Tag Archive for: DVD

Guillermo del Toro’s “Buñuel in Mexico” TIFF Master Classes & the state of Buñuel on film & disc

16 Nov
November 16, 2016

Last week’s “Luis Buñuel in Mexico” three-night master class with Guillermo del Toro at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto was a fantastic event. Before I get to some screening takeaways, I want to say up front that I really like how TIFF is delivering on curation & access with an event like this. $62.25 members/$75 general public for six films over three evenings—with GdT himself dishing insight—was value for money (and indeed sold out very quickly).  TIFF’s director of adult learning Theresa Scandiffio did a great job of keeping things on time and on point, and no doubt did a lot of work behind the scenes to make this event happen.

When del Toro first started dropping hints about this event, I was hoping it would be part of a broader retrospective of Buñuel’s work, similar to what London’s ICA did a year ago. As it turned out, three consecutive nights as one-off event worked out really well for me, as I was able to go to Toronto for a week and take in the whole thing.

Too often—and this is one of the first points that del Toro touched on—Buñuel’s Mexican output has been dismissed as inferior to his later, better-known European films like That Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle de Jour. Del Toro’s six-pack of mostly-underappreciated Buñuel works included four films recognized to varying degrees as artistic masterpieces (Él, Nazarín, Viridiana, Los Olvidados), as well as two (deceptively) straightforward melodramas (Susana, El Bruto), and he came prepared to defend all of them. In the 1950s, he pointed out, Mexico was the Hollywood of the Spanish-speaking world, and films made there were dominating screens in Spain and elsewhere. If drama is a torture of despair, melodrama is a torture of hope, del Toro observed, and Susana and El Bruto, while respecting formula (something del Toro defends as a form of cinematic discipline), stir in plenty of subtle Buñuelian elements, with frankly sexual moments, playfully—and often darkly—Freudian imagery, and of course the inevitable dash of foot fetishism. I came away convinced that these two films are, in the words of Philip French, “significant bricks in a major oeuvre.”

Buñuel and Hitchcock are del Toro’s two favourite filmmakers, he told us, and Él, Buñuel’s most Hitchcockian film, was one of the two biggest discoveries for me personally, of the six films. Much like Rossellini’s La Paura, it’s a case of a master filmmaker deeply absorbing the techniques of Hitchcock’s British and early American films, and then taking that narrative to a darker place than Hitchcock was ever prepared to go. But, fascinatingly, it is also immediately clear that it was enormously influential in turn on Vertigo—leaving me with the feeling much like suddenly having heard for the first time the opposite side of a phone conversation.

Nazarín was the other film that fascinated me the most. The most Pasolini-esque of Buñuel’s films (yet preceding all of Pasolini’s films) with its ironic Christ-figure at the centre of the narrative, it was the most allegorical and perhaps the most difficult of the films on offer. Its narrative direction is not always clear but its individual episodes are fascinating; I very much look forward to a re-watch, perhaps paired with his later, similar film Simon of the Desert.

The other two films were more familiar to me. I remembered the gripping social-realist aspects of the award-winning Los Olvidados—I’d forgotten about the brilliant nightmare sequence, which I doubt I will forget again. Viridiana is by far the most familiar and most cherished of these films for me, but of course it’s been available as a decent Criterion-released DVD for ten years now.

And that brings me to one of the major issues that del Toro raised on the second night of the master classes—the poor quality of some of the prints. I was glad for the opportunity to see what are likely the best-available versions of these films, but the quality of the prints and transfers was, well, a mixed bag. Del Toro says that he would be willing to put some effort behind getting them properly restored and released as high-quality Blu-rays—if I can help out some way, Señor del Toro, and/or TIFF friends, sign me up! I would love to see that happen for all six, but especially for Él and Nazarín.  In the meantime, here are your best options for home viewing. None of them are available in an English-friendly Blu-ray release.

 

Blu-ray diary: Roberto Rossellini—The War Trilogy (BFI limited-edition Blu-ray box set)

26 Apr
April 26, 2015

rossellini_the_war_trilogy_coverFilm disc collectors often talk guiltily, or regretfully, or occasionally scornfully, about “double-dipping”—buying a new Blu-ray edition of a film previously purchased on DVD or on an inferior Blu-ray. But if there was ever a case for it (as well as for owning a multi-region player), it’s this brilliant new Region “B” numbered edition of 3000 from the British Film Institute.

The restoration work for the films transferred here was performed, as one might expect, by the nonpareil Cineteca di Bologna, in 2013, and the image is a substantial upgrade, as you can see in the comparison screenshots in DVD Beaver’s review. What you can’t see is the even more remarkable improvement in sound. I did a little toggling between this edition and the Criterion DVD set from 2010, and the audio restoration is a massive step up in fidelity and clarity.

Because Rome, Open City is important not just to film history, but to history in general, and likely because it is more conventional than Paisan or Germany Year Zero in its construction, it has tended to overshadow the other two films. And yet the latter two are more representative of Rossellini’s particular genius. So the presentation on these discs perhaps levels the playing field, allowing all three films to be better appreciated as the masterpieces they are.

What makes the 2010 Criterion DVDs still worth having is the incredible forest of extras, several hours’ worth, which really help to illuminate the films and their context.

The BFI Blu-ray set brings forward perhaps the best of these—a half-hour visual essay about the entire trilogy by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher called “Into the Future.” It also has two features that the Criterion box lacks: a 2005 documentary Children of Open City in which Roma: Città Aperta lead kid actor Vito Annicchiarico, nearly six decades on from the film, goes on a surprising journey of reminiscence, and, remarkably, a freshly restored transfer of Rossellini’s Amore (1948), a two-part anthology film that showcases the incredible acting talents of the great Anna Magnani. The first part is from a play by Jean Cocteau, and the second is scripted by, and features an appearance by, Federico Fellini, complete with a remarkable blond dye-job.

While the 2010 DVD box is being target-marketed to me via Facebook for “only” $69 at amazon.ca (before tax&shipping), the new BFI box came from Amazon UK for $56 all in, thanks to the continuing relative strength of the Canadian dollar against the UK pound. (Canadian collectors note: Amazon UK is a fantastic source of Blu-ray deals, especially, but not only, if you invest in a multi-region player.)

So, the Criterion box may be the winner on extras, but if you want the most pristine presentation of these historic films, the new BFI box is a slam dunk. The time may come when Criterion releases a set that combines the best of both, but in the meantime, this is the Blu-ray release of 2015 so far.

DVD diary: piecing together The Rage (Pasolini: La rabbia)

01 Jun
June 1, 2014

“The best thing in my half of the film—the only part of the film worth saving—is the sequence dedicated to the death of Marilyn Monroe.”

Let me cut to the chase and skip to the most useful bit of information that I can share—the 83-minute “reconstructed version” of this film, put together by Giuseppe Bertolucci, which has been screening as part of the complete Pasolini retrospective that has hit several major cities over the past couple of years—is not the version presented on the region-free DVD that is widely available from Raro.

The back text on the box of that release describes it as an “exclusive, uncut, restored version” and this is true—but the “restored” version is not the “reconstructed” version.

The “reconstructed” version is only available on a Region 2 (Europe-only) DVD which is, confusingly enough, also issued in a black, white, and red box by Raro.

It’s as if someone conceived of an ultimate video edition of La Rabbia, and then split the various elements of that package between two different discs/boxes, arbitrarily.

La rabbia restored version DVDThe more widely-available “restored” version (region-free) includes a 72-minute documentary hosted by Italian cinema critic & journalist Tatti Sanguineti, in which he describes in some detail the “reconstructed” version which would be issued seperately. Along with 5 different trailers, it also includes the much later (early 1970s) 13-minute short “The Walls of Sana’a”, a film which joined the successful effort to have Yemen’s historic city named a United Nations World Heritage site, and which makes for interesting viewing alongside Pasolini’s other developing-world studies such as “Notes Toward an African Oresteia.” None of these special features are to be found on the “reconstructed” version DVD.

La rabbia reconstructed version DVDThe “reconstructed” version (Region 2), for extras, has instead a series of short interviews with various authorities: Cineteca di Bologna director/president Giuseppe Bertolucci, writer Vincenzo Cerami, Pasolini’s assistant director on La Rabbia Carlo di Carlo, photographer Mario Dondero, art historian Luigi Ficacci, and poet Valerio Magrelli. The reconstructed version starts from farther back in Pasolini’s planned order (rather than with the 20th sequence, about the Hungarian Revolution, with which the Pasolini-Guareschi half-and-half version rather abruptly begins). It drops the Guareschi half/film, and adds instead as an appendix some revealing moments from interviews with Pasolini.

If the two packages were put together into a single Blu-ray edition, the result would be a handy, single edition that would contain all of the elements that a motivated viewer would need to try to comprehend this supposedly failed Pasolini side project.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that ideal edition is ever going to happen, because Pasolini’s experiment with collage-based filmmaking has never been seen as central to his oeuvre. Or to put it plainly, successful. Even the wide-ranging and tolerant DVD Beaver calls it “less interesting as a film than for the story of its conception, reception, its withdrawal from circulation and disappearance, and its and rediscovery/restoration.”

I’m not completely convinced that’s fair. For one thing, that opinion seems to have been formed without viewing the reconstructed version.

Briefly put, that history is as follows:

  • The film was originally conceived as a 100-minute collage of archival/newsreel footage of geopolitical events, put together by Pasolini. Such a version, without the added poetic narration that Pasolini wrote and partially recorded, was shown to the film’s producer early on.
  • The producer promptly lost his nerve, or at least had second thoughts, and reconceived it as two 50-minute halves by different directors, with a right-wing section to be created by Giovannino Guareschi as a balance (or something) to Pasolini’s left-wing viewpoint.
  • Since neither director viewed the other’s film before creating their own, the film was not in fact the filmic conversation of two voices that it was promoted to be, and thus ended up not only a failure of nerve but also a failure as a film experience—two difficult voices talking into the air, as it were, in succession, with no mutual engagement. The two halves of the film truly had nothing substantially to do with each other.
  • The film was quickly withdrawn from circulation (reasons are debated), and its two halves would be intermittently screened independently over the years, in the form of B&W 16mm prints that were missing the colour material from the original.
  • The lost colour negatives were discovered in 2005 which allowed the “restored” version to be issued on DVD in 2008.
  • The “reconstructed” version followed soon after.

The reconstructed section that has been added to the “head” of Pasolini’s film, does, it must be said, feel different from the subsequent material. Yes, it features the words that he wrote, over the same footage with which he had planned to match those words. But, in the total absence of originally shot footage, it is Pasolini’s fluid-yet-abrupt editing style, and not just his poetic-philosophical mode of expression, that makes his surviving original half feel like a Pasolini film. It’s clear that even the most faithful reconstructor cannot fake that.

But I still recommend it as the version to watch first—and so I think that the right choice has been made to feature it in the retrospective screening series. It is not just that it includes more of Pasolini’s original vision—it is also that the additional material helps to contextual and introduce what follows. What is more, the notes that come with the DVD booklet are excellent for filling in the historical background of the newsreel images that flicker by. They open up the film’s references to a current viewer.

So here’s my recommended viewing order: 1) reconstructed version, 2) documentary from the restored-version DVD, 3) restored version.

Lastly… how remarkable is this film’s poetic flight out of images of delusion, death, and destruction into this tribute to Marilyn Monroe?

Shoot, like a golden dove.
The world has taught you [how].
Thus your beauty becomes [the beauty] of the world.
A beauty of the stupid ancient world and the ferocious future world which was not ashamed
of alluding to the budding breasts of a younger sister [or]
to a tiny belly so easily seen naked.
And for this reason it was beautiful: beautiful like the sweet, coloured beggars,
the gypsies and the daughters of shopkeepers who win beauty pageants in Miami or Rome.
The world taught you [how] and thus your beauty was no longer beauty.
But you continued to be a child,
as silly as ancient times, as cruel as the future …
And between you and your beauty possessed by power
there was all the stupidity and cruelty of the present.
Shoot, like a white shadow of gold.

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.

 

DVD diary: Pigsty, or, a bourgeoisporkalypse (Pasolini 7: Porcile)

03 Mar
March 3, 2013

The explicit political content of the film has as its object, as its historical situation, Germany. But the film does not speak of Germany; rather, of the ambiguous relationship between old and new capitalism. Germany was chosen as the extreme instance.

The implicit political content of the film is a desperate mistrust of all historical societies. Thus, an apocalyptic anarchy.

from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Note on Porcile

Pigsty/Porcile DVD Masters of Cinema“There really don’t seem to be any minor works in his oeuvre,” or so I blogged about Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows, but while 1969’s Pigsty offers no letup in intellectual intensity from his previous films, I have to say that this was the first of the seven Pasolini features that I have watched where many of the film’s elements begin to feel a bit—recycled.  It was also the last of Pasolini’s films not to be based on a major work of literature, which does make one wonder whether Pasolini felt like his own creative stores had been somewhat exhausted—along with the decade of the 1960s itself.

Yes it covers both cannibalism (shown, briefly), and sex with pigs (not shown), so it certainly does up the ante in terms of testing what an audience is ready to tolerate.  But it also brings back from Theorem:

  • the barren surface of Mt Etna as a visual metaphor for the existential plane,
  • the bourgeois household reduced to essence (reduced in this case to caricature), and
  • a young lover in a catatonic/comatose state (also repeating Mamma Roma‘s referencing of Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ).

The culturally-unplaceable “exotic” music of Oedipus Rex also makes a brief return here, fulfilling its former function of marking its society as somehow out of time, and the trial scene from The Gospel According to Matthew is back as well, again in a more bleakly satiric key.

The contemporary viewer needs to be prepared for some pretty oblique dialogue and referencing of the sociopolitical scene as Pasolini saw it at the time.  His use of satiric references to Nazism still comes across pretty clearly.  But the film is not about Nazism in the first instance, as Pasolini said.

I have come to realize in the course of watching these first seven films of Pasolini’s that 1) each of these films has at least one Christ figure and 2) you can always safely assume that the Christ figures are the characters that Pasolini identifies with. Pigsty has two Christ figures and Pasolini freely confessed that he identified with both. Drawn your own conclusions.

Not that it’s terribly crucial to appreciating this film, but I have to say it: Anne Wiazemsky looks unbelievably stylish in every one of her scenes—and in fact almost weirdly contemporary to my eye in 2013. If I had the time to rip this DVD and pick a bunch of screen caps I could assemble a pretty impressive fashion slide show.  The costume design is by Danilo Donati, who in addition to several of Pasolini’s films worked on others by Fellini and Zeffirelli. His last major project was Life is Beautiful.

DVD diary: Theorem, or, the Discreet Collapse of the Bourgeoisie (Pasolini 6: Teorema)

12 Feb
February 12, 2013

Theorem/TeoremaIt had been about seven years since the first and last time that I saw Pasolini’s Teorema. It seemed a bolt from the blue; my only previous exposure to Pasolini had been The Gospel According to Matthew, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I think about how brilliant it seemed, and how some of the images from it have stayed with me ever since, it’s kind of remarkable that it’s taken me this long to get around to my current project of watching all of his films in order.

Screening it now, in sequence after his first five fiction features, I do a see some richness of reference to his previous work (especially Gospel and Oedipus Rex), and having that additional context does illuminate his approach to some extent, but even after all that the shock of its brilliance remains.  In his critical commentary on the BFI DVD, Robert Gordon calls this film a “high water mark of auteurist cinema” and that is precisely what it is to me.

Really great works of art teach you how to appreciate them, don’t they, and there is something of that quality to Teorema. This film essentially breaks the three-act rule to deliver its coldly passionate theorem; if A, then B. This two-part, bilaterally symmetrical structure prevents us from expecting the kind of resolution that a conventionally plot-driven film would inevitably deliver.

Something I really enjoy about both Antonioni and Pasolini is the way that both directors use the presence of particular books to tell us things about the characters (unlike Godard, perhaps, who likes even his choices for book cameos to be opaque/cryptic).  In Teorema we don’t need to know much about Rimbaud, or the art of Francis Bacon, but a little bit of acquaintance does help.  The only literary-referencing scene that is really difficult to understand without knowledge of the source material is a scene where a physical interaction recalls a similar action from Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, so here I confess, not having read the Tolstoy, I was dependent on the explanation on the commentary track. By and large, though, the film’s points of reference add context but don’t demand to be completely understood on first viewing. Pasolini deploys minimal dialog here and for the most part lets the images communicate. It is his most purely visual cinema yet.

The 2007 DVD of this film (which I screened for this viewing) was already a huge upgrade from previous DVDs, but I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming BFI Blu-ray edition, which at time of writing is slated for release on May 13, 2013. If Masters of Cinema’s Oedipus Rex is anything to go by I know that this film can look even better. I will be double-dipping I expect.

DVD diary: The little birds—and bad birds—of Pasolini (Pasolini 4: Uccellacci e uccellini)

09 Feb
February 9, 2013

I agree it is not very funny. It makes you think more than laugh. But when it was put on in Montreal and New York the audiences laughed a lot, to my great astonishment, unlike in Italy, where they were a bit disappointed… Pier Paolo Pasolini interviewed in 1969

Hawks and SparrowsOne thing I seem to be discovering on this film-by-film chronological tour through Pasolini’s films is that there really don’t seem to be any minor works in his oeuvre.  Certainly his debut Accatone has some of the limitations that one associates with a first film, but even a film like 1966’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini), that opens with a series of gestures that seem wacky and flippant by turns, turns out to be Pasolini’s most accomplished and confident effort yet, and a serious (yet comic) examination of ideology as well—thought not too serious, as Pasquale Iannone says.

Masters of Cinema’s DVD (locked to Region 2) was released last year, and while I’m a tad disappointed that this film was considered too minor to receive the full Blu-ray treatment (or for that matter, any extras other than a trailer), it must be said that this is a really excellent transfer—pretty much the best anamorphic standard-def representation you could hope for. Iannone’s essay in the included booklet provides some useful context to a first-time viewer like myself. (MoC have more literally rendered the Italian title in English by dropping the definite articles, titling the film Hawks and Sparrows.)

The main title sequence, in a straight-up wacky move, is sung by singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno, and Pasolini follows that up with a series of call-backs  to Gospel According to Matthew, starting with recasting the previous film’s annunciating angel, Rossana Di Rocco, as a teen angel of a different sort (wearing wings, unlike in Gospel, because, as she explains, she’s in a play at school).

Soon Pasolini will fling us into a 13th-century story-within-the-story, in which he will shoot and frame the pronouncements of St. Francis of Assisi in exactly the same way that he did Jesus in Gospel. Our two protagonists, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) pop  up as medieval monks complete with suitable names. When the local villagers adopt Totò’s “Frate Cicillo” as their new favourite saint, a full-on festival breaks out complete with an amateur comic play, at which point we have a play within a play within the play, which disintegrates at the moment when Pasolini unleashes a mock cleansing of the temple, in his final reference to his Jesus movie.  But somehow Pasolini is so masterful that even his excesses don’t seem excessive.

For Pasolini the end of ideology is not just a moment for postmodern celebration, but entails a tragic side, most evident when he makes use of footage from the actual funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1927 until his death in 1964. But this is juxtaposed with another scene featuring travelling clowns/entertainers—Pasolini’s way of “quoting” Fellini and incorporating the comic carnivalesque (a move which, for example, Terrence Malick imitates in Days of Heaven ten years later).

Pasolini is also not above using Benny-Hill-style sped-up motion for a laugh, and watch for a couple of comic moments that will be quoted in turn, later, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. But my favourite is a sequence that is rather hard to describe, but which entails Totò and his son/sidekick communicating with sparrows by using their… dance language?

In a scene that has, shall we say, aged poorly, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) take turns going off in a hayfield with the fantastical comely lass “Luna,” whom the father afterwards indirectly labels a “whore.” I think this was supposed to be the embrace-of-life-after-the-death-of-Marxism moment but unfortunately it now plays as something more like Luce Irigaray’s “hommo-sexuality.” So it is not just the mourning of the passing of communism that makes this film feel like it belongs to another age. I think the film works best for me when I think of that final sequence as a coda from another time rather than a summation or conclusion of what has come before.

DVD diary: an un-virginal Mary (Pasolini 2: Mamma Roma)

30 Dec
December 30, 2012

In North America, only the final four Pasolini features are available on Blu-ray, three of these in Criterion’s Trilogy of Life package that was released just last month. A further four (Accatone, The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, Medea) are now available on Blu-ray discs zoned for Europe. Of the four that are available only on DVD, two have seen spiffy new European releases in the last year. That leaves Teorema (issued on DVD by the BFI in 2007) and, sadly Mamma Roma (Criterion 2004) as the Pasolini films that have gone the longest without a fresh video release.

Mamma RomaI decided to wait no longer for a Blu-ray edition of Mamma Roma, and picked up Criterion’s double DVD box during the most recent Barnes & Noble Criterion 50% off sale. I’m glad I did. No doubt the eventual HD treatment will improve contrast significantly in a handful of night scenes, but the transfer looks pretty good for DVD.

The story is simple but powerful. A prostitute tries to leave her life of many years for the sake of her son. Her efforts result indirectly in tragedy for her and him.

Watching this film for the first time, two things really stand out for me.

The first is what a fast learner Pasolini was. This film shows very much the same aesthetic preferences as his debut Accatone, but with more finesse, less confusion. The repeating/leitmotif scenes technique is still present, the close framing, and the construction of a world through dialogue rather than a documenting of a natural world. But here it all comes together in organic fashion. As Anna Magnani’s Mamma Roma strides through the night-time cityscape of Rome, her meetings with the city’s night creatures are choreographed rather than naturalistic, and this works to efficiently convey her emotional state at certain key junctures in the narrative. These scenes are like a musical without actual songs.

Accatone asks you to sympathize with a pimp, whereas Mamma Roma is about a prostitute—a much more sympathetic central character.

The second point is that Pasolini’s Jesus obsession is not something that suddenly appears in his third feature, The Gospel According to Matthew, but some that is hinted at in Accatone and is on full display here. The film is famously bookended with scenes that reference da Vinci’s Last Supper at the beginning and Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the climax.

I have always been impressed with Denys Arcand’s Jesus de Montréal, which I consider to be the most powerful cinematic portrayal of a contemporary Christ figure, but I now realize the extent to which he was standing on Pasolini’s shoulders. For example, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), Arcand’s protagonist, develops a fevered sweat as he heads toward his fate, and I’m now inclided to see this as having been picked up from Pasolini’s Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).

More to come on this point in the next couple of Pasolini posts.

One further note on the Criterion edition: the second disc contains a number of solid supplements including La ricotta (1963), “a 35-minute film by Pasolini starring Orson Welles as a director who sets out to make a film about the Passion of Jesus.” This short film was originally part of the feature-length anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G., also featuring segments from Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, and Roberto Rossellini. Ro.Go.Pa.G has recently been released by Masters of Cinema as a Blu-ray so I will be viewing that version of La ricotta and covering it my next post.

Watching Sátántangó (on DVD)

29 Sep
September 29, 2012

I’m playing catchup with Bela Tarr, now, because just over a year ago I saw The Turin Horse and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  That’s a film that is pardigmatic difficult viewing, gruelling by any measure, minimal, oblique, demanding—so by comparison Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó is a pleasant surprise.  Yes it is demanding, but simply because it asks something like a full day of your time, and patience with its pace to boot.

However I still feel that watching The Turin Horse before Sátántangó had a kind of spoiler effect on my first viewing of the latter film, which I undertook this week on a single day (into the early evening).  Both films are concerned with presenting a kind of secular and modernist apocalypse.  There is so much thematic and aesthetic overlap that Sátántangó felt very familiar even on first viewing, and if a plot stretched over seven hours won’t make you impatient for a film to get to the point, watching almost the same point being made a second time by the same filmmaker definitely will.

The apocalypse of Sátántangó is minimal but not subtle—just in case we miss the point, some two and a half hours in, one character advises another to read the Bible’s book of Revelation. She specifically uses the alternate title of the book, “Apokalipszis” (“Apocalypse”) and not “Jelenések” (Revelation).

I completely understand how Sátántangó would come as a cinematic, um, revelation to someone watching a Tarr film for the first time, but for me it couldn’t quite deliver the same jolt.  However one thing that Sátántangó has on offer that The Turin Horse lacks is the compelling figure of Irimiás, played by Mihály Vig. He is a combined anti-Christ and false Muhammad who provides the film with a focal point and an admittedly slender thread of political theory.

The way that people follow leaders who promise a better life in the face of all common-sense evidence to the contrary forms the tragic framework for the story, and it is safe to say that Tarr sees the reasons for this as springing from within human nature, rather than imposed from without. Over the six years that (so I have read) this film was being made, Hungary began its first round of economic privatization, which would culminate with unpopular austerity measures a year or so after the release of the film.  In this context it is more than possible to see the film as meet-the-new-boss, same-as-the-old-boss prophetic howl.

Apart from the occasional, inevitable moments of boredom (even a cinematic masterpiece can’t stay utterly gripping for all of seven hours), two moments knocked me outside of the film.

One was the memorable shot of the men walking down the road as a powerful wind swept piles of debris along behind them. Jonathan Rosenbaum says that Bela Tarr is better than Hollywood at creating illusion with things like a wind machine and a rain machine, but in each of the sequences with the men walking in the wind, it is clear that the trees ahead of them and beyond them are not swaying at all. This actually occurs in a later sequence as well.  I found the obviously faked aspect jarring.  I don’t remember having this reaction to the storm scenes in The Turin Horse.  I can only conclude that Tarr has improved, with age, at simulating storms on screen.

The other was an exchange of funds that happens near the beginning of the film.  Futaki has found out that Schmidt and Kraner plan to keep the money that was (pooled? earned? stolen? received from the government?) by six others in addition to them, including Futaki. Schmidt buys off Futaki by offering to cut him in for a third, along with Schmidt and Kraner.  Schmidt has half of this money on him. Futaki asks for immediate payment. Fine so far. So why does Schmidt divide this half into further halves? Futaki now has 25% of the money.  Does Schmidt expect Kraner to do the same thing? Futaki would then have half the money.  Or does he expect Kraner to make up the additional 8%? In that case how are Kraner and Schmidt going to even things out? I possibly missed some key lines in the minutes that followed as I wrestled with the mental math.

With Sátántangó now such a touchstone of arthouse cinema that it has apparently become a dating/mating criterion, you would think that it would have seen the light of day on Blu-ray by now, but sadly this is not the case.  There isn’t even, in fact, an anamorphic DVD release.  Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has done a good job of detailing the disaster that is the North American DVD release.

For those who can view European-region DVDs the Artificial Eye release, is definitely preferred, even with (or perhaps because of) the 4% PAL speedup, which shaves at least 15 minutes from the film running time.  Reel-change cue marks are visible as well as frequent visible artifacts. The image is completely uncropped such that rounded corners are often visible along with edge fading especially at the left and bottom.  The downside of this “purist” approach to presentation becomes awkwardly clear in a long tracking shot in chapter 8, following the migrants from behind, up the road to their new commune. The camera lens appears to be obscured by something at the right hand edge, and the fact that this is left in makes it pretty clear that Tarr expected this defective edge of the image to be matted out when projected. On the positive side the image is completely position-stable, indicating a digital frame by frame transfer. However the world still awaits a true-running-time, polished, high-def home presentation for this essential film.