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By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Writing during the end-of-the-year holidays, I’ve been enjoying quite a few recent arrivals: the two-disc edition of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s 1984 Klassenverhältnisse—their version of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, known in English as Class Relations (filmmuseum, all regions, PAL, English subtitles for everything except the DVD-ROM), justly celebrated by Mark Peranson in his editorial for issue 33; three DVD packages from Blaq Out—Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2006 Bamako (region 2, PAL, English subtitles for everything), Marguerite Duras’ 1972 Nathalie Granger (all regions, NTSC, English subtitles for everything), and “8 Films by Jean Paul Civeyrac” (made between 1991 and 2004; all regions, PAL, English subtitles or intertitles for everything, including a DVD-ROM); the eight-disc “Sacha Guitry: L’Age d’or 1936-1938” (Gaumont Video, all regions, PAL, English subtitles for all nine features but none for the extras); the two-disc “L’Intégrale Pierre Clémenti: Cinéaste/Film-maker” (Choses Vues, all regions, PAL, English subtitles for everything); and Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s 1977, 450-minute Hitler, A Film from Germany (Facets Video, all regions, NTSC, including both English and German-language versions), miraculously crammed onto just two discs.
What I especially like about most of these DVDs—in addition to Criterion’s recent releases of Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Cahiers du Cinéma label’s two-disc set of Georges Franju’s Judex (1963) and Nuits rouges (1973) (no subtitles, alas, of any kind)—is that they’re basically critical editions, with extras that do a lot to enhance the original films. (I can’t truly judge the Civeyrac set in this light because the only “critical” tool offered there is an experimental CD-ROM by Grégory Chatonsky employing clips from Civeyrac films that I haven’t been able to sample on my equipment, apart from the demo.)
Disc #2 of Class Relations offers a 65-minute documentary about the rehearsals by Harun Farocki, a member of the cast, as well as an excellent 42-minute interview by Manfred Blank (mainly with Straub, with the late Huillet adding, as she often did, pointed interjections), a new 20-minute assembly of outtakes (edited in such a way as to justify the ponderous Germanic title, Work in progress. Genetic Analysis of the Sign Structure and Rhetoric in the Opening Sequences of the Film “Class Relations” on the Basis of Unused Takes), and 44 production stills. There’s also a 16-page booklet with essays by Hans Hurch and Klaus Kanzog, only in German, and a lovely essay by Barton Byg (who did the English subtitles with Huillet), only in English, “For Danièle.”
Blaq Out’s Bamako has a half-hour TV interview by critic Frédéric Bonnaud with both Sissako and French activist lawyer Roland Rappaport, who appears in the film, and a 20-minute segment with Rappaport and a few of the other lawyers in the film introducing themselves. Sissako’s information about the film is certainly helpful, but Rappaport’s testimony about what he finds ethically beautiful in the film is perhaps even more valuable. Similarly, while the second disc of Nathalie Granger offers a good and detailed critical reading of the film by Madeleine Borgomano, I learned more from the detailed interviews with Luc Moullet (the film’s producer), Benoît Jacquot (the assistant director), and Geneviève Dufour (the script girl).
I suspect most people reading this column have never heard of Jean Paul Civeyrac, a filmmaker whose work I’m still getting acquainted with. What mainly spurred my interest was seeing his hour long À Travers la forêt (2004) atthe Toronto film festival a few years back, after having seen one of his earlier features in Paris on the advice of critic Bernard Eisenschitz. He works with young actors and his work has some of the lyricism of Jacques Rozier (Adieu Philippine, 1962), and apart from its intense eroticism, his gorgeous À Travers la forêt is surely one of the closest approximations to Jacques Tourneur’s delicate work for and with Val Lewton that I’ve encountered, in supernatural spirit as well as sheer eeriness (though Vertigo is also evoked). A young woman’s boyfriend dies (offscreen, after a sexual and romantic idyll that opens the film), and she becomes obsessed with the notion that he’s still communicating with her, finally focusing on a boy she meets at a séance (played by the same actor) whose identity she decides has been taken over by her former lover. As in Tourneur, her belief is neither verified nor disproven; Civeyrac works very close to his actors, moves his camera a lot, and weaves his hypnotic, labyrinthine mise en scène around a few people and settings, basically working (again like Tourneur) with mood, empty space, and our imagination’s capacity to fill that space. And speaking of space, Blaq Out’s sleek and elegant Civeyrac package contains four discs (with four features, two shorts, and Chatonsky’s “multimedia work”), yet it’s so compact that it resembles a book and can be shelved like any single-disc DVD.
I’ve already written in this column about Blaq Out’s Luc Moullet releases and its package of three early French Raúl Ruiz films. In its rapidly expanding catalogue, I still haven’t had chances to sample, among films I already like, Merzak Allouache’s Bab El-Oued City (1994), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’enfant (2005), Keren Yedaya’s Or/Mon trésor (2004), and several films by Otar Iosseliani, all of which (apart from an Iosseliani box set that’s separate from three other Iosseliani releases) have English subtitles and what appear to be helpful extras. Meanwhile, I’ve already visited Blaq Out’s Paris boutique (small yet roomy, like its Civeyrac set), appropriately located on rue Charlot (“Charlot” being the affectionate French term for Charlie Chaplin), and spent some time on its English-language blog (en.blogs.dissidenz.com/category/pick), where I’ve just found Luc Moullet providing the “Pick of the Week.” This happens to be the original 1951 version of The Thing, allowing Moullet to make the following invaluable insight into Howard Hawks’ ambiguous ideology (my apologies for tweaking the translator’s English a little): “Theoretically, this is an anti-communist movie made during the cold war—an anti-communism which is not [actually there] but can none the less be [surmised], as it was shot in 1950-1951. Curiously though, as in many other Hawks films, the film constantly shows many people acting simultaneously. In each sequence, Hawks shows us the behaviour of a small group—five or ten people. The action takes place in a station in Alaska or in the Great North, isolated from the world—it’s a huis-clos film. Each character has a professional and personalized function and the film shows how they react as if each actor was at the same time directed and his own director. This is a real orchestration: not only a personal itinerary but one of an entire group, which leads me to say that The Thing From Another World is a communist film [that validates] the true nature of communism.” (I should add that Blaq out is very efficient about mailing their DVDs, but they charge a bit more for postage than either French Amazon or FNAC.)
The eight-disc, nine-feature Guitry box set costs a whopping 89 Euros, but considering that all nine features are digitally restored and blessed with reasonably complete and literate subtitles, that’s actually a bargain. It’s a truism that Guitry’s genius is as closely tied to the French language as Preston Sturges’ genius is tied to his English (or his “American,” as the French would say). If you know some French but not enough to follow Guitry with ease, the absence of subtitles on most of his films has been a major obstacle—as I once discovered to my regret while attending a Guitry retrospective in Locarno, where the use of earphone translation for most films was neither appropriate nor adequate. So if you’re serious about wanting to become acquainted with his work but are less than fluent, here’s your golden opportunity.
It’s astonishing that Guitry wrote and directed all nine of these features over a three-year period. (I wonder whether he was also doing much theatre at the time.) I’ve seen less than half of these, and even though I know they’re not all on the same level as Le roman d’un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936) or Les perles de la couronne (The Pearls of the Crown, 1937, my favourite so far—a trilingual tour de force, portions of which proceed simultaneously in French, English, and Italian), I’m sure there are many discoveries to be made. And while I’m catching up with such works as Le nouveau testament (1936), Désiré (1937), and Quadrille (1938), I also expect to be trying to improve my French by coping with the copious extras, which include a couple of hour-long documentaries, five short ”thematic montages” by Philippe Durant, a critical discussion of Guitry held in 1967 (with François Truffaut and Henri Agel among the participants), and interviews with Olivier Assayas, Denis Podalydés, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Pascal Thomas, Truffaut, and Francis Veber.
It may not have been until my first visit to the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2001 that I was properly introduced to the experimental cinema of Pierre Clémenti (1942-1999), in a program presented by Nicole Brenez. Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, when Clémenti was making his films, sometimes over many years—the 43-minute Visa de censure no. x between 1967 and 1975, the silent, 23-minute “Révolution…” in 1968, the 63-minute diary film New Old in 1978, the 84-minute A l’ombre de la canaille bleue (his only fiction film) between 1978 and 1985, and the 14-minute Soleil (his avowed favourite) in 1988—I knew him only as the wild poster-boy actor for such edgy filmmakers as Bertolucci, Buñuel, Cavani, Cozarinsky, Garrel (twice misspelled as “Tarrel” on the jacket of this mainly conscientiously put-together package), Peter Emanuel Goldman, Jancsó, Makavejev, Pasolini, Rocha, Rivette, and Visconti. Had I known that he was making psychedelic, multiple-exposure hippie films back then, I probably would have balked at the idea of seeing them, given how many terrible films of this kind existed in those years. (Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels in 1971 may have singlehandedly persuaded me to steer clear of that category for the rest of my life.) But the surprising thing about this work today, now that I’m starting to catch up with it, is how lovely and durable much of it is as real filmmaking. And this elegant package provides not only his complete film works, but the story of his life and career, which I hadn’t previously known apart from selected snippets. (The first time I ever saw Clémenti, by the way, was in Buñuel’s 1967 Belle de jour, which has finally become available with English subtitles in the UK, from Optimum World.)
The stupendous, monumental, avant-garde essay film Hitler, A Film from Germany, which I haven’t seen since it was shown at Lincoln Center in 1979, is already, of course, a “critical edition” in its own right. But, alas, that doesn’t mean that the US edition ($79.95 on US Amazon) of a set also available on German Amazon (for 23.95 Euros, or much less than half as much) includes anything nearly as useful as the 1982 Farrar, Straus & Giroux book of the film that I still have in paperback. The latter is what enabled me to track down a favourite passage at the end of Part 1 (the penultimate chapter on the first disc): a witty and passionate indictment of Hollywood for what it did to Stroheim (immediately followed by an indictment of those who betrayed Eisenstein in Russia): “It was there [Hollywood] that they let the typists decide what ending one of [Stroheim’s] films should have—an insult to the freedom and humanity of all the typists in the world.”
It’s great that we finally have Hitler on DVD in a “director’s authorized edition.” But is Syberberg the one to blame for the unidiomatic English in the accompanying 56-page booklet, “Understanding Our Hitler” (e.g., “the following translation of the extra has been provided”)? Or the fact that two separate English titles appear in the same Table of Contents—the one favoured by the authors of the two essays reprinted (Susan Sontag and Anton Kaes) as well as Syberberg himself (Hitler: A Film from Germany), and the one coined by Francis Ford Coppola (Our Hitler: A Film from Germany), who insisted on releasing the film in the US with his own title? None of this is clarified in the booklet, which simply uses the two titles interchangeably and adds part of Coppola’s original publicity to the two essays, along with an awkward if helpful English paraphrase of the set’s only bonus—an unreleased and fascinating (albeit technically slipshod in its current state, and unsubtitled) German documentary about the film’s 1979 US launch, with appearances by Syberberg, Tom Luddy, Coppola, Scorsese, Sontag, Andrew Sarris, and John Simon (the only one seen speaking German). Since this latter exudes the charm of both a home movie and a time capsule, I welcome its inclusion. But I regret the absence of any English-friendly or thoughtful editor on the booklet, which prevents this essential set, in spite of its exorbitant price (which Milos Stehlik, the director of Facets Video, tells me was necessary in order to release this set at all) from having the professional polish of any Criterion release. By contrast, the same label releasing a bare-bones, all-region NTSC DVD of Lisandro Alonso’s remarkable Los muertos (2003) for $26.99 almost sounds like a bargain.
To complete this critical inventory, Peter Cowie has an unusually informative commentary on Sawdust and Tinsel, and one that’s much more helpful (to me, at any rate) than the liner notes by John Simon and Catherine Breillat, while the double-disc Two-Lane Blacktop offers a veritable cornucopia: separate commentaries by Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (in conversation, respectively, with Allison Anders and David Meyer), copious new interviews and old outtakes, a new documentary, a reprint of Wurlitzer’s long-unavailable screenplay, separate liner notes by Kent Jones, Richard Linklater, and Tom Waits, and a reprint of a 1970 “making of” article written by Michael Goodwin for Rolling Stone. And the monolingual Franju set offers, along with new interviews with Jacques Champreux—grandson of Louis Feuillade, screenwriter of Judex (Franju’s remake, not Feuillade’s original serial), and cowriter of Nuits rouges—-three Cahiers texts from the 60s on CD-ROM consisting of two articles on Judex (by Jean-André Fieschi and Jacques Rivette) and an interview with Franju. After bellyaching in a previous column about the godawful subtitled version of Franju’s Judex on Bijouflix, I have to admit that this unsubtitled version is beautifully textured. As for Nuits rouges—a French TV serial in colour boiled down to a feature—I haven’t seen this since it was screened at the London Film Festival in the ‘70s, and I’m not especially looking forward to a return trip. For me, Franju’s work seems to have lost most of its distinction once he shifted from black and white to colour, around the time of his lamentable Zola adaptation, La faute de l’abbé Mouret (1970).
It’s my impression that Class Relations marks the particular point in Straub-Huillet’s work when they become directors of actors, and one of the more memorable details in Farocki’s documentary shows Straub directing one actor by alluding to Ricky Nelson’s performance in Rio Bravo (1959). There’s also a striking moment in Blank’s interview in which Straub speaks about the “monumentality” achieved by Stroheim, with particular reference to a street scene with an injured dog in Hello, Sister! (1933), a film he and Huillet had just seen for the first time. This inspired me to take another look at that film on a lousy VHS dupe taken from TV, and I suddenly realized that Stroheim’s two films set in contemporary American, Greed (1924) and this film—which are also probably his two most butchered films—are both still unavailable on DVD. And so is D.W. Griffith’s powerful and underrated last feature, The Struggle (1931), which I also just resaw.
Before the holidays kicked in, I received Milestone’s long-awaited and indispensable two-disc Charles Burnett/Killer of Sheep set—something of a misnomer, because the second disc consists of separate 1983 and 2007 Burnett cuts of his subsequent (and even more neglected) My Brother’s Wedding, as well as a recent short, Quiet as Kept. And the first disc contains not only an invaluable commentary by Burnett and Richard Peña as well as a video of a recent reunion of the cast of Killer of Sheep, but also three earlier shorts—Several Friends (1969), The House (1975), and When it Rains (1995).
The last of these shorts is so precious to me that, in my “all-time” ten best list for Sight and Sound in 2002, it was the only film I included that was made after the ‘60s. So I’m riled that there’s nothing in the packaging or the notes or even on the discs’ labels that bothers to inform us that the three earlier Burnett shorts are found on the first disc and not the second. This isn’t comparable as a flaw to the mild irritation on each of the Guitry discs—that you have to watch a clip from the given film before you’re allowed to get to the menu. The latter encumbrance is actually a form of appreciation, and may be relevant only to a certain American impatience about going directly to the goods. The lack of basic information about getting to the goods in the Burnett package is merely a matter of thoughtlessness.
Maybe it’s also thoughtless on the part of the packagers of the indispensable new DVD of a restoration of Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s brilliant Chameleon Street (1980), put out by Home Vision Entertainment, that in spite of many extras, including a commentary by critic Armond White and filmmaker Michael Reiter, there doesn’t appear to be any explanation of why the writer-director-star hasn’t participated in any of them. Or, alternately, maybe there is an explanation that I haven’t come across yet. Or maybe the fact that Harris’ subsequent movie credits seemingly consist only of secondary acting roles in Out of Sight (1998) and Road Trip (2000) is too painful to deal with. Whatever the reason is, while looking forward to reseeing this amazing African-American debut feature—which is similar thematically to Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (though infinitely more interesting and provocative)—I can only wonder about what’s happened to its maker. (I was wondering the same thing about Larry Clark—a UCLA classmate of Charles Burnett who made one of the best features I’ve ever seen about a jazz musician, Passing Through (1977), though it’s never come out on DVD—until I just looked Clark up on IMDb and discovered that he finally made a second feature in 2002, The Cutting Horse, which I know nothing about except that it is available on DVD.)
I’m also pleased to have Milestone’s “Ultimate Edition” of I Am Cuba—three discs and a 16-page booklet inside a sturdy cigar box. If this isn’t a critical edition of that monstrous and fascinating Soviet-Cuban coproduction of 1964, I’m not sure what could be. Along with such customary extras as stills and a trailer, there’s a two-hour, 2006 Russian documentary about the credited director, Mikhail Kalatozov, made by his grandson; a smart, 91-minute Brazilian documentary by Vicente Ferraz, I Am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth (2005); and recent half-hour interviews with both Martin Scorsese (a fan who, along with Francis Ford Coppola and/or Tom Luddy, helped to rediscover the film) and screenwriter-poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. If anything, the massive information offered only helps to make the film more indigestible rather than less, which to my mind is as it should be. This spectacular piece of formalist propaganda is a significant cross-reference to both Que Viva Mexico! and It’s All True that differs from the Eisenstein and Welles in that it was actually finished (and reviled by audiences in both Cuba and Russia before it was shelved). It’s also even more distinct insofar as it can’t be accounted for or subsumed by any of the usual brands of auteurism. Not only is cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky a likelier or at least more substantial creative source than either Kalatozov or Yevtushenko; as we discover from Ferraz, Urusevsky’s wife Bella Friedman was also a significant co-auteur. And if the baroque, endlessly protracted crane shots in the film suggest anything about the filmmakers, this is that so many separate people working in a relay were needed in order to realize them that it sounds inaccurate as well as ungenerous to account for their special qualities as any kind of individual (or individualist) expression: for better and for worse, this is Communism in action.
Is the restored version from Kino Video of Die Puppe (The Doll, 1919), one of my favourite Lubitsch comedies, a “critical edition”? It’s very nearly that by virtue of being complemented by Robert Fischer’s feature-length 2006 documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin on the same disc. But I can’t bring myself to call the same label’s belated and highly welcome release of Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) a critical edition in any shape or form. Admittedly, someone has gone to the trouble of including an 8-minute experimental film of 1985 “dedicated” to Paradjanov, as well as a recent 39-minute documentary by someone else about Paradjanov and Tarkovsky that juxtaposes clips and documentary footage relating to both and a brief account of their friendship and mutual admiration. But, as with so many other Russian editions of Soviet films, the overall rule seems to be to throw various materials at us while identifying practically nothing. (Just for starters, Paradjanov’s imprisonment and Tarkovsky’s exile are both noted so sketchily—alluded to rather than explained—that practically no information about either is imparted). Facts are so hard to come by involving Paradjanov’s life and career that it’s frustrating that we’re not even offered a biographical sketch here as we are in the Clémenti set, and the continuing unavailability of Paradjanov’s awesome Confession—an unfinished fragment made just before his death in 1990 that I value much more than either of his last two features, The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988)—is equally vexing.
The makings of an ideal critical edition of Tarkovsky already exist—namely, Chris Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), made for French TV—and although this is obtainable on DVD, it’s without English subtitles, on a six-disc French set I don’t have, devoted to the excellent TV series it appeared on (“Coffret Cinema de notre temps”)—along with other documentaries on Akerman, Cassavetes, Cavalier, Chahine, de Oliveira, Ferrara, Garrel, Hou, Straub/Huillet, Imamura, Kiarostami, Kitano, Loach, McLaren, Rohmer, and Rouch. And according to Stehlik, the VHS copy of just the Marker film retails for $390, apparently because of its “nontheatrical” status.
P.S. To call attention to some important noncritical editions: (1) Most of the major Frederick Wiseman features are now available on DVD from www.zipporah.com; prices for individual purchase vary, but all are less exorbitant than Facets’ charge for Hitler. (2) A digital restoration of a tinted print of D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919) is available from Image Entertainment, with the 64-minute Hoodoo Ann (1916)—supervised by Griffith, but directed by Lloyd Ingraham—as a bonus.
April update: Many correspondents have pointed out to me that the two-disc “Andrei Tarkovsky Companion,” released last year by Artificial Eye for only £8.98 on the U.K. branch of Amazon, includes One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra’s Tempo di Viaggio (1983), and Alexander Sokurov’s Moscow Elegy (1987). I’ve also heard that First Run will be bringing out the Marker documentary in the U.S.