This Sunday, David Phelps and John MacKay, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Chair of Film Studies at Yale, will be presenting a double feature followed by a discussion at UnionDocs in Brooklyn. I cede the floor to David:
Two unsung masterworks: Jean-Luc Godard's Kids Play Russia (1993) is a personal history of Soviet montage, and Vsevolod Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia (1927) is one of its great exemplars. In both, against the voice of a lone renegade, the West invades the East to capture it — that is, in images of its stereotypes. Sight makes might? In these spectacular assaults on spectacle, Pudovkin stresses the imperialists' lives led "for appearance sake," and Godard argues that Western cinema will only see things by its code. And yet both, shooting documentaries in "the land of fiction" and editing them as dramas, redeem fiction as a possible, documentary reality; Godard starts seeing echoes of Tolstoy and Chekhov in his backyard, while Pudovkin films Mongolian festivities and in a battle sequence he waited weeks to film, shows the wind as the colonialists' greatest enemy and his own greatest drama. Almost never screened, these works of theory in operatic action are shows of cinema as it might have been: real life, set to the propulsive feet of history.
"Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)," begins Josef Braun, "was Ingmar Bergman's first international hit, reuniting Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand, the nimble, charismatic stars of Bergman's A Lesson in Love (1954), which like Smiles, is a romantic comedy, a genre Bergman rarely worked in (in the cinema at least) despite his obvious facility. Set in 1901, thus taking just enough historical distance to emphasize how little the nature of romantic entanglements alters with shifts in social mores, the film is indeed very funny. It's also, more characteristically for Bergman, sexy, poignant, and painful. Smiles on a Summer Night is funny precisely because it's painful."
In Slant, Chris Cabin adds that it "boasts a sturdy group of technical workers, a uniformly brilliant cast, a perpetually witty and nuanced script, and above all else, smart, clear-sighted direction from Bergman, but there's also an essential madness to it. Even in its unerring philosophical insights into sexuality, romance, and male and female psychology, the film's humor and deep warmth are only fully palpable due to the sublime lunacy that runs underneath it all, erupting in passages of lustful exuberance." It's received "a robust Blu-ray transfer and an informative, if relatively light, sampling of extras courtesy of Criterion."
Also out last week from Criterion is Fat Girl (2001), "perhaps the most perfect work from writer/director/provocateur Catherine Breillat," suggests Josef Braun, though he's less tentative when it comes to Anaïs Reboux, who "gives one of the most remarkable, unaffected and devastating performances of the last decade." Chris Cabin: "Though not a banner work by Criterion, the Blu-ray release of Catherine Breillat's superb coming-of-age tale is worth taking a look at for the ever-blooming mysteries of the film itself."
Out this week from Criterion is Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986), with an accompanying essay by David Thomson. Sam Smith describes the ways in which designing the cover "ended up being a perfect example of how a simple concept can sometimes be the toughest to execute."
Sean Axmaker: "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is the first contemporary feature released by Flicker Alley, the American distributor dedicated to preserving and presenting rarities and masterpieces of silent cinema in superb editions; a true labor of love in an environment where classic cinema is an increasingly hard sell on home video. This release is, however, consistent with the company's dedication to celebrating classic cinema, which may be why Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films is one of the most dedicated archives of silent and classic cinema in the world, chose this boutique label for the film's American release. The trust was well placed: Flicker Alley releases the film in a combo pack with both Blu-ray and DVD editions, both beautifully presenting the luscious imagery of Clouzot's footage."
"A new four-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection, Vitaphone Varieties, features some 60 short films, most if not all made with Warner's sound-on-disc process and recovered thanks to the detective work of Ron Hutchinson and The Vitaphone Project," blogs Dave Kehr. "Among the conclusions to be drawn from this fascinating collection: there was an awful lot of talking on screen well before The Jazz Singer, and the Marx Bros weren't alone as specialists in aggressive, absurdist comedy in the 1920s." His review in the New York Times.