The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.
Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.
The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down. Read more
It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score — started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945 — is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.
I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored. Read more
Pascal Aubier directed this sweet and winsome 1995 French comedy. A 20-year-old tour guide (Gregoire Colin) in charge of Georgian singers giving a Paris concert pretends to be the son of a famous (but fictional) French New Wave director named Gascogne alleged to have left behind an unseen masterpiece when he died in the mid-70s. This impersonation momentarily gains him admission to the French film world, an identity, and even the love of a young Georgian woman, who accompanies him around Paris in a giddy sequence in which they reenact famous scenes from French New Wave classics. Part of what makes Aubier, a middle-aged filmmaker, tolerant about this deception is his hero?s tender years; charmed and intimidated by the mythology of the New Wave, the boy finds that the only way he can become heroic, to himself and to others, is to become part of something that ended around the time he was born. This reveals a telling postmodernist dilemma for cinema as a whole, not just the French cinema: directors like Quentin Tarantino require allusion and imitation for their very existence, not simply as a means of getting ahead or being fashionable, and this romantic and alluring story dives gracefully yet forcefully into the heart of this dilemma. Read more
Herman Mankiewicz is undoubtedly the victim of a credit thief, but the thief in question isn’t Orson Welles but director David Fincher, brandishing and “delivering” the screenplay of his late father Jack. All the best lines in this script come from Herman, but Fincher Sr. is allotted the only writing credit because that’s the way money (not writing) is supposed to work in Lotusland. Yet we’re supposed to credit Mank for telling us how Old Hollywood thought about itself (and incidentally about us too–assuming that we must be idiots for buying into all their lies, Louis B. Mayer’s as well as Fincher’s). I got tired very quickly of all the witty lines, by Herman and Jack alike, thinking, “Can’t somebody, just once, speak half-normally? Is cynicism the only spice we’re allowed to taste, Hecht and Company by the bucketful?” Yes, I know (spoiler alert), the white wine came up with the fish, and all I could think about, almost to Mank‘s bitter end, was when Jack would finally work in that climactic line. Finally, climactically, at the bitter end, natch. Give that dead man an Oscar. Read more
From the October 5, 2007 Chicago Reader. I was pleased to find this review quoted in the expanded second edition of Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination (2020) — J.R.
In this 50-minute political documentary (1974) by Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella — made the year before Franco’s death, on the same night that the militant anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed — five former political prisoners, four men and a woman, whose combined prison terms lasted over 50 years, are seen meeting over a meal in a Catalonian farmhouse (the title means The Supper in Catalan) to discuss political strategies and the effects their prison terms have had on their political commitments. This is mainly a political and historical document, but just as Portabella’s more experimental films (Cuadecuc-Vampir, Umbracle, Warsaw Bridge) are never entirely divorced from politics, this political film has its own formal concerns, most of them related to camera movements and sound recording, as well as the pregnant silences that eventually overtake the conversation. In Catalan and Spanish with subtitles. (JR)
From Sight and Sound, Summer 1986 and my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. For the first half of this article, and a detailed account of how it came to be written, please go here.
In my synopsis of The Big Brass Ring, I erroneously identify Kim Meneker’s former lover as “a basket-case casualty from Vietnam” rather than from the SpanishCivil War. –- J.R.
Not to be confused with Peter Yates’s 1977 feature of the same title, this adaptation of Charles Williams’s thriller Dead Calm, scripted by Welles, was shot in color off the Dalmatian coast at Hvar, Yugoslavia, between 1967 and 1969, with Welles, Laurence Harvey, Jeanne Moreau, Oja Kodar and Michael Bryant. Most of this film was shot and edited, but gaps remain due to the death of Laurence Harvey in 1973 and the still undubbed part of Jeanne Moreau. Welles, Kodar and others have regarded this as the least of his features, so one imagines that it has a low priority on the list of works to be completed and/or released — although, as Kodar points out, priorities may change on any project if investment is forthcoming.
At the Rotterdam film festival last January, Kodar, Dominique Antoine and I compiled a 90-minute videotape of Wellesiana to be shown there, and among the clips we included was a two-minute trailer for The Deep — an early action sequence including brief glimpses of all five of the characters on two yachts and an effective use of percussive jazz (bass and drums) on the soundtrack. Read more
From Sight and Sound, Summer 1986 and my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (the source of the following notes in italics as well).
I was living in Santa Barbara when Welles died on October 10, 1985, teaching what I believe was the first of the three Welles courses I taught at the Universityof California, Santa Barbara, and lecturing on The Magnificent Ambersons that same day. On November 2, I attended a lengthy Welles tribute held at theDirectors Guild in Los Angeles, and recall sitting with a few other Welles fans,including Todd McCarthy and Joseph McBride, at a restaurant for many hoursafterwards, holding what amounted to a kind of personal wake.
This wasn’t long after I’d managed to read and acquire xeroxed copies of two late, unrealized Welles screenplays, The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle WillRock, and one of the idées fixes I had after his death was that both of them shouldbe published, along with the Heart of Darkness script (another fixation that had persisted since the early 70s); if memory serves, I even wrote a letter soonafter Welles’ death to Paola Mori, Welles’ widow, expressing this wish, butnever got a response.Read more
This was written and submitted in 2020 to the editor of an Iranian film magazine called Cinéma Vérité, at his request.
A few thoughts about documentary films and film criticism, recapitulating some ideas recently expressed in a brief online interview with the Cinéma Vérité International Film Festival in Tehran:
All documentaries have certain fictional elements, just as all fiction films have certain documentary elements (e.g. by being documentaries about the actors and places that are filmed and the times when they were filmed). In Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which most people regard as a “pure” documentary, we now know that the woman purported to be Nanook’s wife was in fact Flaherty’s girlfriend, whom he enlisted to play that part.
An excellent illustration of this principle is Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s recent U.S. feature A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong (2020), which I was privileged to be involved with, as a documentary subject, assistant, and advisor. I grew up in a house designed for my family in Florence, Alabama, by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is owned today by the city, which is now a museum open to the public. Mehrnaz, who already recounted the story of her life in Tehran and Chicago through Jerry Lewis clips in Jerry and Me (2012), explores in this case the issues of what it means to live inside a work of art and how this might divide as well as unite members of a family, seen through the experiences of her own family in Iran and the U.S.Read more
I’m not the only one to considar A.I. Artificial Intelligence [https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2021/11/a-matter-of-life-and-death-ai-artificial-intelligence-tk/] a very great and deeply misunderstood film; others as disparate as Andrew Sarris and the late Stan Brakhage have more or less agreed with me, as well as my friend and favorite academic critic, James Naremore. (Click the link above to read my full review.) But it’s also clear to me that any ordinary auteurist way of processing cinema can’t begin to handle this masterwork adequately: Reading it simply as a Spielberg film, as most detractors do, or even trying to read it simply as a Kubrick film, is a pretty futile exercise with limited rewards, even though the fingerprints of both directors are all over it. Seeing it as a perpetually unresolved dialectic between Kubrick and Spielberg starts to yield a complicated kind of sense — an ambiguity where the bleakest pessimism and the most ecstatic kind of feel-good enchantment swiftly alternate and even occasionally blend, not to mention a far more enriching experience, however troubling and unresolved. As a profound meditation on the difference between what’s human and what isn’t, it also constitutes one of the best allegories about cinema that I know.
Unavailable just about everywhere — except for on a SECAM French video that is now so scarce it sells for 100 Euros on French Amazon — Renoir’s gorgeous, sexy, and scandalously neglected second sound feature, a Simenon adaptation with Pierre Renoir as Maigret that is arguably the first film noir ever made anywhere, has finally made it onto DVD, with English subtitles no less, and available here. Thanks to Connor Kilpatrick for making me aware of this. (For a paragraph about this movie that I once wrote for DVD Beaver, go here and page down.)
Perhaps the biggest revelation of this film (and there are quite a few) is the young femme fatale lead, Winna Winfried, who according to Renoir was only 17 when she made it, her film debut. Her other film appearances were so few and far between that I’ve never met anyone who has ever mentioned seeing any of them. [8/24/10]
Written in May 2021 for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s July catalog. — J.R.
Traditionally, history in China is something that belongs only to the emperor (or to his latter-day near-equivalents, such as Mao). So it isn’t surprising that a yearning for a lost past can be felt in much of Chinese art cinema, whether it comes from Taipei (City of Sadness), Shanghai (Spring in a Small Town), Hong Kong (In the Mood for Love), or Beijing (Farewell My Concubine). And even though cinema offers us an imperfect means of capturing and preserving part of that past, few film subjects are more fragmentary yet fragrantly suggestive than that of silent star Ruan Lingyu, the glamorous working-class “Chinese Garbo” who committed suicide before reaching her 25thbirthday, and whose funeral drew a larger crowd than Valentino’s.
Director/cowriter Stanley Kwan, who worships female stars and is mesmerized by the ways they view themselves as much as George Cukor was in Sylvia Scarlett, Camille, A Star is Born, It Should Happen To You, and Bhowani Junction, confronts our incomplete grasp of Ruan by creatively miscasting comic action star Maggie Cheung (as a last-minute replacement for Anita Mui) in the title role, by enlisting film historian Peggy Chiao to collaborate on his script, and by combining biopic fiction with exploratory documentary.(Cheung Read more
A “critic’s choice” from the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1996). — J.R.
This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts, all recounting the same story but set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, with certain differences regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and milieu. Though it lacks some of the behavioral charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces its own likelihood to fail as an experiment in the second episode, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — not only because it takes the most risks, but also because it gives the mind more to do in the process. The actors include Martin Donovan and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself in Tokyo. The whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 8 through 14.
From the February 18, 1994Chicago Reader. I wrote this before I had a chance to see the film’s original rough cut, when it was still a musical, which I continue to regard as far and away James L. Brooks’ best movie, more than twice as good as what he finally released.. By contrast, the release version reminds me of Erich von Stroheim’s comment about the release version of his Foolish Wives: “They are showing only the skeleton if my dead child.” [2021 afterthought: This now strikes me as more than a little hyperbolic. Some of the musical version of the film is great, but a fair amount of it is weak and/or doesn’t work very well. For more on the subject, go here.] — J.R.
** I’LL DO ANYTHING
Directed and written by James L. Brooks
With Nick Nolte, Whittni Wright, Julie Kavner, Albert Brooks, Joely Richardson, Tracey Ullman, Jeb Brown, and Angela Alvarado.
First riddle: How can a movie about Hollywood professionals also be a movie about learning to be a parent? Answer: When all the Hollywood professionals in the movie act like kids or parents.
However disjointed it felt the first time I saw it, James L. Read more
Conceivably the most anti-American Hollywood picture ever made — I certainly can’t think of any competitors — Cy Endfield’s brilliant and shocking thriller (originally known as The Sound of Fury) was adapted by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned, which was inspired by a lynching that occurred in California in the 30s. A frustrated and jobless veteran (Frank Lovejoy), tired of denying his wife and son luxuries, falls in with a slick petty criminal (Lloyd Bridges), and the two work their way up from small robberies to a kidnapping that ends in murder. Apart from an unnecessary moralizing European character, this masterpiece is virtually flawless, exposing class hatreds and the abuses of the American press (represented here by Richard Carlson as a reporter) with rare lucidity and anger. At once subtle and unsparing, this may be the best noir thriller you’ve never heard of, perhaps because Endfield’s American career was cut short by the blacklist the same year it was released (1951). With Kathleen Ryan, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, and Art Smith. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 17, 7:45, 443-3737)