From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 2003). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by David Ayer and James Ellroy
With Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, and Jamison Jones.
A curious kind of double game is being played in Dark Blue, a cop thriller that sets out to “explain” the 1992 LA riots. For a good while I sat thinking, “At last — a movie that doesn’t mince words about police corruption and racism,” for even if it’s a decade late and a bit simplistic in some of its moral positioning, the story doesn’t soft-pedal the facts. (It even prompted me to think how useful it might be if someone in Hollywood delivered a thriller about the Enron scandal — not ten years from now but before the next presidential election.) But I soon realized that the attempt to wed a comfortable genre to an uncomfortable social agenda allowed another kind of soft-pedaling to take over.
The filmmakers — Ron Shelton directing a David Ayer script based on a James Ellroy story — obviously want us to swallow a bitter pill, but traditionally Hollywood genres, even the LA cop thriller, are sweet and don’t have much of an aftertaste.… Read more »
I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piece for the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I hadn’t much desire to reprint until mid-October 2018, when I decided to attach the printed version as an afterthought. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable.
I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to illustrate the attic scene that I describe in The Magician, so I’ve substituted a still from Sawdust and Tinsel at the head of this piece that suggests some spatial disorientation. [2015 postscript: a generous reader, Dan Roy, has helped me out with the attic scene.] –- J.R.
If memory serves, my first taste of Ingmar Bergman was The Magician, seen at the 5th Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, en route from a New England boarding school to my home in Alabama during spring break.… Read more »
Written for a booklet distributed at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival. — J.R.
Most people reading these words have likely heard about the Iranian New Wave, which conjures up such names as Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi. But until recently, Westerners who have heard about the first Iranian New Wave, whose names include Farrokhzad, Golestan, Kimiavi, and Saless, have been few and far between. Apart from the belated availability in the West of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 short film The House is Black, this watershed prerevolution movement in Iranian cinema has almost been lost to history due to the abrupt European exiles of many of its other major artists — Ebrahim Golestan to England, Parviz Kimiavi to France, and Sohrab Shahid Saless to Germany. (Bahram Beizai, Dariush Mehrjui, and Amir Naderi are among the few filmmakers who might be stylistically associated with both waves, but given how seldom their own prerevolution films are seen nowadays, apart from Mehrjui’s The Cow, it’s difficult to say much about them.) Arguably even more innovative as well as more modernist than the second New Wave, and virtually contemporaneous with the French New Wave, Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1963-64), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973), and Saless’ A Simple Event (1974) are masterworks that continue to speak to the present like few other films.… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the fifth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
From a journalistic standpoint, what movies are about is always important, but the roles that should be played by content in criticism are not always easy to determine. Ever since I started writing regularly for the Chicago Reader in 1987, my principal professional safety net — what helps to guarantee that I’ll remain interested in my work on a weekly basis, even if the movies of a given week are not interesting — is my option of writing about the subject matter of certain films. This almost invariably involves a certain amount of short-term research, because even if I already know the subject fairly well, a refresher course in certain specifics is generally necessary. (A good example of this would be the reading and listening I had to do in order to nail down many of my facts and examples for “Bird Watching,” in spite — or should I say because?… Read more »
Excerpted from Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella Books, 2000).From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2000). — J.R.
Nowadays the line between journalism and publicity is often blurred, and one common, systematic method of blurring it is the movie junket. Generally a studio flies journalists to a location where a movie’s being shot or to a large city where it’s being previewed, puts them up at fancy hotels, then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent,” most often the stars and the director. The journalists are expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies that run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a form of film “criticism.” If the journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage but articles that emphasize what publicists want emphasized and suppress what they want suppressed — then the studios won’t invite them on future junkets.
There are probably more of these articles about new or forthcoming movies in newspapers and magazines than any other kind, and many entertainment writers — including plenty who double as film reviewers — make a profession out of these junkets.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). — J.R.
Considering that the script for this 1990 movie (by the late Charles Williams and his wife Nora Tyson, adapted from Williams’s novel Hell Hath No Fury) was in development for about 30 years and that the film is Dennis Hopper’s worst as a director, this is still pretty enjoyable as a piece of campy sleaze — especially for the first half hour, before the storytelling starts to dawdle. There’s a score by John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, who pursue waspy duets, and Hopper’s eye for color and composition is as sharp as ever. But even if one overlooks the noirish misogyny (no easy matter), the story is still an overheated hoot. Just when one hopes that the scumbag characters — including a footloose hustler (Don Johnson) who sidles into a job as a car salesman in a sleepy Texas town, his boss’s sexpot wife (Virginia Madsen), and a seedy, bemused banker (Jack Nance) — will develop beyond their cliches, they become even sillier. And the apparently innocent accountant (Jennifer Connelly) who becomes entangled in the morass isn’t any more believable. Some may view the film’s liabilities (e.g. the inexpressive Johnson filling the foreground like a block of wood) as assets and coast along with the steamy sex, but it’s still pretty slim pickings from the man who once made Out of the Blue.… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site.
My original title for this section of the book was “Masterpieces,” but the editor, Ed Dimendberg, who had a much better sense of what was academically acceptable than I did, got me to change it to “Touchstones”. For the record, I still think that “Masterpieces” is better. — J.R.
It seems to me that one of the most underrated elements in criticism is quite simply information — relevant facts deriving from research — and how this is imparted to the reader in relation to other elements. Thanks to the prestige of theory in academia and the equally valued role played by rhetoric in journalistic criticism, facts often seem to be held in relatively low esteem in critical writing nowadays, but as long as criticism aspires to be a vehicle for discovery, it seems to me that research should play a much larger role than it normally does. I bring this matter up because the value of the information imparted in all the pieces in this section seems to me inextricably tied to what I have to say about these films, and my analyses would be appreciably different without it — a factor that is probably most obvious when it comes to GERTRUD and OTHELLO.*… Read more »
Written for a feature in the August 2018 Sight and Sound about novels set in and around the world of movies. — J.R.
The fourth novel (1984) of Rudy Wurlizer, a remarkable writer better known for his screenplays (including those for Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker, both recently canonized by Criterion), is the only one about movies, but it views salvation as a distinctly precinematic or postcinematic postulate. Following his psychedelic Nog (1969), minimalist Flats (1971), and apocalyptic Quake (1974), Slow Fade is more of a page-turner — as is The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), a Western that grew out of an unrealized script. It focuses on a wasted septuagenarian macho filmmaker named Travis Hardin contemplating his own demise. Many assume it’s a portrait of Sam Peckinpah, whom Wurlitzer worked with on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, though he also suggests John Huston and Nicholas Ray. And the surrounding dead-beat hustlers, all hoping to turn some aspect of his legend into coin, include his alienated son and a roadie whom Hardin hires to write a script recounting what happened to his equally alienated daughter when she ran off to India on a spiritual quest. The script’s progress is intercut with the director’s drift back to his modest origins, combining the Beckett-like/Buddhist theme of identity loss from Wurlitzer’s earlier novels with a road-movie ambience.… Read more »
My introduction to my 1997 collection MOVIES AS POLITICS. — J.R.
A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford — there is a marginal difference in styling. Just as in American hotel rooms you can decide whether or not to turn on the air conditioner (that is your business), but you cannot open the window.
— Mary McCarthy, Vietnam, 1967
I await the end of Cinema with optimism. — Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du cinéma, 1965
Thirty years later, both these general sentiments describe an impasse in American life that is vividly reflected in the movies we see and the ways that we see them. If the range of cultural choices apparently available at any given time merits some correlation with the range of political choices, it is also true that Godard’s optimistic apocalypse heralds a new scale of values, though we don’t yet know enough about these to be able to judge them with any confidence.… Read more »
I’ve been revisiting a good many of Buñuel’s films lately, and a couple of traits of his work as a whole that I haven’t been sufficiently aware of in the past have been the centrality of class issues and his uncanny ability to predict or anticipate the future — not only the rise of terrorism but an escalation in income inequality and even, to my surprise, some of the lessons of feminism. These are traits that come together most tellingly and provocatively in his final feature, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
I’ve previously regarded this film as a bit of a letdown after the formal radicalism and thematic freedom of its immediate predecessors, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). But it’s now more apparent to me that the play with multiple narratives really starts with The Milky Way in 1969 (or, much earlier, with Un chien andalou and L’age d’or), that the inability to complete a sex act in That Obscure Object complements and rhymes with the inability to finish a meal in The Discreet Charm, that the economic and sexual exploitation of That Obscure Object is already present in Tristana (1970), and that despite Buñuel’s reputation for kinkiness and cruelty, sadomasochism has never been his particular forte.… Read more »
From the Spring 2018 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Let me start by paraphrasing and slightly expanding a comment of mine appended to my 2017 ten-best list for DVD Beaver. A major reason for listing Criterion’s Othello first is that it includes the digital premieres of not one, not two, but three Orson Welles features: both of his edits of Othello available with his own soundtracks, carried out respectively in 1952 and 1955 and heard for the first time in the US in several decades, and Filming Othello (1979), his last completed feature.
Fans of Mudbound (2017) like myself who want to get acquainted with Dee Rees’ previous work should check out the second of her three previous features, Pariah (2011), available inexpensively in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. This autobiographical look at the tribulations of a gay black teenager and her family, shot in a very different style from Mudbound (much more documentary-like), is beautifully and richly acted by its lead, Adepero Oduye — though I wonder if the use of Brooklyn rather than Rees’ native Nashville as a location (occasioned, I would guess, by the services of Spike Lee as executive producer) made any significant differences in terms of Rees’ script and/or characters.… Read more »
Here’s a piece by Serge Daney that I translated back in 1982, for a catalogue accompanying a Straub-Huillet retrospective that I curated in New York that fall. Danièle Huillet sent me the original review in French, suggesting that it be included. Too Early, Too Late, shot in 16mm, remains, for me, one of their two most beautiful landscape films, along with the much later Operai, Contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2001). — J.R.
What do John Travolta and Jean-Marie Straub have in common? A difficult question, I admit. One dances, the other doesn’t. One is a Marxist, the other isn’t. One is very well-known, the other less so. Both have their fans. Me, for instance.
However, one merely has to see their two films surface on the same day on Parisian screens in order to understand that the same worry eats away at both of them. Worry? Let’s say passion, rather — a passion for sound. I’m referring to BLOW OUT (directed by Brian DePalma) and TOO EARLY, TOO LATE (co-signed by Danièle Huillet), two good films, two magnificent soundtracks.
The cinema, you may persist in thinking, is “images and sounds”. But what if it were the reverse? What if it were “sounds and images”?… Read more »
From Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No 4, Summer 1983. In 1996, during my first visit to Australia, I had the pleasure of “touring” with Feuer in various southern locations where we both lectured. -– J.R.
THE HOLLYWOOD MUSICAL
By Jane Feuer. Bloomingtion: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Since the advent of Pauline Kael and the anti-intellectual approach to popular genres that she has successfully championed, serious writing about the Hollywood musical that wishes to offer anything more than consumer tips, stray bit of gossip or trivial local evaluations — all useful enough services in their own right – has often had to remain doggedly academic in order to be recognized at all. Yet it is one of the rare virtues of Jane Feuer’s long-awaited The Hollywood Musical that, contrary to the ideological assumptions of the Kaelians and neo-Kaelians, it manages to be rigorously analytical and loads of fun at the same time. And thanks to Feuer’s witty style, the intellectual vantage point and the sense of play, far from seeming in any respect contradictory or inappropriate to its subject, work together to mutual advantage –- creating, like the musical itself, a high concentration of energy and grace under pressure.
Rick Altman’s excellent BFI Reader on the musical, which I reviewed in these pages last year, gave more than one foretaste of this possibility.… Read more »
From The Guardian (June 6, 2003). Happily, Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece is now available on a decent DVD with English subtitles from the BFI, and I’ve recently written a lengthy essay about it for the final issue of the French quarterrly Trafic, to be published in French this fall and on this site in English around the sane time..– J.R.
If I had to pinpoint what makes so much of contemporary life intolerable, something I’d call remake mentality might head the top of the list. The mindset that dictates that anything new has to be a recycling of something familiar — that old markets be exhausted before any new ones are contemplated, and that viewers be regarded as mindless brats demanding only more of the same — is so common by now that it has become fully internalised, and not only within the film industry.
The fact that we’re supposed to be looking forward to two sequels to The Matrix in the same year implies that we are fixed marketing units, programmed to relish staying in our well-appointed ruts. But there are just as many spinoffs predicated on our ignorance of the originals, suggesting that the avoidance of fresh thinking may not simply be our own.… Read more »
The following, a revision and substantial expansion of liner notes that I wrote for the Criterion DVD of Day of Wrath several years ago, was written for the Australian DVD, which came out in 2008 on the Madman label — as did my essay on Ordet. (One can order DVDs from Madman’s site, and by now they have quite a collection.) My thanks to Alexander Strang for giving me permission to reprint this. — J.R.
Figuring Out Day of Wrath by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I first encountered Carl Dreyer’s work in my teens, but it wasn’t until my 40s that I started to be ready for it. I mainly had to rely on lousy 16-millimeter prints, so ruinous to the sounds and images of Day of Wrath that I could look at that film only as a form of painterly academicism, a repressed view of repression. The film defeated me with its unalleviated Danish gloom and its dull pacing, which I associated with Dreyer’s strict Lutheran upbringing. Most of this was sheer nonsense, as I discovered once I had access to better prints, information, and reflexes. For one thing, contrary to many would-be reference works, Dreyer’s upbringing was neither strict nor Lutheran, and he was born a Swede, even if he grew up in Denmark.… Read more »