Saturday, October 29, 2016

Baby Peggy: The Elephant In The Room


BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (Iwerobor, 2012)
Milestone Films, DVD, Release Date Nov 5, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This fascinating portrait of one of Hollywood's great silent stars didn't get nearly enough play. I had a blast consuming this entire Milestone DVD, from the main documentary to all the Baby Peggy films includes as extras. Diana Serra Cary, the former Baby Peggy, turns 98 today, which makes this a great time to re-post my review and help film fans celebrate an impressive woman. And I strongly recommend this great DVD package, one of my favorite releases of the decade.)

Potty training is enough of a responsibility for most toddlers. Just imagine the burden when you're also your family's sole bread-winner.

Baby Peggy coasted for her first year, at least if you consider spending your days and nights in a tent in Yosemite National Park the life of Riley. But after Baby's daddy Jack uprooted the family so he could play cowboy (as a stunt double for Tom Mix and others) in Hollywood, she learned that she was going to have to earn her daily bottle. Peggy-Jean Montgomery was discovered in 1920 by director Fred Fishback and the 19-month old was put to work as a co-star with Brownie the Wonder Dog. After poor little Brownie proved too gentle for this wicked world, Peggy was forced to strike out on her own. She struck gold.

Baby Peggy became one of Hollywood's hottest commodities, shooting 56 comedy shorts over three years' worth of full work weeks. Peggy's precious reaction shots, surprisingly adroit stunt work, and ability to imitate stars like Pola Negri, Mae Murray, and Rudolph Valentino made her America's littlest sweetheart. The studio, along with her controlling father and banker grandfather, developed Baby Peggy into a major property with a line of merchandise covering the range from dolls to jewelry to underwear. She even shared the stage with FDR at the 1924 Democratic Convention. Or maybe FDR shared the stage with her.

By the age of five, Peggy had socked away over a million bucks in a time when that wasn't a hedge fund manager's pocket change, and she was promoted to feature-length films as a contender to the now rapidly aging child star Jackie Coogan (stretching his shelf life as a doddering ten year old). Unfortunately it wasn't enough for papa Jack whose feud with a producer not only broke her multi-million dollar contract but allegedly got her blacklisted for life. The grandfather billed as a banker turned out to be more of a bankster and absconded with all of the funds of the Baby Peggy Corporation, leaving the Montgomerys almost destitute.

Ever the consummate show biz professional, Peggy dusted herself off and shuffled off to vaudeville, logging even longer work weeks on the stage over the next several years, traveling the country on an endless tour. Several years of sweat equity bulged the family coffers to over $650,000 after which dad promptly lost every penny. Just north of ten years old, Peggy-Jean Montgomery had earned two fortunes and lost them both to incompetent relatives. She was ready for her next fresh start.

Dutch filmmaker Vera Iwerebor was a little girl herself when she first saw a postcard of Baby Peggy, and the image fascinated her enough to eventually write a fan letter to Peggy Montgomery. The response came from a woman named Diana Serra Cary, already a suggestion of an interesting story to be told. The two became friends, enabling Iwerebor to learn the rest of the tale and ultimately to share it with the world in this thoroughly entertaining documentary, “Baby Peggy: The Elephant In The Room” (2011).

The Montgomery family returned hat-in-hand to Hollywood where they worked as extras, but vague promises of future speaking roles never materialized for the former superstar. Peggy eventually left the family, finding love and religion while forging an entirely new identity as Diana Serra (the first name from a favorite actress, the last name from Franciscan friar Junipero Serra). She ran a bookstore, founded a greeting card company (conveniently marrying artist Bob Cary to help with the venture), and wrote several books on film history, mostly chronicling the biographies of child stars from Jackie Coogan to, of course, Baby Peggy. Not bad for a woman who received almost no formal education because she was working full time while still in diapers.

A good chunk of the documentary consists of footage shot over several days around Mrs. Cary's 90th birthday in 2008. In some of the most effective passages, she explains to her granddaughter Stephanie that she never had much of a childhood. She remains unfamiliar with most kids' games (Stephanie had to explain the concept of hopscotch) and admits that she quickly grew to resent Baby Peggy, a personality she considered distinct from herself, even staging a ceremonial burial for her infant alter ego. But several decades later, she became curious about what was left of the child star's legacy and has even grown fond of her once again now that several of the shorts (about 12 of the 56) have been rediscovered and have recently played to appreciative audiences.

Iwerebor must have had a difficult time winnowing this film down to its trim 54 minute running time. Both Baby Peggy and the adult Diana Serra Cary are remarkable ladies who deserve their own projects. The documentary benefits greatly by playing off their distinct charms; Baby Peggy beaming precociously from another century, and Mrs. Cary speaking so eloquently today. It might have been a sad film if the two couldn't be friends, but now that they seem to have reconciled we're left with an inspiring portrait of a great and no longer forgotten Hollywood star.

The documentary is narrated by actor Simon West, and the narration is co-written by Mrs. Cary.




Video:
The film is presented in 16:9. The new footage shot by Iwerebor looks just fine in standard definition; it's almost exclusively interviews or material recorded at a silent film festival. The silent film clips obviously vary greatly in quality as well as in aspect ratio, but none are so hopelessly damaged that they interfere with viewing.

Audio:
All of the dialogue is clearly recorded and, obviously, there are no audio concerns regarding any of the film clips. No subtitles are provided.

Extras:
Milestone never fails to deliver great DVD packages. While they didn't call in any film scholars to chip in with the project, they have included the most important supplemental material: Baby Peggy films. As mentioned above, only about a dozen of the 56 Peggy shorts are currently known to exist and most were found in European film archives. Three of them have been included here and they're really a blast.

“Carmen, Jr.” (1923, 11 min.) casts Peggy as a fiery senorita who embarks on “a Latin love adventure” which mostly involves dancing until she gets dizzy and taking the ring as a brave toreador taming a man in a cheap bull suit.

“Peg O' the Mounted” (1924, 12 min.) moves Peggy north to Canada where she rescues a Mountie and tracks down a band of moonshiners. She even rides a tiny horse in this one.

“Such Is Life” (1924, 17 min.) isn't quite the same escapist fare. Peggy is found homeless in the snow, but the plucky little bugger dives right into a career as a match girl and saves another child from a fire.

There are obviously a few shots or scenes missing from some of the shorts, producing a few abrupt jumps in the storyline, but overall they look fairly good, or at least as good as anyone could reasonably expect from films that could easily have been lost forever.

Peggy's brief sojourn into full-length filmmaking is also represented with the only feature that survives intact. “Captain January” (1924, 58 min, directed by former Keystone Cop Edward F. Cline) situates Peggy as the title character who washed ashore during a storm and was unofficially adopted by aging Maine lighthouse keeper Jeremiah Judkins (Hobart Bosworth). I was really caught off-guard by this moving story. Daddy Judkins is asked to give up his li'l Cap'n for her own good, and the tug on the heartstrings is undeniable. Peggy tends to her menagerie of pets (including a stork named Hamlet who gets renamed Ophelia after laying an egg) but is caught off-guard by a parrot who squawks “Go To H---!” in one of the more unexpected shots I've ever seen in a silent film.

Watching the movies, I was struck by the notion that they provide evidence that those primitive audience from long ago liked to spend their free time watching kids and pets do funny things. Peggy's charm is undeniable as well, and it's easy to see how she won over the hearts of so many viewers. I'd happily watch more if they were ever released.

The shorts are accompanied by scores performed by Guenter Buchwald. "Captain January" has a score by Donald Sosin with vocals by Joanna Seaton.

Final Thoughts:
“Baby Peggy: The Elephant In the Room” succeeds both as a record of a film history seldom told, and as a portrait of a remarkable woman. The journey from Baby Peggy to Diana Serra Cary is a story of determination and constant reinvention, and director Vera Iwerebor has captured it all vividly. Milestone's handsomely produced DVD includes three Baby Peggy shorts and a Baby Peggy feature that fill out the story and would be worth a purchase all by themselves. As mere “extras,” they sweeten the pot considerably, making this one of the most enjoyable DVD releases of the year.

For more information, check out the link at Milestone's site. You can also find more information under the Press section linked at the top of their page.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

McCabe & Mrs Miller


MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Altman, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 11, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) slowly builds up its world and its characters layer by layer, the better to tear everything down.

When fur-swaddled John McCabe (Warren Beatty) first rides his horse into the Pacific northwest frontier town of Presbyterian Church, he arrives as a barely noticed stranger. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge into the equally rickety wooden town, he enters a decrepit saloon, its cramped interior space shrouded in dusky gloom and, no doubt, pungent with the aroma of its unwashed clientele.

As the newcomer gladhands his way into a low-rent poker game, the saloon customers, only partially visible in the murk, whisper up a gossipy storm: “Is he wearing a gun?... Swedish gun.” Soon, saloon owner Sheehan (the always fabulous Rene Auberjonois) is racing through the gin joint like a town crier, announcing the stranger as “Pudgy” McCabe, a deadly gunfighter who's “got a big rep... a big rep.” Bit by bit, a Western legend is built.

In an uncharacteristically wise move, McCabe declines to confirm or deny the rumors, leveraging his “big rep” into the self-declared position of big man in town, peddling bargain-priced prostitutes to the town's lonely, grubby miners. The big man, however, is no match for the big woman. After a steam engine ushers Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) into town, everyone's plans change. The Cockney entrepreneur, an expert on managing classy whorehouses and a fancy five dollar hooker in her own right, sweeps the shiftless McCabe up in her wake, and soon has the entire unkempt populace bathing regularly for the privilege of patronizing her prestigious establishment, now only nominally fronted by McCabe, who is lucky and (mostly) happy just to be along for the ride.

Director Robert Altman loved to turn his actors loose, and some of his best films often feel like documentaries about actors conducting “business,” the gradual accretion of their various tics and idiosyncrasies defining their characters more than any role they play in an amorphous plot that rarely matters much. The weaselly Sheehan, Shelley Duvall's mail order bride, and Keith Carradine's affable greenhorn cowboy just drop in from time to time, emerging as distinct presences primarily from a series of glances, mumbled lines, or, in Carradine's case, a ratty, stretched-out pair of long johns. Eventually we have a growing town full of snifflers, belchers, mutterers, and beard scratchers negotiating the turn-of-century transition from Wild West to proto-civilization.


Altman builds the town of Presbyterian Church nail by nail too. Shooting mostly in sequence, Altman incorporates his construction crews, dressed in period costumes, into many scenes as they actually build the set on location near Vancouver, as the town transforms from mud puddle to respectable tourist attraction, if not quite a glittering metropolis. Nothing in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” could really glitter anyway. Altman asked ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to degrade the image by partially exposing the negative before shooting, adding a weird antique patina that is simultaneously grubby and beautiful, all in gloriously dull color.

Still more layering. Altman recorded each speaking part on a separate track, giving him the opportunity to isolate vocals in scenes that include multiple simultaneous speakers, dialing them up or down as desired. The technique renders much of the dialogue barely intelligible, a quality that drove some audiences, critics, and Warren Beatty to distraction. Watching the film at home with subtitles transforms the experience so much, it simply has to count as cheating, but who can resist?

Layered on top of the endlessly overlapping dialogue is the ubiquitous use of several songs by Leonard Cohen, another make-or-break feature for audiences. What initially might sound incongruous to the setting soon becomes indispensable, with Cohen tracks like “The Stranger Song” (coded to McCabe) and “Sisters of Mercy” (coded to the most of the prostitutes) so tightly interwoven into the fabric of the film, it's hard to imagine the movie without them, and almost as hard to believe Altman only decided to use the Cohen music during post-production, dropping the surprise on most of his cast at the first screening.

If the film isn't particularly plot-centric and spends most of its creative energy on demythologizing the West and the Western hero, it still adheres in broad structure to some of the genre's classical elements. McCabe's posturing works on small timers, but he soon finds himself outclassed by corporate thugs who intend to take over his business by any means necessary. The audience has long since figured out that the deadly gunfighter is neither deadly nor much of a gunfighter, but the film still ends in one of the more spectacular shootouts in any Western film, a protracted, snow-covered spectacle that crisscrosses the entire town, and consumes the final twenty minutes. Zsigmond works magic, exploiting the edges of the 2.40:1 widescreen frame with sharp movements, long shots framing tiny figures against a vast landscape, and strategic use of the zoom lens. Few snow scenes have ever felt so darn snowy. Any bodies won't be found until winter thaws, which will be never, since the film ends.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

Because the film's negative was intentionally exposed to light (a process sometimes called “flashing”) to degrade the image, any video presentation can be a challenge (the Blu-ray release was delayed by a few months to continue to work on the transfer), and any release is guaranteed to generate a debate from experts, some legitimate and some self-styled, who are certain they know what the original release was supposed to look like. I can't attest to any of that, since the film hit theaters before I hit the world, but I know that this transfer looks very strong, and at least feels authentic. There are very dark shots where you'll be frustrated by how little you can see, surely as Altman and Zsigmond intended. And the movie looks suitably muddy and grainy throughout. Is it an exact reproduction of the original? Zsigmond died at the start of 2016, but participated in this transfer which is credited as “timed by Vilmos Zsigmond.”

I suspect you're going to be happy with this rich high-def transfer, and if you're not, you're unlikely to be please with ANY transfer.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio mix is crisp and sounds like it's up to a difficult task. Altman's sound tracks are as complex as anybody's, and I'm sure it's a nightmare to replicate everything exactly. Usually I can say that Criterion audio mixes offer no audio drop off. That's not the case here, but when it drops off, or at least gets somewhat unintelligible, that's because it's supposed to. Even if Warren Beatty couldn't stand it. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and most people will need the support.

Extras:
Criterion has absolutely packed this release with extras.

The film is accompanied by a 2002 commentary track with Robert Altman and producer David Foster.

The lengthiest extra is titled “Way Out On A Limb” (2016, 54 min.), a collection of interviews with casting director Graeme Clifford, writer Joan Tewkesbury, and actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy. The feature jumps back and forth among the subjects, providing perspective from both cast and crew. Carradine clearly still appreciates Altman taking a chance on a teenage neophyte, and Auberjonois obviously loved working with him too. They also single out set designer Leon Ericksen for kudos (see more below).

The disc also includes a new interview (2016, 36 min.) with film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, who debate whether or not the film should properly be called an “anti-Western” and also discuss Altman's feelings about the genre (he wasn't a fan, perhaps because of his unsatisfying work on so many TV Westerns, including “Bonanza.”)

We also get a short feature (11 min.) that mixes two interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, from 2005 and 2008. He talks about exposing the negative on purpose and also the challenges in preparing for a film where the director didn't always know what he'd be shooting the next day.

Set designer Leon Ericksen is spotlighted in an excerpt from a 1999 Art Directors Guild Film Society event in Los Angeles. Appearing in front of his peers, Ericksen is hailed as a rock star in this 37-minute video.

A promotional “Behind The Scenes” featurette (1970, 9 min.) covers the location shooting Vancouver.

Criterion has also included two excerpts from “The Dick Cavett Show.” Cinephiles will particularly enjoy the July 6, 1971 (10 min.) excerpt in which critic Pauline Kael takes the opportunity to enthusiastically defend the film against poor reviews from early critics like Rona Barrett and Rex Reed. She predicts that the movie, about to be rushed out of theaters, will be widely hailed down the road, so good call there. An Aug 16, 1971 excerpt (12 min.) sees Altman explaining some problems with the audio in the film's first critical screening.

The “Steve Schapiro Art Gallery” offers 28 stills from the set photographer.

An original Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) wraps up the collection

The slim fold-out insert booklet fetures an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

Final Thoughts:
This revisionist Western has just about everything, but I have to be honest. It had me at Leonard Cohen. Criterion's Blu-ray release has just about everything too, except any participation from the film's stars in the extras. I can live without that, but it would have been fun to hear the words “Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall” at some point.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Executioner


THE EXECUTIONER (Berlanga, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 25, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

This tender, heart-warming tale begins with a wizened, stoop-shouldered old man who has just killed for the last time, and ends with his awkward, greenhorn son-in-law who follows in his footsteps to work that trusty garotte for the first time. I dare you not to cry. It's the circle of death, and it moves us all. C'mon, everybody sing!

Director Luis Garcia Berlanga is so venerated in Spain that his name appears on street signs and buildings in his birthplace of Valencia. Spanish cinephiles often rank him alongside Luis Bunuel among the nation's greatest filmmakers, but his movies have received relatively minimal distribution internationally. “The Executioner” (1963) is the first Berlanga film I've seen and I have to admit the only other ones I'd heard of before, even in passing, are “Welcome, Mr. Marshall” (1952) and “Placido” (1961). Perhaps it's worth noting that in the 2012 “Sight & Sound” poll, six voters named “The Executioner” one of their top ten films of all time, four of whom are listed in the voting results as being from Spain, one from Mexico, and one from Uruguay.

On one of the extras on this Criterion release, Pedro Almodovar attributes Berlanga's relative lack of international distribution to the director's penchant for overflowing verbiage; his characters talk all the time and often at the same time as each other, and perhaps subtitles can't quite reproduce the experience for non-Hispanophone audiences. I don't know enough about Berlanga's oeuvre to evaluate that assessment. Surely there are other talky directors who have thrived around the globe (Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer) so perhaps there's a more contingent explanation: maybe his films simply weren't marketed effectively enough or at the right time and wound up being eclipsed by better publicized directors. Perhaps, maybe – indisputably, I should leave this matter to someone who knows more about Berlanga.

There's surely no reason “The Executioner” couldn't be enjoyed by audiences anywhere. In this satirical film, co-written by Berlanga, his long-time collaborator Rafael Azcona, and Italian veteran Ennio Flaiano, young undertaker Jose Luis (Nino Manfredi) strikes up a friendship with aging state executioner Amadeo (Jose Isbert), eventually marrying Amadeo's daughter, Carmen (Emma Penella), at more or less (ahem) the same time he gets her pregnant.

The screenplay, which traffics in a familiar brand of Kafka-esque bureaucratic horror, frequently juxtaposes the grotesque with the humdrum quotidian. A bored police officer slurps his lukewarm soup while sad-eyed Amadeo collects his pay for his just-finished execution. Jose Luis talks to his co-worker about making a phone call while the two of them guide a coffin across an airport tarmac with a line of black-clad mourners wailing behind them. At a family picnic, Amadeo, always eager to share his war stories, quite happily demonstrates proper garroting technique with a rolled-up newspaper.


The quiet gallows humor forms the gruesome basis for Berlanga's examination of the staggering price of assimilation. In order to secure a major upgrade in government housing, the affable but cowardly Jose Luis reluctantly agrees to follow Amadeo's example and apply for a job as executioner himself (he fills out the paperwork while licking a strawberry ice cream cone), plowing through layers of red tape to secure a position he doesn't even want. The film argues that he has little choice, or is at least very strongly incentivized to pursue his new career, in a tightly-regulated society ruled by a methodical logic. You've got to pay your way, and in Jose Luis's case the math is elementary: bring a life into the world, and the only way to balance the ledger is to take one. I feel like we're asked to overlook the fact that Jose Luis could maintain his personal sense of dignity by settling for more modest accommodations, but let's just go along with the premise.

Berlanga plays most of the film in a sunny tone, focusing on the budding romance and the comfort of domestic space, with the specter of death (i.e., state-sanctioned murder) looming off-stage. Even when newly-minted executioner Jose Luis, who reads the crime section with dread each day, finally gets his first assignment, the family treats it as an opportunity for the honeymoon they never had, as husband, wife, child, and father-in-law bask in the warm glow of sunny Majorca until Jose Luis is finally dragged (almost literally) to work. The light comic tone makes the final sequence all the more chilling, when Jose Luis does everything he can to stall and weasel his way out of the job, praying for a last-minute pardon or illness to take him off the hook. The extended, nerve-racking sequence culminates in a brilliant shot in a vast white room where it is the blubbering executioner, not the condemned prisoner or his bereft family, who collapses on his way to the death chamber and must be consoled by both priest and police.

“The Executioner” became a political hot potato in Francoist Spain after somehow initially slipping past censors; the film was allowed to play (with some official protest) at the Venice Film Festival where it netted the FIPRSECI prize, but drew criticism later, with Franco calling Berlanga “a bad Spaniard.” Some leftists also critiqued the film as an apologia for Franco, which seems like an inexplicable interpretation today, but maybe you had to be there.

The film's matter-of-fact approach to its dark subject matter may throw some viewers, but its a reminder that nothing is more absurd, or terrifying, than reality closely observed. And Berlanga sure has a keen eye for the tiniest and truest details.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion labels this as “a new digital transfer (that) was created in 4k resolution” which isn't the same thing as a restoration, but if this wasn't restored, it was certainly sourced from a well-preserved 35 mm negative. The black-and-white contrast is strong, though the film mostly takes place in brighter spaces, including the stark white of the room at the end. Image detail is strong throughout. Another top-notch 1080p transfer from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track doesn't have much depth and probably isn't meant to. It is, as is typical from Criterion, clean and crisp throughout. I think most of the dialogue is post-synched, so sometimes voices don't quite sound like they're coming from the actors, but that's fine. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio. The white subtitles are occasionally difficult to read against the brigher black-and-white shots.

Extras:
Criterion kicks off the collection of extras on this disc with a brief (4 min.) interview with director Pedro Almodovar, who labels Berlanga one of Spain's two greatest filmmakers, alongside Luis Bunuel. He argues his case enthusiastically in just a few minutes.

The main extra is a collection of interviews titled “Bad Spaniard' (2016, 56 min.) which includes interviews with the director's son Jose Luis Berlanga, critic Carlos F. Heredero, and several others. The features cuts back and forth among the subjects frequently, explaining why Berlanga is so widely admired in Spain. The director's name has become its own eponymous adjective, with Berlanga-esque representing an idiosyncratic brand of chaos. This piece details Berlanga's career from his film school days through “The Executioner” and beyond while also taking time to spotlight writer/collaborator Rafael Azcona's contributions to several of the director's key films.

“La Mitad Invisible” (28 min.) is a 2009 episode of a Spanish television series which investigates the film's influence since its release. I found the style a bit irritating, but it's worth watching.

The final extra is an original Theatrical trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic David Cairns.

Final Thoughts:
The disparity between Berlanga's reputation in Spain and abroad is a reminder that we should understand the biases in any film canon. About ten years ago, the Spanish film journal “Caiman Cuadernos de cine” conducted a poll for the best Spanish films of all time. The top two are widely known – Bunuel's “Viridiana” and Victore Erice's “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Berlanga took the next two spots with “The Executioner” and “Placido.” Now, the top three Spanish films in the poll are all in the Criterion Collection. It's a good start.



Friday, October 14, 2016

Godzilla


GODZILLA (Honda, 1954)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 24, 2012
Review by Christopher S. Long

(As the newest franchise installment, "Shin Godzilla," hits theaters - very few theaters and for a very short time - let's take some time to appreciate the glory of the movie that started it all.)

“If you ridicule our traditions, I'll feed you stupid cows to Godzilla.”

So says an old fisherman to a couple of skeptical young women who mock the local legends about a monster from the sea. And to those of you today who dare to ridicule Ishiro Honda’s elegant, timeless “Godzilla” (1954) and its man in a rubber suit sumo-stomping his way across a miniature Tokyo, I remind you that Godzilla is still hungry after all these years.

I don’t know if viewers steeped in the sterile pseudo-photorealism of modern CGI will view the original Godzilla as looking “fake” or not, but I would be surprised if any recent digital monster proves as malleable and as enduring as this great gorilla-whale (goriro + kujira = Gojira, AKA Godzilla) who created an entire sub-genre (the Japanese giant monster movie) and starred or co-starred in 30+ films of his own to date. I suspect that if Godzilla was a high-res, highly articulated creation, he wouldn’t have lent himself so readily to metaphor, initially as a stand-in for the horrors of H-bomb testing inflicted on Japan (by the U.S., though the Americans, just finished with their occupation of Japan, are not mentioned in Godzilla's debut), and in later films as an honored protector of the homeland. He would have been too much of an expressive character and less of a blank, implacable force of nature (or a mutation thereof), thus ceding most of his symbolic power.

Not that we should look at the giant rubber suit, often shot in dim lighting and from a distance, as a cheap-o shortcut. “Godzilla” was one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan, and was a massive gamble for Toho. The studio was banking on both the appeal of its new monster star and the elaborate special effects work of Eiji Tsuburaya, who combined miniatures, high-speed filming and, yes, a man in a rubber suit (a 200-pound, very expensive rubber suit) to create a unique look, both surreal and realistic. The gamble paid off massively in Japan and even more so in America (more on that below). 


Japanese audiences no doubt loved the special effects, but may have responded even more to the movie’s obvious but resonant allegorical intentions. When the two million year old Jurassic beast is awakened by H-bomb testing, he begins to attack ships, island communities, and, eventually, Tokyo. Eventually being the key. Godzilla is only glimpsed a few times before the 45-minute mark, and it’s not until nearly an hour into the film that he rains down hellfire upon the city. This creates an odd and lengthy period of waiting that would be anathema to many action filmmakers today. Though the monster is defeated, “Godzilla” is more a story of perseverance than triumph, and his terror is a shared national experience rather than an excuse for a few brave heroes to ride in to save the day, though that does ultimately occur. A populace ravaged by war, and only recently learning about the true devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (information previously suppressed by occupying forces), was hardly shocked by yet another attack from the ocean. And now a giant dinosaur’s coming to kill us all? Figures. Besides, as a professor notes, “Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?”

The answer is, of course, an Oxygen Destroyer, but enough about that. What really matters is that period of anticipation from Godzilla’s first sighting to his attack. It provides an opportunity for all of the anxieties of a rebuilding nation to bubble to the surface and eventually reach a catharsis. Godzilla’s initial attack goes almost unchecked, his destruction is widespread, and some of the images of crying and wounded children were no doubt copied from newsreel footage of the prior decade. When he returns to sea, it’s just to take a rest before he does it again, and then again. As a once-removed recreation of an atomic blast, its emotional impact can still be felt 62 years (and about 30 sequels) later.

Godzilla isn’t really a villain. He isn’t necessarily malevolent, he’s just… pissed. How would you react if an H-bomb dropped on your head while you were trying to squeeze out another million years of shut-eye? He’s a victim of the nuclear age too, and it’s no wonder that kids were happy to hug Godzilla plush toys tightly in the dark.


If I’ve ignored the human players in Honda’s game-changing epic, let me make up for it now. Though no single character emerges as a clear protagonist, the narrative centers on a partially-drawn love triangle between a salvage-ship captain named Ogata (Akira Takarada), his girlfriend Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her fiancé who hasn’t yet gotten the news that he’s no longer her fiancé, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) also plays a pivotal role in the early investigation. Serizawa is the inventor of the aforementioned Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon he had well before Godzilla loomed over the horizon, which makes for an odd narrative structure. The solution exists from the start. The dramatic tension involves Ogata and Emike convincing him to use it. Serizawa fears that even if the weapon is put to good use this time, eventually it will fall into the hands of politicians, and he isn’t sure that eliminating the immediate threat of Godzilla is worth the long-term risk.

But use it he does, setting up a climactic scene that few might expect from a giant monster movie. Godzilla sleeps underwater. Serizawa and Ogata join him on the ocean floor so they can deploy the Oxygen Destroyer in a final confrontation that turns out to be surprisingly empathetic, even lyrical. The men move slowly and quietly through the water, and our monster friend doesn’t even figure into it until a strangely beautiful shot in which Godzilla, finally detecting the men, turns his head ever so slightly. He has been woken up by yet another bomb. Figures. Godzilla’s ending isn’t quite as silent or as clinical as Frank Poole’s death in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it's subdued enough to actually be touching. Viewers accustomed to the expenditure of massive capital in a final shootout will be left confused. The Oxygen Destroyer bubbles up and… it’s over. The citizens cheer, but there’s also a poignant sense of loss. If we had just let the big lug sleep it off...

At least audiences wouldn’t have long to wait for Godzilla's return.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The source print obviously still has some flaws as there are scratches and other damage visible from time to time. Having said that, this 1080p transfer looks pretty darned good with strong contrast throughout, though the level of detail isn’t always razor sharp and the level of resolution drops most in shots featuring in-camera effects (there is a lot of compositing and matte work). Still, with the strong contrast and the pleasing grainy look, this black-and-white film looks luminous at times, and no doubt better than the majority of viewers have ever seen it.

Audio:
The LPCM Mono track can’t shake the limitations of the source material. Dialogue sounds rather tinny throughout, though that’s unlikely to matter to non-Japanese speakers. More important, the exceptional and oft-repeated score by Akira Ifukube sounds stronger than the dialogue. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it rich and resonant – I’d love to hear it dialed up to about 11 and booming down on me from every direction even if that wasn’t the intention – but it gets a fair treatment here. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
It’s hard to call it a mere extra, but Criterion has included the American reworking of the Toho film. “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (1956) was directed by Terry Morse, better known as an editor.

It is absolutely fascinating to watch Honda’s “Godzilla” and this American version back to back. With the original’s imagery fresh in mind, you can see how the original material has been appropriate to different means. Morse, at the behest of producer Joseph E. Levine, lopped off about half of the original film’s footage, then shot an extra 40 minutes with actor Raymond Burr who plays American journalist Steve Martin, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Through strategic editing, Morse makes it appear as if Burr (shooting on sound stages) was present in the scenes from the original film, and even has him interacting with some of the film's characters. Seen today, it’s hard not to chuckle at the fiftieth cutaway to an oddly passive Burr after watching a kinetic scene from the Honda film, but this cut shouldn’t be dismissed either. For one thing, it was a smash hit in America, even bigger than the Honda film was in Japan. It’s also a veritable mini-film school that shows how pre-existing footage can be reworked to produce an entirely different movie.

Godzilla’s attack is moved up, and mentions of the H-bomb are largely omitted. While this was surely intended to blunt the film’s implicit criticism of America and of the H-bomb, the subtext remains, and the limitations of Morse’s editing style turns the would-be American hero into a helpless, irrelevant observer. All he can do is report back home on what’s happening as he watches events unfold. There’s no evidence he carries any guilt over his country’s involvement in the whole affair, but there’s something subversive about the sight of such an impotent American character in this dynamic Japanese film.

Some Japanese dialogue was left unchanged and unsubtitled. Other lines were dubbed by American actors, often speaking lines that have little relation to the original Japanese dialogue as scenes have been re-ordered. It makes for a strange hodge-podge, but you know what’s even stranger? This cut of the film was brought back to Japan, and re-released with the English dubbing subtitled in Japanese which, when cut with the untouched Japanese dialogue, must have made for some serious cognitive dissonance.

“Godzilla, King of the Monsters” would make for a great collection of extras all by itself, but Criterion has really piled on some monster-sized goodies.

For starters, both the Honda original and the Morse re-cut get feature-length commentary tracks by film historian David Kalat, author of “A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series.” Kalat occasionally sounds as if he is literally reading from his book, but this doesn’t mean his commentary is dry. On the contrary, he’s a passionate fan of the Godzilla movies as well as a scholar. He can sometimes be a bit too strident in his defense of every aspect of the films, but he’s a treasure trove of information, and not just trivia. He even places the American release of “Godzilla” in the context of major changes in the art-house market in the mid-'50s. I strongly recommend listening to the commentary on at least one of the films.

The Cast and Crew section includes new interviews with actor Akira Takarada (13 min.), the man in the Godzilla suit Haruo Nakajima (10 min.), and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (30 min.) and a 2000 interview with composer Akira Ifukube.

A short featurette (9 min.) about the Photographic FX shows how some composited images were made. Eiji Tsuburaya and his team did some remarkable work, and you’ll be startled at how some of the images you never thought twice about were stitched together so seamlessly from different parts.

The disc also includes an enlightening illustrated audio essay called “The Unluckiest Dragon.” Lucky Dragon No. 5 was a fishing vessel that needed a little more luck. In early 1954, the ship sailed close to Bikini Atoll when American forces set off a massive H-bomb test. Radioactive ash covered the sailors and they were badly injured (one man died shortly thereafter). The incident was a major strain on U.S.-Japanese relations and was perhaps the most immediate inspiration for Honda’s “Godzilla.” Certainly the story was fresh in viewers' minds as they watched Japanese ships being incinerated by a mysterious force from the ocean. The essay is written and narrated by Columbia University Professor Greg Pflugfelder.

The set wraps up with a new interview with film critic Tadao Sato (14 min.) and a lively three-minute Theatrical Trailer.

The surprisingly slim 12-page insert booklet features an essay by critic J. Hoberman.

Final Thoughts:
You should not pass up the opportunity to watch both versions of “Godzilla” back to back. It’s quite an eye opener, and since the two cuts are so different, you won’t feel like you’re covering too much of the same ground. Add in the commentary tracks on both films by David Kalat, and I think it’s fair to say that this Criterion release will change the way you view “Godzilla,” and Godzilla himself, in a meaningful way. With a solid high-def transfer and a ton of extras, this is the definitive North American release of a film that change the look of international cinema as much as virtually any other in the 1950s.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Complete Jacques Tati

Playtime
  THE COMPLETE JACQUES TATI (Six Films by Tati)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date October 28, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

As much as any other director, Jacques Tati created his own hermetic film universe, a space loosely inspired by the modern(izing) world of the post-WW2 era but a world that exists nowhere but in a Jacques Tati movie. Tati labored for years on his projects, deliberating over each choice of set design, re-shooting scenes for the slightest change of gesture and pace, even adding new sequences to his films years after their initial release just because he'd finally thought of something that to make it all a little bit better. Sound was even more crucial than visual design in crafting this alternate dimension. Door hinges sproing and seat cushions go fwap to announce their formidable presence; a single sound effect can easily be the eccentric center of an entire gag. Tati's sound design places him in the inner pantheon of aural engineers along with Kubrick, Bresson and Lynch.

Monsieur Hulot avec pipe
How odd then that Tati's signature character Monsieur Hulot (no first name) wouldn't fit into his creator's custom-designed universe at all. Then again Hulot doesn't belong anywhere, not even in the world built to host him, and that is why we love him so dearly. Hulot, usually decked out in his gray-tan raincoat, ill-fitting trousers and too-long pipe, is a discrete unit of force, a fundamental particle of nature, unchanging and indivisible. He does not acclimate to his surroundings, he merely copes with situations with the gracious awkwardness that defines his being.

Mon oncle
All long legs and herky-jerky motions (surely John Cleese was born strictly as an homage), Hulot has to perform improbable bodily contortions merely to greet each new acquaintance or navigate his way through the various landscapes and social situations that constantly confuse him. When we first meet him in “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” (1953), he cannot even speak his name clearly until a hotel clerk kindly removes the pipe from Hulot's mouth. In his second outing, “Mon Oncle” (1959), the simplest job monitoring a plastic tubing machine proves an insurmountable task. 

The modern world (even the off-kilter Tati version) has no patience for a man who cannot assimilate to its metronomic demands and Hulot's presence is a constant irritant to the finely calibrated system despite his good intentions. He's the nicest chaos-bringer you've ever met and he spends a lot of time apologizing for violations he's barely aware he's committed. Yet Hulot makes ripples, not waves (though there is the occasional fireworks explosion) and the vibrant communities Tati goes to great pains to establish usually maintain their equilibrium despite this lanky intruder's bumbling interference.

Because Tati's spaces are populated by so many characters it's OK if poor, clueless Hulot occasionally gets lost or even disappears altogether. Even in his first appearance he shares the Hotel de la Plage with dozens of other vacationers. In “Mon oncle” he is the intruder in the nuclear family and by “Playtime” (1967) he is just one player upstaged, not just by other tourists but even by a passel of fake Hulots. Tati's dispersed, democratized approach to narrative is yet another factor marking him as a true one-of-a-kind visionary.

Hulot is so indelible a cinematic presence it's hard to believe he only appeared in four feature films, or that Jacques Tati only made six features over the course of thirty years. That makes a “Complete Jacques Tati” set manageable though still an overwhelming experience for the viewer with multiple versions of several of the films and close to 1,000 minutes of extra material.


Tati as Francois the postman in Jour de fete
The seven-disc set kicks off with Tati's debut feature, “Jour de fete” (1949), the film that made him a star as Francois the postman, a more talkative proto-Hulot, and ends with the post-Hulot “Parade”(1974) in which a 67-year-old Tati serves as both ringmaster and star, performing his old mime and slapstick routines for an audience consisting of real attendees, paid extras, and even cardboard cutouts. It's his least-seen film and probably the least of his films, but his extraordinary charisma is undeniable. Another disc consists entirely of short films by or featuring Tati (see below).

In between are the Hulot films that form the core of Tati's legacy, “Monsier Hulot's Holiday,” “Mon Oncle,” “Playtime,” and “Trafic” (1971), each a joy worth revisiting time and again. I have spent three weeks sifting through the films and extras on this massive set and I feel both disoriented and exhilarated. I recommend you take more time to tour one of the most remarkable careers the big screen has ever witnessed. 



Video:
The films have all undergone 2012 or 2013 digital restorations (in 4K resolution for “Playtime” and 2K for the others) by Les Films de Mon Oncle with the support of a variety of groups.

“Playtime” was previously released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection and the most significant change is in the color palette; the 2009 BD had a more uniformly cool bluish look while this is a bit softer with more green and lighter gray visible and slightly more color variation within the shots.

The others have not been released on Blu-ray in North America. Criterion has pulled out all the stops to provide the highest quality upgrades.

“Jour de fete” and “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” both show off strong image detail. The films tend to more sun than shadow so I can't quite say the black-and-white contrast is pronounced and if there's any minor soft spot on these transfers it's that the whiter shots in “Hulot” look a bit washed out, but that may be from the source material.

“Mon oncle” is an absolute revelation in high-def looking almost supernaturally detailed and brightly colored; it is as vibrant and alive as the day it was screened. “Trafic” is almost as strong. “Parade” is the weakest of the lot but that's attributable to its production and the fact that the “hippy circus” look Tati was going for guarantees that the colors are always going to look too garish.

The short films also received 2K digital restorations and look solid overall though a few necessarily show some signs of damage.

Audio:
Playtime gets a 3.0 surround track with both French and English options, the other films get Mono track. All audio is lossless, of course, and everything sounds remarkably sharp with Tati's idiosyncratic effects standing out as distinctly as they need to; they are the key to his films. Optional English subtitles are provided for all films.

Almost as many cars in Trafic as extras in this set.
Extras:
You would think six discs packed with ten features (more on that below) and seven short films would be reasonably “Complete” but they barely account for half of the running time of the material included in this boxed set.

First, let's start with the various alternate version of the movies. Tati constantly tinkered with his films, adding scenes while also removing original footage, usually winding up with significantly shorter running times even with entirely new sequences included. For “Jour de fete” we get the original 1949 release all in black-and-white. Among the extras we also get the 1964 version in which Tati employed animator Paul Grimault to add hand-painted color to some of the objects and details within the black-and-white scenes and added an entirely new character. This cut runs 80 minutes to the 1949 version's 87 minutes. Yet we can't say either is a “definitive” version because Tati actually shot the film in color, only using a second camera shooting in black-and-white as a back-up plan; the back-up would be needed once the experimental color film couldn't be processed. Daughter Sophie Tatischeff finally rounded up the original color elements and had them processed, releasing a color version of the movie in 1995 (80 min.) The image quality isn't so great which is to be expected as they were stored in the basement for about half a century, but it's fun to see.

“Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” has an equally complicated history. Tati re-edited the film in 1962 and again in 1978. The main version on the disc is the final re-edited cut, but the extras include the original 1953 version which runs 12 minutes longer at 99 total. This cut shows plenty of wear and tear; the opening credits show a double image but it's still watchable.

“Mon Oncle” is presented in its original French-language version, but the disc also includes “My Uncle” in which the main family speaks English but other characters still speak French. Tati intended this for an American release and re-shot scenes to include English street signs but somehow still managed to whittle it down to ten minutes shorter than the French cut.

The other discs merely include a single version of each movie. Cheapskates!

But that just scratches the surface. We might as well start with the unexpected star of this Criterion set, Tati scholar Stéphane Goudet. Goudet has written and directed visual essays on every film in the set except for “Trafic” and he is not just punching the clock. The essay on “Jour de Fete” clocks in at 82 minutes, “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” at 40 min., “Mon Oncle” at 51 min., “Playtime” at 19 min., and “Parade” at 28 minutes, meaning that Goudet has produced a Peter Jackson epic's worth of material spread out onto five discs. Oh yeah and he also chips in with a feature called “Professor Goudet's Lessons” (31 min.) on the Tati Shorts disc. The latter might be favorite of the lot; Goudet “lectures” on the main themes of Tati's works but within the context of a very charming comedy skit. The visual essays are wide-ranging in scope from details about production history to stylistic analysis. It's an impressive scholarly contribution but I wonder how many people will ever have the time to watch it all. I guess it's just as good when sampled over time, just like Tati's work.

Goudet's leviathan effort has eclipsed poor Terry Jones whose old 2001 introductions are included on “Monsieur Hulot,” “Mon Oncle,” and “Playtime” but his heartfelt appreciation of a comedian who inspired him to grow up and be a Python are still worthwhile.

But wait, there's more. A lot more. From this point on I will go by disc. I also won't bother to point out which features were included on the old Criterion releases because that would just take too much time. There are a few features from the previous releases not included here as well as many new additions just for this set. Some have been juggled around too, moved, say, from the “Playtime” disc to “Trafic.”

TATI SHORTS: Let's start here since this contain the earliest material. In addition to seven short films (see immediately below) there are two extras, the aforementioned “Prof. Goudet's Lessons” and “Tati Story” (20 min.) a 2002 documentary by, wait let me look up his name, oh yes, by Stéphane Goudet which provides a brief tour through Tati's life with clips, photos and other archival material. Onto the short films.

“On demande une brute” (1934, 25 min.) This comedy short, directed by Charles Barrois and co-written by Tati sees our henpecked hero accidentally get involved in a wrestling match. It has a few funny bits but suffers from slow pacing. However, the revelation to me is that the wrestler is played by Kola Kwariani, Stanley Kubrick's chess-playing buddy who played the hefty, hairy Maurice in “The Killing.” This isn't even listed under Kwariani's IMDB credits.

“Gai dimanche” (1935, 21 min.) Directed by Jacques Berr and co-written by Tati. An out-of-work-and-home Tati and a friend try to hustle business by giving a decidedly amateur tour. “Brute” was pretty generic, but this film hows Tati more in his element.

“Soigne ton gauche” (1936, 13 min.) Directed by Rene Clement and written by Tati, this feels like the Tati we know and love with some nifty pantomime/pratfall bits. Tati plays a farmhand who dreams of being a boxer then struggles when he achieves the dream. This starts with a shot of a postman riding his bike, an image Tati would recycle for his next short.

“L'ecole des facteurs” (1946, 16 min.) is directed by Tati and is the test run for what would become “Jour de fete.” It is wonderful entirely in its own right.

“Cours du soir” (1967, 28 min.) is a lot of fun. Shot during production on “Playtime.” It's directed by Tati's assistant Nicolas Rybowski but credited as “A Film By Jacques Tati.” Which it is. Dressed as Hulot, he plays a mime instructor and acts out some of his old stage routines.

“Degustation Maison” (1978, 14 min.) No Jacques Tati here, this is a short directed by Sophie Tatischeff. I can only assume the humor here is uniquely French and does not translate across language or culture. It won a Cesar for best comedy short.

“Forza Bastia” (1978, 27 min.) Tati never completed this film about a Dutch-French soccer match, but Sophie Tatischeff later found the footage and released a “completed” version in 2000. It consists mostly of flag-carrying fans filling the streets and a groundscrew trying to fix up a mud-soaked field with just a few brief snippets of actual play.

JOUR DE FETE: 1964 version of the film, 1995 version and Goudet visual essay (see above for all), A Trailer (2 min.) and “Jour de Fete: In Search of the Lost Cellar” (30 min.), the Feb 28, 1988 episode of “Cinema cinemas” which tells the story of how Tati's daughter Sophie Tatischeff finally got the color version of her father's film processed. It's easy for this feature to get lost in the shuffle but it's very interesting.

MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY: 1953 version of film, Terry Jones intro, Goudet visual essay (see above for all). Nobody has written more insightfully about film sound than critic Michel Chion and it's only appropriate that he provide his analysis of the work of one of the great film sound designers. This 2014 interview with Chion runs 32 minutes and is indispensable. The disc also includes a 1978 episode of the French TV series “Cine regards” consisting mostly of an interview with Tati (26 min.) The Audio menu allows you to choose to listen to either French or English tracks.

MON ONCLE: Terry Jones intro, English version “My Uncle,” Goudet visual essay (see above). “Once Upon a Time... Mon Oncle” is a 2008 documentary (51 min.) including interviews with Tati, director (and Tati assistant) Pierre Etaix, David Lynch and others. It begins with a little French history to provide context for the film and then dives into the interviews. Etaix is particularly engaging. “Everything Is Beautiful” (2005) is a 3-part program including shorter features about the film's architecture (24 min.), fashion (20 min.), and its furniture (9 min.) I wasn't a fan of any of these. “Le Hasard de Jacques Tati” (1977, 8 min.) is a short TV piece in which Tati shows off his dog Chance (Hasard) and talks briefly about the dogs in “Mon Oncle.”

PLAYTIME: Terry Jones Intro, Goudet visual essay (see above). Goudet chips in with another short piece from 2002 (6 min.) which uses photos and some rare on-set footage (we get to see the buildings of Tativille being wheeled around the set) with some audio commentary. Selected-Scene Commentaries have been provided by critic Philip Kemp (2004, originally recorded for BFI and also included on the old Criterion disc), Stephane Goudet (who else? - 2013 commentary for 2 scenes) and theater director Jerome Deschamps (2013 – 4 scenes). “Tativille” (26 min.) is a 1967 episode of the British TV show “Tempo international” in which filmmaker Mike Hodges interviews Tati on set. The disc also includes an interview with Tati script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot (2006, 12 min.) and audio excerpts from Tati's appearance at the 1972 San Francisco Film Festival (17 min. total) for the U.S. Premiere of “Playtime.”

TRAFIC: Criterion finally eases off the pedal with just a Trailer (3 min.) and “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot's Work,” a 1976 episode of the British series “Omnibus” in which critic Gavin Millar, after a too-lengthy overview of Tati's career, interviews the director a the Hotel de la Plage, the primary location used for “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.” This 49 minute interview is fascinating if a bit long.

PARADE: “In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot” is a 2-part series directed by Sophie Tatischeff (103 min. total) which provides an overview of Tati's career from his earliest short films through Parade. It is fairly comprehensive if not too surprising. The portrait that emerges is one we already know: Tati as showman, perfectionist, and truly charismatic presence. And, yes, we have another Goudet visual essay, my favorite of the lot (28 min.)

And finally we have the squarebound 64-page booklet that tucks in next to the seven slim keepcases inside the box. Instead of essays on the individual films we get a broader essay on Tati's body of work by James Quandt, the essay “Composing in Sound and Image” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a piece titled “Jacques Tati, Historian” by Kristin Ross and “Things Fall Together” by David Cairns.

Set Value:
“The Complete Jacques Tati” represents the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Spend too much time in Tativille and you risk being disappointed by everything else. But no guts, no glory, so dive right in. You'll have to take your time though with six features (ten if you count the alternate versions), seven short films and over 15 hours of extras. I don't know if Criterion has made any strategic changes to try to differentiate themselves in a streaming world, but owning this set is something special that a hodge-podge of streaming sources can't match. This is... an experience. I was planning to finish this by calling it “indisputably the greatest boxed set of the year.” But the “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure” set has just arrived. It's that most wonderful time of the year again.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum


THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (Mizoguchi, 1939)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 13, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Kenji Mizoguchi draws audiences closer by keeping them at a distance.

The camera in “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” (1939) certainly maintains a discreet distance, often in long master shots that frame the actors' bodies as small elements within their environment even over the course of a lengthy intimate conversation. In one repeated set-up, the budding lovers Kikunosuke (played by esteemed stage actor Shotaro Hanayagi) and Otoku (Kakuko Mori) talk while strolling along a wharf. Shot from below, their heads barely reach halfway up the frame, with rooftops and the blank night sky (in a studio, I presume) filling out the rest of the image. Though their faces are visible at times, Mizoguchi never cuts into a close-up (or cuts at all), and the scenes derive their power not from facial expressions, but rather from the posture and movements of the actors and a raoming camera that relentlessly tracks alongside, but never too close to them.

The camera assumes many vantage points throughout the movie, filming performers from below, at diagonal or perpendicular angles, and even in clinical overhead shots, but close-ups are deployed sparingly. In part, this is because Mizoguchi was inspired by both kabuki and shinpa theater, but I also feel like he simply trusted the power of the meticulously composed image over the blunt force of teary-eyed pathos. Though his films feature suffering protagonists, especially women (mothers, sisters, wives) who sacrifice everything for the men they love, his films grant viewers space to breathe and react rather than grabbing them by the collar and commanding them to wallow in close-up misery. Mizoguchi encourages, even requires, an active viewer who doesn't need to be guided every step of the way. As usual, the great David Bordwell puts it most succinctly, “Mizoguchi refuses to beg for tears.” But he sure generates them.


Based on writer Shofu Muramatsu's story, the film opens in 1880's Tokyo with a kabuki play starring the great Kikugoro (Gonjuro Kawarazaki) and his not-so-great son Kikunosuke (usually called Kiku), both real historical figures. While various hangers-on mock Kiku's performance behind his back, they fawn in person over the young master who wastes his days out drinking with his sycophantic entourage and consorting with opportunistic geisha. Only the pure and innocent Otoku, nursemaid to Kiku's infant brother, dares to tell the dilettantish fop that he stinks on ice, but she does so in hopes of inspiring him to commit to his art and become as great as his father, as great as she sincerely believes Kiku can be.

Kiku's prestigious family does not approve of the working-class Otoku and dismisses her when the relationship comes to light. Risking permanent ostracism from his family, Kiku runs away to pursue both Otoku and his craft, a perilous apprenticeship requiring five years of poverty and unhappiness before Kiku can emerge as a better actor. Kiku falls off the acting wagon several times, settling for mediocrity and indulging in self pity, a bracing reminder that it's easy to vow to dedicate yourself to a cause, far more challenging to decide each day to stick to that vow.

As is typical in Mizoguchi films (and the shinpa tradition that influenced him), the woman exists primarily to support the man, and noble Otoku never asks for anything in return, fulfilled simply by serving as Kiku's muse. She even encourages her husband to abandon her when Kiku has a chance to stage a heroic comeback on stage in a magnificent, prolonged set piece in which Mizoguchi showcases kabuki theater in all its glory. The viewer who took note of Otoku's persistent cough about halfway through the movie won't be surprised that she is not destined for the same glory, meeting the same fate that awaits most Mizoguchi heroines. Are we nonetheless intended to view the closing scenes as mutual triumphs for protagonists who achieve their respective goals? Mizoguchi doesn't tie a ribbon on it.

Though the final kabuki performance, with Kiku wowing audiences in a challenging female role, features a few strategic close-ups and traditional continuity editing, the camera keeps hanging stubbornly back through most of the film, and long takes roll on uninterrupted, sometimes for a few minutes or more. These stylistic choices forge a detached perspective that eschews easy judgment of the sometimes petulant Kiku and the passive Otoku, and thus invites a deeper level of compassion, one of the defining hallmarks of Mizoguchi's extraordinary career, about half of which has been lost to the vagaries of film preservation. Thank goodness this fragile flower survived. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Considering that many Mizoguchi films from this period or earlier didn't survive at all, it's not a surprise that the source material has some issues. According to Criterion, the restoration was sourced from “a 35 mm fine-grain positive and a 35 mm duplicate negative” so it's possible the original negative no longer survives, and with multiple sources, the image quality inevitably varies. This 4K digital restoration provides a major improvement over most earlier available versions of the film, but the image is soft in many scenes and it's just not possible to achieve the same sharp detail we've become accustomed to in 1080p. The black-and-white contrast is somewhat muted too. However, the overall image is as perfectly fine and likely as good as it's going to get without artificial boosting that wipes out too much of the original information.

Audio:
The audio is linear PCM Mono and it's a bit warbly and occasionally drops out, but that's a product of the audio source. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
The only extra on the disc is a June 2016 interview with film critic Phillip Lopate which covers a lot of ground in a short time. I took almost a full page of notes. I'll just list one. Lopate says there are only 140 shots in the entire 143-minute film and some advanced math indicates that tallies up to an average shot length (ASL) of about one minute. Not a record holder, but a world of difference from the modern blockbuster with its average ASL in the 2-3 second range.

The slim foldout booklet includes an essay by scholar Dudley Andrew.

Final Thoughts:
Mizoguchi's films had historically been more difficult for many viewers to access than those of other Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Ozu, but Criterion has done a fantastic job of making of making several of his greatest works available over the years through releases of “Sansho the Bailiff,” “Life of Oharu” (1952), “Ugetsu” (1953)”, and the nifty four-film Eclipse box set “Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women.”

“The Story Of the Last Chrysanthemum” is the latest addition to their Mizoguchi collection, and if we're spoiled enough to wish Criterion could have found more extras to include, let's not take for granted that we know have a fine high-def version of perhaps the first truly great Mizogushi film. Although it should be noted that he had already shout about fifty films by then.

Sansho the Bailiff


SANSHO THE BAILIFF (Mizoguchi, 1954)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 26, 2013
Review by Christopher S. Long

Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954) is one of the greatest films ever made, but that's not really the kind of claim you can build an argument around. So allow me to refine the claim a bit and state simply that the film's final scene provides one of the greatest and most profoundly moving endings in cinema history.

To understand the ending, of course, you need to know the beginning. "Sansho the Bailiff," adapted from a well-known story by Ogai Mori, depicts a world of unrelenting cruelty, an 11th century Japan in which only a handful of wealthy landowners possess human rights of any kind, or, as the opening credits describe it: "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings." Everyone else is mere chattel, to be worked, siphoned dry, and disposed of at the whim of those in power.

Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and his sister Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) have it relatively easy as kids. Their father, Masauji (Masao Shimizu), is a provincial governor beloved by his peasants for his gentle and compassionate rule. Those same qualities fail to earn the respect of Masauji's masters, and he is eventually sent into exile. His family is forced into exile as well, though separated from the father. When the story picks up later, the mother, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), leads the children, now nearing adulthood, to reunite with their father after many years apart. Tamaki has always told her children what a great man their father is, and the ebullient kids can't wait to see him.

Consider that the "once upon a time" portion of our fairy tale, the part where great promise still lingers and innocence endures, soon to be crushed by reality. In an unbearably vicious scene, brigands rip the children from Tamaki's arms to sell them to slavery; she is spirited away by boat to a fate perhaps even grimmer. The siblings manage to stay together even after they are sold into the service of the title character, the sadistic Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo). Life under Sansho's iron thumb is truly miserable, which makes him a much more popular provincial governor with the big bosses than Masauji ever was. Sansho enjoys free reign to abuse his peasants anyway he sees fit, branding them, sending them out into the woods to die when they get sick, and exploiting them in any possible. Just as long as he collects revenues. 


By now you might be expecting a tale of two innocent souls tormented to their breaking point, but here Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda offer an intriguing twist on the Mori tale. Anju adapts to unbearable conditions by working hard and keeping out of trouble. Zushio, however, adapts by performing some of the dirtiest jobs in the village, including meting out punishment to his fellow slaves in order to curry favor with Sansho and his cronies. But just when Zushio appears to have forgotten his father's compassionate teachings, he is saved by his sister's compassion and selflessness.

[WARNING: I now plan to spoil the ending for you. It's a sixty year old movie. Deal with it.]

Zushio's life as a free man (or what passes for a free man in 11th century Japan) is just as troubled as his life as a slave, but now he sees the world more clearly, through his father's eyes. Zushio becomes a provincial governor in his own right, but sets aside the mantle of power almost as soon as he receives it. He has only one goal in mind, to find his mother. It seems impossible that Tamaki could have survived, and even if she had, his chances of finding her are infinitesimal. In such a dark world, a world before men had yet "awakened", there is absolutely no reason to expect a happy ending. And yet in this film where, in an inversion of the Hollywood formula, the sad ending would have been the easy, formulaic way out, we witness a genuine miracle.

As the dogged Zushio zeroes in on his mother's last known whereabouts, his final hope is dashed when he is informed that her village was wiped out by a tsunami. His quest is over. Just then, he hears a plaintive voice warble out a tune: "Zushio, how I long for you. My Anju, fly away." It is a song he has heard before in childhood, and later whispered as a rumor. He sees a blind old woman sitting on the beach, barely aware of her surroundings. He listens to her for a while, then drops to his knees, sobbing. "It is I, Zushio." She believes him to be an evil spirit sent to torment her even more in a life that has been filled only with torture. He finally convinces her of his identity, and, with a few considerate lies, promises her the happiness she has been denied since the moment her children were torn from her.

It is perhaps the single most devastating scene I have ever watched. In the final shot, the camera pulls back a great distance and from a high angle to show the tiny mother and son embracing in a desolate landscape, an image that lingers in the mind forever. If you are not moved to tears by it, even after multiple viewings, perhaps you aren't awakened either.

Is it the greatest endings of all time? The final moments of "2001: A Space Odyssey,” "Stroszek," and “Au hasard Balthazar” rival it for me, but none clearly surpass it. I know that if this scene alone was the only notable feature of the film, "Sansho the Bailiff" would still be a masterpiece. Fortunately, the rest of the movie holds up pretty well in its own right. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 2007 SD transfer was strong enough in its own right, and this 1080p transfer represents the expected upgrade. He black-and-white contrast is deep and rich, and the image resolution is sharp in most scenes, though we get the occasional soft image or scene, likely due to the source print. It isn't absolute top-of-the-line for Criterion, but nobody will be complaining.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono track is not particularly dynamic, but it has a hollow quality that is very evocative at times, particularly with mother's plaintive song. There are no audible distortions or other audio damage. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
The extras are all imported from Criterion's 2007 SD-DVD release.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, who focuses just as much on the Ogai Mori source material as on the film.

The rest of the extras consist of three interviews, with actress Kyoko Kagawa (10 min.), critic and historian Tadao Sato (24 min.) and Tokuzo Tanaka (15 min) who served as first assistant director to Mizoguchi.

The hefty 80-page insert booklet begins with an essay by professor Mark Le Fanu, but the bulk consists of translated versions of the "Sansho" story including the Ogai Mori tale that Mizoguchi and Yoda adapted, and a very different version titled "An Account of the Life of the Deity of Mount Ikawi" which focuses more on Anju.

Final Thoughts:
“Sansho the Bailiff” is generally considered Mizoguchi's masterpiece, though there are certainly plenty of other contenders. I won't argue with the consensus. This Criterion Blu-ray may not be as packed with extras as we might want for a film of this stature, but the high-def transfer is strong and the extras are solid enough. “Sansho” is a must-own for any serious film buff, making this an obvious and essential addition to any home theater library.