Sexual Discourse [THE PIANO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 10, 1993). — J.R.



*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jane Campion

With Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, and Ian Mune.

The Piano-HH

Given how sexy and volatile it is, it’s no surprise that The Piano is a hit. It’s also no surprise, given the strong-arm tactics of the distributor and the hype of some reviewers, that a certain critical backlash is already setting in, as evidenced by a lucid and considered dissent by Stuart Klawans in the Nation and a rather lazy dismissal by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic. People like myself who are passionate fans of Jane Campion’s previous work may be somewhat churlish that many other people are finding their way to her work only after it has become juiced up, simplified, and mainstreamed — like the people who bypassed the dreamy finesse of Eraserhead on their way to the relative crudeness of Blue Velvet. It’s certainly regrettable that viewers who weren’t interested in seeing Campion’s 1989 film Sweetie until after they saw The Piano now have to contend with a lousy video transfer that doesn’t begin to do justice to Campion’s colors and compositions. Read more

The 12-Hour Masterpiece

From the Chicago Reader (May 25, 2007). — J.R.

OUT 1 ****


WHEN Sat 5/26, 2:30 PM (episodes 1 and 2) and 7 PM (episodes 3 and 4); Sun 5/27, 2:30 PM (episodes 5 and 6) and 6:45 PM (episodes seven and eight)

WHERE Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State


INFO 312-846-2600

MORE Box meals from Whole Foods will be available during dinner breaks for $10, but must be ordered by Thu 5/24.


QUESTION: Why did you choose the title Out?

RIVETTE: Because we didn’t succeed in finding a title. It’s without meaning. It’s only a label. — from a 1974 interview

Jacques Rivette has made several good films and four great ones, consecutively: L’Amour Fou (four hours, 1968), Out 1 (12 hours, 1971), Out 1: Spectre (four hours, 1972), and Celine and Julie Go Boating (three hours, 1974). It’s not their epic length that sets these apart from the rest of his filmography — there are others by Rivette that are plenty long — but their improvisatory nature. Read more

The Lunatic French

From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 1996). — J.R.

My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud

Directed by Gerard Mordillat

Written by Mordillat and Jerome Prieur

With Sami Frey, Marc Barbe, Julie Jezequel, Valerie Jeannet, and Charlotte Valandrey.

Gerard Mordillat’s 1993 French feature My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud, showing this week at the Music Box, can be regarded only nominally as a biopic. Adapted from the diary of an obscure poet, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud (which is also the film’s original, superior title), it tells the story of the poet’s relationship with Artaud over a two-year period, from May 1946 to March 1948, when Artaud died at the age of 52. In 1946 Artaud had just returned to Paris after nine years in an insane asylum, and Jacques Prevel befriended him and procured drugs for him, mainly laudanum, opium, and chloral. But the film has relatively little to say about Artaud’s work, except in passing, and virtually nothing about Prevel’s writing apart from his diary. Shot in beautiful, crisp high-contrast black and white, the movie certainly has something to do with the “life and times” of this bohemian duo — and Sami Frey and Marc Barbe do creditable jobs as Artaud and Prevel. Read more

Teenage Wasteland [CRUEL INTENTIONS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 5, 1999). — J.R.

Cruel Intentions

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Roger Kumble

With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Sean Patrick Thomas, Louise Fletcher, and Swoosie Kurtz.

Cruel Intentions is the fourth movie adaptation I’ve seen of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, possibly the best French novel of the 18th century. It’s also the third version in English — though the first to reconfigure the plot as a contemporary teenage sex comedy. Will it be the last? Considering how serviceable the story is, it’s easy to imagine it being dusted off every decade or so for use in that dubious genre. The substitution of teen yuppies for 18th-century aristocrats isn’t a precise match — as some awkward carryovers of characters’ names makes clear — yet surprisingly, writer-director Roger Kumble comes close to pulling this off. (A writer on such comedies as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Kumble’s art-movie profile appears to be nonexistent.) He sets the story in and around Manhattan, Sin City itself, and makes the scheming protagonists, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), stepsiblings enrolled at an exclusive prep school just outside the city. Read more


This appeared in Omni, circa December 1980, and, if memory serves, a version of it also turned up in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. For about a year (1977-78), Hock and I (and also Raymond Durgnat, for a spell) , all colleagues at the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, shared a beautiful house in a Del Mar canyon that we sublet from an anthropology professor there who was away on a sabbatical. — J.R.

A single thread of 16mm film runs through three side-by-side projectors, all aimed at the same wall. Twenty-two and a half second elapse between the time when the first and the second screen images appear and the same amount of time passes between the appearance of the same silent image in the second and third, so that every image can be expected to occur twice in each 45-second cycle.

The title of this 70-minute film piece, made last year, is Southern California. Described by its maker, Louis Hock, as a “triptych cinemural,” it is also identified by him with precise measurements, like a temporal painting: 30 feet X 7.5 feet X70 minutes. And temporal painting may not be a farfetched description for what this thirty-two-year-old filmmaker — a man preoccupied with time and motion — is interested in exploring. Read more

Shortcuts to Happiness [SECRETS AND LIES]

From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1996). In a recent and rather interesting book about Mike Leigh published by the University of Illinois Press, Sean O’Sullivan takes exception to this review (among others), with intriguing results. — J.R.

Secrets and Lies

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Mike Leigh

With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Elisabeth Berrington, Lee Ross, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Michele Austin, and Lesley Manville.

I’ve seen Secrets and Lies three times since it premiered at Cannes in May, and each time the movie’s apparent rough patches have seemed smoother — clear evidence that writer-director Mike Leigh knows exactly what he’s doing and why. But whether his knowledge and a viewer’s recognition of it make this comedy-drama a masterpiece is another matter. Some of my hipper colleagues feel a little suspicious about the film’s mainstream pitch, wondering whether the whole thing finally goes down a bit too easily, given Brenda Blethyn’s quavering histrionics, the upbeat conclusion, the snugness of the whole concept. But I can hardly begrudge a filmmaker as talented as Leigh a way of conveying his gifts to a wider audience; after all, Secrets and Lies doesn’t represent the same sort of coarsening of a filmmaker’s vision as Jane Campion’s The Piano, coming after Sweetie.

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The New Age

From the September 20, 1994 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

This new comedy by writer-director Michael Tolkin (The Rapture), which reunites the leads of Naked Lunch, Peter Weller and Judy Davis, as fashion-plate yuppies in Los Angeles who have spiritually lost their way, keeps promising to be a great satire. But the promise is only half kept; each time one expects some follow-through on a fruitful conceit (e.g., the couple opening a new boutique called Hipocracy, Patrick Bauchau as a mysterious guru), the movie stops dead in its tracks, just like the woeful couple. This is still great fun as far as it goes;, and serious as well; just don’t expect any structure. With Adam West as Weller’s father, John Diehl, Paula Marshall, and Samuel L. Jackson. (JR)

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A Note on “Welles’ Career: A Chronology”

When This is Orson Welles, which I edited, was originally published in 1992, the section of the book which elicited the most comments was the 131-page summery of Welles’ career, an attempt at an exhaustive account that I had taken over and expanded from Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’s original manuscript. People were awed by the size of this section, but ever since the book’s publication, I’ve been periodically reminded of how incomplete it actually was and is.

My latest reminder was coming across Welles’ 19-minute radio adaptation/performance of Alexander Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades,” introduced by Laurence Olivier and available for free at

I have no idea when this was recorded or broadcast, but Audible has posted it alongside other audio adaptations of other Russian literary works performed by Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, and an apparently unidentified actress in the same series, which aren’t free. [4/25/2022]

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Thanks to Mark Rappaport for recommending Sergei Loznitsa’s extraordinary 2018 Donbass, available for $5 (a one-day pass) at, which offers the most gripping and elucidating portrait of what’s happening now in Ukraine that I’ve encountered anywhere. Many of us have already encountered Loznitsa’s expertise as a documentary storyteller, but this film is a veritable eye and ear-opener. [5/6/22]

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Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1997).

With this 1997 drama, producer-director Clint Eastwood continued his welcome practice of trying something different on every picture, turning this time to a best-seller very different from The Bridges of Madison County, the source material for his previous film. The liberties taken by John Lee Hancock in adapting John Berendt’s atmospheric nonfiction novel move the original story even closer to fiction: four murder trials are collapsed into one, the author-narrator is replaced with a made-up hero (John Cusack), and a lot of languid local color is distilled into a meandering story line. But Eastwood finds good ways of honoring the book: shooting on location in Savannah, using a very tasteful selection of tunes by Johnny Mercer (a Savannah native) on the sound track, and even getting local drag queen Lady Chablis to play an expanded version of her own part in the original story. (She’s not exactly a film actor, but there’s something in the way that Eastwood turns her loose that makes the movie come alive.) The results are more leisurely and character driven than most contemporary movies are encouraged to be, and positively drip with juicy southern ambience. Kevin Spacey is at his best playing the millionaire antiques specialist who shoots his rough-trade lover and employee (Jude Law). Read more

The Seven ARKADINs

The following article was partially written as a way of conserving space

while editing This Is Orson Welles (1991). A particular problem I had

throughout that project was having more material that I wanted to use

than I had room for. So I figured that if I could write and publish articles

elsewhere that incorporated portions of this material, all I had to do in the

book was allude to them.

Mr. Arkadin has always been the most difficult to research of the

Welles films that were finished in some form while he was alive —

partially because it remained such a painful memory to Welles due

to his friendship with Louis Dolivet, the producer, that he avoided

discussing it. Indeed, there was barely any material at all about it

in the tapes and drafts for This Is Orson Welles that I had

to work with. So as I tried to expand what I had via research,

I eventually hit upon the idea of publishing a piece in Film

Comment. (This appeared in January-February 1992.)

By necessity, much of what I included in this article was provisional.

(The same applies to a lesser extent to the dual commentary I

recorded with James  Naremore in early 2005 to the film’s “Corinth

version” [no. Read more

Mother and Son

From the February 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Apart from the eye-filling black-and-white video Oriental Elegy, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s painterly, visionary side has seldom been more evident than in this gorgeous 1997 contemplation of a son caring for his dying mother. The story is minimal, but the color images are so breathtaking that there’s never a lax moment; even when the already slow action is reduced to a virtual standstill, Sokurov’s intensity insures that something is always happening, both on the screen and inside us. (This is only 73 minutes long, but if you’re hungry for plot, it will seem like an eternity.) In his taste and his patience, Sokurov may be our only truly 19th-century avant-gardist — which means in effect that his works are timeless. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 20 through 26. 

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The Cedar Bar

From the Chicago Reader (August 23, 2002).

In 1952 beat painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie wrote a play based on an argument he witnessed between art critic Clement Greenberg and abstract expressionist painters at a celebrated hangout in Greenwich Village. The text was lost in a 1966 fire that also consumed most of Leslie’s paintings and films, but 20 years later he reconstructed it from memory and added songs, and in 1997 a staged reading was videotaped with three cameras. Leslie found the results visually boring, so he decided to insert an enormous quantity of found footage from newsreels, porn films, and Hollywood movies, either to illustrate or to play against the ongoing discussion. The opening clip, a clown singing in squawks and squeaks that are subtitled with some invective from critic Hilton Kramer, sets the tone perfectly; like many fine filmmakers who’ve worked with found footage in recent years (such as Jean-Luc Godard and Mark Rappaport), Leslie is an expert indexer, and his taste for the silliest, sexiest, and most surreal manifestations of American culture is so infectious that the debate about artists and critics in this 2001 video improbably becomes infused with joy. 84 min. (JR) Leslie, the festival’s guest of honor, will attend the screening to introduce and discuss his work. Read more

Some Rhyme Effects by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Has anyone ever commented on the symmetries between A Letter to Three Wives and The Honey Pot? Having just reseen the former on “the first Saturday of May” (a key phrase in the film) a short time after reseeing the latter, I’m thinking not only of the similar letters sent to three former girlfriends in The Honey Pot, but also of the numerous guessing games and various false-herring clues liberally scattered through the clever dramaturgy of both films, not to mention the respective roles played by Shakespeare (Twelfth Night) in the earlier comedy and Ben Jonson (Volpone) in the latter movie. Of course the differences are just as important as the similarities: the three wives are all friends and the letter sent to them is from an unseen narrator who propels the action; the three girlfriends are rivals and summoned to Venice by a very present Rex Harrison. But the attraction for Mankiewicz of returning to the principle of three women (with an absent temptress and Maggie Smith playing the respective roles as jokers) must have been irresistible. [5/7/22]

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Written for the January/February 2012 Film Comment. — J.R.

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(André Téchiné, France)
Téchiné’s best films (Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season, Thieves, Unforgivable) have two major signifying traits: all the characters are major fuck-ups, and the co-writer-director loves them all equally. Some of those in his latest film, set in and around Venice, include a macho novelist (André Dussollier), his flighty daughter (Mélanie Thierry), his real-estate agent and subsequent wife (Carole Bouquet), and one of her former lovers, a detective (an especially memorable Adriana Asti), whom he hires to go looking for his daughter. The multiple crisscrossed emotions and lives are every bit as intricately and beautifully plotted and tracked as those in Thieves.—Jonathan Rosenbaum

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