Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Recently Released Cinematic Treasures for the Cinephile

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday January 07, 2010 - 08:46:00 AM

Wings of Desire (1987)  

Wim Wenders’ evocative and mysterious Wings of Desire (1987) has been released by Criterion in a two-disc, director-approved edition, with many extra features and a commentary track by the director.  

This is one of those films where every ingredient plays a vital role. Wenders’ camera movement is delicate and eloquent; Henri Alekan’s photography is somber yet romantic; Jürgen Knieper’s score is visceral in its impact; Peter Handke’s interior monologues bring the disparate thoughts of Berlin’s residents into a unified tapestry of sound and emotion; and Peter Falk’s role as a one-time angel who gave up eternity for a shot at life on earth ground the film in earthly pleasures while providing a spark of self-referential humor.  

But the most important and powerful aspect of Wings of Desire is the warm, benevolent gaze of Bruno Ganz as the guardian angel who longs to join the material world. Etched in Alekan’s black and white photography, his is a face of compassion and empathy, able to share in the sorrow and joy of those he watches over. And when he finally crosses over, in a burst of color and sensory data—cold frost, the taste of his own blood, the vitality and breathlessness of a brisk walk along city streets—it is a face of almost childlike wonder.  

127 minutes. $39.95. 


The Exiles (1961)  

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles covers one night in the lives of young Native Americans living in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district. Mackenzie began interviewing a group of Indians in Los Angeles in 1956 and secured their support in producing an independent film that would provide a realistic portrayal of their community’s daily life. The film was completed in 1961 but has rarely been seen until its restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and its subsequent theatrical release by Milestone.  

The Exiles follows a group of young Native American men as they essentially forsake their women for a night on the town, meeting up with friends at bars, cavorting with other women, venturing into the hills for drinking, drumming and fighting. They make their way along a circuit of Indian hangouts, small oases in a white man’s city where they can be together and, hopefully, left alone to be themselves. Meanwhile, a lonely wife goes to the movies and finally returns to the home of a friend so that she doesn’t have to sleep alone. In the morning she is able to watch as her husband and his friends finally stumble home drunk through the streets of Bunker Hill.  

The rough, gritty, low-budget aesthetic recalls Shadows, John Cassavetes’ first film, set in New York. Both films feel loose and improvised, giving the impression of an authentic depiction of a place and time. And both focus attention on the cities themselves, using the urban landscapes as contexts for the lives of the characters, while also providing a sort of snapshot of a city at a particular point in time.  

Milestone is a small company that picks and chooses its material, often sinking much of the company’s resources into a single theatrical and DVD release. The company is responsible for making some rare and important films available to the movie-going public, including I Am Cuba and Killer of Sheep—an impressive streak of significant releases that continues with The Exiles.  

72 minutes. $29.95.  


Avant-Garde 3 (1922-1955)  

Kino has released the third in its series of avant-garde films, this newest edition containing 20 films produced between 1922 and 1955. These collections feature rare but valuable films that demonstrate the outer reaches of cinema, a seemingly boundless medium in the hands of artists making films with no consideration for the commercial market—art for art’s sake. Avant-Garde 3 draws from the collections of Raymond Rohauer and George Eastman House in an effort “to illuminate the degree to which cinema’s evolution has been influenced by those filmmakers who occupy its periphery.”  

In addition to its historical value, Avant-Garde 3, like its predecessors, provides a fascinating, eccentric and eclectic viewing experience. The films range in length from two minutes to 65 minutes and in subject matter from Edgar Allan Poe adaptations to home movies.  



How to be a Woman and How to be a Man (1950s)  

A series of 1950s short educational films provides an instructive glance at who we once were and what we thought our children should be—and how they should be taught what they should be.  

These films from Kino can be seen in several ways. At the simplest level, they’re entertaining, both on their own merits and as a time capsule of film production techniques and acting styles. But one cannot help but ask questions as well. For instance, do these films represent a progressive embrace of a new medium, designed to tackle tough topics in a way teacher-student and parent-child interactions could not? Or do they mark the beginning of the abnegation of these duties, of a tendency to let the screen—first film and later television—to impart the lessons of adulthood? It’s a strange lesson indeed, to remove person-to-person contact from instruction in person-to-person conduct.  

$19.95 each.  


Golden Age of Television (1950s)  

Before television became what it is, it was something much, much different. Nowadays, TV shows are shot, filmed, edited and distributed like movies, packaged and sent out for broadcast. But in its early days, television was primarily a live medium. A live show today is an anomaly, an experiment largely looked upon as an act of either bravery or folly. But in the 1950s, shows were broadcast live as a matter of course, and the later practice of distributing a tape or film would seem a counterintuitive—if not cowardly—use of a medium which at its live, unfettered best could achieve a tremendous sense of immediacy, of art and entertainment produced in the here and now.  

Criterion’s Golden Age of Television showcases some of the best examples of live television in the form of eight plays produced between 1953 and 1958, all of which were drawn from a curated 1980s PBS series also titled The Golden Age of Television. The three-disc set features Kinescope broadcasts of Marty, Patterns, No Time for Sergeants, A Wind from the South, Bang the Drum Slowly, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian and Days of Wine and Roses. Extra features include commentaries by directors John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson and Daniel Petrie; liner notes for each program; an essay by curator Ron Simon; and interviews with cast and crew.  

485 minutes. $49.95.  


Gaumont Treasures 1897–1913 

Kino has released another in its series of historical film collections. Following on such impressive and important releases as The Movies Begin and the Thomas Edison collection, the company has put together a three-disc set called Gaumont Treasures 1897–1913, compiling more than 75 films from the early French studio, the Gaumont Film Company.  

Each disc is devoted to one of Gaumont’s esteemed artistic directors. Disc one features the work of Alice Guy, whose contribution to the evolution of the art form places her among the ranks of Edwin Porter and her fellow countrymen George Melies and the Lumiere Brothers. The 60 films on this disc range in length from a few seconds to two and three reels and include early experiments in sound and hand-coloring.  

Disc two features the work of Louis Feuillade, best known for Les Vampires and as an early mentor to Abel Gance. Though Feuillade made nearly 800 films for Gaumont, relatively few survive. This collection of 13 films includes his work in a range of genres, including comedy, tragedy, fantasy, social commentary and historical epic.  

Disc three showcases the work of Leonce Perret, a man who had a profound impact on the advancement of French cinema but whose work is largely unknown in the United States. This set contains two films, the 43-minute Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, and the 124-minute Child of Paris, in which Perret demonstrated a mastery of the form that critic Georges Sadoul claimed was more expert and refined than that of the celebrated D.W. Griffith.  



Warner Archive Collection 

We’re more than a decade into the age of DVD, an age that has seen public interest in cinema’s century of history soar to new levels. And yet there are so many films—even renowned films—that have never made it to home video. Sometimes the legal rights can’t be negotiated, but more often than not the reason is simple supply-and-demand; the market simply doesn’t justify the expense of producing and marketing a DVD version of every film in a studio’s vaults.  

But now the studios are finally finding a way to unleash the potential of the digital age to air these long-lost artifacts.  

This year Warner Bros. launched a new series of DVD releases called Warner Archive. It is essentially a publish-on-demand model. The company’s website lists 500 Warner films—most old, some recent, many obscure—that can be published and sent on demand. There are no extra features, no fancy packaging, just bare-bones editions of films that might otherwise never see the light of day.  

And soon enough, as digital downloading or streaming of films becomes commonplace and the production, packaging, marketing and distribution of DVDs is no longer necessary, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of rarely screened films may become available—films that may never find a sizable audience, but all of which will certainly be sought out, each by its own core group of devotees.  

A sampling of review copies of Warner Archive films ranging from television show adaptations, silent films and sound films from the 1930s and 1940s shows adequate transfers at minimum and quality transfers overall. These are solid, respectful presentations that do justice to these films and make them finally available despite the whims of the marketplace.  

Prices vary.