Western Culture Coming and Going [THE CASE OF THE GRINNING CAT & WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?]

From the July 21, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Case of the Grinning Cat

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Chris Marker

Narrated by Gerard Rinaldi

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Frank Tashlin

With Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, and Mickey Hargitay

Two cheery, even hilarious works that are informed by a surrealist spirit are showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Each says plenty about what’s wrong with the world, yet neither has a villain.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is a wise, somewhat whimsical hour-long video — a political commentary on Western culture by independent French writer-director Chris Marker, who turns 85 next week. From 2001 to 2004 he taped ephemeral phenomena on the streets of Paris — graffiti, posters, political demonstrations, glimpses of cats and musicians in metro stations — as he explored issues ranging from 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq to more local concerns. It’s all framed by a reverie about cartoon Cheshire cats that mysteriously appear in unexpected places, rather like the proliferating post horns in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Read more

The Curse of the Delayed Release (2007)

This is the third of my bimonthly columns for Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their October 2007 issue. — J.R.

In recent years, it’s become one of my major convictions that, film industry “wisdom” to the contrary, we know practically nothing about the audience. Despite pseudoscientific prognostications that have grown up around commercial projections —- many of which turn out to be mistaken guesses —- public taste continues to be mysterious and in a state of perpetual flux. All this should be an occasion for celebration, not frustration, because the moment we can predict an audience’s responses, cinema as a social activity becomes a rather tedious subject.

The people most frustrated about this uncertainty are distributors and marketers, and sometimes this leads to the frustration of reviewers as well, including myself. The most interesting press screenings I attended this past summer were for a couple of commercial releases whose opening dates are either unset or periodically postponed, and the reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. As Orson Welles discovered repeatedly, films that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale and conventional ones — hence harder to sell, and therefore less likely to be sold at all. Read more

Resistance Is Futile

From the May 26, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Army of Shadows

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, and Serge Reggiani

Around 1971 Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samourai and Army of Shadows), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”

Melville’s assertion — echoed by critic André Bazin and allegedly by Robert Bresson himself — may seem startling. Melville is best known for his eight noir features, all of them stylish and artificial in a way that seems utterly foreign to the more physical and neorealistic surfaces of Bresson’s work. But these differences are ultimately superficial. What the two filmmakers have in common is much more important: the styles, themes, and philosophical positions of both can be traced directly to their experiences during World War II.

Bresson spent nine months in a German internment camp in 1940-’41, before the occupation of France, and his imprisonment is alluded to in one of his greatest films, A Man Escaped (1956). Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, joined the resistance in the early 40s — changing his Jewish surname to Cartier and then Melville in homage to Herman Melville — and three of his 13 features, all made after the war, deal with the German occupation. Read more

En movimiento: Wilder and Barnet in Paris 

My latest column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, submitted in early February 2024:

A short Paris holiday — mostly devoted to seeing old friends, but also including a Zoom lecture on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole for students in Atlanta. It’s a temporary escape from the viper’s nest of Trumpland, and I’m sufficiently solipsistic as an American to think I’m far enough away from the bad vibes of Billy Wilder to experience them differently, as an egotistical form of self-hatred.

Kirk Douglas, a disgruntled counterpart to the nasty reporters of The Front Page (a later Wilder project, reflecting his own past as a Viennese scandal-monger), is stuck in a dull position at a New Mexico newspaper until he gains exclusive access to a man trapped in a remote desert cave. Eventually he causes the man’s death by delaying his rescue, meanwhile trumping (pun intended) his big-city competitors and attracting many credulous, sensation-hungry tourists. Simultaneously celebrating and castigating this antihero’s ruthlessness is the quintessential Wilder “touch”.

Douglas’s self-hatred recalls William Holden’s failing screenwriter who becomes a gigolo (related to another seedy part of Wilder’s European background) in Sunset Boulevard, whose success made Ace in the Hole possible. Each antihero is killed after his self-hatred becomes most evident, literally facing us as a fallen corpse at the film’s end,

A man believing Trump was sent to Earth by Jesus was recently asked if he minded being called a disciple. Read more

A Few Things Well [A LITTLE STIFF]

From the Chicago Reader (September 6, 1991). — J.R.

A LITTLE STIFF

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins

With Zahedi, Erin McKim, Watkins, Patrick Park, Mike McKim, and Beat Ammon.

Minimalism seems to be getting a bad rep in some quarters these days, mainly from critics who identify that movement with the 70s and think that artistic styles should be up-to-date. But what if the artists themselves don’t identify with the overstuffed and unwieldy smorgasbords of 80s and 90s postmodernism? It seems to me that any serious assessment of minimalism has to consider what it manages to include as well as what it leaves out.

On both counts, Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins’s charming and delightful independent feature A Little Stiff, playing at the Film Center this weekend, beats what most commercial movies do with young romance hands down. Neither excessive nor undernourished, as its industry counterparts are prone to be, it strikes a happy balance. These filmmakers seem to know precisely what they’re doing every step of the way.

Minimal in budget as well as in style, form, and content — the entire production is said to have cost a mere $10,000 — this black-and-white 16-millimeter tragicomedy was shot by two UCLA film students chiefly on and around their own campus. Read more

LES RENDEZ-VOUS D’ANNA: Glum is Beautiful

This appeared in Take One, July 15, 1979 (vol. 7, no. 8). Check out Dave Kehr’s recent column on 70s Akerman in the New York Times for some other reflections. —J.R.

Chantal Akerman is a tough filmmaker to tangle with, make up one’s mind about or describe. One thing’s clear enough though: Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, her fifth feature, is the most assertive film by a woman that I’ve seen since Marguerite Duras’ Le Camion — and probably the most accessible that Akerman has made to date. It might wind up serving as a calling card for the rest of her work.

A film that assumes the ambition (and pretention) of taking the pulse of Western Europe while pursuing a narcissistic autobiographical meditation obviously isn’t going to win everyone over — particularly when every shot has the visual weight of a battleship and nearly every facial expression has enough glumness to sink one. Take that, Akerman seems to be saying, offering up yet another drab, anonymous hotel room or train station at night, each one lit with precise, uncanny radiance, and hammering these cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Milius and Peckinpah seem like frollicking pussy-cats in comparison. Read more

Every Critique for Itself

From the October 15, 1980 issue of The Soho News. I should note the influence on my viewpoint of sexual politics in this article exerted by Sandy Flitterman, a feminist critic and one of the founding editors of Camera Obscura, with whom I was living in Hoboken during this period (roughly, 1979-1983). I should also note that my swipe at Coppola provoked an angry call from Tom Luddy, who was working for Coppola at the time. — J.R.

Every Man for Himself
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard,
Anne-Marie Miéville, and
Jean-Claude Carrière


Gloria
Written and directed by
John Cassavetes

Tih Minh
Directed by Louis Feuillade

In the latest lovely, desperate film by one of the most brilliant filmmakers alive, Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself should be seen by everyone interested in movies or in life, without hesitation or delay. There are more ideas here per cubic second than one could find in a month of Paul Mazursky (or Ingmar Bergman) “think” pieces, and for this reason alone, Godard’s latest comeback is worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

Don’t let yourself get tripped up by the unfortunate masculine English title. The French that it strictly translates, Save qui peut (la vie), is genderless, save for the feminine article preceding the parenthetical “life”. Read more

Overrated Solutions [L’HUMANITÉ]

From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2000); also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.


L’humanité

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Bruno Dumont

With Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquière, and Ginette Allegre.

One of my favorite Italian novels, long out of print in English, is Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, a sort of Roman police procedural from 1946 in which the central crime never gets solved. The book is so beloved in Italy that it’s known simply as Il pasticciaccio (“the awful mess”), and when Gadda died in 1973 at the age of 79, it had gone through several editions.

William Weaver, who did the 1965 English translation, wrote in the preface that “Il pasticciaccio occupies in contemporary Italian literature the position that Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Man Without Qualities occupy in the literature of their respective countries.” He also noted that many of Gadda’s other fictional works are “unfinished, but not incomplete. Read more

Mudpie Modernism [on THE PERFUMED NIGHTMARE]

From The Soho News, November 26, 1980. — J.R

The Perfumed Nightmare

A film by Kidlat Tahimik

An odd, elusive 1971 Filipino filibuster, a first feature that somehow disassembles more than it assembles, Mababangong Bangungot (The Perfumed Nightmare) has a nearly total absence of “technique” — pacing, composition, acting, rhythm, budget — that is inextricably bound up with its subject, an all-around ambivalence about American knowhow. This makes it intermittently sluggish to watch, and theoretically fascinating to think about. Combining autobiography with fantasy, “magical realism” with cornball folklore and enchantment (with American technology) with disenchantment, it’s as unremittingly screwball as a house built of chewing gum wrappers and cigarette packs.

Don’t go expecting anything remotely decadent, despite the fancy title: the movie is as pure and innocent as the driven snow. (Or almost — the filmmaker, unlike his movie counterpart, spent almost a decade in Europe.) Kidlat Tahimuik, who wrote, produced, directed, and stars in this doggedly homemade production, presents himself as the driver of a brightly painted taxi-bus in his native Filipino village. He’s the proud possessor of a transistor radio, whose broadcasts lead him to become the founder of a local Werner von Braun Fan Club. Read more

Ad Hominem [review of DIXIANA MOON]

From The Soho News, March 4, 1981. — J.R.

Dixiana Moon

By William Price Fox

Viking Press, $11.95

Any kind of sales talk, no matter how witty or effervescent, eventually goes stale or rancid in your head — until it is replaced by a new slogan. This is what Dixiana Moon is all about, and, just as unavoidably, what it’s like: drifts of euphoria that gradually work their way up to nausea, peaking in a blissful forgetfulness that efficaciously clears the way for bright new ideas to come along. It is also what journalism — a quaint subcategory of advertising — is about and like, this review included: a laxative for the imagination intended to move goods as quickly as possible, straight through the digestive tract.

Dixiana Moon is a quick and agreeable read, no doubt about that. One way or another, the whole novel is about packaging. The narrator hero, young movie freak Joe Mahaffey, has a lovable dreamer of a father in rural Pennsylvania, who keeps repackaging a nightclub in different décor — French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, and so on — while Joe Jr., hoping to win the affection of Monica Murphy (an “executive dancer” whom he crosses profesional paths with in Manhattan’s Danceland), signs on as a salesman for a packaging outfits, and peddles polyethylene bags in diverse spots east of Pittsburgh. Read more

The Holiday Glut: A Cautious Consumer Guide

From the Chicago Reader (December 21, 2001). — J.R.

The Affair of the Necklace

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Charles Shyer

Written by John Sweet

With Hilary Swank, Adrien Brody, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Walken, and Joely Richardson.

Ali

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Gregory Allen Howard, Stephen Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, and Mann

With Will Smith, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, and Giancarlo Esposito.

Kate & Leopold

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by James Mangold

Written by Steven Rogers and Mangold

With Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, and Philip Bosco.

Kiss Me Kate

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by George Sidney

Written by Sam and Bella Spewack and Dorothy Kingsley

With Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Bobby Van, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore, and Bob Fosse.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

*** A must see

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson

With Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, and John Rhys-Davies.

The Majestic

Rating  0  Worthless

Directed by Frank Darabont

Written by Michael Sloane

With Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, James Whitmore, and Jeffrey DeMunn. Read more

Deseret

One of the best films of James Benning, one of this country’s leading experimental filmmakers, is this multifaceted look at the landscape and history of Utah (or Deseret, as the Mormon Church prefers to call it). Benning condenses 93 news stories from the New York Times from 1852 to 1992 (read offscreen by Fred Gardner) and sets them against contemporary Utah landscapes, the shots changing with each sentence. Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating. 82 min. (JR) Read more

War Bonds [on COMING HOME, 1978 review]

From the San Diego Reader (June 15, 1978). Not one of my best reviews, and certainly not a favorite, but I’m reprinting it, after some hesitation, as part of the record, with only minor re-edits.  I came to write this through my acquaintance with Duncan Shepherd, the film critic for the San Diego Reader from 1972 until late 2010 -–  a protégé of Manny Farber who had followed him all the way from New York to southern California –- after I had been hired by Farber to return to the U.S. from London and take over his classes for two quarters in 1977 while he was on a Guggenheim fellowship, and then hadn’t been rehired there. Manny, as I recall, was mightily annoyed by this piece, and I can’t deny that some of our political arguments probably fueled the review, at least in part -– as well as some of the swagger in Farber’s prose, a regrettable influence on this occasion. (An afterthought: I was sharing a house with Raymond Durgnat around this time, and the “crazy mirror” metaphor in the final paragraph suggests to me now that he might have exerted some influence as well.) — J.R.

 coming_home

As a native of Alabama, I didn’t have to worry much about draft dodging in the late Sixties. Read more

Four Books on the Hollywood Musical

From the Summer 1982 issue of Film Quarterly. — J.R.

Four Books on the Hollywood Musical

THE HOLLYWOOD MUSICAL, by Clive Hirschhorn. New York: Crown.

HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS, by Ted Sennett. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

THE HOLLYWOOD MUSICAL, by Ethan Mordden. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

GENRE: THE MUSICAL, edited by Rick Altman. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul (BFI Readers in Film Studies).

If the musical has nearly been vanquished as a popular form by the increasing subdivision of its audience into separate classes, age groups, and ethnic interests, these four books on the subject which nostalgically chart its heyday are similarly compartmentalized and exclusive. It seems inevitable that each of these four elegant receptacles for the most libidinal of American movie genres should address a different portion of our psyches: after all, if our society and minds are splintered, why shouldn’t our integral genres be as well?

The glib marketing strategies that aim each book at a somewhat different audience create the odd social effect of four high-rises, each constructed inside a separate ghetto — although the attractive coffee table books of Clive Hirschhorn and Ted Sennett might also be regarded with some justice as adjacent towers on somewhere like Sutton Place. Read more

Packaged Parables (GABBEH & SHE’S SO LOVELY)

From the August 29, 1997  Chicago Reader.  This is one of the 13 pieces selected and translated into Farsi by Saeed Khamoush for the unauthorized collection of some of my Reader pieces that was published in Iran back in 2001, and the only one in that volume relating to Iranian cinema. — J.R.

Gabbeh

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Shaghayegh Djodat, Abbas Sayahi, Hossein Moharami, and Roghieh Moharami.

She’s So Lovely

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Written by John Cassavetes

With Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Travolta, Harry Dean Stanton, Debi Mazar, Gena Rowlands, and James Gandolfini.

To put it in simple market terms, Gabbeh packages Iran and She’s So Lovely packages John Cassavetes. Both films succeed admirably in taking on intractable and potentially uncommercial material — at least from the standpoint of mainstream Western audiences — and in making an alluring consumer object out of that encounter. Both take ideological shortcuts to make this alchemy possible, and that limits their artistic and expressive range, though this seems unavoidable given the marketplace barriers they’re bent on overcoming. The problem is in learning how to appreciate them for what they are without losing sight of what they aren’t. Read more