Criterion Corner: June Reviews, From Kiss Me Deadly to People on Sunday

Criterion Corner: June Reviews, From Kiss Me Deadly to People on Sunday

Jun 10, 2011

Criterion Corner is a column dedicated to the wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, running twice each month -- once for new reviews and once for Criterion commentary. Follow @CriterionCorner & visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates, or suffer for your insolence.

Upon first blush it might seem that Criterion’s June releases make for an unusually wacky and eclectic slate, but the impressive roster -- there’s not a dud among these excellent six films -- is ultimately unified by a shared submission to the indifference of time. It jeopardizes families, explodes identity, shoves an unprepared young girl into a violent sexual world, and wipes entire cities off the map. Cold War paranoia, nuclear winter, and the fantastical terrors of puberty, it’s just another month in the Criterion Corner.


#566 Insignificance (dir. by Nicolas Roeg) 1985. *Pick of the month!*

The Film: “This story and its content are entirely fictitious.” Has there even been such an unnecessary disclaimer at the beginning of a film as these words before Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance? The premise -- four people who respectively bear resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein spend a dog of a night together in a New York City hotel -- might seem to require that kind of delimitation, but those familiar with the film are likely to giggle at the opening text as if it were preceding The Fellowship of the Ring. The joke is that Insignificance -- a woozy, whirlwind meditation on celebrity, memory, and how time explodes them all into nothingness -- would never presume to know any of its characters well enough to think them real.

Adapted from Terry Johnson’s play of the same name (though “Detonated” would be a more accurate description), Nicolas Roeg’s film is one of the unsung masterpieces of the 1980s. A sultry chamber piece squeezed into a hall of mirrors, Insignificance is quick to reveal its reflective intentions, kicking things off by re-imagining the pivotal scene in The Seven Year Itch in which a gust swept under Marilyn Monroe’s dress and blew America’s mind. We see the machinations of the movie set, and -- pivotally -- we see the billowing gown from a new angle: Below. Insignificance, it seems, will demystify our iconography, tossing them together until they fracture into mysteries. There’s Albert Einstein obsessively consulting a pocket-watch frozen at 8:15, the time of the Hiroshima detonation for which he was partly responsible. Marilyn Monroe explaining the theory of relativity to the man who invented it. Joe McCarthy cavorting with a call girl, a retired Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey!) thwarted by his own irrelevance.

The whole thing is a busy and increasingly enigmatic head-rush (just wait until Will Sampson, Chief Bramdon from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, shows up as an elevator operator who may be the center of the universe), a high-concept oddball that, for all of its world-bending ideas, is sufficiently powered by its madcap energy alone.

The Technical Stuff: Criterion’s HD transfer is solid if unspectacular stuff. Consistently sharp and agreeably grainy, I was most impressed by how the image retains a woozy, ethereal quality without sacrificing crispness. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is brassy and defiant.

The Extras: A commentary is sorely missed on a film like this, but the supplements are decent. A brief “making of” is standard EPK fare -- an exclusive 12-minute conversation between Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas is a bit more revealing, and gorgeously shot. Criterion’s interview with editor Tony Lawson is vital stuff, but too brief.

The Best Bit: Chuck Stephens’ essay “Stargazing” has been included in previous releases of the film, but it doesn’t make it any less illuminating to read. The most articulate writing about Roeg’s work that I’ve ever read.

The Artwork: Magnificent. Designer Fred Davis’ cover design -- a splintered image of “Marilyn Monroe” that blossoms into “Einstein’s” nuclear notes -- is striking, particularly against the oblivion of its white background. Gorgeous stuff, the kind of thing you’ll want to show off on your shelf.

The Verdict: Perhaps it’s appropriate that a film so enamored by cosmic transience was quickly forgotten, but thanks to Criterion it may be a bit more significant than anyone suspected.


#567 The Makioka Sisters (dir. by Kon Ichikawa) 1983.

The Film: Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters is one of the great Japanese novels of the twentieth century, a reputation Kon Ichikawa was determined to sustain when in 1983 he became the third filmmaker to attempt the adaptation. As a director Ichikawa was always something of a chameleon, and his take on Tanizaki is quick to submit to the author’s unhurried literary rhythms. The resulting film is a rather unaccommodating experience, but one that offers sizable and enduring rewards to those with the patience to navigate its familial tempests and tributaries.

The year is 1938, the winds of change are kicking up into a howling vortex, and the four daughters of the once-venerable Makioka family are struggling to maintain a grasp on their family’s reputation amidst the gale. Their father was forced to sell his famous kimono business before his death, leaving his girls in an uneasy and socially dependent position at a time of tremendous flux. Taeko, the youngest sibling, can’t get married until her shy and selective third sister ties the knot, and her frustrations with the old social order manifest in her increasingly rebellious behavior, actions which threaten to pull her family apart at the seams.

The brunt of Ichikawa’s film is confined to the cavernous Makioka home, which for all of its splendor quickly begins to feel like a gilded cage lost in time. Ichikawa only allows for a few exterior shots of seasonal Osaka, expressionistic reprieves from the domestic horrors, and bittersweet reminders that change will never allow this family the stasis they crave. Ichikawa refuses to take shortcuts, insisting that his audience become intimately acquainted with the Makioka clan before allow the plot to blossom beyond subtle shifts in sibling dynamics. As a result, the film feels like something of a home invasion, like we’re struggling to piece together a family of such history and nuance that they could never be understood from the outside. And yet, with remarkable patience and grace, Ichikawa slowly makes you feel as if you know these people, providing for an intimacy seldom seen in films. And though it’s hard to watch Ichikawa surrender to the vices of the 1980s -- the sad synths and the Miami neons -- The Makioka Sisters is nevertheless among the cinema’s most (eventually) rewarding treasures.

The Technical Stuff: A frustratingly inconsistent transfer that struggles for balance. The close-ups and exteriors tend to be sharp and rich in nostalgic detail, but the medium shots in the Makioka household that dominate the film are often soft and unrefined, occasionally recalling VHS.

The Extras: None. The first bare-bones Criterion release in ages.

The Best Bit: Being inspired by the movie to read the works of Junichiro Tanizaki.

The Artwork: Criterion swapped their cover design two months shy of this disc’s release, ditching a fractured design for something a bit more stoic and unified: a portrait of all four sisters before the annual cherry blossoms. The art belies the film’s ultimate demeanor, but its appropriately classic.

The Verdict: A profoundly rewarding film that nevertheless pales in comparison to the nuanced pleasures of Tanizaki’s novel, The Makioka Sisters’ uneven transfer and dearth of extras make it a risky purchase, but ideal Hulu Plus streaming material.


#568 Kiss Me Deadly (dir. by Robert Aldrich) 1955.

The Film: “What’s in the box? What’s in the baaahhwxxxx?” It’s one of the cinema’s most poignant questions (heedlessly poised into the pop lexicon by Brad Pitt), and also one of its most enduring, linking everything from Thomas Edison’s Black Maria to J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (and also the literal box that he apparently carries with him everywhere he goes). And yet, nowhere from Pabst to Pulp Fiction has there been a movie in which a box has contained quite so much as it does in Robert Aldrich’s epoch-ending Kiss Me Deadly.

Cold War noir with a red hot temper, Kiss Me Deadly is the labyrinthine tale of private eye Mike Hammer (not to be confused with his Japanese reincarnation Maiku Hama), a dirty private dick who picks up a sultry hitchhiker on the side of a midnight road. The opening credits have barely crawled backwards before she’s dead and he’s on the hunt for “The Great Whatsit,” a MacGuffin so elusive and cataclysmic it makes The Maltese Falcon look like a Rabbit’s Foot.

What follows is grim and acerbic stuff, even for a genre in which men are murderers and dames are, um, slightly more voluptuous murderers. A.I. Bezzerides’ script perverts Mickey Spillane’s comparatively toothless novel into a mean series of slaps and shakedowns as Hammer ricochets around L.A. in the hopes of tapping into something big. Aldrich suffuses his scenes with a fatalistic inertia, rigid and unyielding frames suggesting that each character is every bit the bile-hearted scumbag Hammer assumes they are. And Hammer himself is the biggest bastard of them all, filled out by a primitively generic Ralph Meeker who’s hoping to find the American dream at the end of this nuclear nightmare. I’m in the minority who believe that the film spins its wheels for far too long, but all is forgiven with a nasty and nihilistic finale that cements Kiss Me Deadly as a noir as fitting for the end of the genre as it is for the end of the world.

The Technical Stuff: The picture is tough and grainy, exactly as it should be. It doesn’t quite take you back to opening night in 1955, but this consistent black-and-white transfer -- highlighted by wonderfully expressive contrasts -- is the next best thing.

The Extras: The best set of supplements on any Criterion release this month. We’ve got maverick filmmaker Alex Cox -- never one to be shy with his thoughts on film -- opining for 6 minutes. Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane is a tidy little 40-minute doc on the latter’s life, and The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides frankly details the screenwriter’s thoughts on the film: “I changed what I didn’t like!” Then there’s “Bunker Hill, Los Angeles,” in which L.A. film buff Jim Dawson leads a stolid tour of the film’s locations. Oh, and don’t forget the infamously truncated alternate ending.

The Best Bit: The unquestionable highlight of this disc is the new audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. The two play off each other organically, providing a hugely informative track that has the spontaneity of a conversation between experts. Manna from heaven for Aldrich fans.

The Artwork: The booklet is gorgeous and tabloid chic, but the blocky cover art is a bit too geometrically rigid for my tastes (and what’s up with the yellow Criterion logo?).

The Verdict: I once got the chance to chat with Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook in his Seoul office, and all he wanted to talk about was his love for Kiss Me Deadly, and how it continues to inform his work. It doesn’t click quite that well for me, but its bold ferocity and hard-edged charm are impossible to deny, and Criterion has delivered this classic its definitive edition.


#569 People on Sunday (dir. Robert Siodmak & Edgar U. Ulmer) 1930.

The Film: People on Sunday is an enduring reminder that kitsch thrives on the brink of tragedy. A flickering ode to the monochromatic idyll of Weimar-era Berlin, Robert Siodmak and Edgar U. Ulmer’s charming quasi-documentary pastiche of life in the city was transformed by the imminent terrors of WWII into cinema’s most haunting portrait of innocence lost.

Three years after Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City clinically observed the metropolis as an extraordinary machine, a crew of independent filmmakers -- including a young journalist by the name of Billie Samuel Wilder -- decided to shift the focus to its people, to actors (or non-actors). Relying on the simple narrative of attractive young folks hoping to unburden themselves with the city’s pleasures, People on Sunday uses a foundation of bare quotidian conflicts (who will flirt together? Who will meet up next Sunday?) to depict youth in action. Work, marriage, and even restrictive clothing are presented as oppressive forces, as the protagonists seek to refashion Berlin -- a city built on the back of war and industry -- into an eden of their own design. At a scant 74 minutes, the film is a brisk joy to behold, its quaint rhythms kept afloat by the palpable undercurrents of bitter wisdom that course just beneath the surface (and are reflected in the quiet cynicism of its ending). And truth be told, the romantic disquiet with which People on Sunday winds down has an oddly prescient afterglow, as if the film is well aware that it’s the last day of summer, and that it will be welcomed as a commercial success but remembered as a tragic relic not just from another time, but also from another world.

The Technical Stuff: It’s an independent film from 1930 about the pleasures of pre-Nazi Berlin in motion -- that you can even tell that the movie is about humans is a minor miracle of film preservation (although I guess the title is a pretty solid clue). That being said, Criterion’s HD transfer is sort of astonishing in its detail -- the staged footage in particular is razor sharp and free of obvious digital manipulation. Scratches and flickering abound, but all in all this is a wonder.

The Extras: Another relatively light disc, the most significant supplement here is a 30-minute documentary by Gerald Koll that explores the genesis of the film and includes one of the surviving actresses recounting her tales from the production. A valuable watch, but hardly comprehensive.

The Best Bit: Ins Blaue Hinein (Into the Blue), a 35-minute short directed by People on Sunday (and Metropolis) cinematographer Eugen Schufftan. A vivacious lark with some killer driving sequences, it’s a breezy further look into the sunnier side of Weimar cinema.

The Artwork: A lovely blissed out and sun-kissed frame from the film that also evokes a sense of impending tragedy, Criterion’s People on Sunday cover art is appealing stuff. Not sure about that army green font, though...

The Verdict: A compulsively watchable artifact imbued with a hauntingly morbid, People on Sunday is an essential purchase for film enthusiasts.


#570 Zazie dans le Metro (dir. Louis Malle) 1960.

The Film: The first thing you have to know about Zazie dans le Metro is that it’s complete and utter madness, the sort of lunacy that’s been normalized into extinction. If Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Roy Andersson all shared the same meth bong (that’s a thing, apparently), Zazie dans le Metro is the movie you’d find in their backwash. Louis Malle, only 28 and already the director of two critically successful features, was by 1960 as frustrated with the stultifying bourgeois precepts of filmmaking as the rest of his buddies in the French New Wave. Yet rather than channel that discontent into a work of liberated rage (Godard’s Breathless) or free-form poignancy (Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), Malle decided to bend the cinema backwards upon itself, twisting film’s oldest tricks into a carnival of manic nonsense that eventually perverts Paris from a fashionable funhouse to a suffocating dystopia that must be escaped. And if you didn’t have the energy to make it through that sentence in one breath, good luck with Zazie.

Zazie is a precocious and irrepressible 12 year-old girl from the countryside who’s coming to stay with her uncle Gabriel for the weekend. All she wants to do is ride the metro, but there’s a strike and the subways are shuttered. Zazie, bummed by the news, decides to tour the city in her own way -- zaniness ensues. Adapting Raymond Queneau’s hyper-personal and supposedly unfilmmable novel, Malle uses every bit of visual gimmickry he can in order to repurpose Queneau’s words as the stuff of live-action pandemonium.

Malle’s film sweats with a fevered visual wit, and the graphic contributions of burgeoning iconoclast William Klein afford Zazie’s Paris the scheme of impossible pop perfection that would define the city for years to come. Moreover, the production’s unfettered access to the metropolis result in a number of inimitable sequences that will absolutely blow your mind -- the scene in which Zazie and Gabriel scale the Eiffel Tower is simply one of the most incredible things ever committed to film, accomplishing for France’s capital what Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams does for the nation’s caves. In fact, the set-piece is so astounding that the rest of Zazie feels flat and tiresome in its wake. Your eyes begin to glaze over the visual hysteria exactly when Malle intends to make the modern city look like a charmless cesspool of noise -- not only is the film an accurate simulacrum of a child’s take on the adult world, but it also evinces a critical understanding of a child’s fleeting interest, and how quickly wonder can be supplanted by a violent malaise.

The Technical Stuff: Unfortunately I was only able to see Zazie dans le Metro on DVD, so I can’t comment on the inevitably superior Blu-ray presentation. The flick looks just fine in standard definition, a clean transfer with a charmingly soft feel and no obvious deficiencies.

The Extras: Zazie dans le Metro is rather stuffed with perfunctory bonus materials. To begin with, there are brief, animated interviews with Malle and Zazie herself, Catherine Demongeot. Raymond Queneau William Klein, and Jean-Paul Rappeneau all pop up to shed some light on the adaptation, as well.

The Best Bit: A feature called “Le Paris de Zazie,” in which Malle’s assistant director Philippe Colin leads a guided tour of the film’s Parisian locations in the exuberant spirit of the movie, itself. Zazie’s Paris was a myth, but this light-hearted walkthrough nicely illustrates how it was carved from the city we’ve always known.

The Artwork: A vaguely twisted caricature of Zazie (looking like Alfred E. Newman’s French sister) against an oppressive blue backdrop, the cover art appealingly belies the film’s unbridled energy. It’s an odd and impish design, appropriately suggesting that the film is both winking and wicked in equal measure.

The Verdict: A crazed oddity with enough energy to entertain audiences of all ages, Zazie dans le Metro is a vital chapter in the fascinating career of Louis Malle, and a film worthy of critical reappraisal. Francophiles and fans of modern hyper-kinetic maestros like Edgar Wright should eat this up.


#571 Black Moon (dir. Louis Malle) 1975.

The Film: A proto-feminist Children of Men by way of Luis Bunuel (his daughter-in-law Joyce has a writing credit), Black Moon is an unnerving bit of surrealism that literalizes the war of the sexes to illustrate a pubescent girl’s introduction to the psychosexual horror-show of adulthood. It begins with 16 year-old Lily (Cathryn Harrison) turning a badger into roadkill -- it doesn’t appear as if she’s heading anywhere in particular, but after the chilly opening chapter she finds solace from the skirmishes outside in an isolated chateau in which a dying old woman is being cared for by androgynous twins (a boy and a girl) both also named Lily. The film’s only linear progression involves the old woman dying and then being resurrected -- her subsequent need to suckle on young Lily’s breasts is more emblematic of Black Moon’s narrative, which relies upon darkly compelling sexual undercurrents to guide us through Malle’s free-form associations.

Malle -- as always -- unfolds his imagery with purpose and precision, and though he’s loathe to leave hints there’s no mistaking the clarity of his vision. The fantastical visuals and inexplicable set-pieces (i.e. the squadron of naked kids, the extended musical number) could be used as evidence to support an infinite array of interpretations, but Lily’s manner -- occasionally petulant yet ultimately accepting -- suggests to me that this is the tale of a girl empowered to re-map her universe. She’s aware of the sway her latent sexuality grants her, yet not quite sure what it all means. It’s as if her understanding of the world has been obliterated by her forced immersion into adulthood, and all the sights and symbols she once understood are now splayed across a tingling tabula rasa. The final shot -- impossible, now -- cements in static that she can never go back home again. It’s like hormonal cartography, Harrison’s face and body a magnificent canvas for Malle’s narrative of seismic change.

The Technical Stuff: Quite simply, one of the finest HD transfers I’ve ever seen. Malle’s earthy aesthetic certainly runs the risk of looking drab and washed out, but Criterion’s transfer is magnificently rich, preserving the film’s ethereal tone without allowing it to sink into murky misery.

The Extras: Another light disc from Criterion, Black Moon most prominently features an illuminating 12-minute interview with Louis Malle in which he’s helpfully forthright with his take on the film. I learned that “Opaque” is pronounced “Oh-pock” in French.

The Best Bit: The waxing and waning menu animation is more unsettling than most entire horror films.

The Artwork: A striking and simple monochromatic illustration, the design of Criterion’s Black Moon release is the most fetching promotional art the film has ever known. Suggestive, symbolic, and more than a little eerie, this precise little drawing lucidly speaks to Malle’s inimitable movie.

The Verdict: Black Moon isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you it might prove to be one of your new favorite films.

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