Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Poem Is A Naked Person


A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON (Blank, 1974)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 29,2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Critics with an auteurist bent are sometimes accused of being in the tank for their favorite directors, spinning even their lesser films as unappreciated masterpieces and justifying even the most questionable decisions as inspirations by a visionary whose only weakness is being too sophisticated for audiences. Sometimes these charges are valid, cf. random critic arguing “Under Capricorn” as Hitchcock's true masterpiece.

Regardless, I state this as a matter of fact: Les Blank could do no wrong.

I've seen at least twenty-five Les Blank films. They're all good. Many of them are great, but they are all good. Every single one. Blank could immerse you neck-deep in a local cultural scene, be it music or food-based or otherwise, with the very first shot of a movie and take you deeper with each successive shot until you drowned in the joy of it all. He could pull it off because he had an uncanny knack for always pointing his hand-held camera at the right place at the right time; he just had a laser-beam eye, innate talent, sorry, you can't imitate it. We need more talk about Blank as one of the great cinematographers.

His ability to capture the essence of his subjects with efficiency and confidence yielded ecstatic celebrations of creativity, eccentricity, and devotion like no other. Though he picked his subjects wisely, I don't think it mattered much. Ask him to shoot a documentary about a dumb brick just lying there being a brick and I bet you would get movie gold. Les Blank could do no wrong.


Musician Leon Russell, subject of Blank's little-seen “A Poem Is A Naked Person” (1974), would not agree. Russell and music producer Denny Cordell hired Blank to shoot a documentary about the singer/songwriter/piano man/studio musician and weren't at all pleased with the final results. In Russell's words, it felt more like a film about Les Blank than about Leon Russell, though a better way to put it is that it was a film about what interested Les Blank. And that wasn't always Leon Russell.

It shouldn't have been such a big shock. Blank was hired primarily on the strength of his early masterpiece “The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins” (1968) and while his film showcased Hopkins as an irresistible artist and force of nature, it was also a movie about many other people and events 'round about Hopkins. Blank immediately displayed his career-shaping belief that a man or woman could only be understood in the context of their environment. Music comes from a specific time and a specific place, and nobody was better able to illustrate that than Les Blank. “Illustrate” doesn't suffice; maybe “radiate” comes closer.

Therefore, while “A Poem” shows us plenty of Russell performing on stage (he's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n roll, a little bit blues), it also cuts away from his performances to show life in rural Oklahoma where Russell was building his recording studio and much of the film is set: nearby fishermen at work, a local artist pontificating on consumerism while capturing scorpions in glass jars, a man at a parachuting contest who drinks a toast to the film then chomps down his glass, a hotel being demolished, and even Les Blank himself enjoying a shot of booze and a passionate kiss. Always for pleasure, that Les. Blank followed his instincts and trusted his unerring eye for colorful detail, abetted by creative, free-form editing with the crucial assistance of long-time collaborator Maureen Gosling.

In one scene, we hear the traditional wedding vows begin in voice-over, only for them to be interrupted by a little girl we've seen briefly before as she insists that she has not yet finished singing her song. Blank respectfully cedes the stage to her so she can belt out “Joy To The World.” Why? It felt right (in the editing room, that is). Plus there are all kinds of talented performers in the world, not just the top-line talent. And isn't a little girl innocently singing “Make sweet love to you” more interesting than some dumb old wedding? It just works. Les Blank could do no wrong.

Russell comes off pretty darned well; he certainly rocks though he's no Lightnin' Hopkins. He gets into arguments with other musicians and barks orders at his inner circle, but he never seems anything less than driven and fully committed to his craft. It's an endearing if occasionally troublesome portrait that you'd think would please most subjects. However, Blank's film wasn't Russell's idea of the film – perhaps he just wanted a standard, worshipful, and more focused portrait of a genius artist – and the two big personalities reportedly clashed on set on multiple occasions. So Russell put the kibosh on the movie. It was his project (Blank wasn't even promised a director's credit) and he didn't want it to be seen, so it wouldn't be.

Except under certain conditions. Blank's contract guaranteed that he could exhibit the film at non-commercial venues as long as he was actually present at the screening, and so “A Poem Is A Naked Person” subsisted for the next four decades in a peripatetic existence, never quite disappearing, but never quite all there either. Blank increasingly came to view it as his (all but) lost masterpiece and its uncertain status remained a thorn in his side for the rest of his life.

After Blank's death in 2013, his son Harrod broke the long thaw with Leon Russell and set in motion the steps that would eventually to the film's first official release, and now to this Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. And thank goodness. I don't think it's Blank's best work. But it's pretty darned good. Because Les Blank could... well, you know.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot in 16 mm so we get a heavy grain look in this 2K high-def restoration. I felt that the opening title sequence with its hand-made title cards looked a bit like video, but I didn't feel like that about the rest of the film. Color contrast looks subtle and entirely naturalistic – Blank seemed to know how to film people in just the right sunlight to make them glow. The tiniest bit of flecking is visible from time to time, but overall this looks great and, of course, we'd have all been happy to have just about any version of Blank's “lost” film.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is pretty flat but crisp, which is what matters. The music won't blow you away with depth but it sounds good, and all dialogue is clear. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has packed a surprising amount of extra features with this feature-length film.

First up is an interview with Harrod Blank (Les's son) and Leon Russell (2015, 27 min.) Russell sports a mighty fine beard in the movie. Forty years later the beard is even more impressive and all-white. Russell is fairly diplomatic in discussing his “difference of opinion” with Les regarding the film, and Harrod helps by acknowledging that his father (who he calls Les) could certainly be challenging at times, in no small part because of his alcohol and drug consumption during the time of the film. Blank and his team (including Maureen Gosling) spent two years shooting the film, and also used the time (as permitted in their contract) to edit two other Blank films, “Dry Wood” and “Hot Pepper.” Harrod also discusses how difficult it was to clear the music licensing for the film's national release.

The disc also includes a short clip (8 min.) of Les Blank in 2013, shortly before his death, at one final screening of “A Poem” for friends and family. Speaking from stage, a feeble looking but still energetic Blank (he was dying from cancer) Blank mentions that he soon discovered that Russell didn't much like being interviewed and so had to change his plans on the fly. Of course he was pretty good at that.

“A Film's Forty-Year Journey” (2015, 37 min.) is a documentary shot for Criterion which features interviews with Harrod Blank, Maureen Gosling, and artist Jim Franklin who we meet in “A Poem.” This feature includes more details about Blank's for-hire experience on his first feature-length film as well as the struggles in securing the film's belated release. Blank actually returned to edit the film in 2011, but Harrod sticks with the original cut which screened at select venues over the years.

“Out In The Woods” (13 min.) is an impressionistic documentary by Maureen Gosling consisting of Super-8 footage she shot during the two years spent shooting “A Poem” combined with text from letters she wrote to her parents back home. It's a gauzy reminiscence with some richly layere sound design, and I found it quite moving.

The disc also includes three Trailers: a Theatrical (2 min.), an Extended (3 min.) and an Alternate Unused (2 min.) all featuring the Janus logo for the film's recent release.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones.

Final Thoughts:
Just a few years ago, you had to work hard to find a Les Blank film. With Criterion's release of the sprawling box set “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure” and now this, we have a treasure trove on our shelves.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Brighter Summer Day



A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Yang, 1991)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 22, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

The Taipei (capital city of Taiwan) of director Edward Yang's film “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), which takes place from 1959-1961, is familiar to just about any viewer. The teen protagonists are sick of being told what to do in school, they're absolutely crazy about rock 'n roll, and the boys and girls are growing increasingly crazy about each other. The parents, meanwhile, obsess over their kids' grades and how to pay the bills, while complaining about how young people today don't have any respect like in the good old days.

However, these universal themes play out in a specific time and place like no other. Yang, who just happened to be a teenager in Taipei at the same time, recreates a society built from pieces of so many others. The school is run by the Kuomintang-backed military (President Chiang Kai-shek had a knack for winning every election), the kids worship Elvis Presley and dress and snarl like rebellious Hollywood youths, and a Japanese samurai sword crops up in multiple scenes before playing a decisive role in the action. All of which makes sense for a country occupied by the Japanese for half a century, then ruled after the war by the Republic of China (not to be confused with the mainland People's Republic of China, or with the People's Front of Judea) which was, in turn, officially recognized by the United States government.

This hybrid condition is further underscored by the simple yet brilliant static shot of a tree-lined road that plays under the opening credits: in just over a minute, this quiet road is traveled by pedestrians, a horse-drawn cart, bicyclists, and motor cars, antiquity and modernity sharing lanes. Combine the uncertainty of a nation in transition and the eternal turbulence of adolescence and you have the combustible mix that leads to tragedy in Yang's somber, sympathetic epic.

The Zhang family tries its best to negotiate this perilous landscape, but a father (Chang Kuo-chu) unsure of his status as a minor government functionary and a mother (Elaine Jin) prone to asthma attacks can only offer so much help. Younger son Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen) is thus largely on his own as he tries to get by at a school he views with increasing contempt while also coping with an afterschool life dominated by two warring teen gangs, neither of which he is inclined to join. There may be reasons aplenty for his aloofness but don't look too deep; it's just in his DNA to be a loner. Trust me, I recognize the type.

Si'r has a lot of free time to fill and does so by hanging out with his friends, including the younger, scrappy Cat (Wong Chi-zan) who sings Elvis tunes in a phoneticized falsetto that produces the film's most memorable sound, as well as the movie's title, a slightly misheard Elvis lyric. Si'r also falls in love with Ming (Lisa Yang), a tenuous relationship that provides the source of many of his struggles as various boys consider her to be their property with Si'r identified as the intruder who must be “handled” with the might they have been taught is right by their authoritarian instructors, both at home and in school.


Still, the teen gangs seem innocuous enough at first, filled with young men strutting and preening to impress each other and, of course, girls, but petty territorial squabbles eventually turn bloody. Not just for the kids either. The father's insecurities prove well-founded when one day, out of the blue, the secret police come calling at his door and whisk him away from his family for days of relentless interrogation that is all the more violent for its bloodlessness. He is badgered day and night to confess everything in writing, and by “everything” his interlocutor truly means everything in his life and he is berated for every alleged omission no matter how minor.

Our nuclear family is under pressure from so many fronts it cannot help but decay. Pressures are exerted from within as well. The father and son clash over school evolves in multiple stages, while mother's chronic illness prompts her to remind her oldest daughter to “Hurry and grow up. My future depends on you.” But other than that, have a good time. It's no wonder the power keeps going out in this movie's Taipei; the wonder is that it somehow keeps coming back on.

Yang (who co-scripted with three other writers) often lets the action unfold at a leisurely pace in long shots, some with careful pans that explore restrictive spaces, others careful static compositions. In one of the key action sequences, a brutal assault by undetermined assailants takes place in near-dark settings, both its cause and its aftermath remaining unclear. Yet even though the story can sometimes be a bit challenging to follow, even at just under four hours “A Brighter Summer Day” still feels like it consists of nothing but the essential, rendering the heartbreaking finale both shocking and inevitable.

“A Brighter Summer Day” went largely undistributed for many years, even being shut out of most major festivals at the time. Critics who saw it at select venues championed the cause (like many people, I first learned about it from the great Jonathan Rosenbaum's passionate advocacy), resulting in its unusual status as a film hailed as one of the triumphs of '90s cinema while remaining largely unseen by most cinephiles. Its relative lack of availability was even more keenly felt when Edward Yang died in 2007 at the age of 59. Criterion's fabulous Blu-ray release is in the final step in correcting one of the great cinematic injustices of the past quarter century.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K digital restoration, undertaken in partnership with The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, was created from the 35 mm original camera negative on an ARRISCAN film scanner with wet-gate processing.”

Any quality transfer would be hailed as a gift considering the film has largely been available in North America only through mediocre bootlegs and downloads. However, by any standard, this restored high-def transfer is tremendous, with a rich, warm color palette and sharp image resolution throughout. If any boosting was required, it's subtle enough not to be noticeable, and I couldn't see any obvious signs of dirt, debris, or damage of any kind. Plenty of detail visible in the darker shots as well. Basically, this transfer is a knockout.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track isn't called for much dynamism. It's clear, functional and completely free of any hiss or distortion.

Extras:
Since the film runs close to four hours, it fills up Disc One, the extra on the disc being a commentary track by critic Tony Rayns. I haven't had a chance to sample the commentary yet (watching a four-hour movie plus other extras takes up a bit of time) but Rayns is one of the finest English-language writers on Asian cinema so I look forward to checking it out in the near future.

Disc Two kicks off with the feature-length documentary “Our Time, Our Story” (2002, 113 min.) which covers twenty years of New Taiwan Cinema. I was really looking forward to learning more about the movement that produced great directors like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-liang and others, some of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. I was disappointed by a documentary I found difficult to follow which doesn't mean it's bad. Rather, it's clearly made for Taiwanese audiences or other viewers who are familiar with the many political, historical and cultural references mentioned but often not explained in the film. I'm sure there's plenty of meat here, but I gave up after about 45 minutes when I realized I didn't know any more about New Taiwan Cinema than when I started the movie. Maybe I'll try again.

The disc also includes a new interview (2014, 19 min.) with lead actor Chang Chen who went on to great success after “A Brighter Summer Day” with roles in “Happy Together” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” among others. He tells of first meeting Yang through his father, who was an actor and friend of Yang's. This features also lets us see some of Yang's wonderful caricatures and sketches which he would use to help the actors create characters.

The final extra on Disc Two is “Likely Consequences” a 45 minute video of a play co-written and directed by Yang and performed in Taipei in 1992. The quality isn't so great and I can't say I found it riveting, but for hardcore Yang fans, well, it's there.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire and a June 1991 Director's Note by Edward Yang.

Final Thoughts:
Ah, the wonder of Blu-ray. “A Brighter Summer Day” has rested atop the list of shamefully unavailable films for a few decades. Now it not only gets crossed off the list but can be seen with a tremendous high-def restoration and with ample extras on a two-disc release that will go down as one of the major film events of the year. I probably prefer Yang's magnificent "Yi Yi" (2000), one of my favorite films of the past twenty years or so, but "A Brighter Summer Day" is wonderful too. And now they're both available from Criterion.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Signs of Life


SIGNS OF LIFE (Herzog, 1968)
New Yorker Video, DVD, Release Date July 5, 2005
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This is the first in what I plan to be a lengthy series of Werner Herzog reviews. I won't be reviewing every Herzog movie, but I'll be reviewing an awful lot of them, more or less in chronological order and about once per week, though I'm not really a big schedule guy. But please check back often if you just need a Herzog fix. And who doesn't need that?)

Every now and then a screenwriting competition actually amounts to something. In 1964, fresh-faced Bavarian poet Werner Herzog, just turned 22, nabbed the Carl Mayer state prize for a screenplay he submitted under a pseudonym, which is cool considering Werner Herzog is also a bit of a pseudonym.

Herzog, who had previously directed a few short films, rolled this relative pittance into what would become his debut feature, “Signs of Life” (1968). Though the film shows some signs of a young filmmaker straining to fill out even a modest feature-length running time of just under ninety minutes, it's amazing how much of what would become known as the trademark Herzog style is on display right out of the gate.

Protagonist driven mad by burgeoning evidence of his own futility? Check. Learned authorities completely oblivious to their own equal futility? Plenty of 'em. Three-hundred-sixty-degree pans of vast, sprawling landscapes that can't be contained by the mere film frame? Very first shot, pal. A hypnotized chicken? You insult me by even asking the question.

Stroszek (former tightrope walker Peter Brogle) is a German soldier stationed in Greece during WW II, not that you get mush historical context from the film. Injured in a parachuting accident (look quickly and you'll see young Mr. Herzog shlepping the helpless patient out of an ambulance truck), Stroszek is reassigned to a completely irrelevant post, guarding an obsolete munitions dump (the ammunition doesn't even fit German weapons) and trying to fill the endless, pointless days along with his Greek girlfriend and two fellow German soldiers also consigned to irrelevance for reasons undisclosed.


The film lingers on shots of the countryside (mostly on the Greek island of Kos) and close-ups of shattered architecture and other detritus of past civilization for a full ten minutes before any of the often tiny human figures resolve into actual characters. The first time we get a real good look at our ostensible protagonist, a narrator informs us, “The surroundings had a strange effect on Stroszek, but he could find no explanation for this.” Nor will he. In typical Herzog fashion, the film does not tell the story of a character going mad, but one who starts out mad and becomes even more unhinged. Because that's just the way the world works.

The privileging of environment over characters in the opening sequences is also quintessential Herzog. He speaks often about the expressive power of landscapes, and how they reveal the “inner landscapes” of his characters. Frequently exhibiting an active disinterest in psychology and psychoanalysis, Herzog strive instead to show us in striking visual terms just what's going on in their minds, or perhaps to remind us that there's really no way to see into such dark spaces. I am reminded of the indelibly sad scene in “Stroszek” where the title character (played by the great “unknown soldier of cinema” Bruno S.) cobbles together a sculpture he describes as a “schematic” of his (troubled) brain. That Stroszek, by the way, has nothing to do with the Stroszek in this film; Herzog explains that he used the name to pay back a student of the same name who once wrote a school paper for him. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

In the film's most striking shot, Stroszek finally loses what little sanity he was still clinging to and fires his gun (futilely, of course) into the air, at which point the film cuts to a breathtaking panorama of row after row of windmills pinwheeling in a valley below. It's the first of many similar shots in an oeuvre defined by obsessively repeated motifs, the frame crammed beyond capacity with dozens or hundreds of examples of a repeated image with no obvious center of attention to orient the viewer. The burning oilfields of “Lessons of Darkness” (1992), the furiously crawling sea of red crabs in “Echoes From a Sober Empire” (1990), veils of fog and flocks of birds in several films. These shots are so overwhelming to take in they speak only of, well, madness. Glorious, impenetrable madness.

Actually, now that I think about it some more, this Stroszek does have a connection to the more famous Stroszek of “Stroszek.” Both characters ultimately wind up as the punchline of a cosmic joke, an all-too-common fate for a Herzog protagonist. And the joke is... the cosmos doesn't care about you in any fashion.

Come on, now, that's funny.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Released way back in 2005 by the former company once called New Yorker Video, this interlaced transfer is nothing to brag about. It's from a fairly clean transfer with only modest signs of damage, but the overall quality is rather indifferent with a slightly soft image throughout. The black-and-white photography (by the great Thomas Mauch in the first of many feature collaborations with Herzog) looks a bit washed out or blown out in a few places. It's OK, it's more than serviceable, but viewers spoiled by our sleek 2016 technology might be disappointed by this relic of days of yore.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital Mono track is similarly serviceable but unremarkable with the occasional bit of drop-off but nothing big. Optional English subtitles are provided and can occasionally be a bit difficult to read in some of the white on white shots.

Extras:
Aside from a lengthy and well-worn Trailer (4 min.), the only extra is a feature-length commentary track by Werner Herzog along with Norman Hill. Anyone who has listened to a Herzog commentary knows what a treat it can be – he would surely place one or two in an all-time Top Ten Commentary Track list. This one's not quite as great as the tracks for “Even Dwarfs Started Small” or “Stroszek,” but it's pretty wonderful.

Final Thoughts:
I've found a certain strand of cinephiles who insist that director's earliest film or films are always his best, especially if said films are deemed to be “overlooked.” “Signs of Life” is certainly overlooked in Herzog's oeuvre, and it's damned good. But it is also definitely not his best. So don't listen to the people that insist it is; they just have their fetish.

Also, when you see that piano player, that's Florian Fricke, later of Popul Vuh fame, the krautrock group whose signature sound would become synonymous with many of Herzog's better-known films.