Adolescent Eye [on TWIN PEAKS, the first season]

The following article, which originally appeared in the April 20, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, without any star rating, is the only time I can recall writing at length in the Reader about an American TV series. (An edited version of this piece appears in a 1995 collection edited by David Lavery for Wayne State University Press, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, under the title “Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks“.) From a vantage point of almost two decades later, I wouldn’t be as quick today to insist that David Lynch’s work is devoid of any social commentary. What he has to say about the Hollywood community alone, especially in Inland Empire (2006), shows that he’s no longer as detached as he was.

Another invaluable tool for re-evaluation is the recent and superbly appointed Blu-Ray box set devoted to Twin Peaks. Despite some misgivings about the show’s second season (see, for instance, Martha Nochimson’s demurrals in her 1997 The Passion of David Lynch about some of the ways the show “perverted” Lynch’s original designs and conceptions), I continue to find much of it very absorbing. The same is true, so far, about the so-far uneven third season, despite the brilliance of the third episode. Read more

Pynchon’s Tangle

This review originally appeared in the July 14, 1997 issue of In These Times. — J.R.

Pynchon’s Tangle

Mason & Dixon
By Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt
773 pp. $27.50

It’s always been one of the paradoxes of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction that he combines the encyclopedic researches of a polymath with the rude instincts of a populist. V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, the stories in Slow Learner, Vineland, and now Mason & Dixon synthesize an awesome array of scientific and historical speculation  while steadily sabotaging, with a compulsive anti-elitism, every effort to marshal this material into the stuff of high art. Fusing studied literary pastiche with collegiate humor and flip song lyrics, philosophical soul-searching with barroom brawls and locker-room asides, Pynchon’s intricate and unwieldy narratives tend to define and confound boundaries in the same gesture. So it stands to reason that this epic about American origins, focused on a couple of low-level line drawers (the 18th century executors of the Mason-Dixon Line), winds up favoring sprawl over progression, digression over linear advance.

It’s surely too soon to post final verdicts about a novel that reportedly was almost a quarter of a century in the making. Read more

Joe Dante, Anonymous King of the Post-Cult Cinema Community

Written for the 11th issue of the bilingual, online La Furia Umana (January-March 2012) to introduce a Joe Dante dossier. — J.R.

One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.

Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large. Read more

Undermining Authority [SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM]

From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 1989). — J.R.

SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Trinh T. Minh-ha.

How many, already, have been condemned to premature deaths for having borrowed the master’s tools and thereby played into his hands? — Trinh T. Minh-ha

Uncertainty is a difficult premise on which to build a documentary, although there are times when it may be the only honorable perspective. To be without certainty usually means to be without authority, and it is the position of authority that generally determines the form and address of the documentary as we know it.

As a rule, we depend on the solidity of an authority figure in order to feel unified and legitimized as spectators. No matter how many people may be behind the filming or taping of a news broadcast or documentary, and no matter how many people may be watching it, the pretense of some form of one-on-one communication between spectacle and spectator is nearly always maintained in order to facilitate the “transmission of information.” Whether it’s an anchorperson addressing the camera, a voice-of-God narrator providing offscreen commentary, or an interview subject addressing an interviewer who becomes our surrogate, the illusion is always fostered that information is traveling directly from an authority to an individual spectator, who is made to feel authoritative in turn because of the implied intimacy and directness of address. Read more

Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer

This was written for and published in Stop Smiling no. 34, a special jazz issue, dated February 2008. –J.R.

Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jazz musicians who like to cross-reference the history of their art rather than simply steal licks from their role models are probably even more plentiful than film directors who do “homages” to favorite sequences  and directors. The musicians also generally do a better job of mixing their own style with that of their models than Hollywood directors do when they strive to reproduce particular shots. Closer to Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais than to, say, Peter Bogdanovich or Brian De Palma, they invariably bring something of their own to the table, transforming our sense of the original in the process. Every time Dave Brubeck chooses to shift to stride piano, he’s saying something sweet about his predecessors, and whenever Charles Mingus gave us patches of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Lester Young,  or Charlie Parker in one of his multifaceted compositions, he was doing a more elaborate version of the same thing.

Some jazz pianists — including a few of the most distinctive ones, like McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett — even go so far as to put together entire albums composed of “tributes” to some of their colleagues. Read more

Recommended Viewing: THE GHOST SONATA at the Oracle

One of the joys of living in Chicago is the special quality of its scruffy storefront theater, although I must confess that during my 20 years here as a film reviewer, I took advantage of this resource only rarely, apart from a few intermittent discoveries over the years (such as the 21-year-old Theatre Oobleck, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon and savor in some of its earliest productions). More recently, since my retirement from the Chicago Reader, I’ve happily come across no less than four separate theaters of this kind in my own neighborhood so far, and over the past two Friday evenings I’ve had the pleasure of attending very impressive productions of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Strawdog (on 3829 North Broadway) and, tonight, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at the Oracle just a few doors down from there (on 3809 North Broadway).

The Strawdog’s funky and entertaining version of Brecht (see above) has had the benefit of a thoughtful and passionate rave from the Reader’s Albert Williams, so the performance I attended was nearly sold out. But the Oracle’s Strindberg, despite a mainly favorable capsule in the same paper from Kerry Reid, shockingly had only seven customers at the performance I attended tonight, making us a slightly smaller crowd than the production’s able cast of eight. Read more

Richard Combs on Michael Haneke

Filmmaker of the Decade: The resurgence of the Nouvelle Vague highlights the most disquieting feature of the decade: the critical search for a new European art-house auteur, which seems to have settled on the pious admonisher, Michael Haneke. European cinema has finally found its Stanley Kramer.

Film Comment, January-February 2010, p. 31 [1/15/10]

Read more

Dr. Percy to the Rescue [on Walker Percy’s THE SECOND COMING]

From The Soho News, July 9, 1980. –J.R.

The Second Coming

By Walker Percy

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.95

If reading Faulkner is sometimes like going on a desperate and delicious three-day bender, perusing the clear-headed work old Doc Percy — a practical-minded (if nonpracticing) Southern M.D., now in his mid-60s — is usually more like taking a healthy antidote the next morning, and recovering one’s senses with dry irony and mordant wit. At least it has seemed that way up until now, to a Southern expatriate like myself who cherishes both writers (and a fellow moviegoer who appreciates what these very different noble Southern novelists have learned to steal from movies).

But The Second Coming — Percy’s fifth novel, after The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins and Lancelot — happily makes hash of this conceit by offering both pleasures in succession, the night before and the morning after, without so much as a hangover. How does Percy do it? Partially, I think, by splitting himself in two, like any self-respecting Gemini, and then making music out of his intertwining, alternating voices that ultimately merge: an old-fashioned love story, and one with a happy ending. Read more

Transcendental Cuisine

Tracy Young, my editor at Soho News in 1980-81, accorded me an unusual amount of freedom and a minimum of editing (which often amounted to the same thing), but she didn’t allow me to publish this article, written in July 1981. She approved it in principle when I proposed it, then refused it after it was written — the first and only time this happened during my year and a half on this weekly paper, where I was working as both a film and book reviewer. Later on, she wound up ripping out (or, in capitalist terms, salvaging) the reviews of Zorro, the Gay Blade and Heart to Heart, and running them on August 4, 1981 with Seth Cagin’s review of Victory, under the title “Transcendental Cuisine,” without explanation.

At the suggestion of Straub and Huillet themselves, this article was later included in a 20-page tabloid-size publication that I edited about their work to accompany the first (and, I believe, to date, only) full U.S. retrospective of their work, which I curated, at the Public Theater in New York, from November 2-14, 1982, which also included ten programs consisting of films by others that they selected to run with their own work, ranging from Blind Husbands to Antonio das Mortes to A King in New York to Civil War (the John Ford episode in How the West Was Won, shown with A Corner in Wheat and Land without Bread), and including several appearances by and discussions with Straub and Huillet. Read more

One of My Favorite Things [On McCoy Tyner]

This was originally posted on November 22, 2010. Seeing the excellent, informative, and often moving  documentary Chasing Trane, which curiously includes more interview material with Bill Clinton than with McCoy Tyner, led me to repost this. — J.R.

McCoy-Tyner

On volume 2 of this superb two-disc set (One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note), recorded on Alan Grant’s “Portraits in Jazz” radio show on May 7, 1965, is a spectacular 13-minute piano solo by McCoy Tyner on “My Favorite Things” that covers well over half of the number’s almost 23 minutes. This solo is incidentally bracketed by some of Coltrane’s loveliest soprano-sax glisssandos on disc, but what amazes me about Tyner’s cascading tour de force is not only how he keeps it going in unforeseeable directions, but also how many different directions this consists of — tonal and atonal, rhythmic and melodic, calm and frenzied — and how steadily it builds to Coltrane’s second solo.

What follows is the final draft of a treatment for a documentary about Tyner that I coauthored via email with cinematographer John Bailey in late 2001 and early 2002, at the behest of producer Rick Schmidlin, with and for whom I’d worked as a consultant on the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Read more

The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]

From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.

Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.

The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.) Read more

The Universe in a Cellar (THE WIND WILL CARRY US)

This appeared in the December 8, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Wind Will Carry Us

****

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Written by Kiarostami and Mahmoud Ayedin

With Behzad Dourani, Farzad Sohrabi, Shahpour Ghobadi, Masood Mansouri, Masoameh Salimi, Bahman Ghobadi, Noghre Asadi, and Ali Reza Naderi.


Paradoxically, Americans still tend to demonize Iranians at a time when Iranian cinema is becoming almost universally recognized as the most ethical in the world. It’s another sign of how limited our understanding of life outside our borders is — which only makes the varied and comprehensive images of Iranian cinema more precious.

It’s true that censorship has helped shape Iranian cinema, but that censorship has had interesting consequences. Women film characters are required to wear chadors, but ordinary Iranian women don’t wear them indoors — which has led to a good many films being set mainly or exclusively in exteriors and focused on public life and social appearances, including all of Abbas Kiarostami’s features since his 1990 masterpiece Close-up. The pivotal title sequence of his most recent feature, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), opening at the Music Box this week, is set in a dark cellar — and that has a lot to do with what makes this scene metaphysical and momentous and poetically charged, even though practically nothing of consequence happens there. Read more

The Color of Paradise

From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 1998). — J.R.

Jour de fête

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jacques Tati

Written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and Rene Wheeler

With Jacques Tati, Paul Frankeur, Guy Decomble, Santa Relli, and Maine Vallee.

Every Tati film marks simultaneously (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati; (b) a moment in the history of French society and French cinema; (c) a moment in film history. Since 1948, the six films that he has realized are those that have scanned our history the best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of few films (all of them good), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ’68). There is hardly anyone else but Chaplin who, since the sound period, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he isn’t filming, and, when he’s filming, to be precisely up to the moment — that is, just a little bit in advance. Tati: a witness first and last. Read more

Fill in the Blanks

From the May 29, 1998 Chicago Reader..  — J.R.

Taste of Cherry

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolhossein Bagheri, Ali Moradi, Hossein Noori, and Ahmad Ansari.

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act. — Orson Welles, 1938

Much of what’s been called innovative in the art of movies over the past half century has at first been seen by part of the audience as boring or as representing a loss — usually because it has somehow redefined the shape and function of narrative. When Jean-Luc Godard introduced jump cuts in Breathless (1959) some viewers saw a loss in continuity; and when he got actors to spout literary quotations — which sometimes undercut the verisimilitude of his characters and plots — many thought he was opening the door to chaos. The next year Michelangelo Antonioni made the apparent heroine of L’avventura disappear about a third of the way through the picture and never explained what happened to her; the audience at Cannes, where the film premiered, responded with angry catcalls, insisting that the emperor had no clothes. Read more