Arriving on the heels of Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock and Richard Koszarski’s Stroheim, Richard Schickel’s massive biography of Griffith manages to steer a middle course between the compulsive narrative thrust of the former and the more scholarly negotiation of diverse hypotheses pursued by the latter. Grappling with a life and personality that surprisingly proves to be no less private and elusive than Hitchcock’s, Schickel confidently leads the reader through over six hundred pages of text without ever resorting to Spoto’s questionable tactic of baiting one’s interest with the promise of scandalous revelations. And if his scholarship in certain areas raises more questions than Koszarski’s -– see the helpful remarks of Griffith scholar Tom Gunning in the June American Film, particularly about the Biograph period -– he can still be credited with plausibly ploughing his way through an avalanche of contradictory and incomplete data.
Schickel’s task is, of course, more formidable than Spoto’s or Koszarski’s, encompassing some seventy-odd years and nearly five hundred films. Earlier efforts by Barnet Bravermann and Seymour Stern to compose a Griffith biography never reached completion (although Schickel has relied heavily on Bravermann’s material).… Read more »
For a conceptual artist who’s more often concerned with representation than with straight entertainment, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow can be a pretty jokey fellow. In fact, of all the avant-garde artists I know, he may well be the one who laughs the most and the hardest. His longest and craziest movie — the 260-minute, encyclopedic “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen — contains a grab bag of assorted puns, puzzles, and adages, from lines like “eating is believing” and “hearing is deceiving” to a mad tea party where words and sentences recited backward are then reversed to sound vaguely intelligible. Even “Wilma Schoen” in the title is an anagram for Snow’s name. One of his shortest works, the eight-minute Two Sides to Every Story, is projected on two back-to-back screens, simultaneously showing the same events in the same room from opposite angles.
Just as typical, in the living room of Snow’s house in Toronto, where I recently interviewed him, is a front door that isn’t in use — or rather is in use, but not as a front door. Over the side facing inside the room is a life-size color photograph of a painting of the same door.… Read more »
This book review appeared in the July 7, 1991 issue of Newsday. More recently (Christmas eve, 2014), I’ve read Susan L. Mizruchi’s instructive Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work (Norton), which finds far more coherence in Brando’s career than Schickel did. — J.R.
BRANDO: A Life in Our Times, by Richard Schickel. Atheneum, 271 pp., $21.95
“Of the many illusions celebrity foists upon us the illusion of coherence, the senses that these are privileged people in the world who somehow know what they are doing in ways that we do not, is the largest, and possibly the most dangerous. But Marlon Brando has kept faith with his incoherence.”
Arriving at this judgment toward the end of a head-scratching appraisal of the logic and meaning of Marlon Brando’s career, critic Richard Schickel seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, and some readers may feel like joining him. It’s an honorable and instructive admission of defeat, and while one may disagree by finding some coherence where Schickel does not — I happen to relish Brando’s modest and earthy performance in The Freshman as a refreshing autocritique of his posturing role in The Godfather (which Schickel considers his last “real” performance) — it’s still a premise that one can hang an exploratory book on.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2004); I revised this slightly in June 2011. — J.R.
Revolution ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Stephen Jones
Written by Bob Avakian
Queimada **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio
With Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, Norman Hill, and Renato Salvatori.
The Last Emperor **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci
With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, and Victor Wong.
August is traditionally the month when films people don’t know what to do with surface, a time when those films are less apt to be noticed. This August three of these films happen to be about revolution. Actually Revolution, showing Wednesday at the 3 Penny, isn’t a movie but a DVD of the first 136 minutes of a long, four-part lecture by Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, in what is reportedly his first public appearance since 1979. The other two are director’s cuts of celebrated movies, both being screened here for the first time. Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography that Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (1969), showing several times this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, contains “the best acting I’ve ever done,” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), screening August 28 at Facets Cinematheque, won five Oscars, including those for best picture and best director.… Read more »
An unpublished essay written in June 1988 for the Chicago Reader. One of my few regrets about my 20 years at the Reader, unlike the year and a half I spent (1979-1981) at New York’s Soho News, was that whereas the latter allowed me to review books and movies concurrently, the Reader was interested in me only as a film reviewer, so any attempt to write about books for them was discouraged. I did make a point of reviewing two of Thomas Pynchon’s late novels for them (Vineland and Against the Day) –- having previously reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow for the Village Voice and having much later reviewed Mason & Dixon for In These Times between the two Reader reviews (all four of these reviews, incidentally, plus my earlier review of The Crying of Lot 49 for a college newspaper, can be accessed on this site).
I wrote the piece below on spec when Michael Lenehan was the paper’s editor and he told me I’d have to do a lot of rewriting before it could be published, so I bowed out.… Read more »
A much more common and systematic method of obfuscating business practices in the ﬁlm industry, especially in blurring the lines between journalism and publicity, is the movie junket. Here’s how it generally works: a studio at its own expense ﬂies a number of journalists either to a location where a movie is being shot or to a large city where it is being previewed, puts the journalists up at fancy hotels, and then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent” (most often the stars and the director). The journalists are then expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies in question, run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a classy form of “ﬁlm criticism.” If these journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage, but articles with particular emphases set by publicists, articles that screen out certain forbidden topics and hone in on certain others — then the studios won’t invite them back to future junkets.… Read more »
Jean Eustache’s color follow-up to his black-and-white masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973), detailing his adolescence in the south of France, has never been distributed in the U.S., but some devotees of the director’s work actually prefer this 123-minute feature to its lengthy predecessor, and there’s no question that it seems to get better and better over time. Writing in these pages, Dave Kehr called its unsubtitled version “an original and disturbing treatment of that most commercial of themes, a young boy’s coming of age. Eustache’s protagonist (Martin Loeb) is a dark, lonely child who is taken from his grandmother’s home in the country to live with his mother (Ingrid Caven) and his Spanish stepfather in the city; he discovers not only sexuality but work, boredom, isolation, and — as in The Mother and the Whore — the unbreachable otherness of women. Photographed in summer colors by Nestor Almendros, the film is quiet and visual where Mother was verbal.” This 1974 feature also has one of the most memorably erotic film references in the cinema — a showing of Albert Lewin’s terminally romantic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in a movie house.… Read more »
My column for a Spanish monthly film magazine, submitted in mid-December 2021. — J.R.
What first led me to Radu Jude’s provocative Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn wasn’t the Golden Bear it won in Berlin. Ever since Titanie received the Palme d’Or at Cannes, I’ve figured that any film, no matter how silly, can win the top prize at a major film festival. It was mostly the declaration of J. Hoberman in Artforum, who listed it first in his 2021 Top Ten and called it “the movie with the most relentless focus on the way we live now.”
In certain ways, Jude’s feature recalls Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism half a century ago. A few of the parallels: an awkward two-part title; an Eastern European filmmaker examining the complex relationships between sex and politics, with pessimism about some of the consequences of sexual liberation and the brutal victimizing of a politically lucid heroine; a heady mix of various materials and different forms of discourse, including a bold fusion of fiction and documentary; a lot of footloose shooting on urban streets. But insofar as Hoberman’s claim for the film seems both apt and important, it isn’t really similar to Makavejev’s masterpiece because it comes out of a very different period—during a global pandemic, not during or just after the countercultural 1960s.… Read more »
This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,'” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.… Read more »
Lancelot du Lac. Robert Bresson has wanted to make this film for 20 years, and now we know that the wait was worth it. The unique vision of the director of A Man Escaped, Balthazar, and Four Nights of a Dreamer has been slow in reaching American audiences, but his treatment of the legend of Sir Lancelot may be the widest door yet into the hermetic beauty of his special world. As usual, Bresson’s actors are all non-professionals: Lancelot is Luc Simon, an abstract painter; Queen Guinevere is Laura Duke Condominas, daughter of sculptress Niki de St. Phalle; Gawain is l9-year-old Humbert Balsan, a former economics student. At the center of the story is Lancelot’s adulterous affair with Guinevere, set in the twilight years of King Arthur’s rule. Around the edges are scenes of violent action — nightmare battles of clanking arrnor in a dark forest, a climactic jousting tournament. Bresson makes us watch the tournament as though it were visible only out of the corner of one eye — an elliptical rush of horses’ feet and lances striking shields. The crowd is heard much more than seen. In his striking medieval tapestry, love in a hayloft and death in the afternoon become interlocking parts of the same spiritual drama.… Read more »
My column for the Spring 2019 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
In retrospect, I’m sure that an important part of what excited me about John Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run, when I read it in high school circa 1960, was the fact that it was recounted in the present tense, thus giving it some of the immediacy of a movie—rather like the thrill of the opening chapter of William Faulkner’s Light in August, which I first encountered around the same time. As Updike himself later noted, the movieness of his present tense was a conscious strategy — he even thought of subtitling the novel A Movie — although ironically, it’s precisely this sense of now and its location in the Eisenhower era that is most conspicuously absent from Jack Smight’s flatfooted 1970 movie adaptation (available on DVD from Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection), which doggedly tries to be “faithful” in its own misguided fashion, even to the point of updating the action from 1959 to the present, but only comes across as conventionally shopworn as a consequence. What’s clearly lost isn’t only Updike’s sense of history, pop-culture references and all, but the vibrant weight of the eponymous hero’s existential decision-making.… Read more »
The central and irreducible insight of James Poniewozik’s brilliant book — making it for me the only account I’ve read of Donald Trump that makes his poisonous career both legible and explicable — is to view that trajectory as part of the tainted history of television, and to see Trump as a hapless victim of that history as well as a sinister perpetrator.
This is an insight that I’ve already had glimmers of whenever I’ve blanched at how much ungodly fun Rachel Maddow has been deriving from the cornucopia of Trumpian horrors, and how creepily her nightly boasts about what a “big” show she has in store for us replicates the weekly promises of Ed Sullivan on his variety show between 1948 and 1971. But the fact that I’ve never watched “reality TV” means that I need someone like a New York Times TV critic to show me how dutifully and consistently Trump has replicated its gestures, assumptions, and attitudes as President, and how doggedly both Fox TV and MSNBC have remained in sync with and in thrall to its very fibers.
This is also part of the persuasive thrust of Matt Taibbi’s recent Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, which claims to be inspired by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.… Read more »
From the January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
Horse Money Director(s): Pedro Costa
Adieu au langage Director(s): Jean-Luc Godard
Locke Director(s): Steven Knight
The Owners Director(s): Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Citizenfour Director(s): Laura Poitras
TV vote Borgen Director(s): several
Sadly, I’ve had to omit two exceptional Iranian films (Reza Mirkarimi’s Today, Sepideh Farsi’s Red Rose), two exceptional performances by Juliette Binoche (Fred Schepisi & Gerald Di Pego’s Words and Pictures, Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria), Alain Resnais’ final feature (Life of Riley), and the belated appearance of Orson Welles’ unfinished and ancient but still-sprightly Too Much Johnson. But my top five continue to provoke and expand. Horse Money and The Owners need to travel more, and Locke, which feels like a classic heroic Western, deserves to be recognized as more than just a stunt or tour de force. Adieu au language re-invents 3-D and cinema, and Horse Money, like The Owners, Citizenfour, and Today (not to mention Borgen, in its own fashion). re-invents both the world and its moral prerogatives.