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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The elegantly designed, beautifully produced multizone box set “6 Films by Luc Moullet” that’s available from blaq out (www.blaqout.com) actually consists of seven long films by Moullet—Brigitte et Brigitte (1966), Les contrebandières (The Smugglers, 1967), Une aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl Is a Gun, 1970), Anatomie d’un rapport (Anatomy of a Relationship, 1975), Genèse d’un repas (Origins of a Meal, 1978), Les sièges de l’Alcazar (The Sieges of the Alcazar, 1989), and Parpaillon (Up and Down, 1992)—and one long documentary about Moullet, Gérard Courant’s L’homme des Roubines (The Man of the Badlands, 2001). All of these have optional English subtitles except for A Girl Is a Gun—and in this case, blaq out has rightly included the wonderful English-dubbed version of this loony Surrealist French western with Jean-Pierre Léaud, which essentially reconfigures King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) as a low-budget farce.
The selection of films is irreproachable. My only minor misgivings are that (1) no Moullet shorts are included, and (2) La Comédie du travail (The Comedy of Work, 1988), arguably the only major Moullet feature missing from this batch, is already available from blaq out (albeit without subtitles), with one of Moullet’s better shorts (the 1984 Barres) and an interview with Moullet also included. As for (1), the equally ambitious www.renardfilms.org, whose awesome box set of 14 Steve Dwoskin films I wrote about two columns back, has announced among its future releases a dozen Moullet films, so let’s hope that (a) what they (mainly or exclusively) have in mind are the best Moullet shorts, and (b) that this saintly Swiss company survives long enough to realize such an exemplary project. (I hear that sales of their Dwoskin box set have so far been disappointing, so let me urge you to invest in this gorgeous package immediately—not only for its own sake, which is reason enough, but also as an investment in future releases such as the Moullet.)
Perversity #1: The strange calculations of blaq out that lead to calling their Moullet package “6 Films…” appear to be based on the facts that (1) Les sièges de l’Alcazar is 54 minutes long and L’homme des Roubines is 55 minutes and (2) both of these are included as “supplements” on a fourth disc, while the remaining three discs each contain two features. I say nuts to all this reasoning: here is a glorious package containing eight films, seven of them by Moullet and another one an excellent portrait of the way his mind works (at least as a filmmaker—to get a glimpse into his mind as a critic, check out the hilarious Les Sièges de l’Alcazar, which charts the tortured ‘50s courtship between a young female, pro-Antonioni Positif critic and a young male anti-Antonioni Cahiers du Cinéma critic during a Cottafavi retrospective.) And yes, I know the cost for this package is just under 90 Euros plus postage from either blaq out or French Amazon (unless the 39.99 sale price being offered recently via the latter includes sales outside France). But considering the bounty that you get for this—nothing less than the major features of a major (and shamefully neglected) French filmmaker, the last of the post-Godardian critics-turned-writer-directors who has remained a critic (and a major critic at that), and the funniest of France’s post-Tati comic filmmakers—it’s an indisputable bargain.
#2: I know it sounds perverse to say so, but to my mind all of Jacques Rivette’s greatest films teeter to greater or lesser extents on the edges of madness. (I’m not the only one who has concluded this—which is why some commentators have liked to compare Rivette to Artaud.) His three masterpieces devoted to theatre rehearsals and everyday life during the ‘60s, all of them marathons as well as, for me, key transformative and even life-changing cinematic experiences—L’amour fou (252 minutes, 1968), Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971, 750 minutes), and Out 1: Spectre (1972, 255 minutes)—are the ones that engage with madness most directly as a subject, and they all remain woefully unavailable on DVD. Having recently seen the long Out 1 subtitled in English for the first time at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I can only reiterate how invaluable it would be to have both versions on DVD. Rivette devoted the better part of a year to editing Spectre, striving to make it as different from the long version as possible, and the ways that the same shots often have radically different meanings and functions in the two versions are an important part of what makes this magnum opus so fascinating. But it can’t shake off its legend and become a legitimate part of film history until we can see both versions.
Maybe this is a function of the risks of innovative art—to be ignored by the more traditional critics as if it never existed. That’s presumably how Keith Reader could recently publish a supposedly authoritative piece about Jean-Pierre Léaud’s career in Sight and Sound without mentioning Out 1—even though, thanks to Geoff Andrew, both versions had recently screened at London’s National Film Theatre. (Needless to say, Moullet’s A Girl is a Gun goes unmentioned as well.) This isn’t very far from the David Denby school of canon restriction that tidily limits the span of existing works to whatever Denby has seen. When Denby recently wrote, “The great study of an Iraq vet, in either documentary or fictional form, has yet to be made,” he was essentially reassuring the New Yorker’s readers that they didn’t have to think about anything apart from what he was reviewing—including a film as great as The War Tapes (now available on DVD). Or did he actually mean he’d been tracking and viewing all the undistributed videos about returning veterans in order to arrive at his considered judgment?
But even while L’amour fou and Out 1 continue to get excluded from many canons, what I regard as Rivette’s other major films—Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961, 141 minutes), Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974, 192 minutes), Duelle (1976, 116 minutes), and Noroît (1976, 128 min.)—have all been released on DVD, almost simultaneously. (I should note that Celine and Julie has already been available on NTSC for some time from New Yorker.) The first two are available with subtitles in separate British Film Institute PAL editions, and both get intelligent introductions from Jonathan Romney; the second two are unsubtitled in a single French PAL box set from Les films de ma vie. Duelle and Noroît, rather monstrous and disturbing experiments, engage with madness as an experience rather than as a subject, whereas the first two films cited, properly speaking, probably come closer to neurosis than to insanity, both as subjects and as experiences.
The employments of theatre rehearsals and improvisation in L’amour fou and Out 1, central to what makes them both radical and difficult, is matched by the employment of onscreen improvising musicians with non-improvising actors in both Duelle and Noroît. Having been fortunate enough to have watched portions of the shooting of both films, I can testify to how much takes tended to differ from one another in terms of the actors’ performances whenever the musicians were playing.
The bonus with Paris is Rivette’s historically important but rather klutzy and uninteresting 1957 short Le coup de berger. More perversely (#3), Celine and Julie has Alain Resnais’ fabulous but irrelevant 1956 short about the Bibliothèque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde—is this because Julie is a librarian?—and an even more irrelevant 1901 short by R.W. Paul, The Haunted Curiosity Shop.
Meanwhile, most of what I regard as Rivette’s minor films, all relatively sane, have been or still are available in one form or another: La Religieuse (1967, 135 minutes, unsubtitled), Le Pont du Nord (1981, 129 minutes, subtitled only in Japanese), L’Amour par terre (1982—in its better, 169-minute version, but unsubtitled), Hurlevent (1984, 126 minutes, subtitled), La Bande des quatre (1988, 155 minutes, subtitled), La Belle noiseuse (1991, 240 minutes, subtitled), La Belle noiseuse: Divertimento (1991, 130 minutes, subtitled), Jeanne la Pucelle I: Les Batailles (1994, 160 minutes, subtitled), Jeanne La Pucelle II: Les Prisons (1994, 176 minutes, subtitled), Haut bas fragile (1994, 164, unsubtitled), Secret défense (1998, 170 minutes, subtitled), Va savoir (154 minutes, subtitled), L’Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003, 150 minutes, subtitled).
The experience of watching L’Amour fou and Out 1 on big screens is decidedly different from watching them on video. (I’ll never forget my first viewing of L’amour fou in Paris, when it was perversely provided with a 90-second intermission halfway through.) Nevertheless, being able to watch the 12-hour Out 1 as a serial in eight episodes, as it was originally intended, would probably become possible only if it were available on DVD, so I fail to see why this hasn’t been made a priority.
Perversity #4: I also fail to see why Le films de ma vie puts Noroît ahead of Duelle in its two-disc package. After all, Duelle wasn’t only made first; it also precedes Noroît in Rivette’s never-to-be-completed, four-part Scènes de la vie parallèle as parts two and three, respectively. As far as I can tell, the only conceivable excuse for this turnaround is that Noroît is even less well-known than Duelle and thus deserves to be “featured” (whatever that means). Finally, #5: each disc contains a pretty good “analyse de film” by Hélène Frappat, each of which includes the same laughable French howler—that Noroît is some sort of western. Why a fantasy about female pirates set in no clear period, loosely based on The Revenger’s Tragedy, constitutes some sort of western is anybody’s guess. Because a couple of people are seen riding horses in it? Because it was shot in Brittany, in and around a medieval fortress that was also used in The Vikings (1958), which is in western France? Because Rivette’s loose model was Moonfleet (1955)—which some French critics may also inexplicably regard as a western, perhaps because it’s set in the 19th century?
#6: Land of the Pharaohs (1955). At first I thought the perversity in this case was mine—for ordering the only DVD of this underrated Hawks film, which hails from South Korea—because as soon as I looked at the back of the box, I read, “Full Screen.” But then I put the NTSC, all-region DVD in my DVD player and discovered that “Full Screen” must means “CinemaScope” in Korean; it doesn’t at any rate mean “Full Frame.”And I was pleased to discover that the sound’s at least in two-track stereo. What is perverse, however, is the complete absence of any credits or end title on this copy. Could this be because it’s pirated? Your guess is as good as mine.
#7: Why should one of John Huston’s strangest films, A Walk with Love and Death (1969)—an adaptation of a Hans Koningsberger novel that plays like a hippie version of a medieval folk tale—be available only from Spain, as Paseo por el Amour y la Muerte? And why should the original English version on this DVD be impossible to watch without Spanish subtitles? Meanwhile, it’s interesting to speculate on what blacklisted actress Betsy Blair might have done with the same novel. Earlier In the ‘60s, she spent a long time preparing a version that would have been her directorial debut, then backed out at the last minute, and the property was eventually taken over by Huston. It’s marred by some of its acting (including that of Anjelica Huston, before she became a pro, as the female lead), but it’s one of the most evocative medieval films I know—and generally so hard to see nowadays that it isn’t even mentioned in Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray’s academic anthology The Medieval Hero on Screen, for which I wrote a Foreword a couple of years ago.
#8: While we’re on the subject of films available only in Spain, why should Terence Davies’ convulsive masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), one of the greatest English features ever made, be available only on a DVD called Voces Distantes, and not on one released by the BFI, which produced it? And how long will we have to wait before The Long Day Closes (1992), its sublime follow-up, appears in any version? Is it just a matter of clearing rights? (The latter feature has an ecstatic religious epiphany choreographed to the theme song of Tammy and the Bachelor.)
#9: Two great Russian films that, as far as I know, are available only on less-than-ideal French DVDs with French subtitles: Grigori M. Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s 1929 New Babylon (La nouvelle Babylone) in a so-so print and Boris Barnet’s 1935 By the Bluest of Seas (Au bord de la mer bleue) in a fairly cruddy print, both available from www.bachfilms.com For the record, both discs have several trailers for other Russian classics available from this company, though I could access only one of these on the Barnet DVD.
#10: At long last, Fantoma has honored a promise it made about four years ago—to release Red Angel (1966), a Masumura Yasuzo film that’s fully worthy of his Japanese cult, something that isn’t true of Fantoma’s four previous Masumura releases (the interestingly yet abrasively misanthropic 1958 Giants and Toys, the thoroughly mediocre 1960 Afraid to Die, the uneven 1964 Manji, and the tacky 1969 Blind Beast). This has been a source of embarrassment to me, because based on Fantoma’s projections at the time and its own assurances to me, I confidently stated in my article about Masumura in Movie Mutations, a 2003 collection I co-edited with Adrian Martin, that Red Angel and The Black Test Car (1962), along with the other four titles, were all available from that company. So it’s taken three years for me to become only a half-liar on this subject. Other Masumura masterpieces or near-masterpieces I’m still hoping for on DVD would include Kisses (Masumura’s first feature and a particular favorite of Oshima’s, 1957), A False Student (1960), A Wife Confesses (1961), Yakuza Soldier (1965), Tattoo (1966), Nakano Spy School (1966), and the terminally perverse Sex Check (1968). Most or all of these are available in Japan, and this is far from an exhaustive list. Red Angel—a Fulleresque, grisly, and extremely erotic war film in black-and-white ‘Scope—contains, along with A False Student and A Wife Confesses, one of the key performances of the great actress Wakao Ayako, a Mizoguchi discovery who did her best work for Masumura (himself a onetime assistant director to Mizoguchi).
#11: I finally received my cherished copy of the Portuguese book-and-DVD package devoted to Pedro Costa’s Onde Jaz O Teu Sorriso? (2001), his brilliant documentary about Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet, which has become all the more precious since Huillet’s tragic recent death. It’s an ideal edition of a major film; everything is provided with English subtitles, including some outtakes from Straub-Huillet’s 1999 Sicilia! (the film they’re shown editing in the documentary) and some even more precious outtakes from Costa’s film. (One of these is an outdoor laundry-hanging sequence that I find especially moving.)
My source for this package is a German web site, www.tfmonline.de/tfm/htm/Multimedia.htm, but the whole process was both costly and lengthy (it took months). I’ve since learned that a more direct (if still costly) source is the Portuguese FNAC (www.fnac.pt), and Costa has informed me that the two other editions will become available soon, perhaps even by the time this column appears: the 70-minute version of the film will appear in a French MK2 box set devoted to ten programs in the Cinéma de notre temps series, and the Barcelona-based www.intermedio.net will release a two-disc set with all the bonuses in the Portuguese edition plus an interview with Costa.
#12: The wonderful Criterion edition of The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)—Víctor Erice’s beautiful first feature, and still my favourite—is a wonderful way for people to discover this film; Linda Ehrlich’s commentary is especially helpful. One of the more mysterious and fascinating aspects of the plot, in which a little girl in a Castilian village attends a screening of Frankenstein in 1940, is the way in which the Frankenstein monster becomes a kind of complex and multifaceted stand-in for Generalissimo Franco, who was still very much in power when this film was made.
Pondering this DVD around the same time that I re-saw Pere Portabella’s ravishing Cuadecuc—Vampir (1970) at the first Portabella retrospective held in North America (at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in November), in which Christopher Lee’s Dracula (as directed by hack filmmaker Jesus Franco) becomes a kind of stand-in for the same dictator, I’m saddened that Portabella still hasn’t made any of his five remarkable features available on DVD—a state of affairs that’s as perverse to me as any of the others cited here. Let’s hope that by the time he’s finished making his sixth feature (which is in production as I write this), someone can persuade him to release DVDs of all of them. And the first two, in my opinion, should be Cuadecuc—Vampir and WarsawBridge (1990).
A few postscripts: There’s nothing remotely perverse about Flicker Alley’s superb NTSC edition of F.W. Murnau’s Phantom (1922)—which benefits from a new tinted transfer, a fine orchestral score by Robert Israel, and the impeccable scholarship of Janet Bergstrom, which helps to clarify how many of the film’s more remarkable sequences were executed. Similarly, I can only praise Michael Palm’s exemplary Austrian-American documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004), which very responsibly negotiates the difficult task of squaring Ulmer’s own unreliability as a source of information with the testimonies of his daughter Arianné Ulmer Cipes, historian-archivist Alexander Horwath, and such filmmakers as Joe Dante, John Landis, and Wim Wenders, among others. The clips and the inventive evocations of Ulmer’s shooting methods are also first-rate. Kino has released this with Ulmer’s 1943 Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943) as an extra.
I haven’t yet found time to watch the Facets Video DVDs of Harun Farocki’s An Image (1983), Indoctrination (1987), Videograms of a Revolution (1992), and The Interview (1997); or the letterboxed version of Nicholas Ray’s 1957 The True Story of Jesse James (Le Brigand Bien-Aimé) as presented and introduced by Bertrand Tavernier; or Adriano Aprà’s box set devoted to two versions of Roberto Rossellini’s Il General Della Rovere (1959) with optional English subtitles, a reprint of its literary source in Italian, and a bilingual booklet; or what seems to be an exquisite edition of Andrzej Munck’s great unfinished masterpiece about the Holocaust, Passenger (1963), a favourite of Godard’s, from Second Run Features in the UK, which also includes a recent documentary about the film and an essay by Stuart Klawans. Then there’s Masters of Cinema’s deluxe, single-disc edition of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946), another favourite, also in a PAL edition from the UK. And I’ve only had time so far to watch the opening sequence of Jacques Feyder’s Faces of Children (made in 1923, released in 1925)—a magisterial depiction of a funeral in a spectacular Swiss village—in Home Vision Entertainment’s three-disc Rediscover Jacques Feyder, French Film Master, which also includes Feyder’s slightly earlier L’Atalantide and Crainquebille in comparable tinted and scored restorations. But what I saw is enough to make comprehensible film historian Jean Mitry’s startling remark: “If I could select only one film from the entire French production of the 1920s, surely it is Faces of Children that I would save.”