Films That Look Great… If Only We Could See Them
A Criterion rerelease almost inherently increases a film’s availability. These films remain so unavailable that a Criterion edition feels like our last, best hope of seeing them at all. Reminder: Low-grade YouTube streams and torrents don’t count as a proper release.
This experimental horror film has reached legendary status in part due to its lack of availability. Used copies of the out-of-print DVD sell online for $85 and above. The film’s shock value and critical love—Susan Sontag famously called it “one of the ten most important films of modern times”—have done nothing to help it receive a proper release. E. Elias Merhige’s 1990 feature remains the stuff of underground screenings and 280p YouTube streams. The film appears to resemble David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the films of Guy Maddin, though we wouldn’t know. It also appears to be a highly divisive blend of the cerebral and visceral. Begotten, at the very least, looks like the perfect movie to project on mute at your annual Halloween party. Given the prices some have paid to own this film, a re-release would seem like a good bet for Criterion, especially if the DVD included the film’s unofficial sequel, Din of Celestial Birds, as an extra feature. A Criterion release would allow us to finally see and assess this mythical beast.
There are currently no animated films in the Criterion Collection. Jirí Trnka’s Old Czech Legends would be a great place to start. This 1953 stop-motion film retells six classic folktales using wonderfully articulated dolls/puppets. The film screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, but an official release remains hard to find. The handful of online clips from Old Czech Legends are breathtaking. The look is somewhat crude, given that this is stop-motion animation from the 1950s, and a certain amount of jerkiness is unavoidable due to the limitations of available technology. And yet, Trnka’s use of color, camera movement, shadow, and composition is so daring and adventurous. It’s as if he’s attempting to transcend technological limitations through the sheer bravura of his filmmaking. There’s an endlessly watchable battle scene, staged as if there were real-life extras waging a massive war. Birds take flight, arrows intercept them, wolves pounce, melees ensue. There’s so much drama in the movement, and Trnka’s ambition in that sequence alone puts a number of contemporary animated films to shame.
Most people know Richard Williams for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but his thwarted masterpiece was The Thief and the Cobbler. Developed over the course of three decades, this hand-drawn feature-length film was set in ancient Arabia and featured many intricate, staggering set pieces. In one sequence that’s part Mr. Magoo and part Modern Times, an oblivious thief wanders the inner machinery of a city while a war rages on, serendipitously avoiding death by turning gears and errant cannonballs. Sadly, Williams’ film was compromised and eventually ruined, part of it due to this time-consuming complexity. To this day, he refuses to speak publicly about the film. Devoted Williams fans created a “Recobbled Cut” of The Thief and the Cobber, which painstakingly reconstructs Williams’ original film using completed footage, pencil tests, and storyboards. Available online as a bootleg, a proper release would be wonderful for Criterion simply because of how dazzling the animation is even in this lovingly rebuilt form. Perhaps this would get Williams to talk about the beauty of his impossible dream.
Before he reinvented the American action movie with films like RoboCop and Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven directed six films in his home of the Netherlands. These movies continue to elude our eyes. The most renowned of the early Verhoeven flicks is Turkish Delight, the highest grossing Dutch film of its time and an Oscar nominee. This raw, graphic take on Love Story captures the anything-goes attitude of the 1970s—or so we’ve read, anyway. Despite its notoriety, place in Dutch cinema history, and the appeal of its director, the film is out of print. One-percenter film nerds can buy used copies on DVD for $45 (and up) or a 2003 early Verhoeven box set, also out of print, for $200 (and up). The rest of us must wait for Criterion to salvage these works. We ask: Who wouldn’t want to see the films of a young, taboo-baiting Paul Verhoeven? With Criterion’s help, this unseen prologue to one of the most celebrated Hollywood careers of the ‘80s and ‘90s could finally have its day in the U.S.
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