Yearly Archives: 2022

In Defense of HANNAH ARENDT

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I never expected to see any Margarethe von Trotta movie more than once, but  Hannah Arendt proved to be well worth a second look. Some of my reasons for going back are undoubtedly personal; Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher, astutely played in the film by Axel Milberg, is by far the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, two of whose seminars at Bard College I was fortunate to take, and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the main focus of the film, appeared in The New Yorker during the same period. The controversy it sparked among New York intellectuals at the time made it the major topic of discussion among visiting speakers; I can recall lengthy conversations I had or overheard with Harold Rosenberg and Dwight Macdonald, among many others who came to campus during that period. (Lionel Abel, perhaps the most intemperate of Arendt’s foes, also came, but as I recall I went out of my way to avoid broaching the subject with him.) And there were plenty of snack-bar dialogues at Bard with Blücher on the same subject.

Hannah Arendt & Heinrich Blucher

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For me, part of the singularity of both Blücher and Arendt (whom I met only briefly, once in their Riverside Drive apartment) was the degree to which art, politics, philosophy, moral seriousness, and a remarkable passion for ethics interfaced in their discourse and lives with an unflagging intensity, and what I cherish most about von Trotta’s movie is the degree to which she — and, above all, Barbara Sukowa as Arendt — capture this.Read more »

London and New York Journal

From Film Comment (July-August 1976). In some respects, I think this may be the best of all my many Journals for Film Comment, but for my readers who feel that my work is sometimes (or often) marred or even ruined by my strident tone, it may also be legitimately regarded as my worst. Among other negative consequences, Truffaut read my comments about THE STORY OF ADELE H. and wrote me an angry letter about them (which can be accessed, along with my response to it, on this site), I suspect (without actually knowing) that my passing comment about Pauline Kael may have sabotaged any hopes I’d had about ever becoming friends with her, and my friend (at the time) Gilbert Adair, cited just before the end of this piece, was furious about the over-the-top way I expressed my displeasure with Charles Barr in Movie. For better and for worse, I think this shows my writing at its most intense. -– J.R.

March 25 (London): A KING IN NEW YORK.Even on a Steenbeck, Chaplin’s penultimate feature and last extended performance has such a naked power of embarrassment and assault that one can see right away why so many have recoiled from it.… Read more »

Anatomy of a Murder

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1995). — J.R.

This 1959 release is a prime contender for Otto Preminger’s greatest film — a superb courtroom drama packed with humor and character that shows every actor at his or her best. James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer asked to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on a charge of murdering a local businessman who allegedly raped his flirtatious wife (Lee Remick); Boston lawyer Joseph Welch (of the army-McCarthy hearings), in his only screen performance, plays the judge; and George C. Scott is a lawyer working for the prosecution. There are also wonderful performances by Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden, and even a cameo by Duke Ellington, who composed the memorable jazz score. As an entertaining look at legal process, this is spellbinding, infused by an ambiguity about human personality and motivation that is Preminger’s trademark, and the location shooting is superb. Adapted by Wendell Mayes from Robert Travers’s novel. 161 min.

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BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

On the Riviera, an American multimillionaire (Gary

Cooper) with many ex-wives meets and romances the

daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a ruined Marquis

(Edward Everett Horton) and proposes marriage;

after she accepts, she learns about his former wives

and refuses to consummate their marriage, baiting

him with a string of pretended infidelities (including

one with a very young David Niven). This is an uncharacteristic

comedy of Ernst Lubitsch by virtue of its relative cruelty

and unpleasantness, both of which seem ascribable in

part to the writing team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

-– who would later show similar traits in their scripts for

such noncomic films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and

Sunset Boulevard (1950) -– adapting here a not-very-

well-known French farce by Alfred Savoir, La huitième

femme de Barbe-Bleue. Paradoxically, 34 years later,

working with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder would remember certain

aspects of this film -– above all, the depiction of an

obnoxious and wealthy American abroad and a tense

romantic dialogue conducted on a float in the Mediterranean

— in the much sweeter and clearly Lubitsch-inspired

Avanti!Read more »

Whose Current American Cinema?

Commissioned by and written for the Italian web site 8 1/2, published in September 2017. — J.R.

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When asked what I think about current American cinema, my first response is to ask another question: whose American cinema?  Because given the splintering of both the audience and all the possible venues for what we now call American cinema, it’s no longer possible to describe it as a single homogeneous entity.

Perhaps it was always wrong to describe it as such, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was still an American cinema that appeared to belong to everyone. Today we have only a series of separate niche markets and venues that seem to exist independently of one another. For the sake of both clarity and candor, I should confess that from 1987 through 2007, I was the principal film critic for the principal alternative newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Reader, which meant that I was professionally obliged to keep up with what was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as “current American cinema”. Since my voluntary retirement from that post, I’ve been a cinephile with no professional obligations, and my preferences in that capacity have been to systematically avoid films featuring superheroes, most horror films and war films, sports films, blockbusters, and most of the other releases mainly targeted for teenage and preteen boys.… Read more »

The Good Times Kid

Filmmaker Azazel Jacobs calls this a story about stolen love and stolen identities shot on stolen film. He’s the son of Ken Jacobs (Star Spangled to Death), with some of his pa’s anarchic spirit, and because he apparently stole good 35-millimeter stock, he doesn’t have to worry that much about the story anyway. The slender premise — two guys are named Rodolfo, one of whom gets renamed Depresso by the girlfriend of the other — seems mainly an excuse to hang out with these people, and it’s a tribute to Jacobs’s skill that this is enough. He knows how to put air around his characters, pace their movements, and chart their interactions in various locations, and when the heroine starts dancing at one point, she’s so good that I wanted to cheer. 77 min. (JR)

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Afterword to the Korean Edition of ESSENTIAL CINEMA (updated)

Written at the request of Jae-cheol Lim, the editor of this Korean edition of Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (second edition, 2008), which was translated by Ahn Kearn Hyung and was published in late February 2016. Now that three copies of this hefty volume have just arrived in the mail (637 pages long, which is considerably more than the 449 pages of the original, apparently due in part to a different font size), this seems like a good time to repost the new Afterword. 2018 Postscript: I now regret including No Home Movie on my list, the only new selection I’ve changed my mind about. — J.R.

Afterword to the Korean Edition of ESSENTIAL CINEMA (January 2016):

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The closer one comes to the present, the harder and more hazardous it becomes to compile a list of the best films. As I’ve recently pointed out elsewhere, one should consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking derived more from faith than from any secure knowledge.… Read more »

Muse Abuse [LIGHT SLEEPER]

From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1992). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note [in April 2018] that I’ve furnished the expanded edition of Transcendental Style in Film with a favorable blurb about Schrader’s new Introduction, and that I regard his latest feature, First Reformed, as the best by far of his films to date (at least among those that I’ve seen), despite some persistent misgivings that are expressed in some of the remarks below. — J.R.

LIGHT SLEEPER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Paul Schrader

With Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Jane Adams, Paul Jabara, and Robert Cicchini.

The French New Wave of the 60s offers many examples of film critics of some substance who became filmmakers — among them Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. But the commercial American cinema of the 70s offers us only one, Paul Schrader (the only other contender, Peter Bogdanovich, was by his own admission more of a reporter and interviewer than critic before he turned to filmmaking). Yet Schrader has not made a wholly satisfactory transition. As a writer he made his mark on several important features — including Taxi Driver, Obsession, Raging Bull, and (in a minor way, not credited) Close Encounters of the Third Kind.… Read more »

The 31 best movies of 1994

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995).

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Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »

Light Sleeper

From the August 1, 1992 Chicago Reader.

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Despite a steady rise in his craft as both a writer and a director, Paul Schrader is still light years away from his mentor and model, Robert Bresson. His persistent ludicrous efforts to remake Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket in Hollywood terms have already given us Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, and they’re as doomed as ever in this portrait of a Manhattan drug dealer (Willem Dafoe) desperate to clean up his act. (Now Schrader appears to be trying to remake Taxi Driver, complete with excremental metaphors, nocturnal views of New York, and droning offscreen narration by the hero.) But Susan Sarandon (who improves even more with age than Schrader does) is so good as Dafoe’s boss, and the dialogue is so literate for such a familiar story, that there’s a lot to admire — it’s Schrader’s best film — as long as one can get past the transcendental claptrap (e.g., a New York Post headline reading a”Fall From Grace”) that Schrader sheds compulsively. With Dana Delany, David Clennon, Victor Garber, and Mary Beth Hurt. (JR)

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Reply to Cinephilia Survey (2009)

My response to a survey in Framework (Volume 50, No. 1 & 2, Spring & Fall 2009). I’ve retained only the first part — the question part — of Jonathan Buchsbaum and Elena Gorfinkel’s Introduction to the survey:

This dossier on cinephilia gathers responses to the following question:

“What is being fought for by today’s cinephilia(s)?

At the end of La Cinéphilie (2003), Antoine de Baecque wrote that classical cinephilia died in 1968, following the failure of cinema to film the political events of that year. Since that time, still according to de Baecque, the terrain of cinephilia changed radically as television and publicity/ advertising ‘invaded the domain of images.’ The proliferation of images has only accelerated with technological change ever since, hurtling through the internet and telecommunications.

Whatever the current status of cinephilia, certainly there are new cinephiles, even if they no longer hone their passion primarily in film theaters. But what is being fought for in this new generation of cinephilia? What causes animate cinephilia today and how are these new modes different from the ‘classical cinephilia’?

If, in particular, the Cahiers du Cinéma critics won their battles for auteurism, now part of most critics’ lingua franca, are there new critical paradigms of emergent polemics to complement, replace, or contest the earlier cinephilia?Read more »

One Key Event & Two Key Scenes (March 2009)

Three brief entries commissioned by Chris Fujiwara and submitted in March 2009 for the updated Italian edition of his stupendous 2007 collection Defining Moments in Movies, entitled Cinema: 1000 Momenti Fondamentali. — J.R.

Key Event

Rossellini goes to India

Roberto Rossellini’s extended trip to India comes at the end of his richest period as a filmmaker in which his various staged encounters between fiction and non-fiction were most adventurous. At  the war’s end he was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany, but once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues came to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. Other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed.

When he traveled to India at age 51, Rossellini worked concurrently on his masterpiece India Matri Buhmi (1959), a set of interlocking tales and commentaries which Jean-Luc Godard once called “the creation of the world,” and a ten-part television miniseries that was broadcast in both France and Italy the same year.… Read more »

Business as Usual at Cannes (2009)

This is the 13th one-page column I published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their July-August 2009 issue. — J.R.

Writing from Chicago in May, during the Cannes film festival, I’ve been reflecting lately how much  this festival remains a spectator sport even for those who don’t attend it. I’ve attended it nine times in all, 1970-1973 and 1994-1998, and my most enduring impression about it is how quickly everything that happens there gets turned into some form of business — a process that is both hilarious and somewhat horrifying.

Two immediate examples come to mind which occurred during my first and most recent visits there. In 1970, I attended the world premiere of Woodstock, only five days after four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. Michael Wadleigh, the hippie director — a tall, commanding figure dressed in suede — dedicated the film to those four students and to “the many deaths to come” in the ongoing political struggles of the period. When the screening was over, he stood by the exit and calmly handed out black arm bands to anyone who wanted to wear one. I wore one myself for a day or two.… Read more »

Welfare

From the September 1, 1994 Chicago Reader.

One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. 167 min. (JR)… Read more »

Addressing the Present (2009)

This is the 11th one-page bimonthly column that I published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it appeared in their March 2009 issue. — J.R.

Tomorrow I start teaching the final semester of a course and film series I’ve been offering at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute devoted to world cinema of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.  To provide a segue between the Depression of the 30s and the 40s, I’ll be starting with a double feature devoted to economic desperation, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945).

Two of the most popular films I showed last fall were Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (1932) and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). I selected them before last year’s economic recession started, and the congruence and relevance of certain themes — remorse about warfare and spurious patriotism, crowded family apartments and neglect of the elderly — probably added to their appeal.  But the contemporary impact of films is always difficult to predict. I’m convinced that a significant part of what inspired Clint Eastwood to make Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima was the U.S. occupation of Iraq,  but this relevance wasn’t discussed in the press.… Read more »