Monthly Archives: November 2021

Art School Is Murder

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 2006). — J.R.

Art School Confidential

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes

With Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Joel David Moore, Ethan Suplee, Steve Buscemi, and Anjelica Huston

The 2001 live-action Ghost World was the first collaboration involving director Terry Zwigoff, cartoonist Daniel Clowes, and John Malkovich’s production company. Art School Confidential is the second. It’s far more ambitious than its predecessor and suffers from too many ideas rather than too few, making it an inspired, fascinating, and revealing mess. Holding it together is the same anger about the way art is taught that gave so much edgy life to the scenes with Illeana Douglas in Ghost World. Even if one disagrees with some of its points, as I do, it offers plenty to mull over.

Both films faintly echo a four-page catalog of Clowes’s gripes called “Art School Confidential” that appeared in his comic book Eightball. (Having taught courses in film and critical writing in a university art department in the mid-70s,I can testify that art-world careerism was the main preoccupation of both my students and my colleagues.) Clowes clearly felt alienated as an art student and has been spewing bile ever since.… Read more »

Ghost World

From the August 1, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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If, like me, you’ve been wondering how Terry Zwigoff, the brilliant documentary filmmaker who made Crumb, would negotiate his shift to fiction filmmaking, here’s your answer: brilliantly. Ghost World, a very personal adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book that Zwigoff wrote with Clowes, either captures with uncanny precision what it’s like to be a teenage girl in this country at this moment or fooled me utterly into thinking it does. Thora Birch (American Beauty) plays Enid, a comic book artist (her notebook was actually drawn by Sophie Crumb, Robert’s daughter) who plans to share an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Enid befriends Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, much older collector of rare blues and jazz 78s, shortly after she almost graduates from high school. To get a diploma, she has to take an art course over the summer, and our glimpses of this add up to the funniest portrait of American “art appreciation” I’ve ever seen, with Illeana Douglas, as the teacher, rivaling Elaine May as a satirist. Never predictable, this movie is often hilarious as well as touching, subtly adapting the mise en scene of Clowes’s original without being fancy or obtrusive about it.… Read more »

Two Weeks in Another Town

My 1973 Cannes coverage for London’s Time Out (which ran in their June 8-14 issue, about a year before I moved to London from Paris), slightly tweaked. I’m pretty sure I submitted something longer and more detailed (judging from my penultimate sentence, my account of Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow must have been one of the several things that was cut),  but I no longer have the original version to verify this. — J.R.

 

May 11: Discounting Godspell, the opening film, which I avoided seeing yesterday both for its sake and for mine, the festival got off to a rousing start today with two strong and absorbing films.

Joseph Losey’s A Doll’s House -– shown in the official festival, out of competition — cannot however be considered a successful embodiment of the Ibsen play. The authorial agendas of Ibsen, Losey, and [Jane] Fonda ultimately diverge more than combine, and we arrive at an abrupt impasse – a torso of the play that’s still missing a head.

‘To waken the sleeping beauty,’ says a carnival barker in James B.… Read more »

Malick’s Progress

From the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Thin Red Line

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Terrence Malick

With Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen, Dash Mihok, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney.

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Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures was in effect a tie-breaker between two irreconcilable positions.

As a participant in the meeting I saw partisans of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan square off against partisans of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s first film since Days of Heaven (1978). Practically no one voted for both — only Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind — so Steven Soderbergh lurched forward as a second choice, finally copping 28 votes while Spielberg and Malick tied for second place with 25 votes apiece.… Read more »

THE PROJECTIONIST (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 492). -– J.R.

The Projectionist
U.S.A., 1970

Director: Harry Hurwitz

Chuck, a stocky film projectionist who works in midtown Manhattan, hears on a radio about an old man mugged on the Lower East Side, and imagines himself coming to the rescue as Captain Flash. The reverie is broken off by the arrival of his friend Harry, an usher, who hears him describe meeting a pretty girl on the way to work (provoking a romantic-movie pastiche); this is interrupted in turn by Renaldi, the tyrannical theatre manager, who orders Harry out of the booth. Chuck next fantasizes a preview,’The Terrible World of Tomorrow”, before getting off work. As Captain Flash, he loses a fight with the thugs, and the old man informs him that The Bat is after his death ray; they proceed to The Bat’s hideout, where Flash sees the same pretty girl he had described to Harry. In the cinema lobby, Chuck chats with the Czech candy man, who is eventually reprimanded by Renaldi for giving Chuck free lemon drops from the counter. Chuck imagines another preview (“The Wonderful World of Tomorrow”) and a Flash episode in which he visits ‘Rick’s Bar’ in Casablanca and tangles with a prehistoric beast in The Bat’s cave. Passing a movie premiere, he imagines arriving there as a celebrity.… Read more »

Flirting With Disaster [MARS ATTACKS!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 1996). — J.R.

Mars Attacks! ***

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Jonathan Gems

With Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, and Sylvia Sidney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

As light entertainment, Mars Attacks! gave me more pleasure than most other recent movies I’ve seen, including Daylight, The English Patient, Independence Day, Jingle All the Way, 101 Dalmatians, Space Jam, Trees Lounge, and 2 Days in the Valley. Maybe this is because it achieves the level of nonseriousness so many of its competitors aim for, a level the mass media have been touting as the ideal for big-time movies. If that ideal is to keep you enthralled for a couple of hours and leave a minimum of aftertaste, then Tim Burton’s SF comedy pretty much fills the bill. It also made me laugh.

Part of what kept me so absorbed — apart from the neatly designed effects and a few of the actorly turns, including Jack Nicholson’s — is the sense the film conveys of postmodernist free fall through the iconography of 50s and 60s science fiction in relation to the present: a singular sense of giddy displacement that clearly locates the movie in the 90s, but a 90s largely made up of images and cliches from previous decades that are subtly turned against themselves, made into a form of camp, affectionately mocked, yet still revered as if they had a particular purchase on the truth.… Read more »

Dogmatic Subterfuge [THE CELEBRATION]

From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1998). It seems like there are some cinephiles around who still regard Dogme 95 as an honest-to-Pete aesthetic position and not as a lucrative business, ignoring that as far back as 2000, official Dogme Certificates were being sold in Denmark for roughly $1,000 apiece — apparently as a adjunct to von Trier’s main form of income, his ongoing porn-film business (which has also been widely ignored). — J.R.

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The Celebration

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov

With Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neuman, Trine Dyrholm, and Helle Dolleris.

In 1961 we wrote this manifesto of the New American Cinema. Eugene Archer was working for the New York Times then, and I showed it to him and asked him if they could print it. He said, ‘No, we couldn’t — maybe the Village Voice could run it.’ Then I understood, of course, that the only kind of manifesto that the New York Times would print would be a press release, not a manifesto at all. In the same way, for an idea to get into the Village Voice today, it has to become not an idea but something else.Read more »

Violins at the Ball

From Oui (August 1974). — J.R.

Violins at the Ball. It appears that the two obsessive themes of French cinema right now are movies about movies and movies about the German Occupation. Michel Drach’s Violins at the Ball combines both of these, but on a very personal level, for the story he has to tell is Drach’s own. It is told in two tenses: a present in black and white showing Drach as he tries to interest a producer in his film and he travels around Paris and Oise with his cameraman; a past in color that he is filming, which describes his adventures as a Jewish child during the Occupation.Drach’s wife, actress Marie-José Nat, plays herself in the present and his mother in the past, while their son David portrays Michel at the age of eight. To complicate matters further, the producer declares that the film can’t be made without a star, and Drach immediately replaces himself with Jean-Louis Tringtignant – who also happens to be his best friend. Drach has wanted to make this film for 15 years, and it shows in the careful attention given to various details, the subtle transactions between memory and invention, fear and comfort, yesterday and today.… Read more »

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Curiously, the Chicago Reader’s web site dates this capsule review in October 1985, two years before the film was made. I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1987, and believe I reviewed it not too long afterwards. — J.R.

Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable — as goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos (although the women here also do pretty well in that department), and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process.… Read more »

Let the Music Do the Talking [on JAZZ ’34]

This defense of what I consider Robert Altman’s most neglected major work appeared in the May 8, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’ve deliberately refrained from including any stills from Kansas City — its “parent” film, which I continue to dislike. —  J.R.

Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Robert Altman

With Jesse Davis, David “Fathead” Newman, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Tyrone Clark, Don Byron, Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Victor Lewis, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Craig Handy, David Murray, Joshua Redman, Curtis Fowles, Clark Gayton, Olu Dara, Nicholas Payton, James Zollar, and Kevin Mahogany.

The best Robert Altman feature in more years than I care to remember isn’t playing at a theater anywhere. A shortened version aired on PBS’s “Great Performances” series last year, but the movie only recently came to my attention when a video copy (distributed by Rhapsody Films) arrived in the mail. A fascinating adjunct to Altman’s much more ambitious and much less successful Kansas City (1996), Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing is one of the best jazz films I’ve ever seen. It’s what its parent film promised but failed to deliver — all the more interesting because it’s neither a documentary nor a narrative but an eccentric hybrid.… Read more »

Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1975); I’ve mainly followed the editorial changes (mostly trims) used in the version that appears in my collection Essential Cinema….My apologies for the format problems with this piece, only some of which I’ve managed to resolve satisfactorily. — J.R.

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 [. . .] Unless it is claimed that a pianist’s hands move haphazardly up and down the keyboard — and no one would be willing to claim this seriously — it must be admitted that there exists a guiding thought, conscious or subconscious, behind the succession of organized sound patterns . . . Of course, it does happen, and not too infrequently, that an instrumentalist’s fingers  ‘recite’ a lesson they have learned; but in  such cases there is no reason to talk about creation.

— André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence

 

I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.

Lennie Tristano, circa 1962

 

CHARLIE (Elliott Gould): This is the truth. You’re an animal lover, right?/ SUSAN (Gwen Welles): Yeah./CHARLIE: Okay, well: the great blue whale, right? You know about a great blue whale?/ SUSAN (semi-audible): . . . got that wrestling guy, hunh? /CHARLIE: No, it’s a big fish, a big fish, there’s only two or three left in the world.Read more »

Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough

From Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1975, Vol. 42, No. 499. — J.R.

Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough

U. S.A., 1974Director: Guy Green

Cert--AA. dist–CIC. p.c–Paramount Pictures. In association with

Sujac Productions and Aries Films. exec. p–Irving Mansfield. p–Howard

W. Koch. p. manager–Howard W. Koch Jnr. asst. d–Howard W. Koch

Jnr., Lee Rafner. sc–Julius J. Epstein. Based on the novel Once Is Not

Enough by Jacqueline Susann. ph–John A. Alonzo. Panavision. col

Movielab. ed–Rita Roland. p. designer--John DeCuir. a.d–David

Marshall. setdec–Ruby Levitt. m–Henry Mancini. songs—“Once Is

Not Enough” by Henry Mancini, Larry Kusik, sung by–The Mancni

Singers; “All the wav” by Sammy Cahn, James van Heusen, sung by

Frank Sinatra. titles–Dan Perri. sd. ed–Robert Cornett. sd. rec–Larry

Jost. sd. re-rec–Doc Wilkinson. l.p–Kirk Douglas (Mike Wayne),

Alexis Smith (Deidre Milford Granger), David Janssen (Tom Colt),

George Hamilton (David Milford), Melina Mercouri (Karla), Gary

Conway (Hugh Robertson), Brenda Vaccaro (Linda Riggs), Deborah

Raffin, (January Wayne), Lillian Randolph (Mabel), Renata Vanni (Maria),

Mark Roberts (Rhinegold), John Roper (Franco), Leonard Sachs (Dr.Read more »

The Good, the Bad, and the Future

From the Chicago Reader (October 29, 1987). — J.R.

I. Good Things About the Chicago Film Festival

1. Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, any film festival that can boast films from 35 countries and encompass 70 years of filmmaking is performing an invaluable cultural service. The xenophobic and antihistorical cast of most pop culture in this country is such that the more the media expand, the narrower our sense of reality generally becomes, and any institution that can allow us glimpses of cultures and eras other than our own is bound to teach us something more than the average TV news broadcast. (The sharp moral distinction that we usually make between news and fiction–designating the first as “serious” and the second as “entertainment”–overlooks the fact that both are usually designed as narrative entertainment, offering consumable, hence disposable, stories with larger-than-life characters.)

2. Out of the 20 films in the festival that I’ve so far managed to see, more than half are eminently worth seeing, and roughly a third qualify as first-rate. If that’s a somewhat lower batting average than either Facets or the Film Center, it’s still a much higher one than what is achieved by the usual run of commercial mainstream releases.… Read more »

DESERET

From the Chicago Reader (March 15, 1996). — J.R.

Deseret

Directed and written byJames Benning

Narrated by Fred Gardner.

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it “Here is a magnificent novel” is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and remarking, “Well, well, well; quite a slice.”

Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither is the Atlantic Ocean. — Dorothy Parker

One of the main characteristics of experimental films is that they tend to make hash of the terms we use to speak about narrative features, and James Benning’s haunting, beautiful, and awesome Deseret (1995) — his eighth feature-length film — performs this valuable function from the outset. To say that Deseret is “directed” and “written” by Benning requires some bending of the categories. He “directed” it insofar as he conceived the project, filmed the images, recorded the sound, and edited the sound and images; he “wrote” it insofar as he compiled and edited the texts that are read offscreen by Fred Gardner, though he didn’t write them. In a Hollywood film the directorial tasks described above would be carried out by a producer, cinematographer, sound recordist, editor, and sound editor; it’s anybody’s guess what the compiler and editor of the text would be called (researcher?… Read more »

10 From ’87 (1st 10-best list for the Reader)

This is the first ten-best round-up I ever did for the Chicago Reader, which ran in their January 8, 1988 issue. Having recently been reading the Library of America’s mammoth collection of Manny Farber’s film criticism (which is coming out in September), I’ve become especially aware of how much one’s taste and preferences tend to change over time. Today, for instance, I suspect I would have placed Mélo in the number #1 slot, and probably wouldn’t include House of Games or Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen in the also-rans but would move them both up to the main list. The first photo, incidentally, directly below, is from Godard’s still woefully neglected King Lear.–J.R.

 

What is the meaning of a ten best list? For me, at any rate, it means a list of movies with the highest possible mystery quotient — the movies that fascinate me the most because they still have secrets to withhold. And the best litmus test that I know for determining this quality is repeat viewings. If a movie that knocked me out seems less mysterious after a return visit — as was the case with Broadcast News, Cross My Heart, and Orphans — then it doesn’t belong on the list.… Read more »