Stanley Kubrick himself once argued that making good movies and making cheap movies need not be mutually exclusive, but he all but disowned his own micro-budget debut feature FEAR AND DESIRE, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD on the Masters of Cinema label today after a limited UK theatrical release. Dismissing the film as a "bumbling, inept film school exercise", it's a great irony that as his budgets and relationships with major studios improved, so did the acclaim from critics: far from being blunted by the studio system, Kubrick seemed to thrive in it, bouncing off the commercial restraints to create some of the most enduring and enigmatic pieces of cinema of the 21st Century.
Left entirely to his own devices (as well as directing, he also served as editor, producer and cinematographer) as he is in FEAR AND DESIRE (and, to a lesser extent, in his noir thriller follow-up KILLER'S KISS), Kubrick's work doesn't feel as pointed or well-realised as his later work. It's somewhat understandable that the filmmaking would feel hesitant here: this is a debut feature, after all, with Kubrick still navigating a transition from still photographer to film-maker.
I’m imagining watching EXCISION with a friend or family member, someone who watches a movie maybe once every ten days or so, whose favourite film is either ANCHORMAN or GLADIATOR or THE MATRIX, who feels relatively au fait with perversity after recently reading Fifty Shades of Grey, who doesn’t obsessively catalogue obscure cult movies, has nevered watched an anime, and thinks Dario Argento is the pizza you can get with an egg in the middle. Someone normal, in other words. 99% of the general popluation.
In my hypothetical viewing of the film with this person, it invariably ends with him or her turning towards me and saying, confidently, “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen.”
At this point I smile condescendingly and say, Ah, but didn’t you enjoy the performances? Did you not get a kick out of seeing shiny 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord reinvent her teen-queen persona as a fetid, pestilential weirdo? Did you not enjoy seeing Traci Lords, of all people, giving a genuinely funny, deeply felt and convincing turn as a mother at the end of her parenting tether?
“Nope”, they say.
After taking a glance at CITIZEN KANE and SUNRISE a few months ago, my look back through 2012’s Sight and Sound top 10 hit a bit of a roadblock with the London Film Festival, leaving the other eight films dangling tentatively in the wind like so much errant saliva on a bored schoolboy’s chin.
In a nice bit of serendipity, however, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC has just been released in a stunning new edition from the reliably excellent bods at Masters of Cinema, giving me absolutely no excuse not to revisit it in all its monochrome glory.
It’s an interesting exercise to compare THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which placed at number 9 on the Sight and Sound list, with some other films in the top 10. Unlike many of the others on the list, it is deliberately unshowy in its visual style, eschewing the pyrotechnics of something like SUNRISE to concentrate primarily on one technical motif, that cumulatively builds over the course of its running time to lend the film a unique power.
In this way it’s very much the precedent of something like TOKYO STORY, but whereas in that film the waist-high mid shot is used to replicate the perspective of being seated in a Japanese living room, Dreyer uses relentless low-angle close-ups to both heighten the overall tension of the trial and best illustrate the mental and philosophical anguish being experienced by Joan, in particular, as well as her assorted tormentors.
DVD/Blu-rays of the week: DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE LOST WEEKEND
An unprecedented double pick here, but a necessary one, as this is unquestionably one of the great Masters of Cinema’s best release days ever, even better than the triple-header of TWO LANE BLACKTOP/LE SILENCE DE LA MER/PUNISHMENT PARK earlier in the year.
Two early films from Billy Wilder, one of the greatest Hollywood directors of all time, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE LOST WEEKEND are totally reinviograted on blu-ray, with remarkable picture quality anda selection of wonderful, well-chosen extras.
THE LOST WEEKEND is a remarkable study of alcoholism that shocked contemporary audiences in its graphic portrayal of addiction, and remains surprisingly effective today. Wilder’s trademark aversion to sentimentality means there is no sheen applied to the difficult subject matter, and some sequences – including the famous scene where Ray Milland hallucinates that his apartment is infested with warring birds and rats – are appropriately nightmarish.
It is so relentless in its assertion that booze is A Bad Thing that it occasionally threatens to turn into anti-alchohol propaganda, and for all intents and purposes that is what it is. But this is so much more than a cautionary after-school special, with huge amounts to admire - Wilder’s precise, unfussy direction; his darkly comic script co-written with Charles Brackett; and John F Seitz’s beautiful monochromatic photography, held together by the centrifugal force of Milland’s towering lead performance.
THE LOST WEEKEND was made at least partly in response to Wilder’s experiences working with Raymond Chandler, a committed alchoholic, on DOUBLE INDEMNITY, an adaptation of a James M Cain novella and the second Wilder film out on Blu this week. A film that managed to define and perfect the concept of film noir in its 100 minutes, it is amongst the very best crime films ever made, and unquestionably has the best dialogue of any of them – “That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing, Mrs Dietrichson…”
There are few more electrifying scenes than Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray’s first meeting, as they exchange flirtatious repartee with the lascivious, hard-bitten gusto. Both actors are incredible, but the film is arguably stolen by the original Chief Wiggum Edward G Robinson, as MacMurray’s trenchant, fast-talking investigator partner. Special mention must also got to John F Seitz again, for creating a shadowy world that remains a template background for drink-sodden schemes and mendacious dames to this day.
Both films come with excellent extras – DOUBLE INDEMNITY has a lengthy, informative documentary with contributions from the likes of James Ellroy, while THE LOST WEEKEND features a brief Alex Cox intro and an excellent three part Arena documentary on Wilder. Both films also feature the added curios of contemporary radio play versions of the films, with the original actors reprising their roles.
Two absolutely fantastic releases, then, and clearly the highlight of an amazing film week in DVD/Blu-ray. I thoroughly recommend clicking below to have them in your life.
I made my thoughts clear on Metrodome’s shocking theatrical release in my original review just a few weeks ago here, and it really is appalling how badly it got buried. However, that’s no reason to not buy the Blu, as it’s still a wonderful film and deserving of your support in any medium.
Cool, here we go:
“So then the father shits into his wife’s mouth, while the brother and sister fornicate in the corner, and all the while they’re singer Deutschland Uber Alles…”
Oh, THE ARISTOCATS. My apologies.
A DANGEROUS METHOD
Garbage, but Knightley’s bizarre performance needs to be seen to be believed. My review here.
I adore this film. One of my favourites of the year, no question. I’d like to do a longer review for it but I haven’t had a chance to catch up with it since seeing it at the cinema. Diablo Cody disclaimer: I thoroughly disliked JUNO, am yet to see JENNIFER’S BODY, but I loved this dearly. Can’t wait to see it again.
KING OF NEW YORK
Another classic from one of my favourite low-budget auteurs, Abel Ferrera. Brilliantly nihilistic, with memorably bugnuts performances from Walken as the white Frank White, Wesley Snipes and (particularly) Laurence Fishburne. It’s good to see this often overlooked gangster flick get recognized, as it’s still a hugely entertaining little piece of nastiness. Now how bout a MS 45 release?
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - S1 BOXSET + MOVIE
Finally, a shout out to one of my favourite TV shows, which gets its first season re-released on DVD this week with the original Billy Bob Thornton-starring movie. The film is a very good, and way better than it needs to be sports movie, but the spin-off series manages to achieve genuine transcendence from its sporting underdog story origins. Of all the ‘great’ TV series to come out in the past decade – THE WIRE, THE SOPRANOS, BREAKING BAD – FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS feels like perhaps the most deeply felt, with superb writing, wonderful photography and uncannily brilliant, semi-improvised performances lending episodes an almost documentary-like realism: in particular, the core relationship between Coach and Tammy Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) that feels more authentic than just about any on-screen marriage you care to name.
It seems almost clichéd to say that you don’t need to care about American football to enjoy it – I don’t, and I do, incidentally – but I’ll say it anyway, because this is a series that is tragically under-seen in the UK and I'll do whatever it takes to bully people into watching it . It’s an intelligent, moving, sincere, rewarding masterpiece. SEE IT.