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Talking Out of Frame

Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin

Talking Out of Frame:
Art House Cinema on DVD

Vol. 14: January 2011 Edition
compiled by Casey Burchby


New at the Art House Cinema
(Click on the links to read the full review.)

A new year has begun – and a new decade.  Since our last installment of Talking Out of Frame, the home video market has seen the arrival of a slew of significant titles on Blu-ray and DVD, including the following:

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story
(Blu-ray reviewed by Jamie S. Rich)

BBS was a short-lived, yet artistically progressive production company that had an integral role in one of the most adventurous periods of American moviemaking. Comprised of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, the company made seven movies in the late 1960s and early '70s, some of which went on to be iconic works, some of which are not as well known. Each were distinguished by the team's commitment to working with new talent to show contemporary America as they saw it. That is why the boxed set of these movies is called America Lost and Found. The BBS productions were chronicling a turning point in modern living, and their films were saying good-bye to an old Hollywood vision and hello to something more liberating.

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story is an endlessly intriguing collection. Even if all the movies don't quite hit, they are all interesting, encapsulating the changing landscape of American cinema and of the country itself. Taken as a whole, they form a kind of anthology, each movie informing the film that would follow, building a larger aesthetic narrative. Of the seven films, three of them – Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show – are bona fide classics, and a fourth, The King of Marvin Gardens, is due to be reevaluated and classified as such. The other three – Head; Drive, He Said; and A Safe Place – round out the corners, provide the connections between their brethren, and are essential to getting the complete picture of this extraordinary collective. In any creative industry, artists would be lucky to find people to work with as supportive as Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner. The space they created for their people to work was unlike any other, and it's an experiment that can likely never be repeated – but, boy, wouldn't it be great if someone tried?

Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 (Blu-ray reviewed by Thomas Spurlin)

Fantasia started out as a way for Walt Disney to resuscitate Mickey, his trademark character, after his popularity had been clouded by spinoff character Donald Duck. He and conductor Leopold Stokowski put their heads together to construct "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", the nine-minute segment that appears in the full Fantasia program, obviously with the same idea in mind as his groundbreaking short “Steamboat Willy” -- which gave the world something they hadn't seen. After running up a production budget roughly five times that of other animated shorts of the time, Disney felt it opportune to create something bigger around his beautiful little idea of marrying classical music and his animation style, if only to try and justify his budgetary hits. In went an idea and a concentration for detail, as well as musings about how to use multi-channel sound in a theater, and out came an audiovisual experience in Fantasia unlike any other.

With Deems Taylor as the narrating guide, Fantasia sweeps through eight animated segments that mix the '40s-era Disney animation style with a forward-thinking eye for the way that its audience perceives cartoons and classical music, along with how the two can intertwine into something poignant -- instead of something that's just frivolous entertainment.

Fantasia 2000 illustrates the shift in the Disney tone over the course of sixty years, skewing more towards straightforward, easier-to-chew artistry and a more ostensibly vibrant keel. It's an ode to the original, a love letter that handles itself similarly, but it wouldn't come close to holding the same impact without its precursor's existence.

Two pieces really work, though, taking Fantasia 2000 to stunning heights during those bursts. First is "Rhapsody in Blue", an in-progress piece squeaked into the production at the last minute. It takes Gershwin's brassy Jazz essence and pairs it with the artistic flare of Aladdin artist Eric Goldberg, depicting the rhythmic emotional ebb-and-flow in New York City. The other comes in a classic but visually modern take on Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite", which depicts a vegetation-spreading "Spring Sprite" and her curiosity with her fiery phoenix-like counterpart, a figure more bent on destruction than the creation of life.

>Cairo Time (DVD reviewed by the editor)

Cairo Time is a thoughtful, understated, well-photographed character piece anchored by a good performance by an appealing actress. In the lead, Patricia Clarkson gives a quiet, lovely performance, as is her tendency. Writer-director Ruba Nadda's script is sensitive and subtly searching, and her direction is elegant without being slick. Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine editor who arrives in Cairo looking to reconnect with her husband, a UN staffer who is delayed in Israel due to fighting in Gaza. She ends up whiling away the days waiting for him in the city, often in the company of her husband's friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig). Tareq is a gentlemanly bachelor who remains tactfully aloof during their outings, despite his obvious attraction to her - and to her foreign-ness.

Juliette is an observer, and there's a Jim Jarmusch quality to her ramblings and wanderings, her exposure to a new way of life, and her quiet growth throughout the course of the story. Clarkson is the Blossom Dearie of actresses. She's blonde, petite, and quiet. Everything she does is deeply felt but gently communicated. She has good taste and poise, and an old-fashioned grace. Here, Clarkson suggests tastefully masked reservoirs of emotion that she and Nadda only hint at during carefully timed moments. For all that, Cairo Time never feels contrived or overworked. The film suggests the hard work that went into it only inasmuch as it all comes off so well. Siddig is also very good, portraying a man similar to Juliette in his sense of dignity and allegiance to good taste and principled behavior. He is a charming, modest old soul who prefers his own concept of rectitude over life's many temptations.

Nadda's careful work in Cairo Time places her among a growing crop of major female filmmakers, but what is most significant about this film is that it is an accomplished character study that bears the best kind of understated technical polish and two outstanding performances.

The Sicilian Girl (DVD reviewed by Jamie S. Rich)

Marco Amenta's The Sicilian Girl is a mafia drama, but one with a different point of view than we're used to in the genre. The Italian film stars Veronica D'Agostino as real-life mafia daughter Rita Atria, who in early 1991 turned over her personal diaries to prosecutors as an act of revenge against the gangsters who killed her father and brother. It was a monumental case, and the teenager going against her own was seen as a colossal act of betrayal. The Sicilian Girl chronicles what led up to this brave act and what happened to Rita after.

The script here, by Amenta, Sergio Donati, and Gianni Romoli, is short on fireworks. The drama is dry, though it does move step by step with purpose. Many of the situations are ones we've seen before, but Amenta pulls them out of the more sensationalized fictions and labors for an air of authenticity. This tactic works thanks to the remarkable performance by Veronica D'Agostino. As The Sicilian Girl progresses, Rita begins to change. Her illusions of her childhood and the black-and-white "cops bad, family good" morality slowly dissipate as she realizes how deep the violence goes. In particular, she has to let go of the sterling image she has of her father. The evidence is too great to continue to pretend his hands were clean.

The Sicilian Girl takes a common mafia story and turns it into an uncommon tale of a young woman breaking free of her past and looking to end the cycle of violence that took her family from her. Anchored by a remarkable performance from Veronica D'Agostino, the docudrama takes a scaled-back approach, focusing on real-life mafia daughter Rita Atria's humanity rather than the blood and guts. Sometimes the presentation is maybe a little too chilly, but overall, it's a smart picture that delivers deeper themes in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The Quintessential Guy Maddin! (DVD reviewed by Thomas Spurlin)

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin possesses a style that's unlike any other in our modern aesthetic, for better or for worse. Try to imagine a time capsule discovered from the silent era of cinema; inside, it reveals motion pictures handled in the period's style, only with splashes of color and lines of audible dialogue spliced within text cards, exaggerated facial performances, and vintage construction. Vignetting -- that blurring or darkening of an image's outer contours -- often cradles the frame as Maddin moves from long-bodied conversational focuses, while kitschy-yet-perfunctory visual gris-gris are scattered across odd little comedic situations. His surrealist creations are indeed odd, curiosities that pivot on a tongue-in-cheek rhythm that often deems them too stilted for everyone's tastes. Yet that's also part of their charm, concoctions of quirk made appealing for their inspired creativity. They can be challenging, beautiful, mesmerizing, and downright frustrating, but they're always singular.

Zeitgeist Video have offered a collection of five -- seven, actually, five feature-length and two short-subject -- films from the peculiar director in a set entitled The Quintessential Guy Maddin: Five Films from the Heart of Winnipeg. Essentially, this package recycles the discs they've already pressed for the films into one elegant little four-disc clear-case package, while slipping in a set of five matte poster cards and wrapping it all up with a peephole-riddled cover.

The Quintessential Guy Maddin! collection covers the underexposed corners of the idiosyncratic director's oeuvre, a kaleidoscope of unique but challenging features that might dazzle the eyes and frustrate the mind at the same time. The thing to keep in mind is that they're farcical, purposefully-stilted comedic works of offbeat expressionist art, each offering enough uniqueness to be worth some of its nerve-grinding emotional flow. Some are more captivating than others; Careful's cleverness around repressing sound and sensation to keep an Alpine village from an avalanche proves a fertile ground for the director's tongue-in-cheek quirk, while his capturing of the Royal Winnepeg Ballet's off-stage performance of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary will astound just about anyone with an appreciation for performance art, Stoker's prose, or gothic visual lyricism as a whole. Archangel and Cowards Bend the Knee both offer glimpses into his more stalwart, disquieting voice. And, without any other way to say it, the sluggish opulence of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs really didn't go down well, seeming too wooden and waxy to strike any kind of aesthetic or affective chord.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (DVD reviewed by Jason Bailey)

Early in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg's extraordinary documentary portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the legendary comic's manager offers up an assessment of the general perception of his client. "Right now," he says flatly, "they see her as a plastic surgery freak who's past due." Full disclosure: I was one of those people. My primary impressions of Rivers were of a, yes, plastic surgery freak, braying on a red carpet on E! (their exclamation point, not mine). I knew her as the woman who quit the gig guest-hosting Carson for a Fox competitor that flopped miserably; I knew her as one of the C-grade schlubs on "Celebrity" Apprentice (my quotes, not theirs). What I didn't know her as was funny, or fascinating. In Stern and Sundberg's excellent documentary, she is both.

Stern and Sundeberg rotate between verité-style home and work footage, interviews, and Rivers' biography. There are fantastic vintage clips of her on Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, and Carson, clippings, photos, memories. She's surprisingly candid--she talks about her surgeries, talks about her marriage, her difficulties balancing work and family. "She referred to her career as 'The Career,'" her daughter Melissa remembers. "And it occurred to me one day that I had a sibling." And she remembers the rough years--the ugly break-up with Carson, the failure of the Fox show, the suicide of her husband Edgar (which, oddly enough, she and Melissa reenacted for a TV movie, a move she claims was rehabilitative but still seems mighty weird). The dynamic with Melissa is quite interesting--nobody sees through Joan quite like her daughter, and when they do Celebrity Apprentice together, we get a peek inside their relationship (Melissa seeking affirmation, or chastising her mother for turning her insecurities into criticism of their co-stars).

As a protective measure, she's her own worst critic; when she appears at the Kennedy Center tribute to George Carlin, she says of her fellow presenters, "they're all gonna be so much funnier than I am." But the toughest hits come when she subjects herself to the indignities of a Comedy Central roast because she'll make some badly-needed money. "They keep telling you it's an honor," she muses. "If I had invested wisely, I wouldn't be doing this." Clips of the roast are seen, and the cracks are predictably vile; the filmmakers slow down the tape and hold on Rivers as she tries to keep her brave face on. Moments like that might stack the deck a tad too much in the icon's favor, but who cares? Our goodwill toward Joan Rivers is strong enough even without those moments; she's a survivor, she's a hard worker, and most of all, she's hilarious.

Mademoiselle Chambon (Blu-ray reviewed by Thomas Spurlin)

Nothing seems visibly off about Jean's family. He (Vincent Lindon) and his wife (Aure Atika) teach their son the mechanics of sentence structure on the lawn outside their home, bickering over direct objects and second-guessing their knowledge. Jean's a builder who seems to get an adequate level of pleasure from what he does, while his relationship with his wife seems healthy and on the up-and-up. So when he meets his son's teacher, the violin-playing Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain), and something stirs between them, it seems a bold decision for him to pursue the flutter of magnetism generated between them. Some might feel like Jean's actions need answering, a reason for following the pull towards Mlle. Chambon; one of this poetic little film's key strengths lies in the fact that this question never receives an answer, nor feels the need to answer it.

Stéphane Brizé's slight but beautiful arthouse romance Mademoiselle Chambon delicately portrays an affair in the making, using glances and body language between two people to convey the emotions often forced upon audiences with words. The director's very aware of the line between staying faithful to one's spouse and stepping over into promiscuity, and exactly how discerning people approach the brink of surrendering to temptation.

Though the film's pacing isn't for the impatient, the actors offer an immense return-on-investment with the sublimely low-key electricity that generates when they're in the same room, felt in the unspoken dialogue underneath their everyday chatter. Brizé comprehends that implicit language, and his actors nimbly express his understanding.

Within that, Mademoiselle Chambon tells the pair's underlying stories in an effective secondhand fashion, allowing flickers of Jean and Véronique's personal demons to ever-so-slightly peek their heads out while the current of reserved passion extends. This isn't an affair about sexual gratification, about release or quenching one's thirst, and it's obvious through their control over acting on their bond. Brizé's film becomes potent because of the emotional gratification achieved when they solemnly flirt with the idea, almost as satisfying as actual love-making.

Army of Shadows (Blu-ray reviewed by Jamie S. Rich)

That title, referring to the men who led the French Resistance in WWII, evokes the image of a spectral force, and the world Melville creates for them to go through is akin to a haunted realm, the place of the undead. It's moody and gray, quiet. We visit prison camps, occupied hotels, seaside hideaways, and in each place, normal life doesn't appear to be carrying on as always. The streets lack vibrancy, glimpses of the way things were are fleeting and far away.

And in this wartime limbo, the freedom fighters operate as a separate society, a hidden military. They work in secret, though their actions eventually go public. They seem to move in between the moments in which the rest go about their business--the rest being either their enemy or the citizens they hope to liberate. They are shades. They are other. Their multiple voiceovers speak in past tense, voices from beyond the grave.

Army of Shadows is essentially an espionage picture. It's not a war movie, even though it does involve the war. Rather, this is about the often unsung heroes, the ones who never got their due, who slowly pushed the rock up the mountain to try to make a difference. It's about tough choices and careful maneuvers. The narrative is multi-layered, complex to the point of abstraction. It's not an A to B to C plot in that each sequence suggests the next. Instead, Melville, who wrote the script from a novel by Joseph Kessel, focuses on the unexpected, the developments no one planned for.

It amazes me that Army of Shadows has remained in the shadows for so long. Never shown in America until 2006, Jean-Pierre Melville's iron-jawed, demystified eulogy of the French Resistance is both an honest time capsule of WWII and a timeless, almost surreal, existential parable. Rarely pausing to reflect on its own meaning, this string of stories about a band of fighters is nevertheless a philosophical and moral picture of action in a time of distress. Lovingly shot and meticulously edited, the Criterion Collection already did right by Army of Shadows three years ago, and their porting over their brilliantly restored and packed DVD to Blu-Ray manages to get it even more right.

The American (Blu-ray reviewed by Jason Bailey)

Anton Corbijn's The American begins with a short burst of austere action--regarded flatly, from a distance. Corbijn drains the scene of its sensationalism; there is no scare music, no tight close-ups. It is an unfortunate thing that happens, and that we move on from. There will be a good long while before there is more action. 

The film that unwinds from there is a quiet, meditative character study; as Jack arrives in one Italian village, then moves to another, making acquaintances and lining up a job customizing a long-range rifle, Corbijn demands our patience. He's trying out a deliberate, distinctively European tone, tenor, and (especially) pace. The American has the feel of a '60s French crime pic--a Melville effort, perhaps. Of course, films like those are the precise antithesis of a modern, star-driven Hollywood action movie, which is part of the reason The American should be celebrated. This is not to imply that all of Corbijn's throwback moves work--there is a fine line between the familiar and the cliché, and certainly we could have found a less predictable way for Jack to fall in love than to find that old standby, the hooker with the heart of gold. His relationship with a local priest is intriguing; their spiritual debates less so. And so on.

Corbijn is a photographer and music video director whose debut film, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, had a great many admirers (though I was not one of them). The title of that film seems the rule of this one; there must be a tremendous temptation, for any filmmaker, to amp up the melodrama when dealing with a story of assassins and double-crosses and the like. But Corbijn keeps the narrative tightly reined, so that the climactic events, when they arrive, are devastating. He also lucks out in hitching himself to Clooney, who does some of his best work to date here. There's a sadness in his weathered face throughout the film, tracing back to the particular (and chilling) way that his eyes go dead when he pulls the trigger on that poor woman in the opening sequence. The entire performance is borne out of that moment. This is an actor of subtlety and skill, who never has to reach for effect, and The American is the ideal showcase for how much he can do by doing very little.

Double Take (DVD reviewed by Jason Bailey)

Double Take is, for all intents and purposes, an experimental movie--a weirdo assemblage of archival footage, marginally connected text, re-enactments of imagined events, and oddball flights of fancy. I'm still not quite sure how it all fits together, except as a free-form film essay on everything from Alfred Hitchcock, the Cold War, and doppelgangers to outer space, television, and coffee. But it is enthralling cinema.

The subject is ostensibly Hitchcock, but he's no more the primary topic than Orson Welles was in his similarly freewheeling F for Fake. A bit of a structure is provided by novelist Tom McCarthy, who wrote the film's "story"--a fanciful tale (inspired by the short story "25 August, 1983" by Jorge Luis Borges) in which Hitch describes an incident in 1962 when he was called away from the set of The Birds for a phone call, and ended up meeting the 1980 version of himself.

Running parallel to the Hitchcock story is a fragmented portrait of Cold War-era America--the space race, the Nixon-Kruschev "kitchen summit," the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Cuban missile crisis. The first response to all of this, for the viewer pulled in by the Hitchcock angle that the trailers and print materials have been pushing, is simple: What the hell does any of this have to do with Hitchcock? And then the answer comes, the deeper we get into the picture: everything.  Grimonprez is both a literalist and an impressionist, in thrall to an abstract visual, the power of an odd cut, the jolt of a piece of old film (like the newsreel footage of the plane that flew into the Empire State building in 1945, and all of its worrisome allusions), the pleasure of an evocative music cue (Christian Halten's score is augmented by some of the Bernard Hermann cues it so elegantly calls to mind).

Double Take is an odd, playful, intriguing film, and while some of it is downright inexplicable, it never loses your interest. Grimonprez somehow manages to craft a film that works as an avant-garde trick, a historical documentary, and cinematic exploration, all at the same time, none at the expense of the other.

Iraq in Fragments (DVD reviewed by Kurt Dahlke; released in 2007)

Of course the good ole U.S. of A. has long since moved on from even thinking about Iraq - not that we were much thinking about Iraq when we went in to occupy the place originally. We've got other things on our mind, but if you're interested in learning more about that conflict from a perspective you might not have considered, James Longley's Iraq In Fragments represents an astounding glimpse into a very complex situation. I know, it's an old-fashioned technique, thinking about something we've done, of huge historical significance, a year or two after the fact, but that's the way they did it in the old days, and it's a great way to gain additional insight into something many would rather forget.

Our first hazy, golden-hued tale is Mohammed, about an 11-year-old boy without a father, without much of an education, and without much love in his life. It's a truly heartbreaking piece of reportage that feels more like a drama than a documentary. Longley's unprecedented access means his camera hovers at Mohammed's eye level as he moves throughout bombed streets with uniformed American soldiers hovering mysteriously in tanks on the periphery.

Sadr's South finds Shiite city-dwellers agitating for free elections while hoping to maintain their fundamental ways. American viewers likely never even thought about how cities and regions attempted to reorganize in a rudderless society, and how much of that work transpired in boring bureaucratic settings such as this. American viewers likely never even thought about how cities and regions attempted to reorganize in a rudderless society, and how much of that work transpired in boring bureaucratic settings such as this.

Lastly, Kurdish Spring finds young rural friends grappling with the new order and American occupation, an occupation that grants them, at least for a time, more freedom than they had during the previous oppressive regime.

Iraq In Fragments is an unprecedented, lyric and staggering look at the aftershocks of the conflict in Iraq from the Iraqi's perspective. Longley's deep access and sensitive, unbiased eye (occupying forces are occasionally seen but never demonized, they're just objects of mystery) creates a poetic, heart-wrenching drama out of his chosen subject, humanizing the Iraqi people while making real their desires, fears and frustrations.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (DVD reviewed by the editor)

Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop utilizes the approach of Orson Welles' F for Fake to satirize the art world and bring renewed focus to the subversive nature and misunderstood philosophy of street artists. It is an entertaining peek behind the scenes of the street art movement, a faux-documentary farce, and extremely clever propaganda all in one. It's also surprisingly understated, revealing its layered significance more extensively upon reflection, after its short running time has ended. Banksy, as always, comes across as a ballsy self-promoter swathed in self-conscious mystery, yet somehow Exit Through the Gift Shop never really feels like it's about him, exactly, let alone the valentine to his own genius that it might appear to be upon first glance.

Banksy appears on-camera (maybe) in a hoodie, with his voice electronically altered, to announce that his film is a quasi-accident deriving from the "lost" footage of one Thierry Guetta, an expatriate Frenchman living in Los Angeles who fell in with the street art crowd and became their self-appointed documentarian. Claiming all the while that he was creating the "ultimate street art documentary," the hyper-edited film that Guetta shaped out of tens of thousands of hours of footage of artists like Shepard Fairey, Monsieur Andre, and Borf turns out to be unwatchable. To keep Guetta out of his hair, Banksy encourages him to become a street artist himself, and Guetta assiduously throws himself into producing an enormous exhibition, designed to rival Banksy's then-recent LA blockbuster "Barely Legal." Guetta sells everything he owns and re-finances his property to underwrite assembly line-style art production on a massive scale - all of which he credits to his new persona, Mr. Brainwash, or MBW. The show, which is a near-disaster in the planning stages, ultimately opens to huge attendance and commensurate sales: Guetta makes something like a million dollars in short order.

No matter how you take the story it tells - as legitimate or as a hoax - Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film of minor genius that makes a scorching point about the state of the "art world" with exquisitely aloof restraint.  In its understated and oblique way, Exit Through the Gift Shop discusses who is and isn't an artist, how the title of "artist" is or isn't defined, that art is collected for reasons having nothing to do with the reasons it is created, that fraud exists at every level in the art world, and that transparent fraud is itself often considered art by those who are in a position to profit off of such a characterization.

Banksy's film has a clear purpose and concept behind it, unlike that other cinematic hoax of 2010. The film works, not matter how you take it. Guetta is a wonderful personality - someone who would be maddening to know in real life, but whose determined idiocy makes him the perfect subject for this film which is, at bottom, a comedy.  Banksy himself is only on the fringes of the proceedings, and allows themes to emerge without seeming contrived or highlighted. Banksy's biggest achievement is to tell a story of post-modern concerns and complaints utilizing a seemingly straightforward framework and having the whole thing hang together without ever referring back to the world outside of the film itself. Exit Through the Gift Shop tweaks the nose of post-modernism while making the best possible use of its tenets.

Casey Burchby lives in San Jose, California: Twitter, Facebook, Blog

Special thanks to Jamie S. Rich, Kurt Dahlke, Jason Bailey, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.

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