From the May 2018 issue of Journal of Chinese Cinemas. — J.R.
XD: Jonathan, you and I are both cinephiles. Much of our conversation over the years has been about our favorite films and directors, and we nudge each other to watch or re-watch new releases and rediscovered classics. Now that we’re co-editing this special issue on comedy, I wonder, what are some of the most amusing moments for you in the Chinese-language films that you’ve seen? I ask about these cinephiliac moments because when a comic scene works, it tends to be highly memorable. And often what we find amusing can tell us a lot about the film as a whole: how it plays with comic conventions, how it addresses its audience, how it ages over time.
JR: I was especially amused by the point-of-view shots from inside an ATM in Peter Chan’s 1996 Comrades: Almost a Love Story (a particular favorite of mine), because of the whole idea of what we look like from the vantage point of our money – or, more specifically, what Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai, both mainlanders who meet one another in Hong Kong and try to “make it” there, look like to the ups and downs of their cash balances that epitomize much of their struggle. Read more
From Movies of the Fifties, edited by Ann Lloyd (London: Orbis Publishing, 1982). Prior to this, it was published in one of the “chapters” of The Movie in 1981 or 1982, but I’m no longer clear about which one. — J.R.
For two centuries, Japan chose to isolate itself from the rest of the world. Then, in 1894, the American Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and ‘rediscovered’ the Japanese islands. Yet nothing was known about Japanese cinema in the West for almost another century. The difference was that whereas Perry had come upon a country that appeared technologically backward, the west encountered a cinema that was, on the evidence of the films that began to be shown in the Fifties, every bit as advanced as its own.
By and large western recognition and appreciation of Japanese films can be said to have dated from the appearance of key movies at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals.Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1951 and the same honor was bestowed upon four films by Kenji Mizoguchi in the succeeding years. The films were: Saikaku Ichidai Onna (1952, The Life of Oharu),Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain), Sansho Dayu (1954, Sansho the Bailiff ) and Yokihi (1955, The Empress Yang Kwei-Fei). Read more
Here is a chronological list of many of the book reviews and longer pieces on literary and related subjects found on this web site, with links added in a few cases; capsule reviews of films are omitted, and this list is otherwise far from complete, especially regarding many more recent posts:
From the online Australian web site Senses of Cinema, November 2001. Some of this piece recycles some bits from “Make No Mistake: The Day the Towers Fell“, commissioned but not published by the Chicago Reader a couple of months earlier. — J.R.
Like many other Americans lately, I’ve been scared -– but like only some Americans, I’ve been scared both of Middle Eastern terrorists and those whom I regard as American terrorists, almost in equal measure. For what can be truly terrifying on occasion is how alike these two kinds of myopic, intolerant individuals can seem to be: not just religious fanatics, but ordinary Americans who all of a sudden start thinking of the vanished World Trade Center as their own private property and the terrorist attacks of September 11 as simply and unambiguously an “attack on America” –- thereby allowing the Middle Eastern terrorists and their assumed positions to set the terms of the discussion and automatically dismissing the many non-Americans who were destroyed in the attacks as irrelevant.
Three disparate yet characteristic examples of everyday American “terrorism”: (1) A headline recently blazoning Chicago’s only tabloid (Roger Ebert’s paper), the Sun-Times, announcing that the Taliban was poisoning U.S. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 2003). — J.R.
Mystic River ** (Worth seeing) Directed by Clint Eastwood Written by Brian Helgeland With Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Laura Linney, Adam Nelson, Emmy Rossum, and Cameron Bowen.
The critical community has spoken: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a masterpiece and a profound, tragic statement about who we are and the inevitability of violence in our lives — a pitiless view, in which violence begets violence and the sins of the fathers pass to later generations.
Presumably these qualities are also in Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, which I haven’t read, but it’s the movie that’s drawing most of the superlatives from American critics. The acclaim started after the film premiered at Cannes, when much of the griping American press seemed to see it as a vindication of American filmmaking, an answer to the terrible state of cinema in general. Some of those critics may have seen it as a vindication of U.S. patriotism as well — one reason it’s likely to rack up plenty of Oscars.
The last Eastwood movie that provoked biblical language and allusions to Greek tragedy was Unforgiven (1992), which also saw violence as both awful and unavoidable — our destiny and perhaps even our birthright. Read more
This book is intended as a companion and sequel to an autobiographical experiment I carried out in the late 1970s, published in 1980 by Harper & Row as Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. The present volume doesn’t require a reading of that earlier book — long out of print, though recently reprinted by the University of California Press so as to reappear alongside this collection; however, since many of this volume’s premises are predicated on either extensions or inversions of the premises of its predecessor, a few words about that book and the material it covers are in order.
Most of Moving Places is concerned with my childhood in northwestern Alabama, specifically in relation to my family and what was known as the family business from around 1914 to 1960. This business began when my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, started operating his first movie theater in Douglas, Wyoming, and it existed until Rosenbaum Theaters, owned by my grandfather and managed by my father, was sold to a larger chain. I was born in 1943, and the family business afforded me a steady diet of free movies through the age of sixteen, when I went away to school in Vermont. Read more
It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). I’m delighted that Criterion invited me to retool this review for a new edition of this film in 2020. In some ways, I like Ghost Dog more now than I did 23 years ago. — J.R.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.
Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.
Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons. Read more
From the September 28, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece, but also one of the great love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, September 29 and 30.
7. Letters from the Ends of the World (a dozen of the first
graduates of Béla Tarr’s FilmFactory)
8. Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Saftie)
9. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
An incomplete list of nine titles for an incomplete, pandemic year that cries out for updates and afterthoughts. That may help to explain why many items here are at least partially films/videos about films/videos (and at least one item, Letters…, is about the pandemic). Having to compile a so-called ‘2021’ list in October compels me to add Uncut Gems, seen too late in 2020 to make it onto last year’s list. Read more
My column in the Winter 2021 issue of CinemaScope. — J.R.
Teaching an online course on Agnès Varda at the School of the Art Institute this fall for 39 students has put me in regular touch with Criterion’s superb 15-Blu-ray box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, every week. The packaging reminds me in some ways of the handsome 78 rpm albums I used to cherish as objects and totems in the mid- to late 1940s, when I was still a toddler, although Criterion’s version of this sort of assembly, held in a box, manages to be neater and more compact. There’s also a richly illustrated and annotated 200-page book inside the box, with essays by Amy Taubin, Ginette Vincendeau, So Mayer, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Rebecca Bengal, and excellent “program notes” on all the films by Michael Koresky. In short, plenty to keep a coronavirus shut-in busy, even without a course to teach.
The course has gradually brought home to me the complexly ambiguous lesson that Varda wasn’t really or exactly an auteur, at least not in the boys’-club meaning of that term as it’s most commonly used. But not being an auteur gave her a kind of freedom and a form of elasticity denied to most auteurs. Read more
I truly regret not being able to illustrate this early piece for the Reader, published in September 1987, with the sort of illustrations its awesome landscapes deserve. In fact, the only other film by Tian Zhuangzhuang (see photo above) that I’m aware of that’s comparably impressive from this standpoint is his extraordinary Delamu (or, in Chinese, Cha ma gu dao xi lie), a 2004 documentary that’s even more neglected, at least in this country (see the photo below, immediately after the absurdly small landscape photo from The Horse Thief).[2023 postscript: Happily, illustrations are now more readily available, and even though the film doesn’t seem to be currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray, it can be seen letterboxed and subtitled in all its widescreen glory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZSjjOQUtHY.] –J.R.
If the two aesthetically richest decades in the history of cinema have been the 1920s and the 1960s, it is in no small part due to the fact that it was during these two golden ages that film came closest to becoming a universal language. Read more
The way the Internet Movie Database tells it, two pairs of writerly brothers worked with Josef von Sternberg on his first talkie, Thunderbolt (1929), recently released on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray (with a knowledgeable audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton that I’ve so far only sampled). Charles and Jules Furthman are both credited for “story,” though Jules, the younger of the two, gets a screen credit for the actual script; Herman J. Mankiewicz is credited for “dialogue,” while his younger brother, Joseph L., is credited for “titles.”
The question is: What titles? The Thunderbolt that I’ve seen and heard many times has none and needs none. Yet according to the American Film Institute’s online catalogue, there was also a silent version of the film—clearly one more missing Sternberg silent, along with The Exquisite Sinner (1926), the Chaplin-produced A Woman of the Sea(1926), The Dragnet (1928), and The Case of Lena Smith (1929), albeit one I’ve never heard mentioned before now.
John Grierson, one of the few people who saw A Woman of the Sea, concluded that “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer”—a verdict that I doubt Stanley Kubrick would have agreed with, although I’m sure that treating Sternberg strictly as a photographer and visual artist has led to the unwarranted critical downgrading of both Thunderbolt, his first sound film, and Anatahan (1955), his last (and a far greater achievement). Read more
What I find most disconcerting about Wes Anderson’s new formalist feature is its attitude towards France, which somehow manages to come across as derisive yet disinterested at the same time: not angry or witty enough to be effective as satire yet not observant enough to seem accurate, at least to a onetime resident of that country such as myself. According to all the American reviews I’ve read, it’s not really about France at all but about the American journalists and critics who report from France about France and the French. But because the movie is basically about them and not about the French, it strikes me as being only half-witted much of the time. The material for a knowing send-up of French culture is present yet unexplored and underdeveloped because the movie doesn’t really seem to care much about French people — only about French movies, French food, and other exports.
I never bothered to read Mavis Gallant in The New Yorker about May 1968 because I was living in Paris that year from June through August, before moving to that city in the fall of 1969 for five more years. So maybe I and the people of France are the last people on earth this movie was designed for. Read more
From the Village Voice (April 25, 1971). This was the first piece I ever published there, thanks to Andrew Sarris, and I’ve done a light edit (in October 2012) in order to make it a little more bearable to me. The “Indian girl” [sic] mentioned here, who subsequently became a very good friend, was Munni Kabir; as Nasreen Munni Kabir, she is identified today on Wikipedia as an author and TV producer, based in the U.K., and about ten years ago, I saw her again in London when she came to a public discussion I was having with Geoff Andrew about the short films of Kiarostami.
I believe I was mistaken about the seasonal setting of the Dostoevsky story, and apologized profusely about this to Bresson himself when he expressed interest in reading this article (which he conveyed to me via Munni, along with his address) and I sent him a copy, along with a note; I still have a copy of his gracious thank-you note, sent to me in Alabama, including his assurance that my error wasn’t very important….My subsequent encounters with (or, more precisely, sightings of) Bresson in Paris occurred at a screening of Luchino Visconti’s White Nights at the Cinematheque’s auditorium on Rue d’Ulm, a private screening of Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands, and two successive private screenings of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac with members of his cast and crew.Read more