While the debate over streaming versus cinema rages among the Hollywood elite, many are raising their concerns that physical home media is in decline, meaning that many older films will become increasingly hard to access. From this February on, we’ll be championing DVDs and Blu-rays with a monthly round-up of some of the best releases.
Human Desire – 18 Feb (Masters of Cinema)
First up, boutique label Eureka has released Fritz Lang’s 1954 Human Desire, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. Grahame’s trademark lurid smoulder is put to superb use in this suburban noir about domestic frustration and spousal abuse. After witnessing her cuckolded husband kill his love-rival, Vicki Buckley (Grahame), needs a patsy to stage her escape. Enter Ford’s Jeff Warren, a train engineer and Korean War veteran whose eye is caught by Vicki’s charms, aiming to use Jeff to kill her husband. So far, so Double Indemnity, but Human Desire distinguishes itself through its uncommon sympathy with its femme fatale, and a moral greyness defined not simply by typically noirish murk. Langian imagery abounds with the machinery of the trains as a recurring visual motif, while clocks and mechanised passing of time are ever-present. Yet it’s in the human element of desire where the film truly rattles along.
Picnic – 18 Feb (Eureka Classics)
Joshua Logan’s 1956 potboiler Picnic also sees a release from Eureka, starring Kim Novak in full-on girl next door mode, and a perpetually shirtless William Holden as a hunky drifter offering a dubious escape from small-town existential fugue for Novak’s belle, Madge Owens. Picnic’s critique of wholesome Americana has been done better elsewhere, and several of its sequences betray its roots as a stage play. Nevertheless, Logan creates subtly eerie moments, such as the unsettlingly-sweet ritualistic riverside singing as Madge is crowned Queen of the community picnic. Homoerotic imagery abounds, too, in the film’s lusting after Holden’s physique – particularly in a rather intimate changing-room scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer James Wong Howe crafts several breathtaking moments with wrily-diegetic instances of key lighting, including the film’s centrepiece dance, in which its themes of longing, repression and resentment coalesce.
The Boys in the Band – 11 Feb (Second Sight)
Speaking of repression and resentment, the iconic, controversial film The Boys in the Band has seen a re-release with Second Sight. Adapted from Matt Crowley’s stage play, William Friedkin directs Crowley’s screenplay about the repression and unsettled scores of a group of gay friends that surfaces over the course of on of their number’s birthday party. Widely – and rightly – criticised for its depiction of gay men as innately self-loathing, The Boys in the Band is still an important moment in mainstream gay cinema. Arguably misunderstanding its subjects, Friedkin nevertheless elicits great empathy for them, capturing at the least a moment of 1970s New York City sub-culture all from within the confines of an apartment.
World on a Wire – 18 Feb (Second Sight)
A new Rainer Werner Fassbinder release is always welcome, and so arrives Second Sight’s blu-ray edition of World on a Wire, the legendary German director’s foray into science fiction, originally filmed as a TV mini-series and starring Fassbinder favourites Barbara Valentin, Günter Lamprecht and Gottfried John. Prefiguring by the subgenre of virtual-world dystopias, characterised by films such Tron, The Thirteenth Floor and the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy, World on a Wire is at once a mind-bending sci-fi thriller and a political allegory for a post-war Germany for which reality has in a very real sense been cleft in two. The film’s plot is more than a little predictable for a modern, post-Matrix audience, and its laconic mystery capitalises on anxiety over story momentum. But then again, narrative propulsion was never Fassbinder’s driving force. Instead, through the mixture of Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz’s delirious cinematography and Hort Giese, Walter Koch and Kurt Raab’s ultra-modern production design, we are pulled into a world in which space and reality are experiential, subjective and shifting.
Tokyo Drifter – 18 Feb (Criterion)
No month would be complete without the ubiquitous releases from Criterion. Seijun Suzuki’s colourful, ludicrous 1966 gangster film Tokyo Drifter lands with a cymbal splash and the syncopated rhythm of improvisational jazz. Opening in overexposed black and white, Tokyo Drifter snaps into bright, poppy colour in the way seemingly only the 1960s were capable of producing. Aside from the visuals, the first act is pretty impenetrable, with a generic story about gang bosses screwing each other on real-estate deals giving way to a style so refined that it becomes the substance. Things become more streamlined when the film’s anti-hero, Tetsuya “Phoenix” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari), goes on the run after the bosses betray him and send hitman Viper (Tamio Kawaji) after him, culminating in a near-surreal confrontation back at headquarters. Suzuki’s stylish cynicism and comic-book aesthetic was an inestimable influence on the pop-crime genre, perhaps most keenly felt in the West through Quentin Tarantino, but also in British director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and domestically with Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano.
24 Frames – 4 Feb (Criterion)
Persian director Abbas Kiarostami’s last feature, completed posthumously, is his beautiful, meditative 24 Frames. Consisting of 24 still images captured by Kiarostami and then subtly animated, 24 Frames is a film as much about the act of observation as a simultaneously passive and active activity, as it is about the images themselves. Frequently depicting natural tableaux, scenes of brutality, indifference and cruelty exist along moments of humour, beauty and pathos, as the twenty-four miniature films play out in front of us. Kiarostami’s film reminds us of the primacy the audience’s gaze to make sense of the world – unobserved reality becoming observed order. Ending on a coded political statement with a woman asleep in front of an open laptop, 24 Frames is a mesmerising visual poem and a fitting final film for the director.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell