Saturday, 28 February 2009

Wanted on DVD [Region 2 Edition]

In which the master-thief, Irma Vep, is enlisted by the author to help raid the vaults and offices of the world's major distributors, in a futile attempt to reclaim the missing treasures of the silver screen.

Inspired by the highly interesting "M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month", currently winding itself down at the five-star blogspot Moon in the Gutter, I decided to compile my own short list of currently unavailable DVD titles - albeit, in the PAL/Region 2 format. This was an obvious decision, simply for the fact that I'm not entirely sure what is and is not available in the NTSC sector, but also because I would like to highlight how comparatively ill-served the British home-cinema market has often seemed (in comparison to France, Germany, Canada and the United States) when it comes to the release of even the most mainstream of challenging, thought-provoking cinema. 

It goes without saying that viewers in the US get a far better deal than those of us in the UK. After all, this is a country that had to wait almost thirty years to see the likes of A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) find a release on VHS (by which time we were well into the age of the Digital Versatile Disc). However, the last few years have seen a massive increase in the number of previously hard to find works by filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Leos Carax, Miklós Jancsó, Maurice Pialat, Nagisa Oshima, Kaneto Shindō, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Louis Feuillade and F. W. Murnau, to name a select few. The fact that you can now walk into any major high-street DVD retailer (or browse online) and pick up a copy of Bela Tarr's seven-hour masterpiece Sátántangó (1994), or the complete Les Vampires (1915), or Matsumoto's dazzling Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no soretsu, 1969), or the uncut version of Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998) suggest to me that the release of such films discussed or alluded to in this particular post will someday become a reality. 

After all, it's hard to believe that as recent as six years ago there wasn't a single Fassbinder release on the UK market. Now, there are four box-sets available (comprising 25 films in total) from the companies Arrow Films and Artificial Eye. Not to mention the complete 15½ hour version of the television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) released by Second Sight Films Ltd. Likewise, the always interesting Jacques Rivette, who, for many years was considered the unsung member of the Nouvelle Vague/Cahiers du cinéma group, is now spoken of alongside Godard as the most remarkable filmmaker to emerge during that entire period (more so than the immediately successful Truffaut). Nine of Rivette's films are currently available on Region 2 release, including his best known film, the playful, surrealist mystery Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau, 1974): a film that I will eventually be writing about on this very blog. The release of Rivette on DVD is a big deal; especially when we begin to see little-known gems such as Love on the Ground (L'Amour par terre, 1984) and The Gang of Four (La Bande des quatre, 1988) getting the full-blown director's cut treatment. It makes me hopeful that one day soon we may see a definitive release of the near-legendary L'Amour fou (1969), or the unwieldy, thirteen-part, made for television serial, Out 1 (1971).

For the time being, I have chosen to concentrate on only five films that rank (for whatever reason) amongst my personal favourites, and which I have enough of an opinion/understanding of to be able to write a short explanation that will better elucidate WHY these films (more than any) deserve the attention currently denied to them by the lack of domestic availability.

Possession (1981)

Directed by Andrzej Zulawski, this terrifying psychological drama remains one of the most unforgettable horror films produced during the period that would later become synonymous (at least in the UK) with the rise of the "video nasties". However, to compare Zulawski's film to something like The Burning (1981) or Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper (Lo squartatore di New York, 1982) does, in my mind, a great disservice to the enormous power of Zulawski's work and to the film in question. Despite its reputation, Possession is a staggering experience worthy of discussion alongside the creative output of masters like Bergman and Antonioni; with Zulawski channelling that same feeling of internal, existential crisis and spatial alienation central to such films as Persona (1966) or The Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, 1964), to create a film that is rich with moments of unbridled cinematic expression, passion and imagination.

Drawing on the end of his own marriage to the actress Małgorzata Braunek for inspiration, Zulawski was able to document the breakdown in communication between his two central characters - Anna and Mark, the rapidly disintegrating couple brilliantly portrayed by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil - with a great sense of drama and compassion. He is smart enough to maintain focus on this particular thread of the narrative throughout; allowing it to define not only the interaction between the characters, but also those later shifts into darker, more surreal and disturbing territories, which remain the film's most talked about feature. To add to the overall tense, paranoid atmosphere, Zulawski shot the film on location in Berlin at a time when the wall was still standing: creating an eerie, suffocating feeling in a number of scenes made all the more impressive by the director's use of harsh, brightly lit interior and exteriors spaces to contrast vividly with the darker, more disturbing aspects of the plot. This particular approach would famously inspire the visual design of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento's Giallo masterpiece Tenebrae (1982) released the following year.

Despite being one of the most unique and provocative filmmakers of his generation, Zulawski's work has been largely neglected by DVD distributors in the UK: with only his debut film, the mesmerising The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia część nocy, 1971) getting a Region 0 release from the excellent Second Run. Possession was released on PAL VHS ten years ago by the company ILC Prime, and was also shown numerous times on the now defunct subscription channel Film Four Extreme, where it was preceded by the obligatory introduction by British film critic and television personality Mark Kermode. However, for some reason, the DVD release never went ahead. Hopefully we might one day see a box-set release of Zulawski's work, including (the also unavailable) The Devil (Diabel, 1972), The Most Important Thing: Love (L'important c'est d'aimer, 1975), La femme publique (1984) and Szamanka (1996), etc, etc.

Filled with the usual, grotesque visual abstraction and that underlining air of menace and paranoia that can be found in several of the filmmaker's most notable films, Possession is a truly startling piece of work that manages to move seamlessly from moments of heart-stopping terror, to violent dysfunction, to believable human drama, without ever compromising the overall mood or totality of the film as a complete, consistent whole.

Je vous salue, Marie (1985)

Although the vast majority of Godard's work from the 1960's is now available to own in the UK - including the often neglected features, Made in U.S.A. (1966) and One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) - his more interesting (and by extension, challenging) work produced between the release of Week End (1967) and the climax of Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998) has, for some reason, failed to materialise. Although it should be noted that the company Optimum Home Entertainment has released the unconventional crime-thriller Détective (1985) alongside the personal masterpiece Hélas pour moi (1993), there is still very little else available from the period between Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) - released in the UK by Artificial Eye under the title Slow Motion - and the more recent productions, Éloge de l'amour (2001) and Notre Musique (Our Music, 2004), again, released by Optimum.

This means no Le Gai Savoir (1969), no Numéro deux (1975), no Ici et ailleurs (1976), no King Lear (1987), no Soigne ta droite (1987), no Nouvelle Vague (1990), no Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991), no For Ever Mozart (1997), etc. If you're interested, many of these titles are available on Region 1 or in France (sans subtitles) or can be tracked down on second-hand VHS cassettes or through torrents (or other such slightly clandestine means).

In regards to the film in question, 'Je vous salue, Marie' (Hail Mary, 1985) is characteristic of Godard's creative peak of the mid 1980's; a period characterised by the preceding films, Passion (1982) and Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen, 1983). As with much of the filmmaker's work from this era, the central focus is on the juxtaposition of an archaic legend when updated to a contemporary setting and used as a platform to discuss the nature of life and creative expression. In the film, Marie (Myriem Roussel), an average student and keen athlete, finds herself mysteriously pregnant despite the continual assertion that she is still a virgin. Roussel, who had previously appeared in both Passion and Prénom Carmen, claimed that Godard had been planning the film with her in mind for several years. She is quoted as saying: "We worked with video. Godard forced me to write down a diary of my thoughts. Not regular writing, but from my depths. I had no religious education, so I had to study the Bible. I watched Pasolini's film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and also Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Godard loves that film, and I understand why he loves it. And I had to learn basketball. Godard wanted to do a basketball scene very much because basketball has symbolic, spiritual associations: "the moon, and the stomach when you are pregnant."

'Je vous salue, Marie' remains, to this day, one of Godard's most controversial films; drawing criticism from Pope John Paul II, who claimed that it "deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers the world over", and inciting violent reactions from the general public. Famously, at its original showing at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, a middle-aged man jumped security and hurled a cake topped with shaving cream at Godard, forcing the filmmaker to question whether or not it was wise to release the film in Rome as was initially scheduled. Godard maintained that the film wasn't really about the Virgin Mary, but about "a young woman named Mary who, at a certain moment in her life, finds herself part of an exceptional event that she would never have wished for herself." Contradicting himself somewhat, Godard later explained - "It's a real story; Mary's story about life coming down from the sky. We've had lots of films about Jesus and the Bible, but none about Mary. Why? The Church should have made this film."

Critical opinion of Godard's picture still remains divided; with some of the user-comments on the Internet Movie Database for example showing that even keen admirers of the director's work consider this film to be a mistake (one comment even describes it as "boring and laughable"). As with Possession, 'Je vous salue, Marie' has been shown on UK television in the past (the last showing was as recent as 2003), but its crying out for a DVD release from a company like Eureka/Masters of Cinema, who will not only take the film seriously enough to present it in the best possible form, but will also lend Godard's late-period work a sense of prestige that is unfortunately lacking. Too many professional critics choose to reduce the filmmaker's career to the level of a footnote that runs from 1959 to 1967, neglecting the brilliant and progressive work that he has produced since, and continues to produce to this day.

N.B. With the little-seen Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964) getting a Region 2 release from Eureka video in April as part of their on-going Masters of Cinema series, one can only hope that this will pave the way for yet more Godard titles from the company; creating a relationship somewhere along the lines of their recent releases of the work of Kenji Mizoguchi and Maurice Pialat.

Kafka (1991)

Director Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to his massively successful, Palme d'Or winning directorial debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), was a self-consciously abstract project quickly dismissed by an audience no doubt looking for a more conventional film about the famed-writer and his work. Opting for a more expressionist, esoteric reading, Soderbergh himself has said that the film's critical and commercial failure confined him to the "art-house ghetto" for several years; with his critical reputation as a filmmaker (in the mainstream sense) only really restored by the surprise success of his excellent adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight (1998) (three years later he would be nominated for the Academy Award for two films in a single year).

As a biographical film, Kafka (1991) could be considered alongside Paul Schrader's (also unavailable) Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991), Steven Shainberg's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) and the Todd Haynes film I'm Not There (2007). As with those particular films, the intention here is to take an actual historical personality and filter the biographical details of their life through the legend and iconography of their work. As a result the plot is intricate: filled with references to the books The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), as well as a number of casual references to Kafka's personal dissatisfaction with his own work; the indifference and lack of support from his friends and family; his relationship with Felice Bauer; his work as an insurance company representative; and the final revelation of his illness. As with the similar films aforementioned, the script by Lem Dobbs presents the writer's life as if he were a character in his own fiction, inventing himself and expressing his own silent anguish through the process of metaphor and abstraction.

Visually, the film draws on the combined influence of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), the brilliant Orson Welles adaptation of Kafka's own iconic work The Trial (1962), and Terry Gilliam's dazzling, dystopian-set sci-fi satire Brazil (1985), while the incredible use of gothic, eastern-European locations, the exotic score, the incredible attention to period detail and the slowly unravelling plot ensure that Kafka is, above all-else, a great, surrealist experience. Added to this a fine leading performance by the actor Jeremy Irons and a supporting cast that includes Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbé, Joel Grey, Brian Glover, Keith Allen, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Alec Guinness, and we have a film that stands as one the most striking and imaginative American produced motion-pictures of the last twenty-years.

Although subsequently he's admitted to being less than satisfied with the finished product (even announcing a radical re-edited director's cut that never saw the light of day), Kafka nonetheless remains one of Soderbergh's greatest achievements as a filmmaker; easily worthy of discussion alongside the director's greatest film, the brilliant, depression-set coming of age memoir, King of the Hill (1993).

The Butcher Boy (1998)

Although a contentious figure for some, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has produced several films that for me rate amongst the very finest of contemporary, English-language cinema; including amongst them the expressionist horror fantasy The Company of Wolves (1984), the dark, prostitution-themed character study, Mona Lisa (1986), the quiet, Irish-set youth-drama, The Miracle (1991), his passionate adaptation of the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair (1999), and his highly underrated crime caper/Jean-Pierre Melville homage, The Good Thief (2002). However, none of these films rate as highly as the director's little-seen adaptation of the Patrick McCabe novel The Butcher Boy (1998); a twisted, coming-of-age, black-comic fantasy about the escapades of troubled Irish teenager Francie Brady.

Mixing humour, horror and nostalgic reflection to fantastic effect, The Butcher Boy is a film rife with 50's-style sci-fi paranoia, small-town ennui and the vivid imagination of a young boy rapidly losing his mind. Here, every aspect of the film - from the imaginative cinematography, authentic design and ironic use of music - is used to serve the story and create this slightly skewed perspective representative of the central character's spiralling state of mind. However, what really impresses, beyond Jordan's fantastic approach to the production, is the extraordinary lead performance from the young actor Eamon Owens in his first screen role. The fact that he has (so far, ten years on) failed to find a project that matches up to the depth and the calibre of the film in question, despite showing himself to be one of the most talented and naturally charismatic performers of his generation, is a tragedy of enormous proportions.

The esteemed supporting cast includes Jordan regular Stephen Rea as Francie's violent, neglectful father, Aisling O'Sullivan as his manic-depressive ma', Ian Hart as the boisterous Uncle Alo and Fiona Shaw as the monstrous (but never two-dimensional) Mrs. Nugent. There's also an eclectic line up of cameo appearances from Brendan Gleeson, Milo O'Shea, Tom Hickey, Ardal O'Hanlon, Sean Hughes and the pop singer Sinéad O'Connor, who gives a surprising turn as an incredibly earthy manifestation of the Virgin Mary in one of Francie's progressively more worrying hallucinations.

Again, Jordan's approach to the film is superb; perfectly evoking the idyllic moments of childhood fantasy and carefree bliss - as Francie and his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle) waste away summer afternoons by the river, reading comic books or stealing apples - before progressing into the darker, more depressing aspects that immediately follow. The balance between the gritty humour of McCabe's book and the sensitive lyricism of Jordan's direction is perfectly judged: moving back and forth from scenes of lively Christmas parties, to the boy's reformatory, to the animated moments of Cowboys and Indians, to frightening visions of the apocalypse that bring to mind John Schlesinger's brilliant Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust (1974). Once deemed worthy enough for a release on PAL VHS (pan and scan, naturally) in the late 1990's and currently available to buy on NTSC Region 1, The Butcher Boy remains one of the great films about childhood dysfunction, and the power of imagination in general.

I Want You (1998)

Released at the tail-end of the 1990's, at the end of the so-called renascence of UK film - after all, Trainspotting (1996) and The Full Monty (1997) had been huge hits - British director Michael Winterbottom's gloomy, colour-saturated murder mystery was naturally greeted by a majority of hostile and indifferent reviews (with the short write-up in the November 1998 issue of Sight and Sound claiming that "the over-stylisation of the piece ultimately sabotages what little narrative coherence there was in the first place"). However, if viewed with right frame of mind, Winterbottom's work can possibly be seen as an enthralling mosaic of shady characters and seedy situations; making great use of the film's atmospheric locations and the impeccable, other-worldly cinematography of former Krzysztof Kieślowski collaborator Sławomir Idziak.

At its most basic level, the film centres on a bizarre, tangled-web of relationships between four central characters in a fictional seaside-town (actually filmed in Hastings). The four characters can be broken up into two couples. The first, brother and sister Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Smokey (Labina Mitevska) are eastern-European immigrants. Honda has been left mute after witnessing the suicide of his mother and now spends his days secretly recording conversations and editing together the snippets of audio to create complex narratives of atmosphere and sound. Smokey is sexually promiscuous; looking for some kind of connection or validation of her own sense of self-worth from the variety of men that she takes back to the dilapidated beach-front home that she shares with her brother. Into this already complicated plot we have the appearance of Martin (Alessandro Nivola) and Helen (Rachel Weisz). Martin is a mysterious drifter, recently released from prison and hoping to make contact with Helen; his former girlfriend from the days when the couple shared an intense and dangerous pseudo-Badlands (1973) style relationship.

As the characters continue to intersect, the plot becomes more and more fragmented; drawing on several unreliable narrators and a fractured chronology, so that we're never entirely sure if what we are seeing is something from the past replayed, or something from the present. Added to this, we have Winterbottom's skilful handling of the character of Honda, and his habit of creating aural sketches from the sampling of everyday life. This particular device allows the filmmaker to blur the recognisable lines of the material even further; forcing the audience to ask themselves whether the film (as we see it, as it unfolds) is real, or perhaps some kind of mad collage-construction of Honda at his most quietly disturbed. It is also worth mentioning the incredible use of the song 'I Want You' by Elvis Costello & The Attractions - featured on the singer/songwriter's 1986 album Blood & Chocolate - which, in several scenes, is used as a counterpoint to the emotional intensity of Martin, and the duplicitous nature of Helen as she drifts through the lives of these lost and desperate characters.

Once again, this is another film that I own on VHS, which is unfortunately of an incredibly poor quality. However, the fact that one of the UK's leading movie channels recently broadcast the film in a pristine print, framed correctly in its original 2:35.1 anamorphic widescreen ratio, suggests to me that there must be a DVD release available somewhere, or perhaps there's one in the works?


These are just a few personal favourites that I would like to see released sometime before we begin to see the same wave of previously available films being re-released (yet-again) on Blu-Ray, or any other potential future formats. Certainly, you could also add to this list about 90% of the work of Ken Russell, particularly those of his extravagant period in the 1970's, when he produced the likes of The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971) and Savage Messiah (1972); the key films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Youssef Chahine and Philippe Garrel; numerous releases from Juraj Herz, Walerian Borowczyk and the partnership of Straub-Huillet; definitive releases of High Heels (Tacones Lejanos, 1991) by Pedro Almodóvar, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971) and Inferno (1980) by Dario Argento; the second box-set of Mario Bava films already available in the US; Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (Sôseiji, 1999), and numerous films by the maverick Takashi Miike: including one of his greatest works, The Bird People in China (Chûgoku no chôjin, 1998).

I also wanted to mention (in depth) Lars von Trier's experimental version of the Euripides play Medea (1988) - shot on video from a script by the late Carl Theodor Dreyer, and featuring a number of creative abstractions that would be used again in his defining film of this early career stage, the mesmerising Europa (1991) - however, unfortunately due to constant rewrites, delays and re-evaluations, I just didn't have the time.