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.

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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Carl Dreyer: Maytag Man Miscellany

by Christopher S. Long

I have no idea if the brave soul who scribbled the words “Maytag Man!!!” on the title page (pictured above) of my library copy of Carl Th. Dreyer (edited by the late, great Jytte Jensen) intended anything beyond a mere pun, but it still seems inspired. Not only does Maytag make dryers (ah, you get it now!) but the Maytag Repairman is “the loneliest man in town.”

Carl Thedor Dreyer is known today as one of cinema's truly isolated visionaries. He didn't start out that way. Barely in his twenties, the young man who had run away from his adoptive family as a teenager had found his way into the heart and soul of the biggest Danish film studio (Nordisk) right at the height of a film boom in 1913, just as cinema was transitioning to the feature-length narrative film. Dreyer was a valued employee, a true young hot shot given a chance to direct at a young age.

By his second film (the amazing “Leaves From Satan's Book” of 1921) it was already clear that Dreyer was ill-equipped to work within a hierarchical system of any kind. Though he lost a very vocal battle with his studio bosses over the budget for the film, he walked away from what could have been a cushy studio gig to pursue a career as, in effect, a freelance contractor, an uncompromising path that took him to several countries and eventually to the complete box-office failures of two of his masterpieces, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and “Vampyr” (1932).

This is when Dreyer's path became a particularly lonely one. After “Vampyr” he spent most of the next decade failing to get film projects off the ground and eventually turning full-time to journalism, covering the courtroom beat in Copenhagen. It paid the bills, but Dreyer's true passion was always cinema and he was delighted to finally get the opportunity to direct his next film, “Day of Wrath” (1943) after a decade on the sidelines. Alas, it was another commercial flop, due in no small part to the understandable fact that Danes enduring years of Nazi occupation were in little mood for a downer film about the persecution of witches. Maybe if he'd made it into a musical...

My students from my recently-completed class on Dreyer at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute already know all this, at least if they were listening which I'm certain they all were. My intent with this informal post is to fill in a few of the gaps in Dreyer's later career that we had to skim over for time considerations, and to provide a few links and reading suggestions for anyone looking to continue their Dreyer study beyond the four films we screened in class: “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Vampyr,” “Day of Wrath,” and “Ordet” (1955).

The post-war years produced many developments (the rise of film festivals and a global art-house audience, for example) that would eventually bolster Dreyer's reputation, but after “Day of Wrath” flopped, he spent most of the next decade directing state-funded short documentaries and propaganda films. By propaganda I mean, for the most part, educational “issue” movies. These films are seldom masterworks but Dreyer wasn't like most directors.

The best of the bunch is a short titled “They Caught The Ferry” (1948). You can watch it just above, but I recommend you click on the “YouTube” button in the bottom right to get a bigger image in a new screen. If Dreyer's late features represent a move towards increasing stasis (if you've seen “Ordet” or “Gertrud” you know what I mean) this short film suggests that Dreyer had more than one gear (that's another bad pun, sorry.) Based loosely on a novella by Nobel Prize-winning Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, the short is intended to demonstrate the perils of reckless driving. With its cuts from the blazing tires of a motorcycle to the vertiginous scenery whisking by to the speedometer pushing inexorably clockwise, it's enough to make you wonder what Carl Dreyer's “The Fast and the Furious” might have looked liked. 

1950's “The Storstrom Bridge” is shot and edited more in the spirit of the poetic city symphony films like 1927's “Berlin: Symphony of A Great City” though Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens' “The Bridge” is a much closer antecedent. Dreyer's short is an ode to the then-longest bridge in Northern Europe, constructed between 1933 and 1937 and spanning the strait between the Danish islands of Falster and Masnedo. The link embedded above has no subtitles though that's only an issue for one screen's worth of information as the rest of the film is dialogue-free. If you want the English subs, just click on this link.


As we discussed in class, Dreyer's career would become substantially less lonely in the '50s with government funding, his job running the Dagmar theater, and the critical and commercial success of “Ordet.” The film's success is somewhat surprising considering the glacial pacing of the film. Whereas Dreyer was a strong proponent of montage in the '20s and '30s, he came to believe that in the sound era cinema needed to explore the power of the long take as much as possible. He even fantasized about the possibility of an entire film composed of just a few shots; too bad he wasn't around to tell us what he thought of “Russian Ark” and its 90-minute unbroken take.

A listing of the Average Shot Length (ASL) of Dreyer's films from 1928-1964 shows the unmistakable progression. “Joan” represented an extreme; Dreyer's earlier silent films had longer ASL's


The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – 3.3 seconds
Vampyr (1932)– 9 seconds
Day of Wrath (1943) – 14.8 seconds
Ordet (1955) – 65 seconds
Gertrud (1964) – 82 seconds

Of course there's much more to the perceived pace of a film than just the average shot length. Many modern Hollywood blockbuster have ASL's of 2 seconds or less and seem unbearably tedious. But Dreyer was intentionally trying to slow things down. He believed that sound cinema had pushed the image to the side, diminishing its importance in favor of dialogue and he felt viewers needed to be able to “rest on the pictures” rather than be rushed to the next scene/conversation without time to contemplate.

One the most exciting (and frustrating) things about cinema is that there is no set way any or all viewers will respond to a visual device. All languages are inherently ambiguous at some level, this relatively new audio-visual grammar far more so than the more venerable spoken word. Dreyer's combination of long takes and tableau compositions impacts viewers in multiple ways. For some it simply seems stuffy, an inefficient way of telling the narrative, or just canned theater. Why does he have to linger on so many details and stretch out so many moments when he could just get to the point?

For others, the effect of these long takes and tableau compositions is actually closely related to the disorienting presentation of space and time in “Vampyr” where Dreyer was clearly attempting to establish and maintain an uncanny tone. By making viewers so conscious of the passage of time (the ticking clocks and other off-screen sounds contributing) and by going to such great pains to present every nook and cranny of the rooms in which people interact, Dreyer engages in a process of defamaliarization, giving the everyday and the mundane a sense of the otherworldly. Think of how strange a familiar word becomes when you say it over and over. The film also creates a sense of “something else” lurking beyond the periphery, storm clouds gathering but refusing to loose their lightning until the final scene. This style is a conscious rejection of the sensory and narrative overload of more traditional narrative cinema and I would argue it can be every bit as radical as Dreyer's borderline avant-garde work on “Joan” and “Vampyr.” It is certainly damned weird.

You may or may see that on an initial screening of “Ordet” or “Gertrud” which certainly have earned the adjective “difficult” and it's possible you won't see it on a repeated viewing. I encourage skepticism, but also curiosity. If you're in the skeptic category, jot down a note to revisit one or both of these films in a year or two and see if you have a different experience.

As also mentioned in class, Dreyer's combination of long takes and tableau compositions provided a template of sorts for a certain strand of art-house cinema. More broadly you could just refer to this strand as minimalism, though more specific versions have been called “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema.” I prefer the term “walkout cinema” for the effect it has on festival audiences. Indeed, a look at the directors who voted “Ordet” as one of their top ten films in the2012 “Sight & Sound” poll reveals a list of some of the best-known practitioners of minimalism or so-called slow cinema, including Pere Portabella, Jose Luis Guerin, and Hong Sangsoo with “slow” Romanian director Corneliu Porumboui casting his vote for “Gertrud.” By the way, feel free to lose about two weeks of your life sorting through the database in that Sight&Sound poll. I still check it out every few days. I'm particularly fond of seeing how people's tastes form clusters.

Among the many filmmakers who have cited Dreyer, and particularly “Ordet” and “Gertrud,” as major influences are Marguerite Duras, Susan Sontag (who described “Ordet” as “a kind of ideal experience of my imagination”, the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, and even Jean-Luc Godard. 

Livin' Lars

And, of course, Lars von Trier. One wonders if the influence extends far beyond a shared national heritage and an idiosyncratic approach to spiritual material. But it is a comparison Von Trier has strongly encouraged at certain points in his career. The most direct connection was Von Trier filming Dreyer's posthumously published screenplay of “Medea” in 1988. Von Trier also used actor Preben Lerdorff Rye (Martin from “Day of Wrath” and Johannes from “Ordet”) in his films “The Element of Crime” and “Medea.” Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen (“Ordet” and “Gertrud”) also shot Von Trier's “Epidemic” and “Europa.”


Danish director Gabriel Axel was obviously a big Dreyer fan. In his 1987 film “Babette's Feast,” he reunited Lisbeth Movin and Preben Lerdorff Rye (Anne and Martin from “Day of Wrath”) and also cast Birgitte Federspiel (Inger from “Ordet.) Cay Kristiansen (Anders from “Ordet”) also has a role.


Dreyer revealed little about his private life. He married Ebba in 1911 and they remained together until his death in 1968. Biographers Jean and Dale Drum suggest that while their marriage was a devoted one, Carl often put film and his career ahead of Ebba and that she sometimes suffered for it. Ebba worked on most of Dreyer's films in a general all-purpose mode, though most often in the job then described as “script-girl” which meant it was her job to maintain continuity throughout a shoot, to make sure costumes and d├ęcor matched from shot to shot, that everyone had the right script pages, etc. She also dealt with the cast and crew when her husband didn't quite want to. Ebba passed away in 1977.

Ebba and Carl

The Dreyers had two children. We know little about son Erik save that he was described as having a drinking problem and relied on his father for financial support Daughter Gunni may or may not have suffered from mental illness though it is possible she also suffered from lingering problems from a disease she contracted in her twenties. Gunni lived with her parents well into her forties. Gunni died in 1990, Erik in 1977.


One of the best online resources is the Dreyer site which is presented both in Danish and in English. I assume you'll want a link to the latter. This site offers many short summaries of films, some video links as well as links to a handful of research articles and PDFs of original documents (though most in Danish). It's comprehensive if not particularly in-depth.

David Bordwell has been, in my opinion, the most perceptive writer on Carl Dreyer and I recommend his book below. You can also get a sampling of some of the online criticism by Bordwell and his wife Kristin Thompson, another brilliant critic, at this link.

Not directly related to Dreyer at all, but if you ever wake up at night wondering what the average shot length in a particular film is, you might be able to find it at the Cinemetrics website.


I recommend all of the films directed by Carl Dreyer, of course. However, I would first point you to the 1926 silent “Master of the House” which is now available on a Blu-ray released by Criterion. “Gertrud” is another Criterion release. Criterion also released an interesting documentary “Carl Th. Dreyer – My Metier” (1995, 90 min.) directed by Torben Skjodt Jensen. I highly recommend it.

We also mentioned another Danish film in class, “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages,” a 1922 silent directed by Benjamin Christensen. I am reluctant to link to full copies of the film online due to their questionable legality, but you can check out  a trailer here. I would describe it as history related though the haze of a paranoid fever-dream with a the occasional orgy thrown in for the whole family. Christensen was one of the few accomplished Danish directors who preceded Dreyer, and Dreyer respected him very much. In fact, Christensen played a major role in Dreyer's “Michael” (1924).

As far as books on Dreyer, there are many to choose from. I think David Bordwell's is the best, but it is also a close formal reading with in-depth shot analysis and may not be suited to all tastes. The MOMA book on Dreyer, edited by Jytte Jensen, is deceptively slim and loaded with pictures, but is more substantial than you might expect and readily accessible. “Dreyer in Double Reflection” contains articles by Dreyer or transcripts of Dreyer interviews that provide a sense of just how much his opinions about film evolved over the years, not just his shift to longer takes but also his changing belief in the primacy of the writer vs. the director. The BFI booklet on “Vampyr” by David Rudkin is an intriguing combination of heartfelt appreciation and careful textual analysis.

Director/screenwriter/scholar Paul Schrader published a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” in 1972 in which he discusses the work of directors Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Dreyer. He identifies commonalities in what he calls “transcendental style” though he comes to the conclusion that Dreyer doesn't really fit the model as well as the other two directors. It's rather esoteric and I think a lot of what Schrader identifies as transcendental style has since been subsumed into studies of art-house narrative, but it's interesting.

For a discussion of the project that consumed much of Dreyer's final twenty years and which may be the most famous film never shot (along with Stanley Kubrick's “Napoleon”). It includes the mostly-completed manuscript and background on the project, including Dreyer's passionate battle against anti-Semitism [TEXT CORRECTED: I had previously left out a word and thus accused Dreyer of anti-Semitism which is not true at all - sorry, Carl!]  One of his primary motivations was to make a film that did not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.

Partial List of Recommended Books:

“The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer” by David Bordwell

“Carl Th. Dreyer” (Museum of Modern Art, ed. Jytte Jensen)

“Vampyr” (BFI Film Classics) by David Rudkin

“Dreyer in Double Reflection” by Donald Skoller

“Transcendental Style in Film” by Paul Schrader

“My Only Great Passion” by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum

“Carl Theodor Dreyer's Jesus”

May the Maytag Man never be lonely again!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Late Ray: Eclipse Series 40

LATE RAY: ECLIPSE SERIES 40 (S. Ray, 1984, 1989, and 1991)
Eclipse Series Box Set, DVD, Release Date January 7, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Re-posted in honor of Satyajit Ray, born this day in 1921)

Writer-director (and composer and camera operator and just about everything else) Satyajit Ray's characters must be the most subtly shaded and sensitively observed in all of cinema. He could breathe life into even the most minor players in just a few shots; over the length of a feature film his protagonists emerge as rich and nuanced as characters carefully sculpted over many years of episodic television. Cliches and stereotypes had no place in the world of a humanist who cared far too much to take shortcuts or settle for easy answers.

Ray only honed his strength over the years, a fact evidenced by the complex personalities inhabiting the three films in this “Late Ray” set from Criterion. After his debut film “Pather Panchali” (1955) made him an international star and the de facto representative of all Indian cinema to much of the rest of the world, Ray vaulted over the high bar he had already set with a steady string of masterpieces from the rest of the Apu trilogy to “The Music Room” (1958), “The Big City” (1963), “The Chess Players” (1977) and still more. By the end of the '70s he was widely hailed as a national treasure, yet somehow avoided letting either the fame or the responsibility interfere with his work.

After a brief break at the beginning of the '80s, he was finally ready to adapt the Rabindranath Tagore novel he had originally planned as his first film. Ray had secured the rights to “The Home and the World” back in 1948, and patience proved to be a virtue when he finally began shooting in 1982. Set in 1907, the film (released in 1984) takes place shortly after the British Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal, heightening tensions between Hindus and Muslims and leading to the rise of the nationalist Swadeshi movement, a call to boycott foreign products in favor of homegrown.

As is typical in Ray's work, the film addresses sweeping historical changes by focusing on a few characters caught in the middle. Soft-hearted liberal aristocrat Nikhil (Victor Banerjee) encourages his bright but cloistered wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) to meet his old school friend Sandip (longtime Ray collaborator Soumitra Chatterjee) who has arrived for a visit. It's a business trip, as Sandip styles himself the political firebrand who can fan the Swadeshi flames on Nikhil's land.

In scene after scene, Ray allows the three players to careen off each other, sharing their world philosophies, sometimes finding common ground and other times declaring respectful opposition. The curious Bimala finds herself torn not just between two men but two visions: Sandip possesses the magnetism of a man devoted to a cause he has necessarily simplified to black-and-white, Nikhil is inhibited by the hesitancy of a man who sees nuance and inherently distrusts the motives of a movement sparked by cries of “Hail, Motherland!”

Yet in that grand Ray fashion, Bimala does not exist merely to choose between two men, but also to chart a course for herself; one of the most delicate balancing acts in the story is her effort to become her own person despite the annoyingly enlightened insistence of her husband that she do so. Sandip's fanaticism flashes an early warning sign, and there's little doubt his partisan brand of Swadeshi will topple into violence, but Ray never lets him become a mere villain. Everyone shares their reasoning both with each other and with the audience, making for a truly dynamic, organic story.

Ray suffered a heart attack during filming on “The Home and the World” and could not return to directing for several years. Still severely limited, he established a less physically taxing regimen which might explain the restricted, functional look of “An Enemy of the People” (1989), shot almost exclusively in studio. Working from the 1882 Henrik Ibsen play of the same name, Ray transplants the action from 19th century Norway to the 1980s in a small town in Bengal. A doctor (Soumitra Chaterjee again) discovers that the holy water at the local Hindu temple is polluted and is shocked by the political resistance he meets in his effort to reveal the health threat to the townsfolk; that temple's a goldmine for lots of people. The outlook is more clearcut here than in the previous film, as the doctor winds up having to stand almost alone against the forces of corruption, but Ray unpeels the various layers of that corruption from the bigger fish with the most to gain to the smaller players who sometimes wind up cozying up or caving in to power. “Enemy” is clearly the least accomplished of the three films in the set, but still absorbing and surprisingly lean at 99 minutes. 

Which brings us to “The Stranger” (1991) and perhaps Ray's most memorable character since Apu. The routinized life of a bourgeois Indian couple is disrupted by the receipt of a letter. The gobsmacked Anila (Mamata Shankar) reads shocking news aloud to her husband Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey): her uncle who disappeared when she was just a child three decades ago will be arriving by train in a few days and hopes to spend the week with them. The husband is instantly skeptical, but Anila remains guardedly hopeful. Their various suspicions will not be quickly resolved.

The uncle (renowned theater and film star Utpal Dutt) had become a family legend in his absence, and it takes Anila time to understand him as a flesh-and-blood figure. An absurdly erudite world-traveler, he only becomes more enigmatic with each revelation about his time abroad; he has almost literally done everything and been everywhere (except Australia, his next stated destination). The couple and their friends, many still on the lookout for a scam, grill the uncle over a series of deeply engaged intellectual discussions, but it's clear that they've never met anybody quite like him. In his own words, he refused to be a “frog in a well,” unwilling to be trapped by the mere circumstance of his birth. One day he simply gave in to his wanderlust and never looked back.

Dutt is absolutely riveting as the man who has an opinion on everything, and Ray observes him with a healthy balance of affection and skepticism. His obvious brilliance sometimes shines too brightly, and his need to extoll the glories of his globetrotting ways leads him to condescend unfairly to perceived Bengali provincialism. The film gleefully addresses the big questions (“Do you believe in religion?”, “What about science?”) while always scanning for the smallest details, and even drops the English word “floccinaucinihilipilification” just when you least expect it. Which is any time.

“The Stranger” turned out to be Ray's final film. A year after its release he received an honorary Oscar which, alas, is far too often the sign that the end is near. Ray died shortly thereafter on April 23, 1992 at the age of 70 and right at the peak of his craft. Few directors maintained such a level of excellence from start to finish. It was always unfair to think of Ray as the sole representative of a vast and diverse national cinema, but that doesn't mean he was ever overrated. Many of us are just beginning to understand how truly great he was. Releases like this Eclipse set help with the discovery process.

Unfortunately even the Ray films that have been offered on North American region DVDs have generally been of poor quality. Criterion helped remedy that with recent Blu-ray releases of “The Music Room,” “The Big City,” and “Charulata.” None of the three SD releases in this Eclipse set have been restored or can match the quality of the full Criterion releases, but what we get is better than most other Ray titles.

“The Home and the World” looks a bit like a second generation copy with some distortion visible at times and somewhat mediocre image resolutions. Colors are fairly rich, however, and the overall transfer is solid.

The other two transfers are stronger, though neither film is one of Ray's most visually arresting works. The color palette looks a bit oversaturated on “The Stranger” but no major complaints.

All three films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios.

The Dolby Digital Mono tracks are about average overall. Perhaps the music (composed by Ray) would be better treated by a lossless mix, but the audio here is clean and consistent. One minor complaint: optional English subtitles are provided for the Bengali dialogue, but not for the relatively frequent English dialogue. There's no reason not to have subs for everything.

Each of the three films is stored on a single disc and housed in its own slim keepcase, all three cases tucking into the thin cardboard sleeve for the set. As is usual for Criterion's no-frills Eclipse collection, no extras are provided on the discs. However, we get liner notes up to the usual excellent standards of writer Michael Koresky.

Final Thoughts:
I'm not sure how much longer Criterion's SD-only Eclipse collection will continue to be viable, but I hope it's for quite a while because it's a great way for viewers to get films that aren't slated for restorations or high-def upgrades. I read one review describing these films as “minor” Ray releases, but that's just not right. “The Home and the World” and “The Stranger” are both quite major and it's great to have them finally available on home video in North America even without bells and whistles.