Monthly Archives: May 2022

Reality and History as the Apotheosis of Southern Sleaze: Phil Karlson’s THE PHENIX CITY STORY

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 »

Jerks Like Us (GROSSE FATIGUE)

From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 1995). — J.R.

Grosse fatigue

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 »

No Joke [MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE]

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.

mystery-science-theater-3000-the-movie-blu-ray-dvd-combo-cover-art

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 »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Diverse Displacements (6th column)

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 »

Judex (1964)

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 »

CRUMB Reconsidered

Written in 2010 for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-Ray. This is the second of my essays about Terry Zwigoff’s documentary; for the first one, written 15 years earlier, go here. — J.R.

CRUMB-DVD

Now that Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is about fifteen years old, it seems pretty safe to say that it has evolved from being a potential classic to actually becoming one. But what kind? A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it.

In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well. An old friend of Robert Crumb’s, Terry Zwigoff shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the multifaceted density and sometimes disturbing nature of what he has to show and say over two hours seems partly a function of the amount of time he had to mull it over. It’s worth adding that he was in therapy for part of that time, which surely had an impact on the film’s searching thoughtfulness and on Zwigoff’s own investment in the material.… Read more »

Eduardo de Gregorio, 1942-2012

On October 14, 2012 I received the sad news from Pierre Bayle d’Autrange that his longtime partner Eduardo de Gregorio, also a longtime friend of mine (since 1973), died Saturday night at the St. Louis Hospital in Paris, not long after his 70th birthday.

I wrote the following for the festival catalogue of the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2004, to accompany a retrospective of Eduardo’s films — as far as I know, the only such retrospective that was ever held. It is also reprinted — along with a short essay of the same length on Sara Driver (also the subject of a BAFICI retrospective that year)– in “Two Neglected Filmmakers,” a piece included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia as well as here.  — J.R.

Eduardo de Gregorio’s Dream Door

It must be a bummer to be an Argentinian writer and/or filmmaker and constantly get linked to Jorge Luis Borges. It must be especially hard if you’re Eduardo de Gregorio, whose first major screen credit is on an adaptation of “Theme of the Traitor and Hero” for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 feature The Spider’s Strategm.

I don’t mean to question the credentials of de Gregorio as a onetime student of Borges — just the appropriateness of a too-narrow understanding to impose on a singular body of work that owes as much to cinematic references as to literary ones, and one that indeed juxtaposes the two almost as freely as it juxtaposes different languages and historical periods (while including all the cultural baggage that comes with each of them).… Read more »

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1997).

With this 1997 drama, producer-director Clint Eastwood continued his welcome practice of trying something different on every picture, turning this time to a best-seller very different from The Bridges of Madison County, the source material for his previous film. The liberties taken by John Lee Hancock in adapting John Berendt’s atmospheric nonfiction novel move the original story even closer to fiction: four murder trials are collapsed into one, the author-narrator is replaced with a made-up hero (John Cusack), and a lot of languid local color is distilled into a meandering story line. But Eastwood finds good ways of honoring the book: shooting on location in Savannah, using a very tasteful selection of tunes by Johnny Mercer (a Savannah native) on the sound track, and even getting local drag queen Lady Chablis to play an expanded version of her own part in the original story. (She’s not exactly a film actor, but there’s something in the way that Eastwood turns her loose that makes the movie come alive.) The results are more leisurely and character driven than most contemporary movies are encouraged to be, and positively drip with juicy southern ambience. Kevin Spacey is at his best playing the millionaire antiques specialist who shoots his rough-trade lover and employee (Jude Law).… Read more »

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 503). — J.R.

Farewell, My Lovely
U.S.A., 1975

Director: Dick Richards

Employing the same production team (Elliott Kastner and Jerry Bick) as The Long Goodbye and the same director of photography (John A. Alonzo) as Chinatown, Farewell, My Lovely resumes the Los Angeles private-eye cycle with a clear grasp of its immediate as well as its more distant precursors. Less individual than either Altman at his most eclectic or Polanski at even his least personal, Dick Richards nevertheless seems to have an almost equally distinct idea about what to do with his material — in this case, to honor it as closely as possible in its own generic terms and not aspire to bring to it any contemporary perspective more distancing than a warm and somewhat glazed-over nostalgia. Some of the consequences — like the wonderfully evocative pastel-like impressions of L.A. at night and a torchy orchestral theme by David Shire behind the opening credits, or the deliberate use of Forties film noir devices (first person voice-over narration, flashbacks framed by blurs, dime-store expressionism to render Marlowe’s loss of consciousness — recalling Dmytryk’s treatment of the same scene thirty years ago) — are immediately apparent. In other cases, including a self- conscious series of period references (DiMaggio’s batting record, Hitler’s invasion of Russia) and recreations (the lovingly detailed and mythically idealized sets), the results are less obvious: a sentimental softening of the Marlowe character throughout is so well integrated with the crisper aspects of his fancy rhetoric that Richards and scriptwriter David Zelag Goodman almost manage to transform the detective into a Sixties liberal who plays catch Fifties-style with a grinning mulatto child without seriously jarring the reverential tone.… Read more »

Hellzapoppin’

From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.

Rarely shown in the U.S. these days, this 1941 film of the wildly deconstructive stage farce with  Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson is still regarded as a classic in Europe, and it lives up to its reputation. The credit sequence establishes the wartime mood with its vision of hell as a munitions factory (where demons preside over the packaging of Canned Guy and Canned Gal), which is shortly revealed as a movie soundstage, the first of many metafictional gags. Very belatedly the movie  gets around to telling a spare musical-comedy story (with swell numbers by Martha Raye and the jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and “Slam” Stewart, and some very acrobatic jitterbugging), but the main bill of fare is manic nonsense that almost makes the Marx Brothers look sober. H.C. Potter directed; with Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, and Elisha Cook Jr. 84 min. Sun 1/23, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.

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Orson Welles, Volume 2: Hello Americans

From Cineaste (Fall 2006). — J.R.

Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans

by Simon Callow. New York: Viking Adult, 2006. 528 pp., illus. Hardcover: $32.95.

“It seems to me there is a plain, if many-layered, truth to be told,” Simon Callow writes in his Preface to the second volume of his Welles biography — noting his impatience with academics whose sense of the truth is so far from plain that they can only countenance the term between quotation marks. It’s an understandable position for him to take, but he doesn’t always stick to it himself, and it’s hard to see how he could. In his second chapter, he asserts that, although no evidence supports Welles’s claim that Booth Tarkington had been his father’s best friend, it doesn’t matter at all “one way or the other; what is significant is that Welles believed it to be true, and wanted it to be true, and his conception of [Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons] is certainly an idealized version of his father.” In other words, Callow is privileging one kind of truth over another — like all of us who write about Welles, including those pesky academics. Like it or not, it comes with the territory.… Read more »

The Thrill is Gone [SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW]

From the Chicago Reader (March 14, 1997). — J.R.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Bille August

Written by Ann Biderman

With Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Emma Croft, and Mario Adorf.

In a couple of memorably grouchy essays published in the mid-40s, critic Edmund Wilson expounded on his impatience with detective stories, confessing that “I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails.” With a few honorable exceptions, such as Kiss Me Deadly and Cutter’s Way, conspiracy films have a similar drawback: the first half is more pleasurable than the second. I suspect the reason is that the thrill of sensing a vast, invisible network behind apparent chaos is more exciting and even satisfying than the prosaic explanation, which not only reduces possibilities and halts the imagination but, by creating closure, makes the whole experience seem rather disposable.

When conspiracy thrillers resemble detective thrillers — which is often — they have a built-in advantage, to my mind, because they typically approach the borders of fantasy or science fiction and play with the ambiguous line between the real and the fantastic.… Read more »

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

From the Chicago Reader  (April 22, 1997). — J. R.

ComradesAALS

Despite its sentimental aspects, this youthful, semitragic tale of two Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong — the wonderful Maggie Cheung (Actress, Irma Vep) and pop star Leon Lai — and their fluctuating relationship as friends and lovers is the most moving film I’ve seen yet about that city’s last years under colonial rule (though the film’s final sections are set mainly in New York, where both characters emigrate). I suspect many Chinese viewers feel the same, because the film cleaned up at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping no less than nine categories (including best director, film, screenplay, and actress). Set between 1986 and 1996, and visualized by director Peter Chan with a great deal of inventiveness and lyricism, this movie is full of heart and humor, capturing the times we’re living in as no Western film could. Watch for a charming cameo by Christopher Doyle, the premier cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave, as an English teacher. Film scholar and former Chicagoan Patricia Erens, now based at Hong Kong University, will introduce the Friday screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 22, 6:00; Saturday, August 23, 8:00; Sunday, August 24, 4:00; and Tuesday, August 26, 7:30; 312-443-3737.… Read more »

The Seven ARKADINs

The following article was partially written as a way of conserving space

while editing This Is Orson Welles (1991). A particular problem I had

throughout that project was having more material that I wanted to use

than I had room for. So I figured that if I could write and publish articles

elsewhere that incorporated portions of this material, all I had to do in the

book was allude to them.

Mr. Arkadin has always been the most difficult to research of the

Welles films that were finished in some form while he was alive —

partially because it remained such a painful memory to Welles due

to his friendship with Louis Dolivet, the producer, that he avoided

discussing it. Indeed, there was barely any material at all about it

in the tapes and drafts for This Is Orson Welles that I had

to work with. So as I tried to expand what I had via research,

I eventually hit upon the idea of publishing a piece in Film

Comment. (This appeared in January-February 1992.)

By necessity, much of what I included in this article was provisional.

(The same applies to a lesser extent to the dual commentary I

recorded with James  Naremore in early 2005 to the film’s “Corinth

version” [no.Read more »

Prole Models [CITIZEN RUTH & INVENTING THE ABBOTTS]

This appeared in the April 4, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Citizen Ruth

Rating *  (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Alexander Payne

With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren.

Inventing the Abbotts

Rating *** (A must see)

Directed by Pat O’Connor

Written by Ken Hixon

With Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Will Patton, Kathy Baker, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joanna Going, Barbara Williams, and Michael Sutton.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

The best insight into 20th-century repression I’ve encountered recently is contained in Sidney Blumenthal’s piece about Whittaker Chambers in the March 17 issue of the New Yorker. Chambers “lived in a time when it was easier to confess to being a [communist] spy than to confess to being a homosexual,” Blumenthal notes. He also remarks that Chambers’s behavior as a spy — “furtive exchanges, secret signals, false identities” — resembled his behavior as a homosexual, and that he “and a pantheon of anti-Communists for whom conservatism was the ultimate closet — J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Francis Cardinal Spellman — advanced a politics based on the themes of betrayal and exposure, ‘filth’ (as Hoover called it) and purity.Read more »