Jean-Pierre Gorin/Jean-Luc Godard

A “PIERROT” PRIMER by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a 36-minute audiovisual analysis of Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU included on the second disc of the Criterion DVD of PIERROT LE FOU (Criterion 421, 2007).

For some time, I’d been lamenting that the highly original manner and method of lecturing on a film inaugurated by Manny Farber as a teacher at the University of California, San Diego and subsequently developed there by Jean-Pierre Gorin had still never been preserved on a DVD, which in some ways may be an ideal place for it. Then, when J-P’s inventive and perceptive remarks on portions of PIERROT LE FOU turned up on the Criterion DVD last year, I was thrilled and gratified to discover that it had finally happened. I even resolved to write about this in my next DVD column for Cinema Scope. But then I somehow managed to forget this resolve (so many DVDs, so little time)–at least until I accessed and started reading Royal Brown’s online review of the DVD in the summer issue of Cineaste, where my eye came upon a reference to Gorin’s “professorial and often rather smug and empty analysis of the film’s first fifteen minutes”. Since none of these three adjectives comes even close to describing my own responses, I regret my failure to note my own admiration for what Gorin has done.… Read more »

Charles Fort/Vladimir Mayakovsky

Recommended Reading:

CHARLES FORT: THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SUPERNATURAL by Jim Steinmeyer, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 332 pp.

NIGHT WRAPS THE SKY: WRITINGS BY AND ABOUT MAYAKOVSKY, edited by Michael Almereyda, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 272 pp.

Technically these are a biography and an anthology, but both are in effect delightful samplers of the work of two very singular and controversial men who were roughly contemporaries, although they were born 19 years apart: Charles Fort (1874-1932) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). I’m far from completing either book at this point, but both make for very pleasurable summer reading.

Fort was a late bloomer, especially regarding his public profile, which essentially consisted of the last four of his five published books–The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932), all very witty, imaginative, and provocative forays into debunking science. These were preceded only by several short stories published only in magazines and a 1909 novel that has never been reprinted, as well as some other creative non-fiction, all unpublished, that Steinmeyer quotes from liberally. Steinmeyer is a specialist in stage magic with whom I once had the pleasure of doing a lengthy phone interview.… Read more »

The Kane Mutiny and Related Disputes

Two quotes from the Letters section of the February 3, 1977 New York Review of Books:

John Bernard Myers: “It can easily be demonstrated that film directors created this art: Méliès, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, René Clair, Robert Flaherty, Alfred Hitchcock, Louis Malle—the list is long.”

Gore Vidal: “[Peter] Bogdanovich’s list of Welles’s post-[Herman] Mankiewicz films as compared to Mankiewicz’s post-Welles films only proves that neither was to be involved in another good film (excepting The Magnificent Ambersons and Christmas Holiday) ever again. This is the not unusual fate of movie makers as I discovered, and as Bogdanovich is discovering. You almost can’t win.

“With characteristic wit, wisdom, and eloquence, John Myers proves my point that ever since the movies began to talk the writer, not the director, is the essential creator of any film. Mr. Myers lists the directors that he admires and except for Louis Malle, they are all silent film directors (Fritz Lang of course worked in both silent and sound). Are the movies really and truly an art form? Nolo contendere.”

It’s astonishing that Vidal should argue and apparently believe that we value Chaplin, Eisenstein, Clair, and even Hitchcock as artists, if at all, only when they made silent pictures — apparently unlike Fritz Lang, whose M is a talkie.Read more »

Ousmane Sembène

OUSMANE SEMBÈNE: INTERVIEWS, Edited by Annett Busch and Max Anas, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008, 225 pp.

What an absurdly arduous and uphill battle it’s been, to understand even the rudiments of African cinema! I now have three books about the father of African cinema, but it hasn’t been until I started looking at the third that I began to pick up some fundamental, basic data. I’m thinking in particular of Sembène’s first feature, La noire de… (1966), known inadequately in English as Black Girl, only 65 minutes long. Yesterday, on one of my periodic trips back to the Chicago Reader to collect mail that still erroneously or fortuitously gets sent to me there, I was delighted to find a copy of this new volume, the latest in an excellent series of interview collections, unwrapped in my mailbox.

In 1995, I devoted a long review in the Reader to Black Girl, Sembène’s remarkable adaptation of his own story, “Promised Land” (which can be found in his collection Tribal Scars). By the time I reprinted this in my 1997 Movies as Politics, I was able to add a footnote correcting a false supposition I’d made about a color sequence that was in some prints of the film, but not in any I’d seen, after a friend who’d seen this sequence wrote me about it.… Read more »

Hollywood Unchained [SPARTACUS]

From the May 10, 1991 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

SPARTACUS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo

With Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and John Ireland.

“It has acres of dead people, more blood and gore than you ever saw in your whole life.

“In the final scene, Spartacus’s mistress, carrying her illegitimate baby, passes along the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified men on crosses.

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it.”

Despite these dire warnings from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper — and another from the American Legion, which sent a letter to its 17,000 local posts urging people to boycott the movie — Spartacus, released in 1960 and reportedly the most expensive movie ever shot in Hollywood, eventually turned a profit. It was even the top money-maker of 1962 after it went into general release — thereby, I suppose, making Commie symps of all of us who went to see it. It was the Kennedy era, and the blood and gore on view were pretty tame by today’s standards; for the record, the number of crucified men — rebel slaves — while high, is a good bit shy of 6,000.… Read more »

Luis & Sam

Christa Fuller, who took this picture in 1967 in Buñuel’s house in Mexico City, has invited me to place it here; it shows Buñuel with her late husband, Sam. The first time I ever met Sam, in the summer of 1980, I interviewed him at the Plaza Hotel in New York about The Big Red One for the Soho News. He was being courted at the time by Serge Silberman about possibly directing a French best seller called The Tunnel, and Sam let out a rebel-style holler when I said something like, “Isn’t that Buñuel’s producer?” “Yaaah! That why I had a hard-on for him, boy, he puts all the loot up for Buñuel, and I love that man.” (8/17/08)

Read more »

It’s a Mall, Mall World [CHAIN]

From the Chicago Reader (March 4, 2005). — J.R.

Chain

*** (A must-see)

Directed and Written by Jem Cohen

With Miho Nikaido and Mira Billotte

Chain, the first solo feature by film and video artist Jem Cohen, is a strange mix of documentary and fiction about malls and similar commercial spaces. It’s meditative rather than action packed, and the creepiness it exposes has as much to do with absence as presence. But it deserves more attention than the single local screening it’s getting at Columbia College. I suspect it’s not getting more because it was partly funded by European television, because distributors never know how to package films that merge documentary and fiction, and because it belongs to the netherworld between film and art (it’s playing in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s exhibition “Manufactured Self”). It hasn’t even made the art-house circuit, which is a loss: it’s highly ambitious, has plenty to say, and is far from inaccessible.

Chain was shot in 16-millimeter over six years in hundreds of malls around the world — Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Melbourne. That it’s impossible to tell the malls’ locations is part of the point. “I began the project,” says Cohen in his press notes, “by deciding to focus on the corporate and commercial landscapes that I had previously ‘framed out’ in my filmmaking, and to try to understand how these places were affecting the people within them.… Read more »

Kiarostami’s SHIRIN: A Fiction

Sorry that the links for this no longer work. — J.R.

As far as I know, the above photograph of Juliette Binoche in Iran doesn’t come from Shirin, the latest feature by Abbas Kiarostami, which just premiered in Venice. And I’m certain that the two photographs of Binoche below, which I’ve found elsewhere on the Internet, doesn’t come from this film, even though Binoche’s trip to Iran was at Kiarostami’s invitation, and she’s generally credited as the “star” of his new film. For one thing, most accounts seem to agree that Binoche doesn’t wear any makeup in Shirin, and she appears to be doing just that in all three of these photographs.

Judging by some early reviews of Shirin–the best of which is probably Ronnie Scheib’s in Variety, and several of which are usefully grouped together by David Hudson in GreenCine Daily–it’s a development and expansion of “Where is My Romeo?”, Kiarostami’s segment in last year’s Chacun Son Cinéma, in which a wide assortment of females are seen responding to an unseen and possibly imaginary film of Romeo and Juliet. And there’s reason to believe that the unseen film apparently being responded to by Binoche and a good many Iranian actresses in Shirin–apparently an adaptation Farrideh Golbou’s poem “Khosrow e Shirin” by Mohammad Rahmanian, with a very elaborate soundtrack–is imaginary as well.… Read more »

A Reduced GIANT

One of my many disappointments in recently reseeing Giant (1956), George Stevens’ blunderbuss effort to preach tolerance to some of the more biased Republicans, is that the once-memorable and semi-audacious use of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” over the final credits — a very significant reprise of a song that plays over a climactic fistfight provoked by anti-Mexican behavior in the movie’s penultimate sequence — is no longer part of the movie on the DVD, presumably because the owners of the song rights demanded too much money. So one of the few facets of this overblown blockbuster that seemed slightly progressive in the mid-50s has been deleted.

Apart from this change, there’s a curious double standard in the way this movie regards prejudice against Mexicans. When it’s displayed throughout much of the film by the Texas patriarch hero, played by Rock Hudson, it may be lamentable and hypocritical but it’s also ultimately forgiveable and redeemable — especially once he rises to the defense of a Mexican family refused service in a diner in the aforementioned fisticuffs. But when the movie’s white-trash villain (James Dean) — a working- class malcontent and crybaby alcoholic who becomes a zillionaire after striking oil on his property — displays the same bias, it’s not only beyond redemption; it even incurs the Wrath of God, Who dramatically whips up a raging thunderstorm to express His indignant rage when this pathetic hick who refuses to stick to his own class also bars Mexicans from attending the festivities at the opening of an airport.… Read more »

TROUBLE THE WATER

Here’s the unedited version of a review I wrote for In These Times, published in their September 3, 2008 issue. — J.R.

I can’t quite follow all of the offscreen sound bites preceding the main title of Tia Lessen and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. But it’s clear from the media voices I can transcribe that they concisely present this documentary’s agenda — at the same time we see the intertitle “September 14th 2005/Central Louisiana” appear onscreen and then get our first glimpses of some of the people who’ll shortly become this documentary’s central characters, seated around a picnic table.

Two of the offscreen voices come from George W. Bush; the others all sound like they come from newscasters or interviewees:

1.… Read more »

Neil LaBute

IN A DARK DARK HOUSE by Neil LaBute. Performed at Profiles Theatre, Chicago. Directed by Joe Jahraus. With Darrell W. Cox, Hans Fleischmann, and Allison Torem.

I attended this excellent production exactly a week ago, after discovering that it was playing in my neighborhood, only a few blocks from where I live. As a film critic, I’ve seen five features that LaBute has directed, and liked most of them: IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (the only one I didn’t like), NURSE BETTY (the only one he didn’t write or cowrite), POSSESSION, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS (probably my favorite).

This is a fairly compact three-act, three-character play without an intermission, each act running, if memory serves, for about half an hour. Each act begins with one character saying to another, “Go for it,” which is only one of the interesting rhyme effects. Most of it’s about the agonized and edgy relationship between two brothers, both in their 30s, although a teenage girl figures in the middle act, and this being a LaBute play, the onstage flirtation between her and the older brother, which may or may not lead to offstage sex, is really an act of aggression—the brother’s revenge against her offstage father (whom she may also want to get even with), a pivotal offstage character in Acts 1 and 3.… Read more »

Watching Kiarostami Films at Home

This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. P.S.: This essay is included in the much-expanded second editition of Abbas Kiarostami (2019), a book I coauthored with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa.– J.R.

To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future.… Read more »

Barack Obama/TV Commentators

Cable TV news on the night Barack Obama becomes the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, June 3, 2008.

I’m still trying to decide: Which is it that better deserves the label of Capitol of Doublethink–the United States, or television in general? On the one hand, there’s the doublethink of a seeming victory undermined by the refusal of Barack Obama’s main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, to concede defeat—- apart from a dropped hint that she would accept the slot of Vice President on the Democratic slate, which also conceals the implicit threat that she might withdraw her support if he doesn’t offer her that position. Maureen Dowd in her NEW YORK TIMES column this morning catches at least part of the anomalous drift pretty well:

“But even as Obama was trying to savor, Hillary was refusing to sever. Ignoring the attempts of Obama and his surrogates to graciously say how `extraordinary’ she was as they showed her the exit, she and a self-pitying Bill continued to pull focus. Outside Baruch College, where she was to speak, her fierce feminist supporters screamed `Denver! Denver! Denver!’”

On the other hand, absolutely no one I saw on any of the cable TV news shows last night—-friend or foe, partisan or nonpartisan, on CNBC or CNN or Fox-—is willing to call Barack Obama anything except an Afro-American, racially speaking, despite the fact that his mother was white.… Read more »

Allen Baron/Lionel Stander

BLAST OF SILENCE, written, directed by & starring Allen Baron, narrated by Lionel Stander (Criterion DVD).

An interesting period piece (1961), especially striking for its sense of place (Manhattan during the Christmas season), though I can’t accept this as the noir masterpiece some people are calling it–not when a recycling of generic clichés usually has to take the place of observation. Perhaps the most durable of its standbys is the gravelly voiceover of an uncredited, graylisted Lionel Stander (put to still better use in some of the Ben Hecht features),  reciting the freewheeling patter of a pseudonymous, blacklisted Waldo Salt. It was clever of Baron to graft this pair over his own lackluster inventions, even if Salt’s pseudopoetry is sometimes almost as pretentious as the kind heard in Gary Merrill’s voiceover in another documentary-style indy, THE SAVAGE EYE, made the previous year. But I could probably listen to Stander reading from the Manhattan phone directory–-though there may be moments here when a few choice New York phone numbers might have enlivened Salt’s prose a little. Even so, none of it is nearly as awful as the interminable singing of a Village Gate conga-drum player named Mel Sponder, which Baron presumably indulges in in the interests of “atmosphere”.… Read more »