From Film Comment (May-June 1974). Apart from my responses here to Malle, Whale, and Fejos, I no longer identify with most of what I wrote here, over 41 years later. Much of this -– especially my reactions to Ferreri and The Great Garrick — was strongly influenced at the time by my friendship with the late Eduardo de Gregorio. — J.R.
The word is out that Marco Ferreri’s TOUCHE PAS LA FEMME BLANCHE (DON’T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN) isn’t making it at the box office. The notion of staging a semi-political, semi-nonsensical Western in Les Halles seems to be bewildering French audiences, even when they laugh, and neither the presence of Michel Piccoli, Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, nor the singular glace of Catherine Deneuve as the white woman, appears to have turned the trick. Our local Philistine, Thomas Quinn Curtiss in the International Herald Tribune, was distinctly sourced by the experience: “The subject is certainly serviceable for caricature, but Ferreri’s hand is so clumsy that the result is rather a burlesque of the cow operas of his homeland…All is grotesque, but nothing is funny in this wild, tasteless travesty that consistently misses its targets.” When I mentioned liking the film to a French colleague on the phone, I can almost swear I heard an audible shudder creep across the lines.… Read more »
Written for the January/February 2012 Film Comment. — J.R.
(Rafi Pitts, Germany/Iran) A Separation, equally pleasing to mullahs and Western viewers, got all the prizes for its clever manipulations, but Pitts’s singular puzzle thriller, which also strategically withholds narrative information and can never be shown in Iran, is the one I keep thinking about. (Class warfare is the true, undeclared subject of both films.) Pitts plays a Tehran night watchman who starts shooting cops at random after losing his wife and child just before the country’s stolen election. The film’s second act shifts radically in style, locale, and focus, like On Dangerous Ground. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
From Cinema Scope #46 (Spring 2011). — J.R.
Underneath the Persian credits, over heavy metal music, the camera roams around inside a colour photograph, grazing over pointillist surfaces and male faces — finally pulling back to reveal the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps in 1983, getting ready to drive their motorcycles over a huge replica of the American flag on the pavement in front of them. Cut to black and the film’s title, The Hunter.
Cut to a highway tunnel, then to a rifle being loaded in the woods, then to the same title hero (played by the writer-director, Rafi Pitts) holding the rifle in front of a raging campfire at night.… Read more »
A memorable if generally unsuccessful attempt (1958) by MGM to bring back the glory of Gone With the Wind, adapting Ross Lockridge’s best-selling novel about the Civil War as a 168-minute blockbuster with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift (who suffered a nearly fatal car accident during the filming and had to have his jaw wired). Edward Dmytryk’s direction gets ponderous over the long haul, but nice visuals (Robert Surtees) and a pretty good secondary cast (including Eva Marie Saint, Lee Marvin, and Agnes Moorehead) help to alleviate some of the slow patches. (JR)
“A movie pours into us. It fills us like milk being poured into a glass.” — John Updike
I must confess that the prospect of viewing a recent two-and-a-half-hour documentary (a recent DVD release of Second Run in the U.K.) about P. K. Nair, the fanatically devoted archivist who helped to found India’s National Film Archive in 1964, didn’t fill me with eager anticipation; the whole thing sounded somewhat esoteric and remote. But in fact, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s compulsively watchable and consistently entertaining Celluloid Man (2012) kept me enraptured throughout, not least for its evocations of cinema as a whole and not merely Indian cinema. Early on, when we see Nair addressing us in front of a screen showing Citizen Kane with French subtitles, followed a little later by the opening strains of the film’s soundtrack, it becomes obvious that the critical issues and passions informing Nair’s life are very close to those of his principal mentor, Henri Langlois. And even though the film has a lot to say and show us about the history of Indian cinema, personal and anecdotal (e.g., Ritwik Ghatak’s drinking habits and viewing tastes, Nair’s own history) as well as industrial, it’s the cinema as a whole and why it matters that provides its ultimate framework.
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
A film that might be regarded as Nicholas Ray’s farewell to Hollywood (if not commercial filmmaking), as well as his tribute to Chicago in the 20s, this 1958 feature is also one of his most affecting love stories. An unlikely alliance between a crippled and crooked lawyer (Robert Taylor) and a dancing showgirl (Cyd Charisse), both of whom try to escape the power of a tyrannical mobster (Lee J. Cobb), forms the basis for a flamboyant poem in delirious color and ‘Scope that is treated with a mixture of violence and lyricism unique to Ray. This is the only movie he made at MGM, and he makes the most of the production resources available; Taylor and Charisse have never been better, and rarely has Ray’s theme of two flawed individuals trying to strike a symmetrical balance achieved a more beautiful and convulsive expression. With John Ireland and Kent Smith. 99 min. (JR)
I’m pretty sure that my very first contributions to the Chicago Reader were these two capsule reviews, commissioned by Dave Kehr for their November 5, 1982 issue when these films were playing at the Chicago International Film Festival. — J.R.
The Night of the Shooting Stars.
The seventh feature written and directed by the talented Taviani brothers – Vittorio and Paolo, born respectively in 1929 and 1931 in San Miniato, Italy – and the third to open in America, The Night of the Shooting Stars is an Italian memory film that belongs to the same respectable company as Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategm, Fellini’s Amarcord, and Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much. The Tuscan town of San Martino during the last days of the war in 1944, as recounted by a woman who was six at the time to her daughter, provides the framework for this passionate and volatile fresco-in-motion, which radiates with unexpected and even startling moments of bucolic poetry. The actual war sequences contain some of the shocking beauty and giddy surprises one associates with the great Soviet directors, Dovzhenko in particular.… Read more »
Published in Omni circa 1982. I owe this assignment and all my others at this magazine to the late Kathleen Stein, my editor there — a former classmate at Bard College and flatmate in New York during one summer. — J.R.
The Arts: TV
How far can the human braln go in delvlng into its own workings? An
ambitious, new eight-part television series — being produced by WNET
for airing this fall — broaches this question at the same time that it
partially answers it, byproviding us with a veritable Cook’s tour
through the state of contemporary brain research. “What curious art the
brain, too finely wrought, /Preys on herself, and is destroyed by thought,”
glumly opined eighteenth century writer Charles Churchill, in an epistle
addressed to artist William Hogarth. But Churchill’s philosophical lament,
quite apart from its odd characterization of the brainas essentially
feminine, can’t hold water in relation to the healthy self-preying instinct
adopted, by the makers of The Brain and all that it uncovers.
“It’s totally addictive to go into this,” science editor Richard Hutton, a
writer and producer on the series, admitted to me about his own perusal
of brain research, in preparation for the eight one-hour shows.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and Written by Ross McElwee
As a filmmaker who’s always philosophizing about his family, his southern heritage, and the meaning of life, Ross McElwee can get a little high-flown at times. The funniest shot in the latest installment of his autobiographical saga, Bright Leaves, brings him down to earth a bit — and shows that McElwee actually may have learned something from the deflation. The shot occurs toward the end of the film and there are several reasons it’s so funny.
(1) A noisy dog is following McElwee as he threads his way through a kitschy sculpture garden, whose relevance to the story remains obscure. Is it cemetery statuary? Whatever it is, it’s a visual and narrative non sequitur that only adds to the screwball ambience.
(2) The growling dog, seen near the lower edge of the frame, recalls a smudgy, minimalist black-and-white comic strip drawn by David Lynch between 1983 and ’92, The Angriest Dog in the World. (The graphics of the four panels in each strip were almost identical — the same dog angrily pulling at the same chain in a fenced-in backyard — but the introductory words and the balloons of dialogue coming from someone unseen inside the house were always different.)… Read more »
This phone interview (see link below) with Douglas Storm in Bloomington, Indiana aired yesterday. Given all the Buddy Rich extracts, I’m sorry that there wasn’t time to discuss Welles’ own jazz taste (which was oriented more towards Dixieland, at least during the 40s). The clips from the film that are heard, which may be hard to follow in spots, testify to how much the art of Welles as a filmmaker is based on his editing, which obviously can’t be perceived in sound bites. [11/28/18]
From the Summer 2018 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
1. Second Thoughts First
In the introduction to my forthcoming collection Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues, I make the argument that although Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock doesn’t qualify precisely as film criticism, it nonetheless had a decisive critical effect on film taste. By the same token, on Criterion’s very welcome Blu-ray edition of Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1958), Peter Cowie’s interview with Borzage critic/biographer Hervé Dumont — whose book on the director should be shelved and considered alongside Chris Fujiwara’s book for the same publisher (McFarland) on Jacques Tourneur — primed me perfectly for my second look at this masterpiece, and made it register far more powerfully this time. It certainly performs this task better than Philip Kemp’s accompanying essay, which, in spite of much useful information, falters in its insistence on framing Moonrise through the lens of film noir, and even more when, while rightly praising the character of Rex Ingram’s Mose, the author remarks that “It would be hard to think of another American film of the period where a black man acts as adviser and mentor to a white Southerner.” It’s not so hard, really, if one thinks of Clarence Brown’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) and/or Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950); and it’s even quite easy if, following Dumont’s lead on Moonrise, one regards the Tourneur masterpiece neither as a noir (a lazy escape hatch) nor as a western (as Jacques Lourcelles does), but as a discreet form of German Expressionism, implicitly favouring thoughtful philosophy and metaphysics over simple gloom and doom.… Read more »
To no one’s surprise but the producer’s, Robert Rodriguez’s bigger-budget spin-off/remake of (and occasional sequel to) his impressive action quickie El mariachi doesn’t stand comparison with its predecessor. On the other hand, Rodriguez is clearly a talent to watch, and there’s plenty to be entertained or impressed by here — fancy, violent action sequences (which gradually develop from barroom shoot-outs to outright war battles); a feisty interaction between hero (Antonio Banderas) and heroine (Salma Hayek) that suggests the influence of Howard Hawks; some enjoyable actorly bits by Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino (who’s at least around long enough to tell a funny joke), and Steve Buscemi; an enjoyable villain (Joaquim de Almeida, not a gringo here as he was in El mariachi); a nice Mexican score by Los Lobos; and even a halfway tolerable twist in the plot. What’s mainly missing is the sort of conviction and passion that gave El mariachi its charge; one feels at almost every moment that Rodriguez is fulfilling a contract rather than saying something he has to say. There’s a lot of panache here, but not much inspiration. (JR)
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, , Vol. 43, No. 512. I believe that this is the first time I wrote about Moullet. — J.R.
Steack Trop Cuit, Un (Overdone Steak)
Director: Luc Moullet
Cert-U. dist–Connoisseur. p.c–Les Productions Luc Moullet/Les Productions Georges de Beauregard. p–Georges de Beauregard. 2nd Unit d–Pierre Guinle. sc–Luc Moullet. ph–André Mrugalski. 2nd Unit ph–Raymond Cauchetier. ed–Agnès Guillemot. 2nd Unit ed–Maryse Siclier. a.d–Luc Moullet. m–Frédéric G. Ploumepeux. English titles— Mai Harris. sd–Marielle Lesseps. cooking adviser–Alberta Laguioner. /.p–Françoise Vatel (Nicole), Albert Juross (Georges), Jacqueline Fynnaert (Françoise), Raymond N. Quinneseul (Samuel). 1,739 ft. 19 mins. Subtitles.
Returning home from school, Georges protests angrily to his older sister Nicole that she hasn’t yet prepared dinner. With both their parents away, she is in control of his pocket money, and threatens not to give him any for Sunday after he behaves boorishly. Claiming that the steak she has cooked is inedible, he goes next door and borrows sausages from their neighbour Françoise, which he gets Nicole to prepare. Afterwards, he plays footsy with Nicole at the table and talks to her while she puts on make-up and changes clothes, preparing to go out on a date.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly (Summer 1979). Sad to say, the Aldrich and Ophüls books are now so scarce that I couldn’t even find their jacket illustrations on the Internet until a reader, Luke Aspell, generously furnished them to me. –- J.R.
ROBERT ALDRICH. Edited by Richard Combs. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.25.
POWELL, PRESSBURGER AND OTHERS. Edited by Ian Christie. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $4.50.
OPHÜLS. Edited by Paul Willemen. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.50.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the current batch of British Film Institute monographs and the previous series issued under the now-defunct aegis of Cinema One (a joint effort of the BFI and the English publisher Secker & Warburg) is the relation of each to academic film studies. The Cinema One books, designed as popular laymen’s introductions to relatively obscure subjects, were lavishly illustrated with stills and frame enlargements, appeared both in paperback and hardcovers, and rarely proceeded beyond the format of one critic per subject.
The new line of BFI books, which appear only in paperback, are much closer to academic “casebooks”: the texts are usually longer, illustrations are omitted (apart from black-and-white stills on the covers), and the critical perspectives in most cases are multiple.… Read more »
Director Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, Five Corners, Crazy People, Untamed Hearts) brings a lot of feeling and detail to this sort-of-true-life tale written by executive producer Patrick Duncan. It’s about a single mother (Kathy Bates) with no savings who leaves Los Angeles with her six kids for rural Idaho in 1962, and much of the family’s saga is very moving. (Duncan himself, who actually grew up with 11 siblings, corresponds to the oldest child and narrator here, played by teenager Edward Furlong.) Along the way the film loses some of its conviction; it winds up trying too hard and pushing some of its effects. Even so, the depiction of poverty has plenty of grit and flavor, and the cast — which also includes Soon-teck Oh and Tony Campisi — does a creditable job. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 2003). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by David Ayer and James Ellroy
With Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, and Jamison Jones.
A curious kind of double game is being played in Dark Blue, a cop thriller that sets out to “explain” the 1992 LA riots. For a good while I sat thinking, “At last — a movie that doesn’t mince words about police corruption and racism,” for even if it’s a decade late and a bit simplistic in some of its moral positioning, the story doesn’t soft-pedal the facts. (It even prompted me to think how useful it might be if someone in Hollywood delivered a thriller about the Enron scandal — not ten years from now but before the next presidential election.) But I soon realized that the attempt to wed a comfortable genre to an uncomfortable social agenda allowed another kind of soft-pedaling to take over.
The filmmakers — Ron Shelton directing a David Ayer script based on a James Ellroy story — obviously want us to swallow a bitter pill, but traditionally Hollywood genres, even the LA cop thriller, are sweet and don’t have much of an aftertaste.… Read more »