Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mildred Pierce

MILDRED PIERCE (Curtiz, 1945)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

At the intersection of film noir and maternal melodrama sits “Mildred Pierce” (1945), a story of fresh home-made cakes and cold-blooded murder, though not in that order, although actually in that order.

The film opens in a beach house shrouded in night-time shadows where the first clear sound after the title music fades is a volley of gunshots rattled into a man (Zachary Scott) whose congenital shadiness is indicated with forceful economy by the thinness of his mustache. His final word as he drops to the floor is “Mildred” after which said Mildred (Joan Crawford) flees into the night, soon to be brought in by the police for questioning.

Even the most casual filmgoer can quickly figure out that the identity of the shooter wouldn't have been artfully concealed by director Michael Curtiz if it was, indeed, Mildred Pierce, but the film preserves the mystery as Mildred relates her tale of woe to the lead detective in an extended flashback which actually represents the bulk of the James M. Cain novel from which the film was adapted, the juicy murder being added for salacious purposes by the wise folks at Warner Bros.

In better days, Mildred is a diligent housewife baking cakes to sell to the neighbors and doting on her beloved daughters, teenage Veda (Ann Blyth) and little Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Diligent, but not happy. Her marriage is already on the rocks and soon ends with husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) moving out to live with another woman. When Mildred breaks the bad news to the kids, Veda turns out to be far more interested in the new dress that just arrived for her, the first indication that this seemingly formulaic story of marital strife is about to take a decidedly idiosyncratic turn.

Bert's fires a nasty parting shot at Mildred: “Let's see how you get along without me!” She proceeds to get along fabulously, parlaying her experience in the kitchen first into a gig as a waitress, then as a savvy entrepreneuse with an ever-expanding chain of restaurants that can barely accommodate the bustling crowds. The ring of spotlights flooding the night sky above the newest Mildred's announces to all nearby that the American Dream is alive and well and fully achievable through hard work and grit.

Yet Mildred is desperately in love, and it's an all-consuming love that will undermine all of her accomplishments. She's not in love with Bert, not anymore, nor with pushy. predatory real estate broker Wally (Jack Carson), and not even with creepy mustache guy from the opening. No, in a clever twist on the amour fou formula, Mildred obsesses endleslsy over Veda, her spoiled, icy-cold, sociopathic daughter, and she will do anything and risk anything to win her girl's love, though she's probably aware no such thing exists. Considering the sorry display of feckless manhood in the film, it's not as if Mildred was blessed with many outlets for her affections.

After playing the sweet teen ingenue in a few musicals the year before, 16-year-old Ann Blyth portrays Veda as the baddest of seeds, a brat who sees herself as entitled to all privilege and ashamed of the mother willing to work (“My mother, a waitress!”) to provide it all for her. Able to lie and fake-cry at a moment's notice, Veda is one of the strangest and most intimidating femmes fatales of the noir cycle, twisting her hapless mother around her bloodless little finger, toying with her for sport.

Mildred's doting approach to motherhood comes in for criticism by Bert, by her flinty friend Ida (Eve Arden), and most pointedly by Veda herself when she speaks her only truthful words, “It's your fault I'm the way that I am.” Mildred's unwavering devotion collapses into full-blown pathology and has left a few viewers exasperated with her destructive dependency (and also prompting a delightful Carol Burnett parody) but her unhealthy relationship with Veda is hardly unique. I can't help but be reminded of Anthony Trollope's 1875 masterpiece “The Way We Live Now” and the dandyish, dissolute Sir Felix Carbury, an idler who takes responsibility for nothing, cries every time someone holds him responsible for his actions, and is enabled by a mother who covers for his every offense. Sir Felix may be the most infuriating literary character I've ever encountered (oh, the sweet, sweet beatdown he finally takes!), demanding that everyone cater to his whims and running back to mommy every time he encounters the slightest obstacle. Felix and Veda are soulmates, but she would chew him up and spit him out on his skinny fop ass.

“Mildred Pierce” netted Joan Crawford her only Oscar and revitalized her flagging career, paving the route to some of her juiciest roles: “Possessed” (1947), “Daisy Kenyon” (1947), “Sudden Fear” (1952), and cinephile holy grail “Johnny Guitar” (1954). Crawford considered it her finest work and spoke of it often and fondly in later-career interviews. The film has since become a cult-favorite, still playing to sold out houses in repertory screenings over seventy years later.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution … primarily from the 35 mm original nitrate camera negative. Some sequences, including the entire last reel of the film, were scanned from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a 35 mm safety fine-grain master.” I didn't notice any difference in the final reel, or any other sections that might have been sourced from different prints. Overall, the black-and-white contrast is sharp and rich with plenty of detail apparent even in the darker sequences which show only modest signs of boosting. A few bits of minor damage are visible on occasion, but not much. Overall, the typical strong 1080p transfer from Criterion.

You can watch this short video about the film's restoration from Criterion on YouTube. This video has not been included on the disc as an extra.

The linear PCM mono track is solid if unremarkable. Dialogue, effects, and music are crisp and clear, though not particularly dynamic. No complaints. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included a mixture of new and older supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.

The longest extra was included on the old Warner Brothers DVD release. “Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star” (2002, 87 min.) is directed by Peter Fitzgerald. This feature, narrated by Anjelica Huston, was made with the contribution of Crawford's daughter Christina and provides a career-length portrait of a highly-motivated professional who wasn't able to find as much time for her family as for her long and celebrated career. There's not as much film-specific content as one might like, but the feature covers a lot of ground in a short period of time.

Criterion serves up one brand new interview (2016, 23 min.) in which film critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito discuss the film's cross-genre elements, the changes from the Cain novel, and a host of other issues.

Several other archival interviews have also been included. We get an excerpt (15 min.) from the Jan 8, 1970 “David Frost Show” in which Crawford reveals that her favorite food is pork chops. Next is a Q&A sesssion (24 min.) from the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, featuring guest star Ann Blyth at a 2006 screening of “Mildred Pierce.” The final piece is my favorite on the disc, an excerpt from the Nov 26, 1969 episode of “The Today Show” with Hugh Downs interviewing novelist James M. Cain, who holds court on a host of social issues and admits that he doesn't get Norman Mailer at all.

The final extra is a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

Final Thoughts:
Critic Manny Farber found “Mildred Pierce” to be “badly hoked-up” and viewed Mildred as “a fool.” There's little doubt that the melodramatic story is overwrought at times, but that's hardly distinguishes it from many other melodramas. I don't think the film's a masterpiece, but Crawford's wonderful, and Ann Blyth repeatedly strikes the same single note in a convincingly chilly manner. And you're unlikely to ever see the film looking better than on this Criterion high-deg transfer.

Friday, July 21, 2017


STALKER (Tarkovsky, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 18, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Plot Summary: The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) guides two other men, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone, a dangerous and heavily guarded territory left behind by alien visitors (or maybe it was a meteor) some years ago. They infiltrate the Zone in search of the Room, located either a few hundred yards or a million miles from the Zone's outer border, a space where they hope to achieve their deepest desires.

There, now you know precisely nothing about Andrei Tarkovsky's “Stalker” (1979), loosely (and I mean loosely) adapted from the science-fiction novel “Roadside Picnic” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, at least nothing of much relevance. You're welcome. I'll try to be more a bit more helpful. 

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of skulls. The three men's heads are balding, closely-shaved, and the camera lingers on their oblong craniums from behind, in front, and above, following closely (stalking) while they trudge slowly through the knee-deep water of the industrial wasteland of the Zone or clinging skull-tight as they sit or lie in the undulating grass and shifting sand dunes, contemplating where to move next, or whether there's still any point in moving at all.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of the pollution. Tarkovsky may well have captured the single most fetid landscape in all of cinema. We might expect the “meatgrinder” sewer pipes to swell with waste, but the surface water teems with glistening oil as well, positively reeking of chemical effluent. No wonder the geography of the Zone shifts constantly, rendering even the seemingly straightest of paths a Mobius strip to nowhere – the Zone writhes in silent, unending torment.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of how startlingly beautiful the film is despite this most devastated of landscapes. After all, the scenes outside of the Zone are filmed in drab, monochromatic sepia only to explode Oz-like into full color after the men cross an indeterminate barrier – not a Rubicon, they can turn around any time they want, but a definitive break into another realm, nonetheless, perhaps into the uncharted land of their own minds.

Everything about “Stalker” screams for a metaphorical interpretation – naming your characters only Stalker, Writer, and Professor certainly points viewers in that direction. But Tarkovsky said, “The Zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the Zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through.” Many directors resist having their work pigeon-holed and it's reasonable to accuse Tarkovsky of playing coy here, but I choose to take him at face value.

Though the Stalker approaches the Zone with faith, as a holy seer of sorts (or at least as an aspirant), he winds up as lost as the Writer and the Professor. They stumble half-blindly through one maze-like section of the Zone after another, sometimes only to wind up back where they started, wasting time on ill-considered detours, yet stubbornly plunging ahead, all to reach a destination that may well prove to be a terrible disappointment. They ask a lot of questions along the way in lengthy, heady philosophical debates that straddle the border between profundity and sophistry, but find few answers, just more Zone to traverse.

All of which sure sounds like life to me. No clear path, no easy answers. Perhaps no destination at all, just the journey itself, made meaningful precisely my making it, and then making of it what you will.

Of course there's much more to the film. Much more than I've grasped yet. I haven't even mentioned the Stalker's wife and daughter, whom a cheeky critic could argue are the actual main characters of the story, though they spend most of it off-screen. Or how gloriously, rapturously slow “Stalker” is. Tarkovsky spoke often about sculpting with time, and his camera holds unwavering on lengthy shots of men walking or not moving at all, on fields of grass rippling in the breeze, yielding boredom in some viewers, hyper-attentive awareness to detail in others, carving out a contemplative space. If you fall into the latter camp, you might find yourself returning obsessively to the Zone, as thousands of other viewers have, searching for... but, no, just focus on the journey itself, and an immersive audiovisual experience like few others. “Stalker” joins “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of the few films worthy of being considered “the ultimate trip.” 

“Stalker” recently completed a successful theatrical re-release with a new restoration from Mosfilm Studios, and this high-def transfer from Criterion is sourced from that restoration. “Stalker” mixes sepia-toned monochromatic sequences with naturalistic color ones and employed three cinematographers. With most of the principal filmmakers dead, nobody can confirm how close this restoration matches the original intent, but this 1080p transfer most certainly looks fantastic. Image detail is sharp throughout, the bright colors look rich and subtle, and the sepia that I used to think looked rather wan to a slightly distracting degree now looks better as well. I have no idea if some of the film's fanatical partisans are debating the “authenticity” of this Criterion release, but I've never seen the film looking any better (alas, I didn't get to catch it in a theater over the spring.)

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio (as always, photos in this review are not taken from the Blu-ray). 

The linear PCM mono track has an unusually dynamic sound for a monaural track. In “Stalker” the sound design is just as crucial a creative element as the visuals and this lossless mix really makes the distinct sound effects stand out, along with the spare score by Eduard Artemyev. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

As exciting as it is to have “Stalker” available with a great new high-def transfer and a sharp audio mix, the relative lack of supplemental features is mildly disappointing. Fans might have expected a film of this stature to arrive packed to the gills both with historical features and scholarly analysis.

Perhaps the heftiest features were tied up in rights controversies, but the only substantial extra included is a new interview (29 min.) with Geoff Dyer, author of “Zona: A Book About A Film About a Journey to a Room.” Dyer really loves “Stalker.” I mean, really, really loves it. A few years ago, in addition to writing his book on the experience of watching the film over and over again, he also wrote “'s not enough to say that 'Stalker' is a great film – it's the reason cinema was invented.” Dyer takes a half hour to talk about his experiences with the film, from his impatience on his first encounter with this “slow” movie to how easily he gets sucked back into the Zone at each new screening he attends. He begins with the interview with caution about “permanently inhabiting the land of the superlative” regarding the film, but, well, that's just his zone. And he makes it work.

The other extras are all older interviews, with the film's composer Eduard Artemyev (2000, 21 min.), set designed Rashit Safiullin (2000, 14 min.), and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky (1996, 6 min.), the latter filmed in his hospital room shortly before his death.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu.

Final Thoughts:
Final thoughts? How can you have final thoughts on a journey that's just getting started? I'll settle for saying that while Criterion's release doesn't offer the bevy of extra we might have hoped for, the image and sound on this version are immaculate, and that's more than enough to make this a must-own for any Tarkovsky fan.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


L'ARGENT (Bresson, 1983)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 11, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

An old man walks down the street while reading a newspaper. He passes by a parked car in which our protagonist, Yvon (Christian Patey), sits quietly and looks straight ahead. Several police cars speed by, sirens blaring. The old man continues walking until he sees three men, presumably police officers, crouching behind their cars, so still they could be sculptures. The old man hurries away. Across the street, another man (who we can't see clearly) walks out of a bank, holding a woman in front of him. One of the crouching men very deliberately aims his gun.

Cut back to Yvon as he sits in his car still staring blankly. A single gunshot rings out off-screen, but if Yvon hears it, he does not react. The robber retreats cautiously back into the bank - who fired at whom and why doesn’t anyone seem to be panicking? Cut back to Yvon once again as a volley of gunshots rattles off-screen. He reaches deliberately for the ignition and starts the car. Hold on an extended closeup of Yvon’s hands (it's always hands with Bresson) on the steering wheel as more sounds play out off-screen: shouts, police whistles, etc. We finally cut to an exterior shot of Yvon’s vehicle as a police car pulls alongside him. Yvon, his expression still blank, shifts the car into drive and peels out.

It’s the strangest, most subdued bank heist you’ve ever seen on film, and it is also a text book example of the idiosyncratic style of the great French director Robert Bresson. At least three quintessentially Bressonian features are on display here. First, there's Bresson’s oft-discussed approach to acting. He employed non-professional actors, whom he described as “models,” and trained them to perform as automatically and mechanically as possible, often using multiple takes to wear them out: the goal was for the models to act without inflection, often resulting in the stoic, passive “Bresson face.” (For more discussion of Bresson’s use of models, please check out my review of “Au hasard Balthazar”.)

Second, this scene offers an instructional lesson on Bresson’s revolutionary approach to sound. For Bresson, sound and image are often redundant, and if the two work together they do not necessarily reinforce each other but sometimes cancel each other out. If a sound conveys the essential meaning of the scene, there is simply no need to show a similar image as well. Therefore, when we hear the volley of gunshots and the whistles, we do not see the police shooting at the robbers, but rather Yvon’s hands as they rest limply on the steering wheel as if awaiting further instructions from their master. As for what precisely occurs at the bank, we are left to wonder - in Bresson’s view, the ear is more imaginative than the eye, and sound is not merely the bastard child of image.

Third, Bresson’s emphasis on economy and precision (“L’Argent” runs at just 81 minutes) is evident in this scene. Bresson ruthlessly stripped away all extraneous elements from his films, until he was left with only the essential elements required to tell the story. After Yvon speeds away, we see a brief car chase which Bresson conveys by two primary images: Yvon’s feet as they switch from the accelerator to the brake, and a shot of the police cruiser as seen in the side mirror of Yvon’s car. Cut back and forth between these two shots a few times and… there’s your car chase. It is also worth noting that this is not merely economical from an artistic point of view but from a pragmatic perspective as well - Bresson seldom worked with big budgets.

These three elements (among others) defined Bresson’s films for the bulk of his career and combined to produced one of the most distinct, hermetic, and endlessly fascinating bodies of work in all of cinema. If Bresson had not perfected these techniques (how is such a thing possible?), he had finely tuned them by the time he directed “L’Argent” (“Money”) in 1983 at the age of 82, and it was the last film the French master would ever make. Bresson, who died in 1999, intended to continue directing, but was unable to secure financing for his long-planned adaptation of the Book of Genesis, and he unofficially retired by the end of the 1980s. Fortunately, Bresson’s final film is also one of his greatest.

“L’Argent” is loosely based on Tolstoy's short story “The Counterfeit Note” which also translates as “The Forged Note” or “The False Coupon.” The film adaptation, updated to contemporary France, begins with two young men who pass off counterfeit bills to a local photography shop. The store owners discover that the bills are forged, but don’t want to get stuck with the loss so they, in turn, pass them on to Yvon Targe, the young man who delivers heating oil to their store. After Yvon is caught with the counterfeit money, he returns to the store with the police in order to prove his innocence, but the owners pretend not to recognize him. From this point, Yvon’s fate is sealed and his situation degenerates from bad to worse to unspeakable.

“L’Argent” traces the spread of evil (flowing by the same route as capital) from its first flowering to its final violent explosion. As the counterfeit notes change hands, they leave destruction in their wake and nobody escapes fully unscathed. In the opening scene, a young man asks for a handout from his father; in the climactic scene a homicidal Yvon has only one question to ask: “Where’s the money?” 

Bresson believed in predestination (or maybe not – it's a thing critics have often written but it's a lot more complex than that) and Yvon is an innocent victim fated to be laid low by circumstances beyond his control. He is not merely falsely imprisoned but is actually transformed by the system; once released from jail, he decides he might as well become the monster everyone thinks he is.

Bresson’s films are often considered to be pessimistic and grim, but “L’Argent” ramps that dark vision up to a new level. In many of Bresson’s films, the characters achieve a kind of grace or even redemption by way of their suffering, but there is little, if any, sense of redemption in “L’Argent,” the ending of which is one of the bleakest notes in cinema. Except maybe in “Au hasard Balthazar.” Here you can choose from two Bresson quotes: one in which he described himself as a “jolly pessimist” and another in which he rejected the dourness ascribed to his vision: “You are confusing pessimism with lucidity.”

Like most of Bresson’s films, “L’Argent” accumulates its remarkable affective power through its puritanical restraint. Yvon remains an opaque figure with a blank expression even as he transforms from an innocent working class man into a remorseless killer. We could easily imagine the Hollywood version of the same story with a classically-trained method actor raving and gibbering and chewing the scenery with dramatic music to underscore the transition, but Bresson does not pursue that route. Nor does he linger on any of the typical gory elements. As he does in the car chase, Bresson simply picks a few objective details and deploys them to convey an entire scene. Bresson’s tendency to elide the main action is so pronounced in “L’Argent” that even an attentive viewer might miss altogether the fact that, in one sequence, Yvon murders two hotel owners. The ending is all the more potent and unnerving because of the sense of clinical detachment cultivated by Bresson; we are all invited to consider the proceedings with the dispassionate eye of a coroner rather than as a sympathetic and involved viewer.

We do not quite know why Yvon does what he does or why he selects his victims. Bresson’s cinema is one of surfaces, not psychology – which is to say it's grown-up cinema. Character is revealed only through behavior, not through exposition or analysis. There are no “character moments” offered as a sop to the audience, and Yvon’s sudden decision to cross the line into violence comes as a shock as we have not been prepared for it as we might expect. Bresson provides the what - the viewer, if he or she simply must, provides the why.

“L'argent” was released on DVD by New Yorker back in 2005 and as much as I love and miss that dearly departed label, this Criterion 1080p upgrade puts the old transfer to shame, and then some. The difference is considerable that I've decided to post the Criterion release as a separate review instead of just adding sections to my old New Yorker review.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “This new 2K restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative” and the improvement in the high-def image reveals much more detail while also providing warmer, more naturalistic colors. It's hard to imagine the film ever looking any better than this on home release.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and a very welcome upgrade that highlights Bresson's meticulous sound design, from the loud snaps of clothespins to the whining of a dog. Just as Bresson suggested sound could be more important than image, this audio upgrade may be more important than the sharper picture. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Kent Jones's commentary track on the old New Yorker DVD may be my favorite commentary of all time, and it's a great disappointment Criterion didn't include it here. Perhaps there were licensing rights. Jones's commentary is so exceptional I would still recommend the New Yorker release, even with its inferior transfer, solely for his contribution.

However, as sorely as Jones's commentary is missed (and not replaced by any other commentary track), Criterion has included what may be their best extra of the year, a 50-minute visual analysis by critic James Quandt. In “L'argent, A to Z,” Quandt covers an astonishing array of topics while somehow managing not to skimp on anything, providing an essential primer on Bresson's unique working style and philosophy, touching on Bresson's emphasis on sound (silence) and his various artistic influences, and so very much more. If you're looking for an informative and accessible introduction to Bresson, Quandt's essay is your go-to choice.

The disc also includes a May 16, 1983 press conference (30 min.) at the Cannes Film Festival, including Bresson and most of his cast. He is typically elusive and absolutely magnificent. The only other feature is a very short (26 sec.) trailer.

The insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Adrian Martin and a transcript of a 1983 interview with Bresson conducted by critic Michel Ciment.

Final Thoughts:
Twelve years ago, I asked if “L'argent” was the greatest final film by an esteemed director. I suppose “Eyes Wide Shut” is a serious contender, but there's no need to choose. I had some vague concerns when I screen “L'argent” for a film class a few years ago, but my students were blown away, which affirms both their taste and Bresson's accomplishment. How much do I love Bresson? Sometimes I think both that “L'argent” is my favorite film and yet not even my favorite Bresson. Yes, he's so great he generates his own paradoxical field. And he's even greater than that. This Criterion release is a bit light on extras, but the Quandt essay is sensational and the high-def transfer a thing of beauty.