Trial and Error (on Jim McBride)

This was written for Artforum‘s web site, and appeared there April 3, 2009. — J.R.

A considerable part of what’s most fascinating and enjoyable about Jim McBride’s early films is also what’s most dated and therefore forgotten about them. So it seems pertinent that McBride’s first two films, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969), an especially (and provocatively) dialectical twosome, are available on a DVD released in the UK by Second Run (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes) but can’t be found on their home turf.

The first of these movies virtually launched the American pseudo-documentary long before postmodernist skepticism ungracefully redubbed the form “mockumentary” (and only a couple years after Peter Watkins’s more earnest pseudo-documentaries Culloden [1964] and The War Game [1965], made for the BBC). The title hero (L. M. Kit Carson) — a compulsively diaristic filmmaker who offers his own life for inspection, scaring away his girlfriend in the process — is, like McBride himself, smitten with the textures of the present moment, which ultimately makes him a doomed figure. Some 1960s audiences found him so compellingly believable that they could even accept Holzman, in the final sequence, having lost his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade — even though it is left unexplained how these abject substitutes could get conveyed to us on film.… Read more »

A Dialogue about Abbas Kiarostami’s SHIRIN

The following piece appeared in the October 22, 2009 issue of the Chicago Reader. Due to a technical error which was belatedly corrected (in March 2010), the Reader omitted Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s name as coauthor, but I’ve restored it here. — J.R.

Shirin

Kiarostami Returns

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa discuss the Iranian master’s first film to screen in Chicago since 2002.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Introduction

It’s been six years since Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and I published Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press), about Iran’s most famous and most controversial filmmaker. The book combined the perspectives of myself, an American film critic with a Jewish background, and Mehrnaz, an Iranian-American filmmaker and teacher with an Islamic background, on Kiarostami’s films, which are neither narrative features nor documentaries but something in between. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986), Close-Up (1990), Life and Nothing More . . . (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) keep altering the balance between what’s actually seen in a story and what’s implied or imagined, and this is part of what continues to make Kiarostami such a contested and fascinating figure. Building, perhaps, on his talent as a visual artist (he’s a photographer, painter, and graphic artist) and his interest as a chronicler of Iranian life, he’s been a nearly constant innovator in both form and subject matter.Read more »

Reflections on “Rivette in Context”

From Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, Volume 1, No. 1, 2012 (a Spanish academic online journal, available at http://www.ocec.eu/cinemacomparative/pdf/ccc01.pdf). I’m reposting this after fixing a broken link. The Introduction to this long out-of-print book can be found here.– J.R.

“Rivette in Context” had two separate incarnations, occurring a year and a half apart. The first consisted of 28 programs presented at London’s National Film Theatre in August 1977, to accompany the publication of Rivette: Texts and Interviews — a 101-page book I had edited for the British Film Institute while still working on the staffs of two of its magazines, Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound, in 1976.

This book included a polemical Introduction by me and translations — most of them by my London flat mate, Tom Milne — of two lengthy interviews with Rivette (one in 1968 that was centered on L’amour fou, the other in 1973 that was centered on the two separate versions of Out 1), three key critical texts by him (“Letter on Rossellini,” 1955; “The Hand” [on Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt], 1957, and “Montage” [with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre], 1969), and a brief, undated proposal of his from the mid-1970s (“For the Shooting of Les Filles du Feu” — the latter was the working title for a projected series of four features, never completed, that was subsequently retitled Scènes de la Vie Parallèle).… Read more »

Two Films at the French Film Festival

Originally posted in 2010. — J.R.

The first still above comes from writer-director Yves Hanchar’s Sans rancune!, the second from cowriter Sophie Hiet’s and director-cowriter Julie Lopes-Curval’s Mêres et filles, also known as La cuisine and Hidden Diary. Both of these highly involving 2009 features about parents and personal legacies were shown at the French Film Festival held in Richmond, Virginia last month — a sort of pedagogical as well as cultural event presented by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond that took place over four days (March 25-28), and where I was privileged and delighted to be a guest.

These two films certainly weren’t the only interesting things I saw at the festival. (Among the more notable items were Philippe Lioet’s touching and beautifully acted Welcome, a story about the growing bond between a Calais swimming instructor and a Kurdish teenager trying to reach a girlfriend in England illegally by swimming across the English channel — a very popular film in France that was nominated for ten Césars last year but sadly won none of them; a very eclectic essay film about motorcycle racing, kids, and movies by Pierre-William Glenn, the remarkable cinematographer who shot both Truffaut’s Day for Night and Rivette’s Out 1; and, strangest of all, Le train oú ça va…, an “intimiste” and domestic 3-D short by Jeanne Guillot, whose masters thesis for La Fémis, arguing that 3-D films need not be spectacular, was translated into English and posted on the festival’s website.)… Read more »

The Way We Laughed

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2002). — J.R.

The_Way_We_Laughed_

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, this 1998 feature by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, Lamerica) wears its art, as well as its heart, on its sleeveso much so that I feel guilty for not liking it more. It explores the idealized love of an illiterate Sicilian worker (Enrico Lo Verso, who has the eyes of a rain-soaked basset hound) for his literate kid brother (Francesco Giuffrida) after they immigrate to Turin, but that love is supposed to spell out the meaning of his entire life, with other details (work, parents, wife and kids) made to seem strictly incidental. The same sense of hyperbole extends to Amelio’s arty and gloomy evocations of the period (1958-’64), though the literary way this is split up into six sections, each focusing on a single day and bearing its own one-word title, is rather elegant. In Italian with subtitles. 128 minutes. (JR)… 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 »

Then and Now: The San Sebastian International Film Festival

This article appeared in the April 1989 issue of The Independent (vol. 12, no. 3); slightly tweaked in late January, 2010. –J.R.

Having attended the San Sebastian Film Festival on two separate occasions 16 years apart — in 1972 and 1988 — I find it surprising how little the basic ambience of the event has changed.. Apart from the fact that the festival has grown, the major differences that I noticed are those between Franco and post-Franco Spain. One no longers buys a copy of the International Herald Tribune on the Avenida de la Libertad only to find that a state censor has neatly clipped out an article or two from every copy. Even more noticeable, to the eyes as well as ears, is Basque, a language that was rigorously outlawed under Franco. One now sees it on street signs and hears it on TV. One of the many sidebars of the 36th International Film Festival at San Sebastian was even devoted to Basque films.

Sidebars, in fact, have for a long time been the festival’s strength. In 1972 there was a Howard Hawks retrospective, with Hawks himself attending as a jury member for the films in competition. Back then, the festival was held in July, and was still small enough to offer excursions for all the guests” a bus ride to Pamplona to attend the bullfight encouraged Hawks to divulge some of his favorite Hemingway stories.… Read more »

Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image

If memory serves, this essay, which first appeared in the Winter 1985/86 issue of Sight and Sound, and was later reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), took me at least a year to write — and maybe even longer than that — because of all the research it required. I’ve recently revised the title  slightly from “GERTRUD as Nonnarrative” to “Gertrud as Nonnarrative” because my basic argument concerns the character Gertrud rather than the film as a whole. — J.R.

There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.

Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle.… Read more »

Racism Here and Now (BETRAYED)

From the September 2, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

BETRAYED

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Costa-Gavras

Written by Joe Eszterhas

With Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, John Mahoney, Ted Levine, Maria Valdez, Betsy Blair, and Richard Libertini.

Although I liked Betrayed enough to make it a Critic’s Choice last week, a second look has convinced me that it has a fair number of strikes against it. Joe Eszterhas’s script clearly plows more than it sows, and sows (in a rather scattershot fashion) more than it reaps. The dialogue tends to fall back on so many familiar notions about simple farmers and hard-nosed federal agents that if less talented actors than Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, and John Mahoney were assigned the lines, I doubt that we could accept them even half-heartedly.

Costa-Gavras’s direction, moreover, is more competent than inspired; the film functions as a thriller, but only barely. What the movie has going for it, really, is a germ of an idea — but one that is potent enough to give this story a sharp and unsettling charge. That the movie deals with rabid American racism without hedging on either its ugliness or its intensity is itself an accomplishment of some note.… Read more »

Two Death Scenes of Jean-Pierre Léaud

Given the size and variety of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s filmography, 

there must be other memorable death scenes of his apart

from those in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA (1966) and 

Albert Serra’s La mort de Louis XIV (2016), half a century 

apart. My reason for settling on these two is that they 

demonstrate his prodigious range. In the first — a very bizarre 

piece of anamorphic Pop Art self-described as “a political film, 

meaning Walt Disney plus blood” — he plays “Donald Siegel”, 

the abused sidekick of gangster “Richard Widmark” (Laszlo 

Szabo), comically sporting a button that declares “Kiss me I’m 

Italian”. He’s dispatched in a garage by Paula Nelson (Anna 

Karina), a detective investigating her lover’s murder. After 

Siegel pantomimes committing murders of his own and other 

criminal adventures as they’re being recounted by Nelson in 

voiceover, she asks him, “If you had to die, would you rather 

be warned or die suddenly?” He selects the latter and as soon 

as she obligingly plugs him, he shouts out “Mama!” and staggers 

extravagantly in long shot across most of the garage floor before 

finally expiring. It all takes a little over twelve seconds, whereas the 

less showy, more minimalistic and iconic finale as the eponymous 

Louis XIV, shown mainly in regal close-ups, lasts for virtually all of 

the film’s 116 minutes.  –Jonathan… Read more »

Guys And Dolls

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

guysanddollsbrando

Conceivably the best picture Sam Goldwyn ever produced, this 1955 blockbuster musical has an undeservedly bad rep, largely because the two leads — Marlon Brando as professional gambler Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army recruiter Sarah Brown — aren’t professional singers. In fact, they both do wonders with Frank Loesser’s dynamite score because they perform their numbers with feeling and sincerity, and their efforts to live up to their material are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of their characters (as well as the songs themselves). In short, this may be the only Method musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a creditable job with the stylized, stagy sets and the pungent vernacular of the original Damon Runyon material (which he also adapted). Also on hand, and at their very best, are Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit), Vivian Blaine (as Adelaide), Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Veda Ann Borg, and Johnny Silver. 150 min. (JR)

guysanddolls_ifiwereabell_FC_470x264_030220160329Read more »

The Revolution Has Been Televised [Peter Watkins’ LA COMMUNE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 2002). — J.R.

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Watkins

Written by Watkins with Agathe Bluysen and contributions from the cast members.

Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right, and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy, and those are the films we don’t transmit. — TV executive in The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins

I’ve been a fan and supporter of Peter Watkins for most of my life. A remarkable master technician and social visionary whose early work is filled to the brim with focused rage, he has created some of the most troubling, thought-provoking, even shattering films I know. This has helped make him persona non grata in mainstream TV and cinema and also in art houses, among academics, at festivals, and on cable TV. When his name does come up in those diverse realms, he’s often accused of being paranoid — though that hardly explains his pariah status.

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Keeping up with his work is hard even for a sympathetic critic like me, and I can’t say I know it well.… Read more »

The Way We Weren’t (PLEASANTVILLE & AMERICAN HISTORY X)

This appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. Reseeing Pleasantville on DVD, I continued to find its diverse perceptions and confusions equally fascinating. On his audio commentary, producer-director-writer Gary Ross alludes to his childhood as the son of an activist screenwriter who was blacklisted, and part of what’s so intriguing about the film is the way its own theme of innocence crossed with sophistication is matched at times by its own multiple forms of ideological doublethink. Ross’s ongoing and seemingly untroubled assumption, for instance, that black and white film is innately artificial and stylized whereas color film is innately “realistic” makes me wonder how he can perceive MGM Technicolor of the 50s as being closer to reality (and thus presumably further away from fantasy) than all the black and white cinematography from the same period — or whether, for that matter, he can even distinguish sufficiently between the alleged “realism” of the contemporary color sections of this film and the subsequent expressionism of the hallucinogenic colors impinging on a 50s sitcom’s black and white to confidently declare that both of these kinds of color are automatically and unproblematically superior to black and white in representing reality accurately.Read more »

Dim Wits, Small Potatoes

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by James Bridges

Written by Jay McInerney

With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.

Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.

If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does.… Read more »

Code Unknown

From the Chicago Reader (June 28, 2002). — J.R.

CODE UNKNOWN

Aptly subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” the fifth feature by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.), his best to date, is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment comparable to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers. The film’s second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche in a powerful performance), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always keep up with what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. This is Haneke’s first feature made in France, and the title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses and apartment buildings in Paris — a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues.… Read more »