Tuesday, July 31, 2007

DVD releases for July 31...sort of

There is really nothing of note coming out this week, unless 300 and Hot Fuzz are releases you have been waiting for. (And if they are, you don't need me to tell you about them.) Instead, I'm going to give some posthumous recommendations for the two great film directors that passed away this week, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

First here's four for Ingmar Bergman:
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (1962) directed by Vilgot Sjöman
Forget about the films for a moment and get a better picture of the filmmaker. Vilgot Sjöman (I am Curious Yellow) was asked by Swedish television to document Bergman at work. The result is this five part, two-and-a-half hour making of Winter Light. This intimate portrait of Bergman and his working process includes everything from rehearsals to post-premiere reaction to Winter Light. Prior to Criterion's release of this DVD (available with The Silence/Through a Glass Darkly/Winter Light box set) this documentary was unavailable in the US.

Cries and Whispers (1972)
A personal favorite of mine. It is one of Bergman's most beautiful films, but also one of his most painful. Focusing on the relationship of four women, three sisters and one maid, as every facet of the human condition (or the soul, as Bergman himself would say) is explored with devastating results. Some might find this film depressing, but, for me, it is just an affirmation of my pessimism.

Wild Strawberries (1957)
Much lighter than Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries is Bergman's road movie. An elderly professor examines his life on a cross country trip with his daughter-in-law. Full of archetypal dream sequences, this austere film has just the slightest edge of tenderness, that is hardly recognizable in this day and age. Bergman wrote the screenplay for Wild Strawberries while he was in the hospital for two months in 1956. Even at the young age of 39, Bergman ponders the notion of a life lived and the need for redemption. Wild Strawberries came on the heals of his award winning The Seventh Seal.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Bergman made Fanny and Alexander with the intentions that it would be his last, and in many respects it was, although he continued to work. Told through the eyes of a child, this film has a childlike quality of imagination and eventual defiance that was not typical of Bergman. Three hours long, Fanny and Alexander is nothing less than an epic family drama that Bergman takes great pains with, for reasons that are probably more personal than artistic. Criterion put out the most amazing 5 DVD boxset of Fanny and Alexander that included the theatrical cut, the longer cut for Swedish television that runs over 5 hours, and a full length Making Of.

And then three for Michelangelo Antonioni that are very predictable. Unfortunately, many of Antonioni's films are unavailable in the US. Even if you have seen these three, I believe there is great re-watch value here:
L'Avventura (1960)
L'Avventura got the kind of jeering at Cannes that one would associate with contemporary bad-boys of cinema. Antonioni and lead actor Monica Vitti reportedly fled from the cinema after the screening. It was quickly vindicated by critics and the press, but that initial screening was no doubt symbolic of how original Antonioni's vision was. I've always contended that the director that challenges his audience the most is the director that respects his audience the most, and within this ideology Antonioni showed great respect. Forty seven years later, L'Aventua continues to challenge. As the major narrative thrust (a woman gone missing) falls away, we are left with the aimlessness of our beautiful but vacant lead characters. Our viewership seems as desultory as Claudia and Sandro. Is this a reflection we see? Or acute observation of the morally and spiritually empty upper class? Antonioni seems to be chasing our existential decline with delirious visual beauty.

Blow-Up (1966)
Blow-Up has a playfulness that is really hard not to enjoy, even if the details, or lack thereof, cause a little confusion. A thriller infused with drugs, sex and rock and roll, Blow-Up does seem a bit dated, in a cool, mod sort of way.

The Passenger (1975)
The Passenger offers a more concrete plot to follow even though the outcome is no more fulfilling and its "meaning" is no less ambiguous. Jack Nicholson is amazing as the man at the end of his rope, but finds a new lease on life. Or maybe not. Antonioni finds a brilliant marriage between narrative and form that allows the underlying questions of fate and identity percolate just below the surface. The final seven minute shot is a force to be reckoned with: beautiful and haunting. I was completely blown away when I saw this two years ago in the theater when it was re-released. The re-release brought Antonioni's preferred cut of the film for the first time to US theaters, and subsequently, on DVD.

>A note about links to the films: I have linked film titles to GreenCine, the alternative to Netflix. Want to rent it today? There are lots of great local video stores that are independently owned and operated: Box Office Video in St Paul and Cinema Revolution in Minneapolis and my local lazy favorite Video Stardom in the Quarry (yes, it is independently owned.) That being said, I am a subscriber to GreenCine and have a great amount of respect for GreenCine's amazingly comprehensive and informative website.

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