Monthly Archives: February 2022

Backwaters [SHOWER]

From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2000). — J.R.

Shower

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Zhang Yang

Written by Liu Fen Dou, Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan, and Cai Xiang Jun

With Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu, He Zheng, Zhang Jin Hao, Lao Lin, and Lao Wu.

In these pages last week I wondered whether adapting Marcel Proust was the best way for the talented Raul Ruiz to spend his time. Later I heard from some colleagues who write for suburban papers that their editors had forbidden them to review Time Regained — a standard form of censorship that made me wonder whether my expressing misgivings would encourage the editors to believe they were justified. Especially stomach turning was the spurious reason they reportedly gave: that people in the burbs wouldn’t care about such a movie.

But what else would persuade a suburbanite to travel all the way to Chicago to see a film if not something like Time Regained? Surely not a chance to see The Patriot on a slightly bigger screen (democracy at work: we can choose where to see bad summer movies). I suspect that the contempt these suburban editors have for their readers is a form of fear: if they admitted that better fare was available elsewhere, the studios might get annoyed and withhold some of their advertising dollars.… Read more »

Kwik Stop

From the Chicago Reader (October 11, 2002, and then again on June 24, 2005, when Roger introduced it and led a discussion about it). Happily, this film is still available from Amazon and on YouTube, and in memory, it seems to get better and better all the time. — J.R.

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There are so many curves and anomalies in this unpredictable low-budget independent feature (2001) by Chicago actor Michael Gilio that I’m tempted to call it an experimental film masquerading as something more conventional. If it’s a comedy — and I’m not sure it is — there are far too many close-ups, though this is also very much an actors’ film. If it’s a road film — and I’m not sure it is — it never gets very far on any given route, though that’s surely deliberate. Two characters (played by Gilio and Bullet on a Wire‘s Lara Phillips) are opaque — they meet at a convenience store where she’s shoplifting, then go on a cross-country trip toward LA, until things start to get weird — and two (played by Karin Anglin and the charismatic Rich Komenich) have backstories. This movie is about the interactions between these characters, and though I’m still trying to figure out what all the pieces mean, there’s no way I can shake off the experience.… Read more »

The Communal Balancing Act [THE EDGE OF THE WORLD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 9, 2000). — J.R.

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The Edge of the World

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Michael Powell

With John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric Berry, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, Grant Sutherland, Campbell Robson, and Powell.

In a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement, American sociologist and historian Richard Sennett examined the failure of socialism in the United States and argued that Americans seem to have a different take than people in England and continental Europe on collectivity itself. One reason he suggests for this difference — that slavery confused and perhaps even undermined our overall sense of the dignity of labor, ultimately altering our sense of collective labor — is both provocative and debatable. But whether or not one buys into his theory, it’s hard to deny that Americans practice and relate to groupthink somewhat differently than Europeans. “The herd of independent minds” was the late Harold Rosenberg’s memorable phrase describing us in all our paradoxical singularity.

I happened to read Sennett’s words a few hours after seeing the restoration of Michael Powell’s beautifully archaic and mystical 1937 epic about communal life on Foula — the Shetland island farthest from the coast of Scotland — which is playing this week at the Music Box.… Read more »

THE BED YOU SLEEP IN: Notes for the CD (1993)

This short essay, originally published in December 1993,  was the first time I was ever commissioned to write liner notes for a CD — in this case, the soundtrack music for Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In, composed by Erling Wold and released by The Table of the Elements. (The second time was this month, July 2019, when I was invited to write a short essay for a CD in the U.K. of Carlos Santos’ soundtrack score for Pere Portabella’s masterpiece Vampir Cuadecuc.)  — J.R.

The Bed You Sleep In is the twelfth feature of Jon Jost, one of the most independent of all American independent filmmakers, and in more ways than one. It can be regarded as a kind of summary of his preceding work. From a conventional standpoint, Jost’s first eleven features, made over the past two decades, fall into two loose categories: fiction (Angel City, Last Chants for a Slow Dance, Chameleon, Slow Moves, Bell Diamond, Rembrandt Laughing, All the Vermeers in New York, and Sure Fire) and personal, experimental essays (Speaking Directly, Stagefright, and uncommon senses). But Jost is far from conventional, and a closer work at his work reveals that such neat divisions can’t always be made.… Read more »

Highway Patrolman

From the March 18, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The anarchistic and unpredictable English director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) goes bilingual in this 1992 Mexican picture, spoken in Spanish throughout. In some ways it’s his best work to date — a beautifully realized tale about the life of a Mexican highway patrolman who’s neither sentimentalized nor treated like a villain: he takes bribes, but has a sense of ethics. Wonderfully played by Mexican star Roberto Sosa, he’s a more believable cop than any Hollywood counterparts that come to mind. Starting off as a sadsack comedy with black overtones, the film gravitates into grim neorealism, but Cox also displays a flair for surrealist filigree (worthy of Bunuel in spots) and straight-ahead action, and does some marvelous things with actors and the Mexican landscape. In some respects, this is a return to the funky, witty pleasures of Repo Man, but the virtuoso long-take camera style — there are only 187 cuts in the entire movie — and emotional depth show a more mature Cox. (I hope the other Mexican feature he made around the same time — a masterful, baroque black-and-white adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass” done for the BBC, with a camera style suggesting Touch of Evil — will eventually be imported as well.)… Read more »

Night And Day

From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1993). — J.R.

One of the constants of Chantal Akerman’s remarkable work is a powerful if heavy painterly style that practically precludes narrative flow even when she’s telling stories. Even at her best, as in Jeanne Dielman and The Man With a Suitcase, the only kind of character development she seems able to articulate with conviction is a gradual descent into madness. But the relatively unneurotic Night and Day (1991) strikes me as her most successful work in years. Julie (Guilaine Londez), the heroine, makes love to Jack (Thomas Langmann) in their small flat by day and wanders through Paris at night while he drives a cab — until she meets Joseph (Francois Negret) and guiltlessly launches a secret nighttime affair with him. Akerman brings a lyricism to the material that makes it sing like a musical. Whether the camera is gracefully traversing Jack and Julie’s flat or slowly retreating from Julie and Joseph across bustling traffic while he recounts the things he loves about Paris, Akerman seems to have discovered both a musical rhythm for her mise en scene and a deftness in integrating her score that eluded her in her literal musical Window Shopping.… Read more »

Movie Love (on CINÉMA CINÉMAS, 1982-1991)

From Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], posted March 5, 2009. The last time I checked, the box set Cinéma Cinémas was still available from French Amazon, for 25.56 Euros. — J.R.

How does one distinguish American cinephilia from the original, hardcore French brand? Based on an exchange I had with French critic Raymond Bellour and several other friends a dozen years ago — a round of letters first published in the French film magazine Trafic that later grew into a collection in English that I co-edited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia — there’s some disagreement about how serious a role French cinema actually plays in “classic” (i.e., French) cinephilia. According to Raymond, spurred in part by remarks from the late Serge Daney — a mutual friend and the founder of Trafic — modern French cinephilia was from the outset basically American, as suggested by the archetypal question, “How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian?”:

It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory. This is what necessarily divides me from Jonathan, in whom cinephilia was born, like in everyone else, through the nouvelle vague, but who, as an American, takes the nouvelle vague itself as an object of cinephilia — whereas the cinephile, in the historical and French sense, trains his sights on the American cinema as an enchanted and closed world, a referential system sufficient to interpret the rest.Read more »

In Space, No One Can Hear You Sweat [Soderbergh’s SOLARIS]

From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 2002). Soberbergh’s Contagion confirms his bottomless cynicism, as well as the cynicism of those reviewers who seem to like him because he expresses their jaundiced views. I continue to find that same cynicism lethally dull and all too familiar. — J.R.

SOLARIS

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh

With George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Ulrich Tukur.

It’s easy to scoff at Monarch Notes, but before I quit graduate school in disgust I reached for them every time I thought a professor might be ruining a literary masterpiece for me — and vowed to read the work later, on my own time, for my own reasons. As a teacher, I also used them when I suspected a student of plagiarism, and they did help me spot an offender or two. But having read the outlines, I rarely read the works — the crib had robbed me of the desire.

If you haven’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 SF masterpiece Solaris, can’t see it Friday night, November 29, on Turner Movie Classics, and don’t want to watch the just-released DVD or wait for the Music Box’s rerelease in January, you might find Steven Soderbergh’s remake intriguing and compelling, because the story it tells is certainly haunting.… Read more »

Inner Space [SOLARIS]

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). I was disappointed to hear from one of the audio commentators on the Criterion DVD of Solaris that he regarded the lengthy highway sequence as one of the film’s “weaker” sections; for me it’s one of the highlights, both as a provocation and as a “musical” interlude that becomes an occasion for hypnotic drift. — J.R.

SOLARIS **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Written by Friedrich Gorenstein and Tarkovsky

With Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, and Sos Sarkissian.

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.Read more »

The best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2015 (for a Sight and Sound web exclusive)

Posted on the BFI web site on January 14, 2016. — J.R.

Age is… Re:Voir Video

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Army Criterion Eclipse

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Jauja Cinema Guild

Jauja

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Letter from Siberia (Blu-ray included in the Chris Marker Collection) Soda Film + Art

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Moana with Sound Kino Lorber

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Despite (or is it because of?) the disorderly quirks of commerce, ideology, and opportunity, we all occupy disparate time frames, so I’ve unapologetically cited, in alphabetical order, five imperishable films that I happened to encounter for the first time in 2015, all of them in digital editions worthy of their achievements.

Dwoskin’s last film – a satisfying conclusion to a remarkable career – comes from the same label that afforded me my first look at Marcel Hanoun’s remarkable 1966 L’authentique procés de Carl-Emmanuel Jung with English subtitles.

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Army is a wartime propaganda feature subverted into a pacifist lament, Jauja a haunting medieval western (or southern) time-bent into a luscious advance in Alonso’s art.

Letter from Siberia, even without the benefit of the French version promised on its jacket, is a delightful early essay film showing its author’s wit, literary gifts, and photojournalistic richness in optimal form, enhanced by a superb Roger Tailleur essay.

And Moana with sound is a seemingly unpromising but beautifully realized re-edition and further enrichment of the Flahertys’ early masterpiece, launched by their daughter Monica and restored by their great-grandson Sami van Ingen and Bruce Posner.… Read more »

Soul Brothers (A FAMILY THING)

From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 1996). — J.R.

A Family Thing

Directed by Richard Pearce

Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson

With Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Michael Beach, Irma P. Hall, David Keith, Grace Zabriskie, Regina Taylor, Mary Jackson, Paula Marshall, and James Harrell.

If good quiet movies seem as rare as hen’s teeth nowadays, one reason is that they’re gone before most of us get around to seeing them. As a rule, it’s the loud movies, good and bad (usually bad), that claim our attention first — the ones that yell at us from afar through monster ad campaigns tricked up with socko clips and hyperbolic quotes. Those that speak to us in a normal tone of voice, without flash or filigree, seep into our consciousness more gradually — and gradual discoveries are fast becoming impossible given that the commercial fate of a new feature is often sealed the opening weekend.

The first time I saw A Family Thing — not only the best but pretty nearly the only good quiet Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year — was at a press show in late February, back-to-back with The Birdcage. It took me completely by surprise — unlike The Birdcage, which had been shouting from the rooftops for months — and when I finally got around to seeing it a second time I found it every bit as affecting.… Read more »

Five Letters from Godard Apropos of Inside/Out

The following was put together for Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, a huge, large-format, 448-page (+ DVD) compendium put together by Nicole Brenez (in collaboration with Michael Witt) and published by the Centre Pompidou in 2006. I’ve decided to reproduce this assembly of texts exactly as I submitted it to Nicole. — J.R. [8/23/08] Ten years later, my account of Tregenza’s filmography needs to be updated with a fourth feature, Gavagai (2016). [8/23/18]

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Preface to Five Letters from Godard Apropos of Inside/Out

Not much (i.e., not enough) is known today about the three features of American independent filmmaker Rob Tregenza, all 35 millimeter—-Talking to Strangers (1988), The Arc (1991), and Inside/Out (1997)—- and possibly still less is known about Godard’s activity as a film producer, specifically of the third of these films. It isn’t even alluded to in Colin MacCabe’s detailed biography, where the fact that Godard helped to finance Straub-Huillet’s 1967 Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach equally goes unmentioned.

It also seems probable that the last film review published by Godard to date is his one of Talking to Strangers (see Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, tome 2, 1984-1998, pages 355-356, where this text is undated, though it was written specifically for the Toronto Film Festival catalogue and published there in English in September 1996).… Read more »

Is Ozu Slow?

The following is a lecture delivered at a symposium, “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” organized by Shigehiko Hasumi in Tokyo on December 11, 1998. The other participants, apart from Hasumi himself, were Jean Douchet (the keynote speaker), Hou Hsiao-hsien, his screenwriter Tien-wen Chu, and Thierry Jousse. I’m proud to say that Hasumi, my favorite contemporary film critic, has included a link to this text on his own web site, mube.jp. — J.R.

I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection which marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about the zebra they see on the screen — does it have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable fashion, a spurious, distracting, and no less innocent debate has been persisting about Ozu for years: is he a realist or a formalist? What seems lamentable about this debate is that it fails to perceive that cinematic forms and social forms are not alternatives in the world of Ozu but opposite sides of the same coin, so that it should be impossible to speak about one without speaking about the other.… Read more »

Mark Rappaport [from FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983]

The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press) — which I’m sorry to say is only available now at ridiculously inflated prices (one copy at Amazon currently sells for $989.90). It probably remains the least well known of my books. I’m immensely grateful to Jed Rapfogel and Stephanie Gray at New York’s Anthology Film Archives for furnishing me with a document file of this essay so that I could post it here, originally to help promote their Mark Rappaport retrospective in March 2011, prior to the updated version of this held earlier this year. Readers should also consult my separate articles about Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg as well as my interview with Rappaport about the latter, all of which are also available on this site, along with a more recent piece about two of his videos.  — J.R.

When the critic of a narrative film is feeling desperate, the first place that he or she is likely to turn to is a plot summary. Feeling rather desperate about my capacity to do justice to the last two features of the remarkable Mark Rappaport, I looked up the synopses and reviews of The Scenic Route and Impostors in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, which appeared precisely three years apart (February 1979 and February 1982), only to discover that each critic, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Simon Field, respectively, starts off with the admission that his own synopsis is misleading.… Read more »

Doing the Hustle [DANCER IN THE DARK]

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.

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Dancer in the Dark

**

Directed and written by Lars von Trier With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and Jean-Marc Barr.

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To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d’Or and best actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson — one of the only Europudding directors who’s both crass and clever enough to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around — it has provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras) as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous detractors come from this country too. It’s not too surprising considering that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one you’d expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50 years ago.… Read more »