Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Here Is Your Life

HERE IS YOUR LIFE (Troell, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 14, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Jan Troell's debut feature “Here Is Your Life” (1966) does not lack for ambition. Adapting four autobiographical novels by Swedish author Eyvind Johnson, the 168-minute film relates the coming-of-age story of teenage protagonist Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) at a leisurely pace that reflects the rhythms of rural northern Sweden circa 1916, making for a mellow but still sweeping epic.

Olof is provided no idyllic beginning. In the opening scene he is leaving his foster family, with whom he has stayed because of illness and poverty in his own home, to strike out on his own at the ripe old age of fourteen. Though Sweden remained neutral during World War I the global conflict has still roiled the homefront and he faces the limited set of grim choices available to the disenfranchised working class of the time.

He finds hard work logging on a river which eventually leads into his next job at a sawmill. Life is a constant challenge and death can arrive suddenly in pre-union workplaces, but he finds his share of solidarity among the workers, mostly older men through whom he gleans the lessons that will guide him into adulthood. He doesn't start smiling much until he lands a gig working at a movie theater though the improvement in his mood may have something to do with the fact that there are finally a few girls around. Olof will dally with his share of lovers both his age and older; the intermittent presence of forty-something Olivia (Bergman veteran Ulla Sjöblom), queen of the shooting gallery, provides some of the film's most memorable moments.

Troell, who also co-wrote and photographed the film, is at his best when depicting the details of life on the job, no doubt an outgrowth of his training as a documentarian. Shots of toothy saws buzzing and men hopping along makeshift rafts on the river draw the viewer into Olof's daily existence and that of his fellow travelers. Cinephiles will probably respond strongly once Olof starts working as a projectionist for a traveling road show, meticulously lighting the lamp and then turning the hand-cranked Pathé projector for audiences thrilling to the wonder of silent cinema.

Troell's ambition extends beyond kitchen-sink realism, though, and he winds up throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in a stylistic hodge-podge that owes more than a bit to the Nouvelle Vague. The film is shot in luminous black-and-white but a sudden splash of hand-tinted abstract color provides a poetic charge that infuses young Olof's journey with a romantic aura. Somewhat less successful, to me at least, is the use of periodic freeze frames that feel more like a self-conscious distraction than an enhancement. “Here Is Your Life” is generally at its most effective when at its most straight-forward.

The aforementioned black-and-white photography by Troell is sometimes startlingly beautiful, especially with its foregrounding of the natural environment that inevitably defines much of Olof's character. Rivers, trees and sprawling farmland transform with the progression of seasons and Troell's camera patrols vertically as well as sweeping the horizon, providing glimpses of scudding clouds and wooden structures stretching to the skies, echoing the dreams of our restless protagonist.

For all the beauty of the landscape, the enduring image is the face of that dreamer, a deceptively innocent naif who soaks in every experience like a sponge. The most notable running motif in the film is Olof's obsession with reading; he consumes words greedily whether on discarded pages of newspaper or in books he salvages along the way. He reads by flashlight at night, he even reads while sawing wood which might cause viewers a few anxious moments each time one hand gets close to the blade while another reaches to turn a page. 

Watching Olof read so much provides us the opportunity to grow along with him as he acquires the kinds of new ideas that will make it difficult for a rigid class society to contain him in his defined role. He becomes increasingly radicalized by Marxist ideology and the jokes he tells with a fellow railroad worker about all the bosses they plan to line up and shoot when the revolution finally comes start to sound less and less like jokes. Fortunately the action wraps before Olof, somewhere in the vicinity of eighteen, organizes his first firing squad. It's easier to like him that way.

Growing up with Olof helps make some of the duller stretches of the film more bearable because most of us remember just how boring growing up really is (while we hold out hope that adulthood will eventually get more interesting). It is admittedly a trial at nearly three hours and stumbles from time to time with its more heavy-handed stylistic choices, but it's also a vivid and memorable portrait of a young man, a region and its workers.

Also, Max Von Sydow shows up in one scene.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The restored high-def transfer has a pleasing grain structure that highlights the stark black-and-white photography. The few color sections look quite vivid as well. Both close-ups and landscape shots show up the sharp image detail present throughout. Very little damage is noticeable on this nearly 50-year-old film.

The LPCM Mono track can best be described as efficient and functional. There's not much in the way of depth but there probably isn't supposed to be. The score by Erik Nordgren isn't exactly resonant but it's strong enough. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio.

Criterion hasn't fully loaded the deck as they often do, but they've dug up a few useful extras.

Director Mike Leigh (2014, 5 min.) provides an appreciative introduction for the film.

Jan Troell speaks with film scholar Peter Cowie (2015, 34 min.) about his early days in cinema, the changes in Swedish film production (increased government subsidies) that helped pave the way for his debut and his creative partnership with producer and co-writer Bengt Forslund.

The disc also includes new interviews with actor Eddie Axberg (2015, 16 min.) who was 17-y.o. when he was cast, and with producer/writer Bengt Forslund (2015, 15 min.).

Criterion has also included the short film “Interlude in the Marshland” (1965, 30 min.) which was Troell's segment of the omnibus film “4 x 4.” This was also based on a story by Eyvind Johnson and stars Max Von Sydow.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Final Thoughts:
I usually run screaming in the other direction when I read the phrase “coming-of-age tale” and I will admit that there were moments I wished the film would lose about 45 minutes of running time as it indeed did for its brief and unsuccessful North American release. But maybe I'm just a sucker for characters who read and also for Scandinavia because I found Olof (and his country) interesting enough to take the long, slow journey with him.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 14, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

Alain Resnais' landmark debut feature “Hiroshima Mon Amour' (1959) exists at a permeable border where the past bleeds into the present, documentary intersects with fiction, and the individual blurs into the collective.

An unnamed French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) travels to Hiroshima (where the hypocenter of the bomb that killed over sixty thousand has already morphed into a memorial site called Peace Square) to shoot a film. She meets an unnamed Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and they carry on a brief, passionate affair, initially portrayed in purely physical terms as the film opens with close-ups of their intertwined bodies covered by glittering silt, but later blossoming into an even more intense form of intimacy.

The opening sequences bear witness to the fact that Resnais was initially commissioned to shoot a short documentary, a form he had already mastered in extraordinary films such as “Statues Also Die” (1953), “Night and Fog” (1955) and “Le chant du Styrene” (1959), the latter being one of the most unlikely masterpieces of all-time: an achingly beautiful movie about a polystyrene factory. This early portion of the film combines footage from the modern city (hospital corridors, the Peace Memorial Museum with its brightly-lit atomic display) with archival footage of Hiroshima victims while our protagonists debate in voice-over. She says, “I saw everything.” He says, “You saw nothing.”

We don't even see either of their faces until the sixteen-minute mark when, as if a spell is broken, the film lurches firmly into both the present and the fictional as the lovers share a bed, a shower and drinks out on the town. Information is doled out slowly. After an early shot shows her wedding ring as she digs her fingers into his back, we learn that they are both married (contentedly, they claim) and also both struggling with their own traumas.

Through the intricate use of flashbacks, Resnais suggests that the past (trauma) is eternally present, a defining quality of the often uncomfortably intimate (even navel-gazing) screenplay by then-established novelist and future filmmaker Marguerite Duras. While their bodies were close before, their minds (or spirits, if you prefer) mingle even closer as she unloads a lifetime of despair by revealing the tragic outcome of her teenage first love during the Occupation in Nevers, France. The knowledge that he is the first person she has ever shared her story with turns him on more than any roll in the hay.

Her personal loss coincided, more or less, with the Hiroshima bombing. How can she still obsess over a doomed teenage romance (no matter how badly it ended) while visiting the site of a recent historical mass killing? The script and film suggest that the answer is simple: because she's human. Pain is subjective. 

Resnais used different cinematographers and different film stock to stage the flashback scenes set in France (shot by Sacha Vierny) and the contemporary scenes shot in Japan (Michio Takahashi), but the constant cutting back and forth between time frames along with her increasingly frantic voice-over merges the two into one flowing stream. These may well be the images she sees every time she closes her eyes and those memories are as much “now” to her as her affair with the architect, so much so she begins to confuse this new man with her lost lover.

From her perspective, the bombing is something “they” did, not just a reference to Americans vs. French but to the “they” who were obsessed with the war while she was obsessed with “dime-store romance.” From his perspective, she is they. Summarizing the Hiroshima he assures he she knows nothing about, he says of the bombing, “The whole world rejoiced and you rejoiced with it.” Whatever meeting of the minds (and spirits) they have had, they will never be one.

The film's unusual narrative structure makes it difficult to describe, but the far more challenging aspect is the intricate, affective score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. As several commentators have noted, Resnais often sought out writers who had a musical quality and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is inextricably linked to a score that never strikes the obvious chord, never settles for underscoring the obvious emotion. Alas, critics not trained in music simply don't know how to write about it. The film must be seen to be understood but it also must be heard. And this would be true for most of Resnais' work.

The overall experience is both unnerving and unshakeable. It's also a unique experience that makes it tough, more than half a century later, to view “Hiroshima Mon Amour” as truly being part of the first batch of French New Wave films alongside Chabrol's “Le beau Serge” (1958) and Truffaut's “The 400 Blows.” Resnais, like his friend Agnès Varda (whom he helped considerably in post-production on her great 1956 debut film “La Pointe Courte”), was never quite part of the movement defined by the younger (and less broadly erudite) Truffaut, Godard and others. The only film of the time that springs to mind as being particularly similar to “Hiroshima” is Resnais' next movie, the all-time great “Last Year At Marienbad” (1961).

While I prefer “Marienbad” to “Hiroshima” (and also to almost every other film ever made) there's no need to choose between the two. The one-two feature punch of “Hiroshima” and “Marienbad,” following on the heels of several of the greatest short documentaries ever made, rendered Resnais' first decade as a filmmaker one of the greatest first decades by any filmmaker.

The next five decades weren't so bad either.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Criterion originally released “Hiroshima Mon Amour” on DVD in 2003 and I do not own that disc as a point of comparison. This Blu-ray upgrade retains the old Spine Number 196.

The source for this high-def transfer is a 2013 restoration conducted at the Cineteca di Bologna lab with the collaboration of several organizations. The restoration looks pretty fantastic and the high-def transfer shows a film with rich black-and-white contrast and only a few minor instances of damage. As mentioned, the flashback sequences in France and the scenes in Japan were shot by different cinematographers and on different stock. The early portion of the movie also incorporates a lot of archival footage. The video quality obviously varies based on the source but it all looks quite spectacular when assembled here. I have no complaints about this very fine 1080p presentation.

The LPCM Mono audio mix is sharp and sounds appropriately hollow/haunting at times. The score, so integral to the film, sounds quite rich and resonant. Again, no complaints. Optional English subtitles support the mostly French audio.

The Criterion Collection has assembled an impressive collection of extras both old and new.

The film is accompanied by a 2002 audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. This was included on Criterion's 2003 DVD release of “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

The disc include two interviews with Alain Resnais. The first is from 1961, an excerpt (6 min.) from the French TV show “Cinepanorama.” Resnais just stands in front of a wall and talks and he is at his most humble and engaging, describing himself more as an editor than a director and how he feels it's important to ask viewers to “complete” films as a show of solidarity. He is, of course, correct. The second is from 1980, an excerpt (11 min.) from the French TV show “Le cinema de cineastes.” It is audio only (with a still of Resnais showing) in which he talks about the impossibility of filming the bombing of Hiroshima as a subject. He also talks about the different collaborators on the project at various times which included, briefly, Chris Marker.

We also get two interviews with actress Emmanuelle Riva. A 1959 clip (5 min.) is mostly a publicity piece shot at the film's debut at the Cannes Film Festival and doesn't offer too much except the chance to see Riva in 1959. The 2003 interview (19 min.), in which Riva was filmed by the Criterion Collection, is much more substantive.

The disc also offers two new interviews. Film scholar Francois Thomas (2015, 26 min.) discusses both pre-production and shooting of “Hiroshima” in detail. This is a fine analytical piece that had me interested from start to finish. Professor Tim Page (2015, 10 min.) talks about the film score, spotlighting the contributions of both Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco.

The final feature is a piece on the restoration of the film (11 min.) which was conducted in 2013. Davide Pozzi, director of L'immagine ritrovata (the lab where it was done) and cinematographer Renato Berta (who Resnais asked to supervise the restoration) discuss the process. I felt they both rambled off-topic for a while and little more than half of this short feature actually touches on the restoration.

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from a 1959 “Cahiers du Cinema” round-table discussion about the film, including critics and soon-to-be-filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer among others.

Final Thoughts:
Alain Resnais' death last year also means that cinema is all but dead. But then cinema has always been a mausoleum, a fact few directors understood as well as Resnais, so perhaps there's nothing much to worry about. Not as long as we have perfectly-preserved releases like this available for home consumption.

Last Year At Marienbad

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 23, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

As much as any film I can think of, “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) provides the greatest challenge for non-Francophones who need to rely on the subtitles. Viewers glancing down at the words at the bottom of the screen risk getting lost in a movie that demands constant attention because of the overwhelming amount of visual information packed into each frame. Every gesture, every slight variance in posture, the intricate décor of each setting are each crucial to an appreciation, though not necessarily an understanding, of this delightfully divisive head-scratching masterpiece.

Set in a swanky resort hotel at an indeterminate European location, “Marienbad” does not tell a traditional narrative or rely on psychologically motivated characters. The characters don’t even have names but are rather assigned letters in the screenplay. The basic structure, a love triangle of sorts, is elegant in its simplicity. The suave, handsome X (Giorgio Albertazzi) attempts to convince the beautiful and impeccably dressed A (Delphine Seyrig) that they had met the previous year. Perhaps in Frederiksbad or perhaps at Marienbad. She does not believe him, but he badgers her with memories so detailed they include whether she turned to her left or right or how she placed her arm on a balcony. He acts more like an academic than a would-be lover, trying to impress her with the sheer amount of research he has conducted on the topic. Throughout, the etiolated figure of M (Sacha Pitoëff), who may be her husband, lurks constantly along the fringes of the action.

“Marienbad” is the product of one of the most remarkable director/writer collaborations in cinema history. Alain Resnais had previously worked with the great writers Jean Cayrol (“Night and Fog,” 1955) and Marguerite Duras (“Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” 1959) and now paired off with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Resnais obviously had his type. Robbe-Grillet, like Duras and Cayrol, was a pioneer of the nouveau roman, a French literary movement that broke with traditional conventions of story telling, relying on “objective” descriptions of environment and actions rather than delving into the character’s psychological motivations

At the behest of a producer friend, the two men met and struck up an instant friendship, finding that they shared an artistic vision. An eager Robbe-Grillet volunteered to write four proposals for Resnais from which he would choose one to film. Resnais loved all four but picked “Last Year” (“at Marienbad” was added later). Robbe-Grillet then produced an extraordinarily detailed shooting script that specified movements and audio cues and handed it off to Resnais who filmed it in a mostly faithful manner. Robbe-Grillet would later play up some of the ways he was displeased with Resnais’ adaptation, but it’s hard to tell how much of this was just for the sake of publicity or the general pleasure artists take in bitching about other artists.

“Marienbad” begins with a disembodied voice that describes in detail “this baroque, gloomy hotel where one endless corridor follows another.” This opening narration is repeated three times as the camera tracks through this “edifice of a bygone era.” The repetition of dialogue establishes the film’s recursive structure but also provides relief for the viewer who can look away from the words and soak up the images floating by: the ornately designed ceilings, the leviathan chandeliers, and those “endless corridors” that sprawl to a distant vanishing point.

Finally the camera settles on an audience staring raptly at what we soon learn is a stage. They are motionless save for the occasional eye blink. So is the actress on stage, and when we first hear her voice, it is also free-floating, unconnected to her image. It isn’t even necessarily her though the editing would strongly suggest so. The film toys with the relationship of sound and image throughout.

Though we haven’t met our (sort of) characters yet (M is featured in an early close-up, but we don’t yet know his significance), the film has been set up with remarkable efficiency. “Marienbad” is a movie of repetitions, some exact, some with slight variations, and it’s the variations that tell the story though they are so subtle and varied it’s impossible to piece them together in a definitive manner.

As words and movements are repeated, the film shifts both in time and setting. A character begins to turn in one room and finishes the maneuver in another. The shifts aren’t clearly delineated, but the primary marker is A’s penchant for changing wardrobe, most notably from a stylish black dress to a white feathered peignoir. “Marienbad” is rightfully celebrated by many for the prominence of its fashion designs by Chanel as well as its formal innovations. Just as enduring is the geometrically-designed topiary with its otherworldly triangular bushes and painted-on shadows, one of several elements that may remind viewers of Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). 

As X endlessly rehashes their alleged prior meeting, A’s polite dismissal turns more desperate as it seems that she is actively suppressing a memory. Trauma was a frequent theme for Resnais and few directors did it better. The film suggests that their prior meeting may have involved a rape though the staging frustrates any definitive reading (Resnais denies the rape element, but it seems too obvious to ignore). X’s resolve also crumbles. The more detailed his memories, the more he begins to doubt them which, if you think about it, is precisely the way memory works. Perhaps she actually turned left, or maybe she was wearing a different outfit. Was she sitting on the bed or lying on it? And was it Frederiksbad or Marienbad? And if I can’t remember that, can I trust my memory at all? Memory was also the dominant theme of “Night and Fog” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” as well as subsequent Resnais films such as “Muriel” (1963) and “Je t’aime, je t’aime” (1968). 

Delphine Seyrig was in three of the greatest films ever made: Resnais' “Marienbad” and “Muriel” as well as Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai duCommerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975) and she is one of my favorite actresses (see also her against-type turn as a Communist super hero in William Klein's delirious “Mr. Freedom.”) In “Marienbad,” her performance doesn’t consist of what most people consider traditional acting but rather a series of carefully calibrated poses and gestures. Seyrig repeats poses across time frames and locations, particularly one sinuous and vulnerable one which suggests a silent film heroine pleading for mercy. Statues figure prominently in the set design and the narrative (such as it is) and the people can properly be considered statues as well. As A, Seyrig is one of the most memorable shapes ever shown on screen, and not just because Ms. Seyrig was so shapely. 

Games also loom large in “Marienbad.” M, the maybe husband of A, is seen most often in the parlor playing a game that annoys the bejeezus out of everyone else at the resort. It involves an alignment of sticks or cards into four odd-numbered rows and is a game which M states, “I can lose, but which I always win.” He always does, but it may be the only game he wins, as X continually chips away at A’s resolve and maybe (everything here is a maybe) wins her from him. The game, for anyone who is curious, is actually called Nim and, as configured in the film, the second player can always win if he plays perfectly. It’s not a stretch to view X as the second player in the game for A though it may be a stretch to say that he plays perfectly.

I’m normally resistant to interpreting polysemous films like “Marienbad,” but the gaming motif is such a tease that it’s difficult to resist. Rather than call it an interpretation, I’d rather discuss my favorite perspective on the film, a game I like to play to enhance my enjoyment of it. Like many people, I think “Marienbad” works as a ghost story of sorts though one with a science-fiction twist. The stillness of so many actors evokes the feel of a mausoleum or a wax museum and there are many hints dropped in the voice-over that they, like the hotel, are products of a “bygone era.” X, M and A are trapped in a time loop, reliving a past traumatic experience over and over again, but each time once more removed from the actual experience. In this sense they are more holograms than ghosts. If you slice away part of a hologram, the entire image is still present but it loses some resolution, becoming more diffuse with each cut. With each repetition, what is left of X, M and A likewise becomes more diffuse and so do their memories of what happened back in the ever-receding real world. Enough times through the loop and they will eventually dissipate altogether.

Please ignore that take. I don’t intend it as an effort to uncover the movie’s real meaning because that would miss the point entirely. This is a movie about movie-making first and foremost. In many shots, the characters are frozen and only lurch into movement after the camera has settled on them. Like all movie characters, they literally do not exist when the camera is not filming them. Go ahead, look, you won’t see them if they’re not in the frame.

“Marienbad” is primarily a movie about the objects that are filmed, including the people-objects that serve as our protagonists, or rather about their surfaces because cinema is and can only be about surfaces. That’s not Delphine Seyrig after all but only an image of her captured on film and now transferred into a digital format (the hologram metaphor makes more sense now). All films are products a “bygone era” the instant they are recorded.

With its array of startling images from cinematographer Sacha Vierny, its unprecedented exploration of architectural space and its teasingly complex narrative structure, “Last Year at Marienbad” is a film that divided audiences when it was released and continues to do so today. For some, it is the ultimate manifestation of pseudo-intellectual pretension. To others, the ones who know what the hell they’re talking about, it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and an experience unrivaled in cinema.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

With black-and-white photography that varies in contrast from scene to scene, with one famous shot intended to look almost completely whited out, it’s hard to evaluate any restored transfer. Indeed, as one of the extras on the DVD recounts, the film was a bitch for theaters to piece together because of what appeared to be some “incorrect” timing that some exhibitors saw fit to “correct” on their own.

Considering that this transfer is approved by director Alain Resnais, it’s safe to assume it’s pretty close to the original intention. Criterion has released both an SD and a Blu-Ray version of “Marienbad” and there is little doubt that the Blu-Ray is a vast improvement. In fact, it’s damn near perfect. What a marvelous tribute to a great movie that has been shabbily treated in Region 1 up until now.

The Blu-ray is presented with an LPCM Mono mix. In an interesting movie, one which I can’t recall on a previous Criterion release, Resnais has insisted that the original audio be made available to home audiences in addition to the digitally restored soundtrack by Criterion. I listened to it with the original (I’m old school) and switched back and forth to the restored from time to time. No doubt the restoration sounds richer and cleaner, but Resnais’ insistence once again raises the question of whether something like this should sound so rich and clean. I'm not qualified to make the determination.

To date, “Marienbad” has only been available in Region 1 on a miserable disc released by Fox Lorber many years ago. For those of us who have had to subsist on this thin gruel for the past decade, the Criterion restoration comes not just as a welcome relief but as a genuine miracle. It’s not just the vastly improved image quality but also the considerable amount of extras offered for a film that positively requires them.

Home audiences have the option of listening to the film with the restored audio track or the original theatrical audio. Two trailers are also included, the original and the Rialto re-release.

This Blu-Ray is packed with goodies, but none are more valuable than the two short documentaries by Resnais. Both documentaries prove that an ostensibly dry project can produce a rich and rewarding film. “Tout la mémoire du monde” (1956, 21 min.) is a beautiful depiction of the French National Library in Paris that might seem quaint in the modern era of digital archives. It provides yet another example of Resnais’ obsession with memory as you might have guess from the title.

Even more unlikely is “Le chant du styrene” (1958, 13 min.), shot in a polystyrene (plastics) factory. Consisting of bold primary colors and abstracted imagery, it’s an update of the poetic British documentaries of the '30s for the pop art age and is yet another indisputable masterpiece.

“Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of ‘Marienbad’” (33 min) is a new documentary shot for Criterion that fortunately does not deliver on the threat of the title by trying to explain away the mysteries of “Marienbad.” Several of Resnais’ collaborators discuss the film’s production, including assistant directors Volker Schlöndorff and Jean Léon, script girl Sylvette Baudrot (continuity must have been a really fun job on this shoot), and production designer Jacques Saulnier.

Ginette Vincendeau provides an illuminating analysis of the film (22 min) and also doesn’t try to undermine by over-interpreting. She spends a good deal of time discussing the collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.

The final feature is an audio interview with Resnais (33 min) played over images from the film. The interview was conducted in 2008 for Criterion by film scholar François Thomas.

The substantial insert booklet features an essay by Mark Polizzotti, Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to his published screenplay of “Marienbad,” and an “Afterword” by François Thomas which discusses some of the differences between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet regarding the film. This is the same booklet as included in the SD release.

Final Thoughts:
“Last Year at Marienbad” is one of the primary movies that made me want to go to film school and become a film critic. It changed my perception of what movies could actually do and I didn’t even see it until 1999, nearly 40 years after its release. I am forever loyal to “2001: A Space Odyssey” but I won’t argue with anyone who calls “Last Year at Marienbad” the greatest film ever made.

Monday, July 20, 2015

For All Mankind

FOR ALL MANKIND (Reinert, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 14, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

If somebody tells you they just don’t understand what the big deal about space travel is, you probably won’t be able to explain it to them. And you probably don't want to bother because, really, do you need to hang out with a person who would say something like that? If you want to try anyway, though, point them to Al Reinert’s sublime archival footage documentary “For All Mankind” (1989.)

The Gemini and Apollo missions were filmed by some of the most advanced cameras available at the time, but not because the NASA crews were budding Sacha Viernys. The cameras were there to film moon rocks and moon dust and, um, other moon-related things. Did I mention moon rocks? This wasn’t art photography, this was for science with a few brief clips circulated to the media.

The majority of the mission footage not only went unseen by the public but was stored away in the NASA film archives possibly never to be looked at again. But journalist Al Reinert experienced a “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”-style epiphany, realizing that those millions of feet of cold-stored film contained a cinematic treasure trove. After years of meticulously combing through the archives, culling and editing the best material, Reinert produced one of the most beautiful American documentaries of the past thirty years.

Reinert wasn’t interested in making the kind of dry, didactic documentary school kids pretend to listen to on a trip to the planetarium. Working in the 1980s, he had the opportunity to look back on the entirety of humanity’s efforts to reach the moon and to appreciate the entire arc of the greatest exploration story ever told, and the film would be the story of that grand adventure.

Reinert, along with editor Susan Korda, who had one hell of a job on her hands, cobbled together footage from a half dozen different Apollo missions and, I believe, a little bit from Gemini (if I’m wrong, someone will tell me) and presented them as a single trip to the moon. This trip includes not only footage taken from space and on the moon, but also of the crew working back in Houston, and it’s the counter-cutting between these two that creates the illusion of a single trip from many.

This wasn’t a cheat by Reinert, but a truly inspired decision (cue the opening drum beats of “Zarathustra” again) that does justice both to the extraordinary beauty of the footage and to the communal spirit that united hundreds of men and women, galvanized by an edict from John F. Kennedy, in the pursuit of a single goal, the achievement of a dream so absurd that even believing it possible was an act of unmitigated audacity.

Reinert also recorded many hours of audio interviews with the astronauts and their commentary is interspersed throughout the film. They aren’t identified individually when they speak and it’s pretty hard to tell them apart in those lumpy uniforms too. These are the men of Apollo, the men who reached for the moon and, in some cases, got there. Blu-ray viewers have the option of choosing an alternate audio track that provides on-screen identification of each person we see and hear which is nice to have even if it somewhat undermines the triumphant universal spirit of a film intended “For All Mankind.”

Much of the “throwaway” footage turns out to the most exciting material. In addition to the installed NASA cameras, astronauts were given their own hand-held cameras and a limited amount of film. They usually chose to point it outside to ogle at the Earth visible as one big blue globe, but the more prosaic footage is indispensable too. Watching an astronaut eating ham spread in zero gravity tells more about life in space than even the most majestic, jaw-droppingly beautiful space shots. Contemporary astro-fans spoiled by Chris Hadfield's recent odyssey might take this kind of access for granted, but I will always see it as something special.

The most joyous moment in the film comes when Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 (the last mission to land on the moon) begins to sing “I was strolling on the moon one day in the merry merry month of… December.” Fellow moonwalker Harrison Schmitt says “No… May.” (Cernan was right, but Schmitt obviously cared more about meter and rhyme than historical accuracy.) The camera shows the two men skipping along the moon surface like a couple of schoolkids. Cernan forgets the lyrics, then expresses the whole reason for a lifetime of grueling training, of striving for the heavens: “Boy is this a neat way to travel. Isn’t it great? Dum dee dum dum dum.” Reinert then shows a series of shots of astronauts hopping around on the moon. You wouldn’t know it but he’s actually cutting back between two different landings. Apparently, grown men all tend to act the same on the moon. One astronaut in mid-leap shouts “Ya-hoo!” If you’re not smiling while you watch that, you’ve obviously never dreamed.

NASA didn’t send the cameras up there to bring images of America’s heroes playing hopscotch on the taxpayer’s dime, but they got them anyway, and they’re every bit as compelling as the far more famous footage of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder and taking that small step that became a giant leap for mankind. Thank goodness Al Reinert and his team found these wonderful pictures and sounds and had the sense and the artistic vision to transform them into this sublime, mesmerizing documentary. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is windowboxed like most Criterion fullscreen releases - some viewers will see a black frame around the whole image.

The entire movie is composed of various archival sources, much of which is 16 mm, so the image quality varies and is generally very grainy and a little muddy. Forgive them, they weren’t able to set up the lighting equipment exactly the way they wanted.

The Blu-Ray, of course, represents an upgrade over the SD version of the film, and is appreciated even if the grainy archival footage still looks like grainy archival footage even in high-def.

The Blu-ray is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Some of the audio comments by the astronauts sound a bit tinny and garbled at times but that’s an artifact from Reinert’s recorded interviews with them. It all sounds clear enough. The stereo comes into play mostly with the louder rocket engine sounds. The original score by Brian Eno is well-presented.

Optional English subtitles are provided. As mentioned above, you can also choose to watch with subtitles and identifications of each of the speakers and missions being shown. I chose to watch this way but for the pure audio-visual experience of the film, which was not released with any background information or identifications, you might prefer to save this option for a second viewing.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Al Reinert and astronaut Gene Cernan, recorded in 1999 for the first Criterion release of this film on SD.

“An Accidental Gift” (32 min) is an excellent feature that recounts Reinert’s journey through the NASA archives and his labor of love while assembling the film. NASA archivists Morris Williams and Mike Gentry also speak about their jobs and their role in helping get the film made.

“On Camera” (20 min.) is an assemblage of multiple interviews of Apollo astronauts conducted by Reinert over several projects and cut together into one feature here.

“Paintings from the Moon” provides a series of paintings by astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 12, the fourth man to walk on the moon. He provides an introduction (7 min) and then commentary for each of his 24 paintings presented here (37 min. total.)

“NASA Audio Highlights” includes 21 short audio recordings that were widely circulated to media outlets at the time and are mostly familiar to fans of the space program. You do know “The Eagle has landed,” right? 7 minutes total.

“3…2…1… Blast Off” cuts together five different NASA launches from different rockets (3 min. total.)

The insert booklet features a justifiably gushing appreciation by critic Terrence Rafferty and an essay by Al Reinert.

Film Value:
There are so many moments to cherish in this film, and I’ve only been able to discuss a few of them. I love the fact that the astronauts were each allowed to bring a cassette tape on the mission with music of their choosing. The astronauts went a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. And “Zarathustra” too. You have to go “Zarathustra” if you’re ever flying in space.

Criterion re-released “For All Mankind” on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing back in 2009 but also as a testament to one of the human race’s finest achievements. Will we ever dream so big again? Mars is calling, but I have my doubts that we’ll ever get there. But if we do, you know the cameras will be running and it will make the amazing images New Horizons has been sending back from Pluto look... well, actually nothing could make those images from Pluto look anything but spectacular. But the Mars pics will be a blast too.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Burt's Buzz

BURT'S BUZZ (Shapiro, 2013)
Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, Release Date September 16, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

If you've ever wanted to know the story about the bearded man on the Burt's Bees packaging, then you're one up on me. Before this documentary I thought the company only made throat lozenges, the ones I pass by on my way to the store brand that costs half as much. But Burt's Bees' line of personal care products is so extensive and so popular that the company that began as a couple of beehives in rural Maine was ultimately sold to Clorox for $925 million in 2007.

You'd think that company co-founder Burt Shavitz, now a world-wide icon thanks to his much-reprinted portrait, would be living the high life today, but Burt's not your typical entrepreneur. He's not your typical anything.

Shavitz, now in his seventies, lives on a farm in Maine ('round about where he started tending his first hives) where he doesn't see the point in modern amenities like hot water or alarm clocks. He goes to sleep when it gets dark and wakes up with the sun because that's just the way he does things. A similar mindset led a twenty-something Shavitz to abruptly abandon New York (his hometown) and a career in photojournalism to drift north, live the simple life, and just fall by chance into the beekeeping business.

He probably would have been content to sell honey out of his truck for the rest of his life, but then he met a single mother named Roxanne Quimby. She had both ambition and talent, and thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign she expanded Burt's Bee into a multi-national brand worth millions. Shavitz never forgave her for it. All he ever wanted was a kindred spirit to help him feed the wood stove and keep the hives, and he still feels betrayed that she didn't want the same thing.

Director Jody Shapiro's “Burt's Buzz” (2013) only hints at this conflict until exploring it deeper in the final third of the film, opting instead to place Shavitz and all his eccentricities at center stage, following him about his daily rituals. He's a fascinating man in no small part because of how little of himself he is willing or able to reveal. The only time he displays any deep emotion is when he talks about the death of his beloved golden retriever Rufus, but this carefully guarded man wears all of his wounds openly. Pretty much everyone and everything has proven to be a disappointment, so he sticks mostly to his farm and his dogs and does his best to shut out the parts of the world that don't suit his idealized vision of life.

He's not entirely a hermit, however. Though Quimby more or less pushed him out of the business, he is still the corporate spokesman and we get to see this bemused celebrity doing his best to make it through a trip to Taiwan and the scores of enthusiastic Burt's fans who want to meet him. In moments like this, it's fair to question just how savvy Shavitz might be in spinning a portrait of a crusty old recluse who doesn't care about money, fame, or modern technology. He's still willing to play the game and work the crowd; is the Burt we see in the film any less a creation than the one in Quimby's marketing campaign?

Whatever the case, the Burt Shavitz of “Burt's Buzz” (2013) is a magnetic presence who makes a natural subject for a documentary. If the film leans a bit too heavily on his stubborn idiosyncrasies to propel the story, viewers probably won't object to an enjoyable and occasionally surprising visit with a true American original. More information about the corporate takeover by Quimby would have been welcome, but would have made for a very different type of movie.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The high-def transfer from Kino Lorber is a solid affair with strong detail and naturalistic color. The film has a lot of talking heads though we also get some nice rural New England footage.

The 5.1 Surround track is sharp and clear though there isn't a whole lot to it beyond dialogue which is all clearly mixed. No subtitles are offered.

Continuing in the form and spirit of her wonderful “Green Porno” shorts, Isabella Rossellini (co-producer of “Burt's Buzz”) directs and stars in three short films about bees: “Burt Talks to the Queen Bee” (3 min.), “Burt Talks to the Drone Bee” (4 min.) and “Burt Talks to the Worker Bees” (4 min.) In each eco-short, Rossellini plays both Burt Shavitz and the title bees and the they have a conversation about matters of apiology. The disc also includes a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) and two other trailers for films from Kino Lorber.

Final Thoughts:
Since I was only barely aware of Burt's Bees before, I can't judge how much of an audience there will be for a film about its co-founder. But Jody Shapiro has found an engaging and entertaining subject. There's just barely enough material for a feature-length documentary, but it's a fun watch.