Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Trouble the Water

TROUBLE THE WATER (Lessin and Deal, 2008)
Zeitgeist Films, DVD, Release Date Aug 25, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(An edited, updated re-post of my 2009 review of what I still consider to be the best of many fine documentaries about Hurricane Katrina.)

Nothing is real in cinema! The minute you choose what to film and not to film you are creating fiction. Editing is manipulation. Even a documentary is crafted into a narrative form so it’s really fiction.

None of that is entirely wrong, but it entirely misses the point.

For all the critical and theoretical hand-wringing about the difference between truth and fiction in cinema, and the possible lack thereof, the power of many (not all) documentaries stems quite simply from the fact that they refer to real events. However manipulated it might be, documentary cinema carries a specific power that fiction only occasionally achieves. Bill Nichols calls it the indexical whammy, the recognition by the viewer that the sounds and images in the movie “really happened.”

This whammy powers the core of “Trouble the Water” (2008), one of the most emotionally wrenching documentaries I have ever seen. Though the film is directed by the team of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the most mesmerizing footage is that taken by New Orleans 9th Ward resident and aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Roberts turns on her video camera in the days ahead of Hurricane Katrina to tell the “real story” as she and her neighbors hunker down in advance of the storm.

For viewers today, the early scenes are filled with the dread of knowing what’s coming. Roberts and her husband Scott don’t take things lightly, but even with TV warnings they can’t possibly know that the levees are about to be breached. After all, George W. Bush said there was no way to anticipate it (despite multiple warnings from engineers over the years.) It’s hard not to notice that, even before Katrina hits, Roberts' neighborhood already looks like it’s been partially abandoned though video taken two weeks later shows that things really could get worse, a lot worse.

The footage Roberts shoots during the storm is extraordinary and these scenes are more harrowing than virtually anything a feature film can produce. There’s the indexical whammy again. Replicate these exact images in a fictional context and you have another generic disaster movie; knowing that they're real lends them a unique and enduring power. The water builds and builds, forcing Kimberly and Scott retreat to ever higher ground until they finally share an attic with several other residents. Kimberly projects an optimistic spirit even as they huddle together: I got food and beaucoup water, just help yourself!

“Help yourself” is the operative phrase for anyone left behind because, as we all know by now, neither the federal nor local government was about to ride in on Mike Brown’s Arabian horses to save the day. In an absolutely riveting video sequence, Roberts' neighbor Larry literally comes floating by on a punching bag which he uses as a flotation device to take people one by one to safer ground as he swims through water that swells above the stop sign on the corner. Lessin and Deal deliver the final heartbreaking touch by following up the scene with several recorded 911 calls: “The police are not coming out until the weather gets better.”

And they’re not coming out next week or the week after that. Amazingly, when Deal and Lessin revisit the 9th Ward a year later it looks little changed from one week after Katrina. Any anger we feel about the lack of federal and local response during the storm is only amplified in the following months as Kimberley and Scott, like thousands of other Katrina survivors, are stymied at nearly every turn as they seek help. Still they soldier on.

“Trouble the Water” isn’t just a cry against the impotence of a government that failed in its most basic responsibility, but also an affirmation of the power of self-actualization. People like Kimberly and Larry and others come together in a time of need and survive because of their fortitude and cooperation. And the following weeks and months provide even more opportunity for them to use the experience to grow and re-focus their lives, each with varying degrees of success. Not that anyone (rational) watching this movie will ever think of Katrina as a “good thing.”

Kimberly Roberts (AKA Black Kold Madina) is an amazing subject, so it’s only appropriate that the film’s non-Katrina centerpiece is when she performs her rap song “Amazing.” “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m amazing. Come on and take a look and know that I’m amazing.” I cannot remember the last time I was left so slack-jawed by a musical performance.

Come on and take a look at “Trouble the Water” and you won’t need me to tell you that it’s amazing. And it really happened. Whammy.

The documentary is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer from Zeitgeist Films. The film mixes Kim’s footage with footage taken by Deal and Lessin as well as media clips from the various news channels covering Katrina, so the image quality varies. Roberts' video footage is pretty soft and it’s tough to get a really nice looking still frame from it but I think she can be forgiven for shooting under trying conditions. Lessin and Deal’s footage is crisp and often beautiful even when surveying the damage left behind in a city that still hasn’t been rebuilt.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are offered to support the English audio. Forced subtitles are included for some of the dialogue that’s difficult to make out during the storm.

Zeitgeist has included a handful of interesting extras.

Four deleted scenes are included (actually two extended scenes and two new ones), total 18 minutes running time.

The DVD also includes a Q&A from the 2009 Roger Ebert Film Festival (23 min.) with a panel discussion featuring Deal, Lessin, and Kimberly and Scott Roberts and moderated by Richard Roeper.

Also there is a Q&A from the August 2008 New Orleans premiere of the documentary (14 min.)

The final feature shows Kimberley’s meeting with Mayor Ray Nagin at the Democratic National Convention (3 min.) It is identified as being August 27, 2009 but my hunch is that it was really in 2008.

The DVD also includes a Theatrical Trailer.

Final Thoughts:
“Trouble the Water” is one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. If you don’t find yourself moved by this direct kick in the gut then there’s something very wrong with you.

The DVD is being released on August 25, 2009 only a few days from the fourth anniversary of the Katrina disaster. Update on 8/30/15: And ten years after Katrina, the movie is every bit as potent.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Immortal Story

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 30, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

If “The Immortal Story” (1968) has often gone overlooked in Orson Welles's filmography, it's easy to understand why. His first color feature is certainly not his best work and it's easily eclipsed by twin masterpieces surrounding it: “Chimes at Midnight” (1965) and “F For Fake” (1973).

While both of those films display Welles at his most stylistically audacious, “The Immortal Story” finds Welles in a more sedate mood, content to showcase his performers and the soft lighting of cinematographer Willy Kurant with only the occasional editing flourishes. Perhaps Welles felt obliged to be as faithful as possible to the source short story by his 20th-century idol Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Danish author Karen Blixen. Welles identified closely with the iconoclastic baroness and spent a significant portion of his career planning to adapt several of her works; “The Immortal Story” would be the only completed feature. Then again, Welles venerated Shakespeare too and had no problem transforming the Bard's work into pure Wellesian prestidigitation, so perhaps the director simply felt a more minimalist style appropriate to this particular material, or maybe he was influenced by the fact that “The Immortal Story” was planned for release on French televison.

Welles portrays Mr. Clay, an aging financier who has had little time in his life for anything but business: not friends, not lovers, not a family, not even hobbies as he counts out his dwindling days in late-19th-century Macao. Caked with makeup to add a few decades, the hefty Welles works his massive frame and his sweaty jowls tat droop as much as his fake mustache to great effect, embodying a man who looks exhausted even by sitting in a chair in his lonely mansion, much of which was filmed in Welles's own estate near Madrid. It's almost like Welles had previous experience playing much older business tycoons who find themselves alone with their worldly belongings.

Clay's only companion is bookkeeper Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio), charged with entertaining his boss by reading to him from the company's account books. One sleepless night, the gout-ridden Clay startles Levinsky by asking him to read something fresh, prompting the clerk to recite a verse from the book of Isaiah. Clay bellows that he has no use for prophecy, and can't understand why anyone would waste their time recording events that hadn't really happened.

Bored and restless, Clay rambles on about one story he knows, perhaps the only story he knows, a tale of a wealthy old man who hires a young sailor to impregnate his wife in order to produce an heir for his fortunes. Levinsky notes that everyone has heard this particular legend, but the dictatorial Clay decides he wants to transform this legend into reality for himself because otherwise it would indeed just be... a story. Clay is not dissuaded by the fact that he doesn't even have a wife, trusting that his money will buy him all the control that he needs.

Dinesen's premise explored the unpredictable nature of storytelling, a subject near and dear to Welles's heart. Clay's money makes people listen, but each of his players has their own agenda, including his trusted employee. The prospective wife Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) accedes in part because of the cold hard cash, but also because Clay lives in her childhood home, one he wrested from her father, the former business partner Clay callously betrayed. Peroxide blond sailor Paul (newcomer Norman Eshley) indicates from the start that he won't comply meekly, refusing to accept a ride in Clay's carriage, preferring to run just behind on his own. If Paul and Virginie consummate the deal, it will be mostly for their own reasons, not Clay's egotistical scheme.

Like many great artists, Welles preferred to control as many aspects of production as he could, but unlike Dinesen, merely taking pen to paper (or dictating to her assistant), the director had to rely on many other people to complete his work. It's easy enough to read the film as an expression of both the challenges and rewards of working with actors and crew: they don't always do what they're told, but sometimes that intransigence produces a pleasant surprise. It's equally tempting to see a reflection of Welles's constant struggles to secure financing for his many ambitions; the last few decades of his career, mostly spent in Europe, were marked by projects that had to be abandoned when questionable backers failed to deliver on promises. Perhaps Welles took pleasure in depicting Clay's ample resources as insufficient to guarantee him the ability to tug on all the puppet strings.

The film feels as if it's suspended in time, unfolding slowly in its own pocket universe, the various characters never really all quite together. After all, each considers themselves the main character in the story. Willy Kurant's soft lighting and unobtrusive hand-held camerawork suffuses the film with a quiet melancholy. This effect is underscored by the film's exquisite sound design, a symphony of chirping crickets and gentle piano music from Erik Satie.

Despite the languid pace, the film ends in less than an hour, and one suspects that the various players in this psychodrama will look back on it all and wonder if it really happened.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is sourced from a recent restoration “undertaken in 2K resolution at Eclair/Groupe Ymagis by Gaumont, with the support of the CNC.” This 1080p transfer doesn't blow you away with rich colors or razor-sharp image quality like some top-end Criterion transfers, but it looks really great here in an unassuming way. Interiors showcase Kurant's delicate lighting scheme with exteriors looking brighter and more vibrant than Clay's sad little home. A very soft grain structure enhances the look.

The LPCM mono audio is crisp if rather flat. Dialogue was dubbed in post-production but doesn't have the tinny, disembodied quality that, say, many Italian films of this era do. The film's audio design is brilliant but subtle, and this lossless sound highlights both the gentle Satie music and the equally gentle music of the chirping crickets. Optional English subtitles support the audio in both the English and French-language versions.

The viewer's first choice is between the film's English-language version (58 min.) and the French-language version (50 min.) Dialogue for both was dubbed, and each is an equally “correct” version.

The English version is accompanied an optional commentary track, recorded in 2009 by the great film critic Adrian Martin. Martin is one of my favorite film scholars, and it's not surprising that his commentary is top-notch. I was, however, surprised by his claim that “The Immortal Story” has proven to be a greatly influential film, helping to shape movies such as Kubrick's “Barry Lyndon,” Scorsese's “The Age Of Innocence” and many films by Raul Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira. While the similarities are clear, I don't think of “The Immortal Story” as the first film to adopt such a style, but I trust Martin's expertise in the matter and will delve more deeply into the subject in the near future.

The main extra on the disc is a lively documentary about Orson Welles (1968, 43 min.) directed by Francois Reichenbach and Frederic Rossif. This digressive, aggressive documentary is equal parts irritating and fascinating, and after my early annoyance with it, I found myself drawn in completely. It's a bizarrely structured and edited love letter to Welles, more as a great raconteur than as a great filmmaker. We're treated to about three minutes of Welles explaining his secret to mixing the perfect salad, and darned if it isn't engaging. He tells an array of great stories. One of my favorites is his mockery of Winston Churchill's fondness for “lowbrow” movies – Welles's examples is “That Hamilton Woman” (a Criterion Collection entry, by the way) which he describes as “an awful film” that made Churchill cry every time. At one point, Welles promises that his “Don Quixote” project is just a few weeks from completion. Anyway, this is great.

The disc also includes interviews with cinematographer Willy Kurant (2004, 15 min.) and actor Norman Eshley (2016, 14 min.) Eshley talks about receiving a call for a mysterious audition that suddenly resulted in his first film role being directed by Orson Welles and mostly involving being in bed with Jeanne Moreau. Nice work if you can get it. He also tells a stunning story about an offer Welles made to him... I'll let you discover that for yourself.

We also get an interview with Welles scholar Francois Thomas (2016, 25 min.) who provides details about the film's production for the television channel France 2 and the ways in which Welles slyly steered the production to his home near Madrid.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum and Martin in the same Criterion volume – Movie Mutants unite!

Final Thoughts:
The late “European phase” of Welles's career was marked by a series of projects abandoned at various stages of production because of unreliable funding. “The Immortal Story” is one of the few features completed during this time, and teases us with a glimpse of the many films that might have been. As far as I know, this is the film's first high-def release in North America and it's a very good one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ten Of My Favorite Pictures of the 21st Century


I loved the dog.

What is myrrh anyway?


 Many wagons fail to make it all the way to Oregon.

I loved the horse.

A colossal actor.


Of course, this is just one take.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Woman In The Dunes

WOMAN IN THE DUNES (Teshigahara, 1964)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 23, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

From extreme closeups of individual grains of sand to intimate surveys of scarred flesh, Hiroshi Teshigahara's “Woman In The Dunes” (1964) is a film of closely-observed textures. The sinuously shifting dunes of the title ripple across the entire screen; later the stubble on a man's chin will fill the frame in a similar repeating pattern. It comes as little surprise to learn that Teshigahara was trained as a painter and a potter.

Cuts that link landscape to bodies emphasize the status of both as sculpted objects, objects to be shaped and controlled, before the story even kicks into gear to underscore the impression. A man (Eiji Okada, of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” fame) trudges through a coastal desert in rural Japan, seeking his own objects to collect. He's in hot pursuit of exotic insects, namely a tiger beetle whose discovery could help make him famous, if only in the smallest way, but in a bigger way than he can currently claim as a teacher in Tokyo.

He stops at the brink of a sandy pit and is shocked to discover a ramshackle hut at the bottom. He casually snaps a picture as a local villager inquires about his business in the area. Relieved to discover that the man is not a government inspector, the villager kindly offers him a place to stay for the evening. Our man is only mildly surprised when said offer involves descending a rope ladder into the pit where he shares dinner with the woman (Kyoko Kishida) who lives there alone. The viewer, having heard the jangling, dissonant music by Toru Takemitsu, is already suspicious. By the time our man innocently reminds the increasingly friendly woman that he is “only staying for the night” it doesn't take much guesswork to sense trouble looming.

By the next morning, the amateur entomologist realizes he is the latest specimen collected by the locals, and soon learns he has been downgraded from teacher to “helper” to the woman whose job is to shovel sand for the villagers to sell to shady construction firms. He resists as long as he can, but his captors hold all the cards, as well as all the water. The woman is happy to have company and is genuinely puzzled by the man's desperate efforts to cling to this strange concept called free will. She shovels sand. That's her job and this is her home. What else would she do? Without the sand, nobody would pay even a modicum of attention to her.

Sand dominates their world. Sand tumbles down the edges of the pit and piles up so quickly every night they must shovel just to keep the hut from being swallowed whole. Sand eats through the wood. Sand contaminates the food, the water. Sand scrapes flesh raw, and if the man ever escapes the sand pit all he has to look forward to is running across miles and miles of sand. And so they shovel sand so they can live another day to shovel sand. If you're thinking about the myth of Sisyphus so was writer Kobo Abe whose avant-garde novel was the film's source, with Abe also writing the screenplay.

With its stripped-down location (most of the film takes place in or near the hut at the bottom of the pit), its stark black-and-white photography, and its minimalist approach to characterization, the film lends itself to multiple allegorical interpretations and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of graduate theses. Indulge in your favorite take, but don't forget to appreciate the film for its textual and sensual qualities.

From the hard slashing opening credits with clanging sounds of city traffic to the first image of a sand grain filmed in unrecognizable close-up to the merciless shots of insects turning helpless circles on the desert floor, “Woman In the Dunes” pulls viewers inexorably into its sweaty, dangerous, desolate world with all the force of the quicksand that threatens to engulf unwary travelers in the film. Toru Takemitsu's unnerving percussive score completes the queasy spell. Sand, flesh, heat, night. Basic elements that add up to an indelible experience that has rattled viewers for more than half a century.

Criterion's 2007 DVD release of “Woman In the Dunes” (as part of a three film Teshigahara set) was strong in its own right, but this 1.33:1 1080p transfer is a significant improvement even on that. Hiroshi Segawa's harsh black-and-white photography covers days and nights in the desert; both the bright, blown-out shots and the inky night scenes look equally strong in this rich, grainy transfer. And even the most blown-out scenes still look good in motion – the man racing across the sun-scorched desert, for example. Image detail is strong through-out, and if ever there was a film where you needed the resolution to pick out grains of sand...

The linear PCM mono audio mix really showcases the film's audacious sound design, from the cacophony of traffic and city sounds over the opening credits to the eerie almost-silences of night in the desert. Just as important, Toru Takemitsu's sensational score (an all-time great, surely) is treated very well by this lossless audio. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Criterion previously released “Woman In the Dunes” in 2007 on DVD as part of a 3-film Teshigahara boxed set which also included “Pitfall” (1962) and “The Face of Another” (1966). A fourth disc included the majority of the supplements, all of which have been included on this Blu-ray release of “Woman” except for the trailers for the other two films. There are no new features exclusive to this 2016 re-release.

A video essay by critic James Quandt (2007, 29 min.) provides Quandt a chance to survey various interpretations of the film and reject several. Quandt's video essays are always top-notch and this one is no exception.

A documentary (2006, 35 min.) discusses the collaboration of Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe and includes interviews with critics Tadao Sato, Donald Richie, and Richard Pena.

The disc also includes four of Teshigahara's short films. “Hakusai” (1953, 23 min.) is a documentary about a well-known wood block artist. “Ikehana” (1956, 32 min.) touches on the subject of a school of flower arranging. “Tokyo 1958” (1958, 24 min.) is an impressionistic city symphony portrait of the title city. “Ako” (1965, 24 min.) is the director's segment of an omnibus film.

The disc also includes the original Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and an interview with Teshigahara conducted by Max Tessier, both of which were included with the insert booklet from the 2007 boxed set.

Final Thoughts:
“Woman In The Dunes” was an art-house smash in 1964, solidifying Teshigahara as a star on the international circuit and also earning the director a Jury Prize at Cannes. Surprisingly, this challenging film netted multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film and a Best Director nod for Teshigahara. Alas, Teshigahara's work on“Woman In The Dunes” was not deemed as artistic as Robert Wise's contribution to “The Sound of Music.”