The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke (1929-1987)
Milestone’s series of Shirley Clarke releases is one of the great passion projects of the home video era. That fact is vigorously reaffirmed by the fourth volume, which collects experimental shorts, documentaries, home movies and rare material not seen in decades, and comes close to completing Clarke’s extant filmography on Blu-ray. (The one major piece missing: the Frederick Wiseman-produced The Cool World , which doesn’t have a commercial release from Wiseman’s Zipporah Films.)
Like Clarke’s genre-puncturing and form-stretching The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), the films in Milestone’s fourth volume reveal a filmmaker deeply comfortable with straddling worlds, whether that means embracing the fundamental elasticity of documentary or filming other artistic disciplines — here, theater and dance — in ways that complement their strengths while remaining cinematic.
This compulsively watchable three-disc Blu-ray set begins with a disc of Clarke’s experimental work, including a variety of city-symphony riffs from the ’50s and some mind-bending dispatches from the early video era. Her editing prowess gets an early showcase with Brussels Loops, a compilation of three-minute shorts created with D.A. Pennebaker for the 1957 Brussels World Fair; each bristles with energy whether showcasing feats of American architectural beauty or slyly undercutting consumerist inventions.
The surreal collage of Bridges-Go-Round, presented in several versions, is one of the great avant-garde architecture films, while Skyscraper takes a more straightforward approach to the industrial film. The newly rediscovered Butterfly, with its scratched celluloid and high-pitched soundtrack, is a brief primal scream against the Vietnam War.
Two video pieces feature acclaimed experimental playwright Joseph Chaikin’s collaborations with Sam Shepard (Tongues, Savage/Love), and Clarke’s restless special effects distort the image to fascinating ends. These are singular documents, but the most eye-opening film on the disc might be Scary Time, commissioned by the UN to promote UNICEF giving on Halloween, but banned by the UN for getting too real. Clarke’s use of close-ups and her intercutting between Halloween celebrations and images of famine are disquieting and startlingly confrontational.
Disc two revolves around Clarke’s first passion: dance. Her earliest forays into filmmaking can be seen here, including the unfinished Fear Flight with Beatrice Seckler and her first completed short, Dance in the Sun, starring Daniel Nagrin. Clarke’s continued interest in capturing movement can be seen in the lovely postcard In Paris Parks, presented alongside outtakes and footage from a second, unfinished Paris film.
This disc gets even more interesting with a turn into experimental territory, first seen in the layered imagery and unreal colors of Bullfight, with Anna Sokolow. Footage from the unfinished The Rose and the Players hints at Clarke’s desire to marry some experimental techniques with a narrative told through dance. Four collaborations with choreographer Marion Scott combine modern dance with Clarke’s film and video experimentation.
The final disc could be largely thought of as bonus material, with the bulk consisting of silent home-video footage of Clarke’s childhood, wedding, vacations and her appearance in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (1969). There are two proper films here though, a once-lost children’s adventure short Christopher and Me and the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, which depicts two college speaking engagements from the last year of the poet’s life. The film, which was taken away from Clarke during editing, is certainly on the conventional side, particularly with regards to its obvious narration, but a segment where Frost remarks on the artificiality of documentary-making has Clarke’s fingerprints all over it.
This Herculean feat of film scholarship and curation also looks largely remarkable. Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from a variety of materials, but most of the non-video footage looks convincingly film-like, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity. Damage never surpasses expected levels of speckling and fine scratches. A few highlights: the brilliant, deeply saturated colors of the Brussels Loops and the Paris films, and the excellent grayscale reproduction in Robert Frost, restored by UCLA and the Academy Film Archive. The set is accompanied by a booklet with helpful contextual notes about the films.
Milestone Films / 1929-1987 / Color and black and white / 1.33:1 / 480 min / $119.99
The Criterion Collection
If only because his filmography is so full of major works, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams generally feels like a minor one. Anthology films often do.
Still, this collection of eight stories, inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams and folk legends he heard growing up, is a thoroughly enjoyable filmgoing experience, particularly viewed on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which really allows the vivid tableaux to shine in all their colorfully transfixing glory. Even when some of the segments dip into trite sentiment or obvious polemic, Dreams is always interesting to look at.
Focusing on man’s relationship to nature, the fleeting nature of joy, the solitude of creating art, humans’ capacity for regret and their even larger capacity for destruction, Dreams reveals an artist working in a deeply contemplative mode. This is a film rooted in melancholy when it’s not given over to outright pessimism, though by its conclusion, Kurosawa seems to have reached a sense of peace by looking backward.
There’s an otherworldly quality to the early segments that make them especially dreamlike: A young boy (Toshihiko Nakano) disobeys his mother to spy on a fox wedding processional, the figures emerging from the mist in a deliberate, regimented line; an adolescent boy (Mitsunori Isaki) laments his family’s chopped-down peach-tree orchard and receives a visit from dozens of life-size dolls; a man (Akira Terao, who plays the protagonist in the rest of the segments) finds himself nearly paralyzed by a blizzard and receives a visit from the mythical Yuki-onna (Mieko Harada).
The dream logic and airy feel of the early vignettes dissipate as the film turns more overtly political in segments that are plenty surreal, but not exactly dreamlike. A soldier’s encounter with a zombie platoon full of dead men he’s responsible for is haunting and heartbreaking, with a caustic view of the long-term effects of war. Two stories about nuclear war and its aftermath are comparatively heavy-handed.
Famous faces pop up in several other stories, including Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh, framed alongside Terao’s painter in brilliant fields of color, and Chishu Ryu, who rarely worked with Kurosawa, as a voice of serenity in the film’s lovely closing segment.
Even for those who might be lukewarm on the film, Criterion’s edition of Dreams has a ton to like, beginning with the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. The colors in this transfer are lush and vibrant, with eye-popping reds and yellows especially standing out. In keeping with what seems to be a recent trend, blue colors do tend toward the teal side of the spectrum, but it’s not overwhelming. Grain is beautifully rendered, image clarity and sharpness is strong and the transfer looks impressively film-like throughout. The 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and fairly dynamic.
The extras here are also formidable, beginning with a newly recorded audio commentary from Stephen Prince that is positively packed with information. The only time Prince pauses is to allow us to hear a line of dialogue in the van Gogh sequence; otherwise, he fills every available second with a wealth of information on Kurosawa’s approach, the film’s debt to Noh and Kabuki theater, the cultural and political climate it was created in and the film’s place among Kurosawa’s career.
Also on the packed disc: A 150-minute making-of, featuring tons of on-set footage, from House (1977) director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi (in SD); 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, in which longtime translator Catherine Cadou interviews tons of legendary filmmakers — Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos, Clint Eastwood and Hayao Miyazaki among them — about Kurosawa’s legacy; new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi; and a trailer. A hefty booklet includes an essay by Bilge Ebiri and the script for an unfilmed ninth segment, “A Wonderful Dream.”
The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $39.95
Electra, My Love (Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974)
Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, whose work is well represented on the Second Run label, is renowned for his long takes, and that quality is especially evident in Electra, My Love, a reworking of the Greek myth that unfolds in just a dozen shots over the course of 74 minutes.
This transfixing film pushes the boundaries of the medium and emerges as a truly interdisciplinary work, almost as reliant on modes of experimental theater and dance as it is film — though it’s still foremost a cinematic work, as the glorious camera swoops and crane shots can attest to.
The Electra myth is one of the most enduring in Greek mythology, with major versions by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and numerous adaptations since. Jancsó’s take doesn’t deviate from too many fundamental details: Electra (Mari Törőcsik), the daughter of deposed and murdered king Agamemnon is harassed and humiliated by his usurper, Aegisthus (József Madaras), but the arrival of her thought-dead brother Orestes (György Cserhalmi) presents an opportunity for revolution.
Jancsó’s fluid approach to storytelling adds a pointedly political anachronistic conclusion and reframes a familiar story in a fresh way, pushing down the importance of narrative coherence and personal identification with characters to look at the tale from a grand perspective. The film uses hundreds of extras, often in tightly choreographed movement, as Jancsó uses masses of humans to portray oppression’s effect on a population.
Shot entirely outdoors in the Hungarian steppe, Electra, My Love is populated with numerous frames that are as stunning as they are odd — bodies, often nude, huddled together or prostrate or gathered near a pool of blood, a hillside ablaze with candles, a tyrant hoisted atop a giant ball — but even more arresting is the way Jancsó’s camera navigates these scenes, each long take a miniature feat of architecture. Letting these images wash you over you makes for 74 minutes of cinematic ecstasy.
Second Run presents Electra, My Love in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute’s new 2K restoration. The region-free disc presents an image that is very clean, with stable, if somewhat muted colors. Fine detail isn’t remarkable, as there’s a persistent slight softness to the image, but the film looks largely very good, and Second Run’s disc easily outclasses previously available home video versions. The 1.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is just fine at handling the post-dubbed sound.
The one on-disc extra is a new interview with cinematographer János Kende, who shot a number of Jancsó’s films and talks about his working experience with him, the process of shooting long takes and Jancsó’s legacy. An included booklet features an essay from Peter Hames.
Second Run / 1974 / Color / 1.66:1 / 74 min / £19.99
Children of Divorce (1927)
Crisscrossing love lives of the wealthy and beautiful are on display in Children of Divorce, almost a perfectly pure confection of silent-film melodrama starring Clara Bow at the height of her powers. Made directly after It (1927), which features Bow’s signature role as an irresistible flapper girl, Children of Divorce is a near-shameless combination of sex appeal and lifestyle porn, hung on an impressively overwrought framework that doesn’t just tug the heartstrings; it threatens to siphon the tears out of your eyes itself.
Lest that sound like a pan, let’s be clear: Children of Divorce is an utter delight, especially if you enjoy ogling the preternaturally attractive visages of Bow and a young Gary Cooper, which come through in stunning clarity in Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray release. Only the second Bow film to get a US Blu-ray (the other being Wings), this disc makes it incontrovertibly clear that Bow knew exactly how to deploy her impish charm for maximum appeal.
Directed by Frank Lloyd, with uncredited reshoots by Josef von Sternberg, Children of Divorce amps up the emotion with a frame story about American children sent to live in a Paris “divorce colony,” a sort of orphanage/summer camp hybrid that allowed newly single parents to go live it up for a while. Adorable moppets with quivering lips make up at least five percent of this film, and Joyce Coad, who played Pearl in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter and stars as the younger version of Bow’s character, looks like she’s trying to crush your heart between her tiny fingers as the camera holds steady on her face.
Flash forward, and Kitty Flanders (Bow), rich heiress and best friend Jean Waddington (Esther Ralston) and wealthy playboy Teddy Larrabee (Cooper) reunite for the first time as a trio since they were kids. Jean and Teddy have a residual mutual attraction that starts to regain steam, but Kitty, egged on by her serially married mom (Hedda Hopper in a brief cameo), is determined to make Teddy her first husband.
The film veers quickly from jaunty comedy of flirtation to heart-rending drama as Kitty’s selfish choices have a ripple effect through the years. (On hand to assist the heart-rending: toddler cutie Mary Louise Miller, who played the baby in Mary Pickford’s Sparrows, as Kitty’s daughter.) Because of its short length and Bow’s ineffable screen appeal, the film never crumbles beneath its piled-on emotions, and in the von Sternberg-shot ending, actually becomes quite moving.
Sourced from Paramount’s 4K scan of a Library of Congress restoration, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer on Flicker Alley’s disc is very strong, especially considering the problematic history of the source elements, which were badly preserved. Image clarity and high levels of fine detail are pronounced immediately, with damage largely relegated to fine scratches that don’t overwhelm the image. There are some softer moments later in the film, and an insert shot of a letter being written displays extreme nitrate decomposition — a clue to how badly the film was preserved — but all in all, the film looks great. A newly recorded score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and sounds fantastic.
The major extra in Flicker Alley’s package is the 1999 TCM documentary on Bow’s tumultuous personal and professional life, which provides an excellent overview in an hour. (Despite the legion of online complaints, Courtney Love’s narration is fine.) The doc is presented in standard def. Also included is a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn’s biography (which is not kind to Children of Divorce) and notes on the restoration, score and the TCM doc. A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.
Flicker Alley / 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 71 min / $39.95
Private Property (1960)
Suburban dread oozes out of the pores of Private Property, a once lost film from director Leslie Stevens where nastiness bubbles just below the surface for nearly the entirety of this slow-burn anti-thriller. Rediscovered and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the film is probably most notable as the first starring role for Warren Oates, whose timid impotence here is a far cry from the swaggering or subdued antiheroes he played in some of the ’70s most singular American films.
Corey Allen stars as Duke, a maniacal drifter on the road with Oates’ Boots where they’re on the hunt for a place to stay in Los Angeles and some female companionship for Boots, which Duke promises to deliver. Within minutes, they’ve hijacked a ride to stalk the alluring Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife in her first of only two film roles) to her home in the Hollywood Hills, shared with her often absent executive husband.
After finding a vacant house to squat in next door, Duke poses as a handyman and squirms his way into Ann’s life, while Boots is often left over there, only able to watch from a top-floor window as Duke and Ann flirt poolside. Both Boots and Duke are incessant voyeurs, but only one of them is ever able to do anything about it.
The veneer of charm on Allen’s sneering performance is very thin indeed, but it’s enough to appeal to Ann; Manx’s performance has a palpable longing — both sexual and emotional — that’s accompanied by a kind of paralysis. Wealth, status and societal convention have pinned her inside her home, and a reckless decision or two might be her only chance at escape.
Private Property isn’t really a major rediscovery, especially given the expected path it eventually treads, but it’s an enjoyably acrid take on the horrors of domestic living — and worse.
Cinelicious’ 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from UCLA’s 4K restoration, is gorgeous, presenting a detailed, sharp image full of beautiful, well-resolved grain. The noirish film has plenty of dark scenes, but shadow detail remains strong. Damage is minimal. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is clean and free of noticeable defects.
Extras include a newly filmed interview with set photographer Alexander Singer, who had a long career directing television and a few films after getting his start on the set of this and several early Stanley Kubrick films. His personal remembrance is a nice addition to the disc. Film notes from historian Don Malcolm are presented in an included insert, as is a DVD copy in this combo pack.
Cinelicious Pics / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 79 min / $34.99
Man Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste, 1986)
A low-key Argentinian science fiction film with a modest cult following to match, Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast probably isn’t a Blu-ray upgrade that’s been sitting on many wish lists, but Kino’s release is welcome, particularly since the film never even received a Region 1 DVD.
With a plot that will be familiar to anyone who read or watched K-PAX (2001) — similarities were noted at the time of the later film’s release, but no connection was established — Man Facing Southeast tells the story of two men whose lives become intertwined. One is a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), whose professional acumen and personal failings come right out of some hoary screenwriters’ manual. The other is Rantés (Hugo Soto), a mysterious man who appears in Denis’ mental hospital one day, claiming to be a messenger sent from another planet to save humanity from its own shortcomings.
Soto’s performance is generally guided by a kind of anodyne solemnity, and the movie tends to follow suit, less interested in exploiting any drama out of Rantés’ claims — which Denis reflexively rejects — than weaving philosophical conversations between the two and quietly gawking at his strange behavior, like standing outside every evening to send and receive transmissions from his home planet.
Despite his proclamations, Rantés doesn’t do much for the good of humanity in the film, and his overt acts make for some of the film’s most risible scenes, including one where he helps feed a hungry family in a diner by moving other people’s food psychokinetically to their spot at the counter. The cinematic dullness of fishing-wire gags aside, how does allowing people to get a few bites off a stolen plate before having to flee the restaurant while he creates another distraction help them at all?
The enigmas around Rantés abound, including his relationship with frequent visitor Beatriz (Inés Vernengo) — though a backwards subtitle here gives it away — but they’re moderately compelling at best. I suppose there’s an audience for a less visually and narratively experimental The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I’m not in it.
Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is certainly going to be an improvement over old VHS copies, but it has some issues of its own. Things begin promisingly, despite some pronounced telecine wobble, with a naturalistic, fairly detailed transfer. There are marks here and there, but nothing overwhelming, and for much of the film, color reproduction is solid. That changes at chapter 8, where suddenly, there are massive color density fluctuations that turn the image into a blobby mess. This lasts for around 10 minutes. Whether this is an elements issue or an encoding one, it’s bad.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is also problematic, featuring intermittent hiss and high-pitched background tone. The overworked saxophone-based score sounds OK, and dialogue is fine.
Kino assembles a nice slate of extras for this disc including three 20-minute-plus interviews with Subiela, Soto and DP Ricardo De Angelis. The Soto interview appears to be archival, but the other two look newly produced. A booklet features a brief director’s statement and an essay by historian Nancy J. Membrez.
Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.85:1 / 108 min / $34.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.