Monday, December 21, 2009

MoC Year-End


I've more or less polished off a spate of work deadlines for the pre-New Year holiday stretch, so I can devote a few minutes to posting something — an overview, essentially, of what we've released on MoC over the course of the October to December timeline of this past year. But first, I'd like to tip the cursor toward Home Cinema Choice magazine in the UK as grateful acknowledgement for their having voted Masters of Cinema "DVD Label of the Year" in the publication's current issue — also, for their nod to our Blu-ray edition of F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans as "Best Remastering." On top of that, an equally flattered and collective thank-you goes out to Time Out London, who voted our editions of Maurice Pialat's La Gueule ouverte (which is accompanied by nine other Pialat films) and Al Reinert's For All Mankind as the #1 and #2 DVD releases of the year, respectively.

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Soul Power [2008] by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, available in both Blu-ray and DVD editions. Levy-Hinte's film assembles 93 minutes of the 16mm footage shot in 1974 by cameramen Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, and Roderick Young to chronicle the Zaire '74 concert event organized in Kinshasa in tandem with the (subsequently postponed) Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle." A documentary, not a 'doc' (no voice-over narration, talking-head interviews, or animated-interlude window-dressing to muddy proceedings), that follows 'classical' narrative structure: there's a beginning and an end, but also the "will-they-pull-it-off-in-time?" second-act. A lynch-pin of modern television 'reality' programming, the device resides in Soul Power as a document of the logistics, imprecision, and magnitude of the task of concert-stage assembly. Made possible by cigarettes and rotary phones, Levy-Hinte's picture serves as aide-mémoire for a period when have-at-it haircuts and brute determination outshone 'organization' and the other panic-structures that would calcify into the slickly efficient, sedately productive, and woefully unobstreperous Modern. Included on-disc: an exclusive video-interview with Levy-Hinte; thirty minutes of deleted behind-the-scenes footage; more Zaire '74 performances by artists that appear (and do not) in the feature; the original theatrical trailer; and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired. A full-color, production-still-heavy booklet contains a director's statement from Levy-Hinte and a selection of remarks by Zaire '74-affiliated personages. Ali: "I've never felt so free in my life."

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For All Mankind [1989] by Al Reinert, available in both Blu-ray and DVD editions. More footage largely enabled by Marlboros and rotary cradles, the shoestring props that catapulted man from his planet, onward through bent and vacuous space to the surface of another world for the first time documented and circulated on film. The Foley-enhanced soundtrack and several Brian Eno cuts lend a redundancy to the miracle; these are already, after all, the awesome images of the inconceivable event. (With the shots taken of nearby UFOs having been, conceivably, suppressed.) The film is maybe just as absorbing in its capacity as a study of the transition from Amateur to Professional and back, what with its context of the event that made a neophyte of every participant. Training is everything: new areas of expertise had to open, new specialties become concentrated, anyone can do anything with time and practice and steady application of the faculties. The honky-tonk loving Texas boys had to learn to operate 16mm cameras. This is the best Howard Hawks film never made by Howard Hawks, and it makes me wish he'd lived to direct The Right Stuff even though I've never seen the thing. Included on-disc: an audio commentary featuring Al Reinert and Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to have set foot on the moon to date; a making-of documentary featurette; a gallery of astronaut Alan Bean's artwork with commentary and a filmed introduction; liftoff footage and various audio clips courtesy of NASA; and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired (in addition to optional on-screen identification of the film's presiding figures). A full-color booklet includes essays by Reinert, a new interview with Brian Eno, and a bevy of production-stills and NASA imagery.

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A double-feature/double-disc set containing Phantom [1922] and Die Finanzen des Großherzogs [The Grand Duke's Finances, 1924], both by F. W. Murnau. This coupling constitutes the pair of oft-overlooked Murnau works that happened to fall between the landmark Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens. and Der letzte Mann.

Phantom: A Germanic dream-rhapsody replete with 'suffusion': spilling forth l'amour fou and a woman in a double-role, Murnau teases out a template for both Vertigo and Eyes Wide Shut then carpetbombs the chamber with Thea von Harbou intertitles. It's an unusual and key work in the master's output, best viewed in the company of Lieder or Satie.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs: One of the films about which almost everything that's ever been written in the out-of-print survey works or Internet message-board hiccups has turned out to be merciful hogwash. Sprightly-spry (an opposite of lowering Phantom) and sunbeam-dappled (an opposite of muslin-maculate Herr Tartüff.), Murnau's most undervalued gem has less to do with the vicissitudes of an audit than the ministrations of would-be parlor buccaneers. This is the most complete extant version of Murnau's stab at the serial adventurer — albeit one conceived as a single episode for feature-length. Recommendations for musical accompaniment: anything by Mulatu Astatqé, or Annie's "The Breakfast Song" set on repeat.

Both films include the original German intertitles (reconstructed), with optional English subtitles. Also on the Finanzen disc: a feature-length audio commentary by the engaging David Kalat. A 40-page booklet comes with the set, and features a new essay by Janet Bergstrom, titled "Murnau at the Crossroads: Phantom and Die Finanzen des Großherzogs" — the first extensive critical and historical treatment of both films, supplemented by numerous frames from the features. Also herein: a slew of publicity stills and collateral from the time of release of both productions.

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It was a long-time dream of ours to bring together for a boxset the rights-scattered three films in Lang's "Mabuse" trilogy, and this past year we were finally able to do so via The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset, with the pictures appearing in their integral, restored forms.

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. [Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler., 1922]: The four-and-a-half-hour dexter/sinister silent epic that owes as much to Louis Feuillade as Norbert Jacques — aside from the resurrectional structure, the heavy reliance upon the 'alcove room' (in addition to Feuillade cf. Lubitsch's Das fidele Gefängnis): the cubby punched non-periodically throughout the movie's temporal progression for the sake of secreting not scumbag-magician Mabuse but waxen moody toad von Wenk whose bodily procedural demeanor itself suctions lacunae out of accepted human vitality. (Lang provides the reverse-process a few years later with the character of Lohmann in M and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse.) Probably FL's most pornographic event, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. does something with Gertrude Welker's Dusy von Told that both can and cannot be sanitarily countenanced. Soundtrack recommended is La Mar Enfortuna's Conviviencia.

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933]: One of the ones. Breakdown to the max, 1.19. Quintessence of paranoia film, Mabuse movie, makeshift-escape-piece ("against all odds"). An obvious double-feature with The Wizard of Oz, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse packs its witchcraft more densely, an absolute erasure of King Vidor's virtues. It's also the apotheosis of Langian enchaînement, which a keen spectator in '33 might have already felt fully activated and ritualized for M. The director will come back to the linking technique effortlessly in —

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960]: The last Fritz Lang film — the one that outside of Testament or Die Nibelungen or Spione or M perhaps makes 'best' on the promise of the revival one-sheets for any uninitiated (including myself in 1995) of what the essence of the Fritz-Lang-Film will muster. If the opening titles had been the only finished element of the picture, they alone would have sufficed as the closure of the circle, or dilation of the pupil. Incredibly (incredibly only because things hardly ever work out for the happier) we have an entire movie, and one that needs to be presented as one-third of a triple-feature that includes Hitchcock's Psycho and Renoir's Le Testament du Docteur Cordelierles trois films gris.

Included across all four discs: new and absorbing and exclusive feature-length audio commentaries for each film by David Kalat. On the Spieler release: three Transit Film-produced featurettes surveilling the '00s musical score affixed to the film; the Norbert Jacques lineage; and Mabuse-motifs. On the 1000 Augen release: a 2002 video interview by Uwe Huber with star Wolfgang Preiss, in addition to the alternative ending to the film taken from an original French-release print — which extends the duration of the last scene beyond the customary fade-to-black and sheds new dark on the heroine's fate. (It's never been clear whether this constituted Lang's "integral vision" for the close of the picture; in anticipation of the Nibelungen restoration, we might now take the opportunity to coin the phrase "Kriemhild's spear.") A 32-page booklet for Spieler includes an English-translation-from-the-French of Lang's 1924 lecture "Kitsch: Sensation-Culture and Film", along with excerpts of Lang remarks across the years. A 32-page booklet for Testament includes "The Silences of Mabuse", the major portion of a chapter in the great 1982 La Voix au cinéma by Michel Chion in Claudia Gorbman's translation, along with more Lang remark-excerpts. A 36-page booklet for 1000 Augen presents "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey", a new piece by David Cairns about Lang's toy chimpanzee Peter; more Lang-remarks still about the film; and a Lotte Eisner excerpt about the filmmaker's final, unrealized projects — a classification that sadly incorporates the biggie re: L S D. Needless to say all three booklets also contain a host of frame reproductions, production-stills, and then-contemporary marketing bric-à-brac; a note from Lang's friend Eleanor Rosé to the director's longtime partner Lily Latté at the time of his 1976 death closes things.

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