nationtime2

William Greaves on Blu-ray: Reviews of Nationtime and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

NationtimeThough he directed more than 100 documentaries and helped pioneer cinema vérité in the late 1950s with his work for the National Film Board of Canada, William Greaves remains largely obscure, outside of his 1968 meta-movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, first released by Criterion in 2006 and now out in a surprising Blu-ray upgrade. That release comes in close proximity to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Greaves 1972 documentary Nationtime, recently rescued with a 4K restoration. Given Greaves’ prolific career, there’s no way these two releases sum up the man’s work, but taken together, they start to piece together a picture of the breadth of his interests and styles.

Nationtime, originally released in a truncated version as Nationtime – Gary, takes an intensely focused look at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Organized by poet, author and activist Amiri Baraka, the event attracted 10,000 people and a who’s who of influential Black Americans in an attempt to unify on a national political platform.

Four years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Black political voices were largely divided between nationalists, like Baraka, and moderates, like members of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Both sides were well represented at the event.

Greaves’ film, shot guerrilla-style from the convention floor, the camera peering around corners and craning its neck upward from sharp angles, doesn’t belabor or even overtly acknowledge this split, though the differences are evident in the message of Baraka and elected officials like Rep. Charles Diggs and Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher. Widows of the two men most emblematic of these diverging viewpoints, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, are both in attendance. There’s a sense that an amalgam might be possible in Jesse Jackson’s stirring speech, which Greaves includes seemingly in its entirety, the camera unable to cut away from Jackson’s charisma and passion.

Though Nationtime is largely focused on the onstage events at the convention, the film becomes looser as it goes on, assembling a portrait of a diverse collection of people and offering tantalizing glimpses of the wealth of artistic talent on display, from the avant-garde jazz of Phil Cohran and his band — Cohran also contributes the film’s score — to Dick Gregory’s trenchant comedy. Richard Roundtree and Isaac Hayes appear briefly to bask in the crowd’s admiration, while Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier add in intermittent bits of narration. The film functions both as an incredible historical document and an assertion of the essential cultural and political influence of Black Americans on this country.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. It’s apparent that both the condition of the elements and the film’s shooting conditions contribute to an uneven presentation, with the film’s color scheme ping-ponging from reasonably vibrant to completely washed out. Image detail and stability are more consistent, and the transfer looks acceptably film-like. Damage has been mitigated nicely, with a generally clean presentation overall. The film has been appended with an onscreen introduction and what appear to be newly added chyrons identifying the film’s major players. The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is about what one would expect for a film shot in a gymnasium, but there are no obvious issues otherwise.

Extras include an audio interview with Greaves’ widow, Louise Greaves, and a video interview with his son, David Greaves, who worked as a cinematographer on the film. David Greaves also contributes an audio commentary. A booklet includes an essay with historical context from Leonard N. Moore and restoration notes from Sandra Schulberg. Those notes identify what is an odd omission from the extras: a black-and-white version that was created to mitigate the color version’s inconsistencies. This version was “strongly preferred” by Louise Greaves and was the version screened at the restoration’s premiere at MoMA. Given the color version was the cut that received the wider release when Kino picked up the film, it makes sense to give it priority, but the black-and-white cut would have been a welcome supplement.

symbioSymbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the hidden gems of the Criterion catalog, a not-quite-fiction, not-quite-documentary film that chronicles Greaves’ ostensible attempts to shoot a melodrama in Central Park. While different sets of actors performing a break-up scene over and over, Greaves loosely orchestrates, but bystanders wandering onto the set and Greaves’ own pontifications to the making-of crew about the kind of film they’re making both threaten to prevent anything from cohering. Meanwhile, the crew considers a mutiny of sorts.

Self-reflexive and formally playful movies about moviemaking aren’t all that rare, but Greaves’ film is one of the few that’s convincing as a genuinely found object — a film that somehow sprung into being despite itself. Key to this ruse is Greaves’ own performance as a charming but dubiously competent director. The Criterion set also includes the long-promised sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, which returns to Central Park nearly 40 years later to film a follow-up with original actors Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker. Though the seams are way more visible this time around, the way the film plays with the thin membrane between performance and real life is certainly worthwhile, and Greaves remains as winning a screen presence as ever.

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents both films in 1080p, with a 1.33:1 transfer for Take One and a 1.78:1 transfer for Take 2 ½. This is one of those upgrades whose primary value comes in hopefully introducing more viewers to the films, as the technical improvements are quite modest. The Blu-ray release uses the same high-definition transfers as the DVD, and though the 16mm photography of Take One benefits from the added resolution, the on-the-fly shooting style limits how much can be done. Take 2 ½ is mostly shot on standard-def digital, and the new 1080p presentation obviously does nothing for the rampant artifacting and fuzziness. Uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtracks are adequate though obviously limited by the source material. Even Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” sounds a bit flat.

Extras are identical to the DVD release: 2006 doc Discovering William Greaves, an interview with Steve Buscemi, who helped make the sequel happen and who appears in it as himself, and a booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin and Greaves’ production notes for Take One.

GoodTimesKid2

Blu-ray Review: ‘The GoodTimesKid’ and ‘Momma’s Man,’ two early films from Azazel Jacobs

GoodTimesKidThough his early films appeared contemporaneously with the rise of mumblecore, Azazel Jacobs doesn’t really fit into that admittedly tenuously defined scene. Like many of those filmmakers, Jacobs has waded in increasingly mainstream waters as his career has advanced, with his latest, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring French Exit, closing the New York Film Festival this year. That’s reason enough for surprising but welcome Blu-ray upgrades of Jacobs’ second and third features, from Kino Lorber.

Unlike many American indies from the same era, Jacobs’ films are both much less dependent on dialogue and more prescriptive in their writing. Though handheld camera work can give the appearance of loose, improvisational filmmaking, these two films are constructed carefully, with Jacobs teasing out bits of visual humor with his compositions and establishing mood with stray flourishes of dialogue.

In The GoodTimesKid (2005), Jacobs crafts a love triangle built on coincidence, as two men named Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs himself and Gerardo Naranjo) find their lives intermingling when an Army enlistment notice accidentally goes to the wrong one. Rodolfo 1, played by Jacobs, is in the midst of blowing up his life by enlisting without informing his girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz). On the night of his birthday party, he’s nowhere to be found, just as Rodolfo 2 finds his way to their house.

It says something about Rodolfo 2’s emotional state that Diaz labels him “Depresso,” even as her relationship is crumbling. Naranjo’s performance lands just shy of shell-shocked, and there are clues to recent romantic distress. One, involving a long note written on his houseboat, shows Jacobs’ facility for creating slowly unfolding visual gags. There are more explosive punchlines too, like a sudden commiseration via fridge-punching that bonds Diaz and Rodolfo 2.

The film’s tone can be aggressively deadpan, but there’s an undercurrent of helpless rage here too. George W. Bush flickers on a television, and later, an increasingly incensed Rodolfo 1 literally wraps himself in an American flag before attacking a group of strangers. Jacobs may not be a political filmmaker like his father, Ken Jacobs, whose mammoth Star Spangled to Death is an experimental landmark, but he can be pointed. The banality-of-evil levels in the film’s Army office scene are off the charts.

MommasManWith Momma’s Man (2008), Jacobs burrows into something like autobiography, though as he mentions on the disc’s new audio commentary, the project didn’t start that way. Still, there’s no way around that analysis when the end result is a film starring your parents (Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs) playing versions of their artist selves, shot almost exclusively in the walk-up apartment you grew up in.

Matt Boren stars as Mikey, whose brief visit to see his parents in New York turns into an extended stay when he just can’t bring himself to get back on the plane to California, where his wife and infant daughter await. Each passing day, Mikey seems to become more and more cocooned in his parents’ place, which is stuffed to the ceiling with bric-a-brac, plenty of it ephemera from his childhood.

One on hand, the film’s themes are apparent almost instantly, with Boren’s opaque performance quickly sketching in Mikey’s arrested development and declining to go much further. But again, Jacobs has a knack for teasing out small details that suddenly arrest your attention, and he can make his parents’ apartment feel both enveloping and suffocating, at turns.

And casting his parents is a brilliant move, with Flo’s open-hearted performance becoming almost painful in its extreme empathy, while Ken’s sidelong glances lend just enough annoyance to leaven the proceedings. The film justifies its entire existence with a sequence where Flo takes Mikey into her lap at the kitchen table, and a cut transports us to his childhood via one of Ken’s films, with Azazel asleep at the same table as a boy. In that moment, the mysterious hold our memories can exert becomes remarkably present.

Kino’s Blu-ray upgrades reveal subtle but noticeable improvements over previous DVD releases. The GoodTimesKid has a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, while Momma’s Man features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Both now feature a more supported grain structure, with fine detail that doesn’t get lost in noise, and the typical improved clarity and color reproduction that comes with high-def. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are clean.

The slates of extras don’t quite supersede the DVDs, unfortunately. For Momma’s Man, everything from Kino’s DVD is carried over, except Ken Jacobs’ 2006 short Capitalism: Child Labor. (Could be rights issues. Could be concern over the film’s aggressive strobe visuals.) Alongside the ported-over making-of, conversation between Azazel and his parents, some deleted scenes, and Rain Building Music (Azazel’s first short film) we get a brand new audio commentary from Azazel.

The GoodTimesKid has more gaps. Kino’s disc has a new Azazel audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and a stills gallery. Missing from the previously released DVD from short-lived boutique label Benten Films: a different audio commentary featuring all three leads, Ken Jacobs’ short The Whirled, Azazel Jacobs’ short Let’s Get Started, and a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny.

SoleilO2

Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3, from the Criterion Collection

WCP3Long live The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese’s passion project that has restored more than 40 oft-neglected films from around the world. Same sentiment applies to the Criterion Collection’s steady stream of home video releases of the project’s restorations, including stellar standalone editions of films like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl or Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and box sets of some of the more obscure titles. There’s no doubt Criterion’s line has trended toward a more mainstream approach over the last five years or so as the big studios have become much more open about licensing, but the company’s continued commitment to releasing these films on Blu-ray is heartening.

Like the first two sets, Criterion has released Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 as a dual-format collection, with each film getting its own DVD and two films sharing each Blu-ray. This review will focus on the Blu-rays, but the content is identical on the DVD copies. The films are:

Lucia

Lucía (1968)
Directed by Humberto Solás

An ambitious triptych, Lucía is fashioned as an epic, but its structure relies on cumulative thematic rhyming more than large-scale storytelling. Recounting the tales of three major inflection points in Cuban history, each segment features a woman named Lucía, though each is played by a different actress. Solás adopts a different genre packaging for each part, but there’s a distinct through-line of how the political becomes personal; history is writ small in these societal microcosms.

Part one, which is set in 1895 during Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is the strongest. Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) is an aristocratic Cuban woman who falls for Rafael (Eduardo Moore), a man who claims to have both Cuban and Spanish heritage. With a blitheness that’s exclusively reserved for the upper class, he assures her that he has no interest in politics.

Solás films the posh life with a blinding gleam, pushing the whites to near-overexposure in scenes of society women mingling. But the horrors of war lurk just outside, and Lucía soon discovers she can’t stay aloof. As the segment progresses, Solás pushes the visual degradation further and further, adding jagged, grainy blacks to the increasingly blown-out whites. By the end, this section has morphed into a full-on horror film, with many of its queasy images reminding me of another 1968 release, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The film’s middle part, an achingly melancholy melodrama set in 1932, concerns a middle-class Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) who abandons her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to take up with Aldo (Ramón Brito), a freedom fighter against the Gerardo Machado regime. Though the change in lifestyle lends some excitement to her life, Lucía never seems to be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider, and her doomed romance is mirrored in a revolution that doesn’t quite take.

The film’s third segment, set in the Castro 1960s, opts for rowdy, acrid comedy in its story of newlyweds Lucía (Adela Legrá) and Tomas (Adolfo Llauradó) clashing over gender roles. As in the first two sections, this Lucía is deeply in love with a man, but in a shift, she has no interest in him determining the trajectory of her life. Tomas’s revolutionary ideals apparently stop at the doorway to his house, and he bristles at Lucía’s interest in learning to read (particularly given that the state-sponsored tutor is a handsome young man) and remaining in the workforce. After the charged romantic doom of the first two parts, this finale can feel a bit flippant in comparison, but its honest vision of an imperfect revolution fits right in. Though Solás clearly posits the 1960s revolution was a giant leap forward for Cuba, he’s clear-eyed about the challenges that remain.

The restoration work that the WCP performs on many of the films they encounter is heroic, and the efforts pay dividends on this set, which is by and large, stunning. Lucía sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer on the Blu-ray, restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and several duplicate positives to replace sections of the neg that were severely damaged. This is a beautiful transfer, from the high-contrast graininess of the first section to the sunny naturalism of the third. Clarity and detail are strong throughout, and any shifts between materials are not obvious (particularly given the shifting visual style of the first part). Uncompressed mono audio is solid.

Like all the films in the set, Scorsese offers a brief filmed introduction, talking both about what makes the film notable and any restoration challenges. Also included is a 2020 documentary short featuring interviews with Solás and other members of the cast and crew.

AfterTheCurfewAfter the Curfew (Lewat djam malam, 1954)
Directed by Usmar Ismail

There are some easy criticisms to make of Indonesian filmmaker Usmar Ismail’s study of postwar malaise, most obviously its somewhat manufactured ending, telegraphed pointedly by both the film’s opening sequence and its title. But despite the film’s blunt storytelling, there’s a lot to admire about its moody treatment of a man who can’t find a place to fit in after fighting as a revolutionary in Indonesia’s war of independence from the Netherlands.

Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff) is seemingly set up perfectly after being discharged from the army. He has a caring fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty), and a father-in-law who’s arranged a job for him at the governor’s office. But Iskandar can’t settle in, haunted by PTSD for his actions during the war and disillusioned by a society that he sees as riddled with corruption. None of this feels pro forma as performed by Alcaff, who possesses a Cassavetes-like rueful intensity.

The film’s best scenes contrast the joy of a welcome-home party Norma throws for Iskandar and the doleful domestic life of a prostitute, Laila (Dhalia), whose pimp is a former squadron-mate of Iskandar’s. The happiness is hollow for Iskandar at the party, and he finds some solace spending time with Laila, who dreamily admires consumer goods in catalogs. The smallness — and yet obvious futility — of her desires seems to resonate with Iskandar, and it’s a small island of delusional but comforting hope in an environment where hope is in short supply.

The disc’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of a variety of elements, and it’s easily the set’s most problematic transfer, with frequent occurrences of celluloid degradation that swallow up large parts of the image. Still, this is incredibly impressive restoration work, with mold damage largely mitigated and consistent image stability that belies the huge amount of work done. Clarity and detail are quite nice outside of the damaged portions and segments that use a lesser source. Uncompressed mono audio is also cobbled together from multiple sources, and it has its share of harshness and variable fidelity.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with journalist J.B. Kristanto.

PixotePixote (1980)
Directed by Héctor Babenco

Probably the most well-known film in the set, Pixote is a landmark in Brazilian cinema, and an early triumph for Argentinian director Héctor Babenco, who would go on to a brief detour in Hollywood. Pixote is an achingly beautiful piece of work, sidestepping poverty porn and miserablism pitfalls to tell a harrowing but emotionally sensitive story about children trying to survive in a society where they’re not valued.

Taking on the mantle of Neorealism, Babenco cast mostly nonprofessional youths, including 13-year-old Fernando Ramos da Silva as Pixote, part of a group of young people rounded up by the corrupt police department and sentenced to a juvenile detention center masquerading as a reform school. Da Silva delivers what is surely one of the most astonishing child performances ever, suffusing Pixote with easy charisma and heart-wrenching vulnerability.

Part of what makes Pixote so effective is it’s no tale of corrupted innocence. In one of the film’s early scenes, Pixote shows he’s savvy enough to keep quiet after witnessing a brutal gang rape in the living quarters. Any innocence was long gone before the film began. Babenco’s frank depiction of the disposition kids must adopt in this environment allows us to experience Pixote as a person, not a cautionary tale. The picaresque film involves Pixote and his makeshift family of other kids descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime, but Babenco is laser-focused on his characters’ humanity, and the film’s brief grace notes are like a gulp of fresh air.

The film’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, with a first-generation internegative subbing in for some missing frames. This is a gorgeous transfer, handling the film’s heavy grain beautifully, with no apparent dip in quality during a switch in elements used. The image is clear, with great depth of detail. There is a slight yellowish/greenish tint to the color grading, which tends to be the kind of thing that’s more distracting when seen in a single frame than when watching the film in motion. It does lend a slightly sickly look to some scenes, but I can’t say it bothered me much at all, especially considering the strengths of the transfer otherwise. Uncompressed mono audio sounds superb.

Extras include the Scorsese intro, where he relates the terribly tragic fate of da Silva — a stark reminder that the events of the film are only nominally fictional. A filmed introduction by Babenco that opened the US cut of the film has him explaining the real-life inspiration for Pixote: the Brazilian law that made children vulnerable to exploitation because they couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes. Excerpts from a 2016 interview with the late Babenco are also included.

DosMonjesDos Monjes (1934)
Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro

Early sound films can be thrilling and awkward in equal measures, propelling filmmakers to new experimentation but providing as many opportunities for clunky missteps. Mexican director Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes has both elements in about equal measure, with a stolid narrative undercutting some of the film’s structural inventiveness and German Expressionism-inspired visual style.

After a monk, Javier (Carlos Villatoro), suddenly flies into a rage and tries to murder Juan (Víctor Urruchúa), another monk who’s newly joined his monastery, the other clergy members are left with the task of puzzling out why. Bustillo Oro’s bifurcated film is a proto-Rashomon, first recounting Javier’s side of the story, and then Juan’s.

Visually, this strategy pays dividends, with differences ranging from subtle changes in costume to the bold flourishes of obviously divergent camera setups to distinguish the two sides. Unfortunately, the love triangle with a woman named Ana (Magda Haller) that constitutes the pair’s disagreement is rather dull. And though the film predates Rashomon by nearly two decades, it’s more a case of one character being deliberately left in the dark about certain facts than an examination of the murky nature of perspective and truth.

More interesting than the flashbacks are the bookends set in an imposing Gothic monastery, where prolific cinematographer Agustín Jiménez shoots the stark shadows of spookily barren rooms to great effect. And any narrative shortcomings are quickly forgotten when the film tips over into all-out surrealism in a finale that splits open Javier’s tortured psyche.

The film’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the 35mm duplicate negative and a 35mm positive print. Damage in the way of fine vertical lines is persistent, but has been mitigated well, with the underlying image displaying impressive clarity. The image is slightly soft throughout, but detail remains decent. There are a number of dropouts from missing frames. Uncompressed mono audio is pretty flat, but clean enough.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

SoleilOSoleil Ô (1970)
Directed by Med Hondo

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s acerbic, ambitious and slyly funny debut feature Soleil Ô was completed in fits and starts over several years, whenever the director could afford film stock and carve out time for shooting. The film’s herky-jerkiness reflects its production history, but its discursive qualities are far more a feature than a bug.

This is a film that’s angry and ecstatic in almost equal measures, with a stylistic expansiveness that reveals a filmmaker bursting with ideas. Hondo rails against a viciously racist European society, where the through-line from the colonial era to late-’60s Paris couldn’t be neater, but every scene makes the point in a new way.

Robert Liensol stars as a West African immigrant who arrives in Paris with a cheery optimism about his future. He’s quickly disabused of that feeling, as he encounters a spectrum of racism, from the overt hatred of those who refuse to hire him to the fetishization of white women curious about the novelty of having sex with a Black man to the pompous intellectualization of a sociologist who politely dehumanizes African immigrants in a spiel about labor conditions. Hondo cuts back and forth between these and other events in an almost essay-like approach, smashing spittle-flecked animosity and high-minded prejudice against each other, revealing their fundamental sameness.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration that used the 16mm original reversal positive and 16mm and 35mm duplicate negatives. This might be the best-looking film in the set, featuring an exceptionally clean image and perfect handling of the heavy 16mm grain. Uncompressed mono audio offers a solid showcase for the film’s musical elements and its experimental soundtrack. Extras include the Scorsese intro and a 2018 interview with the late Hondo, who fortunately got to see his wonderful film restored and celebrated before his death.

DownpourDownpour (1972)
Directed by Bahram Beyzaie

The set closes out with another debut feature and an early entry in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour is both wistful and wry in its examination of a slow-blossoming romance and the many obstacles it faces. Parviz Fannizadeh stars as Mr. Hekmati, an urbane schoolteacher assigned to an insular community in a Tehran suburb. His arrival is full of portent — with a gaggle of curious schoolchildren observing, he attempts to unload his cart of belongings on a steep street, but disaster strikes. Hekmati finds himself in a similarly precarious situation trying to ingratiate himself among his new neighbors, and there are signs that he’s as hapless as that opening scene suggests.

But Hekmati dedicates himself to his new role and pushes past his outsider status. And he shows himself to be not entirely hapless in his pursuit of Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), the older sister of one of his students. Their romance is beyond tentative, accompanied by the community’s prying eyes — a charming scene features a medium shot of the pair on a park bench that cuts to a wide shot of a bunch of schoolkids watching from the trees — and Atefeh’s begrudging commitment to Rahim (Manuchehr Farid), the town butcher who’s bullied her into betrothal with his financial support.

Beyzaie succeeds at building a world that feels real, even with an antagonist in Rahim who borders on the cartoonish. The longing between Hekmati and Atefeh grows quietly, building toward a catharsis that never really arrives, even as it appears to be right around the bend during the film’s climactic rainstorm sequence. There’s no sea change to be found in Downpour, but even as the film ends on a visual rhyme, it’s clear that some things won’t ever be the same.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of Beyzaie’s personal 35mm print, the only known surviving copy after the negative and other copies were destroyed after the Iranian Revolution. This is the most impressive restoration effort in the set, taking a print that was in rough shape and creating a digital transfer that looks nearly pristine, aside from a few stray marks. Blacks and whites are luminous and fine detail is abundant. The only real clue to the difficult circumstances surrounding the elements is the burned-in English subtitles. The subtitles have their share of issues, including frequent untranslated lines, poor delineation that can cause them to get swallowed up on white backgrounds and instability that has them bouncing around the bottom part of the frame. Still, this is a remarkable rescue job. Uncompressed mono audio is fairly flat and suffers from some distortion, but is fine overall.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a newly filmed interview with Beyzaie, who’s lived in exile in the US since 2010.

Last not but least, the set is accompanied by a booklet with essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli, Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo and Hamid Naficy, along with restoration notes. Bring on more volumes of this indispensable line forever, Criterion.

Vitalina

Blu-ray Review: Pedro Costa reaches new heights with ‘Vitalina Varela,’ out now from Second Run

VitalinaPedro Costa’s films have always been marked by a deep empathy for the humans they depict — characters does not seem like the right word to describe them — and that’s no different in his latest, Vitalina Varela. Among the film’s many virtues is its ability to transfer its heart-in-throat compassion for its subject almost instantaneously. Costa’s imagery has often been this mesmerizing, but never has he shot faces like this before; every close-up on Varela has a heart-wrenching effect.

Vitalina Varela feels like the apotheosis of Costa’s work since he switched to shooting digitally and began creating collaborative truth/fiction hybrids in Lisbon’s slums. Costa’s ability to coax unexplainable beauty from the defects of MiniDV digital video in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth was astounding, but his work ascends to new heights in Vitalina Varela, hauntingly juxtaposing light and shadow in a seemingly unending series of striking tableaux. The tools may be enormously improved, but still, no one can make digital images look like Costa does.

Vitalina Varela expands on a moment from Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, in which a Cape Verdean woman tells the story of trying to visit her estranged husband in Portugal, but arriving three days after his funeral. Costa met the mourning Varela while shooting Horse Money and incorporated elements of her real story into the segment. By expanding it here, he gives a larger platform to the most penetrating performance he’s ever featured, in a film about grief, isolation and defiance in spite of disillusionment.

In a country that’s not her own, in the neighborhood where she knows no one, in the room where the husband who she barely knew after he left her decades ago lived, Varela turns her sadness into a steely determination to make a place for herself. Like all Costa films, there’s a tangible sense of space in Vitalina Varela, and the expressionistic lighting and tight camera set-ups communicate an almost suffocating heaviness. Scenes of Varela sitting alone are accompanied by a din of commotion, ambient sounds of conversation and activity teeming around her but not involving her. Interactions with her unfeeling new neighbors aren’t any less lonely.

Still, Varela perseveres, and she finds some commiseration with a priest who’s lost his congregation. Frequent collaborator and star of Horse Money and Colossal Youth Ventura plays the priest, in a departure from the version of himself he generally plays in Costa’s films. The priest is unable to restrain his despair like Varela, lamenting openly about the loss of his own faith.

For her part, Varela keeps her pain close to her chest, but the film externalizes this deeply internal feeling in a way few films ever have. There are two grace notes in Vitalina Varela in which she visualizes a glimpse of Cape Verde, the gleaming sun and natural beauty a stark contrast to every image surrounding them. Whether nostalgia for the past or a dream of a future with a husband that will never come to be, these moments only amplify Vitalina Varela’s grief. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a glimpse of a reality that could come to be.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080i transfer, which preserves the film’s 25fps format. The gulf between my original viewing of the film on streaming versus a re-watch on Blu-ray was wide, with Second Run’s impeccable transfer highlighting the hyper-reality of Costa’s images. The deep, rich black levels seen on this disc are essential to appreciating the film’s visual style, and a continued point in favor of discs over streaming, where black levels go to die a compressed, macroblocked death. Every other aspect of the transfer is just as impressive, from fine detail to clarity to sharpness. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is dynamic and immersive, creating a great sense of the dense neighborhood the film was shot in. A 2.0 LPCM stereo track is also included.

Extras include a brief introduction by critic Chris Fujiwara, an hour-plus interview with Costa from a March 2020 screening in London, and Companhia, a short film about Costa’s museum installation exhibit in Porto. The disc also includes a selection of trailers. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Daniel Kasman and another extensive interview with Costa, who never shies away from an opinion.

Toni1

Blu-ray Review: Jean Renoir’s sublime ‘Toni,’ from the Criterion Collection

ToniToni (1935) represents a departure for Jean Renoir on multiple fronts. Shot largely on location in the south of France, the film looks unlike the filmmaker’s previous studio-bound work. There’s a whisper of similarity to his father’s en plein air method and the idyllic pastoral settings that result. Like A Day in the Country (1936) Renoir’s subsequent unfinished masterpiece, Toni quietly exults in its outdoor locales — a hedge-lined path or a shaded hillside — though the emotional lows in Toni hit an extreme that the melancholy-tinged A Day in the Country doesn’t approach.

Toni is also an outlier among Renoir’s work for its focus on the working class, as it’s based on a true story about migrant workers in Martigues. Renoir mentions in the introduction included on Criterion’s disc that he realized that class was a more prominent line of demarcation than nationality. Of course, it’s not such a neat delineation, as a wry early scene shows two men complaining about a fresh influx of immigrants to the town — before revealing they themselves are recent immigrants.

These frequent asides, mostly featuring nonprofessional actors, and the film’s documentary-like style — longer takes, few close-ups — place the film as a clear precursor to Neorealism, though the film’s social and political impulses are much less of a force than its commitment to melodrama.

The film’s narrative of a love triangle between Italian worker Toni (Charles Blavette) and Marie (Jenny Hélla) and Josefa (Celia Montalván) runs hot, but Renoir’s approach plays it down. Until the final act, the film’s shockwaves are more of a function of its elisions than anything. Toni’s faintly flirtatious meeting of Marie, owner of a boarding house, cuts almost immediately to him wearily waking up in her bed, the doldrums already set in on their relationship. And just as Toni is coming to terms with the fact that he can’t have Josefa, the film cuts like a gut punch to a wedding banquet after she’s married Albert (Max Dalban), the casually cruel boss at Toni’s quarry job.

The film’s textures of realism — a funeral procession, a quarry worker’s labor, a train coming into town, a band’s folk song — ground what eventually becomes a heightened tale of violence, where Renoir appropriately shifts to incongruous close-ups. But this verité-style background also sets off moments of poetic sublimity, both tender, like Josefa’s seduction of Toni via wasp sting (envisioned on Katherine Lam’s beautiful painted cover for Criterion’s edition), and mournful, like a character’s attempt at suicide, captured in a breathtaking long shot across a vast expanse of sea. In all of its modes, Toni is an ecstatically gorgeous film, and it comes to Blu-ray in a presentation that matches.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are extremely pleasing. Images have beautiful depth to the grain texture, fine detail is strong and black and white levels are impressive. There are few dropped frames throughout the film, but damage is basically nonvisible elsewhere. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is also quite clean, with no major issues.

On the supplements front, Criterion ports over the Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate commentary track from the long out-of-print Masters of Cinema DVD release. Conversational, but dense with information, it’s a strong track from two heavy hitters.

Also included: the first part of Jacques Rivette’s three-part Cinéastes de notre temps series on Renoir, “Jean Renoir le patron: La recherche du relatif”. (Excerpts of part two are on Criterion’s Rules of the Game disc and part three is on La Chienne.) This first part examines many of Renoir’s early films, with just a brief section on Toni, but it’s well worth watching for Renoir’s self-effacing commentary and Rivette’s essay-like approach.

A new video essay by Christopher Faulkner examines the film’s production history, including its now-lost longer original cut and Renoir’s association with Marcel Pagnol, who had a studio in the region. And the aforementioned Renoir introduction from 1961 rounds out the disc. The package includes an insert with an essay by scholar Ginette Vincendau.

Grant3

Hitchcock and Grant: Darkness Behind the Charm

Hitch1

Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant brought out each other’s best attributes in their four collaborations from 1941 to 1959. Hitchcock was the only director who exposed the dark, brooding side of Grant’s suave image, with a sexual tension that somehow evaded the censors. Grant’s presence, in turn, lent a sophistication and elegance rarely seen in Hitchcock’s other works.

Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959) explored Hitchcock’s themes of concealment, degradation and emotional manipulation. By expanding Grant’s acting range, Hitchcock revealed a dark romanticism behind the charm — screwball humor on the edge of a precipice.

Undoubtedly, both men benefited from their partnership. However, imagine if neither had made Notorious and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s reputation would have endured regardless, but for Grant, those films were essential. In fact, it was Hitchcock who lured Grant from an early retirement to make To Catch a Thief and, in the process, helped revive the screen actor’s career.

Hitchcock and Grant shared a common bond that became more evident with each successive film. They were lonely, insecure men who came from lower middle-class English backgrounds. Furthermore, both were somewhat fearful of women, perfectionistic in their working methods, and enthusiastic about black humor. These character traits helped provide the foundation of their professional relationship.

The element of danger in Cary Grant first emerged in Suspicion. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as Rebecca, Hitchcock referred to Suspicion as the “second English picture I made in Hollywood.” However, Hitchcock began shooting with an unfinished script, resulting in a troubled production and an uncertain dramatic tone.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

In this disappointing adaptation of Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, Hitchcock cast Grant against type as Johnnie — a reckless, irresponsible playboy who later marries the shy Lina (played by an ineffectual Joan Fontaine, who somehow won an Academy Award for her performance). Only after their marriage does the naive Lina discover that Johnnie is a habitual liar and spendthrift with no money of his own. Because of mounting circumstantial evidence, Lina suspects that her husband is a murderer.

At this point, the film deteriorates into an endless charade as Lina’s belief in Johnnie fluctuates between guilt and innocence. Lina’s psychological tug of war becomes ludicrous once it is revealed that Johnnie never was a murderer — thereby negating everything that has come before.

If Hitchcock and Grant had their way, Suspicion would have evolved into a disturbing thriller rather than a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, RKO had other ideas and altered the framework of Suspicion with the same callous insensitivity that marred Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

When interviewed by François Truffaut in 1962, Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with Suspicion and revealed his original ending: “Cary Grant [was] to bring [Joan Fontaine] a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and [she] has just finished a letter: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops in the letter.”

Hitch3

The illuminated glass of milk.

Seen today, Suspicion is the weakest Hitchcock-Grant collaboration even without RKO’s interference. Grant’s portrayal lacks the polish and depth that would become evident in his remaining work with Hitchcock. Furthermore, there is an absence of sexual chemistry between the Grant and Fontaine characters. Hitchcock also sensed this lack of rapport and, in future films, made certain that Grant was paired with more romantically compatible costars.

The most intriguing development in Suspicion is Hitchcock’s expansion of Grant’s screen persona. During the film’s first half, Grant plays his scenes in a screwball-comedy manner that often is grating. However, in the second half, Hitchcock slows the tempo of Grant’s performance, thus revealing Johnnie’s sinister undertones. Johnnie emerges as a seductive and sociopathic menace not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train. If Grant (and the studios) had been more daring, he could have played the Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker roles.

Suspicion should be viewed as a blueprint for a more rewarding collaboration: Notorious. Apart from being one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the film represents Grant’s strongest dramatic performance. His portrayal of Devlin remains so emotionally cold that it leaves no room for his traditional humor. Ben Hecht’s detailed screenplay also includes a self-revelatory comment by Devlin: “I’ve always been scared of women. I’ll get over it.”

Notorious: Grant's finest dramatic performance.

Notorious: Grant’s finest dramatic performance.

In Hitchcock’s cruelest and most disturbing romance, Devlin emerges as an unsympathetic sadist. The counterspy seduces and manipulates Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), an alcoholic nymphomaniac, into helping the U.S. government obtain secrets by marrying the Nazi spy Sebastian (Claude Rains), who actually loves her more than Devlin does.

With the casting of Bergman and Rains, the love triangle in Notorious is similar to Casablanca. However, in Hitchcock’s world, there is no stirring display of patriotism or sentimentality. One feels sorrow for Sebastian when Devlin cruelly locks the car door and drives off with Alicia, leaving Sebastian to face certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Ironically, the humanity of Sebastian makes him a far more sympathetic character than Devlin, who cares little about people, except for the secrets and sexual gratification he can extract from them.

Though Devlin saves Alicia from a poisonous fate, it doesn’t redeem his mean-spirited treatment of her. Even when Devlin tells Alicia that he was “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” it isn’t entirely convincing. Herein lies the brilliance of Hitchcock, who finally strips Grant of his protective charm.

A cruel romance.

A cruel romance.

Notorious should have been the start of a new dramatic phase in Grant’s career. Instead, he played it safe by starring in a succession of comedies from 1947 to 1953. With the exception of his intelligent performances in Richard Brooks’ Crisis and Joseph Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, Grant avoided serious roles during that period. Much was lost in the process.

Hitchcock’s fortunes waned after the release of Notorious. The filmmaker would not have another major critical and commercial success until Strangers on a Train in 1951. By the time Hitchcock re-established his cinematic artistry, Grant had retired in 1953 after a string of box-office disappointments.

The retirement lasted two years. In the end, it was Hitchcock who convinced Cary Grant to return to filmmaking. The master of suspense gave the actor a script he couldn’t refuse . . . and some Hitchcockian words of encouragement: “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first-rate screenplay won’t cure.  You’d be perfectly splendid in the part. One last thing: Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.”

Grant signed on the dotted line and began work on To Catch a Thief (only his second Technicolor feature — the first being 1946′s Night and Day). Hitchcock considered the film a “lightweight story,” yet it remains an important work from one of his most prolific periods. The director’s renewed energy is evident in the vividness of Robert Burks’ cinematography and imaginative use of the newly developed VistaVision process.  Though not terribly suspenseful, To Catch a Thief ranks among Hitchcock’s most stylish and elegant achievements.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Of course, the film’s soufflé-like quality would have collapsed without Grant’s flawless performance. As retired cat burglar John Robie, Grant revitalizes his screen presence. He is not playing Robie so much as he is playing Cary Grant — a suave, debonair man who looks good and knows it. This relaxed self-confidence is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

The Hitchcock-Grant films utilize sex as a form of seduction and manipulation. To Catch a Thief is notable for the bold eroticism of Francie (played by a stunningly cool Grace Kelly) and her aggressive carnal desire for Robie. The offbeat nature of their romance adds to the lasciviousness, especially when Francie suddenly kisses Robie in the hotel corridor — her libido churning away. As in Notorious, Hitchcock effectively films Grant from behind in this brief encounter, making him the center of attention by focusing on the magnetism the viewer cannot see. When Grant turns to the camera, the look of bemused satisfaction on his face remains priceless.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto credited To Catch a Thief for its “classic Freudian notion of sex as larcenous” — a theme the director further developed in Psycho and Marnie. Most apparent is Hitchcock’s equation of jewelry to women’s bosoms, especially during Robie’s foray at the gambling tables and the now-classic “fireworks” sequence. When Francie invites Robie to her hotel suite, he knows what she is after and vice versa: “Look — hold them. Diamonds! The only thing in the world you can’t resist.”

Sex as larceny in To Catch a Thief.

Sex as larceny.

For Hitchcock, the fireworks scene in To Catch a Thief represented the cinematic equivalent of sexual rapture. “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” he told Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. Sex should not be advertised.”

Hitchcock’s fascination with the paradox between the inner fire and cool surface reached its apex in North by Northwest — his last collaboration with Grant.  In this legendary cross-country chase-thriller, both men were at their artistic zenith.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman crafted a story that he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” — incorporating various ideas and set pieces that Hitchcock never could fit into his previous films. Most important, the role of complacent ad executive Roger Thornhill was written specifically for Grant, who could combine fear and desperation with a light comedic touch. Without Grant, it’s unlikely Hitchcock would have made North by Northwest.

Once again, Hitchcock uses Grant’s charm in a dark and manipulative fashion. However, it is Thornhill who falls victim to a series of unpredictable, nasty surprises. North by Northwest emerges as Hitchcock’s belated revenge on the Grant persona.

The surreal Mount Rushmore climax.

Interestingly, the film has been described as an unofficial sequel to Notorious with its psychosexual relationships and espionage sacrifices. Unlike previous Hitchcock-Grant efforts, North by Northwest evolves into a travelogue of the absurd. Thornhill is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist and spends most of the film trying to track down the elusive “George Kaplan.”

Nowhere is this surrealism more evident than during the Mount Rushmore climax, with its mind-boggling urgency leading to Thornhill’s moment of truth. The final seconds not only are a moral redemption for Thornhill in his rescue of double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but also one of sexual fulfillment — emphasized in the suggestive closing shot. It is fitting that the final Hitchcock-Grant thriller ends happily.

With so much written about the Mount Rushmore and crop-duster chases, the auction sequence tends to get lost in the shuffle. This beautifully written set piece is tailor-made for Grant’s unique talents.

The auction scene works on several levels. First, there are elements of sexual blackmail and enslavement — another parallel to Notorious — emphasized in the tension between Thornhill, Eve and Van Damm (James Mason), with Eve emerging as the object of value. Also evident is the surprisingly mature love-hate relationship between Thornhill and Eve, who plays conflicting roles throughout the film. (Saint deserves recognition as Grant’s finest Hitchcockian costar — sophisticated and sensual, yet ice-cold and dangerous. Unlike Francie in To Catch a Thief, Eve is more subtle in her sexual desire.)

“I’ll bet you paid plenty for this little piece of sculpture. She’s worth every dollar.”

After Eve and Van Damm depart from the auction, Thornhill again must use his ingenuity and performing skills to extricate himself from yet another predicament (not unlike Robert Donat’s improvised political speech in The 39 Steps). When Thornhill begins his outlandish bidding, the scene turns into a rare display of “screwball suspense” — nonconformist humor with a menacing undercurrent that captures the essence of Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek thriller.

In retrospect, it was easy to see why North by Northwest became Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock. At 55, Grant managed to look younger than James Stewart in Vertigo, but knew his days as a leading man were coming to an end. By the time he made Stanley Donen’s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller Charade in 1963, Grant was unable to disguise his age — nearing 60, he looked too old as a romantic hero. When Grant turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, it was because he no longer could play “Cary Grant.” Unwilling to make the transition to character roles, Grant retired for good in 1966.

Though directors such as Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks helped unearth the full range of Grant’s comic talents, it was Hitchcock who discovered the darkness that lurked within the actor’s seemingly carefree and debonair persona. Only with Hitchcock could Grant afford to take risks. Hitchcock, in turn, transformed the elegant film star into a complex screen legend. From a director-actor standpoint, they were a perfect match.

Keaton6

The Vision of Buster Keaton

Keaton1

The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.

Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory.  This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order:  Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926).  Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.

Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him.  In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd:  on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining.  Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life.  It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.

Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar.  In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”

This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape.  Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.

Ruthless romance in Seven Chances.

In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups.  So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling.  . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”

Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium.  In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women.  The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.

The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film.  Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features.  The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.

Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage.  Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains.  To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby.  The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.

Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results.  Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches.  The blows are painful.  Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes.  What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times.  Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.

A chilling Keaton transformation.

Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind.  For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns.  ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”

Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker.  Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980).  Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.

Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase.  It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece.  More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.

Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker.  Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon.  In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.

An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned.  In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.

Keaton’s masterpiece: The General.

Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years:  “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity.  . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade.  The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization.  “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.

A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices.  As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical.  He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him.  Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going.  Life has become an endless chase.

Inevitably, the chase must end.  The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments.  Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey.  It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.

To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds.  Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives.  Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.

thelimitsofcontrol

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Serge Gainsbourg, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch & more!

GaudiAntonio Gaudí (1984)
The Criterion Collection

The buildings of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí don’t look constructed. They look evolved. Organically asymmetrical protrusions, supple curving lines, scaly exteriors — all challenging the notion that the human mind and human hands were involved at all in bringing these creations about.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s reverent documentary about Gaudí’s architecture knows its imagery is bracing enough to stand alone sans context or history, and it does for the most part. When Teshigahara does bring in a historian for some detail in the film’s final moments, the interruption of the mostly wordless reverie for this explication feels like the psychiatrist epilogue in Psycho.

Teshigahara’s camera, which alternates between regal wide shots and insatiably curious handheld work, drinks in the strange beauty of Gaudí’s work, whether in residential buildings or in his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família basilica, sitting unfinished in the midst of Barcelona like an alien being, its spires stretching above the urban landscape. The film’s narration mentions Gaudí knew his work would have to be completed by another architect. He may not have expected it wouldn’t be finished until 100 years after his death, as current estimates expect completion in 2026.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of its 2008 DVD release is one of the more left-field choices in recent memory, and there’s no new restoration to explain it. The 1080p, 1.33:1 disc uses the same high-def transfer as the DVD release. Still, this is an enjoyable presentation, despite some density and color fluctuations due to the condition of the source materials. Teshigahara’s edits have a way of taking your breath away in this film, and this transfer helps accentuate that in sudden cuts to vibrant tile work — reds, blues and greens looking especially beautiful in this transfer. The uncompressed mono audio is a little thin, but presents a decent presentation of Tôru Takemitsu’s score and its sudden dips into the avant-garde.

All extras are carried over from the DVD. An interview features architect and friend of the director Arata Isozaki, 16mm footage from 1959 shows Teshigahara’s longstanding interest in Gaudí, and a 1963 short film by Teshigahara shows the sculptures of his artist father, Sofu. Further information on Gaudí is featured in the 2003 documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí and in Ken Russell’s 1961 BBC program, one of his many short documentaries. A trailer and an expansive booklet with an essay by Dore Ashton and thoughts from the filmmaker are also included.

Je t'aimeJe t’aime moi non plus (1976)
Kino Lorber

In the first of several films he directed, Serge Gainsbourg is quick to dispense with the notion that this is some dilettante-ish dabbling.

To be sure, Je t’aime moi non plus, which shares a name with the far more popular song he wrote and performed with Jane Birkin, isn’t on the surest stylistic footing. Its early moments contain some faintly Godardian smash cuts alongside some goofy camera stunts (an early scene where the camera loopily veers to match the wild driving of a group of miscreants gave me a sinking feeling). Eventually, the film settles into a more staid mode, with some elegant crane shots providing a veneer of respectability.

Dubious style aside, this is a singular film, as Gainsbourg is seemingly determined to create the most upsetting juxtapositions possible between the beauty of his stars and the ugliness of their situations.

Set in some godforsaken corner of France, the film features Warhol star Joe Dallesandro as gay garbage collector Krassky and Birkin as Johnny, the truckstop waitress who’s just androgynous enough for him to maybe fall for, much to the ire of Krassky’s boyfriend Padovan (Hugues Quester). Johnny explains she got that moniker because she has “no tits or ass,” and Krassky’s attention perks up.

The trash dump is among the more romantic places where their lopsided relationship blossoms. It’s not the diner, where her boss is constantly spewing invective. It’s not the local dancehall, where a cadre of leering men curdles the film’s sense of eroticism.

It’s certainly not the series of hotels the couple stays in, thrown out of each one because the proprietors assume rape when they hear Johnny’s cries of pain during anal sex. That Gainsbourg’s camera can so lovingly gaze at the otherworldly beauty of his two stars before cutting to that is jarring, to say the least. The film deploys its cruelty casually, particularly in its conclusion, and it can be difficult to reconcile that tone with the film’s more banal platitudes about love and its jaunty piano theme, also by Gainsbourg.

Kino’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a beautiful transfer, showing off a rarely seen film in almost perfect form. Images are clean and detailed and colors rich and vibrant among the dusty landscapes. Damage is minimal and the presentation is quite film-like. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is also quite clean.

Extras include a new interview with the rakishly charming Dallesandro, who mentions he was disappointed the film didn’t receive a US release, so all his friends stateside would know he wasn’t dead. Dallesandro also shows up for a Q&A with Birkin, moderated by Dennis Lim after a Lincoln Center screening. A Samm Deighan audio commentary and the theatrical trailer are also included.

TrappedTrapped (1949)
Flicker Alley

Another welcome rescue job by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Trapped has the pedigree to get a deluxe home video release: long-thought-lost status, big-name director, early performances from a popular actor and a cult favorite actress. That the film ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts isn’t particularly surprising — a formulaic, stolid script like the one for Trapped is part of the B-noir model.

Still, there are many pleasures to be had. Director Richard Fleischer, who made plenty of noirs before becoming a big-budget studio helmer, gives the film a distinct sense of polish despite its obvious budgetary limitations. (An elegant camera-tilt-and-cut move to show our antiheroes being bugged by the Feds is just one of the smart flourishes he offers.) Lloyd Bridges, who stars as a counterfeiter freed from jail to help assist a sting operation, is an ideal avatar for the L.A. noir: sunny-looking, but vicious. Barbara Payton makes her sexpot girlfriend substantial with an undercurrent of knowing menace of her own as she seduces John Hoyt’s undercover cop.

The telegraphed double-crosses and the dearth of interesting supporting characters aren’t a dealbreaker by any means, but the film can’t help but fizzle when it sidelines Bridges for its climax, an otherwise reasonably exciting train yard chase. In the extras, noir expert Eddie Muller mentions that Bridges was rumored to have fallen ill near the end of production and speculates that producer Bryan Foy would’ve never waited around for him to finish the film. That shoestring approach can lend to a lot of charm of these B-noirs, but it’s a nearly fatal blow here.

Of course, Flicker Alley’s package will inevitably contribute to one’s appreciation for the film, and the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a private collector’s 35mm acetate print, is impressive in its consistency and a massive upgrade over whatever PD garbage was out there. Naturally, the image has inherent softness, but image stability and clarity is good. Damage is mostly limited to stray marks. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is pretty clean as well. The combo set also includes a DVD copy.

Extras include a featurette on the film’s history and of its stars, including Payton’s tragic life that was frequent tabloid fodder in those days. Also included: a piece on Fleischer’s career, featuring an interview with his son, Mark, and a commentary track with Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo. A booklet includes production and promotional art and notes by Muller.

Old JoyOld Joy (2006)
The Criterion Collection

I’ll take any chance to proclaim Kelly Reichardt as the greatest living American filmmaker, and here, in a review of her breakout film, the sentiment must be repeated.

More than a decade after her debut feature, River of Grass (1994), Reichardt followed it up with something you might be tempted to label as a template for her subsequent films, at least on the surface. All of Reichardt’s films from this point on have an ineffable quality; once you think you’ve gotten the parameters defined with a description, they’ve long since wriggled free, unconstrained by their seemingly simple particularities.

That’s especially the case with Old Joy, which like many of her other films, features the Pacific Northwest setting, the feelings of displacement and isolation, and the serenity/terror inherent in man’s relationship with nature. It’s a film that can be summed up in a sentence — two old friends reconnect on a spontaneous camping trip — and its 73 minutes elapse like a blip, dewdrops on morning grass that are suddenly gone. Once its over, the preciousness of every one of those minutes comes into striking view.

Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story, Old Joy is about Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), now two opposites who at some point in their past, weren’t. Mark, played with the barest hint of permanent unease by London, has hit the ostensible milestones of accomplishment — wife, house, baby on the way — while Kurt, played by Oldham with a charisma you know is accompanied by pitfalls, has drifted back into Portland.

An impromptu invitation from Kurt sends them into the woods in search of hot springs, with Mark’s dog Lucy (Reichardt’s dog plays herself) in the back seat of the Volvo. It’s a road trip that’s alternately soothing and tension-filled, just like the contours of the friends’ relationship, at once comfortably informed by a long history and full of terrifying unknowns.

Old Joy thrives on these paradoxes, though none of them are obvious or overindulged. It’s a road movie defined by its stillness, a movie about friendship defined by its silences. It’s the first masterpiece in a career full of subsequent ones, and hopefully, many more to come.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 35mm digital negative, is a gorgeous showcase for the film’s 16mm photography, with perfectly rendered grain, rich and natural colors (the film’s evergreens seem realer than real) and excellent clarity. This is an exceptionally film-like transfer, and a massive upgrade over the previous Kino DVD release. The lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack reveals plenty of subtle natural sound, while Yo La Tengo’s judiciously applied score sounds great.

Extras are mostly of the interview variety, but all are worth a watch. Reichardt details her interest in the story and the small crew that made the production happen. Cinematographer Peter Sillen offers a more technically focused interview, while Raymond, who’s since gone on to co-write or write most of Reichardt’s films, offers thoughts on their collaboration. London and Oldham reunite for the first time in a while, and their conversation has some of the same hesitant but vulnerable energy that the film does.

Also included: a booklet with an essay by Ed Halter and Raymond’s short story.

LimitsThe Limits of Control (2009)
Arrow Academy

The back half of Jim Jarmusch’s career has seen him take on numerous genre deconstructions, from the western (Dead Man, 1995) to the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) to the zombie apocalypse (last year’s unfairly dismissed The Dead Don’t Die). In molding the hit man thriller to his own peculiarities in The Limits of Control, Jarmusch offers perhaps his most sublimated take of his career, stripping the mood piece down to the genre’s barest essentials, and then stripping some more.

This is an opaque film, as an unnamed operative known as The Lone Man, played by Isaach De Bankolé, traverses Spain, meeting a series of contacts as he puts together the pieces of his assignment. Alex Descas gets the journey started. John Hurt and Gael García Bernal offer oblique guidance. Paz de la Huerta wonders why The Lone Man won’t fuck her. There will be no fucking or killing in this film. Not on screen anyway. Tilda Swinton shows up in a cowboy hat and exults about Tarkovsky in a scene that explains how to watch this film if you haven’t caught on yet.

With the droning guitars of Japanese band Boris as a guide, the film invites you into a trance. With its dramatic landscapes and persistent air of intrigue, the film suggests there’s an action movie in here somewhere — if only in your imagination. Like any individual plot point, trying to reach out and grasp it will only result in its disintegration.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was provided by Universal, and it’s a pleasing experience, if slightly flatter and less crisp than one might hope for. Color reproduction is excellent, fine detail is adequate and grain structure is well supported. It’s an easy upgrade over the previous DVD release. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided, offering a strong showcase for the Boris score and clean dialogue throughout.

Arrow provides two new scholarly extras: Geoff Andrews’ interview and Amy Simmons video essay. Both look at Jarmusch’s career as a whole, and there are some interesting points, but both have a tendency to repeatedly note Jarmusch’s unconventionality without digging deeper. Carried over from the previous DVD are a lengthy making-of and a short featurette on the film’s locations. A trailer is also included.

Union

The West of Fritz Lang

Return1

“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”

Bless Their Little Hearts

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Hu Bo, Billy Woodbery, Josef von Sternberg & more!

ElephantAn Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, 2019)
KimStim

It’s impossible even to entertain the notion of separating art from artist while watching Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, the feature debut and final film of the Chinese director, who committed suicide shortly after its completion at age 29.

In Hu’s elegant, single-minded opus, several peripheral characters take their own lives, and the four primary ones in the film’s web of interlocking stories all seem like they could soon take a similar path. This is a despairing film, through and through, with barely a grace note to be seen — when a hint of light creeps in, it’s all the more powerful for its rarity.

Hu and the film’s producers clashed over the film’s length — nearly four hours — but it’s essential to the film’s aims. And even though the sheer duration acts as an analogue to the oppressive gloom each character operates under, the film never resembles an endurance test. Instead, Hu’s graceful long shots give the film a kind of warm intimacy that draws us into predicaments that are, on their face, rather repetitive.

Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is a student who endures withering bullying. His primary bully’s older brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), is a gang leader whose affair with a married woman has acute consequences. Wei Bu’s classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) has found solace from a horrific home life in the attentions of a dean at the school. And Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) sees himself being discarded as his children try to move him into a nursing home.

Each one finds themselves drawn to the tale of an elephant in the Mongolian city of Manzhouli who weathers all manner of abuse without moving. Yes, the film’s central thrust is rather on the nose. Hu depicts a modern China without respite. Family members are cruel, friends are unreliable and somehow, strangers’ unique blend of indifference and belligerence seems worst of all.

Each of the four protagonists accepts this reality, though their stoic exteriors aren’t without their cracks. This miserablism can be overwhelming — especially in the case of Wang Jin, whose dog is killed early on and who bears witness to perhaps the film’s most depressing shot, a long tracking tour through a soul-crushing nursing home.

In a sense, that shot is the film in a microcosm: an expertly staged and shot wallow in the mire. Sadly, it’s the endpoint, not the beginning, for an artist willing to bare his soul.

KimStim’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer. There’s always some concern about a film of this length on a single disc, and compression artifacts aren’t uncommon here, particularly visible as crush in low-light shots and banding on monochromatic surfaces, like walls. Shot digitally on an Arri Alexa Mini using only available light, the film may have some of these issues inherent to the source. (For what it’s worth, similar artifacting is visible on the Criterion Channel’s streaming version of the film.) Overall, the film looks solid, with good clarity and detail. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided.

Extras include one of Hu’s short films, Man in the Well (2017), along with a theatrical trailer and a hefty booklet featuring an essay by Eliza Ma, interview with director of photography Fan Chao and the original short story by Hu that the film is based on.

EmperorThe Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite, Shingun, 1987)
Second Run

The basis of the one-man crusade in Kazuo Hara’s stunning verité documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is plenty lurid: Murder and cannibalism among Japanese troops in New Guinea after Japan’s surrender in WWII.

The film itself may be even wilder. An uneasy profile of veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who had stints in prison after the war for charges ranging from manslaughter to distributing pornography of Emperor Hirohito, the film escalates constantly. Initially, it appears to chronicle the wholly justified righteous anger of a man determined to extract confessions from officers responsible for the deaths of several soldiers, their bereaved family members in tow. It gets thornier.

Possessing a terrifying charisma, Okuzaki shows up at the homes of the now-elderly officers, and he uses their politeness against them. Despite being ambushed, these men tend to be accommodating and courteous, even as they’re evasive about Okuzaki’s pointed questioning. That pointed approach turns into bullying, and often, outright violence. When the family members of the dead drop out of his project, Okuzaki simply enlists others to pretend, including his meek wife, who appears to be the most longsuffering person on the planet.

Hara’s film is a master class in complicating the viewer’s feelings, from the aims and disposition of Okuzaki to the very concept of the film itself. It’s not difficult to imagine Okuzaki’s rage being amplified by his showman’s flair as the camera rolls — though his offscreen actions are hardly a model of restraint. It’s a singular film that’s constantly rearranging expectations about where it’s headed next.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.55:1 transfer that is quite impressive, especially considering the quality of previous releases. Damage has been significantly mitigated and clarity is strong for a film shot on the fly. The look is desaturated, but colors are true, and detail is adequate. A 2.0 LPCM mono track has issues inherent with location documentary shooting, but sounds fine overall.

Extras include a new interview with Hara and Hara’s 2018 appearance at the Open City Documentary Festival. The booklet features essays by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abé Mark Nornes.

Josef3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Underworld (1927)
The Last Command (1928)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Criterion Collection

No disrespect to Borzage or Murnau or Naruse or Epstein (OK, maybe this lede was a bad idea), but the three films in Criterion’s von Sternberg box set feel like they could make a convincing case for themselves as the apotheosis of silent cinema. These are deliriously beautiful films, rich with atmosphere and full of stylistic invention. They’re also ground zero for all kinds of new narrative thinking, particularly Underworld, which basically codified the gangster genre with its zippy Ben Hecht script and von Sternberg’s taut direction.

Von Sternberg, who would of course go on to make his most acclaimed films in a prolific collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, was graced with expressive movie stars begging for close-ups even earlier. George Bancroft stars as a rowdy kingpin in Underworld and a weathered, cynical coal stoker in The Docks of New York, where he’s joined in a wary romantic coupling with Betty Compson’s yearning dancehall girl. The great Emil Jannings matches the outsized melodrama of The Last Command with a towering performance as a former Russian general relegated to working as a lowly Hollywood extra.

The Last Command, pinging between the Russian Revolution and a film being made about it, is almost like proto-Aleksei German at points, the frame crammed with bodies and activity. Its ultimate exultation in the prowess of its main character approaches self-parody, but no one could sell high emotion like Jannings, and von Sternberg is more than game to do likewise.

By contrast, his turn for the melancholy in The Docks of New York is delicate and lovely, as neither Bancroft nor Compson’s characters put much stock in their budding relationship, begun with an anti-meet-cute when she tries to drown herself. Fog and shadow are the languages of love here, but the film undercuts the presumed fleeting quality of their connection.

Criterion’s long-awaited upgrade of its 2010 DVD box set presents all three films in 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers. Unfortunately, these transfers are from the same scan/source as the DVD set, but the upgrade is still notable, as depth, clarity and grain presentation have been improved. The quality of the materials limits the transfers still: Damage is persistent if mostly unobtrusive and the image’s softness can cause grain to look like noise. The Blu-ray set is far preferable, perhaps most notably because the transfers are no longer windowboxed. Two scores are offered for each film, presented in pristine 2.0 uncompressed stereo.

Extras are identical to the DVD set: video essays by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher, a 1968 von Sternberg interview and a substantial booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante, Hecht’s Underworld treatment and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography.

BlessBless Their Little Hearts (1984) DVD
Milestone Films

One of the essential texts of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts is a staggering work of American Neorealism. Every line reading and every delicately composed image do far more work than a cursory glance at the film’s simplicity would reveal.

Written and shot by Charles Burnett and scored largely by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan’s jazz versions of traditional blues numbers and spirituals, Bless Their Little Hearts has an aching, searching feeling as it depicts the spiritual toll of economic hardship and relational decay. Father and husband Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) gets work here and there as a day laborer, but it’s barely enough for his family to scrape by on — particularly when he’s spending a portion of that money on his mistress.

As his wife, Andais, Kaycee Moore has the weight of her responsibilities and her husband’s unreliability splashed across her face. Her performance digs deep into the indignities of being a relationship’s ballast, and Moore is stunning in both sudden flashes of anger and moments of quiet when the gravity of her situation seems to fully come to bear on her expression. Hardman’s performance seems largely oblivious to this — until the film’s signature long take of the couple’s issues barging their way to the forefront.

The film’s depiction of the necessary self-sufficiency of the couple’s three children (played by Burnett’s kids) is heart-rending in the smallest of moments: an oven door left ajar during cooking to help heat the house; a matter-of-fact solution to fixing a sink tap. For Woodberry, these asides are clearly as vital as the cataclysmic scenes — they’re the reason the emotional breakdowns carry so much weight.

It’s unfortunate the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2K restoration of the film hasn’t been given a Blu-ray release, but this first-ever home video release is still incredibly welcome. Though the nuances in the 16mm photography’s grain could use the high-def treatment, the restoration looks quite nice on Milestone’s DVD, with minimized damage and consistent clarity throughout.

The extras are also substantial: an audio commentary from NYU professor Ed Guererro, a newly restored version of Woodberry’s debut short The Pocketbook (1980), based on a Langston Hughes story, and an Indiana University workshop with Woodberry. Interviews with Woodberry, Burnett and Guererro are also included, along with set photos and a booklet with essays by Cornell professor Samantha N. Sheppard and Allison Anders.

MountainThe Mountain (2019)
Kino Lorber

Despite Rick Alverson’s evident strengths as a director, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical of his films. There’s a pointedly transgressive streak in The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker as a trust fund asshole, and in Entertainment (2015), with Gregg Turkington appearing as his Neil Hamburger character, in an examination of anti-comedy spilling past the boundaries of the stage. But to what end?

In his latest film, The Mountain, Alverson is working in a more traditionally dramatic tenor, and I can’t decide if removing the layers upon layers of irony associated with Heidecker et al. strengthens Alverson’s case as a chronicler of the bitter hollowness of the American dream or if it just lays bare his tendency toward empty anti-mythologizing.

There’s evidence for both in The Mountain, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a traveling lobotomization specialist who’s based on controversial doctor Walter Freeman. Goldblum’s Dr. Fiennes takes Andy (Tye Sheridan) under his wing after Andy’s father (Udo Kier) dies. He’s already familiar with the boy; he performed his mother’s lobotomy several years before.

In this curdled travelogue of 1950s America, Dr. Fiennes and Andy roam the country, with Andy serving as photographer and assistant. Alverson’s fixed camera captures an eerie feeling of collective stupefaction, as parents and caregivers easily acquiesce to Fiennes’ methods. That feeling is magnified by the performance of Sheridan, who acts like Andy was lobotomized long before we showed up.

There are counterpoints to this feeling: a charming Goldblum creates a character who we can buy as a true believer before his apparent empathy clicks off as soon as it’s no longer needed. And the always-welcome Denis Levant channels drunken rage and spiritual ecstasy as a man who wants his daughter treated by Dr. Fiennes.

The film’s tone envelops you in something like a morphine haze, and once you’re there, why bother trying to decode its opaque thematic threads, like a recurring motif of hermaphroditism? The Mountain is another exhibit to add to my mixed feelings on Alverson, but I’ll keep puzzling over his subsequent work.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray offers a gorgeous transfer of Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s creamy but muted photography. The image is crystal clear and fine detail is excellent, even in the film’s many Berkeley-like overhead shots of ice skaters or New Age music enthusiasts. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are available.

Extras include an Alverson commentary track, an interview with an enthused (when is he not?) Goldblum, one brief deleted scene and a trailer.

JourneyJourney to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955)
Second Run

Second Run’s series of Karel Zeman films continues with one of his earliest works, Journey to the Beginning of Time. This one doesn’t have the mind-bendingly fantastic animation design of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen or Invention for Destruction, but it’s surely one of the best children’s films ever made, combining an earnest educational attitude with inventive modeling and animation techniques to create a sort of live storybook.

There’s not so much a plot as there is an amusingly straightforward frame story: A group of four Czech boys decide they want to go back into the past to see all the extinct creatures they’ve read about up close, so they just do it, sailing on a raft backward through history. There’s some minor peril along the way (one of them always seems to be getting separated from the group), but mostly, the film is as rationally curious as its characters, who take copious notes on their discoveries, including a woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and a host of dinosaurs, all the way back to trilobites, the fossil that kicked off this whole journey to begin with.

Compared to the singular sci-fi and fantasy of Zeman’s later work, Journey to the Beginning of Time can seem impossibly quaint, with the stiffly declarative acting of its four young stars accentuating the feeling. But it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of the design, which hums with creative energy. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those where the script is flipped and a miniature model of the boys and their raft is used. The film may be unrelentingly straightforward in its aims, but its visual cleverness keeps it engaging.

Second Run’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of a new 4K restoration is beautiful, offering impressive levels of fine detail essential for appreciating the intricate model work. The film has a slightly muted look, but images are sharp and clean. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is reasonably dynamic and has no major issues.

Extras include the English-dubbed version of the film, which emphasizes the purity of Zeman’s approach by appending a newly shot, casually racist explanation for how the boys got back to the past. Also included: an appreciation by filmmaker John Stevenson, a restoration demonstration, making-of featurette, image gallery and booklet with an essay by Michael Brooke.
It is important to perform regular workouts for maintaining our health and mental well-being. However, have you ever wondered what clothing you should put on while working out? Is important to have proper exercise clothes when you do your workout.

An Oasis of Cinema Scholarship and Reviewing.