Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Favorite Movies Of 2015

By The Sea


No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Entertainment (Rick Alverson)
By The Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt)
The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzman)
Horse Money(Pedro Costa)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz)

Also Liked: Spotlight, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Mountains May Depart, In Transit, Cartel Land, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Big Short

Some Movies I Haven't Seen Yet: In Jackson Heights, The Assassin, The Revenant, Hard To Be A God, Son of Saul, Right Now Wrong Then

Every year at this time, critics wax rhapsodic about the unprecedented bevy of riches the last twelve months have showered upon us cinephiles fortunate enough to live in this age of miracles. That reminds me - you still have time to contribute to my long-gestating book project: “Every Movie's A Masterpiece (And Every TV Show Too): The Story of Modern Criticism.”

As usual, I have no idea what they're talking about, but I'm glad they're having fun. I could fill a list twice this length with movies rated over 90% on the Tomato Meter that I either walked out on or deeply regret not walking out on, even the ones I watched at home. I won't name any. Except for “Room.” And “Sicario.” But no more. OK, “The Martian.”

But this is the time to focus on the positive, including the year's pleasant surprises, of which there were two.

I thought “Unbroken” (2014) was a serious misfire and after reading the critical savaging of Angelina Jolie's vanity project “By the Sea” I was tempted to push this one to the end of the viewing queue or pass on it altogether. Enthusiastic endorsements from go-to critics Kim Morgan and Sheila O'Malley persuaded me otherwise, and I thank them both for it. Vanity project? I guess that's what an achingly sincere story torn right from an artist's heart gets called when she happens to be a glamorous international celebrity. Hey, guess what, just because a famous married couple plays a married couple in a movie doesn't mean it's about the famous married couple. If this slow burn isn't your cup of tea I understand, but calling it “indulgent” just makes you look silly. Besides, you know what I want uniquely talented artists to do? Indulge!

I didn't really get Rick Alverson's 2012 film “The Comedy,” perhaps because I prefer my Tim Heidecker in 12-minute doses. But “Entertainment” blew me away, and I'm not ashamed to admit it's because it felt like a movie made specifically for me. This is a movie made by (and for) people who don't think that anything about this culture is OK and are baffled and frustrated that other people don't see it the same way. I've always liked Gregg Turkington's stand-up comic alter ego Neil Hamburger, but setting him on an American journey consisting entirely of crappy hotel rooms and even crappier clubs en route to the crappiest destination of all, the Hollywood celebrity scene, is absolutely inspired. Most films that set out to be provocations wind up somewhere between tedious and asinine (call it “Fight Club” syndrome). This is the rare provocation that succeed in being genuinely unsettling. I can't stop thinking about it.

I got “Gett” from the get-go, one of the more exasperating entries in the burgeoning field of “Religion sure can make us stupid” studies. Ronit Elkabetz knocks it out of the park in the title role, but the supporting cast of Men With Punchable Faces really makes it an infuriating viewing experience. In the best way possible.

Most of the rest of my favorites are from reliable filmmakers who delivered yet again. I voted for Jafar Panahi of “Taxi” (AKA "Jafar Panahi''s Taxi", AKA "Tehran Taxi") as best actor in the OFCS poll and didn't do it to be a smartass. Panahi's interpretation of himself as a pleasant if slightly incompetent cab driver in Tehran is brilliant, employing fastidious politeness to express rage at institutionalized injustice. Sylvester Stallone also plays himself (playing Rocky) in “Creed” for less subversive reasons than Panahi but still to great effect, the best effect being the way he sets the stage for Michael B. Jordan's star-solidifying performance in the title role. One of my favorite oddities in cinema this year – Jordan's Adonis Creed doesn't want to fight under a name that reminds people of someone famous. So he boxes as Don Johnson.

Guy Maddin can do no wrong for me, but “Keyhole” (2011) was slightly less right than his other movies. “The Forbidden Room,” which Maddin co-directs with Evan Johnson, is all kinds of right, embodying Maddin's beloved amnesia trope in its very structure. This movie is designed to make you forget what happened before – somewhere between the volcano and the dead father who won't go away, you briefly think, “Hey, weren't we on a submarine?” But then you forget all over again. Also, greatest credits ever. Ever ever ever. I demand that every filmmaker shoot credits this way from here on out.

“Horse Money” isn't quite as good as any of Costa's unofficial Fontainhas trilogy, but Ventura is a spectacular performer and there's plenty of room below “Colossal Youth” (2006) to still be great, and I bet this one gets even better on a second viewing. Similar story with “The Pearl Button” which isn't quite on the level of Patricio Guzman's magisterial “Nostalgia for the Light” (2011) but spins a contemplation of the relationship between Chilean society and the ocean (via the universe) into a moving and damning historical survey. It also preserves Kawesqar language on film. Joshua Oppenheimer's “The Look of Silence” also isn't quite as great as its prequel “The Act of Killing” but it seems to be designed to answer the complaints the dissenting minority had about that previous film. It's still unforgettable.

Saving the best for last. “No Home Movie” will count as a 2016 release for “official” purposes but I'm not really official. Chantal Akerman is gone and this deeply personal documentary will be her last movie and that's a terrible thought but it's another great movie from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I'm not ready to say anything more about it except that Chantal Akerman is irreplaceable and I will always miss her.

The Complete Lady Snowblood

(Fujita, 1973-1974)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 5, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Forget auteur cinema, this is arterial cinema. When Lady Snowblood strikes with her umbrella sword, blood spurts out in high-pressure streams, arcing majestically as it splatters faces, clothing and, most artfully, previously virginal snow. She didn't choose her name at random, after all.

Adapted from the original manga comic written by Kazuo Koike (perhaps best known for “Lone Wolf and Cub”) and penciled by Kazuo Kamimura, “Lady Snowblood” (1973) tells the tale of its appropriately one-dimensional character who is born for vengeance. Literally. The film begins with the sound of a crying baby (who keeps on crying for a long time) born in prison to a mother who vows that newborn daughter Yuki will carry on her vendetta, then promptly dies.

The origin story unfolds with relative efficiency. ' Round about 1870, Yuki's father was murdered by a gang of petty crooks who also gang-raped her mother. Mom waits patiently to administer justice to one of her attackers, but the rest remain free when she is arrested for the murder. After the traumatic birth, another inmate adopts Yuki and oversees her brutal training at the hands of a pitiless priest. Told she is an asura (a kind of demon), Yuki is molded through trial and terror into the relentless killing machine known as Lady Snowblood and finally set loose on her parents' tormentors some time in the 1890s.

Actress Meiko Kaji had already made her mark in “delinquent youth” films such as “Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter” and similarly lurid fare like “Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41” making her both an obvious and perfect choice for the title role. Kaji compensates for a lack of apparent martial arts skill with a calm, commanding presence most forcefully conveyed through her steely stare – the film features many beautifully composed images but returns most frequently to a simple closeup of her piercing eyes and arched eyebrows. Snowblood is a column of stillness who erupts into controlled lightning strikes, a strategy that may only be effective when her half-witted opponents oblige by waiting patiently to be exsanguinated, but, hey, it works, and Kaji is integral to the success. She also sings the movie's theme song.

Director Toshiya Fujita may not be known as one of Japan's greatest stylists, but he exploits his widescreen frame fully, arranging bodies on all sides of the deadly assassin and letting viewers relish her finely-honed ability to hack her way through overwhelming odds. The action scenes are heavy on art direction and careful choreography and low on plausibility, but you're mostly watching for those geysers of blood.

Snowblood methodically tracks down her victims in predictable enough fashion, but the story takes a surprising turn when she encounters a roguish journalist (Toshio Kurosawa) who, after meeting her, is inspired to publish a story titled... “Lady Snowblood.” Don't expect the movie to get too meta, but at least it's the first sign of humor in a story that often wallows in sadism for its own sake – oh by the way, “Snowblood” is a Quentin Tarantino favorite and an acknowledged heavy influence on his “Kill Bill” movies. He even “paid homage” to the theme song.

“Lady Snowblood” was followed up quickly by “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974). It lacks the simple-minded purity of the first film's revenge plot, but the more free-form narrative takes our deadly heroine in a slightly different direction. After a decade on the lam as a fugitive, Snowblood finally tires of fighting (though not before tallying a double-digit body count in the first five minutes) and surrenders to the authorities. She is sentenced to die, recruited by the secret police, and then won over to the cause of her intended mark, a radical played by Juzo Itami, perhaps best known to Western audiences today as the director of “Tampopo” (1985).

More hacking, more slashing, though the arterial sprays are mostly saved for the denouement. An early two-minute tracking shot may be the stylistic highlight of both films: Lady Snowblood walks methodically towards the retreating camera as would-be assassins mass both behind and in front of her, each eventually lunging to inevitable death by her casual sword stroke.

Oddly, Lady Snowblood recedes into the background for most of the sequel as a story of government corruption and resistance by the disenfranchised people takes center stage. Both films are set during the Meiji era as Japan transitioned from feudalism to the beginnings of a 20th century global empire. Economic miracles benefited only a few, providing Lady Snowblood the opportunity to serve as a champion of the people, though neither film explores this aspect of her mission in much detail. The “people” aren't exactly presented in the most flattering light either. A grotesque gang of commoners in the first film prepares to “pass around” Lady Snowblood, and the ersatz heroes of “Love Song” are more concerned with their own well-being than with social justice. But, hey, nobody's perfect.

Both films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. From Criterion: “These new digital transfers were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from new 35 mm low-contrast prints struck from the original camera negatives.” Level of detail isn't as sharp as in many Criterion high-def transfers and the most notable quality is how pale some of the skin colors. Checking a few other online sources, Lady Snowblood doesn't look quite so alabaster from other sources, but it's possible this is a truer representation of the original – it would make sense. Unfortunately, I have no way to know. The blackest images (or parts thereof) look a bit blocky to me, perhaps as a result of some contrast boosting.

However, while these two transfer may not be among the elite Criterion 1080p efforts, they are still very strong overall and with the vivid reds I'm sure its ardent fans appreciate the most. That ruby red Karo syrup – I mean blood – sure stands out.

Both films have LPCM Mono audio mixes. The lossless audio is clean throughout though the audio sounds fairly flat with no real sense of depth – but this may be a product of the original source as well. Music sounds pretty good. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Alas, Criterion has only included a few interviews and trailers along with the two “Snowblood” films, both of which are on the same Blu-ray disc.

Under the menu for the first “Lady Snowblood” you can access the two newly recorded interviews. The first is with Kazuo Koike (10 min.), writer of the manga from which the film was adapted. He talks about his inspiration for creating what was, at the time, an unusual character: a female assassin. The second interview features screenwriter (Noro Osada) who scripted both films, the second in collaboration with writer Kiyohide Ohara. Osada discusses the challenges of adaptation in general and specifically the challenge in adapting manga, something he had never attempted prior to “Lady Snowblood.”

You can also watch the original theatrical trailer (3 min.) for “Lady Snowblood.” The only extra accessible from the menu for “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” is also a theatrical trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Howard Hampton.

Final Thoughts:
I usually find revenge stories tedious and sometimes outright repellent. I didn't always find the “Snowblood” films compelling, but the bloody charms mostly exceed the limitations, in large part thanks to Kaji's serene, iconic lead performance and an array of lovely widescreen compositions. The extras are pretty skimpy here, but the high-def transfers are solid. With two movies on one Blu-ray, this release makes for a pretty solid deal.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Medium Cool: A Tribute To Haskell Wexler


According to his son Jeff, Haskell Wexler died peacefully in his sleep yesterday at the age of 93. Like Alain Resnais and Manoel De Oliveira, Wexler had entered the pantheon of venerable presences whose shadow loomed so large over the world of cinema for such a long time that everyone had become accustomed to assuming he would be around forever. They had always been making movies, after all. As with Resnais and Oliveira, it comes as a shock to learn that was only a fantasy.

After serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Wexler began working as an assistant cameraman in the late '40s. It was the first step on a path that would cross virtually every aspect of American cinema during the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

By the '60s, Wexler established himself as one of the preeminent cinematographers of his or any other generation. After serving as director of photography on Elia Kazan's “America, America” (1963) and Tony Richardson's “The Loved One” (1965), Wexler netted his first Oscar for Mike Nichols' “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). He would win another in 1976 for his pioneering Steadicam work on Hal Ashby's “Bound for Glory” after settling for a mere nomination on a little film called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” the year before.

Lensing many of the landmark achievements of the '60s and '70s wasn't enough to keep the politically engaged Wexler fully occupied, however. He would direct numerous activist documentaries, including “Introduction To The Enemy” (1974) with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, a film potent enough to get boycotted by The American Legion, a distinction that put Wexler in the same admirable company as Charlie Chaplin. He remained almost supernaturally active in recent years, directing “Four Days In Chicago” (2012), a film about the Occupy Moment's protests at the 2012 NATO summit, and working tirelessly as cinematographer on numerous documentaries by other directors.

Wexler's influence extended from Hollywoood feature film to independent documentary, but cinephiles may know him best for his visit to one of the points in-between. The remarkable fiction-documentary hybrid “Medium Cool” (1969) not only became one of Wexler's primary calling cards, but was also swiftly embraced as one of the defining films of late-'60s America. Below, you will find my review of the Criterion Collection's 2013 release of Wexler's masterpiece.

I cannot offhand think of a figure analogous to Wexler in American cinema. He was a true original, a force of nature whose legacy we are only just beginning to process.

MEDIUM COOL (Wexler, 1969)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 21, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

To anyone who describes “Medium Cool” (1969) as feeling dated, my response is, “I know! Isn't it great?”

John (Robert Forster) is a Chicago-based television news cameraman who loves his job, until he is forced to confront the reality of it. That's exceedingly difficult because John has come to rely on the lens as an intermediary agent, a distorting shield that transforms the world into shots meant to be captured rather than life meant to be experienced. He wants to approach his job like his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) who views himself as just “an elongation of a tape recorder” - detachment as the defining mark of a professional. But it's 1968, and the bullets that ended the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy have shattered any illusions of journalistic impartiality, rendered it impossible, or at least profoundly irresponsible, to remain aloof.

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (fresh off an Oscar for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) had no qualms about diving right into the political and social muck as he prepared to direct his first feature. Wexler was initially hired by Paramount to adapt a novel about a boy who found wildlife in New York City (Jack Couffer's “The Concrete Wilderness”) but scrapped the story entirely for a film that engaged with more immediate concerns. Wexler had already worked on a few documentaries and integrated so-called non-fiction techniques with his fictional material. If there's a fight between the two, non-fiction wins by a knockout.

John quits his job after finding out the studio has been giving his footage to the FBI (be vewy quiet, they're hunting for wadicals) and falls in with relocated West Virginia war widow Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her ten-year-old son Harold (Harold Blankenship), both struggling to adjust to life in the big, bad city. John bonds with Harold; John and Eileen wind up at the obligatory late '60s psychedelic rock show; they groove at the roller derby. I last watched “Medium Cool” about fifteen years ago and I admit I had forgotten almost everything about these parts of the film. What I remembered was the yellow dress.

As various plot threads unravel, Eileen winds up searching for Harold in the midst of the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention while John covers the event from inside the cocoon of the Chicago Amphitheatre. Wexler and other crew members follow Verna Bloom, decked out in her now famous yellow dress and staying gamely in character, as she winds her way through the chanting protesters and the police and National Guard decked out in riot gear. Narrative concerns recede as the camera simply tries to track the yellow dress that flits in and out of sight as the blood begins to flow and tear gas envelops the crowd as well as the crew, producing the much-discussed shout of “Look out, Haskell, it's real!” This legendary fourth-wall-shattering warning, by the way, was not real, but was added in post-production.

Wexler's camera (along with camera operator Mike Margulies) might not have shaped the events of 1968 (the film wouldn't reach theaters until 1969 – no instant YouTube uploads), but it has shaped the way the events have been remembered. As seen in the film, TV news crews, encumbered by their vehicle-mounted film fortresses, captured only the faintest sense of what was happening in the crowd as police and guardsmen waged war on American citizens. Wexler's sprier band of outsiders brought viewers into the heart and the heat of a shameful moment that now looks like a rehearsal for Kent State. And as the phrase “brave performance” is carelessly overapplied by film critics, let's take a moment to acknowledge that Verna Bloom showed true grit here.

“Medium Cool” deserves a better fate than to be reduced only to this climactic sequence. There are other great moments like when a group of black activists wrest control of an interview from John, the cinephilic name dropping from Godard to “Mondo Cane,” and Peter Boyle in his first credited role. But the vibrancy of the actuality footage (including scenes from National Guard training exercises shown earlier in the movie) eclipses most of the more traditionally scripted dramatic sequences, and compensates for a heavy-handed bracketing device that suggests a sense of closure somewhat out of place in a film defined by ruptures and chaos.

In a world where camera phones are ubiquitous and few filmmakers still cling to notions of objectivity in documentary, perhaps “Medium Cool” really does look dated. That is if, by dated, we mean pioneering, perceptive, and a vital capsule of an extraordinary moment in American history. We wouldn't still be talking about it if it wasn't.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The new digital transfer has “been approved by Haskell Wexler” and this high-def treatment looks fantastic. There's no mention of a restored print, but the source is obviously in excellent condition because there is very little damage evident. A well-preserved thick grain structure gives the film an appropriately gritty look. When you see just how bad the clips in the Cronin documentary (an extra on the disc) look you can appreciate this version all the more.

The LPCM Mono track is solid if not dynamic. Most dialogue is clearly mixed. I believe that much of the sound in the street scenes was recorded separately from the image or added in post-production, but the mix still provides the impression of really being immersed in the moment. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has stacked the deck, starting with two commentary tracks. The first was recorded in 2001 and features Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill. The second is newly recorded (2013) for this release and features film historian Paul Cronin.

The disc also includes excerpts from two Cronin documentaries.

“Look Out, Haskell, It's Real!” (2002, 53 min.) feels like a complete documentary but is described as consisting of “extended excerpts.” The documentary includes interviews with Wexler, author Studs Terkel (a consultant for the film credited as “Our Man in Chicago”), actors Robert Forster, Verna Bloom and Peter Bonerz as well as others. Extensive clips from “Medium Cool” are interspersed with the interviews, and the clips are badly washed out, but the interviews look fine and provide plenty of substantive content. Second is a collection of excerpts from Cronin's 2007 documentary “Sooner or Later” (16 min.), in which he catches up with Harold Blankenship. Blankenship was a child actor from West Virginia who never appeared in another movie. He was long considered “lost” to film history until Cronin found him. This portrait is vivid and engaging; film fame did not lead to personal or financial fortune for Mr. Blankenship.

Criterion has also included a new (2013) interview with Wexler. The interview covers much of the same ground as seen in Cronin's documentary, but at 15 minutes it's still worth watching.

“'Medium Cool' Revisited” (33 min.) is a 2012 documentary in which Wexler returns to Chicago, and also many of the locations from “Medium Cool,” in order to record Occupy's protest at the May 2012 NATO summit. I can't say it's as riveting as “Medium Cool,” but it's a nice addition.

A Trailer (3 min.) rounds out the collection.

The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard.

Final Thoughts:
Rest in peace, Haskell Wexler, a true titan of cinema.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Review by Christopher S. Long

(Originally posted in 2008. Re-posted in 2015 with substantial revisions.)

Albert Serra’s “Birdsong” (2008) has been described as the best Spanish film of the past thirty years. Specifically, Albert Serra has described it as the best Spanish film of the past thirty years.

I don't know whether Serra's bravado is sincere or merely part of a very convincing performance act. It also doesn’t matter one whit. (2015 Update: Seven years later, I'm pretty sure it's sincere.)

From the first scene of this unique and extraordinary movie, shot in high-contrast black-and-white digital video, you know that you are in the hands of a director who has complete confidence in his mastery of the audio-visual medium. Serra’s vision is so singular and so intrinsically cinematic it’s a challenge to describe it in words. To borrow a phrase from the Hollywood publicity machine, “Birdsong” is a movie event, a full immersion in the moment, a daredevil plunge into a world that is simultaneously abstract and so tangibly dense that it can hardly be penetrated.

If we can’t penetrate it, we can still talk about it, or at least dance around it. The plot summary is the easiest part: The Three Wise Men wander through the desert looking for baby Jesus. Eventually, they find him. Sorry about the spoiler. It’s the “eventually” that’s the catch, of course. These three kings of dis-orient have traveled from afar, and they don’t really know their way around these parts. They aren’t sure whether or not they should climb a mountain. They change directions and stop for rest frequently. Fortunately, they aren't in any particular hurry. Neither is the director.

Serra is fond of the long take. Really fond of the really long take. The film’s most bravura scene is a nine-minute long static shot in which the Wise Men trudge off into the distance, disappear over a ridge, reappear over the next one, and then begin to walk back towards camera. Or at least they appear to; it’s difficult to tell. The longer the shot is held, the more difficult it becomes to suss out what’s going on which is what makes it so mesmerizing. The desert mirage becomes more hallucinatory the longer you look at it.

“Birdsong” is also a surprisingly funny movie. I have no idea whether or not Albert Serra is a Three Stooges fan, but I couldn’t help make the comparison, especially because one of them (Lluis Serrat) happens to possess a Curly-esque figure. In yet another long take, the Magi jockey for comfortable position as they sleep in close quarters. After debating whether to move a bit to the left or a bit to the right, our hefty friend shouts “Spread out!” Nyuk nyuk. 

And did you ever think about what the Magi did after they delivered their gifts to the Christ child? Here, they just hang around until Joseph is finally forced to resort to the Biblical equivalent of flicking off the lights. Listen guys, an angel told me I need to escape to Egypt so, um, could you get going now? And oh by the way, Joseph is played by Canadian film critic Mark Peranson who speaks Hebrew while everyone else in the casts speaks Catalan. Why? Because Peranson doesn’t speak Catalan, silly!

“Birdsong” generates an endless stream of breathtaking images and each viewer will have his or her favorites. I keep thinking about a shadowy shot filmed at dawn in which one of the Wise Men, visibly only as a silhouette, breathes the chill morning air in and out in little puffs. He almost seems to be biting at the air. Perhaps he’s praying quietly, or maybe he just likes seeing his breath evaporate. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the sheer pleasure afforded by this strange and evocative image.

And pleasure is what “Birdsong” is all about, specifically visual pleasure. This is for the cinephilic junky who likes to look and keep on looking. Set free from the demands of a taditiaonlly suspenseful narrative, viewers don't need to anticipate the next plot development, the next shot, or ever to ask the question “Why?” You look for the sheer pleasure of looking at something pretty and taking the time (a lot of time) to enjoy it, wallowing in the thrill of witnessing images seldom seen. These are pictures to be scanned from left to right, top to bottom, and then back again. In this sense, Serra’s film harks back to the earliest days of cinema in which, as scholar Tom Gunning has written, the real power of cinema was not in the telling of a story but rather the power of “making images seen” entirely for their own sake. Cinema then was a new way of seeing, which seems relevant to a story of these proto-Christians, pioneers who were the first to look at the world through a whole new lens.

Serra’s sublime slapstick won’t suit everyone’s taste but what worthwhile film does? I have no idea if “Birdsong” is the best Spanish film of the past thirty years, but it is certainly the best film I have seen in quite some time and one that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it six months ago. I watch movies precisely because every now and then something like “Birdsong” comes along.

(2015 Update: Seven years later and I'm still thinking about “Birdsong.” And really disappointed that it still hasn't gotten a home theater release in North America. I can't help but think this is the “purest” of all Christmas movies, or at least in a tie with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Blast of Silence

BLAST OF SILENCE (Baron, 1961)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Apr 15, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Looking for something a little different to watch this Christmas season? Try this grim holiday treat from Allen Baron.)

Not too many films begin with a point-of-view shot of the protagonist’s birth, but that’s only one of many unusual things about Allen Baron’s “Blast of Silence” (1961).

The opening shot of Allen Baron's “Blast of Silence” (1961) depicts two births. A distant dot of light hovers in a pool of inky blackness as the narrator speaks: “Remembering out of the black silence, you were born in pain.” A woman screams, a baby cries. The second-person narration, written by Waldo Salt and delivered by an uncredited Lionel Stander (both blacklisted at the time), continues, sharing the soundtrack with the mounting rumble of a train. The distant light grows steadily, tracks become visible, and as the train bursts out of the tunnel, our protagonist is “born”again, entering the story as an adult who now keeps the screams inside.

That protagonist is a plain vanilla hit man named Frankie Bono (played by director Barron) though the narrator, constantly haranguing poor Frankie in that gravelly Lionel Stander voice, probably deserves co-billing. Frankie’s riding the train into New York for his next job, a straightforward hit on a mid-level mobster as unremarkable as Frankie. It's just another job and Frankie has no interest in why he's been asked to do it.

The story, however, is not really about the hit at all, but how Frankie kills time all alone in the big city, where most New Yorkers are busily preparing for Christmas, while waiting for an opportune moment to complete his job. Through the narrator, we can guess that Frankie has a rich and tormented internal life, but he seems sadly unaware of it. For Frankie, life’s just a whole lot of waiting and trying your best not to think about it. “It” being anything at all.

Arriving three years after Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” Baron’s film is either a straggler at the end of the classic film noir period, or one of the earlier neo-noirs. Film noir was a term applied many years after the noir cycle began, so it’s unsurprising that critics can’t agree on the precise timing of each of the noir cycles or even how to define the genre. Like most noirs, the film’s universe is one that is severed from any sense of a higher being (at least a benevolent one), a world covered by only a thin veneer of civilization where even the slightest mistake, a stumble or a wrong turn, leads inevitably to tragedy. Frankie was “born in pain” and he lives in pain, always trying to drown out the scream that heralded his entry into this cruel world.

For Frankie, the wrong turn comes when he picks the wrong place to have dinner; an old friend meets him and insists he attend a Christmas party. At the party, Frankie meets his old flame Lorrie (Molly McCarthy). This unfortunate encounter stirs Frankie from his life-long stupor, and prompts him to wonder, for the first time as an adult, if there’s a way to make meaning out of this meaningless world. Sorry, Frankie, you’re in a film noir.

Allen Baron was a graphic designer (he was a comic book artist for a while) who shot his first feature film entirely on location, then an unusual thing to do though hardly unprecedented. Baron scraped together financing in various stages and shot the film piece-meal over two years. His friend Peter Falk was originally slated for the title role but got a better offer (i.e. one that paid) so Baron was forced to step into the role. Baron appears ill-suited to be in front of the camera, which works just fine since Frankie is ill-suited to be anywhere. Frankie’s very birth was a mistake, and his continued existence only compounds the error. He’s a man out of place in every place he goes.

The film takes great advantage of its New York locations as well as the contrast between Frankie’s isolation and the communal nature of the Christmas season. Frankie walks past brightly lit Christmas trees and wanders through crowds of shoppers, severed from any connection to the people or to the holiday season. No joy to his world. “Blast of Silence” could just as easily have been titled with a different oxymoron, “Alone in a Crowd.”

Another highlight of the film is the performance by Larry Tucker as the sleazy, obese gun dealer Big Ralph. Tucker’s massive enough to have his own gravity well, yet so mousy and insubstantial he could sneak up on you without warning. Tucker later focused on a writing career (he was nominated for an Oscar as the co-writer of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”) but he turned in one more memorable role, as Pagliacci in Sam Fuller’s madhouse flick “Shock Corridor.”

No matter how many noirs you’ve watched, I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like this one. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. The image is not picture-boxed. The black-and-white photography looks sharp and beautiful in this restored transfer. Some evidence of wear and tear from the source is still visible, but it’s not even the slightest bit of a distraction.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Stander's pervasive narration comes through loud and clear and the sound design has an appropriately hollow quality to it.

“Requiem for a Killer” is a 60-minute documentary featuring Baron as he revisits the filming locations of “Blast of Silence.” This feature is a 2006 assemblage by film historian Robert Fischer who uses footage from a 1990 West German TV documentary about Baron combined with new interview material.

“Locations Revisited” is a series of still photos that, well, revisit NYC locations. It’s a bit of a repeat of the material in “Requiem.”

The disc also includes a fairly extensive collection of on-set Polaroids (about 40 in all) with captions from Baron’s own descriptions written on the back of the photos.

The slim eight page insert booklet features an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty. Criterion has also included an additional insert, a 4-page mini comic book by artist Sean Phillips (artist of the recent smash-hit Marvel mini-series “Marvel Zombies.”)

Final Thoughts:
After a promising film debut, Allen Baron went on to a career in television, directing episodes of a host of well-known 60s and 70s shows, including “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and even “Charlie’s Angels.” That only makes “Blast of Silence” even more of an anomaly, a bizarre one-off that is quintessentially noir while not particularly resembling many other noirs. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s damned interesting and even an under-the-radar Christmas film if you're not too wedded to the “Merry” part of “Merry Christmas.”