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 »
Travis Wilkerson with his great-grandfather
I gather that Travis Wilkerson’s amazing personal essay film about the murder of a black man by his great-grandfather in Dothan, Alabama in 1946 will be at New York’s Film Forum through March 13. I’m grateful to A.O. Scott for his enthusiastic review, which, by alerting me to this film’s existence, made me forgive Scott for what appeared to be his blindness to the subtler forms of racism and class bias practiced by Woody Allen in the reviewer’s latest “troubled” Times ruminations about that profoundly overrated figure. Even if I’m not the only one who views Manhattan as a hipper version of Trump’s “Make America great [i.e., white] again” — it was the late Allan Sekula who first pointed out to me how the absence of people of color on the streets of New York was part of what made it all seem so dreamy and romantic — the habit of avoiding racism when it appears in your own backyard is hardly unique to Scott. It’s even part of what makes New Yorkers and Alabamans seem similar to me, after living for many years in both places. (I grew up in Florence, to the northwest of Dothan — the other side of the state, and closer to the part of Tennessee where Wild River was filmed and is set.)… Read more »
From Cinema Scope issue 39, Summer 2014. — J.R.
I shelled out $56.19 in US dollars (including postage) to acquire the definitive and restored, director-approved DVD of Providence (1977) from French Amazon, and I hasten to add that this was money well spent. Notwithstanding the passion and brilliance of Alain Resnais’ first two features, Providence is in many ways my favourite of his longer works, quite apart from the fact that it’s the only one in English. And I can’t ascribe this preference simply to the contribution of David Mercer (1928-1980). I recently resaw the only other Mercer-scripted film I’m familiar with, Karel Reisz’s Morgan!, and aside from the wit of its own sarcastic dialogue I mainly found it just as flat and tiresome as I did in 1966, for reasons that are well expounded in Dwight Macdonald’s contemporary review (reprinted in his collection On Movies).
I haven’t yet been able to see The Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), Resnais’ swan song, but clearly part of what gives Providence even more resonance now, writing less than a month after Resnais’ death, is the theme it shares with his penultimate feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013): an old writer facing his own death, and trying to create some form of art in relation to it.… Read more »
Written for the Fipresci web site on September 18 2017. — J.R.
Adapting a novella of the same title by Javier Cercas (available in English in the 2006 volume The Tenant and the Motive, translated by Anne McLean for Bloomsbury Publishing), writer-director Manuel Martín Cuenca’s black comedy about the lures and potential perils of yarn-spinning focuses on a hapless and naïve bureaucrat in Seville named Álvaro (Javier Gutiérrez) working as a notary clerk and longing to be a serious and successful novelist, unlike his author wife Amanda (Maria Léon), who writes best-selling but unserious novels (at least according to her husband).
Curiously, the Spanish title of both the novella and the film, El Autor, means “the author,” not “the motive” (the English title of both). But it must be conceded that Álvaro is a highly, even willfully and monomaniacally motivated author as well as a rather stupid sociopath. Taking a writing course from a testy and critical teacher named Juan (Antonio de la Torre), who berates his clichéd prose, he leaves his wife after he discovers via their pet dog that she’s having an affair and, after his boss, noticing his distractedness, urges him to take an extended vacation, moves into a flat of his own to concentrate full-time on writing his first novel.… Read more »
From the April 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R,
Part of what makes this wartime Hollywood drama (1942) about love and political commitment so fondly remembered is its evocation of a time when the sentiment of this country about certain things appeared to be unified. (It’s been suggested that Communism is the political involvement that Bogart’s grizzled casino owner Rick may be in retreat from at the beginning.) This hastily patched together picture, which started out as a B film, wound up getting an Oscar, and displays a cozy, studio-bound claustrophobia that Howard Hawks improved upon in his superior spin-off To Have and Have Not. Then again, we get Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio, and S.Z. Sakall, and Dooley Wilson performing “As Time Goes By”. PG, 102 min. (JR)
… Read more »
Written for my collection Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics (2019), although it has also appeared by now in Spanish (in Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, November 2018), in Persian (in Sazandegi, December 19-20, 2018), and in French (in Trafic, March 2019). The Other Side of the Wind is still visible and available on Netflix, but I think we’re still a long way from it being adequately “digested” or coherently dismissed, much less adequately defined. (I’ve also heard from Criterion, which has an arrangement with Netflix, that they have no plans to release the film digitally.) Even those who consider it a failure haven’t, for the most part, come up with very persuasive accounts of what it is and does. Superficial replays of rumors about the film that circulated decades ago, many of them half-baked, continue to predominate. But of course this is nothing new when it comes to groping after the meaning and value of Welles’ work, which rarely comes at the time a film is released,. — J.R.
The Other Side of the Argument:
First Thoughts on Orson Welles’s Demonic Fugue
The only time I ever met Orson Welles — in 1972, in response to a letter of mine, to discuss his very first Hollywood project, an updated adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I was writing about — I also had occasion to ask him about the status of his more recent projects.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1999). — J.R.
I recently heard about an American teenager visiting Wales who insisted on calling the Welsh people she met English. When it was pointed out to her that the Welsh didn’t like being identified that way, she said she was sorry but that’s what she’d been taught in school — and it would be too complicated for her to change what she called them.
Given the isolationism of Americans, which seems to grow more pronounced every year, an event like the Chicago International Film Festival has to be cherished. This year it’s offering the city 108 features from 31 countries — 32 from the U.S. and 76 from elsewhere, 49 of them U.S. or North American premieres, as well as five programs of shorts and five tributes. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of fresh, or stale, air from diverse corners of the globe — even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. However you look at them, they’re proof that Americans aren’t the only human beings and that the decisions Americans make about how to live their lives aren’t the only options — at least not yet.… Read more »
This book review appeared in the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News.
I was moved to repost this review some time ago by the generous recent reference to it made by Sam Jordison in the Guardian. –– J.R.
A Confederacy of Dunces
By John Kennedy Toole
Foreword by Walker Percy
Louisiana State University Press, $12.95
Is it by mere chance, or through some form of subtly earned tragic irony, that this brilliantly funny, reactionary novel is being published during a reactionary period, apparently about a decade and a half after it was written? God knows what it might have been like to read this in the mid-’60s. I suspect it would have been less warmly received — one reason, perhaps, why it wasn’t published way back then.
What I mean by Reactionary Humor is the boring literary schemes of Tom Sawyer, not the expedient escape tactics of Huck Finn. Broadly speaking, it’s what we learn to expect from the perennial antics of Blondie and Dagwood, Amos and Andy, Franny and Zooey, Laurel and Hardy (and Marie and Bruce, in Wallace Shawn’s recent play), not to mention W.C. Fields, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Archie Bunker, and Woody Allen.… Read more »
From the May 2018 issue of Journal of Chinese Cinemas. — J.R.
XD: Jonathan, you and I are both cinephiles. Much of our conversation over the years has been about our favorite films and directors, and we nudge each other to watch or re-watch new releases and rediscovered classics. Now that we’re co-editing this special issue on comedy, I wonder, what are some of the most amusing moments for you in the Chinese-language films that you’ve seen? I ask about these cinephiliac moments because when a comic scene works, it tends to be highly memorable. And often what we find amusing can tell us a lot about the film as a whole: how it plays with comic conventions, how it addresses its audience, how it ages over time.
JR: I was especially amused by the point-of-view shots from inside an ATM in Peter Chan’s 1996 Comrades: Almost a Love Story (a particular favorite of mine), because of the whole idea of what we look like from the vantage point of our money – or, more specifically, what Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai, both mainlanders who meet one another in Hong Kong and try to “make it” there, look like to the ups and downs of their cash balances that epitomize much of their struggle.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 27, 1993). — J.R.
MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Allen and Marshall Brickman
With Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jerry Adler, Joy Behar, Ron Rifkin, and Lynn Cohen.
It’s instructive to divvy up Woody Allen’s movies into “art films” and entertainments. Without too much boiling and scraping, I think you could say that the entertainments come from his first 11 years as a filmmaker, from What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966, now missing from the press-kit filmography) to Annie Hall (1977), while his art-film efforts extend from Interiors (1978) to Husbands and Wives (1992).
Some would argue that Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), coming halfway through the second period, belong to the entertainment category, along with “Oedipus Wrecks” (1989), his contribution to New York Stories, but I would beg to differ. (The first of these is in black and white, the second traffics in misery and pathos, and the third derives directly from Fellini’s episode in Boccaccio ’70 — the first pieces of counterevidence I’d cite.) Similarly, to those who’d claim that the “foreign movie” sketch in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) pushes it into the art-movie category, I’d maintain that there’s a world of difference between this film’s parody of Antonioni and the pastiches of the later movies.… Read more »