It was the most scattered of cinematic eras. Quiet little films about sensitive subjects sat right alongside major popcorn epics while, in the backrooms of the now dominate talent agencies, deals were being devised to make the superstars even more fantastic—at least, from a box office perspective. It was a time when Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko was considered a monetary sage, his “greed is good” mantra meaning more to the suits in the studios than to any stock market sage. Of course, this meant commercial filmmaking suffered. Not just from an artistic standpoint, but from a cultural perspective as well. Movies stopped being an important part of our social dialogue and, instead, slipped into a comfortable place as easily milkable cash cow. Certainly there were mainstream mavericks who could mix scandal with success, but for the most part, Tinsel Town was enjoying the economic boom, no matter the impact on overall quality. Thankfully, there were individuals who wanted to buck the trend, or in a far more subversive move, contravene expectations from the inside out. Taking cues from their fellow filmmakers from around the globe, as well as the emerging outsider artist movement, the fruits of their friction can be seen in the 10 selections offered here. All ended up challenging convention while simultaneously signaling the future of film. And they were right.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy
(Solofilm; US theatrical: 20 Dec 1978 (General release); 1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Nothing gets a fan angrier than a remake of a classic film that requires no remake, but director Philip Kaufman’s commentary on the DVD of his 1978 redux of the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers helps explain why those who loved the original aren’t wishing the director had never been born. It doesn’t come with much else in the way of extras, so it’s a good thing for this 1998 release of the second Invasion that Kaufman is such a sober and intelligent speaker. Many who’ve reviewed the package have complained about how muddy the film looks, but my recollection of seeing it in the theater many times is that it was just as murky—the result, I would contend, of a lighting decision on Kaufman and his DP’s part. There are transfer artifacts as well, but for the most part they don’t impede the viewer’s enjoyment. The sound is clear and the package comes with a nice little booklet of trivia which, if you are anything like me, you will promptly lose.
The film moves the story and its metaphor of creeping conformity and paranoia from its original Red Scare-era context into the post-‘60s landscape of paranoia of another kind: fear of the loss or co-optation of identity itself. Kaufman’s transplant succeeds. The characters are superbly idiosyncratic—it’s important to remember that at this time Jeff Goldblum’s bag of quirks had not yet been over-used ad nauseum. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as not-Spock is chilling. In his white-man ‘fro, Donald Sutherland is just great, and so is his co-star, Brooke Adams—in her role, not his ‘fro. Of special note is Veronica Cartwright, whose anguish would be put to equally good use in the following year’s Alien. Kevin McCarthy, star of the original, has a great cameo that works even better if you watch the two versions as a chronological double feature. He has run headlong out of the ‘50s straight into the late ‘70s, screaming his paranoid warnings to passing cars. The special effects are, of course, pre-CGI, and the practical materials work perfectly: latex, corn syrup, food coloring, talcum powder—just the things to gross you out and break your heart when the one you love crumbles like an empty husk in your embrace.
Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Ed Beagley, Jr., Richard Libertini, Nancy Dussault
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 15 Jun 1979; 1979)
As DVD experience per se, Peter Falk and Alan Arkin’s commentary is reason enough to make this a must-own for cinema comedy fans. After seeing the movie, the sound of their voices alone are enough to make you laugh. Their commentary is a true extension of the pleasure of seeing the film, and at worst it makes you envious that you’ll never have as much fun as everyone involved must have had on this project.
Like most moviegoers, I didn’t see the remake. I didn’t see a reason for a remake, so why would I see the remake? Having been burned by Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, I’d be damned if I was going to fall for that again. The original In-Laws is a confluence of genius impossible to match, let alone improve on. A hilarious, twisted script meets a director smart enough to give his actors the freedom to let their comic instincts dictate their performances. Ed Begley, Jr.‘s CIA agent Lutz, memorable in his creamsicle David Bowie hair, is one of many great supporting characters. Of course, Falk’s spy character, matter-of-factly drawing Arkin’s dentist deeper and deeper into international crime, and Arkin’s ability to go from numb rationality to uncontrolled panic without a pause, are the main sources of entertainment. But there’s something brutally funny, and even ahead of its time, about the film’s post-Vietnam War disrespect for the Kafka-esque machinations of the United States government’s affairs abroad, and the way it makes the audience complicit in an amoral approval of defrauding the CIA and the agency’s corrupt clients for the sake of a young couple’s happiness. It’s almost unbelievable that this movie came out before the Reagan administration gave Oliver North room to explore his comic instincts in Nicaragua and Iran.
Burden of Dreams: Criterion Collection
Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale
(Flower Films; 1982)
Burden of Dreams
Has there ever been a cinematic monument to monomaniacal obsession quite as powerful as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo? The only one that really comes to mind is Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, the documentary chronicle Fitzcarraldo’s tortured genesis. Herzog’s film is an almost unbelievable spectacle of real-world perseverance, of Fitzcarraldo’s quixotic dream of bringing opera to the depths of the Amazon jungle at the dawn of the 20th century. In order to raise the money, Fitz (played with unbridled intensity by Klaus Kinski) hits on the idea of establishing a rubber plantation deeper in the heart of the jungle than anyone has dared previously to go. To do so, he only needs to circumvent the small obstacle of a mountain placed squarely between two forks of the long and winding Amazonian rivers.
Of course, this mountain posed no less of an obstacle for Herzog in reality than for the fictional Fitzcarraldo. Hundreds of Peruvian Indians really did drag a 320-ton steam ship over a mountain in the Amazonian jungle. There were no special effects—or even anachronistic cranes or motors—utilized at any point in the movie. The story of the movie is almost as fascinating as the movie itself, and the impact of Burden of Dreams was enough to almost destroy Herzog’s career for many years afterwards. The implications of cruelty and careless disregard that surround Herzog throughout the filming—including the somewhat mysterious deaths of multiple extras, casual ecological depredation, blithe ignorance of a nearby civil war—render Herzog a much less sympathetic figure even than Kinski’s deranged Fitzcarraldo. He is at least buoyed throughout the film by his redeeming loves for opera and the bewitching Claudia Cardinale.
Even after all these years, even after subsequent revelations have served to at least partly rehabilitate Herzog’s image, and after posterity has granted the judgment of surpassing genius on Herzog’s still-growing oeuvre, the two films still form a mesmerizing dyptych on the transformational powers of singular vision and obsession. Given that, it’s impossible to imagine either film existing now without the copious extras provided by the DVD releases: Herzog’s illuminating commentary for Fitzcarraldo, Blank’s commentary for Burden of Dreams, recent follow-up interviews with Herzog as well as reams of unused footage from the original documentary. Without taking anything away from the monumental and unsurpassed achievement of the original film itself, the supplemental features elaborate and explicate what is already an incredibly involved multi-layer viewing experience, the archetypal post-modern collision of text and subtext.
And as if there were any confusion about just how driven Herzog was and remains, the supplements for Burden of Dreams include Blank’s one-of-a-kind short feature Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980). Herzog said he’d eat his shoe if the notoriously slow Errol Morris ever actually finished a feature-length documentary. Morris finally finished Gates of Heaven in 1980. As good as his word, Herzog flew to the Berkeley premiere and ate his shoe on stage. It’s not something you are ever likely to see again.
Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Kim Greist
(Embassy International Pictures; US theatrical: 15 Dec 1985 (Limited release); 1985)
Upon its release in 1985, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was DOA, abandoned by both the studio that produced it and by moviegoers expecting more Monty Python than George Orwell in their evening at the cinema. Hard to believe that in Ronald Reagan’s America, most folks didn’t like their humor to be as black as a jackboot on their throats.
Today, however, Brazil has emerged from its cult status to be recognized as one of the finest films of the last 25 years. Its absurdist take on both totalitarian society and the bureaucracy necessary to sustain it are howlingly funny, even more so today, because it so recognizable. When a minor bureaucrat at the Ministry of Information (Jonathan Pryce) finally has the chance to meet the (literal) girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), he begins to run afoul of the system and is willing to risk unspeakable punishment to make his fantasies a reality. And in a world where the nicest man you’d ever meet is the state’s official torturer, and posters with slogans like “Don’t suspect a friend… report him!” are ubiquitous, humor, no matter how dark, is your only ally. The film’s tagline was that “it’s only a state of mind”, but Brazil is more than that—it’s a rallying cry for anybody who has ever refused to go gently into that good night.
The Criterion Collection’s edition of Brazil set the gold standard for how a movie can be presented. This set offers not only the director’s cut of the film, but also the infamous “Love Conquers All” version that the studio attempted to release. The director’s cut has an audio commentary by Terry Gilliam, explaining everything from what he was trying to say with the film to how challenging it was to work with Robert DeNiro. The “Love Conquers All” version features trenchant commentary by David Morgan, who explains where every change occurs, and gives the viewer a guided tour of how a film can be radically changed when it is taken away for the director. The third disc of the set features not only an array of featurettes on every aspect of production, but also two informative documentaries. The first is “What is Brazil” a 30-minute on-set documentary, and the second is the nearly hour long “Battle of Brazil”, which chronicles Gilliam’s battle to get his vision of Brazil released.
If even half of the films released on DVD received the same treatment as Brazil did from Criterion, I think civilization would screech to a halt.
Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada
(Orion Pictures; 1985)
Gesamtkunstwerk… Richard Wagner’s lingo for the total work of art that marries music, drama, visual art and poetry into a unified whole. It’s a very rare thing to actually witness, though film possesses more of an indigenous capacity to achieve it than any other medium. Perhaps it’s for that very reason that cultural critics have occasionally only jokingly referred to Wagner (who thought of himself as a dramatist first, then a composer) as the inventor of film art. Akira Kurosawa’s work embodies this concept more overtly than pretty much any other filmmaker.
Ran is Kurosawa’s masterwork, the perfect synthesis of his life’s work. He labored years over the script, ever so loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and the samurai story of Mōri Motonari and struggled to find financing for his grand statement. In the years before the actual making of the film, Kurosawa painted storyboards of every major scene, displaying prodigious talents as a visual artist. Having penned the script (comparably, Wagner wrote all of his own librettos to further the analogy) and virtually “painted” the whole film, the movie already existed in Kurosawa’s head when it was filmed in pain-staking detail.
Set in 16th century Japan, Ran casts a tragic light—as in classical dramatic tragedy—on the immense scale of human suffering, particular as an end result of our endless warring nature. Legendary directors such as Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg have all acknowledged Kurosawa’s profound influence and visionary spirit, and Ran illustrates that better than any other work he ever committed to celluloid. From the detailed use of color to the rousing Toru Takemitsu score, the painterly visuals to the chromatic Noh acting style, Ran is a simultaneously sumptuous and sorrowful feast for the eyes and ears.
In the two-DVD Criterion Collection edition, the film has been digitally remastered and those colors pop as never before. A further treat for any serious film aficionado is the compelling 74-minute Kurosawa portrait, A.K., included on disc two, along with featurettes detailing the making of the film and an interview with Lord Hidetora himself, Tatsuya Nakadai. Like Wagner, Kurosawa was a master creator with abilities spanning many artistic forms. Ran is utterly essential to everyone who claims to love the art of film.
Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn
(Fox; US theatrical: 18 Jul 1986 (General release); 1986)
Seen today, 20 years after its release, what’s most surprising about Aliens is the amount of care writer-director James Cameron put into developing his characters and setting before everything goes to Hell: there’s almost 70 minutes of set-up until the moment when the marines first open fire on the toothy creatures. While it’s still a thrill ride and not a character piece, Cameron never forgets that making the audience care about your heroes is what separates an action movie that’s merely well-made to the kind that has your blood pumping and half-scared to see what’s around the next corner—a lesson today’s small-spirited blockbusters would do well to learn from.
The nerve-wracking final hour of Aliens contains several of the most accomplished action sequences ever filmed, ranging from claustrophobic tension (two characters trapped in a small room with a facehugger) to the cathartic release of watching Ripley take the fight to the aliens’ grotesque queen. But the emotional heart of the film is Ripley’s motherly relationship to Newt, a young girl orphaned by the aliens. Amid the black emptiness of space and the lonely sight of an abandoned colony, Cameron finds the human story and uses it to ratchet up the suspense tenfold.
The centerpiece of this DVD set is Superior Firepower, a three-hour documentary that covers everything from the casting to the mad rush to finish the musical score in time. What makes this special feature particularly interesting is that Cameron, then an upstart filmmaker, kept butting heads with the British studio crew who weren’t used to working on such a frantic schedule and resented having their tea time interrupted (a total production shutdown was only narrowly averted). The audio commentary is also top notch, stitched together from several different recording sessions: Cameron discusses the creative choices in the movie; actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and Lance Henriksen joke around (Paxton’s defense on why he doesn’t look like he’s in the military: “I gave up early on trying to have a physique—it cut into my drinking time.”) and Carrie Henn reminiscences with her brother on what it was like to be a part of a movie (it was her first and only role—she gave up acting to become a school teacher). Throw in everything from production stills to Cameron’s original story pitch, and you’ve got enough material here to get lost in for days.
Withnail and I
Richard Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
(HandMade Films; US theatrical: 18 Jun 1987 (Limited release); 1987)
Withnail and I
Forget Ealing Comedies and Kitchen Sink Dramas, this is the quintessential British film. Truly unique, impossible to adequately describe, in a sense it’s an English Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with a dash of Bouvard and Pecuchet. The largely irrelevant plot follows a few fraught days in the bibulous lives of two unemployed actors living in bohemian squalor in London at the tail end of the ‘60s. Borrowing a cottage in the Lake District in an attempt to rejuvenate, they find that they’ve ‘gone on holiday by mistake’. The idyllic rural hut turns out to be a ‘horrible little shack’, they have trouble with the menacing locals, and their problems culminate in the arrival of the owner, Withnail’s Uncle Monty, in hot and unwelcome homosexual pursuit of the resolutely heterosexual Marwood (the titular ‘I’).
As quotable as Shakespeare, funnier than Monty Python, sadder than Shelley’s Adonais, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s script is a work of genius, resonant and evocative as a great novel, and obviously reveling in the richness of the English language. The pyrotechnical brilliance of Richard E Grant’s Withnail threatens to overshadow Paul McGann’s lower-key portrayal of Marwood, but both performances are equally accomplished, and more than capable of transmitting Robinson’s mastery of idiom, nuance, and laconic inflection. McGann’s ability to exude nerviness is wonderful, and the sense of bitter dissatisfaction with an inadequate world and disappointing life that Grant gets into Withnail’s line, “How could I possibly know what we should do? What should we do?,” is phenomenal.
Although it’s often thought of as a druggy film, there are actually remarkably few drugs consumed, both characters much preferring alcohol. And while the death of the decade is lamented—“they’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s, man”—theirs is a ‘60s which is conspicuously lacking in flower children, instead featuring belligerent, terror-instilling ‘wankers’ in the pubs and freak-out inducing nicotine-haired hags in the grim greasy spoon cafes. And the end of a historical and cultural era is much less thematically important than the coincidental break-up of Marwood and Withnail’s intense but fragile friendship. Caught on opposing sides of the fine line separating vague artistic ambitions from the wherewithal to actually get something done, they are pulled by a combination of character and luck in directions which could respectively be signposted ‘Up’ and ‘Down’. The posh but penurious Withnail is clearly never going to shake off his extended adolescence, hedonistically protesting “there’s always time for a drink,” whereas Marwood realized long ago that the party’s well and truly over. But in saying goodbye to Withnail, Marwood is also leaving behind a part of himself.
The 20th Anniversary DVD package is a bit of a curate’s egg, but the good parts are worth paying for. Having, on its release, a commercial impact in almost totally inverse proportion to its value as a cultural artifact, the film became a massive word-of-mouth cult on video, and for long-time Withnail fans used to watching murky VHS tapes, viewing the cleaned-up film on DVD is like sobering up without a hangover. Some may miss the murk which so suited what Robinson, in his informative, anecdotal and entertaining commentary track, calls the film’s ‘sense of particularly English hopelessness’.
The presentation includes a CD of the film score, and there’s a second, laid-back commentary from Paul McGann and Ralph ‘Danny the Dealer’ Brown. Because the film is so quotable, it inevitably is quoted, and the more cultish aspects on display in the Withnail & Us documentary, including cringe-making interviews with students and minor celebrities, will be painful viewing for anyone who loves the film. The mini-documentaries on swearing, the Withnail & I drinking game, and a film following a couple of Withnail fans as they drive around the Lake District looking for Withnail landmarks, redefine pointlessness. But it’s a testament to the strength of Withnail & I‘s brilliance that it can remain unwithered by this sort of thing. This is a film which ought to be included in one of those capsules they fire out into space to exemplify human civilization.
Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 20 Dec 1991 (General release); 1991)
For those who didn’t live through it, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy remains indirect history, a monumental national tragedy filtered through a hundred testimonies, a thousand conspiracy theories, and millions of memories. Recapturing the presence of the event, as well as the context that created the ongoing conjecture, would overwhelm even the most talented of directors. But not Oliver Stone. Instead of bowing to the pressures of authenticity, impartiality or passivity, he delivered an electrifyingly aggressive take on what happened that fateful day in November ‘63, and why questioning the conclusions of the government sponsored Warren Commission stands as a matter of patriotic pride. Brimming with bravado—both false and fully formed—as well as filmmaking that employs almost every facet of the cinematic language, the resulting epic may not be history, but it’s historic in how it approached the past. All the facts may not be right, and the supposed closure may come apart upon deeper inspection, but JFK is a movie that feels right. It’s the perfect counterculture credo, an artistic diatribe meant to challenge the Establishment and open a line of dialogue between the ignorant and the informed. With masterful performances from an A-list cast, and filmic flourishes that boggle the mind, it stands as one of the ‘90s most important masterworks.
Warner’s most recent release of this title is basically a reworking of their 2001 Director’s Cut with the addition of three major bonuses. The first is a thoughtful, somewhat apologetic, occasionally self-aggrandizing commentary track by Stone himself. While he tries to maintain a disinterested, reporter style persona, every once in a while the passionate provocateur comes crawling out and we get another zealous denunciation. The next major extra is a brilliant, matter of fact documentary called Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy. Made in 1992 as kind of a response to the outcry against the film, this riveting dissection of the dissent is eye opening. When ardent Warren Commission supporters like Walter Cronkite suddenly confess to believing in “some manner” of conspiracy, the old party line from 30 plus years ago begins to fracture and crumble right in front of you. The final major addition is another hour of deleted scenes featuring even more guarded commentary from the director. As they stand, they show that JFK could be a five or six hour film and still barely scratch the surface of the information and insinuations Stone wishes to make. In this case, more is definitely better—for the DVD…and this remarkable film.
Rudy Basquez, Jean Caffeine, Jan Hockey, Stephan Hockey, Mark James
(Detour Filmproduction; US theatrical: 5 Jul 1991 (Limited release); 1991)
Slacker will go down in history as the work of low-budget, independent filmmaking that launched director Richard Linklater’s career, taking him to Hollywood. But reducing the film to its DIY qualities ignores its unique, careful construction and how rooted in film history Linklater’s directing is. Slacker is a formal experimental film with a hook: the camera follows one character for a few minutes before switching to a new character who passes by, continuing in this manner until the end. More than just a gimmick, this technique is used to create a portrait of a community: an Austin, Texas, filled with artists, philosophers, street musicians, students, anarchists, conspiracy theorists and other critical thinkers who together resemble a sub-city of idlers, of “aggressive non-participants” in society. They’re people with a sense of life’s futility, its mundane-ness, but who are true seekers, striving for answers, or at least questions. Through them the film explores a maze of intellectual ideas, like several of Linklater’s later films (most explicitly Waking Life and the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset couple) Slacker wears its intellect proudly on its sleeve. But, as in his other films, these characters are not empty vessels for ideas; they’re people who think and express themselves.
Criterion Collection’s two-disc Slacker set takes an “everything” approach to DVD construction, but in a purposeful way. The inclusion of Linklater’s rare pre-Slacker, even-lower-budget film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books augments our perspective on the director’s sensibility, as do other short films and some information on the film society that he co-founded. And many of the bonus features—cast commentaries, audition tapes, and footage of a Slacker reunion—expand the notion that Slacker is a communal effort, about people in a particular place at a certain time, even as that’s all been filtered through Linklater himself. Most illuminating about Austin is the trailer for a documentary film about the closing of a local gathering place, in the context of Austin before chain-ification. The trailer alone is an intriguing snapshot of the city (and by relation, America) in the ‘90s, of a weirdness that “progress” threatens to wipe out…and it reveals Slacker to be in some ways the same. Most illuminating about Linklater is It’s Impossible to Learn…, a close-to-silent film with a sleepwalking tone, described by Linklater as “more slacker than Slacker.” Supplementing Slacker itself with all of this broadens our understanding of the film and its filmmakers in a way that’s fitting for a film which itself is about following connections and paths, physical and intellectual, wherever they go.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (Blue/White/Red)
Juliette Binoche, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant
(CAB Productions; Very limited release: 1 Dec 1994; 1994)
Three Colors (Blue/White/Red)
Over a 15 month period between 1993 and 1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski released his swan song trilogy: Trois Couleurs (Bleu, Blanc, Rouge), which continued his longtime association with co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. The pair, whose modern exploration of the Ten Commandments through ten hour-long movies brought them much-deserved acclaim with Dekalog, is also responsible for this shifting journey through liberté, égalité, and fraternité, using the colors of the French flag (and the meanings behind those colors) as guideposts. Every frame of each movie is suffused with the title color. The coldness of sorrow bathes Juliette Binoche in Bleu. The harsh light of reality shines through Julie Delpy in Blanc. The warmth of discovery finds Irène Jacob in Rouge. These are three masterpieces linked in subtle ways to form one cohesive oeuvre.
Just as the movies flow together and complement one another, forming a unified body of work, the DVD supplements perform a similar feat. Most importantly, each movie is accompanied by an engaging audio commentary by Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf. Her insight renders Kieslowski’s magnum opus all the more accessible. The breadth of her knowledge spills over into the featurettes that accompany each movie as well—“Reflections on Bleu”, “A Look at Blanc”, and “Insights into Red”. Each of Kieslowski’s leading ladies has the spotlight shone on them once again on their respective discs in the “A Conversation with…” series. Also included across all three discs are selected scene commentaries, Kieslowski’s Cinema Lessons, filmography, trailers, and more.
What places Trois Couleurs (Bleu, Blanc, Rouge) firmly among the 50 DVDs every film fan should own is the combination of artistry and thoughtful presentation. The brilliance of the movies extends to the set itself. It would have been easy for Miramax and the Mouse to move all the supplemental material to a fourth disc and up the price. But what they did instead is release a well thought out, fair-priced, exceptional collection of films.