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I Am Curious: Criterion Collection
The I Am Curious movies are puzzling and often maddening films, as they meander through surreal landscapes of both sheer brilliance and utter pointlessness. In the mid-1960s, Swedish director Vilgot Sjoman, with total creative freedom and no script to speak of, shot hours of footage that manifested itself into an Oroborus-structured document that drifts throughout its presentation, telling its narrative in multiple styles without limiting itself to a single reality. Sjoman diverted his footage into two films, named after the colors of the Swedish flag: I Am Curious – Yellow and I Am Curious – Blue.
I Am Curious – Yellow was the first film out of the gate, and upon its release it pushed the boundaries of what was considered "palatable to the masses" – in other words, United States Customs agents took possession of the film as it was brought into the country, after which it was subject to a heated court battle that revealed both ebullient praise and loathing condemnation from the leading critics of the time. The so-called "obscenity" of the film – somewhat tame by today's standards, although full-frontal male nudity has always twisted Puritanical panties into a tightly-knit wad – sent curiosity seekers into something of a quizzical fury. When the film was finally released, filmgoers came to see what all the hubbub was about. Many of them were left puzzled by the film that lay before them. There was sex, there was nudity, and yet even the rather graphic nudity (by 1960s standards) seemed inconsequential. I Am Curious – Yellow wasn't pornography or even burlesque, but rather a stark cinematic experiment that explored the Swedish socio-political climate through the sexual and ideological leanings of a twenty-something aged Swedish woman named Lena (played with gusto by Lena Nyman).
I Am Curious is unique in that it seems to be the amalgamation three separate films. It begins as a real-life documentary that explores class division and seeming decline of socialist ideals in 1960s Sweden (there are actual interview clips with Martin Luther King and Swedish political figures woven into film). The movie also flirts with Fellini's 8½ as it evolves into a movie about the making of the documentary, as the director (Vilgot Sjoman, playing himself – or perhaps, just being himself) struggles with the completion of his work and the complications of his affair with his narrator/leading-lady Lena. And finally, I Am Curious centers itself around the extraverted and somewhat naïve Lena herself, a character who epitomizes reactionary, collegiate-level political activism. Brash and bright-eyed, Lena is every woman you went to college with who spouted Marxist theory without actually ever reading any. Her fierce independence and her graphic exploration of her own sexual identity act as the fulcrum upon which she explores the perceived injustices and repressive nature of a capitalist society. In the end, I Am Curious isn't concerned with sex in and of itself, but rather the politics of sexuality within the context of a social conservatism.
Not that I Am Curious is some kind of surreal, fractured tale whose storyline amiguously skirts the borders of the experimental and obscure. The bulk of the storyline (which runs parallel through both Yellow and Blue) is fairly straightforward, perhaps even mundane. The presentation of the material is both provocative and unconventional, but the thrust of the narrative is straightforward and relatively simple to follow. Sjoman's avant-garde approach to presenting the material elevates I Am Curious from thinly-veiled leftist propaganda to a fascinating, often compelling but ultimately inconsequential cinematic work.
Criterion created a new high-definition transfer for their release of the DVD, and the resulting video presentation is really lovely. Presented in their original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratios, both I Am Curious films look lovely. Filmed in black-and-white, the transfers feature rich black levels and sharp contrasts, delivering a pleasant image that looks as vibrant today as it probably did thirty-six years ago. Grain levels are inconsistent – some of the "reality" footage exhibits far more grain than the "narrative" footage, but in either case the transfer retains the original film-like appearance of the negative. The transfer is free from debris, dust, or markings, with only some occasional minor speckling. Compression artifacts and edge-enhancement are non-existent. I did notice some slight shakiness to the transfer at times, but overall the quality of the video is excellent and extremely enjoyable.
Criterion also remastered the soundtrack, cleaning up and improving the quality of the audio presentation. The Dolby Digital 1.0 presentation is presented in its original Swedish language, with removable English subtitles. You won't find an aggressive, immersive experience with the audio (nor should anybody really expect one), but the overall audio delivers the goods. Dialog is crisp and clear, with no hiss, pops, distortion or drop-outs.
I Am Curious – Yellow:
The extras begin with a five minute Introduction by Vilgot Sjoman, in which he discusses the creation of the I Am Curious films. Although short, this brief introduction provides some interesting information about how Sjoman begged for hundreds of meters of film to create his film, how he divided it into two films named after the colors of the Swedish flag, and his reaction to the obscenity controversy in America.
The Director's Diary is actually selected scene commentary by Sjoman. He shares his thoughts on selected scenes throughout the film. A narrator guides you to the exact Chapter stops in which Sjoman's offers his commentary (which is really just Sjoman reading excerpts his book about the film.) While I would have loved to hear more, Sjoman's comments are fascinating and revealing, and worth a listen.
Rosset/de Grazia: A conversation offers up a twelve-minute discussion with publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia, both of them anti-censorship crusaders in the United States and key players in delivering I Am Curious to American audiences. This is a great piece and an energizing look at two men for whom The First Amendment and the concepts of artistic freedom and expression are values worth fighting for.
Film historian and Criterion stalwart Peter Cowie narrates the nine-minute The Battle for I Am Curious – Yellow Trail Transcripts, a short feature that discusses the landmark court battle over the film and its skirmish with American obscenity laws. Finally, a theatrical Trailer rounds out the supplements on this disc.
I Am Curious – Blue:
Another Director's Diary is included on this disc, with scene-specific commentary by director Vilgot Sjoman that is similar in tone and format to that on the previous disc.
A four-minute Deleted Scene furthers Lena's attack on organized religion. It's a shocking but sharply hysterical scene that would have fit nicely into the film, so its inclusion is most welcome.
Finally, Self Portrait '92 shows eighteen minutes of excerpts from a Swedish television program that Sjoman produced. The program details clips from the films as well as highlights of Sjoman's life and career.
I Am Curious – Yellow and I Am Curious – Blue can both be considered "revolutionary" films in the context of their politics, their attacks on both capitalism and religion, and in the style in which Vilgot Sjoman shot and presented his work. They might not necessarily be the types of films that one might revisit constantly – their unapologetic "in-your-face" political leanings and jarring cinematic presentation provide for films that demand an exceptional level of patience and involvement from the viewer. But despite whatever one's political leanings might be (I doubt that Mr. Ashcroft will be spinning these discs anytime soon looking for Easter Eggs) it is hard to deny that the I Am Curious films are bold and imaginatively experimental works. Criterion's I Am Curious release features some fine supplements and a wonderful presentation of the films, and is worth your time if you can appreciate the brazen intricacies of experimental filmmaking.