Surveying the World As It Twists and Turns

Ten Classics From the Criterion Collection

by Michael Barrett

28 March 2016

Keeping your head above the flood of Blu-rays is easier when buoyed by Gilda and Mrs. Robinson.
Ikiru (1952) 

Every month brings a flood of carefully packaged movies from Criterion. Old, new, color, black and white, Hollywood, Asian, European, documentary, cult, and sometimes just bizarre, Criterion offers a phenomenal release rate of quality films, so what can I do, except give you some of my impressions as the cinematic deluge engulfs me. Here’s a sampling of ten recent Blu-rays from their ever expanding catalog.

 

1. Ikiru (1952)

What: Takashi Shimura plays an insignificant bureaucrat who, when told he’s dying of cancer, realizes he’s wasted his life. He pours his energy into one final act to leave a mark: clearing permits for a city park.

Why: Possibly Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film, and that’s saying something. Ironically, it was hailed as a masterpiece by US critics even though for years it was seen without the last act, where the man’s co-workers get drunk and lugubrious at his funeral. Some have felt that this radical change in form and tone lessens the film, but the ending turns a sentimental masterpiece into a bracing one.

The two parts comment on each other: one haunting and open, one messy and closed, both about our will vs. what’s beyond our control. This restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-ray preserves a previous DVD commentary and making-of, and there’s a 90-minute documentary on Kurosawa.
  

 

2. Jellyfish Eyes (2013)

What: After his father dies in the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, a boy makes friends with a weird, little creepy-cutie creature. It turns out everyone in his class has one, and they’re all part of a secret experiment to harness children’s unspoiled energy for cooperation or destruction. As it goes along and spins into a tornado climax, a seemingly simplistic set-up about a sad boy making friends becomes more mixed or vexed in its messages about the grown-up world and the natural emotions of children—which aren’t so pure.

The allusions to Fukushima, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, and innate human violence pop up like itchy warts on the shiny surface.

Why: This film is a collaboration between postmodern painter Takashi Murakami (in his directing debut), who uses Japanese pop culture and anime style in his art, and horror director Yoshihiro Nishimura (here a producer/writer). Even by the standards of Japanese children’s movies influenced by manga and E.T., this gonzo special-effects adventure is one bizarre baby. Its status as a mishmash knock-off seems a self-conscious “genre” strategy in keeping with Murakami’s creed that our culture is saturated with these cutesy sci-fi tropes: so why not embrace it as a language? In the making-of, the collaborators even make fun of the idea of closing on a chirpy theme song—which the film does.

 

3. Burroughs: The Movie (1983)

What: Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary on writer and cadaverous, croaking, late-life performance artist William S. Burroughs opens with his 1981 Saturday Night Live spot and, with free access to the man and his friends, covers his childhood, his queer sexuality, his association with Beat writers, the murky incident of shooting his wife during a William Tell act gone terribly wrong, and readings from Naked Lunch and other works.

Those appearing include Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs Jr. (shortly before his death), friend and manager James Grauerholz, writer Terry Southern, and painter Francis Bacon.

Why: This collage-portrait of clips and interviews skips a lot (including his first wife) and leaves you wanting more. Outtakes include a confession to a youthful armed robbery of a Turkish bath, a chat with Andy Warhol, performance clips from New York hipsters like Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson in Burroughs’ honor, and demonstrations of weaponry.

There are also making-of and restoring-of docs, thanks to Aaron Brookner’s Kickstarter campaign to restore his uncle’s film, and commentary by sound recorder Jim Jarmusch.

 

4. Bitter Rice (1949)

What: The annual harvest by female rice workers in Northern Italy is the backdrop for a sex-and-crime melodrama involving two of the workers (Doris Dowling and Silvana Mangano), a gigolo-crook (Vittorio Gassman), a hairy-chested soldier (Raf Vallone), a stolen necklace, and tons of rice.

Why: Giuseppe De Santis combined the neorealist context of the real lives of ordinary folks shot outside the studio with trashy, wildly non-credible melodrama and staged the whole thing with seductive camera movements in front of gorgeously coordinated crowd scenes. The film’s popularity had nothing to do with tracking shots, the plot, or themes of organized labor and female solidarity, however, and everything to do with amore as beautiful women bend over in the sun, run through the rain, or hyperventilate among the rice. Mangano became a sex symbol and married producer Dino De Laurentiis.

This digitial restoration looks terrific, and a one-hour extra on De Santis’ career makes the case for wanting to see his other movies.

 

5. Gilda (1946)

What: Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a seedy, gamy hustler who gets picked up one night at the Buenos Aires docks by an elegant, if sinister, gentleman (George Macready) who unsheathes his sword-cane. Johnny’s soon happily running the man’s casino and living in his mansion, but the honeymoon is over when his “owner” buys another possession by marriage: the sultry, stunning Gilda (Rita Hayworth), the woman Johnny dumped in a previous life.

Her hatred, described as an “exciting emotion”, leads to provocative, destructive behavior that may doom them both. In the incendiary highlight, she performs a mocking striptease to “Put the Blame on Mame”, which teases “boys” about blaming their mothers and all women for their problems.

Why: Directed by Charles Vidor, shot with elegant movements and rich high-contrast black and white by Rudolph Maté, scripted suggestively by Marion Parsonnet et al, and produced by Virginia Van Upp: a pioneering female producer of noirs who shaped much of Hayworth’s career, this is an amazingly dark, perverse, and neurotic film that was a hit despite—or because of—a subtext that dared not acknowledge its sexual ambiguity. Nevertheless, as noir historian Eddie Muller says in a new bonus: “the subtext is the plot”. Many audiences were puzzled by what exactly was going on, but the sensational Hayworth came across loud and clear over the tortured, enigmatic morass of action. The movie can still make you question what you see and hear.

This disc repeats extras from an older DVD, including desultory commentary and a profile of Hayworth.

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