When, in 1934, Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis, he was only 29, "a neglected figure at the margins of the industry who had seen one of his films (Zéro de Conduite) banned by the French authorities and another (L'Atalante) recut and retitled by its producer." Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times: "Vigo lends himself to romanticization, and not just because of his tragic early death and the aura of unfulfilled promise. He led a brief but colorful life as a fellow traveler of the French surrealists and the son of a well-known anarchist who was apparently murdered in prison. Vigo's first film, the silent, 23-minute À Propos de Nice (On the Subject of Nice), part of the 'city symphony' genre that flourished in the 1920s, confirmed that the young Jean was very much his father's son…. All of Vigo's films were shot by Boris Kaufman, brother of the Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov and a successful Hollywood cinematographer later in his career (his credits include On the Waterfront). Kaufman and Vigo's flair for offhand poetry can be seen even in the commissioned quickie Taris (1931), a documentary sketch of champion swimmer Jean Taris, enlivened by deft camera trickery and some lovely underwater photography that anticipates the best-known scene in L'Atalante, in which the skipper hero dives off his barge hoping for a glimpse of his true love."
The Complete Jean Vigo, out today from Criterion, fits Vigo's single feature and three shorts on one disc, while another features bounteous extras, such as a 1968 conversation between François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer on L'Atalante, an animated tribute from Michel Gondry and more. Vigo is "arguably the godfather of more European film-art dendrites than any other director," writes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. "Standing on the cusp of film's totter into the sound era, and amid a period of photo-technological fecundity, his brief oeuvre… is both a veritable microcosm of the leaps and bounds the industry would make in the late 20s and early 30s, and a nigh-unparalleled apogee of personal style. Despite the relative newness of double exposure, cross dissolves, freeze frames, and slow motion, Vigo employed them all without succumbing to gimmickry. Mimicking corporeal rhythms with the camera, his films limn the realm of the unhindered body, of the anarchic lust for unattainable justice, of puppy love that over-spills from those who it inflicts to form puddles, ponds, oceans. And yet the rendering of this exuberance would seem hopelessly foolish were it not so patient, so willing to acknowledge, to forgive, and most crucially to poeticize fallibility." Update: More from Josef Braun. Updates, 8/31: "No filmmaker's work surpasses Jean Vigo's in sensual delight, stylistic wizardry, and imaginative wonder," writes Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail. And Criterion has posted a series of Vigo-related entries: Michael Almereyda on Vigo, Robert Polito on Vigo and Kaufman, Luc Sante on L'Atalante and B Kite on Zéro de conduit.
Bill Ryan finds unexpected parallels between Vigo's work Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950), also out from Criterion today. Updates: Mark Polizzotti on Orpheus for Criterion: "It is fitting that a work so preoccupied with mirrors and reflections should send back the image not only of its maker but, more than any of Cocteau's other films, of its viewer as well."
Cocteau's "imagistic inventiveness is visionary," writes Chris Cabin in Slant, "but his exciting use of visuals never dilutes, overwrites, or distracts from the great personal emotional weight that Cocteau's script and his performers imbue his inky aesthetic with. This uniquely impassioned style was evident throughout Cocteau's career but was never as potent as in his Orphic trilogy and especially Orpheus, which toggles between dream and reality, the bright future and the corroded past, love and aspirations, hopeless fate and unwise decisions with such deft technical know-how and wrenching dramatic power, even Charlie Chaplin was left to posit to its creator: 'How'd you do that?'"
Back in late 2008, early 2009, the Notebook ran Nick Palevsky's three-part series (1, 2 and 3) on TOKYO FILMeX's retrospective of work Koreyoshi Kurahara, focusing, as the festival put it, "on the period spanning the 1950s and 60s when he created successful star vehicles for Nikkatsu, while also harnessing his talents for original works of his own." Now Criterion has released five titles from more or less the same period — Intimidation (1960), The Warped Ones (1960), I Hate But Love (1962), Black Sun (1964) and Thirst for Love (1967) — as Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara. In his essay for Criterion, Chuck Stephens reaffirms the notion that "Kurahara reached his creative zenith in the sixties, during a season of widespread and revolutionary bursts of creativity at all levels of Japanese cinema, industrial to underground," but reminds us, too, that Kurahara's was a "long and unusual career, taking in glossy and emotionally complicated star vehicles for teen heartthrobs like supersensations Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka and panicked paeans (featuring studio second-stringers) to psychotic loners lost in worlds of jazz-induced delirium and sexual ambivalence; a carefully calculated, noose-tightening 1960 corporate-office noir and an artfully pensive and ultraerotic late-60s adaptation of a Yukio Mishima literary classic; blockbuster 1980s nature documentaries about elephants and heroic South Pole sled dogs. It seems as if nothing was beyond (or beneath) Kurahara's capabilities or curiosities, no project set in remote enough a location to dampen his restless energies (which took him to a Mexican desert, the canals of Amsterdam, temples near Bangkok) and relentlessly inventive variety of filmmaking styles."
Update, 8/31: For Simon Abrams, writing at Press Play, "only two of the films in this set are must-see viewing. If anything, this new box set only confirms my opinion that the best DVD package released under the Eclipse label thus far has been their Nikkatsu Noir set, the only one of the Eclipse series not dedicated strictly to a single director. Nikkatsu Noir gave viewers a more comprehensive look at who was making what film at a certain period of time during Japan's New Wave. To be fair, The Warped Worlds of Koreyoshi Kurahara also provides some great context for Kurahara neophytes (i.e., most everyone, including myself — I had only seen The Warped Ones before digging into this new box set). But after Kurahara's two 1960 productions, the other featured titles are a little disappointing."
Once again, Dennis Lim, this time for Criterion: "Secret Sunshine  is [Lee Chang-dong's] fourth film; he has since made a fifth, Poetry (2010). Born in 1954, he came to movies after careers as a teacher and a fiction writer (he published two well-regarded novels in the 80s). With this background in mind, critics often call Lee's movies 'novelistic,' an easy way to get at their sweep and scope, their elegant narrative constructions and unpredictably multifaceted characters. But as Lee himself has suggested, another way to think about his relatively late turn to cinema — he was in his 40s when he directed his first feature, Green Fish (1997) — is to see him as a filmmaker who is still discovering the medium, grappling with fundamental questions about its limits and possibilities. He has said that before he starts a movie, he always asks himself, 'What is cinema for?' Secret Sunshine is a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, and cruelty; a look at the particularities of human nature and experience that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion — all of which is to say that it's an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium." More on Secret Sunshine from Tom Hall (Hammer to Nail) and Glenn Heath Jr (Slant); and more on Poetry, out from Kino, from Simon Abrams and Michael Atkinson (Fandor) and Chuck Bowen (Slant).
"Originally made for German television, I Only Want You to Love Me was made in the midst of [Fassbinder's] most prolific period," writes Sean Axmaker, reviewing the Olive Films release for TCM. "It was one of five films he shot in 1975. While his feature films were becoming more stylistically dense and baroque, this was shot with a stripped-down aesthetic for the small screen. The images are uncluttered, often stark… The graceful camerawork (by Fassbinder regular Michael Ballhaus) is as fluid as ever, subtly prowling through the small sets and often lonely locations and constantly readjusting the angle and the composition, not just to get a better angle but to acknowledge the shifting dynamics of the drama within the scene and continue to isolate Peter from the family groupings."
"With Norwegian Ninja, first-time writer-director Thomas Cappelen Malling somehow, against all odds, delivers a film that's even stranger than its boffo trailer suggests." Bob Calhoun revels in the madness at Salon. Out from Dark Sky Films.
Dave Kehr devotes his New York Times column this week to Kino's release of Eisenstein's first feature, Strike (1925), "a less focused and looser study in propaganda than the relentlessly Pavlovian Potemkin, a film that takes time out for comedy, acrobatics and spectacle," Eugène Lourié's The Colossus of New York (1958), "one of those little marvels of the American cinema that exists at the intersection of exploitation and art" (out from Olive Films), and a collection of films from VCI Entertainment featuring the young Dirk Bogarde, the "boyishly handsome leading man in the British cinema of the 1950s… a sort of pocket-size Rock Hudson."
More DVD roundups. Mark Kermode (Observer), Peter Martin (Twitch), Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel, Noel Murray (LAT), Slant and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).