Daily Archives: January 5, 2022

Introduction to ESSENTIAL CINEMA (December 2002)

A slightly different version of the Introduction to my 2004 collection, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.



As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors — a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980/1995) — I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal early steps during my freshman year at New York University in 1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist: taking the first and only film course I’ve ever had in my life and purchasing my first film magazine.

The course was an introductory survey taught by the late Haig Manoogian, who was serving as Martin Scorsese’s mentor in production courses around the same time. For me, it mainly afforded me my first opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation, The Last Laugh, and a few other film history staples; since I had no interest in making movies — or at this point in writing about them — I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for such matters as “story values” that Manoogian tended to emphasize.… Read more »

Mississippi Burning

From the February 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

In this 1988 movie, Alan Parker’s taste for simpleminded, sordid fantasy is trained on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and the feast for the self-righteous that emerges has little to do with history, sociology, or even common sense. The glorification of the FBI (which conveniently ignores the FBI’s hostility toward the civil rights struggle), the obfuscation about jim crow laws, and the absurd melodramatics may all have been well-intentioned, but the understanding about the past and the present of racism that emerges is depressingly thin. (The blacks in the plot, for instance, are depicted exclusively as noble sufferers who sing a lot of spirituals — they aren’t even accorded the status of characters.) Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe star as antagonistic FBI agents who disagree about how to proceed with their investigation; Brad Dourif, Frances McDormand, and R. Lee Ermey are among the local yokels, and Chris Gerolmo is responsible for the primitive script. (JR)

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From the Chicago Reader (October 28, 1988). — J.R.

Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and long-awaited biopic about the great Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker), running 161 minutes, is the most serious, conscientious, and accomplished jazz biopic ever made, and almost certainly Eastwood’s best picture as well. The script (which accounts for much of the movie’s distinction) is by Joel Oliansky, and the costars include Diane Venora as Chan Parker, Michael Zelniker as Red Rodney, and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie. Alto player Lennie Niehaus is in charge of the music score, which has electronically isolated Parker’s solos from his original recordings and substituted contemporary sidemen (including Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Walter Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, John Guerin, and others), mainly with acceptable results. The film is less sensitive than it might have been to Parker’s status as an avant-garde innovator and his brushes with racism, and one is only occasionally allowed to listen to his electrifying solos in their entirety, without interruptions or interference (as one was able to do more often with the music in Round Midnight), but the film’s grasp of the jazz world and Parker’s life is exemplary inmost other respects. The extreme darkness of the film, visually as well as conceptually, leaves a very haunting aftertaste.… Read more »

Lessons From a Master

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Abbas Kiarostami

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

This month is an unusually rich one at the Film Center, especially for work that’s generally unavailable. Every Thursday there’s a classic film noir, with the rarely screened ultraminimalist Murder by Contract (1958) a particular highlight. Every Friday and Tuesday there are features by the late mannerist maestro Jean-Pierre Melville — an innovative director of French art movies (The Silence of the Sea, Les enfants terribles) who eventually became a specialist in American-style gangster films (Le doulos, Second Breath, Le samourai) and a homoerotic cult favorite of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. (Catch Melville’s 1965 Second Breath this Friday and marvel at the bizarre sensibility and consummate craft that combine to lovingly duplicate the texture of a cheesy, nondescript Columbia Pictures noir of the 50s.) And best of all is a program devoted to Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, including his four major features, over the next two weekends.

Both the Melville and the Kiarostami retrospectives are close to being complete. The missing Melville titles are 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (his only short film, 1946), When You’ll Read This Letter (1953), and The Elder Ferchaux (1962), but no less than 11 features are showing this month.… Read more »