Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The View From Home 5: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Surviving Desire,‭ ‬Possible Films:‭ ‬Vol.‭ ‬2‭ (‬Microcinema‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬27
Standard list price
:‭ ‬$22.49‭ ‬each

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that my cinephilia in general and my‭ ‬specific‭ ‬interest in writing about films are the result of one director’s work:‭ ‬Hal Hartley.

Known for his insightful,‭ ‬quirky movies about hyper-literate drifters and outcasts who converge on Long Island,‭ ‬Hartley was one of the earliest mavericks of the contemporary American independent cinema,‭ ‬alongside Jim Jarmusch,‭ ‬Richard Linklater and Spike Lee.‭ ‬My introduction to Hartley in my formative college years was the kind of career-altering epiphany that only happens a handful of times in somebody’s life.

Through Hartley,‭ ‬I discovered Wim Wenders‭ (‬and through Wenders,‭ ‬Rainer Werner Fassbinder‭; ‬and through Fassbinder,‭ ‬Douglas Sirk‭); ‬Jean-Luc Godard‭ (‬and through Godard,‭ ‬the French New Wave,‭ ‬Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller‭); ‬and Robert Bresson‭ (‬and through Bresson,‭ ‬Carl Theodor Dreyer‭)‬.‭ ‬The rest is film history.

Hartley was a prolific writer-director throughout the‭ ‬1990s,‭ ‬and he developed a cult following among indie rockers,‭ ‬arthouse attendees and nu-bohemians.‭ ‬A true auteur,‭ ‬his films are as instantly identifiable as anything by Hitchcock,‭ ‬Godard or Cassavetes,‭ ‬and like most uncompromising artists,‭ ‬his work tended to polarize.‭ ‬After the commercial and critical failure of his revisionist Beauty and the Beast parable‭ ‬No Such Thing‭ ‬in‭ ‬2001,‭ ‬his films became increasingly difficult to fund and distribute.‭ ‬He’s released just two features since,‭ ‬moving to Berlin in‭ ‬2005‭ ‬partly because his work was better appreciated in Europe.

Undaunted,‭ ‬Hartley is back on DVD shelves‭ – ‬and,‭ ‬briefly,‭ ‬back on our shores‭ – ‬for a mini-revival of his films past and present.‭ ‬At the IFC Film Center in New York recently,‭ ‬he introduced screenings of his‭ ‬1991‭ ‬feature‭ ‬Surviving Desire as well as a program of his five most recent shorts,‭ ‬all of which have just been issued on DVD from Microcinema.

Looking at‭ ‬Surviving Desire once again‭ – ‬I’ve been the proud owner of the out-of-print Wellspring release for years‭ – ‬is like reentering an former home I hadn’t visited in years.‭ ‬Made for public television,‭ ‬Hartley’s hourlong experiment is,‭ ‬on the surface,‭ ‬a movie about an intellectually constipated professor‭ (‬Martin Donovan,‭ ‬Hartley’s earliest onscreen surrogate‭) ‬who falls in love with a flighty student‭ (‬Mary Ward‭) ‬who’s only interested in seducing him for literary material.

But nobody watches Hartley movies for the plots.‭ ‬Surviving Desire is really a profound meditation on love,‭ ‬attraction,‭ ‬faith,‭ ‬inspiration and whatever other theoretical concepts float around the director’s dialectical miasma of a script.‭ ‬Brilliant lines and clashing non-sequiturs zing by like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat,‭ ‬the highbrow and lowbrow coexisting harmoniously.

Characters read philosophy books on‭ ‬camera,‭ ‬try to comprehend Dostoevsky,‭ ‬engage in impromptu dance choreography,‭ ‬accidently marry vagrants on the street and walk past public rock‭ ‘‬n‭’ ‬roll serenades.‭ ‬Weird off-screen sound cues and deliberately constrictive visuals further set this classic apart,‭ ‬a great introduction to early Hartley that,‭ ‬hopefully,‭ ‬will make newbies want to look at his other masterpieces from the period,‭ ‬The Unbelievable Truth‭ (‬1989‭) ‬and‭ ‬Trust‭ (‬1990‭)‬.

The image quality of Microcinema’s‭ ‬Surviving Desire disc is supposedly digitally remastered with color correction supervised by Hartley,‭ ‬but the difference from the original release is negligible.‭ ‬The only supplemental addition is the‭ ‬11-minute featurette‭ ‬Upon Reflection:‭ ‬Surviving Desire,‭ ‬a funny and entertaining look at the movie’s production and the director’s overriding themes.

The second Hartley release of the month,‭ ‬Possible Films:‭ ‬Volume‭ ‬2,‭ ‬collects five movies,‭ ‬ranging from‭ ‬3‭ ‬to‭ ‬28‭ ‬minutes long,‭ ‬which the filmmaker shot in and around his Berlin apartment in‭ ‬2008‭ ‬and‭ ‬2009.‭ ‬There’s nothing here quite as ambitious or socially conscious as his most recent features‭ – ‬the cool sci-fi dystopia‭ ‬The Girl From Monday‭ (‬2005‭) ‬and the spy-movie deconstruction‭ ‬Fay Grim‭ (‬2006‭)‬.‭ ‬But these shorts prove that Hartley has been far from inactive in Berlin‭; ‬he’s still creating art,‭ ‬if on a smaller scale than before.

Like‭ ‬Fay Grim,‭ ‬nearly every shot in this collection is a canted,‭ ‬or slanted,‭ ‬angle,‭ ‬calling attention to the formalism and suggesting that something is perpetually askew.‭ ‬The shorts all deal in some capacity with modern media,‭ ‬the artistic process and communication,‭ ‬and all are cut from the same fold of cloth.‭ ‬In an interview on his website,‭ ‬,‭ ‬Hartley referred to the shorts,‭ ‬collectively,‭ ‬as a suite.

The shorts consist of‭ ‬A/Muse,‭ ‬which follows an aspiring actress as she campaigns to become Hartley’s next onscreen muse‭; ‬Implied Harmonies,‭ ‬a documentary about Hartley’s involvement filming the video portion of composer Louis Andriessen’s epic multimedia opera‭ ‬La Commedia‭; ‬The Apologies,‭ ‬about a playwright working on a musical version of‭ ‬The Odyssey who lends his apartment to an ex-girlfriend for an afternoon‭; ‬Adventure,‭ ‬which finds Hartley and wife Miho Nikaido candidly analyzing their marriage while traveling to Tokyo,‭ ‬New York,‭ ‬Istanbul and Berlin‭; ‬and‭ ‬Accomplice,‭ ‬a spy thriller in miniature about a woman asked to pirate a rare videotape.

If there’s something not completely satisfying about these shorts,‭ ‬it’s their inherent brevity.‭ ‬Hartley is too talented a mind to stop mass-producing movies for theatrical distribution.‭ ‬A little reflective solitude away from the noxious movie industry is a great thing‭; ‬more artists should do it to refuel their imaginations.‭ ‬But Hartley has been away from the game long enough.‭ ‬Word has it he’s working on an omnibus film called‭ ‬Moving the Arts,‭ ‬along with directors such as Jia Zhang-Ke and Atom Egoyan.‭ ‬Here’s hoping it leads to the kind of exposure Hartley earned in his‭ ‘‬90s heyday.

Vivre Sa Vie‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬20
SLP:‭ ‬$29.99

The country’s greatest DVD distributor finally releases one of the greatest films of the French New Wave,‭ ‬and it’s a vast improvement over the‭ ‬previous edition by Fox Lorber.

The most memorable collaboration‭ – ‬or cinematic dance,‭ ‬if you will‭ ‬--‭ ‬between director Jean-Luc Godard and star/wife Anna Karina,‭ ‬My Life to Live is an account of a girl’s descent into prostitution,‭ ‬balancing dispassionate,‭ ‬documentary detail with groundbreaking theatrical formalism.‭ ‬Equal parts boundary-pushing cinematic experiment and powerful social critique,‭ ‬Vivre Sa Vie is the kind of film people write theses about and still manage to run out of space.‭ ‬It’s an epochal work of art and an endless wellspring of depth that still astonishes no matter how many times you see it.

Australian film writer Adrian Martin offers a passionate,‭ ‬invigorating commentary track,‭ ‬and the bonus features are delectable.‭ ‬These include a‭ ‬40-page booklet,‭ ‬excerpts from a‭ ‬1961‭ ‬French television broadcast about prostitution,‭ ‬a‭ ‬45-minute‭ ‬2004‭ ‬interview with French film scholar Jean Narboni and,‭ ‬best of all,‭ ‬a‭ ‬1962‭ ‬TV segment on Karina in which the interviewer asks her some very weird and visibly uncomfortable questions‭ – ‬such as‭ “‬Do you think you’re ugly‭?”

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection‭ (‬Universal‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬27
SLP:‭ ‬$36.49

This six-disc collection goes a long way to display the versatility of one of our greatest actresses ever‭ (‬by the American Film Institute’s estimate,‭ ‬she was No.‭ ‬11‭)‬,‭ ‬spotlighting movies that never turn up in most Stanwyck‭ “‬Best of‭” ‬lists.‭ ‬What a joy to finally have on DVD films such as‭ ‬1937‭’‬s‭ ‬Internes Can’t Take Money,‭ ‬which marked the first appearance of Dr.‭ ‬Kildare‭ (‬played here by Joel McCrea‭); ‬1942‭’‬s‭ ‬The Great Man’s Lady,‭ ‬which starred Stanwyck as the‭ ‬100-year-old‭ (!) ‬widow of a legendary leader‭; ‬and‭ ‬1949‭’‬s‭ ‬The Lady Gambles,‭ ‬one of the earliest Hollywood pictures to deal with gambling addiction.‭

The two brightest gems in this set are the pair of mid-career Douglas Sirk melodramas that many have waited years to arrive on DVD:‭ ‬All I Desire‭ (‬1953‭)‬,‭ ‬which finds Stanwyck,‭ ‬as an aging actress,‭ ‬returning home to the family she abandoned‭ ‬10‭ ‬years prior,‭ ‬and‭ ‬There’s Always Tomorrow‭ ‬(1956‭)‬,‭ ‬about an affair between a married toy manufacturer‭ (‬Fred MacMurray‭) ‬and Stanwyck’s lonely fashion designer.

Tales From the Script (First Run Features)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬20
SLP:‭ ‬$20.99

More than just a visual how-to manual for aspiring screenwriters,‭ ‬Tales From the Script is an absorbing compilation of interviews from dozens of Hollywood screenwriters sharing joys and frustrations,‭ ‬insider secrets,‭ ‬revealing anecdotes and even philosophical truths.‭ ‬Interspersed with memorable film clips depicting screenwriter’s struggles‭ (‬In a Lonely Place,‭ ‬Barton Fink,‭ ‬et al.‭)‬,‭ ‬Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman’s documentary picks the minds of John Carpenter,‭ ‬Paul Schrader,‭ ‬William Goldman,‭ ‬Allison Anders,‭ ‬Larry Cohen and many others.‭

Subjects range from a general lack of respect for the profession to studio executives hacking apart their work,‭ ‬to the perpetual struggle to meeting actor’s and director’s needs to the scourge of the focus group and working in a‭ “‬post-content era,‭” ‬where an over-reliance on franchise films and familiar generic tropes discourages new ideas.‭

Screenwriters compare their work to everything from dance to war to heavy gambling over the course of‭ ‬105‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬but the most memorable interviews are the personal stories of triumph and dejection,‭ ‬whether it’s‭ ‬Bucket List writer Justin Zackham sharing his sweet success story or‭ ‬BloodRayne scribe Guinevere Turner discussing the complete butchering of her script by notorious hack director Uwe Boll.‭

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