Saturday, May 30, 2015

Get A Life: The Complete Series

GET A LIFE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (starring Chris Elliott, 1990-1992)
Shout! Factory, DVD Box Set, Release Date September 18, 2012
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Today is Chris Elliott's 55th birthday. Let us celebrate this holy day with a re-post of my 2012 review of the Shout! Factory's glorious release of "Get A Life" on DVD.)

A great philosopher once observed that there's a fine line between stupid and clever. Thirty year-old idiot paperboy Chris Peterson never came close to walking that line, and if he did he would probably have tried to lick it. But in its woefully short two-season run “Get A Life” (1990-1992) pulled off a remarkable trick by managing to be a very smart show about a very stupid man.

Writer-producer David Mirkin (then best known for his work on “Newhart” and later to be executive producer on “The Simpsons”) wanted to work with comedian Chris Elliott, and eventually found the right project when Elliott pitched the idea of playing a grown-up Dennis the Menace who still had his paper route and lived at home. Dennis morphed into Chris Peterson (fewer copyright issues there), a man-child and who lived in a groovy bachelor pad (or stinking cesspool, depending on whose description you believed) above his parents' garage.

In the pilot episode (“Terror on the Hell Loop 2000”), Chris is an eccentric free-spirit whose zero-responsibility lifestyle earns the envy of his straight-laced friend Larry Potter (Sam Robards) and the enmity of Larry's even straighter-laced wife Sharon (Robin Riker), who would prove to be a bitter and “rather shapely” adversary. But as the show progressed this “slightly bloated Peter Pan” would be the envy of no one as he turned increasingly psychotic (think of a Teletubby Travis Bickle) and his inability to process reality provided the show's go-to source of humor.

As surreal as the suburban dystopia of “Get A Life” was, it still had no place for a full-on weirdo like Chris and he was the subject of endless verbal abuse as well as frequent punchings, stabbings, shootings and getting crushed by giant boulders, all of which he endured with the vacant optimism of a sugar-fueled imbecile. Harlan Ellison once wrote a story about a toilet clogged by dismembered body parts called “Only Death Can Stop It.” It somehow seems appropriate to mention that here; isn't it lovely? But death could not stop Chris Peterson as he returned from each merciless slaughter to... well, not much of a life.

Chris's parents certainly weren't waiting for him. Fred (Bob Elliott of “Bob and Ray” and “Being Chris Elliott's father” fame) and Gladys (Elinor Donahue) spent most of their time sitting at the kitchen table in their bathrobes, and resented being disturbed by Chris's constant attempts to seek their advice or approval. In “Psychic 2000” (Disc 4), when Chris dies while eating cornflakes and returns from the great behind with alleged clairvoyant powers, Gladys shares her skepticism: “It's hard enough for your father and I to believe you have any ordinary abilities, let alone special ones.” But she says it with a smile, and that's good enough for Chris. In “Prisoner Of Love” (Disc 5), when informed by the police that Chris has been taken hostage and asked to come to the scene to plead for their boy's life, Fred answers for both of them, “We'll pass.” 

The show hit its stride almost immediately with the second episode, the brilliant “The Prettiest Week of My Life” (written by Elliott and writing partner Adam Resnick) in which Chris pursues a career as a male model at the Handsome Boy Modeling Agency, and winds up being arrested after crashing a runway show (the first sign of the dark fate that awaited him in the series). Despite the promising start, Mirkin fought constantly with Fox. The upstart fourth network had embraced edgy programming such as “Married... with Children” and a new cartoon called “The Simpsons,” but they simply had no idea what to do with a show about a babbling lunatic (later, Fox launched an entire news network around the premise) and Mirkin dueled with executives who shut the show down repeatedly. However, he had just enough high-level support to keep things going while maintaining creative control, and the show actually scored high ratings in its first season.

The first season's highlight may be the justly celebrated “Zoo Animals on Wheels” (written by Resnick). The episode's centerpiece is a lengthy performance of the titular summer stock play in which Chris plays a kindly, fat wildebeest alongside Sharon's royal giraffe: “Living in a zoo can be very sad. People stare at you and make you mad.” Terror, hilarity and shame ensue – as with most community theater productions. It was selected by “TV Guide” as one of the 50 Funniest Moments in TV History and the other 49 weren't performed on roller skates, so nuts to them.

Despite strong ratings, Mirkin and company had to fight tooth and nail to get picked up for a second season, and in so doing had to cave in to studio notes demanding that Chris “develop” and be more “proactive,” presumably because one of the head honchos (or more likely his intern) had read something about that in a screenwriting book once. Mirkin spun executive stupidity into comedy gold. Chris “developed” from living in an apartment above his parents' garage to living IN a garage, one that was owned by a drunken, violent ex-cop named Gus (Brian Doyle-Murray) who got fired years ago for peeing on his captain. It took a few episodes for Gus to be fully integrated into Chris's delusional world, but he wound up being a perfect fit.

As the ratings dropped and the show was punted from one forsaken time slot to another, Mirkin and the creative team (which by then included Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk) took a show that was already off the rails and plunged it straight off a cliff. Chris befriended an alien named Spewey (Special Person Entering the World... Egg Yolks), became a spelling bee master after exposure to toxic waste, died from tonsillitis, and even concocted his own time travel juice (patent pending) in order to travel to 1977 and prevent Gus from making water on his captain. That show, with the phenomenal title “1977 2000” (scripted by Charlie Kaufman), may be my favorite of the series, and as the last full-fledged episode (a final “Clip Show” wrapped things up), it proved that “Get A Life” was nowhere close to running out of manic energy when it was cruelly canceled.

“Get A Life” has long been one of my favorite shows, but like most people, I haven't revisited it in a while. My fifth-generation VHS copies (I got them on eBay and I didn't ask any questions) are buried somewhere in the closet and the show never received more than a piece-meal DVD release until now, mostly because of copyright issues involving the music, all of which is preserved here, including the R.E.M. theme song “Stand” and the array of pop tunes used to brilliant effect in the show's many absurdist, hilarious montages.

After spending the last few days blazing through the entire series, I was pleased to find they remain every bit as funny as ever, and with better quality (though still not great) transfers, it's easier to appreciate the show's visual innovations, from its frequent reliance on grotesque close-ups (a major tweak on the safe distance maintained in traditional sitcoms) to the rear-projected 1940's New York of “The Big City” where Chris finds fame and, of course, failure as Walletboy.

The key to the show, of course, is Chris Elliott who combines off-kilter, idio(t)syncratic line deliveries with an innate knack for physical comedy that takes full advantage of his “soft dough” physique; no character has ever been so confident in his total lack of appeal to anyone and everyone else. I think Elliott is a comic genius, and only a show as protean and daring as “Get A Life” was ever big enough to provide a proper stage for his unique talents though “Eagleheart” is certainly giving it the old college try. It's also easy to see where the talent comes from; Bob Elliott is pitch-perfectly caustic as Chris's deadpan dad.

I have no qualms in agreeing with Kato Kaelin (age check: did you have to Google the name?) that “Get A Life” is one of the greatest sitcoms of all-time. And I can't believe nobody has pounced on Chris Peterson's idea for cheese-flavored pants.

Season One ran 22 episodes, Season Two had 13. Season One finishes off at the Start of Disc Four with “Psychic 2000.” Season Two kicks off with “Chris Moves Out.” Each episode runs about 23 minutes.


Disc One:
Terror on the Hell Loop 2000
The Prettiest Week of My Life
A Family Affair
Pile of Death
Paperboy 2000

Disc Two:
Driver's License
The Sitting
Bored Straight
Zoo Animals on Wheels
The Counterfeit Watch Story
Chris vs. Donald

Disc Three:
Chris Wins a Celebrity
Houseboy 2000
Camping 2000
The Construction Worker Show
The Big City
Neptune 2000

Disc Four:
The One Where Chris and Larry Switch Lives
Psychic 2000
Chris Moves Out
Larry on the Loose
Meat Locker 2000
Health Inspector 2000
Chris Gets His Tonsils Out

Disc Five:
Prisoner of Love
Chris Becomes A Male Escort
Girlfriend 2000
Chris's Brain Starts Working
Bad Fish

Disc Six:
1977 2000
Clip Show

Fans are thrilled to finally have the full series available on DVD, so I'm a bit reluctant to deliver the bad news. These look like video dubs and suffer from a lack of image detail as well as distortion around the edges of the full-screen frame. They are a major step up for those of us who have relied on oft-recycled video copies, but they're a far cry from the quality of many DVD releases today. I don't want to overstate the case. These transfers are plenty watchable and the mediocre quality will not in any way interfere with your enjoyment of them, but if you were expecting a deluxe treatment, you'll be disappointed.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is good enough, with clear dialogue throughout and enough quality to preserve the music. Unfortunately, no subtitles have been provided.

This six-disc set is the David Mirkin show through and through. Mirkin provides either full of partial audio commentary on all 35 episodes, and even the episodes marked as “Selected Scene Commentary” are close to full-length, with only a few exceptions. The audio commentary on the pilot episode “Terror on the Hell Loop 2000” is one the best DVD extras of the year. It actually runs 52 minutes (the episode is 23 minutes) and Mirkin freezes the video to go into more detail as he relates his struggles from the pitch stage to the earliest episodes, talking about the need to make the show a little more “normal” at first to appease uneasy studio executives who would quickly become uneasy when he ventured into the more daring territory he envisioned from the start.

Occasional, Mirkin has guest commentators. On the episode “Roots” (Disc 2 – Chris goes Amish), Dr. Wendy Walsh provides professional analysis of Chris's mental health issues. Writer-producers Steve Pepoon and Jace Richdale also appear on several commentaries. And, for some reason, Kevin Nealon gets his shot as co-host on “The One Where Chris and Larry Switch Lives” (Disc 4).

In addition, many of the episodes can be listened to without the laugh track. The option isn't available on all episodes (some were shot with a live studio audience) and sometimes you hear the crew laughing instead, which adds a layer of weirdness to the weirdness.

There are other small features scattered throughout the set. You can see Production Stills and unproduced Script Pages for “Terror on the Hell Loop 2000” as well as stills or storyboards for a few other episodes. “Girlfriend 2000” (Disc 5) has an extended scene that runs about 6 minutes and is definitely worth watching.

Disc Six contains all the major non-commentary extras:

“Looking for Noise” (29 min.) includes interviews with Mirkin, Judd Apatow (a big fan of the show), James L. Brooks, Peter Chernin (then Fox TV president and a booster of the show), and Kelly Kulchak (a Fox exec and another supporter). They relate their enthusiasm for the show, its legacy, and talk about some of the struggles in getting it produced.

“Death of Life” (26 min.) includes the same mix of interviewees, with some overlap with the previous feature. The focus here is on the show's eventual demise after Season Two.

“Paleyfest 2000” (31 min.) is a panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media. Mirkin is on stage with several writers and cast members, including Robin Riker, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Elinor Donahue – no Elliotts, however.

“Horrible Secrets of the Writing Room” (54 min.) is a lengthy piece with Mirkin and writer-producers Steve Pepoon and Jace Richdale. I haven't had a chance to watch this one yet.

Mirkin is an absolutely phenomenal commentator, and his voice and perspective make for a deep set of extras. However, Chris Elliott is 99.999% missing (I will let you discover the other point two-thirds for yourself.) I don't know why he didn't participate in the production of the set and his absence is surely going to come as a major disappointment to fans. Still, what we get is pretty substantial.

The set also comes with a 24-page insert booklet including an essay by TV critic Tom Shales and a full episode guide with credits and capsule descriptions.

Final Thoughts:
“Get A Life” was too delicate, too smart, too sexy for its time. Today, it looks like the drunken, abusive papa to dozens of WTF? shows, including the majority of the Adult Swim lineup. And surely no show has ever so thoroughly explored the humor found in the word “pants.”

Fans have been waiting for a long, long time to get their hands on this series on DVD and even if the transfers aren't great and Chris Elliott seems to be missing from the extras, as a professional DVD reviewer loved and admired by both of my readers, I can state with authority that “Get A Life: The Complete Series” is the DVD event of the year. Thank you, Shout! Factory, for making the world a better and creepier place.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dreams With Sharp Teeth

Docurama, DVD, Release Date May 26, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This DVD review was originally posted in 2009, re-posted today on the occasion of Harlan Ellison's 81st birthday.)

When I first met Harlan Ellison in person at a Los Angeles Screenwriting convention, he had just plowed his car into some poor, innocent working-class family who were just minding their own business but, as you know, that Ellison cat has a bad temper. Fortunately, the family was also in a car and nobody was injured. The accident not only failed to rattle Harlan, it fired him up to conduct the most memorable workshop I have ever attended. Except that workshop isn’t the right word. “Floor show” is the closest I can think of. Or maybe I should simply call it a performance, the best live performance I have ever had the pleasure to watch. I literally had tears of laughter streaming down my face for the entire hour, and I wouldn't dare use “literally” to mean “figuratively” because that might piss off the ever-grammar-lovin' blue-eyed Ellison and I don't need to get run over any time soon.

For Harlan Ellison, the frenetic stand-up routine was just another day at work. He’s been giving the same high-energy performance for the better part of five decades now, one that combines the art of writing and the art of living into a unified product that can only be described as... Harlan Ellison (his name is, appropriately, a registered trademark.)

Actually, I had already met Harlan Ellison the way most people do: through his writing. At a very dark time in my life, I picked up a short story collection called “Angry Candy” and my life was (here’s that word again) literally changed. Stories like “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “The Function of Dream Sleep” were seared into my consciousness and led me farther down the path to masterpieces like “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Lonelyache” and “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans” as well as his most famous and re-printed works like “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” and possibly the greatest short story I have ever read, “Jeffty is Five.” Say this for the man, he sure has a knack for coming up with some great titles.

What speaks to me most in Ellison’s work is his exploration of morality in a godless universe. He is an outspoken atheist but certainly no relativist. In a world without natural guiding principles, we must create our own. In Ellison’s universe, morality does not stem from a fear of eternal damnation but from the need for men and women to treat other well. We have to take care of each other because nobody else is going to do the job for us. This sentiment is expressed beautifully and terrifyingly in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (talk about a hero making the ultimate sacrifice!) but also pervades much of his work. But let’s not overlook another appealing aspect of his writing, his sense of humor. Harlan is one damned funny son of a bitch. His vocal performance of his short story “I’m Looking for Kadak” is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard. It also contains the unlikely pairing of the words “farkakte” and “butterfly.”

Ellison is one of the most decorated American writers of the 20th century, but the legend of Ellison the man exceeds that of the author. The story of how a little Jew from suburban Cleveland became a big shot writer in Hollywood and elsewhere has been told and retold so many times it is impossible to separate fact from fiction which, I believe, is just fine with Harlan. 

Ellison, writing on display

When “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” opens, close friend Robin Williams grills Ellison about some of the legends surrounding him. Yes, he once mailed a dead gopher (fourth class, in the summer heat) to a publisher, but, no, he did not shove a fan down an elevator shaft. He once drove a dynamite truck and, even more daring, he once wrote an entire short story while sitting in a bookstore window in front of a crowd of gawkers. No wonder he has claimed that if he ever writes his autobiography it will be titled “Without A Net.” Harlan Ellison simply never stops. He has spent his life violating the laws of thermodynamics in every possible orifice. And that’s why he makes for a perfect documentary subject.

Director Erik Nelson avoids a dry overview of Ellison’s career and wisely turns his dynamic subject loose in front of the camera. Ellison reads from his short stories, relates personal anecdotes and launches into rants about the shortcomings of various members of his species. It doesn’t take much to work him into a state of high dudgeon. In Harlan’s words: “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”

Ninety minutes of pure Harlan would be more densely packed than a neutron star. Nelson alloys the splenetic performance with interviews from friends like Williams, artist Neil Gaiman and writer Peter David. We also get a brief overview of Ellison’s life from his youth in Paynesville, OH to his brief and unsuccessful stint in the Army to his early days as a writer and counter-culture figure in the '60s. There is relatively little archival footage but there are a few treats for fans, including appearances on the Tom Snyder show and a brief snippet from a 1970 college seminar. Most welcome of all is an all-too-brief tour of the fabled Ellison Wonderland, Harlan’s unique L.A. home which you can’t miss if you drive past it, believe me. Ellison is an obsessive collector of all kinds of memorabilia. He has so many books that he actually has collapsible library stack shelves the kind you have to open with a crank. Now that's just cool.

Nelson began shooting this very low-budget documentary more than 20 years ago and gradually pieced together enough footage until he had the bones of a solid feature which he then fleshed out with archival footage and interviews. The film feels all of a single piece, united by the unflagging energy of its subject. A bold creative decision to provide animated backgrounds behind Ellison as he reads from his work pays off for the most part. It is not, however, the most visually pleasing documentary you will ever see.

Harlan Ellison has the natural arrogance of a supremely talented autodidact. He does not suffer fools easily, and from his tight-rope walker’s point of view there are an awful lot of fools down there (another Ellison quote: “You are not entitled to your opinion! You are entitled to an informed opinion.”) His abrasive, unapologetic personality may alienate some viewers who don’t buy into his shtick. That’s OK. Harlan Ellison doesn’t care if you think he’s a mook. He wrote “Jeffty is Five” and you didn’t, bucko. What the hell more can you ask for? Tell me. Somebody please tell me.

The DVD is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is adequate to the task. Image detail is mediocre and you'll notice the weaknesses more when you freeze frame the picture but it's perfectly acceptable.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No subtitles are provided.

A WARNING to viewers who watch this DVD late at night and don’t want to disturb you neighbors: When you make certain selections from the main menu, Harlan will shout insults at you. What, this surprises you? Anyway, dial the volume down.

The DVD is loaded with extras to warm the cockles of any Ellison enthusiast.

Don’t let the title “Pizza with Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman” (40 min.) fool you. It’s about Harlan Ellison sharing pizza with Nail Gaiman. Relying on the same strategy that makes the film work, Erik Nelson just points his camera at Harlan and lets him go. The best part for fans is an epilogue to the dead gopher story.

“An Evening with Sharp Teeth” (21 min.) records the documentary’s April 19, 2007 debut at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Los Angeles. Here’s how you know that you’ve followed a director closely. In the second shot of this feature, we see the back of a man’s head. I instantly thought, “Hey, that’s Werner Herzog.” It was. Herzog, whose documentary “Encounters at the Edge of the World” was produced by Erik Nelson, was in the same room as Harlan Ellison which I must admit sets my heart aflutter. It would be silly to pick just one artist in any field, but let’s just say that Mr. Ellison and Mr. Herzog are in the running for my favorite writer and director, respectively. Harlan shows off a picture of Herzog and him and all I have to say is: “Who do I have to kill and how soon do I have to do it?” I want that picture. Real bad like. (Ed. Note: Just an hour after I posted this review back in 2009, Erik Nelson e-mailed me a nice, high-res copy of the picture. Sometimes begging works.)

The disc also includes six readings by Ellison of his work. Five of them are short excerpts: “The Glass Teat” (1 min.), “All the Lies That Are My Life” (1 min.), “The Silence” (2 min.), “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” (1 min.) and “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of Forever” (3 min.) 
Ellison, holding the relish

The one complete reading is a gem, “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” (12 min.) If you listen to Harlan perform “Myshkin” and you don’t laugh then you, sir, are simply an idiot.

I was holding out hope that the DVD would feature a tour of Ellison Wonderland, but I won’t complain too much.

Final Thoughts:
I’ve already had my say about the documentary. The DVD release offers some great extras though it leaves you wanting even more of Ellison’s readings. There are more available. I highly recommend the aforementioned “I’m Looking for Kadak” among others.

Also, happy birthday, Unca Harlan!

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Merchant of Four Seasons

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 26, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

I resist the notion that Fassbinder's first eleven feature films (all shot and released from 1969-1971) served merely as an apprenticeship. Among this furiously produced lot are brilliant works like “Love is Colder Than Death” (1969) and“Katzelmacher” (1969) and, oh my, the final scene of “The American Soldier” (1970) is as wickedly corrosive as anything Fassbinder would ever put on film.

But there's no doubt that “The Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971) represented a coming-out party, not only for Fassbinder but also for the emergent movement that would come to be known as New German Cinema. The major shift is in scale. Fassbinder's earliest films felt like documentaries of his very intimate relationships with the actors of his Anti-Theatre group, one of the most memorable (and memorably exploited) troupes the cinema has ever witnessed.

The gang is all back in this film but “Merchant” doesn't have the same hermetic feel as the earlier films. As anyone who has read about Fassbinder's work knows, the director had recently discovered the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at a German retrospective and experienced a personal epiphany. If he had previously been interested in “just” filming his theatrical work now his grandiose scheme was to shoot full-blown Hollywood films in Germany (mostly Munich for now) though still on a modest budget and at his usual furious pace; “Merchant” was filmed in just eleven days in August of 1971 and Fassbinder didn't let a minor inconvenience like his marriage to Ingrid Caven the same month keep him from reporting to work every day.

If “Merchant” was to be more traditionally linked to a cinematic heritage (rather than self-consciously deconstructing Hollywood genres) then the characters in the film would also be more overtly representative of their society. In the opening, Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) returns from service in the Foreign Legion to a brutal dismissal from a contemptuous mother who clearly didn't miss him while he was gone. In the next scene, Hans has already embarked on one of the few careers immediately open to him in 1950's Germany (it's easy for non-German viewers to miss that the film is set slightly in the past), hawking fresh produce in the dusty back courtyards of Munich. Hans's journey will be a grim one, but Fassbinder finds a moment of beauty in this potentially deadening job as Hans sings out his sales pitch to any housewives within listening range, “Fresh pears! Fresh pears! Only 2.40 a pound!” This lilting lyric has stuck with me ever since I first saw the movie more than a decade ago.

But this moment of beauty is transient, cut short by the watchful eye of Hans's wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) who glowers jealously when a woman in a top story window calls out for a delivery. This will be a film about constant surveillance, characters always trying but failing to escape from observation by their family members, neighbors and employers. The camera (under the supervision of cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann) also maintains a constant vigil, operating more self-consciously than in most of Fassbinder's previous work, sometimes situating characters through frames within frames, other times prowling menacingly up and down each side of a table, carefully tracking the behavior of each person seated there.

At first, the skinny, bespectacled Irmgard with her angry pinched glare seems like the definition of a shrewish wife and Hans just a poor henpecked bastard, but the characters in “Merchant” vacillate, almost without warning, between behavioral poles. Irmgard has reason not only to be suspicious but fearful as Hans is bitter and self-pitying; he comes home drunk and beats her while their young daughter Renate (Andrea Schober) tries helplessly to stop the fight. Irmgard flees to the protection of Hans's family (including much of the Fassbinder troupe, notably Kurt Raab and Hanna Schygulla) and shrieks in terror when her bull-in-a-china-shop husband barrels into the room and begs her to return. Yet as soon as he reveals his temper to everyone in the room a smug Irmgard very calmly picks up the phone and calls her lawyer, confident that she now has the leverage she needs to name her terms in a divorce.

If there's an opportunity to take the upper hand in a situation, Fassbinder's characters usually do so, or at least fail in the effort. The writer-director had a decidedly transactional view of relationships, a morbid assessment underscored by the emphasis he places on the tracking of money in so many of his films. Everyone is assessing how much another person is worth to them, and whether a minor personal sacrifice today can pay dividends down the road. 

I won't deny that's a pessimistic worldview, but Fassbinder had an enigmatic ability to make every character potentially sympathetic. Not in a touchy-feely, sentimental way but from a position of solidarity. We are all sub-optimal designs and if you don't share the particular weaknesses of the characters in “Merchant” you can perhaps understand their fear of vulnerability, of needing other people who are likely to hurt them. Also the fear that everyone is playing a game in which the deck is stacked against them. Hans is a drunk and a wife-beater and also a veteran of multiple traumas: from love, from the military, from the limited opportunities of working-class life.

Fassbinder observes his characters so closely, so insistently that he gives them time to reveal themselves on their own terms and this is why his vision can simultaneously be cruel (honest?) and empathetic. It's unnerving, it's unforgettable, and it's absolutely beautiful. There's simply nothing like a Fassbinder film.

“The Merchant of Four Seasons” netted German Film Awards for Hirschmuller, Hermann, and for Best Film and also helped bring Fassbinder, known mostly locally until then, to international attention. It was one of the main films that cracked open the door for the New German Cinema to become perhaps the defining force on the international festival circuit in the mid-'70s with Fassbinder (along with Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and others) at the forefront of the movement. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. As far as I know, the only previous Region 1 release of the film was the 2002 DVD from Wellspring which seemed just fine at the time and, to be fair, deserved to be. Expectations have been raised in the interim, however, and this high-def upgrade represents a substantial improvement. The image is darker and richer than the old Wellspring with the expected significant advance in image detail, most notable in close-ups. Colors are rich but never oversaturated, giving the film a vibrant look throughout. This just looks wonderful.

The linear PCM Mono track is clean and distortion-free. It's not particularly dynamic and isn't meant to be. It does its modest job just fine. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by director Wim Wenders. This track was recorded in 2002 and was included on the 2002 DVD release of the film by Wellspring.

All of the other extras are new to this 2015 Criterion Blu-ray release. First is an interview with actress Irm Hermann (2015, 9 min.) who fondly discusses how a chance meeting with Fassbinder took her from office work to movie stardom. Actor Hans Hirschmuller (2015, 13 min.) also discusses his rewarding and challenging working relationship with Fassbinder.

The final extra is an interview with film scholar Eric Rentschler (2015, 26 min.) who talks about the importance of the film in Fassbinder's career and also goes over the influence Fassbinder's discovery of Sirk had on his work.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

Final Thoughts:
“The Merchant of Four Seasons” is not Fassbinder's first great film, but it is his breakout and still ranks as one of his best. It's also a candidate for Irm Hermann's best role which is saying something. I love everything about this masterpiece.

Early Fassbinder: Eclipse Series 39

EARLY FASSBINDER: ECLIPSE SERIES 39 (Fassbinder x 5, 1969-1971)
Eclipse Series (Criterion), DVD, Release Date August 23, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

As a friend recently reminded me, all Fassbinder films qualify as Early Fassbinder. The absurdly prolific director left behind forty feature films in just a thirteen year career, providing critics the opportunity to slice them up into very sizable phases that show clear developments both in terms of artistic vision and production methods. But Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead by age 37 in 1982, and considering the unabated freight train momentum of his career at the time, we can only conclude that he was just getting started.

So let's think of this new five film boxed set from Criterion's Eclipse Collection as Earliest Fassbinder. As infinite as he now seems, he started somewhere and that start was, as was true for many of his role models in the French New Wave and his peers in the New German Cinema, with Hollywood. “Love is Colder than Death” (1969) is an aggressive deconstruction of classic crime genre tropes. All the standard (it's fair to call them cliched) elements are present. Two-bit pimp Franz (Fassbinder) is recruited by a blankly ominous Syndicate for reasons unknown. Remorseless gangster Bruno (Ulli Lommel), looking like he stumbled out of a Depression-era-inflected Jean-Pierre Melville film, shadows Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla, already luminous even amidst the grubbiness). They wear cool hats and sunglasses, smoke cigarettes, and play with guns, just like the tough guys in the movies. A dispirited love triangle ensnares them all on the way to a predictably bleak ending.

 “Love” is surely one of the whitest films ever made. Flouting conventional wisdom, Fassbinder stages scene after scene against a blank white wall as characters shuffle back and forth and almost disappear into the blinding haze; his compositions are off-kilter too, leaving uninterrupted swaths of blank white space on one half of the screen. He also tests audience patience by draining his cast's performances to the point of total enervation. They stare into the camera, posing like mannequins. It's not surprising when characters collapse or lounge on the ground; it's a wonder they have the energy to stand at all. As the Dude would later observe, nihilism is indeed exhausting.

The film was, to say the least, not well-received, but I think it's a spectacular debut that provides one scene that perfectly sums up Earliest Fassbinder. As one character's body lies in a road, another man tersely states, “He's dead. Let's get him out of the way.” Once you cease to be of immediate use, you're just a nuisance.

Fassbinder established a familiar pattern that he would torment into every possible permutation over a frenetic year and a half which produced ten features. In all of them, he worked with the members of his Antiteater (anti-theater) collective in Munich, a troupe of particularly game performers willing to help him realize his obsessive, bitter vision. From the very first film, it's clear that Fassbinder's world is defined by a series of grim personal transactions. His characters cling to each other fiercely not out of love (it's colder than death, after all), but out of desperate need. Every relationship is a power play in which the person with the upper hand is more than willing to use and abuse the power inherent in being the one who cares less.

The Katzelmacher Kids

“Katzelmacher” (1969) was shot in just over a week and provides the writer-director with a larger collection of personalities to send careening against each other. A group of self-absorbed twenty-somethings in a rundown Munich neighborhood lounge around and gossip about each other as they reach (with minimal possible effort) for sex and money. A Greek laborer (Fassbinder) moves in and disrupts the torporous balance. The vicious bastards give free rein to their prejudices, heaping abuse and innuendo on poor Yorgos to distract them from their own colossal failure. Marie (Schygulla again, and as amazing as ever) is the only who shows him the slightest kindness that isn't motivated entirely by self-interest, but you won't be surprised that it proves insufficient against the massed forces of moral decay.

“Gods of the Plague” (1969), filmed over a relatively elongated five-week period, gave Fassbinder a second crack at his beloved Hollywood crime flicks. Franz Walsch (Harry Baer, playing a character who shares the pseudonym Fassbinder used as film editor) gets out of jail and quickly reverts to his old ways. There's more posing, more ennui, more stylish fedoras, but the otherwise morbid film is spiced up by occasional bursts of playfulness, most of which involve actor Gunther Kaufmann who plays a stone killer known as Gorilla. When Gorilla shows up unannounced, the indulgently sullen Franz cracks a broad smile and the movie sidetracks to a bizarre interlude in which Gorilla leaps giddily into a loft full of hay and wrestles with a sheep. The seemingly incongruous tenderness makes more sense when you know that Fassbinder was madly in love with Kaufmann at the time.

The American Soldier

“The American Soldier” (1970) effectively completes a crime trilogy with Karl Scheydt as Ricky, a German-American GI who returns from Vietnam to a life as a hitman. He gets several girlfriends this time (including Schygulla, of course, and future filmmaker Margarethe Von Trotta who also co-starred in “Gods”) as the film settles into the simultaneously comfortable and alienating rhythm of aimless lethargy that had become so quintessentially Fassbinder in such a brief period of time. Fassbinder sprinkles in character names like Lang, Fuller, and Murnau as reminders of his still rabid cinephilia, but seems to be cruising in overly familiar territory. At least until the final shot, a slow-motion dance macabre that defies description. It is one of the most audacious things I have ever seen and I love it unconditionally.

In these four black-and-white exercises, Fassbinder had clearly expressed his view of humanity. You will be betrayed by people. You will be betrayed by the people you betray, even the ones you unwittingly betrayed by simply not meeting their unstated expectations. Money isn't the final world, but it has a voice in every exchange and is the motivation for much of the betrayal. There's no point in complaining about the state of things, and hiding from the reality is pure cowardice. Live with it and live it fully. As a dying gangster says, “Life is very precious, even right now.”

Fassbinder (center) stylin' in Beware of a Holy Whore

“Beware of a Holy Whore” (1970) represented a change of sorts, and not just because it's the only film in this set (thought not the first Fassbinder film) shot in color. Rather than using other Hollywood movies as a template and distancing device, Fassbinder transforms a recent personal trauma into a black comedy. He (and most of his cast) had a nightmarish experience shooting “Whity” (1970), in no small part because of his deteriorating (non)relationship with Gunther Kauffman. “Holy Whore” is a recapitulation of the shared torture and a satirical study of the process and peril of working in a creative collective.

Fassbinder thrived on interpersonal friction, but clearly felt things had gone too far, or at least that they had brought him to a point of exhaustion and a chance to pause and reflect. The result is perhaps the most polished film in the set, one with its share of self-lampooning flourishes as a fictional film shoot is sabotaged by a childish, abusive director (Lou Castel), disinterested actors, and financial troubles. Fassbinder also got to work with French New Wave icon Eddie Constantine, which had to be a wish fulfilled.

After “Holy Whore,” Fassbinder was finally ready to rest. Well, OK, he filmed “Pioneers of Ingolstadt” next, and he directed a few plays on stage and on radio, and he traveled the festival circuit as audiences tried to catch up with his Big Bang arrival, and he also got married. But aside from that, he rested, going nearly nine months between shoots. With a hearty second wind, he knocked off “The Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971) in just 11 days and it was only a total freaking masterpiece that kicked off the next period of his career, which we'll call Earliest Early Fassbinder and would lead directly into the brilliant “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1972), “Effie Briest” (1972), “World on a Wire” (1973) and, well, the rest of Early Fassbinder.

It was a lot, but it wasn't enough. We were robbed of Late Fassbinder, and there's nothing that will ever set that right.

Each of the films in this set were released individually on DVD by Wellspring in 2002 and 2003. AS far as I can tell, there's no difference in quality between the Wellspring transfers and the Eclipse set. They're probably from the same source. This is both good and bad.

Both “Love” and “Katzelmacher” have many scenes shot against white backgrounds, and that's always a challenge to render digitally. Sometimes the characters seem to stand out a bit unnaturally, almost limned like they were effects dropped-in later, or blend into the white background. This can make for a noisy image, but it can't really be helped, not on a “budget” transfer anyway. Aside from the very, very white scenes, the image quality on the transfer is generally pretty strong with rich contrasts in the black-and-white photography. The color in “Beware of Holy Whore” also looks quite appealing.

“Love” is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the other four films in 1.33:1.

The Dolby Digital Mono tracks are crisp if not particularly dynamic. I didn't get a chance to mention the musical scores by Peer Raben, one of Fassbinder's crucial collaborators. Raben's original music and selection of pop songs create unique and evocative textures that are integral to the films, and the audio tracks do a solid job of preserving his work.

As with most Eclipse releases, there are no extras. We do, however, get the usual essays (a slim insert booklet on “Love” and single pages one the other discs) by Michael Koresky, who does a fantastic job both of introducing Fassbinder and contextualizing the individual films. Koresky is consistently concise and insightful in these Eclipse essays, and always provides a good “frill” on these no-frills releases.

Set Value:
Earliest Fassbinder doesn't get as much credit as it deserves. “Love is Colder Than Death” is a remarkable debut, and “Katzelmacher” is genuinely stunning in its finest moments. “Beware of A Holy Whore” is riveting from start to finish, even when it's boring. All of the films provide evidence of a filmmaker who arrived with an instantly recognizable sensibility and a clear, willful vision. I can't quite say Fassbinder arrived fully-formed, but he arrived at full speed and never really slowed down as he traced one of the most memorable, and far too brief, trajectories in the history of cinema.

It's a shame these films weren't given the high-def treatment, and there's no reason for anyone who owns the Wellspring releases to double dip. But this set contains a highly concentrated dose of pure Fassbinder. And just think, it only represents half of the output from his first year and a half as a filmmaker.


LIMELIGHT (Chaplin, 1952)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 19, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of the aging comedian Calvero who has lost touch with his audience is indisputably autobiographical, but don't let that lull you into a simplistic reading of “Limelight” (1952), Chaplin's final American film.

“Limelight” opens in London in 1914, the exact time when 25-year-old Chaplin's unparallelled Hollywood success story was opening its first chapter at Keystone Studios. By contrast, Calvero (played by a 60-year-old Chaplin) has already traded in success for the transient companionship of the whiskey bottle. Partially in denial, Calvero tries and fails to win over jaded audiences with hoary song-and-dance numbers and a pantomimed invisible flea circus routine that scratches precisely nobody's itch. His used to slay 'em; now he puts 'em to sleep.

The parallel to Chaplin's (in)famous one-man holdout against the talking picture is obvious, but the aging Calvero shouldn't be conflated with the aging Chaplin, not directly at least. Chaplin had experienced his first commercial flop in decades when he dared to turn the beloved Tramp into a serial wife-killer in his previous film “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947), but it was one of the very few blips in a nearly unbroken string of critical and box office triumphs by a movie star whose career spanned almost the entire existence of movie stars. Chaplin viewed the failure of “Verdoux” as an aberration, partially attributable to the terrible press he was receiving at the time due to the very public paternity suit filed against him by actress Joan Barry. He was confident that the still knew exactly what the public wanted and fully expected “Limelight” to be another hit.

Chaplin had, however, seen virtually all of his music hall and silent film contemporaries fall by the wayside, some done in by the emergence of cinema itself, others by film's traumatic shift to sound, a few by alcohol and depression. No doubt he was anxious about just how long he could be the sole survivor, but Calvero should be seen as an amalgam: part Chaplin, part Chaplin Sr. (the absentee father whose Calvero-like career and life was cut short by booze), and parts of various entertainers like Frank Tinney, a once-famous blackface comedian whose decline once prompted Chaplin to observe, “The Muse had left him.”

And so Calvero sings and dances and tumbles for increasingly unappreciative crowds; one audience heckler suggests it's time for him to go back home and, with a stiff tip of the cap, our hero agrees with the cruel but honest assessment. But while Calvero's professional comeback seems unlikely, hope arrives in an unexpected form. Stumbling home one afternoon to his empty apartment, the broken-down drunk Calvero briefly summons a sober and heroic impulse when he rescues an aspiring ballerina named Terry from a suicide attempt. Played by relative neophyte Claire Bloom, Terry assumes her place in the pantheon of blind flower girls and gamines from Chaplin's oeuvre, all damsels in various states of distress. Partially paralyzed, Terry remains bedridden as Calvero nurses her back to health and urges her on to the stardom he now believes he will never recapture for himself.

This thread produces some of the film's strongest and weakest sequences. Conversations between Calvero and the bedridden Terry grind the film's pace to a halt at times, their repetitive, strictly functional editing anchoring a performer renowned for his ethereal grace. The pantomime-loving Chaplin had long ago warned that “action always has to wait for dialogue” and these scenes seem to prove his point. Yet when a fully recuperated Terry finally takes the stage, her lengthy ballet performance (with professional dancer Melissa Hayden as stand-in) as Columbine, the result is movie magic, and a scene Chaplin considered one of the most satisfying achievements of his career as he composed and choreographed it all.

Bloom brings a wide-eyed innocence to her role that is undeniably attractive and “Limelight” benefits from the presence of a series of great supporting players including Nigel Bruce and Norman Lloyd, but the star attraction remains the same as in almost all of Chaplin's films: Charlie Chaplin. One of Chaplin's many unique gifts was the ability to teeter constantly on the edge of mawkishness without ever tumbling over. His infinitely expressive face can conjure any reaction on command and he knew how to work his sad eyes, his rueful smile, his comical gait to perfect effect whenever need, like striking keys on a piano. Chaplin is so at ease with his sixty-plus years that he seems every bit as impish and youthful as in his most Trampish days while also mining every wrinkle on his face for its accumulated wisdom. Calvero is both clearly past his time and utterly timeless.

The finest example of this qualilty is in the show-stopping finale which pairs a resilient Calvero
with his unnamed former stage partner played by the great Buster Keaton who had not quite made the transition to sound as seamlessly as Chaplin. Teamed up for the first time in a feature film, Chaplin and Keaton absolutely blow off the roof. The old guard still has to clear the stage for the youth wave, but they might as well show them how to do it right before taking their final bows. This final number would justify the entire film by itself, but it is merely the topper on a movie filled with delights.

Chaplin's confidence in the commercial prospects for “Limelight” proved unfounded. But then the film never really got a chance, at least in America. Hounded by charges that he was a Communist (false) and a moral degenerate (depends on your POV), Chaplin, a resident alien who had never filed for American citizenship, was denied re-entry to the United States after a trip to London for the film's world premiere. Instead of fighting the charges, Chaplin decided to relocate his family and his business, eventually settling in Switzerland where he proved he wasn't done working just yet. “Limelight” barely played in America due to numerous protests and wouldn't get an “official” Los Angeles opening until 1972.

“Limelight” survived. So did Chaplin. As for the various demagogues who nipped at Chaplin's heels, when's the last time you heard about any of them?

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This transfer is sourced from a restoration conducted by Criterion and the Cineteca di Bologna. The result is quite impressive and certainly a massive improvement over the mediocre (though serviceable) transfers on the 2003 DVD from Warner Brothers. Image detail isn't razor sharp as with the top-line Criterion high-def transfers but it's very strong. Black-and-white contrast is both rich and subtle with a soft, naturalistic look throughout.

The linear PCM Mono track is solid if unremarkable. There are a few minor drop-offs from time to time that are probably due to the source material, but nothing that detracts meaningfully from the experience. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included several new features for this 2015 Blu-ray release as well as some older features from a prior release.

The new features begins with a new video essay by preeminent Chaplin biographer David Robinson (2015, 21 min.) Robinson discusses the film's lengthy and unusual genesis, including mention of how Chaplin wrote a novel (called “Footlights”) instead of a screenplay to prepare the film; it included extended character backgrounds that didn't make it directly into the final film.

The disc also includes new interviews with actress Claire Bloom (2015, 16 min.) and actor/producer/everything-else Norman Lloyd (2012, 15 min.) My note on Bloom's interview is simply “Wow!”, a reaction to how charismatic she is. The magic of a disc like this: you can fall in love with 20-year-old Bloom in the movie and then again with 80-year-old Bloom on this feature. She has plenty to say about her first-time film experience with such a controlling and brilliant director. Lloyd is in his late-90's in this interview and is sharp as could be.

Another new inclusion on this Criterion release is the 1915 Chaplin short film “A Night in the Show” (25 min.) This is one of the later non-Tramp performances by Chaplin in the silent era and sees him in two roles as Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy causing havoc at a theater which features star acts such as La Belle Wienerwurst and Tootsy Frutti the Snake Charmer. This one cracked me the heck up. It has been restored by Lobster Film in 2014 and looks remarkably clear though also with little grain evident, suggesting some strong digital boosting. The film is accompanied by a new 2014 by composer Timothy Block.

The disc also includes several features that are also available on the 2003 Warner Bros. DVD release of “Limelight.” These include the short documentary “Chaplin Today: 'Limelight'” (2002, 27 min.) directed by Edgar Cozarinsky and featuring archival footage as well as interviews with Claire Bloom, actor Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's son) and director Bernardo Bertolucci.

The older features continue with a Deleted Scene (4 min.) in which Calvero meets an armless man, a former colleague from the stage as well as two brief Audio Excerpts (2 min. total) of Chaplin reading from “Footlights,” the novel he prepared for the film.

Finally, we get a six-minute excerpt from the unfinished 1919 short “The Professor” in which Chaplin performs the invisible flea circus bit that resurfaces in “Limelight.”

The collection concludes with several Trailers, running four minutes total.

The thick 40-page insert booklet begins with an essay by the late, great critic and filmmaker Peter von Bagh and continues with an on-set report written in 1952 by United Press correspondent Henry Gris. It was apparently only published in excerpts in a few newspapers and was later discoveered among the Chaplin archives.

Film Value:
Because I screened this film as part of a course last year, I've now seen “Limelight” five times in the past ten months or so. It has grown on me each time. The sequences with Calvero talking to the bedridden Terry still drag for me, but when Chaplin/Calvero is on stage, it's magical. And it's just extraordinary to witness how Chaplin can generate just as much sympathy as a sexagenarian in the sound era as he did as the young, impish Tramp in a distant silent age. I guess the secret is talent.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Dillinger is Dead

DILLINGER IS DEAD (Ferreri, 1969)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date March 16, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

Marco Ferreri’s films are completely insane but “Dillinger is Dead” (1969), while batshit crazy, is a classically constructed film in the old school sense. It follows a single character in a single location over the course of a single evening. Aristotle would have been proud.

Proud, yes, but confused as hell.

As is the case with Ferreri’s stark raving mad “Bye Bye Monkey” (1978), the best way to approach “Dillinger is Dead” is with a straightforward plot summary since that won't actually spoil anything. A gas mask designer (never named in the film, but called Glauco in the script) heads home after a boring day at work. His beautiful but slothful wife (Rolling Stones fan Anita Pallenberg) never gets out of bed, and his maid (Annie Girardot) is done working for the night (sort of) so he’s left on his own to kill time in this ancient pre-Internet era. 

Glauco is a twitchy ball of short attention span. He sits down to eat his prepared dinner, but doesn’t like the wobbly flan, so he starts to cook a steak. But, no, he doesn’t want steak, so he makes pasta instead. But that has to wait because he wants to watch something on TV, but not that thing on TV; something else instead. While rummaging through the spice closet, he discovers something else to distract his attention: a gun. And not just any gun, but a gun wrapped in a newspaper carrying the headline stories from the day after John Dillinger was shot. So he plays with the gun. And cooks dinner. And plays with the gun. Then eats dinner. Watches TV. Plays with the gun. Watches home movies. Plays with the gun. And so on.

Glauco is played by the great Michel Piccoli who was passed around like a bong to most of the great European directors of the era (Melville, Godard, Varda, Demy, Clement, Buñuel, Costa-Gavras, even Mario Bava.) He turns in a marvelous, mostly silent, mostly solo performance. At first it seems like Glauco is just a bit stir crazy but as the evening wears on he regresses gradually into childhood. He clutches at the breasts of the women in his home movies, pretends to swim in the ocean on the screen and becomes obsessed with his special new toy. He cleans the gun like a military expert, reassembles it, points it at the mirror (the “You talkin’ to me?” is subtextual here), pretends to blow his brains out, and even paints it fire-engine red with white polka dots.

If you’re the sort to waste your time worrying about what movies mean, you can do so at your leisure here. The title suggests that a certain kind of machismo “is dead” and poor Glauco doesn’t quite know what to do with himself in a feminist late-60s world. Or maybe it’s a “Targets” style study of sudden psychological breakdown. Or just a total lark by crazy-ass Ferreri. Have at it, interpretation addicts.

The film’s effectiveness stems not from the why, but the what. Ferreri’s sometimes hand-held camera, awkward POV shots, haphazard zooms, and his less-than-immaculate compositions bring an amateurish intimacy to the proceedings. We hover somewhere right next to this strange, lonely man as he wanders through the house in something approaching real-time. There’s some method to his madness, some motivations for his constant shifts in focus, but we’re not privy to them. He eats. He watches TV. He paces around. And we watch, wondering if and when he is finally going to snap. Piccoli says that Ferreri kept him mostly in the dark, showing him only a 10-page script and telling him what to do each day on the set with little explanation. Ferreri wasn’t flying by the seat of his pants. He had a meticulous plan, but he also wanted to make sure his actors couldn’t screw anything up by psychologizing their roles. Mission accomplished.

“Dillinger is Dead” is surrealist in the most transgressive, violent manifestation of the term. The film strongly implies a sense of alienation in the modern world that can’t lead anywhere but total dysfunction. The status quo is untenable and the only way out is to opt all the way out, no matter what needs to be done. That doesn’t make Glauco a hero, but he is at least a perfect case study for Ferreri’s glowering, darkly humorous view of bourgeois society.

“Dillinger is Dead” was a surprise critical hit for Ferreri whose eccentric work was not always popular with the cognoscenti. It kicked off a brief period when Ferreri was in favor, one that lasted up until “La bouffe” (1973.) 1974 brought the off-the-rails sort-of-Western “Don’t Touch the White Woman” (also with Piccoli) and with an exception or two Ferreri soon fell off the critical radar. Until recently, his films were largely unavailable in America but a few have begun to trickle out on DVD. Last year witnessed the American theatrical re-release of “Dillinger is Dead” by Rialto Pictures, which will, we can hope, pave the way for the release of the bulk of the prolific director’s work in Region 1.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The progressive, anamorphic transfer was approved by director of photography Mario Vulpani. It’s very solid work that perhaps isn’t quite on par with the very best Criterion transfers, but is still more than satisfactory. The colors are bright (Glauco’s red apron – good grief!) and the image resolution is sharp. No complaints.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound mix isn’t too complex and it all sounds clean and sharp. There are a lot of pop songs and TV broadcasts played throughout the film and they are all well-presented. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Since “Dillinger is Dead” is the first Marco Ferreri film in the Criterion Collection, we could have hoped for more extras. The three that are included are interesting but not particularly deep.

The disc includes newly recorded (2009) interviews with Michel Piccoli (13 min.) and film historian Adriano Aprà (20 min.) Piccoli speaks of his first meeting with Ferreri and about their close friendship. Aprà’s interview provides a perspective on Ferreri’s career and analyzes “Dillinger” in some detail. Aprà appears on TV in the film.

The only other substantive extra is a 1997 round-table discussion (13 min.) recorded weeks after Ferreri’s death. The feature includes clips of Ferreri speaking shortly before his death and excerpts from the discussion by his friends Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi, and film historian Aldo Tassone. The excerpts are taken from the May 14, 1997 episode of “Le circle de minuit.” The show is hosted by Laure Adler and directed by Pierre Desfons.

I wish modern trailers could be more like the Trailer included here. It doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the movie and shows plenty of cleavage. That’s quality.

The 32-page insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Michael Joshua Rowin and excerpts from interviews with Marco Ferreri: the April 1969 issue of “Ombre rosse,” interview conducted by Goffredo Fofi and Ruggero Savinio, and the November/December issue of “Cinemesessanta,” interview conducted by Giacomo Martini.

Final Thoughts:
“Dillinger is Dead” is a one-of-a-kind experience. I suspect that’s true of every Marco Ferreri film though I haven’t seen enough to be an expert on the subject. Though it appears downright amateurish at times, it’s a finely calibrated exercise in inspired lunacy that displays a formal mastery not often associated with Ferreri’s work. The scenes of Glauco bathed in the light of the projector, literally becoming part of the home movies flickering across the wall, are pretty damned brilliant. And so is the movie.

The modest collection of Extras is a disappointment but I’m not sure how much archival material exists about Marco Ferreri. In any case, the Criterion release of “Dillinger is Dead” is strongly recommended.

Don't Touch The White Woman!

Koch Lorber, DVD, Release Date July 14, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

As a great philosopher said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Marco Ferreri spent most of his career stumbling along that line like an unrepentant drunk, weaving back and forth until finally falling face first onto one side or the other. With the stark raving mad “Don’t Touch the White Woman!” (1974), Ferreri collapsed into clever and produced one of the strangest un-Westerns ever made.

The film is nominally a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand. Ferreri wasn’t particularly obsessed with historical accuracy and the keen-eyed viewer may spot a few inaccuracies along the way. First, all of the characters speak French. Second, there’s some guy who hangs around the set wearing a University of Denver sweater and eating potato chips. Third, while all of the principals are dressed in period clothing when they go to the train station everyone else is wearing jeans and t-shirts. Also, Richard Nixon is president.

This sounds like a film made on the cheap and it may well have been but it sure as hell attracted an all-star cast: Marcello Mastroianni (as Custer), Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli (as Buffalo Bill), Alain Cuny (as Sitting Bull), Philippe Noiret, and scene-stealing character actor Ugo Tognazzi as Custer’s Native American servant named, of course, Mitch. 

Mitch is a total prick who thinks that selling out to the white devil makes him an equal in their eyes. But whenever his eyes look at their ladies, Custer slaps him: “Don’t touch the white woman!” Custer slaps a lot of people. He’s a total prick too, cruel, vain and petty. Come to think of it, Buffalo Bill’s a total prick too, and so is Catherine Deneuve’s character (Marie-Hélène), giving “Don’t Touch the White Woman” a significantly higher prick count than “Bruno.”

Ferreri shot the film on the site of a demolished mall in Paris. Instead of roaming the open plains, the Indians (led by Sitting Bull) mill about in the ditch that serves as the construction site. It’s basically a big hole with mounds of dirt and rocks all over the place. I think it’s supposed to be the reservation. The soldiers all live in a building at the top of the ditch and the two groups occasionally shout at each other seeing as they’re all of a few hundred feet apart.

Custer spends most of his time blustering, being jealous of Buffalo Bill, and trying to seduce Marie-Hélène. Mitch tries to play both sides of the fence which only results in him being despised by everybody. Sitting Bull eventually gets stoic, man, and prepares his people for the climactic battle.

And what a battle. It is so gloriously unconvincing, so utterly absurd that it achieves a kind of greatness, though precisely what kind scholars have not yet determined. When Custer sweeps onto the battlefield (i.e. goes down into the ditch) he is shocked when ambushed by a group of Indians who were pretty much just hiding behind a dirt mound. The last chunk of the film is basically just a slaughter with white men getting impaled, clubbed and scalped to death, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to see them all get it all real good.

“Don’t Touch the White Woman” is a giant cup of “What the fuck?” but it’s absolutely riveting. And pure Marco Ferreri, which is unlike anything else ever.

The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a pretty miserable transfer, almost certainly a PAL dupe. A sickly green hue permeates the film, and the image is muddy and dull. It looks like a 3rd or 4th generation VHS dub. But it's still watchable.

The film is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Forced English subtitles support the French audio. The sound mix is adequate, at least compared to the video.

The only extra is a 3-minute excerpt from the documentary “Marco Ferreri: The Man Who Came from the Future.”

Film Value:
Ferreri’s anarcho-anachronistic exercise in historical deconstruction is a feat of inspired insanity. I don’t know if it’s great film-making but it’s definitely… something. And I love it dearly.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Taking of Power By Louis XIV

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date January 13, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

Louis XIV’s transformation from a puppet ruler to the Sun King did not unfold as a grand dramatic arc, though there was drama along the way, but as a series of administrative decisions, conversations, and even a few strategic changes of clothing. In “The Taking of Power by Louis XIV” (1966) director Roberto Rossellini focuses on the details of daily living that led to the ascension of France’s most powerful king, minutiae piling up into the mountains of history.

The film begins with the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. Mazarin, successor to the better-know Cardinal Richelieu, was the Chief Minister of France while Louis XIV was a child, and he wielded tremendous power. Mazarin’s death left a void that few people expected the 22 year-old layabout king to fill. Louis, fond of hunting and gaming, could easily have delegated authority to the usual suspects, but instead chose, in a halting, nervous, step-by-step way, to gradually invest more and more of the state’s authority in the monarchy.

Louis, acting in concert with some of Mazarin’s advisors, enacted a series of changes to law and ritual so modest on the surface that they don’t occupy a prominent place in history books. Constantly terrified of a return of the Fronde revolts of the 1650s in which the Parliament and the nobles briefly drove Mazarin out of the country, Louis decided that the best way to neutralize the threat was to make the nobility completely dependent on him. He began wearing ornate, foppish clothing (the kind we’re familiar with in period pieces today), forcing the court nobility to imitate him which, in turn, cost them a year’s salary or more. He also expanded the palace at Versailles to a virtual city-state unto itself and shifted the seat of government there, relocating the nobility from their estates to what was unquestionably the court of Louis XIV.

In Rossellini's words, “The slightest act of daily life contains extraordinary dramatic power.” Banal moments and dry rituals occupy the bulk of the film. Rossellini devotes an entire scene to Louis trying on his new clothing. The final fifteen minutes of the movie consist almost entirely of an elaborately served dinner which Louis eats while perched alone high on a platform as the crowd of courtiers looks on, a ceremony that asserts the king’s dominance over his subjects in no uncertain terms. 

Rossellini often preferred to work with non-professional actors. Office clerk Jean-Marie Patte was cast as the Sun King and proved to be a perfect model for the director’s idiosyncratic production style. Just as Louis was terrified of rebellion, Patte was terrified of the camera. He constantly looks as if he’s trying to swallow himself whole to hide from the lens’s gaze, and this awkwardness makes Louis’ false bravado both poignant and plausible. He was a boy playing at being a man, and he succeeded simply by faking his way through and relying on the trappings of the office to carry the day. Look like a king, and you will be one.

Louis often refuses to look at the people he is speaking to, staring off at some distant point instead. Is he contemplating his own grandeur? Perhaps. But Patte was struggling with his lines. Unable to memorize them, he read his dialogue off cue cards in most scenes. Trust Rossellini to turn an actor’s apparent weakness into one of the film’s defining stylistic features. It’s a truly marvelous performance that derives not from an acting class, but from the strategic placement of a body relative to the camera, the intersection of physical and optical.

With its restrained performances, de-dramatized narrative, and emphasis on gestures, “Power” plays much like a Bresson film which makes it even harder to believe that it played to such a large audience. Of course, Rossellini had one major advantage: he didn't open the film in theaters, but rather on French television. In 1962, the director had declared cinema to be dead and abandoned it for TV. He was true to his word and spent the rest of his career making historical dramas for the small screen. The change of medium did not cause the director to abandon his vision in the slightest. The historical films are just as much “Rossellini” as his epoch-shifting early work like “Rome, Open City” (1945) and “Voyage to Italy” (1954), films that quite literally changed cinema forever.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen ratio. The image quality is mediocre by Criterion standards, but more than acceptable overall. I’m not sure how much of this is attributable to the film being shot for television. The colors are a bit dull and there is more damage visible than on most Criterion transfers. It’s still a solid effort.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Solid, functional, no notable problems. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

There is no commentary track included with the film, an increasingly common trend for Criterion.

Instead, we have a wonderful Visual Essay (25 min.) by Tag Gallagher, author of “The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini.” As he did on the Criterion release of “The Earrings of Madame de…” Gallagher takes advantage of the DVD format to offer an audio-visual critique that is enlightening and entertaining. I hope Criterion will include more of these, whether by Gallagher or other critics.

The disc also includes interviews with the director’s son Renzo Rossellini (5 min.) who speaks about his uncredited direction of one of the film’s climactic scenes, and a 2004 interview, conducted by Allerton Films for MK2 with writer/artistic adviser Jean-Dominique de La Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik (14 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by Colin MacCabe.

Film Value:
“The Taking of Power by Louis XIV” is history writ small, a layering of subtle (and sometimes grueling) details that accumulate a mysterious gestalt power. The final product is a masterpiece, one of Rossellini’s greatest achievements. Rossellini’s groundbreaking neo-realist films were undeniably more influential than his historical television work, but I think I like both “Power” and “Blaise Pascal” (1972) even more. “Blaise Pascal” is one of the three films included in the new Eclipse Set “Rossellini’s History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment” which also includes “Cartesius” (1973) and “The Age of the Medici” and is thoroughly awesome.