of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America) is that Kael’s editing of her own work is superior to his. I admire his discernment in including her thoughtful and uncharacteristically generous review of Marguerite Duras’ Le camion (The Truck) — even though I regret the suppression of its original context, in the September 26, 1977 issue of The New Yorker, where it was sandwiched between Kael’s eloquent two-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars and a longer mixed review of Short Eyes, in a column pointedly called “Contrasts”.
In her final collection For Keeps (1994), Kael omitted the other two reviews, but she also had the foresight to delete the final sentence of her review of The Truck, which referred to its original context: “At the opposite end from popcorn filmmaking, it’s a demonstration of creative force — which doesn’t always cut as clean as that laser sword in Alec Guinness’s hand.” Schwartz also leaves out the reviews of Star Wars and Short Eyes, yet he retains the final sentence in the review of The Truck, which now reads like a non sequitur coming from left field (or from outer space).… Read more »