Daily Archives: December 4, 2021

Say the Right Thing

From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 1989). This was my second column about Do the Right Thing; my first one is here. — J.R.

It’s readily apparent by now that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is something of a Rorschach test as well as an ideological litmus test, and not only for the critics. It’s hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means, and it’s heartening as well as significant that the picture stirring up all this talk is not a standard Hollywood feature. Because the arguments that are currently being waged about the film are in many ways as important as the film itself, and a lot more important than the issues being raised by other current releases, it seems worth looking at them again in closer detail. I don’t mean to review the movie a second time, but I do want to address some of the deeper questions being raised by it. Ultimately most of these questions have something to do with language and the way we’re accustomed to talking about certain things — race relations and violence as well as movies in general.

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Around the World in 1,085 Pages

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2006). — J.R.

Against the Day | Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)

Thomas Pynchon’s 1,085-page Against the Day does a lot of things. Some it does well, some it does badly — and some are impossible to judge this early, though scores of people are trying, in the press and on the Internet. And it may still be beyond the capacity of most of us to judge a year from now. In some respects Pynchon remains as difficult to evaluate as globalization with all its facets and ambiguities.

This passionately anticapitalist book, which most likely took a decade or more to write, follows dozens of characters over more than two decades, starting at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and ending, more or less, in Paris in the early 1920s. Meanwhile it skips across the planet several times, stopping in, among other places, the Balkans, central Asia, Cambridge, Gottingen, London, New York, Paris, Telluride, Venice, and Vienna. Pynchon includes labor history, mathematical equations, ambiguously overlapping stories about alchemy and early photography, and the tale of an anarchist coal miner named Webb Traverse — who specializes in dynamiting railroads and who’s tortured to death by hired guns working for a robber baron — and the lives of his children.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.  — J.R.

How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.

1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange.… Read more »