Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Thin Blue Line

THE THIN BLUE LINE (Morris, 1988)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date March 24, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Short Review:

One of the greatest films ever made.

Full-Length Review:

“The Thin Blue Line” has been justly lauded for its stylistic innovations, its giddy flaunting of the truth claims of direct cinema, and its searing indictment of a corrupt and incompetent judicial system. Yet the reason I have watched this film more than any other documentary, the reason I fall under its spell each and every time, is that is an eloquent ode to the importance of evidence.

We are each a mass of cognitive biases, constantly misperceiving reality and then misremembering what we already misperceived in the first place, twisting it around to suit our needs. This has led many post-modernists to throw in the towel and assert that the truth is relative, but as director Errol Morris has stated time and again, that is utter bullshit. Truth is absolute; we simply do our best to avoid it, mostly because we don't much care, partly because we're so bad at identifying it. It may be elusive, it may be complex, but the truth is there. Whether we can ever get to it is another issue.

The key to cutting through the biases and all the other bullshit is evidence, the cold, hard facts that exist independently of our faulty perceptions. The evidence will set you free, sometimes from a metaphorical cognitive prison and sometimes from a literal brick-and-iron prison as in the case of Randall Dale Adams, cosmic victim of chance and human fallibility.

Randall Dale Adams
 Adams was a bit of a drifter who made the mistake of drifting into Dallas for a few days; on one of those days (Nov 27, 1976) he ran out of gas on the side of the road. A teenager named David Harris offered him a ride and the two hung out for dinner and a drive-in movie before parting ways. Later that night Dallas police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. About a month later, Adams was charged with the murder, largely based on the testimony of Harris, and then convicted of the murder, largely based on the testimony of even more liars.

Twelve years later Adams was still in jail, a death sentence (he was three days from being electrocuted at one point) having been commuted to life, which is about the time a former filmmaker turned private investigator named Errol Morris found out about him. Morris was actually in town to investigate Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist proud of earning the nickname Dr. Death for the role he played as court expert in many capital punishment cases. Grigson had happily steered Morris in the direction of some of his greatest achievements on death row; there Morris met Adams and, after initially dismissing his protestations of innocence, began to investigate and found that the evidence didn't even remotely match the Dallas County legal system's version of events.

Morris, in the midst of a half-decade hiatus from filmmaking after the extraordinary career opening salvos of “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida”, knew he had not only an immediate mission to complete but also a subject for his next movie. He unearthed ample evidence both discrediting the prosecution's case and pointing the guilty finger at David Harris; his investigation proved crucial in eventually setting Adams free, enough on its own to rate “The Thin Blue Line” as one of the most important films of all-time though it was not the screening of the film itself that played the pivotal role, rather the evidence Morris presented to authorities.

The movie that resulted provides evidence of another kind, of the delusions and fictions that rule our lives, and that certainly rule our judicial system. Morris's unblinking camera finds a judge who styles himself an upholder of the law just like his FBI agent father who was in on the Dillinger arrest, police investigators who just knew Adams was guilty because he showed no remorse for his crime, a prosecutor primarily interested in scoring another kill, and an array of unreliable witnesses with motives of their own. Chief among the latter group is Emily Miller who all but confesses her own lies on camera while presenting herself as a savvy do-gooder who likes to beat the police at their own game; her casual statement that crimes like this keep happening around her all the time and that she always gets involved is one of those “I don't know if I'm supposed to laugh or cry” moments so central to Morris's work.

"Witness" Emily Miller

Beyond the biases of the individuals involved, the film portrays a lunatic legal system utterly disinterested in guilt or innocence, looking only for “justice” at all costs. An officer has been murdered and someone must pay; someone, anyone, it's all good. All you have to is find the right person with the right story (if it needs to be coached out of them, no worries) and you have your verdict, all nice and official-like. Perhaps the most unnerving claim made in the film is by Adams's attorney Edith James who believes the main reason Dallas County pursued Adams so aggressively is that Harris was too young to get the death sentence even if found guilty, and where's the fun, I mean justice, in finding someone guilty without getting to fry him?

At the center of the insanity is Randall Adams with his piercing eyes, speaking in accusatory terms but with the distanced resignation of a man who still can't quite believe any of this is actually happening to him. This is the “Charlie Manson” and “Adolf Hitler” personality who would kill and kill again, according to the testimony of Dr. James Grigson whose degrees affirm his expertise and guarantee that his word will determine the fate of dozens, all nice and official-like. The real evidence was right there for everyone to see, of course, but nobody wanted or needed to so, pfft, it just didn't matter.

Laugh or cry? Morris can process both reactions simultaneously while embedding the absurdity of such a process and the people who operate it into the style of his film. Employing moody lighting and pulsing music from Phillip Glass, Morris imbues the proceedings with white-knuckle suspense and the feel of a classical noir with Adams as the haplessly doomed protagonist. The film also returns again and again to a reenactment of Officer Woods's murder with details changing each time: the make of the car, the license plate, the positioning of Woods's partner, the other cars driving by. It's an extraordinary device that illustrates the shifting nature of memory and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, yet never deviates from a few provable truths: the gun, the murder, and the milkshake. Yes, the milkshake, look it up.

Let's add another layer of delusion. Putting the AS(s) in AMPAS, Academy voters decided this critically praised, groundbreaking film (that freed an innocent man!) did not even count as a real documentary because of its use of reenactments and other fictional techniques which meant it wasn't literal truth like exemplars from the field such as “Nanook of the North” (do I need a sarcasm font for that?) Laugh or cry? Let's laugh because that battle has mostly been won by the sane people over the past quarter century with definitions of the documentary opening up to include, well, the kinds of films that were always there from the very start. They just couldn't deny the evidence anymore so, hey, that's progress.

“The Thin Blue Line” is tense, riveting, and sincerely and convincingly angry in its depiction of human greed and stupidity. This is a rage against the machine, and if it didn't fix the legal system, did I mention that it got an innocent man set free? That'll do.

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The high-def transfer brings many of the details (close-ups of newspaper articles and maps, for example) into sharp resolution and with a rich color palette that emphasizes the amount of conscious design that went into the film. Grain is thick and we can see a lot of detail in some of the darker scenes. No complaints.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has two jobs: present clear dialogue and preserve Philip Glass's exquisite score. It succeeds at both even if the overall result isn't particularly dynamic. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue: when relevant, the speaker's name is indicated in parentheses which might help since Morris never identifies anyone by name with on-screen titles.

The primary extra Criterion has included is a new 41-minute interview with Errol Morris which kicks off with a discussion of his “crazy thwarted career” and the events that led up to the investigation that turned into “The Thin Blue Line.” I can listen to Morris talk documentary and philosophy all day long so even 41 minutes flew by and left me wanting more.

We also get a interview with documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer (2014, 14 min.) who speaks of his great appreciation for the film.

The disc also includes an interview segment from the Mar 22, 1989 episode of “Today's 'Close Up'” with Bryant Gumbel as host interviewing Morris, Adams, and Adams's lawyer Randy Schaffer.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film professor Charles Musser.

Final Thoughts:
In short, one of the greatest films ever made. Maybe the greatest documentary. Got an innocent man freed from jail. And there's your winning shot.

Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida

Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park in "Gates of Heaven"

GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON, FLORIDA (Morris, 1978 and 1981)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date March 24, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

I believe that “Gates of Heaven”, Errol Morris's 1978 debut documentary about two California pet cemeteries, is one of the most profound examinations of the human condition the cinema has ever produced. Not coincidentally I also believe that we are all crazy, and I mean batshit crazy in an infinite variety of ways both small and large. I also believe that this manifest truth is every bit as beautiful and endearing as it is inherently tragic.

I suspect that the numerous (and irritating) critics who charge Morris with being “mocking” or “condescending” to his subjects just aren't in tune with the director's simultaneously affectionate and despairing embrace of the absurdity of human existence. We peer out at the world through tiny slits in our flesh-covered craniums, attempting to sift a massive information overload through our meager perceptual filters and make meaning from meaninglessness. To do so, we need to choose what to ignore (most things) and what to pay attention to (usually the stuff that makes us feel best). This winnowing process generally drives us a little loopy and certainly guarantees we'll get just about everything wrong, but we struggle along anyway and that's what makes us so fascinating.

And, yes, a bit ridiculous. Witness Phil Harberts (above), eldest son of the family that runs Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park in Napa, CA. Phil recently left a job as an insurance salesman to work for the family business, but he still spouts the boilerplate motivational dogma that suggests his heart remains with the corporate world. His blather about the importance of positive thinking and the clearly defined steps to business success becomes increasingly absurd, hinting at a philosophy of “Bazooka Joe” sophistication. Yet he goes on an on, certain he has grasped a fundamental truth and eager to share it with the world.

But wait. “Gates of Heaven” is supposed to be a documentary about pet cemeteries. Why, then, does Errol Morris let Phil ramble on about his half-baked business theories past the point of absurdity? And what about letting sweet but slightly incoherent Florence Rasmussen rant for several minutes about her deadbeat son before eventually getting around, ever so briefly, to the subject of her dear departed dog Skippy? 

The great, great Florence Rasmussen

Morris is making fun of them, screech the naysayers, and perhaps the director's distinct visual style, intact seemingly from the start in this debut feature, invites such an accusation. Working with cinematographer Ned Burgess (after the tyro director fired the first few brave souls to take the job), Morris fixes the camera firmly on a tripod and frames his subjects dead center, staring almost directly into the camera as they deliver uninterrupted monologues sometimes prolonged enough to feel awkward. The interviewees seem to be mounted on a Petri dish for pitiless study through a lens that magnifies their every flaw.

But I think the naysayers reveal their own paucity of empathy. The careful observation of human eccentricity does not imply judgment, only genuine interest. I cannot imagine anyone watching Florence Rasmussen complaining about her lazy son or jumping at the sound of car tires screeching off camera and find her anything but wonderful, wonderfully and eminently human. Phil's pat theories about how to succeed in business without really thinking are pretty foolish, but he is not alone in such delusions. Did you know that there are people who genuinely believe that everything happens for a reason? It's true, I swear to God! Phil is struggling to make meaning of the world and doing it all with the puny intellectual apparatus of a creature one cosmic calendar second removed from wondering how to make fire. Of course he's going to look silly trying to talk about the best way to convince other fire-making monkeys to hand over their cherished green-colored pieces of paper. At least he's trying, and with gusto. And Errol Morris wants to chronicle his heroic journey.

Besides, “Gates of Heaven” is nothing close to a freak show. There may be an inherent absurdity in memorializing one's departed pet by means of a plaque emblazoned with a Hallmark-style epitaph, but the sentiment behind it is deeply serious. This is something would-be entreprenuer Floyd McClure understood when he set out to create his own, ultimately doomed pet cemetery. Sweaty, chain-smoking Floyd oozes sympathy from every pore when talking about the loss of his own collie in an accident and the fundamental horror he feels at the world's casual treatment of pet remains. This sets up a truly extraordinary sequence as the film intercuts from Floyd's gentle commentary to snippets of an interview with the owner of a rendering plant. As Floyd fights back tears, the plant owner, speaking of the dead animals processed at his facilities, can barely keep himself from laughing at how worked up some pet owners can get: “You get some real moaners on the phone.”

Floyd thinks it's so obvious that people would want to memorialize their pets he can't imagine anyone thinking otherwise. The owner of the rendering plant finds the notion so ludicrous he feels the need to stop and sell his audience (Morris on set, the rest of us by proxy) on the fact that people get all upset about their dead pets: it's true, I swear to God!

That's where “Gates of Heaven” gets at something deep in the human psyche, illustrating the notion that each of us is just pacing around in his or her own perceptual cage. We live in our interior landscapes and there's really no outside access to them, just the traces we can see and hear, and spoken words meant to bridge the gap, but usually so inadequate they obfuscate instead. 

It's sad, it's lonely, it's a silly bit of unintelligent design, and it's really quite beautiful to watch people doing their best to work through it all because, hey, we're all forced to run the same race, the one that guarantees everyone ends up in a tie. Morris isn't mocking, he's showing solidarity in the struggle. From inside my own cage, I can't imagine there are people who watch this movie and see all of these characters as being depicted in a negative light. Floyd, Phil, Florence, the woman who sings in harmony with her dog – I love them all. And I get the sense that Errol Morris does too.

“Gates of Heaven” wasn't a commercial blockbuster, but it announced Morris as an important emerging talent. Passionate advocacy from critics Roger Ebert (who later named it as one of his ten favorite films of all-time) and Gene Siskel helped a great deal as did the support of Morris friend and sort-of mentor Werner Herzog whose bet with the young but unfocused director allegedly prompted the film to be made in the first place (more on that in the Extras section below). His follow-up was thus widely anticipated.

“Vernon, Florida” (1981) didn't quite match up to the director's stellar debut but it can hardly be deemed a sophomore slump. Morris doesn't tap as deep a vein this time around, but he finds his share of interesting subjects. The project initially started with Morris's investigation into insurance fraud in a small town known only as Nub City for the high concentration of people who “accidentally” blew off an arm and/or a leg and cashed in with insurance claims. Morris soon learned that these highly motivated entrepreneurs weren't keen to discuss their wily though not particularly repeatable scheme, and after getting beaten up and driven off, he returned to the title town to talk with some of its four-limbed residents.

Vernon's philosopher king

I'm not going to rehash the mockery argument again save to say that the usual accusers might have a better case with “Vernon, Florida” than they did with “Gates.” The Vernon residents are an odd lot with an awful lot of time to kill in this tiny panhandle town. There's the local philosopher king who intently studies a discount jewel he just bought before admitting he has no idea what he's supposed to be looking at. There's the ardent hunter with such an intense turkey fixation that he hears gobbles from behind every bush and remembers the story behind every tiny turkey beard he has mounted on his trophy wall. There's the preacher who delivers a sermon on the etymology of the word “therefore” that sounds even more asinine than any of Phil Harbert's business advice.

The film courts an inherent risk in its series of portraits of rural eccentrics that will be mostly viewed by city folk, but there's little evidence in the movie of any editorial judgment. Perhaps we do gawk at some of their manners, but people who devote themselves to their various obsessions are just inherently funny while doing it. You are too, I promise. Henry Shipes, our full-time turkey hunter, is genuinely passionate about his calling and the excitement he expresses while recounting each and every one of his signature kills really brings him to life even if the viewer scoffs at the possibility of glory in the gross mismatch between human with rifle and turkey with giblets. Once again, Morris is interested in what makes his subjects tick and he finds that the best way to capture it on film is simply to let them talk and talk and talk some more. It's a technique he would continue to refine over the course of one of the most remarkable careers in the past four decades of American cinema.

“Gates of Heaven” is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, “Vernon, Florida” in its original 1.66:1. Both new digital transfers were supervised by Errol Morris and create din 2K resolution. They really look great. The thick grainy look makes a few longer shots look a bit lacking in sharpness, but that's really not a problem at all. This beats the heck out of any previous release of either film.

Both films get a linear PCM mono track which is perfectly suited to the straightforward job of presenting crisp, clear dialogue. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included both films on the same disc, each accessible from the main menu. Under each film title, you can also access the features relevant to each movie.

Morris originally worked as an assistant to Werner Herzog on his 1977 masterpiece “Stroszek.” As the story goes, Herzog tired of young Morris complaining about his inability to secure funding for his own movie and bet him that if he could make a film then Herzog would eat his shoe. Morris actually denies remembering the bet or that it played any inspirational role in his making the film. However Werner Herzog is not a man who reneges on a bet; as publicity for the festival release of “Gates of Heaven” Herog indeed ate his shoes (first preparing them with garlic, Tabasco, and onions) and the historical event was recorded by director Les Blank in the aptly titled short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1980, 20 min.) It's a great short that Criterion already included on their release of Blank's “Burden of Dreams” but is now presented here in high-def. As a companion piece, we also get a brief excerpt of Herzog promoting “Gates” at the Telluride Film Festival: “You can make films with your guts alone!”

We also get a new interview (2014, 19 min.) with Errol Morris. It is absolutely fantastic and he responds to the charges of mockery with an apt summation of what I wrote above (before watching this interview!) about embracing absurdity and the basic desperation of life.

“Vernon, Florida” is accompanied only by another interview (2014, 12 min.) with Morris in which he talks about the genesis of the project.

The package includes a fold-out insert booklet with an essay by critic Eric Hynes.

Final Thoughts:
You know what's really crazy? Morris's first two films, a one-two punch most filmmakers would kill for, did not launch a successful career. Unable to earn a living in film, Morris spent several years in the '80s working as a private investigator. Fortunately that turned out to be the perfect training ground for the movie that truly would set him up as a full-time filmmaker, 1988's “The Thin Blue Line” which Criterion has also released the same week as these two movies. Along with the director's “A Brief History of Time” this brings Morris up to an impressive representation in the Criterion Collection. Here's hoping more are on the way.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Brief History of Time

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray and DVD, Release Date April 15, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This review is being posted in conjunction with The Criterion Collection's releases of Errol Morris's "Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida" (on one disc) and "The Thin Blue Line.")

Errol Morris's documentaries often take viewers on a tour of the mental landscapes of his subjects. Gazing directly at his interviewees (early in his career by putting his head right next to the camera lens; later via his all-seeing Interrotron), Morris probes for access to a guarded interior state and then renders it in an audiovisual medium that can only record exteriors.

For a filmmaker irresistibly attracted to eccentrics, this process usually involves mapping out the delusions by which his subjects have made sense of their lives and justified their decisions. In “Mr. Death” (1999), Fred Leuchter believes his work designing electric chairs qualifies him as a scientist and investigator capable of debunking certain Holocaust claims. More recently in “The Unknown Known” (2013), Donald Rumsfeld rationalizes a history of failed policies by proudly redefining words to mean whatever he wants or, more accurately, needs them to mean; history and memory are so much more pleasantly malleable that way. These surveys of faulty belief systems are always riveting, but seldom uplifting. People do the damndest things for the damndest reasons.

“A Brief History of Time” (1991) is therefore a rarity in Morris's oeuvre, an exploration of an imaginary space that provides cause to celebrate rather than to recoil in horror or to sigh in resigned despair. Leuchter was (perhaps) a truth-seeker who didn't own a bullshit detector while Rumsfeld simply wrote a memo reclassifying the scent of his shit as honeysuckle, but with Dr. Stephen Hawking, Morris finally found a kindred spirit, a man of reason devoted to discovering reality rather than folding it origami-like into whatever shape he finds most convenient.

Like all theoretical physicists, Hawking opens with a joke: “What came first? The chicken or the egg.” (See, the joke is that a super-genius type guy would say something like that.) Morris responds with a giant image of a blank-eyed chicken backed by a starry night sky that vanishes somewhere just shy of infinity. Though the documentary is an adaptation of Hawking's best-selling book on cosmology, it announces from the start that it is not going to be a sober science lesson. We will learn about black holes and their event horizons, entropy, the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, and, of course, time (both real and imaginary).. but only a brief history of each. The documentary is less than ninety minutes long and the universe is somewhat older.

Instead the film concerns itself with the portrait of (I'm sorry, it simply must be said) a beautiful mind. Against Hawking's initial protests about the autobiographical slant, the portrait begins in childhood. Friends describe the Hawking family as both brilliant and eccentric with young Stephen being the most outgoing and “normal” of the bunch. Hawking's mother Isobel, however, seems perfectly normal as she gushes about her baby boy though “gushing” is perhaps the wrong term for a reserved and dignified British woman with a modest sense of perspective on genius: “Sometimes (Stephen) probably talks nonsense, but don't we all?”

Hawking was a brilliant but lazy student who spent more time at Oxford chugging six-packs than doing homework. Jealous classmates, now admiring but still jealous adults, testify to his ability to solve complex problems alone in an hour that they had failed to answer in teams working for weeks. So he coasted, because he could. During college, Hawking also attempted to hide growing motor skill problems from friends and family, but in 1963 at the age of 21 he was diagnosed with ALS and given less than three years to live. In his recounting, the impending death sentence finally gave him a reason to focus.

That focus helped to produce some of the 20th century's great cosmological breakthroughs, including Hawking's pioneering work on black holes and what would come to be called Hawking radiation (roughly, a quantum “loophole” through which some particles can escape the inescapable gravity of a black hole). And, just as importantly, Hawking would become the world's most widely-recognized scientist since Albert Einstein, his iconic status enabling him to perform a genuine miracle: getting people excited about science. "A Brief History of Time" camped out on the bestseller list for years.

Morris is interested in the fame that accompanied Hawking's disability, but he's more intrigued by the way Hawking has adapted to it. Though Hawking has greatly outlived his dire prognosis, his body continued to deteriorate over the years. In 1985, a tracheostomy ended his ability to speak; by the time of the film he is completely wheelchair bound and capable of only the most limited voluntary movement. Hawking can still blink and also controls a hand clicker that interfaces with a computer program that enables him to speak through an electronic voice synthesizer (said program was a godsend at the time, but looks antiquated and downright mundane twenty years later).

This has produced radical changes in Hawking's working methods. Unable to write down lengthy equations or access reading material at will, the undaunted scientist took to thinking primarily in pictorial terms, visualizing complex ideas as graphic representations that he could manipulate at his leisure (his leisure being everyone else's grueling work). Morris does the best he can to depict these images through charts, graphs, and limited use of computer imagery. But, oddly enough, the film most vividly conveys Hawking's mental world by closely observing the physical surface of the man and his machines.

Cinematographer John Bailey, shooting on a tightly-controlled stage (Hawking's office, like almost every set seen in the movie, was recreated at Elstree Studios in London), photographs Hawking and his equipment from a variety of angles: his darting eyes behind thick glasses, his computer terminal as it sifts through multiple word-trees, a close-up of a single tire of his wheelchair, and, most poignantly, Hawking's partial reflection in a tiny screen near his lap. The juxtaposition of these images of stasis with Hawking's electronically-rendered and agile explanation of big, big ideas is sometimes startling and deeply affecting. Not in the sense of tragedy, for this is not a tragic tale, but for the unfathomable vastness of the incongruity between the immobile exterior and the frenetic interior motion in a mind constantly expanding, turning cosmic pirouettes through both real and imaginary time.

It all makes for one heck of an exciting ride, and brain candy of the sweetest flavor. It's just a shame Morris took the title too literally. Where most documentaries feel bloated in the effort to hit the minimum run time for a theatrical release, “A Brief History of Time” is far too brief. Leave 'em wanting more, sure, but Dr. Hawking's just getting started when the credits bring everything to a halt, the Little Crunch that's a big tease. Of course there's still time for a sequel.

First, a note. This dual-format release includes both a single DVD and a single Blu-ray disc. Anticipating a documentary/science-fan audience not too concerned with image quality, Criterion will be releasing “A Brief History of Time” as a single-DVD-only at a substantial discount ($24.95) full retail to the dual-format ($39.95 full retail).

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is pretty flawless, and the level of detail in the sets and the close-ups is exceptional. Dr. Hawking's eyes pierce right through you in high-def.

I think the visual design of this film is greatly underappreciated as I briefly discussed above. Having said that, the SD transfer in this dual-format set is also very strong though obviously inferior in image detail. It's a noticeable difference, but not a deal-breaker, so if you're really looking to own this Criterion volume but have a limited budget, you might consider the upcoming DVD-only release.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is as crisp and clean as we've come to expect from Criterion. All dialogue is clearly mixed. I did not have time to mention the score by frequent Morris collaborator Philip Glass, but it's the chief reason for the movie to be presented with a lossless surround track. Morris actually didn't screen the film for Glass, but just gave him snippets of dialogue to serve as inspiration for various compositions. Glass's score is a bit more low-key an unobtrusive than some of his other work for Morris and certainly his work with Godfrey Reggio, but it's still an integral part of the movie and a pleasure to hear on this mix. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has only included two interviews along with the film, but at least they're interesting ones.
Errol Morris (2013, 34 min.) speaks with affection and humor about his collaboration with Dr. Hawking, a figure he describes as both commanding and a little frightening at first. Morris has always been proud to talk about the considerable invention he employs in his documentaries (something that used to draw controversy from the old guard in the field); as mentioned above, he shot almost everything in a studio with recreated/artificial sets. In addition, (almost?) all of the dialogue was actually recorded from a voice synthesizer they had in the studio. Morris claims they were faithful to Hawking's words except for one small change which Hawking spotted immediately when the film was screened for him. I admit I could listen to Errol Morris talk about documentaries all day long so this was an easy sell for me, but I think it's a great interview.

Cinematographer John Bailey (2013, 12 min.) speaks about his work on the film, and the challenges presented by recreating spaces in the studio.

The insert booklet includes a sharp essay by critic David Sterritt, an excerpt from Hawking's recent book “My Brief History” and a very short excerpt from “A Brief History of Time.”

Film Value:
Morris. Hawking. Two of my favorite artists together. It couldn't miss, and it didn't. I'd have loved an extra in which Hawking and/or other scientists discuss the changes in the field over the past 20+ years, and what hypotheses Hawking has had to reject or revise as a result of new data, but I guess that's what the Internet is for. We do get a couple good interviews and a sharp high-def transfer of this exciting, sometimes inspiring documentary about the real “most interesting man in the world.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ride The Pink Horse

RIDE THE PINK HORSE (Montgomery, 1947)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date March 17, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Robert Montgomery gave us so much.

His greatest gift, of course, was daughter Elizabeth, a creation so perfect she could hardly be plausibly cast as a woman of mere mortals born. Later he served his country with honor, commanding a PT boat in the South Pacific and participating in the Normandy invasion; he was awarded the Bronze Star which surely meant a lot more than one of those silly old Oscars anyway. Upon returning from war, he bravely re-enlisted for a second perilous tour of duty as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Now that took guts.

Alas, Montgomery was no saint, and his involvement in Republican politics led to his testimony as a friendly witness in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Too bad Samantha Stevens was not yet old enough to steer him away from this witch hunt; we need her to whip up one of her family's “Reverse The Spell” spells (“lleps eht esreveR” in case you need the incantation) to erase this part of daddy's legacy.

At about the same time, Montgomery decided to share his gifts on the other side of the camera, becoming one of the very few Hollywood actors to turn director in the sound era. His debut “Lady in the Lake” (1947) is semi-infamous today as a noble failure. Montgomery directs and stars as private eye Phillip Marlowe though he's only glimpsed in reflections as the camera is situated from his point-of-view in an attempt to simulate Raymond Chandler's first-person narrative. The nifty gimmick quickly comes to feels stiff and forced, yet it's hard not to admire the film for sticking so assiduously to the experiment.

Montgomery's second directorial turn is somewhat more conventional and substantially less well-known. “Ride the Pink Horse” (1947), adapted from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name, casts Montgomery as Lucky Gagin, a stiff-necked, meathead thug who arrives in the New Mexico border town of San Pablo. In the first shot after the credits, the crane-mounted camera glides along with Gagin as he disembarks his plain Greyhound bus, walks menacingly into the station, surreptitiously removes a gun from his briefcase, stashes something secret in a locker, and walks back out. Over three minutes without a cut and no dialogue until the very end when Gagin asks for directions to a hotel, an indication that Lucky Gagin is a man of few and simple words and also that hall-of-fame cinematographer Russell Metty serves as an indispensable collaborator on the film.

Gagin's indignant sneer seems to be directed at life in general but he saves his most withering condescension for the New Mexicans who commit the crime of being a little too Mexican. How comes youse dopes don't know how to speak English? There's someone else Gagin dislikes even more though, namely one Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a shady private “businessman” who messed with one of Gagin's old pals. Even though the town is gearing up for fiesta tomorrow, Gagin isn't here on holiday. He's out for revenge. Unfortunately, even though Hugo's a two-but punk he's got just enough bits in his pocket a wield a little power in this little town, so our hero is really going to be up against it.

For reasons hinting at a grace seldom found in film noir settings, Gagin finds himself with a series of unexpected allies. The avuncular FBI agent Retz (Art Smith) offers Gagin multiple chances to handle things by more official channels. Kindly Pancho (Thomas Gomez) opens his humble home and even the rickety carousel he operates (that's where the titular pink horse is stabled) to Gagin; laughing, gentle Pancho contains such an endless supply of bonhomie it can't help but well out of him and wash over even the gloomiest Gus. Most striking of all is young, skinny Pila (Wanda Hendrix), a waifish, wide-eyed Madonna who is so much of a country bumpkin she is floored by the sight of real ice cubes in her fruit cocktail. She wears through Gagin's rhino-thick skin simply by always being present and patient no matter the abuse he heaps upon her. 

From L to R: Hugo, Retz, Gagin, Pila

Everything about this big palooka suggests that he's doomed to failure, but this seemingly boiler-plate crime tale takes an unexpected turn. The script, co-written by veterans Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (with an uncredited draft by trailblazing producer Joan Harrison), gradually paints additional layers onto stone-jawed, dull-eyed Gagin. He's just back from the war and is clearly alienated by the fact that a glorious win over an indisputable evil doesn't seem to have done much either for his fortunes or for his homeland. If he didn't expect to be hailed as a conquering hero, at least he would have hoped that crumbums like Hugo couldn't continue to get away with all the things they keep getting away with.

Yet despite all his bitterness and disillusionment, Gagin ever so slowly begins to change as he turns his attention from the crumbums to the decent folk he never quite noticed before. He's too dumb to realize he's being rehabilitated by the kindness of Pila and Pancho and Retz, but is he just barely smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from their intercession? There's more than a glimmer of hope, but then there are also the grim expectations of genre bearing down upon his broad shoulders. Perhaps it's up to Gagin to decide whether he's worth saving or not.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this “new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics film scanner from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain and a safety duplicate negative at Metropolis Post in New York.” The transfer isn't quite as grainy as you might hope for a (sort of) noir but the black-and-white contrast is rich and image detail is pretty sharp throughout. This isn't ab absolutely pristine Criterion high-def transfer, but it's very good with little obvious damage from the source material.

The linear PCM mono sound track is crisp and efficient. Most music in the film is diegetic and the sound design only gets a real workout during the fiesta celebration. In many scenes the audio is a bit sparer and the clarity of the lossless audio enhances the mood in those scenes. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Spanish dialogue is not subtitled as Gagin is not supposed to understand it.

Criterion probably didn't have a lot of sources to draw on for supplementary material for a relatively obscure film like “Ride The Pink Horse” but they've come up with a few neat extras.

The film is accompanied by a 2014 commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, who literally the book (or three) on film noir. It's a scholarly track that is still quite accessible for all listeners and varied enough in subject matter to maintain interest, ranging from close textual analysis of scenes to more general discussions of genre and the film's production. Very strong as we would expect from Silver and Ursini.

The disc also includes an interview (2014, 20 min.) with Imogen Sara Smith, author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.” Smith argues that noir isn't a genre so much as a mood and a combination of themes with an emphasis on character interiority and psychology. Many films noirs take place in urban settings, but she has spent more time studying noirs in rural or suburban areas.

Criterion has also included a Radio Adaptation of the film which aired Dec 8, 1947 on the “Lux Radio Theatre” (59 min.) and stars Montgomery, Hendrix and Gomez.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.

Final Thoughts:
Whether it's a noir or an anti-noir, Robert Montgomery's second feature film as director is an engrossing study of an unusual crime protagonist. Gorgeous photography by Russell Metty is yet another reason to check this one out.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Soft Skin

THE SOFT SKIN (Truffaut, 1964)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 10, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Pierre Lachenay can only do it in the dark.

The unassuming, middle-aged literature scholar (played by the unassuming, middle-aged Jean Desailly) kisses his lovely wife and daughter goodbye to hop a plane to Lisbon to deliver a lecture on “Balzac and money.” On the plane he steals a few glimpses at one of the stewardesses, taking particular note of her changing into high-heel shoes while otherwise obscured by a curtain.

Later he shares a hotel elevator with her and takes note of what room she enters. Returning to his room, he sits down on the bed in the dark and dials her room, inviting her for a drink. Only after the call is complete does he flick on the desk lamp; he could not bear to look until the deed was done. The affair has begun in shame and it doesn't take much to guess it will end just at a similarly low point.

Not that Pierre sees much even in better lighting. Sure he settled on a fine target for his affections in Nicole, but it would be difficult for anyone not to notice the radiant beauty of actress Françoise Dorléac (older sister of Catherine Deneuve). Pierre, however, seems to be oblivious to virtually everything else about Nicole. Fortunately, the same is not true of François Truffaut, writer-director of “The Soft Skin” (1964).

While driving Nicole to one of his speaking engagements (on Andre Gide this time) in Reims, Pierre notes that while her wearing blue jeans does not bother him per se, he does prefer to see her in a nice dress. While Pierre pumps gas, Truffaut has the camera linger in the car to observe Nicole as she contorts herself to reach into the back seat, yanks a dress out of her luggage, then slips away to change. This shot has two effects, the first of which is to provide indisputable documentary evidence that Françoise Dorléac looks fantastic in those blue jeans. The second effect is that we closely observe the effort Nicole expends to conform to her lover's ideal; for Pierre, who only notices the aftermath, she has simply magically transformed into his special princess. Life's so easy for Pierre!

The trip to Reims is marked by disappointed and dishonesty from the get go. Pierre forces Nicole to read deep into a list of best area hotels before settling on one sufficiently away from prying eyes. Once there, he attends to his professional duties, albeit with near total contempt for all attendees, while leaving Nicole to lounge about the hotel. She even has to buy her own ticket to the lecture and then gets shunted aside once again when the ticket taker informs her the event is sold out. Pierre cannot even acknowledge Nicole on the street while he is in the company of a colleague. Shame, shame, and more shame. Pierre isn't cruel, it's just that his needs are paramount to Nicole's. Come to think of it, Pierre is pretty cruel.

A poster advertising Pierre's lecture is defaced by graffiti. Despite my preceding commentary, I'm not certain Truffaut intends to do the same thing to his protagonist. There's a certain affection in the portrayal of a Balzac specialist so famous he is greeted at the Lisbon airport by a horde of photographers (later on we learn that people know Pierre “from TV” which explains a bit.) Pierre is no practiced Lothario either; whether or not this is his first affair is uncertain, but the film goes to great lengths to paint a convincing, naturalistic portrait of a weary traveler who spend many lonely nights on the road and makes an awkward attempt to connect with someone else.

On the other head, Pierre is a weasel whose cowardice extends to all facets of his life. He promises a colleague a ride back to Paris then ditches him; Pierre does not care about being rude or inconsiderate, only in being directly confronted while doing so. He lies point blank to his wife (Nelly Benedetti), who has no intention of being “sophisticated” about the whole adultery thing, until he can no longer do so and does his best to avoid facing any consequences. That he cannot avoid said consequences forever (the film's denouement is quite definitive on this point, but I won't spoil it here) is a reminder that we are firmly in genre territory, or at least on a genre bordering on noir and the crime film. Pierre has, in effect, pulled off a daring heist and the code dictates he must be punished for it. Much has been made of the fact that Truffaut shot this film while he was also finishing his landmark interview book on Alfred Hitchcock (one of a handful of books that can reasonably be said to have altered film history) but exactly how Hitchcockian the movie is is a subject open for debate (and which, indeed, is debated in some of the extras on this Criterion disc.)

“The Soft Skin” was a bit of a departure for Truffaut who was riding the crest of his personal New Wave after the remarkable string of “The 400 Blows” (1959), “Shoot The Pianist” (1960), and “Jules and Jim” (1962). “The Soft Skin”, with its middle-aged family man protagonist, wasn't aimed at the youth culture demographic like so many other landmarks of the movement, though it does feature the crisp, agile black-and-white photography of Wave-defining cinematographer Raoul Coutard and an expressive score by stalwart Truffaut collaborator Georges Delerue.

The decidedly unhip Pierre Lachenay isn't a romantic rebel, but a failed husband and father who tries to hide his discretions under cover of darkness or even in plain view as necessary. Perhaps that explains why the movie was mostly a commercial and critical flop on its release. “The Soft Skin” has since gained its share of boosters over the past fifty years. I don't know if it's one of Truffaut's best (and I think the ending is a miscalculation, though many disagree), but it is a tautly told, subtle “caper” film and a convincing portrait of a very flawed man. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, the film was scanned “from the 35 mm original camera negative at Digimage in Paris, where the film was also restored.” The film has a strong grain structure which enhances its naturalistic feel and the high-def transfer really shines in the darker scenes (both indoors and outdoors) where a great deal of detail is visible. Black-and-white contrast isn't very sharp, but I don't think it's supposed to be.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and distortion-free, though best described as efficient rather than dynamic. The sound design in this movie is rather odd. Delereu's score swells menacingly in scenes where little to nothing happens (such as a car ride to the airport) but long stretches of the film are music free with just a few hollow, isolated effects like echoing footsteps, doors opening, etc. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Criterion has offered a modest but interesting selection of extras on this disc.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by the film's co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana. It was originally recorded in 2000 and is in French; you can select option 2 of 2 under subtitles to get English subs for the commentary. Of course this makes it awfully difficult to watch the movie as well and I'll admit I only spent a few minutes with this option.

The best feature on the disc is a new video essay titled “The Complexity of Influence” by the great critic Kent Jones. It only runs 12 minutes but Jones packs in a lot of points. The title of the piece stems from Jones's attempt to suggest that it's a bit too easy merely to say that Truffaut was “influenced by Hitchcock” as has often been the case. Rather “influence” is more a matter of absorption and then re-processing. He also covers other points including some biographical information about Truffaut's childhood and subsequent close relationship with father figure Andre Bazin.

“Monsieur Truffaut Meets Hitchcock” (1999, 30 min.) is a documentary piece by film historian Robert Fischer which provides an overview of Truffaut's interaction with Hitchcock from initially proposing his book idea to Hitchcock to the publication; it opens with Truffaut speaking at the Oscars in tribute to Hitchcock.

We also get an 11 minute excerpt from a Dec 1965 episode of the French TV show “Cinéastes de notre temps” in which Truffaut discusses the genesis and development of “The Soft Skin.”

The insert booklet includes a lengthy essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Final Thoughts:
“The Soft Skin” hasn't exactly been forgotten but it has often been eclipsed by Truffaut's other early-to-mid '60s work. As far as I know, it was previously only released in North America over 15 years ago on a non-descript DVD, so this high-def deluxe treatment of Criterion is a welcome addition to the collection.

Shoot the Piano Player

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date September 9, 2005
Review by Christopher S. Long

(I originally wrote this review way back in the ancient time known as 2005. I would change some things today but I decided to leave it as is aside from a minor clean-up. This is posted to accompany Criterion's March 10, 2015 Blu-ray release of Truffaut's "The Soft Skin.")

François Truffaut's second feature film is also his best.

In "Shoot the Piano Player" (1960), Charles Aznavour portrays a piano player named Charlie Koller who used to be a piano player named Eduoard Saroyan. Eduoard Saroyan played on grand pianos in the great concert halls of Europe; Charlie Koller plays a beat-up little piano in a second-rate gin joint. Why did Eduoard Saroyan become Charlie Koller? I'll let you figure it out, but you won't be surprised to find out that it involves a woman. Charlie Koller just wants to play his piano and forget about his past. Unfortunately for Charlie, his brother Chico just won't let that happen. Chico is in trouble, like always, and, like always, that means Charlie is in trouble too.

Truffaut fell in love with David Goodis's pulp pot-boiler "Down There" and chose to adapt it as the follow-up to his enormously successful debut film, "The 400 Blows" (1959). Like most of his fellow New Wave directors, Truffaut loved Hollywood noir and crime films, but he also despised gangsters which makes for an interesting mix. In "Shoot the Piano Player," Truffaut begins with all the typical trappings of the gangster film but uses the film to turn the genre on its head.

Charlie Koller is at the heart of this subversive effort. A handsome man and a gifted musician, Charlie should be a smooth-talking ladies' man. Instead, when he walks home with Léna (Marie Dubois), a pretty waitress from the bar where he plays, Charlie interprets every little gesture she makes. Does she like me? Should I hold her hand? Just as he steels himself to act, she is gone. He's no Humphrey Bogart. Gangsters Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) are out to get both Chico (who ran off with the money from a robbery they pulled off together) and Charlie, but they are anything but your standard tough guys. They're just your garden variety criminals: lazy, a little dim, and also not entirely evil. In fact, when they kidnap Charlie's little brother Fido (Richard Kanayan), they wind up making friends with him.

Like a good Elmore Leonard novel, the plot of "Shoot the Piano Player" is dynamic and fluid. The characters are not merely pawns in a pre-determined narrative. Momo and Ernest force Charlie and Léna into a car. The four of them strike up a conversation to pass the time during the drive and even share a good laugh together. Léna jams her foot down on the accelerator, which prompts the police to pull over the car. As Momo and Ernest deal with the police officer, Charlie and Léna hop out of the back of the car and wave good-bye to their "friends." The gangsters shrug; time to come up with another plan. They have no choice but to react to events as they develop which sounds an awful lot like real life.

Truffaut's film is not as formally experimental as Godard's "Breathless" (1960), but it still exhibits the anarchic spirit of the early New Wave films. One of the niftiest effects in the film is a triptych shot of sleazy bartender Plyne (Serge Davri) as he sells out Charlie to the hoods. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard combines his hand-held "documentary-style" camera from "Breathless" with more standard film techniques, creating a hybrid style that really sizzles in glorious Cinemascope. The gorgeous black-and-white photography is crucial in establishing the ambiance of the neo-noir world Truffaut has created, as is the catchy jazz score by frequent Truffaut collaborator Georges Delerue.

At the heart of the film is Charles Aznavour's indelible performance. Aznavour was an accomplished actor/singer/songwriter (though, ironically, not a piano player) whose career was too diverse for him to ever be identified as a New Wave icon like Jean-Paul Belmondo. Regardless, his performance in "Shoot the Piano Player" is as great as any in the early New Wave films. Aznavour, thirty-six at the time, has a world-weary face that reflects the tragedy that turned Eduardo Saroyan into Charlie Koller, but a smile that shows the gentle nature at Charlie's core. Charlie has had his fill of pain: he doesn't want to hurt anyone and, in turn, doesn't want to be hurt by anyone else. Aznavour captures the sensitivity and vulnerability of this complex character with the apparent ease that only stems from hard work.

If "Shoot the Piano Player" has any major flaw, it is the ending which I find to be a contrivance that does an injustice to one of the film's major characters. This is a minor complaint, however, in a film which amply demonstrates Truffaut's easy, naturalistic command of film language. I have never quite warmed to Truffaut the way I have to Godard and Resnais, but I have no reservations regarding my fondness for "Shoot the Piano Player," his breezy, free-form masterpiece which combines the best features of classic Hollywood with the very best qualities of the most vital and exciting film movement in cinema history.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. "Shoot the Piano Player" is actually shot in Dyaliscope rather than Cinemascope, but as far as I can tell there is no meaningful difference between the two. Perhaps someone will correct me on that. No DVD or television screen can do justice to this format, but the transfer gives you a taste of the power of long takes and compositions actually designed to take advantage of the entire field of vision. Criterion's high-digital restoration is superb, as usual.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Georges Delerue's score sounds great, and all hisses and pops have been buffed out in the audio restoration. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

This two-disc set from Criterion offers a variety of extras.

Disc One includes the restored transfer of the film along with a feature-length audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf.

Disc Two includes a bevy of interviews:

-Two interviews with François Truffaut: The first is an excerpt from the 1965 French television show "Cinéastes de notre temps" (9 min.) in which the director answers a standard set of questions. The second is from a 1982 program called "Pour changer étoiles et toiles" (12 min.) in which Truffaut discusses his adaptation of the David Goodis novel.

-Interviews with Charles Aznavour (24 min.) and Marie Dubois (10 min.): Both of these were recorded in August 2005 especially for this Criterion release.

-An interview with Raoul Coutard (14min.): Recorded in Paris in 2003, this is the most interesting of all the interviews. Coutard is always a fascinating speaker.

-An interview with Suzanne Schiffman (15 min.): Recorded in April 1986, this interview with Schiffman, who worked with Truffaut in many capacities throughout his career, was originally intended for a separate documentary but went largely unseen. Criterion acquired the original footage and edited the interview down to its current form.

Disc Two also includes a short audio essay (15 min.) about composer Georges Delerue who scored eleven films for Truffaut and more than 200 in his career. The final extra is Marie Dubois' Screen Test (3 min.).

While each of the features here is of some interest, the collection is missing a real meaty feature which provides analysis or context for the film like Babette Mangold's documentary on Criterion's "Pickpocket" or the numerous stellar features on Criterion's re-release of "M."

Final Thoughts: 
As the 2002 Sight and Sound voting shows, "The 400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim" (1962) are Truffaut's most critically praised films. I beg to differ. "Shoot the Piano Player" is easily my favorite Truffaut, but I also recommend both "Day for Night" (1973) and "The Bride Wore Black" (1968). "Bride" will be of particular interest to Tarantino fans. Jeanne Moreau plays a woman known only as "the Bride" who seeks revenge on the men who killed her husband; she crosses their names off a list after she dispatches each one. Sound familiar?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Welcome To DVDBlu Review

Welcome to DVDBlu Review. Thank you kindly for your interest. Let me explain what this very new and rapidly growing site is about so you can decide if you'd like to stick around.

And now for a message from your author

My name is Christopher S. Long and I've been writing film reviews for over ten years. I'm a member of the Online Film Critics Society and I've written for Cineaste magazine, DVDBeaver, and other print and online publications in the past. You may have seen my reviews posted at Rotten Tomatoes, or maybe you haven't. The main site I wrote for this past decade, which I am not inclined to name at the moment, was abruptly pillaged by Vikings and burned to the ground recently along with all my work. From its ashes springs DVDBlu Review.

I have two primary goals at this site: to restore a decade's worth of my writing to the internet, and to continue coverage of some of the best new DVD and Blu-ray releases. I have reviewed nearly 500 Criterion titles as well as many great releases from Milestone Films, Kino Lorber, Zeitgeist, and other top labels over the past ten years; I will gradually add these older reviews to the site while also providing weekly coverage of new releases and other relevant news. The content will definitely skew to the so-called “arthouse” rather than blockbusters and I aim to be selective rather than comprehensive. Every now and then I'll slip in a new theatrical review as the spirit moves me, but the focus here will be on those shiny discs we love so much.

Having said that, my primary interest is in the films themselves, not the technical specs of each disc. I will discuss the video, audio, and extras for each release, but this is not going to be the site to talk about bit rates or to wage battle over the righteousness of a 1.78:1 vs. a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Please don't be intimidated by the flurry of posts in March 2015. That's just me revving the site from 0 to 60, posting a year's worth of reviews before officially launching this blog. The pace will slow down from that as I focus more on new coverage but I will be adding older reviews as well as new features such as director spotlights, “Best Of” lists, and more.

I hope you like what you see. If you do, tell twenty of your friends. If you don't, just keep it between you and me.

More Vital Information About The Author:

My favorite directors are Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard. I will always have a special place in my heart for documentaries and especially for the films that blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The first time I remember crying at a movie was when Spock died, and I just cried again when Leonard Nimoy died. Aside from Spock, Jeanne Dielman is my one true love.

The Connection

THE CONNECTION (Clarke, 1962)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date February 24, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

At the very least, director Shirley Clarke's debut feature “The Connection” (1962) creates an indelible sense of time and place. A handheld camera explores every nook and cranny of the vast but rundown New York City loft inhabited by a dozen or so drug-addicted jazz musicians eagerly awaiting their next heroin fix: “Is Cowboy back yet?” A chintzy checkerboard table, a ratty cot and a rusted potbelly stove are nearly all that break up the floor space otherwise devoted to the piano and drum kit around which the musicians spontaneously break out in performance every now and then. Branching off from the main room are a kitchen partly cordoned off by a curtain and a never-glimpsed bathroom which serves as the mini-Mecca to which each junkie makes his own pilgrimage for his desperately needed hit.

In a film shot more or less in real time over nearly two hours, this constructed set feels like a very lived-in space on a very specific afternoon, an impressive enough accomplishment on its own, but Shirley Clarke had far greater ambitions for her project. Clarke was a founding member of a recent film cooperative (along with luminaries such as Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) that helped to refine some of the principles of early cinema verité in America, but she was never comfortable buying into the overblown truth claims that would emerge about the desirability or even the possibility of objectivity in documentary filmmaking.

Jack Gelber's play “The Connection” provided the perfect source for Clarke to adapt into a critique of said truth claims. Gelber's play was about drug-addicted Greenwich Village jazz musicians but also featured a (fictional) director and playwright on stage as well as pre-planned audience interaction to add multiple levels of reflexivity to the proceedings. It wasn't a huge leap for Gelber's film script to rejigger the story to frame the movie as a documentary being shot by a director and a cinematographer trying to capture the “truth” about junkies.

The film actually kicks off with a printed statement read by “camera man” J.J. Burden who claims that documentarian Jim Dunn put the footage in his care and that Burden edited it “as honestly as I could.” It's soon apparent that the word “honest” is intended ironically. The film quickly doubles down on this theme when, after spending a little time listening to his somewhat histrionic subjects, director Dunn (William Redfield) jumps in front of the camera to order the addicts to calm down and act natural because he's “just trying to make an honest human document” and, gosh darn it, he knows “something about Eisenstein and Flaherty.” To my taste, the film's weakest point is the over-stacking of the deck against a director shown to be a clueless blowhard from the get go. But direct cinema was in its first blush as the ascendant documentary paradigm in America, and it appears that Clarke was eager to prick its bubble before it had a chance to fully inflate.

Cinematographer J.J. seems much more sensible from his perch behind the camera but even he is pulled in front of the camera at one point (and lo and behold, it's the great Roscoe Lee Brown in his first film role!) to emphasize that he's no objective observer either. One of the African-American musicians also taunts J.J. about working for a white director, “Is your name gonna be on this film?” Clarke was juggling quite a few balls with her deceptively modest debut.

As the day wears on, each of the cast members holds court for the camera at some point, mostly reminding Dunn that he has no idea about the reality about their everyday life is and that pointing a camera at them for a few weeks won't get him or the audience any closer to it. The stage-intense performances sometimes play a bit too big in front of a camera, but they establish the ebb and flow that determines the film's cyclical rhythm. Frantic harangues yield to drowsy slumping as the players crash while waiting for Cowboy (Carl Lee) to return to the apartment with their new supply; fresh-sliced pineapples can only provide enough energy to bridge the briefest of gaps while they wait. Fortunately they have enough oomph to break into some fabulous jazz numbers from time to time with a score composed by the great Freddie Redd; Redd and several other major jazz performers of the time work in the cast and jam.

Most of the graphic details of drug use are staged off-screen behind that omnipresent closed bathroom door, but after playing coy for a while, Clarke shows one of the men (Warren Finnerty as Leach) shooting up in exquisite detail. You would think this would be the central sticking point (no pun intended) for critics of the film and perhaps it really was, but when “The Connection” ran into trouble with New York state censors it was ostensibly over the repeated use of the word “shit” as slang for heroin. The film's scheduled May 1962 opening was delayed for months as Clarke and her backers battled the New York Board of Regents. It eventually played in the D.W. Griffith Theatre without being cleared for exhibition and the theater was subsequently shut down and the projectionist arrested. 

Eventually the good guys won, but the protracted legal battle had all but sunk the film's theatrical chances, though at least the fight guaranteed that “The Connection” would be a cause célebrè among the cognoscenti. It helped that the very hip Clarke (born into a wealthy family and already a respected New York artist) had powerful “connections” of her own ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Jonas Mekas. “The Connection” was considered one of the major American independent films of the '60s, the first of several for Clarke, but has been largely out of distribution for the past three decades. Because of that, the significance of Clarke's pioneering work has since been overshadowed by some of her peers such as John Cassavetes (who borrowed her film equipment to help make his own debut feature “Shadows”), which explains why Milestone Films has stepped up to the plate to remedy that oversight with their epic Project Shirley.

Project Shirley already yielded the Blu-ray and DVD releases of the extraordinary “Portrait of Jason” (1967) and the jazz documentary “Ornette: Made In America” (1985) late last year. Now this February 2015 release of “The Connection” continues this grand enterprise which will have at least one more volume later this year. (Click the Project Shirley label tab at the bottom of this review to read about the other titles.)

That decaying loft with its little kitchen and mysterious bathroom and its cheap checkerboard table almost seems like it's still there today with the same aging junkies still waiting for Cowboy to help them get through another night. You can certainly understand why Milestone was motivated to make this indie landmark widely available to a new audience.

From Milestone's press release, this film was “preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding by The Film Foundation. It was restored from the original 35mm acetate picture and soundtrack negatives and a 35mm composite master positive... In 2012, Milestone contributed the money to create a new preservation 35mm negative.” The collaboration between Milestone and UCLA Film & Television Archive has produced a high-def transfer that is nothing short of astounding in richness and detail. I freeze-framed the movie several times just to walk up close to my TV and scan the image. The grain is thick and beautiful and the image resolution is remarkably sharp; if you want to you can stop and study the detail along the loft's wall, including the writing/graffiti in a few spots. This is an absolutely superb high-def transfer and I cannot imagine anyone has seen the film looking any better since its initial screening... if even then!

The linear PCM 2.0 soundtrack is crisp and efficient, occasionally sparkling when needed with some of those marvelous jazz numbers. The dialogue sounds appropriately hollow as if being delivered in the large space we see on-screen. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Milestone leaves few cinematic stones unturned when curating their releases. “The Connection” is not nearly as packed as Milestone's other release this week, the wonderful “In The Land Of The Head Hunters”, but the supplementary features are both ample and interesting.

The extras start with “The Connection Home Movie” (6 min.), a 16mm collection of on-set footage mostly featuring playwright/screenwriter Jack Gelber and his young son as well as a few shots from the inside of the bathroom that is never glimpsed in the film.

An interview with jazz composer Freddie Redd (27 min.) is absolutely riveting even when he's just bragging about being friends with Charlie Parker because, really, who wouldn't brag about that? He talks about how he got involved first with Gelber's play and then with Clarke's film. What a great interview subject. He deserves his own feature-length documentary.

We also get a shorter conversation with art director Albert Brenner (2014, 5 min.) which has a minor problem with low volume, but it's audible if you just turn up your settings a bit.

The disc also includes a collection of still photos from on-set and behind-the-scenes (6 min.), including several pictures of Shirley Clarke at work as well as a short Trailer (1 min.) and some home footage of actor Carl Lee at the Chelsea Hotel (4 min.) where Shirley Clarke lived. The final extras are audio recordings (2 min. each) of two songs produce for the publicity campaign: “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and “I'm In Love.”

Milestone had originally planned to include a 1959 radio interview with Shirley Clarke (29 min.) - it's even listed on the back of the disc – but left it off at the last minute due to poor sound quality and because it wasn't directly related to the film. They have, however, made the feature available on Vimeo. You can find the link to it at the bottom of Milestone's page for the film if you are interested.

Final Thoughts:
As much as I liked the previous Shirley Clarke films released by Milestone, I was mildly apprehensive about “The Connection” due to my general aversion to filmed theater. I had nothing to worry about. The pseudo-documentary framing device may be a bit old hat by now but is so deftly used here it still somehow seems fresh. The high-def transfer is immaculate too. Highly recommended, of course.