Friday, December 31, 2010


"It's a hard world for little things."

A few weeks ago, while I was waiting for my copy of The Night of the Hunter to ship from Barnes & Noble, my friend Scott Morse watched his. Scott is a comic book artist, as well as a staff member at Pixar. Amongst other things, he designed the end titles for Ratatouille [review] and is one of the main design guys on Cars 2. (Also, these Criterion-themed posters and a comic book about Kurosawa.) Needless to say, Scott has his bonafides when it comes to animation. Thus, when he posted the following to his Twitter, I listened:

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a pretty spot-on reverse "princess" story. Studios, take note of the clarity. Drink down the Love and Hate.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is seriously cut from the same cloth as every Disney flick of the 50's. Iconic, clear, and elegantly shocking.

This is a fascinating theory, and one that absolutely bears out when you watch the movie. Charles Laughton's 1955 tale of menace is a contemporary fairy tale, staged like a children's play, shot like a film noir. From start to finish, it's a unique and daring film. James Agee's script flirts with innuendo, is suspicious of religion, and makes comedic hay of small-town mores. Laughton's direction is both arch and playful, employing film convention to create the safe and familiar, and then undercutting the same technique by deflating the comfortable air right out of its tires.

Robert Mitchum stars in the film. Preacher Harry Powell is one of his best-known roles. Though beloved by most of his fans as a hero with a hard jaw, he was a rebellious personality both on and off the screen. A few times in his career, the actor played a villain, revealing one hell of a mean streak. Harry Powell may wear a preacher's suit and hat, but this man has a twisted relationship with God. By his own admission, his version of Christianity is one he and the Supreme Being hammered out together. It's one easily explained, though. He wears his most prominent object lessons on his knuckles. On his left hand, he has tattooed the word HATE, one letter on each finger; on his right, LOVE. A man's hands are meant to work in tandem, but tangle the fingers together, and you'll find two objects at odds with one another. Every living soul is in a constant struggle between hate and love, between doing what is right and giving in to temptation.*

Every living soul except for Harry Powell, that is. Harry is a killer, though the extent of his crimes are just mysterious whispers at the start of The Night of the Hunter. He is pinched watching a burlesque show, but not for the phallic switchblade poking through his suit pocket, nor for the body we saw in an unspecified barn, but because he stole a car. He is sentenced to a month in the hoosegow, where his bunkmate is Ben Harper (Peter Graves). We met Harper when he got arrested. The Night of the Hunter is set in the Great Depression, and Harper killed two men and stole $10,000. Before he got nabbed, he gave the money to his young son John (Billy Chapin) and his even younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and made both of them swear not to tell where he stashed the cash. Ben Harper even goes to the gallows with the secret. The stolen bills are his children's future.

When Powell gets out of jail, he heads to the Harper homestead. There, he seduces Ben's widow (Shelley Winters), and once he is John and Pearl's stepdad, sets about trying to get them to give up the dough. When the woman gets wind of what Powell really married her for--apparently his rejection of her sex and subjugating her to his "religion" was not enough--the preacher murders her and dumps her body. It's a grizzly scene, but filmed to appear dreamy, almost idyllic. The widow Harper is dumped in the river in her Model-T Ford. The currents push her hair along with the underwater weeds, like the mythical Lady of the Lake, though her warning is darker than even that of legend.

With no one to protect them, John and Pearl go on the run. They take their father's rundown boat and set off down the Mississippi. Here, Laughton opens the door to the secret world of children. Most fiction for young readers has a quality of emphasizing the separateness of childhood. When you are small, the bigger world pays you no attention, and thus you can retreat into imagination. Disney films usually have a sense of this, too, though often, instead of kids, it's the parallel world of animals. Think about the cartoons where animals talk, and none of the humans can hear them. So it often seems to be when you are a child: you can talk, but the adults don't concern themselves with what you're saying.**

Tellingly, once the children are in the wilderness, human life fades away, and Laughton designs multiple shots that show the animal population that lives along the water. Spiders, rabbits, turtles, owls--the fugitive orphans and these woodland creatures exist in the same space, and the tiny humans pass unmolested. The animals don't shrink from them, either. This is the realm of fable. They are "other."

This is the most obvious element where the movie matches up to Morse's Disney theory, but there are many more touches throughout The Night of the Hunter that also work to remind us of classic animation. The children's journey is punctuated by songs, mostly schoolground tunes or religious hymns, but that serve to emphasize the emotional tenor of the scenes Laughton uses them in. The trek the kids go on is ostensibly a search for a home, having lost their own and, in a way, having had their identities erased. It's somewhere between Pinocchio, who is misguided by temptation, and Simba, whose birthright is threatened in The Lion King. (Or, even the exiled princesses, like Cinderella or Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.) Though Mitchum's performance as Powell can show him to be as sinister as Scar in the latter film, the more comical side is a bit like Prince John in Disney's foxy version of Robin Hood. The preacher can be petulant and downright whiney. He's a fascinating loon, often busting out dramatic gestures that recall Lon Chaney silent creepers. In one scene, after her meets the wrong end of a rifle, he runs away howling like Goofy tumbling off a cliffside. For as much as you might be scared of Powell, you also want to point and laugh.

Eventually, John and Pearl wash up on the riverbank near the home of a mother hen figure. Miz Cooper is played by legendary film actress Lillian Gish. She takes in strays and puts them to work in her garden, providing the structure and basic morals they otherwise lack. She is a kindly stepmother, not the wicked kind, and she even serves as a sort of narrative chorus. Cleverly, Agee and Laughton have one of her adopted girls make fun of how she talks to herself all the time, setting us up for the moral Miz Cooper will lay out at the end of the picture. She is both hard and soft, tough on her kids but caring. In contrast to Powell, her behavior is anything but erratic: this is someone the kids can count on. Her home is tidy and traditional; the town nearby is chaotic, lit with neon, full of temptation. Again, it brings to mind Pinocchio and the carnal delights that lead him from Gepetto. The lure of all this sin will call Miz Cooper's oldest charge, Ruby (Gloria Castilo), and Powell will trick her into revealing too much.

Gish is marvelous as the staunch caretaker. She and most of the older character actors really shine under Laughton's direction. Evelyn Garden is particularly good as the annoying busybody Icey Spoon (and she looks exactly like Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone [review]. I have to admit, though, the child actors aren't that great. Five-year-old Sally Jane Bruce is extremely stiff, looking like she has barely enough attention span to remember what she is supposed to do. Ten-year-old Billy Chapin is quite a bit better, but his performance is actually hurt by Laughton's direction. He regularly isolates the boy for reaction shots, and the way he cuts the scenes doesn't quite connect the boy's expressions to what he is reacting to.

I know this could get me lynched, but I found Laughton's direction to be quite clumsy at other times, too. Some shots are too rigid, and the editing disjointed. Look at, for instance, Powell chasing the children up the cellar stairs. Mitchum appears to be parodying a horror movie ghoul, and it has the appropriate effect, being at once silly and menacing. Yet Laughton and editor Robert Golden don't give the moment its due. They shove a single side shot of this attack into the action, and it doesn't quite fit. For as short as the shot is, it's almost like they started it too early and cut it too soon, you can practically see the marks on either side of Mitchum's lunge. Likewise, for as lovely as those riverbank images of the forest animals can be, they always look like they've been arranged, they aren't natural. Obviously, there are shots throughout the movie that are meant to look like something out of a storybook (observe, for instance, the hangman's children asleep in his shack), and Laughton has done a good job composing them--but it's too good. The illusion bursts.

That said, when Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who also worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons) are on target, they really are dead center of the bull's-eye. Laughton's use of silhouette and shadow is unmatched in its visual power. He can use light and dark to create both a sense of calm and of terror, and often in the same scene. When the children bed down in a barn, their appearing as shapes against a night sky is serene and lovely; when they awake to hear the approaching Powell singing his signature (and ironic) hymn, the vast horizon suddenly becomes unbearably huge and oppressive. The smaller silhouette in the distance is a threat, and though far away, the distance emphasizes the killer clergy's inescapable presence.

Smartly, as The Night of the Hunter winds down, so too does Laughton dial back the style. His approach has a more old-fashioned, family movie vibe in the last couple of scenes, including the amusing image of Miz Cooper leading her brood through the back alleys like a mother duck and her chicks. In these kinds of stories, the final chapter is when some kind of normalcy is restored, and the traditional Christmas scene Laughton and Agee have concocted is meant to be familiar and homey. No divisive shadows, no extreme angles or compositions, mostly just straight-on shots of Miz Cooper stirring her stew pot, musing on the plight of the wee ones as they move all around her. It's a reassuring finale, restoring the natural order, including letting us know that it's not God or His son that's gone all wrong, but the misguided people of the world that have twisted their positive message. Too much of the left hand, it would seem, and not enough of the right one.

Criterion's two-disc release of The Night of the Hunter, available on standard DVD and Blu-Ray, is an outstanding package. Put together in cahoots with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the restored print is superb and the collection of extras is a treasure trove of quality supplements, including a clip of the Peter Grave and Shelley Winters giving a live television performance of a scene that ended up cut from the film.

If you're going to watch any extra, however, you must jump over to the second disc. It is devoted to the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs "The Night of the Hunter." This film, put together by Robert Gitt, is a compilation of outtakes and alternate footage from an unprecedented library of dailies that Laughton kept for himself. Gitt uses the raw material to create a history of the production, as well as an alternate version, working through the story in the same narrative order, giving us a glimpse of how a movie is shaped as it is filmed. Deleted shots and flubs share the screen with experiments and rehearsals, as well as curios like Laughton reading from the Bible, author Davis Grubb's sketches he made for the director to show him how he saw his novel portrayed (these also get their own feature on disc 1), and even a scene with the original Uncle Birdie. Emmett Lynn was originally meant to play the old drunk, but Laughton thought his performance was too mannered and cliché. He recast the role with James Gleason--and rightly so judging by what we see here. Gleason nails it.

* Spike Lee would, of course, update this symbolism in Do The Right Thing (another Criterion release), giving Radio Raheem gold rings spelling out each word and likening the struggle of man to something more like a boxing match.

** If you're curious to further explore this secret world of children as portrayed on film, pairing The Night of the Hunter with another Criterion disc, Rene Clement's Forbidden Games, would be a great double-feature.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Other movies I reviewed over the last month...


* Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's artfully chilling mind-bender.

* I Love You Phillip Morris isn't entirely loveable, but it's got its moments.

* Made in Dagenham, starring Sally Hawkins as feminist strike leader in 1960s England. A feel-good movie you don't have to feel bad for liking. Plus, a great soundtrack.

* Somewhere, Sofia Coppola's emotionally compelling fourth film goes in some new directions, but also hits a familiar stride.

* The Tempest, Julie Taymor injects a boring play with visual pleasures.

* Tiny Furniture, a whiny indie comedy about being bored with privileges in upper class New York. Writer/director/star Lena Dunham shows promise, but this one is tough to sit through.

* The Tourist, in which pretty people have a pretty boring vacation. And I type Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck as many times as I can.

* Tron: Legacy. In my top 3 worst movies of the year.

* True Grit, the Coen Bros. remake John Wayne and come up with a damned perfect movie.


* The Black Pirate, an entertaining silent adventure with Douglas Fairbanks. Relased in 1926, this is the oldest color film available on Blu-Ray.

* Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor and Other Fantastic Films by Koji Yamamura, a collection of experimental short films by the Japanese animator.

* LennoNYC, a marvelous documentary about John and Yoko and the Big Apple.

* Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's love story is a modern classic.

* The Mission, Roland Joffé's 1986 drama is kind of a stick in the mud despite fine performances from Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons as monks trying to bring Christianity to the rainforest.

* The Sicilian Girl, a true-story drama about a Mafia daughter going against the family. A smart movie with an amazing lead performance.

* Soul Kitchen, intense German director Faith Akin tries his hand at comedy, yielding mixed results.

* Walt & El Grupo, in which we go back to the vacation jokes: Walt Disney went to South America, and all I got was this lousy documentary.

Friday, December 24, 2010


The Cranes are Flying is a Christmas miracle. At least to me.

I guess it was around 2002 that I got my first DVD player. I was excited to build my movie collection and had been hunting out deals and starting to buy lots of Criterion discs off of eBay. I am sure in those early days I focused on movies I knew, I could worry about the other titles later. Then again, I may have had no Criterions at that point, it gets hard to remember after a while. Regardless, it was my first Christmas where getting movies as gifts was a possibility.

My friend and fellow writer Christopher McQuain and I have an ongoing gift exchange. It's one we never let wane, as we know each other's tastes fairly well and, whenever we can, like to surprise each other with something that maybe the other person hasn't seen, read, or heard. It was that Christmas that Christopher gave me my copy of Mikhail Kalotozov's The Cranes are Flying. I had not heard anything about the film, but he was convinced I would like it.

How right he was. The Cranes are Flying is a 1957 Russian film, a romance swept up in the rush of war. It is a movie that burns with the fever of desire, but that also sinks with the chill of heartbreak. It is both beautifully written and beautiful to look at. More than once I have been asked to compile a list of my essential Criterions, the top 5 or however many everyone should know. Two or three of those choices regularly change, but The Cranes are Flying is one of the mainstays.

The Cranes are Flying opens on a scene of two lovers, Veronica and Boris (Tatiana Samoilova and Alexi Batalov). They have stayed out all night, and morning is fast approaching. Their families know they are seeing each other, but the two of them still act as if it is a secret. Perhaps it is more exciting that way? He calls her Squirrel, and she plays coy. It will be several days before they can see each other again, even though he aches to be with her sooner. Why should it be so urgent? They are young, and they have all the time in the world.

Except they don't. Russia enters World War II, and everything changes. Boris works day and night at the factory, and he has to miss their next date. His cousin Mark (Alexander Shvorin) goes to see Veronica instead. He is a pianist, and he wants to dedicate his music to the dark-haired beauty; she is skeeved out by him and dismisses him.

Boris, of course, ends up joining the army. He could have probably gotten an exemption from the draft, but he volunteered instead. He is called up the day before Veronica's birthday. He leaves behind a stuffed squirrel for her, an object that will take on great importance later, if for no other reason that there is a love letter hidden in its acorn basket. Boris' departure is a tragic scene. Veronica is late and misses him at the apartment, and then she can't find him at the train station, there are too many people and a fence between her and the parade of recruits. Kalatozov creates a terribly sad image here. Veronica has brought her lover a care package full of crackers and cookies and she tosses it toward the departing men in hopes of getting it to its intended, only for the package to break apart. All those treats of nourishment and love are scattered underfoot.

The rest of the movie follows both the war at home and the front lines where Boris is stationed. Bad luck rules on both sides. Veronica loses her parents and is taken in by Boris' family, since they believe he will return and marry her. Instead, during an air raid, Mark takes advantage and presses Veronica into being his own. Kalatozov encapsulates all the violence of war in this one expressionistic scene. Bombs have broken the apartment window, and the only lights are the flashes of fire and explosion. Mark acts like a man possessed, and in some ways, the way director of photography Sergei Urusevsky lights the scene reminds one of a horror movie; in other ways, it's a wartime noir. Flickering lights, bending shadows, and the wide-eyed frenzy of a rapist. Before all this happened, Veronica had declared that she was afraid of nothing; by the end, man's capacity for violence has taken advantage of her every confidence.

This harrowing sequence is one of many virtuouso scenes in The Cranes are Flying. Anyone who has seen Kalatozov's better-known 1964 film I Am Cuba [review] knows that he is a gifted and daring visual storyteller. He is no less ambitious here; in fact, you can see him cutting several cinematic teeth. The director has an elegant sense of composition. Some of his close-ups of Tatiana Samoilova recall Dreyer's tight framing of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, whereas in other scenes, the way he and Urusevsky pull the camera back or take it up high so that the characters are rendered small and eclipsed by the background is reminiscent of Welles, particularly the imposing landscapes of The Trial (though, admittedly, Orson's film was several years off).

Perhaps more striking is Kalatozov's sense of movement. Veronica running through the burning ruins of Moscow to her shelled apartment building, darting past rubble and flames, is just as impressive as Kirk Douglas rushing across Kubrick's No Man's Land in Paths of Glory [review]. He caps this frightened dash with another symbolically effective single image: all that is left of Veronica's fourth-floor apartment is the wall clock. It stands tall over the city, its pendulum still swinging. What was that about having nothing but time?

The Cranes are Flying is significant for Urusevsky's pioneering use of handheld cameras. It is particularly noticeable midway through the film, when the family has moved out of Moscow and live in cramped tenements while Boris' father (Vasily Merkuryev) and sister (Svetlana Kharitonova) run the Army hospital. (In a progressive turn, though the father outranks his daughter, he is a general practitioner and she a surgeon.) Veronica works there, as well: she's a volunteer. Things get particularly raw for her when one of the wounded has a fit because he found out his girlfriend married someone else while he was away. Feeling the collective condemnation of all the other soldiers who have their friend's back, Veronica runs from the hospital. The camera alternates between her point of view, running behind and biting at her ankles, and a vantage point just under her chin, looking up at her panicked face. The editing grows choppy, the shutter speed increases, and the race through the village looks like something out of a contemporary action flick. The whole thing ends in a dizzying crash on a bridge, with Veronica saving a child from an oncoming truck. It's like the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin gone suicidal.

The child Veronica saves turns out to be named Boris, and he has been separated from his family. The woman sees the obvious coincidence here, and though she doesn't say it, it's like this Boris is a second chance with her Boris, who at this point is missing and possibly dead. Doubles play a subtle importance in Viktor Rozov's script for The Cranes are Flying. There are two air raids that have dire consequences for Veronica. There are the two men, both of them artists--Boris, we are told, draws, while Mark is a musician. Another undisciplined musician proves as dangerous for Boris on the battlefield as Mark does back home. There is also the unseen other girlfriend who could not outlast the battle.

For his part, Kalatozov also creates visual rhymes in the movie. The most obvious, of course, are the V-formation cranes that start and end the movie and give it its title. Also, there is clock tower that we see in the opening credits, and later it is matched by the clock left standing at Veronica's. (And though not a rhyme, notice too how the spiky metal barricades increase with each passing scene, until they finally almost completely box in Mark and Veronica.) More significantly, though, are the two scenes at the train station, first Veronica rushing to try to say good-bye to Boris and then, after the war is over, her hoping to find him amongst the returning troops. In both, she runs along a fence, pushing her way through the crowd, carrying a package, hopeful that she will meet her man. Each ends differently, of course, though you'll hopefully be surprised where Kalatozov manages his emotional upswell.

Tatiana Samoilova is an intriguing actress. As far as I can tell, I haven't seen her in anything else, though I'd be curious to get my hands on Kalatozov's next film, The Unmailed Letter, or the 1967 production of Anna Karenina with Samoilova in the title role. Her Veronica is a mysterious and alluring woman. She is headstrong and stubborn, which makes her fun in the early scenes with Boris. Yet, when those same qualities meet the sadness following his departure, the dark beauty becomes possessed of a pervasive gloom. When Boris is out on the battlefield, one of his superiors sees Veronica's photo and comments that she is a woman worth fighting for. More satisfying, however, is seeing her finally fight for herself.

I won't go any further into how that happens or even what happens. Though The Cranes are Flying is a romantic melodrama, and thus some of the genre trappings will probably be a little predictable to seasoned viewers, there is still something to be said for the way genre pays off when it's done this well. I certainly found it a surprising cinematic experience at Christmastime eight years ago, and it still has the capacity to bring back that same old feeling. There's no time like the first time, sure, but as with so many things, the second and even third time, what with the nostalgia combined with the things you missed before, manage to only make everything better.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 movie Tokyo Story has always been a cinematic blind spot for me, despite it having a reputation for being perhaps the quintessential film in the Japanese director's canon. I would always hear others singing its praises, including quite often being told by people how they were moved emotionally by the family tale. This led me to expect Tokyo Story to be heightened melodrama. Here are my heartstrings, Mr. Ozu, please go ahead and tug them.

I don't think this factored in my not having seen Tokyo Story in a negative way; on the contrary, the reverence with which many held this picture made me wait longer because I wanted to wait for the time to be right, to save the experience until such a time as I could really savor and appreciate it. This, as it turns out, was a smart move, though again not exactly for the obvious reasons. The surprise of Tokyo Story was that it's not the high-emotion tearjerker I suspected, but rather a melodrama of restraint. Its sadness is less the product of tragic events and more the reaction to the same. It's a movie about disappointment and loss, and the profound unhappiness of everyday life.

Tokyo Story is a two-part film. Part One is a ten-day trip that an elderly couple take from their home in the Onomichi prefecture to visit their grown children in Tokyo. Shukichi and Tomi, played by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama, have had five children in total. Their youngest, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), still lives with them. She is a schoolteacher. A middle child, Keizo (Shiro Osaka) lives in Osaka. The two who live in Tokyo are Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who runs a beauty parlor, and Koichi (So Yamamura), who is a doctor. Their fifth child, a son, died in the war. His widow, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), lives in Tokyo, too, and the couple will be visiting her, as well.

The visit in Tokyo is awkward and strained. Shige and Koichi and their families put up their parents and try to entertain them, but it is more out of a sense of duty than it is genuine pleasure for them being there. More than once they complain about their time and the money they have to spend. In the middle of the week, they send the old folks to a seaside spa under the pretext of helping them relax, but they are basically trying to get them out of their hair for a while. Only the daughter-in-law, Noriko, seems at all interested in spending any real time with Shukichi and Tomi. The generation gap is even more pronounced when it comes to Koichi's sons: the grandchildren barely even speak to their grandparents.

Quite subtly, Ozu and co-writer Kogo Noda are illustrating the changes in social mores and the altered expectations that have come in the post-War era. There is a divide between how the children feel toward their parents and what they think they are supposed to do. Rather than cherishing the older generation, the younger seems to find them a nuisance. Likewise, the older folks seem to be disheartened by their children measuring their success by a diminished yardstick. In one of Tokyo Story's livelier sequences, Shukichi goes out drinking with some of his old friends. They get plastered on sake and start to expose the lies their children tell them about themselves--Koichi, for instance, led his father to believe his medical practice was much bigger than it is--and the lies the fathers have told to cover their frustration. One of Shukichi's friends, a former police officer, has been telling the guys that his boy is in a management position at his firm when he is really just a mid-level assistant. These busy lives their offspring bustle about doing don't seem all that substantial.

In opposition to this, Tomi and Noriko, the mother-in-law and her widowed daughter-in-law, form a lonely bond outside the circle. While Tomi is also let down by how the trip has gone, she tends to be more forgiving, her natural instinct as the caretaker holding sway. Noriko seems poised to accept a similar role in the family, and by movie's end, she will basically maintain a middle position, forgiving both sides for their failure to see what the other is going through. In a fascinating twist, the youngest girl, Kyoko, is the most angry with her siblings' indifference. Noriko encourages her to have patience. In their parting, sobering exchange, the young girl asks, "Isn't life disappointing?" Her sister-in-law can only respond in the affirmative.

Part Two of Tokyo Story is the shorter part. It takes place back at the small town where the family hails from. Events compel the children to have to visit their parents only days after the Tokyo holiday has ended. Here the hospitality shoe would seemingly be on the other foot, though honestly this gathering doesn't go much better. Shige in particular is bossy and cold, and all three of the older children leave again as soon as they can, despite the relative importance of their sticking around. In Tokyo, they came through in the most trivial of situations, but here when it would really matter, they don't come through at all. The movie ends on dual notes of loneliness and possibility: the elderly are more isolated than ever, but Noriko is given her freedom to reengage with life rather than stay wrapped up in her grief. There is a chance that she won't, but the look on her face in the final shots of the movie, as she rides a train by herself back to Tokyo, suggests that she has changed, she has found some contentment. Is it just the good feeling of having done the right thing? Or a commitment to honor what was most recently lost?

Setsuko Hara is a familiar face from many Ozu movies. She is a charming actress, and there is something inherent in her screen presence that is likable and immediately engenders sympathy. Those final scenes in Tokyo Story--her conversations with Kyoko and Shukichi, and then her train ride--are some of her finest moments on film. She goes beyond being just syrupy sweet and reveals so much more about her character through the tone of her voice and the honest expressions on her face. Her kindness is come by bitterly; we can believe the tragedies of her own life have caused her to be this way. Instead of growing hard against it, she decides to do well unto others.

The old man Chishu Ryu is also a regular face in Ozu's filmography. He and Hara may have as much to do with the unique rhythm of the master's movies as he does. They are comfortable with the slow, quiet approach, and they make it seem natural. As with the best of Ozu, Tokyo Story is an all-too human movie. Much is made of Ozu's choice to shoot his films from ground level, with fixed and steady framing. (The camera work here is by Yuharu Atsuta, another regular of the Ozu crew.) This is generally referred to as the "tatami-mat shot." For me, this choice puts the viewer on the same level as the subjects. We are a participant in their lives, sitting with them in their homes. Ozu adds no flash to his stories, he doesn't see a need to amplify events. His movies don't necessarily work as Neorealism, there is still something very mannered and stylized about them, but there is a fundamental honesty to his scenarios that wouldn't be there if he chose to play the drama stronger.

It's said that Kogo Noda was influenced by Leo McCarey's 1937 film, Make Way For Tomorrow [review], and there are definitely similarities between the two films. Beyond the shared thematic elements of two older people who feel displaced and unwanted, Ozu and McCarey both have a similar outlook on human nature. For as soft-seeming and low-key as Tokyo Story can be, it is not without a subtext of anger and cynicism. Ozu and McCarey are both as disappointed in their characters as the characters are of each other. Their disenchantment is born of their stronger belief that humans could do better if only they'd just try. Though Tokyo Story throws most of its sentiment behind the parents, they aren't totally off the hook. Is it really okay for them to be so judgmental of their children and to not accept the lives they've made for themselves for what they are?

With this in mind, then the older couple--Tomi earlier in the movie and Shukichi at the end--encouraging Noriko to release herself from their dead son and to try to live and love again can be interpreted as redemption. It's an atonement for the mistakes they maybe made with their own children. They held their expectations too close, and they created a situation where their sons and daughter could only fail, because they could never really have their own lives. They don't want to see Noriko trapped in the same way. It's a strange irony of family--and perhaps Tokyo Story's most perceptive narrative statement--that we can so often wish and do for outsiders that which we can't afford our own flesh and blood.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

CRONOS - #551

Guillermo del Toro's 1993 debut, Cronos, is a loopy tale from the dark side. It's a macabre horror story, but more from the "spooky yarn for a rainy night" school than the nubile gore and splatter that passes for fright fests most of the time these days. Shot in Mexico on a $2 million budget, it fits neatly into a tradition of first-timers injecting their low-grade genre pictures with every meaningful aspiration they can muster. Think back to the heydays of Roger Corman, when young directors would cut their teeth on his cheap backlot, or more recently, Sam Raimi. Guillermo del Toro is practically an institution now, thanks to movies like Pan's Labyrinth [review] and the Hellboy franchise [review of II], but this is where it all got started.

Cronos begins much like a storybook, evoking the horror fiction that del Toro draws his inspiration from. We are told that centuries prior, an alchemist experimenting with terrible secrets stumbled onto something extraordinary, building a device called the Cronos. Two-hundred years later, that same alchemist was killed in a freak accident. No one could explain how he was still alive, and the Cronos gadget was nowhere to be found.

Jump ahead in time further, and a junkie spots a statue of an archangel in a second-hand shop in Mexico. Knowing there is a man who will pay for such a piece of information, the junkie rushes to a pay phone, but not before alerting the store's owner to the importance of the damaged sculpture. The old shopkeeper, Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) unwrap the curio, and in cleaning out the cockroaches that are living inside it, find a small metal egg. Jesús turns a dial on the golden object, and spider legs emerge, clamp down on his hand, and a stinger stabs into his palm. The old man has no idea what he has stumbled on.

The man who sent the junkie does, however. De la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is a fellow of many riches, but health is not one of them. He has been buying every angel statue he can find hoping to locate the missing Cronos so he can use it to beat the many ailments that plague him. When he gets a tip, he sends his gorilla-like nephew, Angel (del Toro-regular Ron Perlman) to buy it. He has the alchemist's book of instructions about the Cronos, including a sketch of what the right statue looks like. Angel buys this one like always, but even though it finally matches the drawing, the true treasure is already gone.

Long story short, the Cronos is a tool that grants eternal life, but one that must constantly be maintained. I won't explain exactly how it works, there are some details best left to your own discovery for your first viewing, but in simple terms, it drinks your blood and then you are possessed of a need to replace that blood, creating an endless flow of life force. This is why Cronos is sometimes labeled as a vampire movie, though Jesús Gris is as far afield from Dracula and Nosferatu as the "zombies" in 28 Days Later are from the zombies in The Walking Dead. There are no bats, no fangs, nothing of the kind. Rather, the hunger is a more basic human desire for immortality. The Cronos preys on our longing for eternal life (which at some level is just a desire to be important and/or not forgotten; to matter). De la Guardia is trying to outrun his failing body, but he is flummoxed by this new competitor in the race. The Cronos immediately starts to make Jesús younger and more fit. He doesn't want to give that up.

Cronos is an inventive, literate psychological fairy tale, except one that turns the fairy tale convention upside down by making it about two old men rather than the folly of innocence. Though there is an element of that, too; the lesson learned here is for the innocent, the little girl who silently observes. The granddaughter, though she does not speak, is a constant presence, serving as a conscience for her grandfather, who literally holds temptation in his hands. The things children see that adults cannot is one of the many thematic threads that run through all of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish language movies, though in The Devil's Backbone and particularly Pan's Labyrinth, the youngsters step into the shoes of the protagonist rather than simply watching. In del Toro's world, a child can process the unbelievable in a way adult's cannot simply because they still believe. Besides, worrying about living forever must seem awfully ridiculous to someone who isn't even ten years old.

Not everything in Cronos works. Some of del Toro's writing is a little too on the nose. Perlman's character being named Angel might have been fodder for some amusing irony had the angel statues he is collecting for his uncle not made the symbolism obvious. Worse is the first time you hear the full name "Jesús Gris" spoken out loud. I think I actually groaned. Sometimes del Toro overdoes his visual symbolism, too. Clocks appear here and there throughout the movie, reinforcing the importance of time, sometimes in a good way, sometimes it's too much. The man in the clock costume at the New Year's Party is a neat idea, but the violent climax in front of a big clock face doesn't just fail on a textual level, the set looks cheap.

I'm willing to forgive the big set piece not looking so great, though, because del Toro puts his money where it counts. The make-up for the various states of Jesús' metamorphosis is fantastic, with the right touches of gore and gristle to make it believable, stomach churning, and even a little funny. Even better is the Cronos device itself. The old school effects on the machine are flawless, with the rudimentary toy-like mechanics of the object being perfect for a contraption that is over 400 years old. It moves and clicks and whirrs, and in an ingenious move, del Toro takes us inside the device, showing us its tiny gears and other, shall we say, parts from the inside. Letting us see the miniature interior up close this way makes it seem giant, as befitting its truly awesome powers. The hand-made props also appear more otherworldly than more contemporary computer effects usually do, as if this thing were the product of another fearsome dimension.

Federico Luppi is good as Jesús. He underplays the role rather than going over the top with it, and that makes his transformation all the stronger. It also keeps some of the more grotesque elements from being comical when they shouldn't be (licking blood off a bathroom floor) and adds to the black comedy when its pertinent (the corpse in the backwards suit). The villains are a little too cartoony to be truly menacing, but the Cronos provides its own menace, so the movie does have a dark flavor when required.

These are humble beginnings, to be sure, but Cronos definitely points the way for the Guillermo del Toro that is to come. Even with its rough edges, Cronos is thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly thought provoking. As with any truly good horror story, it makes us question what we would do in such a situation. Every adult character here has his own selfish goals, even if the selfishness emerges unexpectedly. If we were in the same situation as Jesús, would we not take advantage? Is the way he stubbornly wants to hold on to the Cronos for himself any better than De La Guardia's obsessive by-any-means-necessary search for it? I would say no, which is why Jesús' redemption comes with such a high penalty.

Taking us further back to del Toro's beginnings is the inclusion of the director's early short, Geometria. This six-and-a-half-minute film was begun in 1987, when the director was in his early 20s, but never completed to del Toro's satisfaction until it was unearthed for this DVD release. He cleaned it up, dubbing the soundtrack into Italian doing all the voices himself, as his homage to Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. The blood-and-guts short subject features a teenager calling on a demon, essentially because he hates his homework. And, well, you know what happens when you waste a demon's time, don't you?

Also of note for del Toro fans is a short featurette called Welcome to Bleak House. This is a video tour of the scare master's work space, a second home away from home where he stores his toys, trinkets, art, and books. The whole place is set up as a museum/work environment, with hidden rooms, a screening area, and an art space. Collectors and fanatics will definitely drool over a lot of the stuff here, and after watching it, del Toro's brief connection with a Disney reboot its Haunted Mansion franchise makes a lot more sense.

The Criterion Cronos package, which is available on both regular DVD and Blu-Ray, is filled out by two commentaries, various interviews, and a stills gallery and a booklet with some of del Torro's early notes for the movie. Hellboy fans will also be excited to see that the comic book's creator, Mike Mignola, did the cover illustration, as well as a two-part illustration for the interior book. Actually, it's four parts, because the inside works in conjunction with the cover, and even the art on the surface of the disc brings you in closer, showing us the exposed Cronos and its hiding place inside the heavenly statuary. It's like opening a treasure and digging down deep into the chest. Fantastic.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

AMERICA LOST & FOUND: THE BBS STORY (Blu-Ray) - #s 544-550

"The tragedy of your time, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want." - Factory Owner, Head

BBS was a short-lived, yet artistically progressive production company that had an integral role in one of the most adventurous periods of American moviemaking. Comprised of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, the company made seven movies in the late 1960s and early '70s, some of which went on to be iconic works, some of which are not as well known. Each were distinguished by the team's commitment to working with new talent to show contemporary America as they saw it, from the working class through to the counter-culture and on up to the moneyed folks. That is why the boxed set of these movies is called America Lost and Found. The BBS productions were chronicling a turning point in modern living, and their films were saying good-bye to an old, glossed-over Hollywood vision and hello to something more liberating.

In fact, you can see the struggle for the creative torch played out in the set's first and possibly most perplexing film, Head (1968). Directed by Bob Rafelson, and featuring scripting by none other than Jack Nicholson, Head is, of course, best known as the movie that featured the Monkees sending up their own image and addressing the critical misconceptions directly, but doing so in their inimitable madcap style.

I have always liked Head, though I have never been able to convince myself if it's actually good or not. It's entertaining and funny and full of great songs, but it's also maybe too long and too self-reflexive. At times, it feels like all involved are telling a joke only they are in on. Yet, the squeaky-clean television Beatles were breaking out of the box that broadcast their scripted adventures week after week. Head showed them doing things they couldn't do on TV, including Peter Tork hitting a woman and then wondering if that was something he could get away with. As he tells us, he is "always the dummy." Is he even allowed to search his soul to question the assigned morality?

The freeform collection of skits runs through movie history, flaunting clichés while addressing political and artistic concerns, melding social issues with the Monkees' insistence that they were authentic while also exposing the artificiality of their cinematic construct. Of course the group's heartthrob Davy Jones would be paired with America's sweetheart Annette Funicello, but he'd reject her to sing Harry Nilsson. The more obvious metaphor of old Hollywood vs. new, however, is the giant Victor Mature that chases the Monkees through the whole movie. In one scene, they are the dandruff in his oily hair; in another, the overly tanned actor is bored by their antics; in the end, he is one of the elements that chases them to their death. The question is, did he know that the cultural shift Head represented would actually be the cause of his own demise? The days of the Hollywood star system than made Victor Mature a celebrity were over.

Possibly not, especially since Head was not a box office or critical success. I doubt, then, there was much hope for the next BBS picture a year later: Easy Rider (1969). Directed by Dennis Hopper, and co-written by Hopper, Peter Fonda, and satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One), it was a road picture, a collection of vignettes strung along a map, following two motorcycle hippies on their journey from a West Coast drug deal to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Fonda plays Captain America, the flag-draped picture of laid-back cool, and Hopper is Billy, the spacey, long-haired cowboy that cruises alongside him. Wherever the pair go, they are met with resentment and distrust. It was the counter-culture directly meeting exactly what they were counter to, though in a lot of ways, they are far more sympathetic to the other side than Old America is to them.

Jack Nicholson appears in a memorable supporting role, playing an alcoholic lawyer the bikers meet in jail and take along with them on the rest of their trip. He lays it out for the Captain and Billy: they represent true freedom, and their rejection of the expected social paradigms exposes how the old democracy stifled individuality. Hopper and Fonda were taking the cheap B-movie, Hell's Angels-exploitation pictures they had been making for Roger Corman and, like the Monkees, flipping what was expected and injecting it with the unexpected. It's a pretty heavy-handed message, and it has a pretty heavy-handed outcome. And I hate to say it, despite the excellent performances, I actually find Easy Rider kind of boring. It's the sort of movie I can appreciate for its significance, but that maybe isn't as artistically potent now that some time has passed.

Excepting that, Hopper's directorial approach is impressively innovative. Legendary cinematographer Lázló Kovács shot the movie using a naturalistic lighting style, photographing the locations as they were; however, Hopper took this realistic-looking footage, and he and editor Donn Cambern cut it like a psychedelic movie. Transitions show flashes of things to come, like channel surfing into the future, be it the future that is just around the corner or further down. Hopper also uses contemporary music in a far more pronounced way than was common at the time. Whole songs match whole stretches of highway, with the two guys and their bikes rolling to the rhythm of Steppenwolf, the Band, the Byrds, and others. Granted, it's these extended "music video" sequences that can make Easy Rider drag, but you know, you can't win them all.

And let's face it: historically Easy Rider was a big hit, and it lead to BBS garnering more faith in their material from studios. This lead to a creative explosion, as the newly successful conglomerate set out to give fresh talent the avenue to realize their vision. First up, Rafelson and Nicholson (and Kovács) reteam for Five Easy Pieces (1970). Thankfully, third time is the charm, here is where they get it just right.

Five Easy Pieces was developed from various scripts by Rafelson, with the final product cobbled together by Carole Eastman (credited as Adrien Joyce). It's a movie that everyone thinks they know before they see it, based on one iconic scene--Jack Nicholson, diner, hold the chicken salad between your knees--but the complete film is really so much more. Yes, Jack plays Robert Eroica Dupea, the kind of motor-mouthed, half-cracked crazy that is his raison d'être, and in a way, it is the definitive revelation of so much Jack to come. Yet, as his pretentious name hints, there are layers to Robert. Though we meet him working as a roughneck in the oil fields of California, his return home to the Washington wilderness will be a journey of rediscovery and revelation. His middle name is for Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, and he is from a family of classic pianists. Bob himself can tickle the ivories, though he walked away from that and has been hiding out amongst the working class. He is only returning to his clan because his father may be dying.

What works so well in Five Easy Pieces is that odd pacing of real life that Easy Rider strove for and maybe didn't quite get. The way the story unfolds appears to be haphazard, as if there is no plan, it's only when you get to the movie's emotional climax that we realize that Rafelson and Eastman are building to something. The early part of the movie shows Robert's happenstance life, screwing around with his drinking buddy (Billy "Green" Bush) and screwing around on his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black, a BBS regular; she is also in Easy Rider). Ray goes with him on his drive North, and endures the pedantic hitchhikers they pick up (Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil), and eventually insinuates herself into the family situation. Robert is trying to keep his two lives separate, which is the worst symptom of his condition. He is a man trying to outrun his emotions, not just his pedigree, and Five Easy Pieces is when they catch up with him. The title is a little mysterious, but it has connections to how Robert squanders and cheats his true talents by playing the easiest music he knows.

Lázló Kovács' photography is once again the star here, and his underplayed style suits the dusty oil fields as much as it does the rain drenched Northwest forestry. His work here brings to mind the dirty photography of his pal Vilmos Zsigmond in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, not just for its lack of a glamorous color palette, but also for how he manages to create an uneasy alliance between the environment and the people. It is a relationship both parasitic and symbiotic, the humans don't quite fit and yet they must to survive. This serves Rafelson's metaphor: Robert is playing at being something he is not, and in the final scenes, he strips down and unintentionally removes his protection from the cold. It's a move of surrender, but one that means he can get back in touch with what is true about who he is and where he belongs.

Jack Nicholson is riveting in the lead. He is starting to develop that Nicholson persona, but what will be the tricks of his trade are so dialed down here, they still have the spontaneity that some later performances maybe lack. In his most incisive performances, Nicholson plays the anti-hero whose bravado is really just an illusory suit of armor, and a good director works with him to get beyond it. Again, it's the metaphor I just mentioned, of getting past the clothes and getting to the man. The actor has an impressive monologue in the film's heartbreaking climax, and despite the attention of the diner scene, his farewell to his father is really Jack Nicholson at his best.

"You're pretty. And sad. And weird as hell." - Fred, A Safe Place

For as progressive and individual as all the films in America Lost and Found: The BBS Story can be, the true odd ducks emerge midway through the set, paired on one disc. Drive, He Said (1970) and A Safe Place (1971) are the two least-known movies here, largely because they haven't been on home video prior to this boxed set. It's not hard to see why, they aren't exactly commercial screamers. Still, they are fascinating curios, and they speak to the artistic freedom Schneider, Rafelson, and Blauner extended their talent.

Drive, He Said is Jack Nicholson's directorial debut. The actor doesn't appear in the movie, but he co-wrote the script with Jeremy Larner, adapting Larner's novel. (Some sources say that Chinatown-scribe Robert Towne, who appears in the film as Karen Black's husband, and none other than Terence Malick also contributed to the screenplay.) The story follows two college roommates, stoned-out basketball player Hector (William Teppert) and unhinged political activist Gabriel (Michael Margotta). Hector is likely to be drafted to the NBA, Gabriel is fighting being drafted into the army; the former is indecisive and unsure of his future, whereas the latter is ready to push the boundaries and break free. Unsurprisingly, only one of them ends up making any definitive moves.

In an interview on the disc, Nicholson says that making Drive, He Said taught him that to successfully adapt an impressionistic work of fiction, the key is to remove any interior monologue. If something only happens in a character's head, it has to go. That may be the way to do it, I don't know; I can't say that Drive, He Said is entirely successful. Some of it works really well--the May-December romance between Hector and a teacher's wife (Karen Black) rings true, and Bruce Dern runs away with the movie as Hector's coach--but other parts fall flat. Particularly, Gabriel's theatrical protests struck me as pretentious and not very believable. While Nicholson was trying to harness the energy of unrest on college campuses, what he puts on screen comes off as staged and false. Like If.... [review] with its fangs filed down. Luckily, the emotions of the individual characters still feel real, and the plot continues to be relevant. In particular, viewers today might find much to identify with in the boys' predicament: the choices young people being offered for their future don't hardly seem like choices at all.

Henry Jaglom appears in Drive, He Said as the ringleader of Gabriel's political enclave, and Nicholson returns the favor by taking a supporting role in A Safe Place, Jaglom's debut feature as writer and director. The movie is an expansion of a stage play of Jaglom's, though the final product bears little resemblance to a theatrical production. A Safe Place definitely wears a cinematic wardrobe, though it's a little mixed up as to what articles of clothing go where. The shoes don't always match the shirts.

A Safe Place is essentially a romance, working the standard trope of a buttoned-up nerd (Phil Proctor) having a love affair with a flighty female (Tuesday Weld), and never quite figuring out if it is liberating or enraging. The story is told along several different timelines, and much of what we see might just be a fantasy of the girl, who is alternately known as Susan and Noah, depending on what part of the story she is in. Cut into her relationship with Fred are two other relationships: one with an old Magician (Orson Welles), who may be a stand-in for her father if not the real thing, and an ongoing affair with a rich, married man (Nicholson). The Magician seems to understand the girl that Noah used to be--and indeed, is the one who calls her Susan--and also to give value to her dreams. Noah remarks several times that, as a young girl, she could fly, and her main problem with being an adult is she can't remember how.

The true magic of A Safe Place is in the editing. Jaglom and Pieter Bergema create a kaleidoscopic mis-en-scene, moving back and forth between the various sequences, inserting moments of expressionistic commentary, and essentially pulling off a juggling act that is impressive even if the overall outcome is not. Part of me thinks maybe the script is weak, that some of the tropes are obvious and that the relationship elements and dialogue betray the shallowness of a neophyte writer. In a weird way, A Safe Place is a bizarre remix of Breakfast At Tiffany's, with the girl having multiple identities to cover her past and the poor schlub who meets Holly Golightly even being named Fred. That would make Orson Welles a stand-in for Buddy Ebsen in the Doc Golightly role, and Jack Nicholson as the various rich suitors who give Holly $50 for the powder room.

Regardless of some hinky dialogue, though, the story works, probably in large part because of the fact that it is so familiar. I think the problem ends up being in the acting. The main performers, Weld and Proctor, don't quite seem ready for prime time, with Proctor in particular coming off as if he were in summer stock rehearsals rather than on a real movie set. Weld lacks the charisma to make Noah alluring, she doesn't go deep enough to make us even halfway believe the girl's stories of magic boxes and flying. Both look all the more pale in comparison to their supporting cast. Nicholson is all charm here, working the role quietly, something altogether different than what is generally expected of him. And, oh, what a treat to see Welles at this age! Jaglom brilliantly lets Orson be Orson, magic tricks and all. He has several moments of speaking to the camera, addressing the audience/Noah directly, that show what an arresting presence he could be. It's one of his most comfortable screen performances, where the showiness rarely seems unnecessary or contrived, and instead is just a very real part of a gifted actor's personality.

In one of the documentary features on America Lost and Found, Jaglom good naturedly points out that though A Safe Place and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971) were released at the same time, their box office couldn't have been more different. As he puts it, Picture Show would go on to be the most successful film of the year, while A Safe Place was the least successful. There is no malice or jealousy in his anecdote. He seems quite clear that Bogdanovich had achieved something special.

For his first major full-length movie, Bogdanovich teamed up with author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) to adapt McMurtry's frank, tersely written ode to small town life in 1950s Texas. Stylistically, Bogdanovich pays homage to the period, using the country music that would have been on the radio at the time as his score, and cinematographer Robert Surtees shot the film in black-and-white, creating instant nostalgia. Nothing else is old fashioned about The Last Picture Show, however, as it busts the conventional squeaky-clean representations usually associated with the '50s by portraying kids who drink and fool around, adultery, and the general small-mindedness that often came with isolated rural living.

The Last Picture Show is essentially a year in the life of a Texas town, beginning the morning after the last game of the high school football season (it didn't go well) and ending at the start of the next season. Though an ensemble piece, the lead is ostensibly taken by Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a thoughtful boy who could be something better than what is expected of him if only he'd take the time to consider it. His best friend is Duane (a young Jeff Bridges), a tougher customer and more of a "free spirit." Duane dates Jacey Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in school. Sonny is dating an unpleasant girl at the start, but when they break up, he starts an affair with an older woman (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his basketball coach.

I first saw The Last Picture Show when I was 18 or 19, and at the time, I pretty much viewed it as a coming-of-age story and little more. Now that I am older, I can sympathize a little more with the older characters and appreciate the fact that Bogdanovich and McMurtry are showing all levels of town life--young, old, and in between. One of the themes of the movie, as with so many of the BBS productions, is the changing times, and unlike most of the other movies, The Last Picture Show really pays attention to how the turnover effects the previous generations and goes a long way to suggest that the older folks aren't so bad. They have their good apples and their bad apples like anyone else. The obvious focus character is the father figure, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), but there are also important lessons imparted by the middle-aged women, played with ferocity by Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, and Eileen Brennan. As good as the young cast here can be, they are schooled by the veterans, who more than own the screen.

Bogdanovich is paying tribute to cinema of days gone by at the same time as he says farewell to and demythologizes the supposedly more innocent past. As a scholar who learned everything he could about old Hollywood, while Bogdanovich took advantage of the looser standards of the 1970s, he still believed in traditional storytelling. The Last Picture Show adheres more closely to the old ways, employing more conventional techniques than the other BBS films. When he closes down the movie house at the end of the film, it's meant to be the final reel of a bygone era in American motion picture making.

The generational divide is nothing compared to the divide between brothers, if the final film in the set, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), is anything to go by. Bob Rafelson returns behind the camera, working from a story he co-wrote with screenwriter Jacob Brackman. Jack Nicholson also teams with the director again, though this time in a role that apparently he almost didn't get. Rafelson didn't think it was showy enough for Jack's talents, while the actor smartly saw it was his chance to be different. Nicholson plays David Staebler, an introspective talk radio DJ sarcastically nicknamed "The Philosopher" by the brother he hasn't seen in two years. When that brother, Jason, calls out of the blue and demands David leave Philadelphia for Atlantic City, David goes, but he knows he's heading for trouble.

Jason is played by Bruce Dern, who at times seems to be channeling some of that trademark agitated energy Nicholson wasn't using this go-around. The pair make for believable brothers--different enough to be distinct, but alike enough that you can believe they came out of the same gene pool. When David gets off his train, Jason is nowhere to be seen. Instead, he is greeted by an aging beauty queen (Ellen Burstyn) and a tardy brass band. Jason, it turns out, is in jail for alleged auto theft. He sends David to get a local business man/mobster named Lewis to bail him out, which is just the beginning of the long con Jason is playing on his brother--though we are never quite sure, even to the end, how much is a con and how sincere Jason really is. If David is the thinker, Jason is the dreamer, and his latest scheme is a resort on a small, uncharted island in Hawaii. He wants his brother to go in with him, and enlists David in beating the bushes for backers, plying him with many promises, including a possible affair with the beauty queen's young stepdaughter, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson).

It's amazing how easily David falls back into the routine with his brother. The pair of them pull a quick hustle at an auction house just because they can. We already know that David has the gift of gab and a tendency to exaggerate from the opening scene at his radio show, but this is something more. Rafelson is working one of the same irritated nerves that he was picking at in Five Easy Pieces: how family defines us, good and bad, and how hard it is to discard their influence. In much the same way Nicholson's more outlandish character in that movie gets sucked back into his family's erudite squabbles, so too does his polar opposite in Marvin Gardens drop right back into the shuck and jive. David and Jason are practically a classic comedy duo: one taller, the other shorter; one outgoing, the other the victim of his partner's over-sized schemes.

Visually, Rafelson and Kovács make use of the depressing aura around Atlantic City in the off-season. It's a gaudy setting, looking a little like the holiday resort version of Miss America without her make-up--an analogy that comes to mind since Atlantic City is where the Miss America pageant has traditionally been held, and in one of Marvin Gardens' most memorable scenes, the group rents out a hall to perform a mock version of the contest for Jessica. That sequence serves not only to show us the level of delusion that Jason and his ladies operate at, but it's also indicative of how Rafelson and Kovács use the landscape as juxtaposition. The size of the event center overwhelms these tiny people, and the fact that most of the accoutrements are taken down and packed into boxes just adds to how sad and misguided they are. Jason stands tall, but he's at the center of an empty arena.

The ending of The King of Marvin Gardens serves as a melancholy coda to America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. As with the movie theatre closing down in The Last Picture Show, or even Duane and Sonny saying good-bye, the split between the Staebler brothers is an unhappy one. It's necessary, but that doesn't mean they have to like it. They had fun together once. We see it in the final image, their grandfather's home movies of the two boys playing on the beach as children. It's the worst kind of emotional longing: that which can never be again, but that you'll still end up chasing no matter how hard you try to get away from it.

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story is an endlessly intriguing collection. Even if all the movies don't quite hit, they are all interesting, all informative in their way, encapsulating the changing landscape of American cinema and of the country itself. Taken as a whole, they form a kind of anthology, each movie informing the film that would follow, building a larger aesthetic narrative. Of the seven films, three of them--Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show--are bonafide classics, and a fourth, The King of Marvin Gardens, is due to be reevaluated and classified as such. The other three round out the corners, provide the connections between their brethren, and are essential to getting the complete picture of this extraordinary collective. In any creative industry, artists would be lucky to find people to work with as supportive as Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner. The space they created for their people to work was unlike any other, and it's an experiment that can likely never be repeated--but, boy, wouldn't it be great if someone tried?

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.