DVDs for 3/3/09 – ‘Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986,’ ‘Ashes of Time Redux’ and ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’

Avant-garde cinema is about as esoteric as you can get for DVD anthologies. Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986 makes it easy to wade into the otherwise daunting field. The early years of experimental and avant-garde cinema are fairly well represented on numerous DVD releases (including some of the earlier Treasures anthologies). This two-disc set focuses on the vibrant post-war era and in 27 short pieces limns the scope of styles and approaches that the term encompasses. Harry Smith’s folk art in motion, “Film No. 3: Interwoven,” is what most people think of as avant-garde film – a pulsing dance of squares and lines and colors morphing into one another, like an animated modern art canvas – but this collection opens up to a whole range of expressions and approaches. Three films alone – Jonas Mekas’ “Notes on a Circus,” Bruce Baillie’s “Here I Am” and Chick Strand’s “Fake Fruit Factory” – are at once radically different takes on documentaries, personal essays and impressionistic takes on the world as seen by the artists. Joseph Cornell’s found film collage “By Night with Torch and Spear,” which was discovered among the artists effects after his death, is a mysterious and evocative transformation of scavenged documentary images into odd and exotic worlds of mystery, set to a haunting new score by John Zorn. Marie Menkin’s “Go! Go! Go” (1962-1964) is a “Berlin: Symphony of a City” for New York, revved up to capture the speed of the modern metropolis. George Kuchar’s “I, An Actress” (1977) is a wild mock-screen test gone into scenery-chewing melodrama. At the risk of sounding like a cheesing critical sound bite, if you buy just one anthology of avant-garde cinema, this is the one to get. Many of these films are low fidelity by nature but all have been mastered from the highest quality masters available and there are notes on each film, both on screen and in an accompanying booklet.

Kristin Scott Thomas gave one of the most measured, delicate and emotionally powerful performances of 2008 in I’ve Loved You So Long as a woman emerging from a 15-year prison sentence and reconnecting with her estranged younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein), a college professor who embraces the opportunity to make up for lost years. There is a kind of mystery to it all, most of it revolving around the crime for which she served so many years and her reasons for never talking about it and never defending herself, and I won’t spoil it for you. But it’s really about family, trust, loneliness and despair. Novelist and screenwriter Philippe Claudel makes a confident directorial debut. His direction of the actresses is superb and he has a way with quiet observation that brings us into the intimacy of private moments without telling us what or how to feel. The dialogue is very good but it’s Scott Thomas’ face, carved by grief into a mask of haunted melancholy, that tells the story.

Read my MSN DVD review here.

Wong Kar-Wai is Hong Kong’s deliriously romantic auteur of impressionistic imagery and elliptical storytelling. Ashes of Time Redux is his reworking of his one and only martial arts film, which was originally released in 1994. The all-star cast is anchored by Leslie Cheung as a “middleman” between swordsmen and clients and a narrator who observes the lives that wanders in and out of his desert home but never gets emotionally involved. Less an action movie than a memory film, the story slipped between Cheung and his once-best friend (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and the swirl of flashbacks and remembrances left audiences confused. 14 years later, Wong reworks the film, which is now a little shorter, a lot easier follow, and even less of an action film than before. It has a new score featuring melancholy solos by Yo-Yo Ma and fewer (and more abstracted) action scenes, and Wong digitally mucks with Christopher Doyle’s photography. He oversaturated some washes of color and puts a haze over the entire film, as if seeing it through the gauze of memory. Or a sandstorm. It’s a little visually precious and obscure but still a marvelously wistful film of regret and retreat, where even the magic wine of forgetfulness only erases the memories, not the pain.

I wrote about it earlier on the blog here.

For the rest of the highlights (including new Blu-ray releases of Vanishing Point, Amadeus, Ronin and A History of Violence), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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