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Entries in Criterion (7)

Wednesday
Nov232011

"CAN'T YOU SPARE ME OVER ANOTHER YEAR?"  

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE                         CRITERION DVD

Victor Sjöström’s Death has a tough gig. He drives the Phantom Carriage – a rotting wooden-wheeled wagon pulled by a decrepit horse - and gathers up dead souls. Death didn’t apply for the job, either. Reflecting perfectly pessimistic Swedish predestination, whomever dies nearest to midnight on New Year’s Eve becomes Death. Death serves, like Miss America, for one calendar year. The following New Year, some other poor dead sucker inherits the cowl and scythe and takes the reins.

 

Of course, Ingmar Bergman pretty much has a lock on the default image that comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘Death incarnate’: the black-robed, pale-faced, frog-eyed specter who challenges Max Von Sydow to a chess match in The Seventh Seal. His urbane manners and abiding patience make him creepily familiar. He’s one scary, passive-aggressive father figure and no one who sees the film forgets him.

 Swedish cinema titan, technical innovator, director, leading man and cranky bastard Sjöström - Bergman’s idol, mentor, bête noir, occasional father figure and cast regular - knew a thing or two about Death. Embracing his mortal terror, Sjöström adapted Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf’s novel and cast himself in the lead. Criterion delivers an immaculate print of Sjöström’s 1921 moral melodrama and special effects tour-de-force The Phantom Carriage, which Charlie Chaplin cited as the greatest film ever.

 Unlike Bergman’s archetype, Sjöström’s Death has neither manners nor patience. He’s tetchy and wore out, and little wonder, what with creaking hither and yon 24/7, chucking another soul into the carriage and rattling on to the next. In lesser hands, that would be the tale. But for Sjöström, as for Bergman decades later, Death is a means to an end, a prism through which to view the real story.

 

That story involves drunkenness, the Salvation Army (!), a forbidden love that does not fear Death, a love that lives beyond it, redemption (of course), and some hard-earned self-forgiveness. Yes, it’s a weeper, and should by description be a little ridiculous. But, like D.W. Griffith, Sjöström offered a gift to the future:  the expressive force of his close-ups. The poetry and realism of Sjöström’s compositions - his placement of characters static and in motion – and the power of the faces of his cast create archetypal images of which Death is not even the most memorable. Sjöström had a profoundly modern grasp of what makes inhabited cinematic space. His influence on both Chaplin and Bergman is plain. The emotional truth of his frames overwhelms the melodrama of his plot, most of the time anyway.

 Sjöström plays David Holm, a violent, reprehensible, endearing alcoholic. He had an enormous, mobile, dramatic face, as did all his co-stars. Sadly, no 90-year-old film draws a modern soul completely into the narrative. Much of the fine acting plays at a remove, until one of several wrenching moments crosses the divide of nearly a century. One of the more startling moments features Sjöström, in a drunken, psycho frenzy, bashing through a door with an axe so he can attack his terrified wife. Stanley Kubrick copped this assault chop for chop for chop in The Shining.

 

The Phantom Carriage creates ghosts and their interaction with the living through then groundbreaking special effects utilizing triple and quadruple exposures. They’re among the most evocative of their kind, consistently fascinating, and they help sustain attention during the most melodramatic moments. These see-through figures inhabit the mind well after the movie ends. This has been my experience of most of the great silent films, like Murnau’s Faust; I watch at a distance, never immersed, but later, image after image recurs with surprising clarity.

 Criterion’s DVD extras provide crucial context and history. There’s a lugubrious, revealing interview with Bergman about his relationship with Sjöström (Bergman bugs the hell out of me); a superb essay on Sjöström’s life and career by Peter Mayersberg, the genius who wrote Croupier; and an understated, almost perfectly appropriate score by composer Matti Bye. The score, recorded live at a public screening of Carriage, leaves the melodrama to Sjöström. The sophisticated of the score echoes how unnecessary to the drama – not the melodrama – the spoken word title-cards become. Sjöström was a visual storyteller, and the entire tale is right there in the frames.

Monday
Nov212011

KISS ME DEADLY CRITERION DVD

A bull looking for a china shop. Courtesy Criterion ProductionsMike Hammer, as portrayed by Ralph Meeker, is Noir’s ultimate blunt object. For Mike, thinking causes confusion, but action always provides a solution, no matter how destructive. If Mike can’t punch it, break it, drive it, sell it, shoot it or fuck it, he’s not interested; Mike’s a pure American male.

Robert Aldrich’s direction and A.I. Bezzerides’ screenplay transposes Mickey Spillane’s private eye to the screen as brutal, simple-minded, heedless and atavistic, driven by an American’s adolescent fixation with girls, gizmos and guns. Mike enjoys himself, but his antics exact a high price: the end of the world.

Careening home in his sports car one night, Hammer almost mows down a desperate hitchhiker. She’s escaped from a nearby asylum, but not for long. Her pursuers run Mike’s car off the road and leave him to die in the wreckage. Half-conscious, he hears the screaming hitchhiker being tortured to death. With the help of his dedicated - if masochistic - secretary, Vilma, Mike tracks down the killers. Unknown gangsters plant bombs in his car; strange women offer themselves; a sinister secret is somehow contained in a too-warm, glowing, growling leather-bound box: the ‘Great Whatsit’ that everyone kills to attain, and the inspiration for the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The story tears along. Aldrich distracts us, and Hammer, from his violent quest with cool cars, sharp suits, stellar babes and bachelor-pad oddities, like a primitive reel-to-reel phone answering machine.

Meeker’s character’s an amoral pig, which he freely admits. His contempt for the world is genuine and crippling. His personality makes him unfit for any profession but private eye. That is, he’s lazy, sadistic, likes spying on people and feels morally superior. And in this universe, Hammer’s the hero.

The repellent, charming destructive energy that fuels Hammer is reflected in the world around him. Everyone grabs what they want with no sense of consequences. Because Aldrich, like Hammer, is neither a poet nor a deep thinker  - like Hammer, he’s a hard-ass, if occasionally discursive, problem-solver - Kiss Me is unusually satisfying as both a tough-minded, cautionary sleigh-ride of thrills and a cold-hearted metaphor for the breakdown of society.

With her androgynous haircut, languorous sexuality, little-girl voice and constantly shifting loyalties, GabyGaby at her most lucid. Courtesy Criterion Productions Rodgers provides a fitting coda to fifteen years of duplicitous Noir femmes fatale. She incarnates a singular, dissolute, randomly horny and utterly relaxed ruthlessness. Her identity changes according to the company she keeps, her social role alters as her ambition takes root, her ambitions grow as she learns the extent of her sexual power and her sexual power breeds suicidal megalomania. If Gaby Rodgers herself - Gaby the person, not her character - was in fact neither insane nor distracted to the point of schizophrenia, then her performance is one for the ages.

This is a very different entertainment than the A-picture, Hollywood slickness of Double Indemnity or The Killers.  In most noir, the hero’s loss of innocent is represented as a loss of faith, a calamitous acquiring of cynicism springing from tragic death, broken hearts or dashed expectations. Hammer never had any faith to begin with; he’s just a nasty guy. His comeuppance consists of learning how just how ruthless, brutal, greedy and destructive his enemies can be. And all this time he thought he was the toughest monkey in the urban jungle...

 It’s an alienated, debased portrait, and a visceral prophesy. Robert Aldrich’s nihilism is boundless; he’s determined not only to kill everyone in the story, but also to bring an end to the romanticization of cynicism, violence and self-made morality that comprises Noir. He succeeds as Sam Pecinpah did with The Wild Bunch, by so raising the stakes that no one could possibly follow.

            Criterion’s extras include a short, revealing excerpt from a documentary about screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, who also wrote Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Bezzerides says flat out that the speed with which he wrote the screenplay reflects the depth of his contempt for the novel. Bezzerides chucked Spillane’s ideas and changed everything from the locale to the McGuffin. Director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), hilariously deadpan as ever, also trashes the book and Spillane’s aggressive simple-mindedness. Spillane – who sold 24 million Mike Hammer books in the early ‘50’s alone - appears in the Bezzerides’ documentary to express his baffled distaste for the film. Unsurprisingly, he has no clue how utterly he’s been outmaneuvered and rendered obsolete. Bezzerides and Aldrich found the themes of Spillane’s novel repulsive, and Kiss Me – shot in 22 days! - is their savage rejoinder. Criterion also includes a self-serving doc on Spillane, who is nothing if not self-serving. After watching considerably more sophisticated men trash him, Spillane’s confidence in his own Neanderthal vision and methods ought to be a little sad. In fact, just like the film, it’s funny as hell.

© 2011 David N Meyer

 

Friday
Nov182011

THE THIN RED LINE


For Terrence Malick (Badlands,Days of Heaven), the world is a cathedral. Even the most venal acts of man take place in sanctified space because it’s all sanctified. Malick hears celestial music emanating from the sky and trees, sunlight piercing a forest, water running over rocks. He communicates the celestiality he sees and hears through film’s essence, light. No director save Godard so adores or is so attuned to the luminescence of the world. Malick’s pursuit of that luminescence, and the indirect naturalist cadences of his dialogue, makes him a poetic realist.

The natural world cries out, begging man to see the potential for transcendence. But man’s too neurotic and self-invovled to heed the message. It’s not that he’d necessarily rather kill. He just wants a moment’s peace from the questions that torment him, and that rampant nature underscores. Might killing or avoiding being killed still even one of the voices in his head? Sadly, no. Men argue, mostly with themselves, about abstractions that the nature surrounding them—not to mention the other men trying to murder them—renders moot. Nature goes about its business, and that business contains no mercy. Malick embraces it all.

The Thin Red Line opens with a crocodile that seems to be Satan incarnate sliding into a scummy green pond—a transcendently beautiful scummy green pond—and sinking out of sight as apocalyptic church music soars. There, as they said in Vietnam, it is. We are entering a jungle, and it’s not that the jungle doesn’t like us. The jungle doesn’t care. The law of the jungle is exactly that, and it is that law which will keep the jungle what it is. But this indifferent jungle contains much man-made evil. That croc’s swimming around in the scummy green ponds of our souls. It’s bound to resurface somewhere. Keep heading into the jungle, and Satan’s going to manifest.

And boy does he ever. Based on James Jones’s novel of the American invasion of the Japanese-held Guadalcanal island in World War II, The Thin Red Line presents combat as a fever dream, and we are the dreamers. Malick edits so that every cut—every single cut to a human being—puts us instantly into the psychological state of the person he’s cut to. No film was ever edited like this, a $70 million indie art-house war epic that hurls us from one character to another for 171 minutes. Wounded men shrieking for enough morphine to kill them, soldiers within arm’s length shooting one another, generals throwing psychotic hissy fits (Nick Nolte as the embodiment of abusive paternal rage), whatever. The action might dominate the moment, but the men’s internal dialogues are not altered by the mayhem around them, or by the subsequent peace and quiet.

Criterion’s print captures all of Malick’s luminescence. The Extras feature a telling interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, and a number of actors. The most articulate proves to be Sean Penn. While everyone’s in awe of Malick, Penn best describes what it meant for all these stars and 22-year-old then-unknowns to head off to Australia for who knew how long a shoot for the minimum possible money: “Career suicide.”

Thursday
Sep222011

CRITERION'S REBEL SAMURAI BOXED SET

by David Wilentz

Criterion’s Rebel Samurai box set features four gripping entries in the genre, all depicting men challenged by unscrupulous hierarchies struggling for power: Sword of the Beast; Samurai Spy; Samurai Rebellion; Kill! These four pictures offer alook at the second wave of post war samurai films and the key directors who emerged from that wave. Focusing on the perennial samurai dilemma of giri (duty) versus ninjo (morality) allowed each auteur to make his mark artistically despite genre convention. These directors were in a sense rebellious like the samurai of their films, and still very much aware of their duty.

Samurai, like cowboy heroes, lived and were defined by a code of honor and morality. But what does a samurai do when pushed to the limit of his convictions? After being tricked into killing the counselor of his clan, Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), the protagonist of Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (1965)faces his pursuers with the fervor of a cornered animal. Gosha’s film has an abundance of brisk paced, well choreographed chanbara (sword swinging) action but what really stands out is how his gritty, naturalistic style reflects the vehement angst with which this anti-hero reacts to the corrupt world around him.

Samurai Spy (1965) plays almost like a Saturday matinee serial with damsels in distress, ninjas leaping through the air, face- offs atop bridges and so forth. However, director Masahiro Shinoda, who brought us the lyrical yakuza noir Pale Flower, imbues his work with an impressionistic element through stylized montage and unusual framing, catapulting this yarn beyond formulaic conventions. All the films in this box are lusciously shot in B/W but Shinoda finds moments to utilize light and dark as a metaphor for the film’s diegetic as well as emotional complexities.

What makes the Criterion brand so transcendent, so necessary, is their ability to combine PBS-style austerity with an acute genre sensibility. Authors of the attached essays include Japanese film luminaries like Donald Ritchie (A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) and Alain Silver (The Samurai Film) as well as Patrick Macias, author of Tokyo scope, a study of Japanese cult and trash films. Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967), more so than the other films included, has the classic and prestigious feel that western audiences may be more accustomed to (being familiar with Kurosawa’s oeuvre or Kobayashi’s Hara Kiri and Kwaidan). The drama is Shakespearean, building slowly but intensely, perfectly mirrored by the extraordinary restraint that Toshiro Mifune’s character exhibits. Only in the final reel do the film’s dramatic tensions finally explode in a barrage of physical action. And do they ever explode.

Kihachi Okamoto offers the other extreme of the samurai film with Kill! (1968). All archetypes are exaggerated to the max, allowing a chaotic send-up of the chanbara genre. Tatsuya Nakadai gleefully wallows in the comic side of his ronin character, a stark contrast to the characterization of pure evil that he delivered in Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. The convoluted plot gets a little hard to follow (interestingly it was based on the same novel that served as the source for Kurosawa’s Sanjuro) but the odd assortment of characters and Spaghetti Western style abandon manage to bring it to a rollicking finish; thus making Kill! the perfect capper to the set.

Saturday
Oct022010

COLOR AS EMOTION, EMOTION AS COLOR; THE FILMS OF THE ARCHERS

BLACK NARCISSUS
THE RED SHOES
KNOW WHERE I’M GOING
(CRITERION COLLECTION) 

“For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.”   Cormac McCarthy    Blood Meridian 

 

And the abyss looks back...Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced films under the aegis of their production company, The Archers. Powell, born in Canterbury, England in 1905, shot stills for English silent film director, Rex Ingram—whom audiences know as the terrifying and vastly self-amused genie in Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell was one of six directors. Powell co-wrote England’s first talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and, as did so many key American directors in the early 1970s, learned his craft directing low-budget quickies and B movies. These gained him the attention of Alexander Korda (another of Thief of Bagdad’s co-directors), who introduced him to Emeric Pressburger.

Pressburger, a Hungarian refugee escaping the Nazis, provided the compassion for human frailty that Powell seemed born without. Pressburger, who lost everything when he fled Hungary, possessed the outsider perspective that Powell, as an upper-class Englishmen, had trouble understanding. They forged a singular, enduring collaboration. According to film historian William K. Everson: “They proved to be one of those fortuitous combinations (Ford and Wayne, Astaire and Rogers, Laurel and Hardy) where the chemistry was felicitous in every degree. Powell’s delight in technique was given substance by Pressburger’s writing; and that sometimes gentle and subdued writing was given flamboyant release and emphasis in Powell’s direction.” And if Everson’s prose style seems somewhat 19th century, that suits the Archers, too. “Felicitous” is the word, indeed. It suggests the well-educated, light spirit (combined with a heavy heart) that marks the Archers’ films.

The Archers’ distinctive combination of literate, European, sophisticated perversity and lyrical flowing narrative place them in no school but their own. Purveyors of fantasy with an undertone of ever-looming mortality and Faustian bargains to be upheld—The Red Shoes—or chroniclers of barely concealed eroticism and psychological symbolism—Black Narcissus—Powell and Pressburger were structuralists par excellence. Nobody in cinema history—like, nobody—understood how to utilize color to underscore the emotions of a shot, a scene, or a sequence as did the Archers. And their films reward repeat viewing more than any other directors’s. In some viewings the plot holds the foreground, and you marvel at the classical, interlocking determination of the characters to unearth their fates, for good or naught. Other times the color palette and illustrative editing holds sway, and the story recedes as you bask in the magic and skill of the technique. Black Narcissus is my single favorite film, and one of the best films ever, period.

 

"No, I don't give two shits. Why do you ask?" David Farrar in Black Narcissus.

The Archers’s subject matter remains constant: the seduction of self-delusion, our interior confusions and the serpentine routes they follow to expression, the sweet sadness of romance, the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, the enduring values and horrors of class identity, and our pointless rigidity in the face of our own stupidity/arrogance/vanity/desire/ambition/need for absolution and terror of adult responsibility. Wait—did I mention the seduction of self-delusion?

The distinguishing characteristic of the many disparate Archer scripts is the subtlety with which they present their sub-textual concerns. For the team, “story” serves only as the medium for their thematic ideas. Those ideas—always complex, sometimes paradoxically self-contradictory—lurk within the “action,” comment upon it, and never interfere with the “plot.” Plots and subtexts so intertwine and inform one another that the usual separations hardly apply. Often, plot and subtext are experienced as the Archers intended, as pure emotion. While in the moment, the power of that emotion overwhelms and obviates all that rational analysis nonsense, which only seems useful while thinking about the picture afterward, never while watching and immersed. Black Narcissus could be takenas a tale of nuns battling the elements and one another (as the mass audience did) or as a perverse classic about longing that happens to feature nuns: A treatise on the erotic power of memory and the tragedy of wasted love. Likewise, The Red Shoescan be a sentimental ballet story, or an in-depth analysis of the power wars between men and women, the desperate measures men will go to in pursuit of inspiration, and, guess what, the tragedy of wasted love.

Something’s always lurking beneath the spoken word. The Archers’s dialogue is not quite naturalist yet not quite theatrical, the delivery lightning-quick, the diction always precise and the pacing usually rapid. The Archers favor a traditional three-act structure with a climax and a dénouement. The formalism of their structure makes the weirdness seeping through—like the memory of a dream seeping through the whole day following—all the more compelling. And, always, everything—emotion, plot movement, character-building detail, dialogue—is polished and understated to the point of invisibility.

The ravishing restored prints of both Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes that Film Forum showcased have found their proper home in the mind-blowing new DVDs released by the Criterion Collection. Given thatThe Red Shoes devolves into fantasy from time to time, the rich presentation of those 1948 three-strip Technicolor colors—colors that no cinematographic method has yet matched—prove even more crucial. The Archers’ understanding of the potential of Technicolor as a narrative tool, and their use of color to illuminate narrative or psychological aspects, is unparalleled. The Archers were the greatest directors of Technicolor in the history of cinema, surpassing Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk. While the extras are—as to be expected from Criterion—classy, literate, amusing, and illuminating (just listen to Scorsese chat with Powell on the commentary track of Black Narcissus), the real worth here is the care Criterion lavished on the color reproduction, on the range of the palette, on the key separations of tones of the same color, of the Archers’s unceasing conflict between darkness and light. Play these on the biggest screen you can find.

The Red Shoes is an adult, cosmopolitan essay on the obsession that art requires and on the hypocritical battles in which men engage to possess the muse. The fantasy ballet sequence that marks the climax of the film, done with 1948 special effects requiring backbreaking, painstaking, repetitive efforts, is a masterpiece of pure cinema; a childlike, hallucinatory, nightmarish, Jungian, Freudian, Surreal/Symbolic, hypnotizing sequence that could be duplicated, in its multiplicity of messages and emotions, in no other medium. Amazingly, the passage of time notwithstanding, (The Red Shoes is 62 years old!) it also remains an effective ballet sequence. Shots and sets flow into one another with the seamlessness of a dream, with every image gleaming like a jewel, as impenetrable as the psyche that created it. The emotional power of the Archers’s films, and the clarity with which they draw their characters, only partially explain how this work remains modern no matter how long ago it was made.

A while back, Criterion also released the Archers’s I Know Where I’m Going—a deceptively simple, cosmopolitan adult love story of great charm, told in easy-going B/W, with no hidden messages save the clear happiness of a melancholy spirit (Powell) working on a thoroughly pleasant tale. Wendy Hiller is engaged to a loathsome businessman (who never appears onscreen). While waiting for him on a lovely Scottish isle, she falls, against her pragmatic judgment, for the local impoverished Scots lord. The relentless optimism, typical of a British World War II cheer-up movie, never detracts from the fully formed characters. The Archers’s sense of humor, and Powell’s great love for his native Western Isles, is clear throughout: The most literate love comedy of the period, still wonderful and among the most credible love stories on film.