Yearly Archives: 2024

The Politics of the Oscars

An article commissioned by La Repubblica‘s weekly magazine D. in Italy for publication on February 1, 2017. A slight variation of this appeared as one of my columns in Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

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I’ve never been adept at predicting the Oscars, and writing this shortly before the nominees are announced puts me at an even greater disadvantage. But the winners of the Golden Globes awards several weeks before the Academy Awards are a good indication of the overall trends in industry thinking. And the tendency in this year’s Golden Globes winners is a preference for ideological and aesthetic prestige over mainstream appeal: Moonlight for best drama, La La Land for best musical or comedy,  Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Emma Stone in La La Land for best actress, Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Otherwise, La La Land broke the record for prizes by winning seven in all, including also screenplay and direction (Damien Chazelle) and original score (Justin Hurwitz).

What generalizations can one reach about all four of the aforementioned prizewinners? A preference for gloom and doom over optimism that seems quite appropriate following the recent election of the United States’ own Silvio Berlusconi, Donald J. Read more

MOVING PLACES: A LIFE AT THE MOVIES Acknowledgements & Looking Back at MOVING PLACES & Dedication

I will be reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the first.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Acknowledgments

For specific, invaluable, and diverse forms of assistance to me in preparing this book, I owe particular thanks to Lizzie Borden, Meredith Brody, W. L. and Diane Butler, Ian Christie, David Ehrenstein, Aston and Mae Murray Elkins, Manny Farber, Carolyn Fireside, Sandy Flitterman, Vicki Hiatt, Penelope Houston, Allan Kronzek, Lorenzo Mans, David Meeker, Cynthia Merman, Patricia Patterson, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schmidt, Allan Sekula, Wally Shawn, Charles Silver, David Sobelman, Bobby Stewart, Beulah Sutton, Amos Vogel, and Bibi Wein;

the staffs of the Florence Public Library, Florence, Alabama; the Information Department at the British Film Institute in London; the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.;

and National Endowment for the Arts, for an Art Critics Fellowship Grant which permitted me to launch this project in 1977. Read more

Paris Journal on STAVISKY…

From Film Comment (March-April 1974). — J.R.

December 7: To enter the sound stage at Epinay-sur-Seine, a Parisian suburb where Alain Resnais is working on his new film about Alexandre Stavisky, you have to go through a heavy door that resembles the entrance to a bank vault, where you’re promptly greeted by Alexandre, a friendly dog who seems to be serving as the crew’s mascot (a younger dog named Sacha figures in the cast). Continuing past Alexandre, you weave your way through a labyrinth of construction that eventually resolves itself into a gargantuan neo-Lubitsch set comprising Stavisky’s office complex — a rather awesome 1933 décor the size of a country house that took forty people a month to build, even though it’ll only be used for a relatively short part of the film.

It’s the kind of set you can get lost in, with multiple exits and three separate stairways leading off of a giant central conference room with golden chandeliers, a large semi-circular table, light-green walls, tall windows with pink drapes, and no ceiling; a set where long hallways on the second landing go past doors that open on nothing, and members of the lighting crew move about in obscure corners carrying equipment and muttering to themselves. Read more

Jean Eustache’s LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1974-75). — J.R.

“The day I stop suffering, I’ll have become someone else.” “There’s no such thing as chance.” “To speak with the words of others — that’s what I’d like. That’s what freedom must be.” From the Café aux Deux Magots to the adjacent Flore, from the streets and sidewalks of a grayish Paris to other people’s flats, for the better part of 219 minutes, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) continues to hold forth. “In May ’68 a whole café was crying. It was beautiful. A tear-gas bomb had exploded . . . a crack in reality opened up.” Charmingly, narcissistically, elaborately, endlessly: “I don’t do anything; I let time do it.” “Abortionists are the new Robin Hoods . . .the scalpel replaces the sword.” “The world will be saved by children, soldiers” (pregnant pause) “and fools.”

Much less talkative is his beloved Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten—a Bresson discovery back for another nonperformance), who forsakes him to get married, and Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the older woman he lives with, casually exploits, and is clothed and fed by. But a verbal match of sorts is offered by the doleful and doelike Veronika (Françoise Lebrun, in an extraordinary, glowing debut), a promiscuous nurse he picks up one afternoon. Read more

Vietnam, the Theme Park [HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE ]

From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 1992). — J.R.

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola

Written by Bahr and Hickenlooper.

A little over a decade ago in an English film magazine I made a rather foolish prediction: “Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow [American] filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.” Cockeyed optimist that I was, I reasoned that some historical distance would allow certain blank spots in our knowledge and understanding of Vietnam to be filled — not doused in amber and framed in gold while remaining blank spots. I took to heart Ernest Hemingway’s famous declaration in a Paris Review interview: “If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” I reasoned that the gaping holes in our Vietnam cover story would finally reduce that protective garment to tatters and permit some light to shine through.

Little did I know that the holes themselves would come to be defined as points of illumination — a bit like George Bush’s “thousand points of light” — and would decorate our consciousness like Christmas trees. Read more

On Transes

From “Festival Journal,” The Soho News, October 13, 1981. Transes recently became available on a French DVD released by the World Cinema Foundation. –- J.R.

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October 1: The best new movie I see all week is a particular favorite. I’ve been told, of Susan Sontag’s. I share much of her enthusiasm for the French/Moroccan coproduction Transes, directed by Ahmed El Maanouni, if only because this movie has some of the best sound-mixing and most infectious music I’ve heard in ages. Both of these are central aspects of its subject, the North African tour of an indigenous pop group called Nasa El Ghiwane, which comes from the Casablanca ghetto and sings about extreme poverty – a genuinely subversive male quintet whose popularity has spread like wildfire since the 60s. Originally banned from Moroccan radio and TV, they can automatically command an audience of 20,000 wherever they play in Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia.

The movie starts wonderfully by establishing direct continuities between the music and the Casablanca ghetto (the latter traversed from a car window) -– a sequence that was almost cut by the local government until the powerful Nasa El Ghiwane group intervened; and the transitions throughout between both physical and aural subjects are handled with a remarkable ear and eye. Read more

The World in a Village [GUELWAAR]

From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1994). — J.R.

*** GUELWAAR

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène

With Omar Seck, Mame Ndoumbe Diop, Thierno Ndiaye, Ndiawar Diop, Moustapha Diop, Marie-Augustine Diatta, Samba Wane, and Joseph Sane.

We like to think that the essential works of any art form are readily available to everyone; but when it comes to film we still aren’t within hailing distance of that goal, even if we agree to the debatable proposition that a film’s transfer to video equals its availability. The canons of film history taught in film departments across the country are based almost entirely on the titles that film, video, and laser disc companies choose to place or keep on the market, which is all that most film professors have seen in the first place. And now that 16-millimeter film distribution is already on its last legs, the history and breadth of the medium, even for most film students, is quickly being reduced to what can be found at local video stores.

Among the many key items that can’t be found there are virtually all the major African films, including the seven features and four shorts of Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène, by most accounts the greatest African filmmaker. Read more

Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (book review)

The following review of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), signed by one Nancy Rothstein and entitled “Placing Movies”, appeared in the May-June 1981 issue of Film Comment. In point of fact, this was written by me, with the full knowledge and complicity of editor Richard Corliss, following precedents in the same magazine that had by then already been set by Robin Wood (criticizing his own book on Alfred Hitchcock under the name George O. Kaplan in an article entitled “Lost in the Wood”) and, unless my memory is now deceiving me, by Raymond Durgnat (although I no longer remember any of the specific details in Ray’s case). To be fair, Robin took on his own disguise in order to express some of his own serious misgivings about Hitchcock’s Frenzy. My own motives were somewhat more mercenary, or at least self-promotional; at this point, Moving Places had received very few reviews anywhere, and the publisher, Harper & Row, not only wouldn’t advertise the book but also wouldn’t allow me to do so at my own expense.

I figured that the specific challenge of creating a fictional reviewer (“Nancy Rothstein is working on a book about the Hollywood careers of Eisenstein, Brecht, and Renoir,” read the note in Contributors) made the exercise more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Read more

The Origins of Goofus McPherson (2007 Reader blog post)

Here’s where the original post is, dated June 7, 2007, which has a better layout as well as 17 hyperlinks. This is basically a piece of postmodernist fiction, for better and for worse. –J.R.

The Origins of Goofus McPherson
June 7, 2007 – 12:08 p.m.

Goofus: a Latin declension of the middle-class Disney mutt, best known for his unbuttoned longjohns  and his stammering, guttural dim-wittedness. McPherson: the lovesick, necrophiliac cop played by Dana Andrews in Laura. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Walt Disney hired Otto Preminger to remake his own noir as a cartoon, a sort of animated True-Life Adventure. Or that Otto Preminger, opting for an animated remake himself, farmed out part of the work to the Disney studio, which took it upon itself to undermine the class status of Detective Lt. Mark McPherson by turning this gumshoe into a bourgeois fall guy and a dumb-ass canine to boot, meanwhile converting the Vincent Price character into some version of Lumpjaw the Bear, who was even dumber than Goofy, and which suggests refashioning Gene Tierney in the title role of the sweet missy as Lulabelle.

Why the Latin declension? Let’s call it an all-too-American cultural as well as psychosexual trade-off. Read more

Passing Through

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

One of the rare fiction features about the jazz world made by a black filmmaker — and arguably much more important than Mo’ Better Blues, though it’s rarely shown. This 1977 film by Larry Clark, written by Ted Lange, follows a young saxophonist (Nathaniel Taylor) recently released from prison who tries to deal with the political aspects of his profession with the help of an older musician (Clarence Muse). Original and thoughtful, this is a very special first feature, with a feeling for the music that’s boldly translated into film style. (JR)

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Let the Music Do the Talking [on JAZZ ’34]

This defense of what I consider Robert Altman’s most neglected major work appeared in the May 8, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’ve deliberately refrained from including any stills from Kansas City — its “parent” film, which I continue to dislike. —  J.R.

Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Robert Altman

With Jesse Davis, David “Fathead” Newman, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Tyrone Clark, Don Byron, Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Victor Lewis, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Craig Handy, David Murray, Joshua Redman, Curtis Fowles, Clark Gayton, Olu Dara, Nicholas Payton, James Zollar, and Kevin Mahogany.

The best Robert Altman feature in more years than I care to remember isn’t playing at a theater anywhere. A shortened version aired on PBS’s “Great Performances” series last year, but the movie only recently came to my attention when a video copy (distributed by Rhapsody Films) arrived in the mail. A fascinating adjunct to Altman’s much more ambitious and much less successful Kansas City (1996), Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing is one of the best jazz films I’ve ever seen. It’s what its parent film promised but failed to deliver — all the more interesting because it’s neither a documentary nor a narrative but an eccentric hybrid. Read more

Reactionary Humor and Southern Comfort (review of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES)

This book review appeared in the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News.

I was moved to repost this review some time ago by the generous recent reference to it made by Sam Jordison in the Guardian. –– J.R.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Foreword by Walker Percy

Louisiana State University Press, $12.95

Is it by mere chance, or through some form of subtly earned tragic irony, that this brilliantly funny, reactionary novel is being published during a reactionary period, apparently about a decade and a half after it was written? God knows what it might have been like to read this in the mid-’60s. I suspect it would have been less warmly received — one reason, perhaps, why it wasn’t published way back then.

What I mean by Reactionary Humor is the boring literary schemes of Tom Sawyer, not the expedient escape tactics of Huck Finn. Broadly speaking, it’s what we learn to expect from the perennial antics of Blondie and Dagwood, Amos and Andy, Franny and Zooey, Laurel and Hardy (and Marie and Bruce, in Wallace Shawn’s recent play), not to mention W.C. Fields, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Archie Bunker, and Woody Allen. Read more

SHOAH & Ten-Best Documentary List

Written for Sight and Sound‘s documentary film poll in their September 2014 issue, and posted online with partial corrections (and some new errors, such as spelling James Benning’s RR “Rr”). . Two unfortunate differences between my ten-best list and the one they published on paper is (1) the exclusion (through an oversight) of my 9th selection, Peter Thompson‘s Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen (although online they now list only Universal Hotel and exclude Universal Citizen) and (2) my specification that I was referring only to the French version of Rossellini’s India — a version that I vastly prefer to the Italian version, though more as fiction than for any “documentary” reasons (which applies to most or all of my other choices). This gives an added truth to James Benning’s own bold contribution to the same poll, well worth quoting in full: “Titanic (Cameron). This is my only vote: an amazing document of bad acting. And, I might add, all films are fictions.” —  J.R.

SHOAH

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There are documentary filmmakers who plant their stakes within existing traditions and those for whom cinema has to be reinvented. Claude Lanzmann clearly belongs in the latter category. Of course cinema already had to exist in order to allow Lanzmann to make Shoah (1985) — named after the Hebrew word for annihilation — but he also had to rethink what cinema could be. Read more

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Curiously, the Chicago Reader’s web site dates this capsule review in October 1985, two years before the film was made. I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1987, and believe I reviewed it not too long afterwards. — J.R.

Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable — as goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos (although the women here also do pretty well in that department), and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process. Read more

Hollywood From the Fringes [INLAND EMPIRE]

From the January 25, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

INLAND EMPIRE ****

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY DAVID LYNCH WITH LAURA DERN, JUSTIN THEROUX, JEREMY IRONS, KAROLINA GRUSZKA, HARRY DEAN STANTON, AND GRACE ZABRISKIE

David Lynch’s first digital video, almost three hours long, resists synopsizing more than anything else he’s done. Some viewers have complained, understandably, that it’s incomprehensible, but it’s never boring, and the emotions Lynch is expressing are never in doubt. Asked many years ago about the origins of the nightmarish Eraserhead (1978), his first and best feature, he forthrightly replied, “Philadelphia.” If asked the same thing today about the no less nightmarish Inland Empire, he might say, “Hollywood.”

Many of my colleagues believe Lynch’s best early feature is Blue Velvet (1986), which I regard as a gripping but limited piece of designer porn. Like his more offensive Wild at Heart and his more charming TV series Twin Peaks (both 1990), Blue Velvet offers a vivid illustration of how a man can turn his most lurid puritanical obsessions into clout and big money — and get an audience to wallow in those obsessions without thinking about them very hard. It has little of the meditative integrity and private intensity of Eraserhead, but then little in his work before Inland Empire did. Read more