Cinema Qua Non – Indispensable DVDs: Part 1

Day One – A trip back to the classic days of studio system Hollywood, complete with great musicals, amazing adventure yarns, and a couple of post-modern freak outs, just to keep things controversial and lively.

DVD: Singing in the Rain

Display Artist: Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly

Director: Stanley Donen

Director: Gene Kelly

Film: Singing in the Rain

Studio: MGM

Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1952

Distributor: MGM

US DVD Release Date: 2002-09-24

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Singin’ in the Rain
Director: Stanley Donen

1952

Singin’ in the Rain is a film of pure joy — for the performers as well as the viewers. While the stories of Gene Kelly’s autocratic demands as a director and choreographer are legendary, his hard work clearly paid off.

From the relatively green Debbie Reynolds, a 19-year-old with no real dance experience, we get honey-coated angelic singing, faultless dancing, and enough pep and spunk to supply the whole cast of the Mickey Mouse Club. Donald O’Connor, playing, essentially, himself, is allowed to steal the show several times, most memorably with his lengthy and uproarious signature number, “Make ‘Em Laugh”.

Singin’ in the Rain takes as its subject the movie industry, so we get a few winks and nods along the way as actors portray actors acting like conceited idiots. Gene Kelly’s silent-film star character, Don Lockwood, suffers a a crisis of conscience when it is suggested that he might perhaps be a talentless hack; this idea forms the initial conflict between Lockwood and his love interest, the ingenue Kathy Selden, played by Reynolds.

The rest of the plot matters little, but by setting the film at the pivotal dawn of the talking-picture era, Singin’ in the Rain benefits from some of the residual glow that will forever bathe Hollywood’s Golden Age of film. The movie was conceived specifically for this purpose, written as a vehicle for showcasing a number of Nacio Herb Brown songs from the MGM back catalog of the 1930s. This not only gives the music a welcome weight and authenticity, it also makes for a smashing excuse to see what those spectacular Busby Berkeley-style production numbers would have looked like in Technicolor.

One might think that a movie written around a disparate clutch of 25-year-old songs might not be a pleasure to watch, but much the opposite is true. Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen wring plenty out of every scene, such as in the “Fit as a Fiddle” number, when Kelly manages to condense the entire history of how burlesque became the Ziegfeld Follies in about a minute and 30 seconds.

Most of all, Singin’ in the Rain showcases the apogee of a certain school of thought about American modern dance that Kelly personifies. He gives every ounce of himself to his performance and demands the same from everyone else in the cast. In doing so, Singin’ in the Rain shows us a style of dance that tells jokes, sheds tears, writes entire wordless narratives, and expresses the subtlest of emotions, from pathos to quiet joy. Though the plot may be predictable and the film may look old-fashioned, it is never bland or blase. Rather, it is a delight that well deserves its high ranking on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films. Emily Popek

 

DVD: Rebel Without a Cause

Director: Nicholas Ray

Film: Rebel Without a Cause

Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1955

Distributor: Warner Brothers

US DVD Release Date: 2005-05-31

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Rebel Without a Cause
Director: Nicholas Ray

1955

The sad reality is that no matter how hard most of us try in this life, our efforts leave us looking more like Sal Mineo than James Dean. We try to get the girl (or guy) and fall short. We go too far. We misread situations. We are alone. If James Dean’s short life taught us anything, it is that being cool resided in being real. Rebel without a Cause introduced most of the country to a world full of James Deans and Sal Mineos; a world where the nuclear family had been exposed as farce and misfits were more common than not. At a time when the greatest ideological war we had experienced as a nation was under way, Rebel Without a Cause tells us that our nation’s youth weren’t exactly clear on what that ideology was. Thirty years after its release, it had the same impact on me.

In the winter of 1990, I spent my first holiday ostensibly alone. I had grown up in a traditional family with two brothers and a twin sister. My parents, though separated since I was 11, maintained a close (if not bizarre) relationship. We spent every holiday together.

I was over family. A lot of the illusions about the nuclear family were shattered two springs before when, as a recent high school graduate, I had become a father. Since that time life had been a proverbial roller coaster. I was juggling my innate lack of responsibility with college and being a parent. My ability to lead a family was more bluster than ability. The last thing that I needed was to load into an airport shuttle for a holiday in Mexico with my mom. So I elected to break from tradition and stay home. On December 24th I sat down and, for the first time, watched Rebel Without a Cause. Here I sit three thousand miles and seventeen years later and it would still be my first choice if I had only one DVD to watch for the rest of my life. It was confusing. All the hype about James Dean had led me in my youth to think of him almost as caricature –- a “Fonzie” for the 1950s.

Dean was none of that. He was all raw emotion, exploding in the opening scene while gripping his head and screaming “you’re tearing me apart.” Nothing about him was calm or collected. Sure, he was angry but, perhaps more than that, he was vulnerable. His was not so much a rejection of family, but rather a mirror held up to the tradition of family and an opportunity to draw your own conclusions. He was the first film hero who specialized in tolerance. Forty years later the nation still grapples over issues of sexuality. Jim never seemed to care who Plato loved. His emotive exterior extended to his love interest as well. There was none of the stilted and repressed awkwardness that was so visible in his parent’s relationship. His lesson? That family is fluid. That real men love.

It was a lot to take in for a twenty-year-old father. So much of what I saw was opposite of what “rebel” stood for. Iran had ordered the death of a popular British author because of a fictional story. We were at war over a small strip of land in Kuwait. China had just steamrolled a bunch of kids for asking for a bit more freedom. Everywhere I turned there were overt examples of testosterone run amuck. James Dean offered another option. It was not that he didn’t have the same challenges. In his life, he had the Cold War. And yet, he withstood the pressure and chose love. His adolescence was far from unchallenging, but in the end Jim got the girl. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

The copy of Rebel Without a Cause that I own now is far more comprehensive. Warner Brothers released a two-disc expanded collection in 2005. A beautifully enhanced picture and two hours of extras that take you inside the making of Rebel and into some of the mysterious questions about its characters, as well as their tragic deaths (car accident, stabbing, and drowning for the three young stars).

I won’t lie. The Christmas Day that followed my viewing was the saddest Christmas ever. I missed the real relationships with my family. I was embarrassed about how transparent my phoniness must have been. I missed what Jim truly missed. But I learned a lot too. And it serves me well to this day, to turn on Rebel Without a Cause and remember that life is about living not bravado. Life is about a real relationship with my daughter, not the appearance of one. Joseph Carver

 

DVD: Vertigo

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Film: Vertigo

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1959

Distributor: Universal Home Entertainment

US DVD Release Date: 1996

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Vertigo
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

1958

Scottie Furguson (James Stewart), a retired detective with a fear of heights, is summoned by old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) for an urgent matter. Elster’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), has been acting strangely, wandering around San Francisco in a fugue state, as if haunted by, or pursuing, a ghost. Reluctant to return to his abandoned profession, and haunted himself by the death of a policeman who died trying to save him, Scottie balks at committing to the job. But when he first lays eyes on the woman he might investigate, the decision is made — but not by him, not consciously. Once Scottie sees the beautiful Madeleine, investigative curiosity and erotic desire pull him in. He is on the case. And Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about desire and its relationship to the cinematic viewer — herself a reluctant detective — begins.

Vertigo is my indispensable DVD, the film I need with me for my hypothetical life stranded on a deserted island, because no matter how many times I see it, I am seduced anew by it, and cinema itself. With amazing performances by Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes, Vertigo is a dark tale about obsessive love and the power, even the appeal, of self-delusion. But we don’t just watch Scottie falling in love. Hitchcock makes sure, we, too, fall in love with the film by ravishing us with visual and aural beauty. When I think of the film, I think of Madeleine’s emerald-colored dress when Scottie sees her for the first time, her gray suit against the red-orange Golden Gate Bridge, Scottie’s colorful animated dream sequence, Bernard Hermann’s eerie score. Vertigo lays it on thick.

And then there’s its narrative. Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part love story, part postmodern gloss on movie-making and movie-going (Gavin Elster constructs a drama with his actress Judy/Madeleine who will be watched by Scottie while the whole thing is watched by us), Vertigo is like a kaleidoscope. One can look at it and see something different every time.

It is also an intelligent film. Hitchcock famously thought out each scene in his films meticulously, and Vertigo is no exception. As we’re absorbed by the characters and story, Vertigo’s themes are reinforced formally in its visuals and score. Door frames, mirrors, picture frames, paintings and Madeleine’s museum visits quietly hint that all is not what it seems -– reality is a construction. The film’s famous “vertigo trick shot” imagines that vertigo is a simultaneous moving toward something while moving away from it — a visual paradox which echoes Scottie’s dilemma: the closer he tries to get to Madeleine, the further away he is because she is not who he thinks she is. Hermann’s score highlights the increasing anxiety, and even madness, of Scottie’s obsession. One can enjoy Vertigo as entertainment, or deconstruct it from a feminist or psychoanalytic perspective. It is the rare Hollywood film whose entertainment and theoretical values are equivalent.

But Vertigo is my indispensable DVD because all of these aesthetic qualities contribute to an effect I’ve experienced from no other film: Vertigo most closely approximates the childhood delight in hearing a story over and over again — repetition does not dull its pleasures. Watching Vertigo is the adult version of asking to be thrown up into the air, or spun around until you are dizzy, fearing you may not be caught but enjoying it anyway. In fact, it’s so easy to fall for the film’s charms (and falling, remember, is a major theme), that to be tricked by it, to fall down the rabbit hole of its vertiginous story — never gets old. Barbara Herman

 

DVD: Lawrence of Arabia

Director: David Lean

Film: Lawrence of Arabia

Studio: Horizon Pictures

Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

MPAA rating: PG

First date: 1962

US DVD Release Date: 2003-09-09

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Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean

1962

Lawrence of Arabia was released in Canada on January 23, 1963, about a month after its December pre-Christmas release in the both the UK and the US in 1962. I find this little fact irksome. My memory is of seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time at the Odeon Theater, a huge big-screened movie theater that had originally been built as a venue for vaudeville acts in the ‘20s, and even then still had small private boxes on each side holding about six seats.

The size of the screen is important. The opening shot was of a moving indistinct black spot in the distance; in the foreground were the shimmering, rippling waves of desert heat. My memory tells me I walked to the Odeon, like I always did, but it was a bland rainy Saturday afternoon in March, and that the spring weather explained why perhaps I was so overwhelmed by the sudden heat and vastness of the desert on the wide screen. It is the cinematography, in part, that makes Lawrence of Arabia such a stunning film.

The immense arid landscape in the film is a character as much as the historically torn and conflicted T.E. Lawrence, played by a young and equally paradoxical Peter O’Toole. I was later to learn — as my adolescent fascination with the Arabian Desert, O’Toole, and Lawrence grew — that O’Toole actually resembled Lawrence in physique and that he shared the same intense — some say crazed — blue eyes and facial features.

The vast desert space, mountains empty and sparse in the distance, the barren sand, and its harsh and unforgiving nature struck me as a grand romantic place. I liked how barren the desert seemed to be, how remote it looked, and I liked the idea of exploring a place few had ventured to visit or see. After witnessing the film as a young boy, my mind was indelibly stamped with the idea of the desert as a place remote from civilization and rich in possibility for adventure and beauty. The tawny-colored sand dunes; the riding of a camel in such an inhospitable place was heroic and magical. The desert war against the cruel Turks was bloody, noble, and at times merciless. The line screamed by Lawrence — “No prisoners!” — as they were about to attack a ragged, hopeless column of retreating Turks as revenge for the senseless slaughter of Arab civilians was introduced, by me, into our football scrimmages many years later.

I was also impressed by Lawrence’s passionate and yet restrained character. He refused to wear the traditional military dress of a British officer (in the film an officer remarks that Lawrence ‘had gone native’) among the Arabs and Bedouins he organized to fight the Ottomans; he both loved and hated the thrill of war; he was tough as any desert Arab fighter and polite as any courtier to General Allenby, played by the classic British actor Jack Hawkins. In the end, Lawrence was an outsider to both cultures and was unable to fit in or work with either the British or the Arabs.

The nobility of his purpose, his ability to suffer, and to lead the various sly Arab tribes in revolt, and finally the inexplicable demons he was trying to exorcise, made him a complicated and interesting hero when compared to, say, the one dimensional John Wayne’s frontier champions of the day. Lawrence’s clashes with authority and class, his personality and noble purpose, stayed with me and became private reverence points for my own cultural clashes of the ‘60s and sometimes conflicted confusion of growing up Italian in a predominantly Anglo-Canadian culture. It is a film that reminds me over and over about my slow movement towards adulthood and, at a running time of almost four hours, almost always will reveal some new detail you once knew so well. The film, thus, is like coffee with an old childhood friend. Carmelo Militano

 

DVD: Lawrence of Arabia

Director: David Lean

Film: Lawrence of Arabia

Studio: Horizon Pictures

Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

MPAA rating: PG

First date: 1962

US DVD Release Date: 2003-09-09

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Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean

1962

In times like these, when most of films are empty of significance — just an excuse for selling popcorn, an eternal feedback of the same arguments exposed over and over, a crowded house of empty characters — it’s still refreshing, and even subverting, to watch David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. Not only because of its improbability, due to what anyone can imagine as an extremely complicated production in real desert locations, but of the greatness of the adaptation. The epic times of an Englishman in the Middle East during the First World War, his great contribution to the union of the different Bedouin tribes that were scattered around the Arab territories, and how he helped them to fight the much more developed Turkish Army, remain classic.

Regardless of how faithful to real life (I still have yet to read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiographical book by Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence, upon which the film is mainly based) the depiction of the characters in the movie is, there’s a lot of valuable lessons to learn from it: the great faith one has to have in oneself; the stubbornness to pursue greatness; a sense of meaning in your own life; the noble bravery of defending what’s right; the importance of culture, of dialogue, of education; and above all, the capacity of accepting suffering for the sake of a greater good.

These are all inspiring ideals that made a deep impression on me when I watched this beautiful film for the very first time. I was very young, maybe only 15, was still at school in Spain, and Lawrence of Arabia was one of the films chosen by the English teacher as part of the materials that would help us improve our knowledge of the language. The impression was so deep that not only the English language, but T. E. Lawrence’s honorable ideals (or maybe they are/were actually Lean’s?) have since stayed in my mind. I notice it whenever I re-watch the film. So, whenever I feel a little lost in one way or another, or simply not inspired, I just come back to this movie — my own private Koran — with the certainty that it will always give me back the truths in which I most believe — that “nothing is written”, that the trick to stand pain is not to avoid it, but “not minding that it hurts”, and that you can get whatever you want in life if you truly fight for it. This may all sound very cheesy written down, but wait till you listen to it coming from the mouth of Peter O’Toole, seconds before he rides his camel against an army of Turks and thereby conquers the beautiful city of Aqaba.

But Lawrence of Arabia is much more than that. As we’re shown on the screen, as the camera rolls, we discover how all those aforementioned admirable ideals can also trigger some other not-so-great emotions, bringing the dark side of the character up, and giving proof of how thin the line between greatness and megalomania, between extraordinary intelligence and madness, really is. But then, who’s free of contradictions? Not me, that’s for sure. The accurate portrait of such a complex character, painted with exquisite, truly cinematic tools of expression, not with just lines of dialogue, turns the movie into a total study of the human soul.

Besides all that, Lawrence of Arabia is also, from the usual point of view of any of the thousands of film studies that have been written about it, an incredible technical feat, one that we will hardly see accomplished again in the future for as long as movies keep being filmed. The way the desert it’s photographed, the enormity of the enterprise, the masterwork of photography, editing, acting, the great piece of music, etc., also makes for an extraordinary tale of adventure outside of the screen. No wonder the movie won seven Oscars in 1962, including Best Picture, Photography, Editing and Direction. Unfortunately, not the ones for Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Peter O’Toole), or Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif).

That’s all that this movie is for me. And I have a feeling that it will always stand on top of my list. Therefore, I could well live on an isolated island with just this one DVD, a very much appreciated Special Edition set that, by the way, has been around for about 10 years now. And amongst all its interesting extras, it includes Steven Spielberg’s emotional confession about how much he has learned from Lean, naming Lawrence of Arabia his all-time favorite movie and the reason why he decided to become a director. The DVD is based in the restored and enlarged (as David Lean originally planned it to be) 216-minute-version of this universal classic that should be taught at every Psychology School in the world.

PS: It seems that the movie has just been transferred by Sony to the High Definition format, and that they may release it later this year. I couldn’t think of a better reason for wanting to finally get me a Blu-ray player. Pablo Amor

DVD: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Director: Russ Meyer

Film: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Studio: Fox

Cast: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, David Gurian, Erica Gavin, John LaZar, Michael Blodgett, Phyllis Davis

Website: http://www.beyondthevalleyofthedolls.com/home.html

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1970

Distributor: Fox

US DVD Release Date: 2006-06-13

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Director: Russ Meyer

1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is simply beyond comparison. Part satire, part melodrama, part suspense film, part musical set in the decadent world of late ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, it was the product of the wildly demented imaginations of 51-year-old skin flick master Russ Meyer and 27-year-old newspaper writer Roger Ebert, who were miraculously given a million bucks and carte blanche from 20th Century Fox to deliver a sequel to Fox’s own, wildly successful Valley of the Dolls, and turned it into something completely different.

Featuring numerous Meyer regulars (Erica Gavin, Charles Napier, Harrison Page, Haji, among others), three drop-dead gorgeous leads (Playmates Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers, model Marcia McBroom), and a host of unknowns, its story of the rise and fall of rock group the Carrie Nations would seem clichéd in less uninhibited hands, but Meyer and Ebert absolutely run wild with the premise, throwing every idea at the wall. And incredibly, it all sticks. Great music. Steamy love scenes. Soap opera schlock. Screwball comedy. A ludicrous plot twist. A twisted, Hitchcockian climax shamelessly and savagely inspired by the Tate-LaBianca murders, which happened mere months earlier. Incredible montages and jump-cuts that helped define Meyer’s hyperkinetic style. And beautifully photographed women, by a man who knew how to do so better than anyone.

Best of all, though, is Ebert’s script. Unabashedly over the top, and containing a bastardized version of hippie-speak that was uncool even then, Ebert and Meyer convinced the entire cast to deliver the lines with straight faces, and the results are joyously tacky and instantly memorable, from Kelly’s seduction of shady lawyer Porter Hall (“Hang cool, teddybear”), to Ashley St. Ives’ blunt come-ons (“Come into my den, said the spider, etcetera”), to Petronella’s justification of her infidelity toward Emerson Thorne (“You said you were going to study!“). It’s John La Zar’s portrayal of the Phil Spector-like Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, however, that steals the show. Of all the actors, La Zar knew exactly what Ebert and Meyer were going for, and he delivers his character’s flamboyant, Shakespearean monologues with relish, highlighted by what is, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest line in the history of the cinema:

“Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.”

Having first read about the film in Danny Peary’s terrific book Cult Movies back in high school, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was my own introduction to the wild, inconsistent, weird oeuvre of one Russell Albion Meyer, but for all his best moments as an indie film legend, from his mid-’60s monochrome period (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Lorna, Motorpsycho) to his more cartoonish 1970s fare (1975’s irrepressible Supervixens), it’s his first big budget motion picture that has aged the best. Nearly a decade in the making, its 2006 release on DVD was a godsend for not just yours truly, but BVD fans worldwide, and with each repeated viewing, its raucous lust for life never wanes. It’s my happening, and yeah, it definitely freaks me out. Adrien Begrand

 

DVD: Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Film: Chinatown

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1974

Distributor: Paramount Home Video

US DVD Release Date: 1999-11-23

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Chinatown
Director: Roman Polanski

1974

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could — and should — be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us about something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross — and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him — and the country — it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we. Sean Murphy

 

DVD: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Director: Joseph Sargent

Film: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Studio: United Artists

Cast: Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Robert Shaw

MPAA rating: PG

First date: 1974

Distributor: MGM

US DVD Release Date: 2000-02-29

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Director: Joseph Sargent

1974

Long before the horrors of September 11th were visited upon downtown New York, a different terror seized the city. One afternoon in 1973, a group of armed men hijacked the number six train in Manhattan, igniting a municipal crisis captured beautifully in the pulp classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Led by a mysterious Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), the color-coded band of terrorists — Mr. White, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown — takes control of the train and demands a million dollars’ ransom. If the city fails to oblige within an hour’s time, they warn, one hostage will be killed each minute thereafter until the money is paid.

Meanwhile, New York City transit cop Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) hustles to buy more time from the hijackers while he struggles to foil their plans. With police flooding the subway tunnels, and the nervous hijackers becoming increasingly violent, tensions reach a fever pitch. Not only must Garber negotiate with Mr. Blue, but he must battle against the corruption and incompetence of city authorities in his nail-baiting race against time.

What results is an indispensible disc in my personal movie collection, and one that would make its way with me to my desert island exile. To be sure, Pelham does not enjoy a spot in the pantheon of great movies. Still, it offers an arresting portrait of a New York now largely lost — the New York of my childhood — while preserving the city’s timeless essence in a cinemagraphic tour of Gotham’s urban landscape. From crowded subway cars to the blaring sirens of police cruisers racing through gridlocked traffic to haunting shots of the recently erected Twin Towers, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three finds New York as it was and sometimes still is: a wonderful amalgam of bustle, dirt, tension, and beauty.

Indeed, despite the film’s standout performances by Shaw and Matthau, New York City itself steals the show. Director Joseph Sargent captures downtown Manhattan in all its filth and grime, majesty and spirit. Unlike most films depicting life in the Big Apple, Pelham strips the sheen from its shots without reducing Gotham’s seedier elements to mere fetish. And by digging down into the subterranean hollows of New York’s sprawling subway system, Pelham offers audiences a rare glimpse into the arteries through which the city’s lifeblood flows.

Despite providing the inspiration for action thrillers such as Speed and the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Pelham remains largely forgotten and ignored; there are no extras on the DVD edition. The re-mastered cut of Pelham is left to stand alone as a film encompassing those qualities of home that would be most sorely missed on a lonely desert island—qualities which would be rabidly and repeatedly indulged in throughout the years. Michael Busch

 

DVD: Eraserhead

Director: David Lynch

Film: Eraserhead

Studio: AFI

Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Laurel Near

MPAA rating: Unrated

First date: 1977

Distributor: DavidLynch.com

US DVD Release Date: 2003-02-25

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Eraserhead
Director: David Lynch

1977

It’s a tough call — coming up with one DVD to take with you for a lifetime of isolation (or in avoidance of a major natural disaster). After all, you have to consider several factors: watchability, re-watchability, artistic merits, entertainment value, visual appeal, aesthetic compatibility, and mental challenge. Oh, and it should be prepared to do this until you, and your available technology, are ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.

So in making this demanding selection, I decided to go with an all-encompassing genre-bending design. My indispensible DVD should have facets of all the films I love — science fiction, horror, comedy, drama, romance, musicals, experimental, and mainstream (am I forgetting one?). That’s why David Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead, becomes part of my cinematic survival kit. It’s a freaked-out fantasy lashed with moments of madness, the macabre, and misery, an allegory of parenthood poisoned by the sticky realities of birth and the nauseating burden of children.

Of course, Lynch would deny such a description. He’s rather tight lipped about the ‘interpretation’ of his movies, which means Eraserhead also allows for that most comforting and consuming of isolation repasts — free association. While you’re enjoying the marvelous monochrome cinematography, so sharp it practically cuts you, there are images and ideas floating around to tweak even the most inert imagination. It’s like Pynchon for the eyes, or Trout Mask Replica rendered in celluloid.

For those unfamiliar with this notorious Midnight Movie, Eraserhead centers on Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). They dwell in a town filled with abandoned factories and discharged toxins, a brooding metropolis of steam and sludge. He embodies all male insecurities, expressing like toothpaste from the top of his high tower hair. Mary X is his prefect match, the gal no guy wants to take home to mother.

After she gives in to his “sick” urge, she gives birth to a deformed, ragingly ill child who monopolizes all his parents’ time. Soon overwhelmed, Mary leaves Henry to care for the infant alone. He watches as the child slowly degenerates into an endlessly demanding ball of infection. Eventually, Henry is so burdened by guilt that he’s lost in an unstuck universe, between the living and the dead.

Pretty grim stuff, especially for a proposed eternity of isolation, huh? Well, that’s the joy inherent in Lynch’s biological lament. It is one of the few films that manages, even after decades in the artform’s arena, to still make you feel. Sure, the sensations can be as unsettling as queasiness, depression, and anxiety, but there is also hope…and humor…and heart in Eraserhead‘s dementia. In fact, the ending stands as something so mesmerizing it still sends shivers down my spine.

For all its unfathomable weirdness and upfront ambiguity, Eraserhead remains a masterpiece of atmosphere and vision. It offers up so much without giving away any of its insular secrets. During the emotional upheaval that would result from an extended stint with limited media stimulation, David Lynch will keep those synapses razor sharp. The result of such prolonged exposure may be something akin to evolution, come to think of it. Bill Gibron

 

DVD: The Thing

Director: John Carpenter

Film: The Thing

Studio: Universal Pictures

Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, David Clennon, Donald Moffat, Thomas G. Waites, Joel Polis, Peter Maloney

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1982

Distributor: Universal Studios

US DVD Release Date: 2004-10-25

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/t/thethingdvd.jpg

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The Thing
Director: John Carpenter

1982

It is quite unfair that John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is often considered as a simple remake of the classic Howard Hawks production The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Indeed, Carpenter’s masterwork actually is a more faithful adaptation of the seminal science fiction novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., which inspired both films. Then again, Hawks’ production did not enjoy the advanced technology used to create the scenes envisioned by Campbell that ultimately made Carpenter’s version so unforgettable.

In a nutshell, John Carpenter’s The Thing presents the members of an Antarctic research station battling a relentless alien threat that is able to absorb and imitate any living creature, and transforms human flesh into gruesome creatures. For the characters in this film, the destruction of the monster is just as important as being able to figure out which members of the team are infected with the extraterrestrial menace. Carpenter successfully created a complex web of paranoia where trust is completely nonexistent, and offered a unique study of the conflicting relationships generated among the group of men.

In order to enhance the atmosphere of fear and mistrust of The Thing, Carpenter and Director of Photography Dean Cundey used very simple camera setups and elegant composition that exploited the entire extension of the Panavision widescreen frame. For instance, in a scene that takes place in the infirmary, two characters menacingly surround our hero, MacReady (Kurt Russell), who is positioned at the center of the frame while the outermost left hand side of the frame shows the hand of a character hiding a scalpel. This image dramatically intensifies the feelings of paranoia, distrust, and claustrophobia that are crucial to the success of this film.

The grotesque transformations of the human body showcased in The Thing make explicit, in true Cronenbergian fashion, the fragility of the flesh, while the idea of a highly contagious terror functions as a metaphor for AIDS. The monsters featured in this film are some of the most frightening creatures in cinema history. Furthermore, the gruesome and extremely realistic special effects created by Rob Bottin continue to be unmatched, even in today’s era of seemingly unbound digital artistry.

Unfortunately, at the time of its original release, The Thing‘s critical and box office reception was very poor. However, in subsequent years The Thing has managed to find a second life in video, where it has not only been rediscovered by audiences in general, but it has also become a prime film for academic discussion. In this regard, the special edition DVD of The Thing offers a fascinating chronicle and analysis of the making of this classic of horror cinema. First of all, we have Carpenter and Russell providing one of the most hilarious audio commentaries in the history of the medium. And we also get a detailed documentary on the making of this film with interviews of Bottin and other members of the cast and crew. This DVD certainly supports the current critical reassessment of The Thing, and it stands as a solid proof for considering John Carpenter as a visionary director working ahead of his own time. Marco Lanzagorta

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