DVD Review: A “Bigger Than Life” Criterion Roundup
Once again Popdose didn’t send me to Cannes, and I imagine Toronto, Venice, and Telluride are off my itinerary. (If you think it should, start a Facebook campaign, or Twitter. I’d also like to host SNL.) But, thanks to a small pile of Criterion Collection discs on my desk, I feel like I’m perpetually on the Croisette, given an eclectic selection of titles. It goes without saying that they’re top of the line, with outstanding transfers and superlative extras, and I didn’t have to dodge volcanic ash to watch any of them. Here’s what I viewed with un certain regard on my player.
(On DVD and Blu-ray) All I can say is, kids today. No one says you have to like “old” movies, but you’d think young filmmakers would find Nicholas Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause, a kindred spirit and inspiration. Ray’s best films went against the happy families norm of Hollywood filmmaking, and Bigger Than Life (1956) tasers the status quo. Contemporary films and TV shows huff and puff and spend millions on period design to indict mid-century conformity; Bigger Than Life, inspired by a New Yorker article, just is, a fact on the ground. Its producer, James Mason, plays an overworked, straining-to-be-cheerful husband and father who, afflicted by illness, begins self-medicating with the “wonder drug” of the moment, cortisone. It relieves his physical symptoms, while whipping up a God complex, as he tears his confined, orderly life apart with suddenly revealed truths. “It’s a shame that I didn’t marry someone who was my intellectual equal,” he tells his perplexed wife (Barbara Rush), and it’s all mirror-smashing rage from there, climaxing in an act of Old Testament fury.
Ray studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, and any of this film’s CinemaScope compositions, split apart by staircases and other expressionist touches, could be captured as stills and used to comment on American life. Mason’s character, a teacher, is caught in a terrible bind, seeing all at once the mediocrity of his own life and the falseness of community values (the drug acts like the alien-revealing sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live). The Production Code backed Ray into a corner, pretty much imposing a happy ending on a tale of madness, jealousy, and homicidal urges, but Ray scholar Geoff Andrew has the last word in his commentary: “Things haven’t changed.”
The Mason-narrated trailer, which works hard to sell a movie that no one was buying back then, is one extra. The rest, including video interviews with Susan Ray, widow of the maverick director and caretaker of his legacy, and author Jonathan Lethem (who compares the film to the same year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and B. Kite’s detailed booklet essay, confirm how much its stock has risen. Sometimes our elders do know best.
(On DVD) So-called “slow cinema” almost never fast-tracks from the festival circuit. The reason why is in the label: These are poetic, contemplative, and sometimes lengthy films, characterized by long, long takes that make them seem even longer, and an emphasis on mood and aesthetics over plot. They’re not for tweeting. All praise due Criterion then for bundling this trilogy by the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, who won’t be making Karate Kid sequels anytime soon. But if you give them half a chance, and see them with as little disruption as possible, they may carry you away for a few hours, a little like dreaming while awake.
The films chart the decline, rebirth—and, for the lower-class immigrants who are its subject—fall of the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, slums that over the course of the trilogy are razed and rebuilt, a renewal that has no place for them. The camera stays very close to these people—not for nothing is the second entitled In Vanda’s Room, where much of it takes place. 1997’s Ossos introduces us to some of them, and to Costa’s approach, which is bound to frustrate those of used to regular-speed movies. The film is about a young woman, saddled with an unwanted child, who backs away from ending their fate, and makes the harder choice to survive in the maze-like streets. But no one character “owns” the storyline—while the locations and non-professional actors have the authenticity of documentary, Ossos means to capture a more abstract sense of community. Cyril Neyrat’s booklet essay says the film, made with a large and unintentionally intrusive crew, left Costa dissatisfied.
Ossos runs 97 minutes. In Vanda’s Room (2000) is 171 minutes, but feels shorter, given Costa’s greater control over the material and the you-are-there immediacy of the digital filmmaking, a landmark achievement in that medium. Vanda Duarte was a chatty heroin addict Costa cast in Ossos, and here she gives something of a command performance, hectoring, philosophizing, and coughing (a lot). Three years in the company of Vanda and her acquaintances makes the movie that much more immersive an experience, one easier to feel than to try to put into words.
Vanda, cleaned-up and a mother, reappears in Colossal Youth (2006). The focus here is her widowed neighbor Ventura, a Cape Verde immigrant who considers his fellow dispossessed his children, compensating for his own fractured family life. The ghosts of Fontainhas haunt the film; the slums are cleared of everything except troubling memories, rumored misdeeds, and uncertainty about a future where traditions have vanished. There’s more light in this film, but Costa intends for it to be eliminating, rather than revealing. Clear enough is that Ventura is a compelling individual, one who constantly rejects government offers of a new home as he tries to find his own place in his changed world.
Besides the Costa-approved transfers each film, which gets its own disc in the set, includes video interviews with the director and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, another cinematic outlier. A fourth disc is dedicated to ample supplements, including a 2006 documentary about Costa and his work in Fontainhas and short films by the director, and there are additional booklet essays. You’ll want to know more, and these supplements complete the picture. For the adventurous, these Letters are worth receiving.
(On DVD and Blu-ray). A masterpiece that just isn’t very good, Lola Montès (1955) at least has the chance to kick up her heels as the great Max Ophuls, whose final film this was, intended. The most expensive European movie ever made at that time, it was coolly received, cut, and neglected. I’ll bet this long-awaited restoration, which looks a bit plugged-up on DVD, grabs hold of your eyeballs and never lets go for 114 minutes on Blu-ray. You’d never know this was Ophuls’ first color film, so confident is his command of temperamental Eastmancolor stock, and this, wedded to his voluptuous tracking shots in a broad 2:55:1 aspect ratio, makes Lola Montès a slice of movie heaven.
Given its degradation, it used to be hell to sit through. On that score, the refurbishment is a modest improvement. Ophuls’ prior film, The Earrings of Madame De… (1953), is secure in my Top 10, and another Criterion gem. It’s a perfect film, and others he made in France and Hollywood, like Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and La Ronde (1950), aren’t far behind. They’re gorgeously emotional behind their glittering facades. There’s little behind the conspicuous consumption of Lola Montès, though. Ophuls tells his version of the life of the notorious 19th century courtesan and showgirl, beloved by Franz Liszt and the king of Bavaria, impressionistically—as vignettes that she shares with a circus crowd, prompted by its ringmaster (Peter Ustinov). He intended for his star, Martine Carol, to be a perfect blank, one we could project on, as we do with Jon and Kate and 21st century reality celebs, or, perhaps, Kim Novak’s inscrutable love object in Vertigo. It didn’t work; Carol, who went on to a minor, scandal-wracked career and early death, had no personality to submerge. The film is a series of tableaus, some of them (the lengthy introduction of the circus, the “needle-and-thread” sequence through an estate) quite ingenious visually, but inert.
Ophuls’ son, the great documentarian Marcel, explains the film’s difficult production (scenes were shot, laboriously, in the three languages of the producing entities) and failure in the most vital of the supplements, which include a commentary by Ophuls scholar Susan White and a Gary Giddins booklet essay. None of it makes the film any more embraceable, though it’s easier to appreciate in this form. Let me repeat: it’s OK not to like “old” movies, even ones as lusciously produced as Lola Montès.
(On DVD). Nagisa Oshima’s notorious In the Realm of the Senses (1976) followed me around like bad yen. I first saw it in college, where its hardcore treatment of an obsessive relationship between a maid and a hotel owner, loosely based on a true incident that shocked Japan in 1936, was too clinical to be arousing (and revolting—it ends in castration). Its uncut (so to speak) release in Hong Kong in the late 80s signaled a new and more liberal film ratings system for the territory, so I turned up dutifully to support it. When a new print played New York in the 90s there I was again, with a friend who hadn’t seen it. The things I do!
There’s much more to Oshima than Senses, but Empire of Passion (1977), which doesn’t really deliver on its title, didn’t do much for me or sensation-seekers, and I should revisit 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, another movie I saw in college (Criterion will grant my wish in September; the prison camp-set film, with David Bowie and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, has long been out of circulation). Oshima’s career sort of imploded in 1986 with the poorly received Max, Mon Amour, a Buñuelian romance between Charlotte Rampling and a chimp. By the time the interesting, if somewhat static, gay-themed samurai picture Taboo came out in 1999, Oshima was sidelined by strokes, and there have been no new films.
There have, however, been old ones. 1960’s groundbreaking Cruel Story of Youth, a dynamically New Wave-ish film about Japan’s teenage wasteland that inspired a generation of filmmakers in the country, really caught my eye when it was revived a few years back. Criterion, which has Senses and Passion in its catalog, has issued five more of Oshima’s 60s films as part of its no-frills Eclipse line. Prepare to be startled: Released between 1965-1968, the movies contain a fair amount of what would today be R-rated language (subtitled, of course), brief topless nudity, and hot-button issues (immigration and societal upheaval at home, the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam abroad)—the 2.35:1 widescreen frames all but burst to contain them. The times they were a-changin’.
These aren’t the easiest films to summarize or contextualize, so credit to essayist Michael Koresky for doing both, very well, in one page of text per each individually packaged disc in the set. Oshima struck out on his own to make these movies, and they can get pretty obscure. But I hung on; the formal inventiveness, marked by a restless camera and editing, and excellent scores keep them lively even as the subject matter becomes more cryptic. The first in the set, Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), is the easiest to absorb, a noir-ish thriller and softcore “pink movie” of sorts about a crooked tutor who, blackmailed by a businessman into guarding a suitcase stuffed with ill-gotten loot, decides to go on a spree with the cash, regardless of the consequences. By 1967’s catchily titled Sing a Song of Sex, the relative clarity has been replaced by an improvisatory inscrutability, as four guys who have just taken their Tokyo University entrance exams are radicalized by a former teacher during a night of carousing. Oshima plays as they lay different pieces of the narrative—a possible death, a suggested gang rape—as he zooms in on the hypocrisy of Japan’s Founder’s Day holiday, whose reinstitution for the first time since the Allied Occupation was marked by protests ready-made for his camera. Also in the viewfinder: arresting cross-cultural footage of Japanese students protesting the Vietnam War by singing “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Oshima’s sympathy for Korean migrants living in Japan, their former colonizer, is the subject of the gonzo comedy Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968). The movie starts like a Monkees episode, as the title characters romp on a beach while a sped-up pop song plays. When their clothes are stolen and replaced by matching outfits they’re mistaken for undocumented Koreans, and the fun begins. And begins again—at the midpoint, Oshima restarts the comedy at the beach, to retell the story, which will have you grabbing your remote to figure out just what the hell happened to the movie.
Oshima’s use of color in these films is consistently striking. My favorites, however, are the two black-and-white entries. 1966’s Violence at Noon is a genuine grabber, the fact-inspired story of a serial killer and his relationship with two women, ties that are gradually traced to a utopian dream gone wrong. Breaking from his usual cool distance the filmmaker slices and dices the storyline with more than 2,000 cuts, and the fragmentation is dizzily exciting. Of all the films I’m reviewing this time out this was by far the biggest surprise—and not far behind it is the intriguingly abstract Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), about a motley group of anarchists, which comes to absorb a Caucasian sniper not unlike Lee Harvey Oswald or Charles Whitman, united by their fascination with sex and death. Oshima considered it a “premonitory” film for a world gone mad, as subversives make love and war. Whatever you think of these fiercely peculiar films, I’d say they show an iconoclast who did his best work when he was pushing against the envelope and not tearing right through it.
(On DVD and Blu-ray) Thanks to studio politics Ang Lee’s 1999 Western didn’t so much flop as evaporate, leaving no trace save for an excellent Mychael Danna score, which I’m sure was cannibalized for trailers. (It’s got that kind of sweep to it.) I did see it back then, and can report that it was a real sleeper; meaning, I was out cold for some of it. On one of the commentary tracks I now understand it was partly Lee’s fault—adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel he was the one who insisted that the film’s big battle/massacre sequence come two-thirds of the way in, leaving the remaining 45 minutes for pastoral meandering and summing-up among a group of characters we never really got to know or care about. I know I wasn’t the only one who checked out in the screening room.
This new director’s cut retrieves 10 minutes from the cutting room floor. A chunk of it is exposition, which is helpful in sorting out a slice of Civil War history far from Gettysburg. Along the Kansas-Missouri border, bloody conflict raged between the Confederate-allied Bushwhackers and the abolitionist Jayhawkers. The film follows the changing fortunes of two Bushwhackers, played by Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich. Portraying Confederates as sympathetic protagonists, rather than as victims or villains, is fairly novel, and the movie throws us another curve by introducing a former slave (Jeffrey Wright), who remains loyal to an aristocratic Southern friend (Simon Baker) and Dixie ideals.
“Throws,” though, implies some sort of force. While the film has more terse guerrilla action than I recalled, be prepared, as I was not, for its intensely low-key nature. Besides Danna’s score there’s much to admire about Ride with the Devil, including Frederick Elmes’ exquisite widescreen cinematography, Mark Friedberg’s exacting production design, and a cast, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Tom Wilkinson, James Caviezel, and Mark Ruffalo, that’s only gained in interest. (This is to date a theatrical one-off for Jewel, fine as a plain-spoken love interest.) I respect that the movie asks us to draw parallels between past and present and find the tipping point between patriotism and terrorism, rather than shout them at us. My interest, though, remained academic, as the film, unassumingly authentic in the way of more obscure 70s Westerns like The Hired Hand and Bad Company, rambles rather than rides. Lee followed up with a second intimate epic, the fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that soared.
Two commentary tracks, one with Lee and producer-writer James Schamus, and one with Elmes, Friedberg, and sound designer Drew Kunin, give a rounded history of the production. Besides fine booklet essays by critic Godfrey Cheshire and historian Edward E. Leslie (his on the divisive Confederate raider William Quantrill, as a real, and reel, figure) there is a video interview with its most vivid performer, Wright, who says this is his favorite film. “I got to shoot a lot of white people and make a little money at it,” he laughs.
(On DVD and Blu-ray) France’s Olivier Assayas has transported filmgoers to some unusual places, including the mindset of Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung as she plays a supervamp in Paris (1996’s Irma Vep), the darker reaches of the gaming industry (2002’s demonlover), and, in his Cannes smash Carlos, the terrorist underworld. Here he takes us, quite unexpectedly, into his own heart, in a somewhat autobiographical film that weds his elliptical style to an absorbing portrait of a family in transition.
Edith Scob, an actress who attained a kind of immortality by starring in the Criterion-available horror film Eyes Without a Face in 1959, is its matriarch, who presides over a dilapidated country house groaning with rare objects, the sum total of a life shared in part with a famed modern artist. Aware that advancing age and infirmity are catching up with her she tries to interest her three children in the dispensation of her estate, but only one (Charles Berling) listens, and him just with one ear as he juggles other commitments; his siblings, played by Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Rénier, have a personal investment in the property but too many balls in the air of their own to get involved. Scob passes, in the blink of a cut that is characteristic of Assayas’ style. The family regroups, not altogether pleasantly, and the contents of the house are crated up for display in the Musée d’Orsay. I love movies that show a process, and this one is fascinating, as homey old sofas we come to know as well as their owners are rebooted as museum pieces. In a supplemental interview the writer-director refers to Summer Hours as a ghost story, and it is a meditation on the permanence of things and our fragile relationship to them.
That layer aside it’s also an entertaining film, far less wary of touching us than Assayas’ previous, sometimes impenetrable movies, with a solid cast of arthouse reliables, delicate cinematography by Eric Gautier and of course all those lovely objects. (I count among them a gem of a supporting performance by Isabelle Sadoyan, as the housekeeper.) The film is so steeped in its culture you’ll think the artist at its center is a real person. He isn’t, but the emotions are genuine.
Additional supplements include a making-of, an excellent booklet overview of Assayas’ work by Kent Jones, and a useful documentary that answers many questions about the art in the film, which was the first that the Musée d’Orsay lent its resources to. Tom Hanks has announced an American remake; what he saw in Summer Hours, and how it might translate, is…interesting to contemplate.
(On DVD and Blu-ray) Why do I write about movies? The best reason I can give is to share extraordinary ones, and Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 adventure is one of those. It tells a simple story. A teenage girl (Jenny Agutter, who would go on to add Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London to her cult resume) and her younger brother (Lucien John, Roeg’s son) are stranded in the Australian outback by their crazed father, who kills himself. Their grim situation brightens when an aborigine about the girl’s age encounters them on his “walkabout” through the wilds. Their friendship is anything but simple, however, as cultural and romantic undercurrents begin to swirl, and the idyll darkens.
Based on a novel, the screenplay, by playwright Edward Bond, was 14 pages long. Enough, that is, for Roeg, a master cinematographer making his second film (after the Mick Jagger-starring Performance), to work with on location. The movie has an intensely visionary quality that lifts it well above the rut of coming-of-age stories. I recall first seeing it on cable, then at Film Forum in New York, and later on Criterion’s laserdisc. The new DVD strongly supports the purifying harshness of Roeg’s landscape photography; when the film returns to the suffocating safety of the city, you feel the value of what’s been lost along the way.
Walkabout is one of those movies that’s hurt by overexplanation. Telling just enough, in a commentary track ported over from the LD, are Roeg and Agutter. The actress, who says she did the film primarily to meet the Beatles when Apple was involved, appears in a video segment (lovely as ever), as does John, who recalls being jealous as his brothers hung out at the hotel pool while he had to wear his schoolboy uniform for the cameras. The aborigine David Gulpilil, who parlayed this mesmerizing debut into an unexpected and thriving career that includes the recent Australia, is the subject of a 2002 documentary made as he filmed Rabbit-Proof Fence. I’ve done my bit to share Walkabout; make a critic happy and follow through by checking out this essential disc.