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Paris, Texas on Criterion

Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. on his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).

Travis and Hunter at the crossroads of the 20th century frontier

Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.

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Starcrash: Space Opera Designer Knockoff, Italian Style, plus Crippled Avengers Unite! – DVDs of the Week

Starcrash (Shout! Factory)

This shamelessly and fabulously derivative Italian space opera is both the most ridiculous and the most irresistible of all the Star Wars knock-offs of the late seventies and eighties. Caroline Munro spends much of the film in a black latex bikini as the great outlaw starship pilot Stella Star, who is arrested by space speed cops, sentenced to life in a slave planet, masterminds an escape and is pardoned by the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) in exchange for traveling to the Haunted Star to find the Phantom Planet of the rebellious Count Zarth Arn (a chubby Joe Spinell). And that’s just the first few minutes.

Caroline Munro is Stella Star

The introductory shots echo the opening of Star Wars, with the camera caressing cut-rate space ship miniatures against a galactic backdrop lit up like Christmas tree lights. There’s an android sidekick with a Texas accent (not a Black Hole reference—that came out a year later—merely a lucky coincidence), alien civilizations (“Look! Amazons on horseback!”) and barbarian planets, holographic messages, hyperspace travel and a light saber, not to mention stop-motion robot guards animated with more love than talent and a Death Star substitute with five flaps that look like fingers on a steel glove and fold down into a fist to fire. But the set designs, costumes and psychedelic color are right out of sixties Italian genre cinema. Marjoe Gortner is prissy and unnaturally cheerful as her alien navigator, a mix of Luke Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Mr. Spock, and David Hasselhoff makes his entrance in a gold mask that looks borrowed from Zardoz, but Plummer brings dignity and gravitas to his part (even when booming the line “Imperial Battleship, stop the flow of time!”) and John Barry contributes a romantic-tinged score, less epic and adventurous than the John Williams but quite lovely.

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John Cassavetes and Citizen McCain

Machine Gun McCain (Blue Underground)

John Cassavetes was doing his Orson Welles thing—by that I mean acting in whatever movie paid well so he could finance his own, personal productions—when he took the lead in an Italian mob picture/heist movie hybrid shot in large part on location in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His presence is defining, or perhaps redefining, in the film. Strolling out of prison with not so much a swagger as a comfortable amble, giving his farewells to inmates and guards alike and bantering with an estranged, slickly outfitted son who arranged for his early release, we immediately face a singularly independent operator about to bump up against the conformity and command of the syndicate.

John Cassavetes: Hank McCain sizes up the situation

Cassavetes is Hank McCain, an old-school criminal in the new order, sprung specifically to rob a Vegas casino that West Coast mob honcho Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk) is trying to muscle his way into, but McCain is not really a team player. Which really complicates things when Adamo gets called on the carpet by the New York godfathers. It’s not just that Vegas is out of Adamo’s territory. The casino that he’s putting the squeeze on is secretly owned by the East Coast mob. When Adamo tries to call it off in typical mob fashion (by putting a hit out on McCain), it just makes the lone wolf McCain determined to go it alone.

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Orlando and Orfeu – DVDs of the Week

Orlando (Sony)

“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” So commands Queen Elizabeth I to the androgynously beautiful young aristocrat Orlando (Tilda Swinton), the boy she has taken for her lover, and so he obeys, remaining unchanged over four centuries, or almost unchanged. One morning some hundred years later, the lad looks into the mirror while dressing and realizes he has transformed into a woman. “Same person, no difference at all,” she muses. “Just a different sex.” But true as that may be, her social and legal identity is completely redefined.

Tilda Swinton: Orlando transformed

Tilda Swinton was largely unknown to the filmgoing world when she took on the role of fair, ageless young man who transforms into an ageless woman over the centuries and her androgynous looks evoke 17th century portraits of young male aristocrats. The Oscar-winning actress is of course far more famous today and the visual shock of the transformation no longer so surprising, but the journey is just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected.

Filmmaker Sally Potter combines the experimental tools and feminist approach of her earlier films with art-house style and more conventional narrative storytelling to find the cinematic counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s writing in this 1992 adaptation of Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Visually, Potter recreates four centuries of British cultural history in painterly images and austerely constructed settings, from Orlando’s lavish manor to the frozen Thames of 17th century London to 18th century Constantinople, in Leningrad and in Uzbekistan. Narratively she plays with conventions and our expectations. Orlando speaks to the audience in brief, often witty asides and decades pass over the course of a single fluid sequence or in a cut. Potter craftily casts queer icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, who plays the part without a hint camp, bringing a sly dignity to the role while also foregrounding the complicated swirl of gender and sexual identity in the film. Within this slightly skewed perspective, the flouncy, flamboyant male fashions and long curly wigs donned for formal meetings and social occasions take an a whole new connotation, especially as Potter explores issues of male friendship and companionship.

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Box Set Bonanza: Flynn, Novak, Kurosawa, Guitry & Walsh, plus Elvis at 75 – DVDs of the Week

What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.

Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)

The Story of a Cheat

How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.

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Pandora’s Technicolor Box and More Shameless Knock-offs From Corman: DVDs of the Week

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.

All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.

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Art and Commerce: The Red Shoes and Galaxy of Terror / Forbidden World – DVDs of the Week

The Red Shoes (Criterion)

There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese strives for the same kind of subjective perspective with his own style and sensibility.)

Invitation to the dance: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.

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Silent Nights: Keaton and DeMille – DVDs of the Week

Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley)

This is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.

Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart
Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart

Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.

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The “Blu” Leopard, New York Confidential and Night Train to Munich: Blu-ray/DVDs of the Week

The Leopard (Criterion)

This is what Blu-ray was made for.

I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.

Burt Lancaster leads the dance
Burt Lancaster leads the dance

I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.

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Antonioni’s Red Desert and Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’ile – DVDs of the Week

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the modern landscape

Red Desert (Criterion)

The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.

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Close-Up: Role Playing for Abbas Kiarostami

[parts of this were originally published in the Seattle Weekly, February 24, 1999]

In 1989 in Tehran, a movie mad unemployed printer named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family he had fooled was deep in rehearsals for his next “film” when they alerted authorities of their suspicions. “I loved playing that part,” confesses Sabzian in his trial. When the judge asks the Ahankah family if they will drop the charges in light of Sabzian’s apologies and explanations, one of the sons replies “I get the impression he’s still playing a role.”

Ali Sabzian in Close-Up
Ali Sabzian in "Close-Up"

These moments from the documented trial resonate through Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film of the event. Kairostami, best known to American audiences for Through the Olive Trees and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, read about the story in the papers and convinced Sabzian and the Ahankah family to play themselves in a dramatic recreation. The case itself is hardly sensationalistic. Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankah on a bus and passed himself off as Makhmalbaf (the scene is recreated by the participants in the middle of the film and establishes an unusual bond between the two—when the police come to arrest him in a later recreation she steps up to stop them). It’s simple bit of role playing that Sabzian pushes into an elaborate charade when he proposes that the family act in his next film and becomes a frequent visitor to their house. Intercut with these extended scenes is the documentary record of the real trial (which Kiarostami convinced the judge to let him not only film but in some ways shape for the camera) and a series of on-camera interviews. What emerges isn’t so much a merging of the two forms as an inquiry into the very nature of cinematic representation.

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Journey to Berlin and Mystery Train to Memphis – DVDs of the Week

Divided Heaven (First Run)

Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (1964), his adaptation of the novel by Christa Wolf (no relation), was made during the brief “thaw” of the sixties, when socially daring and politically critical films were allowed to be produced. I find it amazing it got made at all even in that relatively tolerant period, where the degree of freedom can be considered lenient only in comparison to the restrictions of the past (and, as it turned out, the near future). Renate Blume stars in the coming of age film set in 1950s East Germany and she’s introduced in a state of crippling depression, suffering from “nervous break,” according to the doctor. “Thus begins our story,” informs the narrator, making this the narrative baseline: not the ideals of socialism in action, but the disillusionment of a once idealistic young woman.

The idealized past: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"
Tomorrow belongs to them: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"

The flashbacks take us through a whirlwind romance with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious (and older) chemical engineer with a great future and high hopes, and her own “promotion” to a teaching college (and the attendant party meetings that will ultimately pass judgment on her—and everyone else’s—commitment to the socialist ideals). While she takes a summer position building railroad cars, she watches the veteran socialist true believer, both an idealist and a realist, scapegoated for production problems and replaced by a young manager who comes in brimming with socialist slogans but little understanding of humans under pressure. Meanwhile Manfred watches science takes a back seat to politics and becomes increasingly cynical about the ideals he once embraced.

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Spartacus on Blu-ray — Just what is “good enough”?

Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus: Do I look waxy to you?

But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.

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