And which way is that? Surely not the gay way if it’s any way at all. All the characters in these awful 1950s Herman and Katnip cartoons, at least all the mice and the single predatory and macho cat, are male, and sex is the very last thing on their minds. The cat wants to eat the mouse and the mouse wants to torture the cat, but rightly or wrongly, neither eating nor torturing is being presented as a sexual activity. Territorial privilege and imperial dominance are what’s on the limited menu.
He’s the bravest mouse we know,
Herman’s quite a guy.
Can a mouse be a guy? If not, why not? tFiffle-diddle-dee, fiddle-diddle-day,
It’s just like a holiday,
Fiddle-diddle-dee, fiddle-diddle day,
Herman’s come to stay.
Come to stay where, exactly? In this episode, he and the other mice are actually on a train bound for Florida, “the vacation paradise,” on the “southern route” (Indeed, this particular cartoon is called “Rail-rodents”.)
Katnip, now bagless, but stretched out with a pillow on a slat directly below the mice’s RR car, is still in pursuit. So if he’s left the house, so has his prey.Read more
This column for the 100th issue of Caimán cuadernos de cineis (Enero 2021) is basically an excerpt from and preview of a much longer essay about Kira Muratova written for the English feminist journal Another Gaze, and scheduled to run in its next issue early this year. Note: Arsenii Kniazkov has pointed out to me that Muratova is Ukrainian, so calling her Russian is a bit like calling Ousmane Sembene French.– J.R.
What is most provocative and sometimes pleasurable in both art and life can also sometimes be most maddening and aggravating. Kira Muratova’s films provide a good illustration of this principle because they have a disconcerting way of flirting with us and then slamming a door in our faces, sometimes even simultaneously. I’d like to suggest here that there’s a meaning and message behind her seeming madness — that a double-edged attitude of love/hatred towards both repetition and various institutions that promote an overall sense of continuity, security, and coherence, including family and the state, lies at the heart of her cinema, accounting for much of its bipolar energy.
In her Chekhov’s Motives (2002, also known as Chekhovian Motifs), perhaps the strangest and most aggressively eccentric of all her black and white features, her incantatory uses of repetition are especially evident. Read more
Since I regard Claude Chabrol’s quintessentially French La femme infidele (1968) as one of his greatest films — making it all the more unfortunate for us (and fortunate for the authors of this remake) that it’s been unavailable for years — I was fully prepared to detest the Adrian Lyne version. Yet for roughly the first half of this 124-minute feature, I was pleasantly surprised, especially by the decisive shift in emphasis from husband to wife. Diane Lane, as the unfaithful wife of Richard Gere, gets to show off her magnificent legs at every opportunity — especially but not exclusively on her trips from her suburban home to the Soho loft of a young French hunk (Olivier Martinez) who sells rare books — and Lyne’s fancy cutting, honed on and still often resembling TV commercials, keeps this sensual in a way that the Chabrol movie never was. But then violence, guilt, and the husband’s viewpoint take over, Lane’s legs are sheathed, and the movie doesn’t have a clue about how to proceed. The original was a classically balanced and ultimately very satisfying work held in place by Chabrol’s love-hatred for bourgeois domesticity; the remake doesn’t reflect anyone’s love or hatred for anything, just a lot of anxiety about test marketing, which means it takes a nosedive when it goes shopping for an ending (I counted several, all of them ham-fisted). Read more
From Paris Journal, Film Comment, Summer 1972 (excerpt). –J.R.
Nearly two decades have elapsed between the making of Samuel Fuller’s PARK ROW and its premiere at the Cinema Mac-Mahon. In the interim, Fuller has gone from being a cause célèbre in France to a critical industry in England, where no less than three books on his films have already appeared. A major limitation of this overkill, which is threatening to “assimilate” Douglas Sirk as its next victim, is its absolute humorlessness — a quality that was rarely present in Godard’s or Luc Moullet’s writing on either director in the 50s. Reviewing Sirk’s A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE, Godard affirmed that “ you have to talk about this kind of thing…deliriously, you can be quietly, or passionately delirious, but delirious you have to be, for the logic of delirium is the only logic that Sirk has ever bothered about.” In addition to being about as delirious as the London Times, most of the English writing about Sirk and Fuller suffers from myopia as well. Compare Moullet’s three half-pages on Sirk’s THE TARNISHED ANGELS (Cahiers du cinéma #87) to Fred Camper’s 25 pages in the recent Sirk issue of Screen: the former, for all its giddiness, develops a persuasive stylistic link between Faulkner’s rhetoric and Sirk’s mobile camera; the latter, for all its sobriety, fails to mention the words “Faulkner” or “Pylon” even once. Read more
Trying to figure out why this interminable, hammy piece of Russian nostalgia by Nikita Mikhalkov (director, cowriter, associate producer, and star) won the Oscar for best foreign film of 1994 and the grand jury prize at Cannes, I came up with four hypotheses: (1) there are no Asians in it; (2) set over one long summer day in the country in 1936, it provides a wake-up call about the dangerously underhanded doings of Joseph Stalin; (3) the hero appears to be well over 60; and (4) the elegiac Chekhovian style recalls Ingmar Bergman by way of Woody Allen, thus making the film seem trebly familiar. Indeed, apart from intermittent bursts of Edouard Artemiev’s bombastic music, this 134-minute period piece offers the ideal opportunity for a long, peaceful snooze. With Oleg Menchikov, Ingeborga Dapkounaite, and Nadia Mikhalkov. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)
Written for the December 2022 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
I’ve recently been working on a book that collects my uncollected film, literary, and jazz criticism, ordering all my inclusions chronologically so that they’re allowed to commingle, meanwhile exploring ways that all three of these art forms (film, literature, music) can inform and reflect one another. Because this project rejects the “targeting” mentality ruling academic presses and their all-powerful publicists—which follows the Reaganite economic principle of exploiting and exhausting markets that already exist, not proposing new ones—it took me some time to find a publisher.
Still more recently, I’ve been rereading Louise Brooks’ informative, thoughtful, and beautifully written Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of essays combining autobiography with criticism, film history with social and fashion history, and even a certain kind of fiction with non-fiction.
The latter combination requires some explanation. While recounting her memories of her own acting in films (especially Beggars of Life and Pandora’s Box) and of Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, the neglected director Edmund Goulding, and the even lesser known Pepi Lederer (lesbian niece of Marion Davies, older sister of screenwriter Charles Lederer, and close friend of Brooks who committed suicide at the age of 25), Brooks renders scenes in such fulsome and intricate detail—extended dialogue, facial expressions and gestures, locations, furnishings, clothes, food and drink at meals—that it quickly becomes apparent that she must be fleshing out whatever she can remember with imagined specifics. Read more
Jonathan Rosenbaum, critic (joinathanrosenbaum.net) and sometime educator (FilmFactory, KinoKlub in Split), United States
The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh, 2022
Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021
Men, Alex Garland, 2022
Potemkinistii, Radu Jude, 2022
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021
I have conflicted relations to all five – even Memoria, the only one I’ve seen twice and which I’m still trying to understand. The Jude film is a short, and the Hamaguchi feature beautifully juxtaposes three formally and thematically related shorts.
The Banshees is the first McDonagh film I’ve halfway liked–much as Tár, its big-city near-equivalent in social critique, is the first Todd Field film I’ve halfway liked. But the facile defeatism of both features depresses me: small-town stupidity and brutality motored by a colossal sense of entitlement, big-city smarts comparably preening and braying through the brutality of celebrity culture. Both register like bad jokes told with enough sarcastic relish and wit to make them sporadically blossom out of their gnarled bitterness into something resembling good jokes
American: An Odyssey to 1947, Danny Wu, 2022. This documentary about Orson Welles’ politics in the 30s and 40s doesn’t even have a distributor yet, but it taught me a lot.Read more
One of Raul Ruiz’s earliest French features — an adaptation of Pierre Klossowski’s autobiographical novel about the conflict between rival doctrinal factions within the Catholic Church — this is also one of his most intractable, though some critics regard it as one of his best. It takes the form of a film within a film, involving the making of a film in 1971 that is an amalgamation of two earlier unfinished films made in 1942 and 1962. Alternating between black and white and color, and shot through with Ruiz’s deadpan humor and his taste for labyrinthine structures, it addresses the quintessentially Ruizian theme of institutions — how they function and how they survive (1977). (JR)
This charming 1958 comedy about witches is never quite as good as you want it to be, but it’s still a lot more entertaining than its director (Richard Quine) and its reputation suggest. Kim Novak is at her most luminous as a good witch who seduces publisher James Stewart away from the woman he expects to marry, and Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold, and Elsa Lanchester all manage to shine as well. Adapted by John Van Druten from his own play; the Candoli brothers, Pete and Conte, provide some dreamy, muted trumpet jazz in a nightclub. If memory serves, and clearly thinking of the two leads, French writer Bernard Eisenschitz once called this an optimistic Vertigo. 103 min. (JR)
Ben Kenigsberg emailed me a few questions on November 27 for a story about the authorship of the Citizen Kane screenplay, tied to the upcoming commercial release of David Fincher’s Mank, for the New York Times. Since I regarded this as a fake issue designed to make a piece of infotainment sound more ‘serious’ than it actually was (which is why I refuse to include a still from Mank here), and despite my knowing that the Times will never print criticisms of its own positions, I responded as follows: :
1. Have you seen “Mank”? If so, what did you think? And if not, what do you think of the idea of the project?
2. How would you explain to readers who know nothing about “Raising Kane,” “The Kane Mutiny” or even “Citizen Kane” itself why the authorship of the screenplay matters (assuming it matters)? Movies drawn from real events take liberties all the time, but what’s different about “Mank,” which implies (with maybe a bit of plausible deniability) that Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for the script, is that it resurrects a debunked idea that has a history and a subtext. Read more
A fascinating 1988 film essay about photography by Harun Farocki. One of Germany’s most interesting independent filmmakers, he combines the freewheeling imagination of a Chris Marker with the rigor of an Alexander Kluge, and has a materialist approach to editing sound and image that suggests both Fritz Lang and Robert Bresson. Central to the argument of this film are some aerial photographs of Auschwitz taken by American bombers looking for factories and power plants and missing the lines of people in front of the gas chambers — which are contrasted with Nazi photographs and images drawn by an Auschwitz prisoner, Alfred Kantor. Farocki’s provocative reflections on these and related matters and his highly original fragmentization and manipulation of music make this an excellent beginning to a long-overdue retrospective of his work, which until now has not been available in the U.S. Farocki will be present for a discussion; cosponsored by the Goethe-Institut. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday, February 12, 7:30,281-8788)
Written in late 2019 for Grasshopper Film’s digital release in 2020 of Pedro Costa’s masterpiece, recently selected as Portugal’s official submission for best international feature at the 93rd Academy Awards. — J.R.
“A film with no commercial prospects whatever,” lamented The Nation’s Stuart Klawans, in the course of his passionate defense, after it won both the Golden Leopard and best actress awards in Locarno and the Silver Hugo in Chicago, among other festival prizes. Soon afterwards, Film Comment announced on its cover, “Pedro Costa’s Breathtaking Vitalina Varela Goes to Sundance,” and it was also declared the best film of 2019 by Roger Koza’s international poll of 169 critics, filmmakers, and programmers, beating even Quentin Tarantino’s very-commercial Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood by eleven votes.
How to explain the appeal of a movie named after a real person, a displaced “non-professional” who is also its star? Or the nature of a film driven by its refusal to separate art from life or fiction from non-fiction — feeling more like a place to visit or a person to hang out with, and less like an event or a story?
Seemingly shared by Film Comment and Klawans is the assumption that the fate of Vitalina Varela is tiedto commerce — something we can assume as well about the fate of Vitalina the person. Read more
Originally posted online in Moving Image Source, December 3, 2010. — J.R.
Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a contemporary comedy chronicling a day spent by American tourists and various locals in a studio-built Paris, premiered in 70 mm (or, more precisely, according to Criterion, 65 mm) in Paris on December 16, 1967; at the time it was 152 minutes long, and over the next two months — under pressure from exhibitors, and to avoid an intermission — Tati reduced the length by 15 minutes.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science fiction adventure that stretches roughly from East Africa in the year 4 billion B.C. to the outskirts of Jupiter around 2002, first opened in Cinerama in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1968, and then, in the same format, in New York the following day and in Los Angeles on April 4, during which time it was 158 minutes long; over the following week, based on his own responses to audience reactions, Kubrick in New York reduced its length by 19 minutes, making it only two minutes longer than the shortened Playtime.
Large-format restorations of both these films, along with David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, are coming this month to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for extended runs. Read more
With Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree, Greg Cruttwell, Abraham Benrubi, and the voice of John Cleese.
GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE 2, Christopher Showerman, Angus T. Jones, Julie Benz, 2003. (c) Walt Disney Pictures.
There’s no getting around it: George of the Jungle is an amiable, highly ingratiating piece of lowbrow entertainment, and the audience of mainly young children and parents I saw it with on Saturday night clearly had a ball. So did I, for that matter. If consumer advice on where to take your kids is what’s needed, change “worth seeing” into “a must-see.” On the other hand, if I — a nonparent — had to choose between seeing it a second time and seeing the black-and-white Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942) for the third or fourth time on video, I wouldn’t blink before selecting the latter. Both movies, as it happens, are comedies — though klutzy George, who swings on vines directly into trees, is an even more ironic version of the noble savage — but there are also major differences between them that I suspect are generational. Read more
My liner notes for the Criterion DVD of the restored, 65 mm version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, written in 2006. This also appears on Criterion’s web site, but, following the cue of an anonymous commentator there, I’ve corrected a confusing error that mysteriously appeared only in this online version of the essay. (It isn’t in the essay that’s included with the DVD.) — J.R.
I suppose it could be argued that I saw Playtime for the first time in ideal circumstances — as an American tourist in Paris. Yet to argue this would mean overlooking the film’s suggestion that, like it or not, we’re all tourists nowadays — and all Americans in some fashion as well.
It’s a brash hypothesis, arguably somewhat middle-class and rooted in the assumptions of the 1960s — but then again, a great deal of what’s known today as “the sixties” can be traced back to the vision and activity of middle-class Americans. I was certainly enough of a middle-class American tourist to find myself bemused as well as amused by this account of a day spent in a mainly studio-built Paris — and sufficiently intrigued by the seeming absence of focal points during several busy stretches to return to the movie a couple of times. Read more