Yearly Archives: 2021

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »

Poet of Loneliness (WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?)

From the March 1, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

What Time Is It There?

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang

Written by Tsai and Yang Pi-ying

With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien, Cecilia Yip, and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

After hearing the adagio of a Schubert chamber work: there is nothing more beautiful than the happy moments of unhappy men. This might serve as a definition of art. — The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan

Toward the beginning of his essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald notes that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” That might well describe the agenda of a poetic and philosophical Taiwanese-French feature, Tsai Ming-liang’s glorious two-part invention What Time Is It There?, which premiered at Cannes last year and is opening at the Music Box this week (assuming the theater reopens after some trouble with health inspectors). It feels more contemporary, at least from a global perspective, than any other new movie in town, and central to it is an examination of separateness and togetherness, unity and disparity in two separate countries in two separate parts of the world.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION

THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION: UNCOLLECTED WRITINGS by James Baldwin, edited and with an introduction by Randall Kenan, New York: Pant6heon Books, 2010, 307 pp.

I’ve only barely started to familiarize myself with this collection, but it’s already become apparent that this is far cry from what’s commonly known as “scraping the bottom of the barrel”. Indeed, as with James Agee’s collected non-fiction, one is discovering that the Library of America’s efforts at canonizing cantankerous eloquence is, let us say, a bit under-researched, to say the least (unless the problems are simply those of taste). Baldwin’s review for the Village Voice of Seymour Krim’s first collection of essays, the first thing I read here, is plainly superior to some of the things that went into the Library of America’s selection (and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what I regard as the strongest essay Agee ever wrote, “America, Look at Your Shame!”, even if it was never published during Agee’s lifetime, is criminally omitted from both of LOA’s two Agee volumes).

I’ve encountered some other treasures in The Cross of Redemption, even at this preliminary stage, but let me zero in here on a single prophetic statement contained in  the first paragraph of a 1961 Baldwin lecture that Kenan quotes from in his Introduction:

Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too.Read more »

Celebrating southern cinema

[Chicago Reader blog post, 4/23/07] (I’ve eliminated all the now-out-of-date links, making this even more esoteric.) — J.R.

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Five years ago the Oxford American, a quarterly publication that dubs itself the “southern magazine of good writing,” published a special issue on southern movies. It did so well that they’ve just brought out a sequel. Though I contributed to the previous issue I didn’t propose anything this time round, but now that I have the follow-up in front of me I find I can recommend it for a couple of things. There’s a good interview with Charles Burnett by Dennis Lim and a thoughtful essay by Joseph McBride about John Huston, his Wise Blood in particular. Maybe it’s not always reliable: Jack Pendarvis claims that “if you Google ‘commedia dell’arte’ + ‘baby doll’ you’ll get over a thousand hits,” but when I tried I got only 368. All the same, it’s interesting to see Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, a 1956 feature scripted by Tennessee Williams, and commedia dell’arte connected .

What I mainly value in the package, though, is the free DVD that’s been appended to it–an eclectic collection of 16 items consisting of 13 clips (from films ranging from Roger Corman’s overlooked The Intruder to Joey Lauren’s Come Early Morning to Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, plus the overexposed Black Snake Moan) and three full-length shorts, all three pretty arcane: animator Leon Searl’s 1916 Krazy Kat Goes A-Wooing (download required), Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth’s 1938 animation Synchromy No.Read more »

Structures and Strictures in Suburbia

Written for Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Ozu’s Good Morning and I Was Born, But… in 2017. — J.R.

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Structures and Strictures in Suburbia

Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

From its very opening, Good Morning is deeply and delightfully musical, both in its orchestrations of static visual elements in the first two shots (the juxtaposition of adjacent houses with fences and clotheslines, and all these horizontals with the verticality of electrical towers) and in its varying rhythmic patterns of human movement, which are no less orchestrated, as various figures cross the pathways between houses, between houses and hill, and on top of the hill itself—always, mysteriously, moving from right to left. And what could be more musical than the opening gag, occurring on the same sunny hilltop, of little boys farting for their own amusement, still another form of theme and variations?

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All of which prompts me to disagree respectfully with the late Ozu specialist Donald Richie when he maintained, “Good Morning, in some ways Ozu’s most schematic film, certainly one of his least complicated formally, is an example of a film constructed around motifs.” Certainly the motifs are there, and these are vital; the two examined by Richie as sterling examples are the farting and the greeting embodied in the film’s title, and numerous variations are run on both.… Read more »

En movimiento: The Unfinished Dance of Meaning

An “En movimiento” column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. This is the original, longer version, before I had to trim it down to suit the magazine’s new design and format — J.R.

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It’s logical and inevitable that the meanings of films change over time. After all, we’re the ones who determine, discover, and/or describe those meanings, and it’s obvious that we and our understandings change over time.  At some point during my first decade, I saw a film in which poisoned biscuits played some role in the plot, and during a trip with my parents soon afterwards, I refused to eat biscuits in a hotel restaurant. I’ve subsequently been unable to remember or otherwise pinpoint the title of this film, even after several Google searches, but I’m sure that if I could resee it today, I wouldn’t take it as a practical warning about consuming biscuits.

I’ve had better luck in finding and revisiting another film that upset me during my early childhood. A protracted search in this case eventually yielded The Unfinished Dance (Henry Koster, 1947), which I most likely saw at a revival in my hometown in Alabama circa 1949 or 1950, when I was six or seven, and didn’t see again until over six decades later, after ordering a DVD.… Read more »

En movimiento: TWIN PEAKS Revisited

My column for the April 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Although I didn’t have the space to discuss this, it seems to me in retrospect that Jack Nance, even as a relatively minor character (Pete Martell), is as much the realistic backbone of Twin Peaks as he is the realistic anchor of Eraserhead — and, as such, he stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from such supernatural pasteboard characters as Bob (Frank Silva) and Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). — J.R.

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The news that David Lynch and Mark Frost are preparing nine new Twin Peaks episodes — all to be directed by Lynch and set in the present, and to air on cable TV’s Showtime in 2016 — has coincided with the release of a beautifully designed Blu-Ray box set with ten discs, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and The Missing Pieces, devoted to the 29 episodes broadcast in 1990 and 1991 and the subsequent prequel theatrical feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and many extras. All this has prompted a re-evaluation of the series as a whole, which I’ve now seen in its entirety for the first time. A few critics have aided me in this quest—especially Michel Chion in his 1992 French book on Lynch, Martha P.… Read more »

For all of us who didn’t make it to Cannes… [Chicago Reader blog post, 6/4/07]

Film For all of us who didn’t make it to Cannes…

Posted By on 06.04.07 at 07:51 PM

 

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Go to French Amazon or FNAC, both of which charge 19.99 Euros plus postage [2016 note: Alas, that price has nearly tripled by now] for a delightful DVD containing all 32 of the three-minute movies commissioned by Gilles Jacob, former director of the Cannes film festival, to precede many of the features at Cannes this year. The loose thematic hook is the darkness inside a movie theater, and the lineup of filmmakers is impressive: in alphabetical order (and please forgive me not including any links here — life is too short), Theo Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion (the only woman, alas), Youssef Chahine, Chen Kaige, Michael Cimino, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Aki Kaurismaki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Tsai Ming-liang, Gus van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai, and Zhang Yimou. (Incidentally, if you click on and enlarge the illustration here, all of these names become magically visible.)

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Changing (or Reflecting) the World: Cinema and its Discontents

 Commissioned by the Lima Film Festival in Peru in 2018. — J.R.

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Whenever someone tells me that it’s impossible for films to change the world, I like to point out that only half a year after Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta won the Paume d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, a new Belgian law known as “Plan Rosetta,” which prohibited employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage, was passed. And one could further point out that Rosetta “changed the world” in several other ways: it launched the substantial acting career of its eponymous, 18-year-old lead actress, Émilie Dequenne, it greatly enhanced the careers of its writers-directors, and it deeply affected a good many spectators, myself included — viscerally, aesthetically, spiritually, and politically.

The visceral impact came first: From its opening seconds, Rosetta makes it clear that its heroine is angry — before it tells us who she is or what she’s angry about. Alain Marcoen’s virtuoso handheld camera, which stays close to her throughout the film, follows as she slams a door, strides through the industrial workplace where she’s just been laid off, and then assaults her boss when he insists that she leave. After taking the bus back to the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic       mother, Rosetta stops briefly in the woods and methodically takes off her shoes and puts on a pair of boots hidden behind a large rock in a drainpipe.… Read more »

A Scene from GOODBYE, DRAGON INN

 From Chris Fujiwara’s 800-page collection  Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).

I’ve just read an advance copy of a terrific new book about this film by Nick Pinkerton, endlessly informative and packed with ideas. Don’t miss it! Fireflies Press is publishing it.– J.R.

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Scene

2003 / Goodbye, Dragon Inn – The shot of the empty auditorium near the end.

Taiwan. Director: Ming-liang Tsai. Original title: Bu san.

Why it’s Key: A minimalist master shows what can be done with an empty movie-theater auditorium.

One singular aspect of Ming-liang Tsai’s masterpiece is how well it plays. I’ve seen it twice with a packed film-festival audience, and both times, during a shot of an empty cinema auditorium, where nothing happens for over two minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Tsai makes it a climactic epic moment.

Indeed, for all its minimalism, Goodbye, Dragon Inn fulfills many agendas. It’s a failed heterosexual love story, a gay cruising saga, a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a creepy ghost story, a melancholy tone poem, and a wry comedy. A cavernous Taipei movie palace on its last legs is showing King Hu’s 1966 hit Dragon Inn to a tiny audience — including a couple of the film’s stars, who linger like ghosts after everyone else has left — while a rainstorm rages outside.… Read more »

Rivette, The Long and Short of It

Written for the April 2015 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

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Jacques Rivette’s preference for longer films over shorter ones has led to many alternate versions over the course of his career, starting with a two-hour version of  L’amour fou (1968, 250 min.) that the director disowned, though it premiered in Paris at the same time as the longer one, and attracted fewer spectators. The differences between the 750-minute Out 1 (1970), composed as an eight-part serial, and the 260-minute Out 1: Spectre (1971), designed as a feature, are far more important: the first is a free-form comedy whereas the second, a tightly edited nightmare fashioned out of the same footage, took Rivette a year to put together, with a separate editor.  Most fascinating of all is the fact that the same shots sometimes have substantially different meanings and impacts. Fortunately, both versions are now available in a lovely German box set from Absolut Medien in which the serial has optional English subtitles. Together and separately, these two films remain Rivette’s key achievement, along with L’amour fou and the 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating.  (For the latter, Rivette even signed a contract stipulating that his comedy wouldn’t run over two hours, but then everyone who saw the 185-minute work print agreed that it shouldn’t be cut.)… Read more »

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday (February 26, 2013). — J.R.

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Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

Missing the Target

From the Chicago Reader, June 18, 1993. (This is also reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics.) — J.R.

Who is correct? Are we becoming better off or worse off? Where are we heading? It depends on whom you mean by “we.” — Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations

“Men never get this movie,” a woman says to her friend in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, referring to Leo McCarey’s 1957 An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which is showing on TV. In fact, we’re told this again and again. Another woman tearfully describes the last scene of An Affair to Remember to the hero, who remarks, “That’s a chick’s movie.” To clinch the point, female characters in this romantic comedy are repeatedly shown watching this movie and sobbing (as if the TV stations in Seattle and Baltimore, where most of the action takes place, showed little else), and men are never seen watching it at all. And just in case we’re left with any doubts about the matter, the review of Sleepless in Seattle in Variety assures us that An Affair to Remember‘s “squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.”… Read more »

Interview for a Shanghai Weekly

This interview with Han Jian, reporter for the Bund Pictorial — a culture and lifestyle weekly based in Shanghai — was conducted for a cover story about American film critics planned for their February 17, 2015 issue. [Feb. 28: Now that I’ve been sent a link, it’s clear that the Chinese version of this piece is somewhat longer, because of an added introduction.]– J.R.

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1. How did you become a film critic? Do you still remember your first film review?

Much of this is described in my first book, an experimental memoir entitled Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980; second edition, 1995). I was the grandson and son of movie theater exhibitors in northwestern Alabama, which enabled me to grow up watching a great many movies for free. My father wrote a column for the local newspaper promoting the current releases, and shortly after my 14th birthday, I substituted for him one week, although this wasn’t actually a review. But the following year, I published my first actual film reviews — of The Astounding She-Monster, The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, The Vikings, and a live TV drama called No Place to Run — in my high school newspaper.Read more »

Afterword to THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, a screenplay by Orson Welles

Published by Santa Teresa Press (in Santa Barbara) in 1994 (twenty years later, this book is still available on Amazon) and reprinted in Discovering Orson Welles in 2007, along with the following introductory comments:

Critic Dave Kehr once said to me that encountering The Cradle Will Rock after The Big Brass Ring was a bit like encountering The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane. I appreciate what he meant — especially when it comes to this script’s nostalgia and its sharp autocritique compared to the more narcissistic and irreverent surface of its predecessor. But I hasten to add that this script, unlike The Big Brass Ring, is more interesting for its autobiographical elements than for its literary qualities. Perhaps for the same reason, writing an afterword about it was more difficult.

On the subject of Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock,I’d like to quote excerpts from an article of mine that appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 24, 1999:

For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937.… Read more »