Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Shot by Nestor Almendros on location in Georgia (partly in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, which seems appropriate), it follows the absurdist progress of a man who trains fighting cocks (Warren Oates in one of his best performances) and who takes a vow of silence after his hubris nearly puts him out of the game, though he continues to narrate the story offscreen. Produced by Roger Corman as an exploitation item for the drive-ins, this performed so badly in that capacity that it was recut and retitled more than once (as Born to Kill, Wild Drifter, and Gamblin’ Man). But as a dark comedy and closet art movie, it delivers and lingers. With Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, and Troy Donahue. 83 min. (JR)Read more
Monthly Archives: July 2022
From the January/February 2013 Film Comment. — J.R.
The Forgotten Space
Allan Sekula & Noël Burch, U.S.
A mind-bending essay film about sea cargo in the contemporary global economy, filmed mainly in four port cities (Bilbao, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Rotterdam) and what the filmmakers call “the industrial hinterland in south China and the transport hinterland in the heart of Holland.” Too political for mainstream taste, obligatory for everyone else.—Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
For Film Comment (January-February 2013). — J.R.
My first experience of Vienna — Christmas 1970 with my girlfriend, another American expatriate in Paris — felt mostly like an alienating visit to the lofty tomb of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Apart from The Magic Flute at the Opera and many favorite Bruegels a few blocks away at the Kunsthistorische Museum, the city seemed to belong exclusively to locals, only one of whom I slightly knew — Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Filmmuseum — and after a brief visit to say hello to him, our only cinematic activity was attending a commercial rerun and lousy print of Torn Curtain dubbed into German.
Over a quarter of a century later, thanks to the Viennale, my next encounter with the city was entirely different, introducing me to a vibrant alternative film scene differing from, say, the Rotterdam film festival by virtue of having so many gifted local experimental filmmakers around in the immediate vicinity (among others, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Kubelka, Lisl Ponger, and Peter Tscherkassky) and a much broader age group of passionate cinephiles turning up at the screenings. The latter scene was clearly the creation of such programmers as Alexander Horwath (Kubelka’s successor at the Filmmuseum and a onetime Viennale codirector) and Hans Hurch, a former assistant to Straub-Huillet who has been the Viennale’s inspired director since 1997. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1988). Having seen the gorgeous new restoration of this film a little over three decades later, it looks even better now, although my demurrals remain the same. — J.R.
WINGS OF DESIRE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Wenders and Peter Handke
With Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk.
They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam,
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Angels”
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels who hover over, swoop across, and cruise through contemporary Berlin in Wim Wenders’s new feature, eavesdropping on the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants like readers browsing through the books in a library. They are not angels in the conventional sense of blessed or fallen souls; rather they are more or less the angels of Rilke’s poetry — the imaginary beings that dominate his first two Duino Elegies and that, according to Rilke, have more to do with “the angelic figures of Islam” than they do with Christianity.
All of which may make Wings of Desire seem esoteric and forbidding to moviegoers who, like me, have only a glancing acquaintance with Rilke, speak no German, and have never before heard of “the angelic figures of Islam.” Read more
From the June 6, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Le samourai Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville
With Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Jean-Pierre Posier, and Catherine Jourdan.
The Birth of Love Rating *** A must see
Directed by Philippe Garrel
Written by Garrel, Marc Cholodenko, and Muriel Cerf
With Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Johanna Ter Steege, Dominique Reymond, and Marie-Paule Laval.
If much of French cinema can be said to derive from the famous Cartesian phrase “I think, therefore I am,” why does it yield so many realistic movies? Certainly fantasy remains central to a good deal of French art, past and present, but if you compare the films of early pioneers like the Lumiere brothers to those of Thomas Edison, you might conclude that the French have a certain edge in seeing clearly what’s right in front of them. I found that of the dozen French movies I recently saw in Cannes and Paris, six were strictly realist in a way that few American features are: a cheerful Pagnolian hand-me-down (Marius and Jeannette), a Blier road movie for grown-ups (Manuel Poirier’s Western), Manoel de Oliveira’s moving French-Portuguese self-portrait, which features Marcello Mastroianni’s last performance (Voyage to the Beginning of the World), an experiment in first-person camera involving adultery (La femme defendue), a mysterious meditation on rural French punks (deceptively titled The Life of Jesus), and a spirited comedy by and with Brigitte Rouan (Post-coitum, animal triste). Read more
From the Spring 1972 issue of Film Comment; this is also reprinted, with a lot of contextual material, in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (where I’ve also retained my original title — not used by Film Comment, who ran it as an untitled review). I’m still hugely embarrassed by the assertion early in this piece that “[Kael’s] basic contention, that the script of KANE is almost solely the work of Herman J. Mankiewicz, seems well-supported and convincing” — a howler if there ever was one. I’m not sure if this would qualify as a valid excuse, but this was the first lengthy essay about film that I ever published. My joint audio commentary with Jim Naremore on Criterion’s new KANE box set addresses some of Kael’s more dubious factual and critical assumptions.
Recently I‘ve been reading Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael, and I’m very pleased that he’s up front about the serious flaws of “Raising KANE,” factual and otherwise — but also disappointed that Kellow is unaware that “The Kane Mutiny” — signed by Peter Bogdanovich, and the best riposte to Kael’s essay ever published by anyone — was mainly written by Welles himself. (See This is Orson Welles and Discovering Orson Welles for more about this extraordinary act of impersonation.) Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1984 (Vol. 51, No. 611). In retrospect, I’m rather proud of the synopsis here, which must have been a bitch to put together. -– J.R.
Colloque de chiens (Dogs’ Dialogue)
Director: Râúl Ruiz
Cert–AA. dist–BFI. p.c–Filmoblic/L’Office de la Création Cinématographique. p–Hubert Niogret. asst. d–Michel Such. sc–Nicole Muchnik, Raul Ruiz. ph—Denis Lenoir, Patrice Millet. In colour. still ph–Patrice Morère, Mario Muchnik. ed–Valeria Sarmiento. m–Sergio Arriagada. cost–Fanny Lebihan, Yves Hersen. sd. rec–Michel Villain. sd. re-rec–Paul Bertaud. English version/English commentary—Michael Graham. French version/French commentary–Robert Darmel. l.p–Eva Simonet, Silke Humel, Frank Lesne, Marie Christine Poisot, Hugo Santiago, Geneviève Such, Laurence Such, Michel Such, Pierre Olivier Such, Yves Wecker, the dogs of the Gramont refuge. 1,938 ft. 22 mins. (35 mm.)
The film alternates three kinds of material: footage of barking dogs, shots of streets and other locations, and the following story, illustrated chiefly by a series of stills (and occasionally by shots in motion) and narrated off-screen: Monique discovers in a school playground that the woman she believes to be her mother isn’t her mother. At home, she learns that her real mother is a woman named Marie, who doesn’t know who her father was. Read more
Commissioned by Arrow Video for their box set The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection, vol. III, released in summer 2022. -- J.R.
“Capitalism is the plague. Criminals are its gods.” --Fassbinder during the German trailer of Gods of the Plague
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was only twenty-four when he made his first four features in 1969, the third of which was Gods of the Plague. Years later, when he compiled a list of what he believed were his ten best features, Gods of the Plague made it into fifth place. The only other very early film on this list was his seventh feature, Beware of the Holy Whore — one of the six feature-length works he made in 1970 -– which figured in first place.
An inveterate list maker who plainly enjoyed that somewhat adolescent pastime, Fassbinder also ranked his ten favourite films made by others (topped by Luchino Visconti’s The Damned) and his ten favourite actresses and actors, both in the films of others and in his own films: Marilyn Monroe, Hanna Schygulla, Clark Gable, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. He also plausibly put himself at the top of his list of the ten most influential German New Wave directors.
One can argue that early Fassbinder is very much a matter of certain raw and irreducible basics – including the contradictions that would haunt the remainder of his prolific oeuvre, which ended, sadly yet predictably, with his drug-fueled death in 1982. Read more
I can’t speak for Jim Hoberman. As nearly as I can remember, I simply coined the phrase in order to group together several countercultural westerns — which included, by the way, some of the novels of Rudy Wurlitzer as well as some movies.
I’ve lost track of when I originally posted this, but it may have been on March 21, 2012. In any case, the English version of this collection is now available. — J.R.
This book has clearly been a long time coming. Like Pedro Costa and (the otherwise very different) Alain Resnais, Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet should be regarded as film critics and film historians who aren’t really writers in any ordinary sense. (Resnais’ critical and historical gifts, I would argue, are mainly apparent in his films rather than in his interviews.) When I curated the last American retrospective of Straub-Huillet’s work to date almost thirty years ago, the accompanying catalogue of essays that I put together to accompany this event, partially with their advice and assistance, included a lengthy section entitled “Straub and Huillet on Filmmakers They Like and Related Matters,” drawn from a dozen separate sources and translated, when necessary, by me — not always gracefully, I’m sorry to say. (I’ll be posting my lengthy Introduction to this catalogue a couple of days from now.)
Although it’s beyond my current means to reproduce the entirety of “Straub and Huillet on Filmmakers They Like and Related Matters” here (I wish I could), I can offer a sampling from it below, some of which appears in their original French in Écrits (e.g., Read more
This is a story initially written, as I recall, during the summer of 1959, as I was preparing to leave Alabama for a boarding school in Vermont, although the version I’m posting here, most likely revised, was printed in the school’s literary magazine in June 1961, around the time of my high school graduation. I’ve done some light editing. The illustrations, which I realize are not always precisely congruent with the story, are gleaned from the Internet. This story is the last in a series of three to be posted on this site, all fantasies and all written when I was in high school . — J.R.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
It happened near the end of summer, which is when I guess a lot of changes take place. The three of us, Mickey, George and I, were out at Mickey’s family camp on the lake, swimming and doing our best to forget that we only had two more days before we went off to start our first year at college.
The sun was hot and white that day, but the lake was dark and cool. Read more
Written for the FIPRESCI web site in Spring 2007. — J.R.
Now that 35-millimeter appears to be a format whose pleasures are being overlooked or forgotten, especially in the realm of short films, the sensual pleasures of Amit Dutta’s 22-minute To Be Continued (Kramasha) seem all the more precious. A good many of these have a lot to do with camera movements (tracks and pans and cranes, which include not only Resnais-like explorations of architectural ruins and ancient statuary, but also, at one strange juncture, semicircular, pendulum-like oscillations around portions of a tree, on the edges of which many people are seated); multilayered deep-focus compositions reflecting diverse aspects of the same ruins (with door frames and window frames often serving as lenses, and eccentric overhead angles often predominating); vibrant colors; and a musical feel for editing.
It must be admitted that this surfeit of delights poses certain narrative problems for some spectators. On a first viewing, one has the impression that some of the narrative premises keep shifting and developing so rapidly that one often feels stranded. But the principal reason for this is that the viewer’s imagination is constantly being solicited to add details to the onscreen images: when one hears sounds (thunder and rain, a purring cat) that don’t correspond to what one sees, yet another layer to the complex mix is added. Read more
I find it astonishing, really jaw-dropping, that Midge Costin’s mainly enjoyable Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound can seemingly base much of its film history around a ridiculous falsehood — the notion that stereophonic, multi-track cinema was invented in the 70s by the Movie Brats, Walter Murch working with his chums George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who finally allowed the film industry to raise itself technically and aesthetically to the level already attained by The Beatles.
In other words, let’s forget all about the stereo sound used by Walt Disney in some of the theaters showing Fantasia (1940) and then the multi-track speakers heard in hundreds of other theaters across the country throughout much of the 50s showing scores of films in CinemaScope, Cinerama, and Todd-AO, by pretending that none of this ever happened or existed. In its place we get a new version of events in which Apocalypse Now becomes the pioneering feature that did for Hollywood something like what The Jazz Singer did decades earlier. Or so we’re seemingly asked to assume.
To be fair, this documentary isn’t so much concerned with film history per se as it is with introducing a general audience to what sound work in commercial cinema consists of, and the creative contributions made by a few talented individuals–tasks it performs pretty well. Read more
Though Pere Portabella is a major talent in experimental narrative film, working atypically in 35-millimeter, he’s still relatively unknown because his early features could be shown only clandestinely in Franco’s Spain and none is commercially distributed. The Silence Before Bach is his most pleasurable and accessible film to date, above all for its diverse performances of the title composer’s work. Gracefully leapfrogging between fact and fiction in at least two centuries and several countries, it recalls some playful aspects of his Warsaw Bridge (1989) while juxtaposing past and present as if they were attractions in a theme park. In Spanish, Italian, and German with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)
George Stevens’s overblown, Oscar-laden adaption of An American Tragedy (1951, 122 min.) is hopelessly inadequate as a reading of Dreiser’s great novel, and as usual Stevens seems too preoccupied with the story’s monumentality to have much curiosity about its characters. But William C. Mellor’s cinematography and the star power of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor manage to keep this going. Michael Wilson and Harry Brown wrote the script, and Shelley Winters gives a good performance in a thankless part. (JR) Read more