Peter Byrne | Chicago Reader

Recent Reviews

Re: “Caravaggio

Biopics about artists trudging on through soapy anecdotes tell us nothing about an artists paintings or their creative mechanism. One irrelevant triviality follows another in the search for something a shade more sensational in the way of suspense or action. A flagrant example occurs in last years Loving Vincent where a subject of a Van Gogh portrait becomes a full-blown character and rides roughshod through the script. It may be an inventive twist in story-telling but reveals less than nothing about the painters canvases or working method.

This said, what makes Derek Jarmans Caravaggio such an excellent film? In the first place it isnt a biopic. Jarman makes that clear by strewing it with indications that we are not in the 17th century at all. His actors, speaking unaccented English, are modern people acting out a passionate tale dressed in the clothes and some telling details of another time. The drama is essentially this: A talented painter falls in love with his model and then extends his love to his models mate. This disrupts the couple. One partner wants out while the other becomes viciously jealous. The jealous party kills the other. But when the killer returns wanting to unite with the painter, the latter, thinking of the victim, responds with another killing, the killers.

Jarman, an outspoken gay, even before being so was decriminalized, gives his film a strong homoerotic dimension. We might say that while its not the story of Caravaggios life its very much the personal experience of Derek Jarman. The great painter depicted biblical scenes that often involved several figures. Jarman plays much on the contrast of the simple folk used as models and the exalted characters they represented. The models are often shown frozen in a pose. But this isnt an attempt to reconstruct one of the great painting for us. Its more Jarman insisting that in his view of life flesh comes first, just as Caravaggio made it first in the order of beauty.

1 like, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/25/2018 at 1:11 PM

Re: “Taxi Driver

Though the stupendous vision of NYC at night deserves more.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/06/2018 at 9:07 AM

Re: “Loving Vincent

If you care about an artist's work--the reason after all that he's famous--and see his life as secondary, something else, this isn't a good movie. Van Gogh's drama is in his paintings, not in his butchered ear or loneliness. Here the script is simple enough. An enquirer tries to determine whether V.G. committed suicide or was murdered. But the story line is quickly cluttered with doodling on V.G.'s paintings, their colors, their background, even the game of re-creating the individuals he painted. All this distracts us from the straightforward story line. That 115 artists hand-painted each of its 65,000 frames is beside the point. Swamping us in the colors V.G. used tells us nothing about his immortal canvases. It simply vulgarizes them, making us feel we know them without ever having confronted them. The animation, half way between real actors and animated figures. is of the least satisfying kind, neither flesh nor total invention. The trick of passing from color to gray, is cumbersome, neither clever nor necessary. No one would object to another biopic about V.G. There's a thrill in simply hearing the snippets from his magnificent letters. But this is a biopic pretending to be something more.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/01/2018 at 2:17 AM

Re: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Rosenbaum's review of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', presumably written thirty years ago, is astonishingly right in every way save one. It doesn't touch on the real drama playing out between Milan Kundera's so-called novel and Jean-Claude Carriere's script. The critic didn't follow on from his remark that Day-Lewis was gifted with "an underscripted character". The character was under- characterized in the original. The book is not simply full of "essayistic material that is essential". It is a many-sided essay that disdains chronology, only gesturing toward the novel form in a sprinkle of dramatic sketches. It moves in a cumbersome circle, not forward in storyteller fashion. Carriere was called upon to make the bloated circle into a straight line. The task was all the more impossible because the word-jealous Kundera hung around as a consultant. Afterward he made a lordly statement about the film missing the spirit of his creation and insisting that never again would he allow his high-born offspring to be violated by a camera. So clearly it's necessary to judge the book in order to review the film.

A decade or two after the Soviet total takeover of his country, Kundera and his writing still wore the halo of a dissident. With the years we have to note that his lustre is gone and his work become even less novelistic and more windy philosophic discourse. The seeds were already evident in 'The Unbearable' where the narrating voice is that of a fussy puppet master who moves his flimsy characters around like chess pieces to prove his points. Was there ever a story so stuffed with fornication and short on sensual warmth? There's a world of distance between standing up to invading tanks and scrutinizing, magnifying glass in hand, the listless power plays between a panting foursome. In retrospect we have to pat Carriere on the back in sympathy.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 05/05/2018 at 1:03 PM

Re: “1900

2018 is the right time for another look at Novecento. A stunning restoration of 317 minutes has now appeared. We can't be sure which version Dave Kehr refers to in his review. That distributed in the U.S.A. suffered wholesale cuts. Even the version shown in Italy had been mutilated. Moreover, with Bernardo Bertolucci's whole career now spread before us our perspective changes. So does Bertolucci's. On viewing the restoration he said that what he now prizes in the film is its aesthetic quality. In other words the political and historical sides of the film no longer mean much to him. This is something he couldn't have said in the 1976. He was born into a leftist family in a part of Italy where socialism reigned. The film was made at a time when postwar Italian culture had a robust left-of-center tone. The Italian Communist Party was still strong and influential.

Now Bertolucci's deepest feelings were not political or historical, which resulted in Novecento being uncomfortable with itself and self-divisive in spite of its brilliant camerawork. Its five hours plus of filming, covering decades of Italian history, never attains the epic status aimed at. The failure is foretold in a scene near the end of part one. Two young couples are seated around a cafe table. The Robert De Niro character says that this is how it should always be, the four of them together. That's Bertolucci talking about the film he wanted to make. His instinct and gift was in the portrayal of edgy love between beautiful people, spiced with heavily textured scenes of decadence against a background of high style in furniture and fittings. At times the true subject of of Novecento seems to be a thwarted love affair between the characters of Gerard Depardieu and De Niro. The finest filmic moments are of the beautiful aristo Dominique Sanda slurping alcohol in total psychic meltdown.

The time and place, however, demanded a portrayal of the evils of Fascism, the complaisance of the upper classes in its rise, and its final overthrow and defeat with a contribution from the exploited peasantry. Here Bertolucci is not merely black and white but embarrassingly simplistic. His Fascists aren't the result of history taking a criminal turn. They are sexual perverts deep into sadism and gratuitous murder. The monsters evoked--notably by Donald Sutherland and Laura Betti--belong in a horror movie. But the true horror of Italian Fascism was that its supporters were in the main ordinary citizens not very different from ourselves or our "deplorables". Sexual aberration would have shocked them as it does us.

Bertolucci's monstrous Fascists share the stage with an unending array of peasant faces. As much as one admires the human workhorses of pre-industrial farming in Central Italy, Novecento turns into a casting directors obsession. The Noah's Ark of 'good' monsters seems to have sailed out of a cartoonist's workshop. Their variety of facial knobs, twists and distortions suggests the perils of hard outdoor work.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 04/24/2018 at 11:56 AM

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Recent Comments

Re: “Queer filmmaker Derek Jarman gets a Pride Month retrospective at FilmStruck

Biopics about artists trudging on through soapy anecdotes tell us nothing about an artist's paintings or their creative mechanism. One irrelevant triviality follows another in the search for something a shade more sensational in the way of suspense or action. A flagrant example occurs in last year's 'Loving Vincent' where a subject of a Van Gogh portrait becomes a full-blown character and rides roughshod through the script. It may be an inventive twist in story-telling but reveals less than nothing about the painter's canvases or working method.

This said, what makes Derek Jarman's 'Caravaggio' such an excellent film? In the first place it isn't a biopic. Jarman makes that clear by strewing it with indications that we are not in the 17th century at all. His actors, speaking unaccented English, are modern people acting out a passionate tale dressed in the clothes and some telling details of another time. The drama is essentially this: A talented painter falls in love with his model and then extends his love to his model's mate. This disrupts the couple. One partner wants out while the other becomes viciously jealous. The jealous party kills the other. But when the killer returns wanting to unite with the painter, the latter, thinking of the victim, responds with another killing, the killer's.

Jarman, an outspoken gay, even before being so was decriminalized, gives his film a strong homoerotic dimension. We might say that while it's not the story of Caravaggio's life its very much the personal experience of Derek Jarman. The great painter depicted biblical scenes that often involved several figures. Jarman plays much on the contrast of the simple folk used as models and the exalted characters they represent. The models are often shown frozen in a pose. But this isn't an attempt to reconstruct one of the great painting for us. Its more Jarman insisting that in his view of life flesh comes first, just as Caravaggio made it first in the order of beauty.

2 likes, 2 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/25/2018 at 12:49 PM

Re: “When you call someone a jagoff, what exactly are you trying to say?

These comments are sensational and could be the basis of long and deep research. What chance have historians in the rush to get a quick joke in? The one about Mailer not being able to spell the F-word is attributed to four different people: Dorothy Parker, Tallulah Bankhead, Pauline Kael, and Isaiah Berlin.

1 like, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/21/2018 at 3:45 AM

Re: “Can a Division Street cocktail bar truly capture the spirit of Nelson Algren?

Barry and Angela: The passage from Mailer is powerful writing. The whole of 'The Siege' is as good as anything he did and better than some of his more interminable novels. He is of course revisiting a long tradition of writing about the cruel and lurid blood-letting at the Union Stock Yards. But he puts the picture together again with brio. It shouldn't make us forget, though, that when he wrote the stockyards were finished, closing down completely in 1971. Industrial, blue-collar Chicago was on the way out and moving toward what it is today, a safe home for the main offices of corporations with a mayor to match. The stockyards are gone just like the corner saloons that have been romantically recalled here. The "Algren-inspired" bar concocted by the "mixologists" will be aimed at the lesser corporate employees and a few hangers on like Skeptic.

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/20/2018 at 3:25 AM

Re: “Can a Division Street cocktail bar truly capture the spirit of Nelson Algren?

Skeptic: I think it's nice you get along with your friends and that they all agree with you. Touching to learn that all this time you've been growing up, you've never heard a nasty word against Nelson Algren. However, it doesn't say much for your skepticism. Maybe it's time you made new friends who actually read his books.

4 likes, 1 dislike
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/19/2018 at 2:35 PM

Re: “Can a Division Street cocktail bar truly capture the spirit of Nelson Algren?

Angela: Mailer's 'Siege of Chicago' is personalized reporting about a specific event. There's nothing at all like that in Algren. I think the mushily poetic 'Chicago: City on the Make' is overrated, but Algren elsewhere did touch the essence of the city in writing about immigrant neighborhoods. You're too glib about formulas and dullness. The world of any writer is special to him and can seem repetitious and even dull. That goes for Algren, Bellow, Balzac, Dickens, Dreiser and so on. The cruz is how much these individual worlds throw light on the big picture, life. The misogyny of Algren and Bellow tells us a lot, much more than some militant's slogan.

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/19/2018 at 10:57 AM

Re: “Can a Division Street cocktail bar truly capture the spirit of Nelson Algren?

Skeptic: Chicago has never come to terms with Algren, judged him as a writer. As here it dawdles around the end of the bar. The author takes that way in before he sneaks in some talk about the books. If I miss his point, you can keep it for yourself. "What sort of bar would capture the spirit of Nelson Algren...?" is a marketing problem. Why not ask what kind of burger Shakespeare would order after writing Macbeth?

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/19/2018 at 10:15 AM

Re: “Can a Division Street cocktail bar truly capture the spirit of Nelson Algren?

The Nelson A. fan club isn't much interested in his books. But it fancies those corner taverns full of beer-smelly authenticity that it wouldn't go near if any were around today. A comment on an article isn't the place to lay out the question. So let's simplify. Saul Bellow wrote, "Algren was indeed an original, unfortunately susceptible to ideological infection, a radical bohemian in a quickly dated Chicago style". Algren said: "My criticism of guys like Bellow is that they lack greatness really, no matter how skilled, because they never go all out....Saul just keeps doing 'Herzog'. I don't mind him doing it, but I won't bother to read it."

Now Bellow was only wrong in not being more precise about ideology. Algren was caught up in Popular Front leftism during the depression but it never penetrated his work. His interest would always be in a monotonous parade of marginal figures, not in the working class. His interest in these characters became a (not again!) cliche, narrowing his books. It's ironic if he honestly believed that Bellow was the repetitious writer. It was obvious, and not only to the Nobel Committee, that Bellow's view of society was wide and thoughtful. The "never go all out" remark is a perfect example of romantic bohemianism, exalting mystic sweat over skill.

3 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 06/16/2018 at 3:38 AM

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