Vampyr

From the August 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 83 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. Synopsizing the film not only betrays but misrepresents it: while never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images conveyed by this language are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister; an evil doctor’s mysterious death by suffocation in a flour mill; a protracted dream sequence that manages to dovetail eerily into the narrative proper. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, which were all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous and haunting otherworldliness. (Vampyr was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versions — French, English, German, and Danish; most circulating prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.)… Read more »

FOOLISH WIVES (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 514). –- J.R.

 

Foolish Wives

U.S.A., 1922
Director: Erich von Stroheim

Cert—A. dist–BFI. p.c–Universal Super Jewel. p–Carl Laemrnle. asst. d–Edward Sowders, Jack R. Proctor, Louis Germonprez. special asst. to Stroheim–Gustav Machaty. sc–Erich von-Stroheim. ph–Ben Revnolds, William Daniels. illumination and lighting effects—Harry J. Brown. ed–Erich von Stroheim, (release version: Arthur D. Ripley). a.d—E. E. Sheeley, Richard Day. scenic artist—Van Alstein [Alstyn]. technical d–William Meyers, James Sullivan, George Williams. sculpture–Don Jarvis. master of properties–C. J. Rogers. m—[original score by Sigmund Romberg]. cost–Western Costuming Co., Richard Day, Erich von Stroheim. titles–Marian Ainslee, Erich von Stroheim. research asst-J . Lambert. l.p—Rudolph Christians/Robert Edenson (Andrew J. Hughes), Miss Du Pont [Patsy Hannen] (Helen Hughes), Maude George (“Princess”Olga Petschnikoff), Mae Busch (“Princess” Vera Petschnikoff), Erich von Stroheim (“Count” Sergei Karamzin), Dale Fuller (Maruschka), Al Edmundsen (Pavel Pavlich, the Butler), Cesare Gravina (Signor Gaston), Malvina Polo (Gaston’s Daughter [Marietta]), Louis K. Webb (Dr. Judd), Mrs. Kent (Mrs, Judd), C.J. Allen (Albert I, Prince of Monaco), Edward Reinach (Secretary of State of Monaco).… Read more »

Why European Conservatives, If They Exist, Have No Reasons To Live

Russ Limbaugh on Rick Santorum (after explaining that Newt Gingrich and John  Kerry were once on the same panel where they sort of agreed that global warming exists): “Nobody is innocent. Everybody is guilty on [sic] some transgression somewhere against conservatism. Except Santorum.”

Rick Santorum on Western Europeans (speaking to the conservative Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in 2006): “Those cultures are dying. People are dying. They’re being overrun from overseas…and they have no response. They have nothing to fight for. They have nothing to live for.”

Clearly, Rick Santorum can’t be guilty of any transgression against any European conservatives, secular or religious, responsive or otherwise. How could he be, because they don’t exist? Or at least have no reasons to live, or anything to fight for, anywhere. Or somewhere.

Thanks, Russ and Rick, for clarifying that we must be the only folks in the world who exist, or deserve to, or want to — at least one of those things, or maybe, if they can have their way, all three. [2/10/12]

Read more »

Noises Off

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1992). — J.R.

Noises-off

Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie is much funnier than Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines, Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach, and Props in Revolt in Cleveland; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easy to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »

OCCASIONAL WORK OF A FEMALE SLAVE (with Yehuda Safran, 1975)

Cowritten by Yehuda Safran (a lecturer in the philosophy of art with whom I was sharing a flat in Hamstead at the time), and published in the Winter 1974/75 issue of Sight and Sound. It seems fair to say that this review (from the 1974 London Film Festival) is in some ways more Yehuda’s than mine. Note: This film has more recently been called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave in some English-speaking countries. -– J.R.

Occasional work

‘Roswitha feels an enormous power within her,’ Alexander Kluge remarks offscreen at the outset of his latest feature, ‘and cinema teaches her that this power exists.’ The task of making the invisible visible is essentially the project of a director more concerned with social and political history than with film history, who seems to regard his work as a translation of ideas into sounds and images rather than the other way round. What matters is what the words and images ‘say’ and imply in relation to each other -– not their independent formal qualities, but their capacity of modify and explicate a complex experience.

What do Kluge’s opening words say and imply? That film is a means of translating potentiality into actuality, feeling into thought, experience into understanding –- the very problem that Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is struggling to cope with over the film’s duration.… Read more »

Hollywood Confidential [THE CAT’S MEOW]

From the Chicago Reader (April 26, 2002). — J.R.

The Cat’s Meow

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Written by Steven Peros

With Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Victor Slezak, James Laurenson, and Claudia Harrison.

ORSON WELLES: In the original script [of Citizen Kane] we had a scene based on a notorious thing Hearst had done, which I still cannot repeat for publication. And I cut it out because I thought it hurt the film and wasn’t in keeping with Kane’s character. If I’d kept it in, I would have had no trouble with Hearst. He wouldn’t have dared admit it was him.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Did you shoot the scene?

ORSON WELLES: No, I didn’t. I decided against it. If I’d kept it in, I would have bought silence for myself forever.  — This Is Orson Welles

I edited This Is Orson Welles, a series of interviews Peter Bogdanovich did with Welles, at the request not of Bogdanovich but of Oja Kodar, Welles’s companion and collaborator for the last 20-odd years of his life, to whom Welles had willed the rights. The incident Welles alluded to in this exchange is the subject of The Cat’s Meow, directed by Bogdanovich and adapted by Steven Peros from his own play.… Read more »

Texasville

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1990). — J.R.

Texasville

Texasville

One of the most surprising things about Peter Bogdanovich’s bittersweet, touching comedy sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971) — based, like its predecessor, on a Larry McMurtry novel — is that, far from being a trip down memory lane, it’s largely structured around historical amnesia. The hero walks with a limp and has grown estranged from his wife, and his former girlfriend has lost her husband and son, though the reasons and circumstances behind these and other essential facts go unmentioned: they’re buried somewhere in the forgotten past. The people we last saw in the small town of Anarene, Texas, are now 30 years older, and the only one mired in the past is Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the town’s mayor, a self-confessed failure and something of a lunatic. His best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), whose point of view shapes the action — he’s an adulterer who hasn’t slept with his wife Karla (Annie Potts) for some time, and whose main sexual competitor is his own son (William McNamara) — has struck it rich in oil and subsequently run himself millions of dollars into debt while Karla continues to buy condos for their children.… Read more »

Rock Criticism

From the November 20, 1992 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

ROCK HUDSON’S HOME MOVIES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Mark Rappaport

With Rock Hudson and Eric Farr.

In the creation of art, the verb is there to authenticate the subject with the same name.

To paint is the act of painting. . . . To write becomes the act of writing and of the writer. To film, that is, to record a sight and project it, is the act of cinema and of the makers of films . . .

Only television has no creative act or verb to authenticate it. That’s because the act of television both falls short of communication and goes beyond it. It doesn’t create any goods, in fact, what is worse, it distributes them without their ever having been created. To program is the only verb of television. That implies suffering rather than release. — Jean-Luc Godard

You were a great star, Mr. Hudson — one of the biggest. Sorry it all had to end like this. — director Mark Rappaport’s voice in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies

The precipitous decline in the quality of American movies since the 1970s can be attributed to several factors, but three interconnected changes in U.S.… Read more »

Is It Life, or Is It Media? (THE ICICLE THIEF)

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 1990). — J.R.

THE ICICLE THIEF

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Maurizio Nichetti

Written by Nichetti and Mauro Monti

With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Heidi Komarek, Renato Scarpa, Carlina Torta, Lella Costa, and Claudio G. Fava.

There is still so much we have to learn about TV! — Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

Some people have called Maurizio Nichetti the Italian Woody Allen, an unfortunate appellation in more ways than one. Not only does it not do him justice, it also attributes to him an urban snobbishness that couldn’t be further from his world and persona. In the New York Times, where Allen’s movies are ranked higher than the late works of Welles and Antonioni — apparently because Allen, unlike Welles and Antonioni, reflects the worldview of many New Yorkers — the label can only backfire. But take a look at both actors and ask yourself which of the two is funnier.

The first time I saw a Nichetti movie, all it took was the opening sequence to convince me that there was no contest.

At an international conference in Milan, a distinguished participant suffers a stroke. A desperate call is made across the city to Colombo — a short nebbish with a mop of hair and a Groucho mustache, who operates a hilltop refreshment stand — for a glass of mineral water for the poor man.… Read more »

Godard’s Myth of Total Cinema: HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA

Written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival in November 2003. — J.R.

In his biography of André Bazin, Dudley Andrew notes in passing that “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Myth of Total Cinema,” which he calls Bazin’s“first great essays,” were both composed during the French Occupation. I hope I can be forgiven for taking the meaning of the second essay’s title in a direction quite different from what Bazin intended–a direction inspired by the fact that we’re living today under a kind of Cultural Occupation imposed by advertising that currently approaches global dimensions, and which operates under the assumption of another kind of “myth of total cinema”. I’m thinking of the myth that the breadth and diversity of contemporary cinema in its present profusion are somehow knowable and therefore describable, something that can be analyzed in detail as well as evaluated.

Splitting Images [THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH & LOST HIGHWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

Three Lives and Only One Death

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Ruiz and Pascal Bonitzer

With Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Arielle Dombasle, Feodor Atkine, and Lou Castel.

Lost Highway

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by Lynch and Barry Gifford

With Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Michael Massee, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Robert Loggia, and Richard Pryor.

By coincidence, two major features by two of the most talented postsurrealist filmmakers open this week, both convoluted parables about heroes with multiple identities. Though Raul Ruiz and David Lynch are separated by a world of differences — political, cultural, national, intellectual, and temperamental — both are expanding the options in filmmaking as well as filmgoing. Each offers a different kind of roller-coaster ride that manages to be bewildering, provocative, kaleidoscopic, scary, visually intoxicating, and funny.

Ruiz — a Chilean who moved to Paris in 1974 and who makes movies all over the world (in France, Italy, Taiwan, and the U.S. in the past year alone) — has made 90-odd films and videos to date, though he’s only five years older than Lynch.… Read more »

What (Do) We Mean by Frank Cinema–and is That a Question or a Statement?

Commissioned by MUBI Notebook for November 18, 2019. — J.R.

pull-my-daisy

“How much of this film is composed, and how much is improvised?” The obvious question posed by Robert Frank’s first film (coauthored by painter Alfred Leslie), Pull My Daisy (1959), is also posed, sometimes less obviously, by the authored and coauthored Frank films that follow it—an unwieldy filmography that has on occasion become even harder to access because of the unwieldy ways it was financed or put together. (Most notoriously, Cocksucker Blues, produced by the Rolling Stones to chronicle their own 1972 North American tour, has been banned by them from most venues.) To wonder whether they’re Frank or frank is arguably another way of interrogating their relative degrees of sincerity or subterfuge, non-fiction or fiction, single or collective authorship. And it’s ultimately our call whether any given shot in a Frank film corresponds to a declarative statement or a question—something that might also apply to his better known, more celebrated, and noncollaborative still photography. “After seeing these pictures,” wrote Jack Kerouac of The Americans, “you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” But whereas most or all the Frank photographs I’ve seen are recognizably his, each successive Frank film is a reinvention of what the art of film might consist of.… Read more »

Introduction to ESSENTIAL CINEMA (December 2002)

A slightly different version of the Introduction to my 2004 collection, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.

essential-cinema

Introduction

As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors — a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980/1995) — I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal early steps during my freshman year at New York University in 1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist: taking the first and only film course I’ve ever had in my life and purchasing my first film magazine.

The course was an introductory survey taught by the late Haig Manoogian, who was serving as Martin Scorsese’s mentor in production courses around the same time. For me, it mainly afforded me my first opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation, The Last Laugh, and a few other film history staples; since I had no interest in making movies — or at this point in writing about them — I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for such matters as “story values” that Manoogian tended to emphasize.… Read more »

Mississippi Burning

From the February 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

In this 1988 movie, Alan Parker’s taste for simpleminded, sordid fantasy is trained on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and the feast for the self-righteous that emerges has little to do with history, sociology, or even common sense. The glorification of the FBI (which conveniently ignores the FBI’s hostility toward the civil rights struggle), the obfuscation about jim crow laws, and the absurd melodramatics may all have been well-intentioned, but the understanding about the past and the present of racism that emerges is depressingly thin. (The blacks in the plot, for instance, are depicted exclusively as noble sufferers who sing a lot of spirituals — they aren’t even accorded the status of characters.) Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe star as antagonistic FBI agents who disagree about how to proceed with their investigation; Brad Dourif, Frances McDormand, and R. Lee Ermey are among the local yokels, and Chris Gerolmo is responsible for the primitive script. (JR)

Read more »

Bird

From the Chicago Reader (October 28, 1988). — J.R.

Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and long-awaited biopic about the great Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker), running 161 minutes, is the most serious, conscientious, and accomplished jazz biopic ever made, and almost certainly Eastwood’s best picture as well. The script (which accounts for much of the movie’s distinction) is by Joel Oliansky, and the costars include Diane Venora as Chan Parker, Michael Zelniker as Red Rodney, and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie. Alto player Lennie Niehaus is in charge of the music score, which has electronically isolated Parker’s solos from his original recordings and substituted contemporary sidemen (including Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Walter Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, John Guerin, and others), mainly with acceptable results. The film is less sensitive than it might have been to Parker’s status as an avant-garde innovator and his brushes with racism, and one is only occasionally allowed to listen to his electrifying solos in their entirety, without interruptions or interference (as one was able to do more often with the music in Round Midnight), but the film’s grasp of the jazz world and Parker’s life is exemplary inmost other respects. The extreme darkness of the film, visually as well as conceptually, leaves a very haunting aftertaste.… Read more »