DVDs not so new, but definitely for your library

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I was doing a DVD column for Inside Magazine in Philadelphia. After talking to my editor today, it became evident that, advertising being what it is, my column is no longer needed. (Sigh.)

Well, they had one they've been sitting on for months and I hate to let anything go to waste. Besides, the DVDs I was writing about are deserving of your attention. So here it is, with minor changes to bring it up to date.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat.

There is no substitute for seeing a movie in a theater, projected on film, on a screen that is bigger than you are.

It’s that simple. As wonderful as many of today’s DVDs can be – and the ones I’m writing about are pretty wonderful – they haven’t got the range of color, the texture, the vibrancy of a good film image. And seeing a movie on your TV screen, no matter how big it is, in your living room, no matter how dark you can make it, isn’t the same as seeing an image that dwarfs you and that is nearly the only source of illumination in the room. Sitting in a darkened room full of other people and gazing up at a screen that is several stories tall is the best way to see a film.

But that is not always an available option and, for the films under discussion in this column, it’s pretty unlikely.

So you get the best DVD player you can (I recommend a region-free player that can deal with PAL and NTSC disks equally well), the best TV set your wallet permits, and hope for the best.

When it comes to the best, at least in terms of content and presentation, you could do a lot worse than Unknown Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941, produced by Anthology Film Archives and curated ably by Bruce Posner. This seven-disk set offers over 19 hours of the cream of the early American avant-garde, and the compilers have exercised some shrewd judgment casting their net wide enough to include such surprises as Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” number from Golddiggers of 1935, and memorably surreal dream sequences from otherwise mainstream fare starring Doug Fairbanks and Edward Everett Horton.

But the real thrill here is seeing the roots of the American underground, films like Jerome Hill’s 1934 “La Cartomancienne (The Fortune Teller),” with its anticipation of Maya Deren’s pivotal “Meshes of the Afternoon” or a half-dozen of Joseph Cornell’s fascinating and often disturbing collage films. Posner has chosen the films wisely, and the supporting notes come from outstanding scholars of the avant-garde, and are rief enough to be enticing but not flatulent. The transfers are stunning and the original music is splendid throughout. This is a must-have box for anyone interested in film as art, and a source of endless hours of pleasure. (Available from www.unseen-cinema.com)

One set of offspring from the men and women of Unseen Cinema are the Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, twins from the Bronx who have been making their own brand of inventively fractured cinema since the early 1950s. Although George is slightly better known, Mike is no less a figure in the world of underground cinema. Both of them are drawn to the high-camp world of the ‘50s melodrama, fascinated by recreating the high-gloss, high-budget antics of antics of Joan Crawford, Lana Turner and their ilk, not to mention the spicy doings of trash sci-fi and film noir, but on budgets so small that to call them shoestring would be to exaggerate. The send-ups are affectionate and not without feeling.

One of Mike’s finest achievements, and a film that John Waters apparently claims as a major influence, is his futuristic farrago, Sins of the Fleshapoids, made in the mid-60s. This little gem is set “a million years in the future” when humanity no longer does anything except to indulge in pure pleasure. Pleasure seems to consist of such dubious delights as eating a Clark bar, Wise potato chips and an ice cream cone. But the “fleshapoids,” robot slaves of the human, want their share of the fun and, as you might expect, trouble lurks around the corner. The Other Cinema’s DVD of Fleshapoids also includes two of Mike’s delirious short films, “The Secret of Wendel Samson,” with a hilariously befuddled Red Grooms in the title role, and “The Craven Sluck,” as its title suggests, a tale of incest and alien invaders. Given the age of the 8 and 16mm footage, the transfers on the disk are surprisingly sharp and the colors are delightfully lurid. (Available from www.othercinemaDVD.com).

I’m not sure how Ross McElwee would feel about being linked with the Kuchar brothers, although his dry wit is not entirely dissimilar to Mike’s. McElwee, of course, is one of those capable filmmakers who are redefining documentary film in ways that draw on the essay and diary while not neglecting social commentary. His best work, Sherman’s March, Time Indefinite, and 2004’s brilliant Bright Leaves offer warmly affectionate but balanced and incisive views of the modern American South, leavened by his own self-deprecating humor. Now First Run Features has made most of McElwee’s films available on DVD in a five-disk set, The Ross McElwee DVD Collection. The package includes the three films mentioned above as well as his earlier shorts, “Charleen” and “Backyard” and his 1997 feature Six O’Clock News. The transfers are fine, the interviews with the filmmaker are highly intelligent, as one might expect, and the outtakes are amusing. An excellent introduction to a uniquely American voice. (Available from www.firstrunfeatures.com).

With all the hoo-ha surrounding Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, I was a little disappointed that more wasn’t written or said about the remarkable duo who made the original film (and still the best), Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. Before they dreamed up the big ape (and ran RKO Studios), the unusual team of explorer-photographers directed two wonderful silent documentaries, very much the product of a time when the “exotic” was hugely prized on-screen. Remember, 1922 marked the debut of Robert Flaherty with Nanook of the North, and indie film companies proliferated wildly offering a glimpse of previously unseen cultures. But unlike some of their competitors Schoedsack and Cooper delivered the goods with Grass and Chang. These two utterly unique films depict, respectively, the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe across the Asian steppes to distant grasslands where they can feed their herds, and the struggles of a small farming family in the jungles of Thailand. The films are surprisingly sensitive for their era to issues of cultural difference, and much of the footage is extraordinary. Milestone Films has done an lovely job of preparing these two films for DVD, with new scores by indigenous musicians, beautiful hand-tinting and excellent supporting materials. (Both disks are available from www.milestonefilms.com).

Finally, for an unmediated look at some independent filmmakers, I commend to you the “Screening Room” series. Originally broadcast in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s, the program featured 75-minute-long interviews with such stalwarts of the independent and documentary worlds as Alan Lomax, Robert Breer, Jean Rouch and Ricky Leacock. I’ve looked at the Lomax disk and another featuring avant-garde filmmaker Standish Lawder and philosopher Stanley Cavell, all questioned capably by Robert Gardner, himself an important ethnographic filmmaker, and the discussions are fascinating. Documentary Educational Resources is releasing these disks in three series, documentarians, animators and avant-garde filmmakers, and they are well worth exploring. (Available from www.der.org).