From Film Comment (January-February 1982); reprinted in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. My thanks to Jon Jost himself for furnishing me with the frame grabs from Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Stagefright. — J.R.
1. “This is a movie, a way to speak. It is bound, like all systems of communication, with conventions. Some of these are arbitrarily imposed, some are imposed by economic or political pressures, some are imposed by the medium itself. Some of these conventions are necessary: They are the commonality through which we are able to speak with one another in this way. But some of these conventions are unnecessary, and not only that, they are damaging to us, they are self-destructive. Yet we are in a bad place to see this. We are in a theater.” Jon Jost, addressing the camera and spectator in Speaking Directly (1974).
2. Despite five substantial and in many ways remarkable features under his belt since 1974, and nineteen shorts since 1963, Jon Jost at 38 is still a long way from becoming even an arcane household name in this country. Not that he makes it easy on anyone. His originality, technical virtuosity, and political sophistication have all tended to work against him by showing the rest of us up — thereby banishing him from most of the restricted genre and market classifications designed to protect us from his scorn, under avant-garde and mainstream umbrellas alike. Read more
With Peter Sellars, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Kate Miller, Leos Carax, and Woody Allen.
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest monkey wrench aimed at the Cinematic Apparatus — that multifaceted, impregnable institution that regulates the production, distribution, exhibition, promotion, consumption, and discussion of movies — goes a lot further than most of its predecessors in creatively obfuscating most of the issues it raises. Admittedly, Hail Mary caused quite a ruckus on its own, but mainly among people who never saw the film. King Lear, which I calculate to be Godard’s 34th feature to date, has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form — director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics — look, and presumably feel, rather silly. For better and for worse, it puts us all on the spot; as Roland Barthes once wrote of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, it prevents us from redeeming ourselves.
From its birth, a table-napkin contract signed by Godard and producer Menahem Golan of Cannon Films at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, to its disastrous world premiere at Cannes two years later, the project has always seemed farfetched and unreal, even as a hypothesis. Read more
From the March 1, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
What Time Is It There?
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Written by Tsai and Yang Pi-ying
With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien, Cecilia Yip, and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
After hearing the adagio of a Schubert chamber work: there is nothing more beautiful than the happy moments of unhappy men. This might serve as a definition of art. — The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan
Toward the beginning of his essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald notes that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” That might well describe the agenda of a poetic and philosophical Taiwanese-French feature, Tsai Ming-liang’s glorious two-part invention What Time Is It There?, which premiered at Cannes last year and is opening at the Music Box this week (assuming the theater reopens after some trouble with health inspectors). It feels more contemporary, at least from a global perspective, than any other new movie in town, and central to it is an examination of separateness and togetherness, unity and disparity in two separate countries in two separate parts of the world. Read more
The following was commissioned for and included in the 17th edition of the Time Out Film Guide, (2008), and is being reprinted with the publisher’s permission. Thanks also to John Pym, the book’s editor, who proposed that I write this piece so that it would come out before the Presidential election. –J.R.
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
When the history of American movies during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (2001-2009) eventually comes to be written, one might hypothesize that the commercial development of the mobile phone during the 1980s and 1990s and the introduction of the iPod during the first year Bush took office were crucial in setting the stage for some of the basic conditions of that era. Arguably for the first time, one could easily sustain one’s ignorance about and indifference to one’s fellow citizens even while sharing the same public space with them–on the street or in other public locations dedicated to some form of transport: terminals, buses, subways, trains, planes, fairgrounds, theme parks, and, above all, cinemas.
So the phenomenon of a U.S. President who, to all appearances, preferred to remain blissfully (and strategically) ignorant about the news and the overall state of the world, and ran his office accordingly, was part and parcel of this growing trend to eliminate the public sphere from American life and subdivide the entire culture and society into `special interest’ groups and niche markets.Read more
Written for the April 2015 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
Jacques Rivette’s preference for longer films over shorter ones has led to many alternate versions over the course of his career, starting with a two-hour version of L’amour fou (1968, 250 min.) that the director disowned, though it premiered in Paris at the same time as the longer one, and attracted fewer spectators. The differences between the 750-minute Out 1 (1970), composed as an eight-part serial, and the 260-minute Out 1: Spectre (1971), designed as a feature, are far more important: the first is a free-form comedy whereas the second, a tightly edited nightmare fashioned out of the same footage, took Rivette a year to put together, with a separate editor. Most fascinating of all is the fact that the same shots sometimes have substantially different meanings and impacts. Fortunately, both versions are now available in a lovely German box set from Absolut Medien in which the serial has optional English subtitles. Together and separately, these two films remain Rivette’s key achievement, along with L’amour fou and the 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating. (For the latter, Rivette even signed a contract stipulating that his comedy wouldn’t run over two hours, but then everyone who saw the 185-minute work print agreed that it shouldn’t be cut.) Read more
The following is a slightly revised and rearranged dialogue recorded for a podcast in January 2014 and reworked a little over a year later for a book by Justin Bozung about Norman Mailer’s films, then cut from the book due to a lack of space the following year. –- J. R.
JUSTIN BOZUNG: My first question for you is, Why in the hell are you and I the only two people in the world that love this film?
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: Well, we aren’t quite the only two — there’s also my friend Mark Rappaport, who, like Mailer, is both a filmmaker and a writer. But it’s true, there aren’t many others. And I can’t speak authoritatively about why other people don’t like the film, but I will say that I’ve never been a fan of Mailer’s three previous films. And I use the word “film” deliberately and advisedly, because Tough Guys Don’t Dance is above all a movie; it’s the only thing of his that has some resemblance to Hollywood. And he has a flair for it.
I saw what I believe was one of its first screenings, soon after it was (probably) shown at Telluride, at the Toronto Film Festival. Read more
From The Velvet Light Trap, spring 1996 (and reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). Given all the screenings of Out 1 that have more recently taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, with (almost) concurrent Blu-Ray and DVD releases in France, the U.K., and the U.S., this seems like a good time to repost this article. My still lengthier reflections can be found on the Carlotta digital releases in France and the U.S. — J.R.
On the Issue of Nonreception
What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent “top ten” list (1), I’m equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal — unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn’t simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can’t be said that either film has received much attention in France either — or elsewhere, for that matter. Read more
Written forThe Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
One of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated films is
not only a virtuoso piece of filmmaking but a flagrant
piece of mean-spiritedness and teenage irreverence
that underlines aspects of his work that his more popular
and commercially successful works tend to either
disguise or rationalize. Both of these qualities
are partially the contributions of cowriter Robert
Zemeckis –- who exhibits these traits more independently
on such later features as Used Cars (1980)
and Forrest Gump (1994). But there’s also a strain
that one might associate with the more progressive
and Tashlinesque reflexes of a Joe Dante, helping to
explain why John Wayne not only refused indignantly
to play in this comedy but also tried to persuade
Spielberg that making such a movie was tantamount
to spitting on the American flag. In Spielberg’s
hands, much of the comedy here seems to derive
from a desire to see large sets destroyed as if they
were Tinker toy constructions, complete with tuttifrutti
mixtures of splattered paint, and without the
messy inconvenience of either deaths or morals. Read more
I find critics’ near unanimity about hits and favorites a bit of a bore, even when I agree with some of their choices. Disputes are far more interesting, because they make artistic and political differences clearer and more meaningful. Perhaps because I’m drawn to cinema that can theoretically change the world — and me — I can’t see much purpose in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater. The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and an evening of channel surfing, no matter how enjoyable either might be, are of roughly equal irrelevance.
Nineteen ninety-nine was a pivotal year in movies, clarifying where a lot of people stood and who they were. This kind of definition was encouraged by the existential stocktaking that came with the end of the millennium — the compiling of more best-film lists than usual (of the 90s, of the century) and more generalized meditating on the state of the art and the medium. (After finishing my own best-of-the-90s list for the last issue of the year, I discovered that all but one of the movies had an interesting trait in common: they hadn’t been reviewed in the New Yorker. Read more
This article was originally published in Stop Smiling no. 27 (“Ode to the Midwest”) in 2006. It’s also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent
It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures —- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Time magazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act — just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think. But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak — a major star if not a major actress — had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!Read more
Published in Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema, coedited by Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, and Simon Rothoehler and published by the Austrian Film Museum in 2012. A year later, this was already out of date in some particulars, but I haven’t attempted to update it. — J.R.
Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 1948
Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 2008
It’s a strange paradox, but about half of my friends and colleagues think that we’re currently approaching the end of cinema as an art form and the end of film criticism as a serious activity, while the other half believe that we’re enjoying some form of exciting resurgence and renaissance in both areas. How can one account for this discrepancy? One clue is that most of the nay-sayers tend to be people around my own age (66) or older whereas most of the optimistic ones are a good deal younger (most of them under 30).
I tend to feel much closer to the younger cinephiles on this issue than I do to the older ones. But I must admit that much of the confusion arises from the fact that the two groups typically don’t mean the same things when they use terms like “cinema,” “film,” “movie,” “film criticism,” and even “available”. Read more
From The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a book-length catalogue for a retrospective I put together for the Viennale in 2009, adapted and expanded from a catalogue entry for Il Cinema Ritrovato the same year. — J.R,.
Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast (1897-1968) – a French-Basque aristocrat who was born in Buenos Aires and died in Monte Carlo – made eight films, all between 1927 and 1935, and apparently many of these are lost. (He was fired from the early talkie Raffles –which seems to retain a few d’Arrastian qualities – and replaced by George Fitzmaurice, and reportedly he also did some uncredited work on Wings. It appears that he also had a lot to do with the preparation of one of my favorite musicals, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!(1933), according to the late Pierre Rissient, which wound up being directed by Lewis Milestone.)
I’ve seen only three of his films – A Gentleman of Paris(1927), Laughter (1930), and Topaze (1933) –and all of these are pretty remarkable. (The latter is a Pagnol adaptation with one of John Barrymore’s most touching performances.) As far as I know, the only one who ever wrote about this figure in any detail was Herman G.Weinberg Read more
One thing suggested by Sanford Schwartz’s editing of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America) is that Kael’s editing of her own work is superior to his. I admire his discernment in including her thoughtful and uncharacteristically generous review of Marguerite Duras’ Le camion (The Truck) — even though I regret the suppression of its original context, in the September 26, 1977 issue of The New Yorker, where it was sandwiched between Kael’s eloquent two-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars and a longer mixed review of Short Eyes, in a column pointedly called “Contrasts”.
In her final collection For Keeps (1994), Kael omitted the other two reviews, but she also had the foresight to delete the final sentence of her review of The Truck, which referred to its original context: “At the opposite end from popcorn filmmaking, it’s a demonstration of creative force — which doesn’t always cut as clean as that laser sword in Alec Guinness’s hand.” Schwartz also leaves out the reviews of Star Wars and Short Eyes, yet he retains the final sentence in the review of The Truck, which now reads like a non sequitur coming from left field (or from outer space). Read more
Here is another one of my Paris Journals for Film Comment — the first one, I believe, after the magazine shifted from being a quarterly to a bimonthly publication. Once again, I think part of the reason for reproducing this now is its value as a period piece.
2019: A fascinating footnote about Solntseva: at a film festival in Spain a few years ago, Sergei Loznitsa told me that thanks to an opening of some of the KGB’s old files for public scrutiny, it was revealed that she had been a longtime member. Most of us know far too little about the Russian and Soviet past to begin to understand the reasons for this, but it seems possible that Solntseva may have actually joined the KGB in order to help protect her Ukrainian husband, who was reportedly under Soviet surveillance for most of his life. It does help to explain, in any case, how, after Dovzhenko failed to get so many of his own personal projects like Desna produced, Solntseva was able to direct three of them with lavish budgets and immense technical resources after his death.
From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1995). This piece is quite separate from the essay I contributed to Criterion’s DVD of this film 15 years later. — J.R,
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb in many ways looks like conventional filmmaking, yet it conveys a remarkable fluidity and density of thought. It may resemble a biographical documentary — unobtrusively shot by Maryse Alberti, gracefully edited by Victor Livingston — but it unfurls like a passionate personal essay. The subject is Robert Crumb, America’s greatest underground comic book artist — little known to most people born much before or after 1943, the year of his birth, because he’s shunned the mainstream as a money-grubbing swamp. Zwigoff, an old friend, shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the sheer mass of this two-hour film seems partly a function of the amount of time he’s had to mull it over.
A member of Crumb’s former band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and a fellow collector of rare 20s and 30s blues and jazz records, Zwigoff has previously made documentaries only on musical subjects — blues artist Howard Armstrong in Louie Bluie, a history of Hawaiian music in A Family Named Moe. Read more