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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Before getting around to my 32 picks, pans, and/or simple finds for this quarter, here’s some food for thought that I recently came across in an Austrian Filmmuseum publication:
“I recently met Jonathan Rosenbaum in Zagreb…For Jonathan, the age of the DVD and the download also means a huge expansion of film-historical and film-philosophical thought and criticism—it solves a lot of problems for him. I can, of course, also see it like that from a certain angle. But what I tried to discuss with him is that it makes our work and our job harder at the same time. Because it contributes to the chimera of film’s and film history’s ‘all-over availability’. And it doesn’t put a lot of focus on the issue of how we engage with films. From this perspective, the material history of works and the different stages they went through is often a side-thought—as long as we can ‘access’ the film as ‘content’ in whatever way.” —Alexander Horwath, Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008)
Beauty in Trouble. Here’s my Chicago Reader capsule: “A struggling Prague family loses everything in a flood, which pushes the husband into crime and imprisonment and his beautiful wife (Ana Geislerova) into the arms of the kind and wealthy Tuscany-based winegrower who sent him away. Writer Petr Jarchovsky and director Jan Hrebejk collaborated on the formidable Up and Down (2004), and this 2006 feature, which takes its title from a Robert Graves poem, is equally impressive for its mastery, intelligence, and ambition in juggling intricate plot strands and memorable characters. It also treats class difference and right-wing intolerance in the Czech Republic as ferociously as Mike Leigh has done in depicting Thatcherite England.” Available from www.menemshafilms.com.
Bhowani Junction (Warners Archive). Possibly the most neglected of George
Cukor’s masterpieces, this 1956 CinemaScope drama with Ava Gardner and Stewart
Granger is a marvel in terms of both widescreen framing and ideological sophistication,
both of which work in tandem with Cukor’s most enduring and memorable theme: a woman’s discovery and appreciation of her own image. For its apotheosis of Ava Gardner alone, this film is worthy to stand alongside Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1949).
Blood (O Sangue). A definitive edition from Second Run in the UK of an undervalued film, Pedro Costa’s first feature (1989), in spellbinding black and white, with essays by Adrian Martin and Frédéric Bonnaud and a filmed appreciation by the late, great João Bénard da Costa.
Charles Mingus: Epitaph (Eagle Rock Entertainment). What a wonderful surprise it is to discover that Mingus’ posthumous magnum opus, a two-hour plus composition featuring 19 movements for 31 musicians as assembled, conducted, and premiered by Gunther Schuller on June 3, 1989, is now available on DVD, not just on CD. A truly awesome event, full of surprises, with many inspired solos. If Mingus is jazz’s equivalent to Jean-Luc Godard, encapsulating and critiquing the history of his art in his own special terms, Epitaph, posthumous or not, very nearly represents his own equivalent to Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1997).
Cimarron. The Anthony Mann ‘Scope western (1960) can be acquired on Warner Home Video for only $5.79 on Amazon. I discovered this pertinent information, alas, only after purchasing it as La ruée vers l’ouest for about eight euros in Paris.
Ciné-Romand (Alibi). Françoise Romand recycles and reconsiders portions of her own work as a sort of live-in installation (2007). Available from www.lowave.com.
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set (Masters of Cinema, UK). Four discs, three booklets, commentaries on all three films (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933; The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960) by David Kalat, and many other extras.
The Dead. I haven’t even sampled this Lionsgate release of John Huston’s final film (1987), but the withering review by Appellate Judge Tom Becker on DVD Verdict (www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/thedead.php)—revealing among other things, that an entire ten-minute stretch of the film has somehow been excised—was sufficiently disturbing to make me want to pass it up and pass along the warning. But there’s a happy ending to this tale—an editor’s note added on November 5: “Thanks to Tom’s diligent review, the studio has instituted a product recall and is offering replacement copies to consumers.”
Directed by John Ford. Peter Bogdanovich’s 2006 reworking and slight expansion (by 11 minutes) of his 1971 documentary, recently released on Warner Video. I regret the absence of any clips from Pilgrimage (1933), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and 7 Women (1966), and am not sure how I feel about the propriety of including an intimate audiotaped conversation between Ford and Katherine Hepburn; even if neither of them is alive, the glib and sentimental voyeurism automatically imparted to everyone watching and listening to the documentary seems more than a little indecent. Maybe you’re better off getting Warner’s great new edition of Wagon Master (1950).
Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical. Three essential early features—Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), Innocence Unprotected (1968)—are available on three discs from Eclipse.
The Exiles. Another definitive edition, this time from Milestone—and one that actually lives up to its own advance billing (as well as mine, in Cinema Scope 36). Kent Mackenzie’s rediscovered 1961 masterpiece about Native Americans in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill is another work that dramatizes what a glorious luxury and enduring gift black-and-white cinematography can be.
Fat City. I prefer Wise Blood to this film and The Dead (see above) as late, prime Huston, but this grim 1972 boxing tale is still something to see if you haven’t yet. Available in Holland and Belgium as Les Coups Durs (see www.sphe.be or www.sphe.nl for more details).
From the East (D’Est). My second favourite Chantal Akerman film (1993), after Jeanne Dielman (1975), finally available from Icarus Films Home Video. Perhaps the best film I’ve seen about the collapse of Communism, expressed through a singularly sorrowful and haunting sense of place.
Gaumont—Le Cinema Premier 1897-1913, Volume 1. The three-disc Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 released by Kino whetted my appetite for more, and the only reasonable way I could satisfy this hunger was to order the original seven-disc set, from French Amazon, for about $90. That’s a lot, but it still isn’t a bad price considering everything that’s included: a beautifully illustrated 100-page booklet, two discs apiece devoted to Alice Guy and Louis Feuillade, and three more devoted to Léonce Perret, with many extras. Part of what’s so fascinating here, along with the gorgeous cinematography, is the detailed glimpses of what the world and some of its inhabitants, furnishings, and daily activities looked like during that 16-year stretch. (Not that everything here is restricted to this era; the 50 minute, mainly silent documentary about Perret’s film career concludes with a few samples of his talkies at the tail end of it, including even a couple of musical numbers.)
The people at Gaumont seem to have a strange propensity as well as a special flair for hiding some of their treasures in their DVDs like Easter eggs. This talent enhanced their wonderful Fantômas (1913) box set, which I praised in this column three years ago, but it can be a bit of an encumbrance here—or at least it was for me, until I finally figured out how to access the second and third menus of Alice Guy’s 1906 films, including her positively bizarre Les Résultats du féminisme, some of which might be described as a demented prequel to Hal Roach’s Turnabout (1940).
The Golden Age of Television (Criterion). Orson Welles’ stab at innovative television in his first TV pilot, The Fountain of Youth (1958), suggests an alternative history for TV drama that never developed. But if one hypothesizes what Welles might have done if let loose in live TV drama of the ‘50s as established on Studio One, Playhouse 90, and comparable shows, John Frankenheimer’s astonishing production of The Comedian (1957), scripted by Rod Serling and starring Mickey Rooney, provides a number of fascinating clues. Rooney gives the performance of his life here as the nastiest TV star imaginable, although Mel Tormé, Edmond O’Brien, and Kim Hunter all manage to keep pace with him. As Frankenheimer explains in his own introduction, three weeks of rehearsals followed by a kind of partially improvised mise en scène over several adjacent sets, assisted rather than limited by the intrusions of commercial breaks (which gave the actors and cameras time to relocate), combined with a masterful use of TV studio, monitors, and crews playing themselves—which Frankenheimer would later echo memorably in an early sequence of The Manchurian Candidate (1962)—made it all possible. The same sort of performative suspense and danger found in jazz and bullfighting as the cameras and actors dance in relation to one another makes this spectacular show reason enough to purchase this eight-film, three-disc box set.
For me, the most regrettable absence here is another Frankenheimer gem that aired only a month after The Comedian, a reading of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon with another remarkable cast (Jack Palance, Lee Remick, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, Viveca Lindfors) that makes Elia Kazan’s 1976 theatrical version shrink into irrelevance. What we get instead in the remaining seven selections are mainly shows that were later remade as features, often by the same directors: a 1953 Marty with Rod Steiger and Betsy Palmer instead of Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair (for me, less good than director Delbert Mann’s 1955 remake, but maybe that’s because the latter is so firmly imprinted on my consciousness); a 1955 Patterns (Fielder Cook, remade 1956); a 1956 Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, remade 1962); and a 1958 Days of Wine and Roses (another showcase for Frankenheimer, and thus for me already superior to the 1962 Blake Edwards version). It’s obvious that the selections here were based on shows that were already revived on TV, complete with some of the extras featured here. Some might complain about the limited sound-and-image quality of the kinoscopes, but I’d like to imagine that this is only the beginning of an invaluable series of Criterion DVDs that could come up with countless other (and in some cases better) treasures. Even though the virtues and hazards of live broadcasts get endlessly rehashed in the intros, the different aesthetic arising from these conditions in a decade’s worth of material deserves a lot more than the cursory treatment offered here.
I Love Melvin (Warners Archive). Along with 1954’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba, this fabulously airy and chipper Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds musical (1953) more than justifies the short-lived Don Weis cult in France that it helped to spawn. Just for starters, O’Connor’s dance with roller skates in a pavillion is every bit as impressive as anything he does in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Karl May. One of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s best films (1974), as I’ve belatedly discovered: a three-hour biography of the famed German novelist, available from Facets Video alongside Syberberg’s 135-minute Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972).
Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer), Schwitzkasten (Clinch), Ich Schaff’s Einfach Nimmer (I Just Can’t Go On). Canadian fashion photographer John Cook (1935-2001)—the subject of a 2006 bilingual monograph edited by Olaf Möller and Michael Omasta (John Cook, Viennese by Choice), distributed by Wallflower Press—directed three low-budget, independent Austrian features in the ‘70s, and this two-disc, region-free set from Edition Filmmuseum offers restored versions of all three with optional English subtitles and a 16-page bilingual booklet. Slow Summer (1974-76), shot in Super 8mm and black and white, co-stars Cook himself, and appears to be a fascinating look at Viennese bohemian life in that period; the 50-minute I Just Can’t Go On (1972-73) and Clinch (1978) are both in colour and 16mm.
Monsoon Wedding. Mira Nair’s 2001 breakthrough, plus seven short films made between 1983 and 2008. A two-disc set from Criterion, also available in a one-disc Blu-Ray edition.
Notes on Marie Menken (Icarus Films Home Video). Not as interesting as Martina Kudlácek’s earlier In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001), but this 2006 documentary on the NY-based avant gardist is still eminently worth checking out. Kudlácek is currently working on a documentary about Peter Kubelka, so stay tuned.
Phantom/Die Finanzen des Großherzogs: 2 Films by F.W. Murnau (Masters of Cinema, UK). Murnau’s melodrama of fatal passion (1922) and uncharacteristic stab at wild comedy (in English: The Grand Duke’s Finances, 1924), accompanied by a 40-page booklet with an excellent essay by Janet Bergstrom and commentary on Die Finanzen by David Kalat.
Pursued. I picked up Raoul Walsh’s noirish 1947 western at Vienna’s irreplaceable Satyr, under the title Verfolgt (Suddeutsche Zeitung/Cinemathek), but you can also find it for $13.49 on Amazon.
The Saga of Anatahan. Films Sans Frontières has released this unauthorized edition (as Fièvre sur Anatahan) of the unrestored version of Sternberg’s underrated
last feature (1953) and final masterpiece, which I defended at some length in my 1995 collection Placing Movies. Since Sternberg’s widow doesn’t seem interested in releasing any other version in the foreseeable future, I’m afraid this will have to do, at least for the time being. (Sorry, Alex.)
The Saragossa Manuscript. Luis Buñuel may be credited with the odd and ungrammatical effusion on the disc jacket (“I love The Saragossa Manuscript exceptional”), but the bottom line is that Wojciech Has’ 1965 classic, all 187 minutes of it, is now available again (following a 2001 edition from Image Entertainment) from Facets Video. And Andrew Tracy has just informed me that Has’ The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973) is available in a decent edition from Mr. Bongo for 8.98 pounds at Amazon UK.
Say Anything… “At last—a teenage love story with real characters instead of clichés, poses, and attitudes,” I wrote in 1989, and was very nearly prepared to defend Cameron Crowe’s first feature against all comers, including a couple of teenagers who told me it had nothing to do with their own experiences. But now that Crowe has made half a dozen features more, I’m far less inclined to see him as an Americanized version of François Truffaut. Maybe I’ll find that I still like Say Anything… in spite of everything once I resee it, but I must say that the glibness of the numerous extras attached to this 20th anniversary Blu-Ray release aren’t any sort of incentive for doing so. On the contrary, they make it seem like getting back to this movie’s virtues requires fighting your way through a dense thicket of hyperbole about how much like Real Life it all is, couched in a greasy form of self-ingratiation that couldn’t be phonier.
Senso. If you can cope with either dubbed French dialogue or the original Italian dialogue with French subtitles, this restored version of Luchino Visconti’s 1954 Technicolor masterpiece is now available from Studio Canal in France, tied in with a 2009 rerelease of the film in a series called Cannes Classics.
Shirin (BFI Video). Theoretically and otherwise, Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 feature about woman film spectators responding to an imaginary film that we can only
hear has plenty of interest in its own right, but for me the principal point of interest in this
DVD is the main bonus, Hamideh Razavi’s 27-minute Taste of Shirin. If the “making of” documentary didn’t exist, Kiarostami’s film career alone would provide an adequate justification for its invention, and the fascination here derives mainly from the opportunity to observe his detailed direction of actors—first (and chiefly) the woman spectators, filmed in his own home; then the actors performing the imaginary film’s dialogue in a sound studio; and finally the singers performing the score of the imaginary
The Story of Three Loves (Warners Archive). I hope I can be forgiven for quoting once more one of my own capsules from the Chicago Reader: “Released in 1953, this glitzy, entertaining MGM art movie is fascinating partly because it testifies to the influence of patriarchal French existentialism on American pop culture. Gottfried Reinhardt (son of Berlin stage director Max Reinhardt) directed the first of its three episodes, about a ballet dancer with a heart condition (Moira Shearer) who’s driven to the breaking point by an enthusiastic choreographer (James Mason), and the third, a suspenseful tale about Parisian trapeze artists (Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli) who learn to commit to one another in a post-Holocaust context by taking inordinate risks. But the best episode is Vincente Minnelli’s fantasy about a disgruntled boy in Venice (Ricky Nelson) who, with the help of an American witch (Ethel Barrymore), becomes a grown man (Farley Granger) long enough to date his French nanny (Leslie Caron).” As far as I’m concerned, this is the most beautiful and satisfying of all Hollywood anthology films in the ‘50s, and Minnelli’s episode Mademoiselle is plainly one of his key masterpieces.
La tête contre les murs (Masters of Cinema). I haven’t yet watched Georges Franju’s first feature (1959), set in a mental asylum, but the fact that Charles Aznavour is in it should be incentive enough for anyone. Astonishingly, the Internet Movie Database fails to include him anywhere in this film’s cast list, so if you’re looking for yet another proof of this website’s inadequacy as a reference tool, despite the fact that virtually everyone uses it, look no further. (And for further reflection on this topic—specifically, IMDb as “The Monster We All Have Sex With”—see Adrian Martin’s July-August 2009 column, “World Wide Angle,” in De Filmkrant.)
The Visitors. One of my least favourite Elia Kazan films (1972), available as Les visiteurs from Wild Side Video. The macho-centric trappings often seem over the top, and the recurring Kazan hangup about squealing on your buddies, even if the script happens to be by Kazan’s son Chris, isn’t made much more bearable by being contextualized here with Vietnam war atrocities. But shooting this feature in Super 16mm around his home and his son’s home in Connecticut was still a brave move, however much it was likely inspired by Kazan’s wife Barbara Loden having made Wanda a couple of years earlier, and this hardly deserved the wholesale neglect it received in the US (I caught what was probably the world premiere, at Cannes). It’s also interesting to see James Woods’ first film appearance. With a 53-minute documentary about the film’s shooting by Michel Ciment and Annie Tresgot.
Wadja, Man of Cinema (Facets Video). A two-pack consisting of Lotna (1959) and Innocent Sorcerers (1960), both arguably from the director’s best period, coming immediately after Ashes and Diamonds (1958). I haven’t seen the first and barely remember the second, but the latter includes both Zbigniew Cybulski and Jerzy Skolimowski in its cast. A fine, lyrical double review of that film and Rivette’s Paris nous appartient in Sight and Sound was what goaded me into attending what must have been the first US screening of the latter feature, at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, when I was a freshman at NYU—a truly formative experience.
Wings of Desire (Criterion). Not quite as formative, and the gooey conclusion almost spoils everything, but most of this 1987 arthouse perennial is Wim Wenders at his near-peak—a notch below Alice in the Cities (1974) and The State of Things (1982), but perhaps the best of his collaborations with Peter Handke, and quite possibly the best evocation of Rilke to be found in movies. Peter Falk is one of the special treats to be found here, along with Henri Alekan’s cinematography, in both black and white and colour.