Sunday, 1 May 2016

New on Blu-ray - David Hare writes on The Marriage of Maria Braun, Alphaville, The Big Clock & Written on the Wind

The Marriage of Maria Braun
As iconic a Fassbinder image as any with Hanna Schygulla sowing the first seeds of her own German "Economic Miracle" in Arrow's stunning new Blu Ray (fixed region B) of The Marriage of Maria Braun (Germany, 1979) from the definitive RWF Foundation 4K restoration. I will slowly make my way through the others in these box-sets very gingerly over the next few weeks as they are a very rich diet indeed for one as frail as me, now without strong drink, before I set off on my own journey this year to Berlin shortly again to see old friends and recapture old places one more time. Meanwhile I commend these transfers to an old and a new audience.

My only comments in passing are how much I loved these films as so many of them unfolded for the first time during that unrepeatable 70s era of Film Festivals curated under David Stratton in Sydney, and later at the delicious experience of often sharing commercial screenings of such still completely outrageous titles as In A Year of 13 Moons (Germany, 1978) and Chinese Roulette (Germany, 2006) with often largely super bourgeois Double Bay audiences who lapped up the Schlag, while being revolted by the Fleisch. Seeing them again nearly forty years later is not one of those unpleasant disappointments, like so many reconnaissances, and Fassbinder certainly solidifies for me as a major director and in his mad but formally dedicated ways, more radical than even Pasolini. And it has to be said far more "natural" as a filmmaker than Paso, not least as a gay auteur.

And that's my heresy for the day!

"Il n'y a non plus personne qui connait le mot..." says Natasha von Braun to Lemmy Caution in Godard's 1965 Alphaville, right before this late part of the travelling shot in which she enunciates it again: "Conscience". This is one of the titles from a new UK (and some Euro territories) 6 disc Godard Blu Ray boxset from rights holder Studio Canal. Reviews of others will follow.

Alphaville was my introduction to Godard back in 1967 at Sydney's Grand Picture Palace the Cremorne Orpheum during that year's FF, followed shortly thereafter by the hilariously English dubbed print of Contempt/Le Mepris at Sydney's old art and espresso fave, the Savoy. This was the era of the wonderful foreign language arthouse circuit where many of the 60s Godards opened commercially. The three major cinemas were nicknamed the Saveloy, the Galah, (Gala) and the Lewdo (Lido). Lemmy and Natasha would have approved of these nicknames surely, while they ventured between the "outer" and the "inner" zones of Paris, all the while unfolding a dialectical question and answer on the philosophical issues of language, truth and ethical morality. A theme that J-LG carries right up to the present with his last masterpiece, the contrarily named Adieu au Langage in eye breaking 3D.

I don't yet have the boxset - this screen is from an earlier Japanese BD which is presumably from the same very fine HD Canal master - but I am hopeful although doubtful Canal has remastered Contempt/Le Mepris for the box which in its current Blu-ray is plagued with film emulsion and digital encode artefacting problems. More to come, as Natasha would say.

The Big Clock
The second "invisible" lap dissolve 3 minutes 50 seconds into the opening 5 minute take from John Farrow's stylistic tour de force, The Big Clock from 1948. Farrow's always impressive mise-en-scene, characterized by long, serpentine travelling shots is expressively on display, if in large part to overcome the novelistic limitations of the original book by Kenneth Fearing. Farrow certainly drives the screenplay to maximum effect with the great travellings and multiple POV setups.

Indeed if ever a movie defined the Paramount 40s Noir "Style" to perfection this is it. John Seitz' superb high contrast lighting, like the huge newspaper conference table seating over twenty which is entirely lit in the centre, from above with the peripheries and the actors cast into shadow, highlights the geometrics. And the killer decor by Paramount stylemeister supremo from the Sternberg years, Hans Dreier, whose horizontally ashlar lined Deco-Moderne marble walled office cues the flow of the camera as it snakes through Laughton's ("Earl Janoth") Murdochian tycoon's Mabusian paranoid empire of bugging, spying and control.

For all the shortcomings of the novel, and some weak characterization, especially for Ray Milland's "George Stroud" which is written to pitch the marital discord angle as light comedy, the movie succeeds totally on Farrow's formal terms, as a major Noir achievement in style and mood, with no little part his own moral sense brought to bear on the Laughton and George Macready characters, both agents of a new post-war crypto fascist-capitalist regime.The screen is from the German Koch Media Blu-ray of the title, Region B fixed. I recommend it without reservation.

Lauren Bacall, Written on the Wind, 
Lucy Moore/ Lauren Bacall is both stunned and repelled by the high alarm red of "those goddam flowers", as Fassbinder used to call them, which act as a clear signal for impending disaster and unhappiness in Sirks' great 1956 Zugsmith super melodrama, Written on the Wind. Fifteen minutes later she will become embedded in even more tangled and complex color coding. within the Texan Oil tycoon Hadley dynasty and its fatally alcoholic and conflicted progeny, Kyle, played by a career high Robert Stack with a staggering montage of clashing acid colors in the Miami Hotel's seduction scene decor, from the screaming Vegas Pink/Emerald Green mirrored reception, to the purple walled foyer to the relatively muted lavender and pink-gray of the suite, the latter highlighted by the red red red of huge flower displays and the midnight blue of the transparencies of ocean outside. Sirk's color sense in this picture is so pivotal to the mise en scene you can even see in this stunning new 2K transfer of the film from Universal on the French Elephant label, alternating shots of Bacall with and then without her lippy, in what was clearly not simply a continuity error but a conscious decision by Sirk to allow Miss Bacall the liberty to do her own makeup based on her reading of the text.

This is another one of the great color movies, like Renoir's The River (USA/India, 1951) or Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinagasa, Japan, 1963) or Black Narcissus (Powell& Pressburger, UK, 1946) and even more deliberately designed with color to express mood and narrative inflection than Sirk's earlier All That Heaven Allows (USA, 1955). The Criterion DVD from ten plus years ago was a revelatory exercise in displaying the capabilities of the then new Standard Def medium. The new Elephant transfer from a superb Universal master does the same thing for the radically superior HD medium with fully saturated color, high density contrast and stability, note perfect grain resolution without a trace of the overly filtered "grain free" waxiness that frequently afflicts Universal's overworked and to me unattractive recent 4K of Imitation of Life.

Uni have also provided Elephant with the master in a new widescreen mask to all of us of 2.00 :1. Unlike the earlier Criterion standard widescreen of their picture-boxed 1.78. I actually like the new wider 2.00 very much and having watched the whole picture again last night (i couldn't take my eyes off it) there is not one shot, be it CU, medium or wide that appears to suffer any negative compositional impact from the further cropping of foot and headroom to arrive at the 2.00: AR from a "flat" (open matte) 1.37 shooting aperture. According to the king of Widescreen history, Bob Furmanek, Universal was the one studio to persist with 2.00 for some of its prestige "flat" (i.e non anamorphic Scope) widescreen 50s releases probably peaking in the year 1956 when both this Sirk and Zuggie's Jack Arnold directed existential sci-fi picture, The Incredible Shrinking Man (USA, 1957) both appeared in the 2.00:1 ratio theatrically.

Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
Speaking of Zuggie, Universal and god knows, the Henry Willson casting agency so beloved of both Uni and Sirk, one of Willson's first tier hunks, Grant Williams, the tanned lead of Shrinking Man plays one of Marylee's/Dorothy Malone's rough trade pickups, a relationship that ends in a highly ambiguous scene from Sirk in which Rock gives the bare chested Williams a concerned dressing down, and then pays him off later in what is a background gesture out of audible range, while Marylee and the others return to the formal dinner table for their empty rituals of good manners. And the catastrophic American tragedy that will follow, with Marylee, the girl with "more devil in her": than all of them, carrying the weight (and the sublime Four Tops theme song which is in fact all about her) of American capitalism, with SIrk's great final Euripidean image of
Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
Dorothy Malone, having made the voyage from sex to power clutching the giant phallic model of the oil derrick with an expression of unrelieved misery.

Rock Hudson, Robert Stack & Lauren Bacall, Written on the Wind

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