Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dr. Strangelove


DR. STRANGELOVE (Kubrick, 1964)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 28, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

"Sir! I have a plan!"

As considered under the withering clinical gaze of Stanley Kubrick, men are fools and any social structure or piece of technology they create cannot, by definition, be fool-proof. They only fool themselves into thinking otherwise. The military justice system designed by men in “Paths of Glory” (1957) cannot possibly produce a just result; in “2001” (1968) the flawless HAL 9000's main flaw is that it learned more than just the song “Daisy” from its human designers. Anything men create will only propagate their own defects in different ways and, inevitably, on larger scales.

I say “men” because both of the aforementioned films, like most Kubrick films, are concerned almost exclusively with men and their questionable decisions. The same is true of “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a world of cigar chomping, cigarette-smoke blowing, serially speechifying males, mostly of the alpha type or would-be alpha type. This world is so female-starved that the only woman in sight (Tracy Reed) serves double duty as a bikini-clad blastoff partner for General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and as a magazine centerfold to keep the boys in a cramped bomber crew occupied on a long flight.

Kubrick, adapting the straightforwardly dramatic novel “Red Alert” by Peter George and sharing scripting duties with George and Terry Southern, goes out of his way to leave the audience with no comforting assurances of any kind. Things go wrong initially when the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) “exceeds his authority” by ordering his nuclear-armed bombers to attack their targets in Russia, inexorably drawing America into what cowboy bomber pilot Major Kong (Slim Pickens) describes colorfully as “nucular combat, toe-to-toe with the Russkies.”

OK, that's a problem, but surely the cause is just one rotten apple. Not so. When General Turgidson describes Ripper's indiscretion to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), the commander-in-chief angrily fires back that the general's own “Human Reliability Tests” were supposed to be a guarantee against this very behavior. Turgidson dismisses it as “one little slip-up” but one can practically hear Kubrick chuckling in the background. Kubrick certainly believed in human reliability, the guarantee that one little slip up would invariably be followed by yet another. Which also reliably guarantees material for a lifetime of movies.

It really doesn't matter what plans men make; the problem is that they're the ones making the plans. The Russians have designed a Doomsday Device that will launch a counterstrike against any invading force, even one that admits to a mistake and actively assists in shooting down their own planes. The Russians' decision to eliminate themselves from the decision-making process by making it impossible to deactivate the Doomsday Device is yet another little slip-up. How about a quick prayer from the men down here to the man upstairs? Nope, no good there either.


The lesson could be that we shouldn't hand power over to war mongering buffoons like Turgidson or the enigmatic not-so-ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers x2), or to a dithering pseudo-intellectual like Muffley. But Kubrick's cynicism (abetted by Terry Southern, mostly brought in to recalibrate this tale of mutually assured destruction as a comedy, a decision not made until well into the project) runs deeper still. The bomber crew who receives the order to attack follows their meticulous training (more careful human planning there) to the letter and acts with both heroism and ingenuity to survive a Russian missile attack. And it is only because they've got both brains and guts that they're able to survive... and drop the bomb that will lead to the virtual destruction of human civilization. If only they were cowards or at least less competent, they might have saved the day.

And, of course, that really is funny. The desperate, helpless human condition where all roads lead to the same destination is just plain funny. Kubrick understands this well enough to allow the story to unfold in a relatively naturalistic manner. Though several of the performances are comically over the top (most notably George C. Scott, who wasn't so keen on going that far over), characters are mostly filmed neutrally, with a minimum of inflection by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose stellar 1964 also included a little project called “A Hard Day's Night.”

When Ripper informs his executive assistant, Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers x3), of the impending attack, Mandrake is situated in a chair dead center in the frame and shot from a medium distance with a very quiet background audio track that renders his flat “Aw, hell” that much funnier, especially on repeat viewings. The subsequent attack on Ripper's air force base is shot like gritty newsreel footage. Kubrick indulges in the occasional heavy visual accent, such as a distorting low-angle close-up on a ranting Ripper and relies on the general absurdity of the sprawling War Room so brilliantly designed by the great Ken Adam. But mostly, he just places his foolish little men center stage, content to view them as specimens (writhing) under the microscope.

Though all their plans have failed, the film ends with the men forming yet another plan, an effort to preserve the human species and avoid a “mineshaft gap” with the Russians. The very compassionate president balks at the idea of choosing who gets to live or die, but Dr. Strangelove assures him that the somber decision can be made safely and logically by a computer. The film ends before we get to see just how spectacularly that idea will flame out, but one thing's for certain: it's gonna be some funny shit.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer is sourced from the extensive 2004 4K digital restoration supervised by Grover Crisp that has since become the standard. This splendid restoration already yielded a great Blu-ray release by Sony a while back, and this Criterion looks pretty similar. Image detail is sharp and the black-and-white contrast is rich with a thick grain structure that should please any viewer. There wasn't much room to improve on the old release, but Criterion has at least matched the stellar quality. You can't ask for much more.

Audio:
Listeners can choose between the film's original mono track (LPCM) and a 5.1 surround design (DTS-HD Master Audio). Purists will want to stick with the mono, but the surround adds a sense of dynamism without being too showy. The film should have the sound of “small” men speaking in vast spaces and the surround preserves that while perhaps treating the music a little better than the mono. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
When a film has been released in so many home theater formats, both standard and high-def, you need to do something special to distinguish yet another version. Criterion has decided to do so by absolutely stacking this Blu-ray release with extras: 14 separate features, running just under 200 minutes in total.

Let's start with the brand new features produced by Criterion just for this release.

In a new interview (2016, 19 min.), Mick Broderick, author of “Reconstructing Strangelove,” discusses Kubrick's role as sole producer (after former business partner James B. Harris left to direct his own films) on the film as well as the many changes to the project from the first draft of the script to post-production. Let's get this out of the way here. About a half dozen times in these extras, you will be presented with the shocking knowledge that Peter Sellers was initially slated to also play the role of Major Kong, eventually portrayed by Slim Pickens. The feature wraps up with a discussion of Kubrick's experiments with film marketing, including his collaboration with Pablo Ferro on the film's groovy trailer.

In another interview (2016, 12 min.) cinematographer Joe Dunton and camera operator Kelvin Pike discuss some of the camera techniques used in the film, as well as the influence Kubrick's background as a still photographer had on his film work. Yes, he knew everything there was to know about lenses.

My favorite interview on the set is with Richard Daniels (2016, 14 min.) who has the greatest job in the world, serving as senior archivist at the Stanley Kubrick Archive. Relying on the meticulous records in the archive, Daniels shows how the film changed from its earliest stages (with evidence that Kubrick wanted Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles before budget limitations nixed those choices). He also suggests that frequent descriptions of Peter Sellers' extensive improvisation on set may be overblown.

David George, son of novelist/screenwriter Peter George, discusses (2016, 11 min.) his father's collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, portraying it as a positive, rewarding experience for the writer. He also talks about a lengthy short story George wrote to expand the background of Dr. Strangelove, a character who does not appear at all in George's book “Red Alert.”

In one more new interview (2016, 17 min.), scholar Rooney Hill analyzes Kubrick's reliance on archetypes, touching on the influence of Joseph Campbell, Jung, Freud, etc. This is informative, but if you've ever taken a screenwriting class, it's also well-worn ground.

On to the older material, much of which has appeared on previous home releases:

A brief audio interview with Kubrick (Nov 27, 1966, 3 min.) conducted by physicist/author Jeremy Bernstein gives the director a chance to briefly discuss his long-standing fascination with the subject of thermonuclear war and his belief that a director needs to edit his own film.

“The Art of Stanley Kubrick” (2000, 14 min.) features biographer John Baxter, critic Alexander Walker, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, and others in a fast-moving gloss through Kubrick's early career up through “Strangelove.” There's not much meat here, but the best part if hearing the great set designer Ken Adam speak eloquently with that magnificent Teutonic voice that feels like it must have had some influence on Sellers' Strangelove, even if it didn't.

“Inside 'Dr. Strangelove'” (2000, 46 min.) is similar to the previous feature, but with a longer time on a more focused subject, it covers more detail. Ken Adam is back in fine form as are producer/director James B. Harris, actor James Earl Jones, and others. It's fun to hear about Kubrick beating the snot of George C. Scott in chess, and thus earning the actor's respect.

“No Fighting in the War Room” (2004, 30 min.), which is not the quote from the movie by the way, is mostly centered on interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and journalist Bob Woodward, discussing how real the thermonuclear threat was when “Strangelove” was made. Other talking heads chime in, including critic Roger Ebert and director Spike Lee. “Best Sellers” (2004, 18 min.) is from the same source and shares some of the same guest speakers, but focuses on Peter Sellers career, this time with Michael Palin and Shirley MacLaine adding their gushing appreciations. Snippets of Sellers' home movies spice up the interviews.

The disc also includes two archival features. First up is a “mock interview” with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. These were standard promotional tools back at the time, split-screen interviews featuring the actors answering scripted questions on one side which then allowed local news anchors to pretend to be asking them the questions on the other side of the screen. Scott and Sellers are both in character on the phone in the war room with Sellers doing a series of British accents in addition to his American President voice. Second is a “Today” show interview (Mar 12, 1980, 4 min.) with Gene Shalit talking to Peter Sellers. Interestingly, Sellers talks about loving the chance to play two of the characters in “Strangelove,” leaving out Merkin Muffley.

And finally the disc includes two trailers. First is the Exhibitor's Trailer (17 min.) a sprawling piece narrated by Kubrick with the intention of convincing exhibitors to pick up the film. I'm not sure I would have been sold based on this one. We also get the famous Kubrick/Pablo Ferro Theatrical Trailer for the film.

But, wait, there's more.

Instead of their typical insert booklet, Criterion has included an insert “packet” in a “Top Secret” envelope to be opened “only when go code received.” The envelope contains a bulletin report with an essay by author and professor of English David Bromwich, a Playboy-style booklet with a lengthy essay by Terry Southern (originally published in the summer 1994 issue of “Grand Street”) regarding his collaboration with Kubrick, and a teeny-tiny combination book of Russian Phrases and Holy Bible.

Final Thoughts:
You get a great transfer, but not noticeably greater than prior high-def releases. What distinguishes this release of “Strangelove” is the overwhelming selection of extras provided by Criterion, with that Top Secret packet as a little incentive to encourage the die-hard Kubrick collector. I think that's enough to call this the definitive North American release of the film.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh


VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH (Cox, 1987)
Docurama, DVD, Release Date August 30, 2005
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This was one of the earlier reviews I wrote, presented with only modest revisions. Re-posted in honor of director Paul Cox, who passed away today at age 76.)

“Dear Theo...”

Vincent van Gogh wrote over 700 letters to his brother Theo. If you read (or listen to) them, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that van Gogh was a gifted writer as well as a brilliant painter. In his letters, he shares his passions and his sorrows: sometimes he sounds as giddy as a child discovering new secrets each day; other times, his bitter disappointment with his isolation overwhelms him.

Director Paul Cox uses these letters as the basis for his semi-documentary “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh” (1987). The letters, read by off-screen narrator John Hurt, comprise the entire text of the film, and function as a guide through the life’s work of the artist. Van Gogh did not take up painting until he was in his late 20s and committed suicide at the age of 37. In just ten years, he worked at a prodigious pace that staggers the imagination, over 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings. Not to mention the letters.

Hurt’s reading accompanies some deeply evocative images by Paul Cox, who serves as cinematographer and editor as well. Though in some cases he recreates (or shows) the actual paintings, Cox has something far more interesting in mind. He replicates the environment in which van Gogh lived while he painted: the trees and lanes he strolled by each day, the windmills that dotted the horizon he saw from his window, the peasants and farmers who toiled in the nearby fields, the briefly glimpsed women whose elusive presence tormented him. The camera pans slowly around a forest clearing or tilts languorously along the fine edge of a windmill blade, though at other times the movements are sharp, capturing a frenzied blur of motion. 


Hurt’s narration captures both the agony and the ecstasy of van Gogh; sometimes Hurt works himself up to such a fever pitch we can practically envision Vincent as a preacher witnessing to his invisible flock (he did flirt briefly with the idea of entering the clergy). Van Gogh, as you would assume, held strong opinions about his work and about his peers. He believed artists of his day simply didn’t do enough with color; he waxes rhapsodic about the boundless possibilities of blue and orange. He is equally passionate about drawing the lives of common folk; who needs another commissioned portrait of a king or prince?

Cox covers a wide range of van Gogh’s work, giving equal time to some of his lesser-known works. The film focuses a great deal of attention on “The Potato Eaters,” but barely shows a glimpse of “Sunflowers” or even “The Starry Night.” Most interesting of all, Cox rushes right past the most famous events of van Gogh’s life, his severing of part of his ear, and his suicide in 1890.

Tragedy always lurks at the edges of the story, but the film focuses more attention on the sunnier aspects of van Gogh’s life, the sheer joy he took in painting what he saw. In one amusing and prescient letter, he laments that foreigners will likely be unable to pronounce his strange little Dutch name correctly; they’ll probably say “van Go.”

“Vincent” has a repetitive structure: Hurt reads the letters, the film pans over landscape or see recreations of 19th century village life, scan sketches or paintings, and so on. Is it a contradiction to say that I was completely absorbed by the film even while I was bored at times? “Vincent” is one of the best art documentaries (if we can even call it that) I have ever seen. It is no mere recitation of facts or fawning appreciation of a “great artist,” but a mature and insightful expression of the intense feelings of one of the most prolific and respected artists of this or any other era.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. The video quality is somewhat disappointing with somewhat muted colors and apicture that seems a bit too dark, none of which does justice to van Gogh’s work.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The soundtrack is all about John Hurt’s impressive vocal performance, and his deep, resonant voice is well preserved on this transfer. here are no subtitles or closed captions to support the audio.

Extras:
In addition to a few minor informational features (Filmmaker Biography, Vincent van Gogh Biography), the disc contains an interesting documentary (55 min.) called “A Journey with Paul Cox.” Cox, a Dutch master (Australian master as well) in his own right, has directed nearly 30 films over the last 40 years. Not quite as prodigious as Vincent, but not bad either. This documentary provides a very informative overview of his work. Like van Gogh, Cox has some pretty strong opinions about his medium of choice and is unafraid to share them.

Final Thoughts:
I was particularly pleased that Cox avoids the standard trope of romanticizing the tragedy of a great artist. There’s nothing romantic about burning out and dying young. I can’t help but wonder how many of history’s tortured artists would have lived longer and happier lives if they just had access to anti-depressants or other modern psychiatric treatments (with all due apologies to Tom Cruise).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

La Chienne


LA CHIENNE (Renoir, 1931)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 14, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

“La Chienne” (1931) translates into English as “The Bitch” and there's no idiom at play. The title refers directly to a character. As far as which character, take your pick. There's no shortage of candidates.

Being a feminine noun, la chienne most obviously points to Lulu (Janie Marese), the young French prostitute with an equal affinity for using men and being used by them. Lulu might be a more sympathetic figure if her schemes exuded even the faintest spark of originality or ambition. But she demonstrates no sense of agency or even any hint of an inner life, preferring to coast along on her beauty, always taking the path of least resistance.

Her abusive pimp boyfriend Dédé (Georges Flamant) is too lazy even for that. If there's any bitch you'll want to slap in this movie, it's this miserable bastard. Dédé's “career” consists exclusively of leeching off of Lulu and her various marks; he sells her body, cashes her checks, and blows through the money by the weekend. Indeed, he feels constitutionally entitled to do so, and throws a hissy fit any time his plans for a permanent free ride meet even the slightest resistance. Dédé doesn't care who he hurts, and the only reason he doesn't smack Lulu around even more is that he doesn't have to; the minimum effort to ensure her obedience and devotion will suffice.

Thank goodness for Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon). A meek, middle-aged cashier trapped in a loveless marriage, Legrand seizes his chance to be a hero when he rescues Lulu from a beating by
Dédé on a stairway late at night. Lulu expresses her gratitude quite emphatically to Legrand but, alas, she's really just running a con on him. Love? Of course it's not love. After all, Legrand is, as Lulu notes with a disgusted shudder, forty-two years old! She just lies back and thinks of dear, sweet Dédé...

Poor old buzzard. Finally, we have someone to root for... at least until exasperation sets in. The marginalized Legrand is so desperate for affection he passively submits to being exploited by Lulu and her pimp boyfriend like, well, like just another bitch. Legrand's eyes need to be pried open “Clockwork Orange”-style before he can see the obvious, as we've seen all along. Our poor Casper Milquetoast does not react well to the demolition of his delusions, and he winds up trying his best to outbitch everyone. Add in Legrand's cartoon shrew of a wife (Magdeleine Berubet), his openly derisive co-workers, and a bunch of art patrons (Legrand paints on the side) less interested in art than in getting laid and the cosmology of “La Chienne” is pretty much bitches all the way down.


Director Jean Renoir, adapting a novel by Georges de la Fouchardiere, depicts a society in which everyone is either a commodity to be swapped or the broker looking to do the swapping, the modern neoliberal's idea of utopia. This terminal sourness could grow tedious and does, just a bit, in a final act that marches to the site where so many good narratives have gone to die: the courthouse.

However, “La Chienne” also has the distinction of being Renoir's first major sound film (his second sound project overall) and the director wasted little time demonstrating his mastery of cinema's newest creative tool. Much of the film is shot on location in the Montmartre section of Paris, where Renoir insisted on recording direct sound. The result is an immersive, evocative experience in which the characters skulk about the nighttime streets (location shooting at night being no small logistical feat in 1931) with the hollow, distant sounds of the city as a constant ambient backdrop lending a naturalistic feel to their melodramatic intrigues. They always sound like they're speaking from a real location, which they were in this pre-dubbing era. Theodor Sparkuhl's rich black-and-white cinematography provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the audio track.

Michel Simon's slump-shouldered, gray little man feels right at home on these shadowy, sparsely populated streets, ultimately no more significant than the random street lamp or faded wrought-iron fence. Simon, considered by some to be France's greatest actor, worked with many top directors, but his roles in this film and Renoir's “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932) feel like career-defining works. It's hard to believe their creative partnership was so brief.

The cretinous Dédé was Georges Flamant's first film role and he's infuriatingly convincing as an amoral user and abuser. A career as a go-to bad guy never quite materialized, though Flamant would work with Abel Gance and, near the end of his career, appeared in Francois Truffaut's “The 400 Blows” (1959). Janie Marese is given a fairly thankless role as the stereotyped prostitute with a heart of stone, though she plays it with verve; if she's shrilly one-note, blame Renoir for not asking for much more. Shortly after production wrapped on “La Chienne,” Flamant and Marese, who fell in love during shooting, left for a romantic vacation. A few days later, Flamant lost control of their car; he survived, but 23-year-old Marese was killed.

“La Chienne” is somewhat less known today than Renoir's signature films such as “La Grande Illusion” (1937) and “La regle du jeu” (1939), but it kicked off the most-celebrated phase of his career (by which I mean the rest of his career) and also proved that the advent of sound was a golden opportunity rather than an obstacle for the young filmmaker. If Renoir had been laboring in the shadow of his father, the monumental painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “La Chienne” may be the moment where he stepped almost entirely out of it. Which adds a bit of an edge to a shot in the final scene where an aged Legrand contemplates a real (Auguste) Renoir painting in a shop window.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, that nifty little ratio that only existed for a few years during the early sound era. The high-def transfer is sourced from a 2014 digital restoration. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35 mm safety fine-grain made from the original 35 mm nitrate negative. The film was restored in 2K resolution at Digimage Classic by Les Films du Jeudi and the Cinematheque francaise, with the support of the CNC and the participation of the Franco-America Cultural Fund DGA – MPA – SACEM – WGAW.”

The final product is an impressive high-def transfer with sharp black-and-white contrast and a richly detailed image with only the occasional soft spot. The film is remarkably damage-free for a 1931 film and if the restoration work was extensive it hasn't resulted in any noticeable loss of detail. A great job all around.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono track is crisp and flat and does a fine job of preserving the “hollow” tone of the film's direct sound design. It's a bit tinny and not at all dynamic or attention-grabbing and that's how it should sound. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Criterion has packed quite a few extras into this release.

A Jean Renoir Introduction (3 min.) to “La Chienne” originally broadcast on French TV on Jan 1, 1961 can be played ahead of the film and shouldn't spoil much.

“On Purge Bébé” (1931, 52 min.) was Renoir's first sound film. Based on a play by Georges Feydeau and co-starring Michel Simon, this French farce was mostly Renoir's attempt to prove he could deliver a sound film on time, under budget, and maybe even turn a profit, a necessity since some of his silent films had failed to do so. As for the film, well, it's a French farce. I lasted about fifteen minutes. But it was a hit that paved the way for the many great Renoir features that would follow, so let's celebrate its inclusion here. It's also distinguished by featuring the sound of a toilet flushing off-screen.

In a new interview (2016, 25 min.), Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner speaks at length about Renoir's transition from silent cinema to the sound era. Some of Renoir's earliest films were actually funded by the sale of some of his father's paintings, so it's easy to understand why Renoir felt the need to establish his own identity both as an artist and as a viable businessman. Faulkner also offers plenty of information about the film's production and the various cast members involved.

“Jean Renoir: Le Patron: Michel Simon” (1967, 95 min.) is merely part two of a three-part documentary on Renoir directed by filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette. This program begins with a few film clips then consists primarily of an after-dinner conversation between Jean Renoir and Michel Simon. This is no doubt a thrill for Renoir and/or Simon fans, but this rambling schmooze-fest is primarily a chance to indulge in some old-fashioned hero worship. Which is just fine, but maybe not 95-minutes fine.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a comprehensive essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has produced a package which includes Jean Renoir's first two sound films and a passel of extras, along with a top-notch high-def transfer. You can't ask for much more.