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Raffaello Matarazzo, "People on Sunday" and More DVDs

"It's easy to enjoy Raffaello Matarazzo's melodramas for the campy excess of their acting and story lines," blogs Dave Kehr, "but it's more productive to take them seriously, I think — to see how cleanly and elegantly Matarazzo presents this bezerko material, with a visual style that reminded Jacques Lourcelles of Lang, Dreyer and Mizoguchi, and how perfectly engineered his narratives are, with every outlandish episode incorporated into a serene, symmetrical structure. The new Matarazzo box set (my New York Times review is here) from Criterion's budget Eclipse line contains four of Matarazzo's seven films with the towering star couple Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson (literally — Matarazzo's mise-en-scene somehow makes them seem larger, both physically and emotionally, than any of the other characters on the screen), all subtitled in English for the first time: Chains (1949) [image above], Tormento (1950), Nobody's Children (1952) and The White Angel (1955)."

"Though immensely popular, the films were dismissed by the critical establishment of the day," writes Criterion's Michael Koresky. "[T]hey were unabashedly soap-operatic entertainments, with plots convoluted to the point of near derangement, exaggerated Catholic symbolism, and a dedication to upholding the sacred family unit at any cost. Critics on the left deemed them reactionary; for Catholics, they were too overheated and sexual; and mainstream reviewers thought them frivolous and cheap — a poor man's neorealist cinema. That, however, is exactly what these rip-roaring, outrageously fun movies were designed to be: they followed the neorealist vogue for stories about earthy working-class people but were far from gritty and made mainly for suburban audiences, which gorged themselves on their sweeping, sentimental twists and turns. They were also emotionally rich and elegantly woven — captivating tales of crisis that spoke to postwar Italian audiences in need of catharsis." Update, 6/29: More from Glenn Heath Jr in Slant.

"Co-directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G Ulmer, scripted by Billy (then Billie) Wilder, and filmed by Eugen Schüfftan (who would later win an Oscar for his cinematography on The Hustler) and Fred Zinnemann, People on Sunday [1930] was conceived as a one-off independent production," writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Accounts differ as to which of the talents involved on the project were responsible for what, but the production seems to have been largely cobbled together on the fly, relying on a good amount of improvisation from cast and crew alike. Conceived as a cross between the non-narrative city film exemplified by Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera and, closer to home, Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and the lightly plotted excursion film, of which the preeminent example to date was probably Paul Fejos's Lonesome, People on Sunday juxtaposes the anonymous and the personal, providing a portrait of Berlin as embodied by its citizens."


Noah Isenberg for Criterion: "That such a film was immediately greeted by critics with boundless enthusiasm, and has since been celebrated by film historians on both sides of the Atlantic, many of whom have seen it as presaging Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, has bestowed upon People on Sunday a certain aura. And the film's vague origins — conceived during a series of impassioned conversations among the crew members, then scribbled onto napkins at Berlin's Romanisches Café — and hazy production history only add to its mystique. At this point in time, though, long after the tales have been told and the legends printed, and with the film now firmly in the canon of Weimar cinema, People on Sunday deserves to be reappraised on its own very basic terms, to be seen both as a strangely pivotal, influential film and as the small gem that it is." More from Bill Ryan.

To pick up on a Criterion release from last week, Chuck Stephens revisits the "Great Whozits" of Kiss Me Deadly (1955), offering "a playbill for Robert Aldrich's paranoid pulp fiction — a road map of the players' faces and guidebook to a few of the traces they've left behind."

Also notable are two new reviews of a Criterion release from two weeks ago, Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance (1985). "From his debut, Performance, now a cult classic, through such 70s landmarks as Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth to the deeply personal and underrated 80s films Bad Timing and Eureka, Roeg developed a distinct expressionist vocabulary, premised on an editing style that fractures the action into a mosaic and creates unexpected rhymes," writes Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times. "An evocation of the 1950s, Insignificance is also unmistakably a product of the 1980s, a period of renewed nuclear anxieties and heightened celebrity surrealism with the US governed by a movie-star president. The mad swirl of the movie collapses past, present and future into an eternal now."

But for José Teodoro, writing for Cinema Scope, "Insignificance offers an unusually instructive example of how even the most ostensibly dynamic, inherently cinematic narrative techniques can not only fail to create a compelling bridge between disparate media, but actually sabotage the pursuit through misdirected ambition. Roeg's finest, most haunting work presents us with puzzles that, when pieced together, may resolve certain plot-centered mysteries only to conjure new and deeper ones that linger outside the borders of the narrative continuum. In comparison, Insignificance's playing with temporality and subjectivity, its attempt to make the material strange, dilutes an originating work premised precisely on the strangeness of the familiar, on the mad and even terrifying interconnectedness of 20th century history; it's calculated misdirection with little in the way of greater purpose."


"Now available from Zeitgeist in a handsome 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, Poison already conveys much of what would come to mark [Todd] Haynes's approach," writes Josef Braun, "such as a fascination with ornate structural devices as vehicles for multi-tiered storytelling and the postmodern incorporation of popular cultural iconography (a characteristic that some might argue justifies footnotes). I've heard Haynes referred to as an academic or cerebral filmmaker, which strikes me as unfair, though his affection for mannered or even kitschy performances and his brazenly imitative stylistics no doubt encourages such derision. What such comments fail to account for are the spikes of genuine emotional engagement that make key scenes in his movies transcend their self-reflexive strategies: the heartbreaking end of Far From Heaven, the Heath Ledger sections of I'm Not There, the sleepy hand-job or sexy scar display scenes in Poison (displays of outright homoeroticism that many admirers no doubt wish Haynes would return to). Haynes films can feel calculated, but I don't think they're cold."

"The film has been digitally remastered from the original elements for the new release," notes Sean Axmaker at MSN Movies. "Along with the archival commentary with Todd Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and editor James Lyons (recorded for the 1999 DVD release), the new DVD features an audience Q&A with Haynes, Vachon and executive producer James Schamus from the anniversary screening of the film at Sundance 2011, the short film Last Address by Ira Sachs and galleries of poster concepts by Haynes and Polaroids taken on the set by Kelly Reichardt (who was on the crew)." Update, 6/30: More from Amy Taubin for Artforum.

More from Sean: "There is no doubt that Zach Snyder's Sucker Punch (Warner), the director's first original script, is a mess of movie. Even the term 'original' is a questionable description, as the wide range of influences define the film as much as his own pop sensibilities. Yet Sucker Punch was so critically derided that I think it's been dismissed without really acknowledging the mad mix of inspirations or Snyder's own blinkered passion for the project, clearly something that, for reasons he may not be able to articulate, he poured his creative energies into."

"You can't un-see Ted Post's 1973 feature The Baby," writes Zach Clark at GreenCine Daily. "What begins as a quasi soap opera for infantilists uses seemingly non-tongue-in-cheek camp and slasher tropes to mutate into an anti-morality play about families and normalcy. What's right is wrong. What's wrong is wrong, too. There are no answers, only questions. Hope is non-existent. You could call it misanthropic, or you could call it honest. Baby doesn't walk and Baby doesn't talk and there isn't really anything anyone can do about it."

DVD roundups. Mark Kermode (Observer) and Noel Murray (LAT).



"Film Studies For Free continues to be impressed by the excellence of the online journal Image and Narrative which has recently published a special issue entitled Memory Screens."

Nikola Ležaić's Tilva Ros won the Grand Prix this weekend at the Cinema City International Film Festival in Novi Sad this past weekend. Here's a full list of award-winners.

"Minimalist composer, film maker, visual artist, and tennis player Harley Gaber died last week in Gallup, New Mexico," reports the Wire. "Gaber committed suicide on 16 June, two weeks after the release of his final album, In Memoriam. He was born in Chicago in 1943…. Gaber's archival website is available here." Via Glenn Kenny.

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I would agree that Matarazzo has a clean style, judging from the two films of the set I’ve seen so far. I would almost say it is a little sedate for the subjects of his films. While I appreciate Eclipse bringing these films to light, I was also somewhat disappointed by them in that they don’t live up to many of the best melodramas of the era. Not only do they seem a little slight in comparison to the somewhat better known US melodramas directed by people like Sirk, Stahl, Cukor, Cromwell, Wyler, or a number of others, even more to the point as it comes to Eclipse is that they pale compared to films that could also benefit from this sort of attention. Films from the same era that came out of Mexico like Victimas del Pecado directed by the great Emilio Fernández, or any number of films from India like Aas, or the films of Bimal Roy or Raj Kapoor like Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta, Madhumati, Awaara, and the like, or the films from Egypt from the era by noted directors like Chahine amongst others. The point isn’t that the Matarazzo films aren’t worth seeing, they are fine, but they didn’t seem particularly notable to me and are less interesting than other films in roughly similar genres from the same era which continues to suggest a blind spot to much of the best cinema from the Criterion folks which may be due to market concerns or issues of rights, but it is hard to see how some of the directors I’ve mentioned would be so much more difficult to get, so I have to suspect that it is more due to either the belief, right or wrong, that the US market isn’t interested in films that come from outside of the usual first world areas or that the Criterion folks simply aren’t that interested in exploring those regions. I lean towards the former assumption, and accept that it as a sad comment on the viewing habits of those who should know better given their interest in the arts as made evident by the purchase of any of the Eclipse sets. I would like to see this belief tested even as I do hope the Matarazzo set sells well since melodramas as a whole are sadly neglected when compared to the so-called noir genre especially. I’d love to read where Jacques Lourcelles compares Matarazzo to Lang, Dreyer, and Mizoguchi since, as far as I can see, that is either cherry picking certain traits for the purpose of maximizing his advocacy at the expense of some truth or completely delusional. Any links to where he said that would be appreciated, as would any arguments anyone would care to make for why I might be underestimating Matarazzo. I’ll be checking out the other two films from the set this weekend and perhaps that will give me some better understanding of the arguments for his importance.

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