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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Silents Please: Lois Weber restored and ‘The Covered Wagon’ on Blu-ray

Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)

Milestone Films

Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillip Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.

Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 9

“Inspired by theoreticians such as the Jamaica-born, UK-based public intellectual Stuart Hall and the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as much as by avant-garde filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Derek Jarman, BAFC’s work blended cascading montage and complex sonic experimentation with personal reflections on race, memory, post-colony and migration, with the rigorous yet non-didactic interrogation of official, state-sanctioned national histories pertaining to such matters.” Ashley Clark’s 50+ page monograph on the UK’s Black Audio Film Collective, written for the True/False Film Festivals Neither/Nor series, is a fine history of the collective’s official 16 years, plus the influences that fed into it and the ones it left upon others.

Including analyses and directors’ statements for key works such as John Akomfrah’s Testament (“It locates beauty and emotional resonance in its sensitive exploration of what it means to be “home””) and Reece Augiste’s Twilight City (“When I first came upon Calvino’s work, and [Invisible Cities], I was completely blown away. It constructed a gateway through which I could begin to think about London as a historical city, as a metropolitan city, and a city that has meant a lot to the Caribbean subject”); interviews with Akomfrah (“You heard about this figure [“black youth”], but you didn’t think it had anything to do with you, and then—and everyone I’ve spoken to experienced this—there’s a mirror moment when you suddenly realize: fuck, they’re talking about me! At that Fanonian moment, you think, OK, either run further away to escape this doppelganger moment, or do the opposite, which is to head towards it, to claim it, to fuse with it, or essentially to make friends with it.”), Augiste, composer Trevor Mathison (“We didn’t want to rush into a big statement—that was the main thing. In the juxtaposition between the image and the sound, that’s where you get the statement.”), and onetime intern and current BFI Southbank head Gaylene Gould (“And I remember John and the company standing really firm in the face of all that criticism [that BAFC’s output was too experimental and needed a more commercial focus], from both sides. Their attitude was: what we’re doing is bigger than now; you cannot criticize a culture without changing the form. That’s a line they’ve always stayed true to.”) Via Mubi.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 2

“What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.” One imagines Kiarostami would have loved that one of the finest critical appreciations of his masterpiece A Taste of Cherry wound up taking the form of a fiction, Nicole Krauss’s Seeing Ershadi, about a disillusioned ballerina, a grieving actress, and the way both women are affected not just by the film but by the “gravity and a depth of feeling” displayed in the face of lead actor Homayoun Ershadi, with whom they both have a mysterious quasi-encounter.

The above was spotted by David Hudson, whose idea of pairing it up with Frank Mosley’s account of how he applied some key lessons Kiarostami offered in a workshop (“Do not dictate the story to your environment. Let your environment speak to you. Let it tell you the story. It will be more real, more authentic, more genuine.”) to his own film Casa de Mi Madre is so apt I’m stealing it here myself.

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Blu-ray: ‘Your Name,’ ‘Napping Princess,’ ‘In This Corner of the World’ from Japan

Your Name. (Funimation, Blu-ray, DVD)
Napping Princess (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
In This Corner of the World (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)

Funimation

Japanese animator and filmmaker Makoto Shinkai turns his own young adult novel into Your Name. (Japan, 2016), an animated feature that brings a fresh approach to the classic comic situation of body swapping.

In this story two high school students who have never met, a boy named Taki and a girl named Mitsuha, suddenly wake up in one another’s body and try to fake their way through a day in the life. They have no memory of the experience when they return to their own lives the next day but discover that they’ve lost a day and her friends have stories about their behavior they don’t remember. When it happens again and again, without warning or discernible rhyme or reason, they start leaving messages for one another through their smartphones. Then it stops just as suddenly as it began, but it’s just the beginning of a story that mixes metaphysics and mystery in a poetic story of two people who never meet yet change one another’s lives, even if they can’t remember the connection and only learn of it from notes left behind, an entire conversation that reaches across time and space. Taki uses the paintings that Mitsuha left behind to look for her. There’s a touch of science fiction to what otherwise seems like magic as it shifts into a kind of disaster movie.

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Blu-ray: ‘Tierra,’ ‘Vacas,’ ‘Red Squirrel’ – Three by Julio Medem

Olive Films
Olive Films

Vacas (Olive Films, Blu-ray, DVD)
Red Squirrel (Olive Films, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tierra (Olive Films, Blu-ray, DVD)

The vivid and lush films of Spain’s Julio Medem are as much about his country’s distinctive landscapes and natural wonders as they are about the restless and obsessive characters that wander through his world. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Sex and Lucia (2001) established him as a major international filmmaker, earning strong reviews and American theatrical releases, but they only confirmed what his early films had established: a gift for narrative games and visual puns, and a passionate embrace of fate, fantasy, and the illogical power of love, all woven through criss-crossing stories with recurring images and motifs that intertwine, blur, and transform through time. Now Olive Films presents his first three features, long out of print on DVD, on Blu-ray for the first time along with new DVD editions.

The cows in the title of Spanish director Julio Medem’s debut film Vacas (Spain, 1992) are the silent, implacable witnesses to the feuds and flirtations of two clans between the Carlist Wars of 1875 and the devastating Spanish Civil War in 1936.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 16

“The paradox, of course, was that while ripping itself free from genre conventions, Night of the Living Dead inadvertently established a new genre of its own. While refusing explanations and rationales in the face of real-world horrors, it helped open the way (with the contemporaneous Rosemary’s Baby) for the curious convergence of conspiracy theories and demonism in seventies cinema. But while it marked a breakthrough for independent movies—critics would no longer be so quick to write off filmmakers who worked in the provinces, or to snub pictures that seemed destined for the drive-in—Night of the Living Dead did not immediately elevate the career of the man who was its director, cocinematographer, editor, and cowriter.” Stuart Klawans rates Romero’s Night of the Living Dead sui generis—less distilling the mood of its times that presciently feeding the anarchic years of its rise to prominence, less summation of filmic horror traditions than a strange lope through various genres that finally culminates in a glimpse of terror Klawans can only find precedent for in Goya.

“Cinema hasn’t always been responsive, but it’s left some breadcrumbs; I just need to go back to find the trail. Hence this is the first entry in a new biweekly column in which I return to the hunt, back through the annals of my movie-watching, and try to uncover the queerness in the films of years past. The plan is to delve into one film per year per column, hopscotching through the decades, and hopefully discovering or rediscovering themes, images, and emotional registers in films I may not have previously noticed or fully analyzed or come to terms with. The queer twist could be obvious, right there on the surface, in a character or a plot turn; it could be hidden, barely perceptible in a casual viewing; or it could be completely imagined—but what is cinema if not an art of the imagination?” Michael Koresky launches a new, sure-to-be classic series of inquiries into queer cinema with Fosse’s paradoxically aggressively straight (though, and this is much of Koresky’s point, far from heteronormative) All That Jazz.

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Blu-ray: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ at 50

Criterion Collection

Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.

The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.

The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.

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Blu-ray: G.W. Pabst’s ‘Westfront 1918’ and ‘Kameradschaft’ on Criterion

Criterion Collection

Westfront 1918 (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Kameradschaft (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).

He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 9

The new issue of La Furia Umana contains an extensive dossier on Godard. There’s always the hazard of writing on Godard aping the form-breaking style of its subject without his poetry, and this collection is no exception. But there are highlights, including Rick Warner’s analysis of the director’s love of tennis and his rejection of standard narrative editing (“Tennis, as with its use in Pierrot, is a figure that evokes the apprehension of life, but life now is understood within the parameters of a full-on dialectical world outlook. Abstract and bordering on slapstick humor, these tennis scenes [in Vladimir and Rosa] mark a dialogical gap in the middle of an ongoing inquiry, a chaotic space within which new and more just thinking has a chance to arise, thinking inclined toward political action.”) and Michael Witt’s history of Godard and Miéville’s company Sonimage (“It revolved around an attempt to live out a working practice in which the divisions of labour and of the sexes were dissolved in a reflection on the implications of finding pleasure in one’s work whilst collaborating with a partner one loves (to love work, and work at love).”). There’s even visual tributes, two lovely watercolors by Stephanie Wuertz and Sasha Janerus (the second here) inspired by Godard’s films and excerpts from a witty “collage novel” treatment by Lewis Klahr (himself the subject of articles elsewhere in the issue) that recasts Contempt with Clark Kent and Metamorpho.

Another multi-lingual film magazine, The World of Apu, has released its second issue, offering an eclectic collection of works including Irish immigrant Maeve Rafferty’s identification with the movie and novel Brooklyn (“Perhaps all these things for which the film was criticized were what made it so easy for me to enter into on first viewing. I filled all the gaps with my re-lived emotions, memories, and the tucked-away knowledge from the novel that I’d already molded for my own purposes.”), poems inspired by Farewell My Concubine and Vive L’Amour (“Now there’s a close-up of her face. The girl is still in tears. A couple passes by in front of the bench/She is still in tears”), and even Maanasa Visweswaran’s interpretive dance homage to Mehta’s Earth. Via David Hudson.

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Blu-ray: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) is not your usual comic superhero origin story. It turns out that the majestic Amazon princess from a mythic island of female warriors was born of a Harvard psychologist and outspoken feminist who had a polyamorous relationship with two women who inspired the character and a passion for sexual bondage play.

The strange, fascinating story of Dr. William Moulton Marston, who created of the first female comic book superhero, was told by Jill Lepore in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” Angela Robinson’s film isn’t adapted from Lepore’s book but the basic story is the same. Some of the less appealing aspects of his life smoothed over and much of the personal drama fictionalized, and as comic book buffs will point out, some of the history of the four color character is simply wrong. But the film isn’t about the creation of a feminist icon as much as it is about the lives that inspired it and the culture it challenged.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 2

“The fragile nature of the Trucolor takes things even further, with the light subtly shifting from red to blue over single shots, creating a hallucinatory otherworldly effect that deepens every Bill Elliott plea, Bible in hand. The movie often looks more like a watercolor painting than a film, especially as characters move in and out of the moonlight or the fog.” Gina Telaroli’s preview of MoMA’s Scorsese-curated series on Republic Pictures offers short, observant introduction for some excellent B-picture work by the likes of Witney, Auer, and Dwan. But as Telaroli’s focus on each film’s color and appearance hints, the blocked images peppered throughout the article are best seen in her original context, as a trio of her exuberant, dizzying “image essays.”

“Such was the pace of Pabst’s production that although Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft were made in adjacent years, they were separated by The Threepenny Opera as well as a picture called Scandalous Eva. You could nevertheless see them as twins; if they were the only two films by Pabst you ever saw, you would have a fairly clear notion of his auteurial stamp: men in groups; societies in stress; tight, enclosed spaces; bitter, foolish, ordinary heroism. That he nevertheless doesn’t seem to have ever made another film quite like them further strengthens the idea that they are paired, one idea in two parts.” Luc Sante finds two of Pabst’s earliest explorations of sound film as arresting as any of his silents:  the WWI-set Westfront 1918 (“[the film] alternates fleeting pleasure with durable horror in a rhythm that gradually abbreviates the former and extends the latter”) and the mining-accident drama Kameradschaft (“When in the morning the French town arises and heads off to work, as one, on foot and bicycle, the parade of faces puts you in mind of any number of photographs by August Sander, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. They flit by in streams, and yet each is momentarily inscribed on our field of vision; they are what we have come to see as the faces of labor: thin, dignified, guarded, resigned, the impassive playthings of massive forces beyond their ken (as if we weren’t, with our consumer individuality)”).

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Blu-ray: Chasing the Dragon

Well Go

Chasing the Dragon (Well Go)

Directed by the insanely prolific Hong Kong action veteran Wong Jing, Chasing the Dragon (China, 2017) is the filmmaker’s crime epic, a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of two notorious gangsters who thrived in the rampant corruption enabled by Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The title is slang for heroin addiction and looking for the next high but for the two men at the center of the film, it’s about power and money and carving out the island nation’s answer to the American Dream through an insidious partnership between the police department and the underworld gangs.

Inspired by a true story, Chasing the Dragon stars Donnie Yen, the zen master of martial arts action, playing against type as Crippled Ho, the Chinese immigrant who became a drug kingpin, and Andy Lau as top cop Lui Lok / Lee Rock (a role he played in two previous films), who centralized the system of graft as he rose through the ranks. Lau provides the smooth charm as the ambitious cop who bristles under the arrogance and abuse of power by the British officials but knows better than to challenge their rule as he consolidates his control. Yen brings his usual understated warmth as Ho, underplaying the ruthlessness as he builds his power base, and he trades in the grace and majesty of his martial arts style for a scrappy, street-fighting approach.

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DVD: ‘Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France’ on Eclipse

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)

Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.

Eclipse Series 45

A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).

Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 26

James Quandt offers an alphabet of Robert Mitchum arcana, from Auteurs to Zanuck, Darryl F., with stops along the way of course for Booze, Eyes, Laughton, and Urine. (“Mitchum pissed not only on script ideas and Kirk Douglas’ reputation, but also on David O. Selznick’s office carpet, a doorway in Paris, the eternal flame in the same city, and in a swimming pool he didn’t intend to enter at the Betty Ford Center, where he had been sent to dry out.”)

“The artistic and popular success of Soviet films during the New Economic Policy (1921-1928) had spurred hopes for a mass-market sound cinema that was also of high quality. What crushed that dream? Masha gives us the hows (the machinations of the studios and government bodies) and the whys (the underlying causes and rationales). “Not According to Plan” is a trailblazing study of what she calls “the institutional study of ideology.” It’s also a quietly witty account of the failures of managed culture. How could artists be engineers of human souls if they couldn’t engineer a movie? But go back to the quality issue. What were those Stalinist films like artistically?” Spurred on by a recent publication from his university—Maria Belodubrovskaya’s “Not According to Plan”—David Bordwell explores some of the hallmarks of Stalinist cinema, finding a lot more experimentation and cunning liftings from the past than the standard reduction of “boy-loves-tractor musicals” can encompass; though any charges of gigantism would be valid.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 19

“My appreciation for his inspiring and innovative cinema grows deeper as the years go by. He had a unique vision in his films and in his artwork, that was deceptively simple yet hard to copy, like that of Parajanov. He always stayed true to himself, to his creative impulses, striving to fulfill his own artistic urges and curiosity rather than following certain modernist fashions in filmmaking. In this way, he challenged many stereotypes and clichés of conventional representations of people and their stories on screen.” Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa—who once (with Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose site hosts this essay) wrote the book on Kiarostami—considers some of the tropes of the director’s cinema, and the philosophy (and genuine humility) behind them.

“An unfortunate side effect of these [political] aspirations is that the aesthetics of Loach’s cinema have sometimes been undervalued by critics. “It has been said of Loach,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in his review of I, Daniel Blake, “that he would do without the camera if he could, and that doing-without aesthetic is absolutely right for the unfashionable, uncompromising seriousness of what he has to say.” While meant as a compliment, this sentiment nevertheless sells the director’s cinema short: it obscures the rigorous preparation and carefully worked-out production methods that Loach has gradually refined over decades. The feeling of authenticity that I, Daniel Blake exudes, seemingly without effort, is the result of a myriad of thoughtful decisions made about setting, casting, shooting, and (especially) dialect.” Girish Shambu finds the artistic merit of Loach’s I, Daniel Blake as valuable as the already measurable impact it’s had on the debate over Britain’s benefits system.

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