Intrepid seekers of buried, battered, or simply underreckoned movie booty, the folks at Milestone Film & Video celebrate their first decade of film distribution with a globe-trotting series of 15 films. The roster comprises Maborosi (1995), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s hushed meditation on memory and grief (and the earthbound twin of his recent After-Life); Takeshi Kitano’s stateside breakthrough, Fireworks (1997), wherein Beat’s stoic cop-turned-vigilante variously slices, plugs, and eye-gouges yakuza while ministering tenderly to his dying wife (all this with one facial expression!); and the documentary Antonio Gaudí (1985), a taciturn guided tour in which Hiroshi Teshigahara synchronizes his camera’s movements to the anthropomorphic undulations of the Catalan architect‘s work. And those are just the selections from Japan.
As proved earlier this year with restorations of The Edge of the World and The Sorrow and the Pity (both shown at Film Forum), Milestone‘s specialty is the rescue mission. So it’s fitting that the Walter Reade retro‘s pièce de résistance is a survival saga: the grueling, gorgeous, enormously moving South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919). Tracking the English explorer‘s Sisyphean attempt to cross Antarctica, Frank Hurley‘s silent film gathers images of unparalleled terrible beauty (the Endurance, slowly crushed by accumulating ice, finally collapses while Shackleton‘s marooned crew watches helplessly from an island nearby). Miraculously, all 28 men lived through the two-year ordeal, and a smaller miracle is that Hurley‘s film did too—at one point, the dogged filmmaker dived into icy waters to save his footage.
Other liberation efforts in the series include Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet-banned I Am Cuba (1964), an exhaustive paean to the Cuban revolution that went missing in action for 25 years until Milestone rereleased it in 1995, and a complete cut of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1966 guerrilla feature, It Happened Here, which blurred the line between documentary and fiction in imagining a Nazi-occupied Britain—and, in doing so, met with the disapproval of British censors. F.W. Murnau’s use of untrained indigenous actors likewise added a nonfiction element to his South Seas doomed romance, Tabu (1931). His ravishing film, which began as a collaboration with Robert Flaherty, is a homoerotic channeling of a forbidden hetero affair (Murnau films his yummy lead like this month’s Jane cover boys), aided by a documentarian’s eye for detail and an austere finale of attenuated vengeance.
Another revenge melodrama, Luis Buñuel’s compact Wuthering Heights adaptation, Abismos de Pasion (featured with another of his midcareer door-slammers, 1951’s Un Mujer Sin Amor), isn’t nearly as unhinged as you’d hope, though it boasts a delirious bloody ending unrelated to the novel. Also mining domestic horror, Roland West’s The Bat Whispers (1930) transpires mostly inside a cavernous mansion haunted by a menacing caped thief (the character was later a model for Bob Kane’s comic). The movie’s jagged angles and painted shadows are wholesale expressionist, and the creepy house’s potential for hidden apparitions is heightened by an astonishing depth of field (which West achieved with Magnifilm, a short-lived 65mm format). Good goofy fun, The Bat Whispers ends with a touching appeal to the audience not to divulge the identity of its tormented Bat-man: “In return for your consideration, he promises not to haunt your homes, steal your money, or frighten your little children.”