Monthly Archives: April 2024

Global Discoveries on DVD: Prizewinners, Also-Rans & Others

From Cinema Scope issue issue 60, Fall 2014. — J.R.

DVD AWARDS 2014

XI edition (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna)

 

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh

 

 

BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON BLU-RAY:

Late-mizoguchi-BluRay

Late Mizoguchi – Eight Films, 1951-1956 (Eureka Entertainment). The publication of eight indisputable masterpieces in stellar transfers on Blu-ray is a cause for celebration. If Eureka is not exclusive in offering these individual titles, what makes this collection especially praiseworthy and indispensable is the scholarship, imagination and care that went into the accompanying 344-page booklet. Over 60 rare production stills are included, many featuring Mizoguchi at work. Striking essays by Keiko I. McDonald, Mark Le Fanu, and Nakagawa Masako are anthologized along with extensively annotated translations of some of the key sources of Japanese literature that inspired some of Mizoguchi’s late films. The volume closes with tributes to the great director written by Tarkovsky, Rivette, Godard, Straub, Angelopoulos, Shinoda, and others. Tony Rayns provides spoken essays and some full-length commentaries.

 

BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON DVD:

pintille-thickbox

Pintilie, Cineast (Transilvania Films). An impeccable collection devoted to eleven films by an important and neglected maverick Romanian filmmaker, masterful and acerbic, with invaluable contextualizing extras concerning his life, work, and career drawn from ten separate sources. Read more

On CinemaScope (by Roland Barthes)

This is a very short and very early article by Roland Barthes, one of his “Mythologies” that remains uncollected in English, that I translated in 1982, originally so it could be run with an article of mine, “Barthes & Film: 12 Suggestions,” that I published in Sight and Sound — although it wound up not appearing there due to a lack of space. (I did, however, use some extracts from it in an article I did for the same magazine two years later about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; both of these articles are reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.) Many years later, in 1999, James Morrison asked me if he could post it on the Internet, and you can still access it, along with an essay of his about it, here. — J.R.

    1. If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can’t define Henri Chrétien’s [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects. They are, in my opinion, surprising. The broadening of the image to the dimensions of binocular vision should fatally transform the internal sensibility of the filmgoer. In what respect? The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of the great dramaturgies.
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Viktor Shklovsky

LITERATURE AND CINEMATOGRAPHY by Viktor Shklovsky (Champaign and London: Dalkey Archive Press), 2008, 74 pp. Translated by Irina Masinovsky; Introduction by Richard Sheldon.

What’s unexpected about this early theoretical foray by the father of Russian Formalism (1893-1984), first published in 1923 and now appearing in English for the first time, is that it conveys pretty much the same emotion underlying “Moviegoer,” an essay by William Styron first published (in French, in the newspaper Le Figaro) in 1983 and now recently making its first appearance in English in Styron’s HAVANAS IN CAMELOT (see below): the anxiety of a literary writer feeling threatened by movies. (The same anxiety, incidentally, crops up periodically in other essays by Styron in the same book: in “`I’ll Have To Ask Indianapolis–’”, for instance, Styron records his consternation at receiving a dissertation in the mail entitled “SOPHIE’S CHOICE: a Jungian Perspective” -– a study containing the following explanatory footnote: “Where the movie was vague I referred to the book, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, for clarification.”)

Shklovsky: “If it is impossible to express a novel in words other than those in which it has been written, if it is impossible to change the sounds of a poem without changing its essence, then it is even more impossible to replace words with a grey-and-black shadow flashing on the screen.” Read more

Two Nervy End-of-the-Year Pictures

I’m still doping out what I think of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gran Torino, although I did see the latter in time and liked it enough to slip into some of my end-of-the-year ten-best lists. (Since my thoughts and inclinations tend to change over time, I’m reluctant to keep recycling the same list every time I’m asked for one.)

Having just seen Benjamin Button, I still don’t know whether I might have included it in any of my lists, but I have to admit that I suspect I already prefer it to all of Fincher’s other films, with the possible exception of Se7en. It took me a while to warm to the weird premise and some of the grotesqueries it involves, but I think part of what impresses me is how nervy it is in playing out the poetry of the conceit for all that it’s worth and letting all the social-historical elements—from two world wars to Hurricane Katrina (and not overlooking the degree to which it sidesteps all the racial issues)–take a back seat to the love story. It’s also more impressive to me visually than Fincher’s other works. Whatever one concludes about the story and all its ramifications, he certainly knows how to fill a frame. Read more

Luis & Sam

Christa Fuller, who took this picture in 1967 in Buñuel’s house in Mexico City, has invited me to place it here; it shows Buñuel with her late husband, Sam. The first time I ever met Sam, in the summer of 1980, I interviewed him at the Plaza Hotel in New York about The Big Red One for the Soho News. He was being courted at the time by Serge Silberman about possibly directing a French best seller called The Tunnel, and Sam let out a rebel-style holler when I said something like, “Isn’t that Buñuel’s producer?” “Yaaah! That why I had a hard-on for him, boy, he puts all the loot up for Buñuel, and I love that man.” (8/17/08)

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Ernest Borneman

TOMORROW IS NOW by Ernest Borneman (London: Neville Spearman), 1959, 205 pp. There are few careers more fascinating and multifaceted than that of Ernest Borneman (1915-1995), a German-born psychotherapist and non-fiction writer who also wrote several novels (all in English), and whose other professions at various stages in his career included playwright, cameraman, screenwriter, writer for TV and radio, film director, prolific journalist, and jazz musician. I’ve tried to encapsulate a few things about him, including his work with Orson Welles and his discovery of Eartha Kitt, in a long footnote on pp. 3-4 of my book MOVIE WARS, where I quote from a brilliant 1947 essay of his, “The Public Opinion Myth,” in order to counter many of the assumptions underlying the test-marketing of movies. I’ve now read only two of his novels, all of which are out of print: THE FACE ON THE CUTTING-ROOM FLOOR (1937), his first and best known (though published under the pseudonym of Cameron McCabe), a flavorsome murder mystery that I treasure mainly for its dialogue as well as its 24-page Afterword about Borneman–written by the book’s editors, though containing a lot of interview material and a letter from Borneman, dating from 1979 and 1981, respectively. Read more

Charles Fort/Vladimir Mayakovsky

Recommended Reading:

CHARLES FORT: THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SUPERNATURAL by Jim Steinmeyer, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 332 pp.

NIGHT WRAPS THE SKY: WRITINGS BY AND ABOUT MAYAKOVSKY, edited by Michael Almereyda, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 272 pp.

Technically these are a biography and an anthology, but both are in effect delightful samplers of the work of two very singular and controversial men who were roughly contemporaries, although they were born 19 years apart: Charles Fort (1874-1932) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). I’m far from completing either book at this point, but both make for very pleasurable summer reading.

Fort was a late bloomer, especially regarding his public profile, which essentially consisted of the last four of his five published books–The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932), all very witty, imaginative, and provocative forays into debunking science. These were preceded only by several short stories published only in magazines and a 1909 novel that has never been reprinted, as well as some other creative non-fiction, all unpublished, that Steinmeyer quotes from liberally. Steinmeyer is a specialist in stage magic with whom I once had the pleasure of doing a lengthy phone interview. Read more

Pastor Carroll Pickett/Steve James/Peter Gilbert,

AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR (Steve James and Peter Gilbert, 2008, 94 min .)

This remarkable Katemquin documentary is showing at 8 PM tonight on the IFC channel (I saw it last night, at a free public screening), but if you miss it there, you’ll have plenty of other chances to see it–you can even screen it online. It wouldn’t quite do the film justice to say that it’s about capital punishment and miscarriages of justice in Huntsville, Texas, although these topics are certainly part of its fabric. It’s really a character study of Carroll Pickett, a quiet, undemonstrative man who served as the death house chaplain for over 95 executions, including the world’s first lethal injection, and gradually went from believing to disbelieving in capital punishment in the process. You might say that he’s someone who discovered the truth about his activity the hard way, which may also be the best way.

By the same token, as I believe Peter Gilbert pointed out at the screening I attended, this isn’t a “political” film in the usual sense, and it doesn’t preach, even though it’s about a preacher. Steve James and Gilbert put it across with so much power because they know how to tell stories, as their previous films–including James’s HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE, and REEL PARADISE, and Gilbert’s VIETNAM: LONG TIME COMING–amply demonstrate. Read more

The Grifters

From the December 1, 1990 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

A mannerist thriller (1990, 114 min.) that doesn’t begin to work despite the number of talented hands involved: Donald E. Westlake adapting a Jim Thompson novel, Stephen Frears directing, Martin Scorsese coproducing, and a more than capable cast. A small-time con artist (John Cusack) in Los Angeles meets up with his mother (Anjelica Huston), a hardened criminal working for a sadistic big-timer (Pat Hingle) who despises the crooked tart (Annette Bening) her son has as a lover; many double crosses later, the incestuous underpinnings in this uneasy triangle come to the fore. While the filmmakers manage to keep things interesting (sexy, kinky, and ambiguous) much of the time, the self-conscious piety that Frears lavishes on this material places it in an uncertain netherworld that prevents it from ever becoming fully convincing, even as a stylistic exercise. The time is apparently the present, but the style nudges us so insistently back into the 40s and 50s that the characters seem cut adrift, without a stable world to support them. Nevertheless, if one can overlook Elmer Bernstein’s irritating ricky-tick score and forget After Dark, My Sweet (a much superior Thompson adaptation), there are plenty of compensations: sleek cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, and, in addition to the aforementioned actors, nice turns in smaller roles by Henry Jones and J.T. Read more

THE GREEN FOG and the Maddin Mist

From the March 2019 issue of Found Footage. — J.R.

As a critical commentary on cinematic depictions of San Francisco, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog, conventional match cuts that approximates Scotty’s tailing of Madeleine as various cars follow various other cars down assorted San Francisco streets, sometimes passing locations that are familiar from Vertigo or other movies, we’re getting the bare bones of thriller and mystery mechanics without any of the thrills or mysteries, in contradistinction to all the musical signals. And when we see Karl Malden enter a florist shop, and converse (again wordlessly) with the florist, it seems appropriate that the piece of paper that the florist shows to him shows us the green fog yet again, Maddin’s signifier of the genre’s rhetoric of mystification. 

For some of the Hitchcock aficionados who helped to replace Citizen Kane with Vertigo in the last ten-best poll of Sight and Sound, the affectionate ridicule of The Green Fog may seem like an act of sacrilege, especially when we get a panoply of San Francisco cathedrals that are treated as interchangeably as all the cars and streets. But it might also be argued that Maddin’s apparent scorn is in fact a kind of impious critical appreciation for all the tricks of romantic mystification that he and Hitchcock have in common. Read more

Poetry in Motion [THELMA & LOUISE]

From the June 7, 1991 Chicago Reader. Try hitting the second and fourth photos here with your cursor. — J.R.

THELMA & LOUISE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Callie Khouri

With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, and Lucinda Jenny.

I’m not quite sure precisely when Thelma & Louise kicks into high gear. Does it happen when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a convenience store, or much earlier, when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a rapist (Timothy Carhart)? Does it happen when Thelma’s tyrannical husband (Christopher McDonald) steps on a pizza, or when Louise divests herself of her watch and jewelry in exchange for an old coot’s sun hat?

Whenever it happens, something starts to click, and the movie becomes mythical — mutates into a sort of classic before one’s eyes. This isn’t to say that it can thenceforth do no wrong; the flashback shots that punctuate the final credits are lamentable, a cheap attempt to add uplift to an ending that doesn’t need it. But the movie does take on a certain charmed existence, persuading one to forgive such lapses. After a rather slow beginning, this prosy film turns poetic; and when that happens, we’re no longer passive bystanders but active participants, along for the ride morally as well as physically. Read more

Ten Skies

From the April 20, 2005 Chicago Reader. More recently, 16 years later, Erika Balsom, a Canadian film critic and teacher based in London, has just published a brilliant short book about this film, a sort of tour de force that I’ve liked enough to blurb. — J..R.

This 16-millimeter experimental feature (2004) by James Benning consists of ten upward views from a stationary camera, each ten minutes long and filmed with sync sound from his backyard in southern California. I expected something minimalist, but in fact this is remarkably full — a mesmerizing study in time, light, movement, and moisture that traces the shifting relations between clouds and earth, nature and people. Benning is so attentive that he teaches us how to look and listen, and once we adjust our plot-driven expectations, things that might have seemed static at first are revealed as constantly changing. If you’re expecting a test or an ordeal, you could be as surprised by this masterpiece, and as grateful for it, as I was. 101 min. Presented by Chicago Filmmakers. Sat 4/30, 8 PM, Cinema Borealis.

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By The Bluest Of Seas

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One of the very best features of the neglected Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet, this 1935 feature is, like some of his other talkies, a glorious musical of sorts. Codirected by S. Mardanov, it’s about two buddies, a sailor and a mechanic, who, shipwrecked on an island in Soviet Azerbaijan, both try to woo the same young woman, who runs a fishing co-op. Though seemingly light, it’s as intensely physical as Barnet’s preceding masterpiece, Okraina, and its melancholic undertow makes it distinctly different from the early sound comedies of Raoul Walsh that it sometimes resembles. In Russian with subtitles. 71 min. (JR)

 

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All By Myself

From the January 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

Christian Blackwood’s fascinating documentary portrait of Eartha Kitt not only offers a multifaceted sense of its subject — as professional entertainer, private individual, political activist, and self-commentator — but also treats each of these facets in a kaleidoscopic manner. The relationship between Kitt’s champagne-and-furs persona and her traumatic deep-south upbringing is especially suggestive; by the end of the film, one may not be sure how much of Kitt is self-invented, but the sense of dialectical exchange between the aspects of her personality keep all of them intriguing (1982). (JR)

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Death as a Foreigner

Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Death Takes a Holiday, based on a 1924 Italian play hy Alberto Cassella, doesn’t regard itself as a comedy. But its realization is founded on what I take to be an unconsciously comic premise: the notion that Death, as played by Fredric March–who comes to Earth as a human for three days to enjoy a holiday in a mansion full of wealthy guests–is a foreigner. Admittedly, Death is actually impersonating a deceased foreigner, Prince Sirki,, in order to consort with humans, but March already has a foreign accent even before he assumes this disguise.

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Why? Arguably this is because Death as a metaphysical reality is both exotic and romantic in the movie’s terms, which is apparently part of what makes the Prince so alluring to Grazia (Evelyn Venable). By the same token, whenever March seems to periodically lose his foreign accent and become as American or as pseudo-English as the other swells is when we’re asked to perceive him as a mortal.

In short, Death taking a holiday gives our mortality a reprieve and Death returning is something like a foreign invasion. [3/20/21] Read more