2017년 1월 16일 월요일

My Favorite Twenty Blu Rays of 2016

It has been a couple of years since I have discontinued the year-end (more truthfully, the next-year-beginning) list of My Favorite DVDs and Blu Rays. That is, the English language list. The Korean language one, catered to the Korean-speaking consumers, cinephiles and fans of genre cinema, has been going on without break, although it always threatens to get delayed until at least mid-January of next year: those interested can find it here.  Well, it is now, as a matter of fact, mid-January of 2017, and I am right smack in the middle of perhaps one of the busiest Januarys I have ever experienced in my twenty-plus-year teaching career.  All signs indicate that I should just give it up and move on to my day job, but something about this year being 2017, coming at the heels of one of the most stupendously terrifying year, politically and intellectually speaking, made me extra defiant and foolhardy.  Since the politics of the world, and especially the United States, is so distressing and gloomy, I find it more necessary than usual to stick to the "meaningless" habits and commitments such as this list, just to remind myself that I am still here, and the ugly and dumb shit happening in the realm of politics has not affected (not yet, anyway) the amazing proliferation of classic, cult and genre films in the physical media.  The United States may go down the sinkhole with the orange lardball at its helm, but its appreciation of classic cinema worldwide certainly shows no sign of flagging. 

Industry wags have been predicting the death of optic discs for many years by now, at least more than a decade, and it is true that streaming and VOD services are now mainstream means through which most people in industrialized nations watch cinema.  And yet, this did not spell the death of DVDs and Blu Rays.  While Blu Rays, with its superior 1080p resolution and lossless soundtrack, have not replaced DVDs in the manner the latter have done with VHS tapes, contrary to general predictions, an increasing number of important and rare titles are coming out in Blu Rays, sometimes in "dual format" packages, which seems to be the industry's way of hedging the bets.  As a college professor who has insisted as early as 2007 all my laptops be equipped with a Blu Ray drive, I am quite happy with this development. 

Approximately 23 percent of the titles I have purchased in 2016 were DVDs.  Many of them are fascinating, unusual and/or academically significant titles, such as the classic Korean animation film Hong Kil-dong (Korean Film Archive), but the 2016 list in the end ended up being limited to Blu Rays.  Even then, it was a near-impossible task to limit the number of choices to twenty.  (I freely confess to cheating, of course, and including two items here that I had to leave out in the Korean-language list, and vice versa) 

A few words should be spent on the titles that did not make it into the list.  Foremost among them is the British Film Institute's Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989), a truly awe-inspiring collection of seven Blu Ray and DVD discs that covers the two decades of the experimental, resolutely avant-garde and sometimes almost viciously political video/film works of Alan Clarke, covering all the imaginable genres and styles, from SF to literary dramas to Swiftian political satires to unnerving psychological thrillers to documentaries.  It is only not included in my selection for the entirely absurd reason-- I freely admit how absurd it is-- that it somehow felt inappropriate, or more honestly, inadequate, to term this package one of "My Favorite" titles of the last year.  There were also two powerhouse BR titles that I have purchased from Japan, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Creepy and Tsukamoto Shin'ya's Fires on the Plain, that would have made the list in ordinary years, but there was a strong pull toward keeping the list only with "old" movies.  This also is a small, probably pointless, resistance against the Japanese practice of keeping their Blu Ray discs stubbornly domestically confined.  I am gonna say it again, they should learn from Koreans, and put English subtitles into the titles that they know are going to be bought by "foreigners."  I won't complain about the ridiculous prices they put on their discs: all I ask is, eigo no jimaku, irenasai.  OK? 

As the designation "My Favorite" should make it loudly clear, you, the reader, should not entertain any illusion that the following list encompasses in any way more than a tiny fraction of all the amazingly restored, beautifully packaged and/or unfairly ignored Blu Ray releases available out there. The days when a few savvy supercollectors could be on top of the most of the key releases of classical, cult and outré cinema in DVDs and Blu Rays out there, have been gone for a few years already. 

As Koreanfilm.org's own Jiro Hong aptly points out in his own year's end list, Arrow Video's Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection, including twelve of his major films, some of which released for the first time in Blu Ray, beautifully transferred and chock full of supplements as expected, did not even make it in the 100 top releases aggregate list compiled by DVD Beaver.  That's not top 10 you just misread.  So, for anyone to come down and say, "Hey, why is Criterion's Naked Island not included in your list?" all I can do is, shrug.  I could give you a number of reasons but there are probably five other titles just as worthy that did not make it in my list.  And there are whole bunch out there that I am not even aware of.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to caution you one more time, this is not a "cinephile's" or even "film critic's" inventory of the Great Masterpiece Released in the Blu Ray Medium in 2016 at all. This list is as personal as it could get, so the actual "quality" or a film's status as a world classic or critic's darling has little to do with why it is included here.  And that's all the reason you will get for explaining why certain world classics appearing in Blu Ray for the first time-- Tarkovskys, Kieslowskys, Fassbinders-- are not included (although given my propensity, if Solaris had been out as a Blu Ray for the first time in 2016, it probably would have made it to the roster). 

Shall we then move onto the list?  The weekend is already half-gone and there are many tasks to be completed, so do forgive me for keep cracking the riding crop. One package, regardless of the actual number of discs, is treated as one title.  I have confined myself to the titles physically released in 2016.   

20. The Sect (1991, Shameless, Region B)

This Italian horror opus is one of those kinds of movies that tend to survive in your hazy memory as fragments of surreal imagery, simultaneously incongruously beautiful and bizarrely grotesque.  San Francisco's Le Video used to supply more than its share of grey market or legit VHS titles that, years later, makes you severely doubt the veracity of your movie memories, if not your sanity. The Sect, it turns out, is a fairly coherent and intriguing variation on the theme of Rosemary's Baby, but like Michele Soavi's companion piece, the ultra-Gothic The Church, seems to spring forth from a particular adolescent nightmare world, obsessed with clockwork mechanisms and snow globes, and overrun by the inscrutable Fallen Ones that sometimes assume the guise of avian creatures.  The Sect here represents "Did I really see that movie?" constituency of My Favorite items, masterminded by Shameless (not always reliable, but doing fine here) in an eye-pleasing, colorful HD transfer, with the options of Italian and English audio tracks, and a nice, relaxed interview (in English!) with director Soavi.

19.  Lone Wolf and Cub (1972- 1974, Criterion Collection, Region A)

I am frankly not a big fan of the original comic book series by Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki, due to its indulgence in borderline fascist aesthetics. The TV and cinematic adaptations, however, while hardly making any visible effort to "de-feudalize" characters, tend to humanize the anti-hero Ogami Itto (who comes off in the comics as a humorless hardass with disgustingly self-serving rationalization ready for every act of back-stabbing or sadistic killing, even overt exploitation of the vulnerability of his own infant son to kill his-- much more compassionate-- opponents) and his enemies, the Yagyu family, the heads of which had served as Tokugawa shogun's "fencing instructors." (I love this completely inappropriate English transliteration)  Perhaps not as comprehensive and ultimately rewarding as Criterion's Zatoichi collection, the six films from the Lone Wolf and Cub series are nonetheless starkly efficient, viciously entertaining programmers that should belong to the shelves of any self-respecting chanbara fan.  Criterion's package of course includes Shogun Assassin (1980), a cleverly edited compendium of violent highlights from the series with a hilariously "mythical" claptrap "plot" threaded through them.

18. Crimes of Passion (1984, Arrow Video, Region A & B)

I remember catching this ultra-challenging '80s concoction by Ken Russell in a local movie theater, with the predominantly male crowd expecting something in the order of Basic Instinct or Showgirl.  Needless to say, they were befuddled and disappointed.  I still to this day remain not quite sure if this outrageous and massively un-PC exegesis on the sexual habits and hypocrisies (really?) of '80s America is meant to be taken entirely seriously.  "China Blue" certainly remains Kathleen Turner's most daring role, and she is absolutely mesmerizing in it, which I guess is more than enough to recommend this title. Just do not expect something safely sleazy that you can snicker at while munching on the popcorns. Serious or not, this film still can deliver a sucker-punch to your solar plexus when least expected.

Arrow Video's aggressive, full-neon, visual-assault packaging is highly appropriate for this particular title.

17. 10 Rillington Place (1970, Columbia Pictures/Twilight Time, Region A)

 A film that should come with a warning label that states, "Do not watch on a gloomy day," 10 Rillington Place is one half of the serial killer-themed films directed by Richard Fleischer lodged in this list.  Aside from their dispassionate, non-sensationalistic approach to the sordid subject matters, there are little stylistic similarities between them.  This film, with some location photography done on the actual sites of serial murder, presents one of the most perplexingly monstrous serial murderers in cinema history, played by Richard Attenborough as a completely nondescript steamed bun of a man, cowardly lethal yet disgustingly believable in his easy dominance over the less educated and privileged members of the postwar British society.  However, the film's great emotional impact owes much to John Hurt's devastating performance as a less-than-intelligent husband of the murder victim, whose horrendous fate under the British legal system is unbearable to watch.

A film that deserves much greater reputation but is so effective that it is likely to elicit repulsion instead of admiration, Twilight Time's Blu Ray release of 10 Rillington Place is thankfully outfitted with highly informative commentaries by Hurt and Judy Geeson.

16. Try and Get Me! (1950, Paramount Pictures/Olive Films, Region A)

Try and Get Me!, an early effort by the American expatriate filmmaker Cy Endfield (Zulu, The Sands of Kalahari), beats out many competitions to climb up to this position. Lloyd Bridges is exceptional as the swaggering, sweating petty crook whose harebrained schemes ensnare an ordinary Joe Arthur Lovejoy in a series of gas station robberies, and finally a kidnap and a murder. Sharply observed characters run headlong toward a horrific disaster, propelled by mob mentality and corporate sensationalism in media reporting: the film has lost none of its searing intensity and unfortunately more relevant than ever today, where so many seemingly pine for "The Great America" wherein mob lynching was an accepted form of "justice." The fact that it is based on a true story, that had taken place in San Jose, only an hour's drive from where I currently reside, only adds to the chill.  

15. The Reflecting Skin (1990, Soda Pictures, Region B)

One of those famed fantasy/horror films impossible to catch in any decent form, The Reflecting Skin finally makes it into Blu Ray with its Andrew Wyeth-inspired, super-gorgeous cinematography intact.  The young Vigo Mortensen stars as a returning soldier slowly dying from radiation poisoning, and his young, imaginative brother is led to believe his condition results from vampirism practiced by a mentally unstable, perpetually sunglass-wearing widow next door.  Set in a highly artificial, golden-wheatfield-canvassed fantasyland resembling 1940s Idaho, The Reflecting Skin is like an enigmatic painting that vividly comes alive, both sadly transient and hypnotically beautiful.   

14. Female Prisoner Scorpion Complete Collection (1972-1974, Arrow Video, Region B)

Arrow Video's transfer of these films have been subject to some internet complaints and indeed, the color scheme may not reproduce the eye-popping primary color hues of, for instance, the old Image DVD edition of Female Prisoner #407: Scorpion, which was one of the early DVD titles drafted to showcase the dramatic difference between a DVD and a VHS tape in terms of color reproduction.  While the "blue-green" orientation is not as damaging as in the case of, say, Mario Bava's Whip and the Body, it is no doubt disturbing to some who suspect a form of revisionist color timing (whether this is indeed such an act of revisionism seems open to question at this juncture).  Nonetheless, this boxset, lovingly curating all four films in the stoic Kaji Meiko-strarring Toei exploitation series, is a good example of Arrow Video's commitment to the Japanese cult cinema.  The archival values of the supplementary documentaries and such are surprisingly high.  

13. Cutter's Way (1981, Twilight Time, Region A)

Having lived in California Bay Area now for twenty years makes me appreciate more and more the largely forgotten or still underappreciated films of '70s and '80s that depict the outwardly beach-party-happy, consumerist-lifestyle-indulging West Coast inhabitants wholly inadequately dealing with the post-Watergate, post-Viet Nam U.S. society and the death of the alleged '60s idealism.  The more U.S. history you study, the more this idealism looks like a thin layer of ideological makeup applied by the cultural elite to the faces reflecting the much more disturbing social realities. There are lessons in dem dang movies that the Millennials could do well to learn. 

Those who champion Cutter's Way tends towards an allegorical, social-critical reading of the film, as superbly represented by Julie Kirgo's liner notes for this Twilight Time release, but for me, the film's broken-spirit, sad ambience, immensely helped by Jack Nietzsche's near-experimental score, and anchored in beautiful performances of John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, and Jeff Bridges, is what has always haunted me for years.  Now presented in what is doubtlessly the closest approximation to its theatrical experience in TT's HD Blu Ray, Cutter's Way is the film that deserves much better reputation, released in the era wherein Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People were considered the apex of truthful American filmmaking.

12. The Night Visitor (1971, VCI Entertainment, Region A)

The hardscrabble DVD labels such as VCI and Mill Creek always deserve my support. No star labels such as Arrow or Criterion will ever release a little obscurity like The Night Visitor, a motion picture that I only recollect, albeit extremely vividly, as a black & white late night feature caught at the AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) channel.  What is it?  Well, it's a murder mystery, one of those works wherein a psychotic killer nonetheless builds a foolproof alibi for himself, and goes on to commit violent revenges against those who wronged him-- except that it is location-filmed in the snow-bound rural areas of Denmark, and stars Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Per Oscarsson. Trevor Howard plays a stalwart and prudent police inspector challenged by the seemingly unsolvable puzzle of Sydow's escape from a mental asylum built literally like a medieval castle.  Cold, vicious, suspenseful, complete with a nasty scorpion's sting of an ending: hooray for VCI for quenching the thirst of this old Korean movie fan in a most unexpected way.

11. The Boston Strangler (1968, Twilight Time, Region A)

The other half of the Richard Fleischer-directed serial killer film in the present list, The Boston Strangler is the best evidence for the claim that any avant-garde, experimental cinematic style or technique can be appropriated for the objectives of storytelling and character-building.  The techniques in this case are impressively mounted split-screen montages that also make full use out of the widescreen aspect ratio, as well as strikingly "subjective" visuals that re-tell stories of murder from the viewpoint of the premier suspect, Albert De Salvo (Tony Curtis, wearing a practically invisible fake nose).  It's the kind of dazzlingly cinematic piece that ironically could have been made only by Hollywood veterans.

10. Oldboy (2003, PLAIN Archive, Region A)

Despite its unshakable reputation as the most influential and best known work among the New Korean Cinema, Oldboy has been subject to numerous controversies regarding its representation in the DVD/Blu Ray media. PLAIN Archive's collector's edition comes as close as humanly possible at this juncture to have the final word in this regard, with the director- and cinematographer-approved remastered transfer and collecting practically all supplementary materials made in Korea about the film (PLAIN claims bonus features in totality clock at nine hours and thirty-seven minutes […]).

Perhaps the biggest attraction, aside from the mind-boggling packaging that hark back to the days of exquisite collector's edition DVDs South Korean labels used to release in early 2000s, is Old Days, a new documentary looking back at the making of the film as well as its worldwide impact, directed by Han Sun-hee, that incorporates extremely valuable raw footages.  And the whole thing is very English-friendly.

9. Flight of the Pheonix (1965, Eureka! Masters of Cinema, Region B)

Robert Aldrich's "adventure film" is one of those genres American male filmmakers excel at: a group of ornery individualists with divergent expertise nonetheless collaborating with one another to accomplish an impossible objective.  Except that, in the hands of Aldrich, there is just a threat of uncontrolled fury and psychosis as well as pitch-black cynicism lurking beneath its reassuringly masculine exterior.  James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Kruger are all excellent but it is the sometimes surprising and heartbreaking fates of supporting characters-- Ernest Borgnine cracking under pressure, Peter Finch both tragically and stupidly remaining unaware that how much his inferior (Ronald Fraser) has come to resent military discipline-- that remain with you long after the film is over.  Gloomy and pessimistic about (masculine) human nature and at the same time a defiant celebration of the human capacity for greatness, Flight of the Pheonix receives a modestly colorful but sharply intelligent treatment from the British Eureka! Masters of Cinema. 

8. A Touch of Zen (1971, Criterion Collection, Region A)

Two Asian films included in this list are quite famous on their own, but again, few among those I know have actually seen these films in the best possible mode of presentation.  I was totally absorbed into this King Hu's masterpiece as the camera panoramically, poetically pans across the mountains and the rivers, as if to announce that this is the nature upon which we, puny men, struggle to leave our traces of inconsequential existence. "Spiritual" in the sense that is very easy to misconstrue, especially for those fans of wu xia pian who want their martial arts/kung fu films to remain supreme exaltations of bodily skills and nothing more or less, A Touch of Zen is beautifully curated by Criterion Collection, which indeed could spend some more time reaching out to Asian films outside of the established Japanese classics.

7. Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Cinelicious Pictures, Region A)

One of the biggest surprises of 2016, it is always with a measure of joy and trepidation that I welcome the release of classic Japanese animation. Produced under the adverse circumstances when Tezuka Osamu's Mushi Productions were going under, Belladonna of Sadness, based on a novel by historian Jules Michelet and based on boldly European-psychedelic illustrations of Fukai Kuni, is a shocking work of art: belligerently exploitative, offensive, archly beautiful, graceful and the emotions it arouses in its viewers are too complex to be parsed out in one viewing.

Warning: its animated visuals could be as transgressive as anything, say, Eastern European Extreme Cinema is producing today, so approach it with caution.  To give you just one example, when the protagonist Jeanne is raped, her body literally splits into two ragged pieces, like a red fruit bisected by a careless harvester: one of the most shocking visual renditions of sexual violence I have ever seen in my life.  Yet you can mount a very convincing argument that this is a proto-feminist work of art that single-handedly atones for all the objectifications of female body in the countless works of anime.  Sublime.

6. Carnival of Souls (1962, Criterion Collection, Region A)

One of those films that depicts with preternatural accuracy what it is like to be caught in an unending nightmare, this regional horror film by a group of talented industrial/education film specialists has not only survived the test of time but for me remains one of the essential reference points for visualization of the uncanny in the cinematic medium.  Lucky you who has never gazed your eyes on this little wondrous scarefest until now… for Criterion's Blu Ray is leaps and bounds superior to even their packed-to-the-gills DVD releases of some years ago.

5. Chimes at Midnight (1965, Criterion Collection, Region A) 

In retrospect, the most astonishing thing about Chimes at Midnight is the dismissive pooh-poohing it got from mainstream critics when Orson Welles released it as a cinematic adaptation of his 1960 theatrical play at Dublin, Ireland.  What were they thinking: that Wells's filming of John Gielgud's magnificent renderings of Henry IV was not cinematic enough?  You really don't need to know Shakespeare to appreciate the sheer cinematic razzle-dazzle that went into this production, highlighted by the frenetic battle sequence as brilliant as anything Wells filmed for The Citizen Kane. But in the end, you are haunted by the tears of joy mixed with heart-rending disappointment in the eyes of Falstaff, an enormous, literally and figuratively larger­-than-life being, as he is ultimately rejected by the newly crowned Henry V: a romantic soul who foresaw with absolute, tragic clarity that the modern world had no room for someone like him. 

Criterion's release of this film and the equally sorrowful adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story, The Immortal Story (1968), bring a closure of sorts to the rehabilitation of Welles's later filmography as brilliant works of art that they are.

4. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Criterion Collection, Region A) 

          The oft-discussed but seldom-seen masterwork of Edward Yang, who tragically left us at the age of 59, which combines an epic scope of a great American multigenerational saga and painful intimacy of a Neorealist film essay in a thoroughly inimitable and inexplicable way, is finally available in its four hour entirety, without a bathroom break, resplendently restored to its golden twilight hues and awkwardly authentic, dubbed voices of child actors.  Those who expect something like In the Mood for Love going in will be shocked by how much the movie feels "American" and the way the honest emotions of the characters creep under your skin. 

3. The Lion in Winter (1968, Studio Canal, Region B)

I have always loved this devilishly intelligent costume drama but including this film in this list is also my way of protesting the ideologically puerile and disgustingly unimaginative ways Korean filmmakers and viewers treat their "historical dramas." Fusion sageuk my ass!  The country in which movies like Roaring Currents or Sado are considered "authentic" representation of "real" history will never, never, never be able to make something in the order of The Lion in Winter.  Someday, a talented Korean screenwriter will write a screenplay as witty, intelligent, modern and humanistic as James Goldman's for this film about, say, King Taejong's succession problem with three sons (one of which is eventually crowned as the Great King Sejong), and it will reach the screen without "revisions" by meddling, self-important ajeossi directors and producers.  Until then-- and I hope that happens before I die--, let me enjoy this masterwork of a historical drama, featuring supremely affecting, earthbound performances from Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

2. Gilda (1946, Criterion Collection, Region A)

Primarily known for its iconic imagery of Rita Hayworth caught in the perfect pin-up moment, as the cascade of her hair gleaming in the lighting as she broadly smiles at the camera, Gilda for me is that one type of movie bubbling out of the pool every year to remind me that there is something fundamentally attractive about classic American films, especially films noirs, that defies explanation, analysis and rationalization.  In the last three years, I have come to see Glenn Ford, more than James Stewart or Gary Cooper, as the face of American Joe, and appreciate how complex and unarticulated emotions squirm under that beguilingly handsome countenance, ever so sweating slightly, with just a glint of craziness quickly suppressed in his eyes. Despite the studio-imposed "happy" ending, Gilda remains just as much a heavy, cinematic trip for me as a Tarkovsky film is. And that's the truth, Ruth.

1. Women in Love (1969, British Film Institute, Region B)

And Gilda would have taken the position of the number one Blu Ray title of 2016, even against the pressures exerted by the cinematic giants such as Chimes at Midnight, A Brighter Summer Day and The Lion in Winter, except that my heart was stolen by this Ken Russell adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel.  And yes, I shamefully confess, watching this Blu Ray was the first time I have seen this film.

Words literally fail me in trying to describe why I find this movie stabbing my guts and wrapping itself around my heart like no other motion picture I have seen last year, except to note that all pre-digested "information" about the film was utterly useless when confronted with the real thing.  Even that notorious all-nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed was… so amazing.  It was massively erotic, beyond belief, yes.  And also it was… joyous: gay, in the all possible meanings of the word.  My lord, the entire movie was like that.   And Glenda Jackson… why do these British actresses, Vanessa Redgrave, and now her, seem to be so effortlessly traversing in the realm of Godhood?

And so comes to a close My Favorite Blu Rays of 2016. Here's kudos to all the great titles that I have missed out, watched but did not discuss and watched and loved but just had to drop from the list for utterly arbitrary reasons, and the labels-- Criterion, Arrow, Twilight Time, Shout Factory, BFI, Kino Lorber, Olive Films, VCI, Shameless, Synapse, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin-- who keep churning them out year after year. Happy New Year to all of you, and you folks out there who share my taste, my love for the classic cinema of all types!  Happy Blu Ray and DVD hunting in the Year of the Rooster, and hopefully I will be back in January 2018 with another bountiful list! 

2016년 11월 8일 화요일

Preparing myself for a Donald Trump presidency

I originally wanted to write something much longer, putting into words the anxieties, anger, frustrations and a few nuggets of genuine insight into the American mentality that I have gained through this disastrous and shameful presidential election campaign (for which Democratic Party must take some, if not a huge chunk, of blame), but I am now thoroughly exhausted, and it is already past midnight into November 8.  I will keep it short.

I am not writing this for anyone else out there, but for myself, to take a brief stock of what it is that I need to do when Donald Trump becomes President of the United States.
This is, for various reasons, unlikely to happen but not impossible.  And 2016 has been if nothing else the Year In Which Complacent Expectations Got Backstapped with Sharp Stilettos.

Trump's presidential candidacy has been the most toxic spectacle, the single most damaging incident to American democracy I have witnessed in my lifetime (I have lived in the States for 33 years).  And I thought George W. Bush was a horrifying failure!  I still have not changed my mind about Bush's and especially Dick Cheney's war crimes, but Trump has already dragged the office of POTUS through the pigsty's floors many times over even before he could be elected to one.

The fact that he is merely unqualified would be bad enough, but what gives his presidency a truly nightmarish quality is his clear, undeniable connection to the "white nationalism" i. e. the ideology of white supremacy, and his hideous denigration of and hostility directed at everyone other than white males: women, blacks, Jews, the disabled, Muslims, LGBT community.  (Let's not get into his possibly treasonous capitulation to Vladimir Putin for now.  Haven't people got EXECUTED in the United States for selling the state information to the Soviet Union?  Is the FBI going to even investigate this orange lardball's involvement with Russia?)

The fact that millions of Americans not only willfully ignored his nakedly racist rhetoric and hateful discourse, but egged him on, indeed showering him with encouragement, I must admit, shocked and disturbed me profoundly.

I won't be a courageous fighter.  I will know when things are going to be truly dire, when we see black people shot in the streets routinely and the perpetrators are not prosecuted (which has already happened multiple times), when pogroms take place against Muslim communities (and then to Jewish communities, again), when Mexicans and Latinos face their own version of Kristallnacht, when all progresses made for women's reproductive rights and social equality are systematically reversed: when these things take place all over the country under the Trump presidency-- or whoever succeeds the fascist government he has initiated-- then perhaps I should heed the examples of the Jewish emigres who escaped the Nazis.

But before that happens, before things deteriorate that far, there are things that I could do, that I commit myself to, as a college professor who has served California's pre-eminent public university for 19 years.

1).  I will first and foremost put my energies into protecting my minority and immigrant students, reassuaring them that Trump's vision of "Great America" is a rotten anachronism, an idea that a handful of racists/white supremacists are trying to impose on the globalized, new America of twenty-first century, demographically and sociologically already transforming into something beyond their grubby reach.  That they need not cower in fear or lose track of their ambition.  He will only be the head of the executive branch, and an unimaginably wobbly one at that: after all, I have genuine lived-in experiences to tell the students that even under military dictatorships, the grounds had been laid to overturn them through ordinary citizen's activism and everyday challenges to oppression.

2). I will re-double my efforts to deepen my commitment to academic diversity as well as research subjects that promote peace and understanding among different ethnic and cultural groups.   And oh, I think the Trump presidency, as much as the 9/11 had killed off the "postmodern" carny shows, will kill off many "theories" that disparaged "liberalism" in the name of some radical one-upmanship.  Communitarianism, my toenails.  But in truth, I desperately do not want to see that happen either.  A Trump presidency is too much of a sacrifice to pay for the wimpy pleasures of being able to say "I told you so."

3). As I stated above, I am not a fighter-- I will flee the furnace when I begin to smell the burning stench of my own hairs on fire-- but, as much as I can still withstand the heat, I will no longer sit complacently just facing institutional racism or violent languages of exclusion that would no doubt be emboldened by Trump's "success."  I am now at the age when I have to be a responsible adult.  You won't see me in a cafe phoning my friends in South Korea and blithely telling how this country is going to seed.  Instead, I will reach out to the organizations, activists, programs, projects and groups determined to take back the country from Trump and his racist enablers, and work with them to bring the country back to the direction of progress and diversity.

Final words: from November 8 on, whatever the result of the election is, all you arrogant white male Americans who condescendingly looked down on Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea and other nations and disparaged their "inability to grasp the essence of democracy" or some such American exceptionalist crap, stop bullshitting to my ears.

American democracy is DISEASED.  The young ones are probably up to the task of curing it but meanwhile, kindly stop telling me how "great" American democracy is, while allowing the low-grade charlatan like Trump to become the head of its executive branch.  There is nothing "great" about the American system that allows this to happen. You have forfeited the right to be ignorantly and arrogantly complacent.

 -- Donald Trump bust in the Georgia campaign office.  image credit: WSB-TV

2016년 7월 20일 수요일

Taller Tales Fall Down Harder- THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) Blu Ray Review

 THE FALLEN IDOL. A London Film Production, distributed by Selznick Releasing Organization, British Lions Films. U.K. 1948. 1 hour 35 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.37:1, Mono RCA Sound System. Director: Carol Reed. Screenplay: Graham Greene, based on his own short story "The Basement Room." Cinematography: George Périnal, Music: William Alwyn.  Production Design: Vincent Korda, James Sawyer. Assistant Director: Guy Hamilton, Producers: Carol Reed, Philip Brandon. Executive Producer: Alexander Korda.  

CAST: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michelle Morgan (Julie), Bobby Henrey (Philipe), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Dennis O'Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames), Bernard Lee (Detective Hart), Torin Thatcher (Policeman), Karel Stepanek (First Secretary).

This review has been requested by Knox, one of the readers of M's Desk. The content will be replicated in my M's Desk webpage.

Carol Reed (1906-1976), a well-honored Englishman whose directorial career traversed the fledgling British film industry in the prewar era and its '50s and '60s glory days, is nonetheless often cited as a journeyman director, a mere "good storyteller" devoid of his own style or serious stakes in the cinematic medium, especially during the height of the auteurist critical trend driven by the international successes of the French nouvelle vague. Perhaps most famous for directing The Third Man (1949), his own contribution to that seminal postwar thriller has often been overshadowed by that of its flamboyant star Orson Welles, and, to a lesser degree, by that of its screenwriter Graham Greene. Reed, a notoriously generous director with many episodes indicating his gentle approach to the filmmaking process (the current Blu Ray supplements repeat some of these anecdotes, including his advice to a novice director, "Never humiliate an actor"), has not surprisingly received a surge of counter-auteurist critical support in recent years, as more formalist and genre-conscious film criticisms have come to appreciate the native Londoner's delicate yet firm control over the entire filmmaking process. And after so many movies have come and gone, an ability to tell crackling good stories on screen no longer appears so easy today, as it must have been to the Young Turk cineastes of '60s.

The Fallen Idol, usually discussed in conjunction with Reed's two other masterpieces from the immediate postwar period, The Odd Man Out (1947) and the aforementioned The Third Man, is deceptively simple-looking motion picture, tightly controlled and "engineered," yet giving the illusion of a fully naturalistic, opened-up world to the first-time viewer. Its moral concerns are also a lot more ambivalent and complex than it appears at the outset. When I had first seen it at the Cambridge, MA's Brattle Theater sometime in '80s, I immediately became immersed in it as a intelligently constructed mystery film, that, like the best of the Italian gialli made twenty years later, hinges on the misinformation conveyed through the act of seeing (and believing wrongly that one had seen something, when he/she in fact had not). It appealed to me as the type of boardroom thriller that the British were typecast for doing a great job with. Only after multiple viewings spread over more than three decades, I came to realize that the film is much more than a mere thriller, overlain with complex psychological dynamics, and suffused with a highly compassionate sensibility that could have only come from a generation that had reflected hard on the cruelties and absurdities of a devastating war.

One of the standard interpretations of the film, that this is a well-told story of a young boy being forced into adulthood, a variant of Bildungsroman, has never really worked that well for me. I have always found it exceedingly difficult to identify with the little Philipe, the eight-year-old French Ambassador's son who idolizes the Embassy's butler, Baines, who is carrying out an extramarital affair with a beautiful French typist, Julie, right under the nose of Mrs. Baines, a vindictive and disciplining authority figure for the kid. Perhaps because I have since a very young age always been so easily seduced by the great yet subtle acting, the pretend-games these marvelous British actors play, every time I have seen The Fallen Idol my focus is inexorably drawn to Baines. When he is so pathetically and, in my view as an empathetic viewer, so unjustly reduced to his "real" self in the second half, my heart unfailingly goes out to him.

Indeed, from my POV the film leans toward Baines's story of coming to terms with the lies, not just the "innocent" ones such as tall tales he has been regaling to the boy, but the much darker and despairing truths hidden beneath them, beginning with one that his marriage has become an empty husk, and more importantly, that he is too much of a weakling to dismantle or, conversely, save it. Philipe is a catalyst, or a lens through which he is now finally able to see what an untruthful life he has led so far. Baines is at his heart a kind, considerate man, but he shares certain qualities with an archetypical film noir protagonist: he lets himself become a victim of circumstances by refusing to take control of the trajectory of his life. Although Julie is far from a femme fatale, her encounters with Baines are swathed in the anxious atmosphere of deception and suppression, which perhaps for Philipe, and for the audience, stokes the flames of romantic allure. We are drawn to these pretend-plays knowing that they cannot end well.

The Fallen Idol in my opinion is a premier example of a work of classic cinema that deceptively assumes the guise of a play, yet enriched by meticulously thought-out application of cinematic techniques. There is a sense of an exquisitely designed, invented world, halfway between a child's imaginary castle and an aristocratic abode, no doubt abetted by Vincent Korda's grandiose artistry, matched by terrific dynamism of the camera (masterminded by Geroge Périnal, René Clair and Jean Gremillon's prewar partner-- it is easy for us to forget that a British film like The Fallen Idol was in fact put together by a multicultural, multilinguistic crew and cast, including French, Hungarian, German and Czechoslovakian talents) and, of course, the kind of cinematic performances cued toward the discerning eye of the camera and the editor's rhythm rather than the paying audience seated in the front row.

Bobby Henrey, a non-actor who was largely cast because, like Philipe, he had grown up in France and was capable of speaking English with a French accent, apparently had to be cooed, cajoled and at one point bribed (via a conjurer's tricks) into giving the reaction that Reed wanted. Yet, the end result is completely natural performance, including the shots showing uncomprehending terror (this could not have been easy on his or Reed's part). Henrey's performance is fascinatingly un-self-conscious, quite unlike great performances given by professionally trained child actors, for instance, Mark Lester in Reed's own Oliver! (1968): a closest corollary to Henrey's performance I could think of is the one delivered by Kelly Reno in The Black Stallion (1979). 

However, for me, The Fallen Idol is really dominated by Ralph Richardson. It is truly remarkable that three of the British theater's greatest twentieth-century actors, John Gielgud, Laurence Oliver and Richardson, had such a long and distinguished career as film actors as well (There were those theater giants whose cinematic sojourn was relatively minor, such as Paul Scofield). Richardson had a singularly productive relationship with Alexander Korda throughout '30s and again this might have extended to his casting as Baines in The Fallen Idol, a production that can be characterized in a way as Korda's way of enlisting Greene as a reliable source for his films. While he could definitely have dialed up the impish, even slightly sinister side of Baines, Richardson eschews easy theatrics and provides a strikingly restrained performance, a textbook showcase of "less is more:" it is a thoroughly cinematic turn, not relying on the Old Vic director's oratorical skills at all, conveying so much through delicate facial expressions and rigid postures rather than "acting" as such.
The Fallen Idol is not exactly a neglected gem: it was both a commercial and critical hit upon its release, and has continued to claim a honored position in the postwar British cinema (it was not imported to Japan until 1953, beating The Quiet Man, Shane and The Sound Barrier to claim the rank of no. 4 among foreign imports in the year's prestigious Kinema junpo list). Yet due to its small scale and the plot that easily renders itself to simplification, one could lose sight of the degree to which the film's "simple" qualities are in fact a reflection of superlatively fine-honed filmmaking artistry, both in front of and behind the camera. It is a classic motion picture not bound to its particular era or milieu, capable of touching and shaking us beyond generational and cultural divides.

Blu Ray Presentation:

British Film Institute/Studio Canal. Region B. Video: Academy ratio 1.37:1, 1080p. Audio: Mono Lossless PCM. English (HOH) Subtitles. Supplements: Interviews with Bobby Henrey, Guy Hamilton, film historian Charles Drazin, director Richard Ayodade, Location featurette with Richard Dacre, Restoration comparison. Street date: May 2, 2016.

The Fallen Idol has previously been released as a Criterion DVD and is possibly geared for a Blu Ray update in the near future (Odd Man Out is already out) but this Blu Ray edition is the Region B version put out by the British Film Institute in conjunction with Studio Canal. The film has been restored by the BFI (I assume it is 2K remaster), cleaning up a large chunk of debris, nicks and scratches, but not all to the point it became waxy and featureless. There is a healthy layer of grain especially in the outdoor shots, and the black levels are sharp but stable. There has apparently been some vertical stretches due to encoding problems in early copies, but as of June 30, 2016, this problem seems to have been addressed. Overall it is a sparkling restoration that does the film's classic status justice. The lossless digital mono soundtrack is also uniformly of high quality. Only English subtitles are included.

The BFI has arranged a nice array of extras for the film. Assistant director Guy Hamilton gives a nice overview of the production process, focusing on Carol Reed's directorial style, generating a bit of controversy perhaps by commenting that Bobby Henrey's attention span was that of a "demented flea." Surprisingly, Bobby Henrey, now an octogenarian old gentleman, gives a game interview discussing his experience (he does not quite deny Hamilton's characterization of himself as lacking in attentiveness, although he comes across quite a bit more thoughtful in his own words). Both interviews are very informative and clocks around at 16 and 18 minutes. In a separate interview (appx. 20 minutes) Charles Drazin discusses the production background from the angle of Graham Green and Alexander Korda's participations. Young director Richard Ayoade (The Double) expresses his admiration for the film in question and especially Carol Reed's approach to acting. I sometimes find a fellow filmmaker's tribute to a classic film largely perfunctory or tangential, but Ayoade makes an excellent case for Reed's directorial skills and soundness of the latter's approach, especially his determination to have every character-- no matter how minor-- to "fully speak for him or herself" throughout the film. The supplements are rounded out by a brief restoration comparison and Ryan Gilbey's rather substantial booklet essay, which should not be read prior to watching the film, as it is full of spoilers.  As I have stated above, Criterion might issue its own Region A blu ray of this film in the near future, so it is up to you to stick out for it, but if you have a region free or region B-exclusive machine, I can vouch for the high quality of the BFI-Studio Canal presentation of this exceedingly well-crafted little cinematic gem.