The Lure, which opened the 18th annual Boston Underground Film Festival, had two tasks in front of it. The first: set the tonal stage for what to expect from the exciting, non-conformist festival. The second: entertain, titillate, and innovate. Did it accomplish both? The answer is yes, and in dazzling fashion.
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Now available on demand from Warner Archive is Cry of the Hunted, an intriguing B picture from MGM directed by Joseph H. Lewis, most famous for such tough and vigorous noirs as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Not quite a noir, this film is a hybrid of several genres, and its unpredictability is one of its attractions as it moves from hard-edged urban settings to a more dreamlike, symbolic realm of personal psychological struggle in the swamps.
It starts as a prison story establishing Tunner (Barry Sullivan) as a progressive official in charge of the joint’s maximum security section. Goaded by his laidback boss (Robert Burton), Tunner tries to make a surly Cajun convict named Jory (Italian import Vittorio Gassman, all tight T-shirt and puppy eyes) fink on his companions in robbery. The tension between Tunner and Jory can only be expelled in hard-smacking fisticuffs in the cell, after which they collapse side by side, out of breath and smoking cigarettes because it was evidently good for both of them. So you don’t think we’re just reading that in, a smirking deputy (William Conrad) later asks if they’re “going together”.
What do teenage vampires in Communist Poland and obscure Japanese psychedelic animated erotica have in common? The answer is simple: they’re the two films kicking off the annual Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) that returns to the historic Brattle Theater on 23 March. With its return comes a new slate of odd, overlooked films for niche audiences to delight in, and fans of the festival in previous years will no doubt be sated with the offerings of the festival’s latest iteration.
The films featured this year span genres, challenge convention, and look very, very entertaining. With so many features (and very many shorts) programmed this year, I felt it would be worth taking a look at the films that should be on the cinephile-with-a-taste-for-the-obscure’s list of films to watch for.
As more silent films are restored to dazzling clarity through the wonders of digital technology, more people are watching them today than at any time since the talkies came in. They’re realizing two things: 1. Silent movies are a great art form unto themselves that envelop you in their spell, and 2. they give us a valuable window into their historical moment.
In other words, they may be “dated”, but not in a bad way. They are poignant time capsules of attitudes, hopes, fears and dreams from an era of not so long ago. These five films, now on Blu-ray, reveal details about life in America, Germany and France between one colossal war and another. Oh yeah, they’re also funny, exciting and entertaining.
The Kid (1921)
What: The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) discovers an abandoned baby boy and raises him for five years without legal authority. They engage in dubious shenanigans, include window-breaking and streetfighting, until the tyke (Jackie Coogan) is wrested away by authorities for an orphanage amid much crying and struggling. Will the long-lost mother (Edna Purviance) rediscover her child? Along the way, the Tramp has a fanciful dream of an angel-winged heaven going sour. Running less than an hour, this masterpiece still works seamlessly and fires on all emotional cylinders.
Wherefore: Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in this film and later wrote music for what wasn’t only his first feature but the longest feature starring a clown from slapstick shorts. As the saying goes, they thought it couldn’t be done. Its tremendous success cemented his reputation as the most beloved star in the world and proved a formula of mixing laughs with shameless tear-stained sentiment.
This 4K digital restoration, completed in 2015, looks eye-poppingly sharp. It’s Chaplin’s 1972 re-release, which drops three scenes (included as a bonus) and adds his score. This Criterion edition adds commentary, interviews, a home-made short with Chaplin and Coogan, and an insightful demonstration of the art of undercranking.
I’ve just watched two new masterpieces, one after the other, that pretty much define the possibilities of cinematic form in the 21st century. So does a third formal experiment, albeit less interestingly.
In Taxi (2015), which carries no credits because of its status as a clandestinely made film, Jafar Panahi plays himself driving a taxi around Tehran with a tiny digital dashboard camera. The 80-minute film or video takes place in “real time” (which took 15 days to shoot) and follows his interactions with various people who represent aspects of contemporary society, including two older superstitious women, a wounded man and his wife, a DVD bootlegger, a woman who’s a well-known human rights lawyer, and Panahi’s precocious niece, who’s shooting her own video for school. Every character is both natural and mysterious, arousing our interest. There are nods throughout to Panahi’s previous films.