If you hold faith at all with what used to be conceived of as “movieness” — as opposed to whatever neurobiological feedback loops are fed by the modern summer blockbuster experience — then there’s nothing new to see, and own, this season that’s better than Kino’s magic box of Blu-rays, Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917–1923. I know, silent comedies, isn’t that so paleo, like your grandma’s Bobby Vinton LPs? But here’s the thing: Keaton is one of classic cinephilia’s most euphoric gateway drugs, a master of form and concision who never forgets the purpose of form and concision is to create unreasonable joy, and this five-disc package of 32 films totaling over twelve hours, is like having a case of canned champagne in the fridge, ready at any time to transform life into a bliss-out.
Keaton rigged up silent comedy’s most elaborate gag architecture, and in the middle of the chaos, his Everyman stood (or ran) in beguiling tight-lipped defiance of the fact that he had no idea what was going on. First come the thirteen shorts (some expanding out to a half hour or more) he made with Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John for Arbuckle’s Comique Film Co. between 1917 and 1920, which by themselves constitute the funniest and most uproariously violent corpus of film work of the early silent era, with the three stars attacking each cheesy scenario like drop-kicking avenging angels. Then comes every one of the nineteen silent two-reelers Keaton made, up to 1923, when he switched to making only features. There’s little point singling out peaks here, but there should be scant argument that One Week (1920), Convict 13 (1920), The “High Sign” (1921), The Paleface (1921), My Wife’s Relations (1922), Cops (1922), and The Balloonatic (1923) are all among the best ten comedy shorts of the period. The additionals rock, too, including newly found footage (there’s a new, outrageous ending to My Wife’s Relations), alternate versions, new scores, a booklet of detailed exegeses, etc. All of the films, it should be said, are also on Hulu — but who knows for how long?
You can’t find the Female Prisoner Scorpion quartet anywhere but in Arrow’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection box, the most elaborate altar erected to berserk Japanese ur-pulp since Arrow’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity box set from last year. The movies — from Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) to Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) — are proto-Tarantino explosions of softcore violence, a rambling women’s-prison/vengeance odyssey in which a lone beauty (the ever-iconic Meiko Kaji) battles the male world (in particular, a certain vicious prison warden, played by Fumio Watanabe) in a spiraling exchange of rape/torture/imprisonment and bloodletting revenge of all kinds.
Director Shunya Ito (the first three films) stopped at nothing, and saw no reason not to stop-motion-animate his heroine’s hair, wash sets in contrasting Day-Glo colors, spasm characters into Kabuki makeup, shoot through glass floors that weren’t there, and so on; the cycle’s upshot is of a cyclone of voguing gender war, scored to a single plaintive pop ballad, Scorpion’s “grudge song…of vengeance!” The Arrow box is gratuitously tricked out, with a hardcover book of essays (notably, from the long-lost Chuck Stephens), a double-sided poster, both DVD and Blu-ray copies of each film, and scores of new interviews and docs. A better gift for the passionate geek of a particular flavor is hard to imagine.
An even rarer prison flick: Flicker Alley offers up a Soviet silent I’d never even heard of, The Ghost that Never Returns (1930), an edge-of-talkies propaganda saga directed by Abram Room, whose Bed and Sofa (1927) is justly remembered as one of that decade’s most progressive-feminist films. This other film — made the same year Room made the very first Russian sound film — is even more atypical: Set on South American oil fields (the well-spiked landscapes look like Giedi Prime), it recounts the saga of a union organizer imprisoned (in a very real open-air prison patrolled by water cannons) for a decade, before the law dictates that he be given one day’s leave, during which the company plans to assassinate him. Pursued by a company hit man, our hero (nobody Boris Ferdinandov) heads to his family village across the wilderness, but gets lost, and must return on time or face execution. Room’s movie bounces between rugged location shooting and distinctive futurist lighting design; his agitprop visual ideas can sometimes reach surrealist oddness, as with the prison warden, who’s a crippled, apelike dwarf in a giant chair straight out of Dr. Seuss. Because the Blu-ray is M.O.D., there’s only a vintage short for a supp, but it’s illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky’s Pacific 231 (1931), a Honegger-scored quintuple-exposure montage-fest that’s one of early modernism’s most spellbinding experiments.
If all else fails, go find Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes (1991) on Hulu — it’s not available in any other form right now, and as it’s Varda’s paean to her recently deceased husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, it’s movie-watching as lifeblood, warm and gorgeous and fortifying. The autobiography Demy never got to make for himself, toggling between Demy in his last days, re-enactments of his blessed childhood in Nantes, in and out of the cinema, and footage from his own ultra-romantic filmography, the film may just be the wisest and most fervent valentine one filmmaker ever made for another. Movieness it is.
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