Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Circus

THE CIRCUS (Chaplin, 1928/1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 24, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

For years, Charlie Chaplin rarely talked about “The Circus” (1928), not even in his autobiography. This might seem odd considering that the film was a huge commercial hit and gave the greatest star in America a chance to celebrate his beloved circus performers, but the film was a deeply troubled production from the start. During two years of shooting, Chaplin had to cope with a bitter and public divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey, an IRS determined to carve out a huge chunk of his financial empire, and an array of disasters from fires to storms that forced long and costly delays. In addition, though Chaplin began shooting right at the commercial peak of silent cinema in January 1926, the film would be released in January 1928, near the beginning of the inconceivably rapid transition to talking pictures, a tectonic shift Chaplin would resist almost single-handedly for more than another decade.

In 1968, the septuagenarian director, now enjoying a lavish semi-retirement in his giant Swiss mansion with wife Oona and a brood of young children, revisited his labor of love, composing a new score for it and even singing the theme song himself (“Swing Little Girl, Swing High...”) to prepare for a re-release. Fortunately, Chaplin resisted any other extensive changes, still leaving “The Circus” intact as silent pantomime. He must have been reminded rather quickly of just how good his “forgotten” movie really was.

Chaplin unleashes his best gags at the beginning. The Tramp, homeless and starving, is mistaken for a pickpocket and winds up being chased by the police through an amusement park. An extended hall of mirrors bit is dazzling and disorienting enough, but Chaplin ups the ante with one of his finest stunts when he pretends to be an animatronic figure in a Noah's Ark set. As a confused policeman keeps a suspicious eye on him, Chaplin pivots in place like a clockwork cuckoo, bonking a man (the real pickpocket) on the head and rearing back in a mechanized laugh. It's one of the most convincing special effects of any era and it's pure Chaplin.

Forced to make a break for it, The Tramp stumbles into a circus where he unwittingly becomes the star attraction, prompting a previously bored audience to shout “Bring back the funny man!” Chaplin is no doubt patting himself on the back here, but he's also just telling the truth. American audiences really did fall in love at first sight with The Tramp back in 1914 because, gosh darn it, he's just a funny, funny man. The public wanted more back then, and by 1928, their appetite was nowhere close to sated, no matter their fascination with Al Jolsen and the newfangled talking picture.

There aren't many laughs behind the scenes at the circus, which is ruled by a tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who saves his greatest cruelties for his daughter Merna (the ill-fated Merna Kennedy in her starring role), a horseback rider in the show. His abuse is genuinely frightening, and Kennedy endures some harrowing stunts as she is grabbed and hurled about the set with force. The Tramp, of course, falls in love with her and dreams of being the gallant knight who can save her. Unfortunately, he has stiff competition in the form of the brave and manly Rex (Harry Crocker), a genuine stick in the mud but also a daring tightrope walker who makes Merna's heart flutter.

Chaplin's most impressive trick isn't balancing on a tightrope or sharing a cage with a lion (two feature bits later in the film), but rather making The Tramp appear so effortless. In the film, he can only get laughs when he's being himself, not when he's trying to perform a routine. Of course, The Tramp just “being himself” was the result of thousands of hours of stage work in the British Music Hall and then in early Hollywood, an overnight success many years in the making. But the act works better when you don't give audiences time to think about that because they're laughing too hard.

Audiences watching “The Circus” today, just like audiences watching it in 1928 or in 1968, will be laughing mighty hard. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “This new 4K restoration was undertaken at the Cineteca di Bologna” from a 35 mm duplicate negative made in 1967. I don't think you can quite call the image quality “razor sharp” throughout. There are several scenes where faces and other details look a bit soft, but we're talking about a film made 90 years ago and now being sourced from a dupe negative made 40 years later. Black-and-white contrast is generally robust. Overall, the 1080p transfer looks quite pleasing, as good as you can reasonably expect for a 1928 film.

The linear PCM mono track only has to present the music which it does just fine. It's a bit flat but it was never meant to be a stereophonic blowout. Intertitle cards are in English, and no subtitles are provided.

Criterion has packed this release right to the tip of the big top.

The film is accompanied by a commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

The disc includes an interview (15 min.) with Eugene Chaplin, son of Charlie and Oona Chaplin. He takes viewers on a brief tour of the Chaplin family mansion in Switzerland and shares some home movies, most shot by Oona.

Film scholar Craig Barron, a familiar face to fans of Criterion's silent comedy releases, talks about the innovative visual effects used on “The Circus.” In this 20-minute piece, Barron goes into quite a bit of detail on the split screen techniques used to combine composite images. You mean Chaplin wasn't really up on that high wire and didn't really face down that roaring lion? This is a great piece.

“Chaplin Today: The Circus” (26 min.) is a 2003 documentary by Francois Ede and featuring some interviews with director Emir Kusturica, a big fan of the movie. There's some useful information here, but I didn't find this feature terribly enlightening or riveting.

In “Stepping Out” we're treated to approximately 40 minutes of outtakes from “The Circus.” Scholars Kevin Brownlow and David Gill screened many hours of outtakes from the Chaplin archives when they released the miniseries “The Unknown Chaplin” in 1983 (I remember I loved it, but it appears my no-doubt comprehensive review of the DVD has tragically been lost to history). One result of that project is the 10-minute scene included here, which they edited from “Circus” outtakes. It's mostly a scene of The Tramp taking Merna out on a date that, of course, goes wrong and, of course, involves twin boxers. This scene comes with a new score by Timothy Brock. We also get 30 more minutes of outtakes which are accompanied with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin.

“A Ring for Merna” (7 min.) includes a few more outtakes from the scene where The Tramp buys a wedding ring that he plans to give to Merna. Though this piece runs 7 minutes, there's only a few minutes of outtakes that are edited into where they would have been in the film.

We also get audio excerpts (10 min.) of an interview conducted by Jeffrey Vance of Eric James, Chaplin's musical collaborator.

“Swing Little Girl” provides five minutes of an audio recording session for the title song Chaplin composed for the re-release of “The Circus.” It was originally meant to be sung by Ken Barrie before Chaplin decided he was the right man for the job.

The attractions continue with silent publicity footage from the movie's Jan 27, 1928 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It includes circus stars (both humans and other animals) along with many of the film celebrities of the day.

We also get a brief excerpt (5 min.) of a 1969 interview Chaplin conducted for reporters at his Swiss mansion.

Finally, the extras wrap up with two Re-Release Trailers (5 min. total)

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.

Final Thoughts:
“The Circus” might get overlooked today both because Chaplin himself tended not to talk about it and because it arrived in the middle of the all-world sequence of “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), and “Modern Times” (1940). But on a gag per gag basis, it's as funny as any Chaplin comedy, though it might feel a bit slight in terms of narrative heft. Criterion has loaded this fairly short feature (72 min.) with a ton of extras, which should be enough to please any Chaplin aficionado.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Cloud-Capped Star

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 10, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “The Cloud-Capped Star” (1960), adapted from a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, writer/director Ritwik Ghatak displays a fondness for off-center compositions. One shot in particular obsesses me even though it marks only a minor beat in the story. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the hard-working daughter of a Bengali refugee family now living in Kolkata, sits near the right of the frame, situated at a slight diagonal. Her face half-covered in shadow, she turns slowly to the camera and flashes a radiant smile, the serene smile Neeta wears as a mask as her sufferings mount. Choudhury supplies the magnetic smile, but the delicate and eccentric staging turns it into a magical movie moment, one of many that makes this film so powerful and transforms Neeta into one of the most unforgettable heroines in any melodrama.

Early images in the film link Neeta directly to nature - a flowing river dappled by sunlight, a magnificently flowering tree that stretches to the heavens - all emphasizing her potential to flourish. She's a bright university student who also tutors on the side, a gig that makes her virtually the sole breadwinner for her family. It's a big burden to take on at a young age, but Neeta is a pure soul always ready to do the right thing. As her brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) delights in telling her, this is her first mistake, and quite likely a fatal one.

Everyone exploits her goodness and forbearance. Shankar devotes all his time to studying to become a singer, and knows he can do so because Neeta will shoulder the financial load. Neeta's boyfriend Sanat (Niranjan Ray) can be a full-time student because he can bum lunch money off his best gal. Mother (Gita Dey) sees no reason to marry off her oldest daughter because then who would keep the household running? Father (Bijon Bhattacharya), a literature professor whose best days are well behind him, seems the most sympathetic figure, a bit detached but generally well-meaning, but looks can be deceiving.

As father becomes an invalid and another brother moves away, the family becomes ever more dependent on Neeta, and she bears it all with that quiet, enduring smile. But the smile takes more effort to maintain with each cruel turn of fate, sags more at the corners of the mouth with each new responsibility crushing her to the unforgiving ground.

Melodrama literally means “music drama” and Neeta's barely-suppressed sorrow explodes in one of several extraordinary musical sequence in the film. She asks Shankar to teach her a song by Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned Bengali artist and polymath. Brother and sister sing it together slowly and mournfully, and when it ends, Neeta collapses, finally ready to weep for herself.

She has to cry for herself because nobody else will. Not her family, not the sun-dappled river, not that magnificently flowering tree that stretches to the heavens. And once she starts coughing, well, this is a melodrama and you can guess where it's heading.

It's all so damn overwhelming, but Ghatak really twists the knife in the closing scenes when we visit Neeta one last time. Dying and abandoned, she once again sits at the right of the frame, now with a vast hilly landscape stretching out to infinity behind her, a landscape that doesn't listen as she shouts out “I really did want to live!” Jumping to the center of the frame now, she begs, “Tell me just once that I will live!”

I can't go on. Honestly. I watched this movie a week ago, and it's still difficult to talk about. Choudhury is amazing. The soundtrack (music as well as effects) is amazing. The photography by cinematographer Dinen Gupta and his crew is amazing. I need a little more time to process it, but “The Cloud-Capped Star” may well be the greatest melodrama I've ever seen. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The Criterion booklet notes that “this new 2K digital restoration” used the 35 mm original camera negative preserved at the National Film Archive of India in Pune and also a 35 mm print from the Library of Congress “for sections of the film where the original camera negative was damaged or incomplete.”

With multiple elements used, the image quality does vary a bit but not in a pronounced fashion – a few shots perhaps don't look quite as sharp, but in general this looks good overall. The black-and-white contrast is strong overall, though a few scenes look a bit washed-out. Also in a few scenes white subtitles over white portions of the image can be a bit tough to read.

The linear PCM mono track shows more wear than the image does with a few moments where volume drops off and some extraneous noise can be heard on the soundtrack. The music can also be a bit tinny in a few scenes, but overall the audio is solid, surely as much as can be expected from the source. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali dialogue.

Criterion has only included a few modest supplements with this Blu-ray release.

We get a lengthy and substantive conversation between filmmakers Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Kumar Shahani. Both were students of Ghatak's at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, and they bring both personal knowledge of and a sincere admiration for Ghatak to this discussion, which covers a wide array of topics relevant both to the film and to Ghatak's career.

The only other extra is a Stills Gallery, which presents photos of Ghatak that were included in the book “Life After Ritwik Ghatak” cowritten by Surama Ghatak, the director's wife, and the director's grandniece, Nabarupa Bhattacharjee.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Ira Bhaskar.

Final Thoughts:
I first read about “The Cloud-Capped Star” about 15 year ago, most likely from Jonathan Rosenbaum. Since then it's been at the very top of my list of Currently Unavailable Films I Desperately Want To See. It easily exceeded my lofty expectations. Criterion has made this masterpiece by Ritwik Ghatak available in the North American region for the first time (as far as I know) and even if it's a bit sparse on supplements, that makes this one of the must-have Blu-rays of the year.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Fata Morgana

FATA MORGANA (Herzog, 1971)
Blu-ray, Shout! Factory, Release Date July 19, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

How to make a movie the Werner Herzog Way, in four easy steps:

1) Show up in the Sahara Desert with a script for a science-fiction movie about an alien crew from the Andromeda Galaxy assigned to film a report about a strange planet called Earth.

2) Discard said science-fiction script on the first day of shooting because someone tells you that desert mirages can't be filmed and you, as both a Bavarian poet and a former Mexican rodeo rider, take that as a personal challenge.

3) Drive through multiple African desert nations in your rented VW van along with your tiny crew, filming whatever you find along the way until you get swept up in a coup d'etat in Cameroon and are thrown in an overcrowded jail where you almost die from malaria.

4) After being released from the Cameroonian prison, take your footage back to the editing room and create a masterpiece.

Yes, kids, it really is that simple.

Describing “Fata Morgana” (1971) is a daunting enough prospect, let alone interpreting it. Why does the film begin with over four minutes worth of footage of various planes landing in the shimmering heat of a desert runway? Why is every third person we meet wearing the same pair of goggles? Is that really Leonard Cohen we're hearing on the soundtrack?

The answer to the final question is yes. As for the other two, beats me. Not quite knowing what you're looking at or why you're looking at it is integral to the pleasure of a freewheeling film difficult to categorize as anything other than a hallucination. What I am certain of is that the one compelling argument this not-a-documentary makes is that there is nothing in cinema as mesmerizing as a long tracking shot.

Cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein shoots from the roof of the VW van as Herzog drives past a sinuous ridge of sand dunes (some hand-sculpted by the production crew to create more evocative contours) as tiny billows of sand blow off in the hot breeze; the longer the tracking shot continues the more those billows start to look like sheer rippling fabric. Later, lengthy aerial shots glide across a landscape mottled with patches of ice, or maybe they're salt flats, or possibly desiccated earth. Have I mentioned yet that “Fata Morgana” means mirage?

For more than the first twenty minutes, this chimerical terrain is devoid of people, but Herzog doesn't intend to settle into any comfortable pattern here. Eventually we will meet a menagerie of animals and people, some staring directly into the camera for uncomfortably long moments, many appearing disoriented as they gesticulate insistently off-camera at... something. A group of boys led by a teacher declare that “War is madness” and an ersatz scientist captures a giant turtle only to release it so he has something to capture the next day.

As bizarre as that all sounds, Herzog's wildest invention is the soundtrack, combining narration and one of the most unpredictable selections of musical tracks you've ever heard. In voice-over, several different speakers (beginning with German film guru and Herzog mentor Lotte Eisner) relate a creation story partly inspired by the Mayan “Popul Vuh” mythos and only obliquely related to the actual footage. Surely there's an ironic connection between shots of bleached carcasses lying in the sand and a voice-over speaking about man's dominion over the animal kingdom. I suspect Herzog's main goal is to recontextualize all of his images to form a radical new perspective, situating the viewers as those Andromedans trying to make sense of a baffling new world. Planet Herzog, to be specific. The creation story is broken into three sections, each divided by the repeated image of a half-glimpsed vehicle (or something) turning circles at the edge of the horizon, perhaps the most enigmatic image in a film replete with them.

The musical track is stranger still, combining classical and ecclesiastically-tinged tunes with the otherworldly “Ghetto Raga” by Third Ear Band, and pop tracks from Blind Faith and the aforementioned Mr. Cohen. Curiouser and curiouser still is the manner in which Herzog self-consciously underscores his manipulation of the various musical cues. In a bravura five-minute tracking shot (a relentless glide to the right broken up only by one cutaway) over industrial detritus and the bleached trailers of a desert town, Herzog begins with silence, cranks up a lengthy excerpt from Cohen's “Suzanne,” stops for a few lines of voice-over narration (“In Paradise, man is born dead.”), then rolls into the bulk of Cohen's “So Long Marianne,” all playing over that same almost unbroken tracking shot. You ask: Why? I respond: I've watched and listened to that sequence more than fifty times and I am overwhelmed on each viewing. Not only do I need not need to know why, I would dearly prefer not to.

The great critic and programmer Amos Vogel, an early Herzog booster, described “Fata Morgana” as “a cosmic pun on cinema verite.” I'm not sure that conveys the core essence of the film, but the final section does descend fully into the absurd, beginning with the strangest musical act in cinemahistory (this one I've watched over a hundred times) and ending with confused tourists stumbling around in ditches (Herzog directed them to “turn the pig loose”) and characters practically laughing themselves to death on screen, cf. the ending of “Even Dwarfs Started Small.” If you want to hear the normally unflappable Herzog crack the hell up, just listen to the commentary track starting around the one hour, seven-minute mark.

That doesn't mean “Fata Morgana” is intended as a joke. It is playful at times, morbid at others. For the viewer who tunes into its wavelength, the film is a visionary experience that inspires wonder and sometimes outright awe as it creeps up to and kisses the sublime threshold. I also feel safe in claiming that there is absolutely nothing else like it, not even its semi-sequel “Lessons of Darkness” (1992).

But really, there's just no way to describe it.

Herzog Collection from Shout! Factory

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The high-def transfer from Shout! Factory is another “meh” effort, perfectly serviceable but nothing to brag about. Some of the sun-baked desert shots looks somewhat washed-out and the mediocre bit rate doesn't present the sharpest image quality. It's fine, a slight improvement over the old Anchor Bay DVD which, by the way, has to qualify as one of the odder DVD anomalies since this all-time great film was merely included as a “Bonus DVD” for Anchor Bay's release of “Lessons of Darkness” (1992). Sure, “Lessons” is a hell of a movie too, and the two films are definitely spiritual siblings, but “Fata Morgana” only a “Bonus DVD”? That's a hell of a bonus.

Note: Images in this review are NOT taken from the Blu-ray.

The audio mix is competent if somewhat flat. No problems though. You can listen to the film with its German soundtrack or its English soundtrack (different narrators for both versions). Optional English subtitles support the audio, and can be a bit difficult to read over some of the whiter shots.

The only extra is a commentary track by Werner Herzog, along with moderator Norman Hill and just-hanging-out-that-day actor Crispin Glover. I keep repeating myself: Herzog's commentary tracks are a performance art unto themselves and can be enjoyed over and over again.

In this Shout! Factory box set, “Fata Morgana” shares the same Blu-ray disc as “Land of Silence and Darkness.”

Final Thoughts:
A top ten all-time film for me. It's one of the movies I can see when I close my eyes.