Reposted to mourn the death in 2015 of a titan, at age 106. From the July-August 2008 Film Comment, with the subhead “Negotiating the singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira on the eve of his 100th birthday “. — J.R.
The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
— Manoel de Oliveira, “Cinematographic Poem,” 1986 (translated from the Portuguese)
Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.
— Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991
To insist that all great filmmakers contain multitudes is to risk a counter-response — that the same might equally be said of the not-so-great. Just as much labor can be expended on bad work as on good, and this applies to the labor of viewers and filmmakers alike.… Read more »
From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Andrew Marlowe
With Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.
Apart from Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s enjoyably auteurist swan song, Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Hollow Man, was the only summer Hollywood release I’d been looking forward to. For one thing, I’d hoped it would give me an opportunity to reassess his previous works, most of which I now think I underestimated when they were released.
I was pretty hospitable to Total Recall (1990), but I awarded a black dot to Basic Instinct (1992), mainly because I was incensed about the calculations of Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million script (I’m leaving aside Verhoeven’s Dutch movies because the only one I’ve seen is The 4th Man). I declined to review Showgirls (1995) at length, noting somewhat puritanically toward the end of my capsule: “I suppose the overall theory is that male spectators will tolerate any amount of stupidity and unpleasantness for the sake of acres of tits and ass, but you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for putting such a theory to the ultimate test: if anyone emerges from this with a smile on his face he must hate women as much as this movie does.”… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1977, Vol. 44, No. 516. Both this film and Mekas’s earlier diary film Walden (1969) have been released together on a Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. –- J.R.
Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost
Director: Jonas Mekas
Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c /p/sc/ph–Jonas Mekas. addit. ph–Charles Levine, David Brooks, Peter Beard, Ken Jacobs. Part in colour. ed–Jonas Mekas. m/songs–including piano music by Chopin, “Abschied” by Schubert, traditional Lithuanian music, “Kiss of Fire” by Lester Allen, Robert Hill, excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal”,“How Deep Is the Ocean” by Irving Berlin, music by Lucia Dlugoszewski. sd/narrator–Jonas Mekas. with–(Reels 1-6) Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas; (Reel 2) Prof. Pakstas, Juozas Tysliava, Stepas Kairys, Zadeikis, George Maciunas and family, Faustas Kirsa, Aleksandra Kasuba, Vytautas Kasuba, Vladas Jakubenas, Jeronimas Kacinskas; (Reel 3) Gideon Bachmann, Dorothy Brown, Sidney Grief, Lily Bennett, Storm De Hirsch, Louis Brigante, George Fenin and son, Arlene Croce, Edouard de Laurot, Ben Carruthers, Leo Adams, Sheldon Rochlin, Frances Starr, Robert Frank, Peter Bogdanovich, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Bremser, Ged Berliner, Dick Bellamy; (Reel 4) Gretchen Weinberg, Herman Weinberg, Dick Preston, Dwight Macdonald, Shirley Clarke, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Robert Hughes, Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, David Stone, Jules Feiffer, Naomi Levine, David Reynolds, Paul Goodman; (Reet 5) Peggy Stefans, Herman Weinberg, Gretchen Weinberg, Marty Greenbaum, Peter Beard, Ed Emshwiller, David Stone, Taylor Mead, Sheila Finn, P.… Read more »
Commissioned by MUBI for late October, 2019. — J.R.
In Sara Driver’s too small yet varied filmography, her two fiction features, both poetic fantasies — Sleepwalk (1986) and When Pigs Fly (1993) — are bracketed by two other longer films, the 48-minute You Are Not I (a brilliant adaptation of a Paul Bowles story about sisters, narrated by a schizophrenic, 1981) and the 78-minute documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017). Sleepwalk stars Suzanne Fletcher, who also played the schizophrenic sister in You Are Not I; Boom For Real portrays both a highly interactive community and an eclectic artist inside it, which might also describe When Pigs Fly, a comedy inspired by Topper about a jazz pianist (Alfred Molina) living in an east coast port town populated by barflies and ghosts. Moreover, the community in Boom is basically Lower East Side Manhattan and more specifically the Bowery, the setting of Sleepwalk, as well as the New York neighborhood where Driver has lived with Jim Jarmusch for well over three decades. (She produced his first two features, and plays one of the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die.)
I’ve known Driver since the 1980s, and suspect that one reason why she hasn’t become better known is that she’s both a woman and a surrealist, a combination that isn’t widely recognized in this country. … Read more »
I wrote the Preface to this 1973 article in 2009 for its eventual reprinting in Kazan Revisited, edited by Lisa Dombrowski (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011). Note (early 2013): My favorite Kazan film, Wild River, has been released on Blu-Ray, and it looks better than ever. — J.R.
Preface (2009): Rereading this essay 36 years after I wrote it for Richard Roud’s two-volume critical collection, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – The Major Filmmakers (New York/The Viking Press, 1980), I can’t say that many of my positions or preferences regarding Kazan’s work have changed. But in a few cases I’ve been able to amplify some of my original impressions. For my 2007 essay “Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful: A Personal Survey” (to be reprinted in my 2010 University of Chicago Press collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephila), for instance, I discovered that Kazan hired speech consultant Margaret Lamkin for his stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and then again for Baby Doll, to ensure that all the southern accents heard were letter-perfect. And the significance of Kazan having given the names of former friends or colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 — not in 1954, as my article stated — became a more prominent feature in his career profile when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, almost half a century later, from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.… Read more »
This appeared in the August 22, 2003 Chicago Reader, and has more recently been reprinted in the excellent Camera Lucida. On the afternoon of September 17, 2014, in Sarajevo at the Film.Factory, I screened this for the MA students and assigned them to create five-minute remakes. We screened most of the results nine days later at a party, and they were really dazzling — and all quite different from one another. — J.R.
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Written by Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura
With Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Nagase, Kan Hanae, Mikijiro Hira, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Yeong-he-Han, and Jan Woudstra.
Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure that I understand it? I think so, since understanding is always relative and less than clear-cut. Look long enough at the apparent meaning of any conventional work — past the illusion of narrative continuity that persuades us to overlook anomalies, breaks, fissures, and other distractions we can’t process — and it usually becomes elusive. Yet it’s also true that we have different ways of comprehending meaning. I once watched some children listen to passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, possibly the most impenetrable book in the English language, and saw them burst into giggles, plainly understanding better than the adults that this was exactly the way grown-ups talked, only funnier.… Read more »
The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.
To explain why Lee Chang-dong’s extraordinary Poetry (2010) is my favorite Korean film, I first need to confess to a feeling of alienation from a good many other South Korean films and what I regard as their excessive reliance on rape and serial killers as subjects. Admittedly, these themes are by no means restricted to South Korean cinema or even more generally to Asian cinema, but they also help to account to my resistance to such highly praised European touchstones involving rape as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (both 1960), and such American films regarding serial killers as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Ethan and Joel Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007). The tendency of all these films to exploit and/or sentimentalize these subjects is scrupulously avoided by Lee and handled throughout with tact, delicacy, and a finely nuanced sense of development in its heroine’s ethical and aesthetic consciousness. Consequently, Poetry offers a profound social critique by addressing the theme of rape and its role in Korean society quite directly,
The film centers on the suicide by drowning of a suburban, small-town schoolgirl who had been raped by several of her teenage classmates.… Read more »
How film history gets rewritten
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I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.
What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor!
Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them. — J.R.
Love Me Tonight
There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls —- the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers — the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope #16 (Fall 2003). — J.R.
One of the more fascinating things about the linguistic options of DVDs in relation to their nationality is how often they confound expectations. It would appear that few countries show more indifference to other countries and their languages than the U.S., yet the DVDs with the greatest number of subtitling and dubbing options are often those on American labels. Conversely, when I visited Japan twice in the late 1990s, I was impressed by the cottage industries devoted to teaching foreign languages, which ranged from prime-time TV shows teaching conversational “business” English and Spanish to bilingual movie scripts sold in bookstores, some of them packaged with videos of the same films. But my recent efforts to hunt for Japanese DVDs with English or French subtitles have been in vain -— which is all the more frustrating when I come across listings for box sets devoted to Kiarostami and Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.
Attending Cinema Ritrovato, an archival film festival, in Bologna last summer, I went hunting for Italian DVDs and quickly discovered that those with Italian movies almost never come equipped with English subtitles (the restoration of The Leopard, which I noted in my last column, is a rare exception).… Read more »
The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Jonathan Rosenbaum at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014. Mr. Rosenbaum and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.
I’m the odd person out in this gathering because I’m not an academic, although I teach periodically in various, most often relatively unacademic, situations. And plus, I could be described as a failed academic. Before I came to Chicago I was teaching for four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but prior to that I actually began my failed academic career in the U.S. where Robert Pippin had his background, at UC San Diego. And in between I was an adjunct at NYU, at the School of Visual Arts, etc.
My academic background, actually, was in English. I was an English major as an undergraduate and in graduate school I did everything but a dissertation in English and American literature. But then I went to Europe and ended up being a journalist. And the reason why is that I had reached the point of alienation in graduate school where I was actually making a point of reading college outlines rather than the literary texts because I didn’t want them ruined — I wanted to read them in my own time, whereas what they needed in terms of my papers could better be fulfilled by reading the college outlines than by actually reading the texts.… Read more »
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Written for Criterion’s laserdisc release of Parade and apparently posted on its web site (criterion.com) — at least if it had a web site that early — on March 31, 1991. — J.R.
It seems incredible that it’s taken seventeen years for a film as truly great as Parade — Jacques Tati’s final work — to become available in the U.S., and that it’s reaching the public, for the first time, on laserdisc. But old habits die hard, including our biases about technology as well as spectacle. Tati was the first major filmmaker to shoot a feature in video, and he brought to this challenge the same sort of innovative craft that he brought to the movie — although the technical options available in video in 1973 were far from what they are today. He began by shooting with an audience at a circus in Sweden for three days, using four video cameras. Then, he spent 12 days in a studio reshooting portions of the stage acts on film.
The first “gag” in Parade takes place in front of a theater and is so subtle it hardly qualifies as a gag at all. A teenager in line picks up a striped, cone-shaped road marker on the pavement and dons it like a dunce cap; his date laughs, finds another road marker, and does the same thing.
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1993). — J.R.
Bill Murray plays an obnoxious TV weatherman from Pittsburgh forced to relive the same wintry day in a small Pennsylvania town over and over again until he gets it right, in an unexpectedly graceful and well-organized comedy (1993) directed and cowritten by Harold Ramis. While the movie’s underlying message is basically A Christmas Carol strained through It’s a Wonderful Life — hardly a recommendation in my book — the filmmakers mercifully spare us the speeches and simply demonstrate their thesis; as they do they reveal their true virtue: a fluid sense of narrative that works the story’s theme-and-variations idea with a glancing and gliding touch. Considering that none of the characters is fresh or interesting, it’s a commendable achievement that the quality of the storytelling alone keeps the movie watchable and likable. With Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott. PG, 103 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the February 26, 1999 Chicago Reader. July 2014 postscript: This fascinating and neglected film, still my favorite among the Nobuhiro Suwa features that I’ve seen, has become available on a French DVD released by Capricci — see the first image below — albeit with (optional) French subtitles only. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Nobuhiro Suwa
Written by Suwa, Eri Yu, and Hidetoshi Nishijima
With Yu, Nishijima, and Makiko Watanabe.
The first feature of Nobuhiro Suwa, a director of TV documentaries in his mid-30s, 2/Duo (1996) is the penultimate work in the Doc Films series “Japanese Cinema After the Economic Miracle: Masaki Tamura, Cinematographer.” Having seen only one other film in the series — Shinsuke Ogawa’s remarkable two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the lives of farmers protesting the construction of Japan’s biggest airport, Narita: Heta Village (1973) — I can’t give a comprehensive account of Tamura’s work. But judging from these two very different features, I suspect I might recognize his shooting style without seeing his name in the credits. Though Narita: Heta Village is a documentary and 2/Duo a fictional narrative, the style of both displays a highly intuitive engagement with the characters, expressed most clearly in the way Tamura places and moves his camera in relation to them, neither anticipating their actions nor dogging them, but navigating the spaces they occupy with an intelligence that manages to project empathy as well as independence — a rare combination.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2001). Today (September 2, 2014), having recently reseen this movie, I’d probably give it a higher rating. — J.R.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Elizabeth Berkley, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, and David Ogden Stiers.
I don’t want to oversell Woody Allen’s 31st feature, which I happen to like. The script is full of holes, most of the one-liners are weak and mechanical, and the plot — a nightclub magician gets two of his hypnotized subjects to steal jewels for him — is so deliberately stupid and contrived that one can probably enjoy it only by pretending it’s a routine, low-budget second feature on an old-fashioned double bill, which is obviously what Allen intended. Yet it’s possible for a picture to be not very good and still be likable — something that doesn’t happen very often for me with Allen’s pictures. (It happened, momentarily, in Everyone Says I Love You — when Allen exposed his vulnerability by singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love.”)
The problem with most escapism nowadays is that even if it makes you forget who and where you are, it doesn’t really detach you from norms of the world you’re living in.… Read more »