J. Hoberman

  • PETER HUTTON: A TALE OF TWO CITIES

    OVER THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS Peter Hutton has created a body of films distinguished for their vision, modesty, and craft. Hutton is one of the most individual artists to emerge in the aftermath of the structural avant-garde and is not easily classified. He engages the diaristic tradition of Jonas Mekas, Andrew Noren, Warren Sonbert, and others, as well as the older avant-garde mode of the film city-symphony and even the commercial travelogue.

    Hutton has described his films as “diaristic without being autobiographical”; his titles indicate the range of his travels—July 1971 in San Francisco, 1971,

  • JAPANT-GARDE JAPANORAMA

    Whatzit of Tokyo

    Tokyo . . . reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others.
    —Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, 1970.

    IS THERE ANY SIGN SYSTEM more naturalized, less apparently arbitrary, than that of the narrative film? We hold its truths to be self-evident, and this is why Yasujiro Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo, a silent made in 1933, looks to us as if it fell from the moon. Woman of Tokyo is a movie unlike any other—even Ozu’s. Only 47 minutes long, the film is a riot of subtly discordant formal devices.

    Woman of Tokyo begins with a dolly shot from one tabletop to another, then cuts to a

  • Owen Land

    Few supermarket icons exert the fascination of the Land O Lakes butter box. At once an old-fashioned vision of the American Eden and a funky pop M. C. Escher, the Land O Lakes trademark is a buckskin-clad Indian maid kneeling ecstatically on a sun-dappled green hill above a tranquil expanse of blue water. This smiling Pocahontas is as resonant a figure as the Statue of Liberty; she seems to perch on the horizon, and the “o” of the logo that fills the sky tops her head like a halo. Between the braids that fall to her waist she’s holding a box of Land O Lakes butter, on which, of course, a miniature

  • Les Levine

    Another practitioner of smart art, Les Levine recently exhibited a trio of new videotapes, all venting his sense of art as feedback signifying the social role of the artist at any given moment. “This kind of tape coined the expression ‘boring video art.’” Levine disarmingly explained in his introduction to Anxiety, Religion, and Art, 1985, in which seemingly random shots of the street life in San Francisco’s Mission District were accompanied by a 25-minute conversation between Levine and a painter named Malcolm.

    Unveiling his theories of meditation, landscape, and psychoanalysis, Malcolm is

  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERIKA: STRAUB/HUILLET/KAFKA

    Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted. Such an impression is captured superlatively in the description of the nature theatre of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika.
    Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

    When relating an event someone sometimes says: “Words cannot describe it.” . . . The Straubs have filmed a text by Kafka and they say clearly: "Film cannot describe it.”
    Harun Farocki

    POPULATED BY SLY VAGABONDS and implacable cops, immigrant proles and enigmatic

  • Hungarian Film Week

    It’s evident that, during the ’70s, a major piece of Europe’s film action shifted east of the Rhine. The West German cinema overextends, the Polish renaissance has stopped dead, but—increasingly confident—Hungary continues to produce a forbiddingly ingrown, sporadically popular cinema of impressive quality and intelligence.

    The author of subtle, unsettling films that mix defamiliarizing hyper-realism with a stringent lyrical streak, Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács seems the strongest filmmaker from the “generation of 1956.” An assistant to Miklós Jancsó for much of the ’60s, Kézdi-Kovács’ first features were

  • “One From The Heart”

    One from the Heart, a title laced with ironies (half of them unintentional), is Francis Coppola’s overwrought valentine to Joe Average and the Missus. A dollop of glum Capra-corn served with the gooey hues and would-be fizz of an early ’50s M-G-M production number, the film is an Amarcord–like studio confection, reportedly directed from afar via video hookup. Coppola’s primary command, as a photographer of my acquaintance remarked, was likely “Lights! Camera! Lights!”—a not altogether inappropriate strategy for a movie meant to evoke downtown Las Vegas on the Fourth of July.

    Las Vegas—a

  • “Pennies From Heaven”

    The supposedly poignant failure of American show biz utopias is the even more relentless theme of Herbert Ross’ critically overrated Pennies from Heaven. Less dialectical than schematic (and shticky where One from the Heart was merely sticky), Pennies from Heaven hyperbolizes the logic of the musical genre. The plot is grim Theodore Dreiser material, while the numbers are id unbridled. In Pennies from Heaven the characters not only speak in pop platitudes but think in them as well—lip-synching the lyrics (and fantasizing the production numbers) of various ’20s and ’30s chestnuts at regular

  • Vulgar Modernism

    IN ITS TIRELESS ATTEMPT to mean everything to everyone and empirical willingness to try anything once, the American culture industry intermittently generates its own precursors, parallels, and analogues to local or European avant-gardism. I am not thinking so much of Pablo Picasso’s interest in The Katzenjammer Kids, Francis Picabia’s affinity with Rube Goldberg, Antonin Artaud’s praise of the Marx Brothers, Samuel Beckett’s fondness for Laurel and Hardy, André Breton’s championing of Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (Paramount, 1935) as a Surrealist work on a par with Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or,

  • Napoleon, Directed By Abel Gance

    What becomes a legend most? In the case of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon it’s the Francis Ford Coppola imprimatur, a 60-piece symphony orchestra, the Radio City Music Hall, and an audience with a $10–$25 investment in witnessing a masterpiece (albeit one shortened by 20 minutes and projected at sound, rather than silent, speed). Kevin Brown-low has devoted half his life to tracking down the various prints, reconstructing Gance’s four-hour-plus magnum opus, so it’s understandable that he would see it as the ultimate film: “The visual resources of the cinema have never been stretched further than in

  • Raging Bull, Directed By Martin Scorsese

    It may not be saying much to call Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull the best Hollywood movie of 1980. (Aside from the scandalous Dressed to Kill, the likeable Melvin and Howard, and isolated passages from Popeye, The Big Red One or The Shining, what else was there?) But it is also the film in which Scorsese finally redeems the promise shown by his 1973 Mean Streets, an earlier composition in New York Italian jive and choreographed hysteria.

    Raging Bull is based on the autobiography of the Bronx prizefighter Jake La Motta, an unpleasant character in the film who was apparently even worse in reality.

  • American Abstract Sensationalism

    The noiseless din that we have long known in dreams, booms at us in waking hours from newspaper headlines.
    —T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951.

    THERE ARE SENSIBILITIES SO keyed to the routine textures of urban life that they hardly seem to be sensibilities at all. But, if they are invisible, it is only in the sense of sewer mains coursing beneath the Park Avenue of bourgeois critical awareness. I’m thinking of those (largely) self-taught, (mainly) proletarian expressionists—“primitives” who personalized yellow journalism and made abstract sensation into something as complicated as art.

    The term “