Saturday, February 27, 2016

Made in U.S.A.

MADE IN U.S.A. (Godard, 1966)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Jul 21, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Made in U.S.A.” (1966) is the film that Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make for the past two decades. Cobbled together from a series of film references both obvious and obscure, Godard’s final genre film (noir, what else?) of the '60s is a celebration of cinephilia, and a blueprint of the writer/director’s obsessions, both personal and political. To riff on one of Peter Greenaway’s early films, “Made in USA” is “A Walk through G”(odard).

Godard dedicates his film to Nick and Sam (Ray and Fuller) and packs the movie to the gills with other cinematic references. Various characters are named Aldrich (director Robert), Mizoguchi, Don Siegel (played by New Wave cornerstone Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Widmark (actor Richard). Ruby Gentry is paged over a P.A., somebody lives on Preminger Street, and a host of film posters, some larger than life, are on display. The movie, while nominally adapted from a Donald Westlake novel, is modeled (also nominally) on “The Big Sleep” but with an even more impenetrable and surrealistic plot.

Anna Karina plays Paula Nelson (though we could argue what she’s mostly playing herself), a Sam Spade/Phillip Marlowe detective investigating the death of her lover, or at least that seems to be the story. Along the way she encounters a series of hoods (two of whom are named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon), dispatching some of them and outmaneuvering others. A series of betrayals and digressions makes any effort to follow the logic of the plot impossible, but it doesn’t really matter. At one point the film stops so that Marianne Faithful, who happens to be sitting in a café, can sing “As Tears Go By.” Godard had lost all interest in relating a linear narrative and had other things on his mind.

Chief among them is Karina, then Godard’s ex-wife for over a year. In “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), Godard had bid her a cinematic farewell and in “Made in U.S.A.”, well, he does so again though in an even more despairing tone. In one of many ways of reading the film, we can see the male characters as stand-ins for Godard, with Karina wreaking havoc on their lives. When she shoots one of them, his last dying words are “Oh Paula, you have stolen my youth.” In their last feature film together*, Godard did not take it easy on Karina, and I sometimes wonder why, exactly, she was willing to play such a role. (* Godard also directed Karina in a segment of the compilation film “The World’s Oldest Profession” (1967.)

Godard deals with the political as well as the personal (not that there's a difference). On top of the already severely modified Westlake/“Big Sleep” storyline, Godard grafts a tale of political intrigue ripped from the day’s headlines. Exiled Moroccan leftist Mehdi Ben Barka was arrested and mysteriously “vanished” in the fall of 1965. It’s a convoluted story that resulted in the conviction of two French officers, and also involved an underworld hood (he previously served time for bank robbery and attempted murder) named George Figon who was also an aspiring film producer. Figon, found dead in his home when police sought to arrest him, became the inspiration for the man whose death Paula is ostensibly investigating. This character appears strictly as a voice on tape, a voice provided by Godard. Each time his last name (Politzer) is mentioned in the film, it is blotted out by a loud, abrupt sound effect, a gimmick later appropriated by Tarantino in “Kill Bill.”

“Made in U.S.A.,” like several other Godard films of the period, is painted in dazzling primary colors; Karina’s dresses are often color-coordinated with the gaudy-gorgeous backdrops. Godard’s fondness for slapstick is on display in many scenes as well, though his dry staging doesn’t translate well for some viewers. The violence in the film is highly stylized, modeled more on comic books (an inspiration for many New Wave filmmakers) than on film conventions, stopping just shy of on-screen “BAP!” and “POW!” titles. It’s a stylistic choice, to be sure, and it works wonderfully but it’s also a nod to the film’s limited budget and compact shooting schedule. Roger Corman would have been proud.

With its web of references that can’t fully be understood by anyone other than the man who made them, “Made in U.S.A.” is an infuriating, indulgent and magnificent example of Godard’s mid-60s work. Shot just before “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” it represents not just (another) farewell to Karina, but the beginning of his farewell to commercial cinema. In 1967, Godard’s “Weekend” ended with a big “fuck you” to consumer audiences (emphasis on the consume) and announced his disappearance into the world of fully radicalized cinema that characterized much of his work of the late '60s and '70s.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is another fantastic transfer by Criterion, digitally restored from the original 35mm camera negative. Colors are bright (as they must be for this film) and pop right off the screen.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The soundtrack has been cleaned up as well as usual for Criterion. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

A very welcome addition is a “Concordance” (17 min.) that explains many of the reference points in the movie, from film to personal to political. This feature is written by Lenny Borger and narrated by Dan Stewart.

“On the Cusp” invites Godard biographers Colin McCabe and Richard Brody to place the film in the context of Godard’s career, and their discussion of the film’s transitional role in his oeuvre is vastly more detailed than mine.

There are also two interviews: Anna Karina from 2002 (10 min.) and László Szabó (6 min.) Szabó plays Paul Widmark in the film, and appeared in several other works with Godard.

The insert booklet features an essay by J. Hoberman of “Village Voice.”

Final Thoughts:
Just as “Made in U.S.A.” is a transitional film that paves the road for Godard’s retreat from commercial cinema, seen from today’s vantage point, it also feels like one of the earliest precursors of his monumental “Histoire(s) du cinema” project (late 80s-1990s), a rapid-fire free associative audiovisual battery of mostly unidentified film references that challenges viewers to keep up or perhaps just surrender to the clash of sound and image. It may be best to do the same with “Made in U.S.A.” Its whirligig visuals and its discordant soundtrack may distance you from the narrative, but they pull you in with their sheer virtuosity. A tough nut to crack, but well worth the effort.

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (Godard, 1967)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Jul 21, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

As Amy Taubin writes in the liner notes to this Criterion release, Jean-Luc Godard’s “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” (1967) is too rich, too dense, too monumental to do justice to in a short review. So I’ll just talk about espresso instead.

In the film’s most celebrated shot, cinematographer Raoul Coutard pushes in closer and closer on a cup of espresso, the milk swirling and bubbling as Godard whispers on the soundtrack:

Since a wide gulf separates my subjective certainty of myself from the objective truth others have of me,
Since I constantly end up guilty even though I feel innocent,
Since every event changes my daily life,
Since I always fail to communicate, to understand to love and be loved,
And every failure deepens my solitude, since… (long pause) … since…
Since I cannot escape the subjectivity crushing me nor the subjectivity expelling me, Since I cannot rise to a state of being nor collapse into nothingness,
I have to listen, more than ever I have to look around me,
At the world,
My fellow creature,
My brother.

For a director accused of being too intellectual, too obtuse, annoyingly obsessed with word games, you can’t ask for anything more direct than this confession of insecurity, inadequacy (“I always fail to communicate”) and profound loneliness. As we look closer and closer at the white swirls, this literal and figurative Milky Way in a cup, Godard opens up, putting himself in front of the camera as much as possible without actually appearing on screen. 

As always with Godard, there are many ways to read the scene. If you want to follow an autobiographical approach, like critic Richard Brody does, Godard is addressing his feelings about the film’s star Marina Vlady. Godard began shooting “2 or 3 Things” just a week after wrapping photography on “Made in USA” (1966), a farewell to ex-wife Anna Karina. He not only plunged right into his next film, but also into his next relationship. Shortly before filming began, he proposed to Vlady. Just as filming began, she turned him down. Their on-set relationship was not a good one, but the tension between them was a productive one, at least in terms of the final product.

But maybe it’s a mistake to interpret this scene in such a limited way. Godard may also be directly conveying his raison d’être as a filmmaker. If he fails to communicate, then he must listen and observe even more attentively. Perhaps this explains his reliance on the dynamic between documentary and fiction that informs both “2 or 3 Things” and many of his subsequent films: “One Plus One” (1968) for example; “Passion” (1982) as one of many others, on up through “Notre Musique” (2004). Generations of filmgoers trained to believe a film exists only to convey a narrative may be baffled when Godard stops to intently study seemingly insignificant details, when he prolongs “boring” moments at the expense of traditionally dramatic ones, but maybe Godard trusts the camera's ability to document more than his ability to interpret. Or maybe not. I'm still trying to figure it out.

Another passage from Godard is illuminating, one that is filmed over the tightest shot of a bubble in the coffee cup:

Say that the limits of language are the world’s limits,
That the limits of my language are my world’s limits,
And that when I speak I limit the world, I finish it.

What a corner to be painted into. Godard is quoting Wittgenstein(“the limits of my language are my world’s limits”) who explained language as a method of categorizing the world around us. And this categorization both enables and limits our understanding of the objects around us. And our pictures too, which we process through the filter of language (in other words, we put pictures into words). I’m oversimplifying when I suggest that this is one of the primary concerns that Godard struggles with in most of his work (can we ever just see without interpreting the act?), but… I don’t have better words to describe it. I’m limited that way.

You probably want a description of the story, which was inspired by a series of articles about housewives turning to prostitution to maintain their lives in the new housing developments on the outskirts of Paris. The film follows housewife Juliette Janson (Vlady) through 24 hours in her life as mother, wife and prostitute. But enough about the plot.

“2 or 3 Things” might sound like a character study, but it isn't. Would you expect that from Godard? It’s a film about a changing Paris (the third “her” of the title along with Janson and Vlady), one that, like in “Une Femme Mariée” (1964), is an ideological construct built on a flimsy, shifting foundation created by advertisement and the consumer impulse. Godard is not exactly optimistic about the growing influence of consumerism in Paris, but he also takes time to appreciate the beauty of this changing world, to celebrate sleek, shiny new Paris instead of merely grumping about the displacement of the old Paris.

Godard’s words on the soundtrack again: “You might say that living in modern society is virtually like living in a giant comic strip.” Not exactly a comforting thought, but it sure makes for some beautiful footage. A scene at a garage pop(art)s with color, particularly bright red, and is as alive and vibrant as the techno-Paris of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” (1967.) As a city symphony film and as a document of its times, “2 or 3 Things” is a marvel that equals anything in Godard’s 1960s output. 

The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Criterion. Sharp colors, sharp resolution. Clean print with just the right amount of graininess. Top notch as usual.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound mix is crisp and distortion free. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

The commentary track by Adrian Martin is about as good as it gets. Martin doesn’t function as a play-by-play announcer walking you through what’s happening on screen, but uses his considerable multi-disciplinary knowledge to provide an in-depth analysis of the film and the philosophical, political and literary context needed to dig deeper into it. Martin has been one of my favorite critics for some time, and I hope we’ll get more commentary tracks from him.

Marina Vlady is interviewed on set in an excerpt from the French TV program “Cinéma” (7 min.) that originally aired on Oct 26, 1966. In an episode of the program “Zoom” (13 min.), Godard debates with government official Jean St. Geours about the housewife-prostitute issue. It’s pretty damned fascinating.

A “Concordance” (9 min.) traces the relevant references in the film, and is narrated by Dan Stewart.

The disc also includes an interview (15 min.) with actor/writer/filmmaker Antoine Bourseiller, a friend of Godard’s in the '60s who discusses their “warlike” relationship.

The insert booklet features an essay by Amy Taubin, and reprints an anonymous letter from a housewife turned prostitute that provided one of the inspirations for “2 or 3 Things.” It was originally published in the May 4, 1966 issue of “Nouvel observateur.”

Final Thoughts:
Now that Criterion has released “Made in USA” and “2 or 3 Things I Know about Her,” all of Godard’s feature films from “Breathless” through “Weekend” are now available on Region 1 DVDs. I wonder if this is the last Godard title we’ll see from Criterion. Their prior release of “Tout va Bien” (1972) is somewhat encouraging, but it’s hard to find a likely candidate for future Criterion treatment. With New Yorker, the other major producer of Godard DVDs, now defunct, who will step up to the plate? Would Criterion really take on neglected films like “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (1990) or “King Lear” (1987) or perhaps tackle a massive project like “Histoire(s) du cinéma?” Here’s hoping they will.

[2016 Update: Criterion released Godard's 1980 film “Every Man For Himself” in early 2015. I've still got my fingers crossed on “King Lear.”]

Monday, February 22, 2016

Simon of the Desert

SIMON OF THE DESERT (Bunuel, 1965)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Feb 10, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Today, Luis Buñuel turns 116 and I just can't wait for his next movie. In the meantime, I am re-posting my substantially revised and update review of perhaps my favorite Buñuel film, "Simon of the Desert." It might help to have twelve years of Catholic education to find this movie so damned funny -emphasis on the damned - but I don't think it's necessary.)

Is it a coincidence that many of the greatest religious films have been made by atheists and agnostics? Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964) is the definitive movie about Jesus Christ, a sympathetic, politically engaged portrait of an angry revolutionary. Non-believers Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke placed the human concept of a higher power at the core of “2001: A Space Odyssey” even though the film is devoid of mystical revelation, no matter what “ultimate trips” some of its chemically-enhanced viewers may have taken.

One of director Luis Buñuel's favorite quips was typically contradictory: “Thank God I’m still an atheist.” The quote is not only funny but provides one plausible reason that atheists make such good religious films: they tend to think about God all the time. After all, it’s hard not to be concerned with God in a world where geopolitics are dominated by people who fight in the name of their various invisible friends who never learned to play well together.

Buñuel made religion the central theme of many of his films including “Nazarin” (1959), “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), “The Milky Way” (1969) and this 45-minute masterpiece “Simon of the Desert” (1965). There’s no way to dispute that Buñuel was critical, often outright mocking, of fervent religious belief but his critique was usually focused on clerics and their rigid teachings rather than the believers themselves.

He was particularly fascinated by the elaborate rules and rituals that govern organized religious practice, specifically the religion in which he was raised, Catholicism, and his surrealist sensibility enabled him to tease apart the physical signifiers from their metaphysical trappings. In “The Milky Way,” a priest lectures about transubstantiation (the belief that the Eucharist becomes the literal body of Jesus), prompting a perfectly logical yet apparently blasphemous question from one of his listeners: “Once you swallow, what becomes of the Christ?” Send that man straight to hell.

In “Simon of the Desert,” the title character (Claudio Brook) is a hermit who lives on top of a stone column (in the desert, in case you weren't sure). A cult gathers around him and pilgrims petition the holy man daily for favors; they don't so much hope for a miracle as expect one. When a double amputee is miraculously healed, he treats it with all the solemnity of waiting in line for government cheese: “OK, let’s go back home now.”

After Simon has spent six years, six months and six days on his column, the devil, in the form of a buxom Silvia Pinal, arrives to tempt him. He crosses himself but the devil flatly states, “Making gestures with your hands won’t help you this time.” “Making gestures with your hands” isn't futile because there is no God in this filmic universe; it's just a damn silly thing for a grown person to do. In fact, the miraculous is so commonplace in the movie, nobody can logically be an atheist. And I mean nobody. When Simon speaks of his abiding faith, the devil fires back, “I believe in God too!”

Buñuel has a lot of fun at Simon’s expense, but it’s not an entirely unsympathetic portrayal. It’s just that you can’t help but marvel at a person who lives on top of a column the same way you might gawk at a circus freak. There are so many questions you want to ask. Does he get bored? Do his feet get sore? How does he take care of, you know, business? Simon answers this one. Since he only eats lettuce, he’s just like a little bird now, so it’s not really that big of a problem.

Whether the devil has knocked him off balance or life atop a stone has finally become too yawn-o-lithic to bear, Simon quickly begins to deteriorate. Desperate to find something to bless, he turns his attention to a bug and then to a piece of lettuce. Even his prayers and sermons don’t make as much sense as they used to: “I’m beginning to realize that I don’t realize what I’m saying.” Perhaps that's the beginning of true wisdom.

As in “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), Buñuel creates an absurdist story out of quietly realistic shots. Surrealism is built “on realism” after all. Almost the entire film is set in the area around Simon’s column, and the film’s syntax is fairly standard even if the shot/reverse shots in this case look inherently weird when one of the people in the conversation is standing twenty feet above the other. The film offers its share of discordant images, including a coffin that skitters along the ground, and a bearded Silvia Pinal masquerading as Jesus, but it established a consistent sense of geography. Part of the surrealist mission was to “assault the eye” (as literally manifested in “Un chien andalou”) but Buñuel sticks to the basics here aside from a few jarring cuts, none more so than the one that leads us into the film’s final scene, a scene I guarantee that you are not expecting.

“Simon of the Desert” was the last film that Spanish-born Buñuel shot in Mexico, the country where he rejuvenated his career after a ten-year hiatus and would live most of the rest of his life. He made several commercial films to pay the bills, but his Mexican period produced some of his greatest works: “Los olvidados” (1950), “El” (1953), and “The Exterminating Angel” among them. Producer Gustavo Alatriste (Pinal’s husband) ran out of funding in the middle of the shoot, which forced Buñuel to eliminate many of his plans and produce this 45-minute cut. He certainly made a virtue of necessity and it would be difficult to imagine a better ending for the film. Then again we are talking about Luis Buñuel and when it comes to that kind of talent, you just have to have faith.

The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is pictureboxed as are many Criterion full-screen releases which means some viewers will see black bars around the edge of the image (like a picture frame.) The opening shots look a little scratched and worn, but the rest of the film looks so sharp and pristine you won't have many complaints, aside from hoping for a high-definition upgrade in the near future.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Not much to say here – solid, functional, not too complex. No complaints. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

The DVD includes a documentary about Buñuel’s years in Mexico titled, appropriately enough, “A Mexican Buñuel” (55 min.) It’s a solid documentary with plenty of information. However, be warned that it contains significant spoilers (as in the entire plot) for “Los olvidados” and minor spoilers for a few other films. A brief interview with Silvia Pinal (6 min.) is the only other feature.

The insert booklet features an essay by critic Michael Wood and an excerpted interview of Buñuel conducted by critics José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent between 1975 and 1977.

Final Thoughts:
Every now and then I start to think that “Simon of the Desert” might be my favorite Buñuel film. Then I remember “The Exterminating Angel.” And “The Milky Way.” And 'The Phantom of Liberty.”

Thank God I don't have to pick a favorite Buñuel film.

Friday, February 19, 2016

I Knew Her Well

I KNEW HER WELL (Pietrangeli, 1965)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 23, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Unsurprisingly, “I Knew Her Well” (1965) is intended as an ironic title. Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) spends most of the film in the company of a series of “wonderful guys” in Rome, each of whom is sure they've figured her out. She's a pretty, young thing, a part-time hairdresser and usher who aspires to be an actress even though her skillset consists exclusively of being young and pretty, so how much is there to figure out anyway?

One of her lovers is an older writer (Joachim Fuchsberger) who intends to use Adriana as a character in his next book, though one gets the impression that his “next book” has already been postponed many times. Being a writer (and a man) he is, of course, a keen observer of human behavior and has expertly analyzed this character as a carefree girl unburdened by thoughts of the future, or any particular thoughts about the present for that matter. That this happens to correlate precisely what he wants her to be is just a happy coincidence.

If the audience makes the same mistake about Adriana, perhaps they can be forgiven since cinema is a medium of surfaces and our young protagonist offers limited access to her internal life. She's all smiles and wigs, both carefully selected to match the setting. As she coasts from one “wonderful guy” to the next, madly loving each of them in the moment, she appears capricious and naïve, but as the film progresses we get occasional glimpses at the considerable emotions roiling beneath the placid surface.

Adriana finds herself the target of multiple exploiters, phony promoters and “directors” who promise her a shot at movie glory, for a price. Adriana has moved from the family farm in the Tuscan countryside to heed the siren call of the economic miracle in Rome, the subject of so many Italian films of this period, most notably Antonioni's. Though that call may well lead her to her doom, dashed against the rocks like many an ensorcelled sailor before her, the poignancy of Adriana's plight is that she is no country rube, but rather fully aware of every scam being played on her.

It's not always a struggle, mind you. Some of the schemes are great fun, like when the charming rogueDario (Jean-Claude Brialy) leaves her to pay the hotel bill after a romantic evening; she still smiles when she finds out later that even the bracelet he left her as a briefly-held memento was stolen. To be nineteen and part of the jet set in Rome, even just lurking on the fringes, can be a blast and Adriana knows how to enjoy herself in every night club and even when she has to take on some mildly embarrassing jobs such as serving as an ersatz fashion model at a shoddy boxing match, where she finds drunken catcalls instead of the glamor she anticipated

There are moments of real connection too. After the boxing match, she senses a kindred spirit in the broken-down palooka cruelly nicknamed Lunk (Mario Adorf). Kept around for his ability to lose without complaining, Lunk has been processed into a commodity as surely as young Adriana, and her recognition of the fact prompts her to return to her farm home in hopes of finding a better path trhough life. Unfortunately, mom and dad don't have any answers.

Director Antonio Pietrangeli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ruggero Maccari and the recently deceased Ettore Scola, was best known for his comedies. “I Knew Her Well” still has its light-hearted comic interludes, but most are tinged with a sense of the absurd turned tragic in a society that relentlessly exploits the vulnerable. The obvious comparison point, made often in the extra material included by Criterion, is Fellini's “La dolce vita” (1960), another ironic Italian title from a few years earlier. The most “dolce” sequence in Pietrangeli's film involves a washed-up actor (serial scene-stealer Ugo Tognazzi) forced by a vapid but successful movie star to tap-dance himself to death's door just to impress a group of neurasthenic party-goers. Funny at first, crushingly sad by the end. Yet another disposable commodity.

Pietrangeli's wisest decision is to follow his protagonist closely through her many brief adventures, letting each vignette exist on its own without forcing each to snap together to construct the larger mosaic. Sandrelli, all of nineteen at the time, portrays Adriana as warm, open, sincere, and deceptively attentive. She absorbs everything she experiences and even if being fully aware is not sufficient to win the day against overwhelming odds, her ability to constantly adapt in subtle ways enables her to resist easy categorization by anyone: her various paramours and predators, the filmmakers, and the audience. The only “I” who can sincerely make the titular claim is Adriana herself, which is simultaneously a victory and the film's defining tragedy.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K restoration was created in partnership with the Cineteca di Bologna from the 35 mm original camera negative and a 35 mm fine-grain positive.”

The high-def transfer looks pretty close to flawless with a fine grain structure preserved throughout – restoration doesn't appear to have eliminated any detail. The black-and-white contrast is subtle and satisfying giving the film a soft look in its bright outdoor scenes. It just looks great.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and damage free. Like just about all Italian films of the era, sound was added in post-production and there will be moments when effects sound unnatural – the clip-clopping of Adriana's high heels in an early scene sounds like a block of wood being banged against a table one inch from the microphone, for example. But that's just a by-product of the production process. No complaints about the audio. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

“I Knew Her Well” is, alas, not very well-known relative to many other celebrated Italian films of the '60s. Criterion was therefore unable to really stack the deck with extras, but the features included make the argument that the film deserves greater consideration.

The first feature is a 2015 interview (9 min.) with actress Stefania Sandrelli. She discusses how she first worked with co-screenwriter Ettore Scola on fleshing out the character of Adriana, someone whose ambition she could identify with even if Sandrelli had a somewhat easier route to the world of cinema. She made her first splash in the Pietro Germi hit “Divorce, Italian Style” (1961) and followed up with a bigger role in Germi's “Seduced and Abandoned” (1964). “I Knew Her Well” was the next step to a very successful career. The disc also includes Sandrelli's audition footage (5 min.)

Film scholar Luca Barattoni (2015, 22 min.) makes an impassioned argument both for “I Knew Her Well” as an overlooked masterpiece on par with anything from Antonioni or Fellini, and for Pietrangeli to be accepted into the inner circle of Italian auteurs as well. I haven't seen enough of his work to assess Barattoni's judgment, but he certainly knows his material, covering the director's career in detail from his critical writing for the influential Italian journal “Cinema” to his screenwriting efforts for Visconti and Rossellini to his earliest directorial effort. Pietrangeli drowned in 1968 at age 49 while shooting a film.

The only other extra is an original Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by author Alexander Stille.

Final Thoughts:
It took me about a half hour to figure out there was something more to the movie than just watching a pretty girl out partying in glamorous Rome. I suspect that's exactly what the director and writers would love to hear, since Adriana is the kind of character who sneaks up on you, gradually emerging as a complex figure. Pietrangeli isn't exactly a forgotten filmmaker, but he's nowhere near as celebrated as other Criterion favorites of the era like Antonioni and Fellini. “I Knew Her Well” suggests he deserves a closer look.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Kid

THE KID (Chaplin, 1921/1972)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 16, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Slapstick, pathos, heaven and hell, the forgotten charms of child boxing - “The Kid” (1921) really has it all.

Charlie Chaplin was already famous, perhaps the most famous man in America and much of the rest of the world, by the time “The Kid” played to sold-out theaters, but the master's now-legendary heartstring-tugger was the clearest indication to date that there might well be no limit to The Tramp's appeal. Chaplin had experienced something close to overnight success after he moved from London to Hollywood to be one of Mack Sennett's players at Keystone Studios. Chaplin first appeared on screen as the character who would come to be known as The Tramp in February 1914. By 1915 he was already a national obsession and by 1917, Chaplin had parlayed his initial $150/week contract into a $1 million annual salary. Not adjusted for inflation today. A cool million (and more) in 1917.

Chaplin exploited his immense fame and fortune to take control of his career to an unprecedented degree and soon had built his own studio where he would function as actor, writer, director, producer, composer and virtual lord and master over his own kingdom for much of the next half century. Chaplin had mastered the assembly-line craft of the one and two-reeler, the short films that were still the coin of the realm for silent comedians in the late teens. But as the twenties dawned, the ambitious artist and entrepreneur still wanted to expand his horizons, and was confident enough (some might say egotistical enough) to ignore the naysayers who told him that a comedy, and certainly not a slapstick comedy, would never hold an audience's attention at feature-length.

Chaplin had no intention of just kicking people in the rump for an hour or so, of course. The Tramp had started life as a rabble-rouser and, let's be honest, a bit of a prick, but Chaplin had gradually added layers of sympathy to his rough-and-tumble rascal. With “The Kid” he intended to go all the way.

But not right off the bat. “The Kid” opens with The Woman (longtime Chaplin collaborator Edna Purviance), whose “only sin was motherhood,” emerging from a charity hospital with a bundle of less-than-joy in hand. Hoping to give her baby boy a better life, she attempts to give him to a wealthy man,
but after a brief adventure with a couple of hoodlums, the poor titular Kid finds himself in the hands of The Tramp who doesn't immediately warm to the prospect of fatherhood. He initially attempts to abandon the baby in an alley, foist him off on a nearby mother and then a passing hobo, and even briefly contemplates dumping him down a sewer drain before finally deciding to adopt his darling “John.”

Once The Tramp commits, he commits all all the way, employing all his hardscrabble ingenuity to design home-made cribs, potties and all related accoutrements. An abrupt jump to Five Years Later shows that The Tramp has even taught little John (now played by little Jackie Coogan) a trade, employing the precocious tike to lob rocks through windows which The Tramp then conveniently offers to repair for a reasonable fee.

Lighthearted comedy yields to a gut-wrenching paternal melodrama. When authorities hustle the kid away from his unsanctioned home, The Tramp takes to the rooftops in a desperate race that ends with him leaping onto the back of a truck to embrace his darling child with tears streaming freely for everyone, including an audience who probably didn't think it was possible for Mr. Chaplin to find a way to make them root for The Tramp even more than they already had over the previous half-decade. They soon learned that they had hardly begun to cry, as child is inevitably reunited with mother (now a successful movie star) and the lonely Tramp is left slumped in a decrepit doorway to dream of a heaven where he still has someone to love him. Yes, Chaplin was absolutely shameless in toying with the audience's sympathy, but damned if he doesn't get away with it like almost nobody else could. 

Chaplin's feature-length experiment was an unqualified success that further solidified The Tramp as the world's most beloved character, but it also helped to launch the career of its young star Jackie Coogan, five years old when the lengthy production began and a grizzled six by the end. If Coogan didn't quite match Chaplin's success, he came closer than anyone could have imagined, with his parents soon forming a production company just to manage (or, more often, mismanage) his considerable earnings from films like “Oliver Twist” as well as manifold product endorsements. Coogan practically invented the category of “child star” in Hollywood, with the various misfortunes attendant to the title.

Chaplin spent much of his later years re-cutting and re-releasing his silent films for contemporary audiences. In 1972, he lopped off several scenes with Edna Purviance's character and composed his own score for the film's newest theatrical tour. Criterion has included the 1972 version here (otherwise we wouldn't get the Chaplin score), but has also included several of the scenes and original titles cut from the 1921 version.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This restoration was created from a 35 mm first-generation 1921 element preserved by the Cineteca di Bologna. The element was scanned in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner and edited to match Charlie Chaplin's 1972 re-release; for a severely decayed 370-foot portion of the film, a first-generation 1921 fine-grain from the collection of Roy Export was used instead.” The restoration was completed in 2015 at the L'immagine Ritrovata labortory.

Sourced from this restoration, this high-definition transfer provides the best image quality most viewers have ever seen for “The Kid.” It's not perfect, mind you. The image is soft enough at points that some detail is difficult to pick out – you might have to hit pause to read a note at one point. However, the image quality overall is strong and, most importantly, whatever considerable restoration has been conducted does not result in any compromising of the rich grain structure so integral to the medium. This is an image with depth and texture even in some of its softer spots.

The linear PCM Mono track presents the original score by Chaplin crisply and with little evidence of damage or distortion. Intertitles are, of course, in English.

Wondering if you're not getting your money's worth with a film that runs under an hour? Well, that's a silly thing to think in the first place, but no worries, Criterion has stacked this Blu-ray release with extras.

The film is accompanied by a new audio commentary from Chaplin historian Charles Maland.

Four interviews kick off the bulk of the additional features. Recorded in 1980 (11 min.), a 65 year-old Jackie Coogan reflects on his work with Chaplin, remembering how his father, Jackie Coogan Sr., played multiple roles in the film and also how Chaplin's fake mustache had a distinct aroma. Amazingly, Coogan claims he never saw “The Kid” until Chaplin screened it for him in the 1930s.

Lita Grey Chaplin (1993, 10 min.) is interviewed by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Grey plays a seductive temptress in Chaplin's dream of heaven in “The Kid” - she was all of 12 years old at the time. She would become Chaplin's second wife in 1924. Here she talks about both her time with Chaplin and her later career when she became a successful agent for several actors. Longtime Chaplin cinematographer Rollie Totheroh (1964, 8 min.) speaks in a brief audio excerpt. And Mo Rothman (1998, 10 min.), also interviewed by Jeffrey Vance, discusses his distribution deal with Chaplin which involved re-releasing several of Chaplin's films, including “The Kid,” beginning in 1972.

“Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star” (19 min.) is a 2015 video essay written and narrated by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven. In just under twenty minutes, Haven paints a fascinating portrait of a complex career. “The Kid” launched Coogan to stardom, but like many child stars, he didn't get to enjoy many of the benefits after his parents squandered his earnings on bad investments and other poor decisions, some possibly fraudulent. This led to the Coogan Bill designed to protect other child actors. Despite a series of personal tragedies and estrangement from his mother, Coogan found a way to re-ignite his career as an adult, perhaps becoming best known as Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family.”

“A Study in Undercranking” (2015, 25 min.) provides silent film specialist Ben Model the opportunity for some detailed visual analysis centered on the practice of undercranking. While film is (was... 'cause, hey, what's this thing you call film, buddy?) projected at 24 frames per second, silent filmmakers often shot at 12-16 frames per second, since they didn't need to worry about synchronized sound. As Model argues, they were fully aware of the difference between shooting and projection speeds, and performed accordingly. Masters like Chaplin could take advantage of the difference to achieve effects possible only on film. Model compares clips at different speeds to illustrate his argument. You might not be convinced by every example as the differences are sometimes subtle, but it provides a lot to think about, especially if you weren't aware of this practice before.

“From the 1921 Version” (7 min.) includes three scenes that Chaplin cut from the 1972 re-release, all of which expanded the story of The Woman. In 1972, of course, Chaplin wanted the film to be as centered on The Tramp as possible. You can also see the original 1921 Titles compared to the 1972 version (6 min. total).

“Charlie On The Ocean” (4 min.) provides some rather banal newsreel footage from Chaplin's much-publicized 1921 European tour, his first triumphant return home after taking America by storm in 1914.

“Nice And Friendly” (1922, 11 min.) was a short film shot quickly at Pickfair, the estate of Chaplin's friends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. This knock-off was made by Chaplin as a wedding present to Lord and Lady Mountbatten who get to star in an adventure with The Tramp and a kid played by Jackie Coogan. Oh, those one-percenters of yore. The Tramp is only in it for a few minutes and the paper-thin plot is formulaic even by the most formulaic standard, so enjoy it as a curiosity piece rather than as a Chaplin masterwork.

Finally (whew!), the disc includes 8 minutes worth of trailers for the 1972 re-release of “The Kid” which played on a double bill with the 1921 Chaplin Short 'The Idle Class”in some markets. Trailers are included from the United States, Germany and Netherlands.

The fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by the great film scholar Tom Gunning.

Final Thoughts:
Yeah yeah, “The Kid” is sappy. It delivers on its promise/threat to be “a picture with a smile – and, perhaps, a tear.” Here's my in-depth analysis of that: it just works. Chaplin found a way to make blunt pathos feel sincerely won and has left us with some of the most moving shots in film history. The ending of “City Lights” is still the tops, but The Tramp clutching Jackie Coogan in the back of a truck while both father and son weep is something nobody can ever forget.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Mock Up On Mu

MOCK UP ON MU (Baldwin, 2008)
Other Cinema, DVD, Release Date Nov 23, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Here's the thing. I absolutely loved "Mock Up On Mu" when I first wrote about it back in 2010, but more than five years later, I re-read my review and can't help but wonder if I really got it right or was hallucinating part of the experience. That's one of the many joys of a Craig Baldwin movie. And now that I am hip deep in the middle of reading "Gravity's Rainbow" it's impossible for me not to conflate my memories of the Baldwin science-sex-occult film with Pynchon's science-sex-occult book and, well, that's kinda groovy. In any case, "Mock Up On Mu" is awesome and here's my take on it.)

In one of the hundreds (thousands?) of old film clips that comprise the bulk of “Mock Up on Mu” (2008), we see a skull peeled to expose a brain for experimentation by a B-movie mad scientist. It’s an apt metaphor for San Francisco-based director Craig Baldwin’s ongoing project. He plucks brief movie clips (often from low budget sci-fi/horror films or educational movies) from their original context and, through image and sound editing, creates new neural connections among these previously disparate elements, rejiggering them all into the plastic cortical maps that comprise his “collage-narrative” model of filmmaking.

In a Baldwin film, we can leap from a Flash Gordon serial to the crop plane in “North by Northwest,” to a Department of Energy promotional film, to Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa, and then to an audio clip from Las Vegas’s “Star Trek: The Experience” without ever being taken out of the narrative because they are the narrative. Newly filmed footage is integrated seamlessly (or not, it doesn't matter) with archival clips, and his contemporary actors freely switch places with classic Hollywood stars within a single scene, all of them “collaborating” across decades to form a single conglomerate character. Baldwin’s films are about osmosis: the past flows into the present (and vice-versa), science fact into science fiction, paranoia into politics (OK, these two aren’t exactly opposites.)

“Mock up on Mu” tells the curious story of a trio of three historical figures whose paths crossed in 1940s Southern California. Jack Parsons (played here by Kalman Spelletich) was a rocket scientist who helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and also became obsessed with the occult writings of Aleister Crowley. He saw no conflict in spending one part of his life designing sophisticated engines and the other part trying to summon goddesses in dark rituals. During his occult practices he met actress/writer/author Marjorie Cameron who became his Scarlet Woman, his wife, and later one of the matriarchs of the modern New Age movement. I don’t mention the actress who plays Cameron for reasons that will be made obvious in the film.

Parsons and Cameron may be unknown to you, but you certainly recognize the name of a third person their lives intersected with, science-fiction author turned religious founding father L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard, Parsons and Cameron immersed themselves in Crowley’s “sex magick” and their intertwining story gets too complicated to recount here, but not complicated enough for the purposes of the delightfully complicated Baldwin who layers his own original narrative on top of this more-or-less-true one.

The Year is 2019 and L. Ron Hubbard, still alive as he has been since he defeated Xenu and “seeded the world with science!”, has founded the Empire of Mu on the moon. It’s sort of a theme park, and L. Ron (as he is always referred to) needs to drum up more business so he sends the brainwashed Agent C (Michelle Silva) to seduce a military industrial stooge with the appropriate name of Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke.) With Hubbard pulling the strings and literally twisting the dials in the background, Agent C also finds Jack Parsons who, unlike in real life, apparently didn’t die in an explosion. In fact, he secretly became Hollywood star Richard Carlson. Later they find Aleister Crowley in a cave. Then things get weird. The film, divided into a lucky thirteen parts, plays out like an adventure serial. It’s a shame it doesn’t come with its own decoder ring.

Hubbard, the Ming the Merciless-style evil mastermind of the film, is played by Damon Packard, a gifted filmmaker in his own right (his uncategorizable “Reflections of Evil” remains can be tracked down on a Tube of some kind if you can't find it on DVD.) Packard rants and gesticulates to great effect, and wears that cool Commander’s outfit better than L. Ron ever did. There is no synch sound in the film, so all voices are dubbed in later and Baldwin seldom tries to match dialogue with lip movement. Sometimes characters are heard speaking while their lips aren’t moving at all. It would seem to be a disorienting effect but in the fever-dream world of “Mock Up on Mu,” it just feels like the right stylistic choice for the material.

Baldwin certainly mocks (up) Hubbard’s crass exercise in myth-creation-as-capitalist-opportunism, but talk of Thetans and ancient warlords pales in comparison to the absurdity and the genuine horror of the “New Global Capital Regime” spearheaded by the likes of Lockheed Martin (the character, not the company, of course - the names are a total coincidence.) Science supporting the occult is deeply disturbing, but science used to design and manufacture weapons capable of destroying humanity a thousand times over is a genuine perversion. False prophets or fat profits. Take your pick as to which you find more grotesque.

Baldwin’s pastiche is powered by paranoia, but this mocked-up conspiracy theory isn’t meant to be sold as the truth - unless you think L. Ron has been hiding on the moon all these years working on the director’s cut of “Battlefield Earth.” The film’s alternate history is delivered tongue-in-cheek which is not to say Baldwin doesn’t have something serious to say about the horrors of the global military industrial complex and Hubbard’s corporate religion. He has a genuine fondness for his oddball historical figures, or at least for Parsons and Cameron whose histories get re-written with a Hollywood ending (sort of) which is only just considering how much Hollywood has unwittingly contributed to the making of “Mock Up.”

The film reminds me of a host of other material: “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” George Alec Effinger’s “What Entropy Means to Me,” Feuillade’s “Les Vampires,” any random Guy Maddin film, and Infocom’s game “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” I make no claim that any of these sources served as inspiration for the film (except “WR” which must be a Baldwin favorite) but Baldwin’s cinema encourages the viewer to make these kinds of connections. Kenneth Anger is a more obvious source directly referenced in the movie (the real-life Cameron appeared in Anger’s Crowley-inspired “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.”)

“Mock Up on Mu” is a heady experience, an “ultimate trip” that packs in a hard-core lesson in film history along with its ingeniously deranged story of science, sex magick, and corporate crime. It has to be experienced (not just watched) to be understood. And even though Baldwin’s audiovisual bombardment can sometimes overwhelm the senses, the experience is a provocative, rewarding and thoroughly pleasure-filled one.

The DVD is presented in a full screen transfer. There are literally hundreds of different video sources used in the film, so there’s no way to evaluate the image quality in any traditional sense. Many of the film clips show deep scratches and wear and tear, but this doesn’t exactly detract from the experience of this time and genre hopping collage.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No subtitles are offered which becomes a problem when you choose to listen to Baldwin’s commentary track but is otherwise not a significant drawback.

The main Extra is a commentary track by Craig Baldwin, recorded from his basement while watching the film on his laptop. He identifies the source of many of the clips in the film which is helpful to those of us with obsessive minds, but he shies away from explaining his intentions too often which demonstrates some good old-fashioned horse sense.

A Behind-the-Scenes feature is really just a four minute clip of Damon Packard reading dialogue in his Hubbard Commander’s uniform. The DVD also includes a Trailer and Preview of the upcoming Other Cinema release of “The Damon Packard Collection.”

Final Thoughts:
Craig Baldwin was making mash-ups before YouTube made them ubiquitous. “Tribulation 99” (1992) was an eye-opener (or a mind expander, if you prefer) and his “Specters of the Spectrum” (1999) is, in my sometimes humble opinion, a hell of a great movie. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see “Sonic Outlaws” (1995) yet but, to borrow a phrase, I’ve heard good things.

His collage style may seem a bit more familiar now, but his films are still both idiosyncratic and radical. “Mock Up on Mu” is Baldwin’s first feature in nearly a decade and it is most definitely worth the wait. It has an organic, frenetic energy that few movies do.

“Mock Up on Mu” is distributed by Baldwin’s Other Cinema label.