[23 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
During these final, fleeting days of the format wars, when Blu-ray is suddenly looking long term and HD has hit the ropes, one universal fact remains. There are still hundreds of important films, classics even, that have yet to arrive on the standard digital domain. While it seems like home video—between VHS and DVD—contains the entire history of cinema in its ever present production, the truth about the aluminum disc is far more frightening. One survey estimates that nearly 40 percent of major industry vaults remain loaded with material not even scheduled for commercial presentation. Of that, 17 percent may never be released—ever. Granted, many of these movies are marginal, perhaps not worthy of a full blown update or special edition treatment. But some are genuine classics, films that remind viewers of the effectiveness inherent in the artform and the people who made said magic.
For studios, facing constant fiscal failure, creative bankruptcy, and occasional work stoppages, the need to bring these titles to fans is not a high priority concern. In fact, many use a simple cost benefit analysis to determine what gets gleaned from their catalog. Money, while major, is not the sole reason for most MIA DVDs. Some films a literally unsalvageable, so rotted and ruined that no amount of computer aided restoration will return them to their former glory. There are a few that would respond well to an intensive celluloid rebirth, but then cost comes back into play, especially when balanced against the bottom line. Ownership is also an issue. A studio may have backed a film or filmmaker, but in the intervening years between an initial theatrical release and entertainment exile, rightful possession may have changed several times over—or worse, is locked in some horrid legal limbo.
Then there are out of touch old timers who just aren’t aware of how beloved their 40-year-old sci-fi epic really is. Aside from an arthouse retrospective or random blog entry, they may think they’ve been totally forgotten. Of course, if their rights remain intact, there’s big trouble brewing, and the studios know this. And speaking of the privilege of possession, music is another flummoxing factor. Back in the days before VCRs and Laserdiscs, before there appeared to be a genuine outlet for future replays (and revenue), no one thought about sewing up their soundtrack. But the old maxim still stands true: where there’s cash, there’s chaos. Today, a mistreated musician or starving songwriter has the right—make that copyright—to protect their muse. And with billions of dollars laying around, waiting to rest in someone’s bank account, the divvying up process is perplexing, to say the least.
Through the quagmire of fiduciary risk and individual need, the contractual quarrels and demographic determiners, one thing remains steadfast: a lot of good movies are still missing from DVD. Here is a list of 25 that PopMatters feels have been unceremoniously left to simply fade away. Don’t go looking for your favorite television show—we did that list last fall. And certain long rumored releases—The African Queen, von Stroheim’s Greed—were purposefully left off to make room for those legitimately out of sight. Finally, don’t be confused by different county coding and international release strategies. This compilation centers on Region 1 availability only. It’s not all inclusive, but at least it makes fans aware of what films need a good shot of added support. In alphabetical order, let’s begin with:
Stanley Kramer’s stunning social commentary about a group of troubled boys who use a summer away at camp as a means of learning some very tough life lessons remains a forgotten reminder of the power in ‘60s/‘70s cinema. Starring a post-Lost in Space Bill Mumy and featuring a proto pro-PETA message (the kids try to stop a buffalo hunt), this is a masterful and moving film that really could benefit from DVD’s context creating presentations. Unfortunately, it remains MIA.
Fans are still keeping their fingers crossed that Criterion will do the late great American auteur proud and pick up this quirky adult fable as part of their penchant for preservation. Altman always loved this unusual tale of a reclusive boy living in the Houston Astrodome, building a pair of wings in hopes of eventually learning to fly. Slightly more symbolic than it need be, and featuring a collection of interesting actors doing eccentric things, this is either a fabulous disaster or an unsung classic. It should be on DVD so we can decide for ourselves.
Ken Russell again, this time taking on the Catholic Church and its proudest historic achievement, The Inquisition. In order for Cardinal Richelieu to take over France, he needs to unseat a powerful priest named Grandier (played brilliantly by Oliver Reed). So they use a convent full of nuns (one of who secretly loves the cleric) and accuse him of witchcraft. Let the torture and scenes of overt sex begin. Banned for reasons quite obvious, if not acceptable, an in-depth DVD discussing the accuracy of the subject matter might make this ballsy blasphemy go down a tad smoother.
Peter Greenway, infamous for his cannibal cuisine critique of the British class system (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), made this intricate puzzle box of a narrative as a celebration of women, and the deadly deeds they do. Based in traditional counting games and children’s rhymes, this ridiculously dense outing is also very funny and visually dazzling. With the abundance of his earliest works released on the format, it’s a shame this engaging experiment isn’t. It’s one of the filmmaker’s best.
Dario Argento is probably the only Italian horror maestro to have all of his films out on DVD—all except one, that is. Paramount is sitting on the rights to this intriguing, sometimes incomprehensible, giallo and they’ve never given a good reason why. The third in the filmmakers unofficial “Animals” Trilogy (Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’Nine Tails being the other two), it centers on the drummer in a rock band implicated in a murder he didn’t commit. Bootlegs remain the only viable way to experience it.
Back before he became the vilified scapegoat for the fall of Western civilization, Chuck Barris tried to turn his Gong Show success into a spin off film about how sad and unsatisfied he really was. Using the ‘day in a life’ format, and providing theater goers with racy clips from the infamous talent competition, it was viewed as whiny, self-indulgent, and needlessly harsh. Long missing from any home video format, one senses that Barris is waiting for death before giving audiences a chance to chastise him once again. Here’s hoping he leaves some bonus features behind.
The classic novel by James Hilton has been given several cinematic workouts, none more interesting as this 1969 song and dance version featuring Peter O’Toole (as the title character) and Petula Clark. Directed by American stage choreographer Herb Ross, and featuring tunes created by Leslie Bricusse (of Doctor Doolitte and Willy Wonka fame) it was savaged by critics and recut to excise the music. Perhaps a new, post-modern reevaluation would turn its favor—and a DVD release complete with lots of background information would be a grand way to begin.
During a break in the neverending Beatlemania, John Lennon tripped off to Spain to join buddy Richard Lester on the set of his new military farce. Somehow, he wound up playing a supporting role. It’s his presence that makes this otherwise uneven comedy such a curiosity. Oddly enough, not even Lennon’s legacy could keep the film in print once it hit DVD is 2002. A reissue is really needed, especially when you consider that many view this film, along with Help! and The Bed Sitting Room as an absurdist trilogy.
Calling Criterion once again. This amazing male menopause comedy, created by none other that the godfather of indie filmmaking, John Cassavetes, is desperate for a digital reinvention. And after the stellar work they did on previous titles from this underground auteur, the premier industry preservationists are the perfect candidates to bring it back. Here’s hoping that Columbia, via its new parent company Sony, wises up and lets the noted distributor doctor up and dish out this fabulous lost film.
It is indeed a dour and disturbing experience, so gritty and gruesome you can actually smell the stink of stale whisky and defeat. But that’s no reason to keep this Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson effort away from audiences. Granted, the subject matter—Depression era drunks, destitute and downtrodden—is not exactly feel good fodder, and director Hector Babenco offers some real go for the throat realism. But art is not always pretty, and to avoid releasing this title on DVD for such reasons is just ridiculous.
It remains the best version of the classic HG Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, even some 75 years later. It offers terrific performances by Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton and atmospheric direction by Erle C. Kenton. So why is this film not out on DVD? Think money, and lots of it. Since fans are persnickety about the way their title looks on the digital format, Universal (who owns the rights) would have to shell out big bucks to completely remaster and restrike the negative. All that for a genre effort of limited contemporary appeal?
Michael Mann was hot after the success of his feature film Thief. Yet no one could have anticipated his next project—a World War II supernatural thriller about a group of Nazis guarding an ancient compound containing a dangerous force. Naturally, only the Jewish scientist can stop it. Part allegory, part spook show special effects extravaganza, Paramount didn’t know what to do with it. They demanded it be recut. With Mann’s current superstar status, it seems strange that this movie remains unissued on the digital domain. Here’s hoping there’s a director’s cut in the works.
Along with Ken Russell, Hector Babenco is another director treated unfairly by the VHS to DVD switch over. First, his Ironweed can’t get arrested, and now this Oscar winning story of two unlikely Brazilian prisoners can’t get a legitimate release. Heck, it was even made into a hit Broadway musical and still can’t get any format love. It’s a travesty, especially when you consider William Hurt’s stature as an actor, and the legacy of the late Raul Julia. Cinephiles everywhere are scoffing.
Speaking of brother Ken, Russell’s warped take on the famous classical composer (played by a fresh from Tommy Roger Daltrey) as the world’s first pop star defies description. It’s either the most infantile and regressive mess ever attempted, or a brilliant desconstruction of fame that few if any have the smarts to appreciate. In both cases, the creative chutzpah on display should be more than enough to warrant a release. Even if fans of the musician cringe (or sue, like the Tchaikovsky estate over The Music Lovers) Who lovers would like it.
The perfect film for DVD, considering its history and controversy. Fresh off his success with Citizen Kane, Orson Welles decided to tackle the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington. After he delivered a near three hour rough cut, the studio (RKO) demanded edits. When the noted maverick’s efforts did not improve preview scores, the suits took the movie and trimmed away 40 more minutes. While many have stated that the final version remains the best, the ability to see the movie the way Welles envisioned remains an intriguing prospect. As long as said material is missing, so is the definitive digital version, sadly.
It’s the weirdest war film ever made, a surreal collaboration between Japanese filmmakers (with their stilted, stylized approach) and Western actors. Set inside a prisoner of war camp, the story centers on the ritualistic traditions in Asian culture and their clash with British and other foreign ways. There are homoerotic undercurrents and uneven performances around. Yet the drama is so intense and the setting so real that we forget the frequent failures. Region 2 has long relished their ability to revisit this film. It’s Region 1’s time now.
Smack dab in the middle of the so-called sexual revolution, Warner Brothers trotted out a Connie Stevens vehicle about a young bride trying to have a baby. To add a little counterculture fuel to the fire, 50-something mom and dad are expecting a child as well. Of course, there was nothing really revolutionary about this storyline. The surrounding themes were so conservative and pre-feminist that the movie might as well have featured Neanderthals. Still, the famed Bud Yorkin is always good for a laugh, and his direction saves everyone involved. Now all we need is a DVD to prove it.
Rumor has it that Elaine May’s amazing film debut will never see the light of digital day. Seems the famed writer/director has disowned the studio cut of her comedy of the classes, while Paramount loves the final version and wants her permission and participation. Such a stalemate has kept the sunny satire off DVD—even the VHS is out of print—and that’s really too bad. It contains one of Walter Matthau’s best performances, and a quirky script overloaded with remarkable characters and memorable lines.
One of the original acid flashback freakout films of the ‘60s/‘70s, famed title designer Saul Bass helmed this future shock surrealism about a group of scientists studying highly intelligent ants. Seems the angry insects don’t like what man is doing to the planet, so they decide to rebel—and our researchers are right in the line of fire. While Mystery Science Theater 3000 made light of this movie during their pre-Comedy Central KTMA days, this is serious speculative fiction that deserves to be seen sans critique.
Charles Pierce is known for a lot of things, most of them dealing with a certain mythical skunk ape. The madman behind the undeniably effective The Legend of Boggy Creek and the uninspired sequel Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues thought the story of a 1940s serial killer would make good drive-in fodder. So he cooked up a campaign featuring a notorious movie poster and a brilliant tagline. It sure drove a lot of unsuspecting butts into local passion pits. As a prime example of ‘70s exploitation, it deserves a release.
Okay, okay, so Warner Brothers has a DVD of this David Byrne directed farce available already. Sadly it’s a full screen fiasco without a single significant bonus feature. As the founder and leading light of Talking Heads, Byrne channeled his punk dada dreamscape onto the story of a Texas town celebrating its 150th anniversary. Featuring amazing turns by a far too young John Goodman (who sings up a storm) and the late great Spalding Gray, it’s a forgotten gem that deserves a heck of a lot better than such a pan and scan nightmare.
Besting Michael Bay by about 15 years, this taut action thriller starred Burt Lancaster as a rogue Air Force General who escapes from prison and commandeers a nuclear silo. With the threat of World War III, he wants the sitting President to confess to the real reasons behind the Vietnam War. While a tad dated in subject matter, Robert Aldrich’s dynamite direction delivers on the suspense and shivers. There’s even a stellar supporting cast including Charles Durning, Joseph Cotton, and Melvyn Douglas. A DVD could make it all very topical again.
In 1955, Italian diva Anna Magnani won an Academy Award for her work in The Rose Tattoo. She followed it up with two films, Suor Letizia and this classic George Cukor weeper. It costars Anthony Quinn (as her brother-in-law, now husband) and Anthony Franciosa (as the ranch hand she’s sexually obsessed with) and saw Oscar nods for both leads. Even with the weakest scripts, Magnani literally sizzled, and yet her work here is more or less forgotten. While some of her more obscure works have turned up on DVD, this Paramount owned entry has not.
Not to be confused with the equally rewarding remake starring a perfectly cast Crispin Glover, the original renegade rat patrol was one of 1971’s biggest hits. It starred a young Bruce Davidson and featured Ernest Borgnine as the office boss heavy. Incredibly creepy and psychologically aware, rumor has it that Bing Crosby’s estate (who controls the rights) won’t let the movie be rereleased. Something about sullying the late crooner’s reputation. After the tabloid tell-alls written by his son, one imagines a killer rodent would be the least of the family’s worries.
When Michelangelo Antonioni died last year, he left behind a brilliant canon of creative masterworks. Yet one of his best and most contentious still remains missing—the anti-Establishment (and some say, anti-American) Zabriskie Point. All militant politics and leftist leanings, this intriguing take on hippies and the counterculture had music by Pink Floyd and a sworn enemy in former MGM president Louis K. Polk. His incredibly negative reaction (including numerous cuts for content) is probably the reason why this title languishes in the company vaults (future regimes reinstated the axed footage).