Now entering my second year as proprietor of the boutique DVD and Blu-ray rental shop Video Free Brooklyn, I regularly compare the creative and business philosophies of my store to the very vinyl resurgence I've bought into, and I'm thankful for all the customers who share my passion for the analog experience of discovering treasures through in-person browsing and face-to-face discourse. Nothing beats the collective moviegoer excitement when the lights dim in a theater, but compared to cinema that's streamed, downloaded, or ordered with the click of a button? I'd rather get my kicks through what I can hold in my hot little hands.
It's true that I have a vested interest in "home video," but considering how relatively little writing is out there about it in an inane whirlpool of box-office forecasting, casting rumors and dating gossip, it bothers me that so many amazing repertory titles and new curiosities fall silently under the radar. (We can also blame the culture-fragmenting superpowers of the Internet for this, the greatest and worst thing to ever happen to media consumers.) My aim is to cut through the noise and give you a taste of what's now available to rent or buy with this curated column, "DVD is the New Vinyl." Twice a month here at The Playlist, I'll scour through my New Releases shelf for auteur-driven rarities, cult wonders, and other must-sees to preemptively answer that question I'm frequently asked, "Can you recommend a good _______?" To kick things off, here's a mega-roundup of June's required viewing...
DISCS OF THE MONTH:
1975, dir. Peter Bogdanovich
(Twentieth Century Fox, available on BD)
A connoisseur of vintage Hollywood, the "Paper Moon" and "The Last Picture Show" auteur bucked the countercultural trends of the era in his gently parodic homage to the 1930s studio musical. Extravagantly staged and dressed in black-and-white but shot in color, with a songbook of little-known Cole Porter ditties recorded live on-set by a sprightly, partner-swapping ensemble of high-society snobs (including Burt Reynolds' carousing playboy, Cybill Shepherd's icy heiress, and Madeline Kahn's boozy Broadway diva), the film is best known today as the indulgent art-deco flop that threatened to derail Bogdanovich's career. It's too bad, frankly, because much like other legendary bombs such as "Ishtar" or "Heaven's Gate," this Lubitsch-esque confection is more rewarding than it's given credit for, with glamorous production design, sassy double-entendres, and a carefree sense of fun worth at least a dozen dour duds like "Les Misérables" any tap-dancing night of the week. It's the top!
The Skinny: On his Indiewire column "Blogdanovich," the ever-ascotted filmmaker chronicles the fate of what he used to call "At Long Last Turkey," from debacle to revitalization.
Bonus Round: There predictably aren't any extras, but that this "Definitive Director's Edition" exists is thanks to the help of the late editor Jim Blakely, who had re-edited the film after the first, compromised cut was pulled from theaters. His improved version, discovered by Bogdanovich a few years ago after he was emailed a YouTube clip recorded off TV, was further refined for this first-ever home release.
Makes a "Notorious '70s Musicals" Triple Feature with: "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Lost Horizon"
1987, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
(Olive Films, available on BD, DVD)
"At the end of the 20th century, the Idiot's phone rang." The idiosyncratically cheeky voiceover opening "Soigne ta droite" couldn't be more Godardian, nor could the man playing said Dostoyevsky-reading idiot: the French master himself, as a director determined to deliver a film in 24 hours in order to secure financing. Inspired by Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati, this intellectually and structurally cracked comedy ruminates on both art (and its futility in a world where the masses don't care; bystanders coo over a shiny film canister instead of the 35mm masterwork inside) and death (corpses pile up in a sports stadium; a pilot reads a self-help book called "How to Commit Suicide"). Meanwhile, French rockers Les Rita Misouko cut a new album in between vignettes, but more baffling than all the cryptic references is just how rewarding it is to watch Godard pull faces and suffer slapstick pratfalls. Could this be his "Schizopolis"?
The Skinny: "Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard" author and New Yorker critic Richard Brody tells The Playlist: "For me, Godard's single most moving moment is in this movie—the scene, early on, that ends with a reference to Malraux's 'La Condition Humaine'—and it, too, is death-drenched. But Les Rita Mitsouko are there, too—two young lovers with the light at their backs, keeping the flame of art alive. I suppose that, if Woody Allen hadn't gotten there first, Godard could have called this comedy 'Love and Death.'"
Bonus Round: It's a bare-bones disc, but Olive gets a pass for concurrently releasing Anne-Marie Miéville and Godard's 1976 dialectic media critique "Comment Ça Va."
Makes a "Funny to the French" Triple Feature with: "Cracking Up," "M. Hulot's Holiday"
1967, dir. František Vláčil
(Criterion, available on BD, DVD)
Within the canon of international cinema, Czech filmmakers such as Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, even Věra Chytilová have cemented their status as prominent auteurs, but few American filmgoers know of Vláčil and his mystic, grand-scale yet atmospherically stark opus, hailed as the nation's great masterpiece in a 1998 survey of their critics and film professionals. Adapted from Vladislav Vančura's experimental novel—in turn, based on a Czechoslovakian legend from the 13th century, when the film is set—the historical conflict between paganism and Christianity is played out in the medieval feuds of two adversarial tribes. But within the film's complex, episodic time-jumping, the savage and self-contained dramas (raping! pillaging! kidnapping! beheading!) can be so unbelievably dense that it's best to surrender to the exquisiteness of the filmmaking, from the evocative primitivism of period costumes and other grimily naturalistic details, to chilling sound design and symbolic B&W 'Scope compositions (such as wolves speckled in a blizzard-white forest) that are as hallucinatory as dreams.
The Skinny: In a 2010 LA Weekly feature, critic Michael Atkinson calls Vláčil "the Czech New Wave's arch formalist, its postexpressionist wrecking ball, the Czech Welles. Vláčil was known for having pursued what he termed 'pure film'—a chimerical ambition shared by everyone from Von Sternberg and Brakhage to Lynch—and fittingly, his best movies display a hypnotic plastic originality."
Bonus Round: Criterion rarely skimps, so aside from anecdotal video interviews with three of the actors and the costume designer, plus two more that add context from Czech critic Antonín Liehm and British film historian Peter Hames, there's also a deliciously geeky bit on the film's restoration by the project's technical director. Also: storyboard galleries and "In the Web of Time," a short 1989 doc portrait of Vláčil by cinematographer František Uldrich.
Makes a "Czech Masterpiece" Triple Feature with: "Daisies," "Closely Watched Trains"