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DVD Review: Lost Highway

We still await the definitive DVD release of Lost Highway, a film crying out for rediscovery.

2.0

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Lost Highway

There’s a very specific anxiety in David Lynch’s Lost Highway that turns some people off which isn’t present in Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. It’s pensive male anxiety, and for some cultural reason it’s easier for audiences to accept female hysteria than the insecurities of men. One could argue that Eraserhead was also about male anxiety, since that character was dealing with a contemptuous, hostile wife and a forced parenthood to a mewling alien baby, but that took place in a black-and-white industrial zone that could have been post-apocalyptic or buried in the heart of a Pittsburgh steel town. It was more of an underground film than Lost Highway, which, for all its surrealism and dream logic, takes place in contemporary Los Angeles.

First glimpsed anxiously waiting in his darkened, minimalist apartment, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is lit by the dim red glow of his cigarette. The close-up lingers on his grim, fatigued visage, and the imprecisely unsettling, vaguely primordial sound that we’ve come to associate as “Lynchian” drifts underneath. He hears a voice on the intercom announce, “Dick Laurent is dead,” and when he looks out the window, no one is there. It’s like a hazy bad dream, but can’t be labeled male dread per se. Yet we can already tell Madison is hollow and uncomfortable, showing the first signs of encroaching age, with a charged aloofness that feels like the burnt-out embers of now-exhausted charisma.

The next scene does not let up on the bottomless tension. Fred hesitates before leaving the house for his nighttime gig of playing tenor sax at a local jazz club. In a two-shot that seems like it lasts forever, he lingers next to his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), a beautiful and distracted beauty with gothic dark hair and polished black fingernails. When she tells him she’d rather stay home and read, their slow-motion line deliveries and awkward smiles suggest bottomless tension. “Read…? Read what?” Fred responds, and as in the plays of Edward Albee, their light banter and smiles indicate unresolved hostilities and impending danger. “It’s nice to know I can still make you laugh,” he whispers, and when next we see him he’s assaulting the stage with his frenetic, howling saxophone. It’s be-bop rhythm gone savage.

When Fred calls home, no one is there to pick up the phone, but when he returns, she’s innocently laying in bed. Their love scene is best described as downbeat, with Fred looking away from her as his body contorts in sweaty terror and she abstractly runs her hands along his back. Lynch films the scene in rich, sensual darkness, with close-ups of the contours of bodies, fingers curling in anticipation or frustration, and faces like emotional maps. While it’s too electric to be described as arid, the scene plays as if they were underwater or sleepwalking. The balance feels off somehow, and when she gently touches him afterward, this consolatory gesture reeks of pity. Up until this point, Lynch has used spare dialogue and the contrast of warm tones and deep shadows to convey a hotbed of deeply repressed feelings.

Then Lynch veers into the scene that remains the centerpiece of Lost Highway, where the husband and wife attend one of those ghastly nighttime parties where all the beautiful people, engaged in non-conversations and synchronized dances, are gathered around a neon-lit swimming pool. While Renee coyly attracts the attention of other men, Fred orders two drinks for them at the bar and ends up downing them himself. A man in black (Robert Blake) approaches, with pale white skin and a curt, debonair manner, and claims to have met Fred before…at his house…doesn’t he remember? All of the sound of the party drops out, and close-ups of Fred and the stranger maximize the tension as Fred, growing ever anxious, claims not to remember. “As a matter of fact,” the stranger says, “I’m there right now.” And indeed, when Fred calls home a brick-sized cellular phone (which places Lost Highway in the mid-1990s as surely as the Nine Inch Nails/Marilyn Manson soundtrack, sadly losing the timelessness of most of Lynch’s work), the stranger picks up and laughs at him from the other end.

I dwell so exhaustively on the opening 45 minutes of Lost Highway because it contains some of Lynch’s most haunting, prosaic work. While Lynch’s sensibility cannot help but dip into surrealism with his obsessive sound design that makes every interior living room scene feel like it’s hermetically sealed deep within the bowels of a factory, in these early scenes he doesn’t lean on his customary images of fire, flowing red curtains, and rotting decay. Even the appearance of two Mutt and Jeff detectives, one stretched out and lanky, the other squat and portly, and both spouting out self-conscious pulp dialogue, doesn’t feel like a total indulgence, since they draw out Fred’s ambivalence about reality: “I like to remember things my own way. How I remember them; not necessarily the way they happened.”

Distortion and reshaping of memory into something more fantastic than the unhappy circumstances of real life—that’s what most critics read into the narrative shift in Mulholland Drive, but its precursor was Fred’s leap into an alternate reality, even a completely different personality, in Lost Highway. When Fred and Renee return home from the party, there is a strange light flickering inside the house, and shortly afterward, under bizarre circumstances, Renee is discovered beaten into a gore-soaked pulp with a half-naked Fred covered in her blood, weeping and holding her corpse in his arms. While the narrative is fractured here, the police (and the viewer) assume that Fred killed her, and in his now catatonic state he’s in no position to deny it. Until now, Lost Highway is lean and tense, and it starts to go slack during a prison sequence that feels like a Warner Bros. B movie from the back lot got illogically wedged into one of Antonioni’s chronicles of slow-burning anxiety. All of a sudden, Lynch is self-consciously tossing in creepy old men with hangdog faces as prison doctors and wardens, and Henry Rollins appears as a death row guard.

Just as we fear Lynch will get into the scattershot weirdness of season-two Twin Peaks, the story takes a giant turn, and Fred disappears from the narrative altogether. Discovered in the prison cell is a young hipster named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is an auto mechanic with no criminal record. He’s handsome, disaffected, wears a black leather jacket, drives a motorcycle, lives at home with his aging biker parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler), has an attractive girlfriend that adores him (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and seems to be all-around sexier than Fred. When he broods, it’s like James Dean suffering beautifully. Everything would be picture perfect, were it not for the fact that Pete has a nagging lapse in his memory. Something happened to him on one portentous night, but when he asks his parents about it they become paralyzed with terror and refuse to even speak of it or acknowledge it.

In these domestic scenes, the second half of Lost Highway captures some of the intensity of the first. When the parents tighten up with unspoken horror during the conversation about “what happened that night,” it equals, if not surpasses, the feeling that some intangible nightmare is taking over the comforts of a pleasant, familial home, and the coziness of the couch and the warm fireplace is cursed by invisible, oppressive forces. But that’s not the road Lynch is interested in traversing, and Pete’s story is more of a traditional gangster noir where this young mechanic falls in love at first sight with a blond femme fatale named Alice (Arquette, who may be playing Renee’s sister or an alternate version of the same character). We know he adores her because when she appears at the garage, the close-ups are in ultra-slow motion and Lou Reed achingly sings “This Magic Moment” on the soundtrack.

Trouble is, Alice is the moll for a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). He’s so ferocious, when he catches a tailgater on Mulholland Drive, he runs the guy off the road, pistol-whips him into bloody submission, and gives him a ranting lecture on automobile safety. Pete and Alice recklessly begin a torrid affair, sneaking off to hotel rooms or the backseat of Mr. Eddy’s prize Mercedes. The sex scenes are idyllic, often shot in heavenly white light, but short-lived. Mr. Eddy soon discovers who is two-timing him, and Pete is dragged into a web of robbery, murder, and B-movie intrigue in order to save himself and Alice from the gangster’s clutches.

Some have read the deliberately movie-like elements of Pete’s story, which seem lifted from various pulp fictions from over the years, as Fred re-imagines himself as a cooler guy in a more dynamic, adventurous situation, replacing Renee with the more voluptuous, eager Alice. That’s a fair assessment, but many of the elements feel clunky and cliché. The character of Mr. Eddy is almost a parody of Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, and Loggia goes for broke with a spitfire performance, but this raging animal is all bark and no real bite. This is because he’s so clearly a fictional construct, an imagining of what a tough-guy gangster is supposed to be like in a noir story, and as such you can’t take him seriously. Likewise, the detectives who follow Pete around (and take on a larger role than the dim-bulb cops in Fred’s story) are also reminders that we’re watching a movie. Quentin Tarantino does this sort of winking all the time, but Lynch shouldn’t. His work is always stronger when it feels like he’s tapping into the subterranean aspects of real life, and the oddness of his movies is striking because they get much closer at the primal, hungry impulses of real people than most films. When he’s aping other films, it’s never as compelling, or as emotionally true.

There’s more depth in Pete’s story when it avoids the gangster elements altogether. A scene without dialogue where Pete sits in his backyard gazing forlornly at the neighbor’s backyard, with an empty toddler’s pool and a lonely ball floating on the surface, is a poignant moment about Pete and his distracted state of mind, or maybe a longing for the simplicity of childhood. It’s something the viewer can relate to and empathize with. But when Pete is sneaking through the house of a sleazy pimp, waiting to bash him over the head with a champagne bottle so he and Alice can steal his money and escape together, we’re in the realm of fantasy. Lynch’s surrealism is not to be confused with this sort of idle storytelling, and Lost Highway doesn’t resonate as emotionally true again until the narrative starts fracturing once more and Pete is (don’t ask how) wandering down a hallway, his nose bleeding profusely so his chin is dripping with crimson, and every door he opens blasts him with blinding white light and images of Alice/Renee mock him with statements like, “You’ll never have me!”

There are perplexing or misguided elements that run throughout this second half, including distracting cameo appearances (a muscular dystrophy-stricken Richard Pryor as the auto shop owner; Marilyn Manson as the victim in a snuff film), vague portentous statements about mystical executioners from the Far East, an over-reliance on trance metal by Trent Reznor and Rammstein, and an irresponsible attitude toward violence (when a key character gets killed off, Lynch can’t resist having him say a few one-liners while bleeding to death). But even as Lost Highway runs itself off the rails, Lynch still conjures up powerful images and memorable oddities. A cabin in the middle of the desert seems to be exploding in flames, but whenever Lynch cuts away to it, he has the film run backward. Fred reappears as a lethal avenger dressed in black, and Pullman’s committed, haunted performance lends gravity to even the most inane situations. The Möbius-strip conclusion feels like a lyrical flourish until Lynch delves into freakish Francis Bacon-like imagery involving a head that won’t stop frenetically shaking and contorting.

And no matter what, Lynch always drives the story back toward unrelenting male terror, sometimes in ways uncomfortable on multiple levels. Arquette is fearless in displaying her shapely body in front of leering men, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether it is Fred/Pete objectifying her or Lynch. This might feel ugly or tasteless in another filmmaker’s hands, and while it’s definitely a product of the male gaze here (Balthazar Getty takes his clothes off but is never objectified in quite the same way), it’s a little more complex because the central male characters are paralyzed and gasping in terror whenever they have to deal with the mysteries of women. “What’s happening to me?” is Pete’s desperate plea, and ultimately he and Fred are given no answer but a merry-go-round of confusion.

Lost Highway is not an artistic failure; in many ways, it’s Lynch at his most daring, emotional, and personal. It has not achieved the same attention his other films have, though it makes a fitting companion piece to, and inversion of, Mulholland Drive in countless ways. When words failed at describing the harrowing, somnambulistic, maladroit tone, someone (perhaps Lynch himself) coined the phrase “psychogenic fugue.” But when his work genuinely connects, even at its most base and bizarre, Lynch is one of the most pointedly realistic filmmakers in cinema, far more than most of his more naturalistic contemporaries. To understand the emotional realism in Lynch’s work is, in fact, to understand the emotional realism of poetry.

Image/Sound

The images have detail and texture, but uneven skin tones and varying color temperatures are warning signs of a thrown-together DVD release. For those who revere David Lynch’s intricate soundscapes, the audio quality is also below par, with all the levels seeming alternately too-low and too-high.

Extras

None! We can only assume this slapdash DVD was meant to coincide with the American premiere of Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway opera. There’s no doubt this film merits the full two-disc treatment in North America, or at least a comprehensive David Lynch interview, which can be found on the DVDs for Eraserhead and Inland Empire. No wonder Lynch wants full control over his DVD content, since the studios don’t seem to give a damn.

Overall

We still await the definitive DVD release of Lost Highway, a film crying out for rediscovery.

Cast: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Gary Busey, Robert Loggia Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch, Barry Gifford Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Release Date: March 25, 2008 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

4.0

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Forty Guns

Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.

When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.

Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.

Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.

This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.

The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.

The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.

Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.

Image/Sound

Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.

Extras

The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.

Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.

Overall

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan

The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

3.5

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Let the Corpses Tan

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.

In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.

The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.

The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.

Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.

Image/Sound

On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.

Extras

Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

4.0

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A Dry White Season

The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.

Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.

The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.

In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.

Extras

A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.

Overall

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video

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