My column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written on September 23, 2015. — J.R.
Early last September, the first week of my visit to Croatia was occasioned by Tanja Vrvilo’s ninth annual “Movie Mutations” event in Zagreb, this time devoted to Godard. An illuminating highlight was the visit of Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s cinematographer and all-around technical assistant since Notre Musique. And my last three days in Croatia was a social visit to Oja Kodar at the Villa Welles in Primosten. Kodar was Orson Welles’ muse, companion, and major collaborator over the last two decades of his life, and, I’m proud to say, a valued friend in the three decades since then.
Both Kodar and Aragno qualify as the sort of major collaborators who complicate and even confound the sort of solid auteurist profiles that we usually associate with both Welles and Godard — profiles that we also paradoxically associate with their uncanny capacities to engage with the creative imaginations of their viewers. (“I like to think of myself as an airplane, not an airport.” Godard once said to me in a 1980 interview, implying that the proper destination of one of his films is the spectator and where he or she wants to go, not Godard and his own preferred destination — and the same “open” and interactive principle applies to Welles and his own films.)… Read more »
March 10: Permanent Vacation — a punk art film by Jim Jarmusch, with Chris Parker, visible in the Bleecker Street Cinema’s James Agee Room every weekend this month. A semi-promising beginning offers alternately deserted and busy city streets (crisply shot by Tom DiCillo), and a skinny existential drifter reflecting on the “newness” of rooms in his travels that fades away, replaced each time by dread: “The story is how I got from there to here — or maybe I should say here to here.”
The problem is, while trekking dutifully through enough architectural (and cultural) rubble to furnish at least a dozen other art movies, the movie mainly gets from there to nowhere, at a fairly leisurely crawl. Along the way are a few good ideas and jokes, most of them literary and underdeveloped (like affectless Beckett/beat conceits which evoke Wurlitzer’s Nog), one of them actorly (Frankie Faison), some of them musical (John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards). Chances are, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ve already found your way there.
March 11: Marta Meszaros’ Nine Months, a Hungarian feature made in color five years ago, now on at the Cinema Studio 2. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 1993), also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Zaillian
With Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.
The ideological structures of Spielberg’s films “hail” the spectator into a world of the obvious that affirms the viewer’s presence (even while dissolving it), affirms that what the viewer has always believed or hoped is (obviously) right and accessible, and assures the viewer excitement and comfort in the process. The films offer nothing new beyond their spectacle, nothing the viewer does not already want, does not immediately accept. That is their conservative power, and it has spread throughout the cinema of the 80s. — Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (1988)
Confessions are in order. From Duel to Jurassic Park, there are few Steven Spielberg movies I admire, and none I fully respect — though I respond to a good many of them as obediently as any well-oiled automaton. My first look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually brought tears to my eyes. I can’t say that on reflection I felt much pride in this response, though the experience of becoming a boy again in relation to the imagined parental benevolence of the cosmos — which also happens with Ray Bradbury’s best early tales about Mars — may be morally preferable to feeding on the murderous xenophobia of Star Wars, released the same year (1977); at worst one winds up feeling silly rather than dirty afterward.… Read more »
This book is intended as a companion and sequel to an autobiographical experiment I carried out in the late 1970s, published in 1980 by Harper & Row as Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. The present volume doesn’t require a reading of that earlier book — long out of print, though recently reprinted by the University of California Press so as to reappear alongside this collection; however, since many of this volume’s premises are predicated on either extensions or inversions of the premises of its predecessor, a few words about that book and the material it covers are in order.
Most of Moving Places is concerned with my childhood in northwestern Alabama, specifically in relation to my family and what was known as the family business from around 1914 to 1960. This business began when my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, started operating his first movie theater in Douglas, Wyoming, and it existed until Rosenbaum Theaters, owned by my grandfather and managed by my father, was sold to a larger chain. I was born in 1943, and the family business afforded me a steady diet of free movies through the age of sixteen, when I went away to school in Vermont.… Read more »
Feb. 16: A double feature of two class-conscious films directed by Carol Reed , The Stars Look Down (1939) and Kipps (1940), at Theater 80 — my first look at either movie. Trying to arrive at a plausible reverse-angle for the first movie — that is, a precise sense of its audience and context in early 1940, when Graham Greene wrote for The Spectator, “Dr. Cronin’s mining novel has made a very good film — I doubt whether in England we have ever produced a better” — I find myself hopelessly hamstrung, stuck in a narrow sort of timewarp called the present.
The problem is, I can only come up with a romantic, movie version of an English movie audience three years before I was born, a Thomas Pynchon fantasy à la Gravity’s Rainbow (whose sexy, existential London is itself very much a pungent blend of remembered movies from that period). Admittedly, Greene’s oddly familial use of first person plural tells me a little something, too.… Read more »
From the Jewish Daily Forward (November 9, 2012, for their November 16 issue). — J.R.
My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.
Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.
Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1992). The Reader‘s web site claims this was published in 1985 — two years before I moved to Chicago and seven years before the film was made. — J.R.
Michael Almereyda, the writer-director of Twister, was sufficiently inspired by Sadie Benning’s highly personal black-and-white videos — all made with a $45 toy camera — that he used the same kind of camera to shoot this highly personal hour-long feature (1992), a fictional work inspired by his own (mainly love) life in New York’s East Village, with his downstairs neighbor (Nic Ratner) playing himself. Like Twister, this is charming, quirky, poetic, and original — maybe even more so — and Almereyda’s use of the toy camera creates a fuzzy, intimate kind of space that actually seems to resemble the inside of someone’s head. With Barry Sherman, Mary Ward, Isabel Gilles, and Elina Lowensohn (Simple Men). (JR)
April 7: The Story of Three Loves (1953) at the Regency. It’s been over 27 years since I last saw this luscious, kitschy technicolor trio of thematically related sketches — awkwardly and arbitrarily stitched together on an intervening ocean liner — and it impresses me even more now than it did at age 10. Its terrain is neither Hollywood nor Europe, exactly, but a glossy MGM compromise between American dreams of Europe and European emigré dreams of America. And the fascinating thing about it today is the degree to which pop existentialism composes its principal form of hard aesthetic and social currency, in all three of its delirious parables about love and art.
In the London-based “The Jealous Lover” (scripted by John Collier, directed by Gottfried Reinhardt), ballerina Moira Shearer learns she has a weak heart that prohibits further dancing. Subsequently inspired, however, by the florid imagination and genius of director James Mason, she devotedly and ecstatically dances herself to death.
“Mademoiselle” offers Vincente Minnelli’s mise en scène of a Rome-based fantasy about an 11-year-old Ricky Nelson patterned somewhat after Daisy Miller’s twerpy kid brother. Secretly infatuated with his governess, Leslie Caron, he is enabled by the magic of an obliging American witch (Ethel Barrymore) to become Farley Granger for one enchanted, Cinderella-tense evening.
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 2003). — J.R.
Mystic River ** (Worth seeing) Directed by Clint Eastwood Written by Brian Helgeland With Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Laura Linney, Adam Nelson, Emmy Rossum, and Cameron Bowen.
The critical community has spoken: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a masterpiece and a profound, tragic statement about who we are and the inevitability of violence in our lives — a pitiless view, in which violence begets violence and the sins of the fathers pass to later generations.
Presumably these qualities are also in Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, which I haven’t read, but it’s the movie that’s drawing most of the superlatives from American critics. The acclaim started after the film premiered at Cannes, when much of the griping American press seemed to see it as a vindication of American filmmaking, an answer to the terrible state of cinema in general. Some of those critics may have seen it as a vindication of U.S. patriotism as well — one reason it’s likely to rack up plenty of Oscars.
The last Eastwood movie that provoked biblical language and allusions to Greek tragedy was Unforgiven (1992), which also saw violence as both awful and unavoidable — our destiny and perhaps even our birthright.… Read more »
The deal went something like this: Clint Eastwood convinced Warners to let him make his ambitious movie Bird, about jazz giant Charlie Parker, by agreeing to grind out another Dirty Harry film in exchange. But because he was evidently less than enthused about the prospect of perpetuating the series, he chose to make this umpteenth episode pivot around the issue of the sickness of the media’s pandering uses of violence, as if to exonerate himself from his own doubts about the Dirty Harry cycle. It’s a sincere but ultimately pathetic instance of the pot calling the kettle black, with Eastwood trying to distance himself from the source of his appeal with his left hand while catering to it with his right. The results are an episodic thriller that certainly has its moments, but eventually peters out into dull formula standbys; Eastwood’s Harry seems weary of his own sarcastic witticisms, and the ones here won’t make anybody’s day. Patricia Clarkson, Evan Kim, Liam Neeson, and David Hunt costar; the script is by Steve Sharon. (JR)
The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema”,ARTPAPERS,Vol. 13, No. 5,September/October 1989,pp. 6-10.
The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian to introduce screenings of a dozen recent American independent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same seminar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics.
It is virtually impossible to treat recent American independent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film.… Read more »
Dandy, The All-American Girl (subsequently retitled Sweet Revenge)
Written by B.J.Perla and Marilyn Goldin
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Juke Girl is an unassuming Warner Brothers program filler — a Depression movie made in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan as a young socialist hero from Kansas and Ann Sheridan in the tough-and-tender title part. It reminds me of something that Manny Farber said in a recent lecture about what people looked like in 30s films, when “every shape was legitimate,” as opposed to the more constricting notions about what people are supposed to look like in 70s films — a model that remains in force today.
As a general rule of thumb, I think one can argue pretty plausibly that any Warner Brothers Depression film, however minor, has something going for it on a social/aesthetic level that can’t be found in any over-publicized New Hollywood glitz production, however major. This is less monolithic a judgment than it sounds, especially if one considers the radically different notions of audience involved.… 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 second dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece, about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to sit down and have a meal together, is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and executed of all his late French films. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams, dreams within dreams, and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with the very processes of narrative illusion and narrative continuity themselves — their rewards as well as their compulsions, their pleasures and their frustrations.
Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious, the various episodes involving these and other characters (including Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur) are like an anthology of Buñuel’s themes, favorite gags, and recurring nightmares. The film was produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, perhaps the two most essential friends and collaborators in the flowering of Bunuel’s late period, though Buñuel regulars Rey, Frankeur, and Julien Bertheau might also be cited.… Read more »
Commissioned by BFI Publishing and published in the November 2014 Sight and Sound. This version is slightly tweaked. — J.R.
In an amusing, satisfying, and highly persuasive rant in Time Out in 1977, J.G. Ballard took on the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars (1977), including some of its historical and ideological consequences. Noting that “two hours of Star Wars must be one of the most efficient means of weaning your preteen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others”, he also reflected on the overall impact of George Lucas’s blockbuster on science-fiction movies:
“The most popular form of s-f — space fiction –- has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr. Strangelove, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella, and Solaris — and the brave failures, such as The Thing, Seconds, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit, and fantasy.… Read more »
An adulterous, womanizing investigative journalist (director Clint Eastwood), on the wagon and somewhat over the hill, inherits an assignment to interview a man convicted of murder (Isaiah Washington) hours before he’s slated to be executed at San Quentin, and he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Eastwood as a director generally alternates more adventurous projects (Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart) with bread-and-butter fare like the Dirty Harry movies, and this hokey thriller, reeking with 30s prison-movie stereotypes and High Noon countdowns, may be the price we have to pay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The storytelling is as crafty and streamlined as ever, but the story itself, adapted from a novel by Andrew Klavan, is so shopworn that not even three better-than-average screenwriters (Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff) can overcome the cynical and absurd contrivances. Eastwood himself, pushing 70 but cruising women in their early 20s, counts on more goodwill than I can muster. I wasn’t bored, but my suspension of disbelief collapsed well before the end. With Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and James Woods. (JR)