Category Archives: Obituaries

RIP Agnes Varda (1928-2019)

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It’s possible that I would never have become a filmmaker if not for Agnes Varda. It is certain that I wouldn’t have become the kind of filmmaker I did without the shining example of her films. The last script I wrote, a horror film titled The Vanishing Room contains an explicit homage to Cleo from 5 to 7, and the script I’m currently writing, a family dramedy titled Together Through Life, contains an explicit homage to The Gleaners and I. I first encountered Varda’s work when I saw the documentary The Young Girls Turn 25 at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993. I was 18-years-old, had recently arrived in Chicago to attend theater school at DePaul and hadn’t even seen the film (Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort) that The Young Girls Turn 25 was ostensibly about. Yet I was instantly smitten by the curiosity and playfulness of her filmmaking eye. The experience of watching this film was not only my fortuitous introduction to the filmography of Agnes Varda but to the French New Wave as a whole. Over the years, I tried to watch as many of her films as I could and I loved her work so much that I eventually made her the subject of my first short-lived podcast in 2015. (You can hear me tell the full story of how The Young Girls Turn 25 changed my life in a conversation I had with critics Ben and Kat Sachs on episode 1 of The White City Cinema Radio Hour here.)

I had the great pleasure of meeting Varda in 2015 when she came to Chicago to attend a career retrospective of her films and an exhibit of her photographs titled “Photographs Get Moving” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. I was invited to what was billed as a “press conference” with Varda about the photography exhibit. Then, at the last minute, the critics and journalists who had been invited to the event were told that Varda didn’t want to hold a formal press conference but instead wanted to merely talk to those of us who had come while giving us an informal tour of the gallery. The event ended up consisting of Varda talking to about a dozen people for 45 minutes and then offering to answer any questions we had. She had mentioned that she was working on a new film so I asked her if it was a feature or a short. She said it was a feature documentary that would be exactly 75 minutes long because that was the run time of The Gleaners and I, a length she considered ideal for non-fiction films. (The end result, Faces Places, would clock in at 90 minutes.) She also asked us if we knew the work of her co-director JR. I’ll never forget the look of surprise and pleasure on her face when Kat Sachs, sitting next to me, raised her hand.

The “press conference” ended with Varda announcing her personal e-mail address and inviting us to submit any further questions we had via e-mail. I took her up on the offer and asked if she wanted to do an interview for Time Out Chicago. I was astonished when she replied a few days later, apologizing for her tardiness and explaining that her days in Chicago were “full of activities and meetings” and that she hoped to find the time to do an architecture boat tour of the city. You can read the resulting interview, one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done, at Time Out Chicago here. I saw Varda again when she participated in a Q&A moderated by Jonathan Rosenbaum following a screening of Cleo from 5 to 7 at the Music Box Theater towards the end of her stay. Answering questions in person, she was as full of life and love and curiosity about the world as you would expect based on watching her movies. But she could also speak bluntly when trying to get her point across. The two things that I remember most from that Q&A: A young man asked her about working with Jean-Luc Godard on Cleo from 5 to 7, a question that elicited boos from several audience members. “No, no,” Varda cut them off. “Godard is a genius.” She went on to say that the cinema needs people like Godard and praised his innovative use of 3D in Goodbye to Langauge. Later, she mentioned that Madonna had purchased the American remake rights to Cleo, a project that never got off the ground. Several audience members laughed loudly at the prospect of this remake but Varda quickly disabused them of the notion that she thought this was a bad idea and said that she wished it had happened.

I’ve shown Cleo from 5 to 7, Faces Places and, my favorite, Vagabond, in various film studies classes over the years and I look forward to showing them all (plus The Gleaners and I, Happiness and more) many more times in the future. Rest in peace, Madame Varda. The world will not see your like again.

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R.I.P. Skip Haynes (1946-2017)

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” is, to my mind, the second greatest “Chicago song” of all time (after only Robert Johnson’s immortal “Sweet Home Chicago”). The question I have been asked most frequently about my first feature, COOL APOCALYPSE, is “How did you manage to get the rights to use that song?” Here, for the first time, is that story in full.

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A few years ago, when I was writing COOL APOCALYPSE, I did something no independent filmmaker should ever do: I wrote a well-known pop song into my script – in such a way that the entire movie would seemingly collapse without it – without first bothering to clear the rights. Hell, I didn’t know who had written or recorded the song, much less who owned the rights, when I was writing my little no-budget film. I had never even heard the song as a kid growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but as soon as I moved to Chicago in 1993, I realized it was a local FM radio staple and immediately fell in love with its infectious melody and rollicking piano. When I bought my first used car a few years later, there were times when I would be driving down Lake Shore and it would come on the radio, which was always a magical experience. I would go nuts in that Volkswagen Rabbit, singing along and banging on the steering wheel. So I wrote a scene into the script where this exact thing happens to the characters played by Chelsea David and Adam Overberg. I intended the scene to be a love letter to both the song and the road that it paid tribute to.
 
When I discovered that Skip Haynes had written the song, I tasked my great producer, Clare McKeown, with trying to track him down. She reported back that she couldn’t find him. I did some internet sleuthing of my own and eventually found that he was the only surviving member of the band Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and that he was currently living in Laurel Canyon, California, where he ran a dog rescue. He was still writing and recording music – only his new songs were all about dogs. I also found out that, much to my good fortune, Skip had not only written the song but owned the performance rights as well. I sent him an e-mail explaining that I was an independent filmmaker making a no-budget movie and that I had no money but was desperate to use his song. He responded right away by sending me his phone number and asking me to give him a call. When I called him up, he immediately and very generously offered to give me the rights to the song for a meager $40 then proceeded to reminisce about the good old days for another 30 minutes.
 
Skip was hilarious. He told me a story about how his manager had called him when he and his band were on tour in the early ’70s and told him that they had to start playing “Lake Shore Drive” at their shows. The band hadn’t realized that the song was getting radio airplay; so much time had elapsed between when they had recorded it and when it became a hit that they actually had to go to a record store while they were on the road and buy their own album in order to re-learn the song. He also told me that the band used to dose their Quaaludes with LSD and wash them down with a mixture of NyQuil and tequila. He called that a “Green Russian.” It was a very memorable phone conversation.
 
Last year I found out that “Lake Shore Drive” was prominently featured in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2, something that pissed me off to no end. The film was a Hollywood tentpole with no connection to Chicago and it was going to make the song more famous than ever, which would also change how people perceived my own movie; I realized that some people were already watching COOL APOCALYPSE for the first time and saying, “Hey, it’s the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY song!” during the “Lake Shore Drive” scene. Nonetheless, when I heard that Skip Haynes passed away yesterday at the age of 71, I felt glad that he had found this unexpected Hollywood success late in life. I hope that he earned five figures from selling the rights to Marvel and that he was able to put that money to good use at the dog rescue and enjoy his last couple years on earth as much as possible. Rest in peace, Skip. Thanks to Bluetooth technology, I can now play your song every time I drive down Lake Shore Drive in your honor.



Chantal Akerman R.I.P. (1950 – 2015)

epa02896136 Belgian director Chantal Akerman poses at a photocall for her movie 'La Folie Almayer' during the 68th Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, 03 September 2011. The movie is presented out of competition at the festival that runs from 31 August to 10 September. EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATI

Belgian director Chantal Akerman poses at a photocall for her movie ‘La Folie Almayer’ during the 68th Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, 03 September 2011. The movie is presented out of competition at the festival that runs from 31 August to 10 September. EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATI

I was lucky to attend a mini-retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997. It marked the first time that I saw her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film that recently topped my list of the 40 best films from the year I was born. Incredibly, at this screening of a four-hour movie in which “nothing happens” until the climax, the final two reels were projected in the wrong order. The climax of the retrospective itself was Akerman’s memorable personal appearance following a screening of her 1996 documentary Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman. Among the highlights of the Q&A:

– I asked her if it was easier for her to make films in Europe or America (this was not long after she had directed A Couch in New York with William Hurt and Juliette Binoche). Her response was that it was easier for her to make films in Europe but that it was getting harder all the time because the European film industry was increasingly trying to imitate the American one.

– She said that she was so concerned about Jean-Luc Godard after watching his 1994 film JLG/JLG that she visited him at his home in Switzerland to make sure he wasn’t too depressed.

– Someone asked her who her favorite directors were. Her withering reply: “This is the kind of question for a magazine.” (She could be just as irascible on Facebook in recent years — at one point telling Monte Hellman that he needed to stop posting so much about the Academy Awards.)

I was delighted when I later heard it through the grapevine that Akerman had “partied hard” during her stay in Chicago. Rest in peace, Chantal. The world will not see your like again.

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Manoel de Oliveira R.I.P. (1908 – 2015)

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This one really hurts, folks: Manoel de Oliveira was one of the greats. He was also, of course, the world’s oldest active filmmaker and it is unlikely that any director will ever again be so active at such an advanced age. His 106 years on this earth spanned virtually the entire history of feature-length narrative cinema and his filmography spanned an astonishing 84 of those years — from the incredible “city symphony” film Labor on the Douro River in 1931, made when Oliveira was 22-years-old during what was still the silent-film era in Portugal, to the two shorts he made that premiered at last fall’s Venice International Film Festival (one of which was the festival’s official trailer), made when he was 105. All of which is to say that the old man wasn’t just a righteous soldier of cinema, he was the cinema. Oliveira was in many ways the last exemplar of — indeed he seemed to be synonymous with — a strain of now-extinct 1960s European art film in spite of the fact that he was barely active during that particular decade; Portugal’s then-fascist government had intentionally stymied his career, once even arresting him and interrogating him for 10 days because of a movie.

Oliveira had the last laugh, however, outliving Portugal’s “Estado Novo” era, and embarking on the prolific late phase of his career (and achieving his greatest successes) at an age when most other directors start to retire. His films were intellectually vigorous and deliberately slow, long before “slow cinema” became fashionable on the arthouse circuit, and he emphasized rather than downplayed their literary and theatrical origins. But he was also, in the best Bunuellian vein, a Surrealist prankster who included a shocking “throwing a cat” gag in his Madame Bovary adaptation Abraham’s Valley and pulled the rug out from under the audience completely with the full-blown insanity of the ending of his film-opera The Cannibals. One of the proudest moments of my professional career was presenting the belated Chicago theatrical premiere of the latter as a midnight movie at Facets Multimedia in 2013. The screening was well attended and when I polled the audience beforehand I was astonished to find that literally none of them had seen an Oliveira film before. The nocturnal creatures in attendance were clearly expecting a cult-horror movie about cannibalism and yet, when the screening ended, everyone seemed to have enjoyed it, with many remarking that it was far weirder than what they had anticipated.

Manoel de Oliveira was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Claire Denis). Here is what I originally wrote about him there in January, 2011:

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“At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) — can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.

Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)”

It is regrettable that Oliveira had trouble making features in the last few years of his life — not due to ill health but rather due to the difficulty of getting his films insured. He was not able to realize, for instance, his dream project of adapting Machado de Assis’s masterful short story “The Devil’s Church,” although one hopes that another filmmaker, perhaps a Portuguese director like Pedro Costa or Miguel Gomes, may end up inheriting Oliveira’s finished screenplay. Still, he was able to complete eight films after his 100th birthday and one can only hope that his death will bring renewed interest to this work. His final feature, the highly regarded Gebo and the Shadow from 2012, still hasn’t received a Chicago premiere.

The Strange Case of Angelica
, which saw the old master learning new tricks by employing CGI, was number one on my list of the best films of the 2011: https://whitecitycinema.com/2011/12/26/top-ten-films-of-2011/

You can read a transcript of my introduction to the Chicago premiere of The Cannbials here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/12/01/celluloid-flashback-the-cannibals/

Last but not least, you should watch this film of Oliveira dancing in public at the ripe old age of 99. It’s good for the soul:


Last Thoughts on Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais

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Learning of the recent passing of directors Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis was, for a number of reasons, particularly painful for me. In a weird way, these two great artists, so seemingly different on the surface, were always linked together in my mind: following the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was “the arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others that they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinity between the whip-smart creators of these movies goes deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as “cerebral” and “intellectual” but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release. Alain Resnais was one of the last living links to a heroic era of European art cinema and Harold Ramis was one of the last remaining “good guys” directing for the major Hollywood studios. The world now feels like a much emptier place without them.

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE.

Harold Ramis’s death ended up being the occasion that got me to recently watch his final film, the Jack Black-starring caveman-comedy Year One. Even though I was a fan of Ramis when it was released in 2009, I had foolishly avoided seeing it in theaters due to its mostly negative critical reception. After having a rough couple of days in which I found myself feeling creatively and professionally unfulfilled, however, my wife and I finally decided to watch Year One last night — and found ourselves laughing uproariously through the whole thing. Of course, the Mel Brooks-inspired effort has its share of fart and piss jokes but the director of Groundhog Day also managed to slip in a sly and resonant message about the importance of not following leaders and being the master of one’s own destiny. Ramis, who once rhetorically asked of those who preferred movies that didn’t make them think, “Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?,” was making smart comedies that were ahead of their time until the end. In a neat coincidence, I also recently saw Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s masterful experimental film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which contains the loveliest tribute to Ramis imaginable (even if it was unintentional): in a documentary segment set in a hippie commune in rural Estonia, a young woman lifts up her Animal House t-shirt to breastfeed her baby while simultaneously engaging a male friend in a philosophical dialogue about how to make the world a better place. “The world needs more parties,” the woman decides. Her intellectual companion concurs, noting that “parties are autonomous zones.” I’d like to think that, somewhere, the author of Animal House is smiling.

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Last August, Harold Ramis’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, was a guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College. She graciously allowed me to interview her in front of the class, sat through a screening of a documentary she had produced about the Joffrey Ballet (which she’d probably seen 500 times) and participated in a question and answer session with the students afterwards. She acted both surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved her husband’s unheralded black comedy The Ice Harvest. She told me she was going to tell him I said that, and I really hope she did because — even though he was super-famous for playing Egon in Ghostbusters — he never really got the critical respect that he deserved as a director. My thoughts go out to Erica and the entire Ramis family. You can read my interview with her here:

https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/08/26/film-producer-interview-erica-mann-ramis/

You can see my personal photo tour of the Woodstock, Illinois locations featured in Groundhog Day here:

https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/06/17/woodstock-from-welles-to-ramis-a-photo-tour/

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Prior to screening Last Year at Marienbad, I told my Perspectives on Film class that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?

In my list of the 50 Best Living Film Directors, from which he has just been removed, this is what I had written of Alain Resnais:

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’s output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’s status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it won the prestigious Silver Bear award. One hopes that it will receive stateside distribution soon.

You can read my long review of Resnais’s penultimate movie, the splendid You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, here:

https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/03/18/now-playing-you-aint-seen-nothin-yet/

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R.I.P. Facets Night School (2009-2013)

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To paraphrase Citizen Kane, this weekend — as it must to all film programs — death comes to Facets Night School, the popular midnight movie series that was launched by Facets Multimedia in 2009 and has run continually in Fall, Spring and Summer sessions ever since. According to a beautiful tribute written by Joseph Richard Lewis at theundergroundmultiplex.com, the series was founded by Phil Morehart, who was also its first programmer, and who was succeeded in that position by Suzi Doll, Legendary Lew Ojeda, and Chris Damen. Among the many highlights of its 5-year run: Julian Antos, co-founder of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, presented his own 35mm prints of Hal Hartley’s Amateur and Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet; Ojeda and Lewis hosted an interactive version of their Sisters of No Mercy film that featured “live circus performers, musicians, dancers and actors”; Bruce Neal and friends provided live original musical accompaniment to cult classics from the silent era including Haxan, A Page of Madness and The Fall of the House of Usher; “Everything is Terrible” co-founder Katie Rife presented several truly off-the-wall oddities including sleaze merchant Ron Ormond’s Please Don’t Touch Me! “in its original roadshow format” (an occasion for which the audience was also hypnotized); and the Chicago Cinema Society‘s Neil Calderone presented the local premiere of the Bollywood-style documentary The Bengali Detective. And this is to say nothing of the contributions of dozens of other presenters, too numerous to mention, who introduced movies and led audiences through Q&A sessions afterwards — all for the love of cinema and without financial compensation. Earlier this year, the Chicago Reader deservedly awarded Facets Night School for having the “best late night programming” of any Chicago movie house.

I was grateful to have had the opportunity to present movies at Facets Night School on eight occasions. In doing so, I intentionally avoided choosing “great films,” and tried to focus instead on more obscure titles that I thought would confound, surprise and provoke spirited post-screening debates: Save the Green Planet, The Devil’s Backbone, Dance, Girl, Dance, I’m Not There, The Old Dark House, The Slumber Party Massacre, Cannibals and, most recently, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings. I was particularly proud of having presented the Chicago theatrical premiere of Manoel de Oliveira’s 1988 opera-film Cannibals to a large and enthusiastic audience — all of whom were previously unfamiliar with the great Portuguese director’s work. I often made attending Night School an optional extra credit assignment for students in my college-level film history classes, most of whom had never attended a midnight movie in a theater before but all of whom wrote about the experience fondly in their “screening reports” afterwards. I will probably never know the politics involved in the decision to cancel Night School. Attendance figures surely had nothing to do with it; I was told that the packed Slumber Party Massacre screening, which I presented for a Halloween-themed “Fright School” session in 2012, had the highest attendance of any midnight movie in Facets history, and the numbers for the two subsequent presentations I gave could not have been far behind that. (This is in pointed contrast to the same theater being perennially empty during its regular weeklong theatrical runs.) I suppose we should just be grateful that Facets Night School lasted as long as it did, and hope that its spirit will soon be resurrected at another local venue. Chicagoans who would like to pay their last respects should note that the final two Night School sessions will occur this Friday and Saturday with Full Metal Frankenstein, featuring a live Bruce Neal score, and We are the Strange, which those wacky guys at the Underground Multiplex claim has been banned from public viewing by the FDA “due to audience mental health concerns.”

My 2010 Night School lecture on Save the Green Planet can be viewed online here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/5077314


Roger Ebert R.I.P. (1942-2013)

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Roger Ebert made a big impression on my life, as he seemingly did with everyone who cared about movies over the past few decades. He was the person who first made me aware of what film criticism was. That would have been at some point in the early-to-mid-1980s when, as a kid, I started watching the popular At the Movies show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Later on, in the pre-internet days of the early-1990s, I read and wore out my copy of his “Video Companion.” While there were other critics who would end up exerting a stronger influence on me as a teacher and writer, I still always read and admired Ebert over the years. Just last semester I played the classic At the Movies episode entitled “Women in Danger” in its entirety in order to illustrate to a class what the “slasher movie” subgenre is.

I think Ebert’s greatest contribution to film criticism was the way he proved it could be both intelligent and popular at the same time. While many reviewers lamentably borrowed the basic “thumbs up/thumbs down” conceit — trademarked by Siskel and Ebert — in order to serve as mere “see this/don’t see that” consumer guides, Ebert’s reviews themselves were always insightful. And he commendably used his fame to champion film history — as in his “Great Movies” series — as well as little-known contemporary films that needed more exposure. For instance, he reviewed, in 2010, Chicago Heights, a locally shot/self-distributed indie made on a budget of $1,000 that played for just one week at the Siskel Center. In an age when movie reviews are being systematically replaced in the media with “celebrity news” (as Werner Herzog put it yesterday), it is doubtful that any film critic in the future will have the kind of wide-ranging impact that Ebert did.

The only contact I had with Roger Ebert came last year. We had been “facebook friends” for some time when I saw that he posted an article about the time he interviewed Charles Bukowski on the set of Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-penned movie Barfly in 1987. This reminded me of something I had been wondering about for years: in Bukowski’s highly entertaining 1989 novel Hollywood, a lightly fictionalized account of the making of Barfly, Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski describes being interviewed by an Ebert stand-in named “Rick Talbot.” Chinaski asks Talbot what he disliked the most about “Kirby Hudson” (read Gene Siskel), the co-host of his movie review show. Talbot’s response was: “His finger. It’s when he points his finger.” For some reason, I always thought this passage was uproariously funny. So I asked Ebert if “Talbot” had indeed said this about “Hudson” in real life, and he was kind enough to respond. His reply: “Michael: In a word, yes.”

Here’s Ebert in a cameo as himself in a 1995 episode of the animated series The Critic. The duet he sings with Siskel at the end is great:


Nagisa Oshima R.I.P. (1932 – 2013)

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And the list of the world’s great living directors just got a little shorter. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima passed away of pneumonia today after a reportedly long bout of ill health. He was, along with Shohei Imamura, the most important figure of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (“New Wave”) of the 1960s. I haven’t yet seen his short first feature, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, but his next two films, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960), were groundbreaking portraits of post-war Japanese malaise whose sheer ferocity still has the power to shock and awe. Oshima was always the most transgressive of the Japanese New Wavers – he embraced radical leftist politics while simultaneously reacting against the “humanism” associated with the Japanese cinema of the 1950s. As the 1960s progressed, he increasingly experimented with form, introducing Brechtian distancing devices, a la Godard, in movies like Violence at Noon (on the short list of great films about serial murderers) and Death By Hanging (a powerful indictment of bigotry against Koreans in Japan). He is best known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a 1976 art movie featuring hardcore sex scenes that is still banned in its native country, and its less explicit follow-up, the 1978 ghost story Empire of Passion (an important influence on The Ring). In the 1980s he upped his international profile by making the WWII prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (partially shot in English and co-starring David Bowie) as well as the French-set Max Mon Amour (a comedy about Charlotte Rampling having an affair with a chimpanzee, to which Leos Carax paid explicit homage in last year’s Holy Motors). Oshima had a debilitating stroke in 1996 but managed to direct one final masterpiece with 1999’s controversial gay-themed samurai film Taboo.

Nagisa Oshima was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Clint Eastwood). Here is what I originally wrote about him there:

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“With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting ‘gay samurai’ film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: Death By Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)”

I didn’t always “get” Oshima and he occasionally drove me up the wall but he also provided me with more magic moments than most other directors. I’ll never forget seeing a 35mm revival of Death By Hanging at Facets Multimedia in the 1990s and being blow away by the strangeness and audacity of it. I also caught Taboo on its initial theatrical run at the Music Box and was haunted for weeks by the mysterious finale where “Beat” Takeshi Kitano chops a cherry blossom tree in half with his samurai sword.

I would now say my favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy. It is based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down the “culprits.” It is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1960s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1960s/

Taboo is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1990s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1990s/

Needless to say, Nagisa Oshima will figure prominently on my Japanese New Wave cinema primer when I eventually get around to compiling it. In the meantime, I raise a metaphorical sake cup in his honor.

Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s very beautiful and justifiably famous theme song to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence below:


Chris Marker R.I.P. (1921 – 2012)

The great French director Chris Marker passed away on his 91st birthday last Sunday. I was saddened to learn this news upon returning to Chicago from a weekend vacation I had taken to Springfield, Illinois (a Marker-esque voyage in time of my own). Coincidentally, I had been thinking a lot about Marker as of late because I had recently bought and eagerly consumed the contents of what will surely go down as one of the most substantial home video releases of the year, the Criterion Collection’s magnificent La Jetee / Sans Soleil blu-ray package.

I thought about how the first Marker film I ever saw, way back in the 1990s, had been 1963’s Le Joli Mai on a dubiously legal, poor quality VHS tape featuring notoriously difficult-to-read “white on white” subtitles. (Boy, the things a cinephile had to put up with in those days!) As budding young movie freaks and aspiring filmmakers, my best friend Rollo and I were interested in tracking down films by all of the directors associated with the French New Wave. In spite of the substandard image and sound quality of this particular tape, Rollo and I were mesmerized by the movie contained therein; Chris Marker, as an off-screen presence (he was notoriously camera shy), had spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness.” (Incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939.) The resulting film’s epic running time – two hours and 45 minutes – allowed the director to deeply penetrate the hopes and fears of an entire society. I had never seen anything like it. Here was an amazing documentary that was alternately playful, mysterious and probing, a movie as humane as it was intellectually rigorous. From that point on, I made sure to track down as many Marker films as I could. This included not only his celebrated masterpieces like La Jetee and Sans Soleil but brilliant lesser known essay films like The Last Bolshevik (a tribute to the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin), One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsinovich (ditto for Andrei Tarkovsky) and even digital shorts like Pictures at an Exhibition (a movie so obscure that it’s not even listed on the Internet Movie Database).

I thought about a conversation I once had with Chicago’s terrific film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky back when he was working at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession video store. Somehow, Ignatiy and I got onto the subject of favorite filmmakers and he told me that he considered Marker one of the five greatest of all time. I absolutely balked at this assertion, honing in on Marker as the obvious weak link in Ignatiy’s personal top five, especially since there were no American directors among the other four. (I remember thinking at the time, “One day this kid will learn . . .”) But after watching La Jetee and Sans Soleil again on blu-ray, I think that, even if I still don’t agree with Ignatiy (and who knows, he may have changed his own mind since then), I no longer think that’s a controversial opinion. La Jetee is, after all, arguably the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, a “photo roman” in which form (a short film consisting entirely of a series of still images – with one crucial exception) is perfectly married to content (a time travel story that serves as a philosophical inquiry into the themes of time and memory). While watching Sans Soleil again, I had to admit that it too might well be the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen: a brilliant travelogue of Marker’s journeys to various countries around the world over a span of many years, poetically held together by the voice-over narration of an Englishwoman describing how the images constitute a diary made by her friend, a fictional filmmaker named “Sandor Krasna.” Among the astonishing sights and sounds: an African street parade featuring elaborate animal costumes, visits to a Japanese cat shrine and “monkey porn” museum (yes, you read that right), the electronic sounds of video games as a hypnotic, non-diegetic score, a witty side-trip to the San Francisco locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and many amazingly beautiful documentary images that have been treated with a video synthesizer and that give an idea of what might have happened had Tarkovsky taken up animation. Why not include Marker in one’s top five?

Other interesting facts about Marker:

– He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve and took “Marker” as his pseudonym after the Magic Marker pen.

– He was a member of the underground resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France.

– He studied philosophy under Jean-Paul Sartre.

– He sent his own personal documentary footage of Chile to director Patricio Guzman so that the latter could finish his landmark The Battle of Chile.

– He was an enthusiastic “inhabitant” of the virtual reality game Second Life, and granted one of his very few known interviews in 2008 under the condition that the interview occur on Second Life, complete with pseudonyms and avatars.

– He was a devoted cat lover (like all sensible people!) who responded to requests for photographs by sending pictures of his cat Guillaume-en-Egypt instead. In Agnes Varda’s film The Beaches of Agnes, Marker appears as an animated orange cat.

Chris Marker was one of the most important directors of the movement known as the French New Wave, which is one of the most important of all historical film movements. Now would be an appropriate time to visit or revisit the singular genius of his work. The cinema won’t see his like again.

Me looking through a fake camera at the real home of Abraham Lincoln on the day Chris Marker died. I feel Marker would have approved of this image.

Chris Marker’s death also marks the first time a director on my list of the “fifty best living film directors” has passed away. Rather than keep the list frozen in time the way it first appeared on February 21, 2011, I’ve decided to continually update it so that deceased filmmakers will be removed and replaced by other formidable living directors. (Abel Ferrara has now taken Marker’s place on the list.) Those who were once on the list but have since passed away will be moved to a special section at the bottom of the list. You can see the newly updated list here:

50 Best Living Directors


Claude Chabrol RIP

The great French film critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol, one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. With the death of Eric Rohmer earlier in the year and widespread speculation that the most recent films of Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) will be their last, it is beginning to feel more and more like the end of an era.

Chabrol was never the most respected of the major French New Wave directors; the quality of his amazingly prolific output probably varied more wildly from film to film than the work of any of his compatriots. But the man made more than his fair share of masterpieces, especially during an incredible six year run from 1968 – 1973, and he cultivated a style that was completely and unmistakably his own. Absorbing lessons in technical virtuosity from his heroes Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol made “classical” thrillers that were shot through with a vein of dark comedy, a scathing critique of the bourgeoisie (which, crucially, one always felt contained an element of self-criticism) and a legendary appreciation for fine cuisine.

Chabrol once wrote an amusing article honoring American genre master Robert Aldrich in which he named a “dirty dozen” of his favorite Aldrich films. Given Chabrol’s obsession with food and scenes involving eating, here is a “baker’s dozen” of my own favorite Claude Chabrol films.

In chronological order:

Les Cousins (1959)
Chabrol’s second feature, about a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to share an apartment with his decadent, city-bred cousin, is one of the most significant early French New Wave films and contains seeds of the director’s mature work; a darkly ironic tragedy contrasting two characters on opposite ends of the moral compass.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Chabrol’s first masterpiece follows a quartet of young women as they search for love in a modern, freewheeling Paris. What starts out as a charming and humorous document of a newly-swinging era gradually darkens until Chabrol delivers a shocking and unforgettable finale.

L’avarice (1962) / La Muette (1965)
One respect in which Chabrol absolutely schooled his fellow New Wavers was in the making of short films. The highlights of the omnibus films The Seven Deadly Sins and Six in Paris respectively, L’avarice and La Muette are like perfectly executed short stories, featuring droll, devilishly clever endings worthy of Poe, and guaranteed to stick with you for a very long time.

Les Biches (1968)
The beginning of Chabrol’s mature period is this elegant psycho-drama about a love triangle between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s architect and two bisexual women: the rich, beautiful Frederique (Chabrol’s then wife Stephane Audrane) and a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Chabrol’s philosophy of “simple plots, complex characters” pays dividends in this mysterious but humanistic character study.

La Femme Infidele (1969)
One of Chabrol’s best loved films is this stylish and ingenious thriller about a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and plots the murder of her lover. Chabrol expertly employs Hitchcock’s famous theme of the “transfer of guilt” so that the movie becomes a fascinating inquiry into the concept of moral relativism.

This Man Must Die (1969)
The story of a grieving father who hatches an elaborate scheme to find and get revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his only son, this is yet another beautifully crafted thriller that gains resonance through its examination of the weighty themes of solitude, grief, guilt and justice.

Le Boucher (1970)
My personal favorite Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

La Rupture (1970)
As a pure genre piece, this may be Chabrol’s most entertaining film; in advance of an ugly divorce / child custody battle, a wealthy older couple hire a private investigator to “find dirt” on their daughter-in-law at all costs. Jean-Pierre Cassel is terrific as the slimy P.I. and the film’s psychedelic climax will blow your mind.

Wedding in Blood (1973)
The end of Chabrol’s golden age is marked by this brooding, sinister tale of marital infidelity and small town politics. Stephane Audrane plays the last in a series of cool, enigmatic Chabrol women named Helene, this time as a mayor’s wife engaged in an affair with her husband’s assistant, a perfectly cast Michel Piccoli.

Story of Women (1988)
Both atypical and a return to form, this Isabelle Huppert vehicle recounts the true story of a woman who performed illegal abortions during the second World War in Nazi-occupied France. A complex and riveting historical drama featuring one of Huppert’s very best performances.

La Ceremonie (1995)
The masterpiece of Chabrol’s late period, this pertinent study of contemporary class warfare centers on the relationship between Sophie (the great Sandrine Bonnaire), an illiterate maid, and Jeanne (Huppert again), the postal worker who spurs her on to stand up to her wealthy employers. In a career filled with memorable finales, Chabrol outdoes himself by ending La Ceremonie on a note of apocalyptic perfection.

The Bridesmaid (2003)
A lot of Chabrol’s post-La Ceremonie work was devoted to lightweight genre fare, agreeable but forgettable mysteries like The Swindle and Merci pour le chocolat, but he made a roaring comeback with The Bridesmaid. In this unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a salesman falls in love with the enigmatic title character and, unaware that she is mentally unstable, jokingly agrees to “exchange murders” with her. A deeply satisfying, multi-layered film, as fun to think about afterwards as it is to watch.


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