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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


Silent Ozu and La Roue
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

I've been busy with my new duties as editor at DVDTalk and so this time around we have a special treat:  reviews of two new Silent DVD releases by Jamie S. Rich.  Jamie covers a couple of great releases that I wish I was able to screen:  the Eclipse release The Silent Ozu, a set of three light comedies by the Japanese director.  He follows that up with Flicker Alley's release of the newly restored Abel Gance epic, La Roue.

The next installment should be out in a couple of weeks, and I'll be back giving my thoughts on a group of Kino's latest releases:  The Silent Houdini,  thier First Ladies - Early Women Filmmakers series which presents four films and one short by early female on three discs, and a couple of discs focusing on very early cinema:  The Magic of Melies and Before The Nickelodeon, a documentary of Edwin S. Porter.  That should keep me off the streets for a while.

Speaking of Kino, they are really releasing a torrent of silent film discs.  In addtion to the aforementioned group, the're coming out with the third series of Slapstick Symposium discs.  This has been a great series so far, showcasing some hilarious comedians and presenting some of thier best shorts.  This time around the series is including some features too.  The Harry Langdon disc will have his first two directorial efforts, 1927's Three's a Crowd and 1928's The Chaser.  Mable Norman makes her debut in the series with the feature The Extra Girl (1923) along with The Gusher from 1913.  The final entry in this wave is the one I'm most looking forward to:  another 2-disc Stan Laurel set.   This collection will feature two of the three movies Stan made with comedian Larry Semon in 1918 including one of my favorite comedy shorts, Frauds and Frenzies.  All three of these will street on June 3rd.

Flicker Alley continues their series of excellent silent releases with Abel Gance's classic inditement of WWI:  J'Accuse.  This new restoration used film from several different archives and collections to create the most complete version of the film since the original 1919 release.  If it's anything like thier earlier releases, this should be a must-buy.

I'll be attending the San Fransisco Silent Film Festival again this year. They've announced the line up and they've got some excellent films on the schedule.  This year they are screening the following:

FRIDAY, JULY 11
The Kid Brother (1927)

SATURDAY, JULY 12
Amazing Tales From
   The Archive
The Soul of Youth (1920)
Les Deux Timides (The Two Timid Souls) (1928)
Mikael (Michael) (1924)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
The Unknown (1927)

SUNDAY, JULY 13
Die Abenteur Des Prinzen Achmed
   (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926)
The Silent Enemy (1930)
Her Wild Oat (1927)
Jujiro (Crossways) (1928)
The Patsy (1928)


For more information check out the SFSFF web site here.
 


Silent Ozu:
 
 

The Eclipse Series is the Criterion Collection's way of bundling specific segments of a director's career under one banner. Usually focusing on the less well-known pieces of a filmmaker's oeuvre, the Eclipse boxes come without any bells or whistles, presenting the movies on their own without extras or the meticulous restoration that is usually applied to their more high-end releases. Those kinds of DVDs take a long time to produce, and by taking this approach, the company can take films from the back of the line and get them to the public faster. Thus, the three movies in Silent Ozu - Eclipse Series 10, further subtitled Three Family Comedies, don't have to sit on a shelf waiting for Yasujiro Ozu's more venerated films to work their way through the system and clear up space for them.

Ozu already has his own Eclipse box, and is actually the first director to be a repeat in the collection. Late Ozu was the third in the series, and it showed the director at the end of his long career, making his final films in the '50s and '60s. Silent Ozu swings us back to the other end, presenting three of the Japanese master's early films from the 1930s. Though Ozu had actually begun working in the previous decade, the '30s saw him settling into the type of work that would define his career: films about family and their everyday lives, how they get by and how they deal with the rapidly changing onset of modernity while still keeping the core of family intact. He was already working with screenwriter Kogo Noda, his lifelong collaborator, to achieve a balance of tender humor and poignant drama, establishing a sense of calm sentimentality that would give even his heavier pictures a feeling of being free from Earthly gravity.

Those were all lessons that would serve him well once Ozu transitioned into talkies, but which began forming here, in the silent era.

* Tokyo Chorus (Tokyo no korasu) (90 minutes - 1931): Four years into filmmaking and Ozu made his twenty-second picture, a bittersweet light drama about a struggling family in Tokyo. Though I realize this boxed set is billed as "Three Family Comedies," this is more a comedy as far as its lightness of tone than it is a laugh-out-loud effort. It's more the traditional theatrical definition of comedy, working in opposition to tragedy. In other words, everything turns out all right.

You could actually say that the comedy comes from the foolhardy ego of Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) needing to be deflated in order for him to grow up. Beginning in his school years, Okajima is the class cut-up making life difficult for his teacher, Omura (Tatsuo Saito). Underneath the antics, though, Ozu is introducing his larger themes of poverty and social standing. Much of Okajima's joking is covering up for the fact that he is not as well-off as his fellow students, his uniform is not up to snuff.

Cut to post graduation, and Okajima is now a family man with three children and a caring wife (Emiko Yaguma). He works for an insurance company and is getting on fine in his daily life, but as we will see, he is still caught somewhere between his idealistic youth and his real responsibilities. Hence, when his son (Hideo Sugawara) begs for a bike, Daddy promises the boy one to be a good guy and cool father; when the older office worker (Takeshi Sakamoto) gets fired from his firm, Okajima stands up for him, showing his coworkers that he has the mettle to oppose injustice. This only gets him fired, as well, and the rest of Tokyo Chorus is spent watching Okajima learn how to navigate his new station in life. Ozu adopts a realistic, socially critical eye to view Okajima's struggle, showing the poverty and employment on the city streets. Okajima is still left-of-center as far as this social commentary is concerned: he's still the clown from the early scenes, the happy dad from a family drama. Part of his new education, which is once again aided by teacher Omura, is to get more in line with reality, to drop the act and the pretense of pride, and face life with a clear vision. Ironically, what he will discover is that by growing up and accepting adulthood, he is once again free to enjoy himself.

In some sense, in the way Ozu peeks in on the children at play and juxtaposes it against the more serious adult concerns, I am reminded of his later family comedy Good Morning. In a larger sense, however, Tokyo Chorus shows the early groundwork for what would become the classic Ozu dynamic: a portrait of a family, a struggle between generations in the face of change, and a soft tone that handles both the happy and the sad with an even hand that smoothes it all out and shows us that it's all one cake and is all covered in the same frosting. Even visually, Ozu is already applying his static camera technique, keeping his shots grounded and maintaining a quiet, unobtrusive directorial presence.

Picture: Tokyo Chorus definitely shows its age. The 1.33:1 black-and-white picture has persistent surface scratches, and the image resolution is not of a consistent quality (there is even one case of about five seconds of a black bar across the bottom of the frame). Though there were a couple of moments of shaky picture, I didn't notice any jumpy edits or any points where it looked like something was missing or there was a bad splice, so it does have a consistent print source. The image is always clear enough to see, too, it is never so badly obscured as to render the movie unwatchable (I've certainly seen discs of public domain films that are far, far worse). Just be aware it's not even close to perfect.

* I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa mita keredo) (90 min. - 1932): If I Was Born, But... reminds you once again of Good Morning, this time it's for a very good reason: the later film used this one as a jumping-off point. Written by Akira Fushimi from a story by James Maki, I Was Born, But... is the story of two grade-school-aged brothers (Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki) who have newly moved to the suburbs, where they find the neighborhood kids to be rougher and more territorial than what they are used to. The comedy of the social interaction amongst the children is reminiscent of the Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts, with kids acting of one mind, running back and forth across the screen looking for trouble. An added element of Ozu's film, however, is the adult perspective and that childhood awareness that adults just don't get it. When the boys are discovered to have skipped school to avoid getting into a fight, dear ol' Dad (Tatsuo Saito again) tells them to just ignore the bullies and they will go away. The boys know this won't work, and so they have to invent other schemes to get out of harm's way. One always has to wonder how parents seem to forget so much of what the world is like! Ozu even shows the level of the father's selective blindness, using subtle cutting to show the parallels between the pecking order in the office and the classroom.

After the bully problem is dealt with, the boys become part of the gang, joining in bizarre death-and-resurrection pantomimes and eating sparrow's eggs for strength--the kind of wild ideas that kids invent based on overheard facts and half-truths and that make for great movie comedy. The children are fantastic performers, and I Was Born, But... comes alive every time they are on screen, borrowing its comedic approach straight from the playground. (I love Tomio Aoki--also called Tokkan Kozo--when he does a little side bit of comedy business straight from Tinsel Town.) Director of photography Hideo Mohara (who also doubled as the editor) lets his camera move when the kids do and lets it settle when they settle. Ozu's ensemble is comfortable and funny, coming off as natural performers rather than Hollywood caricatures.

Eventually, the games shift into a battle over whose dad is more important, and the final act of the film is concerned with the brothers discovering for the first time that their father is not everything they imagined him to be. To them, their father is the boss, and seeing him in a situation where he is actually the underling confuses them. After a violent row, their dad remembers how daunting and disappointing the intricacies of the social order can be for a child. The lesson he has to teach them about how to get along is remarkably similar to the one they learned in spite of his advice in regards to the bullies: tomorrow is another day, and another chance to take things head-on and make life better. It's as touching as it is funny, and it's right on the money.

Picture: I Was Born But... is definitely more than a step up from Tokyo Chorus. The image of the transfer (again, black-and-white and 1.33:1) is much more clear, with the surface scratches being far less prevalent. They are still there pretty regularly, but instead of being on the entire frame, are usually isolated to smaller areas. (In a couple of cases, they actually look like burn marks.) Once again, there are no bad cuts or splices, and there was no noticeable vibration.

* Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro) (100 min. - 1933): A father-son relationship takes center stage yet again. This time, the father is happy-go-lucky Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), a single dad who works in a brewery to give his son an education. The son, Tomio, is played by Tomio Aoki from I Was Born, But..., and he's already a couple steps ahead of dad in the smarts department. The two live simply in Tokyo, spending their nights at the restaurant down the street, palling around with dad's co-worker Jiro (Den Obinata). After an evening of entertainment, the two men meet Harue (Nabuko Fushimi), a young girl who is down on her luck. Jiro is suspicious of her, but Kihachi is immediately smitten. He gets her a job in the restaurant and sets to courting her. Only, she likes Jiro, who continues to think she's the wrong kind of woman. Kihachi, ever the loveable fool, is even enlisted by Harue's boss (Coko Iida) to try to change Jiro's mind.

Takeshi Sakamoto's sweetly comic performance dominates the picture. It's the sort of defining performance that makes an actor's career. A naturally genial screen presence, his smile sets Passing Fancy alight even as his character hits a rough patch. Broken-hearted over Harue, Kihachi drinks too much, staying away from work. When his son discovers what is happening, he confronts his father, and the two have it out. Unfortunately, their reconciliation has unforeseen consequences and Tomio gets sick. This event changes everyone's course, and it forces Kihachi to get his act together and show his true colors. The poverty-stricken man's stubborn pride gives Ozu yet another opportunity to question the honor of social mores and make a comment about community.

Shooting in the slums where Kihachi and Tomio rest their heads, Ozu and cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto make the most of their cramped settings, often crowding their actors in the frame. The lives of the working class were seen as something to escape, and just like the parents in I Was Born, But..., Kihachi only wants to see his son better him. He is bemusedly aware that the boy has already done so, and this convention of the child being more responsible than the father is one that survives in movies and television to this day. Kihachi himself would also survive, with Sakamoto returning to the role several more times, including in Ozu's breakthrough A Story of Floating Weeds the following year. The director saw the potential in the character as a means of expression, reflecting many of the patriarch's in the filmmaker's own life. As such, that depth and charisma is already on display in Passing Fancy on both comedic and emotional levels.

Picture: This disc is essentially the middle ground in terms of quality. As with the others, it is full frame and black-and-white, and though it doesn't have the overall surface grime of Tokyo Chorus there are some scenes with the same amount of scratches. The bulk of the transfer is closer to I Was Born, But..., however. I also noted several times where the image froze for a second or two, presumably to fill in some gaps from missing frames, as these were usually lingering transition shots.

THE DVD

Sound:
All the movies have the same audio options: either a truly silent version or an optional mono score by Donald Soshin. You will be asked to "activate" the score from the main menu. Soshin's music fits the mood of each movie well without being overbearing or obtrusive. He writes for the piano, and he knows when to be softer (Tokyo Chorus) or more light-hearted (I Was Born, But...). His work is elegant and right on, servicing the material without advertising itself.

The intertitles on the films are in Japanese, with optional subtitle translations. These English titles also serve to translate important signs and other pieces of writing in the movies. I particularly liked the little boy in I Was Born, But... with the note on his back that read, "Upset Tummy, Do Not Feed Him Anything."

Extras:
As noted in the main review, the Eclipse series is intended as a no-frills alternative, so there are no bonus features on any of the DVDs. The five movies come housed in individual slimline cases that fit inside a cardboard slipcover. They can be slid out of the top or the bottom of the cover rather than the side. By way of supplemental material, each case has a short, informative essay about the film's place in the Ozu filmography printed on the inside front cover.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Highly Recommended. Part of the fun of studying cinema history is to look back over a career and see the building blocks that allowed great directors to put together their signature style. Working in his second decade as a filmmaker and holding off transitioning to talkies until he got silent movies just right, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu found his most commonly traveled ground in three bittersweet, good-hearted family stories. Made from 1931 to 1933, the trio that makes up Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies - Eclipse Series 10 serves as a welcome introduction to the great artist's work. Full of comedy and pathos, these wonderful stories of generational gaps and social struggles remind us that good drama and honest writing supercedes any technological advancement as the most essential tools in filmmaking. Another solid hit for Eclipse.


La Roue:
 
 

These days, if you mention that a film is over two hours long, you're likely to receive moans and eye rolls in response. We all accept as fact that movies should be somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, and except in rare cases, any more is excess. (And by "we," I don't really mean "me." I'm merely being diplomatic.) This would all be well and good if these numbers were some kind of real indicator of what is inherently right in the art form, as opposed to a length cooked up for economic reasons. Shorter films mean more screenings in a day mean more ticket sales.

So, if people get all bent out of shape when you mention The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is 160 minutes, to name a recent example, imagine how they reacted to me when I told them I was watching a French film called La Roue that was 270 minutes. And was made in 1923. Which means it's silent. One person pityingly eyeballed me across the internet and typed, "I don't know how you do it."

Well, when a movie is of the quality of La Roue (The Wheel), it's actually pretty easy. Still, if you think that's tough, keep in mind that writer/director Abel Gance (J'accuse, Napoleon) originally released the movie with a running time clocking in over eight hours, which was then quickly shortened to somewhere over the five-hour line. This new double-disc DVD gives us a cut that is about four-and-a-half hours, which is nearly complete as far as the official theatrical cut is concerned. It's the most complete we've seen of La Roue in a long time, regardless.

The "Wheel" that Gance refers to in his title has multiple meanings. It's the wheel of industry and progress, the wheels that power a train and that steer it, and the ever-turning grind of life. The final circular image that ties it all together is of a procession of celebrating workers dancing, their spinning circle superimposed over the spokes of a railcar wheel. Gance is using the conventions of literary metaphors as his basis for visual metaphors; which is fitting, because like many silent film directors, including D.W. Griffith, G.W. Pabst, and Erich von Stroheim, Gance was approaching this new storytelling medium as if it were a direct extension of the then dominant medium, the novel. The structure and scope of La Roue has as much to do with the prose epics of Victor Hugo and Emile Zola as it does anything coming out of the early days of Hollywood.

Though wide in its telling, the story of La Roue is surprisingly simple. Sisif (Severin-Mars), a train engineer, finds a young girl, Norma, in a train wreck. Realizing that her parents are dead, he takes her from the accident and decides to raise her as his own daughter. Sisif's wife died in childbirth, and Norma will make a good companion for his son, Elie.

Jump ahead fifteen years, and the new family unit has established their own corner of happiness in the world. Yet, since the kids know nothing of Norma's true origins, there is a dark undercurrent in their lives that they can't quite identify. The grown-up Elie (Gabriel de Gavone) builds violins, and during his lonely days working at home, Norma (Ivy Close) is his only companion. Naturally, the two have an unusually close relationship, but one that is stopped from developing any further by the fact that they are siblings. Haunted by what he has done and his own feelings, Sisif is driven to drink, making him all the more susceptible to the scheming of his wealthy boss, De Hersan (Pierre Magnier). Though Norma refuses Hersan at first, Sisif's decline forces her to take his proposal of marriage, a move that destroys both father and son. Especially once the truth comes out, and Elie realizes that he could have had the love of his life all along.

Like many silent film directors, Abel Gance was visually inventive, and his expressive storytelling more than makes up for scenes that maybe meander a little long or overstate their point (some of his frantic editing draws out the tension to a nearly unbearable fever pitch). He shoots much of the picture on an actual railyard, showing the grime of the work and the majesty of the machines. This lends a real heft to the social commentary about the exploitation of workers that runs through the Sisif and Hersan relationship. It also works as an excellent contrast to Elie's vocation. While dad works with big, heavy machines, Elie creates delicate, precise instruments. Sisif's fantasy life is likewise grounded in the everyday, and when he tries to dress up or put on airs, it's comical, whereas when Elie spins fantastic tales for Norma, Gance adorns them in period costumes and shows the fairy tale they imagine themselves in as a complete whole.

To add even more to the fantasy elements, Gance also employs early special effects. The most common is superimposing one image over another, such as Norma appearing as a ghostly image in the smoke rising from Sisif's locomotive or the very clever device of one's future appearing in the center of one's hand during a palm reading. The most impressive special effect, though, is not an effect at all, but the real panorama of icy mountains that Gance shoots for the second half of the picture. After Norma's departure, events tumble down and Elie and Sisif are exiled to the wilderness, where Sisif is forced to drive a funicular car up and down the mountain. Gance isn't afraid to pause and take in the vast and chilly scenery. Even today, with all of our technology, there is nothing that can compete with shots of the real thing.

A glacier in the middle of a mountain range is a fitting locale for the end of La Roue, as it drives home how small Sisif and his clan are in the grand scheme of the world. As the wheel keeps turning and time marches forward, so too does human suffering. In many ways, La Roue is a tragedy, full of lost love, missed opportunities, and the cruelty of an unbalanced social order. Yet, it's also hopeful. Progress may threaten to crush Sisif, but he also passionately loves his trains, and they sustain him. In his way, he finds that just as he must always keep the engines running, he must also keep moving forward in life. It may be routine, but you can't let it stop, you can't give in. Through this, he and his family do find their happiness at the end, knowing that no matter how bad their situation got, they always found their way back to their home station.

THE DVD

Video:
La Roue is a full-frame presentation, and given the age and scope of the picture, the DVD producers have done a tremendous job resurrecting it. Notes that come with the booklet in this release detail how this version was cobbled together using a variety of sources, and though the print is not perfect, it's clear they went out of their way to use the best material for each scene. There is some noticeable wear and tear, usually seen as surface scratches and sometimes spots and burns in the film, but these problems are usually minimal and the image quality is always clear. Very rare scenes have tremendous damage, and even they are still perfectly watchable. Surprisingly, the picture never gets jumpy, and even splices are clean. Undoubtedly, the people involved gave their every attention to making this the best it could be.

The picture is black-and-white, but tinted with various changing colors, as well. It's only by some weird coincidence that all of my screengrabs are the standard gray.

Sound:
One stereo sound mix is available, featuring the new score by Robert Israel. Israel uses a full orchestra, as well as the occasional integrated sound effect, and the audio is excellent, using the different speakers to give the work a large atmosphere. It's a good score, never overbearing even as it enhances the onscreen action.

New English title cards were produced for this edition, and they also include some effects, like the delayed appearance of a closing line of a sentence to add drama. There are also occasional passages that appear over the top of the scene like subtitles, and if written words appear as part of the props, such as a letter, there are smooth fades from the French text to English translations. All of the text is easy to read, staying on screen for the right amount of time to allow proper digestion.

Extras:
Only a couple of extras here, this two-disc set is mostly movie. The one that surprised me the most was "Autour De La Roue," a period behind-the-scenes documentary that collects over eight-minutes of on-set footage, put together like its own silent movie with explanatory title cards. It's rather fascinating to see a 1920s movie production at work, including shooting on location and with the big trains.

The original press book is also presented as a video feature, with the pages automatically turning after a couple of seconds. The text is in French and given without translation.

Inside the DVD case, which has a hinged tray to accommodate both discs, is a sixteen-page booklet with an essay on the history of the film by William M. Drew and notes from composer Robert Israel.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
A revolutionary and influential film in its day, Abel Gance's La Roue is a silent film of a particular unassailable vintage. This 1923 melodrama of the railroad has the breadth of a great novel and the tragedy of a classic play. Gance tells the simple story of a train conductor, his son, and the girl he secretly adopted, and the feelings of love and loss that erupt from hiding the girl's true identity from her. Shot on location and with a grand scope that would put even many of today's productions to shame, La Roue may have a few quaint, rickety scenes, but its emotion and ambition still make a timeless impression. This new two-DVD set restores it to a four-and-a-half hour running time, and uses the best of several print sources to make one good looking transfer. As good cinema, and as one for the history books, we're ranking La Roue as Highly Recommended.


Special thanks to Jamie S. Rich for jumping in and helping this time!



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