A Woman Is a Woman
I blame this movie for starting me smoking again when I was in film school in the eighties. After becoming so smitten with all that Anna Karina embodies, I decided to wear blue tights with red skirts and smoke, constantly. Needless to say it did not turn me into Anna Karina—my tights were the wrong shade of blue, and I was hacking like an old granny at the Santa Anita racetrack. Still, I loved the film, wildly, and love her in it.
What is so gorgeous about this DVD is, firstly, Anna herself, and nextly, the color is like powdered paint, soft yet vibrant—not just the gorgeousness of everything Karina wears but also the murals on the walls of the strip club where she works, the jukebox from which Charles Aznavour sings. The exteriors, often shot from high angles on rooftops, have the feel and texture of what Paris must have been at that moment.
I saw in the booklet that this film was very special for Jean-Luc Godard and Karina. They were in love, they wed, she was pregnant with their baby, and you can feel the exuberance of the romance in this movie. It’s absolutely exhilarating to me, and also incredibly funny.
The other amazing feature on the DVD is a short documentary on Anna Karina made in 1966, clearly to promote Anna, the musical Serge Gainsbourg wrote for her. Serge closes the short, talking in the most brazenly sensual, big, bold close-up about Anna’s humor, her voice, and her sex appeal . . . It’s scrumptious!
The longer I live and the more movies I know, the more I love Stanley Donen. However, I fell in love with this film as a child. I went to see it because—well, because I saw everything that came to the Paramount Theater (or the Capitol) in Ashland, Kentucky. But I was especially primed for loving this movie because I was enamored of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly—I had seen that movie ten times the previous year.
But Charade was a very different movie from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and for a little girl—and for that time—it was very violent, and it scared the hell out of me so much that I thought James Coburn was in my closet at night, and I made my mother go with me to check if he was there before bedtime.
Nevertheless, I went back for more every weekend until its run was over. I loved the witty romance between Cary Grant and Audrey, and I loved Paris as much as I had loved New York in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And the mystery works! And I loved that so much I went back again and again, even if it scared the pee outta me.
On the DVD, director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone banter amusingly from a long friendship together on the long process it took to make this film. Stone makes the great observation that when you write a mystery, you make it for a second viewing. And if the audience says, “That’s a cheat,” then you didn’t do it right. But if they see it a second time and say, “Oh, it was there all the time, and I didn’t see it,” then you have something.
This film has all that and more—i.e., the best clothes ever!
Having lost Robert Altman in 2006, it’s so moving to hear his commentary on this wild, dreamy movie. I saw this film in the theaters when it was released and always loved it. I don’t care what anyone says, Robert Altman has directed more interesting roles for women than just about any director alive or dead.
On his commentary, Altman reveals how all Millie’s diary entries, the menus she makes up for her “dinner parties” (which she’s “famous for”), and even her eye makeup were created by actress Shelley Duvall herself.
I could never get enough of Janice Rule, and seeing her in this movie, so beautiful and soulful, I get the same ache as when I see Warren Oates on-screen . . . knowing they’re gone and I will never get that chance to work with either one of them. So Janice Rule’s performance here is all the more precious to me.
Sissy Spacek is able to go from completely naturalistic to totally surreal . . . and still hold her character—it’s amazing. She was very young and novice at the time, yet she completely pulls it off brilliantly.
Carnival of Souls
Another incredible thing about Criterion is that in addition to the classics, the treasures, the widely acclaimed, they also have a true love for cult and lowbrow cinema. Director Herk Harvey explains on the Carnival of Souls commentary that they had hoped the film would have an art-house release, and they actually approached a distributor successful in that market and were told that, since it wasn’t in a foreign language, it didn’t really fit. I’m sure being American-made wasn’t the only reason this was a hard fit for distributors, but it was interesting in terms of what art houses were looking for at that time and how the filmmakers saw the film’s niche.
This film taught me how to watch Mulholland Drive . . . which is to say, if you stay with the mood, without fighting it, your intuition will serve you far better than the plot and structure and logic your brain is craving. Because essentially all stories are simple; what isn’t simple is the underneath of it all. And that’s more rewarding in the end.
I was on a plane about ten years ago when a businessman sat down next to me. Like most people, I dreaded having to talk to someone new. I figured he wouldn’t talk to me anyway, ’cause I have tattoos and he looked very straight-up corporate. He immediately smiled and asked me who I was, what I did for a living. I told him I made movies, but probably none he’d ever heard of. Indie movies. I figured that would shut him up so I could look out the window and mope. He smiled big—“Oh, you mean like cult movies?” I shrugged kindly—well, yeah, I guess you could say that, hopefully that. He said his sister had been in a movie when he was a youngster. A film as independent as it gets. One that had become a cult classic.
Somehow I just knew what he was going to say next. His sister was not Candace but another girl in the film, and that man and I talked about Carnival of Souls for well over an hour. And then we spent the next two hours of our flight engrossed in each other as he told me vividly of the supremely radical life he’d led prior to becoming a businessman for the environment! You just never know . . .
Young Mr. Lincoln
I’m not in love with John Ford’s movies. They are staples, and it’s like saying you don’t like bread—Ford’s films are in all filmmakers’ foundations, somewhere, it’s inescapable. But when it comes to being in love with movies, I’m more of an Anthony Mann girl.
Having said this, Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The images early in the film of Henry Fonda in his thick, unruly, natural environment of rivers and briars and brambles strike my heart in ways so deep I can’t even explain. The majestic landscapes Ford would be later known for are much more grounded here, more personal. What he shot reminds me of a home so far ago lost. And there is a feeling of that, deeper than nostalgia, running all through this film. It’s like a grand American ache.
Henry Fonda explains on the commentary how he initially turned the film down, then the screenwriters went to his house and READ HIM THE SCRIPT! Out loud! What balls! I can’t imagine anyone doing that these days. Then he said yes to the part, did the screen test with the fake nose and flipped out when he saw himself as Lincoln and felt he couldn’t do it—he couldn’t play someone with that weight that Lincoln had and still carries and holds. Well—I won’t spoil it for you—you MUST hear what very simple ingenious thing grumpy old Ford said to get Fonda to do the role.
Supporting Fonda’s performance is an incredible cast—Alice Brady in her final performance before her early death, Ward Bond, and Richard Cromwell (whom I had a real sweet thing for)! The booklet is just as poetic as the movie, with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and Sergei Eisenstein between the pages of lovely quiet stills of a very accessible yet long-gone American landscape.
My Man Godfrey
Gregory La Cava
As much as I love this film and have seen it hundreds of times, I feel like I never TRULY saw it before looking at this remastered DVD! Such beautiful black and white! Every character in this film is a feast for an actor to play . . . even the maid (Jean Dixon) is rich with her own cynicism and longings. The chemistry between William Powell and Carole Lombard is something seldom glimpsed these days. And yet their romance had long before this film bloomed, gone to marriage and divorce. But the couple remained the closest of friends and the warm feeling between them is brimming in every single frame of the film.
The DVD also includes the Lux Radio Theater broadcast, and there are some really fun outtake bloopers with Eugene Pallette—LOVE HIM—and Powell and Lombard.
D. A. Pennebaker
Most people think that the concert at Altamont was the antithesis of Woodstock. But one of my students at UCSB recently commented that you could tell a lot about what went wrong at Altamont by watching what went right at Monterey. I couldn’t agree more . . . It’s fascinating to watch both of these films and compare what happened just a few years and less than a hundred miles apart.
First off, Monterey Pop, which may be my favorite of all Criterion DVD packages. The booklet is printed on nature-rough hippy-grade paper stock that you would have first encountered on the streets of Haight-Ashbury, in the form of a free press or psychedelic poster on a telephone pole, and later on your thrift-store coffee table with a pile of pot about to be rolled next to it! Yes, it is this evocative!
The DVD box set includes amazing outtake performances with Laura Nyro, Quicksilver Messenger Service, TINY TIM (!), and Buffalo Springfield . . . and another DVD, Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey, contains the complete performances by Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding (with commentary by the ever-enlightening Peter Guralnick, who knows the history of Memphis musicians better than anyone alive).
The accompanying doc of a conversation between record producer Lou Adler and filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker is such a coup—not only do you hear how the concert came together and how it was organized during the entire event, but you also get to hear Lou Adler’s story. A lot of people don’t know (although smarty-pants me did) that Adler started his music career with Herb Alpert, as songwriting and producing partners . . . and he has awesome stories of Paul McCartney hanging out at Cass Elliot’s house in Laurel Canyon . . . There’s endless music-nerd gold like that!
The color in the film is all that psychedelia had to offer—vibrant, otherworldly, and hyperreal. There’s an innocence throughout Monterey Pop that exceeds the “positive vibes” of Woodstock a few years later and that is of course completely nonexistent in Gimme Shelter. You can also see in Monterey Pop the cops in the crowd (who were replaced by Hells Angels at Altamont) and SEATING! My student pointed out there were folding chairs on the lawns at Monterey—very civilized. Now that wasn’t throughout the concert grounds, but it was more in the tradition of the Newport Folk Festival than the mayhem to follow in Altamont. Also like Newport, the performers were in the audience—they were not in some rarefied backstage area, cut off from the fans or their fellow performers—and you get to see the moment when Mama Cass Elliot in the audience has her mind blown by the powerful performance of young Janis Joplin.
There’s a fabulous interview with Papa John Phillips, who cofounded the event with Adler, and a gorgeous photo exhibit by photographer Elaine Mayes.
Gimme Shelter director Albert Maysles was one of seven cameramen on Monterey Pop. And I need to point out that you do see a few Hells Angels on the lawn toward the end of Monterey Pop. So the Angels already had a presence at large outdoor rock events that far back.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who were at Altamont as performers, friends of bands, and audience members, and the consensus is that nothing in this film was manipulated in the least: the vibe was bad from the very start, and the filmmakers didn’t create that in the editing room. Interestingly, the film is shot much darker than the saturated colors in Monterey Pop—but then again colors were becoming less vibrant in pop culture and fashion at that time too.
But interestingly—here you have some of the same players—you have Jefferson Airplane, who are almost humble on the Monterey Pop stage (despite the fact that Grace Slick shows off her powerful rock pipes at Monterey—she was the first true female rock singer and very underrated in my opinion), having to stop their set at Altamont when singer Marty Balin is dragged off the stage and beat up by the Hells Angels. The Grateful Dead play a soothing jam at Monterey and don’t even make it to the stage at Altamont. Chris Hillman with the Byrds plays an evening set to the Monterey audience, and in Gimme Shelter his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, only get two songs done before the mayhem drives them off the stage at the Speedway.
Watching Charlie Watts listening to the interviews with the promoter and with Hells Angel Sonny Barger makes Watts your favorite member of the band if he wasn’t already . . . His quiet devastation over the murder at his band’s concert is profound to witness (and you do feel as though you are let in on a very private event).
Some of my favorite stuff in the film has always been the footage from Muscle Shoals Recording Studio in Alabama. I love the footage of the band listening back to the tracks for Sticky Fingers and glimpses of the studio team we had all at the time only seen occasionally on record covers of Aretha or a few other artists who had recorded there. I could be wrong but I think that’s Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section drummer Roger Hawkins listening to playback with Keith Richards.
Amy Taubin and Stanley Booth are among the writers who contribute outstanding, insightful essays about the film and the event and its larger meaning to the so-called “death of the sixties.”
These are two of the three best concert films EVER made! Ever.
Dazed and Confused
I love this movie and always have! And now I get to love it more on this far-out DVD package. Until watching the accompanying doc, I had never really thought of the film as a 1970s American Graffiti—for me, the fun of it is in the ensemble cast of young people, many of whom became huge stars later—it reminds me more of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But also on this doc is an extraordinarily frank look at the difficulties of making this film. People in the movie business—indie or otherwise—are rarely this honest in discussing what it took to get the film you see on the screen. I really appreciated the honesty of Jim Jacks and Richard Linklater, who, uh, shall we say, didn’t always agree on the set. Also, the interviews with the young actors, like Marissa Ribisi, talking about the approach Linklater took with them, were completely enlightening. I plan to steal his entire approach from now on. :)
And the packaging is an artifact to have for keeps: the cover artwork by Marc English, based on the Led Zeppelin III album cover, is supremely inspired, and the booklet is a high school notebook. It’s great pop culture folk art! I own a collection of Memoryware folk art that people used to make with all their leftover trinkets and little pieces of their lives: earrings, coins, buttons, etc. They’d take these mementos and put them in plaster on top of an old jug or jar and call them “memory jugs” or “memory jars.”
And this is what this DVD is for me—a keepsake. A memory jar of seventies pop culture. No, of 1976. No, of specifically 1976 Austin, Texas. And yet . . . it’s a memory jug of anyone’s last high school rite.
The Red Shoes
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
It was my daughter Tiffany who made me see the beauty of this film—she loved it so much as a child, and I think in many ways it spoke to her on the difficult choice for women artists between art and love, a calling of career and the calling of the heart.
The Technicolor restoration of the film is stunning. This was one of the early titles in the Criterion Collection, and it’s just gorgeous. The DVD production was helped along with the loving hands (certainly one of my favorite pair of hands on earth) of film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell’s widow.There’s fantastic commentary with cinematographer Jack Cardiff and Ian Christie, as well as Martin Scorsese, a close, dear friend of Powell’s. And actress Moira Shearer gives such a wonderful account of the feelings of awe and fear of the dancers around working with living ballet legend Leonide Massine . . . and how in spite of this, she and Massine came to get on like a house on fire. He would fill her with the most amazing tales of his life in the last true golden age of ballet with the great dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev—I cannot even imagine what a thrill these hours of conversation must have been!
Iron and Wine’s Top 10
Samuel Beam is an American singer-songwriter (and former film studies professor!) better known by the stage name Iron and Wine. His last album was 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, and a follow-up is in the works.