Wednesday, December 20, 2017

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

How the heck did director Barbet Schroeder score direct access to Idi Amin, the controversial military dictator of Uganda? He simply asked.

The title star of “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait” (1974) may have been mocked by the Western intelligentsia as an ignoramus and a buffoon, but he understood the importance of the media and, especially, the importance of being on camera as much as possible. The self-made general and self-styled savior spewed absurd lies while also claiming to be universally loved because he was the only man who told the truth, and to be feared throughout the world for his unparalleled savvy and might. It never mattered how ludicrous his empty posturing was, only that people were constantly watching and listening. Of course he said yes to the Frenchman who wanted to make him a movie star.

I know what you're thinking, dear 2017 reader. If you are tempted to draw a seemingly obvious comparison to a current world leader, however, please note that in his not-brief-enough tenure, Amin allegedly murdered a few hundred thousand of his fellow citizens, and jailed many more of his real and imagined political foes, so let's respect the horror suffered by a generation of Ugandans and move on.

Schroeder was aware of the perils of providing grist for Amin's publicity mill, leading to the canny decision to subtitle the film “A Self-Portrait” by Amin. In so doing, Schroeder acknowledged his potential complicity as a propagandist, but also mitigated the damage by emphasizing that this awful, asinine man called the shots (at one point he even orders the cameraman to film a helicopter), so viewer beware and do not be deceived by the term “documentary.”

Amin struts and preens his way through a series of pathetic military exercises, including one in which his crack paratroopers prepare for battle by leaping off a two-inch-high porch step, and equally pathetic cabinet meetings where he promises he wants nothing but openness and honesty, and pauses for neither. The question isn't so much whether Amin believes his preposterous rhetoric, but whether he thinks anyone else will believe it, at least anyone not living under immediate threat of his force.

Schroeder notes that Amin was such a natural on camera that he only needed about eight hours of total footage during his two-week shot to accumulate enough material for a feature-length cut. The general is undeniably magnetic and all the more terrifying for his carefully rehearsed sense of calm. He does not yell or directly threaten anyone, but his over-the-top laughter, feigned interest in conversations that are really monologues, and his icy stare speak volumes.

The documentary opened to widespread acclaim in 1974, and multiple descriptions of the film as the funniest comedy of the year provide evidence that irony-drenched hipsters are not exclusively a twenty-first century creation. Certainly, the film offers its share of absurdist humor (“Dada”), such as Amin cheating in a swimming race by barreling over an opponent who quite obviously had no intention of daring to challenge the great general, but it is also a chilling record of a genuine monster, a sociopath too irresistibly and disturbingly entertaining to be easily forgotten. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. I can't imagine too many people were clamoring for a high-def upgrade of this documentary, but the “new 2K digital transfer” certainly looks sharper than the old 2002 SD Criterion release, and features more subdued color tones.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and efficient. There's not much to say about a film consisting mostly of interviews save that there are no audio problems that would distract the viewer. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The 2002 Criterion DVD was scant on extra features, and this 2017 Blu-ray upgrade only adds a few small ones.

We get the old 2001 interview with Barbet Schroeder (26 min.) and a new 2017 interview (12 min.) with the director which covers a good deal of the same ground. But, oh, that story of how Amin “suggested” certain film cuts to Schroeder can't be told enough.

The only other extra is a 2017 interview with author Andrew Rice (16 min.) who discusses Amin's reign from seizing power to his self-imposed exile (he ran like a coward).

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman.

Final Thoughts:
Go ahead, laugh at the movie. It's funny. But reflect on Amin's long, dead-eyed stare that wraps up the film before you go calling it a rip-roaring comedy. In any case, it's a great and essential documentary.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

On a 1958 episode of “What's My Line?”, pioneering rock-and-roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller faced the withering condescension of the show's self-appointed cultural gatekeepers. An outright vicious Dorothy Kilgallen sniped “That's no excuse!” when the pair's commercial success was mentioned, and the not-at-all-with-it host, John Daly, offered the friendly hope that the boys would “go on and do perhaps more serious things in music.”

In 1967, director D.A. Pennebaker was only a few years younger than both Kilgallen and Daly were in 1958, butwas fortunately far more receptive to the nation's new dominant musical genre. When tasked with filming the Monterey Pop Festival on three sunny California days in June, 1967, Pennebaker not only took the event seriously, he rendered it an almost instantly myth, a cultural landmark that still exerts considerable sway a half-century later.

Pennebaker was hired in part because of his success with the Bob Dylan documentary “Don't Look Back” (1967), but he still wasn't entirely familiar with the whole scene organized by festival producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas). He claims he didn't even know who Janis Joplin was (they later became friends), and had only heard snippets of Jimi Hendrix before. Fortunately, Pennebaker and his team, including Direct Cinema stalwarts Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, were able to employ their hand-held cameras, mobile direct sound, and versatile 16-mm Ektachrome stock with free-wheeling versatility, sometimes capturing entire sets by the relentless parade of star acts, some already legendary, others whose fame would be launched in no small part by the festival and the film. 

“Monterey Pop” eases into this now-fabled launch of the Summer of Love, waiting nearly ten minutes to actually get to the music, focusing on the crowds of flower-power youth completing their solemn pilgrimage. One bright-eyed fan promises that it's going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year's all rolled together and that “the vibrations are just gonna be flowing.” Police worry about the rumored threats of the Hell's Angels and Black Panthers, but joking interactions between hippies and cops suggest that all will be well.

The rest is the stuff of legends, as vital and vibrant today as when first captured on film. Grace Slick and Joplin at their peaks. Cass Elliott charming the audience. Hendrix setting his guitar aflame. Otis Redding just months before his tragic plane crash. All amazing, but can any of them top sitar-master Ravi Shankar completely owning not just the crowd, but a whole new musical world with a performance that staggers belief? No need to pick your favorite act. Who could?

If there's any disappointment with Pennebaker's magical film, it's that it's too damn short at just 79 minutes. But if you finish feeling like you could listen to hours more, well, that's just what this Criterion Blu-ray set is for.

The films in this 3-disc set are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. After the original 2002 SD-DVD release, Criterion re-released “Monterey Pop” (see below) on Blu-ray in 2009. However, this 2017 Blu-ray re-release features new 16-bit 4K resolution transfers. I don't have the 2009 Blu-ray to compare to, but the difference between these transfers and the 2002 DVDs represents a considerable improvement, a total transformation really. Of course the audio quality is going to be of greater interest to those considering a double dip.

Linear PCM and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes are available options for the films in this set. The 5.1 mix, newly remastered from the original 8-track audio, are exceptionally robust with no drop-off or distortion audible anywhere. It sounds even better than you'd imagine possible for a concert captured with mobile synch sound equipment of the '60s. I can't imagine it can ever sound better than this. No subtitles are provided, which I suppose isn't a big deal, but I still wouldn't mind having them.

It's easy to get confused by the many Criterion releases of “Monterey Pop.” It was first released as two separate DVDs in two separate keepcases back in 2002. They then released the set again on Blu-ray in 2009. And in 2017, they are releasing both a single-disc ob Blu-ray and the three-disc set which is reviewed here.

What you really need to do is that this three-disc set includes all the original extras from the 2002/2009 releases and also adds a second disc consisting of over two-hours of outtakes/extra performances from the festival. We'll get to it all eventually.

Disc One includes the main documentary (79 min.) which is accompanied by the 2002 commentary track by Pennebaker and festival producer Lou Adler. Older features also imported include a 2001 interview with Pennebaker and Adler (29 min.) and interviews with John Phillips (16 min.), Cass Elliott (12 min.), David Crosby (9 min.), and Derek Taylor (29 min.). More older material: promotional TV and radio spots, festival ephemera (including a photo essay by Elaine Mayes), and images of the original festival program.

New features on Disc One include a 2017 interview with Pennebaker (15 min. - it's actually a mix of three interviews) and a 2017 interview with Lou Adler (12 min.) These cover some of the same material as their joint 2001 interview. In addition, the disc includes the short film “Chiefs” (1968, 20 min.), directed by Ricky Leacock, concerning a convention of American police chiefs in Waikiki. It's relevance to “Monterey Pop” is based mostly on Leacock's involvement in both projects.

Disc Two will thrill music lovers with 129 minutes of additional musical performances from the festival. I've done my best to list them in detail. They are organized by each day of the three-day festival.

Day One:

The Association – Along Comes Mary
Simon and Garfunkel – Homeward Bound, The Sounds of Silence

Day Two:

Country Joe and the Fish – Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine
Al Kooper – (I Heard Her Say) Wake Me, Shake Me
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Driftin' Blues
The Steve Miller Blues Band – Mercury Blues, Super Shuffle
Quicksilver Messenger Service – All I Ever Wanted To Do (Was Love You)
The Electric Flag – Drinkin' Wine
The Byrds – Chimes of Freedom, He Was A Friend of Mine, Hey Joe
Laura Nyro – Wedding Bell Blues, Poverty Train
Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love
Moby Grape – Hey Grandma

Day Three:

The Blues Project – Flute Thing
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Combination of the Two
Buffalo Springfield – For What It's Worth
The Who – Substitute, Summertime Blues, A Quick One While He's Away
The Grateful Dead – Viola Lee Blues
The Mamas and the Papas – Straight Shooter, Somebody Groovy, I Call Your Name, Monday Monday, San Francisco, Dancing In The Street

The disc also includes footage of Tiny Tim performing in the Hunt Club (the festival's official green room), four short songs in all.

Disc Three:

And we still haven't gotten to perhaps the most substantial extras in the set.

This disc includes two more Pennebaker films: “Jimi Plays Monterey” (49 min.) and “Shake! Otis at Monterey” and you should be able to figure out the subjects of both films, which are wonderful. “Jimi” has a 2002 commentary track by music critic Charles Shaar Murray and also a brief interview with Pete Townshend (1987, 4 min.” “Shake!” comes with two commentaries by music historian Peter Guaralnick along with a 2002 interview (19 min.) with Phil Walden, Redding's manager. These are all imported from the original 2002 SD release, but now in high-def.

The thick, square-bound 72-page insert booklet includes essays by Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, and Barney Hoskyns as well as Michael Leydon's article about the festival, originally published in “Newsweek” in 1967.

Final Thoughts:
Great high-def transfers and rich DTS 5.1 audio mixes are reason enough to recommend this upgrade, but the real treat is the more than two hours of additional concert footage included on Disc Two (listed above). This set has been available in some form for quite some time now, but comprehensive re-release genuinely deserves the title “The COMPLETE Monterey Pop Festival.” Strongly recommended.