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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
American Film Treasures IV: Avant-Garde 1947-1986 (National Film Preservation Foundation, distributed by Image Entertainment). This two-disc package with a 74-page book, the latest in the superb “Treasures of the American Film Archives” series, is every bit as thoughtful and invaluable as its predecessors, though it does seem strange that the booklet’s excellent notes on the 26 films are uncredited. The selection includes a judicious mix between relatively familiar standbys—e.g. Ken Jacobs’ Little Stabs of Happiness (1959-63), Jonas Mekas’s Notes on the Circus (1966), Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971), and Owen Land’s New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976)—some formerly hard-to-see touchstones like Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953) and Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964), and lesser-known works by major figures such as Harry Smith’s Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947-49) and Robert Breer’s Eyewash (1959), to cite only two of the really outstanding animation works. (The other filmmakers represented here: Bruce Baillie, Wallace Berman, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Joseph Cornell, Storm De Hirsch, Larry Gottheim, Lawrence Jordan, George Kuchar, Standish Lawder, Saul Levine, Marie Menken, Robert Nelson, Pat O’Neill, Paul Sharits, Jane Conger Belson Shimane, Chick Strand, Andy Warhol, and William T. Wiley.) All the shorts are juxtaposed in order to enhance and enrich one another, and better yet, the viewer/listener is given several choices: one can watch Interwoven silently, with the same Dizzy Gillespie cut that Smith originally used as accompaniment, or with a new musical track by John Zorn (who has furnished optional scores to many of the silent films here).
John Berry’s best feature, From This Day Forward (1946), about a postwar couple (Joan Fontaine and Mark Stevens) struggling in the big city—a quintessential Berry theme—is now available from Editions Montparnasse.
Aficionados of the sophisticated and well-informed film-review capsules by Richard Brody found in the front-page listings of The New Yorker—in refreshing contrast to the more lowbrow banterings about movies offered by his more high-profile colleagues, Anthony Lane and David Denby—should be advised that Brody’s own feature as a writer-director, Liability Crisis (1994), is now available on DVD from Pathfinder Pictures. According to the latter’s online catalogue, this label also offers, among much else, ten early Claude Chabrol features (including such key items as 1969’s La Femme infidèle and This Man Must Die, and 1970’s Le Boucher), Amir Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers (1993), Andre Téchiné’s Barocco (1976), and Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light (1932), Olympia (1938), and Tiefland (1954). The latter items seem particularly odd bedfellows for Brody’s Liability Crisis, a Godardian drama about a New York Jewish filmmaker obsessed with the Holocaust. But I hasten to add that even though this eccentric movie suggests some parallels with the theme of anti-Semitism running through Brody’s recent biography of Godard, it’s worth adding that this preoccupation with Jewish identity and victimhood is critiqued more in the movie than it is in the book, especially in one extended scene with the film’s Yugoslav star Mirjana Jokovic.
For me, the most interesting documentary by Kirby Dick (Sick, 1997; Derrida, 2002; This Film is Not Yet Rated, 2006) is one of his very first, Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (1985), which I discovered on cable over 20 years ago, and which Zeitgeist Video has now brought out with an audio commentary by the filmmaker. Chronicling the work of a young sex therapist, Margaret Sullivan Ward, with two sexually dysfunctional men—a 25-year-old grad student and a 45-year-old divorcee—the film winds up delving into her “case” as well as both of theirs, and the story has been updated by a more recent interview with her. If you can get past the daunting fact that both these men agreed to have their sessions with Ward filmed, this is fascinating material from many standpoints.
Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (Flicker Alley). An impeccable five-disc set with a 32-page booklet from one of the most serious labels around. The eleven Fairbanks films include the very wacky When the Clouds Roll By (1919)—the first film directed by Victor Fleming, chronicled in some detail in Michael Sragow’s new Fleming biography—as well as His Picture in the Papers, Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Flirting with Fate, and The Matrimaniac (all 1916), Wild and Woolly and Reaching for the Moon (both 1917), A Modern Musketeer (1918), The Mollycoddle (1920), The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Nut (1921).
White Dog (1982), Samuel Fuller’s last great film, also happens, not coincidentally, to be the last film he ever made in the US. It’s also in many ways his ultimate statement about racism, and its unconscionable non-release by Paramount is basically what drove him into exile until about a year before his death. The movie’s protracted unavailability in its home country—apart from a few rare cable appearances, and then only in a studio recut—only added insult to injury, so Criterion deserves our deepest gratitude for finally making it available in its best form and telling the full story of its protracted repression. (When a national TV screening was once blocked by one of the major channels as “inappropriate,” Fuller memorably remarked, “‘Inappropriate’—that’s turning up at a funeral in a jockstrap.”)
Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). D.W. Griffith’s brutally intense final feature, a searing portrait of alcoholism, is in some ways his most neglected and underrated film, as well as one of his most personal works. So Kino International, which has brought it out on a single disc along with Griffith’s penultimate feature, has performed a public service as valuable as Criterion’s in releasing White Dog. One vivid extra here is an awkward and endearing early-sound conversation of Griffith with Lincoln’s Walter Huston about The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Volume 3 of the Straub/Huillet box set from Editions Montparnasse is now available, with three features in German, all with optional French (but not English) subtitles: Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967), History Lessons (1972), and Antigone (1991), their version of Bertolt Brecht’s reworking of the Friedrich Hölderlin translation of the Sophocles tragedy. It’s good to have all of these, of course, but as the scuttlebutt is that this series will not eventually cover the entire Huillet-Straub oeuvre, I continue to wonder what rule of thumb governs the respective lists of inclusions and exclusions. Is it a matter of the conditions of the films’ negatives, the preferences of the producer-editor of this series (Philippe Lafosse, who also turned out the 2007 French volume L’Étrange Cas de Madame Huillet et Monsieur Straub), or something else? Whatever it is, I lament the fact that my two favorite Straub-Huillet films, Too Early, Too Late (1978) and Operai, contadini (2000), continue to be missing.
Isadore Isou’s Traité de Bave et d’éternité (On Venom and Eternity, 1951). Ever since I first saw a super-8 projection of this hectoring, 123-minute, 35mm feature by the founder of the Letterists, I’ve been split between admiration, fascination, absorption in it as a heady period piece (for its glimpses of Boulevard St. Germain street life and its morsels of declaimed French cinephilia in the early ‘50s), and a more scornful view of it as the ultimate (and, in those terms, entertainingly campy) self-parody of French avant-garde provocation at its most narcissistic. I still haven’t resolved this conflict, but this beautiful edition from the indispensable Re:Voir label (www.re-voir.com)—with optional English, German, Italian, and Spanish subtitles and a very informative 52-page bilingual booklet—is a definite improvement on the version included a couple of years ago in Kino International’s two-disc Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954, derived from Raymond Rohauer’s grab-bag collection: better sound, better image, and much more contextual information.
L’Argent (1928). I reviewed the lovely, though unsubtitled, Gaumont edition of this truly remarkable late-silent blockbuster by Marcel L’Herbier for Moving Image Source last June, so go to http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/obscure-objects-20080619 for further details. The UK’s two-disc Masters of Cinema edition provides subtitles to most of the same items (including Jean Dréville’s contemporary “making of” documentary and a recent 54-minute documentary about L’Herbier’s silent films) and adds a very useful illustrated 80-page booklet.
Kim Longinotto’s two Iranian documentaries with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Divorce Iranian Style (1997) and Runaway (2001), have been released together on one disc by Second Run in the UK, which also includes an interview with Longinotto and a making-of article about the earlier film by Mir-Hosseini. The first film, which plants a camera inside an Iranian divorce court, is a mind-boggling look at how some oppressed women manage to triumph in spite of everything, including the law, being stacked against them (and in case you’re interested, this film is outfitted with optional Arabic as well as English subtitles). The second, which interviews five teenage girls at a refuge in Tehran, is somewhat less compelling but, if memory serves, still interesting.
In Kino International’s awesome six-disc Murnau box set—comprising The Haunted Castle (1921), Nosferatu (1922), The Grand Duke’s Finances and The Last Laugh (both 1924), Tartuffe and Faust (1926)—it’s probably the last item that impresses me the most, although it’s obviously also important to have the first and third film finally available. What’s been restored in Faust is Murnau’s original montage, using all the best takes—and there were quite a few because everything was shot repeatedly, with two cameras. (The other takes were employed to edit most of the foreign versions). This work was carried out by Luciano Berriatúa, author of the Filmoteca Española’s formidable two-volume Los proverbios chinos de F.W. Murnau (1990)—a major work of criticism even if one doesn’t read Spanish, because of the copious and often self-explanatory illustrations—who also directed the fact-filled documentary on the Faust disc, The Language of Shadows, which makes some of the same points about the painterly origins of various shots. Prior to Berriatúa’s restoration, the best version of Faust I had seen was the MGM print at George Eastman House (which Murnau also edited, using duplicates of the same takes) almost 40 years ago. And I suspect that the grain of the images here—which matters a lot when it comes to savoring Murnau’s art-history derivations—has never been more richly detailed.
No less awesome in its own way is the justifiably touted Murnau, Borzage and Fox package, containing no less than a dozen DVDs, three of them two-sided, and two coffee-table-sized books with texts by Janet Bergstrom, the second of which is devoted to Murnau’s lost 4 Devils. Yet I can’t help but feel flummoxed by the fact that this second package was put together by people who know next to nothing about either the merchandise they’re handling or the cinephiles they’re servicing. The whole thing comes in a massive box that’s too big to fit on any of my shelves (even the ones that carry coffee-table books), and much of it is the reverse of user-friendly in other ways as well. It’s as if it were designed to be the only DVD box set one would ever think of owning, comprising a formidable piece of furniture in its own right, with its own built-in altar for worship. (I’m told that 2007’s Ford at Fox set, which I don’t have in toto, was similarly unwieldy and impractical, however welcome its own contents were.) The most valuable contribution to film history in this whole set is probably what’s left of Borzage’s The River (1928), and this is harder to locate than anything else because it isn’t even mentioned on any of the sleeves. (For the record, you can find it on the flip side of Borzage’s 7th Heaven —a logical place for it to be, but why can’t it be identified somewhere in the box?) For most of my related gripes, simply compare the sensibly and modestly packaged two-disc set devoted to The River released on the invaluable Filmmuseum label (www.edition-filmmuseum.com), which I wrote about three columns back. Here you can find Bergstrom’s excellent 36-minute Murnau and Borzage at Fox—The Expressionist Heritage, which Fox essentially chose to bypass by assigning a studio pro and nonscholar to remake it, just as it also inexplicably chose to bypass Bergstrom’s superb documentary about 4 Devils (which Fox previously included on its limited-edition DVD of Sunrise ) and reduce its contents to the dimensions of a much simpler coffee-table book. I guess what’s mistrusted in both cases is seriousness. I know, I know. We’re supposed to overlook these maddening irritations and simply be grateful for what the studios decide to impart to us, in whatever arbitrary manner they choose; criticize them and they’re apt to punish us for our presumption. This must be why DVD Beaver chose to tactfully omit my selection of this box set for their “Bad Bad Bad” category in their end-of-year poll, which I accounted for, simply and parenthetically, as “invaluable materials, atrociously packaged.”
If memory serves, Andrew Sarris once argued that Minnelli’s Ziegfield Follies (1946) demonstrated that even the most hackneyed backstage plot was better than no plot at all. New Faces, a period curiosity even when it came out in 1954—an independently produced CinemaScope musical revue (distributed by Fox) that was presented on Broadway in 1952, with an added hackneyed backstage plot—refutes that proposition about as thoroughly as any movie possibly could. But I’m still grateful that an attractively letterboxed copy is currently available, even if it doesn’t preserve the soundtrack stereophonically. Part of what’s so indelibly strange about this item is the way it gathers together so many mannerist performers, including, among others, the late Eartha Kitt (at her very best), Paul Lynde (who also helped to write some of the sketches, along with Mel Brooks and costar Ronnie Graham), Robert Clary, Alice Ghostley, and Carol Lawrence. Directed by Harry Horner, of Red Planet Mars (1952) fame, this has an endearing awkwardness that has nothing to do with camp but a great deal to do with the early ‘50s.
On the region-free DVD of Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986), available from www.arrowfilms.co.uk, there’s a good radio interview with Rohmer, roughly eight minutes long, containing some useful and interesting information about this highly uncharacteristic feature (for me, one of his best); the interviewer is the late Serge Daney.
The most important extra on Criterion’s edition of Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) is Tag Gallagher’s “multimedia” essay, Taking Power, about Rossellini’s history films—if I’m not mistaken, the first audiovisual essay by Gallagher that was commissioned and produced by a DVD label rather than simply used by one. Another interesting precedent turns up on the Criterion Eclipse package, Rossellini’s History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment, which consists of The Age of the Medici (1972), in Italian or dubbed into English, Cartesius (1974), in Italian, and Blaise Pascal (1972) in French: for the first time on an Eclipse release, there are signed liner notes for the short and useful critical essays, again by Gallagher.
Another good example of a minimally plotted feature full of musical numbers is Stormy Weather (1943), another Fox release which you can get in France from
Wildside. Here what passes for a story—and what seems to have later inspired the framing narrative in Tex Avery’s Uncle Tom’s Cabaña (1947)—is Bill Robinson bragging to assorted black kids about how he occasionally crossed paths with Lena Horne. For my taste, this is mainly made bearable by the appearances of Fats Waller, though there’s nothing here quite as much fun as the Slim Galliard and “Slam” Stewart novelty number in the imperishable Hellzapoppin’ (1941). But at least you get an extra disc containing two more all-black musicals, both cheapo items made for blacks-only theatres: The Duke Is Tops (1937), which I found both unwatchable and unlistenable, in spite of Lena Horne, and Hi-De-Ho (1947), a Cab Calloway vehicle that has a few decent musical numbers in spite of dreadful acting and less than rudimentary mise en scène.
One of the more fascinating and relatively unexplored aspects of Jacques Tati’s artisanal supervision of his own oeuvre is the existence of multiple versions of most of
his features shaped for different foreign markets. The first time this has been highlighted on DVD may be the French and American versions of 1958’s Mon oncle (or My Uncle, as the latter is called), released in France by a label called naïve vision on two discs, with many extras. This is much more than just a matter of different soundtracks; for one thing My Uncle, which won Tati his only Oscar, is 113 minutes long, four minutes longer than Mon oncle.
The Definitive Lennie Tristano: Copenhagen-New York-Berlin (Impro-Jazz). The Copenhagen and Berlin sides (a solo concert and piano workshop respectively, performed on successive nights in late October 1965) have already been available, but the real interest here are three 1964 quintet numbers performed at the Half Note in June 1964, with Lee Konitz (alto sax), Warne Marsh (tenor sax), Sonny Dallas (bass) and Nick Stabulas (drums), from a religiously oriented TV show. As I noted 18 columns back, I was lucky enough to see this group live at the Half Note a few times during the mid-‘60s, and I believe that this is the only visual record of this group’s performances that we have.