New DVDs: Criterion Ophuls

The Criterion Collection release of three masterworks by Max Ophuls — “La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir” and “Madame de . . . ” — is very welcome, although the quality of the transfers falls just short enough to frustrate the pickiest amongst us. As you can see from the frame grab above, the tonal range is a is a tad too narrow, resulting in a slightly dull image that doesn’t pull the viewer into the Ophulsian vortex in the way it should. But it seems churlish to complain, given how long it has taken for these vital films to make it to home video in any watchable form. Overall, they seem to me a solid if not dramatic improvement over the British Second Sight discs, but there are commenters here much more technically savvy than I am, and I look forward to their observations (hello, David Hare!).

I also have a few words in the New York Times about Fox Home Entertainment’s second volume of horror films, which includes the very stylish “Chandu the Magician” (1932) by William Cameron Menzies (with comedy relief directed by Marcel Varnel), an eye-pleasing transfer of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first feature, the gothic thriller “Dragonwyck” (1946), and the minor “Dr. Renault’s Secret” (1942) from Harry Lachman. Lachman is also (too well?) represented in the fifth and final volume of Fox’s Charlie Chan series, also out today.

Jean-Luc Godard has released his first film since 2006, “Une Catastrophe” — a one-minute montage on themes of love and death that is serving as the trailer for this year’s Viennale. It’s viewable online here.

141 comments to New DVDs: Criterion Ophuls

  • Kent Jones

    Scott, if I remember correctly, it’s Nietszche.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I am not sure whether Brian’s “riff” is serious or in jest, but assuming it is the former, I’d like to ask what he and David think they mean when they say that TCAT is a film “about” Cary Grant (or Cary Grant playing Cary Grant, which comes to the same thing). Again this word “about” bothers me a lot.What does it actually mean? Couldn’t one argue that most any movie is “about” his star or stars? Is there any movie with Cary Grant that couldn’t be described as being “about” Grant? Is there any movie that couldn’t be described as being about its star? But then, if this is the case, isn’t this word, “about” ultimately meaningless? The statement (the film is about its star) is “clever” — although by now commonplace — but it really tells us nothing about what the film really is “about” — assuming it is about anything.

    Actually I would really appreciate it if critics and film buffs stopped using the phrase “the film is about…” For one thing, a film is not “about” — it just is. Let’s try to express what it is and why it moves us. What it is “about” is irrelevant.

  • Kent Jones

    I don’t know, Jean-Pierre. After all, isn’t TO CATCH A THIEF about two hours long? As opposed to STAGECOACH, for instance, which is about an hour and a half.

  • joe

    it is expresses fact. it is about expresses your personal views on the film outside those facts, your “reading” per say, or your feelings in general. so maybe “about” is hedging your bets a tad, but i don’t think so. it seems alright.

  • Adam

    I believe Ebert says, “A movie is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.”

  • nicolas saada

    “Scott, if I remember correctly, it’s Nietszche.” who also co-wrote CONAN with John Milius. Just kidding…

    Jean-Pierre, the “about” thing is, I believe, a way of expressing one’s inner, personal relationship to a movie. I would certainly agree with you about the “it is” school, but I believe it can live alongside the “it’s about” feeling.
    There are times when films that seem to me poorly directed, staged or performed can get away with it because of the “it’s about” theory. I remember arguing with someone about a really bad film by Jess Franco and the conversation ending with the other guy saying “Nic, it’s a film about deception”, which explained for the bad cinematography, the stilted dialogues and the stupid performances.
    Bit the films discussed in this thread so far range from the very good to the exceptional. This granted, that leaves a lot of space for the “it’s about”. TCAT : I think that David and Brian meant that this film might be one of the few in Hitchcock’s career where he seems obsessed with his male star in an uncanny way. But mind you, he does incredible things with Grace Kelly. The shots of her profile at the table in the beginning of the film.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, I would like to ask you what you mean by “about” when you say that all movies are “about theater.” Does it mean that “theater” is the subject-matter of all movies? Or that every movie is in some way a meditation on the theater? Or something else? Or all of the above?”

    I assume Rivette was suggesting all of the above. Like his famous/notorious “the evidence is there on the screen” statement (and, I guess, his defence of SHOWGIRLS), Rivette’s claim that all films are about theatre shouldn’t be taken too literally; it’s clearly intended as a provocation. Truthfully, not all films are ‘about theatre’. But it’s surprising just how many of them are.

  • Brad, would it be fair to say that you intend ‘theatre’ as a metaphor for something like: ‘playing a role on the social/public stage’? That’s how I make sense of most of your examples. There have been specific moments when a film has opened up to me when I happened to hit upon this theatrical metaphor: Scorsese’s AGE OF INNOCENCE, for instance, and especially THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA as described by Jacques Lourcelles: he takes the various mileux of that film as united and governed by the theatrical metaphor. But theatre is only one dramatic/comic metaphor amoing a thousand to assist in our understanding of films; each film calls up its own best metaphor.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, would it be fair to say that you intend ‘theatre’ as a metaphor for something like: ‘playing a role on the social/public stage’? That’s how I make sense of most of your examples. There have been specific moments when a film has opened up to me when I happened to hit upon this theatrical metaphor: Scorsese’s AGE OF INNOCENCE, for instance, and especially THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA as described by Jacques Lourcelles: he takes the various mileux of that film as united and governed by the theatrical metaphor. But theatre is only one dramatic/comic metaphor amoing a thousand to assist in our understanding of films; each film calls up its own best metaphor.”

    Yes, of course. Just because you can see all (or most) films as being ‘about theatre’ doesn’t mean that you can’t also see them as being ‘about’ something else entirely.

    Rivette’s phrase ‘about theatre’ is deliberately vague, and open to all kinds of interpretations (‘playing a role on the social/public stage’ being just one of them) – which is what makes it so fascinatingly suggestive.

  • Kent Jones

    I always took Rivette’s comment about “the evidence up there on the screen” as a form of youthful boosterism, and it was quite effective. It set up an opposition between those who looked at Hawks and saw something forceful and beautiful and those who saw nothing but ordinary entertainment. Unfortunately, there’s now a lot of film criticism that seems to operate consistently from just this kind of provocation, as Brad puts it (I’m thinking of a certain New York critic, who keeps getting more and more angrily self-righteous). All present company excepted.

    I like what Nicolas and Adrian and Brad are saying. Because looking at a film through a new framework, provided that the framework isn’t too restrictive, is always a good thing. I guess the point is that there’s never a last, definitive word. There’s always something else to discover. In TCAT, there really is something magical about not just Cary Grant’s beauty, but his knowledge of his own beauty and the way he carries it so gracefully, and Hitchcock’s responsiveness to this. There’s also something mesmerizing about the way he draws us into the surroundings.

  • Kent Jones

    Rivette really does love SHOWGIRLS, by the way. When I met him, he couldn’t stop talking about it. It’s not a provocation. It’s for real.

  • dm494

    Scott, I think THE TRAGIC MUSE may have gone out of print–that’s how little read it is.

    Gilberto Perez’s analysis of the contrast between film’s narrative and dramatic modes seems pertinent to the discussion here.

    Jean-Pierre, I’d say that the very theatrical RAISING CAIN is “about” John Lithgow.

  • Carlye

    Kent–

    An “angrily self-righteous” New York film critic? Which one? They all seem “angrily self-righteous” these days. Initials please. Share!

  • nicolas saada

    “ivette really does love SHOWGIRLS, by the way”. It’s a remake of ALL ABOUT EVE, that’s why !
    dm494, I would say, without being at all derogatory, that every De Palma film is about De Palma. Which makes them in most ways fascinating, independantly from what you think of them (that’s the “about” feeling jean-pierre).
    TCAT: did anyone notice how MC Carey built the whole french episode of AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER on Cary Grant in the Hitchcock film. As we all know, Hithcock provided Mc Carey with some footage from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and it might have been the start of Mc Carey’s particular attention to Hitchcock films. I thinks the way Cary Grant talks to “janou” in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER is similar to how he talks to his cook in TCAT.
    Anyone also struck by the connections between TCAT and the Bond films ? Remember that Saltzman originally wanted Cary Grant to play the part.

  • Kent Jones

    NS – doesn’t he also talk that way to his ex-mother-in-law in THE PHIADELPHIA STORY? I think it’s one of his registers.

    It was in that Bonnaud interview where Rivette started raving about SHOWGIRLS, and where he also exclaimed his disappointment with re-viewing Mankiewicz films. Prompting a new definition of mise-en-scène: “that which is lacking from the films of Mankiewicz.” Once a polemicist, always a polemicist.

  • joe

    adam- i believe he said that about the departed, but not all films. and i don’t know how you rationalize that statement when speaking of something like triumph of the will, or birth of a nation. a movies themes, messages, meaning, whatever you’d like to call them, are one essential piece of the puzzle. certainly it can apply to most films, but i don’t think it holds true across the board.

  • Brian Dauth

    My use of the phrase “xxx film is about . . . ” is an attempt to capture in rational discourse what has presented itself to me as a moment of aesthetic understanding. The problem is that the sphere of aesthetic understanding does not ever neatly (or even approximately) map onto the sphere of potential rational discourse regarding what has just been aesthetically understood.

    For example, I saw THE GODFATHER PART II this weekend at Film Forum, and I had the realization that the movie is about chairs. Now, I am cognizant of both the inadequacy of this statement as well as its utility as an aesthetic suggestion of where meaning might arise (even though any attempt to render such meaning statable will be deferred).

    For me, any engagement with a work of art that gives rise to an aesthetic object will always call forth from me the desire to understand it and then make a statement about that understanding. But I have also discovered that this call to utterance is always subverted by the very aesthetic object that inspired it in the first place. The act of understanding that TG PART II is about chairs or that TCAT is about Cary Grant performing Cary Grant evokes the release of interminable other “xxx is about” understandings that defer any concretization of my own “xxx is about” understanding.

    In this fashion, Nicolas’s comment about Grace Kelly in profile is another statement of what TCAT is about. If I move to engage Nicolas’ observation, I must loosen my grip on my own understanding. This vacillation is facilitated by the aesthetic object continuously throwing off more and more “xxx is about” moments that grab my attention as I move from one aesthetic understanding to the next.

  • Brian Dauth

    Nicolas: I never thought about SHOWGIRLS as a remake of ALL ABOUT EVE, but Rivette in anterview reounced his former admiration for Mankiewicz (though I have always felt that JLM’s influence could be felt in Rivette’s work).

  • Brad Stevens

    “Rivette really does love SHOWGIRLS, by the way. When I met him, he couldn’t stop talking about it.”

    Do you recall anything specific he said about it? I haven’t seen the film since it came out, and am actually quite eager to watch it again to see if it stands up as a Rivettian text.

    I seem to recall that Rivette also liked STARSHIP TROOPERS.

  • So “Showgirls” is “All About Eve,” plus mise en scene. Well, that’s a definition.

  • Kent Jones

    In the interview, he says he showed ALL ABOUT EVE to Juliet Berto, and that they were both disappointed. Just as disappointed by Minnelli. It’s a funny interview, especially when he starts going off on Haneke, John Woo and Cameron.

    Brad, I seem to remember that he pretty much echoed what he said in the interview: that it was the most passionate American film he’d seen in years, that it was obviously the work of Verhoeven and not Eszterhas, that it was a pure expression of surviving in a harsh world, that Elizabeth Berkeley was amazing. He liked STARSHIP TROOPERS too, but not as much as SHOWGIRLS.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Based on a number of responses to my naive question Re: “about,” I think it’s not unreasonable to posit that a film, any film, is, at least potentially, “about” a multitude,indeed a near-infinity of things depending on the viewer’s response to said film. So that the singling out of any one of those things that the film is suposed to be about tends to exclude all the others, thereby disqualifying itself from any true relevance. “Rational discourse” — to quote Brian — is endangered rather than helped by the selective arbitrariness of the proposition “the filmis about…”

    By the way (and for what it’s worth) I don’t even know how to say “the film is about….” in my own language. There are ways to say it but they sound clumsy and unconvincing, at least to me. How do you put it, Nicolas? How does Rivette put it? I forgot…

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: First, there is nothing naive about your question. It lies at the heart of any aesthetic consideration of movies (if movies are considered capable of being aesthetic objects).

    You are right that rational discourse is endangered when it tries to render in statable form aesthetic understanding (a nonrational discourse). Every selection excludes others, which seem to multiply at the moment of selection.

    But fascinating to me is that the urge to make these selections (and then communicate about them) persists and seems to be a component of the aesthetic object/experience itself. Why do people not just stop with the positivistic “a film is” fomulation?

    They could list a movie’s running time; number of shots; use of color; average length of shot duration; etc. Once such information was catalogued and confirmed, there would be no need to revisit a film since what “a film is” has been established and verified. A later encounter would serve the same purpose as that of a person who revisits a particular street in order to see if a remembered grocery store or restaurant is still in business.

    But it seems that such positivistic delineations are just not enough. People do revisit films, and they do revise their understandings. So while the positivisitic approach of “a film is” can be an element of aesthetic understanding, it does not exhaust the sphere.

  • nicolas saada

    Jean-Pierre, I’ll try to be as clear as possible: let’s say that the “about” thing often comes up to me when I watch a film for a second or third time, especially a film that I might not have liked at first hand. Revisiting is a good expression, to quote Brian. I would say that I what I look at at first is direction, acting, framing, composition. It’s what makes me like the film or not.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian: the formulation “a film is” is in no way “positivistic” in my mind (I have learned that being called a positivist is only slightly less derogatory than being called a child molester). “A film is” rejects the arbitrary selection of one aspect, or component, of the film and implies the existence of a multitude of aspects instead. A film is obviously much more than the cataloguing you suggest as a proposed positivistic approach. “The film is,” unlike “the film is about…” allows access to the almost countless things the film is likely to be simultaneously “about.” Almost countless especially considering the ambiguously loose use of the adverb “about” that has appeared in recent years, or decades. (There’s an interesting Usage Note on the subject at the end of the “about” entry in the “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,” Fourth Edition).

  • A w, that’s no fair, Carlye, asking Kent to call out his anonymous “angrily self-righteous” critic….

  • Kent Jones

    Very funny.

  • Scott

    Kent Jones: Thanks, I had a feeling it was Nietszche (since a number of reviews I read prior to seeing the film talked about Nietszche and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” being its two big literary references), but somehow it didn’t sound like him. I guess I have to brush up on my German philosophy?

    dm494: Yes, it is a real shame that “The Tragic Muse” is out of print. I’ve always felt it was a key James text, and its exploration of the artist’s success at the expense of personal fulfillment (and, indeed, its depiction of artistic achievement as a kind of cannibalization of the soul) seems to me a very personal one. Of all the novels that appear around the decade before James’s heralded late period, the masterful “What Maisie Knew” is probably the best, but “The Tragic Muse” isn’t far behind, and well worth seeking out for those unfamiliar with it.

  • dm494

    Scott, if memory serves, Edmund Wilson thought THE TRAGIC MUSE an important James novel, not least because the social world hasn’t been purged from it, as it has in the late work. Interesting that you mention WHAT MAISIE KNEW. I haven’t read it, but I know it’s one of the “middle period” novels where James experiments with dramatic techniques he’d picked up from his disastrous foray into the stage–an attempt to make the novel theatrical.

    Nicolas, just to clarify: to me RAISING CAIN works as a showcase for John Lithgow, whose flamboyant theatricality makes him the paradigmatic De Palma actor. So in being “about” Lithgow the actor, the film winds up being in effect “about” De Palma as well. (Just a long-winded way of saying that ultimately I agree with you.)

  • “The Tragic Muse” is downloadable here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20085.

  • Kent Jones

    dm, that’s in “The Ambiguity of Henry James, collected in THE TRIPLE THINKERS. Wilson is divided on THE TRAGIC MUSE, applauding its grasp of social realities (in THE BOSTONIANS and THE PRINCESS CASSAMASSIMA as well) but finding it only half a great novel.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, I seem to remember that he pretty much echoed what he said in the interview: that it was the most passionate American film he’d seen in years, that it was obviously the work of Verhoeven and not Eszterhas, that it was a pure expression of surviving in a harsh world, that Elizabeth Berkeley was amazing. He liked STARSHIP TROOPERS too, but not as much as SHOWGIRLS.”

    Whenever a great director expresses admiration for a film – perhaps especially for a film that has a poor critical reputation – I tend to assume the film has a thematic or stylistic connection with that director’s work (PARADISE ALLEY, for example, makes much more sense as a Leos Carax film than it does as part of Sylvester Stallone’s oeuvre). But logically there’s no real reason why this should be the case. I can kind of see how SHOWGIRLS might contain Rivettian traces (CELINE AND JULIE GO STRIPPING?) – but STARSHIP TROOPERS!!!!

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I would say that I what I look at at first is direction, acting, framing, composition. It’s what makes me like the film or not.’

    Nicholas, this is true for me too, especially when I’m watching the foreign film because I can miss the nuance of language.

    Also I have to pay more attention to actor’s face and voice tone and body to understand. Seeing the actor this way makes it more part of the mise-en-scene. Sometimes actor is main part of mise-en-scene for director like Cukor.

    In Japanese movies there’s the different acting tradition from Western movies, so seems artificial to some Western viewers. For example, small gesture is important. I wish I could write more but no time!

  • Scott

    LOL, how did we go from Ophuls to Henry James? Anyway, dm494, you really must read “What Maisie Knew”, a book I firmly believe should be placed very near the top of the James canon. And you know who else is a big fan? David Cronenberg, whom, like Desplechin, is a highly literary filmmaker and who will, as a matter of fact, be publishing his first novel next year. Anyway, a while back, Salon asked a bunch of artists to talk about their favorite music, books, films of 2007. This is what Cronenberg had to say:

    “I read a Henry James novel published in 1897 called “What Maisie Knew,” about a child of divorce who bounces back and forth between her soon-remarried parents like a tennis ball. The relationship of James’ language to the psychology of his characters and then to their actions is dense and fascinating and pleasurable. It is also a very emotionally charged story, something you almost don’t notice until it flattens you. The experience of reading the book was enhanced by the fact that I was reading an edition published in 1947 that came from my father’s library. I loved it.”

    http://www.salon.com/books/awards/2007/12/13/book_week_picks/index2.html

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: Your nabe must be tough if positivist is next door to child molester. Even here on Third Avenue in the Bronx there is greater separation.

    I would argue that access to “the almost countless things the film is likely to be simultaneously ‘about’” is engendered only after an initial “the film is about” utterance is made.

    Approaching the materiality of a work of art aesthetically is what gives rise a) to the aesthetic object; and subsequently b) aesthetic understanding. It is the originary attempt at signifier formation and meaning determination that causes the aesthetic object to begin to spew forth signifiers and meanings in such abundance.

    The first “the film is about” may be arbitrary, but its vital quality is its necessity. Maybe the distinction between auteurs and non-auteurs can be understood as a difference between directors who make works of art capable of generating aesthetic understanding when approached aesthetically and those who do not.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian: the first line of your third paragraph makes no sense to me. I would have thought that it’s the aesthetic object (let’s call it “the movie”) that gives rise to the aesthetical approach, not the other way round. Oh, maybe you mean that there is no aesthetic object until it has been approached aesthetically? Before it has been “approached” it doesn’t really exist? It’s just a lump of celluloid, or tape, or whatever? It all reminds me of that tree crashing silently in the forest where there’s no one to hear it.

    I just don’t see how “the film is about” has to be a necessity. I never ask myself what a film is “about.” Does that mean that I am incapable of aesthetic understanding? Come to think of it, that might be the case. Woe is me!

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘maybe you mean that there is no aesthetic object until it has been approached aesthetically? Before it has been “approached” it doesn’t really exist? It’s just a lump of celluloid, or tape, or whatever?’

    I can understand what Brian means I think. The toilet urinal becomes aesthetic when R. Mutt puts it in the gallery, seeing it there it becomes ‘the fountain’ because it’s approached aesthetically.

    Wasn’t it the case that commercial movies was not seen as art by most people at one time? For example, PSYCHO was just the horror movie, nothing else, scary like roller coaster ride. But when cinephile sees it PSYCHO has aesthetic appreciation. Maybe this is what Brian is thinking about.

    But I don’t understand what it means, ‘the film is about’. Always the film is about more than one thing for me.

  • “how did we go from Ophuls to Henry James?”

    Long, windy passages; women who reject the world; conspiracy in the wings; characters who recreate and reimagine the world rather than look at it head-on. Though watching Boy last week, I wondered if it was inspired by What Maisie Knew. Could Oshima have been a James fan?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Could Oshima have been a James fan?’

    I don’t know, could have been, but Mark Twain is the more popular American novelist than Henry James in Japan. I also like Mark Twain more. To me BOY is the Japanese story more than Western influence.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Junko, no urinal was ever a work of art before or after Duchamp’s delightful joke. R. Mutt opened the door to what later became the concept that anything the “artist” declares is a work of art IS a work of art — with amusing wretched results I won’t go into.

    PSYCHO was a work of art from the moment it appeared, no matter how few people were ready to accept it as such. This applies to any number of movies we now love and admire. We never needed anybody to write an “R. Mutt” signature on them to accept them (although it’s possible that some people did need some such kind of imprimatur.)

    I first saw KISS ME DEADLY when I was maybe 20 or 21 (the year after its release) — I immediately knew it was a major work of art (although how major it took me decades to really realize). No one in the USA had payed the slightest attention to the film when it came out in 1955. I won’t go into the reason for that blindness, just, I didn’t need any “R.Mutt” signature to tell me that this movie was a masterpiece of the first order — which no urinal, no matter how signed, could ever be.

  • Brian Dauth

    Junko and Jean-Pierre: I am working on a reply to your posts, but my work suddenly increased substantially. I will get it to you as soon as I can.