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New DVDs 8-5-2008

This week in my New York Times column I contemplate the casual pleasures of Enzo Castellari’s 1978 “The Inglorious Bastards,” an enterprising Italian knock-off of “The Dirty Dozen” that Quentin Tarantino intends to remake (though very loosely, if the script purloined by New York Magazine is an authentic one). The popular Italian cinema of the 60s and 70s has long been overshadowed by the many distinguished art house films that came out of that country during the same tumultuous period, but there also seems to be much of value to be uncovered here. After all, the Italians raised the only real challenge to Hollywood’s dominance of popular entertainment (in the west, at least) since the French studios were crushed by World War I — and for that alone, you’ve got to love them.

41 comments to New DVDs 8-5-2008

  • Alex Hicks

    An interesting companion piece to Enzo Castellari’s 1978 “The Inglorious Bastards,” and and “The Dirty Dozen” might be José Luis Merino’s “Comando al Infierno” (1969), also know as “7 Eroiche Carogne,” “Hell Commandos,” and “Seven Commandos from Hell.” This is, I condifently hazard, a less “enterprising Italian knock-off of ‘The Dirty Dozen’” than DK introduces. In fact, “Seven Commandos from Hell” is so remarkably dreadful – loutish, leering and logic defying, despite the commanding Thespian contributions of lead Guy Madison– that it can be strongly recommended to any who can access a copy as a gas, laughing gas. What’s more, it is the source of a question that haunts all viewers of the film whom I know (all 1970-ish Peace Corps volunteers with the good luck to be simultaneously in a Venezuelan pueblo where it was being shown), namely the mind boggling puzzler “Why didn’t they shoot the dogs?” (sent back to their German master’s by the ingenious commandoes –with ticking potato-smasher hand grenades in their mouths).

    In a more serious vein, “Seven Commandos” suggest the hypothesis that 1960s and 1970s Italian imitators of foreign cinematic models had a steep learning to master before they could pose any even briefly “real challenge to Hollywood’s dominance of popular entertainment.”

  • Alex Hicks

    Ugh!. ..”condifently” (sic., “confidently”).

  • Julien Lapointe

    The Inglorious Bastards no doubt deserves critical attention, and is all the more timely given the anticipated Tarantino remake, but I couldn’t help but notice that the Andre Techine DVD releases barely got a mention. Does anyone want to weigh in on Techine? For starters, I’d say that Strayed and Witnesses, two of his most recent films, may also have been among his most accomplished. And while “understated melodrama” is an intriguing concept, I’m not sure it does either of these films justice: Strayed was anything but understated, and Witnesses so un-classical in its narration that I’d hesitate to call it a melodrama (actually, I’d be tempted to say the same about many another Techine film).
    I’ve also always been sorry to notice that while Techine is justly celebrated in the North American critical community, among English-speaking audiences in general he’s all but neglected — though maybe that’s the fate of foreign language cinema at large.

  • joe

    sounds like kill bill meets saving private ryan, of course with lots of Nazi’s dying, so I’m sure it will make loads.

  • Julien Lapointe

    Another quick thought:

    “At first they have no leader, though one emerges: the men naturally gravitate toward the highest-ranking officer in the group, Lt. Robert Yeager (played by the Swedish actor Bo Svenson). The suggestion that even the most dedicated anarchists flock to charismatic authority figures may be Mr. Castellari’s most subversive observation.”

    Anyone who’s read Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso 1999) will know that anarchists have a long history of being derided, maligned, stereotyped and dismissed at the movies… so I’m not sure if a film casting them as vaguely hypocritical counts as “subversive” (and “subversive” of what exactly… I’m tempted to add and ask). Cynical, misanthropic or politically defeatist sounds closer to the mark; then again, I have yet to see the film (and I am curious to catch up with it), so it’s hardly my place to judge.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘anarchists have a long history of being derided, maligned, stereotyped and dismissed at the movies… so I’m not sure if a film casting them as vaguely hypocritical counts as “subversive” (and “subversive” of what exactly… I’m tempted to add and ask). Cynical, misanthropic or politically defeatist sounds closer to the mark’

    Yes, anarchist in most movies is the’soft target’ from authoritarian left and capitalist right. There is the good film about Osugi Sakae Japanese anarchist Erosu purasu Gyakusatsu. I haven’t read Richard Porton’s book, sounds interesting.

  • Kent Jones

    Julien, I know Téchiné’s films very well and I have to say that I was disapppointed by CHANGING TIMES and THE WITNESSES, first of all because I didn’t think they looked very good (whereas his best films are quite beautiful), and secondly because the breathlessness of the pace seemed like an affectation, while it seems organic to the earlier movies. STRAYED (a terrible English title, sounds like SPAYED – THE LOST ONES would have been better) is ravishing to look at, shot by Agnès Godard, but I think Emmanuelle Béart has been more or less immobilized by cosmetic surgery. There are so many good Téchiné films, but I think the best are MA SAISON PREFEREE and LES VOLEURS. I’m also partial to LOIN.

  • Brian

    Hasn’t Tarantino denied that his film is a “remake” of the Castellari? I’m pretty sure he just borrowed (stole) the title.

  • Mathieu Ricordi

    Kent and Julien,
    New Millenium Techine has dissapointed me, but perhaps this is a reaction to how high he set the bar in the 90s. I’m fond of all the films during this period, but I truly beleive “Les Voleurs” is not only his masterpiece, but one of the greatest French films post war. I know some will find me a tad extreme, but consider: the ferocious encounters between the characters, the haunting ending with the child’s fateful choice (concluded by the cheb mami song that was used when two characters could not resolve an argument over the role of money in people’s lives and so gave in to apathy, much like many of the films tragic personages), the beautiful deception of the film’s title which makes one beleive is will be all about heists, but is actually about desperate characters trying to steal moments of vulnerability and emotion from one another, Techine’s entrancing dolly toward’s Jimmy’s back by the river bank, as he contemplates his life’s choices and his sister’s near suicide (as assertive an example of the moving camera as moral choice as I’ve seen).
    I could go on and on about this amazing film which I never feel has gotten its due. Perhaps Techine, like Pialat (another French master), wasn’t part of any “wave” and so his films, no matter how much they are praised, will never be quite as revered as certain other French directors. I could be wrong, just blowing smoke, but it does seem to me like “Les Voleurs” didn’t make many (if any) 90s lists, and to me its top 5 at the very least.

  • Stephen Cone

    Kent, agreed that those are his best. LES VOLEURS absolutely blew me away the first time I saw it and I eagerly await an eventual Region 1 DVD release of some sort. Have you caught word of that happening?

    I have to disagree with you on CHANGING TIMES, which felt something like a return to form to me, but, like you, found myself quite disappointed in STRAYED and THE WITNESSES.

    I’ve also recently caught up with SCENE OF THE CRIME, which I loved, and RENDEZ-VOUS, which is one odd duck of a movie and I was alternately digging and annoyed by.

    Was LOIN the one that was shot on video? How does it look?

  • Stephen Cone

    Apologies for some funky grammar in that last post. Moved too fast.

  • Julien, I just wrote about Techine in connection with Lionsgate’s Catherine Deneuve set a couple of months ago, and didn’t see the need to return to him so soon, particularly since this box duplicates some of the same content. I’ve found his recent films to be alternately pompous and campy. And I do think it is safe to say that, in the fashonably radicalized context of 70s Italian politics, it is subversive into suggest that anarchists are ultimately prey to the same conformist impulses as anyone else. You might want to hold back on commenting on films you haven’t seen, which appears to be your specialty.

    And Brian, Tarantino did indeed buy the remake rights to “The Inglorious Bastards,” and he interviews Castellari in a doc on the new disc. But as I noted, his storyline, at least as reported by New York Magazine, bears only the most superficial resemblance to Castellari’s film.

  • Kent Jones

    Stephen – LOIN was shot digitally, and I think it looks very good, but I remember that it was a nightmare for Téchiné. It certainly looks better than the masked Super-16 imitation Scope blow-up in THE WITNESSES. SCENE OF THE CRIME and RENDEZ-VOUS are odd movies (both co-written by a young Olivier Assayas, as was ALICE ET MARTIN). I like the scenes with the boy in the first one. I know of no Region 1 release of LES VOLEURS but I did hear about a possible remake.

  • David Boxwell

    CHANGING TIMES packs enough thematic material into its running time for 4 or 5 flicks: Islamic fundamentalism and women’s response to it; Depardieu and Deneuve as fading 60s icon; France’s loss of power and identity as a post-colonial power; homosexuality in the Arab world; the global economy; cross-cultural and cross-racial sexual and family relations, etc. I love it, anyway.

  • Stephen Cone

    Agreed, David. With certain filmmakers more actually is more (and I’m far from Luhrmann land here), and I think with Techine it’s very often, if not always, true. He can pack in and pile on with the best of them. It’s quite deft. LES VOLEURS, especially, has the impact of both a great novel and a great movie. This is quite miraculous and very rare, I think.

  • Kent Jones

    Most of Téchiné’s movies are similarly packed with thematic material. LES INNOCENTS, for example.

  • david hare

    Les Temoins disappointed me greatly – there seems far too much going on with much with far too little personal attention to character to deliver any great engagement, and perhaps even more importantly the use of the Scope masking (was this shot in Super35 or some other non anamorphic format?) feels to me incredibly clumsy and compromising. As a generic picture about AIDS and the holocaust-like impact of those years, it is in competition with far stronger contenders, including Chereau’s Those who love me can take the Train, and most importantly two films by Techine’s long time collaborator Jacques Nolot, whose earlier La Chatte a Deux Tetes (with the woefully inadequate US title of Porn Theater) and his most recent movie Before I Forget/Avant que j’Oublie are both powerfully personal films embedded in the post AIDS world for gay men and other survivors, and executed with a bristling mixture of mordant humor, regret and quite breathtakingly personal immersion in the material. I am not certain but I don’t believe Nolot had any screenwriting involvement on the last Techine (perhaps he was too busy making Avant) but in any case, the absence of his deft hand as a writer is clear.

  • Kent Jones

    David Hare, Nolot was very disappointed by Téchiné’s treatment of his script for J’EMBRASSE PAS, which is part of the new set. He wrote something autobiographical and Téchiné changed it, presumably into something closer to his own kind of story. There’s a really nice 50-minute film they made together in the early 80s called LA MATIOUETTE, in which Nolot acts and which he wrote. Those are the only two things he wrote with Téchiné.

    As I wrote above, THE WITNESSES was shot in super-16, and I agree that it looks terrible.

  • Kent Jones

    Another point of interest: I’m pretty sure that the Philippe Noiret character in J’EMBRASSE PAS was based on Roland Barthes – who also played Thackeray in Téchiné’s film about the Brontes. And Téchiné once crossed paths with Chéreau, on an interesting hourlong film called L’ATELIER made with Chéreau’s students doing a series of scenes from different plays (and one from Bergman’s FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES).

  • Helen

    The Dirty Dozen had sufficient trans-national appeal to inspire a mid-eighties Hong Kong knock-off, Eastern Condors, that I admit to preferring to the original for the pleasures of Sammo Hung’s fight choreography.

  • Joe

    A quick indulgence: In another lifetime, when I was reviewing in Philadelphia, I became quite a Fred Williamson enthusiast, going critically overboard for “Mean Johnny Barrows” and “No Way Back” in particular. I didn’t do interviews but when Williamson came to Philly for a P.A. stint, he wanted to meet me. “I thought you were a brother!,” he said, doing a double take. We had a great time. Later, we got together in L.A. for dinners during my visits there. He was a real movie star whose potential was cut short by the way-too-hasty attacks on blaxploitation at the time.

  • Kent, weren’t Téchiné and Barthes in fact ‘an item’ for a while? … back to film, I could not agree with you more about the breathless pace of WITNESSES being an affectation. As strange as it seems, Téchiné has become a kind of ‘academic’ filmmaker (in the ‘academic painting’ sense), but with fairly meaningless modern touches: the zip pans and other devices to inject pace into what is otherwise quite ordinary (often banal) character-narrative stuff. I preferred him when his films were crueler and more perverse, in INNOCENTS or RENDEZVOUS, although the more ‘humanist’ WILD REEDS (which is I guess where his career changed) I loved. Worse, I regret that Téchiné has fallen right into this ’emblematc’ business: four (or 5 or 7) characters who emblematise the 80s, or gay life, or colonial culture, or whatever it may be … it reminds me of John Sayles at his worst … CHANGING TIMES was pretty awful, with its ersatz ‘abstract experimental’ bit with the falling gravel accident. Give me Grandrieux any day! Whose new film A LAKE I await breathlessly! (cue the zip pan to and away from my face.)

  • david hare

    Kent I was interested to hear about their differences on J’Embrasse, but of course Nolot also has a small part as a gay shopkeeper in Wild Reeds, and although not credited I was certain he played some part in the screenplay, if only contributing the role.

  • Well, Dave, I see you managed to lose Jeff Wells yet again, in a complete inversion of the usual “method”: he sat down with “Inglorious Bastards” and found it “third-rate crap in every way imaginable way.” You just can’t win with this guy, I tell ya!

  • jbryant

    Helen: Your comment may finally motivate me to watch my DVD of Eastern Condors, which I bought a few years ago but have never watched. It was a cheap blind buy.

    I recently came thisclose to doing a project on which Sammo would’ve been the fight choreographer, but it fell apart (I’ve written a few scripts for a friend and colleague of his who is a producer).

  • I’ve always thought that Catherine Deneuve’s character in LES VOLEURS was unmistakably Barthes–in the professorial way she tries to make small talk with an Arab boy, in the lonely melancholy she exudes, and in all sorts of other ways.

    What a pity that this film is only available on DVD in France and without English subtitles. I agree with Kent that it’s Téchiné’s best.

  • Kent Jones

    Adrian, you are correct. And Barthes and Nolot were an item, also (I think Nolot talked about this in a recent interview with Melissa Anderson in Time Out NY. I wish I liked Grandrieux just a little more.

    David, I doubt that Nolot had anything to do with the script of WILD REEDS. Téchiné worked with two writers on that one including one of his favorites, Gilles Taurand, who also worked on LES VOLEURS and a film that figures prominently in a pitched battle over the crucual differences between modernism and post-modernism in another thread, TIME REGAINED.

    Jonathan, you’re probably right. Barthes may even be behind Brialy’s character in LES INNOCENTS.

  • Helen

    @jbryant – I remember it as one of those ‘eighties HK films that belong in the bargain bin for their scripts and the regular shelves for their action. I have an enduring fondness for Eastern Condors as one of the films that introduced me to Hong Kong martial arts films, and although I cannot claim to have seen more than a small fraction of Sammo’s films – the man is prolific, to say the least – I also have an enduring fondness for him as an actor for films like Zu Warriors and the projects with Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Two of the films he directed and choreographed, Moon Warriors and Prodigal Son, are among my favorite Hong Kong films.

  • Agree that WILD REEDS, LES VOLEURS and ALICE ET MARTIN are all outstanding.
    LES VOLEURS is impressive in many ways. Not least of which, is the skill, originality and complexity of the plot. This is a film which shows what narrative can do. The plotting is original – it takes the audience in unexpected directions. And the plot is deeply integrated with, and supportive of, the characterizations in the film. And of the wide diversity of the social and sexual types shown.
    LES VOLEURS also shows that real plotting often has nothing to do with the cliches of three-act structure set forth in screen writing manuals. Like most gifted storytellers, Téchiné is far above this and beyond this.
    I wish when people heard the word “plot”, they would think of LES VOLEURS, and not of Syd Field. Such an example would move forward thinking on the subject of narrative greatly… It would show people the art made possible by creativity in narrative and storytelling.

  • Some more thoughts on plot.
    Au Hasard, Balthazar has a model plot construction: complex, original, and densely packed. I argue in my Agnès Varda article, that Varda used this as a model for the plot architecture of Sans toit ni loi. Not in any slavish way, but as suggesting an overall approach.
    Kristin Thompson has an illuminating analysis of plot structure in Bresson’s Lancelot du lac. This is in her Breaking the Glass Armor, and reprinted in the Quandt Bresson collection.
    Tag Gallagher has an outstanding analysis of recurring plot structure, in the six episodes of Paisa (Rossellini).
    Robin Wood and Michael Walker discuss plot in
    Les Bonnes femmes in an illuminating way in their book on Chabrol. This comes complete with chart.
    And Fred Camper’s web site has an article on what he calls “polyphonic” plot construction in Home from the Hill (Minnelli). The first half of this film is a conventional goal-driven story (Theron tries to find manhood…) The second half is strikingly unconventional in plot approaches. Camper has much that is original to say about this.
    Film critics have a lot to say about plot. It is a subject about which we all need to start thinking far more deeply and originally.

  • Kent Jones

    The first time I saw LES VOLEURS, it had a different ending – Jonathan will remember this, because it was shown in Cannes. The little boy runs to the top of a hill, pretends he has a gun and shoots in three directions, and then runs away, leaving us with the top of the hill and the sky. The final refrain of the Cheb Mami song begins, and fade (or cut, can’t remember which) to black. I found it very moving. I understood why he changed it, because he didn’t want to give the impression that the boy was necessarily going to grow up to be a gangster. It was very powerful, but it was a narrative issue for him. It occurs to me that a lot of other filmmakers would have left it as is because it worked so well, but for him it went too far in the wrong direction.

    Regarding “sexual types,” it’s always struck me that Téchiné is one of the few artists for whom there is no such thing as sexual preference. There’s only sexuality.

    Mike, I’m not sure I can agree with you about ALICE ET MARTIN. I like it, but I think that casting Juliet Binoche in that role throws off the balance of the narrative.


  • Nicolas saada

    On téchiné: kent, i’ve always considered the wild reeds as techine’s masterpiece. I liked les témoins, perhaps because i had heard so much negative buzz before watching it. Yes it doesn’t look good, but the acting is great. Dave, although i once shared your enthusiasm about italian genre films, i know have strong concern about its disastrous side effects on cinephilia. I have found myself explaining at a dinner that the searchers was superior to corbucci’s great silence. I was met with scepticism then accused of being old fashioned and passeist. I’m sure castellari has some merits but is it worth that delirious shift in film taste? A dvd of inglorious bastards and still no dvd of seven women or verboten?! There is a problem…

  • Kent Jones

    NS, the acting in Téchiné’s films is generally very good. It was hard for me to buy a lot of the plotting.

  • Nicolas, the “problem” you describe pre-dates DVD…it even predates home video. I recall Godard in a mid-Sixties interview deploring Cahiers’ new-found enthusiasm for Cottafavi, adopting a “well, all this genre stuff can be fun, but let’s not get carried away” tone. I think that everything needs to be seen, and discussed…but that the discovery of new material ought to create a justifiably “delirious” or seismic shift in the contours of the canon is hardly a given.

    I’m rather fond of “Great Silence” myself, but it never ocurred to me that it even wnated comparison with “The Searchers.”

  • Nicolas saada

    You are so right glenn. I am personally a huge fan of damiani’s quien sabe or sollima’s companeros. But the shift in french thirty something cinephiles is strong. New stuff has to be studied and reappraised, but perhaps in accordance to a general canon.

  • Kent Jones

    At this point, I am fondly remembering Luc Moullet’s hilarious LES SIEGES DE L’ALCAZAR, the first and last comedy of cinemphilia, in which a male Cahiers critic meets a female Positif critic at a Cottafavi retrospective in early 60s Paris.

  • nicolas saada

    Kent, I’ve never met a Positif female writer at any retrospective when I was working for Cahiers in the 80’s. Luc Moullet’s film is pure science-fiction and would be a good start for a castellari sf adventure.
    Glenn, I like “Great Silence” and to be very exact, here is how it turned up inthis conversation. I was asked to name two or three of the greatests westerns ever made: Naked Spur, Rio Bravo, and the Searchers were my choices. This guy rplied by stating that I was an old fashioned politically correct cinephile and that’s how The Great Silence moved into the discussion as “the greatest western ever”. It’s an extreme example of how “rediscovery” of forgotten films and directors can somehow come to these sort of excesses.

  • Kent Jones

    Science fiction maybe, but it is funny.

  • JJ

    Dave, thanks for one of the finest essays I’ve yet seen on Italian genre cinema. Most people think the “Spaghetti Westerns” were a singular phenomenon of the late 60s, and don’t realize how they were just the most popular tip of what was really an integral part of Italian and European cinema post World War II, up to about the mid-eighties. It probably began with the Steve Reeves Hercules / Pepla films, and it’s very illuminating to realize how the pepla, the Giallo, the Westerns, the zombie films, and so on were all of a peice with the better known Italian cinema of the time. How Castarelli, Fulci, Bava and Argento shared so many traits with Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini, Bertolucci and Leone: one imagines them all happily marching through the gates of Cinnecitta (to the music of Ennio Morricone.)

  • Alex

    Just one comment on the statement that Italian cinema “raised the only real challenge to Hollywood’s dominance of popular entertainment (in the west, at least)”. It very much depends on how you want to specify this statement; it’s actually verifiably true only if you mean it in the sense of international distribution. David Bordwell, I guess, is one of the main culprits for the idea that after 1945, American cinema immediately and completed dominated European cinemas, and it has become common sense by now. Numbers are hard to come by, but all recent empirical research (see for example Joseph Garncarz’s study on German cinema) shows that at least until the early/mid 1970s, domestic and “European” films (co-production was of course flying high in the 1970s) were much more successful overall and held a larger market share. This exempts the period directly after 1945, when American films indeed flooded into various Western European countries, largely due to supply problems and re-education measures.
    Japan is a bit of a different case, as it actually held out until the early 1980s, when foreign (mostly US, but not exclusively) films gained more than half of the market share. The myth of total Hollywood dominance has also of course been used strategically by various governments, to justify subsidies, import quotas etc. It is, however, at least as long as it claims complete dominance, very much a myth.

  • In the DVD extras, Tarantino talks about discovering the film one late night on KTLA: “It became a personal little movie that only I knew about. In order to talk with anyone about (the film), I had to show it to them first.” He talks with (or at) Enzo Castellari, doing his usual motormouth thing, but it’s interesting.

    The DVD company that put this out, Severin, is relatively new. It has some cool trashy releases starring the Finnish soft-porn hottie Sirpa Lane of “The Beast” fame.