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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
1. IL CINEMA RITROVATO DVD AWARDS 2011
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter von Bagh.
BEST DVD 2010 / 2011
The first edition of a long-awaited series devoted to the great Spanish master of magic films, hand colouring, and technical special effects. Offering 114 minutes of 31 astonishing titles, complete with a 111-page trilingual book containing an informative essay by Jean M. Minguet and credits on each film, and the 12 different archives that provided restored prints. (http://www.cameo.es/portal/tabid__13173/consulta__De%20Chomon/default.aspx)
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES (BONUS)
For the invaluable and detailed film record of Charles Laughton directing his only feature, drawing from the more than eight hours of outtakes discovered by Bob Gitt and including fascinating rehearsals in which Laughton acts out some of the roles himself.
MOST ORIGINAL CONTRIBUTION TO FILM HISTORY
Orphans 7—A Film Symposium (New York University’s Orphan Film Symposium, www.orphanfilmsymposium.blogspot.com)
For bringing to the attention of DVD watchers a rich and fascinating area of film history: so-called “ephemeral” films, including amateur films, activist filmmaking, industrial films, etc., with magnificent, in-depth commentary.
BEST REDISCOVERY OF A FORGOTTEN FILM
Two priceless collections of silent and early sound slapstick comedies from the Hal Roach studio that highlight neglected and relatively unknown corners of American cultural history as well as film history.
BEST BOX SET
Awarded jointly to 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg (www.criterion.com) and La Naissance de Charlot—The Keystone Comedies 1914 di Charlie Chaplin (Lobster—Arte —BFI—Cineteca di Bologna—Flicker Alley/UCLA: www.franceculture.com). The first of these is a collection of three important early features by von Sternberg, along with excellent audiovisual essays, the second is the long-awaited release of the first and most explosive stage of Chaplin’s creative career.
For the courage of bringing a little-known but very important chapter of American film history to the medium of Blu-ray—a box set including five features, including The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider, and The King of Marvin Gardens.
Because the jurors would like to stress that none of us is in a position to know all the important DVD releases, even though all of us have encountered important examples that were not nominated for awards but deserve to be far better known, each of us has selected a release or series of releases in this category.
Lorenzo Codelli has selected the DVD collection of the Korean Film Archive, launched in 2004 and available at koreafilm.org/publica/dvds.asp, all of which have English subtitles and exceptional extras.
Alexander Horwath has selected the series of films directed by Leo Hurwitz included on six DVDs that are released by Film Centrum in Sweden (www.filmcentrum.se).
Mark McElhatten has selected Jose Val del Omar’s Elemental de España, a 5-DVD box set with films from 1931 to 2010, with English subtitles and a booklet in Spanish and English. Produced by Cameo with the Archivo Maria Jose Val de Omar and Gonzalo Saenz de Buruaga and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (www.valdelomar.com/home.php).
Paolo Mereghetti has selected Jean-Paul Le Chanois’ L’école buissonière, released in France by Doriane Films (www.dorianefilms.com).
Jonathan Rosenbaum has selected Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, released in the United Kingdom by Mr Bongo Films (www.mrbongo.com).
And Peter von Bagh has selected Werner Schroeter’s Der Tod der Maria Malibran & Eika Katappa, released in Germany by www.edition-filmmuseum.de.
2. One of the more striking box sets sent to me as a DVD awards juror for Il Cinema Ritrovato was from Poland: the three-disc Chopin Film Motifs: Chopin in Polish Cinema, an imposing, unshelvable, rectangular doorstop comprising, along with a substantial illustrated booklet, Tadeusz Makarczyriski’s The Chopin Recital in Duszniki (1947) and Aleksander Ford’s The Youth of Chopin (1951) on the first disc, Jerzy Antczak’s Chopin: Desire for Love (2002) and two other shorts on the second disc, and two more documentaries (including the hour-long 1996 Memories of Warsaw’s Chopin Competitions) and an experimental short, Eugeniusz Cekalski’s Color Studies of Chopin (1944), on the third. But I should also point out that on a very enjoyable and edifying visit to Wrocław in late July to attend the New Horizons Film Festival, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that none of my Polish cinephile friends and acquaintances had even heard of this box set. Luxury items of this kind seem to come from embassies and other cultural institutions that don’t as a rule overlap with many commercial releases.
Among the more interesting such releases that I came by in Wrocław were two box sets issued by New Horizons itself over the past couple of years that include some of its own festival selections. None of these dozen films is equipped with anything other than Polish subtitles, but this matters far less in the second set, where, apart from a documentary about the alternative music scene in Japan that I look forward to seeing at some point (a 2009 French feature called We Don’t Care About Music Anyway), Bruno Dumont’s 2009 Hadewijch (with French and Arabic dialogue), Gaspar Noé’s 2009 Enter the Void (with English and Japanese dialogue), and features from Austria (Kornél Mundruczó’s Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project, 2010) and Thailand (Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History, 2009), are two features with no dialogue at all, Michelangelo Frammartino’s extraordinary Le Quattro Volte (2010) from Italy and Yelena and Nikolay Renard’s Mama (2010) from Russia. (The latter, which I saw at New Horizons, is a 70-minute feature about a woman dutifully caring for an obese and mentally challenged son, with a sense of duration that occasionally recalls Jeanne Dielman.) For the record, the earlier box set includes the Russian Oxygen (Ivan Vyrypayev, 2009) in Russian and English, the Polish Las (Piotr Dumala, 2009), Agnès Varda’s Les plages d’Agnès (2008), Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel’s Burrowing (2009) in Swedish, and, in English, Johan Grimonprez’s weird postmodernist tale about Alfred Hitchcock, Double Take (2009).
My other Polish catches include an excellent two-disc Andrzej Munk set, Andrzej Munk: Polska Szkola Dokumentu, issued by the Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny and containing most of his shorts from the ‘50s along with two featurettes, The Stars Must Burn (1954) and The Men of the Blue Cross (1955); and an inexpensive but handsome edition of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957). Both of these are equipped with English, French, German, and Russian subtitles. Regarding Munk—the focus of a New Horizons retrospective organized by Marek Hendrykowski, who plausibly calls him the greatest of all Polish filmmakers—it’s worth noting that (a) Second Run Features in the UK is currently preparing a definitive edition of his 1957 Eroica and (b) an extremely useful guide to his work and career is provided by the English translation of Hendrykowski’s Andrzej Munk, with a foreword by Wajda, published this year by Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. (The same author’s book on Eroica, incidentally, has also just appeared in English.)
3. While I was in Wrocław, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus from Berlin’s Arsenal presented me with Christine Noll Brinckmann’s The Primal Scene: Films and Texts, a bilingual, attractively illustrated booklet featuring Stan Brakhage and herself among its contributors. The book is accompanied by a PAL DVD including all of Brinckmann’s films. Stefanie also presented me with two NTSC DVDs, Heinz Emigholz: The Formative Years (I) and Heinz Emigholz: The Formative Years (II), devoted to works by Emigholz in the ‘70s. Go to arsenal-berlin.de and filmgalerie451.de for more details (and many more titles).
4. Rio Sex Comedy. Jonathan Nossiter, an American who grew up and has subsequently lived in many different countries around the world, seems to mainly make movies about globalization—or at least this is true of his second feature, Signs & Wonders (2000), and his subsequent documentary miniseries about wine, Mondovino (2004), as well as his third feature from 2010, a ditzy farce recently released on DVD in both Canada and the US. “It seems to divide people radically…from ardent defenders to violent detractors,” Nossiter wrote me about the latter film, and it’s easy to see why. Like his other films (including his impressive first feature, the 1997 prizewinner Sunday), Rio Sex Comedy is impossibly ambitious and all over the place, and is even more goofy, maddening, incoherent, and indigestible than his previous work. I can’t even say for sure whether I like it or not, but I would still recommend all his films for their volatile and daring singularity, which seems to have something to do with their centrifugal, restlessly globetrotting energy. This one costars Irène Jacob, Bill Pullman, Charlotte Rampling, and Fisher Stevens, who play respectively a French anthropologist named Irène, an American ambassador named Bill, an English plastic surgeon named Charlotte, and an American tourist guide named Fish, all of whom cross paths in Rio while speaking English, French, and/or Portuguese. The Canadian DVD, which is the one I saw, is from Mongrel Media.
5. Hamlet played by a Danish actor sounds like a reasonable premise, but what about a Hamlet played by a Danish actress—or, better yet, the Danish actress, Asta Nielsen, the first diva of European cinema? This lavish 1921 German feature, co-directed by Sven Gade and Heinz Schall, has been issued by Edition Filmmuseum in a beautifully tinted restoration outfitted with an ambitious and fashionably postmodernist (by which I mean anachronistic) new score by Michael Riessler, along with a second disc containing a surviving 17-minute fragment of Nielsen’s 1913 Die Film primadonna and many extras relating to Nielsen (including home movies of her made over half a century apart, in the early teens and circa 1970, and various shorts relating to her Hamlet and Riessler’s score). The film itself opens with a roller title that alludes to a recent “American literary researcher” named “Professor Vining” who came up with “a new interpretation of the Hamlet saga” that posits that the Prince of Denmark was actually a Princess in disguise. At first I suspected that this Vining figure was the film’s fanciful invention, as neither he nor the film itself is mentioned by my namesake Ron Rosenbaum (no relation) in his 600-page The Shakespeare Wars. But some rudimentary Googling reveals that an American railway engineer named Edward P. Vining did publish a book in 1881, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem—that can be accessed online in its entirety, believe it or not—which actually inspired the Nielsen feature. (In all fairness to Vining, whether or not he actually was a professor, his argument isn’t quite as bonkers as the film makes it sound, and more closely resembles the claim that Shakespeare’s conception of the character incorporated some feminine traits.)
6. The Alan Berliner Collection. I’m a fan of Berliner’s flaky documentary features Intimate Stranger (1991), about his grandfather, and Nobody’s Business (1996), about his father, but haven’t yet caught up with The Family Album (1988), The Sweetest Sound (2001), and Wide Awake (2006), all of which sound even flakier, so this five-disc box set from Lorber Films, which also includes several shorts and extras, seems like the ideal way of catching up.
7. White Material. Even when I find Claire Denis’ features somewhat intractable, which happens much of the time, there are few filmmakers I know who are more lucid and helpful when they discuss their own work. The new interview with Denis on this Criterion release of her 2009 feature is exceptional in this regard.
8. Caro Diario (Dear Diary). I picked up a good edition of Nanni Moretti’s 1993 feature with English subtitles when I was in Bologna; the last time I checked this on Italian Amazon, it was selling for 7.99 Euros.
9. The Hole. Now that it appears that there are no plans to release Joe Dante’s 3-D feature from 2009 in the US, you can buy a two-disc edition in both 2-D and 3-D—with multiple pairs of red-and-green-lens glasses—from Italian Amazon. I wouldn’t call this one of Dante’s best—for me his key works remain his comedies—and the red and green 3-D is too cumbersome to seem worth the bother, but as yet another chapter in Dante’s endless meditation on the Leave It to Beaver prototype of suburbia, this movie has its share of eerie moments. And meanwhile, France’s Carlotta label has released his seminal Matinee (1993) on Blu-ray, under the title Panic sur Florida Beach.
10. Even if I find the titles of both books rather dubious—Samuel Blumenfeld’s Le dernier film noir (accompanying a DVD of John Berry’s 1951 He Ran All the Way/Menaces dans la nuit) and Philippe Garnier’s Noir comme neige (accompanying a DVD of André de Toth’s 1959 Day of the Outlaw/Le chauvauchée des bannis), these are good books about exceptional films, released in good editions in a new series called Classics Confidential from Wild Side (www.wildside.fr), complete with valuable extras (e.g., Berry’s documentary short The Hollywood Ten and de Toth’s own remarks on audio).
11. Aita (Father). Earlier this year I was president of the jury at FICUNAM, a new film festival in Mexico City, that awarded its best feature prize to this beautiful and experimental Basque film by José María de Orbe. (The other jurors were Sergei Dvortsevoy, Emmanuel Burdeau, Nicolás Echevarría, and Roberto Fiesco Trejo.) Now it’s out with English subtitles on an attractive DVD released in Spain by Karma Films, along with a booklet (and another film, Aita, carta al hijo, a shorter version of the feature without the dialogue scenes).
12. A request to DVD labels, Icarus Films in particular: Please don’t send me any more “check discs” because I tend to either lose them or forget that I have them. I like to review whole packages when they’re finished, not just the discs inside them, especially when these discs are characteristically labelled only “Check Disk/This Side Up.” I only just stumbled upon one that actually contains my favourite film criticism about Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, Chris Marker’s 55-minute One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), which you must have sent to me (at my request) ages ago, because the finished disc is already out on the market now. The same disc, incidentally, also contains Sergey Dvorstevoy’s In the Dark (2004, 41 min.) and Marina Goldovskaya’s Three Songs About Motherland (2008, 39 min.), and I have no idea why it contains either of these, both of which have nothing to do with Marker or Tarkovsky. (They both happen to be Russian or at least sort of Russian—Dvorstevoy was born in Kazakhstan—and both are documentaries, but are those sufficient reasons?) Or maybe they were selected by Chris Marker. I need to know more, and the Icarus Films website doesn’t say anything to enlighten me further.
13. Another kvetch: I can’t recommend Fox’s Elia Kazan box set because I haven’t seen it; Fox wouldn’t deign to send me a review copy. But if you want to catch up with Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese’s A Letter to Elia (2010) at a less prohibitive price, it’s available from the Cineteca di Bologna, which did give me a copy, packaged along with an Italian translation of the anthology Kazan on Directing.
14. I’m far too innocent a soul to spot most hoaxes immediately, but I must confess that J.X. Williams’ 46-minute Peep Show (1965)—released on an all-region French DVD from serious-publishing.fr along with The 400 Blow Jobs (1960), Psych-Burn (1968), and a two-minute fragment of an unidentified work by Williams from the ‘70s—appears to bear many of the earmarks of one. Or maybe undercover agent, secret softcore porn filmmaker and Ulmeresque cult icon Williams really existed, as is maintained by Noel Lawrence in his 2010 book J.X. Williams: The Big Footnote, available in French translation from camionnoir.com as J.X. Williams: les dossiers interdits. I’ll leave it to others with more leisure time on their hands to decide. For now, all I can say is that it’s an intriguing puzzler.
15. The first release on Nicole Brenez and Dominique Païni’s new PAL DVD series, “Le geste expérimental,” for editionsmontparnasse.fr, is Le lion, sa cage & ses ailes: huit films d’Armand Gatti, on two discs. No English subtitles, but a 36-page French booklet and a CD-ROM are both included, and Nicole assures me that future releases in this series will have English subtitles.
16. I haven’t yet succeeded in persuading Ruscico to send me any of its new Hyperkino releases, two-disc sets with “educational” annotations and subtitles in many languages, which I’ve discussed in a previous column (Cinema Scope 44) and in an article I published about a year ago at Moving Image Source called “The Mosaic Approach.” But their edition of Boris Barnet’s luscious and glorious By the Bluest of Seas (1935) reached me via Il Cinema Ritrovato’s DVD award nominations, and it’s well worth having. Still to come on this label are some more Barnet releases, including an edition of his masterpiece Okraina (1933), with annotation by Bernard Eisenschitz, which is very likely to improve on the version currently available from Image Entertainment.
17. Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (2010), the most interesting Iranian film I’ve seen in the last few years, which I wrote about in these pages two issues back (Cinema Scope 46), is available now from Artificial Eye in the UK, with a long and detailed interview with Pitts. I bought it from Amazon UK for just under seven quid, and from the same source, for one quid less, one can also buy Pitts’ previous feature (which I haven’t yet seen), It’s Winter (2006).
18. Another recent UK release is a “special edition” of Sergei Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1968) from Second Sight Films (secondsightfilms.co.uk), and what makes it special is the wealth of contextual information it offers: a 76-minute documentary about the making of the film and a brief introduction by Daniel Bird, a half-hour Making of Sayat Nova by assistant director Levon Grigoryan, and an optional audio commentary by an Armenian anthropologist that’s said to be “moderated” by Bird. In his intro, Bird points out that the version of the film included here is the Russian and not the Armenian one (too bad that both aren’t included), but adds that neither can be said to deserve the status of a “director’s cut.” For the record, the three short Paradjanov gems I’m still waiting for on DVD are (a) his 15-minute “treatment” for Kiev Frescoes (1966), which you can already download with Italian subtitles at thepiratebay.com, (b) his 1985 short Arabesques on a Pirosmani Theme (which, if memory serves, I last saw at the Rotterdam Film Festival around the same time Paradjanov himself turned up there, in what could have been his first visit to the West), and, last but not least, (c) The Confession (1990), his awesome if unfinished final work, second only to Sayat Nova, an eight-minute fragment which I once described as follows: “it centers mainly on a long take juxtaposing a group of musicians (whose music is unheard), an apparent funeral, and various ritualistic activities—all happening at once in the same hallucinatory space in a way that recalls juxtapositions in medieval paintings.”
19. Have you been wondering how or when you’ll be able to find Luis Buñuel’s only documentary, his half-hour Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes, 1933), on DVD? Look no further: an Australian label called Umbrella Entertainment (umbrellaent.com.au) has brought it out, and as an extra has included a far-more-readily-available documentary about Buñuel (A Propósito De Buñuel, 2000), that’s over three times longer. Meanwhile, if you can accept the weird anomaly of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s L’Âge d’or (1930) on Blu-ray—which sounds (very) roughly akin to showing it at Radio City Music Hall—the BFI has brought it out in a dual format edition (Blu-Ray + DVD).
20. Coffret Frank Borzage. Murnau, Borzage and Fox is an even more formidable box set than this recent three-disc collection issued in France by Carlotta, but unlike the Coffret it wasn’t supervised by archivist and film historian Hervé Dumont, who wrote the definitive book about Borzage. This coffret also offers Dumont’s (French) audio commentary to The River (a.k.a. La femme au corbeau, 1928). The features included here—Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929)—are also in the Fox set, but among the many extras here that the Fox set doesn’t have are three Borzage-directed episodes from the TV series Screen Directors Playhouse: Day Is Done (1955), A Ticket for Thaddeus (1956), and The Day I Met Caruso (1956).
21. I don’t know whether or not Basil Dearden’s All Night Long (1962)—an English jazz-club version of Othello, included in the Eclipse collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground along with his Sapphire (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960), and Victim (1961)—is a good or very good film, exactly. But it’s such an endlessly enjoyable one—not only for its music (including an unexpected duet between Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus that works a lot better than anyone could have expected) and pungent jazz atmosphere, but also for its many other incidental pleasures, including Patrick McGoohan and Betsy Blair—that I can’t resist recommending it.
22. There’s been a revival of interest lately in the late-silent city symphony People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930), which brought together Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, including a recent book in French by Raymond Bellour (Les hommes, le dimanche, de Robert Siodmak et Edgar G. Ulmer, published by Yellow Now) and now an excellent Criterion edition of the film, with a choice of musical scores (period-style or more contemporary), a 2000 documentary about the film by Gerald Koll, and a 1931 short by the film’s cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan.
23. It’s becoming increasingly clear that part of the special value of Second Run Features in the UK, especially regarding its DVD releases of Eastern European features from the ‘60s and ‘70s, is its ongoing reproach to Western film critics’ glib confidence that we knew what was going on in radical/avant-garde European cinema during that period. In the cases of Věra Chytilová and Miklós Jancsó, whom Second Run has already been attentive to, we at least knew something at the time, even if we (arguably) undervalued them and were partially blocked in our appreciations by the limited understandings and multiple confusions of the Cold War. But in the case of Zoltán Huszárik’s dazzling Szindbád (1971), Second Run’s latest release, it seems fair to say that most of us knew absolutely nothing. Based on stories by the celebrated Hungarian surrealist writer Gyula Krúdy, this employs a style of widescreen colour, rapid montage, and eroticism in early 20th-century settings with such unbridled abandon and originality that it’s hard to believe we could have been completely unaware of such a film in the ‘70s, but we were—even though it was pegged more recently by Hungarian writers and filmmakers as one of the three greatest films in all of Hungarian cinema (the other two being Jancsó’s 1965 The Round-Up and Károly Makk’s 1971 Love). According to David Cook in A History of Narrative Film, the Hungarians “seem to have identified film as an art form before any other nationality in the world, including the French,” and even though we don’t seem to have much filmic evidence nowadays of that tradition in the West, one can still find a considerable formal and stylistic range among the Hungarian films of Pál Fejös (better known to us as Paul Fejos), Jancsó, Makk, and Béla Tarr, not to mention the Hollywood films of such Hungarians as Michael Curtiz and André de Toth, who had already started as directors with somewhat different names on their home turfs. Even though he made only two features (Szindbád was the first) and a few shorts, it now seems possible that Zoltán Huszárik’s name should be added to the list.
24. Conceivably my favourite Re:Voir release to date, at least among those I’ve encountered (see re-voir.com for the others), is Rhythms by Len Lye, which includes a dozen of the 19 items in his filmography, everything from A Colour Box (1935) to the posthumously completed Tal Farlow (1980), and including all the best films of his that I know. This came out a couple of years ago, but stateside distribution of Re:Voir titles remains pretty fitful, at least within my experience, so I only came across this for purchase at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Pip Chodorov, who runs the label, even borrowed the title of one of these Lye animated films, Free Radicals (1958), for his highly enjoyable Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2010), a filmed documentary shot in a variety of gauges that he had to screen digitally in Wrocław because no one has put up the funds yet to strike a print.
25. Catching up belatedly with Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere—which I find every bit as fascinating and disturbing as Quintín reported in this magazine two issues back, and approximately 800 times more interesting than Anthony Lane’s pan—I can finally get around to reading Emmanuel Burdeau’s fascinating book-length interview with Hellman in French that was occasioned by it, Sympathy for the Devil (Capricci, 2011). I realize that this is a DVD column, not a book column (despite many bibliographical references this time around), so let me also take this opportunity to point out the happy news that, even though Road to Nowhere won’t be available on DVD until after I’ve submitted this column, all my other favourite Hellman films already are—The Shooting (1968), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), and Iguana (1988)—and all of these but the second, which is out in a first-rate Criterion edition, can be purchased for $9.99 or less.
P.S. If you feel like laying down a bundle for a six-disc edition of Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon—complete with the two-part 266-minute theatrical version, the six-part 360-minute TV serial version, and a sixth DVD consisting exclusively of extras, with optional English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles—it costs 39.99 Euros + postage at both clapfilmes.pt and fnac.pt.