When I wrote a few months ago that I intended to continue writing after I began my new career as a special education teacher, I was grossly underestimating how much time outside the classroom I’d have to devote to teaching. I’ve spent much of the last two months planning lessons and completing sundry other paperwork. I find all this fascinating, though time-consuming. (There’s also the Chicago teachers’ strike, which is still going on as I write this and which has proved almost as time-consuming as teaching.) As a result I’ve thought less about movies than I have in years, if not decades. I’m confident that someday I’ll strike a proper balance between teaching and writing, but for now I think I need to cut out some of the latter to hone my skills in the former. This will be my last regular contribution to the Reader for a while.
I’ve written for the Reader for almost a decade, and I’m grateful to this publication for letting me pursue my interests as a critic while providing me with the best editors and coworkers I could have asked for. I’ve learned so much from being edited by J.R. Jones, Tal Rosenberg, and Aimee Levitt; and I’ve enjoyed getting to know everyone else I’ve met here. I never studied movies formally (I got my undergraduate degree in literature), but I gained much of my film education by growing up on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing in the Reader and by exploring Dave Kehr’s old Reader capsule reviews. From the Reader’s film section I gained a deep excitement for a wide range of movies, and I’ve felt honored to contribute to a publication that’s hosted Kehr, Rosenbaum, Jones, Fred Camper, Andrea Gronvall, Pat Graham, Lisa Alspector, and Ted Shen. These writers encouraged me through their work to embrace movies outside the contemporary U.S. mainstream and develop my sense of film history, avant-garde filmmaking, and new currents in international cinema. More importantly these writers taught me to approach film criticism as a form of literature, to never be content with turning in a mere review. Their influence has been as crucial for me as that of Andre Bazin, Susan Sontag, Manny Farber, or Raymond Durgnat.
In keeping with a theme of farewell, this week’s Movie Tuesday spotlights five capsules from the Reader archives of masterpieces that are also their director’s final features. I could have also included Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Jean Renoir’s The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, or Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, to name the next ten films that come to mind.
Thanks for reading.
Tabu The last film of F.W. Murnau (1931), probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, dying in an auto accident only a few days after work on the synchronized musical score for this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas in 1929 with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby, this began as a collaboration with documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story involving a young woman who becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder to replace a sacred maiden who has just died; an additional theme is the corrupting power of “civilization.” The exquisite tragic ending—conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo—is one of the pinnacles of silent cinema. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
7 Women A commercial disaster when it came out in 1966, generally relegated to the lower half of double bills and dismissed by most critics, John Ford’s magnificent last feature is surely one of his greatest—not merely for its unsentimental distillation of Fordian themes, but for the telegraphic urgency and passion of its style, which is aided rather than handicapped by the stripped-down studio sets. Set in 1935, the film effectively transposes the gender and settings of many of his classic westerns to the apocalyptic last days of a female missionary outpost in China, which is about to be invaded by Mongolian warriors (including Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode). Anne Bancroft stars as an atheistic but humanist doctor who turns up at the mission, immediately challenging its sense of propriety with her lack of inhibitions and acerbic manner. With Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, Betty Field, and Eddie Albert. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
L’Argent Robert Bresson’s 14th film in 40 years, made in 1983. It returns to some of the themes of his earlier work—the notion of stolen grace from Pickpocket, the suppression of scenes in favor of a continuous flow of action from A Man Escaped—but there is also a new passion and electricity in Bresson’s minimalist images; it nowhere feels like the work of an 80-year-old man. Among the violent events are a bank robbery, a car chase, a prison insurrection, and a series of brutal murders; the world is ready to explode into chaos, but Bresson retains his contemplative distance, searching for the sense in which this “avalanche of evil” can lead to the ultimate spiritual victory of his protagonist. Bresson, working his soundtrack as assiduously as his visuals, once again makes us realize how little use most films make of the resources of the cinema. A masterpiece. —Dave Kehr
Taboo Poetry and style aren’t qualities one ordinarily associates with writer-director Nagisa Oshima, but this dreamlike tale of a beautiful and narcissistic military recruit (Ryuhei Matsuda) in 1865 training to become a samurai warrior, bewitching the men around him, is a triple-distilled example of poetic style. Because the central character is something of an angel of death, this 1999 film isn’t exactly politically correct in its treatment of homosexuality, but it’s debatable whether it can be called homophobic either. Based on two novellas by Ryōtarō Shiba, it suggests a tribute to Kenji Mizoguchi, for whom Oshima hadn’t previously shown much reverence; he directed it mainly from a wheelchair due to his 1996 stroke. It includes some of the biggest stars in Japanese cinema, including Takeshi Kitano (impressive in a noncomic role), Tadanobu Asano, and Shinji Takeda, as well as a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Probably not for everyone, but almost certainly a masterpiece. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Life of Riley Alain Resnais died just a few weeks after this final work premiered at the Berlin film festival in February 2014; the theme, fittingly enough, is preparing for death, but the execution is breezy and good-humored. The farcical story has six characters bending over backwards to accommodate a terminally ill friend, which sets off rivalries between them; the twist is that the viewer never sees or hears the friend—familiar yet unknowable, he becomes a metaphor for death itself. Resnais based this on a 2010 Alan Ayckbourn play, and like the director’s earlier Ayckbourn adaptations Smoking and No Smoking (1993), it’s designed like a Sunday comic strip, with cartoonish colors and blatantly flat settings that draw attention to the knowing plot contrivances. As in all of Resnais’s theatrical adaptations, the performances are warm and naturalistic, countering the artificiality of the stage conventions and illuminating the universal struggle to create personal meaning in lives bound by social convention. —Ben Sachs v