Archive for month: December, 2013

Blu-ray diary: A Man Escaped

30 Dec
December 30, 2013

A Man EscapedAs a result of my recent, intense encounter with the films of Roberto Rossellini, I’m thinking a lot lately about the possibilities entailed in breaking style conventions not simply for innovation’s sake but in the name of moving past the limits of style itself. Such formal attempts to get at something more substantial than “mere” form, seem to be, perhaps inevitably so, inseparable from spirituality itself. In other words, I seem to have found the right moment to start exploring the films of Robert Bresson.

As  the blurb for Paul Schrader’s noted book puts it: “Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state with austere camerawork, acting devoid of self-consciousness, and editing that avoids editorial comment.”

My first and only previous Bresson viewing experience was a small-screen (CRT I think) viewing of Au Hasard Balthazar some seven or eight years ago. It was an emotional bombshell of a film but I don’t remember doing much thinking about how it achieved its effect, other than the obvious scrupulous/rigorous follow-through entailed in taking an animal’s point of view through an entire feature film narrative arc. I probably couldn’t have told you anything very specific about how Bresson accomplished what he did.

Having now watched through the various special features on the Criterion release of A Man Escaped (detailed in this review) I feel I have a much better grasp of Bresson’s methodology and vision. So let me here put in a plug for The Essence of Forms, a 2010 doc (46 min.) that appeared originally on the Gaumont French Blu-ray release of the film and offers a series of insights into Bresson’s filmmaking approach, from collaborators and critics. Unlike the other docs about him included here, it includes only clips from A Man Escaped even though it considers his whole career—so it is both fascinating and free of spoilers for his other films.  With the other, older docs included I found myself fast-forwarding through some clips from other films that I haven’t yet seen. So if you are going to pick just one of the special features to watch after a first viewing of this film I recommend this one.

Criterion issued their meticulously-restored edition of A Man Escaped back in March, so I am about 9 months late to this party—the first Bresson film to be released in high-def video.  Region B releases of Au hazard Balthazar and Mouchette from Artificial Eye were originally due early this year but have been repeatedly delayed and are now due to drop in March 2014. Can’t wait.

DVD diary: Rossellini’s War Trilogy—completing the cycle

14 Dec
December 14, 2013

Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Criterion CollectionMy fall 2013 encounter with Rossellini has transpired in a strange order… after seeing the restored Rome: Open City at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I had intended to dive into Criterion’s 3-DVD box of the War Trilogy in the ensuing weeks. But then when I scored the 4-BD Rossellini-Bergman box I excitedly jumped immediately to that.  I have a sort of mild regret about that because the supplements I watched (and certain aspects of Europe ’51) rather spoiled the ending of Germany Year Zero for me. Possibly the most useful piece of advice I can offer people coming to these two boxes / six films for the first time is: watch them in order, and for useful explication watch the Rossellini introductions and Adriano Aprà interviews after each film—and save the supplements that consider the entire trilogies for after you’ve watched each full trio of films.

The only other Rossellini regret that I have at this moment is that it’s taken me this long to get around to watching the War Trilogy films—and this Criterion box in particular, which was released just about four years ago now.  As with the Rossellini-Bergman package the supplements are brilliant—thoughtfully produced and abundantly insightful. Especially valuable are two video essays: Rossellini and the City, by Mark Shiel, about the urban landscapes in the trilogy, and Into the Future, by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, which is essentially a concise half-hour lecture, with quickly edited visuals, that is guaranteed to elevate your appreciation of all three films. As with the Rossellini-Bergman box I have found myself compulsively watching every minute of the extras.

If recent and future further restoration of these classic films does indeed result in new high def upgrade releases for these films, it’s hard to think that the accompanying features can also be improved.  One of Criterion’s best releases ever, for me, and that is saying something. For the dedicated cinephile this is pure gold.

 

Blu-ray diary: Il Generale Della Rovere

09 Dec
December 9, 2013

Il Generale Della Rovere - Blu-rayIn case it wasn’t obvious from my last post, I seem to have a new addiction and it’s the films of Roberto Rossellini.  At the moment the more formalist auteurs seem like weaksauce to me compared to the way that Rossellini challenges and reconsiders formal considerations at every step of his filmic development, or so it seems to me now that I’m about six films into his filmography.  But what’s interesting to me about Il Generale Della Rovere, which was released for the first time on Blu-ray just last week (in a fine package by Raro Video), is that it seems as likely to be misunderstood now as it seemingly was on first release in 1959.

A condition laid down by the film’s producer was that it should be ready for the Venice Film Festival in the fall of that year. This led to the film being shot in studio—Cinecittà in Rome, as it happened (on the legendary soundstage Teatro 5, where Fellini made several of his films). Rossellini, starting with Rome: Open City in 1945, had been associated more than any previous filmmaker with the use of location shooting to bring a feel of verité to his films. For Il Generale he decided to embrace the artificiality of the studio environment and, in fact, play it up.  His approach seems, however, to have been too subtle for reviewers at the time, who wrote of his “return to realism” in response to this film.  His deliberately contrasting of newsreel footage and studio shots with (obvious to later viewers) painted and matted-in backdrops seems to have not had the intended effect.

I tend to think that today’s viewers might watch this film and see those abrupt shifts as poor workmanship rather than deliberate aesthetic.  We have had so many subsequent generations of filmmakers that have embraced conscious artificiality and refined it in various ways such that what was once a bold cinematic experiment might play more like a clumsy misfire. But understood in context it is another fascinating chapter in Rossellini’s development.

I continue to find compelling the complex edition history of Rossellini’s films, and this package offers another chance to explore that aspect of his filmography.  The disc contains both the director’s cut that was presented at Venice 1959 and the later theatrical release that was edited in various ways. Once again it is worthwhile viewing both versions as well as the visual essay by leading Rossellini interpreter Adriano Aprà that meticulously glosses the various changes. To summarize: most of the nips and tucks of the theatrical version constitute indisputable narrative improvements, but one of the most significant cuts in that version is baffling unless you’ve seen the director’s cut.  For this reason that earlier festival version is the default version presented from the main menu of the disc. The theatrical version is available in the bonus-feature submenu.

One more note: Raro have decided to present this in an archival framing—exposing the rounded corners of all of the exposed filmic image,  rather than matted/cropped presentation that filmgoers would normally see (and which we most often see in video transfers). I’m fine with this presentation—considered in Blu-ray.com’s detailed review—but others may find it a bit strange. Otherwise, Raro Video clearly have been influenced by Criterion in their production of the special features on the disc as well as the accompanying booklet (with excellent Aprà essay)—the resulting package is not quite as slick as the current Criterion standard, but more than worthwhile nonetheless.  We’re indeed lucky that 2013 has seen not one but two excellent Rossellini high def releases.