By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Eric Rohmer’s “Triple Agent,” Koch Lorber]
There’s no shortage of speculation and analysis among maddened cinephiles about what is wrong with the American film distribution industry and why it is that way, but what’s certain is that every year scores of films that might have, and should have, gotten honest projector time instead get their first “release” in the U.S. on DVD. Once that happens, they just vanish in the fog presently, a legal DVD disc cannot qualify for inclusion in critics’ polls and award systems, despite the fact that often the receipts are higher than those a “specialty” theatrical run would garner, and the rentable/buyable indie or import in question is far more accessible and is seen by more people. How could the new Eric Rohmer film not be awardable, simply because distributors have lost their nerve and/or their ability to market to an increasingly dumbed-down populace? Born to kvetch, I offer up my favorite dozen-plus-three straight-to-disc U.S. debuts this year, the likes of which would fill up my year’s top ten list if we were playing fair.
“The Power of Kangwon Province” (Tai Seng Video)
The second film from despairing Korean New Wave structuralist Hong Sang-soo, this 1998 ballade is surely the movement’s most critic-revered work, a sly diptych with a wounded heart. Shot with Hong’s symptomatic rigor, the film unfurls like a haunting memory, replaying itself but always failing to find an elusive truth. In the end, Hong’s clinical interrogation of modern love and its discontents holds at the center, more heartbreaking in its way than any tale of passion crippled by fate or society.
“Triple Agent” (Koch Lorber)
In his 87th year, Eric Rohmer is finally sent straight to video but this historical drama, which revisits the Miller-Skoblin affair, a mid-30s Euro-tangle of reckless espionage and collateral damage that had White Russian émigrés in Paris double-dealing the Nazis, the Soviets, French Reds and each other, is a gabby, lucid head trip, sometimes as boldly theatrical as a 1950s teleplay, sometimes volleying between visual homages to Rockwell and Vermeer.
“The Wildcat” (Kino)
In his Berlin days, Ernst Lubitsch was honing his comic rapiers with silent torpedoes like this 1921 farce, a masterful ditty set in a militaristically absurd frontier fort beset by a girl-magnet playboy lieutenant (the impossibly deft Victor Janson) and a marauding band of bandits led by a wild-haired Pola Negri.
“The Desert of the Tartars” (No Shame)
A fascinating whatsit never released here, Valerio Zurlini’s 1976 adaptation of the revered 1938 Dino Buzzati novel of the same name is a massive post-Lean epic a colonialist drama, shot in widescreen on location in Iran with an international cast including Jean-Louis Trintignant, Max Von Sydow, Fernando Rey and Philippe Noiret that’s actually about the absence of event and consequence. It may be the grandest and most lavish existentialist parable ever made it was shot in the Bam Citadel, which has since been leveled by the 2003 earthquake.
“A Trick of the Light” (Anchor Bay)
Between episodes of American jukebox sentimentality, Wim Wenders returned to Germany in 1995 to film this utterly lovely and wise meta-semi-silent-docudrama about the brothers Skladanowsky, German inventors who ran neck and neck with Edison and the Lumières in the race to invent the movies. It stars, as herself, the younger’s 91-year-old daughter Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky, and her cache of memorabilia.
“The Secret Glory” (Subversive)
A fascinating, self-aggrandizing mythmaker and gadfly, South African-born Richard Stanley is famous for his boggled fiction film projects, but this is his best feature, a dizzying archival montage (freely using classic film footage) detailing the extraordinary rise and fall of SS officer Otto Rahn, the troubled Nazi in charge of searching for the Holy Grail. The film’s included on the extra discs for Stanley’s “Dust Devil” (1993).
“Fuse” (First Run)
Good old-fashioned anarchy, this 2003 Bosnian farce the first feature by director Pjer Zalica plops us down into a corrupt, rancor-poisoned village on the Serbian border just two years after the civil war, as it scrambles to create the illusion of law-abiding togetherness and democracy on the eve of a visit from President Clinton: smugglers, white slavery, land mines, martyr ghosts, relentless renditions of “House of the Rising Sun,” guns everywhere.
“Phantom” (Flicker Alley)
An archival film-geek event, this long-neglected 1922 detour in German master F.W. Murnau’s tragically brief career (it was one of three movies he made between 1922’s “Nosferatu” and 1924’s “The Last Laugh”) is a reverent morality play and an object lesson in Murnau’s subtle reinvention of visual expression.
This 1988 film by Hungarian dyspeptic Béla Tarr, one of the planet’s great cinematic formalists, was the artist’s long-take turning point, and first discovery of a classic cinemanic space: apocalyptically run-down, dead-or-dying villages on vast Mitteleuropan plains of mud, poverty, crushed will, delusionary behavior and charcoal skies, all observed by a point of view that stalks silently and patiently through the ruins like a ghost. It’s a serotonin-depleted ordeal catnip to Tarrians with some of the most magnificent black-and-white images shot anywhere in the world.
However much it may have seemed so to us, genre berserker Seijun Suzuki didn’t just kill time between his famous Nikkatsu Studio firing in 1966 and his comeback with “Pistol Opera” decades later. His most defiant resurgence came in 1980 with “Zigeurnerweisen,” the first chapter in a loosely-knit trilogy all set during the affluent, decadent 1920s, and all intensely, drowsily tripped out on reflexive slippage, narrative Dada and gender-combat ambiguity.
“Johan van der Keuken: The Complete Collection Vol. 1” (Facets)
The late, great Dutch documentarian/freeform personal filmmaker is virtually cineaste non grata on these shores, but now he’s DVD’d in this three-disc set, which five features and four shorts, all of them eloquent and moving expression of JVDK’s aesthetic, which is fastidious only in its refusal to prioritize moviemaking over the spontaneous textures of ordinary existence.
“Farewell, Home Sweet Home” (Kino)
Otar Iosseliani, the Paris-stationed, Georgian-expat master of human ceremonies, has been building one of the world’s most sublime filmographies largely out of American purview. Call him the heir to Renoir and Tati and a contemporary of Tarkovsky’s, with a vision of contemporary life that is scathing and yet warm and wry. This hypnotic 1999 farce about French class envy observes its characters’ folly and fate (and the masterful performance by a giant Marabou stork) like a patient boulevardier on his second glass of Pernod.
“The Seventh Continent” (Kino)
Austrian director Michael Haneke has had quite an autumn-years run lately, so finally we get access to his first feature, “The Seventh Continent” (1989), a droll, methodical, deeply discomfiting portrait of inexplicable nuclear-family auto-destruction. Based in some detail upon a real incident, and never exploitative.
“Culloden” (New Yorker)
The overdue DVDing of Peter Watkins’s long-marginalized, cry-in-the-wilderness corpus continues with this long-unseen debut feature, made for the BBC in 1964 and structured in Watkins’s trademarked mock-doc mode, with appalled cameramen witnessing the English suppression of Jacobite highlanders in 1746 (a parallel to the escalating “peace actions” then under way in Vietnam is clear as glass). On the same disc with Watkins’ first brush with notoriety, 1966’s “The War Game.”
“Videograms of a Revolution” (Facets)
Czech-German doc pope Harun Farocki, working with Andrei Ujica, assembles video footage shot by scores of sources during the week of riots that culminated in the Ceausescu overthrow of 1989, and what results is not only an hour-by-hour history of the revolution but also an exploration of how it was conceived and seen as a televised event.