Yearly Archives: 2024

Recommended Viewing (& Reading): THE CHESS GAME OF THE WIND

Thanks to an excellent and informative review by Godfrey Cheshire (https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/chess-of-the-wind-movie-review-2021) and a subsequent chance to see the film, I now have one more item, apart from Kersti Jan Werdal’s Lake Forest Park, that I’ve seen too late to include on my alreadypublished ten-best list. (And how many more revelations are still to come?) For its luminous cinematography (by Houshang Baharlou) and its remarkable score (by Sheyda Gharachedaghi) alone,Mohammad Reza Aslani’s rediscovered and restored 1976 The Chess Game of the Wind (which I insist on calling it over its meaningless release title,The Chess of the Wind) is a truly impressive movie that really packs a wallop.

And because I lack Godfrey’s knowledge about 20th century Iranian history, I tended to experience it as a sort of Gothic melodrama that seemed closer in some ways to Béla Tarr’s Almanac of Fall than to any other Iranian New Wave feature that I’ve previously seen. And even if I disagree with Cheshire on a couple of minor points (I find the camera movements more evocative of Murnau than of Ophüls, and the wonderful exterior sequences with the washerwomen closer to gossip than to Greek-chorus commentaries), his review provides all the right guideposts into the film’s wonders and dark pleasures. Read more

Ashes Of Time

From the March 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

This is my kind of kung fu film — written and directed by the most original stylist of the Hong Kong new wave, Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), with action so fleetly and oddly edited you may not be sure what you’ve seen. Even when it slows down, this strange adaptation of Jin Yong’s martial-arts novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes is still a riot of fancy moves and obscure intrigues, spurred on by Wong’s usual ruminations about memory and the past and shot with incandescent brilliance by Christopher Doyle, probably the best cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave. Basically a western, with swords replacing guns and a camel or two thrown in to supplement the horses, this 1994 feature is mannerist genre filmmaking at its most delirious and mystical, suggesting at times a weird cross between Sergio Leone and Josef von Sternberg. With Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung. In Cantonese with subtitles. 100 min. (JR)

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The Dead Pool

Published in the Chicago Reader in 1988. — J.R.

The deal went something like this: Clint Eastwood convinced Warners to let him make his ambitious movie Bird, about jazz giant Charlie Parker, by agreeing to grind out another Dirty Harry film in exchange. But because he was evidently less than enthused about the prospect of perpetuating the series, he chose to make this umpteenth episode pivot around the issue of the sickness of the media’s pandering uses of violence, as if to exonerate himself from his own doubts about the Dirty Harry cycle. It’s a sincere but ultimately pathetic instance of the pot calling the kettle black, with Eastwood trying to distance himself from the source of his appeal with his left hand while catering to it with his right. The results are an episodic thriller that certainly has its moments, but eventually peters out into dull formula standbys; Eastwood’s Harry seems weary of his own sarcastic witticisms, and the ones here won’t make anybody’s day. Patricia Clarkson, Evan Kim, Liam Neeson, and David Hunt costar; the script is by Steve Sharon. (JR)

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The Long Gray Line

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1980). — J.R.

John Ford’s first film in ‘Scope also happens to be one of his major neglected works of the 50sa biopic of epic proportions (138 minutes) about West Point athletic instructor Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), who was a mess-hall waiter before joining the army but returned to West Point to become a much-beloved teacher — an example of the sort of victory in defeat or at least equivocal heroism that comprises much of Ford’s oeuvre. Adapted by Edward Hope from Maher’s autobiography, Bring Up the Brass, the film is rich with nostalgia, family feeling, and sentimentality. It’s given density by a superb supporting cast (including Maureen O’Hara at her most luminous, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr.) and a kind of mysticism that, as in How Green Was My Valley, makes the past seem even more alive than the present. Clearly not for every taste, but a work that vibrates with tenderness and emotion (1955). (JR)

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En movimiento: L’Avventura, etc., 60 Years Later

Written in September 2021 for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine‘s November issue. — J.R.

For an online weekly lecture series I’m giving in 

Chicago, “World Cinema of the 1960s”, I can revisit 

certain experiences I had in Manhattan six decades 

ago, meanwhile exploring the relevance films such as 

L’avventuraL’année dernière à Marienbad, and Le 

Mépris might have today, especially for young people 

seeing them for the first time. 

How much have we learned since my discovery that a film like L’avventura could have the weight of a serious novel? I was already an aspiring novelist then, so it took longer to appreciate Antonioni’s mastery of mise en scène, composition, editing, and sound mixing. How many cinephiles today already know about such things without L’avventura reminding them? 

I hardly had any notion of intellectual cinema in 1961, or that Michelangelo Antonioni and the very different Jean-Luc Godard were fast becoming its key European figures. Books about film history in English could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet the fact that L’avventura, booed at Cannes, placed second, after Citizen Kane, in an international critics poll conducted by Sight and Soundless than two years later, suggested that this hIstory was already being rewritten. Read more

The Portrait Of A Lady

From the December 3, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.

The progression from Sweetie to An Angel at My Table to The Piano to this unsatisfying mess (1996) shows that the more money director Jane Campion has to spend, the more of her formidable talent she wastes. This time she all but drowns in a sea of production values and Monarch Notes. Almost everyone in the cast is good (except John Malkovich, who gives a tiresomely generic performance), and Martin Donovan as the heroine’s doomed cousin is especially affecting. But they’re all treading water, and neither the script (by An Angel at My Table‘s Laura Jones) nor the direction supplies them with any reason for being. It’s highly doubtful whether Henry James’s 1881 novel is filmable to begin with, as the book depends on a style of observation and nuance that proceeds with the methodical patience of a bricklayer. Campion has none of this patience and little discernible design or vision to replace it with, and she seriously mauls the novel. A coy New Age prologue, an early dream sequence, and a surrealist black-and-white interlude are at best provocative teasers for an alternative to James that never takes shape, and the dull use of a wide-screen format only increases the sluggishness. Read more

THE GUILTY

THE GUILTY: JAKE GYLLENHAAL as JOE BAYLER. CR: NETFLIX ?? 2021.

When I saw and marveled at Steven Knight’s Locke with Tom Hardy eight years ago, I assumed at the time that it was an unrepeatable tour de force. Writing about it in my DVD column for Cinema Scope (https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2021/04/conspicuously-absent-or-apt-to-be-overlooked/), I described it as “84 minutes of a guy driving from Birmingham to London, or thereabouts, meanwhile talking to colleagues, family, and acquaintances on the phone,” which doesn’t begin to do the film justice but at least describes its narrative and dramatic form fairly simply.

I certainly couldn’t claim that Antoine Fuqua’s no less sedentaryThe Guilty, a Hollywood/Netflix thriller, is any sort of remake of Locke, an English art film. (For one thing, The Guilty is actually is a remake of a Danish movie with the same title that I haven’t seen, released only three years ago.) But the parallels between the two features still striking, interesting, and multiple. Apart from a couple of bathroom breaks, the hero/antihero here is again constantly on the phone, like the construction manager in Locke, the prisoner of the same supposedly real-time construction (more fiddled with in The Guilty) and apart from a few brief cameos from colleagues, this cop answering and relaying calls on a 911 detail is seen alone, similarly jabbering away with and to a multitude of characters whom we never see, meanwhile trying to bring order to the chaos and confusion he’s confronting at the same time that his own life appears to be falling apart. Read more

Two Much

From the March 6 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Or should we say knot enough? Antonio Banderas plays a frustrated painter and crooked art dealer who pretends to be twin brothers while romancing wealthy sisters played by Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah. Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who with his brother David Trueba has adapted a Donald E. Westlake novel, easily surpasses his comic work on the overrated and Oscar-winning Belle Epoque; but he fails to take the knots — which might also be called the flabby stretches — out of an overextended farce. I could live with this movie because the cast (which also includes Danny Aiello, Joan Cusack, and Eli Wallach) is so agreeable, but Banderas, for one, has to strain too hard and too long for his laughs, and the relatively lackadaisical pacing forces him to do so. (JR)

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Bordwell on Dreyer (a book review)

From the November-December 1981 issue of Film Comment. I was gratified to learn from David Bordwell, via his own web site (as well as an email to me), that he’s eventually come around to agreeing with my major complaint about his book. (For an update to his link to my subsequent essay about Gertrud, go here. However, his link to this essay no longer works, so here’s one that does.)

The photograph of Dreyer immediately below is by Jonas Mekas. — J.R.

The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer by David Bordwell. 251 pp., illustrations, index, University of California Press, $29.50

In relation to Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts, David Bordwell — an academic marvel who organizes huge masses of material with an uncanny sense of what can or can’t be assimilated –- should be considered a master of the teacherly text. His ambitious textbook written with Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), has rightly been regarded as a landmark to many film teachers — a sort of Whole Systems Catalog of formal registers in film that, like Dudley Andrew’s The Major Film Theories, makes a good bit of relatively difficult material accessible to students. Read more

Symphonies in Black: Duke Ellington Shorts

Symphonies in Black: Duke Ellington Shorts

A programme by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, June 2024)

Introductory note by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 16 shorts made over a stretch of almost a quarter of a century (1929-1953), Duke Ellington and his Orchestra perform in a variety of settings, often with dancers and singers – including Billie Holiday in Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. The latter cuts freely between Ellington alone in thoughtful composing mode, Ellington in a tux performing the same extended composition with his band at a concert, arty images of men engaged in heavy labour, a wordless church sermon, a nightclub floorshow, and even a short stretch of story showing Holiday being pushed to the ground by an ungrateful lover before singing there about her misery – a near replica of the musical setup accorded to Bessie Smith in her only film appearance six years earlier.

Indeed, although the pleasures to be found here are chiefly musical, the narrative pretexts for these performances offer a fascinating look at how both jazz and Black musicians were perceived and expected to behave during the first three decades of talkies. At least half of the films are Soundies made for sound-and-image jukeboxes in the 40s, but even these often trade on narrative details such as the adoring women digging the solos by Ray Nance, Rex Stewart, Ben Webster, and others at an “eatery” after hours in Jam Session (1942), or the spectacular dancing by athletic jitterbugging couples in Hot Chocolate (Cottontail) from the same year. Read more

Recommended Reading (and Thinking)

The merit of Mary L. Trump’s energizing and persuasive new book, The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, which usefully combines psychology with our national history, is its demonstration of the diverse ways that denial shapes not only much of our politics but most of our media. It might also be argued that, as Mary Trump periodically implies, the principal agent of that denial is capitalism, which trumps democracy (pun intended) whenever it can.

The main form of denial Mary Trump’s book is concerned with is related to the trauma caused by American genocide and enslavement and the myth of white supremacy that has sought to justify and sustain these practices, but it applies equally well to the history of this country’s obscurely motivated and ill-defined wars, most recently the military occupation of Afghanistan. The media’s emphasis on the messinessn of our military withdrawal is predicated entirely on capitalist assumptions that (1) messiness is always what people want to watch the most, (2) ignoring and in effect denying the messiness of previous unnecessary wars to make the end of the present one seem unique and unprecedented. Our other military occupations, and our eventual messy withdrawals (e.g., Read more

Letter to Harper’s (May 2021)

The following letter was published in the May 2021 issue of Harper’s magazine. Violet Lucca, the Letters editor, invited me to respond to the March issue’s cover story, by Martin Scorsese, “on Fellini and the lost magic of movies”. — J.R.

The moment cinephilia links up with personal nostalgia, as it does in Martin Scorsese’s “Il Maestro,” intellectual distinctions become tenuous. He laments the devaluing of art as “content” by his dumb employers and people accessing cinema in their homes, yet he has no trouble admitting that he first saw La strada on TV with his parents. Moreover, he grew up with movies as an art form before having to wrestle with it as a business, whereas I grew up in a family of Alabama exhibitors and eventually underwent the reverse trajectory, discovering film art in New York around the same time he did. 

Scorsese’s clearly a cinephile who has done extraordinary and generous work in making world cinema more widely available, but you’d never guess this from reading him on the subjects of Fellini and contemporary film culture. Here he seems to confuse personal choices and predilections with history, but my choices as a consumer aren’t his.

For me film culture remains as vital in some ways as it was in the 60s when Jonas Mekas could put out a magazine plausibly pretending to celebrate all of it. Read more

True Crime

From the Chicago Reader, 1999. — J.R.

An adulterous, womanizing investigative journalist (director Clint Eastwood), on the wagon and somewhat over the hill, inherits an assignment to interview a man convicted of murder (Isaiah Washington) hours before he’s slated to be executed at San Quentin, and he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Eastwood as a director generally alternates more adventurous projects (Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart) with bread-and-butter fare like the Dirty Harry movies, and this hokey thriller, reeking with 30s prison-movie stereotypes and High Noon countdowns, may be the price we have to pay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The storytelling is as crafty and streamlined as ever, but the story itself, adapted from a novel by Andrew Klavan, is so shopworn that not even three better-than-average screenwriters (Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff) can overcome the cynical and absurd contrivances. Eastwood himself, pushing 70 but cruising women in their early 20s, counts on more goodwill than I can muster. I wasn’t bored, but my suspension of disbelief collapsed well before the end. With Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and James Woods. (JR)

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The Wild One

This book review appeared in the July 7, 1991 issue of Newsday. More recently (Christmas eve, 2014), I’ve read Susan L. Mizruchi’s instructive Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work (Norton), which finds far more coherence in Brando’s career than Schickel did. — J.R.

BRANDO: A Life in Our Times, by Richard Schickel. Atheneum, 271 pp., $21.95

“Of the many illusions celebrity foists upon us the illusion of coherence, the senses that these are privileged people in the world who somehow know what they are doing in ways that we do not, is the largest, and possibly the most dangerous. But Marlon Brando has kept faith with his incoherence.”

Arriving at this judgment toward the end of a head-scratching appraisal of the logic and meaning of Marlon Brando’s career, critic Richard Schickel seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, and some readers may feel like joining him. It’s an honorable and instructive admission of defeat, and while one may disagree by finding some coherence where Schickel does not — I happen to relish Brando’s modest and earthy performance in The Freshman as a refreshing autocritique of his posturing role in The Godfather (which Schickel considers his last “real” performance) — it’s still a premise that one can hang an exploratory book on. Read more

Jacques Rivette (1928-2016)

Written for the May 2016 Artforum. — J.R.

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Although Jacques Rivette was the first of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to embark on filmmaking, he differed from his colleagues—Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut—in remaining a cult figure rather than an arthouse staple. His career was hampered by various false starts, delays, and interruptions, and then it abruptly ended in 2009 with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, six years before his recent death. But his legacy is immense.

 

His career can easily be divided into two parts, although it’s not so easy to pinpoint a precise dividing line between them. And for those who knew him well or even casually, as I did, it’s hard to prefer the first portion to the second without feeling somewhat guilty.

 

Common to both parts is a preoccupation with mise-en-scène and the mysterious aspects of collective work, offset by the more solitary and dictatorial tasks of plotting and editing. Rivette’s own collective work was frequently enhanced by improvisation—with actors, with onscreen or offscreen musicians, or with dialogue written just prior to shooting (either by actors or screenwriters)—while the more solitary work of plotting and editing emulated the Godardian paradigm of converting chance into destiny. Read more