Monday, January 29, 2018


Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 30, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Based on a real 1906 coal mine accident in France but updated to 1930-ish and transplanted to the French-German border, G.W. Pabst's “Kameradschaft” (1931) opens on a note of despair. Not the disaster that will claim the lives of many miners, but rather the deep-seated nationalist divisions responsible for millions more deaths. German workers try to cross the French border each day, but are turned back so they won't steal jobs from French miners who might have steady work, but little more, and surely not enough to share with foreigners. Tensions manifest on more personal terms when a German man in a French bar abruptly finds himself surrounded by a mob itching for a fight.

Centuries-old ethnic tensions are quickly forgotten, however, when the first underground explosion sends a plume of black smoke belching into the sky above the French coal town. The warning “Gas! Clear out!” is met from across the border by the cry “A miner is a miner!” as German workers spring into action to help their French compatriots, though only after a struggle to secure permission from their bosses, who don't necessarily feel the same sense of solidarity as the proletariat.

Just a few years into his sound film career, Pabst uses cinema's newest dimension to remarkable effect, most notably with the relentless clanging on metal pipes used to signal rescuers. Creaking and rumbling, both near and distant, constantly heightens the sense of imminent danger as one section of the mine after another gives, soon leaving little hope for salvation, little but still some. After the unrelenting grimness of his World War I movie, “Westfront 1918” (1930), Pabst appears more inclined to believe in the potential of a happy ending as long as good people work together towards a common cause.

Some of the stage sets are a bit too large to evoke the true claustrophobia one might expect from a mining disaster, but the wider space gives Fritz Arno Wagner, one of the most celebrated German cinematographers of the era (ever heard of the Wagner projects “Nosferatu” and “M”?), ample room to explore every corner of these crumbling rooms with highly calibrated precision. It really is a remarkably filmed movie – I'm thinking in particular right now of the way the camera traces the miners' desperate search for a ringing phone amidst the rubble, hoping to preserve their one last longshot at salvation, but Pabst and Wagner concoct one astonishing shot after another.

Of course, the film doesn't suggest that one instance of solidarity will erase the nationalist stain. The tragicomic spectacle of a marker noting the exact spot of the French-German border about half a mile underground provides testament to the enduring stupidity of humans from all countries, but “Kameradschaft” also argues that they occasionally have the capacity to achieve something transcendent.

The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, an unusual ratio used in the earliest years of sound cinema. The 2014 restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek was created from a 35 mm duplicate positive of the German version of the film from the BFI archives, but the final scenes were taken from a 35 mm nitrate original camera negative of the French version from the CNC in Paris. The high-def transfer isn't nearly as strong as the one on Criterion's release of Pabst's “Westfront 1918.” It looks a bit soft at times and somewhat unnaturally smooth, less grainy than one would like. There are also several instances of damage visible throughout, no doubt endemic to the source prints, as well as a few missing frames skipped along the way. And the quality drops off notably at the end. Still, it's a strong enough presentation for such a fine film.

The linear PCM mono audio track has a few dropoffs, with a particularly noticeable one at the end when we switch to the French source print, and has an overall hollow, tinny quality. It's OK, but nothing special, and it's clear enough throughout. Optional English subtitles support the German and French audio.

Criterion hasn't quite stacked the disc with extras as they usually do, but we get nearly an hours' worth of illuminating interviews.

First up, film scholar Hermann Barth (2016, 30 min.) discusses both Pabst's career and the film's production, with the helpful observation that Pabst was actually more popular in France than in Germany at the time, making the choice of subject matter for this film a natural fit. Barth also offers a detailed analysis of the script in various drafts, and the changes when the project was finally brought to screen.

Film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak (2016, 15 min.), also featured on Criterion's “Westfront 1918” release, returns with more information, including the fact that the film was originally released without subtitles, so French viewers wouldn't understand the German speakers, and vice-versa. He also talks briefly about Pabst's career after the film, including both his brief move to Hollywood in the early '30s and his unfortunate return to Austria at the end of the decade.

We also get an audio-only interview with the film's editor Jean Oser from 1988 (12 min.) Some of the video played with his audio shows an alternate cut for the film's French release.

The insert booklet includes an essay by author and critic Luc Sante as well as the short 1930 text by writer Karl Otten on which the film was partially based.

Final Thoughts:
Pabst's career peak may not have extended long past the early '30s, but Criterion's dual releases of “Westfront 1918” and “Kameradschaft” prove clearly he had little trouble negotiating the transition to sound. This lean thriller may not quite be what you expect from the director if, like me, you know him best from films like “Pandora's Box” (1929), but it's tense, briskly-paced and quite riveting.

Westfront 1918

WESTFRONT 1918 (Pabst, 1930)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 30, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

The naivete of a virginal student, the cheerfulness of a working-class Bavarian man, the hard-earned experience of an army lieutenant, the reluctant stoicism of of another infantry grunt – a wide gamut of personality traits and defense mechanisms, each pierced with equal disregard by steel-core bullets in G.W. Pabst's grim World War I movie, “Westfront 1918” (1930).

Pabst is best known today for his two silent Louise Brooks vehicles, “Pandora's Box” (1929) and “Diary of A Lost Girl” (1929), but most of his sound films aside from “The Threepenny Opera” (1931) remain largely overlooked. Criterion's twin releases this week, “Westfront 1918” and “Kameradschaft”(1931), prove that the great Austrian director made the transition to sound as smoothly as anyone.

“Westfront 1918” begins with the battle away from the front lines, as a group of soldiers relentlessly paw at a young woman (“Mine next!”) who has a full-time job fending off their advances before finding her way into the arms of her young lover, the aforementioned student. Later, the film will focus on the desperate straits of the German citizens suffering from wartime shortages, including endless food lines and a soldier's wife forced into dire measures to pay the bills while her husband is at war.

For all the attention lavished on the homefront, Pabst and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda, adapting a novel by Ernst Johannsen, reach their heights when evoking the horrors of life and death in the trenches. Bravery is in no short supply, but it's defined not by grand heroic gestures, rather by the ability to endure the constant terror of slaughter, as likely to come from errant “friendly” fire as from the enemy hidden a few hundred yards away in the other trenches.

Death can arrive from anywhere and at any time. A soldier reaches to test a small wound on his neck and just has time to exclaim “Well, I'll be” before pitching forward. A small group of terrified men try to prop up a crumbling wall in one of their makeshift shelters, as the very structure built to protect them now threatens to bury them alive. There is nowhere to hide, and there never will be.

Like the best directors exploring the uncharted dimensions of sound cinema, Pabst doesn't pour on the sound design simply to simulate realism, but deploys sound selectively for specific expressive effects. The low whistle of an incoming shell is all the more frightening because of the relative silence it shatters. Pabst shot many scenes silently, layering in sound in post-production, freeing the camera to guide as fluidly as in his earlier films, though he also used synchronized sound in the few more dialogue-heavy sequences.

“Westfront 1918” generates much of its considerable power from the array of faces and bodies of all kinds documented by the camera, but never more so than during the hellscape that ends the movie, a makeshift hospital littered with the dead and dismembered, the living still unable to believe they no longer have legs or arms. The film's final note hardly inspires even the faintest shred of hope as a helpless man criesout for water. We fade-out before learning if anyone is left to hear him.

The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 ratio, a narrower ratio employed in the early days of sound film. The original camera negative is lost, and this 2014 restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek relies on a 35 mm duplicate positive held at BFI, and a 35 mm duplicate negative from Praesans-Film AG to replace shots missing from the positive print. Considering the extensive restoration necessary, this high-def transfer looks remarkably sharp and shows off a grainy depth with surprising detail even in some of the darker scenes. There are a few instances of damage visible, but the final product is quite impressive.

The linear PCM mono audio track sounds a bit hollow but is otherwise clear and consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Criterion has unearthed one unexpected feature, a lengthy (71 min.) interview with several World War I vets, both German and French, who discuss their reactions to the film. As a group, they find it quite powerful and realistic. The interview was originally aired (along with the film) on a Nov 12, 1969 episode of the French TV program “Les Dossiers de l'Ecran.”

The disc also includes an archival audio-only interview (1988, 3 min.) with the film's editor Jean Oser, who mostly discusses how his early approach to what later would come to be known as Foley sound work.

We also get a new interview (2016, 18 min.) with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He contrasts Pabst's film with Lewis Milestone's “All Quiet on the Western Front,” released at almost the same time, and then provides some fascinating details about the production of Pabst's film as well as about some of the cast members.

Finally, the disc includes a Restoration Demonstration (9 min.), featuring members of the team at Deutsche Kinemathek. I'm always riveted by this restoration featurettes and wish they were longer.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author and critic Luc Sante.

Final Thoughts:
Many viewers know Pabst past as a master of silent cinema, but his first sound film ranks comfortably among his very best. Criterion has provided a strong high-def transfer of this recently restored film along with a solid collection of extra features. Obviously, this release is strongly recommended.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes

Criterion Collection (Eclipse Set), DVD, Release Date Jan 23, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

During the Nazi Occupation, French director Claude Autant-Lara reeled off a series of box-office hits that struck a chord with audiences eager for a romantic escape from desperate times. He extended his commercial success through the post-war years, but then suddenly found himself under attack from an unexpected source.

Francois Truffaut's now-famous 1954 critique of “A Certain Tendency” in French cinema primarily targeted screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost for their staid literary adaptations, but since they wrote many of Autant-Lara's most successful films (including all the films in this set) the director took heavy collateral damage and increasingly found his work marginalized as an exemplar of the dreaded “tradition of quality.” This new four-film box set from Eclipse suggests that the scorn was mostly unwarranted, and that a concerted critical effort at latter-day redemption is equally unnecessary.

“Le Mariage de Chiffon” (1942) is typical of most of the set. Pleasant, efficient, and almost instantly forgettable, it features Odette Joyeux, the stand-out star of the set, as a sheltered 16-year-old from an aristocratic family who is pursued by a much older military officer (Andre Luguet). Chiffon, however, has her heart set on another much older man who also happens to be her uncle (Jacques Dumesnil). OK, he's actually the brother of her step-father but still... I guess the times were just different as this story was apparently considered charming. Joyeux was nearly thirty at the time and hardly makes a pretense at actually playing an innocent teen, blunting some of the gross-out factor.

The plot is largely forgettable (did I already use that word?), but the film evokes some of the romance of the earl days of aviation as good old Uncle Marc risks everything to be first in flight. The faithful house servant Jean is also brought to life quite gamely by Pierre Larquey. A graceful, unobtrusive camera glides through many scenes, underscoring the delicate, audience-pleasing romance of... an underage girl finally hooking up with her uncle.

Anyway, it's just fine, but I can't say the same thing for “Lettres D'Amour” (1942) where the light, romantic touch tilts into vapidity. Less than a year after playing a teenager, Joyeux now plays a widow who gets enmeshed in a mistaken-identity caper in mid-19th century France, a convoluted tale involving Emperor Napoleon III, a lawyer, and nobody else that really matters much. While the camerawork remains smooth here, the editing is sometimes clunky, including a sequence when one character steals an object and is shown in multiple cuts leaving the room, walking away from the house, then entering yetanother room, a deft manipulation of scene transitions right out of the Tommy Wiseau school of filmmaking.

Fortunately, the next film, “Douce” (1943), is the stand-out feature in the set. Another tale of dueling romances, “Douce” strikes a much more serious tone. Joyeux returns to playing an aristocratic teen, or something close to a teen, who uncovers a plot between her governess (Madeleine Robinson) and the family's estate manager (Roger Pigaut) and decides to stop it by seducing the manager, a long-time crush of hers. The wealthy household is ruled by Douce's fiery grandmother (Marguerite Moreno) while her sad-eyed father (Jean Debucourt), a widower, largely plays the helpless bystander as the drama boils over. Marred by a final twist so abrupt it comes off as absurd, “Douce” still packs a punch and features Joyeux's most compelling performance in the set.

“Sylive et le Fantome” (1946) was released just after the war, and marries Autant-Lara's penchant for light romance with the ghost story genre as Joyeux, yet again playing a teen, falls for a long-dead man who played a role in her family's past. The story is pretty silly, but the film remains of interest because the ghost (or one of the ghosts) is played by the great Jacques Tati, in his first feature-film role. You honestly don't need to know more than that, so let's move on.

All in all, the collection comprises a group of mildly entertaining movies, not particularly noteworthy, but also not the abominations some assumed they were after Truffaut's critique. Are they therefore worth your time? Consider one complicating factor before making your decision.

Autant-Lara's public career ended in total disgrace. By the 1980s, he had embraced far-right politics and entered the European Parliament with Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, launching a series of anti-Semitic attacks, and spewing Holocaust denial propaganda.

Many a think-piece has been written on how to approach the works of great artists who leave behind troubling legacies, but less thought is devoted to mediocre artists who do the same. I usually agree with the “separate the art from the artists” school of thought, but it also depends on how worthwhile the art is. I intend to keep listening to Richard Wagner for the rest of my life, but I feel I can safely live without any more Ted Nugent even if “Cat Scratch Fever” is pretty decent.

All art should be preserved and preferably be made available to as wide an audience as is feasible. But while you might be curious about a sweet, sunny, mildly diverting romantic farce by a future Holocaust Denier, nobody will blame you if you decide you have other priorities in life.

“Le Mariage de Chiffon” and “Lettres D'Amour” are presented in 1.37 aspect ratios, the other two films in 1.33:1.

Like all Eclipse releases, all four films are offered with standard definition transfers, with little, if any, new restoration for the set. The image quality is still surprisingly strong considering that, though the quality varies with each film. “Lettres D'Amour” shows more intermittent damage from the source print than do the other films. All four films are black-and-white, and the B&W contrast is satisfyingly robust on all films.

All four films are presented with Dolby 2.0 mono sound mixes, which qualify as efficient and functional, and nothing more. Optional English subtitles are provided to support the French audio.

Each disc is stored in a separate slim keepcase with its own cover art, with all four cases tucked into the now-familiar Eclipse cardboard sleeve.

As with most Eclipse releases, no extras are offered beyond the liner notes included with each disc, all of which are written by writer and translator Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
It's great to have the Eclipse series back after a two-year hiatus, disappointing that the 45th installment may also be the least compelling of the series. April brings the next installment with Ingrid Bergman's Swedish years, so perhaps Eclipse will now return to a regular schedule, a welcome development for any film buff.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Some Thoughts From A Year Of Not Really Watching Films


mother! (Aronofsky)
A Quiet Passion (Davies)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)
Ex Libris (Wiseman)
Wormwood (Morris)
Jane (Morgen)
Columbus (Kogonada)
Song to Song (Malick)
Logan (Mangold)
The Beguiled (S Coppola)
The Square (Ostlund)

I saw fewer new theatrical releases in 2017 than in any other year this century, so I don't intend this as anything resembling a representative sampling of the most recent twelve months of cinema, a subject which holds increasingly less interest for me. I consider Criterion's release of “Barry Lyndon” on Blu-ray the major movie event of 2017.

Except for “mother!” 

I love “mother!” from its tiny little “m” to its glorious ! I love “mother!” so much I considered just listing it ten times and posting it as my top ten without further comment. Except maybe for a few extra !s. Like The Simpsons' “Man Getting Hit By Football” it works on so many levels. It's funny, it's frightening, it's a vivid depiction of the misogynistic horrors propagated by Christian mythology and male ego, it captures the naked terror of exposing your personal art to an audience, and it's exquisitely filmed from just a handful of efficient camera setups. Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer are perfect, and, oh lord, the sound design... it's damned exciting, gonzo filmmaking. Really, I love it so much I need to wait a few more months before I can do more than gush. Naturally, critics couldn't wait to take a dump on it. I hope Aronofsky doesn't get tired of casting pearls. Illegitimi non carborundum, darren!

As much as I love, love, love the movie, I found several of the skeptical takes on “mother!” both reasonable and insightful, and I often found myself responding “You're not wrong... but that's exactly what I want from a movie.” The tiny handful of viciously negative takes on “A Quiet Passion” were, by contrast, nothing short of baffling. Cynthia Nixon delivers the performance of the century as a righteously indignant Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' semi-biopic, the best film about an artist this side of Peter Watkins' magisterial “Edvard Munch” (1974). The weirdest, wrongest take of all is the weird, wrong suggestion that Nixon's portrayal of a “difficult” protagonist somehow makes her character unsympathetic. One critic even described Nixon's Dickinson as a “harridan.” WTF? I was moved to tears, felt a desperate urge to apologize to Dickinson across the centuries on behalf of a fallen world that didn't deserve her, and, above all, to read lots and lots of her poetry as one modest act of contrition.

Albert Serra's “The Death of Louis XIV” would have been a heck of a movie no matter the lead, but casting little Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) as the setting Sun King is the year's stroke of genuine inspiration. How can any cinephile not compare teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the special power of cinema? Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, mind you) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. The array of charlatans who propose ineffective cures provide some of the year's quietest comic scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Paired with Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” (1966), Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Now we just need a film about Louis' passion for ballet to complete the grand historic trilogy. If it turns one has already been made, feel free to let me know.

Any year which produces new films from documentary masters Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris should be appreciated. “Ex Libris” turns Wiseman's studied eye to the glorious institution of the sprawling New York Public Library, proven here to be as vital as ever from boardroom meetings to dynamic guest speakers to endless shelves of real, actual, physical, beautiful books. In the six-part Netflix series “Wormwood,” Morris leads viewers through a few twists of the labyrinthine story of scientist Frank Olson, alleged to have jumped to his death from a New York hotel room in 1953, but possibly killed by the CIA because... well, because it's the sort of thing that CIA guys really get off on. Maybe. Eric Olson, Frank's son, still fighting (perhaps both futilely as well as nobly) for justice emerges as one of the year's most compelling characters. Both films showcase their directors' attention to detail and passion for rational investigation, though “Wormwood” also underscores the limits of empiricism when evidence proves elusive – that doesn't mean you stop digging, though! Both documentaries are sensational and my only complaint about each: too damn short.

The rest, in brief: “Jane” spins some glorious color footage of young Jane Goodall in Tanzania in the 1960s into one of the more beautiful documentaries of recent years. “Columbus,” the debut feature by director Kogonada (familiar to Criterion fans for some great extras features), turns architecture into a way of life and love and gives actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho ample room to shine. “Song to Song” is probably my least favorite recent Malick, but give me a chance to rewatch it and I may change my mind. Least favorite recent Malick still equals one of the year's best, of course.

Oh my god, Patrick Stewart is so great in “Logan.”

They don't have to be in competition, but I think Sofia Coppola improved on Don Siegel's original “The Beguiled” (1971). At the very least, she made it her own film, a fresh remake that actually has a reason to exist. “The Square” is a bit too long for my taste, and not nearly as good as “Force Majeure,” but Ruben Ostlund is becoming one of the modern masters of the squirm-laugh.

I greatly disliked a good deal of the year's critically praised movies, many of them likely award winners, but rather than mentioning duds like “The Shape of Water” or “Wind River” or “Three Billboards Blah Blah Blah” I'll limit myself to venting my spleen at “I, Tonya.” It's cruel, stupid, glib, condescending, and so incompetently made, it earned a glowing 90% approval from the Tomatogentsia, compelling evidence that we get the president we deserve. After a wearying year of unprecedented cognitive dissonance from every news source, I can't even face the prospect of speaking with someone who can't recognize what complete garbage this loathsome nothing of a movie is, and so I will never volunteer to speak of it again.