January 24, 2007

DVDs, 1/24.

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One DK Holm rounds up DVD specialists' thoughts on two significant releases; a few more items follow.

The reviews of Robert Bresson's heralded if difficult masterpiece from 1967, Mouchette, widely cataloged as a companion piece to Au hasard Balthazar, are finally in, but first, a few takes on upstart DVD distributor Fantoma's The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One.

Kenneth Anger is, of course, the underground filmmaker who gradually rose to prominence after distribution of his 1947 short film Fireworks. But like many artists who emerged in the 1950s (Jack Kerouac comes to mind), he was rather misunderstood by superficial students of his oeuvre.

Hollywood Babylon Far from being a rebel against the corporate moviemaking machine, Anger was a child of Hollywood, born in Santa Monica, with a grandmother who worked in the studios and who himself appeared in William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) as an aspiring child actor. In 1958, he published the first version of Hollywood Babylon, a compendium of seamy gossip that exposed the grotesque underside of the dream factory. As an avant garde filmmaker, he was one of the first, if not the first, to explore gay themes openly, and he was a progenitor of the camp sensibility. That Anger had ambivalent feelings about Hollywood that far surpassed Parker Tyler's is probably a given, since Anger later became a disciple of Aleister Crowley and hobnobbed with satanist Anton LaVey and Manson-follower Bobby Beausoleil. Adding to his controversial standing, Anger is also, frankly, a self-mytholgizer and resume padder.

Which doesn't lessen fascination for the films he actually did make. The Fantoma disc gathers together five films covering the years 1947 to 1954 (Fireworks, Puce Moment, Rabbit's Moon, Eaux d'artifice, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome), all restored and complete with commentary tracks by Anger, in a box set that includes a 48-page book celebrating Anger.

Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, digs into the disc with enthusiasm. Noting that as an "experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger used his camera to express his innermost feelings," and that his "first efforts are photographically crude but visually arresting; they communicate precise states of mind and conjure visuals that stick in the memory," while taken together his films "express a personal, symbolic inner world." Anger's "personal visions seem obsessed with the idea of transformation, a concept that links his fascinations with glamour, monsters and ambivalent primal creatures akin to the mythological 'elementals' of his later work." After in depth considerations of each film in the set, Erickson praises the transfers, which are "annotated with text explaining their various 'lives' in altered forms; some have been exhibited in shorter versions and synchronized with different soundtracks" - as well as Anger's "relaxed commentaries" in which he "speaks openly" but "doesn't indulge in gossip or tell tales out of school." Erickson concludes: "Experimental filmmakers can't be accused of doing what they do for the money. Anger's work has lived on in museum and film school showings; none of them ever received anything like an organized theatrical distribution."

Fernando F Croce, writing at Slant, is somewhat less enthusiastic. Anger's career is "one of fragments, of esoteric sensation pieces surreptitiously made when not lost, unfinished, or figuratively as well as literally buried," and as it progressed, Anger slipped from meaningful personal expression to films that "explicitly linked film form (color, movement, rhythm) to the tools of occult intoxication, and his films became increasingly more of an excuse to soak in the voluptuousness of pure style." Croce finds the transfers "noticeably cleaned up from previous copies," though "the image occasionally has a slightly muted feel that goes against Anger's splurging style," and he has little patience for Anger's commentary track, which "drops interesting bits (the first midnight screening of Fireworks counted James Whale and Dr Alfred Kinsey among its guests), but it is overall barren, mostly descriptive along the standard 'This is milk poured on me in slow motion' lines." Still, Croce concludes that it is a "long-overdue presentation for the valuable fragments of Anger's outlaw poetry."


Meanwhile, Bresson. The acronymal DSH at the DVD Journal finds that some of the touches in Mouchette, such as the title character (Nadine Nortier) taking a bumper car ride seem anachronistic because "the emotive core of Bresson's works feel timeless" and because "avoiding technology is at the very heart of Bresson's movies, which are about the characters, their pain, and their doubts about their beliefs and existence." Adapted from a novel by Diary of a Country Priest author Georges Bernanos, Mouchette is a character study, a portrait of a 14-year-old girl that is, so to speak, unpredictable in its honesty and realism, at least until the its problematic end. "How the audience views her act, how much redemption they see in her choice, how much futility, and how much waste, is one of the great, haunting questions of Bresson's masterpiece."

For Digitally Obsessed's Jon Danziger the film has "the very conventional trappings of a coming-of-age picture, but it's so much more compelling than any run-of-the-mill story about How I Became A Woman That Summer, or something." He adds that, on a technical level, "France may not have yet produced a more gifted craftsman than Bresson - his eye is impeccable, and the framing and photography of the images are unparalleled," and concurs that "its climax is shattering - you realize that you've been witnessing a morality tale unfold, one with devastating consequences, and that even though life goes on after a Bresson movie is over, the sense of loss is palpable."


Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict calls Mouchette "the first pure punk-rock icon." He goes on to contemplate the meaning of the girl's life. "Mouchette is more than mere juxtaposition - it's coincidence complicated by routine and ritual. In all the saint's trials, no figure has supposedly suffered as much as our heroine. But it is also clear that her disposition is as responsible for her torture as her circumstance. For Mouchette, life is a lot of little burdens. Instead of bearing them, however, she seals her fortunes with her reactions. Poor child."

But he also has some qualms. "As an example of Bresson's artistic approach to film, Mouchette is not as memorable as Balthazar, lacking the overt humanness associated with that calm, cruel fairy tale. In addition, the obtuse approach to narrative clarity, using inference to fill in character and situational blanks may seem adventurous and novel, but it tends to keep us, the audience, at arm's length from the movie's poignant core." Still, he has no hesitations when it comes to the transfer, calling it "one of the best black-and-white DVD transfers in recent memory. The amazing monochrome image, presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen format, is flaweless, looking better than a film from 40 years ago really should. Since much of the movie takes place at night, in the sunken shadows of storm-swept woods and underlit cabins, there is a fear of getting lost in all this cinematic darkness. But Bresson's beautiful camerawork is captured vividly, resulting in one of the best digital presentations ever."

Noting that "Bresson was a gifted enough director of non-actors to get a great performance out of a donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar," Steve Erickson of Nerve's Movie Lounge begins by clearing the air with these remarks: "Much critical discussion of Robert Bresson - whom Jean-Luc Godard called the Mozart of film - has fixated on whether he was a religious artist or a materialist. But do we have to choose? His Mouchette is notable for being both uncanny and earthy; it's also the turning point between his earlier, more optimistic films and his grim later work." Of the supplements, Erickson writes that the eight-minute extract from the TV show Cinema is "disposable, memorable mostly for [actor Jean-Claude] Guilbert's matter-of-fact statements about the dullness of acting," while Au Hasard Bresson is "substantial, particularly for juxtaposing Bresson's statements about the purity of cinema and the possibility of transforming images through music with concrete examples of his working methods."

Dave Kehr in the New York Times: "With their veil of dirt and time removed, the Anger films no longer look as angrily marginal as they once did: these are extremely handsome films, designed and photographed with a discriminating eye.... [T]hey traffic in many of the same tattered movie myths that would later turn into the delirious camp of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) and Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965)... [Anger] had the taste and the technical know-how to capture the hermetic world of silent film." Also, Criterion's new releases of Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

Nathan Lee in the Voice: "Proto-pop genius, gay maverick, hardcore occultist, master of montage, and, through his pioneering use of unauthorized pop songs and intensity of vision, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, Kenneth Anger is a cornerstone of the American avant-garde and a gift that keeps on giving.... For all his emphasis on magic, myth, symbol, and rite, Anger is as material a filmmaker as Brakhage."

More from André Salas at Filmmaker and Michael Atkinson at IFC News, where he also reviews the Robert Mitchum Signature Collection: "Mitchum knew how to be on film in a way that eludes most actors; his massive bulk, sleepy eyes and laconic voice disguised a quick, quiet intelligence that always seemed to surprise his co-stars."

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Posted by dwhudson at January 24, 2007 7:59 AM