1. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Extended Edition (Jackson)
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Extended Edition (Jackson)
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition (Jackson)
5. Getting Gertie’s Garter (Dwan)
6. Maria Candelaria (Fernandez)
7. Black Sabbath (Bava)
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher)
9. Meantime (Leigh)
10. Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt)
Monthly Archives: December 2011
1. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.
Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.
10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.
9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)
The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.
8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.
7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?
6. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.
5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)
Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.
4. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.
3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)
As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.
2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.
1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.
Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)
11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)
1. Room at the Top (Clayton)
2. Le Corbeau (Clouzot)
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli)
4. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg)
5. The Descendants (Payne)
6. The Science of Sleep (Gondry)
7. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock)
8. The White Reindeer (Blomberg)
9. The Ladykillers (Mackendrick)
10. The Lavender Hill Mob (Crichton)
dir: Mike Leigh (UK, 2010)
MGS rating: 8.1
JM rating: 9.0
This “dialogue review” of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. I first saw the film theatrically last January and we recently watched it together on blu-ray. This naturalistic drama, one of my favorites of the year, tells the story of a year in the life of a sixty-something married couple and their relationships with their closest friends and family.
JM: In a nutshell, Another Year is the story of a couple in middle age who are happily married, but are surrounded by friends who are unhappy. What I loved most about this film was the relationship between Tom and Gerri (who I perceive to be the main two characters). It’s easy to watch it and believe that these two people really have long-term co-habitation figured out. I think it’s rare in film to see a long-term monogamous/married couple in a successful relationship. Your thoughts?
MGS: I think you’ve hit upon one of the most remarkable aspects of the film and one that made a big impression on me when I first saw it in the theater at the beginning of 2011. Tom and Gerri are indeed a happy, well-adjusted couple and it is weird to see that at the center of a movie! But after watching it a second time on blu-ray I think one could also argue that Mary is the “main character” because she appears in all four segments and she serves as the catalyst for almost all of the drama. It seems like Tom and Gerri remain consistent throughout the film but Mary spirals increasingly out of control – to the point where she has become estranged from them by the end. If anyone deserved to win an award for this movie I think it should’ve been Lesley Manville for her performance as Mary.
What I love about this movie and what I love about Mike Leigh’s movies in general is his sense of characterization. The characters are all so well written and acted that it’s very easy to believe that their lives continue on once they leave the frame. It’s also easy to believe in, and fun to speculate about, their pasts. The characters make references to things that happened years earlier and to other characters who we never see and, even if I don’t understand all of those references, I know that Leigh and the actors know these characters’ backstories inside and out. As a viewer that makes me feel like I’m in good hands.
What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Joe, the twenty-something son of Tom and Gerri?
JM: First I’d like to address what you mentioned about the characters referring to the past, and I also completely buy into and go along with their memory recollections. This makes me think of one of my major criticisms of the movie The Last Rites of Joe May. When we are introduced to Dennis Farina’s character, Joe May, we are asked as an audience to accept that Joe was some sort of criminal and tough guy, but when I watched how his character acted in the present, I didn’t buy it at all. You can’t just expect your audience to believe whatever you present to them if it’s not done convincingly, but Leigh does it perfectly. I feel like I am part of the family.
To answer your question about Mary and young Joe’s relationship, I think that it is very sad on Mary’s part. We learn later in the film that Mary is like an aunt to Joe and when Joe was only in grade school, Mary was already an adult. When Joe is an adult, Mary hits on him, making Mary an extremely pathetic character. She is grasping at any chance to have a life with this family and essentially be part of the family, and she’ll do it by any means possible. This awkward attempt at flirtation on Mary’s part also presents Joe, like his parents, as a mature and empathetic character. Instead of being creeped out by Mary or indulging in any sort of sexual escapade with her, he shows her kindness by not making a big thing out of it. I don’t know if I totally agree with you that Mary could be the main character because I feel that it is more of an ensemble cast. Maybe though, I just liked Tom and Gerri’s characters and their relationship to each other and their friends so much that I have blinders on only for them when I watch the film.
Besides Mary, what do you think of Tom and Gerri’s other friends and family and their relationships to them?
MGS: Good point of contrast with Joe May.
I think that Ken is also a fascinating character. I get the sense that he and Tom probably started out in a similar place when they were young men but that, over the years, Ken has somehow made bad decisions that have led to him becoming bitter, out of shape, alcoholic and alone. Tom of course tries to help him in the way that old friends do, which leads to some of the film’s most painful moments. I think Leigh suggests that Ken and Mary could hypothetically have a relationship and help each other out; Ken clearly wants it but Mary seems to have unrealistic ideas about what her long-term relationship prospects are.
I also really like the character of Ronnie, Tom’s taciturn brother. I love the way he’s introduced only in the final section; as you know, the film charts a year in the life of its characters and is split up into chapters that correspond to the four seasons, each of which has its own distinct visual style. It seems like introducing the emotionally damaged Ronnie after the death of his wife (unseen by the audience) completely justifies the desaturated color palette of this “Winter chapter.” Obviously, this is a very somber part of the movie but I also think there’s a wonderful, deadpan humor to some of the exchanges between Ronnie and Mary. What did you make of their interactions?
JM: First of all, I completely agree with the winter section corresponding to the death of Ronnie’s wife! I felt like that part was so sad and mournful, and thinking back the lighting and weather mirrored that.
Admittedly, I didn’t really know what to think of the relationship between Mary and Ronnie. I felt that Mary, yet again, was attempting to cling to a member of the Tom/Gerri family and will flirt with whomever will be her key to that world. As for his interest in her, the connection lies in loneliness, companionship and the social act of smoking cigarettes. I tried to read more into it, as if maybe they’d end up together, but overall I think that I was romanticizing it.
MGS: I feel like there’s zero chance that those two could end up together but I have to admire Mary’s manic, indomitable persistence. One of my favorite moments is when she asks him about The Beatles and he replies that he’s an Elvis man. Then she sings a line from “All Shook Up”!
I’d like to conclude my thoughts by saying that I think Another Year is a great title for this film. It reminds us that what we’re watching is a slice of life; I feel like Leigh and his estimable cast show us the high and low points of one year in the life of these characters but that there could have been many similar movies made about the same characters in any of the other years of their lives. This is one of the ways in which it reminds me of the work of one of my favorite directors, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. Also Ozu-like is how Leigh manages to examine family ties in a way that feels simultaneously culturally specific and universal.
It’s well known that Leigh’s screenplays evolve out of improvisational workshops with his actors and I feel like he has perfected that process over the decades. To borrow a phrase from an old beer commercial, I think it allows his movies to reach a place, in terms of character development, that the other movies can’t. So that is why I think Another Year is a very special film. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
JM: I’ve never seen any of the director’s other films, but this one definitely piques my interest to explore further. There is something so intriguing about his characters that when I finished watching the film, I felt like I was closing a really great book. I was sad that it was over, and also that I wouldn’t be a part of their lives anymore.
Another Year is currently available in a splendid blu-ray/dvd combo pack from Sony Pictures.
Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year honor,” establishes a new tradition following last year’s tribute to Fritz Lang. It is also the first of three posts offering a round-up of the year in movies. Over the next two weeks I will also be posting lists of my favorite home video and theatrical releases of 2011.
This year White City Cinema’s Filmmaker of the Year honor is bestowed on Orson Welles, one of the all-time great directors and someone whose work seems to be in a perpetual state of restoration, re-release and rediscovery. 2011 saw the blu-ray debuts of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in mind-bogglingly elaborate box sets and The Stranger in a serviceable public domain job, as well as the first ever North American DVD release of The Magnificent Ambersons. In addition to purchasing all of these titles, I also showed Citizen Kane as part of a day-long seminar I gave to teachers at Facets Multimedia in July. (The subject? “How to Teach Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom.”) For these reasons, there was no other film director I spent more time watching, thinking about and wrestling with in 2011 than Orson Welles.
The visionary nature of Welles’ genius marked him as a man ahead of his time and, since his death in 1985, film critics, scholars and fans have all been playing catch up. While it was once commonplace to hear critics chalk up the plethora of unfinished Welles projects to some kind of “fear of completion” (usually tied to assumptions about Welles’ insecurity about living up to the early promise of Citizen Kane), history has since taken a kinder view of the twilight years of the boy genius from Kenosha. The 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band, included on Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of F for Fake, provided many Welles fans a tantalizing first glimpse of the tangled mess of unfinished movies Welles worked on in the last couple decades of his life, many of them of obviously high artistic quality. Recent books by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Discovering Orson Welles, 2006) and Joseph McBride (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, 2007) examine this work in detail, giving a more well-rounded view of Welles’ career as a whole. They also indicate that the primary reason for the unfinished nature of this work was a lack of money and resources. The fact that Welles was able to remain as prolific as he was is nothing less than a testament to his love for the act of filmmaking.
But even Welles’ earlier work, including the one movie he inarguably had complete creative control over, has been the subject of controversy. As I pointed out several months ago, Citizen Kane has been released in multiple VHS and DVD editions over the years that have failed to do justice to its original, revolutionary visual style. The new Warner Bros. blu-ray happily corrects the most egregious problems associated with previous editions by aiming for a greater film-like look. Welles’ last Hollywood masterpiece, Touch of Evil, a movie that was re-edited and partially re-shot against his wishes, was restored in 1998 as closely as possible to the director’s original intentions. And yet when Universal attempted to take a completist approach to Touch of Evil for their 50th Anniversary DVD edition in 2008 by including three different cuts of the film, they still courted controversy by only including it in a widescreen aspect ratio that some claimed was not the way it was meant to be seen. The new Eureka/Masters of Cinema blu-ray of Touch of Evil attempts to cover all bases by including five versions – all three of the extant cuts, two of which are presented in different aspect ratios: the academy (or television) ratio of 1.37:1 as well as the widescreen 1.85:1.
That the world can’t get enough of Welles now is ironic considering the tattered state of the director’s legacy in his own lifetime. (And there would be even more Welles releases on the market today if not for the intervention of his litigation-happy daughter Beatrice. She is now the only thing preventing the release of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ final unreleased movie.) It is tempting to invoke a parallel between Welles and Charles Foster Kane; like Thompson, the reporter in Kane who ends the film “playing with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” movie lovers too must sift through the films of Orson Welles, whether finished, unfinished or in multiple versions, none of which can be called definitive, in order to best understand and appreciate his artistry as a director. I would argue that the very act of familiarizing oneself with the Welles canon is akin to conducting an investigation. However, the “solution” that each viewer comes to is likely to be different. Unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whose authorial persona remains more stable and fixed in the minds of cinephiles, with each passing year Welles’ identity seems to multiply like the infinite reflections of Charles Foster Kane standing between two mirrors in the hallway of Xanadu. There are probably as many Orsons as there are viewers.
It should be a no-brainer for movie buffs to pick up the Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil blu-ray sets. The former is a cinephile’s paradise and includes among its many supplements the aforementioned DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons. The latter is available only as a “region B”-locked import, but it alone would justify the purchase of a multi-region blu-ray player. However, as those releases have already been written about ad nauseum elsewhere, I’d like to end this appreciation by offering a shout out to an outfit named “HD Cinema Classics” for putting out a blu-ray of The Stranger, a terrific minor Welles film from 1946 that has long been in the public domain. While today The Stranger technically belongs to the library of MGM, a studio notoriously reticent to release catalogue titles and who have no plans to offer a blu-ray of their own anytime soon, we should all be grateful that someone took a 35mm print, no matter how imperfect, and made a high-definition transfer from it. While HD Cinema Classics clearly don’t have access to the same high quality source materials that MGM does, I think their release should also be an essential purchase for Welles enthusiasts, especially considering its reasonable amazon price tag of only $11.99.
The Stranger has long been condescendingly referred to by film historians as the movie Welles made to prove he could direct something commercial and conventional but it is actually much better (and more Wellesian) than that reputation would suggest. In the first of a cycle of memorable Welles films noirs, the director himself plays Franz Kindler, an ex-Nazi who travels to America and starts a new life as a schoolteacher named Charles Rankin in a sleepy Connecticut town. Hot on his heels is Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson, a Nazi hunter for the U.S. government who must uncover Rankin’s true identity in spite of the disbelief of the stranger’s new acquaintances – including his fiance Mary (the lovely Loretta Young). The Stranger features several exciting set pieces, most notably an action climax set atop a bell tower, all of which are rendered in gorgeous high-contrast black and white by cinematographer Russell Metty who would later shoot Touch of Evil. But the film’s most memorable scene is a quieter one, a dinner table dialogue in which Rankin/Kindler accidentally lets his mask slip by denying that Karl Marx was a German because he also happened to be a Jew. It’s a little master class in acting that foreshadows the more famous fascist sentiments of Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man two years later.
When all of the legal disputes have been settled and The Other Side of the Wind finally does see a proper release, there still remains the question of how the film should be “finished.” Since no definitive cut is possible, who will be charged with the unenviable task of deciding “what Orson would have wanted”? Since there has already been some infighting on this very subject by Welles’ former collaborators, I think the sensible thing would be to have the film completed in multiple versions overseen by different editors with consciously different approaches in mind. I’d buy a mammoth blu-ray box set of that.
1. The Social Network (Fincher)
2. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Helander)
3. The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)
4. Offside (Panahi)
5. Henry V (Olivier)
6. Panic Room (Fincher)
7. Castle of Sand (Nomura)
8. El Topo (Jodorowsky)
9. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
10. Hugo (Scorsese)
Newly released on blu-ray from the enterprising label Kino Lorber are two of D.W. Griffith’s most significant films, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920). The earlier and more famous film, while historically important, is also morally abhorrent; its much commented upon racism has ensured that it remains Griffith’s most well-known work, as it is still frequently screened at American Universities in not only film history classes but also U.S. history and sociology classes. Unfortunately, its racism has also tended to obscure Griffith’s other achievements, turning off young people to both the pioneering director and early cinema in the process. It is, of course, impossible today to fully understand movies from earlier eras in their original context. Young people today, even those who aren’t cinephiles, accept the auteur theory, the notion that a film should be seen as the personal expression of its director, as a given. But in the early twentieth century, movies were not perceived this way. D.W. Griffith made over four hundred films, many of them adaptations of novels and stage plays, and across his vast body of work can be found many contradictory ideological positions. This is not to excuse the racism of Birth, but to provide greater context for it and to illustrate how its creator could also make movies that functioned as explicitly anti-racist tracts – such as 1919’s Broken Blossoms. The subject of this review, however, is Way Down East, a prototypical “feminist film,” and one that is as shockingly progressive as Birth is reactionary. It is also one of Griffith’s very best movies.
Way Down East is an adaptation of both a novel and a stage play of the same title, although Griffith greatly elaborated on both by adding an action climax that is 100% pure cinema. The basic story concerns Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a poor country girl sent by her mother to live with rich relatives in an unnamed New England city. Upon arrival, the naive Anna is seduced by a rich ne’er do well named Lennox (Lowell Sherman), who tricks her into a sham marriage and then discards her after having his way with her. Tragically, Anna becomes pregnant and moves to a rural country home where she can have the baby in secret. When the baby dies, Anna wanders the countryside looking for work, eventually hiring on at the home of a wealthy farmer, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), the farmer’s son, falls for Anna but Lennox unexpectedly moves to this same town and threatens to bring Anna’s shameful past to light.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Way Down East is its feeling for American small towns and the “plain people” who inhabit them. There are few movies that allow you to feel the weather and the changing of the seasons in a landscape as tangibly as Griffith does in this masterpiece, even if he had to shoot in locations as diverse as New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Florida to create a single coherent cinematic space. When Anna arrives at the Bartlett farm, there are delightful extended scenes that take place in the front yard where a spring breeze can be observed blowing through flowers in full bloom and the leafy boughs of a giant oak tree while baby chickens wander through the grass. Similarly, the climax takes place in the dead of winter and the very real snowstorms in which Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer shot these scenes give the film a documentary-like realism while also serving the more expressionistic purpose of externalizing the tumultuous emotions in Anna’s heart.
Way Down East also notably serves as a showcase for the incredible acting talents of Lillian Gish, who gives one of her finest performances as Anna. Gish, whose innocent, waif-like persona combined toughness and vulnerability in equal measure, could conjure viewer empathy better than any other silent actress (with the possible exception of Janet Gaynor). Even after 91 years it is easy to become emotionally invested in the dilemma of her character, and there are two scenes in particular where her performance deserves mention: the baptism scene, where the anguished Anna learns that her infant son is dying and decides to baptize the baby herself, and the dinner table confrontation between Anna and Lennox, where she publicly denounces him for being an evil seducer. The latter scene should especially be of interest to contemporary audiences; while the beginning of the film contains title cards extolling the virtues of “purity” and “constancy,” Anna’s righteous fury towards the end makes it clear that Griffith’s true aim is not to promote monogamy but rather to boldly attack hypocrisy and sexual double standards. Griffith may have had a penchant for Victorian melodrama and Old Testament moralizing but he also had his modernist side as both filmmaker and social critic.
It has often been said that movies would look very different today had it not been for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East provides ample evidence why. The ice-floe climax, for instance, is an exciting, visceral, rapidly edited montage depicting David Bartlett’s rescue of an unconscious Anna, floating downriver on a sheet of broken ice, just before it goes over a waterfall in freezing temperatures. It is one of the most famous and influential of all such rescue scenes; the climaxes of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and scores of other movies would be unthinkable without it. Also influential is Griffith’s blending of tragedy and comedy; as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Griffith has the dramatic story of his main characters re-enacted as low comedy by the supporting cast. The courtship of Anna and David, for example, is mirrored by not one but two relationships involving characters who are backwards country bumpkins, with an absent-minded Professor-type thrown into the mix for good measure. Griffith’s use of comedic subplots to rhyme with the main dramatic plot would influence John Ford, who used the technique in many of his own films (including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where the retirement of Victor McLaglen’s drunken Sergeant comically mirrors the dramatic treatment of the retirement of John Wayne’s Captain.) Another aspect of the Fordian universe that was clearly inspired by Griffith is the portrayal of a community as a collection of social rituals. This is best evidenced in Way Down East by the dance sequence where the Professor, played by the splendid comic actor Patrick Fitzgerald, proves to have two left feet.
Kino’s high definition blu-ray of Way Down East is based on the Museum of Modern Art’s photochemical restoration of original film elements. Like the “complete” Metropolis, the image quality varies dramatically from scene to scene and sometimes even from shot to shot. Some segments appear to be taken from 16mm prints, presumably where they were the only extant film elements, and other scenes that appear to be lost forever are represented by still photographs and title cards. But the most pristine shots, rendered in 1080i, still have the power to take one’s breath away. See, for instance, the early establishing shot of Anna leaving home where she is out of focus in the background while the blossoms on a low hanging tree branch appear to pop out of the frame in the foreground in almost 3D fashion. A new score, composed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, deftly weaves together traditional folk songs and hymns, entirely appropriate for a film that Kino is rightfully marketing as “An Americana Classic.” The 5.1 surround sound mix is terrific.
Silent film lovers, even those with no interest in seeing or re-seeing The Birth of a Nation, should jump at the chance to check out Way Down East on blu-ray. It is easily the best this film has ever looked and sounded on home video. Kino Lorber has in my opinion become a national treasure for almost single-handedly keeping interest in silent cinema alive in the post-DVD era (their other notable blu-ray releases include The Battleship Potemkin and many of Buster Keaton’s silent classics). One hopes that they will soon also see fit to release blu-ray versions of the several F.W. Murnau titles to which they currently hold the rights. Next year does, after all, mark the 90th anniversary of Nosferatu . . .
1. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
2. The Ninth Gate (Polanski)
3. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
4. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami)
5. The Host (Bong)
6. Chungking Express (Wong)
7. Pursued (Walsh)
8. Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter)
9. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)
10. Christine (Carpenter)