The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1977 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin , vol. 44, no. 516, January 1977.

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Herzog’s reputation and constructed myth as a mad genius. Here are my capsule reviews for the Chicago Reader of  Lessons of Darkness (1992) and My Best Fiend (1999), respectively (on other occasions, I’ve sometimes been more supportive of his work):

In his characteristically dreamy Young Werther fashion, Werner Herzog generates a lot of bombastic and beautiful documentary footage out of the post-Gulf war oil fires and other forms of devastation in Kuwait, gilds his own high-flown rhetoric by falsely ascribing it to Pascal, and in general treats war as abstractly as CNN, but with classical music on the soundtrack to make sure we know it’s art. This 1992 documentary may be the closest contemporary equivalent to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, both aesthetically and morally; I found it disgusting, but if you’re able to forget about humanity as readily as Herzog there are loads of pretty pictures to contemplate. 54 min.

Werner Herzog’s surprisingly slim and relatively impersonal 1999 feature charts his relationship with the mad actor Klaus Kinski on the five features they made together. Though Herzog has plenty to say about Kinski’s tantrums on the Peru locations of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and even interviews other witnesses on the same subject, he says next to nothing about his own involvement — such as why he hired Kinski in the first place or how the overreaching heroes Kinski played for Herzog were clearly modeled after the director, metaphorically speaking.Read more »

The Attractions and Perils of Internationalism (2007)

My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system.… Read more »

Prewar Jitters [on Lang’s MAN HUNT]

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.

Man Hunt

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Dudley Nichols

With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.

A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.

Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.

I only half agree with Gunning.… Read more »

Backyard Ethics [REAR WINDOW]

From the Chicago Reader, February 25, 2000. This essay is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Rear Window

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by John Michael Hayes

With James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Wendell Corey, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgine Darcy, and Irene Winston.

Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Rear Window, is as fresh as it was when it came out, in part, paradoxically, because of how profoundly it belongs to its own period. It’s set in Greenwich Village during a sweltering summer of open windows, and it reeks of 1954. (A restored version, by Robert A. Harris, opens this week at the Music Box, and it’s so beautiful and precise it almost makes up for his botch of Hitchcock’s Vertigo a few years back.)

Peter Bogdanovich notes in Who the Devil Made It that Hitchcock “didn’t use a score” in the movie, “only source music and local sounds,” which isn’t exactly true. In fact, we get quite traditional theme music from Franz Waxman behind the opening credits, and, more important, the film subtly integrates hit tunes of the mid-50s into the ambient sound track, most noticeably “Mona Lisa” and “That’s Amore,” which was introduced the previous year by Dean Martin in another Paramount picture, The Caddy.… Read more »

The Audience is Us (THE TRUMAN SHOW)

From the June 5, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Truman Show

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Peter Weir

Written by Andrew Niccol

With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, and Ed Harris.

Undeniably provocative and reasonably entertaining, The Truman Show is one of those high-concept movies whose concept is both clever and dumb. Let’s start with the clever part. A 29-year-old insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives in a seemingly utopian small town named Seahaven on an island off the coast of somewhere like Florida or California, gradually discovers that he’s the unwitting star of a TV show — a show that’s been running 24 hours a day since his birth. Everyone else on the island is an actor or an extra — including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and his mother (Holland Taylor) — and 5,000 hidden cameras are planted all over town to record his every movement. The show has no commercials in the usual sense, subsisting instead on product placements accompanied by advertising patter from Seahaven residents, including Truman’s wife, who extols the virtues of a new gadget she bought at the supermarket or recommends that he try a new brand of cocoa.… Read more »

Kid Stuff: A Glimpse at Movie Wonder

Written in January 2006 for 1000 Films To Change Your Life, an anthology edited by Simon Cropper for Time Out. — J.R.

Wonder is closer to being a feeling than a thought, and one that we associate both with children and with grown-ups recapturing some of the open-mouthed awe and innocence that they had as children. Many of us experienced some of this as kids watching the classic Disney cartoon features or certain live-action fantasy adventures like King Kong (1933) or Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Other generations, for that matter, might recall feeling a comparable emotion before the vast spaces of the 1916 Intolerance (whose gigantic Babylon set would eventually be redressed for Kong’s Skull Island) or the 1924 Thief of Bagdad or the 2005 King Kong —- or even in that hokey opening line, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Or what about the hushed sense of reverence that we bring to the virgin wilderness of The Big Sky (1952), whose very title expresses our feeling of astonishment? It’s a primal emotion, particularly as it relates to cinema in the old-fashioned sense: 35-millimeter projection in palatial theaters, the screen invariably much larger than us (‘Bigger Than Life,’ as the title of a Nicholas Ray melodrama in CinemaScope has it).… Read more »

Listening Party [on eight jazz films]

From the August 3, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

This month the Film Center is inaugurating a monthly “Music Movies” series, five programs that will play on Sundays and Thursdays. The focus in August is jazz films, and the programs include four classics I first saw years ago and four others I’ve just seen for the first time. The worst film in the bunch (Cannonball) happens to be the newest one, and the two most interesting (Cry of Jazz and Black and Tan) are the oldest, though I don’t see any particular trend in this.

It’s difficult to speak of any consistent evolution or devolution in jazz films, because each one is the product of a particular taste and sensibility. One rule I use when evaluating these films is how much we’re allowed to follow the music. Another rule, less obvious and more purist, is how important the on-screen listeners are — which matters a good deal, because jazz at its most exciting is a collective experience involving the audience as well as the interacting musicians. If the people on-screen aren’t seen listening when music is being played, we’re discouraged from listening intently.

This helps explain why I was driven batty by the new 23-minute video about Cannonball Adderley, a musician who has given me a lot of pleasure.… Read more »

Looking Down on the Little People [RADIO DAYS]

This is the very first long review I ever published in the Chicago Reader. It was published in their March 13, 1987 issue, about five months before I moved to Chicago from Santa Barbara and started working as their regular film critic, and writing this piece  was part of my audition for the job. (They commissioned two other pieces from me, neither of which they ran, as part of the same audition; both of these reviews — on Oliver Stone’s Platoon and on Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight — are now available on this site.)

This article has never previously appeared online, on the Reader’s website or anywhere else. It ran originally with the same black and white still reproduced here. Readers familiar with my essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” written about three years later, may notice that I borrowed a few passages in it from this review. My original title for this review, “Woody’n You,” was rejected by the Reader editors, who didn’t catch or dig the jazz reference. — J.R.

*RADIO DAYS

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Diane Keaton.

It’s hard to think of a contemporary American filmmaker who is more universally admired than Woody Allen –- a fact that may say more about us than it says about Woody. … Read more »

Preface to the Korean Edition of GOODBYE CINEMA, HELLO CINEPHILIA

Written in October 2012 for what was supposed to have been the first (and, so far, only) translated edition of my most recent collection, although it has never come out. There is, however, a Korean translation of my earlier collection Essential Cinema (with a new Afterword, available here).

In retrospect, I’m sorry that I didn’t find some way of mentioning Lee Chang-dong’s extraordinary Poetry (2010), my favorite Korean film [see all the stills below] — and one that, incidentally, helps to explain the reason for my alienation from most of the other South Korean films I’ve seen and their excessive reliance on rape and serial killers as subjects (something that I was embarrassed to bring up in this Preface, written at the request of the publisher). This film in fact addresses the theme of rape and its role in Korean society quite directly. — J.R.

My acquaintance with cinephilia in South Korea is limited. My only first- hand knowledge comes from my experience as a juror on Indie Vision at the Jeonju International Film Festival in the Spring of 2006 and my acquaintance over a longer period with the brilliant and discerning critic and programmer Un-Seong Yoo, who worked for that festival for many years and, more recently, was my fellow juror on the New Directors jury at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the Fall of 2011.Read more »

Too Big for the Screen [on CHARLES MINGUS: TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG]

From the Chicago Reader, June 20, 2003. The posthumous Schuller-conducted premiere of Epitaph, incidentally, alluded to below, is now available on DVD, and is warmly recommended.  — J.R.

GuntherSchuller

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Don McGlynn.

The sheer impossibility of encompassing jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-’79) in a single film limits Don McGlynn’s ambitious 1997 documentary, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, from the outset. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it — it’s playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Mingus’s second wife, Celia Mingus Zaentz, will lead a discussion after the June 27 screening — but if you don’t already know something about the man’s music this may not be the ideal place to start. I’d recommend instead one of his best early albums — The Clown, Tijuana Moods, East Coasting, Mingus Dynasty, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (the best one with Eric Dolphy), or Mingus at Monterey.

No single book has succeeded in doing full justice to Mingus either. Maybe it’s because he had a genius for straddling musical categories such as traditional, modern, avant-garde, jazz, and classical (as Gunther Schuller points out in one of this film’s interviews, Mingus studied Arnold Schoenberg’s music in his teens, during the 30s, when few people here were familiar with it).… Read more »

Reflections on LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (2012) by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

An expanded edition of my book with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press, 2004), was published in Argentina by Los Rios, translated into Spanish by Luciana Borrini and Julián Aubrit. (A stil more expanded edition appeared in English much later, in 2018.) One of the two texts added to the Argentinian edition, my essay “Watching Kiarostami Films at Home,” is already available on this site, as are an essay about Shirin I wrote for the Cinema Guild DVD and an earlier dialogue I had with Mehrnaz about the film. Here is the other addition, written by Mehrnaz expressly for the expanded edition. — J.R.

 112013_libro

Reflections on Like Someone in Love (2012)

By Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

 

LikeSomeoneinLove

I

A phone conversation between Chicago (Saeed-Vafa) and Rome (Kiarostami), March 17, 2013:

Shirin

MS:  When you talked about Shirin in one of your interviews, you said that it was a unique film that could have changed your career, if you had made it earlier. What did you meant by that?

AK: I wished I had made Shirin earlier to get a better emotional understanding of women. Shirin was like a silent, wordless interview with 117 women. You could tell that they were all thinking silently about their private relationships, and we could see their emotions in their faces.… Read more »

An Epic of Understanding: John Gianvito’s WAKE (SUBIC)

Posted on Film Comment‘s blog, February 2, 2016. — J.R.

Wake (Subic)

Consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and  L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking. By the same token, film history in the present should be divided between important filmmakers skilled and successful in hawking their own goods, from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Lee to Lars von Trier, and those who, for one reason or another, aren’t — a less definitive roll call that includes, among many others, Charles Burnett, Ebrahim Golestan, Luc Moullet, Peter Thompson, Orson Welles, and John Gianvito.

I haven’t seen Gianvito’s early shorts, one of which is called What Nobody Saw (1990), but its very title seems emblematic of his career — as does the epigraph from Cesare Pavese opening the first part of his first feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), which introduced me to his work and remains my favorite: “Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it.”… Read more »

On CinemaScope (by Roland Barthes)

This is a very short and very early article by Roland Barthes, one of his “Mythologies” that remains uncollected in English, that I translated in 1982, originally so it could be run with an article of mine, “Barthes & Film: 12 Suggestions,” that I published in Sight and Sound — although it wound up not appearing there due to a lack of space. (I did, however, use some extracts from it in an article I did for the same magazine two years later about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; both of these articles are reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.) Many years later, in 1999, James Morrison asked me if he could post it on the Internet, and you can still access it, along with an essay of his about it, here. — J.R.

    1. If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can’t define Henri Chrétien’s [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects. They are, in my opinion, surprising. The broadening of the image to the dimensions of binocular vision should fatally transform the internal sensibility of the filmgoer. In what respect? The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of the great dramaturgies.
Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Assorted Lessons from the Past and Present

My DVD column in Cinema Scope 44, Fall 2010. — J.R.

1. A confession

Since retiring from my job as a weekly reviewer in early 2008, I’ve been discovering that I usually prefer watching mediocre films of the past (chiefly from the 30s through the 70s) to watching mediocre films of the present — unlike some of my former readers, who irrationally conclude that I’ve stopped writing about movies because I no longer work for the studio airheads in implementing their latest ad campaigns. That is, I no longer train most of my attention on contemporary industry releases, as I was obliged to do for the preceding 20 years, because, in keeping with Raymond Durgnat’s apt observation that dated films sometimes have more to teach us than “timeless” classics, I’m looking for stuff I can chew on. (Try to imagine what literary criticism would be like if most or all of its practitioners decided that 2010 publications currently on sale at K-Mart comprised the bulk of all the literature ever published that was worthy of our close attention.)

demetrius-and-the-gladiators-ad

This is why, for instance, I wound up picking up a copy of Delmer Daves and Philip Dunne’s sequel to The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), at a video store in Córdoba, Argentina in late July (although, as I later discovered, I could have picked it up on Amazon for roughly the same price): not because it’s any sort of masterpiece (though it’s probably a better movie than The Robe), but because I find it interesting from multiple vantage points, e.g.,… Read more »

Huckleberry Fem [HOUSEKEEPING]

This was originally published in the January 22, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

HOUSEKEEPING **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Bill Forsyth
With Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill, Anne Pitoniak, Margot Pinvidic, and Bill Smillie.

Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping is virtually defined by its slow, swirling rhythms, but one of the first things that is apparent about Bill Forsyth’s passionate, faithful film adaptation is that, as story telling, it starts out with a hop, skip, and jump; and although an idea of leisurely pacing is sustained throughout, the movie never dawdles, stalls, or grinds to a halt. Like the magical opening of Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands and the no less incandescent ending of his 1978 Days of Heaven –- two more films in which the heroine’s offscreen narration plays a musical role in the narrative structure -– the story unfolds with the combined immediacy and remoteness of a fairy tale. An elliptical stream of details and events spanning three generations flows by in minutes, without imparting any feeling of haste.… Read more »