Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Exterminating Angel



THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Bunuel, 1962)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 6, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

A snooty dinner party at the opulent mansion of a socialite goes smashingly well. The high-society snobs in attendance will always find a reason to complain, or at least gossip viciously about each other, but the wealthy hosts orchestrate the festivities with exquisite taste and proper decorum. After the party, the guests don't observe the same flawless etiquette. Nobody leaves, even when the hosts politely turn off the lights. The men shuck their jackets, the women kick off their heels, and everyone sinks luxuriously into a collective torpor.

The next morning they marvel at how nobody has left yet and yet... nobody leaves. At first, they make up excuses to remain; just one more cup of coffee before facing the day. Then the realization slowly sinks in that they can't leave. Every time a guest walks up to the threshold of the great hallway that leads to freedom, they simply cannot proceed any further, as if some thin-skinned, petulant man-child had thrown a temper tantrum and built an wall for no damn reason at all.

No damn reason at all? Surely that's not possible' everything happens for a reason. “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) was the final film of Luis Bunuel's Mexican period, and it may be the director's most debated film. Its premise, so deceptively simple it could be delivered in a ten-second high-concept Hollywood pitch, serves as cinema's most pliable metaphor this side of “Last Year At Marienbad” (1961), inviting a multitude of interpretations from the political to the religious to the psychological to the purely idiosyncratic (i.e. total b.s.)

As days stretch into weeks, the guests turn increasingly desperate, clawing their way to outright feral. When the fresh water supply runs out, they smash open a pipe in the wall; they start eating the wallpaper; they retreat into closets to take care of impolite business; and, of course, they turn on each other. One guest disposes of another's medicine simply to be cruel, and factions plot to commit murder or, far worse, turn to religion for salvation. Surely Bunuel intends to strip away the veneer of civilization to show us how quickly civilized people can descend into barbarism; but not so fast. These sophisticates behave barbarically from the get go, sniping at each other, speaking in childish codes (a couple of them are masons who know all the secret words), and indulging in casual affairs. 


Writer/director Bunuel goes out of his way to isolate the upper-class for this existential torture. The film opens with the servants in the estate all mysteriously abandoning their posts, for reasons they can't quite articulate. They only know that they have to flee in a hurry, abandoning the ship exclusively to the well-tailored rats. This must be Bunuel's way of showing that the elites are out-of-touch with society and thus must be quarantined from it, or perhaps it's their punishment for callously exploiting the working class to fund their indulgent lifestyles; after all, one guest observes that “the lower classes are less sensitive to pain.” But no so fast. We still have to deal with the ending of the film which, well, let's just say confounds that interpretation.

What about all the repetitions in the film? The guests actually arrive at the mansion twice. One of them proposes the same toast twice, meeting with a very different reaction the second time. Is “The Exterminating Angel”really the sliest science-fiction film of all-time, hinting at a time loop akin to the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Cause and Effect” in which the Enterprise crew repeats the same events hundreds of times until gradually becoming aware of their chronal trap?

Yeah, that interpretation's a real stretch. So are most of the others. Hell, maybe the movie is just a stand in for all the interminable dinners with family and friends you've been forced to endure. I think we're best advised to heed the word of another guest: “So there's no explanation for anything! That's just great!” And it is just great. The harrowing plight of these stuffed suits is all the more hilarious if there's just no explanation, no meaning at all. Bunuel assumes the role of a capricious god, which is what any artist really is, and he revels in the perverse pleasure of it all. Why else set the camera at the far end of the hallway if not to gawk at the trapped guests at a distance and taunt, “Nah nah, you can't catch me!”

If you absolutely need to know why things happen, you might find “The Exterminating Angel” frustrating, but then you're going to wind up feeling the same way about life too. Relax and enjoy Bunuel's trademark deadpan surrealism at its most devious with this anarchistic middle finger to high society and, let's be honest, just about any kind of society at all.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This 1080p upgrade of Criterion's previous SD release employs the same source and encounters some of the same problems, notably some visible damage in certain spots and a general slight softness of the black-and-white image through much of the film. It's an improvement over the SD and certainly more than good enough to enjoy the film, but it's a ways from the typical flawless Criterion high-def presentation, no doubt due to problems with the source material.

Audio:
The LPCM mono mix is one of the more troublesome from Criterion, again no doubt due to the source print. Dialogue and effects are clearly mixed throughout and there's no noticeable dropoff. However, the problem is a persistent background hiss that's pretty quiet at times, but gets rather loud and crackling in the middle. I suspect it will actually be more of a problem for Spanish speakers than for listeners who turn the volume down a bit and rely on subtitles. In any case, it's a noticeable problem, but tolerable. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Extras:
The extras have been imported from the previous SD release with nothing new added. The previous release was on two discs, this is just one Blu-ray.

First off, this is the “correct” cut with the repeated shot of the guests arriving in the beginning, as Bunuel intended, but sometimes eliminated from certain prints by those who considered it a mistake.

The major feature is the full-length documentary “The Last Script: Remembering Luis Bunuel” (2008, 96 min.). Directed by Gaizka Urresti and Javier Espada, this documentary follows frequent Bunuel screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and the director's son Jean-Luis Bunuel as they revisit many of the locations in which Bunuel lives or which inspired his work. In all fairness, I only watched about half of this documentary as I didn't find anything particularly insightful, but completists will surely enjoy it.

The disc also includes a plain vanilla interview with actress Silvia Pinal (10 min.) and a much more interesting one with filmmaker Arturo Ripstein (15 min.)

The 36-page insert booklet is very attractively designed and features an essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder and excerpts from interviews with Bunuel conducted by Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Torrent from 1975 to 1977.

Final Thoughts:
I have a flashbulb memory of my most embarrassing moment in front of a classroom. I was a graduate film production student at the time, and I was pitching a new idea for a short film to the class. It involved something about a guy stuck behind an invisible barrier (the kind of effect that’s relatively affordable on a student budget). My teacher answered by saying, “That’s a lot like the Bunuel film.” Flush with the arrogance of youth and the knowledge that I didn’t need to care about any film that Quentin Tarantino hadn’t already told me about, I said “Oh no, don’t compare me to him!”

I would be somewhat more flattered by the comparison today, though Bunuel might not be quite as proud.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke


THE MAGIC BOX: THE FILMS OF SHIRLEY CLARKE, 1929-1987
Milestone Film, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 15, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Milestone Film's sprawling, four-volume Project Shirley now runs at 1,165 minutes, give or take a few minutes for rounding errors. That's a daunting 19 hours and spare change, but I feel like the spirit of this grand enterprise is captured in just a few seconds on one of the smaller features included in Volume Four, “The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1929-1987.”

Disc Two of this three-disc package kicks off with a one-minute montage of still photos of Shirley Clarke, the filmmaker/star of this whole project, in the midst of various ballet moves, back when she was known to the world as young dancer Shirley Brimberg. On the final photo of Clarke (then Brimberg), the camera zooms in to a tight close-up on her face, as she looks intent on striking the perfect pose, and holds as the Shostakovich on the soundtrack reaches its final climax.

Shirley Brimberg
The inclusion of such a “minor” feature at all provides yet another example of the meticulousness that defines every Milestone release. The placement this little feature at the beginning of a disc with over two-and-a-half hours of footage indicates that Project Shirley does not consider anything about its title star to be “minor.” The final zoom in on Clarke's face suggests that the Milestone team possesses a strong affinity for the woman herself, not just her work, an affinity that might qualify as unabashed personal affection, though I hesitate to act as a mind reader.

Project Shirley has taken Milestone nearly a decade to complete, and what began as an effort to fully restore the reputation of a great American filmmaker who had been unfairly overlooked has finished as an unqualified success of impressive proportions. The first three volumes of Project Shirley centered around feature films, including “The Connection” (1962),Clarke's renowned adaptation of a play about strung-out jazz musicians waiting for their next fix; “Portrait of Jason” (1967), a landmark LGBT film about a self-described “stone whore” and hustler; and the free-wheeling, psychedelic jazz documentary “Ornette: Made in America” (1984).

The copious extras included in each volume chronicled the professional and personal journey of Shirley Clarke, the dancer turned filmmaker who spent as much of her career struggling to secure resources to complete projects as she did shooting the groundbreaking films at the heart of Project Shirley. Volume Four relates even more of this story, with a dizzying array of films of various lengths, though mostly of the short variety; some completed, some abandoned unfinished, some taken over by other filmmakers, some only recently discovered during the research for Project Shirley.

The nearly forty titles nestled gently inside of this “Magic Box” run over eight hours in total and range from Clarke's boldest experimental films to a PBS-style (and Oscar-winning) documentary about poet Robert Frost and even include numerous home movies from Clarke's childhood, her wedding, and family vacations. Any documented aspect of Clarke's story is fair game for Project Shirley. I can only touch on a representative sampling of the work on this volume.

Disc One is devoted to Clarke's more experimental films, kicking off with a lengthy compilation titled “Brussels Film Loops.” This 59-minute feature consists of a series of short films commissioned for the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, some credited solely to Clarke, some to famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker with Clarke editing. They offer short portraits of American life: Western landscapes, city life, the American melting pot, etc.

“Bridges-Go-Round” is pure Clarke, and a fine example of her interest in manipulating the image, from color tinting to off-kilter angles providing vertiginous rides along a city bridge; you might even call it a dance. Electronic music on the soundtrack also demonstrates Clarke's interest in exploring the creative potentials of audio design, often with an intentionally alienating effect - witness the juxtapositions of gunfire and the sound of a baby crying on the jarring anti-war short “Butterfly” (1967, 4 min.), and one of the disc's true gems, the kaleidoscopic “24 Frames Per Second” (1977, 3 min.) which pairs swirling, rapid-fire images of Persian art with a distorted, aggressive soundtrack that is simultaneously energizing and agitating.

Skyscraper

One of the better films in the collection is Clarke's Oscar-winning short film “Skyscraper” (1960, 21 min.), made in collaboration with Willard Van Dyke, D.A. Pennebaker, Irving Jacoby, and John Sylvester White. Playful narration meets actuality footage to tell the heroic tale of the construction of a skyscraper from the ground up at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York, a building which would become the one-time headquarters of DC Comics (among other less significant American institutions.)

Disc Two houses the Dance Films of Shirley Clarke. Dance was Clarke's first passion and when the talented dancer realized she wasn't likely to work as a full-time professional ballet performer, she devoted her attention to capturing dance performances on film. I admit up front that I know as much about dance as I do about saying no to a second helping of my grandmother's pasta at New Year's Dinner, but for dance aficionados, these films offer some special treats. “Dance In the Sun” (1953, 7 min.) is described by Milestone as Clarke's first “official” film and features renowned dancer/choreographer Daniel Nagrin in a short piece that match cuts between his dance performance in studio and on a sandy beach... then ends with him leaning on a piano and smoking a post-recital cigarette, one of the playful touches that colors so much of Clarke's work.

The famous dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow, also a co-founder of the Actors' Studio, collaborated with Clarke on multiple films on this disc, as choreographer on a brief excerpt titled “A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime by Jelly Roll Morton” (1952, 2 min.) and then starring in Clarke's short film “Bullfight” (9 min.), playing the roles of matador, bull, and audience in what Milestone lists as “the only record of the great dancer in performance.” Sokolow also collaborated with Clarke on the film “A Moment In Love” (9 min.), pairing Sokolow's choreography with Clarke's reliance on tinting and double exposures.

Disc Three offers more of a hodgepodge. “Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With The World” (52 min.) won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1964. The film was taken over during post-production by producer Robert Hughes, but Clarke remains credited as director. This “long-unseen complete version” was released shortly after Frost passed away and features the octogenarian poet holding court for audiences large and small, young and old, and also puttering around alone in his home. It's standard fare formally, but gripping due to Frost's considerable presence. The disc also includes the short film “Christopher and Me” (16 min.), directed by Richard Leacock with “continuity and dialogue by Shirley Clarke.” It's a cute children's film about a boating race which ends with a song written by D.A. Pennebaker.

The rest of the disc consists primarily of home movies and photos, from Clarke as a child to footage of her home life with husband Bert and family vacatons. One of these “home movies” is actually a series of on-set Outtakes (13 min.) from Agnes Varda's film “Lion's Love” (1969) in which Clarke acted (as herself). Evidence here suggests Varda really liked to smoke. I had been told about this footage in the past by the good folks at Milestone, but didn't expect it to actually show up on disc. It's a pleasant surprise for any Varda-phile, and that's surely everyone, right? You get some footage of Warhol superstar Viva too.

This collection (and the entirety of Project Shirley) is too expansive to sum up easily, and the same is true of Shirley Clarke's no-longer-eclipsed career. What we can say is that Project Shirley has spared no effort in providing audiences with the ability to explore her work, from feature films to childhood photos, from experimental short films to documentaries. It's almost impossible to ask for anything more.

A detailed listing of the offerings on each disc follows:

DISC ONE: EXPERIMENTAL

“Brussels Loops” (59 min.) - described above
“Bridges-Go-Round 1” (4 min.) and “Bridges-Go-Round 2” - described above
“Scary Time” (1960, 16 min) – A film commissioned by and then banned by UNICEF as Clarke and Robert Hughes's juxtaposition of American kids playing dress-up at Halloween with images of starving and sick children in other countries proved a bit too disturbing.
“Skyscraper” (21 min.) - described above
“Butterfly” (4 min.) - A Vietnam protest film by Shirley and her daughter Wendy, which was only screened once, then rediscovered during Project Shirley. It was previously included on the “Portrait of Jason” disc.
“Savage/Love” (1981, 26 min.) and “Tongues” (20 min.) - Video recordings of one-man stage monologues written by Sam Shepard and performed by Joseph Chaikin. Just the sort of theater pieces I'm fundamentally allergic to, but considering the talent involved, surely of interest to many. Clarke really loves to manipulate the video image even with such a straightforward setup as a monologue.
“24 Frames Per Second” (3 min.) - Described above and flat-out great.
“Three Video Variations on 24 Frames Per Second” (11 min.) - Dancers imposed in front of the Persian art images from the short film, in (you guessed it) three different variations.

DISC TWO: DANCE

“Shirley Dancing – A Photo Gallery” (1 min.) - A montage of stills.
“Fear Flight” (1953, 11 min.) - Another recent discovery from the Clarke archives, an unfinished film (a silent work print) of a dancer in front of a blank wall, choreographed by Beatrice Seckler.
“Jelly Roll Morton” (2 min.) - described above.
“Home Movies #20: Dance Tests” (6 min.) - More footage of dancer Daniel Nagrin.
“Dance In the Sun” (1953, 7 min.) - described above
“In Paris Parks” (1954, 14 min.) - When Clarke traveled to Paris and got stood up by her planned film subject, she used her time to film this shot film in Paris featuring her daughter Wendy playing, maintenance workers setting up kids' rides, and a very unsafe-looking zoo.
“This Is Not In Paris Parks” (13 min.) - A a “surprise” second film Clarke was shooting in Paris (another recent discovery), this unfinished piece is somewhere between outtakes and final film. As if including this wasn't fastidious enough, Milestone went ahead and commissioned a new score by the great Donald Sosin as accompaniment because that's just the way they roll.
“Decroux” (15 min.) - Starring French mime Etienne Decroux in performance.
“Bullfight” (9 min.) and “Bullfight Outtakes” (2 min.) - described above
“Rose And the Players – Part 1 (13 min.) and Part 2(7 min.)” - Excerpts from another unfinished film, this collaboration between Clarke and Anna Sokolow shows Sokolow directing a rehearsal of some of her choreographed pieces. This project was unfinished, but let to...
“A Moment In Love” (9 min.) - described above
“Four Journeys Into Mystic Time” - Four short films from the same cycle, a Clarke collaboration with choreographer Marion Scott. Occult imagery abounds in sometimes poorly-lit images (the original negatives are missing) of some very strange dance performers beyond my ken.

DISC THREE: ROBERT FROST AND THE HOME MOVIES

“Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel” (52 min.) - described above
“Christopher and Me” (16 min.) - described above
“Lion's Love Outtakes” (13 min.) - described above
“The Brimberg and Clarke Photo Albums” (6 min.) - an extensive collection of family photos
“Television Interview w/ Shirley Clarke in Minneapolis” (1956, 3 min.) - Clarke patiently answers questions about what it's like to be a female filmmaker, and shares her love for dance.
“Home Movies” - Six different features running a total of 41 minutes, including home movies from Clarke as a child, to her wedding, to vacations with family and friends. The highlight of these feature are the only two known film recordings of Clarke dancing, ever so briefly.


Video:
With nearly forty different titles over a fifty year period, some in B&W and some in color, some only recently found in archives, the video quality obviously varies throughout the set. However, the image quality is consistently strong throughout as many titles have been restored. Any brief weak spots (some dark shots in “Bullfight” for example) are very much the exception in a consistently well-produced set.

Audio:
A similar deal here. Many films, many sources, some are silent, sometimes the sound is intentionally distorted by Clarke. My copious viewing/listening notes do not include any references to troublesome sound spots, so another fine job here.

Extras:
What, you wanted even more? Sorry, you'll have to settle for just 500 or so minutes of material. OK, fine, Milestone also includes a slim insert booklet with more detailed information about the Magic Box's contents.

Final Thoughts:
Other studios have released massive DVD/Blu-ray sets dedicated to a filmmaker's work. I have not yet seen one with quite the scope of Project Shirley. Milestone isn't just showing off by including so many titles, both short and long. While Clarke is remembered for features like “The Connection” and “Portrait of Jason” she spent much of her time struggling to complete projects, and her unfinished films are just as crucial to an appreciation of her career. The inclusion of several variations on her films (many previously buried in the archives) also provides evidence of an artist constantly experimenting and refining her technique. Clarke may have “only” completed a handful of features, but she was constantly working at her craft.

Milestone's Project Shirley leaves us with an indelible portrait of a great American filmmaker who was both politically engaged and formally engaged in an exploration of the mediums in which she worked, including video as well as film. Project Shirley is more than a DVD series, it's a scholarly biography and, just as important, a pleasure to watch. “The Magic Box” is no exception.

I've had the pleasure of reviewing all four volumes of Project Shirley, and I invite you to check out my reviews by clicking below on either the Project Shirley or Clarke.Shirley tabs. The entire project is, to say the very least, essential viewing for any cinephile.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Days of Heaven


DAYS OF HEAVEN (Malick, 1978)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 23, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

Noël Carroll described Terrence Malick as a filmmaker who portrays the "primacy of experience." Malick attempts to capture images and sounds and words that are largely unfiltered by our usual perceptual processes. His films emphasize the act of looking for its own sake; they bypass language and other intermediary channels to plug the viewer directly into experience itself. Malick´s films, like many of Werner Herzog´s, layer one pristine image on top of another to create a density of imagery so tangible it becomes, in Carroll´s words "too much there."

Malick´s extraordinary second feature "Days of Heaven" (1978) is so much "there" it feels like a blanket enveloping the viewer or, to less sympathetic viewers, an impenetrable shield that prevents access. A swarm of locusts; a rippling stream; wheat fields shimmering in a gentle breeze; Malick´s world is alive in a way that only a few filmmakers have ever rivaled. Oh, there are people in Malick´s movies too, and they matter, but their stories don´t necessarily take precedence over the landscape's tale. All parts of the environment receive equal billing here: people, animals, insects, trees, clouds. Even the invisible is tangible here; the wind in "Days of Heaven" is practically a character unto itself.

Like Malick´s first film, "Badlands"(1973), "Days of Heaven" features a couple on the run; unlike "Badlands" this is only a minor aspect of the film´s mosaic. Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills a factory foreman, and runs away with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz). They take up work as migrant farmers on a plantation owned by an unnamed Farmer (Sam Shepard, looking much younger than I ever remember Sam Shepard looking). The Farmer, dying of cancer, falls in love with Abby; Bill persuades her to marry the Farmer in a poorly-concoted scheme to inherit his money. Spending any more time on plot summary would grossly misrepresent Malick´s achievement.


The film is framed with a halting, awkward narration by Linda Manz who sounds as if she is groping for the words as she speaks them, yet another means by which Malick undermines the interpretive power of language. Here the words spring forth like a natural phenomenon, not fully planned but blossoming slowly into fullness. Linda is an odd choice for narrator since she remains so aloof from the action of the film, but then again everybody in the film is aloof in his or her own way. By emphasizing natural elements and dropping startling new images into the film seemingly out of the ether (oh, look, a flying circus has just arrived) Malick de-centers his narrative. The characters, human and otherwise, circle around the singularity at the very core of the film.

The editing is free-form, though positively classical compared to what was to come decades later in Malick's work. Certainly there are times when Malick employs standard narrative strategies, such as when he cuts to a shot of Bill and Abby holding each other as they walk away, to a brief shot of the Farmer looking suspicious. Other times, Malick will cut from a line of dialogue right into an entirely unrelated scene; even within a single dialogue scene, the characters appear to wander off in different directions only to suddenly find themselves back together again. Malick distills each moment to its essence, capturing the ineffable on film.

Many beautiful shots linger in the mind´s eye for days and forever, but the film´s most talked-about the scene is the fire near the end. Malick creates a Biblical conflagration (an impression heightened since the fire follows a swarm of locusts) with flames roaring high in the background, and swarms of (locust-like) humans depicted only as silhouettes in the foreground, futilely attempting to stem the tide. It is one of the most visually stunning sequences every committed to film.

Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, best known at that point for his 1970's work with the French New Wave directors, talks in the insert booklet that comes with this DVD about how he found a kindred spirit in Malick. Consistent with his focus on the "primacy of experience," Malick repeatedly asked Almendros to do less and less throughout the film; less lighting, no filters, etc. According to Almendros, the Hollywood-trained crew almost rebelled, but he was on the same page as the director. Almendros, with a little help from Haskell Wexler who came on to finish shooting after Almendros left for another commitment, wound up photographing one the most beautiful and memorable films of 1970's Hollywood.



Video:
I may have mentioned this already, but “Days of Heaven” is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Anyone who denies this can and must be ignored. It’s a visual pleasure junkie’s dream even on SD. The Blu-Ray release is so dangerously “pure” it should be a controlled substance.

Just take a gander at the climactic fire sequence as the definitive example. Each little detail stands out in sharp relief: the locusts, the tiny silhouetted people, the flames. Heck, even the wind looks great. Here you really see how much richer and sharper the shadows are – it really makes the SD look weak by comparison, and I thought the SD was pretty strong.

Audio:
The Blu-Ray is presented in DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio. The lossless surround track is very deep and reinforces the sensory immersion experience of Malick’s “too much there” film. Sounds feel like they come from different planes of action within the frame, and the wind is practically its own separate soundtrack.

Extras:
The extras are duplicated from Criterion’s 2007 SD release.

The audio commentary track features contributions by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Diane Crittenden.

Several interviews comprise the rest of the extras. There is a 2007 audio interview with Richard Gere (21 min), and a 2002 video interview with Sam Shepard (12 min.) We also get 2007 interviews with camera operator John Bailey (20 min) and with Haskell Wexler (11 min.)

The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Adrian Martin, and a lengthy excerpt from Nestor Almendros´ 1984 autobiography "A Man With a Camera.

Film Value:
It would be nice if “Days of Heaven” came with more extras. This certainly seems like a title that deserves the deluxe Criterion treatment. But that’s a minor complaint compared to the opportunity to see one of the most luminescent films ever made in 1080p. Simply in terms of audiovisual quality, this is certain to be one of the best BR releases of 2010.

Badlands


BADLANDS (Malick, 1973)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 19, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

(It's time we get rid of Columbus Day once and for all, but of course nobody wants to lose a paid national holiday. A few worthy ideas have been bandied about, but to me the solution is obvious. Have Terrence Malick's birthday - Nov 30 - declared our newest and greatest national holiday. To get the ball rolling on that front, I am re-posting, with some substantial revisions, previous reviews of a few Malick films on Blu-ray from Criterion.)

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is the most placid serial killer you could ever hope not to meet, his affable politeness as sincere and unaffected as his murderous explosions. Kit kills just about anyone who gets in his way, but he does so barely a hint of malice. Or remorse. It couldn't be any other way.

Everyone Kit encounters is merely an anonymous supporting character in the grand myth he has written for himself, a self-aggrandizing narrative crafted to transform a fired garbage collector into a very important person, a legend in life and his impending death. His victims have no interior lives in his eyes; they are all just “Bystander #1” whose deaths don't even register. Only one other person matters at all in Kit's world, his teenage girlfriend and fellow fugitive Holly (Sissy Spacek), but it's fair to wonder whether he feels anything for her or merely views her as a necessary accessory in his slipshod story; the girl, as Holly observes, destined to cry out Kit's name as he is gloriously gunned down by Johnny Law.

It's only appropriate then that director Terrence Malick reminds us that the natural world is similarly unconcerned with Kit and his adventures. The young couple traverses a breathtakingly beautiful mid-Western landscape (set in South Dakota and Wyoming, but filmed in Colorado) with the recent film school graduate indulging his deep-focus fetish at every opportunity with a series of sweeping panoramas that unfurl to the distant horizon, vistas simultaneously featureless and spectacular. Water burbles along streams, insects buzz and feed, all oblivious to Kit's drama, even as his killing spree terrorizes the local populace and mobilizes a massive manhunt. Kit might think he's the new James Dean; the universe cannot be bothered to shrug its shoulders. Werner Herzog, you have a soulmate.


“Badlands” (1973) is loosely inspired by real-life serial Charles Starkweather and his teenage companion Caril Ann Fugate, who stunned the nation with a nine-day rampage that resulted in ten murders, including the stabbing of Caril's two year-old sister. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, pulls off a remarkable balancing act in a feature debut sensitive to the rhythms of its cold-blooded protagonists without romanticizing them. The camera attends to the expressions and especially the movements of the characters; the freckle-faced gamine Holly twirls her baton with effortless grace, anticipating the pirouetting Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and the receding circular trajectory traced by Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) in subsequent Malick films. Both Sheen and Spacek, each comfortably playing about seven years younger than their true ages, wear the looks of pure, wide-eyed innocents (childlike innocence and casual amorality being strongly correlated) who may not quite be in love but are, at least, in this big ol' thing together, which may be the most either can hope for.

This tender treatment does nothing to alleviate the horror of the atrocities committed. Indeed, the tension is almost unbearable at times, particularly in a sequence (also inspired by Starkweather's exploits) in which Kit and Holly invade a rich man's home for supplies (“easier than shopping downtown”) and a much-discussed scene in which Kit quite matter-of-factly leads a young, unlucky couple into a storm cellar.

While Kit certainly hones the image he wants to project, it's both remarkable and disturbing to witness his lack of pre-meditation. Many of the killings happen so abruptly we might want to take Kit at his word when asked to explain why he shot somebody: “I don't know.” He acquires and discards a series of objects throughout the film, changing his mind about their relative importance on a whim. He spins a bottle to determine what direction to follow next, doesn't like the result, looks for a flatter spot to spin it again, then abandons the idea because it has now ceased to interest him.

Holly loses interest in the proceedings as well. The film is framed by her constant narration, presented in the overwrought style of a confessional romance (“I Rode With A Killer!”) but delivered almost entirely without affect, one of the film's many paradoxical qualities. Initially, she is excited by the prospect of frightened townsfolk cowering in the couple's wake, but she soon grows bored with day-to-day life on the lam. Even an older man who is “handsomer than anybody I'd ever met” starts to lose his charm when you can't find anywhere to take a bath or get a decent meal. The narration provides Holly her own shot at mythmaking, absolving herself of blame but with a narcissistic tone that invites further skepticism. In evaluating her by the end, it's difficult to forget an early scene when the sweet little naif tosses her pet catfish in the backyard to suffocate after it gets sick and, presumably, becomes too much of a nuisance to care for anymore. Is there any reason to expect her to treat Kit differently?


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the new 4K digital transfer is “approved by Terrence Malick.” The film was previously only available on North American region DVD on a middling SD by Warner Brothers released in 1999. It's a genuine pleasure to watch “Badlands” in 1080p and if it is not quite the revelation of Criterion's Blu-ray release of “Days of Heaven” in 2010, it's still a major improvement. I was particularly struck by an early scene where Holly twirls her baton in the front yard of her small-town suburban home. In high-def, this scene is bathed in sunlight with subtle and radiant colors; the shot is so suffused with nature it is almost super-natural. Shots of the rolling plains are similarly buoyant and the image detail is sharp throughout and the fine grain structure has been well-preserved. An excellent transfer by any standard.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio track is surprisingly rich and does justice both to the brilliantly employed “Musica Poetica” by Carl Orff and Spacek's drawling, lilting narration. There is no sign of distortion of any kind. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
The Warner Brothers SD had no special features, and this criminal oversight has been addressed by Criterion. Sorry, folks, you're not getting a Malick commentary or a Malick interview, but you do get an excellent collection of interviews.

“Making 'Badlands'” (41 min.) is a 2012 feature by Criterion that combines interviews with Sheen, Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk (Spacek's husband; they fell in love on the set of “Badlands.”) There's quite a bit of interesting information from each of the three subjects. Sheen relates that he told Malick he loved the script but was simply too old for the role; Malick promised to re-write it to suit Sheen. They also talk about a major accident that occurred on set during the filming of a house fire.

The disc also includes a 2012 interview with Edward Pressman (12 min.) which isn't great, but does relate the amusing fact that Warner Brothers previewed “Badlands” on a double feature with “Blazing Saddles.” A 2012 interview with editor Billy Weber (22 min.) is very informative. Weber also edited “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” and has plenty to say about his working relationship with Malick.

Criterion has added on a 1993 episode of “American Justice” (21 min.) about the Starkweather killings, though the episode focuses more on the case against his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. It's filler material, but a quick and easy way to get the basics of the case.

A Trailer (3 min.) in somewhat rough condition rounds out the collection.

The 20-page insert booklet has beautiful portraits of Sheen and Spacek on the front and back covers and features an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.

Film Value:
“Badlands” is a remarkable debut feature by one of the most remarkable American filmmakers of the last half century. It received mixed reviews during its initial run but after Malick released “Days of Heaven” in 1978, critics were ready to crown him the next great visionary. And some of them did, but they also had nothing else to do as they waited another twenty years for his third film, “The Thin Red Line.” Malick has suddenly become prolific as he glides gracefully through his seventies. Some critics think he has tottered over the (thin red) line into self-parody with his most recent works. On the other hand, those of us who know what we're talking about recognize him as the greatest American filmmaker still working today.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

One-Eyed Jacks


ONE-EYED JACKS (Brando, 1961)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 22, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

I think I liked “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961) more before the election. A film constructed almost entirely out of lies, lies often paired with preening threats of faux-macho violence from men desperate to portray themselves as strong even though they're mostly just wimps, seemed a much more pleasant and harmless thought before, y'know, the fucking election. Yeah. So. Anyway, you've never seen a film with so many lies, the best lies ever, believe me.

After pulling off a successful bank heist, gunslingin' outlaw Rio (Marlon Brando) pledges his love to a pretty senorita and gifts her a very special ring (i.e. a ring he just stole), only to immediately yank it off her finger when he has to stage an abrupt escape from the law. What a cad, but maybe not all lies are bad. Rio soon turns his gift for prevarication to surprisingly noble use. When he and his partner Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are hemmed in by pursuing rurales, he rigs a game of chance to ensure that Dad is the one to gets to ride off to find help while Rio stays behind to risk capture or even death. Too bad it turns out that Dad's a creep ought to save his skin, abandoning Rio to five years hard labor, a particularly grim prospect in 1880's Sonora, Mexico.

The lies have just begun. When Rio breaks prison and tracks down his old partner, now playing at being a legitimate town sheriff in Monterey, CA, Dad flat-out lies to him about what happened; Rio pretends to believe him and the clock starts ticking down to what we might expect to be an inevitable showdown, if we can trust anything in this dusty domain of deceit. Rio responds to Dad's craven dishonesty with his own elaborate plan to seduce Dad's innocent stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) with one sadistic lie after another, which then prompts Louisa to lie to her dad, Dad, bolstered by her lying mother (Katy Jurado), all of which drives Dad into an indignant rage because, dagnabbit, lying's supposed to be for manly men.

This slowly unfolding revenge tale also relishes in revealing the lies at the heart of much of the Western genre. Dad's initial betrayal of Rio sets the template for a world in which honor among thieves is a laughable concept. Both lawmen and outlaws pay lip-service to Western shibboleths like the fair showdown in the street, but scheme to set up confrontations where the odds favor them heavily. The secret to a long life in the frontier West isn't being able to outdraw the other man, but making sure you've either emptied his gun ahead of time or hired a half-dozen snipers for your side.


No lie, “One-Eyed Jacks” was almost a Stanley Kubrick Western. And it's simply a statement of fact that the man who directed the greatest science-fiction movie, the greatest horror movie, the greatest war movie, the greatest period costume drama, and the greatest black comedy would also have made the greatest Western. Unfortunately, Marlon Brando gonged him off the picture.

Like many other actors in the '50s when the old studio system was crumbling (largely from the dual threats of anti-trust regulation and the advent of television), Brando set up his own production company, Pennebaker, Inc., and quested about for his first project to develop. Pennebaker, after setting up a deal to shoot at Paramount, eventually settled on Charles Neider's “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones,” a novel very loosely inspired by Billy the Kid's life. An array of elite talent worked on the script from Rod Serling to Sam Peckinpah to Calder Willingham, the latter brought in when Brando hired another up-and-comer to direct, Kubrick, fresh off the success of “Paths of Glory.”

According to possibly true legend, Kubrick tossed out ideas while Brando indicated his displeasure by striking his handy gong. One of several Kubrick ideas nixed by Brando was replacing Karl Malden with Spencer Tracy, at least one case in which Brando proved definitely correct. It's uncertain whether Kubrick was fired or if the two willful artists agreed to a mutual parting of ways, but Brando assumed the director's chair for the first and last time.

The change of directors kicked off what would become one of the most notoriously “troubled” Hollywood shoots of the era. The production went over schedule and over budget as Brando (along with Guy Trosper, brought in to write after Willingham was let go with Kubrick) rewrote scenes between takes and engaged in extensive improvisation with his cast with the cameras running, explaining why one of the features on this Blu-ray is titles “A Million Feet of Film.” Brando was reportedly willing to wait for days along the coast in Monterey until the perfect waves could be filmed in the background as the brooding Rio contemplated his next move.

An even more tortuous post-production process produced sprawling rough cuts and eventually a strategic exit by Brando. Paramount took over the project and released the 141-minute version we have today with no further input from the director and star, not even during the theatrical run nearly three years after shooting began. Said cut therefore occupies the strange realm of being both the “official” version and definitively not the director's cut, allegedly with a relatively happy ending and a simplification of the good guy/bad guy dichotomy mandated by studio heads.

The final result is a rambling, unwieldy film, shot in glorious Vista Vision with gorgeous coastal shots and windswept deserts and replete with its share of unconvincing elements, particularly the perfunctory romance between Rio and Louisa. Yet, while it may not have fully realized Brando's stated goal of launching “an assault upon the citadel of cliches” the film is still, to use a technical term, “weird as hell” with both a showdown and a bank robbery that are delayed to the point of absurdity, and characterization that consistently confounds expectations. Rio, most assuredly not a good man, is still genuinely wounded by Dad's betrayal, initially resolved to the pure pursuit of vengeance, then so confused about how to proceed the film simply stalls out for much of the third act while he dithers.

The highlight for many viewers will be the subtly-layered interactions between Brando and his friend Malden as Rio and Dad's dueling visions of machismo, each composed largely of utter bullshit, are revealed as largely impotent. Add in memorable turns from character actors like Slim Pickens as a sleazy deputy, Ben Johnson as a no-good sonofabitch, and Timothy Carey as, well, Timothy Carey and it's easy to understand why this “troubled” production has become one of the most celebrated films maudit of the pre-”Heaven's Gate” era.

I still wish it had been a Stanley Kubrick Western, or at least that somewhere along the line we could have gotten a Stanley Kubrick Western because it would have the greatest Western ever, believe me. A Marlon Brando Western, however, is something to happy about, too. Or at least it would have about two weeks ago.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “One-Eyed Jacks” fell into the public domain at some point and has largely been available in inconsistent to piss-poor versions on home video. This high-def version has been sourced from a recent restoration by Universal Studios in collaboration with The Film Foundation (the one Martin Scorsese's involved with), no small undertaking considering the challenges of the VistaVision format.

The result is a crystal clear image with a vibrant color palette that nobody has seen with this film since (perhaps) its initial theatrical release. Grain isn't quite as prominent as I would have expected, and I don't know if that suggests a bit more boosting than usual, but let's be honest – only the helplessly obsessive care about that. This looks damn good.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio is distortion-free and sounds sharp if not particularly deep. Brando does the Brando-mumble from time to time, but that's what the English subtitles are for. Spanish dialogue is only subtitled in Spanish, as Brando did not intend to translate any of the Spanish.

Extras:
Criterion hasn't quite loaded the disc with extras, but what they've provided is quite compelling.

First up is a brief introduction (3 min.) from Martin Scorsese who participated in the film's restoration as part of The Film Foundation.

An unusual extra pairs Brando's voice recordings with clips from the film. Early in the development process, Brando recorded his thoughts about various scenes in the script. Comparison to the final film reveals the substantial changes along the way. At 33 minutes, this feature might need to be consumed in pieces, but it's a fascinating insight into the grueling development process.

“A Million Feet of Film” (23 min.) is a video essay by Western critic Toby Roan who has spent nearly forty years researching this film's production history. Presumably, not every day of those forty years, but still he brings to the table a considerable amount of detailed information from the establishment of Pennebaker Inc. to the film's release. I took a full page of notes, but I think it would be best for you to listen to Mr. Roan directly.

“I Ain't Hung Yet” (24 min.) is a video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, who analyzes Brando's directing choices and the film's relation to the Western genre.

The extras wrap up with a lengthy Theatrical Trailer (5 min.)

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

Final Thoughts:
Seriously, don't we all wish Stanley Kubrick had directed a Western?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Baby Peggy: The Elephant In The Room


BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (Iwerobor, 2012)
Milestone Films, DVD, Release Date Nov 5, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This fascinating portrait of one of Hollywood's great silent stars didn't get nearly enough play. I had a blast consuming this entire Milestone DVD, from the main documentary to all the Baby Peggy films includes as extras. Diana Serra Cary, the former Baby Peggy, turns 98 today, which makes this a great time to re-post my review and help film fans celebrate an impressive woman. And I strongly recommend this great DVD package, one of my favorite releases of the decade.)

Potty training is enough of a responsibility for most toddlers. Just imagine the burden when you're also your family's sole bread-winner.

Baby Peggy coasted for her first year, at least if you consider spending your days and nights in a tent in Yosemite National Park the life of Riley. But after Baby's daddy Jack uprooted the family so he could play cowboy (as a stunt double for Tom Mix and others) in Hollywood, she learned that she was going to have to earn her daily bottle. Peggy-Jean Montgomery was discovered in 1920 by director Fred Fishback and the 19-month old was put to work as a co-star with Brownie the Wonder Dog. After poor little Brownie proved too gentle for this wicked world, Peggy was forced to strike out on her own. She struck gold.

Baby Peggy became one of Hollywood's hottest commodities, shooting 56 comedy shorts over three years' worth of full work weeks. Peggy's precious reaction shots, surprisingly adroit stunt work, and ability to imitate stars like Pola Negri, Mae Murray, and Rudolph Valentino made her America's littlest sweetheart. The studio, along with her controlling father and banker grandfather, developed Baby Peggy into a major property with a line of merchandise covering the range from dolls to jewelry to underwear. She even shared the stage with FDR at the 1924 Democratic Convention. Or maybe FDR shared the stage with her.

By the age of five, Peggy had socked away over a million bucks in a time when that wasn't a hedge fund manager's pocket change, and she was promoted to feature-length films as a contender to the now rapidly aging child star Jackie Coogan (stretching his shelf life as a doddering ten year old). Unfortunately it wasn't enough for papa Jack whose feud with a producer not only broke her multi-million dollar contract but allegedly got her blacklisted for life. The grandfather billed as a banker turned out to be more of a bankster and absconded with all of the funds of the Baby Peggy Corporation, leaving the Montgomerys almost destitute.

Ever the consummate show biz professional, Peggy dusted herself off and shuffled off to vaudeville, logging even longer work weeks on the stage over the next several years, traveling the country on an endless tour. Several years of sweat equity bulged the family coffers to over $650,000 after which dad promptly lost every penny. Just north of ten years old, Peggy-Jean Montgomery had earned two fortunes and lost them both to incompetent relatives. She was ready for her next fresh start.

Dutch filmmaker Vera Iwerebor was a little girl herself when she first saw a postcard of Baby Peggy, and the image fascinated her enough to eventually write a fan letter to Peggy Montgomery. The response came from a woman named Diana Serra Cary, already a suggestion of an interesting story to be told. The two became friends, enabling Iwerebor to learn the rest of the tale and ultimately to share it with the world in this thoroughly entertaining documentary, “Baby Peggy: The Elephant In The Room” (2011).

The Montgomery family returned hat-in-hand to Hollywood where they worked as extras, but vague promises of future speaking roles never materialized for the former superstar. Peggy eventually left the family, finding love and religion while forging an entirely new identity as Diana Serra (the first name from a favorite actress, the last name from Franciscan friar Junipero Serra). She ran a bookstore, founded a greeting card company (conveniently marrying artist Bob Cary to help with the venture), and wrote several books on film history, mostly chronicling the biographies of child stars from Jackie Coogan to, of course, Baby Peggy. Not bad for a woman who received almost no formal education because she was working full time while still in diapers.

A good chunk of the documentary consists of footage shot over several days around Mrs. Cary's 90th birthday in 2008. In some of the most effective passages, she explains to her granddaughter Stephanie that she never had much of a childhood. She remains unfamiliar with most kids' games (Stephanie had to explain the concept of hopscotch) and admits that she quickly grew to resent Baby Peggy, a personality she considered distinct from herself, even staging a ceremonial burial for her infant alter ego. But several decades later, she became curious about what was left of the child star's legacy and has even grown fond of her once again now that several of the shorts (about 12 of the 56) have been rediscovered and have recently played to appreciative audiences.

Iwerebor must have had a difficult time winnowing this film down to its trim 54 minute running time. Both Baby Peggy and the adult Diana Serra Cary are remarkable ladies who deserve their own projects. The documentary benefits greatly by playing off their distinct charms; Baby Peggy beaming precociously from another century, and Mrs. Cary speaking so eloquently today. It might have been a sad film if the two couldn't be friends, but now that they seem to have reconciled we're left with an inspiring portrait of a great and no longer forgotten Hollywood star.

The documentary is narrated by actor Simon West, and the narration is co-written by Mrs. Cary.




Video:
The film is presented in 16:9. The new footage shot by Iwerebor looks just fine in standard definition; it's almost exclusively interviews or material recorded at a silent film festival. The silent film clips obviously vary greatly in quality as well as in aspect ratio, but none are so hopelessly damaged that they interfere with viewing.

Audio:
All of the dialogue is clearly recorded and, obviously, there are no audio concerns regarding any of the film clips. No subtitles are provided.

Extras:
Milestone never fails to deliver great DVD packages. While they didn't call in any film scholars to chip in with the project, they have included the most important supplemental material: Baby Peggy films. As mentioned above, only about a dozen of the 56 Peggy shorts are currently known to exist and most were found in European film archives. Three of them have been included here and they're really a blast.

“Carmen, Jr.” (1923, 11 min.) casts Peggy as a fiery senorita who embarks on “a Latin love adventure” which mostly involves dancing until she gets dizzy and taking the ring as a brave toreador taming a man in a cheap bull suit.

“Peg O' the Mounted” (1924, 12 min.) moves Peggy north to Canada where she rescues a Mountie and tracks down a band of moonshiners. She even rides a tiny horse in this one.

“Such Is Life” (1924, 17 min.) isn't quite the same escapist fare. Peggy is found homeless in the snow, but the plucky little bugger dives right into a career as a match girl and saves another child from a fire.

There are obviously a few shots or scenes missing from some of the shorts, producing a few abrupt jumps in the storyline, but overall they look fairly good, or at least as good as anyone could reasonably expect from films that could easily have been lost forever.

Peggy's brief sojourn into full-length filmmaking is also represented with the only feature that survives intact. “Captain January” (1924, 58 min, directed by former Keystone Cop Edward F. Cline) situates Peggy as the title character who washed ashore during a storm and was unofficially adopted by aging Maine lighthouse keeper Jeremiah Judkins (Hobart Bosworth). I was really caught off-guard by this moving story. Daddy Judkins is asked to give up his li'l Cap'n for her own good, and the tug on the heartstrings is undeniable. Peggy tends to her menagerie of pets (including a stork named Hamlet who gets renamed Ophelia after laying an egg) but is caught off-guard by a parrot who squawks “Go To H---!” in one of the more unexpected shots I've ever seen in a silent film.

Watching the movies, I was struck by the notion that they provide evidence that those primitive audience from long ago liked to spend their free time watching kids and pets do funny things. Peggy's charm is undeniable as well, and it's easy to see how she won over the hearts of so many viewers. I'd happily watch more if they were ever released.

The shorts are accompanied by scores performed by Guenter Buchwald. "Captain January" has a score by Donald Sosin with vocals by Joanna Seaton.

Final Thoughts:
“Baby Peggy: The Elephant In the Room” succeeds both as a record of a film history seldom told, and as a portrait of a remarkable woman. The journey from Baby Peggy to Diana Serra Cary is a story of determination and constant reinvention, and director Vera Iwerebor has captured it all vividly. Milestone's handsomely produced DVD includes three Baby Peggy shorts and a Baby Peggy feature that fill out the story and would be worth a purchase all by themselves. As mere “extras,” they sweeten the pot considerably, making this one of the most enjoyable DVD releases of the year.

For more information, check out the link at Milestone's site. You can also find more information under the Press section linked at the top of their page.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

McCabe & Mrs Miller


MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Altman, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 11, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) slowly builds up its world and its characters layer by layer, the better to tear everything down.

When fur-swaddled John McCabe (Warren Beatty) first rides his horse into the Pacific northwest frontier town of Presbyterian Church, he arrives as a barely noticed stranger. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge into the equally rickety wooden town, he enters a decrepit saloon, its cramped interior space shrouded in dusky gloom and, no doubt, pungent with the aroma of its unwashed clientele.

As the newcomer gladhands his way into a low-rent poker game, the saloon customers, only partially visible in the murk, whisper up a gossipy storm: “Is he wearing a gun?... Swedish gun.” Soon, saloon owner Sheehan (the always fabulous Rene Auberjonois) is racing through the gin joint like a town crier, announcing the stranger as “Pudgy” McCabe, a deadly gunfighter who's “got a big rep... a big rep.” Bit by bit, a Western legend is built.

In an uncharacteristically wise move, McCabe declines to confirm or deny the rumors, leveraging his “big rep” into the self-declared position of big man in town, peddling bargain-priced prostitutes to the town's lonely, grubby miners. The big man, however, is no match for the big woman. After a steam engine ushers Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) into town, everyone's plans change. The Cockney entrepreneur, an expert on managing classy whorehouses and a fancy five dollar hooker in her own right, sweeps the shiftless McCabe up in her wake, and soon has the entire unkempt populace bathing regularly for the privilege of patronizing her prestigious establishment, now only nominally fronted by McCabe, who is lucky and (mostly) happy just to be along for the ride.

Director Robert Altman loved to turn his actors loose, and some of his best films often feel like documentaries about actors conducting “business,” the gradual accretion of their various tics and idiosyncrasies defining their characters more than any role they play in an amorphous plot that rarely matters much. The weaselly Sheehan, Shelley Duvall's mail order bride, and Keith Carradine's affable greenhorn cowboy just drop in from time to time, emerging as distinct presences primarily from a series of glances, mumbled lines, or, in Carradine's case, a ratty, stretched-out pair of long johns. Eventually we have a growing town full of snifflers, belchers, mutterers, and beard scratchers negotiating the turn-of-century transition from Wild West to proto-civilization.


Altman builds the town of Presbyterian Church nail by nail too. Shooting mostly in sequence, Altman incorporates his construction crews, dressed in period costumes, into many scenes as they actually build the set on location near Vancouver, as the town transforms from mud puddle to respectable tourist attraction, if not quite a glittering metropolis. Nothing in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” could really glitter anyway. Altman asked ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to degrade the image by partially exposing the negative before shooting, adding a weird antique patina that is simultaneously grubby and beautiful, all in gloriously dull color.

Still more layering. Altman recorded each speaking part on a separate track, giving him the opportunity to isolate vocals in scenes that include multiple simultaneous speakers, dialing them up or down as desired. The technique renders much of the dialogue barely intelligible, a quality that drove some audiences, critics, and Warren Beatty to distraction. Watching the film at home with subtitles transforms the experience so much, it simply has to count as cheating, but who can resist?

Layered on top of the endlessly overlapping dialogue is the ubiquitous use of several songs by Leonard Cohen, another make-or-break feature for audiences. What initially might sound incongruous to the setting soon becomes indispensable, with Cohen tracks like “The Stranger Song” (coded to McCabe) and “Sisters of Mercy” (coded to the most of the prostitutes) so tightly interwoven into the fabric of the film, it's hard to imagine the movie without them, and almost as hard to believe Altman only decided to use the Cohen music during post-production, dropping the surprise on most of his cast at the first screening.

If the film isn't particularly plot-centric and spends most of its creative energy on demythologizing the West and the Western hero, it still adheres in broad structure to some of the genre's classical elements. McCabe's posturing works on small timers, but he soon finds himself outclassed by corporate thugs who intend to take over his business by any means necessary. The audience has long since figured out that the deadly gunfighter is neither deadly nor much of a gunfighter, but the film still ends in one of the more spectacular shootouts in any Western film, a protracted, snow-covered spectacle that crisscrosses the entire town, and consumes the final twenty minutes. Zsigmond works magic, exploiting the edges of the 2.40:1 widescreen frame with sharp movements, long shots framing tiny figures against a vast landscape, and strategic use of the zoom lens. Few snow scenes have ever felt so darn snowy. Any bodies won't be found until winter thaws, which will be never, since the film ends.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

Because the film's negative was intentionally exposed to light (a process sometimes called “flashing”) to degrade the image, any video presentation can be a challenge (the Blu-ray release was delayed by a few months to continue to work on the transfer), and any release is guaranteed to generate a debate from experts, some legitimate and some self-styled, who are certain they know what the original release was supposed to look like. I can't attest to any of that, since the film hit theaters before I hit the world, but I know that this transfer looks very strong, and at least feels authentic. There are very dark shots where you'll be frustrated by how little you can see, surely as Altman and Zsigmond intended. And the movie looks suitably muddy and grainy throughout. Is it an exact reproduction of the original? Zsigmond died at the start of 2016, but participated in this transfer which is credited as “timed by Vilmos Zsigmond.”

I suspect you're going to be happy with this rich high-def transfer, and if you're not, you're unlikely to be please with ANY transfer.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio mix is crisp and sounds like it's up to a difficult task. Altman's sound tracks are as complex as anybody's, and I'm sure it's a nightmare to replicate everything exactly. Usually I can say that Criterion audio mixes offer no audio drop off. That's not the case here, but when it drops off, or at least gets somewhat unintelligible, that's because it's supposed to. Even if Warren Beatty couldn't stand it. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and most people will need the support.

Extras:
Criterion has absolutely packed this release with extras.

The film is accompanied by a 2002 commentary track with Robert Altman and producer David Foster.

The lengthiest extra is titled “Way Out On A Limb” (2016, 54 min.), a collection of interviews with casting director Graeme Clifford, writer Joan Tewkesbury, and actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy. The feature jumps back and forth among the subjects, providing perspective from both cast and crew. Carradine clearly still appreciates Altman taking a chance on a teenage neophyte, and Auberjonois obviously loved working with him too. They also single out set designer Leon Ericksen for kudos (see more below).

The disc also includes a new interview (2016, 36 min.) with film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, who debate whether or not the film should properly be called an “anti-Western” and also discuss Altman's feelings about the genre (he wasn't a fan, perhaps because of his unsatisfying work on so many TV Westerns, including “Bonanza.”)

We also get a short feature (11 min.) that mixes two interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, from 2005 and 2008. He talks about exposing the negative on purpose and also the challenges in preparing for a film where the director didn't always know what he'd be shooting the next day.

Set designer Leon Ericksen is spotlighted in an excerpt from a 1999 Art Directors Guild Film Society event in Los Angeles. Appearing in front of his peers, Ericksen is hailed as a rock star in this 37-minute video.

A promotional “Behind The Scenes” featurette (1970, 9 min.) covers the location shooting Vancouver.

Criterion has also included two excerpts from “The Dick Cavett Show.” Cinephiles will particularly enjoy the July 6, 1971 (10 min.) excerpt in which critic Pauline Kael takes the opportunity to enthusiastically defend the film against poor reviews from early critics like Rona Barrett and Rex Reed. She predicts that the movie, about to be rushed out of theaters, will be widely hailed down the road, so good call there. An Aug 16, 1971 excerpt (12 min.) sees Altman explaining some problems with the audio in the film's first critical screening.

The “Steve Schapiro Art Gallery” offers 28 stills from the set photographer.

An original Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) wraps up the collection

The slim fold-out insert booklet fetures an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

Final Thoughts:
This revisionist Western has just about everything, but I have to be honest. It had me at Leonard Cohen. Criterion's Blu-ray release has just about everything too, except any participation from the film's stars in the extras. I can live without that, but it would have been fun to hear the words “Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall” at some point.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Executioner


THE EXECUTIONER (Berlanga, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 25, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

This tender, heart-warming tale begins with a wizened, stoop-shouldered old man who has just killed for the last time, and ends with his awkward, greenhorn son-in-law who follows in his footsteps to work that trusty garotte for the first time. I dare you not to cry. It's the circle of death, and it moves us all. C'mon, everybody sing!

Director Luis Garcia Berlanga is so venerated in Spain that his name appears on street signs and buildings in his birthplace of Valencia. Spanish cinephiles often rank him alongside Luis Bunuel among the nation's greatest filmmakers, but his movies have received relatively minimal distribution internationally. “The Executioner” (1963) is the first Berlanga film I've seen and I have to admit the only other ones I'd heard of before, even in passing, are “Welcome, Mr. Marshall” (1952) and “Placido” (1961). Perhaps it's worth noting that in the 2012 “Sight & Sound” poll, six voters named “The Executioner” one of their top ten films of all time, four of whom are listed in the voting results as being from Spain, one from Mexico, and one from Uruguay.

On one of the extras on this Criterion release, Pedro Almodovar attributes Berlanga's relative lack of international distribution to the director's penchant for overflowing verbiage; his characters talk all the time and often at the same time as each other, and perhaps subtitles can't quite reproduce the experience for non-Hispanophone audiences. I don't know enough about Berlanga's oeuvre to evaluate that assessment. Surely there are other talky directors who have thrived around the globe (Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer) so perhaps there's a more contingent explanation: maybe his films simply weren't marketed effectively enough or at the right time and wound up being eclipsed by better publicized directors. Perhaps, maybe – indisputably, I should leave this matter to someone who knows more about Berlanga.

There's surely no reason “The Executioner” couldn't be enjoyed by audiences anywhere. In this satirical film, co-written by Berlanga, his long-time collaborator Rafael Azcona, and Italian veteran Ennio Flaiano, young undertaker Jose Luis (Nino Manfredi) strikes up a friendship with aging state executioner Amadeo (Jose Isbert), eventually marrying Amadeo's daughter, Carmen (Emma Penella), at more or less (ahem) the same time he gets her pregnant.

The screenplay, which traffics in a familiar brand of Kafka-esque bureaucratic horror, frequently juxtaposes the grotesque with the humdrum quotidian. A bored police officer slurps his lukewarm soup while sad-eyed Amadeo collects his pay for his just-finished execution. Jose Luis talks to his co-worker about making a phone call while the two of them guide a coffin across an airport tarmac with a line of black-clad mourners wailing behind them. At a family picnic, Amadeo, always eager to share his war stories, quite happily demonstrates proper garroting technique with a rolled-up newspaper.


The quiet gallows humor forms the gruesome basis for Berlanga's examination of the staggering price of assimilation. In order to secure a major upgrade in government housing, the affable but cowardly Jose Luis reluctantly agrees to follow Amadeo's example and apply for a job as executioner himself (he fills out the paperwork while licking a strawberry ice cream cone), plowing through layers of red tape to secure a position he doesn't even want. The film argues that he has little choice, or is at least very strongly incentivized to pursue his new career, in a tightly-regulated society ruled by a methodical logic. You've got to pay your way, and in Jose Luis's case the math is elementary: bring a life into the world, and the only way to balance the ledger is to take one. I feel like we're asked to overlook the fact that Jose Luis could maintain his personal sense of dignity by settling for more modest accommodations, but let's just go along with the premise.

Berlanga plays most of the film in a sunny tone, focusing on the budding romance and the comfort of domestic space, with the specter of death (i.e., state-sanctioned murder) looming off-stage. Even when newly-minted executioner Jose Luis, who reads the crime section with dread each day, finally gets his first assignment, the family treats it as an opportunity for the honeymoon they never had, as husband, wife, child, and father-in-law bask in the warm glow of sunny Majorca until Jose Luis is finally dragged (almost literally) to work. The light comic tone makes the final sequence all the more chilling, when Jose Luis does everything he can to stall and weasel his way out of the job, praying for a last-minute pardon or illness to take him off the hook. The extended, nerve-racking sequence culminates in a brilliant shot in a vast white room where it is the blubbering executioner, not the condemned prisoner or his bereft family, who collapses on his way to the death chamber and must be consoled by both priest and police.

“The Executioner” became a political hot potato in Francoist Spain after somehow initially slipping past censors; the film was allowed to play (with some official protest) at the Venice Film Festival where it netted the FIPRSECI prize, but drew criticism later, with Franco calling Berlanga “a bad Spaniard.” Some leftists also critiqued the film as an apologia for Franco, which seems like an inexplicable interpretation today, but maybe you had to be there.

The film's matter-of-fact approach to its dark subject matter may throw some viewers, but its a reminder that nothing is more absurd, or terrifying, than reality closely observed. And Berlanga sure has a keen eye for the tiniest and truest details.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion labels this as “a new digital transfer (that) was created in 4k resolution” which isn't the same thing as a restoration, but if this wasn't restored, it was certainly sourced from a well-preserved 35 mm negative. The black-and-white contrast is strong, though the film mostly takes place in brighter spaces, including the stark white of the room at the end. Image detail is strong throughout. Another top-notch 1080p transfer from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track doesn't have much depth and probably isn't meant to. It is, as is typical from Criterion, clean and crisp throughout. I think most of the dialogue is post-synched, so sometimes voices don't quite sound like they're coming from the actors, but that's fine. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio. The white subtitles are occasionally difficult to read against the brigher black-and-white shots.

Extras:
Criterion kicks off the collection of extras on this disc with a brief (4 min.) interview with director Pedro Almodovar, who labels Berlanga one of Spain's two greatest filmmakers, alongside Luis Bunuel. He argues his case enthusiastically in just a few minutes.

The main extra is a collection of interviews titled “Bad Spaniard' (2016, 56 min.) which includes interviews with the director's son Jose Luis Berlanga, critic Carlos F. Heredero, and several others. The features cuts back and forth among the subjects frequently, explaining why Berlanga is so widely admired in Spain. The director's name has become its own eponymous adjective, with Berlanga-esque representing an idiosyncratic brand of chaos. This piece details Berlanga's career from his film school days through “The Executioner” and beyond while also taking time to spotlight writer/collaborator Rafael Azcona's contributions to several of the director's key films.

“La Mitad Invisible” (28 min.) is a 2009 episode of a Spanish television series which investigates the film's influence since its release. I found the style a bit irritating, but it's worth watching.

The final extra is an original Theatrical trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic David Cairns.

Final Thoughts:
The disparity between Berlanga's reputation in Spain and abroad is a reminder that we should understand the biases in any film canon. About ten years ago, the Spanish film journal “Caiman Cuadernos de cine” conducted a poll for the best Spanish films of all time. The top two are widely known – Bunuel's “Viridiana” and Victore Erice's “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Berlanga took the next two spots with “The Executioner” and “Placido.” Now, the top three Spanish films in the poll are all in the Criterion Collection. It's a good start.