My Spring 2014 DVD column for Cinema Scope, posted in March. — J.R.
There’s no question that DVDs and Blu-rays are fostering new viewing habits and also new critical protocols and processes in sizing up what we’re watching. A perfect example of what I mean is Criterion’s brilliant idea to release Kurosawa Akira’s Throne of Blood (1957) with two alternative sets of subtitles by Linda Hoaglund and the late Donald Richie, both of whom were also commissioned to write essays explaining the rationales and methodologies of their very different translations—a move that I already wrote about and praised in my fourth DVD column for this magazine, just over a decade ago. So I’m very happy to find these subtitles and essays preserved in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, providing an invaluable pedagogical tool that was (and still is) unavailable to anyone seeing Throne of Blood theatrically.
In 1963, after seeing Jules and Jim, I had the pleasure of reading Roger Greenspun about it in Sight & Sound. I regret this option isn’t readily available today, but I have to admit that in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, I have many other things I can turn to—I’m especially grateful for the dialogue between Dudley Andrew and Robert Stam, an interview with Truffaut’s co-writer Jean Gruault, and a fascinating documentary about the film’s real-life models, all of which, perversely or not, held my interest longer than seeing the film all the way through for the umpteenth time.
Here’s another example: I welcomed the opportunity to revisit André Téchiné’s The Bronte Sisters (1979) afforded by its release as a Blu-ray in the Cohen Film Collection, even though, here again, I wound up getting more absorbed in Dominique Maillet’s hour-long documentary about the film, The Ghosts of Haworth, than in the two-hour feature itself—an interesting effort that gets seriously derailed by the fatal miscasting of Roland Barthes as William Thackeray in the film’s closing stretches. What’s especially interesting about the documentary is how candid and detailed it manages to be about the film’s planning and production, which makes me all the more regretful that whoever was hired to subtitle it didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to learn that “Maryline Golding” (sic), the author of the first Téchiné Bronte Sisters script, is in fact Marilyn Goldin, that filmmaker “René Alliot” is actually “René Allio,” etc. It seems to me that if you’re going to go to the trouble of subtitling something—and I’m well aware from my own past experiences as a subtitler that these are generally rush jobs—the least you can do is some basic research about whatever it is you’re subtitling.
Another look at 25th Hour (2003), which I’ve gradually come to regard as Spike Lee’s best fiction feature (taking into account the handful I’ve missed), is similarly enhanced by all the extras provided on the Touchstone DVD, including not only documentaries but audio commentaries from both Lee and writer David Benioff and deleted scenes. In this case, however, I find the feature strong enough to sustain interest throughout without any desire to turn to the extras until afterwards.
Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), on a DVD from Zeitgeist Films—another entertaining showcase for Slavoj Žižek, the sputtering Daffy Duck of standup Lacanian theory, even if it’s a cut below her (and his) earlier The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006)—incorporates and expands some of the protocols of home viewing, so it’s entirely appropriate that the jacket design, which is reproduced in the DVD menu, recalls some Beatles album covers of the ’60s, with their own eclectic mixes of high and low cultural icons. For what is most entertaining and enlightening here usually turns out to be not so much the individual analyses of separate movies and historical events (from They Live  and The Sound of Music  to Seconds  and Zabriskie Point , by way of Titanic , the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, The Fall of Berlin , Full Metal Jacket , M*A*S*H , If…. , The Dark Knight , and 9/11) as their dizzying juxtapositions and cross-references, so that, for instance, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Seconds are implicitly allowed to provide commentaries on one another. These interfacing critical commentaries are often enhanced by planting Žižek in replicas of some of these films’ most iconic locations, such as the rescue boat in Titanic, the barracks toilets in Full Metal Jacket, and the hero’s single bed and a black-and-white railway carriage in what Žižek insists on calling, respectively, The Taxi Driver (1976) and The Brief Encounter (1945).
My first viewing of an Andrei Tarkovsky film on Blu-ray is of what might qualify as his worst feature, the 1983 Nostalghia, delivered without any extras (apart from its theatrical trailer) though in splendid HD from Kino Lorber. But the experience remains singular as well as paradoxical: an unsuccessful film that consists of great and breathtaking filmmaking, perhaps because it’s conceived of in pieces and composed that way, and the pieces never quite fit together. Even the greatest sequences are the ones most devoid of action in any ordinary sense—the hero brooding on his hotel bed or hanging out with his crazed doppelgänger in the latter’s leaking and creaking digs—and not the hero’s climactic trek with a lit candle (a warm-up for the cataclysmic house-burning at the end of The Sacrifice ) or his doppelgänger’s self-immolation (ditto). Characteristically, Tarkovsky couldn’t care less about what happens to the families of either of his mad martyr-prophets in his last two features, where the macho value of executing a lengthy and complicated take seems to become the only spiritual value worth contemplating. This is a far cry from the rotation of characters and/or camera and/or set in a penultimate scene in Ordet (1955), where the content of the dialogue and Dreyer’s desire for us to accept a miracle without realizing it are what ultimately matter, not the logistics of a technical stunt.
I proceed next to my first look at Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra’s Tempo di Viaggio (Time of a Journey), their hour-long documentary about scouting Italian locations for Nostalghia, which I access on my copy of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, an invaluable—albeit lamentably now out of print—two-disc PAL DVD set also including Alexander Sokurov’s Moscow Elegy (1987) and Chris Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Aresenevitch (1999), the latter of which is still the best Tarkovsky criticism I know of in any form. (Under the mistranslated title Voyage in Time, the Tarkovsky-Guerra film can now be acquired from Facets Video.) Interestingly enough, Tempo di Viaggio inverts the strengths and weaknesses of Nostalghia: conventional and unexceptional as filmmaking, it’s fully successful as portraiture of Tarkovsky and Guerra, starting with the latter’s separate readings of his own beautiful poem at the beginning and end.
Speaking of Marker, there’s an excellent new two-disc DVD edition of Le joli mai (The Lovely Month of May), the documentary he made with Pierre Lhomme about Paris in May 1962, shortly after the end of the Algerian war, available from Icarus Films—a 146-minute epic that I assume Marker was reluctant to re-release while he was still alive because of the political changes he went through in subsequent years. This has been restored in both its original French version, narrated by Yves Montand, and in its English-language version prepared by Marker, which has Simone Signoret reading the commentary. Both of these versions are on the first disc (which also includes a recording of Montand singing the film’s title tune), and one strong advantage to this arrangement is that you can move back and forth between these versions—something I would recommend even if your French is less than fluent, because even though the French version isn’t fully subtitled, it flows much more gracefully and beautifully, if only because there’s an occasional awkwardness in the way Signoret spaces her lines in order to keep up with Marker’s editing.
There’s a detailed and illustrated 24-page booklet that comes with this package, but curiously neither this publication nor the jacket has anything to say about the separate disc of extras, none of which can be called exactly a work “by” Marker, although you have to reach the final credits in the first two cases in order to realize this. One of these shorts was shot by Marker and Lhomme but directed by someone else, another one was edited by Marker, and even the deleted sequence from Le joli mai doesn’t quite qualify as a Marker work because there isn’t any commentary by him. All this helps to clarify how and why Marker continues to be a somewhat marginalized figure in French cinema, because he’s an auteur chiefly in a literary sense and someone who, to the best of my knowledge, never allowed himself to be called a director. In other words, one could argue that what makes him a cinematic as well as literary author is above all his writing and editing, both of which shine in Le joli mai.
I can hardly contain my delight at Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), rightly identified as his happiest film, also becoming available on Blu-ray—more specifically, in a two-disc dual format edition from Criterion. (If you want to see what I mean, go directly to the “Tammy” sequence recently posted on Criterion’s web site, at www.criterion.com/current/posts/3043-a-scene-from-the-long-day-closes.) So I hope the Criterion people won’t think I’m betraying any trade secrets when I also point out that the moment I’ve most treasured from Davies’ South Bank Show, made to promote this feature—Davies flawlessly and exuberantly lip-syncing Doris Day’s introductory verse to “I’m Not At All in Love” from The Pajama Game (1957)—has been sliced out of the version of the show that’s included here as the principal extra, presumably because some deadbeats at Warners decided to charge a fortune for clearing the rights. And just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me about this, I dug out my VHS dub of that show from when it appeared on Bravo and, sure enough, there it was (and is), as glorious and as Davies-specific as it was when I first saw the show a couple of decades ago. But to be fair to Criterion, the BFI DVD of The Long Day Closes doesn’t include any part of The South Bank Show in any form, and the remainder of this British TV program, bolstered by a sympathetic interviewer and Davies at his wittiest and liveliest, is certainly well worth having.
The other Criterion extras are new interviews with cinematographer Mick Coulter and executive producer Colin MacCabe (who significantly brings up the sound clips from commercial films used in The Long Day Closes, ranging from The Magnificent Ambersons  to The Ladykillers  to Tammy and the Bachelor , which are essential to its texture, impact, and meaning and must have been extremely dicey to acquire the rights to), an audio commentary by Davies and Coulter carried over from the BFI release, and a new essay by Michael Koresky. I’m sorry that they didn’t reprint, as the BFI did, Raymond Durgnat’s original review of the film for Sight & Sound, identifying it as “Terence Davies’ best film yet” (a verdict that might still hold today) and noting that “Davies’ especially delicate realism requires a rigorous fidelity to raw experience, carefully protected from conventional discourse, although conveyed by artifice.”
There’s no question that digital viewing enhances the way one can interact with film criticism, especially if one can gear one’s purchases and viewings more freely with what one reads. For example, my decision to hunt down and watch Richard Fleischer’s flawed but fascinating quickie noir Follow Me Quietly (1949), available (though not as cheaply as one would hope) from wbshop.com, was directly inspired by B. Kite and Bill Krohn’s fascinating and theoretically playful collaborative essay “Deadpan in Nulltown,” posted online about a year ago at mubi.com/notebook/posts/deadpan-in-nulltown. (The fact that Kite and Krohn share the same initials occasions part of the playfulness: the essay proceeds in installments that are each signed “B.K.,” matching the interchangeable identity of a dummy that figures prominently in the plot.) Apart from the interesting fact that Anthony Mann helped to prepare this picture, my subsequent look at Fleischer’s far more accomplished, complex, and ambitious The Boston Strangler (1968), with its innovative split-screen sequences and its daringly indeterminate ending—available now in a letterboxed format from Amazon for slightly over $6—is enhanced by the ruminations of the two B.K.s about ambiguity and absence of closure in the earlier film.
Bernardo Bertolucci is often at his best when he’s working in a realm roughly akin to chamber music—as in Before the Revolution (1964), The Spider’s Stratgem (1970), Besieged (1998), and the better parts of Last Tango in Paris (1972) and The Last Emperor (1987)—and usually at his worst when his more commercial and symphonic ambitions take over (as in The Conformist , the unspeakable 1900 , and the more bombastic stretches of Last Tango and Last Emperor, starting perhaps with the “last” in both of these titles). So I’m mainly grateful for his latest feature, Me and You (2012), which I caught up with under its original title, Io e Te, and on an Italian DVD, where it has English subtitles. (For the record, this costs only €7.16 plus postage from Italian Amazon, and over four times as much from US Amazon.) This film may be far from his best, but it’s equally far from his worst—an intimately scaled chamber piece occasioned, it would seem, by Bertolucci’s own confinement to a wheelchair.
Even at his best—and I’m tempted to add, especially at his best—Robert Altman always lets me down. Of course, letting one down in relation to one’s usual Hollywood expectations is a major part of his undertaking, but the minute he starts aspiring to his acknowledged or unacknowledged European models, he shifts to a different casino and my own expectations are no longer the same. Or maybe the significant shift isn’t from American to European terms but from what Manny Farber calls termite art to what he calls elephant art: as long as Nashville (1976) stays within termite range, I can usually accept its capsule observations about its cast of characters in spite of its proud and wilful ignorance about both the title city and country-western music; but once it puts all those observations together in capital letters and trots out the American flag (again and again) to make even greater claims for them, it loses me. You might even say that it dives out of one version of mainstream entertainment only to crash-land inside another, and what bothers me about Criterion’s serving up of it as a mainstream classic is what we’re all missing in the process. Ever since Geraldine Chaplin told me in an interview that her deliberately irritating character, Opal, didn’t work for the BBC and that this was made clear in a scene (if memory serves, one with Michael Murphy) that Altman cut, I persuaded myself that Nashville needed to be much longer than 160 minutes in order to play the more radical and dialectical games it kept threatening or pretending to play, which were potentially closer to those of Playtime (1967) or Rivette in the early ’70s than they were to, say, the bluster of an Oliver Stone. Without that spread, the movie keeps threatening to turn into an anthology of cheap shots, or some form of Oliver Stone pomposity writ even larger. And Altman kept promising a TV miniseries version that would allow for the missing footage—he even mentions it in the more recent of his interviews about the film included on this Criterion Blu-ray. But there’s no explanation or acknowledgment in this package of why this promise wasn’t kept, and Molly Haskell’s essay never alludes to it.
For me, The Long Goodbye holds up a lot better than Nashville nowadays, and in some ways even more than it did for me in 1973: as a formal experiment (all those continuous, gratuitous, and unsettling camera movements), as a workshop for gifted actors, and as a social commentary on the period and milieu when and where it was made. And the Blu-ray recently released by Arrow Academy in the UK is far more plentiful, generous, and historically savvy when it comes to extras than Criterion’s Nashville, despite the fact that Altman’s desire to make this Raymond Chandler adaptation derived from the dubious premise of turning Philip Marlowe into a murderer in the final sequence. This is a detail I used to reject outright and now find myself able to half-accept. At least it isn’t a gratuitous death, unlike the one that concludes Nashville, but one that over a hundred minutes of Leigh Brackett’s adept screenwriting craft has carefully prepared us for. My only major disappointment here—and I have no idea whether or not Altman is the one to blame for this—is that there never was a soundtrack album for The Long Goodbye, even though it may easily be the movie of Altman’s (apart from his neglected 1997 Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34: Reminiscences of Kansas City Swing, still unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray) that most deserves one. Certainly more than Popeye (1980), which I’ve also just revisited—an outright musical, and a bold if failed effort to remake McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) alternately as The Threepenny Opera and as a live-action slapstick cartoon. Why such an effort? I guess it must have been because the producer, Robert Evans, assumed you could do anything with that title and still turn a profit.
Another generic hybrid, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). I decided to watch it again, on Blu-ray, because I like to watch Nicole Kidman in whatever she’s in, even when she’s playing Tuesday Weld in a fractured crossbreeding of Pretty Poison (1968) and Lord Love a Duck (1966), both movies that I much prefer to this one. The problem is, even with a Buck Henry script, the film can’t make its mind up between satire and post-noir and gets stuck in some netherworld between the two, without a coherent lead character to call its own. Is Kidman’s anti-heroine a bimbo or a conniver? No one working on this movie seems to know the difference, or to care (and it isn’t a fruitful contradiction, as it is with Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ), so neither do we.
Red River (1948) has never been one of my favourite Howard Hawks films, especially during its pre-Joanne Dru stretches, though it’s certainly full of prototypical Hawksian moves and movements. The best text I know about the film, the late Robert Sklar’s relatively unauteurist “Empire to the West: Red River,” is missing from the 56-page “dossier” included with the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray. This dossier begins with an excerpt from a 1987 lecture by Andrew Sarris that concludes that Hawks “had no metaphysical vision.” Sarris is one of the first people who taught me to appreciate the art of Hawks, but for me that art is fundamentally bound up with the very metaphysical vision of a nihilistic void—one hovering perpetually around the edges of Only Angels Have Wings (1939), To Have and Have Not (1944), and many other Hawks films, including Red River, regardless of whether or not Hawks was aware of it himself. In fact, one could even say that it’s this frightening vision that makes the human bonds and exchanges in these films so vital and urgent…For once, the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray opts for only one of the two versions of a film that are available—the so-called Book version, slightly over six minutes longer than the Voice version.
Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love (2013), a documentary portrait in WNET’s American Masters series. If you’re wondering why I was sufficiently interested in such an item to request a review copy, I have to confess to having a dog in this race. During the summer of 1959, I attended a Jewish arts camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts called Hagigah, where I was so impressed by Hamlisch’s public piano performance that I asked him afterwards to show me how he played a couple of the tunes, and he cheerfully and patiently acquiesced by teaching me the bass line he composed for his version of “Tea for Two” as well as the seventh chords he employed on “Lullaby of Birdland.” (He was 15 at the time, and I was a year older.) It’s the same sort of generosity and spirit that I see throughout this hagiographical bio, apparent even in its subtitle, and if I hesitate to concur with the assessment it gives about his value as a composer, either for movies or for stage musicals, this documentary shows that he was still clearly serious and principled about his work in both media. (It seems pretty clear that his first love was always Broadway; even today, I can recall him whimsically quoting “La Plume de ma tante” during his improvised solo on “Lullaby of Birdland.”) And this touching chronicle did persuade me to download the original cast recording of what Hamlisch regarded as his (neglected) magnum opus, his musical version of Sweet Smell of Success.
I’m one of the only people I know who defended Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance when it came out in 1987—it even made my ten-best list that year—and a recent invitation to be interviewed about the film for a podcast sent me back to the excellent MGM DVD, which is full of entertaining and informative extras. It also gave me an opportunity to rethink some aspects of my original defense of the film:
“Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable—as goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos, and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process. Coaxing good performances out of his male actors (Ryan O’Neal, Lawrence Tierney, Wings Hauser) and mannerist displays from his actresses (including Isabella Rossellini and Debra Sandlund), he is certainly capable of broad strokes—the southern accents are laid on with a trowel—but his framing, editing, and uses of sound and music are often fresh and tangy. Whatever has induced Mailer to clean up his act, he has introduced an effective (if convoluted) flashback structure, trimmed the fat off his prose, eliminated digressions, and shown some genuine flair with his Provincetown locations, including his own home. The results are giddy and singular—100 percent Mailer, and one of those rare occasions when a novelist’s obsessions and vision have been brought to the screen intact.”
In fact, the two female leads of Tough Guys Don’t Dance have egos that are every bit as oversized as those of the male honchos, and whether or not we take the various excesses of all the characters as camp—and it’s hard to imagine many people apart from Mailer taking them any other way—doesn’t have to interfere with our appreciation of the exuberance. Mailer’s own sense of the movie’s generic placement in terms of horror, spelled out in his interviews, might be taken as a sign of his sense of metaphysical vertigo in relation to capitalist greed and the lust for power—two topics which, I would argue, need a certain amount of Hollywood upholstery to attain their full, cosmic expression, which is why this film (or, rather, movie) works for me in ways that his three earlier and scrappier cinéma vérité efforts don’t. This doesn’t mean that the production values in themselves provide any sort of guarantee; The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which has much more of this on offer, succeeds for me far less well in poeticizing its own sense of excess.
However, catching up with an Anthony Mann western I hadn’t seen before, The Tin Star (1957), clarifies how much of a gulf can still exist between the mise en scène of a promising amateur like Mailer and that of a genuine master in full command of his powers. All the things that Mann can do here with craggy landscapes and the inside of a sheriff’s office with windows and a door giving way to the main street are so commanding and architecturally expressive that I can even accept the almost fatal miscasting of Anthony Perkins as the sheriff as part of the same combo.
As a partial spinoff of the revelation of Delmer Daves launched by Criterion and Kent Jones with recent editions of the great 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and the more flawed Jubal (1956), I’ve recently been delving in some of his other early films. Given all the academic attention accorded to Orson Welles’ unrealized Heart of Darkness feature and Robert Montgomery’s ridiculous Lady in the Lake (1947) as exercises in first-person cinematic storytelling, it’s surprising how little attention has been given to Daves’ tour-de-force handling of the same concept over the first hour of Dark Passage, an adaptation of an early David Goodis novel with Bogart and Bacall that was released the same year as the Montgomery film. The subjective camera is justified this time by the hero escaping from prison and undergoing plastic surgery, so that slightly over a solid hour passes before Bogart appears onscreen. The last time I looked, you could order this film for just over $6 from Amazon, but my own copy comes from a box set including two dozen features that Warners calls Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection. In any case, the interest of this noir goes far beyond its adroit handling of subjective camera. Daves is especially good in the way he handles his secondary cast, and I find this no less true of his first feature, Destination Tokyo (1944), a punchy piece of wartime propaganda co-starring Cary Grant and John Garfield that you can access on Amazon for a little over $8.
This is less true of The Red House (1947), a rural, Freudian Gothic thriller that Daves made just before Dark Passage, which has recently been digitally restored in HD and is now out in a dual-format edition, after a long purgatory of being available only on cruddy public domain copies. The latter, I should note, has virtues of its own, although you have to fight your way through an overwrought and hyperactive Miklos Rosza score in order to arrive at them. And secondary casting is at most a minor bonus on Broken Arrow (1950), Daves’ first Western, also available on DVD from Fox — a polemically pacifist and pro-Apache effort with James Stewart that anticipates Daves’ Bird of Paradise the following year in many striking ways, including the presence of Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget in pivotal “non-white” roles as the hero’s best friend and sacrificial bride.
The political incorrectness of the latter casting is probably what dates Broken Arrow more than anything else. But I personally find this practice far less objectionable and problematic than the strategic political omissions of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which turn out to be crucial in making the film into globally acclaimed Oscar fodder. To cite Jeremy Mohler’s “The Act of Watching Documentary” , “The Indonesian right responsible for the murders no doubt saw and still sees the conquest of creating and maintaining markets of consumers and cheap labour in their own country for exactly what it is, while the average US citizen who’s gorged since birth on American exceptionalism thinks the US role in global affairs post-WWII has been exclusively democratic and humanitarian. If they’ve even heard of the genocide, the average American viewer surely hasn’t heard of the CIA’s providing of ‘communist’ kill lists to the Indonesian military leadership installed in late 1965, the folks that conducted Congo and other street gangsters from the podium. This opposition is the precise reason for the ‘bizarre situation’ of Congo’s willingness to admit to and boast about his crimes in front of an American filmmaker, as he must think all Americans are proud of him and his kind for doing our dirty work. Congo and his buddies resemble the lower-level gangsters in The Sopranos (1999-2007), eager to please the bosses but unaware of the larger games being played above them. In this particular Janus head, Oppenheimer has stumbled upon a chasm in the outer armour of global capitalism, the film’s concealed political content that is never let loose.” By comparison, the transparency of casting Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget as Apaches seems almost benign.
As luck would have it, I re-see Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and then his Glissements progressifs du plaisir (awkwardly translated as Successive Slidings of Pleasure, 1974) on separate Blu-rays from Kino Lorber shortly after a return visit to Albert Brooks’ The Muse (2000). This seems relevant because, in their very different ways, all three films are fundamentally about the automatic-pilot stupidities of Hollywood and its derivatives. The most pertinent difference may be that Brooks has a lot of wit in outlining our various forms of complicity in these stupidities, portrayed allegorically, whereas Robbe-Grillet has no wit at all, only varying amounts of doggedness and/or humour in pursuing various clichés literally while hopefully waiting for them to auto-destruct (and the doggedness seems to increase whenever the humour flags). Trans-Europ-Express, which benefits hugely from Willy Kurant’s black-and-white cinematography, does have a few poker-faced laughs as it runs through its inventory of pop-thriller tropes, most of these having to do with trench coats and various other cribs from Alphaville (with Anna Karina reconfigured as Marie-France Pisier). But when many of these tropes recur in Glissements—especially those qualifying Robbe-Grillet as a compulsive metteur en chaîne, but also jokey employments of Jean-Louis Trintignant (this time as a detective rather than a drug trafficker)—the diverse sadomasochistic accoutrements start to appear (dare I say it?) more slavish and dutiful than fondly remembered. One might even say that play turns into work around the same time that the archetypal images of erotic fantasy in Robbe-Grillet’s novels (such as La Maison de Rendez-vous and Project for a Revolution in New York) become petrified, codified, and calcified. Consequently, the diverse quantities of lesbians, medieval tortures, eggs, vampirism, necrophilia, red paint, blue shoes, and broken wine bottles (many of these again patterned after Godard) start to become interchangeable as soon as they become obligatory…Incidentally, both of these Blu-rays come equipped with half-hour interviews with Robbe-Grillet in which the French interviewer is somewhat livelier than Robbe-Grillet himself, as well as trailers for some of his other films, implying that a few more of his features are on the way.
My very first encounters with late Satyajit Ray come courtesy of a new Eclipse set from Criterion, Late Ray. My love for Ibsen persuades me to start with the second of the three features, An Enemy of the People (1989), but all three of the films prove to be revelations—most of all The Stranger (1991), Ray’s last feature, but also The Home and the World (1984), which is in some ways the best known and most ambitious of the trio. (Michael Koresky’s sleeve notes on the three releases are excellent, but I wish they weren’t so difficult to read because of the dark color and layout—a problem that also crops up on the last page of Julie Kirgo’s essay about Man in the Dark , a cheesy yet surprisingly watchable 3-D noir effort recently brought out by Twilight Time.)
What especially makes these films revelations is the economy and integrity of their mise en scène, at once purposeful and personal, functional and nuanced. Back in 1985, reviewing The Home and the World, Pauline Kael managed to single out this trait while misdescribing it in a rather telling fashion: “The main characters talk, and the camera just stays on them and waits until they finish, yet these conversations develop a heart-swelling intensity. In a sense, the method is like that of amateur moviemakers who think that all they need to do is put actors in a room and photograph them reading their lines as if they were on a stage. The difference is that Satyajit Ray, who has been making movies for thirty years, didn’t start with this simplicity—he achieved it.” As apt as her last sentence is, her apparent assumption that any non-Hollywood form of mise en scène must be primitive and simple suggests a form of industry brainwashing. (After this review, there are significantly fewer than half-a-dozen features covered in the remainder of Kael’s compendium volume For Keeps that aren’t in English.) For part of the fascination of Ray’s mise en scène in his late features is how fresh and unpredictable (as well as untheatrical) it is; Kael’s unconvincing subsequent suggestion that this style “may be influenced by Ozu or late Dreyer” seems to overlook the possibility that its purity might be arrived at through Ray’s direct response to the dramaturgy itself.