The reproduction is grainy, but I’m still a novice when it comes to importing film frames to this site, so this will have to do. For friends and acquaintances who want to know when and where I appear as an extra in Robert Bresson’s Quatre Nuits d’un Rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1972), here I am. This is right towards the tail end of the penultimate sequence, and that’s me on the left, in the suede jacket and the orange-red sweater, carrying something–I no longer remember what –under my right arm. I had a moustache in those days. It was a fall evening, as I recall, not too far from the Palais de Chaillot, and a bit on the chilly side.
The following night, which was the film’s final night of shooting, I wound up on a bateau mouche with Bresson and the small crew and a small performing bossa nova band and singer who play a major part in the film’s most memorable sequence, but this time it was only as an offscreen spectator. [1/17/09]
I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but it’s certainly honorable and original. I suspect that a major reason why Ari Folman’s animated nightmare has been picking up some sizable awards–best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes–is that it does something that the mainstream U.S. news media more or less refuses to do. It allows the American public to express its disgust and horror for what’s currently happening in Gaza. In a similar way, albeit far more indirectly, roughly two year ago, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima allowed many of us to cope a little better with some of our rage and sorrow about the occupation of Iraq. And as I noted at the time in my capsule review for that film, Waltz with Bashir also suggests that distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars may be a civilian luxury. [1/12/09]
The third and most enjoyable of Gilbert Adair’s Evadne Mount mysteries, just published in the U.K., is by all counts the least satisfying or conventional as a mystery—even though Adair, who features himself as first-person narrator, largely compensates for this by shoe-horning in a rather brilliant pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes tale in the fourth chapter, roughly a third of the way through.
Adair is a master of pastiche whose best-known previous novels (and even one of his non-fiction books, Myths and Memories) all derive from literary models, so that Alice Through the Needle’s Eye is a brilliant Lewis Carroll spinoff, The Key of the Tower is an hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, and even his two best-known books, both made into films, The Dreamers (known in an earlier version as The Holy Innocents) and Love and Death on Long Island, are derived respectively from Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The Evadne Mount novels, the first two of which are The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style, are all to varying degrees nods to Agatha Christie, to whom the latest is dedicated, but the postmodernist tricks and games with form, genre, and language tend to overtake the mystery elements—especially in the third, which gradually evolves into a rather merciless and scathing autocritique by Adair of his own literary narcissism as voiced by lady detective Mount, his own creation.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Adair was a good friend of mine when we were both living in Paris in the mid-70s, part of the same circle composed of Eduardo de Gregorio, Michael Graham, and Lauren Sedofsky who met several times weekly. He was certainly as witty and clever then as he is today, but at that point he had published nothing; his only pastiche at that stage—an Alexander Pope simulation called “The Rape of the Cock”—has, to the best of my knowledge, never appeared in print, although Adair rightly includes it as part of his literary oeuvre, along with 18 other titles, and even his journalism (much of the best of which is included in his collections The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice and Surfing the Zeitgeist) hadn’t yet appeared at that point. But I think I would be just as much a fan of Adair’s work if we had never met.
Adair’s complicated and multilayered love-hatred for the U.S.—reflected in the attitudes of Gustav Stavorigin, the prizewinning Bulgarian-born English novelist, villain, and murder victim of And Then There Was No One, who is discovered dead at a Swiss-German Sherlock Holmes Festival held in 2011, where he appears as the mystery guest—can sometimes lead him into far-fetched conceits, such as the one here involving an alleged fatwa placed by a rightwing Texas millionaire on Stavorigin after the latter writes contemptously (and mostly accurately) about American idiocy in the aftermath of 9-11. What makes this notion most implausible is the premise that many Americans, even crazed Texas millionaires, could give two hoots about what an Englishman (or, for that matter, anyone but another American) could say about 9-11, or at least enough of two hoots to motivate a fatwa. But the merit of Adair’s intellectual hijinks is that plausibility is at most a secondary issue here. What really counts is the wit and invention, which are plentiful. [1/4/09]
This was published as my ninth one-page column in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their January 2009 issue (No. 19). — J.R.
It’s by no means unusual for a “retired” film scholar such as myself to find more work as a freelancer since my retirement late last February than I did for most of the previous two decades as a staff reviewer for the Chicago Reader. Two of my contemporaries, both former academics and both friends of mine — the slightly younger David Bordwell and the slightly older James Naremore — have told me that they’re busier nowadays than they were when they were teaching. But what seems more surprising, at least to me, is how much of my time recently has been consumed by my participation in panels and symposia, both in print and in person, about the alleged death of film criticism. The October issue of Sight and Sound is full of ruminations on this subject, under such headings as “Who needs critics?” and “critics on critics”; so is the Autumn issue of Cineaste, where the stated topic is “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium”. A week from now, I will be flying from Chicago to the New York Film Festival to speak on a panel called “Film Criticism in Crisis?” (“Are we now facing the Death of Film Criticism — or its rebirth?”), appearing along with such print and Internet figures as Aquarello (the Internet pseudonym of Pascual Espiritu), Emmanuel Burdeau, David Hudson, Kent Jones, and Pablo Suarez.
Some of this fixation seems to stem from the unfortunate conflation of film reviewing (a profession that has suffered some recent losses in the U.S. since my own voluntary retirement, as a partial reflection of the many layoffs that have taken place this year in print journalism) with film criticism as a more general activity. And some of it seems to reflect an apocalyptic reflex that affects many of the arts (as in periodic announcements about The Death of the Novel). Back in the 1990s, when I was shopping around a book proposal for a collection devoted to significant worldwide changes taking place in cinema and cinephilia — a book that was eventually published as Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), coedited by my fellow columnist in these pages, Adrian Martin — one of the editors who rejected my proposal insisted on calling the project my “end of cinema” book, despite its mainly optimistic and even utopian focus. Maybe the problem was that, like many others, he regarded any change in the status quo of cinema and film criticism as the end of something rather than the beginning or the continuation.
One reason why film reviewing in the U.S. appears to be undergoing a loss of prestige is the rapid growth and expansion of Internet film reviewing and blogging, which has intensified the already popular idea that anyone can be a film critic (unlike, say, a dance critic or a sports commentator — two other professions in which some background knowledge is regarded as essential). Personally, however, I find that the distinctions usually made between professional and nonprofessional film critics in both journalism and academia are spurious. In response to Cineaste’s question, “Do you prefer blogs written by professional critics or those by amateur cinephiles?,” I replied, “I have no idea what differentiates `professional’ film critics from ‘amateur’ cinephiles, apart from the fake credentials dispensed by institutional bases — or the fact that `professionals’, whether they’re academics or journalists, don’t have to be cinephiles, don’t have to know anything about film, and don’t have to know how to write or do research in order to be regarded as ‘professionals’ within their respective professions. As for those with blogs, I prefer those who are cinephiles, know something about film, and know how to write and do research….”