From The Bard Observer, May 7, 1963. For me, one of my formative experiences of film as an art form was a screening of Sunrise at Columbia University’s Macmillan Theater during one of my first three semesters of college, at New York University, before I transferred to Bard College, two hours up the Hudson River, in early 1963, where I soon took over the Friday night film series. This particular screening, late in my first semester, may have actually been the second time I screened it rather than the first, because I recall it being greeted by hoots of derisive laughter the first time I showed it at Bard (which was quite unlike the screening I’d attended at Columbia, at least as I remember it), and I suspect that the defensive tone of this piece was provoked by that unhappy experience.
I believe it was at this screening of Sunrise (although it may have been at the previous one) that Stan Brakhage, visiting the campus with P. Adams Sitney in order to meet Robert Kelly, asked me if he could screen his Prelude beforehand. I agreed to show it (probably the first Brakhage film I saw, unless this was Desistfilm) afterwards but not before, because the mimeographed film series schedule had already listed Sunrise’s starting time.IRead more
Written in early February 2012 for “En Movimiento.” my bimonthly column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?
I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East). Read more
There’s certainly a lot more footage — 53 minutes, to be precise — which makes this better in certain ways than the original Apocalypse Now, though the flaws are also magnified. (Kurtz’s Cambodian savages slaughtering a caribou — actually, it’s a Filipino ceremony — and kneeling before Willard and then laying down their weapons en masse seems even more insulting and ludicrous than it did in 1979; and the pan to The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance remains the most pretentious shot in the history of cinema, far worse than anything ever perpetrated by Antonioni.) Francis Ford Coppola’s guilty-liberal rethink of John Milius’s right-wing update and transplanting of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to the war in Vietnam is above all an environmental experience, a theme-park ride enhanced by what may still be Walter Murch’s best sound editing (including some great use of the Doors) and Michael Herr’s second-best writing after Dispatches for Martin Sheen’s voice-over (all of it written long after the movie was shot). Looking for a responsible or even coherent account of that war here would be barking up the wrong tree, and the best way of glossing over this embarrassing lack would probably be to pretend, as many Western viewers do anyway, that this movie has no Vietnamese spectators. Read more
From the Chicago Reader, 2/15/02, and tweaked today, 9/4/23.
With Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, and Ousman Sembene still active, one can’t call Portuguese writer-director Manoel de Oliveira the only old master we have left in cinema. But how remarkable to see someone in his mid-90s enjoying one of the richest and most productive periods of his career–five extraordinary and very different features since Inquietude in 1998. This is partly thanks to the resourceful producer Paulo Branco (who also sponsors Raul Ruiz); unfortunately, none of the five has found U.S. distribution (unlike de Oliveira’s previous releases, The Convent and Voyage to the Beginning of the World, which were less interesting but had bigger stars). The fourth and fifth (I’m Going Home, a superbly unsentimental story about an aging actor, and Oporto of My Childhood, an imaginative documentary about de Oliveira’s hometown) haven’t even made it to Chicago festivals yet. Word and Utopia (2000) offers another example of how de Oliveira has enlivened his stately style through vigorous direction of actors, mainly through Lima Duarte’s performance as Antonio Vieira, an outspoken 17th-century Jesuit priest who championed the rights of Brazilian Indians and won the support of both the pope and Queen Christina of Sweden. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 490). — J.R.
U.S.A., 1973 Director: Eddie Saeta
Before dying from an accident, Laura Saunders’ last words to her husband Fred are, “I’ll come back”. Unable to accept her death, Fred visits a number of fake spiritualists and death cultists until a classified ad (“Control your own reincarnation”) leads him to Tana, a friend and former lover of Dr. Death who brings Fred to one of Death’s ‘demonstrations’: a girl scarred by an accident is willingly sawed in half so that her soul can pass into the undamaged body of another women. Death dubs the reawakened corpse Venus and promptly becomes her lover, incurring the jealousy of Tana, who subsequently throws acid in Venus’ face. At a later meeting with Fred, Death explains that he discovered his power — based on a formula kept in an amulet around his neck — 1000 years ago, and his soul has survived ever since by passing into a succession of bodies of various races and both sexes belonging to his murder victims, He offers to revive Laura’s corpse with another woman’s soul for $50,000 and Fred agrees; but when Tana is garishly murdered for this purpose, Fred is appalled, and after Death fails to animate Laura’s body, asks him to keep the money and abandon the project. But Read more
Arguably Louis Malle’s best work (1960). Based on Raymond Queneau’s farcical novel about a little girl (Catherine Demongeot) left in Paris for a weekend with her decadent uncle (Philippe Noiret), this wild spree goes overboard reproducing Mack Sennett-style slapstick, parodying various films of the 1950s, and playing with editing and color effects (the cinematography is especially impressive), all in an effort to create equivalents to Queneau’s extravagant wordplay, though gradually it becomes a rather disturbing nightmare about fascism. Forget the preposterous claim by at least one critic that the movie’s editing influenced Alain Resnais, but there’s no doubt that Malle affected Richard Lester — and was clearly influenced himself by William Klein, credited here as a visual consultant and responsible for much of the wide-angle look. A rather sharp, albeit soulless, film, packed with ideas and glitter and certainly worth seeing. In French with subtitles. 93 min. (JR)
From Time Out (London), Sept. 27—Oct. 3, 1974. –- J.R.
‘Amarcord’ (Curzon, Warner West End) is Fellini at this ripest and loudest, which is not to say always at his best. Recreating a fantasy vision of his home town during the fascist period, with generous helpings of soap opera and burlesque, he generally gets his better effects by orchestrating his colorful cast of characters around the town square, on a boat outing, or at a festive local wedding. When he narrows his focus to individual groups, he usually limits himself to corny bathroom and bedroom jokes which produce the desired titters but little else. But despite the ups and downs, it’s still Fellini, which has become an identifiable substance like salami or pepperoni that can be sliced into at any point, yielding pretty much the same general consistency and flavor. There are the expected set pieces (family dinner, fascist rally), the customary cartoon cut-outs (a blind accordionist, a tobacconist with breasts the size of watermelons), and the tearful tones of Nino Rota, as evocative as ever. Fellini’s home town would have liked it. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
From Film Comment, Winter 1971-72. This was my second Paris Journal for that magazine, and my first extended effort to write about Playtime. -– J.R.
All five of Jacques Tati’s films have musical backgrounds of such surpassing unsubtlety that they are insipid even by Muzak standards; processions of cute kids, dogs, and middle-class nonentities that are not so much mildly parodied (on the surface) as embraced and advertised; the kind of comic ambiance that usually attracts either a Saturday afternoon family crowd or no one at all. Of the four that I have seen, two (MON ONCLE and TRAFIC) repeatedly grate on my nerves, and one (LES VACANCES DE MONSIEUR HULOT), after several viewings, has come to seem like an enduring classic. For the other, PLAYTIME, I would gladly trade the collective works of Fellini, Bergman, and all but the best of Godard.
Four years after its opening in Paris, PLAYTIME remains, at this writing, unseen and virtually unknown in the states. The European reception has generally been so cold that distributors are probably afraid to go near it. To speak even of its existence here is to conjure up a ghost: unquestionably Tati’s most expensive and ambitious film — requiring, according to Télé-Ciné, “ten years of reflection, three years of preparation and shooting,” and filmed in 70 mm and stereophonic sound — it already seems destined to share the fate of extravagant commercial failures of the silent era like INTOLERANCE, GREED, and SUNRISE. Read more
Two movie columns published in Summer ’64, a newspaper published by Columbia University and Teachers College in August 1964, while I was attending summer school there in Manhattan. I recall having seen Hitchcock’s Marnie and Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning that same summer for the same publication, and reviewed at least the former, but apparently either this review never ran or my printed copy of it hasn’t survived -– more likely the former. (I still recall attending the press screening for Boudu, and hearing the huffy and irritable old gentleman seated in front of me storm out angrily before the end; then, once I read Bosley Crowther’s negative review in the Times, I realized who this crank was — and why and how he misconstrued the movie’s conclusion.)
That Man from Rio is being released this spring in an attractive, restored 2-disc Blu-Ray package by the Cohen Film Collection, along with de Broca’s follow-up feature.Up to His Ears (Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine, 1965). I’m still hoping for an eventual release of the long-unavailable Five Day Lover (1961), which I recall as my favorite de Broca feature. [P.S. this turned up later in a De Broca box set.]Read more
Behind the credits, a face peering out through a window; a downward pan revealing a vertiginous drop to the courtyard below; a pan back to the window and round the court to another face, a girl’s, which quickly turns into Roman Polanski’s; a continuing movement past a chimney, across more windows-down one side of the building, over a railing and up another side — eventually coming round to the door leading to the street, which Polanski enters . . . If the remainder of The Tenant were as impressive as the first shot, we conceivably might have had a masterpiece on our hands. Nearly as concise as the extended crane shot opening Touch of Evil, it differs from the latter by arranging its arsenal of elements into a non-narrative pattern — a set of materials which, except for the girl turning into Polanski, are related spatially but nor chronologically, until Polanski’s entrance through the street door launches the story proper.
A naturalised Pole named Trelkovsky is interested in seeing a flat, and the unfriendly concierge (Shelley Winters) gives him a hard time about it, agreeing to take him upstairs only after he slips her some money. Read more
Apart from those few who managed to escape from totalitarian regimes and occupied countries, most North Americans know as little about living under a dictatorship and/or in an occupied territory and what that entails as I do. For the past two decades, I’ve been periodically arguing that progressively minded Yank cinephiles missed the boat in the ’60s and ’70s by focusing too exclusively on Godard, Bertolucci, and similarly oriented Western leftists while ignoring the far more politically and formally radical inventions of Eastern European cinema by Chytilová, Jancsó, and Makevejev, among others — an avoidance that largely came about because we didn’t know more about what was happening in those parts of the world. A comparable limitation in the 1930s and 1940s led critics such as Dwight Macdonald to focus far more on Eisenstein and Pudovkin than on Dovzhenko, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, even a passionate Dovzhenko fan such as James Agee was fairly clueless about the political difficulties this Ukrainian filmmaker was having with the Russians.
Bearing this shared ignorance in mind, all of the most striking releases I’ve encountered this spring —Serge Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018), on DVD from Salzgeber & Co. Read more
What do I know about Ulrike Ottinger? Not much, but enough to make me want to know more. Admittedly, I’ve seen only her last two features. And on the basis of a single viewing about a year ago, Freak Orlando is a decidedly uneven film, definitely hit-or-miss in its overall thrust, and conceivably full of as many misses as hits. Like it or not, though, the film can be regarded as a kind of climactic summa of the performance-oriented European avant-garde film, from Carmelo Bene to Philippe Garrel to Marc’O to the collaborations of Pedro Portbella* to Christopher Lee — to cite the names of four leading figures of excitement and interest in this category whose careers I lost track of after moving back to the U.S. from Europe in 1977. Insofar as Freak Orlando can be regarded as the Monterey Pop or Woodstock of the European avant-garde performance movement, it’s a valuable and fascinating document to have, and one therefore has reason to look forward to its release in this country…Ticket of No Return, on the other hand, strikes me as a fully achieved work — one of the few true masterpieces of the contemporary German avant-garde cinema — making Ottinger an obligatory inclusion for this book.Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2000). — J.R.
This ambiguous comic masterpiece (1999, 118 min.) could be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancee milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem that gives the movie its title. Over half the major characters — including the crew, the dying woman, and the digger — are kept mainly or exclusively offscreen, and the dense and highly composed sound track often refers to other offscreen elements, peculiarities of Kiarostami’s style that solicit the viewer’s imaginative participation. What’s most impressive about this global newspaper and millennial statement is how much it tells us about our world — especially regarding the acute differences in perception and behavior between media experts and everyone else. Read more
Ironically, the two greatest works by the two most innovative filmmakers of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, were originally designed as TV series. Rivette’s 760-minute, 16-millimeter serial Out 1 (1971) was rejected by French state TV, and he spent most of a year editing it down to a 255-minute version to show in theaters, Out 1: Spectre (1972). Less a digest than a perverse variant — some shots were rearranged so that they had radically different meanings and contexts, and much of the comedy was turned into psychodrama — it’s the only version that’s ever shown in the U.S., though it hasn’t been screened for years. The original — almost certainly the best film ever made by anyone about the 60s counterculture and its demise — still shows periodically in Europe.
Godard’s eight-part, 264-minute video Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998), conceived and made over 20 years, has fared better, but it’s still pretty hard to come by. The only version ever sold in France is a lousy mono video transfer; a package of CDs and books in several languages transcribing major portions of the stereo sound track came out here years ago. Read more
Written for Criterion’s “The Complete Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report” DVD box set in 2006. — J.R.
Broadly speaking, the features of Orson Welles fall into two categories: those he finished and released to his satisfaction and those he didn’t. In the first category are Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming “Othello.” And in the second batch are The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, and Don Quixote.
Is it correct to regard the second ten as unfinished? I think it is — at least if we continue to regard them as films by Welles, and agree with Welles that the editing was crucial to what made them his. (Although he came relatively close to finishing half of the latter ten — Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Quixote — we no longer have access to any of those cuts.) Yet the standard practice has been to regard all of the ones released when he was alive as finished, regardless of whether he approved them or not.Read more