December 24, 2013

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

A note on my arbitrary selection process: it’s impossible to view even a fraction of a given year’s releases, so it’s likely you could compose a far superior list from what I haven’t seen. Each title passes a basic level of technical competence, but are not necessarily reference quality discs. For the most part I’m grateful to have them available at all. I’ve never had much use for bonus features (I could be watching another movie instead!), so many of those listed below are bare bones releases.

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1. The Dawn Patrol (1930, Warner Archive DVD)/The Road to Glory (1936, Fox Cinema Archives DVD)

These two Howard Hawks WWI dramas depict the war machine as a circular assembly of death, its soldiers staying sane by focusing obsessively at the mission at hand. Never before available on DVD, these are Hawks’ most despairing titles, with Richard Barthelmess and Warner Baxter, respectively, carrying the weight of a world’s dead flyboys on their shoulders. Hawks lost many friends in WWI, and his brother died in a plane crash before filming began on The Dawn Patrol. These are his personal documents of mourning, before he detaches his art from the real world and enters into his communal Hawkisan fantasy lands,  like the fictional Barranca of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) made only a few years later. I went longer on these two films in Moving Image Source if you’d like to read more.


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2. The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD)

Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


3. Shoah (1985, Criterion Collection, DVD and Blu-Ray)

A film that exceeds language, given the Criterion treatment. This space gives me the opportunity to quote my favorite piece of writing this year, by J. Hoberman in Film Comment: “Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”


4. Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (National Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, DVD Box Set)

A miracle. In 2010 film preservationists Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate the American nitrate film holdings in the New Zealand Film Archive. They discovered an astonishing cache of titles long thought lost. That includes the nearly intact John Ford feature Upstream (1927)and the first three reels of The White Shadow (1924) – the earliest surviving feature that Alfred Hitchcock worked on (as assistant director, scenarist, jack-of-all-trades). The Ford is a delightful backstage comedy gorgeously restored by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, overseen by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. Those two titles alone make this an essential set, but it also includes a madcap Mabel Normand slapstick short and a cache of old newsreels that contain, in my most treasured treasure, footage of an ostrich drawn carriage.


5. Tristana (1970, Cohen Media Group, Blu-Ray)

One of Luis Bunuel’s most intractable, lingering mysteries. Catherine Deneuve stars as an orphan girl raised with imperious lechery by Fernando Rey. Their power struggle shifts as Deneuve begins to harness the malleability of Rey’s desire, shaping it to her own needs. But they both remain irreducible ciphers. Rey is politcally progressive (he won’t set foot in church) and resolutely classist (he clings to his bourgeois entitlements), while Deneuve is an angelic, innocent victim who is also a cunning manipulator Bunuel creates calm, lucid surfaces under which he masks the unknowability of his inflexible characters. The film is also the subject of one of my favorite Bunuel quotes: “Catherine Deneuve is not precisely my type of woman, but when she is crippled and made-up, I find her very attractive.” Cohen Media Group made a striking debut this year with this gorgeous transfer. Their release of Intolerance on Blu-Ray was also wel received, although I have not yet viewed it.


6. Experiment in Terror (1962, Twilight Time, Blu-Ray)

You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


7. Sokurov: Early Masterworks (Cinema Guild, DVD and Blu-Ray)

I’ve never been able to get a good read on the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, the splenetic spiritualist who dregs up the ghosts of Russia in front of image-distorting lenses. This is why I continue to explore his work with pleasure, in the search for transcendental understanding, or at least an inkling of what the hell is going on. He’s the one director, pace Manny Farber on Godard, that makes me feel like a stupid ass on a consistent basis. This is a frustrating and beautiful set on the way towards enlightenment. For the record, I found To Save and Protect to be gratingly impenetrable, Stone productively mysterious, and Whispering Pages to edge into greatness.


8. Olive Films Noir (DVD and Blu-Ray)

The small Olive Films label has continued to release obscure and wonderful Paramount titles in bare bones editions. This past year saw them put out a passel of phenomenally downbeat and obscure films noir, with all of the following being highly recommended:  Failed-actor-turned-director Mark Stevens’ self-lacerating Cry Vengeance; Hubert Cornfield’s ode to Los Angeles freeway gridlock Plunder Road ; John H. Auer’s seedy survey of one Chicago night in City That Never Sleeps; the prison-break character actor death march of Crashout; and the red scare laffs of Shack Out on 101.


9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Shout! Factory, Blu-Ray)

The horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, Scream Factory, has done fine work this year in upgrading many of John Carpenter’s greatest films to Blu-Ray. None come greater, though, than Assault on Precinct 13his terse condensation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. My Movie Morlocks review is over here.


10. The Quiet Man (1952, Olive Films, Blu-Ray)

What was once only available in smeary editions on DVD is now available closer to its Technicolor glory on Blu-Ray. For those who can’t stand John Ford’s penchant for knockabout comedy and sentimentality, this is your Waterloo. For everyone else (and me), its pure pleasure.

I wrote essays included in the Olive Films Blu-Ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s and the TCM/Sony DVD of John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection, so I did not include them in my top ten. So, full disclosure and all that, but I think both are essential releases. 

Discs I wish I had seen: Me and My Gal, The Big Parade, The Best Years of Our Lives, How Green Was My Valley, the rest of the Criterion Collection


February 19, 2013

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The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.


Hawks’ first sound film was supposed to have been Trent’s Last Case (1929), and the director did extensive tests with the new technology, but Fox had failed to negotiate talkie rights when licensing the 1913 mystery story by E.C. Bentley. So instead it became his final silent, made in a market so hungry for sound that Fox didn’t even bother releasing it in the U.S. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, it only opened in Britain to poor notices, with Hawks regarding it as his worst film.

He wrapped filming on Trent’s Last Case in February of 1929, and was fired in May, after refusing to work on the titles Fox assigned him (Life’s a Gamble and Big Time).  Hawks and the studio sued and counter-sued over wrongful termination and failure to fulfill contracts, but all the litigation was dismissed with prejudice by the courts. He was free for the moment, and looking for a project. Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he got the idea for The Dawn Patrol from a story by Irvin Cobb, “about an evening with a British squadron that was being hit hard.”  Contra Hawks, Todd McCarthy found a sworn deposition from screenwriter John Monk Saunders that “he had dined with former war journalist Irvin S. Cobb…and had that night heard the story of ‘young British pilots.’” Whoever originally conceived the scenario, the script was a collaboration between the two men, both of whom were steeped in flyboy lore.


Saunders and Hawks had both entered the Army Air Corps during WW1, and became flying instructors in the states, neither of them seeing action. After hearing news of the Armistice, Saunders went “out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane.” Robbed of his chance to burn up in a war, Saunders lived vicariously through combat anecdote, soaking up stories from every pilot he met. He was a prolific writer in the 30s, his newspaper stories leading to the scenario for Wings and his Lost Generation novel Single Lady (1931), which he adapted for William Dieterle’s masterful Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here). His wife Fay Wray described him as a man “who wanted to live dangerously and die young”, which he accomplished by hanging himself at the age of 44.

Hawks was a mechanically minded kid who drove race cars before entering the war, and flying became the latest of his obsessions. He did not acquire Saunders’ insecurity about missing combat action, but he was not unmarked with tragedy. The five friends he signed up for the Air Corps with were all dead by the time he started shooting The Dawn Patrol, all in plane accidents. His brother Kenneth was directing Such Men Are Dangerous when he perished in a plane crash during a failed stunt, mere weeks before The Dawn Patrol was set to film.


If Hawks wanted to get a WW1 subject filmed in 1930, having Saunders on board would guarantee studio backing. First National (A Warner subsidiary) bought the rights with Richard Barthelmess slated to star. Howard Hughes was still working on the similarly-themed Hell’s Angels, and tried to disrput Hawks’ production at every turn, buying up any extra WW1-era planes and threatening to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing came of it though, and both titles had healthy success at the box office. Having already done sound tests before Trent’s Last Case, Hawks had the technical capacity for talkies, but he already had an aesthetic plan as well. He was intent on having his actors underplay, instead of projecting to the back of the theater. The conventional wisdom held that theatrical stage forms would take over, from performance to direction. But Hawks innately knew that cinema could bring you close with a whisper as easily as a shout.  Barthelmess was already well-versed in the subtle forms Hawks was looking for, since he had worked with the similar-minded D.W. Griffith.

Barthlemess plays Dick Courtney, a veteran British combat flier leading raids into German territory. His squadron bunks at a remote outpost led by Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), all exposed nerves as the death toll rises. As each mission team returns, he counts the sound of engines to determine the number of casualties. The dead disappear as quickly as the time it takes Courtney to wipe their names off the squad chalkboard. The pilots deal with this constant metronome of death through drink and camaraderie, gathering in the makeshift bar to talk of former flings and initiating group sing-alongs to their scratchy record player. These are necessary distractions, a way in which to immerse oneself in the present rather than stare at the abyss of the past. At one point a fragile Royal Air Force member, having just lost a friend, blows up at these callous displays. It’s a scene repeated by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, after the air service fliers do their own carousing following the loss of a pilot. All female characters were cut from The Dawn Patrol, giving it its atmosphere of sweaty locker-room claustrophobia. Although it is similarly constrained to one location, Only Angels is more open and convivial, as the group teaches Arthur about how they cope, bringing her into their self-sustaining circle. The Dawn Patrol instead presents the group as a continuously disrupted family, little more than a replaceable collection of flesh.


When the pilots do engage the reality of their fallen mates, it’s with the grim, mock-heroic acceptance of a song that Howard learned from his brother Ken:  “So stand by your glasses steady/This world is a world of lies/Here’s a health to the dead already/And hurrah for the next man who dies”. It’s hard not to read this as Hawks’ own attempt to react stoically to his brother’s passing, death as a liberation rather than a defeat. This is how the professional fliers stand it day after day, as new recruits arrive and then disappear. The only constants are Courtney and his pal Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). But when Major Brand gets a promotion, Courtney becomes the squad leader, tied to a desk and unable to lose himself in flight. Now he is the one counting engine motors, made stir crazy by inaction and the crushing responsibility for so many lives. His job becomes that of a bureaucratic funeral director, and he can only free himself by disobeying orders and taking on a daredevil solo mission himself. There he can lose himself in the present, never to return.

The Warner Archive presentation has remarkably clear audio for a production of this period, and though the print they transferred is a bit worn and fuzzy, it’s likely the best this film has looked in ages. At this early stage, it’s the home video release of the year.