Meeting The Criterion: HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE GOLD RUSH, SHALLOW GRAVE, METROPOLITAN, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, GRAY'S ANATOMY and AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE
I won't even try to connect the dots on this installment of my journey through Criterions vaults except to say that, once again, it has proven true. I have never seen a Criterion film that didn't challenge me and leave me better for the experience of having sorted through it. Granted I haven't seen Salo (1975) (insert cynical smile). This journey included old favorites, more Chaplin education, a long overdue journey through two of Whit Stillman's most well known and highly regarded films and an extraordinary introduction to the poignant stories/story of the master monologist Spalding Gray. I am indeed richer for this installment of Meeting The Criterion.
HAROLD AND MAUDE BluRay
Oh Ashby, how is it people still ask Hal who? The man directed, the scathing satire Shampoo (1975), one of the truly moving and insightful examinations of Post-Vietnam America, Coming Home (1978) and Peter Sellers masterful last great film, Being There (1979) among otherrs. In short, Ashby more than proved himself, alongside his peers, who were directing stuff like Taxi Driver (1976), American Graffiti (1973) and The Godfather (1972). I hadn't seen Harold and Maude (1971) in ages and this viewing of it made me smile from ear to ear. What a phenomenally uplifting, challenging film. Anybody who wants to kick up their counter culture cinema quotient up a notch would be heavily encouraged to start with this timeless, often sidesplitting tale. On the one hand it tells the story of an unlikely romance between a twenty something death obsessed rich kid and a hippified octogenarian. If it stopped there and delivered the same sense of whimsy it would have been success. But while it's teaching us to grow up and take charge of our own happiness it also masterfully spoofs the military, the monied interests and the idle rich in ways that are likely to give you belly laughs. It helps greatly that the magic Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon bring to their respective roles is matched note for note by an outstanding supporting cast and the timeless score of Cat Stevens.
Extras here make up in quality for any perceived lack of quantity and are likely to please any fan of the film. The audio commentary featuring Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and film producer Charles B. Mulvehill is full of history, shooting anecdotes and insight into Ashby. Cort? Sadly absent here for reasons I do not know. Writer Collin Higgins and Ashby are present and accounted for via audio excerpts from film craft seminars and there's even a new interview with cat Stevens/Yusuf. All in all a nice package Also included is a booklet featuring a critical essay, a 1971 NYT profile of Ruth Gordon, excerpts from a 1997 interview of Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo, and a 2001 interview with executive producer Mildred Lewis.
THE GOLD RUSH BluRay
Do you have the memory of watching movies with your parents? Such are some of my most treasured memories period. Midst the profound dysfunctionality that was my home life I have incredible memories of being drawn out of myself towards my folks via good films like Jason and The Argonauts (1963), and bad like Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961). Such moments let me know that they "got me", or at least a very important part of me. I got to enjoy such a moment with my 12 year old son watching Charlie Chaplin's silent version of The Gold Rush (1925).
The film had just started when the door opened. "I can't sleep" he said. "And this is different from every other night how exactly?" I said. Grinning sheepishly he flopped down in our dilapidated old rocking chair and something inside me whispered, "This could be really great. Let him be." My 12 year old son, who was much a victim of the video game age as another other kid these days, laughed and was even, by the end, deeply moved by the master movie magician Charles Chaplin. How could he help but fall in movie love? The film contains some of Chaplin's best bits ever. You get the dancing rolls, the boiled shoe feast and a host of pratfalls and stunts involving the inclement Aalaskan climate and a hunting hut rocking precariously on the lip of a cliff. The Gold Rush remains the most successful silent comedy ever made and still works exactly as Chaplin intended.
The extras here are nothing less than stunning. You get two versions of the film. Besides the aforementioned 1925 original silent version (whose beautiful restoration is covered extensively in the a variety of featurettes, viewers are also treated to the version that Chaplin himself considered definitive, the 1942 recut in which the director provides voiceover, removes some plot elements and adds new music. I prefer the silent version but Chaplin was doing something bold here. It was the first time a silent film had been resurrected for the public after the advent of sound. Even though the voiceover sounds a tad cheesy it's expertly done and the end result was a huge smash commercially.
Besides material covering the restoration there are excellent longer docs on both the ground breaking (and still pretty jaw dropping) special effects in the film, and the creation of a new but faithful film score by longtime silent film composer Tim Brock. There's also an informative and insightful new commentary from Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance on the 1925 version. But the real star here is a startling 30 minute look at the influence of the film that features interviews from everyone from Chaplin's ex-wife and love-interests Lita Grey and Georgia Hale to contemporary African filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, whose screening of the film to a group of African children makes Chaplin seem mythic all over again.
SHALLOW GRAVE BluRay
Having interviewed Danny Boyle a couple times and having seen almost all of his feature film work multiple times I'm still amazed how he moves from style to style, through so many storytelling genres and always manages to tell the darkest stories while demonstrating the most potent moral concerns. Shallow Grave is a great example. You would think he could just settle for letting the film be a stunning bit of visual Hitch homage but instead, like Hitch, he shows a mastery of how to involve and implicate his audience in the darkest of deeds. This is someone who understands exactly how to use the artifice of film to tell his story, make a point and leave important questions hanging in the air that upend would be moralists. It's especially impressive considering the hoary nature of the films basic premise. Group of flat-mates find money, decide to keep money, men come looking for money, violence ensues. It sounds deceptively simple but here the relationships are so tightly and expertly woven that nothing that happens in the film is simple. Greed is a big part of the story here but McGregor's beguiling grin is scary as hell prcisely because we want to cheer him. Gain the world and lose your soul? How about lose your soul and be so blinded that you feel good doing it. Despair is hinted strongly at here, as well as rampant consumerism and urban ennui. Shallow Grave belongs on the Criterion label precisely because it can be watched over and over again for far more than just simple entertainment or as some simple moralistic object lesson.
Criterion has packed this with special features. One commentary features Boyle, the other screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew McDonald. Both commentaries are interesting, though the second one is the newest with Boyle's having been on the 2009 UK edition of the film. New interviews with stars Eccleston, Fox and McGregor is more anecdotal, nostalgic in tone while Digging Your Own Grave (1993) offers a more objective look at the actual filming. Lastly Andrew and Kevin McDonald's 10 minute video diaries from their script shopping trip to the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival closes out. Also included is an essay by critic Philip Kemp that places Boyles work in the context of being understood as a moral breakout for British Cinema of the time.
METROPOLITAN/THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO Bluray
An interview op with Greta Gerwig put me in a screening of a film I surely (and sadly) would have skipped otherwise. Damsels in Distress was lovely little movie, far more enjoyable than the typical romcom I try to avoid getting roped into. So when Criterion announced they were releasing two of the directors films, two films mind you that had been gushed over by Gerwig in our chat, I made sure they were on the list. Oh Stillman where have you been all my life. In a desolate wasteland of indie quirk Whit Stillman offers dialogue shining with a slick wit and glistening insight. His female characters look great in red, all gussied up for the camera, but on the inside they are nothing but a hot mess. How can any male director showcase such profoundly burgeoning women? This is all on the cusp stuff, people coming of age and getting lost in the cracks before they either wake up or don't.
The Last Days of Disco (1998) is a film that could hardly be made these days. Yes it's full of pretty faces heartthrob and a lot of bad dancing but that's the point. It has hardly anything in common with empty excesses like Take Me Home Tonight (2011) or Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) except base narrative building blocks. At it's heart it's as much about the end of an era and real life people caught up in it as anything else. Metropolitan (1990) pulls the same trick deftly, emerging as it's own film by virtue of a debutante society context that seems all too real. It registers as an historical oddity in the same way disco does in the previous tale but ultimately it proves a slightly different point. However much culture seems a concrete bedrock for human relations it is a slippery thing. Worthwhile associations remain outside it and it itself comes and goes like the wind. To watch Stillman at his best is to encounter someone who considers himself part of the flow of history. His movies plays like the biography of someone who's been humbled a little. What emerges inspires the fondness one feels for a fellow traveller rather than the admiration one associates with glibness or cynical jibes passing as cinema quirk. At his heart Stillman is a kind observer, in love with his characters, in love with language and in love with cinema itself.
Metropolitan features a great commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. Also included are outtakes and some alternate casting with commentary and an essay by critic Luc Sante in the booklet. The Last Days of Disco includes a commentary with Stillman and actors Chloe Sevigny and Christopher Eigeman as well deleted scenes with commentary. It's palpable how much these people love working with Whit but everyone brings a lot of insight into the way they approach his material. An audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his book The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, a behind the scenes featurette and a stills gallery with captions by Stillman round out the package.
GRAY'S ANATOMY/AND EVERYTHING IS ALRIGHT BluRay
Spalding Gray is one of those artists that one can encounter anywhere on the path of his output and get. It wasn't that he indulged in repetition. Yes he is best known for monologues, despite great character turns in films like True Stories (1986) and The Killing Fields (1984), but none of those monologues ever fails to leave you wanting more. Falling into his lyrical voice is like drifting into a dream you never want to wake up from. His revealing confessions covered areas of his life that most celebrities hire entire PR firms to keep hidden and he wrestled his entire career with balancing his need for an audience with how much he should let them in. It was a masterful experiment in communal art cut tragically short when he made a suicide jump off the Staten Island Ferry.
Gray's Anatomy was made in 1997 relatively early in Soderbergh's career but well after his 1989 break through film Sex, Lies and Videotape. It bears all the marks of a young artist interested in pushing the boundaries of his craft. The director begins with a series of short interviews in which a number of people detail the nature of various eye ailments and injuries. Based on Gray's 1993 monologue co-written with Renee Shafransky, in which he talks about his own battle with a rare eye condition, Gray's Anatomy makes the most of Soderbergh's compositional and technical prowess by using a dynamic series of different visual environments to bring to life the stories of Gray's many medical treatments and travails.It's a daring strategy considering what a great storyteller Gray is without any help. Here Soderbergh joins hands with him and together they create something more wonderful than either could have created on their own.
And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) tackles even darker subject matter. Made some years after Gray's suicide the documentary pieces together a portrait of him from existing interview footage and one man show archives. What emerges is every bit as contradictory as one would imagine. As open as Grey seemed about his life the reasons he chose what he did, particularly in love, seem somehow still hidden, much less easily judged. It's easy to see why people loved him (and almost everyone that knew him or worked with him did). Self effacing, highly intelligent and consummately professional he was also if nothing else, wildly experiential, always questioning his beliefs and open to what he might find. Soderbergh captures him perfectly.
The extras on these discs are excellent. Gray's Anatomy includes new interviews with the director and longtime collaborator and Gray companion Renee Shafransky. Best of all a 95 minute monologue, A Personal History of the American Theater, is included in it's entirety. Recorded in the early nineties it shows Gray at his rawest most intense but conversely his most convivial. The featurette Swimming in the Macula offers oddly, sixteen minutes of the surgery that Gray had in an attempt to correct his vision. A booklet contains an essay by critic Amy Taubin
And Everything Is Going Fine includes a twenty-one minute interview with Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo and editor Susan Littenberg. Sex and Death at Age 14 is a presentation of Gray's famous first monologue in it's entirety recorded in the early eighties. Writer Nell Casey contributes an essay to the booklet titled The Gray In-Between.