Silents Please: Lois Weber restored and ‘The Covered Wagon’ on Blu-ray

Milestone Films

Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)

Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillips Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.

Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Kathleen Collins’ ‘Losing Ground’ rediscovered and restored

LosingGroundLosing 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.

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Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’

MontyPythonLiveMostly
Eagle Rock
Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time they entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.

The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.

This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.

There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.

PortraitJason
Milestone
Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.

It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Come Back, Africa’

In 1957, Lionel Rogosin–a genuine American independent filmmaker before the term was ever coined–traveled to South Africa to make a film exposing the conditions under which the oppressed black Africans live. He had just made is directorial debut with the critically acclaimed On the Bowery, a portrait of life on New York’s Skid Row, and was inspired to take on the daunting challenge of making a film in what Rogosin realized was in fact a police state, one that the rest of the world knew almost nothing about in 1957. He began work under the guise of producing a non-political film about the musical culture of the country (and there is, in fact, a wealth of local music in the film) while secretly meeting anti-apartheid activists and developing a loose script with the help of local writers, artists, and activists. Using non-actors and shooting clandestinely, he improvised from the outline. The result is a loose, sometimes arch drama that draws its power from the texture of the lives and the locations shown on screen.

The basic story follows the experience of Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), an uneducated man from Zululand who comes to Johannesburg for work in the gold mines and then stays to find work in town. It’s a challenge from the outset in a bureaucracy designed to make life difficult for blacks trying to move to the city. The modern world is all quite new to him–even the radio is a foreign wonder–and he’s very much the country naïf in the big city, getting along with help from men who have already learned the system. He goes from job to job, from a servant in a middle-class apartment (he’s considered a “house boy,” emphasis on “boy,” a term used by the whites which is only slightly less offensive than “kaffir”) to working in a hotel, in a garage, and on a road crew. His wife comes to the city with their two children. While she looks for work, their preteen son learns the culture of street gangs and street musicians.

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