From the Spring 2012 issue of Cinema Scope. Some of the facts here may be out of date, so prospective customers should proceed with caution. — J.R.
The arrival on DVD of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three solo features — Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) — has been long overdue, and it’s possible that part of the delay can be attributed to how unclassifiable and original these nonfiction films really are. The first of these has something to do with young twin sisters who were believed to have developed a private language between them, the second has something to do with both Manny Farber (as both a painter and a film critic) and a group of model train fans, and the third has something to do with the members of a Samoan street gang. But apart from Gorin’s presence and (quite diverse) Southern California settings, they’re very hard to describe or encapsulate, much less generalize about as a “trilogy” in any ordinary sense, which is part of their enduring fascination. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil , which roams freely across the planet, already available with La jetée  on a Criterion DVD and now out on a Criterion Blu-ray with the same materials — including terrific monologues by Gorin about both films that show how finely attuned he is to their special qualities, both as a friend of Marker and as a film essayist in his own right.) Criterion’s Eclipse has now issued all three as its 31st package, but in a refreshing departure from its usual “no-frills” format, this set includes three essays by Kent Jones — a longer one included with Poto and Cabengo about all three films, and shorter pieces with and about the other two — that are thoughtful explorations and meditations in their own right.
It’s great that we now have subtitled North American editions of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) on DVD from Olive Films and Film Socialisme (2010) on Blu-ray from Fox Lorber, even if both are without frills (apart from a thoughtful Richard Brody essay with the latter, along with a choice between “Navajo” and “full English” subtitles). But while both of these have been relatively well publicized, how many know about Gaumont’s French DVD of JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de Décembre (1994), coupled with five important Godard shorts, which also boasts English subtitles? The shorts are La paresse (1962, great, with Eddie Constantine), Le grand escroc (1963, mediocre, even though it stars Jean Seberg), Anticipation (1967, arguably Godard’s greatest short along with his 1988 La puissance de la parole, not to mention his last film with Anna Karina — but inexcusably printed in black and white, which removes roughly half of its meaning), Lettre à Freddy Buache (1982, unfairly neglected), and Meetin’ WA (1986, his perverse interview with Woody Allen). And how many are aware that MGM has released an Italian DVD of Godard’s ultra-neglected and profoundly perverse Re Lear (aka King Lear, 1987), with a choice of English or Italian menus, soundtracks, and subtitles? (For Godard buffs who’d like a little bit more of both Buache and Allen, here’s your chance.) The English soundtrack is in two-track Dolby stereo — which, if memory serves, is at least a couple of tracks less than the remarkable-sounding version I heard at film festivals — while the mono Italian soundtrack appears to be quite different textually as well as aurally (for starters, the phone conversation that begins the original English version is missing, but it’s also worth pointing out that the dubbing of Norman Mailer in Italian has excellent lip-sync). P.S. If you’re looking for a North American vendor for the latter DVD, my own copy came from daaveedee.com, an invaluable if not especially cheap resource.
If I’d seen Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross last year, I’m fairly sure it would have figured in the upper reaches of my ten-best list. But catching up with it now on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a great compensation, because its two major extras — an interview with Majewski in English to match the film’s sparse English dialogue, and a making-of documentary in subtitled Polish — add significantly to the film’s enlightenment about and appreciation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, my favourite painter, as well as my long-overdue introduction to Majewski himself as a major talent. I can’t claim that this startlingly original film remains undiscovered — check out Roger Ebert’s four-star review, for example — but it does seem interesting that the film generally seems to have fared better with the more disinterested mainstream reviewers than with anyone else. One former art critic, for instance, aptly praised the film as art history and as art criticism but wrongly chided it for being “didactic and photogenic but not cinematic.” Where I come from, any film in which every shot qualifies as an event is supremely cinematic, even when it ignores the standard Hollywood rules for narrative and dramaturgy. Majewski’s masterful combinations of real and painted landscapes, theatrical monologues and beautiful epic compositions, movement and stasis, and fiction and nonfiction, often within the same shots, only suggests that some mainstream viewers are more open to intellectual adventure and innovation than many of their alleged populist representatives suppose.
I first met Marie-Christine Questerbert, the female lead in Luc Moullet’s Une aventure de Billy le Kid (1971) and Anatomie d’un rapport (1976) — both available on DVD, either on separate discs or as part of Blaq Out’s The Luc Moullet Collection — in Paris in the mid-‘70s, when, as I recall, she was making experimental short films and working on a dissertation about Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). Her more recent activities in both cinema and criticism are chronicled in a 2009 interview by Sally Shafto published in the online Senses of Cinema, and they include La chambre obscure (The Dark Room, 2000), a lovely and provocative first feature adapted from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron that’s available with English subtitles from blaqout.com (along with some more recent Moullet films and important works by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, Otar Iosseliani, and Raúl Ruiz, among many others). This 14th-century romance (of sorts) stars Caroline Ducey, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Demy, and Sylvie Testud, and the colours are fabulous.
If you’re wondering how you might acquire Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991, complete but unrestored), Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness (1989), Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation (1969), Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952), Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), Marcel Hanoun’s Une simple histoire (1958), Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994) and Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), and Straub-Huillet’s Trop tôt, trop tard (1982), among other scarce but precious items, it might interest you to know that ioffer.com/selling/tjbcmx44 is selling no-frills DVD-Rs of each for $5.49 apiece. Based on the several I’ve sampled, the transfers are acceptable — or at least the best one can expect from variable sources — rather than top-of-the-line, but given the price they’re clearly bargains.
An early Chicago Reader capsule review, of The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks (1944):
“Edgar Neville — an aristocratic Republican filmmaker and writer who was friends with everyone from Lorca and Chaplin to Ortega y Gasset and Lacan — is one of the great undiscovered auteurs of the Spanish cinema. This remarkable turn-of-the-century fantasy, which suggests an eerie encounter between the tales of Borges and the early melodramas of Feuillade and Lang, starts off as a supernatural mystery as the hero (Antonio Casal) is persuaded by a one-eyed ghost to solve the case of his murder. This leads him first to the ghost’s niece (Isabel de Pomes) and eventually to a hidden underground city beneath the old section of Madrid that contains an ancient synagogue and is presided over by hunchbacked counterfeiters. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, this hallucinatory fiction ends rather abruptly and never manages to account for all the mysteries it uncovers, but as pure, primal storytelling it is as creepy a spellbinder as one could wish for.”
NOT YET AVAILABLE, BUT KEEP LOOKING [2014 postscript: All of these items are available now.]
An ever-burgeoning category that I wish I didn’t feel I had to include in this column:
1. The first key item is Todas Las Cartas: Correspondencias fílmicas (The Complete Letters: Filmed Correspondence). As far as I can tell, this class-act trilingual (Spanish, English, French) box set including five no-zone discs and a gorgeous 408-page book is already available to Europeans for 49.95 Euros from laie.es/libro/correspondenciass/713248/, but if other people in the world can order it at this point, I’ve yet to find an online source for doing so. This is the ambitious sequel to the still-unreleased but fascinating video letters between Víctor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami (2005-2007), exhibited by the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and in other museum spaces around the world, which, Jordi Balló notes in his introduction, “its authors are thinking of bringing out separately at a later date.” But CCCB’s Balló and Anna Escoda, who kindly sent me a review copy of this box set, have done a wonderful job in presenting the five follow-up series of “letters” between José Luis Guerín and Jonas Mekas (2009-2011, nine videos totalling 99 minutes), Albert Serra and Lisandro Alonso (2011, two videos totalling 169 minutes), Isaki Lacuesta and Kawase Naomi (2008-2009, seven videos totalling 44 minutes), Jaime Rosales and Wang Bing (2009-2011, three videos totalling 49 minutes), and Fernando Eimbcke and So Yong Kim (2010-2011, eight videos totalling 42 minutes).
So far, I’ve watched only the first (Guerín-Mekas) and last (Eimbcke-Kim) of these discs, and was held particularly by the former, most of all by the “letters” from Guerín. (I should add that the reasons for this are partly personal: Guerín’s third letter concludes with a priceless encounter with and tribute to the late Nika Bohinc, an exceptional Slovenian film critic who, along with her partner and colleague Alexis Tioseco, was murdered by burglars in Quezon City, the Philippines, on September 1, 2009, shortly after she moved there from Ljubljana. And I should add that the Eimbcke/Kim exchanges, however delicate, are dominated increasingly by babies and related domestic details that I relate to far less than the more touristic wanderings of Guerín and Mekas.)
What’s most fascinating to me about these exchanges, including those between Erice and Kiarostami, are the dialectical ways in which formal issues yield subject matter and vice versa. The first video by Eimbcke, for instance, focuses for six minutes on the “dance” of a leaf suspended from a spider’s web in his garden; Kim responds to this long take from a fixed camera setup with a succession of still frames capturing a sunset in which both the editing and the sound are quite volatile; then Eimbcke responds to this second definition of stillness in his second video with a series of still photographs of his father accompanied by reflections from his mother about his father’s encroaching and ultimately fatal illness — nature studies thus metamorphosing into home movies.
My favourite Guerín letter, his fifth and last, responds to a passage in Mekas’ fourth (which focuses at length on a pecking pigeon in New York) with the heroic efforts of ants to drag a twig up the side of a tombstone in the cemetery where Ozu Yasujiro is buried. (As Nicole Brenez puts it in her accompanying essay, “[Both] Guerín and Mekas show that they are worthy of being adopted by the Japanese ants.”) Like another favourite Guerín sequence, in his fourth letter — a fixed daytime shot of an outdoor movie screen in Wrocław, Poland that people are walking past, with a contemplative voiceover by Guerín worthy of Chris Marker — these are philosophical statements and physical adventures at the same time.
2. For several months now, I’ve been attempting to track the progress of a German company in bringing out Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 for the first time on DVD, with German subtitles. At first it seemed like German Amazon, which didn’t seem to know the difference between the 13-hour Out 1 (1971) and the quite different, four-and-a-half-hour Out 1: Spectre (1972), would only be offering the first of these, but now I’m delighted to report that absolutmedien.de, the company in question, hopes to offer both versions on five discs (along with an hour of extras and a detailed booklet) for 69.90 Euros, available for preorders but now announced for October (after originally being announced for early this year), at least if it succeeds in clearing all the rights by then. I’ve been advised to check back with them this summer; let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best.
3. & 4. The same goes for two other oft-deferred box sets, devoted to the respective complete works of Pere Portabella and Sara Driver. The first, which Portabella himself told me some time ago would be out in 2011, still isn’t even mentioned on his excellent website, pereportabella.com (or at least it wasn’t when this column went to press); the second, which is being prepared by filmswelike.com in Canada, isn’t mentioned yet on their website either, but Driver told me fairly recently that it’s expected to materialize in March or April. (2017 footnote: For the latter, go here.)
The half-dozen fascinating, if pricey, two-disc Hyperkino editions produced by Ruscico — Lev Kuleshov’s Engineer Prite’s Project (1918) and The Great Consoler (1933), Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) and October (1927), Alexander Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934), and Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas (1936) — have been effectively out of reach for most people because Ruscico’s website is arguably the most intractable and unnavigable thing of its kind ever invented, at least to those who don’t read Russian. (Many of these releases were described by me in an article posted at Moving Image Source, available on my own web site at jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=28672.) Now they’ve finally become more obtainable at www.moviemail-online.co.uk/scripts/collection.pl?collID=670. I can especially recommend two of the lesser-known titles, The Great Consoler and By the Bluest of Seas.
Jonathan Lee’s Paul Goodman Changed My Life (2011), available from Zeitgeist Films, is a talking-head documentary, but what talking heads! Not just the multifaceted and talkative Goodman himself, but William F. Buckley, Noam Chomsky, Sally Goodman (his wife), Judith Malina, Grace Paley, Susan Sontag, Studs Terkel, and Edmund White, all of whom help to resurrect our awareness of someone who never should have been forgotten.
Bless their hearts, Olive Films are releasing remastered versions of four Frank Tashlin films with Jerry Lewis on DVD, without extras but with all their Tashlinesque vibrancy intact: Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), It’s Only Money (1962), and Who’s Minding the Store? (1963). So far I’ve checked out the first two (one of my favourites and one of my least favourites, respectively), and am still awaiting my copies of the latter two. (The first — the only Tashlin-Lewis in black and white — I barely remember, while the second I recall as one of the best. For an ambitious unpacking of Rock-a-Bye Baby, check out autobiographyofasoul.blogspot.com/2011/08/ive-got-two-herberts-in-front-of-my.html.) Meanwhile, Tashlin’s much-maligned Doris Day-Richard Harris caper film Caprice (1967), defended by Tashlin aficionado Roger Garcia, has been issued in the UK by Second Sight, and I’m looking forward to re-seeing it.
Gaumont à la demande, a new budget label devoted to French “classics,” already boasts over a hundred titles, including work by directors ranging from Max Ophüls (Yoshiwara, 1937; Sans lendemain, 1939; De Mayerling à Saravejo, 1940) and Marcel Carné (Trois chambres à Manhattan, 1965) to Jacques Becker (Antoine et Antoinette, 1947) and Jean Renoir (Toni, 1935). As far as I can tell, none of these have English subtitles, but all of them are outfitted with sous-titres sourds et malentendants, which is useful to people like me who can read French better than they can follow spoken dialogue. The two DVDs in this series that I recently bought in Paris are among the more esoteric: Jean Grémillon’s Daïnah la métisse (1931) and the French version of Orson Welles’ Une histoire immortelle (1968), whose dubbing was reportedly supervised by one of its stars, Jeanne Moreau. (For the English original, The Immortal Story, you may want to check out the Australian DVD recently made available from Daaveedee for $30; I haven’t, so I can’t vouch for it.)
Daïnah la métisse is a genuine film maudit by perhaps the major French filmmaker who remains the most flagrantly underrepresented on DVD. Grémillon understandably had his name removed from the credits after this feature was cut to approximately half its original running time so that it would qualify as a 48-minute moyen métrage, but what remains is still an eye-popping curiosity. The title of this melodrama, set exclusively on a fancy ocean liner, translates roughly as “Daïnah the Half-Breed.” (I can’t think of any politically correct equivalent — the same problem encountered if one refuses to follow the American practice of labeling Barack Obama a black man by refusing to acknowledge his white parent.) The character in question, played by the unknown Laurence Clavius, is the wife of a wealthy black man (the better-known Habib Benglia); she flirts with a white ship mechanic (Charles Vanel) who tries to rape her and later kills her after she violently resists him. The racism of the fellow passengers and crew is underlined when the prim husband becomes the prime suspect, but the motives and behaviour of both husband and wife are sufficiently opaque, at least in the surviving film, to foster further ambiguities about how we’re supposed to regard these people. Visually striking throughout, the film has an especially creepy and unsettling expressionist sequence set at a masked ball where most of the guests are made to look like hideous monsters while the husband performs an obscure brand of magic for them, an inexplicable ceremony involving fish in a bowl.
Gartenbergmedia.com makes a good many interesting DVDs “available for sale to educational organizations in North America (universities, libraries, & other cultural institutions),” and was kind enough to send me a review copy of the very first Carl Dreyer Blu-ray, put together by the Danish Film Institute, including Love One Another (1922) and The Bride of Glomdal (1926), both with optional English subtitles and new musical scores. Neither of these films, alas, has survived in complete form, and it seems a mere fluke of timing that the first appearance of Dreyer on Blu-ray should come at a time when virtually his entire remaining oeuvre (barring only his 1945 disaster Two People, which he disowned) has already been made available in restorations on DVDs. Just the same, this is a lovely edition, and if you aren’t an institution you can order it from Amazon (for $34.99 + postage), from Daaveedee (for $28.99 + postage), or from edition-filmmuseum.com (for 19.95 Euros + postage), among other places.
I complained in an earlier column about not understanding why Chris Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), his masterpiece-portrait of Tarkovsky, was being released on an Icarus Films DVD along with Sergey Dvortsevoy’s In the Dark (2004) and Marina Goldovskaya’s Three Songs About Motherland (2009), an act of programming whose rationale wasn’t at all clear on the check disc I was sent. But the jacket of the finished DVD contains an eloquent four-paragraph essay by Marker explaining precisely why this was done. (“Each of us in his manner sings the paean or the doom of a place on Earth that defies any rational grasp.”)
My latest purchase from the worthy Classics Confidential (French books with bilingual DVDs) from Wild Side (www.wildside.fr) is devoted to Nicholas Ray and Budd Schulberg’s 1958 Wind Across the Everglades (La forêt interdite in French), with a copiously illustrated 80-page book by Patrick Brion, Le paradis perdu, that includes a three-page letter of Ray to Schulberg (in the original English, translated into French in Brion’s text), long after he was fired from the film and shortly after he saw a rough cut, suggesting various changes. And my latest check discs from the BFI’s welcome project to give us as much Ozu as possible are a two-disc set devoted to The Student Comedies, all silent, including Days of Youth and an 11-minute surviving fragment of I Graduated, But… (both 1929), I Flunked, But… (1930), The Lady and the Beard (1931), and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932), with newly commissioned scores and printed essays for each, plus a 20-minute rap by Tony Rayns.
Why did I put off seeing Lionel Rogosin’s amazing documentary On the Bowery (1956) for over a half century, until the combined forces of the Bologna Cineteca restoration and Milestone’s exemplary Blu-ray forced my hand? I suppose I must have correctly guessed how grim it is, but not its photographic or human power — particularly its amazing lead performance from Kentucky nonprofessional Ray Salyer, who manages to evoke both James Agee and Jack Kerouac, and was never heard from again. But as a hint of what the film was up against in the mid-‘50s, it’s worth quoting from Bosley Crowther’s review in the Times: “Not to be churlish about it but simply to state the case as it appears to a cheerful film reviewer and ex-reporter in the byways of New York, this is a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see. You can see the same thing in many places in this city without going too far from where you live. Indeed, it is merely a good montage of good photographs of drunks and bums, scrutinized and listened to ad nauseam. And we mean ad nauseam!”
Paradoxically, the innocence of Rogosin (who later founded the Bleecker Street Cinema), which is part of what makes On the Bowery so searing, is also central to what makes his subsequent Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964) — another Bologna restoration included by Milestone in the same package — so objectionable. The film is a sort of left-wing Mondo Cane that intercuts diverse kinds of atrocity footage (mostly Nazi and nuclear) with the superficial banter at an English cocktail party, concluding with the relative uplift of civil rights and antiwar demonstrations — not so much to provoke meaningful thought as to express self-righteous (if ineffectual) outrage. It’s interesting to recall how in the ‘60s, Swinging London could stand for the entire Western world (a conceit that Blowup would benefit from two years later), but playing bad rock from the party over footage of skeletons in gas ovens only made me wonder whether good rock would have made it more, less, or equally obnoxious. (For postwar enlightenment about the death camps, you’re much better off ordering Emil Weiss’ 1988 Falkenau, vision de l’impossible from French Amazon for 15.13 Euros, and hearing Sam Fuller hold forth over his own 16mm footage of the liberation of a camp in Czechoslovakia — an event he also depicted in more surrealist terms at the end of The Big Red One .)
Milestone, which characteristically shows a lot of care in selecting and processing its film material but relatively little attention about its printed matter (so that the irreplaceable Charles Burnett shorts included in its Killer of Sheep set were effectively buried and hidden like Easter eggs), includes no essays with these Blu-rays, and running times on its sleeve only for the two Rogosin features. But the extras, especially on the Bowery disc, are wonderful: a terse and persuasive intro by Martin Scorsese, two invaluable new documentaries by Rogosin’s son Michael (a “making of” that manages to include insights from three critics as dissimilar as Peter von Bagh, David Bordwell, and Ray Carney, and a piece about the neighbourhood then and now), and two other fascinating shorts about the Bowery (a snippet from 1933 that’s mainly a period piece, and a terrific city-funded piece of reporting done by Rhody Streeter and Tony Ganz in 1972). Another interesting contrast might have been provided by Sara Driver’s very different and quirky 1994 video short The Bowery, but I guess this will have to wait for the aforementioned Canadian box set.