July 20, 2009

Above All, Do Not Charm

I was pretty young when I realized that home video was the only way to protect a film from obsolescence. If it was a comedy released in England in the 50s, chances are pretty good that my dad tried and failed to find a VHS copy in the 80s. Oh, sure, there was still a listing in the Leonard Maltin book, and "someone has to have a print somewhere," but if you can't actually sit down and watch the damn thing, what's the difference between a film and a summer's failed new cereal? One--hopeful--distinction between obsolete art and obsolete cereal is the depth of affection. When it comes to film, someone loves everything. But for an old film trying to make its way to home video, the odds are getting worse.

If you've never seen a proper Blu-ray presentation, and (or?) find yourself perfectly content with the world of DVD, congratulate yourself and revel in the specific calm felt by a person who has never debated, with himself, spending $30 dollars on a film he already owns on DVD. There's also the slightly more psychologically complicated desire for a film you've recently purchased in some special DVD set not to be released on Blu-ray in the near future. "I would rather not regret my purchase, so fuck the rest of you," he might think. Despite the wishes of the Blu-ray snobs, you needn't worry--the DVD era will continue for some time. But I think it'd be foolish not to admit that, due to Blu-ray, the DVD era will be shorter than the VHS era. What I'd expect is a much longer period in which DVD and Blu-ray are essentially equal. But for the films that haven't yet been released on DVD--leaving aside those not even on VHS--what chance do they have now? Certainly no one's going to rush to put them on Blu-ray, but as the DVD era winds down, is any non-boutique company going to bother even on DVD? Probably not, so what do we lose? Well, history, obviously. But also charm.

My favorite film not currently available anywhere on DVD is The Competition. It's a love story about virtuoso pianists starring Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving and sure, if you want to get technical, there's probably not a huge market for it. It contains the line, "It costs extra to carve the word 'schmuck' on a tombstone, but you would definitely be worth the expense." So yes, if you want to stay technical, it's not fashionable. Good. Fashion kills charm.

No, really. Fashion, in art, kills charm. With each successive generation, the one guarantee about the era's fashion is that it's categorically less charming than the previous era's. This is, admittedly, a likely unintentional side effect of removing some presumably trivial aspects of culture. Every generation wants to be more serious than the last, and in some obvious ways that can be good, but regardless of intent, in art, charm is sucked out.

So yes, it's important to transfer old films to home video to maintain as nearly complete a historical record of the medium as possible. In terms of history, it's equally important to transfer unpopular or bad films to home video for comparison with the supposed best of the era. If you want to tell someone that Citizen Kane is revolutionary, show some crappy films from the 30s and prove your case. But the emotional reason to transfer some of these films is that they really don't make 'em like this anymore. And that doesn't suggest relative quality. The older films are in many ways inferior, and no doubt they're less fashionable, but might we not need as much contrast in our art as in our TV? Here's my best recollection of another line from The Competition, written as one sentence because it's spoken, by Lee Remick, in one sentence: "If you are talented--and aren't we both; and if you are pretty--and aren't you and wasn't I--there will always be men around described by Eleanor Roosevelt as 'less fortunate than ourselves.'" Screenwriters don't go for it like that anymore. For good or bad, it's unfashionable. But either way, it's simply gone.

I've recently seen Harry Potter 6 and it's charming. Sloppy and gorgeous and goofy and severe, it's all over the place in exactly the way I like. It's certainly not as thematically rich as the fifth, and not even in the same conversation as the crowning achievement of the third (which is thematically rich and tells a great story, the series' first and only), but in a series more than willing to have its kids riding chess pieces or competing in Triwizard Tournaments, and not having read any of the books myself, I enjoyed the pace and tone of the sixth film's lovely meandering.

Any films or scenes you find charming? Obsolete stylistic choices you miss? Films you wish were on DVD?


Nyarlathotep said...

Put me down for Night of the Creeps. I can't imagine the limbo in which that film's ensconced; half the b-movie fans I know want to get their hands on it, but I can't make myself pony up cash for what's probably a shitty bootleg DVD on eBay.

Bill C said...

Well you're in luck, Nyarlathotep, 'cause Sony's releasing NIGHT OF THE CREEPS in a splashy Special Edition this fall: commentary, documentary, uncut version, the works. (Sadly, on DVD only, even though friggin ABOUT LAST NIGHT got a Blu-ray release.)

Matthew said...

Beggars can't be choosers - I haven't made the switch anyway. Thanks for the heads up!

On that note, what's a movie you'd like to see re-released?

Jefferson said...

Bill, put a 1 by Night of the Creeps in the FFC queue for me. Dibs!

jacksommersby said...

Bravo, Jefferson Robbins, for your awesome debut review for FFC. Bill certainly knows where to find the talent.

KayKay said...

O'JohnLandis, great article. You asks, so I tells: What movie I'd like to see on DVD? Perfect Weapon, D-Grade Chop Socky debut by Kenpo Master Jeff Speakman, if only to hear the great James Hong intone as he instructs a henchmen to ventilate the hero's cranium, "Brains, this way please".

Dennis said...

Rewatching Argento's brilliant Tenebre last night reminded me of how much I miss that style of horror filmmaking, encapsulated best by Argento but also present in the works of Mario Bava, Sergio Martino (Torso is amazing), and other works like Fulci's underestimated Don't Torture a Duckling or unknown Bazzoni's GORGEOUS The Fifth Cord.

Pobojc said...

Damn, I worship Walter Chaw! Consistently, he has given me more and more evidence that he is among the best film critics I have ever read. That's why I tout him to anyone and everyone---serious filmgoer and blockbuster-only crowd alike. Latest case-in-point, to tie in with this topic, the under-appreciated gem "The Ruins". I read, and loved, the novel, on a Maine vacation 2 years ago. My hopes were not high for the 2008adaptation. Especially considering the first time director. Roasted by critics upon its arrival, I feared the worst. But darned if I didn't think that Carter Smith nailed it. Outside of missing the books epic quality(understandable given budget limitations), and the altering of the ending(understandable given audience limitations), by treating the source material with just enough respect the filmakers deftly avoided becoming "Little Shop in Mexico". But, alas, no Chaw review for well over a year. I was certain I was not mistaken, but Walter would, without question, confirm it...not to mention say it much better than I could ever hope to. And then I find, when clicking on filmfreakcentral today---vindication. My Pauline Kael "For Keeps" collection continues to gather dust. Pobojc

Rick said...
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Rick said...

Consistently is the key word. Walter and the other filmfreak critics seem to have a very even-keeled approach, while other intelligent critics appear to be severely affected by Bi-Polar disorder and lack of self-observation, making for some very random reviews with virtually zero supporting evidence.

Rick said...

Id take the word of a critic who has enough control over themselves to give a fair and logical assessment. Maybe that is the benefit of having some form of Asperger's syndrome over having Bi-Polar qualities.

Patrick said...

Re: Watchmen Director's Cut

The clip called "Blue Monday," for instance, doesn't go much farther than showing Billy Crudup in a jumpsuit covered with LEDs in explaining the F/X achievement that is Dr. Manhattan.

Was there an LED on his junk, too? (not a serious inquiry)

Conversely, too much attention is devoted to who-gives-a-shit? minutiae, like how they were able to light one stuntman ablaze for the prison riot using fire gel.

That moment of the prison sequence is to me the most fake of the entire movie. You can almost hear the director shout "Action" and then the stuntment begin their little riot.

Otherwise, from watching the DC I think the one thing Zack Snyder really lacks is restraint. Sometimes a little understatement would have been better than going all-out, but no. The only time I didn't mind the obvious musical choice is "All Along The Watchtower" in the end (and the title sequence, which is like a different film). But Sounds of Silence? Cavalliera Rusticana? I also thought of the mars dome crashing down in silence instead of a cacophony. And the violence still seems unnecessary, especially in Dan and Laurie's alley fight. Also, having fights that really make it seem as if the characters had superpowers, at least superstrength. And when Rorschach died, don't let the death register, but cut to Dan screaming "No!"

I had hoped beyond hope the extra footage would give us the secondary characters of the graphic novel, i.e. make Veidt's action register on a personal level. Instead, all we get is some shots of some people we know nothing about in some street corner.

Bill C said...

Yeah, the DC is basically the same movie, only longer--one might say it now overstays its welcome. Definitely not one of the great director's cuts.

Jefferson Robbins said...

The idea (as expressed by Dave Gibbons, per Bill's BD review) that the Watchmen film deconstructs comic books (or the movies derived from them) strikes me as a subtle diss of the source material. I would argue that superhero movies started taking their deconstructionist cues from the book itself as long ago as the Burton Batman films - the consequences of heroes and villain in the "real" world. Certainly, by the time of The Incredibles, the text had been fully assimilated into superhero storytelling. The Watchmen movie doesn't deconstruct jack shit. There is no surprise to be found there. It's just a weak echo of everything the Moore-Gibbons already accomplished long ago, from the shelter of the page.

To O'John's question (and it's a good one; Cinematical also explores it here): VHS committed a crime against movies that average watchers only got hip to via DVD -- adopting the pan & scan standard to accommodate 1:33:1 home screens. I don't know if The Competition got a letterbox treatment on VHS, but I doubt it, and most of the best films of the period certainly did not. When formatted for home videotape, movies went through, effectively, a second editing process that turned two-shots into quick cuts between the participants, and worse. (I blame this for the hyper-edit style that Michael Bay employs -- I think he grew up on VHS and became convinced that's just how a movie behaves.)

When I first saw Woody Allen's Manhattan, it was on VHS, and it was letterboxed for format preservation. I didn't know what the hell I was looking at -- "I wish he'd get rid of those black bars," my dad said -- but when I realized what was going on in the frame behind the characters, and in the lush skyline shots, I had my eyes opened. The disc revolution, for all the flaws and dangers that O'John rightly points out, was the best thing that could've happened to format snobs like me,

Finally, cheers for the strokes, Jack Sommersby. I'm grateful for your words, and for the opportunity Bill's given me. Except now I have to watch the entire first season of Dollhouse and ... well, more on that to come.

Patrick said...

I actually thought when watching the DC that for all the Graphic Novel did, the film didn't cover any new ground. It was unnecessary to film Watchmen nowadays.

So, how would you do a Watchmen film that achieves what the book did? Making the heroes heroic again?

Anonymous said...


re: your Watchmen blu-ray review

You wrote:

"Churlish of me to complain, then, that there's no option to view the theatrical cut?"


"A DVD inside the keepcase sports a Digital Copy of Watchmen."

The digital copy is of the theatrical cut.

Bill C said...

Ack, thanks for the heads-up. I'll make a note of it, but it's still not the same as having the theatrical cut in full 1080p.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but just thought I'd say - brilliant couple of paragraphs on Gran Torino, Ian. It's made me want to see the film again.

I have to admit also that it's probably been more resonant than anything I've seen this year, not that it's had much competition though. Sure, Star Trek '09 was, as I've already noted, one heck of a ride, but did it pack the same punch as the best of Trek, like The Wrath Of Khan or The City On The Edge Of Forever?

jacksommersby said...

Ones I'm still waiting on for DVD:

"8 Million Ways to Die"
"The Island" (1980)
"Impulse" (1990)
"Mike's Murder"
"Weeds" (1987)

Alex Jackson said...

Off topic, but just thought I'd say - brilliant couple of paragraphs on Gran Torino, Ian. It's made me want to see the film again.

I have to admit also that it's probably been more resonant than anything I've seen this year, not that it's had much competition though. Sure, Star Trek '09 was, as I've already noted, one heck of a ride, but did it pack the same punch as the best of Trek, like The Wrath Of Khan or The City On The Edge Of Forever?

I'm all over the map about Gran Torino. Watching it the one thing that was foremost in my mind was that I would have loved to read Pauline Kael's pan of it. The aftermath of the rape scene was genuinely disturbing. For once in a movie rape I truly empathized with the victim and saw her as a human being. It wasn't sensational and I didn't feel unduly manipulated. But much of the rest of the film was such a bizarre mix of vigilante fantasy and sentimentality. Didn't really see it as revisionist, perhaps because I was never a huge fan of the Dirty Harry series.

But also, I'm just getting into Star Trek and I'm baffled as to why "The City on the Edge of Forever" gets so much love. I didn't see anything particularly groundbreaking about it. She has to die or the Nazis will win the war? This has to be among the most worn-thin plotlines in all of time travel fiction.

So much of Trek surpasses this episode, particularly "Space Seed" which is actually better than Wrath of Khan. What a terrific hour of television.

Alex Jackson said...
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Anonymous said...

Worn-thin? Well...maybe, Alex, but still beautifully executed. Especially the final ten minutes. I'll make another judgement on it, and "Space Seed", when I've seen them again, as I'm currently more than half way through the First Season Remastered Box Set.

Probably, so far I would single out "The Galileo Seven" (the new effects have done it a LOT of good) and "What Are Little Girls Made Of?". I also particularly liked "The Menagerie" even though it largely re-hashes "The Cage", "Miri", despite its cheap way of cost-cutting (an Alternative Earth? A bit too easy), and "Charlie X", even though it was very much a gimmick-driven episode (boy with special powers).

I might be tempted to get the Second Season as well when I'm done with this one, although at the moment I reckon the Golden Age of the original series was over when Gene Coon stopped producing.

As a side note, I was also surprised to find out Grace Lee Whitney actually only appeared in eight episodes.

Jefferson Robbins said...

I think "City" gets props for its Ellison pedigree, natch, but also for the stakes involved. At the macro level, there's the Nazi threat, but in miniature, there's a chance that Kirk and Spock won't be able to avert the world's doom, let alone rescue McCoy and get back to their own time period. They have to blend into Depression America (I always liked Spock's ski cap), Spock is MacGyvering super-science out of crystal sets, Kirk comes to love a woman who has to die -- the future lies on the shoulders of fallible men with limited resources, for once, instead of macho action gods with the right weapon always at hand.

One possible misstep: After McCoy's blunder through the Guardian, the Enterprise is no longer in orbit. Does that mean there is no space travel at all? The Nazis are the reason we got rockets in the first place!

Anonymous said...

I miss movies with slight plotlines that meander, revel in the excesses their meager budgets would allow. Like Chameleon Street - it's a mid-80's indie film that just breathes with life, mostly from the performance of the writer/director Wendell B. Harris Jr. (he also played Breckin Meyer's professor in Road Trip). It's bursting over with style, but unlike so many "quirky independents" of today it finds a genuine melancholy to bring the story back down to earth, and its gimmicks don't indulge the audience's expectations or compliment them for their hipness ("Hey! I remember hamburger phones!")
I also miss ambiguous trailers.


Bill C said...

Apropos up top, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS now has a release date (Oct. 28th) and, better still, will be getting a Blu-ray release after all.

@Alex: "Space Seed" better than WRATH OF KHAN?! Them's fightin words.

Any FREE ENTERPRISE fans here?

Patrick said...

Excellent review of the Dollhouse box, I think. I did not miss arguing about the morality of the Dollhouse, either because I've done so excessively already, or because arguing about it only obscures that the case is quite obvious, i.e. Dollhouse is a slavehouse.

I also found Boyd to be the most intriquing character, and especially Gjokai and Lachmann so much better than Dushku that they should write those two out of the show lest Dushku gets upstaged even more regularly.

I think Dollhouse just wasn't that well conceived. The economy of it (supposedly million dollar amounts to hire dolls – but that would make most of the engagements doubtful, as well as not really providing that big a customer base for 10 or more Dollhouses in the country, each with 10 or more dolls), the jobs itself, and the implications of the conceit – I still really want the Dollhouse to come crashing down, even if Caroline was an insufferable idiot and even if Alpha isn't V, but just a psychopath.

I will hesitantly watch the beginning of season two, mostly because I own all of Buffy, most of Angel (so far) and Firefly/Serenity, but this had better improve dramatically.

permazorch said...

I've a raft of movies I want, no, need to have on DVD. First on my mind: Housekeeping, by Bill Forsyth (of Local Hero fame), made in 1987. Second, The Year My Voice Broke, by John Duigan, also 1987. There's also Bliss (1985), a terribly flawed, but quite interesting movie that I only wish I could re-evaluate on widescreen DVD.
I guess I'm showing my age. There are plenty of damn good English language movies that we'll never hope to see again, and that's a shame, because the majority of really good movies out there require me to read subtitles. I am a Big Sad Face.
Also, Alex Jackson: Where is your website? Is it gone for good? I miss you, komrad.

KayKay said...

Good call on the Southland Tales review Walter. A morass of confusing narratives and tangled sub-plots slapped on screen to obscure the fact that it's really about fuck-all.
For people that crave this sort of shit, I agree with the Tales/Revolver double-bill, and would add on The Fountain for genuine masochists, and if that don't cover it, top it with The Matrix Reloaded scene-skipped to the Architect's rambling monologue.

Anonymous said...

Funny that you peg Southland Tales as Richard Kelly's revolver; I saw Revolver and pegged it as Guy Ritchie's Southland Tales. In fact, whenever I see a movie that seems to exist only for its creator to realize every last bad idea he's ever had (North, Lady in the Water, The Spirit), I label it so-and-so's Southland Tales.

JF said...

I could almost forgive Kelly for Southland Tales if he didn't end the whole clusterfuck by cynically reducing the whole of human achievement and experience to a smug and unfunny one-liner. I was entertained throughout, and a lot more so than I was by Revolver, because regardless of how intellectually bankrupt he is he still can do a good Lynch imitation, tonally. But when the credits rolled, I sure did hate the whole thing and all that it stood for. Except for the musical number, and that one cool tracking shot, but it's not like those mean much of anything.

Rick said...

Alex, is Viddied down? I'm not able to access it.

Also, I remember you saying something along the lines of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu being a canonized and joyless piece of shit. Do you feel the same way about Gomorra? All I know is that I would never have the urge to watch it again.

Anonymous said...

So I know it is now months after its release but was anybody able to catch Jarmusch's The Limits of Control? It's been a while since I last saw it and I still haven't gotten my thoughts straight on that one.

JF said...

I really dug The Limits of Control. It's not exactly forthcoming with what it's on about, but it's a lot less impenetrable than many critics made it out to be.

Anonymous said...

i think the trailer for wes andersons "the fantastic mr fox" looks charming as hell. the animation style reminds me of wladyslaw starewicz's "the story of the fox", a film from 1930 that i saw a few days ago. good to see that some of these "obsolete styles" are still remembered by some brave artists.

trailer link:


Bill C said...

Holy shit, I can't wait.

I'm so glad he couldn't get Henry Selick to do the animation--this looks so much more charmingly handmade than CORALINE. And jeebus, he even shot it in 'scope!

Great day for trailers--here's the one for the Coen Brothers' A SERIOUS MAN.

O'JohnLandis said...

The Dollhouse piece is a great read, JR. I avoided most of the plot discussion, as I'll probably get around to watching the damn thing one of these days, but I like the structure. And I'm glad you mentioned the quality of the VHS era, because it's something I wanted to talk about without having to bring it up.

I am, and have always been, a proponent of original aspect ratio. It's something I bother my friends about and it's something I take very seriously. Watching a P&S Manhattan would startle my eyes much like hearing a familiar song in the wrong key would startle a trained ear. And it's not just loyalty to the director's vision I care about. It shouldn't be surprising that certain visual choices seem more "correct" to me than others, so watching a P&S 2001 would simply be some kind of wrong.

But you know what else is some kind of wrong? Watching it on a TV screen at all. Not everyone would notice or care if a familiar song was played in a different key and not everyone would notice or care if most films were never screened in theaters. And when it comes to convenience or finance, maybe that's not such a bad thing. It simplifies your life and saves you money if you genuinely can't see a difference between the best home video and theatrical exhibition. But make no mistake: it's a deficiency.

And that's one reason why the VHS era was better than the DVD or Blu-ray era, aspect ratio and all: VHS didn't seriously compete with a cinema screen. Can you imagine anyone buying the same movie on VHS more than once? Oh, maybe if you loved Star Wars or something, but then who didn't really regret buying the last VHS editions? No, I'm talking about purchasing a second version due to extra features or an improved a/v presentation. I bought Crumb on DVD twice. I bought Clerks on DVD twice--how much better could the remastered version of an ugly 16mm film look? And I remember checking to see if all the old features were in the new set so I'd be able to sell off the old version. These are features I never watched on either version! That's just looking at one of my "C" shelves. So yes, this is a madness I share, but it's a madness I resent.

Because no matter how compulsive I get about finding the best possible home representation of a film, I've never preferred watching a film at home to watching a film at even the worst theater. Coming from a Blu-ray snob, I can't even believe that a person who claims to prefer the quality of a Blu-ray image to a DVD would somehow prefer a Blu-ray to a cinema screen.

VHS supplemented film; optical media is killing film. I wanted to be furious about the amount of money Transformers 2 was making, except the only reason people were going was because it was the next big event movie. I am not ready to accept without debate that the 70s was the best decade for film, but one thing is absolutely certain: it was the most diverse. From charming to charmingly repulsive, creativity was at its peak, and of course I'm talking about films released in theaters. With the democratizing effect of DV, the internet, and the optical era, you'd think diversity would benefit. Instead, it's dead and rotting. Left competing for only one kind of audience, a television audience, every kind of filmmaker--be it a studio veteran or a monkey with a Panasonic--is making the same fucking thing.

So yeah, I'd like The Competition to be released on DVD. I'd be glad to see it in the aspect ratio its director originally intended, with proper picture and thrilling sound of the many concerto excerpts. But regardless of aspect ratio, I was never going to be able to see the film as the director really intended, because I was barely born during the film's theatrical release. You see, I want the film released on DVD for a more human reason--I don't want something I love to die.

Dan said...

The Fantastic Mr. Fox trailer left me cold; mainly because the crude animation isn't something I think I could stomach for more than 5 minutes, but mainly because he's Americanized a British story too much. It feels like Ocean's Eleven with animals, when it should be closer in spirit and charm to The Wind In The Willows.

Alex Jackson said...

Rick and Perma, hope to formally launch the new site with my top 100of all time in just a few days.

Patrick said...

O'JohnLandis: I'm glad there are people like you around, and like the film professor at my university who in a seminar about television of the sixties said he'd prefer it if we watched the shows in front of a small television set from the sixties and not in a seminar room from DVD. Or my friend who dislikes the mp3 format because of the loss of quality. Snobbery has a point.

It is snobbery, though, and I will continue to watch movies on my small laptop, listen to music on my ipod, and watch Dragnet from DVD. And for the special films, I remember you and your point of view and celebrate me going into the cinema and watching the film on a big screen like it's meant to be seen.

But with films like "The Proposition", do you really think they are meant and made to be seen in the cinema? Or are they made with DVD in mind?

That's what's killing film, if anything, not making films worth seeing on the big screen. (That, and dubbing, because honestly the choice between a film in the original language on DVD or a more or less competently dubbed version in the cinema is not an easy choice.)

Of course, Transformers ROTFL is the other extreme, what little point this movie has is inextricably bound to the cinema experience.

Nowadays they're going for 3D, just to make a technical point about the worth of cinema – not that most films really need 3D, it's just marketing. And that's what drives me away from the cinema most of the times: the films are just marketing.

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