Poor J. Carroll Naish in Dr. Renault's Secret, Harry Lachman, 1942. Look at that mug.
I always loved the B-picture innovation of revealing the film's "secret" not though a flashback but via a character paging through a scrapbook. Not just a cost-cutting move, but a post-modernist one!
I only just got around to revisiting this oddity, a fondness for which once functioned as a sort of Masonic handshake for eccentric horror buffs. It's part of the fabulous Fox Horror Classics Volume 2 box that came out last fall, which also includes the immortal Chandu the Magician. Watching Secret, one is struck by the straight face that director Lachman maintains while navigating the picture's myriad absurdities, among the least of which is Arthur Shields, full-on Dublin accent and all, playing the chief inspector of a provincial French town. As bonkers as it gets, the film retains a certain B integrity, delivering action and atmospherics with both commitment and brisk efficiency. The aggregate effect is quite...peculiar.
Believe you me, I am not one to wax nostalgic over the days of VHS. But it's an indisputable truth that back then, things were a little simpler. The question of how a movie ought to look on home video was severely circumscribed by technical limitations. The answer to the question was, in pretty much every case, "As good as it can look given how crappy the resolution of the NTSC broadcast standard and the crappier-still VHS standard could get it up to." As a devoted laserdisc buyer back in the day, I wish I could say that said superior disc format had some say in the debate, but let's face facts: that particular market was so small that its proclamations concerning the, shall we say, art of the possible never even had a chance of being heard.
Today things are quite different. DVD, and its high-definition coeval Blu-ray, complicate the question in any number of ways. In this post I'll only deal with one aspect of it: film grain. The debate falls, crudely, along these lines: those who believe that when dealing with a good number of what we'll call classic films,grain is not just an integral part of the picture but is, as film restoration expert Robert Harris has said, nothing more or less than the picture itself. Then there are those who argue that grain...or, when pressed, what they term "excess" grain, is a detriment to picture quality, and is only defended by purist "monks," to use Jeffrey Wells' term. They argue, for instance, that if Billy Wilder could have concocted a shiny, grain-free version of Sunset Boulevard, they damn well would have—as Paramount, with the technical assistance of the digital restoration firm Lowry Digital, did a few years back for a standard-definition DVD of the film.
The argument that moviemakers themselves hate grain and would gladly do without it if they could is contradicted in large part, I think, by, say, the post-2001: A Space Odyssey work of Stanley Kubrick. It receives an extremely controversial rebuke in the form of the new Blu-ray disc of The French Connection, which was subjected to a color re-timing by director Billy Friedkin himself. The new version has been denounced by no less a personage as Owen Roizman, the cinematographer of the picture. I'm of two minds about it myself, and the discussion is a continuing one.
There's one genre of filmmaking, though, in which the "they-would-have-gotten-rid-of-the-grain-if-they-could" line holds a great deal of water. Animation. Disney works with Lowry Digital on (thus far) all the restorations of its classic animation titles, and the digital work goes beyond erasing scratches and smudges. It extends well into the issue of the grain that was produced when the actual animation cels were photographed. It aims to give a representation of what the artwork would have looked like had the intermediaries of the camera lens and the film stock never, shall we say, interfered.
The first high-definition demonstration of this wizardry was with 1959's Sleeping Beauty, released on Blu-ray last fall, a staggeringly beautiful disc. In a week and a half, DIsney unveils a 70th-Anniversary edition of Pinocchio on Blu-ray, and in a way, it's even more of a stunner.
Okay, the actual 70th anniversary of this 1940 title is a year away, but let's not quibble. For borderline boomers such as myself, Pinocchio never played as an "old" movie when we saw it, or bits of it, on the color version of "The Wonderful World of Disney" on our households' first color televisions in the early '60s. But to look at this version is to look at something not just not old, but brand new. The colors, the detail, the almost preternatural absence of smudges, scratches, and whatnot...this does, I think, inarguably, honor the intentions and the labors of the filmmakers in a way that even they themselves could not have envisioned. The above frame is a snapshot I took off of my display, midday on a sunny day; I don't have to apologize for my photographic ineptitude here. Below are a couple of screen caps I got on my computer from the standard-def DVD included in the package I got; they speak for themselves.
I don't know how you yourself feel about Pinocchio the film; as you might have inferred, I'm pro. If you love it as I do and have a Blu-ray player, go out and grab this; it's pretty much as thrilling as the format gets.
My buddy and occasional SCR pinch-hitter Aaron Aradillas always does a great job with his "Back By Midnight" blog radio show, but this week's episode should touch off some serious fireworks. "Anarchy In NYC: The Legacy of The French Connection," it's called, and it's all about the making of the film...and of course its controversial new Blu-ray presentation. Among Aaron's guests are famed cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot the film...and who only learned about the new color-retimed DVD when Aaron was booking him to appear. Suffice it to say that he has some fairly definite opinions about this controversial re-visioning. Check it out here.
There are any number of aspects to Madeleine Carroll's turn as Mrs. Erlynne in Preminger's 1949 The Fan that might be profitably commented on. But if you think I'm going to comment in such respects here, or at the Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report at The Auteurs', you are mistaken. Carry on.
Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (or, as at least one friend has it, Recollections of Early Childhood), opened in New York City in November of 1980; a couple of weeks back, a very handsome version of the film, which will probably remain the definitive home version for the foreseeable future, was released on Blu-ray.
The picture opened to rather mixed reviews, but went on to be acclaimed by a large number of critics and publications (including Premiere, well before I was employed there) as the best film of the 1980s. Still and all, Raging Bull remains controversial; when certain movie bloggers bring it up, the comments threads on their posts attract a number of people who discuss how unpleasant the film's characters are, how they're impossible to "relate" to, and why therefore should anyone spend two-hours-plus and in black-and-white, even, with them, and so on.
Many of them will cite Pauline Kael's New Yorker review, this passage specifically: "LIstening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know I'm supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says 'You dumb f--k,' and Joey says 'You dumb f--k,' and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb f--ks?"
One could argue that this is a shining example of, shall we say, classist observation, right down to the implied proposition that for Kael to refer to people as "dumb f--ks" in an entirely different proposition than for two lumpen Italian-Americans to refer to each other as such. (Although in fairness it should also be noted that in this department Kael doesn't have a patch on current New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, whose review of All The Real Girls is a genuine classic of the genre.) Still, one ought not dismiss her impatience out of hand. The Raging Bull lover might do well to examine his or her enthusiasm for the film in relation to his or her familiarity with, and even affection for, its milieu.
—Very nice, also, the acknowledgement of Manny Farber. A Condon consideration, I'd reckon. He knows about that stuff.
—The Franco/Rogen thingie was the funniest of the thingies.
—I'm real glad I didn't live-blog it, and that I only followed the thoughts of others who were doing so via occasional peeks at Facebook updates. Lame is lame, I agree, but if, as Cyril Connolly once noted, nothing dates like hate, well, hate via Twitter just curdles into useless snot instantly. One actually funny comment amid all of it was a bit about the various "Justice Leagues" of acting award presenters.
—I see that Joel Stein was credited for "additional material." I say we start a rumor that he wrote the opening number, the most excruciating in Oscar history since that Rob Lowe/Snow White horror. I think Jackman recovered very nicely, though.
—The wife and I had a great time with a swell group of friends. Hope you did too.
I rather like the world-weariness with which Jeffrey Wells announces "I'll be live blogging the Oscars along with everyone else." Sure, go ahead, be one of the sheep. As for myself, I will not be doing any such thing. I live-blogged the Oscars last year, and the year before that, and I had fun, and thought I did a pretty good job...ah, but you see, the operative word there is "job." No one is actually paying me to live-blog the Oscars this year; hence, I can go back to my standard operating procedure of attending the Oscar dinner party thrown by our good friends K. and P., where, instead of rudely hunching over a laptop, I'll relax and make wisecracks at the TV, which is what people did before live-blogging, or twittering, or what have you. I certainly hope that all my virtual friends out there have some real humans to hang with for this entirely trivial but potentially not-unamusing event. I shall perhaps do some sort of post-mortem tomorrow. Have fun!
Next Tuesday Fox Home Entertainment releases a revamped DVD of the 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point in both standard definition and Blu-ray editions. Both look very fine indeed, but if you've got the equipment, the Blu-ray is the one to get. The film itself is an oddball piece that's very much of its time. Point is the story of an enigmatic driver, one "Kowalski" (played by Barry Newman, seen below with Lee Weaver), who, for reasons that remain known only to himself even after we get his back story via a series of flashbacks, is compelled to attempt a Denver-to-San Francisco jaunt...in 15 hours. Naturally his efforts attract the attention of law enforcement officials in a number of states, not to mention a blind radio DJ named "Super Soul" who becomes Kowalski's cheerleader and confessor. A combination crazy chase movie, Easy Rider-esque examination of "America," and a one-part-existentialism/one-part-mystic philosophical statement, Vanishing Point remains both compelling...and breathtakingly beautiful. Director Richard C. Sarafian followed the film with another picture chockablock with memorable imagery, Man In The Wilderness, and went on to direct and act in many other pictures, but Point remains a unique high for him. We recently spoke about it with the director, who turns 79 this year. Some spoilers are revealed in the interview, just so you know.
SCR: Vanishing Point is a movie that has fantastic imagery; you worked here with the first rate cinematographer, John Alonzo.The screenplay was
written, under a pseudonym, “Guillermo Cain,” by the great Cuban writer Gabriel Cabrera Infante.I wonder
if you'd just give me a little bit of the background as how this very unusual
film came into being, and then maybe let's talk about the process by which you
created the visuals.
SARAFIAN: I was in London and I was considering several other
screenplays at the time.One was Downhill
Racer.The other one was Serpico, and then Love Story.At the
moment I had just completed a movie that ultimately was called Run Wild, Run
Free, about autism.Anyhow, my wife, now my ex-wife, Robert
Altman's sister, convinced me that I would have more fun with Vanishing
Point, ‘cause it had a lot more to
say and was more of a challenge for me as a director.This was as I was considering Downhill Racer with Gene Hackman; I thought the challenge of that
piece was to get into the molecule or the essence of speed and to transfer
that—what Jean-Claude Killy might have seen, felt and experienced—into the
audio-visual medium and the challenge of that, reaching for that. [Racer was
eventually made by Michael Ritchie, starring Robert Redford—Ed.] But I didn't think that I would function well in
that world.I'd been overweight—I'm fat.But here comes Vanishing
Point, written by Guillermo, who was
at one time Castro's Minister of Information, who apparently had read Jack
Kerouac's On The Road, and was now writing
this very graphic visual piece…and the essence of it was about freedom.And so I saw it as about the road being an
endless road and that the demise of our hero doesn't end at the bulldozer, that
he goes on.
Lately I've been seeing a lot of virtual hand-wringing about how, particularly on the internet, writing about movies has devolved into writing about writing about movies. I am not unsympathetic to plaints of this sort, and have been trying (really!) to cut down on such stuff on this here blog/website/whatever it is. Hence, my not weighing in on that Entertainment Weekly "best living directors" list, and such. However. This afternoon, as I pored over what some might consider a volume of ancient lore, I happened upon a passage that, as they say, struck home w/r/t this topic.
[Bosley Crowther] is not alone in panning A Countess From Hong Kong. To my knowledge, only William Wolf of Cue has rallied to Chaplin's defense. Happily, Falstaff [yclept Chimes at Midnight-Ed.] has found powerful defender in Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek, Judith Crist of the World-Journal Tribune, and Archer Winsten of the Post. Even so, Mr. Crowther is entitled to his opinion, and he is scarcely the least enlightened of American film critics. Henry Hart of Films In Review has earned that dubious distinction with ease. The problem with Crowther is power. Not only can he still make or break "art" films in New York; he can dictate to distributors what films they may or may not import. Lately he has been credited even with what may or may not be produced. In a letter to the Times a producer of Dutchman whined that Crowther had seemed to encourage the project at a preproduction dinner. The person in question is not the first person in the industry to learn that Crowther cannot be had for a free meal. I'll say that much for Bos. He is not corruptible in the vulgar way most of his detractors suspect. He is affable, urbane, polite, genial, and easy to misunderstand in personal relationships. The industry is full of glad-handers and promoters who claim to have Crowther's ear but who only get the back of his hand when the early editions of The Times hit the stands. This kind of unpredictability is all to Crowther's credit. United Artists planned a Bond-like promotion of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and the sequels because Crowther seemed to have been impressed by the Italian western cycle on his European jaunt for The Times last year. When it turned out there was too much pasta in them thar oats, Crowther backtracked and UA had to dump the project.
The writer is Andrew Sarris, in the March 30, 1967 issue of The Village Voice; the piece is reprinted in the indispensable tome Confessions Of A Cultist. I don't think I need to point out the varied correspondences one can find here to contemporary discourse, except to say that, as far as one of the most obvious of them is concerned, Goldstein versus Dargis represents a false analog to Sarris versus Crowther, because Sarris was right, and Goldstein is wrong...and an idiot. The rest of the dots will be more fun for those who give a damn to connect on their own. I'll add that we all ought to feel vindicated at which side history has ended up on w/r/t the Leone films.
I'll further add that what's different today is that Sarris was communicating from a pond. The internet has made that pond into an ocean, with a commensurate increase in species and such. Don't hate the players...or is it do hate the players? ...or?...well, there's no easy adage for it, is there?
T. Frank (David Weber), Paulette (Doris Hargrave), and Frank (Sonny Davis) at the drive-in, in Eagle Pennell and Lin Sutherland's The Whole Shootin' Match, 1978
If you've never seen, let alone heard of, The Whole Shootin' Match, a Texas-made independent film from 1978, I'd say you're in for a treat. And if you have seen The Whole Shootin' Match already, it's probably likely you're eager to see it again, looking as it should; I'd say you're in for a treat as well. Mark Rance's recently founded concern Watchmaker Films, which is partnering on this and other projects with the good fellows at Benten Films, is releasing a terrific multi-disc DVD package of Shootin' Match next Tuesday. The film is really a gem and a delight, and I cover it in some detail today over at The Auteurs' Notebook. Check it out, and, as they say, get your mind right.