The summer-event spilth being upon us, it’s time to vaunt the last few months’ richer video releases and thus recall how home entertainment technology has made the idiotic, hypable “now” essentially irrelevant. Trump-card example: Kino’s recent Arbuckle & Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts 1917-1920, a two-volume collection of two-reelers. Finally, Keaton’s origins become clear (Arbuckle pulled him off the street when he was 21), while Arbuckle himself proves spry, savvy, and thoroughly three-dimensional, despite the fat jokes. What’s surprising is how the limelight in these Arbuckle-directed shorts is shared almost equally between Arbuckle, Keaton, and dynamic rubber-man Al St. John, the three of them attacking each cheesy scenario like drop-kicking avenging angels. With new soundtracks by the Alloy Orchestra, these sterling antiquities are the season’s hottest bargains.
Of the video companies dedicated to vacuuming up market-hostile but vital masterworks, Facets and Winstar are the most fearless. Facets’ endless output (including the back libraries of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Amos Gitai) has been lately distinguished by Antonioni’s The Mystery of Oberwald (1980), a Cocteau-derived, shot-on-video Gothic whose color-zoning atmospherics suggest an episode of Dark Shadows mix-mastered by Kenneth Anger. Monica Vitti holds the foreground as a 19th-century queen in love with her assassin, but it’s Antonioni’s expressionistic juggling of electronic symbolism that stuns. Facets has also released another reality-video-age presager: Robert Jan Westdijk’s Little Sister (1996), which beat The Blair Witch Project by several years with its uninterrupted, handheld subjectivity, seen through a disturbed elder brother’s camera as he descends upon his sexy sister for a round of uncovering-the-family-secret. But it might be Facets’ unleashing of Jacques Rivette’s four-plus-hour Joan the Maid (1997) that’s the newsmaker. Bereft of a U.S. theatrical release, this sober, incisive epic cuts away the legend and depicts Joan of Arc (Sandrine Bonnaire) as an idealist impulsively negotiating the mud of petty battles and the power moves of the medieval church.
With the DVD format widely regarded as a tool of preservation and historicization, collateral benefits like Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) are becoming ubiquitous as well. Censored and mutilated virtually everywhere upon its release (in the States it was an incomprehensible mess titled What!), Bava’s original, sadomasochistic ghost-romance has now been rescued by VCI Home Video, and it sweats like a flog-to-orgasm version of Wuthering Heights.