To celebrate the release of Kino Lorber’s excellent DVD and Blu-Ray of Sternberg’s still-controversial and often misrepresented masterpiece, with many first-rate extras (and including both the 1953 and 1958 versions of the film), I’m posting this again. It first appeared in the January-February 1978 issue of Film Comment, with a few tweaks added in June 2010. I’ve also included, at the very end of this piece, a photograph of the real-life survivors of Anatahan that I found on the Internet. And to clarify the mimetic form of this piece, which has nine sections corresponding to the nine sections of Sternberg’s film, I’ve numbered each of those sections, for the first time.
This was written while I was teaching film at the University of California, San Diego and was able to study a 16-millimeter print of Anatahan that I was using in a course. This article was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), where I added the following: “One of the critical commonplaces about THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is that everything in the film with the exception of the ocean waves is artificial and created, and Sternberg has often been uncritically quoted as saying that the only thing he regretted in the film were these waves, precisely because they were not of his making.Read more
This 1993 feature certainly has its flaws — including a wholly unnecessary literary quotation that appears on-screen at the worst possible moment — but it’s still one of maverick independent Jon Jost’s most forceful efforts to date, in part because it stars the most talented actor he’s ever worked with, the resourceful Tom Blair. Mainly known as a stage actor and director, Blair also starred in two of Jost’s best earlier features — as a wandering, jobless malcontent in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and as a misguided, bullying real estate speculator in Sure Fire (1990). Here he rounds out a loose trilogy of Jost’s corrosive, speculative self-portraits by playing a more sympathetic and ostensibly less alienated character, the owner of a lumber mill employing 60 workers, though the consequences of his situation prove to be even bleaker — and this time they can’t be so confidently traced back to his own character. A tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film that alternates between all-American landscapes (many of them composed as diptychs) and an unraveling nuclear family, this is as evocative and apocalyptic as Jost’s cinema gets — a film full of unanswered questions that will nag at you for days even as it makes fully understandable the sort of feelings about this country that drove Jost into European exile not long after it was completed. Read more
Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)
Adapted from “Journal de Cannes,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Traﬁc, no. 15, été [summer] 1995. — .J.R.
From 1970 to 1973, when I was living in Paris, it was still possible to write Cannes coverage for two magazines, stay in a cheap hotel, and not lose too much money, and last year I was able to start attending again thanks to being on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival. Despite the opening of a new Palais des Festivals in 1983 and the closing or remodeling of various cinemas, the most signiﬁcant changes to be found here after two decades could arguably be summed up in a single phrase: what we mean when we say “contemporary cinema,” entailing not only what we include but what we leave out. In theory, all the beauty and horrors, the contradictions and paradoxes of world cinema are crammed in two weeks over a few city blocks. But in practice, how can we say with any conﬁdence that Cannes is an accurate précis of anything except the international ﬁlm business (which includes the press)?
Perhaps the biggest difference between the seventies and nineties in Cannes is the matter of whose opinions count the most. Read more
I can’t recall a worse year for Hollywood than 1995. This suggests that either my memory or the studio system is disintegrating. My guess is it’s the latter. I don’t mean to say the business is coming apart; sadly, Hollywood has often found it easy to make money with junk, especially if the public is willing — as it still apparently is — to go along with the film industry’s manipulations. (However, given the scant means available to most people to make themselves heard on such matters in this “free” society, I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions about this.) Rather I believe that what’s coming apart is the social contract between the industry and filmgoers, which allows some form of customer satisfaction that isn’t predicated on deception and a fundamental contempt for the audience.
A symptom of the problem could be found in an article by Peter Bart in Variety late last October bemoaning the poor box-office returns for “such pricy projects” as Jade, The Scarlet Letter, Strange Days, and Assassins. “Rubbing salt into the wound,” added Bart, “is a new Yankelovich opinion survey…which indicates that 43 percent of filmgoers interviewed say they would attend more films all year round if a ‘better selection’ of movies were available. Read more
This is third in an ongoing series of five lists of lists. –J.R.
Chicago Reader, 1995: Latcho Drom (Tony Gatlif) Crumb (Terry Zwigoff) A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach) + When It Rains (Charles Burnett) Lamerica (Gianni Amelio) Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien) Safe (Todd Haynes) Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Jean-Luc Godard) Exotica (Atom Egoyan) Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambety) Up Down Fragile (Jacques Rivette)
Chicago Reader, 1996: Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch) The Asthenic Syndrome (Mira Kuratova) The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski) Nightjohn (Charles Burnett) The Neon Bible (Terence Davies) Regularly or Irregularly (Abbas Kiarostami) + From the Jounals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport) Thieves (André Téchiné) + My Favorite Season (André Téchiné) The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi) + Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou Hsaio-hsien) Blush (Li Shaohong) + Red Hollywood (Thom Anderson & Noël Burch) Flirt (Hal Hartley) + Deseret (James Benning) Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton) + Joan the Maid (Jacques Rivette) Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh) + Basquiat (Julian Schnabel) Get on the Bus (Spike Lee) + Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton) + The Cable Guy (Ben Stiller) When Pigs Fly (Sara Driver) + Desolation Angels (Tim McCann) Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci) + My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud (Gérard Mordillat) Ectasy (Mariano Barroso) + Vive l’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang) Cyclo (Tran Anh Hung) + Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier) 2 X 50 Years of French Cinema (Anne-Marie Mièville & Jean-Luc Godard) + The Crucible (Nicholas Hytner) A Family Thing (Richard Pearce) + Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (Claude Sautet) Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (Stanley Kwan) + Red Lotus Society (Stan Lai) Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter) + Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson) + Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Chicago Reader, 1997: A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang) The House Is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad) Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas) The Ceremony (Claude Chabrol) 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee) + Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris) La promesse (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne) In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute) The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan) As Good As It Gets (James L. Read more
Commissioned and published for the Voyager laserdisc of F for Fake in 1995. My thanks to Marcio Sattin in São Paulo for giving me a printout of this untitled “lost” essay in Spring 2015, which I’ve slightly re-edited.-– J.R.
Orson Welles’ two major documentary forays stand roughly at opposite ends of his film career: It’s All True (1942) and F for Fake (1973), and together the two projects’ very titles express a dialectical relationship to the documentary. Both belong to a form of documentary known as the essay film that interested Welles throughout his career. Notwithstanding some Wellesian hyperbole, it seems safe to say that both titles accurately convey the overall essence of their respectiive projects: Most of the never-completed It’s All True, as Welles conceived and shot it, was true; most of F for Fake is fake -– a fake documentary about fakery, with particular attention devoted to art forger Elmyr de Hory, to author Clifford Irving, and to Welles himself. As Welles put it in a 1983 interview, “In F for Fake I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it . . . because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. Read more
The neglected Canadian animator Richard Williams directed and coscripted this mind-boggling London- made cartoon musical feature (1995), the first to be made in ‘Scope since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959. It’s a movie that’s been in and out of production since 1968, apparently because Williams mainly worked on it as a labor of love in between more lucrative projects (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Eventually he lost creative control, and it’s impossible to say whether the movie would have been more or less coherent without the postproduction interference: the storytelling is perfunctory, but the imaginative animation, which revels in two-dimensionality, is often wonderful — an improbable blend of Escher, op art, Persian miniatures, and Chuck Jones that shoots off in every direction and seems great for kids. Arabian Knight is a lot more memorable than either Aladdin or Pocahontas (though its cultural references are much more varied and confused). The cast of offscreen voices includes the late Vincent Price as the main villain, Matthew Broderick as the hero, a humble cobbler, Jennifer Beals as the princess, Eric Bogosian, Toni Collette, and Jonathan Winters as a disreputable thief. Margaret French collaborated on the script, and Robert Folk and Norman Gimbel wrote the songs.
I’m not sure whether this sensitive 1995 adaptation of a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of The Secret Garden) from Warners is quite the miracle some of my colleagues claimed, but it blows most Disney competition out of the water and is enjoyable for grown-ups as well. Set during World War I, it follows the adventures of an imaginative and resourceful little girl (Liesel Matthews) raised in India and then deposited by her father at an exclusive New York boarding school, where she soon becomes the victim of a mean headmistress (Eleanor Bron). Directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron in his American debut and scripted by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and Amy Ephron, the film uses studio resources to create an entrancing world both in New York and in the heroine’s fantasies about India. G, 97 min. (JR)
After the success of Rain Man Barry Levinson was allowed to indulge himself with Toys, and after Cinema Paradiso Giuseppe Tornatore was similarly allowed to foist this work of staggering pretentiousness on the public (1994). This French-Italian production with French dialogue, written with Pascale Quignard, starts off promisingly enough as a police thriller with metaphysical and symbolic overtones, but becomes steadily more abstract and preposterous as it gets closer to the denouement. A man without identity papers (Gerard Depardieu) running through the woods in a raging storm in an unnamed country is arrested and taken to a dilapidated police station to be interrogated. He claims to be a famous writer named Onoff, but the facts he offers the inspector (Roman Polanski) are confused and contradictory, and as the night wears on things just get murkier and murkier. The performances by the two leads and by Sergio Rubini are more than serviceable, but it makes little difference given that the material is so gratingly awful. Beware. (JR)
Though it wasn’t terribly well received when it first appeared, Luchino Visconti’s last film (1979) strikes me as arguably the greatest of his late works apart from The Leopard — a withering autocritique of masculine vanity and self-delusion, adapted from a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio, focusing on a well-to-do intellectual (Giancarlo Giannini) at the turn of the century struggling to justify his sexual double standards and his libertarian philosophy regarding his wife (Laura Antonelli) and his mistress (Jennifer O’Neill). Opulently mounted, dramatically understated, and keenly felt, this is a haunting testament, as well as one of Visconti’s most erotic pictures. Incidentally, the elderly hand seen on-screen during the opening credits is Visconti’s own. In Italian with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)
This lovely first feature from Tunisia (1990) is the work of Ferid Boughedir, the best-known film critic in the Arab world, whose documentaries Camera d’Afrique and Camera d’Arabe are models of their kind. Exquisitely sensual without being prurient, sensitive without being arch or affected, this portrait of a 12-year-old boy’s life, family, and community is packed with humor and perception, and the film’s feeling for the labyrinthine architecture of the neighborhood is a source of wonder. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday and Saturday, June 16 and 17, 8:00, and Tuesday, June 20, 6:00, 443-3737.
After some belated glimmers of ecological and postcolonial conscience in The Lion King, the Disney animation people go even further in revising some of their social priorities relative to the racism of Walt, and in their first cartoon feature based on real people do a conscientious and at times imaginative job of trying to illustrate aspects of the John Smith and Pocahontas story without reverting to all of the usual Hollywood lies. Contradictions confound certain aspects of this project — such as the language spoken by Pocahontas (which, in the Hollywood tradition, oscillates between tribal talk and the unaccented chatter of a contemporary Valley girl) — but overall this seems like a reasonable stab at an impossible agenda. Unsurprisingly, the film is usually more at home with animals (including a pampered English bulldog lifted from Tex Avery’s Spike) than with people, but it isn’t afraid to give both Pocahontas and John Smith some sex appeal. Personally, I prefer Hawks’s The Big Sky on this interracial, intercultural subject, but there’s something to be said for this movie’s monumental and anthropomorphic handling of landscapes — a constant in Disney cartoon rhetoric since Bambi — which reveals that the Leni Riefenstahl influence still persists in some ways. Read more
What makes Doppelganger my favorite of Naomi Klein’s books, maybe because it’s the most literary, appearing on the heels of her two previous masterworks (No Logo and The Shock Doctrine), is that she practices exactly what she preaches.
Offering a personal and autobiographical narrative that reads like a novel as well as like a slowly unfolding argument, she creates a manifesto that’s roomy enough to include philosophy and metaphysics as well as politics while addressing us in the present. And meanwhile somehow managing to tell us something hopeful about our hopeless times. [9/15/23] Read more