Friday, December 14, 2018

Forty Guns


FORTY GUNS (Fuller, 1957)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

“She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip!”

The theme song of Samuel Fuller's “Forty Guns” (1957) promises greatness, and the opening shot sure delivers. As the three heroic Bonnell brothers ride into town, their rickety little horse cart is nearly blown off the winding dirt road by Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), decked out in black and ridin' high (though sans whip) on a white stallion. She kicks up a swirling cloud of dust in advance of the long line of men (her forty guns, splitting to the edges of the Cinemascope frame) trailing behind her. The Bonnells can only gasp in awe as she races away, not even noticing them.

Eventually, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) will prove man enough to earn Jessica's attention. The legendary gun fighter who avoids shootouts because he “can't miss” can't help but be fascinated by the woman who rules over a sprawling business empire. The two alpha personalities have something else in common, pesky little brothers weighing them down. In Griff's case, it's just eager beaver Chico (Robert Dix) desperate to prove he's man enough to assist big brother. For Jessica, it's the rotten-to-the-core Brockie (John Ericson), the kind of low-down owlhoot who'd shoot a blind man just for laughs.

Shooting independently, though with financing from Fox, Fuller indulges his pulpiest sensibilities, producing the florid but gritty style that made him a cinephile favorite. His punchy script is replete with shameless double entendres. Jessica asks Griff for his gun: “Can I feel it?” Griff: “It might go off in your face.” Fuller frames one view of actress Eve Brent from the inside of a rifle barrel, an early version of the trademark James Bond credits shot.

Stanwyck clearly relishes her role as the kind of woman who, as the song informs us, “commands and men obey.” In an inspired bit of staging, Griff delivers a legal warrant to Jessica while she dines at her compound. She sits at the head of a very long table with twenty men on each side, and the warrant is passed from man to man (Cinemascope at work again) before being placed respectfully into her hands. Just in case the message needs to be reinforced, Jessica later reminds one flunky, “I'm your boss, not your partner!”

The various relationships and conflicts among Jessica, Griff, and their respective siblings revolve around dueling standards of traditional masculinity, providing grist for the mill of many a psychoanalytic film studies thesis. However, the movie isn't as noteworthy for its plot as for its host of quintessential Fuller touches. The tight close-up on Griff's face as he strides implacably towards an overmatched Brockie in a street showdown surely provided the inspiration for many a spaghetti Western standoff. A jarring cut from a man swinging from a noose to a room full of jovial cowboys splashing in tubs is as pure Fuller as it gets.

Unfortunately, the theme song provides all too oracular: “If someone could break her and take her whip away... you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all.” In what Fuller describes as a studio compromise from his bleaker initial vision, the film ends with Jessica having been almost fully tamed, ready to give up everything for the hero. Perhaps it played better with audiences back then. Today, I suspect we'd all rather see her ridin' high and flailing that whip.

Regardless, the film provided one last great leading role for Stanwyck who, nearly fifty when production began, was near the end of her feature film career, and clearly still at the height of her prowess. For Fuller, in his mid-forties and also at the peak of his career, it was just one of three good movies he would wrap in the same year, along with “Run of the Arrow” and “China Gate.” Fuller obviously didn't mess around on set.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio. The Criterion booklet only mentions that the transfer was “restored by Twentieth Century Fox.” However extensive the restoration, this high-def transfer looks fantastic with a deep, grainy black-and-white image that looks, well, exactly like a Western should.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is clean and functional. There's not much complex sound design to deal with here, just dialogue and, of course, that theme song. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
For a slight change of pace, Criterion has included a 1969 discussion with Samuel Fuller which can be played like a commentary track while watching the film. It was conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1969.

In “Fuller Women” (2018, 20 min.), the director's widow Christa Lang Fuller and his daughter Samantha Fuller discuss Samuel's work with a focus on the strong women featured in some of his films.

In “Woman With A Whip” (2018, 34 min.), critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City,” discusses both Fuller's work (particular its relationship to noir) and Stanwyck's career.

“A Fuller Life” (2013, 80 min.) is a documentary directed by Samantha Fuller. After an introduction by Ms. Fuller, the documentary consists primarily of a series of actors, directors, and other film figures (James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Mark Hamill, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellmann among them) who read excerpts from Samuel Fuller's memoir, “A Third Face,” sometimes over clips from Fuller's films, sometimes over never-before-seen home movies. It's a real blast, like a movie about Samuel Fuller should be.

Finally, we get a Stills Gallery, mostly on-set photos from “Forty Guns.”

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic and professor Lisa Dombrowski, author of “The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I'll Kill You!” as well as an excerpt from Fuller's memoirs concerning “Forty Guns.”

Final Thoughts:
Sam Fuller apparently shot this film in all of fifteen days, but then again, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is now the eighth Fuller title in the Criterion/Eclipse library, but only the third on Blu-ray (“Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” were early Criterion releases that got later Blu-ray upgrades). The top-notch high-def transfer and the strong collection of extras make this, perhaps, the most appealing Fuller release from Criterion so far.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Dry, White Season


A DRY, WHITE SEASON (Palcy, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 11, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Euzhan Palcy's “A Dry, White Season” (1989) focuses in part on the awakening of a man who has remained willfully asleep for years. Born and raised in South Africa, the middle-aged Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland) still maintains his unquestioned faith in the Apartheid system. In Ben's worldview, black South Africans might be poorer than whites, but everyone's treated fairly in the eyes of the law, and they're all pretty happy too. His black gardener Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona) has been a family friend for years, and their sons even play together.

It will take a lot to shake Ben's blinkered confidence. When Gordon's son is picked up by police simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and then brutally caned, Ben feels bad but insists, “He must have done something.” When a police assault on protestors results in the boy's death, Ben is upset, but still believes an appeal to the authorities will ensure that justice is done “to the full extent of the law.” Ben will need a lot of convincing to accept that the system is inherently racist and corrupt, but eventually his eyes will be pried wide open.

Ben's ignorance is all the more astonishing for the fact that he's actually a history teacher, which doesn't leave really leave him much of an excuse. Even more astonishing is the fact that director Euzhan Palcy's story isn't better known because her journey to making “A Dry, White Season” is nothing short of remarkable.

Born and raised in Martinique, Palcy moved to Paris as a teenager to study film and literature. At the age of 25, she directed her first feature film, “Sugar Cane Alley” (1983), which became a major festival hit. Earning the admiration and support of film luminaries such as Francois Truffaut and Robert Redford, she relocated to America and soon drew attention from Hollywood studios.

Palcy rejected a series of studio projects in order to pursue her own, an adaptation of Andre Brink's novel about Apartheid abuses, “A Dry, White Season.” To research the project, Palcy traveled to South Africa incognito to secretly interview victims who had been tortured by the state. Palcy not only became the first black woman to direct a film released by a major Hollywood studio (MGM), she even convinced the legendary Marlon Brando to return to the big screen after a decade-long retirement to play a fiery anti-Apartheid lawyer who knows his case is lost before he ever gets to court.

Shot primarily in Zimbabwe and employing many South African actors, Palcy's film enrages almost from the start. The police don't hesitate to employ deadly force at the first sign of even a peaceful protest from black South Africans. Torture is their first line of interrogation, used not so much to gain information as to assert white dominance. The details Palcy uncovered in her investigation make this aspect of the film particularly harrowing.

Ben may become a crusader for justice after his blinders are removed, but neither his colleagues nor his wife and daughter follow in his footsteps. If they were willfully ignorant before, once confronted with evidence of state abuse, they don't change their minds at all. They simply don't care, treating Ben as a pariah, and even, in his wife's words, a traitor to his race.

It might sound like the story risks wandering into “white savior” territory, but Ben is never held up as a a paragon. Political activist Stanley (Zakes Mokae in perhaps the film's best performance) provides Ben access to the lives of black South Africans, but he makes it crystal clear he has his own agenda and isn't there just to teach the white man a life lesson. When Stanley hides Ben under a mat in the back seat of his car to sneak him into Soweto, there's no doubt who the outsider is.

Apartheid still reigned in 1989, and Palcy and several of her cast members put themselves at personal risk to craft this testament to the immorality and corruption of the entire system, one supported actively by virtually every white South African seen in the film. It's absolutely infuriating from start to finish, a record of unadulterated evil that viewers are unlikely ever to forget.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” The 1080p transfer is sharp throughout and looks good in motion as well. It might be a bit shy of Criterion's top-of-the-line transfers, but the image quality is quite strong.

Audio:
The linear PCM stereo mix provides a solid treatment of the film's terrific soundtrack, featuring music by Dave Grusin and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.

Extras:
The first extra is an interview of writer/ director Euzhan Palcy, conducted by critic Scott Foundas (2018, 35 min.) Palcy talks about her background and the heavy lifting she needed to do to get “A Dry, White Season” made at MGM. She's a very engaging speaker, and I found this to be one of the better director interviews I've seen in a while.

Palcy returns to analyze “Five Scenes” (29 min.) from the film, beginning with the early mass protest that ends in a police slaughter. Great stuff here too.

In 1995, Palcy met with South African President Nelson Mandela. Here, we get an excerpt (3 min.) from an interview she recorded with him in Johannesburg.

The disc also includes a short segment (5 min.) from a 1989 episode of NBC's “Today” show in which Bryant Gumbel interviews Donald Sutherland about the movie. And we also get a short (1 min.) video of Palcy receiving the 2017 Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, South Africa's highest distinction for foreign dignitaries.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by scholar and filmmaker Jyoti Mistry.

Final Thoughts:
I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but Euzhan Palcy's “A Dry, White Season” is the best film I've ever seen about Apartheid. As far as I know, this is the first Blu-ray release in North America of a film that surely deserves to be described as essential viewing. That's reason enough to call this one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Magnificent Ambersons


THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (Welles, 1942)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 27, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Orson Welles's “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) was the original Rocky Balboa. The boy genius's sophomore film suffered a vicious beatdown at the hands of studio executives, absorbing a whirlwind flurry of roundhouse cuts and haymaker reshoots. It lost its first fight but stayed on its feet, staggering and bloodied but stubborn and proud, winning the hearts of the public, becoming the ultimate people's champion, cherished by generations of film lovers as much for what it once was as for what it still is.

As a follow up to his star-making debut with “Citizen Kane” (1941), Welles chose a long-time favorite (relatively long – Welles was still just 26) novel to adapt, Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-winner “The Magnificent Ambersons” (published in 1918). Welles, born an old man pining for the better days of yore, was drawn to Tarkington's elegiac tale of an allegedly more genteel time now lost, the idyllic rural life of the titular family of landed gentry displaced by the postlapsarian industrial horrors of the early 20th century when quiet towns were doomed to “darken into cities.”

One of Welles's biggest surprises in his second directorial turn was not to cast himself at all (save as a narrator), despite having already portrayed the spoiled scion George Amberson Minafer in a radio adaptation in 1939. Another surprise was to cast B-movie cowboy star Tim Holt in the role instead. Holt is stiff, stilted, and altogether an inspired choice for the last of the “Magnificent” Ambersons, an anachronism ill-suited to his changing times from the day he was born. Just like Welles. Maybe.

The story roughly centers on the inevitable, hard-earned “comeuppance” of the bratty George, who sneers at the very notion of work as uncivilized. But even in the film's severely truncated version (lopped down more than forty minutes from its initial cut) writer/director Welles vividly depicts several generations of Ambersons, from the brooding patriarch (Richard Bennett) to George's devoted mother, Isabel (silent film star Dolores Costello). Several almost-Ambersons play major roles too, especially industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) whose newfangled automobile becomes the symbol of everything that's wrong with this fallen world, at least in the eyes of George and some of the Ambersons.

I have left the unforgettable Aunt Fanny for last only because Agnes Moorehead's brilliant performance deserves to be singled out. Deluded, conniving spinster Fanny could have been a one-note shrew, but Moorehead develops the frustrated spinster into one of the film's most complex and sympathetic personalities, and Fanny's scenes with young George spark with a surprising chemistry.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” may not be held up as a paradigm-shifting stylistic landmark like “Citizen Kane,” but Welles's formal ambitions are on full display with the frequent use of long takes, especially in the film's celebrated ballroom sequence (or what's left of it). Welles, working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (and then Harry J. Wild and then Russell Metty... it was a complicated shoot), experiments both with complex, sinuous camera movements as well as long takes with a relatively stationary camera, but with multiple bodies choreographed in motion. The film offers constantly fresh looks at familiar faces and places (the Amberson mansion is a character in its own right), a quality that has drawn viewers back time and again.

Welles already faced a tall order in trying to live up to the success of “Kane” but after the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during principal shooting, a whole new set of challenges arose. Welles was enlisted to assist with war propaganda and flew to Brazil to shoot a documentary intended to generate good will in South America. While there, Welles, for a variety of reasons, couldn't supervise post-production on “Ambersons” as closely as he wanted to. And when a 131-minute cut of the film received negative feedback from a preview audience, RKO executives, already nervous that the somber film wouldn't connect with war-time audiences, took control, ripping the guts out of the film and tacking on a hokey upbeat ending in which I swear you can almost see a skeptical Moorehead flipping off the assistant director. As far as we know, the studio simply disposed of the cut scenes altogether, leaving nothing but the current 88-minute version.

What remains of “The Magnificent Ambersons” is remarkable enough, but the whole project resonates even more deeply with viewers enchanted by the dream of the lost vision. The mutilated cut speaks to the faded glory of the pure, noble version now gone forever, just as the Tarkington/Welles story evokes the lost Eden of the Ambersons before all those belching automobiles ruined everything. Bruised and battered in its first fight, “The Magnificent Ambersons” has remained undefeated ever since.



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” from Criterion is astonishing, with rich black-and-white contrast and impressive image detail throughout. The Ambersons' mansion never looked so exquisite (not in home theaters anyway) and that ballroom sequence, oh my. This is a top-end effort from Criterion with no discernible flaws.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio isn't dynamic, but it's crisp and distortion-free. Nothing much to discuss here, really, just a solid, professional audio presentation. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion may not have been able to unearth the fabled 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but they've done their best to compensate by packing this Blu-ray with hours of meaningful extras.

Viewers can choose between two commentary tracks. The first is an import of a 1986 (!!) commentary by Robert L. Carringer. The second is a recent commentary by two of my favorite film critics, James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who come to the table with an impressive amount of research regarding Welles's original plans for the film versus the studio's butchering.

The disc also includes two new interviews by prominent Welles scholars. Historian Simon Callow (26 min.), author of a multi-volume biography on Welles, discusses the director's long-term relationship with the “Ambersons” project, from his first radio adaptation of the novel in 1939 to his dubious claim that one of the book's main characters was based on his father. He also talks about how the film's production was impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and Welles's subsequent involvement in the war effort. Historian Joseph McBride (29 min.), also a Welles biographer, touches on some of the same issues, but with a different focus.

In a feature titled “The Cinematographers” (15 min.), Welles scholar Francois Thomas combs through detailed documentation to differentiate the scenes shot by the film's multiple cinematographers, including Harry J. Wild, hired by Welles to replace the allegedly slow-working Stanley Cortez, and even a bit by Russell Metty.

Criterion has also included an extensive excerpt from the May 14, 1970 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” (36 min.) in which Welles, unusually nervous and tentative, holds court, spinning his usual combination of mesmerizing anecdotes and outright fibs. The show's other guest, Jack Lemmon, mostly just watches with amusement.

Bernard Herrmann scholar Christopher Husted (19 min.) reminds us that just as Welles's film was mutilated by the studio honchos, so too was Herrmann's score.

There's still more. The disc includes 36 minutes of audio excerpts from director Peter Bogdanovich's interviews with Welles, naturally those focusing on “Ambersons.” We also get an audio recording from a 1978 AFI Film Symposium called “Working with Welles” (30 min.) which includes several members of the Mercury Theater.

Criterion keeps it coming with two Radio Plays. The first is a warbly audio recording of the Oct 16, 1938 Mercury Theater adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel “Seventeen” (60 min.) with Welles in a starring role. Second is the Oct 29, 1939 adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (55 min.) with Welles playing George.

“Pampered Youth” was a 1925 silent-film adaptation of “Ambersons” by director David Smith. This feature is actually a 2-reel re-release in 1931 (28 min.) under the title “Two to One.” It's... not so good.

The collection wraps up with a scratchy Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The insert booklet, stapled to look like the draft of a script (yeah, I know, you're supposed to put brads in your script) rather than the usual square-bound booklet, includes essays by writers Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O'Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, as well as essay by Orson Welles about his father.

Final Thoughts:
For everyone who skipped down here: Wow, the original 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons”!!! It must be amazing. Too bad Criterion couldn't unearth it. What they've provided us, however, is a luminous high-def transfer of a gorgeous film and several hours of top-notch extras. This is obviously one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Coen, 2018)
Netflix, Release Date Nov 16, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

The singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) has numerous “nicknames, handles, appellations, and cognomens.” Some folks call him “The Harbinger of Death.” His own wanted poster dubs him “The Misanthrope” which Buster deems unfair; he greatly prefers to be known as “The San Saba Songbird” or, in a pinch, “The West Texas Tit.”

Buster, a murderous Looney Tunes character made flesh, is a crack shot, but there's reason to question his judgment in other matters, despite his sunny disposition and his impeccable white clothes. After he has disposed of the gambler Surly Joe (Clancy Brown) by “downright Archimedean” means, Buster entertains the entire saloon by celebrating Joe's death with a song and dance routine. Shortly after Buster belts out the prediction that his latest victim “won't be missed by anyone,” Surly Joe's brother (Danny McCarthy) appears on the scene to prove otherwise, cradling the corpse and sobbing “We've lost him!” Unmoved by this sincere display of grief, the crowd continues to hoot and holler at Buster's show-stopping number which, to be fair, is truly sensational.

Buster's faulty assessment plays to me like an oblique response to General William Westmoreland's infamous claim during the Vietnam War that “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as a Westerner.” I'm not claiming that the Coens intended that, though I've heard tell that some critics have already interpreted Buster as a symbol of American military intervention.

I'd rather let the movie sit for a few months before making any similar claims, but what's clear is that the West depicted in the movie is no place for the sensitive or the vulnerable, for anyone who does put a high price on life. Surly Joe's brother, for example, doesn't last long after his genuine expression of sorrow, courtesy of Buster who dispatches him swiftly, though not painlessly. And Buster's the white-clad singing cowboy hero.

Structured as six short films (if you love Buster, better enjoy him before he's gone) with no direct narrative connection, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” frequently underscores the plight of those who simply “don't belong” in this hardscrabble frontier. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment, a single woman (Zoe Kazan, absolutely flawless) heading west with a wagon train must rely on the kindness of strangers for her very survival. Said kindness turns out to be surprisingly abundant and yet may still not be sufficient, not for someone who just shouldn't there in the first place.

A more haunting example of this theme manifests in “The Meal Ticket” segment. A gruff impresario (Liam Neeson) barnstorms tiny frontier towns with his star attraction, a quadruple amputee Artist (Harry Melling, delicate and ethereal, like an ancestor of Edward Scissorhands). Belted into a makeshift chair on a tiny portable stage, The Artist entertains crowds by reciting great speeches and poems: “I met a traveler from an antique land...” Crowds? Well, at first maybe, but Old West America is about as interested in culture as is 21st century America. Once the new “freak” show loses his shock appeal, Neeson's businessman must decide how to best invest his money and time to adapt to fickle public tastes. The Artist, of course, will not be asked for his input.

An excessive focus on the commonalities risks ignoring the distinct pleasures of each stand-alone story. And there is perhaps no greater pleasure in the movie than watching Tom Waits embody the ultimate grizzled prospector, a near-solo performance of stubborn digging and cantankerous muttering, his eyes ever on the golden prize he calls Mr. Pocket. I've always loved Waits as an actor from his work with Jim Jarmusch, but he outdoes himself, and just about everyone else this year, in a virtuoso physical performance.

If forced to select the weakest of the stories, I'd probably choose the one in which James Franco plays a hapless bank robber. But this segment still offers some of the movie's best moments, including an eccentric turn by Stephen Root as a tough bank teller and perhaps the film's funniest line, when Franco, sent to the gallows for a second time (long story), turns to a fellow condemned prisoner about to get the noose, and, with a friendly smile, asks “First time?”

The Coens are, of course, masters of the medium by now, and “Buster Scruggs” showcases all of their usual strengths. Always adept at idiosyncratic dialogue and long-winded speeches, they are at complete ease with the quirky argot of the Old West. We witnessed that in “True Grit,” of course, but if you thought they were coasting on Charles Portis's words, well, they weren't.

The impeccably-cast film features great performances from top line names to veteran character actors: in the film's final and most mythic segment, Chelcie Ross may deliver the best monologue of all as an uncouth trapper sharing his life's philosophy (“People are like ferrets...”) In the space of six stories, “Buster Scruggs”covers the gamut from cartoon hilarity to classic tragedy, from quiet stretches to serial verbosity, from the wide open plains to the cramped quarters of a passenger carriage racing through the mist-shrouded night with a coachman who never stops before his destination.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently available on Netflix, and is playing in select theaters. Here's hoping Netflix will see fit to give the movie a proper Blu-ray release.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Freethinker


THE FREETHINKER (Watkins, 1994)
New Yorker Video/Project X, DVD, Release Date Nov 6, 2007
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Peter Watkins has spent a good portion of his career challenging media conventions. His films don't blur the line between fiction and non-fiction so much as they render the distinction irrelevant, at least for his work. When he employs documentary-like aesthetics in his historical fictions, he's not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, but rather to create a unique mode of address that cuts through the artifice of mainstream feature filmmaking. Any technique is fair game. Watkins “interviews” working-class 18th-century soldiers as they prepare for the Battle of “Culloden” (1964) and invites the friends and lovers of “Edvard Munch” (1974) to address the camera directly. “The Freethinker” (1994) sees Watkins continuing to refine his idiosyncratic strategies in ever more complex and startling ways.

Watkins has never been shy about discussing the challenges he has encountered in getting his films produced and distributed. In order to shoot his script about the Swedish playwright August Strindberg (a project initially commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute in 1979), Watkins thought way outside the box, all the way to Nordens Folk High School in Biskops-Arno, Sweden, where the director and his students shot the film over two years as part of a video production course he taught. Watkins wrote the script, but encouraged his student cast and crew to improvise and collaborate, prompting this description in the closing credits: “The film is the result of collective work from 1992-1994... under the supervision of Peter Watkins.”

Even with the collective's contribution, “The Freethinker” still bears a striking resemblance to Watkins's masterpiece, “Edvard Munch.” Like that film, “The Freethinker” is nominally a bio-pic about a celebrated Scandinavian artist, in this case Strindberg. Like “Edvard Munch,” the film jumps around in time, has characters that directly address the screen, and employs virtually any technique needed to make each scene work. However, “The Freethinker” creates an extra layer of reflexivity beyond “Munch.” Anders Mattson, the actor who portrays Strindberg, functions on at least three narrative levels. First, he plays the character of Strindberg. Second, he acts as an odd kind of narrator as he reads excerpts from Strindberg's plays, referring to them as “Strindberg's” rather than “mine.” Third, he appears as a version of himself, an actor playing a role in a film.

The entire film also inhabits multiple narrative levels. In addition to more standard re-enactments of moments from Strindberg's life, we also see scenes from his plays performed as they would have been in late 19th century Sweden. The movie goes fully navel-gazing by portraying details of its own production, as well as in sequences of a more indeterminate nature, such as when a crew member appears on screen to interview Strindberg... or perhaps Mattson. Further still, Watkins sometimes breaks with his own words as printed on screen, often railing against the injustices of the world's mass media (and quite persuasively, even at his most hectoring.) At some points, critics even take center stage to comment on the film's treatment of Strindberg. Add in the film's complex chronological shifting (Strindberg “dies” with an hour left to go) and you have a heady experience like few other films.

It's an experience not easily digested in a single sitting. The movie runs over four-and-a-half-hours, but as with the lengthy director's cut of “Edvard Munch” (220 min.), every scene feels essential. Watkins takes the road seldom traveled by bio-pic directors, refusing to portray his artist as a lone genius, but rather as a product, and a conduit, of the social and political forces of his time. Strindberg the artist is also shaped by his most intimate relationships, particularly by the original Miss Julie, his first wife Siri von Essen (played by Lena Settervall). Watkins's eye for socio-political detail can be downright exhaustive at times, perhaps to a fetishistic degree. If you've ever wanted to learn about the development of print journalism in 19th century Sweden, then buddy, this is the movie for you.

The movie is shot on analog video, and that look had a distancing effect for me at first, but once I became accustomed to it, I was completely drawn in, as I am to virtually any Peter Watkins project. The movie's treatment of Strindberg is so rich and so finely-layered it has few parallels in cinema, save perhaps for “Edvard Munch” or, in the realm of fiction, Fassbinder's “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” At the same time, I'm not sure I can say I really got to know Strindberg particularly well. “The Freethinker” offers so much it reminds the viewer of the impossibility of understanding a dynamic personality and vision in the space of a mere four or five hours.



Video:
The movie is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “The Freethinker” was shot on analog video (Beta SP) so the transfer can't do much to make it look great. Bright spots sometimes look overblown, and there's a dullness to the image that can't be helped. It ain't pretty, but you get used to it.

Audio:
The DVD offers a Dolby Digital Stereo audio mix. Optional English and French subtitles support the Swedish audio.

Extras:
Hey, the movie's over four hours. Even on two discs, there's no room for extras. The set does include a 16-page booklet with another self interview by Peter Watkins that's definitely worth checking out.

Final Thoughts:
“The Freethinker” is another great entry in “The Films of Peter Watkins” series from Project X/New Yorker Video. These titles may be hard to track down nowadays, and I haven't heard a whisper about any plans either to upgrade or re-release any of Watkins' movies on disc, but I'd hate for this series to wind up forgotten. I think Peter Watkins is one of the greatest and, perhaps, most unfairly overlooked directors of the past half century-plus, and the only way I can provide evidence for that claim is to point you movies like “The Freethinker” and “Edvard Munch.” And “Culloden” (1964). And “The War Game” (1965). Oh, and “La Commune” (2000), which I would include as one of the ten best films of the 21st century, if only I mistakenly believed that 2000 was the first year of the 21st century.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Edvard Munch


EDVARD MUNCH (Watkins, 1974)
Project X/New Yorker Video, DVD, Release Date Nov 13, 2007
Review by Christopher S. Long

A distant cliff with thick ridges running vertically down its face looms large on the screen. Rough, shadowy indentations pockmark the surface of this rocky landscape. Are we in the Alps? Maybe the Pyrenees? No, we're in the Oslo studio of Edvard Munch, and this craggy hillside is actually a close-up shot of the canvas on which Munch has built thick layer upon thick layer of paint. This topographic image is the culmination of a startling series of shots in which the increasingly frenetic artist paints, scrapes away, re-paints, re-scrapes, and nearly bores a hole through the canvas as he constantly revises his work. I cannot recall an instance in which the tactile elements of a painting have been captured so vividly on film, the scratch of a palette knife flensing away the excess paint further enhancing the effect. Then again, I have never seen a film quite like writer/director Peter Watkins' magnificent “Edvard Munch” (1974).

The film primarily covers a ten-year period from 1884-1893 (Munch from age 21 to 31), though it often returns to Munch's troubled childhood. Nineteenth-century Christiania (now Oslo) was plagued by disease, both of the consumptive and venereal strands, and the middle-class Munch family was not spared its blight. Edvard's mother, brother, and his beloved sister Sophie died when he was still a child, crippling losses that would haunt him his whole life.

In 1884, the young Munch (played by Geir Westby, who, like the rest of the cast, is a non-professional actor) belongs to a Bohemian intellectual circle led by Hans Jaeger (Kare Stormark). Jaeger's radical philosophy (a volatile mix of nihilism and anarchy) influenced Munch greatly, though Watkins contends that the painter's long-running, tempestuous affair with the mysterious Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas) proved even more crucial in shaping the painter's life. The story progresses through Munch's formative years as a professional artist, and details his battles both with personal demons and external demons: the art critics of 19th-century Europe.

As in most of his other films, Watkins employs a pseudo-documentary style to recreate historic events, but “Edvard Munch” does not “blur” the lines between documentary and fiction so much as it ignores them altogether. Watkins narrates in a dry, formal voice that provides historical and political context, and all of Munch's dialogue is drawn from his diaries and correspondence. But the film is hardly a staid “just the facts” historical report. Indeed, “Edvard Munch” is one of the most stylistically innovative films I've ever seen, radical enough to stand alongside any avant-garde project.

The film leaps back and forth through time. The elliptical editing conveys Munch's emotional state rather than simply connecting events in a standard biopic structure. As Munch scrapes frantically at his canvas, we return to a moment when his sister Sophie is dying of tuberculosis. Sometimes characters talk directly to the camera, either speaking on their own or answering the questions of an off-screen female voice. This disembodied voice has no diegetic source, but it doesn't matter. The actors sometimes improvise their lines, responding with their own opinions rather than from Watkins' script.

All of these creative tools (discontinuous editing, direct address to camera, etc.) have been used in other art-house films as Brechtian devices, but Watkins isn't trying to distance the viewer. Though the film has a certain reflexive quality, this hodge-podge of techniques creates the eerie sense that we are peering in on events as they are happening, 20th-century eyes directly witnessing the previous century, and the movie has an immediacy and a sense of physicality that lend it great affective power. Watkins has created a unique cinematic point-of-view that I struggle to describe even a decade after I first watched it. A free-associative, semi-omniscient perspective which leaves open all possibilities at all times? Eh, I'll keep trying. Any shot needed to convey the subtlest nuance is fair game. In Watkins' art, there are no rules save those meant to be broken.

No subject is off-limits either. Though the film centers on Munch's life, sometimes its scope expands to cover life in 19th-century Christiania where the bourgeoisie thrive, but the working class suffer from wretched labor conditions and rampant disease. Watkins is too politically engaged to romanticize Munch as a solitary genius. The artist is not just a product of his mentors (including August Strindberg as well as Jaeger), but also his society. His lingering melancholia is not an artistic indulgence, but the logical response of a sensitive intellect to the squalor and inequity he witnesses every day (some scholars have suggested Munch suffered from bipolar disorder, a subject not touched on in the film).

Munch had a restless mind, and frequently transformed his style, leaping from impressionism to naturalism to expression and most points between; he also experimented with multiple media including lithography and woodcutting. His paintings were aggressive and shocking, and agitated viewers didn't quite know what to make of them. All of this alienated the staid art critics of the day who derided Munch's work, prompting him to move to Paris and later to Berlin, though we wouldn't find acceptance anywhere until later in his career.

I don't know how much Watkins identifies with Munch, but he has previously described himself as a marginalized director whose politically-charged films have been suppressed by media and corporations who prefer tamer, more familiar fare. At the very least, it seems likely that Watkins takes keen pleasure in depicting Munch's critics as preening dullards who treat any deviation from the norm as evidence of incompetence, dementia, or even moral perversion.

“Edvard Munch” is the best film I have ever seen about an artist or the artistic process. Unlike most art biopics, Watkins does not rely on cheap epiphanies (Jackson Pollock watches a toppled paint can drip on the floor and, voila, he's fully realized his new vision!) to neatly explain a messy story. Instead, we see that Munch achieved inspiration by three primary methods: work, work, and more work. Painting, scraping, painting, scraping, Munch never stops pushing on and on. And while Munch's story is inevitably one of anguish, the film also expresses the joy and pride a dedicated artist can take in the process of creation. “Edvard Munch” is nothing short of a masterpiece. 



Video:
First, a brief explanation. Project X and New Yorker Video released “Edvard Munch” in two separate versions. The first single-disc release (from 2006) includes a shorter cut of the film (174 min.) and few extras. They later released (in 2007), a two-disc “Special Edition” (reviewed here) which includes the original full-length two-part cut of the film (220 min., an extra 46 min.) and several extras. One part is included on each of the two discs. For you real sticklers, the cover image I include below is of the first release. I couldn't find an image of the “Special Edition” cover but the only difference is that the cover includes the words “Special Edition 2-DVD Set.”

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film was originally shot on 16 mm. This digitally-remastered transfer inevitably looks very grainy and since the transfer is interlaces, you will see some instances of combing (boy, there's an old term from the pre-Blu-ray days). However, the image quality is solid enough, though I'd dearly love a high-def upgrade of this masterpiece.

Audio:
The DVD is presented with a Dolby Digital Mono audio mix. The sound quality is adequate. Optional English and French subtitles support the audio, which is mostly in Norwegian, though it some German, and Watkins' narration is in English.

Extras:
I suppose the 46 additional minutes could count as an extra compared to the first DVD release of the movie, but I strongly recommend viewers simply watch this complete version first before checking out the previous one.

The “Special Edition” includes three short extras about Edvard Munch. “Moments in the Life of Edvard Munch” (1957, 11 min.) and “The Munch Museum in Oslo” (1963, 10 min.) are short informational films that don't really add much to the main movie. “From Ekely, The City and the Artists” (1953, 12 min.) is much more interesting, providing a romanticized portrait of the artists' community in the suburbs of Oslo. It was filmed just seven years after Munch's death, and before construction of the Munch Museum.

A fourth short feature cuts together some of Munch's own silent-film recordings (6 min. total). They were shot on a 9.5 mm Baby Pathe and are quite blurry and probably of interest solely because Munch filmed them.

The “Special Edition” comes with a 56-page insert booklet. It includes a self-interview with/by Watkins as well as a full chapter from Joseph Gomez's book “Peter Watkins.”

Final Thoughts:
I think “Edvard Munch” is not only Peter Watkins' best film, but one of the greatest films ever made. I was even placed it in my all-time Top Ten. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect you'll at least agree that you've seen few movies like it, aside from other Peter Watkins movies, that is.

Project X/New Yorker Video released several Watkins films under the series “The Cinema of Peter Watkins” back in the mid-2000s, shortly before the Blu-ray revolution. I think it's one of the most exciting DVD series ever released, though more than a decade later, I now wish for Blu-ray upgrades for all of them. “Edvard Munch” is the crown jewel of the collection, but it includes many strong releases such as “The War Game and Culloden”, “Punishment Park”, “Privilege”, 'The Freethinker”, and more. They're all worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Punishment Park



PUNISHMENT PARK (1971, Watkins)
Project X/New Yorker Video, DVD, Release Date Nov 22, 2005
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Punishment Park takes place tomorrow, yesterday, or five years from now. It is also happening today.”

That's how writer/director Peter Watkins described his 1971 film on its release, so if you find the film disturbingly predictive of whatever time you first encounter it (for me, it was 2005, the rotten nadir of the W. Bush era), consider it evidence of Watkins' success.

In “Punishment Park,” released in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, President Nixon has enacted emergency legislation that permits anyone deemed a threat to national security to be detained indefinitely at an undisclosed location where they will be tried by a military tribunal granted special powers during this temporary (i.e. permanent) time of crisis. The population is hyper-polarized, and tensions between authoritarians and so-called radicals threaten to tear the social fabric apart.

The film primarily follows the stories of two groups of prisoners: Corrective Group 637 and Corrective Group 638. The first group has already been tried, while the second group awaits trial. To be tried under this emergency tribunal is, of course, the same as being found guilty, but there's some good news! The government has kindly granted each convict a choice: face a lengthy sentence in a military prison, or spend three days in Punishment Park.

What is Punishment Park? According to the government, it's a training course essential for law enforcement to prepare to battle the ever-growing threat of domestic terrorism. For the members of Corrective Group 637, Punishment Park is simply hell. They must cross a course through fifty miles of California desert to reach an American flag at the finish line, all while being pursued by police who, allegedly, will arrest them peacefully and remove them from the course if they are captured. Things don't quite work out in such a (law and) orderly fashion.

Like many of Watkins' other films, “Punishment Park” is constructed as a pseudo-documentary. A British film crew, represented periodically by Watkins' off-screen voice, interviews both prisoners and officers. The crew is ostensibly on scene to serve as impartial recorders, but inevitably wind up enmeshed in events that spiral out of control. Cinematographer Joan Churchill deserves credit for a nimble, athletic performance as the camera zooms across the uneven desert landscape to keep up with the hectic action; keep in mind that was the pre-digital era and Churchill was toting a 16-mm handheld camera through the blazing heat day after day.

With the stated goal of providing a forum in which all sides could be heard, Watkins cast the film with non-professional actors who were encouraged to speak their minds in a largely unscripted affair. Passions burn hot, and the untrained actors sometimes reach a shrill pitch that allows for little to be heard aside from cries of “Pig! Pig! Pig!” but Watkins' choices allow for the venting of authentic anger that remains potent today, a record of a polarized nation that is both timely and timeless.

Watkins may have provided everyone a chance to speak, but he isn't shy about picking a side. The trial of Corrective Group 638 is revealed as a farce from the outset, with a ranting judge denying all objections and even ordering one defendant bound and gagged in court, a reference to Bobby Seale's treatment during the Chicago Seven Trial. Out in Punishment Park, the authorities resort to brutality so abruptly and so vigorously, it's difficult to view them as anything but the “fascist pigs” that protestors claim them to be.

Many critics at the time derided “Punishment Park” as absurdly alarmist, perhaps even irresponsibly so. Certainly, parts of the film seem overwrought, exacerbated by some amateur performances that feel awkward and stilted. As far as being absurdly alarmist or too over-the-top, well, I mean, I'm writing this in 2018, and literally while I was working on this paragraph, the president proudly proclaimed himself a “nationalist” to a cheering crowd, so, uh...



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This low-budget film, produced for about $65,000, was shot in 16 mm and later blown up to 35 mm. Because of the blow-up, the image on this standard definition transfer from Project X/New Yorker Video is grainy and sometimes missing sharp detail, but the overall image quality is solid though, of course, a high-def upgrade would be welcome.

Audio:
The film is presented with a Dolby Digital Mono audio mix. The sound is efficient, if not very dynamic. Optional English and French audios support the English audio.

Extras:
The film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by author Dr. Joseph A. Gomez.

In the lengthy Director's Introduction (27 min.), a deadly serious Peter Watkins discusses the production history of the film, and describes in crystal clear terms what he intended to accomplish with “Punishment Park.”

“The Forgotten Faces” (1961, 18 min.) is one of Watkins's earliest short films. He re-enacts the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 with an amateur theatrical group in Canterbury, and the finished product shares a lot in common with “Punishment Park.”

The disc also includes a text essay by media critic Scott MacDonald taken from the Spring 1979 issue of “Film Criticism” and you can also access the original 1971 press kit for the movie.

The thick insert booklet includes a lengthy excerpt from Dr. Gomez's 1979 book, “Peter Watkins.”

Final Thoughts:
In honor of Peter Watkins's impending birthday, I'm declaring this Watkins Week at DVDBlu Review. I'll be posting several reviews of DVD releases from the ProjectX/New Yorker Video series “The Cinema of Peter Watkins.” He's one of my favorite filmmakers, and he's certainly a unique voice in world cinema. I hope you'll get the chance to check out some of his work.

I wouldn't rate “Punishment Park” as one of Watkins' top movies (like the extraordinary “Edvard Munch” and “La Commune”), but it showcases his signature pseudo-documentary style (a description that fails to do justice to one of the few genuinely unique voices and visions in world cinema) and packs quite a force even at its most strident moments. “Punishment Park” was controversial enough in its day that it never secured a proper theatrical release, and was mostly shown on college campuses before all but disappearing from the public's attention. This 2005 DVD release was the first chance many American viewers had to see Watkins's work, and it's well worth tracking down if you can still find it.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Andrei Rublev



ANDREI RUBLEV (Tarkovsky, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 25, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Fresh off the remarkable commercial and critical success of his debut feature, “Ivan's Childhood” (1962), Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was under pressure to top himself, or at least to prove that he was no one-hit wonder.

Some directors might have played it safe while still building a reputation. Tarkovsky instead chose to shoulder the burden of filming the story of Andrei Rublev, a 15th century Russian icon painter who had only recently (late 1950s) been championed by Soviet authorities as a national hero. Not content with the social and political responsibilities entailed by such a project, the sophomore filmmaker made it clear from the start he had greater ambitions than crafting a mere artist's biopic. Indeed, “Andrei Rublev” (1966), co-scripted by Tarkovsky and future director Andrei Konchalovsky, would not feature a single shot of the title character wielding a paint brush. Instead, Tthe three-hour epic portrays nothing less than a whole culture, situating the artist not as a lone genius, but rather as a conduit for the passions and fears of an entire people. Their story is inextricable from his.

Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is only nominally the protagonist of the film whose title bears his name. Rublev wanders in and out of the movie, often disappearing for lengthy stretches of time throughout the seven loosely connected short stories that structure the film. Tarkovsky is interested in virtually everybody in this medieval kingdom, focusing his attention on both peasants and the cruel autocrats who exploit them, on dreamers and laborers and sometimes even on angels.

“Andrei Rublev” is a film of considerable beauty and cruelty. In the opening segment, a man soars majestically above the countryside in a makeshift balloon only to crash hard. In the closing sequence, a young craftsman slogs through the mud and has workers whipped on his way to casting a giant bell that rings deep and true throughout the land.

When he is introduced, Rublev he has already achieved modest fame as an icon painter, but his rise to legendary status will be a circuitous one. The ascetic monk needs to learn more than just the Scriptures to become a true chronicler of the people, and his meandering journey introduces him to many surprising experiences, ranging from a Tatar invasion, snow inside a church, a sustained vow of silence, and even a naked pagan ritual in the woods (always the best kind of ritual).

Shooting in stark black-and-white, Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov take full advantage of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame, often employing extended tracking shots that describe lengthy arcs or even repeat full circles. The staging of the Tatar raid that comprises the film's fifth sequence is a logistical miracle that constantly astonishes, and, in typical fashion, spends time alongside both invaders and their victims. Many descriptions of “Andrei Rublev” employ the adjective “tactile” with good reason. The movie's medieval Russia is built out of mud and blood and stone and straw, creating a concrete sense of time and place that embodies Tarkovsky's desire to make this “a film of the earth.”

After a long, sometimes exhausting journey, Tarkovsky ends his film with an eruption of color and passion. The camera pushes in tight for our first extended close-up look at Rublev's icons as they exist today, now faded and flaking but still captivating and, yes, as tactile today as the 15th century world viewers have lived in for the past three hours. It's a transcendent final note of Bressonian potency, one of the most extraordinary moments in the oeuvre of one of cinema's most extraordinary filmmakers.



Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Criterion booklet doesn't provide much information about the source for this transfer, describing it only as “a new digital transfer … created in high-definition resolution … (with) additional restoration... performed by the Criterion Collection.”

This two-disc set includes two cuts of the film, Tarkovsky's approved 183-minute “Andrei Rublev” and also the initial 206-minute version released as “The Passion of Andrei Rublev” and later subjected to significant cuts mandated by Russian censors.

Disc One includes the 183-minute version and has clearly benefited from a good deal of restoration. Image resolution is sharp throughout as is the black-and-white contrast, all while preserving a rich grainy look that enhances that “tactile” feel of the movie. If you've seen this on Criterion's old 1999 DVD release (this release also use Spine Number 34), it's a massive upgrade. Disc Two has the 206-minute version and it hasn't had nearly as much restoration (if any), showing plenty of minor speckling and other damage. It's still fine, but could use a thorough restoration of its own.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono audio track on “Andrei Rublev” (the 183-minute cut) is clean and efficient with no evident distortion or dropoff. “Andrei Rublev” had optional subtitles which support the Russian audio. “The Passion of Andrei Rublev,” the 206-minute cut on Disc Two, has burned-in subtitles.

Extras:
This two-disc Blu-ray set features two cuts of the film, as described in the Video section above. Disc Two includes only the 206-minute cut released as “The Passion of Andrei Rublev.” Disc One contains the 183-minute “Andrei Rublev” and all of the supplemental features. And, boy, has Criterion included plenty of them.

“The Steamroller and The Violin” (1961, 45 min.) is Tarkovsky's first publicly-released film, his student thesis. It tells a sentimental story of a young boy picked on by the other kids for always practicing his violin. He perks up when he meets a construction worker who lets him drive a steamroller and helps him to be a bit more “manly.”

“The Three Andreis” (1966, 19 min.) is a short making-of film by Dina Musatova which primarily focuses on Tarkovsky during the editing process of “Andrei Rublev” though we also get some footage of screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky on set.

“On The Set of 'Andrei Rublev'” (5 min.) consists of snippets of silent footage of Tarkovsky at work.

“Tarkovsky's 'Andrei Rublev': A Journey” (29 min.) is a new documentary by Louise Milne and Sean Martin. It combines interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, actor Nikolai Burlyaev, Tarkovsky's personal assistant Olga Surkova, Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson, and critic Dmitri Solynsky. They cover a wide range of subjects, including the censorship problems Tarkovsky faced in his home country.

The disc also includes an interview with film scholar Robert Bird (2018, 27 min.) He provides more information about the film's production as well as a closer analysis of some of the film's elusive supportive characters, along with a discussion of the film's delayed release in multiple countries.

Filmmaker Daniel Raim also provides a new video essay (13 min.) consisting mostly of Tarkovsky's own words, read over footage from the film.

We also get an older (1998) selected-scene commentary by scholar Vlada Petric, and the U.S. Rerelease Trailer (1 min.) from Janus.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman and some 1962 remarks by Andrei Tarkovsky, translated by Robert Bird.

Final Thoughts:
If “Andrei Rublev” is a biopic, it's a biography of an entire culture. Few films have created such a palpable sense of time and place, one that feels every bit as modern as it does medieval. Criterion has provided a strong high-def transfer along with an impressive array of supplemental features, along with two separate cuts of one of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpieces.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Memories of Underdevelopment


MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Gutierrez Alea, 1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date 8/28/2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

In a silent exchange, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) bids farewell to his wife at the Havana airport, a scene the handheld camera almost seems to pick up by accident. Though his wife is heading off to Miami for good, Sergio doesn't seem particularly perturbed to stay behind alone.

Then again, nothing much seems to truly touch the suave playboy. It's 1961 and revolution has just swept his island home, but he whiles his days away either knocking about aimlessly in his swanky apartment, trying on his wife's stockings out of sheer boredom, or cruising the streets looking for young women to charm. Pity poor Elena (Daisy Granados) for being one of the first to catch Sergio's eye; he'll soon grow as bored with the teenage naif as he does with everything else in life. His crass treatment of the young girl (seduced and abandoned!) will eventually lead to a courtroom case where his lofty status in the former social hierarchy may or may not save him in the revolutionary order.

But that capsule summary misrepresents writer/director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), widely hailed as one of the great masterpieces of Cuban cinema. Gutiérrez Alea's film only nominally follows the barest sketch of a plot. Instead, the film employs a dizzying array of audiovisual strategies to contrast the personal with the historical, a history playing out with equal force in both the past and the present.

Set in 1961 and 1962, essentially between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film mixes in ample doses of actuality footage from newsreels to still photographs. Sergio paces around his apartment while tanks rumble through the streets of Havana. Sergio expresses his idle thoughts in voiceover (“This island is a trap”) to nobody but himself; Fidel Castro spits fire to an entire nation at a fist-pounding press conference. Editor Nelson Rodríguez performs a minor miracle in deftly stitching all the disparate sources together in startling and provocative ways.

Sergio does everything he can to insulate himself from both his own past and his country's present. He laughs while listening to an audio recording of an argument he had with his wife, but when the film flashes back to depict the actual moment, even the faintest illusion of Sergio's cultivated aloofness is demolished; he is a coward and a bully. He can ignore those tanks rolling through the streets as long as he wants to, but they'll still be knocking down the walls of his apartment building any day now.

Gutiérrez Alea adapted a short novel by the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the script along with the director. While the film savagely critiques the detached privilege and willful blindness of its wealthy protagonist, its attitude towards the Cuban Revolution is more ambiguous. Sergio has good reason to hide away in his fortress of privilege, and perhaps his wife was the smart one in showing the initiative and foresight to flee rather than staying behind because it was easier and more comfortable. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The camera negative suffered from “advanced vinegar syndrome” which required the use of an interpositive print to replace multiple reels. The extensive restoration involved a host of entities including Cineteca di Bologna, L'Immagine Ritrovata, the George Lucas Family Foundation, and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.

The massive restoration project has certainly paid off. Though the occasional scene shows some signs of damage (mostly a few shots just looking a bit softer than the rest), the image quality is generally quite sharp. The black-and-white contrast isn't quite as sharp, but still strong. Few viewers have ever seen the film looking this good.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is adequate if not particularly robust. A few pops and hisses, the occasional modest dropoff, but all due to damage to the sound negative. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.

Extras:
Criterion has stacked this new Blu-ray release with a diverse array of supplementary features, some made just for the Criterion release, others culled from archival sources.

The collection begins with two new interviews recorded by Criterion. In the first (2018, 19 min.), critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora discuss Gutiérrez Alea's career, noting the esteemed status he held in Cuba's film community when he released “Memories of Underdevelopment” in 1968. This piece also emphasizes the director's focus on filmmaking as a communal effort. In another new interview (2018, 16 min.) novelist/screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes shares his ideological perspective when writing “Memories,” both the book and then the screenplay.

The disc also includes two recent interviews from 2017. Actress Daisy Granados (9 min.) talks about working with Gutiérrez Alea; Elena wasn't her first prominent role, but it was a major breakthrough for her. Editor Nelson Rodríguez (16 min.) discusses the rewards and challenges of working on a film project that didn't rely on a fully-fixed script. Gutiérrez Alea gave him a lot of latitude in the editing room, forcing Rodríguez to really push himself. He notes that edited archival footage (which, itself, was already edited) was the most difficult part. This is my favorite feature on the disc.

We also get an audio-only interview with Gutiérrez Alea, conducted in 1989. It runs 11 minutes and I wouldn't call it revelatory, but it's of interest.

The lengthiest supplemental feature on the disc is “Titón: From Havana to 'Guantanamera'” (2008, 96 min.), a documentary by Mirtha Ibarra, the director's widow. Ibarra notes that this documentary is her remembrance, but that “I want other to tell me about him.” She begins by talking to the director's sister about his childhood, then to numerous friends, co-workers and admirers.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Final Thoughts:
I don't possess the requisite knowledge to assess what Gutiérrez Alea's is saying about post-revolutionary Cuba. I can understand, however, why “Memories of Underdevelopment” is widely heralded as on the greatest Cuban films ever made. Criterion has provided an excellent Blu-ray release, featuring a high-def transfer of an extensively restored print and an array of insightful supplements. This will no doubt feature prominently on many year-end lists of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Dragon Inn


DRAGON INN (Hu, 1967)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 17, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Writer/director King Hu's wuxia masterpiece “Dragon Inn” (1967) opens not with a flurry of whirling, clanging swords, but with a flurry of voice-over narration. Wisely packing all of the film's exposition into a few minutes, the narrator situates the film in the Ming Dynasty (1457 A.D. for Western audiences) against a backdrop of political intrigue, which basically boils down to the line: “Eunuchs have seized power at the palace.” Eunuchs? Oh yeah, this is gonna be a wild ride.

Beginning with a sense of the grand historical epic, the film quickly pares away all extraneous elements to pursue a simple, focused plot. The chief eunuch Cao Shao-qin (Bai Ying) has framed the loyal general Yu Qian for treason; the general is executed and the Yu family sent into exile. Eager to prevent any future problems, Cao secretly dispatches his forces to tear the surviving Yus “up by the roots.” Good guys race the bad guys (both sides being blessed with near-supernatural martial prowess) to defend the Yu family, and everyone meets at the title location, which provides the setting for the bulk of the film's action.

The Dragon Inn is a modest structure on a dusty road to nowhere in rural China, but King Hu went to great pains to construct his set with authentic, sturdy wooden material. After all, we're going to spend a lot of time at the inn and it will need to stand up a beating from both sides, corrupt government forces and the loose-knit collection of travelers and knights-errant who show up to combat them.

Master swordsman Xiao Shao-zi (Hu veteran Shih Chun) enjoys the first major confrontation with the evil Eastern Depot forces. In fact, he enjoys it over a good meal. Sitting alone in a dining room amidst a brigade of opponents, he calmly sips his bowl of noodles while deftly avoiding a bottle of poisoned wine and effortlessly snatching the occasional stray dagger tossed his way. He hardly even stands up, let alone break a sweat.

The sequence is so lengthy, it comes as a mild surprise that Xiao won't be the sole focus of the action, at least from the hero side. He is soon joined both by a pair of traveling brothers, one of whom turns out to actually be a sister, Miss Zhu (Shangkuan Ling-fung), one of the many great female action heroes King Hu brought to the screen, as well as by the innkeeper who's no slouch in the fighting department himself.

Hu, working with action choreographer Han Ying-chieh (who also plays one of the chief baddies), balances stillness with sudden bursts of action to great effect. In one major assault on the Dragon Inn, Miss Zhu strides methodically forward only to suddenly dodge a volley of arrows and then to just as abruptly find herself surrounded by warriors who appear almost out of thin air. In most duels, the combatants stalk each other, circling warily as they wait for the single sign of weakness that invites them to strike. Measure twice, slice once. All filmed in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen, which Hu and cinematographer Hua Hui-ying exploit to its very edges.

There's little doubt about which side will win, but Hu ratchets up the anticipation by withholding the battle with the evil Cao, renowned throughout the land as the greatest of all swordfighters, until the very end. The heroes will need to work together to defeat him, and they even employ a nasty trick to even the odds: they ruthlessly mock Cao for being a eunuch. Darned if those “I guess you don't have much to lose down there” jokes don't actually seem to hit home, as if he's never heard them before. It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the poor genocidal warlord – after all he was the victim of a horrible mutilation as a child but, nah, you're still cheering for him to get decapitated. Might as well lose it up top too, eh, buddy? C'mon, that really hurts!

“Dragon Inn” was King Hu's first feature after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and it was a massive box-office hit, one that cemented his credentials as an independent filmmaker. It has also come to be seen as one of the defining films of the wuxia genre, a reference point for directors such as Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark, Ang Lee, and even Tsai Ming-liang, if in a rather idiosyncratic way. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film was digitally restored in 2013 by The Ministry of Culture and Chinese Taipei Film Archive, providing the source for this new 1080p transfer, supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying. “Dragon Inn” is a gorgeous movie that gets a real showcase in this new digital transfer, featuring sharp image detail throughout and a subtle, naturalistic color palette. Looks fantastic, as expected from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and does a fine job of snapping off those wooden percussive clacks that supplement the action scenes so wonderfully. No distortion or drop off is evident. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin dialogue.

Extras:
The extras kick off with an interview (2018, 10 min.) with actress Shangkuan Ling-feung, who opens by explaining why she's conducting the interview in full martial arts costume. 'Cause she feels like it, that's why. She's quite a lively subject, delighted to share her honest impressions of director King Hu: “he had a very big head.” “Dragon Inn” was her film breakthrough, and she obviously remains very proud of it as well as the impressive career she built afterward. This is a lot of fun.

Criterion has also included an interview (2016, 11 min.) with actor Shih Chun, who also credits “Dragon Inn” with launching his career as the knight-errant of choice for discerning wuxia fans. He also discusses King Hu's fondness for the Peking Opera and its influence on the film.

In “Art In Action” (2018, 25 min.), author and critic Grady Hendrix analyzes a fight scene from the film, while also providing more background for the film, referring to “Dragon Inn” as “ground zero” for the modern action film, not just the wuxia genre.

The disc also includes a short newsreel (2 min.) touting the film's successful premiere, and a Re-Release Trailer (2 min.)

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Andrew Chan.

Final Thoughts:
“Dragon Inn” certainly wasn't the first wuxia film, but it's a landmark blockbuster in the genre, as much as “Goldfinger” was to the modern action film. This is the second King Hu film in the Criterion Collection after “A Touch of Zen” (1971) and here's hoping it's not the last.