1. The new Zeitgeist edition of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) is far more than an upgrade of the unsatisfactory Fox Lorber DVD of a dozen years ago. Apart from a 16:9 anamorphic transfer, it includes Assayas’ silent, experimental short Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung (1997), and two essays by him (on Cheung and Louis Feuillade) in the accompanying booklet, along with one by Kent Jones that’s recycled from other sources. There’s also lots of black-and-white rushes and “making of” footage, the latter accompanied by a discussion between Assayas and Jean-Michel Frodon held fairly recently at the Pacific Film Archives. My only complaint is that more of the latter material, about Assayas’ career in general, is used as an audio commentary during the feature itself, a reductio ad absurdum of the principle that commentaries don’t have to be related in any way to what you’re watching. This material, of course, has interest, but using it this way seems like an act of desperation—or, at the very least, laziness. What’s wrong with audio features without visuals?
2. Case in point: the 1985 audiotaped conversation between Patrick McGilligan and Martin Ritt included on the second disc of Criterion’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), which offers only a nominal still from the film to go with all the gab and gets no complaint from me. I still haven’t read the John Le Carré source novel, but watching the modest yet elegant and insightful new video interview with Le Carré in the same two-disc set before reseeing the film (for the first time in four decades) and then rereading Manny Farber’s review of the film in Negative Space afterwards seem to set me up well for a first reading. Could this be Martin Ritt’s best movie? I suspect some would opt for Hud (1963), but I’m willing to entertain the premise that it’s this low-key expression of disgust for Cold War thinking and expediency that most redeems his liberal-literary style of filmmaking, making up for such previous Ritt atrocities as The Sound and the Fury (1959) and Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962).
3. On a visit to Lisbon last October to serve on the international jury of DocLisboa, I managed to find in the FNAC outlet a superb, all-region PAL DVD of one of my favorite Manoel de Oliveira films, his autobiographical, hour-long Porto da Minha Infância (Oporto of My Childhood, 2001), including a TV interview with Oliveira that’s just as long and a filmography with links to no less than 13 trailers. Apart from the trailers, everything is trilingual, with optional Portuguese, French, and English subtitles. At the same outlet, I found Cecil B. DeMille’s enjoyably campy 1934 Cleopatra (Cléopatra in Portuguese), available in the U.S. only as part of a box set. You can also find Straub-Huillet’s 1999 Sicilia! (Portuguese subtitles only) online at this outlet (www.fnac.pt) for just 4,95 Euros, but be forewarned that the cost of airmail postage more or less negates the bargain.
4. Frederick Wiseman was DocLisboa’s guest of honor. Having heard that
most of his work had recently become available on all-region NTSC DVDs, I asked him if I could get some review copies—and was then delighted to discover that the ones I requested from www.zipporah.com arrived in Chicago before I did. I opted for a mix of favorites such as Public Housing (1997, 195 min., two discs) and Belfast, Maine (1999, 248 min., three discs) and ones I still wanted to see such as The Store (1983, 120 min.), Blind (1986, 132 min.), Near Death (1989, 358 min. three discs), and State Legislature (2006, 217 min., two discs). I’ve just seen The Store, Wiseman’s first documentary in color—which milks Neiman-Marcus’s store and their corporate HQ in Dallas during the Christmas season for all they’re worth and then some—and continue to be impressed by how resourceful Wiseman is in organizing and structuring his material both logically and unpredictably, something he seems to be getting better at all the time. My fellow Cinema Scope columnist Olaf Müller, who once described Near Death to me as “heavy shit,” has also gone on record in calling Wiseman the greatest living American filmmaker. Certainly it’s hard to think of another major contemporary figure as routinely overlooked and undervalued—not just because of how prolific he is but because of the tendency of television to be regarded and processed as a world apart from film.
5. Another bit of swag from my Lisbon trip, courtesy of Pedro Costa: a pricey, beautiful Japanese box set devoted to his first three features, O Sangue (1989), Casa de Lava (1994), and Ossos (1997). Admittedly this is a very specialized item (Portuguese dialogue, optional Japanese subtitles), although it is the only one of the two Costa box sets to date that contains his hard to find, short black-and-white 2005 music rehearsal video with Jeanne Balibar, Ne change rien (included here with Sangue)—the starting point for Costa’s new feature of the same title, shot largely in Japan and described to me by Costa as a bit like “[Godard’s] One Plus One without black people.” Meanwhile, the very handsome French DVD of Costa’s Dans la chambre de Vanda (2000) (www.capricci.fr) has a much more substantial extra: a book similar to the one I wrote about in my last column that’s included with the other Costa box set, on Intermedia, only this time it’s in French, a language I can understand. Its two main features are Cyril Neyrat’s extended conversation with Costa and Andy Rector’s awesome 148-page text-and-picture collage, Mutual Films.
6. Even though they’re sometimes difficult to shelve, I’m beginning to like box sets more and more, especially for some of the perks that go with them. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, even though it houses some movies such as Topaz (1969) that don’t qualify even remotely as masterpieces, finally enables me to own one of the supreme ones, Vertigo (1958), in a version where I’m not obliged to suffer through the grotesqueries of the clunky new soundtrack with obtrusive sound effects in the so-called restoration. In fact, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the extras included with this 15-disc set, currently priced on Amazon at only $89.99, but there’s clearly a great deal to look forward to. Meanwhile, The Films of Budd Boetticher (again, an obvious overstatement in the title) offers five key Columbia Westerns—The Tall T, Decision at Sundown (both 1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960), the latter two in CinemaScope—with many extras, including Dave Kehr’s 2005 documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That.
7. Intégrale Jacques Demy, an irreplaceable package, cost me 100 Euros, express-mail postage included, from French Amazon. But all things considered, that’s almost as good a bargain as the Hitchcock collection above. For one thing, this really is the complete Demy, including not just all 13 of his features and all six of his shorts on a dozen discs (plus a supplemental CD featuring some of Demy’s work sessions with Michel Legrand) but what seems to be all his juvenilia as well, including even the animated shorts he did as a kid in the ‘40s and stuff he did at school in the ‘50s. For another thing, all this work in French has optional English subtitles—and that also includes Agnes Varda’s two feature-length documentaries, The Young Girls Turn 25 (1992) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995)—with the sole exception of The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon (1973), quite possibly Demy’s worst film, which offers instead the English-dubbed version along with the French one. The English-language features—Model Shop (1968), The Pied Piper (1971), Lady Oscar (1978)—of course remain in English, though a French-language version of The Pied Piper is also offered. (Too bad that the extremely rare English-language version of The Young Girls of Rochefort  is omitted; whether this is because of lack of availability or aesthetic scruples, I can’t say.) Only the copious extras apart from the Varda documentaries (such as new features by Benoît Jacquot, Virginie Ledoyen, and Demy specialist Jean-Pierre Berthomé, among others, as well as many TV documentaries) are unsubtitled.
8. There’s a recent Spanish box set devoted to José Luis Guerin, issued by Versus Entertainment, that a friend has lent me. Its four discs include Innisfree, a 1990 documentary in English about the Irish town where John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) was shot; Tren de Sombras, a very elaborate 1997 French pseudo-documentary, one of whose producers was Pere Portabella, furnished with Spanish or English subtitles; Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007), a silent 65-minute “study” with black-and-white stills and English intertitles of locations featured in the same year’s 84-minute colour feature In the City of Sylvia—which isn’t included, and to my mind is less interesting anyway—recounting an artist’s return to Strasbourg to search for a young woman he met briefly 22 years earlier; and a disc of bonuses, none of them with English subtitles, although it appears that the ones involving Innisfree don’t need any. There’s also a book of articles in Spanish, with the only English text included being a poem by Yeats. (Fans of Portabella, who’s interviewed without subtitles on the bonus disc, should note that a nine-disc Spanish box set with English subtitles and a book is currently in the works for next year, to be distributed by Sherlock Films.)
9. On the other hand, the ideal deluxe packages are the ones in which separate films can be bought either individually or collectively, a perfect example of which are the Criterion editions of three of Max Ophüls’ French features, La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), and The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). Among the special riches to be noted here are an interview with Alan Williams on the first disc, a very persuasive defense of an underrated film, and the visual essay by Tag Gallagher on the third (which I already noted in an earlier column, in an English edition of that film).
10. Four French box sets from the enterprising Carlotta label: the 3-disc, all-French Kenji Mizoguchi: Les Années 40s, which includes L’épée bijomaru (The Famous Sword Bijomaru, 1945), Cinq femmes autour d’Utamaro (Utamaro and His Five Women, 1946), L’amour de l’actrice Sumako (The Love of Sumako the Actress, 1947), Les femmes de la Nuit (Women of the Night, 1948), and Flamme de mon amour (My Love Has Been Burning, 1949); a four-disc Coffret Robert Siodmak, which includes not only the less-than-rare Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman (both 1944), and The Killers (1946), but some fairly scintillating extras that include a 1949 half-hour radio adaptation of The Killers with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters, Andrei Tarkovsky’s own 19-minute adaptation (a student film), and an hour-long 1972 interview with Siodmak from German TV; and two separate Sirk collections—a two-disc set of two 1952 features (Qui donc a vu ma belle?/Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, and No Room for the Groom) and a four-volume, eight-disc set including Le secret magnifique (Magnificent Obsession, 1954), Tout ce que le ciel permit (All That Heaven Allows, 1955), Le temps d’aimer et le temps de mourir (A Time to Love and a Time to Die, 1958), and Mirage de la vie (Imitation of Life, 1959). The first set includes recent interviews with Piper Laurie, Gigi Perreau, and Tony Curtis; the second includes everything from the mid-‘30s John M. Stahl versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life to Daniel Schmid’s 47-minute Mirage de la vie: Portrait de Douglas Sirk (1984); and both sets include several critical features in unsubtitled French.
11. Speaking of box sets, I can remember a Chicago jazz reviewer once going into a tirade about the sheer cheek of ECM releasing the entirety of the Keith Jarrett Trio’s weekend engagement at New York’s Blue Note on June 3-5, 1994 on six CDs. If I recall this accurately, the outrage had something to do with overkill, or giving people like him too much to listen to; apparently irrelevant was the question of how good the music was. I’m bringing this up because it sometimes appears that ECM’s stock of videotaped as well as audiotaped concerts of the Jarrett Trio playing standards—often the very same standards—appears to be endless. Yet I don’t recall them ever releasing one that was second-rate or predictably redundant, apart from the fact that in the videotaped ones you can periodically see Jarrett forsaking the piano’s pedals to play while standing up in a kind of crabby, ecstatic dance punctuated with moans. So Standards I/II, a two-disc DVD set pairing Tokyo concerts at separate halls in 1985 and 1986 featuring still more renditions of “Stella By Starlight,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “With a Song in My Heart,” “Love Letters,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” et al., is a very welcome addition to the Jarrett canon, full of pleasurable invention.
12. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to hunt down Samuel Fuller’s Verboten! (1959), it’s available in France from Warners under the wordier title Ordres secrets aux Espions Nazis. The last time I looked, FNAC and French Amazon were each charging about ten Euros for it.
13. In an effort to make her second DVD—Appelez-Moi Madame/Call Me Madame, a 1986 documentary about a 55-year-old French transsexual poet(ess) and Communist activist in Normandy, married and with a teenage son—as bilingual as her first (devoted to her 1985 masterpiece Mix-Up), Françoise Romand films herself twice in her father’s fishing boat discussing and critiquing her own film, once in French and once in English, with a somewhat different content each time. Go to www.romand.org for more details.
14. Terence Davies’ previous experience as an actor is commonly regarded as extraneous to his films because he doesn’t appear in them, apart from a quick cameo inChildren (1976), his first film, and his narrating voice all the way through this year’s Of Time and the City, his latest. But an important part of what’s so pleasurable about The Terence Davies Trilogy—consisting of Children, Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983)—and The Long Day Closes (1992), which have both been released by the BFI in separate, single-disc, region-2 PAL editions, is what I can only describe as their formidable power as performative works. What I mean isn’t the performances of the actors but the performances of these films as films—what might be described, in a manner of speaking, as the way they speak and look at us, insisting on their own being and activity. And these qualities are nicely highlighted by the interviews and commentaries with Davies on both DVDs.
Loose change: Among recent arrivals that I haven’t yet had time to sample properly are Kino’s two-disc edition of Buster Keaton’s The General (1927);
Masters of Cinema’s two-disc editions of Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue (1968) and Police (1985), and Georges Franju’s sublime Judex (1963) and less good Nuits Rouges (1974); Flicker Alley’s newly restored version of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919); New Yorker’s editions of the seminal New Wave sketch film Six in Paris (1965) with many extras, Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow’s Camp de Thiaroye (1987) with an interview with Danny Glover, and Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song (1997); and from Second Run, Jaromil Jires’s delightfully screwy gem from the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970).
Postscript: A word to the wise—if you want to throw your money away and get little or nothing in return, check out ashfaultsclassicmovies.com, which has lots of interesting things to offer for exorbitant prices in lousy copies and has a nasty habit of either not sending out any of them after they’ve been paid for (one friend’s experience) or else casually sending them out several months after they’ve been ordered (my own experience), meanwhile ignoring all requests (such as excluding one item if it’s panned and scanned) and inquiries, terminally pissing off all their customers in the process.