From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). Alas, I’ve never been any sort of Shakespearean scholar, and if I’d read the devastating take-down of this film by Ron Rosenbaum (no relation) in The Shakespeare Wars, published the following year, I’m sure I would have been far less tolerant….It’s worth adding, however, that Ron Rosenbaum isn’t any sort of Orson Welles scholar when he accepts the 1997 version of his Othello as a “restored” version — or when countless other commentators call the 2014 perpetuation of that version, with Welles’ own choices of music and sound effects replaced by uninformed simulations, any sort of “restoration”. (Welles’ own two versions of Othello — that is to say, with his own soundtracks — were thoroughly suppressed until Criterion eventually released them both.) — J.R.
Director Michael Radford (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Il postino) begins his adaptation of the Shakespeare play with a precise date and a brief documentary about anti-Semitism in 16th-century Venice; this doesn’t have much to do with the playwright or his audience, but it provides a social context for what follows. Al Pacino avoids his usual bombast, giving his Shylock some shading, and Jeremy Irons is fine as Shylock’s legal opponent, Antonio.… Read more »
It was shocking to learn that Harun Farocki (January 9, 1944 – July 30, 2014) died at the age of only 70. According to Artnet, he made over 90 films. He will be sorely missed.
From the Chicago Reader (February 14, 1992). — J.R.
FILMS BY HARUN FAROCKI
The paradox is that Farocki is probably more important as a writer than as a filmmaker, that his films are more written about than seen, and that instead of being a failing, this actually underlines his significance to the cinema today and his considerable role in the contemporary political avant-garde. . . . Only by turning itself into “writing” in the largest possible sense can film preserve itself as “a form of intelligence.”
— Thomas Elsaesser, 1983
The filmography of Harun Farocki — a German independent filmmaker, the son of an Islamic Indian doctor — spans 16 titles and 21 years. To the best of my knowledge, only one of his films (Between Two Wars) has ever shown in North America before now. A traveling group of 11 films put together by the Goethe-Institut began showing in Boston last November and this April will reach Houston, the last of the tour’s ten cities.… Read more »
A reprint from the Taipei Times (October 13, 2014), with different illustrations. For the record, I don’t think it was betel nuts that I was chewing at Hou’s 1991 party; what I recall was a kind of barklike Taiwanese form of speed. — J.R.
Narrating Taiwanese identity
The Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image educates American film buffs about Taiwanese history and identity
By Dana Ter / Contributing reporter in New York
The year was 1991. American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was experiencing his first authentic night out in Taipei at a late night karaoke party hosted by renowned Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢). Fueled by bottles of cognac and a generous supply of betel nuts, the duo belted out Beatles songs until 3am before stumbling home.
Having reviewed Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, 1986) and A City of Sadness (悲情城市, 1989) for the Chicago Reader, long-time film critic Rosenbaum was no stranger to Hou’s work. But being in Taipei for the Asia-Pacific Film Festival gave him a better appreciation of the local culture, history and setting.
“I was able to spend my 19 days there less as a tourist than as a part of everyday life in Taipei,” said Rosenbaum, who was in New York this past week for the retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” at the Museum of the Moving Image.… Read more »
With Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mia Kirshner, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanjian, and Sarah Polley.
The saddest parts of Exotica — Atom Egoyan’s lush and affecting sixth feature, a movie inflected like its predecessors by obsessive sexual rituals and desperate familial longings — are moments when money awkwardly changes hands. This film is every bit as allegorical as his Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Calendar — and every bit as concerned with a need for family surrogates as Next of Kin and Family Viewing — but it is only incidentally a movie about capitalism and its ability to pervert personal relationships. It does involve voyeurism, corruption, and a form of prostitution; all these things are conventionally associated with capitalism, but they’ve been around much longer.
Exotica has plenty to say about the modern world, including the psychological, social, and racial (even colonial) ramifications of “exotic” sexual tastes, but class difference isn’t a significant part of its agenda either. The personal and professional links forged between individuals — and there are very few relationships in this movie that aren’t both personal and professional — all seem predicated on forms of barter, as well as the assumption that everyone is, or eventually becomes, either a substitute for a missing family member or a virtual double for someone else.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 4, 1991). — J.R.
Previously released only in Europe, expatriate Samuel Fuller’s powerful and corrosive masterpiece about American racism — his last work shot in this country — focuses on the efforts of a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to deprogram a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Very loosely adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a memoir by Romain Gary and set in southern California on the fringes of the film industry, this heartbreakingly pessimistic yet tender story largely concentrates on tragic human fallibility from the vantage point of an animal; in this respect it is like Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, and Fuller’s brilliantly eclectic direction gives it a nearly comparable intensity. Through a series of grotesque misunderstandings, this unambiguously antiracist movie was yanked from U.S. distribution nine years ago partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it is one of the key American films of the 80s. With Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, and, in cameo roles, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Christa Lang, and Fuller himself (1982). (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, midnight)
This review of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934) first appeared in the August 7, 1992 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman
With Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Helen Vinson, Clarence Muse, Raymond Walburn, Walter Connolly, Margaret Hamilton, and Frankie Darro.
Though it’s surely a coincidence, the theatrical rerelease of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill and the simultaneous publication of Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success are mutually enhancing in a number of ways.
Capra’s 1934 Christmas release was made for Columbia, bought by Paramount, and withdrawn from circulation over 40 years ago, when Capra was preparing a remake called Riding High (1950) — a Bing Crosby musical with virtually the same plot and dialogue that was so unmemorable that despite numerous TV screenings the film critic for the Boston Globe claimed last month that it had never been made at all. The much feistier Broadway Bill, by contrast, has never turned up on TV, and apart from a few archival airings has remained unseen for over half a century. A breezy if edgy racing comedy laced with some serious ingredients, it isn’t nearly as good as The Bitter Tea of General Yen or It Happened One Night, both of which preceded it, but on the other hand it isn’t as cloying as the worst parts of its successors Mr.… Read more »
Commissioned by New Lines magazine the day that Godard died (September 13, 2022), and published by them without this title two days later. — J.R.
“He wasn’t sick. He was simply exhausted,” someone close to Jean-Luc Godard told the French newspaper Libération. But not so exhausted that he couldn’t confound his public, including his fans, one last time, by deciding to end his life by assisted suicide — that is to say, to end it nobly, willfully and seriously, even existentially, rather than fatefully and inadvertently.
Godard was hated as much as Orson Welles by the commodifiers who could find no way of commodifying his art, of predicting and thereby marketing his next moves as they could with a Woody Allen or an Ingmar Bergman or a Federico Fellini. And in the end he fooled us one last time by following his own path rather than ours. Was his way of dying a selfish act? Yes and no. It yielded an honest and considered end rather than an involuntary one; it tells us who he was (and still is).
I first encountered Godard’s work when I was 17 and saw À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) in New York. But I didn’t meet him in person until 1972, when I tried to interview him and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Paris about their co-directed Tout va bien (Just Great).… Read more »
Written for the U.K. journal Underline in July 2018. — J.R.
In mid-July 2018, I had the honour and privilege of helping to launch an ambitious lecture series in English at the Iranian National School of Cinema – at their attractive and comfortable new headquarters, built only a couple of years ago – by giving a week of daily two-hour lectures about film criticism. Other guest lecturers over the next several months will include Dina Iordanova from Scotland, art historian Marion Zilio from France, Dudley Andrew from the US, Jean-Michel Frodon from France, Paolo Mereghetti from Italy, Carlos F. Heredero from Spain, and Raymond Bellour from France. Several Iranian film critics will also be featured.
The hundred or so students who applied to enroll in this moderately priced series had to take an exam testing their knowledge of film history and their proficiency in English, and roughly a quarter of these applicants were accepted. This winnowing out of applicants proved to be quite efficient in yielding a group of students who were appreciative of such contemporary filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr, and Andrei Tarkovsky and able to write the sort of English that communicated in spite of some uncertain grammar.… Read more »
My column in Cinema Scope No. 82, Spring 2020. — J.R.
On “A Melody Composed by Chance…” — an excellent new audiovisual analysis of Jacques Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) on the BFI’s Blu-ray of the film, written and narrated by Geoff Andrew and deftly edited by this disc’s producer Upekha Bandaranayake — I’m grateful to Andrew for correcting the gaffe in my booklet essay claiming that the film’s offscreen ax-murder victim is the Lola (Anouk Aimée) of Demy’s first feature, who subsequently turns up in Model Shop (1969); in fact, it’s the much older Lola-Lola of Josef von Sternberg’s first Marlene Dietrich feature. The other notable extras on this release include “feature-length” audio interviews with Demy (by Don Allen), Michel Legrand (by David Meeker), and Gene Kelly (by John Russell Taylor), Agnès Varda’s essential documentary Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (1993), and a fact-filled, critically acute audio commentary by Little White Lies’ David Jenkins — I especially like the way Jenkins cross-references this film with Varda’s underrated Le Bonheur (1965), another film that posits dark ironies behind the Hollywoodish dreams it celebrates.
I find it astonishing, really jaw-dropping, that Midge Costin’s mainly enjoyable Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019),available on aUK DVD on the Dogwoof label, can seemingly base much of its film history around a ridiculous falsehood: the notion that stereophonic, multi-track cinema wasinvented in the 1970s by the Movie Brats — basically Walter Murch, in concert with his chums George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola — finally allowing the film industry to raise itself technically and aesthetically to the level already attained by The Beatles in music recording.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 2003). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, Claude Lelouch, Youssef Chahine, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Amos Gitai, Mira Nair, Sean Penn, and Shohei Imamura
Written by Makhmalbaf, Lelouch Chahine, Tanovic, Ouedraogo, Paul Laverty, Vladimir Vega, Gonzalez Inarritu, Gitai, Marejos Sanselme, Sabrina Shawan, Penn, and Daisuke Tengan.
It was probably inevitable that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were immediately seen as a blow against America rather than as crimes committed against humanity, the world community, or even just the people, many of whom were not American, who happened to be occupying three particular buildings. We deduced from the reported beliefs and intentions of the terrorists that America and what it represented to them was the desired target. But the willingness to privilege this vision over every other possible understanding of the tragedy may be dangerous. It even suggests a certain ideological defeat, because it has allowed the enemy to set the terms of the conflict.
The reflex is understandable. “Humanity” and “world community” are abstract. “America” is also abstract but feels closer to home. Because it’s familiar, it’s treated as if it were the only reality, as if it were, in fact, the world.… Read more »
Film India: Indian Film Festival Museum of Modern Art, through August 23
Buster Keaton Film Festival Lincoln Plaza, through September 19
Directed for Comedy Regency, through October 17
Honky Tonk Freeway Written by Edward Clinton
Directed by John Schlesinger, opens August 21
AUGUST 7: The first movie I see for this column isn’t a light comedy, but it sure puts me in a sunny mood. The prospect of a three-hour Indian film in Temil with no subtitles is a little off-putting, I would say -– wouldn’t you? On my way into the sparsely populated auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art this afternoon, I hear not one but two separate senior citizens crack jokes about what a nice opportunity this is for a nap.
And yet, just as Indian film buff Elliott Stein has predicted, I have surprisingly little trouble following the plot and action of Chandralakha (1948). The quaintly illusionistic charm of a black-and-white movie like this, about a good and bad brother vying for the throne in a mythical kingdom – with a large palace protected by a drawbridge –- is part of its primal pull from the beginning.… Read more »
A program note for the Pacific Film Archive, April 5, 1983, to launch a program I selected entitled “Institutional Qualities and Casual Relations: The Avant-Garde Film Today”, put together with the help of Edith Kramer. Most of the films in the series were related to both my book Film: The Front Line 1983, published around the same time, which includes separate chapters on both Sara Driver and Leslie Thornton, and the two courses I was teaching concurrently as visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley Film Studies Department. — J.R.
You Are Not I and Adynata 7:30
Two very different and accomplished films about female identity, Sara Driver’s You Are Not I (1981, 50 min.) and Leslie Thornton’s Adynata (1983, 30 min.) are both dialectically conceived; there the resemblance ends. The first is a very close adaptation of a Paul Bowles story written in the late 1940s, filmed in black and white [cinematography by Jim Jarmusch], about a psychic and territorial war fought between two sisters, one of them a schizophrenic. The second is a non-narrative film about the ideological configurations and semiotic constructions of the East as seen by and filtered through the West, particularly in relation to the female figure — articulated through many different kinds of found material and variable film stock.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2005, slightly tweaked in 2014). Now that this is out on Blu-Ray, the Technicolor seems every bit as luscious to me as it must have when I was age six, and the periodic prophecies (“His name will be written in the Book of Judges”; “Men will tell his story for a thousand years”) are no less indelible. — J.R.
If you can tolerate the hokeyness and appreciate the unabashed sado-masochism and bondage fantasies, you’re likely to find this 1949 feature one of Cecil B. De Mille’s most enjoyable sword-and-sandal epics, delivered with his characteristic showmanship. Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr are the title characters, backed by George Sanders and Angela Lansbury, but the real attractions are the kitschy spectacle (lions, collapsing temples) and De Mille’s special way with religion, sex, and violence. 128 min. (JR)
One of the most debilitating facets of contemporary media discourse, at least in the U.S., is the unspoken assumption that serious discussion about such topics as torture, mass murder, and slavery can only enter the mainstream public sphere once it becomes tied to the sale of a current movie, regardless of how inane or or superficial or inadequate its treatment of that subject might be. If our discussion of American slavery can essentially be licensed by Django Unchained, which appeared to be the case last year, then I suppose 12 Years a Slave could be regarded as a partial corrective, even after one factors in the restrictive aspect of focusing on the relatively exceptional case of a non-slave forced to become a slave for many years. For me, the treatment of slavery as something relevant to both the present and more than just the U.S., in Pedro Costa’s sublime Sweet Exorcist (his half-hour episode in Centro Historico), is a more valid corrective and carries much greater force, not least because it has some access to poetry –- which, I would insist, is a crucial source of knowledge -– and beauty, and not merely to exploitation-movie assaults.… Read more »
One of the most cherished fantasies in the world of movies is that around this time every year we critics are all dying to think about the best films of the past 12 months — as if listmaking represented some particular populist need for consensus rather than the industry’s desire to resell goods that have already been sold to us again and again (or, in this neck of the woods, to presell goods that haven’t arrived yet).
I’ll admit that one list engenders another, and that once the game starts in earnest, every critic wants to be part of the discussion. But consider some of the drawbacks:
(1) Piles of movies getting released at the end of this year in such a manner that critics (and some audience members) don’t even have time to take them in, much less think about them. (Maybe that’s exactly what the studios want–snap judgment is another practice that serves the industry more than the audience.)
(2) Contortions by critics outside New York and Los Angeles who don’t want to come across as rubes and so vote for movies that most of their readers can’t see yet.