Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion’s new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!
October has been something of an unusual month for Criterion, in that the Blu-ray upgrades they’ve released these last few weeks are — on average — far more attractive and compelling than the four films new to the Collection. Seven mainline releases (plus that Aki Kaurismaki Eclipse Series) amounts to a spectacularly loaded non-holiday roster for our home video heroes, and the movies themselves are all over the map, although with Halloween right around the corner I guess it’s appropriate that all 7 of Criterion’s October titles are terrifying in one way or another. Island of Lost Souls explores the enduring horrors of the natural universe, Kuroneko is the ultimate ghost story for anyone who’s ever celebrated Caturday, The Four Feathers is a chilling glimpse at the lengths to which mentally impaired gentlemen will go to satisfy the demands of their psychoses, and Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman is a ghoulish soft-core nightmare about a legendary filmmaker being seduced by the sweet synth sounds of the 1980s. And that’s just the new spines. On the Blu-grade side of things you’ve got the multi-tiered cognitive dissonance of Matthew McConaughey wearing bell bottoms in a good movie, while aspiring filmmakers will be petrified by the inimitable mastery of Harakiri. Oh, and there’s also Salo, a film so bleak that any scenes not involving child-rape have to be considered comic relief, if only by sheer omission.
And on that note, let’s dive in!
#583 THE FOUR FEATHERS (dir. Zoltan Korda) 1939
The Film: I find it tough not to root for Zoltan Korda, mostly because his name is Zoltan Korda. The man directed several of the most beloved adventure films of the Technicolor era, despite being a stationary plastic fortune-telling machine who makes Tom Hanks age overnight. And yet, despite being so intimately familiar with Korda’s scrappy underdog background, often finding myself an apologist for his sweet and sweeping work, I’ve yet to arrive at an adequate defense for The Four Feathers. Korda’s film is a lush adaptation of a story hardly worth telling in the first place, one of the many movies made from A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel of the same name, which is practically a holy text back in the U.K. An epic saga of cowardice and colonialism, The Four Feathers is set in 1895 as the North Surrey Regiment of the British Army is mobilizing towards Egypt in order to fight the Mahdist War (the particulars of the war itself are of no great importance here, just that it was sandy, outrageously cinematic, and — like most British wars — very overdressed). Lieutenant Harry Faversham (a committed John Clements) resigns from the service on the eve of the regiment’s departure from London, electing to shirk his father’s military legacy and his patriotic duty to fight in a needless war, choosing instead to live the quiet life with his fiancé. His three buddies are super unhappy about this development, each one of them giving Faversham a white feather to symbolize his supposed cowardice. It’s no biggie, because most of those guys are probably going to be horribly murdered down in the desert and all, but when Faversham’s fiancé refuses to defend his conscientious objection, Faversham insists that she give him a feather of her own. And then — approximately 8 seconds of screen-time later — Faversham totally changes his mind, deciding to journey alone into the heart of the war, scarred and browned and withered by the sun in order to slip through the hostile indigenous population and return the feathers to his friends.
Sometimes utter nonsense makes for grand adventures. Faversham’s logic may be true to the era, but it’s hard to overlook just how bluntly unrelatable it is to the modern viewer, or at least to modern viewers who wouldn’t send soldiers to their likely deaths half-way around the world with nothing even vaguely resembling a plan. But what most naggingly wrinkles the film’s melodrama is how especially unbelievable Faversham’s about-face is given what we know about the character. He’s a resolute chap who’s had his entire adult life to consider the consequences of his defining devotion to pacifism, and though the reactions of his brothers in arms are hardly encouraging, their chagrin was fully aware that his decision would arouse their chagrin and resentment. But if he couldn’t tell that his fiancé was going to side with her boisterously prideful war hero of a father (at whom Faversham’s fiancé bats her eyelashes like a coquettish Derek Jeter), he’s far too stupid for me to care about for another 100 minutes. As if choosing duty over discretion weren’t foolish enough in and of itself.
Korda’s rich Technicolor photography does its best to temper the idiocy of his story, capturing the Sudanese people with a texture and faux-candidness that recalls the ethnographies of Robert J. Flaherty. The desert scenes are so fetching that the formless shape of Faversham’s journey and subsequent acts of disguised heroism never fail to grip the imagination despite the defunct emotions by which they’re motivated. Of course, the striking visual veracity of the film’s war portions rips the stuffed heart right out of the domestic scenes shot on sets, further enervating the drama precisely as the film’s two worlds are primed to play off one another. The novel’s eagerness to bop across time has never translated well to film, and the gutless denouement — which feels light years away from the film’s fade-tastic opening sequence — is a callow celebration of the very things that so irritated me about Faversham’s journey. I love Zoltan Korda and I tip my cap to him for having the good sense to leave Kate Hudson out of this version, but The Four Feathers is one case in which fortune has not favored the old.
The Transfer: I seem to be more impressed with Criterion’s work on The Four Feathers than some of my colleagues, and certainly I can understand their frustrations — in some of the static sound-stage scenes the overly lush Technicolor seems at odds with the merciless detail of a high-definition transfer. It’s one of the older films in the Criterion Collection, and while debris and damage have obviously been manually addressed with great care, the color seems to float beyond its origin, particularly red and particularly in the film’s first chapters. That being said, the desert photography has aged exquisitely well, and viewers with an interest in the epoch or genre will likely find themselves breathless during much of the film’s second act.
The Extras: Rather light on supplements, most of the bonus features on this disc are as proper and restrained as the film itself. Zoltan’s eldest son David pops up to deliver a 23-minute soliloquy on his father’s life and career, which provides a concise understanding of the exalted Korda family. Film historian Charles Drazin delivers the commentary with a stiff upper lip, his voice — entirely contained within a single unwavering octave — muting the material. He relays an array of neat Intel in his dry way, his eye for detail is strong and his anecdotes about the strained production (instances of institutional racism on the set, for example) are fascinating, but seldom does Drazin deviate from or expand upon the text, too often choosing to explain it.
The Best Bit: A Day at Denham is a 10-minute promotional film from 1939, a bouncing, flickery old-school EPK in which the viewer is lead on a guided tour of London Film Productions’ studios at Denham. It’s an amazing and era-perfect peek at filmmaking of yore (a shot of a studio suit walking through a sea of carpenters as they hammer away at a set is priceless). Included is rare production footage from the set of The Four Feathers, as well as the set’s private canteen for women and “artists.”
The Artwork: Splendid. Criterion’s cover art — a painted contrast of vivid sky and sand, thick brushstrokes smudging them together — is perhaps the highlight of the entire release.
The Verdict: 57 / 100
#584 KURONEKO (dir. Kaneto Shindo) 1968
The Film: Since Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, I guess it follows that all of the really scorned women are stuck here on this mortal coil, locked in a cycle of fevered reprisals for all time. Four years after the release of his masterpiece Onibaba, Kaneto Shindo once again combined his twin obsessions of sex and spirits to deliver the delightful (if comparatively lightweight) ghost story of Kuroneko (or “Black Cat”). Essentially filling this year’s House slot, Kuroneko is a devious little tale, dense with fog and gender politics and eventually capitulating to camp in a third act turn that Shindo’s sublime tonal alchemy allows to become the most narratively satisfying paw vs. sword showdown in film history (and there’s more contention for that honor than you might think).
Kuroneko begins with a long, austere, and memorably horrific opening image: A gang of soldiers deviating from the civil war at hand to rape and murder the mother and daughter-in-law who live in a small woodsy cottage. A few black kittens are the only living creatures to witness the transgression, mewling and licking the fresh wounds of the recently dead women. Cut to the Rajoman Gate (which should sound familiar), where an ethereal woman in white emerges from the thick of night to ask a passing samurai to escort her home through the bamboo grove. The mask of lust the samurai wears seems to blind him from the mess of supernatural overtones, as he’s blind to Shindo’s reservoirs of silence, the woman’s unusually light gait, and, um, the fact that her ponytail wags like the tail of a cat. The veiled figure leads the samurai to her house where her mother appears with some drink, and — in an exquisitely choreographed dance of death — the cycle begins anew the next evening. Enough men fall victim to the spirits that the local authorities become concerned, eventually summoning a war hero named Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) to deal with the matter. But Gintoki, it seems, has met these ghosts before.
Rich with atmosphere and a knowing smile (the cat paws, a backdrop of a bold sun for Gintoki to ride his steed across), Kuroneko is one of those rare tales to so fluidly marry portent to pathos. GIntoki’s dilemma is the stuff of classical folklore, but the sexual frankness and yearning with which it’s explored is pure Shindo, his film frequently allowing the drama to be interrupted with flourishes of ballet, wu xia, and Noh theater in order for the layered dynamics to best express themselves. A beautiful, drum-kissed dialogue between time, transformation, and the various desires of the physical world, Kuroneko is a true delight – Shindo seems to be have had a ton of fun with the material, and his crooked joy is still wildly contagious.
The Transfer: Criterion’s transfer is solid if unspectacular, clearly illustrating the pivotal contrast between the dense black of night and the luminous ladies who emerge from it. It’s not quite as precise as their HD transfer of Harakiri (which involves similar spaces), but it’s strong and expressive and compares favorably to the print I saw in theaters last year.
The Extras: Kuroneko is rather impoverished so far as supplements are concerned, and it’s a bit of a shame. There are only 2 bonus features beyond the invariable trailer, including a 16-minute video interview with Japanese film scholar Tadao Sato, whose insights into Kuroneko are both unique and impassioned. His delightful segment will leave you bummed out that he didn’t contribute an entire commentary track.
The Best Bit: The only other bonus on the disc is a great one: An hour-long interview with Shindo, recorded for the Japanese Directors Guild in 1998. Shindo is already an old man, and seems collapsed into his slight frame, but the chat (hosted by his long-time assistant) is a wonderful listen, as the filmmaker candidly discusses his formative years and a wide selection of his work. It’s worth mentioning that Shindo — now 99 years-old, has directed Japan’s entry to the 2011 Academy Awards. It’s called Post Card, and it’s his final film.
The Artwork: Criterion artists Sam Smith and Eric Skillman have collaborated to deliver a truly unique Criterion cover, the first lenticular or whatever you call it in the company’s history. It’s a gorgeously ethereal design in the first place (based off Smith’s one-sheet design and flecked with the thick, jangly font he created by hand), but as you tilt the box and the figure on the front disappears from the grove… it’s perfection, and it totally nails the film’s unique tone.
The Verdict: 88 / 100 CRITERION CORNER PICK OF THE MONTH!
#585 IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) 1982
The Film: Antonioni for completists, Identification of a Woman was the last feature film that the cinema’s poet laurete of ennui made before suffering the stroke that would effectively curtain his career, and as a late-era work from a master in decline it’s riddled with fragments that reiterate and clarify his earlier sensations, ultimately expanding Antonioni’s pet obsessions to the point of disintegration. Identification of a Woman concerns a film director named Niccolo (Tomas Milian) who is desperately but laconically searching for the perfect actress to star in his next film, which anyone familiar with Antonioni will rightfully expect to exist only in the context. If that sounds like a flimsy pretext for a self-reflexive exercise, consider that Antonioni begins the interview included in the booklet of this release by offering that “Every film is an autobiography, but every feature film is also, more or less, a documentary.” And more so than any of the iconic works upon which he built his legend — modernist fairy tales that eulogize the lives lost on the tips of our tongues – Identification of a Woman feels as if it wasn’t just made by Antonioni, but also told from his perspective. It’s not simply a modest film by the standards of a filmmaker more accustomed to diagnosing the problems of a poisoned world, but the idiosyncratic work of a single man struggling, even in the twilight of his career as an artist and a pivotal twentieth century thinker, to understand the rift between the sexes.
Niccolo’s aimless adventures are predominately split between the attentions of Mavi and Ida, the former a lithe short-haired nymph (Daniela Silvero, looking to entirely unlike Monica Vitti), and the latter a grounded type with more conventional appetites. The form, of course, is not like that of a traditional romance in which he the protagonist meets both women in short succession and must juggle them both — in Antonioni’s film, first comes Mavi, then the detour into the dense and dislocating highway of fog in which Niccolo struggles to find his way back to a woman he must realize he barely knows, and then comes Ida. The second sexual partner isn’t a solution to the first, but rather something entirely different, a new canvas onto whom Niccolo can project all of his misunderstanding and wonder. If I can allow myself to project the filmmaker into his film more than I usually advocate one doing, it seems as if Antonioni — even at an advanced age — is baffled by fundamental human mysteries, questions of sex and the infinite space between even those people who anatomically interlock, questions that are tinged with the dark desperation of a man resigning to the fact that the answers will forever lie beyond his grasp. Identification of a Woman is a messy film, listless even for ardent Antonioni acolytes and humming along with the indifference of an artist who has already said his piece, and is now content to poke around in the dark for the things he missed and may never find. Oh, also, let’s chat some time about this film’s potential influence on the work of Jia Zhangke, okay?
The Extras: This is Criterion’s first bare-bones release since The Makioka Sisters in June, if I’m not mistaken. So yeah, as I noted above, this is for hardcore Antonioni fans only, those people for whom the Italian master needs absolutely no introduction.
The Best Bit: It may be the only bit, but the booklet included in Criterion’s release is very much worth a read. Antonioni expert Gideon Bachmann (I’m going to blindly assume he bears no relation to Michelle) contributes a stellar essay on the film that will likely be posted on Criterion’s website in the imminent future, and the Antonioni interview to which I referred earlier is massively helpful.
The Artwork: Niccolo finds his way through the green-gray fog. At first it struck me as if it’s Mavi’s perspective from the unseen car behind him, but now I look at this fitting image and see it as Antonioni casting Niccolo out to see like a baited fishing rod, hoping he returns with something good.
The (DVD) Verdict: 69 / 100
#586 ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (dir. Erle C. Kenton) 1932
The Film: The thing about memory (yes, the thing) is that it has a funny way of elevating kitsch into canon — boredom is always the first thing that people forget. Such bits of dime store wisdom are hard to shake while watching Erle C. Kenton’s treasured classic The Island of Lost Souls (an adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel of the same name), the atmospheric 1932 creature-fest in which the iconic Dr. Mareau (The Night of the Hunter writer / director Charles Laughton) made his screen debut. Despite running a scant 70 minutes Kenton’s film is formless and torpid, but unforgettable performances from Laughton, former dental assistant Kathleen Burke, and Z-movie legend Bela Lugosi (beastly fur rendering him unrecognizable, save for that voice) enliven the story’s boldly progressive interest in speculative science. As a result, Kenton’s pre-Code adaptation is littered with indelible moments that float to the surface like tender meat in a thin stew. Even folks who roll their eyes at every leaden inflection or giggle with jaded remove at the patchy make-up work will find themselves muttering “Are we not men?” in Lugosi’s unsure cadence, remembering the hybrid echo chamber long after they’ve forgotten the film in which they heard it.
You know how the story goes: A shipwrecked man named Edward is deposited on a mysterious tropical island, separated from both his wife and his personality. The island belongs to the sinister, intelligent, and obviously cracked Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist whose flabby cheeks are cradled by an altar of facial hair that ultimately goes down as his sickest creation. Moreau has created a small army of hairy beasts, creatures that have been forcibly evolved into un-men in order to fulfill what the Doctor believes is every non-human animal’s true potential. Moreau’s proudest creation is the panther woman Lota, whom he hopes will fall in love with Edward, thus proving that his experiments are capable of abstract human emotion. Laughton chews the scenery as well as anyone before Richard Kiel, all the while relaying Moreau’s wild-eyed pathos with too much sincerity for the film to fall prey to camp, and the fevered oratories that he delivers to Edward are madly inspired in a way that still enraptures the imagination with their dark designs. But for all of the fun quirks and flashes of giddy cinephilia, The Island of Lost Souls is still a rather lumbering affair, its sharp lighting failing to distract from a moribund narrative that cleaves to ideas in search of momentum. The first act is painfully arch, the middle portions jumble into the clutches of mediocrity whenever Laughton or Lugosi leave the screen, and the perfunctory climactic struggles are rescued only at the last possible moment by a haunting final image. As it stands, The Island of Lost Souls is lovely to remember, but distractingly dull to visit.
The Transfer: Criterion was really fighting an uphill battle with this one, and most of the faults of their HD transfer are certainly inherited from the film’s aged and battered source materials. The opening sequence unspools like a meticulously cleaned VHS, clarity and contrast far below what we’ve come to expect from Criterion. Things improve dramatically as soon as Edward arrives on the eponymous island, but the image is never particularly consistent. Of course, The Island of Lost Souls has long been beyond the reach of reference quality, and to fans will be impressed with how clean the image appears, usually overcoming whatever issue is plaguing it during any particular scene. The transfer never fully succumbs to its flaws, and the restoration never feels like a fool’s errand.
The Extras: This is a gloriously loaded disc. We begin with a 16-minute video piece in which John Landis chats with make-up gurus Rick Baker and Rob Burns in which they speak to lovingly about the effects which define early horror films. Then you’ve got 13 minutes of David J. Skal orating on the “Swiftian satire” of H.G. Wells, and 14 minutes with Richard Stanley, the guy first charged with directing 1996′s disastrous remake, The Island of Dr. Moreau (starring Marlon Brando in his “pad-lock the refrigerator” phase). It’s clear how much Stanley must have been destroyed by the experience. And then of course we have Devo’s Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, speaking about the film’s influence on their band (their first album being called “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!”). Criterion has also included an early Devo music video / short film that riffs on Kenton’s classic.
The Best Bit: Sure, any commentary track has the edge on being the highlight of its respective disc, but film historian Gregory Mank’s track is a rare treat. His knowledge is vast (often spinning into a discussion of other films of the era) and spiritedly recounted with a flair for the dramatic. The parts of the film to which he draws your attention stray from the obvious and greatly improve the experience, dipping into hilarious asides about Charles Laughton and even providing viewers with a precise geographical understanding as to where Natalie Wood drowned. Listening to Mank, I found myself wishing for the first time that Island of Lost Souls was actually longer.
The Verdict: 76 / 100
#17 SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) 1975
The Film: Pasolini’s final work, completed only weeks before he was murdered, remains amongst the most controversial films ever made, a thing so taboo and unavailable that for decades its legend was the ultimate testament to its strength. At a certain point, however, it’s as if the forces of censorship decided that suppressing a piece of art three decades after its creation was a tacit admission of its power, and that only by allowing it to be screened and sold could modern audiences have the chance to giggle at its candied shit and old-fashioned sincerity, the public themselves relied upon to de-fang the film that was supposedly too incendiary for them to see. But here we are, this month’s Blu-ray representing Criterion’s third home video incarnation of the film, and Salo’s power hasn’t diminished a bit. Its portrait of absolute power absolutely corrupted is as urgent as ever, its refusal to concede to its own fantasy particularly terrifying in this age when self-reference is so often used as a security blanket. There’s a blunt perpetuity to Salo’s evils that seems to elude the films it’s inspired (Pasolini’s disgust with Italian Fascism is difficult to match), but watching the film today it’s clear that Salo is precisely the film that the censors feared it to be, dissolving itself into contemporary cinema as a template rather than as a point of homage.
Watching Salo in the here and now, the offense of its particulars (the pedophilia! The meal of poop, so lovingly rendered in Criterion’s cover art) are less striking than the familiarity of its unyielding form, which now seems less inclined to point viewers back to the classicism of its origins in the works of Dante and the Marquis de Sade, but forwards to modern films as varied as Hostel and Dogtooth. At once both the cinema’s most damning portrait of Fascism as well as its most accurate distillation, Salo is every bit as blistering as it was in 1975, its horror show details (the President’s wonky eyes!) and pervasive apathy (tonally anticipating the violence of Alan Clarke’s Elephant) casually cohering into one of the scariest films ever made.
The Upgrade: It’s been noted that Criterion’s Salo Blu-ray has a markedly different appearance than that of other Salo Blu-rays published in other territories, namely in that Criterion’s transfer has trended towards a warmer color palette, eschewing grays and blues for softer, fleshier tones. To my eyes, Criterion’s complexion is undoubtedly superior and more appropriate for Pasolini’s film, which only increases in power the more tactile and alive it feels. The muted tones of the BFI Blu-ray make the gaggle of pillaged youths feel almost zombified, whereas Criterion’s transfer captures them at the height of their flush-cheeked youth. Beyond that, the image on this Blu-ray is so gorgeous it’s downright sinister, Criterion having all but eliminated the noise that haunted their DVD editions, and thus allowing the film to connect with their consumers without the buffer of degraded time. Contrast and saturation levels are spot-on and the picture is sadistically clear. Light years improved over any DVD of the film, Salo has never looked better, and probably never will. Whether or not you consider that to be a good thing is up to you.
#302 HARAKIRI (dir. Masaki Kobayashi) 1962
The Film: Masaki Kobayashi is too often one of those filmmakers who gets lost in the shuffle of Japanese auteurism, a sleight that Criterion continues to remedy as best they can. Kwaidan was an early Criterion favorite, their DVD release of Kobayashi’s magnum opus The Human Condition still ranks amongst their most essential and well-considered releases, and Samurai Rebellion is naturally a highlight of their “Rebel Samurai” box set. But it might be Harakiri – a rigidly geometric, fluidly time-bending, and giddily cathartic samurai court drama — that most urgently expresses Kobayashi’s mastery of the milieu and the medium, alike. Despite the discourse consistently returning our attention to the hallowed trio of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, I can barely make it through Harakiri’s opening sequence (that spare voiceover, Toru Takemitsu’s airy score racing up my spine like a welcome cold shiver) without being reminded that Kobayashi’s most purely enjoyable film — arguably the most emotionally satisfying of its kind — is up there with Pale Flower and High and Low as the seminal Japanese film of the early 1960s.
The Upgrade: Yessssss. Speaking of Pale Flower, Criterion’s Harakiri Blu-ray joins the disc for Shinoda’s masterwork as sporting one of the finest monochromatic transfers the format has ever known. Freed from the ceiling of DVD, Harakiri shimmers and shines, every nuance of Kobayashi’s delicate and emotionally expressive lighting allowed to articulate its full meaning. The clarity of the image (with unparalleled contrast and consistent grain) allows the meticulous spatial planning of Kobayashi’s samurai courts to be fully understandable — even in the most crowded scenes, the layout of the clan and the social hierarchy it betrays is easy to understand, an effect which actually improves one’s appreciation of the film’s content, itself. Anyone who loves this film half as much as I do should feel extremely confident that Criterion’s Blu-ray is a great buy, even if you already own the DVD (give it to a friend, spread the love).