This year, the James Bond film franchise commemorates its 50th birthday, with the release of the Sam Mendes-helmed Skyfall, a touring gallery exhibit of Bond gadgetry and film paraphernalia, countless upon countless commissioned think pieces, and just as many homemade vodka martins served per 007’s standard operating procedure. There’s also this fancily packaged, and, given the sheer volume, reasonably priced box set, which collects all 22 EON-produced Bond outings—so, no Casino Royale from 1967 or Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery’s non-canon 1983 return to the role.
En route to its golden anniversary, the Bond franchise has entrenched itself. It’s the longest-running, and second-highest grossing property (after Harry Potter) in the history of the cinema, and even more importantly, an enduring, generation-spanning touchstone of 20th-and-now-21st-century popular culture. It’s hard to imagine movies without Bond, and vice versa.
Like an old friend from high school you can run into once every few years and pick up right where you left off, Bond abides. Across the series’s six incarnations of the polished secret agent, there are recognizable highpoints: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, License to Kill, Goldeneye, and 2006’s Casino Royale. There are just as many obvious stinkers: Diamonds Are Forever, A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, and Quantum of Solace. But, as they say about pizza and sex, even bad Bond is better than no Bond at all, with the franchise’s valleys casting its peaks in firmer relief.
In a way, it’s tricky to say anything definitive or comprehensive about the Bond films, precisely because, no matter how nicely packaged, the franchise never feels feasibly comprehensive. In essence, Bond has always been a nostalgia act. When 007 entered the ‘90s with Goldeneye, Judi Dench’s M pegs Pierce Brosnan’s Bond as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” And well before such biting bits of dialogue functioned as a de rigeur escape hatch for Bond’s sexist, misogynist, dinosaur-ish exploits, claims of imperialism and chauvinism were long leveled against Fleming’s source novels. Even before Austin Powers arrived to take the piss out of the series’s attitudes, 1967’s non-EON Casino Royale served as an ensemble satire of their very form. Even at the peak of Bond mania, the character was a relic.
Yet even in this capacity Bond is entirely imagined, a relic without a referent, a fossil from an abstracted era of refined masculinity and suave English chivalry that only ever existed as fetishized English superlative. As a postwar creation finding his footing in the Cold War, vacillating in his early on-screen decades through sharp cynicism (Sean Connery), uncharacteristic earnestness (Geoge Lazenby), and smug self-parody (Roger Moore), Bond always operated as a phantasmal ideal and object of identification, playing perfectly into England’s fissured postwar ego.
It’s not even that earlier Bonds necessarily always squared off against Soviet super-villainy. It’s that the real threat of the Cold War détente heating up lent the character its gravity. In a conflict waged largely between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., England used Bond to imagine her own romanticized role: slinking (and sexing, and skiing, and motor-boating, and jetpack-ing) behind the scenes, the conflict’s eminently cultured unsung superhero. British author John le Carré’s Tinker Taylor Solider Spy, often regarded as something of an “anti-Bond,” underscored the British Secret Service’s glorified errand-boy status and the feeling of ineffectual, typically English malaise that the 007 series has always exploded with fantastic aplomb.
Post-perestroika, the series has struggled to find its stride. The problem of the waning Cold War backdrop was first shouldered by Timothy Dalton’s strong, silent, gruffly Americanized take on Bond in 1989’s License to Kill, which had a rogue 007 squaring off against televangelists and drug lords. Later, Pierce Brosnan’s return-to-form maiden voyage, Goldeneye, worked to address the crumbling of the Soviet empire (literally: In its opening credit music video, hammers, sickles, and statues of Lenin are forcibly toppled in psychedelic silhouettes) by temporarily reigniting it, the long con of Sean Bean’s rogue MI-6 agent who feels cheated by the Cold War’s abatement. From there, the Brosnan films mostly sputtered, with Bond being dispatched to put down the plots of ripped-from-this-year’s-headlines heavies: a Rupert Murdoch-ish media mogul who makes the news before selling it, a North Korean general assuming a new identity courtesy of “DNA replacement therapy,” and so on.
In the latest, post-reboot pictures, Bond seems to be back on terra firma. Granted, Quantum of Solace did a lot to squander the promise of Daniel Craig’s cynical, rough-edged, recently-licensed-to-kill 007, but Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale proves one of the series’s unequivocal highlights. Taking elements from previous Bonds (Connery’s stature, Moore’s martini-dry wit, Lazenby’s emotion rawness, Dalton’s free-agent grittiness), Craig brings Bond into the present movement, not so much a text as a meta-text, commenting at once on the thrills and hang-ups of the franchise.
Indeed, Casino Royale’s most memorable scene pits Bondian thrills against Bondian hang-ups, strapping 007 to a hollowed-out wicker chair and having goons go to work on him with a hardened knot of wet rope, the tender dangly bits of his refined machismo mashed to a pulp. Casino Royale managed to salvage Bond not only by contemporizing the character to compete with post-Bond superspies of the Jason Bourne variety (while still retaining the franchise’s cultivated fineries), but in offering a way to comment back on the series’s own problematic macho-imperialist dangly bits without it feeling like a cop-out or compromise.
In conjunction with the contemporary Bond films’ rear-view-mirror series commentary, the lens of ironic recuperation makes the franchise’s sillier excesses—Connery strapped into the Thunderball jetback, Moore navigating the Octopussy alligator-shaped submarines—still feel lively. Even in its earlier modes of sincere Cold War spy-thrilling, of which From Russia with Love remains a somewhat shaggy masterpiece, the Bond series has always relished in its knowingness, making them somewhat impossible to laugh directly at even some 50 years out.
To quote M, again, “Arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand.” For half a century, the Bond franchise has tested the theory, a film series that, even at its worst, is entertaining, flip, and so completely fantasized that it reconciles its dinosaur chauvinism with its wink-nudge wit—the exception that proves the rule.
Even Bond completists whose collections contain the existent high-def box sets will likely pick up this new repackaging, given that it includes nine titles previous unavailable on Blu-Ray: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Living Daylights, Octopussy, Goldeneye, A View to a Kill, and Diamonds Are Forever. The other 12 discs are the same as those previously on the market (or on your shelf at home). With minor variances between titles, MGM has done a great job cleaning up the series for HD, scanned from the original negatives courtesy of Lowry Digital. The only one that looks noticeably not up-to-snuff is Goldeneye, which suffers from heavy digital noise reduction, which rather seriously dampens the image’s crispness. Still, one out of 22 is still an exemplary batting average for this set. Likewise, the 5.1 audio mixes are uniformly excellent. Even Goldeneye.
Bond 50 includes all the usual supplements from the existing discs: commentaries, trailers, featurettes, and a few new, mostly glossy promotion items, packaged on a separate disc. All tolled, it comes to about 120 hours worth of extras across the 23 discs. The most desirable “extra” here is the packaging. Bond 50 divides its titles into two books, the first spanning 1962-1982, and the second 1983-2012 (MGM was even thoughtful enough to save room for the Skyfall Blu-ray). It’s a stiff, study, glossy package, fit for displaying as a coffee-table book. The problem is the slipcases, which make retrieving the discs something of a minor labor, and may result in scratching over time. There’s also a feature that strings together all 22 opening credits sequences, which is the perfect thing to put on in the background during your Happy 50th 007 cocktail party.
If you’re a seasoned fan, or even looking to dig into the series for the first time, Bond 50 is an essential package—gorgeously packaged, and best of all, complete.
Cast: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig, Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Jill St. John, Bernard Lee, Jane Seymour, Donald Pleasence, Christopher Lee, Maud Adams, Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, Famke Janssen, Judi Dench, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Teri Hatcher, Sophie Marceau, Denise Richards, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Olga Kurylenko Director: Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert, Peter R. Hunt, John Glen, Martin Campbell, Roger Spottiswoode, Michael Apted, Lee Tamahori, Marc Forster Screenwriter: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather, Paul Dehn, John Hopkins, Roald Dahl, Tom Mankiewicz, Christopher Wood, Michael G. Wilson, George MacDonald Fraser, Michael France, Jeffrey Caine, Kevin Wade, Bruce Feirstein, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis, Robert Wade Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment Running Time: 2748 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1962 - 2012 Release Date: September 25, 2012 Buy: Video
Criterion’s three-disc is going to make you wonder where the deliriously imaginative Czech auteur has been all your film buff life.
Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman is likely an unknown quantity even to movie buffs who are familiar with his venerated contemporaries, among them Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, and Jiří Menzel. But Criterion’s release of three of his features looks to close this particular knowledge gap. First chronologically in Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman is his 1955 debut feature, Journey to the Beginning of Time, the story of four brave, outdoors-y boys who travel backward, by rowboat, in geologic time. The film is tailored to young and adolescent viewers—the sort who’d project themselves onto the story’s characters—and the tone is implacably genial and anodyne, as Zeman’s screenplay (co-written with J.A. Novotný) neatly avoids anything that’s too complicated or too dark. About the worst thing the lads see, apart from a few mild scares, is some bloodletting from a battle between a Stegosaurus and a T. rex.
These fundamentals aside, Journey to the Beginning of Time is mostly a proving ground for a Karel Zeman that was just dipping his toes into effects-driven spectacle. Driven by a certain earnest, Boy’s Life magazine energy, the film is a diorama of wall-to-wall stop-motion and miniature effects, pitched as half dramatic adventure, half edutainment. You can rate the film as pure pablum—cut-rate, imitation Ray Harryhausen with dingy cinematography—but there’s some value in how it serves as a harbinger for what Zeman would do once he got in a groove.
Behind the vague title of the second film in the set, 1958’s Invention for Destruction, lies Zeman’s fearless embrace of a humongous arsenal of artificial strategies, usually coordinating two or three different modes of artifice in the same shot. The leap forward in confidence from Journey to the Beginning of Time to this is transformative, as if Zeman was born again. The film’s plot, which Zeman admits in the opening titles as having been lifted (but not, strictly speaking, adapted) from the imagination of Jules Verne, concerns a corrupt European nobleman who uses a stolen submarine to carry out clandestine raids on the high seas.
What figures prominently in this film, what most powerfully evokes Verne’s fictional ethos, is an aesthetic that covets intricate, early Industrial Age machinery in a manner that would be, in our contemporary discourse, tagged as steampunk. Well before we’d even heard of that appellation, we would see this nostalgia-for-the-past’s-futurism in other places, like in Blake Edwards’s 1965 film The Great Race. But it’s clear that Zeman’s other influence on Invention for Destruction—perhaps not expressed but certainly implied—is Georges Méliès. It may be the most striped film in all of cinema; when Zeman cannot find a practical way to superimpose onto a shot a translucent layer that suggests ridged artist’s paper, he will fill the frame with a limitless variety of costumes, props, and sets riddled with horizontal and vertical lines. If the letter of the film is Verne, then its spirit, expressed through a world made of elaborate, two-dimensional panels that play games with visual perspectives, must be Méliès.
It isn’t only via the illusion of rising out of an artist or architect’s sketchpad that Zeman affirms the film’s uncanny storybook-ness. Over and over, Invention for Destruction provokes viewers to doubt their own eyes as they reflexively parse components of a shot into what is and isn’t smoke and mirrors. Zeman’s audacious foregrounding of his own attempts at subterfuge is consistently bracing. Sometimes your eyes will catch that the actor whose shoulder you’ve been looking over is a phony, a set of two-dimensional panels, hinged together and cleverly painted. Or a shot will loiter a deliberate extra half second or so on an obviously stuttery arrangement of mechanized miniatures before cutting to a closer (and graphically matched) shot of the “real” actors, who, nevertheless, still inhabit a Michel Gondry-esque construction of matte shots and meticulously illustrated, yet wafer-thin, props.
There are many such examples, each of a different configuration of fakery. Viewers familiar with Wes Anderson’s films will correctly, and with a deafening snap of retrospective clarity, mark Zeman as one of the Isle of Dogs director’s foundational influences. On a surface level, Anderson, like Zeman, is prone to pushing a reality-stretching composition all the way to its limit at key moments. A good illustration of a Zeman-esque shot in Moonrise Kingdom is Captain Sharp’s rescue of the film’s young lovers from certain death, hanging onto them from a nearly destroyed church steeple—the moment depicted by miniature silhouettes against a dollhouse void. These types of shots, which Anderson deploys conservatively, and usually only during climactic peaks, occur once every few minutes in Invention for Destruction.
But Zeman also exerts over many grim, violent plot developments in Invention for Destruction an almost deadpan calm that turns out to be just the right tone to govern an adventure film that’s crammed with intricate bric-à-brac and heady with pulpy melodrama. In one exemplary moment, the submarine-borne pirates ram an apparently peaceful surface ship, and the latter begins to plunge into drowning waves, at which point a woman serenely fetches her caged bird and sets it free. Wes Anderson devotees will recognize not only the vivid earnestness of this grace note—he excels in etching these lyrical moments-out-of-time—but the overarching, decisive tendency toward tranquility as a counterintuitive strategy. Likewise, when the story turns in Invention for Destruction portend excitement and violence, Zeman’s characters can hardly be bothered to raise their voices above a drawing-room deadpan.
Serenity and poise in the face of wonderments continues into 1962’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Here as well is a wide range of elegantly mounted styles, though Zeman seems reluctant to flaunt the cracks in the artifice. If the seams holding Invention for Destruction together always appear on the verge of bursting, it’s because Zeman packed it that way, and what’s often marvelous about the film is the ways in which it creaks elegantly with the strain. Such a thrilling zeal is mostly missing from The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, thanks to any number of cinematic innovations and enhancements that would have cropped up in the interim, enabling a filmmaker to erase features and bugs in a single swipe. But in losing a certain fearlessness in the face of risk and logistical adversity, the film gains in opulence.
Zeman’s knack for nimbly deploying sophisticated and effects-heavy decoupage testifies to an altogether scaled-up self-assurance and resourcefulness. Four years between pictures might have made him value seamlessness over sleight of hand, but his carnival spirit has doubled, not halved. There’s also a strangeness about The Fabulous Baron Munchausen that’s balanced on Zeman’s delightfully unexplained flourishes, like billowing red smoke that hangs across an extended chase scene following an early palace raid. It symbolizes spilled blood, then bloody anger, then, finally, momentum only, an accent pointing to itself. The film answers equally to Zeman’s animated and live-action components, diminishing neither—an unusual parity.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen showcases Zeman as a chimeric virtuoso in full force. With it, he mastered a symphony of trick effects, a lyrical play of perspectival lines and sophisticated textures. Perhaps most astonishingly, he made a film that looks and feels like it’s severed from 1962 entirely, and belongs, instead, both to silent adventure films and illustrated storybooks. Beyond even these things, the film (and Invention for Destruction, nearly to the same degree) is profoundly weird, its multiplicity of seagoing, airborne, and war-making contraptions powered not by combustion but by the singular, motive force of one mind’s eye.
Each of the three films has a different color palette, posing different challenges for video production. Journey to the Beginning of Time is the only one that looks poorly (the film, not the transfer), with dull, slightly brown-ish color cinematography. Invention for Destruction boasts crisp black and white in a kaleidoscopic array of patterns, and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is rendered, for the most part, entirely in multi-planar, tinted frames, suggesting the look and texture of a meticulously revitalized silent picture, the kind whose making allowed for extremely rudimentary, early-days experiments in color processing.
As one would expect, all three films are virtually blemish-free, with color correction that appears to be perfectly judged, all the more impressive given the different learning curves between the three. An added pleasure is in the way Criterion’s mindfulness of Zeman’s increasing filmmaking savvy yields pleasure in spotting where the seams show in one project, only to vanish in the subsequent ones. The steady acquisition of self-assurance and knowhow, rendered through Criterion’s meticulous fidelity, tells a compelling tale on its own.
On the evidence, Zeman tended to direct his actors’ line readings toward wry solemnity, their most fearsome trials a slight inconvenience. What we experience are voice tracks, notwithstanding Journey to the Beginning of Time (which bears few such idiosyncrasies), governed by that same continental chill. The music will sometimes match the ambling quiet, and at other times takes flight with different crescendos owing to fanfare, genuflecting to heavens seen and unseen. Criterion’s audio team delivers impeccable results on a tall order: a rigorous management of a deceptively wide register, one that allows for an evocative interplay between the bass-heavy frontality of the dubbed vocal tracks and the slightly higher, dreamlike rear guard of sound effects and score.
You might go into this set without knowing Zeman from a hole in the ground, but a fleet of extras, spread over the three discs, will set you right. A handful of documentaries feature advocates of the cinema wizard, like animator Kōji Yamamura, director Tim Burton, and artist Ludmila Zeman (the director’s daughter), filling in biographical details and arguing persuasively for the wondrous potential of pre-CGI special effects, which few of Zeman’s contemporaries were capable of. Because the set only includes his first three theatrical features, large parts of Zeman’s life before them, and after, are filled in by these extras. Of all the documentaries and videos, long and short, the 101-minute Film Adventurer Karel Zeman is the most exhaustive; interspersed with histories and talking heads, we see a class of Czech film students laboring to reproduce a couple of Zeman’s seemingly simple effects shots, and, in the process, coming to understand just how much the maestro was able to achieve without the benefit of CGI, digital-oriented post-production, or hard-drive storage.
On the disc for Invention for Destruction, there’s an alternate opening scene for the English-language market, but the prize here is a quartet of Zeman’s early short films (A Christmas Dream, A Horseshoe for Luck, Inspiration, and King Lavra), foretelling what his talents would bring in subsequent efforts. Finally, the delightful packaging opens to reveal storybook-style pop-ups, inspired by each of the three films, and a fine essay by critic Michael Atkinson.
Criterion’s three-disc tribute to the deliriously imaginative Czech auteur is going to resound with a deafening click as a missing piece behind many, later cinematic visionaries falls neatly into place. You’re going to wonder where Karel Zeman has been all your film buff life.
Cast: Petr Herrmann, Vladimír Bejval, Josef Lukáš, Zdeněk Husták, Bedřich Šetena, Lubor Tokoš, Arnošt Navrátil, František Šlégr, Miloslav Holub, Václav Kyzlink, Jana Zatloukalová, Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek, Karel Höger, Jan Werich, Rudolf Hrušínský Director: Karel Zeman Screenwriter: Karel Zeman, J.A., František Hrubín Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 248 min Rating: NR Year: 1955-1962 Release Date: February 25, 2020 Buy: Video
Gainsbourg’s bittersweet ode to physical love comes to home video with a sterling 4K restoration and some excellent extras.
Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus, the iconic singer-songwriter’s 1976 directorial debut, is on the surface the story of a love triangle. But nothing about this film is conventional. It’s set in an almost postapocalyptic wasteland that’s supposed to be somewhere in the American Midwest, if the signage and the locals’ penchant for fractious roller derbies is to be believed. (There’s even a visual joke that seems to riff on John Boorman’s Deliverance.) Two sides of the triangle are gay garbagemen, while the third is a boyish truck stop waitress. And Gérard Depardieu puts in a glorified cameo as an amorous hayseed who’s just a little too much into his horse.
What the film is really about is twofold. On the one hand, it offers a nuanced examination of the fluidity of sexual identity, depicting a world where the laws of desire seem to operate with absolute capriciousness. And, interrelatedly, it’s an unabashed celebration of the physical expression of lovemaking. Gainsbourg, ever the provocateur, chooses here the almost taboo topic of heterosexual anal sex. The only other film of the period to broach this particular territory would be Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. There, though, the infamous butter scene is an expression of sexual aggression and domination. In Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus, it’s a gesture of physical connection and mutual gratification that flagrantly defies what’s considered natural and civilized.
When Krassky (Joe Dallesandro) meets Johnny (Jane Birkin), he first glimpses her from behind, and mistakes her for a boy. But his instantaneous attraction to her remains undiminished even when she turns around. Krassky’s behavior soon draws the ire of his partner, Padovan (Hugues Quester), who takes every opportunity to malign Johnny and impugn Krassky’s burgeoning relationship with her. In these moments, the film takes on a distinctly Shakespearean quality, as Padovan suggests the Iago to Krassky’s Othello.
Krassky and Johnny’s attempts to consummate their ill-starred love leaven the aura of tragedy with some well-delivered comedy, since they’re repeatedly tossed out of one flophouse after another owing to Johnny’s ear-piercing screams upon being penetrated. Gainsbourg’s worldview is certainly not without its relentlessly down-market sense of humor. Farts and other bodily functions, the asperities of almost ritualistic abuse, all play a role in the film. Here, too, there’s a link to Shakespeare, with a layer of bawdy raunch that’s fit to split the ears of the groundlings. It’s also the earthy, carnivalesque humor of Rabelais, meant to praise the body at the expense of the head, placing physical indulgence and desire ahead of pale reason.
Amid a wasteland of buzzing flies and burnt-out wrecks, it seems somehow poetically apt that Krassky and Johnny manage to make love in the bed of his garbage truck. When the world is running down, as Gordon Sumner once put it, you make the best of what’s still around. Tellingly, Johnny finally gets past the shrieking stage and achieves moans of actual pleasure. Later in Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus, Krassky nails it down, thematically speaking, when he tells her: “Whichever side I take you from, as long as we’re linked, and we come together, that’s love.” Trouble is, the world and all-too-human jealousy see fit to intrude.
But the ultimate downfall of the relationship doesn’t come from the outside. It comes from a failure of imagination, the inability to exist without taxonomies that impose a fixed identity on things. At one point, Johnny informs Krassky that she is a boy, in an imaginative suspension of stereotypical gender relations. Just as, on another occasion, she rejects her tomboy attire for a frilly pink dress and makeup, the ultimate “uniform” of femininity. When Padovan attempts to smother her with a plastic sack, she urges Krassky to beat him to a pulp. His refusal prompts her to turn on him. She slaps his face and calls him a “fag,” thus reducing him to a single identity, shutting him back up in the box of what’s normative. This betrayal, as much as his obvious sympathy for Padovan’s clearly distraught state, signals the end of their relationship.
Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus makes its U.S. home-video debut with a spectacular 4K restoration from Kino Lorber. The transfer really highlights the excellence of DP Willy Kurant’s luminous visuals: the vibrant colors, fine details of costume and décor, and suitably cinematic grain levels. The Master Audio 2.0 mix lends a degree of depth to ambient sound effects like the motorized roar of the garbage truck, the sizzle of frying hamburgers, and the occasional outburst of fisticuffs. The track also cleanly delivers Serge Gainsbourg’s lively score, which reprises several of his better-known chansons in jaunty instrumental versions.
Editor and film critic Samm Deighan’s commentary track starts by diving deep into Gainsbourg’s multimedia career. Deighan quickly covers Jane Birkin’s early days as a fashion model and actress, as well as her relationship with Gainsbourg, and discusses Joe Dallesandro’s early involvement with Andy Warhol and the Factory as well as his subsequent career in Europe. But the real meat and potatoes of the track comes with her discussion of the film’s sexual politics and its innumerable connections with a series of sexually explicit art-house films that came out in the wake of Last Tango in Paris. In an on-camera interview, Dallesandro talks about working in Europe, his deep-seated affection for Gainsbourg and Birkin, and the film’s disappointing reception. A Q&A with Birkin and Dallesandro at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2016 covers some of the same ground, but it’s great to see the two stars together again with their palpable chemistry clearly undiminished.
Serge Gainsbourg’s bittersweet ode to physical love comes to home video with a sterling 4K restoration and some excellent extras.
Cast: Jane Birkin, Joe Dallesandro, Hugues Quester, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Gérard Depardieu, Jimmy Davis, Maïté Nahyr, Liliane Rovère, Michel Blanc, Claudia Butenuth Director: Serge Gainsbourg Screenwriter: Serge Gainsbourg Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 1976 Release Date: February 18, 2020 Buy: Video
Anders Jacobsson’s Evil Ed doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeve, it plasters them all over the walls. Posters for the film’s spiritual forebears—including David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead—figure prominently in practically every scene of this mildly likable but quickly exhausting exercise in gonzo gore. But no influence looms larger over the project than the Evil Dead series, whose madcap mix of over-the-top violence and goofy gags serves as the template for Jacobsson’s film. It’s no surprise, then, to find the poster for the legendary second entry in Sam Raimi’s series in an early scene, but when the exact same poster crops up again minutes later on the wall of a completely different set, it’s an early warning sign that the film is never going to break free of the shackles of its antecedents.
The rest of Evil Ed more than bears out that fear. Seemingly every other line or image in the film is cribbed from some superior source, be it a demon modeled on the Lord of Darkness from Ridley Scott’s Legend or a Gremlin-like creature hanging out in a refrigerator or jokey quotations from everything from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to—surprise!—Evil Dead II. It’s clear that Jacobsson and his fellow semi-amateur filmmaking colleagues have a great affection for the films they’re cribbing from, but there’s no identifiable purpose to any of these references. Worse, they seem to have little idea about what makes their film’s forebears work so well on the level of plot and pace.
Evil Ed settles for the quick sugar rush of over-the-top violence. Admittedly, the film’s makeup effects and action sequences are executed with a scrappy panache that recalls some of the more entertaining Troma efforts. If Jacobsson, makeup artist Göran Lundström, and editor Doc have picked up anything from Raimi, it’s how to pull off an outlandish splatter sequence on a tight budget. Particularly memorable is an outrageous scene in which a crazed killer saws off a scantily clad prostitute’s limbs as prodigious amounts of blood squirt in all directions.
That scene comes from the film-within-a-film Loose Limbs 5, an entry in a slasher series from which Evil Ed’s protagonist, Edward Tor Swenson (Johan Rudebeck), is tasked with removing all offensive content. A censor working for a Swedish film company, Edward is used to snipping brief clips of nudity from Bergmanesque art films, so his transfer to the company’s Splatter and Gore Department isn’t an easy one for him. The deeper he gets into the job, which he carries out at the eerie suburban estate of the company’s sleazy executive, Sam Campbell (Olof Rhodin), the more his grip on reality becomes loosed. First, Edward starts to hallucinate visions of demons, monsters, and savage brutality, and before long he’s violently murdering anyone and everyone who’s unfortunate enough to show up on his doorstep.
This premise, inspired by Sweden’s long-running censorship practices, is rife with satirical potential. But outside of a few moments, such as Sam’s explanation for why a scene of a woman being raped by a beaver should be allowed to stay in one of the Loose Limbs films, Evil Ed never really settles on a point of view. The film isn’t really interested in commenting on censorship or the ubiquity of violence in media or anything else. It is, though, concerned with packing as much zany carnage into its frames as it can. If films like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive have shown that approach can pay dividends, the result here is a shambling assortment of increasingly monotonous gore and overwrought comedy loosely stitched together with arrhythmic, dawdling scenes consisting mostly of unfunny jokes delivered in poorly dubbed English. For a film that features so much of everything—action, horror, comedy, monsters, nudity, creatures, dream sequences—Evil Ed ultimately amounts to so little.
“Ninety minutes of condensed sex and violence!” shouts an incredulous Edward at one point to a fan of the Loose Limbs series. “You call that a great movie?!” His outrage is obviously intended as the film’s winking, self-effacing commentary on itself. But it’s unfortunate that the sentiment rings all too true. Evil Ed may be more knowing than the ‘80s slashers it parodies, but that doesn’t mean it’s got anything more on its mind.
Shot on 16mm in mostly overlit nighttime interiors, Evil Ed isn’t the prettiest of films, but it does have a certain distinctively exaggerated look, which is reproduced with care and fidelity on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release. The textures of the film’s moody color palette—namely its deep, shadowy blues—really shine through. If there’s some visible grain in some scenes, that feels true to the production’s scrappy, low-budget origins. The sound levels are slightly inconsistent, with sometimes slightly muffled dialogue scenes giving way to abrasively noisy action sequences. These disparities are particularly evident in the disc’s stereo mix, while the sound levels are more evenly dispersed on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Overall, however, both image and sound are more than acceptable, with any audio-visual issues mostly being the product of the semi-amateur nature of the film.
This single-disc release features only the 99-minute “Special ED-ition” cut and doesn’t contain the original version of the film. Jettisoning the theatrical cut doesn’t constitute much of a loss, particularly considering that the additional scenes only amount to about six minutes of inessential material. The 45-minute making-of documentary You Keep ‘Em Heads Rollin’ offers a fun, breezy history of the film’s arduous production; turns out that the story of Evil Ed’s making is more compelling than the film itself. A few shorter featurettes offer largely superfluous looks at the preparation of the new cut, the early filmmaking endeavors of Anders Jacobsson and his crew their careers post-Ed. The disc also contains a brief breakdown of the scenes added in the “Special ED-ition” cut, a self-satisfied introduction to the film by Jacobsson and Doc, deleted scenes, trailers, and an image gallery. Despite the absence of an audio commentary, Arrow has still loaded this disc with a generous helping of extras.
Arrow Video’s single-disc release of Evil Ed is more manageable than its previous three-disc edition, but it’s still probably more than this Swedish genre curio can really withstand.
Cast: Michael Kallaanvaara, Olof Rhodin, Hans Wilhelmsson, Anders Ek, Memory Garp, Christer Fant, Odile Nunes, Johan Rudebeck, Ulf Landergren, Jenny Forslund Director: Anders Jacobsson Screenwriter: Anders Jacobsson, Göran Lundström, Christer Ohlsson Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 1995 Release Date: February 4, 2020
Both films benefit immensely from Losey’s outsider perspective on the class hierarchies and other institutions that structure British society.
Considered superficially, Joseph Losey’s The Criminal and Accident couldn’t be more different. The former is a lean, noirish heist film, shot in moody monochrome by Robert Krasker, who lensed Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The latter is an elliptical examination of middle-aged disillusionment, filmed in vibrant Eastmancolor by Gerry Fisher, that’s far closer to the European sensibilities of Michelangelo Antonioni or Claude Chabrol than the kitchen-sink realism or Swinging Sixties hipness of its British contemporaries.
But, in fact, a number of formal and thematic elements unite these films. Notably, they’re both concerned with delineating the stakes, as well as the consequences, of a male rivalry that takes place in a pressure-cooker milieu where women’s concerns have been shunted to the sidelines. And both films benefit immensely from the expatriate American filmmaker’s outsider perspective on the class hierarchies and other institutions that structure British society.
The Criminal, released in 1960, straightaway signals its intention to reframe viewer expectations. The film opens on a trio of men, playing a friendly game of cards, their intent faces in focus against the blurry, bland backdrop of gray walls. Only when Krasker’s camera dollies back is it revealed that these men are convicts. The scene slyly introduces the notion that for the criminal class the daily rhythms of existence are practically indistinguishable whether they’re under lock-and-key or on the outside.
This notion carries through to the structure of the film, which alternates between sequences set in prison and in so-called normal society, so that narrative ultimately describes a vicious circle, an image that finds its visual correlative in the film’s final shot: prisoners in the yard marching around in circles. The only escape from this endless drudgery, The Criminal seems to suggest, comes not by rehabilitation and release, but through the oblivion of death.
Losey cannily uses the reintroduction of a convict into prison society to map out both its physical topography and its power structures, the one maintained by the prison officials, and the one enforced by the equally inflexible organization of the criminals themselves. The filmmaker shoots this sequence in a complicated series of lateral pans, tracking shots, and vertical crane shots, so that you might almost think it was one unbroken take.
The scene visually links the newcomer, Kelly (Kenneth Cope), with resident antihero Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), who watches his arrival through a peephole. Turns out there’s an outstanding beef between them. Rather than risk his impending parole, however, Bannion sets the aptly named Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) on Kelly. The film’s first segment ends in the prison governor’s office, where Bannion obtains his release, and the governor (Noel Willman) is informed Kelly “fell down some stairs,” a finding he clearly doesn’t believe for a second.
On the outside, Bannion wastes no time setting up the next heist. But Losey once again toys with viewer expectations by not even showing the actual caper, only a rather desultory planning session, and a bit of the immediate aftermath. Losey seems to equally downplay Bannion’s amorous exploits with new moll Suzanne (Margit Saad), apart from one fairly risqué moment of partial nudity. It’s interesting to watch Losey and screenwriter Alun Owen continually push against the more stereotypical (read: producer-mandated) story elements.
Back in prison before you can say “somebody squealed,” Bannion pays mob bigwig Saffron (Grégoire Aslan) to stage a riot that will cover his escape. This sequence, complete with chaotic staging across several tiers of cells and staircases, leaning heavily on quick cuts and canted angles, immediately calls to mind Don Siegel’s minimalist masterwork Riot in Cell Block 11. From here the film moves inexorably toward its snowbound finale, providing a suitably wintry middle term between Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Whereas both those films ended reasonably well for their beleaguered protagonists, here we wind up with a towering crane shot that fixes Bannion’s fallen form against a mucky field, while his former cronies frantically dig for buried treasure.
The second of three collaborations with playwright-turned-screenwriter Harold Pinter, 1967’s Accident layers an aura of dread over its tale of jealousy and infidelity by opening with the titular automotive smashup. In this way viewers are kept keenly aware of key characters’ fate throughout the film’s slow-burn buildup. And, by starting near the end, then wrapping around to an earlier point, the film, like The Criminal, describes another ominous circle.
Accident depicts the rivalry between two Oxford professors, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker), for the attention and affections of enigmatic foreign student, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard). In order to keep their object of desire properly obscure, the film doesn’t give Anna any lines for nearly half an hour. Rather than stripping her of any agency, this narrative move forces audiences to keep guessing what precisely her motivations may be.
The film’s bravura central set piece is an idyllic garden party at Stephen’s country home that turns into a boozy sleepover. The scene effectively expands the incipient triangle into a more polymorphous geometrical figure through the addition of Anna’s would-be beau, William (Michael York), and Stephen’s very pregnant wife, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant). Here real life fascinatingly splashes over into reel life, when you consider that Merchant was married at the time to Pinter, who was openly cheating on her with another actress.
Seeking some sort of satisfaction for his ongoing erotic frustration, Stephen seeks out a former flame, Francesca (Delphine Seyrig). Losey films the encounter using a peculiarly alienating effect: Their dialogue, delivered in voiceover, deliberately plays out of sync with the unfolding scene. It seems like a narrative feint that could’ve been lifted straight from a Godard film. Indeed, the participation of both Seyrig and Sassard only helps to play up the film’s stylistic and thematic resemblance to contemporary European cinema.
In the aftermath of the accident, Stephen carries the injured, dazed Anna into his house, where he proceeds to take advantage of her nearly comatose state. Accident, however, refuses to take any moral stance on his actions. In fact, you could even argue that it provides him with something resembling a happy ending. The film’s final shot shows Stephen ushering his family (complete with new baby) back into the house, providing a virtual bookend with the film’s opening shot. Now as then, however, the stillness is broken by the clamorous sound of the accident. Does it return eternally to haunt Stephen, or is it something he has managed to close the door on forever? Losey and Pinter refuse to say.
Not long after the opening titles for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, the housemaid (Laura Betti) at an enormous, stately, and modern house in Milan is seen tending to fallen leaves, while a new guest at the house (Terence Stamp) smokes and reads on the nearby veranda. He’s absurdly beautiful. The maid is seized by an increasingly debilitating sexual attraction to the visitor: In the same moment she’s staring at his bulging crotch, he absent-mindedly lets some cigarette ashes fall onto his trousers. She rushes over to brush them off, and, newly possessed by a giddy, hyperactive spirit of her own making, goes into her private locker in the kitchen to plant kisses on the religious icons she’s pasted there, wordlessly admonishing herself for her lurid thoughts.
Resuming her care of the lawn outside, the woman enjoys no respite from her desires. What sets her off the second time isn’t the young man’s cock but his face, posed and framed unmistakably in the manner of a religious icon, the kind that depicts a saint or Christ gazing skyward, beset by spiritual, rather than carnal, yearning. It’s too much for her; face drenched in tears, she races into the house and pushes the kitchen gas hose down her throat. Seconds from death, she’s rescued by the visitor, who takes her to bed. Their embrace isn’t unfettered from the intimations of a holy benediction that have just been established.
In turn, and via different sets of circumstances, the visitor beds everyone else in the household: first the lanky, athletic son, Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette); then the neglected mother, Lucia (Silvana Mangano); then the reserved, level-gazed daughter, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky); and finally, after much inner turmoil expressed through sudden illness and frequent cutaways to blasted, volcanic landscapes, the father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti). Pasolini, like his countryman Michelangelo Antonioni, uses realist feints like natural landscapes, location filming, and an observational, largely anti-melodramatic timbre to construct an overall strategy that, paradoxically, produces dreamlike emanations, as if any surface could give way to the otherworldly, yielding only to a light touch. Hints, looks, and posturing convey much that isn’t seen or mentioned in this enigma of a film.
Pasolini, best remembered as an incendiary, outspoken, openly gay, Marxist, Catholic-turned-atheist filmmaker and writer, was less reluctant than Antonioni to use his art as a vehicle for his often-excoriating views. Most germane to Teorema, appearing during a year that’s often pointed to as the singular peak, just before the fall, of revolutionary fervor in postwar Europe, is the fact that Pasolini despised the bourgeois class—and the family that hosts Stamp’s mysterious visitor is nothing if not textbook Italian bourgeoisie.
Almost as soon as the visitor has circled the quintet, the hyperactive mail carrier (Ninetto Davoli) who implores the housemaid to smile early in the film returns, this time with a letter that will compel the visitor to bid the family adieu. Each of them, in turn (and now with no insinuations of sex), confides in him how they’ve changed, not in appearance or, necessarily, action, but in intangible, philosophical ways. Could Pasolini so hate the property-owning class that he gave them a perfectly conceived totem of his desire? What ensues is the consequence not only of the visitor’s departure, but of the fact that he gave them something unnameable, and they will, to varying ends, pursue that thing all the way to the end of the road.
Teorema is a film that’s short on incident but not at all lightweight or unserious. Pasolini’s idea of structure is to build with moods and reinforce with context, a risky approach that pays off as the film’s second half becomes stranger and stranger without ever seeming to lose focus. Rather than becoming diffuse, Teorema gains power by pressing down hard on the mystery of its conception. Having departed for points unknown (hinting at an Antonioni-esque “was he ever really here?” scintilla of additional mystery), the visitor never returns, but the idea of him has, somehow, seized permanent control of each of the five, casting them to different winds.
The first in the house to topple is Emilia, who departs by train to her home village, without a word. (In a hilariously dark and loaded gesture, she’s replaced by an almost identical maid, also named Emilia, played by Adele Cambrea.) Odetta begins to lie motionless in bed, one hand clenched unceasingly, eyes open, until she’s carted off in an ambulance. The original Emilia takes a seat at the edge of the village square, refusing to move or utter a word. The townspeople, all known to her, slowly begin to believe that she’s been transformed into a kind of religious manifestation, and regard her with awe. Some bring their afflicted children, hoping she can transmit miraculous cures. Others bring her cheese and wine, and Emilia tells them that she only wants to eat weeds plucked from the roadside.
Pietro buries himself in his project, oil painting on transparent materials. He experiences an initial epiphany when he regards his own incompetence as a visual artist, yet, instead of abandoning the endeavor, redoubles his efforts, delivering to himself heated lectures concerning the necessity of, and the means toward, disguising incompetence through arrogance and self-regard. He, too, has been touched by some manner of holy spirit. Originally filming the character as a jaunty, bounding figure of fun (and kind of a double for the simian mail carrier), Pasolini fills the frame with Soublette’s newly grim and determined face, which now seems imperceptibly older, leeched of joy but energized by purpose. As any artist will do when they’ve got enough time and near-limitless financial backing, Pietro holes up in a spacious studio, adorns its exterior windows with anti-establishment slogans, and attempts transgressive expressions of art like urinating on a blank canvas.
We follow the outward-spinning paths of Lucia and Paolo—her toward desperate sex with increasingly sketchy young men, him toward a more total self-erasure. It’s around this point, when Paolo wonders if he should give his factory away to his workers, that we realize that a sophisticated, film-length trap is now closing all around us. The perplexing events of the prologue, in which unnamed men discuss a factory owner who’s given away his entire operation to his workers, are contextualized as a flash forward, and we learn (or have likely already intuited) that Paolo is that factory owner, and his story has been leading to that crucial decision. Yet a throwaway line from the prologue, a hypothetical “whatever the bourgeoisie does is wrong,” suggests that even if a titan of industry destroys or gives away everything, and wanders the wastes, nude, screaming into the void, it’s not enough. The suggestion that the family’s every gesture is insufficient, incorrect, even pathetic, may be harsh, but a little analytical distance mitigates what may seem cruel in Pasolini’s judgments. The title of the film (Theorem in English) allows for a lens of interpretation, namely that this is a parable with a philosophical-mathematical spirit. The lives of these people are written on a chalkboard.
Pasolini, whose mind had a depth and breadth that remains inadequately measured to this day—mostly thanks to the notoriety of his final film, Salò—never commits to anything so easily reducible as a condemnation of Teorema’s central family. Pietro’s pretentious self-regard is kind of contemptible, but Lucia and Odetta’s suffering isn’t. Emilia, it might be argued, attains holiness as she buries herself in a construction site, her tears forming filthy pools next to her face, but Paolo’s ultimate destination may be the most tragically fitting of all. Wandering the billowing wastes that we’ve glimpsed now and then since the start of the film, the now-nude factory owner has renounced everything but has no one to witness his labored martyrdom—not even a crowd to hurl stones at him, like the mythic Wilbur Mercer in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Pasolini the atheist, anti-bourgeois filmmaker grants the family a visitation, maybe from something beyond their understanding, and even as he plots out their subsequent ruination, corruption, or debasement, it’s evident in the attitudes and weighted imagery in the film that he feels it. He feels all of it.
Compared with the BFI’s 2013 Blu-ray release, this disc boasts a comparably healthy bitrate, but the Criterion Collection has also made clear and decisive choices that distinguish their release. The difference can most obviously be seen in skin tones and contrast levels: The BFI disc’s image indulges in a judicious application of dark pools of shadow, whereas on the Criterion, details in faces, decor, and architecture are sharp and vivid—never blown out. The close-ups of Soublette, late in Pietro’s arc, needed this sometimes-brutal sharpness, the better to indicate his transformation from carefree boy to consumed young man. But if that doesn’t illustrate it well enough, consider Silvana Mangano’s eyeliner, as we often lose her haunted, hungry eyes on the BFI transfer, while she’s shaded just right on the Criterion.
The disc provides two Dolby Digital monaural tracks, one in Italian, the other in English. (We hear Stamp speaking in his own voice in the latter.) The English track rates a little bit less than the Italian; there’s a lot less nuance in the translation, and the overall sound field seems a bit tinny, in comparison, but for the completist, it’s got library significance. Both tracks are clean and well-managed, especially allowing for the different registers of music, headlined by Ennio Morricone’s unusual score, as well as the terrifying Lacrymosa from Mozart’s “Requiem.”
Pasolini doesn’t strike one as his own best salesman, and so, the two-and-a-half minutes of 1969 interview footage where he gives cryptic answers to broad questions about Teorema may not give you the best pre-film introduction, though, peering from behind his Kiarostami-like shades, he makes a compelling figure, impish yet somehow deadly serious. The 2007 Terence Stamp interview, which runs about 30 minutes, fares a little better, with respect to the film. Stamp, as commanding and charming—and, occasionally, a bit cheeky—as he ever was, relates anecdotes that build on the story of the film’s genesis and production, though he sometimes seems stymied, even skeptical, of Pasolini’s whole, enigmatic, cranky persona.
So, it’s left to the other two supplements to do the heavy lifting. Center stage is the Robert Gordon audio commentary track, which has been ported over from the BFI disc, like the Stamp interview. Gordon’s prepared remarks are erudite, diving deep into a scene, or adding context regarding the source material, Pasolini’s life and preoccupations, and other assorted details. While the track is well-structured, and highly educational, Gordon will often simply describe action or mise-en-scène that’s already plain to see. Still, an essential listen.
Newly recorded for this release is John David Rhodes’s video essay. Rhodes, author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome, gives a brisk yet well-mounted 16-minute summation of Teorema’s inner workings and fundamental mysteries, with a particular focus on the cast. While one may hypothesize that Stamp’s ethereal beauty is key to powering Pasolini’s semi-parable, semi-schematic fantasy, Rhodes moves the other direction, offering that Stamp’s movie-star wattage conceals Pasolini’s hands as he moves the game pieces around. What lends credence to this is that Rhodes shades in the backgrounds and associations carried by each of the other principal players, including Pasolini’s own mother, Susanna Pasolini, who plays a crucial role in the descending arc of Emilia’s story.
The crown jewel of this release, though, is the brilliant essay by James Quandt, “Just a Boy,” which, in a few, dense pages, manages to move mightily not only through the film’s texts and subtexts, but where it stands in relation to Pasolini’s poetry and personal politics.
The overall girth of Criterion’s Teorema release seems more dutiful than exalted; perhaps more of a ruckus could have been raised for one of the most singular and thrilling films of its era. Just the same, their decision to produce a transfer that’s rich in detail where previous releases erred on the side of waxy, dark accents is reason enough to rejoice.
Cast: Silvana Mangano, Terence Stamp, Massimo Girotti, Anne Wiazemsky, Laura Betti, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Ninetto Davoli, Carlo De Mejo Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini Screenwriter: Pier Paolo Pasolini Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Release Date: February 18, 2020 Buy: Video
This side of a flight to Barcelona, Criterion’s gorgeous release is the next best option to appreciate the Catalan architect’s work.
Had Lewis Carroll switched from jotting down his visions to carving them in stone, his works might have looked a lot like Antonio Gaudí’s. Both artists shared what Eric Rohmer once described (in a Cahiers du Cinéma review of a Frank Tashlin film) as “a rebellion against the straight line,” a quality amply displayed in Antonio Gaudí, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s meditative document about the great Spanish architect.
As Teshigahara’s camera travels through the streets of Barcelona, the majesty and sheer strangeness of Gaudí’s 19th-century combination of Art Nouveau arabesques and organic contours take over. The tour is centered on detailed views of the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà, where ornate designs seem to alternately belong in a Kubrick film and in the Land of Oz, and on the Casa Vicens and Güell Palace, where medieval sumptuousness is skewed by twisty columns and undulating rooftops. Ditching talking heads in favor of Toru Takemitsu’s spellbinding score, Teshigahara cultivates an immersive tone as we float hypnotically from one architectural wonder to the next, from grisly murals to staircases that resemble a caterpillar’s segmented body.
The contrasting blends in Gaudí’s work (the ancient and the modern, the natural and the man-made) are reflected in shots of frosted glass on antique formations, and also of rocky hills that look like rugged visages. Visually ravishing and rhythmic, Antonio Gaudí feels like a well-made but impersonal travelogue until one recalls the Japanese filmmaker’s own use of nature’s unruly shapes in his classic Woman in the Dunes. Teshigahara’s refusal to provide extensive biographical or historical context to Gaudí’s structures won’t be of much help to art students cramming for a test, yet he understands how, when dealing with the maker of the monumental, unfinished La Sagrada Familia basilica, an artist’s life and times can be best summarized by letting the works speak for themselves.
Criterion’s transfer of a high-def digital restoration offers significant improvements across the board from their 2008 DVD release. The magnificence of Antonio Gaudí’s art is often found in his extremely acute attention to details, so lovingly traced throughout Hiroshi Teshigahara’s tribute to one of his artistic heros. The high video bitrate used on Criterion’s Blu-ray lends the image a newfound sharpness, allowing for the fullest appreciation of Gaudí’s craftsmanship this side of a flight to Barcelona. The color balancing is equally impressive, presenting a vivid dynamic range of color and hues. As there’s no voiceover to speak of, Antonio Gaudí is a relatively quiet film, but the uncompressed monaural soundtrack gets the job done in the rare occurrences that Tôru Takemitsu’s typically off-kilter, ethereal score kicks into full gear.
The 72-minute Antonio Gaudí is indeed one of the shorter films to garner an individual release from Criterion, but the disc is packed with a nice variety of extras, albeit ones that are mostly ported over from the prior DVD release. Still, this is an astute batch of features that tackle Gaudí’s enduring legacy as well as Teshigahara’s long-running fascination with the Catalan architect’s work. An interview with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki offers insight into Japan’s ongoing fondness for Gaudí’s work, despite his free-flowing style being generally at odds with the straight lines and sharp angles that dominate Japanese architecture. In his hour-long documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí, art critic Robert Hughes takes great care to spotlight some of the architect’s less famous work, while not underestimating the importance of La Sagrada Familia as the final culmination of Gaudí’s artistic growth.
A pair of Teshigahara short films are also included: the silent Gaudí, Catalunya, 1959 documents Teshigahara’s first encounters with Gaudí’s work in Barcelona, while Sculptures by Sofu—Vita chronicles a gallery showing of the sculptures of his father, Sofu Teshigahara, whose fondness for Gaudi’s use of serpentine curves is evident in his own work. The package is rounded out with a beautiful 38-page booklet with a new essay by art historian Dore Ashton, a 1959 conversation among the Teshigaharas about their trip to Spain, and an anecdote by Hiroshi Teshigahara about his relationship with Gaudí’s work.
This side of a flight to Barcelona, Criterion’s gorgeous upgrade of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s tribute to Antonio Gaudí is the next best option to appreciate the Catalan architect’s work.
Cast: Isidre Puig Boada, Seiji Miyaguchi Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 1984 Release Date: February 18, 2020 Buy: Video
From the start of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the banal and sublime walk hand in hand. Sloshing water transforms a tile floor into a mirror, capturing the reflection of a plane soaring across the sky above. There’s an almost magical quality to this image, and it’s an impression that’s undermined by the camera tilting upward to reveal the unglamorous reality of the water’s source: a maid washing dog feces out of a driveway.
The woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a man who seems to be a guest in his own home. As a car pulls into the driveway, shots of the vehicle’s grille, tires, and gear shift make Antonio’s presence known. An entire dynamic between the patriarch and his family is established in the way the man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children gather to welcome him as if paying tribute to some visiting dignitary—their awestruck faces alight by the glow of the car’s headlights.
These initial moments give the audience a sense of this family’s perspective, but for the most part Cuarón roots the camera in Cleo’s point of view. An indigenous woman who speaks both Spanish and Mixtec, she switches between the languages on a dime depending on whether she’s talking to her employers or to the other servants in the house. Though Sofia is never depicted as an uncaring or inattentive mother, it’s clear from the start that Cleo is largely responsible for rearing Sofia’s children, who tend to respond faster to Cleo’s commands than to their mother’s own. Cuarón establishes the economic and class divisions of the Mexico City neighborhood where Antonio and Sofia live via scenes that place Cleo as one of a fleet of servants who toil inside the area’s homes, and in one long take, the camera floats over the rooftop of Antonio’s manse as Cleo hangs laundry, slowly revealing numerous other maids scrubbing and hanging clothes on roofs that stretch to the image’s vanishing point.
Cleo’s status as glorified second mother to Sofia’s kids is cemented further when Antonio, already such a spectral presence in the lives of his family members, moves in with his mistress under the guise of attending a medical conference. As Sofia realizes what’s happened, her grief and anger isolate her from the rest of her family, forcing Cleo to increasingly take on responsibility for the well-being of Sofia’s children, which includes sheltering them from the knowledge of their father’s abandonment. But as Cleo contends with the added tension in her employers’ household, she must also deal with an unexpected pregnancy and the sudden, violent rejection by her boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who threatens to kill the woman and her unborn child if she makes him take responsibility as a father.
These relationship struggles veer Roma into melodrama, albeit of a kind whose emotions are frequently held at a distance by Cuarón’s aesthetic approach, which privileges long takes and master shots that often dwarf Cleo in the frame. In a scene where the maid goes to confront Fermín over their child while he practices martial arts with other men in a soccer field, she’s just a speck in a massive shot that takes in a mountain that looms over the scene as the men do their drills, their movements kicking up a thick cloud of dirt that hangs over the field like a fog. Cleo’s near-invisibility in the shot forecasts how much power she’ll project while dealing with the imposing Fermín, and similar methods of shrinking Cleo in the frame assert her diminished authority in Antonio and Sofia’s household. Cuarón calls attention to the unspoken wealth of the family Cleo serves by highlighting the size of their home, placing Cleo in the middle distance and background of deep-focus images that make the house seem as big as a castle, and the vastness of the space is subtly reinforced by the fact that in spite of the maid’s seemingly endless toil, the place never, ever seems to get clean.
Aparicio, a first-time actor who responded to a casting call without knowing who Cuarón was, gives a performance that’s defined by halting mannerisms. That’s an approach that makes sense for the actress’s character, a woman who’s paid to silently handle the life inconveniences of her bosses and who treats her increasingly prominent position in Sofia’s life with the caution of someone who’s inadvertently trespassing. Throughout, Cuarón emphasizes Cleo’s helplessness, whether she’s caught up in a riot that abruptly breaks out during a civil demonstration or dealing with complications during the delivery of her baby. And the depiction of said delivery—an unbroken long shot that captures the entirety of the birthing process—is the film’s emotional high point. By framing the moment in this way, Cuarón forces the audience to notice every new wrinkle in the delivery just as Cleo does—as her reactions gradually turn from pained to confused to panicked as problems arise.
Acting as writer, cinematographer, and co-editor on Roma, Cuarón exercises near-total control over every frame, and the static camera during the hospital scene captures as technically exacting an image as anything in the elaborate blocking that typifies Children of Men and Gravity. By the same token, Cuarón’s efforts to use his formal mastery to foreground Cleo’s physical and social place speaks to a focus on character that hasn’t been this thrilling in his work since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As showy as the film’s compositions and elegant camera movements can be, they consistently illuminate Cleo’s state of mind and social status, as well as give voice to all the emotions she lacks the freedom to openly express.
Cuarón mixes classical and modern modes of melodrama so freely that Roma calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘80s films, which used similarly old and new Hollywood techniques to craft stories that wedded nostalgia with clear-eyed social commentary. But where Coppola set his fondness for old melodramas and musicals against the ills those films often papered over, Cuarón confronts his own personal privilege, ruminating on the perspective of the sort of woman who helped raise him. (Cleo is based on the filmmaker’s childhood nanny, Liboria Rodríguez.) In the end, Roma is autobiography as autocritique, and in exploring a point of view adjacent to his own, Cuarón appears to have rediscovered his identity as a filmmaker.
With Roma, Alfonso Cuarón channels longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly indefatigable virtuosity. The film sometimes even resembles a live-action playthrough of Lubezki’s Instagram account, which frequently features monochrome, deep-focus images of what could easily be mistaken for Roma production stills. Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón shot Roma using the mighty Arri Alexa 65, then mastered it in 4K, giving the images a specific clarity of present-ness that actively resists overdosing on what could have been a soporific level of nostalgia. And this is unequivocally a Blu-ray release of flagship proportions, as Criterion’s encoding team has made sure that we get a bitrate that’s worthy of some of the most painstakingly composed black-and-white images in many a long year.
Roma’s sound design is just as rich. The film’s sound mixers and editors etch a soundscape with a technical lucidity that, complementing the crystal clarity of ultra-high-end digital video, somehow makes Cuarón’s memory deep dives a landscape of vivid yet alien effects. They deploy a sound as dramatic underpinning only at a few, prudently chosen points; elsewhere, even the most dazzling images are cloaked in eerie tranquility. It’s no surprise, then, that Criterion’s work on the audio—via an absolute barnburner of a format, Dolby Atmos Spanish TrueHD 7.1—will grace the right home-entertainment setup with peerless fidelity to the director’s autobiographical magnum opus. (Also, and exclusively for Spanish speakers who are hard of hearing, the alternate track is descriptive audio.)
The main supplement is a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary titled Road to “Roma” that, as with many projects of its kind, treats us to candid footage of the director and his crew brainstorming and fine-tuning the finished product. This kind of featurette has a double appeal, capturing the process as it happens, and, as a visual endeavor on its own, being just the right degree of bland to let us know that, when the rubber meets the road, camera position, lens selection, f-stops, and a million other factors make all the difference.
Alongside this, there’s an array of production photos, a featurette covering the film’s tour across Mexico, and a massive booklet of essays that illuminate several different aspects of the film’s production. There’s a compilation of tweets by author Aurelio Asiaín, poetically canvassing countless observations about the film, bolstered by several rounds of editing and re-editing after as many subsequent viewings. There’s also contributions by historian Enrique Krauze and novelist Valeria Luiselli. What stands out the most, besides these texts, is the inclusion of several foldout images from the film, paying printed homage to the widescreen motion picture. All in all, hungry Roma-philes will remain engaged for the better part of a day.
Alfonso Cuarón’s mitts are all over this director-approved Criterion Blu-ray release, and there’s good and bad with that, depending on your relationship with the film.
Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero Director: Alfonso Cuarón Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 135 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Release Date: February 11, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness.
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.
Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.
Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.
Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.
Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.
It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.
Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment superbly preserves the vibrancy of the film’s images: Colors are sharp, dynamic, and subtly varied—the gleaming whites of a childhood river are heartbreakingly beautiful—while backgrounds and foregrounds are pristine and well-detailed. Meanwhile, skin textures are intensely tactile, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with aging and memory. Tactility is also a significant accomplishment of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, as it acutely balances the film’s painstaking use of small diegetic sounds to establish space—from the echoes of a cave dwelling to the churning of river water—with the plaintive melancholia of Alberto Iglesias’s score.
A Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas covers the history of their collaboration over the years, including how Banderas’s decades of experience in Hollywood informed their first reunion film, The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar also speaks of how Pain and Glory both is and isn’t a personal film, as he used his life as a springboard for fictional reveries. Another interview, titled “Pedro Almodóvar: In His Own Words,” broadly covers the filmmaker’s career, such as how it was informed by various protests against the waning Franco regime. These supplements are diverting but fairly unsurprising, especially for audiences already familiar with Almodóvar’s cinema. The film’s theatrical trailer rounds out a slim package.
Sony has outfitted Almodóvar’s newest memory play with a transfer that fully preserves the film’s painstaking gorgeousness, though the supplements package is routine.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video
The film, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.
At the center of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is a man identified only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), a stone-faced figure perpetually clad in precisely tailored earth-toned suits. He alternates between strutting purposefully and waiting patiently in the cities and villages of Andalusia in the south of Spain. Seated at outdoor tables in Seville’s secluded, orange-tree-bedecked plazas, he meets with enigmatic types who exchange mysterious trinkets and coded phrases with him. “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” each of them say in Spanish, proceeding to launch into a rambling excursus on a pet topic. The taciturn Lone Man listens attentively, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s decoding secret instructions or genuinely interested in classic films, the etymology of the term “bohemian,” the provenance of the universe’s molecules, or peyote.
That is the long and short of the major action in the film, which deploys just enough generic codes to qualify it as a romanticized hitman flick in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai but curiously withholds much of what one might expect from the genre. Namely, the story lacks the armature of a true plot, the decisive events and abrupt pivots one encounters even in Euro-existentialist interpretations of pulp detective fiction. The Limits of Control gives us existentialism without the fatalism: The Lone Man awaits not fate but understanding, a wisdom accumulated through conversation, experience, and imagination.
“Reality is arbitrary,” his unnamed contractor (Alex Descas) advises him in the opening scene, seated in a business-class lounge in Charles de Gaulle Airport. “The universe has no center and no edges.” It’s advice that the Lone Man appears to take seriously, as, laid over in Madrid, he spends his time contemplating cubist paintings in the Reina Sofia Art Museum. Cubism—inspired, incidentally, by the shifting perspectives artists encountered in early cinema—presents the world without a center, beyond the limits of control. Still, the film suggests that there’s a possibility of control that extends to the borders of the self: Every morning in his hotel room, the Lone Man wakes to perform a tai-chi-like exercise, cinematographer Chris Doyle’s camera following the slow, ritualistic movements, as patient as the man himself.
The Limits of Control isn’t what you could call a cubist film, but the absence of a centering discourse like a plot certainly gives it avant-garde vibes. A coal-black helicopter periodically appears in the sky, following the Lone Man through his languid trek through Andalusia. A mysterious femme fatale (Paz de la Huerta) crops up, lying nude on her belly in his hotel bed with her rear end perked up in the foreground of the frame, having seemingly jumped ship from a mid-‘60s Godard movie. No sex when he’s working, the Lone Man informs her, and no mobile phones either. Surveillance without worry, ambiguously threatening women without sex—these images exist more to be contemplated than as elements in a story to be followed.
Jarmusch has one of the Lone Man’s co-conspirators, a platinum-wigged, cowboy-hat-wearing woman played by Tilda Swinton, speak of her love of Hitchcock, as if to emphasize the film’s studious avoidance of suspense in any conventional sense. The Limits of Control is shot with a placid meticulousness that seems to stem more from Jarmusch than from Doyle (though some more chaotic, washed-out and time-axis-manipulated early shots of the highway outside Madrid evoke Doyle’s work with Wong Kar-Wai). Instead of a medium for action and suspense, The Limits of Control suggests cinema instead as a meditative tool, a means of contemplating and exercising our facility to affect the shape of reality.
Arrow’s Blu-ray presents a crisp and detailed image that preserves the vibrancy of the film’s Spanish settings to a greater extent than the previous DVD released by Universal. The saturation and range of the color constitutes an important facet of the film’s sense of atmosphere, as the yellows and oranges of Seville’s narrow streets and open plazas glow in the background of the Lone Man’s strolls and meetings. As the film’s sound mix is rather minimalist, the 5.1 audio track makes itself felt most when dreamy non-diegetic music envelops the channels, as when the Lone Man arrives in Madrid, or when we see Tilton Swinton’s character striding toward their meeting in slow motion.
Arrow has clearly dedicated a lot of effort to this disc’s extras, beginning with the reversible sleeve; you can opt for the cover art pictured above or one redolent of a classic post-noir French film poster. The booklet features an essay by critic Geoff Andrews that mostly focuses on Jarmusch’s work as a whole. Andrews leans a bit too heavily on the notion that Jarmusch is “misunderstood,” but he offers a substantive deconstruction of the filmmaker’s reputation as “the king of cool.” (Andrew’s encyclopedic knowledge of Jarmusch’s work is more effectively on display in the extended interview with him that’s included as a special feature on the disc.) Also included here is a feature-length documentary about the film, Behind Jim Jarmusch, that includes footage from the set, as well as conversations with Jarmusch about how he approaches directing actors and finding a story while shooting. Most helpful in providing a conceptual gateway into The Limits of Control, though, is the fantastic video essay by Amy Simmons, “The Rituals of Control,” which analyzes the film as a statement on the opposition of “aesthetic democracy” and “globalized capitalism.” Finally, the features are rounded out by an archival collection of location-scouting footage and the film’s trailer.
Obscure but unpretentious, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control pulls an intriguing fake out, deploying conventions of the existential hit-man story to lead the viewer to a contemplation of the relation between cinematic image and reality. It’s a film that, as Arrow’s excellent assemblage of features proves, is rewarded by post-viewing conversation.
Cast: Isaach de Bankolé, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray, Paz de la Huerta, Luis Tosar, Yuki Kudo Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2009 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video
It marks a specific convergence in Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes.
The Gowanus Houses, a public housing project in the heart of Boerum Hill, hasn’t changed much since Spike Lee filmed Clockers there a quarter century ago. In a borough of Brooklyn that’s been blasted wide open and transformed by gentrification and billions upon billions of dollars in development capital, the land and buildings within the NYC Housing Authority’s purview tend to remain, inexplicably perhaps, frozen in time. Still, it’s hard not to notice the glaring contrasts between the Gowanus Houses and some newer bulwarks, like the Barclays Center, the Red Hook IKEA, or the impenetrable and unobtainable houses occupied by the swells of nearby Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. These monuments, and more, symbolize the city’s indefatigable efforts to eradicate “the ghetto,” as well as everyone living there, from a vision of the future that bears no scars but, paradoxically, requires regular blood sacrifices to expedite the progress of empire.
In the film, after crossing the artery of Flatbush Avenue, patrol cars and homicide detectives from the 88th Precinct on Classon Avenue regularly rain down on the Gowanus Houses like Luftwaffe bombers over London. We first see them harassing courtyard dealers known as “clockers.” Clumsy and naïve plainclothes narcotics police and uniformed patrolmen harangue them using brusque and ineffectual methods, shouting things like “Tell us where the drugs are!” and “I know you’re carrying!” It isn’t long before you notice that shaking these kids down for their concealed supply is just a pretext, whereas the cruelty—the forced strip searches, the dehumanizing language, the fondling of genitals—is the point.
Lee establishes this pressure-cooker milieu in a handful of brisk minutes that conceal a highly nuanced, ambivalent attitude toward the clockers. Before he does so, the film’s title sequence—a collage of crime scene photographs (recreations, it turns out) of murdered black people scored to R&B singer Marc Dorsey’s “People in Search of Life”—establishes a grave context that will envelop everything that follows. What matters, above all, beyond deeds sordid or noble, is that the black bodies in those photos, which had been alive only a moment before, were desecrated, and it makes precious little difference why, or by whom.
It’s through this prologue that Lee establishes his authority over Richard Price’s material (the film is based on his 1992 novel, which he and Lee adapted for the screen). One of our great crime fiction writers, Price is rightly celebrated for his command of geographic detail and street talk (especially when it comes to his police characters). He supplies Clockers with its whodunnit/why-dunnit foundation, but the structure built on top of it is Lee’s own. What emerges is a slice of life beset by a rising sea of lethal hazards and an assortment of stressors that can lay siege to an unlucky individual all at once, like a symphony in hell.
Strike (Mekhi Phifer) just happens to be that individual. Afflicted, like a Paul Schrader protagonist, with a stress-induced bleeding ulcer that he nurses with chocolate milk, Strike is the jagged cipher at the center of Clockers, irredeemable in the eyes of several of the story’s moral arbiters. Yet, compared to the likes of neighborhood kingpin Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) and the killer Errol Barnes (Lee staple Thomas Jefferson Byrd), the latter disintegrating from AIDS, Strike is just a babe in the woods.
Early in the film, Little orders Strike to carry out a hit on a rival, a big-talking operator, Darryl Adams (comedian Steve White), who’s clocking from within a popular restaurant called Ahab’s. The hit, like the murder at the center of Price’s 2008 novel Lush Life, is rendered in ellipsis, leaving the characters, and us, to process clues and circumstances after the fact, and at a considerable disadvantage. Strike’s brother, the more accomplished and straight-edged yet equally troubled Victor (Isaiah Washington), confesses to the murder, but lead detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) suspects there’s a lot more going on than he’s being told.
Far more than the murder story and what unravels in its wake, Clockers gains its power as an accumulation of pressures and clanging horrors. When a violent incident occurs later in the story, its aftermath flooding the narrative morass with even greater volatility, Lee masterfully delivers a singular, bold centerpiece: Rocco narrating and coaching Shorty’s statement. The sequence, a projection of Shorty’s imagination prompted by Rocco, turns the projects’ courtyard into a theater of exaggerated proportions and angles, with Rocco in the driver’s seat.
In the novel, this passage begins and ends across a few pages, and there are no stylistic flourishes to speak of, but Lee casts it in a role similar to Radio Raheem’s murder in Do the Right Thing—a cataclysm that releases an enormous amount of built tension and, in the same instance, accelerates and amplifies many of the story’s worst-case scenarios. And, having already shown us the complex architecture of the Gowanus Houses drug trade, with its interlocking machinery of power plays and strenuously managed appearances, an endlessly demoralizing grind that both sides of the law participate in, the sequence takes us on an unexpected detour into a kind of queasy puppet theater, paradoxically revealing the wounded heart that’s been beating underneath everything, all this time.
While Clockers would be Lee’s first real brush with the policier, it hasn’t been the last, so it’s worth pondering how he uses technique and storytelling to convey his conflicting attitudes toward the New York Police Department, and American policing in general. Neither he nor Price pull any punches in depicting cops, of all ranks, as casual, habitual racists, indulging in horrifying language; in the final minutes, we overhear a uniformed beat cop describing the projects as a “self-cleaning oven”—an image not without obvious, and chilling, connotations. In lockstep with his younger partner, Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rocco has all the earmarks of the asshole cop: He drinks on duty, spits racial epithets carelessly and cavalierly, and even sets up Strike to get whacked in order to produce a desired effect.
What does Octave say in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game? “Everyone has their reasons.” And everyone is the hero of their own tale, even asshole cops. Rocco doesn’t pursue a path of compulsive self-destruction like the title character that Keitel played in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, a mere three years before this, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that Clockers uses Strike’s hellbound—and hell on Earth—trajectory to deflect our attention away from details about Rocco’s path that aren’t trumpeted as loudly. Scene by scene, he pivots away from each normal source of motivation as he tries to use brute force and battlefield thinking to push through the mysteries of the case. At first, the Darryl Adams murder is routine. When Victor declares himself as the prime suspect, Rocco can’t accept it, and pivots to pursuing what he thinks is the real truth, against the express wishes of his precinct, and his peers, who think he’s out of his mind for choosing not to throw the book at Victor. Is he pursuing truth at any cost? Truth, as a principle, goes right out of the window when Shorty kills Errol, and Rocco (at the behest of NYCHA cop André, played by Keith David) feeds Shorty the best possible statement, with only an incidental relationship to the facts.
You could hypothesize that truth is tricky, grimy, complicated, and that Rocco isn’t so much a bringer of truth as an agent of justice, even as it displeases his superiors and perplexes his partner. What he does for Shorty, and, by association, the deceased Errol, qualifies as a kind of frontier justice, dispensed under the table and off the books. Nevertheless, justice in the Darryl Adams case eludes Rocco as the case simply collapses under the weight of an 11th-hour revelation delivered by Strike and Victor’s mother. Still, Rocco persists, but toward what? He delivers Strike to Penn Station, releasing him into the wilds beyond the Hudson River. No wisdom or reason can explain why Rocco made this call—not routine, not truth, not justice. As a long-term plan, it doesn’t even withstand a few minutes of scrutiny. Yet it seems to the viewer, and all parties involved, except the men who want Strike dead, that the problem of Strike has no tenable solution, though this is the one comes the closest.
It cannot be known, except to himself, what compels someone like Rocco. He might describe it as a grain of righteousness that never altogether dissolves, even as it flows along conflicting rivers. At the end of the road, as the two men sit in Rocco’s car, next to the entrance to Penn Station, Strike asks Rocco, “What made you give a shit?” It’s the one pointed question that’s directed at Rocco throughout the film, the one question that requires an inward gaze, but he declines to answer, instead telling Strike that if he ever sees him again, he’ll bust him on trumped-up charges. During quieter moments, Clockers shows Strike enjoying moments of stolen quiet, taking solace in his model train set. It’s in these moments that we glimpse his inner life. But what does a guy like Rocco see when he looks inward? That grain of righteousness? Or just a void in the shape of another dead body on the sidewalk?
Clockers marks a specific convergence in Spike Lee’s career, when his confidence as a filmmaker aligned with the boldness of his flourishes. Perhaps emboldened by Oliver Stone’s JFK, he and cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed indulge in mixing up film stocks and F-stops to produce just the right visual cacophony to convey the hellworld that is Strike’s adventures in sewing and reaping. This Blu-ray edition preserves the film’s tricky aesthetic—a summary effect of Klieg lights and flashbulbs providing unreliable illumination of black flesh, while the rippling humidity of daytime supplies no real comfort. Of the two included audio tracks, I preferred the 2.0 stereo, for its richness and depth, to the 5.1 surround, but your mileage may vary depending on your setup.
Kino is making a big push to get several Spike Lee joints on Blu-ray, so it’s hard to criticize them for not releasing deluxe editions. Alongside a set of trailers for other recent Kino Studio Classics releases sits an indispensable audio commentary by Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, easily one of the brightest and most erudite film critics we have. Collins builds on his personal relationship with Lee’s films, Clockers in particular, and produces a considerable amount of revealing details and contexts that enrich the viewing experience.
As Clockers is one of the best filmed-on-location New York crime movies, its absence on Blu-ray has long been a glaring oversight, which Kino now makes right.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Sticky Fingaz, Fredro Starr, Elvis Nolasco, Lawrence B. Adisa, Hassan Johnson, Frances Foster, Michael Imperioli Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Richard Price, Spike Lee Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 128 min Rating: R Year: 1995 Release Date: February 4, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
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