The main reason to see Alexandre Rockwell’s flaky, independent black-and-white comedy about an aspiring filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) on New York’s Lower East Side–a movie one feels was made every few months during the late 60s–is John Cassavetes veteran Seymour Cassel, playing a petty crook with a heart of gold who suddenly appears to the hero like a fairy godfather (no pun intended, despite his compulsive displays of physical affection) to serve as his producer. The movie seems conceived according to the joint emblems of Jim Jarmusch (who appears in a cameo, along with Carol Kane) and Cassavetes–rather like the first episode in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, which used Gena Rowlands as a conduit into Cassavetes’s world. Here Cassel seems to be a variation on the noble/foolish hero played by Ben Gazzara in Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but you certainly don’t have to know this source to respond to Cassel’s enormous funds of charm and charisma. (There’s also a wonderful performance by Sully Boyer as one of the crook’s incidental victims.) With Jennifer Beals, Pat Moya, and Will Patton (1992). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 29 through February 4)
This is the first feature by the great Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, cowritten with Lasse Summanen, and it’s a worthy and assured debut. Based on an actual event during a severe drought in Sweden in the 1860s, the story calls to mind Victor Hugo’s Les miserables, which was published in the same decade: a desperate farmhand (Stellan Skarsgard), afraid that his wife (Ewa Froling) and baby daughter will starve, steals and slaughters an ox belonging to the farmer he works for (Lennart Hjulstrom); after he eventually confesses his crime to the local pastor (Max von Sydow), he’s sentenced to a harsh flogging and life imprisonment. Not surprisingly, what’s most impressive here is the way this film looks–especially the unforced and lovely handling of landscape and period–and the purity of the performances, including those of Ingmar Bergman veterans Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who appear in smaller parts (1991). (Music Box, Friday through Tuesday, January 22 through 26)
From The Real Paper (January 17, 1973). As I recall, this was my only contribution to this Boston alternative newspaper, commissioned by the late Stuart Byron. — J.R.
At first glance, Alain Resnais’ fifth feature seems as sharp a decline from La Guerre est finie, his previous film, as that one was from Muriel. The science-fiction situation that frames the main body of the narrative is so clumsily sketched in and illogically developed that it emerges as unintelligible; we can accept the time-travel experiment that goes haywire and sends its subject bouncing through the previous year of his life either as an awkward contrivance leading us into the past of Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) or not at all. The narrative also stumbles over the problem of convincing us that the achronological fragments of Ridder’s past are random while simultaneously arranging them in the kind of rigorous structure we always find in a Resnais film.
If one can rationalize these embarrassments, or accept them as cumbersome but necessary pretexts, there is a great deal to be moved by in Je t’aime, je t’aime. As in Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel, the studied banality of the dialogue and images, is a precise instrument for conveying a sense of the unknowable. (The musical number, which resembles a Swingles Singers number put through electronic variations, echoes the film’s other efforts to formalize banality.) The true subject of the film is not we know about the hero’s life, but what we can never hope to learn. Most of the incidents in the film which are repeated most often — Ridder emerging from the ocean in flippers, or waiting on a street corner somewhere for a bus –seem to carry in themselves the least expressive meanings, but their obsessive repetitions impress us, as in the tortured prose of Faulkner, with the romantic agony of pounding on a door that will not open.
Jacques Sternberg’s script weaves around the periphery of Ridder’s unhappy love affair, defining and conveying it through its contours alone, and Resnais’ direction respects the mysteries of cause and condition that underlie this anguish. Like the mouse that accompanies Ridder for part of his time-journey, and is shown in the last shot trapped under a glass bell, Ridder is locked into a past that is inexpressible and irredeemable, and the beauty of the film resides in its capacities to convince us of this. The emotional conviction of this intensity is felt behind and between the images more than within them, but we cannot deny its palpable presence. – Jonathan Rosenbaum