Outside the box office

CN&R film critic uncovers a hidden cache of film gems available on DVD

Duck Season

Duck Season

It’s no secret that the digital revolution, the DVD in particular, has changed the world for filmmakers and movie-goers alike. The materials of filmmaking are now far more widely accessible and affordable than ever before, and individual movie viewers now have access to affordable high-quality copies of an utterly unprecedented array of films, from all across the world and from multiple phases of the 100-plus years of motion picture history.

Among other things, the DVD has made possible a cinematic variant of André Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls”—whether renting or buying, any persistent student of world cinema and film history and anyone else who’s interested has entrée to great portable feasts of the movies, old or new, hyped or unheralded, short or long, foreign or domestic, made with millions or with lunch money.

Old film buffs, new Netflix subscribers, and the wired-up kids of the Digital Age are already well into this stuff, but the movie-reviewing business, in newspapers and elsewhere, is still stuck in the old mode of working more or less in synch with the movie industry’s publicity machine. Even in an erstwhile “alternative” weekly, that means that the great bulk of attention will regularly be given to whatever it is that the movie industry is banking on to be profitably “mainstream” and therefore successful at the box office in that particular week.

Le Petit Lieutenant

I’m not about to deny that critiques of box-office blockbusters, pro or con, are a useful and worthy function of newspapers. But what present practices in movie journalism often fail to reflect is that what’s new and significant, maybe even “hot” and certainly available, in movies has less and less to do with the nationally advertised “product” that’s about to open, amid expensively manufactured “buzz.”

Perhaps the ongoing abundance of this cinémathèque without borders can be indicated a little more specifically via an outline/résumé of some sort. There have been some very fine films in local theaters already this year, but if I had been regularly reviewing my most interesting movie experiences, week by week, since the start of the year, my table of contents/movielog would also include the following.

Local heroes
One-shot Chico screenings of intriguingly offbeat work by and/or about local and regional folk: Wayne Pease’s Mother Thunder, Jason Tannen’s The Pressman Negatives, Mike Wellins’ Visions of the 20th Century Through the Lens of Ira Latour, and visitor Bill Daniel’s Who Is Bozo Texino?, which chronicles the search for Bozo Texino, whose moniker had been seen on railway cars for more than 80 years. Although filmed in a variety of formats, each of these was shown here on DVD.

Experiments in film
I had a personal reason for attending the Portland Documentary and Experimental Film Festival this year (my daughter Gretchen is currently the chief organizer), but I knew enough about the characteristic PDX fare and Portland’s lively alt-arts scene to not be entirely surprised at the multiple delights (mostly short films on video) shown over the course of five days.

Who Is Bozo Texino?

Documentary highlights included David Fenster’s Wood, 22 incisive minutes on the Oregon timber industry, Brett Kashmere’s Valery’s Ankle, a half-hour meditation on ice hockey and violence in Canada, and Hisham Mayet’s Palace of the Winds, an exploration of contemporary music in the Western Sahara. Dancing Rainbows, a sprightly video experiment in color and abstraction by 91-year-old artist George Andrus, won the top prize in PDX’s annual competition.

Museum without walls
DVDs are giving us unprecedented access to film history; hardly a week goes by without the release of something rare and splendid from the distant past.

Recent revelations for me have included silent films from great directors known mainly for their classic sound films: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Wildcat and Jean Renoir’s Nana in particular (the former in a batch of restored Lubitsch silents from Kino, and the latter in a Renoir box set from Lionsgate). The Sinister Cinema edition of the early sound-era Fantômas (Pál Fejös, France, 1932) lacks English subtitles, but no matter—this stylish, surreal thriller makes a great case for cinematic visualization as an international language all its own.

Cinémathèque without borders
Several world-class auteurs with little previous exposure in the U.S. have recently become much more visible.

Five French-language films by the wildly idiosyncratic Chilean exile Raoul Ruiz are out on new DVDs—the oddball thriller That Day (Kino Video) is the most recent production. The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and The Suspended Vocation (Facets Video) are the most cerebral and arcane, and Genealogies of a Crime (Strand Releasing) and Three Crowns of the Sailor (Facets) are the most elaborately mysterious and poetic and the most accomplished.

Johan van der Keuken: The Complete Collection, Vols. 1 and 2 (Facets Video), six DVDs in a pair of box sets, give us five features and nine short films from a master of the artful documentary.

This late great Dutch artist was a brilliant cinematographer, a searching and articulate student of world culture and a gifted experimentalist, and those qualities are evident throughout this fascinating and compelling collection. Prime exhibits here include the monumental Amsterdam Global Village (1986).

New Releases/ Premieres on DVD (an interim Top 10):
1. Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, France)—An elegantly styled portrait of a disintegrating marriage in a 19th-century setting, with Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory.

2. Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand)—A spectacular combination of spaghetti western, gaudy retro melodrama and Asian folk tale.

3. Time to Leave (François Ozon, France)—A doomed fashion photographer (Melvil Poupaud) in an offbeat melodrama full of quirky emotional surprises.

4. Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico)—A deftly ironic comedy about two early-teen boys left alone for the day in a high-rise apartment.

5. La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, France)—An intriguingly bizarre character study, with Vincent Lindon and Emmanuelle Devos.

6. Woman Is the Future of Man (Sang-Soo Hong, Korea)—A darkly comic, oddly fascinating study of two young men wandering in the labyrinth of modern relationships.

Le Moustache

7. Heading South (Laurent Cantet, France)—Middle-aged female tourists cavort with Haitian beach boys, to complicated effect.

8. The Bridesmaid (Claude Chabrol, France)—More flowers of bourgeois evil from a master of the genre.

9. Le Petit Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois, France)—Offbeat policier, with Nathalie Baye.

10. Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, USA)—A smart, under-appreciated take on contemporary “fast food” culture.