DVDs for 6/23/09 – Memories of Marienbad and Lebanon

Delphine Seyrig as exhibit A
Delphine Seyrig as exhibit A

The very definition of art cinema, Alain Resnais’ 1960 Last Year at Marienbad defies audience identification, narrative clarity, even any assurance that anything we see is "real" in any sense. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic, lost in time and space. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as "X" in the credits," tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, "A" (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. It could be a ghost story (the church organ score is appropriately eerie and ominous) in a European castle, the foreign equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Or it could be film of memory, or perhaps dreams of a wished-for past, filled with flashbacks/memories/stories, but which are themselves full of elisions and gaps and even, at times, contradictory. It’s strange and surreal, full of odd humor and games, the most elaborate of which is the very tale that centers the narrative. Did something happen last year at Marienbad (Friedriksbaad or whatever lavish castle vacation spot was in fashion that year)? Or is it simply an elaborate tale, a seductive promise cutting through the stifling existence of social decorum?

Criterion’s new edition comes out on both DVD and Blu-ray in a superb transfer from a rich fine-grain master print that has been digitally cleaned and fine-tuned, supervised and approved by Alain Resnais. At the director’s insistence, Criterion includes the original, unrestored soundtrack along with the remastered, cleaned-up version. "By correcting so-called flaws, one can lost the style of a film altogether," he writes in the liner notes. Like The Seventh Seal released last week by Criterion, the Blu-ray edition is the a sight to behold and the closest I have come to seeing a beautifully preserved film play on my screen. The image felt alive, like perfectly restored celluloid projected from a well-tempered projector, and pulled me through the image. The DVD also features original half-hour documentary Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad, a new, generous 33-minute audio-only interview with Alain Resnais and two early the short documentaries by Resnais: Toute la memoire du Monde and Le Chant du Styrene.

"I lost my memory. I can’t remember anything about the Lebanon war. Just one image." Waltz With Bashir is both art and autobiography from Ari Folman, a filmmaker with a deep interest in psychoanalysis. The memory gap was real ("It’s not stored in my system," he explains) and attempted to reconstruct those missing memories with the help of friends and fellow soldiers. Those conversations on his odyssey back in time and memory (a couple of them reconstructed with actors for the film, the rest recorded with the actual subjects) are the foundation of the script. "The memory is dynamic," explains psychiatrist Ori Sivan. So is Folman’s film, which uses animation not just to illustrate but explore the subjective quality of their remembrances, a mix of mind’s eye first-person observation, dream, fantasy and the exaggeration of emotional memory. Executed in bold lines and slow but fluid movements, it’s never sensationalistic but always striking vivid and immediate. What begins as an introspective odyssey into the effects of war on the young Israeli soldiers turns into a provocative expose on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, events that sent shock waves through the Israeli men who were made inadvertent collaborators. But the final word is not their emotional trauma, but the stark reality of the event itself. The film was nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film" at the 2009 Academy Awards (its absence in the “Best Animated Feature” nominations caused a minor outbreak of outrage). Ari Folman provides commentary (he introduces himself as "writer, producer, director and main protagonist of the film") and a press conference Q&A (in English) and participates in a 12-minute featurette (in Hebrew with English subtitles). Also available on Blu-ray.

There’s nothing guilty in my pleasure over the USA summer show Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan as former CIA agent Michael Weston, who has been “burned” by the Company: persona non grata in the intelligence community and trying keeping a low profile while scraping by in Miami as a freelance mercenary with a heart of gold and the skills of an urban MacGyver. As the new season plays on cable now, the second season is on DVD and Blu-ray: he’s pressured to work for "The Company," a covert organization that is up to no good and quite possibly had a hand in blackballing him from the agency. Jeffrey Donovan gives Weston plenty of attitude and amiability, even as he narrates his do-it-yourself recipes for homemade solutions to high-tech problems, Gabrielle Anwar is all sass as his sexy and volatile ex-girlfriend, a rogue operative in her own right, and Bruce Campbell brings a laid-back loyalty to his role as a low-level agent and partner in crime. Sharon Gless is a chain-smoking curmudgeon as his maternally-challenged mother and Tricia Helfer co-stars this season as Carla, the Company woman who makes Weston’s life hell. It’s perfect summer entertainment and to my mind the most fun show on TV. Creator Matt Nix discusses writing and directing the episode "Do No Harm" (the only episode he has directed to date) in the featurette "NIXin’ It Up," and joins in on group commentary tracks on three episodes with members of the cast and crew, including the always entertaining Bruce Campbell on the season finale. Also features deleted from select episodes.

My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle from a script by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who play fictionalized versions of themselves, became the surprise indie hit of 1981 and a cult film on the art house circuit. A  fiction based on autobiography, this theatrical dinner conversation between two professionals in the New York theater world takes the audience from Gregory’s spiritual pilgrimages to his disillusionment with modern society and Shawn’s skepticism over his friend’s adventures and his proclamations. The film indulges in the intellectual rap session with both fascinated attention and wry humor: it is, after all, the pretentious proclamations and justifications of two privileged men batting around the meaning of life in a restaurant where most folks couldn’t afford to buy dessert. The dynamism of the film lies in the tension between the passion of their positions and the abstraction of their dialogue from the rarified position of Upper East Side New York artist/intellectuals, while the pleasures are in the company, the ideas and the intrigue of the conversation itself. Criterion’s new edition replaces the inferior old Fox Lorber edition from the nineties and includes the 52-minute TV documentary "My Dinner With Louis” from 1982 and new interviews with Gregory and Shawn, each interviewed individually by filmmaker/friend Noah Baumbach.

When Warner Bros. shut down their animation department, Chuck Jones went to MGM to helm the revival of the "Tom and Jerry" series of theatrical cartoons and took some of his collaborators with him, notably story man Michael Maltese, background artist and designer Maurice Noble and voice actor Mel Blanc. Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection collects all 34 shorts he produced and directed in a two-disc set, along with the featurettes Tom and Jerry… and Chuck," an excellent survey of both the Jones run of "Tom and Jerry" and the animation industry upheaval between the fifties to the seventies, and the first-person remembrance "Chuck Jones: Memories From a Childhood."

For the rest of the highlights (including New Releases Phoebe in Wonderland and Inkheart and Mike Leigh’s 1988 comedy of life in Thatcher’s England High Hopes), 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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