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DVDs. Zwigoff, Walsh + “Sunset Blvd” @ 60

"A habitual crank with a pronounced antisocial streak and an aversion to mainstream culture, the director Terry Zwigoff has one of the most distinctive sensibilities in American movies," writes Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times. "This past decade, he has collaborated with the cartoonist Daniel Clowes on Ghost World (2001), a sardonic chronicle of teenage alienation in strip-mall America, and Art School Confidential (2006), a contemptuous attack on art-world strivers, and also directed Billy Bob Thornton in the cult favorite Bad Santa (2003), a relentless one-joke movie about an alcoholic, misanthropic Saint Nick.... Two of his early works, both portraits of artists, are being reissued this week by the Criterion Collection on separate discs."

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Fox launched a new series at SF360 on "the key documentaries and narrative features in Bay Area independent filmmaking." He chose three to begin with, Rob Epstein and the late Richard Schmiechen's The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), David Weissman and Bill Weber's The Cockettes (2002) and: "Terry Zwigoff's candid and moving character study of the underground artist Robert Crumb stemmed from a rare kind of privileged access. The two had long shared a quirky love for early 20th-century string band music and rare 78s." In Crumb (1994), Zwigoff's subject "reveals himself, and his screwed-up family, without self-censorship or sugarcoating. So we hear all about the nerdy high school outcast who, improbably, fell in with the cool kids in the Haight-Ashbury before and during the Summer of Love. (And, equally improbably, didn't do drugs.) Crumb appears before us as an acerbic witness to the hedonism and idealism of mid-60s San Francisco, without the expected patchouli-scented nostalgia."

"Despite his public association with the hippie-centered world of late-60s San Francisco, especially the Grateful Dead (through his 'Keep on Truckin'' painting), Crumb says he never felt a part of that world and hated that era's music, preferring early 20th-century jazz and blues," notes Sabadino Parker at PopMatters. "Crumb openly admits he feels a hostility toward women, but justifies his extreme portrayals as hoping 'revealing the truth about myself will be helpful [to myself].' He also notes that most of what he draws already exists in the 'seamy side of America's subconscious' and all he's doing is revealing 'the horror of America' to itself."

Gary W Tooze: "One must surely feel that this Blu-ray exports the most honest original representation of this amusing, thought-provoking and, sometimes, painful portrait (conversations with brother Charles are particularly impacting)." More from Brad Cook at Film Threat. Update: What is this film exactly, asks Jonathan Rosenbaum for Criterion's Current: "A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it? In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well." Update, 8/12: "Watching Crumb again, I found myself convinced that critics and higher-minded film types must also adore this film in part because it presents a romantic view of a man whose life was, by all appearances, quite literally saved by art." John Lingan in Slant.

Zwigoff's Louie Bluie (1985) is "a portrait of obscure country-blues musician and visual artist Howard Armstrong, whose recordings Zwigoff had cherished and emulated for decades before discovering that Armstrong alive and well and living in Detroit," writes Josef Braun. "As with Crumb, Louie Bluie takes a no-brainer approach to telling its subject's story, with scenes of Armstrong doing his thing — ie: playing fiddle and mandolin or displaying his fecund, scatological and not un-Crumb-like art — and a journey back home, is this case rural Tennessee, where Armstrong learned to play whatever instrument he could find or invent, as well as several languages so he could play songs for diverse ethnic audiences. What's magical about Louie Bluie arises not from its rudimentary structure but from Armstrong's immense charisma and the movie's slyly selected details."

Michael Sragow for Criterion's Current: "This catchy, engaging sixty-minute documentary, a clattering stream of anecdotes, badinage, and jam sessions, captures an outsize personality in all his bawdy glory and aesthetic power, celebrating a remarkable, life-enhancing — no, life-catalyzing — force. At the same time, Zwigoff brings back a forgotten age of ecstatic grassroots music-making, marked by runaway creativity and exuberance, and traces some of its tangled roots in Tennessee and Chicago. He does this all so artfully that you never see his molding hand. But it's there."

"Zwigoff may not treat his inspiration as a national park to be preserved without incongruous intervention, but his autodidacticism and (literally) go-for-broke gumption rewardingly mirror that of Armstrong," writes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. "Zwigoff's implied response to accusations of exploitation is an innocent fascination, and identification, with idiosyncratic methods of self-expression, an obsession he explores with casual, albeit sharply defined, strokes."

Gary W Tooze: "Criterion have done a super job of 'restoring' the image and audio for it's 25th year anniversary — being advertised as 'high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Terry Zwigoff.' It is thick but smooth, without undue damage, and colors are surprisingly vibrant. It looks as it looks and is extremely watchable."

Noel Murray interviews Zwigoff for the AV Club.

Update, 8/12: At GreenCine Daily, Aaron Hillis calls up Zwigoff "in San Francisco to discuss his accidental stumble into filmmaking, awkward running times, strange coincidences, why a man who doesn't like commentary tracks recorded two of them for one project, and... why he shouldn't be pigeonholed... or should he?"

Dave Kehr at his own site: "The American home video industry remains unaccountably resistant to directors — I mean, Ma and Pa Kettle have a box set, while Douglas Sirk gets bupkus? — but once in a while something slips through the cracks, like the William Wellman set that Warners released last year under the cover of a Forbidden Hollywood pre-Code collection. Now, far more significantly, someone at Warners has smuggled out all four of Raoul Walsh's imposing World War II propaganda films with Errol Flynn (plus, if only for the sake of contrast, Lewis Milestone's conventionally preachy Edge of Darkness) in a beautifully mastered set they're calling Errol Flynn Adventures." Reviewing the set for the New York Times, he writes, "If John Ford is the great poet of community in the American action film, and Howard Hawks is the supreme chronicler of the small group, Walsh is the leading individualist. But he's an individualist who constantly questions himself, painfully aware of the emotional and moral limitations of going it alone."

Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is out on Blu-ray from Kino, "reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early 30s Spain," writes Sean Axmaker. "There is something about the Technicolor process that draws hyper-real, unreal and surreal colors out of the objects of its gaze, as if boring right in on the essence of every hue and pulling it to the surface in distilled, pure, saturated form.... [Jack] Cardiff's magnificent photography alone would make this worth seeing. Cardiff's magnificent Technicolor photography of Ava Gardner makes it irresistible." For James Dennis, writing at Twitch, this is "a stunning curiosity — beautiful, elegiac and fabulously romantic."

"Like Ernst Lubitsch, French playwright/filmmaker Sacha Guitry's wit seems at once simple and sophisticated, making direct and plainspoken observations about words, the world, politics, emotions, and most of all, the relationships between men and women, with poise and style that would elude even the best among us." Jaime Christley: "It is unlikely, however, that Lubitsch would have found it in his heart to make a film as black as La poison." On Blu-ray from Gaumont. See, too, the July 27 Guitry roundup.

Australia's Outback "is so unfathomably old and vast, so empty and so perilous, that it's a perfect setting for allegorical tales that seem to exist outside of reality and history," writes James Bell for Sight & Sound. "Nicolas Roeg, in Walkabout (1971), his debut as sole director after years as a celebrated cinematographer and then co-director of Performance (1970), explored that sense more vividly than any filmmaker before or since." Walkabout, a Criterion release, "pointed to a new path for Australian cinema, and its poetic mood and undercurrents of adolescent sexuality are inescapably felt in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock [1975], which became a breakthrough film for the local industry when it was released to great acclaim four years later, and is now available in a pin-sharp new Blu-ray transfer that does justice to its sumptuous cinematography." Out from Second Sight.

"Terribly Happy [2008] is conceptually the kind of movie that probably only works on paper and even then only in stretches," writes Simon Abrams for the New York Press. "Based on a novel by Erling Jepsen and co-adapted and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, Terribly Happy is a middling existentialist neo-noir/western that emphasizes pedantically the concept of using violence to solve the problems of a small community where the only authority figure is the local sheriff." Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Shout! Factory is releasing ABC's short-lived series Max Headroom (1987-1988) and, for the New York Times, Nicolas Rapold looks back: "The show, datelined '20 minutes into the future,' stirs together future-shock speculation with contemporary influences: roving live broadcasts, cyberpunk, MTV, camera-ready Reagan-like artifice, television evangelism, video art and the thousand-channel universe."


Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd saw its premiere in New York 60 years ago today and Edward Copeland's posted a longish appreciation of one of all-time top tens, recounting, among other aspects, allusions within the film to others and allusions to it that have appeared on screens these past six decades: "Watching Sunset Blvd for the umpteenth time, the early, pre-Norma scenes play even more like outtakes from Robert Altman's The Player than I remember. When [screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden)] goes to beg the Paramount exec Sheldrake (a name Wilder must really love since he used it again for Fred MacMurray's character in The Apartment ten years later) you get the comedy of Sheldrake (Fred Clark) suggesting that Joe's idea for a movie about a struggling baseball player being pressured to throw the World Series be turned into a Betty Hutton vehicle after it's been dismissed by studio reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) who labels it as 'a rehash of something that wasn't very good in the first place.' The Player even referenced Sunset when Tim Robbins's character got a note after he'd killed the writer he thought was threatening him and it was signed 'Joe Gillis.'"

DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker (more), Logan Hill (Vulture), Harry Knowles (AICN), Peter Martin (Cinematical), PopMatters, Bryce J Renninger (indieWIRE), Stephen Saito (IFC), Slant and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).

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