Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.
In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel in which is was ostensibly based beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.
Dixon is a classic literary type—the hard-drinking, hot-tempered, scrappy artist who turns down assignments beneath his dignity, insults the industry players who hire him, and gets into bar fights at the slightest provocation—with a darker soul than we usually see in such characters. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he tells Laurel, a line he wants to put into his screenplay but is surely inspired by his happiness with Laurel. It’s lovely and yet it predicts the inevitable doom of their romance. There’s a bitterness under his cynical banter and an anger that fuels flashes of jealousy or betrayal into vicious, violent responses. Laurel sees it play out with strangers and it starts to scare her, especially as the investigation into the murder (which is otherwise swept to the sidelines of the story) keeps circling back to Dix.
I don’t usually compare movie adaptations to the original novels—apart from bestsellers and literary classics, Hollywood tended to treat the books and stories it purchased as raw material to be reworked for the needs of the moment—and I don’t intend to here, but I love the way the film itself comments upon the process. Dix rewrites the novel in his latest assignment, inspired by the romance that blooms with Laurel, just as Andrew Solt’s screenplay rewrote the novel and his script was subsequently rewritten by director Nicholas Ray to reflect his unraveling marriage to Grahame, who he cast after Bogie’s first choices were unavailable. It would have been a great role for Lauren Bacall and Grahame delivers Bacall’s confidence and command and model’s poise, but she also has a dreamy vulnerability that is uniquely her own. It’s one of her best performances and Ray shows off a glamour and grace she didn’t get in other roles as well as a smart, powerful performance. Bogie himself had a reputation for drinking and bar scraps and he’s clearly all in on the rewrite; he developed and produced the film through his own Santana Productions. Bogart has played hard-edged characters and violent anti-heroes before but none are as damaged and dark and out of control as Dixon. The romance comes off the two-fisted tough-guy literary hero in this portrait.
This is film noir without guns and gangsters, with no robberies or blackmail schemes, where the only crime on screen is a couple of alcohol-fueled assaults (one of which veers close to manslaughter, admittedly, but doesn’t cross the line), and yet it is among the most devastating you’ll ever see. The murder mystery no more than a backdrop to the ambiguous study of love torn apart from within.
Previously on DVD from Sony, it makes its Criterion debut on a 2K digital transfer from a new 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original camera negative. It’s flawless. This is not a film that was in need of restoration, thanks to fine stewardship of the Sony archive under the able leadership of Grover Crisp, and it shows: crisp and clean with rich black and white
Features commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a new interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, a 20-minute piece with filmmaker Curtis Hanson produced for the 2002 DVD release, a condensed version of the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (this runs about 40 minutes), and the radio adaptation of the original novel produced for “Suspense” in 1948, plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith. You can read Smith’s essay here.
Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.
That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.
Bridgend is a horror film, but not in the traditional sense. The horror is that the events of Bridgend, a rural county in South Wales, occurred in real life and continue to do so. Between January 2007 and February 2012, at least seventy-nine suicides were reported in this small county, most of them teenagers, most of them by hanging. They left no suicide notes and, though the media have suggested some kind of suicide pact or death cult, to this day there is no explanation.
Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde spent six years traveling back and forth from his home in Denmark to Bridgend, getting to know the people and letting them get to know him. The locals had a deep distrust of outsiders because of years of tabloid reporters exploiting their tragedy, but they opened up to Rønde. Their stories and experiences became the core of his script—though he was a documentary filmmaker by profession and practice, he chose to channel their stories into a dramatic feature—and they even allowed him to shoot the film on location in Bridgend. Many of the kids he got to know appear in small roles in the film.
“When you read that seventy-nine hung themselves in the end of the film, that’s the only official number I could use. The problem is it’s a lot higher,” he explained. “The kids tell me every time one dies and we hear about it in the news, there were two or three that were kept out of the public eye. And on top comes all the people that tried to do it but failed. Sometimes it was several a day, over months, in such a small community.”
David O. Russell wrote (or rather, rewrote) Joy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD) for Jennifer Lawrence, who he directed to an Academy Award in Silver Linings Playbook(2012) and an Oscar nomination in American Hustle. Lawrence score another nomination for Joy, based on the true story of Joy Mangano, the divorced single mother turned entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop, the first of more than 100 patents in her name. It’s an inspiring true life story and a great showcase for Lawrence, who evolves from overwhelmed mother and unappreciated foundation holding up a dysfunctional extended family to ferocious businesswoman and beloved on-air pitchwoman on the shopping network QVC to self-made mogul over the course of the film.
Also reuniting with Russell and Lawrence are Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s blue collar father, and Bradley Cooper in a smaller role as a QVC executive with sparkling blues eyes suggests romance even as the script makes him strictly a mentor. This businessman is one of the few allies in Joy’s life. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) dropped out after being abandoned by husband De Niro to lay in bed all day watching soap operas (the same show seems to play 24-7) and her dad moves back into the family basement, where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) is also camping out between gigs as an underemployed singer. They demand more attention than Joy’s own school-age children, and she juggles it all with a full-time job at an airline counter. When she comes up with the design for the Miracle Mop, which she engineers herself and has produced on a small scale, every step is beset with obstacles, from bad advice to crooked manufacturers to a disinterested QVC pitchman, which sends Joy in front of the camera to sell it herself: the working class everywoman selling the American Dream directly into homes across the country.
Russell rewrote an original script by Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote Bridesmaids, and turned it into a Russell film, with a narrative woven through with flashbacks and a dreamy narration from Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), the only member of her family to encourage her apart from her ex-husband. Russell does self-defeating family dynamics, tangled in jealousy and resentment and self-interest, well but the soap opera constantly undercutting her efforts is so overwrought that it never feels authentic. The colorful mess of this family is just another anchor trying to keep her from sailing to success.
Russell manages to put his stamp on what might otherwise be a conventional biopic and Lawrence makes Joy another of Russell’s great fighters, rolling with every punch and getting back up for the next round. She earns every victory. It’s just that the story is all over the place, a mess of colliding tones and cascades of setbacks and obstacles. The flair of Russell’s filmmaking and the dynamic performances, which are turned up to 11 in far too many scenes, fail to elevate the film above the familiar trajectory of the against-all-odds success story. It works almost entirely due to the passion and drive that Lawrence brings to the screen.
DVD and Blu-ray, with the featurette “Joy, Strength and Perseverance” and the “Times Talk with Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell” interviewed by Maureen Dowd. Blu-ray features a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.
Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.
Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.
Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter are the adult children of high-ranking Nazi officers. As we learn in My Nazi Legacy, their fathers sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths, and Niklas and Horst spent decades dealing with the legacy of that birthright, though not in the same way. While both men speak out against the Nazi atrocities, Niklas holds his father responsible for his complicity while Horst insists that the “good character” of his loving father fought against the Nazi machine, all evidence to the contrary. He’s not a Holocaust denier, mind you. He merely denies his father’s part in the Third Reich’s heinous crimes.
The intersection of the personal and political gets complicated when faced with the crimes of a loved one, a colleague, even a culture. Evidence can be overcome by emotion. How can a doting father be responsible for barbarous crimes? How can a government have lied to those who followed its every command? Is it possible for true believers to acknowledge the crimes they committed in the name of a corrupt ideal, or simply to survive a brutal culture? Here are a few documentaries and feature films that explore how some people come to terms with such actions — their own and others — while others simply cannot or do not.
The Holocaust and the Legacy of Nazism
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988): Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie was branded the “Butcher of Lyon” for the atrocities committed under his command, yet he escaped prosecution and lived free for almost three decades in Bolivia before he was extradited to France to stand trial for war crimes. Filmmaker Marcel Ophuls’ profile of the man and his crimes reveals a culture uneasy about dredging up the past and people trying to hide their complicity in shielding one of the most notorious war criminals of the 20th Century. Their justification? He was such a warm, likable man. How could he be guilty?
Son of Saul (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) drops the viewer into the horror of the Holocaust with its first images. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, chosen from the prisoners of a concentration camp to work in the gas chambers, and we are plunged into his crushing routine: moving the prisoners through the dressing rooms, sifting and sorting the belongings after they are locked in the gas chamber, then dragging the bodies out and clearing way for the next group. Serving as a Sonderkommando didn’t save the men from death, it only postponed it, and Saul knows he hasn’t long.
But Son of Saul doesn’t linger on the horror. Rather Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes shoots it entirely in close-up, with a handheld camera uncomfortably close and constantly in motion as it follows Saul through the grind of his routine. We remain locked on Saul throughout the film. Nemes shoots in a squarish format, similar to the pre-widescreen era of movies, with a short lens that keeps only Saul’s face and his immediate orbit in focus. Everything else is blurred and indistinct if not completely out of frame, suggested more than seen. It’s not just to keep us from seeing it clearly, but it suggests his own state of mind: detached out necessity, numb and exhausted, going through the motions of living, focused only on the activity.
Then Saul sees a young boy—perhaps his son, perhaps a boy the same age—who somehow survived the gas chamber. Barely alive, he is smothered by a doctor. Saul’s detachment is broken. It’s the first stranger he has let into his consciousness, that he even really sees, and it becomes his entire world. He is driven to give this boy a proper burial.
Röhrig is not an actor by training—he’s a poet, a filmmaker, and a theologian—and he carries an almost impenetrable expression throughout the film. We can’t know what’s going through his mind, we can only observe his actions, and this new quest changes his bearing. He now moves with purpose, his momentum focused on a goal that risks the success of a planned revolt within the camp. There’s no logic to it, but then reason has no place in such a nightmare.
Son of Saul is an overwhelming, numbing, confusing experience by design. The unmeasurable evil of the Holocaust is beyond explication so Nemes (with screenwriting partner Clara Royer and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) tries to express a sense of uncertainty and disconnection, an existence where the horrors are a silent scream driven to the margins of consciousness out of pure will (the dense, layered soundtrack hints at what he can’t see) and time dissolves. It is a haunting and devastating attempt to confront an ordeal beyond our ability to truly comprehend.
It won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Feature, Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, and numerous critics’ awards for Best Foreign Film and Best First Feature.
Blu-ray and DVD, in Hungarian with English subtitles, with commentary by director László Nemes, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, and actor Géza Röhrig.
The Revenant (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K, Digital HD) has been called a revenge movie, which is true enough. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th century mountain man and guide whose story inspired legends, books, and at least one previous film (Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). Left for dead by a particularly mercenary member (Tom Hardy) of the hunting party he guides through the mountain wilds, against all odds he literally rises from his grave to pull himself from certain death and claws his way back to what passes for civilization for revenge against the man who murdered his son and buried him alive. Vengeance makes for a primal motivation but The Revenant is really a tale of survival: the settling of America as an odyssey of mythic dimensions in an untamed wilderness determined to kill all who fail to respect it.
It’s 1823 in the still unexplored (by white men at least) frontier and an expedition of fur trappers are on the run after being attacked by a local Indian tribe searching for a maiden abducted by white explorers. The assault is swift and brutal and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu sends his camera gliding through it in a rush of fluid long takes, a mix of mesmerized observer and panicked victim. Losing their canoes and most of their supplies in their escape, the few survivors have to hike out through the frozen mountains, where Glass is attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. It’s one of the few digital effects in a film that prides itself on its physical realism but it feels disturbingly authentic thanks to DiCaprio’s intense performance and the naturalism of the CGI bear, clearly based on behavioral observations of wild creatures. It’s like a natural history study let loose in a wilderness drama.
Iñárritu is working again with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—they both won Oscars for their previous collaboration, Birdman—and their use of graceful unbroken shots in the most grueling and violent scenes combines hyper-realism with a kind of cinematic poetry that is, at its best, at once brutal and sublime. They had to travel to remote locations in Canada and Argentina to find dramatic landscapes and winter snows to match the primal vision and Lubezki shot it almost entirely in natural light. Whether it makes the film more or less realistic is up for discussion, but it does give it a distinctive texture, and Iñárritu makes the case that the physical demands of the production added to the intensity of the performances. It certainly demanded a commitment that comes through in the DiCaprio’s performance.
This is the unforgiving, cruel world that Iñárritu has explored all through his career and The Revenant is the most elemental portrait yet, but it also slips into Terrence Malick-like visions of magical realism; one scene ends with the camera following the embers of a campfire into the night sky, where they seem become the stars themselves, while the dead appear as benign visions in the snowy world to push him on. It’s grueling and bloody and majestic and immersive, a film transport theater audiences back hundreds of years. Home video may not have the same power to transport, what with smaller screens and modern-day distractions in your home viewing setting, but the imagery and performances are impressive under any conditions.
Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Academy Award for Best Actor, Iñárritu won his second directing Oscar in row, and Lubezki won this third Oscar in three years for cinematography.
For all the physical effects and practical locations and insistence on natural light, Iñárritu and Lubezki shot the film on digital cameras. It gives the film a crispness that comes through in the digital HD master.
Blu-ray and DVD with the documentary “A World Unseen,” a 44-minute production that was originally released on YouTube in early 2016 (you can view it below) and a still gallery. The Revenant [DVD] The Revenant [Blu-ray]
Also on Cable and Video On Demand and Digital HD purchase.
Only Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.
Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.
You could substitute any number of professions to make the same point—and Hawks did in other films—but there’s something romantic about these men who love flying so much they take a job at the end of the world just to pit their skill against a treacherous mountain pass in a night fog. And there’s something inviting in the way these men banter and argue and spin tales between jobs yet are ready to spring into action at the first hint of a pilot in trouble. It’s Hawks’ idea of a romantic world, which frankly sidelines women who aren’t actively involved in the team effort, but it welcomes all who embrace the philosophy that professionalism is the greatest measure of character.
Hawks’s adventures were love stories between men and Bonnie’s affable rival for Geoff’s affections is his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell), an aging flier with bad eyes who Geoff has to ground. Adding to the tensions is the new pilot (Richard Barthelmess), snubbed by everyone for a past cowardice that got a colleague killer, and his glamorous wife (Rita Hayworth, drop-dead sexy in her first major role), who has history with Geoff. Movies are built on such small world coincidences. The magic of Hawks is the way he turns contrivance into community and plot twists into tests of character.
Community is the key. Hawks had always been a master at male friendship in all its camaraderie, competition, loyalty, and sacrifice, and at romance that blossoms from conflict and clashing wills. Here he creates a society with its own rules and in Jean Arthur’s Bonnie, he offers a woman who is accepted into the brotherhood on both their terms and hers. He’s served by a marvelous screenplay by Jules Furthman (Hawks reportedly penned the story himself, based on things he’d seen and pilots he’d known), a piece of pulp fiction poetry and adventure story mythologizing filled with figures who are both dramatic points and beautifully sculpted characters. The dialogue is alive with wit and wiles and truths hidden in banter and metaphors, and the cast delivers it in volleys that collide and overlap.
It may seem crazy that this tropical adventure tale of independent flyboys in a South American port hauling the mail over the Andes is shot entirely in Hollywood (a few aerial scenes to the contrary). Even the exteriors are basically wrapped in muslin, which gives the film a strangely claustrophobic quality even when it isn’t smothered in fog. Even the Andes pass, where a lone radioman reports on the mercurial weather conditions, is more of an illustration from a Gothic German fairy tale (or the most lavish Guy Maddin set ever) than any realistic location. Yet the Hollywood-constructed fantasy of an American outpost and makeshift airfield chopped out of the jungle makes a fabulous backdrop, a fantasy yes, but also an insular, rarified world where life is lived minute to minute, men are good enough, and the highest compliment one can receive is “professional.” Welcome, professional!
The film has been on DVD and Blu-ray before. Criterion’s edition is mastered from a 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm negative. You might think that such clarity would lay bare the seams of the Hollywood artifice but the opposite is true: the rich detail of the sets and settings are a sight to behold in the cleanest, clearest, sharpest presentation I have ever seen.
The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature a new interview with film critic David Thomson, who offers a crash course introduction to the art and themes of Hawks (it runs about 17 minutes), the new 20-minute program “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies” with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, and excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 interviews with Howard Hawks (audio only, about 19 minutes), plus the 1939 “Lux radio Theatre” adaptation of the film with stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell all reprising their roles, and the trailer. The fold-out insert features an essay by Michael Sragow.
Losing Ground (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you’ve never heard of American playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, don’t feel bad. At least not for yourself. Collins succumbed to cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 after completing just one feature. The independently-made Losing Ground (1982) was produced before the American Indie film culture established itself with the successes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, the Coen Bros. and others. It played a few screenings but never received any real distribution or a theatrical run and remained unknown outside of scholarly circles for decades. You can feel bad that the film never received the recognition it deserved in Collins’ lifetime but better to celebrate its revival and rediscovery.
Losing Ground is one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. That alone makes it worthy of attention but Collins proves to be an intelligent, insightful, and nuanced filmmaker. She tells the story of Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a professor of philosophy at a New York City college, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, director of Ganja & Hess), a painter who is suddenly compelled to reconnect with his art on a more immediate, passionate level. When he decides to move out of the city to get in touch with his muse with a summer sublet of a gorgeous rural home, Sara’s objections mean little. She has no say in the matter, a sign that things are not well in their marriage. So while he searches for his ecstasy (and finds it in a young Latina he finds dancing in the streets), she decides to find hers by acting in a student film.
Ecstasy is the operative term here. Sara is writing a scholarly study on the origins of ecstasy in religion and art but there is precious little of it in her own well-ordered existence, a life of ideas and scholarship and intellectual pursuits, while Victor is all about aesthetics and expression. Victor’s journey is authentic and his drive to find his voice authentic—Collins communicates his passion beautifully and the color seems to explode on the screen as we see his new world through his artist’s eye. He just fails (or perhaps refuses) to take into account his wife’s journey. After all, art is more pure than knowledge in his self-centered odyssey, an attitude that begins driving her away.
The racial and sexual politics are present—even Sara’s philosophy students think of her in terms of her relationship to her husband—but more importantly this is a portrait of committed professionals facing the limits of defining oneself through what you do instead of who you are. And as Sara begins that discovery in front of a student film camera, acting out a fantasia of life as a vaudeville dancer with a flirtatious and charming actor (Duane Jones of the original Night of the Living Dead), Victor isn’t prepared for her self-discovery. It’s a film of conversation and argument, of relationships and self-knowledge, and its sexual politics are as sophisticated as its personal odysseys.
The film was shot in 16mm by Ronald K. Gray, a filmmaker in his own right and Collins’ co-producer, and Milestone’s restoration shows the rough, textured grain of the small-gauge format, as well as the saturated colors and documentary immediacy; the textures suggest news reportage and experimental cinema as well as indie moviemaking of the seventies and eighties. Milestone presents the home video debut of the film with a generous collection of supplements to provide context.
The 50-minute The Crux Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), directed by Collins and produced by Ronald Gray (mastered for disc in HD), and Gray’s 1976 student film Transmagnifican Dambamuality are presented on the second disc of the two-disc set, along with an archival interview with Collins conducted in 1982 and new (and very substantial) video interviews with Gray, actress Serena Scott, and Collins’ daughter Nina Lorez Collins, who supervised the restoration. The film itself features commentary by professor Lamonda Horton Stallings and Terri Francis.
Freaks & Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word), which premiered in 1999 and lasted for a single season.
Junior Linda Cardellini (of the Scooby-Doo movies and Mad Men) grounds the series as the former class brain who, in the first episode, is in the midst of a startling identity crisis. Rejecting everything she once took for granted, including her place in the school hierarchy, she gravitates toward the “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-achievers, and minor key rebels, sort of led by rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader, and trying to avoid the mean-spirited pranks and hazing that he seems to be the perpetual butt of.
Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a brilliant sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most) and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage social nightmares, from the bullying, humiliating torments of bigger and older students to crushes, dating, and the social rites of passage that put kids on stage without giving them the script. It’s compassionate without losing itself in sentimentality and understanding of the crises that drive these kids to their often self-destructive behavior without letting them off the hook for their decisions. No show on TV better captured the subtleties or the dynamics of the high school caste system. The Pilot features a longer “director’s cut” with footage not seen on TV and the 18 episode series (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good) is returned to its intended order, ending on a satisfying and moving open-ended conclusion that leaves the characters stretching themselves to the future in moments of discovery and defiance. Watch for Ben Stiller in an uncredited cameo as a frustrated Secret Service agent in The Little Things.
The series has been released twice on DVD. The Blu-ray box set features two complete versions of the show—the original broadcast presentation in the full frame Academy ratio and a special widescreen TV version—plus all of the supplements from the previous DVD releases. That includes 29 commentary tracks. Really. No, I’m serious. There are 29 commentary tracks, featuring various combinations of cast and crew (“No, we do not think the show is so important that it demands almost 30 commentary tracks,” writes Executive Producer Judd Apatow in an accompanying Q&A, “but you have to understand, we miss each other. Recording commentary tracks was a great way to see each other….”) The participants include creator/co-executive producer Paul Feig (who based many of the scripts on his own high school experience), executive producer Judd Apatow, directors Jake Kasdan, Lesli Linka Glatter, Ken Kwapis, Bryan Gordon, and Miguel Arteta, writers Mike White, J. Elvis Weinstein, Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Bob Nickman, and Jon Kasdan, actors Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Seth Rogan, Busy Philipps, Betty Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty, recurring and guest actors Dave (Gruber) Allen, Natasha Melnick, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jerry Messing, Joanna Garcia, Sam McMurray, Sarah Hagan, Claudia Christian, Tom Wilson, and “high concept” tracks featuring the production team, the teachers (in character, talking about the students!), studio executives, even parents of the stars and fans. And no, that’s not all. There’s a Q&A at the Museum of TV and Radio in 2000, a 70-minute featurette with Feig, Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and half a dozen cast members (worth it just to see Seth Rogen giggle like a goof as he riffs on stage). There are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles), complete table reads of three episodes, outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips, plus a booklet with essays and an episode guide.