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R Jess "Raymond Jess" (Limerick, Ireland.)
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Alice Doesnt Live/Anymore              >
Alice Doesnt Live/Anymore >
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4.0 out of 5 stars Mean Deserts, Nov. 28 2003
Although a stop-gap movie for Martin Scorsese, 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore' proved to be the pinnacle of Ellen Burstyn's career. Her academy award winning performance in this film crosses back and forth between careful tenderness and passionate intensity with intelligent ease. In most of his best work Scorsese encourages the actors in his films to play around with the script and improvise extensively. In 'Alice' he allows Burstyn's instincts about her character to come to the fore in the scene in the kitchen with Kris Kristofferson where she talks of her early showbiz career with her brother. Practically all of the dialogue was improvised by Burstyn herself, so much so that Scorsese had to cut the scene down to 3 minutes from 15! In fact there seems to have been a lot of cutting going on in this film. Alice's husband comes across as a totally unsympathetic character until you realize that much of his more tender scenes with Alice were cut in order to make the film move faster.
And move faster it does, for with Scorsese's deep aversion to static shots and his use of a hand-held camera in the small claustrophobic environments in which Alice and her son are confined, all the characters in this film look deeply unsettled in personality as well as in geography.
Ironically, filming had to be stopped on this movie for a couple of days because Ellen Burstyn had to go to the Oscars as she was nominated for her role in 'The Exorcist' that year. She returned unawarded to the work that would eventually reward her.

Mean Streets
Mean Streets
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5.0 out of 5 stars But what IS a 'mook'?, Nov. 26 2003
This review is from: Mean Streets (VHS Tape)
Martin Scorsese's most autobiographical movie bestows an energy and a vibrancy that hasn't diminished in the 30 years since it was made. Part of this wonderful energy is created by Scorsese's use of music, a cinematic trait he has continued to use successfully in all of his best movies. In fact in 'Mean Streets', Scorsese's use of 2 different styles of music, Italian and rock, can be seen as an expression of the divergence between the older and younger members of the Italian-American community in which he grew up. Scorsese himself valued the use of music so much, that he was willing to fork out $30,000 just for the rights to use the 2 Rolling Stones songs in the picture and this in a movie which cost $750,000 to make.
Another powerful aspect of the film is the acting. Along with the intense charactarizations created by the actors, there also seems to be quite a lot of improvisation used (especially in the backroom scene where DeNiro tries to explain his losses to Kietel). This creates an air of pathetic authenticity, a welcome attribute in most of Scorsese's films.
Ironically despite the fact that the film is set on the 'Mean Streets' of New York, all the interior shots were filmed in L.A. with a different camera crew than the one that shot the exterior shots in Manhatten.
The film is also a visual document of the decline of Little Italy, much of which today is just an extended part of Chinatown.
A 'mook' by the way is Neapolition for bigmouth.

Sheltering Sky, the
Sheltering Sky, the
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2.0 out of 5 stars Nice shots but...., Nov. 14 2003
This review is from: Sheltering Sky, the (VHS Tape)
Well the cinematography is great. After only about 10 minutes though, you can see that this has been adapted from a novel and a literary one at that. Literary novels are notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen precisely because they draw attention to themselves as 'literature', their expression is intimately linked to the art-form in which they were created.
The main characters seem to be on a mission to recapture some of the adventure that existed in pre-war America by entering the 'otherness' of North Africa. The realities of life there come to sour their rather naive utopian vision. I would resist from dissing a movie just because it doesn't have an identifiable plot (most of our real lives don't have one anyway), but most of these characters are very difficult to emphatise with. Debra Winger's transformation at the end of the film where she subsumes herself in Port's idealism, carrying on his adventurous nature as a way of coping with his loss is an interesting character development. But I'm sure this transformation is much better explained in the novel. On screen, without previous knowledge of the story, it comes across as inexplicible.
No movie company would dream of financing a film script as rambling as this one if it was made by a first time director. This seems to be a vanity picture indulged in by Warners after the success of Bertolucci's 'The Last Emperor'.

Stealing Beauty
Stealing Beauty
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3.0 out of 5 stars Bertolucci-light, Nov. 14 2003
This review is from: Stealing Beauty (VHS Tape)
Apparently this was quite a personal film for Bernardo Berolucci who returns to Italy after a 15 year absence. He wanted to view his country from an outsider's viewpoint and so we have a movie set in Italy with hardly any Italian actors. But this may also have been a necessity as 'Stealing Beauty' is the first movie he has made in his home country that doesn't deal directly with politics. The British artists isolation in the loft of the Tuscan mountains symbolises their distance from everyday Italian life.
For this new perspective Bertolucci reincarnates himself as a 19-year old American girl. Much of Lucy's poetry writing moments come from stories Berolucci's father (himself an accomplished poet in Italy) told him about his own past as a young poet. More reality rattled the film-making, as Liv Tyler herself found out when she was 9 that who she thought was her father was not her real father. The man behind the camera at the beginning of the movie who films Lucy on her way to Tuscany has an African braclet on his wrist. This is an indication that the man is in fact the Carlo Lisca character in the film, the war reporter who was one of the lovers of Lucy's mother.
It seems that the most helpful thing that people find with reviews of this film is whether or not certain actresses appear with their kit off. All I can say on that issue is that Rachel Weisz comes away with all the top honours with Liv Tyler an unimpressive second. Great soundtrack

Last Emperor, the
Last Emperor, the
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5.0 out of 5 stars Redemptive., Nov. 14 2003
This review is from: Last Emperor, the (VHS Tape)
With 'The Last Emperor' Bernardo Bertolucci finally succeeded where he had failed with '1900'. In the previous film he tried too hard to document a period of Italian history through 2-dimensional characters placed in didactic situations. In this film he moved closer to the story of the central character and as a result we get a greater insight into the political upheavals of China at the time and how they effected those in power.
The story itself isn't entirely objective however as the Chinese government had final say over the script and made sure to correct any 'historical inaccuracies' they deemed damaging to China's image. Like most westerners I saw the individual fate of Pu Yi as essentially tragic, a once powerful if somewhat naive figure, brought to his knees by political machinations beyond his control. However, this is not how the story is seen in China or even by Bertolucci himself (who I believe is still a member of the Italian Communist Party). For them the emperor acts as a symbol of the collective and his re-education is seen as an act of redemption. The first step on his road to becoming a fully-fledged adult shorn of the childish priviliges and illusions he has lived with all his life. In one of the final scenes of the film, Pu Yi comes across his old prison governor being publicly humiliated by the youth of the Cultural Revolution. For the first time in his life he seems to empatise with the individual plight of a fellow human being and this spurs him to futile, yet ultimately redeeming action.

Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man
Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man
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3.0 out of 5 stars Low-key but interesting., Nov. 14 2003
Bernardo Bertolucci entered the 80's with this low-key offering, a tale of an industrialist father whose son is kidnapped by members of the terrorist left and held for ransom. An air of melancholy permeates the whole picture as not only does the father have to pay the ransom, but he may also have to sell off his cheese factory to do so.
'Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man' however is not that easy to digest on first viewing. It dramatizes a period of recent Italian history (terrorist kidnappings of the 70's) and if you're not particularly au fait with this history then the background to the film becomes a little difficult to comprehend. The political sympathies of the film are not as clear cut as in other Bertolucci films such as 'Before The Revolution' and '1900'. The main character is a factory owner who also feels enormous sympathy for his workers. At some points in the film you sense that the people of the factory are his true family as he seemed to have received little love from his wife and son. The idea then of selling his factory to pay for his son's ransom becomes the central dilemma of the film. What does he care most about, his son's life or the economic well-being of his workers. Primo wants to believe that his son is dead because this takes away the difficulty of deciding. I think he also suspects that his son was in kahoots with the kidnappers and wanted to test his father's devotion to his workers.

Nineteen Hundred / 1900
Nineteen Hundred / 1900
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1.0 out of 5 stars Career nadir, Nov. 13 2003
This review is from: Nineteen Hundred / 1900 (VHS Tape)
This film drove Bertolucci to a nervous breakdown and he had to take a year off after making it, becoming an incessant pill-popper into the bargain. One can see how much pressure was put on him. '1900' had the largest film budget he had to work with up to that time in his career. Add to that fact that this was an epic picture about a period in his own country's history and the expectation on him must have been enormous. Unfortunately Bertolucci at this point in his career was totally out of his depth in dealing with such a conceptual behemouth. It would take him over 10 years before he could again tackle the political history of a country on such an epic scale. Ironically that epic would be set in China.
Controversy surrounded the film on its release in Italy as much of the film portrays a flawed knowledge of Italian history. The trial of the DeNiro character at the end was invented by Bertolucci as a utopian vision of how Italian history should have developed. Even the Italian Communist Party was upset at this depiction as they claim they never practiced vigilante style executions after the war.
As a young director, Bertolucci saw himself as stubbornly arrogant, not giving a second thought to what his audience may think. '1900' was the first movie he made where he kept in mind the spectatorship he was trying to reach. Paradoxicaly, '1900' would end up his least engaging film because he tried to envelop too many different visions.

Last Tango in Paris [Import]
Last Tango in Paris [Import]

3.0 out of 5 stars Gives a wry smile., Nov. 13 2003
Brando's performance in this film is full of vim and vigour, always bordering on the comic, especially in the scene with his dead wife. Bertolucci had begun psychoanalysis just a couple of years before and his penchant to indulge Brando seems to be a direct result of this.
In retrospect much of the film's theme could be interpreted as misogynistic, there's certainly a lot of female fear aroused as a direct result of male aggression whether by Brando or Schneider's boyfriend. In fact 30 years down the line Maria Schneider has disowned this film, citing it as 'exploitative'. Nevertheless the film was considered quite bold for its time, even if what makes audiences uncomfortable about this film now is not quite the same as what made them uncomfortable 30 years ago. After feminism, Aids and the 60's backlash that was the '80's, 'Last Tango In Paris' looks shockingly naive in its view of sexual relationships. I think a lot of women today would find the Schneider character slightly embaressing in her vapid earnestness.
You have to give it to Brando though, he does get a digit probing by Maria Schneider, now thats true dedication to his craft! I can't imagine a Grade A Hollywood actor of today such as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks engaging in such thespian devotion, too much of a 'masculine' image to maintain. Which just goes to show how little risk mainstream Hollywood actors are prepared to indulge in nowadays compared to just a generation ago.

Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents
Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents
by Tom McDonough
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Revolution in the service of poetry, Oct. 29 2003
The Situationist International has retained a certain cache in postmodern thought. Guy Debord's concept of 'spectacle' is now widely bantered about in any discussion on the nature of consumer society. Ironically, in the eyes of the traditional left, the situationists have been seen as variously elitist, nihilistic and childishly utopian. Yet their central focus, on how consumer capitalism affects the most intimate and mundane aspects of our everyday lives, brings us right back to the essence of Marx's theory of alienation.
This book gathers together previously unpublished texts and acts as a useful supplement to 'The Situationist International Anthology' edited by Ken Knabb. Fortunately for the art historian Tom McDonagh (who edits the book) and the other art historians who add complementary blurbs on the back of the jacket, most of these previously unpublished texts were written when the SI still had an enthusiasm for art. Post '63 the political came to dominate their work. This was almost a realization that they were on the defensive, that in the socio-political world of the mid-60's art as a means of authentic experience had been pushed to the margins. 'The poetry of the streets' was the only sure-fire way of taking back everyday life. This form of aggressive poetry eventually culminated in the events of May '68 in Paris.
California it seems was the nemesis of the SI's Latin Quarter. The radicalism that evolved from the Beat Generation in the U.S. is dealt with by nothing but contempt by Debord and his cohorts. Freudian psychology: "We know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous"p.33; ecology: "...a greater domination of nature, a greater freedom."p.42; and eastern spirituality: "...the mental infirmity of American capitalist culture has enrolled in the school of Zen Buddhism"p.80 This searing revulsion of American hippie culture may have been one of the reasons the SI was so attractive to certain strains within the punk movement from Malcolm McLaren to the Gang of 4 (who's 'Natural's Not In It' is the best distillation of situationist ideas set to music).
What also sets the situationists apart from the radicals within the U.S. was their unbridled enthusiasm for technology. This might seem like evidence of their utopian strain, a throwback to pre-war surrealism. But a belief that technology will eventually relieve us of unnecessary toil is an idea that goes back as least as far as the 18th century. As far as I can deduce from the early texts included here, the most impressive and imaginative of the early situationists was not Debord or even Asger Jorn, but the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys. His 'A Different City for a Different Life' is fascinating in its vision of a situationist city in a post-capitalist world. New Babylon would be constructed above ground level with most of the traffic condemned below. Moving walls, changeable spaces, climate-controlled communities, neighbourhoods designed for different individual emotions and the creation of a variety of environments to facilitate chance encounters. What could be a greater experimental realization of Marx's dictum that consiousness is shaped by environment?
Constant's early technological optimism contrasts sharply with Debord's later political pessimism. For by the mid-60's it was clear that not only would imaginative and non-alienating uses of technology not be on the horizon, but that a stronger defensive must be made for existing environments that were about to be totally consumed for capitalist techne. One is reminded of New York's Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and his hubristic schemes to run expressways through every borough of New York. When it finally came to running one through bohemian Lower Manhatten, an anti-Moses action group was formed to put a stop to the idea of motorwaying old communal neighbourhoods into the ground. As such maybe 'derives' are still possible in Lower Manhatten?
In Mustapha Khayati's 'Captive Words', there seems to be a slight acknowledgement of some structualist arguments that were bandied around at the time, "Power resides in language, which is the refuge of its police violence."p.174 Detournement - the situationist subversion of the signifier - was probably the most powerfully striking method of conveying dialectical conflict in the later 20th century. Khayati looks back to the dadaists in whom "the innocence of words was....consciously attacked."p.175 The situationists sought to challenge traditional signifieds by constant subversion of popular signifiers. This attack on comfortable images provoked an immediate questioning of received meanings. Their natural artistic sympathies were with the European avant-garde but they also disavowed much of it due to its often political ambiguity and its sometime outright reactionary nature. In the words of Greil Marcus "The situationist program....came down to Lautreamont and workers councils."p.14
Of the essays on the SI, Jonathan Crary's 'Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory', proved to be more than a little contentious, if all the more illuminating for it. He takes a sentence from Debord's 'Comments on the Society of the Spectacle' written in 1988 in which he states that when he wrote the original back in 1967, the spectacle was barely 40 years old. Crary then theorizes on what Debord meant by placing the beginning of the spectacle in 1927 or around the late 20's. He gives a number of insightful reasons, including 1: 1927 saw the technological perfection of television; 2: 'The Jazz Singer' premiered in 1927 and saw the birth of synchronized sound; 3: The rise of facism in the late 20's and its emphasis on using all available mediums to propogate its ideas.
I leave you with Theo Frey's vision of our Internet future written in 1966(!) "Henceforth a universal communication network supresses the distance between things while increasing the distance between people, the future solution will consist in making people circulate less and information circulate more. People will stay at home, transformed into mere audiovisual 'receivers' of information."p.170

The Eagleton Reader
The Eagleton Reader
by Stephen Regan
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars The direct wayward path., Oct. 3 2003
This review is from: The Eagleton Reader (Paperback)
Terry Eagleton's own career path has followed a similair dialectical trend to his Marxist espousal of history. Not seen as a particularly original thinker within the realms of cultural theory, he nevertheless has done more to popularize its existance through the almost mandatory assigning of his book 'Literary Theory' to every B.A. English course in Britain. Alienated within the cultural stagnation of Oxbridge for over 30 years, he gladly packed up his belongings and moved across the Irish Sea without a morsel of regret. His current position as Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester gives some indication of his own (and indeed academia's) shift from English Literature to theoretical discourse.
'The Eagleton Reader', edited by Stephen Regan was published in 1996 and so unfortunately doesn't cover Eagleton's more recent work in which he blurs the distinction between academic theorist and creative critic - I'm thinking of such books as 'The Truth About The Irish' and 'Figures of Dissent'-. 'The Eagleton Reader' gives a broad view of Eagleton's work from Catholic leftist of the 60's to postmodern debunker of the 90's. In terms of his own engaging style however, Terry really doesn't hit his stride until the 1980's. Most of the work featured here before that decade reads like the dry doctoral thesis of an industrious and serious-minded postgrad with a mundane enthusiasm for prefunctory Marxist criticism. Since 'Literary Theory' though, Eagleton has made a name for himself in relating cultural theories to everyday social and political practice and it is in this arena where he truely shines.
In 'Estrangement and Irony in the Fiction of Milan Kundera', he points out the paralysis of communist Eastern Europe, where paranoia about state survelliance reigns. In this claustraphobic enivironment every signifier holds within it the potential for a multiplicity of signifieds. This overreading of signs leads to impotent paranoia. Coincedentaly, this absence of stable meaning is one of Eagleton's main criticisms of much postmodern theory. In the chapter on 'Ideology' he further lambastes the postmodern theorists for their political vaucity. A vacuousness that 'reflects their customary distance from the world in which most people have to live, mistaking the media and the shopping mall for the rest of social reality'. His own Marxist beliefs see him trying to hold on to those Enlightenment values which challeneged ancient fantasies by pointing those values towards the new fantasies of the media and consumerism. This illuminating chapter also covers the enduring contrast between the British academic world which Eagleton inhabited and the continental thinkers whom he drew most inspiration from. The 18th century Enlightenment saw the beginnings of this battle between the pragmatist and the ideologist. The French Revolution brought with it the cries for a society ruled by reason. But within the social upheaval that brought the Revolution about, much of the political establishment in Britain saw a vision of a universal social order that was fundamentaly flawed. To them human beings are much too uncertain in their thoughts and actions, too spontaneous and intuitive to be rendered under close critical analysis. These doubts about the motives of human intentions inevitably lead to a conservative politics. The rise of English Literature as a subject of academic inquiry is closely related to this divergence between Britain and the continent. The English championed literature as an 'alternative to systematic enquiry, not an object of it'. As such, traditional literary criticism in perfidious Albion has shown great resistance to 'ideas'.
In what is probably the most significant chapter in this book, Eagleton rips into England's traditional conservative and liberal critics such as Carlyle, Arnold, Eliot and Leavis. In fact 'The Crisis of Contempoary Culture' - his inaugural lecture as Wharton Professor of English at Oxford in 1992 - is probably the best distillation of his cultural stance to date. He holds the New Right to account for the obvious paradox of their political position, colluding with a form of economics which by its very nature 'drains value and purpose from social life' and then decries the loss of absolute value that results.
In a clever essay on Arthur Schopenhaur from 1990's 'The Ideology of the Aesthetic', Eagleton highlights Schopenhaur's central thesis that human beings are slaves to their wilful desires. This corresponds nicely to 19th century bourgeois society's belief that capitalism is desire personified. But by allowing our desires free rein, do we not then become enslaved to its all-pervasive objectives? This resurfaces in one of Eagleton's works on Irish culture, 'Heathcliff and the Great Hunger'. In it, he recognises the traditional adjectives used to contrast 19th century Ireland and England. Ireland is naked, unbridled Nature in comparison with England as ordered, cultivated Culture. However, when one focus's on the lassiez-faire economics embraced by England at the time with the contempt it held for traditional Irish ways and customs, that dichotomy can easily be turned on its head.
We learn a little something about the personal past of Terry Eagleton in his heartfelt obituary to his Cambridge mentor Raymond Williams. Eagleton, as a short working-class northerner, felt ill at ease in the University Common Rooms of Cambridge where every student seemed to be over 6 foot, 'brayed rather than spoke and addressed each other like public meetings in intimate cafes'. In his introduction to his play 'Saint Oscar', he suggests that Wilde has helped him not only come to terms with his own Irish roots, but also helped him to develop a synthesis between his creative and critical writing. Despite the historical and political upheaveals of his own time where he has seen Marxism cross from being false but relevant to true but superfluous, he nevertheless maintains 'there is no reason why this sobering thought should change what one strives for, which remains true and valuable whether or not it is realised in the here and now.'

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