First, a couple of updates to my last column in Cinema Scope 42:
Until or unless the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture finds a way of making its awesome ten-disc Alexander Dovzheno box set available to more than a handful of Ukrainian diplomats, the Mr. Bongo edition of Earth (1930) on PAL (go to buymrbongo.com) offers a creditable stopgap. Their version of Dovzhenko’s best-known film and last silent feature in its uncensored form is arguably just as good, and it has an even better music track. Doug Cummings, who alerted me to this invaluable release, has also posted some helpful remarks about what makes it superior to all previously available versions on his web site: filmjourney.weblogger.com/2010/04/12/earth-1930/.
In my last column, I wrote the following of the Manoel de Oliveira 100 years 22-DVD Anniversary Box Set: “I can’t afford this humongous Portuguese PAL release, and it irritates me no end that it excludes two of my three favourite Oliveira films—Benilde, or the Virgin Mother (1975) and Doomed Love (1978)—because it’s restricted to later stuff, apparently everything from 1986 through 2007, starting with Mon cas (1986) and including Inquietude (1998), but nothing before. But you should know about it because DaaVeeDee, which is charging $280 for it, claims it has optional English (as well as French and Portuguese) subtitles. If anyone wants to send me a review copy, I’ll have more to say about it in a future column.”
In an act of unparalleled generosity, Jeff Higgins, a reader based in Champaign, Illinois, offered to lend me his copy, which coincidentally arrived in the mail the same day that I received a separate email from Peter Hourigan in Australia about the same set. Let me start off with Hourigan’s remarks, which points to some of the potential woes that can arise from purchasing hefty box sets from overseas, even though this column generally encourages it:
“I bought this set at the end of 2008 from FNAC. One disc was faulty—A Caixa (1994) had no sound. This seems to have been a wider issue than just my set, because I was aware of at least two other sets with the same problem. It was difficult getting any response from FNAC Portugal. Ultimately, a response said I could return the complete set for a refund. This was far too valuable an asset to lose all the films because of one faulty disc. And there was no comment on whether they’d reimburse postage (two ways to/from Australia) in such a case. And…a friend who’d previously bought A Caixa in a separate release burnt me a copy of the integral title. Surely a case where burning is more than justified. A friend who happens to be the Portuguese Consul in Melbourne also made several attempts to contact FNAC on my behalf and using his “title” as a lever—ignored! This rather soured my relationship to the box, and it’s sat there unexplored since this event. I really must start looking through it.”
The copy of A Caixa (known as Blind Man’s Bluff in English) included in the set lent to me by Jeff Higgins has no sound either, confirming Hourigan’s claim that this is apparently a glitch in all or most copies. In the other films that I’ve checked, everything else seems fine—apart from the fact that most of the extras (including an entire separate disc of these) don’t have English subtitles, and, as Higgins pointed out in his original email to me, neither does Magic Mirror (2005) or Belle toujours (2006). (A couple of exceptions that I’ve come across are the trailer and interviews with No, or the Vainglory of Command —which is awkwardly titled No, or the Vain Glory of Leading—and the trailer of Day of Despair .) But it’s delightful to finally have both Mon cas and Inquietude (among most of the other films) with English subtitles, and in excellent transfers as well. Let’s hope that these can also be brought out in separate stand-alone editions.
Battleship Potemkin (Kino Blu-Ray). A deluxe job that improves on Kino’s handling of silent Gaumont films by affording us the original Russian intertitles with optional English translation. The original 1926 Edmund Meisel score is also included, performed by the 55-piece Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg in five-track DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as a 42-minute documentary about the film and its restoration.
Bigger Than Life (Criterion Blu-Ray & DVD). Among the more interesting extras in this fine new edition, which contains a beautiful transfer of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 CinemaScope melodrama, are an articulate and thoughtful interview with Ray’s widow Susan and a half-hour TV interview with the director himself, conducted in New York in
1977, that addresses, among other things, the issue of bisexuality in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). As far as I know, this is the only time this subject was ever broached in an available Ray interview, and Ray’s response, which characteristically denies any bisexuality of his own, is none the less outspoken in other respects.
Buñuel y la mesa del rey Salomón (Buñuel and King Solomon’s Table). I know, this
Carlos Saura goof-off is now about nine years old, and the Spanish PAL DVD with English, French, and Spanish subtitles has been around for a bit and isn’t cheap either (DaaVeeDee charges $21.99 for it). But I just caught up with this movie, and I find it simultaneously indefensible and irresistible. David Stratton in Variety warned everyone that it was suitable, if at all, only for hardcore film freaks and aficionados of Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca. But—dare I say it?—I’d like to think that this also implies I don’t have to warn anybody in Cinema Scope. It’s an irresponsible lark that simultaneously tweaks the overcooked prestige of all three Spanish artists while still offering a kind of delicious, playful tribute to Buñuel during his late, Jean-Claude Carrière period. (Carrière himself receives an ambiguous credit on this film, and it’s tempting to think that he and/or Agustín Sánchez Vidal, Saura’s credited cowriter, are the secret auteurs of this picture.) Like Edgar Neville’s The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks (1944; still apparently unavailable on DVD, even in Spain), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), Albert Zugsmith’s Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), and Suzuki Seijun’s Pistol Opera (2001), this is one of those childish, absurd, exquisite cinematic pleasures that should only be recommended without any apologies, regrets, or shame.
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two (Criterion Blu-Ray). Featuring three discs and a 94-page booklet, this is by all counts the major release of the quarter, adding a second volume of selections to the already monumental first volume released on DVD in 2003. Although I don’t feel qualified to judge the sagacity of the particular selections made here—apart from respecting and theoretically agreeing with Marilyn Brakhage’s stipulation that “Masterpieces such as The Text of Light (1974) and Passage Through: A Ritual (1990) were at first considered, but were ultimately not included due to the delicacy of subtle effects of filmic light and rhythms that many felt were still too challenging to faithfully reproduce in digital form”—I can at least register my disappointment with the absence of two of my personal favourites, The Chartres Series (1994) and Stately Mansions Did Decree (1999). Yet apart from believing that a vast continent of riches is nonetheless waiting to be discovered in the 54 Brakhage films that are included here, I should express particular gratitude for the interviews with, and commentaries and lectures by, Brakhage that comprise the bulk of the extras.
Speaking as someone who was a latecomer in recognizing Brakhage’s greatness, I should add that one of the major obstacles I had to overcome, especially when I first encountered him in the early ‘60s, was the grandiloquent and (to me) often abrasively embattled rhetoric of his self-presentations. (I’ll never forget the way he once scornfully spoke of Murnau’s Sunrise  as some sort of commercial Hollywood trash when I showed it in my Friday night film series in Bard College in the early ‘60s, immediately before I projected his own 1961 Prelude, and how he was clearly insulted when I tried to compare his uses of superimposition with Murnau’s during the subsequent Q & A.) But when I saw him at various events at the Rotterdam film festival in 2002, nearly 40 years later, it quickly became apparent that he had developed substantially in both eloquence and modesty once the relative security of his status and reputation allowed him to relax, and the fruits of this confidence are readily apparent in the spoken materials here.
Chantal Akerman in the Seventies (Criterion/Eclipse). Three “New York” films—La chambre (1972, 11 minutes, silent), Hotel Monterey (1972, 62 minutes, silent), and News from Home (1976, 86 minutes, sound, in French with subtitles), all loosely describable as “non-narrative”—and two European narrative and sound features in French with subtitles, Je tu il elle (1975, 86 minutes) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978, 126 minutes). Of course, Akerman’s major work in the ‘70s, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, 201 minutes), is available separately from Criterion, in an excellent two-disc set. But it’s worth adding that all the films included here plus Jeanne Dielman plus Akerman’s very first short (Saute ma ville, 1968), plus many irreplaceable extras, are already available with English subtitles on an excellent five-disc Belgian box set released by Cinéart, Chantal Akerman Collection: Les Années 70, which I wrote about in these pages 11 columns back. Most but not all of the Cinéart material can be found on the two Criterion sets, so you might want to consider the overseas edition in this case.
The Day I Became a Woman (Olive Films). This is a re-release rather than a new release of a film ten years old, but Marziyeh Meshkini’s first feature, a lovely and provocative surrealist (as well as feminist) enchantment, remains to my mind one of the key events of both the Iranian New Wave in general and the Makhmalbaf Film House in particular, so you should make a beeline to this film if you haven’t already seen it.
Dialogues of the Exiled (Facets Video). Facets has been seemingly making a specialty lately of releasing rare old films under awkward new titles (see also How to Live in the German Federal Republic, below). In my 1990 essay, “Mapping the Territory of Raúl Ruiz,” included in my first collection, Placing Movies, I devoted almost a page to Diálogo de exilados (1975)—the first film that Ruiz shot after leaving Chile, a Parisian-made 105-minute feature in French and Spanish—when I and various others were still calling it Dialogue of Exiles. I wouldn’t describe the film as one of Ruiz’s best or most inventive works, although it’s certainly peculiar enough in its overall structure. This edition is enhanced by a new 20-minute interview with Ruiz about the film, conducted in Chile by the film’s Chilean producer. (Ruiz notes in it that the Paris location was one also used by Rivette, but he doesn’t say in what film.)
European Cinema in 1909 (Gaumont/Cineteca Bologna). Better-Late-Than-Never Dept.: In my frequent visits to Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna over the past several summers, there is always far too much to see, but I’ve nevertheless been unforgivably negligent in paying adequate attention to the annual series by archivist Mariann Lewinsky devoted to the cinema of one hundred years ago, yielding European Cinema in 1903 in 2003, European Cinema in 1906 in 2006, and so on. But attending many of the ten programs in “From the Deep: The Great Experiment 1898-1918,” her remarkable program with Eric de Kuyper at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in late April and early May, I was belatedly reminded that last year in Bologna, Lewinsky presented some of her findings in a bilingual (Italian and English) DVD with an accompanying 50-page booklet that is lamentably already out of print—although I’m mentioning this just the same because there may still be some copies circulating in the blogosphere. Although there are only a few overlaps between this DVD and what I saw in Oberhausen, one of these was one of the most impressive of the seven colour films included on the DVD, Le Moulin Maudit, which is far more sophisticated than most of us would expect from a colour film in 1909. (There’s also one sound-on-disc effort from a German or Austrian operetta that rivals the two similar films I saw in Oberhausen.)
The Fugitive Kind (Criterion). I like Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, Anna Magnani, Boris Kaufman, Sidney Lumet, and Tennessee Williams, but I didn’t like The Fugitive Kind one bit in 1960, I still didn’t like it when I re-saw it last year (a few months ahead of this DVD release), and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Lumet’s recent interview on this DVD is that he doesn’t seem to like it much either. This is one of those profoundly misconceived ventures, like The Misfits the following year (which is far more interesting), that tarnishes almost everyone involved in it. A new documentary about the film as a Williams adaptation manages to be a bit more circumspect on the subject, and I imagine that the most useful historical service performed by this two-disc set is resurrecting Lumet’s direction of three early Williams one-act plays in an hour-long Kraft TV program broadcast in 1958.
Happy Together (Kino Blu-Ray). I thought that maybe I’d underrated this Wong Kar-wai when I reviewed it for the Chicago Reader in 1997 and gave it only two stars. But then I tried watching it again in this splendid restoration, and maybe it’s my fault that I still can’t tie all its lovely images and stirring poetic conceits together in any sustained fashion. (Among its many scattered virtues is its treatment of Buenos Aires’ La Boca, which once inspired Argentinean critic Quintín to claim to me that it conveyed that city better than any other movie.) It’s entirely possible, though, that the fault is mine—something I wouldn’t dream of saying about The Fugitive Kind.
How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Facets Video). Part of the new Facets Limited Edition series (which appears to be Facets’ counterpart to Criterion’s Eclipse series), this subtitled, 83-minute film on an all-zone NTSC DVD was reviewed by me in the Chicago Reader many years ago as How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany: “A devastating 1990 documentary feature by Harun Farocki, one of the most interesting and original independent filmmakers in Germany—a mordantly comic montage of short scenes taken from 32 instructional classes, as well as therapy and test sessions. The film alternates between two kinds of activity: simulations and exercises carried out by human beings (learning about everything from child care to striptease to war to sales techniques to auto safety) and products being tested without visible human intervention. The relationships between the two become increasingly disturbing, even chilling: dolls and dummies frequently figure in the simulations in a way that suggests people are being taught to treat other people like objects, while the products being tested are often accorded a kind of care and scrutiny denied to people. The thin line separating socialization from indoctrination is repeatedly traversed—and the implication is that while diverse appliances are being tested for human use, humans are being trained and tested so they can aspire to the performance level of appliances. No offscreen commentary is needed to convey Farocki’s eerie message; the brilliant rhymes and contrasts of his montage say everything.”
Ilusiones ópticas (Optical Illusions) (bf). While serving on the jury of the Valdivia International Film Festival in Chile in October 2007, I got to spend some time with the writer-director, Cristián Jiménez, and co-writer Alicia Scherson (the director of 2005’s Play and 2009’s Turistas), of this affecting first feature, a rather melancholy comedy with criss-crossing characters which had recently been shot in the same city—a former German settlement and university town—with one of my fellow jurors, Valentina Vargas, as one of the many co-stars. The film was finally released last year, and I caught up with it after Jiménez kindly sent me the commercial DVD. It’s well worth checking out; go to www.ilusionesopticas.cl for more details.
An Italian Straw Hat (Flicker Alley). A perfect edition of a 1927 film that I’ve cherished ever since I saw it around the time I was a college freshman, finally restored (for the first time in the US!) to its full length of 105 minutes. René Clair’s finesse in developing gags and character details meshes beautifully with a choice of full orchestral or piano accompaniments, and the 16-page booklet includes a new essay by Lenny Borger and a much older one by Iris Barry (1940), who recalls the Orson Welles Mercury stage production of the same 1851 Labiche and Michel farce four years earlier, Horse Eats Hat. The extras include a short documentary by Clair about the Eiffel Tower, La Tour (1928), and a 1907 film by Ferdinand Zecca, Noce en Goguette. This made me want to go back to the Criterion editions of Clair’s early talkies, which Borger also worked on.
Mystery Train (Criterion Blu-Ray). This 1989 effort is far from my favourite Jim Jarmusch feature, but Criterion’s upgraded re-release deserves special points for its elegant design (with a disc made up to resemble an old Sun 45) and its extras, including essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick, a 17-minute guide to the film’s Memphis locations, excerpts from a 2001 documentary about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and most impressive of all, Jarmusch making up for his unwillingness to do an audio commentary by replying, radio-style and at length, to more than 34 questions submitted by diverse fans from around the globe. As someone who shares Jarmusch’s dislike/distrust of standard audio commentaries, I’ve made a point of doing them so far only with others—David Kalat, James Naremore (twice), and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa—which has been my own way of bringing some social interactivity to the form. Jarmusch, of course, is speaking alone, but the fact that he’s replying to questions provided by others derives, I think, from a related impulse to make the discussion more communal and less univocal.
Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Criterion/Eclipse). Five of the lesser-known early features of Oshima Nagisa, all of them in ‘Scope: Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), Violence at Noon a.k.a. Violence at High Noon (1966), Sing a Song of Sex (1967), Japanese Summer: Double Suicide a.k.a. Night of the Killer (1967), and Three Resurrected Drunkards a.k.a. Sinner in Paradise (1968). Needless to say, one is grateful to have these, even if what I would choose as Oshima’s three greatest features, all made during the same period—Death by Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), and The Ceremony (1971)—continue to be unavailable. And I must say that what I find ultimately limiting about many of Oshima’s films, including some of these, is their obsession with sexual assault (generally rape), usually committed by his leading characters and often seen as acts of rebellion against the Japanese state (a view that is at least questioned, however provisionally, in Death by Hanging). For all his indelible brilliance as an eclectic and stylistically inventive leftist filmmaker, from a humanistic standpoint Oshima often strikes me as being as repugnant as Claude Lanzmann.
Recycling Film History: Found Footage Filme (Hoanzl/Der Standard/filmarchiv austria). At the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival last spring, I picked up this DVD for about 11 euros. Anyone familiar with either Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) or Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’acte (1993), the last two of the dozen films featured here, can well imagine that found footage has a special place in Austrian experimental cinema. These are the two films I was already familiar with (both pretty scary, in very different ways), and my sampling of the rest (by Dietmar Brehm, Lisl Ponger, and Siegfried A. Fruhauf, among others) suggests that this is a valuable collection, even if you have to sit through a hokey trailer for Der Standard’s other releases before you can get to it. Apart from the English subtitles appended to the titles at the beginning of Mara Mattuschka’s S.O.S. Extraterrestria (1993), the films, four of which have English titles, are all without translation, but it seems that only Ponger’s Passagen (1996) would pose any difficulties for viewers who don’t speak German. Two particular standouts: Gustav Deutsch’s haunting half-hour Welt Spiegel Kino—Episode 1 (2005) and Thomas Draschan and Stella Friedrichs’ riotous To the Happy View (2003).
Slavoj Žižek: The Reality of the Virtual (Olive Films). Prior to the re-release on DVD of this 2004 documentary, I’d assumed that any and all films and documentaries with and about Žižek (and there are quite a few by now) were watchable and interesting. This bare-bones lecture, consisting solely of Žižek speaking directly to the camera, tests that cavalier assumption without quite terminally exploding it—which is to say, I didn’t make it to the end of this, but I didn’t feel that my time was totally wasted. Žižek is still a commanding speaker, but if you want to see him at his best, I’d recommend Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema (2006), Astra Taylor’s Examined Life (2008), and Taylor’s Žižek! (2005), in roughly that order, before I’d flag this one.
Stagecoach (Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD). Even if one is a little tired of Ford’s classic by now, there are plenty of reasons for valuing this definitive edition—not just the optimal sound and image, but also such extras as Tag Gallagher’s audiovisual essay about it.
The Sun (Lorber). It’s embarrassing to confess that I lack the expertise to be able to declare that this May 2010 release of one of Sokurov’s best films is better or worse than the 2006 Artificial Eye release of the same film, which I don’t have, reviewed by Henrik Sylow for DVD Beaver (“Shot on HD-video, digitally manipulated, then transferred to 35mm, [this] transfer is not without issues.”) All I can say is that the Lorber edition looks better to me than the frame-grabs included with Sylow’s review. The nightmare images of a fire-bombed Japan traversed by sea creatures sailing past in the sky overhead look every bit as visionary to me here as they did when I saw this film on a big screen four and a half years ago. Moreover, Sokurov’s production notes, reproduced here and taken from an interview, confirm that his treatment of and attitude towards Emperor Hirohito are far more benign than his portraits of Hitler and Lenin in the preceding two parts of his dictator trilogy, Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001). The quizzical ambience here reminds me, in fact, of Rossellini’s treatment of his title subject in La prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (1967). All of which prompts me to say that this is a release well worth having.
Walkabout (Criterion DVD). I’ve often been puzzled (or at least bemused) by the fact that the first archetypal “Nicolas Roeg film” in terms of scrambled narrative, fragmented jigsaw-puzzle construction, nuanced colour coding, and romantic, countercultural melancholy is actually a film on which he’s credited only as lighting cameraman, Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). But Walkabout (1971), Roeg’s debut feature as solo director and also apparently the last of his films to date on which he served as his own cinematographer, remains in many ways my favourite. And this two-disc set with an essay by Paul Ryan (the editor of Lindsay Anderson’s collected writings) does full justice to both the film’s lush visuals and its singular cast of three kids: above all, David Gupilil, the Aboriginal star whom it introduced while he was still in his teens, and who went on to become one of the key figures in Australian cinema—in everything from Crocodile Dundee (1986) to Ten Canoes (2006), by way of The Last Wave (1977), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), and The Tracker (2002)—and is the subject of an hour-long 2002 documentary included here. But also appearing are Jenny Agutter (whose youthful, unhampered sensuality in this film often recalls that of Helen Mirren in Michael Powell’s Australian-based 1969 Age of Consent), who joins Roeg in providing the audio commentary and is interviewed separately; and Roeg’s son Luc, also interviewed, who after Walkabout went on to work in the film industry, chiefly as a producer.