Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.
(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)
Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s. Read more
Written in January 2006 for 1000 Films To Change Your Life, an anthology edited by Simon Cropper for Time Out. — J.R.
Wonder is closer to being a feeling than a thought, and one that we associate both with children and with grown-ups recapturing some of the open-mouthed awe and innocence that they had as children. Many of us experienced some of this as kids watching the classic Disney cartoon features or certain live-action fantasy adventures like King Kong (1933) or Thief of Bagdad (1940).
Other generations, for that matter, might recall feeling a comparable emotion before the vast spaces of the 1916 Intolerance (whose gigantic Babylon set would eventually be redressed for Kong’s Skull Island) or the 1924 Thief of Bagdad or the 2005 King Kong —- or even in that hokey opening line, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Or what about the hushed sense of reverence that we bring to the virgin wilderness of The Big Sky (1952), whose very title expresses our feeling of astonishment? It’s a primal emotion, particularly as it relates to cinema in the old-fashioned sense: 35-millimeter projection in palatial theaters, the screen invariably much larger than us (‘Bigger Than Life,’ as the title of a Nicholas Ray melodrama in CinemaScope has it). Read more
Written for a posthumous tribute to Jill Forbes in the fall of 2001. — J.R.
Reading the apt words of David Edgar and Keith Reader about Jill, I can agree with a paradoxical fact about her that they both touch on in different ways: that she was painfully shy as well as totally fearless. For a long time, I used to think that this singular combination of traits was quintessentially English, but now I’m not so sure; maybe it’s just that Jill embodied and lived this contradiction in a very English way, sometimes even making it seem like it wasn’t a contradiction at all.
Thanks to having saved my appointment books, I can pinpoint precisely when I met her: standing in line to see Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse in Paris, at Studio Action Lafayette, on February 23rd, 1973. When we met again only four days later, it was to see another silent film, Monta Bell’s The Torrent, at the Cinémathèque. We saw lots of films together that spring, including Superfly, Shanghai Gesture, An Affair To Remember (which made me cry and which she and her brother Duncan both thought was a hoot), A Day at the Races, Forbidden Planet, and Suspicion. Read more
After recently having caught up with Alain Resnais’ magisterial Vous n’avez encore rien vu, I belatedly discovered from diverse sources on the Internet that “Axel Reval,” the credited cowriter on both this film and Les herbes folles, is in fact a Resnais pseudonym, making it a typically sly acknowledgment of the personal nature of his filmmaking, which has been an essential part of his work since the 1950s. Remember the glimpse of the Mandrake the Magician comic strip found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Toute la mémoire du monde? One could even argue that the fact that personal moments of this kind tend to be veiled or masked in Resnais only makes them more intense, as they sometimes are in the films of Sternberg. (Claude Ollier’s alternate title for The Saga of Anatahan: My Heart Laid Bare.)
Indeed, it might make an interesting exercise to run through Resnais’ oeuvre picking out such intense but half-hidden and fleeting details spelling out his personal investments in the films. Read more
Jean-Luc Godard: The drama is no longer psychological, but plastic . . .
Michelangelo Antonioni: It’s the same thing.
— from a 1964 interview
Just for my own edification, I’ve put together a list of the 12 greatest living narrative filmmakers — not so much personal favorites as individuals who, in my estimation, have done the most to change the way we perceive the world and are likeliest to be remembered and valued half a century from now. The names I’ve come up with are Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Alain Resnais, and Ousmane Sembene.
Only five have had their most recent feature distributed in the U.S. — Bergman, Bresson, Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Sembene. Fellini may have recently earned a special Oscar, but that doesn’t mean we can expect to see his latest film anytime soon, and though Godard’s next-to-last feature, Nouvelle vague, has finally come out on video, that doesn’t mean we can expect to see it properly, on a big screen.
We can, however, see nearly all of Antonioni’s work — 14 of his 15 feature films and most of the dozen or so shorts — in brand-new prints at the Film Center this month and next. Read more
If memory serves, I wrote this for the Chicago International Film Festival’s catalogue in 2003 after I selected it as a Critic’s Choice to be shown at that festival. — J.R.
My first encounter with the stupefying talent and singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira — who turns 95 this December, and has been making at least one remarkable feature a year since 1990 —- was in 1981, when I saw his 1978 masterpiece Doomed Love, one of the greatest literary adaptations in the history of cinema. And when I had a chance to explore his work further, it was Carl Dreyer, the greatest of all narrative filmmakers, whom de Oliveira seemed to resemble the most: an eccentric, obsessive modernist who managed to make about one feature per decade during the sound era after starting out in silent cinema. At least that’s how it looked in the early 80s, when Doomed Love was only his fifth feature, and the film that immediately preceded it, Benilde (1975), was especially evocative of Dreyer in its spiritual ambiguity and its stylistic intensity, including its unabashed theatricality. It was adapted from a play of the mid-40s by José Régio — a writer who had enormous personal importance for de Oliveira, having written passionately about his first film, Douro, faina fluvial (1931), and then gone on to become a treasured friend and role model. Read more
Written in May 2021 for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s July catalog. — J.R.
A chorus girl (Nancy Carroll) marries a much older tycoon (Frank Morgan) but can’t break her ties to a dour, bitter sculptor (Glenn Anders, whose suicidal character here could have encouraged Orson Welles to cast him as the funnier but equally creepy Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) and a chipper pianist-composer (Fredric March at his most energetic).The fact that we can’t even tell whether Laughter (1930) has a happy ending may be the best—or at least the most interesting–thing about it.
It may be the closest Hollywood ever came to the sophistication and autocritical narcissism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flapper prose, complete with all its sad ambivalence about extravagance and glitter. Shot in Paramount’s Astoria studio only a few months after the Wall Street crash, it was clearly ahead of its time, anticipating screwball comedy, Donald Ogden Stewart’s Marxism, and comic dialogue with domestic gender reversals by several years. A melancholy farce put together by privileged partygoers who knew how to superimpose their morning hangovers over the giddy evening shenanigans that produced them, it feels personally expressive of at least two of the three men credited for the Oscar-nominated original screenplay: director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, Stewart, and perhaps even the lesser-known Douglas Doty. Read more
Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.
MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.
RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.
MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?
The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable. Read more
Commissioned by DVD Beaver, and published by that site in February 2010. I’ve updated or added a few links, delighted to report that all the unavailable items can now be accessed in some form or another.I was inspired to repost this after just reseeing Sternberg’s sublime Dishonored in Criterion’s handsome new Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood box set. I’ve also just reseen the lovely if politically incoherent Shanghai Express in the same package, and I wonder if it’s possible that the relative neglect accorded to Dishonored, by cinephiles and academics alike, may have something to do with the fact that it’s the Hollywood feature of Dietrich and Von Sternberg that has the most to say about the real world — not only because it begins and ends in Vienna, but also because, as an antiwar statement that a prostitute can do more for her countryman than a female spy can do for her country, it has the most effective strategies for combining genre elements with personal fantasies and moral convictions, in part through its diverse metaphors regarding art (Dietrich’s piano playing as it serves both passion and state) and glamor (a sword blade used as a makeup mirror in the final scene).
This appeared in the August 16, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. I more recently had occasion to return to this film and some of my thoughts about it when I joined David Kalat to do an audio commentary on the expanded (and now nearly complete) version of Metropolis for the English DVD of Masters of Cinema. In fact, the essay below was used by Masters of Cinema in the accompanying booklet of their previous edition of the film, and an updated version of this piece appeared in the next one. — J.R.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou
With Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, and Heinrich George.
The internationalism of filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages. To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us.
We will realize it! — Fritz Lang, in an article published in 1926
Lang’s utopian rallying cry, written in Germany during the editing of Metropolis, is well worth recalling today. Read more
It’s delightful to have Kino’s new “deluxe” edition of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood romanticism, glamor, and lushness (as well as Technicolor), based on the film’s 2009 restoration, which I saw and Bologna and wrote about a little over a year ago. But while watching this edition’s extended comparison of the original with the restored version, I’m somewhat taken aback by the fact that the film I remember seeing in 1951, when I was still in grammar school, is closer to the unrestored version:
It’s obvious that the restored version is superior in terms of definition, lighting, and color. But rightly or wrongly, I remember the film in 1951 as being darker, at least in my mind’s eye — a film bathed in black more than auburn hues.
Could this be a matter of Proustian self-deception? Or could it point to a significant change in the film that I originally saw? I wish I knew.[7/8/10]
Although it’s belatedly become available on Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (along with two other particular favorites, The Big Heat and 5 Against the House), Murder by Contract (1958) doesn’t quite qualify as an undiscovered gem. But it’s certainly neglected in terms of some of its singular virtues, including a sharp Zen-like wit and a minimalist style. And what tends to be most neglected is its satirical treatment of business as murder. This is a theme it shares with Monsieur Verdoux — which makes it all the more fitting that a climactic sequence of the film was shot in Chaplin’s old studio lot, on what remains of an exterior set used for The Great Dictator.
At least two of the main creative talents working on this black comedy about capitalism, director Irving Lerner and uncredited screenwriter Ben Maddow, were blacklisted leftists, and the terse portrayal of a hitman (Vince Edwards, the star) as an independent contractor working hard to buy a house on the Ohio River to share with his unseen girlfriend — a sort of Haliburton or Blackwater operative avant la lettre, hired by an equally unseen Cheney, and calmly regarding his work like a self-improving Zen master — is at times downright hilarious. Read more
From the Winter 2019 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Since I don’t have much investment in parsing Arnaud Desplechin’s arsenal of “personal” references, I had to look elsewhere for the intermittent pleasures of Ismaël’s Ghosts (2017), available on a two-disc Blu-ray from Arrow Films. I often find myself so hard put to navigate Desplechin’s multiple allusions to and borrowings from Philip Roth and Woody Allen (for me, the most overrated and least interesting members of his overstuffed pantheon), much less those from James Joyce, Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Mailer, and Alain Resnais, that I have to forsake any sustained effort to rationalize how these and countless other figures could all belong to the same curious tribe of role models. Maybe this is because Desplechin appears to regard these touchstones as sacred talismans more than as meaningful or helpful artistic influences. Apart from naming László Szabó and Louis Garrel’s characters “Bloom” and “Dedalus,” respectively, it’s difficult to determine how much he’s actually learned or adapted from Ulysses—and when he combines nods to both Ulysses and Vertigo (1958) in the name of Marion Cotillard’s character “Carlotta Bloom,” the whole thing begins to seem like the silliest kind of fool’s game. As for Ismaël himself (Mathieu Amalric), is his name supposed to start us thinking about Moby-Dick, the Bible, or maybe both? Read more
This article was commissioned by the Torino Film Festival to accompany a John Cassavetes retrospective in November 2007, and was published there in a substantial catalogue/collection in Italian translation. I’m sorry I can’t do a better job of illustrating this: apart from some pictures of Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Carol Kane, there are no appropriate images available to me. I’m grateful, in any case, to Jim Healy and Emanuela Martini for asking me to write this. — J.R.
Cassavetes’ Prelude and Postscript: The Original Shadows and A Woman of Mystery
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I consider myself unusually fortunate in having been able to see the original version of Shadows in January 2004. Shot in the spring of 1957 and screened publicly only four or five times, the first completed version of the first film of John Cassavetes had been considered irretrievably lost for almost half a century.
More specifically, I saw the first of two public projections at the Rotterdam International Film Festival of a good video transfer of the rediscovered 16-millimeter print, presented by Ray Carney, the man who rediscovered the print. After these two screenings, objections were raised by Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, with the result that subsequent public screenings have been forbidden by her. Read more
One of the standard charges leveled against Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was that it was preaching to the converted. I don’t think this is entirely true: Moore credits himself with helping to turn this country against the war in Iraq, and if we look at when the opinion polls started to shift, his claim doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted. The sad fact is that his screed scored in part because it delivered some basic facts about the aftermath of 9/11 that the mainstream news media had failed to put across.
For better and for worse, Moore’s Sicko scores for similar reasons. It spends more than two hours attempting to preach to the unconverted that (1) this country’s health care system is a disgrace, especially when it comes to medical insurance, and that (2) it could easily be much better. There are fewer jokes this time around, and Moore makes a point of not even appearing on-screen for a good 40 minutes, putting more emphasis on his arguments and less on his comic persona.
It’s an honorable tactic and the arguments are strong. But when he finally turns up in the flesh, there’s something even more rancid than usual about the way he plays dumb. Read more