DVD Discoveries and Rediscoveries 2009

A sexy giallo thriller
"A sexy giallo thriller"

My oh my how spoiled we get. Once upon a time, we cult hounds would hunt through neighborhood video stores to uncover off-brand VHS releases of obscure Italian horror films and dubbed editions of foreign movies, which we would devour no matter how grainy the transfer or censored the print. Now, more than ten year into the DVD age, we have become so… demanding. Uncut prints. Restored masters. Clean soundtracks. And widescreen films should be anamorphic. Otherwise, they look soft and fuzzy when blown up to fill our widescreen HD home theater screens.

The following films are not the necessarily of the finest video or audio quality, but they are all much appreciated releases of forgotten, unavailable or otherwise enigmatic foreign rarities and cult items with irresistible (credentials). Some of these films I knew by reputation only, some I had never even known of, until the DVD release introduced me to the glories of these films. There are surely many other films that slipped by me this year, but these were my discoveries of 2009. This is why I love DVD.

5. Lookin’ to Get Out: Director’s Cut (Warner) – Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Ashby was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it’s hardly a lost masterpiece but it is a revelation of sorts, a shaggy dog gambling caper with characters whose eccentricities are so passionately embraced by the performers that they come to unexpected life. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything.

The plot is a completely unconvincing series of coincidences but the dynamism of the characters and their friendships is marvelous. Voight and Young are like kids when they get excited, immature but utterly devoted to one another, and Young delivers the defining line with such unforced conviction that it won me over completely: “I don’t want your money. Alex, he does. I can’t help that, but he’s my friend and you take the good with the bad.” Ann-Margret is touching as a woman from Voight’s past whose romantic idealism is tempered by her growing realization that her old lover is completely unsuitable as a father to her daughter. Ashby’s indulgence allows the film get lost in comic chases and brawls (not to mention the crazy plot involving mistaken identity and a washed up gambler played by Bert Remsen) but he always returns to the characters, who are the real story of the film. You can tell what footage has been restored by the speckling on the film (it appears to be from a workprint, but the wear is minor and the footage is otherwise sharp and has strong color) and it’s all character stuff, the very thing that makes the film work. But, lordy, is that eighties synthesizer score painful.

4. Gradiva (Mondo Macabro) – The final film from nouvelle roman pioneer turned film director Alain Robbe-Grillet is a kinky, highly erotic and narratively surreal tale of art, fantasy, sex and storytelling. James Wilby is a French art historian in Morocco studying the work of Delacroix who discovers rare erotic sketches that may or may not be lost images of Delacroix’s mythical lover Gradiva. Arielle Dombasle first appears as a writer who appears to be determining his fate with her story, but may in fact be the ghost of Delacroix’s lover or a fantasy figure in a bizarre dreamworld that keeps smudging the lines of reality. Or perhaps all three. Wilby wanders into harems and S&M dungeons and sex shows high on some mystery liquid passed off as a painkiller for his toothache; he slips back and forth from waking dreams to haunting nightmares to hallucinatory visions almost as often as Robbe-Grillet does. It’s a heady piece of modernist erotica by way of a guilt-ridden fever dream they may or may not include a murder and/or a suicide but most certainly features explicit nudity and bondage imagery. I keep wondering whose fantasies we’re seeing here: art historian Wilby’s, creative memoirist Dombasle’s or filmmaker Robbe-Grillet’s. Features a half-hour interview with the late writer/director and onscreen production notes. In French with English subtitles.

3. Cairo Station (Typecast Releasing) – The 1958 breakthrough film by Egyptian auteur Youseff Chahine plays like a neo-realist film by way of a psychological thriller transplanted to the bustling central station in Cairo. A student of international cinema, Chahine energizes the human drama with cinematic invention (including a rock and roll) and sets it against a lively cross-section of working-class lives and a the swirling backdrop of social activity and political action. Chahine himself plays a crippled newsboy whose obsession with a sultry lemonade seller builds up a head of lust that finally explodes when she rejects his advances. It’s a landmark of Egyptian cinema and a vital, vibrant revelation making its American DVD debut (the cover proclaims it a 50th Anniversary Edition). The archival print is acceptable but shows signs of wear and damage and the transfer has the awkward visual stutter of a video transfer from a European PAL master. Includes the 1991 short film Cairo as Seen by Chahine, a kind of introspective film essay with Chahine playing himself: a director pondering how to make a film to capture his love of his city. In Egyptian with hard (unremovable) English subtitles. At this point, it’s available exclusively at the AFD website but will be available via Amazon later in 2010.

2. L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Important Thing is to Love) (Mondo Vision) – The first French feature by Polish expatriate Andrzej Zulawski is a romantic drama of frustrated desires, frail relationships and explosive passions directed with understated intimacy. Romy Schneider strips away the glamour to play an aging actress with a failed career—she’s been reduced to making sex horror films and she melts down on the set out of shame and self-disgust. (Schneider won a Cesar for her emotionally fragile performance.) Fabio Testi is the photographer who becomes entranced by her beauty and vulnerability and is torn between his desire for an affair (which she freely offers), his need for genuine emotional commitment (which she refuses) and his affection for her husband, an equally fragile figure with a tenuous grasp on reality. Klaus Kinski is absolutely fabulous as a German actor in Paris with a joie de vivre, a passion for his craft and a volatile nature that erupts over a bad notice. Mondo Vision delivers a beautifully mastered DVD with a gorgeous image (this is easily the most carefully and lovingly produced disc on this list). Andrzej Zulawski contributes a thoughtful and conscientious English-language commentary track and a 16-minute video interview (in French with English subtitles). Mondo Vision packages it in an elegant digipak and slipsleeve with a beautifully produced (if rather sloppily written) glossy booklet

1. Three by Tinto Brass: Deadly Sweet / The Howl (L’Urlo) / Attraction (Nerosubianco) (Cult Epics) – Tinto Brass is remembered chiefly for the notorious and grotesque Caligula, the X-rated Roman epic produced by Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione (who also shot addition scenes that were clumsily inserted into the already sleazy spectacle), and a handful of lighter erotic romps. Cult Epics has dutifully put those more commercial romps on DVD, but this year their excavation of the career of Italian Eurotica auteur digs deep into the sixties, before his turn into sexploitation and erotica, and they’ve uncovered some fascinating artifacts.

Deadly Sweet (1967) is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin (the Swedish sex doll of Candy) at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come: Brass embraces the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film. The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere (Both, of course, are dubbed into Italian). It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

Attraction (Nerosubianco) is a 1968 “Psychedelic Pop Art Experience” (as the poster promises) about a beautiful married woman (Anita Sanders) who steps out for a lazy stroll on a sunny London afternoon and ends up flirting with and fantasizing about a handsome stranger (a smartly stylish Terry Carter, aka Colonel Tigh on the original Battlestar Galactica). There really isn’t a story here, merely a succession of surreal erotic daydreams and music-video digressions (performed by the band Freedom) as she walks through parks, window shops along busy streets, navigates the subway and drinks in the hipster youth culture, while the stream-of-consciousness narration works its way through the sexual politics of the age (a mix of feminism and erotic fantasy). It’s like a rock and roll art film by way of a continental skin flick, psychedelic and sexy, with pop art posters and Guido Crepax comics interspersed with a few newsreel clips of Vietnam and the Holocaust to give it progressive political cred. Which makes you wonder: just who was the audience for this film? I don’t know, but it’s a trippy cultural document and a fun little diversion. This version is “presented by Radley Metzger” and you won’t believe the title he gave it for American release that appears on the opening credits.

The Howl (L’Urlo) is a surreal 1969 odyssey with runaway bride Tina Aumont wandering like Alice through a socio-political slapstick wonderland. She dumps her groom at the altar to run off with a handsome stranger after sharing nothing more than a glance and they both manage to change costumes with every scene change: she bouncing between mod outfits and funky hippy dresses, he in a prison outfit, then made up like a mime, then offering blessings from behind a priest’s frock. This self-conscious puncturing of culture and counter-culture could only have been made in the wake of Weekend and If…, Godard and Pasolini. Brass is no Godard, mind you – this is less political satire than sloppy Keystone Kops chaos with farcical political references, punctuations of cartoonish violence, bohemian color, cannibalism and oodles of nudity, without any discipline or sense of purpose – but it is an undeniably entertaining cultural artifact from the free-form frontier of the late fifties. Much of it seems to have been reworked in the dubbing booth, as the dubbing is haphazard to say the least and half the dialogue has little connection to the mouths on screen.

Be warned that these are hardly stellar editions. The print quality of Deadly Sweet is pretty good, Attraction is decent enough and The Howl is faded and worn, with scratches and grit throughout and damage at the reel ends. The mastering on all discs is weak: the image is hazy and colors slightly muddy, with video noise apparent in the darker scenes, and they have all been cropped (slightly but in some scene definitely noticeably) the 1.77 standard of widescreen TVs rather than their original theatrical ratios. But, as I remarked in the introduction, we have become spoiled. The fact that these artifacts exist at all is a wonder: they are, when all is said and done, fine at best and adequate at worst, and all feature commentary by Tinto Brass (whose accent is pretty thick and could use a subtitle track of its own).

(includes material previously published on seanax.com)