Geoffrey O’Brien

  • David Bordwell’s The Rhapsodes

    The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, by David Bordwell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 176 pages.

    A COMPARATIVE SURVEY of the writings of four American movie critics whose careers overlapped in the 1940s—Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler—might seem the perfect setup for a narrowly specialized monograph. In the hands of David Bordwell, however, there is no subject, filmic or otherwise, that cannot yield gleams of pleasurable understanding. For decades, whether alone or in collaboration with Kristin Thompson, Bordwell has

  • film February 02, 2013

    Great Scot

    IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early ’60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the ’50s—like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)—and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic

  • Alexander Mackendrick

    IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early ’60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the ’50s—like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)—and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic

  • MADE IN HONG KONG: THE FILMS OF SHAW BROTHERS STUDIO

    AT THE DAWN OF THE 1960S, on the shore of Hong Kong’s Clearwater Bay, a world capital of sorts came into being: Movietown, the production center of the seemingly unbeatable Shaw Brothers Ltd., a company that had parlayed a movie-theater business in prerevolutionary Shanghai into a global concern dominating both production and exhibition in Chinese-language markets. Looking in aerial photographs like a cross between a low-income housing project and a theme park crammed with ancient Chinese motifs, Movietown was in its heyday a self-contained filmmaking universe open around the clock and churning

  • Geoffrey O’Brien

    GEOFFREY O’BRIEN

    1. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood) Dennis Lehane’s dense and tragic saga is pared down and filmed with unerring tone and timing.

    2. The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol) Chabrol’s fiftieth, recombining favorite elements of family corruption and perverse longing, is steeped in his rapt pattern-making genius.

    3. The Fog of War (Errol Morris) This feature-length portrait of Robert S. McNamara—all the more devastating for avoiding a polemical approach—is like an overview of twentieth-century warfare as seen from the control booth. Mournful and terrifying.

    4. To Be and To Have (Nicolas

  • Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

    WHEN GUS VAN SANT’S ELEPHANT was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, it was taken by some Americans on the scene as a backhanded gesture. At a festival haunted by echoes of European-American tensions over the war in Iraq it was hardly surprising that the honoring of yet another movie about the Columbine massacre (a year after the same prize had gone to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine) might look like a deliberate statement about America as seen through European eyes: psychotic, gun-crazy, on the edge of meltdown. The irony is that, judged as a movie about the Columbine shootings,

  • Geoffrey O’Brien on The Man Without a Past

    “MY HEAD’S DAMAGED somehow. I don’t even remember who I am.”

    “My, that’s bad. Care for a cup of coffee?”

    This snatch of dialogue sums up quite well the clipped and unflappable tone of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s sixteenth feature, The Man Without a Past, a movie where, within the first three minutes, the worst has already happened: After a few tranquil establishing shots just detailed enough to let us surmise that a stranger is arriving in a city by train, the unknown man whose acquaintance we have only just made sits on a bench and without a pause is accosted by skinheads, who knock him

  • PAST PERFECT: TODD HAYNES

    In anticipation of the release this month of Far from Heaven, TODD HAYNES’s eagerly awaited homage to Douglas Sirk, GEOFFREY O’BRIEN visited the director at his home in Portland, Oregon, where they discussed Haynes’s canny redeployment of the syntax of ’50s cinema.

    Seen from one angle, Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven is a cunningly precise pastiche of a movie Douglas Sirk might have made in 1958—if, that is, Universal Studios had been prepared to release a movie bearing on homosexuality, interracial romance, and the civil rights movement. Right from the start—as the camera descends through autumn

  • Noblesse Obliged: Geoffrey O’Brien on Eric Rohmer

    THAT ERIC ROHMER, NOW EIGHTY-TWO, should embark on a technically innovative film set during the French Revolution underscores the quiet experimentalism of his filmmaking, an experimentalism sometimes indistinguishable from a return to the earliest cinematic sources. Anyone might have adapted the 1801 memoirs of British aristocrat Grace Dalrymple Elliott, with their account of her troubled friendship with her former lover the duke of Orléans—she a fervent monarchist, he a radicalized aristocrat—and the dangers she experienced during the Revolution; the story, with its succession of escapes and

  • PROSE AND CONS: PAULINE KAEL

    Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic from 1968 until 1991 (save for a brief hiatus in 1978, when she took a short-lived job at a Hollywood studio), died on September 3, 2001. With all of the predictable eulogizing behind us, we asked five critics—Gary Indiana, Annette Michelson, Geoffrey O’Brien, Paul Schrader, and Craig Seligman—to step back and take the long view on Kael’s celebrated if contentious career. Contributing editor Greil Marcus leads off by introducing Kael’s first published essay—inexplicably excluded from her eleven collections of reviews—which we reprint here in its

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There

    IN MICHAEL POWELL’S 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, the celestial messenger who shuttles between a monochrome afterlife and a color-saturated mortal sphere remarks: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” Now that all movies are in color (even if it’s color mostly lacking the deep dyes Powell worked with), a different lament emerges: One is starved for black-and-white down here. For that reason alone Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There provides sustained pleasure. This ostensible homage to film noir doubles as homage to noir et blanc, the only appropriate medium for evoking