Warner Archive Collection – New Access to Old Movies

Warner’s launch of the Warner Archive Collection, its new DVD on Demand site, was well covered earlier this week (see The New York Times’ The Carpetbagger, Susan King at the LA Times and Lou Leminick at the New York Post) but there’s been little follow-up in the days since. Maybe that’s because we’re all waiting for that first disc to arrive before we pass judgment in the efficiency of the system and the quality of the discs. There was a pretty slow response time when I got on the site on Monday, March 23. It had been launched a week earlier but this was the date that the press releases went out and the home video sites and related blogs all spread the news. Everyone needed to check it out and a lot of folks made their first order.

Available from the Warner Archive now
Available from the Warner Archive now

The site launched with a curious collection of 150 films from the Warner Entertainment library of pre-1986 films from MGM, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros., from westerns to romance, science fiction to melodrama, each one priced at $19.95 (or $14.95 for a digital download). They have little broad commercial appeal but have their fans, as evidenced by requests made over the years on sites like Turner Classic Movies and Amazon. Some of the more familiar titles include All Fall Down with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant (it was ubiquitous on VHS but nowhere to be found on DVD), Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey and Possessed starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. There’s plenty of early Greta Garbo and second-tier Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy titles, as well as auteur oddities like The Bamboo Blonde (Anthony Mann) Countdown (Robert Altman) and The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola). I was most excited by the silent film selection and I ordered Rex Ingram’s 1923 Scaramouche. Just yesterday I just received confirmation that my order was sent (free shipping, UPS ground) and is expected to arrive on Tuesday, March 31. It a simple, no-frills disc, just the movie in a case with sleek artwork (and, if available, the original trailer), and George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video, promises that they are all presented in their original aspect ratio. Given their source (most, if not all, have already been remastered and run on Turner Classic Movies), we should expect good quality transfers and mastering.

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William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
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Murnau in Germany – DVDs for the Week (Pt 2)

The Box Set
Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set

DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.

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Shimizu in Japan – DVDs for the Week (Pt 1)

Two box sets reveal the riches of two classic filmmakers with radically different pedigrees. F.W. Murnau has long been considered one of the great directors of world cinema and Kino’s new Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set introduces two rarities in beautifully restored editions and an astounding restoration of Faust. (The review follows later this week.) Hiroshi Shimizu, however, is practically unknown in this country. Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is as much a discovery as a celebration of this marvelous filmmaker, and I hope it’s merely the beginning of a revival.

Eclipse Series 15
Eclipse Series 15

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films by most counts. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. And the longest one of them clocks in at 76 minutes, although the term “tight” or “efficient” doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the generosity of his filmmaking. They are simply small stories, miniatures you might say, which unfold at their own distinctively wandering pace.

The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition – a bus driver on a mountain road route, seasonal masseurs who are walking to their summer position at a mountain resort in the first scene, vacationers at a mountain inn during the summer in a momentary community – but because Shimizu as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

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Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

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“Let the Right One In,” “Ben X” and “A Secret” – DVDs for the Week

Let the Right One In on Blu-ray
Let the Right One In on Blu-ray

March 10 is an unaccountably busy week for new films on DVD. Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning Milk (for Best Actor Sean Penn and for Best Original Screenplay), Jonathan Demme’s marvelous ensemble drama Rachel Getting Married (which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway) and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, but Sally Hawkins was robbed of a Best Actress nomination) lead the list, which also includes Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Cadillac Records (starring Adrian Brody as Chess records entrepreneur Leonard Chess and an all-star supporting playing R&B greats), Role Models with Paul Rudd and Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s dramatization of the 1999 WTO protests (my interview with Townsend is on Parallax View here).

With such an array of American releases, I’d like to draw attention to a trio of foreign affairs that I fear will be swamped in the deluge.

Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film / young love horror piece Let The Right One In (Magnet/Magnolia) is grounded in a devoted friendship that bonds two outcasts in a predatory world. Bullied schoolboy Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a loner so blond he looks albino, meets twelve-year-old Eli (Lina Leandersson), a fellow loner hanging around the snow-covered playground of his Stockholm suburb in short sleeves, unfazed by the frozen night. “I’ve been twelve a long time,” she later confesses to Oskar, who understands that there’s something different about this girl who only comes out after dark. Which makes Sweden a great place for her: It’s night most of the winter, and the cold is no concern to a creature that doesn’t feel anything.

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The Night of the Hunter

[originally published on Robert Horton’s blog The Crop Duster on March 1, 2009]

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter

Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

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“I try to get the essence of things” – An Interview with Horton Foote

[Editor’s note – This interview appeared in a very different form in the November/December 1996 issue of Modern Maturity. The introduction was written specifically for this publication.]

Horton Foote died March 5th, 2009, at his daughter Hallie’s home in Connecticut where he was at work cutting his ‘Orphan’s Home Cycle’ from 9 plays into a 3-act version for Broadway in the Fall of 2009.  Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his honor for one minute that night.

Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin
Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin

I spent a week with Horton Foote in 1993, in Wharton, Texas, the town he had been writing about all his life, in one form or another. The calm, high-ceilinged house he lived in reflected a lifetime of collecting, at flea markets and country auctions, with a great eye and a gambler’s luck. Horton and his wife Lillian had gathered superb pieces of Americana, naïve folk paintings and family silhouettes and mixed them with wit and sureness and a touch of the unexpected.

Coming down the steps in his trademark black suit, both arms outstretched, he was a mixture of warmth and Southern concern and for the week that followed, he had the knack of seeming to sublimate his densely packed schedule to mine. With his cherub’s face and his thatch of silver hair, he was at the same time buoyant and optimistic, and deeply and intrinsically tenacious (that thread common to his finest characters.)

Directly next door, where he put up guests, sits the white bungalow-style house in which Foote was born. Unlike most of the rest of the country, there’s a sense of continuity in Wharton. It comes out in strolls around his slowly emptying town, where Foote is still a local celebrity and can tell the history of every family in every house, many of whom are kin, in varying degrees of closeness.

As deeply rooted as Foote is in Wharton, he has been equally entwined with his family: Lillian Vallish Foote, his inseparable partner of 48 years, and their 4 children: Hallie and Horton Jr. who are actors, Walter, a lawyer and Daisy, a playwright.

In August, 1992, Lillian Foote died, after a brief illness. In September, The Roads to Home opened in New York, the play on which her husband and daughter were working at the time of her illness. The following May, Hallie won an Obie for that performance, which her father wrote and directed.

Sheila Benson: You’ve written in so many forms, how do you think of yourself?

Horton Foote: I’m essentially a story teller, although the people that are hardest on me always say that I don’t have enough story. I guess what will get me going is the human condition. But what I do, through thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking, I try to get the essence of things.

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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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Bob, Bing, and the Case of the Traveling Matte

POP QUIZ: In which Powell & Pressburger classic did Bob Hope and Bing Crosby make a cameo appearance?
ANSWER: They didn’t, but The Road to Hong Kong led them (sort of) to the setting of Black Narcissus.

Allow me to explain.

One of the great pleasures of watching older movies is that you can frequently spot how studios recycled their valuable sets, props, costumes and other resources in the interest of stretching their budgets. These days, that hardly ever happens in a way that anyone would notice. For production artists working in the modern digital realm, it’s standard procedure to create images that will never be repeated in any other film. Think of the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy: George Lucas and Peter Jackson would never allow their production resources to be borrowed by other filmmakers unless they’re sufficiently altered to express an entirely new and different identity. As production techniques grew more sophisticated, it became harder (if not impossible) to spot elements of one film appearing in another. Sometimes the recycling is deliberate, but even in franchise sequels it’s generally avoided.

The final "Road" trip (1962)
The final "Road" trip (1962)

Back in the analog days, the physical resources of studios were constantly recycled. Poverty Row quickies used redressed sets, props and costumes out of absolute necessity. Second-tier studios like RKO were similarly obligated to recycle B-movie materials as often as possible, allowing production designers, set dressers and property masters to hone their ingenuity while making everything old seem new again. Major and minor studios alike have always maintained warehouses and storerooms of reusable materials, and some filmgoers (yours truly included) make armchair sport out of spotting studio materials as they constantly appear and reappear, forming their own behind-the-scenes legacy of film-production history.

A surprisingly conspicuous example of this history presented itself recently as I watched a DVR recording of The Road to Hong Kong (1962). This was the seventh and final “Road” comedy starring Hope and Crosby (released a full decade after The Road to Bali), and I’d recorded it during a “Gift of Hope” retrospective on the MGM-HD channel. I had somehow missed the film over the decades (I was a relative latecomer to the Bob & Bing party), so I was delighted to see it presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with dazzling HD clarity. If you’re going to kill 91 minutes with Bob & Bing, this is the way to do it.

Nobody’s ever going to call The Road to Hong Kong a classic, but with cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, David Niven and others, it’s a perfectly enjoyable lark for Hope & Crosby fans, capitalizing on the early-‘60s popularity of James Bond-ian espionage, the Cold War space race, and hot babes with gravity-defying hairdos. Bob and Bing play Turner & Babcock, a hapless pair of ex-Vaudevillians-turned-fugitive con-artists who get playfully entangled with Joan Collins (youthfully stealing the spotlight from “Road”-movie veteran Dorothy Lamour, who later appears as herself in a contractually obligated cameo required to secure the film’s financing). Joan’s an agent for the Third Echelon, a SPECTRE-like force of villainy led by Robert Morley, doing a roly-poly riff on Dr. No – a full year (according to IMDb release dates) before Dr. No’s U.S. premiere.

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New Yorker Essentials – DVDs for the Week

As the shock of New Yorker’s announcement sinks in, so does the complicated legacy of New Yorker. In conversations with friends and colleagues who programmed college campus films series and commercial repertory calendars (back when such things were a vital part of a metropolitan city cinema landscape), we all recalled the high prices of New Yorker film rentals and the deplorable condition of much of its print library. In my days as a video store manager, I sweated the premium prices of New Yorker videotapes, titles that would be lucky to break even, and they dragged their feet when it came to price reductions (many of which I wound up reviewing for Amazon.com during the early days of its home video launch). As a viewer I was often frustrated by the image interference caused by the heavy Macrovision copy protection. When it came to DVD, the quality was always fine, but never showed the crispness of Criterion restorations and digital mastering.

New Yorker Films' first release
New Yorker Films’ first release

Yet for all those gripes, New Yorker was essential to the richness of cinema culture in my time. It kept alive the canons of Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, but in addition to its commitment to the European canon, it brought to light filmmakers from neglected corners of the cinematic culture, in particular Africa, South America and Iran. Would the films of Ousmane Sembene be accessible to American audiences if not for New Yorker? Would the films of South America’s Cinema Novo movement have been “discovered” with them?

Just contrast New Yorker with Miramax. Back in their Miramax days, the Weinstein Bros. showed cagey instincts when it came to sifting through imports for that sexy title that they could sell with their own inimitable mix of art cinema ballyhoo and cultural cache. They outbid everyone else to secure those films in which they saw potential and sunk money into striking good prints with strong, readable subtitles, and into promoting their films. And at times they brought in the scissors to trim down their imports. They combined the arrogance of an old-time studio boss with the promotional savvy of a William Castle or a Kroger Babb, only with a touch of class.

New Yorker never had those promotional instincts and certainly never had the capital to compete with Miramax and the boutique divisions of the major studios that flowered in the wake of Miramax’s success. But then it never occurred to Dan Talbot and the New Yorker crew to edit down the films they imported. Miramax made foreign filmgoing special. New Yorker was about special foreign films and filmmakers. It was, in many ways, up to the audiences to find them.

Most of those studio indie/art film divisions have since been shut down or absorbed back into their parent companies, and the Weinsteins are still looking for a signature acquisition to re-establish themselves outside of Miramax (which is doing just fine in its more modest, post-Weinstein incarnation). On the home video side, we’ve seen  specialty labels like Tartan Films and NoShame close up and others struggle to continue.

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DVD for the Week – Remembering New Yorker Films 1965-2009

I got the news from Girish Shambu (via Facebook), who directed me to a report on IndieWire by Eugene Hernandez, who confirmed it: New Yorker Films is closing its doors. The devastating news is on the New Yorker homepage.

new_yorker_films_topAnyone who was active in film culture in the days before the video business gave us access to many (though by no means all) of the classics of world cinema will remember New Yorker Films. When repertory theaters and college film programs were our only access to foreign films new and old, New Yorker  distributed new films from great directors around the globe and built a small but essential library that kept in circulation the works of such auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ousmane Sembene… the list goes on and on. The prints weren’t cheap, but they kept the works and the artists alive.

When home video changed the landscape of film distribution and pretty much ended the culture of repertory cinema, New Yorker’s print library found fewer venues for theatrical showings. The rights for home video distribution were not in those original contracts and foreign studios shopped many of those rights around to other video distributors and, later, DVD labels. I hadn’t heard the rumblings at New Yorker, but I saw the signs. DVDs were announced, then delayed, then delayed again. The number of titles on their schedule dwindled. And, to be honest, New Yorker was still looking to define itself on DVD. They were late to mastering widescreen films in anamorphic widescreen. The quality of DVD masters, while fine, often showed the telltale signs of PAL-to-NTSC conversion, rather than a fresh digital master for American DVD. Supplements were slim, if there were any. Criterion had established itself as the gold standard for classics on DVD. New Yorker struggled to catch up, but you could see the efforts in recent releases.

But I imagine that the real culprit in New Yorker’s demise is the changing face of film distribution: foreign films are finding a harder time finding screens, local coverage of non-mainstream films is dwindling, and even the alternative weeklies in major cities can’t be counted upon to cover these films that live and die by local support.

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on “My Effortless Brilliance”

[I interviewed Lynn Shelton in Seattle on May 17, 2008, to talk about her then new film, My Effortless Brilliance, and her debut feature, We Go Way Back. This interview was originally published on GreenCine on May 24, 2008. Since this interview, Shelton made Humpday, which was chosen to play in the exclusive competition at Sundance 2009 and was quickly scooped up as the festival’s first film sale, and won the Acura Someone to Watch Award for My Effortless Brilliance at the 2009 Spirit Awards. I revisit the interview for Parallax View.]

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton is part of a hardy breed: the regional filmmaker who creates feature films within a community far outside the L.A.-centered base. That means casts, crews, locations, post-production and even financing is all locally based. Her debut feature, We Go Way Back, made after a decade of honing her skills on experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers, won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006. Her second film, My Effortless Brilliance premiered at SXSW in 2008 and gets it hometown premiere during the opening weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Both of these films are small, intimate, character-based pictures. We Go Way Back, the story of a young actress in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as an actress at the expense of her own sense of self, tosses in a high concept twist – her 13-year-old self, present in letters written to her future self full of confidence and creativity and ambition, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynchian bend in time and space and identity, however, is played with naturalistic calm. She’s not here to judge, only to heal and center her emotionally fractured older self. My Effortless Brilliance shifts to male relationships, specifically the “break-up” of old friends and the desperation with which one man (played by Sean Nelson – singer, songwriter, former frontman for Harvey Danger and, in the interest of disclosure, my friend and colleague), a novelist struggling to repeat the success of his first book, attempts to reconnect. His motivations are less out of affection than ego – dude, he was dumped! The film’s reception was mixed, which may have as much to do with the seeming lack of narrative drive and plotting and its undeniable similarities to Old Joy as with the discomforting portrait of male relationships. Yet I found the texture of the relationships and the sly humor winning and was impressed with the performances, especially Nelson, who’s a natural in the role, subtly establishing the sense of ego and vulnerability and self-aggrandizement in the character with brave intimacy. Shelton’s observations of male relationships and the rhythms of old friends falling into old patterns are spot on, helped immensely, surely, by the collaboration of the cast, who played the scenes without a script, only an outline.

I met Lynn Shelton for breakfast at Mae’s on Phinney Ridge (a great little breakfast spot near both of us) and, starting out over cups of green tea (“I love it,” she said – our first connection made), she launched into the history of how she started making features and where My Effortless Brilliance came from.

We Go Way Back is the quintessential chick flick and My Effortless Brilliance really is the quintessential guy flick,” she began. “I’ve yet to meet a guy who does not like my new movie. And there are a lot of people who like it, but there are some who just can’t find a way into it. They just can’t relate to it, basically. And We Go Way Back is the exact opposite. Every woman has a very homogeneous sense of love for this movie. A lot of men love it too, but sometimes men are just like, ‘Whatever.’ It’s really, really interesting. So I like that dichotomy.”

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Under the Radar: Brian Cox in “Red” (2008)

This is the first entry in an ongoing series by Parallax View contributor Jeff Shannon, written in appreciation of lesser-known films, performances, film-related achievements or other newsworthy items that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong: Red is a not great movie, or even a very good one. But if you’re looking for a minor gem that won’t waste your time, you might find (as I did) that Red will grab and hold your attention, and that’s a lot more than you can say about the mostly-redundant, higher-profile crap coming out of Hollywood these days.

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Tagline: "They Should Have Told the Truth"

More to the point, Red is a worthy showcase for an exceptional actor who’s earned plenty of critical praise but relatively little public appreciation. Brian Cox first came to American critical attention for originating the role of Hannibal Lecter (then spelled “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), by which time the burly Scot (b. Brian Denis Cox, Dundee, Scotland, June 1, 1946) had been working in U.K. television and movies for over two decades. His career boosted by his cleverly sinister performance as Lecter, Cox has been in demand ever since: Among his 141 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, my personal favorites include his memorably villainous turn in Rob Roy (he also appeared in Braveheart the same year, 1995); his complex and enigmatic portrayal of pederast “Big John” Harrigan in Michael Cuesta’s risky-but-rewarding L.I.E. (2001); and, more recently, his flamboyant yet melancholy turn as traveling showman Jack Langrishe in the third (and sadly final) season of HBO’s Deadwood (2006).

Those were all serious roles, each blessed with the subtle humor that informs many of Cox’s performances. Occasionally that humor is delightfully less than subtle: Cox is one of the better reasons to watch Super Troopers (2001); he scored an Emmy nomination for an appearance on TV’s Frasier (1993); and his line deliveries in The Ringer (2005) are pee-your-pants hilarious.

Now we can add Red to the roster of Cox’s finest work to date; it’s “under the radar” because it’s been little-seen beyond its Sundance premiere in January 2008. (I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t happened upon the film’s one-night preview on HDNet Movies, on the eve of its brief U.S. theatrical release in a handful of east-coast cinemas.)
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