First Run Features collects two documentary shorts by filmmaker Allan Miller onto one disc, simply titled "The Bolero/In Search of Cézanne: Two Films by Allan Miller." Miller is renowned for his work studying art (of all sorts) and the people that make it; his films "The Bolero" and "From Mao to Mozart: Izaac Stern in China" won Academy Awards, while his "Small Wonders" (another Oscar nominee) was the inspiration for Meryl Streep film "Music of the Heart."
Miller shares directing credit on "The Bolero" (1973) with William Fertik, who also co-edited. The film is broken into two pieces: the first introduces us to the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the second captures their rousing performance of Ravel's masterpiece. Both halves are endlessly mesmerizing. The idea of the first half is to break the barrier between audience and symphony, allowing us to meet these artists on an individual level, discovering why they choose to play music and hearing their thoughts on the power of the art form. We meet men and women who left boring jobs behind to find magic as part of a symphony, men and women who couldn't imagine any other kind of life.
More importantly, we learn how a symphony functions as a unit - the duties of the conductor and the musicians, how they work together on a fragile level. (One false bit of timing from one member, and an entire section can go out of whack.) Once this information settles, we're let in on what makes Ravel's composition so powerful, how a simple, repetitive melody can grow into something so much more.
The film's second portion is a performance that further breaks those audience-performer barriers. As the symphony performs the titular work, the cameras come up close to the performers. Instead of a single wide shot of the symphony as a whole, we're treated to shots of the group on an individual, personal level. As the music builds to its climax, the camera turns to conductor Zubin Mehta, who becomes wrapped up in the music's majesty.
And once the music ends, so does the film. It's a straightforward, unassuming piece, one that succeeds in bringing classical music closer to the listener.
"In Search of Cézanne" (2002) is quite a different work. Here, Miller mixes documentary and fiction in an attempt to explore the art of the French painter Paul Cézanne, while also offering a commentary on the act of studying art.
Jacqueline Kim plays Martha, a young filmmaker who has recently fallen in love with the work of Cézanne. When we meet her, she has decided to make a documentary on the artist in hopes of shedding light on her new obsession, which leads to an interesting debate among the small gathering of artists and scholars she meets in a museum: is it better to learn all you can about an artist, thus allowing you to fully understand his point of view, or is it better to let your own life lead you along, succumbing to the art on your own terms?
Miller's film suggests a middle ground. As Martha visits France to meet with museum curators and even Cézanne's grandson, the message becomes clear. It is wonderful to want to learn about the life and history of an artist, Miller suggests, but do not assume that a lack of such knowledge should prevent you from enjoying great art, which should speak to you as you see fit.
Throughout this, Miller sneaks in plenty of facts about Cézanne's life, and we see dozens of the painter's works in great detail. The fictional outline to this documentary may seem questionable at first, but it ultimately makes sense, allowing Miller to get to all the facts without all the dryness of a typical documentary. Plus, the Martha character can convey an excitement for the subject that a straight documentary might not feel comfortable handling.
Video & Audio
Both films are presented in their original full frame (1.33:1) formats. "The Bolero" was shot on film, and it shows, with grain and softness prevailing. "Cézanne," shot on digital video, looks crisper and cleaner all around.
Both movies' soundtracks are presented in Dolby stereo. "The Bolero" especially shines here, for obvious reasons. No subtitles are provided for "The Bolero." "Cézanne" offers non-removable English subs only for scenes featuring French dialogue.
A few pages of on-screen text supply director's notes on the two films, plus a Miller biography. Also included are trailers for other First Look releases.
"The Bolero" is an exceptional work; "Cézanne," while much less so, still has its points of interest. But with a combined running time of just 52 minutes, this disc is awfully light for the asking price. Unless you're a hardcore fan delighted to finally get "The Bolero" on DVD, there's no reason to own this one. Rent It instead.