From The Soho News, July 18, 1980. Also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995). — J.R.
John Cassavetes, Filmmaker and Actor Museum of Modern Art, 20 June — 11 July
Nineteen years ago, when I was a high school senior making one of those boring, difficult adolescent transitions — from being a social outcast in my hometown in the Deep South to being a social outcast as a southerner at a New England prep school — I had the good fortune to discover John Cassavetes’s SHADOWS at the New Embassy at Broadway and 46th. It was near the beginning of my spring vacation, which meant that I could return to this movie again and again, during the same week or so when I was getting my first looks at BREATHLESS, THE RULES OF THE GAME, ROOM AT THE TOP, SPARTACUS, THE MISFITS, and TAKE A GIANT STEP.
Art in our time, Harold Rosenberg once wrote, appeals either to other artists or “to introverted adolescents, to people in crises of metamorphosis, a small-town girl who has met an intellectual, a husband forced to give up drinking, a business man who feels spiritually falsified, all these being, like the audience of artists, more attentive to themselves than to the work.” Read more
Written in 2010 for the Cinema Guild’s DVD release of Shirin. — J.R.
It doesn’t do justice to Shirin to call it the most conceptual of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. But it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the most paradoxical. Not the least of its paradoxes is the way that it simultaneously confronts and defies the specter of commercial cinema, qualifying at once as his most traditional feature and his most experimental. By focusing almost exclusively on the fiction of women watching a commercial feature that we can hear but never see — a feature that in fact doesn’t exist, apart from its manufactured soundtrack — one might even say that Kiarostami, an experimental, non-commercial filmmaker par excellence, is perversely granting the wish of fans and friends who have been urging him for years to make a more “accessible” film with a coherent plot, a conventional music score, and well-known actors.
What’s perverse about this is that the plot in question, while drawing from a traditional epic, a medieval romance widely known in Iran, belongs to an unseen and imaginary film whose on-screen spectators are precisely those well-known actors. (Both men and women comprise this imaginary audience of 110 individuals, although the only viewers featured in close-ups are women.) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by James Bridges
Written by Jay McInerney
With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.
Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.
If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 25, 1994). — J.R.
*** SAVAGE NIGHTS
Directed by Cyril Collard
Written by Collard and Jacques Fieschi
With Collard, Romane Bohringer, Carlos Lopez, Corine Blue, Claude Winter, Denis D’Archangelo, and Jean-Jacques Jauffret.
If memory serves, the first time I ever heard of Sylvia Plath was the first time a lot of other people heard of her — in the mid-60s, a few years after she committed suicide, when her posthumous collection Ariel was published. I recall a teacher of mine in graduate school remarking that Plath’s suicide validated her late poetry, implying that if she hadn’t actually taken her own life, poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” wouldn’t have meant as much as they did — indeed, may not even have been “as good.”
The remark offended me at the time, but in retrospect I wonder if in some awful, seldom-acknowledged way my teacher was right. Many of us prefer to believe that works of art should be self-justifying, and therefore demand to be taken on their own terms, without “outside” information, but the fact remains that the hyperactive media and life itself rarely offer us that luxury. Take, for instance, these two consecutive stanzas in “Lady Lazarus” — “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. Read more
From the October 2010 Sight and Sound. I regret a few errors that crept into this piece as originally published, all of which were my own fault and all of which are corrected here. — J.R.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention at the outset that Françoise Romand has been a good friend for over two decades. But I hasten to add that she became a friend because of my immoderate enthusiasm for Mix-Up (1985), her first film — one of the strangest as well as strongest documentaries that I know.
To make matters even more mixed-up, I should also point out that, on the region-free DVD bonus of this hour-long French documentary in English, Françoise, after interviewing herself in French, shows her filming of my talking head in English while I attempt to explain why I find her film so powerful and exciting. What follows represents another try.
Filmed over just twelve days, but recounting a multilayered real-life story that covers nearly half a century, Mix-Up recounts and explores what ensued after two English women, Margaret Wheeler and Blanche Rylatt, respectively upper-middle-class and working-class, gave birth to daughters in November 1936 in a Nottingham nursing home, and the babies were inadvertently switched. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 26, 2005). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
With Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll used to be a commercially surefire package that today seems less automatically reliable. Which is presumably why Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs arrives in Chicago 15 months after its Cannes premiere — during the dog days of summer, when art-house films that distributors aren’t quite sure what to do with tend to surface. Sex is the main course, the side dishes are nine concert performances given by rock bands, and the spices are a few glancing references to cocaine and prescription drugs.
Even though it has few of the narrative elements we usually expect, this 69-minute movie is surprisingly fresh and original. The mise en scene, the editing (by Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross), and the camerawork by Marcel Zyskind keep it lively and attractive. The lighting is often exquisite, and the actors sometimes seem like inspired jazz players.
9 Songs is intermittently arousing, but though the sex is real, it isn’t really porn. Jonathan Romney offers a pretty precise description in the London Independent: “Essentially, 9 Songs bets us that it can make sex stand for all the other things that routinely convey character.” Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1996). — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, and Ngo Vu Quang Hai.
Tran Anh Hung’s first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, redefined what we mean by “inside” and “outside,” architecturally as well as socially and psychologically. The same could be said about the vastly more ambitious and even more impressive Cyclo, which was shot in Ho Chi Minh City — unlike The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in a studio outside Paris — and is set in the present.
The Scent of Green Papaya — the first and so far only Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award — was inspired by the filmmaker’s memories of his mother and was set in 1951 and 1961. Tran said that his next feature would be based on recollections of his father. This led me to expect another period film, which Cyclo isn’t — but there’s no question that it’s a film about patriarchy. The first and last things the 18-year-old hero (Le Van Loc) says offscreen concern his late father — a pedicab driver who was run over by a truck — and there’s the sense throughout that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 2004). — J.R.
A world premiere of the first feature by Peter Thompson, perhaps the most original and important Chicago filmmaker you never heard of, showing with one of his best shorts. Over a decade in the making, El Movimiento (2003, 90 min.) follows the relationship between Don Chabo, a Mayan shaman in Yucatan, and William F. Hanks, the Chicago anthropologist he improbably selected as his sole apprentice, showing how both men think, work, and dream. Thompson’s skill as a poetic organizer and interpreter of disparate materials is even more apparent in his mysterious and provocative Universal Hotel (1986, 28 min.), which tracks his detailed research into photographs of a freezing and thawing experiment conducted in Dachau with a German prostitute and a Polish prisoner. Apart from offering fascinating glimpses into alternative medical practices, both films are profound meditations on the passage of time. (JR)
From Film Quarterly, March 2007, vol. 60, no. 3; reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. Obviously some of this is out of date by now. — J.R.
There’s a part of me that understands perfectly why a
minimalist like Jim Jarmusch and a 19th century figure like
Raul Ruiz won’t have anything to do with email. “You can’t
smell email,” Ruiz once said to me, to explain part of the
reason for his distaste. But I find it tougher to feel
nostalgic about film criticism before the Internet, because
even though you could smell it, the choices of what you
could lay your hands on outside a few well-stocked
university libraries were fairly limited. Similarly, the
choices of what films you could see outside a few cities
like New York and Paris before DVDs was pretty narrow, and
possibly even more haphazard than what you could read about
These two developments shouldn’t be considered in
isolation from one another. The growth of film writing on
the web —- by which I mean stand-alone sites, print-magazine
sites, chatgroups, and blogs —- has proceeded in tandem with
other communal links involving film culture that to my mind
are far more important than the decline in the theatrical
distribution of art films and independent films, so I’ll be
periodically discussing those links here. Read more
Paul Fejos’s exquisite, poetic 1928 masterpiece about love and estrangement in the big city deserves to be ranked with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd from the same period, though it’s not nearly as well-known. Equally neglected is Fejos himself, a peripatetic Hungarian who made striking films in Hungary, Hollywood, Austria, and France in the late silent and early sound era before becoming an anthropologist — and making a few ethnographic films that are even harder to find. Lonesome, which has some dialogue, begins with a dazzling evocation, using superimpositions and diptychs, of the hero and heroine, who haven’t yet met, as they wake and pursue their morning work routines. They meet at Coney Island that afternoon, lose track of each other in a crowd, then are reunited back in the city in a surprising diptychlike scene. Fejos was already interested in ethnographic archetypes when he made this picture, which makes city life seem like a labyrinth in a fairy tale — as intricate and inscrutable, but also as enchanted. 69 min. The opening event of the weekend symposium “Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”; a 35-millimeter print will be screened. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St., Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 4, 2005). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and Written by Jem Cohen
With Miho Nikaido and Mira Billotte
Chain, the first solo feature by film and video artist Jem Cohen, is a strange mix of documentary and fiction about malls and similar commercial spaces. It’s meditative rather than action packed, and the creepiness it exposes has as much to do with absence as presence. But it deserves more attention than the single local screening it’s getting at Columbia College. I suspect it’s not getting more because it was partly funded by European television, because distributors never know how to package films that merge documentary and fiction, and because it belongs to the netherworld between film and art (it’s playing in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s exhibition “Manufactured Self”). It hasn’t even made the art-house circuit, which is a loss: it’s highly ambitious, has plenty to say, and is far from inaccessible.
Chain was shot in 16-millimeter over six years in hundreds of malls around the world — Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Melbourne. That it’s impossible to tell the malls’ locations is part of the point. “I began the project,” says Cohen in his press notes, “by deciding to focus on the corporate and commercial landscapes that I had previously ‘framed out’ in my filmmaking, and to try to understand how these places were affecting the people within them. Read more
Here’s the unedited version of a review I wrote for In These Times, published in their September 3, 2008 issue. — J.R.
I can’t quite follow all of the offscreen sound bites preceding the main title of Tia Lessen and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. But it’s clear from the media voices I can transcribe that they concisely present this documentary’s agenda — at the same time we see the intertitle “September 14th 2005/Central Louisiana” appear onscreen and then get our first glimpses of some of the people who’ll shortly become this documentary’s central characters, seated around a picnic table.
Two of the offscreen voices come from George W. Bush; the others all sound like they come from newscasters or interviewees:
1. Read more
This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. P.S.: This essay is included in the much-expanded second editition of Abbas Kiarostami (2019), a book I coauthored with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa.– J.R.
To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future. Read more
I no longer recall where this 2008 review was written for. — J.R.
ORSON WELLES AT WORK by Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas. London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2008. 320 pp.
Considering how much popular currency is enjoyed by works about Orson Welles that are poorly researched, possibly because they respond so dutifully to existing attitudes and mythologies about the man — most notably, David Thomson’s slipshod biography Rosebud and Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s Oscar-nominated but fanciful documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (both 1996) — a reliable book about his filmmaking that doesn’t stoop to special pleading is always welcome. This one, originally published in French a couple of years ago — in an ongoing series of beautifully and copiously illustrated coffee-table books that has already yielded Bill Krohn’s indispensable Hitchcock at Work — is special not just for the amount of fresh information it offers. It’s also invaluable because of the unusual perspectives its two authors bring to their subject.
Jean-Francois Berthomé, author of a definitive book on Jacques Demy, is also an expert on movie set design, the subject of another of his books. François Thomas, an Alain Resnais specialist, once wrote a dissertation on Welles’s sound work (in film, radio, TV, and theatre) that was over a thousand pages long. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Written by John Brownlow
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Amira Casar, Andrew Havill, Lucy Davenport, Blythe Danner, and Michael Gambon.
In the Mirror of Maya Deren
Directed by Martina Kudlacek
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
— Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103 °“
In film, I can make the world dance.
— Maya Deren
In college it always seemed like the guys who were poets got more girls than the prose writers. The assumption was that poets had all the romance and sensuality associated with their medium working for them. Poetry, after all, isn’t just a block of printed material; it’s an activity, and one that can turn people on sexually as well as spiritually.
In cultures such as those of Russia and Iran sexual and spiritual qualities tend to run neck and neck: the great Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-’67), a fan of Sylvia Plath, retains a mythic allure that combines the auras of Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, and Marilyn Monroe. And an erotic charge is one of the first things that Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath (1932-’63), gets right. Read more