Friday, November 15, 2013

The Barnes and Noble Criterion Sale Ultimate Decision Maker!

As with yesterday's little exercise, I'm giving you a list of films to buy in the sale during the Criterion 50% off promotion they're running. Sure, you could stream them on Hulu or get them from the library. But - as I continue to discover - the best thing about owning a DVD or a book is that you don't actually have to watch or read the thing you own. Ownership implies consumption! Buy these, put them on your shelves, impress your guests, horde them until you shirk this mortal coil, and enjoy the sleep of the just!

Anyway, in order of preference:

1) MARKETA LAZAROVA (1967; Frantisek Vlacil) -
Maybe I’m just getting cocky, but I feel like I’ve seen most of the Major Works and, if I’ve not seen them, I at least have passing, conversational knowledge of them. So when Criterion released MARKETA LAZAROVA this spring, I was rather unprepared for the mind-thwacking it administered. How had I not heard of this? Beyond its sui generis greatness, LAZAROVA's DNA can be found in many films that have followed -- from WALKABOUT and WICKERMAN to the works of Gaspar Noe and Nicholas Winding Refn. It also fits nicely in a continuum of cinematic classicism that includes the work of Bergman, Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi and, ultimately, Kubrick (2001 is the only obvious corollary I can draw to LAZAROVA).

The voice-of-God narrator tells us at the beginning of LAZAROVA that there are times when it's "better to roost by the fire and listen to tales of old", perfectly setting the stage for LAZAROVA's 12-part folk tale structure. The forever-swooping camera winds it's way over a barren, snow-swept plain, broken only by the black dots of hungry wolves. Vlacil's unfolds like an arcane Medieval illuminated manuscript, telling a deceptively simple story of grace and mercy versus the savage justice meted out by the warring clans it takes as its subjects.
LAZAROVA is psychedelic, funny, shocking, and oddly religious, containing the piety of something like THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS and the profanity of SIMON OF THE DESERT, often within the same scene. It's extremely exciting, too, brimming with the casual brutality and haywire sexuality that draws people to stuff like GAME OF THRONES. LAZAROVA's nearly three-hour running time is mitigated by its episodic nature. It's the best film you've never seen (a statement that's fundamentally impossible to prove, I realize).

Vlacil was trained in art history but always held a fascination with American westerns and the fusion of both sensibilities in LAZAROVA is obvious. In a fascinating documentary that accompanies the film, the (self-taught) director describes the painstaking process it took to arrive at LAZAROVA's authenticity, in the hopes of making into a "13th century documentary." Here's hoping this release renews more interest in Vlacil ( “Vuh-lah-chill” – learn how to pronounce it; as his films become rediscovered, I'm sure Vlacil will become more and more a part of the “greatest _____ ever” discussions).

2) LETTER NEVER SENT (1959; Mikhail Kalatozov) - Previously covered here. Not much to add to the review, except the additional half star to make it an even five out of five. Of all the films I've watched over the last few years, this is the only one that directly inspired an idea for a screenplay project of my own (one that's still hobbling its way toward completion). It's a piece of  Soviet statist propaganda (though there are hints that Kalatozov wasn't particularly sold on the whole "martyrs for Mother Russia" angle) expertly disguised as a terse man vs. nature thriller. There's enough to unpack in its 96 minute to reward repeat viewings.

3) BABETTE'S FEAST (1987; Gabriel Axel) - Speaking of folk tales, Axel's film is a lovely adaptation of an Issac Dinesen/Karen Blixen story (which is included in the DVD booklet). It's essentially a parable of using ones talents wisely and for their own sake, in this case a wildly talented Parisian chef (Stephane Audran) is relegated to playing housemaid to two kindly spinsters in a Danish backwater. The film takes the scenic route to the titular feast, gently building a fable structure that's comforting in its simplicity. Dinesen's story carefully illustrates her frustrations with the roles women are often forced to play in society while still holding a respect for tradition.

4) THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1958; Keisuke Kinoshita) - Kinoshita's makes an audacious formal move by choosing to film this story -- a millenia-old Japanese legend -- as an almost seamless piece of theater. He uses lavishly illustrated tapestries as backdrops that rise, fall, and fly in when the scene changes, creating the ultimate practical wipes.

The story is a bleak one, focusing on the legendary practice of obasute, which was essentially euthanasia. Once someone reached seventy years of age, they were to be deposited on the frozen, unforgiving mountain of Narayama. A tough old matriarch stubbornly refuses to succumb to the ravages of age, bringing shame on her family and consternation to her village. Kinoshita's employment of stark music and beautifully expressionistic sets (the films deserves the recognition given to CALIGARI and its ilk) is perfectly suited to the somber, poetic meditation on mortality.

5) CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961; Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin) - Lastly, there's this: the forebear of so-called cinema verite - a phrase coined by Edgar Morin at the outset of this project. Rouch and Morin loosely follows a cross section of urban French young adults, picking up other participants along the way. Their stated purpose is to simply find out how their subjects live. While the word "summer" in the title conjures expectations of APROPOS DE NICE-style leisure/recreation, this film is a startling document of France at a crossroads. Working-class unrest, race relations, Algeria, and even the Holocaust find their way into the film's narrative. The fourth wall is knocked down from the outset; the filmmakers are as interested in filming themselves and their process as they are their subject. Normally I hate this kind of self-reference ad absurdum but CHRONICLE works extremely well because of how earnest Rouch and Morin are in their quest for truth. The film was orginially shot in 16mm but has been painstakingly restored and looks fantastic. 

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