Fashioned one frame at a time, animated film is at once obsessive and naturally congenial, and as rediscovered video rarities go, Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 fantasy, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Milestone), typifies the genre’s monomanic charm. Arguably the first animated feature film (possibly preceded by a number of long-unseen WWI-era satires by Argentine animator Quirino Cristani, leaving Disney far in the dust), Reiniger’s 1001-night fairy tale is composed completely of cut-out, stop-motion silhouettes. The Arabian-cameo effect is fabulously seductive, particularly for cinephiles with an itch for antiquiana. Work by another Disney precursor and secret-cinema engine, Alexander Ptushko (creator of 1935’s all-puppet The New Gulliver) is also now available on DVD: 1964’s Tale of Time Lost (Image), a live-action fantasy about medieval body-switching that opens a window on the neglected subgenre of Cold War Soviet fable-film. Anyone heard from Youri Norstein lately?
Video’s function as cinema history’s stack room is particularly vital during the summer dog days. Facets is venting the subterranean forces of the Czech New Wave, bringing us Vera Chytilová’s anarchic feminist magoo Daisies (1966), Oldrich Lipsky’s ludicrously goofy mock-western Lemonade Joe (1964), and Jaromil Jires’s The Joke (1968), the definitive Kundera adaptation and a lacerating satire shot amid the 1968 Prague Spring. As for the remarkable Soviet mainstream, it’s fair to say the Criterion DVD of Mikhail Kalatosov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957) is a must-own—typically for this rarely acknowledged forebear of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, and Sokurov, wide-screen mise-en-scène doesn’t come any richer. Tarkovskyites themselves will do handstands over the long-awaited release of his 1960 student film, The Steamroller and the Violin (Facets), a ravishing 45-minute socialist parable about a bullied schoolkid and his bond with a road-paving everyman. Less transcendental than sweetly realistic, and glowing with distinctive Soviet-stock grain, the featurette doesn’t quite portend the metaphysical eruptions to come, but it’s just as saturated with feeling.
Otherwise, the finds might be predominantly French: Along with Image Entertainment’s DVD of Alain Resnais’s Stavisky (1974)—the great new waver’s answer to The Conformist—softcore horror buccaneer Jean Rollin gets what might be his first non-bootleg U.S. release with the DVD of The Rape of the Vampire (1968). Rollin’s amateurish films and outlaw rep place him far to the edge of European film culture, and his expanded-from-a-short debut is a dreamy, post-Gothic consideration of vampirism as convalescent illness, cult brainwash, post-traumatic stress, sexual victimization, what have you. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but neither does Godard’s 1987 comedy, Soigne Ta Droite! (Keep Your Right Up!), released by Facets. Roundly underappreciated, it’s more or less the master’s version of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, with JLG himself bumbling through a lax non-narrative highlighted by a Groucho Marxist/Svankmajerian airplane sequence and a self-justifyingly luminous idyll with Jane Birkin in a convertible. Questioning the nature of moviemaking and movie-watching even as he dawdles on irrelevancies, Godard remains, even in this relatively minor key, a giant whose every step matters.