On the Necessity of Film Canons
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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To attempt a nonexhaustive list of all the friends and editors who helped me with these pieces, stretching back in time to the early 70s, I’d like to thank Raymond Bellour, Nicole Brenez, Lisa Chambers, Peggy Chiao, Richard Combs, Gary Crowdus, Christa Lang Fuller, Roger Garcia, Gary Graver, Tom Gunning, Shigehiko Hasumi, Penelope Houston, Richard T. Jameson, Jim Jarmusch, Kent...
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As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors—a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980; revised ed., 1995)—I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal events from my freshman year at New York University in1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist:...
Fables of the Reconstruction: The Four-Hour Greed
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There’s surely no more famous lost film than Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a silent film made in 1923 and 1924 and released by MGM in mutilated form in late 1924.If you believe the hype of Turner Classic Movies, what’s been lost has now been found—even though the studio burned the footage it cut almost seventy-five years ago, in order, according to Stroheim, to extract the few cents’ worth of silver...
Fascinating Rhythms: M
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It’s unthinkable that a better movie will come along this year  than Fritz Lang’s breathtaking M (1931), his first sound picture, showing this week in a beautifully, if only partially, restored version at the Music Box. (The original was 117 minutes, and this one is 105—though until the invaluable restoration work of the Munich Film Archives, most of the available versions were only 98 minutes.)...
The Color of Paradise: Jour de f�te
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In 1942 Jacques Tati was living in occupied France. The grandson of a Dutch picture framer whose clients included Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh, the thirty-four-year-old Tati had played rugby, performed in music halls, and acted in a few short comic films. That year he left Paris with a screenwriter friend named Henri Marquet in search of the remotest part of the country they could...
Backyard Ethics: Hitchcock’s Rear Window
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Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Rear Window, is as fresh as it was when it came out—in part, paradoxically, because of how profoundly it belongs to its own period. It’s set in Greenwich Village during a sweltering summer of open windows, and it reeks of 1954. (Robert A. Harris’s restored version is so beautiful and precise it almost makes up for his botch of Hitchcock’s Vertigo a few years back.)...
Songs in the Key of Everyday Life: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
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Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a twenty-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery—the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop—make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves,...
A Tale of the Wind: Joris Ivens’s Last Testament
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‘‘The Old Man, the hero of this tale, was born at the end of the last century, in a country where man has always striven to tame the sea and harness the wind. Camera in hand, he has traversed the twentieth century in the midst of the stormy history of our time. In the evening of his life, at age ninety, having survived the various wars and struggles that he filmed, the old filmmaker sets off for China. He...
Kira Muratova’s Home Truths: The Asthenic Syndrome
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Seven years have passed since I first saw Kira Muratova’s awesome The Asthenic Syndrome at the Toronto Film Festival, and while waiting for it to find its way to Chicago I’ve had plenty of time to speculate about why a movie of such importance should be so hard for us to see. Insofar as movies function as newspapers, this one has more to say about the state of the world in the past decade than...
The Importance of Being Sarcastic: S�t�ntang�
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If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó surely belongs in their company.Showing Sunday as part of the Chicago Film Festival, this very dark Hungarian black comedy has more than a few tricks and paradoxes up its sleeve. Shot in black and white, with a running time of just under seven hours (it’s designed to be...
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There are a number of lengthy lateral tracking or crane shots in Li Shaohong’s Blush (1995), and most if not all of them proceed from right to left, the same direction in which Chinese is written and read. Though we don’t often think about it, most lateral camera movements in Western movies proceed from left to right, the direction in which we write and...
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It’s odd that Claude Chabrol is the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave today, at least in this country, because he started out as the most commercial and has turned out to be the most prolific, with the possible exception of Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve seen thirty-three of his forty-six features, but nothing in over a quarter of a century that’s quite as good as La ceremonie, an adaptation of...
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When was the last time you saw a movie that was truly for as well as about grownups? Whatever the virtues of Breaking the Waves, a mature point of view certainly isn’t one of them. The English Patient is at most a feature for dreamy young adults (especially those who consider it romantic for a character to become a Nazi in order to spend time with a former lover’s dead body), and even the good points of...
True Grit: Rosetta
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The 80s practically ended with the euphoric takeover of Tiananmen Square by more than a million demonstrators led by students, many with access to fax machines, though a brutal government crackdown followed. And the 90s ended with the disruption of the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle by an extremely diverse coalition formed through e-mail. It wasn’t a throwback to the...
II. SPECIAL PROBLEMS
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Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures...
Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville, with an Afterword: Nashville
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The first quote comes from a theorist, the second from a jazz pianist; together they only begin to describe the difficulties and ambiguities attending any effort to describe the aesthetic conditions of improvisation for audience, improviser, and theorist alike. Taking the third quote as a test case, it is hard to know where to begin. Is the dialogue written or improvised? Is the scene—Susan, a...
Mixed Emotions: Breaking the Waves
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Ever since I first encountered Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in Cannes, where it won the grand jury prize, I’ve been debating within myself about it, because I find it simultaneously shameless, boldly original, contrived, highly affecting, transparent, cynical, hopeful, ironic, sincere, ugly, beautiful, and downright baffling. In a way, my debate isn’t so different from that of Bess...
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
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If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea...
The Sweet Cheat: Time Regained
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I read Remembrance of Things Past all the way through more than thirty-five years ago, shortly before Truffaut registered his scorn about the very notion of a film version (Stéphane eventually got the film made in 1984—Volker Schlöndorff ’s dispensable Swann in Love). Yet I still remember my encounter with Proust as sharply as if I’d been visiting a foreign country for the first time. It was a complex...
James Benning’s Four Corners
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I’ve been brooding a lot lately about the way in which many of the best movies around have been ravaged by ‘‘narrative correctness.’’ This is the notion fostered by producers, distributors, and critics—often collaborating as script doctors and always deeply invested in hackwork—that there are ‘‘correct’’ and ‘‘incorrect’’ ways of telling stories in movies. And woe to the filmmaker who steps out of...
Overrated Solutions: L’humanité
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One of my favorite Italian novels, long out of print in English, is a sort of Roman police procedural in which the central crime never gets solved: Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1946). It’s so beloved in Italy that it has a nickname, Il pasticciaccio, and when Gadda died in 1973 at the age of eighty, it had gone through several editions; William Weaver’s English translation...
The Sound of German: Straub-Huillet’s The Death of Empedocles
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Three pretentious but relevant quotes: ‘‘Aesthetics are the ethics of the future’’(Lenin). ‘‘To make a revolution also means to put back into place things that are very ancient but forgotten’’ (Charles Péguy). ‘‘When the Green of the Earth Will Shine Freshly for You’’ (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s subtitle for...
Beyond the Clouds: Return to Beauty
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Chicago has had a plethora of film festivals lately—Women in the Director’s Chair, Polish Movie Springtime, Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Asian American Showcase. This is probably good for filmmakers who want their work shown, but I’m not sure it’s a boon for moviegoers. For one thing, the screening of so many films at once makes it easy for good work to get lost. Billions of dollars are...
Reality and History as the Apotheosis of Southern Sleaze: Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story
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As an Alabama expatriate who fled north the first chance I could get, I didn’t keep my southern accent for long; it fell away, in a matter of months, like dead skin. The fact was—and is—that Alabama accents sound stupid to Yankees; and since I was both a teenager and trying hard to become a Yankee, they eventually began to sound stupid to me. Especially during the civil rights movement, already in full...
Is Ozu Slow?
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I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But . . . (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection that marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about...
The Human Touch: Decalogue and Fargo
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One way of judging the importance of filmmakers is by looking at the kind of talk they generate among their audiences. Since the recent death of the fifty-four-year-old Krzysztof Kieslowski during open-heart surgery, one of the key points of speculation about him is whether he knew when he announced his retirement a couple of years ago that he had a heart condition. As evidence that he did, one...
III. OTHER CANONS, OTHER CANONIZERS
Life Intimidates Art: Irma Vep
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Like many other eras, ours is not inordinately fond of examining itself, and any movie that does that work for us risks being overlooked, resented, or simply misunderstood. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Taiwanese Goodbye, South, Goodbye, one of the major films at Cannes last year to perform this task, was greeted mainly by bored puzzlement. But a Peruvian film critic in Chicago a few weeks back...
Stanley Kwan’s Actress: Writing History in Quicksand
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It seems emblematic of the fugitive identity of Stanley Kwan’s masterpiece that hardly anyone agrees on its English title. I’ve encountered at least five candidates, including alternative spellings—Actress, The Actress, Centre Stage, Center Stage, and The New China Woman—and accounts of its correct running time tend to be...
Critical Distance: Godard’s Contempt
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Almost exactly thirty-three years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard’s widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt is being rereleased as an art film—in a brand-new print that’s three minutes longer—the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It’s tempting to...
Remember Amnesia? (Guy Maddin’s Archangel), with an Afterword: Ten Years Later (Please Watch Carefully: The Heart of the World)
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Amnesia is a subject we associate with film noir of the 40s and 50s, and social commentators tend to link its use in such films—with their gloomy and murky moods, their amnesiac heroes’ helplessness—to some version of postwar angst. Now it appears that amnesia—both as subject and as metaphor—is making a minor comeback as a postmodernist theme. An early instance of this trend can be...
Ragged but Right: Rivette’s Up Down Fragile
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Out of Jacques Rivette’s seventeen features to date—in which I include his twelve-hour serial Out 1 (1970) as well as both parts of his Jeanne la pucelle (1994)—nine are set in contemporary Paris. And few other movies I can think of infuse that city with the same kind of distilled, everyday poetry. For Rivette, Paris is a city of secrets and puzzles, of hidden alliances and privileged locations—a park bench...
Critic with a Camera: Marker on Tarkovsky
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Industry flacks claim that Hollywood movies have been dumbed down out of commercial necessity—they’re just giving audiences what they want. I don’t buy it. Audiences aren’t being offered intelligent movies, or at least those aren’t the ones getting multimillion-dollar ad budgets. This was especially the case during the past summer, though as usual, most of the press tolerantly excused the fare as...
Riddles of a Sphinx: From the Journals of Jean Seberg
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Reviewing Rock Hudson’s Home Movies three years ago, I assigned all of the movie’s writing credits to writer-director Mark Rappaport, while including Rock Hudson himself, in addition to Eric Farr (the actor hired to represent Hudson discussing his own life), as a cast member. In the case of writing credits, I reasoned that even if Rock Hudson’s Home Movies used some of Hudson’s own...
International Harvest: National Film Histories on Video
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To celebrate the ‘‘100th anniversary of cinema,’’ the British Film Institute has commissioned a series of documentaries about national cinemas. Some of the mare still being made, but the nine I want to discuss here, all of which have been completed over the past three years, are a highly uneven batch. For starters, the series is based on the debatable premise that the best way to recount the history of...
International Sampler: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
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Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest...
Not the Same Old Song and Dance: The Young Girls of Rochefort
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As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my thirty-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago—helpful, considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation—a...
Flaming Creatures and Scotch Tape
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Though you’d never imagine this from the mainstream press, there are signs that experimental film is on the rise again, as a taste as well as an undertaking—even if it’s often returning in mutated forms like video or areas of film making where we least expect to find it. At the Rotterdam Film Festival three weeks ago, hundreds of Dutch viewers, most of them in their twenties, stormed the largest multiplex in...
Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sites
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On a bet, and with the help of a Rockefeller grant, Raúl Ruiz—born in Puerto Montt, Chile, in 1941—wrote one hundred plays between the ages of seventeen and twenty. Or maybe it was between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one; accounts differ. (‘‘It was very easy,’’ he told one interviewer; ‘‘they were not really plays. Some of them were five pages long, others were one hundred pages, but...
IV. DISPUTABLE CONTENDERS
Back in Style: Bertolucci’s Besieged
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Many times over the past three decades I’ve been close to giving up on Bernardo Bertolucci. The rapturous lift of his second feature, Before the Revolution (1964), promised more than he seemed prepared to deliver with the eclectic Partner (1968). Yet it was The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) rather than The Conformist (made just afterward and released the same year) that renewed my faith in his talent....
The Young One: Buñuel’s Neglected Masterpiece
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Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, an American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural South? What if the main character were a jazz musician from the North fleeing from a lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still...
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut
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Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: ‘‘Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life—...
The Best of Both Worlds: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
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If the best movies are often those that change the rules, Steven Spielberg’s sincere, cockeyed, serious, and sometimes masterful realization of Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious late project deserves to be a contender. All of Kubrick’s best films fall into one vexing category—they’re strange, semi-identified objects that we’re never quite prepared for. They’re also the precise opposite of Spielberg’s...
Under the Chador: The Day I Became a Woman
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‘‘Aren’t you afraid?’’ some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. ‘‘Only of American bombs,’’ I replied. Not withstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there—such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses—I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality,...
Chains of Ignorance: Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn
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I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had. But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him because he isn’t a hustler, he’s never had a mainstream success, and all his work to date has been difficult to pigeonhole. Born in Mississippi in 1943, though raised from infancy in Los Angeles, he was one of several...
Good Vibrations: Waking Life
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I must have come across this statement by Epstein, a French theorist and film-maker (1897–1953), in the late 60s or early 70s, but I no longer remember where. I’ve scanned his writings on several occasions since, but I haven’t found the quote. Sometimes I wonder if I read or heard about it in a dream—making it one...
Hell on Wheels: Taxi Driver
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Perhaps the most formally ravishing—as well as the most morally and ideologically problematic—film ever directed by Martin Scorsese, the 1976 Taxi Driver remains a disturbing landmark for the kind of voluptuous doublethink it helped ratify and extend in American movies. Of all Scorsese’s movies, Taxi Driver—being screened this week at the Music Box in a twentieth-anniversary ‘‘restora-...
Meat, John, Dough: Pretty Woman
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Having missed Pretty Woman when it opened more than three months ago, I figured I would just let it pass, but ultimately curiosity got the better of me. I’m not a big fan of either Richard Gere or Julia Roberts, but finally I had to see for myself how an R-rated movie that seemed to celebrate prostitution (at the same time it trashes prostitutes)—brought to us by the Disney Studio, the same people...
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Jean-Luc Godard’s review of Hollywood or Bust in the July 1957 issue of Cahiers du cinéma is founded on a frank prophecy, only a small part of which has come true. In 1972, not many people realized the degree to which The Girl Can’t Help It influenced the modern cinema and not only Godard; and in 1994, alas, even fewer respond to the name Tashlin, much less ‘‘Tashlinesque.’’ Thus the fact that...
Weird and Wonderful: Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro
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One of the fascinating things about Kikujiro, which has virtually no violence, is that it seems both more mainstream and more experimental in form than the other Kitano movies I’ve seen. It changes style so often that it all but eliminates narrative. It’s divided into sections like a photo album, with photos and captions doubling as chapter headings. It has intricately choreographed expressionist...
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I recently read in a film festival report that Michael Snow’s new 92-minute feature was a bit longer than it needed to be. This conjured up visions of a test-marketing preview—cards handed out at Anthology Film Archives with questions like, ‘‘Would an ideal length for this be 82 minutes? An hour? Three minutes? 920 minutes?’’ For even though this may be the best Snow film since the...
Mann of the West
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This seems to be landscape week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), Jon Jost’s mesmerizing Muri Romani (2000), and two terrific, eye-filling Anthony Mann westerns, The Naked Spur (1953) and Man of the West (1958). There are plenty of differences between these offerings. Muri Romani consists of nothing but extended...
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Otto Preminger (born 1906) directed five films before Laura (1944)—one Austrian, four American—but since he disowns them, I haven’t seen them, and no commentator to my knowledge has ever spoken well of them, we might as well begin with the (false) assumption that a tabula rasa preceded his early...
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That Nicholas Ray’s professional name was derived from an inversion of his first two names seems fitting for a filmmaking career that proceeded backward by conventional standards, beginning in relative conformity and ending in rebellious independence. Like Jacques Tati and Samuel Fuller, Ray did a lot of living before he ever got around to filmmaking—pursuing a life largely rooted in the...
Exiles in Modernity: Films by Edward Yang
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During those rare moments of reflection when I’m not doing what film critics are supposed to be doing—watching and evaluating movies that propose various escapes from modern life—I wonder what a different kind of cinema might be, a cinema that would lead us back into the modern world and teach us something about it. To imagine such a cinema requires traveling some distance from where...
Hou Hsiao-hsien: Becoming Taiwanese
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How significant is it that neither of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers is fluent in English? Not very. But it might be logical. After all, most of the people in the world, including those in Iran and Taiwan, don’t speak English, even though that places them, in American eyes, in the margins, outside even the online global...
The Countercultural Histories of Rudy Wurlitzer
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One has been hearing lately that the 1960s are making a comeback, but what this actually means is a matter of dispute. Whose 60s is being evoked, and has it ever been away in the first place? If we’re talking about a countercultural state of mind, my own 60s has been a constant companion for the past three and a half...
Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warrior
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Many film lovers of my generation were introduced to him in an early party sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s already unruly Pierrot le fou (1965), playing him-self and smoking his signature cigar—a short, wiry firecracker ready to hold forth. Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo what cinema was, he said it was like a battle-ground: ‘‘Love . . . hate . . . action . . . violence . . . death. In a...
The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight
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It’s a truism that writers are among the most neglected creative participants in movie making, especially in relation to actors and directors. Yet there’s a special kind of neglect suffered by writer-director-performers as writers, and in this respect Elaine May belongs to a venerable tradition. By virtue of hiding in plain sight, Charlie Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles, and...
Visionary Agitprop: I Am Cuba
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Undeniably monstrous and breathtakingly beautiful, ridiculous and awe-inspiring, I Am Cuba confounds so many usual yardsticks of judgment that any kind of rating becomes inadequate. A delirious, lyrical, epic piece of communist propaganda from 1964—at least three years in the making and 141 minutes long—it is simply too campy and too grotesque to qualify as a ‘‘masterpiece,’’ but I’d probably...
The Battle over Orson Welles
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Two prevailing and diametrically opposed attitudes seem to dictate the way most people currently think about Orson Welles. One attitude, predominantly American, sees his life and career chiefly in terms of failure and regards the key question to be why he never lived up to his promise—‘‘his promise’’ almost invariably being tied up with the achievement of Citizen Kane. Broadly speaking, this position can...
License to Feel: Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Neon Bible
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An autobiographical film about growing up in a Catholic working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50s. Achronological glimpses of a traumatic family life, with particular emphasis on a funeral and two weddings. A collection of radio shows and nostalgic songs sung at parties and pub gatherings. A highly condensed, triple-distilled family album of faces and feelings organized around a few...
Death and Life: Landscapes of the Soul—The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko
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If I could describe adequately the genius of Alexander Dovzhenko in terms of a strictly linear argument, I’d give it a shot, but I know when I’m licked. Conceivably the most neglected major filmmaker of the twentieth century, the Ukrainian writer-director has never come close to receiving his due, in this country or elsewhere, in large part because his fervent, pantheistic, folkloric films develop...
Appendix: 1,000 Favorites (A Personal Canon)
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Page Count: 472
Publication Year: 2008