Thursday, July 21, 2011

DVD Booklets

Booklets that accompany DVDs are one of the less visible and accessible outlets of film writing. I’ve spent the last week with a stack of DVDs and booklets borrowed from my college library. Let me share a couple of interesting excerpts from them here. Any favorite DVD booklets to recommend? Perhaps we could collect all your suggestions in the comments section.

(1) Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Criterion).

Sergio Leone was sixteen, in high school, and happened to be present when the film was being shot. He describes the experience:

All of a sudden [De Sica] said: “Well, here I would like to see a group of ten, fifteen red priests, those who do the Catholic propaganda.” […] The next day we shot the scene—beautiful also from a choreographic perspective—in which these red priests, caught in the thunderstorm, take shelter under the eaves of a building. Two of them are speaking in German to each other, so that the child, fascinated by the strange language, gets distracted and lingers on, listening to them. I was one of the two red priests involved in the conversation, which in reality consisted of saying some numbers, because we didn’t speak German. The rest of the group was formed by my classmates, whom I had recruited after De Sica said he had no idea how he could come up with fifteen teenagers.

(2) Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance-nue (Masters of Cinema).

Kent Jones writes:

Pialat, much more than Michael Bay or Tsui Hark, was an action director. Which is to say that his films give us the actions of his characters within their environments, without any discernible master idea governing their every move. In each Pialat film, and L’Enfance-nue is no exception, continuity as we know it is deliberately and continually thwarted if not smashed, in order to expunge just such master-planning. One never knows when a scene will end, or indeed what will constitute a scene, and our tracking of time as some kind of guide (an unconscious procedure in any movie) is thrown out the window — as in a Terrence Malick film, any given scene could be taking place minutes, hours, days or months after the preceding scene, and crucial moments occur off-camera. There is no time for the film to build up any sort of thematic repository to which the viewer can return for psychic re-orientation, beyond the specifics of these people, as they are seen in this place at this time of year under these skies, and in this light […] we become genuinely attuned to the film as a series of precious moments, passing before our eyes at 24 frames per second. Many filmmakers before and after Pialat tried to reach this absolute level of proximity between fiction and documentary, actor and character, setting and place. For most, it happened only fitfully. Only Pialat, with his mixture of sublime sensitivity, brute force and a furious resentment that kept his creative machinery perpetually stoked, was able to sustain such a balance throughout an entire film.

(3) Hiroshi Teshigahara films (Criterion).

James Quandt on The Face of Another (the entire essay can be found here):

The confluence of artistic forces — West with East, Europe with Japan, traditional with experimental — is readily apparent in the sinister, glittering waltz Takemitsu composed as the signature music for the credit sequence of The Face of Another. More unsettling than the composer’s nerve-scraping electronic music, which is more conventionally ominous, the strangely “inappropriate” waltz not only emphasizes Takemitsu’s and Teshigahara’s respective debts to Western culture but also introduces an important, largely unremarked incongruity in the film’s visual strategies. By employing a traditional, even antique, form — the triple-time Viennese ballroom dance, popular for more than two centuries — for modernist ends, Takemitsu inadvertently evokes a formal tension in the film between its strangely outmoded aspect ratio (the squarish Academy ratio) and its arsenal of visual innovation: freeze-frames, defamiliarizing close-ups, wild zooms, wash-away wipes, X-rayed imagery, stuttered editing, surrealist tropes, swish pans, jump cuts, rear projection, montaged stills, edge framing, and canted, fragmented, and otherwise stylized compositions. Since the late fifties, most Japanese films (though not Ozu’s) had been made in widescreen, and a mania for the Scope format was widespread, so Teshigahara’s adherence to the old-fashioned ratio, emphasized by the black-and-white cinematography, is especially striking.

(4) Georges Franju’s Judex/Nuits rouges (Masters of Cinema).

Franju speaking about Nuits rouges to Tom Milne in 1975:

I have always been attracted by emanations of strangeness; in other words, by the insolite. I suppose this is why my films so often belong to the genre formally but somewhat loosely categorized by the term ‘cinéma fantastique’. Within this rather nebulous area, I distinguish three zones: le cinéma fantastique, properly speaking; le cinéma de l’insolite; and le cinéma de l’angoisse. The fantastique lies in the form; the insolite, in the atmosphere; the anguish, in the uncertainty, the unknown. The fantastique must be created; the insolite should emerge; and the anguish, be felt […] Then how does the insolite manifest itself in the film? It springs, surely, from elements calculated to clash with each other — action and oneirism, divertissement and drama […] The cinematic image is gifted with twin powers: the power of psychological insight and the power of attraction or fascination. As a spectacle, Nuits rouges exercises the latter, and should therefore be approached rather like those carnival sideshows which require you to rediscover your innocence.

* * *

A few links:

-- David Hudson has a tumblr page called Transatlantic.

-- (via Zach Campbell) Geoffrey O'Brien on Malick's The Tree of Life; and a terrific post and discussion ("Cases Closed / Problems Opened") inspired by the film at Zach's place.

-- (via Walter Biggins) At "5 Annoying Trends That Make Every Movie Look The Same".

-- Catherine Grant collects links to "Terrence Malick Studies" in a post.

-- The welcome return of Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries" DVD column in the new issue of Cinema Scope magazine. An excerpt, on a new Edgar Ulmer 6-DVD box set: "It seems weirdly appropriate (yet also uniquely frustrating) that the box itself should be hard to open, the individual discs hard to pry loose from the container and almost equally hard to put back securely..."

-- Film Comment has a handy collection of Cannes Top 10 lists from various critics on a single page.

-- Recent website discoveries: The Film Doctor blog; Trevor L.'s tumblr page, Occupied Territories, and his blog Journey by Frame.

-- Michael Sicinski at Moving Image Source: "Cinephile fashions and the hybrid films of Nicolás Pereda".

-- (via the Cinetrix): Two pieces by Mark Rappaport at the journal Requited, "The Gong Show," and "Black Bra, White Bra".

-- At Sight & Sound: an interview with filmmaker Pere Portabella.

pic: Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance-nue (1968).



Blogger Brian H. said...

Whoa, that's a lot of stuff on Malick!

Missing out on DVD booklets is one of the pitfalls of using a service like Netflix. When I do splurge on a nice new DVD, booklet included, I feel like I'm expanding my movie collection and my bookshelf!

July 21, 2011 8:10 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creeekmur said...

I like DVD booklets in the same way that, as I kid, I liked finding lyric sheets or posters or other such extras in record albums, but I do often wonder why companies actually include them in addition to extras on the DVD (or even an entire extra-filled DVD) itself. And I really don't understand when sets of postcards are included, even when they are pretty: has anyone ever used these and sent them to people? In any case, even when the booklet is lovely, I always have to wonder: couldn't what's in the booklet just be put on the DVD? I'm not complaining -- I still like books and paper (too much), and I really don't like reading essays on my TV screen. But the booklets do seem a kind of residual holdover from an earlier era of film programs and catalogs. I'm still a Netflix holdout, and was shocked when I first heard that the DVDs don't come with the original cases or booklets, whether a thin little chapter list or the often substantial volumes provided by Criterion and Masters of Cinema, among others. If the companies take some time and care on design and even assembling and soliciting the prose that accompanies their DVDs, don't most serious fans of cinema want to see these too? I know I do.

July 21, 2011 9:03 PM  
Anonymous Walter Biggins said...

I may have mentioned this before on your site but I think Fred Camper's notes for the BY BRAKHAGE 2-disc set (Criterion) are extremely useful in getting your bearings as you view the shorts. His overview is great, too. I'm not sure I would want that as DVD commentary--some of Camper's notes take longer to read, for instance, than it takes to watch the short in question--as there's already enough text (interview excerpts w/Brakhage, a quote from him about each short, several lengthier interview pieces about Brakhage's process). Camper's commentary is differentiated from Brakhage's by the fact that Camper's stuff appears in the booklet.

July 21, 2011 9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love dvd booklets. Can't rember all of them but surely I can't forget:
1) the British Film Institute edition of Godzilla
2) Italian edition of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

I will go back to my dvd collection tonight to look for others.

July 22, 2011 2:49 AM  
Anonymous Laurent said...

Hello Girish,

I remember that Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about DVD booklets a while ago in Cinema Scope.

There are some that I have enjoyed (particularly the roundtable discussion on Keaton's shorts between Brad Stevens, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Dan Sallitt in a 184-page booklet!).

But a big question would be: beyond being pleasurable or informative, has there been a text in a DVD booklet that has really made its mark on film criticism? Has there been one that everybody remembers or one that generated passionate debates whose division lines still resonate today?

July 22, 2011 4:39 AM  
Blogger Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

I know this is asking too much, but I like to see DVD booklet as a unique reference, an anthology which reflects the past and present thoughts on a film. In this respect re-publishing classic pieces of film literature beside new writings, interviews, filmographic details, and two or three different academic approaches to film are more than welcomed. A good example could be BFI's Paris Nous Appartient, with articles by Tom Milne and Louis Marcorelles. (Now that we have mentioned Mr Milne's name two times in this post let me remind that the second edition of his Mamoulian book, accompanied by Geoff Andrew's new introduction is published now (2010))

Also allow me to use this opportunity for introducing an interesting DVD label from Poland which I discovered recently and they are very good at releasing classics of Polish cinema with English subtitles, and especially with relatively voluminous bilingual booklets. This label that looks like the Criterion of Poland, is initiated and co-financed by Polish Film Institute.

Their booklets are not something beyond what we see in other respectable labels, but since it is in an area of film history which we do not know many things about, they could be more useful and more revealing. Naturally they have stills, filmographies, articles and the original Polish posters have been used as the covers of DVDs. Thanks to a Polish friend, I received two Wojciech Jerzy Has (1925-2000) films from this label. First, his debut, The Noose (1957), which he managed to make in the political thaw of October 1956,and also How to be Loved (1962), starring Zbigniew Cybulski. The quality, restoration and presentation makes it a good option to learn more about lesser known Polish film masters. Some pictures of the booklet could be find here:

At the end, I must say that DVD booklets, comparing to Jazz CD/boxed-set booklets still have a long way to catch up. Now, booklet in the world of jazz is serving as a matchless source of information, something that you can't find somewhere else. In some of the labels, the amount of research and the urge to make something "for a life time" is beyond belief. Even Criterion which is almost the perfect label for producing the DVD materials (audio/video) can learn a few things from Mosaic (a jazz label run by Michael Cuscuna) on textual material. Let's not forget that the whole idea of booklet is very much close to the tradition of Liner Note writings in jazz.

July 22, 2011 7:07 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

What I like about Doug Cummings' essay for MoC's version of Kuroneko, is his linking of Shindo's film with the series of Japanese "Ghost-cat" films that were produced primarily in the Fifties.

Now if only there were more Shin-Toho films available on subtitled DVDs . . .

July 22, 2011 11:10 AM  
Blogger David said...

Seems like B. Kite writes almost exclusively for DVD booklets now— all good, but piece on Muriel for Masters of Cinema is one I've gone back to a lot.

July 22, 2011 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

Why not mention Mr. Milne's name three times? That Franju quote to him reminds me a lot of what Dusan Makavejev said about "Innocence Unprotected".

Franju speaking about Nuits rouges to Tom Milne in 1975:

"The cinematic image is gifted with twin powers: the power of psychological insight and the power of attraction or fascination. As a spectacle, Nuits rouges exercises the latter, and should therefore be approached rather like those carnival sideshows which require you to rediscover your innocence."

Regarding those Polish sets, I have a few of the documentary ones (and a few more coming in transit). They're great discs and the booklets are very well-designed, but the English language translation is sloppy and awkward.

July 22, 2011 9:59 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

It seems to me that - in the best instances (Intermedio in Spain, Masters of Cinema, some Criterion, etc) - DVD booklets (however ephemeral and precarious when it comes to, say, University Library cataloguing systems - I know all about that one!) now somewhat bridge the ever-widening gap between academic writing and the 'serious' magazine press. That is to say, journalistic writing is able to 'scale up' a bit in complexity and detail, while academic writing is able to make itself more essayistic and accessible. I feel I have certainly done some of my best articles for some DVDs, and would not have had the opportunity to do them (such as the Pialat) without these commissions. On the other hand, at their worst, DVD writing is most often simply not a space for critique, only celebration: how often does any film being directly 'promoted' or value-enhanced in this way ever get called anything less than a deathless masterpiece ?? In that sense, DVD booklets stage a return to the least critical auteurist fan days !! But the good outweighs the bad, I feel.

July 23, 2011 7:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks a ton, all!

Brian, well put!

Corey, speaking of the choices involved in including material in either paper or electronic form: a pet peeve of mine is that DVD commentaries can only be heard in 'sequential access' form (watching along with the film), instead of the 'random access' form of skipping one's eye over a page or a booklet. It would, I think, be valuable to include a transcription of DVD commentaries on PDF form (either accessible on the DVD or made available on the website of the DVD company). As it stands, I listen to far fewer DVD commentaries than I feel I should, simply because I feel they require a much greater investment of one's time compared with what reading a transcription of one on paper (or PDF) might entail.

Laurent, I'd forgotten all about Jonathan's column on booklets, so thanks for the reminder.

David, I'm a great admirer of B. Kite's writing, and should make a list and hunt down the booklets that feature his pieces.

Ehsan, a wonderful link between exhaustive jazz album liner notes and booklets and DVDs -- and I agree 100% with you about the Mosaic label.

Walter, I recently watched a bunch of those Brakhage films on the Criterion Blu-ray and could not agree more! I wish the works of all major avant-garde filmmakers could be accompanied by this kind of marvelous pedagogical aid.

Bobby, where can one find the Makavejev piece to which you refer?

Peter, as always, you're a 'vanguard cinephile', venturing into new territories before most of us do!

Adrian, I never considered the gap to which you refer -- between academic and 'serious' magazine writing -- but I can see what you mean!

July 23, 2011 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm intrigued by Adrian's comments too, that the writing for DVD booklets walks the fine line between academic and journalistic writing -- somewhere in the area occupied by FILM COMMENT or CINEASTE, two magazines (among others) that have always seemed to me pitched in that grey area as well. But it does seem also the case, as he says, that they tend to only offer material in (high) praise of the film. Are there any booklets that admit that the film they accompany is average or worse (but perhaps still interesting for various reasons)?

July 23, 2011 10:23 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

When Criterion was still Voyager and was producing laserdiscs, I wasn't allowed to identify "Confidential Report" as the second best version available of "Mr. Arkadin," which is how I judged it at the time....And when I was writing a brief introduction to Welles's Memo to Universal for the "Touch of Evil" box set, Universal obliged me to use the term "restoration" even after I insisted that no version of that film could qualify as such. The compromise we finally arrived at was me placing the term "restoration" between quotation marks--the assumption apparently being that doing this with any commercial buzz word was acceptable as long as the word was still being employed!

July 24, 2011 5:16 AM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

The Makavejev references can be found (excerpted) in a review on "Innocence Unprotected" printed on March 26, 1971 in the New York Times. For more context also check the article "Joie de Vivre at the Barricades" by David Robinson for Sight and Sound (1971). The former can be found online for free, the latter I'm not so sure.

July 24, 2011 6:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the citations, Bobby.

Quickly: A couple of links via David Hudson--

-- At Bioscope: The Pordenone festival has announced its lineup.

-- At Film Journey: Robert Koehler on "a new direction for Director's Fortnight" at Cannes.

July 24, 2011 6:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Also, meant to link in my post to Robert Koehler's earlier piece about "criticism as advocacy" but forgot to do so. Here is the opening:

"A running conversation at film festivals in the US and abroad (mostly abroad): The urgency of film criticism to advocate for certain cinema, and ignore the other cinemas. The best reason? Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored."

July 24, 2011 10:17 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

I quite like Kent Jones' Criterion essay on Olmi's I Fidanzati.

July 25, 2011 4:40 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

Has anyone read the booklet that accompanies the Criterion Paul Robeson set?

I've seen some of the films via Netflix but have not seen the booklet: some of those films seem like case studies for the "not very good but nonetheless interesting" treatment that Corey refers to; even the online Criterion blurb for Sanders of the River refers to that film as an "embarrassment for the actor."

July 25, 2011 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Trevor L. said...

Thanks so much for linking, Girish! That's very kind of you, and I really appreciate it.

Two quick excerpts from some Criterion booklets that I enjoyed very much. I generally find that all of their booklet material is worth reading, and it's almost all available online, if I'm not mistaken. First, I enjoyed Geoff O'Brien's essay on Kurosawa's High and Low, especially when he describes "Kurosawa’s sense of morally purposeful action." This phrase really got me thinking about the ethical dimensions of genre cinema, especially films that are about very concrete tasks. And I think this is no more true than with High and Low. The story is of course about very obvious ethical questions, but what I loved about the film was the investment made in acting with moral purpose. I think this is the core of genre films, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how this plays out in contemporary action films.

The other Criterion essay that comes to mind is Kent Jones' essay on A Woman Under the Influence. It was really interesting to me how, in the first paragraph, he really engages style when he writes, "Every approach is equally valid, none more elevated than the rest." He brings up Bresson, and I think here you have two very different filmmakers whose approach became almost a philosophy in and of itself. You can't really find a halfway point between the two approaches because each approach is about almost complete belief in the truth of that approach, yet from the outside it's clear how limiting this must be for anyone other than Cassavetes and Bresson themselves. For me, Kent Jones really paints the picture here of film criticism being about finding and identifying these kinds of absolute paths to truth (which require complete faith) but also maintaining the flexibility to see that no one should become a partisan for one or another path except the filmmakers themselves.

I must also say that the 184-page Keaton booklet sounds amazing! That sounds like about the best DVD booklet I could imagine.

July 25, 2011 4:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

I like it when there's a fine line between booklets and books -- e.g. the re:voir release of Jonas Mekas's Walden is great: not just a few essays but about a hundred pages of original, detailed annotations of the film itself. Capricci too -- the interview with Jean-Claude Rousseau which David translated here is from a beautifully illustrated text accompanying the DVD, and I imagine the similar editions of Costa and Serra's films are just as good... (related: would love to get my hands on this, if £ permitted!). Good essays: Bill Krohn on Godard's Une femme mariée (one of those instances where I've read the booklet but not bothered to watch the film...), Adrian M on O Sangue + Pialat's amazing La gueule ouverte (MoC did a good run of essays on Pialat, inc. Dan Sallitt on Police, Gabe Klinger on Sous le soleil...), also the US dvd of John Gianvito's Profit motive and the whispering wind contains a few pages of valuable diaries in really small print. Criterion is thorough at times too -- I remember enjoying reading Rohmer's moral tales in prose before watching the films themselves...

July 26, 2011 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Jonathan's comments remind me of a conversation I had long ago with Ed Buscombe, the great British scholar of American westerns: the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles wanted to publish a book on Autry's films (they had published some exhibit catalogs), but balked at Ed's plans to use "academic" terms like "ideology" and "working class." The book never happened.

July 28, 2011 12:09 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

'...but balked at Ed's plans to use "academic" terms like "ideology" and "working class."'

And... scene.

July 28, 2011 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Yes, I think he planned to cite Gene Autry's appeal to working class audiences: he was told that this was America, and we of course have no distinct classes, unlike his native England.

July 29, 2011 4:47 PM  

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