Tuesday, DVD roundup day, is a fine day for taking a look at the new Summer 2011 issue of Cineaste, particularly since, among the online samplings this time around, DVD reviews outnumber all other types of articles combined.
To begin, Darragh O'Donoghue on Harun Farocki's Still Life (1997): "Five aphoristic essays on 17th-century Dutch still-life painting, of about three minutes each, bracket four documentary sequences of photographers creating modern still lifes for magazine advertisements. These two levels, though defined by opposites — stasis/motion, tell/show — are linked by visual motifs and rhymes, just as the modern products echo the subjects of the paintings. The documentary sequences have no commentary, mostly last ten to fifteen minutes, and take their cue from Farocki's earlier An Image (Ein bild, 1983). In that short, he recorded the shooting of a German Playboy centerfold spread, from the building of sets and the arrangement of props (including the model herself), to the taking, analysis, and retaking of photographs, and the staff finally leaving the studio. If the nude model in An Image was manipulated as a piece of fruit to be arranged, lit, and presented to the viewer as desirably as possible, so the continued focus in Still Life on cheese, beer, and wristwatches, placed on pedestals, endlessly discussed by shadowy craftsmen, embraced by repetitive, slow, semicircular tracking shots, and brightly lit as if illuminated from within, contrive to give the objects a real spiritual presence, that of the (commodity) fetish, removed from their mode of production or original use value. This relationship is anticipated by one of the earliest still lifes, in which a mountain of food leads the eye to a stolen embrace in the background; desire + consumption = sexual satiation." After touching on films by Godard and Straub-Huillet, O'Donoghue spells out his problems with this Facets Video release.
"Everything about David Secter's wondrous debut feature film, Winter Kept Us Warm, feels like a time warp," writes Matthew Hays. "Indeed, while watching it, it's difficult to decipher what is most striking: that a low-budget gay love story exists on celluloid from the year 1965, or that the film has managed to languish in relative obscurity for so long." Out from TLA Video.
Margot Benacerraf's Araya "shared the International Critics Prize at Cannes with Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour in 1959, before disappearing from view and going unscreened until 1977," notes Matt Losada. "Its focus on the marginalized would seem to locate it as a precursor of the generation of Latin American filmmakers who in the 1960s used the medium to denounce social inequalities and militate for change, often by calling for violent revolution. But the differences between these and Benacerraf's film are considerable. Araya not only refrains from militancy; its portrayal of the marginalized is also of an entirely different nature. Instead of focusing on the shocking ugliness of poverty's effects on the bodies of those impoverished and exploited under neocolonial capitalism, as did Fernando Solanas, Jorge Sanjinés, Miguel Littín, and most other Latin American New Cinema filmmakers, Araya estheticizes the exploited worker, portraying muscular bodies straining against — and carefully framed by — a harsh landscape to raise the perfect geometry of pyramids of salt along the edge of wide expanses of still water." Out from Milestone.
Oliver Pattenden opens his piece on the Eclipse box set Basil Dearden's London Underground by noting that all those worried that "David Cameron is dragging the nation back to the days of Thatcherism at lightning speed" would do well, too, to look at another era, "the equally difficult days of austerity in the decade and a half following World War II." While we tend to think of those years as a period of "kitchen-sink" realism, "Dearden was a consummate genre director, working with ease through myriad filmic styles and structures (probably best exemplified by the epic Khartoum ). By utilizing his skills with genre films to examine society's darkest flaws, Dearden managed to do something more than just address a social issue; he exploited the ability of cinema to entertain, placing 'social problems' in a generic context that would gain more attention. For example, Sapphire and Victim (both authored by Janet Green) tackle suppressed social issues couched in forceful suspense narratives, successfully shaping the viewer's emotional response to such topics. Similarly, League of Gentlemen conveys overlooked aspects of class and gender in the postwar era through humor and adventure, thus investing the audience with the expectations (and disappointments) of the protagonists. Because of his daringness to marry style and controversial topics, Dearden was able to remove any judgment or focused message from his films, allowing for a larger impact."
"Only a few films have been made about the Irish Hunger Strikes in 1981," writes Gary Crowdus. "The first and indubitably still the best of these films is Terry George's Some Mother's Son (1996) because it is the most successful in both explicating the political issues involved and dramatizing the broader human consequences." Available from the Warner Archive. Also: "For a 94-minute made-for-TV movie, The Day Lincoln Was Shot  is a surprisingly authentic if occasionally extravagant dramatization of the events and personalities of that fateful day in American history."
"Few directors of the postwar era employed more nakedly unabashed references to their personal lives as did Fellini, whose 8½ exemplified and raised to grand heights the expressionistic, autobiographical strain of art cinema," writes Michael Joshua Rowin. "But The Clowns — now being released on DVD by Raro Video, from a digitally restored print and in a package that includes Fellini's essay on clowns and his own clown-related sketches and cartoons — was something new in the sense that within an ostensible nonfiction format Fellini was incorporating reimaginings of his own experiences. It is no longer a surrogate character that stands in for Fellini and experiences his dreams, fantasies, and memories, but Fellini himself who directly addresses the audience and personally guides them through his inner world."
"On a visit to Martin Scorsese's loft for an interview years ago," recalls David Sterritt, "I was delighted to see a pinned-up slip of paper with one of my favorite movie lines: 'Are we kids, or what?' Leave it to Scorsese to pick up on a phrase so ingeniously oblique that it's stayed with me for decades, yet so fleeting that film scholar James Naremore gets it wrong ('friends' instead of 'kids') in his BFI book about the picture it comes from: Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 classic directed by Alexander Mackendrick, now available from the Criterion Collection in a dazzlingly good DVD or Blu-ray edition." Sterritt also reviews two volumes of Classic Educational Shorts out from Kino, Safe… Not Sorry and The Celluloid Salesman: "One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is how vividly it displays the stylistic shifts that overtook the field in the middle 60s, when the relentless uniformity of 40s and 50s films was challenged by directors (usually anonymous) who had fallen in love with the French New Wave and the New American Cinema and strived mightily to incorporate the innovations of these movements in modest instructional and industrial shorts. Colors grow more vibrant; cameras spin and lurch; ubiquitously white schoolrooms suddenly sport African-American faces; and so on, sometimes with considerable flair."
Noah Tsika on Criterion's America Lost and Found: The BBS Story: "The totality of great performances here is staggering: who but Bruce Dern, in Drive, He Said, could turn a cultural cliché — the uncompromising sports coach — into a study of self-loathing and reflexive aggressiveness? The irony of BBS is that in spite of its countercultural aspirations it was patterned on perhaps the most conservative (both in terms of fiscal expenditure and narrative foci) of all Hollywood models. But it was really the company's affection for actors, and its capacity to engender loyalty and conviction in those working without traditional contracts (and without, in many cases, considerable pay), that provided the most pleasurable link to the studio system, where actors may have been treated like cattle (in Alfred Hitchcock's infamous formulation) but where they nevertheless managed to build a body of consistently compelling work. BBS brought Burstyn in line with Bette Davis, and Dern in line with John Ireland, and itself in line with an actor-loving tradition the likes of which we haven't seen since."
"Is there anything fresh left to say about Frank Capra the director and his most pessimistic film, Meet John Doe?" asks Leonard Quart. "Watching it again on a recently released DVD — VCI Entertainment's digitally restored version — I began to think of alternate ways of looking at the film. Much of what I picked up during this screening dealt with Meet John Doe's implicit and explicit relationship to the contemporary political scene." Quart also has brief reviews of Phillip Moeller's The Age of Innocence (1934) and Herman Shumlin's The Confidential Agent (1945), adapted from Graham Greene's novel "without energy or visual flair, though James Wong Howe's moody lighting captures something of the author's seedy, shadowy world." Both are available from the Warner Archive.
As are Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Robert Sklar: "They would both be classified in the second category of the three-way division of Minnelli's career output into musicals, melodramas, and comedies. John Houseman produced both pictures, two of the four he made with Minnelli; both are adaptations of popular novels; and both share an interest, in different degrees, in mental illness. But they're fundamentally a fortuitous pairing. The former dates from [MGM's] final heyday; seven years later, the latter marks the system's crisis and dissolution." Should mention here that one of the three book reviews online from this issue is Robert Cashill's on MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot.
"Kino on Video, a company long noted for having many foreign and early silent films in their catalog, appears to be using the Buster Keaton films to tentatively investigate Blu-ray production," suggests James L Neibaur. "Kino is already applauded by comedy film buffs for a magnificent DVD box set that celebrates The Art of Buster Keaton by offering nearly all of the brilliant silent shorts and features he made during his heyday of the 1920s. Thus, the company's choice to delve into Blu-ray by releasing several of Keaton's restored silent features in this high-definition format is especially exciting."
Robert Cashill: "MOD (Manufacturing-on-Demand) programs are useful catch basins for movies that have slipped between the cracks. Separated by a decade, The Black Sleep (1956) and Queen of Blood (1966) arrived at transition points for the horror film and, like many MOD discs, make for intriguing if not altogether satisfying viewing. There are reasons why they fell off the radar screen when TV stations abandoned the horror-movie packages that had been a programming staple and a reason or two to see them again."
The Irish Film Institute "makes available a wide range of preserved and restored films for viewing at its Dublin premises," explains Michael Gray, "and recently reached out to a wider audience by producing a television series of archived films from the mid twentieth century for the national broadcaster's Irish-language TV channel, TG4. The films were aired in an eight-part series of half-hour programs called Seoda (gems, in Gaelic), and are now available on DVD. The eight programs in the series cover a wide range of topics from the late 1940s up until 1970, some culled from the government-sponsored spectrum, and some independently produced."
"The strange fruit from the Leo Frank case is picked over again in The Murder of Mary Phagan, a five-hour television miniseries from 1988," writes Thomas Doherty. "The DVD resurrection comes courtesy of MGM's Limited Collection Series, a bare-bones repackaging of the back catalog…. Having secured an intertextual lock on the personification of middle-American decency in films such as The China Syndrome (1979 and Missing (1982), Jack Lemmon as Governor Slaton is the moral center of the film."
ALSO IN CINEASTE
Maria Garcia talks with Catherine Breillat about her trilogy of fairy tales, which began with Bluebeard (2009) and continues with The Sleeping Beauty (2010). The third film will be Beauty and the Beast.
Two more book reviews: Steve Ryfle on Christopher Sieving's Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation and Harlow Robinson on Louis Menashe's Moscow Believes in Tears: Russians and Their Movies, an "entertaining and perceptive collection of reviews, essays, interviews and personal reflections."
The latest film reviews: Borah Chung and Richard James Havis on Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid, Dennis West and Joan M West on Daniel and Diego Vega's Octubre and Robert Cashill on Jim Mickle's Stake Land. Festival reports: Dennis West from Cartagena, Richard Porton from Rotterdam and Jared Rapfogel from the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.
"The Danish actress Asta Nielsen was probably the leading European film performer of the 1910s," writes Luke McKernan. "Though her dark demeanour and unconventional beauty probably led to a lack of success in the USA, in European countries, especially Germany, she was revered, with films such as Afgrunden (The Abyss) (1910), Balletdanserinden (1911), Die Suffragette (1913) being among the most iconic and forward-looking of their age. She and husband/director Urban Gad moved to Germany in 1911 and it was in that country, after she had established the Art-Film company, that Nielsen (now parted from Gad) embarked a radical film interpretation of Hamlet. Possibly by this time Nielsen's star was a little on the wane, but her taste for the bold and challenging was undimmed." The Edition Filmmuseum DVD release, "from a fine restored print, and with a highly commendable score… certainly ought to have an impact."
"After Blonde Venus flopped in 1932, Paramount decided to break up the powerful creative alliance between the director Josef von Sternberg and the actress Marlene Dietrich," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "Dietrich was hustled directly into The Song of Songs, which has recently surfaced as half of a Pre-Code Double Feature available exclusively through the TCM Web site. (The other film is This Is the Night.) Dietrich was still a valuable property, and the studio was probably trying to do its best by her by assigning The Song of Songs (1933) to Rouben Mamoulian, a prominent Broadway director who occasionally condescended to make moving pictures. The results are pretty appalling, but the film remains an instructive illustration of the culture war that then existed between the principled intellectuals of New York and the rampaging lowbrows of Los Angeles."
Dave Itzkoff introduces a rollicking interview for the NYT: "Even if you are inclined to believe that Peter O'Toole is The Man, it is possible that you may have missed one of his most capital-M Manliest performances in Richard Rush's 1980 black comedy, The Stunt Man." J Hurtado at Twitch: "Severin Films' Blu-ray of The Stunt Man is fucking insane. Upon the film opening, some viewers might be taken aback at the amount of invasive grain from the opening close up, but pressing on through the next few seconds clarifies image significantly and lets us know that we're in for a treat. The image is pretty damned clean, and there is a wonderful texture to the image that DVD could never touch. One thing that Severin is good at is restoration when they really put their minds to it, and this one is a biggie in their catalog."
IN OTHER NEWS
"In the Austin Film Society's latest series in cross-cultural studies, Auteurs Sans Frontières: Directors Without Borders, there is the expressed common theme of filmmakers traveling to foreign lands to make movies," writes Kimberley Jones in the Chronicle. "But the commonality goes deeper: So many of the films hook into the idea of otherness, then question and confound that premise." Tuesdays, beginning this evening, through July 26.
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