This column offers a method of film criticism that dwells entirely (almost entirely) on the film itself. It is not interested in ideological approaches to film or contextualization in regards to an auteur theory that privileges the authorial perspective of a director. It comments on recent DVD releases and attempts to offer something in return but only a something which has been taken from the film and did not originate in the writer. The column accepts that this approach breaches much of modern aesthetic theory and tries not to care.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

DVD Column Two

Pick Of The Week                  

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) Universal Studios

Max Cady imprisoned in Baltimore, on the strength of testimony by attorney Sam Bowden (at that time in Maryland for a legal conference), for the rape of a teenage girl has been released and plants himself in Bowden’s home town in order to play the classic game of unjust revenge. The plot, as plots should be, only serves to provide a context for a battle of wills and principles and an investigation of both. The viewer can predict which of these wills and value systems will triumph but the victor does not survive unscathed.

Bowden represents the moral tradition of an American liberal belief in justice and law. This system with its beliefs in the presumption of innocence and its anti-fascist philosophy that the dangerous cannot be prosecuted until they cause actual harm is turned on its head and exposed as a pretense to be rejected at the first sign of its potential inefficacy. Max Cady, smart and self-educated in the law, knows the game, knows that he has lived life in a corner, and knows that those beholden to the statutes of the law are eventually powerless to combat that which they disdain with either senseless prejudice or justified suspicion. Bowden is reduced to entrapment and enticement and the encouragement of a violence that falls far outside the domains of his own investment as an icon of the law. Max Cady is our obvious villain but like Heath Ledger’s Joker his destructive provocations are also seen as encouraging exposures of a belief system that on one hand governs a nation and, on the other hand, is also a lie.

It is telling that Bowden is a dull man, driven by allegiances and affections that while comforting are also stifling and impotent. Cady is erotic, dead-smart, interesting, a consistent catalyst of stimulation in others (on and off the screen) and, of course, dangerous to the safe, the dull, and the good. When Cady is on the screen playing his casual charms, he is intoxicating. When we have become drunk and we realize that he is still sober and the merriment has turned to malice he is terrifying in no less a thrilling way. He conveys an actual threat to our normalcy and our desire to protect that which we insist and presume is innocent and because of this he is both our hero and our nemesis. Cady is no mere beast, his drive is not instinctual but rather built on a raging hatred for the safe hypocrisies of our American times. Living in a world of encouraged lust he goes further than allowed and cannot believe that his is the only crime/failure that is to be noted and prosecuted.

There is nothing to recommend in the acts he commits, the foundational rape, the implied sodomy of a woman of little reputation, the terror of a wife contorted into horrible choices, and the eventual stalking of a girl just entering puberty, beyond the exciting enticement of his bravado and style. It is this excitement that makes us complicit in his deeds, and while we do not share his physic al and carnal taste for youth in the performance of actual decadence, we are made aware that he is not foreign to our attraction to the forbidden and that it is this attraction that encourages us to hide in its moral and social denouncement. We ask him if he is trying to seduce us and we are thrilled and spooked that the answer is yes. He must be our villain because he is so attractive in all the wrong ways. The film is captivating and threatening.

SRP: $19.85

Also Released

Driving Miss Daisy [Blu-ray] (Bruce Beresford, 1989) Warner Bros.

They don’t make films like this anymore and that is probably for the best. Incessantly and gently racist throughout, this saga of an elderly Jewish woman and the imposed upon her black chauffeur, who become, shockingly, friends aims to touch our hearts with demonstration of how affection overcomes racial barriers. But it does not accomplish this because those barriers are not overcome, they are highlighted and we are asked to be tickled by how this unlikely couple became close all the while accentuating our acceptance that such a pairing must and should be unlikely. The film gives itself away in the declaration of the affable son of the matriarch who is affectionate and kind to all the black folk who work in his mother’s house but declares that if he were to align himself with the actual civil rights of African Americans it would be bad for business. The film shares this perspective.


SRP: $26.99

Forbidden Games [Blu-ray] (René Clément, 1952) RB UK Studio Canal

This beautifully photographed and directed film is merciless in its exposure of human cruelty and suffering. Set in the countryside outside of France in a community blighted by a bridge that has a military value as a target, a young, quickly orphaned, girl is reluctantly taken in by a farming family, presently lamenting the crippling of their eldest son by a horse startled by the same actions of war. There is suffering available for all. The kids take a beating as do the neighbors, pets and livestock, much of the human travails are the result of petty resentments and the difficulty of managing a difficult life in a difficult time that dispels the premise that tough times bring out the best in people.  “And wounded is the fruit of the womb, Jesus.” This scriptural confusion provided by the young girl could serve as the epigraph for the movie in its study of the tribulations of life in the midst of death. Whether are not this wounding is also blessed is a difficult question to approach given that the children’s game of reconciling themselves to the devastation around them is that which comes to be forbidden resulting, surely, in more suffering for them both.

SRP:   $13.99 in pounds

Game Change [Blu-ray] (Jay Roach, 2012) HBO Studios

While apparently, a very popular rendering of the McCain presidential campaign decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket, this film is at best an interesting disaster. It is interesting in the deceptive sense that it is providing us with a real presentation of Palin’s inadequate political and personal character. It is a disaster because the presentation seems cynically loaded, the performances almost as bad as the obvious bald caps (save Moore’s impersonation of Palin which seems believable to someone like myself who has never met Palin). Palin, besides all her apparent and enormous failings, seems to have disgraced herself in the minds of “serious”
Republicans because she broke the rule of allowing herself to be completely being used by seeking something for herself. She agreed to stand beside McCain in regards to stem cell research and now she is sticking to her own principles? These are the ingredients of outrageous self-aggrandizing and opportunism. The rest of us who don’t care about the wake of her political reflection can be content to watch her rise as a fall from the dignity and grace of being a useful tool. But who really cares?

SRP: $24.99

Grand Hotel [Blu-ray] (Edmund Goulding, 1932) MGM

This extraordinary film pitches the idea of Berlin’s Grand Hotel as a metaphor for a moment in time filled with characters seeking their own ends through devices sometimes devious and sometimes communal. As this moment comes to an end the promise is that another will begin with new voices and visions competing for life in their era. Because it continues, incessantly, the rhetorical argument of the film is that none of it matters; lives come and go and are replaced. The film is also; however, explicitly clear on what constitutes continuity between generations and it is not the procreative urge. Rather, it is vulnerability and the desire not perhaps for success but for a real account of freedom, where one can be without the constant restraint of servitude. The name of servitude, articulated by many in the film, is money. But money is not everything and its force does not carry the day in the picture. What captivates the viewer is this vulnerability of the human condition, and the glamour of those who can accept it and the despair of those who would rather kill or die than be humbled by it. Also, while the film is mostly advertised as a Greta Garbo vehicle despite its star ensemble, Joan Crawford clearly and constantly steals the moment.

SRP: $19.85

Hit & Run [Blu-ray] (David Palmer, 2012) Universal Studios

What does it mean that a film can have interesting dialogue and charming characters and still be a so what? It means that the world is filled with movies and there is no shortage of slight virtues in many of them. In a world without movies, Hit & Run would be an exciting crime drama with a few smiles for relief. But in this world this movie tries too hard to be both funny and exciting. From pratfalls involving an incompetent US Marshall to the potentially intriguing plot of a man in the witness protection program who leaves said protection so his girlfriend can seek a job in another jurisdiction, consistency is tossed away for that which is presumed might be intriguing for a minute or two. This does happen, and the film is not terrible, but with fifteen to twenty new DVDs every week there is nothing remotely special to recommend this one.

SRP: $30.99

House at the End of the Street [Blu-ray] (Mark Tonderai, 2012) Relativity Media

Sarah and her daughter Elyssa are renting a largely country house in a neighborhood beyond their means. The price is affordable because the house at the end of the street is the site of the murder of a married couple by one of their children. The house looms in their imaginations, their dreams and their suspicions. Upon making contact with one of the children of this very broken home our mother and daughter are confronted by the ways the community conceives of the child and how they themselves see him differently – the mother worried, the daughter attracted by the image of the suffering loner. His status moves her in relation to her sympathies as someone also suffering half orphan status as a child of divorced parents. The film is ordinary, with the usual cats jumping when you would expect to not expect and there is nothing introduced in the first three acts that isn’t relevant in act five. This is a complaint, as there is no room to breathe beyond the necessity of plot. And the necessity of this plot is especially dark and scary for the ways it reinforces and rewards the practical morality of paranoia and mistrust in our treatment of troubled strangers. 

SRP: $39.99

The Imposter [Blu-ray] (Bart Layton, 2012) RB UK Revolver Entertainment

I think it was an asset to my viewing that I had no idea what this film about before watching it. I had no idea it was a documentary, I had no idea it was based on a true story. I had no idea about anything. And as the film progressed my suspicions about what it was about were continually being shifted. The initial suggestion is that it is a film about a missing boy from Texas quickly fell away, or perhaps more to the truth became much more complicated. My thought that it was about a Spanish con artist also fell away. What the film is about is varied and never a settled thing. Additional viewings would draw your attention to a different aspect of narrative or character possibility. The true story is intriguing but what is completely fascinating is our main character Nicholas/Frederic and his willed ability to be a chameleon. He is a tremendous actor all the more frightening and enticing for making it real even when it is not believable. The film-makers are to be commended for constantly keeping suspense in the picture and affections for all, the dark and the light even after you cannot tell them apart.

SRP: $12.99 in pounds

The Jazz Singer [Blu-ray] (Alan Crosland, 1927) Warner Bros.

Jakie Rabinowitz’s father wants his son to follow five generations of Rabinowitz men and be the cantor for their New York City synagogue. Jakie has different designs for his life and instead seeks the spotlight of the jazz singer, though it must be stated that this is not jazz as other records of the era by Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” present. So, he does not really want to be a jazz singer, he wants to be famous diluting jazz into something more palatable to the Broadway masses. This touches upon the argument of the film articulated as one between religious obligation and secular self-expression, the dialectical conclusion that both can be prayer. I wonder what this film would be like for the audience if remade as the confrontation between a religious family and a child who sought their fame in the sex industry. Even if you are sceptical of that argument between the religious and the secular it does not matter as the actual tension of the film is between the call of family and the call of reward for personal dues paid. This is probably an easier choice and Jakie becomes Jack Robin who pursues fame at the expense of everything and is praised for doing so. But of course he is conflicted and we are supposed to be moved by his soul-searching even when confronted by his actual performance we rely solely on being told it was a show-stopper as it seems in actuality to be trite and racially offensive. Sold throughout history as Hollywood’s first sound picture it is a mostly a silent film. I concede that if the first line of movie sound dialogue is “You have not heard anything yet” as it is in the film that is winning. But more to the point when Jakie/Jack talks you wish he would shut up. The empathy he gathers as a silent figure is destroyed by his cloying, creepy and persistently disturbing affection he inappropriately displays for his mother. This is a classic film with no claims to its title.

SRP:  $26.99

Mrs. Miniver [Blu-ray] (William Wyler, 1942) Warner Bros.

It is sentimental and off-putting for its presentation of ordinary English salt of the earth people as what we would call the upper class in any other part of the world, likely including England. Mrs. Miniver, both rose and woman, are lovely. All the Minivers are lovely and they better be as they are the essence of our superiority to any other world view. But these thoughts are afterthoughts and like a true work of sentimental art they do not occur to the engaged viewer while the movie plays out. Genuine tension is created on the basis of our sentimental affections. We cannot really say that we know these people; all we know is that they are good and because they are quiet, and never give the game away, we are propelled into belief. They do not exist like the rest of us because they are not at all like the rest of us. We believe that they are possible and we fill them with our apprehension and anxiety for their well-being because we want to believe that such personalities are achievable, especially in times of strife. They are the Christian ideal without any directly communicated evangelical message. I would be intrigued to see how Mrs. Miniver would have responded to Max Cady. My hope is that they might have seduced each other.

SRP: $19.99

My Dog Tulip [Blu-ray] (Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger, 2009) New Yorker Films

If you like animation unburdened by computer enhanced realism and anecdotes about dogs, with a heavy emphasis on their breeding habits, this is the movie that you have been waiting for. For myself, I do like drawn animation and observations about canines but I did find the endless passages on the mating habits of Alsatians to be uncomfortable even before we were taught about the potential necessity of applying Vaseline to Tulip’s vulva as an aid to copulation. The film does dignify the mystery of dogs and if you have a new dog in your home, as we do in ours, this can be warming to one’s heart and appeasing of one’s tensions about how dogs are to be raised. But eventually it is not about your dog and with that realization one’s attention wanes. The soundtrack of barking and yelping, both social and sexual, did seem to send our dog into a bit of a frenzy after the film was over.


Samsara [Blu-ray] (Ron Fricke, 2011) Paradox

In the tradition of the Qatsi trilogy (recently released by the Criterion Collection), Samsara is free of dialogue and relies on music and images (shown at various and sometimes misleading speeds, making the Hajj seem like a mass whirling dervish) to connect with its viewer. It is a film that one thinks you should admire even if you don’t really appreciate it. For myself, I found it endlessly depressing. The images of religious life seemed as dreary and dreadful as the images of our mechanized urban lifestyles. In fact, the most beauty I found in the film were in the ways our highways and buildings come alive at night and the ways that chickens are mass handled for production. The rest, including the chicken based scenes, were mostly reminders of how dead we are becoming inside. The problem is that this seemed the same with the scenes of the religiously observant. And so I was left by this glorious celebration of the eternal that everything is dead and corrupt. It is not true.


SRP: $34.99

Two-Lane Blacktop [Blu-ray] (Monte Hellman, 1971) Criterion Collection AVER REVI

The driver, the mechanic, the G.T.O., and the girl, racing on the road – this is all we are given in terms of character and it is a wonderful cinematic experience that this seems like more than enough. The film subverts Hitchcock’s claim that movies are life with the dull parts cut out by showing us life with the exciting parts removed. The excitement is transformed into the subtle and steady movements of lives going down a road. There is a race between the driver and the mechanic against the G.T.O. but they are more friends than foes, or at the least they are more akin than they are foreign. The girl is an outsider, knows it, and resents it. She is desired but no one cares to know her and socially speaking her only sense of herself is internal, all else becomes pouts and performance and ultimately acts of leaving. The mechanic and the driver have almost nothing to say while showing us who they are and how they are trying to be true to something that they have not yet discovered. G.T.O. cannot stop talking and nothing he says seems to be true. It is in the ache of his smile and his constant need to connect that we are shown that he is of the same spirit as the other two, trying to find something of himself and something other than himself out there on the road. The films use of images and found sights and people is observant and loving, it is not an investigative camera, it is a seeing one that understands that the eye is a participant in what it sees. Samsara gives the proximity of distance that leaves me cold, Two-Lane Blacktop in its lack of intent to make a point, but to seek inclusion in everything, fills me with hope and faith in the road to come.

SRP: $54.99



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