Monday, June 22, 2015

The Fisher King

THE FISHER KING (Gilliam, 1991)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 23, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Let's start with what works best about “The Fisher King” (1991).

Mercedes Ruehl is just great, so marvelous it's hard to believe she actually won an Oscar for the role. As Anne, the proprietor of a low-end video store in New York City, Ruehl portrays a vibrant woman with the endearing combination of self-confidence and neurosis that makes her an instant point of identification. A lesser actress might have turned Anne into a co-dependent enabler whose only function is to boost the confidence of her undeserving lunkhead of a boyfriend, but Anne has come to her very active belief in the primacy of romantic love through painful experience and serious consideration. She's not a pushover but an acolyte, and if she strokes that lunkhead's ego it's because she believes it's an act of kindness necessary to cope in a scary world. Acts of kindness are highly prized and hard fought in this film.

That lunkhead's first name is Jack and his last name is Lucas, but if you cut out the “Lu” and then say the whole name out loud you get a better idea of what kind of guy he is. In the opening sequence, Jack is a radio shock jock whose success has made him arrogant though his pride goeth quickly when a thoughtless bit of advice he spews to a listener inspires the lost soul to commit mass murder, a tragedy that claims Jack's professional reputation among its victims.

Jack is played by Jeff Bridges who is invariably great, even here when he is cast against type as a narcissistic twit who doesn't appreciate the considerable gifts he's been granted, chief among them the amazing Anne to whom he turns only after he is both down and out. As indicated above, he does not deserve her devotion in any way. The script does argue, however, that Jack deserves a shot at redemption for his callous behavior and that opportunity comes in the form of a homeless man known as Parry.

Parry is played by Robin Williams and it's impossible today to watch his performance without thinking of the comedian's recent death. This time a year ago, perhaps you wouldn't have felt guilty for finding parts of his typically energetic and insistence performance to be a little irritating. Or even a lot. It's still OK to think that. Where some actors are love 'em or leave 'em types, I have always thought of Williams as a love 'em AND leave 'em guy whose genius was the ability to work your last nerve and still find a way to burrow under your skin and win a place in your affection.

That's definitely the case with Parry who was once fully assimilated into yuppiedom just like Jack, but has retreated into a world of myth and madness as the result of his own personal tragedy which, by sheer coincidence (ahem), is directly connected to Jack's carelessness. Parry believes he is a knight (with garbage can shield) on a mission to retrieve the Holy Grail which remains just tantalizingly out of reach in an Upper East Side mansion; the invisible little people who advise him told him about it. Parry immediately enlists his new friend in his noble quest, but Jack resists for as long as possible.

That's all grist for Williams' manic mill, but while he certainly hurls his whole hairy body (on full display in one scene... fair warning) into Parry's most delusional moments, he remains controlled in other scenes, particularly when craftily pitching woo (“I have a hard on for you the size of Florida.”) at his love interest, the shy, bookish Lydia (Amanda Plummer, also very good though in a smaller role than the others.) Williams is sometimes a little irritating and more than a little mawkish as he works those puppy dog eyes and scraggly beard, but it's the kind of performance that just keeps gnawing at you and is one you're unlikely to forget, at the very least for the earworming lyric “I like New York in June.”

Compelling characters and fine performances from all the major players. So what's not to like? Well, there's the little problem of the pie-eyed fairy tale premise which seems terribly precious to me but I suppose it's a “You either buy into it or you don't” kind of thing. First-time feature screenwriter Richard LaGravenese took the risk of investing fully in his romantic conceit and won the admiration of producer Lynda Obst who battled for the project for years and enlisted other enthusiastic collaborators, so plenty of smart people bought. But the script relies far too heavily on the “magical homeless man” as a device for my taste. Not just Parry, but also sanitized, user-friendly sources of wisdom and comic relief from characters played by Michael Jeter, Tom Waits, and others who exist primarily to help Jack to complete his hero's journey.

It all still holds together until the final act careens wildly off the rails (Ed. Note: I just read a review that asserts the second act, easily my favorite stretch, stumbles but the flawless final act redeems the whole movie – everyone's got an opinion, huh?) The humbled Jack has spent nearly two hours ostensibly being redeemed by his interactions with Parry and friends (and Anne, of course), chucks it all in the dustbin in an instant, then abruptly re-reverses course at the slightest prompting in order to launch an unconvincing effort to complete Parry's quixotic quest.

Yes, it's another act of kindness but one that feels motivated strictly by the dictates of the plot rather than character. Furthemore, the suggestion that a friendly gesture is all that's needed to cure Parry's mental illness comes off as cheap, if not outright demeaning. I realize it's make-believe, but it's a bit of make-believe that leaves me a bit queasy; in general, the film's treatment of trauma feels rather facile. It also doesn't help that Anne is barely around for the final half hour as Ruehl's assured vitality is sorely missed.

There's little about the final act that invites an ironic reading except for the presence of director Terry Gilliam who was brought on board after a series of directors, including James Cameron, were previously attached to LaGravenese's hot potato spec script. Gilliam had little interest in directing a film he hadn't written but was convinced that the project would suit his idiosyncratic sensibilities and that he would have the creative control that had been denied him on previous studio projects. 

That seems to be the case here, but it's hard not to think back to the bitter struggles for the soul of Gilliam's masterpiece “Brazil” (1985) and its vilified, studio-mandated “Love Conquers All” ending. Anne is actually given the line “Amor Vincit Omnia” (Latin for “Love Conquers All”) and it's tempting to read it as a warning of what's to come in a finale which doesn't seem much different in spirit to that disowned version of “Brazil.” Perhaps Gilliam was in a different mood or preferred to respect LaGravenese's script, but it's hard to reconcile the ending of “The Fisher King” with the rest of Gilliam's work. And in many ways this is the least overtly Gilliam-esque Gilliam film. There are a few fish-eye lenses thrown on for distortion, a fantasia dance sequence at Grand Central Station, and a Red Knight roaming the streets of New York, but “The Fisher King” is more grounded in reality than most of the director's work. 

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Since Criterion did not include the usual language of “original aspect ratio” I checked and it appears the original was 1.85:1. The transfer is listed as being “approved by Terry Gilliam” so I guess this was his choice. There are quite a few night scenes and darker indoor sequences in the film, and this 1080p transfer provides impressive detail in the gloomiest, moodiest shots by cinematographer Roger Pratt. Image detail is sharp throughout.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is one of the most dynamic recent mixes from Criterion. The lossless audio offers an impressive sense of depth, preserving some of the more expressionistic sound design as well as the fine score by George Fenton. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has absolutely stacked the deck on this Blu-ray release.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Terry Gilliam. This was originally recorded in 1991 for the laser disc release. It's hard to believe we're deep enough into the post-VHS video age that we can have a commentary track a quarter century old. I haven't had a chance to listen to it but I know it's been much admired by fans for quite some time now.

The disc includes six Deleted Scenes running a total of 8 minutes. These are unfinished scenes which are presented with footage from the final cut to provide context for where they would have appeared. Nothing too revelatory here. Optional audio commentary by Terry Gilliam.

The meatiest extras are two new interviews with cast and crew, including Gilliam, Obst, LaGravenese, Bridges, Ruehl, and Plummer. This could have been included as a single hour-long interview but has been broken up into two half-hour interviews that cut back and forth among the various participants. The first of these (titled “The Fool And The Wounded King”) packs in quite a bit of information about the film's production with producer Lynda Obst still over the moon about what she claims is the greatest screenplay she has ever read. Obst helped rescue the project from Disney (who had no idea what to do with it) and to protect it until the right director came along. Ruehl also speaks eloquently about how the film's subject connected with her own studies of literature, psychology, and myth. The second interview (“The Real and the Fantastical”) isn't quite as compelling, but is still worth watching.

“The Tale Of The Red Knight” (23 min.) gets off to a slow start, but eventually gives artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds the chance to talk about creating one of the film's most prominent special effects. I felt this was a bit too long but it still has some good stuff.

We also get two extras focusing on Jeff Bridges. “Jeff and Jack” (20 min.) relates how Bridges learned to portray a shock jock under the tutelage of acting coach/former radio talk show host Stephen Bridgewater. “Jeff's Tale” (12 min.) gives Bridges a chance to show off his photography skills. Bridges has taken many photographs on his shoots over the years with his Widelux Camera (described by Bridges as a panning still camera). He likes to put together books of photos to give to cast and crew members. Here he shares some stills from the set of “The Fisher King” along with commentary.

“Robin's Tale” (19 min.) is a 2006 interview with Williams in which he talks about his experience on the film, particularly the excitement and challenge of shooting on New York locations, often at night.

We also get a brief assemblage of Costume Test footage (3 min.) with the four major actors.

The collection wraps up with 9 full minutes of Trailers.

The somewhat awkwardly designed fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.

Final Thoughts:
I usually start reviews by referencing the director. This time I think I set a personal record for latest mention of a major auteur. Perhaps that's because this only feels partially like a Terry Gilliam film to me which certainly doesn't make it bad, but does explain why it's probably my least favorite Gilliam. However, it does offer some of the best acting in any Gilliam movie and that's enough for me to enjoy “The Fisher King” even with significant reservations about the ending. This Criterion high-def presentation is magnificent with a splendid high-def transfer and a passel of extras. They've release a lot of Gilliam and here's hoping that one day not too far in the future we'll be enjoying the three-disc super-deluxe Blu-ray release of “Terry Gilliam's 'Don Quixote.'”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Bridge

THE BRIDGE (Wicki, 1959)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 23, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

After all of one day of basic training, a group of impossibly fresh-faced German teenagers is rushed out into the field, assigned to defend their hometown bridge against the advancing Allied forces. When fighting breaks out, the kids (the oldest is barely sixteen) are both terrified and excited, stoked up on just enough nationalistic propaganda to dream of glory, but matured enough by wartime suffering to know that death is not an abstraction. They shoot wildly, celebrate every small victory like they'd just scored a goal, and somehow find a way to stand their ground in a mismatched battle that pits their puny grenade launchers and malfunctioning machine guns against an American tank column.

At this point, near the end but with a few grueling sequences left that will feel like forever, “The Bridge” (1959) cuts away abruptly from this courageous stand to a nearby house where savvier veteran soldiers have wisely maintained a low profile (i.e., hidden out). An officer curses “the idiots” out there; if they had just let the Americans through, they could have blown up the bridge by now and been done with this useless target.

It's a nasty way of undermining what seems to be the only redeeming aspect of the battle, but that's really director Bernhard Wicki's entire point. This battle, like the entire war, is utterly senseless and audiences are not meant to take away any heartwarming lessons about resiliency or bravery, only to shake their heads at the utter futility and stupidity of it all.

Plenty of war films had explored such bleak territory before, Stanley Kubrick's magnificent “Paths of Glory” (1957) being the first to leap to mind, but “The Bridge” is often credited with being the first post-war German film to tackle the subject with so little sentimentality, as an indisputable anti-war film that sings no hymns of courage to the fatherland. What's surprising is that Wicki pulls off this trick without portraying anyone as an outright villain, with the possible exception of the officers who secrete themselves in bunkers and war rooms well away from the baby faces they will order to their deaths. The commandant who “trains” the children actually assigns them the insignificant task of defending an insignificant bridge because he hopes it will protect them from the worst of the action; that he is mistaken is a testament that he is playing a game with no winning moves.

Wicki was an established actor whose only previous directorial experience was on a documentary. For his narrative feature debut, he optioned the rights to a recent popular novel by Gregor Dorfmeister (using the pen name Manfred Gregor) which recounts, in condensed form, the author's experience as a sixteen-year-old conscript who was the sole survivor of a similar battle in his Bavarian home town.

Presumably, both Dorfmeister and Wicki deserve credit for the vivid sense of place and detail that makes the film feel so authentic. Removing the flashback structure of the novel, the film begins shortly before the fight where life is as normal as it can be during what everyone hopes are the final days of the war. Parents look on with fear every minute, praying that their boys, busy flirting with girls and playing in treehouses that will later become gun turrets, can hold out just a few weeks more and be spared the suffering of their fathers and older brothers. The kids, meanwhile, eagerly await the arrival of their draft notices; unfortunately their wishes are fulfilled as the German war machine has run out of spare parts.

The film employs a few heavy-handed techniques, including a couple of fades that mash together some too-conveniently-matched images as clunky transitions, but mostly strikes a naturalistic tone with leisurely tracking shots that match the easy pace of childhood (even during war) eventually giving way to the more frenzied cutting of battle and its gallery of frightened young faces. The fog-shrouded bridge sequences move into more surreal territory but in the context of the insanity of teenage boys being asked to pick up guns and fire into the darkness, who's to say there's any functional difference between real and surreal.

Wicki's film was a critical and commercial success, both at home and abroad, and netted an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Picture. It brought Wicki an opportunity to direct in Hollywood with stars such as Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando, but a follow-up hit proved elusive. Wicki returned to Germany and only directed a few more films, settling instead for being a larger-than-life figure (in physical stature as well as by reputation) and a mentor of sorts, more by inspiration than direct collaboration, to the directors who would comprise much of the New German Cinema and who were in desperate need of a veteran role model even while they were gleefully rejecting “papa's cinema.”

If Wicki never quite eclipsed his debut narrative feature, consider it the peril of starting near the top.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Shoddy clips from the “Against The Grain” extra (see below) give you a sense of just how much restoration wen into this 2K transfer. The black-and-white photography is bright though with a fairly modest level of contrast. Image sharpness is a bit below the topline Criterion high-def transfers and you'll see the occasional slight soft spot here and there, but this is a very strong transfer that handles some trickier scenes like the fog-shrouded night sequences quite well.

The linear PCM Mono track is clean and efficient with a slightly flat sound throughout. Nothing spectacular but no flaws to speak of either. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Criterion has included several short extras on this Blu-ray release.

A new interview with novelist Gregor Dorfmeister (2015, 23 min.) is easily the most interesting feature in this collection. Dorfmeister was still in his twenties when he published his first novel, “The Bridge.” Interviewed here at age 86 he recounts the startling autobiographical details that inspired his book. He notes that being in the Hitler Youth was fun because it was mostly about playing sports. Another of his novels was adapted as the Kirk Douglas film “Town Without Pity” (1961) but Dorfmeister focused more on his lengthy career as a journalist.

A new interview with German director Volker Schlondorff (2015, 10 min.) provides a brief appreciation of the important role both “The Bridge” and Wicki played for young German audiences and later for the New German directors of the '60s and '70s. Schlondorff describes Wicki as a kind of spiritual godfather to the NGC.

The disc also includes an excerpt (14 min.) from a 1989 episode of the German television show “Das Sonntagsgesprach” in which Wicki discusses his experiences during the war (he was interned in a concentration camp for a year and later left the country) and in making “The Bridge.”

“Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki” (9 min.) is an excerpt from a documentary by the director's widow Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss. This is the only disappointing extra on this set as about half of it consists of clips from the film.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Final Thoughts:
We don't often hear a lot about German cinema from the end of the war until the New German directors rose to prominence. “The Bridge” is one of the more prominent German films of the 1950s and has been presented with a strong transfer and some interesting, if not particularly extensive, extras on this Criterion release.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Master Builder

A MASTER BUILDER (Demme, 2014)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 16, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

In an interview included on this Criterion disc, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn describe Henrik Ibsen's play “The Master Builder” as fundamentally mysterious. Even developing their adaptation of the play (written by Shawn, adapted for the stage by Gregory) over fifteen-plus years of rehearsals they make no claim to have resolved its enigma; perhaps their real accomplishment is to have preserved the tantalizing mystery while updating the play for a different century and, eventually, to the medium of film.

“A Master Builder” (2014) continues the unofficial Gregory-Shawn film trilogy kicked off with the legendary “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) and continued with the much-loved “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1984). The lengthy gaps are a testament to Gregory's unique and oft-discussed process, the deliberate, gradual sculpting of performance over years of periodic rehearsals with only the most minimal and gentle feedback from a director celebrated by actors for his non-judgmental mentoring. The younger members of the cast didn't join the troupe until later in the process, a necessity considering some weren't yet in kindergarten when rehearsals began.

The play was then staged exclusively for tiny audiences of invited friends and family, an intimate process from start to finish. Director Jonathan Demme attended one of the final performances and was so spellbound that he was eager to sign on for the film adaptation, accepting the daunting task of filling the shoes of the great Louis Malle, who helmed the two previous Gregory-Shawn joints. 

In Shawn's re-working of Ibsen, Halvard Solness (also played by Shawn) is a renowned architect fond of erecting towering spires but now laid low by infirmity. Attended by a group of wispy white-clad nurses, he entertains visitors from a hospital bed situated in his living room, hooked up to monitors that beep out the remaining seconds of his life. The insistently vocal reminder of his mortality has made only a dent in an ego that towers above any of his celebrated structures. Asked by an old friend (Gregory) to perform a modest act of kindness and sacrifice to benefit the friend's son (Jeff Biehl) who is also the Master Builder's much-abused assistant, Solness rejects the request indignantly; he has no intention to “step aside” to make way for the younger generation. Let the young man fend for himself, he isn't that talented anyway.

In due course, the film introduces the other major players in what is left of Solness's life, including his (justifiably) paranoid wife Aline (Julie Hagerty), his doting assistant and possible lover Kaia (Emily Cass McDonald), and his skeptical but devoted doctor (Larry Pine). Solness has extracted everything he can from his ample support crew over many years (he even believes he has a mystical power to make people follow his unspoken desires) but it's still not enough to serve his needs.

Enter Hilde Wangel.

It's quite an entrance. Striding into the house seemingly out of nowhere, the 22-year-old makes an immediate impression decked out in her white short shorts. Saucer-eyed, gulping down cubic acres of air and blowing it back out through flared nostrils, Hilde is portrayed by Lisa Joyce as constantly perched on the edge of hysteria, oscillating through a series of cathartic releases that range from manic laughter to wide-eyed wonder to even more manic laughter. 

Hilde is the source of much of the film's mystery. In Shawn's adaptation, she appears in the midst of what is most likely Solness's deathbed delirium (the film's aspect ratio expands from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1 wen Halvard suddenly hops up from his bed and moves freely about the house), but she could just as easily be an angel as a manifestation of the title character's faltering psyche. And just as much avenging succubus as angel. Hilde alternates from accusing Halvard of terrible crimes to turning all her considerable hyperventilating energy to boosting his flagging spirits. She both condemns and rehabilitates the man whom she refers to solemnly as Master Builder, often in the same beat. To what precise purpose, well, I guess that's a mystery.

Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn (who also photographed “Vanya”) shoot the film primarily in hand-held close-ups with the occasional re-orienting zoom, resembling the style popularized in “Homicide: Life on the Street.” It is indisputably filmed theater that is tightly confined to Solness's vast home (aside from a few tracking shots through town, pointed straight up at the sky and the highest steeples in the area) but also quite energetic, perhaps too jarringly so for the more static, talky material.

The performances here are mostly quite stage-intense though nobody else approaches Joyce's level of sustained frenzy; tightly wound and unwound Julie Hagerty comes closest. I admit to a general distaste for such a frenetic style though I respect the effort required to sustain such ferocity. I must confess I also don't quite get the point of the story. This imperious wretch has drained the life from multiple generations of unfortunates who have fallen under his possibly supernatural force of will and so he is visited by a hot young woman who strokes both his hand and his ego... and then what? If it's all just Solness's dying delusion, is he confronting his many shortcomings or merely constructing Hilde as a means of justifying and then avoiding them in his final moments?

If even experts like Gregory and Shawn consider Ibsen's play to be inherently mysterious then perhaps it should end with a question like most good art does. I am certainly not troubled by not fully understanding the magnificent “Last Year At Marienbad” even after a dozen viewings. If I'm left unsatisfied by this story perhaps it's best that I simply admit I am not much of a theater aficionado and certainly am not familiar with Ibsen's work. If you're more of theater buff than I am, “A Master Builder” will probably be right up your alley, and it is, after all, a Gregory-Shawn production which makes it something special right from the get go.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratios of 1.78:1 and 2.35:1. The film was shot in 2K digital and the smooth, grain-free look has been represented faithfully in this high-def transfer. As you would expect, the image quality is sharp and basically flawless.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is crisp and distortion-free with a subtle sense of depth. The quiet, unobtrusive musical track sounds good though it's so darn quiet you might not realize you're actually hearing music at times. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included approximately two hours of extras on this Blu-ray release.

“The Ibsen Project” (2015, 34 min.) is a conversation conducted by critic David Edelstein with Gregory, Shawn, and Demme. The first two do most of the talking with some discussion of their collaborative methods; replicating their roles from “My Dinner with Andre” Shawn is the more rational one while Gregoy acknowledges, “I don't trust the mind” at least in regards to developing a performance.

The disc also includes a combined interview (2015, 33 min.) with actresses Lisa Joyca and Julie Hagerty.

“Over Time” (2015, 53 min.) is a lengthy interview with Shawn and Gregory conducted by author Fran Lebowitz. They speak in great detail about their working relationship and many other subjects.

The disc also includes a brief Trailer for the film.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Michael Sragow.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has released “A Master Builder” on Blu-ray and DVD as an individual title with Spine Number 762. They have also upgraded their prior DVD release of “My Dinner With Andre” with a new Blu-ray version. “Vanya” was already released on Blu-ray in 2012. For die-hard fans who haven't bought any of the titles yet, Criterion has also included all three films in the new boxed set “Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn: 3 Films” which is available in a 3-disc Blu-ray version and a 5-disc DVD version.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Chantal Akerman in the Seventies: Eclipse Series 19

La chambre

Criterion Collection (Eclipse Series), DVD, Release Date January 19, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(An Akerman A Day continues with... five Akermans in one day. How can you beat that kind of value?)

From the lonely confines of a sparsely furnished room to the wide open spaces of the bustling streets of New York, Chantal Akerman’s films of the '70s comprise a unified body of work of remarkable variety. Her films, reasonably labeled as structuralist and characterized by long takes, may rhyme with one another but they seldom repeat.

Both the short film “La Chambre” (1972, 11 min.) and the first half hour of the feature “Je, tu, il, elle” (1975) feature a woman (played by Akerman) alone in a room but they provide strikingly different treatments of cramped domestic spaces. In the silent “La Chambre” a camera (operated by frequent Akerman collaborator Babette Mangolte) pans slowly around a cluttered room. It reveals a red dining chair, a carefully arranged still life with fruit on a table, a chest of drawers and then Akerman lying in bed gazing at the camera and bathed in a soft painterly light streaming from the window. The camera keeps panning, Akerman receiving the same attention as the d├ęcor, and completes three full circles. Each time we see Akerman, she is behaving somewhat differently. Just when the rhythm seems to be set, it is broken as the camera suddenly stops and pivots back left then right again, placing our star more at the center of the arc, setting a new rhythm which is broken yet again by one final move.

Sugar, Sugar

In “Je, tu, il, elle,” Julie (Akerman) lives in self-imposed isolation in a Spartan ground-level apartment. In one shot, she lies on the bed facing the camera in a pose that directly references “La Chambre,” but Akerman has a completely different scheme in mind here. The room starts out cluttered like “La Chambre,” but Julie clears out everything (“An empty room feels larger”) except for a mattress which she sets on the floor. Though there are several camera movements, the enduring image from this sequence is a flat, static composition of Akerman, sometimes naked, sometimes partially clothed, lying or sitting on the mattress. She writes letters (to whom?) which she reads in voice-over while spoon-feeding herself pure white sugar from a brown paper bag. The lighting scheme here is much harsher, heightening the sense of claustrophobia. “La Chambre” was a panorama; the room in “Je, tu, il, elle” is part sanctuary, part prison. 


In “Hotel Monterey” (1972), the camera explores the spaces of a run-down Upper West Side hotel, tracking down hallways or standing inside a moving elevator, following it up and down, and surprising a few would be riders in the process. There aren’t many people in the hotel, however, which is part of its sad story, but even the non-descript hallways and rows of identical doors acquire a dignified beauty as the camera roams ever deeper and higher. Just when we think we’re sealed in this hermetic space, Akerman has a surprise in store for the end. Suddenly, the camera reaches the roof, emerges into daylight and then breaks out into the city itself to provide an outside perspective on the hotel and situate it in the city.

This unexpected movement feels like a transition to the gorgeous feature-length“News from Home” (1976) which takes us to the streets of New York. Images of the city are accompanied on the soundtrack by Akerman reading letters written by her mother. Another rhyme now. In “La Chambre” the story took place in between camera movements, as it panned back to see Akerman in different poses. In “News from Home” the story occurs in between letters which mostly mention minor events or offer pleas for Akerman to write home more often. The letters, not always read in chronological order, indicate changes and invite us to fill in the gaps.

Stylistically, “News from Home” is a tour-de-force. It begins with a series of static shots of alleyways and parked cars before introducing a few short, sharp pans then eventually longer more fluid 360-degree movements. Akerman films above ground and below ground (some of the subway scenes are magnificent), during the day and in the blurry orange-red night. After the camera has been fixed for an hour, it is abruptly set loose. Most of the final half hour of the movie consists of several long tracking shots taken from different vehicles: a street level shot from a car, a higher perspective from an elevated train and a final movement filmed from a boat or ferry. And here’s another rhyming moment, one that resonates with the end of “Hotel Monterey.” After exploring the city so rigorously, the camera breaks free from its urban confines to turn back and record a broader view from the river. As the camera gradually sails away, we see more and more of the retreating city skyline. If you don’t feel a twinge when the World Trade Center finally comes into view, there’s something wrong with you.

These abrupt ruptures are a common feature for Akerman. Her magnum opus “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975) meticulously traces the daily chores of its title character but ends with a sudden plot development that completely ruptures what seemed to be a rigid structure. Likewise, these explosions into open space in “Hotel Monterey” and “News from Home” as well the final camera movement in “La Chambre” refuse the easy comfort of strict rules.

And, rhyme time again, Akerman pulls off a similar, but not identical, trick in “Je, tu, il, elle.” After spending a half hour watching Julie alone in her room we expect the entire film to unspool there but suddenly we see a shot of the apartment door and, next thing you know, Julie’s out and about. The film is built around two more discrete segments. The first is a sexual encounter with a trucker who spends nearly ten minutes talking about his penis, and the second a sexual encounter with her ex-girlfriend. The latter is filmed in several long, frank shots of lovemaking that capture the heat and intimacy of the moment yet are shot with such a flat affect (typical of Akerman) that they don’t feel voyeuristic. 


Shot in wide-screen and featuring a more conventional narrative as well as a cast of professional actors, “Les rendez-vous d’Anna” (1978) appears to be the odd duckling in this grouping but it still shares much in common with the other films in the set. Anna (Aurore Clement) is a director who travels from city to city in Europe to help promote her newest film. It’s a damned strange press junket though. We never see the film or hear anything about it, and Anna appears to be the only one making the rounds. The film is a travelogue almost devoid of any sight-seeing features. With the exception of a trip to a not-quite suburb, Anna’s trip consists almost entirely of a series of hotel rooms or public spaces (trains, train stations, etc.). She not only travels alone but seems to wind up in the same place each time. Kind of like “Up in the Air.” Except good. A series of encounters (with a lover, with her mother, with an old family friend) do little to break up the monotony.

Some might think of Akerman’s formalist cinema as stringent, but I’m struck by her sly sense of humor which, curiously enough, frequently centers on food. Poor Jeanne Dielman unable to figure out where to put that pot of cooked potatoes. Akerman in goddess pose in “La Chambre” munching on an apple. Julie shoveling sugar down her throat. A deadpan scene where Julie and the trucker share a meal at a diner and listen to a gaudy American TV show (“Cannon,” I think) that consists mostly of gunshots, sirens and revving motors.

I find Chantal Akerman’s films warm, playful, vital, and thoroughly compelling. The movies in this set offer the very best of her work (aside from the previously released “Jeanne Dielman”) and it’s hard to believe she hadn’t even turned 28 by the time she wrapped shooting on the last film in the set. Akerman is an electric talent like no other.

“Les rendez-vous D’Anna” is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. All other films are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen ratios. “Je, tu, il, elle” is in black-and-white, everything else in color. Though the Eclipse series does not provide restored transfers, the films here look quite good. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of “Je, tu, il, elle” which I have previously only seen on a miserable VHS copy. The harsh lighting scheme and the sharp shadows on the walls stand out vividly here. Some of the darkest shots from inside the truck are lacking, but that’s my only complaint.Overall, I’m thrilled with the transfers here.

“La Chambre” and “Hotel Monterey” are silent. The other films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and there’s not much to say abut the audio design. I wonder if we’re missing some of the richness of the original ambient soundtrack in “News from Home” but I have no way to make that judgment. Optional English subtitles are provided for the sound films.

As with all Eclipse release, no extras are offered with this set. However, as usual, the brief liner notes are very informative.

There are three discs in the set.

Disc One, titled “The New York Films” contains “La Chambre,” “Hotel Monterey,” and “News from Home.” Disc Two has “Je, tu, il, elle” and Disc Three has “Les rendez-vous d’Anna.”

Final Thoughts:
“Jeanne Dielman” is Akerman’s indisputable masterpiece and Criterion’s release of the film was probably the DVD highlight of 2009. “Chantal Akerman in the Seventies” is a marvelous companion offering that shows how deep and rich Akerman's body of work is.

I’m not shy about using the m-word and I’m going to do so again. “Je, tu, il, elle” is a masterpiece that would be the crowning achievement for many directors, and I won’t argue with anyone who applies the same term to “News from Home” or “La Chambre.” I don’t think “Hotel Monterey” is quite in a class with those films but it’s still mesmerizing. “Les rendez-vous d’Anna” is a mild disappointment after her earlier work in the decade, but that’s one hell of a standard to hold someone to. Most filmmakers never dream of making something the caliber of “Anna” and if that’s your “weakest” film of the decade then I’m going to guess that your name is Chantal Akerman.

This is a phenomenal set, perhaps the best the Eclipse series has offered.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

From the Other Side/South

FROM THE OTHER SIDE and SOUTH (Akerman, 2002 and 1999)
Icarus Films, DVD, Release Date April 17, 2012
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Chantal Akerman celebrates a birthday on June 6. I'm celebrating her work with an Akerman A Day the rest of this week.)

In her documentary “From the Other Side” (2002), Chantal Akerman tweaks the old saw “Show, don't tell” to “Show OR tell.”

She keeps the two distinct. In show mode, Akerman's camera glides gracefully along the dusty streets of a Mexican town, or sits implacably still as children play baseball in an open field, with only ambient sounds as accompaniment. In tell mode, the Belgian auteur turns her attention exclusively to her subjects who are framed in modest, static shots as they relate their unadorned stories about the perils of crossing the border into America. No further illustration (save for wisps of a classical score in an opening interview) is either allowed or necessary; testimony is a cinematic event unto itself.

The film begins on the Mexican side of the border as a young man talks about his older brother who was abandoned by coyotes (paid “guides” who smuggle immigrants across the border) to fend for himself in the Arizona desert. Later, a woman speaks about her son and grandson who died during a crossing. 

In this latter shot, Akerman and her crew are visible in the reflection of a television screen, and an off-screen voice asks a few questions in Spanish, but for the most part, the director cedes the stage to her subjects. Combined with the tracking shots through town (one virtuoso shot trails a long line of traffic at a border checkpoint, then peels off at the last second to remain in Mexico), Akerman assumes the persona of a visitor who is probing the surface with the keen eye of a trained observer, but also with the humility of a stranger who cannot claim any sense of authority over complex matters or the subjects who know their stories best.

The film provides eloquent witness to the perils of turn-of-the-century U.S. Immigration policy which made it more difficult for immigrants to get into cities like San Diego, with the side-effect of forcing them into far more dangerous crossings in the Southwestern desert. But Akerman isn't presumptuous enough to offer solutions to intransigent issues that have vexed locals for decades. She is there to record, with a sense of melancholy and compassion, the attitudes of people on both sides of the border. Later in the film, she hops over to Douglas, AZ, speaking first to the Mexican consul, then later to a sheriff who at least provides the impression of a balanced attitude towards “the problem” though whether he's playing nice for the camera is harder to say.

Akerman could take the opportunity to underscore the parochialism of an Arizona couple who expresses some outsized paranoia about the immigrant population, but the choice to let them speak for themselves is eloquent enough in its own right. I've read some complaints about Akerman not providing enough “facts” for an in-depth analysis, but I'm not sure how the first-hand testimony of bereaved relatives and Arizona residents doesn't qualify as “fact.” The director isn't out to shoot a “60 Minutes” segment. What she has provided instead is a sober, stately and respectful portrait, and if she resists overt commentary, the somber tone suggests that she most certainly has an opinion on the subject – just no cheap “click on my website” style solutions to offer.

Akerman is even more self-effacing in the documentary “South” (1999), provided as a bonus on the second disc of this set from Icarus Films. She planned a “meditation” on the South, but the film changed its focus when James Byrd Jr., an African-American man, was chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged to his death by three men claimed to be white supremacists. The murder shook the small town of Jasper, TX and, far too briefly, the rest of the nation.

Akerman uses a similar strategy as in “From the Other Side,” employing tracking shots through town (including one that may be a retracing of the pick-up truck's route) and no-frills interviews with locals, as well as a lengthy sequence filmed at Byrd's funeral service. The facts are shocking enough, but I let out a gasp when one African-American woman noted quite matter-of-factly that there “isn't as much lynching” as in the old days. Not as much, mind you, but still some. 

Both films are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers. “South” is the weaker of the two transfers, suffering from mediocre image detail throughout, something visible even in the first shot as the lettering on a church sign isn't in sharp resolution. However, the transfer is acceptable enough that it doesn't interfere with the viewing experience. “From the Other Side” fares better. Image detail isn't exactly razor sharp and the colors are a bit wan at times, but overall the picture is solid enough to do justice to the director's painterly compositions.

The Dolby Digital Stereo tracks aren't particularly dynamic, but the ambient sound on the tracking shots in “From the Other Side” is deep enough to convey the desired effect. I had a problem with the volume level on “South.” No subtitles are provided and I needed to crank the volume to double the normal level to make out all of the dialogue. However, that's a minor enough issue. English subtitles are provided (and are non-optional) for the Spanish dialogue (but not the English) in “From the Other Side.”

The films are housed on separate discs in this two-disc collection. The disc with “From the Other Side” includes a five-minute clip from Akerman's magnificent film “From The East” (1993), also released by Icarus a few years ago. Otherwise, there are no extras.

Final Thoughts:
While we might all hope for more souped-up releases with restored transfers and piles of extras, it's fantastic that Icarus has now released three of Chantal Akerman's recent and lesser-seen documentaries. I wouldn't rank either of these with her phenomenal “From the East,” but that's a tough standard. “From the Other Side” and “South” are excellent additions to anyone's library.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

From The East

FROM THE EAST, AKA D'EST (Akerman, 1993)
Icarus Films, DVD, Release Date October 6, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Chantal Akerman, one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half century, turns 65 on June 6. I will be celebrating her work by re-posting an "Akerman A Day" the rest of this week.)

An empty train platform at night – a car whizzes by in the background.

A window opens out onto a country road – more cars glide past, barely glimpsed.

A man sits on a bench staring at the camera and waiting for… something.

An older woman walks along the street, the camera tracking her journey.

Tourists luxuriate on an isolated beach as an off-screen singer carries a tune.

It’s tempting to review Chantal Akerman’s “From the East” (“D’est,” 1993) by providing a catalog of its sounds and images because that’s precisely what the film is, an intimate record of what Akerman saw and heard on her trip through post-Wall Eastern Europe in the early '90s.

“From the East” is not a traditional documentary, not that there is any such thing. Akerman provides no voice-over, no on-screen titles to indicate place or time, no narrative through-line. Instead she (re)constructs her travelogue as a full sensory immersion into her journey through East Germany, Poland (where Akerman's parents were born), Moscow and points in-between. Ambient soundscapes are every bit as important as what the camera shows and may, at times, provide only the impression of having been recorded in synch with the image.

In an essay included with this disc, Akerman writes, “I’d like to shoot everything. Everything that moves me.” And she is moved by people, landscapes, public spaces, objects, music, movement, summer, winter, day, night and even the most banal chores, the latter of which is no surprise to anyone who has seen her magisterial “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975). 

The film is an exercise in variations, a balancing act between opposite or complementary elements: interior/exterior, domestic/public, stasis/motion, noise/silence, city/rural, people/objects, crowds/individuals. In many scenes, she shoots people who are unaware of the camera, filming spontaneously as they go about their business. In other shots, individuals are carefully arranged like models as they stare at the camera. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the crowd shots were partially staged as well. 

The two major motifs of the film are travel and performance. Trains, buses and cars are major players in the film, cues that remind us of Akerman’s journey. They also provide evidence of fellow travelers, people waiting (there is so much waiting in this movie) in line at the station, their route briefly intersecting hers. As for performance, most of the audible dialogue (none of which is subtitled, and shouldn’t be) comes from singers, some heard off-screen, some on. In the film’s penultimate scene, a woman (Natalia Chakhovskaia) plays cello for an enthralled audience (never seen, only heard later) and accepts congratulatory flowers. Perhaps she’s a stand-in for Akerman the performer or, more likely, another person who moves the director.

With its long, deliberately-paced shots (both stationary and tracking), “From the East” begs to be looked at and listened to (don't ignore this, Akerman has seldom been one to let sound play second fiddle to image) with great care. In this regard the film serves a “documentary” function, providing audio-visual evidence of specific times and places even if they aren’t indicated in the film. I’m sure they elicit different responses (nostalgia perhaps) from people familiar with them than they do for viewers whose life experience is exclusively “From the West.”

“From the East” is a truly beautiful film, mysterious, absorbing and mesmerizing. Not to be missed.

The film is presented in a 1.33:1 full-screen ratio. The interlaced transfer is not restored and it shows some of the damage from the source print, some scratches and debris but not enough to be a distraction. More problematic is a rather hazy image quality throughout, a shortcoming that is visible in the screencaps interspersed throughout this review. It would be nice to see a pristine restoration to showcase the gorgeous cinematography, but we'll take this serviceable copy of a difficult-to-find and essential film.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No subtitles are provided even for the limited dialogue (mostly sung) that is heard in the film. They’re not supposed to be subtitled.

There are no extras on the DVD but the liner notes include a very helpful essay/statement of purpose by Chantal Akerman.

Final Thoughts:
“From The East” is a film that defies easy categorization. It’s a documentary in the same way the Werner Herzog’s desert travelogue “Fata Morgana”(1970) is a documentary which is to say that it depends on your definition of the term. Forget categories. Let’s just say it has an ineffable quality that makes it as much an experience as a movie. “Jeanne Dielman” is indisputably Akerman’s masterpiece, but “From the East” is one of her finest achievements. Thanks to Icarus for bringing this to a home audience.