Free to Roam [DR. AKAGI]

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1999). — J.R.

Dr. Akagi Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Shohei Imamura

Written by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan

With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, and Masanori Sera.

If you saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry you may recall a joke told by the Turkish taxidermist:    When a man complains to a doctor that every part of his body hurts — “When I touch my chest, that hurts; when I touch my arm and my leg, my arm and my leg hurt” — the doctor suggests that what’s actually bothering him is an infected finger. Similarly, when we think about Japan we may be prone to confuse what we’re pointing at with the finger that’s doing the pointing — especially given how much of a role our   country played in the rebuilding of Japan after the war. (Perhaps significantly, scant attention is paid to Japanese movies about — and made during — the American occupation, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women, a period film whose theme of artistic imprisonment is clearly addressed to his contemporaries.)

Even when it comes to Japan before the occupation, we may tend to overlook or misinterpret American influences, seeing them instead as Japanese traits.… Read more »

Myths of the New Narrative (and a Few Counter-Suggestions)

The following is taken from the online Moving Image Source, and the first introductiion is by David Schwartz. –J.R.

This essay was commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988 for a catalogue accompanying the month-long, 150-film retrospective Independent America: New Film 1978-1988. The ambitious series, which took place during the Museum’s inaugural season, was an attempt to make a statement not just about the state of experimental filmmaking at the time but also about the Museum’s wide-ranging programming philosophy.

The underlying idea was to showcase films that were cinematically inventive, works that broke boundaries in form and content, subverted conventions, and created new hybrid forms. In this way, the series revealed the inadequacy of such confining labels as “avant-garde,” “fiction,” and “documentary,” and it also tried to reinvigorate the notion of what it means to be “independent.”

Before the commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction (and before the rise of home video), independent filmmakers made and showed their films in a world truly apart from Hollywood. To get their work seen, they would travel for months, with their 16mm film prints in tow, to colleges and media arts centers across the country.Read more »

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. Soirry if some of the links no longer work.  — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

TheSearchers-winter

It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

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1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952).
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New Rose Hotel

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1999). — J.R.

It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist.… Read more »

Roberto Rossellini’s Belly

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 2006). — J.R.

My Dad Is 100 Years Old

*** (A must see)

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by and starring Isabella Rossellini

In May 1948 Ingrid Bergman wrote a letter to director Roberto Rossellini: “Dear Mr. Rossellini, I have seen your films Rome, Open City and Paisan and I enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, has not forgotten her German, is barely comprehensible in French and who can only say ‘I love you’ in Italian, I am ready to come to Italy to work with you.”

She was the biggest female star in Hollywood at the time, and the films she mentioned were art house hits. She and Rossellini were married to other people, and the scandal of their subsequent affair led Colorado senator Edwin Johnson to try to bar her from appearing in movies, declaring on the floor of the Senate, “No one can reflect upon her sudden plunge from the highest pinnacle of respect to the gutter without feeling that she is the victim of some kind of hypnotic influence. . . . RKO publicity brazenly termed Rossellini inspired. If this swine is inspired, he is inspired by the devil.”… Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »

Open Your Eyes

From the April 27, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Tesis (1995), the first feature of Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, is an adroit and imaginative slasher movie set at a film school. This more ambitious if less satisfying second feature, one of the top grossers in Spain in 1999, shows he still has an uncanny flair for producing dread. A wealthy young man (Eduardo Noriega) finds himself in a psychiatric prison for committing a murder he can’t clearly remember, and flashbacks take us into his dark recent past, in which he snubs an old girlfriend (Najwa Nimri) in order to pursue another (Penelope Cruz), is disfigured in a suicidal car accident staged by the old girlfriend, and discovers that the new girlfriend has changed into the old one. The experience of going mad, conveyed so vividly by pulp writer Cornell Woolrich, is the main bill of fare, and as with Woolrich, it works better than the denouement explaining what brought it about. Even if the script (written by the director and Mateo Gil) and direction are patchy, the obsessive theme is gripping — much more so than in Vanilla Sky (2001), the Tom Cruise remake. In Spanish with subtitles. 117 min.… Read more »

Pollock

From the Chicago Reader, January 2, 2001. — J.R.

Ed Harris reportedly spent years preparing for the role of action painter Jackson Pollock and also wound up directing this downbeat biopic (2000). It would be churlish to say that all his efforts were in vain; he gives an interesting performance and manages to duplicate portions of Pollock’s drip technique himself, a rather impressive tour de force. But the film suffers from problems endemic to movies about artists: trying to make taciturn types interesting and rendering messy lives meaningful (or meaningfully meaningless). The script focuses on Pollock’s relationship with fellow painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) and curiously enough recalls the tragic showbiz biopics that Hollywood ground out in the 50s. Any insight into Pollock’s work is overshadowed by the usual message of such enterprises — that artists are reckless, childish lunatics who suffer a lot and make others suffer as well. R, 119 min. (JR)

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The Audience is Sometimes Right (Part Two)

The concluding chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). Due to the length of this Conclusion, it’s being posted in two parts. — J.R.

Q:   In Chapter Five, you argue that the cable channel Turner Classic Movies does a more responsible job of preserving our film heritage than the American Film Institute, citing what they’ve recently done in “restorations, revivals, documentaries about film history, and even in presenting foreign-­language movies.” Of course TCM has vastly more economic and material resources at its disposal than the AFI does, which suggests that big business versus state funding isn’t always the enemy.

A: Yes, and I’d stand by that comparison — although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that TCM has any sort of edge over the Cinémathèque Française, especially when it comes to varied and knowledgeable programming of world cinema (which includes certain categories like experimental film that TCM completely ignores). I had to wait for years in Chicago before I could get TCM, and friends of mine in New York and Los Angeles had comparable problems. Now that we have it, it’s certainly a boon to get the sort of balance between structured and unstructured programming of older films that the Cinémathèque has often specialized in.… Read more »

The Scandals of AMORE

Commissioned by BFI Video for an April 2015 release. — J.R.

Amore 1

TheMiracle-AM

L’amore: Due storie d’amore (Love: Two Love Stories, 1947-1948), as it was originally known, is the first feature of Roberto Rossellini to have been completed after his celebrated war trilogy of Rome Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1947), although in fact its first episode, A Human Voice (a one-act play by Jean Cocteau), was shot just before Germany Year Zero, and its second, The Miracle, was shot afterwards.  A sort of two-part concerto-showcase for Anna Magnani, designed as a single feature, it was originally released outside in Italy only in truncated form due to a failure to clear the rights for the Cocteau play. Gavin Lambert noted in his review of the second film for Monthly Film Bulletin in 1950, ‘Although The Miracle is strong enough to stand on its own, and can fairly be judged as a film in itself, the fact that it is now shown partially out of context has meant some shifting of emphasis: it appears as an isolated tour de force, whereas if it had followed La Voix Humaine, the dedicatory tribute would have been reinforced, the spotlight focused even more sharply on Magnani.’… Read more »

The Audience is Sometimes Right (Part One)

The concluding chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000).
Due to the length of this Conclusion, it’s being posted in two parts. — J.R.

Conclusion: The Audience Is Sometimes Right

     “What is your feeling towards your audiences — towards the public?”                     

     “Which public? There are as many publics as there are personalities.”

                         — Gilbert Burgess, “A Talk with Mr. Oscar Wilde” (1895)

QUESTION: Aren’t you laying yourself open throughout this book to the charge of sour grapes?

ANSWER: What do you mean?

Q: I mean attacking critics like Janet Maslin and David Denby because you’d so obviously like to have their jobs yourself.

A: If that’s really your impression of what lies behind my arguments, then my arguments have failed. There’s a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and I consider myself fortunate that I don’t have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications — including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael as well as Maslin and Denby — ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they’re empowered by those institutions, they’re disempowered as independent voices.… Read more »

The Humanity of the Defeated: GERMANY YEAR ZERO

Written in September 2009 for a Criterion’s DVD box set devoted to Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy, released a few months later. — J.R.

Unlike the more aesthetically and intellectually conceived French New Wave, Italian neorealism was above all an ethical initiative — a way of saying that people were important, occasioned by a war that made many of them voiceless, faceless, and nameless victims. But this was, of course, a conviction that carried plenty of aesthetic and intellectual, as well as spiritual, consequences, including some that we’re still mulling over today.

Deliberately or not, Germany Year Zero concludes Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy by posing a kind of philosophical conundrum, a fact already signaled by its title, which he borrowed, with permission, from a book by French sociologist Edgar Morin. It was a title that stumped even Joseph Burstyn and Arthur Mayer, the American producers of Rome Open City and Paisan, and the fact that Rossellini, characteristically trusting his instincts, refused to say what he meant by it eventually encouraged them to back out of the project, which was largely financed by the French government.… Read more »

The Golden Coach

From the Chicago Reader (8/21/92). — J.R.

Essential viewing. Anna Magnani plays the head of a commedia dell’arte troupe touring colonial Peru in the early 18th century who dallies with her three lovers (Paul Campbell, Ricardo Rioli, and Duncan Lamont) in this pungent, gorgeous color masterpiece by Jean Renoir, shot in breathtaking images by his brother Claude. In fact, this filmic play-within-a-play, based on a play by Prosper Merimee, is a celebration of theatricality and a meditation on the beauties and mysteries of acting–it’s both a key text and pleasurable filmmaking at its near best. (Widely regarded as the first in a loose 50s trilogy of Renoir films with related preoccupations, followed by Only the French Can and Paris Does Strange Things, it may well be the best of the lot.) Though this is widely known as a French film, its original and better version is in English, which is the version showing in this restoration supervised by Martin Scorsese. With Odoardo Spadaro, Nada Fiorelli, and Jean Debucourt (1953). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 21 through 27)

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Problems of Access: On the Trail of Some Festival Films and Filmmakers

Adapted from “Problemes d’accès: Sur les traces de quelque films et cinéastes ‘de festival,’” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Trafic no. 30, été 1999. — J.R.

istandalonetitle

“Festival film”: a mainly pejorative term in the film business, especially in North America. It generally refers to a film destined to be seen by professionals, specialists, or cultists but not by the general public because some of these professionals decide it won’t or can’t be sufficiently profitable to warrant distribution. Whether these professionals are distributors, exhibitors, programmers, publicists, or critics is a secondary issue, particularly because these functions are increasingly viewed today as overlapping, and sometimes even as interchangeable.

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The two types of critic one sees at festivals are those (the majority) who want to see the films that will soon be distributed in their own territories, and those who want to see the films that they’ll otherwise never get to see — or in some cases films that may not arrive in their territories for a few years. The first group is apt to be guided in their choices of what to see by distributors, or else by calculated guesses of what distributors will buy. The second group, if it hopes to have any influence, will ultimately seek to persuade potential distributors as well as ordinary spectators, but whether it functions in this way or not, its spirit is generally guided by cinephilia more than by business interests.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: Tenant Filmgoing

From The Soho News (May 20-26, 1981). I’m sorry that I still haven’t managed to see Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes, a 1963 film made by a childhood friend of mine — and that I haven’t been able to find any more illustrations for the small-gauge films that I wrote about here….My expressed feeling of solidarity with Squeeze Play was no doubt inflected by the fact that I was living in Hoboken at the time. — J.R.

May 8: At Anthology Film Archives, to see a program in “Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films” — an intriguing and varied series selected by Jim Hoberman that runs through the end of next month, warmly recommended to everyone without money who nurtures fantasies about taking over the media. I learn straight away that Linda Talbot’s Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes is being replaced by Bear and Jane Brakhage’s Peter’s Dream, a title glossed by Jonas Mekas as referring to Peter Kubelka.

This reminds me of a somewhat troubled notion that first reared its inglorious head when I had the occasion to view all the films in the Whitney’s previous Biennial. The idea is simply that a surprising number of North American avant-garde films seem to center on the same general obsession as The Deer Hunter or Manhattan — namely, a boastful inventory of male possessions: This is my hometown, my house, my rifle, my dog, my Bolex, my woman, my art.… Read more »