Tag Archives: Criterion Collection

Collecting Criterion – The Last Emperor (1987)

The Criterion Collection has long held the the works of post-war Italian filmmakers in special regard, and the library as a whole includes a big block of titles just of the collective works of the great masters of Italian cinema alone.  One of the first great Italian filmmakers of the Italian neo-realist revolution in the post war era was Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) is a prized addition to Criterion’s library.  There are also the movies of Roberto Rossellini, including a three movie collection he made with his wife Ingrid Bergman, as well as many films made by the most Italian of directors Federico Fellini, including La Dolce Vita (1960, #733), 8 1/2 (1963, #140), and Amarcord (1973, #4).  Later influential Italian filmmakers are also spotlighted in the Criterion Collection, including Luchino Visconti with films like his epic scale family drama The Leopard (1963, #235), as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini with his (to put it mildly) controversial film Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976, #17).  Pasolini’s particular brand of controversial subject matter depicted in his films would go on to influence another Italian filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci.  Bertolucci would make a big splash on the Italian film scene with his 1970 film The Conformist, a hyper-stylized and politically charged movie that won him international acclaim.  He was often a controversial filmmaker too, pushing the boundaries of sexuality to their limit, and as discussed with the making of his film Last Tango in Paris (1972), perhaps crossing the line in terms of consent with his performers.  Despite his beginnings in Italian cinema, Bertolucci eventually branched out into the more global market, with most of his movies in the latter part of his career being in the English language.  He’s not particularly well represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films in the library of titles.  One is his feature debut, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) (1962, #272), while the other is the film that probably marks the biggest success of his career, as well being the movie he is probably most well known for; the Best Picture Oscar-winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987, #422).

It’s interesting that for a filmmaker as identifiably Italian as Bernardo Bertolucci was, his most successful film had nothing to do with anything Italian at all.  The Last Emperor is a movie about the nation of China, and more specifically, it’s about the titular doomed monarch.  The movie tells the story of a controversial and yet at the the little known historical figure named Pu Yi.  Pu Yi became Emperor of China at the age of only three.  As he grew up in the Forbidden City during the early part of the 20th century, the nation of China itself went through a turbulent upheaval.  China became a republic after the decline of colonial influence in the region, but that alliance was soon broken by civil war, between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.  In the middle of the brutal infighting, Pu Yi was forced to flee the Forbidden City and live in exile.  Eventually, the Imperialist Japanese invaded mainland China and set up the Manchurian region as a puppet state called Manchukuo, tapping Pu Yi as it’s figure head leader.  Upon the Japanese defeat in World War II, Pu Yi was arrested and sent to prison in the now firmly Communist China.  He went through re-education, was released after finishing his reformation, and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.  This was an interesting unknown chapter of history that proved to be rather different for Bertolucci as a filmmaker.  He was now stranger to epics, having previously made the 5 hour family drama 1900 (1976), but The Last Emperor would be an even more monumental undertaking.  Bertolucci became the first Western filmmaker to ever be granted permission to make a narrative film in China, and even more historically, he was the first Western filmmaker ever granted to film in the Forbidden City.  Interior China, especially the Imperial City of Peking (later Beijing) had been closed off to much of the Western world, with European colonizers remaining mainly in the coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Post WWII China became further isolationist under the Maoist regime, with the Cultural Revolution turning China into a hermit nation.  Eventually, China did open up to the West and there began to be a cultural exchange taking place, with cinema becoming an important bridge between cultures.  Hence why The Last Emperor was such an eye-opening cinematic experience for people in the 1980’s, because it was our first really expansive look into this once forbidden nation.

The movie itself covers much of Pu Yi’s life through the prism of his reformation while in prison.  In 1950, 44 year old Pu Yi (John Lone) is transported to Fushun Prison in southern Manchuria.  There he is interrogated by the Camp Warden (Ying Ruocheng) and his fierce deputy interrogator (Ric Young).  Pu Yi is asked to write his life’s story in a journal for them to examine in comparison with his fellow conspirators.  Pu Yi first looks back at his childhood, being coronated at the age of three and now making his home in the opulent Forbidden City.  3 year old Pu Yi (Richard Vuu) is worshipped as a God by the thousands of eunuchs and maids who work within the City walls.  But, when he is 8 years old, the Emperor (Tijger Tsou) learns the hard truth, that his powers as Emperor is limited only to the city walls, because outside the walls, the nation of China has become a republic governed by a President.  He continues to grow up realizing he’s just a symbolic Emperor with no real power, shattering his sense of purpose in the world.  Worse yet, he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City, increasingly feeling like a prisoner.  When he turns 15, Pu Yi (Wu Tao) meets an English tutor named Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), who helps to give the isolated Emperor a more worldly education, as well as a bit of a nudge towards a modern perspective.  Upon adulthood, Pu Yi begins to seek reforms in the Forbidden City, which then spells the end of the thousands of years of Imperial rule within the Fordidden City.  Pu Yi, and his two consorts Wanrong (Joan Chen) and Wenxiu (Vivian Wu) leave the city never to return and escape the warring factions in China thanks to Johnston’s contacts at the British Embassy.  While in exile, he is influenced by his cousin Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han) to seek help from the Japanese, who have invaded Manchuria and are turning it into a puppet state.  The exiled Emperor takes up the offer from Japan, and becomes a monarch once again, but soon learns that he has no power at all, with his Japanese handler Masahiko Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto) being the one truly calling the shots with orders from Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Wenxiu has walked out of her life as a consort, and Wanrong descends deeper into her opium addiction.  The allied forces eventually defeat Japan, and Pu Yi is captured by the Red Army.  He spends fifteen years in prison, only reconciling with his crimes after learning of the atrocities that were committed in his name without his knowing about them.  He is released reformed, and lives out the rest of his days as a lonely gardener, a now anonymous face in a nation that once revered him as a God King.

The story of The Last Emperor is a remarkable tragic tale of a fall from grace.  It’s fascinating watching the movie to see how quickly in one lifetime the nation of China changed it’s course in history.  Pu Yi was crowned emperor in the final days of a once mighty empire that remained a force in the Eastern world for thousands of years, and his life would see him witness to the rapid modernization of China to where it is now.  As we see in his early childhood, his way of life is a relic of a more medieval time in Chinese history, existing more as a performance piece in order for the players to continue profiting off of the wealth of generations before.  But as the outside world encroaches, Pu Yi defiantly refuses to believe that he is pawn in the politics of the modern world.  Ultimately that is the tragedy of his character, the delusion that he had any real power at all.  He was born within an illusion, and no matter what defiant motions he made, he would never actually be an emperor the way his ancestors were.  Instead, he becomes a witness to history, as he sees China change in the tumultuous wartime years.  It could be so easy for a character like Pu Yi to be portrayed in a passive, uninteresting way, but actor John Lone brings an impressive amount of weight to his performance as the doomed emperor, especially in the scenes at the prison when the character is broken down by his captors.  The same is also true of the three young actors that play Pu Yi in his formative years, as we see the naiveite of youthful passion become challenged over time.  I think that this is where the strength lies in the film.  Bertolucci and company managed to find near Shakespearean levels of complexity in this often forgotten and passive player in world politics of the 20th century.  He remained a powerless figure all his life, and yet his story is powerful one of a changing world with an a tragic fall from grace found in it’s center.  The way that Pu Yi desperately clings to his past glory is tragic and yet identifiable.  We ultimately sympathize with his plight, despite the fact that he was a cog in a very destructive war machine.  Still, we feel bad as the grandeur of his early life disappears and is replaced with hardship.  Even as Pu Yi’s influence disappears by the end of the film, and he becomes just another average citizen, the movie does leave us on a semi-triumphant note.  An elderly Pu Yi pays a ticket to visit the Forbidden City, becoming a tourist in the place he was once raised in.  And yet, he is the only person there who knows all the secrets, because he was truly the last one to sit on the throne of the Emperor.  And he proves this by showing a young child a special keepsake he hid under the throne’s seat, which turns out to be a jar with a cricket inside, a secret only the Last Emperor of China would have known.

Bernardo Bertolucci was granted the permission to make a the film by the Chinese communist party under special conditions, which obviously limited how much commentary he could make about the Chinese government.  Given that Bertolucci was a lifelong socialist, it was not hard for him to keep the politics of the movie within the line of the Chinese government’s demands, but the movie in essence is not one concerned with taking a side in politics.  It’s about the life of it’s subject, and how he was a witness to world history.  Before Bertolucci, documentary filmmakers from the West had been granted access to film within China’s borders, albeit under tight scrutiny.  But, The Last Emperor was a full blown, Hollywood backed film production that was granted unprecedented access to areas once declared off limits to outsiders before, and this was a definite coup for Bertolucci and his team.  They were the first Western film crew to ever shoot a movie in the Forbidden City itself, and with that they were able to give Western audience an authentic look within this mysterious fortress, from it’s grand courtyards to it’s opulent throne rooms to it’s intimate private gardens.  And, with the help of Bertolucci’s longtime cinematographer, Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, they captured the grandeur of the Forbidden City with amazing visual splendor, including mind-boggling epic scale and a vibrant color palette.  The famous moment when young Pu Yi wonders into the courtyard and is greeted by over a thousand worshipping  servants is a prime example of how well Bertolucci’s visual style was a perfect match for this epic tale.  The same grandeur remains true throughout the movie as Pu Yi’s journey takes him deeper into the upheaval of history.  Bertolucci manages to fill the frame with amazing compositions and splashes of color, reminiscent of the way he filmed his earlier movies like The Conformist.  With the historic nature of the film’s production, as well as the pedigree of talent in front and behind the camera, it was wildly celebrated by critics upon release.  Because it was independently produced, it did not receive a wide release by a major studio; only being picked up later by Columbia for distribution.  Still, it managed to be seen by the right people, becoming the surprise big winner at the Academy Awards in 1988, sweeping all 9 categories it was nominated in, including Best Director for Bertolucci and Best Picture.  Since then, it has grown in esteem among cinephiles and casual viewers as a prime example of the thought provoking and artistic historical epic that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore.

The Criterion Collection delighted many fans of The Last Emperor when they announced that it would be added to their library of titles, though it would also spark a bit of controversy once it was finally released.  The film went through an extensive digital restoration based on a high definition scan of the original camera negative.  Given the good quality of the source negative, it stands that Criterion fans would be excited for a release of the film with an almost immaculate picture in high definition.  However, there was a bit of disappointment that came when we actually saw the final product.  The restoration of the film was done under the supervision and approval of Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, and at his behest, he had the film cropped to an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.  This was a shock to many of the film’s fans because the original film had a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The fact that Criterion was giving us a cropped version of the movie ratter than one reflective of it’s original framing seemed to be a betrayal of their original mission to preserve movies in the way they were originally meant to be seen.  Still, this was an order given by Storaro himself, who made the choice because he disliked how movies lost their picture quality in home video release on standard definition TVs, so he had the film’s framing changed to maintain the integrity of the picture.  Unfortunately, he seems to be in a mindset for a different time when widescreen, high definition television were not standardized across the market like they are now.  He made the same controversial choice as well for another film he shot, Apocalypse Now (1979) when it received it’s “Redux” re-release.  Apocalypse Now has since been re-released again, restoring the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but The Last Emperor still is only available in the cropped 2.00:1.  My hope is that with Criterion’s recent launch of 4K releases in their collection that they may hopefully revisit The Last Emperor and restore it back to it’s original aspect ratio, so that we can full appreciate the full breadth of Bertolucci’s epic canvas.  For what we do have on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the image is still fairly good, maintaining the vibrancy of Storaro’s remarkable color palette, which especially pops in high definition.  The movie’s stereo soundtrack also sounds great as well, especially in the remarkable exterior scenes within the Forbidden City.  It’s a strong presentation, but one that still feels compromised when one knows of the way the movie should truly look.

The Last Emperor was one of the first titles to receive a Blu-ray release under the Criterion banner.  While there was improvement in the image quality, the release at the same time streamlined the truly bountiful 4 disc DVD edition that the film had received earlier.  The 4 disc DVD set included not just the movie itself, but also the 3 1/2 hour long television version.  The longer version is the one that I was introduced to first when I bought the movie on VHS.  It was only when I purchased this Criterion version that I got to see the original cut that played in theaters, and while the longer version adds a lot of extra character moments (particularly for the supporting characters) it is almost identical to the theatrical version in terms of plot momentum, and most people wouldn’t know a difference.  The theatrical version (at 2 hours and 45 minutes) is perfectly streamlined and well paced, but the television version remarkably doesn’t sag at all either, both offering compelling experiences.  Unfortunately, the Blu-ray set only features the shorter theatrical cut, so if you can seek out the DVD set, it’s worth it to watch both versions of the movie.  All of the bonus features are thankfully carried over from DVD to Blu-ray.  One includes a compilation audio commentary, which features snippets from different people involved in the film’s making, including director Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.  There is also a collection of documentaries, including The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci, which details the career path that led the director from his early days in Italian cinema all the way to filming in China; The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, which gives an in depth look at the making of the film; as well as contemporary documentaries made by Criterion with interviews from various cast and crew.  There is also a video diary included from Bertolucci himself, showing is own hands on experience making the movie.  There is also included a BBC interview from 1989 with Bertolucci, a brand new interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma who gives historical context for the movie’s setting, and an interview with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne who co-wrote the film’s score with Chinese musician Cong Su and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also played the role of Masahiko in the movie.  I don’t normally talk about the booklet included in the sets, but the DVD one in particular has an essay that is especially worth a read.  It was written by actor Ying Ruocheng, who passed away in 2003, and he recounts his upbringing in China during the time period that’s depicted in the movie, and how he brought all that experience into his pivotal role as the Warden in The Last Emperor.  It’s an especially insightful read.  Overall, a very strong bounty of extra feature to compliment this monumental film.

The Last Emperor is one of those thoughtful epics that you just don’t see made that much anymore.  It is grandiose and yet intimate in it’s depiction of a world changing before our eyes.  The story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China is a fascinating one, as we see a man who was born into Godhood only to end up spending his last days as an oridinary anonymous gardener.  That trajectory of his life is fascinating to unfold, and almost mythical in it’s own way like the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks.  Pu Yi in the grand scheme of things was nothing more than a pawn in the larger game of world politics, and yet his story reveals something monumental in the grand narrative of history.  His brief, powerless reign marked the end of a dynasty of rulers that shaped the course of human history, and contributed to the world things as long lasting as the Great Wall of China.  The Emperor was at one time to the Chinese people the closest thing to a God on Earth, and they would literally move mountains to serve them.  Pu Yi believed that he was owed that same kind of devotion, but as we see him tragically realize, he was a relic for a world that no longer existed.   As the world crashes down around him, he realizes that the need for power and validation is what has broken him down, and it’s through the guidance of the Warden that he eventually learns that being ordinary is where he ultimately finds peace.  It’s a captivating tale captured magnificently through Bertolucci’s visual splendor, and rightfully is celebrated as one of the greatest epics ever made.  It’s really interesting that the film that opened up the West to the remarkable wonders of China came from a very Italian voice.  But, it really is to Bernardo Bertolucci’s credit that he did not waste his opportunity to film within the mysterious Forbidden City itself, finally giving the Western world a window into it’s unimaginable scale and opulence.  Criterion has given the movie itself a deservingly grand presentation for home viewing, although my hope is that we’ll eventually get a proper restored widescreen restoration if Criterion ever puts out a 4K release in the future.  For now, the Criterion edition of The Last Emperor is the best we have available, and it’s well worth watching for an authentic, extravagant and epic scale look at the wonders of Imperial China.

Collecting Criterion – Andrei Rublev (1966)

Of all the different types of world cinema that has made it into the Criterion Collection’s library, the ones with  some of the most interesting historical context behind them are those from Soviet era Russia.  To say that Russian cinematic history is a bit complicated would be an understatement.  Initially, post-Revolution Russia burst onto the scene as one of the most influential schools of film-making in the entire world.  With the likes of it’s founding fathers including Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film industry pretty much invented the thematic montage as a means of telling a story through editing.  That groundbreaking element alone helped to put Russian cinema on the map, and their revolutionary films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are still celebrated as masterworks that pushed the artform forward.  But, the creative output began to change during the repressive Stalin regime, which saw the flourishing Russian cinematic machine turned to a purely glorifying the new hard-lined leader of the Communist Party.  As a result, many of Russia’s great directors either found themselves heavily censored or those who would not submit could face death or exile.  Many chose the later, including Eisenstein.  Soviet cinema suddenly went from one of the most dynamic schools of cinema to one of the most restrictive.  However, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the propaganda machine of the Soviet film industry evolved once again.  They were still making propaganda, but the focus was instead on glorifying the Soviet people rather than one man.  With the liberalization happening under the reforms of the Khrushchev regime, it became an era known as the Cultural Thaw.  With it, there became a renewed desire to use the power of cinema as a means of breaking past the iron curtain of the Stalin years and showing to the world that Mother Russia could indeed hold it’s own in world cinema once again.  This included a new push to bring forth fresh new talent in the Soviet schools of film, and one such talent to emerge was a burgeoning and ambitious new filmmaker named Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky, to many in the world of cinema, is considered to be the greatest filmmaker to have emerged out of post-Stalinist Russia.  Even during his time, he was hailed as the best filmmaker to have come from the Soviet Union since Sergei Eisenstein, though the comparisons between the two directors couldn’t be more distant.  Eisenstein’s films were intense, fast-paced dramatic pieces intended to inspire fury within the viewer.  Tarkovsky was more contemplative, methodical and visually poetic as a filmmaker.  Tarkovsky’s films are often ethereal and dreamlike, and he was a major influence on like-minded filmmakers such as Terrence Malick.  Though very much a different kind of filmmaker than those of the post-Revolution era, Tarkovsky nevertheless helped to give a very Russian sensibility to what many saw as the New Wave movement of cinema that swept across Europe and over the world.  Like other movies of that era, Tarkovsky’s films were both grandiose in concept and intimate in scale.  Big ideas were at play in his films, but they always had that personal connection to them.  He was a valuable voice for Soviet cinema, and he immediately emerged on the international scene winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival with his first ever film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Spine #397).  However, though he was lauded by his peers outside of Russia, he almost always faced resistance from his native country.  Some in the Russian government found his films decadent and bourgeois and contrary to idealized values of the Soviet regime.  Because of this, his filmography is very limited, limited to only a handful of movies made under heavy scrutiny in the Soviet Union, and only a few more made in Western Europe after his defection in the 1980’s, and cut short by his untimely death in 1986 after a brief battle with cancer.  Still, as few as they were, his films are viewed as some of the greatest works of cinema ever created.  Criterion has included a few in their collection, including the sci-fi epic Solaris (1972, #164) which some have called Russia’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  There are also the previously mentioned Ivan’s Childhood, and the late Russian films Mirror (1975, #1084) and Stalker (1979, #888).  But probably the most interesting Tarkovsky film in their collection is that of what many consider to be Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film overall; the historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1966, #34).

Andrei Rublev as a historical biopic is not the kind of movie that you’d expect it to be.  On the surface it is meant to tell the story of the life of a legendary artist from medieval Russia.  Andrei Rublev was a painter and monk best known for creating religious icons and frescos for the interiors of Orthodox churches throughout Russia.  His work is largely considered to be among the greatest art created during the medieval period.  A handful of his paintings still survive to this day, including what many consider to be his masterpiece, the Trinity.  But, the interesting thing about Tarkovsky’s movie is that Andrei Rublev the man is not the focus of the film at all.  Instead, the movie is more about the world that he lived in.  The film Andrei Rublev finds the man himself (played by frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn) passing through a series of vignettes of medieval life in rural Russia.  Accompanied by his fellow monk companions Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Danil (Nikolai Grinko), heads to the workshop of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), who intends to have Rublev assist him on a commission to paint the new Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Moscow.  Along their journey they encounter a small village that is entertained by a jester (Rolan Boykov) who later is captured by the authorities for mocking their leader.  Later, they find a group of pagans partaking in a clothing optional ritual, who also later are captured by puritanical authorities.  Once at the cathedral, Andrei finds it hard to express his art effectively, seeing how medieval Russia has become so hostile to the acts of free expression.  Later, a raid by invading Tartar barbarians lays waste to Moscow, and the ruling prince is deposed by his traitorous cousin, who then usurps the crown.  In the chaos that ensues, Theophanes is slaughtered, the cathedral is in ruins, and Andrei was force to kill in order to save the life of another.  Because of the trauma, Rublev stops painting and takes a vow of silence, retreating from the harsh new world.  However, his lack of passion for life changes when he witnesses the creation of a massive bell being forged by a craftsman named Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who is just a teenage boy.  Upon seeing such a beautiful creation come from such a young person of humble beginnings, it reawakens Rublev’s desire to create, and the film ends with a prologue showing us all the iconic artwork that has immortalized his name ever since.

Andrei Rublev indeed is a very different kind of epic.  For one thing, it does have all the expected scale and scope of a traditional historical biopic, especially from the same era that gave us the likes of Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, narratively it is completely different.  Like I mentioned before, it’s a movie about multiple stories depicting life of medieval Russia, with only Andrei Rublev himself being the connecting thread.  It is also very much a movie built around imagined history and not actual history.  All the film gets right about it’s subject is that he was a painter of religious icons and that he lived in medieval Russia.  The rest is all fiction.  For the most part, it seems like Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make a movie that was a meditation on the connection between art and the artist rather than historical recreation.  Andrei Rublev is not so much a driving force on the story as he is a cypher; observing the world around him and having that influence the person he will eventually be.  Though the main character remains an enigma as a result, it surprisingly actually works in the movie’s favor.  It’s a movie about exploring the nature of art; why it’s important for the individual and for society as a whole.  You can see this as a definite statement that Tarkovsky wanted to make to his fellow Russians in the middle of the Cultural Thaw, as so many of them were reawakening to the idea of using their cultural works as a means of defining what it meant to be Russian.  The paintings of Andrei Rublev themselves gained a renewed sense of importance in those post-Stalin years, as Russians wanted a better sense of their cultural history to define who they were, rather than just the Revolution.  For Tarkovsky, art was an essential part of cultural awakening.  It’s most clearly stated in the climax of the movie, where the forging of the bell becomes the thing that renews Rublev’s faith.  Great art inspires other great art, and Tarkovsky believed that this was something important to pass down through generations.  The Stalin years stifled the artistic growth of Russian society in Tarkovsky’s eyes, and he saw a connection between the art of the past and the present as key to defining what it meant to be Russian.  Of course, the artistic fervor he shared wasn’t always welcomed by the power of the state.  With a movie that especially questioned authority and even entertained a very positive religious outlook, it was unsurprisingly heavily scrutinized by the Soviet government.  The film’s original 205 minute cut was trimmed down with the supervision of Tarkovsky after it’s premiere, but further edits were made by the government, and it would be many years before Tarkovsky’s true vision would be fully seen by the public.

But, despite the headaches that the Soviet censors were giving him, Tarkovsky nevertheless was lauded from cinephiles all over the world, and Andrei Rublev is largely seen as his masterwork.  Narratively, it is probably his most accessible film, given that most of his later films turned more cerebral and elusive.  But, given that, it’s an interesting film to watch because it does turn the historical epic genre on it’s head a bit.  The episodic nature of the story underlines for the audience that this is less a dramatization and more of parable of art, society, and humankind that just so happens to be based on real history.  Every segment of the film feels like it’s own short story, revealing a variety of different characters that make up the defining attributes of Andrei Rublev’s world.  It’s interesting that Tarkovsky opens his film with a cartoonish prologue of a man taking flight after getting caught in the ropes of a hot air balloon.  It’s silly to begin with, but ultimately it’s implied that the man meet a tragic end as he plummets back down to Earth, perhaps giving us an indication of what to expect through the rest of the film.  The moment otherwise feels unconnected to everything else.  The whole movie is filled with these little asides that reflect little on Andrei Rublev the character other than helping us to see how the world with all of it’s absurdities ends up shaping the man and his art.  The one scene that overall does reveal some character growth in Andrei is the climatic formation of the massive bell.  In that scene, where Rublev witnesses a young boy inspiring a whole community to create something grand and beautiful, we see his reawakening come to full fruition.  But, where Tarkovsky really sells home the point of the film is when Rublev finds the boy Boriska weeping after the completion of his master work.  He hold Boriska in his arms and learns that the boy learned nothing from his master, and that he was just winging it the whole time, making him feel like a fraud.  In that moment, Rublev realizes that he must reaffirm this boy’s faith in his ability to create, and in turn, it reaffirms his own faith as well.  For Tarkovsky, the cycle of creative inspiration was essential for making great things happen.  It’s what he wanted for all cinema in general, that he would inspire other filmmakers to create at the same level as well, both at home and abroad and that it in turn would help inspire him to do more as well.  Tarkovsky was an artistic optimist, believing that the desire for creation transcended national identity and politics, and it’s something that certainly made him stand out in the Soviet film industry.  Though the higher ups did not concur with Tarkovsky’s global view of the artform, he nevertheless made a point that this art is the thing that truly leads to immortality, as evidenced by the lasting impact of Rublev’s centuries old paintings.

For the Criterion Collection, adding Andrei Rublev was key to their drive to preserve the history of cinema all over the world.  It was the earliest film of Andrei Tarkovsky’s to enter the collection, dating all the way back to the days of laser disc.  An earlier DVD edition featured a rather rough looking transfer of the original 3 1/2 hour cut of the movie known as The Passion According to Andre, which they managed to source from a print found in the Mosfilm archives.  This long version itself was a revelation for film fans here in the United States, because all we had for years was a heavily edited down version released by Columbia Pictures.  Here, we were seeing the controversial original version that was especially hated by the censors of the Soviet cultural ministry.  It was a popular title for Criterion for many years, helping to establish Tarkovsky’s reputation as one of the great masters.  But, when Criterion started publishing blu-ray discs, many wanted to not only see Andrei Rublev get an upgraded presentation, but also one that fully brought the film back to a glory that most people never got to see before, other than Tarkovsky himself.  In collaboration with Mosfilm, the Moscow based studio that originally produced the film, a new high definition digital master was created from a restoration of a 35mm internegative struck from the original film.  The results are pretty remarkable, bringing the black and white film back to near flawless clarity, while still maintaining the grainy texture that helps to give it a cinematic texture.  Keep in mind, the Russians didn’t have quite the same quality of film stock that the West did, so there is far more signs of age still found in the picture, but for a film made under those kinds of elements, it still holds up for a movie of it’s era.  The same is true for the film’s soundtrack.  Soviet films do indeed sound very different from most Western film, as most of the dialogue, sound effect and music sound detached from the picture; maybe a side effect of using different equipment.  The sound restoration does the best job it can to help everything sound as natural as it can, with the dialogue benefitting the most from a crisper, clearer refinement.   What is especially impressive is that both Mosfilm and Criterion completed restorations for two different cuts of the movie; the previously mentioned long version, and the shorter, 183 minute post-premiere version that was actually the one Tarkovsky preferred the most.  Both are included on the blu-ray and it’s interesting seeing how different the two versions play.

Also included on the disc are plenty of interesting bonuses, which delve deeper into both the making of the movie, as well as the legacy it has left behind over the years.  One of the most interesting features is a documentary made during the development of the screenplay called The Three Andreis.  Made by a classmate of Tarkovsky’s from the film school VGIK named Dina Musatova, the documentary is about the prep work put into the making of the movie, focusing on screenplay written by two Andreis named Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky, and the actor who would play Andrei Rublev, Anatoly Solonitsyn, getting into character.  It’s a fascinating first hand look at the film in it’s early stages.  There is also another vintage documentary included that actually shows Tarkovsky and his crew on the set, made by Mosfilm itself as promotional piece to spotlight the film during it’s making.  The set also features a newly created documentary that features retrospective interviews from film scholars Louis Milne and Sean Martin, as well as the film’s cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev who played the bell maker Boriska.  One interesting insight revealed by Burlyaev in his interview is that he based much of his performance as a tortured artist on director Tarkovsky himself.  The legacy of the film is also further examined with new interviews featuring film scholar Robert Bird and filmmaker Daniel Raim.  In lieu of a full length commentary track, this edition includes a select scene audio commentary by film scholar Vlada Petric from the original 1998 laser disc.  And for those curious, the blu-ray edition also includes the thesis film that Tarkovsky made in film school back in 1961, titled The Steamroller and the Violin, showing the filmmakers humble beginnings before he was thrust onto the world stage.  Given that Tarkovsky’s body of work was so truncated compared to many of his contemporaries, having his earliest film presented here is important in giving us a more fuller understanding of how he became the cinematic artist that we all know.  In a way, Criterion is doing the same here, showing an the awakening of an artist in his early years before his grander work, that Tarkovsky himself did for the memory of Andrei Rublev.  This in general helps to really make this a very special blu-ray set to own.

Andrei Rublev really is a unique film in the history of Russian and world cinema.  It had all the trappings of a grand historical epic on the level of something out of Hollywood, and yet narratively it was subversive and antithetical to the genre itself.  Andrei Tarkovsky certainly had the vision grandiose enough to stage an epic on the level of some of the greats of that period, with a keen eye for staging big shots and giving his movie an authentic period look.  But, at the same time, he uses his cinematic eye to tell a story different from the one we expect, and tell it in a way that’s more about feeling one’s way through the narrative rather than following it in a linear way.  Rest assured, Tarkovsky’s style is definitely not for everyone.  Most of the movie features long, meandering shots of nature with almost no dialogue at all.  And lots of random shots of horses too (a Tarkovsky tradmark).  Don’t go in expecting to learn a lot about who Andrei Rublev was.  In a way, it’s not really important to the story that Tarkovsky wanted to tell.  It’s a movie less about the artist and more about the world he inhabits.  Tarkovsky said that we learn our history from the artists that observed it, and indeed some of our only insight into what life was like for medieval Russians is through the surviving artwork of Andrei Rublev.  That’s why he closes the film with a montage of close-up views of the master’s paintings, presented in full color (the only part of the movie presented that way).  The art endures long after the man and the society that inspired him has passed away.  Tarkovsky believed too that this was an essential lesson to learn in a society that he believed was loosing it’s connection to the past and how important it was to connect with the rest of the world through the art we create.  Indeed, his work has long outlived him and we continue to talk highly of him as a filmmaker because of how celebrated movies like Andrei Rublev are even half a century later.  It’s truly remarkable to note that Andrei Rublev was only his second feature as a director.  Though he would continue to make more films after, none have the same massive scope as this one does.  Though it breaks many rules of the historical epic genre, it nevertheless still feels big with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious story.  The less ethereal second half, which includes the Tartar sacking of Moscow and the forging of the bell chapters, do liven up the movie and show the director at his most dynamic, but the contemplative first half with dream like moments feel far more personal to the director’s own sensibilities.  It’s a beautifully complex and rule-breaking film to include in the Criterion collection and one that firmly places Tarkovsky as one of the most interesting voices spotlighted within the Collection.

https://www.criterion.com/films/300-andrei-rublev

Collecting Criterion – The Graduate (1967)

One of the things that the Criterion Collection spotlights within it’s library are all the various different movements that sparked a change in cinema throughout the years.  These movements, largely sparked by European innovators that broke all the rules of normality in filmmaking, would go on to become part of the mainstream in the years after, and today many filmgoers wouldn’t even know how much the language of film was so drastically changed by the movies of that era.  These included the Italian Neorealism movement and the French New Wave, both of which redefined the kind of stories that you could tell on film and how we are able to put them together through unorthodox photography and editing.  Over time, audiences began to really respond to this change in cinema, and before long, these rule-breakers were beginning to change the rules of the industry as a whole.  This change was also spurned on by a point in cinema history where the old Hollywood system was starting to lose it’s mojo.  The catastrophic runaway productions of movies like Cleopatra (1963) were breaking the bank for the major studios, and they were finding out audiences no longer were interested in the big, lavish productions of the past.  The times were a changing, and with a younger, Baby Boomer generation wanting to see movies that felt truer to their counter culture tastes, the industry had no other choice than to pivot and embrace the new wave that was already prospering across the pond in Europe.  Thus, American cinema experienced it’s own New Wave movement, which would go on to define the next half century of cinema, and also bring to the forefront some of the greatest filmmakers ever to ever work on a movie set.  There are quite a few movies that many can pinpoint as being the film that sparked the American New Wave, and Criterion has a few of them in their library, like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969, Spine #545) or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969, #925).  But, I think the movie that really stands out as the true spark of the New Wave Hollywood is the classic Mike Nichols film, The Graduate (1967, #800).

The Graduate was a watershed moment in Hollywood history.  While there were many rule-breakers made outside of Hollywood beforehand, The Graduate was the first time that a major movie studio actually invested in it themselves.  United Artists saw the opportunity to redefine their output of films for a newer generation and they found the ideal choice in a screenplay written by humorist Buck Henry and co-writer Calder Willingham.  Taking full advantage of the end of the Hays Code restrictions that limited free expression in the Hollywood system for decades, Henry and Willingham’s script was one of the frankest, and fearless explorations of sexuality ever to cross the desks of a major Hollywood executive, and it was even not afraid to make fun of itself either.  It was a story about an married older woman grooming a younger man into having an affair with her, and that younger man later finding himself in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having the affair with.  Suffice to say, this would never have made it off the page and onto the screen in the old Hollywood system, so it’s arrival came at just the right time.  The United Artists executives, seizing on this boundaries pushing screenplay, tapped Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols to bring The Graduate to the big screen.  Nichols was already an acclaimed stage director and had successfully adapted the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to the big screen a year prior in his filmmaking debut.  The Graduate was going to be a gamble even under the changing audience tastes, because no film prior had put people’s sexual activities to the forefront of the narrative.  Though there were no actual sex scenes in the movie, the film still was pretty frank about what was going on, and in contrast with old Hollywood, it didn’t cast any prejudgment on people’s sexual lives.  There are consequences of course, but the way The Graduate handles the touchy subject of sex in it’s movie feels more in tune with a changing world that was trying to shrug off the repressed standards of the previous generation.

The movie focuses on, you guessed it, a recent college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his  first leading role) who has returned home without knowing what to do next with his life.  His father (William Daniels) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson) throw a party to celebrate his accomplishment, with a lot of their friends and neighbors in attendance.  One of the guests at the party is Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who towards the end of the night needs someone to drive her back home.  Benjamin, wanting to escape the party that he’s not quite enjoying, offers to drive her himself.  Once at the Robinson home, Mrs. Robinson offers Benjamin a drink and asks him to stay a while.  It dawns on Benjamin pretty quickly what Mrs. Robinson is trying to do, saying very frankly, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”  He tries as politely as possible to leave her unfulfilled and heads home.  However, after a few aimless days of post-graduate life weighs down on him, Benjamin calls Mrs. Robinson and takes her up on her offer.  Though he awkwardly sets up an initial hotel hookup with Mrs. Robinson in the beginning, the two continue their secret affair for weeks, unbeknownst to Benjamin’s parents and Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton).  However, complications arise when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Kathrine Ross) returns home from college.  It becomes increasingly harder for Benjamin to keep his affair secret and complications arise as he begins to have feelings for Elaine.  In addition, Mrs. Robinson becomes increasingly possessive of Benjamin, and refuses to let him get any closer to her daughter, threatening to expose what both of them have been doing as payback.  Things do go south pretty soon, and Benjamin finds himself alone and wayward once again, but after a while, he finds that pursuing the love of Elaine is worth the risk and he sets out to declare his love.  The only question is, can he overcome his own inadequacies to make it possible.

When The Graduate premiered in 1967, it really became a watershed moment in cinema.  The movie went on to become a box office smash and firmly cemented in the New Wave in Hollywood.  And that’s largely because for the first time, the Boomer generation was seeing themselves finally represented on the screen.  It was a movie that finally ushered in themes that were considered a generation ago to be too taboo for the big screen, like male fragility, women taking charge of their own sexuality, the consequences of adultery, predatory sexual behavior, and even just the frank discussion of sex in general.  The movie was also about breaking out of barriers set up by society and encouraging rebellion against unjust standards, which really spoke to the younger audiences of the day.  For one thing, the movie puts men and women on an equal footing when it comes to sexual activity, with the women of the movie having just as much of an authority over their wants and needs in a relationship as the men do.  Mrs. Robinson is certainly the antagonist of the movie in many ways, in the way that she manipulates Benjamin to get what she desires, but the movie also posits that Benjamin is just as flawed in allowing Mrs. Robinson to go as far as she has, and that his own warped sexual awakening has the potential to be toxic towards any other woman, including Elaine, who rightfully sees the potential danger of letting Benjamin to deeply into her life.  And while there are some heavy themes throughout the movie, it is surprising to find that there is a lot of humor involved as well.  This is, after all, a script co-written by Buck Henry, one of the most celebrated comedic writers of his era.  Making fun of sex itself was also a refreshing thing for audiences at that time, because it was also honest.  There’s a perfect moment that illustrates just how well the movie balances it’s tone: when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in their hotel room, she lifts off her blouse and he reaches to feel her breast.  However, she doesn’t even notice and instead tries to rub out a stain on her collar, which Benjamin instantly recognizes as something his own mother would do.  Suddenly he becomes self conscious and embarrassed and begins banging his head on the wall.  It’s that awkwardness that perfectly sums up what The Graduate  represented, and it’s part of what has made it an enduring classic ever since.

It was an especially monumental film for all involved.  Mike Nichols would go on to win an Oscar for his direction, becoming at the time the youngest winner ever in that category, and it led to a decades long successful film career thereafter.  Dustin Hoffman would of course continue to excel as a leading man, and over the next decade he would become one of the most in demand stars of the 1970’s and 80’s, as well as a beloved character actor ever since.  One of the groundbreaking things about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Benjamin was the fact that he was atypical as a Hollywood leading man.  He was short stature and not exactly a pretty boy matinee idol either.  But, for the story to make sense, you had to believe that Benjamin had an awkwardness around women.  Initially, the studio wanted Robert Redford for the part, but Mike Nichols rightfully argued that it would be far less believable in the movie to have a guy like Redford play the part, because it’s unrealistic that a pretty boy like him would ever have a hard time having women find him attractive.  The movie also changed things dramatically for Anne Bancroft.  She was already a well established star of the stage and screen, and an Oscar winner to boot for The Miracle Worker (1962), but after The Graduate, she could add sex symbol to her long list of accolades.  Mrs. Robinson was an iconic performance for her, and one that allowed her to flaunt her beauty as well as her finely crafted acting skills.  One of her most memorable moments is the first scene where she seduces Benjamin, and the shot under her outstretched leg framing Dustin in the background is as iconic as it gets.  And of course, you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning the now legendary Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.  The folk music duo’s songs are forever tied to this movie and they were indeed one of the things that helped to turn this film into the box office hit that it is.  Whether it’s the haunting refrain of “The Sound of Silence” which becomes the heartbeat of the movie, or the bouncy melody of “Here’s to You Mrs. Robinson,” the soundtrack brings extra weight to the story that in many ways elevates the movie to an almost mythic status.  Sure, a lot of this does make the movie a relic of it’s time, clearly cementing it as a late 60’s film, but it’s a portrait of another time that itself has grown more beautiful with age.

The Criterion Collection certainly benefits when it is able to add a well known, beloved classic to it’s collection, and given that this is coming straight from the archives of a major Hollywood studio, it helps them considerably in their ability to deliver a beautiful looking presentation.  Criterion was able to source their transfer from a brand new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative completed by the MGM/UA archives, allowing them to the ability to work with an image as close to the original as possible.  The restoration was conducted under the guidance of Mike Nichols, who signed off on the color timing of the movie before his passing in 2014.  Given the fact that the movie comes straight from the negative itself, the new transfer looks absolutely immaculate and clean of all the wear and tear of 50 years of aging.  In particular, the colors really pop out in this high definition transfer.  Mike Nichols, working with color film for the first time in this movie, really takes advantage of the color scheme of the era.  The Southern California locales in particular shine in this transfer, with the widescreen format really taking advantage of the wide open vistas, especially in the driving scenes of Benjamin on the coastal highway as he sets out to halt a wedding in the climax.  Even the subdued night time scenes have their own sense of beauty to them.  Nichols also gave approval to the new surround sound mix for the movie.  The original film, given it’s tight budget for the time, was never able to have a dynamic sound mix to them, and the Criterion transfer retains a fully restored, uncompressed recreation of that original monoaural soundtrack.  But, the 5.1 surround mix is absolutely worth listening to as well, and nothing benefits from it more than the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.  The surround mix just gives the songs so much more presence in the presentation.  It’s one of the changes that adds to the film rather than takes away, and I think it’s the preferred mode to watch the movie, given that Mike Nichols signed off on it himself.  With a beautiful looking restoration, and an even more dynamic sound, The Graduate arrives into the Criterion Collection with a presentation that lives up to their high standards.

Of course, Criterion doesn’t hold back on the extra features as well.  Some of them are welcome holdovers from previous DVD editions of the movie released through MGM Home Entertainment.  Two of these holdovers are audio commentary tracks that are definitely worth a listen.  One is from 2007 and it features Mike Nichols in conversation with another acclaimed filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh.  The two discuss the making of the movie, with Mike giving some very interesting first hand insight into what went on during filming.  The second track comes from an earlier Laser Disc release of the movie from 1987, featuring film scholar Howard Suber, who goes into more detail about the movie’s lasting legacy, which at the time of recording was only 20 years after the fact.  It’s interesting hearing a Reagan era perspective on a movie crafted during the Vietnam era.  There are a couple of documentaries also carried over from the previous DVD extras, like a short documentary called “Students of The Graduate” which looks at all the filmmakers influenced by the movie over the years, as well as another making-of documentary called “The Graduate at 25″ which was produced in 1992 to commemorate the movie’s anniversary.  There are also some vintage features that also put the movie in context within it’s era.  These include a 1966 interview between Mike Nichols and Barbara Walters for the Today show, as Nichols was beginning development on the film, as well as an appearance by songwriter Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, discussing the hit music he and Garfunkel wrote for the film.  Criterion did create some new features exclusive to their edition, including brand new interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Buck Henry, producer Lawrence Turman, as well as film historian Bobbie O’Steen, talking about the work of her late husband Sam O’Steen as the film’s editor.  Rounding things out, the Criterion edition also includes an original film trailer, as well as screen tests of the cast.  Overall, it’s a nice, robust blend of bonus features both old and new, and it meets exactly what you would expect an iconic title like The Graduate would get under the care of the Criterion Collection.

Fifty years and change on from it’s original release, it may be hard to see why The Graduate was such a revolutionary movie for it’s time.  Attitudes towards sex and sexuality on the big screen has certainly changed since then, and to some modern day audiences, the movie may even seem quaint in retrospect.  But for it’s time, The Graduate was a revelation for audiences that was tired of the repressive moralization of Old Hollywood.  If this movie wasn’t the spark of sexual awakening in the counter culture movement of the sixties and seventies, it certainly got the conversation started.  In many ways, what really spoke to the audiences of that era was the disillusionment of Benjamin’s place in the world post-graduation.  Distrust erupted across America against institutions that were perceived to be limiting opportunity.  Counter culture was a response to the whitewashed view of civil post-War American culture, something that Hollywood had a hand in propping up over the last couple decades.  With movies like The Graduate, the old barriers began to come down, and people were now finally able to address issues on topics like sexuality, race, and political ideology that they were not able to in the past.  And Mike Nichols was the first of many new voices that would help shape the New Hollywood that emerged out of this change in the culture.  He may not have been the most outrageous voice in the room, but he was certainly one of the most skilled, delivering a story as groundbreaking as The Graduate with such a grounded, humane sensibility.  Seen today, the sexual politics may not be as shocking, but the story itself resonates.  In this #MeToo era, we are still coping with the complexities of sexual relationships, and the lasting effects that a toxic sexual awakening can drive people to do.  What I think is the most poignant thing about The Graduate is it’s final haunting moment.  The movie ends with Benjamin and Elaine running off together, escaping her family in a triumphant moment of rebellion as they ride off in the back of a bus.  But, instead of cutting on that triumphant note, Nichols makes the daring choice to hold on that moment and keeps rolling the scene further.  Suddenly, the tone changes, and becomes less hopeful and more introspective.  It’s in that moment that Mike Nichols brilliantly posits the “What Now?” question into the audiences’ mind.  Is it really happily ever after for these two?  By being vague in that final moment, Mike Nichols asks that question to the audience; what responsibility do we carry after we’ve turned the world upside down.  And it’s in that where the movie finds it’s ultimate poignancy.  The Graduate is a revolutionary story that at the same time asks it’s audience to think a little deeper, and because of that, it is rightfully celebrated as one of the greatest, and most influential movies ever made.  Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.

 

https://www.criterion.com/films/28578-the-graduate

 

Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

Collecting Criterion – The Seventh Seal (1957)

Living through the troubled reality of a global pandemic can lead one to feel depressed and hopeless.  That’s especially true when your entire world has been turned upside down within the span of only a couple weeks.  Worst fears were realized in the last couple days as pretty much all social life as we know it was shut down in order to reduce the infection rate of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included movie theaters, which closed it’s doors for an indefinite amount of time in an unprecedented move that really gives you the true perspective of the scope of this crisis.  The entire Spring movie slate, from March to May has been moved off the calendar and some are even bypassing the cinemas altogether now, jumping to any streaming platform willing to pay for the rights.  It’s a devastating blow that will no doubt leave a black eye to the theatrical market in film, but at the same time, what other choice did they have.  Our response to this crisis needed to be broad and drastic in order to avoid an even bigger catastrophe in the form of mass casualties.  So, for the time being, all of us are going to have to get used to living hold up in our homes with our only outlet to entertainment being whatever is available in our digital and physical media libraries.  Thanks to their decades long commitment to curating the finest pieces of cinematic art from the last century, The Criterion Collection thankfully has given us a fairly extensive assemblage of films to choose from.  Some, like me, have delved extensively into collecting their many special edition blu-rays and DVD’s, but for those who haven’t, Criterion also offers their own streaming channel, built off of the remains of the beloved Filmstruck service.  And though it is grim and perhaps too reflective of the time we are living in, there is a film that is worth spotlighting that does touch upon the anxieties of a world overrun with a plague; Ingmar Bergman’s immortal classic, The Seventh Seal (1957, Spine #11)

The Seventh Seal holds a special place within the Criterion Collection.  You could almost say that there wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection without The Seventh Seal.  This is because of the special partner in the film business that has been responsible for providing Criterion with most of the films within it’s library; distributor Janus Films.  The New York based company is a private distributor of international films into the American market, and were the ones responsible for bringing attention to the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, and yes, Ingmar Bergman to American audiences.  Their wide distributions of films from outside the Hollywood machine had a profound impact on the business and went on to influence a whole new generation of homegrown filmmakers.  And to make a name for themselves, Janus couldn’t have picked a better film to make their debut than The Seventh SealSeal developed a cult following almost immediately.  In stark contrast to all the polish and glamour of Hollywood, Seventh Seal was bleak, chilling, and a thorough indictment of a world in denial of it’s own evil.  Bergman’s style was also unlike anything that American audiences had ever seen before.  Instead of soft, natural lighting, here they saw harsh contrasts between light and dark.  Instead of larger than life performances we got cold, emotionless characters.  It was strange, but in an entrancing way.  Though Bergman had already been well established in his native Sweden, this would be the movie that would propel him to international acclaim.  And many years later, when Criterion was blessed with the chance of taking full advantage of the extensive Janus Film library, they naturally made The Seventh Seal one of it’s earliest titles.   And in turn, thanks to Janus’ influence, Criterion would become a brand synonymous with the best of cinema.  By helping Janus films become a success, and in turn leading to their eventual partnership with Criterion, you can say that Seventh Seal is the one movie we have to thank for the Collection in the first place.

The Seventh Seal takes it’s name from a passage in the Book of Revelations, itself a parable of society living through end times.  In the passage itself, it reads, “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”  It refers to an end of calamity that has brought about the Apocalypse, and the final revelation of Jesus’ Second Coming.  But more importantly with regards to the theme of Bergman’s film, is that it marks a point when God’s voice is silent in the world.  That heavenly silence is what marks the despair found in the story of The Seventh Seal.  The movie tells the story of a medieval knight named Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) who has returned home to Sweden from fighting in the Crusades.  Upon landing on the beaches of his homeland does he learn the shocking truth; that the black death plague has spread across the land, killing most of the population.  Accompanied by his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Block intends to brave his way across the Plague ravaged countryside in order to return to his home and wife (Inga Landgre).  Along the way, they run into an entertainer named Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson).  They are hoping to bring spirits up in their travels by playing songs in every town, but their good intentions are often drowned out by the pious flagellants who intend to keep the people god-fearing.  As the knight and squire travel onward, accompanied by the band of performers, Block continually is met by the personification of Death himself (Bengt Ekerot).  Block hopes to preoccupy Death by challenging him to a game of chess, thereby delaying his inevitable fate in this death ravaged land.  It is a game that he knows literally holds his life on the line, as well as those who accompanies him, and it’s one that he willfully accepts in the hopes of it granting him a chance to hear the voice of God before the end.

Pretty much the name Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with this movie more than any other he directed.  The image of Block and Death sitting over a chessboard on a beach has become one of the most iconic moments ever put on screen.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie in total, you know that image, because it is one of the most parodied in all of cinema.  It has been referenced in everything from Woody Allen movies to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), where instead of Chess that film’s version of Death plays other board games like Battleship and Twister in a comedic spin.  The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero (1993) even features the character of Death directly from this movie as a part of it’s own narrative, played by (of all people) the legendary Sir Ian McKellan.  But, apart from it’s iconography, the movie is still a fascinating work of cinematic art.  For one thing, it is one of the most profound depictions of an Apocalyptic landscape ever put on screen.  Though Bergman uses the Black Death as the scourge destroying the human race in his movie, it was meant to be metaphoric of a different kind of doomsday scenario that was weighing on the heads of people in the mid 1950’s; the fear of a nuclear holocaust.  The Seventh Seal came out during the most heated years of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union proliferating their nuclear stock-holds at an alarming rate.  With tensions high, countries caught in the middle, like Sweden (a partial ally of the Western Block that would eventually form NATO) worried very much that nuclear annihilation would become a definite possibility.  That was the feeling of dread that informed Bergman’s creation of The Seventh Seal, and it’s understandable why he chose to re-contextualize that fear into the plague that we see in the movie.  As we learn from the film, Death knows no allegiances, no borders, no personal necessity.  Whether it is through nuclear war or a deadly pandemic, or something more benign, death will always win it’s game no matter what we do, and the scariest thought of all is that that Seventh Seal (God’s Silence) is all we’ll ever hear.

As bleak as it is, Ingmar Bergman still manages to make The Seventh Seal a thing of beauty.  Gunnar Fischer’s stark black and white cinematography would quickly define the signature of Bergman’s style, something that would even continue under the director’s conversion into color with the legendary Sven Nykvist in his later years.  The period detail is also quite good for it’s time, avoiding the polished cleanliness of old Hollywood medieval epics and showing us a time in the past that was dirty, decaying, and almost tomb like.  But apart from the beauty of the movie’s visual splendor, what really helps to make this film the masterpiece that it is can be found in the iconic performances.  It’s ironic that in this same time period where we are experiencing a global pandemic we have also experienced the passing of the late, great Max Von Sydow; bless-fully due to old age and not from any disease.  Sydow was an icon in the truest sense, crossing over into mainstream Hollywood with great ease and becoming one of the most reliable character actors in movie history, with movies as varied as The Exorcist (1973) and Flash Gordan (1980)in his body of work.  He acted all the way up to the end, even appearing recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), capping an over 60 year career in the movies Even at the ripe young age of 28 at the time, Sydow had a weathered look that was perfect for the character of a disillusioned soldier.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons, whose depiction of an outspoken, nihilistic squire is quite different from what you’d expect of other characters of his type.  Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death however is the movie’s primary highlight.  His imposing figure all draped in stark black is chilling at first, but it’s balanced with an almost aloof personality.  It’s rather shocking that some of the movie’s only moments of levity come from the grim reaper himself, including a strange, nearly cartoonish moment where he cuts a tree down to claim another victim.  It’s easy to see why this movie entranced so many film-goers upon it’s initial release and it also launched two icons in Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow to worldwide fame, which in itself is a reason to celebrate the film all these years later.

Given it’s treasured place right there in the early days of the Criterion Collection, The Seventh Seal has received a great deal of care in it’s preservation.  Criterion has carried the film over multiple formats, from Laserdisc to DVD to the most recent blu-ray.  And each time, it made sure to deliver a product that lives up to it’s always high standard.  The film’s original negative thankfully still remains intact at the Swedish Film Archives, and was used for a brand new 2K scan to create a digital master image to source for the blu-ray.  Bergman passed away in 2007, so he couldn’t be consulted for his approval of the new restoration, but he did help consult on Criterion’s DVD edition back in the aughts, and Criterion used his notes on that previous restoration to help inform them on things like color timing and sound mixing to create this new polish of the film.  Suffice to say, the movie looks pretty amazing for a film it’s age.  The clarity taken off of the original negative is superb, removing years of wear and tear and showing the film in the way it originally looked over 60 years ago.  The black cloak of Death’s robes are especially pristine here, revealing details that otherwise would have been lost within a black void in a less clean version of the movie.  The movie’s soundtrack also is freshened up as well.  Like most Bergman films, it’s not the dynamic range of the soundtrack that defines them, but rather the chilling silences.  The Seventh Seal is largely devoid of a musical score, and often the only thing we hear is dialogue and the ambient sounds of nature.  And then there are the chilling moments when all noise leaves the movie, marking the arrival of Death into the scene.  Had the restoration of the movie not removed the hisses and pops that could have filled those moments of silence, it would have robbed the movie of some of it’s foreboding power.  Overall, it’s a reference quality example of Criterion’s great devotion to preserving these works of cinematic art.

Like always, Criterion also delivers a healthy amount of supplements to fill out their presentation.  One is a particularly welcome introduction to the film from Ingmar Bergman himself.  Shot in 2003 for Swedish television, Bergman discusses his inspirations for the movie and what special place it holds for him in his extensive body of work.  Filmed around the same time as the introduction, we also are presented with an extensive documentary called Bergman Island (2006).  Journalist Marie Nyrerod, who also appears in the introduction, was given in-depth access to Bergman’s base of operations on the island of Faro, where the director would spend his last days.  With a series of revealing and introspective interviews, it’s a fascinating look into the life and method of one of cinema’s great masters.  There is also a wonderful English language, audio-only interview with Max Von Sydow from 1988 where the actor talks about his career, and especially touching upon his experience making Seventh Seal and working with Bergman. The interview was conducted by Bergman historian Peter Cowie, who also provides an informative audio commentary for the film, as well as a video essay called Bergman 101, which covers the full filmography of the director’s career through still images.  Perhaps the most surprising feature on this set is a tribute video essay made by one of the unlikeliest disciples of Ingmar Bergman; funnyman filmmaker Woody Allen.  Allen discusses the things that inspired him the most about Bergman’s movies including his innovations, his poetry, and his themes regarding the human experience.  You can see definitely see the influence of Bergman’s films in Allen’s own work, especially films like Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978).  Allen even got to borrow Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist for a few of his own films, like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  It’s a definite statement of one filmmaker declaring his fan-hood for another, and it shows just how much of an effect cinema has in passing down through generations.  Lastly, the original Swedish film trailer is included, itself a wonderful artifact from another time.  It all makes this a fantastic collection of extras that compliments the classic film that it’s packaged with.

In other times, The Seventh Seal would be an easy film to recommend, especially as an introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s filmography.  However, given how the movie’s themes and setting seem so eerily prescient right now, it might not be a hard one to watch for some people.  This is especially the case if you read this purely as the bleak picture of humanity that it often is.  People forced to isolate themselves out of fear of an unseen menace; pious grifters hoping to convert the fearful towards their more extreme views in addition to exploiting them for their own benefit; the sad reality that everything you thought was safe and secure is going to change forever.  But, there is something profound that Bergman finds in the movie’s final moments.  It comes in what is probably the movie’s most haunting image; the “Dance of Death.”  Awaking in the morning, alive and well, the performers Jors and Mia find that they have made it into another day free of the horrible fate that befell all the others.  And in that moment, Jors believes he can see his former companions dancing on a hillside locked hand in hand behind Death, who leads them across into dawn’s first light.  For Jors, it’s a sign of hope, perhaps a message delivered to him by God after the the silence that given to all others.  In that moment, Bergman finds the ray of hope in the face of death.  Though as bleak as the world is, there are the Jors and Mia’s of the world who will carry on after and make the world a better place in the end.  Bergman often said that this was a therapeutic movie for him, as it enabled himself to overcome a crippling fear of death.  In a trying time like this coronavirus outbreak, where ironically, the theatrical movie experience may become one of it’s most tragic casualties, we need that positive outlook in order for us to overcome our worries.  One day, this too shall pass, but not without changing our world forever.  Are we ready to meet that inevitable fate?  Can we ourselves beat our own games of chess?  It’s more important than ever to preserve movies like The Seventh Seal, and Criterion has done another amazing job with this one.  In order to appreciate the colossal influence of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the amazing start of the late, great Max Von Sydow, and even confront our current anxieties over a world thrown into turmoil, there’s no better film to look at than this immortal masterpiece.  Check Mate.

Collecting Criterion – The Rules of the Game (1939)

It’s strange when you see something thought to be old fashioned and classical all of a sudden become the rage once again.  I often think about that when I look at the series Downton Abbey.  The English made television series is a relatively simple show about relations between members of the British aristocracy and the working class staff that labor in their opulent manor house.  Period dramas such as these tend to be a niche genre with a limited audience pull, but to many people’s surprise, Downton Abbey became a phenomenon; not just in it’s native country but across the world too.  I myself got caught up in the hype too and became an ardent viewer of the show over it’s six season run.  There was just something so perfectly fine tuned about the show that made it incredibly appealing, which probably is attributed to the excellent ensemble cast as well as the razor sharp wittiness of show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes.  But Downton Abbey is by no means a fluke either.  It follows in a long tradition of period dramas that focus on the class differences that manifest within the walls of stately manors.  You see it quite a lot in the films of Merchant Ivory, as well as in a series that served as the precursor to Downton Abbey called Upstairs Downtairs, which aired on the BBC (and on PBS here in the States) in the late 1970’s.  Upstairs Downstairs even gave this particular sub genre it’s commonly used nickname.  Julian Fellowes also won an Oscar for writing a movie that many consider now his Downton trial run, called Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman.  But what may surprise many people is that this film tradition didn’t begin in “Merry old England,” like you would assume, but rather in pre-War France.  The Upstairs/Downstairs genre of film can arguably be traced back to the Jean Renoir classic, The Rules of the Game (1939, Spine #216) which also has been graced with a special edition via the Criterion Collection.  Many of the standards of the genre that we still see used today were written in this original satirical dramedy, and surprisingly, for it’s time, these weren’t a stroll back into a bygone era, but in fact a product of it’s time.

Jean Renoir, the son of famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, holds a very special place in the Criterion library.  Not only did they choose to spotlight his work early on in their home video releases, but they even launched their line with a Renoir flick.  Renoir’s legendary anti-war drama, Grand Illusion (1937, #1) was the very first ever film released under the criterion label on DVD.  It’s understandable that this was the movie that Criterion chose to launch themselves onto the DVD format with, because it’s often cited by many as the greatest film ever made; at least in art house circle.  Orson Welles even cited it as the highest achievement in film-making, and this is coming from the guy who made Citizen Kane (1941), which itself is held up as the greatest film ever made by many.  Whether people today still share that sentiment is unclear, but Criterion has certainly help it to maintain exposure.  Because of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir is often referred to as the father of French Cinema, helping to give it notoriety throughout the world.  Renoir was indeed a bit of a Renaissance man in cinema, as he wrote, directed, and produced all of his own movies, and even acted in a few as well.  He was also not afraid to inject his own points of view into his movies, as many of them are often social critiques.  The Rules of the Game in particular became something of a scandal in it’s time with it’s frank social commentary attacking the upper social class.  Eventually, his politics led to his exile from France due to the occupation of Nazi forces within the country, who made his films strictly “verboten” to the public.  Renoir eventually settled in Hollywood where he would make a string of artistic but still compromised films.  Still, he held a special place in his heart for his early French films and their journey towards cinematic redemption in the years after World War II are a fascinating story in themselves.  The Criterion edition of The Rules of the Game in particular does a great job in helping to shed a light on a film that in retrospect stands as an important cultural marker for both French and world cinema.

The Rules of the Game as a title refers to the societal rules that both of the classes must adhere to within a strictly stratified society.  The story centers on a collection of French aristocrats and the servants who wait upon over the course of a night within a palatial countryside chateau.  Over the course of the night, tangled relationships begin to start boiling to the top and threaten to break apart the fragile facade of the “game” that all of them are playing a part in to maintain appearances.  The primary thrust of the story comes from the love triangle between Andre Juieux (Roland Toutain), a beloved celebrity pilot: Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), the woman he’s been having an affair with; and the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband, who also has his own side affair going on with a mistress named Genevieve (Mila Parely).  With the help of Andre’s friend Octave (Renoir himself), an acquaintance of the Marquis, Andre is able to gain an invite to a lavish ball being held at the Marquis’ chateau, with the intent of getting close to Christine in order to share his true feelings for her.  Meanwhile, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is being pursued by a newly hired servant named Marceau (Julien Carette), whom she has a playful little flirtation with, which draws the ire of Lisette’s husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate’s groundskeeper.  As the night’s festivities go on, the various love triangles begin to cross paths, and mayhem ensues.  The Marquis’ scandalous marriage turmoil begins to undermine his rich aristocratic veneer, while the staff’s inability to keep their professionalism on course throughout the night with jealousy running rampant threatens to strip away any amount of dignity they might have had in the eyes of the ones they served.  And thus, the rules end up getting consistently broken by people desperate to keep the game going, despite not seeing the apparent truth right in front of them; that they are all flawed human beings with the same desires and bad judgments regardless of their position in life.  And in the end, misunderstandings and unchecked jealousy inevitably leads down to the road of bloodshed.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself is it’s road to redemption in the years since it’s release.  Even though the movie has gone on to influence so many other films and shows, it may surprise you to know that it was a financial disaster when it first premiered.  At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made in France, costing around 5,000,000 francs, which would be north of $100,000,000 in today’s money.  This was largely due to the lavish interior sets that Renoir had constructed, some of which were so spacious that you could only capture the full breadth of them in wide shots.  Renoir needed a strong showing not just at the French box office but also in the international market to break even, and considering the incendiary nature of the film’s overall message, that was going to be a steep uphill climb.  The film was almost immediately suppressed by influential people in the French upper class, who objected to being portrayed in such a foolish light in the film.  Renoir would continue to tinker with the film in order to attract more of an audience, cutting nearly a third of the film down over time.  And then, the war reached the French borders, and Renoir and his many collaborators had to suddenly flee in order to escape Nazi persecution.  Like I mentioned before, many resettled in Hollywood and even had prosperous careers there.  You may even recognize actor Marcel Dalio who played the Marquis, because he turned up in Casablanca (1943) as the croupier at Rick’s Cafe.  Sadly, Renoir had to leave his original films behind, and as the war went on, many of the original camera negatives to his movies were destroyed, including the original cut of Rules of the Game.  After the end of the war, Renoir sought out whatever he could to reconstruct his nearly lost masterpiece.  Thankfully, copies had been held in vaults across Europe and, in time, he managed to assemble a nearly full reconstruction of the film.  To this date, only one scene remains missing, but Renoir was satisfied with what he had and deemed the missing scene inconsequential.  The film enjoyed a celebrated re-release in the 1960’s and since then has become the beloved cinematic classic that it remains to this day.

There are a lot of factors that have helped to keep Rules of the Game a relevant film throughout the years, and I think primary among them is the humanity that Renoir puts into the characters.  No matter what the person’s social standing was, he treated each person’s story with the same amount of importance.  This was unique at the time, as domestics often were relegated to the background of the story, merely there to be window dressing as the movies spotlighted the glamorous lifestyles of their principle characters.  But here, the characters downstairs are fully fleshed out people as well, with intriguing dramas of their own, which sometimes even mingles in with the upper class itself.  Renoir was interested in the human condition, and found the environment of a palatial countryside estate to be a perfect setting to explore the follies of separating the classes.  It should be noted that Renoir’s film is a critique of the people and not a condemnation.  None of his characters are truly bad, but the system they prop up is indeed the thing that he intends to scorn.  One of the film’s most famous scenes is the Rabbit Hunt halfway through the movie, which is also it’s most controversial.  The movie shows real animals (rabbits, pheasants, ducks) being gunned down by the hunting party in a shockingly frank depiction.  The scene is a not so subtle metaphor to the horrors of war, which Renoir himself experienced during World War I, with the animals being stand ins for soldiers dying in the field.  In this scene, Renoir is pointing the finger at the upper classes of Europe who seem to treated war itself as a bit of sport without ever taking into consideration the consequences it leaves behind on both the lower classes and the country itself.  In many ways, he used this metaphor as a stark warning to the people of France to become more aware of dangerous recklessness of their game of social manners, as it brings danger even closer to their door, which no doubt was on Renoir’s mind as Fascism and Communism were on the rise in Europe.  The movie’s ability to make compelling human drama across the entire social spectrum, both rich and poor, made the film more fascinating in the years beyond it’s release and has been the thing that has remained influential to other films today.

Criterion has given the movie another stellar restoration in order to preserve it for future generations.  As stated before, the original camera negative was a casualty of World War II, and for a time, people were worried that it would remain a lost film, much like Orson Welles’ severely compromised Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  The restoration of the film was a painstaking effort and the condition of each film stock was mixed.  Eventually, enough work was done in order to make it feel like a whole piece once again.  Criterion has gone even further, taking the 1960 restoration as their blueprint and conducting even further clean-up using the digital tools of today.  With enhanced color timing and a thorough washing off of all scratches and warps made to the film over 80 years, Criterion now has a new pristine digital master that helps to bring the movie as close to it’s original look as it possibly can.  Because the original negative is lost forever, we can never have an exact duplication of the film’s original clarity, so the picture can be a little soft at times, but the blu-ray transfer does it’s best to retain the fine detail within each frame.  The contrast in the blacks, whites and grays all look incredible, and help to showcase the lavish sets that Renoir had constructed for the film better than we’ve seen in years.  The movie’s soundtrack has also been given a polish to help it sound up to date.  The famous hunting scene in particular sounds very good, with each gunshot carrying the intended jarring effect.  For a movie this old, and one that has had a troubled history up to now, this is a stellar restoration that is likely to be the best we can ever expect.  And given Renoir’s artistic background, holding visuals up to a high standard, he would’ve probably approved of this restoration himself.

The supplemental features are up to the usual high standard that you’d expect of the Criterion Collection.  First of note is a film introduction by Renoir himself, which he filmed specifically to show in front of the movie before it’s 1960 re-release.  He explains why it’s such an important film to him, especially with regards to the themes.  He also shares a fascinating anecdote about how one angry viewer even tried to burn the theater down that the movie was screening in.  There are a couple excerpts from two television documentaries about Renoir, one from French television and another from the BBC.  They both specifically center on the period in which he was making Rules of the Game, helping to shed context of the movie’s place within his overall career.  A video essay also spotlights the film’s initial, problematic release, as well as the year’s long restoration that helped to resurrect it for a new generation.  A vintage interview with the film’s restoration team on a French television series called Les ecrans de la ville also gives more background to the reconstruction of the film.  Renoir historian Chris Faulkner also recorded scene-specific analyses just for Criterion, where he discusses more about the film’s underlying themes, it’s controversies, it’s history, and even a bit more about Renoir himself.  There’s also a commentary track written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read on the track by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  A comparison of the film’s two alternative endings is also featured, as are interviews both new and archive from people like film critic Olivier Curchod, set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son Alain, and actress Mila Parely.  As usual, Criterion treats all their titles to a wealthy collection of bonus features that are there to please the film buff in all of us and give us the most in depth look into these beloved classics.

It’s hard to watch The Rules of the Game now and not see it’s DNA found in every period drama today that portrays the day to day lives of the fabulously wealthy, and the hard working people behind the scenes there to help keep up appearances.  It’s even more surprising that the genre continues to remain strong even today, with a surprising juggernaut like Downton Abbey continuing to remain popular, even as it makes it’s way to the big screen.  But the remarkable thing is that The Rules of the Game feels even more relevant now than ever.  As the world has again spiraled into political unrest, a story like Rules of the Game once again feels like a dire warning.  Social inequality doesn’t present an ideal society, despite the allure of decadence.  Trying to maintain your place within the “game” eventually blinds you to what’s going on, and eventually the struggles of the lower classes boil up and will eventually break the game apart in total.  For Europe in the 1930’s, it was the rise of Fascism, which the French elite paid no mind towards, until the Third Reich were marching their way down the Champs Elysee.  Today, we are seeing inequality become a factor again, and it in turn is leading to a rise in populist sentiments, which is disrupting political order and is literally splitting nations apart, all the while our entertainment seems to remain distracted by celebrity culture.  Renoir wanted to spotlight the human condition within a decadent world, and pull back the facade to show how little difference there was between the classes, and how corrupt the system was in trying to maintain that lie.  Shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs/ Downstairs aren’t quite as incendiary as Rules, but they do share Renoir’s passion for treating all the characters with the same amount of importance.  Because of that, we find relatable people that we can identify with in each story and imagine where our place might be in this kind of society, which helps us to contemplate where we stand in our own world.  It’s legacy lives on many years later, but The Rules of the Game more than anything represents a fine cinematic representation of art and storytelling coming together in a deceptively simple yet compelling way, with Criterion’s excellent presentation and package, it will continue to inspire more like it in the years to come.

Collecting Criterion – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

February is always marked with a aura of romanticism, mainly due to it being the month of Valentine’s Day.  Typically, this is when movie studios dump a whole bunch of sweet, romantic comedies into theaters, in the hopes of cashing in on all those couples seeking a movie to watch on their Valentines dates.  Strangely enough, however, it is a genre that the Criterion Collection has largely avoided for the most part.  Sure there are romantic films throughout their collection, but they are usually present due to being a part of a filmmaker’s larger body of work.  Because of this, you have romantic movies that span a whole swath of other subgenres in cinema, which goes a long way in helping to broaden the definition of cinematic romance beyond what we the viewers are used to.  There are classic Hollywood romances in there like Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931, Spine #680) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945, #76).  There are also plenty of international romantic movies represented like Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, #445) and Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956, #77).  You also have interesting explorations into other romantic relationships, like the interracial one from Rainer Werner Fassbender’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974, #198), and the same-sex one in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011, #622).  But, the romantic comedy genre as we know it from Hollywood is largely unrepresented, unless you count the few from early Hollywood in the collection.  The only movie in the Criterion Collection that comes close to being a representation of this genre is a weird little film from one of today’s most daring and admired artists in film-making; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  But, it’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection makes a lot of sense because not only is it a marvelously surreal film that fits well amongst all of Criterion’s other cinematic oddities, but also because when stacked up to others within it’s genre, it stands out as probably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time; if not the best.

The movie also holds a somewhat peculiar place within the Criterion Collection.  It is the one and only (and probably will forever be) movie in the Collection to star actor Adam Sandler.  Yes, the much maligned star of movies like Jack and Jill (2011) Grown Ups 2 (2013), and Pixels (2015) actually made a movie deemed worthy enough to be included in the Criterion Collection.  But, before you dismiss Criterion for that, keep in mind that if there ever was a movie of his good enough to be included, it would be this one.  Punch-Drunk Love is first and foremost a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, with all the same quirks and dark edges that has made him one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time.  Made after two back to back hits that firmly put him on the map (1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia), Punch-Drunk almost feels like it was made on a dare.  After some critics complained that his movies were too long and lacked any warmth, he seemed set to prove the naysayers wrong and he made a short, 90 minute romantic comedy, and to show even more that he could make the impossible possible, he cast Adam Sandler as his lead.  And the remarkable thing is that he did manage to get a sensitive, down to earth performance out of the goofball performer.  Dispensing with all the silly voices and the obnoxious wisecracks, we actually see a side of Adam Sandler in this film that we never really thought was possible.  It’s clear that Anderson was inspired heavily by a young Dustin Hoffman from films like The Graduate (1967) when he wrote the character, and Sandler fit the mold he wanted better than anyone else.  This would prove to be one of the unlikeliest pairings in cinema history, but it’s one that sure enough resulted in absolute magic on screen, and made Punch-Drunk Love a career highlight for both (especially Sandler).

Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a troubled supplier of novelty toilet plungers, which he sells out of a warehouse with his business partner, Lance (Luis Guzman).  Though he runs his own business, he lives a solitary life, usually spending much of his free time taking advantage of an oversight in a free air miles giveaway by saving single serve pudding cup lids.  In addition, he suffers from rage issues that manifest every time he is in the company of his over-bearing sisters.  One day, he runs into an acquaintance of one of his sisters named Lena (Emily Watson).  He can see that Lena has taken an interest in him, which he also shares in her, but his insecurities prevent him from taking the initiative and telling her how he really feels.  In a moment of desperate solitude, Barry decides to try calling a sex hotline, where he awkwardly shares an exchange with a girl on the other line called “Georgia.”  In time, Barry comes more and more out of his shell and begins to grow closer to Lena, who keeps re-appearing in his life.  The two find themselves falling deeply in love, with Barry finally opening up and putting aside the childish routines that had kept him isolated.  However, their harmonious courtship is interrupted once the “hotline” girl calls Barry up once again, in the attempt to shake him down for more money.  It turns out, she belongs to a syndicate run by a ruthless con artist named Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is set on getting from Barry what he feels is owed to him, no matter what the cost.  At this point, Barry must confront the mistakes he’s made in his past, if he is ever to have a future with Lena, and find out if love can conquer all in the end; even when it means conquering the monster within one’s self.

All the hallmarks of a great Paul Thomas Anderson film are here in this movie, but it also fits very nicely within the genre of romantic comedy as well.  Chief among the movie’s greatest strengths is the chemistry between Sandler and Watson.  You wouldn’t have never thought that Happy Gilmore himself would have been capable of something tender and heartfelt before, but he manages to do it here.  He plays the character very subtly in comparison to all the other characters he’s been known for, making him very close to a normal human being.  Very much in the way the director wanted, Sandler’s Barry is very Hoffman-esque; quirky and broad when he needs to be, but with a vulnerability that helps to ground him to Earth.  He’s certainly the most relatable character that Sandler has ever played, and it certainly shows that he has more range than we would have ever thought.  But most importantly, he makes it believable that someone like Emily Watson’s character would be attracted to him.  Paul Thomas Anderson devotes the majority of his movie to humanizing his characters and building up their mutual appreciation for one another.  They are typical of the flawed protagonists that Anderson likes to build his movies around, but they also come across as genuine people too. Anderson loves finding the beauty in the mundane as well, and seeing these two (for lack of a better word) outcasts finding mutual admiration together helps to build into this wonderful romance throughout the movie.  The remainder of the movie contains the usual P. T. weirdness, especially in some of the sleazy supporting characters.  The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is especially enjoyable in his brief moments as the morally corrupt antagonist, and the movie builds to a hilariously anti-climatic confrontation between him and Sandler.  You can definitely see that if the love story didn’t work here, there would be no movie worth seeing, and it’s all the more remarkable that Anderson took the gamble he did in giving that responsibility to Sandler in the first place.

The movie is also a stunning visual achievement.  For one thing, Anderson returns to his favorite source of inspiration from his earliest films; the City of Los Angeles.  In particular, he devotes a lot of attention to capturing the look and feel of the San Fernando Valley.  Now, speaking as someone who lives in the Valley, and has for the last 8 years, this is not the first place you’d expect to set a fairy-tale romance.  And yet, the way that Anderson (who was himself born and raised in the Valley; Studio City to be exact) portrays the setting in the movie almost gives it this air of romanticism that really does not exist.  From the early dawn car crash of the opening scene, to the magic hour sunset of the movie’s finale, Anderson finds the inherent beauty that exists in these characters lives, and captures it so elegantly in the lens of his camera, even if it’s something as drab as an empty warehouse in the industrial side of Woodland Hills.  I kind of love that about the movie, which makes it all the more personally enriching for me since I actually live around many of the places that are shown in the movie.  I think I have even shopped at the grocery store where Sandler picks up his cups of pudding in the film.  But, that’s not to say that Anderson doesn’t also indulge his audience with some exotic locales as well.  There’s a point in the movie where Barry and Lena reconnect in Hawaii, and their reunion at the Hotel leads to the movie’s most unforgettable shot.  Silhouetted in an archway facing the beach, the two embrace in a passionate kiss, with passersby criss-crossing in front of the frame.  It’s an absolutely stunning moment of cinematography, choreographed perfectly with the peculiar choice of a song called, “He Needs Me” from, of all places, the movie Popeye (1980), sung by Shelley Duvall.  It’s at that point that Anderson’s romantic comedy crosses into the sublime, and makes this one of the absolute best of it’s kind.

Criterion didn’t have too much trouble making this blu-ray edition as spectacular as it could possibly be.  Anderson, a purist when it comes to shooting on film, personally supervised the digital transfer for this edition, sourcing it from the film’s original 35 mm inter-positive.  With the director’s involvement, there’s no question that this blu-ray perfectly replicates the original theatrical look of the movie.  The colors are vibrant and the presence of film grain is also pleasant to see on a movie that’s still not too old.  The black and white levels also make a large difference, and it’s good to see them retained very well here.  It’s especially important when taking that amazing silouette shot from the archway I mentioned before.  If the balance between the dark shadows and the light background didn’t feel natural, it would have thrown off the artistry of the moment.  Thankfully, everything is lit, colored and sharpened to the best possible degree.  And like most of Anderon’s earlier films, it makes great use of the widescreen format.  Part of the fun of the movie is seeing the kind of absurd things that the director can throw in on the edge of the frame, which includes some of the movie’s most hilarious sight gags.  It’s strange that Anderson has more recently abandoned the wider frame in his last couple films like Phantom Thread (2017), Inherent Vice (2014) and The Master (2012), all shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  They are still beautiful movies to be sure, but Punch-Drunk Love shows just how far he can push his visual artistry when the screen is at it’s fullest.  The surround sound track is of course reference quality, as most newer films are, and it compliments the high definition picture splendidly.  On the visual and aural ends of the presentation, this movie again lives up to Criterion’s naturally high standards.

Though P. T. Anderson does gratefully involve himself in giving his movie the best possible home video presentation, he is however less involved in the development of the extra features.  Indeed, very few of his movies ever reach the video aisle with a wealthy sampling of bonus features.  Criterion does however try to fill in the gaps as best they can.  Most prominent is a fascinating behind the scenes featurette made during the filming of the movie called Blossoms & Blood.  It’s interesting because it allows us to see Anderson at work on the set, and most interestingly, him working with Adam Sandler.  It’s clear that Sandler was very content working this time with a challenging director, and watching him take a different kind of direction is fascinating to watch.  There is a bunch of material related to the film’s soundtrack, which was written by Jon Brion.  We first have a new one on one interview with Brion, who discusses working with Anderson and how he found the soundscape for this particular story.  Then there is a collection of behind the scenes clips of Brion at the soundtrack’s recording sessions.  Both do a fairly good job of breaking down the composer’s method and showing him hard at work, contributing to what we hear in the final film.  Another feature discusses the artwork of Jeremy Blake, which Anderson uses in the background of several scenes in the movie.  A conversation between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano is here where they discuss the artwork in the movie, and a separate gallery is available for us to see the artwork itself.  The are interesting deleted scenes, parody commercials not used in the movie featuring Hoffman’s “Mattress Man,” and even some untouched Scopitones, which were used for the film’s title sequence.  Also of note is the full video of the press conference for the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere, which again is something you would never have seen Adam Sandler be a part of before.  Even with the minimal involvement of the film’s director, Punch-Drunk Love still has plenty of interesting bonus features thanks to the commendable efforts of Criterion.

Punch-Drunk Love may not be everybody’s ideal for a romantic comedy; especially for those more used to the more commercial style that Hollywood puts out.  But, it still fits very much into the mold of that genre and in fact does many of it much better.  It’s extremely funny, whimsical at times, and has a genuine heart at it’s center.  And most importantly, the couple at it’s center has genuine chemistry.  This is made all the more remarkable given that it is Adam Sandler who stars in this.  Sandler had never been challenged like this before as an actor, and it is thrilling to see him rise to the challenge, and show that he indeed was capable of giving a captivating performance.  Sadly, he has spent most of his career thereafter slumming it in the predictable cornball roles that he started his career on.  There are moments when we do see him try a little harder, such as in movies like Funny People (2009), Men, Women and Children (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but they come few and far between.  To this day, Punch-Drunk Love is the screen performance that he has given, and it should be a calling card for every film director out there who believes that Adam Sandler might be the right fit for their film.  He has it in him, it’s just that too many of us are used to seeing the less subtle side of Adam Sandler.  Still, it is kind of a subversive delight to see one of his movies here in the Criterion Collection, especially given that it’s one of the rare romantic comedies represented in the library.  For anyone looking for something light, passionate, and just all around enchanting, than this is the perfect movie to watch this Valentine’s Day.  Watching Sandler and Emily Watson’s on screen chemistry will warm your hear and Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal direction will leave a powerful spell on you as you take in the simple but enriching visuals of romance in the most unexpected of places.  And, as it stands from there, that’s that.

Collecting Criterion – The Thin Red Line (1998)

Apart from the many collections of classics both from different eras of Hollywood history and the best from the international market, the Criterion library also has plenty of titles to choose from cinemas most esteemed artists.  In some cases, Criterion is the only source for the complete works of some of the most notable film directors of all time, especially in the North American market.  It’s the only place you’ll find the complete filmographies of international icons like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard.  The Collection also gives special treatment to renowned homegrown American filmmakers who work outside the Hollywood system and are rewarded with a special spotlight in a Criterion home video release.  These include independent cinema icons like Richard Linklater who has films like Dazed and Confused (1993, Spine #336) Boyhood (2014, #839), and the Entire Before trilogy are part of the collection.  Also there is Jim Jarmausch, whose Stranger than Paradise (1984, #400) and Dead Man (1995, #919) are also a part of the collection.  And then there are the directors whose filmography are more, shall we say, dense by comparison.  Some would even say impenetrable due to the filmmakers very aware and self-indulgent style.  The most likely candidate for this would be David Lynch, whose trippy and noteworthy work like Eraserhead (1977, #725) and Mullholland Drive (2001, #779) have made it into the Criterion library.  David Cronenberg’s likewise grotesque style has also made it into the collection with Videodrome (1983, #248) and Scanners (1981, #712).  And on the other end of the spectrum, the whimsical but very stylized movies of Wes Anderson, like Moonrise Kingdom  (2012, #776) and Rushmore (1998, #65).  But there is an even more enigmatic director out there whose films are beginning to find their home completely within the Criterion Collection; the very mysterious Terrence Malick.

Thus far, Malick’s films up to the early 2010’s have all made it into the Collection, and with them, you see one of the most peculiar progressions a film director’s career has ever taken.  One thing that Terrence Malick is probably most known for is the 19 year gap that he had between his second and third features.  He started off strong in his career right out of film school, directing the critically acclaimed Badlands (1973, #651) and following that up with the equally beloved Days of Heaven (1978, #409), which won the Academy Award that year for it’s stunning cinematography (much of which was captured at “magic hour”, which has since become a popular visual technique for filmmakers).  And then surprising after that, Malick’s career went completely silent.  There were many rumors of Terrence being a recluse and hermit during those 19 years out of the business, only fueled by Malick’s insistence on privacy throughout most of his life.  But, in reality, he took those years out of film-making to teach philosophy at a university in France.  In time, the lure of cinema would call him back, and it would surprisingly be a war film that wound up doing it.  The Thin Red Line (1998, #536) was a risk for someone so out of practice, and also because Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was in direct competition during that same year.  Though the movie wasn’t a big box office draw, it did receive an overwhelmingly positive critical reception and even was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, both a first for Malick.  But what amazed people the most is how well Malick maintained his unique cinematic voice even through the long absence.  If there is one thing that defines his movies it’s that they are less story driven and more like visual poetry.   And The Thin Red Line would show that Malick could take that definitive style and put it into different genres, which would explore further in his next couple features, The New World (2005, #826) and the Palm d’Or winning The Tree of Life (2011, #942).  But, it’s through The Thin Red Line that we see his style put through the most grueling test and it’s easy to see why it made an ideal choice for Criterion.

The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by James Jones.  The Thin Red Line was the second in a trilogy of novels based on Jones’ wartime experience in WWII, the first of which was From Here to Eternity, which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1953.  The novel chronicles many different conflicts, but focuses primarily on the Battle of Guadalcanal during the Pacific campaign of the War.  Malick’s adaptation is not the first even done from the novel itself, as there was one other made in 1964, starring Keir Duella.  However, there are very few similarities between both features, and also between Malick’s film and the source novel.  Terrence Malick is renowned for his ruthless way of editing his movies, often shifting things around at the last minute, sometimes even completely changing the intention of the footage from what he had planned from the day they were shot.  Whole subplots and even characters are given the axe in his movies, and Thin Red Line is no exception.  Perhaps the most notorious change he made during the editing of this film was to completely change the main character of the movie, without ever making a rewrite to the script.  The way he shot the movie was closer to Jones’ original text, with the author’s surrogate, Corporal Fife, acting as the audience’s eyes and ears to the first hand experience of combat.  In the movie he is played by Adrian Brody, in what would have been his first lead role in a movie.  But, shockingly, Brody’s performance was nearly excised completely in the final cut, with the focus shifted to a different character instead; Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt.  How you can make a movie in which the intended protagonist is turned into a minor character is mystery, but somehow Terrence Malick managed to do it, and this has commonly become a theme of his work ever since.  It’s often said that Malick finds his movie in the editing room, picking and choosing footage in a way that doesn’t so much move the story but rather follows rhythm and feeling more than anything else.

It’s safe to say that Terrence Malick’s films are not for everyone.  The fact that he doesn’t follow basic story-telling rules when it comes to cinema is enough to put many people off, but it’s also the thing that sets him apart as an artist as well.  Truth be told, his movies in recent years have turned more self-indulgent and their lack of coherence is making them fall under more scrutiny by critics as a result, but when he began his career Renaissance with the release of Thin Red Line and through the making of The Tree of Life, he was definitely leaving his mark strongly on the world of film-making.  And while his film strays wildly from the source novel in terms of character development, Malick’s style does in a way honor the spirit of the novel.  One theme that defines the book Thin Red Line is that it emphasizes war as a very personal and isolating experience for every soldier, in that they suffer the horrors of war by themselves, all different from each other.  One Terrence Malick trademark that the movie uses extensively is internal monologues played over montages of random visuals.  In the film, the monologues are given to several different characters, Cavizel’s Witt, Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welch, Brody’s Fife,  Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall, and a variety of others.  And their monologues again feed into Malick’s style by emphasizing the character’s emotional state rather than spelling out exactly what they are going through.  This keeps in spirit with Jones’ novel because it’s emphasizing the emotional toll that’s being taken on these different soldiers as they experience the carnage around them, and how it’s making them further isolated from each other and the world.  Indulgent, yes, and it often makes the movie hard to follow at certain times.  But, it does something that few other war movies have done, which is show the emotional grind that such an experience has on the human soul.

Whether the deliberate pacing and the loosely tied narrative leaves you infuriated or not, there is one thing about The Thin Red Line that is undeniable and that’s just how gorgeous it looks.  The movie was shot by John Toll, who had previously won back to back cinematography Oscars for Legends of the Fall (1994) and Braveheart (1995).  He would turn out to be the right DP for this production because Thin Red Line is an epic scale production, far bigger in scale than anything Malick has made before or since, which is kind of a gutsy move for a filmmaker who hadn’t made anything in almost 20 years.  One thing that is also emblematic of Malick’s work is the lyrical way he observes nature in his movies.  The jungles of Guadalcanal are visually stunning in this movie, especially when combined with another favorite of the director’s; the “magic hour” lighting.  Malick also uses his canvas to project a wide picture of the war, with his soldiers often swallowed up by the environments they exist within.  This in particular helps to separate the movie from the documentary style of Saving Private Ryan, which was shot with tight close-ups and shaky hand-held photography.  Malick was less concerned with authenticity of the “you are there” experience, though he does put emphasis on the historical details, especially when it comes to the production design and costuming.  But the movie deals with the horrors of war through a more poetic way, with nature metaphorically placing the turmoils that these soldiers are enduring into a metaphysical context.  Malick style, particularly with his visuals, have influenced many other filmmakers.  Christopher Nolan has stated that the work of Terrence Malick is a constant inspiration for him, and you can clearly see some of that in his own films.  Dunkirk (2017), in particuar, feels very heavily influenced by The Thin Red Line, especially in the beachfront scenes of the former, which strongly reflect the groundlevel view of Malick’s battle scenes.  It shows that even 20 years later, this war film still has left a mark on a whole new generation of filmmakers.

Criterion naturally wanted to give this beloved film the best home video presentation possible, and once again they have delivered.   A new high definition digital transfer was made from the original 35 mm negative, and a restoration was conducted by Criterion under the supervision of Terrence Malick and John Toll.  Special attention was put into retaining the color and lighting palettes true to the director’s vision.  One thing that does set The Thin Red Line apart the most from other war flicks of it’s type is it’s abundance of lush colors, spotlighting the sun-drenched settings of it’s story.  It’s also something of a trademark of the director, as his films often use color contrast as a significant narrative tool.  Compare this with the de-saturation of color from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which more closely match that film’s grittier, documentary style.  The vibrancy of The Thin Red Line’s color palette is served well by this new high definition transfer, as is the increased level of detail in the textures.  The film’s attention to detail when it comes to the production design is also benefited by the restoration.  One other restoration that has been benefited from the Criterion touch is the restored soundtrack.  A certified  DTS-Master mix has been cleaned up of all pops, hisses, and scratches to retain the best aural experience possible, close enough to how the film would have sounded in the theater upon it’s original release.  While not as dynamic as Private Ryan’s complex soundscape, the movie still features very realistic sounding effects that make the war scenes feel true to life.  However, it’s Hans Zimmer’s moody and hypnotic musical score that benefits the most from this restoration, and it’s the part of this home video presentation that will really pop out to you the most while watching the film again, even on the simplest of home sound systems.  As an visual and aural experience, this Criterion presentation is the best that this movie has received in many years.

Likewise, the edition also features the Criterion Collection’s usual high quality bonus material as well.  Unfortunately, because of Terrence Malick’s strict privacy rules, he is all but absent from every bonus material on this set.  There isn’t even any video footage of him in the making of material, nor any recording of his voice.  We do get insight from many others involved with the film though, especially from the enormous cast.  First of all, there is an informative feature commentary track with John Toll, producer Grant Hill, and production designer Jack Fisk.  Their conversations really help to the best insight into how the film came together, and what it is like to work under the direction of Malick.  Several interviews with cast members are included, including Jim Caviezel, Kirk Acevedo, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn.  There is also an interview with Hans Zimmer about his approach to scoring the film.  The film’s editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein also are interviewed, and provide an interesting perspective the way Malick creates his vision in the editing process.  We also get a very interesting interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of James Jones, who provides us with interesting insight into the man who crafted the original book from his own recollections of combat.  Another brand new interview is conducted with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares rare audition material of the actors in the film, including many more stars who didn’t make the final cut.  There are also fourteen minutes of cut footage from the film, which honestly is only a fraction of what really exists out there.  There are also some fascinating newreels collected from the war era documenting the actual battles on the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands.  Also included are some neat, extended footage of the Melanesian tribal chants that were featured as part of the score, as well as an original theatrical trailer.  All in all, another solid collection of extras, even despite the lack of input from the director himself, and further exploration into the massive production that this film was.

Terrence Malick is something of an enigma in the world of film-making, and his movies often reflect that.  You’ll find just as many people who hate his self-indulgent style as you would find those who will absorb it all in happily.  His work has become more divisive in recent years, as he has gone from a filmmaker of very few credits to one of many.  Some would say that his continued returns are diminishing the once mythical status that his name once held.  Even so, I think most will find that The Thin Red Line, his first film after a long absence and also his most ambitious in terms of scale, is the least divisive film he has made overall.  While there will be some that will scoff at his proclivity towards poetics in the movie, there will be no one that will deny that the movie is exquisitely constructed and quite a harrowing experience overall.  It particularly amazes me that someone like Terrence Malick could put a film of this scale and complexity together after being out of practice for so long.  That in itself is a marvel of film-making, and a real testament to his skills as a director.  If there is one flaw that I would give the Criterion Collection treatment of this film is that it doesn’t go far enough into exploring the real story behind the film’s making.  Apparently, Malick shot enough footage to make close to three or more movies of the same length, and most of it never made it into the final cut.  Full performances from other famous actors like Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Martin Sheen, and Mickey Rourke were all shot, but completely left out of the movie.  I would have liked to have learned more about the movie that could have been in addition to the one that we ultimately got.  But, I blame that more on the secretive director and less on Criterion’s part.  They gave us the best look into the film’s making that we could get, and I’m thankful for that.  If anyone is looking for an entry point into the work of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line would be the best place to start, and Criterion offers the best possible presentation the movie has ever received.  Though filmmakers like Malick may rub some people the wrong way, at least Criterion gives those who do love their work presentations that will please overall.

Collecting Criterion – Barry Lyndon (1975)

Within the Criterion Collection, you can find all sorts of movies that can become part of distinct collections on their own.  If you are a fan of movements like the French New Wave or Italian Neo-realism, Criterion has just the movies to fill out your library.  Maybe you love classic Hollywood screwball comedies.  Those are there too.  But for a lot of people (myself included) they fill their shelves with collections devoted to the works of renowned filmmakers.  Indeed, you can actually find most if not all of a singular filmmaker’s entire body of work within Criterion’s catalog.  For international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman this is already a given, since Criterion is the only distributor here in the States for home video consumption of their movies.  But, Criterion has also made an effort to include many domestic artists in their collection as well.  Wes Anderson in particular has collaborated on a Criterion edition of nearly every movie in his entire career; it’s pretty much the only reason why I haven’t picked up The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) on blu-ray yet, knowing that there is an inevitable Criterion edition coming in the near future.  Other legendary filmmakers are also seeing their bodies of work filling up the Criterion library, including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawkes.  But one of the most pleasing additions to the Criterion Collection has been the films of the legendary Stanley Kubrick.  Out of the 13 films that Kubrick made in his entire career, five are included in the Criterion library; The Killing (1956, Spine #575), Paths of Glory (1957, #538), Spartacus (1960, #105), Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, #821) and the newest inclusion, Barry Lyndon (1975, #897).  And it is perhaps with Barry Lyndon where we see the best that the Collection can do when it comes to preserving great cinematic masterpieces and bring them to their full potential.

It is with Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of Barry Lyndon that we finally have a home video presentation that truly honors this sadly overlooked film.  For many years, Warner Brothers has only put the movie out on bare bones discs, presenting the movie in an unpolished state with no extras included.  Given the lackluster treatment that the movie has received from the studio over the years, you would come to believe that it was one of the lesser films in the Kubrick filmography.  Sure, it was not as profitable as some of his more notable movies, but upon watching the movie you will find that Barry Lyndon still finds Kubrick at his absolute artistic height.  Made in between A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most opulent film project that Kubrick ever undertook, which is really saying something.  And thanks to the new 4K restoration done by Criterion, we are now able to see the absolute beauty of the film in all it’s glory.  Barry Lyndon may have been a departure for some of Kubrick’s most devoted fans, especially after the manic Clockwork Orange.  This methodically paced, three hour period drama seems almost quaint by comparison.  But, beneath the glossy sheen you’ll find Kubrick not only at his most subversive, but also in his most experimental phase as well.  Lyndon was groundbreaking in it’s cinematography, utilizing photographic techniques never achieved before on film, and some of those same techniques may never be replicated ever again due to the exclusivity of Kubrick’s ingeniously crafted equipment.  Thanks to the new Criterion edition, Barry Lyndon now finally is given a proper presentation that gives it the right context to be considered one of Kubrick’s greatest films.  Now it can no longer be dismissed as a misunderstood forgotten classic, but celebrated as the great achievement in film-making that it truly is.

The movie is of course adapted from the 19th century novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), written by William Makepeace Thackery.  It’s a chronicle of the many life altering events that befall the title character, starting off in the Irish countryside with the young Redmond Barry (played by Ryan O’Neal in the film) believing himself to be more of a gentlemen than his more genteel brethren.  When Barry finds his desired love being courted by an English army captain, he foolishly challenges him to a duel.  The duel later commences, as part of societal tradition, and Barry is victorious, slaying the captain with one shot.  Because killing an English officer is a capital crime in occupied Ireland in this time, Barry is forced to flee from his home.  This eventually leads him to joining the army as a means of escaping execution.  Soon, he finds himself on the front lines of the Seven Year’s War, another unfortunate life turn that he hopes to escape.  He falsely poses as a carrier and crosses the battle lines over into the Prussian army’s territory, hoping to find a means of escape.  He soon is caught by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), who sees past Barry’s deception and places him under arrest.  For a while after, Barry is forced to serve in the opposing Prussian army as punishment, but once Captain Potzdorf is wounded in battle, Barry unexpectedly finds himself in the role of his savior, which then puts him in the army’s good graces.  Through Potzdorf’s grateful influence, Barry is assigned to spy on an aristocratic gambler named the Chevalier (Patrick Magee), who they suspect is a double agent working for the English due to his Irish background.  Over time, Barry befriends the Chevalier, who introduces him to European high society, making Barry an admired aristocrat himself.  In time, he returns to England, where his new status brings him into contact with the recently widowed Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) whom he soon marries and adopts her title as well as her fortune.  Life appears magnificent for the new Lord Barry Lyndon, except for the growing resentment he endures from his spiteful stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali).

Barry Lyndon is certainly a dramatic change for Kubrick, but at the same time, is exactly geared towards his own artistic tastes.  One thing that unites most of Kubrick’s work is his fondness for adaptation.  Indeed, most of his movies, Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Shining included, all are taken from a preexisting literary source, and Barry Lyndon is one of the clearest examples of his love of literature.  The movie itself feels very much like a novel, with the different episodes of Barry’s life loosely stitched together through an omniscient narration, done by English character actor Michael Hordern.  And in a way, Barry Lyndon‘s biggest strength is the way that it flows together like moving portraiture of the era it’s depicting.  Kubrick seems less interested in the personality of Barry, and instead concerns himself more with how Barry’s many digressions and social climbing manipulations reveal more layers of the aristocratic society that the director is more fascinated with.  I think that why he was so confident with the somewhat unusual casting of then 1970’s heartthrob Ryan O’Neal as Barry, because O’Neal’s distinctly out of place , Americanized style of acting perfectly suits the outsider and scoundrel attitude of Barry Lyndon.  O’Neal may seem stiff at times in the role, but I think that works to the movie’s advantage because it fits more in line with how Kubrick wants this character to be represented.  Indeed, much of the performances in the movie are intentionally restrained, because Kubrick wants his characters to inhabit the scenery rather than to chew into it.  This is especially true of Marisa Berenson in the role of Lady Lyndon, who is often given the task of remaining still and wordless in some of the director’s trademark zoom out shots.  The one exception would be the exceptional, vitriolic performance by Leon Vitali as Bullingdon.  This would be a life changing gig for the young actor, because he would move on to a different career afterwards, becoming Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant, which was a role he filled for over 20 years, up until Kubrick’s death in 1999.

But apart from the faithful translation of the novel, and the remarkable production values, Barry Lyndon’s  true brilliance actually lies in the way it was filmed.  Most people won’t notice it right away, but Barry Lyndon is a technological breakthrough in photography; maybe even more so than 2001, remarkably enough.  For the most part, to get the breathtaking images in 2001, Kubrick had to utilize varying numbers of post-production processing to get the images he needed.  But, in Barry Lyndon he managed to capture images on screen that we’ve never seen done before, and he did it all in camera.  The images I’m speaking of are set-ups that look like they were taken directly from 18th Century paintings, only captured on film rather than with paint on canvas.  This was achieved with specially made lenses from the Zeiss Corporation.  These extra sensitive lenses were intended for capturing low light, which is what Kubrick desired for his film, because he wanted to be able to shoot his scenes using only natural candlelight, which was impossible to do on film beforehand without having most of the background cast in dark shadow.  With these special lenses, Kubrick had the sensitivity he desired, but there was one drawback, it made the depth of field extremely shallow.  While this made focusing a nightmare for cinematographer John Alcott, the shallow depth of field actually had the extra benefit of flattening the image, making the foreground and backgrounds appearing on the same plane, which in turn gave the movie that 18th Century painting effect.  Just take a screen grab from any part of the movie and you could swear it must have been painted instead of photographed, because the compositions are extremely similar.  Because of this, Barry Lyndon really stands out as a perfect demonstration of the brilliant artistry that can be captured with a the lens of a film camera.  And just to show how forward thinking Kubrick was as a photographic genius, he managed to snatch up two of these rare lenses, before the only other buyer did.  And that other buyer of this exclusive lens was none other than NASA, who used the same lenses on the Hubble Telescope.  So if you think about it, Barry Lyndon has a closer connection with space exploration than 2001 has ever had.

Of all the works of Stanley Kubrick’s career to make it into the Criterion Collection, Barry Lyndon is the one that has benefited the most.  Not only does the 4K restoration make us appreciate the groundbreaking cinematography that much more, but now we are also treated to a wealth of extras that really give the movie some proper historical and artistic context.  The restoration was conducted with the original camera negative taken directly from the Warner Brothers archive.  This enables us to see the film in the most in it’s most pristine condition possible.  Though Kubrick isn’t around to supervise this new transfer himself, Criterion was able to consult with Leon Vitali, who would’ve had known Kubrick’s desired intentions with how the film was supposed to look.  He helped Warner Brothers and Criterion lock down the color reference for this new master and made sure that Kubrick’s vision would come out intact and uncompromised.  Suffice to say, the results are breathtaking.  You really get an appreciation for the artistry on display here, as well as the extraordinary effect that the ultra-sensitive Zeiss lenses had in creating the one-of-a-kind distortions that made the film look so much like a painting come to life.  Vitali also consulted on the new restoration of the film’s soundtrack, which includes a new 5.1 surround mix.  Though the movie is not a sonicly dynamic one, it does feature some beautiful soundscapes that ring very clearly in this new restoration.  Kubrick always had an appreciation for classical music, which became a trademark in most of his movies like Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube in 2001 and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon continues that tradition.  George Frideric Hadel’s melancholy Sarabande becomes the primary musical theme of the entire movie, and it’s wonderfully preserved as part of the restored soundtrack.  By presentation alone, Criterion’s new blu-ray is a godsend gift to anyone who appreciates the art of cinema as well as any fan of Kubrick’s genius work displayed on the film here.

The rest of the Criterion set is also worthwhile as well.  Given that Warner Bros. previous releases have been devoid of extras, this edition marks a significant upgrade in every way.  The three hour plus movie makes up the entirety of the first in this two disc set, while all the extras make up the latter.  The most prominent extra is a brand new documentary about the making of the film, made exclusively by Criterion and featuring interviews with cast and crew, including producer Jan Harlan, assistant directors Brian Cook and Michael Stevenson, as well as Leon Vitali and Stanley’s widow Catherine Kubrick.  It gives a great overview of why Kubrick wanted to make this movie and details all the extraordinary efforts it took to make it become a reality.  There’s even some valuable excerpts taken from an audio interview done with Kubrick himself discussing the movie, giving us some insight into the director’s own experience with the movie.  Another documentary interviews focus puller Douglas Milsome and gaffer Lou Bogue, who talk in great length about the logistical hurdles it took to make the specialty lenses work with the film they were shooting with.  One interesting insight here is the clever video display set-up that they engineered, so that they could keep track of where their actors needed to stand in order to stay within the very narrow focus field.  Another documentary talks about the editing of the movie while another discusses the Oscar-winning work of production designer Ken Adam, and another is devoted to the costume design.  Leon Vitali appears in another separate featurette, talking about the surround mix that he supervised for this restoration.  Film critic Michel Ciment also recorded a new interview where he discusses the legacy of the movie as well as it’s central themes about society and corrupt aristocracy.  Finally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Adam Eaker is interviewed about the artwork that were inspirations or the look of Barry Lyndon, and he discusses how well the movie recaptures the visual aesthetic of the art from that time period.  Along with a couple original trailers this is a wealth of extra features that finally give this often overlooked movie the appreciation that it deserves.

Even if Barry Lyndon is not what you would expect from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, especially given the two movies that bookend it in his filmography, you can’t help but marvel at the exquisite levels of film-making art that he puts on display for us in this movie.  Foremost, I for one am blown away by the cinematography in this movie.  It may very well be one of the most beautifully shot movies in all of history, and as we have learned, Kubrick pretty much had to invent his own camera equipment just to pull it all off.  In many of the film’s exquisite compositions, you get the feeling that you’re looking at a painting taken out of it’s wooden frame and animated into life.  The way that light is cast in the various scenes is also beautifully captured.  As we learn in the making of documentaries, in order to capture a scene cast in natural candlelight, it meant using the same high tech lenses that made it possible for us to look closer at the stars in our sky.  Sadly, most people won’t even recognize the technological advances made by Barry Lyndon, because technology has in many ways passed it by, and now Barry Lyndon seems to the untrained eye to be a bit old-fashioned.  Hopefully, Criterion’s new edition of the movie helps to give it the spotlight that it truly deserves.  This isn’t an artistic misstep from one of cinema’s greatest voices, but in fact a bold, misunderstood masterpiece that really needs to be re-framed as one of the best works of art of his entire career.  I have really come to appreciate Barry Lyndon for what it is, even in the context of Kubrick’s entire body of work, and am now today really blown away by the levels it took to make it.  For anyone interested in the science of photography, Barry Lyndon probably represents an enormous leap forward.  This Criterion edition is thankfully the long awaited special edition that fans, both old and new, have waited a long time for.  It gives the movie a much needed restoration and collection of extras that help to spotlight the significance that it rightly holds.  Hopefully more of Kubrick’s work will come to Criterion in the future, but for now, Barry Lyndon is the movie that gets the best boost so far from the Collection as a whole.

www.criterion.com/barrylyndon

 

Collecting Criterion – M (1931)

World Cinema has created a wonderful variety of styles, all of which have left their mark both on film history and on Hollywood itself.  Pretty much any new technique developed by filmmakers around the world will influence someone here in Tinseltown, who will in turn give it a mainstream appeal.  You could see it in the development of Soviet Montage techniques from Russian filmmakers, as well as the radical free form film-making popularized by the French New Wave.  But, if there ever was an international style that had the most profound impact early on within Hollywood, it would be the style of German Expressionism.  Developed in Weimer Era Germany during the heyday of Silent cinema, Expressionism was a technique of storytelling that emphasized emotion through abstract visuals.  Instead of portraying the world as is, Expressionism distorts the world to convey a larger truth behind the veil of what we see as “reality.”  It was the primary artistic force that drove the flourishing of art to came out of Weimer era culture, and it’s cinematic contributions are no less noteworthy.  The extreme visual mind-trips like 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu left a profound imprint on cinema, even across the world in Hollywood.  You can see the influence of German Expressionism in everything from Film Noir to Disney fairy tales.  The Criterion Collection is very fond of this era itself, spotlighting a few of the classics from this movement.  Pioneering dramatist Georg Wilhelm Pabst has a couple films honored in the collection including Pandora’s Box (Spine #358) and The Threepenny Opera (#405).  Even a modern Expressionist view of Weimer culture is spotlighted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour behemoth Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, #411).  But, if there is one Expressionist filmmaker who holds  a special place in the Collection, it is the legendary Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang is not only one of Germany’s most celebrated auteur directors; he one of the most celebrated filmmakers in world history, period.  Filmmakers all over the world look to him as a big influence in their work, and it’s largely due to his fantastic command of stories told on both the grandest and most intimate of scales.  He made a steady rise in early days of German cinema, specializing in gritty crime thrillers.  He famously created the cinematic trope of criminal masterminds wrecking havoc on society with his creation of the villainous psychic gangster, Dr. Mabuse.  Though part of a longer series, only one of those Mabuse films has been given the Criterion treatment; 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (#231).  But, the film that would make Lang a household name around the world would be his colossal modernist epic, Metropolis (1927).  Metropolis is widely seen as one of the greatest movies ever made, and without a doubt the pinnacle of cinema in the silent era.  With a sense of scale unheard of until that time, Lang revolutionized cinema and created what many consider to be the first science fiction film.  You can see homages to Metropolis in everything from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).  But, Metropolis would also be a turning point for Lang as a filmmaker, as Germany itself would begin to change.  The libertine years of Weimer Germany gave way to a rise in Nationalistic Fascism, which also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  And with this, the creative freedoms allowed to filmmakers like Fritz Lang were suddenly unavailable.  Lang’s post-Metropolis films were considerably smaller, but no less provocative.  He amazingly was still able to create some profound cinematic works, even under threat of censorship from the Nazi regime, but only for a short while.  And the most famous of these films has been given a cherished place in the Criterion Collection; the harrowing and influential crime thriller, (1931, #30).

The minimalist title M refers to a mark left on suspected child murderer who is at the center of the story; marked so that he is more easily hunted down by those wishing to bring him to justice.  The story is less about the murderer, and even less about the victims themselves.  Instead, Fritz Lang examines the societal reaction to such crimes, and how justice is enacted by both the people in power and by ordinary citizens.  It begins with the disappearance of  a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), who is found murdered shortly after.  Outrage pours in from Elsie’s family, as well as from the neighborhood she called home, all chastising the local government for not doing enough to stop this string of child murders from happening.  As the investigation goes on, it seems apparent that the children in the city are all falling victim to the same assailant.  Fed up with the slow response of law enforcement in the city, the victims’ families enlist the help of the criminal underground to find the child murderer and finally bring him to justice.  Leading them is ruthless Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens) whose network of spies and hitmen scour the city for any clues as to the identity of the killer.  Finally, a blind balloon salesman points them towards a lead, as he remembers hearing the same man whistling Edvard Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the “Peer Gynt” suite as he was buying a balloon for each of the slain children.  When the same whistle is heard suddenly again, the city discovers the identity of the killer, a portly young man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre).  Beckart is hunted down, escaping for a time in an abandoned building, but is ultimately caught and brought before the community.  What follows is one of cinema’s most unforgettable portrayals of insanity and social commentary as Beckart faces a kangaroo court all intent on enacting a ruthless kind of justice that asks us the viewer how monsters are created in the end; are they born that way, or are they a manifestation of society at it’s worst?

is a captivating film, and one of the most influential ever made too.  Within it, you can see Fritz Lang writing the blueprint for the modern crime thriller, with his unflinching look at how crime and punishment and societal evils are almost always cyclical in the way they perpetuate each other.  Lang doesn’t sympathize with the child murderer exactly, but he does show the society that’s hunting him down to be nearly as monstrous as he is.  For the first time in cinema history, we received a look into the mind of a killer and examine what would drive him to commit such terrible acts; and the shocking thing is that society in general creates these kinds of monsters.  Hans Beckert doesn’t kill to make a point nor for any personal gain.  He kills, because he can.  He is driven by a compulsion, one that even he doesn’t understand completely, but still one that satisfies a deep down need inside.  And, as Lang points out in the movie, society loves to create and destroy it’s own monsters.  Beckert sees that people will fear him when they witness the results of his crimes, and he enjoys the rush of power that gives him, lustfully desiring it even more.  But, once discovered, he suddenly loses that impervious feeling, and we see the infantile little man that he really is.  All he can do then is to confess his true feelings, and what’s frightening to everyone is that this horrible monster is all too human in the end.  With M, Lang makes the case that by giving monstrous deeds so much attention, that it empowers those who enjoy committing them, and as a result we ourselves become a little monstrous ourselves for indulging in this cycle of mayhem.  No other crime thriller before or since has portrayed the cycle of violence with this much clarity, and Hans Beckert’s emotional breakdown is still one of the most harrowing moments ever captured on film; brilliantly conveyed through Peter Lorre’s iconic performance.

Lang’s masterpiece is also a remarkable time capsule of the era in which it was made.  We are familiar with the decadent flourish of Weimer Era art in Germany, as well as the rigid Fascist regime that followed it.  But, we have few documents of the years in between, where freedom gave way to totalitarianism in a short amount of time.  In the film M, we can see the beginnings of nationalistic fervor that swamped over Germany at the time.  In these days, political opportunists seized upon scapegoats for societal ills, and as we saw, the prosperous Germanic Jewish communities were singled out.  In the movie, the desperate townspeople turn to shady criminal hoodlums to enact justice where the government had let them down.  The same result was going on nationwide in Germany at the time, as “brown coat” fascists began to take more power by portraying the Jewish as a foreign entity that was destroying their society.  Eventually, this movement coalesced into the Nazi Party which gained national prominence under Hitler’s leadership.  There is an unmistakable parallel in the portrayal of Schranker to the rise of the Nazi’s, with his black leather trench coat and purely Aryan looks being an unmistakable representation of the atypical fascist thug.  Lang clearly wanted to show with his thriller a chilling examination of the social turmoil that his country was going through.  He pointedly shifts blame on the people of Germany, showing that inviting the wolves to chase the fox out of the hen house only creates a new den of wolves.   Unfortunately, Lang’s film was misconstrued by the Nazi regime, with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels spotlighting Hans Beckert as an ideal representation of a Jewish monster.  Lang was even offered the position of the chief in charge of cinema under the Third Reich by Goebbels, but the pro-democratic Lang refused and swiftly escaped his home country.  He made his way to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his marquee star Peter Lorre, where he again left a strong influence, becoming one of the architects of film noir style in that era.  But, would sadly mark the end of a legendary rise for both him, and Germanic cinema in general.

When it comes to a title this legendary and beloved, you can be assured that Criterion is going to give it a very special treatment.  First added to the collection in it’s early days on DVD, has benefited from a few updates and remasters over the years, leading to a new pristine blu-ray edition made available today.  The restoration was completed using a fine grain print, made from a duplicate negative restored in the Netherlands in 2000.  The original negative was of course destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, so this duplicate negative is the best source we have to preserving Lang’s original vision.  All things considered, the scan used for the digital presentation of the film looks outstanding, especially for a film this old.  There are plenty of scratches still present, but not too much to be distracting.  Detail is incredibly conveyed in the transfer, and the color scaling enables us to not have any of the darkest scenes be washed out in black.  What is interesting however about this Criterion edition is the inclusion of the complete English version of the movie.  Back when sound film was still new, alternate versions were sometimes shot simultaneously in multiple languages.  Few of these alternate versions have survived over the years, like the famous Spanish version of Dracula (1931), but thankfully film archivists were able to track down this English version of M somewhere deep in the archives of the British Film Institute.  While most of the film is dubs over the original actors, there are some instances where British actors are inter-spliced into the film, particularly in the moments focusing on the investigators of the crime.  More interesting though is that Peter Lorre performed his famous confessional speech in three different languages, since he was fluent in all of them; German, French and English.  His performance is different in each, which makes for a fascinating contrast.  I’d say that his German performance is the best, since that’s the one where he was working with Lang’s direction, but his brilliance shines through in all versions.  The English version is also un-restored, so it gives you a much clearer idea of the extensive work that went into making this movie look as pristine as it does.

Included in this edition are some valuable extras as well, which is to be expected of Criterion at this point.  In addition to the complete English version of the movie, we also get an interesting audio commentary from German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, who go into more depth behind the film’s historical context, it’s deeper themes, as well as it’s cinematic legacy.  Another interesting inclusion is the documentary Conversations with Fritz Lang, which is a collection of interviews conducted by Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin with Lang towards the end of his life in his Beverly Hills home.  It’s fascinating to hear the man himself discuss his own work, and much of the interviews touch upon the themes and legacy of M.  Lang also recounts his harrowing escape from Germany after refusing Geobbels offer.  While some of it may have been embellished over time, it’s nevertheless shows Lang’s command over story in hearing him tell this personal account.  There’s also a short film called M le maudit, which is a short French film that was heavily influenced by the classic, and it’s director Claude Chabrol is also interviewed separately, discussing the influence that Lang’s film had on him.  Interviews taken from audiotapes of M‘s editor, Paul Falkenberg, as well as a brand new video one of Harold Nebenzal, the son of the film’s producer Seymour Nebenzal, are also included on the set.  There is also a fascinating visual essay made about the physical history of M, which includes images of how the film was marketed, how it was exploited by the Nazi regime after release, how Weimer Era culture influenced it’s setting, as well as details on the restoration work recently completed on it.  The best part of this essay is the inclusion of the French version of Lorre’s famous confessional scene, which provides yet another interesting contrast with the final film.  Overall, it gives this classic and influential film the well rounded home video release that it deserves, and lives up to the high standard that is typically expected of Criterion.

Fritz Lang’s has held up remarkably well over it’s long history, and sadly feels more prescient than ever.  With populism and nationalistic movements on the rise throughout much of the world once again, Lang’s chilling look at society torn apart through fear of the unknown feels all too prophetic nowadays.  Without knowing it at the time, Lang documented the conditions that lead to the rise of dictatorships, and it’s a harrowing cautionary tale that everyone should take note of.  At the same time, Lang also set the high standard for intelligent crime thrillers by which all successors are still judged by.  With his interesting procedural breakdown of investigative crime-fighting, to the complex portrayal of the criminal himself, Lang’s cinematic touch can be felt in every crime thriller since M, from the big screen to the little screen.  How many TV cop procedural dramas owe their existence to legacy of M?  Lang himself continued to extend the style that he pioneered, making classic noir thriller in Hollywood like Fury (1936) and The Woman in the Window (1944).  Peter Lorre also prospered after answering the call of Hollywood, himself escaping certain death under the Nazi regime, and he would become a valuable character actor for many years, appearing in such classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943).  Still, features the best work of both men, and it will likely remain one of cinema’s greatest pairing of actor and director that we will ever see.   Criterion has been good to this film for many years and it is a pleasure seeing them continue to treat this film with the utmost care.  The digital restoration is superb for a film this old and it gives us an excellent representation of how the film might of looked back when it was first released.  The alternate English version included also provides us with an interesting window into how films were made in the early days of sound, before they began to figure these things out and just use subtitles instead.  Anyone who appreciates film and world history should absolutely watch this movie.  It’s scary in it’s prescience and profound in it’s unflinching view of humanity and the societies we create.  And in a world that is growing all the more hostile and untrustworthy, this film is now essential viewing more than it ever has been before.