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Image Entertainment
1987 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Street Date August 20, 2002 / $19.99
Starring Theresa Russell, Nicola Swain, Marion Peterson, Buck Henry, John Hurt, Beverly D'Angelo, Elizabeth Hurley, Peter Birch, Bridget Fonda, Linzi Drew, Julie Hagerty, Geneviève Page
Cinematography Gabriel Beristain, Caroline Champetier, Frederick Elmes, Harvey Harrison, Christopher Hughes, Pierre Mignot, Mike Southon, Dante Spinotti, Oliver Stapleton, Gale Tattersall
Production Design Scott Bushnell, Paul Dufficey, John Hay, Christopher Hobbs, Diana Johnstone, Andrew McAlpine, Piers Plowden
Art Direction
Film Editors Neil Abrahamson, Jennifer Augé, Michael Bradsell, Peter Cartwright, Angus Cook, Rick Elgood, Tony Lawson, Matthew Longfellow
Written by Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Don Boyd, Bill Bryden, Derek Jarman, Philippe Quinault, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple and Louis de Cahusac
Produced by Don Boyd, Al Clark
Directed by Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Bill Bryden, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple �

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The most impressive thing in Aria are its credits, ten artsy, 'visual' directors backed up by some of the finest designers and cameramen in Europe. This omnibus of music video-like short subjects gives each director a crack at an aria from a famous opera, and comes up with very mixed results. As music videos circa 1987, they are elaborately produced and beautiful to look at, but I'm not so sure they add up to a satifying feature experience.

Episodic collection movies tend to have their ups and downs - even the two versions of Fantasia have slow segments. Aria is a problem in that it has some interesting material, but no knockout chapters. There are standouts, but by and large, the exercise doesn't work as it might.

Most of the shows find a way to use visuals, usually a simplified narrative, to illustrate a powerful operatic selection. Since there's no explanation of the intent of the director, or information about the original concept or context of the arias being reinterpreted, only opera congnoscenti are going to relate to the relevance, or lack of same, for each visual idea. The rest of us (and I openly admit to recognizing some of the music but knowing little more about it) are left totally out, to appreciate the show for its music video aspects, or its attempts at significance and eroticism. I realize I'm uncultured along these lines, but the level of communication in most of these segments doesn't give me the idea that I'm missing any great music-visual epiphanies. The level of imagination here can get as low as just showing two lovers in a naked embrace in an ancient castle, while the music plays behind them.

I've seen it lambasted in reviews, but the standout sequence is by that old showman Ken Russell, who at least organizes his arresting images in surprising ways. Contrasting an Egyptian-like diety adorned with jewels, with efforts in an operating theater to save an accident victim, he conjures visions of what J.G. Ballard's book Crash might have looked like directed by the wild biographer of obsessed musicians. The sense of design is good, even for Russell, and there's a symmetry to his compositions that has a musical feel.

At the other end of the spectrum is Robert Altman's piece about a auditorium-ful of asylum loonies invited to the theater for their entertainment value, Bedlam - style. The antics in the audience are arbitrary, pointless, and don't have anything to do with the music that I can hear or see. The piece also needs a title card just to explain the situation.

Some fall in the middle, as in the visually interesting but emotionally shallow Frank Roddam segment about runaway teens in a death pact in Las Vegas. It's basically good (and features a young Bridget Fonda) but doesn't have all that much impact. Julian Temple's sex farce of two adulterous couples is possibly the most elaborate section, and has a lot of bravura fluid camerawork to show off, but all the clowning by Buck Henry and Beverly D'Angelo doesn't amount to anything, due to a lack of wit in the conception. Everyone expects Jean-Luc Godard to be difficult, but his offering is latterday Godard and is thus completely impenetrable. Two partially-clad or nude young women interact like Wim Wenders' angels among the weightlifters in a gym, invisibly touching them, etc. Every so often, they repeat lines of poetry. It's deadly and head-scratching at the same time.

Instead of the lost cat who serves as an inter-segment host in the animated Allegro Non Troppo, we have John Hurt in a Bill Blyden grid, finding his way to an ancient theater and applying his makeup as a Pierrot-inflected clown. It also plays like time filler.

Other segments are pictorial or literal or rather thick-headed. Charles Sturridge's grainy, black & white piece about adolescent car thieves starts off great but finds a quick, trite ending. Nicholas Roeg's story of an assassination attempt has Theresa Russell playing a male crown prince none too convincingly; it's pretty but doesn't have much of a point.

The two common denominators are the music, which is so easy on the ears that Aria is rather pleasant to watch, even if your mind drifts from the screen, and the nudity, which is used as a general substitute for anything sensual. If anything, the show drifts into the realm of 'art film exploitation', where the skin sometimes is all that's happening. On the whole, the show is very pretty, but not very exciting.

Image Entertaiment's DVD of Aria looks very handsome and is transferred with care. The source materials are fine, and the music sounds fine in Dolby 5.1. I'll happily play the disc with the picture off and the audio on, to appreciate the opera music by itself.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Aria rates:
Movie: fair to good
Video: very good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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