Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul is slap-happy drunk on the potency of its skewed but internally consistent logic. A delirious rejoinder to the post-sexual revolution counter-culture wars, the film crosses the let’s-get-down-to-social-brass-tacks satire of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which was respectfully vindictive of Los Angeles’s middle-class hedonism, with the straight-faced über-misanthropy of Kind Hearts and Coronets. The deadpan result, a story about a goofily chaste couple who murder and rob unsuspecting swingers in order to build up a nest egg, views all of Southern California’s stock stereotypes as exploitative misfits who deserve whatever hell they get. The off-color nature of the premise, wherein human flesh is turned nightly into dog food for wads of cash, and the broadly drawn racial depictions have the potential to clunk offensively. The film’s exuberantly egalitarian hate, however, represents a strange kind of open-mindedness. Ultimately, each character is defined not by their milieu, but by their ruthlessness, while we in the audience root for the Darwinian cynicism to keep escalating past every scabrous threshold imaginable.
By virtue of their cartoon opportunism, the characters are united in principle yet interpersonally estranged from one another. The movie’s blackout vignettes form a kind of battle royale for social advantage where everything, including the putatively “free” sex, is a power struggle. In one scene, a convenience store owner pauses from berating an employee to confront a gun-toting thief with an even larger firearm; the Hispanic locksmith-thug Raoul (Robert Beltran) steals cars and seduces white women with marijuana, while his only Achilles’ heel is a skittishness toward STDs; a male bank clerk (Buck Henry) who figures prominently in the third act will approve your loan only after he makes a deposit of his own in your corporeal account.
Even the homicidal married couple at the center, Paul and Mary Bland (Bartel and Warhol veteran Mary Woronov), is morally stunted. They express disgust toward the rampant horniness in their environment, caring only for fine wines (the former sleeps with a pillow in the shape of a Beaujolais bottle) and their plans to open a restaurant in sunny Valencia, California. And yet after they lure johns to their apartment with promises of fetishes fulfilled and pummel the poor suckers to death, they experience a glowing exhaustion that could be described as post-coital. Eroticism in Bartel’s topsy-turvy L.A. is less about bodily attraction than about aligning one’s environment with one’s ideals, and the satisfaction of having exerted such control.
Allegorically speaking, the Blands prefigure the emergence of AIDS, which was only being perfunctorily tracked in 1981; like the disease, they unscrupulously infiltrate their city’s sexually permissive underground and exploit its denizens’ base instincts and lack of foresight. It’s hard to take this viral prognostication too seriously given the sheer illustriousness of the killings, but this prescience provides a genuine fear of the human corpus to the film’s comedy, one that’s anything but flippant. A sequence toward the end, wherein Paul hurls an electric lamp at a hot tub stuffed with naked adults ready to mindlessly orgy, is a giddy set piece of anti-prurient brilliance. As much as Paul Mazursky’s earlier sex-minded film adored the shapely faces and unclothed chests of its cast to show us how seductive the concept of free love could be, Bartel’s camera is simply repulsed by flesh. The body, again and again, becomes just another heap of shit to stuff into a black garbage bag, while the garments used to obscure the skin are ostentatious and striking. (Costumes range from Hawaiian shirts to bright orange pajamas to fetishistic Nazi uniforms.)
The splendiferous wardrobes and mod set pieces (Paul and Mary’s apartment is decked out like a Westwood vintage store), in fact, make Eating Raoul a “black” comedy in theory only. The term “gallows humor” is slightly more accurate, if only because a hippie played by Ed Begley Jr. is asphyxiated with his own neck beads, but what both of those epithets miss is the true target of Bartel’s mordant wit. Though the film is full of death, it doesn’t revel in it; even the advertised cannibalism is a mere coda. The movie’s true joke is on the petty struggles for power and pleasure in which “mature” adults engage constantly, and despite all the murder in his story, Bartel doesn’t, finally, exaggerate our potential for carnage all that much.
“Watching [Eating Raoul],” Pauline Kael wrote in 1982, “I felt as if I were experiencing sensory deprivation.” She might have changed her mind if she’d lived to see this 1080p transfer, which sports bursts of light so gaudy and attention-hogging that one feels the need to avert his eyes on occasion. Criterion’s telecine team keeps designer Robert Schulenberg’s DayGlo pineapple-and-peach aesthetic at a vigorous boil throughout to compensate for the otherwise phlegmatic tone; the top-notch restoration process has rendered a landscape of aggressive color, with each hue emitting an aura of pride while resisting the urge to bleed across the screen. The result is a disc that smarts of clarity, a kind of celebratory suicide-by-art-direction. The sound, meanwhile, despite being a mono mix, is crisp and intelligible. This stellar treatment makes one wish that Criterion would take a pass at early Almodóvar.
Criterion’s supplements provide “Everything you always wanted to know about Eating Raoul but were too disgusted to ask.” Most deserving of rapturous appreciation is the inclusion of two Paul Bartel shorts from the early ’60s, the prescient “Secret Cinema” and the hilarious bauble “Naughty Nurse.” The films’ 16mm sources have been cleansed to the point that they need not be watched begrudgingly for “historical” significance; despite the cheap-o, R. Crumb-like dialogue and a few anachronistic references, their antisocial sense of humor remains ripe. There are also two featurettes about the making of the film, one made in 2012 and the other an archival piece; a loving portrait of the late Bartel emerges throughout the interviews, one suggesting that he wasn’t so different from his character in the film. (Your mileage may vary on other insights, which include Robert Beltran’s rude awakening to Hollywood’s racism in his post-Eating Raoul career.) The disc rounds out with a mostly silly gag reel and an intermittently fascinating audio commentary with the film’s producer, editor, and designer. Once again, this content is best when it focuses on Bartel’s offbeat directorial style and droll personality. His colleagues, for example, describe how he balked at the idea of doing “research” on swinger lifestyles in order to make his film more accurate. (Everyone takes a pass at imitating his throaty speech too.) The Blu-ray package comes with a cornily designed “menu” booklet featuring an in-depth look at the film’s makers and milieu by David Ehrenstein.
Criterion’s pass at “Canonizing Raoul” makes me want to start lobbying for the inclusion of Bartel’s farce in 2022’s Sight & Sound poll.
Cast: Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, Susan Saiger, Ed Begley Jr., Buck Henry Director: Paul Bartel Screenwriter: Paul Bartel, Richard Blackburn Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 1982 Release Date: September 25, 2012 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: James Whale’s Show Boat on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.5
Though its plot is ultimately concerned with the decades-spanning tragicomic travails of a white show-business family, James Whale’s film adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical Show Boat is bookended by the voices of black men. Its first line is spoken—or rather shouted—by an unnamed black townsperson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) excitedly greeting the arrival of the variety-show steamship Cotton Blossom as it docks in Natchez, Mississippi. And in the very last shot of the 1936 film we hear the stirring bass baritone of Paul Robeson as he sings a brief reprise of Show Boat’s signature tune, “Ol’ Man River,” over a picturesque shot of the Mississippi’s waters with the sunlight dancing in its currents. In between, we see a surprisingly nuanced, if at times woefully dated, attempt to depict the complexities of what W.E.B. Du Bois famously identified as the problem of the 20th century: the color line.
The second (and best) of three film versions of Kern and Hammerstein’s landmark stage musical—itself adapted from the sprawling 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber—Show Boat paints racial segregation not as an impassable wall of separation, but as a constant negotiation between the dominant white society and communities of color. This is perhaps most evident in the figure of the Cotton Blossom’s star attraction, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), who’s forced out of the show when it’s revealed that, though she’s been passing for white, she’s in fact biracial and thus her marriage to the show’s white male lead, Steve Baker (Donald Cook), runs afoul of Mississippi’s strict miscegenation laws. Though the couple is able to avoid charges when Steve lies to the local sheriff, Vallon (Charles B. Middleton), assuring him that he, too, has a drop of black blood in his ancestry, the two must quickly flee lest the racist locals catch wind that black and white actors are sharing the stage.
This plotline illustrates the consequences of overstepping the color line: By attempting to do so, Julie precipitates her downward spiral into divorce, poverty, and addiction. Her departure from the show makes room for the fresh-faced—and undeniably white—daughter of the riverboat’s proprietors, jolly Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and shrewish Parthenia (Helen Westley), to take her place. Magnolia (Irene Dunne) will share the riverboat stage with her paramour, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a charming gambler masquerading as an aristocrat. But she gets her first real break years later, when she auditions for a powerful Chicago producer with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a traditional African-American tune she’d been taught as a teenager by Julie, who also gives up her own role in the production to make room for Magnolia. The show will help vault her into international superstardom.
Julie’s relinquishment of her career to benefit Magnolia’s is played as a noble act of sacrifice, but it’s troubling in its implications: An impoverished and undeniably talented actress of color—we’ve just seen her deliver a show-stopping performance of the bluesy torch song “Bill”—gives up on herself so that a young white up-and-comer can have a chance at a lucrative career singing black songs. The scene is even more queasy when one considers that Julie is played by a white actress, and while Morgan, a member of the original Broadway cast, delivers a beautifully melancholic, world-weary performance that’s informed by her own struggles with addiction, her casting is indicative of the ways that Broadway and Hollywood have historically appropriated black music while depriving black people of the chance to perform it.
Another earlier sequence, added specifically for the film, drives this point home: Magnolia, dolled up in blackface and strumming a banjo, sings “Gallivantin’ Around,” a minstrel number written in a demeaning caricature of a black dialect. The sequence, like all of the showboat stage performances we see in the film, is intentionally crude, filled with hokey handmade effects, such as a stuffed duck sliding on a wire to simulate flight. The joke in this sequence is at least partially on the cornpone audiences who flock to the Cotton Blossom’s shows, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a contemporary viewer to swallow. This absurd, mortifying spectacle of a white woman pretending to be black for the amusement of a mostly white audience shows what an acceptable crossing of the color line looks like in this period. While it may be essentially illegal for Julie to present herself as white, when Magnolia garishly playacts as black, that’s entertainment! This vulgar blackface routine leaves a particularly bitter taste in one’s mouth when juxtaposed against the genuinely resonant numbers performed by the film’s black actors, including the most famous and still stirring song in the film: Joe’s (Robeson) plangent performance of “Ol’ Man River.”
Joe doesn’t sing his tune for anyone other than himself. Lazing on a haybale and whittling a stick, the song is an expression of his sorrow at the lot of black people living along the river who are forced to work “while de white folks play.” Like most of the film’s musical sequences, the moment is simply staged, with neither the extravagance of a Busby Berkeley number nor the virtuosity of an Astaire/Rogers routine. Rather, Whale employs the pure language of cinema to highlight the drama of the song, starting with the camera spinning nearly 360 degrees around Joe before moving in for a close-up on his face. To illustrate the lyrics, Whale intercuts expressionistic shots of toil and suffering that evoke the gloomy mood of the legendary horror films he made for Universal, such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. By the end of the sequence, Joe has been joined by a chorus of black townsfolk, expanding this solitary sigh of lament into a powerful elegiac anthem for the entire black South.
As a filmmaker, Whale was unusually fond of the moving camera, often finding ways to integrate cinematographic motion into scenes that other directors of the era might have covered in simple static long shots. In one of the most eloquent moments in Show Boat, Whale uses his trademark fluid camera to distill the entire racial dialectic undergirding the film into a quick series of shots. Early in the film, as the Cotton Blossom troupe parades through town upon their arrival in Natchez, we see a dolly shot surveying a group of white townspeople followed by a nearly identical shot of a crowd of black locals. These parallel shots highlight the rigid segregation of the town while also hinting that these two seemingly distinct groups may not be so different after all. Whale achieves a synthesis in the next shot, in which we see Julie and Steve in a medium shot riding through town. With extraordinary elegance, Whale suggests that some people don’t fall so easily into either side of this supposedly binary racial divide.
As in every iteration of Show Boat, the film suffers from a muddled second act, when the plot moves away from the boat itself and gets bogged down in the frankly dull romantic tribulations of Magnolia and Ravenal. But unlike the lavish 1951 MGM adaptation of the musical directed by George Sidney, which pushes aside its black characters as much as possible to focus on the insipid white romance between the two, Whale does everything he can to streamline this plotline while enhancing the roles of Joe and his wife, Queenie (Hattie McDaniel). The two share a comic number, “Ah Still Suits Me,” written just for the film that plays on the comedic dynamic between the ostensibly shiftless Joe and the nagging Queenie, but throughout the number, Whale frames the actors in portrait-like close-ups that hint at depths to the characters, as if picking of the lyrics’ slack. The result is a far more memorable sequence than any of Magnolia and Ravenal’s blandly sentimental duets.
If the plot concludes with one such tune—the duo reconciling and reprising their signature song “You Are Love” after decades apart—Whale refuses to give these white characters the last word. Their faces fade out as a shot of the Mississippi River fades in with “Ol’ Man River” bellowing one last time on the soundtrack. Magnolia may find a success that would never be granted to a black man like Joe, but it’s his voice that sticks with us long after the credits roll.
Previously released by Criterion on laserdisc back in 1989, Show Boat receives a belated but more than welcome update to Blu-ray with a brand-new 4K restoration made from the film’s original 35mm camera negatives. The film looks sharper and more stunning than it has since its premiere over eight decades ago. Crowd scenes—such as a bustling New Year’s Eve party scene—reveal a remarkable level of detail and depth of focus captured by cinematographer John J. Mescall’s lens. The picture is noticeably grainy at times, though this is rarely distracting. There’s no hint of judder in the film’s many moving-camera sequences, and there is a pleasing level of contrast, particularly striking in some of Whale’s more expressionistic shots. The remastered monaural soundtrack is presented in uncompressed form, and while the audio is occasionally slightly tinny and evinces a slight background noise, this is expected given the source material. Overall, however, there’s a robust bass presence, most evident during Robeson’s singing, which is booming and satisfyingly full-bodied.
Criterion’s release places James Whale’s film in the context of the musical’s many different permutations: from novel to stage to screen to radio. The extras offer a chance to understand how the story has evolved and changed over many different productions. Musical historian Miles Krueger’s wide-ranging audio commentary has been carried over from Criterion’s original laserdisc release, and it remains a truly edifying presentation some 30 years on, particularly for its detailed comparisons of various versions of the musical.
Speaking of which, three additional adaptations are represented here: Harry A. Pollard and Arch Heath’s 1929 part-talkie and two radio plays. For the 1929 version, Criterion has provided a 20-minute segment of silent scenes from the film with additional audio commentary from Krueger, as well as four musical performances filmed with the Broadway cast, including white actress Tess Gardella in blackface playing the role of Queenie. (A fifth performance originally included in this prologue no longer exists.) These segments were tacked onto the completed silent film as a prologue to take advantage of the wide popularity of the stage show’s songs and provide a useful look at how the original production was staged. Two hour-long radio plays are also included. The first, from 1936, is produced by Orson Welles for The Campbell Playhouse and features Welles as Cap’n Andy, Morgan as Julie, and Show Boat author Edna Ferber as Parthenia. The second, from 1944, was recorded for The Radio Hall of Fame and includes Allan Jones and Charles Winninger reprising their roles from the 1936 film.
Additional special features highlight particular aspects of the film. A 20-minute interview with Whale biographer James Curtis situates the film within the director’s all-too-brief body of work, while an interview program entitled “Recognizing Race in Show Boat” features academic Shana L. Redmond grappling with the film’s complicated depictions of the segregated South. Redmond’s analysis resists conclusive statements about the work and tends to raise more questions than it answers. The disc also includes Saul J. Turell’s 1979 Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, which was previously included in Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set. The film has been newly restored for this release, and while it offers a compelling introduction to its subject, it downplays the true radicalism of Robeson’s political commitments. A sweeping essay by critic Gary Giddins rounds out the set, incisively combining historical information and formal analysis with a playful prose style that suits the film’s balance of light entertainment and heavy themes.
Criterion not only lovingly restores a neglected classic, it offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.
Cast: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O’Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles Middleton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clarence Muse, Charles C. Wilson, Harry Barris, Stanley Fields, Stanley J. Sandford, May Beatty, J. Gunnis Davis Director: James Whale Screenwriter: Oscar Hammerstein II Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: March 31, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release of Noah Baumbach’s latest is built to last.4
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art world and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of an old magazine profile about the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to an Ingmar Bergman classic that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.
At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when the latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.
Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.
Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.
At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.
Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.
As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass Nancy’s inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by Nancy’s visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”
But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.
The Criterion Collection’s new 4K transfer, supervised by director Noah Baumbach, is superlative across the board, offering nearly as detailed an image as a new 35mm print. The film’s color palette is generally muted, but a more diverse range of hues is on dynamic display in several sequences, such as when the characters dress up for Halloween or Adam Driver sings Sondheim inside a dimly lit piano bar. Throughout, the image boasts strong contrast, most notably during the on-stage sequences early in the film, where the inky blacks of shadows brush against pools of light rich in detail within the same shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack boasts squeaky clean dialogue and a robustness in its presentation of Randy Newman’s alternatingly buoyant and delicately somber score.
The behind-the-scenes footage that makes up “The Making of Marriage Story” captures the intensity of shooting the film’s more emotionally wrenching sequences. The feature, which clocks in at over 90 minutes, is at its most intriguing when lingering on Baumbach as he works with actors to determine everything from psychological motivations and the minutest of gestures to the staging and blocking of scenes. In a separate feature, shot in the Los Angeles apartment where Charlie stayed, Baumbach dissects how the location’s negative space, hard edges, and sharp angles were used to create a sense of discomfort and anonymity, particularly during the climactic argument scene between Charlie and Nicole.
The remaining extras included on the disc largely consist of interviews. In one, Baumbach discusses his attempts to surreptitiously shift the audience’s sympathy away from Charlie and toward Nicole and the influence of screwball comedy on some of Marriage Story’s lighter scenes. Divided into two sections, “The Players” and “The Filmmakers,” the interviews with the cast and crew, respectively, do more than a little fawning over Baumbach’s genius, but also make a great case for why the director is driven to do numerous takes. They even get at the methods used to make the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles feel distinctly claustrophobic. A final interview with Randy Newman speaks to the tremendous attention Baumbach pays to his films’ scores from the start of production through the final edit.
Criterion has housed the disc in a unique six-panel digipak, which includes sleeves that hold replicas of the letters that Charlie and Nicole read in voiceover at the beginning of the film. And finally, novelist Linn Ullmann contributes a short essay in which she compares Marriage Story to Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover and commends the film’s effective portrait of the various performative elements involved in both marriage and divorce.
A solid union between sparkling A/V quality and a thoughtful, if not particularly diverse, assortment of extras, Criterion’s release of Marriage Story is built to last.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly, Mark O’Brien Director: Noah Baumbach Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 137 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Two Classic (and Remastered) Paul Bartel Comedies Now on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Not for Publication and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills are now available on Blu-ray for the first time.
In the wake of the critical and commercial success of his blackly satiric Eating Raoul, writer-director Paul Bartel got the greenlight (and a significantly higher budget) to make Not for Publication, a sporadically successful attempt at a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Given its setting amid the unscrupulous demimonde of muckraking journalism, the film could be seen as a spiritual successor to William A. Wellman’s Nothing Sacred. But the humor here straddles the fine line between subversively absurdist and just plain goofball, with individual gags not infrequently landing on the wrong side of that divide. Fortunately for viewers, several legitimately amusing set pieces sprinkled throughout the 1984 film manage to stick the landing reasonably well.
Not for Publication opens with a surreal non sequitur: Aspiring “serious” journalist and tabloid columnist Lois Thorndyke (Nancy Allen) attempts to interview Hugh Hefner-wannabe Cy Katz (Don Peoples) as he flees a mob of gun-toting waitresses from his nightclub. In lieu of Playboy bunnies, we get the Tigresses, replete with cat ears and paste-on whiskers. The off-kilter weirdness is compounded when it’s revealed that Lois travels around in the back of a milk van that doubles as a mobile news unit, accompanied by her little-person sidekick, Odo (Cork Hubbert). These opening scenes establish a wild, free-for-all vein of satire that’s a lot closer in tone to Bartel’s earlier Death Race 2000 than what this film actually ends up delivering.
Lois and new recruit shutterbug Barry Denver (David Naughton) are soon hot on the trail of crime and corruption that eventually leads to the office of Mayor Franklyn (Laurence Luckinbill). Along the way, the investigative duo encounter a cast of broadly sketched caricatures like Signor Woparico (Barry Dennen), a high-class “peemp,” and Barry’s mother, Doris (Alice Ghostley), whose mediumistic skills can channel the dead—quite literally, as when we find out that she runs her own pirate radio station. Adding a dash of welcome grit to the proceedings are a few street scenes that were shot around Times Square circa 1984.
Tipped to the mayor’s attendance at a costumed orgy at a nightclub called the Bestiary, Lois and Barry infiltrate the premises in furry mascot costumes. Passing themselves off as hired entertainers, they proceed to perform a hilarious song-and-dance routine titled “You Bring Out the Beast in Me,” which is actually pretty nifty, given the pair’s not inconsiderable skill when it comes to the old soft-shoe. The sequence’s overall vibe seems like some demented cross between Sesame Street and the masked orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. The scene also signals a striking stylistic shift in the film; after this point, Bartel utilizes more precise framing and motivated camera movement, as well as more dramatic lighting schemes.
When it comes to notions of fair play and civic responsibility, Bartel’s cynicism steadily ramps up over the course of the film. The ironic finale gives everybody exactly what they want—but only as long as they capitulate to the mayor’s crooked agenda. Such self-serving complicity suggests the direct inverse of All the President’s Men, where journalistic grunt work and dogged determination help topple a corrupt administration in the end. The film seems to say that all the hard-won victories of the ‘70s (like Richard Nixon’s ouster) have been eclipsed in the early ‘80s by Ronald Reagan’s reactionary “Morning in America.”
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, from 1989, reunites Bartel with Mary Woronov and Robert Beltran, his Eating Raoul stars. The script was written by Bruce Wagner, who seems to delight in taking wildly aimed potshots at L.A.’s rich and famous in works as tonally disparate as the TV miniseries Wild Palms and the David Cronenberg-directed Maps to the Stars. Given its sprawling cast of characters, the film can afford to spread its comedy around with greater generosity than the more tightly focused Not for Publication, and it hits its targets with greater frequency as well. In fact, listening to Wagner’s elegantly couched invectives, laced liberally with inventive profanity, and delivered by a top-shelf assembly of admirably game actors, comprises one of the film’s greatest pleasures.
Events are set in motion by the sudden death of tycoon Sidney Lipkin (Paul Mazursky), even though his passing doesn’t exactly put a stop to his relationship with his widow, Clare (Jacqueline Bisset), seeing as how he reappears on occasion as an apparition in a vain attempt at a sort of postmortem seduction. Equally bereft of a husband—though he will also return, albeit by less than supernatural means—is Clare’s friend and next-door neighbor, Lisabeth Hepburn-Saravian (Mary Woronov), who decides to celebrate her husband’s desertion by having the house fumigated. And so the two households end up temporarily cohabitating, in a canny fusion of The Brady Bunch and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The stage is thus set for the wholesale war of all against all, like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan…only with jokes.
The ensuing storyline is labyrinthine and highly episodic, with characters caroming off each other in ever-shifting permutations, each of them intent on pursuing their own self-absorbed agendas. The central engine of motivation is a bet between rival domestics, Juan (Robert Beltran) and Frank (Ray Sharkey), as to who can first seduce the other’s employer. The morality of the wager is dubious, to say the least, but the way each man responds is telling. Juan succeeds, then lies about it, claiming he failed. Frank does fail, but arranges things, in truly sitcom fashion, so that it seems like he has succeeded. The film as a whole occupies an equally liminal position with regard to moralism: It invites us to laugh at horrible people doing and saying horrible things to each other, but also to care just a little bit about them as they do.
Review: Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Criterion Blu-ray
With its precisely lit interiors, sweeping landscapes, and penetrating close-ups, this is a film in which every pixel truly matters.4
Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also, for better and worse, a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of doomed romance doomed to brevity ponders how to memorialize an image, as well as how to keep it eternally alive. Assertive in its belief that committing to a moment is the only way to consecrate it to memory, the film is ingeniously structured around a painting that begets tragedy.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter who’s hired to spend a week on an estate on a rocky island off the French coast of Brittany in order to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), who’s set to be wed to a wealthy man in Milan. The artist arrives at the house soaking wet, having rescued her blank canvases from a roiling sea. She’s housed in a reception room full of covered furnishings, and is warned by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), an Italian countess, that she’s been brought here under false pretenses.
Héloïse enters the film cloaked in darkness, hidden from view until a guest of wind blows the hood off her coat off and she turns her head back to gaze at Marianne. Sciamma adds further gothic trappings in her lengthy introduction of Héloïse, who refuses to sit for her portrait, thus forcing Marianne to paint her from memory. Moreover, Héloïse is days away from having been removed from a convent after the death of her older sister. Marianne is meant to befriend her, protect her from her grief or any destructive impulses, and simultaneously study her in order to complete the portrait that, if it pleases her Milanese suitor, will cement Héloïse’s marriage.
Héloïse and Marianne’s gazes frequently intersect in the film. Marianne and Héloïse are most often filmed from the shoulders up, centered in the frame. Their glances toward one another are also looks straight into the camera. Claire Mathon’s cinematography establishes Héloïse as a madeline; her looks are furtive but indelible. It’s clear that Marianne is drawn to her, but Sciamma amplifies the drama of their courtship by setting Héloïse up as a flight risk, always prone to potentially hurl herself into the surf or off the untamed cliffs of the French coast.
This characterization is at odds with the equanimous relationship that ensues between the two twentysomething women, who navigate the class and gender constraints of society in the latter half of the 18th century. Marianne is a cosmopolitan student of her craft, bound by rules established by a string of male masters. By contrast, Héloïse’s life is more tightly controlled. For one, she loves music but has never heard an orchestra—the film, with two extraordinary exceptions, is devoid of a musical score, relying on the snap of firewood and crush of ocean waves for sonic atmosphere—and her commitment to a life of celibacy and solitude has, without her consent, become a life bound to partnership with a stranger. What the two share is passion and curiosity, and they explore and interrogate one another’s preconceptions.
The film is right to be obsessed with the faces of its two leads. Merlant’s expressions have a rare immediacy, as she seems to digest sights and thoughts with alacrity, while Haenel reveals herself more carefully, never making her intentions or impressions known until she’s ready to. Seated across a room at the height of their passion, Héloïse makes clear to Marianne that she’s no mere subject, but also a woman gleaning information from the person she’s staring at.
Sciamma isn’t out to question the gaze, but to point out that one is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. They’re uninterested in control or power, both searching for a sense of truth amid the artificial, patriarchal strictures they exist in. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her previous films (Girlhood, Tomboy) have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away.
With its precisely lit interiors, sweeping landscapes, and penetrating close-ups, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film in which every pixel truly matters. Shot in 8K on location in Brittany and in a decrepit 18th-century palace, its images are at once painterly and unapologetically digital, using the almost hyperreal capabilities of its ultra-HD format to imbue a quietly scintillating romance with a wildly expressive inner glow. Criterion has maxed out the bitrate on its Blu-ray to preserve as much of the detail in the meticulously composed frames as possible. From the myriad blues of the sea to the deep emerald of Héloïse’s dress to the warm yellow glow of candlelit interiors, the disc maintains such a stunningly high level of resolution, one might easily mistake it for a UHD release. The film’s spare yet haunting sound design is also beautifully preserved by Criterion, which has remastered the original DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround track, balancing the hushed intensity of the dialogue with the fervent grandeur of Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto during the poignant final shot.
The supplementary materials on this disc feel slightly perfunctory but nonetheless offer an illuminating peek into Céline Sciamma’s very personal yet highly collective artistic process. In an enlightening 30-minute interview with film critic Dana Stevens, the director speaks at length about Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s production and pre-production, centering the roles of her various collaborators. She reveals, for example, that one of her earliest “casting” decisions was hiring artist Hélène Delmaire to create the portraits that would play such a central role in the film’s narrative. A contemporary artist rather than a mere reproductionist, Delmaire was discovered by Sciamma on Instagram, and, as Delmaire discusses in her own interview segment, it’s her hands we see in the film applying paint to canvas.
In a feature interview with Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, the actors discuss Sciamma’s egalitarian approach to creativity, and Merlant talks about her time spent studying Delmaire to inform her performance. A segment with Mathon filmed at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival goes deep into the film’s complicated cinematographic processes, which involved a difficult choice between shooting on 35mm or digital and the complex gaffing set-ups that allowed Mathon to achieve such intense, light-suffused close-ups even in dim interiors.
While the extras are uniformly informational, only critic Ela Bittencourt’s essay matches the simmering intensity of the film itself, sussing out the film’s intricate interweaving of love story, period detail, and feminist politics while not losing sight of the passionate intensity at its core. However, it’s hard not to wish there was a commentary track here, particularly considering Sciamma has already recorded one for the film’s French home video release.
The utterly impeccable audio-visual quality of Criterion’s Blu-ray release aren’t quite matched by the disc’s run-of-the-mill offering of extras.
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adéle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino Director: Céline Sciamma Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations on Kit Parker Blu-ray
This set is a must-own for even casual fans of Laurel and Hardy.4
As the first great comedic duo of the sound era and the de facto bridge between the slapstick masters of silent cinema and the more verbose comedy teams like Abbott and Costello that followed them, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy developed a style and rapport all their own. While their madcap antics are steeped in the traditions of vaudeville, they established a comic rhythm that takes full advantage of the elasticity of cinematic time. In juxtaposing bursts of rapid-fire chaos, which inevitably unfolded around the duo, with extended and often delayed reaction shots and gags that are stretched out to (and sometimes past) their breaking points, Laurel and Hardy expanded and contracted time as a means of accentuating the uncanniness of both their verbal and visual ticks and the tempo of their comedic interplay.
While brief but explosive crescendos of violence and destruction stand out across their work, Lauren and Hardy’s comic personae typically flourished in the many long close-ups that populate their films. It’s in these shots where Laurel’s expressive eyebrows and his signature ambiguous smile conveyed the amiable naïveté and sensitivity that quickly came to define him. And it’s during Hardy’s perpetual fourth-wall-breaking glances and gestures that we get a sense of his perpetually escalating frustrations not only with Laurel’s bumbling, but also with the absurdity of the action that the audience bears witness to alongside him.
Unlike the films of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy’s work rarely strives for much narrative or emotional complexity, but there’s an underlying warmth and camaraderie between the duo, even during their most contentious run-ins. Their emotions, however, are rarely the driving force of their films. Instead of pursuing various love interests, or in Keaton’s case, sometimes fleeing from them, the catalyst for physical action in their films is typically simple, often mundane tasks: delivering a land deed in Way Out West, doing a jigsaw puzzle in Me & My Gal, or putting an antenna on the roof in Hog Wild. And in many cases, the simpler the task, the better the results, as evidenced by perhaps their most beloved short film, The Music Box, which for nearly 30 minutes follows the boys doing nothing but attempting to lug a player piano up a long and intimidatingly steep set of stairs.
In the case of The Music Box, the gag’s protracted length is integral to its humor, as Laurel and Hardy’s journey up the stairs seems doomed to go on forever by the third time the piano rolls all the way back to the bottom of the hill. This strategy of drawing out gags is evident in many of their shorts, from Towed in the Hole, where the duo takes turns pouring water on each other, to Way Out West, where Laurel spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get an heirloom necklace off of Hardy, only to continually strip more clothes off of him after it slips down his shirt. Such routines are frequently a journey as much for them as they are for the audience, and to the point of tedium, but Laurel and Hardy are masters of persistence, so, after a while, these gags become even more hilarious simply because of their duration.
Other times, Laurel and Hardy mine humor from their attempts to be helpful, but find that the more good they try to do, the more chaotic a situation becomes. Helpmates is a prime example of this tendency, with Laurel showing up to help his Hardy clean up before his wife returns home, only to systematically yet unintentionally prompt the destruction of the entire house. But despite things inevitably taking a turn toward the chaotic, and typically with Hardy soaked in water, Laurel and Hardy exude a tenderness and fortitude that never veers into mean-spiritedness. Instead, the duo, in their seeming inability to function as a symbiotic pair, despite their repeated efforts to do so, elicit both our laughter and heartfelt sympathy.
All 17 shorts and two features included here received new 2K or 4K digital restorations from their original 35mm nitrate prints by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress. Given the disparate qualities of the original prints, the results are a bit uneven, with some films like Sons of the Desert and Brats appearing crude with their blown-out whites and overall lack of detail, particularly in characters’ faces in the medium-to-wide shots. There’s also a near-absence of grain in many of the shorts, giving them a slightly waxy, overly digitized look. On the other hand, there’s a nice uptick in sharpness, contrast, and detail whenever the blown-out whites aren’t present, which is fortunately much of the time. Audio is more consistent throughout, and while there’s a slight tininess to some of the dialogue, the sound effects are robust and suitably forward in the mix.
What this four-disc Blu-ray set may lack in diversity of extras, it more than makes up with the inclusion of commentary tracks for every last film, even That’s That, a clip reel created primarily as a gift to Stan Laurel. Film scholars Randy Skretvedt and Richard W. Bann split the hosting duties and over the course of over eight hours cover the backgrounds of various supporting actors and the personal and professional history of Laurel and Hardy, even devoting ample time to breaking down numerous gags and the duo’s comic personae and performative ticks. Skretvedt appears again in three interviews from 1981, which he gave with three of Laurel and Hardy’s co-workers: Anita Garvin, Joe Rock, and Roy Seawright. Each touch on Laurel’s kindness, his ghost-directing nearly every film he appeared in with Hardy, and the joys of working on the Hal Roach lot. The set is rounded out with a very brief interview with Oliver Hardy from 1950 and a huge collection of rare photos, stills, posters, and scripts.
With an abundance of passionate, informative commentary tracks and solid, if uneven, transfers, this set is a must-own for even casual fans of Laurel and Hardy.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, Mae Busch, Dorothy Christy, Lucien Littlefield, Rosina Lawrence, James Finlayson, May Wallace Director: James W. Horne, William A. Seiter, George Marshall, James Parrott, Lloyd French Screenwriter: Frank Craven, H.M. Walker, Charley Rogers, Jack Jevne, Stan Laurel Distributor: Kit Parker Films Running Time: 511 min Rating: NR Year: 1927 - 1940 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Elem Klimov’s Come and See on the Criterion Collection
Klimov’s unbelievable vision of the agonizing hell of war is preserved in all its nightmarish beauty on this release.4.5
War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.
We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).
Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.
The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.
And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.
Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.
Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.
Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.
As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.
Sourced from a 2K digital restoration by Mosfilm, this transfer makes Come and See’s stark color palette pop with a sharpness of detail that only compounds the film’s bleak atmosphere. Facial textures are exemplary, especially in close-up. The hazy, almost hallucinatory lighting in some scenes washed out the colors in previous releases, but here the image is incredibly stable, boasting impressive contrast differentiation. The uncompressed monoaural soundtrack is free of issues, with all sounds, big and small, clearly separated in the mix.
It will come as a surprise to no one, at least those who pointed out how several shots from Come and See appeared as if they were lifted wholesale for 1917, to hear cinematographer Roger Deakins in a new interview included with this release discuss the influence of the film’s hyper-realistic look on his own work. In archival interviews from 2001, Elem Klimov, actor Alexei Kravchenko, and production designer Viktor Petrov discuss the grueling experience of making the film. A short Russian TV documentary from 1985 titled How Come and See Was Filmed confirms their impressions, while an interview with Klimov’s brother, German, focuses on the filmmaker’s broader career. Most notable is the inclusion of three of the five parts of Flaming Memory, a documentary series by Belarusian filmmaker Viktor Dashuk that covers the Nazi horrors inflicted upon Belarus during World War II. A booklet contains essays by film professor Mark le Fanu, who considers the film’s function as both a reflection and complication of Soviet war cinema, and poet Valzhyna Mort, who offers a more biographical overview of co-writer Ales Adamovich’s life and career.
Elem Klimov’s unbelievable vision of the agonizing hell of war is preserved in all its nightmarish beauty on this Criterion Collection release.
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman on Criterion Blu-ray
At his best, Mazursky dramatized how sociopolitics informed American domestic life, deftly evading preaching.3.5
At his best, Paul Mazursky dramatized how sociopolitics informed American domestic life, deftly evading preaching, and as such today’s progressive filmmakers could learn quite a bit from him. One of his most acclaimed films, An Unmarried Woman is concerned with the rise and acceptance of divorce in the 1970s, and the liberation and confusion that resulted from that. With its leisurely paced scenes, unexpected comic curlicues, and unusually lived-in characterizations, the film allows its political meanings to arise almost subliminally. Mazursky finds the politics in the wrinkles of human behavior, rather than contriving behavior to suit his politics.
An Unmarried Woman begins with moments of domesticity that are pointedly at odds with the expectations set by the film’s title. This domesticity, characteristic of Mazursky’s aversion to platitudes, is shown to be simultaneously comfortable, challenging, and emotionally fraught. As Bill Conti’s score soars on the soundtrack, married couple Erica (Jill Clayburgh) and Martin (Michael Murphy) are jogging together through New York City, clearly enjoying a morning ritual, the sort of pleasurably taken-for-granted camaraderie that comes with longtime cohabitation. Then Martin steps in dog shit, soiling his new jogging shoes, and he briefly explodes at Erica, offering a counterpoint to the pleasure of kinship that we’ve just witnessed, a reaction that embodies the irrational resentment that springs from boredom, as well as his anger at Erica lecturing him for smoking. An Unmarried Woman abounds in such counterpoints.
What follows is a prolonged first act that acquaints us with the rhythms of this marriage and family. Martin is a stock broker who begins and ends each day watching updates on the exchange on TV. By contrast, Erica has a dreamier sensibility, working part-time at a fashionable art gallery. In one of the film’s most imaginative sequences, she fantasizes of being a ballet dancer, dancing around their apartment in her underwear, savoring the thought of having the place to herself. Their teen daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), is a precocious wiseass, enjoying catching Martin and Erica after sex and asking them, per Hemingway, if the Earth moved. When Martin and Erica speak, especially after work getting ready for bed, they do so with a familiarity that’s evocative of long-term relationships. Erica undresses in front of her husband, and this action is both erotic and casual. In fact, this action is erotic for being casual, and Mazursky’s gaze is attentive, appreciative, without succumbing to lewdness.
Suddenly after a lunch, Martin tearfully confesses to cheating on Erica and that he’s leaving her. He airs his secret in the worst way imaginable: in the streets, while Erica is sharing with him how she’s comforted by her weekly dinners and drinks with her girlfriends—when she’s at the height of her love with her routines, with the assuring complacency of her life. Soon in the process of divorce, Erica must redefine herself as a self-sustained woman. This idea, the theme of the film, is almost entirely undiscussed by the characters head-on. The theme influences their conversations, of course, yet they talk around it. And this weight, of an anxiety that can’t quite be confronted, gives the film’s comic scenes an emotional anchor. Terror of loneliness informs the dinners Erica has with her friends (Pat Quinn, Linda Miller, and Kelly Bishop), as they deliver vulnerable arias about desire, fulfillment, and disappointment that are especially remarkable in a film written and directed by a man.
Mazursky is interested neither in the legal practicalities of divorce nor in making glib statements about empowerment. Rather, he explores Erica’s emotional realm as she reacquaints herself with men, experimenting with casual sex, partially as a way of stretching beyond her station as “someone’s wife,” and attempts to guide Patti through her separation from Martin. Several of the men are bizarre, per the dictates of the modern romantic comedy, on which An Unmarried Woman is a significant influence, yet they’re imbued with a pathos and a specificity that resists sexist reductions. An artist at the gallery where Erica works, Charlie (Cliff Gorman) is a working-class painter, a smart-ass who hits on her with an insistence that would scan as particularly intemperate today, yet in his way he’s alive to Erica, noticing her, raptly, in a fashion that Martin probably hasn’t in years. When they hook up, Mazursky homes in on the little details, the idiosyncrasies, of sex that are frequently absent from American cinema. Charlie comforts Erica through her awkwardness and embarrassment, kissing her leg as he pulls off her sock. The sequence captures an evolution in this brief coupling from tentativeness to tenderness. Even the man who assaults Erica, Bob (Andrew Duncan), is vividly drawn, in only a few scenes, as a person warped by loneliness and need.
Many romantic comedies preach of a woman’s need for independence while hypocritically settling them into a new relationship anyway. This film’s version of the right guy, Saul (Alan Bates), a British expressionist painter with a gentle, erudite, easygoing manner, would be positioned by many filmmakers as a solution to Erica’s problems, yet Mazursky and the actors inform this relationship with a subtle push-and-pull thorniness. Erica and Saul very much get along together, yet they have the tension that comes with dating as middle-aged people, with the baggage of many past wrong decisions and wrong people. The gift of this lovely, poignant film is that Mazursky allows the characters to roam; he doesn’t force them into boxes, and as such they often surprise us. Everyone in An Unmarried Woman is essentially an artist in his or her own way, spinning their uncertainty into knowing melancholic comic riffs. The central artist is Erica, whom Clayburgh plays with a wistful, very moving sense of diaphanousness. We’re allowed to see that Erica feels that she’s unfinished. Like most people, especially in middle adulthood who begin to wonder what they’ve been doing up until now.
The 4K digital restoration of An Unmarried Woman offers a surprisingly soft image, probably too soft, allowing certain backgrounds to look blurry, with flat black colors. Foreground detail is much stronger, and the other colors are generally vibrant, with particularly superb flesh tones. The monaural soundtrack is much less of a mixed bag. Bill Conti’s score has been rendered with stunning vibrancy, and the city life that characterizes the soundtrack of many scenes is presented here with range and multi-planed subtlety.
New interviews with actors Michael Murphy and Lisa Lucas are centered on Paul Mazursky’s approach to actors, especially his way of assuaging their fears and allowing them to adjust lines to suit their own ideas and needs. Another new interview, with Paul on Mazursky author Sam Wasson, persuasively discusses the filmmaker as an underrated auteur with distinctive themes and an almost European sense of openness. Meanwhile, an archive commentary with Mazursky and actress Jill Clayburgh is loose and conversational, exploring the conception of An Unmarried Woman, which was inspired by a friend of Mazursky’s wife, as well as the collaboration between the director, Clayburgh, and the other actors in the cast. Mazursky, unsurprisingly given the nature of the film, is very attentive to the little details that can make or break a scene. (The only disappointment with this commentary is the fact that the two participants were recorded separately.) Rounding out this package is a recording of a long lecture that Mazursky gave at the AFI in 1980, going in depth about the evolution of his career, and liner notes featuring an essay by Angelica Jade Bastien, which beautifully articulates the dynamism of the women in Mazursky’s work, and the novelty of this female-centrism in the especially masculine 1970s-era American cinema.
Criterion outfits Paul Mazursky’s lovely, eccentric, casually progressive character study with terrific supplements and a somewhat uneven transfer.
Cast: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Cliff Gorman, Lisa Lucas, Pat Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Penelope Russianoff Director: Paul Mazursky Screenwriter: Paul Mazursky Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 123 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 9, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
This atmospheric marrying of fact and fiction still resonates with its themes of political corruption and abuse of power.4
Bob Clark made a name for himself in the early 1970s with a trio of low-budget horror films that soon attained cult status: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, the rough-hewn tale of a group of actors contending with zombies on an abandoned island; Deathdream, a scathing Vietnam-era twist on “The Monkey’s Paw”; and Black Christmas, a blackly humorous proto-slasher flick. Enticed by a larger, though still modest, budget and a sterling cast of British and Canadian actors, Clark relocated to England to produce and direct Murder by Decree, an alternate-history period piece dripping with atmosphere that puts Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (James Mason) on the trail of the notorious serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
Murder by Decree cleverly indicates one of its key themes in its opening scenes by cross-cutting between two very different locations. Each of these scenes contains a startling juxtaposition between the high class and the lower class. In the first, a posh carriage prowls the foggy back lanes of London’s East End, shot in slow motion with a wide-angle lens, so as to give it an otherworldly aura, like something out of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. And in the second, we enter a lavish opera house where Holmes and Watson await an opera’s overture, while the proletariat in the upper rafters hiss and boo the late arrival of the Prince of Wales, an immediate signal of radical political agitation that will play a significant factor in the film.
The two segments dovetail when the occupant of the carriage emerges to strangle a lowly streetwalker (the murder unfolds entirely through the killer’s point of view), news of which reaches Holmes and Watson as they exit the opera house. Cinematographer Reginald Morris’s fluid camerawork serves to seamlessly link the sequences, with the Steadicam gliding airily through alleyways as the killer searches out his prey, which is followed by a long, unbroken crane shot that tracks Holmes and Watson as they discuss the latest carnage from inside their open carriage. Clark clearly enjoys keeping the camera in motion, and it rarely comes to rest over the course of the film’s not inconsiderable running time.
Once the game is truly afoot, Holmes’s quest to unmask the killer leads him up and down the ladder of (invariably male) power as it existed in Victorian England, from a lowly pimp (Terry Duggan) to the prime minister (John Gielgud). The conspiracy theory plot that lies behind these events—encompassing an illegitimate royal baby, blood sacrifices, and the Masonic order—was derived from then-recent speculative nonfiction publications. It’s a heady brew of highly improbable extraction that would go on to inspire Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell.
At the heart of the film (in several senses) is Holmes’s third-act encounter with Annie Crook (Geneviève Bujold), mother of the royal offspring, currently incarcerated in a stone-hewn Bedlam of nightmarish proportions. Annie’s heartbreaking monologue, as she returns from catatonia to a semblance of sanity, unfolds largely in a single take. At one point, the camera subtly reframes her opposite a guttering candle, so that its tentative flickering light can serve as an objective correlative for her momentary reawakening. It’s a truly tragic instance of the way an entire nation’s power structure can conspire to crush a single individual, and, unfortunately, it’s just as timely now as it was back in 1979.
Because Murder by Decree is definitely a film from the 1970s, it unabashedly embraces these downbeat notions. Even the usually unflappable Sherlock Holmes cannot beat the system. In this instance, the best he can hope for is a sort of stalemate. (Not for nothing does Holmes’s face-off with the prime minister take place in a room with chessboard flooring.) These limitations are perfectly in keeping with the film’s revisionist take on the character. Hardly the heartless “thinking machine” he can appear elsewhere, Holmes comes across here as the quintessential humanist, indulging in righteous anger and even shedding a few tears on more than one occasion at the suffering of others. Holmes’s final bit of dialogue takes on a loaded significance in the era of Vietnam and Watergate: “We’ve unmasked madmen, Watson, wielding scepters. Reason run riot. Justice howling at the moon.”
The HD master of Murder by Decree looks great overall, with only the odd speck evident here and there, marking a definite improvement over previous DVD editions of the film. The color palette is calculatedly muted for the most part, so that the occasional burst of primary hues, especially those sanguineous reds, really catches the eye. Clarity of fine details with regard to period costumes and décor add considerably to the film’s admirable atmospherics. Flesh tones are warm and lifelike, while grain levels appear nicely balanced, even in the frequent murky nighttime fog scenes. The Master Audio stereo mix clearly presents John Hopkins’s crisp dialogue and does well by the emotive score from Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza, which wrings the last evocative measure from a full-bodied orchestra.
This Kino Lorber Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks, an archival one with filmmaker Bob Clark carried over from Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD, and a brand-new one with film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. In wry, laidback fashion, Clark talks about the genesis of the project, lining up the stellar cast (a veritable Who’s Who of Canadian and British acting powerhouses), the seamless blend of studio and location filming, as well as his fondness for continuous camera movement. One of the more fascinating tidbits has to do with Clark’s initial casting of Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson, respectively, which fell apart due to the actors’ mutual dislike. Berger and Mitchell’s lively discussion covers a lot of production anecdotes, Clark’s career before and after Murder by Decree, and the film’s revisionist depiction of Holmes and Watson. The track also includes a fair bit of well-considered Ripperology, including mention of an earlier film, A Study in Terror from 1965, that also had Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Saucy Jack.
New to Blu-ray, Bob Clark’s atmospheric marrying of fact and fiction still resonates with its themes of political corruption and abuse of power.
Cast: Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Frank Finlay, Donald Sutherland, Geneviève Bujold Director: Bob Clark Screenwriter: John Hopkins Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 124 min Rating: PG Year: 1979 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Oliver Stone-Produced Wild Palms Miniseries on Kino Blu-ray
The miniseries exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of normal taste, in a realm where sheer muchness is its own reward.3.5
Rarely has a series so purely distilled its essence into a single image as Wild Palms does. In the semi-infamous opening scene of the first episode of this overstuffed five-hour event series, hotshot patent attorney Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi) suddenly awakes and walks outside in his underwear to discover a rhinoceros standing in his empty in-ground swimming pool. Upon seeing the animal, Wyckoff solemnly intones, “So this is how it begins.” With this deeply goofy yet oddly haunting image, Wild Palms announces itself as a work of grand-operatic camp, a clumsy yet entertaining attempt to cram as many weird and wacky ideas into one series as the constraints of early-‘90s network television will possibly allow.
Wild Palms first aired a couple years after the cancellation of Twin Peaks, and it was an obvious attempt by ABC to recapture some of the off-beat magic of David Lynch and Mark Frosts’s series. The opening credits, with those slowly swaying palm trees set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ominous synth theme, practically announce the series as Twin Peaks: Los Angeles, but the atmosphere here is far loonier and the plotting much denser than in Twin Peaks. Wild Palms was widely promoted on the basis of Oliver Stone’s involvement as executive producer, and its narrative reflects the controversial filmmaker’s penchant for vast conspiracies that resolve themselves in almost Shakespearean fashion.
But while Lynch and Stone’s influence on Wild Palms is undeniable, the series is very much the work of novelist Bruce Wagner, who wrote all five episodes, served as executive producer alongside Stone, and, according to his audio commentary on this Blu-ray, even filmed the opening credits. As in his screenplay for Maps to the Stars, Wagner attempts to meld bitter Hollywood satire with whacked-out science fiction, and with decidedly mixed results.
The series’s convoluted plot revolves around a right-wing political faction known as the Fathers, led by Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), a messianic leader who heads up a powerful Scientology-like cult known as the Church of Synthiotics and also runs a TV network, Channel 3. Meanwhile, an insurgent group called the Friends is attempting to challenge the Fathers’s power with underground resistance tactics. Harry Wyckoff, a family-man attorney married to fashion boutique owner Grace (Dana Delaney) is one day visited by an old flame, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall), who asks him to track down her missing son, while also drawing him close into the inner circle of the Fathers, with whom she’s closely associated.
It’s all set in the then-future of 2007, where men inexplicably dress in ill-fitting Edwardian suits and everybody drives around in vintage 1950s automobiles. Society is teetering on the brink of collapse, and Channel 3 is debuting a new virtual reality system called Mimecom that allows viewers to beam realistic holograms directly into their living rooms. This being an ostensibly scathing Hollywood satire, the first application of Mimecom is, of course, a tacky sitcom, one that happens to star Harry’s son, Coty (Ben Savage), and a famous actress, Tabba Schwartzkopf (Bebe Neuwirth), who’s a high-level member of the Church of Synthiotics.
The large cast of characters form a dense web of interconnections, but keeping track of who’s related to whom and how becomes increasingly tedious as the series wears on. Similarly, Wild Palms keeps piling on various half-baked sci-fi concepts and conspiracies until it begins to feel like the point of the whole thing is to overwhelm audiences with its sheer too-much-ness. And around the midpoint of the series, this effort to flood our senses with as many disturbing details and spooky connections as possible starts to feel strangely exciting, as if Wagner were presciently recreating the environment of total information overload we all live in today.
Unfortunately, however, these various strands and connections all eventually lead to the same tired narrative dead end: a simplistic good-versus-evil struggle between the freedom-fighting Friends and the techno-fascistic Fathers. Aside from Wagner’s mordant swipes at Scientology—including a running parody of the Church’s paramilitary-like Sea Org—the two sides of this battle are too vaguely defined to have much political bite. If Wild Palms has one truly resonant idea, it’s its vision of a future in which politics, entertainment, religion, and even drugs have become merely different arms of the same ruling elite.
But Wild Palms is mostly enjoyable not for what it says, but for how it says it. Its jabs at the vacuity of La La Land may be pretty trite, its politics simplistic, and its vision of the future sorely dated and incoherent, but you may find yourself admiring the alacrity with which the series serves up some indelibly gonzo images. Where else can one see a woman with a full-back tattoo of a palm tree transform into Robert Loggia barking like a dog? Or see a washed-up lounge singer played by Robert Morse get killed by his hologram when it shoves its entire arm down his throat? And if the series’s constant stream of references can be exhausting, at least they’re admirably arcane, from The Prisoner to Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon to The Woman in the Dunes. William Gibson, whose work exerts a huge influence over the series’s sci-fi elements, even gets a cameo as himself. When introduced as the man who coined the word “cyberspace,” he wearily replies, “And they won’t let me forget it.”
Wild Palms also affords the opportunity to see an impressive assortment of stars—about half of whom are woefully miscast—give a dizzying array of clashing, off-tempo performances. Cattrall looks completely lost, trying to vamp it up as noirish femme fatale. Belushi doesn’t even try to blend into the film’s surreal future milieu, playing the role of a high-powered attorney turned resistance leader with the same sluggish average-joe shtick he brought to eight seasons of According to Jim. Savage is bizarrely miscast in a menacing, Damien-like role, bringing a cute-kid innocuousness even to a scene in which Coty cuts out a man’s tongue. Loggia at least seems to be having a good time hamming it up, treating every scene as if it were some high-toned Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex. There are also a few finely calibrated performances, especially from Angie Dickinson as Grace’s über-bitch mother and Delaney, who brings a human warmth to her role that’s otherwise totally missing from the series.
And the discordance of the acting is exacerbated by the direction. With four different directors over five episodes, the series never really establishes a unique identity, ping-ponging between hypnotic Steadicam shots and jittery action. Keith Gordon, who directed the second and fourth episodes, gets on the wavelength of Wagner’s script, with languorous long takes and lightly showy 360-degree pans, and Kathryn Bigelow, who helmed the third episode, squeezes in a fairly taut action sequence set to the Animals’s “House of the Rising Sun.” But the first and last episodes, directed by Peter Hewitt and Phil Joanou, respectively, are often garish and hyperbolic, with little feel for the playful, yet never overtly jokey, tone of the material.
Ultimately, Wild Palms is little more than a curiosity, but in this age of slick, tasteful shows in which tone is tightly managed and narrative is carefully doled out over the course of 10-plus hours per season, it’s refreshing to see a series so recklessly pack as much oddball humor, random violence, nutty sociology, paranoid conspiracism, and obscure cultural references into each episode as it can possibly stand. Like other maximalist, satirical whatchamacallits like Southland Tales and Brewster McCloud, it exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of normal taste, in a realm where sheer muchness is its own reward.
Wild Palms receives a crisp new 2K remaster from that allows its sun-drenched imagery to really pop in ways that it never has. The colors are lively and vivid, and all those roving Steadicam shots bear no traces of the choppiness that sometimes dogs lower-quality transfers. The sound design is relatively uncomplicated, but the audio elements are still nicely balanced here, with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s dramatic synth score coming through very clearly, even when playing under dialogue, and the scattered classic-rock needle drops have a lively, bass-rich punch. Bizarrely, though, the image quality of all scenes with on-screen text—including the opening credits and subtitled scenes—is noticeably degraded, so much so that at one point this strikingly consistent deficiency in the transfer even constitutes a mild spoiler when, in a scene in which a character speaks on the phone, we know he will start speaking Japanese.
All five episodes feature newly recorded audio commentary tracks—so new, in fact, that one participant even references COVID-19—and their wildly varying quality is fitting for a series of such chaotic highs and lows. Bruce Wagner and Jim Belushi provide chummy though halting conversation over the first episode, suggesting two old buddies who haven’t seen each other in a while only to quickly discover that they don’t have very much to talk about. On the commentary accompanying the third episode, Dana Delaney mostly focuses her attention on Wild Palms’s strange costumes, makeup, and hairdressing, while Wagner sets his sights mostly on Delaney’s looks. Belushi recalls his experience fondly, though it’s clear he didn’t really understand what the hell was going on, a condition that was endemic among the actors according to several of the commentaries. Wagner seems slightly embarrassed by the series, and it’s clear he hasn’t revisited it in quite a while. Early in his commentary for the first episode, he seems even to have half-forgotten that the series was set in the future. The second and fourth episodes feature intelligent technical notes from director Keith Gordon, the one person in the production who seems to have fully understood the project. But the spirit of the series is perhaps best captured by director Phil Joanou, who expresses love and admiration for the cast and complete bafflement at the rest of the production, complaining frequently about the fact that he was tasked with directing the dramatic climax without having seen any of the rest of the series. Joanou sums up the feelings of so many who’ve experienced Wild Palms when he admits early in his commentary: “I was pretty confused by it.”
With a mostly sparkling yet obviously flawed transfer and inconsistent audio commentaries, Kino Lorber’s Wild Palms release is every bit as erratic as the series itself.
Cast: Jim Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Angie Dickinson, Ernie Hudson, Bebe Neuwirth, Nick Mancuso, David Warner, Ben Savage, Bob Gunton, Aaron Michael Metchik, Robert Morse, Brad Dourif, Charles Rocket, François Chau, Beata Pozniak Director: Keith Gordon, Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Hewitt, Phil Joanou Screenwriter: Bruce Wagner Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 286 min Rating: NR Year: 1993 Release Date: June 30, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: John Cassavetes’s Husbands on the Criterion Collection
Criterion outfits one of Cassavetes’s greatest and most daring films with a stunning transfer and updated supplements.4.5
John Cassavetes offered his actors and, by extension, his audience a profound sense of space. Resisting the tempo of pop films, Cassavetes allows scenes to go on and on while characters offer sustained arias of anguish, humor, and ball-busting. In such sequences, we feel a grappling for catharses—for the characters as well as the actors. This double-awareness is at the heart of Cassavetes’s cinema, as the actors and characters often bleed together, allowing the work of the actors to parallel the work we put into the everyday roles that we play for the sake of finding meaning or approval. In such an auto-critical environment, no gesture, no line, is taken for granted, as Cassavetes urges his actors to parse every element of an interaction for significance. He captures moments of minute, seemingly spontaneous behavioral insight that are essentially impossible in a film that buzzes along on autopilot, hitting tidy plot beats.
Husbands, Cassavetes’s follow-up to Faces, and his first film with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, is exhausting and formally radical even by his standards. The 1970 film is gross, juvenile, macho, thorny, and features moments of agonizing physical and emotional torment—moments that are especially disturbing considering that some of the actors involved might not have been in on the joke. Yet the obstinate recklessness of Husbands is the wellspring of its brilliance. In his devotion to pain, to the prolonged, ongoing, and dangerous work of releasing pent-up emotion (which, here, resembles acting as well as therapy), Cassavetes mounts one of the most searing and evocative portraits of grief in American cinema.
Husbands opens on a montage of snapshots of families horsing around at a pool party. Though women and children are visible, four men are emphasized: Smoking, drinking beers, and flexing their biceps for the camera, they’re almost a parody of a certain kind of domesticated masculinity. With these remarkable images, Cassavetes instantly communicates the breadth and comfort of the men’s friendship, and how, even in moments of joy, they subtly push their families away, erecting their own world. This montage is followed by a jarring cut to the inside of a car pulling into a cemetery. One of the men, Stuart (David Rowlands), has died suddenly at an early age, reducing the group to three: Harry (Gazzara), Archie (Falk), and Gus (Cassavetes).
In these early scenes, Cassavetes and his other actors establish a tension that will run throughout Husbands. Harry, Archie, and Gus ride together to Stuart’s funeral, and when they get out of the car, Harry separates himself from the group, escorting Stuart’s grandmother (Judith Lowry) to the ceremony. Walking ahead with the elderly woman, Harry shoots suspicious, wounded glances at Archie and Gus while they exchange patter about the obscenity of the pomp of such an event, which Archie in particular believes desecrates Stuart’s memory. In this conversation, Archie says that tension is what kills someone—not actual illnesses. The men crave a purging, a reckoning with their sadness, and Archie is fumbling at the expression of this need while Gus pushes them away, feeling rejected. Searching for an emotional expunging, the men will continue to alternately repel one another away and draw each other in close, proclaiming their love and suspicion of one another, sometimes simultaneously. In each of the film’s long sequences, the men harass one another and others, trying to give voice to their gnawingly undefinable sense of need and alienation.
In many films, a character’s grief is a plot necessity to be perfunctorily gotten out of the way, but grief, and the ugly personal elements it can unearth, are front and center in Husbands. After the funeral, Harry says he’s going to get drunk, at which point Cassavetes employs another jarring cut to the men already hammered, fucking around on the streets of New York City. The joy of initial intoxication has been omitted, as these men are now in a fugue state that will consume them for the remainder of the film’s 142 minutes.
Their bender leads them to a bar where they sit at a long table with a variety of people who are likely strangers and who they encourage to sing songs for Stuart. The three men allow most of the people to sing undisturbed, though they seize on a woman named Leola (Leola Harlow), telling her she’s terrible, making her sing again and again, looming over her. Leola’s reason for submitting to this abuse is among the film’s many mysteries, and Cassavetes stretches this sequence out so long that it begins to suggest purgatory. The next sequence, related to the bar scene, is also astonishingly long, lingering on the men as they argue in a small bathroom, very drunk, trying to make themselves vomit. Over the course of this sequence, Harry once again separates himself from the group, resenting Gus and Archie’s conspiratorial air.
Harry’s ongoing exclamation to Leola—“It’s terrible! More heart!”—could be said to suggest Cassavetes’s guiding aesthetic sentiment, which he deconstructs mercilessly. On one hand, the film is a masturbatory orgy of backslapping male indulgence, as the three men are always tussling with each other, hinting at an interior violence that practically demands expression. However, Cassavetes is intensely aware of the men’s cruelty, particularly toward women, most disturbingly when Harry forces himself on his wife, Annie (Meta Shaw). In another extended sequence, once the men run away to London, Gus tries to seduce a British woman, Mary (Jenny Runacre), and grows increasingly aggressive with her until foreplay and sexual violation become indistinguishable from one another. By contrast, Archie’s aggression tends to surface when women accept him. The men are insufferable, dangerous, pitiable, pathetic, and, for the life force these extraordinary actors lend them, weirdly charismatic.
There’s a dangerous temptation to reduce Cassavetes films to theme, especially pertaining to gender, in the process eliding the wild poetry of his work. The dialogue in Husbands, partially improvised but more written and controlled than is generally acknowledged, is composed of simple language that’s often repeated over and over for an effect that’s comic as well as existential; as loud as his male characters can get, they can’t truly hear each other. And compositionally, Husbands is a feast of warm and cold hues and of close-ups, mostly of faces, as they betray the wealth of emotion that the characters seek to deny with their talk. There are also unforgettable group shots, in which bit characters behave in ways that are inexplicable to the protagonists and us alike. (There’s an audaciously surreal scene in which a drunken Gus, a dentist, tends to an uncontrollably laughing woman.) The intimacy of this film and its endless, hopeless subtext and element of counterpoint and ambiguity is head-spinning—this could be Cassavetes’s No Exit. With Husbands, the filmmaker fashioned a miasma of anguish, taking his aesthetic to its breaking point and in the process redefining it.
Given the improvisatory nature of shooting Husbands, the film naturally lends itself to visual inconsistencies that purposefully bolster a docudramatic “found” effect. Given those circumstances, this is still a remarkably consistent transfer, with vibrant, sometimes almost painterly colors, lovely flashes of light, clean backgrounds, and viscerally specific details, particularly in terms of facial close-ups and the fabrics of clothing. The monaural soundtrack boasts a similar vibrancy, and renders the dialogue in this very talky film, especially the frequent interruptions and altercations, with an exhilarating lucidity.
A new interview with frequent Cassavetes producer Al Rubin features several excellent stories, such as how the filmmaker faked a huge set piece to inspire Columbia Pictures to release and bankroll Husbands after the production had run out of money. Rubin also discusses Cassavetes’s frustration in the 1950s as an actor for hire, and how his methods grew out of a need for a greater and more original expressivity. Perhaps most vitally, Rubin refutes the myth that Cassavetes’s films were entirely improvised, as the scripts were altered and forged around improvisations. On the set, however, the primary improvisatory element was the blocking and movement of the camera. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine’s 2009 archive commentary offers quite a bit more detail on these methods as well, complementing the Rubin interview.
Another new interview, with actress Jenny Runacre, delves into the shooting of her troubling scenes opposite Cassavetes while plumbing the film’s sexual violence. Runacre also speaks of the work she’s done for other notable filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Ridley Scott. (On the set of The Duelists, Harvey Keitel told Runacre that Martin Scorsese made the cast of Mean Streets watch Husbands over and over.) Other odds and ends also address Cassavetes’s process, such as the 2009 featurette “The Story of Husbands—A tribute to John Cassavetes,” featuring Rubin and Ben Gazzara, and a new video essay that collects the filmmaker’s thoughts on acting to suggest a singular interview. An episode of The Dick Cavett Show finds Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk clowning around in a manner very similar to the behavior of their characters in the film, and an essay in the liner notes by filmmaker Andrew Bujalski beautifully articulates the “abstraction” of Cassavetes’s direction, as well as the sense of absence that governs Husbands.
Criterion outfits one of John Cassavetes’s greatest and most daring films with a stunning transfer and updated supplements that contextualize the filmmaker’s methods of creation.
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Jenny Runacre, Jenny Lee, Noelle Kao, John Kullers, Meta Shaw, Leola Harlow, Delores Delmar, Eleanor Zee, Claire Malis, Peggy Lashbrook, Sarah Felcher, David Rowlands Director: John Cassavetes Screenwriter: John Cassavetes Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video
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