What Blue Velvet did for the comforting myths of suburban innocence, The Reflecting Skin attempted to do for rural America. With its picturesque farmhouses and golden-hued fields of wheat that seem to have popped straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, the world of Philip Ridley’s 1990 film evokes a warm feeling of nostalgia, but there’s an evil lurking just below the surface, one that reveals itself in ways both monumental (the atomic bomb) and minute (the mummified corpse of an infant abandoned in an old church).
The film is filled with odd, haunting images and occurrences—an exploding frog, a duo of creepy clucking women, a photograph of a Japanese child with literally mirrored skin—all of which the audience experiences through the eyes of young Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper). The eight-year-old lives on the Idaho prairie with his harsh, overworked mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), and distant father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), a closeted gay man who spends most of his time sitting around reading pulp novels.
A strange, improbably named widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), has just moved in next door, and Seth soon comes to believe she’s a vampire, a suspicion that’s intensified when Seth’s brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), returns from military duty and strikes up a romantic relationship with the older woman. And as if all this weren’t dark and disturbing enough, the film takes an even bleaker turn with the disappearance of Seth’s pal, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee), and the subsequent allegation that Seth’s dad is to blame.
Ridley peppers his pitch-black narrative with a vast array of themes, symbols, and motifs—skin, birds, water, nuclear warfare, and death—but the film’s exact meaning remains elusive. In part, that’s due to the filmmaker’s admirable refusal to spell out a message or reduce The Reflecting Skin’s meaning to some one-note allegory, but it’s also due to his muddled direction. Ridley’s handling of actors is particularly weak, as everyone except Mortensen and Duncan suggests overemphatic community theater performers. It also doesn’t help that the film’s tantalizing ambiguity is consistently steam-rolled by Nick Bicât’s overwrought score.
Still, it’s exciting to see a film attempt to strike such a distinct tone of fabulistic terror, and Ridley manages to achieve a number of evocative moments of weirdness and discomfort. Seth’s late-night conversations with the petrified baby corpse he imagines to be Eben’s angelic incarnation perfectly encapsulate the film’s eerie juxtaposition of childlike naïveté and disturbing horror. Ridley uses a black Cadillac full of child-nabbing greasers to symbolize death—a risky choice to be sure, but one whose effect is oddly disquieting, evoking the mysterious real-life missing-persons cases involving young children.
Deep into the film’s narrative, it’s revealed that Cameron participated in the atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, which have left him with radiation poisoning that weakens his bones and makes his hair fall out—signs which Seth misinterprets to be the effects of Dolphin’s witchy spells. This invocation of deadly weapons of mass destruction injects a disturbing layer of geopolitical terror into the film’s secluded rural milieu. Ridley envisions a vast globe-encompassing evil unleashed by the detonation of nuclear weapons, anticipating a similar theme that Lynch would explore in Twin Peaks: The Return.
If Ridley’s ambitious attempt to weave a complex web of themes and symbols within his work is significantly less successful than Lynch’s, one can still admire The Reflecting Skin for its uncanny aura, nightmare-logic plotting, and the sheer loopiness of its ideas. Even in its most strained and over-reaching moments, the film achieves a beguiling contrast between its sumptuous rural images and the darkness of its subject matter, one that’s neatly summed up by Ridley’s original title for his screenplay: American Gothic.
If the colors throughout The Reflecting Skin appear overly saturated on Film Movement’s Blu-ray release of the film, rest assured that the grading is true to Philip Ridley’s original vision. As the director explains in a note included in the booklet, he met resistance for pushing the colors too far during the recent 2K restoration of the film. But the hyper-real yellows of the wheat fields and dazzlingly bright blues of the prairie skies are key to the film’s surreal effect, and they positively blaze off the screen in this 1080p transfer. The LPCM 2.0 audio track is rich and full; subtle details of the film’s sound design (birds chirping, wind blowing) are crystal clear, and when Nick Bicât’s booming score starts to swell, it positively fills the room.
Film Movement’s release is sadly light on special features, though the few that are provided are keen and insightful. Ridley provides an enthusiastic audio commentary, in which he breathlessly rattles off facts, anecdotes, and analysis of the film at a lively clip. The disc also includes “Angels & Atom Bombs,” an informative and well-produced 40-minute making-of featurette that provides an engaging overview of the film’s production history and afterlife as a cult classic. Rounding things off are a few trailers for Film Movement Classics releases and a booklet that offers a note from Ridley on the restoration and an appreciative essay co-written by critic Travis Crawford and writer Heather Hyche.
Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin looks stunning on Film Movement’s Blu-ray, but it’s hard to overlook the dearth of special features.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper, Sheila Moore, Duncan Fraser, David Longworth, Robert Koons, David Bloom, Evan Hall, Codie Lucas Wilbee, Sherry Bie Director: Philip Ridley Screenwriter: Philip Ridley Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
The film was a decisive turning point for Sirk, kicking off a beloved string of loopy ‘50s melodramatic masterpieces.
Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession wasn’t the German expatriate’s first film made in Hollywood, his first collaboration with frothy producer Ross Hunter, or his first dabbling in the genre of melodrama. It isn’t even, by the measure of your average Sirk enthusiast, his first masterpiece. But, in retrospect, it was the decisive turning point in his late career boom, in which he crafted deliriously purplish, deeply jaded women’s weepies that only later became revered for both celebrating and critiquing the excesses of red-blooded, middle-American 1950s entertainment.
And it’s no softball first pitch: Fate, irony, faith, altruism, martinis, speedboats, instantaneous blindness, exotic European clinics, secular Christianity, charitable sexuality, and modernist interior design are all ladled onto novelist Lloyd C. Douglas’s rickety narrative frame without so much as the whisper of a suspicion that the whole enterprise ought to collapse even without the added weight of Sirk’s soon-to-be trademark Brechtian skepticism. In short, Magnificent Obsession is perhaps the first Sirk film to call to mind Stuart Klawans’s memorable description of “film follies,” in the essential book of the same name: “These are movies for people who want to die from too much cinema.”
Of course, Sirk’s ‘50s melodramas are far too rigorous and tightly wound to ever merit comparison to the delightful fiscal irresponsibility of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, even if occasionally his subject matter approached emotional recklessness of a comparable magnitude. Sirk’s specialty during this rarified period was chronicling with a merciless analytical bent (good humor? Bad faith?) the mechanics of American soapers. It’s become a cliché to celebrate Sirk now for his cold, ruthless take on social mores, and to overcompensate for deconstructing not only those behavioral habits, but also how pop culture reflects and feeds them.
What people don’t quite give the filmmaker credit for nowadays in their rush to justify his intellectual credentials is the fact that if he didn’t necessarily believe in the cheesecake he served up, he gave off a damned good impression that he did—which is why Sirk’s reputation endures while many of his contemporaries fall continually in and out of fashion. The proof is in Magnificent Obsession’s goopy pudding. Unlike All That Heaven Allows (with that shot of Jane Wyman trapped inside a TV set that all but writes the dissertation for you), Written on the Wind (the ultimate example of Sirk’s sympathy for society’s devils and contempt for virtue), and Imitation of Life (a film that for 50 years now has mopped the floor with any other attempt to tackle America’s never-to-be-resolved race crisis), Magnificent Obsession is really and truly utter trash. And it’s unapologetically entertaining.
The film opens with a breathless orgasm of proofs to Murphy’s Law. Rock Hudson’s callous playboy, Bob Merrick, after getting into a 180mph boating accident basically because he can afford it, is saved by a special medical device invented by a doctor on the other side of the lake. But this doctor happens to have a heart attack at the very moment his device is saving Hudson’s life, after which Bob spends a long and frosty recuperation at the hospital run by—guess who? It ends with a medical miracle that sees Bob himself attempting a lifesaving operation on that doctor’s widow, Helen Phillips (Wyman), but not before achieving a mystical spiritual rebirth and, just for the ladies, scrubbing down in the longest shirtless surgical prep scene in cinematic history. Somewhere in between those two story points, Bob indirectly causes Helen to go blind, discovers something like a god in the form of a cryptically gay-ish artiste (Otto Kruger), entertains Helen with the help of an adolescent live-action Peppermint Patty (Judy Nugent), and goes a little gray at the temples. Helen, meanwhile, cries.
Sirk takes this plot, already committed to film in workmanlike fashion by John M. Stahl in 1935, and accentuates all the aspects that shouldn’t work: incidental coincidences, irrational decisions, sermons of nebulous denomination. His commitment to the ridiculous is what finesses that trademark Sirkian irony, but it’s not a safe, intelligent irony. One can’t watch the film today in the same way one would All That Heaven Allows, focusing on Sirk’s ahead-of-his-time attack on small-town mentality. Magnificent Obsession is a more mysterious beast, one that doesn’t work without a belief in Sirk’s form. In that sense, it’s the ultimate litmus test. If you pass, you might also come to realize that Bob’s decision to overthrow rationality because the cherub choir swells to a crescendo is the film’s best self-fulfilling metaphor.
When Magnificent Obsession first appeared on Criterion DVD in 2009, the video transfer was solid, if not quite the quantum leap forward from the 2001 DVD edition of All That Heaven Allows. (Frankly, the transfer on the studio’s 2001 DVD version of Written on the Wind was superior.) Now that Criterion’s taken a second crack at Magnificent Obsession, it’s unquestionably the most attractive Criterion release of a Douglas Sirk film on the market. The colors are still not dazzling per se, but they’re appropriately saturated in a way that seems an acceptable truce between melodrama and veracity. In any case, the traces of edge enhancement that plagued specific scenes in the DVD are nowhere to be seen here. So long as you don’t go in expecting a Suspiria-like level of kaleidoscopic colors, it’s downright flawless. The sound mix is uncompressed on the Blu-ray—not that it opens up things much beyond what the DVD accomplished, given 1950s sound technology.
Until such time comes as Criterion finally gets around to their Written on the Wind upgrade, this and All That Heaven Allows remain two parts of a bonus-feature trilogy waiting for the third to arrive. Luckily, there’s still more than enough to keep fans busy. First is an audio commentary by Thomas Doherty that’s probably a little more studied and less revelatory than the film’s tone merits, but overall rich with detail and insight. But for my money, Allison Anders hits the mark a little more squarely in her brief introductory video piece about the film, in which she talks about the shock of seeing Rock Hudson’s silky hospital pajamas. Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, comes off as nothing if not self-aggrandizing. On the second disc is a feature-length interview with Sirk shot in the final years of his life; despite the bizarre, Night and Fog-suggestive credits, it’s an essential forum for Sirk’s matter-of-fact assessment of his work in Hollywood. Finally, Criterion includes as an extra feature John M. Stahl’s 1935 version of the film starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. The disc’s liner notes by Geoffrey O’Brien make a lot of nice observations about the film and how it influenced Sirk’s remake, but I imagine most Sirk fans will find it oddly bloodless. (For one thing, this purported melodrama has less incidental music than most Iranian films I’ve seen.)
Magnificent Obsession was a decisive turning point for Douglas Sirk, kicking off a beloved string of loopy ‘50s melodramatic masterpieces.
Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, Gregg Palmer, Sara Shane, Paul Cavanagh, Judy Nugent, George Lynn, Richard H. Cutting, Robert B. Williams, Will White, Helen Kleeb Director: Douglas Sirk Screenwriter: Robert Blees Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1954 Release Date: August 20, 2019 Buy: Video
With this extraordinary transfer, Criterion honors the profound hothouse intensity of Spike Lee’s greatest film.
Spike Lee’s films have always deftly worked comedy into tragedy. In School Daze, he stages the psychologically self-destructive conflict between light- and dark-skinned black girls as a jazzy, old Hollywood musical showstopper. In Jungle Fever, Samuel L. Jackson’s Gator gives his unforgiving father one last dance he made up just for his mom, and hustles his way into an early grave. Crooklyn’s loopy Aunt Song discovers her lost dog’s corpse when it catapults out of the hide-a-bed like a canine Pop-Tart. And in Do the Right Thing, his uncontestable masterpiece, and one American cinema’s unimpeachable classics, Lee deftly follows the actions of two dozen people on what turns out to be one of the longest, hottest, most memorable and maybe most tragic days of their lives. And he does it without so much as a single lugubrious or extraneous moment.
In fact, Lee swings for the fences from frame one, with Rosie Perez’s Tina thrusting, grinding, kicking, and boxing her frustrations out to Do the Right Thing’s uncompromising musical leitmotif, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Lee’s scenario restricts him to a rough baker’s dozen hours in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant on what newspapers are warning will likely be the hottest day of the year. Assisted by a trio of old men sitting idly in front of a blazing red wall (the film’s Greek chorus, if you will), Lee introduces a fully functional community at various stages of wit’s end, even before the sun has hit high noon. In an almost exclusively African-American and Puerto Rican and largely lower-middle-class section of Bed-Stuy, residents are both fed and economically mocked by the only two successful businesses in the area: a corner market run by Koreans and a pizzeria owned and operated by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello), a gruff but genial soul who rather presumptuously assumes himself to be the neighborhood paterfamilias. Aside from his two sons (one racist, the other naïve), Sal also employs and acts as surrogate father to Mookie (Lee), who serves as the neighborhood’s unofficial liaison between Sal and his clientele.
Even before Bed-Stuy’s race relations unravel in the heat, Do the Right Thing strives for insistent political consciousness, which is to say that Lee doesn’t just bring up political topics but dares to actually take positions. (In one scene, he films a benign conversation about the pitfalls of interracial, intergenerational courtship in front of a brick wall bearing the graffiti message “Tawana told the truth,” referring to the alleged rape of Tawana Brawley at the hands of, among other white men, New York cops.) Sometimes the politics are conservatively combative, as when a white cyclist, Clifton (John Savage), scuffs Buggin Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) pristine Air Jordans and justifies his right to gentrify Bed-Stuy with a curt “I was born in Brooklyn.” Other times the politics are more provocatively combative, as in the Brechtian interlude in which Mookie, Pino, and other representatives of the block spew as many hateful racial slurs as they can manage, some of which are wickedly funny (the white cop calls an off-screen Puerto Rican a “pointy-shoes red-wearing Menudo mira-mira cocksucker”).
Some reviewers, largely the same nervous nellies who warned that the film might incite race riots, took issue with Lee’s perceived free pass to eschew political correctness, especially in Bush I’s “kinder, gentler nation.” But that’s precisely the point of Do the Right Thing. It takes political concepts away from the lip service of cloistered authority figures, including the film’s dirty cops, and dissects them through the lives of those who are forced to live by them. In this context, DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy’s (Jackson) stately, nearly two-and-a-half-minute roll call of great black musicians carries as much weight of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee’s deceptively vibrant pop comedy is both freewheeling and, as Do the Right Thing’s final half hour reveals, extraordinarily calculated. When tempers spiral out of control and police arrive on the scene and grave injustice is meted out on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the disruption is a direct slap to shake audiences out of their complacency. But rather than react with solemnity, Lee shoots the resulting riot with the same angular, fish-eyed, oversaturated effects as he uses for earlier, funnier moments, again aligning tragedy with comedy and suggesting that the powers that be can strike at any given moment. And because the racially charged dialogue early in the film is presented in the same cinematic context as what’s a pretty clear-cut case of institutionalized race hate, Lee manages to suggest a clear political position while still admitting there are never any simple answers. Instead of ending the film on a note of mutual understanding between Sal and Mookie, as originally scripted, Lee instead closes on a note of fragile, quizzical acknowledgment. Nothing more.
What critics in 1989 called incendiary and angry should more accurately be characterized as challenging. Do the Right Thing is no staid civics lesson; rather, it’s a microcosmic test case in the form of a seamless ensemble piece. Anyone who thinks that Spike Lee joints are always disappointing would be forgiven for thinking so if they’re comparing the filmmaker’s works against this perfectly balanced one. If other films in his body of work have approached Do the Right Thing in confidence, few by Lee or anyone else have better feng shui. Like Rear Window to Alfred Hitchcock, like Nashville to Robert Altman, like Playtime to Jacques Tati, Lee’s Do the Right Thing is an undiluted representation of its creator’s artistic command.
This image boasts outstanding clarity and vitality, improving significantly on prior restorations of Do the Right Thing. Colors explode off the screen, especially the primary hues that lend the film a kind of hothouse poetry, and textures are viscerally sharp. One can clearly make out everything from the pores of the characters’ skin to the grit of the streets to the minute little details of Sal’s pizza pies. This upgrade serves to further reaffirm the intoxicating intimacy of Spike Lee’s communal morality play, which of course renders the violence all that more disturbing. (The police baton used to kill Radio Raheem positively gleams, reflecting a street light.) The 5.1 speaker audio track is similarly impeccable, and similarly intensifies the film’s violence. Every little sound resounds with vivid vibrancy, especially the sounds of the characters walking the streets, which contrast in accordance with their varying ages and bodies. (Da Mayor’s shambling tread goes a long way to establishing his worldview and personality.) The film’s astute use of music, from Bill Lee’s jazz score to Public Enemy’s iconic “Fight the Power,” is also accorded a full and balanced soundstage.
Somewhat disappointingly, this mammoth collection only includes a few new extras, such as an interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter and a program in which New York City Council member Robert Cornegy Jr., writer and director Nelson George, and filmmaker Darnell Martin discuss New York City in the 1980s while examining Do the Right Thing’s social significance. However, the archive extras, mostly ported over from prior Criterion editions, still offer a fantastic glimpse into the making of the film, particularly footage of a table read, in which we see Lee giving the actors notes early into the process of bringing his screenplay to life. Meanwhile, the St. Clair Bourne-directed “Making of Do the Right Thing” documentary offers an observational look at how Lee’s production affected the neighborhood in which it was shot, and is complemented by a short program called “Back to Bed-Stuy.”
The best supplement, especially for aspiring filmmakers, is still the 1995 audio commentary by Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee. Lee talks about character motivation as well as Do the Right Thing’s political significance, while Dickerson and Thomas offer sharp detail about the shaping of the film’s aesthetic. (Most memorably, Dickerson discusses a “formula for creating sunlight,” in which he tried to convey the sun’s shifting presence as well as the profound heat of the setting.)
In one of the many intros peppered throughout the set, Lee addresses the troubling reviews the film received at the time, in which critics seemed to be more offended by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria than by Radio Raheem’s murder. Offering a further deep dive into Lee’s mindset and working methods is a booklet including an excerpt from a journal he kept in 1988, as he was moving from School Daze on to Do the Right Thing, as well as an essay by critic Vinson Cunningham. A whole host of other odds and ends offer texture as to how Do the Right Thing was created and subsequently received, including a Cannes press conference, a breakdown of the storyboarding of the riot scene, and a collection of extended and deleted scenes.
With this extraordinary transfer, Criterion honors the profound hothouse intensity of Spike Lee’s greatest film.
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Miguel Sandoval, Rick Aiello, John Savage, Samuel J. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Steve White, Martin Lawrence Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Spike Lee Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: July 23, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
The film’s cheeky, satirical take on the inevitable friction between scientific progress and capitalism remains as relevant today as ever.
Alexander Mackendrick’s first two films, both made at Ealing Studios, concern commodities who revolt against their simple market value and assume the properties of myth. This may sound like naïve fantasy, but myth can wreak havoc on a delicate balance of supply and demand. In Mackendrick’s debut, Whiskey Galore, for instance, a vessel carrying 50,000 bottles of the titular beverage wrecks on the shores of a small Scottish isle turned miserably teetotal by the maritime vicissitudes of war. The question that soon follows is whether booze is better stolen (and untaxed) or sunken (and un-imbibed). You can guess in which direction popular opinion swings.
The Man in the White Suit rewrites this fiscal fiasco for fewer and more intensely satirical characters. Instead of a devoutly liquored Scottish town, the setting is a Dickensian city both darkened and kept prosperous by the belching of factory smokestacks; instead of high-proof flotsam, the plot device is a test-tube fabric that, courtesy of some chemical mumbo jumbo, never dirties, tears, or wears down. But while superficially a retread, this sophomore effort improves upon its predecessor’s template by transforming the everyday more redolently into the mythic. The unbreakable and highly luminous threads from which the film’s invincible garments are loomed feel suspiciously borrowed from the spindle of the Fates—as fire was from Mount Olympus in the Promethean story.
The film also provides us with a single antihero, chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), rather than Whisky Galore’s united front. Compelled by irrepressible vocational ambition to concoct the perfect, everlasting fabric, Stratton bounces between several mills in the same town as a low-level employee, eventually fleeing from each after his pricey, on-the-sly lab work is found out. As he scurries between the industry’s largely interchangeable competitors, stuffy textile moguls (played by Cecil Parker and Michael Gough, among others) broker deals behind closed doors, even proposing marriage to one another’s daughters for leverage. Stratton’s interests and those of the mills’ owners are thus in one sense contrapuntal; while his bosses’ eyes are fixed on product rather than object, the chemist pulls off the distracting price tag and tinkers with the material behind it. But as Stratton’s experimentation grows more obsessive, his zeal for individual glory and his blindness to the needs of the marketplace achieve a troubling consonance with the pomposity of the ruling class he disdains.
Much of The Man in the White Suit’s charm resides in how gradually and effortlessly we discover this Promethean protagonist’s crippling myopia. As Stratton soldiers on through two acts of failure with youthful confidence, we can’t help but sympathize with his cause; it’s excruciating when an early essay at polymer construction succeeds only to be thrown down the drain by meddling colleagues. Curious cracks in Stratton’s intentions, however, start to irk us along the way. He has a habit, for instance, of examining rhythmically chugging apparatuses with the patiently lecherous eyes of a hungry lover. And the labs in which he toils, as photographed by Douglas Slocombe, are deep, brightly lit caverns penetrated with rigid shadow-geometries. When Stratton is later “offered” the sympathetic daughter, Daphne (Joan Greenwood), of a mill owner in return for the rights to his invention, he rejects her quite plausibly. It’s not, of course, that he’s uninterested in sex, but that his work among graduated cylinders and their viscous contents is sex. What match is a single woman for a harem of lovingly animated tubes and pumps that explode when improperly handled?
In the film’s final act, Stratton’s erotic relationship with his work has climaxed and produced an unholy offspring: the un-soilable and brilliantly glowing suit of the title, which Stratton intends as the prototype for a revolution. In response, mill owners and humble employees alike rise up against him, fearing that his ur-couture will slow production and ruin the industry. This homogenizing of class hierarchy into survival-motivated antagonism notably recalls the cop and crook alliance of Fritz Lang’s M, an unavoidable analogy that devilishly puts Stratton on par with a recidivist child killer. And yet Stratton is also no different from any one of us at our most irrationally determined to succeed. Mackendrick’s wickedly intelligent film thus posits a fame-hungry chemist as the single degree of spiritual separation between a pederast monster and a film-going public who cannot help but dream big for the future.
That Stratton proves so unable to resist his hubris surely provides The Man in the White Suit with a cautionary subtext, but this is beautifully complicated by an ending that denies the possibility of rehabilitation. Stratton experiences a moment of bothersome empathy when an elderly woman asserts that his magic clothes will put her cleaning service out of business, but the revelation doesn’t stick. At the final frame, Stratton gleefully prepares to revisit his sexy test tubes and economy-collapsing concepts, and we find our sympathy for him renewed. A fate of scalding hot ambition is, after all, less desirable than even the shackles that held Prometheus to a rock as eternal punishment for stealing fire.
Some shots show minor signs of wear and tear in the form of scratches and debris, though rarely for more than a few seconds at a time. Otherwise, Kino’s transfer is consistently sharp, with crisp detail extending from the minutest of facial features to deep into the backgrounds. A healthy amount of film grain is also present throughout, lending the film a softness that prevents it from appearing overly digital. The famed, titular white suit is appropriately luminescent whenever it’s on screen, but the contrast is really quite strong throughout, with the shadow-filled rendezvous between Stratton and Daphne late in the film standing out as particularly impressive in its rendering. The DTS-HD audio track is evenly mixed except for various sound effects such as explosions and the comical gurgling of elaborate scientific contraptions that are brought forward in the mix for emphasis.
Film historian Dean Brandum’s exceedingly dry commentary will be a bit tough sit for any but the biggest fans of Alexander Mackendrick’s film, as he’s prone to pregnant pauses and lengthy digressions about box-office numbers and the popular success of various British films, his academic focus. But the back half of the commentary is rewarding for the way he teases out the film’s various thematic threads. Especially of note is his reading of Joan Greenwood and Vida Hope’s characters as stand-ins for capital and labor, respectively, and his calling out of the film’s ending as a bit of a copout. There’s also an interview with director Stephen Frears, critic Ian Christie, and British film historian Richard Darce that touches on the state of Britain’s film industry after the war, Mackendrick’s standing as the iconoclast of Ealing Studios, and Greenwood’s strong performance in the lead female role. It’s a bit on the short side at just under 15 minutes but serves as a nice complement to the feature commentary.
The film’s cheeky, satirical take on the inevitable friction between scientific progress and capitalism remains as relevant today as ever.
Cast: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope Director: Alexander Mackendrick Screenwriter: John Dighton, Roger MacDougall, Alexander Mackendrick Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1951 Release Date: September 3, 2019 Buy: Video
Lionsgate’s lavish presentation of the film’s various cuts represents the latest high-water mark for a catalog studio release.
As much a magnum opus as it is a film maudit, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now may be the most debated film of the New Hollywood era. Lauded and condemned for its psychedelic vision of the Vietnam War, the film needs little in the way of introduction. Its transposition of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness is equal parts lucid and incoherent, boasting some of the most famous, epically scaled sequences in all of cinema that nonetheless remain fundamentally claustrophobic articulations of fear, paranoia, and loathing. Such scenes as the helicopter raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and dialogue like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” have thoroughly seeped into the cultural lexicon. No matter how many times one views Coppola’s film, Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) boat ride into hell never loses its sense of unease.
Coming off three of the most tightly ordered, structurally precise films of the New Hollywood era, Coppola’s embrace of the ambiguities of impressionism, both in Apocalypse Now’s storytelling and its aestheticism, naturally felt like an unexpected left turn for the filmmaker. Vittorio Storaro’s yellow-tinted cinematography invokes napalm and Agent Orange, while the sense of time’s passage increasingly evaporates with each dissolve transition. The deeper that Willard and his boat crew sink into the jungle, the more the film’s colors blur and bleed, reflecting the soldiers’ increasing disconnection from reality. Pitch-black night scenes are suddenly illuminated by throbbing white balls of phosphorous that burn hazily in the air like miniature stars. Even the actors sound as if they’re subsumed in a kind of fever dream, none more so than Marlon Brando, who laconically delivers Colonel Kurtz’s deranged ramblings, every word gathering like moisture in his mouth before indifferently trickling out of it.
In the decades since its release, Apocalypse Now has been the subject of fierce and understandable debate over its depiction of Vietnam, from the film’s Americentric perspective to its reductive view of the Vietnamese as an unknowable “other.” It presents the country entirely removed from context, a mysterious realm that most of the men sent to fight there couldn’t find on a map. The 2001 “Redux” cut of the film, which added nearly an hour to the theatrical cut’s running time, attempted to redress this by including material that Coppola shot that dealt more explicitly with Vietnam’s history, particularly in scenes set in an isolated rubber plantation, where a French colonial family appear trapped like ghosts.
That edition is included here, as is Coppola’s newly crafted “Final Cut,” which splits the difference between the two versions, retaining the scenes set at the plantation while omitting some of the scenes that were rightly left out of the theatrical cut, such as the second encounter between Willard’s crew and the Playboy bunnies visiting on a U.S.O. tour. The film, notoriously ambiguous and irresolute in any form, gives the impression of being endlessly malleable and open to Coppola’s notorious impulse for revising his filmography. Indeed, given the free-form possibilities of Apocalypse Now’s dream logic, the new cut’s judicious pruning of the “Redux” assembly is surprisingly conservative for a filmmaker who originally planned his 2011 film Twixt for a format that allowed real-time editing during projection.
Apocalypse Now’s “Final Cut” streamlines the flabby excesses of the “Redux” version, but in truth, the theatrical cut remains the definitive, if most problematic, edit of the film. Absent the modest attempts at historical context of the other two cuts, the theatrical version plunges us into the heads of its characters with dizzying abandon. Its portrait of Vietnam may be dishonest, but in its nightmarish hallucination is something close to the truth of the madness of reflexive imperialism. Apocalypse Now is a film about the consequences of instinctively invading a place one knows nothing about, and in that sense the film’s flaws of perspective can just as easily be seen as the embodiment of its thematic preoccupation. That a film so caustic and surreal in its view of the Vietnam War has largely become the dominant cultural image of the conflict in America is strange, but it speaks to Coppola’s intuitive vision of the war as collective insanity that Apocalypse Now’s phantasmagoria so often rings true.
Lionsgate’s previous Blu-ray of Apocalypse Now was of exceptional quality, but its transfer was sourced from an interpositive. For the first time, Francis Ford Coppola has been able to restore his film directly from the negative, and the results are stunning. Flesh tones are natural and detail is so fine that in some shots you can practically count the threads on soldiers’ roughly sewn fatigues. Apocalypse Now’s colors have always had an inherently smudgy quality, and that aspect is retained here even as the transfer shows a crisper image than ever before. Color separation is more precise, allowing for greater contrast in picture quality. Also, the black levels across the nighttime sequences are much deeper than they were on previous releases of the film, while grain is more evenly distributed throughout.
Apocalypse Now was a watershed in theatrical sound mixing, and prior home-video releases of the film boasted soundtracks so pristine that you can use them to calibrate your speaker setups. With this release, though, Coppola has reached new heights, restoring the original audio tracks into a new Dolby Atmos mix that’s wholly engrossing. Directional sound effects move almost three-dimensionally, so delicately are they mixed between and within channels, and Carmine Coppola’s electronically tinged, hypnotically dissonant score thrums with new life. All three versions of the film have been restored from the negative and given Dolby Atmos mixes, making for perfect quality no matter which track you opt for.
Just as Lionsgate’s last Blu-ray edition of Apocalypse Now boasted reference-quality audio and video, so, too, were its extras exhaustive. This six-disc release includes everything from the previous release, including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which as become as legendary at this point as the film its documents. There are too many extras to enumerate, with featurettes on every single aspect of the film’s production, from its casting to its sound mixing. There are deleted scenes, including an entire alternate ending where Kurtz’s compound is napalmed, as well as audio from a 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of Joseph Conrad’s novella. Astonishingly, there are even more extras this time around, with the final disc containing the documentary and a wealth of new, retrospective features that detail Apocalypse Now’s latest audio and visual restoration. There’s also additional behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a Q&A between Coppola and Steven Soderbergh.
Lionsgate’s lavish presentation of Apocalypse Now’s various cuts represents the latest high-water mark for a catalog studio release.
Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Harrison Ford Director: Francis Ford Coppola Screenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 182 min Rating: R Year: 1979 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
André De Toth’s final western, Day of the Outlaw, is the rare entry in the genre to take place across a landscape blanketed in snow, whose temperatures are as biting as the long-gestating feud between the homesteaders of a small town and a local rustler, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan). Blaise’s contempt for the townspeople infuses every interaction, and in particular his dealings with rancher Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), and early scenes use minimal camera movement to reflect Blaise’s clenched-jawed attempts at civility. De Toth swiftly communicates the long-running hatred between the two men, from their hostile dialogues to Blaise’s romantic past with Hal’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise), who’s so scared for her husband’s life that she offers to resume her affair with Blaise if it will keep the peace.
Just as these tensions start to boil over, however, Day of the Outlaw pulls a bait-and-switch, abruptly shifting gears with the intrusion of a gang of robbers hiding out from a bank heist. The group is led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), an AWOL Army captain who fancies himself a noble criminal. But in a film that’s already established its protagonist as a raging, loathsome man, there’s no room here for romantic notions of crime. No sooner has Jack been introduced as the ringleader of the robbers than the filmmakers underline his powerlessness to control them; as he insists that the other criminals leave the women of the town alone, the men only laugh at him. Later, when Jack forces a local veterinarian (Dabbs Greer) to remove a bullet lodged in him, Jack feebly instructs Blaise to keep the town in check and that he will control his own men, and the frailty in his post-op delirium gives further lie to his illusion of control.
De Toth’s images are by and large static, and punctuated by slow, deliberate movements of the camera, effectively communicating the pervasive sense of isolation that grips both the occupied townspeople and the marauders, who increasingly reveal their pathetic inability to think further than their immediate desires. In most westerns, towns suggest small oases of civilization and habitability away from the inhospitable deserts outside their borders, but in Day of the Outlaw, the opposite is true. Here, lush groves of trees surround the town, but the city itself is a trammeled and filthy place of muddy, slushy roads. Interiors are sparsely decorated, leaving little to distract the invaders from their rapacious thoughts.
The misery of the setting at times unites the townsfolk and bandits. The film’s most stirring scene is a grotesque show of social conviviality, in which the thieves, looking to relieve their tensions, careen around a tavern with the local women helplessly clutched to their chests, all the while the camera whipping around them. Watching this hideous display are Blaise and Jack, disgusted but powerless to intervene for fear of causing violence. Indeed, for a film predicated upon Blaise regaining his connection to his community in defense from outside foes, Day of the Outlaw bleakly equates Blaise and Jack throughout, and both Ryan and Ives play their parts with a dejection that undermines even their characters’ most intimidating shows of force. Released in 1959, the film feels a full decade ahead of its time, a revisionist western before the term existed that posits its characters as existentially trapped by an unforgiving landscape where violence, however ruinous, seems logical, even necessary.
Kino’s transfer doesn’t consistently disguise the age of its source material. Numerous shots display faint flickering effects, and many of the images lack for sharpness. But the high-contrast black-and-white photography is by and large crisp and balanced throughout. The lossless mono is likewise restricted by the limitations of its source, with sound effects too cleanly separated and poorly mixed together, but there are no flaws in the track itself, and dialogue, music, and sound effects are all rendered clearly.
An informative but accessible audio commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold covers Day of the Outlaw in rich detail. Arnold is especially perceptive in regard to strength of the film’s performances and André De Toth’s visual choices.
Day of the Outlaw is one of the finest, lesser-sung westerns of Hollywood’s golden age, and a precursor to the revisionist western, making this disc a must-own for fans of the genre.
Cast: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Lana Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson Director: André De Toth Screenwriter: Philip Yordan Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: August 27, 2019 Buy: Video
Kino’s Blu-ray comes furnished with an astute commentary that attests to the enduring appeal of the film’s deliciously morbid humor.
A class can be taught comparing British and American manners using only Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Family Jewels, two films that are honest to the culture and time from which they originate. Jerry Lewis’s 1965 film could be read as a reverse remake of Robert Hamer’s 1949 Ealing Studios comedy. Lewis plays seven roles in The Family Jewels, six uncles and one chauffer to a little rich girl who seeks a new “father” to share her $30 million fortune, while in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the great Alec Guinness plays eight relatives that come under attack by a distant relation denied his rightful place within their family. Both films are concerned with the nature of privilege, and the means by which the characters in these films attempt to preserve and attain status mirrors the nature of British and American modes of behavior. One film explodes in the same way the other implodes.
Like its aesthetic, The Family Jewels’s performances are loud, brash, and colorful. Kind Hearts and Coronets, by comparison, exudes an extraordinary feeling of reserve; its absence of color suggests a vulgar policy of exclusion. Quite possibly the darkest of the Ealing Studios comedies, it isn’t very funny—even by the stiff-upper-lip standards of the Brits, the humor is so dry and nonchalant as to appear nonexistent—but Hamer’s gift for character observation is generous and insightful, which he cleverly echoes in the fiber of the film’s early scenes.
Often restricting action and light to the center of the screen (in one scene, the curvature of a tree limb provides the frame of the picture with an iris-like border), Hamer reflects Louis Mazzini’s (Dennis Price) outrage and exclusion using his constricting camera. Valerie Hobson’s Edith D’Ascoyne, widow of one of Louis’s victims, is neutered by her husband’s death in the same one-dimensional way as the woman with the funny hat from Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, and while Louis’s girlfriend, Sibella Holland (Joan Greenwood), suggests another wet-noodle type, Hamer unleashes the character’s wit and cunning after an interesting twist of events, giving Louis a nemesis he can tango with on equal footing. This respect and understanding for the role of the female, her suffocation, and her desire and potential for outrage within British society exposes the depth of Hamer’s kind heart and mind.
Kino’s transfer is uneven: the blown-out whites of some exterior shots sacrifice facial and background details; debris and damage is visible in a number of shots; and sharpness is inconsistent, as some sequences evince the crisp look of a new restoration while others possess an ever-slight haziness. On the other hand, contrast is impeccable, with a wide range of grays and deep blacks bringing a richness to the film’s elaborate costumes. And the sound is well-balanced, presenting the dialogue with all the clarity worthy of its rapier wit.
Film historian Kat Ellinger provides a droll and breezy audio commentary that manages to cover a lot of ground without ever feeling like an information dump. Of particular interest is her discussion of the rise of Ealing comedies in the aftermath of World War II, thanks in large part to studio head Michael Balcon, and their critical role in setting the template for British comedies over the next several decades. In her assessment of Kind Hearts and Coronets, she stresses the huge role that director Robert Hamer played in infusing gallows humor and dark sexual undertones into the film, helping to revive the popularity of witty, subversive satires akin to those of Oscar Wilde in the previous century. Ellinger also carves out time to get into the tragic personal lives of Hamer and actor Dennis Price and draws some intriguing parallels between American noir and British gothic films of the 1940s. Unfortunately, the remaining extras are far less astute. An episode of Those British Faces, featuring Dennis Price, primarily surveys the actor’s career through clips from his films, while an audio-only interview with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe is so poorly recorded that you have to strain to understand him as he dryly recounts his working as a freelance photographer and eventually moving into cinema. The disc’s extras are rounded out with an introduction by John Landis, a theatrical trailer, and the alternate American ending of the film.
Kino’s Blu-ray release comes furnished with an engaging and astute audio commentary that attests to the enduring appeal of the film’s deliciously morbid humor.
Cast: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton, John Penrose Director: Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Dighton, Robert Hamer Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: September 3, 2019 Buy: Video
This package not only showcases the film in all its audio-visual glory, but also provides a comprehensive look at Henzell’s life and career.
The first Jamaican-produced feature film, and still the most famous film to ever to come out of the island nation, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come doesn’t open with a picturesque vista of a glorious patch of shoreline, but rather a drab, rain-drenched shot of a bus making its way along a winding oceanside road. As the vehicle makes its way through cramped villages and cities clogged with billboard ads, the 1972 film announces itself as a work made by and primarily for Jamaicans. If the island may look like an unspoiled paradise to the Westerners enjoying an all-inclusive stay at a Sandals resort compound, for the characters in The Harder They Come, it’s a place of poverty, corruption, and crime.
And then there’s the music. Indeed, Henzell sees Jamaica as a land of vibrant, bouncy reggae that complements nearly every aspect of the islanders’ lives. Music is everywhere in the film: from sweaty dancehall parties; to raucous, electric guitar-backed choirs in a small Christian church; to the ubiquitous transistor radios bumping Toots and the Maytals’s classic “Pressure Drop.” The Harder They Come was many non-Jamaican viewers’ first introduction to the jaunty, syncopated rhythms of reggae, and even nearly half a century on, it’s easy to see how the film’s rollicking soundtrack helped to elevate this regional music to international fame.
Starring reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff as naif country boy Ivanhoe Martin, who dreams of making it big as a singer in Kingston only to get sucked into the criminal underworld, The Harder They Come uses the music of Cliff and a handful of his rocksteady contemporaries as a pointedly upbeat counterpoint to the film’s tale of destitution and dreams deferred. Despite the jubilance of the soundtrack, Henzell’s vision of the Jamaican music business is bleak, an essentially criminal enterprise dominated by a single imperious record producer, Hilton (Bob Charlton), who makes or breaks artists at his will. Ivanhoe eventually gets the opportunity to record a tune—the rip-roaring title anthem that encapsulates the film’s mood of hardscrabble striving—but it’s buried by Hilton after Ivanhoe rejects his paltry offer for the track.
Having experienced the exploitation of the music business, Ivanhoe turns to transporting marijuana for a crime syndicate. He gradually runs afoul of the police and his fellow traffickers, eventually killing three cops and going on the lam. And after he proceeds to leave spray-painted messages taunting his pursuers, he becomes a nationwide cause célèbre and “The Harder They Comes” is in heavy rotation on radio stations across Jamaica. Ivanhoe’s dreams of stardom finally come true—and all he had to do was resort to murder.
Henzell handles this darkly ironic narrative with a light touch and an emphasis on the matter-of-fact details of everyday life. The Harder They Come may be rough around the edges, with awkward jumps in the narrative and some technically deficient scenes where one can barely even make out what’s happening due to poor lighting or clumsy framing, but Henzell captures images of sensuousness and natural beauty throughout, such as a hypnotic montage of Ivanhoe and his girl, Elsa (Janet Bartley), making love in the ocean.
Like Gordon Parks’s Shaft and Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly, two American blaxploitation films that are similarly remembered today more for their soundtracks than their filmmaking, The Harder They Come exhibits an exciting attempt to merge genre plotting with location shooting and non-professional actors. These works offer a deglamorized but still entertaining view of a black underclass struggling against the limitations of poverty and a police system that seeks to dominate rather than protect them. But don’t mistake them for lectures, as they’re brutally honest attempts to reflect the circumstances of a particular place and time. The Harder They Come’s greatest asset may still be its soundtrack, which makes such a stirring impact because it provides a cathartic release from the grim realities depicted on screen.
Ivanhoe’s fate may be tragic, but what truly sticks with us from The Harder They Come isn’t his death. Rather, it’s his impassioned performance of the title song in the recording studio earlier in the film, which Henzell shows us in full. Decked out in an all-black outfit with a bright yellow Star of David on the front, Ivanhoe sings, “The oppressors are trying to keep me down…[but] as sure as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine.” Ultimately, he doesn’t, but when we hear him sing those words, we believe he will.
Featuring a new 4K scan of the original 16mm negative, Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray showcases The Harder They Come in all its grainy, gritty glory. The film’s rich color palette—the deep greens of the forest, the bright yellows of Jimmy Cliff’s wardrobe—truly pop without ever seeming oversaturated. Slight imperfections in the original negative, including subtle scratches and flecks of dust, are rightly preserved, emphasizing the film’s scrappy, low-budget origins. The dialogue has always been troublesome for non-Jamaican audiences due to the thick local patois spoken by most of the characters, but the disc’s sharp audio, available in stereo and DTS-HD 5.1, at least reproduce these intricate vocal inflections with maximum fidelity. Naturally, the highlight of the film’s audio design is its bouncy reggae soundtrack, which bursts forth from the speakers with sparkling clarity and a deep bass presence. The film has simply never looked nor, more importantly, sounded so good.
Shout’s extraordinarily thorough collector’s edition features a dense array of extras, making it without a doubt the definitive release of this cult film. The highlight of the set is undoubtedly an entire disc devoted to Henzell’s second feature, the never-released No Place Like Home, a biting attack on the touristization of Jamaica’s countryside. Shout has also provided a feature on the restoration of this lost film, as well as four separate features on Perry Henzell (covering his life and career, his legacy, his home and film production center, and his family). Cliff biographer David Katz provides an incisive, though stiltedly delivered, audio commentary for The Harder They Come, and the package also includes a host of extras devoted to the film, including documentaries on the making of the film, its international success, the cast, and the production crew, as well as a feature providing an in-depth anatomy of three specific scenes. The set is rounded out by archival interviews with Henzell, Cliff, and producer Arthur Gorson, a music video, a TV performance, a new interview with Ridley Scott, and a featurette on the legendary recording facility featured in the film, Dynamic Sound Studios.
This three-disc package not only showcases the film in all its audio-visual glory, but also provides a comprehensive look at Perry Henzell’s life and career.
Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bob Charlton, Winston Stona, Lucia White, Volair Johnson, Beverly Anderson, Clover Lewis, Elijah Chambers, Prince Buster Director: Perry Henzell Screenwriter: Perry Henzell, Trevor D. Rhone Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 1972 Release Date: August 20, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Time may have been surprisingly kind to Cruising, but that’s at least in part because it’s also been slow to be kind to the LGBT community.
After William Friedkin’s Cruising spent the better part of the aughts as the subject of earnest, if guarded, revisionist critique, how does the film hold up in our current era of representational politics and trigger warnings? And why does it feel like how you answer that question will determine which side pocket you keep your handkerchief in? The gay side of Film Twitter had previously treated Friedkin’s 1980 ode to fisting, frottage, and flash cuts with a level of curiosity nearly equal to the fury of the disco era’s gay community. What currency could an undercover police officer’s punk-disco battle with the monsters in his closet possibly have when held against the ironic sense that an avowed sexual assaulter with a fondness for golden showers will soon be the one to usher in a rollback of LGBT gains at every level? But in its day, Cruising was essentially accused of sanctioning gay murder in the same sense that Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill was thought to justify rape. (De Palma had initially considered adapting Cruising before apparently realizing how much he would rather work in his element: high heels, venereal disease, and Park Avenue whores.)
But at least Friedkin and Warner Bros. thought to tack on a defensive statement before Cruising (at least during its original run) that read “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world,” which admittedly proves they knew exactly how thin a line they were skirting. It’s still fascinating to weigh the film’s still-volatile reputation against the current political climate—as well as the current state of gay cinema.
For all its bad judgment, questionable portrayals, and arrogant artsploitation aims, Cruising is what Brokeback Mountain and all but a small handful of eternally rewarding fringe gay movies (Stranger by the Lake, In a Year of 13 Moons, most everything by Tsai Ming-liang) are not: an interesting film. If its homophobia is also in contrast with Brokeback Mountain’s purported lack of it, well, no one said art (or even faux-art) went down easy. Just ask John Waters, who put the words “the life of a heterosexual is a sick and boring lifestyle” into the snaggle-toothed mouth of Edith Massey years before Cruising got so many dicks bent out of shape.
Cruising, based on a book inspired by a series of murders that would in later years be classified as hate crimes, had to answer for a lot of unfair expectations. Chief among those is the burden of being one of the first major studio pictures to present gay sexuality on screen—as opposed to the more innocuous gay “identities” of the characters from Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band and its Friedkin adaptation. Firsts are always in some measure definitive, and the reservations of those who weren’t portrayed accurately by Cruising are understandable in light of the film’s implication that each and every last gay male in the tri-state area fell into three groups: leather daddies packing cans of Crisco, mincing transsexual snitches, or sweet-natured eunuchs caught in between, doomed—because of their unwillingness to fly their freak flag—to spend their miserable, artistic existence in solitude. (I left out a fourth archetype, but since that would be the predatory murderer demographic, I don’t imagine including that to pump up the diversity quotient would appease Cruising’s detractors.)
Some of the film’s objectionable presuppositions can be dismissed, others not. In the former camp is the notion that the adjustment of the sexual alignment of Steve Burns (Al Pacino) emerges from having spent a few nights pumping his arms on the grimy dance floors of the S&M clubs. He frequently rushes back from his stakeout apartment on Christopher Street to have sex with his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen). As the film goes on, he appears to engage in increasingly rougher sex, and at one point seems to need to hear that no-wave beat in his head to get in the mood with her. While to some this is a flagrant demonstration of the insidious, seductive allure of homosexuality that’s passed like vampirism, I think Friedkin’s scenario is far more interested in examining the fragility of undercover policemen’s identity.
That Steve’s crisis is held against the idea that homosexuals could be as traditionally macho as heterosexuals is almost accidentally serendipitous, at least as far as the plot is concerned. It’s not necessarily Friedkin’s fault that a few gay men took the baton of that newfound machismo and shoved it too far. A tad less forgivable on Friedkin’s part, though, is the outcome of Steve’s crisis (which is probably about as much worth a spoiler alert as is the theory that AIDS may have been contracted among some members of the film’s cast, and on camera at that). Much as Friedkin tries to put a cute question mark on his coda a la The French Connection, you’d have to be pretty desperate for ambiguity to not assume Steve ends up knifing the one gay man he could have brought himself to love. Now, I’m as squeamish over the mechanisms of fisting as the next guy, but it’s hard to imagine any sane non-fundie with half a wit could reason that all acts of male-on-male penetration are equal, be they consensual or homicidal.
The politics of homosexuality in America are in a continuous wrestling match with the societal standards of heterosexuality. Every policy, every attitude, every lifestyle choice is made in reaction to the standard of hetero monogamy. The still new wrinkle of legalized same-sex marriage only served to heighten the internal debate among LGBT activists, some of whom fear gays will forget about all other subjugated rights intended them by our nation’s forefathers so long as they now get to thrash the springs of their marital beds, that sex between two men (or two women, though you wouldn’t know it even exists listening to media talking points) would be dirty until the act of filing taxes jointly validated it for everyone.
Does the queasy canonization of Cruising at this moment when political correctness is on its deathbed have more impact from a cultural standpoint than it does from an aesthetic one? Unquestionably. No matter what any number of critics will tell you, the aesthetic values of re-released films are rendered negligible by their cachet as time capsules. In that sense, the appalling horror some may glean from Cruising isn’t its cold, clinical efficiency as both a thriller and a queer-baiting manifesto of hate. Its truly unnerving quality is that its existence is a brutal reminder from the past that homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, and that any attempt to reconcile the difference will only breed resentment, confusion, and violence. Or perhaps it will only lead to more lame Hallmark movies of the week like Love, Simon.
Much like in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, minus the rush of blurry, neon-lit impressionism, the look of Cruising walks a fine line between precision and sleaze, and if there’s a downside to Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray package, it’s that the restoration errs to the side of too enthusiastically cleaning up images that beg to remain grimy and wet. It’s not quite shaved to the skin, but it’s often a pretty tight, tidy landing strip. At the same time, Cruising practically trips over itself in presenting topics, scenes, and settings in a mainstream film that had rarely been given such prominence before, so maybe the vaguely over-lit nature is actually truer to the film’s true character. In any case, it’s frequently shiny as an undercover cop’s fresh Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket. And it’s even still outclassed by the, as critic Mark Kermode calls it, “tactile” sound presentation, with every creak of leather, every rattle of the handcuffs, every murmur of Jack Nitzsche’s moody score enveloping viewers like the crescendos of a particularly well-done popper training video.
Normally, cruisers would scoff at returning to the same well twice, but since the deluxe edition DVD’s choice extras were so well-done the first time around, it’s not quite a faux pas for Arrow to have licensed the lot of them. On the one hand, a newly recorded commentary track with William Friedkin and Mark Kermode all but renders the old solo commentary track by Friedkin redundant. Friedkin repeats a lot of the same observations and anecdotes in the new track, but Kermode smartly steers the conversation in new directions. Among some of the most eye-opening tidbits, Cruising was at one time earlier in the ‘70s earmarked as a project for Steven Spielberg. Talk about close encounters. Equally delicious is Friedkin referring to Al Pacino as the “least prepared actor” he’s ever worked with. Does Friedkin’s explanation of why he inserted subliminal shots of anal sex among the film’s murder sequences come off as hopelessly clueless? Intensely. But one comes away from these commentary tracks understanding just how the final product ended up so confused and contradictory. More clear-eyed of the set’s recycled extras are the two featurettes by Laurent Bouzereau, which detail both the production’s technical aspects as well as the controversy it has existed within ever since it’s very inception. Putting a nice set of aviators atop the package is a booklet with observations from critic F.X. Feeney. While not nearly every bandana on the rack gets included in the bonus features, it boasts a more than adequate starter pack.
Time may have been surprisingly kind to Cruising, but that’s at least in part because it’s also been agonizingly slow to be kind to the LGBT community.
Cast: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Barton Heyman, Gene Davis, Arnaldo Santana, Larry Atlas, Allan Miller, Sonny Grosso, Ed O’Neill Director: William Friedkin Screenwriter: William Friedkin Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Release Date: August 20, 2019 Buy: Video
This release should help to bolster the reputation of Ermler’s singular and surprisingly funny Soviet propaganda film in the West.
Fridrikh Ermler’s 1929 silent propaganda film Fragment of an Empire bears the marks of a transitional work, employing as it does the Soviet montage editing style that was popularized in the mid-1920s while also embracing the grounded socialist realism that would take hold among Russian filmmakers in the 1930s. And the tension between its styles is apt, given that the core narrative conflict of the film brings into focus the opposing values and ideals of tsarist Russia and the Communist Russia that rose in its wake.
At the center of Ermler’s fable-esque tale is Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin), a soldier who was left shell-shocked by his service in the Russian imperial army. Stuck in a small countryside village in a PTSD-induced haze for a decade, the young man is unaware of who he is and of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the rise of communism. But a series of aural and visual cues stirs him from his reverie—a familiar face on a train, the ringing of a bell, the medallion bearing the image of Cross of St. George that hangs from his neck, and the rapid movement of a sewing machine that reminds him of the firing of a machine gun—and soon he starts to grapple with the ghosts of his past and a world completely transformed by the revolution.
The film frames Filimonov’s journey as a gradual awakening, but as Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” And Ermler, it seems, wholeheartedly agrees with that sentiment. The unbidden memories that come rushing back to Filimonov tell a harrowing story, via jagged editing and expressionistic flashbacks, of his wartime exploits. His memories are surrealistic nightmares that Ermler suggests must be processed, then purged, before Filimonov can be born anew and become susceptible to communist influence.
One particularly haunting scene finds Filimonov on an empty battlefield, prostrating in front of a giant crucifix with a figure of Christ wearing a gas mask, before both man and religious icon are crushed by a tank. Another dreamlike sequence involves two soldiers, one German and one Russian, confronting each other on a battlefield, only to realize they’re the same person (Filimonov is in both uniforms) and were only driven to fight by power-hungry officers and politicians on either side of an ideological conflict. Here, Ermler not only evokes the horrors of war, but symbolically links religion and war to the imperialist leanings of the tsar, bluntly arguing that the main function of both is to oppress the working class.
To Ermler’s credit, he doesn’t demonize everything about the old order. When Filimonov returns home to a dramatically changed St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad), it’s his former employer (Viacheslav Viskovskii), a man fired from his job and replaced by a factory committee, who offers him compassion and enough money to get by. But ultimately, Ermler sees men like these, however kind, as counterproductive to the goals of communism. Filimonov’s yearning for the familiar comforts and routines of tsarist Russia makes him feel out of step with the times, and as he traverses the Russia of the present, Ermler heightens the man’s disorientation with a montage of high-speed trolleys, fast-paced factories, women in short skirts, and strange constructivist architecture. For Ermler, Filimonov is essentially a child who must learn the value of shedding his sense of self for the good of society.
As dark as the film’s first half is, Ermler mines much humor from Filimonov’s difficulties in navigating the ins and outs of the newly minted Soviet Union, particularly once he returns to the factory he used to work at before the revolution. Across scenes that depict the man confused by how to operate the factory’s modern machinery, repeatedly calling people “Mr. Fabcom” (unaware that Fabcom is the name of the new factory committee), and gripped with fear over complaining to his superiors about work conditions, Ermler taps into the absurdities of the formalities and servility embedded in the old, classist order. All the while, he lauds the supposed egalitarian nature of communism, declaring it inherently and unequivocally just.
Late in the film, after Filimonov is taught about collective ownership and accountability, he begins to embrace the joys of communism. Ermler cuts to a heavily symbolic shot of his hero in the shower, where his face is comically covered in soapsuds. Filimonov emerges clean, with his shaggy beard now trimmed, his clothes more fitted, and his hair combed—all the distinctive traits of his former self completely sanded down. No longer is Filimonov a “sad fragment of an empire,” which is how, at one point, he describes himself and others who suffered during the war and the revolution. For him and Ermler, the best way to rebuild is to become a faceless but productive cog in a machine.
Flicker Alley’s transfer, sourced from a recent restoration of the film’s original 35mm nitrate print, is luminous. The contrast of the image is particularly remarkable, especially in the first act, which is filled with beautifully rendered and expressive shadows and pools of light, which dominate the wartime flashback scenes. The sharpness of the image is equally impressive, offering rich textures and clarity in the actors’ faces, as well as in the objects and machines that populate many of the film’s montages. Some fluctuations in sharpness and instances of damage and debris are visible throughout, but given the state of the original materials, these are minor complaints. Both the new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius and an adaptation of Vladimir Deshovov’s 1929 piano score, performed by Daan van den Hurk, are beautifully recorded and resonant accompaniments to the film.
The commentary track with Russian film historian and curator Peter Bagrov and film restorer Robert Byrne provides unique insight into the efforts behind the lengthy restoration process of Fragment of an Empire, with the two men discussing the compilation of montage lists, the discovery of missing shots and scenes from various prints from around the world, and the creation of new intertitles. Along with delving into the nuts and bolts of film restoration, they talk at length about Fridrikh Ermler and his film’s place in Russian cinematic history, as well as provide a nuanced reading of the film that helps to place it in its historical context. The 15-minute “Restoring Fragment of an Empire” serves as an excellent companion piece to the commentary, showing side-by-side footage of the unrestored and restored versions of three different scenes. The package also comes with a beautiful booklet with numerous stills from the film, statements by the composers of both scores, and a lengthy essay “A Masterpiece of Russia Cinema” that explores Ermler’s thematic intents, his often-extreme working methods, and his contentious relationship with actor Fedor Nikitin, with whom he worked four times.
Flicker Alley’s gorgeous transfer should help to bolster the reputation of Fridrikh Ermler’s singular and surprisingly funny Soviet propaganda film in the West.
Cast: Fyodor Nikitin, Lyudmila Semyonova, Valeri Solovtsov, Yakov Gudkin, Sergei Gerasimov, Varvara Myasnikova Director: Fridrikh Ermler Screenwriter: Ekaterina Vinogradskaya, Fridrikh Ermler Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video
Jane Campion initially conceived of her adaptation of author Janet Frame’s series of three autobiographies, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, as a TV miniseries. Only into production did the New Zealand Film Commission suggest a theatrical release, apparently because the biopic is the singular genre that looks, feels, and acts like episodic television and still plays nominally well in movie theaters. The film, named after the volume of Frame’s memoirs that recounts her elongated residence in a psychiatric ward, is no doubt a heartfelt tribute to a soft-spoken, melancholic writer from a director who claims to cherish her work as being very important in her own development. And though An Angel at My Table is shackled to that unyielding, difficult narrative structure of most biopics, this quality also works to the film’s benefit, as Frame’s life is unspooled with the same sort of scenes-as-brushstrokes impressionism of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon.
Still, whereas Im’s film becomes increasingly restless and elliptical as it goes on, culminating in one of the most poetic representations of an artist stepping into legend (via a kiln), An Angel at My Table begins at the pinnacle of Campion’s whimsicality before settling into a mundane processional march. Janet, first seen as a baby covering her face trying to deflect her approaching mother’s bosom, followed by a panorama of her as a knobby-kneed pre-teen against the rolling New Zealand landscape, goes through her early childhood as an outcast at school. She’s from a poor family, has poor hygiene (later in her teens, she let her teeth rot brown), and when she offers her entire class chewing gum bought with money she stole from her father’s woolen pocket, her teacher reveals her thievery to the class, who then sneers.
Which is to say nothing of the untamable patch of ginger cotton growing from Frame’s scalp, which remains a constant in her life as she moves from the university to the asylum to a successful writing career complete with grants to travel to Paris and Spain. An Angel at My Table traces Frame’s life across more than 30 years, and she’s portrayed by three different actresses (in order of age: Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox) whose remarkable resemblance to each other extends beyond their appearance and mannerisms. They seamlessly pass the psychological baton and collectively sculpt a convincing portrait of growth.
Campion’s knack for intimate yet paradoxically epic artistry nibbles off Laura Jones’s bite-sized scene-sketches of loneliness and makes entire meals of them, swallowing cast and location up alike in an effort to centralize the three actresses playing Frame, and to the point that even the most major supporting characters (her older sister, an American lover in Ibiza) are delegated to the sidelines. Given the manner in which Frame’s wild crown of fuzz takes up the upper part of the frame across the film’s many close-ups, she comes to resemble a kind of hourglass, suggesting (however inadvertently) the time that she struggles to remember and catalog in writing her own memoirs, as well as the time she lost in a mental institution, where she endured no less than 200-odd electroshock treatments. Campion’s film comes up short, however, in never satisfactorily illustrating the importance or character of Frame’s writing, which, while lauded for its selflessness, can’t survive the filmmaker’s tightly honed individualist scrutiny without occasionally lapsing into solipsism.
The varied hues of Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography really come alive on Criterion’s Blu-ray, which perfectly renders every shade of green contained within the verdant, rolling fields of New Zealand. Also strong across exterior and interior scenes, even the mostly dimly lit ones, is the contrast between characters’ more colorful attire and the naturalistic browns and yellows of their surroundings. Campion’s subtly expressionistic techniques, such as the fluctuations of light that rhyme with the changes in Frame’s state of mind, are easier to appreciate here than they were on the previous standard-definition release. The soundtrack balances the film’s rich ambient noise, so crucial in conveying how Frame is overwhelmed with anxiety, in the surround channels while keeping the dialogue clear and crisp in the center channel.
This disc’s extras have all been ported over from Criterion’s original DVD. The commentary track finds Jane Campion, Stuart Dryburgh, and Kerry Fox—all recorded separately—discussing different aspects of the production, from Fox’s approach to her character to Drybrugh’s use of light to convey emotion. A brief making-of documentary features behind-the-scenes clips and red-carpet footage from the film’s New Zealand premiere, while an archival interview finds the press-averse Janet Frame, in promoting her first autobiography, speaking candidly about her childhood and the evolution of her writing. A series of incredibly short deleted scenes are also included; they’re lovely, impressionistic glimpses into the characters’ time-passing activities, even though they don’t illuminate anything that can’t be reasoned from the film’s final cut. An accompanying booklet contains excerpts from Frame’s An Autobiography, as well as an essay by Amy Taubin, who delves into the film’s intimate, empathetic portrayal of the author.
Jane Campion upends staid genre convention with an impressionistic approach to character, and this disc’s gorgeous new transfer showcases the film’s understated beauty.
Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, K.J. Wilson Director: Jane Campion Screenwriter: Laura Jones Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 158 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 6, 2019 Buy: Video, Book
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