From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2000). More recently, Naomi Klein, one of my heroes, has written about some of the more salient differences between the WTO demonstrations and the more recent ones on Wall Street: see, for instance, this article, as well as others on her website. — J.R.
30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Rustin Thompson.
If I had to review Rustin Thompson’s video documentary 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle in only three words, I’d say it’s honest, energizing agitprop. Some readers may regard this as an oxymoron, but it’s one account of the Seattle events I’ve been waiting for, receiving its world premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival this Sunday at 1:30 PM. Yet the information it has to convey is almost entirely of the you-are-there variety — there’s no genuine analysis. It evokes 60s demonstrations in a number of ways — including such standbys as bare-breasted, body-painted teenyboppers and burning dollar bills — and pays particular attention to the music performed by demonstrators (one folksinger even sounds like Arlo Guthrie), coming much closer in feeling to something like Woodstock than to radical 60s documentaries produced by Newsreel. Read more
Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links. — J.R.
| Consider the following not so much a definitive list — offerings and preferences keep changing — as a starting point for checking out some of the weirdest and most pleasurable musical comedies in my personal pantheon. The order is chronological.
| (CLICK COVER FOR MORE) Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)
|| A controversy used to rage about whether this was “imitation Lubitsch with too many camera angles” (as Andrew Sarris once put it) or a lighthearted send-up of Ernst Lubitsch (as Tom Milne argued in his book on Mamoulian). Since the movie costars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, the same leads as Lubitsch’s previous The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch himself was production chief at Paramount when it was made, these issues can’t be resolved simply. But my own preference for this masterpiece over the Lubitsch films that influenced it comes easy, and not only because it’s appeared on DVD ahead of them. It has a wonderful Rodgers and Hart score and a singular impulse to encompass nothing less than the entire world in its musical numbers. Towards the beginning, “Isn’t it Romantic?” passes from Chevalier (a tailor in Paris) to a customer to a composer passing on the street to a cab driver to soldiers on a train to a Gypsy fiddler in the countryside to MacDonald singing on a distant balcony; and plenty of non-singers are allowed to take over bits of subsequent songs, like the reprise of “Mimi”.|
From the Fall 2021 Cinema Scope. — J.R.
The way the Internet Movie Database tells it, two pairs of writerly brothers worked with Josef von Sternberg on his first talkie, Thunderbolt (1929), recently released on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray (with a knowledgeable audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton that I’ve so far only sampled). Charles and Jules Furthman are both credited for “story,” though Jules, the younger of the two, gets a screen credit for the actual script; Herman J. Mankiewicz is credited for “dialogue,” while his younger brother, Joseph L., is credited for “titles.”
The question is: What titles? The Thunderbolt that I’ve seen and heard many times has none and needs none. Yet according to the American Film Institute’s online catalogue, there was also a silent version of the film—clearly one more missing Sternberg silent, along with The Exquisite Sinner (1926), the Chaplin-produced A Woman of the Sea(1926), The Dragnet (1928), and The Case of Lena Smith (1929), albeit one I’ve never heard mentioned before now.
John Grierson, one of the few people who saw A Woman of the Sea, concluded that “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer”—a verdict that I doubt Stanley Kubrick would have agreed with, although I’m sure that treating Sternberg strictly as a photographer and visual artist has led to the unwarranted critical downgrading of both Thunderbolt, his first sound film, and Anatahan (1955), his last (and a far greater achievement). Read more
Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic
1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
2. Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito)
3. Tiong Bahru Social Club (Tan Bee Thiam)
4. Martin und Hans (Mark Rappaport)
5. John Farrow Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows
(Claude Gonzalez & Frans Vanderburg)
6. While We Were Here (Sunčica Fradelić)
7. Letters from the Ends of the World (a dozen of the first
graduates of Béla Tarr’s FilmFactory)
8. Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Saftie)
9. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
An incomplete list of nine titles for an incomplete, pandemic year that cries out for updates and afterthoughts. That may help to explain why many items here are at least partially films/videos about films/videos (and at least one item, Letters…, is about the pandemic). Having to compile a so-called ‘2021’ list in October compels me to add Uncut Gems, seen too late in 2020 to make it onto last year’s list. Read more
I truly regret not being able to illustrate this early piece for the Reader, published in September 1987, with the sort of illustrations its awesome landscapes deserve. In fact, the only other film by Tian Zhuangzhuang (see photo above) that I’m aware of that’s comparably impressive from this standpoint is his extraordinary Delamu (or, in Chinese, Cha ma gu dao xi lie), a 2004 documentary that’s even more neglected, at least in this country (see the photo below, immediately after the absurdly small landscape photo from The Horse Thief).[2020 postscript: Happily, illustrations are now more readily available; see below and http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews30/the_horse_thief_blu-ray.htm]
It’s worth adding that one can now obtain The Horse Thief inexpensively, letterboxed and with English subtitles, at www.yesasia.com/us/1005182257-0-0-0-en/info.html. And see the previous link for a Blu-Ray.–-J.R.
THE HORSE THIEF
Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang
Written by Zhang Rui
With Cexiang Rigzin and Dan Jiji.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
If the two aesthetically richest decades in the history of cinema have been the 1920s and the 1960s, it is in no small part due to the fact that it was during these two golden ages that film came closest to becoming a universal language. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 1992). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm
With Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, and Andrew Bryniarski.
Even the title of Batman Returns is something of a lie, referring not to the fictional world of the story — where Batman can’t be said to return because he’s never been away — but to the dent this sequel is supposed to make in our lives. But how much of a dent can it make when it has virtually no characters, no plot, no fictional world, no mise en scene, no ideas, no developed feelings, no inspiration, no adventure, no sense of inner necessity beyond its status as an investment and marketing tool? It’s arrested development on every possible level.
Like everyone else who squeezed into Webster Place’s after-midnight shows on opening night, I was primed for some sort of revelation, however minor. It didn’t have to be elation; a good dose of mean-spirited negativity might have sufficed. I was ready for anything that could qualify as a mood changer — or barring that, a simple harking back to the original Batman, which had plenty of flaws but at least could boast the demonic vigor of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and his nihilistic media crimes, and a certain obsessional uniformity of mood and decor. Read more
Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there, as “Obscure Objects,” on June 19, 2008. It’s worth noting that most of the major films discussed here are now available in the U.S., on DVD and/or Blu-Ray,– J.R.
He’s hardly a household name anywhere, yet there’s still a striking discrepancy between the profile of filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier (1890-1979) in France and everywhere else —- almost as if a “not for export” label had been stamped on his forehead. Founder and head of l’IDHEC (l’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), the most famous French film school, for over a quarter of a century (1943-1969), as well as onetime director of the Cinémathèque Française (1941-1944), author of hundreds of articles, and a pioneer in French television who produced over 200 documentaries, he’s still better known today as the writer-director of about 50 films, mostly features. Yet none of these is easily obtainable in the U.S.
Probably the best known, formerly on VHS, is La nuit fantastique (Fantastic Night, 1942), a fantasy with Fernand Gravey as an innocent student literally pursuing the woman of his dreams (Micheline Presle) in his dreams. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 29, 2004). — J.R.
10 on Ten
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami
Abbas Kiarostami’s recent features satisfy few of the usual expectations about narrative films. Yet in 10 on Ten — a documentary about his most recent feature, 10, showing twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center–he appears to be slavishly living up to those expectations.
Like 10, 10 on Ten is split into ten chapters, the last nine of which have labels that suggest topics in a master class: “The Camera,” “The Subject,” “The Script,” “The Location,” “The Music,” “The Actor,” “The Accessories,” “The Director,” and “The Last Lesson.” Kiarostami implies that this film — made for the French DVD of 10, released last summer (the U.S. version will be out November 2) — is his attempt to explain the rationale behind his working methods. The film never becomes as far-fetched as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which purports to explain rationally how he made creative decisions in composing “The Raven.” Yet there’s something suspect about Kiarostami’s cookbook-style lucidity — he may be sincere, but he seems to be overestimating the role rationality plays in his decisions. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 2007). — J.R.
DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY MICHAEL MOORE
One of the standard charges leveled against Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was that it was preaching to the converted. I don’t think this is entirely true: Moore credits himself with helping to turn this country against the war in Iraq, and if we look at when the opinion polls started to shift, his claim doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted. The sad fact is that his screed scored in part because it delivered some basic facts about the aftermath of 9/11 that the mainstream news media had failed to put across.
For better and for worse, Moore’s Sicko scores for similar reasons. It spends more than two hours attempting to preach to the unconverted that (1) this country’s health care system is a disgrace, especially when it comes to medical insurance, and that (2) it could easily be much better. There are fewer jokes this time around, and Moore makes a point of not even appearing on-screen for a good 40 minutes, putting more emphasis on his arguments and less on his comic persona.
It’s an honorable tactic and the arguments are strong. But when he finally turns up in the flesh, there’s something even more rancid than usual about the way he plays dumb. Read more
Commissioned for a 2011 collection in French devoted to the work of Marylène Negro. My friend Nicole Brenez, who engineered this commission and who translated this piece into French, added a couple of footnotes that I’ve adapted and appropriated here. — J.R.
“I don’t believe in a cinema of literary narrative,” Abbas Kiarostami says in Around Five (2005), “but I don’t believe that cinema can exist without telling a story.” He elucidates this paradox by arguing that viewers consciously or unconsciously impose their own narratives, even on still photographs. And indeed, Roads of Kiarostami [see illustration below], a 32-minute film which Kiarostami also made in 2005, largely consists of imposing his own narratives on his own black-and-white photographs, all of which show roads passing through landscapes. The imposed narratives in this case consist of zooming in and out of or panning across these photographs, which are initially connected to one another by lap dissolves, and then of Kiarostami speaking in voiceover about how and why these photographs came to be taken.
To contemplate roads passing through seemingly uninhabited landscapes — which is what Kiarostami mainly does, and is what Marylène Negro does in her 22-minute film Seeland, also made in 2005 — is fundamentally to ask two different questions: what is nature with and without mankind, and what is narrative? Read more
The following is Mark Rappaport’s Introduction to his new collection, The Secret Life of Moving Shadows, available now from Amazon as an e-book (in two parts, available here and here — a necessary division made in order to keep the book’s illustrations the proper size), reprinted here at my suggestion and with Mark’s permission.
I was delighted to learn, shortly after posting this for the first time, that the Criterion Blu-Ray of All That Heaven Allows includes Mark’s 1992 feature Rock Hudson’s Home Movies as one of the extras. More recently (in 2021), I learned to my delight that Fox Lorber has picked up a sizable portion of Mark’s oeuvre, for live screenings as well as digital releases. — J.R.
This is a collection of essays I wrote over the last several years. If there is no unifying theme to them or a through-line, let me just say that they were all written because I wanted to write them and I felt I had something to say about each of the films or subjects or ideas that I hadn’t seen adequately dealt with elsewhere. In almost every case, the idea came to me in a flash—either inspired by something I read or while watching a movie. Read more
My column in the Winter 2021 issue of CinemaScope. — J.R.
Teaching an online course on Agnès Varda at the School of the Art Institute this fall for 39 students has put me in regular touch with Criterion’s superb 15-Blu-ray box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, every week. The packaging reminds me in some ways of the handsome 78 rpm albums I used to cherish as objects and totems in the mid- to late 1940s, when I was still a toddler, although Criterion’s version of this sort of assembly, held in a box, manages to be neater and more compact. There’s also a richly illustrated and annotated 200-page book inside the box, with essays by Amy Taubin, Ginette Vincendeau, So Mayer, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Rebecca Bengal, and excellent “program notes” on all the films by Michael Koresky. In short, plenty to keep a coronavirus shut-in busy, even without a course to teach.
The course has gradually brought home to me the complexly ambiguous lesson that Varda wasn’t really or exactly an auteur, at least not in the boys’-club meaning of that term as it’s most commonly used. But not being an auteur gave her a kind of freedom and a form of elasticity denied to most auteurs. 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 fourth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Taste of Cherry
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, and is even inconclusive about whether or not he succeeds, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. The film has remained in many ways Kiarostami’s most controversial film ever since it shared the 1997 paume d’or at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, in part because it entrusts so much of its meaning and power to the audience and the nature of its own investment in what it’s watching. Like many of Kiarostami’s other films, it’s centered around the simultaneously private and public experience of a character in a car giving rides to others, and just as the experience of watching a film in a theater combines private responses with public reactions, this is a film that speaks to both of these situations. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 1997). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Written by Mostow and Sam Montgomery
With Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn, Ritch Brinkley, and Moira Harris.
Night Falls on Manhattan
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Sidney Lumet
With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, James Gandolfini, Lena Olin, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Colm Feore, Ron Leibman, and Richard Dreyfuss.
About three-quarters of the way through Breakdown — the well-crafted theatrical-feature debut of director and cowriter Jonathan Mostow, a thriller offering more bang for your buck than almost any other recent release — I started to feel nauseous. It’s a problem I encounter during a lot of commercial American movies these days, usually for more or less the same reason; if I had to encapsulate this reason in a single phrase, I’d say it’s the way they turn people into garbage. By “people” I mean mainly fictional characters, but also filmmakers and filmgoers, because when people on-screen are treated like garbage and the movie “works” — clicks, delivers, offers more bang for our buck — the filmmakers are turning themselves and us into garbage as well. Read more
Written for the Viennale’s catalogue accompanying its Jerry Lewis retrospective in October 2013, where it appears in German translation. — J.R.
1. Why Did — and Do — the Americans Love Jerry Lewis So Much?
…Jerry Lewis’s face, where the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary. — Jean-Luc Godard on Hollywood or Bust, July 1957 (1)
The usual question — and by now a completely tiresome one — is, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis so much?” People have been asking this question — mainly rhetorically rather than with any genuine curiosity about the answer — for over half a century, yet if it was ever worth asking in the first place, this was only for roughly the first two decades of that period. As far as I can tell, this was a love that was first fully declared in detail (though it was far from being universally accepted even in France, then or later) in December 1957, when Robert Benayoun published an article in Positif entitled “Simple Simon ou l’anti-James Dean”, although earlier appreciations, Godard’s among them, had already appeared by then.
This was only about a month before Lewis, having ended his partnership with Dean Martin a year and a half earlier, and subsequently become his own producer on Rock-a-Bye Baby, purchased a mansion in Bel Air that had formerly been owned by the late Louis B. Read more