Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Killing


THE KILLING (Kubrick, 1956)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 16, 2011
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This Criterion release is only marketed as “The Killing” but also includes Kubrick's 1955 film “Killer's Kiss” which can hardly be categorized as a mere extra. The following review covers both films, though only briefly touching on “Killer's Kiss.”)

Stanley Kubrick was both a genre-hopper and a genre-conqueror. You won't have to look too hard to find a critic (Ed. Note: Hi, there!) who credits the versatile director for some or all of the following achievements: best war film, best gladiator film, best black comedy, best science-fiction film, best period/costume film, and best horror film.

Accompanying the always contentious claim of “best” is the notion that Kubrick the iconoclast challenged or redefined the conventions of each genre, a dubious argument that diminishes the genre in question. “Genre” is not an insult, nor is it something that needs to be transcended to achieve greatness. Genres are also constantly in flux, judged in relation to different reference points and shifting with each new entry in the field.

I'm not sure if “The Killing” (1956) qualifies as the best film noir (I'm not sure it isn't, mind you) but it's certainly one of the most accomplished and engrossing examples of the genre, not to mention one hell of a feat for a 28-year-old filmmaker previously accustomed to shooting independently and on micro-budgets. “The Killing,” adapted from the novel “Clean Break” by Lionel White with “additional dialogue” by pulp novelist Jim Thompson, is the tale of a daring heist at a horserace track that, like most noir crimes, goes terribly wrong.

The basic story is fairly standard issue. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), fresh out of a five-year stint in the joint, has decided to shoot for big game in his crime comeback. And why not? “They can put you away just as fast for a ten-dollar heist as they can for a million-dollar job.” Make it a two-million-dollar job. Clay intends to rob the cash room at the Lansdowne Park Track during the feature race and enlists the aid of several accomplices for the big caper: his reliable older friend Marv (well-weathered Jay C. Flippen), betting window clerk George (Elisha Cook Jr.), policeman Randy (Ted DeCorsia), bartender Mike (Joe Sawyer), and psychotic gunman Nikki (Timothy Carey).

Clay's plan is fabulously complicated, part of the reason it's doomed to fail, another part being that it's a crime film made near the tail end of the Production Code era, when crime could never pay. Call it chance, call it fate, blame it on the mental and moral shortcomings of low-down rotten crooks; as “The Killing” hurtles to its denouement, the center falls apart, unraveled by a yapping dog here and an unlucky horseshoe there.


The labyrinthine plot seems all the more complex thanks to the time-hopping narrative. The title sequence begins with documentary-style footage of a horse race accompanied by a booming Gerald Fried score that builds to a crescendo, only to be diffused by the sight of a disheveled Marv shuffling forlornly through the track's betting parlor on his way to order a ginger ale. Then a no-frills, staccato narrator guides us to a scene from “an hour earlier” and then another shortly before that, then the day after that, methodically assembling the various strands, characters, and perspectives who will eventually reconvene with thirsty Marv in that betting parlor.

Kubrick's looping narrative structure attracts a great deal of attention, frequently being described as ground-breaking. While the chronological structure is complex, it's not designed to obfuscate or turn the film into a puzzle-piece movie; the time is almost always clearly indicated and the moving parts of the elaborate heist meticulously detailed. The shifts ironically undercut the dramatic flow of the story, but emphasize the inevitability of everyone's fate rather than straining for ambiguity. In doing so, Kubrick was mostly following White's novel, first brought to his attention by co-producer James B. Harris, and it was precisely the twisted chronology that attracted their attention in the first place.

The attention lavished on the chronological shifts detracts, in some ways, from appreciating “The Killing” as a technically brilliant but fairly traditional take on the film noir with its doomed criminal protagonists, its cynical worldview, its shadowy interiors, and even the obligatory if atypical femme fatale (Marie Windsor). The young director was not afraid to butt heads with veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard, insisting that the film be shot with a wide-angle lens (25 mm.), enabling the roving camera that would become a Kubrick trademark to transform the sparsely-designed sets into foreboding, confining extensions of ill-fated characters often partly obscured by the harsh, abstract lighting scheme. “The Killing,” of course, can only exist in stark black-and-white.

“The Killing” takes full advantage of its cast of memorable character actors. In a bravura solo sequence, Kubrick veteran Timothy Carey struggles to maintain an unconvincing “normal” smile before unleashing the rampaging beast within. Elisha Cook Jr. is a tiny, twitching bundle of paranoid neuroses begging to be bullied by his boozy, domineering girlfriend (Windsor). Real-life chess teacher/wrestler/Kubrick friend Kola Kwariana gets to show off his hairy barrel chest in a barroom brawl for the ages.

Still, it's star Sterling Hayden who gets the film's signature line. His barely whispered “What's the difference?” provides one of the greatest punctuations in any film and practically serves to break the fourth wall, an acknowledgment that Johnny Clay realizes what genre he's trapped in and understands how it all has to end.

“The Killing” is often described as Kubrick's first fully “mature” feature, but “Killer's Kiss” (1955) shouldn't be dismisses as a mere “student film” as Kubrick sometimes labeled it. His self-financed (i.e. hitting up friends and family for money) second feature is fairly light on story. Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a fair-to-middling boxer who blows his big chance in the ring, but finds love with his willowy neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane), a dance-hall girl trying to fend off the advances of her thuggish boss (Frank Silvera). Davey winds up fighting said boss and his goons in a crisp tale that's over in about 67 minutes.

Kubrick directed, edited, shot, and co-wrote the film on a shoestring budget, and turned out a polished product with a lively, if slightly hokey, final battle in a warehouse filled with mannequins. Some of the best sequences capture the essence of New York street life, and a frenzied rooftop chase also provides a view of the city from up high, all of which is a reminder that Kubrick got his start as a still photographer and documentarian. He also cast his then-wife Ruth Sobotka as a ballerina. “Killer's Kiss” came and went in theaters, but proved that the young maverick could make a studio-quality picture and helped to convince United Artists to invest in “The Killing.”



Video:
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. If any of you still need to engage in the endless wars over the “correct” ratio for various Kubrick films, please wake me up when you're finished. It was shot 1.33:1, but intended to be matted and shown in wide-screen. What's the “correct” ratio? Ask Stan when you see him.

This 1080p transfer showcases the rich thick-grain structure so essential to appreciating the harsh black-and-white photography from Lucien Ballard. Close-ups show strong image detail- I particularly took note of the detail in the shot where Elisha Cook digs his fingernails into the skin below his eyes while listening to Marie Windsor spin her lies.

“Killer's Kiss” gets a high-def transfer in 1.33:1 ratio. It's not quite as sharp as “The Killing” but a vast improvement over the previous no-frills DVD release by MGM.

Audio:
The LPCM Mono mix is crisp but flat. I feel like I write that an awful lot, but then again there's seldom much to say about audio, after all, except when there's something noticeably wrong, which isn't the case here. Anyway, optional English subtitles support the English audio.

A brief note. The English subtitler was apparently not familiar with the chess term “patzer” which is listed in the subtitles as the mysterious “patsan.”

Extras:
The disc features a 2010 interview with producer James B. Harris (21 min.) who discusses the development of “The Killing” in quite a bit of detail, and also addresses his subsequent partnership with Kubrick.

The Blu-ray also includes excerpts from two episodes of the French TV series “Cinema cinemas” featuring interviews with Sterling Hayden. They aired on April 1 and July 3, 1984. They play as one feature and run 23 minutes total, and feature Hayden in his late sixties reflecting on his career.

Robert Polito discusses (19 min.) the contribution of novelist Jim Thompson, hired by Kubrick and Harris to provide “additional dialogue” though that description understates his involvement in the project. Indeed, Thompson was unhappy with the credit he was given, but still worked with Kubrick on “Paths of Glory.”

As mentioned above, the film “Killer's Kiss” is also included as an extra. Under the menu option for the film, viewers can also select Geoffrey O'Brien's brief visual analysis (9 min.) of “Killer's Kiss” which emphasizes early examples of what would become Kubrick hallmarks.

Trailers for each film are also included.

The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, and a short excerpt from an interview with actress Marie Windsor.

Final Thoughts:
I guess there's no such thing as an underrated Kubrick film. But if there was, this might be it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Muriel


MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (Resnais, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 19, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Muriel, or The Time of Return” (1963) features several returns and no Muriels. Twenty-something Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree) has recently returned from a tour of duty in Algeria to live with his stepmother Helene (Delphine Seyrig) in the French fishing port of Boulogne. Silver-haired Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) has also returned to see Helene for the first time since they parted ways after a tempestuous love affair back in 1939. For her part, Helene has lived in the same place for some time, but wrote a letter to Alphonse imploring him to visit after memories of their time together returned to her quite unexpectedly.

In this original screenplay by Jean Cayrol (who had previously written the voice-over commentary on Resnais' 1955 Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog”) everyone is hiding a secret, including the young “niece” (Nita Klein) the aging Alphonse brings with him. Vain blowhard Alphonse may well be lying about everything in an effort to escape his responsibilities, while Helene's denial of reality relies on her claimed inability to remember the past: “My memory's so awful! I forget everything.” Poor Bernard must be jealous. He cannot forget about the absent Muriel, not for one second, and his obsessive recall will drive him to desperate measures.

After the enigmatic art-house hits of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959) and “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), director Alain Resnais had established himself as a master of elliptical editing and the great cinematic poet of time and memory. Yet again in his third feature, the past constantly impinges on the present, defining and deforming it whether the characters try to run from their memories or wallow helplessly in them.

The film does not jump around chronologically nearly as much as Resnais' previous two, but the dense montage can be just as challenging, requiring multiple viewings before any informed attempt to digest the movie. In one complex scene, Resnais leaps between two simultaneous conversations in a bar. Character A speaks to Character B and Character C to Character D, but a line from A is followed by a line from C, then to B, then to D. In other sequences, abrupt cuts to objects or buildings don't readily yield meaning, though it would help modern viewers immeasurably to know that Boulogne was devastated during the war and then quickly reconstructed, much like the characters have attempted to reconstruct themselves post-war (Helene and Alphonse after WW2, Bernard after Algeria).

The constant fringe presence of Algeria was a bold choice for Resnais at a time when the French public usually heard the Algerian War described as the Algerian “events.” In the film, Algeria is a very recent past constantly impinging on the present not just of Bernard but also of a French populace eager to banish it from everyday awareness as much as possible.

Architecture and objects feature almost as prominently as the characters. We see multiple shots of a casino, usually framed from the same angle, looming in the background before becoming aware that Helene is addicted to gambling. Helene is an antique dealer (the past again, of course) which explains why the furniture in her apartment, which doubles as her storefront, changes subtly throughout the movie. The opening scenes of “Muriel” feature a rapid-fire montage of objects (a gloved hand, a teapot, a chandelier) that might put some viewers in mind of the magisterial opening of “Marienbad” and cause others to dread the portentousness that might follow.


Just two years after she played a glamorous object of desire in “Marienbad” it's a bit difficult at first to process Seyrig (just 30 at the time) in her gray-black wig made up to look the middle-aged widow, but she distinguishes herself radically from her previous signature role. Helene is a bundle of nervous energy, constantly smoking or fiddling with bric-a-brac, or bustling around Boulogne on errands that usually end with her flushing money down the casino toilet. Yet for all her nervous kinetic energy, Helene is trapped in stasis with little hope of ever breaking out. Ditto for Alphonse and the pressures build to histrionic levels punctuated by a jangling operatic score by Hans Werner Henze.

“Muriel” completed what may well be the greatest first three features any director ever made. Add in the brilliant short films he made before “Hiroshima” and I challenge you to find any filmmaker whose first decade of work is more accomplished. His final five decades weren't half bad either.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer is sourced from a recent digital restoration by Argos Films. The only copy of “Muriel” I own is the 2007 Koch Lorber DVD which seemed adequate at the time, but looks inferior almost a decade later. The colors in this version are somewhat muted which I believe was Resnais' intention. The image detail is sharp throughout with a subtle grain structure enhancing the filmic quality of the picture. If it's not the top end of Criterion's high-def transfers, it's still quite impressive and a world of improvement beyond the old DVD. Well worth a double dip just for the upgrade in visuals.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is flat, as expected, and also crisp, as expected. Composer Hans Werner Henze's intense score with its piercing arias sounds very strong on this lossless mix. Nothing to complain about here. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Criterion has gone a bit light with the extras this time.

The only substantial supplement is a 2016 interview with film scholar Francois Thomas which covers a lot of ground in 27 minutes. Thomas provides some historical context regarding the Algerian War and also discusses writer Jean Cayrol's collaboration with Resnais. The most interesting bit of info here is that Resnais' shooting script is remarkably close to the final cut of the film, evidence that Resnais was able to see most of the shots in this densely edited film before the camera rolled.

The other extras are short archival excerpts. In an excerpt from a 1980 TV documentary, Jean Cayrol talks briefly (5 min.) about working with Resnais. In a 1963 excerpt (4 min.) from the French TV show “Discorama,”composer Hans Werner Henze discusses his strident, operatic score for the film. My favorite of these bits by far is a 1969 excerpt (4 min.) from a French TV show in which the great Delphine Seyrig discusses the differences between her characters from “Muriel” and from “Marienbad.” I really wish this one had been longer.

The final extra is a lengthy Theatrical Trailer (4 min.)

The fold-out insert booklet features another great essay by film scholar James Quandt.

Final Thoughts:
Speaking of memory, watching “Muriel” again (this is my fourth time through) is a reminder of how devastating the losses of the last few years in the film world have been. Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Cimino, Chantal Akerman. My apologies for any of the departed directors whose losses I forgot/suppressed. It feels like this brutal wave was kicked off by the death of Alain Resnais in early 2014. That's probably a false impression, but I remember thinking at the time, “Cinema might not be dead, but it is no officially dying.”

A Touch of Zen



A TOUCH OF ZEN (Hu, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 19, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

King Hu's “A Touch of Zen” (1971) crosses several genres and explores multiple paths over the course of its three dynamic and unpredictable hours.

The film opens with a dark (almost too dark to see) montage of spider webs before cutting to empty patches of sky framed between forested hills, shots of tall grass with white fronds swaying in the breeze, and eventually to a survey of what appears to the smoking near-ruins of the fort that will serve as one of the film' central locations. After this extended moody and ominous foregrounding of environment, the film's first surprise is to start with the relatively light-hearted story of a low-level scholar, Gu Sheng-shai (Shih Chun), trying to make ends meet as a scribe and painter in a small town and also deflecting his mother's (Zhang Bing-yu) hectoring efforts to pressure him into marriage. Mother and son live in a dilapidated fort that is rumored to be haunted and, therefore, is rent-free. Maybe this will be a comedy.

Though the appearance of formidable characters like Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng) promises action, this landmark wuxia (“martial hero” or martial arts) film postpones its first fight for nearly an hour in favor of a portrait of everyday life in a rural Ming Dynsaty-era town and the gradual introduction of characters who will turn out to be more than what they initially appear. Chief among them are the “girl” who moves in next door in the rent-free fort, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), the blind fortune teller Shi (Bai Ying) and the neighborhood herbalist Dr. Lu (Xue Han.) Gu also gets wrapped up in a confusing ghost hunt that never quite fully manifests, but plants the seeds for some later decisions.

So that's a slice of rural life in the Ming Dynasty with a dash of comedy and then a ghost tale before we even get to the wuxia, but it's coming. Once the first sword is drawn with that trademark metallic ring (prominently audible even when a sword is simply being pulled out of a belt loop) and the combatants begin trampoline-hopping through the air, Gu uncovers the real story: Miss Yang is a noblewoman whose family has fallen into political disfavor and Shi and Lu are the generals sworn to protect her from corrupt government forces. The complex intrigues of this subplot can be summed up succinctly: Don't piss off the Grand Eunuch. He's already kind of cranky.

Hu's film showcases several remarkable acrobatic displays, including a meticulously choreographed battle in a dense bamboo forest. The fighters can use a sword lodged in the wall or a tree branch to launch themselves to the sky and then spin back earthward in a graceful, deadly arc. Though battle sequences feature instances of close quarters rapid-fire editing, the film shifts scales routinely, from medium close-ups to distant shots in which the combatants are tiny figures on a stage, patiently circling each other and sharing the spotlight with the landscape. Humans and nature get roughly equal billing, and the film's widescreen frame is gloriously exploited right to its edges time and time again.

The fights, many the brainchild of martial-arts choreographer Han Ying-jie who also appears as the final baddie, luxuriate in the athletic feats of the performers (some of the actors could really fight, others could put up a convincing enough show) but “A Touch of Zen” demonstrates that military strength has its limits. The scholarly Gu is largely a bystander in the actual battles, but he assists Miss Yang and her bodyguards in planning the “subterfuge” necessary to defeat the Grand Eunuch's superior forces. A crucial battle at the fort would be hopeless without his cunning. Might doesn't always make right; sometimes it takes brains.


Perhaps the script's boldest move, however, is to highlight a third option, the spirituality referenced by the title. When a group of Buddhist monks appears on the scene, they are more than capable of besting everyone in hand-to-hand combat, but offer a more peaceful option to participants on both sides of the sprawling battle. Not everyone will be wise or bold enough to accept, but the film's late scenes argue persuasively that they should. And just for future reference, while you shouldn't piss off the Grand Eunuch, you'd really better not mess around with monks. Because that's not going to go well for you.

King Hu started his career as a set designer, actor, and writer, and directed his first film for Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. He soon relocated to Taiwan and formed his own studio, which brought both new opportunities and new limitations. As stingy as the Shaws could be, at least they were operating within the confines of a thriving national cinema. In Taiwan, most film production in the '60s was the product of government projects, and Hu had to build his own infrastructure almost from the ground up, founding a virtual school to train his actors and some of his crew. Hu wrote, directed, edited, designed the sets and costumes, and even did the calligraphy for the title sequences, which partially explains why he took nearly two years to complete production on “A Touch of Zen” though his much-touted penchant for perfectionism (of Kubrickian proportions, according to colleagues) accounts for most of it.

The film's producers were uncertain how to handle the release of this sprawling epic, and strong-armed Hu into chopping it into two films at first, then later released their own two-hour cut without the director's participation. Neither release succeeded. In 1975, the film was restored and re-assembled in its current form (or close to it) and played at the Cannes Film Festival where it won a technical prize and helped open international markets for wuxia films.

Although “A Touch of Zen” wasn't as successful commercially as King Hu's first Taiwan feature “Dragon Inn” (1967), the two films helped to establish him as one of the masters of the wuxia genre. His influence on younger filmmakers, even those far removed from the martial-arts scene, has only grown over the years. Tsai Ming-liang's “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003) takes place in a Taipei theater screening Hu's “Dragon Inn” one last time before shuttering its doors for good, and the English title of Jia Zhangke's 2013 film, “A Touch of Sin,” is a tribute to King Hu, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 64.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. A 2014 4K digital restoration in Taiwan, described as “sponsored solely by actor Hsu Feng,” has been the source for the film's theatrical re-release as well as its European Blu-ray release and now this Blu-ray from Criterion. The colors are rich and image detail is sharp throughout. If there's any drawback, it's that the dark scenes are really, really dark, enough that it's hard to make out a lot of detail. I can't attest to how close that is to the film's original release, but it's most noticeable in the opening montage of spider webs and in the tail end of Gu's ghost fright at the fort. Overall, however, the high-def transfer is strong, providing a vibrant, enjoyable viewing experience.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono track is flat, but very crisp and strong. Those metallic rings of swords being drawn really resonate, and the music sounds good as well. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin audio.

Extras:
After a successful limited theatrical run this year, “A Touch of Zen” arrives on Blu-ray with a diverse selection of supplemental features from Criterion.

The collection includes 2016 interviews with lead actor Shih Chun (17 min.) and lead actress Hsu Feng (14 min.), both of whom discuss their working relationship with King Hu. The portrait that emerges is a combination of affection, respect, and intimidation. He could be a demanding taskmaster and work with him was both emotionally and physically grueling as he ordered endless re-takes on productions that lasted years at times. An additional 2016 interview with director Ang Lee (13 min.) provides a different appreciation, with Lee arguing that Hu may have been the first director to introduce a style-conscious approach to commercial Chinese filmmaking; at the very least, Lee contends that Hu made the first “art-house” wuxia films.

The disc also includes a 2012 documentary about King Hu (48 min.), directed by Hubert Niogret. We hear from a lot of film professionals and scholars in this documentary, though historian Peggy Chiao is probably the go-to expert. With interviews and film clips, this piece covers King Hu's career from his early work as a set designer, then through his acting and directing career, along with discussion of his production techniques and his place in film history.

A Trailer (2 min.) wraps up the extras.

The fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar David Bordwell along with a piece penned by King Hu as part of the press kit for the film's 1975 screening at Cannes.

Final Thoughts:
I've heard about “A Touch of Zen” for a while and I wasn't disappointed. A great release of “Dragon Inn” would be the most logical follow up. Solid transfer, strong extras. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Daughter of Dawn


THE DAUGHTER OF DAWN (Myles, 1920)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date July 19, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

The film's title character received her name because “she was ushered into the world as the sun rose,” as simple and poetic an origin story as you'll ever hear told. Now a young woman, Daughter of Dawn (Esther LeBarre) shines brightly for both her father, the Chief (Hunting Horse), and her Kiowa tribe, attracting the romantic attention of both the lithe, handsome White Eagle (White Parker) and the somewhat older, heftier Black Wolf (Jack Sankey-doty). Daughter of Dawn's preference for the former sets into motion the love triangle that powers the main narrative; actually, it's a rectangle since shy, innocent Red Wing (Wanada Parker) adores Black Wolf, who barely acknowledges her presence. Jealousy, betrayal, great feats of courage, a Comanche attack, and a huge bison hunt follow on the path to the requisite happy ending.

As a narrative, “The Daughter of Dawn” (1920), loosely inspired by a Comanche legend, didn't blaze any fresh territory, but the story of the film's production and later recovery has few parallels in cinema history. Producer Richard E. Banks had lived among various Native American tribes for many years and was eager to bring some of their stories to the silver screen with a sincere attempt at authenticity. “The Daughter of Dawn” was one of the few silent films shot with an all-Indian cast, consisting of about 300 Kiowa and Comanche actors, and was filmed entirely in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. The aforementioned White and Wanada Parker were the children of famed Comanche chief Quanah Parker, and also the grandchildren of Cynthia Ann Parker, the real-life inspiration for the Natalie Wood character in “The Searchers.”


The actors brought their own clothing and equipment, including teepees, to the set, a great boost to a production short on resources, enabling filming to proceed relatively smoothly over the summer of 1920. Though nobody will be surprised when Daughter of Dawn and White Eagle get together in the end, the film features plenty of unexpected treats for the viewer. The bison hunt is majestic both for the rumbling herd and the graceful riders in pursuit, and the harrowing lover's leap off Medicine Bluff is a show-stopper. Oh, the things men will do for love. A Kiowa celebration after a successful hunt is unforgettable, as is the brutal insult Daughter of Dawn's father drops on a disgraced Black Wolf: “When the brave die they travel toward the setting sun... Turn your face to the rising sun and go!” Ouch.

Director Norbert Myles, a vaudeville veteran helming a film for the first time, shoots in a plain, unobtrusive style with a fixed camera, heavily favoring wide shots that showcase both the authentic-looking village sets and the spectacular Wichita Mountains, practically characters in their own right. Blue-tinted night scenes add the occasional visual accent.

“The Daughter of Dawn” screened to a preview audience in 1920 and played a few times in small venues after, but never received an official public release and disappeared like so many movies of the era. When mentioned by film scholars as recently as the turn of the 21st century it was always described as one of silent cinema's many “lost films.” For the first time ever, film scholars were proven wrong when a 2004 phone call changed the record. That's when a private detective contacted the Oklahoma City Museum of Art to inquire about a dusty old film print a client had given him in lieu of cash for services rendered. He wondered what it was and, more importantly to him, how much it might be worth.

Suddenly, “The Daughter of Dawn” was more than a legend and, even more amazingly, it had survived largely intact save for some truncated intertitles. Eventually the print was purchased from the detective and found its way to the Oklahoma Historical Society and then to Hollywood's Film Technology Lab for restoration and preservation. Composer David Yeagley, a Comanche, wrote an original score for the film which was then performed by music students at Oklahoma City University. In 2013, this “lost film” was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry. And now, with the contribution of the good folks at Milestone Film and Video, “The Daughter of Dawn” has received its first theatrical release and, finally, this exquisite Blu-ray edition.

And that gives the film an even better origin story than its title character. It also gives you the chance to see something special.

Video:
The film is presented in a 1.33 aspect ratio. For a film once thought lost and stored for 80+ years under unknown conditions, it looks shockingly good. I don't know how much of that owes to the restoration or just some miracle of storage, but the image quality is sharp enough to highlight both the scenery and the actors' faces and costumes. There's a lot of detail visible here, a real thrill for anyone who appreciates this access to Kiowa and Comanche people and customs from almost a century ago. There are instances where the footage shows some signs of deterioration and the occasional skipped frame, but the final product is as surprising as it is pleasing. Occasional tinting has been preserved and the illustrated intertitles are pretty neat too.

Audio:
The new score composed by David Yeagley (who passed away in 2014) sounds sharp and resonant in this mono mix. Not a whole lot to say here, but certainly nothing to complain about either. Audio on all the extras is clearly recorded.

Extras:
If you're at all familiar with Milestone releases, you know they work tirelessly to pack their DVDs and Blu-rays with as many informative supplementary features as possible. “The Daughter of Dawn” is no exception, though the extras are mostly on the short side.

First up is a brief (4 min.) introduction by Dr. Bob Blackburn of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) which provides some historical context, mostly about the shooting location.

“Finding the Film” (6 min.) gives Bill Moore of the OHS a chance to tell how he learned about the mysterious private detective and that old movie he had for sale. I really wish this feature was longer. This is a great story that needs to be told in detail.

Two “Heritage” interviews are included. The first interview (8 min.) is with Darren Twohatchet, a video producer and member of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. Twohatchet is a film scholar as well as producer and shot some interviews back in the '90s about “The Daughter of Dawn” when it was considered to be a lost film. We see a few clips from those here, including interviews with Gina Quoetone Bointy and Helen Quoetone Curley, who both acted in the movie. In the second interview (6 min.) , Dorothy Whitehorse, a Kiowa woman, identifies several of the performers in the movie, many of whom she knew.

We also get a brief piece (3 min.) in which William D. Welge of the OHS tells how Magdalene Becker, a Mennonite Missionary and “Assistant Field Matron,” filed a concerned official report about the Kiowa and Comanches who had gathered together to shoot a movie. Oh, horror! She suggested the project be broken up, but was fortunately unsuccessful.

The collection wraps up with three short pieces about the making of the new original score for the film. These includes interviews with Mark Parker (4 min.) of the Oklahoma City University School of Music, Benjamin Nilles (3 min.), musical director and conductor of the Oklahoma City University Symphony, and John Cross (4 min.) who talks about the technical challenges of recording the University's performance of the score.

Final Thoughts:
What's left to say? A movie long believed to not even exist anymore not only survives intact, but can now be seen by anyone with the sense to get their hands on this great Blu-ray release from Milestone Films.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Shirin


SHIRIN (Kiarostami, 2008)
Cinema Guild, DVD, Release Date Aug 24, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

Abbas Kiarostami´s "Shirin" (2008) is the very model of simplicity, constructed entirely (aside from the opening and end credits) of a series of close-up shots of women in a theater watching a film. Well, not exactly. The actresses were actually filmed in small groups while sitting in Kiarostami´s living room, and they weren´t really watching a movie. In fact the movie doesn´t exist at all except as an audio track which was recorded after the actresses´ performances were filmed. So scratch that simplicity business. Chalk "Shirin" up as another of Kiarostami´s deceptively complicated, multi-layered meditations on life, the cinema and everything. We shouldn´t expect anything else from the director of “Close-up” (1990) and "A Taste of Cherry" (1997).

On the surface there seems to be something perverse about Kiarostami´s decision to work with a cast full of professional actors for the first time, and then to plop each of them in a living room chair and have them "simply" (that word again!) stare ahead as if watching a movie. Yet as revealed in the wonderful making-of documentary ("A Taste of Shirin") included on this DVD, these big-name stars of Iranian cinema (plus Juliette Binoche, perhaps prepping for her role in Kiarostami´s "Certified Copy") are not only acting, but pushing their craft into previously unexplored territory. As Kiarostami says to one of his performers: "You are now the spectator of movies you have been playing for years." This is surely a role none of them expected to be playing on screen, and the director doesn´t make it easy, paradoxically micromanaging them ("move your chin up") then asking them to create their own inner movie and express any resulting emotions with their eyes.

Cinema Guild has included two other Kiarostami short films on this disc which share the same formal concerns as the main feature, namely the intent study of images we rarely, if ever, get to scrutinize on film. In "Roads of Kiarostami" (2006), the director films not just roads but primarily his own photographs of roads winding through the countryside. We have seen images like this before even in Kiarostami´s own work (the winding road up the hillside in the 1987 "Where Is The Friend´s House?" being a standout) but the close "aerial" study of these two-dimensional photographs provides a unique perspective on these sinuous forms, appreciated for their formal beauty rather than their more pragmatic function. In "Rug" (2006), Kiarostami travels the "roads" of a Persian rug, the camera tracking its intricately woven patterns first in a counter-clockwise circle (or square, following its shape) then panning up and down before zooming out for a broader view. 


In "Shirin" he studies the roadmap of the face, faces of women both younger and older, faces framed by head scarves that are limned by the flickering light of the faux movie screen. For me, one of the greatest pleasures in cinema is watching people while they are watching or listening to something off-screen; absorbing, learning, thinking. Godard´s cinema is replete with such instances, the most famous being Anna Karina watching "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in "Vivre Sa Vie." The inherent creepiness of watching Danny watching a Roadrunner cartoon in "The Shining" also springs to mind. Kiarostami´s film takes this aesthetic to a whole different level.

The faces in "Shirin" tell a gradually unfolding story that relates to the story being told off-screen. Kiarostami´s audio movie is based on the medieval poem "Khosrow and Shirin" by Nizami Ganjavi, a tragic love story (the only kind) about a woman (Shirin) pursued by a king and an artist. What we hear suggests that this is a purely commercial melodrama which explains why it´s playing in a public theater rather than to a festival crowd like most of Kiarostami´s work. At first, the women´s faces are either impassive or pensive as they reserve judgment about the film, but they turn more expressive, tears eventually flowing as they are seduced by its pathos. Not that any of them were watching a film, of course. When an actress appears to be jolted by a sudden event on screen, she was actually startled by the director dropping a pan. Any trick to get an "authentic" reaction.

Perhaps Kiarostami is contemplating the relationship of his own contemplative, occasionally abstract work to the seductive power of narrative cinema. I'm not ready to venture into that interpretive mine field just yet. What I´m left with instead is the surface level, memories of a series of women´s faces looking ever so slightly off-screen (I don´t recall anyone´s gaze meeting the camera) giving us the opportunity to observe them as they observe a non-existent film. How beautiful. How fascinating. And, in the end, yes, how simple this film´s charms. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer from Cinema Guild. The widescreen image is windowboxed for some reason, but otherwise I have no complaints. It´s tempting to carp a bit about how dark some of the images look, but this was meant to look like it was shot in a theater so obviously there are times that faces are going to disappear somewhat into the shadows. The flickering light sometimes shows up as looking a little blotchy on the ´theater seats" in the film, but this is a solid transfer all around.

Audio:
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. If there is anything I was somewhat off put by, it´s that the film (dialogue and FX) we hear off-screen sounds more like a live radio play than a movie heard in a theater. When you see how the audio was recorded, it´s obvious why this is the case, so I think the sound is well replicated on this mix. English subtitles are provided to support the Farsi audio.

Extras:
With its simple black cover and stripped-down menus, this DVD initially appears to be a no-frills release, but the extras included by Cinema Guild are superb.

First up is the excellent "making of" documentary "Taste of Shirin" (2008, 27 min.) by Hamideh Razavi. As much as any "making of" featurette I can recall, this fits hand in glove with the main feature and can significantly transform your viewing experience. It shows Kiarostami at work with his actresses both in front of the camera and later in the audio booth.

What a treat for Kiarostami buffs to now have two of his recent short films available in Region 1.

"Roads of Kiarostami" (2005, 32 min.) is a natural development in the director´s lifelong passion for filming long, zigzagging roads. In this short, he shoots some moving images of roads, but mostly focuses on photographs (that I assume are his own) of roads, combined with a contemplative voice-over. There is also a brief video passage of Kiarostami on the road trying to capture some images.

"Rug" (2006, 6 min.) is a close-up study of the surface of a Persian carpet accompanied by audio of a man and women reciting poetry. It is quite lovely.

The extras are important simply for making Kiarostami´s short films available on DVD, but they also happen to fit seamlessly together. As mentioned above, all three Kiarostami films (the shorts and "Shirin") show the director´s interest in focusing on images seldom privileged on screen. As a group, these films offer a great perspective on the last five years of this Kiarostami´s thematic and formal concerns.

The slim insert booklet features an insightful two page essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of America´s most eloquent and passionate critical champion of Abbas Kiarostami´s cinema.

Final Thoughts:
"Shirin" may be Kiarostami´s most experimental feature to date, but it´s as accessible as any of his films. Bolstered by the well-chosen extras, "Shirin" is yet another great release by Cinema Guild, and strongly recommended.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Close-up


CLOSE-UP (Kiarostami, 1990)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 22, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

One of the more ridiculous claims of direct cinema was that truth could best be accessed by minimizing the role of the filmmaker as much as possible. To be fair, the claim was made more often by theorists and certain ardent acolytes than by the major direct cinema filmmakers. Frederick Wiseman, for instance, sometimes called his films “reality fictions.” But when direct cinema was the ruling paradigm in documentary filmmaking, objectivity was seen by many as the very essence of nonfiction cinema. The rise of reflexive and performative documentaries over the last several decades has greatly undermined such claims, but the strange notion that a good documentarian isn't biased still clings to life in some darker corners.

In “Close-up” (1990), Abbas Kiarostami makes no pretense at objectivity. He doesn’t even claim to be making a documentary though his use of “documentary-like” techniques (interviews, “live” filming, etc.) he encourages a reading of his film as something more than just a pure fiction feature. Call it a docudrama if you want, though I’m not really sure what the difference is between that and a fiction film that claims to be “based on a true story.” The terminology isn’t trivial. Viewers receive films differently based on their recognition of a movie as real or imagined, but the categories are too imprecise to describe this fascinating hybrid film. Maybe we should play it safe and just call it by its proper name: “Close-up.”

In 1989, Kiarostami read a magazine article about a man who impersonated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The working-class drifter had somehow conned a middle class family (the Ahankhahs) in Tehran into believing he was the famous director, promising to cast them in his next film. Though his ruse only lasted a few days, he went so far as to conduct rehearsals at their house before his arrest. Kiarostami, collaborating in part with the real Makhmalbaf, hurriedly assembled a crew and rushed to interview the man in question, Hossein Sabzian, who was in prison awaiting trial.

From the very start, Kiarostami emphasizes his manipulative role as a filmmaker. While interviewing Sabzian in prison, he promises to get the trial date moved up, not so much to assist the accused as to accommodate his shooting schedule. And when Kiarostami interviews the Ahankhah family in their home, he does little to assuage their suspicious that he, like everyone else involved so far, is looking to profit from their story.


This includes the reporter, Hassan Farazmand, who originally broke the story and kicks off the movie in a scene recreated by Kiarostami. Riding in a cab to the Ahankhah household along with two somewhat bored police officers, the excited Farazmand tells the cabbie that he thinks this story is going to be a real “Oriana Fallaci” moment for him, a reference to the then-famous Italian reporter who had scored many big interviews. 

All of the actors play themselves but “play” is the key word because they are certainly actors who style their performances for the camera. While this is obviously true in the recreated scenes, this is just as apparent when Kiarostami films Sabzian’s trial, the real trial, yet also a scene staged for the film. The director not only succeeded in getting the trial moved up and in securing special permission from the judge to film it, he actively participates in the interrogation of Sabzian, steering his testimony at several critical junctures. Indeed (though this is not acknowledged in the film), Kiarostami influenced the judge to push the family to drop charges against the defendant, something they apparently were reluctant to do. But it made for a better story. So much for objectivity.

Kiarostami’s blending of fiction and nonfiction techniques produces a film that can be peeled back layer by layer, revealing something new at each level. Paradoxically (or maybe not) it is the fully fictional scenes that most underscore the documentary power of the camera. When the reporter and the police arrive at the Ahankhah home, they enter, but the camera stays outside with the cab driver (Houshang Shamai) as he kills time, kicking at leaves and playing with an empty canister. He would have no place in the “official” account of Sabzian’s story and likely would not have been filmed in a straight-up documentary, but by staging the scene Kiarostami is able to emphasis whatever elements he considers most relevant without the limitation of whatever actuality footage a documentary crew would have been able to capture in real time. And it’s fair to ask which scenes are more “objective” - recreations in which past events are reconstructed, or the trial when the filmmaker’s presence indisputably alters the final outcome.

None of this gamesmanship would matter if not for the film’s enigmatic protagonist. Sabzian, who never really got anything out of his con aside from the opportunity to be the big man on campus for a few days, is a dreamer and an obsessive cinephile who desperately wanted to be involved in movies. Even if he was using him to get a good film out of it, Kiarostami gives him the chance. And damned if Sabzian isn’t a fine actor, whether playing himself or playing himself while playing Makhmalbaf in recreated scenes (layers and layers here).

Tiptoeing the line between fiction and non-fiction also gives Kiarostami a unique opportunity to fret over the powerful role of cinema in society, and not just in regards to his own interfering presence. I am absolutely stunned that the family would agree to act in recreations alongside the man they accused of conning them. Mrs. Ahankhah goes so far as to sit next to Sabzian on a bus and act out their initial meeting when he made the impulsive decision to sell himself as Makhmalbaf. In Iran, as in America, it seems that some people are willing to do just about anything to get on camera. Kiarostami’s direct implication here is that the Ahankhah family was trying to use Sabzian as much as he was using them. As it turns out, they all got what they wanted: the chance to be in a movie.

“Close-up” is both easily accessible (none of those 10-minute shots of people driving that frustrate Roger Ebert so much) and extraordinarily complex. Kiarostami cites it as his favorite of his films. I won't argue.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The trial scenes were shot in 16mm and the rest of the film in 35mm so there’s obviously some variation in image quality between the two. The courtroom footage looks a bit bleached out but that is doubtless endemic to the source print. “Close-up” was previously released by Facets on a respectable interlaced SD transfer in 2002 and it seemed perfectly serviceable at the time, but this 1080P is, as you would expect, an improvement in every way. The source print here seems to be much stronger and the restored transfer is very sharp overall with a fine grain visible in the 35mm and, obviously, a rougher grain in the 16mm scenes.
The high-def transfer is very sharp with a soft, naturalistic color palette.

Audio:
The film is presented with an LPCM Mono track. The sound design is fairly straightforward so there’s not a lot to say here seeing as how I couldn’t really tell you whether or not the Farsi dialogue is all clearly rendered, but I don't notice any distortion. The sound drops out in the final scene, but this was an intentional artistic choice by Kiarostami rather than an on-set malfunction as is claimed in the film. More layers. Kiarostami discusses this in his interview included as an extra. Optional English subtitles support the Farsi audio.

Extras:
Criterion has more than done justice to Kiarostami’s wonderful film.

First up is the commentary track by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and author/teacher/filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, both based in Chicago. Rosenbaum has long been one of Kiarostami’s most eloquent Anglophone champions. Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum co-wrote the book “Abbas Kiarostami” which was, I believe (don’t take my word for it though), the first English-language book about the director. Their expertise and their admiration for the film are readily apparent. They opt for a more contextual discussion rather than a close textual analysis though they provide both at times. I only listen to a handful of commentaries from start to finish, and this is one of them.

Next, Criterion has included “The Traveler” (1974, 73 min.), a film which according to the DVD menu text Kiarostami “considers to be his first feature.” (Kiarostami had previously released “Experience” (1973) which clocks in at 60 minutes.) The film about a boy bound and determined to go to a soccer game at any cost is actually cited by Sabzian in “Close-up” as one of his favorites: “I am the child from ‘The Traveler’ who is left behind.”

“‘Close-up’ Long Shot” (43 min.) is a fascinating follow-up documentary directed in 1996 by Mahmoud Chokrollahi. The documentary consists of a lengthy interview with Sabzian and shorter interviews with some of his neighbors. It’s quite an eye opener as Sabzian is not exactly thriving after “Close-up.” Perhaps still playing the role of Sabzian, he styles himself as a victim of the disease of cinephilia, one that has destroyed his life (Ed. Note: I hear ya, brother) while still providing it meaning and structure. This makes a strange companion piece to the creepy “Cinemania” (2002). According to Geoffrey Cheshire in the liner notes, Kiarostami was horrified when he saw this documentary. This is simply an amazing extra.

The disc also includes a 2009 interview (27 min.) with Kiarostami shot in Marrakech while the director was serving as president of the Marrakech Film festival jury. There’s a lot of great information included here that you might not find in other sources, such as the aforementioned discussion of the use of sound in the film’s final scene.

The final feature is “A Walk With Kiarostami” (31 min.) directed by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami (who also directed the 1990 documentary “Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the 1979 Revolution.”) Shot in 1991 in Galway, Ireland, the feature lives up to its title. Akrami walks with Kiarostami as the director takes a series of nature photos. The conversation is relatively general in nature (a bit superficial really), touching on photography, philosophy, etc., and it’s not as revealing as the other features here, but it’s still interesting.

The 12-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire.

Final Thoughts:
“Close-up” was a festival breakthrough both for Kiarostami and for post-revolutionary Iranian cinema which became the happening national film movement of the '90s on the international circuit. “Close-up” was too much of a surprise hit to garner major awards, but it blazed the trail for “A Taste of Cherry” to take the Palme d’Or in 1997 and also shaped international critical reception of filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and the equally great Jafar Panahi.

I wrote the bulk of this review back in 2010 when I was already dazzled by “Close-up.” In 2016, with several more years to reflect on it and re-watch it while also getting to know even more of Kiarostami's filmography, I now not only consider it the director's best film, but one of the best films I have ever seen. Jean-Luc Godard once described Robert Bresson's masterpiece “Au hasard Balthazar” (1966) as “the world in an hour-and-a-half.” The same can easily be said for “Close-up.” It certainly showcases the Kiarostami hallmarks in an hour-and-half: inventiveness, clarity of vision curiosity, and, above all, compassion.