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?

July 03, 2009

Public Enemies Talkback

Walt's review makes me feel like a Michael Mann fanboy, but I gotta say, I really liked, maybe loved, Public Enemies.

I'm probably the Boy Who Cried Cognitive Dissonance, but what jarred me most about Mann's use of HD here is that the sound--sonorous and cinematic--doesn't quite go with the image. You'd think it would've been an issue in Miami Vice and Collateral as well, but for some reason it's harder to reconcile in Public Enemies, maybe because we're already too busy wrestling with the idea of a period piece shot on video. I'm actually surprised (or not) that more folks haven't pointed out that the mix itself is rather sloppy in the fashion of the Miami Vice director's cut: music will fade up and fade out with little finesse, while normal speaking voices magically carry no matter how loud the background din (thinking especially of the pivotal club scene and bank robberies) and Otis Taylor's "Ten Million Slaves" is decidedly, um, overused. Is this all part and parcel of Mann's mad science of late?

But goddamnit, the movie knocked me on my ass. The last scene is perfection; Stephen Lang has this voice that makes my movie-panties wet. I even liked Bale, whom I figure decided to infuse his whole performance with the subtext that in real-life his character later committed suicide. (Purvis' depression is palpable.) What did you guys think?