From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1994). This is also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
*** ED WOOD
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
With Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, George “The Animal” Steele, and Vincent D’Onofrio.
*** PULP FICTION
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino
With John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, and Tarantino.
[The media] ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it.
— Serge Daney, Sight and Sound
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. — Orson Welles
In Vamps & Tramps, Camille Paglia’s latest collection of sound bites and press clips, one finds an extended account of her long-term obsession with Susan Sontag, including the following nugget: “She is literally being passed by a younger rival, and she’s not handling it, I’m afraid, very gracefully. . . . I am the Sontag of the 90s, there’s no doubt of it.” Read more
Written for the 2022 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Because I miscalculated the requested word length, this is much longer than the version that they wound up using.– J.R.
Dare I say it? John Waters may be the closest thing North Americans have to a contemporary successor to Mark Twain, especially if we regard the latter figure more as a multifaceted public entertainer than as an artist (which is indeed how Twain’s contemporary audience generally perceived him)—in other words, most often as a genial host, and not exactly as a poet. This helps to account for why Pink Flamingos, the deliberately sleazy 1972 feature that made Waters famous, owed the greater part of its fame to the fact that it ended with a chubby drag queen named Divine (named after the hero[ine] of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, whom most of the star’s fans most likely never read or even heard of) gobbling up dog shit. And because Waters’ gifts as a writer and standup humorist have always tended to surpass and overwhelm his talent as a film director — something that was already apparent in Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (1981), the first of his many entertaining books–we remember his early films more for their eccentric cast members and their cockeyed premises than for the style of their mise-en-scene. Read more
With Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Dashon Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Nona Gaye, and Michael Pena
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Renny Harlin
Written by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin
With Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Val Kilmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Kathryn Morris, Christian Slater, LL Cool J, Patricia Velasquez, and Cassandra Bell
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Robert Luketic
Written by Anya Kochoff and Richard LaGravenese
With Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, and Wanda Sykes
We tend to make trade-offs between reality and fantasy when we watch movies, buying into some questionable premises because we want to honor others. Despite shared assumptions and conventions, we have different thresholds for what we find believable — or an acceptable version of what’s real. We’ll settle for a certain amount of contrivance, but our tolerance has limits, determined in part by age, taste, and experience and in part by whether we like the rest of the movie enough to stretch our standards. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1992). For more on Endfield, see Brian Neve’s excellent new biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, as well as my subsequent Reader article about him and my essay “Pages from the Endfield File,” which grew out of the preceding two pieces and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. This particular piece has been upgraded in terms of illustrations. — J.R.
FILMS BY CY ENDFIELD
The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people — and himself first of all — with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved. — Jacques Rivette in an interview, circa 1967
Cyril Raker Endfield, who will turn 78 this November, is the sort of filmmaker auteurist critics like to call a “subject for further research.” To the best of my knowledge, he has directed 21 features — the first 7 in the United States between 1946 and 1951, the remainder in England, continental Europe, and South Africa between 1953 and 1971 — and worked on the scripts for most of them, as well as on the scripts of two Joe Palooka films (apart from the two he directed), a Bowery Boys picture (Hard Boiled Mahoney, 1947), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948), a prison picture called Crashout (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), and Zulu Dawn (1979), a sort of prequel to Endfield’s only hit, Zulu (1964). Read more
This obviously wouldn’t be an appropriate time to revive my negative review of Hopper’s Colors in the Chicago Reader 22 years ago, which can easily be accessed by anyone who might be interested. But I’d like to reproduce a couple of short paragraphs from it about my favorite Hopper film, which I continue to cherish:
To make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me, I recently took another look at Hopper’s previous film, Out of the Blue (1980). Here was proof, if any is needed, that a celebrated burnt-out case came back to establish himself as the legitimate American heir to the cinema of Nicholas Ray — a cinema of tortured lyricism and passionate rebellion that reached its fullest flower in the 50s, as if to match the action painting that was roughly contemporary with it. Hopper managed to remake Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (the film in which Hopper made his acting debut) in terms of a working-class punk (Linda Manz), an androgynous heroine whose grim fate suggested an Americanized version of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. Casting himself, moreover, as her dissolute father, Hopper gave himself a disturbing part that seemed to update his role as Billy in Easy Rider. Read more
Written in response to the following invitation from Diego Moldes Gonzalez(whom I’ve never met) in Madrid: “What is the definition of ‘culture’ for you? How is the culture of the 21st century similar and different from the culture of the 20th century?” This was revised slightly on November 22. — J.R.
As a beneficiary of both Internet culture and the imperial culture of the United States (which becomes imperial whenever it vainly calls itself American culture, which is often, thus implicitly appearing to enfold much of North America and all of South and Central America as secondary satellites), I continue to be subject to the market-driven capitalist culture that strives to pick the pocket of my unconscious and thereby invisibly steer my purchases (or, more precisely, the events that constitute my being purchased), defined as my existential identity. Thus, because I’m defined as an anti-Trumpian, the media fills me with anti-Trump rather than the desired absence or disappearance of Trump. In other words, Trumpians and anti-Trumpians get served two alternate versions of the same exclusive diet of Trump and daily coronavirus casualty figures, popularly known as the daily news, and choosing between these two unvarying diets is being deceptively labeled a form of democratic choice and a representative form of “American culture”. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 497). — J.R.
Caso Mattei, Il (The Mattei Affair)Italy, 1972
Director: Francesco Rosi
27 October, 1962. The private plane of Enrico Mattei, president of ENI (Ente Nazional Idrocarburi), flying from Sicily to Milan, crashes in Bascape, killing the pilot Bertuzzi, the Time-Life reporter McHale and Mattei himself. An account follows of both the investigation into the causes of this accident (a mystery that remains unsolved) and of Mattei’s public career, revealing that diverseindividuals and organizations (from the Mafia to the CIA) had reasons for wanting to see him dead. His controversial position grew out of his efforts to use his state oil organization, AGIP, to compete with private individuals, and to deal with Third World oil-producing countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) in terms more advantageous than the 50-50 arrangement offered by the major oil companies. This project began in April 1946, when a small methane deposit was discovered in the village of Caviaga, and Mattei decided to exaggerate and exploit its value as a coal substitute in order to create his organization and gain an economic and political foothold. In the investigation running parallel to a re-enactment of his career (the latter culminating in his visit on the day of his death to Gagliano, Sicily, where he is acclaimed as a popular hero), Mauro De Marro, a Sicilian journalist reconstructing the last day of Mattei’s life for the purposes of the present film, suddenly disappears, apparently kidnapped — another unsolved mystery. Read more
From The Soho News (July 2, 1980). This was my first encounter with the delightful and inspired couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi,subsequently known for their wonderful found-footage films, e.g. From the Pole to the Equator (1987) and Prisoners of War (1995). — J.R.
One interesting thing about aesthetic hybrids — movies with smells, or jazz posing as film criticism — is that nobody knows what to do with them, critics included. Whether these unusual and unlikely yokings represent examples of useful, exploratory or merely wishful thinking is essentially a matter of personal taste. In the two instances under review, a crucial factor in determining one’s taste is packaging, pure and simple — how and where an audience gets placed.
Apart from isolated experiments — including a recent one by Les Blank, reportedly utilizing the odors of red beans and rice — it seems that commercial efforts to link smells with movies have mainly come in two separate, pungent waves. A couple of early talkies, Lilac Time and The Hollywood Revue, played around with the idea in a few theaters; the latter, a plotless musical, climaxed with a snoutful of orange scent to go with “Orange Blossom Time,” performed by Charles King and the Albertina Rasch ballet company. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 2000). It’s delightful to report that this film is now available in the U.S. from Icarus Films. — J.R.
One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Chris Marker.
Industry flacks claim that Hollywood movies have been dumbed down out of commercial necessity — they’re just giving audiences what they want. I don’t buy it. Audiences aren’t being offered intelligent movies, or at least those aren’t the ones getting multimillion-dollar ad budgets. This was especially the case during the past summer, though as usual, most of the press tolerantly excused the fare as standard silly-season stuff — as if we and not the industry and their advertisers were responsible. The flacks may love to shift the blame by telling us how dumb we all are, but their contempt finally may be causing a minor counterreaction.
Difficult, demanding, and incorrigibly serious art movies have been becoming more popular — though that may be less the result of a backlash against Hollywood than of a growing awareness that the makers of art movies are more respectful of the seriousness, intelligence, and spirituality of moviegoers. The first solid indication of this trend I noticed was the nationwide success of the Robert Bresson retrospective, which came to the Film Center in the spring of 1999 and drew enough crowds to warrant a partial revival of the series a few months later. Read more
Prividenie, Kotoroe ne Vozvrashchaetsya
(The Ghost that Never Returns)
Director: Abram Room
In an unidentified South American country, José Real is serving a life sentence for having led an oilfield workers’ strike ten years earlier. After another prisoner breaks away from guards to tell him that the prison governor has a letter from his wife, and then leaps to his death, Real leads a revolt among the prisoners. The governor orders that they be sprayed with hoses; the revolt subsides, and Real is locked into a narrow cupboard. Conferring with the chief of the secret service, the governor recalls the regulation whereby a prisoner who has served ten years is entitled to one day’s liberty and decides to grant this to Real, with the understanding that he will be killed at the day’s end for trying to ‘escape’. After being shown his wife’s letter and hearing from a newly arrived prisoner that a new strike is planned at Hillside Well, Real agrees to go. Five days later – after news of his imminent arrival has reached his family, their neighbors and the oilfield workers — he sets out, warned that no one who has taken this leave has ever made it back alive. Read more
From Film Society Review (Vol. 4, No. 5, January 1969) — the first magazine, apart from school and college publications, where I ever published film criticism, for a total of three issues. This was my third and final piece for them. — J.R.
THE AMERICAN CINEMA: DIRECTORS AND DIRECTIONS 1929-1968, by Andrew Sarris, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968. 383 pp. $7.95, $2.95 (paperback).
Ever since it came out, I have been stubbornly holding on to the Spring 1963 issue of FILM CULTURE, which features a 68-page extravaganza by Andrew Sarris entitled THE AMERICAN CINEMA. ‘Extravaganza’, is not, I think, an overblown word to use here: the program includes detailed descriptions, evaluations and filmographies of over 100 film directors, with a supplementary list of more than 150 “Other Directors” and a “Directorial Chronology” of American films from l9l5 to 1962. At the time, the very fact that one man had seen enough movies to reach this kind of astronomical overview was staggering enough. Just as challenging — and in its own way, unnerving — were the nine categories under which the first hundred-odd directors were pigeon-holed: “Pantheon Directors,” “Second Line,” “Third Line,” “Esoterica,” “Beyond the Fringe,” “Fallen ldols,” ”Likable But Elusive,” “Minor Disappointments” and “Oddities and One Shots” — an almost metaphysical ordering of the American movie universe that looked so painstaking it was painful — and rather threatening, I believe, even to some of the most veteran of moviegoers. Read more
From American Film (February 1979). This article was specifically conceived as a sort of sequel/companion-piece to “Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three Innovators,” an article published in American Film almost half a year earlier. This plan was undermined in various ways by the editors, who gave it a title derived from a middle-class French comedy of the period (“Jean-Luc, Chantal, Danièle, Jean-Marie, and the Others”) that caused Akerman herself to reproach me for the piece (assuming that I’d dreamed up that title myself). I no longer recall what my original title was, but I’ve tweaked this piece in a few other minor ways to make it a little less unbearable to me. (By and large, most of my articles written for American Film qualified at least partially as hackwork done to pay my rent.) — J.R.
If American avant-garde films are often chancy to come by, even the most exciting European examples are apt to be regarded in this country as only distant legends. To cite one characteristic but scarcely isolated phenomenon: The welcome once given by the New York Film Festival to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet hasn’t been extended to any of their recent films, and none of the movies of Chantal Akerman has have ever been shown here. Read more
The Spanish monthly film magazine that I write for, Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, invited me in the summer of 2019 to expand on my latest column for them as well as a few Facebook posts about Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Here is the result. — J.R.
Has 9/11 or the war on terror had any impact on you personally or creatively?
9/11 didn’t affect me, because there’s, like, a Hong Kong movie that came out called Purple Storm and it’s fantastic, a great action movie. And they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a giant skyscraper. It was done before 9/11, but the shot almost is a semi-duplicate shot of 9/11. I actually enjoyed inviting people over to watch the movie and not telling them about it. I shocked the shit out of them. But, again, I was almost thrilled by that naughty aspect of it. It made it all the more exciting.
But on some level you must have been caught up in the reality of 9/11.
I was scared, like everybody else. “OK, what is this new world we’re going to be living in? Is it going to be fucking Belfast here?” And I didn’t want to fucking fly nowhere. Read more