Avant-garde cinemaMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970
Flicker Alley

It hardly feels presumptuous to label Flicker Alley’s new experimental film box set a strong contender for release of the year, even taking into account a few forthcoming heavy hitters, like Arrow’s Rivette box and Criterion’s long-awaited Apu Trilogy. For obvious reasons, experimental cinema is a tough sell in an increasingly niche-focused market, so it’s always a delightful surprise to see resources lavished so lovingly on a high-def collection of boldly non-commercial work.

Curated by Bruce Posner, the two-Blu-ray, two-DVD combo pack collects 33 avant-garde shorts from 1920-1970, along with a couple bonus films. Organized chronologically, the films offer an exceptional overview of the diversity of experimental filmmaking across five decades. Among the broad styles represented here:

Takes on the city symphony:
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1920-21) channels a Walt Whitman poem and presents an achingly romantic picture of New York City, while Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929) zeroes in on its sheer immensity with imposing, abstracted low-angle shots and Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1949-57) obliterates and re-forms the city with a variety of mirror effects that distill the city’s fractured energy. Intimate and humane, street-level observations like Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) and Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee’s In the Street (1945-46) transform quotidian minutiae into something approaching transcendence.

Amazing animations:
Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1937) represents the rare major studio foray into experimental film, an MGM release that features mind-blowing manipulation of paper cutouts to visualize Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth’s Tarantella (1940) and Abstronic (1952) dig into the elemental nature of music, animations spawning and convulsing to syncopated rhythms. Lawrence Jordan’s Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) mashes together Victorian primness and space-age futurism in a frenetic dreamlike collage that’s always perilously close to tipping over into the realm of nightmare.

Genre deconstructions:
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s galvanic, revered Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is probably the set’s highest-profile film, and its advancement on French surrealist techniques remains bracing in a way few films are. It’s quite possible that it’s the best horror film ever made. The version included here features three additional shots, as it was originally presented. Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1927) draws on German expressionism and anticipates David Lynch in its striking depiction of the dehumanizing effects of show business.

Portraits of the human body:
The human form is abstracted and dissected in Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948) and Hilary Harris’s 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966-67), ritual and repetition examined in a Chinese boxer in the former and a ballet dancer in the latter. In Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet Mechanique (1923-24), cubist renderings work alongside repetitive mechanical imagery to transform man into machine.

The set includes works from a number of other notable experimental filmmakers, including Ralph Steiner’s deceptively playful Mechanical Principles (1930), Kenneth Anger’s beguiling Eaux d’artifice (1953), Bruce Baille’s hallucinatory collage film Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) (1966) and excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s diary film Walden (1969), coming to Blu-ray in its entirety later this year in an exciting release from Kino.

Outside of the five-decade window the set focuses on are bonus films Sappho and Jerry, Parts 1-3 (Posner, 1977-78), Ch’an (Francis Lee, 1983) and Seasons… (A Phil Solomon re-edit of works from Stan Brakhage, 2002).

The 1080p presentations vary in quality, thanks to conditions of the 16mm and 35mm elements, but Flicker Alley has taken an admirably conscientious approach by not overcorrecting damage or inconsistencies, many of which are part of the fabric of the films themselves. The sterling transfers of Manhatta and Ballet Mechanique are both sourced from 2K restorations, while Skyscraper Symphony, N.Y., N.Y. and Castro Street have also received digital restorations. Audio sources vary, with some films intentionally silent, some in uncompressed mono and a couple different scores for Manhatta in DTS-HD. Watching in high-def makes for the closest approximation to viewing a film print of these works, and for that, this Blu-ray release is essential.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

Flicker Alley / 1920-1970 / Black and white & color / Various aspect ratios / 418 min / $59.95


La SapienzaLa Sapienza 
(2014)
Kino Lorber

It might take a little bit for one to get used to the very precise formalism of La Sapienza, the latest feature from U.S.-born French filmmaker Eugène Green. Green’s frames are often painstakingly symmetrical, placing the subject in the exact center, and his shot-reverse shot sequences are bracing, if discomfiting, sometimes facing each person head-on, the camera encroaching with each cut. Add to that a distinctly Bressonian style of performance from every actor — although with considerably more arch humor — and you have a film that seems obsessed with the rational, the logical, the measured.

Fabrizio Rongione stars as Alexandre, a decorated architect who’s become disillusioned with his work and the destructive demands of progress. His relationship to wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a social scientist who studies low-income populations, is in similar disarray.

A retreat to Switzerland and Italy gives the couple a chance to find rejuvenation, while Alexandre seeks to rekindle his passion by returning to a study of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. In a small Italian town, they meet siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). He’s an aspiring architect; she’s a young woman afflicted with a seemingly anachronistic wasting disease.

The group pairs off, with Goffredo joining Alexandre on his trip to Rome in hopes of learning more about architecture, while Aliénor stays behind to look after the ailing Lavinia. Apart, Alexandre and Aliénor’s affections are brought back to life, both by the enthusiasm of their younger companions and the illuminating discussions about architecture, theater, history and love that proceed.

Looking purely at the formal aspects, one might be convinced Green is a cynic or a satirist, but La Sapienza is a work of deep optimism and enthusiasm for the ways art can transform lives. Alongside the “rationality” of the film’s construction is a story that revels in the mystical and the spiritual. Alexandre admits that despite his atheism, he is deeply moved by the Shroud of Turin, while Goffredo speaks of “the presence” that is evoked by a great work of architecture.

The camera itself gives in to these feelings when it pauses to take in the stunning Baroque buildings. There’s no loss of precision in Green’s compositions, but one can almost sense the swooning as the camera tilts up, heavenward.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is exceptional, with abundant levels of fine detail in every image, be it the contours of a human face or Borromini’s jaw-dropping church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. La Sapienza is much more than architecture porn, but anyone who wanted to enjoy it simply on that level would be well-served by this release. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is often very quiet, as the film is mostly un-scored, but it’s crisp and clean. Extras include Les Signes (2006), Green’s short staring Mathieu Amalric and Landman, along with a brief interview with Green, a trailer and an essay from critic Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s La Sapienza Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Kino Lorber / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 104 min / $29.95

 

Mister JohnsonMister Johnson (1990)
The Criterion Collection

Released alongside Breaker Morant (1980) by Criterion, Mister Johnson is the decidedly less acclaimed work from Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford. It’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but it’s a fairly worthy discovery or rediscovery with an impressive debut performance at its center.

Made the year after Beresford’s Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Mister Johnson retains a little of that film’s prestige-drama sheen, with certain scenes lapsing into bland coverage, accompanied by a maudlin score from the legendary Georges Delerue.

Still, there’s plenty to admire here, whether it’s Beresford’s affection for the beautiful Nigerian landscapes or the lead performance of Maynard Eziashi, starring in his first film as the titular Johnson, an African man so taken by the customs and culture of his British employers, he proudly proclaims himself to be a “civilized” British man, and he works dutifully to fulfill all the desires of his district officer boss (Pierce Brosnan).

As a comment on the effects of colonialism, Mister Johnson, based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, is drawn in rather broad strokes. Johnson is essentially treated like a hyperactive child by both Brosnan and Edward Woodward’s more overtly racist general store proprietor, and there are times where it seems like he deserves it for his incredible naiveté.

But William Boyd’s script and Eziashi’s performance continually seek to complicate Johnson, treating him both as a product of his fractured environment and as a crafty, happy-go-lucky conniver. One even has to question Johnson’s supposed naiveté about his identity when he convinces Brosnan’s officer to cook the books in order to fund a road-building project or when he brazenly steals from various employers, citing it as an advance on his wages. Eziashi is simultaneously ingratiating, calculating and affable, and his performance makes up for a number of other shortcomings.

Mister Johnson is granted a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that significantly spruces up a title that’s been heavily neglected on home video. The film’s burnished, golden images look fantastic here, with strong levels of fine detail, even in numerous shadowy scenes, and there’s a thoroughly film-like appearance throughout. Sourced from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, the transfer is free of any noticeable damage. The 2.0 uncompressed stereo track is also quite nice, with clear dialogue and dynamic music and crowd noise.

A quartet of interviews makes up the only major supplements on the disc, but we get some informative and affectionate reminiscing from actors Eziashi and Brosnan, along with production history from Beresford and producer Michael Fitzgerald. A trailer and an essay by scholar Neil Sinyard are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Mister Johnson Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95


JaujaJauja
 (2014)
Cinema Guild

Hallucinatory, gorgeous and maddening, Jauja is one of the great modern westerns and it suggests, perhaps, that if Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian ever makes it to the screen, Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso should be at the helm.

A certain amount of opaqueness is expected in any work of slow cinema, and Jauja does not disappoint on that front, sketching out a bizarrely out-of-time Patagonian outpost, where Danish military captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) has taken an engineering job with the Argentine army. “Engineering” is fairly euphemistic, as the army is in the process of wiping out indigenous peoples.

Accompanying Dinesen is his teenage daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who captures plenty of attention as the only female presence in the area. Eventually, she runs off with a young soldier, forcing Dinesen to track her into the wild unknown, where a raving mad deserter disguised as a woman is only one of the dangers.

Like Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Jauja features a square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, here with rounded corners as a result of a non-matted full frame. The effect is similarly constricting, heightening the sense of danger and unpredictability by leaving what is outside of the frame to the imagination. Many films are called “painterly,” but Alonso’s compositions are so carefully constructed inside an artificially imposed border (not to mention, outrageously beautiful), it’s hard to resist employing that adjective.

As Dinesen’s journey grows increasingly unsuccessful, it becomes increasingly dreamlike, culminating with an encounter with a mysterious woman in a cave (Ghita Nørby), whose philosophical queries may be the answer to Dinesen’s search or just a confirmation of its futility.

Jauja is presented in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that’s simply breathtaking. Alonso’s 35mm photography is exquisite, the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the grass and the grayness of Mortensen’s uniform and the blackness of the cave all unreal in their mystical beauty. Cinema Guild’s transfer preserves the film-like qualities of his images, delivering a detailed and vibrant presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtle, but effective in its use of surrounds.

Extras include 2011 short Untitled (Letter to Serra), a 2009 teaser Alonso made for the BAFICI Film Festival and a Q&A with Alonso and Mortensen from the New York Film Festival, hosted by the ever-perceptive Kent Jones. A trailer and an essay on Alsonso’s career from film critic Quintin are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Jauja Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.33:1 / 108 min / $34.95


Blind ChanceBlind Chance
 (1981)
The Criterion Collection

Made in 1981, but suppressed by the Polish government until 1987, when it was released in a censored version, Blind Chance is presented here in uncut form (save for one lost scene) by Criterion. An early narrative work from Krzysztof Kieślowski, the film displays ingenious technical brilliance, but only hints at the metaphysical masterpieces that would come in The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and The Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994).

The film plunges right in to the story of Witek (Bogusław Linda), careening through his childhood and adolescence with a kinetic, immediate series of scenes, the camera acting as almost another character, shoulder to shoulder with Witek as he experiences academic disappointment, a variety of romantic relationships and the death of his father.

Soon, the film arrives at its pivotal scene, one that will be shown three times, with minor variations. Witek rushes to catch a train, and whether he makes it or not will set into motion events that will change his entire life.

In the first scenario, he meets a Communist party member on the train, joins the party, and eventually reconnects with his first girlfriend, Czuszka (Bogusława Pawelec). There is some fulfillment in his work, but it prevents the same in his romantic life. In the second scenario, Witek finds himself joining the anti-Communist resistance, but attempts at romance are thwarted again. In the final scenario, he finds love with fellow medical student Olga (Monika Gozdzik) and a fulfilling, apolitical career as a doctor, but fate may have other plans.

If it all sounds rather schematic, it is. The sequential nature of the film feels a little rote, and Kieślowski doesn’t exactly bring the three segments together satisfyingly, as his finale feels more like a cheat than a forceful summation of the capriciousness of the universe. Nonetheless, the filmmaking is electric, and each of the segments is compelling as a standalone piece.

Criterion presents Blind Chance in a 1080p transfer that’s listed as 1.66:1, but looks closer to 1.75:1. Sourced from a 4K restoration, the presentation is superb, each image displaying exceptional detail and deep, consistent reproductions of the film’s drab, gloomy color palette, all dingy browns and cold blues. The uncompressed 2.0 stereo track presents a fairly dynamic score and clean dialogue.

A modest collection of bonus features accompanies the film, including a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski and a 2003 interview with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. A featurette shows nine sections of the film that were censored, presenting them in color with the uncensored segments in black and white. The included insert features an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a Q&A with Kieślowski.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Blind Chance Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: **

The Criterion Collection / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1 / 123 min / $39.95

 

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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