Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s 2019 catalogue. — J.R.
Subtitled “A Comedy about Life, Death and Freedom,” John Cassavetes’ most politically incorrect and machocentric movie (1970), made after the huge commercial success of his 1968 Faces and exercising both the creative control and the studio support it suddenly made possible, is arguably the most improvised and workshopped of his features. Inspired in part by the death of Cassavetes’ older brother Nick in 1957 at the age of 30, the film recounts what happens to a trio of 40ish east coast suburbanites (Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara) when their best friend dies and they decide to play hooky from their lives and families to recover their camaraderie and identities. But even though their collective flight seemingly has something to do with life, death, and freedom, there isn’t a Huck Finn in the bunch; they’re all Tom Sawyers, too desperate in their frantic fun and games to be as comic as they want to see themselves. Their fear of female assertiveness and their periodic brutality, as well as Cassavetes’ determination to follow the actors’ instincts and movements wherever they go without chalk marks are likely what inspired Elaine May to co-opt Cassavetes, Falk, and Husband’s cinematographer Victor J.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 496). Blythe Danner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, where I had the privilege of seeing what a gifted actress she already was (I remember especially her performance of one of the lead roles in Jean Genet’s The Maids) and the pleasure of accompanying her once or twice on the piano when she performed as a jazz singer (in particular, on “‘Round Midnight”). — J.R.
U.SA., 1973Director: Sidney Lumet
Bastrop, Texas. The lives of three characters, narrated by each in
turn. 1925, Gid (Anthony Perkins): Gid and Johnny (Beau Bridges)
are friends whocompete for the favors of Molly (Blythe Danner),
who likes themboth. When Gidproposes to Molly, she replies
that she’d rather have sex with him for its own sake, not as part
of a marriage contract, and invites himto join her in a nude swim,
but he refuses. She goes to a dance with Eddie (Conrad Fowkes),
another local boy, and Johnny picks a fight with him. Gid sleeps
with her for the first time, and is shocked to discover she isn’t a
virgin. On a train to the Panhandle to sell his father’s cattle, Gid
attacks Johnny for sleeping with Molly and not proposing to her, but
then discovers that Eddie slept with her first.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 2000). — J.R.
Jane Campion still has a remarkable eye for framing and imagining, but on the sad evidence of this scrambled free-for-all (1999), written with her sister Anna Campion, she’s taken leave of about half her senses. The setup is promising: a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) becomes smitten with an Indian guru, and her bourgeois family, after luring her back home with a lie that her father is dying, hires an American specialist (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her in the outback. Naturally the two of them get involved, and naturally this becomes a monumental battle of wills and sexes. As in Campion’s The Piano there’s a lot of wildness qualifying as a kind of politically correct porn, decked out on this occasion with dazzling visual effects that begin with the title written in smoke. But all sorts of questions go unanswered, and there’s little of the density found in Campion’s early work; this is mainly smoke, not fire. R, 114 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2007). — J.R.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s celebration of 70s-style sleaze, 191 minutes long including a short intermission, seems ideally suited for gleeful, mean-spirited 11-year-old boys who can sneak into this double bill despite the R rating. I enjoyed the invented trailers the directors fold into the mix, but despite the jokey missing reels, these two full-length features are each 20 minutes longer than they need to be, and neither one makes much sense as narrative. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is virtually nothing but gross-out gags involving castration, dismemberment, mass murder, zombies, and Osama bin Laden. Tarantino’s Death Proof starts off as a meandering look at Austin’s Tex-Mex joints — there’s more gab here than in any of his work since Reservoir Dogs — then gravitates into a blend of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and stunt-driving movies, culminating in some well-filmed action and more celebratory killing. (Making us feel good about enjoying gory mayhem — or in my case, at least trying to do that — has always been his specialty.) With Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, and Zoe Bell. (JR)
… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the fourth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
This is the most rebellious and contentious section of the book, and because of this, some readers will regard it as the least practical or viable. Before you make up your own mind about this, however, I’d like to ask you to examine precisely what you mean by “practical” and “viable.” Do you mean most likely to change the world, or do you mean most likely to affect the majority? If in fact you believe that the likeliest way to change the world is invariably to affect the majority, then it might be beneficial to look at that premise a little more closely and see if it always holds up.
Speaking from my own experience, the times when I’ve reached the greatest number of readers at once — writing features in the pages of magazines like Elle and Omni — are the times when my point of view has had the least amount of effect.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 13, 1990). — J.R.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Peter Greenaway
With Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, and Tim Roth.
On the face of it, this movie seems to have a good many things going for it. Although he was born in 1942, Peter Greenaway is still probably the closest thing that the English art cinema currently has to an enfant terrible. A former painter and film editor who started making experimental films in the mid-60s, he achieved an international reputation with The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982; he went on to become a star director and cult figure in Europe with several TV films and three more features that had considerable success in both England and France as well as on the international festival circuit — A Zed & Two Noughts (1986), The Belly of an Architect (1987), and Drowning by Numbers (1988) — although they have had only limited circulation in the U.S. A fair number of my film-buff friends swear by him, and he is commonly regarded as the most “advanced” art-house director currently working in England.
Greenaway’s latest feature makes sterling use of many of his longtime collaborators: Sacha Vierny, one of the best cinematographers alive (working here in ‘Scope), whose credits include Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Belle de jour, and Stavisky, as well as films by Raul Ruiz and Marguerite Duras; composer Michael Nyman, a sort of neoclassicist who has worked for everyone from the Royal Ballet to Steve Reich to Sting; and production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, former interior designers who have worked in the Dutch film industry since 1983.… Read more »
Written for Sight and Sound (March 2017). — J.R.
WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA
The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie
By Noah Isenberg. W.W. Norton & Co., 334 pp. US$27.95. ISBN 9780393243123.
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I’ve never been asked to select my favourite ‘guilty pleasures’ in movies, but I suspect that if I were, Gone With the Wind and Casablanca — two highly accomplished and engrossing pieces of dubious Hollywood hokum — could easily head the list. Yet it’s one of the signal virtues of Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca to suggest that the true sources of Casablanca’s popularity place it well beyond the racial and racist subtexts of Gone With the Wind.
In the case of the latter film, we have the benefit of Molly Haskell’s Frankly, My Dear (2009), a superb critical and ideological unpacking of both the Margaret Mitchell novel and the David O. Selznick blockbuster. Isenberg, an academic and a scholar more than a critic — director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at New York’s New School, and best known among cinephiles as an Edgar G. Ulmer specialist — hasn’t given us the same sort of book as Haskell, although he’s produced a volume that’s equally accessible and nearly as valuable in explaining the appeal of a popular classic.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 30, 1997). — J.R.
A fairly enjoyable piece of junk from Oliver Stone (1997) that occasionally recalls Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot — sleazy southwest burg seething with creeps, sexpots, and protracted grudge matches — and is limited only by its occasional pseudoexperimental tics (a carryover from Natural Born Killers) and by its determination to extend its hyperbolic noir plot beyond two hours. Sean Penn plays a con man whose car breaks down en route to Las Vegas, where he’s supposed to settle a debt; Billy Bob Thornton, as the ornery mechanic who extends his stay, is the first in a string of overblown caricatures that for better or worse define the movie — others are offered by Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Julie Hagerty, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, Bo Hopkins, Laurie Metcalf, and Liv Tyler. The tricky and tricked-up script is by John Ridley. (JR)
… Read more »
From Cinema Journal 26, No. 4, Summer 1987. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum Responds to Robin Bates’s “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences” (which appeared in Cinema Journal, Winter 1987)
Having been invited to respond briefly to Robin Bates’s “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences” in the Winter 1987 Cinema Journal, I should stress at the outset my sympathy with the main objectives of this essay, particularly as they are expressed in the closing paragraph. While my own recent Welles-related research has concentrated more on films and scripts that are not yet part of the public record,’ readers of my book Moving Places (Harper & Row, 1980) will know that I am also deeply concerned with the personal and historical dimensions of reception. Arguing that Citizen Kane in general and Rosebud in particular had “healing powers” in 1941 which are less available to us now, and that “audiences of the past … were no less sophisticated than audiences of today,” Robin Bates affords us a number of valuable historical insights, but his argument also raises certain methodological issues which I would like to explore. Although Bates has a commendable desire to open us up to the potential wisdom of the past (as exemplified by a retrospective statement about Rosebud from his father, Scott Bates, which opens his article), his means of fulfilling that desire depend on various forms of closure which I find problematical.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s new dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.
Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)
It’s all a matter of exquisite balance — between one shot and the next, between the first half of the film and the second half, between screen left and screen right.
Criterion’s dual-format edition of Carl Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House scores as a modern film because Dreyer always knows how to modulate all his characters, and his actors’ beautiful performances, even when they’re at their most archetypal, whether in domestic tableaux or in climactic close-ups.… Read more »
From The Oxford-American, issue #42, Winter 2002. — J.R.
Karlson pushes and punches, but he’s good at it. He can dredge up emotion; he can make the battle of virtuous force against organized evil seem primordial. He has a tawdry streak (there’s an exploitation sequence with a nude prostitute being whipped), and he’s careless (a scene involving a jewelry salesman is a decrepit mess), but in the onrush of the story the viewer is overwhelmed….One would be tempted to echo Thelma Ritter in All About Eve –”Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end” — but some of the suffering has a basis in fact.
— Pauline Kael on Walking Tall (1974)
1. What Qualifies as Real
As an Alabama expatriate who fled north the first chance I could get, I didn’t keep my southern accent for long; it fell away, in a matter of months, like dead skin. The fact was — and is — that Alabama accents sound stupid to Yankees; and since I was both a teenager and trying hard to become a Yankee, they eventually began to sound stupid to me. Especially during the Civil Rights Movement, already in full swing by then, having a southern accent, if you were white, made you sound like a racist to some people, regardless of what you said or did.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 1995). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Michel Blanc
With Blanc, Carole Bouquet, Philippe Noiret, Josiane Balasko, Christian Clavier, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Wonders never cease. When Michel Blanc’s hilarious, vulgar farce Grosse fatigue won the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes film festival last year, the American press generally agreed that its chances of stateside distribution were just about nil. A nasty, abrasively funny insider’s look at contemporary French cinema, it was felt to be far too obscure in its references and far too politically incorrect, with its sexist and homophobic gags about rape, to find much favor among art-house patrons on this side of the Atlantic.
Proving us all wrong, Miramax is releasing the movie this week. I can only applaud their decision: offensive or not, Blanc’s fantasy/comedy qualifies in my book as a satire about the movie business far superior to The Player and Swimming With Sharks — two supposedly scathing looks at Hollywood that squander all their venom on a few west-coast executives with fancy ties and outsize salaries and let the audience that supports them neatly off the hook. Paradoxically, these American-made pictures argue that any system that supports people like these treacherous producer-villains has to be wrong, yet somehow they fail to broach the possibility that we in the audience could have anything to do with such a system ourselves.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 19, 1996). — J.R.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie 0 (no stars)
Directed by Jim Mallon
Written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, and Bridget Jones
With Beaulieu, Nelson, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, and the voices of Mallon and Murphy.
The premise of the recently discontinued cable-TV series on which this film is based is more or less as follows: a blustering mad scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) plots to take over the world. His plan? According to the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie press book: “Find the worst movies ever made, show them to the entire population and bring the planet to its knees.” He kidnaps Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) to serve as a guinea pig, takes him to the Satellite of Love, and makes him and his three robot pals — Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Crow — watch the Worst Movies Ever Made. But Mike and his friends confound the experiment by talking back to the screen and making wisecracks. We watch the movies too — or parts of them, since the lower portion of the screen is partially blocked by the silhouettes of Mike and two of the robots.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope #19 (Summer 2004). This is obviously out of date in many respects, fourteen years later, but I repost it now a period piece. — J.R.
Joan Hawkins opens her book Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) with an interesting and useful observation:
“Open the pages of any horror fanzine —- Outré, Fangoria, Cinefantastique —- and you will find listings for mail-order video companies that cater to aficionados of what Jeffrey Sconce has called `para-cinema’ and trash aesthetics. Not only do these mail-order companies represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the video market, but their catalogs challenge many of our continuing assumptions about the binary opposition of prestige cinema (European art and avant-garde/experimental films) and popular culture. Certainly, they highlight an aspect of art cinema generally overlooked or repressed in cultural analysis: namely, the degree to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes that characterize low culture.”
As a direct illustration of Hawkins’ point, check out the web site www.xploitedcinema.com, a U.S. importer of overseas DVDs that also sells some domestic items and caters mainly to trash aesthetics, but among whose 86 pages of sex, horror, action, and gore items I also recently found an Italian two-disc set of my favorite Bernardo Bertolucci film, Prima della Rivoluzione/Before the Revolution (his second feature, 1964 — subtitled in English, along with all the extras), not to mention English-friendly Spanish and/or Mexican editions of my two favorite Alex Cox films (the 1987 Walker and the 1994 Highway Patrolman), a Spanish edition of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, a Korean edition of Sam Peckinpah’s scandalously underrated Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and Italian editions of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1993). — J.R.
There’s a world of difference between the natural, “found” surrealism of Louis Feuillade’s lighthearted French serial (1914) and the darker, studied surrealism and campy piety of this 1964 remake by Georges Franju. Yet in Franju’s hands the material has its own magic (and deadpan humor), which makes this one of the better features of his middle period. Judex (Channing Pollack) is a cloaked hero who abducts a villainous banker to prevent the evil Diana (Francine Bergé in black tights) from stealing a fortune from the banker’s virtuous daughter. Some of what Franju finds here is worthy of Cocteau, and as he discovered when he attempted another pastiche of Feuillade’s work in color, black and white is essential to the poetic ambience. With Jacques Jouanneau and Sylva Koscina. In French with subtitles. 104 min.
… Read more »