Monday, June 21, 2021

Visions of Eight

 


VISIONS OF EIGHT (Anthology Film, 1973)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 22, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

When executive producer David L. Wolper scoured the globe for a dream team of directors to shoot a film about the 1972 Munich Olympics, he didn't worry about whether any of them were actually fans of the games. Swedish director Mai Zetterling states explicitly that “I am not interested in sports” at the start of her segment, but it's clear that most of her colleagues also prioritize aesthetics over athletics.

With eight different “visions” this anthology film reflects a kaleidoscope of interests and perspectives, but a few dominant themes emerge. Zetterling, the only woman hired for the project, trains her cameras on the burliest men at the competition, weightlifters. She is primarily interested in the obsession required to train for such specific feats. What kind of man spends hours every day frog-hopping across a cold gym floor and pumping his body full of eggs and boiled ham all so he press an iron barbell over his head, preferably a bar loaded with 2 more kilograms than anyone else in the world can lift? I dunno – the kinda guy who really likes to lift heavy stuff, I guess.

British director John Schlesinger similarly wonders what would drive a man to spend hundreds of lonely hours running along country roads day after day just to be able to run a single marathon at the Olympics. While Zetterling's obsessive giants can be viewed with a mixture of awe and affectionate bemusement, Schlesinger's segment unearths a darker side to an athlete's monomania. One competitor reads newspaper reports of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists, literally just down the road from him in the Olympic Village, and tries his best to block it all out: “I'm here for one thing, and that's to run a marathon.”

Obviously, the murders overshadow everything else about the Munich Olympics, something Wolper could not have foreseen when he initiated the project. The failure to include anything but a fleeting reference to the terrorist attacks until Schlesinger's late segment also overshadows “Visions of Eight” and was the source of much of the controversy surrounding the film's 1973 release, first at the Cannes Film Festival, then to many negative reviews in the states. Perhaps an obsession with art above all other concerns also needed to be examined.

Along with obsession, the film's other dominant theme is failure. French filmmaker Claude Lelouch titled his segment “The Losers” and he provides a moving portrait of athletes at the moment they know their lifelong ambition has been thwarted, at least for now. A losing boxer rages futilely against cold fate in the ring before heading over to his corner for a consoling hug from his trainer. A gimpy wrestler gamely fights on, but has to be helped to the sideline by his opponent. As men and women weep openly, having given it their all and still come up short, the world moves on, leaving them alone and forgotten (except by Lelouch's camera, at least for a few minutes more.)

As Lelouch renders failure sympathetic, American director Arthur Penn transforms it into a thing of beauty. In the film's boldest stylistic segment, Penn composes slow-motion, sometimes blurry images of pole vaulters racing to their destiny. Soaring high and all alone in the universe, one man after another trips that cruelly fragile bar, then freefalls back to earth along with his dreams. When the montage of failed attempts finally morphs into triumphs, with bodies gracefully contorting themselves to just barely clear the bar, the strategic eruptions of applause (the only audible sounds in many shots) accentuate the viewer's euphoria.

In a segment by Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa (director of 1965's “Tokyo Olympiad”), we see a Trinidadian sprinter pull up lame at the start of the 100-meter dash, then we see him do it again and still again. Ichikawa filmed this 10-second race with more than 30 cameras, pointed at each lane, from the sides and above, to document this brief blaze of kinetic energy. He's not just interested in the failure of the one runner, but in the experience of each of them, with slow-motion close-ups on their faces twisted into grimaces of maximum effort. It's a beautiful piece, but far too short.

The net result is indeed a film of remarkable visions, heavier on spectacle than on insight or analysis. Call it a sports film both by and for non-sports fans perhaps. Had it been filmed any other year, it would be easier to celebrate its chronicle of the beauty of bodies in motion, of the potential of human willpower properly harnessed. But it's difficult to think of the Munich Olympics for anything other than tragedy.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion included “Visions of Eight” as part of its sprawling “100 Years of Olympic Films” set back in 2017. I don't own that set for comparison. However, this 1080p transfer is sharp throughout, even with some of the extreme slow-motion footage where detail might be harder to preserve accurately. This 4K restoration “from the 35 mm original camera negative” has no obvious flaws.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and provides a strong presentation both of the classical music excerpts and the original score by Henry Mancini. Optional English SDH subtitles support the audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by podcasters Amanda Dobbins, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan of “The Ringer.” To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Criterion commentary done by podcasters. They add a sports savvy that's largely absent from the film itself.

The main extra feature is a new Making Of documentary (2021, 54 min.). I suspect many fans only sample snippets from lengthy Making Of features, but this one is packed with information about an unusual and complex production. Claude Lelouch is the only director who worked on “Visions” who is still alive and he is featured here along with historian David Clay Large and the sons of both David L. Wolper and Arthur Penn. The most interesting aspect of this feature is learning about the other directors Wolper approached. Fellini never agreed to participate, but did allow Wolper to use his name to attract other talent. Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene shot a film about Olympic basketball, but his footage wasn't used for reasons that aren't fully explained. What a huge loss for the project – I'd love to know more.

The only other features are a short promotional film (6 min.) that accompanied the film's 1973 release and a short Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet includes George Plimpton's 1973 “Sports Illustrated” review of the film, an excerpt from David L. Wolper's 2003 memoir “Producer,” and an essay about the film by novelist Sam Lipsyte.

Final Thoughts:

In 1972, tragedy eclipsed athletics at the Munich Olympics. In 2020, global tragedy canceled the Olympics for the first time in the post-WW2 era. Here's hoping the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are remembered only for their pageantry and competition.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Streetwise

 


STREETWISE (Bell, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 15, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

After a decade of economic struggles, Seattle officials were eager to rebrand the Emerald City as one of America's “most livable” locations heading into the '80s. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and journalist Cheryl McCall were sent by “Life” magazine to the new, more “livable” Seattle and they returned with a devastating story about homeless teens eking out perilous livings on the streets. Their article was published in the July 1983 issue of “Life” by which time Mark had already contacted her husband, director Martin Bell, about featuring the kids in a documentary, a project that turned into “Streetwise” (1984).

“Streetwise” introduces viewers first to the big city and its vibrant waterfront, then to the broad array of teens who spend their days and nights along Pike Street near the Pike Street Market. The boys aggressively panhandle while most of the girls work as prostitutes. All look impossibly young while sounding so very much older than their years. Several girls speak quite matter-of-factly about being beaten and raped – by 14 or 15, such horrors have simply become an expected part of their daily lives. They calmly weigh the merits of various pimps (most of them also teens), sizing up who might offer them the best protection.

The film gradually begins to focus more on a few emergent stars. Rat, a scrawny boy who can't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, dumpster dives for food and constantly hustles for cash, preferably with a more muscular partner backing him up. Lulu, a tough-as-nails lesbian, declares herself the unofficial protector of Pike Street; she evinces no fear whether dealing with violent homeless men or the police.

If this ensemble documentary has a single lead, it's 14-year-old Erin Blackwell, better known as Tiny. Tiny dreams of being “really rich” and living on a farm with lots of horses, but her current reality sees her spending more time at the free clinic where she worries about getting pregnant or contracting another STD from one of her “dates.” With a wry smile and a quick wit, Tiny appears to be a true survivor, though the threat of abrupt, unavoidable violence hangs over even the most grizzled veteran of the streets.

Unlike many of the other children, Tiny hasn't lost all contact with her parents. Tiny's mother feeds her a meager meal at the cheap diner where she works, marveling at how quickly her daughter has grown up in her new life away from home. Mom is fully aware of how Tiny earns her living, but dismisses the tragic situation as “just a phase,” justifying her inaction (and her preference for booze over parenting.) Tiny's decision to live on the streets has its own logic. Her home situation seems even worse, and the street offers the tantalizing illusion of freedom – new friends, no rules, and more money than mom could ever make.

One of the film's most unforgettable scenes involves another parent-child interaction. Dewayne, a skinny scrapper like Rat, visits his father in prison. Dad tries to scare Dewayne straight with a stern lecture about the right way to live that fails to convince when delivered through the plastic screen that separates them. He promises Dewayne “I'm gonna make it up to you” but neither of them believe he'll get a chance to deliver. The poignant image of the father pressing his hand helplessly against the screen as Dewayne turns his back to leave is difficult to shake off.

In contrast to the hand-held “fly on the wall” style associated with direct cinema, Bell prefers more static compositions, sometimes with the camera mounted on a tripod, producing many patient, beautiful shots of a hectic, ugly reality. This aesthetic approach communicates an air of respect for the film's marginalized characters, though it's fair to ask how anyone could witness this brutal exploitation of children without putting down the camera and intervening. In a 2015 excerpt included in the Criterion booklet, Mary Ellen Mark says that she and Bell offered to bring Tiny home with them in 1983, but that Tiny declined. Could they have done more? Could the social workers or other support figures only briefly glimpsed in the film have done more? Whatever the answer, the tragic fates that awaited so many of the film's characters (one of the girls was murdered by serial killer Gary Ridgway) once again raises doubts about the capacity of documentary to serve as a tool for social change.

If they didn't bring Tiny home with them, Mark and Bell did stay in touch with her over the years, shooting several short films and eventually the feature “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” (2016) which Bell completed after Mark died in 2015. Now in her forties, Erin is the mother of ten children along with many adorable little dogs. Erin raised some of her children; others became wards of the state at various points. As Erin inherited the problems of her parents, her kids have inherited many of her struggles. Some of them, like Erin, are drug addicts, some in and out of prison or juvie, and some are still wide-eyed, happy little kids. Much of the film consists of Mary Ellen and Erin reminiscing over footage from their earlier films, lending this follow-up project echoes of the “Up” series of documentaries. Whatever her travails, Erin keeps doing what she's best at: keeping on.



Video:

“Streetwise” is presented in a 1.40:1 aspect ratio, pretty close to a fullscreen ratio. “Streetwise” was shot on 16mm film and the 1080p restoration looks grainy as you might expect from the source. This transfer looks fantastic overall with rich detail and a naturalistic color palette.

“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It was shot on digital, but includes a lot of 16mm footage from “Streetwise.” Obviously, image quality varies based on the source, but this is another strong 1080p transfer.

Audio:

“Streetwise” is presented with a linear PCM mono audio track. “Tiny” gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. “Streetwise” features both direct sound and voice-over, as well as some overlapping dialogue and it's all crisply and cleanly mixed here. The film also makes prominent use of a street performance of “Teddy Bears' Picnic” by Baby Gramps and it sounds great here, as do songs by Tom Waits. “Tiny” doesn't make much use of surround channels, but doesn't need to – the audio is clear and distortion-free. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English dialogue in both films.

Extras:

This single-disc Blu-ray release from Criterion includes two feature films, “Streetwise” and "Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” Extras are included along with each feature.

“Streetwise” is accompanied by a commentary track by director Martin Bell.

Criterion has also included a new interview (2020, 10 min.) with Bell in which he discusses the film's genesis (from the “Life” article by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall) and provides more detail about the production, including the fact that the budget mostly consisted of funding from singer Willie Nelson.

We also get a new interview (2021, 17 min.) with editor Nancy Baker who discusses how she shaped many hours of footage into a narrative. A Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

Under “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” Criterion offers several more features.

This includes two other short films about Erin Blackwell's life, “Tiny at 20” (1993, 14 min.) and “Erin” (2005, 23 min.) Much of the footage from these two shorts is shown in “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” “Streetwise Revisited: Rat” (14 min.) is a new feature which catches up with Rat, now a husband and a father and owner of a towing company.

“The Amazing Plastic Lady” (1995, 22 min.) is a short documentary. In 1993, Mary Ellen Mark published the book “Indian Circus” about child acrobats in India. This 1995 documentary follows up on that material, largely focusing on Pinky, a 10-year-old girl who can contort her body into a pretzel at will. The film covers both her family and work environment, and shares some clear similarities with “Streetwise.”

The last supplement is a Trailer (2 min.) for “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.”

The fold-out booklet includes an essay by historian Andrew Hedden, a reprint of the 1983 “Life” magazine article by McCall and Mark (along with some of Mark's magnificent photographs), and a brief excerpt from Mark's book “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” in which she discusses her relationship with Erin Blackwell.

Final Thoughts:

“Streetwise” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, losing to “The Times of Harvey Milk.” This two-film Blu-ray release from Criterion and its supplementary features give viewers the sense of the scope of the project that Mark, Bell, and McCall began with “Streetwise” and continued for the next several decades.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shooting/Ride In The Whirlwind

The Shooting

THE SHOOTING AND RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (Hellman, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date November 11, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

[Director Monte Hellman died April 20 at the age of 91. Often labeled a "maverick" filmmaker, Hellman first honed his craft under producer/guru Roger Corman before striking out on his own to craft entirely personal and often startling (not to mention trippy and existential) entries in familiar genres. His "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971) is celebrated by many cinephiles, including yours truly, as the greatest road movie ever made. This Criterion release showcases two of Hellman's idiosyncratic Westerns, perhaps the genre he was most identified with. "The Shooting" is also a reminder of one of Hellman's greatest contributions to cinema: serving up some of the very best roles in the career of one of Hollywood's best actors, Warren Oates.]

“The Shooting” (1966) and “Ride In the Whirlwind” (1966) have always been joined at the existential hip for obvious reasons. Funded by Roger Corman and directed by Monte Hellman, the low budget Westerns were shot so close together they even share some of the same horses and were both filmed near Kanab, Utah, a hardscrabble moonscape of sterile rock and foot-high, sickly-green sagebrush. It seems only appropriate that a portion of the area now forms the bottom of Lake Powell as the people of both films could only fully belong to locations that aren't quite there.

Though they'll always be connected, each of Hellman's Westerns offers its distinct pleasures. “The Shooting” is, at its core, a documentary about Warren Oates being awesome. The best inventions seem so obvious you can't imagine nobody had thought of them before, and this movie will leave you flabbergasted that Hellman was the first person who had thought to make Oates a leading man. Has the camera ever loved a face so much? Oates imbues the role of cowhand Willett Gashade with a presence so palpably dense you can almost imagine he's the only person in the film who really exists and has simply dreamed everyone else (maybe the audience too) into existence just to keep himself occupied.

Warren Oates, being awesome

“Everyone else” in this case includes only a handful of other people, one of whom (B.J. Merholz as Leland Drum) is dead before the story begins. Among the living (maybe?) are Gashade's twitchy sidekick Coley (Will Hutchins) and an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who simply materializes on a distant ridge before hiring Gashade and Coley to... well, we don't really know. Mostly to pick a perilous path through an unpopulated desert in pursuit of whatever the woman is pursuing and to meet up with a toothy wolf of a hired gun named Billy Spear. Spear is introduced with a close-up of his eyes which must have seemed evocative and anonymous at the time, but which are now instantly recognizable as Jack Nicholson who also co-produced both films with Hellman.

The script by Carole Eastman (writing as Adrien Joyce and soon to be Oscar-nominated for “Five Easy Pieces”) is peppered with terse dialogue like Gashade's “My mind's all unsatisfied with it.” The essence of the project is revealed in a typically efficient exchange: Gashade says, “I don't see no point in it” to which the woman replies, “There isn't any.” Beckett rides again!

If the shooting of “The Shooting” was rushed there's no visual evidence aside from the occasional and irrelevant lapse in continuity editing; this film, like its twin, features consistently gorgeous cinematography by Gregory Sandor. The camera retreats to a high, distant vantage point for long panoramic shots that situate the lonely riders as shimmering dots who almost disappear into the landscape, then pulls in for meticulously composed close-ups that seize the opportunity to explore that pensive sculpture that is Oates' face which critic Kim Morgan so aptly describes as “handsome and sometimes ugly... a face with history and innocence.” In one of the most memorable shots, Oates squats down in the foreground and scans the horizon for the trouble he knows is brewing while Hutchins fiddles around with a bag of flour in the background; a gunshot sends Hutchins into a panicked run for cover with a trail of flour billowing behind him. Oates hardly budges because, well, he's Warren Oates.

“Ride in the Whirlwind” is, alas, an Oates-less oater, but compensates as best as possible by dropping us right into the middle of the no-nonsense action. I may not be qualified to declare anything the “best” of all-time but I can say the film begins with the most convincing stagecoach robbery I've ever seen. A group of men, not yet individuated, mill about nervously as they prepare to swoop in for the score. Shootings occur at a clinical distance that renders them as confusing as they must feel in the dusty swirl of action. It's all over quickly though nowhere close to cleanly.




Hanging out in Ride in the Whirlwind
“Whirlwind” is slightly greener than “The Shooting” and teeming with more human life. And death. The film switches from the robbers to three riders who happen upon a man hanging from a tree. These cowhands may be rugged but they don't dismiss the grisly sight, savvy enough to know that there but for the grace of a disinterested God go they. Vern (Cameron Mitchell) is the veteran leader of this strictly working class bunch, Wes (Nicholson again) the younger man who looks up to him, with the quiet Otis (writer Tom Filer in his only film role) rounding out the pack.

Seeking shelter for the night, they unwittingly stumble upon the thieves' hideout, a point at which “Whirlwind” further distinguishes itself from more formulaic genre entries. The film (with a script also by Nicholson) stages the “duel” between the two groups as a volley of anxious glances, awkward postures and forced politeness (everyone is "much obliged”). They manage to co-exist but quickly huddle up separately to share their fears, and the “bad” guys (led by Harry Dean Stanton without the Harry in his credit) are just as worried as the “good” guys. These are predators who know how easy it is to become prey.

The lesson is reinforced the next morning when a posse, like the mysterious woman in “The Shooting”, suddenly materializes in the morning. They threaten to smoke out the robbers and think, quite reasonably, that Wes, Vern, and Otis are with the outlaws as well, setting up the chase that structures the rest of the movie. Young Wes sulks at the unfairness of it all, “We wasn't doing nothin', damn it!”, an exclamation that now seems connected by genre-veins to “Unforgiven” and its “Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.”

This is the kind of world (maybe not unlike ours) where the innocent can be forced by circumstance to become the guilty and where the plainly guilty can still be victims of summary justice. It's certainly not the kind of world with muscular heroes or righteous lawmen, just survivors and the dead.

I always remembered “The Shooting” as the better of the two, perhaps because of its more abstract, hallucinatory qualities (I've avoided describing the doozy of an ending just for your sake, dear reader), but revisiting the pair for the first time in a half-dozen years I might give the nod to “Whirlwind” now. There's really no way to lose with either. Nicholson is marvelous, surprisingly vulnerable and looking even younger than 28 in one of his earlier major roles. The landscape is once again a character of its own, especially the box canyon that hems in our unlucky fugitives and reminds them that neither the terrain nor its designer will be providing them any refuge.

Both films failed to make any kind of box office impact on their initial release in 1966 but would eventually find a second life, in part because of Nicholson's growing reputation but also with fans drawn to Hellman's work through masterpieces like “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), one of several Hellman-Oates collaborations which also included the marvelous “Cockfighter” (1974) and “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978).

Hellman's entry in “The Film Snob's Dictionary” pokes fun at the considerable art-house reputation his low-budget genre films have earned, but the appeal should be obvious (the relatively pedestrian IMDB user ratings for both films fall under the category of “This is why we can't have nice things.”) Flawlessly shot and edited, built around focused, concrete scripts, these are the kinds of movies that should be held up as examples for aspiring filmmakers. Of course, not every film student has access to a Warren Oates or a Jack Nicholson or the talent of a Monte Hellman, but let's not quibble over details.



Video:
Both films, included on the same single Blu-ray disc, are presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios. These new 4K digital transfers (supervised by Monte Hellman) do a fine job of capturing detail in the fairly uniform color schemes. “The Shooting” is a whole mess of dirt and dirt-colored rocks, the same hue filling the entire frame sometimes. The all-earth tone scheme makes flesh tones really stand out and the image detail is particularly strong in close-ups. Did I mention that the camera loves Warren Oates' face? So does high-def.

Audio:
Both films have linear PCM mono audio tracks. The lossless audio is as crisp as usual from Criterion; those old recycled ricochets never sounded so distinct. Optional English subtitles support the English audio and might be needed for time to with the idiomatic dialogue.

Extras:
Though Criterion has fit two features onto a single disc, they've still found room to include a good deal of extras without skimping on audiovisual quality.

Both films are accompanied by new commentary track by Monte Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and Monte Hellman's dog Kona. Krohn and Lucas offer some genre analysis but Hellman's stories of the film's production and his thought process really power the commentaries.

The bulk of the extras are new interviews conducted by Hellman, the first being a reunion of sorts with Roger Corman (6 min.) Seeing these two together, and both looking fantastic, is a real treat. Hellman also speaks with actress Millie Perkins (16 min.), actor Harry Dean Stanton (3 min.), actors B.J. Merholz and John Hackett together (17 min.) and Gary Kurtz (19 min.) who served as assistant camera on “The Shooting” and assistant director on “Whirlwind.” A feature called “The Last Cowboy” mixes footage of Hellman interviewing chief wrangler Calvin Johnson (no relation to the Detroit Lions' Megatron) with footage of Hellman revisiting (what remains of the) locations from the films (17 min.) Film programmer Jake Perlin also interviews actor Will Hutchins (15 min.)

One of the best pieces on the disc is “An American Original” (14 min.), an appreciation of Warren Oates written and narrated by critic Kim Morgan. It's a great piece, the text of which I briefly quoted above and which you can also find at her blog Sunset Gun. I think she might be a fan of Mr. Oates.

The fold-out insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Film Value:
“The Shooting” and “Ride In the Whirlwind” were mostly seen on shoddy TV broadcasts for years and a few undistinguished DVD releases years ago only improved the situation marginally. These high-def restored transfers present the films in a state at least approaching their original luster and it's unlikely many people have ever seen them looking so good, maybe not even Mr. Hellman at least in quite some time. The films work alone and even better as a pair. Each deserves consideration in the pantheon of great Westerns and this disc should provide ample evidence to back up that claim.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Irma Vep

 


IRMA VEP (Assayas, 1996)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 27, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

I remember first watching “Irma Vep” (1996) in film school. Like many viewers, I was baffled by the film's enigmatic ending and couldn't get those final scratchy, assaulting images out of my mind for weeks. While struggling, like any earnest film studies scholar, to interpret their meaning, I failed, like any earnest film studies scholar, to notice the film's most obvious quality: It's a total hoot!

In his vertiginous portrait of the joys, terrors, chaos, jealousy, and inspiration that form the short-lived desert-bloom culture of a film set, writer-director Olivier Assayas has plenty to say about the perilous yet exciting state of French cinema as it celebrates its centennial and warily eyeballs a new millennium. But whether “Irma Vep” turns out to be a requiem for or a celebration of the seventh art, Assayas and his cast and crew seem determined to have fun along the way.

Actress Maggie Cheung, playing a fictionalized version of herself, arrives on the set of a low-budget French art film in which she will star. She's three days late thanks to her previous project, a big budget Hong Kong action flick that ran over schedule, a reminder that Cheung (both the real one and the film's fictional version) is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, even if some of the members of the tiny, insular French crew are barely aware of her work.

Cheung meets with director Rene Vidal (Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) who has made the bold decision to cast the Hong Kong star in his remake of the Louis Feuillade silent film serial “Les vampires” (1915-16). Cheung will play Irma Vep, the daring criminal thief first portrayed by Musidora, an actress hailed at the time by surrealist poets as the very definition of the modern, liberated French woman and who was crowned Paris's Queen of Cinema in 1926. Why cast Maggie Cheung as this most definitively French of French icons? Vidal attributes his choice to Cheung's “grace” and her “mysterious” persona. In other words, he's turned on by her.

Libido is one of the primary engines of creativity, and Cheung's presence on set fuels a great deal of creativity. Costumer designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard), tasked with repairing the slinky but flimsy latex catsuit into which Cheung is poured, both befriends and lusts after the actress. Some crew members gossip about Cheung's alleged sexual exploits while others pigeonhole her in xenophobic fashion as “the Chinese girl.” Cheung, for her part, integrates herself into the film set's culture while retaining a bemused detachment, something necessary to carve out her own identity while being fetishized by her co-workers in this strange, new land.

Assayas served time as a critic before directing his own films, and he's keenly aware that everyone holds their own loopy view of what makes a movie great. A hyperbolic interviewer (Antoine Basler) browbeats Cheung with his unbridled enthusiasm for John Woo (ah, the “ballet” of violence!) and his devotion to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, true artists who make movies for real people, not the pallid arthouse fare served up by intellectuals for intellectuals. Conversely, two former militant leftist filmmakers screen their old agitprop movie at a late-night cast party, but to minimal enthusiasm. For an on-set accountant (Alex Descas), what matters most is that the film can be projected to amortize at seven percent – now that's a great movie!

Rene, described at one point as a director who “used to be very good,” experiences a violent breakdown and gets replaced on the project as it rapidly spirals out of control. But just when all seems lost, we see the short bit of film that Rene had a chance to edit before his ouster. The grainy black-and-white footage, with its visual and audio scratches, and crude animation seemingly drawn right onto the film, could be seen as evidence of the director's mental turmoil, or perhaps as the promise of a whole new direction in cinema, a merging of the experimental (those two leftists at the party) and the mainstream (John Woo's “ballet”) that has always defined the medium. Perhaps you can still be a radical after all, even after a hundred years of filmmaking and the need to coordinate budgets with a half-dozen international production companies. No wonder Assayas describes “Irma Vep” as his film that has the happiest ending. Of course “Irma Vep” only pulled in a few hundred thousand at the box office on a $1.4 million budget so, y'know, there won't be a sequel.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken from the 16 mm and 35 mm camera negatives.” Most of the film was shot on super 16 and this 1080p restoration preserves the grainy look with sharp detail throughout.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track provides a sense of depth and handle's the film's eclectic soundtrack quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is in French and English.

Extras:

Criterion has packed this release so heavily, they've spread the supplements over two Blu-ray discs.

In addition to the film itself, Disc One includes a recent interview (2021, 28 min.) with Assayas. The writer-director discusses the film's genesis, which started as a project with filmmaker Claire Denis. He also discusses how he first met Maggie Cheung (to whom he was married from 1998-2001) at Cannes, then writing and shooting “Irma Vep” rather quickly while he was preparing for a much larger project.

Disc One also includes two older supplements previously included on other discs. First is a conversation (2003, 34 min.) between Assayas and critic Charles Tesson. They discuss their shared passion for Asian film, and a 1984 trip they took to Hong Kong, which turned into a major article in “Cahiers du Cinema.” Second is an interview (2003, 17 min.) with actresses Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard regarding their experience on “Irma Vep.”

Disc One also includes thirty minutes of “On the Set” footage from the making of “Irma Vep.”

Disc Two leads off with “Les Vampires: Hypnotic Eyes” (2016, 59 min.), the sixth episode of Louis Feuillade's landmark serial film. I think “Les vampires” is public domain, though I'm not sure how that concept applies in French law, but I know it's not hard to find online. However, this 1080p upgrade of an episode is a pleasure to watch.

The second disc includes perhaps the best supplement in this package, the documentary “Musidora: The Tenth Muse” (2013, 68 min.) Directed by Patrick Cazals, this feature tells the story of the much celebrated French actress who portrayed the sultry Irma Vep, and inflamed the fantasies of a few generations of French film lovers. Musidora (real name Jeanne Roques) was far more than a fetish object. She was one of the first French women to direct films. She also produced and wrote in addition to acting, and hobnobbed with major figures of the time, including her friend Colette. Later, she worked with Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque. This is a fantastic documentary.

In “The State of Cinema 2020” (46 min.), Assayas holds court on what has and hasn't changed in film in the quarter century since he released “Irma Vep.” He has devoted a lot of thought to this and bombards the viewer with his densely-packed arguments, which is fascinating and also might require a few sittings to absorb.

Disc Two wraps up with two short supplements. “Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung” (1997, 5 min.) is a short directed by Assayas, which sort of picks up where those final images of “Irma Vep” left off. We also get 4 minutes of Black-and-White Rushes of Cheung on a rooftop set in her Irma Vep costume.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer and film programmer Aliza Ma.

Final Thoughts:

With “Irma Vep,” Olivier Assayas appears to be asking a few major questions about his career and his medium of choice: “What have I been doing?” and “What can I do next?” The answer to the latter appears to be “just about anything.” “Irma Vep” argues, in part, that boundaries between genres and between high and low art are false. Cinema thrives on the confluence of its many historical crosscurrents, and Assayas's portrait of creativity as a gloriously chaotic mess is intoxicating and downright inspiring. Criterion has loaded this two-disc release with a strong array of extras to support this top-notch high-def transfer.