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.

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.