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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Last June, Dave Kehr alerted me to a rather daunting fact that he discovered on the home page of the new movie database launched by Turner Classic Movies, tcmb.com. Out of the 144,581 film titles on their database, made since 1890 (which includes 21,993 TV specials and 2,544 shorts), only 5,257 are available on home video. In other words, an overall percentage of 3.64% of a list of films that has as its core the American Film Institute’s Catalog of American Feature Films.
Of course, as is cogently argued by The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom—Adam Curtis’s provocative three-part BBC miniseries, broadcast in the UK last March—a preoccupation with numbers that quantifies our overall condition, our experience, and even our existence is one of the contemporary world’s most dangerous and debilitating maladies. It’s a poisoned legacy of post-Cold War thinking that has also implicitly removed politics from our notions of freedom, replaced it with spending power, and installed The Numbers Game as the ultimate means for gauging progress, growth, happiness, and success in every possible venture. So it may not be entirely irrelevant that the decade-by-decade lineup of the TCMDB’s list, which yields, for instance, 3,358 titles for the 1890s, 8,222 for the 1920s, 5,247 for the 1950s, 12,150 for the 1970s, and 31,322 for the 1990s, also gives us, by the same evident logic of computer-think, 21,195 for the years 2000-2009—apparently impatient enough to project certain titles into the future in some kind of Wikipedia delirium. There’s even one mysterious title (I wonder which one) for the years 2010-2019.
Despite all this silliness, a 3.64 percentage on video and DVD still provides a sharp and bracing rebuke to the popular mantra that “everything” on film is either now available to us lucky home-video consumers or is about to be. (Significantly, one of the additional myths attacked by The Trap in passing is the notion that “everything” can somehow be explained or accounted for, ergo theoretically processed and materially controlled—which arguably can be read as one of the side-products of the chutzpah of the American Empire and various former empires, namely those that aspire to take over everything and everyone.) And it’s worth adding that among the 96.36% of works that are still unavailable on commercial DVDs are The Trap and the two preceding miniseries of Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)—both erroneously dated 2005 on the TCMDB, apparently according to the same computer-driven logic of empire whereby works don’t exist until they’re heard about, vaguely, in the US. I just tried to order DVD-Rs of both these series from www.powerofnightmares.com, via listings on Amazon. It didn’t work—the order was first accepted, then rejected, for unexplained reasons—but presumably it’s worked before and maybe it will again (and meanwhile, I did manage to acquire a dirt-cheap copy of The Century of the Self from the UK on eBay). Presumably The Trap will also eventually surface in a comparable manner. And in the meantime, you can already download it, or at least try to, at www.adamcurtistrap.blogspot.com. You can now also access all three parts of The Power of Nightmares in the second, third, and fourth issues of the DVD magazine Wholphin.
So technically speaking, the three Curtis miniseries aren’t exactly or entirely inaccessible in North America; they’re just omitted from most discussions of how fucked up we are because they aren’t available on mainstream labels. And this is lamentable, because I think what Curtis is doing both intellectually and formally warrants a great deal of discussion. And I’m not being a simple advocate here because part of the discussion that’s warranted is a debate. (Check out “The Flow” by Paul Myerscough on the London Review of Books’ website for some of the legitimate directions that such a debate could take.)
Curtis himself, addressing the absence of The Power of Nightmares, has explained the principal reason why these works aren’t on mainstream labels: “The problem is that the films are full of archive film and music from a multitude of sources. The reason my series are normally not released on DVD is that it is prohibitively costly and a nightmare—no pun intended—to clear the rights.” He goes on to list some of the music used in The Power of Nightmares, which includes movie scores by John Barry, John Carpenter, and Ennio Morricone, Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (from the 1949 Esther Williams musical Neptune’s Daughter), and various pieces by Donovan, Brian Eno, Shostakovich, and Skinny Puppy. In The Trap I recognized a great deal of Bernard Herrmann’s work for both Hitchcock and Welles, and as serviceable as this material is as a sort of driving mechanism for the work’s overall flow, I’m not at all sure how well it fits in with the overall integrity of Curtis’ intellectual aspirations as opposed to certain Madison Avenue methods of “selling.”
So it’s necessary to conclude that because they’re left out of the sort of “serious” discussion routinely accorded now to many stupid Hollywood releases, the audiovisual essays of Curtis are “missing,” and grievously so, because his trilogy about intellectual perversion in the West and what it’s wrought has the potential of elevating our discourse about a great deal of what’s currently ailing us.
The same can be said, albeit on a more modest scale, of Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s Phoenix Tapes (1999)—a half-dozen fascinating experimental videos using footage from Alfred Hitchcock movies as their starting points that you’re probably never going to see on DVD because of rights clearance issues. The only reason why I know about them, in fact, is that I caught the fourth, Why Don’t You Love Me?—a brilliant piece of film criticism on the roles played by mothers in Hitchcock’s oeuvre—at a potpourri retrospective screening at the Oberhausen short-film festival in May.
And of course rights issues aren’t the only reason why some major works remain unavailable on DVD. In my last winter column, I wrote about the lamentable absence of all the works of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella, who has always controlled the distribution of his work and so far has refrained from making any of it commercially available on DVD or VHS (although I’ve heard rumours that this situation may change in the near future). He even declined an offer to release one of his masterpieces, Cuadecuc—Vampir (1970), as a bonus on a DVD of the horrendous Dracula film made by Jesus Franco the same year, a film whose shooting was his own starting point. His reason for this was certainly defensible—as I’ve noted elsewhere, it would make more sense to release Franco’s awful Dracula film as a bonus on a DVD of Cuadecuc—Vampir, if only to demonstrate how much silk can be spun out of a particular sow’s ear. But in any case, until or unless Portabella chooses to release Cuadecuc—Vampir and his other films on DVD, claims I and others have made about the greatness of this film and Warsaw Bridge (1990), among others, will have to remain unsubstantiated for many viewers.
Portabella is currently 78 while Amit Dutta—an exceptionally gifted Indian experimental filmmaker whose 22-minute Kramasha (To Be Continued…) I recently wrote about in my Oberhausen film festival report on the FIPRESCI web site—is 29. None of Dutta’s films is commercially available on DVD either, most likely not by his own choice. I could of course keep spinning out this list indefinitely, but let me conclude with what I consider the most conspicuous of all the absences: (a) any version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (when a package bringing together the original 1925 MGM release and the 1999 Rick Schmidlin expanded version would be ideal), and (b) three of Jacques Rivette’s four greatest films: L’amour fou (1968), Out 1 (1971), and Out 1: Spectre (1972)—the fourth being Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1973). Combine these with the cutting-edge figures of Curtis, Dutta, Girardet/Müller, and Portabella, and you start to have some indication of how far we are from accessing much of the best stuff around.
None of this is or should be surprising, of course. But as I’ve devoted almost an entire book (Movie Wars) to arguing, it’s very much in the interests of the mainstream media and its intellectual and academic mouthpieces to create the impression that film culture and the minuscule sliver of it that they spend a fortune releasing and showcasing are one and the same thing. And one way mainstream film reviewers routinely collude with this exercise in mass hypnosis is by buying into the rhetoric that assumes that “the best movies of 2007” or “the best movies currently available” or “the current state of American movies” or even “the current state of foreign movies” are entities that we can both know and describe.
So it’s always interesting to consider what gets canonized or else excluded from consideration just because it is or isn’t available on DVD. For ages I’ve been arguing that the best film adaptation of Franz Kafka is probably Michael Haneke’s 1997 made-for-TV version of The Castle. Given its former lack of availability, that might have sounded like esoteric one-upmanship, but now that Kino International has included it in their seven-disc Haneke box set, you can decide for yourself whether I’m right or not. Thanks to Facets Video we now have Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) and Fruit of Paradise (1969) to canonize but not her equally important and groundbreaking Something Different (1963)—or the best of her later features, such as The Apple Game (1976) and the very recent Pleasant Moments (2006). Similarly, thanks to Kino’s Kimstim Collection, we now have Kiarostami’s Five (which I wrote about in my next to last column, “Textual Issues”) in a fine edition roughly comparable to the French one—but not any of the far more important shorts and early features he made for Kanun at the beginning of his film career, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, all the way up through Homework in 1989. (Even more anomalous is the fact that a volume of Kiarostami’s relatively inconsequential poetry is readily available in English, but not even one of the books by the great Forough Farrokhzad.)
Consider the excellent package recently brought out by Gallimard/Synops that includes Robert Bresson’s first (and, for me, least interesting) feature, Les anges du péché (1943), complete with English subtitles—along with Jean Giroudoux’s 1944 novelization of his own script, Béthanie, a radio interview with Bresson, and a recent documentary about the film by his onetime actress Anne Wiazemsky (all three untranslated). It’s certainly a handsome package, but I’d much rather have DVDs of Bresson’s even earlier, zany 25-minute slapstick musical Les affaires publiques (1934) or his much later features Une femme douce (1969) and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1971), which remain out of reach (apart from lousy pirated editions of the latter two). Similarly, grateful as I am for the bare-bones box set of late Ozu films recently issued on Criterion’s invaluable Eclipse series—Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961)—I’d be happier still if Eclipse would issue an early Ozu box set with such silent masterpieces as Tokyo Chorus (1931), I Was Born, But… (1932), and Passing Fancy (1933), which I much prefer.
If this were a more logically organized film culture, the logical way to begin with any filmmaker in making work available is the beginning—the approach happily taken by Eclipse’s release of the first three features of Samuel Fuller: I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951), all in prints worthy of their special qualities. (I would nominate the third of these as the greatest of Fuller’s war films, including both versions of The Big Red One .) Even more impressively, the Belgian Cinéart label has just brought out digitally remastered versions of the first five features of Chantal Akerman—Hotel Monterey (1972), Je tu il elle (1975), Jeanne Dielman (1975), News from Home (1976), and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)—in a five-disc box set, along with the shorts Saute ma ville (1968) and La chambre (1972), and the most eye-opening extras I’ve encountered in any DVD package released this year: Akerman’s recent extended interviews with cinematographer Babette Mangolte, actress Aurore Clément, and her own mother Nathalia; a shorter 1996 interview with Akerman (taken from Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman); and, best of all, a feature-length 1975 documentary about the making of Jeanne Dielman, including some fascinating if relatively primitive video footage of Akerman working with Delphine Seyrig on the film. All of the above, incidentally, have optional English and Dutch subtitles when they’re needed—making this Belgian box set far superior to the more landlocked French one covering the same period that came out around the same time.
If Lionsgate had chosen to issue a box set devoted to early Jean Renoir—La fille de l’eau (1925), Nana (1926), Charleston (1927), and La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928), excluding Une vie sans joie (1924) because Renoir had a codirector on it and Marquitta (1927) because it no longer exists—their “Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector’s Edition” would have had a certain logic. The only discernible logic to their adding La testament de Docteur Cordelier (1959) and Le Caporal Épinglé (1962), probably his two weakest late features, and La Marseillaise (1938), a more important but uncharacteristic middle-period feature, is that they were all within reach of the packagers. Far be it from me to begrudge anyone for making all these scarce items available, and I’m glad they included a “bonus featurette” with useful commentaries on all these films by Michael Ballhaus, Janet Bergstrom, Alan Renoir, and Martin Scorsese (though a sense of alienated labour in their assembly is impossible to shake off—as evidenced by a title card that identifies La petite marchande d’allumettes as a film from 1959). But the quiet havoc this arbitrary package casually wreaks on both canon formation and critical thinking about Renoir is still unfortunate.
Sometimes major works are missing only in the sense that they exist only in unsubtitled versions. Chinese friends have assured me that Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town, plausibly the greatest of all mainland Chinese features, can easily be found in Chinatowns around the world, but until recently, finding an English subtitled version anywhere has been close to impossible. In fact, the only reason why I know the film is that the critic Stephen Teo once sent me a subtitled copy that had been shown on Australian TV. More recently, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 2002 remake, Springtime in a Small Town—impressive in its own right (and readily available on both American and English DVDs), though clearly not a patch on the original, and lacking some of its modernist qualities by eliminating its heroine’s ambiguous and unorthodox voiceover narration—has created more curiosity in the West about its remarkable source. And now Cinema Epoch’s new Chinese Film Classics Collection has finally brought it out—along with many other famous titles, including double features of Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937) and Zhang Zhengqiu’s Twin Sisters (1934), Sun Yu’s The Big Road and Queen of Sports (both 1934), Shen Xiling’s Crossroads (1937) and Sun Yu’s Daybreak (1933), Cai Chunsheng and Zheng Junli’s The Spring River Flows East (1947), and Weibang Maxu’s Song at Midnight (1937)—a Chinese version of Phantom of the Opera.
This is certainly welcome news, but I must confess that the abysmal print quality of Spring in a Small Town has so far dissuaded me from ordering any of the others. (I’m also skeptical that this piss-poor version is necessarily the best print available, because the one I have on a two-disc VCD without subtitles is clearly superior.) Maybe I’ll eventually grit my teeth and order the Sun Yu titles (I’m especially interested in him as one of the filmmakers who directed Ruan Lingyu, along with Fei Mu himself, and who’s depicted in Stanley Kwan’s monumental 1991 Actress—happily available now in its 154-minute director’s cut).
Meanwhile, New Yorker Video is finally beginning to make the work of my favorite Brazilian and Cinema Novo filmmaker, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, available, following up its Vidas Secas (1963) with an even finer edition of the sublime How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971), with contextualizing assistance from Richard Peña, Darlene J. Sadlier (author of an excellent book about Pereira dos Santos), and even a member of the Krenak tribe whose cannibal ancestors are depicted in the film.
You should also be alerted to the fact that Stray Dogs (2004)—the deeply moving second feature of Marziyeh Meskini (The Day I Became a Woman, 2000) about homeless Afghan street kids, pointedly cross-referenced with The Bicycle Thief (1948)—can be acquired now from Artificial Eye in the UK; and the enterprising Fantoma, which has been singularly responsible for introducing North Americans to the crazy cinema of Masumura Yasuzo on DVD, has just brought out his Black Test Car (1962), an industrial espionage noir thriller that’s one of his better anticapitalist screeds (not a comedy like his 1958 Giants and Toys, but no less ferocious). Even better news is the report that an English company, Yume Pictures, is bringing out DVDs of Masumura’s terrific first feature, Kisses (1957)—the film that turned Oshima Nagisa into a Masumura freak—and the most visually impressive of Masumura’s Tanizaki adaptations, Tattoo (1966), although I haven’t yet acquired copies of either.
Sometimes it’s valuable to access formerly inaccessible works simply in order to be able to downgrade them. I’m afraid that this was part of my experience in
encountering first Masters of Cinema’s scrupulous editions of Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Pitfall (1962) and The Face of Another (1966), then of Criterion’s no-less-conscientious Teshigahara box set consisting of these two features and the intervening and better-known Woman in the Dunes (1964, also a recent BFI release), which I was already familiar with. I suspect it was the digital restorations of these first two films for the DVDs that led to the new 35mm prints, which finally allowed me to catch up with these films earlier this year. And while both features are difficult to dismiss entirely—something I’m more prone to do with Teshigihara’s overrated 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi—I must say that encountering the first three of his collaborations with novelist and playwright Abe Kôbô back to back makes me feel a lot more skeptical about the pretentiousness of these enterprises, which sometime make them resemble cruel and philistine parodies of what avant-garde art is supposed to be like. For all their inventiveness (especially in The Face of Another, where the plot, acting, décor, and/or philosophical elements are periodically allowed to overtake the allegorical trimmings), there’s something about the way they plunder so many of the more obvious tropes and clichés of the avant garde that prompt me to prefer my memories of Teshigihara’s radically different and lesser-known, yet far more original and unpredictable Summer Soldiers (1972), about the difficulties of a US army deserter in Japan during the Vietnam war, which I haven’t seen for 35 years.
Meanwhile, for those like myself who think that Alexander Sokurov’s video elegies tend to be underrated in relation to his features, Facets Video has recently brought out three of them—Elegy of the Land (1977), Moscow Elegy: Andrei Tarkovsky (1988), and Elegy of a Voyage (2001). To my taste, however, the probable best of this series, Oriental Elegy (1996), is still among the missing. And now that, thanks to the belated US release of Army of Shadows (1969) last year, the critical stock of Jean-Pierre Melville is steadily rising, with excellent Criterion editions out now of that film, Les enfants terribles (1952), Bob le flambeur (1955), Le samourai (1967), and Le cercle rouge (1970). There are also fine BFI editions of Les enfants terribles, Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), Le doulos (1963), Army of Shadows (under the alternate title Army in the Shadows), and Le cercle rouge; and Masters of Cinema has just brought out Le silence de la mer (1949), Melville’s much-neglected first feature. (More fitfully available is Melville’s last feature, Un flic, made in 1972—not one of his best, and known in the US as A Cop and Dirty Money.) Still to come are When You Read This Letter (1953), Two Men in Manhattan (1959), Magnet of Doom (1963), and The Second Breath (1966)—unless you decide to jump the gun and order these from Super Happy Fun, which has subtitled versions of most of these and most of the titles available from the UK.