‘Disc’overies: Treasures on DVD & Blu-ray, from silent epics to rock ‘n’ roll fascism
As independent movie theaters face an existential crisis brought on by streaming and the pandemic, it’s worth remembering that there’s yet another avenue for adventurous moviegoers. Yes, movies are still released on what we now call “physical media” (a retronym of the order of “postal mail”): DVD and Blu-ray. (Sorry, laserdisc fans, those days are over.)
Of course, any new film released on disc will also be available online, either as a subscription service or as a digital rental. But a few stubborn companies continue to release a compelling range of older titles, often with additional material like documentaries or audio commentary tracks. The Criterion collection is by far the best known of these, but outfits like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Arrow Video and others continue the tradition of satisfying those of us who see film as an art form. with a rich and varied history that somehow never gets old.
The problem for the average viewer is getting these products. Portlanders are blessed with Movie Madness, one of the very last bastions of video library culture, but even their encyclopedic collection can’t hold it all. Public libraries are another source, but they cannot be exhaustive either. And some of these releases, especially those containing multiple movies, can be prohibitively expensive for the casual fan. Nonetheless, I’ll use this space for a casual overview of recent and noteworthy records worth seeking out:
Repeat performance: This riveting hybrid of film noir, behind-the-scenes drama and time-travel fantasy stars former Warner Brothers ingenue Joan Leslie as a Broadway actress who shoots her playwright husband on New Year’s Eve. The year 1946, only to find out later that evening that she’s been taken back in time a year. Will she be able to avoid her deadly fate by making different decisions during her year of redesign, or is fate more powerful than that? Richard Basehart (He walked at nighttelevisions Journey to the bottom of the sea) made his film debut as a queercoded poet who is our heroine’s friend and confidant. Among the many fascinating facts in the disc’s commentary track by film historian Nora Fiore is the fact that Basehart’s character was in fact explicitly gendered in the novel the film was based on. There’s also a ten-minute documentary about the career of Leslie, who as a teenager played the on-screen partners of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Fred Astaire, each at least twenty years older than her. ‘era. After suing Warner Brothers to terminate her contract, she was quietly blacklisted until she took on the role for the independent producers of Repeat performance. The film wasn’t available in decent form until it was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation, and this DVD/Blu-ray combo edition is a sparkling presentation of a compelling genre effort.
Privilege: British-born filmmaker Peter Watkins is the author behind decades of radical cinema that unabashedly incorporates utopian anarchist ideals and critiques of post-industrial mass media propaganda. This 1967 oddity was the only time he worked within the confines of a studio system (and corresponding budget), and it’s a film that, 55 years later, is more relevant than ever. Just a few years after John Lennon courted disaster by saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Privilege follows rock star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann), an iconic figure embroiled in a Christian nationalist organization’s plot to bring fascism to Britain. His only hope may be the influence of the woman (your model Jean Shrimpton) hired to paint his official portrait. Darkly funny and not at all subtle, it was of course a bombshell when it was initially released, but in a time when famous politicians are suddenly commonplace, it still has the power to shock. An audio commentary track by filmmaker and historian Daniel Kremer explores the film’s role in Watkins’ filmography as well as its status among other British pop music films and other youth rebellion films of the time.
Cinema of Discovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s: It would be an exaggeration to say that the French director Duvivier was an emblematic figure, but he was prolific, directing no less than 70 feature films between 1919 and 1967. He made Jean Gabin a matinee idol with 1938’s Grandpa the Moko before going to Hollywood for the war, and his 1946 thriller panica critical and commercial failure at the time, is now considered perhaps his finest work.
All that to say, this lovingly produced five-disc, nine-film box set shines a light on a lesser-known period of Duvivier’s career. It presents him as both a skilled craftsman and a lyrical storyteller. Typical of the silent era, the nine films were shot between 1926 and 1930, and each one has been meticulously restored over the past fifteen years after being, in some cases, considered lost for decades. They go into the genre of romantic comedy (The marriage of Mademoiselle Beulemans) to dark melodrama (carrot top) to spy thriller (The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower). Duvivier made many religiously themed films, and two are included here. The most stylish images are from 1927 Revelationin which a blind anarchist goes to live with his family in the Holy Land, and 1928 The Maelstrom of Parisabout a hedonistic singer who abandons her family for the nightlife, only to regret her decision.
Each film is accompanied by an introduction from Lobster Films president Serge Bromberg, whose enthusiasm is contagious, and brief commentary from a pair of aging critics and historians who exude Frenchness to an almost absurdly charming degree. Needless to say, none of these movies are available through a streaming service.
The Big Moment: Writer-director Preston Sturges’ reputation as a cinematic genius rests on the seven consecutive classics he made in the first half of the 1940s, including Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve. Right after that run, he made perhaps the weirdest title in his filmography. The Big Moment is a biography of William TG Morton (Joel McCrea), a 19and Boston dentist of the century who is recognized as the first to have demonstrated the effectiveness of ether as an anesthetic. While it was certainly a momentous occasion, its relevance for the film adaptation is questionable. Still, it’s a quick 80-minute tale that effectively uses flashbacks to tell its story. The film was taken from Sturges, re-edited by Paramount and released two years after it was shot. In addition to the curiosity value of the film itself, this disc includes a highly entertaining 40-minute chat between Sturges’ son and the late Peter Bogdanovich, who is in catty top form discussing this minor effort from a major talent. .