Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007 (http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_undervalued_movie_satires.htm) . — J.R.
One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.
With some significant exceptions—-Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking—-satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops.
With Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn, Ritch Brinkley, and Moira Harris.
Night Falls on Manhattan
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Sidney Lumet
With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, James Gandolfini, Lena Olin, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Colm Feore, Ron Leibman, and Richard Dreyfuss.
About three-quarters of the way through Breakdown — the well-crafted theatrical-feature debut of director and cowriter Jonathan Mostow, a thriller offering more bang for your buck than almost any other recent release — I started to feel nauseous. It’s a problem I encounter during a lot of commercial American movies these days, usually for more or less the same reason; if I had to encapsulate this reason in a single phrase, I’d say it’s the way they turn people into garbage. By “people” I mean mainly fictional characters, but also filmmakers and filmgoers, because when people on-screen are treated like garbage and the movie “works” — clicks, delivers, offers more bang for our buck — the filmmakers are turning themselves and us into garbage as well. Read more
From DVD Beaver, posted in November 2008. Some of the links may be out of date by now. — J.R.
The following selection is not only personal but very eclectic. It’s not exactly a list of my favorite films: I prefer Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) to his Blind Husbands (1919), for instance, and if I had to take one Anthony Mann film along with me to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be The Naked Spur (1953) rather than his Man of the West (1958). Similarly, my favorite films by Nicholas Ray are probably Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bitter Victory (1957), even though Party Girl (1958), for all its flaws, is still a Ray film that I’d describe as sublime. But I’ve opted in these cases for the DVDs devoted to Stroheim, Mann, and Ray that I cherish the most, and the reasons why I cherish them are stated below.
A few other caveats:
(a) There are at least two other editions of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) —- the U.S. one from Criterion and the English one from the British Film Institute—- that are top-notch, and they’re probably easier to come by in the Western hemisphere than the Australian edition on the Madman label that I cite. Read more
An “En movimiento” column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written in July 2014 for their October 2014 issue. — J.R.
12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a “mentor” to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate. Unlike the hyperbolic violence that brutalizes the characters of Jia Zhange’s A Touch of Sin by reducing their humanity, Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.
21 & 23 June (Edinburgh): The two high points of my six days here are two very different masterpieces from the first Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) and Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973). Read more
Written for and published in Outsider Films on India, 1950-1990, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, Mumbai: The Shoestring Publisher, 2009 — a very handsomely produced book that I can highly recommend. — J.R.
The Creation of the World: Rossellini’s India Matri Buhmi
In my mind, there isn’t as much distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. — Abbas Kiarostami
From the beginning, film has owed an important part of its fascination to ambiguous overlaps between documentary and fiction —- sometimes experienced as conflicts between the separate aims of showing the world and telling a story, and frequently associated with incorporating both unforeseeable and carefully planned elements in a given film. It’s a tendency that can already be seen in the contrived gags of the Lumière brothers films, the re-enactment of recent famous events in some films of Georges Méliès, and the coexistence of fantasy and on-location actuality in Louis Feuillade serials. Later, of course, the same mix becomes re-animated in Italian neorealism and in work by French New Wave directors (perhaps most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette and some of their immediate successors, such as Luc Moullet and Jean Eustache), in the improvisational strategies of Robert Altman, in some of the ambiguities found in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi, and in practically all the films of Pedro Costa and Pere Portabella. Read more
Claude Chabrol’s capacity to make shopworn material seem almost new is especially evident in this 2007 drama, which he cowrote with his stepdaughter, Cecile Maistre. Their sincere and competent script seemingly transplants the 1906 murder of New York architect Stanford White to contemporary France, with an added emphasis on various forms of class and sexist abuse. A TV weather announcer (Ludivine Sagnier) becomes involved with a famous writer (Francois Berléand) who’s married and nearly twice her age, much to the chagrin of a spoiled heir (Benoit Magimel) who’s closer to her in age and accustomed to getting his way. In French with subtitles. 114 min. Read more
It’s characteristic of the virtues and limitations of French sexual provocateur Catherine Breillat (Romance, Anatomy of Hell) that they usually derive from the same source—the fearless determination to skirt the borders of camp. In her avowedly free adaptation (2007) of Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel about the protracted amour fou between a foppish narrator-hero (androgynous Fu’ad Ait Aattou) and his Spanish mistress with a taste for blood (the pouty Asia Argento), both of whom are periodically married to aristocrats, she revels in the kind of overripe French romantic and mythical filigree that the material seems to invite. She may be serious about creating period ambience, but she also can’t resist patterning her heroine after Marlene Dietrich’s Concha in The Devil Is a Woman (even though Argento sometimes suggests Maria Montez in the pleasure she takes in her own company) and using as a location for the hero’s modest country estate what appears to be the same 12th-century fortress in Brittany used in The Vikings(1958) and Jacques Rivette’s Noroit. With Michael Lonsdsale, Roxane Mesquida, and Claude Sarraute. In French with subtitles.
LES AVENTURES DE HARRY DICKSON: SCÉNARIO DE FRÉDÉRIC DE TOWARNICKI POUR UN FILM (NON RÉALISÉ) PAR ALAIN RESNAIS, edited by Jean-Louis Leutrat (series edited by Emmanuel Burdeau), Nantes: Capricci, 2007, 376 pp.
Only in France, I suspect, could a dream book of this kind ever have been conceived, much less realized – or done with so much exquisite beauty and care. The centerpiece here is the final draft of the screenplay for what likely qualifies as the most cherished of Alain Resnais’ unmade films — based on the fantasy dime-novels that first appeared in Germany in 1907, were translated into French the same year, then translated into Dutch in 1927, and finally continued by Belgian writer by Jean Ray in the 30s, who started out by translating the Dutch series into French. All these books recount the eerie exploits of Harry Dickson, “the American Sherlock Holmes” — born in the U.S. but educated and based in London. Resnais’ adaptation, developed over most of the 1960s and prefigured to run about three hours, was to star Laurence Olivier in the title role and Delphine Seyrig as super-villainess Georgette Cuvelier, alias The Spider, with whom Dickson sustains a long-standing love-hate relationship. (She’s the daughter of Professor Flax, a mad scientist who served as the supervillain in some earlier episodes.) Read more
This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site.
My original title for this section of the book was “Masterpieces,” but the editor, Ed Dimendberg, who had a much better sense of what was academically acceptable than I did, got me to change it to “Touchstones”. For the record, I still think that “Masterpieces” is better. — J.R.
It seems to me that one of the most underrated elements in criticism is quite simply information — relevant facts deriving from research — and how this is imparted to the reader in relation to other elements. Thanks to the prestige of theory in academia and the equally valued role played by rhetoric in journalistic criticism, facts often seem to be held in relatively low esteem in critical writing nowadays, but as long as criticism aspires to be a vehicle for discovery, it seems to me that research should play a much larger role than it normally does. I bring this matter up because the value of the information imparted in all the pieces in this section seems to me inextricably tied to what I have to say about these films, and my analyses would be appreciably different without it — a factor that is probably most obvious when it comes to GERTRUD and OTHELLO.* Read more
I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piecefor the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I hadn’t much desire to reprint until mid-October 2018, when I decided to attach the printed version as an afterthought. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable.
I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to illustrate the attic scene that I describe in The Magician, so I’ve substituted a still from Sawdust and Tinsel at the head of this piece that suggests some spatial disorientation. [2015 postscript: a generous reader, Dan Roy, has helped me out with the attic scene.] –- J.R.
If memory serves, my first taste of Ingmar Bergman was The Magician, seen at the 5th Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, en route from a New England boarding school to my home in Alabama during spring break. Read more
A “PIERROT” PRIMER by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a 36-minute audiovisual analysis of Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU included on the second disc of the Criterion DVD of PIERROT LE FOU (Criterion 421, 2007).
For some time, I’d been lamenting that the highly original manner and method of lecturing on a film inaugurated by Manny Farber as a teacher at the University of California, San Diego and subsequently developed there by Jean-Pierre Gorin had still never been preserved on a DVD, which in some ways may be an ideal place for it. Then, when J-P’s inventive and perceptive remarks on portions of PIERROT LE FOU turned up on the Criterion DVD last year, I was thrilled and gratified to discover that it had finally happened. I even resolved to write about this in my next DVD column forCinema Scope. But then I somehow managed to forget this resolve (so many DVDs, so little time)–at least until I accessed and started reading Royal Brown’s online review of the DVD in the summer issue of Cineaste, where my eye came upon a reference to Gorin’s “professorial and often rather smug and empty analysis of the film’s first fifteen minutes”. Since none of these three adjectives comes even close to describing my own responses, I regret my failure to note my own admiration for what Gorin has done. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 2007). — J.R.
Most of Raul Ruiz’s films have some element of deadpan surreal farce; this one’s a farce through and through. When an ethereal Swiss lunatic (Elsa Zylberstein) comes in line to inherit the equivalent of several countries, her venal father (Michel Piccoli) schemes to have her bumped off by another nutcase. As corpses pile up, a couple of local cops indulge in some hilarious rationalizations for doing nothing. The sweetness of Zylberstein’s performance and the ambience in general are oddly old-fashioned — reminiscent of Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace — while the gracefully meandering camera echoes the domestic thrillers of Claude Chabrol. Alas, this is second-best Ruiz and wears out its welcome before the end. Still, it has its share of wit and invention. In French with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)
My column for the Spring 2017 issue of Cinema Scope. –– J.R.
Probably the most important DVD release of last year, inexplicably overlooked by me when I made out my lists for Sight and Sound and DVD Beaver, is Josef von Sternberg: The Salvation Hunters (1925) and The Case of Lena Smith (fragment, 1929), a single all-region disc from www.edition-filmmuseum.com for 19.95 Euros. It includes a wonderful new 32-minute audiovisual essay on The Salvation Hunters by Janet Bergstrom, and a new score to Sternberg’s first feature by Siegfried Friedrich, but the real pièce de résistance here is the dazzling four-minute fragment from the otherwise lost The Case of Lena Smith, discovered by Japanese film historian Komatsu Hiroshi in a Chinese junk shop in Dalian in 2003. (See the Filmmuseum’s exhaustive 2007 book about The Case of Lena Smith for more details.) In Edgardo Cozarinsky’s 1995 Citizen Langlois, Langlois’ companion Mary Meerson is quoted as saying, “TheCase of Lena Smith will reappear one day when mankind deserves it.” In the meantime, here is a fragrant glimpse of what undeserving mankind is missing.
Although most of the recent Blu-Ray releases of Olive Films have tended to steer clear of their previous auteurist commitments, Otto Preminger’s underrated if sometimes problematic 1969 Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is a very welcome exception.Read more
This comes from the top of my 1999 ten-best column for the Chicago Reader in January 2000. — J.R.
Eyes Wide Shut. Part of what irked some reviewers about Kubrick’s eccentric masterpiece is one of the things I treasure about it -– its distance from its own period. This quality is shared by at least two sublime testament films released in the 60s to similar amounts of scorn, Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and John Ford’s 7 Women (1966). Both of them are clearly set in earlier periods; Kubrick’s is purportedly set in present-day New York but was adapted from “Traumnovelle,” a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler set in prewar Vienna. All three depend on highly stylized and subjective renderings of time and place that become an essential part of their memory-laden textures. (To correct two factual errors in my original review: the prewar setting of Schnitzler’s novella can be gleaned from a reference to Bohemia, not Czechoslovakia, and Schnitzler wasn’t a friend of Freud’s but an ambivalent contemporary reader of his work, though Freud did once refer to Schnitzler as his “doppelganger,” apparently because they held some similar notions about psychology.)
Like many an artist before him, Kubrick went from being part of his own time — for better and for worse, Dr.Read more
The following, a revision and substantial expansion of liner notes that I wrote for the Criterion DVD of Day of Wrath several years ago, was written for the Australian DVD, which came out in 2008 on the Madman label — as did my essay on Ordet. (One can order DVDs from Madman’s site, and by now they have quite a collection.) My thanks to Alexander Strang for giving me permission to reprint this. — J.R.
Figuring Out Day of Wrath by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I first encountered Carl Dreyer’s work in my teens, but it wasn’t until my 40s that I started to be ready for it. I mainly had to rely on lousy 16-millimeter prints, so ruinous to the sounds and images of Day of Wrath that I could look at that film only as a form of painterly academicism, a repressed view of repression. The film defeated me with its unalleviated Danish gloom and its dull pacing, which I associated with Dreyer’s strict Lutheran upbringing. Most of this was sheer nonsense, as I discovered once I had access to better prints, information, and reflexes. For one thing, contrary to many would-be reference works, Dreyer’s upbringing was neither strict nor Lutheran, and he was born a Swede, even if he grew up in Denmark. Read more