By Adam Nayman It’s all in the wrist. Buried beneath layers of latex as John Merrick in David Lynch’s The More →
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
One limitation of this column when it comes to overseas releases is that many (if not all) of my selections are determined by which companies send me review copies and which ones don’t. When it comes to the UK, I eventually gave up on Artificial Eye responding to my requests several years ago, have had excellent relations with the BFI (see below) and Second Run (which just sent me a lovely edition of Miklós Jancsó’s 1968 The Confrontation, his first colour film), and for most of its existence to date, have received all the new releases of Masters of Cinema from Eureka—at least until last spring, when I mysteriously started receiving none. No explanation for this change has ever been offered, and despite periodic assurances from Craig Keller that review copies are on their way to my doorstep (which is why I haven’t yet considered purchasing any), none has ever arrived. So until or unless this situation changes, I regretfully have to omit this company’s releases, usually among the best around, from all of my surveys. (P.S.: Just as we were going to press the situation was rectified.)
Speaking of the BFI, one of the key pleasures for me in their recent dual-format editions of Jour de fête (1949) and Mon oncle (1958) is their reminder that practically all of Jacques Tati’s features had more than one “authorized” version at one time or another, usually because of Tati’s own penchant for tinkering with and periodically upgrading his own work. (In the case of Playtime —a version of which Tati reportedly re-edited shortly before his death, yielding most of the version that is currently available—this was apparently a way of exercising some damage control over the ravages that had been made by others during the period when he lost control over the prints being distributed. And as far as I know, the only changes ever made to Parade , his last and least-known feature, were cuts made by others without his consent or approval.) During the week or so that I worked for Tati as “script consultant” in January 1973, I learned that the gag in Trafic (1971) about busts of famous men being given out as promotional gifts at a filling station had actually been added by Tati after the original release of the film, and that he’d done something comparable with a gag alluding to Jaws (1975) that he’d managed to insert into a re-release version of Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953). In the case of Jour de fête, it was apparently at least partially his failure to process the experimental new colour system, Thomson-Color, that led him to edit a new version of the original black-and-white release in 1964 with a few added hand-painted details, the addition of a new character (a young painter), and an English voiceover. And in the case of Mon oncle, it was evidently a desire to simplify and/or clarify a few details for American and other English-speaking viewers that led him to prepare My Uncle, seven minutes shorter, which eventually won him his only Oscar.
The dual edition of Jour de fête includes, on Blu-ray, both versions of the film: the gorgeous colour version shot with one camera that Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff (1946-2001), with the aid of cameraman François Ede, finally and triumphantly succeeded in processing many years after her father’s death and very shortly before her own, and the black-and-white version shot with a different camera, basically as a backup, which became the only version that was released in 1949. The DVD includes only the 1964 version (in black and white, with a few hand-painted colours), along with three shorts featuring Tati (Soigne ton gauche , L’école des facteurs , and Cours de soir , only the second of which he directed) and the trailer for the colour version of Jour de fête. Regarding this posthumous Thomson-Color version, as I suggested in my collection Essential Cinema, the glorious thing about its colour is that it looks less like other films shot in 1947 and more like 1947 itself (at least if my memories of that year as a four-year-old are reliable), thereby justifying Godard’s claim that Jour de fête represents the birth of French neorealism. Another remarkable thing about this version is that it belongs on the special honour roll of masterpieces “distributed” (i.e., suppressed) in the US by Miramax that also includes Jacques Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), and the original version of Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), before Miramax forced him to reshoot the final sequence. I’m sure there are other precious masterpieces on this list as well, and some day, some enterprising programmer should devote an entire retrospective to all of them, at least if they can pry the prints out of the Weinsteins’ sweaty clutches.
The dual edition of Mon oncle includes both versions on both the Blu-ray and the DVD (the latter of which also includes a trailer), and part of the pleasure of having both versions is that, as with the two Jour de fêtes, they’re really separate films—in this case ones employing at certain junctures different takes and different details as well as a separate soundtrack. The differences are already apparent during the credit sequences, reminding me of the wonderful account (related in James Harding’s Tati biography) of one of Tati’s ways of preparing the film: by following various dogs around a neighbourhood over several days. (During my own brief stint of working for him, I can remember him once performing at length for a dog in the bistro downstairs from his office, seemingly indifferent to the responses of everyone else in the establishment.)
Another fascinating PAL release sent to me gratis, this one directly from France: a two-disc set called Diourka-Lafont from a company called Filmedia. I assume most readers of this column will have some familiarity with Bernadette Lafont: the archetypal sexy bad girl of the early French New Wave, discovered by Truffaut to star in his first short, the 1957 Les mistons (and, 15 years later, in Une belle fille comme moi), featured quite a bit by Chabrol (in Le beau Serge , Leda , Les bonnes femmes , and Les godelureaux ), and, a decade later, used memorably by both Rivette (in Out 1  and Noroît ) and Eustache (in La maman et la putain, 1973)—which still leaves out her work with Louis Malle, Nelly Kaplan, Philippe Garrel, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Marc’O, Jacques Baratier, Pascal Aubier, and László Szabó, among countless others. And if you’re wondering who Diourka Medveczky is, you’re not alone: a Hungarian-born sculptor whom Lafont met in 1958 and had three kids with, he directed two shorts (Marie et le curé, 1967, and Jeanne et la Moto, 1969) and one feature (Paul, 1968), all in sumptuous black and white and wildly transgressive in a manner that reeks of France in the late ’60s. (Lafont plays in both Marie and Paul, co-starring in the latter of these with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Jean-Pierre Kalfon, two other New Wave axioms; and to round off all the period funk, Noël Burch served as cameraman on Marie et le curé, which was inspired by a 1956 fait-divers in which a priest murdered a young maid he’d impregnated, then killed their child after performing a baptism.)
All three films are included on Diourka-Lafont with optional English subtitles, and even though the two feature-length documentaries (both of them by Estelle Fredet and André S. Labarthe) on the second disc don’t have subtitles, they’re no less engrossing, even if you can’t follow them completely. One, dating from last year, is about Diourka, who fled Paris and society in general in 1972 and now lives in a house he built in the country, surrounded by his own sculptures; the other, made in 2007, is about Lafont, who chats at her home with critic Jean Douchet and former Cinémathèque director Dominique Païni while presiding over clips from some of her best-known as well as least-known features: behaving wildly under tons of make-up with Bulle Ogier in Baratier’s black-and-white Piège (1970), for instance, or singing a brassy musical number with Catherine Deneuve in Szabó’s colour Zig-Zag (1975). For many more details, if you can read French, try to chase down and then wade your way through a copy of Lafont’s slangy 1978 memoir, La fiancée du cinéma.
I’m happy to report that Criterion has never stopped sending me all its new releases, such as its wonderful recent DVD of Godard’s Weekend (1967), which includes a 24-minute video essay by Kent Jones that does an exemplary job of filling in the dense political, cinematic, historical and intellectual background of Godard’s rage in 1967-68. It’s also great to have Criterion’s Blu-ray of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), but to be perfectly honest, if I had to make a choice I’d opt for their two-disc DVD version of five years ago, which has all the same extras (including a superb Kent Jones essay and a fine, short appreciation by Richard Linklater) plus Rudolph Wurlitzer’s entire original screenplay (all 111 pages, with a 2007 introduction by Hellman), which the Blu-ray lacks. So which would you prefer: better sound and image, or the benefit of knowing approximately what the three-and-a-half-hour rough cut of Two-Lane Blacktop must have been like, only about half of which got into the final release, all set down in Wurlitzer’s expertly chiselled prose? Maybe, if you’re the sort of fan that this movie deserves, you should wind up with both editions.
Speaking of films getting cut in half, one good reason I had for ordering the two-disc Blu-ray of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) from Amazon UK is that I’d never seen the film before, in any form. Another was a certain curiosity spiked by the pleasure I found recently in reading The Richard Burton Diaries—though not because Burton has much of anything to say about the film, apart from his almost complete indifference to watching it with Elizabeth Taylor and “all the kids” in Capri eight years after its release (“I popped in at one point for about ten seconds and went away and slept for another couple of hours”—“No reflection on the film!” he hastens to add, but more an indication of “my total lack of interest in my own career”). Still another reason, once I had this attractive package, was watching a couple of very absorbing documentaries about the torturous and tortured saga of Cleopatra’s making on each disc, the second of which is almost two hours long. And still another source of fascination, apart from the film’s sporadic verbal and visual virtues—which I think deserve more than the two stars the film gets accorded in Maltin’s TV Movies—is how self-reflexive much of Cleopatra turns out to be, which isn’t all that surprising once one factors in that Mankiewicz was writing most of this four-hour blockbuster while it was being shot. Ultimately, the film proves to be more about contemporary studio politics than anything else, with Taylor/Cleopatra’s domination of Rex Harrison/Julius Caesar or Burton/Marc Antony precisely reflecting her greater salary and star power. (As we learn from both documentaries, she made $7 million on the picture.) It’s also sadly touching to hear all the details of how Mankiewicz, who dutifully played by all the Hollywood rules and protocols for most of his career, wound up becoming a sort of Stroheim to Darryl F. Zanuck, who wound up cutting his two-part epic to half its original length, a decimation from which neither the film nor Mankiewicz ever fully recovered.
One of the many interesting parallels between Cleopatra and Gone with the Wind (1939) is the sort of proto-feminist overtones to the plots of both films—a subject that Molly Haskell has many insights about in her terrific 2009 book Frankly, My Dear: “Gone with the Wind” Revisited, which, as I recall, is especially attentive to the various contradictions in the feminism of both the novel and the movie, which are mirrored by the various ways in which Taylor’s Cleopatra periodically oscillates between dominatrix and submissive housewife. There’s also a certain similarity in the way one of the two romantic heroes in each story (Ashley Wilkes and Marc Antony) winds up a spineless failure defeated by war, and it’s made clear in both of the Cleopatra documentaries that Zanuck, when he saw Mankiewicz’s rough cut, was especially riled about Marc Antony’s weakness, epitomized by the moment when he agrees to the heroine’s demand to kneel before her (which Julius Caesar does much earlier, yet in his case without losing quite so much of his cool). But even Zanuck must have realized that any Hollywood picture that culminates in the successive suicides of its two leads is already asking for a certain amount of trouble, commercially speaking. (Even so, it’s interesting to learn that Cleopatra eventually turned a modest profit in long-range terms.)
Around the same time I was watching this movie, I was reading Simon Callow’s less than glowing review of the Burton Diaries in the Guardian, which while acknowledging Burton’s gifts as a writer also includes a spot-on critique of his limitations as an actor: “The key to his understanding of acting is in his remark that ‘my first love…is not the stage, but a book with lovely words in it.’ And this is in the end why Burton’s acting is so disappointing: even when he’s trying—especially when he’s trying—he’s playing neither a character nor an action; he’s simply intoning words, narcissistically resonating them through his superb vocal instrument. This is not acting: it is speaking.” Taylor, by contrast, takes risks at every turn, running the gamut from operatic intensity and fierce engagement to camp histrionics, and both Harrison and Roddy McDowell (as Caesar’s nephew Octavian) are rarely less than excellent.
Among other recent purchases:
(a) From Amazon, the letterboxed Blu-ray of Wild River (1960)—my favourite Elia Kazan film by far, quite apart from the fact that I grew up alongside the TVA, a few miles from Wilson Dam (which is even larger than the dam seen in the final shots and closing iris of this film). But the fact that this film seems totally up-to-date in its subtly conflicted politics seems still more important. In fact, this masterpiece gets better every time I see it, and even after several viewings of 35mm CinemaScope prints over the years, the Blu-ray makes me more aware than I ever was before of the piercing and radiant blue eyes of both Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift—both of whom, in my opinion, give what may well be their best (as well as most underrated) screen performances. Part of what makes this such a profound picture about the Deep South is its grasp, through the characters of both Remick and Jo Van Fleet, of how much the region tends to operate as a matriarchy in disguise (which I believe is also true, at least to a certain degree, of Iranian society). Another part is how Kazan here achieves something comparable to what Norman Mailer did with The Executioner’s Song: in an oeuvre known mainly for bombast and overheated rhetoric, an almost completely un-rhetorical work that pulls its punches whenever it can, confidently letting most of the facts speak for themselves. I’m sorry that Richard Schickel’s commentary, which I’ve only sampled, fails to alert us to the appearance in an early scene of Barbara Loden, Kazan’s wife and, more importantly, the writer-director-star of Wanda (1970); although this is little more than a cameo, I think it’s worth emphasizing that Loden has the most pitch-perfect regional (i.e., Tennessee Valley) accent of any actor in the film, without being in the least bit show-offy in her incidental part.
(b) From Turner Classic Movies—which doesn’t even reply to my requests for review copies—the disappointing Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930s, which has led me to regret the inclusion of the 1932 Million Dollar Legs (no longer as funny or as zany to me as it used to be) in my list of 1000 favourites, as well as the expectations I brought to Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties (1934)—although I was intrigued by the diverse oddities of Raoul Walsh’s Artists and Models (1937), and still haven’t gotten around to Henry Hathaway’s Souls at Sea (1937). The set is also packaged in such a way that the discs keep slipping out of their shallow sleeves.
(c) From Echo Bridge Home Entertainment via Amazon, one of my favourite Charles Burnett features, Nightjohn (1996), for many years unavailable apart from the fickle whims of the Disney Channel. (And you’d better order this item from Amazon, because Echo Bridge’s substantial online catalogue doesn’t even mention it; you might say that Burnett is another Barbara Loden as far as the commercial marketplace is concerned.)
(d) From Movie Mars, the Blu-ray of North by Northwest (1959), especially fascinating for Ernest Lehman’s anecdotal commentary and its revelation of how much honest-to-Pete research his fanciful screenplay required.
(e) And from Warners’ hefty burn-on-demand Archive, Don Weis’ 1953 The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (routine stuff, even though it comes from Weis’ best period—albeit it does briefly burst into sublimity when Bob Fosse dances his socks off in a soda-shop sequence); George Cukor’s The Chapman Report (somewhat interesting in 1962, but painfully unwatchable now); Curtis Bernhardt’s 1949 The Doctor and the Girl (a discovery I owe to Dave Kehr—a fascinating anti-patriarchal melodrama co-starring Glenn Ford and Janet Leigh); Mark Robson’s 1963 The Prize (interesting mainly for Ernest Lehman’s rip-offs from his own North by Northwest script, but actually sexier and more bearable as a Hitchcock imitation than Hitchcock’s own Torn Curtain, made three years later and also starring Paul Newman); Mervyn LeRoy and Robert Rossen’s 1937 They Won’t Forget (as good an anti-lynching movie as its reputation suggests, with even more ambiguity about the sexual crime that sets up its plot than Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, made over two decades later); and George Archainbaud’s 1932 Thirteen Women (an exceptionally eerie, creepy, and original serial-killer movie, with Myrna Loy as the racially motivated murderess). Purchased from the same source but not yet seen: King Vidor’s 1930 Billy the Kid, Curtis Bernhardt’s 1945 Conflict (with Bogie and Sydney Greenstreet), and Anthony Mann’s 1956 Serenade (although the sampling I’ve already had woefully suggests that the blustering Mario Lanza vehicle triumphs over the James M. Cain adaptation without even trying).
My old friend Peter Gidal, a London-based experimental filmmaker and theorist, has sent me his PAL DVD, Performance of Sorts with Brecht (2009) / Volcano (2005) / Denials (1985), which retails for 20 quid and has led me in turn to the website of Lux (www.lux.org.uk), where you can find a good many other DVDs of experimental films (all or most of them available for online viewing) as well as books about experimental cinema. For me the most interesting item on Gidal’s new DVD is his Performance of Sorts with Brecht—a fascinating improvised lecture (of sorts) that beautifully reveals Gidal’s singularity as a writer and theorist—during which his own translations of passages from Brecht are read back to him, provoking his intricate glosses and formulated commentaries on what they mean to him as an experimental filmmaker.
Let me cite three other invaluable box sets devoted to major radical filmmakers. From Éditions Montparnasse (purchased via French Amazon), Volume 7 of the collected works of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, consisting of three discs, has finally gotten around to including my favourite of all their landscape films, the 16mm Trop tôt/trop tard (1980-81), with texts by Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein, shot in France and Egypt. The English title of this is Too Early, Too Late, but as with all the other volumes in this series, don’t expect any English subtitles (or, in this case, the English-language version with an English commentary, which I assume still exists), only French subtitles for the films not in French. This particular collection spans three decades of Straub/Huillet’s work, featuring also (to revert to English titles again, at least when I know them) The Death of Empedocles (1986), Black Sin (1988), Le genou d’Artemide (2007), Le streghe—Femmes entre elles (2008), L’Inconsolable (2010), Un héritier (2010), and Chacals et Arabes (2011), with texts courtesy of Hölderlin (the first two), Pavese (the next three), Maurice Barrès, and Kafka.
The other two sets are both from the US, and were both sent to me gratis: Nicholas Ray’s recently restored final feature, We Can’t Go Home Again, which dates from the ’70s, paired with Susan Ray’s excellent 2012 documentary about the film, Don’t Expect Too Much, occupies the first disc, while the second is devoted to extras: The Janitor (1974), Ray’s episode from a Dutch feature called Wet Dreams; rushes from Ray’s unfinished 1977 Marco, plus interviews with two of the film’s participants; a wonderful TV interview with Ray from the same year that focuses mainly on his Hollywood pictures; and last but not least, terrific extended recent interviews with Jim Jarmusch (who came to know Ray shortly before his death, when he was still a film student) and Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, both done for this box set. And as if this weren’t enough, an illustrated 18-page booklet, subtitled “Passing It On,” offers lovely texts by Susan Ray, Serge Daney, and Bill Krohn.
Sokurov: Early Masterpieces, a three-disc wonder from Cinema Guild, gives us one Blu-ray consisting of the exquisite Whispering Pages (1994) paired with three shorter works—Soviet Elegy (1989), An Example of Intonation (1991), and Questions about Cinema (2008)—and two DVDs. The first DVD includes Stone (1997), with a formidable audio commentary by James Quandt, and three shorter items, two of them by Sokurov (a 1988 documentary about Kozintsev’s St. Petersburg flat, and the ten-minute Sonata for Hitler, made over an eleven-year period) and the third a BBC radio program about Stone’s setting, Anton Chekhov’s house in Yalta; the second DVD includes Save and Protect, Sokurov’s 1990 version of Madame Bovary, and Whispering Pages again (this time in an SD copy). Based on what I’ve already sampled from all three discs, this lovely package doesn’t so much set out to “explain” or “explicate” Sokurov’s obscurities (although a great deal of useful supplementary information is offered by Quandt, Sokurov and others) as contribute to, enhance, and even expand those mysteries. It’s certainly clear that the more Sokurov speaks about his work here, the more unfathomable it becomes.
Two labels that are nice enough send me all their Blu-rays are Olive Films and Twilight Time. Among the more notable recent Olive releases are a beautiful remastering in HD from the original negative of John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), with gorgeous colour and, rare for Olive, a couple of extras (an illustrated 36-page booklet with an essay by Joseph McBride, adapted from his irreplaceable Ford biography, and a half-hour Leonard Maltin documentary about the film’s making that DVD Beaver suggests is factually questionable), and the far less prestigious 1945 Fred Allen comedy It’s in the Bag, directed by one Richard Wallace, which I’ve cherished ever since seeing a reissue in my childhood—a film whose surrealism, ranging from a hatcheck girl inside Jack Benny’s closet to a movie theatre balcony so far away from the screen that it resembles a Viking landscape, I find far more memorable and disturbing than anything in Million Dollar Legs, apart from Ben Turpin. Whether all this surrealism is intentional or not may be beside the point, even though Alma Reville (Alfred Hitchcock’s wife) and Fred Allen himself both worked on the script, which is adapted from the 1928 Russian novel The Twelve Chairs (filmed again, under its original title, by Mel Brooks in 1970). As uneven as the proceedings sometimes are—and quite apart from the deconstructive credits sequence, the actors’ asides to the camera, and the loony guest-star appearances by William Bendix, Don Ameche, and others pretending to play themselves—the dreamlike drifts involving space and time, as well as some of the stranger secondary characters (such as Jerry Colona as a deranged psychoanalyst), are difficult to shake off. Among the really exceptional Olive Blu-rays and DVDs scheduled for this spring: Samuel Fuller’s China Gate (1957), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948), and Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953).
As for Twilight Time, every Blu-ray of theirs that I’ve watched unravels like a class act, from the reproduction of sound and music to Julie Kirgo’s enjoyable and carefully researched essays; I’ve even come to cherish the whooshing sound one makes by navigating the menu pages via remote control. This more than makes up for the fact that their small catalogue is largely split between familiar classics—Bell, Book and Candle (1958), The Big Heat (1953), Bite the Bullet (1975), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), and Bye Bye Birdie (1963), just to concentrate on the Bs—and stinkers, some of which you’ll want to see anyway because of their historical and/or nostalgic interest. My own favourites in the latter category include Henry King’s 1959 Beloved Infidel, Daniel Mann’s Our Man Flint (which I enjoyed more back in 1965), and Jean Negulesco’s 1955 The Rains of Ranchipur (which I’ve already discussed my affection for on my website, at jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=32494), all in glorious ‘Scope ratios. I’ve been less lucky in making it all the way through Henry Koster’s Desiree (1954), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), and Blake Edwards’ High Time (1960) and Experiment in Terror (1962), although I’m sure there are others who will feel and respond differently.
One particularly striking aspect of the Our Man Flint disc is that it comes accompanied by no less than 13 separate extras, which tell far more than most people could ever possibly want to know about the movie—although most of it, such as the producer’s Ayn Rand-like social philosophy and the discarded Raquel Welch screen test, kept me engrossed just the same. I was also mildly amused by the almost constant oscillations in the interviews and commentaries between reading James Coburn’s Flint as a devastating James Bond parody and taking him absolutely straight, as a legit hero, with hardly any sense of the contradictions involved—which reminds me of similar kinds of double-speak in the present about how Django Unchained should be honoured as moral instruction and/or a thought-provoking history lesson and/or mindless entertainment (“just a movie”), and sometimes all three at once, to judge from both Tarantino himself and some of his more passionate fans.
From Kino—a label that often sends me review copies of things I ask for and occasionally sends me a few other things on their own—I’m happy to have some first-rate restorations: on Blu-ray, Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) on two discs, with the original score (one of my favourites), a feature-length documentary about both the making of the film and its restoration, and some newsreel footage of Lang working on the film; and the German-language version of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) with optional subtitles, which looks terrific. (No extras and no English-speaking version, but the latter is markedly inferior anyway, and the optimum version of the German original that one gets is really what counts.) And on DVD, Fritz Lang: The Early Works, a three-disc set with three of Lang’s least-known features, Harakiri (1919), The Wandering Shadow (1920), and Four Around the Woman (1921); no extras here either, and the title of the set shouldn’t lead you to conclude that this collection is exhaustive even in terms of what’s survived (the two-part The Spiders from 1919-1920 is missing), but still a priceless release.
Also on DVD from Kino, a restoration of Ely Landau’s stirring and historically invaluable King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970), in a two-disc set. Watching the first disc only a couple of days after Martin Luther King’s birthday, I kept thinking irreverently that if style can be said on occasion to equal or at least overcome content, then the rhetorical/political style of Django Unchained is really much closer to Bull Conner in this film, whether he’s speaking or spraying activists, than it is to King, whether he’s speaking or strategizing. (Both men, I should stress, speak and act with a real sense of power.) Apart from the newsreel footage, which chronicles King’s career from 1955 to 1968, the film also features guest appearances by (and what amount to short pep talks from) Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Ruby Dee, Joanne Woodward, and other luminaries, filmed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
From Amazon UK, I ordered Hannah Rothschild’s 2009 The Jazz Baroness, a Helen Mirren-narrated documentary about Rothschild’s legendary great-aunt Pannonica “Nica” Koenigswarter (whose difficult name, strangely enough, doesn’t appear anywhere on the box), the British-Jewish rebel from a billionaire family whose home in New York’s Stanhope Hotel is where Charlie Parker died, and whose subsequent house in Weehawken, New Jersey (which had been built by Josef von Sternberg and which she filled with stray cats that eventually numbered over a hundred) became Thelonious Monk’s second home and final resting place. I’ve been hearing about Nica almost as long as I’ve been a jazz buff (over 20 songs are named after her), but I hadn’t realized how central Monk was to her life before seeing this film. By her own testimony, while en route to the airport in the early 1950s, planning to fly back to Mexico City to join her family, she stopped off to visit her friend Teddy Wilson, who got her to listen to a record of “’Round Midnight”: “I made him play it 20 times in a row, missed my plane, and never went back to Mexico.” Even though this film raises more questions than it’s able to answer (which has led me to order David Kastin’s recent book-length Nica’s Dream), it kept me mesmerized, in spite of the uneven filmmaking and the weirdness of some of the musical choices (such as employing the trance-like riffs behind Coltrane’s “Greensleeves” without any of the melody; even if this was done for legal reasons, it works quite well). The extras alone—14 articulate interviews with important figures ranging from Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes to Monk’s manager and Thelonious Monk, Jr.—make this a welcome addition to any jazz lover’s collection.
Erratum: the Tati biography in which the above anecdote was related was by James Harding, not David Bellos as stated in the print version of this article. The error has been corrected in the article above.