As most police officers, doctors, or therapists will tell you, there are virtually no sentiments you can offer the recently bereaved without succumbing to useless and even insulting platitude. There’s simply nothing that can be said, and the acknowledgment of language’s inability to capture the shock of loss is perhaps the only strange reassurance that can be offered, as that admission at least treats the bereaved with a bit of respect. And that’s a hell of a tightrope to walk tonally with a person who’s recently lost someone, particularly if the someone in question is a child who’s dead because of the deliberate and purposeful actions of another human being.
And filmmaker Werner Herzog walks just that tightrope time and time again in the remarkable Into the Abyss, which legitimately earns the multiple comparisons to In Cold Blood that it garnered upon release last year. This film is a similarly irresolvable exploration of lives warped by considerable loss, of desires strangely stirred, of lives trapped in unending cycles of abuse and mental and physical sickness that occasionally give way to crimes as monstrous as those that Herzog has set about documenting here. Perhaps the most haunting implication that Herzog makes in Into the Abyss is that these kinds of crimes are almost a ritual, an inevitable cultural spontaneous combustion. Herzog has taken on some dark subjects before in his career, but he’s never gotten this close to the belly of the beast, and he’s never worked with the cleanness and discipline he does here.
There’s always been a certain carny exploitative hambone element to even Herzog’s most humane films: The director, usually a star or at least the narrator of his nonfiction films, usually comes on a little strong in his empathy (think of the moment in Grizzly Man where he refuses to share with us a recording of Timothy Treadwell’s mauling, a tasteful decision that’s also a ploy that alloys Herzog to have his cake and eat it too: to score points for his humanism while still achieving the dread that he would’ve attained had he played the recording). There are those sorts of moments in Into the Abyss as well, but they serve a subtler purpose. Herzog never treats the various victims or convicted killers with the choked seriousness that one would expect of an interviewer exploring a triple homicide—and his surprising matter-of-factness plays as respect. This approach is Herzog’s canny way of getting his subjects to open up while also quietly asserting his rejection of capital punishment. Everyone in this film is undeniably human.
Herzog, for example, tells Michael Perry, a 28-year-old small-town Texan who would be executed a few days after interviewing with the director for his involvement in the murders of a middle-aged woman and two teens when he was 17, that he respects him as a human, but that he doesn’t like him very much. That’s an obvious bit of theater that will be familiar to fans of Herzog’s films, but it also strangely opens Perry up: He respects the aging German, clearly an alien in the white God-fearing town of Conroe, Texas, as a straight talker. Perry, who looks eerily like Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb and Dumber, immediately strikes us as a sociopath, a man whose sense of entitlement far outweighs any grasp of empathy or compassion. Perry looks Herzog’s camera straight-on and tells us he thinks there’s hope of an appeal and that God’s on his side, sentiments that, coming from a man who was caught very nearly red-handed, seems like a perverse, unspeakable joke.
Jason Burkett, Perry’s partner in the crimes who was tried separately and got off comparatively light with life imprisonment, is more chilling for his suggestions of conventional humanity. While Perry plays into our pop-cultural ideas of a delusional psycho, Burkett is a good-looking, intelligent man raised in a dysfunctional family that would’ve seemed to ensure his life as a criminal—and thus potentially inspire the kind of sympathy that’s criticized by some as “liberal” at the expense of common sense. Burkett, who insists on his innocence and blames Perry as Perry respectively blames Burkett, has since married an attractive woman who’d been campaigning for his release. Burkett’s aim is to one day meet the child that he will soon have from an artificial insemination of his sperm that was snuck out of the prison.
The fear of this kind of film, made by a man very clearly against the death penalty, is that it will shortchange Perry and Burkett’s atrocities for the sake of a theoretically admirable humanist point. But Herzog, one of cinema’s major artists, can’t settle for something that cozy, and he astutely recognizes that kind of simplification as representative of an appalling knee-jerk insensitivity. In the harrowing first third of the film, Herzog establishes, with jolting clarity, the motive and execution of Perry and Burkett’s crimes, which essentially boil down to the theft of a Camaro.
The absurd puniness of Perry and Burkett’s motivation for ultimately killing three people haunts the rest of the movie, particularly when Sandra Stotler’s daughter testifies about the murder of her mother and brother (the third victim was her brother’s friend), admitting that watching Perry’s execution gave her some needed release and clarity. But then Herzog soon cuts to interviews with a death-row chaplain so disturbed by the conflicting, hypocritical politeness of the death-row rituals that he had to retire early despite the loss of pension.
Herzog never allows you to get your bearings, and that might be the only way to make a film about the death penalty that has any kind of lasting value. Herzog shortchanges nothing (many filmmakers trying to make Herzog’s point might’ve cheated, for example, by omitting Stotler’s daughter’s admission that the execution gave her a measure of peace) and the ultimate meaning that arises is that there isn’t meaning, which establishes capital punishment as an egotistical act of eye-for-eye containment that ultimately serves no purpose. It’s clear the lives affected by the Perry-Burkett murders are irrevocably altered—tormented by fear, anger, survivor’s guilt, despair, and who knows what else, and that the infliction of capital punishment only adds another link to a chain of carnage and destruction.
A confession: As a relatively devoted card-carrying liberal, I can’t entirely get behind the dissolution of the death penalty (there are people that I’m capable of calling monsters, and one of them is Charles Manson, whose name is admittedly stated often for these sorts of pro-death penalty purposes) and therein lies Herzog’s courage and ultimate humanity. Going into the film, you may assume that the titular abyss is the death that Perry has now faced and you’d be only partially right. The larger abyss is that realm of bottomless anger and despair that anyone still living touched closely by death must face. But the way out of that abyss, the way into some kind of containment and sense of control isn’t death, but through the courage to continually value life at all costs and seemingly cruel contradictions.
Apart from the occasional grasp at the poetic (such as a shot of a flock of birds in the sky), Werner Herzog favors a conventional point-and-shot documentary aesthetic that allows the story to largely speak for itself. The image is clean and well-rendered with no detectable transfer issues, and the same can be side of the sound mix. But one doesn’t see this film for major audio-visual fireworks.
Just the theatrical trailer, which is probably just as well, as Into the Abyss rather clearly speaks for itself.
The steadfastly human Into the Abyss is one of the most haunting movies concerning the unending reverberations in the wake of a small-town atrocity ever made.
Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MPI Media Group Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2011 Release Date: April 10, 2012 Buy: Video
Review: Ealing Studios’s Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
This lasting work of existential horror has been given an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.4
Ealing Studios’s 1945 production Dead of Night helped popularize the horror-themed anthology film. Many such films feel like short story collections, with disconnected narratives of varying quality and often negligible framing devices. Meanwhile, Dead of Night feels more like a confident concept album, as it’s all of a disturbing piece, its framing narrative setting the stage for an inquiry into the fragility of reality that’s bolstered in various subtle fashions by the subsequent stories. The film is influential not only to its own genre, but to surrealists and to practitioners of suspense narratives with “twist” endings. The Phantom of the Liberty, Psycho, EC Comics, Twin Peaks and everything all these landmarks touched might’ve been enabled in part by Dead of Night.
The film doesn’t come on strong, as it’s often more interested in plumbing the uncanny—the slight “wrongness” of everyday life that can reveal unmooring fissures into our sense of setting and self—than in springing overt shocks, though there are a few of those too. It opens with a man already disconnected from reality, an architect named William Craig (Mervyn Johns) who’s summoned to a country home for a weekend. The details of this weekend are vague, and we first see William already in motion, approaching the estate in his car. As he’s escorted into the home, William claims that he’s dreamed of this place before, many times, and that he knows this visit with a motley collection of people will become a nightmare. Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Vaalk) is the resident cynic, and his resistance to William’s claim inspires the other guests to tell stories of their brush with the supernatural.
Dead of Night’s framing story, directed by Basil Deardon, has the elegance of a British drawing-room drama, with attractive and well-dressed characters initially discussing spooks as they might the day’s cricket tournament. And this rarefication lowers our guard, though William’s escalating nervousness foreshadows, say, the astonishing intensity of Michael Redgraves’s wiry, sexually neurotic performance in the film’s fifth and most famous story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” in which Redgraves plays a performer eaten up with jealousy over the professional betrayal of his dummy. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the segment abounds in eerie touches that distinguish it from all the stories centered around evil dolls that it would inspire. For instance, we’re allowed to notice that Redgraves’s Maxwell Frere has a framed picture of his possessed ventriloquist dummy—a bizarre, almost obscene detail that Cavalcanti allows us to feel as if we’re discovering for ourselves.
The film abounds in such intimate and insane textures. In “The Haunted Mirror,” directed by Robert Hamer, a man’s gradual possession is represented by an opulent bedroom with an elaborate fireplace and bedframe, which can only be seen through a mirror he received as a gift from his fiancée. We see no ghosts, only this magic bedroom as it contrasts with the plain and sterile room the mirror actually inhabits. As Peter (Ralph Michael) continues to look into the mirror, gazing at this lurid room, he becomes convinced that Joan (Googie Withers), now his wife, is cheating on him, and the story becomes a metaphor for the fears of the concessions required of marriage. Michael expertly dramatizes Peter’s escalating instability, and the room in the mirror remains an unnervingly ambiguous image of discontent and violation, especially given the cockeyed images that emphasize the mirror as an instrument of fracture.
There’s an emphasis in Dead of Night on rooms within rooms and passageways within passageways, suggesting nesting forms of consciousness and existence. In “The Christmas Party,” directed by Cavalcanti, a young girl, Sally (Sally Ann Howes), discovers a hidden chamber she believes to be a nursery housing a small boy, and while the punchline is familiar, its notion of a murder chamber hiding in plain sight remains haunting. In “The Hearse Driver,” directed by Dearden, a man glimpses a death prophecy through the curtains of his hospital room, which are so heavy and velvety they suggest the curtains of a movie theater. Even “The Golfer’s Story,” directed by Charles Crichton as a comic palette cleanser between the intense “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” features at least one lasting image that suggests the intertwining of multiple worlds. When a jilted golfer named Larry (Naunton Wayne) commits suicide, he does so by merely walking into the lake on a golf course.
Dead of Night is a snake eating its own tail, a story of the dream of a potential madman that branches off into other dreams, which branch off into yet others. Many of these dreams are presumed to have an exit, until it’s revealed that William’s circular reality is the potential “god” of all these other lives. This idea, endlessly explored by surrealists, scientists, and philosophers alike, is almost too unnerving to contemplate at length, though Dead of Night gives it a febrile sense of possibility. The passageways aren’t the most memorable images of the film; those would be the many close-ups of faces twisting in agony and loneliness.
This transfer has a luscious sense of darkness, according cinematographers Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe’s shadows a rich and foreboding prominence. Facial close-ups are also vividly detailed, with white light that’s bright and strong without being shrill. In fact, visual textures are vibrant throughout, illuminating striking details of the sets and clothing. The soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, especially the dialogue in Dead of Night’s first 10 minutes, but Georges Auric’s score has been rendered with a strong and menacing body, and small supporting sound effects are also quite vibrant.
The audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas is a characteristically detailed and erudite examination of how Dead of Night arose out of the British film industry, and its lasting influence. Lucas provides elaborate biographies of all the players, and discusses how the film’s then-unusual structure was a response to productions like Grand Hotel and The Halfway House. Along the way, we hear choice bits about Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and many others, and Lucas is also a shrewd observer of symbolism—he catches the curtains in the hospital, and offers many lovely comments on the framing of the haunted mirror. A feature-length remembrance of Dead of Night complements Lucas’s commentary, rounding out a slim but dense supplements package.
This lasting work of existential horror has been given a beautiful transfer, and an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Anthony Baird, Roland Culver, Sally Ann Howes, Renée Gadd, Barbara Leake, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk, Googie Withers, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, Michael Redgrave, Hartley Power, Allan Jeayes Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.3.5
Early in Europa Europa, a child pulls back a curtain to observe a bris ceremony taking place in the room beyond. The ritual exudes a distinct air of solemnity—a secrecy that appears to be breached in this moment. It’s a millennia-old rite of passage for Jewish males, and in Agnieszka Holland’s film, Salomon Perel’s circumcision will become the definitive marker of his cultural heritage, and at a time when Jews live in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazi machine.
The notion of identity as essentially fluid—something that can be obscured or transformed as a means of survival—is central to Europa Europa. And when it jumps 13 years into the future to 1930s Germany, Holland’s film picks up with Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) confronting the indignities inflicted upon Jews during this time. Fleeing the Nazis by blending in with Soviet Stalinists, only for an incredible series of circumstances to land him in a Hitler Youth academy in Germany, Salomon is locked in a perpetual state of performance, forced to conform to another identity, another ideology.
From the moment he straps on a Nazi leather jacket to cover his nude body after escaping a mob attacking his home, Salomon conceals the truth about his heritage by spinning an alternative narrative of his life. After a while, though, the very belief system that seeks to destroy him and his family proves so insidious that it nearly deludes him into fully embracing the teachings of the Hitler Youth. But when he goes so far as to tie his foreskin above the tip of his penis to make it appear visibly uncircumcised, his body rejects this attempted transformation, as if to remind him of that which he’ll never be able to hide.
Europa Europa is almost perversely focused on Salomon’s struggle to hide his penis or change its appearance, and Holland indulges in absurdist flourishes in recounting the real-life existential ordeal. Much of the young man’s journey, which sees him move to Poland before being forced to join the Komsomol in Russia, then the German army, and finally the Hitler Youth, is surprisingly filtered through a comedic lens that ruthlessly mocks the blind allegiance, hypocrisies, xenophobia, and outrageous fervor of Nazis and communists alike.
Caustically funny dream sequences involving a parodic representation of Hitler are weaved into Europa Europa, along with incidents of broad yet cutting humor that accentuate the irony of Salomon passing not just as a Nazi, but an exemplary one at that. Many scenes, such as one in which an anti-Semitic scientist goes into disturbingly vivid detail about the physical and biological superiority of Aryans, are appalling. Yet when Salomon is propped up as the ideal Aryan, or later when he loses his virginity to a German officer who believes him to be a war hero, Holland employs a playful, offbeat tone that amplifies the preposterousness of the Nazis’ belief in the inherent superiority of the Aryan people and their ability to sniff out non-Aryans based solely on appearance or behavior, thus exposing the sheer hollowness of their rhetoric.
If the film mostly succeeds in its tragicomic satire of authoritarian regimes, it’s spottier on a micro level. In skirting over the psychological ramifications of the real-life Perel’s experience, Holland leaves Salomon feeling more like a cipher caught up in the cycles of history than a flesh-and-blood person struggling to come to terms with his identity and place in the world. It’s only in Europa Europa’s second half, once Salomon begins a lengthy relationship with a beautiful Nazi temptress (Julie Delpy), that we begin to get a sense of the emotional and physical toll that his state of cognitive dissonance takes on him. And it’s then that the film strikes the right balance between a pointed satire and an emotionally rich portrait of the twisted and terrifying high-wire act its protagonist had to walk in order to survive.
The film’s new 2K digital restoration is rich in detail, with the image remaining sharp and clean throughout. Colors appear somewhat muted in a number of the darker interior scenes; greens and browns especially look a bit drabber than they do in exterior shots. Otherwise, skin tones are consistent and grain levels are pleasingly film-like. The uncompressed monaural audio is sturdy, boasting clear dialogue throughout and mostly flexing its muscles whenever Zbigniew Preisner’s score hauntingly swells on the soundtrack.
The main event here is a 2008 commentary track with Agnieszka Holland. Though dry and prone to pregnant pauses, Holland is informative, covering everything from the initially divisive response sparked by Europa Europa to her unusually playful approach to serious subject matter. Also included are three 15-to-20-minute interviews. Holland’s chat hits much of the same beats as her commentary, while lead actor Marco Hofschneider goes into more detail about the filmmaker’s desire to have a non-actor play the lead, so as to bring a sense of naïveté to the role that would mirror that of the young Salomon Perel. In his interview, Perel himself opens up about what led him to first share his story and how he survived not by pretending to be someone else, but by allowing himself to be swept up in insidious ideologies. The package is rounded out with a brief video essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf, who unpacks the film’s visual motifs, and an expectedly perceptive essay by film critic Amy Taubin.
Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.
Cast: Marco Hofschneider, André Wilms, Julie Delpy, Hanns Zischler, Ashley Wanninger, Klaus Abramowsky, Michèle Gleizer, Delphine Forest, René Hofschneider, Halina Labonarska Director: Agnieszka Holland Screenwriter: Agnieszka Holland Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: June 9, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité on the Criterion Collection
Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy receives a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.4
If Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus is something of a horror film about the failure of empathy, L’Humanité is its comedic B-side, taking an equally horrific scenario and examining it through the perspective of a bumbling police force. Yet as is typically the case with Dumont, his sense of comedy isn’t straightforward. When police inspector Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) rejoices after receiving a hug from his friend and secret crush, Domino (Séverine Caneele), the man sits in a chair rattling his fists up and down after she leaves the room—a spectacle that doesn’t suggest a moment of triumph so much as a fit. That this scene occurs not long after an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in a nearby field demonstrates part of Dumont’s dissonant sensibilities. The oddity of Pharaon’s behavior coexists in a world with unfathomable brutality, something the film views less as a contradiction than a defining feature of human nature.
Dumont’s filmography is practically a study of faces, and that fixation is especially prominent here. The characters in L’Humanité wear blank or neutral expressions, and Dumont’s camera lingers on these visages as if waiting for people to remove their skins and reveal their true selves. It’s a visual choice that can be understood as a commentary on the characters’ alienation. Since Dumont works with non-professional actors with highly distinctive facial features, close-ups complement the viewer’s contemplation of these lonely souls rather than gauging a character’s reaction to someone or something in their immediate surroundings.
L’Humanité opens with a wide shot of Pharaon running across the Bailleul countryside, and as in La Vie de Jésus, the rural setting projects an image of innocence about to be upended by violence. Sex also factors into this film’s equation. Shortly after greeting Domino and her lover (Philippe Tullier), Pharaon walks in on the couple having intercourse on the floor, staring at them in expressionless silence. When Domino later reprimands him for “getting an eyeful,” it’s less out of anger than conviviality. While Dumont consistently awakens a Hitchcockian dimension within his work as it pertains to the pleasure of looking, ready-made psychological explanations for such behavior remain out of reach to both characters and viewers.
Like Pharaon, Domino also likes to watch. Indeed, one of L’Humanité’s indelible images is a recurring close-up of Domino casting her eyes onto something or someone within eyeshot. While at a beach, she’s introduced to a handsome male friend of Pharaon’s wearing Speedo trunks. As Domino’s eyes move toward the man’s groin, the camera catches him noticing her stare. Once Domino realizes he’s aware of her gaze, she averts her eyes. To what extent Domino is either aroused or absent-mindedly looking at the man remains ambiguous, but it’s nevertheless clear that L’Humanité makes a thematic drumbeat out of its characters’ preoccupation with staring. While this at times comes to feel redundant, Dumont’s refusal to give his characters reducible motivations is as mysterious as it is refreshing.
In one of the film’s most obtuse depictions of people staring, Pharaon becomes entranced by the large, reddened neck of his police commissioner (Chislain Ghesquère) while the pair drive across the countryside. Whatever Pharaon’s interest in the man’s body, the close-up reveals his skin as an abstract, nearly indiscernible image. In this instance, all we see, in effect, is blood covered by a thin layer of flesh. These grotesque implications reducing human beings to meat might recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly 1936’s Abstraction from the Human Form. That Pharaon is a descendent of the 19th-century painter Pharaon De Winter—and even lends some of De Winter’s paintings for an exhibition to a nearby gallery halfway through the film—makes explicit the linkage between L’Humanité and artifice. Because Pharaon stares at these paintings with the same expression he offers to the world, we’re further made aware that we’re not merely, as viewers, gazing upon the lives of real people. Dumont reconciles each character’s personal desire through his own cultural and artistic means, something the natural world, in all its incomprehensible vastness, cannot afford them.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of L’Humanité boasts a clean image abundant in striking details. Outdoor shots evince vibrant colors, with the smallest of nuances, such as the individual bricks of buildings, appearing well-detailed way back into the farthest reaches of the frame. While the DTS-HD surround track is a tad muted overall, the classical music at the start and close of the film is forcefully mixed, and dialogue is clear throughout.
As on Criterion’s La Vie de Jésus release, the extras here largely consist of interviews with Bruno Dumont from across the past 20 years. In the newest one, conducted this year by Criterion, Dumont discusses how the conclusion of his prior film inspired him to write L’Humanité. In fact, he had intended to have the same actor, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who played a police inspector in La Vie de Jésus, reprise his role here, and when he declined, Dumont revised Pharaon De Winter around Emmanuel Schotté, who would go on to win best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival. The second interview, conducted by film critic Philippe Rouyer in 2014, is a deeper dive into the film’s production history. Here, Dumont explains how he collaborates with his actors to significantly shape his characters’ behaviors, all the way down to the use of groans and sighs. The pair also discuss how Dumont approaches character psychology from a visual perspective. And the final interview is a segment from a 1999 French television news program, with Dumont walking the streets of Bailleul and explaining how he shoots. Rounding things out is a segment from a 2000 episode of Tendances featuring actress Séverine Caneele, a trailer, and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott that, among other things, traces some of the film’s art-historical references.
This Blu-ray of Bruno Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy boasts a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.
Cast: Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquère, Ginette Allègre Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation on Arbelos Films Blu-ray
This package is the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.4
Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker isn’t his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authentic—but, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalski’s breakthrough 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one evening’s dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a woman’s short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).
Though often compared to Cassavetes—an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation’s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography—Bujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friends—all defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, it’s dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.
Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is stated—as in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or Ellie confessing that “the problem with Lawrence is that he’s not the master of his own destiny”—the respite from the characters’ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular “long, awkward pause” to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciation’s peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rock’s “weird beats and time signatures.” Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.
The new 2K restoration, from which this transfer is sourced, offers an image quality with far more depth and sharpness than what’s typically afforded to home-video releases of the low-budget, mumblecore films of the aughts. A good deal of grain remains from the 16mm negative, preserving the film’s raw integrity. There’s also a nice balance in the contrast between blacks and whites, with exterior scenes looking neither too bright nor blown out and interiors never overly dark. The sound is clean and evenly mixed and the dialogue is easy to understand even when characters trip over their words or talk over one another.
In an appropriately low-key, clever commentary track, parents of various cast and crew members offer up an array of observations, complaints, and dad jokes. Very much in the spirit of the film, these off-the-cuff comments abound in charmingly awkward attempts at humor and amateurish stabs at interpreting Mutual Appreciation. There are moments of genuine insight, but it’s primarily a light-hearted addendum to the film, with some choice moments of parental disappointment, whether it’s a bit actor’s parents complaining about how the framing leaves their son off screen for most of his 20-second appearance to another parent declaring, “Well, this, we know, is just solipsistic masturbation.” A 30-minute interview with Andrew Bujalski provides insight into his working process and the ways it did and didn’t change as he began to work with bigger budgets and stars in the years since Mutual Appreciation’s release. The disc also includes Bujalski’s 2007 short film People’s House, which serves as a companion piece to this film, essays by Damien Chazelle and singer-songwriter Will Sheff, and, in an unexpected nod to Elvira, a low-def, tongue-in-cheek intro by “Vampira.”
Arbelos Films’s sturdy 2K transfer and a scrappy assortment of extras present the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.
Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, Pamela Corkey, Kevin Micka, Ralph Tyler, Peter Pentz, Bill Morrison, Tamara Luzeckyj, Mary Varn, Kate Dollenmayer Director: Andrew Bujalski Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino’s Blu-ray brings the film’s shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.4
Much has been said of the overwhelming ingenuity of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, but less so about just how well the director knew how to work around budgetary limitations. Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay.
Godard takes private detective Lemmy Caution and illustrates the film’s themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the man’s image. Godard secured Eddie Constantine, who had already played Caution in a number of films as a James Bond-esque rake whose chauvinism was portrayed as roguish and charming. Here, however, Constantine plays Caution as a somber has-been, a caustic loner in his twilight whose pathetic weariness is further emphasized by Godard forbidding the actor to wear makeup, preferring to capture every wrinkle and blemish on his face. When Godard does nominally adhere to the tropes one might expect from a Caution caper, the filmmaker does so in the most parodic of ways, as in an early action scene in which a hitman springs out of nowhere in Caution’s hotel room, leading to a brutal scuffle where all diegetic sound drops out and is replaced by elegant, lilting classical music, until noise comes crashing in as the would-be killer and hero are sent through a series of glass doors. It’s a gag worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.
In mixing elements of noir and science fiction, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Caution, so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
One of the least energetic of Godard’s New Wave films, Alphaville nonetheless evinces his puckish wit and allusive modernism. Caution frequently engages in conversations with Alpha 60, which articulates its thoughts through a growling voice box and decries human illogic while also largely reciting lines that Godard cribbed from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one scene, rebels who refuse to live in a world without love are executed by firing squad next to a pool where swimmers calmly perform laps below the machine-gun fire. At its heart, though, the film’s tension between emotion and logic epitomizes the early internal conflict of intellectualism and love that suffuses Godard’s early work. And, in one of the supercomputer’s Borges quotations, the film lays out the thesis that would undergird all phases of Godard’s search for unified truths: “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remoulds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.”
Kino Lorber’s disc, sourced from a 4K transfer, is a revelatory presentation of a film that often seemed one of the least visually dynamic of Godard’s early career. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography, shot under incredibly difficult lighting conditions, has always appeared heavily grained and crushed on home video, but here the full beauty of his images is on fabulous display. Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina’s faces are rich with texture, blacks sink into abyssal levels of darkness without crushing, and outdoor location shot boast a healthy distribution of grain that never compromises detail. The robust-sounding audio is so clear that it’s now easier than ever to understand Alpha 60 supercomputer’s musings.
An audio commentary track by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas provides ample details about Alphaville and its place among both Godard’s filmography and the series of Lemmy Caution films, but Lucas’s dry, fact-based approach skirts a deeper, more formal analysis of Godard’s methods. A brief interview with Karina finds the actress recounting her memories of working on Alphaville. Most memorable is her amusing recollection that Coutard was so anxious about shooting in such dark lighting conditions that he couldn’t bear to look at the film’s dailies. An introduction by critic Colin McCabe provides a cursory but probing look into some of Godard’s techniques while not giving too much away.
Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi curio is a fascinating outlier in his New Wave period, and Kino’s Blu-ray brings its shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video
The Myth of the American Dream: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy
These films are as elegant as they are expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in their high emotions.
In approaching his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola has said that he saw the story as “the tale of a great king,” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passed the best and worst of him to his three sons: passionate and aggressive Sonny (James Caan); sweet, childlike Fredo (John Cazale); and intelligent and cunning Michael (Al Pacino). Coppola’s archetypal sensibility is the hook that makes The Godfather trilogy so compelling, an emotional buttress that registers deeply through the thorny convolutions of each film’s narrative. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about The Godfather—commensurate with Brando’s marble-mouthed performance—is how the emotional clarity of this one family’s story so powerfully emanates through the soup of business and politics.
The Godfather sees the Corleone clan struggling to hold ground on a battlefield peppered with memorable antagonists: narcotics entrepreneur Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), corrupt police Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), duplicitous rival mafioso Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), stubborn Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), ruthless Las Vegas high roller Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), to say nothing of the sundry turncoats within the Corleone family. The film’s canvas is a crowded one, and at its center is a rite of passage: the aging Don Vito handing the reins of the family business over to the reluctant Michael, the black sheep who wants nothing more than to be part of the great American melting pot. During the film’s opening, which depicts the wedding of Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael is introduced to us in military fatigues, with his blond-haired, WASPy girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), on his arm. And by the film’s end, he’s embraced the shadows outside of bourgeois American life. As he says at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, officially sanctioned politics and nefarious organized crime are both part of the same hypocrisy.
Throughout Connie’s wedding, the vividness of Coppola’s characterizations allows us to quickly understand how this particular family learned to thrive in a distinct American subculture. Meanwhile, consigliere (and adopted Corleone son) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) exists to fill us in on the ins and outs of how New York’s crime families negotiate power. The gestures, glances, and tonal registers between siblings position The Godfather as a primal story of love and devotion between a father and his children, and how siblings square off with each other in trying to live up to their father’s regality. And as Caan’s ferocity plays off of Duvall’s lawyerly reason and Pacino’s exacting coolness, we’re effortlessly swept up in the intimate emotional currents that flow beneath the power machinations of a dynastic family.
Partly set in 1958, The Godfather: Part II amplifies this complicated interplay as Michael secures his criminal empire in Nevada’s casinos and works toward setting up operations in Havana. In a memorably winking scene, old-time capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) requests tarantella music to be played at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound during the celebration of Michael’s son’s first communion, but the band instead plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) gives a speech thanking Michael for his contributions to the state. Kay is pregnant with their third child, and Michael aims to have a family as propitious as his father’s. But there’s a revolution brewing in Cuba, and political committees are cracking down on the mafia. More intimately, Kay is distressed about bringing more children into an apparatus strewn with corruption. Dancing with Michael, she brings up a conversation they had in a scene from the first film. “You told me in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.”
Michael’s conflicts in The Godfather: Part II are connected to the past as much as to the present. The burden of history is represented by the avuncular though treacherous Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who did business with Michael’s father, and Frank, who’s uncomfortable with how Michael is straying from the family’s Sicilian roots. Also at the heart of the film is the story of the younger Vito (Robert De Niro), who finds himself embroiled in a war with the governing mafia chieftain Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) after arriving in America. Throughout, Michael’s spiritual entropy is intercut with Vito’s ascendancy 30 years earlier, and while both men act to preserve their families, it’s telling how Coppola contrasts the father’s warmth with the son’s sclerotic obtuseness (ironically akin to the patriarchs with whom Vito does battle). By the end, Vito’s power is secured, his fall into criminality established as the means by which he protects his family. Michael also secures his power, but at the cost of his brother Fredo’s life, as the latter unwittingly betrayed Michael by colluding with Roth.
The Godfather: Part II is as elegant as it is expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in his high emotions. Its story is more complicated than that of the first film, almost to the precipice of becoming a muddle. For one, it’s never really made clear what exactly is going on between Fredo and Roth’s organization, other than securing some information about Michael’s compound for an assassination attempt, or what’s the backstory of Frank’s relationship to Roth’s malevolent partners, Tony (Danny Aiello) and Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi). But such muddiness doesn’t matter in a film so magnificently constructed, where the tenderness of De Niro’s Vito seems to linger through the conspiracies and betrayals woven by Michael, the now-dead father hanging over Michael’s final confrontation with Fredo, a scene where Cazale’s tremulous id almost bursts through the man’s forehead, voicing his demand for respect with an afterglow of understanding his own inadequacies. Michael looms and Fredo struggles to stand up for himself while still inextricably tied to his chair, and Coppola orchestrates one of the most dramatically compelling scenes in American cinema.
Released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III may be considered a tragi-ironic commentary on the cultural clout of the first two films, which influenced how the public thought about the mafia but also how the mafia thought about itself. Set in 1979—or a few years after the first two films were released—Coppola’s trilogy caper emphasizes a performativity in everyday life that was absent from the more authentic dramas of its predecessors. The story begins with a sham Catholic ritual for Michael, now a billionaire businessman, being given a papal pin “for his charitable work,” which in actuality relates to a shady transaction with Vatican bankers, and concludes with a staggering half-hour sequence in an opera house, with Coppola magnificently cutting between action off and on stage to the music of Mascagni.
Reality and performance grandly intersect throughout The Godfather: Part III, with the actors posturing like performers on a stage, as if they were indeed characters in an opera. Take the the grandiose gesturing between Shire’s Connie and volatile Corleone heir Vincent (Andy Garcia) as he takes her hand with gusto and kisses it. Or the “bella figura” Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and how he loves to cavort in front of photographers and reporters, contributing to the spectacle of himself. Eli Wallach’s performance as the duplicitous Don Altobello may initially feel strenuously affected, but his theatrical magniloquence comes to feel more than apt; Coppola shows Altobello in his opera box singing and pantomiming along with the performers on stage, as if to say that there’s no demarcation between life and theater for this two-faced crook. Reconciling with Kay, Michael brings a knife to his throat and says, “Give me the order!” It’s then that Kay, the one figure who sees through Michael’s fronts, grimaces. He drops the knife and chuckles apologetically, “We’re in Sicily. It’s opera.”
The way Coppola and his actors approach performance brings up the controversy of Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael’s doomed daughter, Mary. Her line readings are sometimes flat, and at other times awkward. But in contrast to the other players, she’s startlingly pure, her unseasoned candor making her tragic function in the story more heart-wrenching. There’s an unexpected feeling of truth as she delivers her last line (“Dad?”) on the steps outside the opera house, breaking up the theatrical masquerade over which Michael has presided. Coppola gives his tragedy a twist that goes beyond King Lear, one of his film’s models. Michael, unlike Lear weeping at the death of his beloved Cordelia, doesn’t die of grief. Rather, it’s implied that he lingers on for years, alone in the company of despair and sorrow.
Michael kneels at his slain daughter’s corpse and finally cracks, raising his head and howling his sorrow before passing out. The unchecked emotional nakedness is out of step with the rest of the trilogy, almost breaking the fourth wall. Keaton, Shire, Garcia, and George Hamilton’s characters suddenly break from their grieving and look at Michael with what feels like baffled surprise. Coppola’s trilogy begins by observing the charade of American ideals and institutions. He ends it outside a theater, the horror in Michael’s scream breaking apart the compound of lies and artifice this arch American criminal has built around his heart. In this one moment, the opera is over and the consequences of reality are made manifest.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy Edition is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus on the Criterion Collection
Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and informative extras.4
Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus provides the occasion to contemplate how approaches to kindness and justice work on a philosophical level. As Paul Bloom explains in his 2016 book Against Empathy, the “morally corrosive” influence of empathy sometimes prompts an immediate action that overlooks the long-term effects of said action. Dumont creates scenarios that are farsighted in their scope; the basic story of Freddy (David Douche), an epileptic teenager harboring racist resentment toward Kader (Kader Chaatouf), his North African peer, prompts us to see how empathy fails at getting to the root cause of what precipitates Freddy’s violent acts. It’s not that Freddy lacks the ability to see Kader as human; it’s that the cultural foundation of Bailleul, a small French town, is shackled by the strictures of racial and sexual repression.
Not that Dumont is shy about depicting sexual contact. In fact, Freddy’s relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), another local teenager, is steadily reduced to an entirely physical state of being. This culminates in a close-up of Freddy’s erect penis thrusting in and out of Marie’s vagina; in this moment, the hardcore sex act is offered by Dumont not as an empty provocation, but a commentary on bourgeois skittishness over representations of sex. When Kader and Marie start seeing each other, Freddy irrationally targets Kader for violence. Like the murderous brother in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Freddy only knows physical cruelty as a response to being threatened by his own desire because he cannot articulate his response in any other manner. While Dumont allows Freddy’s precise feelings to remain mostly unspoken, the implication is that Freddy’s been conditioned by his community to be ashamed of his sexual impulses. When shame meets anger, violence ensues.
Dumont’s debut feature draws upon conventions of neorealism and documentary by employing non-professional actors in all of its roles, but its stylistic traits are closer to the formalist cinema of Robert Bresson, also known for working with first-time actors in nearly each of his films. Like Bresson, Dumont stages shots to highlight their flatness and the base elements of any given action. These visual choices create the sensation that we’re encountering more a tableau of reality than anything approaching documentary realism.
This is especially evident in Dumont’s depiction of Freddy’s mother, Yvette (Geneviève Cottreel), who owns a local pub and seems to do little more than watch the news on a small television set. Early in La Vie de Jésus, the woman sees what appears to be a dead body in an unspecified African location. “What a shame,” she mutters, expressing nominal concern when faced with the evidence of global catastrophe that she believes has no immediate impact on her life. Later, she musters a similar response when Freddy goes to see Cloclo, a friend who’s dying of AIDS. Yvette only approaches the point of outrage when reprimanding Freddy for not having a job. Dumont is foremost concerned with depicting how the nagging worries of quotidian life steadily contribute to the absence of culture, the death of art, and abuses of power that, above all, leave the impoverished destitute.
Yet, despite viewing Yvette through a critical lens, Dumont isn’t blaming her for the violence her son will soon commit; rather, he’s juxtaposing the people of Bailleul against a series of problems, whether local or global, that seem to have no immediate solution. This approach has been deemed by some critics as lacking in compassion, but Dumont’s intent is to soberly reflect on the complex ways that hate is fostered by collective forms of ignorance.
Dumont demonstrates, too, how passivity maintains tradition as a form of oppression. Freddy and his friends, who effectively patrol the countryside on their motorbikes, also mock Kader and his family under their breath with religious chants and racial epithets inside a café without reprimand. Later, after Freddy and his friends have committed a heinous act, a police officer (Alain Lenancker) questions the boy, asking if he doesn’t like “Arabs.” Dumont stages the exchange to amplify its procedural nature, with the officer’s back to Freddy throughout the interrogation. Freddy, inarticulate and surrounded by authority figures who are themselves relying on a limited vocabulary to define criminal acts, is the product of a culture that has neglected to discover the essence of its own existence.
Criterion presents La Vie de Jésus in a pristine 4K digital restoration. The wide outdoor shots boast vibrant colors and detail-rich depth of field; as Freddy rides his motorcycle throughout the countryside, the surrounding trees and grass intensely radiate green. Scenes set in indoor spaces also boast significant clarity and excellent focus. Given how important faces are to Dumont’s style of filmmaking, this transfer is especially notable for how close-ups reveal the pores of actors’ faces. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clearly audible throughout.
The bulk of the extras consist of interviews with Dumont from different years since the film’s release. In the most recent one, conducted by Criterion in 2019, Dumont explains how his background in industrial films prepared him to make La Vie de Jésus. He also spends ample time considering the philosophical basis for his filmmaking, saying that he views his work as “metaphorical representations of the inner experience of human nature.” The filmmaker also discusses the failure of popular cinema to become anything more than a product for mass consumption. The second interview, a lengthy talk with critic Philippe Rouyer from 2014, sees Dumont digging even deeper into how he tries to reconcile “the coexistence of different sets of values.” And the final one consists of excerpts from two 1997 episodes of the French television program Le cercle de minuit, during which Dumont talks about society being racist and how his job as a filmmaker is to “rattle the cage.” Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott on Dumont’s distinctive visual style.
Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and an informative grouping of supplements.
Cast: David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, Sébastien Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, Geneviève Cottreel, Alain Lenancker Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.5
The most direct metaphor in David Lynch’s canon arrives early on in his 1986 landmark film Blue Velvet. After an opening credits sequence set against blue velvet curtains and accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning score, Lynch offers up a montage of iconic images of Americana, including gleaming white picket fences, a fire truck with a dog, and roses that gleam with a feverish red hue. Bobby Vinton’s version of the title song serves as the soundtrack to these images, and, with this song, Lynch signals both his yearning for and disbelief in this idyllic world—a conflict in emotions that would drive his subsequent film and television productions. In case this conflict is lost on viewers, Lynch ends his montage with a father collapsing from a malady as he waters his front yard, and the camera homes in on blades of grass, pressing further into the ground until we can see black insects festering underneath the surface.
It’s too simple to say that Lynch yearns for a society that could be likened to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, even though much of his work is a viscerally textural paean to vintage American manners and artifacts. The 1950s-era puritanism that partially drives Blue Velvet and its TV offspring, Twin Peaks, would most likely bore Lynch on its own. Lynch is attracted to duality, to the contrast of the sweet and sour textures of purity and perversity, and Blue Velvet was the filmmaker’s first pure articulation of this desire.
The film is also one of the definitive explorations between the cultural links of the ‘50s and ‘80s. In the ‘80s, American horror cinema was mining the communist paranoia of the ‘50s, indulging in violence that at one point could only be implied. These films now play as a reaction to how President Ronald Reagan exploited America’s yearning for a return to a golden age, a dream version of an earlier time cleansed of various atrocities, such as internment camps and hate crimes. Reagan was selling a fantasy while committing his own atrocities, such as ignoring the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, while Lynch and other directors, such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, were telling a kind of truth.
Of course, Lynch voted for Reagan, which perhaps testifies to the intense pull of the sunny-side-up portion of his fantasy world. And, indeed, Lynch has always understood a primordial and insidious human quality: the satisfaction of conformation—of successfully following social rules regardless of their potential implications, and committing to a mythology of country. In Blue Velvet, this idea is most beautifully embodied by the scenes between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is a college student who returns to the small, woodsy town of Lumberton following his father’s hospitalization, and Sandy is a high school senior with a father (George Dickerson) in law enforcement. Investigating the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey discovers in a field, the couple regularly meets at a diner, drinking sodas and, in Jeffrey’s case, eating what appears to be a grilled cheese and fries. The pleasure that Lynch takes in the old-fashioned-ness of all this, with Jeffrey and Sandy playing a variation of the Hardy Boys, is palpable. (These scenes are so overwhelmingly earnest that certain critics missed the point, describing them as shrilly satirical.)
With his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), immobilized, Jeffrey confronts his blossoming adulthood, and so Sandy partially represents his yearning to return to the simplicity of high school, which suggests the longing for an idealized dimension that drives, at large, this production that’s so resolutely set in a timeless dimension and abounds in obsessive fairy-tale imagery that suggests an X-rated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production. Yet Jeffrey’s also a man now, and most men need more than nostalgic puppy love. Drifting away from Sandy, the ear leads Jeffrey into an underworld, to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a tormented lounge singer who’s the plutonic ideal of the male fantasy of the experienced older woman, who’s forced to sing “Blue Velvet” over and over in a club with an ardor that rivals Vinton himself. Where Sandy is gorgeous in a trim, blonde, idyllic “prom queen” way, Dorothy is a bruised brunette with ripe red lipstick (it matches the roses from the film’s first scene), a chipped tooth, and a sensual fleshiness that knocks the film off its naïve axis.
Dorothy’s apartment, which is of course on the wrong side of the tracks, is one of Blue Velvet’s many masterpieces of irrational set design. Primarily represented by the oval shape of a living room that segues into a small kitchen, the apartment abounds in deep reds, blues, and blacks that are morbid as well as titillating, explicitly suggesting a strip club’s back room while subliminally representing a womb. This set somewhat prepares us for the film’s audacious tonal U-turn. When Jeffrey wanders into this apartment, the sense of danger is intense, yet Lynch surpasses all expectations with what is still the wildest set piece of his career.
Peeping on Dorothy from behind the wall of her closet, after she’s already caught him, threatened him with a knife, and explored the possibility of going down on him, Jeffrey watches as this woman is tortured by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who beats her and calls her “mommy” before getting high on gas and stuffing a blue velvet sash in each of their mouths and savagely fucking her. Though the scene is symbolic—as Robin Wood stipulated, the sash suggests an umbilical cord, while also echoing the lost innocence of the Vinton song—it’s also unhinged, exorcising fantasies that Lynch can barely keep a handle on.
Sex in mainstream cinema has rarely felt this intimate and defiant of what we’re supposed to find erotic, which is why Blue Velvet was controversial upon its release, and would probably be even more so were it to first be seen in 2019. To an extent, Dorothy gets off on Frank’s abuse, and she subsequently attempts, in her affair with Jeffrey, to assume a Frank-like role, taking control of their sex and goading Jeffrey to tap his inner reservoir for violence. When Jeffrey eventually beats Dorothy, Lynch films the action in extreme slow motion, with what sounds like animal roars on the soundtrack. Lynch dramatizes a fissure in Jeffrey’s sense of who he is, as he plumbs his propensity for darkness. The film is, at its root, a coming-of-age tale that’s unusually connected to the dirtier and messier implications of self-knowledge.
There’s almost nowhere for Blue Velvet to go after the scene between Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Frank in Dorothy’s apartment, which also suggests a fulfillment of the fantasies implicitly driving, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where an ambiguous male hero also peeped in on imperiled women. This sexual-violent stand-off is what Lynch has been building to throughout Blue Velvet, as he’s bringing to the fore the damage, allure, rot, exploitation, and sick hunger that exist under Lumberton’s tableaux of neat, asexual domesticity and under much of vaguely sexualized pop culture at large.
The film subsequently follows what is a fairly straightforward mystery-thriller template, though ecstatic details and images continue to pop up, and there’s one other extraordinary scene. Frank and his goons kidnap Dorothy and Jeffrey and take them to the inner sanctum of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a terrifyingly fey and polite gangster who dances and lip synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” enjoying the kind of expressive catharsis that appears to be impossible for Frank, a frustration that’s probably at the center of his insanity. Many critics have commented on the inverse relationship between Sandy and Dorothy, the respective women of day and night who would initiate an ongoing Lynch obsession, but Frank also suggests an inverse of Jeffrey: a man-child who never reckoned with his desires, until they erupted out of him in a torrent of cruelty and obscenity. Even one of Ben’s prostitutes enjoys a moment of lonely grace, dancing on top of Frank’s car outside of a factory as “In Dreams” is reprised.
Blue Velvet’s mixture of pop-cultural fetishizing and extreme and occasionally ironic brutality would prove to be monumentally inspirational to cinema, as there’s a weird kick to Lynch’s mixture of banality, kink, and tragedy. Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would be unimaginable without Blue Velvet, which would also serve as a roadmap for Lynch’s own career. Lynch is still obsessed with sexual perversity, with men’s historic torment of women, with various mystic and generic totems, and with the underbelly that secretly powers pop culture. After Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks, Lynch drifted away from traditional narrative, blurring plot points and character identities. He doubled down on his own brand of American surrealism, emphasizing beauty and decay as two halves of one coin. Blue Velvet’s happy ending—in which Sandy’s dream of robins casting evil away is realized—is deliberately unconvincing. Faced with a truth about himself, Jeffrey retreats to childish illusion, though Lynch continues to wrestle with his and our madness.
Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. Two sound mixes are included here, a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and, though I didn’t discern many major differences between them, they both have extraordinary depth, balance, and dimension, with an operatic level of attention paid to diegetic sounds. (When Jeffrey flushes a toilet, imperiling himself, the thing gurgles so magnificently as to suggest a moaning whale.)
The most notable supplement here is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). These moments are fine on their own, and anticipate the purplish tone of Twin Peaks, but a three-hour cut of Blue Velvet that conventionally explored Jeffrey’s conflict over his sick father might’ve been disastrous, killing the narcotic pull of the film as it presently exists. There’s also an alternate introduction of Sandy that’s so tossed-off that it’s nearly banal, which is a significant contradiction of her iconic entrance in the final cut. One moment—in which Jeffrey and Dorothy ascend the roof of her apartment—is pure Lynchian poetry, though these scenes otherwise offer a primer on how a filmmaker whittled a rough cut down into something stark, mysterious, and essential.
Also essential is “Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. (Isabella Rossellini’s thoughts on making the film should serve as a definitive refutation of Roger Ebert’s absurd and condescending review, in which he essentially implied that Rossellini was Lynch’s victim.) Meanwhile, “Mysteries of Love” is a more conventional archival documentary, with interviews with most of the film’s principal players, and a recording of Lynch reading from Room to Dream, the 2018 book he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna, includes stories that will probably be familiar to Lynch obsessives. An interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, a look at the sets and props of Blue Velvet, and a booklet with an excerpt from Room to Dream round out one of Criterion’s strongest packages of the year.
Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, George Dickerson Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1986 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino’s Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melville’s distinctly rigorous style.
From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two films—Les Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disowned—are quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.
In Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy world—populated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degenerates—is rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.
With Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But it’s Melville’s foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the director’s canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.
From Bob’s (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. He’s an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of “honor amongst thieves” and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bob’s luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which he’s now working.
Before Bob’s last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, “Now Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.” This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bob’s plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before it’s too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesn’t realize the game’s being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melville’s films.
By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962’s Le Doulos, Melville’s aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to “die or lie.” And in this film, people do both quite regularly.
Where the machinations undergirding Bob’s fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the film’s big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyone’s motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The characters’ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.
Le Doulos’s narrative is perhaps Melville’s most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien stands as one of Melville’s most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.
In Melville’s previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leon’s (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isn’t in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melville’s, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the director’s style from Le Doulos through to Le Samouraï. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melville’s other ‘60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tête-à-têtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.
Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melville’s crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposal—his natural charms and sex appeal—to instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That he’s successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melville’s many exercises in noir.
Blu-ray Review: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace on the Criterion Collection
Audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended.4
If one were to judge the history of cinema solely on the basis of scale and ambition, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace might well be considered the greatest film of all time. A seven-hour-plus adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic doorstopper, Bondarchuk’s film was by far the costliest production in the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly looks it. Priceless artifacts, countless military weapons, thousands of lavishly costumed extras, and a menagerie that includes hundreds of horses, rare wolf-hunting borzois, and a beer-drinking bear are swept before our eyes in a constant stream of ecstatic stimulation. Maximalist in every aspect, War and Peace is, like the novel on which it’s based, a work that wants to contain as many thoughts, emotions, and perspectives as possible. And Bondarchuk goes about accomplishing that by utilizing every wild cinematic technique he can think of.
In contrast to Hollywood epics of the era like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which are marked by long, static processions of extras marching around expensive sets, Bondarchuk never simply shoots for coverage. His camera instead darts and dashes through grandiloquent interiors and hellish battlefields, roving through burning buildings and flying through the air like a cannonball. Where another director might have resorted to a simple wide shot or close-up, Bondarchuk gives us a sweeping helicopter aerial, a complicated superimposition, an expressive split screen, or a camera that seems to float above a ballroom just as Mikhail Kalatozov’s did over the streets of Havana in I Am Cuba.
Bondarchuk often seems here to be attempting to synthesize the entire history of epic historical filmmaking into a single work. He borrows the pioneering split-screen technique of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the legendary crane shot from Gone with the Wind, and the eerily majestic iconography of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, to name just a few, while also anticipating at various points the hallucinatory combat sequences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the idyllic poeticism of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
All this restless innovation and titanic ambition, however, has a tendency to deaden the senses at times, particularly early on in War and Peace, when Bondarchuk’s experimentation comes off as little more than amateurish noodling. The filmmaker’s woozy sonic effects and blurry camera filters come off as dated and distracting, while the use of an off-screen narrator to translate French dialogue in the very first scene is downright confusing. The film can sometimes seem over-eager to impress: Never content to simply allow us to feel the emotional weight of a relationship, Bondarchuk is constantly intervening as a director—underlining, amplifying, and bludgeoning us with heavy-handed visual metaphors.
Bondarchuk’s restless approach often causes him to obscure Tolstoy’s complicated narrative and its vast, inter-connected familial relationships. The film essentially condenses the novel’s sprawling, digressive narrative into a murky love triangle between the socially awkward misfit Count Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), his friend and philosophical opposite, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the idealized, waif-like woman, Countess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva), with whom they both fall in love. Of the three, only Natasha leaves much of an impression, thanks in large part to Saveleva’s radiant performance. A trained ballerina, Saveleva flits and flutters through War and Peace like a butterfly, imbuing her scenes with a litheness and effulgence that provides stark contrast to the portentous philosophizing that Andrei and Pierre are prone to.
If Bondarchuk struggles to convey the story’s gradual shifts in relationships and psychology, he nevertheless demonstrates the ability to give cinematic life to Tolstoy’s rhapsodic depth of feeling. In one of the film’s more emotionally resonant techniques, Bondarchuk jarringly cuts between two scenes with wildly different emotional tenors—a joyous dance and a man dying, for example—emphasizing one of Tolstoy’s great themes: the simultaneity of human experience. While one person is suffering, another is celebrating; while one man is enjoying a banquet in St. Petersburg, another is engaged in bloody combat against Napoleon’s armies.
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is in some ways less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a symphonic representation of its themes—its sense of drama, portent, and grandeur. That’s never truer than in the film’s astonishingly stirring set pieces, which find Bondarchuk variously capturing the buzzy excitement of a ball, the calamitous anxiety of battle, and, in the film’s most haunting passage, the wrenching pain and despair of a city under siege. Bondarchuk’s delirious rendering of the French army’s brutal invasion of Moscow, during which Napoleon’s forces burned the city to the ground, represents the most sustainedly apocalyptic vision of war’s madness and cruelty this side of Elem Klimov’s Come and See. War and Peace couldn’t possibly do justice to every aspect of Tolstoy’s mammoth tome, but at the very least, it captures the essence of the author’s scornful description of war: “an event … opposed to human reason and to human nature.”
From its initial American release, for which it was dubbed into English and cut down by an hour, to an atrocious DVD release from Kultur that reduced its 2.30:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1, War and Peace has rarely been seen in its intended form in the United States. But thanks to Criterion’s meticulous transfer, which is sourced from a Mosfilm restoration, audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended. The film’s moody interiors, sprawling battle vistas, and intricate trick shots all sparkle with a crystalline intensity. Everything looks almost impossibly sharp; there’s no evidence of motion shudder during the film’s whip-fast camera pans, and depth of field is breathtakingly clear throughout. The film’s complex, six-channel soundtrack has been remastered from the original elements in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, providing an appropriately titanic aural experience that’s equally adept at handling subtle dialogue scenes as it is with overwhelming combat sequences.
There’s no commentary track or information about Mosfilm’s grueling and expensive restoration process. The most useful extra here is a program with author Denise J. Youngblood that gives a broad overview of the film’s cultural context and difficult production. Two archival making-of documentaries, one from Germany and another from Russia, provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the film’s making, while a 1967 documentary on Ludmila Savelyeva made for French TV offers a breezy look at the actress and her life in Moscow. New interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (one of several who worked on the film) and Bondarchuk’s son, Fedor, provide some personal reminiscences about the notoriously imperious director. Rounding out the package is an insightful essay by critic Ella Taylor that stresses the importance of War and Peace as a work of Russian nationalism.
While not exactly skimpy, Criterion’s offering of supplementary materials doesn’t quite match up to the monumental nature of the film itself.
Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Boris Zakhava, Anatoli Ktorov, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Antonina Shuranova, Oleg Tabakov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Irina Skobtseva, Boris Smirnov, Vasiliy Lanovoy, Kira Golovko, Irina Gubanova, Aleksandr Borisov, Oleg Efremov, Giuli Chokhonelidze, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Angelina Stepanova, Nikolay Trofimov Director: Sergei Bondarchuk Screenwriter: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 421 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 25, 2019 Buy: Video
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