Monthly Archives: March 2022

Cinema Stylists, by John Belton

From the Summer 1984 Film Quarterly (Vol. XXXVII, No. 4). I can happily report that some copies of this book are still available on the Internet. — J.R.

CINEMA STYLISTS

By John Belton. Metuchan, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1983. $19.50.

From the outset, in his Introduction, John Belton makes the organizing stance of Cinema Stylists admirably clear. Revised auteurism — that is to say, non-vulgar and non-biographical auteurism, an auteurism brought more in line with the qualms of Barthes and Foucault (and subsequently Wollen) about authorship, and tempered with some of the notions about authorial presence in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction — is the dominant (if not exclusive) mode in this collection of over three dozen pieces, written over the past fourteen years. With the specters and examples of Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris hovering over his shoulders – his right and left consciences, as it were – Belton lacks the stylistic fluidity of either of his mentors, but has certain sound academic virtues which match and occasionally surpass the capacities of both.

A champion of the underdog film as well as the neglected figure, Belton can be seen going to bat in Cinema Stylists for Robert Mulligan, Edgar G.… Read more »

Black Window: Cornell Woolrich and Movies

From Film Comment, September-October 1984. — J.R.

Rear Window, The Leopard Man [see first two photos above], Phantom Lady, The Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid. Considering that almost 30 features have been Cornell Woolrich adaptations, it seems a genuine anomaly that he should remain so shadowy a figure. He is as central to the thriller as Olaf Stapledon is to science fiction, and has been comparably eclipsed by a singularity that exceeds and surpasses some genre expectations while grievously falling short of certain others. Despite all the purple prose, tired rewrites, and preposterous plots that crop up in his fiction, perhaps no other writer handles suspense better, or gives it the same degree of obsessional intensity. More soft-boiled than hard-boiled in the depiction of his heroes and heroines, Woolrich nonetheless seems central to the overall pessimism of film noir in the violent contrasts of his moods and the dark tempers of his villains.

Webster’s New Collegiate gives three definitions of dreadful:  “(1) (adjective) inspiring fear or awe, (2) (adjective) distressing, shocking; very distasteful, (3) (noun) a morbidly sensational story or periodical; as, a penny dreadful.”  Woolrich assumes all these meanings and invents a few more of his own.… Read more »

A Short Note on Béla Tarr

Written for a Persian collection about Béla Tarr, published in May 2016. — J.R.

 

Damnation

My first encounter with the work of Béla Tarr was Damnation (1987), seen in 1989, followed soon afterwards by Almanac of Fall (1984), but the point at which I became an acolyte rather than a mere fan was Sátántangó (1994), which remains for me the towering pinnacle of his work.  Other favorites include The Turin Horse (2011) and his nearly impossible-to-see short film The Last Boat (1989), but I know plenty of other viewers who were first won over by Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and another good starting point might be Tarr’s 1982 production of Macbeth (1982), made for Hungarian television in only two shots.

 

Most of his films qualify as black comedies filmed in black and white, spiritual without being religious and peopled most often by grubby and not especially honorable individuals who are followed with lengthy takes and elaborately choreographed camera movements that implicate the viewer in their activities and thwarted destinies. Starting with Damnation, they are mostly written by the great Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose endless and labyrinthine sentences in his novels are as relentless and as passionately serene as Tarr’s camera movements.… Read more »

Getting Personal in Milwaukee

From American Film (September 1979). –- J.R.

Academic film conferences in the United States seem to be growing more plentiful every year. But there’s only one that can properly be called a theory conference, where theorists congregate, report on works in progress, and generally talk shop. It takes place in Milwaukee, at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Twentieth Century Studies, usually when there’s still snow on the ground. A few avant-garde filmmakers also traditionally turn up to show their latest wares and join in the discussions.

For academics, the conference functions as a combined brainstorming session, trade fair, and social gathering. For an interested outside observer, it can offer still another way of keeping up — by serving as a kind of barometer of intellectual currents in both films and film studies.

Last year the topic was “The Cinematic’ Apparatus: Technology as Historical and Ideological Form,” and the main attraction was papers by and discussions with many of the reputed superstars of film theory, ranging from Jean-Louis Comolli and Christian Metz [see below] to Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey. This year the title was “Cinema and Language,” and although there was a lot of both to be squeezed into four days, it was the movies shown that left the strongest impression.… Read more »

Poltergeist III

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). — J.R.

poltergeist-3

In this strictly routine second sequel to Poltergeist, directed by Gary Sherman from a script by Sherman and Brian Taggert, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is now happily living in Chicago with her uncle Bruce (Tom Skerritt), aunt Pat (Nancy Allen), and cousin Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle). But during a session at school with a therapist (Richard Fire) something nasty starts to happen when she looks in a mirror. Most of the action is confined to a single brand-new skyscraper, and the moves are both standard and predictable: periodic jolts from the other world that seem almost arbitrarily spliced into the action, setting up the rational-minded therapist as the major fall guy, and never paying much mind to plot or coherence, meanwhile cribbing from everything in sight (The Exorcist, The Shining, the first two Poltergeists). (JR)

p3postredRead more »

Mikey and Nicky (essay for the DVD)

This was written in October 2003  for the DVD released in 2004 by Home Vision Entertainment. DVD Beaver persuasively argues that this edition (currently unavailable, alas) is far superior to the Region 2 PAL release on Odyssey Video.  — J.R.

Thanks to an appointment book, I can pinpoint that the first time I saw Mikey and Nicky was on January 7th, 1977, at New York’s Little Carnegie. The experience was a shock. In contrast to A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) —- Elaine May’s two previous features, both slick (if caustic) Hollywood comedies —- this was a harsh gangster drama in drab urban locations, and, even stranger, a near-facsimile of John Cassavetes’s raw independent features, costarring Cassavetes himself as Nicky and one of his regulars, Peter Falk, as Mikey. The editing was full of continuity errors, the garrulous performances free-wheeling and seemingly full of improvisations (as I then wrongly assumed Cassavetes’ own features were). But the brutal force of an alternately nurtured and betrayed friendship between two small-time crooks over one long night in Philadelphia was so ferocious that it left me shaken as well as bewildered.

The second time I saw the film was in 1980, when I programmed it for “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto Film Festival; this inadvertently became the world premiere of the film’s final version.… Read more »

Critical Distance [on CONTEMPT]

From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 1997). — J.R.

Contempt

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, and Godard.

Almost exactly 33 years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard’s widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt, showing this week at the Music Box, is being rereleased as an art film — in a brand-new print that’s three minutes longer — the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It’s tempting to say in explanation that we’re more sophisticated in 1997 than we were in 1964 — that we’ve absorbed or at least caught up with some of Godard’s innovations — but I don’t think this adequately or even correctly accounts for the difference in critical response. Despite all the current reviews that treat Le mépris as if it were some form of serene classical art, it’s every bit as transgressive now as it was when it first appeared, and maybe more so. But because it’s being packaged as an art movie rather than a mainstream release — because Godard is a venerable master of 66 rather than an unruly upstart of 33 — we have different expectations.… Read more »

Ideal Women [THE FAMINE WITHIN]

From the Chicago Reader (March 13, 1992). This film can now be accessed online. — J.R.

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THE FAMINE WITHIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Katherine Gilday.

Some theorists believe it is the larger North American society that needs healing, that women’s bodies today are the symbolic area in which a larger drama of cultural values is played out. — narrator, The Famine Within

Siskel and Ebert, among others, have been arguing that the documentary nominating committee of the Academy Awards needs a major revamping. Their beef is that the most popular and widely discussed documentaries of the past few years — like The Thin Blue Line, Paris Is Burning, Roger & Me, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — never get nominated. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the most popular movies are usually the best, a notion that the awarding of most of the remainder of the Oscars is predicated upon. To accept any serious challenge to this sacred premise would be to undermine our faith in distributors, exhibitors, critics, publicists — the film industry itself. Perish the thought: if we lost our faith in all of the above, we might actually have to start thinking for ourselves.… Read more »

Godard’s Questions

As nearly as I can remember, the following, signed “Jon Rosenbaum,” was hastily written at Bard College in the mid-60s for Pierre Joris, presumably for a never-to-be-published campus publication.

In tearful remembrance of Anna Karina, 1940-2019. — J.R.

Godard’s Questions

2or3things-building

made-in-usa-HEALTHCLUB

Ideally, Godard would like 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle and Made in USA (which he made during the same summer) to be screened together, in a single evening. The ideal method of screening — which Godard sees as a kind of homage to William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms— would be to show them ‘contrapuntally, ” by alternating the reels. To any viewer who has seen even one of these films, the idea induces vertigo; the prospect seems not unlike that of sitting down with both Finnegans Wake and a critical commentary on it, one on each knee, immediately after breakfast. A somewhat sickening thought, but after all, Godard is a critic as well as a filmmaker –like Joyce, a critic chiefly (one is tempted to say exclusively) of his own work. Like a house of mirrors, like Nabokov, like Finnegans WakeNaked Lunch, and Becket’s trilogy, Godard’s work is largely an exercise in self-reflection: how does one make a movie?… Read more »

MON ONCLE

Written in 2013 for a 2019 Taschen publication. — J.R.

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mon-oncle2

Mon Oncle

1. Preparations and Preludes

A lot of thoughts and deliberations preceded each of Tati’s half-dozen features, which is one of the reasons why a fairly long stretch of time would elapse between any two of them. The longest of these stretches occurred between the release of Les Vacances de M. Hulot in March 1953 and the first day of shooting on Mon Oncle in July 1956, but his thoughts and deliberations about his next feature occupied only part of his time. During those same three years, Tati also had a good many personal matters to attend to. There was his newfound celebrity, which led to a great deal of foreign travel, many offers of various kinds, and several contacts with young people who wanted to work for him: among those he hired during this period were the future writer-director-star Pierre Etaix, who joined his staff and eventually became one of the two assistant directors on Mon Oncle (and also played a cameo in which he imitates the sound of a chicken); the future screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, whose first serious job was writing the commissioned novelization of Les Vacances (and who would later write a novelization of Mon Oncle  for Tati as well); and a young writer whose first novel impressed Tati, Jean L’Hôte, whom Tati engaged to collaborate with him and Jean Lagrange on the screenplay for Mon Oncle.… Read more »

En movimiento: How Do We Judge Actors?

Written in August 2016 for my November 2016 “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

Paterson-AdamDriver

Louis-XIV

Do we value actors for their visible and audible skills, or for their capacity to make us forget that they’re actors? Over the past month, both at the Melbourne International Film Festival and back in Chicago, at cinemas or watching home videos, I’ve been asking myself this question in relation to such new films as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Albert Serra’s La Mort de Louis XIV, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, and Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, and such older films as Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, and Jerry Lewis’s Smorgasbord. And, needless to say, my answers to this question differ enormously, mainly according to how familiar I am with the actors involved — which doesn’t necessarily  mean how many times I’ve seen them before. For instance, prior to Paterson, I’d already seen Adam Driver in J. Edgar, Frances Ha, Lincoln, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Midnight Special, but I only know this now because I just looked up his credits.… Read more »

Bravery in Hiding [on LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ and LE CIEL EST À VOUS]

Jean Grémillon remains one of the major French filmmakers whose films are most egregiously unavailable on DVD, especially when it comes to versions with English subtitles — although I’m delighted to report that Criterion’s Eclipse brought out three of his greatest ones, all made during the Occupation, including the two that are discussed here and Remorques. This article appeared in the October 25, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. –— J.R.

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LeCielEstaVous

Lumière d’été **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche

With Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, and Marcel Lévesque.

Le ciel est à vous **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Albert Valentin and Charles Spaak

With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt, Léonce Corne, Albert Rémy, and Robert le Fort.

A friend and colleague, critic and teacher Nicole Brenez, says that the best film criticism consists of films critiquing one another. This may sound a mite abstract, but two very different masterpieces by the great, neglected Jean Grémillon, Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous, seem to offer a concrete example of this, as a critique of Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, which I wrote about last week.… Read more »

Sex Games (on Polanski’s BITTER MOON)

From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.

For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon, and. certainly his most masterful, although his subsequent Venus in Fur and Based on a True Story, both more subdued and subtler, may be more interesting, especially as thoughtful autocritiques. — J.R.

**** BITTER MOON

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross

With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.

Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands.… Read more »

Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition

Chapter Two of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

How often are aesthetic agendas determined by business agendas? This question is not raised often enough.Terminology plays an important role here. For example, once upon a time, previews of new releases were called “sneak previews” because the titles of these pictures weren’t announced in advance. Most industry people continue to use the term, despite the fact that the titles are announced and even advertised, so that the original meaning gets obfuscated: the only thing “sneaky” is the fact that they’re called “sneak previews.”This is a relatively trivial example of how terminology alienates us from what goes on in the world of movies. A more significant example is how we use an extremely loaded term like “independent.” An independent filmmaker traditionally meant a filmmaker who worked independently, free from the pressures of the major studios. If you believe what the media say about independent films, then the mecca for independent filmmaking would be the Sundance Film Festival, an event where independent films and filmmakers congregate annually.… Read more »

Orson Welles’ Alternatives

From the April 2015 Sight and Sound. Happily, both versions of both Macbeth and Othello are now available in the U.S. — J.R.

TheTrial-corridor-stripes

Who ever said Orson Welles’ filmography has to be neat? But one rudimentary way of bringing some order would be to distinguish between nine films he completed to his satisfaction (Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Fountain of Youth, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming Othello) and nine others he didn’t complete and/or lost control of (The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind).  Yet even this isn’t as neat as it sounds, because he completed two separate versions of both Macbeth (1948 and 1950 — the second at the studio’s request — to eliminate the Scottish accents and shorten the running time by two reels; both are available today in France) and Othello (1952 and 1953; neither, alas, is commercially available anywhere — only an alteration of the second version, edited for the U.S.… Read more »