The Restoration Revolution

Gorge on the best cinephile home video releases of recent months


Movies rot. Everything decays, even digital files, but movies really rot — for over the medium’s first hundred years, a film had as much chance of surviving without proper archiving as a cake left out in the rain. Hence the whole fundraising for “restoration” meshuggaas, which seems at present to be both benefiting from the Criterion/TCM/new-revival-theater hipster boom and fueling it. It is of course Martin Scorsese’s favoritest hobby, and so plunking down a C-note for the recent Criterion box, officially labeled Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2, is both a vote with your wallet for kino! kino! kino! and a chance to own (not “lease for use”) a half-dozen landmark films that have been almost entirely out of circulation.

What you get, restored from oblivion and set up in top-shelf Criterion shape, includes the stoic neo-realist peasant-saga that established modern Turkish cinema, Yilmaz Güney and Ömer Lütfi Akad’s The Law of the Border (1966), and the Fassbinderian neo-realist peasant-saga that established modern Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976). Both woke up festival audiences in their day; conversely, Ermek Shinarbaev’s Revenge (1989) was barely seen in its time, though this beautiful Kazak epic of pan-Asian, multigenerational vengeance gone out of control may be the most resonant Soviet/ex-Soviet film of its era not made by Alexander Sokurov. (You also get copious interviews and essays, and all films on both DVD and Blu-ray.)

From there it’s even more special: I first saw Mario Peixoto’s Limite (1931) on PBS in the Seventies, and, as far as I know, this weird avant-garde Brazilian silent hasn’t shown up anywhere within reach since. It’s certainly never been released or home-videoed, and yet here it is (thanks, Marty), a brooding, abstracted tale of romantic failure and intertwining lives envisioned as a web of close-ups, ellipses, seething symbols, and scorched Brazilian sun. It’s been repeatedly judged the greatest Brazilian film of all time, though it’s hard to imagine that most Brazilians even know it exists.

Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985) offers a classically Yangian portrait of Taiwanese alienation and quiet anxiety, fractured and plagued by modernization and Americanization, and starring co-writer Hou Hsiao-hsien. A young but faithless Taipei couple try to build a life, and even emigrate to California, but family, money, circumstances, and their own vexing distance from each other cripple their chances; as always, Yang, whose second feature this was, shoots and cuts with a jeweler’s squint. It’s essentially perfect.

The capper for me, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut film, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), is not at all perfect — it can’t be, because life and time and people are imperfect, and because the film itself tries not to be a real film at all, fiction or doc. Weerasethakul concocts a build-a-story exquisite corpse project out of a documentary road trip, allowing Thai citizens of all shapes and ages — an old woman, an acting troupe, deaf teenagers, schoolchildren, field workers — to build on a narrative that begins, randomly enough, with a crippled boy, his teacher, and the “mysterious object” that rolls out from under her skirt. Soon, it’s clear that the crazy story itself — aliens, magic swords, witch tigers — is just a pretense, a chance at meeting, traveling, observing, filmmaking. Weerasethakul’s unique wabi-sabi sensibility, as meta as it is embraceably humane, is here in utero, and his film is a brand-new thing, porous and undefined, open to accident and whim.

Notice the 2000 release date, and yet still the movie was already in unwatchable disrepair. Home video is still one of the primary ways restoration work like this gets paid for, so let’s petition every film school and women’s studies department in the country to install this spring’s Flicker Alley box, Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology, without which the pioneering silent-era work of Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blaché, and Germaine Dulac wouldn’t even enter the dialogue. It offer 25 films, including seven features, stretching from Blache’s Les Chiens Savants (1902) to Maya Deren’s perennial Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), including only a few available otherwise (a single Mabel Normand two-reeler, Weber’s 1913 classic Suspense), and a bunch that just aren’t (three short Lotte Reiniger animations); the terrific female-focused Soviet landmark The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) by pre-Revolutionary movie star-turned-director Olga Preobrazhenskaia (complete with a new score packed with native folk tunes); and the earthy, early-sound featurette adapted from Goethe’s The Erl-KingLe Roi des Aulnes (1929), by the all-but-forgotten Twenties-Paris demimondaine Marie-Louise Iribe. The set also has its films on both formats, and its booklet is essentially one long feminist-historical essay by Columbia prof Kate Saccone.

Another mighty brick of excavated cine-miracles: Arrow Films’ pink house of Japanese avant-gardism, Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism. Yoshida was one of the major Sixties New Wave bomb throwers, though his movies for some reason never exported like Oshima’s or Imamura’s. His keynote epic Eros + Massacre (1969) would’ve certainly posed a challenge — at three and a half hours, it’s a monster of an experiment, dovetailing the tale of fin de siècle anarchist/free love doyen Sakae Osugi with the young radicalized lovers in 1969 Japan failing to find a shared morality in a crazy modern world. It’s a ball-busting trip, full of youthful anarchistic cant and literary declaration (a la Godard), and shot in Yoshida’s trademark style, all inky black-and-white images of extreme angles, forever corridors, off-balance compositions, absurd perspectives, and voguing tableaux. The effect is like being trapped at an ultracool mescaline party with sexually hyperactive grad students for whom every gesture is catastrophic.

But the film he made next, Heroic Purgatory (1970), is the world-beater, a more condensed and intense dose of Yoshida-ness, in which a student gaggle of would-be terrorists angst about their communal non-action, a strange runaway teen infiltrates the lives of a middle-class couple, and characters keep taking off wigs, revealing that they’re someone else. Every vertiginous shot is an idea, and Yoshida musters the dislocation living in an arthouse science fiction film, when in fact it’s just life at the end of the Sixties. The third film in the triptych, Coup d’Etat (1973), goes narratively straight but visually bonkers telling the story of insurgent Ikki Kita and his role in the 1936 attempted government overthrow. Typical of Arrow, the set is also both DVD and Blu-ray, and comes with alternative versions, piles of discussions and interviews, and a fat booklet packed with Yoshida scholarship.

Lastly in Restorationland, mention must be hollered of Kino’s revivified release of Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (1953), a battered orphan if ever there was one, for decades circulating only on shitty chopped-up TV prints, if at all. The great Baroque Hollywood stylist’s last gasp, this dollhouse war film depicts the famous saga of Japanese soldiers stuck on a Pacific atoll for seven years with a single unlucky girl, but, famously, it’s shot on spit-and-glue sets on a Japanese soundstage, in un-subtitled Japanese, with von Sternberg’s own stentorian narration running over the action. Covered in seashells and patio furniture, as kitschily artificial as a Jack Smith movie, it’s one of cinema’s most self-conscious games of pretend, made all the more bizarre by the director himself on the soundtrack, sounding in turns God-like, sarcastic, admonishing, and disgusted with humanity.