Film

Don’t Watch That, Watch This: Trust Netflix at Your Peril

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Just so you know, your Netflix streaming library loses more films a year than it gains — since 2014, the total inventory has been slashed by a full third. Who are you letting narrow your choices for you? As convenient as streaming is, the orphan-inventory problem will always haunt us, which is why keeping an eye peeled for hard-copy disc releases remains imperative. Once it exists in the real world, no bean counter can just make it disappear.

Take Jacques Rivette’s vital debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), out now from Criterion in a paradigmatically perfect Criterionistic Blu-ray — you think some “new media” executive will stop sucking on his bacon lollipop long enough to care that maybe this film won’t suck in five thousand “plays” this month, but that it must be available, always, regardless? Here was the chilly, existential side of the French New Wave, a film that numbly tracks the life of a young student (Betty Schneider) as she meets up with Parisian neighbors and an ad-hoc theater troupe putting on Pericles; their rehearsals are inexplicably tense, their parties are funereal, and their conversation is dominated by talk of murders and/or suicides, the victims of which we never meet, some of whom might not even be dead or “exist” at all. Love lives intertwine, and drama leaks out like ignitable propane, but mostly the almost 2.5-hour dream-saga is a comatose nightmare in which a deadened sense of paranoia envelops you without anyone saying a single explicit thing to suggest it.

It’s a masterpiece, if predominantly for what the movie creates in the air between screen and viewer, outside the ordinary channels of communication. The mysteries of Paris — the almost Pynchonesque sense of a secret city within the visible one — was Rivette’s signature concern, extrapolated upon the aura of the ominous zoomy pre-WWI serials of Louis Feuillade. (Which you can stream at the moment on Fandor, but for how long? The Flicker Alley disc sets aren’t going anywhere.)

Likewise, archivist/silent-film accompanist Ben Model’s new collection on DVD, Found at “Mostly Lost,” is an act of artifact exhumation that no Reed Hastings would ever measure as a profit-maker. That’s by definition — it’s a collection of orphaned films (1911–1940) that were preserved in archives but, because they were missing their opening titles, long went unidentified. The solution was a series of annual workshops held by the Library of Congress, to which scholars, archivists, students, and film nuts would flock, their laptops on, to view the films, search for clues, and cross-index their geek powers to arrive at titles and provenance. All of the films here are history in amber, but many are remarkable, including test footage of dressed-up lizards from One Million B.C. (1940); Fifteen Minutes (1921), a Snub Pollard knock-out chase farce (written by Hal Roach) with a feature’s worth of fast ‘n’ furious stunt-gags packed into nine minutes; and Ventriloquist (1927), a pre-talkie talkie using the forgotten Phonofilm sound process to capture William Frawley’s very creepy vaudeville act.

The manufactured-on-demand DVD strategy of Warner Archives finds a precarious balance between the two modes, but for now the oceanic tide of titles keeps coming, with recent releases including the only Our Gang feature (1939’s General Spanky) and the unmissable white-man’s-burden hilarity of White Cargo (1942), a notorious hothouse melodrama set on an African rubber plantation staffed by irritable and weary Caucasians (Walter Pidgeon, Frank Morgan, Richard Carlson). The notoriety emanates exclusively from the presence of Hedy Lamarr — swathed in cocoa skin tone and looking about as scrumptious as any actress every filmed on a Culver City soundstage — as Tondelayo, the “half-caste” vixen, who sneaks out of the jungle and into white men’s beds. Cheesy, sweaty, reactionary, the film is a classic postcolonial daydream of its kind, but Lamarr is a wonder, particularly now that everyone’s aware of her spread-spectrum radio-tech accomplishments. Here she is, playing a dumb “exotic” seductress who could never in a century be mistaken for an African, and you just have to wonder what she was thinking behind those laser cat eyes.

And, for owning, I’ll pitch the last of a thousand pitches for the video release of 2016 so far: the Criterion Blu-ray of the much-sought Edward Yang epic A Brighter Summer Day (1991). One of the flat-out best films from anywhere that decade, this Taiwanese bruiser (minutes shy of four hours) may be the least-seen of major masterpieces, a generational saga, set in the 1960s, of gang warfare and cultural upheaval in which every shot is a drill-lesson in eloquence and mystery. It has no detractors, only devotees, and since it needs to be seen more than once to grasp its fabric, it needs to be owned.

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