From the Chicago Reader, October 29, 1995.
As the Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second week, two more films with distributors have been added to the list. Persuasion — a thoughtful, intelligent adaptation of the Jane Austen novel that provides a welcome alternative to Merchant-Ivory — is replacing Deathmaker and is being handled by Sony Pictures Classics. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, filling the “surprise” film slot, is on all counts the dumbest Hollywood movie I saw in Cannes last May — an egregious Tarantino spin-off with everything the mainstream press is screaming for: a simple (even stupid) contrived plot, intimations of deranged and nonsensical violence, macho stances, movie stars, a fancy title, and the Miramax logo. It has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with someone pointing at Reservoir Dogs and saying, “Let’s have another one of those.” Under the circumstances, I guess the performances are OK.
Last week I suggested that the focus of this year’s retrospective, Lina Wertmuller — the recent recipient of the festival’s Golden Hugo for lifetime achievement — was a bizarre choice that might have been made interesting if the festival had issued a monograph explaining why her work was still worth defending or had some special relevance to the 90s. As a sort of substitute gesture, the festival flew in John Simon, Wertmuller’s biggest defender, who solemnly informed at least one gathering that she had produced four masterpieces, more than any other artist in the history of Italian cinema — unlike Antonioni, responsible for only three, De Sica (only two), de Seta (one), Fellini (two or three — I forget which), and Visconti (one or two, ditto). Rossellini didn’t rate even a mention, which suggests either that Simon had actually troubled to see all of his films (highly unlikely) or that he was dismissing them all on the basis of those he had seen. Simon claimed that Wertmuller’s four masterpieces were Love and Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi, Swept Away, and Seven Beauties (which is showing this week) without explaining why. He didn’t mention what any of the other Italian masterpieces are, but clearly a simple scorecard suffices — plus our knowing that he knows. He did explain that Wertmuller wasn’t a feminist but something much more important, namely a humanist — her humanism presumably linking up with his own.; Writing in New York magazine a few years back he celebrated AIDS for eliminating so many bad playwrights and for improving the health of Broadway, and recently in the New York Times Book Review he celebrated the consummate artistry of his other favorite woman director, Leni Riefenstahl, with her own related ideals of perfection. So those of us who want to know what relevance Wertmuller has to the 90s now have the faint glimmerings of an answer.
On a brighter note, my two favorite festival films are showing this week, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Good Men, Good Women and Oja Kodar and Vassili Silovic’s Orson Welles: The One-Man Band. Hou’s film is extremely unlikely to get a U.S. distributor (none of his films has yet, even though he’s conceivably the greatest director now working in Asia); Kodar and Silovic’s may or may not, but either way it isn’t likely to be back in these parts before next year. Other recommendations include Stanley Kwan’s Red Rose White Rose, Helena Solberg’s Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, Jorge Fons’s Midaq Alley, Mario Martone’s L’amore molesto, and Persuasion (unless you want to wait for its commercial run).