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The Delicate Flavor of Ozu Family Drama and Thick Meaty Cuts of American Film Noir – DVDs for the Week

The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)

It’s a cliché by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas are a distinct and deliberate break from the western conventions that informed the work of his contemporaries (and, for that matter, his own early films), a concerted effort to reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores. But the cliché misses a defining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times.

The serenity of family

Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.

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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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Sam Peckinpah on DVD: A Guide to Resources

You’ve read the essays, now see the films. My post-script to the Sam Peckinpah series is a survey of Peckinpah on DVD and Blu-ray, with notes on print and mastering quality and details on supplements (where applicable). And with so many of Peckinpah’s films released in compromised versions and later reconstructed or amended with restored footage, I’ve also provided a guide through the incarnations available.

Consider this your guide to the Sam Peckinpah canon on home video (U.S. DVD releases only).

Small Screen:

Sam Peckinpah began his career on television, writing scripts for numerous western shows (including numerous episodes of Gunsmoke) and creating a couple of landmark shows, and moved into the director’s chair with an episode of Broken Arrow in 1958. That show is not on DVD, nor are any of his most significant original TV plays—”Pericles on 31st Street” (1962) and “The Losers” (1963), both made for The Dick Powell Show, and “Noon Wine” (1966), shot on videotape for ABC Stage 67—or any episodes of The Westerner, arguably his greatest TV creation. Here’s what is available:

The Rifleman (1960) (MPI)

“The Marshal” (Season One, Ep. 4), “The Boarding House” (Season One, Ep. 22), “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33), “The Baby Sitter” (Season Two, Ep. 12)

Chuck Connors
Chuck Connors

Sam Peckinpah wrote “The Sharpshooter” for Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, which became the pilot for The Rifleman (and rebroadcast as the first episode of the new series). MPI released 120 episodes of the half-hour western series over the six collections, not necessarily in order and certainly not comprehensive, but all of Peckinpah’s episodes are included. The single-disc “The Rifleman: Volume 1” (which was subsequently collected in the four-disc “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”) features the Peckinpah-scripted pilot “Sharpshooter” and second episode “Home Ranch” along with “The Marshal,” the first episode of the show that he directed. “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33) is on “The Rifleman: Volume 2” (also collected in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”). “The Boarding House” is included in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 2” and “The Baby Sitter” is in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 3.” The MPI collections are no longer in print but feature good quality editions of the episodes and they may found for purchase used or for rent at your more auteur-oriented video stores, and these episodes are also available in the 16-disc/80-episode “The Rifleman Mega Pack,” the quality of which I cannot comment upon.
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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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Memories of Bob Hope and Americans in Paris with Guns – DVDs of the Week

Bob Hope: Thanks For the Memories Collection (Universal)

The Cat and the Canary

Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection mostly revisits the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and slid into a more cynical byplay. Hope is funny in those films, but he’s much more likable in the four earlier films of the set, three of them making their respective DVD debuts. Thanks for the Memory (1938), named after the Hope signature song (which he sings with co-star Shirley Ross), is a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York notable largely for Hope’s easy banter and the cast of moochers who keep landing in his apartment.

The heart of the set, however, belongs to his three pairing with Paulette Goddard, beginning with the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). You know the story even if you’ve never seen the play: the family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place (which is located in the middle of a bayou swamp). Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary, a spooky servant goes around predicting things like “One will die tonight” and there’s an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around. “Don’t big old empty houses scare you?” asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). “Not me,” quips Hope, here playing a semi-famous actor meeting what’s left of his family tree. “I’ve played vaudeville.” It’s hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. “I always joke when I’m scared,” he confesses to heroine Goddard. “I kind of kid myself into being brave.” Hope’s delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise; he’s got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably in Cat and was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.

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Aleksandr Sokurov’s Setting Sun, Tony Manero in Chile and Post-War Foyle – DVDs of the Week

The Sun (Lorber Films)

The third film in Aleksandr Sokurov’s continuing “Men in Power” series, impressionistic portraits of dictators and despots that seek to explore the inner lives of enigmatic figures, observes Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of Japan’s defeat in the final days of World War II. As played by Issei Ogata and observed by Sokurov in the both intimate and alienated settings of his Spartan compound, he’s an almost childlike figure trapped in his identity of a living deity and rituals of deference that further separate him from the world. He’s not even allowed to open a door himself, which leads to an almost comic moment when, leaving a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), he is momentarily stymied by the workings of a doorknob. Or is he simply savoring the moment, like a child suddenly allowed to play with a forbidden toy?

Issei Ogata in The Sun

Ogata’s performance is a wonder of affectation, distracted (behavior) and moments of dazed confusion, behavior no one would dare comment upon. Yet it’s clear that he is more aware of the contradictions of his position than any of his servants and officials, and that he understands that, in a strange way, Japan’s defeat becomes his opportunity to become a mere mortal. His response is complex, nuanced, and hidden in layers of protocol and ritual, yet it’s obvious that this reluctant Emperor is happiest studying marine biology and rhapsodizing over the wonders of the hermit crab.

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Stagecoach arrives in a new Criterion edition, plus No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Silver Lode – DVDs of the Week

Stagecoach (Criterion) DVD and Blu-ray

John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.

John Wayne's entrance in Stagecoach: a star is born

John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.

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Japanese Outlaws of the Sixties: Nagisa Oshima and Gamera – DVDs of the Week

Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion)

Stylistically adventurous and brazenly confrontational in his filmmaking, Nagisa Oshima was Japan’s young turk of New Wave filmmaking: formally challenging, politically provocative, stylistically audacious and instinctively confrontational. That kind of approach was a bad fit for the studio system, as you can imagine, and he jumped out of the restrictions of conservative studio filmmaking for a five-year freelance sojourn before he and his wife, actress Akiko Koyama, formed an independent production company, Sozo-sha. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion), the five-disc box set from Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label Eclipse, collects the initial five narrative features from this company. To my gaijin eyes appear to be marvelously lurid genre pieces and exploitation films, less reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s politically laced genres blasts that Seijun Suzuki’s mad sixties cinema. But there is something dangerous under the big bold style, which Oshima throws across a succession of CinemaScope canvases, and there’s a familiar strain of self-destruction and obsession behind his outlaw figures.

Three Resurrected Drunkards

Critics more informed than I about both the director and the socio-political culture of sixties Japan make the case that these are in fact rife with political subtext, defined by Oshima’s disappointment with the political left and the student movements of the past and expressed through the violent actions of criminals and killers and repressed citizens who crack under the pressure and indulge in unrestrained excess. (The film notes by Michael Koresky on each disc, the only supplement of the stripped-down release, suggest the same, but the essays don’t make any specific connections between the films and the events and/or cultural conditions that the films confront.)

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California Dreamin’ and 30 years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – DVDs of the Week

California Dreamin’ (E1)

Director Cristian Nemescu was a rising star of what has been branded the Romanian New Wave when he and his sound editor were killed in a car wreck near the end of post-production of his first feature. As a tribute to Nemescu, the producer released California Dreamin’ as is. The director would likely have tightened the film up some but his dryly hilarious presentation of skewed cultural identity and appropriation, his blithely scathing portrait of bureaucratic impotence and ingrained corruption in post-CeauÅŸescu Romania (circa 1999), and the way he appreciates his characters even as he mercilessly satirizes their schemes and scams fills the film with a generosity of spirit and a richness of detail. Even at a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, there is plenty happening on screen.

Americans confront the new Romania in "California Dreamin'"

“Everyone has their reasons,” was the motto of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In Nemescu’s miserable little Romanian village, everyone has their agenda. NATO peacekeeping mission commander Captain Jones (Armand Assante in a gruff growl) wants to get his shipment of military equipment to Kosovo. Station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who runs his railroad position like a gangster and pillages every shipment that rolls through, blows off the government orders and sidelines them in a petty show of power and insolence (his reasons are slowly revealed in the flashbacks to World War II). His teenage daughter just wants to get out of the village and sees the arrival of the Americans as, if not her ticket out, at least a diversion for a while. The factory workers just want to stage their strike for maximum effect and find themselves stymied by Doiaru and overshadowed by the Americans. And the Mayor sees the captive audience as an unprecedented opportunity to promote his town and its absurd effort to transform into a high-concept tourist destination (complete with a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a Texas-themed hotel).

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Barbara Stanwyck at Universal and Criterion’s Southern Revivals – DVDs of the Week

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets
Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

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Vivre Sa Vie, Summer Hours and a Crazy Heart – DVDs of the Week

Vivre Sa Vie (Criterion)

Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.

Anna Karina as Nana, looking for something more meaningful

Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.

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Kapò and The Sadist With Red Teeth – Two Kinds of Horror and the DVDs of the Week

Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House)

In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?

Kapo
Kapo

Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.

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