Consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking. By the same token, film history in the present should be divided between important filmmakers skilled and successful in hawking their own goods, from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Lee to Lars von Trier, and those who, for one reason or another, aren’t — a less definitive roll call that includes, among many others, Charles Burnett, Ebrahim Golestan, Luc Moullet, Peter Thompson, Orson Welles, and John Gianvito.
I haven’t seen Gianvito’s early shorts, one of which is called What Nobody Saw (1990), but its very title seems emblematic of his career — as does the epigraph from Cesare Pavese opening the first part of his first feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), which introduced me to his work and remains my favorite: “Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it.” Read more
An email interview with Federico Casal in June 2017 for the online Uruguayan film magazine Revista Film. Casal has kindly provided me with this English version. — J.R.
EXCHANGE WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
“I miss the experience of communal and theatrical filmgoing.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum (born February 27, 1943 in Alabama, United States) is an American film critic with more than 50 years of experience. He has written thousands of articles and reviews, as the head critic of the Chicago Reader between 1987 and 2008, and collaborator in The Village Voice, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du Cinéma, Trafic, Film Quarterly, Criterion Collection, among others. He studied literature at Bard College in New York—there he met his most influential teacher, Heinrich Blücher, the German philosopher and second husband of Hanna Arendt. In 1969 he moved to Paris, shortly after which he became Jacques Tati’s assistant for a while and appeared as an extra in Robert Bresson’s Four nights of a dreamer (1971). From Paris he moved to London and then to California. Currently, he lives in Chicago. He has published numerous books on cinema, most recently Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Cannons and Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, and others about Orson Wells, Jacques Rivette and Abbas Kiarostami. Read more
Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time
1. My first sixteen years (1943-1959) — growing up in northwestern Alabama as the grandson and son of Jewish movie theater exhibitors — ensured that time and cinema were alternately parallel and crisscrossing rivers that coursed through my childhood, along with the Tennessee River that separated Florence from Sheffield. Florence, where I lived, had three of the Rosenbaum theaters, at least until 1951, all within a three-block radius, while Sheffield, which I could see across the river from my back yard, had two more theaters, one around the corner from the other. For Southerners like myself, the past was always present, a kind of double vision that movies taught me as well — a camera’s recording of the past becoming the present of both a screen and an audience, which then in retrospective memory becomes the past as well. And for Jews like myself, the past was also identity — meaning one’s past, present, and future. This explains why Lanzmann’s Shoah represents a shotgun marriage between the present tense of existentialism and the past tense of Judaism. Read more
“The power of cinema is to create believable illusions.” Abbas Kiarostami
As I begin to write about Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema, my profound sadness about his loss emerges again. The vivid memories of several meetings and conversations with him in different countries (Iran, Europe, Canada, and the US) and at different times and on various occasions in the last four decades are now mixed with images from his films. How ironic that his death happened so abruptly, like the many unexpected and unresolved open-endings of his films.
The filmmaker I was fortunate to know was a graceful, thoughtful dignified man, observant and playful with a great sense of humor. Despite his fame, he was very humble. He was very supportive of other filmmakers, new directors, and especially his students in many of his workshops around the world.
I remember meeting him for the first time in Tehran after the screening of his second feature, The Report(Gozaresh, 1977). The dark bleak film had very little resemblance to its warm friendly-looking approachable serene director who always wore a sweet smile when greeting people.
During the year 1980 I’d run into him from time to time whenever I went to Kanun (The Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) to resolve the production issue of my unfinished film, The Transfigured Night. Read more
One of my reasons for recently revisiting Chaplin’s last feature, while preparing to teach a ten-hour course about him in Brazil, was trying to figure out why it’s so bad. There are other examples one could cite of unredeemably bad films by great filmmakers, but this one seems to belong in a category all its own. I certainly wouldn’t confuse it with his previous three features, some or all of which are considered bad by many of my colleagues but all of which I consider great in different ways (and to different degrees), even when they’re at their most distasteful. A Countess from Hong Kong is never distasteful in the various ways that A King in New York, Limelight, and Monsieur Verdoux can be at times, but it also never comes close to being revelatory in any profound way, as they continue to be.
Here is one possible explanation: Chaplin’s greatness as a director doesn’t invariably depend on his presence as the central star attraction, as A Woman of Paris amply demonstrated. But a major part of his greatness is still tied to a kind of dialogue he (mainly) had or (less often) attempted to have with his public throughout his career, most of which was tied in one fashion or another to his physical presence and/or his personal autobiography. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 2, 2005). — J.R.
Made during the French Occupation, this 1942 feature by Marcel L’Herbier is a whimsical yet brittle nocturnal fantasy that consists mainly of a nerdy Parisian student’s expressionistic, romantic dream about pursuing an imaginary beauty. It’s the first film scripted by Louis Chavance, editor of L’Atalante and writer of the corrosive Le corbeau, and it oddly evokes both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Eyes Wide Shut in its troubled moods and dreamlike studio settings (e.g., a formal ball at the Louvre, complete with magic show and trapdoors). Its illogical drift seems to convey the creepy collective unconscious of the occupation, so indelibly that even the happy ending turns out to be deeply disturbing. In French with subtitles. 100 min. (JR)
Part of a roundtable discussion with David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott in Slate, December 26, 2001. Sorry that I can’t furnish the post from David that led to it. Note: let your cursor hit the first illustration below. — J. R.
Dear David (and Roger, Sarah, and Tony),
I appreciate your evocation of Sept. 11 at the start of your letter — a defining moment for us all — as well as your conflicted thoughts about vigilantism, and how these impact on your movie tastes. For me, there’s no conflict of this kind, because I’m afraid revenge strikes me as something less than an adult aspiration or concern — accounting both for why I think Mandela’s South Africa is far ahead of the United States in this respect and why In the Bedroom, a very well-made film, doesn’t interest me much. (The only moment I recall making my pulse race was when Spacek slapped Tomei.) As you’re the first to point out, Osama Bin Laden is also obsessed with vengeance — though surely not just for “slights against his brand of Islam.” Other beefs might include the deaths of about a million innocent Iraqis (the American Friends Service Committee’s estimate last spring) — collateral damage that Madeleine Albright told us she had no regrets about, despite the fact that it arguably only strengthened Saddam Hussein — as well as many other lethal forms of meddling in the Middle East, some of them slights against both humanity and common sense.
One of my “En movimiento”columns for Cahiers du Cinéma España, written specifically for their special Godard issue (December 2010). — J.R.
Writing recently here about the largely negative American reception of Film Socialisme at Cannes, I noted — in response to the implications of such critics as Todd McCarthy and Roger Ebert that the film’s difficulties could somehow be attributed to flaws in Godard’s character — that I was “impressed not only by the film’s singular, daring, and often beautiful employments of sound and image, but also by its tenderness towards virtually all the contemporary characters and figures in the film (including the animals) — a virtue I don’t find at all present in For Ever Mozart.”
One could, in fact, go through many portions of Godard’s filmography and cite works that are humanist (such as Bande à part, Masculin-Féminin, and France/tour/detour/deux enfants) and those that are relatively nonhumanist (such as Weekend, Vladimir et Rosa, and Passion). Even though one could argue that Godard’s self-imposed social isolation since his departure from Paris has had harmful effects on his art, it is too simplistic to assume that he’s always or invariably the simple grouch that many journalists have claimed him to be.Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 500). I can think of two plausible reasons for reposting this now: Raquel Welch and Babylon.
I’m not sure why I neglected to mention Fatty Arbuckle, but obviously I should have. (I also might have mentioned that another long narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Set-Up, provided the basis for a more enduring 1949 Robert Ryan/Robert Wise feature.)– J.R.
Director: James Ivory
Cert–X. dist–7 Keys. p.c–The Wild Party.A Samuel Z. Arkoff presentation. exec. p–Edgar Lansbury, Joseph Beruh. p-Ismai Merchant. assoc. p—George Manasse.asst. d–Edward Folger. sc–Walter Marks. Based on the narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. ph–Walter Lassally. col–Movielab. ed–Kent McKinney. a.d–David Nichols. set dec–Bruce David Weintraub. set artist–Pamela Gray. sp. effects–Edward Bash. m/m.d–Larry Rosenthal. dance m–Louis St. Louis. songs–“Wild Partv”, “Funny Man”, “Not That Queenie of Mine”, “Singapore Sally”, “Herbert Hoover Drag”, “Ain’t Nothing Bad About Feeling Good”, “Sunday Morning Blues” by Walter Marks. musical sequences staged by–Patricia Birch. cost–Ron Talsky, Ralph Lauren, Ronald Kolddzie. make-up-Louis Lane. titles— Arthur Eckstein. title poster art–Peter Diaferia. sd. ed–Mary Brown. sd.Read more
The following article was written for the June 8, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader, to coincide with the release of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle in Chicago — although a differently edited version was published. This is my original version, which I included in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 collection I coedited with Adrian Martin. (Lamentably but unsurprisingly, this was the only section of the book that was left out of the Persian translation.)
One indication of Panahi’s extraordinary courage, after his appalling incarceration in Tehran’s Evin prison back in March, was the fact that he expressly requested not to be accorded “special” treatment because of his status as an artist and filmmaker. It seemed worth reposting this article on December 21, 2010, not only because of the shocking sentence received by Panahi after his trial, but also to correct the original misdating of this article on this site and in Movie Murtations, which I learned about via David Bordwell’s site. — J.R.
Squaring The Circle
Last month, I was taken aback by an email from a colleague — not a cranky stranger — waiting for me at my office computer one morning. Read more
This is a review of the John Waters original (1988) — not the Adam Shankman remake (2007) derived from the Broadway musical, which I haven’t seen. Thanks to the seeming omnipresence of the latter, I originally found it very difficult to find any stills from the former on the Internet. My review appeared in the March 4, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. Today I persist in thinking that America would be a better place if John Waters were hosting The Tonight Show. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by John Waters
With Ricki Lake, Divine, Leslie Ann Powers, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ruth Brown, Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, and Shawn Thompson.
As John Waters is the first to point out, Hairspray is “a satire of the two most dreaded film genres today — the ‘teen flick’ and the ‘message movie.'” But one of the nicest things about this exhilarating, good-natured pop comedy is that it actually is both a teen flick and a message movie. Satirical or not, it redeems as well as revitalizes both genres while celebrating their excesses.
This downscale, urban Dirty Dancing is a cunning crossover maneuver that opens as many doors to the mainstream audience as Waters can reach for, urging black and white, fat and skinny, blue collar and white collar, and generations some 25 years apart to join in the festive euphoria. Read more
An updated revision of a 1999 essay, commissioned by and posted on Slate on May 24, 2017. — J.R.
One of the paradoxes of conspiracy thrillers is that seeing the world as if it were as orderly and coherent as a work of art is both satisfying and terrifying. If everything makes sense, then it’s hard to avoid the premise that someone somewhere is creating that coherence–either God or an equally unseen puppet master. And the fact that we don’t see the strings being pulled means that our imaginations are invited to sketch them in, making us co-conspirators in the process: And opting out of this creative participation means accepting chaos: “If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia,” declares Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”
It’s a tradition that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s silent serial of 1915-1916, Lesvampires, about a gang of ingenious working-class criminals headed by a beautiful woman and preying on the rich—a crime thriller evoked in Olivier Assayas’ 1996 dark comedy about a contemporary remake, Irma Vep.Read more
From the Chicago Reader, June 18, 1993. (This is also reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics.) — J.R.
Who is correct? Are we becoming better off or worse off? Where are we heading? It depends on whom you mean by “we.” — Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations
“Men never get this movie,” a woman says to her friend in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, referring to Leo McCarey’s 1957 An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which is showing on TV. In fact, we’re told this again and again. Another woman tearfully describes the last scene of An Affair to Remember to the hero, who remarks, “That’s a chick’s movie.” To clinch the point, female characters in this romantic comedy are repeatedly shown watching this movie and sobbing (as if the TV stations in Seattle and Baltimore, where most of the action takes place, showed little else), and men are never seen watching it at all. And just in case we’re left with any doubts about the matter, the review of Sleepless in Seattle in Variety assures us that An Affair to Remember‘s “squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.” Read more