By Sean Rogers. “He knows how to pace a story. He isn’t a great novelist. He’s a craftsman, but every More →
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I have two vivid memories illustrating the potential obtuseness of some Manhattan film reviewers. One of these might have been the first press screening I ever attended: Jean Renoir’s sublime 1932 comedy Boudu sauvé des eaux—released in a fine edition by Criterion a couple of years ago—which was about to receive its US theatrical premiere in 1967, 35 years after it opened in Paris. At the midtown press show, a reviewer I couldn’t identify, who was sitting a few rows in front of me, was fidgeting and sighing a great deal, plainly exasperated. Finally, he left about ten minutes before the end of Renoir’s 84-minute masterpiece—when the title hero (Michel Simon), an incorrigible tramp who completely disrupts the bourgeois household of the bookseller who had saved him from drowning, finally gets talked into marrying the maid. The wedding takes place on a rowboat with a few guests, a rower, and a preacher, while an orchestra on the riverbank plays a Strauss waltz. (There’s an exquisite, extended camera movement connecting the latter to the former.) This was roughly the moment when the reviewer chose to depart from the screening room in a huff. Then, shortly afterwards, this placid idyll was interrupted: Boudu reaches for a water lily, the boat overturns, and everyone spills out. The flustered bride, wedding party, rower, and preacher swim to shore while Boudu, unseen, placidly and unconcernedly floats off on his back. After he eventually emerges from the river in the woods, he triumphantly steals tattered clothes from a scarecrow to replace his suit, returns to impromptu begging, shares a piece of bread with a goat, and contentedly returns to his life as a mangy hobo while the other members of the wedding party assume, without much visible regret, that he must have drowned.
A few days later, I discovered who the exasperated reviewer was when I read Bosley Crowther’s indignant four-paragraph pan in The New York Times, which concluded as follows:
NB: TREAT AS SEPARATE QUOTE **The nicest thing about it is a terminal sequence that shows a bunch of comfortable bourgeois people boating on a river to celebrate Boudu’s marriage to a housemaid. There is in it something of the charm of the French impressionist painting that Renoir so appropriately distilled in his late A Day in the Country and his much later (1960) Picnic on the Grass.
But the whole middle part, which offers the young and heavily bearded Michel Simon broadly overacting the contrariety of the bum to middle-class conventions and morality, is posey and synthetic in almost silent slapstick comedy style, and it runs on much longer than is needed. The film is a second-rate antique. ****
The second Manhattan press screening I have in mind, which I must have attended a year or so later, was of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which the BFI has recently issued on a Region 2 DVD. Apart from Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which I’ve never had a desire to see a second time, Teorema is possibly his most transgressive feature. It’s a fearless, unabashed provocation involving a contemporary Christ figure played by Terence Stamp—a kind of Boudu in reverse—who mysteriously arrives as a welcome guest at a bourgeois household in Milan and proceeds to seduce every one there in turn—father (Massimo Girotti), mother (Sylvana Mangano), son (Andrès José Cruz), daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), and housemaid (Laura Betti) —more or less driving all of them crazy in a different fashion (different both in the separate craziness of one from the other and from the way Boudu drives everyone crazy in his own bourgeois household). The housemaid eventually becomes a kind of martyred saint and levitates; the mother winds up a nymphomaniac; the daughter turns catatonic; the son, a painter, abandons his work and winds up pissing on a canvas. The father, an industrialist, turns over his factory to his workers, quietly strips in the middle of the Milan train station in the final sequence, and is last seen wandering naked through a volcanic desert near Mount Etna, screaming his head off. It’s the film of someone who, as a friend noted at the time, actually wanted to be fucked by Jesus and Marx at the same time. But what I continue to find commanding about it, in spite of everything, is its absolute sincerity about being taken seriously.
It was and is an obvious challenge, and for me it was also one of the first indications, along with Pasolini’s previous Hawks and Sparrows (1966) and Oedipus Rex (1967)—the latter two available on DVD from Water Bearer, but not in editions that I have or have seen, as I already have both films, along with much else, on a three-disc set with French subtitles devoted to Pasolini in the ‘60s—that he might well be a great filmmaker. But the local press was responding to it with a fairly steady stream of hysterical laughter. I can recall seeing and hearing another Times writer at the time, who specialized in celebrity interviews for Arts & Leisure, howling and jeering with particular ecstasy at periodic intervals. I couldn’t tell whether he or anyone else was having a good time, but I doubted it. The nervous atmosphere was akin to what I remember from my Alabama childhood whenever a grown man was seen crying in a movie, and the male teenagers in the audience felt called upon to express their derision, seemingly out of emotional self-protection.
I like Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s thoughtful liner notes, and based on what I’ve sampled of Robert Gordon’s commentary (which can be either listened to or accessed via subtitles), he offers a mix of useful information and redundant observations that we can already glean from the film itself (e.g., the opening sequence is filmed in the style of a documentary, the final sequence ends with a scream). But the main extra is a tangy half-hour interview with Terence Stamp that offers a contrasting look at what it was like to work for Federico Fellini on Toby Dammit (1968) and for Pasolini just afterwards, a much less happy experience. (Stamp maintains that Pasolini never spoke to him during the shooting, conveying all his instructions—and sometimes crudely sexual ones—through Laura Betti, and that he got conned by the producer out of collecting his own percentage of the profits, thereby never earning a penny on the film. (This recalls a memory of my own—of chatting with jazz trumpeter Ted Curson in the mid-‘70s, during one of his gigs in a Paris cave, about his recently successful suit against the same producer for having used his “Tears for Dolphy” over Teorema’s credits sequence without permission.)
The extra that I find conspicuously and lamentably missing from this DVD—and which I suspect might have been incorporated if Masters of Cinema had handled the assignment—is Stuart Hood’s ‘90s English translation of the novel Teorema, Pasolini’s last. Written concurrently with the filming, it offers a fascinating alternate version of the same narrative, with some portions rendered in prose, some in poetry—not at all a “novelization” in any normal sense, but a complex, multidimensional rethinking and recasting of the same material. Hood’s introduction to his translation, incidentally, offers the same legitimate critical point that Nowell-Smith makes: that Pasolini’s brand of implicit misogyny limits his treatment of the women in the plot, especially the mother and daughter.
Four columns back, meaning one year ago, I had occasion to plaintively ask, “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?” But that was then, and earlier this year the British Film Institute brought out a beautiful edition (again, a Region 2 DVD), complete with a Davies commentary and a separate interview with Davies conducted by Geoff Andrew, as well as an interview with the film’s art director, Miki van Zwanenberg, and a swell 22-page booklet about the film.
Some readers of this column have been asking me periodically if I know what’s been holding up Facets Video’s long-awaited DVD release of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994). Having asked Tarr himself about this at the Toronto film festival, I got an answer that isn’t at all surprising, given how exacting and uncompromising he is about every particular of his art: he’s been rejecting every transfer submitted to him for his inspection for not being good enough. Regular customers of Facets releases know that they tend to scrimp on expenses when it comes to transfers—the best ones on their label tend to be ones produced by others that they distribute—so let’s hope that this wait doesn’t prove to be indefinite.
Furthermore, without being able to confirm this, I suspect that one reason why the great Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella has so far failed to release any of his own films commercially on DVD is that he tends to be so careful and exacting about his own work. I recently had occasion to do public interviews with him in New York and Chicago two days apart, during his first visit to the US, and when I asked him in Chicago why the pauses between some of his films have been so long—17 years between his last two masterpieces, Warsaw Bridge (1990) and The Silence Before Bach (2007)!—he offered two reasons: (1) he spends a very long time preparing them, and (2) when producers hear that he’s making a new film, “They usually run the other way.” Individually and jointly, I think these two reasons support my thesis, which is why I haven’t yet suggested that he get in touch with Facets about the possibility of a box set. And the more general obstacle is that if you haven’t been in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Pesaro, Venice, and a few other places at the right time, there’s a fair chance that you still don’t have the faintest idea who Portabella is. But if any of the more utopian companies such as Switzerland’s renardfilm.org, France’s blaqout.com, or the US’s Fantoma—who have respectively produced the spectacular Stephen Dwoskin, Luc Moullet, and Kenneth Anger packages (the second distributed in North America by Facets)—get wind of what he’s up to, one can at least dream about a potential match made in heaven. (Fantoma’s Volume 2 of The Films of Kenneth Anger, by the way, is just as attractively done as its predecessor.)
[Late November postscript (talk about second-guessing): Portabella recently emailed me that “In Spain we have reached an agreement to put out a [DVD] pack,” adding that he’s been in touch with Facets about what I assume to be a possible distribution deal for this box set. And meanwhile, following a suggestion of Jonathan Demme, he’s signed a deal with Shadow Distribution to open The Silence Before Bach at New York’s Film Forum, circa Spring 2008.]
It may sound petty or churlish to complain of Bluebird’s jazz CDs in the Centennial Collection—each containing a bonus DVD of performances by the same jazz figures (Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Fats Waller)—that they create shelving and classification issues, especially for collectors, but such problems can’t be ignored either. Like weird-shaped box sets, these releases run the risk of winding up in some netherworld consisting of neither CDs nor DVDs simply because one doesn’t know exactly what to do with them. Case in point: I bought the Ellington and Hawkins volumes a few months apart, the latter more recently, and I can no longer find the Hawkins now that I want to write about it because I had no obvious place to put it. The Ellington DVD consists of three musical shorts (from 1934, 1937, and 1943), five soundies from 1941, and a radio interview from 1941; if memory serves, most or all of the Hawkins performances come from some obscure TV show taped in New Jersey.
But I have no qualms about recommending the three DVDs I recently bought in the Jazz Icons series, all from their second batch of releases. (You can buy the first nine or the second seven as box sets—the second set comes with a bonus disc—or pick them up individually, as I did; go to www.jazzicons.com for more details.) What’s really exceptional about Dave Brubeck Live in ’64 & ’66, John Coltrane Live in ’60, ’61 & ’65, and Charles Mingus Live in ’64 is that they all feature stuff from European gigs that you can’t find on CDs—studio dates and concerts that are more characteristic of live performances than of most audio recordings. Having heard Coltrane’s classic quartet and various Mingus groups live many times, and Brubeck’s classic quartet at least twice, all in Manhattan during the ‘60s, I treasure these new collections not just as reminders of what they were like but as significant additions to their profiles. (All the footage here is in black and white, but generally well filmed and beautifully preserved, and the accompanying booklets in each case are exemplary in packaging and content, apart from a curious absence of running times.)
The Coltrane collection also includes, along with some prime solos by the leader, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and Eric Dolphy; Coltrane playing “On Green Dolphin Street” with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb (i.e., the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960 without Miles) and jamming with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz. While the Mingus collection offers no less than four versions of “So Long Eric” and three of “Meditations on Integration” (including rehearsals of each) recorded in Belgium, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the wildest and weirdest version of “Take the ‘A’ Train” I’ve ever heard (from Norway), with Jaki Bayrd, Eric Dolphy, and Clifford Jordan all outdoing themselves in sheer gusto. The only drawback to the Swedish date, which includes both rehearsals, is that it’s all filmed in long shot from a static camera, though the content of what’s being recorded makes it worth having. Highlights in the Brubeck collection—which Brubeck himself calls “the best footage of the Classic Quartet that I’ve ever seen,” and which features some wonderful examples of Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright, and Joe Morello responding to one another—also include many affecting close-ups of Desmond lost in his own liquid reveries, and two separate versions of “Take Five,” the first of which is the best I can recall.
The best new feature in Criterion’s “director-approved special edition” of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth is a fine set of essays on each of the episodes by a perfectly matched selection of commentators. Thom Andersen, who once worked as a cabdriver himself, provides some apt information concerning the first episode, set in Los Angeles; I especially treasure his observation that Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was making three or four times as much as real New York taxi drivers in that period, thereby making “credible his obsession with metaphysical evil,” which ordinary workers would have considered a luxury. And Brooklyn-based novelist Paul Auster, a friend of Jarmusch’s, has a great commentary on the New York episode. We also have Bernard Eisenschitz on the Paris segment, Goffredo Fofi on the Rome bit, and, quite logically, the great Finnish film critic, film historian, and festival director Peter von Bagh on the last episode, set in Helsinki.
In my last column, I spoke of the apparent “alienated labour” in Lionsgate’s “Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector’s Edition” as evidenced both by the curious mix of films and the listing of the silent The Little Match Girl as a film from 1959. The same combo, more or less, is apparent in their “Luis Buñuel 2-Disc Collector’s Edition,” which pairs one of Buñuel’s all-time worst films (Gran Casino, 1947) with one of his best and most neglected (The Young One, 1960), and then mixes up the two so that each film is labelled as the other. And I’m disappointed that the commentary on The Young One, by Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla, is academic and interpretive in a fairly obvious way without being as informative as I would have liked—though at least Philip Kemp is honest enough on his commentary for the earlier film to admit that Gran Casino isn’t very good.
I wish that Bret Wood hadn’t hired (or agreed to the hiring of) a pompous overactor like Rod Steiger for the narration of his Kingdom of Shadows, a 70-minute documentary about silent horror, because it prevents me from wanting to watch it. This serves as a bonus disc on Kino’s American Silent Horror Collection. The other four discs in the set, all with copious extras: Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (1920), and Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927)
and The Man Who Laughs (1928). (The latter, incidentally, was one of Samuel Fuller’s favourite films.)
Here are three alternative ways of viewing some classic Soviet films: (1) Downloading Alexander Dovzhenko’s amazing Aerograd (a.k.a. Frontier, 1935), a ferocious sort of rustic war musical, with English subtitles and in a decent print—-and best of all, for free—at ia310118.us.archive.org/1/items/aerograd/(according to this site, the last time I looked, 1,583 websurfers had already taken advantage of this fabulous opportunity); (2) Purchasing Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law (1926) and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928), the latter with an orchestral score, from www.grapevinevideo.com, for $16.95 US each plus postage (these prints are a bit less impressive, albeit acceptable if you can settle for old Museum of Modern Art 16mm prints, complete with introductory pedagogical titles); (3) Shelling out $22.49 US plus postage for Kino International’s “ultimate edition” on two discs of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).
The latter is the recent restoration of Enno Patalas, former director of the Munich Film Archive, which is offered in two forms—with English intertitles on the first disc and with the original Russian intertitles (included with optional English subtitles) on the second. I can’t report on the second version because my own copy of the second disc proved unplayable, apparently due to some manufacturing glitch. But I was able to watch the 42-minute German documentary about the restoration on the first disc, and the fount of new information is invaluable (even though I regret that the package hasn’t allowed any space for critiquing or otherwise elucidating the film’s reportedly substantial fudging of the historical record, which remains in all versions).
It turns out that Potemkin was recut before the Berlin premiere, apparently with Eisenstein’s input, as well as being censored for violence in several particulars (some of which Eisenstein objected to), and the famous Edmund Meisel score, which is included in a slightly expanded form in the Patalas restoration, was added at this stage. The documentary clarifies much of what we know and don’t know about the original Russian version by cutting between separate interviews with Patalas and Russian archivist Naum Kleiman, both of whom occasionally offer polite critiques of each other’s positions while showing us what many of the 1926 censor cuts in Germany consisted of. They also show how a subsequent Russian sound version in 1950, based in part on the German negative that was sent back to Russia, altered the original even further through additional censor cuts and substitutions (such as replacing a quote from Trotsky with one by Lenin) after it was decided to substitute music by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Meisel score.
As I discovered from my work as a consultant on the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, perhaps the most difficult thing for a film historian to own up to in a mainstream forum is gaps in, and uncertainties about, what’s conclusively known, leading to such anomalies as the persistent myth that our Touch of Evil re-edit was a “restoration,” an absurd notion for any Welles film that he wasn’t able to complete—and one that applies with still greater force to Mr. Arkadin. Thus the label appended to our version on Amazon, “Restored to Orson Welles’ Vision,” makes about as much sense as the hopeful label attached to some kinds of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, “extra-rich light”—a touching emblem of American optimism at its most deceitful. In the case of Battleship Potemkin, what we have in the “ultimate edition” is almost certainly closer to Eisenstein’s original cut than any other we’ve had up until now, though it’s complicated by its use of the Meisel score that became part of his second cut, as well as continuing gaps in the public record that make some guesswork necessary. Even so, it’s delightful to see for the first time a red flag that’s actually painted red at the end of the film’s third act.