The Best Blu-Ray and DVD Releases
of 2012 as decreed by Greg Klymkiw
This was a stellar year for Blu-Ray and DVD collectors that it's been difficult to whittle my personal favourites down to a mere 10 releases. My criteria for inclusion is/was thus:
1. The movie (or movies). How much do I love it/them?
2. How much do I love owning this product?
3. How many times will I re-watch it?
4. Is the overall physical packaging to my liking?
5. Do I like the picture and sound?
One more item I used to assess the disc is/was for me, the last and LEAST area of consideration - one that will probably surprise most of you, but unless extras really knock me on my butt, their inclusion is not that big of a deal. I do go though supplements with a fine tooth comb and beyond any personal pleasure they deliver (or lack thereof), I assess the educational value of the added value material for those studying film. Alas, I find many extras lacking - commentaries are either too dry or ludicrously anecdotal and often avoid the filmmaking process in any substantive way, whilst too many added "making-of" documentaries are little more than glorified electronic press kits and/or promotional tools for the various home entertainment labels to shill other product.
So, there you have it and without further ado, here goes.
Alfred Hitchcock -
The Masterpiece Collection
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
15 (!!!!!) BLU-RAY Discs
Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Limited Edition)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is the Blu-Ray release we've all been waiting for and it pretty much lives up to all the anticipatory slobber from movie geeks the world over. The 15 films that comprise this mega-box-set, presented on 15 individual Blu-Ray discs in the order of their original theatrical release dates are, for the most part, a stellar assortment. Here are brief capsule reviews of all the movies within this absolute must-own set.
|"Totalitarian nations . . . get things done."|
A solid hero in the dependable form of Robert Cummings, the delectable Priscilla Lane and vile villains of the juiciest order in this exciting espionage-tinged chase thriller inspired by Hitch's own 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much. Noted for its bizarre expressionistic climax atop the Statue of Liberty. As the following clip from Saboteur demonstrates, the film was, politically ahead of its time, only now, in contemporary terms, the tables have turned and the totalitarian regime Hitch's hero might be fighting would be America itself:
|SHADOW OF A DOUBT|
"Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women."
Shadow of a Doubt (1946) *****
Utter perfection. One of the most chilling, disturbing & harrowing thrillers of all time with dollops of mordant wit plus an indelible sense of time & place - a seemingly pure, sun-dappled mid-western America. Best of all is Joseph Cotten as "The Merry Widow Killer", one of the creepiest serial killers in movie history - he's truly, utterly horrendous (and, for a time, quite charming). Written by Thornton (Our Town) Wilder, Sally Benson & Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock herself as ludicrously rendered in the recent theatrical film Hitchcock & brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton in the HBO feature The Girl). It has, however, been said that Hitch himself wrote Joseph Cotten's famous dinner table speech. Take a gander at it here and . . . ENJOY!
|"I never strangled a chicken in my life!"|
Shot to approximate real time with no cuts (save for reel breaks). Based on the notorious Leopold/Loeb killings with Hume Cronyn's treatment, a script by Arthur Laurents (writer of, I kid you not, the Redford-Streisand weeper from the 70s: The Way We Were), memorably sickening John Dall & Farley Granger performances, first-rate thesping from James Stewart, expert Hitchcock blocking & his trademark expressionism in extremis. Here's a delectable taste of Rope's foul killers:
|"He likes the way his wife welcomes him home."|
For my first three decades on Earth, THIS was my all-time favourite Hitchcock movie. Eventually overtaken by Vertigo, it still delivers big time in the suspense department with fetishistic peeping tom qualities running rampant as invalided James Stewart spies on his neighbours and witnesses a murder. Raymond Burr plays one of Hitchcock's scariest villains.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY
|"Mom! Wally's picking on me."|
The Trouble with Harry (1955) ***
A mildly entertaining trifle of a black comedy that's not quite as dark as it wants to be. Buoyed by a tremendously sexy, funny, engaging and very young Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Mathers (Leave it to Beaver) and some stalwart character actors to make the whole affair a pleasure.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
|Que Sera, Sera |
Odd remake of Hitch's 1934 original with great suspense set pieces, a weirdly brilliant James Stewart and, in spite of occasional longeurs, can one ever go wrong with Doris Day a singin' ever-so sweetly? In a Hitchcock picture, no less.
|"I don't care anymore about me."|
These days when people ask me what my favourite movie of all time is, I have no problem citing this one - but always with the added history of how it is a film I have grown with over the years. The more years, the more life experience, the more I related to the psychological intricacies, layers of character, its obsessive romanticism and the fetishistic qualities of moulding someone into precisely what you want. As creepy, chilling and suspenseful as Vertigo is, it's also deeply and profoundly moving. No surprise it's moved up in so many polls as the best movie of all time. It might well be. What I know for sure is this: Kim Novak's entrance in Vertigo is without a doubt the greatest entrance of any star, of any character, in any movie known to man - now and forever.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
"That wasn't very sporting. . ."
The greatest mistaken identity espionage thriller of them all. Classy Cary Grant, suavely sinister James Mason and that ever-so deadly crop duster diving and aiming on a flat, bald prairie with no cover of escape.
|"I'll lick the stamps."|
Foul, vile and still astounding psycho-thriller that jangles the nerves with all manner of perversities and horror. The isolated motel. The blonde. The nervous young man. The screeching harridan mother. The taxidermy. The sandwich. The peep hole. The bathroom. The psycho. The blood. It seldom gets scarier than this. And the shower? The jets of refreshing water. The shower curtain. The malevolent shadow on the other side of the curtain. Scared the crap out of me the first time I saw the picture as a kid and still creeps me out.
|"I think you're a louse."|
The Birds (1963) *****
Thousands of birds that kill.
"...I'm some sort of animal you've trapped!"
Marnie (1964) *****
Hitchcock's final genuine masterpiece of obsessive love with a great Tippi Hedren performance and a gloriously expressionistic mise-en-scene. Oh God, and that score, that score that sticks to one's brain forever.
Torn Curtain (1966) ****
This espionage thriller is a mess and full of longeurs of the worst kind, but its flaws are overshadowed by several set pieces of suspense and violence that are up there with Hitchcock's best. There's a "kitchen" scene that seems to be a strange reversal, yet extension of the "shower" scene from Psycho that still shocks and horrifies even the most jaded contemporary viewers.
|"Flores para los muertos."|
Topaz (1969) **
Bloated, dull spy thriller that's almost uwatchable save for a handful of decent set pieces.
|A SACK O' POTATOES|
I love this sick, hilarious, shocking, brutal and terrifying thriller to death. There's a killer loose in London and he's into rape and necktie strangulation. The detective in charge is more sickened by his wife's grotesque gourmet cooking than the crime scenes he must pore over with a fine tooth comb. Even more perverse is the hero of the film who is so reprehensible that we almost find the necktie killer charming. And then, we have the potato truck scene.
|"I'm tingling all over."|
Family Plot (1976) **1/2
Slight, mildly amusing thriller with a clutch of decent performances - especially from Karen Black and William Devane. It's not quite the last film one would have hoped for Hitch, but it's not without some merit.
Alfred Hitchcock - The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-Ray is ESSENTIAL to own. This gorgeously produced box set is not without some mild flaws, but overall it's a winner and a keeper. The sound and picture transfers range from okay at worst to mind bogglingly spectacular at best, The packaging is attractively designed, though a tad cumbersome in terms of the basic practicality of removing discs for play. And the extra features - the thing I usually care least about - are rendered here with such magnificent detail and considerable educational value that it's an element of the package worth touting.
CUT TO THE CHASE:
THE CHARLEY CHASE COLLECTION
Cut to the Chase:
The Charley Chase Collection
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This DVD is a revelation. I know, I know. Some of you (and you know who you are, all of you, those dearest to me whom I can count on one hand), you must surely be shaking your collective heads and saying: "Greg, how could you not have discovered Charley Chase sooner? For shame, laddie, for shame!"
And yes, I should have discovered this gem sooner. I hang my head in shame - not too low, mind you, because that is why the magnificent Milestone Films exists. Its founders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller were placed on this Earth to bring overlooked classic cinema before those who should know better and, frankly, as much of the world as humanly possible. On those grounds alone - notably MY sustenance, MY awakening, MY illumination - are more than enough reason to cite this stunning disc as one of the most important DVD releases of 2012.
It sickens me to admit it, but the brilliant silent comedian Charley Chase was not an important part of my own cinematic vocabulary until watching Cut to the Chase: The Charley Chase Collection. That said, I do vaguely recall sampling a couple of his short comedies via 16mm prints over 30-years-ago and can only suspect Chase didn't grab me back then as the potentially less-than-ideal presentation of the films was swamped by the plethora of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd prints (also on 16mm) that so commanded my attention in the halcyon days when my voracious appetite for cinema was still in its burgeoning phases.
Well, that's my excuse. What's yours?
Seeing this beautifully curated DVD, I'm a bit shocked that I didn't make a greater effort to dive headlong into Chase. Seeing him now, he seems to be a perfect comic persona to worship during those years when I and a handful of movie-mad young drones in Winnipeg, my beloved city of retro-inspiration, sought to live our lives in a perverse amalgam of punk-fuck-you with anything pre-WWII and dapples of 50s post-war repression. Anyone needing further elucidation on this should watch Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, Cowards Bend The Knee, Brand Upon The Brain and Keyhole or the the legendary short films of John Paizs and his exquisite feature Crime Wave, all of which are as representative of this state of mind amongst the city's youthful miscreants living outside the vast majority of beer-swilling metalheads who dominated the -ahem- culture of our Winter City.
Charley Chase should have been our idol. That said, I think he probably was, though inadvertently - via, of course, his spirit, his ghost - haunting us, possessing us, demanding we follow his lead. Our own obsession with the periods and fashion of Chase's time surely contributed to the manner in which we lived our lives through the mid-to-late 70s and even through much of the horrendous 80s.
If anything, Chase exuded a personality of modernism beyond modernism in his own time.
Watching him now, it's as if he was completely instep with his time by being skewed ever-so slightly out-of-step. Chase's distinctively dapper haircut, a pomade-infused pate that often tapered its way into the sudden burned-in definition of his oh-so elegant mini burns. And then there was the hippest, most happening moustache this side of The Little Tramp (or Hitler, take your pick). His long, thin 'stache and glistening dome seemed to be the ideal crown (when his cooler-than-cool hats and caps were doffed) to those adornments below his neck - blending 20s chic with an-ultra-casual-not-so-chic attire (but chic, because of its un-chic qualties). All of these physical accoutrements contributed to a persona embodying the future, with a kind of 10-seconds-into-the future soul and comportment.
Unlike, Chaplin and occasionally Keaton, who brought their sensibilities to the past and Lloyd who so often seemed of his time (though universally so), Chase seems (at least based on this two-disc set of DVDs) something else altogether.
So what are you going to get if you get this disc?
2 discs, 300-minutes and 16 shorts without the encumbrance of any extras save for a sleek, simple and easily navigable menu design. The transfers themselves range from watchable to first-rate and thankfully they're all window-boxed to present as much of the 1:1:33 full screen images as possible. This a frills-free edition and for me, it's another great example of a DVD where the films themselves are frills-enough.
The movies on this disc are, in a word, tremendous. They're so funny that during my first helping of them, I was not the only one roaring with laughter. My wife and notably, 11-year-old daughter, were equally enthused. My daughter so fell in love with Charley Chase that she petulantly refused to allow me to shut the home entertainment system down after the first disc to allow her a decent bedtime.
Oh, to paraphrase Ruskin, that impudent little crystal!
I'm happy she did this, actually. Her petulance paid off in spades. Watching the 16 films back to back in one sitting was, from a pure level of entertainment value, an absolute blast. From an aesthetic and pedagogical standpoint it was a double-your-pleasure burst of joy being able to see the sophistication level of the humour and being able to experience both a voice and consistency in Mr. Chase's short films and his approach to comedy. The narratives - always simple, but engaging hooks for Mr. Chase to hang his humour and style upon - are rooted firmly in laughs derived from embarrassment - Chase's, of course, but by extension, ours.
Many of the shorts were directed by the inimitable Leo McCarey (in close collaboration with Chase). McCarey, of course, was no slouch to several generations of movie lovers having directed one of the great screwball romantic comedies of all time, The Awful Truth and the beloved sentimental tale of inner city priests Going My Way (both of which won McCarey Oscars for Best Director). (Let's also not forget he directed The Bells of St. Mary's, a film title that adorns the movie theatre marquee in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and as such, is a movie, captured as a piece of time and playing forever in the mythical town of Bedford Falls.)
In addition to making people laugh with a clutch of other great comedies like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (as well as being the brains behind developing the personae of Laurel and Hardy), McCarey made millions upon millions of viewers weep copiously - first with Love Affair in 1939 and then its wildly successful remake An Affair to Remember (with Cary Grant) in 1957.
The story goes that studio head Hal Roach was looking to generate a new comic star in the tradition of Harold Lloyd AND find directing gigs for Leo McCarey. Chase had long abandoned acting in favour of being Roach's most trusted and talented creative production chief, but Roach coaxed him to return to his place in front of the camera, with McCarey behind. McCarey often credited Chase with being the real brains behind their collaborations, but the fact of the matter is that they were great pals and creatively, like two positively combative peas in a pod, they managed to generate over 50 films together. McCarey purportedly detested the humour of embarrassment, but the best versions of these (some of which are in this DVD release) are among the best comedy shorts ever made.
The McCarey contributions in the Cut To The Chase DVD are admittedly better than many of the others in the set, but frankly, that's kind of like saying Godfather Part II is better than The Godfather.
If you love silent cinema, this DVD is for you. If you love discovering new/old talent, ditto. If you want to laugh so hard that you'll soil yourself on more than one occasion - Charley Chase is your man and Cut To The Chase has your name on it.
Cut to the Chase - The Charley Chase Collection is available via Milestone Films through Oscilloscope Releasing. If you're interested in purchasing it, feel free to order through the direct Amazon links below which will not only be especially convenient, but will allow you to contribute to the ongoing maintenance of this site.
|Siegfried bathes in Blood. Hell, who amongst us has never done likewise?|
Dir. Fritz Lang Written By: Lang & Thea Von Harbou
Starring: Paul Richter, Margarete Schön, Hanna Ralph,
Bernhard Goetzke, Theodor Loos, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Review By Greg Klymkiw
In a perfect world, you will ALL (I hope) have the experience of someday seeing Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece Die Nibelungen on film in a real cinema. Even better, you will have the experience of seeing it in the stately 1300-seat San Francisco picture palace The Castro Theatre accompanied by live music on the cinema's majestic hand-restored Wurlitzer organ.
Almost one quarter of a century ago, I saw IT with one I did love with all the heart and soul one would dare give to another human being (which, to my mind, is the only real way to see IT.) We sat together in the balcony of the Castro, silently contemplating the enormity of what would be our first dose of this famed epic of Aryan Supremacy. Nursing hangovers, we luxuriated in the splendour of the Castro, using the atmosphere as a fluffy blanket of forgetfulness to erase the sordid memories of the chippies we caroused with the night before at Harry Smith's Club Morocco in Winnipeg. Ashamedly we had, in a fit of mad inebriation, dragged these beguiling guttersnipes with us and took a crazed cab ride from Harry's to the airport and loaded them onto the airplane after drunkenly managing to secure two more tickets to San Francisco. Thankfully, once reaching the Bay Area, the brazen harlots, still reeking of cheap toilet waters and even cheaper booze abandoned us. Most shockingly, they displayed no interest at all in seeing Die Nibelungen at the Castro and chose instead to see the sights of San Fran (which, we surmised would actually be bottles of cheap gin on the waterfront). We, however, had all the sights we needed and not even the promise of ingesting more Mother's Milk with these scarlet damsels was enough to tempt us from the purpose of our pilgrimage to the city named in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi. We huddled close in the balcony as the lights dimmed on the gargantuan deco chandelier. The Wurlitzer rose to the centre of the orchestra pit, the pipes intoned their notes of portent, the red velvet curtains parted and as the celluloid flickered, two lads from Winnipeg dove headlong into the maw of the Castro Theatre and conversely, its silver screen beckoned like some massive glory hole - stuffed with a treat to fill their greedy, supplicating mouths. Fritz Lang, some 65-or-so-years after he first made Die Nibelungen, would be responsible for changing their lives forever.
Lang is without question one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived and I've often looked upon him as the German amalgamation of such great contemporary talents as Spielberg and Scorsese. His visual aplomb was matched only by his almost peerless ability to tell stories with the sort of virtuosity matched only by the aforementioned American directors. Lang's movies crackled with the sort of intensity and excitement that one expects from the bigger-than-life medium of feature film.
Die Nibelungen is not a masterpiece for nothing. Lang had every available resource tossed his way by the great German studio UFA and with complete artistic control (and yet another great script from his wife Thea Von Harbou), he rendered this classic German tale over two feature length tales. The first part of the epic spins the magnificent tale of the title character Siegfried who, borne of noble lineage, apprentices as a blacksmith and eventually forges the mightiest sword in all of the Aryan Kingdom.
He is bound and determined to win the hand of the beautiful Queen Kriemhild and on his way to her kingdom, he does battle with one mega-kick-ass dragon, bathes in its blood to give him greater powers, and hacks his way to the apple of his blonde-haired, blue eyes; doing über-battle with a variety of odd creatures who all have some manner of magic power that he acquires.
Siegried becomes the ultimate all-powerful German Titan and Kriemhild is more than moist for this gorgeous hunk of manhood. Alas, she's saddled with a loser weakling brother, Gunther, who's got to give her his blessing for the union to take place. The weakling baby brother demands that Siegfried assist him in winning the hand of the warrior princess Brunhild. (Yup, Django's wife is her namesake in Tarantino's recent ode to Mandingo.) Siegfried uses all his magical powers to deceive Brunhild into marrying Gunther (including a wedding night stint).
Siegfried might be all powerful, but just like Superman has Kryptonite to fuck with him, our Teutonic Hero has his own Achilles Heel. Though we've had a great roller coaster ride, things turn decidedly dusky and we genuinely shiver in our drawers for Siegfried's safety.
Siegfried has, for much of its running time, been fun and games of the highest order, but Part Two of Die Nibelungen leaves the breathtakingly exciting Boys' Adventure Fritz Lang behind and yields his darker qualities in Kriemhild's Revenge. Hell hath no fury like a gorgeous German Ice Queen who seeks complete and utter decimation of her enemies to right a considerable wrong. A darkness descends upon the land and we board a much different roller coaster - plunging us into a noir-like precursor to the Fritz Lang of post-war America.
Here, Die Nibelungen turns into that pot of scalding coffee Lee Marvin tosses in Gloria Graham's face in The Big Heat and Kriemhild's Revenge is one nasty, dark, vicious blow to us after another.
And, I kid you not, we get to meet Attila the Hun.
Carnage runs rampant as do the rivers of blood emanating from Kriemhild.
All four and one half hours of this gargantuan epic are a marvel to behold. Lang keeps the engine fuelled with his storytelling prowess, matched only by his sumptuous visual splendour. Die Nibelungen is ultimately Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Teutonic garb and crossed with the most noir film noir imaginable.
This new gorgeously transferred and extras-packed Kino-Lorber/Mongrel Media release will have you and those you love reeling with the thrills and spills of a great cliffhanging serial and populated with more than enough steely Aryan lore to warm the cockles of Hitler's heart.
And if that's not chilling, nothing is.
GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD
DOWN THE ROAD AGAIN
Goin' Down The Road
Down The Road Again
dir. Donald Shebib
It's only fitting that the best English Canadian film, the country's most defining historical work of cinema and the lovely sequel made over 30-years later is given such a stellar home entertainment release by Union Pictures in a terrific DVD/Blu-Ray double disc.
"In Goin' Down the Road, Shebib does what the Cassavetes of Shadows knew how to do, and he does it better." - Roger Ebert
"There is scarcely a false touch . . . at times one forgets [Goin' Down the Road] is an acted film." - Pauline Kael
Greatness in any work of art is distinguished as something or someone achieving the highest, most outstanding levels of magnitude, significance and importance. Based on this, there is simply no question that Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road is a great movie. Its tremendous force, power and lasting value is one that is achieved by very few amongst so many. The picture, on so many levels, represents the quintessence of greatness, but must also be regarded as a work that expresses a wholly indigenous cultural representation of a country that has lived in the shadow of the cultural and economic dominance since its very inception.
GOIN'DOWN THE ROAD (*****):
Two young men - Joey (Douglas McGrath) and Pete (Paul Bradley) - are leaving their home behind. Maybe forever. And there is, to be sure, a certain melancholy when you say goodbye to the place of your youth, but when all that's left is stagnation and unemployment, perhaps goodbye, farewell or good riddance are the best sentiments after all. And when you're facing a brave new world like Joey and Pete are doing from behind the steering wheel and dashboard of a 1960 Chevy Impala - blasting down an open road, chugging stubbies of beer, throwing their heads back, laughing and smiling whilst their eyes twinkle with that special gleam of hope that only an open highway can bring - their loins immediately gird themselves for whatever opportunities new horizons will bring.
The story, like most great stories, is on its surface, very simple. Beautifully written by William Fruet from Shebib's original story idea, we follow the aforementioned two dreamers from a small town in Nova Scotia and their search for a better life in the big city of Toronto. Not anchored in the familiar, they manage to make it over a few hurdles, but soon the weight, breadth and scope of big dreams that a concrete jungle squashes like a barbell dropped on a watermelon is too much and in desperation they're faced with doing whatever it takes to survive. A reckless act is what forces them to move on, ever-searching for that pot of survival that surely must be at the end of the road - if, in fact, the road even ends.
Stylistically, though the film is a drama, the overall documentary tradition of cinéma vérité springs immediately to mind while the pictures unspools. Though the look is grainy (due to varying light conditions and a 16mm to 35mm blowup) and often handheld, the late Richard Leiterman's photography magnificently renders an overwhelming sense that what we're watching is reality and not fiction. Leiterman's compositions are beautifully wrought and most importantly, balanced to provide maximum dramatic impact with care, subtlety and the highest level of artistry.
DOWN THE ROAD AGAIN (****):
30 years later, Joey is leading a quiet life in Vancouver, retiring from his job as a Canada Post mailman. He hasn't seen Pete in years, until he receives the sad news that his wild, old pal has passed away. He is charged with Pete's ashes, a written request to "take them home" and a series of letters which he's instructed to open and read only at certain intervals.
Joey, is most definitely on the road again, headed cross country on an odyssey to scatter Pete's remains on the East Coast. He meets up with their old girlfriends Betty (Jayne Eastwood) and Celina (Cayle Chernin) from Toronto and soon, the pilgrimage includes every Canadian's favourite perky gal pals and Pete's daughter.
The journey proves funny, bittersweet and romantic. Shebib's screenplay deftly blends footage from the first film with the contemporary tale and the film finally explodes with sentiment, emotion and an extremely satisfying surprise ending.
This restored deluxe edition of Goin' Down the Road and its excellent sequel Down the Road Again are packaged with Bluray, DVD, Digital Copy and tons of extra features including the brilliant SCTV parody of the movie. In Canada, this special edition is available via Union Pictures. It's a first rate piece of sell-through home entertainment and well worth buying instead of renting.
Of special note is Don Shebib's commentary track over Goin' Down the Road. It's not only full of the sort of details one would want from such a track - the sort most directors are incapable of properly delivering when they do (save for a select few). In fact, much of what Shebib has to say about the making of the film is - in and of itself - a kind of basic how-to blended with an inspirational you've-got-to-do-what-you've-got-to-do-to-make-your-movie.
I especially urge young filmmakers to watch the film repeatedly, study it, listen to Shebib's commentary - more than once - and wipe the repulsive grimace of entitlement I see on so many of your faces when you think you can only make your magnum opus with every filmmaking toy known to man and a crew size unbecoming of any real independent filmmaker.
Most all, let this groundbreaking work of Canadian Cinema, inspire you NOT to create some impersonal calling card that ONLY delivers the message, "Look Ma, I can use a dolly. I have nothing to say, but at least I'm employable."
Think about telling a story that's actually ABOUT something, a story that exposes you and your voice as honestly as possible and most of all, to place everything in rendering a work rooted in humanity - work that reflects our condition, our place in the universe, our hopes, our dreams, our disappointments.
THEN, watch, study and listen to Shebib 30 years later after a stellar career in which he honed his craft to where it's at now.
When the set first came out a few months ago, my copies were fraught with some odd mastering issues. But a third copy later and all was well. I recently picked up a couple more copies at some insane Giant Tiger Boxing Day sale where a whole mess of Canadian BluRays were selling for $5 (and where in one store, I scooped up every copy to bestow upon close friends as gifts). All the discs are in impeccable condition, so I suspect I had bad luck with my first two copies.
Alliance has been handling the direct sales on behalf of Union Pictures and a few months ago I quipped that this release was "not just some fodder to be shoved into Giant Tiger discount bins, but a genuine classic of Canadian Cinema." Well, it appears this Classic of Canadian Cinema, along with a number of good Canadian films were in Giant Tiger discount bins.
I'm not sure how many are left, but make no mistake - this is one of the Ten Best Home Entertainment releases of 2012, so if you can't find it at Giant Tiger for $5, try ordering it from Amazon.
THE INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA or THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL
|Borg Queen enters the Institute Benjamenta|
In 1995, the Brothers Quay unleashed Institute Benjamenta or This Dream People Call Human Life, their stunning feature-length adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and I experienced an identical sense of eye-opening to my first helping of their film as I did when I first heard, or rather, read the novel for the first time. Granted, the book and the film are two works that exist separately from each other in completely different mediums and as such, are of lasting value insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other.
Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude, slightly surprised over the money-grubbiness of its principal (Gottfried John) and completely, utterly and wholeheartedly enamoured with the chief lecturer Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige).
Endless days and weeks are spent in rigorous exercises devoted to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit, but as he is drawn deeper into the spell of Lisa, her brother, the Principal, draws himself ever closer to Jakob.
Death, it seems, is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit – personified in one who clings to rendering all to a supine position of grovelling. Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser. At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over their supreme artistry, which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when the character of Lisa Benjamenta, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual experience of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast for the eyes of epic proportions with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty.
Another element of perfection is the screenplay that not only captures the spirit and key touchstones of Walser’s book, but does so with grace, humour and emotion. The tone and pace are precisely as I imagined a film version of the book to have, but most delightfully, the Twins and their co-writer Alain Passes retain and gorgeously capture the novel's voice - that being Jakob himself. The Twins are never shy about using the voiceover. It's a perfect compliment to the visuals.
Astoundingly, many of the visuals sans narration evoke (for those who know and love the novel) Walser's distinctive literary voice. Few directors have been blessed with this ability. For my money the only equally successful example of this is John Huston's movie of James Joyce's The Dead. (Granted, others come close, but on this front, my money goes to the seemingly odd bedfellows of the Twins and the late Mr. Huston.)
Another element in the equation that is the perfection of Institute Benjamenta comes in the form of Lech Jankowski's haunting score which works on two levels - one, in perfect tandem with the film and two, as gorgeous, soaring music all on its own.
Add to this:
- a perfect cast (especially the luscious Borg Queen herself, Miss Krige);
- a spirit of cinematic invention that place the Twins in a most lofty pantheon;
- and last, but not least, the simple, unavoidable fact that Institute Benjaments is quite unlike anything you will ever see.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I have counted. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the now-legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing.
If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what it.
I had not laid eyes upon the Twins since 1995. My last memory of them was sitting in some reception hall within the British Film Institute during the London International Film Festival and trying to determine on a map where my Ukrainian ancestry originated to see where it lay in relation to that of Bruno Schulz. At the time, my knowledge of my roots was murkier than it is now and I’m pleased to say that Schulz did indeed come from an Oblast next to mine and that he did indeed reside in the same Oblast for a good portion of his life and career.
Seventeen years, however, is a long time to not converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of Institute Benjamenta via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programmes at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers and the other being a historic exhibit entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets.
A conversation with the Brothers Quay
upon the home entertainment release of
Institute Benjamenta in North America
via the visionary Zeitgeist Films
By Greg Klymkiw
Greg Klymkiw: I’m thrilled Institute Benjamenta is now available for home consumption via Zeitgeist Films in North America. I trust you were involved intimately in the process?
Brothers Quay: It was made from a 35mm fine grain and a low-contrast 35mm print both held by Channel Four and cinematographer Nic Knowland, and the two of us supervised the transfer.
I usually avoid watching such extra home entertainment items as ‘On the Set’ segments, as I find they can have the potential to remove any future magic I will derive from the film itself. That said, I trust you both approved its inclusion.
To be honest, the ‘On the Set’ segment is very small, is actually quite all right, and will help considerably in its own modest and informative way as to the location we found and how we worked with it.
Upon finally watching the segment, I found it moving to witness such commitment, joy and good humour from all the participants in your production, which is so important when one is creating magic. Though this phrase has sadly become a clichéd line from too many who create anything but magic, I still steadfastly hold to the belief that movies ARE magic. I think, though, for that magic to live and breathe on screen it must work its way through every crevice of the picture’s soul, ever forging new waterways and swirling kaleidoscopic tributaries. This is what I see on your set. On a strictly personal level, the ‘On the Set’ segment brought me back so vividly to the production of Archangel where my dearest Mr Maddin and I never once felt the set was anything BUT a secret playground. Am I wrong in assuming you, like Disney’s dwarves, are ‘whistling while you work?’ Is it important to have fun? Are there aspects of moviemaking that bring you back to the joys of childhood? The make-believe? The play? Even to the extent that ‘work’ IS play?
I think we were much too nervous to whistle – literally – but we did have the confidence and the utter loyalty of our hand-picked team. We finished on schedule and under budget and I think we surprisingly proved that our strain of American Protestantism was augmented by Shakerism and Amishism. In the end, yes, everyone was at full ‘play’.
Prior to writing Jakob von Gunten, Walser studied to be a servant and did indeed briefly hold such a position. When not writing, he held several jobs that one might consider to be representative of complete and total servitude. In your film, one of the most indelible sequences for me is when Jakob begs/demands for a decent place to ‘rest his head’. At least initially, this is something that clearly sets him apart from his fellow students in the servant academy (as I suspect Walser himself must have felt like when he himself toiled in similar inconsequential positions of employ).
No one wrote more beautifully about the notion of ‘freedom’, and the un-freedoms within freedom, than Walser. In real life he was a great interloper, a loner, extremely restless, a permanent wanderer and he knew hard and difficult penury but these odd jobs that he so frequently took up were there to protect and keep his writing independent. In Jakob von Gunten, he is both proud and a little defiant, but in order to explore those ‘grey nether regions’ of zero-dom he simply needed a decent place to rest his head and no doubt a table to write on. There was also an enormous element of play-acting, mischievousness, in his role as the servant, but there were lessons he learned and admired and submitted to at the Institute Benjamenta: the renunciations, the strictures.
YES!!! I do so love that notion of ‘play-acting’ in both life and movies. At times, the actors playing the Benjamenta students are infused with a quality of gentle pantomime, certainly not unlike the magical qualities of silent cinema, where performance was rendered stylistically and with a theatrical sense of projection. Granted, so much in those early days of movies came from such theatrical sources as vaudeville, melodrama, and yes, traditional British pantomime. It brought an added magical quality to the medium that, to a certain extent, is lacking in the post-silent era. (There was and is magic, of course, just rendered differently.) However, I am very interested in how so much of Benjamenta is relayed visually – I can even imagine a movie that includes music and soundscape, but where the ‘text’ is conveyed via intertitles. I find your film is so delicately, exquisitely balanced in this regard that while every element of the storytelling is infused with ‘style’ it does not draw attention to itself – you set the ‘parameters’ of Walser’s world in cinematic terms and we go with the flow. To what extent are you consciously invoking elements of ‘archaic’ storytelling and making it your own in order to serve Walser’s vision?
We promised ourselves that everything that we learned in animation wouldn’t be jettisoned just because we moved into our first live-action feature and that the dialogues were NOT going to over-dominate; that Walser’s voice would be heard but only when necessary; and that like in our animation films image/music/sound would dominate first and foremost.
The very exigencies of your production ‘parameters’ (as witnessed in the ‘On the Set’ featurette) seem to allow an even greater penetration into the realm of magic (as cinema and vice-versa). Did making the film in this fashion provide greater freedoms?
No, our first intuitions were correct when we wrote the script. We always told Alain, our co-scriptwriter, that we first had to imagine the setting first, the décor, the light, the music and sound, and only then could we safely permit one single line of dialogue to transpire. AND a lot of them were voice-overs, which allowed even more independence for the image. As you know perfectly well, to do animation is long and patient work, so you think twice and ten times when you have to do a retake. It was so joyous to ask an actor to redo a take and to see how much you could reshape a performance or have them propose something more daring. In that sense we might provoke something and then be there to ‘capture’ that moment. So we were very happy ‘trappers’. We always said that we treated our actors with as much respect as our puppets – which is clearly NOT the same thing as treating your actors as if they were only puppets.
In terms of the flow of both the film and its narrative, there is a clear emphasis on this sequence. To what extent was it of import to establish Jakob’s ‘difference’ at this juncture in the proceedings?
Yes, it was very important that early on there be this sudden unexpected moment of Jakob’s revolt. It’s the moment where he’s trying to swallow the gruel for dinner that he begins to gag and violently shoves the plate away, and then there’s a hard cut to him falling onto the floor and grabbing Lisa’s ankles and begging her desperately for his own room. But after that it all takes care of itself and we don’t make a feast of it.
In terms of crafting a final shooting script, did the process of creating this sequence affect the content that precedes and follows this sequence?
No, it was always there in the script, as it was in the novella, but it allowed for his singular subjective voice-overs to really begin to flow and to comment on the hermetic cosmos of the moribund Institute Benjamenta, the mysterious brother and sister, his fellow students, particularly Kraus, who was all important for Jakob – and for us – in terms of creating the ‘Benjamentian’ perfect zero.
Do you recall the nature of your conversations with Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John regarding this sequence?
No, we don’t, but for sure Lisa has already divined in Jakob the ‘Prince-ling’ who will hopefully come to awaken her from her deep human sleep with a kiss, so she’s already highly pre-disposed towards him as this mysterious interloper who’s just arrived at the Institute. It’s as though at the beginning of the film when she’s bathed in sweat and dream, she’s invoked his arrival. And of course she’s Sleeping Beauty. So there was the whole fairy tale element, which was so important in Walser’s writing, which we overlaid in the film: that Gottfried was the Ogre, the students were the seven dwarfs, etc etc. To this we added the entire fairy tale animal kingdom of deer, and that it was all set in a former perfume factory – musk coming from the deer – that the Institute Benjamenta had moved into and that it had inherited the defunct Deer Museum on the top floor.
As human beings, as artists, was there (or were there) a moment (or moments) when you found yourselves demanding or requesting or proclaiming that you needed something that would allow you to serve either your muse, the art of cinema, or for that matter, anything/anyone else?
No, not in Walser’s demonstrative fashion. But we’re all prepared to!
The Institute’s motto declares: ‘Rules have already thought of everything.’ To what extent, either historically or in contemporary terms, is there truth to this in how the world of man conducts itself?
It’s one of many placards seen on the walls of the Institute but this one so powerfully evokes an implacable dead-end-ness and that it is useless to revolt. So submit!
While I’m sure there are virtues to be found in dominance, it rather seems like an awful lot of work. Submission involves pure innocence (some might say ‘ignorance’) and the exertions of following, of OBEYING, allowing one to drain the exertions of thought and to concentrate on the matter at hand. In this sense, perhaps there’s more potential for a few ‘followers’ (like Jakob) to reverse the power positions as reaction to orders can hypnotize, but just as easily open one’s mind, or at least, open the powers of instinct.
Submission for us – and for a Jakob especially – would not be tolerable if there wasn’t space to breathe with a sense of subversion even if it tests one’s limits, and then the exertion might be so demanding as to make one break down from the negation.
What are the dangers or virtues in this as you see it?
But of course the Institute Benjamenta could easily serve as a wider metaphor, not ONLY as an anti-authoritarian tract but also as a kind of potential spiritual terrain that shapes Jakob’s interior life, and that in all the Institute’s strictures and submissions an immense inner freedom could be located.
Are Jakob’s submissive qualities those that allow him to move more gracefully from reactive to active?
Walser and Jakob pre-exist in that open state already. They merely have to test the boundaries.
German sociologist Max Weber describes a bureaucrat as someone who faithfully, almost blindly, exercises delegated duties in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. This, of course, seems to describe the servants-to-be in the Institute and their ultimate ‘fate’ upon graduation. So, that said, I feel that the universality of Walser’s work and your film is a key element in their place in the world as art – as a reflection and perhaps even a commentary upon mankind.
Only indirectly in so much as we were fascinated, as was Walser, by how one might navigate such a closed and seemingly hopeless and negated realm; that the suppression of freedom makes it possible to experience freedom. We felt we knew and understood that realm quite intuitively.
Beyond Walser’s indelible style, are the aforementioned thematic elements things that have drawn you to him? Were they key elements that infused you with desire to make the film? And if so, to what extent did they drive the film’s story and style?
We chose this novella by Walser because it was like an intimate chamber work and as it was our very first venture into feature films and working with live actors, we wanted to be cautious and not take on something too grand and beyond our scope. We read our first article on Walser written by his translator Christopher Middleton and it was called ’The Picture of Nobody’. Naturally, that appealed instantly to us and we slowly started to devour all his writings – what was available at the time. But whilst first reading Jakob von Gunten we realised at once at just how cinematic it could be. And we also felt very close to the ‘diary’ form so we embarked on writing the script without really knowing if it would ever get financed. We wrote the script with Alain Passes, a writer friend, but we also wrote it visually with great detail, always including the quality of light and the décor.
When writing with such attention to visual detail, to what extent do you think you consciously (or even unconsciously) tie these details into the ‘actions’ of the characters?
We must have had some intuitions how an actor might handle that scene but that was for us the only ‘unknown’ quantum in the equation we were trying to create, but whatever the actor created, it was all bonus because everything else we could pretty much control.
The use of black and white, aside from its inherent aesthetic beauty, seems to enhance a sense of a world where blind servitude is the most logical pre-requisite to unquestioningly follow impersonal rules. At the same time, the medium itself (as I believe, life itself) is replete with ‘colour’ in so far as there are literal shades of white, black AND grey. Why did you see the movie in black and white? Did any of the above have an influence and/or were there other reasons? (Perhaps even practical ones?)
From the very beginning we intuitively knew that the film had to be in black and white, that all the inner rhymes would be found in the classroom blackboard and chalk, in the ethereal dimension that only black and white can give and we asked our cinematographer, Nic Knowland, to exploit the full range of the most intense whites, to the richest of blacks and the most beautiful and mysterious of greys, to shoot with wide open f-stops, and that light was one of the main protagonists and that Lisa knew precisely the hours where and when the sun would journey through the Institute and her rooms.
The idea of light as a protagonist is such an inspiring one. Would you say that the importance of light to the medium of all visual arts – particularly cinema, where the images, the story, the world of the film must be conveyed THROUGH light (whether it be a movie projector or HD monitor) – is something you as filmmakers are keenly, if not always, aware of? It’s been said great filmmakers (and specifically cinematographers) often paint WITH light. How in this context does it inform your work, and specifically, the world of Institute Benjamenta?
Well, since with animation you have to learn ALL the metiers: to build the décors, the puppets, to give them their ‘climates’ and ‘stimmung’ through light, to know the camera and what lenses could give you, to animate the puppets, to learn how to edit, how to do sound – and we’ve always ALWAYS had music first before the film even began. So when we asked Nic Knowland to come on board to be our cinematographer we had a lot of experience about how to light – although very amateurish by comparison. And the element of ‘choreography’ in its widest sense appealed to us not only in terms of literal movement, but because the ballet doesn’t use dialogue but for the most part music only and it tells its stories via gesture and music and décor.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta. What was the process behind casting her?
Initially we had Charlotte Rampling on board – she was a name and we thought it was a coup to have gotten her for the production. But at the last minute Channel Four refused to insure her because she’d walked off a previous film set. Our lovely casting agent had been pushing Alice all along and suddenly we had to pitch the project to her and she wasn’t initially terribly convinced by the script, saying she didn’t know what she could bring to it. So in a panic, we sent her a snowdrift of faxes explaining what we were after and she said yes and jumped on a plane and arrived on the weekend. The filming started on a Monday for six weeks in an old country house near Hampton Ct on the edge of Richmond Park where deer grazed next to the house.
I am in serious love with her performance. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In that sense, was this notion of her magnetic qualities ever a consideration in shots that involved her? Did her natural qualities ever force you to block and/or shoot anything to maintain the perspective(s) necessary to the individual dramatic/thematic/artistic beats of the work?
It was the great unknown blessing to have gotten Alice to play Lisa and she was a dream to work and collaborate with, as were of course Mark and the wonderful Gottfried John. She would keep asking for further takes and you could see she was searching and taking her character deeper and deeper. She kept a flow chart in her hotel room and as we shot the film out of sequence she would always consult us to where emotionally she had to be on such and such a scene.
What was Ms Krige’s understanding and appreciation of Walser, the work itself and her character?
It wasn’t necessary for her to have read beyond the script as we talked to her about Walser and Lisa, his real sister, and all that might help her but she also really responded to the décors and the space we created for her, the climates, the quality of light. And she loved working in black and white. Even after the official shooting ended she came freely to our studio to shoot some extra close-ups that we had devised.
In recent days, I’ve imagined some Ruskin-like Ethics of the Dust transcript involving Ms Krige presiding over a ‘tutorial’ involving yourselves and the other cast members.
No, alas, nothing like this.
Well, one can only dream, then.
Of course. Alice was never more beautiful than when she was dead.
From the first time I saw Institute Benjamenta and through almost every time I have seen it, I’m reminded of how beautiful death can be on film. The actor, of course, is infused with the quality of life and no matter how great they can be as actors, this natural quality is especially useful in making characters in death look ‘never more beautiful’. The shots of Ms Krige in death are right up there in my personal pantheon of gorgeous screen corpses, ESPECIALLY in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. In fact, Dreyer is an artist whom I’m pleasantly reminded of when I see Institute Benjamenta. (In fact, I sometimes imagine a Dreyer adaptation of Benjamenta appearing in his canon – probably between Gertrud and his never-made Jesus.) Is he someone you yourselves admire? Might there even be a conscious or unconscious Dreyer influence on your work?
When we were in Copenhagen to do work on the décors for a ballet with Kim Brandstrup, our choreographer on Benjamenta, we visited Carl Dreyer’s grave. He has been one of the most important influences on our work and we have watched and re-watched his films.
One thing I suspect I will never forget, and indeed, think of often, is the young saplings sequence where the men rock back and forth humming, almost chanting, and you favour Lisa in those exquisite shots where Ms Krige evokes both desperation and heartache.
Before the scene was filmed she told us she’d wing it, that she wasn’t sure what would happen but to stay with her. But it was this slow swaying of the students, their backs to her, along with their mounting humming, that of course started to slowly and implacably swamp her appeals, but it is all so dreamlike and strange and troubling, with Jakob helplessly standing off to the side holding pinecones, watching Lisa become undone. But it’s true that by the end of the scene, when Lisa sees Kraus writing the giant zero, you can see that her gaze has seen beyond this life into another one.
From the first time I saw your film in that huge indoor sporting complex (or whatever the hell it was) in Locarno so many years ago, and upon each subsequent viewing, this sequence has moved me to a combination of tears, trembling and physical sensations of tingling and gooseflesh.
Yes, initially this scene was placed much earlier in the script but because of its emotional strength we moved it further back in the film.
The young saplings sequence inspires me with many levels of meaning and emotion, but I will keep them to myself and ask what this sequence means to you, what you wished to achieve with it and how you prepared for it, shot it and rendered it in final form?
The sequence was a premonition of Lisa’s emotionally becoming undone, that she could no longer reach her students, not even her preferred one, Inigo, and that a darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality loomed before her.
Ever the optimist, I suspect we all have a ‘darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality’ looming before us. And speaking of finality, I have one final question for you. Are there things in Benjamenta you’re not completely sold on these many years later or, if given a chance, things you’d do differently (and if so, what they might be)?
No, you couldn’t have really thrown any more money at the production and we didn’t need famous actors. A six-week shoot seemed perfect although how could we have known. We had a very experienced first assistant, Mary Soan. We stayed small and it was beautifully in control and it was a unique and moving experience for us. We actually lived in the top floor of this old abandoned country house during the entire shoot. But there was one scene where I wished we’d been a lot braver, and we’ve talked about it much later with Alice, and that was the scene where she goes upside down and guides Jakob to her. She should have been boldly naked beneath her gown and as Jakob was blindfolded he would have been so disoriented by this unknown region of flesh and pudenda, but we as an audience would have gasped at her erotic boldness.
This interview first appeared in print at
Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema.
Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema.
A BEDTIME STORY
FROM MAGMA HEAD
a short story in honour of
Robert Walser, The Brothers Quay, Guy Maddin, Jakob V. Gunten and The Institute Benjamenta
by Greg Klymkiw
Robert Walser, The Brothers Quay, Guy Maddin, Jakob V. Gunten and The Institute Benjamenta
by Greg Klymkiw
There was a time in the Dominion of Canada, on the hallowed shores of Lake Winnipeg, when a group of virile young men, the Drones, assembled at Loni Beach in the village of Gimli to pay homage to the Holy Fjallkona of Islendingadagurrin. After many days of serving the needs of their respective mothers, they looked longingly at the ‘Woman of the Mountains’, who for one of their kind, the mightily domed Magma Head, represented the dream of Icelandic nationhood. For the others, being Mieuxberry, The Love Doctor, The Claw, Squid and Little Julie, the Fjallkona was the Mother of All.
She stood high atop the Fjallkonan Float as it cascaded down the streets – past the Viking Motor Hotel, Red’s Billiards and Tergesen’s General Store. She stood proudly and waved. The Drones were, however, conflicted twixt deep respect for that which was pure and a foul stirring of the loins as they gazed lovingly upon the decades of hardship etched upon her visage, her upper torso hunched over in servitude to the menfolk of her nation and her digits wracked and twisted with arthritic glories that could only represent her ultimate service to man and country.
At day’s end, their bellies filled with Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta, the Drones retired deep into the bowels of Loni Beach Forest and entered Mieuxberry’s palatial Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. Mieuxberry took his rightful place in a top bunk with Squid for ’twas only Squid who was amenable to the late night involuntary eruptions of dearest Mieuxberry’s Hagfish – followed often by nocturnal meanderings whilst deep in the Land of Nod.
Though The Love Doctor preferred snuggling against the shapely baby-fat buttocks of Squid, he made do with Little Julie’s belly, which was soft as a down-filled pillow that might indeed have been stuffed by the Fjallkona herself.
The Claw required a place to rest his head that was unfettered by the immediate presence of any others of the manly persuasion. The Claw was, in the words of He who specialised in especially odious diseases of the mind, ‘in denial’. (In fairness to The Claw, however, none of the Drones were likely to admit to the afflictions of urnigism as defined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his great work Psychopathia Sexualis.) [Editor's Note: Greg, are you sure 'urnigism' is the right term? I can’t find it anywhere. Greg's Response to Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – It is indeed the proper term and is buried deep in Krafft-Ebing and appears in an Archangel voice-over - a joke which is meant to make about 10 people in the world laugh: 'Head size – normal. No evidence of urnigism in family.']
Magma Head entered the boxcar and as he did every evening, proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. He then took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated.
‘Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,’ cooed Little Julie.
‘You know what I want,’ growled The Claw, ‘And I know you will not bestow it upon me, so I shall not profane Him by even uttering His name.’
‘Oh thtuff it, Claw!’ Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust, his bedtime words of choice. ‘We’ve had to hear that damned Ruthkin tho’ many timeth becauthe of you, I fear we might all become little crythtalths, for Chrith’th thake!’
‘I’m good with whatever,’ Squid opined cheerfully.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
‘Thtuff it, L.D. You’re getting to be ath bad ath Claw. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.’
‘I’d settle for some Bataille,’ The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled and shook his elephantine skull to and fro.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.’
‘Greater than Hamsun?’ Little Julie queried.
‘Greater than all,’ beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he did read:
‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .’
The Drones’ rapt attention clearly suggested that Magma Head’s reading that evening would be no mere precursor to slumber. The eyes, the hearts, the minds of all the young men were fixated upon the tale of Jakob von Gunten and the profound recognition they all did feel in the prose of Robert Walser. They would be wide-eyed and silent until the dawn would break over the hallowed waters of Lake Winnipeg and spill into the boxcar, whereupon Magma Head would gently turn the oil lamp down and continue to read as the golden tresses of God’s warm light of morning caressed the remaining pages.
And their lives, such as they were, would be changed forever.
DURING THE OCCUPATION
This entry in the Greg Klymkiw list of 10 Best Blu-Ray/DVD Releases of 2012 is from the Criterion Collection's outstanding Eclipse Series; an amazing 3-movie DVD box set entitled "Jean Grémillon During The Occupation".
Eclipse is a frills-free and affordable series of great and often obscure and/or unfairly forgotten works representing the highest degree of cinematic achievement. Though lacking the almost insane degree of added value materials one finds on many Criterion releases, the true frills are the movies themselves.
The films in the box include the following:
"Remorques", a mad melodrama set against the exciting backdrop of those companies that specialized in traversing dangerous waters to rescue (and salvage) ships in peril.
"Lumière d’été", an even nuttier melodrama involving a group of obsessive lovers and other strangers amidst a mountain resort.
"Le ciel est à vous", a moving love story set against the backdrop of amateur aviation.
I always love discovering new films and filmmakers from earlier periods of cinema. Almost shamefully, however, I must admit that prior to diving headlong into this Criterion Eclipse Series, I'd never laid eyes upon a single film directed by Jean Grémillon, the French auteur celebrated in this great box of DVDs devoted to work he directed during the Nazi Occupation of France.
I'd heard of Grémillon, of course, but what little I knew was the great story of how, as a young violinist in an orchestra that accompanied silent movies, he became entranced with the musicality of motion pictures, chucked his fiddle, entered the film business, cut his teeth as an editor, then became a prolific director whose career spanned over three decades. It's a great story and most cineastes are familiar with it. I, however, am glad I can now place a cinematic face to the story.
Jean Grémillon rocks bigtime and so too do these three great pictures in this magnificent Criterion Eclipse Box that is easily one of the 10 Best Blu-Ray/DVD Releases of 2012.
Without further ado, here's a blow by blow of the entire box set.
Remorques (1941) *****
dir: Jean Grémillon
Starring: Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud and Michèle Morgan
Review By Greg Klymkiw
In 1941, during the Nazi Occupation of France, Three Wise Men (director Jean Grémillon, screenwriter Jacques Prévert and star Jean Gabin), all bearing precious gifts of motion picture genius, stood reverently beneath the shining star of French Cinema to deliver Remorques, a dazzling, compelling and moving movie melodrama of the highest order.
Vive le cinéma français!
Vive le cinéma de Jean Grémillon!
Vive le Criterion Collection Série Eclipse!
What a picture!
This stirring tale of brave, passionate, two-fisted men who work salvage vessels and the women who love them is replete with perfect ebbs and flows to keep us glued to our seats. The screenplay adaptation is gorgeously structured by Jacques (Les enfants du paradis) Prévert (based upon a novel by Roger Vercel, whose book Capitaine Conan was the basis for Bertrand Tavernier's strangely forgotten war film from 1996). Grémillon directs Prévert's deceptively simple script with all the panache of a genuine Master.
Ever wanting to push forward with characters we come to love almost immediately, the script and direction allow the necessary weight to both the men saving ships in peril on troubled waters, whilst troubled domestic waters on terra firma roil amongst the women who love their men, fearing widowhood every time their husbands risk their lives to save others.
Jean Gabin plays Captain André Laurent, a veteran sailor who commands his men with confidence and camaraderie. He has taken this job to remain in greater physical proximity to his wife Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud). Their love seems deep and genuine, yet Laurent is unable to acquiesce to his wife's requests that he retire from the sea permanently so they can live out their lives peacefully and in a state of complete devotion to one another.
Gabin, probably France's biggest star and greatest screen actor is, as per usual, utterly fabulous. The first moment we see him on screen, it's apparent some form of doom is going to befall the guy. (This is not a spoiler - if you see enough Jean Gabin movies, you know he's going to suffer some major shit storm sooner or later.)
One of his loyal crew members is celebrating marriage to a beautiful young woman. A grand speech is made by the owner of the salvage company, but it's Capt. Laurent everyone wants to hear from. Perfectly in keeping with Gabin's natural talents/personality, the good Captain modestly wishes to remain silent, but he knows he won't. Neither do his men, nor the wedding guests and frankly, neither do we, the audience. Gabin rises gracefully and reluctantly. His modesty is both heart-felt AND for show.
He's Jean Gabin, after all.
His speech sets the tone perfectly. He claims he doesn't want to make a speech, proceeds to say little beyond some stock salutations, but then, he Gabin-izes all of us with a slight twinkle in his eye and a lovely, simple comment about how speeches are not necessary in times of celebration - that what is of utmost importance is for all to dance. He then adds a thoroughly gentlemanly offer to the bride to dance with him and he receives thunderous applause.
Eventually, the celebration is interrupted. An S.O.S. signal has been received. The men storm off into the eye of the raging waters. The new bride is whisked off to spend her wedding night commiserating with the Captain's wife.
Someone might not come home. Or be maimed. But always, in their lives is Capt. Laurent - steadfast, true and a great leader. We should all have Jean Gabin lead us into the breach. For American moviegoers during this time, it was John Wayne.
France, however, had Jean Gabin.
Jesus, Gabin is unbelievable.
And yes, he's always great, but this might well be one of his best performances. It's a perfect role - replete with a sense of loyalty, duty, perseverance and a genuine love for the sea. At the same, though, he clearly loves his wife - he's mad about her. Because he's so mad about her we feel his guilt all the more. Clearly, his true love, his ultimate mistress is the sea and the camaraderie of his men. When the Captain tells his wife - with a straight face - that she need not fret about him as she did in the early years when he was away at sea for months at a time, he evokes a sense of duality that only Jean Gabin was especially capable of.
He tells her that's why he accepted a salvage commission in the first place - to be close to her. Of course, the good Captain wants to believe this. He wants to believe it so bad that he's able to fool himself into thinking he does. And yet, as he speaks these words, we sense that he ultimately understands his self-deception and worse, that he's deceiving his wife.
Yvonne is no fool. She sees through his deception whilst recognizing and almost accepting his SELF-deception. Ultimately, she wants desperately to accept his word.
These are, of course, extremely complex emotions. On the page, however, in far less skilled hands than Grémillon's, the melodramatic aspects of the story could have gone so completely wrong. The emotions could have been BIG, but simply stayed at that. This might well have resulted in solid melodrama, but here Grémillon uses the tropes of melodrama as a springboard into actions and reactions, as well as subtext, that not only take us further and deeper into the characters, but in fact, forces us - so deliciously - to root for our heroes as people, NOT archetypes.
Instead, we have a sense that yes, emotions here are running high and that the stakes - every step of the way - are HUGE. And there's not a damn thing wrong with this. (As I always say, like a broken record, melodrama in and of itself is not bad, but rather, there is only good melodrama and bad melodrama.)
Without question, Remorques is not merely good, it's GREAT melodrama.
First of all, it helps that the script by Prévert appears to chart the most perfect elements from Vercel's novel to render a screen story that is electrifyingly compelling from beat to beat. Vercel loved the sea and much preferred to set his tales against its backdrop. Strangely, though, he had virtually no experience with the sea - for him it was the pure romance of it that attracted him.
Prévert seems to understand this all too well and he also recognizes that Vercel did, in fact, have the most harrowing of experiences during World War I, which he also wrote about extensively in other books. Since Vercel favoured writing about the sea, the script is infused with this passion every step of the way - especially as it applies to the character of Capt. Laurent.
Laurent is a romantic (perhaps much like Vercel himself) and it is what makes him so damned appealing because his overwhelming degree of romance is what could also condemn him to doom and disaster.
Laurent is romantic to a fault.
And again, who better than Jean Gabin?
In the legendary "What is Cinema?", Andre Bazin writes:
"The film star is not just an actor, not even an actor particularly beloved of the public, but a hero of legend or tragedy, embodying a destiny which scenarists and directors must comply - albeit unwittingly. Otherwise the spell between the actor and his public will be broken. The variety of films in which he appears, and which seem so agreeably surprising in their novelty, should not mislead us. It is the confirmation of a destiny, profound and essential, which we unconsciously seek in the actor's renewed exploits."
It's uncanny that as you watch Remorques, how indelibly you see and feel the aforementioned Bazinian sentiments expressed above. And though expressed well over a decade after the film was long finished, released and to a certain extent "forgotten", one feels explicitly that Grémillon understood, all too well, the sense of how Gabin would infuse his role and the film itself with the "profound and essential confirmation of destiny".
Grémillon was, after all, fashioning what he hoped would be a huge hit with the biggest star in France. And yes, it WAS a huge hit. Given the political realities facing France (and the world, for that matter) at the time of the film's making, Remorques feels like a film that could ONLY have sprung from the loins of a Frenchman during the Nazi Occupation. (Though I suspect, based on the superlative direction displayed in the other films in the Criterion box set, he'd have made a great film in another age - albeit, I think, a different one.)
Gabin's Capt. Laurent represents the culmination of what Bazin termed as the embodiment of "destiny" in a character played by the likes of one who, to his adoring public, represented a "hero of legend or tragedy". Surely audiences in occupied France could not help but identify with Gabin in this role - a loyal working stiff who is loyal to that of his passion which is, ultimately, the passion of laughing in the face of danger, while at the same time, investing his love and loyalty in all the fellow working stiffs whose lives he commands, but also holds firmly in the palms of his hands.
Love presents itself to Capt. Laurent in the form of his "good" wife, but also a "bad" temptress (the character of Catherine played by Michèle Morgan) who, in one of the film's most harrowing sequences during a storm at sea, is catapulted from the raging maw of salt water to escape the abuse of her brutish, conniving husband.
The "bad" girl's hubby is indeed bad. He's not only a wife abuser, but a lazy, cowardly cheat who gets Laurent to save his ship and cargo when the going's truly tough, then cuts himself loose from Laurent once the waters settle into a calm after the storm.
Laurent risks his life (and that of his men) to save the guy and is denied any sort of salvage percentage. For his troubles, he's offered an under the table cash bribe (which he refuses) and gets instead, a temptress to lure him from his wife. Not that Laurent is especially looking for another temptress - he has the sea, after all. However, as referred to above, Gabin has some sort of doom plastered all over him right from the start and Catherine is tossed his way - unasked for. And, of course, she presents herself as one of several ways in which Laurent might choose the wrong fork in the road.
So here we are during the Occupation and Grémillon serves up a movie that must have had a HUGE metaphorical impact amongst the people of France who filled the cinemas to watch Remorques. Right under the nostrils of both the turncoat Vichy government and the Nazis, we get a movie that has, on the surface, nothing to do with the war and yet, as melodrama (and damn fine melodrama at that) gave an entire nation under the thumb of evil incarnate, an opportunity to, in Bazin's words, "reflect on the profound meaning of a mythology in which ... an actor like Gabin [allowed] millions of [Frenchmen] to rediscover themselves."
Not surprisingly, it was Grémillon himself who rejected all previous screenplays of Remorque and finally insisted upon commissioning Prévert to write the script. Who better than a screenwriter with the soul of a poet, the dramatic chops of a pro and the experience of writing FOR Gabin in previous films? Prévert turned out to be the perfect scribe to deliver a blueprint with which a great artist like Grémillon could direct a film that worked as popular cinema which, at its core was both emotional and political.
Then again, as this movie proved to me, at least, Grémillon is no slouch. (This being my first taste of Grémillon, I could hardly wait to get to the other two pictures in Criterion's Eclipse box set.) Remorques is directed with inspiring musical precision which only makes sense - Grémillon is no mere craftsman. He's an artist and filmmaker - the real thing!
The pace of the film is impeccable, as one might reasonably expect from a man who is, on one hand, a virtuoso violinist and on the other, a highly skilled editor. The movie feels like it's moving at a breakneck speed - a steaming locomotive charging crazily into the darkness. Then, before we can even sense it, Grémillon subtly changes gears and we're in a territory bordering on the elegiac.
And no matter what the pace, Grémillon handles his actors expertly - allowing their natural rhythms lots of breathing space. Their deliveries are never stylized. They don't need to be. There's plenty of style and over the top material for them to slow down and play it all very straight. So many of the conversations - especially those involving Laurent and the two women in his life pulse with the stuff of life itself. They're wildly romantic, tender and/or passionate, but almost always naturalistic.
Remorques translates into English as "Stormy Waters" and in every respect Grémillon delivers a most tempestuous tale and one for the ages at that. Astoundingly this uncompromisingly moving experience does not offer an easy way out for either its main character nor the audience. Grémillon serves up a leading man who gives us, much as this film gave French audiences under the Nazis, an utterly devastating conclusion which, in any historical context is as gut-wrenching as it is wildly, irrepressibly satisfying. That Grémillon delivers it with the greatest French actor of his time is mighty rich frosting. As Bazin said: "The public that swallows many affronts would undoubtedly feel that they were being taken for a ride if screenwriters presented them with a happy ending for Jean Gabin."
Movies, like life, do not need, as Bazin offers, "to tack on artificial finales", but rather, when artists present the unfettered romance of a man suffering for both his passion and ideals, like so many do in times of deadly strife, is far more satisfying. Pictures like Remorques can infuse one with a greater satisfaction than all the false "feel-good" tropes foisted upon us like so much trash heaped into a stinking landfill.
Bring on all the suffering and pain as you like, but for Christ's sake, do it with style and a purity of commitment that rivals, if not trumps, the supposed purity of a virgin protecting her most precious hymen.
The waters are indeed stormy.
Life and the movies are all the better for it.
If you are considering the idea of purchasing this set of great pictures, please do so directly from the links below which will assist greatly with the maintenance of this site:
Lumière d’été (1943) dir. Jean Grémillon *****
Starring: Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, Marcel Lévesque, Raymond Aimos, Léonce Corne, Charles Blavette, Jeanne Marken, Henri Pons, Gérard Lecomte
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Jean Grémillon is a revelation. Anyone who cares about moving pictures (and loves the medium as much, if not more than life itself) will want to discover this mad genius who is clearly as important to French cinema (and the art of movies) as Jean Renoir.
Lumière d’été is yet another great picture Grémillon made during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II and, like so many French pictures, concerns itself with those damnably, eternally and irrepressibly entertaining affaires de cœur.
Though repressed and vilified by the notorious collaborationist Vichy government, the movie seems less a criticism (and if so, submerged) than a representational view of a time and place that might only exist under such a turncoat regime. In a sense, and most fascinatingly, the film's critical eye upon Vichy might be seen to be as blatant as it is submerged.
The setting is a remote hotel high in the mountains - gorgeously designed with expansive picture windows to provide both a great view and watchful eyes upon the valley below. Bearing the name L'Ange Gardien (The Guardian Angel), it overlooks the intrusive activities of a demolition company that is in the process of constructing a dam - destroying the valley's natural beauty and assaulting the eardrums of all its inhabitants.
These intruders work with the full support of the "establishment" and in so doing, at least within narrative terms, it's not a stretch to think that Grémillon and his screenwriters, including the legendary Jacques (Les Enfants du paradis) Prévert, were pointing a finger, at least metaphorically, upon the Vichy and by extension, the Nazis. This seems likely since the movie includes, very early on and throughout, the war-like explosions coming from the seemingly endless rock blasting.
As such, Grémillon achieves the seemingly impossible. He serves up a piping hot platter of delectable cinematic comestibles that condemn, expose and/or, depending how you choose to take it, examine the strange world wrought under the Vichy whilst providing the double-scoop indulgence of luxuriating in its own sumptuous, glorious and thoroughly compelling melodrama. We, of course, luxuriate with it. Grémillon and his collaborators in front and behind of the camera work overtime to deliver a movie so infused with emotional resonance that one is hit with scene after scene that will inspire several torrential downpours from one's tear ducts.
Blending high-stakes emotions that are as truthful as they are extreme, Grémillon dapples his multi-bi-polar world with many surprising moments of deep, delicious and decidedly dark humour. Commenting hilariously at every turn of the action that unfolds - not to mention almost every line of consequence uttered by the hotel guests and/or in retort to the duties he's ordered to perform, the crotchety old servant Monsieur Louis (Marcel Levésque) wanders in and out of the proceedings like some one-man, one-line Greek Chorus. Levésque, for those who care (as should ALL!), is that he's the inveterate scenery-chewer who was immortalized by Louis Feuillade as Mazamette in Les vampires, his great 1916 serial.
He's such a great presence here. In fact, it doesn't take long for Monsieur Louis to eventually becomes a kind of "What the fuck!?" surrogate for us, the audience. Believe me, it comes in mighty handy - especially since the romantic entanglements, jealousies, anger, repression and nutty obsessions that roil madly during this one fateful weekend at the L'Ange Gardien mount with every passing scene.
The hotel is run by the middle-aged beauty Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud) who holds a torch for her rakish rich lover Patrice (Paul Bernard) who, in turn, develops un unhealthy obsession with the beautiful, young Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) who shows up at the hotel to meet her untalented alcoholic artist boyfriend Roland (Pierre Brasseur) who is more interested in where his next drink is coming from and drives the young beauty into the arms of the jaw-droppingly hunky miner Julien (Georges Marchal).
What we get is no mere doomed ménage à trois as might be expected from a tale involving affairs of the heart, but rather, a magnificent roundelay of obsessional love that, for lack of a better term, is best viewed as a ménage de l'abondance.
Here's the roadmap of love and regret:
Cri-Cri loves Patrice. Patrice murdered his ex-wife out of love for Cri-Cri. Cri-Cri gave up a promising and exciting career to disappear into the mountains with Patrice. Years pass. Neither is getting any younger and yet, marriage is not even a dim hope.
Michèle is devoted to Roland, but he's a major fuck-up. Patrice has his eye on Michèle. This makes Cri-Cri jealous. It also disturbs Roland. More importantly, Michèle has her eye on Julien and he's jealous of both Patrice and Roland. Patrice, in turn, is jealous of Julien. Roland, ultimately is happiest when he's pissed out of his skull.
And then there's the eternal watcher Monsieur Louis. His response to everything is a deadpan: "Why not?"
Why not, indeed!
Slowly, but surely, all the mad passions collide during an insanely opulent costume ball that Patrice throws at his mansion. Egos collide with all the requisite Grémillon aplomb and here, his kino eye renders some of the most gorgeous, sumptuously malevolent and romantic imagery in all of cinema.
And as if this wasn't enough, crazed conga lines, a drunken Hamlet, a desperate Ophelia, a stalwart stud, a woman scorned and a creaky, spindly, old William Tell with an apple on his head all become unwitting targets of a madman (mad with love and jealousy, of course). In no time at all, Lumière d’été careens wildly from a Cinderella ball on acid to a terrifying drunken drive along the mountain highways and finally, to a mad climax involving unexpected gunplay and disaster in the air on a cable car suspended precariously above the valley.
At times, you simply won't believe your eyes.
And this, my friends, is cinema!
Le ciel est à vous
Le ciel est à vous (1944) dir. Jean Grémillon *****
Starring: Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Le ciel est à vous is one of the great love stories in all of cinema history. It focuses on the love between a man and a woman (or in the parlance of Gallic romantics, un homme et une femme), their mutual love of aviation and their desire to pursue the freedom of the Heavens.
Pierre and Thérèse Gauthier (Charles Vanel and Madeleine Renaud, both radiant in their roles) are still madly in love after many years of marriage. When their home and business (a car repair shop) is expropriated to make way for a small airport, hangar and landing strip, the family moves to the centre of town and welcomes this otherwise inconvenient intrusion upon their lives as a sign that the 20th Century has finally arrived in their provincial hamlet. Pierre's skills and knowledge of engines eventually extend to assisting local aviators with mechanical problems they occasionally run into.
Though this is a film made (and set) in France during the 1940s under the Nazis and Vichy government, there are several universal elements inherent in Charles Spaak's screenplay that pretty much any couples will relate to on a universal level. Men, in such equations, are generally those who become collectors, pack-rats and/or obsessives whilst women are often more practical and family-oriented. The Gauthiers' fit this bill quite comfortably.
Pierre becomes so obsessed with flying that he begins exchanging his mechanical prowess for flying lessons and, eventually, earns his wings. Alas, when Pierre is injured, Thérèse makes him promise never to fly again - for fear that he'll suffer a worse fate. He agrees.
Boys, however, will be boys. He eventually sneaks off to fly again. Thérèse is, at first, in a rage, but in order to understand why her husband keeps risking his life, she too jumps in a plane.
The bug of aviation proves infectious. Husband and wife - soul mates to the end - infuse their loving marriage with a new passion. Their mutual love for aviation is, however, fraught with danger - a very real danger which seeks to end their love in this world forever. Most of all, though, the movie is populist cinema of the highest order, but blessed with a surprisingly original narrative.
Le ciel est à vous is a buoyant, funny, touching and compelling romance. Missing are Grémillon's usual perverse touches and melodrama, but they're happily replaced and enhanced with his sense of both romance and humanity. It is quite impossible to leave the tale at any moment and by the end, one desperately wants more. This is a good thing.
Amusingly, Grémillon seems all too aware that the film's political and historical contexts might well be stronger and sharper than ever. The movie not only appealed to the Nazis and Vichy government (for, as per usual, all the wrong reasons), while in reality, delivered another of Grémillon's clever, slightly submerged series of swipes at France's conquerors and traitors.
The result was one of France's hugest boxoffice successes, but even better, a movie that lived forever - well beyond its ephemeral qualities to deliver a love story for the ages: told with intelligence, sophistication and considerable political, historical and sociological importance.
I'm actually shocked this story has never been sought out by Hollywood to be remade. It's a great story and has numerous casting opportunities for contemporary stars. It really seems like a natural. Then again, since most executives can barely read, the notion of them having to read subtitles and worse, see a movie in standard frame black and white, means that we and the late, great Monsiuer Grémillon are safe from what would no doubt be an utter abomination.
"Le ciel est à vous" is available on DVD via the stunning three-disc Criterion Collection "Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During The Occupation".
Le Vendeur (2011) ***** dir. Sébastien Pilote
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This stunning Quebecois kitchen sink drama is so raw and real, the pain evoked so acute, you'll be devastated by its quiet power while at the same time you'll be dazzled with its cinematic genius.
While the thematic concerns and narrative of Le Vendeur are both timeless and universal, and though it is set in a small factory town in Quebec, I was profoundly moved and deeply taken with just how Canadian Sébastien Pilote's astounding film is. This staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture is easily the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English Canadian cinema of the 60s and 70s (best exemplified by films like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen's Skip Tracer).
The title character of Pilote's great film is ace car salesman Marcel Lévesque (Gilbert Sicotte). He lives in a small town on the brink of complete financial collapse - the primary industry has shut down production and locked out its workers and yet, while people are starving, losing everything, moving away and many local businesses close forever, Marcel turns a blind eye to all of this. He's not the undisputed Salesman of the Month in this dealership for nothing - and not just one month, but EVERY month, for years on end. Financial crisis be damned! There are cars on the lot and they need to be moved. And they will be moved. At any cost.
For Marcel, life is selling cars. His late wife has been six feet under for a long time and his only real human connection is to his daughter Maryse (Nathalie Cavezzali), a hairdresser and single mother to Antoine (Jérémy Tessier). If it weren't for them, he'd have even more time to sell cars. He is, however, in spite of this obsession, a devoted, loving and caring father and grandfather. He makes regular visits to his daughter's shop, attends local events with her, watches his grandson play hockey in the local arena whilst gently tut-tutting any suggestion from his only surviving blood relations that perhaps he should retire.
He is a friend to everyone in town, yet in reality, he has no friends. His effusive manner with all he meets is part of his ongoing schtick - he knows damn well that people will buy from someone they like. And he must be liked to be successful.
Success, however, can mean many things to many people and as the film progresses, Marcel tragically discovers what success can really mean and how fleeting it is and how easy it can pass us by.
Le Vendeur is a great film. You owe it to yourself to experience it.
Luckily, it is available on Blu-Ray and I highly advise that it's a title you'll want to own. A first viewing will knock you on your ass. Subsequent viewings will yield even deeper and richer elements.
That said, the Blu-Ray from Seville is a no-frills affair.
At first I was fit to be hogtied and adorned with a huge apple in my mouth that it lacked a commentary track from the director in either French or English. I did, however, need to remind myself that I had an opportunity to listen to Pilote during a Q and A at TIFF and the second some incredibly lovely, intelligent words came out of his mouth, I bolted from the cinema. It had nothing to do with what he was saying (or would have said), but I was so blown to smithereens by his movie that I just wanted to go off somewhere and be alone. At the time I also assumed there would be a commentary track when the film finally made it to Blu-Ray.
Such was not the case. I asked Pilote myself why this extra feature did not exist. He dryly quipped: "I prefer to say nothing, I'm a kind of like Malick!" He explained further that he wanted the movie to speak for itself and most of all: "I seriously wanted to keep all the space on the disk to have the best picture and sound quality for the film." Pilote proudly declared that the unadorned disc allowed for no visible compression - especially in the blacks. He added: "I don't like it when we can feel compression on a blu-ray." Pilote personally supervised the transfer process to make absolutely sure the picture looked perfect. And it does.
The gorgeously lit and composed shots (and not in that annoying Quebecois TV-commercial-slick fashion, but rather blending the poetry of the cinematic image with that of Neorealism), Le Vendeur looks as impeccable at home as it did on the big screen. Though Pilote insists viewers watch the film on Plasma monitors rather than LCD, I've personally seen it on both and while Plasma is clearly superior, straight-up LCD is just fine. (My apologies to Mr. Pilote for having to contradict this.)
There IS, however, one special feature that totally sends this disc into the stratosphere. It includes Pilote's staggering short film DUST BOWL HA! HA! which Pilote suggests is "a kind of introduction for Le Vendeur and is, I think the best extra for the film."
I concur heartily. The 2007, 14-minute drama is, in my humble estimation, quite possibly one of the best short dramas I have ever seen - period. Not one of the best Quebecois short dramas, not one of the best Canadian short dramas, not one of the best short dramas of 2007, but one of the best, ever! Ever, baby, ever!
André Bouchard plays a hard-working family man in small-town Quebec who is facing more than a few uphill challenges. In spite of it all, he stoically maintains his dignity in a world where nothing and nobody escapes the crushing weight of the financial crisis. We follow him during the course of a day, from beginning to end. He's a man with a mission and he'll not rest until it is accomplished. His Buster-Keaton-like expression never cracks. The dirty, dusty, desperate town he lives in would be enough to phase most of us, but he soldiers through. Finally, at a dinner table, surrounded by those he loves most in the world, he must remove his mask. He doesn't want to, but he has no choice. Dignity is maintained, though he visage finally cracks.
I'll say no more than that. The film is gorgeously shot, beautifully acted and the script by Pilote always keeps us engaged in our hero's goal. When the rug is swept out from under us (and the character), it's no trick-pony surprise. It's inevitable - not just for this character, but for the multitudes who must face what he faces, everyday of their lives.
This is such a phenomenal portrait of humanity - so graceful and so simple - that after you watch it, you'll probably need a few moments to recover.
And then, it will be on to the feature attraction.
Le Vendeur is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Seville Films.
ON THE BOWERY
If this list was not alphabetical, "On The Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin", available on a sumptuous Blu-Ray or DVD package from <a href="http://www.milestonefilms.com/">Milestone Films</a> would probably be #1. Not only do you get the stunning restoration of the title film, but this stellar package includes Rogosin's powerful 1957 short "Out" which deals with the displaced person refugee camps in Europe and his exquisite experimental documentary "Good Times, Wonderful Times" which juxtaposes the pretensions on display during a bourgeois party with the most sickening footage from the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Add to this mix a collection of archival films and several eye-opening documentaries on Rogosin and the making of "On The Bowery" and you have a magnificent item to cherish, study and watch over and over again.
On The Bowery (1956) dir. Lionel Rogosin
Starring: Ray Salter, Gorman Hendricks
By Greg Klymkiw
"Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." - John Cassavetes
"Postwar America experienced a dramatic economic expansion, sustained prosperity, and a huge population increase. By the 1950s, the United States ... manufactured half the world's goods, possessed over 40 percent of the world's income, and had by far the highest standard of living."- National Archives, USAPostwar prosperity in America is a myth - bought and paid for at a very dear cost to a generation of forgotten men. This had far-reaching implications upon future generations and the nation as a whole. The ramifications of a somewhat spurious development of a middle class are felt today in ways the American people probably never imagined.
Not even in their wildest dreams would anyone have conjured the near-dystopian widening between rich and poor that's so prevalent in today's America. It's a history of building up a teat-suckling dependence upon greed and waste on the backs of those most vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. During the early post-war era, this facade-of-plenty engendered escape in bottles of cheap booze and a class of working men who were sneered at - if and when they were noticed or remembered at all.
Cinema and indeed, mankind as a whole, owes a debt of gratitude to the late filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. Inspired by the Italian neorealist movement and in particular, the work of Vittorio (Bicycle Thieves) DeSica as well as the groundbreaking docudrama work of Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty and Lewis Milestone's evocative film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Rogosin created an important body of work. He gave voice to the disenfranchised in a style that built upon his chief influences and his own life experience experience whilst developing a unique style that was all his own.
Rogosin influenced such diverse talents as Cassavetes (Shadows), Scorsese (Who's That Knocking at My Door?) and the realist vérité of UK's "Angry Young Man" genre, including John Schlesinger (Terminus, Midnight Cowboy).
Rogosin earned a degree in Chemical Engineering at Yale and was poised to join his father's textile firm when World War II interrupted these career plans and he ended up serving in the Navy. His experiences during the war and especially after the war, when he travelled through the debris of a decimated Europe, affected him deeply. Returning to America, he did not stay with his father's firm long, deciding to pursue his interest in human rights, activism and cinema.
His ultimate goal was to create work that would benefit mankind.
On The Bowery was his first film - so extraordinary that it attracted the attention of the British film collective the Free Cinema - whose members included Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reizs and Tony Richardson. Along with Schlesinger, Rogosin was a chief influence upon the New Wave of British Cinema and they were the movers and shakers behind presenting his work to British audiences.
John Cassavetes declared: "Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." He tempers the justifiable hyperbole with the word "probably", but it's certainly no stretch to place Lionel Rogosin in the unequivocal pantheon of great documentarians of all time. Cassavetes's respect for Rogosin was merely the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, Rogosin's importance to cinema has seldom been paralleled. He pioneered the forward movement of cinéma vérité (using the camera to provoke reality by blending "fly-on-the-wall" direct cinema with stylized approaches and specific set-ups that utilize overt narrative technique), thus forging a path that opened up a whole world of great filmmaking. I'd argue strenuously that without Rogosin, things might well have been a lot different.
The art form, the genre of documentary itself might not have easily yielded the work subsequently provided by the likes of Sinofsky/Berlinger, Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, Ulrich Seidl, Claude Jutra, Michel Brault, Allan King, Albert/David Maysles, Alan Zweig, Peter Lynch, Nik Sheehan, D.A. Pennebaker, Fredrik Gertten, Barbara Kopple and frankly, a list that could stretch on for a few more miles.
On The Bowery, his first film (and surely one of the great first films in the history of cinema), focuses the camera upon the lives of America's forgotten men who lived in the squalor of the Bowery in New York City. Once an upscale neighbourhood, the Bowery transformed - almost overnight - into a symbol of urban blight.
When the city built a series of overhead train tracks in the area, it created an endless cacophony and worse, it blocked the daylight - enshrouding the Bowery in darkness, shadow and shade.
Slats of hazy sun crept into the district like a ghostly filter. Occasional dollops of sunlight where no track existed played tricks on the eye and seemed even brighter, more hyper-intense than it normally would have been.
Seedy hotels, flophouses, pawn shops, soup kitchens and sleazy taverns became the lifeblood of the district. Attracting a generation-or-three of men who had suffered through war, these aimlessly shell-shocked victims of American prosperity and might, eked out a living as seasonal and migratory labourers - many of whom "rode the rails", risking the brutality of rail bulls, a criminal element and even incarceration.
They sought cheap rent and cheap booze to drown their pain and sorrow. Blowing their earnings on potent mescal and beer chasers, a lot of them couldn't even afford flea-bitten flophouses and lived on the street. The Bowery ran rampant with homelessness.
Essentially, Rogosin fashioned a "dramatic" construct to examine the lives of these men. He found two exceptional real-life personalities and followed the simple tale of Ray Salter and Gorman Hendricks whilst using montages of the Bowery and its residents as transitional bookends and punctuation marks. All the gnarled, grizzled and blotchy mugs Rogosin picked to populate the film are completely and without qualification photogenic in extremis.
Ray Salter, however, was a rugged, handsome and relatively young man who came to the Bowery with money in his pocket and a spring in his step. With his two-fisted good looks - a Joel McCrae-type with a Barrymore profile - Ray was so critically praised and profiled in magazines and newspapers that he eventually received numerous offers to act in Hollywood.
Sadly, this was not in the cards for poor Ray.
The tale told in On The Bowery is true. At a sleazy bar, Ray meets the friendly Bowery veteran Gorman. In short order, they become close friends. Of a sort. Ray is slyly coerced into buying so many rounds of drinks that he eventually pawns a good many of his possessions. There are, however, a few items dear to Ray and he won't part with them, but in one massive blind drunk, he passes out on the street and what little he has left is stolen and hocked.
While dependent upon alcohol, Ray still maintains hopes and dreams of kicking the demon fire-water and leave "The Life" of the Bowery behind. Ray was, no doubt an alcoholic to begin with, but over time, like all the rest, he's sucked into the patterns so deep-seeded in the place and time. His desire to dry-out is sadly not strong enough to withstand the physiological toll alcohol takes upon him. Even in this day and age, alcoholism is a horribly misunderstood disease that's compounded by societal prejudice - ascribing personal "weakness" to the affliction. While help exists now, it's still far from adequate. In Ray's day, help was virtually non-existent.
As for poor Ray, the Hollywood dream dried up when he hit the open road and was never seen nor heard from ever again. Given the cards dealt to America's forgotten men, this is not so much a mystery, but the reality of what happened to so much of humanity.
The squalor and poverty in On The Bowery is, at times, shocking - not, however, because we're agog at how things were. In a sense, this portrait of disenfranchisement, whilst very specific to the postwar era and a neighbourhood long-transformed and almost gentrified, the sad fact of the matter is that the lives of Ray, Gorman and all the others in this film continue all over the world and in North America specifically, these conditions are escalating to a frightening degree.
Rogosin's camera eye never flinches from the filth, pain and inhumanity perpetrated against these men of the Bowery.
There are women too - alcoholic old whores offering their bodies in the bars to anyone who will buy them drinks. In some cases, they're hoping their johns will have a place to sleep for the night or vice versa.
Most of the men who can afford it, though, will stay in flophouses - no women allowed - where they're shoved into open-ceilinged cubicles covered with wire cages.
The men are essentially incarcerated - perhaps not in literal jails or prisons, but by the indigent lifestyle they've been forced into. The scenes in the flophouses are so evocative, one can almost recoil from the stench of filth, sweat and disease.
The film is replete, however, with so many aspects of humanity. A lot of what's extraordinary in the picture are the unbelievably funny, poignant and even dangerous moments captured in the bars where we follow mildly "improvised" conversations between the men. Rogosin "sets-up" certain "scenarios", but what we see is ultimately the real thing. Ray and Gorman are a great team - not only cinematically, but within the reality that unfolds - one of father-son, veteran-naif and teacher-student.
What the film ultimately exposes are the forgotten men - all those who were (and still are) abandoned, by society, family (if any are even left) and (like so many war vets) their country.
Rogosin's almost benign provocation of these men exposes their very hearts and minds. This, if anything, is what makes this one of the most stunningly moving portraits of humanity ever committed to film. Rogosin gives them a voice and presence they deserve - or at the least, a celluloid epitaph instead of a potter's field.
They're humanized in ways only the camera can achieve. Rogosin's sensitive caring eye helps us get to know these sad, yet extraordinary "ordinary" men who gave up everything for their country.
Holding on to what scraps of existence are left for them, numbing their deep pain with booze and finding a sense of family with each other, Lionel Rogosin - documentary filmmaker extraordinaire - gives them a voice and on film, a place in the world.
The men of the Bowery, lest we forget, are remembered forever.
THE SAMURAI TRILOGY
& A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY
from CRITERION COLLECTION
Greg Klymkiw's 10 Best Blu-Ray & DVD Releases of 2012 (which will be compiled in alphabetical order in one final mega-post). Today's Title (more to follow on subsequent days) is a tie between two magnificent releases that best exemplify why the Criterion Collection continues to be a leader in home entertainment product:
Criterion Collection: The Samurai Trilogy & A Hollis Frampton Odyssey
These 2 Great Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Releases Among the 10 Best Home Entertainment Releases of 2012
By Greg Klymkiw
The Criterion Collection is the Tony Lazzeri of home entertainment product. If the Criterion Collection was, in fact, a baseball player, they would, like Mr. Lazzeri, not only have been the first player to score two grand slams in the game's history (accomplished for the Yankees against the Athletics in 1936), but they'd be hitting grand slams every game, every season and well into infinity.
Let's face facts! Criterion rocks!
I've been a loyal Criterion Collection supporter since the laserdisc days. I still own my lovely collection of LP-sized movies that I secured during the first two-thirds of the 1990s.
Being an inveterate collector, I'd become quite disillusioned in the 80s when my favourite - nay, beloved home entertainment format Betamax was edged completely out of the marketplace by the dastardly and decidedly inferior VHS. I hung on to my Beta movies and my VHS buying was extremely limited.
Then I met Jim Murphy, the legendary Canadian film distributor, educator and mentor. Over a delicious buffet at the Golden Griddle (the first of hundreds), he waxed poetic for about four hours on the joys of laserdiscs and in particular, those discs issued by the Criterion Collection - remastered versions of significant films from all over the world and jam-packed with all manner of supplemental materials - including the very new (at the time) notion of directors' commentaries on separate tracks of sound.
Keep in mind, I was a ridiculous collector of books, comics, vinyl, cds, movies and all manner of tchokes. Collecting (or accumulating) is an addiction and every addict needs an enabler. Jim was my enabler. In fairness, we became one another's enablers - going once or twice a week to the now-defunct Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto for what we referred to as "a laser run". This we did for many years and once DVD took over, we continued the same pilgrimages - not JUST to Sam's anymore (they used to have the largest and best selection of laserdiscs), but now, stores purveying all manner of movies on this "new" digital format were popping up all over the place.
In 2007, Jim passed away. He left the Earth well before he should have and the void this created all across the country was (and still is, frankly) incalculable. However, Jim left behind a tremendous legacy for filmmaking in Canada - providing tutelage and mentorship through the National Screen Institute, but also supporting the financing and distribution of many important Canadian films - most notably the ultra-cool cult werewolf picture Ginger Snaps. On a personal level, though, his loss felt especially and almost egregiously unfair to so many of his closest friends.
Jim was a generous man in his life and this continued after he passed on. Jim's last will and testament bequeathed - to his closest group of movie-mad collector pals - his enormous collection of vinyl, books, cda, tchochkas and . . . movies. In typical Jim Murphy fashion, his will specified that we were to split this treasure trove "in a manner of [our] own devising."
Us laddies agreed upon a most gentlemanly manner to do so. We gathered in Jim's apartment and each took a turn selecting one movie of our choosing. Sometimes, in true collector fashion this involved bartering. And all through this strange day, it gave us pause to spend much time reminiscing about our dear departed friend.
And, of course, amongst the DVDs, the first to be snapped up were the Criterion Collection.
Then it came to the laserdiscs. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Almost every Criterion Collection laserdisc known to man sat there. This was long after laserdiscs were dead and buried. To everyone in that room, save for me, laserdiscs were six feet under. The gentlemen looked at me with knowing grins. I looked to the Heavens - a habit of my Catholic upbringing - and said, "Jim! You fucker! You had to die for me to finally have a bigger laserdisc and movie collection than you." With the generous assistance of all these strapping fellows, my entire van - every inch except where I sat to drive - was full of laserdiscs.
As I drove home with box-loads of Jim's movies, I remember very distinctly looking over to the passenger seat where Jim sat - possibly more times than anyone else on this planet and that would include, up to that point, my wife and daughter. In his hallowed co-pilot spot were boxes. Nope. These were no substitute.
That said, whenever I watch one of "Jim's" titles, it's like he's not really gone. Whatever spirit exploding from the movie itself is, I like to think, the same one that touched him the way it touches me. And since so many of our conversations revolved around Criterion titles, those are the ones that bring me closest to him.
Movies are pretty much almost everything to me and while I get those strange feelings of spiritual reunification with my old pal, they're somehow strongest when I'm watching the laserdiscs. It was Jim who introduced me to the Samurai Trilogy. On Criterion laserdiscs. I still have them, even though I now own the Blu-Rays.
Today, I occasionally watch many of the Criterion laserdiscs since a number of their titles have yet to find their way onto DVD and Blu-Ray. It's a mystery to me why James Whale's stunning version of Show Boat lives only on extremely rare laserdiscs. Others are M.I.A, because of contentious material on the commentary tracks. The first three James Bond pictures issued in sumptuous editions will never again be available after EON Pictures' Cubby Broccoli demanded all unsold Criterion discs be withdrawn (for reasons never publicly stated, but if you ever hear the tracks, they are a far cry from the often polite, controversy-free puffery on many contemporary commentaries).
And recently, in light of all the hoopla surrounding Skyfall, I took the time to cleanse my palate of that overrated abomination and watch all three Criterion Bond discs WITH the illicit commentaries. It was as if Jim and I were chuckling together over the irascible, witty and often curmudgeonly old-school tidbits. He'd regale me on endless drives to movie stores, flea markets and other purveyors of home entertainment product, with all his favourite moments from those Bond commentaries with a delightful regularity that bordered on the fanatical. And now I could hear them myself. They were Jim's copies. And I could listen to the commentaries and occasionally be reminded of Jim's spirited paraphrasing of their contents.
If truth be told, there's a perverse part of me that prefers laserdisc to DVD and/or Blu-Ray. It's similar to why I still prefer films projected on actual celluloid rather than by digital means. The Criterion laserdiscs were, of course, masterful - the best of the lot, the best of the best. My dear friend, director Peter Lynch, bestowed upon me early Criterion laserdisc templates of Citizen Kane and King Kong which he had received when he curated an early festival devoted to digital production. They still provide me with lovely alternative modes of viewing.
Of course, you're probably wondering why I'm unloading my personal history and deep love for Criterion laserdiscs when I'm supposed to be championing Criterion's astounding Blu-Ray releases for 2012. The answer is quite simple - Criterion led the way. End of story. They were the first company to market specifically to die-hard collectors - connoisseurs, if you will. Laserdiscs were the first ultimate collectors' sell-through item. And the technology of laserdisc was one that purists could really embrace. For me, and yes I'm one of those analog-is-better-than-digital nuts, it all comes down to the warmth of the picture and with laserdisc, it was the only analogue system of home entertainment that yielded a picture quality closer to film than any other format (save perhaps for early analogue Betamax). Where Criterion really excelled here was in their exquisitely mastered and produced laserdiscs on the high quality CAV format. The frame accuracy for detailed study of the films (especially on the ins and outs of specific cuts) remains unparalleled. To this day, when I need to hunker down and analyze cuts, I haul out my CAV Criterion laserdiscs of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Red Shoes. Nothing does a better job.
We are, however, in a digital age that is here to stay and rather than remain a complete curmudgeonly naysayer, I have embraced both DVD and Blu-Ray and continue to do so. The best companies (like Criterion and a handful of smaller independents like Milestone, Kino, Zeitgeist and Olive) maintain extremely high standards when restoring and/or remastering films to digital formats. Criterion, above all, was not only the first and best, they've maintained that position. If, God forbid, all home entertainment goes in the direction of on-demand and streaming, I suspect the last man standing to be the likes of Criterion. Their avid followers will accept no less than the ability to hold the precious film in their hands.
And in 2012, I held plenty of great movies in my hands - most of which came from Criterion - so many, in fact that I was initially flummoxed as to which of their pictures would find their way onto a 10-Best list devoted to home entertainment. Some wonderful Criterion releases this year included such gems as Heaven's Gate, Umberto D, Les visiteurs du soir, Quadrophenia, Rosemary's Baby. Rosetta, La Promesse, Summer Interlude, The Gold Rush, ¡ALAMBRISTA!, Harold and Maude and La Haine.
Well, if truth be told, they all deserve to be on such a list, but for my money, the pinnacle of Criterion's excellence was in the astounding box set of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy and the utterly, insanely and fascinating box of Hollis Frampton's brilliant experimental films.
The Samurai Trilogy dir. Hiroshi Inagaki *****
Samurai I: Musashi Miyato won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and like its two sequels, the movie stands alone as great motion picture entertainment. When watched one after the other, these three classically structured and beautifully directed films comprise a genuinely sprawling epic, often referred to as Japan's Gone With The Wind.
Musashi Miyato is a tale of two friends who begin together on the same path, go to war, but eventually take separate forks in the road of life which results in a series of surprises in their respective love lives - none which either of them would have ever seen coming. The title character (Toshiro Mifune) begins a journey towards becoming a samurai warrior. His somewhat weaker-willed pal Matahachi, abandons his wife-to-be and takes up with a manipulative dragon lady. The picture is bursting at the seams with first-rate melodrama, action scenes of unparalleled excitement and a deeply-felt rendering of a time, place and tradition now gone with the wind.
Samurai I is a tough act to follow, but Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple delivers a thousand-fold. When we last left Musachi, he'd become quite a skilled warrior and after some womanly dalliances, he declared his love to one very special lady, but in spite of this pulling at his heart strings, he decided to bugger off in search of his samurai mojo. Samurai II features several spectacular duels, more romance, our hero's first meeting with the man who becomes his ultimate nemesis and, if this isn't enough for you, he squares off against 80 - count 'em - 80 warriors. Will he survive? Well, as this is a trilogy, we certainly do hope so.
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island is, without question, a corker of a conclusion to the stunning Samurai Trilogy. Our hero accepts the love of a good woman, settles down to a peaceful agrarian life, but just as he thinks he's out, they pull him back in again. He not only assists a group of helpless villagers to battle a gangster warlord, but he agrees to one more duel with the young man who has been itching to fight him for many years and might be the only swordsman skilled enough to take down the incomparable Musashi Miyamoto - Samurai of the highest order.
It's an astounding box. The pictures have been digitally restored in eye-popping hi-def and happily, the sound is presented in wonderful uncompressed mono. In addition to the array of essays there's an especially interesting newly produced segment on the real Musashi Miyamoto.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey dir. Hollis Frampton *****
The legendary experimental American filmmaker is given a magnificent platform via the Criterion Collection to showcase the art he created during his tragically short life. Hollis Frampton, subject of this insanely exhaustive Criterion Blu-Ray was very much a structuralist. Identified as such by P. Adams Sitney, the foremost academic scholar on experimental cinema, Frampton's films would be, according to Sitney, "predetermined and simplified" and that this overall, almost carved-in-stone minimalist structure was what leapt from the formative pre-shooting stage to the film itself.
For me, experimental movies are just plain cool. Or at least they can be. Like any genre, there's good, bad, in-between and yes, great. Traditionally, experimental film has no real concern with narrative and yet, non-narrative experimentation - at least some of the best work - can be as structured as a narrative film that adheres to the Syd Field or Robert McKee approaches to visual storytelling.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is, without question, one of the seminal achievements in what could be seen as the ART of home entertainment creation, production and distribution. Assembling, restoring and providing a wealth of supplemental materials focusing upon this visionary and highly influential artist has been rendered with such loving care that Criterion continues to maintain their well-deserved reputation of going above and beyond the call of duty in their service to preserving the art of cinema (rivalled only by that of Milestone Film and Video whose recent commitment to the work of Lionel Rogosin and their ongoing restoration of silent cinema also places them in this pantheon).
The Criterion disc places 24 of Frampton's films in three sections comprising "Early Works" (including his groundbreaking feature film Zorns Lemma), films from his Hapax Legomena cycle and several key works from the stunning, though sadly unfinished Magellan cycle.
Watching the disc from beginning to end speaks volumes of the care taken by the Criterion team to curate the films. The cumulative effect of screening the early short works prior to watching the feature length Zorns Lemma ultimately yields the riches inherent in the said early titles, but also delivers a perfect platform to succumb to the sheer, unadulterated joy to be found in Frampton's feature.
Experimental cinema - especially in this package of Hollis Frampton's works - should always first be viewed experientially. Just sitting back and letting "IT" happen to you is not only pleasurable, but at times becomes impossible to do and you find yourself mysteriously and surprisingly engaged in a form of dialogue with the film. Frampton not only brilliantly EXPLORES the relationship between film and audience, but creates a relationship in and of itself.
Hollis Frampton died at the age of 48 from cancer. He was plucked from us far too early. The Magellan films, once complete, would have provided an epic work based upon the calendrical cycle and as such, would have delivered one movie for every day of the year.
Seriously, if this isn't cool, nothing is.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection. The restoration and picture transfers are stunning and happily, the sound is presented in uncompressed mono - the way it should be experienced. The extra features - many of which include interviews, footage and "commentary" from Frampton himself - are a treasure trove of insight into the artist and his extraordinary work. If you've never seen Frampton's work, or haven't for a long time, I highly suggest watching all the films first - from beginning to end before you dive into any of them extras. Let your senses and intellect mingle with his art. Get to know the artist through his work first - THEN get to know him with the terrific additional features. Most importantly, those who care deeply about film should NOT rent this. BUY IT!!!
TARANTINO XX - 8-Film Collection (Reservoir Dogs / True Romance /
Pulp Fiction / Jackie Brown /
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 / Kill Bill: Vol. 2 /
Death Proof / Inglourious Basterds)
Just in time for the theatrical release of Django Unchained comes this genuinely spectacular box set of All-Tarantino-All-The-Time. Tarantino, I will admit, was an acquired taste, but once I acquired it, I was sold that he's without a doubt one of the great, original directorial talents in the history of American Cinema. This Blu-Ray looks great and includes many original extras from previous editions plus two additional discs chock-full of great stuff. Pretty much anyone who cares about movies will want to own this. Tarantino's best work can be seen again and again. His worst (and most overrated) is another story. For fun, feel free to plough through my capsule reviews of everything in this box and you'll see what I mean.
|DONNY: BEAR JEW BASTERD|
|KILL BILL 1 and 2|
TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING
|APOCALYPSE THEN, NOW AND THE FUTURE - through the eyes of Robert Aldrich and a great all-star cast.|
Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) ****
dir. Robert Aldrich
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Roscoe Lee Browne, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, William Smith
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Director Robert Aldrich at his best, always seemed to be ahead of the curve - so much so that even now the "curve" hasn't always quite caught up to him. A case in point is his phenomenal film adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly which is still the only major picture to adequately capture the famed private dick Mike Hammer in a manner than best typifies the hard-as-nails gumshoe whose almost neanderthal exterior masks his inherent, basic and decent sense of humanity. Not even the prevailing critical assessment of Spillane's books ignores this dichotomy. While this has almost become trope-like in detective novels, Spillane took these two sides to such extremes that the pleasure and depth of reading his work was never matched by any movie before or since Aldrich's 1955 noir classic.
If this had been Aldrich's only film, it would have been worthy of extolling his virtues, but this is a director who churned out one great picture after another and displayed considerable longevity. His filmography is a virtual litany of tremendous movies; The Big Knife (the classic vicious Clifford Odets show business melodrama), Autumn Leaves (hardboiled melodrama resembling Douglas Sirk doing full-on film noir), What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford slugging it out), The Flight of the Phoenix (one of the best airplane crash survival pictures of all time), The Dirty Dozen (THE archetypal Granddaddy of WWII pictures), The Killing of Sister George (lesbian harridans sniping at each other), Ulzana's Raid (Ulzana's FUCKING Raid - see it or DIE!), Emperor of the North (Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine pummelling each other on a moving train), Hustle (the strangest cop picture of the 70s), The Choirboys (a nasty black comic episodic portrait of LAPD foretelling the Daryl Gates years) and his last picture All The Marbles (with Peter Falk as a manager/coach of FEMALE WRESTLERS).
Twilight's Last Gleaming was released to little fanfare in 1977 - no box office to speak of and indifferent to devastating reviews (with a handful of exceptions). I remember as a teen being quite dazzled by Aldrich's stylistic choice to make use of cinemascope so that not an inch of the screen was wasted. (Seeing it now, my feelings are even more intense.) His use of split screen is especially masterful, as are his gorgeous, crackling compositions that are always replete with story information, providing a myriad of perspectives.
With Twilight's Last Gleaming, Aldrich is always adept at maintaining the sort of clarity and spatial details that put far too many directors (admired by those who should know better) to absolute shame - in particular the spate of horrendous contemporary directors of the Christopher Nolan, Marc Forster, Sam Mendes and JJ Abrams ilk - all of whom seem to subscribe (due to their inherent incompetence and pseudo-arty pretence) to the miserable ADHD fashion of tossing endless handfuls of shit at the screen to see what'll stick.
As a teen I also remember reacting strongly to Aldrich's extremist political stance which was definitely not on the right, nor even especially on the left, but as a plea for humanity amidst a militarized state exercising heinous acts of violence in the name of freedom (yet ultimately in the name of maintaining economic and political power). To say this had even MORE resonance for me now, would be an understatement.
At the time of its release, many reviews cynically remarked that the revelatory shocker in the film was "old hat", but seeing the film again after so many years, it's another example where Aldrich was indeed ahead of his time - visionary, if you will, for the picture speaks so directly to the tumult the world has been embroiled in over the past decade that it's safe to say he generated a picture that is thematically infused with the sort of universal qualities that many of the best movies possess. In fact, the revelatory shocker might, actually, have more resonance now than when it was first unveiled and frankly, Aldrich is wise to use it more as a dramatic tool to enhance both the stirring narrative and the film's deeper thematic concerns.
Twilight's Last Gleaming is based on a book called "Viper Three" by Walter Wager and I will admit to having read it as a teen in addition to Wager's "Telefon" which Don Siegel adapted as a Charles Bronson picture the same year. Siegel's movie was a crisply directed spy thriller and relatively faithful to Wager's compulsively readable pulp. Aldrich, on the other hand, added the substantive and controversial political subtext, while remaining faithful to the basic premise (rogue retired military men take over a nuclear missile site and threaten to launch wide-scale nuclear annihilation unless their demands are met). In the book, the motive is money. For Aldrich, the motive has everything to do with the release of devastating top secret information about America's involvement in Vietnam.
Almost from the film's opening it's obvious that the old rogue soldier played by Burt Lancaster has zero interest in money. His cohorts do. To pull off his mad plan, he needs the best of the best and in such cases, money goes a long way. This of course adds an extra layer of tension - especially in the character brilliantly portrayed by William Smith as a bloodthirsty psychotic ex-Green-Beret.
To say Aldrich has assembled one hell of a great cast is yet another understatement. Lancaster's performance as Dell, the former Air Force General (turned terrorist) is especially touching. He plays a man who was once dedicated to the principles of America and the military, but when faced with access to extremely damning information and potentially turning into a whistle blower, he's railroaded into prison. He wants payback, though for Dell, payback is exposing the truth.
Seeing Lancaster react with pride and sentiment when he watches military men engaging in the process of solid soldiering that they've been trained to and then, the familiar and almost collegial manner in which he addresses other military men are in stark contrast to when he dons the steely face of a truth-exposing terrorist. Furthermore, Lancaster even allows us occasions to see the weight of sadness he feels at how he's been betrayed by his country, but worst of all, how his country has betrayed its citizens and the rest of the world. (God, this all sounds familiar in light of the spurious War on Terror.)
The slovenly Burt Young and cool, collected Paul Winfield are along for the ride with Lancaster. On the "other side" of the equation, Aldrich fills up the movie with the best of the best as politicians, military officials and rival soldiers - Melvyn Douglas, Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Roscoe Lee Browne and Gerald S. O'Laughlin acquit themselves handily and form a Who's Who of testosterone in suits and uniforms.
The revelation amongst this clutch of great actors is just how great Charles Durning is as the American President. Yes, Durning was a fabulous character actor, but his performance here is so moving that one hopes the new life the film is getting will also cast light on this forgotten work by Durning. In any other world or context, Durning would have at least received an Oscar nomination, but the movie was so much a non-starter in 1977 that his performance was sadly overlooked. It's also a bit sad to think that his only Oscar nominations were for Mel Brooks' misfire of a remake To Be Or Not To Be and, God Help Us, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (with Durning's performance in the latter being genuinely fine, but the only thing in it worth watching).
Curiously, Twilight's Last Gleaming was produced in Germany with mostly German money. Given that Germany was so grotesquely occupied by America for so many decades, it makes some sense that Aldrich's decidedly critical take on American foreign policy would have been popular to German financiers, but that also, it could well be the reason the movie was buried alive in America. Now, I can only think that the film had been unfairly repressed and targeted by New World Order and other political forces, resulting in its poor performance at the box office. Even as a teen, I remember being flummoxed that the film opened and closed after only a week (or two at most) - this was, after all, a gripping, suspenseful, violent, kick-ass action thriller (with an all-star cast) that had me on the edge of my seat and was so much better than most films of its ilk.
Aldrich is, quite simply, at the top of his game here and Twilight's Last Gleaming is one of the 70s best pictures. As such, kudos to Olive Films for releasing this terrific picture in a gorgeously re-mastered HD transfer packaged with an excellent newly-produced one-hour documentary on the making of the film. Olive Films has one of the most exciting home entertainment catalogues out there. The past year has seen exquisite Blu-Rays (aggressively marketed in Canada by Mongrel Media) of such terrific pictures as Andre De Toth's Ramrod, John Ford's The Quiet Man, a great Otto Preminger Collection that includes the incomparably insane Skidoo, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Edward Dmutryk's Where Love Has Gone, Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond The Door, Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, Cy Endfield's Sands of the Kalahari, Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, George Cukor's A Double Life,George W. Koch's Badge 373 and the list goes on and on and on.