Monthly Archives: November 2021

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 2)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’m posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

JohnCassavetes

3. The taboo against financing one’s own work. I assume it’s deemed

acceptable for a low-budget experimental filmmaker to bankroll his or

her own work, but for a “commercial” director to do so is anathema

within the film industry, and Welles was never fully trusted or respected

by that industry for doing so from the mid-forties on. This pattern

started even before Othello, when he purchased the material he had

shot for It’s All True from RKO with the hopes of finishing the film

independently, a project he never succeeded in realizing. As an

overall principle, he did something similar in the thirties when he

acted in commercial radio in order to surreptitiously siphon money

into some of his otherwise government-financed theater productions

during the WPA period, a practice he discusses in This Is Orson

Welles. John Cassavetes, who also acted in commercial films in order

to pay for his own independent features, suffered similarly in terms of

overall commercial “credibility,” which helps to explain why he and

Welles admired each other. Read more

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 1)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’ll be posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

Nothing irritates one more with middlebrow morality than the perpetual needling of great artists for not having been  greater.

— Cyril Connolly

Orson-Welles-Opens-Paper

During my almost thirty years as a professional film critic,

I’ve developed something of a sideline — not so much by

design as through a combination of passionate interest and

particular opportunities — devoted to researching the work

and career of Orson Welles. Though I wouldn’t necessarily

call him my favorite filmmaker, he remains the most

fascinating for me, both due to the sheer size of his talent, and

the ideological force of his work and his working methods.

These continue to pose an awesome challenge to what I’ve been

calling throughout this book the media-industrial complex.

orson-welles-color

In more than one respect, these two traits are reverse sides of

the same coin. A major part of Welles’s talent as a filmmaker

consisted of his refusal to repeat himself — a compulsion to

keep moving creatively that consistently worked against his

credentials as a “bankable” director, if only because banks rely

on known quantities rather than on experiments. Read more

Dark Heart [BAND OF OUTSIDERS]

From the December 7, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Band of Outsiders

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Daniele Girard, Louisa Colpeyn, and Ernest Menzer.

To gauge the historical significance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) — getting a week’s run in a lovely new print at the Music Box  — it helps to know that it was made four years after François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and three years before Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Both Band of Outsiders and Shoot the Piano Player are low-budget black-and-white French thrillers adapted from American crime novels translated into French for the celebrated Serie Noire collection, and they were abject box-office flops on both sides of the Atlantic — though today they embody the glories of the French New Wave in a good many people’s minds. By contrast, Bonnie and Clyde, a Hollywood movie in color that was profoundly influenced by these two films, was a huge success, and its lyrical depictions of violence changed the direction of American cinema.

All three films are mixtures of tragedy and farce, violence and romance, with an uncertain emotional tone. When Band of Outsiders and Shoot the Piano Player were first released, audiences didn’t know what to make of this mix, but when they saw Bonnie and Clyde they were exhilarated by its ambiguities. Read more

PLACING MOVIES, Part 3: Filmmakers (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R. 

PlacingMovies

I should begin here with a somewhat embarrassed confession about a methodology I have employed with increasing frequency, especially since the mid-1980s — the practice of recycling certain elements from my earlier criticism. On a purely practical level, it can of course be argued that very few people who read me in, say, the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1974 are likely to be following my weekly columns in the Chicago Reader two decades later, and that my pieces for Soho News in 1980 (to cite another random example) are not likely to have survived in the periodical collections of many libraries. But I still blush to admit that, in a hatchet job I performed on Donald Richie’s book on Ozu for Sight and Sound in 1975, I sharply reproached Richie for reusing the same phrases about Ozu again and again in his own criticism. This was written at a relatively early stage in my own career when I imagined other film buffs like myself going to libraries and reading virtually everything in print on a given topic; I didn’t really think through the implications of writing about the same films and filmmakers for different audiences in separate countries over many decades — as Richie had certainly already done at that point, and as I have subsequently done. Read more

THE NIGHT PORTER (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974, Vol. 41, No. 490. — J.R.

 

Portiere di Notte, Il (The Night Porter)

 

Italy, 1973

Director: Liliana Cavani

Cert—X. dist—Avco-Embassy. p.c—Lotar Film. A Robert Gordon

Edwards/Esa De Dimone production. A Joseph E. Levine presentation

for Ital Noleggio Cinematografico. p—Robert Gordon Edwards. p. staff

Umberto Sambuco, Dino di Dionisio, Roberto Edwards, (Vienna) Otto

Dworak. asst. d–Franco Cirino, Paola Tallarigo, (Vienna) Johann

Freisinger. sc–Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati. story–Liliana Cavani,

Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani. ph–Alfio Contini. co1–Technicolor;

prints by Eastman Colour. col. sup–Ernesto Novelli. ed–Franco Arcalli.

a.d–Nedo Azzini, Jean-Marie Simon. set dec–Osvaldo Desideri. m/m.d

Daniele Paris. cost–Piero Tosi. sd. ed–Michael Billingsley. sd. rec

Fausto Ancillai. sd. re-rec–Decio Trani. post-synchronisation d–Robert

Rietty. sd. effects–Roberto Arcangeli. l.p–Dirk Bogarde (Max),

Charlotte Rampling (Lucia), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti (Hans),

Giuseppe Addobbati (Stumm), Isa Miranda (Countess Stein), Nino

Bignamini (Adolph), Marino Mase’ (Atherton), Amedeo Amodia (Bert),

Piero Vida (Day Porter), Geoffrey Copleston (Kurt), Manfred Freiberger

(Dobson), Ugo Cardea (Mario), Hilda Gunther (Greta), Nora Ricci

(Neighbour), Piero Mazzinghi (Concierge), Kai S. Read more

Born to Swing (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 489). Postscript: Thanks (once again!) to Ehsan Khoshbakht for providing me with an extra illustration for this review. — J.R.

photo

Born to Swing

 

Great Britain, 1973

Director: John Jeremy

Dist–TCB. p.c–Silverscreen Productions. p–John Jeremy. p. manager

Angus Trowbridge. sc–John Jeremy. ph–Peter Davis, Tohru Nakamura.

photographs–Ernie Smith, Valerie Wilmer. ed–John Jererny. m–Buddy

Tate, Earle Warren, Joe Newman, Dicky Wells, Eddie Durham, Snub

Mosley, Gene Ramey, Tommy Flanagan, Jo Jones, The Count Basie

Band (1943). m. rec—Fred Miller. sd. rec—Ron Yoshida. sd. re-rec

Hugh Strain. narrator–Humphrey Lyttelton. with–Buck Clayton, John

Hammond, Andy Kirk, Jo Jones, Albert McCarthy, Gene Krupa, Snub

Mosley, Joe Newman, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Dicky Wells. 1,773 ft.

49 mins. (16 mm.).

This engaging jazz film has both a general subject and a specific

one. Generally, it is about American swing music of the past;

specifically, its main focus is six veterans of Count Basie’s band in

the present. Interspersed with a 1943 clip of the Basie band inspiring

some athletic dancers are album covers, flurries of sheet music,

neon signs, and a string of short reminiscences: by Andy Kirk,

about his stint with the Eleven Clouds of Joy; Snub Mosley, about

New York in the Thirties; the doorman at Jimmy Ryan’s, about

52nd Street; Gene Krupa, mainly about himself. Read more

Bedlam (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 490). — J.R.

Bedlam

 

U.S.A., 1946                          Director: Mark Robson

London, 1761. Attempting to escape from the St. Mary of Bethlehem lunatic asylum, commonly known as Bedlam, a poet named Colby is forced by Sims, the apothecary general in charge, to drop from a railing, and he falls to his death. Lord Mortimer and his ‘protégée’ Nell Bowen, passing by in a carriage, question Sims about the incident, and are assured it was an accident. After subsequently paying a visit to the asylum, Nell is appalled by the living conditions and Sims’ sadistic treatment of the inmates, and appeals to Lord Mortimer to make a charitable donation. But Sims dissuades the latter from doing so. When Nell joins forces with John Wilkes to turn the cause into a political issue, Sims contrives to have her declared insane and committed to Bedlam. Frightened for her safety — and securing a trowel from Hannay, a sympathetic Quaker brickmason, for protection — she none the less elicits the respect and loyalty of the other inmates, and when Sims locks her in a cage with a supposedly dangerous lunatic, she successfully placates her cellmate. Read more

PENTHESILEA: QUEEN OF THE AMAZON (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

I must admit that the hyperbole of the last couple of sentences here embarrasses me now. But readers can judge for themselves, because this first feature by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen has recently become available as an extra on the BFI DVD of Riddles of the Sphinx. –- J.R.

Great Britain, 1974 Directors: Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen

The film is composed of five sequences, each preceded by a quotation. 1: “Ghost white like a not yet written page” (Mallarmé, “Mimique” ): A mime of Kleist’s Penthesilea, filmed in long shot from a fixed camera position. 2: “The shadows sprinkled in black characters” (Mallarmé, “Quant au livre”): A lecture on Kleist’s play, the myth of Penthesilea and the theoretical basis of the film, delivered by Peter Wollen while moving about a terrace and adjoining living room, the camera tracing an independent trajectory within the same confined space and occasionally approaching the index cards of notes left behind by Wollen at various stages in his route. 3: “Blazons of phobia, seals of self-punishment” (Lacan, after Vico): A succession of images relating to Penthesilea and the Amazons — paintings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, etc., Read more

Media’s and Scholarship’s Historical Abridgments

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. GriffithShown: Walter Long (as Gus) surrounded by Ku Klux Klan members

In his review of Edward Ball’s Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy in the November 18 issue of The New York Review of Books, Colin Grant writes that “The vexed [viewers of The Birth of a Nation] included President Woodrow Wilson who, after a private screening in the White House, is alleged to have said, ‘It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.'”

For most of my life, I’ve been repeatedly encountering the first phrase in Wilson’s alleged statement, usually in supposedly reputable sources, but never until now have I read the second phrase in the sentence, which changes the meaning of the first. The first phrase, as a standalone statement, functions like an advertisement for the film; the second, for all its ambiguity, adds regret and consternation to the sentiment. Assuming that Wilson actually said this, what he meant precisely by “terribly true” may continue to elude us, but it suggests to me something other than an simple endorsement of the film. When Griffith’s film continued to be shown at Klan rallies in my home state of Alabama during my childhood (ironically, one of the rare occasions when a silent film was still being shown there for any reason), I would imagine that the first part of Wilson’s sentence could have been used to promote the event, but the second part, which might have shed certain doubts about the Klan’s triumphant lynching in the film,, would have most likely been left out. Read more

My 25 Favorite Films of the 21st Century (so far, four years ago)

Not so long ago, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis decided to name their 25 favorite films of this millennium so far. More recently, J. Hoberman decided to play the same game.

I’ve decided to play as well. My only rule in this game, not followed by Hoberman, was to restrict my favorite filmmakers on the list to only one film each –- not always easy, and sometimes downright agonizing. (How, for instance, could I have left out Costa’s Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?, Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Jia’s Platform and Still Life, Linklater’s Waking Life?)

I haven’t provided links here to my writing about these films, but using this site’s search engine should turn up texts about practically all of them. (The only exception that comes to mind is The Clock.)

 

The order below is alphabetical.

 

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg/Kubrick)

Bernie (Linklater)

Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

The Circle (Panahi)

The Clock (Marclay)

*Corpus Callosum (Snow)

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)

Down There (Akerman)

Down with Love (Reed)

Farewell to Language (Godard)

Horse Money (Costa)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki)

Inland Empire (Lynch)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Andersen)

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (Gianvito)

Operai, Contadini (Straub-Huillet)

Paterson (Jarmusch)

Pistol Opera (Suzuki)

RR (Benning)

The Silence Before Bach (Portabella)

Son of Saul (Nemes)

The Trap (Curtis)

The Turin Horse (Tarr)

The World (Jia)

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais) [6/21/17] Read more

Before He Was Famous (Kiarostami’s Early Shorts)

From The Guardian (21 September 2002). I continue to find it frustrating that almost sixteen years later, what I regard as Kiarostami’s two best shorts, Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) and Orderly or Disorderly (1981), still aren’t available on any DVD or Blu-Ray (although Scott Perna has just emailed to remind me that the former can at least be accessed on YouTube). The principal reason was that Kiarostami himself didn’t like them. He once told me that even the second of these was made before he regarded himself as a film artist — something I continue to find baffling, and astonishing. But now that Criterion has announced that it will be restoring and releasing all his films, this lack of availability will apparently change. — J.R.

The eight short films made by Abbas Kiarostami between 1970 and 1982 offer an interesting riposte to critics who claimed during those years that they knew what was going on in world cinema. Even in Iran, where the shorts were made, none constituted much of an event. And considering how deceptively modest they are, they probably never would have attracted much notice anywhere if their director hadn’t gone on to make a string of masterful features over the past 15 years (the most recent of which, Ten, is about to open here). Read more

The restaurant scene in PLAYTIME

Written for the special 50th anniversary issue of the Finnish film magazine Filmihullu, published in November 2018. “The ‘rules of the game’ are simple,” wrote the editor-in-chief, Lauri Timonen. “Seize the day and choose your all time favorite film scene – just one scene, from any film ever made – and write a maximum of 2000 letters (i.e. one page / A4) about it and why that moment in time is so special to you.” — J.R.

 

The restaurant scene in PlayTime

Jonathan Rosenbaum

playtime-restaurant

My scheme for cheating a little on your assignment is to select what I shall call “the restaurant scene” in Jacques Tati’s PlayTime — a scene or sequence, in short, that actually comprises almost half of the entire film, or at the very least more than a third of the running time. It’s not even certain when this sequence actually begins  — does it start with various street pedestrians watching the last-minute construction of the establishment, or does it begin more properly with the restaurant’s official opening? — but I will assume that it ends with one of the few antirealistic gags in the film, the early-morning crowing of a distant rooster, as various restaurant customers stagger out into the street. Read more

Adaptation

From the June 1, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, the writer and director of Being John Malkovich, have teamed up on another zany comedy, approximately two-thirds as good. Kaufman shares screenplay credit with an imaginary twin brother named Donald, echoing the story — in which a writer named Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald. (Both are played by Nicolas Cage.) The real-life Kaufman, assigned to adapt a real-life nonfiction book he admired but couldn’t figure out how to crack, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, decided to write about his dilemma, alternating bits of the book with a comic saga about writer’s block; to foreground his own schizophrenic split between suffering artist and amiable Hollywood hack, he invented a twin for the latter role. Meryl Streep, who tends to shine in comedies, plays Orlean, and Chris Cooper does an elaborate character turn as her subject, an eccentric flower poacher in the Florida Everglades. This is like a Ferris wheel — it’s enjoyable but it goes nowhere, which I guess is how Ferris wheel rides are supposed to be. With Tilda Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal. 114 min. (JR)

Read more

Notes on a Conversation with Welles (1972)

The following notes appeared in the same issue of Film Comment (November–December 1972) as “The Voice and the Eye,” at the end of my regular column, titled “Paris Journal,” which typically dealt with several different topics. Though these notes largely replicate things said elsewhere by Welles, two details for me stand out as significant additions to the record: that Welles regarded his Don Quixote as nearly completed in 1972 -— which corresponds fairly closely to the conclusions of “Don Quixote: Orson Welles’s Secret” by Audrey Stainton (who worked “on and off” as Welles’s secretary in the late 1950s) in the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound — and that he remained convinced that the deleted footage of Ambersons was destroyed by RKO (a belief I regretfully share, though legends continue to circulate about another copy of the longer cut that may survive somewhere in Brazil).

2014 footnote: The information that The Deep was “completed” by 1972 seems contradicted by the apparent fact that Jeanne Moreau never dubbed her part. -– J.R.

In the course of a conversation with Orson Welles about his Heart of  Darkness script, which is detailed elsewhere in this issue, I asked Welles about his more recent projects. Read more

THE MOST IMPORTANT AND MISAPPRECIATED AMERICAN FILMS (response to a mid-1970s survey)

From The most important and misappreciated American films since the beginning of the cinema, a coffee-table-size book of 150 pages published by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium in 1977. Two or three years earlier, when I was living and working in London, the great Jacques Ledoux (1921-1988) — whom I’d met back in 1968 when I first traveled to Brussels, to look at several of Murnau’s earliest films at his Cinematheque –- stopped by my office at Monthly Film Bulletin to ask me to participate in his eccentric but fascinating survey, which polled 203 participants around the world and then tabulated and cross-referenced the results in a number of ways.

By “misappreciated,” I’m sure that what was meant was “underrated”. I find that I still agree to a surprising degree with many of my judgments in the mid-70s –- including even my belief that Hollywood at the time was going through one of its more meager periods (even though Pauline Kael and many of her disciples seemed to think, and some of them apparently still think, that this was the richest period Hollywood has ever had in its entire history).

I made a point of mentioning Michael Snow at the end of my comments because I knew in advance that some European respondents would list him despite the fact that he is Canadian, not “American” (except in the “North American” sense). Read more