Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The View From Home 7: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Stagecoach‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬25
Standard list price:‭ ‬$30.99

As the legend goes,‭ ‬John Ford’s‭ ‬Stagecoach established the Western as an A picture,‭ ‬reviving it from its creatively moribund inception as disposable,‭ ‬one-dimensional nickelodeon fare and elevating it to the lofty standards of Whitmanesque poetry and pre-Wellesian compositional virtuosity that all of our great Westerns,‭ ‬from‭ ‬Red River to‭ ‬Unforgiven,‭ ‬now possess.

With the hindsight of an endless canon of these great Westerns,‭ ‬each of them one Netflix click away,‭ ‬it’s difficult for most viewers today to imagine what Westerns were like before‭ ‬Stagecoach.‭ ‬Because we remember the classic Westerns through the films of the masters‭ – ‬Howard Hawks,‭ ‬Anthony Mann,‭ ‬William Wellman and Ford,‭ ‬with his Monument Valley landscapes‭ – ‬we tend to forget how forgettable most of their genre antecedents were,‭ ‬and how important‭ ‬Stagecoach was.‭ ‬It was Ford who first visualized the Western as the iconic bedrock of uncharted American civilization and first gave its characters psychological complexity.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬yeah:‭ ‬and he kinda discovered John Wayne as a leading man,‭ ‬too.

With Stagecoach hitting stores in an outstanding‭ ‬2-disc Criterion release,‭ ‬it’s a great time to reacquaint yourself with this epochal picture.‭ ‬These days,‭ ‬we can see that its deceptively simple story about a handful of familiar-seeming characters aboard a potentially hazardous stagecoach ride through the American West was well ahead of its time.‭ ‬Stagecoach was one of the earliest examples of the road movie,‭ ‬and the premise of clashing archetypes confined to an enclosed space established the template for every reality show long before televisions were even in common use.

Furthermore,‭ ‬Stagecoach was subversive in that it was an action-centric genre with little action.‭ ‬The first gunplay sequence,‭ ‬the famous shootout scene that pitted the weary travelers against Geronimo’s Apaches,‭ ‬doesn’t come until‭ ‬70‭ ‬minutes into the‭ ‬98-minute film.‭ ‬Almost the whole film is building character,‭ ‬not plot,‭ ‬and during that time Ford balances crudeness with beauty and surprisingly bawdy humor with enormously affecting empathy.‭ ‬And every shot is framed like a painting,‭ ‬with Ford’s marvelous deep-focus photography going on to inspire Orson Welles,‭ ‬who recruited Ford cinematographer Gregg Toland to film perhaps the most exquisitely filmed black-and-white movie ever made in‭ ‬Citizen Kane.

As always,‭ ‬Criterion’s supplements are a comprehensive feast,‭ ‬spanning the technical,‭ ‬historical and theoretical aspects of the film and its director.‭ ‬The most prized extra included here,‭ ‬for the first time on DVD,‭ ‬is Ford’s‭ ‬1917‭ ‬silent feature‭ ‬Bucking Broadway,‭ ‬an early culture-clash Western comedy.‭ ‬From the technical side,‭ ‬we get a nice tribute to‭ ‬Stagecoach’s legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt,‭ ‬and from the revealing historical side,‭ ‬Ford’s grandson Dan discusses his grandfather’s intertwining personal and professional relationships aboard his fabulous boat,‭ ‬which we see in priceless home-movie footage.

One of the most interesting,‭ ‬if occasionally eye-rolling,‭ ‬supplements,‭ ‬is Ford author and theorist Tag Gallagher’s video essay‭ ‬Dreaming of Jeanie,‭ ‬a creative remixing of‭ ‬Stagecoach clips with his own insertions,‭ ‬repetitions,‭ ‬superimpositions and semiotics-laced interpretations,‭ ‬which can be as pompous as they are illuminating.‭ ‬Some of his more pretentious,‭ ‬obsequious nuggets:‭ “‬Has there ever been a bigger shot in movies before this one‭? ‬Vast,‭ ‬like our aspirations in life.‭” “‬Every shot is a movie all by itself.‭” ‬I love theory as much as the next cinephile,‭ ‬but the compositions,‭ ‬editing and spatial depth of Ford’s seemingly invisible directorial hand are so self-evidently brilliant that such deconstructionism is unnecessary and risks reading too much into things.

An essay like Gallagher’s is something Ford would no doubt scoff at.‭ ‬In my favorite of all the bonus features,‭ ‬we get to hear an hourlong‭ ‬1968‭ ‬interview with the man himself,‭ ‬conducted by British journalist Philip Jenkinson.‭ ‬Many of his questions,‭ ‬most of them commendable,‭ ‬are mocked by the prickly Ford,‭ ‬notorious for being a tough interview.‭ ‬Early on,‭ ‬Ford tells Jenkinson‭ “‬I’m not interested in movies.‭ ‬It’s a way of making a living.‭” ‬Like Howard Hawks,‭ ‬who,‭ ‬in a late-period interview for Turner Classic Movies,‭ ‬shrugged at the thought of‭ ‬Cahiers du Cinema critics like Andre Bazin and Francois Truffaut analyzing his movies as great art,‭ ‬it seems Ford never saw himself as anything but a craftsman.‭ ‬We’ve been arguing otherwise for decades,‭ ‬and we show no signs of slowing down.

Yesterday Girl‭ (‬FACETS‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬25
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99

FACETS‭’ ‬long-awaited series of Alexander Kluge films begins this month with Kluge’s first feature,‭ ‬1966‭’‬s‭ ‬Yesterday Girl.‭ ‬Kluge was one of the pioneering figures of the New German Cinema‭ – ‬Yesterday Girl predated the first features of arthouse heavyweights Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders‭ – ‬yet he is largely unknown in the West.‭ ‬FACETS is hoping to change that.‭ ‬The distributor is releasing‭ ‬16‭ ‬Kluge films,‭ ‬one a month beginning this week.‭ ‬Yesterday Girl reveals Kluge to be a visionary right from the start,‭ ‬his provocative style borrowing as much from the radical playfulness of Godard and early Truffaut as it does the associative montages of Eisenstein and the surrealistic shocks of Buñuel.‭ ‬Naturalistic in its presentation and fragmented in its storytelling,‭ ‬Yesterday Girl employs unexpected intertitles,‭ ‬silent-film collages,‭ ‬stop-motion animation and more,‭ ‬proudly treading on conformity as it follows Anita‭ (‬played by the director’s sister,‭ ‬Alexandra‭)‬,‭ ‬a petty thief and lost soul adrift in Germany’s postwar economic miracle.‭ ‬Anita is a cipher of a protagonist,‭ ‬but the film exudes life through her various encounters,‭ ‬which involve a dalliance with a politician,‭ ‬forays into philosophical thought and several inquiries into the morality of Germany’s judicial system.‭ ‬This is thinking-person’s cinema all the way,‭ ‬and I can’t wait for the future releases from this unsung titan.

Owl and the Sparrow‭ (‬Image Entertainment‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬25
SLP:‭ ‬$24.99

Tremulous handheld camerawork and naturalistic,‭ ‬on-location settings give an authentic air to this touching Vietnamese fairy tale about a wide-eyed,‭ ‬inquisitive girl laboring in her tyrannical uncle’s bamboo-blind factory after the death of her parents.‭ ‬That is,‭ ‬until she flees to the big city of Ho Chi Minh,‭ ‬selling roses to make a living until she decides to play cupid to two lonely city dwellers:‭ ‬A zookeeper whose fiancée abandoned him,‭ ‬and a sweet but promiscuous flight attendant having a passionless affair with a married man.‭ ‬The film’s heart is as big as its budget is small.‭ ‬It’s a lovely little romance about second changes,‭ ‬told in a minor key‭ – ‬it’s so charming that even the film’s overly sentimental,‭ ‬third-act Hollywood trappings can’t quell the honesty that runs through it.

Waiting for Armageddon‭ (‬First Run Features‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬18
SLP:‭ ‬$20.99

Tackling a subject of enormous breadth in a scant‭ ‬74‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬this documentary directed by Kate Davis,‭ ‬Franco Sacchi and David Heilbroner examines the theories of rapture,‭ ‬tribulations and Armageddon that America’s‭ ‬50‭ ‬million evangelical conservatives ascribe to.‭ ‬The filmmakers interview religious leaders and extremist congregants who believe literally in metaphysical phenomena that much of the remaining population would consider nuts,‭ ‬and they do so without a shred of editorializing or condescension‭ ‬--‭ ‬making‭ ‬Waiting for Armaggedon a more mature and compassionate work than Bill Maher’s unbearably smug‭ ‬Religulous.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬the film travels to the past‭ – ‬and,‭ ‬evangelicals would argue,‭ ‬future‭ – ‬Biblical battleground of Jerusalem,‭ ‬exploring the complex relationship between fundamentalists Christians and the holiest of Jewish holy lands.‭ ‬It’s all fascinating and revealing stuff,‭ ‬but it’s insufficiently comprehensive.‭ ‬For a movie with three credited directors,‭ ‬there simply aren’t enough sources to paint a complete picture of a movement.

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