Don’t Watch That, Watch This: A Holiday Wish List for Home-Video Lovers

Rare silents, festival fossils, and the "Man From Another Place"


Home video, the disc kind, still thrives, though it seems so far under the radar you can safely say the radar isn’t in working order anymore. So be it — stream if you will, but your options are limited, the quality can suck, and, in the end, you own nothing. Instead, for instance, grab the new Kino Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s fabled Variete (1925), a famous (but heretofore unrestored and unavailable) silent classic that fills out a few of the still-dusty corners in our view of what the German Expressionist era had to offer. It’s a packed omelet of a melodrama — not only probably the best circus-act film ever made, with hair-raising trapeze work (actors and camera) far above a rapt crowd in Berlin’s Wintergarten theater, but a silent that’s oozing with fairly explicit sexual tension; Emil Jannings’s seedy sideshow has-been is inspired to dump his family and return to the limelight with Lya De Putti’s seductress, only to have their new, death-defying career vexed by jealousy and vengeance. Obviously influenced by Murnau’s The Last Laugh a year earlier, Dupont’s rambunctiously expressive saga soars, swings, and catapults with Murnovian energy and a free-for-all arsenal of visual perspectives that only Abel Gance would broach, a few years later. The Blu-ray comes with several new scores, making-of material, and an entire bonus feature: The brisk and imaginative 1922 German film of Othello, starring a charcoaled Jannings as a reasonably convincing Moor.

Other recently minted discs run the gamut of the rarely seen and long-forgotten. There’s Takeshi Kitano’s 1998 violent-cop summation Hana-Bi (from Film Movement), an arguable high point of Japanese deadpan artiness and deader-pan tough-guy comedy, from one of the Nineties’ oddest auteur sensations. Another must-own: Shohei Imamura’s almost entirely neglected meta-masterpiece A Man Vanishes (1967), from Icarus Films, a Japanese New Wave piece of cultural espionage that purports to investigate the disappearance of an average real-life salaryman — a notably common occurrence in Japan at the time. Imamura and his crew grill his family and co-workers, tracing his last movements in absurd micro-detail, documenting bank withdrawals and drinking binges, and even purportedly tracking down cabbies from trips taken years earlier. The man’s fiancée is followed around; actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi escorts her, acting as a kind of proxy for Imamura, and she falls for him. Emotionally charged interviews with mistresses and cohorts are filmed with hidden cameras, until eventually the fact-or-fiction slippages implode altogether, with an on-screen crew meeting (they’re not happy with the film, not at all certain that most of it is true) and a press conference about the film itself, before it’s even finished becoming whatever it is. In the end, it may be the most fastidiously Duck Amuck–ish feature ever made in Japan, a disappearing film about a questionable disappearance that may’ve never have happened, and yet keeps happening.

Rare and forgotten also defines Ermanno Olmi’s 1988 meditation The Legend of the Holy Drinker (from Arrow Academy), known here previously only as one title on the long list of unimported Venice Film Festival winners. Adapted from a Joseph Roth story, it begins as a fool’s fable, with hapless drunkard Rutger Hauer trying to pay forward a freak act of charity and failing, over and over again. The characteristic coolness of Olmi’s gimlet eye only emerges gradually, but it does (in a searing final twenty-minute ordeal by emptiness), making this one of the great films about those lost inside of the alcoholic experience. Arrow has for years been building a mini-Criterion library out of arthouse beauties left behind by history, packing their immaculate Blu-ray restorations with archival extras, interviews, essays, and original art. Their recent output includes Federico Fellini’s final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990); Jean Grémillon’s defiantly feminist romance The Love of a Woman (1953); Elio Petri’s comic-Kafka satire on Italian solipsism, The Assassin (1961); and Joseph H. Lewis’s Terror in a Texas Town (1958), a strange and bitter noir western written by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

Restorations — neglected films saved in the nick of time — also happily feed the hard-media pipeline, including the 1925 adaptation of The Lost World (from Flicker Alley), a lovely stop-motion antique coming at us in the most complete version since its release (plus deleted dinosaur scenes and three early Willis O’Brien shorts). Then there’s David Lynch’s toxic psycho-revery Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which plays today, in a post–Twin Peaks: The Return world, as almost a screed, or at least a tortured riposte to the Twin Peaks–ian idea that the death of a girl is a proper vehicle for quirky absurdo-comedy. Lynch has always been compelled by the damage done to girls by a world of monstrous men, but in this often unbearably non-sequitur movie’s last hour, the fate of Laura Palmer becomes a full-on auto-da-fé. Naturally, this Criterion edition comes packed with new Lynchiania: among the pickings, creative re-edits of deleted scenes and a looking-back cast interview, all orchestrated by the “Man From Another Place” himself.

As for holiday gift-giving, if you need that excuse, there’s the thoroughly spiffy option of The Godfather Trilogy: Omerta Edition (Paramount). If you’re missing parts I and II of this American Buddenbrooks on your shelf, then this may be destiny, but for superfans, the frivolous set of ancillary tchotchkes are their own reward, often coming off as marketing-department hilarious: postcards, a trivia game, and, my fave, a sheet of detachable Godfather-quote refrigerator magnets. (“Keep your cannoli fishes closer, Fredo,” it reads now.) For twenty-odd bucks it’s a steal, and of course the Blu-ray transfers are immaculate.

Even more ambitiously and fanboy-satisfying in its way is Kino’s mega-box Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, which Blu-ray-izes all eleven of Lang’s surviving German silents, spanning from Harakiri (1919) to Woman in the Moon (1929) and encompassing some of the period’s burliest visions: the newly restored Metropolis (1927), both halves of Die Nibelungen (1924), and all of the espionage-crime semi-serials. That, plus a long-unavailable film Lang wrote but did not direct, The Plague of Florence (1919), a loose, Intolerance-influenced adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” that exemplifies the era’s deep-focus compositions and foretells Lang’s own muscular visual choices and monster-set extravagances. (Liberal use of actual palaces and medieval cityscapes helps.) How could one live without the whole brick, the die-hard cineaste snorts, as he or she skulks to the ancestral screening sanctum once again and vanishes into the silver fog of true movie love.

But I’ll launch one last heart rocket, for William Dieterle’s spooky, nutty love story/ghost story Portrait of Jennie (1948), out on Blu from Kino. A Hollywood confection that pits the loneliness of art struggle (Joseph Cotten’s a starving painter, searching for the real gem) against the Theremin-scored unattainability of the Romantic ideal (Jennifer Jones, besotted producer David O. Selznick’s Trilby, is a Central Park nowhere girl who flits in and out of corporeality), the movie is a forgotten swoon, and one of American movies’ great wintery on-location New York ballads.