An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, 2019)
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.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite, Shingun, 1987)
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.
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
The Last Command (1928)
The Docks of New York (1928)
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.
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) DVD
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.
The Mountain (2019)
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.
Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955)
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.
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