New DVDs 7-9-2008

It’s a slow season for new releases, so I’ve been going back for a few things that fell through the cracks.  This week:  Thorold Dickinson’s “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” the second volume of “The Stan Laurel Collection” from Kino International and Paris’s Lobster Films, and another Chris Marker essay from Icarus, “Remebrance of Things to Come,” which includes a lovely short film by Yannick Bellon on Colette in her spiky old age.

In the meantime, thanks to Paul Fileri for the nice shout-out in “Film Comment.” Despite that curious lapse of taste, it’s an excellent issue, with Kent Jones on “Wall-E” (OK, I’ll admit it — it’s my favorite movie this summer, at least for its first forty, melancholic minutes) and Jonathan Rosenbaum ranking 26 Manoel de Oliveira features in precise order of importance. I can’t agree with Jonathan’s devaluation of “Francisca,” perhaps because it was the film that, back in 1981, introduced me to Oliveira — thanks to a prescient tribute to the man mounted all those years ago by Richard Pena at the Art Institute of Chicago. What has always intrigued me in Olivera is not so much his philosophy as the strongly foregrounded materialism that sets off the transcendentalism embedded in most of his fictions. “Francisca,” with its declamatory actors clomping around on overmiked wooden floors, is a prime example of his approach.

212 comments to New DVDs 7-9-2008

  • Kent Jones

    NS, I remember a story in David Niven’s autobiography about Edmund Goulding’s funeral. Apparently he was a large man, with a sense of humor. So he specified in his will that he be buried at the top of a hill covered with pine needles, and that his pall-bearers be Niven, thin as a reed and not exactly muscle-bound, Herbert Marshall (who had a wooden leg), and 4 other men with various infirmities. I’m not sure how consistent Goulding was, but he did make NIGHTMARE ALLEY and CLAUDIA.

  • nicolas saada

    And the first fifteen minutes of THE RAZOR’S EDGE are very “Oliveira”. You should watch this again Kent.

  • Kent Jones

    Yes, that is pretty good. As opposed to the John Byrum remake. I remember liking Bill Murray, but wow, what a terrible movie.

  • Junko Yasutani

    Somebody said Mizoguchi “loved” William Wyler movies. This isn’t true. Mizoguchi like COUNSELLOR AT LAW a lot, some 1930s Wyler movies. He didn’t like post WWII William Wyler movies, didn’t want to meet him at Venice Festival because of disappointment.

  • Junko Yasutani

    “I`d give Lewin`s “The Fying Dutchman” a second look way before I`d consider the same for Mankiewicz “The Barefoot Contessa”– though this Lewin does take a high tolerance for Wagnerian romantic flight and fantasy.”

    PANDORA AND FLYING DUTCHMAN is too heavy for flight, does not sore for me. Color is heavy, framing is tight, no space, the movie is thick.

    BAREFOOT CONTESSA is light, woman becomes prisoner of fairy tale like someone else wrote. She becomes corpse statue, grey, dead.

    Powerful men appear in her life that she resists and when she’s alive whether in sun light or darkness there’s warmth.

    Mankewicz folds actors into mise-en-scene so their body movements and voice tone is part of whole fabric.

    But I don’t understand subtle Mankiewicz dialog so well, so movier must be better for native Enghlish speaker.

  • Brian Dauth

    Junko: You are exactly right about how Mankiewicz folds gesture and vocal performance into his mise en scene. He is one of the masters at this. You not being able to completely grasp Mankiewicz’s dialogue may have given you an edge in seeing the beauty and subtlety of the other aspects of his mise en scene. I think English-speaking critics can often be distracted by his language and not understand it as part of his mise en scene.

  • Kent Jones

    Brian, you might be onto something there. Mankiewicz has never been my favorite filmmaker, and I really don’t like some of his films. But he does have a fine eye for the way people of a certain class position themselves – the staircase in ALL ABOUT EVE comes to mind, or Kirk Douglas at the hearth in LETTER TO THREE WIVES, or Douglas and Darnell in the kitchen. And then there’s PEOPLE WILL TALK, such an odd, wonderful movie. There are so many speeches and declamations in that one, made at the drop of a hat.I would guess that he stuck pretty close to the source material, because it feels so different from his other work. And I really love Finlay Currie’s lengthy, O. Henry monologue to the faculty at the end.

    I met him a couple of times. I remember that he was looking for a copy of one of his movies – I think it was THE QUIET AMERICAN – and I made him a tape. I asked him how it was. “Terrible! Absolutely terrible! Whoever the hell made that copy should be shot!” I must have had a glint of shame in my eyes, because he patted me on the shoulder and said, “It’s not YOUR fault, though. You’re a good kid.” He passed away a few months later.

  • jbryant

    The first Mankiewicz I ever saw was A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, and I absolutely loved it. I recorded it off of TV and watched it innumerable times. And while I relished the sharp dialogue, I was equally taken with many visual and aural touches (it probably also helped that I was hopelessly smitten with Linda Darnell). Though I enjoyed several of his films, I think I bought into the “party line” about him until the last few years, when I discovered THE QUIET AMERICAN and CLEOPATRA and rediscovered THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR and HOUSE OF STRANGERS, among others (and I’m looking forward to fresh looks at just about everything else).

  • Brian Dauth

    Kent: Your sentence: “There are so many speeches and declamations in that one, made at the drop of a hat” made me think of musicals where people break into song and/or dance at the drop of a hat and no one seems to mind. I think that Mankiewicz’s dedication to articulate characters gets on people’s nerves. Everyone loves “articulate” images and mise en scene, but somehow articulate dialogue is taken as an indication that there must be something lacking in the visuals that the clever wordplay is trying to compensate for.

    jbryant: I fell in love with ALL ABOUT EVE (first viewed because it was a Bette Davis movie). Mankiewicz joined Hitchcock, Wilder, Wyler, Huston, Capra, Antonioni, Bergman, Lean as the first cadre of directors whose films I watched simply because they had made them. They were the auteurs I cut my cinematic teeth on.

    Like you, I accepted the party line that while JLM was deficient visually, he wrote well and had a talent for directing actors. Wilder was a much bigger favorite at that time (and for years to come). But Mankiewicz consistently gave me pleasure, so I continued to watch and never bad-mouthed him.

    When I began to know more cinephiles, I discovered just how low Mankiewicz’s reputation was. In order to mount a cogent defense, I began to examine JLM’s films with greater rigor, and lo and behold there was a visual stylist there whom all along I had missed.

    Now, JLM was no florid melodramatist with an opulent visual style. But neither was he a plain craftsman. Space was prized as where performances were given (in his films, characters are always shown to be watching other characters perform for them). I realized that for Mankiewicz, space was the determiner of word and gesture. Unlike almost every other great director, you cannot turn off the sound in a Mankiewicz picture and glory in the image alone. Mankiewicz demands that his audience simultaneously watch and listen to his movies. Image, word, and performance are an interlocking trinity where each component relies on the support and effectiveness of the other two to make the entire aesthetic contraption work (this is why films that JLM scripted and/or produced can be such odd ducks. Mankiewicz needed to finish the job of directing that he began when he wrote/revised the screenplay. Only Cukor, Borzage, and Lang [three auteurs of equal stature to Mankiewicz] were able to re-direct Mankiewicz).

    But in an important (and for me, sad) way, Mankiewiczean cinema turned out to be a dead end. Location shooting, naturalistic performing styles, “real sounding” dialogue triumphed in American filmmaking. Even when he made a Western, the prison cells of THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN… had a drawing-room air about them. People in Mankiewicz movies think on screen; in films of more recent vintage it is all about being distressed, anguished or dozens of other visceral emotions that the screen is now thought to be the perfect home for. If Mankiewicz were a young filmmaker today, I would not be at all surprised if he went in for animation where word and image sometimes display that old Mankiewiczean unity.

    As for meeting the great man, I was in his presence twice, both times at MoMA. He presented THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR at a Directors Guild tribute to him (he served with honor as its President during the McCarthy era). The other event was the Academy’s evening celebrating his body of work with a lifetime membership (somehow the AFI, AMMI, and Lincoln Center never got around to paying tribute. Mankiewicz’s centenary next year will provide opportunities to make up for past lapses).

    My lover at the time and I picked out seats up front, and it turned out that Mankiewicz, his wife, Hume Cronyn, and Jessica Tandy were seated in front of us. After the clips and the speeches, Mankiewicz got up and spoke a little, and when he mentioned Claudette Colbert not being able to play Margo Channing, Colbert herself jumped up not two seats away (how she had sat down without my noticing I still haven’t figured out) and cried: “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry.” She was in full Claudette mode, absolutely fabulous, and never was a queer boy so happy.

  • Kent Jones

    Brian, just to be clear, I meant it as a compliment. I love the speechifying in PEOPLE WILL TALK, and I find it moving.

    Despite some reservations, Godard was an early and passionate admirer of Mankiewicz: “After SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT, the recent release in Paris of THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and HOUSE OF STRANGERS suffices to establish Joseph Mankiewicz as one of the most brilliant of American directors.”

  • Brian Dauth

    Kent: I should have been clearer. I did realize that it was a compliment. In fact, it allowed for something to click in my head that had not done so before: somehow, stylized speech as song is acceptable, but aphoristic dialogue is not. I had never before had the insight that Mankiewicz’s speeches can be experienced as occurring “at the drop of a hat.” It was helpful. Thank you.

    I see Mankiewicz’s influence in Godard, Rohmer, and Rivette (though Rivette would later turn against JLM). Ciment is also a defender. He was the first writer I found that shared my sense of Mankiewicz as a filmmaker of systems and not just individuals. Power and its exercise/abuse is under constant examination in Mankiewicz’s films.

    I have always wondered, however, why the French love of Mankiewicz did not survive auteurism’s transatlantic crossing to America. They are still publishing major tomes on Mankiewicz in France.

    Knowing my love for Mankiewicz, Bill Krohn shared with me the story that when Fred Jung would run into Serge Daney, no matter what phase Cahiers criticism was going through, Jung would always inquire: “Mais, aimez-vous encore…Mankiewicz?” If I were going to be buried, it would be my epitath.

  • nicolas saada

    now, not liking BAREFOOT CONTESSA and SLEUTH does not mean not liking Manckiewicz. It’s what I like in Manckiewicz major films (LETTER, FIVE FINGERS, HOUSE OF STRaNGERS, MUIR, PEOPLE, CLEOPATRA) that is for me lacking in these two films: the vitality, the sudden change of tones, the elegance and the exraordinary vigour. I regard BAREFOOT as a flawed classic, with beautiful moments, and I never liked SLEUTH although it has some of the most brilliant opening credits and scene.o