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Blu-ray Review: Straub-Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

The most famous of Straub-Huillet’s works, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach remains a singular approach to the musician biopic.

4.5

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Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

As somebody familiar with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s cinema solely through academic studies, I expected an introduction to their notoriously “astringent” and “austere” work to be akin to a semiotics lecture in an empty auditorium. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach promptly dispenses with such gloomy prospects. Straub-Huillet’s best-known film is, in the first of its many paradoxes, both insistently severe and intensely pleasurable. The nominal subject here is the life of Johann Sebastian Bach as told by his wife, Anna Magdalena, though, and as befits a card-carrying member of the ‘60s modernist movement that encompassed Godard, Rohmer, Warhol, and late Rossellini, the real one is the relationship between sights and sounds, artifice and reality, the medium and the world.

Straub-Huillet’s stated aim with regard to Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was to use Bach’s music “not as accompaniment but as esthetic material.” Accordingly, the film is mostly composed of live performances of the 18th-century composer’s cantatas, arias, and requiems, all staged in static tableaux. Rigorously shorn of suspense and drama, the film’s narrative (the death of Bach’s children, problems with patrons, his encroaching blindness) is tossed off as narration over authentic letters and engravings, and the notion of “acting” is rejected as ruthlessly as in the sternest Bresson; as Johann and Anna, respectively, harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and singer Christiane Lang are asked not to “play” characters, but to lend their bodies and voices to the camera, every inflection scrubbed off.

If in print that sounds like an exercise in arctic formalism, the film is first and foremost a reminder of how essential a role the senses play in the act of experiencing cinema; through the beauty of its music and the limpidity of its images, it invites not “alienation” but complete immersion, so that “spectacle” can be reconstructed through contemplative analysis. Just as the powdered wigs cloak the most modern of inquiries, so does the film’s bareness quake with emotion: Leonhardt’s Bach is kept at a distance, often a barely noticeable element in the ravishing compositions, yet continually alive through the music that guides him toward the final sublimity of darkness before God. Whether one finds the picture magically august or merely arid depends on one’s willingness to readjust preconceived notions of cinema, though even the wildly varying reactions to Straub-Huillet’s methods ultimately attest to their demand of viewer participation in their search for new forms of expression.

Image/Sound

Straub-Huillet’s carefully ordered, mostly static shots look resplendent in the wake of the film’s 2K restoration. The deep-focus cinematography has never looked more detailed, with the medium-contrast black-and-white images boasting subtle gradients between grays. The lossless audio booms with the pomp and complexity of Bach’s music. Harpsichords and organs handsomely swell on the soundstage as choral vocals gently weave through the mix, while the dialogue and narration are clear throughout.

Extras

Jean-Marie Straub’s introduction of the film at a 2013 screening is included here, as is author Alicia Malone’s intro to Straub-Huillet’s work for Filmstruck. A 2012 interview with Christiane Lang covers her involvement in the film and Straub-Huillet’s curious working methods; most notably, Lang details how the long-gestating project really came together after she herself married a musician and had children, linking her own life to Anna Bach’s. The highlights of this disc, though, are two short films from Straub-Huillet’s back catalog. The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder and several members of his acting coterie, is an experimental work of black-box theater that takes on the political and structural underpinnings of love and incorporates numerous cinematic styles. And The Mother, made by Straub in 2011, tells the story of a murdered hunter whose remorseful reflections suggest the director’s own attempts to cope with Danièle Huillet’s death.

Overall

The most famous of Straub-Huillet’s works, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach remains a singular approach to the musician biopic. Grasshopper’s disc, with its gorgeous transfer and substantive extras, is further proof that the distributor’s ongoing series of editions of Straub-Huillet’s films is already one of the finest collections on home video.

Cast: Gustav Leonhardt, Christiane Lang, Paolo Carlini, Ernst Castelli, Hans-Peter Boyle, Joachim Wolff, Rainer Kirchner, Eckhart Bruntjen, Walter Peters, Kathrien Leonhard, Anja Fahrmann, Katja Drewanz Director: Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub Screenwriter: Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

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Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD.

3.5

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The Magic Flute

With his uncharacteristically cheerful The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman managed the challenging task of preventing his brooding existential musings from coloring the proceedings, while also fusing the seeming incompatabilities of opera and cinema in a way that pays respect to both art forms. By embracing the pure artifice of opera while employing rhythmic editing, an abundance of his typically expressive close-ups, and Sven Nykvist’s especially nimble camerawork, Bergman transfigures the stage space into something truly cinematic, spinning a yarn with all the joy and warmth of a fairy tale, and with little more than the bare essentials that a typical theater would have provided him.

Filming exclusively on a full replica of Stockholm’s famed Drottningholm Court Theatre, Bergman relies on a purely theatrical set design full of painted backdrops, rudimentary yet meticulously handmade felt costumes for various animals, and elaborate paper scrolls with lyrics written on them which occasionally pop up in front of the actors as they sing their lines directly to the camera. Such techniques help to bring a charming and amusing meta-textual layer to the film that pays homage to the stagecraft of opera and is part and parcel of a whimsical aesthetic that helps The Magic Flute unfold in storybook fashion.

Other self-aware touches are less successful, such as the periodic backstage scenes and the repeated cuts to close-ups of a young girl (Helene Friberg) who, eyes full of wonder as she gazes at the stage, functions as a kind of saccharine surrogate for Bergman himself, who was drawn to Mozart’s opera in his youth. But these superfluous intrusions are primarily mitigated by uniformly stunning renditions of Mozart’s music and an abundance of dynamic performances. And Bergman’s unique capacity for capturing the ebbs and flows of people’s inner states lends the characters and their travails a palpable emotional weight that nicely complements the droll comedic touches that dominate the film.

While the first half of The Magic Flute is as light-hearted as anything Bergman ever made, the second half plays a bit more to his strengths, allowing for more expressionistic flourishes in the cinematography and more direct conflict between the darker impulses hinted at early on. From the fiery dungeon where Monostatos and his minions intimidate and terrify Princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) after kidnapping her and Sarastro’s (Ulrik Cold) cult-like and red-clad brotherhood, to the Queen of the Night’s (Birgit Nordin) terrifying rendition of the song bearing her name, Bergman and Nykvist move toward a more complex lighting, staging, and blocking that’s more cinematic than operatic as the drama begins to crescendo.

Yet while the story’s more foreboding elements are more in line with Bergman’s traditional thematic concerns, such as the shifting power imbalances between men and women, it’s the increasingly absurd foibles of Pagageno (Håkån Hagegård), who’s tireless in his search for true love in the form of an imagined Papagena, that’s most lovingly rendered here. Playing out alongside the more prevalent rescue-adventure narrative, Pagageno’s undying quest reveals him as something of a Shakespearean fool whose dopiness is only that much more apparent when contrasted by the suave and handsome Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger), whom Papageno is tasked with accompanying to save Pamina.

With precise comic timing, Hagegård brilliantly captures Papageno in all his ungainly glory as he stumbles in and out of humorous and dangerous ordeals. But as aimless and clueless as Papageno often seems, Bergman sees him as a wounded yet pure soul worthy of compassion. “Love brings relief in pain and sorrow. It soothes a soul in misery,” Papageno sings toward the end of the film. And in a rare happy ending for Bergman, albeit one already written for him, The Magic Flute goes out on a sweet, touching note that sings of love transcending all.

Image/Sound

Considering that the Criterion Collection’s 2000 DVD of The Magic Flute has often been deemed one of the distributor’s weaker image transfers, there was much room for improvement with this new release. And the 2K restoration the film on display here certainly delivers, boasting more well-balanced colors that bring a heretofore unseen richness to the costumes and backdrops. Skin tones have lost the orange hue of the earlier transfer and now appear more natural, and with a slight warmth to them, something that’s especially welcome given the film’s preponderance of close-ups. But the image still appears soft throughout, though that’s mostly noticeable in the wide shots. The sound, however, is practically flawless, with the uncompressed stereo track boasting effective channel separation that dynamically captures the beauty and raw power of the musical performances.

Extras

Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, or Lights! Camera! The Magic Flute, is an hour-long behind-the-scenes feature made for Swedish television that provides a peek into everything from the various steps of the casting process to engineers and other craftsmen designing and constructing the replica stage upon which the film plays out. Certain snippets, like Bergman working with the orchestra or artists painting the elaborate backdrops featured in the film, are intriguing, but the documentary as a whole lacks focus. A 30-minute interview with Bergman, recorded just before the release of The Magic Flute, touches on many of the same topics already covered in Tystnad! Tagning! Trollflöjten!, though the director’s discussion of why he finds opera to be an essential, and still relevant, art form, coupled with his stories of his lifelong fascination with Mozart’s opera, sheds light into why he wanted to make this film. The interview with Bergman scholar Peter Cowie is regrettably the shortest of the three features, but his thoughts on Bergman and Nykvist’s aesthetic tactics are both detailed and insightful. The package is completed with a fold-out booklet with an essay by author Alexander Chee.

Overall

Criterion’s new release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute is a vast improvement over the studio’s 2000 DVD, but don’t come to the show expecting a bounty of extras.

Cast: Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Ulrik Cold, Birgit Nordin, Ragnar Ulfung, Elisabeth Erikson, Erik Sædén, Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, Birgitta Smiding, Helene Friberg Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman, Emanuel Schikaneder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 138 min Rating: G Year: 1975 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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