[9 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Janus Films, a division of the Criterion Collection, is on a mission to educate the masses on quality cinema by releasing “affordable movie-only DVD editions of the true classics of art house cinema are perfect for schools, libraries, and rental stores, where their lower cost and sturdy packaging make them a practical alternative to the more elaborate Criterion Collection special editions.” A noble sentiment, but what exactly constitutes being “essential” in the eyes of the producers?
What is the thread that ties all of these “essential art house” classics together, besides the fact that they were all made in the ‘50s? Is each film included in The Essential Art House Volume Three truly essential or merely a randomly-selected sampling of the superb mixed in with the pedigreed-yet-mediocre? The answers to these pressing questions might surprise you.
In Volume One, Janus brought out the heavy-hitters: Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Each completely essential, each a vital part of cinema history, each defining the term “art house”.
Volume Two was a bit random in its selections, which included a solid mix of classics (Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Federico Fellini’s La Strada) as well as some curious hangers-on (the original Pygmalion). Now Volume Three sticks out like a sore thumb as the weakest collection offered by Janus, featuring films that are neither “essential” nor “art house”.
Among the more curious inclusions, Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, a big-budget, Technicolor spectacle from Alexander Korda’s London Films, seems oddly out of place. Set in the era of The War of the Roses, Olivier’s use of audacious reds and sumptuous royal blues sums up the decadence of the court, but there is nothing even vaguely “art house” about it: this is a huge prestige production, geared towards the masses.
Olivier has an opulent vision that belies the spirit of the collection, but the staid literal take on William Shakespeare’s classic has nothing on Ian McKellen’s 95 interpretation, though Richard is reputed to be one of Sir Larry’s most legendary turns. As Hamlet, or even as Othello, Olivier seemed more assured. Here, under a tacky wig, a weird prosthetic hump on his back and impeded by the ruffled, overly-starched shirts, he seems more like a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey with a bad attitude.
What springs to mind when one conjures the image of “the art house”, is hardly a big-budget, populist epic such as this, despite the transfer looking impeccable and the film being decent. This makes the inclusion of Fellini’s first film Variety Lights and Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress seem almost perfunctory throw-aways, as though they were tossed in to lend some “art house” credibility to this rag-tag group of films. Don’t be blinded by these names.
Henry Cass’ Last Holiday (remade in 2004 with Queen Latifah) doesn’t do much to add any luster to the proceedings, despite being buoyed by Alec Guinness’ sensitive performance. The film, a famed “Ealing” comedy (the studio where it was made), is a pure trifle when stacked up against the offerings of this set. It is a nice inclusion, but seems, like Richard III, to be slightly out of place in a set that was allegedly made to celebrate art films.
Perhaps for Volume Four, Janus might want to consider a more edgy, international scope and focus more on the auteur. British film in the early ‘50s wasn’t exactly blazing a trail or setting the world on fire, despite some solid offerings.
Despite its displacement in this set, Last Holiday still provides a nice vehicle for the underrated Guinness (or, Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars as you might know him). The versatile actor creates an identifiable, sympathetic character in George Bird, a salesman who is given a few short weeks to live after being diagnosed with a rare disease.
“How do you keep smiling with a stiff upper lip?” he wonders as he books a one-way ticket to the resort town of Pinebourne, to spend his final days in style. He tells the housekeeper his troubles in a touching scene where he shares how alone he is – it is a wonderfully vulnerable moment for Guinness as he explains that he has no family, no friends, no lovers, and is now facing everything alone.
There is nothing particularly noteworthy in the film’s execution, no memorable visual style that distinguishes it. There are no discernable motifs that would suggest it should be in the company of the greatest art films of all time, yet, thanks in large part to Guinness’ light-as-a-feather touch, Last Holiday at least manages a smart rhythm and unique mood.
Bird has nothing to lose and it is easy to identify with his struggle to come to terms with his inevitable fate, with a sleepy-eyed Guinness choosing to remain delightfully free of schmaltz in his characterization of a man who could have wound up a very clichéd. He is a pragmatist, interacting with a cast of shrewdly-played supporting performers, and “the hotel” has always been a rich cinematic playground for exploring universal themes – wealth, mortality, power, love, lust all pass through hotels constantly. So many different types of characters can occur in this setting, making for a cornucopia of dramatic and romantic-comedic possibilities.
Exploring both the dark comedy of war, as well as tradition, is Hidden Fortress, a film that finds stalwart leading man Toshiro Mifune forced to wear a scandalous little samurai-warlord onesie for most of his time onscreen. It begins lively enough with an awesome opening tracking shot featuring two delusional men arguing in the desert, having an intense discussion of “shit worms” over the fallen dead bodies of an army.
Though George Lucas based Star Wars in large part on this film, Hidden Fortress soon becomes quite drab. While it can be seen as a notable visual experiment for the director (the scene that shows the men coming in and out of the fog banks is beautiful), overall, it lacks the kind of visceral punch of other Kurosawa films.
Likely too tedious for the casual movie-goer, yet not wholly enticing as a package for the true cinephile, Hidden Fortress represents what is most wrong with the mixed-bag series: being simply average overall, but made by a master. There are dull films in volumes one and two but when stacked up against the third, there is a clear disparity in quality that is mystifying given the other titles Janus and Criterion produce.
Ashes and Diamonds
Thankfully, the folks at the generally-dependable company smartly opt to make each of these Essential Art House titles available individually. That way, should one choose to not over-spend for no reason, the set’s two clear standouts, Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds can be cherry-picked for a steal. Two films that define the whole notion of “essential art house”, the above-mentioned titles belong in every serious collector’s possession.
Wajda is one of the most important “art house” directors and one of the central figures to emerge from the “Polish New Wave”. Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski would help define this period and bring the movement to more international prominence, but it’s Wajda’s images that define the defiant, nihilistic spirit of a nation broken by war, struggling to assert an artistic, cinematic identity. “The end of war is not the end of our fight”, bellows a Communist part leader at the beginning of this nervy tale, and the sentiment echoes the struggle Polish filmmakers went through to have their art seen without being altered.
What Ashes and Diamonds best succeeds at is setting a tone, creating a mood that is fresh – the director’s unique perspective combines with an economical use of the technology available to him. In turn, these combined elements shine a light on a particular place and time that was, until Wajda, not properly represented in the world of film, and the influence of his ground-breaking work can be seen not only in Polish film but also in places like the French New Wave or the earliest American independent cinema from directors such as John Cassavetes.
There is no doubt Clement’s surrealist fable impacted future generations of filmmakers, and his influence can be seen on everything from Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter three years later, to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring nearly a decade after, and even all the way to Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou more than 40 years later. With an unsparing “storybook realism” look at the effects of violence on children in a rural French hamlet, Forbidden Games became a surprise success stateside, winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Opening with a harrowing sequence of mass exodus, bombs and war-time chaos, Clement does not hold back anything in the film’s relatively brief 86-minute running time. Each frame, each action is necessary—there are no “fat” moments only lean meat.
Child actor Brigitte Fossey, as Paulette, the six-year-old central figure of the film, gives an astounding, natural performance, which ranks among the greatest “child” performances I have seen (there are several similarities between her work and Victoire Thivisol’s in the 96 film Ponette). She mixes the heartbreaking with the shocking: there is something both disturbing and striking about the image of the girl clutching her dead dog’s corpse, and the sheer power of the scene where she digs a grave for the dog with a pick-axe is almost unreal.
Paulette’s adventure with Michel (the impressive Georges Poujouly) takes off when her dog’s lifeless body is flung from a horse-drawn cart into a river and she follows it downstream to fish it out. Clement brilliantly captures a kind of gripping, riveting simplicity, the horror and the fascination of childhood where the macabre can co-exist peacefully with the humorous.
The director has a keen understanding for the complicated point of view of a child, is unburdened by sentiment, and full of a sense of wonder and constant movement. Poetically, Clement’s images capture the fine line between stark reality and a fever dream. He commandingly explores a world of fragility and decentness, as well as a child’s adaptive ability to rebound from tragedy and to trust in human nature even in the most terrifying circumstances.
Forbidden Games then becomes a study of the extraordinary coping mechanisms of a child’s spirit and serves as a reminder that the adventures and bonds of childhood can be every bit as substantial as those forged in adulthood. The sentiment of this film best exemplifies the traditional spirit of the “art house”, and the film is “essential” in every way.
The inclusion of the splendid Forbidden Games, though, does not excuse the other more lackluster selections in the set. More concise choices that better exemplify the qualities expected of an important collection of classics, that are already in the Janus collection, could have made for a more cohesive overall package: Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Sergei Einstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part Two, Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana are all heads and shoulders more influential than something like Last Holiday, as enjoyable as that film might be. Perhaps next time Janus might even think about giving collectors a previously unreleased title as an incentive to spend.
Clement’s near-perfect film and Wajda’s hugely influential title cannot salvage the validity of the collection as a whole and the unevenness is a massive detractor. Though it is great that these titles, usually much more expensive on Criterion due to the elaborate packaging and extras, are available in these pared-down volumes, much more consideration needs to be given to the actual grouping for the inevitable Volume Four.