A Scene from GOODBYE, DRAGON INN

 From Chris Fujiwara’s 800-page collection  Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).

I’ve just read an advance copy of a terrific new book about this film by Nick Pinkerton, endlessly informative and packed with ideas. Don’t miss it! Fireflies Press is publishing it.– J.R.

GoodbyeDragonInn-empty

Scene

2003 / Goodbye, Dragon Inn – The shot of the empty auditorium near the end.

Taiwan. Director: Ming-liang Tsai. Original title: Bu san.

Why it’s Key: A minimalist master shows what can be done with an empty movie-theater auditorium.

One singular aspect of Ming-liang Tsai’s masterpiece is how well it plays. I’ve seen it twice with a packed film-festival audience, and both times, during a shot of an empty cinema auditorium, where nothing happens for over two minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Tsai makes it a climactic epic moment.

Indeed, for all its minimalism, Goodbye, Dragon Inn fulfills many agendas. It’s a failed heterosexual love story, a gay cruising saga, a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a creepy ghost story, a melancholy tone poem, and a wry comedy. A cavernous Taipei movie palace on its last legs is showing King Hu’s 1966 hit Dragon Inn to a tiny audience — including a couple of the film’s stars, who linger like ghosts after everyone else has left — while a rainstorm rages outside.… Read more »

Rivette, The Long and Short of It

Written for the April 2015 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

lamourfou

out1-leaudogier

Jacques Rivette’s preference for longer films over shorter ones has led to many alternate versions over the course of his career, starting with a two-hour version of  L’amour fou (1968, 250 min.) that the director disowned, though it premiered in Paris at the same time as the longer one, and attracted fewer spectators. The differences between the 750-minute Out 1 (1970), composed as an eight-part serial, and the 260-minute Out 1: Spectre (1971), designed as a feature, are far more important: the first is a free-form comedy whereas the second, a tightly edited nightmare fashioned out of the same footage, took Rivette a year to put together, with a separate editor.  Most fascinating of all is the fact that the same shots sometimes have substantially different meanings and impacts. Fortunately, both versions are now available in a lovely German box set from Absolut Medien in which the serial has optional English subtitles. Together and separately, these two films remain Rivette’s key achievement, along with L’amour fou and the 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating.  (For the latter, Rivette even signed a contract stipulating that his comedy wouldn’t run over two hours, but then everyone who saw the 185-minute work print agreed that it shouldn’t be cut.)… Read more »

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday (February 26, 2013). — J.R.

jr-15
Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

Missing the Target

From the Chicago Reader, June 18, 1993. (This is also reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics.) — J.R.

Who is correct? Are we becoming better off or worse off? Where are we heading? It depends on whom you mean by “we.” — Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations

“Men never get this movie,” a woman says to her friend in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, referring to Leo McCarey’s 1957 An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which is showing on TV. In fact, we’re told this again and again. Another woman tearfully describes the last scene of An Affair to Remember to the hero, who remarks, “That’s a chick’s movie.” To clinch the point, female characters in this romantic comedy are repeatedly shown watching this movie and sobbing (as if the TV stations in Seattle and Baltimore, where most of the action takes place, showed little else), and men are never seen watching it at all. And just in case we’re left with any doubts about the matter, the review of Sleepless in Seattle in Variety assures us that An Affair to Remember‘s “squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.”… Read more »

Interview for a Shanghai Weekly

This interview with Han Jian, reporter for the Bund Pictorial — a culture and lifestyle weekly based in Shanghai — was conducted for a cover story about American film critics planned for their February 17, 2015 issue. [Feb. 28: Now that I’ve been sent a link, it’s clear that the Chinese version of this piece is somewhat longer, because of an added introduction.]– J.R.

ShoalsTheatre

1. How did you become a film critic? Do you still remember your first film review?

Much of this is described in my first book, an experimental memoir entitled Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980; second edition, 1995). I was the grandson and son of movie theater exhibitors in northwestern Alabama, which enabled me to grow up watching a great many movies for free. My father wrote a column for the local newspaper promoting the current releases, and shortly after my 14th birthday, I substituted for him one week, although this wasn’t actually a review. But the following year, I published my first actual film reviews — of The Astounding She-Monster, The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, The Vikings, and a live TV drama called No Place to Run — in my high school newspaper.Read more »

Afterword to THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, a screenplay by Orson Welles

Published by Santa Teresa Press (in Santa Barbara) in 1994 (twenty years later, this book is still available on Amazon) and reprinted in Discovering Orson Welles in 2007, along with the following introductory comments:

Critic Dave Kehr once said to me that encountering The Cradle Will Rock after The Big Brass Ring was a bit like encountering The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane. I appreciate what he meant — especially when it comes to this script’s nostalgia and its sharp autocritique compared to the more narcissistic and irreverent surface of its predecessor. But I hasten to add that this script, unlike The Big Brass Ring, is more interesting for its autobiographical elements than for its literary qualities. Perhaps for the same reason, writing an afterword about it was more difficult.

On the subject of Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock,I’d like to quote excerpts from an article of mine that appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 24, 1999:

For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937.… Read more »

Lanzmann’s Second Thoughts: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST

From the February 2014 Artforum; their title was “Beyond Good and Evil”. — J.R.

Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, 2013, 16 mm and 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein.

 

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, the latest of Claude Lanzmann’s footnotes and afterthoughts to his 1985 masterpiece, Shoah, functions even more than that earlier film as a dialectical palimpsest, so its successive layers — which remain in perpetual dialogue with one another — should be identified at the outset:

December 1944: Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi, is appointed by the Nazis as the third (and last) Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), a “model” or “showcase” ghetto set up in the former Czech Republic in 1941, his two predecessors having been executed the previous May and September. Murmelstein retains this position through the war’s end. Then, after spending eighteen months in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis, he is acquitted of all charges (although still widely despised as a traitor) and moves to Rome.

1961: Murmelstein publishes a book in Italian, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann, describing the suffering of the ghetto’s inhabitants.

1975: Lanzmann films an interview with Murmelstein over a week in Rome — the first interview that he films for Shoah, although he later decides to discard it, donating the unedited footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Read more »

Reply to an article by Lucy Fischer about PLAYTIME

This appeared in the Autumn 1976 Sight and Sound, and I hope I can be excused for omitting the article that occasioned it, Lucy Fischer’s “’Beyond Freedom and Dignity’: an analysis of Jacques Tati’s Playtime,” that was included in the same issue. (In her subsequent book-length bibliography of writings about Tati, Fischer omitted this Afterword, along with much else, so I guess that this exhumation of my Afterword without her article could be interpreted as some form of tit fortat. But in fact, I don’t have the rights to her piece, which I don’t believe has ever been reprinted. However, even though I fully realize that most college students prefer to ignore texts that they can’t find on the Internet, this is a piece well worth looking up in a well-stocked library.)

Beginning with a quote from an article by B.K. Skinner entitled “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” -– “We attempt to gain credit for ourselves by disguising or concealing control” –- Fischer’s article sets about attempting to refute my claims that Playtime was a fulfillment of Andre Bazin’s claim that the “long-take style” accorded more freedom to the viewer by showing how Tati’s own style guides the viewer in various ways and towards certain details through his uses of color, camera movement, and sound.Read more »

NUMÉRO DEUX

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1976). –- J.R.

Numéro Deux

If Numéro Deux is the most important film of Jean-Luc Godard in nearly a decade — specifically, since 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle -– one should explain at the outset what gives these films privileged places within his oeuvre. Focusing in 35mm and wide screen on a fictional working-class family, both are essentially bound up in issues of representation, and neither allies itself to any organized political faction or has any links with the Dziga-Vertov Group and/or Jean-Pierre Gorin. The point of this distinction is that Godard’s pre-eminence has always stemmed directly from his grasp of the problems of representation — a line of inquiry leading from the jump-cuts of Breathless to the fragmented double-images of Numéro Deux -– and that his political commitments have always been inscribed within this concern; it is highly debatable whether he has contributed anything of value to political thought apart from this context. Yet broadly speaking, the increasing emphasis in his work after 2 ou 3 Choses — in La Chinoise,Weekend, 1 + 1, Le Gai Savoir and all the subsequent ventures — has until now been more on the ‘signified’ (subject) and less on the ‘signifier’ (manner of representation), away from investigation and towards didacticism.… Read more »

Jacques Tati, by Penelope Gilliatt

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1976/77). -– J.R.

Jacques Tati, by Penelope Gilliatt

(Woburn Press, £ 2.95). A good example of Sunday supplement journalism, this thumbnail sketch — the first book in English devoted to Tati — shares roughly the same virtues and limitations as Gavin Millar’s Omnibus programme on him last spring: a warm, ample sense of the comic’s personality and opinions is coupled with a meagre grasp of his art. Basically derived from a New Yorker Profile, but decked out with a pleasant assortment of stills, Gilliatt’s slim volume hops from interview material to favourite recollected gags and back again without so much as hinting at the radical complexity of any single shot and its accompanying sounds in any Tati film, restricting its focus to a set of stray details retrieved out of context. To settle for this sentimental reduction of Tati’s genius is roughly tantamount to reducing [James Joyce’s] Ulysses to Joseph Strick’s greeting card version. But Hulot fans who feel that Tati’s importance rests chiefly on his charm as a performer should have little cause for complaint.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

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1941 (1979)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

1941 (1979)

One of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated films is
not only a virtuoso piece of filmmaking but a flagrant
piece of mean-spiritedness and teenage irreverence
that underlines aspects of his work that his more popular
and commercially successful works tend to either
disguise or rationalize. Both of these qualities
are partially the contributions of cowriter Robert
Zemeckis –- who exhibits these traits more independently
on such later features as Used Cars (1980)
and Forrest Gump (1994). But there’s also a strain
that one might associate with the more progressive
and Tashlinesque reflexes of a Joe Dante, helping to
explain why John Wayne not only refused indignantly
to play in this comedy but also tried to persuade
Spielberg that making such a movie was tantamount
to spitting on the American flag. In Spielberg’s
hands, much of the comedy here seems to derive
from a desire to see large sets destroyed as if they
were Tinker toy constructions, complete with tuttifrutti
mixtures of splattered paint, and without the
messy inconvenience of either deaths or morals.… Read more »

Lies of the Mind [TALKING TO STRANGERS]

From the November 4, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. This piece is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies.

The absence of Rob Tregenza’s three features — Talking to Strangers, The Arc, and Inside/Out— on DVD continues to be a major cultural gap, although he says that does have plans to release them all when he can. (Regarding Inside/Out, here are two more links.) And there’s a fourth feature that he shot more recently in Norway, called Gavagai, which was shown in Chicago at Facets.

Before Godard produced Tregenza’s third feature, Inside/Out, he selected Talking to Strangers as his “critic’s choice” for the Toronto International Film Festival and even wrote an extended review of it for their catalog, the same year that he showed For Ever Mozart; I interviewed him about Histoire(s) du cinema at the same festival after he showed me the three latest episodes in his hotel room. — J.R.

TALKING TO STRANGERS

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Rob Tregenza

With Ken Gruz, Marvin Hunter, Dennis Jordan, Caron Tate, Henry Strozier, Richard Foster, Linda Chambers, and Sarah Rush.

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.Read more »

HALLOWEEN (1979 review)

From Take One (January 1979). — J.R.

In order to do justice to the mesmerizing effectiveness of Halloween, a couple of mini-backgrounds need to be sketched: that of writer-director John Carpenter, and that of the Mainstream Simulated Snuff Movie —  a popular puritanical genre that I’ll call thw MSSM for short.

(1) On the basis of his first two low-budget features, it was already apparent that the aptly-named Carpenter was one of the sharpest Hollywood craftsmen to have come along in ages — a nimble jack-of-all-trades who composed his own music, doubled as producer (Dark Star) and editor (Assault on Precinct 13), and served up his genre materials with an unmistakably personal verve. Both films deserve the status of sleepers; yet oddly enough, most North American critics appear to have slept through them, or else stayed away. Somehow, the word never got out, apart from grapevine bulletins along a few film-freak circuits.

Dark Star proved that Carpenter could be quirky and funny; Assault showed that he could be quirky, funnu, and suspenseful all at once. Halloween drops the comedy, substitutes horror, and keeps you glued to your seat with ruthless efficiency from the first frame to the last.… Read more »

Moving (July-August 1978)

From the July-August 1978 Film Comment, only slightly tweaked in March 2014. In retrospect, it must have been an act of sheer defiance and perversity for me to have structured the order of the films discussed here in alphabetical order, perhaps as a way of further brandishing all my globetrotting at the time. Thirty-six years later, I regret some of the swagger here, including the facile wisecrack-putdown of Jean-Pierre Gorin. I was still under the excessive influence of Manny Farber at the time -– a great writer whose style one imitates, consciously or unconsciously, at one’s peril –- combined with some of the early stirrings that led to my 1980 memoir Moving Places. — J.R.

 BackandForth

Back And Forth (London, 1/10/78), in Pam Cook and Simon Field’s avant-garde film course. Each time I encounter Michael Snow’s crisscrossed classroom, I learn a little bit more about how to watch it. Following those relentless, oscillating pans with the eyes — equating one’s head and ego with the camera or vice versa in some sort of anthropomorphic/illusionist perversion conditioned by Hollywood — turns out to be about as useful as climbing into a Mix Master and throwing the switch. Sitting still, in your head as well as in your seat, affords a smoother, subtler, and more contemplative experience.

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Sound Thinking (1978, with Carrie Rickey)

From The Thousand Eyes, Fall 1978. Carrie Rickey and I embarked on this film series and article shortly after we became flat mates, but lamentably it didn’t pan out as we hoped it would; our program notes, for starters, never got distributed. — J.R.

Sound Thinking

By Carrie Rickey and Jonathan Rosenbaum

One of the consequences of describing the world around us is that language separates into different senses what we often experience as a unified whole. Language, an instrument — perhaps the instrument — of’ culture, overvalues the visual at the expense of the other four senses. Our language for the way we see is more precise: looks are eminently describable, we discuss color, dimensions, surface.

Our language for the way we hear is a jumble, less precise. Ambient sound consists of so many simultaneous events: acoustics of a space., buzz of appliances, rhythm of a clock, crowd voices, footfall. We “focus” on a visual event; we “concentrate” on sound, which is more difficult to pinpoint. We screen out the rumble of the subway train to concentrate on a movie.

If movies themselves are a selective screening process, the ways we experience them often censor out other elements. The way we talk about films — referring to “viewers” and “spectators”, talking about “seeing” a movie, asking, “How does it look?”… Read more »