Since we've already established that I'm essentially a shill for the Criterion Collection, I figured I'd throw together a couple quick lists of recommendations for the ongoing 50% off Barnes & Noble sale. I tend to use these things to pick up pricey boxed sets, so I'm going to lead off with my top five top picks from Criterion's recent Eclipse line releases (tomorrow I'll highlight five of my favorite recent Blus from the mainline label).
For a while there, the Eclipse imprimatur was becoming Criterion's most exciting division. They used it as a place to bundle works that were a bit off-the-beaten-path into comparatively affordable, extras-free sets. With the advent of Criterion's Hulu deal, there has been less of a push to release tricky-to-market physical media when the streaming stuff is almost risk-free from a business standpoint. After a banner year for Eclipse in 2012 (seven sets!), 2013 saw a decline in the label's output (two sets)*. However, there's already a Satyajit Ray box coming in January so maybe 2014 will pick back up.
Anyway, here are my recommendations in order of preference (links are to the B&N store; further info is always available at criterion.com):
Previously covered here and here.The most well-known film in the box is POTO & CABENGO and I've already sung the praises of ROUTINE PLEASURES. Let me use this space to stump for MY CRASY LIFE (pictured), Gorin's explorarion of L.A. gangs -- circa late '80s -- that's equal parts grim and whimsical ("grimsical®"). Gorin gets deep -- even following one of the gang members back to his former home in Samoa where life is sweet, simple, and devoid of any of the violent posturing that's come before. It's an excellent look at a confounding subculture.
The only thing wrong with this one is that it contains only three films by the often-overlooked Gremillon. For whatever reason, Gremillon’s body of work has been difficult to see in America beyond BitTorrents, the occasional retrospective, and import DVDs. Hopefully, this set will rectify this scarcity and renew interest in a director who deserves to be mentioned whenever the pantheon of auteurs is discussed. In spite of his more truncated filmography, Gremillon deserves comparison with Renoir, Ophuls, and Carne. The films included in the set:
REMORQUES (Stormy Waters) – A routine rescue at sea goes awry when the venal captain of an endangered boat connives to de-rescue his craft. A captain par excellence (the always-charming Jean Gabin) comes to aid the ship, only to be tested when he gets involved with one of the rescued, a mysterious woman (Michele Morgan). An otherwise stand-up guy, Gabin is waylaid by a moment of desire. His ten-year marriage (to Madelieine Renaud) is brought to the brink of destruction and the bulk of the film is the couple’s Bergmanesque desolation as they cope with infidelity and a stale relationship. “Unhappy people easily recognize each other,” remarks Gabin’s temptress. “It’d be sad if we didn't.” It’s a simple film, marked with remarkably astute relational insights, an especially haunting ending, and – throughout – some amazing, Ophuls-level, tracking shots.
LUMIERE D’ETE (Summer Light) – This is the breakout film in the set. One review I read derided it as “RULES OF THE GAME fan fiction”, something I can’t really consider a pejorative. Gremillon’s film is a containment drama documenting the relational pratfalls of the idle rich in a small village in the middle of Provence. RULES is the most obvious corollary(though LUMIERE D’ETE isn’t quite as epic in scope). Central to the drama is the dying relationship between Cri-Cri (Madelieine Renaud) and her increasingly sadistic lover (Paul Bernard) [Her: Do you still love me? Him: Do you really want to know?” Her: No.] The characters slip further into bizarre behavior; she becomes more of a controlling harpy, he more of a gun-toting, woman-stalking sociopath – their particular pathologies wouldn’t be out of place in a Polanski film. It’s a richly written film that rails against the whole soul mate business, underscoring the truth that you can’t look to other people to complete you.
LE CIEL EST A VOUS (The Sky Is Yours) – This charming film lies at the intersection of Capra and Renoir, a light-hearted drama “based on people who,” per the opening title card, “even today, lead modest, hardworking lives in Southeast France.” A woman (Madelieine Renaud, again; she’s one of the set’s biggest revelations) decides to share in her husband’s aviation hobby and ends up trying to break a world record. The underdog scenario feels oddly fresh here, as does the very romantic (yet non-cloying) husband-wife relationship.
This is probably the least-heralded set on this list (the BN.com link doesn't even bother with a thumbnail of the packaging) but it may be the most fun of the bunch, too. Per the title, it collects three quick-and-dirty productions by the famed Gainsborough studio, films that are comparable to the motley, scrappy sibling of the Powell/Pressburger/Archers stuff (which itself often dipped into melodrama). These were the type of productions that, back then, were cranked out on recycled sets with semi-regularity (now it feels like films of this nature involve far more fanfare and Oscar buzz). The films in the set are ideal for people who like the pudding-thick plots of DOWNTON ABBEY or DRAGONWYK (or the Rafaelo Matarazzo Eclipse set for that matter).
THE MAN IN GREY – Black-hearted Margaret Lockwood plots to destroy her best friend (Phyllis Calvert). Lockwood can’t help it, she seems almost genetically indisposed toward destructive self-centeredness. James Mason swaggers in at the twenty minute mark, bleeding from a duel (at which he has killed a young boy who’d dared write a crummy limerick). Mason is a perfectly oily cad (as if dueling weren’t enough, he’s also involved in dog fights), all glowers and sneers. Lockwood smolders behind her scowl; her smiles are so rare, it’s obvious why men work so hard to provoke them. The penultimate scene is a woman being beaten to death with a fire poker yet THE MAN IN GREY still manages to end on a happy note. Is that melodramatic or what?
MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS – A DuMaurier-ian tale wherein a woman (Calvert again) has to choose between her desire to be a nun and her father’s wish for an arranged marriage to a rich vintner. The film is full of Theremin-tinged moments of psychological dread and goes rather bizarre places with its meek Madonna vs. insouciant whore split personality plot, building to a climax involving tastelessly costumed Gypsy bandits.
THE WICKED LADY – By the third film in the set, you already know that virtue and innocence will be rewarded with tragedy and heartbreak and cynical harlotry will prevail. Lockwood once again wears the black hat as the titular character, ruining another Pollyanna (Patricia Roc). After stealing her friend’s fiancé, Lockwood takes up literal highway robbery as a hobby, joining forces with – who else? – the nefarious James Mason. This is the most risqué – and best – of the bunch, full of innuendo and licentiousness one might usually expect from films imported from more exotic countries.“We’ll come to the gibbet soon enough,” he tells her. “Don’t lets race for it.” Oh, but she does, poisoning every relationship she has – in one case, literally.
Here you’ll find the protozoa of modern comedy. Downey’s the Captain Beefheart of filmmakers – fevered, discordant, and exhaustingly inventive. I prefer his kind of undisciplined experimenting to the academic rigors of more hallowed, canonized avant-garde artists. PUTNEY SWOPE is the notorious entry into the set, and probably deserving of its own extra-packed release, but Criterion does a service to the other films here by putting them on equal footing with SWOPE.
BABO 73 – Warhol regular Taylor Mead plays the President of the United States in the dystopian future year of 1973. The film opens with a religious leader driving around in a huge convertible, defiling a female hitchhiker, and then going to the government for absolution. Heavy-laden with wordplay-based humor – “Fascist gun in the west,” “United Status”, Digressional Committee – BABO is an interesting exercise, most notable for Mead’s insane/inspired turn as a president that seems distantly related to Steve Brule.
CHAFED ELBOWS – LA JETTE if it were made by Harmony Korine or PINK FLAMINGOS-era John Waters. Still pictures tell the story of a down-on-his-luck man who becomes pregnant, then becomes a painting, and … well, ELBOWS is a series of increasingly bizarre vignettes that zigzag across the line between appalling and humorous. Downey throws so many jokes out; some stick, some don’t. The spirit bleeds through, if not always the intent. The proto-MR. SHOW.
NO MORE EXCUSES – A collage of war stock footage, a Civil War soldier wandering through Central Park, a histrionic speech by the president of the Society for Indeceny to Naked Animals, Charley Giteau, a man and woman enacting a rape fantasy, and an ad for Preperation H. “I need this like I need underground movies”
PUTNEY SWOPE – Truth and soul. Opens with a hilarious death scene and its uphill from there. A lot of stuff gets called absurd; this really deserves the label. This is Downey’s magnum opus, a pandemonic laugh while civilization collapses. “I dream about you every night.” “That’s fine. Just don’t send me the laundry bill.”
TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT – This is Downey’s mutable thesis, his Trout Mask Replica, something he’s edited and reedited and renamed over the years. It’s radical editing has a hyperlink quality and I imagine is an approximation of what it’s like to rattle around inside Downey’s head for 50-odd minutes. TAOS is a series of out-of-context moments/punchlines (many involving Downey’s ex-wife, the very talented Elsie); these are home movies from another dimension, the most representative (and most confounding) film in the set. What I imagine Warhol’s films might have been if they were actually fun/entertaining.
Hard to further elaborate on what I've already covered here and here. BLACK SUN remains the standout but I'm also a huge fan of the very concise noir thriller INTIMIDATION and the completely bonkers depraved-youth-run-amockery of THE WARPED ONES. Anybody fond of any of the '60s-era cinematic New Waves would do well to check these films out.
[* To be fair, 2013 also marked a ridiculously banner year for multi-film releases on the mainline: Pierre Etaix, SHOAH, the Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman box, the 27-disc Zatoichi set, and the forthcoming Martin Scorsese World Cinema Project collection more than make up for the lack of Eclipse sets.]