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
1871. A lavish 1990 period-piece about the rise and fall of the Paris Commune by Ken McMullen that I blush to admit I’d never heard of. This is included as a free supplement to the Summer 2009 issue of the English magazine Vertigo, and it comes with many intriguing extras, including the contemporaneous McMullen experimental short 1867, consisting of one 12-minute take, about the Manet panting The Execution of Maximillian.
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) + Made in U.S.A. (1966). The twin peaks and in many ways the culmination of Godard’s pre-1968 oeuvre, now available on separate, well-appointed discs from Criterion.
Alone Across the Pacific. The first time I saw this 1963 Kon Ichikawa CinemaScope feature, known as Alone on the Pacific in the US, was in 1987, when Penelope Houston, who was then still the longtime editor of Sight and Sound, programmed it in “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Back in those days, the festival called itself the Festival of Festivals and was catering less to industry executives and more to cinephiles.) This led to the film becoming available again in North America, and I wrote about it in the Chicago Reader the following June, along with Ichikawa’s even better An Actor’s Revenge. (See “Scopophilia” at www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7670.) Now it’s out in a fine Masters of Cinema
edition that will cost you only a little more than half of what the BFI charges for its own edition of An Actor’s Revenge. I haven’t checked out the latter because some time ago I
got hold of a French DVD, Le vengeance d’un acteur—now apparently out of print but circa early August available from a few vendors on French Amazon for less than five euros.
Au bonheur des dames. There’s been a recent groundswell of interest in journeyman French director Julien Duvivier (1896-1967), whose varied and prolific achievements include Pépé le Moko and Un carnet de bal (both 1937), two of my favourite Hollywood sketch films during the war (Tales of Manhattan, 1942; Flesh and Fantasy, 1943), and, well before any of these, separate silent (1925) and sound (1932) versions of Poil de carotte (the former of which is available from Facets Video), and this beautiful and exciting 1930 feature available now from the same label, a late silent adaptation/update of a Zola novel starring L’Atalante’s Dita Parlo (as a department store worker) that starts off like one of that period’s great city symphonies.
Avant-Garde 1927-1937. A compact, neatly designed, trilingual (Dutch, English, French)
Belgian book containing two trilingual DVDs devoted to a group of films I’ve been hearing about for years, chiefly from Kristin Thompson, and which more than live up to their advance billing: four Belgian experimental films by Charles Dekeukeleire, four by Henri Storck, and one each by Henri d’Ursel and Ernst Moerman.
The Bed Sitting Room. This post-apocalyptic and surreal satire from 1969, set during the aftermath of World War III and co-scripted by Spike Milligan, is probably the most conspicuously overlooked of Richard Lester’s better films, and the BFI has brought out an honourable, user-friendly Region 2 edition. As Dave Kehr memorably summarized the film in a Reader capsule, “Sir Ralph Richardson finds himself mutating into a furnished apartment, Rita Tushingham gives birth to something or other, the BBC makes house calls, the British middle class spends its dying days riding in circles through the remains of the Underground, and civil defense officers Peter Cook and Dudley Moore periodically descend from a balloon to exhort the populace to ‘Keep moving! Keep moving!’”
Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt and Melodie der Welt (Walter Ruttmann) + Nerven (Robert Reinert). Two more impeccable releases from Filmmuseum München. I prefer the two-disc Ruttmann package (which includes many shorter works apart from these two monuments from 1927 and 1929, respectively) to the single disc devoted to a reconstruction of Reinert’s 1919 pre-Expressionist feature, but that’s largely because city symphonies are more up my alley than tortured right-wing musings. The Ruttmann films need no translation and the Reinert has optional French and English titles (as well as essays in English by David Bordwell and Jan-Christopher Horak and one in German by Stefan Drössler, who also contributes material in English and German to the Ruttmann booklet, along with Ruttman himself). The booklets for both are beautifully illustrated.
Don’t Touch the White Woman (1974) and Bye Bye Monkey (1977). I still haven’t decided whether Marco Ferreri (1928-1997) deserves to be remembered as a serious satirist or simply as a singular screwball eccentric. But these recent releases from Koch Lorber might help me to make up my mind. They offer, respectively, bizarre looks at Paris—or, more precisely, the hole in the ground left by its former fruit and vegetable market Les Halles, where Ferreri’s would-be Western restages Custer’s Last Stand with Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni, and Michel Piccoli—and Manhattan, where Mastroianni discovers both the corpse of King Kong and a newborn baby monkey that he gives to his pal Gérard Depardieu to adopt.
Collezione Mitchell Leisen. Check out Mark Rappaport’s article in Rouge (www.rouge.com.au/12/leisen.html) for the most interesting and reasoned defense of Leisen that I know of. And for backup, you might turn to this three-disc, six-film Italian collection on the Flamingo Video label, even though Rappaport in some cases would have made a different selection. What’s here: Midnight (1939), Easy Living (1937), Remember the Night (1940), Arise, My Love (1940), No Time for Love (1943), and Lady in the Dark (1944).
Daisies. A definitive edition of what is probably Vera Chytilová’s—and maybe even Czechoslovakia’s—greatest film (1966), from Second Run in the UK. I can understand perfectly the decision to include as an extra Jasmina Blasevic’s inadequate, 52-minute documentary about Chytilová, Journey (2004), because an inadequate documentary on the subject is clearly better than none. Offering, as I wrote in the Chicago Reader, “a meager sense of [Chytilová’s] transgressive and innovative work while allowing her to rattle on about her family and current domestic life without revealing much that’s distinctive about either,” it will have to do until something better comes along—along with Chytilová’s even more neglected and no less important 1963 feature, Something Different, probably my second favourite film of hers, and her most recent, the 2006 Pleasant Moments.
Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913. A major release, not only for those like me who’ve
been eager to learn more about Louis Feuillade pre-Fantomas (1913-1914), Les vampires (1915), Judex (1916), and Tih Minh (1918), but also for those (again like me) lucky enough to have seen Léonce Perret’s almost equally exciting, feature-length L’enfant de Paris (The Child of Paris, 1913) years ago at the Cinémathèque Française and wanted both to re-see it and to learn more about its maker. This fabulous three-disc box set from Kino gives us one disc apiece devoted to Feuillade, Perret, and Alice Guy (their predecessor at Gaumont, whose films here were made between 1897 and 1907, before she moved to the US). DVD producer Bret Wood has also adapted fascinating short French documentaries about Feuillade and Perret. For me, the most irreplaceable disc here (mea culpa: I haven’t yet looked at the Guy disc) is the one devoted to Perret, which includes both The Child of Paris and the earlier The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), a fascinating melodrama in which film is used by a psychotherapist as an active tool to bring back the heroine’s memory of a traumatizing crime. (Perret himself plays her cousin, the villainous perpetrator of the crime.) It’s amazing to think that Perret, who directed over 250 films, is still virtually unknown in the US, even though, as the short documentary about him here amply demonstrates, he was technically in advance of both Feuillade and Griffith in terms of camera movements and unusual camera angles. He also directed a Feuilladesque serial called The Black X (1916), and judging from the excerpt shown here, I would love to see it. (Memo to Gaumont: For that matter, when are you going to get around to releasing Feuillade’s Tih Minh and Barrabas ?)
The Goddess. From Hong Kong University Press (hkpress.org), for $27.95 in Yankee dollars, an attractive box containing Richard J. Meyer’s useful, fact-filled and profusely illustrated 94-page paperback, Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai, and an all-region DVD, complete with an optional commentary by Meyer and English or Chinese intertitles, of Wu Yonggang’s silent The Goddess (1934)—one of the most famous films of Ruan Ling-Yu (1910-1935), the Chinese Garbo, whose funeral after her suicide is said to have been attended by well over 100,000 fans. (Variety actually estimated over 300,000, and noted that in any event the turnout far exceeded that for Rudolf Valentino’s funeral.) If you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s awesome and no longer readily available biopic/speculative documentary Center Stage (aka Actress, 1992)—my favorite Hong Kong art film, starring Maggie Cheung and featuring many original clips from Ruan’s films—I doubt you’ll need any further recommendation.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. At first I thought this two-disc Criterion edition was basically just a recycling of some of the materials found on the invaluable five-disc Belgian box set Chantal Akerman Collection: Les Années 70, which I wrote about eight columns back. But in fact the “new” interviews here with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, both excellent, really are new—and, along with a TV interview with both Akerman and her star, Delphine Seyrig, something I haven’t seen before. In the Belgian package, there’s a separate (and also very good) interview with Mangolte, conducted by Akerman, as well as her interview with her mother Natalia, which is also included on the Criterion. But the most priceless extra in both sets is Autour de “Jeanne Dielman”, a 69-minute black and white video documentary shot during the film’s production in 1975 by actor Sami Frey, Seyrig’s partner, at a time when hardly anyone else apart from Frank Zappa and Jacques Tati were shooting video documentaries of any kind. Don’t be confused, incidentally, by the howler in the credits included in Criterion’s 20-page booklet, which oddly asserts that Danae Maroulacou and not Akerman was the “writer” of Jeanne Dielman, and even lists her as such in between Akerman (“director”) and Mangolte (“cinematographer”). Talk about alienated labour! In fact, Maroulacou was the film’s script girl, called “scripte” in French, so whoever translated this credit into English must have been even more alienated from her or his own work than Jeanne Dielman was from hers.
Joris Ivens Collection: 1912-1988. Just as good as I hoped it would be (see my last column), this mammoth production from the European Foundation includes a hefty book that’s in untranslated Dutch, but all the films have English subtitles if you want them, and you can even choose between The Spanish Earth (1937) with either Orson Welles or Ernest Hemingway as the offscreen narrator.
Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? From the ambitious new DEFA Film Library (www.umass.edu/defa), a definitive edition, with many helpful extras, of the only communist feature (1932) to have emerged from Weimar Germany, featuring lots of montage effects as well as music (including ballads sung by Helene Wiegel). The co-authors listed on the jacket are Slatan Dudow (the Bulgarian-born filmmaker who worked with Brecht as an assistant on several stage productions, after serving as a trainee in film during the shooting of Metropolis), Brecht himself (the cowriter, along with Ernst Ottwald—who for some reason isn’t credited as co-author), composer Hanns Eisler, and cinematographer Günther Krampf. Note: The capitalist film magazine Screen charges an arm and a leg for online access, but if you can track down a copy of their special Brecht issue (Summer 1974, when they were seemingly less capitalist in orientation), there’s a good 30 pages there devoted to Kuhle Wampe, including a Bernard Eisenschitz essay which notes that “when [the film] was screened in cinemas in Berlin and its suburbs in June 1932,” before it was banned by the Nazis, “it was the last public showing of one of Brecht’s works in pre-fascist Germany.”
Mirror. I’ve yet to figure out or come to terms with Andrei Tarkovsky’s most experimental feature (1974). But someone who has, critic Gilberto Perez, has assured me that the Artificial Eye version released in the UK does the film far more justice than the one released in the US (as The Mirror) by Kino. So I duly ordered the Artificial Eye version, which has its share of extras (unlike the American one), and am hoping to watch it eventually.
My Dinner with André. Despite the irrefutable technical achievement of this 1981 Louis Malle two-hander, written by and costarring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, I’ll never be a fan; set it alongside Malle’s previous feature, Atlantic City (1980), which I’ve just reseen, and there’s really no contest. But I have to admit that this two-disc edition from Criterion has everything that you’d ever want from such a package, including brand-new (and separate) video interviews by Noah Baumbach with Gregory and Shawn,
and a BBC Arena show in which Shawn interviews Malle.
Nikkatsu Noir. A set of five discs of black-and-white action potboilers (or mukokuseki akushun) from Criterion’s Eclipse series—Kurahara Koreyoshi’s I Am Waiting (1957), Masuda Toshio’s Rusty Knife (1958), Suzuki Seijun’s Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Furukawa Takumi’s Cruel Gun Story (1964), and Nomura Takashi’s A Colt Is My Passport (1967)—with liner notes on each film by Chuck Stephens. I’ve only sampled the first of these so far, but it looks gorgeous, and Garry Tooze’s rave for the whole package on DVD Beaver certainly whets my appetite for more.
Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972) and Passe ton Bac d’abord (1979). Two more Maurice Pialat features from Masters of Cinema—I’ve already noted their editions of L’enfance nue (1968), La gueule ouverte (1974), and Police (1985); still to come is A nos amours (1983). I tend to prefer Pialat’s ‘70s work, so these two—a rather merciless self-portrait (with Jean Yanne in the Pialat role, opposite Marlène Jobert) and a film positing teenage sex as just about the only thing worth doing in the provinces, even though it often becomes a major obstacle to escaping from them—might make good starting points.
Peter Ibbetson. It seems that the only way you can get hold of this Surrealist favourite from 1935 in the US is to spring for a Gary Cooper box set. In France, where they’re made of sterner stuff, there’s a two-disc box set in the series Les Introuvables, with the second disc devoted mainly to two half-hour features (both unsubtitled) about the film and director Henry Hathaway, by Patrick Brion, Noël Simsolo, and/or Bertrand Tavernier. I haven’t been through these extras properly, but I suspect that my own favourite point of comparison with this mad, unrequited love story (based on an 1891 novel by Daphne Du Maurier’s grandfather, George L. Du Maurier), Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love (1979), probably isn’t theirs.
Sérail (1976) and La mémoire courte (1979). Eduardo de Gregorio’s five features as a director have long been unavailable on DVD, so it’s great to finally have the first two, both released on PAL by Les Films du Paradoxe, even though the French dialogue hasn’t been subtitled. De Gregorio is better known for his work as a screenwriter for Bertolucci (The Spider’s Strategem, 1970), Jean-Louis Comolli (La Cecilia, 1975), and Rivette (Céline et Julie vont en bateau, 1974; Duelle, 1976; Noroît, 1976; and Merry-Go-Round, 1981), but there are plenty of special aspects of his own scripts and films to recommend them, such as their neo-Borgesian connections to Gothic traditions, particularly evident in the all-consuming house in Sérail (which also features Leslie Caron, at the onset of her French comeback, as well as Céline et Julie’s Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier). But I’m even more partial to La mémoire courte (Short Memory), de Gregorio’s only political film, a multinational Langian noir beautifully shot (in colour) by William Lubtchansky and co-scripted by fellow Argentinian Edgardo Cozarinsky. This film also, incidentally, includes Rivette’s only real performance as an actor, not counting his cameos in his own films, e.g. Paris nous appartient (1960) and Haut bas fragile (1995).
A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Douglas Sirk’s penultimate feature (1958) and last film in CinemaScope, in a deluxe two-disc edition with a 36-page illustrated booklet from Masters of Cinema. For a full account of what makes this desperate and beautiful film as personal as it is—which to my taste makes it probably the least cynical of all of Sirk’s movies—see the expanded second edition of Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday. And for the best critical appreciation I know of, go to Godard on Godard.
Tokyo Sonata. What may be Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s liveliest movie (2008), about the Japanese recession that started ahead of ours, gets the full Masters of Cinema treatment, including a thoughtful B. Kite essay and an hour-long “making of” documentary.
We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection, Volume Two. It’s strange to reflect that the most productive stretch in British experimental film might have come from their national postal system in the mid-‘30s. This superb two-disc, 257-minute collection from the BFI, covering 1936-1938, is even more exciting than Volume One, and includes an illustrated 100-page book along with films by Alberto Cavalcanti, John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Len Lye (my favourite in this bunch), Norman McLaren, Lotte Reiniger, Evelyn Spice, Henry Watt, and Basil Wright, along with important contributions by W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, among several others. It was apparently just before the period covered by this volume that Auden—working then for the General Post Office for a mere £3 a week—wrote the translated intertitles in verse for the world premiere of Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1934), an event organized by Ivor Montagu, as was reported by David Collard (who recently discovered these verses) in the Times Literary Supplement on May 20. Last June, the BFI Southbank apparently screened the film with Simon Callow reading Auden’s intertitles, and I’m hoping that the BFI can now produce a DVD with this memorable combo.