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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
A certain confession-cum-apology regarding this column is in order. Because I have a legitimate reason for deducting the costs of the DVDs I buy from my taxes, and a no less legitimate way of requesting and receiving review copies from many DVD labels, I haven’t always been as attentive as I could be about consumer prices, especially when it comes to ordering certain things from abroad. So, by way of partial compensation, this will be a column focusing on prices.
The most money I’ve ever paid for any DVD is the 32,000 yen (over $250 US by current exchange rates) I forked out for the exquisite eight-disc Japanese box set of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, packaged like CDs. It’s truly regrettable that there’s no equivalent to the CD-ROM feature of this set in the US or Europe whereby one can access identifications of all the film clips and artworks used by hitting the remote control. But the real reason why I was willing to pay so much money for this set wasn’t the elaborate interactive feature in Japanese (including also Japanese subtitles) that I can’t use. It was the pleasure afforded by a beautiful transfer of sound and image, the precise opposite of the execrable mono transfer of the French VHS box set issued by Gaumont several years ago, which was as inadequate in term of image as it was in terms of sound—the latter outrage all the more apparent to anyone bothering to listen to the excellent stereo CDs of the soundtrack issued by ECM. Now that Gaumont has finally, after many delays, issued a box set of four DVDs with both good sound and image and English subtitles (and unsubtitled extras consisting of two Cannes press conferences with Godard in 1988 and 1997, 13 minutes and 26 minutes respectively, the first of which begins with about three minutes in English, and Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s 1995 2 X 50 Ans de Cinéma Français), you can purchase it for a reasonable price. (According to twitchfilm.net, it’s only 33 Euros plus postage if you order from the US, but when I did that, using the ultra-fast and efficient Chronopost, it cost me about $80.)
On his DVD Beaver web site, Gary W. Tooze has already broached the issue of the “incomplete” English subtitles and quoted my response defending their incompleteness. Without wishing to duplicate my points here, I’d like to stress that Histoire(s) is not simply a French work but one in at least six other languages if one adds up all the intertitles and spoken portions—English, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, and Spanish—and some of these are occasionally heard and/or seen simultaneously. So it’s a misapprehension to believe that French people have full access to what Godard’s saying; and if one factors in how Godard uses language, hypothesizing an all-English “translation” of the eight parts would be almost tantamount to requesting an “English” version of Finnegans Wake apart from the one already published.
Let’s move now to a genuine bargain cottage-industry source. Efilmic, based in Taiwan, offers good region-free NTSC copies of older Hollywood movies deprived of their studio logos but otherwise apparently intact, as well as a few arthouse staples subtitled in English by such directors as Fellini and Kurosawa. The prices range from $3.49 to $18.99 or so, most of them much closer to the lower end of that scale, with an extra $5 per DVD for shipping (or free shipping for orders of $50 or over). Due to specials and sales prices, the costs of individual items tend to shift from week to week. I’ve already acquired inexpensive copies from this source of Adam’s Rib (1949), Belle of the Nineties (1934), The Egyptian (1954), Fort Apache (1948), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), I Confess (1953), The Jazz Singer (1927), Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1952), Our Man in Havana (1959), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Hawks’ A Song is Born (1948), and Trapeze (1956).
Two glitches: (1) You can’t always count on CinemaScope films being letterboxed. (The Egyptian is, but both of the Carol Reed titles, Our Man in Havana and Trapeze, are pan-and-scanned, and I wouldn’t have ordered either of these if I’d known that.) (2) The “label inserts,” though reasonably attractive and obviously put together from English-language sources, are often seemingly put together by people who don’t know English very well, sometimes with comical results. Two credits assigned to Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap, for instance, are “Directed by Arthur Hornblow” and “Produced by Leo Makarey” (sic). And the indexes of actors and directors on their web site lists everyone alphabetically by first names, just like the Japanese.
I assume that one reason why operations of this kind haven’t yet been busted is that the studios involved often tend to be ill-informed about their own holdings. So instead of implying, as the stupid ads stuck at the beginning of some of their DVDs do, that someone making, say, The Great Garrick (1937), 7 Women (1966), and A Time for Dying (1969) available for affordable prices is the same thing as stealing a neighbor’s car or handbag, the studios might more legitimately pay fees to these DVD outlets for telling them something about the value of their own holdings—something they’re far too clueless to figure out for themselves.
Another way of putting this is that the interests of studios tend to be exclusively institutional whereby institutions do business with other institutions, individual cinephiles be damned (or at least ignored). The same policy sometimes applies to other institutions, so that, according to Brigid Reagan, distribution manager of the Video Data Bank, The World of George Kuchar, five discs and a 60-page booklet, “is currently only available for institutional purchase at the price of $1200. However, we do have plans to release it for individual/home use in the future (price TBD).”
Go to www.yesasia.com and place Sanxia Haoren in the search box; this should yield links to two separate DVD editions of Jia Zhangke’s breathtaking Still Life (2006) subtitled in English—a one-disc edition for only $5.99, and a two-disc edition that also contains Jia Zhangke’s Dong (an interesting if not breathtaking documentary about Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, made at the same time, partly at the same location and partly in Thailand) without English subtitles for $10.99. The postage you have to pay on top of this is $2.99 for standard service (three-seven business days), $5.99 for priority (two-five business days), or $8.99 for two-three business days. But be forewarned that the menus of both DVD editions are in Chinese, so if, like most of us, you can’t read Chinese characters, you have to proceed by trial and error before you can arrive at the English subtitles for Still Life.
If you order The Doris Day Collection, Volume 1, from “tsolomo” (under Amazon’s “more buying choices”), you can get eight movies on eight separate discs for $4 each, including postage. But if you order Volume 2, as I recently did from Amazon—partly because of many months I once spent mulling over On Moonlight Bay (1951), in conjunction with my first book, Moving Places—you get six separate discs for roughly the same price, which makes it about $7 each. Is this simply because Volume 2 is a brand-new release? I suspect so, but finding any sort of logic about why something is priced the way it is tends to be a mug’s game. (Many other examples will follow.)
Sometimes you have to pay extra because you’re acquiring goods that can’t be found otherwise. Sidney P. Bloomberg, whose web page can be accessed at blsinc.com/partners/bloomberg.htm, offers to track down whatever you’re looking for, or at least try to, as long as it was made no later than 1949 and isn’t a made-for-TV film, and will send it to you on DVD-R, PAL, or SECAM, for $25. Among the films I’ve acquired in this fashion are Paul Fejos’s exquisite Lonesome (1928), Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast’s Laughter (1930), and Ernst Lubitsch’s underrated The Man I Killed (1932), the only noncomic talkie of his that comes to mind. (For me, Laughter is conceivably the best of all flapper films, and perhaps the only one as sophisticated as F. Scott Fitzgerald at his most bittersweet.)
It’s too bad that some of the very best and cheapest sources for hard-to-find DVDs can’t be listed here because their operators feel they have to keep below the radar in order to survive and have asked me not to write about them. If it’s any consolation, I’ve discovered these sources strictly on my own by cruising the Internet, not through any special connections, so you can at least try to do the same thing. (I refuse to respond to queries about this, so don’t even try.) One of these dealers even goes so far as to claim he’s offering a free service and charges only for the copying and handling costs—reminding me of a particular way hard liquor was sold during Prohibition, according to my father, in which a jug of fruit juice came with a printed warning to the effect of, “Warning! If this bottle is left open, it will acquire alcoholic content and become illegal.”
From my own experience, it would appear that the two countries where DVDs tend to be most overpriced are Japan and France. So it seems perversely fitting that among the most egregiously overpriced recent items would be two double-disc French sets devoted to Masumura Yasuzo, priced respectively at 54.90 Euros (Volume 1) and 49.90 Euros (Volume 2). But just to show you how arbitrary and even ridiculous pricing can be sometimes, the same two sets are also available from the same source (French Amazon), and even on the very same web page, for 29.95 Euros apiece. So you can spend an extra 20-25 Euros for each set if you want to, but it isn’t obligatory.
Even so, the cheaper price, about $40, is still a bit much for good French-subtitled versions of films I’d describe as less than top-of-the-line Masumura, even with a 24-page booklet thrown in. In fact, this matches the frustration I’ve been feeling about most of Fantoma’s Masumura releases to date. Apart from the belatedly released Red Angel (1966), they’ve all been below the level of Masumura’s best work—and in some cases (e.g. 1960’s Afraid to Die, 1969’s Blind Beast) very far below. I’m still hoping for English subtitled releases of Masumura’s A Wife Confesses (1961), A False Student (1960), Kiss (1957), Yakuza Soldier (1965), Sex Check (1968), Nakano Spy School (1966), and Love for an Idiot (1967), to cite other favorites in roughly descending order of preference. (For more details, see “Two Auteurs” in the 2003 collection Movie Mutations.) But in the meantime, it’s worth noting that each of these French sets matches a title already available from Fantoma with a welcome addition to the available canon. Volume One pairs the formerly unavailable Seisaku’s Wife (1965) with the 1964 Manji (under its French title, Passion); and Volume Two, which I bought, pairs the formerly unavailable 1966 Tattoo (in French, Tatouage) with Blind Beast/La Bête Aveugle—which I suppose is a logical pairing insofar as both films are concerned with artistic violence waged on a woman’s body. Tattoo, Masumura’s only period adaptation of Tanizaki Junichiro, was shot by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, and is the only Masumura film in colour and ‘Scope that I’d describe as plastically beautiful, especially for its striking diptych compositions. (As a rule, Masumura opposed beautiful shots, presumably because they interfered with his ideological shock tactics, and in fact he disliked Miyagawa’s work here.) Both Seisaku’s Wife and Tattoo, incidentally, star Wakao Ayako, the remarkable actress who often stands at the center of Masumura’s best work (A Wife Confesses, A False Student, and Manji would all be unthinkable without her).
Another discrepancy between prices can be detected on American Amazon, where you can spend either $17.99 or $12.54 for brand-new copies of the excellent Kino Video re-release of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), with separate audio commentaries by Gloria Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis and a filmed interview with the late Curtis Harrington. Or, if you’d prefer to buy the original 1999 release of the same movie with exactly the same extras, “watched once to insure quality” in a “non-smoking household” for only $329.95, hey, it’s a free country—you can get that instead (or maybe even in addition to) either or both of the others. Just as irrationally, you can spend either $16.99 or $26.99 each for new copies of the lovely Kino Video restorations of silent, German Lubitsch films—Sumurun and Anna Boleyn (both 1920 and tinted, on separate discs), The Oyster Princess (1919) and I Don’t Want To Be a Man (1920) on a single disc, and/or The Wildcat (1921). The two I’ve seen so far, The Oyster Princess and The Wildcat, are both delightful comedies, and the latter is especially striking as a kind of visual experiment. (The screen image keeps shifting shape and size in practically every shot, with the aid of masking.) Finally, you can acquire Criterion’s stupendous Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist—a four-disc extravaganza that also includes a 75-page book (though not, alas, Whale’s 1936 Show Boat, which I had to track down through one of my unlisted sources)—in a new copy for either $90 or $65, depending on whether or not you decide to go with “More Buying Choices.”
You can acquire my favorite feature-length experimental video by Chris Petit, Unrequited Love: On Stalking and Being Stalked (2006)—also subtitled A Story of Obsessive Passion, and based on a novel by Gregory Dart—for just under 17 quid plus postage from www.moviemail-online.co.uk/ directors/4127/Chris_Petit/. The last time I looked, that’s slightly over $34, which isn’t cheap. But this is a video you can spend a lot of time with, unlike one that might cost half as much but will wind up as disposable as a Kleenex tissue. (You can also buy Petit’s first feature, the 1979 Radio On, for $20 from www.plexifilm.com.)
For $17 you can acquire Edward Yang’s greatest film, A Brighter Summer Day (1991) with English subtitles from www.asiafilm.com. On the back of my copy, one can read, “This masterpiece film is not currently being distributed in any video format worldwide, so we are making this available as a service to film lovers. If you know how we can contact Edward Yang to try to distribute BSD on DVD in North America, please contact us at (940) 497-FILM. Thank you and enjoy!” The only problem with all this is that this one-disc edition is perversely subdivided into only two chapters while the $15, two-disc version available from www.superhappyfun.com, also subtitled, has more normal chapter divisions. (The four-disc English-subtitled VCD version, which has no chapter breaks at all, no longer appears to be available.) Also, the asiafilm version is 228 minutes long, whereas IMDb rightly or wrongly lists the film’s original running time as 237 minutes. I can’t vouch for the running time of the two-disc version, except to point out that it starts and ends in the same way as the asiafilm version. (The inferior three-hour version, which Yang was originally talked into editing in order to get the film released in any form, appears to have vanished, like the two-hour version of Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou ; I say good riddance)
If you can read French subtitles and agree with me that The Lady Without Camelias (1953), a sad movie about moviemaking and stardom, is the best of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early features, you might want to plunk down about $60 to purchase the three-disc Antonioni coffret being offered on French Amazon. The same package includes Antonioni’s first feature, Story of a Love Affair (1950), already available in a good edition in North America, and two of his early shorts from the late ‘40s, Nettezza urbana (N.U.) and Sette canne, un vestito, which aren’t available elsewhere. And apart from some French documentaries, there’s also a restoration of Red Desert (1964), as well as a few silent rushes from the latter. The latter feature certainly looks good, but frankly, the DVD-R of it with English subtitles available from www.superhappyfun.com for only $13 looks to my eyes even better.
Two columns back, I wrote about finding a couple of otherwise scarce Russian classics, Grigori M. Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s 1929 New Babylon and Boris Barnet’s 1935 By the Bluest of Seas, from www.bachfilms.com, under their French titles, La nouvelle Babylone and Au bord de la mer bleue. On a more recent trip to France, whenever I happened upon remaindered DVD outlets in Toulouse and Paris, I invariably found other titles from this vast label, which usually sell for 5 or 6 Euros. There are 48 films in Bachfilm’s Les Chefs-d’oeuvres du Cinéma Russe collection alone, including a few relatively recent Russian titles. As I pointed out earlier, print quality is extremely variable, and I’m sure this applies to the label’s many non-Russian titles as well. (The fact that they also boast a few Bela Lugosi films as well as D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln suggests that they largely traffic in public domain items.) One should also bear in mind that the only subtitles on these films are in French.
Here is a guide to the French titles of some of the earlier Russian films, along with some supplementary information that might be useful if you’re ordering any of them online from such outlets as French Amazon:
Grigori Alexandrov’s Jolly Fellows/Jazz Comedy/ Moscow Laughs/The Happy Guys/The World is Laughing (1934): Joyeux garçons. (Note: Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1925) is included on the same disc, as a bonus.) I had my first encounter with Alexandrov when I saw this loony comedy, his first talkie, at a retrospective held at the Venice Film Festival last year; I can heartily recommend it to anyone who’d like to track all the ramifications of a Russian equivalent to a Spike Jones concert.
Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928): La maison de la rue Troubiana.
Barnet’s A Good Lad/Men of Novgorod (1943): Un brave garçon. (Note: Dziga Vertov’s 1934 Three Songs of Lenin is included on the same disc, as a bonus.)
Barnet’s Bountiful Summer, Generous Summer (1950): Un eté généreux.
Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928) has the same title in French, but bear in mind that the French spelling of the filmmaker’s name is Alexandre Dovjenko.
Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930): La terre.
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Strike (1925): La grève. (Note: Eisenstein’s 1923 Glumov’s Diary is included as a bonus.)
Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law/Dura Lex (1926): Selon la loi.
Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927, coscripted by Viktor Shklovsky): Trois dans un sous-sol.
The last time I checked, 31 Euros came to about $45. That’s a lot to spend for the PAL DVDs being issued by www.re-voir.com, which include work by Philippe Garrel (La revélateur , Le lit de la vierge ) and Jackie Raynal (Deux fois, 1969). (They also issue a good many videos for 27 Euros each by such people as Oskar Fischinger, Isidore Isou, Hans Richter, Peter Rose, Michael Snow, Lionel Soukaz, Peter Tscherkassky, and Stan Vanderbeek.) But what you get for your money is still admirable: not just beautiful transfers and attractive booklets in French and English (32 pages about La revélateur and the Zanzibar Group by Sally Shafto and Emeric de Lastens; 36 pages about Le lit de la vierge—I don’t know by whom, because I don’t have this disc; and 40 pages about Deux fois and the Zanzibar Group by Claire Renier), but also subtitles in many languages, including English where needed (none are needed on La revélateur, a silent film); and a half-hour “making of” documentary about Le lit de la vierge by Frédéric Pardo and Raynal’s 24-minute Autour de Jacques Baratier as bonuses.
A much better bargain in experimental film, though, would be the first volume of The Films of Kenneth Anger, issued recently by Fantoma for about half the cost of any of the Re-voir discs, or still less if you go to Amazon’s “more shopping choices.” What you get for this are not just good transfers of newly restored versions of Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit’s Moon (1950), Eaux d’artifice (1953), and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), but audio commentaries by Anger on all of these, Rabbit’s Moon outtakes, and a lush 50-page booklet.
The retail price of Leo C. Popkin and Russell Rouse’s The Well (1951) from Image Entertainment is $24.99, and that’s way too much to have to spend for such a lousy transfer of a damaged print with no extras. So even if you buy it with Amazon’s two-dollar markdown or spend just $15 or $16 for a copy under Amazon’s “more buying choices,” you still might wind up feeling a bit ripped off. Even so, this is a neglected and interesting film about a race riot developing in a small town via gossip, after a little black girl falls into a well and no one knows at first what happened to her. Its lack of a reputation can be ascribed largely to the relative obscurity of most of the names connected to it, apart from Ernest Laszlo (cinematographer) and Dimitri Tiomkin (original music)—though it’s worth adding that some of these names (e.g., Russell Rouse, actor Henry Morgan) deserve to be better known.
Even more overpriced is Facets Video charging an outrageous $29.95 retail for a mediocre and unreliable 152-minute Iranian documentary, The Mirror of the Soul: The Forough Farrokhzad Trilogy (2004), even with a 12-page booklet included. As fascinating as the great Farrokhzad (1935-1967) is—as a major poet and filmmaker, as well as a mythical erotic figure who still carries a religious aura for a good many Iranians—one clearly needs to separate fact from rumor, idle gossip, guesswork, and hyperbole, and filmmaker Nasser Saffarian doesn’t show the slightest inclination to attempt to perform such basic spadework. The fact that even an amateur Farrokhzad buff like myself could spot misinformation coming from some of the interviewees suggests that anything and everything got thrown into the mix. (My favorite onscreen howler: a reference to George Bernard Shaw’s Holy John, as a misnomer for Saint Joan.)
On the other hand, if you’re willing to spend roughly the same amount for a region-2 PAL English-subtitled edition of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les espions (The Spies, 1957), available from diverse sources, you might be in for a very agreeable surprise. As someone who has never cared much for Diabolique (1955) and who periodically forgets how good Le corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), and The Wages of Fear (1953) are, I’ve been slow to pick up on Clouzot’s special virtues, despite the prodding of Alan Williams and a few other critics, but this oddity is in a class all by itself. Surprisingly close in its black absurdist humor to Franz Kafka, this paranoid parable, set in a seedy country asylum, can be recommended not only for its eccentric international cast (which includes Sam Jaffe, Curd Jurgens, and Peter Ustinov), but also for its singular grasp of the Cold War zeitgeist. (Some related enlightenment might be available from the four-disc box set Animated Soviet Propaganda, available from Amazon for just under $90, but I haven’t yet found time yet to check this one out.)
If you go to Second Run DVD’s web site—specifically, if you go to www.secondrundvd.com/shop.php—you’ll discover that not only has this ambitious label, which has been specializing lately in Eastern European classics, given you links to some of the better online places to buy their wares; they also explain how you can order directly from them. So, after doing some comparative shopping with their help, I’ve discovered that you can buy their DVDs for about ten quid (or $20) each plus postage from www.sendit.com or www.play.com, or you can buy them directly from Second Run for about 13 quid (or $26), which includes postage. You can also take advantage of their specials which allow you to buy two for 22 quid or three for 30 quid including postage, at least if you purchase the right combos: there’s an Ivan Passer special, two possible Karoly Makk specials, an American Underground special, a Nicolas Philibert special, and other specials devoted to Czech and Polish filmmakers, among others—though not one that includes their release of Andrzej Munk’s Passenger, a crucial reference point in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, at least not yet.