Remembrance of Things Passed: Some Reflections about Moral Agency and Global Synchronicity

Written for Volume 34,  Number 3,  Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below).  — J.R.

 

I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’.  A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s. Read more

Oberhausen (2007)

This is the second of my bimonthly columns written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, which ran in their third (July-August 2007) issue. It seems fitting to post it three years later because I’m back at the same festival again, serving again on the FIPRESCI jury. It’s hard not to feel an immense sadness about the intervening death (by murder, in Manila, along with his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc) of Alexis Tioseco, my fellow juror, who can be seen here in the first photo, on the far right. This was most likely taken by Olaf  Möller, one of the festival’s programmers, who can be seen in the second photo below, taken by Alexis.

Amit Dutta, incidentally, whose Kramasha won our FIPRESCI prize three years ago, will be attending the festival for the first time this year, and presenting a program tomorrow night. (Update, a day later: Unfortunately, Dutta had to cancel his visit due to health reasons, but two programs of his films will still be presented.) — J.R.

The prospect of attending a festival of short films has always seemed difficult to me because of the number of aesthetic gear changes involved in moving from one film to the next. Read more

Anna Biller in Torino (a 2007 Reader Movies blog post)

A Chicago Reader blog post, dated Saturday, December 1, 2007, 1:46 PM. — J.R.

Two of the more interesting programs that I saw at the just-concluded Torino Film Festival consisted of films by LA filmmaker and Cal Arts alumnus Anna Biller, who writes, directs, stars in, designs the costumes and sets for, and sometimes helps to perform the music in her films, none of which has a distributor at this point. Her first feature, Viva (2006), is a pastiche of 1970s soft-core porn, theoretically reconfigured to support a woman’s viewpoint — an interesting curiosity, but a bit long for my taste (at 120 minutes, longer than any ’70s soft-core flick that I’m aware of), and perhaps not sufficiently aware of its own grotesqueness to qualify as either a critical commentary on its elected genre or as a wholly convincing entry in that genre.

I found her program of earlier 16mm shorts more interesting: Three Examples of Myself as Queen (1994), The Hypnotist (2001 — her only film in which she doesn’t act and which she didn’t write herself, written instead by her partner and frequent collaborator Jared Sanford), and, above all, A Visit from the Incubus (2001, see photos above), a 27-minute horror-western-musical that I regard as her masterpiece.

Read more

Spike Lee’s Best Movie? [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Spike Lee’s best movie?

Posted By on 01.01.07 at 01:53 PM

If my 20 best list for the past year could have been based purely on artistic criteria rather than on packaging and marketing categories, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts — which premiered on HBO on two consecutive nights in late August, a year after the tragedy in New Orleans—would have belonged somewhere near the top. Although I missed the third act at the time, I’ve recently watched the whole thing on the recently released three-disc DVD box set — which adds a fifth act called “Next Movement” as well as a slide show of photographs called “Water Is Rising,” accompanied (like the documentary itself) by a Terence Blanchard jazz score—and the experience as a whole is so powerful that I’m tempted to call this over four-hour documentary Lee’s masterpiece to date. For its remarkable cast of characters, its comprehensive and even epic treatment of a major catastrophe in all its multidimensional aspects, for its political and ethical clarity (as well as its focused and wholly justifiable anger), and above all, for its soul, it shows a maturity and balance that may be unparalleled in Lee’s work.
Read more

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema

From the Chicago Reader (March 16, 2007), slightly corrected (in terms of title and running time).. — J.R.

pervertsguide

6421_pervertsguide_hero

If Daffy Duck ever became a film critic informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, this three-part English entertainment (2006) by Sophie Fiennes would surely qualify as his Duck Amuck. Theorist Slavoj Zizek, inside beautifully constructed sets matching various films’ locations, lectures provocatively and dynamically about 43 screen classics, often sputtering like Daffy himself. Hitchcock and Lynch are favored, but among the many other filmmakers considered are Coppola, Lang, Powell, and Tarkovsky. Zizek is especially sharp about manifestations of the maternal superego in Psycho and The Birds, maverick fists in Dr. Strangelove and Fight Club, and voices in The Great Dictator and The Exorcist. 143 min. (JR)

zizek2

pervertsguidetoideology.photo03 Read more

Voluptuous Defeat: Philippe Garrel and LES AMANTS RÉGULIERS

Commissioned by Sight and Sound, and written for their August 2006 issue. — J.R.

Considering how much admiration I have for the films of Philippe Garrel, it’s hard to avoid some feelings of guilt and consternation for not liking them more —  especially when I consider how much they mean to others whose tastes I admire. Why do I find myself preferring the work of his best-known disciple, Leos Carax?

This is a problem I’ve been wrestling with for a quarter of a century. For the past decade, I’ve been trying to theorize my disaffection by ascribing the passion of my younger friends for this melancholy star of the French underground to a generational taste I can’t share. In some respects, I even like the way they like Garrel’s films more than I like the films themselves. They generate a kind of awe that few other filmmakers inspire, and the fact that he’s a minority taste in no way disqualifies him from being a major talent.

 

These far-flung cinéphiles, all born around 1960, include Nicole Brenez, based in Paris; Alexander Horwath, based in Vienna; Kent Jones, based in New York; and Adrian Martin, based in Melbourne —- all of whom share similarly acute feelings for John Cassavetes, Abel Ferrara, Monte Hellman, and Maurice Pialat. Read more

Pynchon on the Beach

My review of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable Inherent Vice, for Slate (August 3, 2009). Much less lamentable — actually quite good in spots — is Pynchon’s more recent Bleeding Edge, which I prefer to everything of his since Vineland. But even more lamentable, in my opinion, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which even after a second viewing strikes me on most counts as his worst film to date. (I’d been hoping for something more transformative, such as Norman Mailer’s superb film adaptation of his own worst novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) Despite a few glancing virtues (e.g., Josh Brolin’s Nixonesque performance) and the (so far) unsubstantiated enthusiasm of many of my smarter colleagues, Anderson’s film strikes me as being just as cynical as its source and infused with the same sort of misplaced would-be nostalgia for the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, pitched to a generation that didn’t experience it, as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. [Postscript, January 27, 2015: The first semiplausible defense of the film that I’ve read can be found here.]  [A second postscript, January 23, 2023: It’s too bad that it’s impossible for most of us now to know whether Pynchon has retired or if he has another book in the works.] Read more

The Cinema of Tomorrow (2007)

This is the first of my bimonthly columns written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, which ran in their first issue (May 2007). Not coincidentally, it was at the same Mar del Plata festival described below that the magazine’s director, Carlos F. Heredero, and its editor-in-chief, Carlos Reviergo, invited me to write this regular column. — J.R.

My seven trips to Argentina over the past eight years began when the Buenos Aires branch of FIPRESCI, the international film critics organization, brought me there to give some lectures in the fall of 2000. The couple who became my host and hostess, critics Quintín and Flavia de la Fuentes, invited me back half a year later after Quintín became director of the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film, a remarkable event sponsored by the city every April. Quintín held the job for four years, and it quickly became, to my knowledge, the only festival to be organized socially as well as intellectually around the principles of film criticism. The programming gave as much attention to older films (especially difficult-to-see classics imported from the Cinémathèque Française by Bernard Benoliel, such as Rossellini’s sublime India) as to new ones, and the books they published, starting with a translation of my own Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, tended to be polemical interventions. Read more

Holiday Jitters [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/1206]

From the Chicago Reader‘s blog, the Bleader. — J.R.

Holiday Jitters

Posted By on 12.12.06 at 03:06 PM

night-at-the-museum

Allied Advertising recently informed me that the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum is being previewed only to the daily press, not to weekly reviewers — which naturally raises the question of whether the company in question (Twentieth Century Fox) is deciding in advance that we weekly reviewers won’t like this release. Whether that’s the meaning of their strategy or not, it does show a kind of uncertainty that is much more general among the so-called majors. For instance, Warner Brothers has at this pointed shifted the Chicago opening date of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima several times, with the result that it’s bounced on and off my ten-best list according to whether it’s opening here in 2006 or 2007. New York and Los Angeles reviewers get to consider Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as part of the same package; Chicago reviewers don’t.

I differ from some of my local colleagues in refusing to consider 2007 releases for my 2006 list just because many of the film companies persist in treating Chicago as a cow town in contrast to New York and Los Angeles — both of which will be premiering Letters from Iwo Jima this year. In

Read more

One More Bibliographic List

Here are some links to some pieces of mine that are available online elsewhere, in chronological order. Many of them include various lists of their own. — J.R.

10 Favorite Offbeat Musicals (March 2006):

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/10_offbeat_musicals.htm

Ten Overlooked Noirs (April 2006):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/noir.htm

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns (June 2006):

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/westerns.htm

Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies (August 2006):

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/sci-fi.htm

Ten Overlooked Fantasy Films on TV (and Two That Should be Available) (October 2006):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/fantasy.htm

A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires (January 2007):

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_undervalued_movie_satires.htm

Eleven Treasures of Jazz Performance on DVD (April 2007):

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/eleven_treasures_of_jazz_on_dvd.htm

18 Thrillers You Might Have Missed… (July 2007):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/18_thrillers_you_might_have_missed.htm

Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films (December 2007):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/ten_underappreciated_john_ford_films.htm

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Box Sets (June 2008):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_favorite_nonR1_boxsets.htm

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Single-disc DVDs (November 2008):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_favorite_nonR1_single-disc.htm

Trial and Era (on Jim McBride’s early films) (posted April 3, 2009):

http://www.artforum.com/film/id=22423

The Consequences of Fame (on Roman Polanski’s arrest, posted Sept. 19, 2009):

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/the-polanski-uproar/#jonathan

Tony Tony Tony (on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, posted December 23, 2009):

http://www.artforum.com/film/id=24395

Great 30s Movies on DVD (…and a few more that should be available) (February 2010):

www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/great_30s_movies_on_dvd.htm

Too Many Greats Ignored (on the Oscars, posted March 4, 2010):

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/do-the-oscars-undermine-artistry/#jonathan

Gertrud and Light in August (posted October 26, 2010):

www.criterion.com/current/posts/1635-gertrud-and-light-in-august Read more

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2006). — J.R.

TheBitterTeaofGeneralYen

a-barbara-stanwyck-bitter-tea-boxset-dvd-review-pdvd_011

Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece but also one of the greatest love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Also on the program: episode eight of the 1938 serial The Spider’s Web. Sat 9/2, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.

IBTOGY Read more

’tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris

From the Chicago Reader (June 5, 2008). — J.R.

Tis Autumn

A director and writer of fiction films (The Thing About My Folks, Two Family House) as well as a jazz pianist, Raymond De Felitta tracked down the great, forgotten bebop singer Jackie Paris, befriended him, and in this documentary tries to get to the bottom of why his promising career never clicked, despite tours with Charlie Parker and Lenny Bruce. What emerges is inconclusive and sometimes awkward — especially when Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Whaley, and Nick Tosches get enlisted to recite news stories and reviews — yet also haunting and heartbreaking for what it shows about the scuffling disorder of some jazz careers. When the voice-overs don’t compete with the music, Paris is a spellbinder even at 79 (though I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to about his guitar playing and tap dancing), and his classic singing of Skylark sent shivers up my spine (2006). 100 min. (JR)

JackieParis Read more

Hollywoodland

From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 2006). — J.R.

Hollywoodland-Ben-Affleck_770

A neo-noir in the tradition of Chinatown, this fine collaboration between director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos) and writer Paul Bernbaum revolves around the mysterious 1959 death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played the title role in the TV series The Adventures of Superman. The shooting was ruled a suicide, but conspiracy theories persist, and the film uses flashbacks to meticulously work out the possibilities (including two murder scenarios) while the fictional story of an investigating detective (Adrien Brody) provides suggestive counterpoint. The period details and performances are uniformly superb (Bob Hoskins is especially good as MGM executive Eddie Mannix), and the major characters are even more complex than those in Chinatown. With Diane Lane, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, and Molly Parker. R, 126 min. Century12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Davis, Gardens 1-6, Lake, Norridge, River East 21, Webster Place.

Hollywodland_3 Read more

Syndromes And A Century

The unpredictable and provocative Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady) offers a mysterious and beautiful experimental feature (2006) based on memories of his parents, who were both doctors. It’s divided into two parts, both set in the present, with many rhyme effects between them. The first, set in and around a rural clinic, centers on his mother; the second, set in the vicinity of a Bangkok hospital, focuses on his father, though it’s a kind of quizzical remake of the first and both characters appear in each section. There’s nothing here that resembles narrative urgency, but this is a quiet masterpiece, delicate and full of wonder. In Thai with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)

Read more

Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France. Read more