Daily Archives: June 11, 2024

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