Yearly Archives: 2022

Scent Of A Woman

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992). 

Al Pacino’s winning entry in the disability Oscar sweepstakes, with plenty of reminders of Dead Poets Society to take up the slack once it runs out of ways of emulating Rain Man. Among the able hands in this scurrilous, overlong enterprise are screenwriter Bo Goldman, producer-director Martin Brest, and costar Chris O’Donnell; the plot, a very loose Americanized remake of a 1975 Dino Risi comedy, transpires over a Thanksgiving weekend, when a scholarship student (O’Donnell) at an expensive New England prep school, wrestling with an anguished crise de conscience (he’s being pressured to inform on classmates), is hired to take care of a blind retired lieutenant colonel (Pacino), who drags him along to Manhattan on a wild, expensive weekend. An irascible bully who proves to have a heart of gold, Pacino’s character seems manufactured by a computer programmed with box-office grosses, and it’s disheartening to find a movie that professes to take a stand on behalf of personal integrity ripping off Chaplin’s theme song from City Lights without credit to generate some of its pathos. Given the talent on board, there’s an undeniable flair and effectiveness in certain scenes (such as Pacino dancing the tango with a stranger in a posh restaurant), but the meretricious calculation finally sticks in one’s throat.… Read more »

Divas and Dandies: Orson Welles’ THE IMMORTAL STORY

Written for Criterion‘s DVD and Blu-Ray of The Immortal Story, released in 2016. — J.R.

TheImmortalStory-lastscene

the-immortal-story

 

Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…

— Grandmother in Isak Dinesen’s “The Blank Page” (Last Tales)

 

Virginie had a taste for patterns; one of the things for which she despised the English was that to her mind they had no pattern in their lives. She frowned a little, but let Elishama go on. “Only,” he went on, “sometimes the lines of a pattern will run the other way of what you expect. As in a looking-glass.”

 “As in a looking-glass,” she repeated slowly.

 “Yes,” he said. “But for all that it is still a pattern.”

— Dinesen’s “The Immortal Story” (Anecdotes of Destiny)

 

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Aside from William Shakespeare, no writer excited Orson Welles’ imagination more than Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) — a Danish baroness who wrote mainly in English — especially when it came to the films he wanted to make.… Read more »

Chances Are

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.

 

Intricately and cleverly plotted body-exchange movie, written by the sisters Perry and Randy Howze (Maid to Order, Mystic Pizza), and directed by Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing). I don’t want to give away too much of the story, which invites the spectator to flirt with the idea of at least two kinds of incest, but suffice it to say that the setup involves a happily married young lawyer (Christopher McDonald) who dies and is then reincarnated (as Robert Downey Jr.), and becomes involved with his former family. Because the presiding angel neglected to zap out his memory, he develops an advanced case of deja vu when he encounters his former wife (Cybill Shepherd) and best friend (Ryan O’Neal), while his 22-year-old daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) poses still other complications. Despite the sudsy, overlit look of William A. Fraker’s cinematography and Downey’s varying success with sight gags, this is still a lot of fun. An additional kicker is provided by the picture’s crazed doublethink morality, which implies that incest is OK as long as you’ve got amnesia. (JR)

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Spies

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

Perhaps Fritz Lang’s most neglected major work, this stunning silent German thriller (1928) both summarizes and refines his first Dr. Mabuse film while introducing some of the principles of editing continuity found in M. Scripted by Thea von Harbou (Lang’s second wife), it pits a government agent (Willy Fritsch) against a wheelchair-bound international banker (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) whose spy ring is stealing classified documents, and its fanciful and imaginative approach to the thriller form clearly inspired both Alfred Hitchcock and Thomas Pynchon. This restoration of the 175-minute German release is almost twice as long as the much more common version released for export, yet Lang edited both of them, and each has glories of its own. Erotic, mysterious, abstract, full of uncanny images and ideas, and rich with multiple identities and intrigue, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in the great director’s work. With Gerda Maurus. (JR)

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Aparajito

From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.

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The second installment of Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, fully comprehensible on its own terms, suffers at times from its episodically constructed plot, which follows Apu from the age of ten in the holy city of Banaras (in 1920) to his early adulthood in Calcutta. It also bears the traces of technical problems, which led to a virtually one-to-one shooting ratio for many scenes. But this also happens to be my own favorite film in the trilogy, as well as the reported favorite of Ray’s fellow Bengali directors Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Its treatment of death — specifically the death of Apu’s father toward the beginning of the film and of his mother near the end — is among the most beautiful, mystical, and precise handlings of that subject in all of cinema, worthy of Mizoguchi; in a way the film is little more than a careful contextualizing of these two astonishing sequences. An adaptation of roughly the last fifth of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novel Pather Panchali and the first third of his subsequent novel Aparajita, this benefits as much as the rest of the trilogy from the ravishing “commentary” of Ravi Shankar’s music.… Read more »

Joan the Maid: The Battles and Joan the Maid: The Prisons

From the January 26, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R

Paradoxically yet appropriately, Jacques Rivette’s only “superproduction” to date, his two-part, no-nonsense 1993 opus about Joan of Arc, is his first realistic film since L’amour fou (1968)–and perhaps the only movie that offers a plausible portrait of what the 15th-century teenager who led the French into battle was actually like. Apart from the stylized effect of having various participants in the action narrate the plot while facing the camera, this is a materialist version of a story that offers no miracles, though it does offer a pertinent attentiveness to gender issues (such as the nervousness and sexual braggadocio of the soldiers who sleep beside Joan) and a Joan who’s girlish as well as devout, capable of giggling as well as experiencing pain; when she wins over the dauphin the scene is pointedly kept offscreen, and when she’s interrogated by priests about her faith she could almost be a graduate student defending a dissertation. (Rivette himself plays the priest who blesses her just before she leaves home.) The two features, though comprising a unit, can be seen separately; if I had to see only one I would opt for The Battles (somewhat mislabeled because battle scenes crop up only in the last third), because Rivette is doing things, especially with landscape and period detail (both traversed by inquisitive pans), that he’s never done before.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Hosannas and Quibbles

Published in Cinema Scope No. 65, Winter 2016. — J.R.

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I can easily understand why some of Abel Ferrara’s biggest fans have certain reservations about his Pasolini (2014), available now on a splendid Region 2 Blu-ray from the BFI.  Even if it’s a solid step forward from the stultifying silliness of Welcome to New York (2014), it lacks the crazed, demonic poetry of Bad Lieutenant (1992), The Addiction (1995), and New Rose Hotel (1998); most disconcertingly, it’s a responsible, apparently well-researched treatment of one of the most irresponsible of film artists, made by another film artist generally cherished for his own irresponsibility. And stylistically, it’s almost as if Ferrara has moved from being the great-grandson of F.W. Murnau to being the grandson of Vincente Minnelli—although one could argue, more precisely, that it isn’t really an auteur film at all. Yet as a portrait of the great and uncontainable Pier Paolo Pasolini, filtered through the last day of his life—a day focused on new creative work (a novel in progress and a film in pre-production) as well as various other activities, at home and on the street—it carries an undeniable conviction and emotional authenticity, which  might make the prosaic strengths of Lust for Life (1956) a more useful model for Ferrara’s ambitions here than the poetic flourishes of a Faust (1926) or Tabu (1931).… Read more »

Stupidity as Redemption [FORREST GUMP]

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1994). Also reprinted in  my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

** FORREST GUMP (Worth seeing)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by Eric Roth

With Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Humphreys, and Hanna Hall.

In the opening shot of Forrest Gump — a movie that might be described as Robert Zemeckis’s flag-waving Oscar bid — the camera meticulously follows the drifting, wayward trajectory of a white feather all the way from the heavens to the ground, just beside the muddy tennis shoes of the title hero (Tom Hanks). Forrest Gump, a slow-witted, sweet-tempered, straight-shooting fellow from Alabama with an IQ of 75, is waiting for a bus in a small park in Savannah, Georgia. Picking up the feather and placing it inside a book, he proceeds to recount his life story to various passing strangers; in the film’s final shot, over two hours later, we see a breeze carry the same white feather up and away.

These framing shots — a poetic statement about the vicissitudes of chance, how histories are made, unmade, and remade — are meant to say something about a half-century of American life, from the 40s to the present; and the tragicomic life of Forrest Gump, a saintly fool, is meant to embody those years.… Read more »

Review of Peter Biskind’s SEEING IS BELIEVING

 

From the Autumn 1984 Film Quarterly. I reviewed this book at Biskind’s request, and my position was hampered by the fact that he was the main editor of American Film at the time, where his commissions were essential to my livelihood. Our relationship became even more strained after I was all set to review the book and he then informed me that he wished I weren’t reviewing it. — J.R.

SEEING IS BELIEVING: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties By Peter Biskind. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. $22.95 cloth, $10.95 paper.

The first thing to be said about Peter Bis­kind’s ambitious and long-awaited study of ideology in Hollywood movies of the fifties is that it can’t be dipped into at random with­ out a considerable amount of confusion setting in. Without the benefit of Biskind’s careful construction and preparation, the unwary reader who plunges in midstream is bound to be bewildered or dismayed by many of the political labels, whereby Thieves Highway, for instance, is designated as a “right-wing film,” or High Noon and The Blob as “radical films.” Even in the Introduction, which tends to be more cautious than the rest of the book, several eyebrows are likely to be raised by the followingsentence: “The films of Robert Aldrich can usually be counted on to be somewhere on the left, just as the films of Elia Kazan are frequently in the middle, while those of John Ford are to the right of his and those of Alfred Hitchcock are to the right of his.

While nothing in Seeing is Believing quite succeeds in eliminating all the booby-traps contained in the above declaration, the book is a lot more reasoned and reasonable than any sort of scattershot spot-checking might suggest. Examining the… Read more »

American Beauty [on Chris Petit’s NEGATIVE SPACE]

From the May 12, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader.  –J.R.

Negative Space

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Chris Petit

With Robert Mitchum, Manny Farber, Dave Hickey, and (as narrator) Petit.

There aren’t many films or videos about film criticism, especially ones that perform the actual work of film criticism. An interesting and ambitious exception is Chris Petit’s Negative Space (1999), an experimental 39-minute video made for BBC TV that’s being shown for free by Chicago Filmmakers at the Chicago Cultural Center this Friday, along with Petit’s The Falconer (1998). Named after the only book by film critic, painter, and teacher Manny Farber — a 1971 collection reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998 — Petit’s video wrestles with American landscape and culture, irony, memory, Las Vegas, the beginning of a new millennium, death, desert, film versus video, J.M.W. Turner’s painting, several movies (including Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy), as well as two critics, Farber and Dave Hickey. Petit also looks at Farber as a painter and an art critic and Hickey as an art critic, a resident of Las Vegas, an appreciator of Farber, and a commentator on American culture.… Read more »

The Sound of Silence

Commissioned by Stanley Schtinter in the summer of 2019 for the limited LP release of Carles Santos’ soundtrack score for Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc in early 2020. I received a copy of this LP from Stanley earlier this month — on the final day of a Portabella retrospective in London that began in November, when I gave a lecture at Close-up and Portabella himself, who’d just turned 93, was amiably present.  — J.R.

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Masterpieces have many possible ports of entry. My own passport into Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) — first seen multiple times at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 1971 and then celebrated in my festival coverage for the Village Voice — was composed of rampant cinephilia crossed with political ignorance, as well as a fascination with William S. Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961-1966), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962-1967) to create scrambled syntax (echoed in Portabella’s capacity to shift his narrative focus within single shots from the Dracula story itself to the filming of it). I knew then that Portabella, one of the Spanish producers of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, had his own passport confiscated as punishment by Francoist Spain, accounting for his absence in Cannes, and that his film was mostly a silent documentary of the shooting of an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by one Jesus Franco, accompanied by musique concrète.… Read more »

A Personal Account of an Adventure Called Film.Factory (expanded version)

Posted on Sight and Sound‘s web site 18 July 2013, and then expanded (by about 50%) at the request of Trafic‘s Raymond Bellour later that month for its French translation in Trafic #88, published in early December. This has also appeared in German translation in the September 2013 issue of Cargo, and a Spanish translation appeared in mid-August 2014 on Roger Koza’s web site. I’ve slightly updated the version here in a few particulars and added some photos. 

I returned to Film.Factory for my fourth two-week stint to date on October 24, 2015, this time to teach a history of independent cinema around the world. — J.R.

JR at FilmFactory

First of all, what is film.factory?

It’s usually thought of and referred to as a film school that’s been recently set up in Sarajevo, housed at the Sarajevo Film Academy. But Béla Tarr, who created it, isn’t happy with this classification. He’d rather call it a workshop or, as its name suggests, a factory that produces films in which he serves as a producer. And he’d rather speak of the sixteen filmmakers he selected late last year from fourteen countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Faro Islands, Iceland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, the U.K.,… Read more »

The Preminger Enigma

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1995). — J.R.

One of the strangest things about the elusive career of Otto Preminger (1905-1986) is that it remains elusive not because of the man’s invisibility but because of his relative omnipresence in the public eye. Though never as familiar as Alfred Hitchcock, he cut an imposing figure in the media, registering much more than either John Ford or Howard Hawks. Preminger was well known for his Nazi roles in Margin for Error (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953), for appearing in TV guest spots on Batman and Laugh-In and numerous talk shows, as a colorful player in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and for grabbing headlines as the man who defied the Production Code of the 50s and the lingering Hollywood blacklist of the 60s while grandly mounting well-publicized movie versions of best-sellers like Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal. Since he was one of the first of the high-profile American independents after the heyday of Griffith and Chaplin and moved from Hollywood to New York in the early 50s and never shifted his home base later, in most people’s minds he was more producer than director.… Read more »

Not the Same Old Song and Dance

  • From the Chicago Reader (November 27, 1998), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema and on the BFI Blu-ray of the film. In his audiovisual essay on the latter release, Geoff Andrew rightly corrects my error, below, of describing the ax murder victim as Demy’s Lola, not von Sternberg’s Lola Lola. — J.R.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Geneviève Thénier, Henri Crémieux, and Jacques Riberolles.

As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my 30-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago — helpful considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation — a large-scale tribute to Hollywood musicals shot exclusively in Rochefort in southwest France, and an unabashedly romantic paean to American energy and optimism that’s quintessentially French. It has a score by Michel Legrand that’s easily his best, offering an almost continuous succession of songs with lyrics by Demy, all written in alexandrines (as is a climactic dinner scene that’s spoken rather than sung); choreography that ranges from mediocre (Norman Maen’s frenchified imitations of Jerome Robbins) to sublime (Gene Kelly’s choreography of his own numbers); and perhaps the most beautiful dovetailing of failed and achieved connections apart from Shakespeare and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, shot during the same period.… Read more »

Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

This appeared Cinema Scope no. 11 (summer 2002). — J.R.

“You can’t smell email,” Raúl Ruiz insisted to me the night before we had this interview at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, explaining to me why he didn’t have any truck with the Internet. He added that lately he’s been collecting various first editions, excommunications, and death sentences, many of them from the 19th century and earlier, and he can smell all of them.

At first I was surprised by this old-fashioned form of resistance, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raúl is basically a 19th century figure. His largely Borgesian canon of 19th and early 20th century English and American writers (Chesterton, Stevenson, Wells, Harte, Hawthorne, Melville, et al) and his taste for rambling narratives and tales within tales smacks of a Victorian temperament.

I first encountered Ruiz’s work during my first trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival, in 1983, and it was there where we first became friends three years later —- as well as where we had this interview on January 26, in the lobby of the hotel where we were both staying. (Raúl had a small DV camera with him, and from time to time would idly shoot people coming through the hotel’s revolving-door entrance from where we sat a few yards away –- something, he explained, that he needed for his new Chilean TV series.)… Read more »