From the September 1, 1994 Chicago Reader.
One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. 167 min. (JR) Read more
This is the 11th one-page bimonthly column that I published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it appeared in their March 2009 issue. — J.R.
Tomorrow I start teaching the final semester of a course and film series I’ve been offering at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute devoted to world cinema of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. To provide a segue between the Depression of the 30s and the 40s, I’ll be starting with a double feature devoted to economic desperation, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945).
Two of the most popular films I showed last fall were Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (1932) and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). I selected them before last year’s economic recession started, and the congruence and relevance of certain themes — remorse about warfare and spurious patriotism, crowded family apartments and neglect of the elderly — probably added to their appeal. But the contemporary impact of films is always difficult to predict. I’m convinced that a significant part of what inspired Clint Eastwood to make Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima was the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but this relevance wasn’t discussed in the press. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
The fascinating thing about this award-winning feature-length documentary (1996) by Duan Jinchuan from mainland China is that it often seems to approximate the work of Frederick Wiseman in showing us the everyday workings of contemporary society — although the society in this case is one we generally know little about. The focus here is on a neighborhood committee in Lhasa, Tibet, where citizens go to settle family disputes, petty thieves and other delinquents are chastised and advised, community finances are computed, and street vendors are regulated, among many other activities. This doesn’t register like a thesis-driven film, though the preparations for an official ceremony celebrating the Chinese occupation of Tibet towards the end certainly has its creepy side, and one that implicitly rhymes with the other forms of patriarchal rule that one has witnessed in most of the preceding segments. (JR) Read more