Monday, April 18, 2016

Only Angels Have Wings

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 12, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

After watching Howard Hawks's manly movie about manly men risking their lives to deliver air mail in in and around the fictional South America port of Barranca, my primary reaction is, “I can't believe how much crap women have to put up with.” I initially wrote “had” since the film in question was released in 1939, but I suspect it's still “have” though I hope a little less “have” than what poor Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) has to endure in “Only Angels Have Wings.”

Before Bonnie, a traveling showgirl who plays a mean piano, even appears on screen, the wolves are already hot on her scent. Two American flyboys (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) greet a ship that has just pulled into Barranca and ask their contact about any new “talent” on board. They diagnose his emphatic denial as a phony when they spot the imprint of a doorknob on his forehead, after which Bonnie saunters by, and they lope after in pursuit. This light comic treatment of voyeurism and stalking is intended to be charming because flyboys will be flyboys.

Bonnie rebuffs their repeated advances until she realizes they're Americans and not, ick, locals (a dash of casual imperialism added to the mix). She eagerly follows them back to Dutchy's Bar, the hangout which serves as the location for most of the film as well as the makeshift home for all the employees of an adjacent airline (also owned by Dutchy, played by Sig Rumann) operating on a shoestring budget. When Bonnie starts talking, men trample right over her lines, then bet with each other over who gets to take her to dinner (her preference is not requested) while other teammates wait impatiently in the on-deck circle for their turn at the plate. She's supposed to smile at it all, ostensibly because she's flattered, more practically because she's outnumbered. It's easy to understand why the only man she actually takes an interest in is the one who takes no interest in her, boss man Geoff (Cary Grant). 

An alpha male among alpha males, Geoff Carter is the kind of taciturn, nail-spitting character John Wayne would grow up to be a few years later. Geoff refuses to think about tomorrow (he doesn't even carry his own matches – too much commitment) and only cares about getting the job done, and if a few lives are spent in getting the mail delivered through the treacherous Andes then it's hardly anything worth crying about. His adrenaline-laden employees agree and besides they're certainly not in it for the paltry money; they've got flying in their blood and they wouldn't want to live or die any other way. When one of the pilots buys the farm early on, his former compatriots knock back a few drinks, sing a few songs, and pretend they don't even recognize his name.

Bonnie can't understand their cavalier attitude, but she's about to get pushed to the side anyway so we can pay attention to more masculine endeavors. Women weaken legs, don't ya know, and that mail won't deliver itself. Besides, Bonnie has plenty of competition for hunky Geoff, primarily in the form of Kid Dobb (Thomas Mitchell, also in “Gone With The Wind” and “Stagecoach” the same year), Geoff's aging and unquestioningly devoted assistant. Kid's eyes are going bad, but they're still always trained on the boss man, though you don't need to see to sense that billowing cloud of testosterone mist that sweeps up everyone in Geoff's wake. Even ol' Dutchy can't help but be a little smitten.

After Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman spend about half the film establishing the hyper-masculine equilibrium at Dutchy's, they introduce a character who disrupts it. New pilot Bat MacPherson (silent film star/heartthrob Richard Barthelmess, who flat-out owns all of his scenes) arrives at Dutchy's with a secret that doesn't stay hidden long. It's the kind of secret that would get his ass kicked by the entire company if not for the fact that they're desperately short of pilots and, no matter what, that mail has to be delivered. He also arrives with wife Judy, an absurdly gorgeous Rita Hayworth in one of her earliest substantial roles, yet another source of potential trouble not just because she looks like Rita Hayworth but also because she happens to be an old flame of Geoff's. More competition for Bonnie (and Kid), but Bonnie's almost nowhere to be seen when Judy takes center stage.

Furthman's script is sometimes a marvel of sly economy. When Kid takes longer than he should to recognize Bat, it's not just a set up for looming conflict, but also a cue for Geoff to test his veteran pilot's eyesight. Likewise, when Geoff agrees to hire Bat despite the turmoil he'll generate, it appears to be a matter of hardscrabble pragmatism, but then again there's also a Rita Hayworth in the equation. Once or twice, the script falls back on contrivances, including a very silly scene with a gun that is a misfire in multiple ways, but mostly the story alternates between waiting and action, pilots killing time at Dutchy's before risking death in the skies.

Hawks's love of aviation is well-known, of course, and he lavishes plenty of attention on the miniature planes and sets for the film's many harrowing flights. It's a bit difficult to determine what audiences were intended to feel at the time. If these biplanes and lumbering hangars with wings were state-of-the-art in 1939, today they look like rickety deathtraps that surprise mostly for their ability to lift off the ground, so it doesn't take much work to convince the modern viewer these pilots are in mortal danger every second of the way.

They don't show any fear, because that wouldn't be macho and, besides, maintaining an even keel is the best way to land in one piece, so they speak in staccato radio short-hand (“Calling Barranca, Calling Barranca”) and react calmly and methodically to the unexpected which, in their world, is always expected. Perhaps we owe Hawks's passion for the authentic world of aviation for the fact that a few of the flights in the film actually end in failure with pilots beaten by the elements forced to turn around. Macho can't knife through a thick fog bank no matter how hard it thrusts.

Along with “Rio Bravo” (1959), “Only Angels Have Wings” is one of Hawks's best hangout movies. Few filmmakers observed guy codes with such active interest, a mix of about two-thirds respect and one-third amusement (I'm making up the percentages – ignore them). When Bonnie returns, somewhat perfunctorily, at the end, it's a reminder that it's kind of a shame there's not really any room in this treehouse for girls. She sure seemed like one flinty dame when we first met her and getting to know her better would have been a treat, but the truth is she wasn't going to do much to get that mail delivered, and getting the job done is all that counts. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This 4K digital restoration by Sony Pictures Homes Entertainment has a wonderfully grainy texture to it that just screams “film” and the black-and-white contrast is rich and nuanced with a satisfying amount of detail in darker scenes. This high-def transfer would look good for a film of any era – for a film release three-quarters of a century ago, it's a marvel.

The linear PCM mono track is rather flat and narrow, as you would expect for a film from this era. The lossless audio is crisp and most distortion-free and the music (all diegetically sourced) by Dimitri Tomkin sounds just fine. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Criterion hasn't provided a commentary track, but they've found plenty of other supplements to fill out this Blu-ray release.

First up is an audio excerpt (19 min.) of a conversation between Howard Hawks and director Peter Bogdanovich recorded in 1972 at Palm Springs. I didn't find a whole lot here of great interest, but it's fun to hear Hawks, then in his mid-70s, reminisce about one of his favorite films.

Critic David Thomson (2016, 17 min.) speaks about the film in the context of Hawk's career as well as Cary Grant's. He notes that Hawks's now-loved previous film “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) had been a flop and that Hawks wanted a slam-bang action hit. He also claims Hawks was the first director to see a darker quality in Grant's persona.

The short feature “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies” (2016, 21 min.) provides film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt the opportunity to talk about Hawks's treatment of flying scenes in his aviation movies, both in terms of the visual effects and the sound, the latter being the key to making the scenes particularly gripping. They also discuss 1930 as the golden age of aviation when it was one of the grand public obsessions.

The disc also includes a May 29, 1939 radio broadcast of the “Lux Radio Theatre” adaptation (56 min.) of “Only Angels Have Wings,” starring most of the members of the film's cast.

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

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Final Thoughts:
Cary Grant in super-macho mode (w/ free gaucho hat included!) is reason enough to watch. The film's impressive supporting cast and the riveting flying scenes provide further incentive. Criterion's top-notch transfer and solid collection of supplements just seal the deal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Land of Silence and Darkness

Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, July 19, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Though Eva Mattes netted a much-deserved supporting actress awards at Cannes for surviving opposite Klaus Kinski in “Woyzcek” (1979), Werner Herzog has never been known for his strong female characters, nor should he be. Yet in a filmography consisting of delusional conquistadors, doomed rebels, vampires, African warlords, and Nicolas Cage, perhaps the most unforgettable (and certainly the most overlooked) Herzog character of all is Fini Straubinger, subject of the extraordinary documentary “Land of Silence and Darkness” (1971).

After suffering a bad accident at the cusp of adolescence, young Fini lost first her sight and then her hearing, and wound up spending the bulk of her adulthood bed-ridden and cared for by an overtaxed mother. She describes an isolation that is virtually... indescribable: “I prayed, but it wasn't any use.” Despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles, Fini was able not only to get out of bed, but to connect to the world once again as an ambassador to Germany's woefully underserved deaf-blind community.

Fini Straubinger

Herzog has never been shy about bringing his signature stylistic excess to all of his projects, both fiction and non-fiction, but in the case of Fini Straubinger, who celebrates her 56th birthday during the course of the film, he is largely content to gape in awe at this remarkable woman. He limits his “ecstatic” inventions to a few framing devices, such as when Fini relates a childhood memory of seeing skiers flying through the air (entirely a Herzog creation, one he would later expand into the film “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner”) and a few evocative poetic phrases: “When you let go of my hand, it is as if we were a thousand miles away.”

Herzog's unique deployment of Kinski and other wild animals dominates the discussion of his films of this era, but some of his earliest obsessions revolved around atypical modes of vision and communication. In the otherwise standard-issue documentary “The Flying Doctors of East Africa” (1970) Herzog is amazed by the distinct ways in which villagers in Tanzania and Kenya process (or do not process) two-dimensional images, and he has been mesmerized by the “extreme language” of cattle auctioneers, fire-and-brimstone preachers, and even characters who struggle to speak at all.

“Land of Silence and Darkness” embodies these concerns as vividly as any of his films. Fini speaks quite articulately, but needs an interpreter to relate questions to her by means of the tactile alphabet, an intricate system of taps applied to fingers and palms. Much of the film strives to evoke a tactile experience for the audience; visits by groups of deaf-blind people to zoos and gardens form some of the most memorable scenes as they thrill to embrace baby chimpanzees or run their fingers over cacti (much safer than it may sound.) Fini also describes how deafness and blindness are not, in fact, the complete absence of sounds and images, at least not as she perceives.

Having been almost mature before losing her sight and hearing, Fini is uniquely capable of interacting with many other deaf-blind people, many of whom live in heartbreaking conditions, some thrust into mental asylums only because the state provides no other care for them. Later in the film, we meet younger people who have been deaf-blind from birth, and the possibility of communication with them remains far more tenuous. A young man named Vladimir achieves his most intimate interaction with the world by hitting himself in the face with a ball and clutching to a radio whose vibrations he can feel. Fini works determinedly to reach Vladimir nonetheless and her gentle ministrations with him will touch the heart of any viewer.

There's a certain mystery generated by capturing images of people who will not have access to those images, and when we see a deaf-blind woman sitting on the edge of a hospital bed with her hands steepled in prayer it feels as if we're being granted access to an experience far more private than cinema usually achieves - “too real” even for documentary, a genuinely sublime moment. A shot late in the film when a man wanders off from an interview and winds up embracing a tree is one of those unplanned poetic images that Herzog has always had an uncanny knack for finding.

Again and again, we return to the amazing Fini, a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised. Herzog has a penchant for futile causes, often mining them for irony, but if he senses there is something irredeemably lonely in this land of silence and darkness (and perhaps hopeless for poor souls like Vladimir) he is so gobsmacked by Fini and some of the people she encounters, he delivers no cosmic punchline, only admiration and the tacit acknowledgment that perhaps even the grand Bavarian poet has proven inadequate to articulate the immensity of Fini's experience. But getting somewhere close is an impressive achievement by any standard.

This is Herzog in full celebratory mode, and when Herzog comes to sing his subject's praises, he holds nothing back.

2005 New Yorker DVD cover

The high-def transfers in this huge Shout! Factory Herzog set (see details at Amazon) are all pretty much similar, competent but somewhat underwhelming compared to the competition. Nothing wrong here, but nothing impressive either. It's certainly an upgrade over the shaky New Yorker DVD release of 2005, though it appears to be taken from the same source. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Just fine for the job at hand. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

None. In this Shout! Factory set, “Land of Silence and Darkness” shares the same Blu-ray disc as “Fata Morgana.”

Final Thoughts:
I first met Fini Straubinger about 15 years ago through this film, and I've thought about her often since. What a woman. And what a documentary.

Herzog Collection cover from Shout! Factory

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, Release Date July 29, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Seeing a chicken in a Werner Herzog film is no surprise, but when the first chicken you see is cannibalizing another chicken, you get the first inkling of why the director describes his second feature film as “the gloomiest of gloom.”

No, the title “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970) doesn't make any sense, but then neither does the world – the real world, the world of the film, take your pick. Shot in stark black-and-white on the volcanic island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, the film depicts a nightmare landscape that has grown wildly out of proportion. Some critics at the time charged Herzog with exploiting his cast of dwarfs (the term used in the title) by portraying them as freakish, but the director countered by claiming that his stars were the normal ones and that the sick world of commerce and consumerism was the garish, oversized spectacle enveloping them.

The patients (inmates?) at an isolated, run-down institution rebel against the impotent, bloviating instructor, and spend most of the film wreaking havoc in the courtyard and surrounding countryside. They uproot the instructor's favorite palm tree, burn the potted plants, and throw broken pottery at a truck they've set to turn in an endless circle (an image that will crop up in many Herzog films, and which he attributes, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, to his brief tenure as a parking attendant.) The instructor retaliates by taking one of them hostage, but even bound with rope to a chair, Pepe just laughs dismissively at his would-be captor. Authority has no authority here.

The premise invites multiple interpretations and drew criticism both from the left (who thought he was mocking student revolutions) and the right (who cares?), and earned the film a ban from German censors. But I take Herzog at face value when he explains that he made the film, in part, as a way to express the dark thoughts gripping him after his harrowing experiences (near-fatal illness, imprisonment - the usual) while shooting “Fata Morgana,” filmed just before “Dwarfs” but released after, and perhaps to exorcise those demons. For better or worse, Herzog has long striven to compose shots and stage sequences divorced from real-world context, audiovisual spectacle meant to be appreciated purely for its aesthetic qualities and its poetic evocations. And with “Even Dwarfs” he creates some of the most memorable images in a career marked by the fanatical quest for new and distinct images.

I'll just (mostly fail to) describe a few. There's the bug menagerie, a collection of dead insects on stick pins dressed in teeny-tiny clothes for the most depressing wedding of all-time, the mock religious procession fronted by a monkey tied to a crucifix, the futile efforts of tiny Hombre (Helmut Doring, by far the shortest of the cast members and also the most magnetic performer) to mount a full-size bed , the instructor ordering a tree to put its arm down, and the constant reminders of the hopeless, desiccated landscape in which this pocket apocalypse explodes and implodes. I refuse to pick a favorite ending to a Herzog film (OK, Stroszek's dancing chicken), but the last scene of this film ends on an absolutely terrifying note, with Hombre laughing maniacally while a camel (not previously seen) repeatedly stands and kneels. A spoiler? Please, there was no other way to end it.

The sometimes difficult production of this film provided some of the earliest stories in the snowballing Herzog legend. When one cast member caught on fire, Herzog immediately threw himself on top of him to extinguish the flames. As a way of apologizing for the trouble he put his cast through, Herzog wrapped shooting by jumping into a cactus patch. The human actors were amused, some of the other performers less so. Though Herzog insists that the poor tormented monkey was only inconvenienced for a few minutes and that the camel was merely responding to its trainer's commands, I doubt the chickens enjoyed being grabbed by the wings and flung about.

The net result is a film that comes as close to capturing true anarchy as I've ever seen, “Zero de conduite” by way of Bosch. And it's a genuinely frightening source of some of the most nervous laughter you'll ever enjoy. If you enjoy that sort of thing, but of course you do. Herzog describes good cinema as the agitation of the mind. “Even Dwarfs” provides all the agitation you can handle.

Old Anchor Bay DVD cover

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is the first disc in the expansive Herzog collection from Shout! Factory, details of which you can read here. It is essentially a dupe of the old Anchor Bay DVD release but with a high-definition upgrade. The improvement over the old SD is significant, but the new high-def transfer isn't quite top-of-the-line. There are some instances of damage and distortion and some of the whieter black-and-white scenes look a bit washed out with a lack of detail. However, it's the best version of the film I've seen, and it's really quite fine. Let's call it perfectly adequate, but not eye-popping.

The low-quality pictures included in this review are most definitely not taken from the Blu-ray, and are a testament to the lousy versions of the film most of us had to watch before this high-def release.

Look, I'm not gonna post the same boring audio reviews for each and every one of these discs. Or, rather, I will, but it'll be this short one. The sound is fine. Not great. Just fine. You won't complain. Except maybe about the subtitles which are occasionally tough to read and don't handle apostrophes very well.

As with most of the discs in this set (most of which are just high-def upgrades of previous DVD releases) the only extra is a commentary track by Werner Herzog, hosted by Norman Hill and also featuring actor Crispin Glover who loves the film so much he made his own movie inspired by it (“What Is It?”) Like most Herzog commentaries, it's a work of performance art unto itself and if you can handle it, I recommend watching the movie regularly, then immediately re-watching it with the commentary. How did Herzog come up with that idiosyncratic song for the opening credits? Well, he heard a local 11-year-old girl with an interesting voice and then directed her to “sing her soul out” of her body while recording her in a cave. Which is how Hollywood has done it for years, of course.

Final Thoughts:
Few films truly merit the overused adjective “unforgettable.” But “Even Dwarfs Started Small” is one of them. You will never, ever forget it. Never. Ever. No matter how hard you try. Have fun.

Shout! Factory Box Set Cover