The Executioner: By the Neck By David Cairns
Designing for del Toro By Eric Skillman
Judging from many of the reactions we get from viewers, there’s a gratifying sense of discovery that accompanies each new Eclipse release. That comes as little surprise to us, since that same feeling is as alive and well here in the Criterion offices. One of the most pleasurable things about embarking on each new Eclipse series is the excitement of delving into a chapter of film history that’s been cobwebbed by years of neglect. Though throughout our first ten releases there have been a number of known quantities (Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu), there have also been as many true revelations, some from filmmakers of whom we only had cursory prior knowledge, if even that. When the name Raymond Bernard was first uttered “on five,” all we could offer were blank or quizzical stares; yet when those screeners of Wooden Crosses and Les misérables started making the rounds, you could almost hear the collective exclamations of “Aha!” billowing about the halls. The sheer enjoyment of the latter was especially a relief for those of us who had screeners for future Criterion and Eclipse projects piling up in our homes and didn’t necessarily have five hours to spare—fleet, rich, and rewarding, Les misérables was, for me, one of 2007’s sweetest retro surprises (along with other movies, Criterion-related or otherwise, like Cría cuervos . . . , Antonio Gaudí, Bonjour tristesse, J’entends plus la guitare, and Black Christmas, all of which make going to the multiplex seem a fruitless chore).
Despite veritable eureka moments scattered about all the following sets (for Carlos Saura’s Blood Wedding, or Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, especially for Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert’s feature-length smack-down game of Sassy and Sassier), my next true revelation came when encountering the films in series nine, The Delirious Fictions of William Klein. Only generally knowing of Klein as a famed abstract New York photographer of the fifties and sixties (and even then only having seen a sampling of his work in online forums), and as a maker of documentaries (his subjects ranged from Muhammad Ali to Paris fashion), I had no idea what to expect from his fiction films, all made after he permanently relocated to Paris. That they turned out to be as boldly experimental and in-your-face subversive as his photography, and as politically charged and visually daring as primo 1960s-era Godard, made researching and writing about these films a pleasure, the process as exuberant and fascinating as the set’s eventual title would suggest.
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?’s mix of insidery, faux-vérité fashion satire and through-the-looking-glass surreality may be marvelous, and The Model Couple’s charmingly chintzy fascist future world often insightfully warped in its targets, but out of the three Klein films, it was the hilarious Mr. Freedom that made the biggest impression on me. Bounding teeth-first into farce rather than assuming a stance of smirking satire, Klein dolls up his film in outlandish sets and costumes (color bursts of primary putrescence spangle nearly every setup; the art direction is at once bargain-basement and mammoth in its ambitions), and personifies American jingoism in one rowdy Southwestern lunkhead obsessed with spreading capital-F Freedom throughout the world (yes, this was made in 1969, not 2003); instead, this reverse King Midas ends up destroying nearly everything he touches.
Hopefully this Eclipse release, coming in May, will get the ball rolling on recouping the once lambasted Mr. Freedom as a valuable piece of sixties radical cinema; it was far too prescient to ever be appreciated in its time, so now will have to do. Mr. Freedom is the kind of discovery that will make younger cinephiles marvel at the fact of its very existence (in other words, “You mean this movie was made nearly forty years ago, and all this time I’ve been watching frickin’ Patton?!”). With so many cinematic depths left to plumb for Eclipse, I can only imagine what other surprises are in store. Already we’re getting ready for a set of films by the truly eclipsed Russian master filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, whose rapturous The Ascent, which I’ve now seen twice on the lovely big screen at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, certainly counts as one of my filmgoing revelations in recent years. And with some late Rossellini history films on the way, I’m looking forward to more cinematic avenues opening up for me in the very near future.