[19 June 2007]
Ten years—ten DVDs. While the focus may be narrow, the importance is monumental. As an institution, driven by studios and protected by prolonged contracts, the movie business was changing. Foreign film was having a perspective altering impact, and the grindhouse game was trumping taboo subject matter that the mainstream dare not deal in. The results were a kind of cinematic storm, a movie maelstrom that threatened to sink the status quo once and for all. Luckily, the winds of change blew long and hard enough to open up the artform to all manner of genre redefinition. Old fashioned stalwarts like the musical and the Western were reinvigorated and reinvented, while comedies became commentaries on the labors of everyday life. Realism started showing up in storytelling and performance just as experimentalism and the avant-garde where finally finding a voice. It was miraculous. It was a mess. It was, and remains, the changing face of filmmaking.
Over a three-day period in 1947 while his parents were out of town attending a family funeral, teenager Kenneth Anglemeyer got together a 16-mm camera and film, a stolen vintage Hollywood studio backdrop, some handmade props and a few friends to make a short black-and-white movie. Based on a dream in which a young man ventures out into the night to “get a light” (code for have a homosexual encounter) and ends up being sodomized and beaten by a gang of sailors on shore leave, the result was the 15-minute Fireworks, a landmark in postwar American vanguard cinema. The film was praised upon release by French surrealist Jean Cocteau, who invited the young auteur, known thereafter as Kenneth Anger, to go with him back to Paris. Over the next two decades, Anger made a series of films that, while not well known to the general public, influenced such legendary filmmakers as Andy Warhol, Martin Scorsese, Ranier Werner Fassbinder and David Lynch. One of the first openly gay movie directors and a self-professed sorcerer, Anger also wrote the Tinseltown expose Hollywood Babylon, which gained him the notoriety in publishing that his films earned among cineastes.
After many years of painstaking restoration work and clearance negotiations under the auspices of the UCLA Film Archive, the early work of this visionary artist is now available in pristine form for the first time on a single DVD. It’s a collection anyone wanting to understand the origins of contemporary independent cinema should have. The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1 contains besides Fireworks, Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit’s Moon (1950, the rare 16-minute original version), Eaux d’Artifice (1953) and the epic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Anger’s work isn’t likely to be screened at the local multiplex or even art house, and you probably won’t see it on Sundance or IFC either. (Anger’s evil spawn does populate MTV and VH1, for better or worse.) The package includes an introduction by Scorsese, production and restoration notes, rare photos, a diary entry by Anais Nin (who plays Astarte, Semitic goddess of love and war, in Dome) and director’s commentary that in this case is truly essential for getting why these pioneering films are important.
Most music DVDs are for aficionados of the featured band or director only. This isn’t one of them. In an incredible moment of synergy, A Hard Day’s Night managed to pinpoint the hysteria and craziness at the heart of Beatlemania and be a great movie. Directed by American Richard Lester, the pseudo-documentary follows the band on their busy promotional schedule, with Paul’s “Grandfather” (the wonderful Wilfrid Brambell) and legions of hysterical girls in tow. Alun Owen’s sharp, often hilarious script highlights the witty, anything-goes nature that made the Fab Four much more than just pop singers. The self-reflexive, gag-a-second humor, heavy on wordplay, predicted the style of Mel Brooks and Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (in a foreshadowing of Leslie Nielsen’s entire career, Brambell deadpans to a busty woman at a gambling club, “I bet you’re a grand swimmer”). Furthermore, Lester’s technically groundbreaking style set the template for modern music video. All that and the title track and “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
Miramax’s two-disc Collector’s Series set (2002) does a great job of presenting a widescreen, well-restored cut with plenty of secondary material. No Beatles reissue is going to be without its detractors, and some have complained about the mix of the soundtrack. Basically, though, the film looks and sounds better than ever. The extras don’t feature any of the ex-Beatles, but they do offer the chance to hear from virtually everyone else involved with the film. The new, 36-minute documentary is the perfect primer, with insights from Lester, Owen, Sir George Martin, and others. The plethora of featurettes highlights everything from the soundtrack to the tailoring of the lads’ outfits. But this is a case where the “extras” are really just that—the film itself is the real reason why no movie or music lover can pass A Hard Day’s Night up.
Among the so-called smut peddlers who turned the taboo into a profit-making reality, there is no more demented director than Doris Wishman. One of the few gals in an exploitation field overrun by boys, her mess-en-scene style flew counter to everything the genre stood for. Sure, she placed as much bare bodkin up on the screen as the next flesh filmmaker, but Wishman had a more oddball approach to eros. First and foremost, narrative was never considered. Story could scoot from one implausibility to the next, and as long as it led to a love scene, Wishman was content. Then there was the aggressively paternalistic nature of her proto-porn. Feminists today would fume at the way she turned women into objects only valuable for vice, and her meat and martini he-men truly define the term man-handling throughout her oeuvre. Yet Wishman also remains one of the category’s clearest artists, a filmmaker forcing the basics of the softcore business into her own idiosyncratic realm of ridiculousness. The two movies mentioned here, part of her all important ‘roughie’ phase, illustrate her midlife mixing of violence and vice. Helpless dames are dominated by beery men, with nudity sprinkled around like so many spent cigarette butts.
Long championed by Seattle exploitation experts Something Weird Video, this crackerjack Wishman double feature is presented as part of a trip back to the days of the old drive-in. Employing the DVD format’s inventive technological features to incorporate trailers, snack bar ads, archival short subjects - even a sex hygiene pamphlet pitch – the entire experience plays like a mid-‘60s evening at the local passion pit. But perhaps the biggest boon SWV does for the artform is to purposely preserve these otherwise forgotten films. Many cinephiles don’t understand the link between the grindhouse and legitimate moviemaking. Without their boundary breaking efforts, their challenges to censorship laws and subject matter perception, we wouldn’t have the openness and variety of filmic types we have today. While she might seem like an anomaly celebrated for her gender more than her movies, make no mistake about it. Doris Wishman remains an important part of the raincoat crowd canon—and these two films are among her ‘best’.
Russ Meyer remains an elusive, enigmatic filmmaker. Even now, almost three years since his death, his ongoing legacy is a combination of old fashioned smut peddler mixed with satiric social commentator. Granted, looking back over his impressive career, one can readily pick out particular films (Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, The Seven Minutes) and find the core of criticism. But for the most part, Meyer was a voyeur, a testosterone fueled force of nature out to celebrate the female shape in all its massive mammary variants. So why is his most famous film also his least lewd? It has to do with vibe, you see. That’s right, take away the buxom leading ladies, the jet set crime spree motif, the backwoods boy toys, and the overall element of vicious babes out for cold-hearted craven kicks and you still have something uniquely ‘cool’ about this entire premise. It’s as if Meyer somehow tapped directly into the simmering psyche of the sexually experimental counterculture and gave life to its fondest fetishes. Along with the carnal iconography created by stars Tura Satana, Lori Williams, and the smokin’ hot Haji, Meyer empowered his tripwire trio with the one thing most men can’t ignore—outright erotic sizzle. That they could more than hold their own in a fistfight became the enticing icing on an already engorged cake.
If there is a single sad component to sustaining this moviemaker’s legitimate legacy, it’s the relative non-availability of his canon on DVD. In order to experience the monochrome magic of this 1965 spectacle, you used to have to wander far beyond the US’s Region 1 to scratch said itch (Meyer did sell his own discs—at amazingly inflated prices—on his own website). Now, Arrow Films has issued a jam-packed presentation without country coding, and it’s a digital dozy. Complete with a concise commentary by Meyer (from a long out of print laserdisc version of the film), as well as a full length discussion by the original Pussycats, we gain insights into the film’s supposed purpose, as well as the lasting impact on everyone involved. The ladies even show up as part of a 30 minute documentary discussing their part in making gonzo girl history. While he was never one to ensure his own continued cinematic importance, DVDs like this one will certainly help secure Meyer’s mythos.
You know the shot: a young Dustin Hoffman stands framed inside the arch of Anne Bancroft’s leg and nervously utters, “Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me”. Cue wicked laughter by Bancroft. It’s been 40 years since the story of Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), his summer dalliance with Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), and his pursuit of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) ignited movie screens. Stylishly directed by Mike Nichols, The Graduate wryly commented on the chasm between youth and the Establishment. With a witty screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (based on Charles Webb’s novel) and the music of Simon and Garfunkel, Nichols’ innovative depiction of upper-middle-class angst is one of the most enduring stories to touch celluloid.
The Graduate has appeared in a variety of packages since the dawn of the DVD age. MGM’s 1999 edition (reviewed here) contains a 20 minute behind-the-scenes feature that was originally available on the 1992 “The Graduate at 25” VHS edition to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its release. (Regrettably, Mike Nichols, who earned an Oscar for “Best Director”, and Anne Bancroft did not participate or were not available for the interviews.) Also included is an extended, previously unreleased conversation with Dustin Hoffman, who candidly touches on his evolution from a successful NY theater actor to his critically lauded screen debut. The film itself is presented in widescreen format, a marked improvement over the pan-and-scan format that dominated VHS releases for many years. At 40 years old, The Graduate holds its rightful place as a groundbreaking comedy that still “seduces” its audience.
Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing cowboy may have been the defining icon of Sergio Leone’s Italian-lensed westerns, but Once Upon a Time in the West is without a doubt Leone’s defining cinematic achievement.
A stranger playing a harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in town looking for revenge, while a widow (Claudia Cardinale) struggles to build her future in a frontier that is rapidly losing ground to civilization. Between them lie a bandit (Jason Robards) and a cold-blooded killer (Henry Fonda).
While The Good, The Bad & The Ugly demonstrated Leone’s youthful bravura, a mere two years later the director was showing a more controlled, yet no less vibrant visual narrative. Here Leone’s camera swirls like a tumbleweed, closing in on his subjects and soaring to illustrate the panoramic vistas of Monument Valley. And by casting Henry Fonda as the killer, his baby-blues filled with malice, Leone simultaneously pays tribute to the John Ford westerns of old while subverting them, effectively annihilating the genre.
Paramount’s two-disc collector’s edition of Once Upon a Time in the West is a must-own DVD. Crammed with audio commentaries by Leone’s biographer Christopher Frayling, directors John Carpenter and Alex Cox, as well as mini-documentaries covering the production of the film and interviews with some of the living participants. But even if you chucked all of the extras out the window, the film in all of its widescreen glory is reason enough to own this disc. If you’ve suffered through watching this film either on television (where it was heavily edited) or VHS, this DVD will be a revelation. This is the film to show those full-screen philistines who insist that as long as the screen is full, they’re seeing all they need to see. And if this isn’t incentive enough to buy it, you can find it at most places for less than ten bucks.
An expedient sketch would describe the 1968 film Petulia, as the seriocomic goings-on of a wealthy, middle-aged doctor, and the beautiful but eccentric young married woman with whom he has begun an affair. But, when a rich and savagely abusive husband, a Mexican orphan, incongruous relationships, and Director Richard Lester’s acutely dispassionate perspective, are calculated into the summary, ease rapidly gives way to a complexly disturbingly observation of human isolation.
It’s a late 1960’s San Francisco, and although Janis Joplin (as demonstrated on-screen) is still belting ‘em out, the “Summer of Love” is silently giving way to a season of discontent. And except for possibly the Grateful Dead (in their cameo appearances), no one it seems, is having fun anymore. A recently divorced and rather reserved Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), is trying to make sense of both his newly altered place in the world and his bizarre relationship with Petulia Danner (Julie Christie). All the while, a vacillating Petulia is seemingly powerless in her capacity to reach an emotional compromise between capriciousness and melancholy. The disconnect between these characters, their inner-selves, and those around them, is affecting. Its as if everyone, as Archie expresses of himself at a point in the film, wants “to feel something,“ but simply cannot. This sentiment is only deepened by an arbitrarily placed chronology of scenes that ultimately puts everything in its barren perspective.
Although brimming with wry humor, Petulia in both tenor and substance is a sad but sure cautionary tale about the industrialization of the human spirit—and the resultant impact. In a socio-historical context, the film was clearly almost thirty years ahead of its time. A relatively newly released DVD package offers great ‘must see” bonus features. In addition to the original trailer, the package includes an original “making of” featurette as well as a more recently developed examination of the film.
While both David Lynch and John Waters can legitimately lay claim to part of the title, the true legendary leader of the Midnight Movie movement of the early ‘70s remains this fascinating filmmaker. While his first effort behind the lens—a TV short entitled La Cravate, indicated his surrealist leanings, it wasn’t until Alejandro Jodorowsky explored said style in his first feature film, 1968’s Fando y Lis, that the power inherent in his interpretation would finally flourish. It paved the way for his greatest success—an outrageous spaghetti western that was as much about God as it was gun-slinging. Proving that acts both good and gratuitous earned punishment in the eyes of a judgmental cosmos, El Topo became a Me Decade cause célèbre, drawing praise from such diverse champions as scholarly intellectuals and cultural icons (John Lennon). But when The Holy Mountain took the notion of enlightenment to a whole new level of ludicrousness, the audiences started to move on. And thanks to some bad business dealings with then Beatles manager Allen Klein, Jodorowsky’s early efforts remained virtually unseen.
Now, thanks to the wound-healing graces inside the passage of time, all bad blood is forgiven and Anchor Bay has the honor of releasing Jodorowsky’s original efforts on the DVD format—and what a spectacular box set it is. Containing all four of the films mentioned, along with soundtrack compilations and a definitive documentary, what we witness is a man more than happy to play the provocateur, to take on all the social stigmas and cultural taboos he can while bringing more ephemeral elements like religion and justice to their knees. Like most foreign filmmakers, the Church plays a huge role in Jodorowsky’s work, providing imagery that he admits is both sacred and profane. Some have called him outrageously arrogant and egomaniacal, but the gorgeous works of art he forged between 1957 and 1973 demand such self-consideration. A true missing link to the power and prescience of the post-modern language of film, it’s good to have this wild wizard of weirdness back in the discussion.
Exploitation filmmaker Andy Milligan was an artist who literally lived his creative life. The son of an abusive, alcoholic military man and an overweight, domineering mother, he never felt loved or accepted, and he would use these emotionally dark themes as part of his incredibly inventive motion picture make-up. While not really a standard sex and skin fanatic, Milligan made cinematic statements that definitely defied convention. He investigated the darkest elements of human attraction while piling on loads of familial dysfunction to up the grindhouse ante. The Ghastly Ones starts off with the standard dead relative and the reading of a will. In this case, however, the reunion brings a group of unknowing victims to the servant’s slice and dice party. Then, in an equally unhinged home, the incestual Seeds of Sin of a drunken old crone come to an unwelcome holiday get together. Soon, they are dying off one by one, each falling prey to a killer trying to advance their place in the matron’s miserly estate. As you can see by the plotlines, Milligan loved the backbiting bitterness of kinfolk fighting over money. Each movie uses hatred, pain and humiliation as a means of managing the fiscal pecking order, and just when you think things can’t get any more depraved, siblings start doing the dirty boogie out of boredom and ennui.
Along with The Body Beneath, Something Weird Video makes the Milligan masses happy by digging up and rediscovering these faded films. Aside from a standard set of trailers and a film specific gallery of exploitation art, there are several more minutes of the miscast kernels from Seeds of Sin‘s scattered history. First, we get an unfinished coming attraction for the film that packs a few delightful deleted scenes. Then there is forty minutes of Milligan’s actual workprint of the film, again containing omitted footage and few love child carnal cuts. But the best bit is the commentary with director Frank Henenlotter and actor Hal Borske. It’s an amicable, hilarious, and anecdote-filled detour into the universe of Andy Milligan. Borske is catty and confessional, giving the viewer instant access to what it was like making these far-out films. Occasionally straying from the subject at hand, this is still one of the best alternative narrative tracks—and delirious double features—SWV has put on DVD.
The 35th Anniversary Full Screen DVD edition of the 1968’s Planet of the Apes is a double-DVD package with a very large array of extras, including commentary by a satisfying variety of personnel: actors, the producer, the make-up artist, and composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose score is the secret weapon that makes this film a perfect mesh of sincere drama, Swiftian satire, and Roger Corman-style B sci-fi. Numerous behind-the-scenes extras—a documentary, no less—allow the sophisticated viewer of the current millennium to relive last century’s fan excitement surrounding the Apes phenomenon that spawned four sequels, a TV series, and merchandising so prolific it threatened the very existence of the human race.
The mediocre, dialogue-obstructing ape make-up won an Academy Award despite far superior work on simian facial prosthetics in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, but by Oscar time fans had logged so many hours consuming media detailing the daily building up of latex on Roddy McDowall’s face there was no way it wasn’t going to win in that category. People were like, “Stanley who?”
The most urgent reason to own the DVD is to blot out the memory of Tim Burton’s appalling remake. But the film itself stands alone, of course, as a masterpiece and cornerstone of the post-apocalypse genre of the period, with its iconic, ironic, devastating ending tableau. Charlton Heston became synonymous with anti-utopian disaster thanks to this film. It is an exciting, entertaining movie.