Sunday, February 28, 2010

Obayashi - Lubitsch - Godard - Murnau - Lang - Sirk: MoC January + February 2010 Releases

House [1977] by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Available in a DVD edition, with an anamorphic presentation of its original 1.55:1 ratio. The cinema revival event of 2010 on both sides of the Atlantic is one of the purest author expressions ever detonated, the blood of the poet splashed through the cage of the Super Ape. It's relentlessly worked, and a truly free film: something on par with the masterpieces of Seijun Suzuki from 1980's Zigeunerweisen onward but of a worldview all Obayashi's own. A tremendous interior vision articulates the truth of the real sky, the perfect manor moonlit isolate, the eminence of the exurbs. House preserves, protects, and reaffirms the retardant: for a soul was on fire.

The original Japanese theatrical trailer accompanies the feature, along with ninety minutes of video interviews with Obayashi and associates that take the elegiac "we had such crazy ideas in the day" tack. A 40-page full-color booklet contains a 2009 essay by Paul Roquet and loads of production stills.



A selection of Ernst Lubitsch's excellent pre-Hollywood works have been brought together in a six-disc DVD boxset, Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies: Six Films by Ernst Lubitsch, 1918-1921. Each film is presented with optional English subtitles and in its original 1.37:1 ratio — German-language intertitles intact.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein [I Wouldn't Like to Be a Man, 1918] — A deleterious pore-ridden elder gets invited into the home of the young Ossi Oswalda (who anyway is never ingenuous) for discipline-and-punish. He ends up possessing her. We never find out what the absent uncle makes of it all. One of the first entries in a genre that Lubitsch alone invented and Fritz Lang proceeded to develop: the comedy of cigar-fucking.

Die Puppe. [The Doll., 1919] — The doll-girl (that is, Ossi again, here in imitation of an automaton) becomes an agent of freedom in a stilted, mechanistic social strata-sphere. This massively ironic picture is Lubitsch's most extreme early iteration of his obsessive "mistaken-identity" theme.

Die Austernprinzessin. [The Oyster Princess., 1919] — Several viewings might reveal this to be the strangest of the Ossi-Lubitsch collaborations: for all its kineticism (the movie's got an epic foxtrot scene in its center) one feels that the director has begun to explore the possibilities of equilibrium, of turning scenes into 'blocks,' of slowing things down, not keeping the machine so tightly wound. It's important: he'll need a new rhythm for the films that immediately follow, then again in '29.

Sumurun [1920] — Next to the following film in this set, one of the two circulating Lubitsch movies not many people can find a lot of love for. (His final silent, 1929's Eternal Love, might also share this dubious distinction.) It's worth revisiting, pocked as it is with stabs at ambiance — and more. For example: Imagine if there were a scene in a Star Wars film in which George Lucas had a band of traveling minstrels show up in a town, and one of the troupers is a hunchbacked lutist, and a crowd gathers, but then another member of the group starts performing a belly-dance in the immediate vicinity, and this distracts the crowd away from the original performer so that they all skirt off to watch the more provocative show. The hunchback gets mad, rushes over and slaps the belly-dancer in front of her spectators, who jeer as he drags her back inside one of the troupe's wagons. It would be a beautiful example of a perfect scenaristic episode. Except it doesn't happen in George Lucas. It happens in Ernst Lubitsch.

Anna Boleyn [1920] — The titular "Anna" being a Germanization of the historical "Anne." Maybe a little heavy, arguably a little too long, but still one of the great films about open secrets.

Die Bergkatze [The Mountain-Lion / The Wildcat, 1921] — This one's almost totally about shapes and forms. There's a part where the fortress commander's sitting down in his throne enjoying a smoke, flanked by swooping geometry and a pure sphere at rest atop a cylinder. It's a 'representation' or an 'indication' of artillery, but sublimated into form for the sake of form. Because ordnance, by its nature, is too idiotic to really deserve being filmed.

A sixth disc contains Robert Fischer's 2006 feature-length documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood. The set also includes fantastic short essays for each of the films, written by David Cairns (Sumurun, Anna Boleyn), Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Die Puppe., Die Austernprinzessin.), and Anna Thorngate (Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Die Bergkatze). A newly commissioned score written, performed, and recorded by Bernard Wrigley soundtracks Die Puppe., and is a great example of silent-film-accompaniment done (and recorded) with some sensibility — that is, it lacks histrionic piano plinky-plonk and chilly-razor digital tonality.



Une femme mariée, fragments d'un film tourné en 1964 en noir et blanc [A Married Woman: Fragments of a Film Shot in 1964 in Black and White, 1964] by Jean-Luc Godard, newly reissued in a Blu-ray edition in its original 1.37:1 ratio, with a glorious 1080p image, exquisite grain-structure, and a truly robust uncompressed soundtrack. All of the features of the DVD edition have been retained and updated for the Blu-ray. In April I wrote here about the DVD edition:


[I]ncluded [...] is the original 3-1/2-minute trailer for the film (approx. two minutes longer than that listed in the filmography of the Centre Pompidou's 2006 volume Jean-Luc Godard: Documents), created and edited by Godard himself (presented in true 1080p HD, non-uprezzed, for the Blu-ray).

Accompanying the disc: an 80-page perfectly-bound book (cited by voters in the 2009 DVDBeaver year-end poll as among the best DVD 'extras' of the year) that contains:

— A carefully crafted cover.

— Film-credits for both the feature and the trailer.

— An editorial preface on the release, on "Godard-style" graphic pastiches in JLG-related media collateral, and on the commodification of cinema and physical/virtual "home video" media.

— A short inquiry into the nature and use of "production stills" in media and press.

— A new two-page 'overture' to the film by Luc Moullet....

— A new 20-page roundtable discussion on the film, and its relationship to the entirety of Godard's oeuvre from the '60s to the '00s, between Luc Moullet, Bill Krohn (of "Kinbrody and the Ceejays" notoriety), and me.

— A new 21-page investigation into and analysis of the film, by Bill Krohn.

— A new statement about the film by its star, Macha Méril.

— A new and exclusive English translation by me, running 12 pages, of Godard's genius 1978 lecture on the film, and its relationship to Ingmar Bergman's work, to Flaherty's Nanook of the North, to Rossellini's Francesco giullare di Dio, and to the world and the Image at large, as originally transcribed and presented in the long-unavailable and absolutely vital Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma.

— JLG's Hitchcock collage.

— The relevant excerpts from Jean Racine's Bérénice, presented in the original French, with new parallel English translations by me.

— Endnotes, featuring remarks by myself and Andy Rector.


This is the Godard film (a) in which time tends to stand still the most (as always in Godard, both analysis and sensuality are being presented and are occurring; moreover, in Une femme mariée we get the sensuality of this analysis alongside the analysis of sensuality); (b) in which JLG proves (in the mathematical sense) 'documentary' ≠ 'acting', that is, he reveals the precise moments when the former reveals, in turn, its subsumption of the latter.



City Girl [1930] by F. W. Murnau. Available in a Blu-ray edition, in a 1080p presentation with original 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The most overlooked late-Murnau film has been given new life in high-definition, and the results are stunning. It seems to me impossible from here on out to relegate City Girl to "minor" status; it could very well come down to the Blu-ray format's bringing us as close to celluloid as we're ever likely to experience in a home setting (on a TV/display-esque device) that the strengths even of the Fox-imposed sequences alone have been made freshly and powerfully evident. (Yes, Blu-ray might well be the site of the first truce between the projection purists and the home-theater'acs.) To speak briefly of the qualities of the film as a whole: It's the sequel of sorts to 1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, insofar as Murnau takes the denuded premise — a 'simple' man and a 'simple' woman love each other, have their love tested across the milieux of city and country, and in the end achieve an apotheosis or platonic ideal of Love and are thus redeemed (thus "Love Is All," a sentiment not unfamiliar to those who've seen the close of the director's Faust) — and hones it further at the level of story and a newly linear mise-en-scène, thereby accessing previously untapped and soaringly lyrical modulations in the emotional array. This latest viewing also revealed to me something I hadn't picked up on in previous screenings: a mystical 'transference' of blame and guilt that leaps from one character to another in the course of the proceedings like an electrical charge (articulated by the postures of the bodies), or as though these people are connected by a psychic chain, with each successive manifestation of the transference betraying a 'prime,' then 'double-prime' (etc.) set of characteristics at the "leap". To diagram all the permutations of this phenomenon in detail will require its own blog-post — but I did just want to make a public note of the fact, which will also hopefully serve as a reminder for me to explicate it when a few free hours come my way.

The disc also includes a new and exclusive audio commentary by David Kalat, and a production-still-heavy 28-page booklet with a 2003 essay by Adrian Danks.



M [1931] by Fritz Lang. Available in both Blu-ray and DVD editions — with a to-die-for 1080p presentation on the former, and a high-def progressive transfer on the latter, the film appearing on both in its restored form and with its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio. M is linked to Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse in the same way that the end of each scene in both films is linked (or rather, 'rhymes') with the opening image or sound of the scene directly following. While this internal architecture is fairly pronounced in both works, I only reiterate here its existence to forefront the idea that these two films constitute as concerted a diptych in the Lang oeuvre as the bi-fold structures of Die Spinnen, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler., Die Nibelungen, or the Indian Epic. (M and Das Testament even share a common character in Otto Wernicke's Herr Kommissar Lohmann.)

Two separate audio commentaries supplement the feature: one with Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler; the other with Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Koerber, Torsten Kaiser, and intermittent excerpts from Bogdanovich's 1965 audio interview with Fritz Lang. Also included: the rarely seen 1932 British release version of M created by committee after Lang's original had left German theaters — this version features different actors, takes, and Peter Lorre's first English-language performance. Last but not least, Erwin Leiser's fascinating 1968 documentary Zum Beispiel Fritz Lang [For Example: Fritz Lang], in which Lang discusses his career at Ufa. A 48-page booklet contains Fritz Lang's 1931 essay "My Film M — A Factual Report"; a 1963 interview with Lang; detailed notes by Anton Kaes and the relevant script excerpt pertaining to a scene still missing from the restored version of the film; an essay by Robert Fischer titled "Mörder — Meurtrier — Murderer: The Multi-Language Versions of Fritz Lang's M"; and a massive amount of production stills and original production artwork.



There's Always Tomorrow [1956] by Douglas Sirk. Available in a DVD edition, with a high-definition anamorphic transfer of the film presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Sirk was one of the two or three greatest film-namers in cinema history — I mean, the titles of his films throughout the Hollywood phase are exceptional and stand as doubly, sometimes trebly ironical commentary upon the events their pictures disclose. — ALL I DESIRE. — MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. — ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. — THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW. — WRITTEN ON THE WIND. — THE TARNISHED ANGELS. — A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE. — IMITATION OF LIFE. And the titles are all the more extraordinary, or surprising — or magnificent — because the vision of the cinema that they would seem to 'advertise' (for so often in Hollywood cinema, especially that of the '40s and '50s, the titles were like circus-barkers) not only lives up to but exceeds the promotion. "THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW" is one of my favorites. In one sense, the title's hopeful, averring: "If not today, then the next day," and invoking the eternal promise of tomorrow. But listen closely and you can hear, as though under the breath: "It's never gonna happen" — because anyone who ever says "there's always tomorrow" never makes a move in the present — and reality is all only past-and-present. And the title is, therefore, shattering. Among the picture's other brilliant aspects there's Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest of all screen actresses in one of her greatest performances. And then there's the theme of the home as a prison, carried over from Sirk's 1949 Shockproof, and given form not only in the claustrophobic clouds of parlor furniture and a series of arbitrary dividing walls and screens (erected so as to 'define rooms' or, as was often explained unironically by the wise adults of my childhood years, to 'divide up space'), but in the candlesticks that rise from the dining room table like spears and (via Sirk's brilliantly shifting camera) unite and divide characters in tableau-like compartments, and would-be conspiratorial alliance versus one another. (Stanwyck and MacMurray positioned in the space between two candles, with the son in the segment demarcated to the right; then the camera shifts at the precise moment where dialogue constructs a new tension/alliance, and new demarcations form — etc. This occurs three or four times in the scene.)

Also included on the disc is a rough only-extant version of the original American theatrical trailer, a 1956 dialogue and continuity script (as an on-disc PDF file), and Pascal Thomas's and Dominique Rabourdin's incredible 61-minute 2008 documentary Quelques jours avec Sirk [A Few Days with Sirk]. A 40-page booklet contains an essay by Andrew Klevan and excerpts from a wonderful 1977 interview with Sirk by Michael Stern.



On an unrelated note: I finally saw Casablanca for the first time ever. It's a film by Michael Curtiz, by the way, though the studio and the collective unconsciousness fails to acknowledge that it has an author — these Stadt-der-Arbeiter-esque entities often opt to credit it to "the genius of the system" instead, whatever that means. Anyway, there's a separate essay for that; right now, it's enough to say I thought it was great. (Or maybe not entirely enough to say such. Not to take the sentiment off the rails, but it's important to remark that I watched Casablanca on the Blu-ray that was a released a couple years ago — and that Blu-ray is awful. After viewing the movie, try though I might have, I couldn't find any indication about its awfulness in any of the reviews online; were reviewers at that point just too grateful to have Blu-ray technology in their hands at last? It's perplexing. It is very obviously awful. Here's how: The film grain has been scrubbed out of the image. Every shot looks flat, and every human being's skin casts a 'gleam' akin to light bouncing off a white plastic surface in Kubrick's 2001. I'll never watch this disc again, and can only hope it gets revisited for a re-re-re-re-remastering somewhere down the line. As it stands, the Blu-ray of Casablanca is a crime against film preservation.) (Quick sidenote: and another unremarked-upon awful Blu-ray release: The Godfather, in which a strange 'MotionFlow'-esque/frame-smoothing algorithm has been seemingly applied at some stage in the authoring, such that the film no longer appears to play back at 24-frames-per-second, but rather some 'inbetween-24-and-30' video standard. Again: unwatchable. And, from what I can tell, undetected! I swear I'm not losing my mind — and that my television settings are perfectly calibrated, from MotionFlow OFF to Full Pixel Mode and all the rest... Every other Blu-ray I've seen on my 'set-up' looks not only superb but downright just.)

So back to Casablanca by Michael Curtiz. It was delightful finally to glean some context for all the legendary lines from Julius Epstein's, Philip Epstein's, and Howard Koch's script that have permeated culture, from "Here's lookin' at you kid" through to "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" and on to the non-existence of "Play it again, Sam." But one extract sneaked up quietly... I'd never heard this line before seeing the film, and it struck me as maybe the most poetic and personally resonant of them all:

"The geography

may be a little

difficult to arrange..."



1 comment:

  1. Craig,
    what is the story behind these Jeanne Balibar's videos? I understand that she herself uploaded them on Youtube last week but I'm craving for more info...


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