Cinema Qua Non - Indispensable DVDs: Part 2
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The Double Life of Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Krzysztof Kieślowski is one of the world’s most criminally underappreciated filmmakers. Not getting the nod until 2006 by the Criterion Collection series, they finally put out the Polish director’s pseudo-masterpiece, The Double Life of Véronique. If stuck for one DVD to hit the ol’ dusty trail with, this film packs enough emotional despair and aspiration, led by the ungodly but innocent Irene Jacob, to accompany the lonely nights at sea.
Metaphysically speaking, this is a film that offers a different interpretation with each sitting. The purely arousing bond between viewer and creator is unparalleled through a visual spectrum. Sure, the dialogue is important, but for those of you that have watched anything by Kieślowski, the beauty captured within the mastermind’s eye is what speaks volumes. Watch this movie and try not to fall apart. I dare you... if you fail, you can’t feel feelings.
We often speak of the moviegoing experience as an out-of-body experience not to be captured within the dimensions of the small screen revolution. But if there’s one moviegoing experience worth noting in which I’ve had to move from the kitchen to the couch, the Double Life transfer is at the top, bar none. Criterion is at the top of their game as far as the design world goes, and everything from the cover to the commentary is flawless. Most of all, the resolution is captured with MTI Digital Restoration, therefore cinematographer Slawomir Idziak’s elegant lighting and color contrast can be seen the way it was meant to be seen.
Did we mention special features? My god, the special features. Audio commentary featuring Kieślowski scholar Annette Insdorf, author of Double Lives, Double Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, and three short films (Factory, Railway Station, and Hospital) that highlight Kieślowski’s early obsession with the camera and working class run-of-the-mill life. Not to mention book featuring essays by Jonathan Romney and Peter Cowie. See! I get to read too... take that, one-disc budget DVD picks. John Bohannon
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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Director: John Bailey
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe changed my life. Written by Jane Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin, it articulated concepts and thoughts that had a place in my adolescent mind but not a voice. The interconnectedness between human beings, reflected by the dozen characters that Tomlin embodies, is a concept I thought about often, but could not express. This film gave me the vocabulary.
Originally performed by Tomlin on Broadway in 1985 as a spellbinding one-woman show, The Search... was filmed for Showtime in 1991. Half a simulacrum of the bare-bones set Tomlin performed on in the theater (for which she won a Tony) and a half a minimalist, filmic rendering of the different mise-en-scène where each character is presumed to be found, it is the film version that helped me understand how much more there was to the genius of Lily Tomlin than her Ernestine and Edith Ann characters and films like 9 to 5 (1980) and All of Me (1984).
For 120 breathless minutes, Tomlin morphs from one character into another: Trudy, a bag lady who serves as the story's central character as she plays hosts to aliens from outer space who are looking for signs of intelligent life; Chrissy, a health-conscious suicidal crippled by "false hopes"; Tina and Brandy, two wise prostitutes who give an author the story of their life (instead of a blow job); Kate, the wealthy but bored socialite with a bad haircut; Agnes Angst, the rebellious teenager who leaves dirty fingerprints on the cheese in her grandparents' refrigerator. A common humanity exists between these characters, and half a dozen more, that rears itself in profound, chilling, and inspiring ways.
For years, I devoured the VHS copy until I uncovered each link between the characters. To the annoyance and bewilderment of family and friends, I would randomly recite Jane Wagner's poignant and witty dialogue. One favorite of mine uttered by Trudy: "If evolution was worth its salt, it should have evolved something better than survival of the fittest. I think a better idea would be survival of the wittiest. At least that way creatures that didn't survive could have died laughing." Of course, my limp rendering could hardly compare to Lily Tomlin's brilliant intonations and gestures.
The DVD release of The Search... arrived in 2005 and serves up fascinating extras and commentaries that give more insight into Jane Wagner's character creations. (Though just owning the film is reason enough to buy the DVD set.) Disc One contains the original two-hour film, while Disc Two features an analysis of each character, a 30-minute interview of Tomlin and Wagner conducted at M.I.T., a beautiful slideshow of images from the published book of the play, and amusing outtakes that prove just how seamlessly director John Bailey transitioned the characters between the stage and the illustrated set pieces.
In a time where our culture is on a fast track to unintelligence, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is an indispensable tool to reorient our minds about the psycho-social glue that binds us together, where just the simple act of bumping into someone on the street has the potential of a "goosebump" experience. See The Search... and you'll find the pun in that logic. Christian John Wikane
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Director: Ross McElwee
In an age of CGI run amok, when it is possible to create a credible image of a movie camera being swallowed and then shat out by a fly while it turns barrel-rolls through Brad Pitt's trachea in some yet-to-be-made summer mega-hit that was pitched to some studio as "Fight Club meets Iron Man meets Wall-E", well, what I really need in a film is human connection. Smart, real human connection.
Ross McElwee is the most human filmmaker in America, a wizard of the personal documentary. His breakthrough movie, Sherman's March (1986), was ostensibly a documentary about the lingering effect of William Sherman's brutal campaign through the South during the Civil War, but was, in fact, the story of McElwee's own deeply self-conscious attempt to satisfy his family (and himself) by finding a woman to love in a present-day South in the grips of modern anxiety.
His best film, however, is the Sherman sequel, Time Indefinite (1993), which begins with McElwee's long-awaited marriage and ends with the birth of his son. In between those poles, however, McElwee explores his relationship with his father, his siblings, his dead mother, and his deepest fears about love, culture, and class.
McElwee deftly turns his "home movies" into something composed and edited with (seemingly) casual artistry. Acting as his own cameraman and sound recordist as well as his own star and narrator, McElwee's technique appears low-tech and suspect at first. In fact, his shots are carefully composed, and he edits them together with an attention to symbolism, leitmotif, and rhythm. Unlike most cinema verite documentarians , McElwee weaves around his images a poetically composed and beautifully read narration. He ruminates on his past, on the nature of human behavior, and on the injustices of our culture. He does this, however, with the self-deprecating humor of Woody Allen and the folksy charm of Garrison Keillor.
Time Indefinite does not shrink from the most profound parts of the human story: love, family, death, fear, joy, and perseverance. McElwee has the courage and insight to find these themes not in a war or a melodramatic "drama", but in the small fabric of ordinary lives. Through his lens, an annoying knock at the door from a Jehovah's Witness is a glimpse into the fabric of faith, and a visit from the exterminator is an ominous sign. Life is accurately depicted as cruelly random, but it is also celebrated for the simplicity of its knock-about joys.
For me, the most beautiful actors in the world and slickest soundtrack possible cannot begin to match of seduction of McElwee's elemental "gerbil shot" of his newborn son. Nor can a whole team of creepy Heath Ledgers begin to match the horror of McElwee holding his camera for 60 seconds on the X-ray of an ulcerated breast tumor being treated by his father.
Time Indefinite argues, with unflinching simplicity and audacity, that our lives are beautiful just as normally lived, if only we will look at them and think about them with the necessary love. It dares us to care more about our own story -- a lesson and sentiment I would not want to do without. Will Layman
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Director: Michael Radford
The first time I opened The Captain’s Verses, my jaw quite literally dropped. It was one of those moments where a piece of literature -- in this case, a group of poems -- literally embodies you. In such simple and direct language, Pablo Neruda had taken every scattered and uncertain thought about romance that was in my head and translated it onto the page. What was most impressive is how he could use such everyday language, like merely repeating the word “love” three times, to transcend the sheets in front of my eyes.
So the first time I popped Il Postino into the DVD (well, back then, VHS) player, I had high, if not demanding expectations. Everyone knows that a movie never captures the essence of a book. Cinema is an externalizing process of ideas. Once you give the characters of literature form, they tend to stop having a strong internal impact -- Jack Nicholson may have an emotional if not visceral impact on us, but we are left to wonder what the “shining” really is about, while in the book the concept is explored in depth. Yet Il Postino is not a movie about a Neruda book, but one in celebration of the words of this poet. It has since been an indispensable piece of film in my life, for it truly achieved (and some would say transcended) its expectations.
The movie about a fumbling postman in search of the right words to win the heart of the woman who had stolen his remains as poignant and meaningful to my life today as when I first watched it well over a decade ago. As the Sufis say, it is the quest, and not the goal that is important. That we are seeking is the goal. Neruda developed this ability to go beyond the meaning of the words, to make them universal in appeal, whether he was talking about the lovely hands and feet of his muse, or the political liberation of his Chilean nation. The movie focuses on the love between a man and woman, yet still rises above the simple affair of two people. It is one of the few times in cinema that the characters do not take away from my own process of the struggle and glory of romance -- they actually add to it.
And yes, there is tragedy -- real life tragedy, in fact. Massimo Troisi, who plays the postman Mario, was warned that heart surgery was necessary and he should not complete the film. He chose to finish his masterpiece first, and the day after it was completed, he died. While there is poetry in this, the human side of us suffers contemplating such a fate. Yet if true love involves the transcendence of ego, then we should celebrate his passion for his art, and that if he did have to leave, that he left us with such an inspired performance that continues to be the epitome of poetry on the screen today. Derek Beres
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Director: Richard Linklater
A man is probably not supposed to like Richard Linklater’s indie-classic Before Sunrise, at least to the point where he might prattle on at the dinner table about how the film’s 100 minutes feel like a robbery of his own experiences, how the film gives a very nearly tangible form to where he has been and what he has seen and felt and never managed to articulate.
But with me, it is so.
It was easy, when I first saw it in 1996, to explain away my reaction as that of a somewhat cerebral college kid afflicted with sickening wanderlust. At the time, I saw the story of Jesse and Celine as a parable of travel’s possibilities: Hop on any train in Europe, meet a beautiful French (or German or Italian) woman, impetuously disembark together in some grand capital (the movie chooses Vienna).
Turns out Before Sunrise is a parable, but of the realities of travel more than the possibilities.
It’s taken years on the move and a concerted effort to live 'Elsewhere' for me to see the fundamental truth of Before Sunrise: It is the seminal movie about finding connection in a random encounter. The flip side of that truth, on the road as in the film, is that more often than not that meeting ends with a goodbye.
Spend enough time traveling and you realize that perhaps the lone drawback of the road is meeting people. There’s something about being among the unfamiliar that quickens your desire for connection. You fall for people -- lovers or friends -- but move on. The romantic plunge stings most: Love sparked on the road is a uniquely intense thing, maybe too intense, a fiendishly honest dance between two people bent on fitting as much as they can into a short window of time.
Time -- it’s always against you. You hear it ticking, and it will adjourn the proceedings long before you (or she) would. So you both compress time with questions meant to pick at each other’s soul. You find yourself revealing things you’ve never said to anyone. And to who? A stranger? Yes, but you quickly realize that this naked honesty is where the connection can take root. You give yourself permission to be honest, because, hey, you’re never going to see this person again.
Then you fall. You always do. And it’s as much based on the feeling you have at a given moment as the dizzying imaginings of how those feelings could evolve, into if given the chance.
But you catch a train instead.
We can talk about how Before Sunrise is a masterpiece of subtle acting (For exhibit A, watch the eye play between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as their characters put on a scratchy LP in the listening booth of a Vienna music store). We can talk about the movie’s spot-on dialogue, which somehow knows that in such a situation as the characters find themselves in, the conversation must be trivial, yet built up, like so many Legos, to something approaching pathos.
But ultimately, for me, it’s this: Before Sunrise gets the dance between its two characters exactly right. It’s a movie about finding and leaving, about the decision made and the alternative implied, but not taken.
Staying isn’t always in the cards -- not even usually. Traveling, you tend to say goodbye to more people than not. Maybe I watch Before Sunrise purely for nostalgia, for the backward glance that still hinges on the particular decisions I’ve made in my life.
But I don’t think so. Rather, I think I watch it to set two versions of myself that normally would be uncomfortable in the same room against each other.
One is younger and hemming to the film’s quixotic innocence; he knows the profoundness of meeting a person randomly in a random world. The other, older, wants to hold on to that, too, and tries, yet can’t shake the goodbyes. He thinks about the rides that took him away, and what might have happened if he'd missed one or two.
There’s no winner, only a perpetual rematch. Jeffrey White