This was published as my ninth one-page column in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their January 2009 issue (No. 19). — J.R.
It’s by no means unusual for a “retired” film scholar such as myself to find more work as a freelancer since my retirement late last February than I did for most of the previous two decades as a staff reviewer for the Chicago Reader. Two of my contemporaries, both former academics and both friends of mine — the slightly younger David Bordwell and the slightly older James Naremore — have told me that they’re busier nowadays than they were when they were teaching. But what seems more surprising, at least to me, is how much of my time recently has been consumed by my participation in panels and symposia, both in print and in person, about the alleged death of film criticism. The October issue of Sight and Sound is full of ruminations on this subject, under such headings as “Who needs critics?” and “critics on critics”; so is the Autumn issue of Cineaste, where the stated topic is “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium”. A week from now, I will be flying from Chicago to the New York Film Festival to speak on a panel called “Film Criticism in Crisis?”… Read more »
Another whimper from playwright Wallace Shawn about the fall of civilization — seen, as usual, more in terms of class than of intellect or aesthetics. References to such touchstones as John Donne and croquet contrive to suggest that maybe a little more than the takeover of the New Yorker by Tina Brown is at stake, but maybe not; the triumph of lowbrow vulgarity is perceived as the ultimate demise of mankind. Director David Hare films the play in its basic stage setting, three characters seated at a table, and trusts the pampered anguish of the material — the bemused and guilt-ridden but unquenchable sense of entitlement — to speak paradoxically for all of us. Mike Nichols, in his first screen performance, does a compelling job in the title role, his wide range of cartoon impersonations running the gamut from matinee-idol tics to scowls and nasal whines that evoke Shawn himself. Much flatter turns by Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser succeed only in flaunting the self-absorbed limitations of the play’s vision. If this is the way the world ends, I think I’d rather see it out with Schwarzenegger or Jim Carrey — anything but this dull pomposity.… Read more »
‘What made it possible for me to make the picture,’ Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich of his most troubling film, ‘is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why –- going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me. And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.’
To anchor these feelings in one part of Welles’ life, he was 15 when his alcoholic father died of heart and kidney failure, and Welles admitted to his friend and biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt responsible for that death. He’d followed the advice of his surrogate parents, Roger and Hortense Hill, in refusing to see Richard Welles until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him….I’ve… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 23, 1998). Today I would probably rank this movie much higher. — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Wong Kar-wai
With Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen.
At some point in the mid-90s Wong Kar-wai’s exciting and hyperbolic style lost its moorings. Whether this happened between Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994), during the two years it took to make Ashes of Time (1994), or between the latter two films and Fallen Angels (1995), Wong’s powerful organic flow, which makes Days of Being Wild his only masterpiece to date, has atrophied into a slag heap of individual set pieces.
Many of these set pieces are thrilling enough in their own right. Fallen Angels has plenty of them, spaced out like showstoppers in a vaudeville revue, though their effectiveness tends to diminish, their frenetic intensity ultimately becoming monotonous. Like the mannerist tics comprising Wong’s style — the use of different characters as narrators; the momentary freeze-frames punctuating Christopher Doyle’s slowed, slurred, or speeded-up cinematography; the shifts between color and black and white; and the bumpy transitions between garish forms of lighting and visual texture — his set pieces always provide a lively surface activity.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). MUBI has offered this film in the past. — J.R.
Scripted and directed by Ko I-Chen — a member of the Taiwanese new wave best known as an actor outside of Taiwan, particularly for his role in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story — this exciting 1997 feature, Lan yue, consists of five 20-minute reels designed to be shown in any order, so that 120 versions of the film are possible. (Ko wrote all five scripts simultaneously, on different colored sheets of paper.) In most respects this is a conventional, even commercial narrative feature, which makes for what I like most about it — it demands the viewer’s creative participation at the same time that it pretends to satisfy all the usual expectations. All five reels feature more or less the same characters and settings — including a young woman, a writer, a film producer, and a restaurant owner, all of whom live in Taipei and belong to the same circle — but in each reel the woman is involved with one of two men. One can construct a continuous narrative by positing some reels as flashbacks, as flash-forwards, or as events that transpire in a parallel universe.… Read more »
Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)
From Jean-Luc Godard: Son-Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). -– J.R.
“Jean-Luc cultists,” complains Judith Crist in the World Journal Tribune. God bless them! They constitute a line of defense against every manipulative insult the entertainment business throws out, there are more of them each year, and they may even be winning. — Roger Greenspun (1)
Greenspun’s rallying cry of a quarter of a century ago testifies to the passion and debate that used to be stirred up in the United States when Godard’s name was mentioned. The gradual phasing out of that debate and the depletion of that passion cannot be explained simply, and to understand it at all requires some careful thought about how American culture as a whole has itself changed in the interim. For a director still closely identified with the sixties in American film criticism, Godard is regarded today with much of the same fear, skepticism, suspicion, and impatience that greet many other contemporary responses to that decade. And his status as an intellectual with a taste for abstraction may make him seem even more out of place in a mass culture that currently has little truck with movie experiences that can’t be reduced to sound bites.… Read more »
This 1996 film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of his most seminal and accessiblea reconstruction of a pivotal incident during his teens that landed him in prison for several years during the shah’s regime. A fundamentalist and activist at the time, Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman; as a consequence he was shot and arrested. Two decades later, while auditioning people to appear in his film Salaam Cinema, he encountered the same policeman, now unemployed, and the two wound up collaborating on this film about the incident involving them, trying (with separate cameras) to reconcile their versions of what happened. Though no doubt prompted in part by Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), this is a fascinating humanist experiment and investigation in its own right, full of warmth and humor as well as mystery. The original Persian title, incidentally, translates as Bread and Flower. In Farsi with subtitles. 78 min. (JR)
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491). — J.R.
Popsy Pop (The 21 Carat Snatch)
Director: Jean Herman
Guiana. Plateau, Venezuela. In a ramshackle ‘boom town’, occupied by the natives who work the local diamond mine, the glamorous Popsy Pop arrives –ostensibly to divert the workers with her sexy cabaret act, but actually in order to distract Silva, the mine-company inspector, from a two-million-dollar diamond heist planned for the night of her arrival. Masterminded by Marcou, an ageing criminal who loves Popsy Pop, and carried out with the help of his henchmen Tormenta, Blanchette and Freddy -– who pilots the getaway helicopter — the robbery proceeds as planned: Silva is knocked unconscious in the singer’s dressing room and the diamonds are taken from the company office. But Popsv Pop and Freddy betray the rest of the gang by leaving without them. The angry workers kill Blanchette and Tormenta, but Silva persuades them to spare Marcou in the interests of recovering the diamonds — and offers the latter a cut of the reward in addition to a chance to avenge Popsy Pop’s double-cross. She has meanwhile taken a plane to Santa Domingo with Freddy, and places the diamonds in a safe deposit box, hiding the key in a jar of cold cream.… Read more »
These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the sixth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Too Early, Too Late
This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no “characters” in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1998). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Written by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan, and Imamura
With Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Fujio Tsuneta, Mitsuko Baisho, Akira Emoto, and Sho Aikawa.
I’ve seen only five of Shohei Imamura’s 19 features, most of them so many years apart that it’s hard to see many stylistic or thematic connections. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that his 18th, The Eel (1997) — which shared last year’s Palme d’Or with Taste of Cherry and opens this week at the Music Box — is the most interesting new movie around: funny, lyrical, provocative, imaginative, and consistently entertaining. That it happens to be Japanese is incidental to its interest, though I suppose a lot of people won’t go to see it because it isn’t in English. (I suspect the problem isn’t so much xenophobia as habit; most Americans have never seen a subtitled movie and probably regard the prospect of seeing one as work.)
It’s been a truism for quite some time that the Japanese cinema is in terrible shape, financially and aesthetically (particularly now that Akira Kurosawa has died) — though it’s not clear to what extent one should believe the overseas commentators who sift through the available evidence.… Read more »
This comes from my Spring 2010 DVD column in Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Hipsters/Stilyagi. I include the Russian as well as the English title of this big-budget, post-modernist 2008 Russian musical about teenagers, directed by Valery Todorovsky, because as far as I know, the Russian DVD, sans subtitles, is the only version available, at least on Amazon. This movie was the opening night attraction at the Tromsø International Film Festival in the northernmost reaches of Norway, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary in January, and I must confess that I didn’t expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did, especially because it could be described with fair accuracy as the Russian equivalent of Rob Marshall at his cheesiest, set in 1950s Moscow, and is full of preposterous plot developments. But then again, shame on me, I also enjoyed watching Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine, even after loathing every minute of Chicago, so maybe you shouldn’t trust me. All I can say is that I sufficiently enjoyed Hipsters, partly for its curiosity value and partly for its sheer pizzazz — without ever imagining that it had anything to do with Russian history or the history of the musical, Russian or otherwise — to order the unsubtitled version of it from Amazon.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1990). Twilight Time has recently released this on Blu-Ray. — J.R.
Glasnost or no glasnost, the cold war still rages here for CIA officials, who manage to ensnare a British publisher and jazz musician (Sean Connery) in a plot to intercept a book by a distinguished Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer); the scientist has spilled the beans about the Soviet defense program, and his book editor (Michelle Pfeiffer) becomes an unwitting pawn in the spy network. Part of what makes this a top-notch thriller (as well as a touching love story) is the literacy and intelligence of the dialogue, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from John Le Carre’s novel; another part is the taut professionalism of director Fred Schepisi, who knows precisely when to cut away to eavesdropping spies or fleeting flashbacks in order to add flavor or tension. But the film has many other virtues as well: the most thoroughgoing and effective use of Moscow and Leningrad locations ever in an American film, a good score by Jerry Goldsmith (with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery’s soprano sax solos), first-rate performances from the leads (Pfeiffer is especially fine), and a well-trained secondary cast including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J.T.… Read more »
I cannot tell a lie: the initial concept and impulse behind this retrospective weren’t my own. More precisely, they grew out of a series of email exchanges between myself and Hans Hurch and/or Alexander Horwath last April. Everything started when Hans proposed that I select a program devoted to American film comedy, “not as a history or anthology of the genre but in a more open and at the same time more concrete way…not [to] just dedicate it to comedy as such but to various aspects, different forms, ideas, and functions of the comic – from the earliest works of American cinema to recent films.”
Over three months later, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve fulfilled this proposal, at least if one can accept a fairly loose definition of “earliest” (i.e., 1919 –- which is already a good quarter of a century into what might be described as the history of American film, describing my own limitations better than the limits of my subject.)… Read more »
Has anyone ever commented on the symmetries between A Letter to Three Wives and The Honey Pot? Having just reseen the former on “the first Saturday of May” (a key phrase in the film) a short time after reseeing the latter, I’m thinking not only of the similar letters sent to three former girlfriends in The Honey Pot, but also of the numerous guessing games and various false-herring clues liberally scattered through the clever dramaturgy of both films, not to mention the respective roles played by Shakespeare (Twelfth Night) in the earlier comedy and Ben Jonson (Volpone) in the latter movie. Of course the differences are just as important as the similarities: the three wives are all friends and the letter sent to them is from an unseen narrator who propels the action; the three girlfriends are rivals and summoned to Venice by a very present Rex Harrison. But the attraction for Mankiewicz of returning to the principle of three women (with an absent temptress and Maggie Smith playing the respective roles as jokers) must have been irresistible. [5/7/22]