“Always finish what you start,” says Fritz Lang, appearing more or less as himself, at one point in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. That advice aptly summarizes Lang’s feelings toward his Indian Epic, the two-part remake of a 1921 film he co-scripted with then-wife Thea von Harbou but had been denied the opportunity to direct when its producer took over the reins. In many ways, these films constitute the closing of a circle, marking Lang’s return to the German film industry after nearly 30 years in exile, as well as his revival of a sprawling, multi-part style of fantasy-adventure storytelling akin to that of The Spiders and Die Nibelungen.
Superficially, at least, the Indian Epic may seem like an ill-conceived throwback to the outdated narrative devices—not to mention occasionally slapdash special effects—found in those silent-era films. The films, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, are inarguably best appreciated for their surface pleasures, foremost among them Richard Angst’s gorgeous color cinematography, lavished alike on the stunning and heretofore forbidden locations in Udaipur, India, and the massive, intricately detailed sets designed by Helmut Nentwig and Willy Schatz. But Lang still manages to imbue the films with his own longstanding stylistic and thematic preoccupations. If ever there were an ideal test case for the auteur theory, it would have to be these two works.
Lang, the onetime student of architecture, makes his hero, Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid), an architect who has come to the kingdom of Eschnapur to design schools and hospitals for Maharaja Chandra (Walter Reyer). The films often make reference to Berger’s scale models and detailed plans of the Maharaja’s palace. Indeed, this floating fortress practically becomes a character in its own right. As in Moonfleet, there’s a striking contrast between luxurious aboveground spaces and the dank vaults and crypts of the subterranean realm. Water plays a key role here, as it does in many Lang films. Both the Indian Epic and Metropolis, for instance, end with climactic floods that serve to quell a rebellion.
Lang’s films often explore destiny in its manifold manifestations. (Even one of his earliest efforts is titled Destiny.) The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb work out this theme by frequently utilizing high-angle shots to indicate a sense of mastery, that characters feel themselves in command (rightly or wrongly) of all they survey. This exercise of power ties into the films’ invocation of divine authority. Not exactly dismissive of Eastern (read: non-Christian) deities, the Indian Epic unambiguously demonstrates their intervention in human affairs, albeit in ways that seem dispassionately tied to ritual practices. Thus, when temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) supplicates Shiva to aid her and Berger, the god shields their hiding place with a miraculously spun spiderweb. Just as surely, when Berger selfishly takes some of the offering to satisfy his own hunger, the god immediately rescinds his assistance.
The Indian Epic at times works to undermine the very Orientalist fantasies it seems to traffic in. For one thing, the Eastern ruler comes across as more cool-headed and deliberative than the rather impulsive Westerner, who rashly intrudes upon a proscribed temple ritual, breaking a hallowed taboo and transgressing the rules of hospitality into the bargain. When it comes to the final conflict between the two viewpoints, Berger proves himself prone to brutal outbursts of violence, yet ironically ends the second film, The Indian Tomb, prostrate on a litter, attended by the obliging Seetha. The Maharaja, for his part, is the one who decides to forego the dubious pleasures of retribution, opting instead for the decidedly Buddhistic path of renunciation. As Lang himself puts it in Contempt: “Death is no resolution.”
The 4K restorations of the films, each housed on its own Blu-ray disc, look spectacular. Colors are slightly paler, compared to the 2003 Fantoma DVD set, but the overall image is brighter, and there’s more information visible on the sides of the frame. Clarity of details and image depth are increased. Where the Fantoma discs featured both German and English options, Film Movement offers only the German track in a two-channel LPCM mono mix that nicely brings out some of the ambient sound effects (rifle discharges, clanging swords, tiger roars), as well as a pair of rousing scores by Michel Michelet and Gerhard Becker, respectively.
Film historian David Kalat provides commentary tracks for both films. Given the considerable combined run time, Kalat has plenty of opportunity to display his encyclopedic knowledge of Fritz Lang’s life and films. He meticulously traces Lang’s obsession with the Indian Epic from its origins as a novel written by Lang’s one-time wife and screenwriting partner, Thea von Harbou, the rancor Lang felt when the subsequent silent film adaptation he was supposed to helm was taken away from him by producer Joe May, and his desire to “close the circle” by finally filming his own version when offered the opportunity by producer Artur Brauner. Kalat also does an excellent job of pointing out formal and thematic connections between the Indian Epic and Lang’s earlier films, from Metropolis to Moonfleet. (One of Kalat’s more intriguing digressions concerns Lang’s indirect yet significant debt to the writings of Karl May.)
From 2005, the making-of documentary “The Indian Epic” has talking-head commentary from producer Brauner, assistant director Eva Ebner, and co-star Sabine Bethmann, along with some delightful behind-the-scenes footage the actress shot on 8mm while on-location in India. Mark Rappaport’s visual essay “Debra Paget, For Example” explores the actress’s career from her first role in Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City to her involvement in the Indian Epic, with a fascinating excursus about her marriage to a wealthy and reclusive Texas oilman, who just so happened to be a direct descendent of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Rappaport emphasizes Hollywood’s oddly contradictory typecasting of Paget as either the wholesome girl next door type or else the exotic beauty with a penchant for performing seductive dance numbers. There’s also an illustrated booklet with an essay from film historian Tom Gunning that explores Lang’s investment in the themes of destiny and fatalism.
Fritz Lang’s gorgeous, action-packed Indian Epic pours new thematic wine into charmingly old-fashioned narrative bottles.
Cast: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walther Reyer, Claus Holm, Sabine Bethmann, Luciana Paluzzi, René Deltgen, Valery Inkijinoff, Jochen Brockmann, Jochen Blume, Richard Lauffen, Giulio Celano Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Werner Jörg Lüddecke, Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 203 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: William Wyler’s Roman Holiday on “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray
This is sure to be the definitive transfer of Wyler’s classic for years to come.3.5
The indomitable mystique of Audrey Hepburn captured international attention almost immediately following the release of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. By a stroke of good luck, genius, or, more likely, some alchemical combination of the two, the 1953 classic plays surprisingly well as a whimsical deconstruction of the Hepburn persona even as that persona was only just entering its gestation period.
In its opening scene, the film announces its fascination with the conflicts that arise between a star’s public persona and their internal desires. The star in this case is the young and beautiful Princess Ann (Hepburn), who, during one of many stops on an international diplomatic tour on behalf of her unnamed European homeland, stands upright and displays an impassive expression across her face, politely greeting a seemingly endless line of world leaders. Her decorous nature carries with it an air of nobility, and draped in a lavish white gown, she looks more like a porcelain figurine than a red-blooded woman.
That Hepburn was also descended from royalty—her mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch baroness—only further connects her to the character she plays on screen. And as Wyler peels back the veneer of Ann’s built-up façade to reveal the humanity beneath, it feels as if we’re seeing Hepburn herself cutting loose. In a perfectly naughty move worthy of Lubitsch, Wyler cuts from a wide shot of Ann steadfastly giving off the appearance of perfection to a close-up under her dress where she scratches one of her feet with the other. It’s a succinct summation of the princess’s struggle to balance her internal needs and desires with the external demands constantly thrust upon her. Not unlike Hepburn when she became one of the world’s foremost fashionistas, you don’t see a single chink in Anne’s composure.
Once Ann sneaks out of her country’s embassy after being injected with a sedative, she ends up spending the night at the crummy apartment of Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Their free-spirited tour of Rome the next day engages in that familiar rom-com trope where neither of them wants to reveal their true self to the other: Joe plays it cool, never telling her he’s a beat reporter out for a story, while Ann keeps her royal background under wraps, enjoying her newfound anonymity. It’s a screwball scenario that banks successfully on the charisma and chemistry of the film’s two leads. Hepburn is particularly impressive, often tapping into deep wells of emotion through subtle shifts in facial expression and body movements.
As Ann and Joe jet around Rome aboard that now-iconic Vespa scooter, Roman Holiday revels in the beauty of the city, with the film’s long takes and deep-focus photography savoring everything from the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps to, in a scene that finds Hepburn and Peck at a pinnacle of charisma, the Mouth of Truth. The film may seem at first glance to be a trifle, but as Ann gradually realizes that her aristocratic responsibilities are inescapable, Joe and the princess’s adventures are retroactively endowed with emotional gravitas.
In the homestretch, Wyler wisely eschews sentimentality. As Ann, aloof and imperial, gazes down at Joe, who’s up front in a crowded press box, their eyes connect, and a brief shift in each of their facial expressions acknowledges the secret of their day together. Here, Wyler nimbly employs deep focus in a medium profile shot in which Joe and a group of other journalists patiently wait as the princess makes her way down the line to shake their hands. And in contrast to the film’s opening, it’s Joe who must keep up appearances, fighting to keep his feelings in check as he bids the princess adieu. It’s a sly way to signify Joe’s understanding of the woman who less than 24 hours earlier he was looking to exploit for a scoop.
Remastered from a 4K film transfer for its first release on Blu-ray, Roman Holiday has never looked better. The image on the disc is remarkably sharp, allowing for even minute details deep in the frame to be perfectly visible, and the extremely high contrast ratio makes for a pleasing range of grays that only further add to the transfer’s beauty. There could stand to be a bit more grain, as the picture occasionally looks a bit too cleaned up, but the distribution is even. The audio is also quite strong across the board, with clean dialogue and the layered background sounds of a bustling Rome are perfectly balanced into the mix.
Most of the extras here are fairly cursory, never really digging too deep into the pre-production and making of the film. The 12-minute Dalton Trumbo: From A-list to Blacklist offers a brief yet judicious summary of the Hollywood blacklist and the nefarious tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Many of the other extras—focusing on everything from the film’s costumes and shooting locations to Audrey Hepburn’s seven films with Paramount and the studio’s overall output during the 1950s—all bear the strong imprint of Paramount’s involvement, and are as such geared less toward providing insightful revelations about the film and more toward propping up the studio’s accomplishments. Finally, Leonard Maltin provides a short intro in which he gushes over the film and its charming actors.
William Wyler’s Roman Holiday lands on Blu-ray for the first time, and this is sure to be the definitive transfer of the film for years to come.
Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings, Tullio Carminati, Paolo carlini, Claudio Ermelli Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton, Dalton Trumbo Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 118 min Rating: 1953 Year: 1953 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela on Grasshopper Film Blu-ray
Vitalina Varela is the latest stage in a filmography that continues to evolve in moral terms as much as aesthetic ones.4
Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela picks up where Horse Money left off: immersed in a realm of suppressed memory and collective trauma. The film’s first image, of an alleyway lined by looming stone walls, cross-shaped gravestones dotting the upper right wall as a funeral procession silently emerges from the background shadows, renders a real street as a kind of military trench. The shot looks like something out of a post-World War I silent film, epitomizing Costa’s uncanny ability to balance realism and stylization.
The oneiric atmosphere of the film’s opening minutes is shattered, though, by the deafening roar of a jet engine heralding the arrival of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) from Cape Verde. Costa frames her disembarkment as a series of contrasting images, such as her bare, calloused feet walking down the metal steps of the commercial airliner. Vitalina’s greeting party, such as it is, consists of several Cape Verdean immigrants who work custodial jobs at the Lisbon airport. The women, arranged artfully around Vitalina and offering stern warnings that she should return to Cape Verde rather than suffer the indignities of life in Portugal, bring to mind the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the way they ominously portend doom.
The reasons for their grim tidings are apparent enough to Vitalina even before she leaves the tarmac. Having long dreamed of moving to Portugal after her husband, Joaquim, left Cape Verde for Lisbon decades ago to establish himself there before sending for her, Vitalina arrives now only for his funeral. Joaquim’s squalid home makes clear that he never could have supported Vitalina in Portugal, and she wonders aloud why he chose to live in such conditions instead of returning home. Vitalina, like everyone else in Costa’s films, speaks in a declamatory fashion that brings to mind the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But Vitalina’s long reflections on her thwarted dreams and her husband’s broken promises and lack of fidelity, drawn from some of the real Varela’s experiences, are shot through with tremors of suppressed rage and anguish that are rare across Costa’s calculatingly stoic filmography. The director has gotten some incredible performances from non-professionals over the years, but the inner pain and disgust that plays across Varela’s hardened features may be the most viscerally compelling acting to ever grace one of his productions.
It’s been two decades now since Costa refined his filmmaking approach by utilizing digital cameras, minimal on-location crew, and manipulations of available light with mirrors, and he continues to compose some of the most singular images in modern cinema. As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões wish to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of the immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters.
Yet Vitalina Varela is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Joaquim looms over it like a spirit with unfinished business, to the point that Vitalina’s extended, accusatory monologues about their relationship sound like direct addresses to his loitering soul just waiting off-camera. As Vitalina’s caustic assessments of her husband soften with nostalgic reflection and empathy for his life in Lisbon, she’s left feeling unmoored, loosed even from the tether of her anger.
For all the pain that reverberates through it, Vitalina Varela marks the first time in ages where a Costa film communicates more hope than despair. Networks of neighbors and friends have played a key role in all of his films since he began to document the residents of Lisbon’s now-razed Fontainhas shantytown, but arguably the presence of community has never before been felt so strongly in Costa’s work. When men arrive at Joaqium’s home to offer condolences to Vitalina, social rituals kick into gear and begin to bond them. She cooks for the men, one of whom tenderly confesses that he had forgotten what home cooking tasted like. Others talk to the woman about all they did to care for her husband in his failing health, with one neighbor noting insistently, “We also know how to help our fellow man.”
Vitalina may feel lost in Portugal, but she’s quickly accepted by the members of the immigrant community living in Fontainhas. Her presence even sparks life in some of the slum’s residents who’ve hardened emotionally, namely Costa mainstay Ventura, who here acts as the local priest of a long-empty congregation. Offering the last rites to Joaqium, the priest then performs mass for Vitalina and is momentarily rejuvenated by his faith. And the film’s coda, in which Costa returns to Cape Verde for the first time since Casa de Lava, marks the first indication in more than a decade that Costa might be leaving behind the literal and figurative darkness that has defined his filmmaking for 20 years. At last, he appears to be more interested in how people get on with life than how they keep the company of ghosts.
Pedro Costa’s films, given their extensive use of minimally lit, mostly nighttime shots, present a challenge for home video, but Grasshopper’s transfer perfectly renders the dark images with no instances of crushing or other digital artifacts. The film’s colors and expressive lighting pop from the stable black backdrops, while skin textures and tones are sharply defined. So well balanced are the film’s black levels and color saturation that this could be used as a reference disc for calibrating a TV. Costa’s sound design is always subtle, stressing silence as much as noise, and this disc’s soundtrack is free of blemishes or any hiss during the many moments of quiet, while dialogue and off-screen noises are distributed cleanly across the channels.
This disc comes with an interview with Costa conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, during which the director speaks at length on how his filmmaking has evolved over the years, especially in relationship to the neighborhood in Lisbon and locals he’s been filming for decades. Most interesting are his thoughts on digital, swimming against the notion of the technology making filmmaking easier by pointing out how much more difficult it can be to wring cinematic imagery from digital than celluloid. Also included is Chantal + Pedro, a short film by Júlio Alves that juxtaposes and superimposes images from Chantal Akerman’s 2007 installation Women of Antwerp in November and Costa’s 2003 short The End of a Love Affair in a silent dialogue of urban loneliness. Finally, there’s a theatrical trailer and a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum that concerns itself as much with the production’s behind-the-scenes activities and Costa’s shooting methods as it does with the film itself.
Vitalina Varela is the latest stage in a filmography that continues to evolve in moral terms as much as aesthetic ones, and Grasshopper’s Blu-ray faithfully preserves its haunting beauty.
Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura Director: Pedro Costa Screenwriter: Pedro Costa Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2020 Release Date: September 8, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima Joins the Arrow Academy
While the transfer leaves a lot to be desired, it’s thrilling to have Sekigawa’s little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.3
Much like Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog warns of the horrors in forgetting human atrocity, Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima uses its reenactment of the United States’s 1945 bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to call for an end to the development of atomic and nuclear weaponry. The most didactic of such moments occurs near the film’s end, as Yukio Endo (Yoshi Katô) explains to his teacher, Kitagawa (Eiji Okada), that a local factory has begun producing artillery shells. “We’ll all end up like this!” he exclaims, in reference to the radiation exposure that’s causing a variety of cancers in people throughout Japan, among them several students in Endo’s class.
The film is an incongruous patchwork of tones, invoking the neorealist aesthetics of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and the Red Scare paranoia of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but its mix of pathos and cautionary rhetoric is reflective of how the despair of a country’s populace resembled a schizophrenic bedlam. While the film features passages that sentimentalize the catastrophic toll of the A-bomb, Hiroshima also complicates its political outlook with a two-pronged indictment of how both the U.S. and Japan have minimized the value of human life. To that point, the film works best as a time capsule for understanding how, nearly a decade after the atomic bombings, Japan was historicizing its own past to educate audiences in hopes of creating a future free of either atomic or nuclear warfare.
Despite containing multiple stretches of archival footage that predominately show actual devastation caused by the bombings, the film minimizes its initial newsreel realism with a melodramatic plotline across which a handful of teenage students and their teacher, several years after the bombings, either espouse or reject Japan’s military actions in contrived fashion. Sekigawa’s tear-jerking direction—replete with a remarkably sorrowful score by Akira Ifukube—places the actual bombing at the film’s core and chronicles the immediate aftermath over the span of a 30-minute sequence that features young children crying out for their parents and teachers while buried under debris. Hiroshima revels in such imagery to the point that you might question the motivation behind the representation and ask if the film, like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 more than 50 years later, by framing real-life tragedy as spectacle.
But if it’s difficult to see United 93 as anything other than a cheap 9/11 simulator, Hiroshima wrestles itself away from a similar fate by broadening its scope during its final third, during which Endo becomes the film’s protagonist. A schoolboy when the bombings occurred, he’s now a teenager flirting with delinquency, roaming the streets of Hiroshima and antagonizing younger boys. His antisocial behavior stems from his enduring the trauma of his missing sister, as well as his anger over having his innocence stripped away. One afternoon, he dips into a movie theater to see Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and emerges having taken the ironic line “One murder makes a villain, millions a hero” to heart. In making an American film the thing that awakens Endo’s consciousness with regard to personal responsibility, Hiroshima complicates its more rote expressions of unthinkable tragedy by acknowledging how art—and especially the movies—can cross borders and constructively shape hearts and minds.
The high-definition transfer on this Arrow Academy Blu-ray is an unusual beast. At its best, the image is clean, appropriately and pleasantly grainy, and almost entirely free of scratches. At its worst, deep scratches are so apparent that they nearly outnumber that areas of the screen that don’t have them, leaving one to assume that those responsible for the restoration had to work with multiple prints of vastly varying quality. The audio track, while listenable, is no less compromised, as it abounds in pops and distortion. Still, this transfer must be graded a success on a fundamental level for offering a widely unavailable film in hi-def.
A trio of extras offer helpful contextual information on both the making of the film and the physical and psychological toll of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Writer and curator Jasper Sharp narrates an excellent video essay about how the catastrophe impacted “Japan’s nuclear imagination,” by which he means the way it’s been depicted in films, either directly or tangentially. Sharp rattles off titles of monographs and films with the precision of an expert scholar, even spending a bit of time looking at the English-language posters for several films, including a rather tasteless one for Hiroshima that promised: “It blasts you out of your seat!” The 2011 documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download brings the matter of nuclear imagination into the 21st century, and features interviews with survivors of the bombings who now reside in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Finally, a brief archival interview with actress Yumeji Tsukioka dives into her recollections of shooting the film.
While the transfer certainly leaves a lot to be desired, it’s thrilling to have Hideo Sekigawa’s little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.
Cast: Eiji Okada, Yumeji Tsukioka, Yoshi Katô, Masayuki Tsukida, Takashi Kanda, Isuzu Yamada Director: Hideo Sekigawa Screenwriter: Yasutarô Yagi Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 1983 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers on Criterion Blu-ray
It’s a relief to have Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
The 1990 film The Comfort of Strangers is a unique collaboration of diverse (and quite perverse) talent, as it’s an adaptation of an early Ian McEwan novel that’s been written for the screen by Harold Pinter and directed by Paul Schrader. The sensibilities of these artists mesh quite well here: McEwan’s class concerns have been enlivened by Pinter’s shrewd austerity and sense of humor and concision, which has in turn brought out a surprising playfulness and sensuality in Schrader, who imparts to the film his exacting formalism and distinctive tempo. Call it mournful detachment, with a soupcon of lurid sadism. The filmmaker fashions a tortured art object that’s also a wicked parody of the same.
Pinter and Schrader are loyal to many of the particulars of the novel, though they hollow out the connective tissue between scenes, allowing for more space and ambiguity. Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on holiday in Venice for reasons that are kept murky for a long stretch of the film, the mystery generating the sort of subterranean hum of tension that’s familiar to Pinter’s work. They speak in curt shards of dialogue that’s often shrouded in innuendo: At one point Mary asks Colin if he likes children, specifically her children, which she then modifies again to refer to children in general. Later in an outdoor restaurant, Mary tells Colin a story of childhood rejection that registers subliminally as a plea (for Colin not to reject her) and a lament for not-quite-past pain. Colin’s responses betray the aura of a man who isn’t willing to commit to either commitment or explicit dissolution; he projects a self-protective vanity that drives the audience’s sympathy toward Mary.
This tension—are Colin and Mary friends considering romantic possibilities or lovers on a downward trajectory?—is intensified by external factors. Colin and Mary are young, affluent, and gorgeous, and seem to be trapped in the sort of situation that grips either unconfident wallflowers or people old enough to truly understand what a rut is. There is also the beauty of Venice, which Schrader and cinematographer Dante Spinotti render surreal and dangerous, lingering on labyrinths of tunnels, alleys, and bridges that are shrouded in ripe, hot noir colors, allowing the architecture of the city to dwarf a couple prone to getting lost. Venice is also often strangely underpopulated here, especially at night, suggesting the empty New York City that Kubrick would later conjure in Eyes Wide Shut, or the haunted cityscapes of Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The juxtaposition of Colin and Mary’s crisis with the gorgeous, forbidding alien-ness of Venice allows one to intuit that this couple is opening itself up to danger.
That danger manifests itself in Robert (Christopher Walken), who’s seen at the opening of the film inhabiting a palatial gothic flat—another instance of beauty and menace comingling at a seemingly biochemical level—while pontificating about his father’s bigness and power. Robert will discuss his father and grandfather many times throughout The Comfort of Strangers, mostly with Colin, and these reveries are the most ostentatiously “written” of Pinter’s carefully crafted lines. They’re absurd and vainglorious boasts that Robert seems to rehearse to himself daily, and which increasingly indicate nostalgia for fascism. Robert sees his relatives as men’s men who kept the women in their place during a time when gender roles weren’t complicated by notions of equality. (One assumes they were okay with Mussolini.) Pinter doesn’t spell this ideology out—McEwan was more explicit—and this vagueness imbues Robert with a frightening and amusing sense of unfulfilled violence. And a potential fascist, revealed to be mixed-up sexually between what he wants and what should be of interest to men’s men, is the sort of character that Schrader knows inside and out.
One of the chief pleasures of The Comfort of Strangers is how Robert, a potentially traditionally heavy Schrader obsessive, is played for deadpan, occasionally grotesque yet poignant comedy; the artiness of the writing and staging become evocatively intertwined with Robert’s own pretension. The character makes little literal sense, as he’s supposed to be an Italian by way of England who speaks only in a sporadically Italian-inflected version of Walken’s iconic staccato sing-song style of speaking, a displacement that parallels the filmmakers’ stylization of Venice as a garden of suppressed yearnings and reinventions. He’s very consciously a creation, expertly played by Walken, who serves as a manifestation of comfortable, liberal Colin and Mary’s fears of obsolescence in the wake of Thatcher—an association that’s briefly yet pronouncedly alluded to in a charged dinner sequence.
But The Comfort of Strangers more vividly registers as a psycho-comedy on the divide between sexual appetites and political bromides. Robert’s obnoxious, neurotic braggadocio, and the masochistic submission he encourages in his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), jumpstart Colin and Mary’s relationship. Seeing Mary gazing out at a vista from Robert and Caroline’s flat, clad in a gown, her blond locks shimmering in the sun, Colin is overcome with lust for Mary, and they hole up in their own rented place for days, consummating a sexual frenzy.
These scenes are so beautifully composed they almost serve as punchlines themselves; the bodies so perfectly arranged and lit as to suggest a perfume or lingerie ad. Yet these aren’t the cold and abstract sex scenes of Schrader’s American Gigolo. There’s an element of authentic warmth and eroticism here, complicated by the fact that this union was brokered in part by Robert and Caroline’s perverse and retrograde energy, which Colin and Mary can’t entirely allow themselves to fathom. Schrader isn’t preachy here, allowing himself to be turned on by the decadence of his characters and setting as well as his divine aesthetic.
Robert may be a pig, but he understands that subjugation has a primordial grip on the sex drive of a species that feigns enlightenment while remaining enthralled with alpha/beta dynamics. But the gift Robert gives Colin and Mary has a price, for his taboo-bashing is rooted in a sexual torment that has metastasized into insanity. At the end of The Comfort of Strangers, Pinter and Schrader deviate from the novel to offer an ironic conclusion that’s reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a madman is no more inscrutable than when explaining himself, treating his spectators to an endless ticker tape of self-mythology that comes to suggest a mental labyrinth with no exit. We’re no closer to truly knowing Robert than we are to explicitly charting the emotional, political, classist, sexual currents driving Colin and Mary and Robert and Caroline and probably every other couple real and imagined.
The Criterion Collection’s new 4K master of Paul Schrader’s film boasts a wide and beautiful array of colors and textures. The daylight scenes in Venice boast spectacular clarity and nuance, while the interior and nighttime sequences have a deep and rich sense of color and dimension. Shot by Dante Spinotti, The Comfort of Strangers is a luscious film that practically explodes off of the screen in this transfer. (The many paintings, antiques, and religious icons that are glimpsed in the frames are also rendered with crisp clarity.) The English LPCM 1.0 track is also faultless, with Angelo Badalamenti’s score occupying center stage, its operatic beauty accentuating the film’s playfully doomy stylization.
This disc includes new interviews with Schrader, Christopher Walken, editor Bill Pankow, and Spinotti. Schrader succinctly describes the film’s mixture of sensibilities, observing that The Comfort of Strangers has three themes: the ultimate incompatibility between men and women, via Ian McEwan; the obfuscation of language, via Harold Pinter; and the danger of beauty, a concern he brought himself as inspired by his work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader also discusses his aspiration to make every shot strong and essential, which is supported by Pankow, who observes that no shot is duplicated, which gives the conversation scenes in particular a tense, jagged, sculptural quality. Meanwhile, Spinotti offers insight on the fashioning of some of the film’s more insinuating, sometimes seemingly unmotivated camera movements, which appear to be shot from the viewpoint of an unidentified interloper. Walken speaks of the challenge of performing Pinter’s austere dialogue, which is complemented by an archive interview with Natasha Richardson from 2001. Rounding out the package is a 1981 interview with McEwan from The South Bank Show, concerning his source novel and his other recent work at the time, trailers, and a liner essay by critic Maitland McDonagh that discusses the film’s erotic beauty, mystery, and examination of gender roles.
This edition is a little light on the extras, but it’s a relief to have Paul Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
Cast: Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Manfredi Aliquo, David Ford, Daniel Franco, Rossana Caghiari, Fabrizio Castellani, Giancarlo Previati, Antonio Serrano, Mario Cotone Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Harold Pinter Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 18, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits on the Criterion Collection
This set boasts enough supplements for at least two semesters’ worth of martial arts semiotics.
The five films spotlighted in the Criterion Collection’s Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits cumulatively offer a pseudo-autobiographical narrative that parallels the general beats of Lee’s life, from his rising status as a film star to his death at 32 as he was on the cusp of becoming an icon. The films abound in patterns, especially structural bifurcations, that reflect how Lee had to prove himself first to the Hong Kong film industry and later to Hollywood. Adaptation is the theme of his films and the guiding philosophy of his own school of martial arts.
As this set’s supplements make clear, Lee returned to Hong Kong after trying to break through in American cinema. His adventures in America, most prominently in the ‘60s, yielded a sidekick role as Kato in the short-lived TV show The Green Hornet. But Hong Kong viewers saw him as the hero of the series, and this unexpected love from his countrymen led Lee to partner with the studio Golden Harvest, a rival of Shaw Brothers Studio that produced or co-produced all of the films in this set, from 1971’s The Big Boss to 1978’s Game of Death. In The Big Boss, Lee doesn’t assume prominence until the second half of the narrative, as producer Raymond Chow was still deciding if the actor had the gravity to command an entire film. In Game of Death, Lee haunts a production that was posthumously, tastelessly cobbled together from footage he had shot himself before leaving to shoot 1973’s seminal Enter the Dragon. Across the spectrum of this set, Lee grows quickly, far too quickly, from ingénue to pro to specter.
The Big Boss, written and directed by Lo Wei, shrewdly builds anticipation for what Lee can do in his first major outing, setting a pattern that would be followed by his other vehicles. Always pointedly the outsider, Lee’s characters arrive in another country either for the first time or after a long absence, gradually acclimating themselves to a society that’s been perverted by corruption. Remarkably, only one of these films, Game of Death, is partially set in Hong Kong. The Big Boss finds Lee in Thailand; 1972’s Fist of Fury, also written and directed by Lo Wei, is set in early-20th-century Shanghai; 1973’s The Way of the Dragon, written and directed by Lee, takes place in Rome; and Enter the Dragon is set on a fictional island deliberately meant to evoke the hideout of Dr. No. These films continually wrestle with dislocation, cannily reflecting the estrangement of Hong Kong, a city that’s been occupied by multiple foreign parties, and serving to humble Lee’s astonishing charisma and skill. In these films, Lee straddles an empathetically powerful line between underdog and master.
There’s a sense in these films, as in Lee’s life, of a man having to prove himself over and over again, and then suddenly dying upon the achievement of total acceptance. Portions of this idea are intentionally achieved, via formulaic plots, while other elements seep in from the reality of the films’ productions. After arising as a star in the second half of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon finds Lee once again sharing the spotlight with other stars, John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Internationally, Enter the Dragon is easily the most famous film in this set, and it remains a feverish and exciting blend of espionage, sleaze, horror, and martial arts hokum, but it’s a disappointment to see Lee demoted in stardom after The Way of the Dragon, especially if one is binge-watching these films.
The Way of the Dragon, though, cannot compete with Enter the Dragon in conventional formal terms. Lee’s direction of the action scenes in the former is superb, and he has a phenomenal understanding of the graphic power of his own compact, sculpted, seemingly fatless body. These talents are especially evident in a sequence in which Lee and former pupil Chuck Norris battle in a colosseum, though his inexperience as a filmmaker is revealed in the film’s long buildup to the set pieces, and in the strange and not-entirely-successful blend of broad comedy (in the first half) with violence (in the second) as Lee’s character evolves from well-meaning tourist to, well, Bruce Lee. This is another bifurcation, of course, though Lo Wei utilizes these sorts of devices more skillfully in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, Lee’s best film.
The Big Boss and Fist of Fury merge fight sequences, comedy, historical myths, and gothic horror with aplomb; they’re not only kinetic but aesthetically ravishing to behold. Most importantly, they capture Lee’s profound soulfulness—his awareness of his characters’ need to prove themselves as an extension of his own ambition. Lee is often at his most moving while at his most terrifying, especially when his characters finally lose control, summoning their rage in a galvanic burst of violence. It’s a rage that’s kept in check, for most of these films’ narratives, with signature moves—from his animal sounds to the licking of his own blood—that are both contemptuous and self-compensating.
It’s a bizarre irony that Game of Death, mostly directed by Robert Clouse, most potently underscore’s Lee’s gifts via his absence. Cobbled together five years after Lee’s death, it mixes in a few minutes’ worth of footage that Lee shot for a future project before he left to work on Clouse’s Enter the Dragon. To be clear, for the majority of the film’s 101 minutes, Lee is represented by stunt doubles and stock footage, and even, in one particularly ludicrous moment, a cardboard cutout of his face. The film offers the spectacle, then, of a Bruce Lee film without Bruce Lee, and his galling absence speaks to the magnificence of his presence and talent. When we finally see Lee, he’s ascending a stairway to a fight, in a gesture that in this context suggests resurrection. This idea is very intentionally evoked, as the film unforgivably utilizes footage of Lee’s real funeral as part of a “fake death” scenario. The garishness of Game of Death suddenly gives way to the real McCoy, who just as promptly vanishes. This is an extreme version of the bifurcation of this series, as Lee, once marginalized, is now yoked from death, via crassness, as an elusive star who’s truly beyond life. In short, a myth.
Criterion offers 4K digital restorations of most of these films, though the special edition of Enter the Dragon was undertaken in 2K. Though there some blemishes, most notable in the awkward doubling work in Game of Death, these images are often gorgeous, with lush, vibrant color schemes that recall those of Hammer horror films. In the days of VHS and TV showings, these movies often seemed too bright, and so Criterion’s great accomplishment here is to restore their sense of robust, suggestive darkness, which now balances well with the light and assorted other hues. (These films have a vivid, primary-based color scheme.) Skin textures, which could seem overexposed or waxy in the old days, are also resoundingly lifelike here. Depending on the film, a variety of monaural and alternate soundtracks are available, including English dubbings, and they boast remarkably dimensional soundscapes, rendering the action scenes more kinetic and cathartic than ever before; the swift, hyperbolically pronounced kicks and punches suggest the inner furies of the characters writ physical. And the voices, even the dubbings, have also been rendered with exacting care.
This supplements package is head-spinning, offering a bonanza of information that could take a cinephile a month to fully unpack. Firstly, there are three more films included in this set: the 103-minute special edition of Enter the Dragon that’s been in circulation for some time; Game of Death II, an even more desperate and ghoulish enterprise than its predecessor (though it has a few outstanding action scenes); and a newly remixed 34-minute version of the original Game of Death that’s made up strictly of material written and directed by Bruce Lee. This Game of Death Redux is a masterpiece of action and emotion, as Lee’s character ascends three floors of a pagoda, encountering enemies with differing fighting styles and having to adjust his tactics accordingly—a major tenant of Lee’s own martial arts. The short also climaxes with a legendary fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which the men invest with a pathos that’s mostly missing from the still-awesome encounter in the feature-length film. If one could only have one supplement from this set, it would be Game of Death Redux.
Most of these featurettes are still superb. There’s an illuminating new interview with producer Andre Morgan, an American who worked with Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest. He discusses the working relationship between himself, Chow, and Lee, especially as they sought to tap the American market. Dozens of other interviews and extras complement Morgan’s anecdotes, recounting Lee’s attempts to become a star in America in the ‘60s, including the devoted following he cultivated as a martial artist teacher, with students such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn. The politics of the various films are examined at length, especially in the audio commentaries originally recorded at Shout! Factory by Mike Leeder, who speaks of, say, the Chinese-Japanese tensions that drive Fist of Fury as well as of the general cultural sensibilities of Hong Kong. Dozens of archive documentaries offer a course in how Lee’s legend has been presented at different times, including footage of Lee’s elaborate Hong Kong funeral, in which one can see Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and their son, Brandon, who would also grow up to die a bizarre death right as stardom appeared to be approaching. (Even stranger: Brandon’s death, caused by a gun shot from a faulty blank on the set of The Crow, uncomfortably echoes the attempted murder of a Lee stand-in in Game of Death.)
Lee’s philosophies are articulated at length here, most succinctly and directly by “Bruce Lee: His Own Words,” which offers an assemblage of interviews with the legend. “Brucesploitation,” the practice of hiring Lee lookalikes to star in imitation martial arts films in an attempt to capitalize on his death, is given an overview by author Grady Hendrix, and the art of English dubbing is also explored. There are many making-of documentaries, including Blood & Steel, which covers the making of Enter the Dragon. For a quick one-stop shop, the 10-minute interviews with Lee biographer Matthew Polly included on each film serves as a wonderful primer on the social contexts that inspired each respective production. Various promo materials round out this indispensably mammoth collection, and a liner essay by critic Jeff Chang does an especially fine job of outlining how Lee fought to keep his integrity on Enter the Dragon, and how a shifting America, in the wake of Vietnam, embraced martial arts films.
Criterion’s Bruce Lee set is as wonderful as you’ve heard, boasting definitive restorations and enough supplements for at least two semesters’ worth of martial arts semiotics.
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien, Han Ying-chieh, Lau Wing, Nora Miao, Robert Baker, Riki Hashimoto, Jun Katsumura, Chuck Norris, Jon T., Wei Ping-ou, Huang Chung-hsin, Robert Wall, Malisa Longo, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Shih Kien, Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung Director: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse Screenwriter: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Michael Allin, Robert Clouse Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 506 min Rating: R Year: 1971 - 1978 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Beau Travail on the Criterion Collection
Denis’s oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.4.5
Claire Denis’s international breakthrough, Beau Travail, begins with a curious set of images. The first is a pan across a painting of a silhouette of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion done on the side of a rock wall in Djibouti, in the style of a cave painting—a faux-ancient artwork that gives the impression that the French were in Africa since time immemorial. A military song of conquest chanted over the image is then interrupted by the jolting sound of a kiss that kicks off an electronic dance track as the scene cuts to a local nightclub where women in colorful clothes dance elegantly with uniformed soldiers who move stiffly but aggressively as they possessively crowd up against the women. The effect of this juxtaposition of images is immediately alienating, stressing the intrusiveness that marks the relationship between the film’s main characters.
Loosely based on Herman Melville’s posthumously released Billy Budd, Beau Travail retains the core premise of the novella: A violent envy is born in a lifelong military man, in this case an adjutant named Galoup (Denis Lavant), by one of his new recruits, here a private named Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Though Galoup is a career officer who dedicates himself to the legion, the film’s editing makes it instantly clear how alienated he is from the men under his watch. Quick cuts juxtapose the camaraderie between the enlisted soldiers with the stony countenance of their superior, who always hangs back and watches them as they go about their daily duties. By contrast, Sentain is simpatico in every way, instantly charming the other soldiers upon his arrival, as well as the base’s commandant, Forestier (Michel Subor).
In the novella, the sexual tension transmitted between the main characters suggests a riptide, dangerous and under the surface. But Denis turns that frisson into a whirlpool, one that lures Galoup and Sentain to their doom. The film regularly highlights the way that Galoup stares at Sentain with a mixture of envy and longing, the stark difference between Lavant’s pockmarked face and Colin’s cherubic features further highlighting the friction between their characters. Oblique references to rumors that have dogged Forestier since his service in the Algerian War prefigure his budding interest in Sentain. Through stares and associative editing, the film suggests that this is the last straw for Galoup, whose deep existential connection to the legion is borne out as a love both filial and romantic toward his commanding officer.
Perhaps Beau Travail’s greatest show of faithfulness to Melville’s text is in its depiction of the paradoxically freeing nature of rigid military activity. There’s an almost ritualistic quality to the scenes of soldiers training in the deserts and coasts of Djibouti that, for all of the political connotations of legionnaires residing in a former colony, seems to place them outside of time. Adding to this sense of displacement are the cues from Benjamin Britten’s own operatic adaptation of the novella—dissonant choruses laid atop shots of the men running obstacle courses, wrestling, and assuming meditative tai chi poses. It’s in these scenes, through intercut close-ups of backs and arms moving in hypnotic rhythms and muscles rippling almost erotically beneath the actors’ flesh, that Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard staked their position as the supreme cinematic poets of body language.
Beau Travail is rooted in specific political and historical contexts of French colonialism, frequently setting scenes of vibrant, colorful, and modern city life against the austere severity of the remote locations where the legion has set up its spartan bases. That juxtaposition is as much a reflection of the film’s deep and insoluble sense of history as it is a visualization of the war that rages within Galoup. This impressionistic rendering of masculine angst culminates in the film’s legendary ending, a suicidal vision in which the heretofore stoic, silently seething Galoup explodes in a feverish hallucination of dance that marks the only time in the film, and perhaps his entire life, in which the man sees himself honestly.
Beau Travail receives a 4K restoration that renders the film unrecognizable from its long out-of-print New Yorker Video DVD. Bright desert backgrounds that were once washed out and hazy now pop with amazing color separation, while flesh tones are significantly more natural. The film’s full sensuality can now be appreciated in the visible beads of sweat trickling down soldiers’ faces and arms, and the colorful beauty of Djibouti stands out even more, further emphasizing the elegance of both its cities and its harsh rural terrain. The soundtrack is likewise given a major upgrade; dialogue is always clear, while the intrusions of dance music and cues from Benjamin Britten’s opera are sonorous and pounding.
Recorded just after the first protests over George Floyd’s death, a discussion between Claire Denis and director Barry Jenkins foregrounds the film’s political content and the loaded racial subtext of its postcolonial context. From there, the two pivot into a broader overview of the film, including the process of working warily under the supervision of real legionnaires and the fact that Denis, surprisingly, didn’t intend for the film to be so homoerotic.
Interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin abound in anecdotes about their time in Djibouti and surrendering to a shooting process that sounds every bit as intuitive and unspoken as the completed film. Cinematographer Agnès Godard provides a selected-scene commentary in which she breaks down several moments from Beau Travail with details about the challenges of the location shooting, including notes about which films stocks and lenses she used in order to be able to shoot in harsh light while also accurately capturing both white and black flesh tones. Even at her most technical, though, Godard praises the “spiritual” experience of shooting under isolated and harsh conditions.
A video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne focuses on Beau Travail’s use of music—namely the scenes set at the Djibouti nightclub—as a précis of the larger emotional, sociopolitical, and narrative strategies at work in the film. Finally, an essay by critic and educator Girish Shambu offers a holistic analysis of Beau Travail, from background details like Denis’s non-Melville inspirations to the visual articulation of Galoup’s sense of resentful longing.
Unavailable on home video for years, Claire Denis’s stunning, oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marta Tafesse Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli on Criterion Blu-ray
The full four-part, 220-minute cut of the film receives a stunning transfer and a small but illuminating assortment of extras.4
Arrested by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime for some manner of ideological nonconformity, the painter and medical doctor Carlo Levi (Gian Maria Volontè), Christ Stopped at Eboli’s main character, is sent from his native Turin into “internal political exile,” in a village in the southern Italian province of Lucania. The impoverished Lucania, as Levi puts it, is a timeless space, a “dark land without sin or redemption.” Particularly given the nationalist ideal of the nation as home, such an internal exile is oxymoronic. Is there a place within the nation that’s actually outside of it? A town in which it’s impossible to distinguish between those whom the law has punished and those it’s merely neglected?
The opening episode of Francesco Rosi’s four-part film plays like a less enthusiastically surreal version of the classic TV show The Prisoner: A man finds himself trapped in a village for an unspecified crime, surrounded by people who are variably other prisoners, residents, and agents of the fascist enemy. As in the British spy show, there’s even an indistinct boundary Levi cannot cross, a condition of his imprisonment. But it’s a local brigadier, not a giant canvas balloon, that chases him down when he tests it. And the tone of Rosi’s film is more one of somber reflection than political intrigue: Levi strolls rather than runs toward the edge of town, and he’s likely to politely ask the local mayor (Paolo Bonacelli) for permission first.
Christ Stopped at Eboli is based on the memoirs of the real-life Levi, who brought the social decline of Italy’s southern provinces into the national spotlight with his account of his year as a prisoner in Lucania (now Basilicata). In the film, the left-leaning Levi expects to encounter nothing but misery and ignorance in his open-air prison, but he eventually becomes more empathetic to the locals’ conditions. The region resembles an exploited colony, where the only paved roads lead out toward the province’s capital, and taxes are collected from peasants whose only belongings are goats and loose furniture. In the midst of Mussolini’s ultimately disastrous bid for imperialist expansion in Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), supposedly on behalf of farmers who need more space, Levi discovers a community that has more than enough of it but lacks infrastructure and population, having lost many residents to emigration.
Beyond Levi’s gradual shift in perspective—most apparent in the way he initially demurs at the villagers’ request that he serve as their doctor but eventually pressures the mayor at great risk to allow him to practice—Christ Stopped at Eboli doesn’t overly psychologize the man. Levi serves the narrative much more as a cypher, a mobile gaze exploring various scenes from the cramped hillside town. Voiceovers, like the one that gives the film its title (in Levi’s overwrought metaphor, Christ allegedly stopped at the adjacent province of Eboli, never actually making it to Lucania), sometimes put us in Levi’s head, but especially early on he’s something of an unreliable narrator, far more condescending toward the village than is Rosi’s camera. The director’s languorous form of neorealism lingers on highly composed vistas and interiors that precisely split the difference between beauty and decay.
The cloud of fascism and war hangs over the community, depicted through radio broadcasts of government speeches that seem to fill the air of the town, but as Levi discovers, the non-prisoner residents of Lucania were abandoned by the very project of Italian nation-building in the 19th century, not by the nationalist modernism of the fascists. Not too heady a dive into national-historical politics, though, Christ Stopped at Eboli speaks the phenomenological language of the European art film of the 1960s and ‘70s, its long takes of elliptical interactions in real social spaces bringing to mind Michelangelo Antonioni or Luchino Visconti’s portraits of the nature of time. (Visconti and Rosi were frequent collaborators.)
Another influence may be Luis Buñuel, whose 1932 pseudo-documentary Land Without Bread used actual footage of Spain’s poorest region to savage the Spanish bourgeoisie’s own internal colonial gaze. Among the most memorable moments from Christ Stopped at Eboli are its sudden shifts from its post-neorealistic mode to a distinctly surrealist interest in the villagers’ proximity to death. Every so often the film’s apparent commitment to a material reality is undercut by nightmarish images like the abrupt cut to a close-up of a dead goat’s face hanging over the edge of a table, undulating as an unseen butcher cleans it, or the discovery that Levi has opted to nap in the shade provided by an open grave.
Such moments don’t feel incongruous with the whole of Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is comprised of a confluence of different gazes and voices that seek to understand or articulate the truth of the village at the center of the film. With the exception of an unnecessary framing device in which an aged Levi contemplates his paintings—set in the contemporary moment of Christ Stopped at Eboli, it’s all mood lighting and melodramatic zooms—Rosi manages to meld these various voices into a humanistic exploration of Italy’s “southern problem” and a thorough indictment of nationalist and imperialist agendas.
So much of Christ Stopped at Eboli’s visual splendor stems from the earthbound beauty of its rural setting, all of which is wonderfully preserved in Criterion’s 2K restoration. The image is sharp and the color balancing especially highlights the setting’s stunningly verdant hills, with the dynamic range that differentiates between the earthy tones and black levels giving the fascist Blackshirts outfits an even starker contrast to their surroundings. The textures of the town’s rustic buildings are also impressively rendered across the frame. Some perceptible damage in the film’s bookended scenes is the only issue with the transfer. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is well-balanced, with the ambient sounds of nature delicately mixed with the hustle and bustle of town life, never compromising the clarity of the dialogue.
In his 25-minute introduction to Christ Stopped at Eboli, translator and author Michael F. Moore covers quite a bit of ground, including the film and book’s initial reception and novelist Carlo Levi’s work as a painter. Most intriguing is his discussion about the challenges of writing the subtitles for the recent restoration of Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is rife with regional dialects that led him to keep translations to a minimum and rely more on cadence and inflection for meaning. An excerpt from Marco Spagnoli’s short 2014 documentary Unico includes the last filmed interview that Francesco Rosi ever gave, and the director recalls his intense discussions with Levi and the diligent preparation of actor Gian Maria Volonté.
A segment from a 1978 TV program features footage of Rosi on the set of Christ Stopped at Eboli discussing his thoughts on Italy’s “southern problem,” as well as interviews with Volonté and director Elio Petri, who address the troubled state of the Italian film industry at the time. Also included here is an excerpt from a 1974 documentary featuring an interview with Rosi and Levi in which the two discuss the influence of the latter’s famed novel on post-war Italian literature and how it was informed by Levi’s own exile. The package is rounded out with a comprehensive essay by film scholar Alexander Stille that further touches on Levi’s period of exile and offers a fruitful analysis of both the film’s political themes and aesthetic strategies.
The full four-part, 220-minute cut of Christ Stopped at Eboli makes its home-video debut via Criterion with a stunning transfer and a small but illuminating assortment of extras.
Cast: Gian Maria Volontè, Paolo Bonacelli, Alain Cuny, Lea Massari, Irene Papas, François Simon, Luigi Infantino, Accursio Di, Francesco Callari, Vincenzo Vitale, Antonio Allocca Director: Francesco Rosi Screenwriter: Francesco Rosi, Tonino Guerra, Raffaele La Capria Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 220 min Rating: NR Year: 1979 Release Date: September 22, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Anderson’s strident, often uproarious, satire takes on a lot more than just the National Health.4
Across three decades, director Lindsay Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin kept returning to the figure of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) as a sort of working-class Everyman, featuring him in a loose-linked trilogy of satirical films. If…., from 1969, takes on the repression and brutality of the British public school system with the revolutionary élan of the counterculture, while 1973’s O Lucky Man! finds Mick, now a coffee salesman, suffering the consequences of colonialism and capitalism at a coffee plantation. Britannia Hospital, from 1982, not only lampoons the excesses of the National Health, but also uses its titular institution as a microcosmic cross section of society in the early years of Thatcherism. Whereas the earlier films kept Mick front and center as the fulcrum of events, here he’s more of a peripheral figure, a would-be guerrilla documentarian whose quest for an exposé weaves in and out of the film’s multiple, often overlapping, subplots.
Unfolding over the course of a single day, Anderson’s film finds Britannia Hospital preparing for a visit from the Queen (usually referred to simply as “HRH”) to celebrate the grand opening of an ultramodern new wing under the supervision of Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden). At the same time, two different groups of picketers besiege the building, objecting to unfair health care practices and the presence of a black African dictator and his entourage. The general tenor of these early scenes suggests points of comparison with several black comedies from the 1970s, like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Arthur Hiller’s thematically similar The Hospital, which also features demonstrators and an unfeeling administration.
Britannia Hospital is antic, chaotic, and often strident in tone. The comedy keeps slipping without any notion of restraint from slapstick to broad satire to the blackest of black comedy. It’s true that everybody, even the workers and the protesters, get it in the neck at some point. But the film takes its greatest pains to hammer away at indifference and injustice. One of the choicest ironies it keeps harping on has to do with an individual’s decision to put self-interest and advancement ahead of solidarity to whatever group they claim to represent.
Just as the film’s style of comedy remains fruitfully unstable, it also keeps shuffling between genres as well, incorporating elements of science fiction and, perhaps most surprising, some pretty grotesque body horror. These aspects both center on Millar, Britannia Hospital’s resident Doctor Frankenstein. His stitched-together man goes to pieces in a geyser of blood and viscera in a moment that both looks back to Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and prefigures Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. And it’s probably no coincidence that his operating theater closely resembles the design of the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. That the film goes as far as it does with this scene is startling enough, but the fact that it also involves the presumed leading man is doubly provocative, even confrontational, which seems perfectly in keeping with Anderson and Sherwin’s undertaking here.
Millar’s backup project, known as Genesis, concerns the uploading of the human brain into an electronic receptacle. His showstopping presentation opens, reasonably enough, by excoriating the wastage of war and the over-privileged, before going on to dwell more macabrely on the limitations of the “feeble” human body. Millar’s technocratic fetishism thus aligns with the anti-humanism of any run-of-the-mill dictatorship that prizes “law and order” above all else. Not coincidentally, when this Genesis entity is finally revealed, it resembles nothing so much as a whirring, flashing, bleeping approximation of a mushroom cloud, perhaps in another gesture toward Dr. Strangelove. Instead of Vera Lynn hauntingly promising “We’ll Meet Again,” we get Genesis bungling the “What a piece of work is a man!” speech from Hamlet, freezing up on the phrase “how like a God.”
Frankenstein and Strangelove, together again for the first time—that’s Millar. Only his rampant charisma is forceful enough to unite the disparate elements struggling for control of Britannia Hospital. At his command, they sit quietly and attend to his demented parable concerning humanity’s future. Like any successful work of art, Britannia Hospital asks more questions than it can ever possibly answer. And nowhere is there a larger question mark than that hovering over the final sequence. We don’t know what Millar’s audience makes of his demonstration, but we really ought to give some serious thought about our own responses. Because much of Britannia Hospital—like the sight of riot squads kicking the shit out of unarmed protestors—resonates just a strongly today as it did back in 1982.
Kino’s 1080p HD presentation of Britannia Hospital is outstanding. Vividly hued colors (especially those sanguineous reds, antiseptic whites, and sickly greens) really catch the eye. Fine details of costume and décor possess significant depth and clarity. Grain levels appear well-maintained throughout. The Master Audio two-channel mono track discernibly captures the fast-paced dialogue, and ably puts across Alan Price’s score.
Writer and critic Samm Deighan delivers a thoroughly researched and compellingly delivered commentary track. She discusses the film’s thematic connections to earlier entries in the Mick Travis Trilogy, its numerous targets of satire, and its less than stellar reception among mainstream British critics. Deighan delves deep into Anderson’s career arc from film critic to filmmaker, touching on his early writings for Sequence and Sight & Sound, his association with the Free Cinema documentary movement, and his involvement in the burgeoning British New Wave alongside filmmakers like Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Along the way, Deighan frequently draws from a variety of sources (contemporary criticism, Anderson’s diaries) to further flesh out her points. In an archival interview from 2001, Malcolm McDowell discusses auditioning for If…., learning about cinema by watching films with Anderson, and describes coming up with his character’s backstory between O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.
Making its Blu-ray debut, Lindsay Anderson’s strident, often uproarious, satire takes on a lot more than just the National Health.
Cast: Leonard Rossiter, Brian Pettifer, John Moffatt, Fulton Mackay, Vivian Pickles, Barbara Hicks, Graham Crowden, Jill Bennett, Peter Jeffrey, Marsha Hunt, Mary MacLeod, Joan Plowright, Robin Askwith, Dave Atkins, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Hamill, Frank Grimes, Richard Griffiths, Arthur Lowe, Alan Bates, Dandy Nichols, Betty Marsden, Liz Smith, T. P. McKenna, Valentine Dyall, Brian Glover Director: Lindsay Anderson Screenwriter: David Sherwin Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1982 Release Date: September 1, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: The Complete Films of Agnès Varda on the Criterion Collection
The quality and scope of this set makes it one of the most impressive home-video releases of all time.5
Criterion’s 15-disc set The Complete Films of Agnès Varda is a boon to cinephiles, and it will likely go down as the home-video release of the year. Dividing Agnès Varda’s entire filmography across 15 themed “programs,” the set begins with “Agnès Forever” (featuring her end-of-life retrospective Varda by Agnès, which premiered at the 2019 Berlinale just a month before her death at 91), before then commemorating her films made “Around Paris” (between 1958 and 1986), her two periods making films “In America” (featuring shorts and features made between 1968 and 1981), and the many faces, places, and visual ideas that fascinated the French filmmaking giant throughout her career.
In addition to providing an illustrative framework for her cinema, this comprehensive collection provides a treasure trove of new, high-quality restorations and transfers of films that were previously difficult to see, especially in the United States. Some highlights include the visually stunning shorts Ô saisons, ô château and Du côté de la côte, both commissioned for French TV in the late 1950s; two deeply humane documents of life in Paris and Los Angeles, Daguerréotypes and Mur Murs, respectively; Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy, loving odes to her departed filmmaker husband; and a bevy of other shorts and features.
Varda was one of the only female filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, which for generations of critics and artists was the cinema. Rebellious and intellectually engaged, formally playful but serious-minded, this movement that gestated among the young cinephiles of postwar France augured not only the revitalization of film as an art form, but arguably the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. For a long time, the early features of erstwhile Cahiers du Cinéma critics François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, made around 1958, were considered to represent the birth of the French New Wave. Even at the time, though, Godard, Truffaut, and their peers recognized an earlier film as the spiritual predecessor to their work: 1955’s La Pointe Courte, which Varda had written, directed, and produced independently and without any filmmaking experience—a feat almost inconceivable in the French film industry at the time, particularly for a woman.
Varda was only four years older than Truffaut, the youngest of the French New Wave’s Young Turks, but that didn’t stop them from dubbing her the “grandmother of the New Wave”—an appellation meant as a token of respect, but which also implied that her best work was behind her, that her purpose had been to foster the work of her male contemporaries. In truth, Varda was still at the start of a fruitful career, sharing the spotlight at the head of the French New Wave’s more political- and literary-minded offshoot, the Left Bank. Her first masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7, a real-time look at a pop singer facing the possibility of her mortality, was released in 1961 and was followed by almost 60 years of steadfastly independent, thought-provoking art.
Varda used cinécriture (cinema plus écriture, or writing) to describe her work—recalling critic Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 coinage of the term “camera-stylo” (or camera-pen)—and made cinema that was often personal and poetic, a form of reverie that fused the real world recorded by the camera with her musings and daydreams. La Pointe Courte stands as one of the keys to understanding her oeuvre as a whole. Its juxtaposition of a highly mannered romantic drama with neorealist vignettes of fishermen and their families—which earned high acclaim from reality-junkie André Bazin—already exhibits her abiding interest in the tension between the world as it is given to us and as we order it through our thoughts, memories, and fictions.
Another likely point of entry to Varda’s cinema is the essay film that defined her late period, The Gleaners and I, from 2000. This diaristic documentary sees the newly septuagenarian filmmaker experimenting with the portability of late-‘90s digital cameras. We join her as she travels through the French countryside and cities to discover the vestiges of gleaning, the practice of gathering the leftovers of a year’s harvest from the field. Varda saw in gleaning a metaphor for her approach to film form as collage (or décollage, as a well-known, digitally artifacted close-up of her face evokes), engrossing viewers in an exploration of the relationship between art and life, nature and what we make of it—emblematized by the symbol of one of her hands filming the other, as well as the heart-shaped mutant potatoes left lying in the field for gleaners to collect.
In the end, what unites the films in Varda’s canon is her boundless curiosity: As she modestly asserts in 2002’s The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, she enjoys filming people, and “I also enjoy filming potatoes, life going by, and cats.” It’s an attitude easily mistaken for naïveté, but the way that Varda is able to join a celebration of the world with a distinctly left-humanist, feminist political perspective is almost miraculous—most saliently on display in films like The Gleaners and I, the 1968 short Black Panthers, 1977’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, and 2017’s Faces Places (co-directed with photographer and street artist JR) but present throughout her work.
This facility for combining the appreciation for beauty with social and ethical concern may be the hallmark of Varda’s cinécriture. Her films teach us how to experience wonder at the world while at the same time recognize its shortcomings, to balance our awareness of injustice with delight in the majesty of potatoes, murals, beaches, houses, mazes, clocks, trinkets, children, love, humans, time, and cats. Few filmmakers have realized with more care, generosity, or freedom the varied potentials of the cinema.
The 39 shorts and features included here all boast impeccable image tracks that maintain the qualities and textures of the formats that Agnès Varda worked with, from the super-saturated colors of Le Bonheur, to the more muted tones of ‘70s and ‘80s work like Daguerréotypes and Documenteur. The pre-digital films exhibit pleasant grain levels, adding texture and warmth to the images. All the films have been restored in 2K and 4K from archival sources, but in 1080p there’s little appreciable difference in quality between, say, the 4K-sourced Black Panthers and the 2K-sourced Le Bonheur. Most of the films also feature remarkably clear soundtracks, with even the older, monaural ones free of noticeable popping, fuzziness, or other defects. This is particularly notable in the case 1966’s The Creatures, which had never before been digitized for home-video release and has a distinctive modernist score by Pierre Barbaud, composed using cards fed into a primitive computer.
Unlike prior monster Criterion auteur collections like AK 100: 25 Films by Kurosawa, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda is brimming over with special features. For prior home-video releases of much of her work, Varda filmed introductions and addendums at her home and editing studio on Paris’s Rue Daguerre between 2002 and 2012, all of which are included here. Archival interviews with Varda while she was working on films like Le Bonheur and The Creatures are complemented by retrospectives with actors who appeared in the films, often arranged by Varda herself. The most notable newer features produced or sourced by Criterion include a talk at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival that includes Varda’s children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, and Martin Scorsese, in which the latter reveals his decades-long, surprisingly close friendship with the matriarch of the French New Wave; an extended interview with Jane Birkin, the actress and model whose fast friendship with Varda inspired the films Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung Fu Master!; and a video essay about Michel Legrand’s score for Cléo from 5 to 7 by Every Frame a Painting creator Tony Zhou.
Perhaps the most breathtaking extra included in this mammoth set is the accompanying “booklet” that, at 198 pages, constitutes a full-size anthology on Varda’s work, with five essays on her work, extensive notes accompanying each program, and a selection of photographs from throughout Varda’s lifelong parallel career as a photographer and visual artist. Especially noteworthy are Amy Taubin’s introduction, an admiring tribute to the multifaceted Varda, and film scholar Ginette Vincendeau’s “A Woman’s Truth,” which contextualizes Varda’s feminism within the historical currents she lived in. Michael Koresky’s program notes are acutely observed and, taken as a whole, more than suffice in lieu of audio commentaries for each film.
The incredible quality and scope of this set makes it one of the most impressive home-video releases of all time. It’s a loving tribute to a film giant, and as good a biography of her as we’ll ever get.
Cast: Agnès Varda, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Gérard Depardieu, Shirley Clarke, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Aragon, Philippe Noiret, Sylvia Monfort, Corinne Marchand, Jean-Claude Drouot, Viva, James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard, Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Sandrine Bonnaire, Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Alain Delon, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, JR Director: Agnès Varda, JR Screenwriter: Agnès Varda, JR Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 2474 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 - 2019 Release Date: August 11, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jesús Franco’s Cecilia Joins the Blue Underground
Blue Underground presents Franco’s dreamy slice of lifestyle porn in a new 2K restoration.4
The original title of Jesús Franco’s Cecilia was the much more prescriptive Sexual Abberations of a Housewife, which naturally resulted in Blue Underground slapping a tagline on the back of their 2007 DVD recasting the entire film as recounting the travails of a “desperate housewife” (at least one season too late, at that). Crass, but Cecilia isn’t that far removed from the world of the nighttime soap. To be more specific, the film’s cloddish flashbacks, hastily photographed second-unit footage in glamorous European urban hubs, and obsessive attentiveness to the way satin gowns cling to women’s thighs all feel a tad like a cheap, horny knock-off of Dynasty.
Cecilia’s (Muriel Montossé) journey begins with a lightly De Sadean flourish: The hired help picks her up in a limo, makes as though he’s going to drive her home, and lets her taunt him with her nakedness before swerving and picking up his cousins. The three of them ravage her in a grunting, vengeful act of what could be called class-minded revolt. It would be, that is, if she didn’t realize her wilted womanly bloom suddenly yearned for her husband’s (Antonio Mayans) love injection all the more. The two come to a swift decision to live as libertines so that their stalling marriage might flourish. Apparently, the dismissal of monogamy makes them only want it more, sort of like if you have Kraft macaroni and cheese on Tuesday and the thought of having it again on Wednesday sends your body into convulsions.
While this premise has broadened both horizons and fleshly orifices in any number of other films, Franco’s flaccid direction just about kills the mood at every turn. Any residual thrust that the sexual misadventures of a married couple might have had on a mere situational level gets cold-showered by Daniel White’s demonstratively delicate keyboard diddles. Picture yours or someone else’s grandfather showing off at a Hammond on display at a Schmitt Music store, obsequiously pulling every stop, and leaning on and off the volume pedal for dramatic effect. I wasn’t even 20 minutes into the film and I wanted to pay White a quarter just to make him stop playing. Reversing the carnality of the opening scene, Cecilia sets out to prove that sex is reserved for the rich, those who can wander naked among the overripe green leaves of their immense estates. Fine, but it also means that the rich have the market cornered on bad sex.
Blue Underground presents Cecilia in a new 2K restoration, and it’s a significant improvement over the already fine-looking DVD. Colors, like those ubiquitous vegetal greens and other primary hues, really pop in 1080p. Flesh tones are warm and lifelike, and grain levels are well maintained, even in diffused shots and lowlight sequences. Cecilia comes with both English and French Master Audio mono mixes, though neither represents a truly optimal option. The English track is sometimes hilariously maladroit, while the subtitles on the French track match the English dub rather than representing whatever those folks might be saying in French.
Blue Underground includes a new HD transfer of the original Spanish-language cut of the film (with English subtitles) under the Sexual Aberrations of a Housewife title, which loses about 15 minutes of padding. Gone are the “cloddish flashbacks” to which our original reviewer justifiably objected to. Some of the stranger musical cues (like the droning church organ that accompanies the initial three-way rape scene) are also missing, making for a comparatively more satisfying viewing experience. An interview with Jesús Franco, carried over from the 2007 DVD, begins with the Spanish filmmaker flatly stating, “Cecilia does not exist,” before venting his disdain for any of the film’s various titles, noting that in the Spanish version that character is called Emmanuelle. Franco then goes into the experience of filming nude scenes on the beach in Portugal, watching Sergio Leone drop acid, and his general disinterest in attending drug-fueled parties like the one he supposedly satirizes in the film.
In a brand new interview, Franco expert Stephen Thrower delves into the filming locations, points out significant differences between the Spanish and French versions of Cecilia, and wonders about the amoral implications of the film’s questionable assertion that sexual assault might lead down the path to libidinal liberation. Finally, there’s the new feature-length documentary, Franco-Philes: Musings on Madrid’s B-Movie Maverick, that assembles a slew of critics and collaborators to discuss Franco’s immense body of work, his ability to crank out multiple films at the same time, and the ease with which he adapted to any number of commercially viable subgenres, from women in prison to Nazi zombies.
Jesús Franco’s dreamy slice of lifestyle porn gets a sparkling new Blu-ray transfer and a handful of choice extras, some old and some new, from Blue Underground.
Cast: Muriel Montossé, Antonio Mayans, Antônio do Cabo, Olivier Mathot, Pierre Taylou, France Lomay, Lina Romay Director: Jesús Franco Screenwriter: Jesús Franco Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1983 Release Date: August 25, 2020 Buy: Video
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