TRANSATLANTIC REALITY AVOIDANCE: A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (MAY 1999)
“ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ ” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, the fourth virtual‐reality thriller I saw in Chicago in as many weeks in the spring of 1999, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596–1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters scarcely think, much less exist, but not an unexpected one given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform these thrillers.
If any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a ﬁlm with a lot more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — this might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” Read more
Is it possible that because of the rise of the new media, which have given us the ability to manufacture what we call virtual reality, we are now able, without quite knowing what we are doing, to create a secondary world that we are liable to mistake for the primary world given to our senses at birth? If so, the prime need it serves is probably not political at all but the one Freud identiﬁed as the chief motive for dreaming: wish fulﬁll-‐ ment—a need catered to both by our luxuriously proliferating sources of entertainment and the means of their support, namely, advertisement of consumer products. In our variant of self-‐deception, pleasure plays the role that terror plays under totalitarianism.
— Jonathan Schell, “Land of Dreams,” The Nation, January 11/18, 1999
This chapter and the next explore complementary and mutually alienating attitudes: the desire to keep out foreign inﬂuences in order to preserve American “purity,” and the fact that what we consider American “purity” is often composed of foreign inﬂuences.
Written in November 2014 for my February 2015 “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Given the precipitous decline in Truman Capote’s literary reputation since his death, it seems a pity that he’s better known as a screenwriter on the overrated Beat the Devil than on The Innocents, a far more durable though far less celebrated work. — J.R.
Bonus features are an important part of digital film culture, and one shortcoming is the attention usually accorded to both literary and cinematic sources. While these sources aren’t necessarily ignored, they’re rarely emphasized, so that younger viewers watching, for the first time, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) –- two exceptionally literate and intelligent horror films, both beautifully and resourcefully filmed in black and white CinemaScope -– are apt to overlook the fact that they’re adapted quite faithfully from what Stephen King has called the two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” namely Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Though both novels are cited and discussed in the extras (and Truman Capote’s contribution of Southern Gothic elements to the screenplay for The Innocents is rightly applauded), they’re rarely accorded the attention they deserve. Read more
Written in July 2008 for an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to Washington, D.C. In a way, the recent Arrival might be said to qualify as a mystical remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I found it every bit as gripping. — J.R.
To get the full measure of what Cold War paranoia was doing
to the American soul, two of the best Hollywood A-pictures
of the early 50s, each of which pivots around its Washington,
D.C. locations – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and My
Son John (1952) — still speak volumes about their shared zeitgeist,
even though they couldn’t be further apart politically.
An archetypal liberal parable in the form of a science fiction
thriller and an archetypal right-wing family tragedy (with deft
slapstick interludes) that’s even scarier, they’re hardly equal in
terms of their reputations. Leo McCarey’s My Son John, widely
regarded today as an embarrassment for its more hysterical elements,
has scandalously never come out on video or DVD [2014 footnote, it’s
now available from Olive Films], though in its own era it garnered
even more prestige than Robert Wise’s SF thriller, having received
an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.Read more
A column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted March 19, 2022. — J.R.
While preparing a book that collects some of my film criticism, jazz criticism, and literary criticism and tries to correlate certain shared formal attributes of the three corresponding arts, I’ve been lamenting the absence of recordings of the very jazzy and literary lectures on film that Manny Farber gave at the University of California, San Diego in the 1970s, some of which I attended. They seemed improvised, even though he spent a long time preparing them.
Sometimes he delivered portions in voiceovers while the film was still running, as if having an argument with the filmmaker. For those who can now read Farber In Spanish, his breezy, blustery style also seems Influenced both by jazz and the writers he read, although the fact that he hung out with East Coast action painters also left a mark. In short, his writing and his lectures were both performative events full of suspenseful moments and humorous surprises.
So is Jean-Pierre Gorin’s A “Pierrot” Primer, a DVD extra on the 2008 Criterion edition of Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which quotes Farber but converts the Farber delivery into a style entirely Gorin’s own. Read more
In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic, four out-of-work Europeans (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck), trapped in a squalid South American village that’s exploited by a U.S. oil company, agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of primitive roads in exchange for $2,000 eachif they survive. When this existentialist shocker opened in the U.S., 43 minutes had been hacked away, but the gripping adventure elements left intact were still enough to turn the film into a hit. (This restored and at least semicomplete version of the film, 148 minutes long, was released in the early 90s.) A significant influence on Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, this grueling pile driver of a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat, though it reeks of French 50s attitude, which includes misogyny, snobbishness, and borderline racism. It’s also clearly a love story between two men (Montand and Vanel). In French with subtitles. (JR)
Chapter Four of my book Movie Wars. It was originally written for Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman Class of 1970, a critical collection coedited with Bill Krohn for the Locarno International Film Festival in 1999, which came out in French and Italian editions. –– J.R.
During the spring of 1998, not long before the American release of Small Soldiers, I happened upon “The Toys of Peace,” a wise and wicked tale by Saki included in A. S. Byatt’s recent collection, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Set in 1914, it recounts the noble and doomed efforts of the hero to interest his two nephews, aged nine and ten, in “peace toys”: models of a municipal dustbin and the Manchester branch of the YWCA, lead ﬁgurines of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, and a district councillor. Forty minutes later, he looks in on the boys and ﬁnds that they’ve converted these objects into war toys: the municipal dustbin punctured with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannons, Mill dipped in red ink to approximate an eighteenth‐century French colonel, with a grisly game plan mapped out to yield a maximum amount of bloodshed, including the remainder of the red ink splashed against the side of the YWCA building.
My column for the Spanish monthly Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted on July 25, 2019. — J.R
“The strongest argument for the unmaterialistic character of American life,” Mary McCarthy wrote in 1947, “is the fact that we tolerate conditions that are, from a materialistic point of view, intolerable.” Two kinds of doublethink fantasy emanating from this, both deriving from media tropes, can be found in the best and worst examples of recent American cinema that I saw in Chicago in July. These are, respectively, the four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019), a musical sitcom created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, which I saw alone on Netflix via my laptop, and Quintin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I saw in 70mm at the Music Box with a full audience shortly afterwards. Significantly, deranged women are the basis of what I find exhilarating in the former and despicable in the latter.
The deranged woman in the first is a high-powered, neurotic Jewish lawyer (Bloom) in New York who rejects her firm’s partnership offer in order to move to a nondescript California suburb “four hours from the beach” to work for a mediocre firm and chase after a former boyfriend, whom she met at a camp as a teenager, meanwhile remaining in denial that her romantic obsession motivated her move. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 1995). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stephen J. Rivele,
Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone
With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, David Paymer, and Mary Steenburgen.
Did we really win the cold war? I know that capitalism prevailed on the economic front, but I’m less sure about the cultural front. I suspect a capitalist version of Stalinist culture has triumphed rather than any sort of democracy: Stalinist culture meaning calcified, state-supported art built around solemn, hulking father figures — something like Oliver Stone’s latest two-ton Christmas turkey, Nixon. If we recognize that Disney has effectively become the federal government, the rest of the scenario falls into place. Just as Stalin’s flunkies had to praise the official “masterpieces” of Stalinist art no matter how inert or uninventive they were, Nixon‘s producers (who’ve spent millions promoting the movie) have guaranteed that media savants are already describing Stone’s Nixon as a figure of Shakespearean proportions rather than the poorly cast, two-dimensional numskull decked out with a few grade-Z horror-movie traits that he is.
Toddlers have been treated a lot more like adults by the movies this year than grown-ups have. Read more
From the Summer 2015 Artforum.(This version is slightly different.) — J.R.
Doctor (off): Has this happened to you before? Ventura: It will happen again, yes it will.
Trying to rationalize Pedro Costa’s Horse Money in terms of a synopsis is ultimately a fool’s game, but connecting it to recent Portuguese history is a necessity. The April 25, 1974 military coup known today as the Carnation Revolution, led by the leftwing MFA and ending the Estado Novo dictatorship that lasted almost half a century, took place when Costa was in his early teens. Ventura, Costa’s slightly older principal protagonist in practically all of his other recent films — a Cape Verdean immigrant and construction worker, always playing himself and scripting his own dialogue — was around in Lisbon too. But as Costa told Mark Peranson in an interview in Cinema Scope, Ventura’s experience of the same events was radically different:
I was very lucky to have been a young man in a revolution, really lucky….And I was discovering a lot of things, music and politics and film and girls, everything at the same time, and I was happy and anarchist and shouting in the streets and occupying factories and things like that — I was 13 so I was a bit blind.Read more
From the March 19, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth
With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
–Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)
Only once in a blue moon does a screenwriter who isn’t a director become known as an auteur. Plenty of distinctive movie writers have reputations as actors or as actor-directors, starting with such giants as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, but they’re rarely celebrated for their writing. You have to go back to Robert Towne, who’s done only a little directing, and Paddy Chayefsky, who never did anything but write and produce, to find auteurs known mainly as writers.
A Chayefsky movie isn’t hard to identify, but I think it’s safe to say that these days a Charlie Kaufman movie is even more recognizable. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 14, 2004). This is probably my favorite Maddin feature to date. — J.R.
Mannerist film antiquarian Guy Maddin takes a bold step forward with this 2003 feature, a comic/melodramatic musical enhanced by his flair for expressionist studio shooting (in grainy black and white, with selected scenes in two-strip Technicolor). The project originated as a script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro; revising extensively, Maddin and George Toles, his usual collaborator, turn it into an allegory about Canada’s colonial relationship with the U.S. In the depths of the Depression, a Winnipeg beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) launches an international contest to come up with the saddest music in the world. Competing for the U.S. is her former lover (Mark McKinney), a brassy Broadway producer; for Serbia the producer’s older brother (Ross McMillan), who grieves for his dead son and vanished amnesiac wife (Maria de Madeiros); and for Canada both men’s father (David Fox), a surgeon who’s drunkenly amputated Rossellini’s legs. Not to be missed. 99 min. (JR)
Below is my Foreword to The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy (McFarland, 2004), a collection edited by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray, minus a few editorial tweaks and abridgements. — J.R.
It’s a curious fact, at least to me, that I’m writing a forword to this book, even a short one. I’m neither a medievalist nor a historian; I haven’t seen many of the films discussed, and, perhaps because I spend much of my time reviewing films for a weekly newspaper, the Chicago Reader, I have seen but have mainly forgotten some of the others. As a professional film critic who occasionally gets invited to speak and teach at college campuses, I have the benefit of both close and long-range views of film history, and try to create some two-way traffic between these positions in my writing.
It has always been a handicap for film scholars that one can’t necessarily count on all the important works being widely accessible or even widely known. In the essays that follow, some of my favorite films with medieval themes and settings have only been briefly touched upon —- I’m thinking especially of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eric Rohmer’s Perceval -— while others, including Fritz Lang’s magnificent two-part, five-hour Die Nibelungen (1924), and Les visiteurs du soir (1942), a haunting fantasy written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche and directed by Marcel Carné during the French Occupation, are not mentioned.Read more
This appeared in the May 14, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader, and occasioned one of the few thank-you notes I’ve received from a filmmaker for a review. I hope both Guy Maddin and those reading this will forgive me for immodestly reproducing his email: “Dear Jonathan: I usually try to avoid setting precedents that violate what should be a no-fly zone between critics and filmmakers, but I must say that your review of Saddest Music left me feeling understood at last!!! What a feeling. Thank you for supplying this euphoria. You also win bonus points for the Laura Riding discovery — I always liked her characters’ names. George Toles, who is terrified of reading reviews, will be thrilled to see his unsung name given its proper due. Not only that, you disabled Anthony Lane’s stinkbombs. A million thanks, Jonathan!! Warmest, Guy” — J.R.
The Saddest Music in the World
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by George Toles, Maddin, and Kazuo Ishiguro
With Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros,
David Fox, and Ross McMillan.
To Guy Maddin, every contemporary story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story. — screenwriter George Toles
When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity.Read more
Ten film critics’ polls in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., have named Sideways the best movie of the year. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s not that I have anything against comedies; last year Down With Love was second on my ten-best list. Besides, Sideways has a dark side — its infantile hero (Paul Giamatti) steals from his mother, and his infantile sidekick (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to be married, compulsively cheats on his fiancee. They behave as if the world beyond southern California doesn’t exist, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. And like most American mainstream movies, it dances around class issues without ever facing them.
If my colleagues who love this movie, many of whom I admire, are implying that it contains valuable life lessons, I wish they’d tell me what they are. Giamatti is an acerbic loser hero who’s eventually given a ray of hope, like the Woody Allen hero of 20 or 30 years ago but without the wisecracks. So is regressing to that moviemaking model the proudest achievement of world cinema in 2004? Did the critics find something comforting, even affirmative, about its provincialism? Read more