By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Anna Biller. If you’re looking for something different and agreeably deranged, go directly to www.lifeofastar.com/purchase.html, where for $19.95 you can purchase Anna Biller: The Short Film Collection, made between 1994 and 2001—four of the strangest films you’ll ever see. I suppose this writer-director-star-set-and-costume-designer could be called a slick Jack Smith, but that’s just an approximate start. Biller’s first feature, Viva (2006), an appreciative pastiche of tacky ‘70s softcore porn, is also slated to come out on DVD eventually, but I would cite her A Visit from the Incubus (2001), a half-hour horror-western-musical in blazing colour, with shades of Tex Avery, as her masterpiece to date—and in fact, I’ve already done so on the Chicago Reader film blog. (I’m even quoted on the box.)
Fantômas (Artificial Eye). Unlike the BFI and Second Run Features, this isn’t an English label that’s been too keen about sending me review copies. So I paid for this release with my hard-earned money, for two reasons: (1) to have an English subtitled copy of the restoration of Louis Feuillade’s superb five-part 1913 series (as distinct from his serials, and a forerunner to them), and (2) a burning curiosity about what Artificial Eye did with the wonderful interactive extras in the original Gaumont box set, and whether it replaced them with anything else. The answers to the second question, alas, are nothing and no. The Gaumont extras, which I recently wrote about for DVD Beaver—perhaps the most pleasurable ever released on any DVD label (surpassing even the theme-park ride through the cave in Disney’s DVD edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)—have simply been omitted in the UK edition. As for the subtitles, it’s nice to have them, but you can follow most of the film reasonably well without the French intertitles anyway; and many of the extras in the Gaumont set are still great fun even if you don’t know a word of French.
Place aux jeunes (BAC Video). I can follow Bernard Eisenschitz’s informative, thoughtful, and unsubtitled introduction to this French edition of Leo McCarey’s sublime Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) only partially, though enough to register the interesting anomaly that Beulah Bondi, who plays Thomas Mitchell’s mother in this film, was only four years older than him. This beautiful restoration of McCarey’s masterpiece is also outfitted with irremovable French subtitles, which is far more irritating. It also costs a fortune. But what an amazing movie this is, and what a blessing it is that someone, somehow, has finally made it available (not counting the crummy pirated version that 5 Minutes to Live used to offer).
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967), The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992), A Walk with Love and Death (John Huston, 1969), Radio On (Chris Petit, 1979) (BFI). The first three of these are precious commercial flops that can conceivably find their ideal audiences, at least in the English-speaking world, only on DVD. I haven’t yet seen the DVD of the Davies film (I’ve been checking my mailbox for it daily), but it certainly should be out by the time you’re reading this. I suspect that the fourth title, Chris Petit’s interesting first feature, may have also been a commercial flop, but I’ll have to resee it—which I’m looking forward to doing—before I can be sure about how precious it is. Meanwhile, the very detailed booklet of essays and the substantial new interviews with Petit and producer Keith Griffiths about both this film and the 1998 video short radio on (remix) surely makes this DVD a definitive edition.
For the record, the BFI’s two-disc edition of Demy’s euphoric musical reprints my own essay about the film in its accompanying 22-page booklet; this letterboxed version is in stereo, and the extras include an invaluable 1980 audio interview with Gene Kelly about his career, Agnès Varda’s likable 1993 documentary Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (though the scruffier making-of documentary codirected by André Delvaux that I wrote about in my last column is in some ways even better), and a more routine 2005 interview with Catherine Deneuve. John Huston’s hippie medieval pageant, which Betsy Blair was originally slated to direct, has a very mixed reputation but I remember its haunting melancholy with some affection.
Bashu, the Little Stranger (Bahram Beizaï, 1989); Kenji Mizoguchi: Les Années 40 (The Famous Sword Bijomaru, 1945; Utamaro and His Five Women, 1945; The Love of Sumako the Actress, 1947; Women of the Night, 1948; My Love Has Been Burning, 1949); Coffret Robert Siodmak (Cobra Woman, 1944; Phantom Lady, 1944; The Killers, 1946); 2 comédies de Douglas Sirk (Has Anybody Seen My Gal? and No Room for the Groom, both 1952); Coffret Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, 1954; All That Heaven Allows, 1955; A Time to Love and a Time to Die, 1958; Imitation of Life, 1959) (Carlotta). For the sake of clarity and convenience, I’m giving all the film titles here in English, but the Beizaï and Mizoguchi films on this very serious French label, presented in optimal and often restored prints, have only optional French subtitles (as do the Sirks and Siodmaks). Even if most of the Sirk and Siodmak films can be found elsewhere, some of the extras in these box sets are fairly special: a 1985 Daniel Schmid documentary on Sirk (as well as John Stahl’s 1934 version of Imitation of Life) in the Coffret, recent Robert Fischer interviews with Piper Laurie and Gigi Perreau in 2 comédies, an hour-long 1971 interview with Siodmak from German TV. The feature by Beizaï, one of the neglected major figures of the first Iranian New Wave, is accompanied by a short of his made in 1970. As for the four discs in the Mizoguchi package, I haven’t yet had time to check those extras, but noticed that the Utamaro disc alone has separate shorts devoted to Utamaro, the film’s setting (Yoshiwara in the Edo period), an analysis by critic Jean Douchet, and an interview with Kaneto Shindô, one of the writers on My Love Has Been Burning.
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985), Patriotism (Mishima Yukio, 1966), Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976), The Small Back Room (Michael Powell, 1949), Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971), Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932) (Criterion). A very mixed bag, although I guess one could say that all these films are audacious in different ways (and to different degrees). I can easily think of five Guy Maddin features I prefer to Brand Upon a Brain!, but he’s such a consummate showman he’s managed to turn this DVD into a worthy plaything, with no less than seven narrators to choose from (several recorded live from the touring-show version), two new short films about his musical accompanists, and a substantial deleted scene; there’s also an excellent 50-minute making-of documentary that offers a fine introduction to his art and methodology.
I have to confess to disliking the second, third, and fourth items on this list, especially for their particular and for me unredeemed forms of unpleasantness. (The unpleasantness of the fifth—a black-and-white Powell and Pressburger with a wartime setting evoking Gravity’s Rainbow—at least has a noir ambiance, charismatic lead performances by David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, and a surreal treatment of alcoholism.) Paul Schrader’s biopic turned me off when it came out for its show-offy Las Vegas décor and its reductive view of art as a simple reflection of psychological hangups—which for me recalled the 1962 Martin Ritt atrocity Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man and now also seems to evoke Mishima’s own Patriotism, the latter unpacked in helpful detail by Tony Rayns and Mishima himself in the latter DVD’s accompanying materials—and I can’t bring myself to return to it. (Dave Kehr recently called it Schrader’s “most completely satisfying film” in the New York Times, but I’m much more inclined to hold out for Light Sleeper ; for me, the prospect of being “satisfied” by Mishima is far from an incentive.) Sampling the documentaries about Salò and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s well-oiled analysis in this two-disc set similarly convinced me that my one viewing of the film in 1976 was more than enough. But I can endlessly resee and enjoy the beauties and oddities of Tati and Dreyer, especially when they’re presented, as they are here, in optimal form. (Casper Tybjerg’s audiovisual essay about Vampyr is a particular plus.)
Taking Father Home (Ying Liang, 2006) (dGenerate Films). dGenerate Films, a US label and outlet which officially launches in October, specializes in post-Sixth Generation Chinese independent cinema and is catering to academic and institutional buyers, online distribution, and digital downloads rather than the home video market. This places their offerings outside the usual purview of this column, but since Kevin Lee—a filmmaker and rabid cinephile whom some readers will recognize as the proprietor of the web site Shooting Down Pictures—is behind this operation and recently Fedexed me some of their first releases, I took a look at the one he recommended the most. A 17-year-old carrying two ducks but no money travels by bus from countryside to city in an effort to find and retrieve his father, who left home six years ago. As fiction, this often feels both contrived and perfunctory, and the musical score is surprisingly slick, but as a hard look at criminality in contemporary China and a raw exercise in plan-séquence shooting with a fixed camera, it’s pretty mesmerizing, and some of the formal ideas—such as the shifts between colour and black-and-white in the closing stretches—are quite striking. (The ubiquitous Tony Rayns is credited with the subtitles, so I presume he likes this film too.) It seems like family displacements caused or at least occasioned by construction and/or flooding is fast becoming a quintessential theme in mainland China; Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006), due out soon from New Yorker Video, may have already become a template.
Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961), Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994) (Facets). I haven’t yet caught up with the former, and I’m probably unqualified to rule on the latter because I contributed to the booklet. So let me just point out that (a) it has as an extra an English subtitled version of Tarr’s Macbeth, filmed for Hungarian TV in only two shots, and unavailable elsewhere, and (b) DVD Beaver disses this edition of the film, preferring that of Artificial Eye—but having already foolishly shelled out for their Fantômas (see above), and considering that Tarr himself approved the Facets version, which looks fine to my more technically untutored eye, I’m happy to stand pat.
Desiderio (Desire, Frank Borzage, 1936), Temp di vivere (A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Douglas Sirk, 1958), L’Uomo senza paura (Man Without a Star, King Vidor, 1955) (Flamingo Video). I picked up these good editions of auteurist staples at the DVD Fair at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Actually, Desire starts out looking a lot more like a film by its producer, Ernst Lubitsch, than one by Borzage, but by the end I’m less sure; it’s the second pairing of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, after Morocco (1930), and most of it is set in Paramount’s version of Spain, after a few scenes in Paramount Paris.
Jesús Franco’s Don Quixote, incorrectly labeled Orson Welles’ Don Quixote (Image Entertainment). The worst and ugliest by far of all the efforts made to date to “improve” Welles’ framing, editing, sound recording, voice, storytelling, etc.—you name it, Franco’s destroyed it. I won’t allow this in my house, and since I already have the European DVD of this, I don’t need another copy. Can we ever hope to see a worthy presentation of the Welles Quixote—that is, anything comparable to the various reels shown by Oja Kodar at the New York University Welles conference 20 years ago, or even the video copy of the Patty McCormack footage shown by Ciro Giorgini at a Welles conference in Rome four years later? I don’t know. About a year ago, Kodar won an Italian lawsuit against Mauro Bonnani—who holds and has been sitting on much of the best material, including the McCormack footage—giving her the rights to all of this, but Bonnani is now appealing the ruling. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Pedro Costa box set (Intermedia). Another specialty item, at least for English speakers, this lovely package includes four discs and a copiously illustrated 174-page book (in Spanish). On the discs are excellent versions of In Vanda’s Room (2000) (in Portuguese with removable French or Spanish subtitles), Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (2001) (in French and Italian with removable Spanish subtitles), Colossal Youth (2006) (in Portuguese with removable Spanish subtitles), Tout refleurit (a “making of” documentary about Colossal Youth, mostly in French, with removable Spanish subtitles), and a lengthy interview with Costa in Portuguese during the making of Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? with removable Spanish subtitles. The book’s main feature is an impressive 146-page collage of interviews, frame enlargements, production stills, and other texts and photos assembled by Andy Rector.
War Requiem (Derek Jarman, 1989), Derek (Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton, 2008), The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924), The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Burgess Meredith, 1949) (Kino Video). Try as I might, after five months I still can’t convince this resourceful but intransigent label that I’m no longer working for the Chicago Reader, which is where they still insist on sending me their releases. (I’m hoping that someone there reads this column, if not my emails.) But I’m still grateful that they keep sending them. War Requiem is the most moving Jarman film I can recall seeing, and Derek, a new documentary written by Swinton, directed by Julien, and produced by Colin MacCabe (who offers an affecting and affectionate introduction), is a touching tribute. There’s also a 69-minute, 1991 interview with Jarman included as an extra on the latter. The two-disc “restored deluxe edition” of The Last Laugh features the 2003 restoration of the German version (the best I’ve ever seen) as well as the unrestored export version; and even though I’m still not persuaded that The Man on the Eiffel Tower is necessarily a good movie, this UCLA restoration does improve the look of Stanley Cortez’s cinematography in Ansco Color, a long-defunct single-strip process whose unusual hues evoke those of the similarly experimental Thomson-color used by Jacques Tati two years earlier on Jour de fête (though unseen due to technical problems until several years after Tati’s death).
I vinti (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953) (Minerva Classic). This Italian label has released a “director’s cut” of what may be Antonioni’s most neglected feature, comprised of three episodes about alienated youth in separate countries—Italy, France, and England. (The latter episode includes some obvious anticipations of Blowup , including a tennis court.) The Italian episode is uncensored, reportedly for the first time since the film premiered in Venice. There are optional English as well as Italian subtitles, and a 32-page bilingual booklet with one article about the film in English.
Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967) (New Yorker Video/Project X). In the not-so-distant future, the British government, in collaboration with the clergy, uses a masochistic, pre-punk rock singer (Paul Jones) to help push forward its totalitarian agenda. When I saw this early Watkins feature during its first run, over 40 years ago, I was so knocked out by its sheer audacity as well as its pseudo-documentary format (a Watkins specialty) that I’ve been a partisan ever since, even though John Simon liked it too. A more recent look, thanks to this excellent and long-overdue release of Watkins’ only studio feature, has made me more skeptical of certain aspects, such as a cartoonish rock manager who comes dangerously close to an anti-Semitic caricature (most likely provoked by Brian Epstein) and an overall passion for simplicity that sometimes seems merely facile. (I’m less bothered by the non-performances of the two leads; supermodel Jean Shrimpton is far too beautiful to make me regret her participation.) Fortunately, someone (perhaps Watkins himself) had the bright idea of including Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s deservedly famous Lonely Boy (1962), a half-hour Canadian ciném vérité documentary about Paul Anka that I’ve been hoping to catch up with for most of my life, and which Watkins admits was a major resource for him in planning Privilege.
La Signora di tutti (Max Ophüls, 1934), Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (Roberto Rossellini, 1954), Merry-Go-Round (Jacques Rivette, 1977) (RHV). Three more DVDs picked up in Bologna; the acronym stands for Ripley’s Home Video. All three are excellent transfers. The Ophüls has optional English subtitles; the Rossellini, his first colour feature—an onstage filming of Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel’s oratorio on Joan of Arc, with Ingrid Bergman in the title role—can be seen in Italian or French with optional Italian subtitles, but the credits at least are all in English. (If you want to practice your Italian, the complete text in that language is included in the accompanying booklet.) The ornate settings, sometimes handled via rear-projection, which Tag Gallagher disapprovingly compares to Disney and De Mille, go completely against the grain of what was originally intended for the oratorio’s theatrical presentation, but if you ignore all this, you might find them attractive; I did, anyway. The Rivette—a project reportedly sabotaged by Maria Schneider (who costars with Joe Dallesandro)—has dialogue in English and French (with optional Italian subtitles), some moody onscreen free jazz performed on bass and bass clarinet, some energetic miming by Hermine Karagheuz (who also played in Rivette’s Out 1  and Duelle ) and loads of Rivettian intrigue, only some of which qualifies as coherent.
Rat-Trap (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981), Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) (Second Run Features). A mea culpa: I promised Second Run’s Mehelli Modi that I’d watch Rat-Trap, and I did see the first two sequences, which looked promising, but then got interrupted by other work. However, I’ve checked out all the extras on Tropical Malady—the first Second Run release to feature Dolby 5.1 Surround sound (as well as 2.0 Stereo)—and resampled portions of the film, and am happy to declare this a definitive edition. Apart from an interview with Apichatpong that the filmmaker recorded himself and one of his superb and neglected experimental shorts (the 1997 Thirdworld, enjoying its DVD premiere), I can also recommend Tony Rayns’ clarifying and thoughtful essay, which I incidentally find far more useful than his somewhat waffling commentary on the Criterion edition of Vampyr (see above), a film whose anomalies may ultimately defeat any offscreen commentary. (My own refusals to do solo commentaries have stemmed from the conviction that most of these tend to wind up as lazy, free-form, drifting essays that only intermittently relate to what one’s watching at any given moment. And even though one might argue theoretically that discontinuity is central to Vampyr, adding still more discontinuity to a reading of it isn’t very helpful in practice.)
Some last-minute recommendations, corrections and unfinished business: You can order from YesAsia letterboxed and English-subtitled versions of three films by Tian Zhuangzhuang: The Horse Thief (1986) and Unforgettable (1988, in two separate editions, under the titles Special Operating Room and Te Bie Shou Shu Shi) for only $6.99 each, and The Go Master (2006) for $15.99. You can also purchase Oshima Nagisa’s repugnantly rape-happy if well-shot A Treatise on Bawdy Japanese Songs (1967, under the title Sing a Song of Sex), also letterboxed and English-subtitled, from the same outlet for $9.99. But for an English subtitled version of Oshima’s Street of Love and Hope (1959) on the same Hong Kong label (Platinum Classics /Shochiku), for $12.95, you’ll have to go to HKFlix.
Warners has finally fulfilled a particular dream of mine and released Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), for me one of the key underrated CinemaScope film of the ‘50s. Among its many unsung virtues are Richard L. Breen’s screenplay, with some of the best hardboiled dialogue to be found anywhere, and evocations of Kansas City in 1927 that you can taste. There are also dynamite performances by Peggy Lee, Edmond O’Brien, and Andy Devine, and pretty good ones by Webb, Lee Marvin, Janet Leigh, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jayne Mansfield.
Mea culpa again: Nick Wrigley, who manages the superb UK DVD label Masters of Cinema, gently reproached me for not checking with him before writing, in my last column, in response to MOC’s claim that their edition of Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961) contains “previously censored sequences restored for the first time,” “My own spot-checks have so far failed to tease out any footage that I haven’t seen before.” He has a point; and the fact that I was rushing to meet a deadline at the time is what accounted for my brusqueness. Even more to the point, Nick provided me with a list of eight stretches of additional footage adding up to a little under two minutes—none of which qualifies the missing footage as censorship in any usual sense of that term, but all of which certainly qualify as deletions. (For more particulars, go to www.criterionforum.org and scroll down to the frame grabs.) Meanwhile, the same label has also released a fine edition of Bruno Dumont’s first feature, La vie de Jésus (1997), complete with a 40-page booklet.
Here’s another addendum to my last column, courtesy of Corey Creekmur: “You can find Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) almost hidden away on a US set from Universal, The Gary Cooper Collection (five titles from the 1930s, including, most rewardingly, 1935’s delirious Peter Ibbetson). This is not to be confused with Gary Cooper: MGM Movie Legends Collection, an odd group of films most valuable for including the interesting silent The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).”
Finally, since I’ve already been unloading some professional gripes in this column, here’s another: some companies send out “check discs” rather than (or in addition to) finished DVDs so that reviewers can have an earlier look at their products. I avoid these whenever possible because I also like to review extras. But I can’t do this with Milestone’s release of the UCLA restoration of Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 masterpiece The Exiles because the “check disc” is so far all that Milestone’s been willing to send to me. Suffice it to say that this is just about the most gorgeous restoration of an American independent film I’ve ever seen, and I’ll be even happier if or when I can sample the remainder of this DVD.