Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
As usual, there are far too many releases for me to note this quarter than I could possibly have time to see. So what follows is a series of annotated notices interspersed with critical comments about the ones I’ve actually managed to watch, in whole or in part.
Careful (1991), from Zeitgeist Video (Region 1). I know that Guy Maddin already released his third feature, his first in color, on a Kino DVD about eight years ago. But if there was ever cause and justification for a remastering and HD upgrade, this is a textbook example. To quote Maddin himself: “This new transfer of Careful, which restores the picture to the long-forgotten, tremulous Repress-O-Vision of its original theatrical release, has me so incautiously excited I could almost ALMOST ALMOST dare un-stifle an avalanche of gleeful yelps. Thank you, Zeitgeist, for at last making this movie available in the way I had always hoped it would be seen!” And comparing the two versions, I must say that there isn’t any contest: the movie has been brought back to a simulated, pulsating two-strip-Technicolor glory that I’d forgotten it had. To celebrate the occasion, Maddin and his mentor-screenwriter George Toles have also completely redone their audio commentary, this time drawing more attention to some of their literary as well as cinematic inspirations, e.g. various German romantic writers as well as The King of Jazz (1930), to accompany their 19th century allegory about Alpine incest and Canadian repression.
Carnival in the Night (1982) and Peep “TV” Show (2003), a Japanese Punk two-pack from Facets Video (Region 1). I’ve only seen the second of these, Tsuchiya Yutaka’s fictional documentary video about teenyboppers in Shibuya, a fashionable shopping district in Tokyo, which already won a FIPRESCI prize at Rotterdam from a jury I headed and even bears a blurb from me on the box (“Imagine Blade Runner restaged inside someone’s closet.”) All I can add to this now is that I can’t even begin to understand what’s going on in this fantasia, but anything as weird as this demands recognition and even admiration. Claire Denis was plainly delighted when we gave it a prize.
Celia (1988), from Second Run (Region 2). For me, this Australian first feature by
writer-director Ann Turner isn’t quite as good as its audacious follow-up, Dallas Doll
(1994)—which I’ve described elsewhere as a cross between Teorema (with Sandra Bernhard in the Terence Stamp role) and Repo Man—but it’s pretty interesting all the same: a creepy look at the impact of both a rabbit plague and anticommunism on a nine-year-old girl in 1957 Melbourne.
Coffret Jacques Rozier, from Arcades Video (Region 2). Here at last is the opportunity to see the major films of the poet of French youth, all with optional English subtitles, on five discs: Rentrée des classes (1955), Blue Jeans (1958), Adieu Philippine (still the best known, 1961), Du côté d’Orouët (1969), Les naufrages de l’île de la Tortue (1976), and Maine océan (1985). I’ve seen the first four of these at one time or another, and I still want to see and resee all of them.
Danièle Huillet et Jean-Marie Straub, Volume 4: Amerika/Rapports de classes /Klassenverhältnisse (1983); Cézanne (1989), Une visite au Louvre (2003); En rachâchant (1982), Lothringen! (1994), and Humiliés/Umiliati (2002), from Editions Montparnasse (three discs, Region 2). After three monolingual volumes in this French series (#1, German, three discs: #2, Italian, four discs; #3, German, three discs), here’s a trilingual volume: one German feature on the first disc, two medium-length French films on the second, and shorts in all three languages on the third, including separate French and German versions of Lothringen! Otherwise, everything except for the three other French films are subtitled in French. And my two favorites, which I regard as the greatest of the two landscape films—1981’s Too Early, Too Late (which exists in four separate versions of offscreen commentary—English, French, German, and Italian) and 2001’s Operai, contadini (spoken only in Italian)—remain unavailable on DVD in any language, although last year Pedro Costa told me that he’ll be working on an edition of the first of these (though I’m not sure in what country). P.S.: Regarding Cézanne and Une visite au Louvre in volume 4, both are easy to follow if you have a copy of Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations, a wonderful book that’s still readily available. (Regarding Amerika, I assume that a copy of an English translation of Kafka’s novel would help.)
Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (five discs), from Flicker Alley (Region 0). Eleven films made between 1916 and 1921, restored and tinted, on five discs. I’ve only had time to see one film so far, When the Clouds Roll By (1919), and it’s a knockout: a satire about psychoanalysis with wacky dream sequences and wackier special effects. With a 32-page illustrated essay by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maletta.
The Exterminating Angel (1962, two discs) and Simon of the Desert (1965), both from
Criterion. I’ve had a longstanding disagreement with Raúl Ruiz about the relative worth
of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican films and the half-dozen French ones at the end of his career; Ruiz prefers the former whereas I, with a few possible exceptions—e.g. Los Olvidados (1950) and The Young One (1960)—tend to prefer the latter. But I certainly find Ruiz’s position defensible, and Buñuel’s last two Mexican films provide interesting cases to argue over. Both were made after Buñuel revivified his career and re-emboldened himself by making Viridiana (1961) in Spain. (The Diary of a Chambermaid, the first of his late French films, was made in between The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert, in 1964.) I prefer The Exterminating Angel to Simon of the Desert in the Mexican batch for the same reason that I prefer The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) to The Milky Way (1969) in the French batch—because I find the bourgeoisie funnier as well as more fascinating (at least in relation to my own experience) than the Catholic Church—but I hasten to add that my preference for Discreet Charm over The Exterminating Angel is mainly because of the actors, as the conceptions of these two films are comparably bold and ingenious (as well as complementary). In the interviews with Arturo Ripstein and Silvia Pinal included on The Exterminating Angel’s second disc, it becomes clear that Buñuel was unhappy with his actors and would have preferred to have shot the film in London with an English cast (where the kind of bourgeoisie he wanted to show actually existed)—which implies that by that time he had already started to shift his sights back to Europe. But Ripstein, who watched part of the shooting, also points out that many of Buñuel’s earlier Mexican films were unique in showing a truer picture of that country than could be found in the remainder of Mexican commercial cinema, which focused on a fantasy about what Mexico should have been. As Ripstein elegantly puts it, “He came to Mexico and he became Mexico.”
Faat Kiné (2001), from newsreel.org (Region 1). I haven’t seen all of Ousmane Sembène’s comedies, but among those that I have, this is certainly the most relaxed and affirmative, featuring what is probably his sassiest heroine, the self-made owner of a filling station, supporting her mother and two separate illegitimate kids with separate fathers, and not about to take any shit from anybody. No extras, and none needed.
Une femme mariée (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964), La gueule ouverte (Maurice Pialat, 1974, two discs), and Muriel (Alain Resnais, 1963), all from Masters of Cinema (Region 2). Three essential editions, and this includes not only the extra disc including nine shorts by Pialat made between 1957 and 1964 (including half a dozen “essay-documentaries” in 1964 about Turkey), but the formidable booklets for each: 80 pages with the Godard (including new material by Craig Keller, Bill Krohn, Macha Méril, and Luc Moullet, an English translation by Keller of a 1978 lecture by Godard, and a few extracts from Racine’s 1670 Bérénice in both French and Keller’s English translation); 32 pages with the Pialat (half of them devoted to a new essay by Adrian Martin); and 44 pages with the Resnais (including new essays by B. Kite and Anna Thorngate, a seven-page Muriel “scrapbook,” and Keller’s translation of a brief 1963 text by Henri Langlois). In all three cases, it seems that many pertinent contributions are being made to scholarship, which makes me all the more regretful that Keller, who outdoes himself on Une femme mariée, can’t always distinguish between writing and blogging, and winds up raising perhaps even more questions, issues, and outright puzzles than he settles. Consider only the incoherent music credits that he offers on page 2, which list “Louis [sic] Beethoven,” “Dave Brubeck,” and “Claude Nougaro who turned ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ into ‘A bout de souffle.’” Come again? Even if he’s simply pulling our legs here in some elaborate fashion, it would be helpful to know how and why. (P.S.: After writing the above, I discovered via an ad that Koch Lorber is bringing out the same Godard film, along with La Chinoise  and Le Gai Savoir . This company doesn’t even send me their press releases, so I’m reluctant to shell out for these, but I’d be shocked if their Married Woman came within miles of the Masters of Cinema version.)
A Grin Without a Cat (1977), from Icarus Films Home Video (Region 1), Chris Marker’s three-hour meditation on political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The voices in this English version include, among others, Jim Broadbent, Cyril Cusack, Robert Kramer, Yves Montand, and Simone Signoret. Almost a third of the accompanying 16-page booklet is a Marker essay, “Sixties,” written in May 2008. Note: Apart from La jetée (1963), it seems like all or nearly all of the recent Marker DVD releases, in both French and English, are favouring those made over the past four decades. It would be good to have some of the earlier stuff—especially (based on what I’ve already seen) the very first Marker film, made jointly with Resnais, the incomparable Les Statues meurent aussi (1953), available now only as an unsubtitled bonus on the French DVD of Hiroshima mon amour, as well as Lettre de Sibérie (1957) and Le joli mai (made jointly with Pierre Lhomme, 1962).
Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998), from Artificial Eye (Region 2). Those who are dissatisfied with Gaumont’s “incomplete” English subtitles to Jean-Luc Godard’s magnum opus should be advised that they’re more complete, though still far from exhaustive, in this three-disc edition, which comes without extras.
Joris Ivens Collection: 1912-1988, from European Foundation (Region 2). I cannot tell a
lie: I haven’t yet seen this five-disc Dutch box set, but I’m told I’ll be getting a copy of it soon in connection with my work on the DVD jury for Il Cinema Ritrovato. This costs a little under $100 from Amazon, but it seems to have every major Ivens film from Wigwam in 1912 to A Tale of the Wind in 1988, and also boasts, among other favourites, Phillips Radio (1931) and The 17th Parallel (1978), all apparently with English subtitles, and totaling (count ‘em) 900 minutes, which averages out to three hours per disc.
Luc Moullet en shorts (1960-2006), from Chalet Pointu (Region 2). What a pity that there aren’t any English subtitles with this invaluable, three-hour collection of ten short films, nine of them comic and hilarious: Moullet’s very first film, Un steak trop cuit (1960), followed, after a 26-year hiatus, by L’empire de Médor (1986, a strange documentary about dogs in France), Essai d’ouverture (1988, probably his funniest film to date, about trying to open a large bottle of Coke), La cabale des oursins (1991, another favourite, in praise and defense of slag heaps), Toujours plus (1994), Foix (1994), Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996, a singular documentary about Des Moines), Le systeme Zsygmondy (2000), and Le litre de lait (2006). (The non-comic tenth film, which is probably my least favorite, is an eccentric 1996 Henry James adaptation, Le fantôme de Longstaff.) Also included on the single disc are optional introductions to all ten films by Moullet, as well as a separate interview with him by Jacques Kermabon.
Mike Leigh at the BBC (1973-1985), from BBC DVD (Region 2). This six-disc extravaganza is my favourite box set of the quarter, all the more essential if, like me, you prefer Leigh’s TV films like Grown-Ups (1980) to the generally weightier dramatic features that followed. As far as I can tell, this package has every one of the BBC films that’s survived, shorts (five) as well as features (nine), with tons of extras (including an elaborate, feature-length gabfest with Leigh and Will Self, several commentaries and documentaries, and a 16-page booklet). The last time I looked, this was going for under 45 quid on English Amazon.
Momma’s Man (2008), from Kino (Region 1). Azazel Jacobs’ third feature—a quirky Manhattan comedy that offers us a peak into his soul, the souls of both his parents, and his family loft—is accompanied by his and his parents’ audio commentary, half a dozen deleted scenes, his first film (1991, 7 minutes), his father Ken’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), and his own 42-minute “making-of,” with more of practically all of the preceding. If you like Momma’s Man as much as I do, you won’t mind any of this in the slightest.
Nickelodeon (1976) and The Last Picture Show (1971), in the same two-disc package from Sony (Region 1). Is it possible to find a picture acceptable only with its director’s commentary? Yes, if it’s Peter Bogdanovich’s clunky but interesting comedy about American moviemaking during the patent wars (1910-1915) prior to The Birth of a Nation, now that he’s finally had a chance to release it in black and white, as he originally intended, and to recut it as well. Reviewing this when it came out in the February 1977 Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 44, no. 517), I found its slapstick mainly irksome—not offensive, as it was to me in What’s Up, Doc? (1972), where so many of the pratfalls, collisions, and smashups seemed to be about fatuous, narcissistic yuppies humiliating servants and carpenters, but pretty academic none the less: “The over-busy surface activity might seem so desperately willed because of its tendency always to gravitate towards ‘film history,’ with history itself invariably taking a back seat—an attitude which helps to give cinéphilia a bad name by appearing to imply that The Birth of a Nation is vastly more important than (say) the Civil War.” It still looks academic, but hearing Bogdanovich explain where all the stories come from (mostly from Allan Dwan, John Ford, Leo McCarey, and Raoul Walsh, with a curtain-closer from James Stewart) makes it somewhat more absorbing. The Last Picture Show gets restored and outfitted with a director’s commentary as well.
Philippe Garrel x 2: J’entends plus la guitare (1991) and Les Baisers de secours (1989), in the same two-disc package from Zeitgeist Video (Region 1). Speaking as someone who never entirely “gets” Garrel—or maybe just someone who doesn’t entirely want to get him—I can’t even be sure whether I’ve already seen these two features out of the dozen or so I have seen; many of his arthouse narratives tend to bleed into one another in my memory, if that’s the proper verb. But I can certainly report that Zeitgeist has done the man proud with their transfers and extras, including a 50-minute 1999 documentary about him for French TV, written declarations by Leos Carax and Godard (along with a Richard Brody essay), and even lobby cards.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: The Decameron (1970), The Canterbury Tales
(1972), and Arabian Nights (1974), from BFI Video (separate discs, Region 2), all three including alternative English-language versions of the respective features. Nearly all I can remember about the second of these, seen in Paris when it came out, is a profusion of fart jokes, and whether any of these are funnier in English than in Italian is uncertain—in any case, untested by me. The Canterbury Tales disc also includes “alternative shots” and an “exclusive new documentary exploring Pasolini’s significance on the Italian genre film” (whatever that means); the disc with The Decameron includes Pasolini’s Notes for an African Oresteia (1970), while the Arabian Nights disc includes “deleted sequences.”
Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007), from Watchmaker (Region 0).
John Gianvito’s contemplative activist masterwork—now out on a new English label that’s also releasing John Fiege’s Mississippi Chicken (2007) and a whole box set (two DVDs, one CD) devoted to the late Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)—comes with a 16-page booklet devoted to Gianvito’s shooting diary. For more details, go to watchmakerfilms.com.
Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu: Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), Mr. Thank You
(1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), and Ornamental Hairpin (1941), from
Eclipse/Criterion (Region 1). A big discovery for me, and I owe particular thanks to the people at Criterion (especially Michael Koresky for his helpful notes—although I wish they were printed more legibly) as well as Dave Kehr’s DVD column in The New York Times for pointing me in the direction of this remarkable master. I start out with the first film in the series, also the only silent one, which bowls me over with such moves as its successive jump cuts leaping forward, and also poses an interesting theoretical question for me: Are silent intertitles shots or merely links between shots? I guess it all depends on whether one’s aesthetics are those of mise en scène or découpage: the former excludes intertitles, the latter includes them. In Japanese Girls at the Harbor, the intertitles seem to function as rhythmic punctuations in an overall musical arrangement of shots alternating between a static and moving camera. This is presumably complicated by the downward and leftward movements of the viewers’ eyes in reading Japanese intertitles, in contrast to the more centred forms of gazing at everything else, regardless of whether or not the camera is in motion. In other words, what the camera is free to do on a set or location bears some relation to what eyes are asked to do with a text.
By contrast, I’m a little disappointed with Mr. Thank You, the film in the package that’s best known in the US, in spite of its obvious sociopolitical importance. Like some other early talkies, this oscillates uneasily between mechanically jaunty wallpaper music (most noticeably “I May Be Wrong” in the early stretches) and, less often, no music at all, which in this case lends a certain rhythmic monotony to the proceedings that’s also reflected in the editing patterns. But this is quibbling. Even though I haven’t yet seen the latter two films in this collection—I’m especially interested in seeing the early appearances in Ornamental Hairpin of Ryu Chishu and Tanaka Kinuyo, the respective key actors of Ozu and Mizoguchi (who also turn up in significant parts in Ozu’s uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind seven years later, during the American occupation)—I also realize that anyone as prolific as Shimizu is bound to have a lot more than masterpieces in his oeuvre. (According to Kehr, he directed “more than 100 films between 1921 and his death in 1966”; according to Koresky, “by most counts, he made more than 150 films between 1924 and 1959, at times churning out ten films a year.”)
The important thing, already fully apparent, is that Shimizu was a major talent that most of us in the West previously knew next to nothing about. (For more information—including links to another Shimizu box set with four additional features, also with English subtitles but much pricier, available from Shochiku—check out David Bordwell’s helpful post at http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=4564.) This makes me wonder how a contemporary critic as sophisticated as Nick James can still make claims such as the following (in the Spring 2009 Film Quarterly): “The wonderful golden run of great international cinema in the 1990s that brought us the best of Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Abbas Kiarostami, among many others, petered out several years ago.” But if we were already oblivious to so much important stuff being made in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, what gives Nick such confidence that we can be on top of these things today, when the task of following everything that’s going on is arguably even more impossible than it was then? Does he really think that critics are so prescient that they no longer need to worry about missing any of the important films being made—which, thanks to the uniform brilliance and prescience (and, presumably, the absolute reach) of festival programmers and distributors, are readily apparent? And if not, what kind of sense are we supposed to make of his statement?
Wise Blood (1979), from Criterion (Region 1). This is a beautiful edition of what may be my favorite John Huston film—far more helpful and welcome, as it turns out, than Brad Gooch’s recent and disappointing biography of Flannery O’Connor. Among the special treats here are an audio recording of O’Connor reading aloud her best story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And the bonus material offered here about her very black, grotesque, and tragicomic first novel and how its adaptation was approached—by Michael Fitzgerald (co-producer and co-writer), Benedict Fitzgerald (co-writer), and Brad Dourif (lead actor), among others—is full of thoughtful and juicy stuff. Perhaps best of all is an anecdote recounted by Francine Prose in the 14-page booklet that tackles the film’s most striking paradox: that it’s probably among the most faithful literary adaptations in the entire history of film, yet it’s an adaptation of a novel by a devout believer that was directed by an unshakable atheist. It seems that when this issue came up in a script conference about the film’s final scenes during the latter stages of the on-location shooting, Huston wound up conceding to Dourif that “[at] the end of the film, Jesus wins.”
A postscript concerning my last two columns:
Regarding an item at the end of my column in Cinema Scope 37, Heather C. sent Cinema Scope the following message: “I am the new owner/manager of Ashfault’s Classic Movies and I’m trying to improve the company’s internet reputation. I realize the previous owners were not prudent in communicating or shipping movies in a timely manner, but this thread is not representative of how the business operates now. If you need to contact me please email me at this address or call us M-F 10am—4pm at 937-401-2431.”
And regarding my commentary in Cinema Scope 38 on the massive box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox, Janet Bergstrom has informed me that, contrary to my complaint, her documentary about 4 Devils (1928) is indeed included on the City Girl (1930) disc (although this isn’t mentioned anywhere inside the package), and that this version, along with some script material, is upgraded from the version included years ago on Fox’s restricted release of Sunrise (1927).