Monday, September 28, 2020

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 3

 

Lucia
                              

MARTIN SCORSESE'S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, NO. 3

Criterion Collection, Dual Format, Release Date Sep 29, 2020 
Review by Christopher S. Long
 
If three is enough to form a pattern, we can now anticipate that Criterion will be releasing a new volume of the World Cinema Project every 3-4 years. And if the pattern continues, each volume in the set will be more than worth the wait.

The World Cinema Project, spearheaded by Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation, states its commitment “to preserve and present marginalized and infrequently screened films from regions generally ill equipped to preserve their own cinema history.” This mission involves extensive restoration of films whose elements exist in a perilous state as well as the distribution of such films to a wider audience, both in theaters and on home video.

These Criterion sets comprise only a portion of the films promoted by The World Cinema Project. Earlier volumes spotlighted works from Senegal, Taiwan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, The Philippines, Thailand, Morocco, and several other nations. Volume Three spans four continents, six nations, and five decades – a typically eclectic selection for this ambitious series.

Humberto Solas's “Lucia” (1968) argues that there is no barrier between the political and the personal, and perhaps none between the past and the present either.

In this radical historical epic, three different women (each named Lucia) from three different revolutionary eras in Cuban history are betrayed or abandoned by the men they love. In 1895, during Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, the wealthy Lucia (Raquel Revuelta) is seduced by a suave merchant who has a hidden agenda. In 1932, the middle-class Lucia (Eslinda Nunez) falls for a poor, fiery young rebel battling the dictatorial president Gerardo Machado. In 196.. (a coy way of setting the final section 'round about the post-revolutionary present), farm worker Lucia (Adela Legra) marries a macho revolutionary whose idea of the people's revolution does not include women's liberation.

Solas employs a dazzling array of styles throughout this black-and-white film. The romance in the 1895 section explodes into glorious operatic excess, with a steamy seduction scene, staged in an abandoned palatial building, unfolding almost entirely in heated pantomime. 1932 relies heavier on contrasts, between the gritty violence of the revolution and the opulent corruption of the freedom fighters once they assume power. The final story plays out primarily in a realist tone though with brutal scenes of domestic abuse (Lucia's husband locks her up at home and screams “You will be mine!) contrasted with sly moments of humor.

A mobile handheld camera captures vertiginous action throughout. Viewers are hurled into a disorienting, muddy battle in 1895, and twirl along with revelers at the bacchanalia of the middle section. The dizzying camerawork and the decades-spanning scope create a heady experience, and a film with three unforgettable female leads who are both victims and survivors of Cuba's political maelstroms.

After The Curfew
 

“After The Curfew” (1954) opens on a noirish note with a closeup of a pair of feet clomping loudly along a rain-soaked road at night. Those lonely feet almost certainly belong to a doomed noir protagonist, an impression intensified when the scene turns into a chase through the darkness with soldiers pursuing Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff), an Indonesian freedom fighter just returning home after fighting to overthrow the Dutch colonizers.

Iskandar finds a temporary refuge with his faithful fiancee Norma (Netty Herawaty) and her well-connected family who promise to find him a good job. Norma brags about her hunky war hero to all her idle, privileged friends, but Iskandar is also a man of dark secrets. Is he war hero or war criminal?

Director Usmar Ismail, one of the most influential figures in Indonesian film history, was a veteran of the war himself, and he focuses the story on the difficulties Iskandar faces in reintegrating to civilian life. From his first day in his office job, it's obvious Iskandar sticks out like a sore thumb. His posture is never once at ease, and even his clothing somehow clashes with the décor.

Iskandar seeks to reconnect with his former military comrades, but finds a former superior to be corrupt, and a fellow soldier to have fallen into a shiftless life of gambling and petty crime. Unable to find comfort or direction, our protagonist may have neither time nor opportunity to blaze a trail of his own.

Alcaff is convincing and sympathetic as an alienated soldier, but once his wartime secret is revealed, it's difficult to excuse him simply because he was “following orders.” Does Ismail fully exonerate his protagonist as victim of circumstance and expect the audience to sympathize fully with him? I have no idea.

Pixote
 

A still image featuring the angelic face of child actor Fernando Ramos da Silva promises that “Pixote” (1980) will be a delightful coming-of-age story about an adorable ragamuffin. It is anything but.

Argentine-born director Hector Babenco spent months researching the corrupt Brazilian reform system for a documentary, but abandoned the project in the face of state restrictions. He reshaped his film as a feature, one imbued with a gritty, naturalistic aesthetic that yields an unsparing, bleak vision. Minors in Brazil can't be charged with crimes, but are instead funneled into brutal reformatories that function just like prisons. In “Pixote” boys are stripped and thrown en masse into holding cells, gang raped, and whisked away into the night to be executed on the side of the road. Officials don't care what happens to any of the boys, only that no scandals are leaked to the press. They have no reason to care. The boys are either orphans or from families too poor to kick up a fuss, so cover-ups are easy, especially with a complicit police force looking the other way.

Babenco cast his film with non-professional child actors from impoverished families in and around Sao Paolo. Ten-year-old Pixote is one of the youngest of the boys, and young actor Fernando Ramos da Silva delivers not just the most memorable performance in the film, but one of the greatest performances by any child actor ever.

Da Silva's pixie face is central to the film's success. Pixote runs a gamut of horrors in the reformatory. He witnesses rape and murder, and expects to be beaten or stabbed at any moment. His only moment of joy arrives when he huffs a can of glue on the floor of a shit-stained bathroom. Through it all he retains a look of innocence, though his piercing eyes take in everything. That unspoiled quality renders Pixote an authentic and sympathetic character even after he exchanges the nightmare of the reformatory for a life of crime that will turn him into a thief, a pimp, and a killer. There's not one forced moment, not a hint of precociousness or affect in his performance.

“Pixote” offers no hope for a happy ending. Neither did real life for da Silva. He would be shot and killed by police at the age of 19.

Dos Monjes

 

“Dos Monjes” (1934) has it all. Battling monks, demonic possession, medical melodrama, and even a few musical numbers. This movie is so darn cool.

Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, “Dos Monjes” is one of the earliest Mexican sound films (the first being released in 1932), and showcases many of the most luminous qualities of movies from that transitional period. The actors still perform in grand pantomime gestures and sound isn't just used functionally to replicate reality but as a moody, expressive element. The film opens with a line of monks shuffling through a ritual, one of them methodically clanging a bell. Later, music will boom through the previously unnoticed pipe organ, filling the monastery and entrancing every brother.

Bustillo Oro employs a flashback structure, the complexity of which only gradually becomes apparent. When Friar Javier (Carlos Villatoro) strikes Friar Juan (Victor Urruchua) with a giant crucifix (I told you this movie was cool), a senior priest demands an explanation. This leads to a tale of doomed Gothic romance featuring a consumptive musician, his treacherous friend, and the woman (Magda Haller) they both desire.

But is the friend really treacherous? It depends on your point of view, which is also the point of the story, from a script significantly rewritten by Bustillo Oro to add convolutions. After Javier has told his tale of woe, Juan recounts the same story, but we now view it from a different perspective, seeing shared exchanges of glances that we didn't notice before, learning new pieces of information that change our perception of the seemingly straightforward tragic events. As an added flourish, in each version, the person telling the story is dressed in white, the other in black. If you're already shouting “Rashomon!” you're not the only one, but let's not overstate the comparison.

The film is heavily influenced by German expressionism, evident in the set design (the giant off-kilter window in young Javier's parlor) and the many canted angles and decentered compositions shot by the great cinematographer Agustin Jimenez. Jimenez would go on to work with Bunuel and other great directors, but “Dos Monjes” was his first feature and shows him already in his prime. There's a moment where Juan just materializes out of the darkness to literally come between Javier and his lady love... this movie so damn cool.

Soleil O

 

In the most astonishing sequence in Med Hondo's “Soleil O” (1970), a black African man and a white French woman hold hands and walk together along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Actual white passersby, unaware a film was being shot, turn and stare in shock and disgust. One young woman mimes a gag reflex, while an old woman keeps a wary eye on the couple as she walks slowly away. The film adds the sounds of barnyard animals clucking and screeching as the onlookers gawk at the “taboo” spectacle.

Hondo was born in Morocco and raised in Mauritania before moving to Paris in the '50s. He described “Soleil O” as his attempt to work through and perhaps get past the discrimination he faced in his return to the “fatherland.” In the film, the Visitor (Robert Liensol), a composite stand-in for many immigrants, arrives in Paris with a small suitcase adorned with stickers from various African nations (Mauritania, Ghana, Guinea) and a beaming smile as he greets his new home in voice-over: “Sweet France, I am coming home.” The resistance he meets while trying to secure a job as an accountant make it clear to him he will not be welcomed “home” with open arms.

“Soleil O” is formally audacious film that opens with an animated sequence that compresses decades of colonial impression into a few minutes (“We had our own civilization, we forged iron.”), then shifts from staged interviews (characters frequently look directly into the camera throughout the film) to heated political debates to musical performances. White Parisians tremble in fear of the “black invasion” from their former French colonies in Africa. But even the ostensibly friendly whites are warped by prejudice. One young woman takes the Visitor to bed, then sighs in disappointment later because, well, she had heard certain stories.

The Visitor is ultimately driven to madness, howling like Lear (or Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods”) in the wilderness. His screams, however, may not be a sign of defeat, but a promise of a revolution to come. The film's final resolute message: TO BE CONTINUED...

Downpour

 

It's a minor miracle that we're able to see “Downpour” (1972) at all. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, all prints of “Downpour,” along with many other films, were seized by state authorities and likely destroyed. Director Bahram Beyzaie secured a single positive print with the English subtitles already burned in, now the only known source to exist. Threatened movies like this are just what the World Cinema Project was created to assist with.

I suppose “Downpour” can be described as a romantic comedy, though perhaps dramedy is more accurate. Or maybe trying to pigeonhole this unique film is a bad idea in the first place. Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh) is a bookish teacher who arrives at a new school and town where the locals aren't terribly receptive to the outsider. The boys openly mock him in class, prompting him to expel one of the more troublesome ones. The student's gorgeous adult sister Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi) confronts Hekmati about it, and their private confrontation unleashes a wildfire of gossip. Rumors of a budding romance between the two practically create the romance itself, leading to numerous complications.

Beyzaie filmed on a shoestring budget, sometimes restricted to shooting single takes because of limited film stock, and rewriting the script as he went along to adapt to contingencies. One result is that he appears to be having a lot of fun with his characters. To counter a local tough guy also vying for Atefeh's affections, the wimpy Hekmati decides to get buff, leading to a “Rocky”-style workout montage which culminates with the instructor gripping a tiny weight with a band held in his teeth, presumably to strengthen his chin muscles.

“Downpour” made Beyzaie one of the major players in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Shot before the revolution, it also features many spectacles that fans of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf will find unfamiliar, such as drunken knife fights or Iranian women in skirts. 


 

Video:
All films are presented in their original aspect ratios. “Pixote” is in color, the other five in black-and-white.

The World Cinema Project emphasizes films in dire need of preservation, so each of the movies has its own issues, with some needing more extensive restoration than others. Films like “Lucia” and “Dos Monjes” were restored using multiple source prints of varying quality. The magnetic tracks for “Soleil O” were missing sound from some reels, so another source needed to be used.

In a few shots in “Lucia” the black-and-white photography is blown out or out of focus, obscuring detail in the images. This was due to advanced vinegar syndrome which actually warped the negative.

“After The Curfew” exhibits the most consistent damage, due to mold and vinegar syndrome. This mostly shows as a distorted vertical line through the middle of the frame in several scenes – it couldn't be removed through restoration without degrading the original image. At one point in this set, this is described as the first Indonesian film to be restored. I don't know if that's true, but the final product is impressive even with this damage evident.

“Pixote” also suffered from mold damage, perhaps mildly surprising considering how recent the film is, but there's not much damage apparent in this high-def transfer and the color photography looks rich and naturalistic.

“Dos Monjes” looks quite robust for an early sound film. “Soleil O” has no obvious drawbacks either.

As mentioned above, only one source print for “Downpour” exists and it has a few scratches and tears and the black-and-white contrast isn't so sharp, but it's fine and we're lucky to be seeing it at all.

Audio:

All films are presented with LPCM Mono mixes, and in general, the audio quality on all films can be described as fairly flat, more or less reflecting the source.

All films except “Downpour” offer optional subtitles. As mentioned above, “Downpour” only has one known source, one with English subtitles burned into the print. These white subtitles aren't always easy to read. In addition, some lines of dialogue don't get subtitled at all, and other subtitles are slightly out of synch with the dialogue. You can get by just fine though.

Extras:

This Criterion set includes three separate keep cases that are tucked into a large cardboard case alongside the insert booklet.

Each keep case contains three discs, one Blu-ray and two DVDs. Each Blu-ray includes two films and the supplemental features. Each DVD stores just one film and its extras. I have only reviewed the Blu-rays here. The first keepcase includes “Lucia” and “After The Curfew.” The second has “Pixote” and “Dos Monjes.” The third: “Soleil O” and “Downpour.”

Each film is accompanied by a short (usually 3-minute) introduction by Martin Scorsese who provides a little background about the film as well as the World Cinema Project's role in restoring and distributing the film.

Each film also gets a single additional supplemental feature. For “Lucia” we get the feature “Humberto And Lucia” (2020, 33 min.) which is adapted by Carlos Barba Salva from his 2014 documentary about director Humberto Solas. It features interviews with the director and each of the actresses who played Lucias as well as others. Solas talks a bit about how the complex screenplay was shaped throughout development.

“After The Curfew” offers an informative interview (2020, 19 min.) with journalist and film scholar J.B. Kristanto who talks about the lack of writing about Indonesian film history and his own work in trying to address that need. He also speaks about Ismail's career and his relationship to the wave of directors in the '50s who wanted to refocus Indonesian cinema on contemporary social issues.

“Pixote” offers two features. One is the short 2-minute introduction appended to the film for its American release, featuring the director Hector Babenco explaining to audiences how the Brazilian reform system works. We also get a 2016 interview (22 min.) with Babenco, just a few months before his death. He talks about his work as an extra in Spaghetti Western films by Sergio Corbucci before discussing the production of “Pixote.” He has a lot to say about the challenges of working with a large number of child actors.

For “Dos Monjes” Criterion has included an excellent interview (2020, 19 min.) with film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg. He provides a brief history of Mexican cinema's transition from silent to sound film, which happened roughly 3-4 years later than in the U.S., then talks about the role of this film in setting the standard for much Mexican Gothic horror that would follow.

“Soleil O” features an interview (2018, 21 min.) with Med Hondo, who died in early 2019. Hondo describes his film as therapy for all he'd been through, then also talks quite engagingly about how he fell in love with film in the first place (it started with an Errol Flynn movie) and his early work as an actor in television.

“Downpour” is accompanied by an interview (2020, 30 min.) with director Bahram Beyzaie, the only living director with a film in this set. He discusses his desire to create something different than the stale Iranian commercial cinema of the '60s, as well as his challenges in shooting on a limited budget and later in dealing with censorship in Iran.

The square-bound insert booklet features an introductory essay about film restoration by archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli. The booklet then includes individual essays about each of the films by an array of critics and scholars.

Final Thoughts:

Three volumes so far for the World Cinema Project sets from Criterion, and all three are winners. I suppose we'll get the next one in 2023 or 2024. I wonder how high sea levels will have risen by then. In any case, I'm sure it will be great. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Christ Stopped At Eboli


CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (Rosi, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 22, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In 1935, painter, writer, and political activist Carlo Levi was sentenced by Mussolini's Fascist authorities to internal exile (confino) in an impoverished rural town in the Lucania region of southern Italy where local officials monitored his movements and communications on a daily basis. Levi was eventually set free, and in 1945 he published “Christ Stopped At Eboli,” a best-selling memoir about his time among the peasants of the south. In 1979, director Francesco Rosi adapted the book for the screen.

The nearly 20-minute opening sequence eases viewers into this strange new land along with the protagonist. Levi (Gian Maria Volonte) arrives at the train station, picks up a stray dog, and rides a rambling, rickety bus into the town of Gagliano, with the police close at his side. He rests his head against the window and watches wide pastures roll by where shepherds guide their flocks. A feisty old woman on the bus clutches two live chickens. Levi is a long way from his home in Turin, debating politics and aesthetics with his fellow intellectuals.

This long, meticulously detailed trip functions like a decompression chamber, allowing viewers to acclimate gradually along with Levi to this new environment. On his first night in town, a rattled, weary Levi pulls his blankets over his face so he can hide in the cocoon. In the ensuing days he will be shocked to witness boys pelting a priest with rocks and by the desperate poverty as well as the prevalence of malaria among the populace. Soon, however, he forges a connection with his prison-town and grows to love the stoic peasants and to admire their timeless ability to endure hardship.

The peasants embrace him too, especially once he serves as the town doctor, selflessly administering to all, at least when his jailers permit it. Levi's primary goal in publishing his memoir wasn't to recount his plight as a political prisoner, but rather to inform readers about this very different Italy, practically a foreign nation that has been ignored and abandoned by the developed north.

Local officials do nothing to make the peasants feel like they matter. The aforementioned priest (Francois Simon) dismisses his flock as “a town filled with animals, not Christians” but nobody takes the drunken clergyman seriously anyway; they know he was only assigned (sentenced) to their parish as punishment for past transgressions. The fascist-but-friendly mayor (Paolo Bonacelli) fancies himself an intellectual peer of Levi's, but can't fathom why the painter always wants to talk about the locals: “Why go on about the peasants? Forget about them.”

This explains the enigmatic title of both the memoir and film, inspired by an anecdote Levi overheard during his confinement. It refers to the impression some in the south have that the grace of the Church (also often the State in Italy) never spread past the town of Eboli, leaving much of Italy's “boot” out in the cold with no hope of salvation in this world, or perhaps even the next.

Volonte played his share of volatile characters and was also known as a firebrand off-screen, but his Carlo Levi is a tousle-haired, sad-eyed observer, humble and genuinely curious about the people of Gagliano. He learns how a resourceful butcher inflates a dead goat to salvage every body part and tries to hide a smile when his fiery housekeeper Giulia (Irene Pappas) spins the elaborate web of superstitions that dictate her behavior - you can't throw trash out at night because you'll toss it right in the face of the angel who guards the door!

Giulia is one of many strong-willed woman in Gagliano. Many mothers raise their children alone because they have been abandoned by husbands and lovers who have fled to America seeking the opportunities southern Italy doesn't offer. The Great Depression has forced some of those men to return, leading to one of the film's most rousing scenes when a group of inebriated men sing of the glories of New York City (it would have been our capital if we had one!) as well as their homeland, but Rosi cannily defuses the celebration by cutting abruptly from their joyous rendition of “Viva L'Italia” to a fascist rally in the town square. The shadow of Fascism has not stopped at Eboli.

Rosi originally shot his adaptation as a four-part television miniseries, running 220 minutes in the cut included on this disc. Aside from Levi's tentative emergence as the town doctor, there's little central tension driving the narrative. “Christ Stopped At Eboli” is more a film of quiet impressions and almost random encounters that slowly accrete to form an empathetic, kaleidoscopic portrait of a neglected people. The film refrains from passing overt judgments on any of the characters, not even the drunken priest or the indifferent mayor. Carlo Levi, a simple prisoner in Gagliano just like everyone else, merely watches respectfully, helps when he can, and commits every detail to memory so he can share their story.


Video:
As mentioned above, Rosi shot “Christ Stopped At Eboli” as a four-part miniseries running about 55 minutes per installment. It was also released in a much-shorter theatrical cut. Criterion has only included the miniseries, which plays as a single film from the menu, though each part has its own opening and end credits.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution... from the 35 mm original camera negative.” Colors are naturalistic, heavy on earth tones, and the image resolution is sharp throughout.

Audio:
The linear PCM audio mix is flat but crisp with no noticeable distortion. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Extras:
Criterion has gathered several shorter supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.

In a new interview (2020, 27 min.), translator, interpreter, and writer Michael F. Moore discusses his work on the subtitles for this release, which required dealing with multiple Italian dialects. He also talks a bit about Francesco Rosi, who honed his craft as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on neo-realist films like “La terra trema” (1948).

The disc also includes an excerpt (24 min.) from the July 5, 1978 episode of the French TV series “Cine regards.” This piece, directed by Bouramy Tioulong, combines interviews with Rosi, Volonte, and director Elio Petri with some on-set footage from “Christ Stopped At Eboli.”

“Bad Earth” is a segment (27 min.) of the Aug 9, 1974 episode of the French talk show “Italiques” in which Rosi and Levi discuss a variety of subjects ranging from Levi's exile to the general state of post-war art. Rosi proudly refers to Levi as one of his major artistic influences.

We also get an interview (2014, 13 min.) with Rosi in which the director remembers actor Gian Maria Volonte. Though Volonte was rumored to be difficult to work with at times, Rosi has nothing but glowing words for his frequent star, who died in 1994. According to Rosi, Volonte didn't want to live in a hotel like a typical actor but wanted to spend time with peasant households to immerse himself in the character and the location. This was Rosi's last on-camera interview – the director died in 2015.

A Trailer for the film's re-release by Rialto rounds out the supplements.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a comprehensive essay by writer and film professor Alexander Stille.

Final Thoughts:
The film's considerable length and loosely-structure narrative require patience from the viewer, but that attention will be rewarded by a film that immerses audience in a specific time and place that feels authentically rendered. Rialto restored “Christ Stopped At Eboli” at its full running-length for theatrical release last year, and Criterion has done a splendid job providing a Blu-ray with a strong high-def transfer and a solid array of supplemental features.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Town Bloody Hall


Greer and Mailer in Town Bloody Hall
TOWN BLOODY HALL (Hegedus and Pennebaker, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 18,2020
Review by Christopher S. Long
In the documentary “Town Bloody Hall” (1979), Norman Mailer accuses virtually everyone of misunderstanding what he wrote. A lesser writer might have considered this an opportunity to reflect on the possible shortcomings of his craft, but for an author who styles himself as a heavyweight prizefighter, it's an excuse to come out swinging at the puny pretenders who dare to challenge the champ. Mailer doesn't really land any haymakers, but he certainly stirs his share of shit.
Mailer had just stirred an Everest of shit with his essay “The Prisoner of Sex” (published in the March 1971 issue of “Harper's”), a retaliatory strike against feminist author Kate Millett, who had recently criticized him. While (big surprise) accusing Millett of misunderstanding him, he mischaracterized and derided much of the women's liberation movement, igniting a firestorm which branded him, for some, as the nation's male-chauvinist-in-chief, and therefore an inviting target.
The still white-hot controversy generated a April 30, 1971 panel discussion/fundraiser at The Theater of Ideas in Manhattan's Town Hall, ostensibly pitting Mailer against four feminist thinkers, though framing the event and labeling the participants in that manner grossly oversimplifies. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and his crew were on hand to film the evening, though the footage would be shelved for several years until editor Chris Hegedus (also credited as co-director) cut it into an actual film that was finally released in 1979.
The documentary begins with the crowds both outside and inside the venue, and the first distinct impression of the evening is the total lack of diversity. This event appears to be exclusive to white attendees, both on stage and off. One heckler, seen a few times, reminds participants that the admission fee precludes the poor from participating in this “open” discussion.
Mailer's bluster threatens to overshadow the circus-like atmosphere, but the four women who speak on stage aren't intimidated by his preening machismo. They also each bring their own perspectives to the program, making it clear that women's liberation circa 1971 is a series of movements, not a monolith. Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW, admits she represents the “square” feminist organization, while the esteemed literary critic Diana Trilling expresses skepticism about what she considers to be the more radical feminist wing, especially those who deny the role biology plays in gender politics, aligning her at least to a modest degree with Mailer.
Germaine Greer, whose landmark “The Female Eunuch” was published the year before, represents that more radical wing, though she asserts that she speaks for nobody but herself. She postulates that the hallowed masculine artist is a figure granted far too much power in modern culture, much to Mailer's amusement. Jill Johnston, then well-known as a dance and cultural writer for “Village Voice” and soon after as the author of “Lesbian Nation” (1973), takes over the stage by all but ignoring both the format and Mailer. She performs a raucous and hilarious poem/speech that culminates in a pantomimed make-out session with two other women. Understanding the virtue of ending on a high note, she then promptly exits stage right, never to return.
The other panelists remain for a contentious discussion which Mailer largely dominates, frequently whining to the audience that he just wants the chance to say something when he has, in fact, been doing all the talking. Greer seems to be the only one really interested in dueling with him aside from audience members, including a few elites selected to ask questions or shoot barbs at Mailer, including Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Betty Friedan, among others.
Stylish and poised, Greer (much-criticized today for her transphobic comments from several years ago) emerges as the fearless heroine of the evening, at least after Johnston's triumphant exit, while Mailer, at least in my eyes, plays the buffoon. Did Hegedus edit the footage to emphasize Mailer's boorishness? This Criterion disc includes a Mailer appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” (see below) which raises the possibility that Hegedus may have actually done her best to make the pugilistic author appear reasonable and charming. Mailer calling a woman in the audience “cunty” can almost be dismissed as yet another tedious provocation. But his rambling discursion about how women who take “advantage” of a man who they know won't strike them are actually committing violence against the man would ring as obscene from any speaker, let alone from a man who had stabbed his wife.
Viewers aren't likely to learn much about second-wave feminism from “Town Bloody Hall,” but it's surprisingly entertaining and sometimes outrageous. It also provides a window to a moment in American culture when public intellectuals did something other than whine about cancel culture on social media.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The event was shot on 16 mm, and Pennebaker's crew didn't have official permission to film the event. So the footage looks grainy, isn't always well-lit, and features plenty of shaky framing and swish pans. This is a new digital transfer “created in 4K resolution” but it's only going to look so sharp. However, this 1080p more than does justice to the source.
Audio:
The LPCM Mono audio mix is fairly crisp, though sound quality varies at time considering the venue and filming conditions – audience members who shout out weren't miked up, after all. Optional English subtitles support the dialogue, and I found it helpful to turn them on the whole time.
Extras:
Criterion has included a variety of supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring Germaine Greer and co-director/editor Chris Hegedus. This was recorded in 2004.
The disc also offers a new interview (2020, 25 min) with Hegedus, discussing her early career and influences (Maya Deren among them) as well as her involvement with “Town Bloody Hall.” As mentioned above, Pennebaker shelved the footage for years. Hegedus, an admirer of some of the women featured on the panel, was excited to have the chance to shape the material into a film. The movie premiered at the Whitney in 1979, but received limited play elsewhere, on college campuses and on PBS in NYC.
“Reunion” (22 min.) shows footage from a 2004 event in which several of the panelists (Mailer not among them) got back together for a screening and discussion of the film at the National Arts Club in NYC.
We also get a 2001 interview (12 min.) in which Greer discusses her impressions of Mailer leading into the panel discussion. She admired him greatly as a writer but had problems with the format of the event since the women were generally expected to march to Mailer's tune. Perhaps surprisingly, she talks about her desire to impress him at the time.
Finally, Criterion has included a full episode (67 min.) of “The Dick Cavett Show” that aired on Dec 15, 1971. Author Gore Vidal and journalist Janet Flanner were guests along with Mailer. Cavett brings out each guest in turn, with Mailer heading on stage last, about a half hour into the episode. Cavett's discussions with Vidal and Flanner were quite controlled, but once Mailer, possibly drunk, shows up it turns into a circus even more overwrought than the town hall event in the main film. Mailer arrives in a rage over some perceived insult from Vidal and fails to connect with a series of embarrassingly lame one-liners. Some of his insults are so incoherent Cavett asks him directly what he even means, and Mailer has no coherent response. The audience turns on Mailer quickly as well, which only provides him with even more energy as he wonders if they're all idiots because, of course, everyone misunderstands him.
The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Melissa Anderson.
Final Thoughts:
“Town Bloody Hall” may not be the kind of movie you desperately need to see on Blu-ray with a new high-def transfer. But Criterion has loaded this release with extra features that make it a worthy addition to anyone's home video collection.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Taste Of Cherry



TASTE OF CHERRY (Kiarostami, 1997)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 21, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) spends the bulk of Abbas Kiarostami's “Taste Of Cherry” (1997) circling the dusty roads of suburban Tehran, offering rides to a series of men. Is he out cruising? One rough-edged worker thinks so, and threatens to punch Badii in the face, but as our protagonist interrogates each man – a soldier, a security guard, a seminary student, a taxidermist – it becomes increasingly clear (or perhaps slightly less opaque, as Kiarostami is in no hurry to show his cards) that he has a different, though equally primal, goal in mind.

Badii probes relentlessly to ferret out each man's job situation, and once he learns that each is in financial need, he offers a substantial payment if they will help him with a job. That's predatory behavior by any standard, especially from a (presumably) wealthy city man seeking out working-class marks, but once Badii finally reveals the nature of this mysterious job, and his pressing, existential need, viewers may forgive him. Your first viewing of the film will be different whether you know this “twist” or not, so consider this a spoiler warning. Proceed at your own risk.

Badii intends this very evening to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills and lie down in a hillside grave he has already dug for himself. He wants someone to come by in the morning and call out his name; if he doesn't respond, that person must bury him and then can take the money in his car as reward for a good deed. He dismisses it as “only twenty shovelfuls of dirt” but it's not hard to understand why each of his new acquaintances is shaken by the request, and it requires multiple attempts before he finds a reluctant taker.

As shocking as the premise is, especially in an Islamic Republic where suicide is complete taboo, Kiarostami makes a bolder decision by refusing to explain his desperate protagonist's motivations. “Taste Of Cherry” is one of the most powerful ripostes to literal-minded viewers who constantly cry out for more background information, demanding that filmmakers shine a floodlight on their characters' darkest, most private spaces so that everyone can clearly see into every cobwebbed corner.

Kiarostami is a more mature and empathetic storyteller than that and it's difficult not to hear him speaking directly to the audience when Badii responds to one man's request for an explanation, “How come? It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it.” There's your Masterclass in screenwriting right there. Ershadi was a non-professional actor at the time, but his sad, piercing eyes and the finely worn lines of his fifty-ish face convey a depth of insight that no flashback or exposition could possibly match. To explain would eradicate the mystery and, anyway, perhaps he doesn't know why. Or maybe there's no why at all. Does it change how much you care?

Few directors were better than Kiarostami at filming extended driving sequences. Badii's car kicks up billowing dust clouds at a hardscrabble construction site and winds along sinuous hillside roads, perhaps the same paths already traveled on foot by the unforgettable young hero of “Where Is The Friend's House?” (1987). One of Badii's passengers convinces him to take a scenic detour, possibly signaling a turn in the story itself as nature's beauty forcefully asserts its presence. Yet we have to squint closely to detect any sign that Badii is wavering, that he has found anything new to connect to.

Will he or won't he? That might not even be the right question to ask. The film's focused narrative seems locked into a binary resolution, but Kiarostami's ending insists that cinema encompasses far greater worlds than mere narrative. The ending, which I will leave unspoiled here, drove some critics batty (the later, great Roger Ebert detested it, but found little value in the rest of the movie either) while others found it sublime. More than twenty years later, it remains a fertile subject for debate, which I suppose is a defining element of much of Kiarostami's open-ended, reflexive, and deeply sensitive art. 


Video:
Criterion released “Taste of Cherry” on DVD way back in 1999 with an SD transfer that seemed strong enough at the time, but which pales in comparison to this 4K digital restoration which is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The image resolution is sharp throughout and the color palette looks subdued and naturalistic – lots of earth tones from its locations. I've never had the chance to see this either on film or in high-def, so this 1080p transfer was a genuine pleasure to watch. I can't imagine the movie has ever looked any better.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono sound track is sharp and spare, mostly dialogue and naturalistic location sounds. Optional English subtitles support the Persian dialogue.

Extras:
The 1999 DVD release offered only one notable feature, a interview of Kiarostami (18 min.) by film scholar Jamsheed Akrami, and that has been included on this new Blu-ray.

Criterion has also added some new features for this release, starting with “Project” (1997, 39 min.), a “sketch” film which shows Kiarostami preparing for the full shoot. In most of the film's conversations that take place in the car, Kiarostami was actually sitting in the other seat directing his actors, something he seamlessly hides in the final cut, so it's enlightening to see him “show his work” here.

Film scholar Hamid Naficy (2019, 17 min.) provides a brief overview of Kiarostami's career preceding this film and then analyzes a few moments in the movie.

Criterion has also included a short episode (7 min.) from the Criterion Channel's “Observations on Film Art” series in which film scholar Kristin Thompson underscores a few basic themes and element common to much of Kiarostami's work.

We also get a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic A.S. Hamrah.

Final Thoughts:
Kiarostami had already been making films for over 20 years and was at the peak of his career, yet “Taste Of Cherry”, which won the Palme d'Or in 1997, is frequently highlighted as the film that enabled him to break out as a major force on the international festival circuit and, with it, much of the Iranian New Wave. Its victory at Cannes and its 1999 release by Criterion made it the first Kiarostami film that many Americans saw, providing both the opportunity to discover some of his previous masterpieces (such as the amazing “Close-Up”) and to keep up with the series of landmark works he released until his death in 2016.

With this Blu-ray upgrade of an early title, Criterion has provided a superb high-def transfer and an array of supplements that should please any Kiarostami fan.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Shirin


SHIRIN (Kiarostami, 2008)
Cinema Guild, DVD, Release Date Aug 24, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(NOTE: Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016, would have turned 80 today. Here's a repost of my review of one of his lesser-known films, though certainly not one of his lesser films. And feel free to click on the 'Kiarostami' tag at the end of this post for links to several other films by this modern master.)

Abbas Kiarostami´s "Shirin" (2008) is the very model of simplicity, constructed entirely (aside from the opening and end credits) of a series of close-up shots of women in a theater watching a film. Well, not exactly. The actresses were actually filmed in small groups while sitting in Kiarostami´s living room, and they weren´t really watching a movie. In fact the movie doesn´t exist at all except as an audio track which was recorded after the actresses´ performances were filmed. So scratch that simplicity business. Chalk "Shirin" up as another of Kiarostami´s deceptively complicated, multi-layered meditations on life, the cinema and everything. We shouldn´t expect anything else from the director of “Close-up” (1990) and "A Taste of Cherry" (1997).

On the surface there seems to be something perverse about Kiarostami´s decision to work with a cast full of professional actors for the first time, and then to plop each of them in a living room chair and have them "simply" (that word again!) stare ahead as if watching a movie. Yet as revealed in the wonderful making-of documentary ("A Taste of Shirin") included on this DVD, these big-name stars of Iranian cinema (plus Juliette Binoche, perhaps prepping for her role in Kiarostami´s "Certified Copy") are not only acting, but pushing their craft into previously unexplored territory. As Kiarostami says to one of his performers: "You are now the spectator of movies you have been playing for years." This is surely a role none of them expected to be playing on screen, and the director doesn´t make it easy, paradoxically micromanaging them ("move your chin up") then asking them to create their own inner movie and express any resulting emotions with their eyes.

Cinema Guild has included two other Kiarostami short films on this disc which share the same formal concerns as the main feature, namely the intent study of images we rarely, if ever, get to scrutinize on film. In "Roads of Kiarostami" (2006), the director films not just roads but primarily his own photographs of roads winding through the countryside. We have seen images like this before even in Kiarostami´s own work (the winding road up the hillside in the 1987 "Where Is The Friend´s House?" being a standout) but the close "aerial" study of these two-dimensional photographs provides a unique perspective on these sinuous forms, appreciated for their formal beauty rather than their more pragmatic function. In "Rug" (2006), Kiarostami travels the "roads" of a Persian rug, the camera tracking its intricately woven patterns first in a counter-clockwise circle (or square, following its shape) then panning up and down before zooming out for a broader view. 


In "Shirin" he studies the roadmap of the face, faces of women both younger and older, faces framed by head scarves that are limned by the flickering light of the faux movie screen. For me, one of the greatest pleasures in cinema is watching people while they are watching or listening to something off-screen; absorbing, learning, thinking. Godard´s cinema is replete with such instances, the most famous being Anna Karina watching "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in "Vivre Sa Vie." The inherent creepiness of watching Danny watching a Roadrunner cartoon in "The Shining" also springs to mind. Kiarostami´s film takes this aesthetic to a whole different level.

The faces in "Shirin" tell a gradually unfolding story that relates to the story being told off-screen. Kiarostami´s audio movie is based on the medieval poem "Khosrow and Shirin" by Nizami Ganjavi, a tragic love story (the only kind) about a woman (Shirin) pursued by a king and an artist. What we hear suggests that this is a purely commercial melodrama which explains why it´s playing in a public theater rather than to a festival crowd like most of Kiarostami´s work. At first, the women´s faces are either impassive or pensive as they reserve judgment about the film, but they turn more expressive, tears eventually flowing as they are seduced by its pathos. Not that any of them were watching a film, of course. When an actress appears to be jolted by a sudden event on screen, she was actually startled by the director dropping a pan. Any trick to get an "authentic" reaction.

Perhaps Kiarostami is contemplating the relationship of his own contemplative, occasionally abstract work to the seductive power of narrative cinema. I'm not ready to venture into that interpretive mine field just yet. What I´m left with instead is the surface level, memories of a series of women´s faces looking ever so slightly off-screen (I don´t recall anyone´s gaze meeting the camera) giving us the opportunity to observe them as they observe a non-existent film. How beautiful. How fascinating. And, in the end, yes, how simple this film´s charms. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer from Cinema Guild. The widescreen image is windowboxed for some reason, but otherwise I have no complaints. It´s tempting to carp a bit about how dark some of the images look, but this was meant to look like it was shot in a theater so obviously there are times that faces are going to disappear somewhat into the shadows. The flickering light sometimes shows up as looking a little blotchy on the ´theater seats" in the film, but this is a solid transfer all around.

Audio:
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. If there is anything I was somewhat off put by, it´s that the film (dialogue and FX) we hear off-screen sounds more like a live radio play than a movie heard in a theater. When you see how the audio was recorded, it´s obvious why this is the case, so I think the sound is well replicated on this mix. English subtitles are provided to support the Farsi audio.

Extras:
With its simple black cover and stripped-down menus, this DVD initially appears to be a no-frills release, but the extras included by Cinema Guild are superb.

First up is the excellent "making of" documentary "Taste of Shirin" (2008, 27 min.) by Hamideh Razavi. As much as any "making of" featurette I can recall, this fits hand in glove with the main feature and can significantly transform your viewing experience. It shows Kiarostami at work with his actresses both in front of the camera and later in the audio booth.

What a treat for Kiarostami buffs to now have two of his recent short films available in Region 1.

"Roads of Kiarostami" (2005, 32 min.) is a natural development in the director´s lifelong passion for filming long, zigzagging roads. In this short, he shoots some moving images of roads, but mostly focuses on photographs (that I assume are his own) of roads, combined with a contemplative voice-over. There is also a brief video passage of Kiarostami on the road trying to capture some images.

"Rug" (2006, 6 min.) is a close-up study of the surface of a Persian carpet accompanied by audio of a man and women reciting poetry. It is quite lovely.

The extras are important simply for making Kiarostami´s short films available on DVD, but they also happen to fit seamlessly together. As mentioned above, all three Kiarostami films (the shorts and "Shirin") show the director´s interest in focusing on images seldom privileged on screen. As a group, these films offer a great perspective on the last five years of this Kiarostami´s thematic and formal concerns.

The slim insert booklet features an insightful two page essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of America´s most eloquent and passionate critical champion of Abbas Kiarostami´s cinema.

Final Thoughts:
"Shirin" may be Kiarostami´s most experimental feature to date, but it´s as accessible as any of his films. Bolstered by the well-chosen extras, "Shirin" is yet another great release by Cinema Guild, and strongly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2020

No No: A Dockumentary


NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY (Radice, 2014)
Theatrical Release
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of baseball's most-celebrated no-hitters. Why does anyone still care about an early-June game between the Pirates and the woeful Padres? Read on and find out.)

Dock Ellis won 138 games in the major leagues, started an all-star game, and earned a World Series ring. But Dock Ellis will forever be known for pitching a no-hitter while (allegedly) tripping on LSD. As Ellis told and re-told the much-loved story, he couldn't even see the batters and just pitched to the reflective tape catcher Jerry May wore on his fingers. “High as a Georgia pine,” he walked eight and hit a batter. Trust Dock Ellis to pitch a no-hitter in his own style.


While “No No: A Dockumentary” (2014) shows us there is much more to Dock Ellis than just his June 12, 1970 gem against the Padres (yes, no-hitters pitched against the Padres still count officially) it still takes this cherished legend as its primary inspiration. It was neither the first nor the last time Dock (his given name, by the way) took the mound while under the influence of illegal substances.

Ellis's career (1968-1979) was a constant binge of LSD, vodka, and especially greenies, the amphetamines in widespread use in major-league baseball during the '60s and '70s. Ellis claims he would grab a fistful of pills from a bowl in the clubhouse, toss them in the air and take the ones that landed standing up... and then take the rest as needed. He enjoyed the night life too and was fortunate to find the perfect home with the party-animal Pirates headlined by Willie Stargell and Ellis's roommate and mentor Roberto Clemente. Fans of the team will enjoy the numerous interviews with Bucco stalwarts like Al Oliver (one of Dock's closest friends), Manny Sanguillen, Bruce Kison, and others.

First-time feature documentary director Jeff Radice plays the drug angle for the combination of awe and stoner humor that has usually accompanied the legend of Dock Ellis, but it's only fun and games until somebody gets hurt. The laughs stop quickly when we learn that Ellis choked his first wife Paula (she ditched him immediately) and later threatened to shoot his second wife, Austine, during a night-long ordeal as he raged after being released by the Pirates. According to the movie, Ellis took the second incident as a wake-up call, checked himself into rehab, and embarked on an unlikely post-playing career as an advocate for substance abuse treatment for professional athletes and a drug counselor in prisons.

Whether you buy the final act redemption story as neatly as presented here or not, Ellis emerges from the movie as a complex and thoughtful character. He loved to say and do outrageous things, but seldom did so without a calculated purpose. If there's a common thread to the controversies this self-described “angry black man” generated on a regular basis (I'll leave you to discover them in the movie in case you don't already know) it's that he didn't want anybody telling him what to do; not fans, not the press, and certainly not his employers. Ellis's defiant message to his teams was to watch how he played on the field and not to worry about anything else. 


The documentary also suggests a sensitive, almost artistic side to Ellis. One of the stranger aspects about one of baseball's strangest careers is that Dock's biography would be written by future poet laureate Donald Hall who spotted something unique in the outspoken pitcher. He wasn't the only one. Jackie Robinson was inspired to write Ellis an appreciative letter in which he cheered him for standing up for his values. Dock tries to read the text of the letter, but can't make it to the end as he breaks up in tears.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Losing Ground


LOSING GROUND (Collins, 1982)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date April 5, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

(UPDATE 6/6/2020: The Criterion Channel has made several films by black filmmakers, along with a few other titles, available to stream for free. If you're looking for a place to start, I recommend "Losing Ground", available at the following link. Tip: The movie might not play on Chrome, but should work on Safari and Firefox and other browsers. I don't know how long it will be available for free, so don't let the opportunity slip by.) 

Though the centerpiece of Kathleen Collins's “Losing Ground” (1982) is the fraught relationship between a wife and her husband, the scene that has stuck with me the most is the one where an aspiring student filmmaker named George (Gary Bollins) shouts directions to his camera operator. A nice, slow tilt, then a diagonal pan, now dolly back to a wide... “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?”

Aside from the nifty feat of combining three languages in eight words, writer/director/producer Collins displays a wry sense of humor about the filmmaking process – the vanity, the insecurity, and the sheer pleasure of making decisions on set, absurdity and ambition shouldering each other aside. “Losing Ground” is one of the first feature films directed by an African-American woman and Collins had to work hard to get it made, but it sure seems like she had fun in the process.


Fun is a challenge for Sara (Seret Scott), a terminally serious philosophy professor loosely inspired by Collins's experience as a film history and screenwriting teacher at City College of New York. Sara is perfectly comfortable lecturing on Sartre and Camus, but when she decides she needs to learn more about “ecstatic experiences” she follows the only route to wisdom she knows: a visit to the library to research it, like the Simpsons' “Itchy and Scratchy” staffer who wrote his “thesis on life experience.”

Her free-spirited artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn, the filmmaker of “Ganja and Hess” fame) would be the perfect counterbalance for her if only he could actually acknowledge anyone's experience (ecstatic or otherwise) other than his own. Victor has his moments of gentle humor, celebrating a museum sale by stating, “I'm a genuine success... a genuine, black success,” but his incurable narcissism imperils their relationship. For him, inspiration trumps reason, and he lets Sara know it: “What's the matter? Hegel and the boys let you down?”

Professor Sara looks so tiny as she sits in her massive chair in her similarly massive office (Collins has a thing for interiors with high ceilings), but she asserts her presence with greater authority, in fits and starts, as the story unfolds. Victor drags her along to a retreat in upstate New York, but when said retreat turns out to be another excuse for Victor to fool around with one of his artistic “subjects” (Maritza Rivera) Sara drops her books on Gnosticism and pursues her research on ecstasy by agreeing to act in George's film, a decision which thrills the budding auteur, one of many students besotted by Sara.


This serves the dual function of infuriating Victor (he's the only one allowed to pursue his muse) and introducing her to the mysterious Duke, who is just cool enough to wear a cape and hat without seeming like a hipster poser. Duke is played by the great Duane Jones, perhaps best known as the star of George Romero's genre-defining “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and he steals most of his scenes. Director George (the student, not Romero) provides another laugh line when he shouts to his stars in the middle of a long take, “Sorry I didn't prepare you for this, but could you kiss? Really kiss?”

They do, and it's a crucial step in Sara's empowerment, enabling her to stand up to Victor when he makes a fool of himself at a party, and paving the road to an ending that I'll admit to feeling ambivalent about. Let me watch it again and maybe I'll have a better take.

Kathleen Collins


“Losing Ground” screened just one time in New York and barely received any press coverage, though it would accrue a growing army of admirers at college screenings and other specialty venues and the occasional TV or cable broadcast. Collins continued teaching, but never directed another film. Shortly before production on “Losing Ground” she discovered she had breast cancer, and died from it in 1988 at the age of 46.

Though her film never received anything resembling a proper release, “Losing Ground” touched many viewers deeply, and neither Collins nor her film would be forgotten. When Duart Labs begin divesting itself of its film inventory about ten years ago, Collins's daughter Nina rescued the negatives and set out on a path that eventually brought her to the right place, Milestone Films. And now Milestone has helped to bring “Losing Ground” to more viewers than ever in this magnificent and comprehensive two-volume Blu-ray release.


 Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This high-def restoration shows a few minor flecks, mostly visible during the title sequences, but the overall quality is excellent with a thick grain structure visible throughout. Another knockout effort from Milestone.

Audio:
The lossless audio sounds crisp and clear throughout. There are moments when the dialogue sounds a bit hollow, but I suspect that's from the original audio source, perhaps from some dubbing. No problems worth noting here. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Reviewing a Milestone release is invariably a pleasure; it is also a commitment to a full 40-hour work week. They have been typically exhaustive in loading this 2-disc Blu-ray release with extras.

Disc One includes the film and a Theatrical Trailer. The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Lamonda Horton-Stallings, a professor of women's studies and literature at the University of Maryland College Park, and Terri Francis, a film scholar at Indiana University. They speak about their experiences first discovering Collins's film while also providing scene-by-scene analysis. They strike a great balance in providing expert insight and expressing their personal enthusiasm for the film and for Collins.

Disc Two, as is standard for most Milestone multi-disc products, could easily be its own stand-alone release.


“The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy” (1980, 49 min.) is Kathleen Collins's first directorial effort, working in collaboration with cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, also a crucial creative partner and cinematographer on “Losing Ground.” Collins was eager to parlay her experience in film editing, teaching, and writing into a directorial gig, but decided it would be better in her first turn behind the camera to adapt someone else's writing instead of her own. So she worked loosely from “The Cruz Chronicles” by Henry H. Roth, also co-adapting the script with Roth and Jo Tavener. I was wowed by the opening passages of this lyrical film imbued with a touch of magical realism. The oldest of the three Puerto Rican Cruz brothers, Victor (Randy Ruiz), is also the only one who can speak to his Poppa, who has long since passed on but still drops by to offer advice as a free-floating spirit represented POV-style with a similarly free-floating camera and voice-over by Ernesto Gonzalez.

Collins and Gray capture some elegant imagery of Victor, Jose (Lionel Pina), and Felipe (Jose Machado) palling around during mostly structureless days, playing along a bridge or shooting hoops. I found the film somewhat less compelling once Miss Malloy (Sylvia Field, formerly Mrs. Wilson of Dennis the Menace) enters the picture, hiring the brothers to rehabilitate her crumbling estate so she can hold one more ball before she dies, shades of Satyajit Ray's “The Music Room” perhaps. Field can be over the top and a bit stilted at times, delivering random lines like, “I'm looking for my life. Where is it?” I wasn't so crazy about the ending either. However, there are warm, vibrant moments and a good dose of humor, especially in poor Felipe's constant urge to quit and run away whenever things at Miss Malloy's house turn a bit too creepy... or if his ginger ale has too much ice.

“Cruz Brothers” is also accompanied by a commentary track, though not the typical one. This is actually an audio recording from a 1980 public screening and Q&A session in which Collins discusses the limited production (here she says it was made for $7,000, though $5,000 is the figure mentioned elsewhere) as well as her appreciation of directors like Eric Rohmer and her fondness for long takes and films that don't guide audience reactions too heavily. Author Henry H. Roth also chimes in around the 35-minute mark. The audio ends about five minutes before the film does.

“Transmagnifican Dambamuality” (1976, 7 min.) is a short film directed and shot by Ronald K. Gray. He describes this “Quiet, Domestic Drama” as a remembrance of his family life, especially his younger brother. It concerns a typical family going through their morning rituals, with mom alternately being exasperated with her son for wasting his time in his room to beaming proudly at him when he plays the piano beautifully. The film's defining feature is a comedic soundtrack with overwrought effects (a knife on a cutting board produces concussive explosions) that turns touchingly realistic at the end. I liked it a lot.

Of course, we haven't even gotten to the interviews yet. Milestone's first interview is a new one with Ronald K. Gray (46 min.) that covers just about all the bases, from Gray's early life and education to first meeting Kathleen Collins at City College of New York to their professional collaboration. Like all of the interview subjects, he expresses his astonishment at learning about Collins's cancer as she kept it a closely-guarded secret.

Another similarly expansive interview (40 min.) with the apparently ageless lead actress Seret Scott follows. She met Collins through a mutual friend, actor Gilbert Moses, and through their civil rights activism with SNCC. She quickly came to consider Collins both a mentor and a close friend, and notes that Collins almost always wrote a part with Scott in mind in each of her plays. She doesn't mention “Losing Ground” until past the halfway mark of the interview, but has plenty to say, especially about her co-stars about whom she speaks glowingly.

Nina Lorez Collins, Kathleen's daughter, also talks (26 min.) about life with mom and her memories of the various films; often cast and crew would not just be co-workers, but would be living in the Collins household during the shoots.

Fortunately, Milestone was able to dig up a video interview with Collins, conducted by Phyllis B. Klatman as part of a college-based interview program, and provided here courtesy of Indiana University Black Film Archive. This 23-minute interview gives Collins plenty of time to talk about her early career, including making a living as a film editor before becoming a teacher, as well as her teaching philosophy which includes familiarizing students with the earliest films so they can build from the ground up.

But aside from all that, there's really not much on the disc.

Final Thoughts:
“Losing Ground” offers so many other small pleasures I didn't even get to: the unabashedly intellectual exchanges that leap from French existentialism to early Christian mysticism, the student whose ill-considered idea of a great pick-up line is to brag about reading “that book on Genet,” and the wonderful performance of Billie Allen as Sara's mother. Thanks to this splendid and comprehensive release from Milestone, you now have the chance to discover them all and, most importantly, to discover (or re-discover) the work of Kathleen Collins.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Leave Her To Heaven


LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Stahl, 1945)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 24, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

The genres of melodrama and noir share only a short border, but both intersect in the enigmatic and magnetic blue-green eyes of actress Gene Tierney, star of director John M. Stahl's “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945).

Ellen Berent (Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) size each other up on a train. Richard coyly steals glances while Ellen gazes with increasing boldness and evident hunger. The meet-cute turns meet-sinister when Ellen explains the fascination this stranger on a train holds for her: “You look so much like my father.” Yikes!

Perhaps a bright, successful novelist like Richard should take this was a warning to switch cars while he still can, but the problem is that Ellen looks so much like Gene Tierney. He was doomed the instant he spiraled into the gravity well of those inescapable eyes. Next thing Richard knows, they're married, even if he can't quite remember the proposal. Ellen has a way of getting what she wants, and she wants Richard. All to herself.

Stahl makes Tierney's uncanny beauty the centerpiece of the film, and not just by asking screenwriter Jo Swerling (adapting the best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams) to devise excuses for the actress to slip into a diverse array of sweaters, bathing suits, and nightgowns. Tierney's flawless face matches the flawless décor of the palatial Berent estate, and her ruby-red lipstick, positively bleeding in lush Technicolor, shines as luminously as the sun that glistens off the pools and lakes featured in the film.

To the degree that “Leave Her To Heaven” qualifies as a noir, it is the rare noir that doesn't rely heavily on shadows and murky spaces. The lustrous colors and the sheer brightness of the set design threaten to envelop Richard as surely as the gloomiest of noir alleyways, and so does the ugliness lurking just beneath his perfect housewife's perfect visage. She won't let anything get in the way of their wedded bliss, not her family, not their baby, not even Richard's polio-stricken little brother (Darryl Hickman). Richard is warned that “Ellen always wins” but fortunately he's not in a full-fledged noir, so fate still permits him a potential escape route, primarily in the form of Ellen's true-hearted cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Ellen's beauty blinds Richard to her flaws and Tierney's beauty can blind viewers to the quality of her performance. She renders Ellen both as supremely domineering and also vulnerable as a woman who only “loves too much”, at least according to her mother (Mary Philips). And though Tierney relishes in some of the overwrought flourishes of the traditional melodrama (a spiteful trip down a flight of stairs among them) she creates one of the most soul-chilling scenes of 1940's Hollywood simply by sitting still and staring passively through a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Leave Her To Heaven” ends on its weakest note with an extended and tedious courtroom scene which at least gives Vincent Price something to do after only the briefest of cameos earlier on. But Tierney's performance is indelible and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who netted the film's sole Oscar win, deftly paints peril into every frame of this glowing Technicolor dreamland turned nightmare. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm color reversal internegative. A 35 mm nitrate Technicolor print was used as a reference for picture restoration.”

Without the original Technicolor footage, we can't be certain how precisely the colors match the original release, but with the reference print, this 1080 restoration provides a robust, bright image bursting with color. I couldn't spot any obvious flaws in the presentation.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track is cleanly mixed with no evident dropoffs. The swelling original score by Alfred Newman is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion has gone light with the features this time, including only a Trailer (2 min.) and a new interview (26 min.) with critic Imogen Sara Smith, the author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City.” Smith touches on the mysterious early life of director John M. Stahl, who long claimed to be born in New York but was, in fact, born in Azerbaijan. She also provides some visual analysis of a few scenes in the film.

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by novelist Megan Abbott.

Final Thoughts:
Gene Tierney was at her career peak, following up “Laura” (1944) with a role of a lifetime as Ellen in this film. Criterion offers little in the way of extras this time, though the interview with Smith is very strong, but this is a solid high-definition presentation of this strange melodrama-noir.