"I am a sick man…"
I did not quite know what to expect from Notes from the Underground. I looked at the synopsis provided for this DVD and to my surprise I read that Gary Walkow's film is indeed loosely based on the famous Dostoyevsky novella. But what can Dostoyevsky, Seth Green (Punk Neighbor), Sheryl Lee (Liza), and John Favreau (Zerkov) have in common? With all due respect having these now cult actors (how could you not have the loser from Swingers immediately pop up in your mind) and Dostoyevsky mixed together sounded too exotic even for me. So, let see…
Notes from the Underground as it appears was produced back in 1995 and just recently newcomer Olive Films have decided to bring this interesting project to life by granting it a DVD release. The story follows the personal confession of the Underground Man (narrated by Henry Czerny) who basically deconstructs his entire life as a complete loser. The Underground Man however hardly seems like your typical loser. He has a half-decent job at the local city hall, he lives alone, and he even attends a whorehouse where he falls in love (don't ask) with a charming prostitute. Unfortunately, he is treated as a loser by his own friends…they all have respectable jobs, they can afford a 100$ bottle of wine, and of course they enjoy playing the prestigious game of golf. With other words the "friends" have success written all over them. So, when the Underground Man and his school buddies get together for one last farewell party where long time favorite Zerkov is to be celebrated emotions and egos collide leading to one of the most humiliating confessions I have seen captured on film.
I suppose one could view Notes from the Underground in two different ways. You could either follow the film from a point of view where everything will eventually lead back to Dostoyevsky's work and will be compared to it. Or, you could simply embrace the main character completely disregarding the fact that the story is based off of a classic work from a well-known master. I think that Notes from the Underground is that good…it simply allows you to pick a viewing approach that best fits your personal expectations.
Gary Wilkow's work happened to pinch a nerve in me that created a convoluted reaction. As much as this film is a product of the author's imagination (of course inspired by the famous novella) there is something strangely familiar in the way the Underground Man is treated. The manner in which he is approached by his school buddies surely unveils a trend in our society that at least for me raised a red flag a long time ago. Seeing how "success" is measured in dollar banknotes and the mandatory arrogant behavior that comes with it certainly made me feel uncomfortable. But what else is new…a "loser" blaming himself for his inability to achieve the prestigious status which our society demands, well, "he didn't try hard enough" as many would say, if he wanted to he could have been "successful". As you could guess Gary Walkow, the director of Notes from the Underground has a slightly different opinion...
How Does the DVD Look?
Notes from the Underground certainly has a low-budget, indy-look which fits the aura of the film perfectly. Presented in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 (unfortunately) the film is not enhanced for widescreen TV's. With this said, most of the film, specifically the confessions by the Underground Man, have been shot with a hand-held camera and the quality of the film is intentionally, I assume, rather murky. Aside from that the rest of the print offers some obvious macro-blocking, some visible contrast boosting (I don't understand why), and a hazy look which I don't think is intentional. Overall, this DVD could have been produced much, much better and I am rather sad that the producers did not put a little extra effort in it as it could have been a great package.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original Dolby Digital Stereo track the DVD sounds just fine. The mostly dialog driven feature is well presented on this disc and I did not notice any substantial problems that need to be specifically addressed in this review.
There are some interesting extras on this DVD, most notably a very well-written booklet with notes by Professor Deborah Martinsen from Columbia University (the unabridged version of the original essay by Professor Martinsen could be accessed in a PDF format through the "extras" section on the DVD herein reviewed). Furthermore, there is a full length-commentary by director Gary Walkow, actors Henry Czerny, film editor Peter Ellis, and Stanford Professor Joseph Frank. There is also a photo gallery and a lecture commentary by Professor Frank (web content).
I enjoyed this film so much I viewed it twice in a matter of 48 hours, first without being exposed to the revealing extras, and second after I read the notes of Professor Martinsen. I stand firmly behind my initial comments…the film is so good it truly deserves a second viewing. I am willing to give it a RECOMMENDED mark regardless of the fact that the image is slightly below average and lacks proper anamorphic enhancement.