René Clair opens I Married a Witch, his second American feature, with a mordant ribbing of a distinctly American atrocity: the Salem witch trials. A large audience has gathered to enjoy the burnings of Daniel, a warlock, and Jennifer, his witch daughter, and a vendor walks around offering “hot maize” in small bags to the townspeople. Among the crowd is Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), the puritan who denounced the pair and who speaks nervously about being briefly seduced by Jennifer’s wiles. In retaliation for Wooley’s betrayal, Jennifer curses Wooley and his heirs to be unlucky in love, and with a swift comical montage of the (increasingly miserable) Wooley lineage through the years, Clair demonstrates that Jennifer’s curse wasn’t mere bitter words.
Jennifer’s true day of reckoning comes in 1942, as Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for his wedding to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), the daughter of his primary backer in his gubernatorial run, which is in its final days. It’s during a fundraising-cum-engagement party for the couple that Jennifer and Daniel are released from their prison underneath a tree, and they’re portrayed as talking puffs of smoke, voiced by Cecil Kellaway and Veronica Lake, and realized thanks to some lovely pre-digital compositing. Eventually, Kellaway embodies Daniel on screen and Jennifer comes to take the form of Lake, whose relationship with March on set was notoriously adversarial and flirtatious. This backstage acrimony does the film well when Lake’s Jennifer gloms onto Wooley, following a daring rescue from a hotel fire. At first, revenge is of paramount concern to Jennifer, but her flirtations switch from torturous to enthusiastically adoring when she accidentally takes a love potion meant for Wooley.
As Wooley’s wedding day collapses into calamity, drawing him closer to Jennifer, Clair captures a rare sort of barbed playfulness between his stars, and his days as an avant-gardist comes into delightful, subtle aid with his use of visual effects. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Daniel makes a taxicab fly through the air during a police chase, and there are a number of smaller visual notes: flying brooms, a slide up the stairs, a sudden windstorm, and the aforementioned hotel fire. They may seem like pedestrian images, but Clair’s gives them distinct attention, and this goes similarly with his auditory effects. The director has a way of accentuating his effects by clearly but not distractingly giving over entire parts of sequences to effects. Early on, some sweet talk between young lovers is potently drowned out by the sounds of the storm that releases Daniel and Jennifer.
Clair’s focus on the visual magic of filmmaking, the sly technical maneuvers that make the impossible possible on screen, resounds the narrative’s depiction of love as a wild, chaotic sort of spell. The inherent strangeness of the first image of Jennifer, being no more than a puff of smoke and voiceover, seems embedded in Lake’s punchy, ecstatic energy. For his part, March conjures a beautifully modulated performance of comic panic and exhaustion. As they play off one another, Clair’s imagery breaks down the sense of a world dictated by the logics of science or anything resembling reason, and thus inventively conveys an exhilarating sense of the madness of love.
The print isn’t perfect, but Criterion’s transfer is a remarkable improvement from Warner Home Video’s 1993 VHS release. Delineation between blacks, whites, and greys are excellent, and clarity, on the whole, is stunning, bringing out various textures and detail. Shadows are generally fantastic looking. As for the audio, dialogue is crisp and out front, and crucial sound effects, along with Roy Webb’s spirited score, come through cleanly.
There’s one single extra on the disc: an audio interview with director René Clair where he discusses the production of the film and his preferred methods of filmmaking. It’s a nice listen, but not as wholly informative as one might have hoped. There’s a better interview with Clair in the booklet, conducted by R.C. Dale, which offers a small bounty of tidbits about the filmmaker’s time in Hollywood and the relationships he formed there; the bits involving his collaborative friendship with Preston Sturges are particularly interesting. There’s also a solid essay by Guy Maddin on the film and a trailer included.
The extras are skimpy, but René Clair’s delightful, creative romantic comedy looks better than ever thanks to the Criterion Collection’s excellent A/V transfer.
Cast: Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Robert Warwick, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway, Elizabeth Patterson Director: René Clair Screenwriter: Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1942 Release Date: October 8, 2013 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales on the Criterion Collection
Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”4.5
It’s a mistake to privilege any one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” over another, though the temptation exists and is easily indulged, especially if one takes the disparate, yet complementary, viewpoints of this inimitable set of films as entirely representative of its creator’s own personal principles. Strange that auteurism should fail us so completely in the case of one of its founding practitioners, but Rohmer was always an odd man out among his contemporaries, if not in the remove of years (he was a decade older than most of his Nouvelle Vague brethren), then in the deceptive placidity of his art. His revolutions, in other words, were quiet ones, couched in a perpetual remove and observation.
Rohmer’s greatest popular success, 1969’s My Night at Maud’s, is frequently misremembered as a nonstop talkfest, as it begins with extended passages of an unnamed Catholic engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) silently trailing a woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) who will, by film’s end, become his wife. The devoted Catholic’s brief flirtation with the fetching divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian) brings about his ultimate “moral” choice, a fascinating psychological mishmash of Catholic liturgy, Pascalian hypothesis, and Hitchcockian blonde/brunette dichotomy that’s all too often mistaken—at least in the West—for Rohmer’s own worldview.
At the heart of this misreading is the word “moral” itself, which is typically defined in collective terms: the conscientious needs of the society at large trumping the various bodies that make it up. These films are more concerned with individual moral codes and how they play off of each other within a given situation, and though the films share a basic narrative structure (a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second, only to return to the first), it’s the specific milieu and, resultantly, the characters who inhabit that space which determine the ultimate outcome. Rohmer puts his trust—his faith—in a sense of place: The bustling Parisian side streets of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career beget the stark Catholic trappings of My Night at Maud’s, which lead to the dandified color palette of La Collectionneuse, the deceivingly nostalgic summertime glow of Claire’s Knee, and the theremin-scored, post-1960s fatigue of Love in the Afternoon.
Even if Rohmer’s characters hew primarily to the middle class, his gaze (complemented, in many of these works, by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros) is all-inclusive. Witness Claire’s Knee, in which Rohmer relates a battle of generational wits with a complexity akin to Marcel Proust. The respective narrators of these tales—in this case Jean-Claude Brialy’s middle-aged writer Jérôme—always have their manipulations and powers called into question, though Rohmer, for a good stretch of this fifth film in the cycle, seems to privilege Jérôme’s intellectual lecherousness. His pursuit of both the headstrong Laura (Béatrice Romand) and the unwitting, vulnerable Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) extend from sublimated longings, specifically for his friend, fellow writer, and unconsummated love, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). That Aurora effectively masterminds the connections between Jérôme and his objects of desire shows that no one is completely innocent in Rohmer’s world, though such shades of character never come across as the finger-wagging judgments of a pseudo-aesthete.
The cruelty of Rohmer’s characters is casual: Jérôme gets what he wants by effectively destroying Claire’s youthful naïveté, using her cheating boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), against her to contrive a naked emotional moment in which he comforts her by caressing her knee. If this was all there was to Rohmer’s vision it would be limited and unenlightening; Claire would remain a cautionary symbol and little more. But an epilogue shows Rohmer’s true intent. Jérôme is allowed his illusions (by revealing Gilles’s wandering lusts, he’s helped Claire to see the “true” way of things) and so leaves with his desires satiated. Aurora then spies an exchange between Claire and Gilles in which the former’s accusations of infidelity are quickly put aside, and not just because of Gilles’s charms. Jérôme, therefore, has failed, but he’ll never know. The intuitiveness of the image (revelatory, as so many of Rohmer’s films are, of the many mysteries of human nature) is balanced by a concomitant sense of hope, and the moral—if there’s one to be had—is left for us to discover and then to, potentially, express for ourselves.
Criterion’s original 2006 DVD release of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” received a good deal of flack for the studio’s choice of pictureboxing—a process that, while it retained the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the six films, left black bars not only to the sides of the image, but above and below as well. Fortunately, this re-release does away with that problem entirely, keeping the correct aspect ratio while maximizing the size of the picture on the screen. Additionally, all of the films have been transferred from new 2K restorations that offer a sharper image. The uptick in visible detail is especially striking throughout My Night at Maud’s, most notably in the interiors of Maud’s apartment and the snow-swept exterior shots of Clermont-Ferrand and its surrounding mountainous region. Rohmer’s two early 16mm films retain a healthy amount of grain even as they gain in clarity, and while the transfers for three color films lean a bit too heavily toward the teal end of the spectrum, the colors are otherwise nicely balanced, with naturalistic hues extending to everything from the skin tones to the greens of trees and grass. The audio, which consists of linear PCM mono tracks, is also consistently clean, both in terms of the dialogue and the ambient background sounds of the film’s environment.
Criterion has ported over all the supplemental materials from their earlier release. While new extras would have been welcome, this was already an impressive slate of features for touching on virtually every aspect of Rohmer’s professional life. In lieu of any commentary tracks, the set features two lengthy interviews with the auteur: a lengthy discussion from 2006 with Barbet Schroeder and a 1977 appearance he made on the Canadian TV show Parlons Cinema. Schroeder, who early in his career worked with Rohmer, gets into how the duo’s production company was created, and draws the typically elusive master out of his shell to discuss his trouble finding funding for his films, criticism of his work, and his collaborations with cinematographer Nestor Almendros. In the latter interview, Rohmer looks back on his early years as an outsider who, like many of his Cahiers du Cinéma compatriots, largely despised the mainstream French cinema of the 1950s and sought to make films without studio funding.
The remaining interviews are far shorter but no less valuable. In a 1969 conversation, acting legend Jean-Louis Trintignant praises Rohmer’s trust in his own writing and takes umbrage with assumptions about the director’s work with actors. In a chat from 1970, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan focus primarily on Rohmer’s extreme privacy and need for solitude and freedom, while filmmaker Neil LaBute, in a 2006 afterword, lauds Love in the Afternoon for its “minutiae of experience” and Rohmer’s tendency to never impose his moral judgments upon his characters. But the most enlightening archival extra is a 1965 episode of the educational TV series En Profil dans le Texte directed by Rohmer. Titled “On Pascal,” it finds philosopher Brice Parain and monk and religious scholar Dominique Dubarle discussing the work of Blaise Pascal from both a secular and religious perspective, and in a way that mirrors Rohmer’s own approach in My Night at Maud’s.
The set’s on-disc extras are rounded out with a handful of short films that Rohmer directed over the years—Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (which was shot in 1951 but completed in 1961), 1958’s Véronique and Her Dunce, 1964’s Nadja in Paris, 1966’s A Modern Coed—and one on which he advised, Edwige Shaki’s The Curve from 1999. The package not only comes with a gorgeous bound book that includes all six stories, written by Rohmer, that served as the basis for the films, but also a separate 64-page booklet with essays by Almendros and such esteemed critics as Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones, and Molly Haskell. Rohmer’s own 1948 essay “For a Talking Cinema” is tacked on at the end for good measure, just in case one is left with any doubt of the legitimacy of his garrulous approach to cinema.
Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”
Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Michèle Girardon, Claudine Soubrier, Fred Junk, Catherine Sée, Philippe Beuzen, Christian Charrière, Diane Wilkinson, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-Christine Barrault, Françoise Fabian, Antoine Vitez, Haydée Politoff, Patrick Bauchau, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy, Mijanou, Annik Morice, Denis Berry, Seymour Hertzberg, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, Michèle Montel, Gérard Falconetti, Fabrice Luchini, Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Françoise Verley, Daniel Ceccaldi, Malvina Penne, Babette Ferrier Director: Eric Rohmer Screenwriter: Eric Rohmer Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 480 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 – 1972 Release Date: May 5, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: John Boulting’s Brighton Rock on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
The film succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.3.5
John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, adapted by Graham Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, works not only as a thriller of almost Hitchcockian precision about gangland rivalries, but as a searing moral inquiry into sin, guilt, and the all-too-human capacity for evil. The film’s formal construction adds considerably to its overall effectiveness: The confluence of Harry Waxman’s moody monochrome cinematography and Peter Graham Scott’s razor-stropped editing ensures the film comes across as exhilaratingly as the amusement park rides that figure in the titular seaside resort. Brighton Rock also boasts lots of quasi-documentary location filming, bringing to mind a contemporary film like Jules Dassin’s more resolutely urban The Naked City.
The opening set piece features a chase through Brighton’s byways, as the tight-knit gang led by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) attempts to corner reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), whose exposé on rigged slot machines got their former leader killed. The pursuit ends on a dark ride on the pier, where Pinkie proceeds to push Hale to his death. The sequence isn’t just a masterpiece of machine-tooled assemblage, from the “stolen” street shots to the impressionistic depiction of Hale’s demise, but it also succinctly establishes most of the main characters and their interrelations. The one major character introduced later is poignantly impressionable Rose (Carol Marsh), a waitress at the upscale restaurant that down-market Pinkie patronizes in order to retrieve some potentially incriminating evidence.
Pinkie and Rose are immediately linked by the similarity of their colorful names, as well as by the discovery of their shared Catholicism. Their bond, however, is more than a little one-sided. Rose falls hard for Pinkie’s innocent mien, while Pinkie can only feel contempt and eventually disgust at her attentions. The film subtly suggests that Pinkie’s aversion to physical demonstrations of affection like kissing, not to mention the act of lovemaking itself, stems from an exaggerated attention to the tenets of his religion, prompted, perhaps, by early exposure to what Freud liked to call “the primal scene.”
The decidedly ambivalent relationship between Pinkie and Rose allows Greene, who later in life called himself a “Catholic agnostic,” to layer in concepts that were of concern to him throughout his work. Imagery of hell and damnation runs rife throughout the film. The dark ride where Pinkie kills Fred Hale is called “Dante’s Inferno.” When Pinkie and Rose discuss their beliefs, Pinkie assures her that hell is real, while heaven remains at best a “maybe.” And later in Brighton Rock, Pinkie’s crooked mouthpiece, Prewitt (Harcourt Williams), invokes a line from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
Interestingly, Prewitt’s line comes as a direct reference to the institution of marriage, about which the film seems equally ambivalent. Early on, we see a blind man holding his wife’s hand while she carouses with one of Pinkie’s men. Pinkie marries Rose only so that he can avail himself of the legal protection that says spouses cannot testify against each other. Even then, he insists that the wedding be a strictly civil ceremony, not sanctified by a priest.
As the net inexorably closes around him, Pinkie callously suggests that he and Rose take their own lives in a suicide “pax,” as he puts it, an agreement he intends to be entirely one-sided on Rose’s part. Suicide, of course, is considered one of the gravest mortal sins by the church, but Rose proves all too willing. As she insists in the film’s ironically ambiguous coda, she would rather be damned with Pinkie than be alone in heaven, so strong is their love. And as proof, she produces a record of Pinkie’s voice that he made earlier at a fairgrounds booth, on which he tells her precisely what he thinks about her. But now its surface, scratched by Pinkie in a vain attempt to destroy it as evidence at one point, yields only the phrase “I love you” over and over again. Rose is thus safe in her delusion, and only the viewer is any the wiser.
Kino’s Blu-ray presentation of Brighton Rock isn’t billed as any sort of a restoration, and that’s evident from the speckling and other minor blemishes on display throughout. Overall, the image reveals some fine detail, decently balanced contrast, and reasonable depth. Grain levels are a bit all over the place, especially in low-light and night scenes. Still, it’s definitely a step up from previous SD editions of the film. There’s a Master Audio stereo track that cleanly and clearly presents the dialogue (with subtitles available for anyone having trouble understanding the criminal argot), and admirably conveys Hans May’s portentous score.
The big bonus feature here is another excellent, endlessly informative commentary track by author and film critic Tim Lucas. As usual, he has a lot to say about the careers of Brighton Rock’s cast and crew, and various filming locations in and around Brighton. But where the track really takes off is in his detailed comparison of the screenplay with Graham Greene’s source novel, indicating excised events and even stray lines of dialogue that were left out of the film, as well as comparing the 1948 film and Rowan Joffe’s 2010 remake.
John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh, Harcourt Williams, Wylie Watson, Nigel Stock, George Carney, Charles Goldner, Alan Wheatley Director: John Boulting Screenwriter: Terence Rattigan, Graham Greene Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Sturges’s The Great Escape on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.4.5
Though adapted by James Clavell, W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Walter Newman from Paul Brickhill’s nonfiction account of the 1944 Stalag Luft III escape, John Sturges’s The Great Escape is equally inspired by a great fiction. The filmmaker’s treatment of the massive POW escape from a camp in Nazi-occupied Poland alludes to a similar and iconic sequence from Grand Illusion Illusion, Jean Renoir’s no less furious and eloquent articulation of the faux civility of warfare. But if Sturges’s earlier The Magnificent Seven bound itself just a bit too tightly to the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Great Escape builds its own distinct style and thematic preoccupations, even as its influences remain clear.
The absence of brutal ground warfare in The Great Escape reflects Struges’s personal experience during World War II: The director served as a captain in the Army Air Corps and spent a large portion of his time shooting documentaries and instructional films for the military. In The Great Escape, the filmmaker largely evades the action and horror of war, instead focusing on an immense creative process: the building of the tunnels that will help a group of prisoners, led by Royal Air Force squadron leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), get out from under the Luftwaffe. Each member of the dedicated team of soldiers, who come from various Allied Forces, provides a skill that helps the effort to build the tunnels, conceal the activity, and ultimately execute the thrilling escape.
This tactic allows for members of the uniformly excellent cast to highlight their personalities through their respective characters’ varied areas of expertise, from James Garner’s fast-talking and resourceful Scrounger to Steve McQueen’s incorrigible Cooler King to Donald Pleasance’s mild-mannered Forger. McQueen is front and center, but Sturges democratically shows the breadth of work being done and the essentialness of each man’s mission. This dense interweaving of talents working on what amounts to a great, heroic production implies Sturges’s view of filmmaking as inherently collaborative. Tellingly, Pleasance’s forgery expert has a need for a specific camera with a special lens, while another captive creates an expansive wardrobe to keep the soldiers inconspicuous outside of the camp.
The collateral damage of Sturges’s dedicated focus on the minutiae of the titular escape is that the grimness of the prisoners’ station is only mildly realized. A prisoner’s early escape attempt ends in a spray of bullets across his back, and when the prison break finally occurs, few of the escapees taste freedom for very long, but Sturges’s depiction of this civil incarceration operates far apart from the desperate, violent reality of the times. Even the prisoners’ infighting, and their interactions with their Nazi keepers, is relatively soft, little more than a few fists pounding on tables and some mockingly sarcastic retorts.
The film doesn’t offer easy catharsis, nor does it portray the Luftwaffe as essentially evil; the most prominent guard is, in fact, a complete dullard taken in by Garner’s smooth operator. Indeed, the filmmakers buck the vision of a solitary war hero who excites his fellow prisoners into revolt, and instead foreground the sense of duty in rebellion that drives the captured soldiers. And as the prisoners symbolize a broad swath of the international effort against the Axis powers, The Great Escape is that rare war film that doesn’t fully indulge in assumed nationalism, save for the fact that everyone speaks English. Sturges never touches on the essential hollowness and cruel pageantry of war, but he does the next best thing by depicting an international effort where victory, no matter how short-lived, depends on the cooperation of myriad talents, rather than the gruff can-do attitude of an unbreakable chosen one.
The Criterion Collection’s new, restored 4K digital transfer boasts a generally sharp picture and impressive depth of field throughout. There are a handful of scenes where the image noticeably softens, but these instances are infrequent enough to never become too distracting. For the most part, there’s an impressive amount of visible detail throughout the frame. The color balancing is somewhat muted in places, but the blacks are perfectly inky, forest greens are vibrant, and skin tones are consistent regardless of the scene’s lighting conditions. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack gets the job done, standing out particularly when Elmer Bernstein’s memorably rousing score rises to the forefront.
This release boasts a superb array of extras, most notably two feature-length commentary tracks. The first, which was recorded in 1991 and includes separately recorded snippets from director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and a half-dozen or so other crew members, is hosted by film historian Bruce Eder. He does a fine job re-introducing each new speaker as they return to the commentary and chimes in with his own expert analysis, offering insight on the details of how the events upon which the film is based played out in real life. Between the half dozen participants, nearly every aspect of the film is touched upon, including the performances, Sturges’s working methods, such as his allowing for improvisation on set, various production details, and Bernstein’s attempts to create a score that gives a sense of levity and soulfulness to help counterbalance the film’s darker subject matter.
The second commentary track, seamlessly weaved together from separate recordings from 2003, features actors James Garner, and Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, as well as others involved in the making of the film. Author Steven Jay Rubin serves as the host this time around, turning his attention more specifically toward the film’s performances and the various careers that blossomed following The Great Escape’s release. All three actors heap praise upon Sturges, not only for his direction, but also his brilliance at casting and editing. The trio provides plenty of entertaining on-set stories and discuss the impressiveness of seeing the finished POW camp, which was built from scratch in a forest outside of Berlin.
The four-part, 45-minute documentary “The Great Escape: Heroes Under Ground” delves even deeper into the historical events that inspired the novel and film, and covers the challenges of taking creative license to make an entertaining picture while still aiming for realism. The 25-minute featurette “The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones” focuses on David Jones, the United States Army Air Forces pilot who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character, while the brief documentary “Return to The Great Escape” touches on Paul Brickhill’s novel, the film’s art direction, and the extreme lengths the film went to achieve verisimilitude.
In the only newly recorded extra, critic Michael Scagrow contextualizes Sturges as a distinctly transitional director who, along with John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, served as the bridge between the old Hollywood masters and the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. The package is rounded about with a booklet essay by Sheila O’Malley in which she discusses the film’s success in telling a story about “a serious subject…without self-seriousness.”
With a superb and diverse slate of extra features, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock, Robert Graf, Jud Taylor Director: John Sturges Screenwriter: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 172 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: May 12, 2020 Buy: Video
Queer Debauchery As Waking Dreamscape: Equation to an Unknown
Throughout Francis Savel’s 1980 porno, gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear.
When the French Cinémathèque gave carte blanche to filmmaker Yann Gonzalez to curate a handful of screenings in 2016, one of his selections was Equation to an Unknown, a mostly forgotten porno from 1980 teeming with pre-AIDS hedonism and prophetic melancholia. Gonzalez had been introduced to the film on a poor-quality VHS tape and was so struck by its sensibility that he decided to pay for a 16mm print of the film to be struck from an elusive negative he managed to find in a lab.
It’s easy to see why Equation to an Unknown, directed by Francis Savel (under the pseudonym Dietrich de Velsa), spoke to Gonzalez in such visceral ways. It’s exactly the kind of porn that the characters in Gonzalez’s most recent film, the underrated Knife + Heart, which is set in the year that Savel’s film was shot, would have made. Which is to say, a slice of cinema that brings together erotic and artistic drives into one single path toward the sublime.
The closest example to this type of cinematic communion between pornography and poetry is perhaps James Bidgood’s Pierre-et-Gilles-esque extravaganza Pink Narcissus from 1971, or Fassbinder’s slightly less cartoonish Querelle from 1982. Although Savel is, much like Bidgood and Fassbinder, interested in unrestrained queer debauchery, his characters don’t need to inhabit a parallel filmic universe for repressed desire to roam in an unbridled fashion, nor must they resort to the superego-defying subterfuges of dreamscapes.
Savel’s world of queer decadence is thus not wrapped up in fetish gear. Young men’s soccer matches organically become locker-room orgies and motorcycle rides give way to impromptu sexual ecstasy. There’s no need here for clothes to become campy costumes or for objects to become theatrical props. The real world is sexy, fantastic, and theatrical enough with its naturalized rituals and accoutrements, from cleats to hardhats. Every stranger is harmless, well-hung, and disarmingly sure that he will be met with unconditional hospitality.
What’s so unusual about Savel’s film isn’t only the way it rediscovers queer bliss in the unvarnished aura of the everyday, but how devoid of anxiety its world is. Gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear. If strangers catch two lovers having sex, it’s either to watch them as voyeurs or to join in. This isn’t the same logic of cheap sexual voracity that tends to govern traditional porn, but a logic of absolute openness. In the film, sex is a ceaseless flow comprised of an always welcome amalgamation of visitors—that is, sex angels that promptly turn up at door thresholds or just out of the blue to ensure pleasure lasts.
Group sex in Equation to an Unknown never amounts to a spectacle of pragmatic transactions. Pissing and rimming are portrayed as inherently tender, even poetic, activities. Orgies aren’t staged so much as they unfold spontaneously, bathed in delicate lighting and quixotic piano notes, as if each body merged with other bodies magnetically so they could form some sort of multi-tentacled organism. There’s no time for characters to reason or filter their impulses. They simply act in what feels like seamless reciprocity, or a kind of solidarity aimed at collective harmony through boundless sexual satisfaction.
For the most part, the question of identity seems foreign to the film. The sex on screen might be between two men, but are the men gay? Or is this what happens when bromance is allowed to bloom? These are bodies—all white, young, and mostly hairless—procuring pleasure in ways that precisely ignore cultural prescriptions and pre-determining scripts. But such a utopia becomes less defensible when women are finally mentioned for the first time, though they’re never seen, at which point the price of uninhibited pleasure between men begins to surface.
Toward the very end of Equation to an Unknown, a young man acknowledges the great size of the penis which he’s about to swallow by telling its owner, “Never a dull moment for girls with you.” In another scene, a man tells his transient lover, “I wish I could love only you,” evoking womanly figures awaiting the men in some less pleasant elsewhere. These are significant bits of dialogue in a film largely devoid of speech and completely devoid of femininity. They suggest that, ultimately, even the most convincing fantasies of erotic hospitality and freedom remain just that: fantasies, propped by very tangible ideas around the effacement of the feminine as precondition for the flourishing of the masculine. Could it all just flow, so tenderly and organically, if women were allowed in the picture as actual bodies?
Review: David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
The image presentation on this Kino Blu-ray is absolutely stunning.4
David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave opens with a shot of a vast desert landscape. A fortysomething cowboy, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), is seen lounging and enjoying a cigarette by a small campfire—a moment of peace that’s interrupted by a mysterious rumbling sound whose source is revealed to be three fighter jets soaring overhead. This juxtaposition of the cowboy life with the modern technological world is a jarring one, and by the time Jack mounts his horse and struggles to cross a busy highway, it’s more than clear that this world has little use for men who refuse to trade their horses in for 18-wheelers.
After cutting through a barbed wire fence and crossing the busy streets of Duke City (a thinly disguised Albuquerque), Jack arrives at the home of a woman, Jerry (Gena Rowlands), whose excitement suggests she’s the roaming ranch hand’s wife. But we soon learn that Jerry is the wife of his best friend, Paul (Michael Kane), and that Jack has arrived in town to bust out his buddy—a former cowboy who’s serving time for helping immigrants who’ve just crossed the border from Mexico—from prison.
Despite his antisocial and anti-authority leanings, Jack isn’t an outlaw, but rather a man desperately clinging to an identity and way of life that’s virtually unsustainable in the modern world. And throughout the film, Miller and cinematographer Philip Lathrop take full advantage of the black-and-white Cinemascope frame to highlight Jack’s isolation and feelings of entrapment. From fences to busy streets to prison bars, the filmmakers see the modern world as a series of barriers to men like Jack, who deliberately gets himself arrested so that he can help Paul escape. At one point in the film, Jerry pleadingly tells Jack, “The world that you and Paul live in doesn’t exist…it’s got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble.” But the man isn’t interested in change, only the gratification that comes with life off the grid.
Even the local bar offers Jack no peace, as it’s there that a one-armed man picks a fight with him. This confrontation erupts into an exhilarating fight sequence where nearly everyone in the bar turns on Jack, and though he takes this all in stride, it underlines just how unwanted his presence is in civilized society. Paul, too, ultimately rejects Jack, refusing to escape with him because he’s straightened up and plans to stick around for his wife and child.
In a series of beautiful reverse shots, Jack and Paul, framed on opposite sides of prison bars, commiserate with one another before parting ways, and even though Paul is left on the inside, we get the distinct sense that Jack is re-entering his own sort of prison. These shots are mirrored later after Jack escapes and returns to his natural environment in the film’s second half, when Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau), standing in his stuffy office, gazes out to the mountains through a barred window, wondering where the convict cowboy could be.
It’s at this point that Lonely Are the Brave excitingly returns to the business of juxtaposing the old and new. Jack briefly enjoys living off the untouched land, but whether by land or air, Johnson’s pursuit of him is so relentless that the cowboy and his trusty horse Whiskey have to keep moving. Miller repeatedly frames Jack in wide shots, presenting him as being in harmony with the land, while Johnson is shown in mid-shots, looming over it as a dominant, inescapable, annihilating force. Earlier in the film, Jack tells Jerry that he’s a “loner clear down deep to my guts,” understanding that makes him something of a “cripple.” By the end of Lonely Are the Brave, Jack learns the true cost of his condition, one which has long been inevitable, but which arrives in a shocking event that’s as tragic as it is ironic.
The image presentation on Kino’s Blu-ray release of Lonely Are the Brave is absolutely stunning, especially given that the transfer wasn’t sourced from a new digital restoration. Thanks to its wonderful set design and deep focus photography, the film abounds in minute visual details, and the transfer renders every speck of dust, bead of sweat, and mountain rock with remarkable precision. There aren’t many shadows in the film, but the contrast is still quite impressive, exhibiting a wide range of greys that highlight the many contours of the mountainous desert landscape and the nooks and crannies of the actors’ faces. The audio is similarly flawless, with a well-balanced mix that does justice to the film’s score and gives a dynamic range to the natural and technological sounds that pop up in the soundtrack.
The highlight of this Blu-ray is the comprehensive audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. They contextualize Lonely Are the Brave as being of a piece with other late westerns of the early 1960s, such as John Huston’s The Misfits and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, while also discussing the various traits that make David Miller’s film an outlier. Much of their conversation covers the film’s aesthetic qualities—particularly Philip Lathrop’s gorgeous black-and-white Scope cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s somber score—as well as Kirk Douglas’s performance. There’s also a brief but intriguing segue into the film’s subtle political dimensions, which are especially notable in the film’s changing of the crime which lands the character Paul in jail from dodging the draft, as he did in the source novel, to aiding immigrants who had just crossed the border. The disc also comes with a 20-minute tribute to the film, which includes ample praise from Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, and Kirk Douglas, who notes that it’s his favorite film that he’s ever been in. The package is rounded out with a short featurette on Goldsmith’s score.
Of all the films he worked on, Lonely Are the Brave was Kirk Douglas’s favorite, and this disc’s striking transfer and illuminating extras go a long way toward explaining why.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy, Karl Swenson, William Mims Director: David Miller Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Release Date: May 19, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel on Criterion Blu-ray
The disc perhaps definitively contextualizes the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.5
There’s a joke that runs through Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel like a thin, fine wire. It usually, but not always, involves Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the devoted concierge of the titular hotel in the mountains of Zubrowka, a fictional country that’s ravaged by war in ways that recall the scourges that devastated Europe during the 1930s. Ludicrously soon after a fresh calamity or inconvenience, someone will attempt to sentimentalize or commemorate the transpired event with a poetic stanza, only to be dashed, with amusingly flippant suddenness, by the immediate realities of the situation at hand. An ode to man’s foible might inadvertently end with a resigned “Ah, fuck it.”
The film’s meanings reside in the various permutations of that joke. Like a few of Jean Renoir’s heroes, the characters scramble to maintain a degree of compassion and stately civility in the midst of the unfathomable rise of a fascist regime (the SS here is the ZZ). Informed by the writing of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s plot is misleadingly delightful, with chases and dastardly villains and elegant buffoonery. Gustav inherits a priceless portrait, Boy with Apple, from a deceased lover, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and must do battle with her corrupt relatives, who frame him for the woman’s murder and set him scrambling about Eastern Europe setting things right. In the midst of this adventure, Gustav plays matchmaker to protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and a brilliant pastry chef, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and their romance is revealed to be the heart of the story, the source of the film’s unshakable poignancy.
The film is structured as a tribute to an act of kindness that ripples like a pond that’s been breached by a tossed stone, to a gesture that speaks louder than any of Gustav’s more conscious attempts to control the scope of his legacy. The man presents himself as a foppish dandy, but underneath those pretensions, which are probably assumed to cover his shame over his own humble origins, beats the heart of a romantic hero. He never treats Zero, a refugee of a country already quashed by the fascist regime, as anything but a gentleman and a co-conspirator, and that sense of acceptance empowers the latter to win Agatha and cement the beginnings of his new adult life. This act of kindness is paid forward by an aging Zero (now F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960s to a writer (Jude Law) who ponders the mysterious old man sitting in the dilapidated old hotel. That gesture is remembered by the writer (now Tom Wilkinson) in an interview recorded years later, which itself appears in a book read by a young woman in the present, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Agatha. That young woman, we’re to assume, is paying homage to a writer who recorded her family’s legacy.
But you have to parse the screen for much of this information, as Anderson has grown into a nearly abstract sentimental formalist who obsessively imbues every image with implicative remorse and heartbreak. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most obvious marvel: a great pink dream palace that suggests one of Agatha’s cakes if she had lived long enough to pay homage to the mythical cinematic realms of Marienbad and the Overlook. Anderson cannily uses aspect ratios to affirm his vision of the past as a place of vanishing warmth and harmony: The ‘30s segments are shot in the almost square Academy ratio, which mirrors the films of that era while subtly bringing the actors closer together in a communal frame, while the other timelines are shot in wider aspect ratios, and the actors are often positioned at opposite ends of a frame that emphasizes the lonely chasms between them, or the atmospheres that dwarf them. These ratios are loaded with frames within frames and boxes within boxes, which serve as a visual parallel to the nesting narratives of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The remarkable editing accentuates this bemused alienation. The usual fragile, graceful Anderson punchlines are interrupted with surprisingly crude and violent shards of incident that echo the chaos that his heroes are desperately attempting to ward off with their belabored protocol. Jokes hit you and intensify upon retrospection; the humor burns away, leaving only despair. A bad guy finds that Gustav has taken Boy with Apple and replaced it with a sexually explicit painting that resembles a Schiele, which the villain breaks apart in a frustrated action that reflects the abuse of the stolen and lost art associated with the Holocaust. Agatha pointedly isn’t introduced until late in the film, when half of her story has seemingly already been told off screen—a structural quirk that deepens upon your realization of her fate and Zero’s crushing inability to face his memory of her. The film’s most heartbreaking touch is a blink-and-miss one: of the elderly Zero and the writer having their desert, which has clearly been modeled after Agatha’s beautiful little cakes from decades ago.
Anderson’s mise-en-scène, which abounds in a hall-of-mirrors reflexivity that will probably take a dozen viewings to fully unpack, corresponds to an evolving point of view. All of his films explore the futility of a certain kind of egocentric fussiness as embodied by a quest for perfection of art, and, until now, they’ve criticized those quests as evasions of the messiness of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel also understands this striving for control as an illustration of a grand optimism. The beauty of Gustav’s elaborate customs, or of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s opulence, or of Agatha’s cakes, is that they embody art that exists for its own sake, as affirmation of the wealth of mystery, imagination, and decency that life can contain. Gustav is willing to die for his aesthetics, which are intricately tied to his good manners and commitment to craft even in the face of disaster or ascendant fascism, and he thusly reveals himself to be an Anderson hero that’s moved away from self-absorption toward transcendence.
This transfer is sourced from a 2K master supervised by Wes Anderson, which is the same master that was used for the 2014 20th Century Fox Blu-ray. Like that earlier edition, this transfer has a stunning image, with ravishing colors and an extraordinary depth of field. There’s intentional softness here and there, but this transfer allows the film to virtually explode off the screen, suggesting a moving pop-up book. And such clarity allows one to pour over the minute details of the frames, from the clothing to the props to the positioning of actors, all of which offer new nuances with every viewing, expanding the film’s meaning and the relationships between the characters. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also boasts superb clarity and richness, delicately balancing the many subtle diegetic noises with blasts of bombastic violence with Alexandre Desplat’s playful, melancholic score.
This vast supplements package offers a detailed portrait of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking process. In the visual essay “Wes Anderson Takes the 4:3 Challenge,” film scholar David Bordwell offers the greatest description of Anderson’s aesthetic that I’ve encountered, which he defines as following the tradition of a kind “planimetric” style that has also been utilized by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. Per Bordwell, Anderson’s images often involve backgrounds that run perpendicular to the camera, with the actors “strung across the frame like clothes on a line” while their faces or profiles are usually positioned so as to directly face the viewer.
Such a bold and confrontational aesthetic shatters the insinuating over-the-shoulder camera positioning that so many of us take for granted as a sign of “realism,” explaining in part why some audiences are so resistant to Anderson’s productions. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bordwell also discusses the film’s alternating aspect ratios and how Anderson ingeniously modulates the planimetric approach to accommodate them. In the package’s second visual essay, critic Matt Zoller Seitz complements Bordwell’s piece with a beautiful discussion of the moral power of The Grand Budapest Hotel, examining how the despair of Anderson’s films gradually arise out of the jokes and intricately realized atmospheres.
Meanwhile, “Visiting The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel” both include vivid footage of the film’s making, showing Anderson working with actors, producers, and various technicians to get the timing right on various scenes, as well as coordinating the intersections between real locations, miniatures, and sets. As one would expect given the final film, this appears to be a vast production, which Anderson seems to lead with understated finesse. A new audio commentary with Anderson, actor Jeff Goldblum, special photography director Roman Coppola, and critic Kent Jones also further elaborates on location scouting, a wide range of influences on the film, how Anderson likes to cultivate a family of collaborators, and, per Goldblum, the work of Philip Kaufman. Rounding out this set are trailers, featurettes ported over from the 2014 Fox Blu-ray, animatronic storyboards, and a booklet with an erudite essay by critic Richard Brody, originally written for The New Yorker, and goodies like a mini-poster and a newspaper mock-up that appears in the film.
Criterion outfits The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stunning collection of supplements, perhaps definitively contextualizing the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux Director: Wes Anderson Screenwriter: Wes Anderson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 2014 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
One of the British New Wave’s gentler efforts receives a commendable Blu-ray release featuringan instructive commentary track.3.5
François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opens with the camera traveling through the streets of Paris before stopping beneath the Eiffel Tower, tilting upward to marvel at the structure’s height. Right out the gate, the film, which deals with a young boy’s feelings of confinement and suffocation, invites us to see the potential for even this remarkable monument to be an iron-caged prison. In other words, Paris is only liberating for those privileged enough to experience it as such.
The opening shots of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar are similarly attuned to how a city’s value resides in the eye of the beholder. As the camera moves through the streets of Yorkshire, there are no wondrous buildings or monuments to behold—only indistinguishable flats with cold-looking exteriors. Inside one of them lives Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), a twentysomething native who wants nothing more than to escape his parents’ company and move to London. Billy is given the nickname Billy Liar by his family because he spends his days fantasizing about his future as a famous novelist or as the militaristic savior of an imaginary country. Yet despite being a narcissist who manipulates his friends (and especially the young women who fancy him), Billy is essentially a kind-hearted and naïve individual, making him something like a milquetoast version of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge, perhaps the most definitive example of the “angry young man” in British cinema.
Billy Liar is, in a sense, an outlier of kitchen-sink realism for how Schlesinger and screenwriters Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall view Billy through an affectionate lens. This runs counter to Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, released the same year, which portrays Richard Harris’s rugby league footballer as an unsalvageable figure of tragic proportions. Schlesinger privileges comedic elements that evince Billy’s idle woolgathering. When Billy thinks about becoming a novelist, he envisions himself on a giant billboard rather than hard at work behind a typewriter. While it’s hard to take him seriously, it’s also easy to recognize—and perhaps empathize with—the foolishness of his unformed perspective.
The majority of the film’s scenes revolve around the ins and outs of Billy’s romantic entanglements with three women: Barbara (Helen Fraser) and Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), Yorkshire locals who, for various reasons, think Billy might soon commit to marrying them, and Billy’s former childhood girlfriend, Liz (Julie Christie), who’s been gallivanting around London and returned home for a brief stint. Later, at a dance hall where all four converge, Rita and Barbara discover each other’s existence, prompting the former to cheekily say: “You can’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.” For Billy, though, a purchase is less a matter of physical exchange than a psychological state. Since he’s bought hook, line, and sinker into the notion of himself as a great writer, he latches onto Liz’s fearless attitude as his best path toward accomplishing his artistic worth—something the audience realizes is doubtful once Billy admits to her that he hasn’t even written a single page of his novel.
By pitting the allure of the big city against the stagnancy of the suburbs, Billy Liar positions itself to conclude as a rebuke of the resignation that characterizes Billy’s parents, forever rooted to their drab section of Yorkshire. But just as he finds himself seated next to Liz on a train headed for London, Billy disembarks to purchase a bottle of milk and misses his departure. In this moment, the milk that lures him away from his career pursuits is easy enough to read as symbolic of his mother’s comfort, and thus Yorkshire’s. Though the film’s ending is outwardly celebratory as Billy strolls back toward his family’s flat, the fact that he’s opted for the familiar comforts of home feels like a questionable—even nightmarish—endpoint for this young person who so craves his autonomy.
With this high-definition master, which appears to be the same transfer released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal in the U.K. in 2013, Kino Lorber resurrects Billy Liar from Region 1 scarcity, as Criterion’s 2001 DVD release has been out of print for years. Denys N. Coop’s black-and-white Cinemascope images appear nuanced and rich throughout, with the wide shots exhibiting great depth of field. Close-ups are also impressive for the striking level of detail in the actors’ faces, but given the occasional blips and scratches on display, it’s easy to imagine what a more comprehensive restoration effort might look like. The DTS-HD audio track is clean and clear, and especially helps to highlight Richard Rodney Bennett’s playful, upbeat score.
Film Historian Kat Ellinger’s comprehensive audio commentary contextualizes various facets of Billy Liar’s production and its placement toward the tail end of the first phase of the British New Wave. Ellinger notably calls the film a “masterpiece in black comedy” for how it blurs fantasy and realism through straight cuts, thereby taking us directly into the protagonist’s world. Unlike in 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ellinger says, which uses hazy dissolves to signal a clear division between reverie and reality, the straight cut complicates how the viewer understands any neat separation between the two. Such stylistic traits are central to the British New Wave’s concern with how generational tension holds the potential to breed social and political dissent. The disc also comes with theatrical trailers for Billy Liar, The Knack…and How to Get It, and The Falcon and the Snowman.
One of the British New Wave’s gentler efforts receives a commendable Blu-ray release, boasting clear image and sound, as well as an instructive commentary track.
Cast: Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Helen Fraser, Gwendolyn Watts, Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne, Ethel Griffies, Leonard Rossiter Director: John Schlesinger Screenwriter: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: F.W. Murnau’s Adaption of Molière’s Tartuffe on Kino Blu-ray
Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive film gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track.3.5
Although certain stretches of The Last Laugh and Sunrise amply display F.W. Murnau’s talent for constructing comedic sequences, his adaptation of Molière’s 1664 play Tartuffe was his first outright comedy. Lacking the melancholy and tragic underpinnings of Murnau’s most revered films, Tartuffe, perhaps inevitably, feels like a trifle by comparison. But its self-reflexive structure is cleverly used as a means of exploring the moral and sociological values of cinema—an art form that was still much maligned at the time of the film’s release—lending Tartuffe a rich subtext.
A year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. featured an early example of the film-within-a-film, positing cinema as a dream space to which we can bring our innermost hopes and desires and see them reflected back to us. Murnau’s use of this postmodern device is perhaps not as revolutionary as Keaton’s, but a similar thoughtfulness is on display in his portrayal of cinema’s deep connection to our subconscious impulses.
Murnau employs a framing device set in modern-day Germany to introduce the story, in which a filmed version of Tartuffe is eventually shown to convey the ubiquity and dangers of hypocrisy throughout time. In these bookend sequences, a two-faced housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) conspires to turn an old man (Hermann Picha) under her care against his grandson (André Mattoni) so that she may become the sole heir to his fortune. Catching onto her scheme rather quickly, the grandson dons a fake beard and returns to his grandfather’s house incognito, where he directly addresses the audience and announces that his weapon of choice to loosen the deceitful grip ahold of his grandfather is a traveling picture show.
Upon receiving the offer to have a filmed version of Tartuffe shown in her employer’s living room, the housekeeper yells, “We want no cinema!” It’s as if she were keenly aware that the flickering images may disrupt the spell she’s cast over her elderly target. Once the disguised grandson flatters her, though, he’s granted entry to the home—the first of many times in the film where false praise and fraudulent appearances are used as a means of exploiting others.
As the film-within-a-film begins to play and the scowling, falsely pious Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) arrives on screen, we learn that he has the wealthy Orgon (Werner Krauss) wrapped around his finger, and that he’s already fleeced him for large sums of money that were supposedly intended for charity. The parallels between the two narratives and the respective behaviors of Tartuffe and the housekeeper who’s watching his exploits on screen are perhaps a bit too glaringly obvious, but the inventive manner in which Murnau weaves both stories together, along with the buoyancy and cheekiness of the central performances, furnishes the film with a humor and wit that counterbalances its bluntness.
Late in the film, Orgon’s maid, realizing that Tartuffe is a conman and is about to force himself on Organ’s wife, Elmire (Lil Dagover), pleads with her master to peer through the keyhole, saying, “Look that ye may be cured.” Here, Murnau ties the simple act of seeing with the pursuit of deeper truths, cannily linking the theme of Molière’s comical tale of hypocrisy to that of the modern role of cinema. While there’s certainly an instructive quality to the film, as there is in Molière’s play, Murnau’s approach never succumbs to heavy-handedness. Instead, this adaptation remains both the playful condemnation of hypocrisy that Molière intended and a celebration of cinema as, ironically, its own form of deception, albeit one through which social and psychological truths can be revealed to the masses.
The new digital restoration used for this transfer is a solid upgrade from previous standard-definition releases of the film. The picture quality is sharp most of the time, but there are a number of shots that appear a tad blown out, resulting in whites (tinted orange as per F.W. Murnau’s request) that flood out some of the details in the frame. Other flaws are fortunately far more minor, such as traces of debris, scratches, and the occasional flickering noticeable at the edge of the screen. Robert Israel’s new orchestral score sounds quite robust, beautifully mixed to highlight both the low-end instruments, like the French horn, and the higher-end ones, such as the frequently employed harpsichord.
Along with the recently restored 70-minute German release version of Tartuffe, Kino Lorber has also included the 64-minute U.S. release, which was the only version of the film available on home video until now. Although it’s presented only in standard definition, it’s in surprisingly good shape. Also included is a fascinating audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth, who covers an array of topics, including Murnau’s career and personal life and cinema’s reputation in the mid-1920s as a disgraceful art form and career choice—which is reflected both in Murnau’s name change in real life and the grandfather’s hesitance to allow a film to be shown in his home in Tartuffe. Howarth even delves into Murnau’s lost films, offering insight into everything from the frequently cited 4 Devils to lesser-mentioned titles such as Der Janus-Kopf, Murnau’s spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
F.W. Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive adaptation of Molière’s classic play gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track on Kino’s new Blu-ray.
Cast: Emil Jannings, Hermann Picha, Rosa Valetti, André Mattoni, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Lucie Höflich Director: F.W. Murnau Screenwriter: Carl Mayer Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 70 min Rating: NR Year: 1925 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know on Criterion Blu-ray
This release is cause enough to introduce a new generation to the sure-to-be-eternal concept of pooping back and forth, forever.4.5
When Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know arrived in theaters in 2005, critics were quick to pinpoint how it resembled Todd Solondz’s work in tone and theme. July, though, dismissed the similarities, telling The Independent that it was “a bizarre comparison” and noting that “maybe we’re just not the same.” While it’s difficult to know exactly what irked July without further elaboration on her part, it’s evident that each filmmaker treats the subject of adolescence with different aims. In Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, the nuclear family becomes a source of near psychotic frustration for its young protagonist, who feels the weight of her parents’ antipathy for her as an inescapable, ongoing nightmare. Me and You and Everyone We Know, on the other hand, sees the suburbs less as a torture chamber than a relatively harmless forum for kids to cut their teeth on the conditions of impending adulthood. Only sometimes, as in the case of six-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), who chats with a stranger online about “pooping back and forth, forever,” that awareness begins much earlier than expected.
The online chat, in which Robby creates the symbol “))<>((” as a visual shorthand for his idea of sex, encapsulates July’s acute eye for the innocence of adolescent desire, and demonstrates her willingness to walk a difficult tonal line in pursuit of a laugh about the fundamental awkwardness of trying to sound sexy through chat. When Robby’s chat partner asks if he’s touching himself, he looks down, sees his hands resting on top of one another, and replies, “Yes.” The film sees honesty in innocence and feels empathy for people willing to bear parts of their emotional selves in pursuit of meaningful companionship.
Other storylines help to flesh out how sexual development often occurs within the context of someone’s awkward attempt at displaying sensual prowess. Just down the street from Robby, teens Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend) argue about which of them would be better at giving oral sex. Since neither has ever given it before, they recruit Robby’s 14-year-old brother, Peter (Miles Thompson), as their guinea pig. July directs the sequence’s focus toward smaller, less sexual details, like the individual pieces of peppermint candy that Peter places neatly on a towel for the girls after each has taken their turn. Much like Robby’s sense of sexual intimacy, Peter’s actual sexual experience—presumably his first—carries with it a sense of innocent discovery rather than shame or danger. Sex only becomes scary, the film implies, when one person takes willful and deceitful advantage of another.
July toys with this potential for criminal sexual acts by setting up both Heather and Rebecca to be victims of the much older Andrew (Brad William Henke), a possible pedophile who pastes signs on his living room window that describe the sex acts he’d like to perform on them. That Heather and Rebecca are enticed by the signs is a nearly surreal touch on July’s part given how patently wrong-headed Andrew’s actions are on the surface; indeed, no one else in the neighborhood seems to notice his clearly transgressive actions. In effect, the issue of visibility versus concealment—of making one’s desires public versus keeping them private—becomes Me and You and Everyone We Know’s major thematic identity.
It’s a testament to July’s thorough entwining of storylines that the film’s main arc involving Christine (July), an aspiring video artist and chauffeur for the elderly, and Robby and Peter’s shoe-salesman father, Richard (John Hawkes), doesn’t overwhelm the other narrative threads. In fact, though Christine anchors much of the story as the glue connecting the film’s characters, it’s only once Nancy (Tracy Wright), the curator at a local contemporary art museum, takes an interest in her work that the full scope of the connections between the characters begin to fall into place, not least because Nancy turns out to be Robby’s chatmate.
Once they do, Me and You and Everyone We Know reveals itself to have more in common with the hopeful cynicism relative to the torment of teenage years in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World than anything found in Solondz’s work. Even Christine and Richard, both adults in their 30s and 40s, respectively, respond to the possibility of their attraction with angsty aggression, whether its Richard moodily insisting that Christine get out of his car or Christine rolling around on her bed, saying to herself, “We have a whole life to live together you fucker, but it can’t start until you call.” July threads the various layers of her network narrative together by homing in on the yearning for physical intimacy that connects everyone; these characters, unlike those in Paul Haggis’s Crash, aren’t pawns on a chess board of coincidence, violence, and ham-fisted pathos. When lives collide in July’s creative hands, they’re salvaged by each person’s generally kind, well-meaning disposition. In the end, the film’s lasting image isn’t one of violence or tragedy, but that of Robby’s palm on Nancy’s cheek.
This new high-definition digital master, approved by Miranda July, boasts a noticeably sharper image than the one on MGM’s 2005 DVD release, with the transfer serving the film’s palette of pinks, greens, and reds especially well. Outdoor sequences around the central neighborhood look particularly vibrant, and the close-ups during the film’s more intimate moments reveal more accurate skin tones and rich image detail. The only quibble is that the remaster hasn’t been conducted with either 2K or 4K technology, which means that, while the image looks consistently swell, there’s a nagging sense that it could look slightly richer and more detailed. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack, however, is perfect, with Michael Andrews’s original score bursting its oddball, mellifluous electronic melodies through the speakers with an appropriate oomph. Dialogue is mixed and balanced evenly, as is the soundtrack as a whole.
The highlight of this disc’s extras is a conversation between July and filmmaker Lena Dunham about the former’s work, both before and after Me and You and Everyone We Know. July explains how her infatuation with Agnès Varda’s films, namely 1988’s Kung-Fu Master, gave her a feel for writing material in which children are involved in potentially sexual situations. July says that she’s always been most comfortable working with non-professional actors, which makes directing children a natural fit for her. July and Dunham also discuss how the “pooping back and forth, forever” symbol became a meme and popular tattoo after the film’s release; they also examine July’s notebooks and diaries from the making the film, and July details her experience working with the Sundance Film Lab and its effect on shaping her first feature.
The remaining extras include Open to the World, a new documentary about the 2017 interfaith charity shop and participatory artwork that July created in collaboration with Artangel, the London-based arts organization; July Interviews July: Deauville, 2005, a newly edited discovery from her archives; footage from July’s 2003 Sundance Director’s Lab work featuring commentary from the filmmaker; an assortment of her shorts, including 1998’s The Amateurist, 2000’s Nest of Tens, and four films from July’s Joanie 4 Jackie video chain letter series, as well as a documentary about the project. Finally, there are several deleted scenes and a pair of essays about the film by artist Sara Magenheimer and novelist Lauren Groff.
Criterion’s excellent HD transfer of Miranda July’s feature-length debut, along with a carload of extras, is surely cause enough to introduce a new generation of viewers to the sure-to-be-eternal concept of pooping back and forth, forever.
Cast: Miranda July, John Hawkes, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff, Carlie Westerman, Natasha Slayton, Najarra Townsend, Tracy Wright, Brad William Henke Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again on Criterion Blu-ray
The film is less a parody than a surprisingly beautiful and somber precursor to many autumnal “late” westerns.4.5
Much of George Marshall’s 1939 western Destry Rides Again ingeniously pivots on a single set: a saloon the size of a ballroom, with many floors teeming with an array of hearty male drunks. There’s no logical rationale for the existence of such a building in a small town somewhere west of nowhere, though the symbolic justification is robust, as this saloon is understood to be the soul of this society, embodying the intricate fashions in which entertainment, politics, and law comingle in the world at large.
The booze and musical acts, headed by the sexy and commanding Frenchie (Marlene Dietrich), distract the town’s citizenry from the ways in which Kent (Brian Donlevy) robs men of their land, and that connection is literalized when Frenchie spills coffee on a mark so that Kent may cheat him out of a hand of poker. Also a fixture inside the saloon is the easily bribed mayor, Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hines), and the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), a former deputy of the law who physicalizes the hopelessness and lapsed idealism of this community, until he’s made sheriff as a joke that will come back to haunt Kent.
Destry Rides Again has been described as a western spoof, a label which suggests that it might be a lark. And to emphasize the film’s thematic resonance is to run the risk of likening it to homework, compromising its profound sensory pleasure. Above all, Destry Rides Again is fun, with a variety of stars and character actors utilizing their charisma with an expert sense of ease and offhandedness. But few westerns have also so explicitly emphasized the classic saloon setting as an early fount of American entertainment, which, like pop culture at large, can serve as a mass salve and therefore a source of bamboozlement.
Here, Dietrich performs dance-hall numbers that are reminiscent of her legend-cementing work for Josef von Sternberg, which similarly underscored the porous boundary between beautiful illusion and exploitation. Marshall may not be a stylist on the level of von Sternberg, but he films the saloon with sensual and funny aplomb, and certain tracking shots, capturing how various components of the bar work together to manipulate patrons, could have potentially even commanded the respect of Max Ophüls. Under Marshall’s staging, the patrons of the bar are reminiscent of dancers even in the fight sequences, their wave of movement suggesting emotional mood rings, especially when Frenchie is challenged by a newcomer.
Today, James Stewart’s Tom Destry Jr. suggests a comic forefather of Ransom Stoddard, the role the actor later played in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both characters are pacifists in towns that challenge their essential worldviews—a theme that Ford takes seriously and which Marshall allows to get away from him. Tom’s early scenes are remarkable, as Stewart, with his folksy quicksilver timing, allows pacifism to feel brave and even sexy; he decidedly isn’t the stereotypical wimp who must be taught a macho lesson in vengeance-making. As Kent and his goons ridicule Tom, we’re allowed to understand that the latter is setting a trap, thinking several moves ahead. We’re also able to discern the cojones it would take for a man to order a glass of milk in a den of ruffians, for Tom is resisting the spell that has the entire town, amusingly and suggestively called Bottleneck, enchanted.
The film poses a suspenseful riddle: How will Tom, who had a role in cleaning up Tombstone, handle a rabble of armed men? That riddle is squashed when Tom does eventually arm himself, which Marshall stages neither for comedy nor irony; here, the filmmaker is merely honoring the obligations of a genre, though he redeems himself with an elaborate climax in which the town revolts against Kent and the government that’s at his disposal. Once again, Marshall’s command of crowds is astonishing, and the central image—of wives with garden tools usurping the rein of the drunk and rowdy gunmen—is a stirring moment of empowerment that’s remarkable even for contemporary cinema. When the women storm the bar, Marshall understands them to be gallantly rebelling first by puncturing mythology, tearing down a church of manliness. That’s heavy stuff for any film, let alone one that’s known as a fun Jimmy Stewart/Marlene Dietrich bauble. Marshall’s confidence in his material, his willingness to allow his subtext to breathe almost subliminally, is the ace in his sleeve.
Per the disc’s liner notes, this new 4K digital restoration was overseen by Universal Pictures in collaboration with the Film Foundation, with special consultation by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. The results are beautiful, as the image has a lush vibrancy that underscores the precision and detail of the film’s elaborate tracking shots. One can vividly make out the people occupying various portions of the frame at any given moment, and close-ups are equally detailed. Blacks and whites are rich and balanced, especially the whites, of which there is quite a bit of subtle variation throughout the film. The new monaural soundtrack boasts excellent dimension, capturing with pinpoint precision the many variables that are often involved from scene to scene, from gunshots to horse galloping to the movement of dozens of people simultaneously. Marlene Dietrich’s songs have a newfound dynamism as well, emphasizing the unusual, highly theatrical elements of this unconventional western.
A new interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme collectively offer an affectionate and informative history of Destry Rides Again, tracking the films it influenced (including Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles), how it rehabilitated Dietrich’s career and gave rise to James Stewart’s own, as well as the gender norms it upended. Smith gives much of Destry Rides Again’s creative success to Hungarian-born American producer Joe Pasternak, who steered the film away from its initial roots as a parody of the 1930 Tom Mix vehicle of the same name into something stranger, richer, and unusually continental. (Many of the people who worked on the production were European, which bleeds into the narrative’s texture, especially during the ballroom scenes.) Meanwhile, Nehme also contextualizes Destry Rides Again as one of many legendary 1939 studio releases, among them the other film that cemented Stewart’s stardom, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Speaking of Stewart, a new interview with Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart: A Biography, offers incisive observations of the actor’s techniques, including his unusual affinity for dialogue, which played against the prevailing male stereotype of the strong and silent type. Dewey reminds us that every Stewart film provides the actor with monologues, which he later said he valued as a way to find the voice and consciousness of his characters. In this interview, Dewey also refreshingly emphasizes Stewart’s profound range, illustrating how he gained greatly in confidence moving from Mr. Smith goes to Washington to Destry Rides Again, where he was tutored by Dietrich, who advised him to look askance at his co-stars, focusing on their eye rather than directly into their face, which she said scans as a direct look to the camera. Dewey also covers Stewart’s years as an accomplished bomber pilot in WWII, and his evolution into an edgier leading man for directors such as Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Illustrated audio excerpts from a 1973 oral-history interview with director George Marshall and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Destry Rides Again from 1945 round out the package.
The influential, star-making Destry Rides Again is less a parody than a surprisingly beautiful and somber precursor to many autumnal “late” westerns.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Allen Jenkins, Warren Hymer, Irene Hervey, Jack Carson, Samuel S. Hinds, Billy Gilbert, Lillian Yarbo, Tom Fadden, Joe King Director: George Marshall Screenwriter: Felix Jackson, Henry Myers, Gertrude Purcell Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1939 Release Date: April 14, 2020 Buy: Video
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