Unlike previous weekends where cleaning out your closet or reorganizing your sock drawer would have provided more palpable entertainment fodder, the major cable channels are actually putting up some interesting small screen cinematic fare. Even the usually unreliable pay networks are digging out a few of their choicest motion picture nuggets. As summer slowly catches up to us, and the blockbuster prepares to dominate the pop culture dynamic for the next four months, the appropriately named boob tube will try to complement such commercialization with as many name features as possible. This doesn’t mean that every offering from now until August will be worth its weight in celluloid, but the SE&L selection for 31 March sure deserves such a status:
Premiere Pick Slither
Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. Gunn gives us a true splatter filled return to the days when he worked closely with indie icon Lloyd Kaufman, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and mindless mutant monster b-movies, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack. Here’s hoping there’s more of this kind of movie in his future. Fear often needs a shot of silliness to keep it from going completely astray. (31 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)
Additional Choices Rumor Has It
In reality, this is not a bad idea for a movie – a young woman, curious about her past, discovers that her family may actually be the inspiration for one of the ‘60s most famous works – in this case, the novel and film known as The Graduate. Unfortunately, first time filmmaker (and screenwriter) Ted Griffin was yanked from the director’s chair when fading superstar Kevin Costner found him wanting. In stepped the equally evaporating Rob Reiner, and together a motion picture disaster was fashioned. (31 March, HBO, 8PM EST)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Special Edition
In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. While Starz already premiered the film back in September 2006, the new “extended” edition bows this month. (31 March, Starz, 9PM EST)
Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
She’s a very polarizing comedienne, one you either love, or loathe. In addition, her take on humor is either envelope pushing, or gimmicky for the sake of shock value. As it stands, this combo concert film will give you an opportunity to decide for yourself. But be warned – Silverman doesn’t stand by modern PC pronouncements. (31 March, ShowCase, 9:45PM EST)
Indie Pick This Film is Not Yet Rated
It’s rare when any film, including a clever documentary, manages to make significant changes in the subject matter it focuses on. But after viewing this stinging denouncement of the MPAA and all its insular, self-serving trappings, current President Dan Glickman promised that the seemingly arbitrary way in which movie ratings are assessed will be reviewed. Not bad for a filmmaker – Kirby Dick –who just wanted to discover the names of those people sitting on the organization’s “concerned parents” board. What he got instead was a lesson in Hollywood backslapping, Washington D.C. style spin, and the truth behind the Tinsel Town tribunal’s veil of secrecy. With the wealth of revelations Dick presents here, Glickman will be doing a great deal of responding in years to come. (31 March, IFC, 11PM EST)
Additional Choices Dogville
Leave it to a foreign filmmaker – in this case, Dogma ‘95 founder Lars Von Trier – to take on the history of America and its unhappy Civil War/slavery narrative. In this first of a proposed trilogy, Nicole Kidman is a woman wandering West who ends up in the title town. With its unusual approach to production design (no sets, bare bones backdrops) Von Trier hoped to focus on ideas, not images. He mostly succeeds. (3 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)
It’s your standard Asian horror premise – the journal of a dead student brings death to whomever reads it – but there is more to Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min’s suicide scarefest than meets the eyes. In a country where discussions of homosexuality are highly taboo, the lesbianism theme presented here becomes a benchmark for future Korean scare films. If you like your terror on the suggestive and subtle side, this film is for you. (3 April, Sundance, 11:45PM EST)
It’s All Gone, Pete Tong
It’s the UK version of This is Spinal Tap - read: a well meaning, sometimes hilarious mock-biography about a deaf DJ named Frankie Wilde. The Tap tie-in revolves around the actual nature of Wilde, who some say actually existed, but in fact turns out to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the filmmakers. Overloaded with bouncing electronica and dance music, along with a nice helping of standard Brit wit, this is a sleeper that deserves wider attention. (5 April, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)
Outsider Option Below
In 2002, horror was reestablishing its footing. The Asian fad was in full swing, and remake fever was already sweeping the studio system. But along the fringes were filmmakers willing to take a risk by refitting the motion picture macabre into different, difficult settings. Beginning with the already creepy and claustrophobic backdrop of a damaged submarine during World War II, director David Twohy (best known for his work on genre efforts The Arrival and Pitch Black) used the appearance of the survivors from a sunken hospital ship as the keystone for amplifying the angst. When the supernatural spit hits the fan, the terror turns titanic. Some dismissed this movie as too much manipulative pomp and not enough scare circumstance, but as an exercise in mood, atmosphere and unyielding dread, this underwater dark house horror film is actually very effective. (4 April, IFC, 10:55PM EST)
Additional Choices Sisters
In what promises to be the last series rerun before the start of new installments, Brian DePalma’s twin terror schlocker gets the Rob Zombie treatment. Practically bursting with those optical illusions – split screen, double exposure – that the director is famous for, this is a bloody good time for lovers of old school scares. (30 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)
ELO’s Jeff Lynne must be SO proud – it’s his disco roller boogie musical misstep, for all the world to see. Olivia Newton-John was at the height of her power as a singer/star when she agreed to play a muse to Michael Beck’s disgruntled album cover artist. Her inspiration – open a trendy nightclub. It all goes downhill from there. Featuring The Tubes and Gene Kelly, though God only knows why. (3 April, Retroplex, 6:20PM EST)
1983 was Jessica Lange’s year. She had a major mainstream hit with Tootsie, and she starred in this fascinating bio-pic about the doomed Hollywood glamour gal Frances Farmer. To top it all off, she received an Oscar nomination for both efforts. Though she won for Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing comedy, this was by far her stronger work. It remains a performance of devastating dimensions. (5 April, Flix, 9:45PM EST)
You have to feel sorry for Glen Morgan. Here’s a director so desperate to bring some manner of meaning to the horror film that he literally takes his fright film’s failures personally. Case in point – 2003’s brilliant update of the killer rat epic from the ‘70s, Willard. Featuring the masterstroke casting of Crispin Glover in the title role, and reconfiguring the standard revenge motivations of the original to expand the psychological landscape of the characters, Morgan tried his darnedest to combine the best of all macabre mannerisms. Indeed, that film was the rare combination of the sinister and the shocking, the up front and the undercurrent. When it failed to find an audience, it devastated Morgan. As his hard earned efforts slowly faded from theaters, he fell into a deep depression. Convinced he would never direct again, he saw his chances at making the kind of creature features he craved slowly diminish.
With this revelation, just part of the insightful bonus features offered on Dimension Films DVD release of Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas (yes, another remake, this time of the 1976 underground cult classic) we gain a new perspective about what drives an artist like Morgan. Long noted for his work on The X-Files TV series, as well as his writing/producing credits on the Final Destination franchise, this is a man who clearly holds genuine genre credentials. But he takes things so personally, from criticism to complements, that it’s hard to believe he can maintain a successful show business career. Even his wife, actress Kristen Cloke (who co-stars in Christmas and adds her own two cents to the “behind the scenes” material) laments the toll each film takes on her man. His is a concern bordering on the obsessive – meaning every decision, creative or commercial, weighs heavily on his frequently shrugged shoulders.
This makes his continued career choices all the more puzzling. Beyond the initial reaction of “why God, why?”, remakes face several uphill entertainment challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one to overcome remains the lingering legacy of the project being pilfered. When a Michael Bay announces he will produce an update of the classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre masterwork by Tobe Hooper, the various indisputable images associated with the film rise from the genre grave like emblematic zombies and immediately start stalking the artistic landscape. Their presence is palpable, their ability to be ignored almost impossible. Then there is the redux that reduces the original concept to a mere stepping off point. In the case of John Carpenter’s terrific take on The Thing, the notion of a monstrous creature from outer space stalking a group of polar explorers was twisted into a glorious celebration of geek show gore.
As for Bob Clark’s classic seasonal scarefest, Black Christmas, the stakes get raised even higher. Hitting theaters a good four years before John Carpenter would prove that the slice and dice dynamic had real financial teeth, Clark’s ideas were radical and, for the most part, unrealistic. He wanted to make a mad killer movie without ever contextualizing the fiend. His Billy would have no past, no present, no motive and most of all no backstory. He would simply exist as an object of terror for a group of holiday minded sorority sisters. Even worse, the murderer would be made even more enigmatic with the use of POV techniques. Billy would never be seen. Instead, the audience would view the world through his sick, twisted eyes. With an ambiguous ending and the introduction of elements (a dead girl near the lake, the oddball boyfriend played by Keir Dullea) that hinted at horror but never paid off, it was as if Clark had anticipated the formulas and stereotypes that would mar the genre in the decades to come, and subverted them before they even started.
Morgan makes no such aesthetic choices. Instead, he develops discernible visual (eyes) and metaphysical (family) themes. Then he tosses all of his deep rooted musings into a good old fashioned splatter fest, turns the entire enterprise sideways, and sprinkles in a little Scream style self-referential irony to polish off the presentation. This makes his version of Black Christmas simultaneously old school and new jack swinging, a gloriously goopy retread and a brilliant post-modern comment on the sticky state of cinematic terror. Certainly fans will feel cheated if they go in thinking that Morgan is making his own genre-redefining joke. Black Christmas does occasionally feel like a spoof that forgot to be funny, or better yet, a surefire schlock shocker that occasionally meanders over into satire. It’s this uneasy tone that tends to throw your typical fear aficionado. With the recent J-Horror fad, overloaded with tradition and superstition, and the current violence porn paradigm that prioritizes cruelty over cleverness, cinematic terror supposedly must contain a laser-like, singular focus.
But Black Christmas isn’t interested in a mere one note dynamic. Morgan intends for his film to be as much a character study as an extravaganza in evil. By making his Billy – now given the last name of Lenz – a wholly rounded work of perverted parenting, by giving him a disturbing yellow jaundiced pallor and a tendency toward incest and cannibalism, the typical motion picture murder ideal is definitely in place. But Morgan wants to argue that only monsters begat monsters, and he provides his freakish fiend with a mother so heinous that even Norman Bates would holler, “Damn!”. During the flashback portions of the film, Morgan finds the proper balance between disturbing personality tweaking and fudged up familial fright. Once we leave that scenario, our patience rewarded with a wonderful Grand Guignol joke, the slasher material can seem a little underwhelming.
But for anyone alive when names like Voorhees and Myers jammed the pop culture zeitgeist, Black Christmas will be like the return of a slightly insane best friend. Though the girls featured as victim fodder are given a few more post-modern dilemmas vs. their early ‘80s slut and slaughter counterparts, Morgan is more concerned about the stalk and the stab than the starting point. Even adults Andrea Martin (the only member of the original Christmas cast returning here) and Cloke are kept at arms length, reduced to being the bearers of constant warning when things start getting dangerous. There are some sensational kills here – icicles through the eye, glass unicorns through the head (a nice homage to the first film) - and a real sense of atmosphere. As he describes his efforts in the DVD EPKs, production designer Mark Freeborn strove to make the sorority house it’s own creepy character. Thanks to the way it was situated and shot, he managed that near impossible feat rather well.
All of which begs the question of why Black Christmas was met with such harsh condemnation come holiday season 2006. Granted, there were better horror films during the year, landmark movies like Silent Hill and Hostel. In addition, the timing for such a release seemed a bit off. Bob Clark’s version had just been given a stellar new release on the digital format, so many people were just learning about the film, and were perhaps unprepared for it to be so quickly ‘remade’. But the best answer is obviously the simplest. Like Willard, Morgan clearly made a movie that only a certain selective sector of fans could really appreciate. Mainstream reviewers, who more or less avoided the movie because of the clear horror bias that exists within the critical community, would have you believe that Morgan is the second coming of Ed Wood with this effort. They tore it apart in ways that seem too severe to merit real analytic concern.
Of course, this must make Morgan feel twice as bad. For someone who takes every artistic effort he makes as seriously as possible, such sweeping dismissal is hard. And let’s get one thing straight – this Black Christmas is not the original. As one of the actresses says in the DVD bonus material, this is more a movie “based on” Bob Clark’s creepfest, not an exact duplicate. With its jaunty retro vibe, ample arterial spray and aggressive narrative drive, this update acts as a perfect complement to the ambiguous thrills provided by its namesake. It’s not a flawless film, and one could argue that its more fun than frightening, but it is not the full bore flop the rest of the world would have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a statement of one man’s desire to take terror in a decidedly different direction. If he has to suffer for such a stance, so be it. After all, nearly all creative types endure the pain of production for their art, don’t they?
There are two important stories surrounding the 1985 Stuart Gordon film Re-Animator (or if you go for the full blown ballyhoo treatment – H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator). The first one is the narrative up on the screen, a balls-to-the-wall horror comedy which redefined both the gore film, and the outsider cult classic. But the second, and equally endearing tale, is the one involving a Chicago theatrical director, his decision to make movies, and the uphill battle he faced bringing his vision to the silver screen. In the days before DVD, this latter saga would have been saved for an extensive print interview, or a several article series in which various members of the cast and crew were interviewed to get their side of the story. Now, thanks to the digital revolution, we don’t need endless column inches to learn how junior mad scientist Herbert West became a genre icon. We just need to wait for the eventual merchandising concept called the ‘special edition’.
Re-Animator definitely remains a doorway film. It argued that horror and comedy could coincide effortlessly, and that the nastiness of gore could easily be sidestepped by keeping one’s vivisected tongue firmly in cheek. The outrageous and frequently over the top narrative, centering around medical school students (and lovers) Dan Cain and Megan Halsey and the terrors they experience at the hands of haunted newcomer Herbert West, was bloated with unbelievable moments of sheer cinematic audacity. Yet thanks to fresh faces Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and Jeffrey Combs, director Gordon managed to balance the insane with the scientific rather well. He also tried to keep things as physiologically realistic as possible. When you consider that the main storyline centers on using an experimental formula to revive the dead – and the zombie zaniness that eventually occurs, - there are also a lot of super schlock theatrics as well. Pouring every ounce of his energies into pushing the limits of acceptable arterial spray, Gordon gave bloodhounds voluminous vein juice the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.
And it is indeed these moments of corpse grinding that maintain Re-Animator‘s current mythical status. From exploding eyeballs to carved up cats and a finale with more naked members of the living dead than in any alt-porn title, Gordon explored every parameter of his anarchic autopsy based atrocities. One sequence in particular still gives geek show fans the giggles. While describing it in mixed company would be quite unfair (as well as spoiling one of the film’s best ‘gags’), let’s just say that a headless ghoul with a co-ed crush tries to get busy with a certain decapitated body part. It’s sexual splatter at its tastiest. Yet there are those who find the claret and comic asides much ado about nothing - new. In fact, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 would eventually trump Re-Animator in most film fans minds. The narrative weight and cinematic invention of Raimi’s gonzo gorefest surpasses anything this Lovecraftian lunacy has to offer. There are even those who prefer Gordon’s far more serious take on the author, his follow-up film From Beyond.
But that’s the beauty of a film like Re-Animator – and a perfect illustration of the value of DVD. In a format that proposes the possibility of contextualizing each release, to supplement and complement any film with a wealth of additional information, even those who are only slightly smitten with a particular motion picture can find reasons to rejoice. In the case of this latest Anchor Bay version of the title – there have been at least two other repackagings previously – the must-own moment is a brand new documentary, a talking head retrospective that finds almost all involved back to discuss their participation in what has become a fervent cult phenomenon. Indeed, the great thing about Re-Animator Resurrectus is that the entire cast is present, including all three leads - and that’s a real rarity in the world of digital distribution. Most reviews you read make a point of noting who decided not to participate in a bonus feature reunion. But in the case of this latest home video reincarnation, all are present and accounted for.
So is Gordon, and his big burly teddy bear appearance belies a past overflowing with hubris and misguided principles. All throughout the interview, we hear a man remembering his overblown conceits, his desire to use the experimental theater he ran in Chicago as a stepping off point for this new kind of horror experience. Wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon is on hand to keep things in perspective, explaining the reactions people had to her husband’s ideas, and making sure to note when Gordon got a little out of control. For balance, the cast then comes along and argues for the filmmaker’s fascinating connection to the material. They praise his care and concern, his desire for rehearsal time and his mischievous personality on set. It’s a delicious dichotomy, and one that enhances what many would still consider to be a standard, if slightly unhinged, horror film experience.
In fact, what most DVD manufacturers fail to understand is that, aside from an ardent fanbase desperate for a specific title, newcomers to something like Re-Animator will base their interest level solely on the extras and bonuses provided. Even with its regal reputation and obsessive devotees spouting its magnificence all over the web, with messageboard debates heating up and taking sides, when it comes to spending that hard earned green stuff, most people react with their head first, and their gut second. So if they really aren’t interested in a whacked out comedy centering on a group of doctors experimenting with corpses, you’ve got to give them some kind of value for their fiscal confidence.
And nothing cements a shill more successfully than getting two tales for the price of one – in this case, the film itself, and the story behind it. Certainly, those in the know will argue that reissuing a movie several times – also known as the notorious industry practice of ‘double dipping’ – lessens the overall worth to a targeted audience. But with new fans flocking to the medium every year, choice keeps a title alive and viable for anyone unfamiliar with its entertainment elements.
The same could be said for Re-Animator‘s enduring qualities. People love it because it defies expectations, tweaks the standards we except in a horror film, and puts the living dead into scenarios only the sickest of fans have ever dreamed of. It barrels backwards into its terror commitments and uses slapstick and satire to lessen the blow of its unbelievable gruesome extravagances. In a time when the MPAA was asking movies to moderate their levels of violence, Re-Animator went whole hog (and unrated), filling the screen with more body parts and killer intestines (???) than a dozen of the more derivative slasher epics. Love it, loathe it, like it, or merely shrug your shoulders and wonder what the big bloodletting deal is, but there is do denying that as a symbol of why some films endure while others quietly fade away, Re-Animator has a couple of significant stories to tell. And thanks to the dimensions of DVD, we now have access to both fascinating tales.
Forget all the other offerings this week. Pay no attention to the tepid horror films from an overhyped festival or those carefully commercialized cartoons. Heck, just avoid the whole stinking lot and make sure you pick up a copy of Alfonso Cuarón’s spectacular Children of Men. More or less rescuing sci-fi from the constant Star Warring of George Lucas and his ilk, this stunning cinematic achievement was criminally overlooked come end of the year awards season. Here at SE&L however, we put it right up there with The Prestige, The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth as an indicator of 2006’s best. Though the lack of a theatrical setting will cause the scope to shrink a bit, there is no denying the power in what Cuarón created here. All other releases this Tuesday are forced to take a back seat to this astonishing movie. For further comment on this classic, look no further than our proposed pick for the week of 27 March:
Children of Men
One of last year’s most amazing motion picture experiences (and illegitimately ignored titles) Alfonso Cuarón single handedly reinvented the speculative fiction genre with this look at a world gone infertile. Some have argued over the movie’s metaphoric meaning, which looks at life in London during a rebellion-suppressing siege, and suddenly see symbols of the current Western war on terror. But there is more to this magnificent masterpiece than party politics. What Cuarón accomplished was the ideal immersion of subject matter and audience member, creating a perfect parallel universe where we recognize ourselves, and imagine our reactions to the situations occurring. Then there is the brilliant camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki (who should have his own golden statue), cinematography stuffed with amazing tracking shots and brilliant war zone ambiance. For this film alone, Cuarón would demand respect. When placed within his already impressive oeuvre, however, it becomes an omniscient omen of great things to come.
Other Titles of Interest
AfterDark HorrorFest: 8 Films to Die For
You have to admit – it’s a nifty gimmick. Take eight low budget, under the radar horror films, stick them together in a single marathon festival showing, and hype the holy Hell out of it. This is what the people at AfterDark did, and now seven of the onerous octet are arriving on DVD. You too can experience the shattering scary movie letdown of seeing publicized terror turn tepid right before you eyes.
Color Me Kubrick
It’s the perfect story for a film – a homosexual travel agent named Alan Conway fleeced dozens of people in the mid-‘90s by impersonating (rather badly, most say) the famous reclusive filmmaker. And in John Malkovich, director Brian Cook has the perfect gone to seed lead. But for some reason, the random events depicted never add up to anything meaningful. The result is a film that feels humorless and half-baked.
This year’s unlikely Oscar winner (beating out Cars and Monster House) proves that penguin power is still alive and well. Besides, it’s cool to think of Mad Max‘s George Miller picking up his first Academy Award for a CGI kid flick, not some amplified action adventure epic. If you can survive the shtick provided by a couple of the voice cast members (why, Robin Williams – WHY???), you’ll clearly treasure this musical treat.
Thank you, Eli Roth. Thank you so BLOODY much. When Mr. Cabin Fever released his masterful post-modern Ugly American condemnation Hostel on an unsuspecting world, many cited it as the beginning of a new, nauseating horror genre – violence porn. They were wrong. THIS is the actual result – a horrid hackjob about adolescents gone gratuitous that offers none of the terror or talent that Roth exhibited.
Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj
How do you make a sequel to a movie that your original star no longer wants to be associated with? Why, pick on a supporting player and start shooting – film, that is. While some might think this kind of goofball gross out comedy went the way of the Farrelly Brothers’ Me, Myself and Irene, the reality is that small budgeted idiocy of this kind continues to make a minor profit - thus this pointless follow-up
And Now for Something Completely Different Pervert
Proudly proclaiming its debt to Russ Meyer and the frisky exploitationers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, outsider auteur Jonathan Yudis (most noted for working on Spike TV’s Adult Party revamp of Nickelodeon faves Ren and Stimpy) has ALMOST made one of the best worst movies ever. Starring “adult film star” Mary Carey (who does bear a decent resemblance to her Grammy winning namesake) and a remarkable Darrell Sandeen in the mandatory Stuart Lancaster roll, what we get here is part horror film, part softccore smut fest and a whole lot of bare naked bosom. In fact, the film is flawless for its first 40 or so minutes, easily mixing screwball comedy and lots of Carrey caressing her cans. When she finally leaves the narrative (for reasons that won’t be spoiled here), her replacements can’t keep things afloat. The rest of the randy monkey business kind of flops around, never finding the perky pace of the previous pulchritude. As long as you ignore this questionable quibble, you’re sure to have a good time.
When last we left director Terry Gilliam, he was waging a one man war against THINKFilm and their Region 1 DVD release of his latest effort, Tideland. Angry over the way in which the addled “adult fairy tale” was treated – from a purely technical standpoint – he had called for a kind of boycott. The disagreement was over that most tenuous of digital dynamics, the original theatrical aspect ratio. THINKFilm made a decision – rightly or wrongly – to change the film’s framing from a longer and thinner 2.35:1 (how it played during its short big screen run) to a wider and more ‘open’ 1.85:1. To make matters worse, only the Region 2 version from Revolver Entertainment maintains Gilliam’s original ‘vision’. All other presentations have, for some reason, perverted his compositions.
Some have questioned the filmmaker’s motives in this case, citing various conspiratorial reasons why he would purposefully decide to undermine his own film. Such sentiments were further amplified recently when Gilliam released yet another statement, suggesting that anyone who bought the Region 1 release of Tideland place black masking tape across the top and bottom of the image. He even provided some crude instructions on how to freeze-frame the opening credits and apply the image-blocking material. Instead of destroying our TV sets in such a manner however, SE&L has decided to apply science to a question of tenuous technology. With a copy of both the Revolver release from Region 2 and our trusty THINKFilm’s Region 1 title, we’ve taken screen caps of similar scenes from the film, and offer them up for comparison. Pay close attention to the black bars featured on the overseas transfer. It is the supposed telltale sign that something is amiss with this release.
Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
From an initial look, it’s obvious that the Region 1 edition provides a minor amount of additional information at the top and bottom of the screen. In the scene where the character of Jeliza-Rose is imagining her life in an underwater world, you can clearly see more of the floating table in the top right corner and make out the base of the pillar in the front foreground. In the sequence where Dickens and our lead share a quiet, intimate moment, more of the man’s leg is visible. In the first images of Dell, all that’s obscured is the top line of the horizon. In fact, throughout the Region 2 version of the film, insignificant moments like this have been cropped. In addition, it’s quite clear that NO information is lost along the left or right edges of the frame. Some websites had complained that, in order for THINKFilm to maintain the compositions created by Gilliam within a 1.85:1 aspect ratio readjustment, the print would have to be digitally “zoomed”. Clearly that is not the case here.
As the result of such a side-by-side comparison, what stands out most of all here is that this entire OAR argument appears to be a case of much ado about principle. As we have seen, the movie doesn’t really suffer from the rather unnecessary reconfiguration. The visuals are still stunning to look at, and THINKFilm has not altered the size of the images to fit its designs. Watching either version of the title will still provide you with the aesthetic intent of the cinematography and art design. What does suffer, however, is Gilliam’s rights as an artist and a man of integrity. His film has undoubtedly been fiddled with, and it appears to be a situation out of his control. What this says about the future of the digital format, and how the creative clashes with the commercial for the sake of some higher ethical standard could be something very concerning indeed. In fact, it could be the beginning of a whole new ‘pan and scan’ style argument – the kind that more or less killed off the VHS format.
When one starts with the basic acknowledgement that Tideland is definitely NOT being offered in its original aspect ratio, two questions immediately cloud the conversation – (1) why was this done, and (2) is it really a circumstance worth committing career suicide over. While the later inquiry may seem harsh, it does hit on the reality behind the reaction by Gilliam. A filmmaker already walking around with a dark cloud of difficulty surrounding his reputation doesn’t need to add further fuel to such a raging character inferno. All throughout the commentary track on the DVD he complains about the difficulties of working independently and how he longs to be back in the mainstream moviemaking fold (at least, he admits, until he gets booted out again). He definitely doesn’t earn any employability brownie points with this kind of schaudenfreuda shenanigans. Or perhaps, it’s a case of whistling past the given graveyard. Gilliam really isn’t anyone’s fool. He clearly knows his already skittish status in Hollywood. Maybe he thinks this kind of goofball grandstanding will endear him to someone looking for an outsider desperate to crawl back in. Either way, he doesn’t lose so much as deflect attention back toward his distributor.
That’s why the first question is a far more intriguing – and lasting – consideration. It seems clear that THINKFilms felt it could marginalize this movie, removing the black bars present on the Region 2 release to “open up” the image. Little else about the DVD itself is different – both versions contain nearly the same exact supplementary features and added content. Maybe they still believe – as company’s like Blockbuster and Disney claim – that audiences prefer home theater images that fill the frame. And since they couldn’t get away with a standard 1.33:1 edition, they instead decided to make the letterboxing as likable as possible. Of course, this remains a mere theory, especially since the Academy screener they sent out in November was also formatted for the 1.85:1 image. If Gilliam is to be believed – and there is always a bit of the carnival barker about this extremely talented man – all of this was done without his knowledge. Whether he even had the right to interfere and demand his original vision be offered is another story for another day.
In the end, it appears that the Tideland scandal – or whatever lesser variation of said word you want to use – boils down to idealism vs. intent. On the pragmatic side, the OAR has been altered, and yet the effect is negligible. On the motivation surface, it seems THINKFilm’s undermined its product by presenting it in a manner that made its creator very angry. No matter how much salt one takes with Gilliam’s basic ‘boycott’ comments, you don’t want the maker of your merchandise calling for a embargo. Visually, you are not missing anything if your purchase the Region 1 DVD. But behind the scenes, away from the camera and the cast, the issue lingers. Was it just a mistake? Was it meant to be a kind of demographically demanded compromise? Was THINKFilm simply out to lunch when they made the decision to handle this already tripwire title in such a manner? The plot thickens. Sadly, we may never have an answer. Leave it to Terry Gilliam and everything he touches to always remain a pleasantly puzzling enigma.