Jack Nicholson’s performance as Robert Eroica Dupea in Five Easy Pieces is a marvel of carefully released physical energy. The actor can push himself out of a chair or roll a bowling ball contemptuously down a lane and tell you more about his character than many performers could with pages of motivational dialogue. You can’t take your eyes off of Nicholson in this film: He suggests an ambulatory shard of copper wire running around emitting sparks, or an emotional painter, his primary hue of choice being anger. No one projects rage like Nicholson does in the phenomenal run of projects that punctuate his career from the late 1960s (starting with Easy Rider) to 1980 (ending with The Shining). Nicholson understands a fundamental truth about Angry White American Men: that they’re often rightly or wrongly regarded as clowns, by themselves and by everyone else, and so their fury is inadvertently funny, which makes the men even madder, fueling an emotional perpetual motion machine that leaves them trapped in themselves. Nicholson’s gift, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s, is that he can dramatize both the humor and the horror of such a situation without diluting the force or pathos of either.
Robert is perhaps the most annoying kind of angry male: the guy with a privileged background and exceptional talents (as a classical pianist, in his case) doing his impression of the working-class hero—an archetype he fetishizes and despises, with particular emphasis on the latter. Yet Nicholson finds the sadness and vitality that’s at the center of Robert’s torment. Five Easy Pieces is composed of a series of loose, scruffy, funny, despairing sketches that pivot on the ludicrousness of the actor as a regular Joe—a contrivance that establishes Robert as an interloper into a life that doesn’t fit him, which he turns to out of a sense of spite that’s revealed to mask deep reservoirs of guilt and loneliness.
The actor’s iconic stature wasn’t quite cemented yet, but he’s obviously special, an “other” who doesn’t mesh with the extras who populate the settings as found objects, serving as testaments to the pop-cultural textures of 1970s America. This friction, between Nicholson’s blossoming stardom and the evocative ordinariness of the rest of the movie, is most famously embodied by the scene in the café when Robert demands toast by ordering a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad, but there are dozens of other anecdotes as amusing or telling. When two women come on to Robert at a bowling alley, he says their names, Betty and Twinky, with a prodigiously subtle mixture of disbelief, self-amusement, and anticipatory glee that would justify the film’s existence even if there were nothing else to it.
There’s quite a bit more to Five Easy Pieces, of course: It’s a haunting, incalculably influential film that helped, along with Easy Rider, to set the obsessive, unresolved, idiosyncratic tone for the 1970s American New Wave and the independent film movements of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that would follow it. Bob Rafelson directs in an exploratory manner that naturally syncs up with Nicholson’s intuitive performance, his formalism suggesting a fusion of vérité and expressionism. Tonally, the film is all over the place, swerving from droll comedy to melodramatic tragedy and back again, sometimes within a matter of seconds, and that’s to its credit. Watching Five Easy Pieces, you feel that anything can happen, sharing Robert’s feelings of instability.
The opening, in particular, is rich in tense, beautiful landscape shots of the California oil rigs where Robert works, which are ironic in this context for two reasons: The rigs represent plunder of the very nature that Rafelson’s allowing us to appreciate, and Robert is resolutely blind to the western gorgeousness he’s witnessing and defiling. Rafelson more or less prevents the film from fully embracing Robert’s disillusionment by allowing the audience to see and understand things beyond the protagonist’s depressed, distressingly narrow perimeter. But the filmmaker also verges on making sport of the people that Robert disdains, portraying the prototypical oil rigger’s life to be a cramped, hypocritical arrangement of braying children, nagging wives, ugly couches, and cheap, cold beer, with an occasionally merciless lack of grace notes.
Yet Rafelson keeps producing surprises, such as the best scene, when Robert climbs on the back of a truck in the middle of a traffic jam to play Chopin’s “Fantasy in F minor,” one of the “five easy pieces” of the title, which alludes to Robert’s uneasy relationship with his classical music tutelage. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the awful (the blaring car horns, which might consciously suggest Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend) and the transcendent (Robert’s unexpected homage to his rarefied roots) that produces a heightened approximation of the intersection between our dreams and reality. The film has aged remarkably well, as its expression of 1970s ennui unmistakably resembles the feelings of rootlessness that are seizing this country as it drifts further and further into a culture of corporatized sameness. The difference is that we might not even be permitted to enjoy the large expanses of American openness that Robert infuriatingly accepts as a given. Robert’s escape at the end of the film, merely the latest of many for him, is intended by Rafelson as a sign of damnation. But at least that option’s available to Robert. Now, the phrase “off the grid” boasts essentially mythological connotations in our phone-surveillance society, and our contemporary American New Wave is grappling with the dramatization of that trap, usually by retreating pointedly into the past, looking to films like Five Easy Pieces for guidance.
The image is gorgeous, perhaps revelatory for those who grew up watching Five Easy Pieces on TV or non-Criterion DVD. Most astonishingly, there’s the spruced up beauty of the opening scenes in the California oil fields, which have a wide, pristine majesty that’s reminiscent of Western epics like Giant. The cleanness of the image emphasizes the bold, iconic through lines that cinematographer László Kovács fashions, which he contrasts with the expressive grubbiness of the subsequent images of bowling alleys and cramped trailers. This transfer has big colors that nearly suggest Technicolor (at one point Jack Nicholson wears a jacket so red it probably intentionally likens his character to James Dean’s in Rebel Without a Cause), and textures are hyper-specifically tactile. The soundtrack is no less impressive. The sounds of the oil fields are appropriately rich and bass-y, suggesting a huge, sleeping animal, while diegetic effects subtly affirm Robert’s loneliness throughout the film. Minute aural grace notes, such as the scratching of a record that’s hastily shut off, complete the film’s heightened internal vision of external Americana.
These are the same supplements that were included with the Five Easy Pieces disc that was featured in Criterion’s box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, released in 2009. They justify the repetition however, as these documentaries are rich in interviews that paint an evocative portrait of the BBS production company (founded by director Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who later added Stephen Blauner) as existing at the forefront of the radically more democratic American cinema that arose in the 1960s as a reaction to the bloated, apolitical studio product that glutted cinemas (and now rules again). Rafelson’s a particularly engaging interviewee, and he’s notably willing to extend credit for his company’s success to a wide variety of collaborators, quietly refuting the mythologies of the auteur theory. “Soul Searching for Five Easy Pieces,” “BBStory,” and a documentary from 2009 featuring critic David Thompson and historian Douglas Brinkley complimentarily cover the studio’s ascension and could’ve been folded into one feature, but that’s a minor quibble. A more significant disappointment is the vague coverage these supplements accord the company’s decline, which is equally fascinating, if less inspiring, material. Rafelson’s commentary with ex-wife and interior designer Toby Rafelson is rich in telling anecdotes as well, though one wishes the two had been recorded at the same time in the same room with one another. Trailers, audio excerpts from a 1976 interview with Rafelson, and an essay by Kent Jones round out this solid but updateable package.
Five Easy Pieces is a film that continues to guide directors looking to illuminate American anxiety, offering a portrait of tattered, uncertain maleness that features one of the strongest performances by one of the best of all American actors. Consequently, the film has aged quite well, and this stunning Criterion transfer has just extended its already robust shelf life.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, Marlena MacGuire, Richard Stahl, Lois Smith, Helena Kallianiotes, Toni Basil Director: Bob Rafelson Screenwriter: Carole Eastman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 1970 Release Date: July 1, 2015 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video
Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.4.5
The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.
The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?
Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.
Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.
Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.
Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.
The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.
Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.
Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.
The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.
Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.
Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Yasujirô Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterion’s stunning transfer and small, but substantial, array of extras should inspire a serious re-evaluation of the film.4
In mid-20th century Japan, married couples frequently spent a significant amount of time apart, not unlike Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), the middle-aged couple at the center of Yasujirô Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. But their separateness from one another derives less from an adherence to cultural norms than a mutual stubbornness and refusal to compromise their deeply ingrained, class-informed attitudes. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is primarily defined by petty squabbles and white lies. While Taeko concocts an elaborate story that allows her to jet off to the spa with her friends, and later to a baseball game, Mokichi sneaks out for drinks after work with a co-worker, Noburo (Kôji Tsuruta), who soon drags him out to a pachinko parlor and bicycle races. In short, they take any excuse to be away from home, as the rare times that the couple are together typically lead to Taeko berating her husband for his boorish table manners and preference for cheap cigarettes and Mokichi respectfully taking note of his wife’s grievances, yet showing no sign of changing his own behavior.
Much of their tension stems from their disparate upbringings, as Taeko comes from a wealthy and traditional Tokyo family and Mokichi from a more restrictive rural family. Ozu further complicates the film’s notions of deeply rooted class division with the addition of the couple’s niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who frequently visits them, and whose presence in the narrative brings to the forefront post-war Japan’s increasing social anxieties due to Westernization and the shifting gender roles that came with it. It’s her decision to bail on a meeting with a potential mate for an arranged marriage that leads to Mokichi and Taeko’s biggest argument. But while this disagreement temporarily drives a wedge between the husband and wife, Setsuko’s rebellion ultimately serves as the catalyst that shakes Mokichi and Taeko from their marital stupor, forcing them to confront their deep-seated issues.
In Ozu’s post-war films, waning traditions and weakening family ties, often due to members of the younger generation striving to claim a sense of agency, are typically presented with a tinge of melancholy or as the cause of much adversity. Here, though Setsuko is certainly a disruptive force, her youthful ideals—particularly her desire to marry for love and alack of concern for class divisions—are shown in a resoundingly positive light, not only in her influence on Mokichi, but in her deepening bond with the working-class Noburo. The egalitarian nature of their courtship is a stark contrast to Mokichi and Taeko’s relationship, suggesting the possibility both of what their marriage could be, and, perhaps, what it once was.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice’s jubilant portrait of young love certainly hints at a brighter future for modern marriages, but Ozu eventually reveals a surprising depth of emotion and sensitivity in Mokichi and Taeko’s connection as well. When Taeko returns home after storming out on her husband days earlier, Ozu spends nearly four minutes lingering on her as she silently moves about her home in a state of rumination, growing increasingly eager for Mokichi’s return as she examines objects that remind her of him. Throughout this scene, Ozu cuts away several times to extended shots of empty spaces within the home, emphasizing Mokichi’s absence from the domestic space and the void it leaves behind for Taeko.
The dining table, which is foregrounded in numerous shots across the film and was the arena of much of the couple’s bickering, becomes the site of their reconciliation upon Mokichi’s sudden return. Realizing she misses her husband’s little eccentricities, Taeko invites Mokichi for a late-night snack, and as their maid (Yôko Kosono) is already asleep, they fumble throughout the kitchen together in a tender, humorous sequence where they function as equals for the first time in years. And, in a delicate grace note so typical of Ozu, the two sit across from one another, finally content to enjoy life’s simple pleasures (here, Mokichi’s favorite dish of green tea over rice) with one another, free of judgment and criticism.
Yasujirô Ozu’s film is defined by its faces and spaces, and Criterion’s stunning transfer, sourced from Shochiku’s new 4K restoration, offers a vivid rendering of both. The image is consistently sharp, boasting strong contrast and nicely balanced by an even distribution of grain, ensuring a slight filmlike softness is retained throughout. Faces, as well as the fabrics of suits and kimonos and objects in the foreground, are particularly rich in detail. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is evenly mixed, though its robustness is primarily noticeable in the noisy pachinko parlor or the rare, but moving, swells in Ichirô Saitô’s score.
This release may not come with a commentary track, but Criterion has done us one better by including a second feature-length film at no additional cost: Ozu’s delightful 1937 comedy What Did the Lady Forget? The film shares much of the same DNA as The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, with enough overlap in both plot and character to serve as a nice companion piece that lets one see how Ozu approached similar material before and after World War II. A new 25-minute video essay by film scholar David Bordwell offers an in-depth and enlightening breakdown of Ozu’s narrative and aesthetic strategies in this film, from the parallels between various couples and the division of men’s and women’s social worlds to food and drink-related motifs and the purpose behind Ozu’s slight and infrequent camera movements. Daniel Raim’s short, but very sweet, documentary Ozu & Noda explores the friendship and working relationship between Ozu and Kôgo Noda, his frequent screenwriting collaborator. The package is rounded out with an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida, who writes of, among other things, Ozu’s delicate balancing of class and gender concerns in the film.
Criterion’s stunning transfer and small, but substantial, array of extras should inspire a serious re-evaluation of one of Ozu’s most overlooked films.
Cast: Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure, Kôji Tsuruta, Chishû Ryû, Chikage Awashima, Keiko Tsushima, Kuniko Miyake, Eijirô Yanagi, Kôji Shitara, Yôko Kosono, Yûko Mochizuki Director: Yasujirô Ozu Screenwriter: Kôgo Noda, Yasujirô Ozu Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 116 min Rating: NR Year: 1952 Release Date: August 27, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman on the Criterion Collection
Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is a watershed moment of transition both in the filmmaker’s career and in world cinema.4.5
The subject of Ingmar Bergman’s self-designated Trilogy of Faith is nominally the absence of God in everyday life—a classical theological conundrum, perhaps, but it’s one that Bergman’s films suggest is made more acute by the distinctly modern threats of nuclear apocalypse, world war, and general social anomie. But the uniting theme of this trilogy may as well be the impossibility of intimate heterosexual relationships, as in each of these films the bonds that tie men and women together snap under pressure, or are already irreparably shattered.
In the first film, 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, Harriet Andersson gives a harrowing performance as Karin, a young woman whose mental health is in decline. At her family vacation home in northern Sweden with her father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), her teenaged brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), and her husband, Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin hears voices coming through the crack-ridden walls of a neglected attic room. In nearly silent, expressionistic sequence, Bergman evokes her simultaneous anguish and ecstasy as she experiences a kind of perverse rapture in the empty room. The film never visualizes Karin’s hallucinations, but it suggests their intensity by stylizing the room as a space of starkly contrasting lights and darks, the haunting glow coming from a single window seemingly not affecting the utter blackness of the splintered walls.
Meanwhile, the men in Karin’s life prove unable to humanely cope with her condition. She confesses to Minus her horrifying, sexually tinged fantasies of God visiting her in the form of a spider, and the sexually confused Minus becomes infatuated with her. David, a novelist, keeps his distance in part because of the guilt he feels for exploiting Karin’s illness, using it as the basis for a (highly eroticized) character in the book he’s writing. Karin discovers that even her bookish, outwardly sensitive husband has been keeping the true scope of her diagnosis from her, maintaining a diary in which he clinically logs the progress of her disease. Bergman’s bleak look at domestic life is shot through with suppressed and displaced sexual desire, a deconstruction of the family unit whose Freudian overtones are accentuated by the way the betrayal of the father is tantamount to the discovery of a malicious, sexually threatening god.
Bergman moved from Freud to Sartre, from anguished expressionism to dire asceticism, with 1963’s Winter Light, in which a doubt-plagued Lutheran minister, Tomas (Björnstrand), finds himself unable to offer solace to Jonas Persson (von Sydow), a member of his dwindling congregation for whom global nuclear proliferation has inspired intense existential panic. Persson commits suicide later the same afternoon, and Tomas must grapple not only with his own encroaching lack of faith, but not having provided the man with effective counsel. The image of a spider-as-God recurs—it’s now Persson’s image of a silent, creeping, and indifferent omnipotence that Tomas finds he must reconcile himself to.
Also in Winter Light, though, the dissolution of the bond between man and God manifests itself in a disturbance of the relations between men and women. Tomas’s crisis of faith is rooted in the death of his wife some years ago, since which time he’s been ardently cared for by his childhood friend, Märta (Ingrid Thulin). Märta is a local teacher who attends Tomas’s services despite her professed atheism, and whose unconditional love represents to Tomas a dual threat: Accepting it would mean not only moving past his wife’s death, but finally accepting that love is possible in the absence of God.
Winter Light captures the powerlessness of religion in a world overseen by an uncaring, de-anthropomorphized god, with Bergman’s lingering shots of listless churchgoers and a bored organist, lit by the pale sun of a brief winter’s afternoon, almost tending toward comedy of the absurd. Though the film isn’t without a sense of humor, it’s difficult to call it a comedy, particularly given its sober portrayal of utter helplessness, as well as the climactic confrontation between Märta and Tomas, in which Tomas hurls invective at the caring schoolteacher—not despite her abiding love for him, but because of it. Winter Light proves to be the strongest of these three classic films: Märta and Tomas are the trilogy’s most fully realized characters, much more than ciphers for a theological dialectic, and the film’s pared-down style puts the keenly felt performances by Björnstrand and Thulin at the center.
Bergman, of course, deserves much credit as a director of actors. The Silence, with its loose, meandering story, depends on commanding performances from Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom as Ester and Anna, a pair of sisters lodging in a hotel in an unnamed, presumably Eastern European country on the eve of war. In a classic modernist alienation device, Bergman doesn’t bother with a reason that the two sisters should be visiting the country; nor does he translate the smatterings of foreign dialogue we hear from natives throughout the film. True to the title, characters in the film are largely silent or unintelligible, and the hotel, seen through the eyes of Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), takes on qualities of a magical labyrinth.
There’s little direct conversation about God or religion in The Silence, but contextualized with the two previous films, it’s easy to see the film continuing the dissolution of the world and family that began in Through a Glass Darkly. A totally absent God leads to a splintered narrative, and a splintered family: Johan’s father is pointedly absent from the film, and a conflict between the sickly Ester and the beautiful Anne, based in sexual jealously and envy over Johan’s affections, leads to a schism between the sisters. In the stylistic evolution from the first film to the third, we can also see the Bergman who would direct 1966’s arthouse classic Persona emerging. The Silence isn’t only more avowedly modernist than the previous films in its intentional obscurity and penchant for the bizarre and alienating, but it also brings Bergman’s interest in women’s interior lives to the fore, for better and for worse.
The film would be notorious (and unexpectedly successful) upon its release for its frank depiction of female sexuality. What seemed scandalous and groundbreaking in 1963, however, often feels tame and fetishizing today. For one, Ester’s infamous masturbation scene, in which she appears to bring herself to climax in about four seconds, is laughably unrealistic, and watching the eroticized conflict between the sisters play out seems more like observing an alien species’ unhealthy sexual relations rather than gaining insight into female desire.
Nevertheless, The Silence is a landmark in early-‘60s European cinema, clearly in conversation with the innovations in the representation of time, space, and cognition being undertaken around the same time by filmmakers such as Alain Renais, Agnés Varda, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Bergman’s three films constitute a liminal trilogy, bridging not only two epochal worldviews, but also two styles of European filmmaking, arriving at a freer experimentation with narrative form. It’s logical, though, that the most compelling of these films remains Winter Light—the one whose story and style positions it just on the precipice of this dual transition—as it captures best the perpetual crisis that modernity has made of the present.
The transfers are derived from new 2K scans of each film, which exhibit marked improvements upon earlier home-video releases. These improvements are most readily apparent in Winter Light, whose use of bright, diffused light was washed out on the 2003 DVD. Here, the detail captured by Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is easier to appreciate, giving the anomalous shots of wooden crosses and altars in the austere Lutheran cathedral more inherent visual interest, without sacrificing the bleakness connoted by the uniformly lit space. The other two films make more use of high-contrast lighting, reproduced on the Blu-rays with stable blacks and an utter lack of visual artifacts. The sound for each film is based on remastered versions of the original 35mm soundtracks. The most striking aspect of the films that the remastered soundtracks bring to bear is, appropriately, their silence. Bergman’s sparing use of music, his methodical deployment of environmental sounds, and his emphasis on direct, piercing dialogue is more apparent on these tracks, which are free of hisses or pops.
Criterion’s re-release of this 2003 box set includes an entire fourth film: Vilgot Sjöman’s Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a documentary for Swedish television about the making of Winter Light. The film’s extended interviews with Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and in particular the pair’s discussion of their meticulous studies of how afternoon light is diffused in the space of a cathedral, add dimensions to second viewings of Winter Light.
The set compensates for its lack of commentary tracks with two introductions for each film: one by film scholar Peter Cowie, and another by Bergman himself, recorded at his home on the island of Fårö island in 2003. Cowie’s detailed introductions are particularly adept at providing biographical background to Bergman’s musings on religion. Bergman’s are comparatively brief, but there’s an inherent interest in watching the now-deceased octogenarian lounging in his private theater, discussing decades-old masterpieces. Also on the discs are archival interviews with Björnstrand, Andersson, and Nykvist, new to this edition of the trilogy. In all, the extras on the Blu-ray discs present a much more robust offering than on the 2003 release.
The booklet features an insightful analysis of the films as a “philosophical reduction” of religious certainty by film scholar Catherine Wheatley, as well as “God Said Nothing,” a brief excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography. While these new pieces are welcome, oddly missing are the three essays, by Cowie, Leo Braudy, and Peter Mathews, included on the 2003 release.
Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, a watershed moment of transition both in the filmmaker’s career and in world cinema, gets faithful treatment from the Criterion Collection.
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lars Passgård, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Allan Edwall, Kolbjörn Knudsen, Olof Thunberg, Elsa Ebbesen, Eddie Axberg, Jörgen Lindström, Birger Malmsten, Håkan Jahnberg, Eduardo Gutiérrez and the Eduardinis Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 266 min Rating: NR Year: 1961 – 1963 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s upgrade of one of the most important Italian films of the 1960s boasts a luminous restoration.3.5
The visual propulsiveness of Marco Bellocchio’s feature film debut, Fists in the Pocket, is its style. Prefiguring Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga by 35 years, this Italian gothic is immediately engrossed by the stagnant air that enshrines its milieu. Alberto Marrama’s camera affects a slow-moving fun house ride through a provincial Italian house and the world outside. It’s as if tracks have been placed on the characters’ exposed nerves and every path approaches abstraction. Indeed, it’s a disconcerting thing in a black-and-white film when a woman points to a line of prostitutes and says, “The one in red.”
The film, whose Ennio Morricone score suggests a hushed lullaby, is soaked in the iconography of a world in transition. Through a haze of simmering sexual tensions, suicide threats, seizure attacks, and slaps across the face emerges Alesandro (Lou Castel), a young man with the face of Doogie Howser and the personality of Stanley Kowalski. Implicit in his pathological behavior isn’t so much a gross disconnect from the world, but a mad desperation to transcend his forced provincialism and family: his mother (Liliana Gerace), a blind coot with perpetual circles around her eyes; Giulia (Paola Pitagora), who harbors incestuous feelings for her siblings; and the mentally handicapped youngest brother, Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio), who gets the most lucid declaration in the film (“What torture, living in this house”).
When Augusto (Marino Masé), the eldest son, learns of Alesandro’s plan to precipitate a “collective suicide,” his shock settles into what could be considered relief when his fiancée, Lucia (Jeannie McNeil), arrives on the scene, implying that he, too, believes that his salvation is dependent on his family’s demise. Throughout, Alesandro’s behavior recalls the mania of a caged animal, but often his crazed tricks reveal the animal in others. The graphic intensity of the film begins to lose its luster by film’s end, but if Alesandro’s behavior at a party is any indication, perhaps Bellocchio is attempting to spoof Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and, by extension, to reveal his main character’s misguided sense of privilege. The film comes on strong—no Linda Blair-style pisser in the living room to foreshow its fireworks—and, perhaps appropriately, ends with something close to an exorcism.
Fists in the Pocket underwent a significant restoration in 2015, performed at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and the results are luminous. Grain is nice and thick throughout, with strong contrast between blacks and whites, especially in the film’s interiors. Criterion’s 2006 DVD was laced with edge enhancement, so this is a significant improvement. The 1.0 monarual soundtrack, though it gives a nice boost to the Ennio Morricone score, still leaves much to be desired, as dialogue is mixed a little low, even if it’s discernable throughout.
A collection of interviews with director Marco Bellocchio, actors Lou Castel and Paola Pitagora, editor Silvano Agosti, and critic Tullio Kezich are stitched together to provide a light overview of the film’s evolution and status today. A separate interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, also pulled from the 2006 DVD release, sees the filmmaker placing Fists in the Pocket, along with his own Before the Revolution, in the context of Italy’s political climate in the mid-1960s. The only new extra on this release is an interview with scholar and NYU professor Stefano Albertini, who passionately speaks to force of Bellocchio’s vision and the film’s controversy upon its initial release. Rounding out the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer and Deborah Young original essay, which places Firsts in the Pocket in the context of Bellocchio’s other works and provides a generous reading of the film’s characters.
Criterion’s upgrade of one of the most important Italian films of the 1960s boasts a luminous restoration that practically counts as an act of heroism.
Cast: Lou Castel, Paola Pitagora, Marino Masé, Liliana Gerace, Jeannie McNeill, Gianni Schicchi, Mauro Martini, Stefania Troglio, Pier Luigi Troglio, Irene Agnelli Director: Marco Bellocchio Screenwriter: Marco Bellocchio Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession on the Criterion Collection
The film was a decisive turning point for Sirk, kicking off a beloved string of loopy ‘50s melodramatic masterpieces.4
Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession wasn’t the German expatriate’s first film made in Hollywood, his first collaboration with frothy producer Ross Hunter, or his first dabbling in the genre of melodrama. It isn’t even, by the measure of your average Sirk enthusiast, his first masterpiece. But, in retrospect, it was the decisive turning point in his late career boom, in which he crafted deliriously purplish, deeply jaded women’s weepies that only later became revered for both celebrating and critiquing the excesses of red-blooded, middle-American 1950s entertainment.
And it’s no softball first pitch: Fate, irony, faith, altruism, martinis, speedboats, instantaneous blindness, exotic European clinics, secular Christianity, charitable sexuality, and modernist interior design are all ladled onto novelist Lloyd C. Douglas’s rickety narrative frame without so much as the whisper of a suspicion that the whole enterprise ought to collapse even without the added weight of Sirk’s soon-to-be trademark Brechtian skepticism. In short, Magnificent Obsession is perhaps the first Sirk film to call to mind Stuart Klawans’s memorable description of “film follies,” in the essential book of the same name: “These are movies for people who want to die from too much cinema.”
Of course, Sirk’s ‘50s melodramas are far too rigorous and tightly wound to ever merit comparison to the delightful fiscal irresponsibility of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, even if occasionally his subject matter approached emotional recklessness of a comparable magnitude. Sirk’s specialty during this rarified period was chronicling with a merciless analytical bent (good humor? Bad faith?) the mechanics of American soapers. It’s become a cliché to celebrate Sirk now for his cold, ruthless take on social mores, and to overcompensate for deconstructing not only those behavioral habits, but also how pop culture reflects and feeds them.
What people don’t quite give the filmmaker credit for nowadays in their rush to justify his intellectual credentials is the fact that if he didn’t necessarily believe in the cheesecake he served up, he gave off a damned good impression that he did—which is why Sirk’s reputation endures while many of his contemporaries fall continually in and out of fashion. The proof is in Magnificent Obsession’s goopy pudding. Unlike All That Heaven Allows (with that shot of Jane Wyman trapped inside a TV set that all but writes the dissertation for you), Written on the Wind (the ultimate example of Sirk’s sympathy for society’s devils and contempt for virtue), and Imitation of Life (a film that for 50 years now has mopped the floor with any other attempt to tackle America’s never-to-be-resolved race crisis), Magnificent Obsession is really and truly utter trash. And it’s unapologetically entertaining.
The film opens with a breathless orgasm of proofs to Murphy’s Law. Rock Hudson’s callous playboy, Bob Merrick, after getting into a 180mph boating accident basically because he can afford it, is saved by a special medical device invented by a doctor on the other side of the lake. But this doctor happens to have a heart attack at the very moment his device is saving Hudson’s life, after which Bob spends a long and frosty recuperation at the hospital run by—guess who? It ends with a medical miracle that sees Bob himself attempting a lifesaving operation on that doctor’s widow, Helen Phillips (Wyman), but not before achieving a mystical spiritual rebirth and, just for the ladies, scrubbing down in the longest shirtless surgical prep scene in cinematic history. Somewhere in between those two story points, Bob indirectly causes Helen to go blind, discovers something like a god in the form of a cryptically gay-ish artiste (Otto Kruger), entertains Helen with the help of an adolescent live-action Peppermint Patty (Judy Nugent), and goes a little gray at the temples. Helen, meanwhile, cries.
Sirk takes this plot, already committed to film in workmanlike fashion by John M. Stahl in 1935, and accentuates all the aspects that shouldn’t work: incidental coincidences, irrational decisions, sermons of nebulous denomination. His commitment to the ridiculous is what finesses that trademark Sirkian irony, but it’s not a safe, intelligent irony. One can’t watch the film today in the same way one would All That Heaven Allows, focusing on Sirk’s ahead-of-his-time attack on small-town mentality. Magnificent Obsession is a more mysterious beast, one that doesn’t work without a belief in Sirk’s form. In that sense, it’s the ultimate litmus test. If you pass, you might also come to realize that Bob’s decision to overthrow rationality because the cherub choir swells to a crescendo is the film’s best self-fulfilling metaphor.
When Magnificent Obsession first appeared on Criterion DVD in 2009, the video transfer was solid, if not quite the quantum leap forward from the 2001 DVD edition of All That Heaven Allows. (Frankly, the transfer on the studio’s 2001 DVD version of Written on the Wind was superior.) Now that Criterion’s taken a second crack at Magnificent Obsession, it’s unquestionably the most attractive Criterion release of a Douglas Sirk film on the market. The colors are still not dazzling per se, but they’re appropriately saturated in a way that seems an acceptable truce between melodrama and veracity. In any case, the traces of edge enhancement that plagued specific scenes in the DVD are nowhere to be seen here. So long as you don’t go in expecting a Suspiria-like level of kaleidoscopic colors, it’s downright flawless. The sound mix is uncompressed on the Blu-ray—not that it opens up things much beyond what the DVD accomplished, given 1950s sound technology.
Until such time comes as Criterion finally gets around to their Written on the Wind upgrade, this and All That Heaven Allows remain two parts of a bonus-feature trilogy waiting for the third to arrive. Luckily, there’s still more than enough to keep fans busy. First is an audio commentary by Thomas Doherty that’s probably a little more studied and less revelatory than the film’s tone merits, but overall rich with detail and insight. But for my money, Allison Anders hits the mark a little more squarely in her brief introductory video piece about the film, in which she talks about the shock of seeing Rock Hudson’s silky hospital pajamas. Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, comes off as nothing if not self-aggrandizing. On the second disc is a feature-length interview with Sirk shot in the final years of his life; despite the bizarre, Night and Fog-suggestive credits, it’s an essential forum for Sirk’s matter-of-fact assessment of his work in Hollywood. Finally, Criterion includes as an extra feature John M. Stahl’s 1935 version of the film starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. The disc’s liner notes by Geoffrey O’Brien make a lot of nice observations about the film and how it influenced Sirk’s remake, but I imagine most Sirk fans will find it oddly bloodless. (For one thing, this purported melodrama has less incidental music than most Iranian films I’ve seen.)
Magnificent Obsession was a decisive turning point for Douglas Sirk, kicking off a beloved string of loopy ‘50s melodramatic masterpieces.
Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, Gregg Palmer, Sara Shane, Paul Cavanagh, Judy Nugent, George Lynn, Richard H. Cutting, Robert B. Williams, Will White, Helen Kleeb Director: Douglas Sirk Screenwriter: Robert Blees Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: August 20, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on the Criterion Collection
With this extraordinary transfer, Criterion honors the profound hothouse intensity of Spike Lee’s greatest film.5
Spike Lee’s films have always deftly worked comedy into tragedy. In School Daze, he stages the psychologically self-destructive conflict between light- and dark-skinned black girls as a jazzy, old Hollywood musical showstopper. In Jungle Fever, Samuel L. Jackson’s Gator gives his unforgiving father one last dance he made up just for his mom, and hustles his way into an early grave. Crooklyn’s loopy Aunt Song discovers her lost dog’s corpse when it catapults out of the hide-a-bed like a canine Pop-Tart. And in Do the Right Thing, his uncontestable masterpiece, and one American cinema’s unimpeachable classics, Lee deftly follows the actions of two dozen people on what turns out to be one of the longest, hottest, most memorable and maybe most tragic days of their lives. And he does it without so much as a single lugubrious or extraneous moment.
In fact, Lee swings for the fences from frame one, with Rosie Perez’s Tina thrusting, grinding, kicking, and boxing her frustrations out to Do the Right Thing’s uncompromising musical leitmotif, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Lee’s scenario restricts him to a rough baker’s dozen hours in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant on what newspapers are warning will likely be the hottest day of the year. Assisted by a trio of old men sitting idly in front of a blazing red wall (the film’s Greek chorus, if you will), Lee introduces a fully functional community at various stages of wit’s end, even before the sun has hit high noon. In an almost exclusively African-American and Puerto Rican and largely lower-middle-class section of Bed-Stuy, residents are both fed and economically mocked by the only two successful businesses in the area: a corner market run by Koreans and a pizzeria owned and operated by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello), a gruff but genial soul who rather presumptuously assumes himself to be the neighborhood paterfamilias. Aside from his two sons (one racist, the other naïve), Sal also employs and acts as surrogate father to Mookie (Lee), who serves as the neighborhood’s unofficial liaison between Sal and his clientele.
Even before Bed-Stuy’s race relations unravel in the heat, Do the Right Thing strives for insistent political consciousness, which is to say that Lee doesn’t just bring up political topics but dares to actually take positions. (In one scene, he films a benign conversation about the pitfalls of interracial, intergenerational courtship in front of a brick wall bearing the graffiti message “Tawana told the truth,” referring to the alleged rape of Tawana Brawley at the hands of, among other white men, New York cops.) Sometimes the politics are conservatively combative, as when a white cyclist, Clifton (John Savage), scuffs Buggin Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) pristine Air Jordans and justifies his right to gentrify Bed-Stuy with a curt “I was born in Brooklyn.” Other times the politics are more provocatively combative, as in the Brechtian interlude in which Mookie, Pino, and other representatives of the block spew as many hateful racial slurs as they can manage, some of which are wickedly funny (the white cop calls an off-screen Puerto Rican a “pointy-shoes red-wearing Menudo mira-mira cocksucker”).
Some reviewers, largely the same nervous nellies who warned that the film might incite race riots, took issue with Lee’s perceived free pass to eschew political correctness, especially in Bush I’s “kinder, gentler nation.” But that’s precisely the point of Do the Right Thing. It takes political concepts away from the lip service of cloistered authority figures, including the film’s dirty cops, and dissects them through the lives of those who are forced to live by them. In this context, DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy’s (Jackson) stately, nearly two-and-a-half-minute roll call of great black musicians carries as much weight of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee’s deceptively vibrant pop comedy is both freewheeling and, as Do the Right Thing’s final half hour reveals, extraordinarily calculated. When tempers spiral out of control and police arrive on the scene and grave injustice is meted out on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the disruption is a direct slap to shake audiences out of their complacency. But rather than react with solemnity, Lee shoots the resulting riot with the same angular, fish-eyed, oversaturated effects as he uses for earlier, funnier moments, again aligning tragedy with comedy and suggesting that the powers that be can strike at any given moment. And because the racially charged dialogue early in the film is presented in the same cinematic context as what’s a pretty clear-cut case of institutionalized race hate, Lee manages to suggest a clear political position while still admitting there are never any simple answers. Instead of ending the film on a note of mutual understanding between Sal and Mookie, as originally scripted, Lee instead closes on a note of fragile, quizzical acknowledgment. Nothing more.
What critics in 1989 called incendiary and angry should more accurately be characterized as challenging. Do the Right Thing is no staid civics lesson; rather, it’s a microcosmic test case in the form of a seamless ensemble piece. Anyone who thinks that Spike Lee joints are always disappointing would be forgiven for thinking so if they’re comparing the filmmaker’s works against this perfectly balanced one. If other films in his body of work have approached Do the Right Thing in confidence, few by Lee or anyone else have better feng shui. Like Rear Window to Alfred Hitchcock, like Nashville to Robert Altman, like Playtime to Jacques Tati, Lee’s Do the Right Thing is an undiluted representation of its creator’s artistic command.
This image boasts outstanding clarity and vitality, improving significantly on prior restorations of Do the Right Thing. Colors explode off the screen, especially the primary hues that lend the film a kind of hothouse poetry, and textures are viscerally sharp. One can clearly make out everything from the pores of the characters’ skin to the grit of the streets to the minute little details of Sal’s pizza pies. This upgrade serves to further reaffirm the intoxicating intimacy of Spike Lee’s communal morality play, which of course renders the violence all that more disturbing. (The police baton used to kill Radio Raheem positively gleams, reflecting a street light.) The 5.1 speaker audio track is similarly impeccable, and similarly intensifies the film’s violence. Every little sound resounds with vivid vibrancy, especially the sounds of the characters walking the streets, which contrast in accordance with their varying ages and bodies. (Da Mayor’s shambling tread goes a long way to establishing his worldview and personality.) The film’s astute use of music, from Bill Lee’s jazz score to Public Enemy’s iconic “Fight the Power,” is also accorded a full and balanced soundstage.
Somewhat disappointingly, this mammoth collection only includes a few new extras, such as an interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter and a program in which New York City Council member Robert Cornegy Jr., writer and director Nelson George, and filmmaker Darnell Martin discuss New York City in the 1980s while examining Do the Right Thing’s social significance. However, the archive extras, mostly ported over from prior Criterion editions, still offer a fantastic glimpse into the making of the film, particularly footage of a table read, in which we see Lee giving the actors notes early into the process of bringing his screenplay to life. Meanwhile, the St. Clair Bourne-directed “Making of Do the Right Thing” documentary offers an observational look at how Lee’s production affected the neighborhood in which it was shot, and is complemented by a short program called “Back to Bed-Stuy.”
The best supplement, especially for aspiring filmmakers, is still the 1995 audio commentary by Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee. Lee talks about character motivation as well as Do the Right Thing’s political significance, while Dickerson and Thomas offer sharp detail about the shaping of the film’s aesthetic. (Most memorably, Dickerson discusses a “formula for creating sunlight,” in which he tried to convey the sun’s shifting presence as well as the profound heat of the setting.)
In one of the many intros peppered throughout the set, Lee addresses the troubling reviews the film received at the time, in which critics seemed to be more offended by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria than by Radio Raheem’s murder. Offering a further deep dive into Lee’s mindset and working methods is a booklet including an excerpt from a journal he kept in 1988, as he was moving from School Daze on to Do the Right Thing, as well as an essay by critic Vinson Cunningham. A whole host of other odds and ends offer texture as to how Do the Right Thing was created and subsequently received, including a Cannes press conference, a breakdown of the storyboarding of the riot scene, and a collection of extended and deleted scenes.
With this extraordinary transfer, Criterion honors the profound hothouse intensity of Spike Lee’s greatest film.
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, John Savage, Samuel J. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Steve White, Martin Lawrence Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Spike Lee Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit
The film’s cheeky, satirical take on the inevitable friction between scientific progress and capitalism remains as relevant today as ever.3.5
Alexander Mackendrick’s first two films, both made at Ealing Studios, concern commodities who revolt against their simple market value and assume the properties of myth. This may sound like naïve fantasy, but myth can wreak havoc on a delicate balance of supply and demand. In Mackendrick’s debut, Whiskey Galore, for instance, a vessel carrying 50,000 bottles of the titular beverage wrecks on the shores of a small Scottish isle turned miserably teetotal by the maritime vicissitudes of war. The question that soon follows is whether booze is better stolen (and untaxed) or sunken (and un-imbibed). You can guess in which direction popular opinion swings.
The Man in the White Suit rewrites this fiscal fiasco for fewer and more intensely satirical characters. Instead of a devoutly liquored Scottish town, the setting is a Dickensian city both darkened and kept prosperous by the belching of factory smokestacks; instead of high-proof flotsam, the plot device is a test-tube fabric that, courtesy of some chemical mumbo jumbo, never dirties, tears, or wears down. But while superficially a retread, this sophomore effort improves upon its predecessor’s template by transforming the everyday more redolently into the mythic. The unbreakable and highly luminous threads from which the film’s invincible garments are loomed feel suspiciously borrowed from the spindle of the Fates—as fire was from Mount Olympus in the Promethean story.
The film also provides us with a single antihero, chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), rather than Whisky Galore’s united front. Compelled by irrepressible vocational ambition to concoct the perfect, everlasting fabric, Stratton bounces between several mills in the same town as a low-level employee, eventually fleeing from each after his pricey, on-the-sly lab work is found out. As he scurries between the industry’s largely interchangeable competitors, stuffy textile moguls (played by Cecil Parker and Michael Gough, among others) broker deals behind closed doors, even proposing marriage to one another’s daughters for leverage. Stratton’s interests and those of the mills’ owners are thus in one sense contrapuntal; while his bosses’ eyes are fixed on product rather than object, the chemist pulls off the distracting price tag and tinkers with the material behind it. But as Stratton’s experimentation grows more obsessive, his zeal for individual glory and his blindness to the needs of the marketplace achieve a troubling consonance with the pomposity of the ruling class he disdains.
Much of The Man in the White Suit’s charm resides in how gradually and effortlessly we discover this Promethean protagonist’s crippling myopia. As Stratton soldiers on through two acts of failure with youthful confidence, we can’t help but sympathize with his cause; it’s excruciating when an early essay at polymer construction succeeds only to be thrown down the drain by meddling colleagues. Curious cracks in Stratton’s intentions, however, start to irk us along the way. He has a habit, for instance, of examining rhythmically chugging apparatuses with the patiently lecherous eyes of a hungry lover. And the labs in which he toils, as photographed by Douglas Slocombe, are deep, brightly lit caverns penetrated with rigid shadow-geometries. When Stratton is later “offered” the sympathetic daughter, Daphne (Joan Greenwood), of a mill owner in return for the rights to his invention, he rejects her quite plausibly. It’s not, of course, that he’s uninterested in sex, but that his work among graduated cylinders and their viscous contents is sex. What match is a single woman for a harem of lovingly animated tubes and pumps that explode when improperly handled?
In the film’s final act, Stratton’s erotic relationship with his work has climaxed and produced an unholy offspring: the un-soilable and brilliantly glowing suit of the title, which Stratton intends as the prototype for a revolution. In response, mill owners and humble employees alike rise up against him, fearing that his ur-couture will slow production and ruin the industry. This homogenizing of class hierarchy into survival-motivated antagonism notably recalls the cop and crook alliance of Fritz Lang’s M, an unavoidable analogy that devilishly puts Stratton on par with a recidivist child killer. And yet Stratton is also no different from any one of us at our most irrationally determined to succeed. Mackendrick’s wickedly intelligent film thus posits a fame-hungry chemist as the single degree of spiritual separation between a pederast monster and a film-going public who cannot help but dream big for the future.
That Stratton proves so unable to resist his hubris surely provides The Man in the White Suit with a cautionary subtext, but this is beautifully complicated by an ending that denies the possibility of rehabilitation. Stratton experiences a moment of bothersome empathy when an elderly woman asserts that his magic clothes will put her cleaning service out of business, but the revelation doesn’t stick. At the final frame, Stratton gleefully prepares to revisit his sexy test tubes and economy-collapsing concepts, and we find our sympathy for him renewed. A fate of scalding hot ambition is, after all, less desirable than even the shackles that held Prometheus to a rock as eternal punishment for stealing fire.
Some shots show minor signs of wear and tear in the form of scratches and debris, though rarely for more than a few seconds at a time. Otherwise, Kino’s transfer is consistently sharp, with crisp detail extending from the minutest of facial features to deep into the backgrounds. A healthy amount of film grain is also present throughout, lending the film a softness that prevents it from appearing overly digital. The famed, titular white suit is appropriately luminescent whenever it’s on screen, but the contrast is really quite strong throughout, with the shadow-filled rendezvous between Stratton and Daphne late in the film standing out as particularly impressive in its rendering. The DTS-HD audio track is evenly mixed except for various sound effects such as explosions and the comical gurgling of elaborate scientific contraptions that are brought forward in the mix for emphasis.
Film historian Dean Brandum’s exceedingly dry commentary will be a bit tough sit for any but the biggest fans of Alexander Mackendrick’s film, as he’s prone to pregnant pauses and lengthy digressions about box-office numbers and the popular success of various British films, his academic focus. But the back half of the commentary is rewarding for the way he teases out the film’s various thematic threads. Especially of note is his reading of Joan Greenwood and Vida Hope’s characters as stand-ins for capital and labor, respectively, and his calling out of the film’s ending as a bit of a copout. There’s also an interview with director Stephen Frears, critic Ian Christie, and British film historian Richard Darce that touches on the state of Britain’s film industry after the war, Mackendrick’s standing as the iconoclast of Ealing Studios, and Greenwood’s strong performance in the lead female role. It’s a bit on the short side at just under 15 minutes but serves as a nice complement to the feature commentary.
The film’s cheeky, satirical take on the inevitable friction between scientific progress and capitalism remains as relevant today as ever.
Cast: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope Director: Alexander Mackendrick Screenwriter: John Dighton, Roger MacDougall, Alexander Mackendrick Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1951 Release Date: September 3, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut
Lionsgate’s lavish presentation of the film’s various cuts represents the latest high-water mark for a catalog studio release.5
As much a magnum opus as it is a film maudit, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now may be the most debated film of the New Hollywood era. Lauded and condemned for its psychedelic vision of the Vietnam War, the film needs little in the way of introduction. Its transposition of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness is equal parts lucid and incoherent, boasting some of the most famous, epically scaled sequences in all of cinema that nonetheless remain fundamentally claustrophobic articulations of fear, paranoia, and loathing. Such scenes as the helicopter raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and dialogue like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” have thoroughly seeped into the cultural lexicon. No matter how many times one views Coppola’s film, Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) boat ride into hell never loses its sense of unease.
Coming off three of the most tightly ordered, structurally precise films of the New Hollywood era, Coppola’s embrace of the ambiguities of impressionism, both in Apocalypse Now’s storytelling and its aestheticism, naturally felt like an unexpected left turn for the filmmaker. Vittorio Storaro’s yellow-tinted cinematography invokes napalm and Agent Orange, while the sense of time’s passage increasingly evaporates with each dissolve transition. The deeper that Willard and his boat crew sink into the jungle, the more the film’s colors blur and bleed, reflecting the soldiers’ increasing disconnection from reality. Pitch-black night scenes are suddenly illuminated by throbbing white balls of phosphorous that burn hazily in the air like miniature stars. Even the actors sound as if they’re subsumed in a kind of fever dream, none more so than Marlon Brando, who laconically delivers Colonel Kurtz’s deranged ramblings, every word gathering like moisture in his mouth before indifferently trickling out of it.
In the decades since its release, Apocalypse Now has been the subject of fierce and understandable debate over its depiction of Vietnam, from the film’s Americentric perspective to its reductive view of the Vietnamese as an unknowable “other.” It presents the country entirely removed from context, a mysterious realm that most of the men sent to fight there couldn’t find on a map. The 2001 “Redux” cut of the film, which added nearly an hour to the theatrical cut’s running time, attempted to redress this by including material that Coppola shot that dealt more explicitly with Vietnam’s history, particularly in scenes set in an isolated rubber plantation, where a French colonial family appear trapped like ghosts.
That edition is included here, as is Coppola’s newly crafted “Final Cut,” which splits the difference between the two versions, retaining the scenes set at the plantation while omitting some of the scenes that were rightly left out of the theatrical cut, such as the second encounter between Willard’s crew and the Playboy bunnies visiting on a U.S.O. tour. The film, notoriously ambiguous and irresolute in any form, gives the impression of being endlessly malleable and open to Coppola’s notorious impulse for revising his filmography. Indeed, given the free-form possibilities of Apocalypse Now’s dream logic, the new cut’s judicious pruning of the “Redux” assembly is surprisingly conservative for a filmmaker who originally planned his 2011 film Twixt for a format that allowed real-time editing during projection.
Apocalypse Now’s “Final Cut” streamlines the flabby excesses of the “Redux” version, but in truth, the theatrical cut remains the definitive, if most problematic, edit of the film. Absent the modest attempts at historical context of the other two cuts, the theatrical version plunges us into the heads of its characters with dizzying abandon. Its portrait of Vietnam may be dishonest, but in its nightmarish hallucination is something close to the truth of the madness of reflexive imperialism. Apocalypse Now is a film about the consequences of instinctively invading a place one knows nothing about, and in that sense the film’s flaws of perspective can just as easily be seen as the embodiment of its thematic preoccupation. That a film so caustic and surreal in its view of the Vietnam War has largely become the dominant cultural image of the conflict in America is strange, but it speaks to Coppola’s intuitive vision of the war as collective insanity that Apocalypse Now’s phantasmagoria so often rings true.
Lionsgate’s previous Blu-ray of Apocalypse Now was of exceptional quality, but its transfer was sourced from an interpositive. For the first time, Francis Ford Coppola has been able to restore his film directly from the negative, and the results are stunning. Flesh tones are natural and detail is so fine that in some shots you can practically count the threads on soldiers’ roughly sewn fatigues. Apocalypse Now’s colors have always had an inherently smudgy quality, and that aspect is retained here even as the transfer shows a crisper image than ever before. Color separation is more precise, allowing for greater contrast in picture quality. Also, the black levels across the nighttime sequences are much deeper than they were on previous releases of the film, while grain is more evenly distributed throughout.
Apocalypse Now was a watershed in theatrical sound mixing, and prior home-video releases of the film boasted soundtracks so pristine that you can use them to calibrate your speaker setups. With this release, though, Coppola has reached new heights, restoring the original audio tracks into a new Dolby Atmos mix that’s wholly engrossing. Directional sound effects move almost three-dimensionally, so delicately are they mixed between and within channels, and Carmine Coppola’s electronically tinged, hypnotically dissonant score thrums with new life. All three versions of the film have been restored from the negative and given Dolby Atmos mixes, making for perfect quality no matter which track you opt for.
Just as Lionsgate’s last Blu-ray edition of Apocalypse Now boasted reference-quality audio and video, so, too, were its extras exhaustive. This six-disc release includes everything from the previous release, including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which as become as legendary at this point as the film its documents. There are too many extras to enumerate, with featurettes on every single aspect of the film’s production, from its casting to its sound mixing. There are deleted scenes, including an entire alternate ending where Kurtz’s compound is napalmed, as well as audio from a 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of Joseph Conrad’s novella. Astonishingly, there are even more extras this time around, with the final disc containing the documentary and a wealth of new, retrospective features that detail Apocalypse Now’s latest audio and visual restoration. There’s also additional behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a Q&A between Coppola and Steven Soderbergh.
Lionsgate’s lavish presentation of Apocalypse Now’s various cuts represents the latest high-water mark for a catalog studio release.
Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Harrison Ford Director: Francis Ford Coppola Screenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 182 min Rating: R Year: 1979 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Day of the Outlaw is one of the finest, lesser-sung westerns of Hollywood’s golden age.3.5
André De Toth’s final western, Day of the Outlaw, is the rare entry in the genre to take place across a landscape blanketed in snow, whose temperatures are as biting as the long-gestating feud between the homesteaders of a small town and a local rustler, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan). Blaise’s contempt for the townspeople infuses every interaction, and in particular his dealings with rancher Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), and early scenes use minimal camera movement to reflect Blaise’s clenched-jawed attempts at civility. De Toth swiftly communicates the long-running hatred between the two men, from their hostile dialogues to Blaise’s romantic past with Hal’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise), who’s so scared for her husband’s life that she offers to resume her affair with Blaise if it will keep the peace.
Just as these tensions start to boil over, however, Day of the Outlaw pulls a bait-and-switch, abruptly shifting gears with the intrusion of a gang of robbers hiding out from a bank heist. The group is led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), an AWOL Army captain who fancies himself a noble criminal. But in a film that’s already established its protagonist as a raging, loathsome man, there’s no room here for romantic notions of crime. No sooner has Jack been introduced as the ringleader of the robbers than the filmmakers underline his powerlessness to control them; as he insists that the other criminals leave the women of the town alone, the men only laugh at him. Later, when Jack forces a local veterinarian (Dabbs Greer) to remove a bullet lodged in him, Jack feebly instructs Blaise to keep the town in check and that he will control his own men, and the frailty in his post-op delirium gives further lie to his illusion of control.
De Toth’s images are by and large static, and punctuated by slow, deliberate movements of the camera, effectively communicating the pervasive sense of isolation that grips both the occupied townspeople and the marauders, who increasingly reveal their pathetic inability to think further than their immediate desires. In most westerns, towns suggest small oases of civilization and habitability away from the inhospitable deserts outside their borders, but in Day of the Outlaw, the opposite is true. Here, lush groves of trees surround the town, but the city itself is a trammeled and filthy place of muddy, slushy roads. Interiors are sparsely decorated, leaving little to distract the invaders from their rapacious thoughts.
The misery of the setting at times unites the townsfolk and bandits. The film’s most stirring scene is a grotesque show of social conviviality, in which the thieves, looking to relieve their tensions, careen around a tavern with the local women helplessly clutched to their chests, all the while the camera whipping around them. Watching this hideous display are Blaise and Jack, disgusted but powerless to intervene for fear of causing violence. Indeed, for a film predicated upon Blaise regaining his connection to his community in defense from outside foes, Day of the Outlaw bleakly equates Blaise and Jack throughout, and both Ryan and Ives play their parts with a dejection that undermines even their characters’ most intimidating shows of force. Released in 1959, the film feels a full decade ahead of its time, a revisionist western before the term existed that posits its characters as existentially trapped by an unforgiving landscape where violence, however ruinous, seems logical, even necessary.
Kino’s transfer doesn’t consistently disguise the age of its source material. Numerous shots display faint flickering effects, and many of the images lack for sharpness. But the high-contrast black-and-white photography is by and large crisp and balanced throughout. The lossless mono is likewise restricted by the limitations of its source, with sound effects too cleanly separated and poorly mixed together, but there are no flaws in the track itself, and dialogue, music, and sound effects are all rendered clearly.
An informative but accessible audio commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold covers Day of the Outlaw in rich detail. Arnold is especially perceptive in regard to strength of the film’s performances and André De Toth’s visual choices.
Day of the Outlaw is one of the finest, lesser-sung westerns of Hollywood’s golden age, and a precursor to the revisionist western, making this disc a must-own for fans of the genre.
Cast: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Lana Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson Director: André De Toth Screenwriter: Philip Yordan Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: August 27, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin on Film Movement Blu-ray
The Reflecting Skin looks stunning on this Blu-ray release, but it’s hard to overlook the dearth of special features.3.5
What Blue Velvet did for the comforting myths of suburban innocence, The Reflecting Skin attempted to do for rural America. With its picturesque farmhouses and golden-hued fields of wheat that seem to have popped straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, the world of Philip Ridley’s 1990 film evokes a warm feeling of nostalgia, but there’s an evil lurking just below the surface, one that reveals itself in ways both monumental (the atomic bomb) and minute (the mummified corpse of an infant abandoned in an old church).
The film is filled with odd, haunting images and occurrences—an exploding frog, a duo of creepy clucking women, a photograph of a Japanese child with literally mirrored skin—all of which the audience experiences through the eyes of young Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper). The eight-year-old lives on the Idaho prairie with his harsh, overworked mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), and distant father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), a closeted gay man who spends most of his time sitting around reading pulp novels.
A strange, improbably named widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), has just moved in next door, and Seth soon comes to believe she’s a vampire, a suspicion that’s intensified when Seth’s brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), returns from military duty and strikes up a romantic relationship with the older woman. And as if all this weren’t dark and disturbing enough, the film takes an even bleaker turn with the disappearance of Seth’s pal, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee), and the subsequent allegation that Seth’s dad is to blame.
Ridley peppers his pitch-black narrative with a vast array of themes, symbols, and motifs—skin, birds, water, nuclear warfare, and death—but the film’s exact meaning remains elusive. In part, that’s due to the filmmaker’s admirable refusal to spell out a message or reduce The Reflecting Skin’s meaning to some one-note allegory, but it’s also due to his muddled direction. Ridley’s handling of actors is particularly weak, as everyone except Mortensen and Duncan suggests overemphatic community theater performers. It also doesn’t help that the film’s tantalizing ambiguity is consistently steam-rolled by Nick Bicât’s overwrought score.
Still, it’s exciting to see a film attempt to strike such a distinct tone of fabulistic terror, and Ridley manages to achieve a number of evocative moments of weirdness and discomfort. Seth’s late-night conversations with the petrified baby corpse he imagines to be Eben’s angelic incarnation perfectly encapsulate the film’s eerie juxtaposition of childlike naïveté and disturbing horror. Ridley uses a black Cadillac full of child-nabbing greasers to symbolize death—a risky choice to be sure, but one whose effect is oddly disquieting, evoking the mysterious real-life missing-persons cases involving young children.
Deep into the film’s narrative, it’s revealed that Cameron participated in the atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, which have left him with radiation poisoning that weakens his bones and makes his hair fall out—signs which Seth misinterprets to be the effects of Dolphin’s witchy spells. This invocation of deadly weapons of mass destruction injects a disturbing layer of geopolitical terror into the film’s secluded rural milieu. Ridley envisions a vast globe-encompassing evil unleashed by the detonation of nuclear weapons, anticipating a similar theme that Lynch would explore in Twin Peaks: The Return.
If Ridley’s ambitious attempt to weave a complex web of themes and symbols within his work is significantly less successful than Lynch’s, one can still admire The Reflecting Skin for its uncanny aura, nightmare-logic plotting, and the sheer loopiness of its ideas. Even in its most strained and over-reaching moments, the film achieves a beguiling contrast between its sumptuous rural images and the darkness of its subject matter, one that’s neatly summed up by Ridley’s original title for his screenplay: American Gothic.
If the colors throughout The Reflecting Skin appear overly saturated on Film Movement’s Blu-ray release of the film, rest assured that the grading is true to Philip Ridley’s original vision. As the director explains in a note included in the booklet, he met resistance for pushing the colors too far during the recent 2K restoration of the film. But the hyper-real yellows of the wheat fields and dazzlingly bright blues of the prairie skies are key to the film’s surreal effect, and they positively blaze off the screen in this 1080p transfer. The LPCM 2.0 audio track is rich and full; subtle details of the film’s sound design (birds chirping, wind blowing) are crystal clear, and when Nick Bicât’s booming score starts to swell, it positively fills the room.
Film Movement’s release is sadly light on special features, though the few that are provided are keen and insightful. Ridley provides an enthusiastic audio commentary, in which he breathlessly rattles off facts, anecdotes, and analysis of the film at a lively clip. The disc also includes “Angels & Atom Bombs,” an informative and well-produced 40-minute making-of featurette that provides an engaging overview of the film’s production history and afterlife as a cult classic. Rounding things off are a few trailers for Film Movement Classics releases and a booklet that offers a note from Ridley on the restoration and an appreciative essay co-written by critic Travis Crawford and writer Heather Hyche.
Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin looks stunning on Film Movement’s Blu-ray, but it’s hard to overlook the dearth of special features.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper, Sheila Moore, Duncan Fraser, David Longworth, Robert Koons, David Bloom, Evan Hall, Codie Lucas Wilbee, Sherry Bie Director: Philip Ridley Screenwriter: Philip Ridley Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
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