Friday, May 13, 2011

The View From Home 25: New releases on DVD

Araya‭ (‬Milestone‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬10
Standard list price:‭ ‬$29.95

Milestone Films releases many different kinds of movies,‭ ‬but if the distributor has a signature style,‭ ‬it’s the merger of documentary and fiction‭ – ‬depictions of real life colored,‭ ‬in one way or another,‭ ‬with the aesthetic control of fiction.

I am Cuba,‭ ‬The Exiles,‭ ‬On the Bowery and‭ ‬In This World all fulfill this compelling generic tendency.‭ ‬Araya,‭ ‬the lone feature from Venezuelan cineaste Margot Benacerraf,‭ ‬is only the latest luminous example of this multidisciplinary approach to cinema.

Like few films before or after it,‭ ‬this‭ ‬1959‭ ‬movie shatters the boundaries between narrative film,‭ ‬documentary and avant-garde cinema,‭ ‬fitting liberally into any and all of these distinctions.‭ ‬Its compositions rich with painterly elegance‭ – ‬the photographs of Walker Evans come to mind‭ – ‬Araya is a document of the three families living around and working on the titular peninsula in northeastern Venezuela.‭ ‬Benacerraf observes the people’s lives from sunrise to sunset and beyond,‭ ‬as they cut salt from the era’s massive lagoons,‭ ‬sell fish,‭ ‬grow food and make pottery.

And that’s it,‭ ‬really.‭ ‬Though the director films the inhabitants‭’ ‬routines with a majestic,‭ ‬un-documentarylike,‭ ‬almost certainly storyboarded pattern of gliding,‭ ‬soaring camerawork,‭ ‬there is no story to speak of.‭ ‬Sharing the ethnographic passions of early documentarian Robert Flaherty,‭ ‬Benacerraf allows us to contemplate a culture,‭ ‬illuminating the repetitive lives of people who labor,‭ ‬day and night,‭ ‬for basic necessities.

The beautiful Spanish-language narration is more poetry than prose,‭ ‬lending itself to florid,‭ ‬strangely appropriate sentimentalizing of the action‭ (‬Shoveling salt will be one character’s‭ “‬soul memory of childhood‭”)‬.‭ ‬The sound of the narrator’s words,‭ ‬with their mixture of poetic reiterations of tropes and elliptical reportage,‭ ‬join with the movie’s natural soundscapes,‭ ‬which are borne of the same atmosphere:‭ ‬The metronomic beating of salt is an aural reminder of the repetition of the dwellers‭’ ‬lives.

The way Bencerraf tells it,‭ ‬the Arayan Peninsula‭ ‬--‭ ‬itself a living,‭ ‬breathing,‭ ‬heaving organism‭ ‬--‭ ‬has been untouched by industry and progress for some‭ ‬450‭ ‬years.‭ ‬The laborers who live and die on the land are skipping records of sweat and scars,‭ ‬forever enacting the same menial tasks.

It’s no surprise that Stuart Klawans praised the recent‭ ‬35mm restoration of‭ ‬Araya,‭ ‬calling attention to its‭ “‬outraged social conscience.‭” ‬This is a people’s movie,‭ ‬perhaps the ultimate study of a class of peasants in perpetual toil‭; ‬a similar film could surely be made about the migrant workers who work under slavish conditions to grow our affordable supermarket produce.‭

But I’m not sure I see the outrage Klawans does,‭ ‬because according to the information we’re given,‭ ‬the workers‭’ ‬spoils don’t go the pockets of multinational corporations but rather to create self-sufficiency on their cloistered peninsula.‭ ‬The politics of‭ ‬Araya are never more than subtextual and open to interpretation.‭ ‬If anything,‭ ‬Benacerraf sides with the preservation of the hardscrabble lifestyle:‭ ‬When industrial development finally arrives on the land at the end of the film,‭ ‬and we learn that machines may finally usurp the human hand,‭ ‬it’s depicted as a menacing scourge,‭ ‬scored by music that might accompany an enemy’s advance in a war movie.‭ ‬At any rate,‭ ‬there’s no denying the beauty of Benacerraf’s bravura vision,‭ ‬a cinematic tour de force that remains immortal,‭ ‬even if the Arayan Peninsula has,‭ ‬finally,‭ ‬changed.

The Milestone disc is loaded with Criterion-worthy supplements,‭ ‬including Benacerraf’s‭ ‬22-minute film‭ ‬Reveron,‭ ‬about a Brazilian artist,‭ ‬two TV interviews with the director,‭ ‬a documentary about Benacerraf from‭ ‬2007‭ ‬and two audio commentaries.

Something Wild‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬10
SLP:‭ ‬$20.99

Something Wild is a pretty unserious movie,‭ ‬and a curious choice for Criterion to reissue.‭ ‬But it holds up well nonetheless,‭ ‬feeling hiply postmodern compared to many of its‭ ‘‬80s contemporaries.‭ ‬Jeff Daniels gives one of his signature performances as Charles,‭ ‬a flustered,‭ ‬straight-laced workaholic who falls under the convincing spell of Melanie Griffith’s impulsive punk and ultimately fights for her love against her secret husband,‭ ‬a convict played with psychotic gusto by Ray Liotta.‭ ‬Director Jonathan Demme knows exactly how over-the-top this source material is,‭ ‬even when it mutates into a bloody thriller,‭ ‬and if you surrender yourself to its whims,‭ ‬it’s a lot of fast-paced fun.‭ ‬The credits are a rogue’s gallery of counterculture hipsters,‭ ‬from John Waters as a used-car salesman to John Sayles as a motorcycle cop to post-punk act The Feelies playing a high-school reunion house band and covering‭ ‬I’m a Believer.‭ ‬The bonus features are scant for a Criterion disc‭; ‬we just get new interviews with Demme and screenwriter E.‭ ‬Max Frye and an essay by David Thompson.

Such Good Friends‭ (‬Olive Films‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬17
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

One of the final films by the great Otto Preminger,‭ ‬1971‭’‬s‭ ‬Such Good Friends shares more in common with the films of Mike Nichols and Elaine May‭ (‬the latter wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym‭) ‬and even Robert Altman.‭ ‬Dyan Cannon plays Julie Messinger,‭ ‬a mentally unbalanced housewife turned emotionally numb stoic of sarcasm when her prickish,‭ ‬impotent husband’s‭ (‬Laurence Luckinbill‭) ‬simple mole-removal surgery goes horribly awry.‭ ‬Such Good Friends is a smorgasbord of sexual depravity and dysfunction,‭ ‬a sobering reminder of free love’s disastrous consequences and a wry reflection on man’s‭ (‬not woman’s‭) ‬narcissism and selfishness.‭ ‬A nice addition to the aimless,‭ ‬reckless‭ ’‬70s cinema ethos.

Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ (‬Kino‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬3
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99

Russia’s official entry in the recent Academy Awards,‭ ‬Karen Shakhnazarov’s‭ ‬Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ ‬is a strange,‭ ‬willfully obtuse art-house shape-shifter based on a Chekhov short story of the same name.‭ ‬Told with a mixture of pseudo-documentary interviews,‭ ‬flashbacks and ersatz home movies,‭ ‬Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ ‬is an existential anti-mystery with no resolution,‭ ‬a puzzle with no clear image even when completed.‭ ‬It concerns a large-foreheaded doctor at an insane asylum who is admitted into the psych ward himself after a series of philosophical conversations with a mania-suffering inmate changes his perspective on life.‭ ‬The source material may be brilliant‭ – ‬it’s Chekhov,‭ ‬after all‭ – ‬but Shakhnazarov’s film is a dry and ponderous exercise in style and theory,‭ ‬and about as unsatisfying as cinema gets.‭ ‬Beware the faint yellow English subtitles,‭ ‬whose transposition over the images is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.‭ ‬Many of the translations are unreadable.

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