The Color of Pomegranates: four DVD editions compared

Last night I was finally able to see the new subtitled Russian Cinema Council DVD of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) and can now do a comparison of all the existing DVD editions. Ruscico’s subtitled edition of the Yutkevich cut reinstates missing footage and thus corrects the disastrous audio sync problem which ruined their earlier unsubtitled edition, part of a “Best of Armenfilm” box set for the Russian market. However, we are still left with no wholly satisfactory version of the film on DVD anywhere. At the bottom of this post I will include some frame grabs for illustration. Click on each image to view a full-sized, properly scaled version.

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Elia Kazan at the Plaza

The Plaza Theater in Atlanta, in cooperation with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Emory University, is running a film series devoted to Elia Kazan. Monday night’s double bill included A Letter to Elia  (2010), Martin Scorsese’s new hour-long documentary (co-directed by Kent Jones) and Viva Zapata! (1952). Other entries in the series include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (September 20), Gentleman’s Agreement (September 27) and the little-seen Wild River (October 4), which some critics regard as one of Kazan’s best. For more information see the Emory Film Studies Department’s events calendar.

For those who missed A Letter to Elia, it will be showing on PBS October 4 as part of the American Masters series. It’s a deeply moving tribute by Scorsese to a filmmaker whose work had an immediate, personal impact. The documentary does provide an overview of Kazan’s career, but the main focus is instead on Scorsese’s relationship with Kazan’s films and eventually his friendship with the man himself.  It has generous, beautifully transferred clips from On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd (a brilliant film!), Wild River and America, America. (After all the clips, I’m dying to see the latter.) While the documentary doesn’t gloss over Kazan’s decision to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, it treats him with sympathy.  In my view, it’s at least as good as Scorsese’s other documentaries My Voyage in Italy and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.

The screening was followed by Viva Zapata!  (1952) Hollywood’s great, failed love letter to agrarian revolt, an absolute must on 35mm. There is that small problem of Marlon Brando in makeup… He’s a great physical actor–his movements and gestures are transfixing. The problem is that when he opens his mouth he sounds like Brando and not Zapata, and that pesky makeup never quite convinces. Brando almost-but-not-quite pulls off the stunt. But the film as a whole is superbly directed, demonstrating Kazan’s feel for locations and his compelling gift for staging within the shot. The black-and-white photography and Alex North score are also outstanding. After the screening, one of my colleagues pointed out that we still watch Touch of Evil (1958) despite Charleton Heston’s less than convincing performance as a Mexican, to which I replied yes, and Brando is a far better actor than Heston. When Fox finally releases the film on DVD as part of its forthcoming Elia Kazan box set, I recommend that you check it out with the caveat that it will lose  some of its richness of texture on the small screen.

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Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes: a survey

I’ve been going through a Franz Liszt phase again since around Christmas, when I brought his Piano Sonata in B minor (Claudio Arrau) and his Années de pèlerinage (Lazar Berman) along with me to California. Above all, I’ve been fascinated by his Études d’exécution transcendante because of their combination of extreme virtuosity and rich musical appeal. The twelve pieces are are supposedly among the most difficult to play in the classical piano repertoire. For me etudes 3 (“Paysage”), 5 (“Feux Follets”), 10 (“Allegro Agitato molto”), 11 (“Harmonies du Soir”) and 12 (“Chasse-Neige”) stand out, though the set as a whole remains one of Liszt’s strongest works.

Here are my comments on several different interpretations after listing to a broad selection of them.

A logical starting point is the 1974 recording for Philips by Claudio Arrau, who studied under one of Liszt’s pupils, Martin Krause. The great thing about Arrau is that he never loses sight of the music’s inherent expressiveness and poetry. However, it’s not his strongest Liszt recording, mainly because he takes some of the tempos too slow; pieces like “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd” should have more fire in them. I do urge you to track down his now out-of-print 1970 recording of the Piano Sonata in B minor; he makes a powerful case for this work as Liszt’s masterpiece and one of the most innovative works of the 19th century.

Jenö Jandó‘s budget-priced recording for Naxos is thankfully still in print, and it’s actually one of the strongest overall interpretations of the Etudes as a whole. He plays with a great deal of freedom, giving the pieces an improvisatory feel without in any way seeming willful. I especially like the delicacy with which he plays the slower etudes such as “Paysage” and “Harmonies du Soir.” I also love his singing tone in “Chasse-Neige,” which brings out the piece’s long melodic arcs. On the other hand, he could have played “Wilde Jagd” faster and with more fury. Frequently you can hear him humming along with the music, but I don’t find it overly obtrusive.

Jorge Bolet, another major Liszt interpreter, is less successful in his 1980s recording for Decca/London, which is out of print individually but is still available as part of a pricey box set. Despite his fine playing, his consistently slow tempos drain the etudes of the energy that they need in places. There should be more variation in tempo across the set as a whole.

I was initially bowled over by Evgeny Kissin‘s recording of five of the Etudes (along with Schumann’s Fantasy, Op. 17). Certainly his execution of “Chasse-Neige” is awe-inspiring as an example of Romanticism in the grand manner. But he plays “Feux Follets” in an overly fast and showy manner, missing out on its airy, mercurial quality. Yes, it’s amazing how fast he can play it, but that’s not the point of the piece–the tempo is marked as  “Allegretto.”

The most completely satisfying interpreter to my ears is still Lazar Berman. His 1958 mono recording is the only one widely released on CD, which is a shame. Although that interpretation is excellent, it has always suffered from distorted sound due to weak audio engineering. Much more satisfying is his 1963 stereo recording for Melodiya, which was released on LP in the West by Columbia in the 1970s. Apparently there was a Japanese CD of that recording, but it’s almost impossible to track down now. I ended up purchasing the LP on Ebay. There’s no shortage of fearsome virtuosity in movements like “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd,” but Berman also plays the slower movements with great subtlety and lyricism. In particular he brings out the forward-looking qualities of “Harmonies du Soir,” which anticipates Debussy in its harmonics and keyboard textures. (As do some of the pieces in Années de pèlerinage, especially in Book 3; I strongly recommend Berman’s recording of this set as well.) Berman’s “Feux Follets” stands out for the way he brings out the melodic figures in the left hand – no small feat considering the many rapid leaps required. The capstone of the set is “Chasse-Neige,” in which he foregrounds as a great musical composition through his meticulous phrasing and voicing. This is where the improved engineering of the 1963 stereo set really pays off. I also love the way Berman gradually builds the tempo up to the piece’s devastating climax. There are still many great classical recordings not readily available on CD, but this is a mystifying oversight. Hello Melodiya? Columbia?

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Avatar: Going Native

I just returned from an advance screening of James Cameron’s new film Avatar. Initially I was skeptical after seeing a trailer, but I’ve become an enthusiastic convert. In order to appreciate what Cameron and his vest technical crew have accomplished, you have to see the film in 3-D digital projection. This production really does lift both CGI and 3-D technology to a new standard. The alien world of Pandora and its inhabitants take on a convincing presence, and the combination of 3-D imagery and dynamic camerawork has a visceral impact.

Yes, the film has cartoon villains and some stock situations, but the script actually is not bad as far as blockbusters go. Cameron is painting in broad, mythic strokes, and it mostly works very well. What I found amusing is the script’s not-so-subtle critique of colonialism: in the most expensive movie ever made, the hero is a soldier who serves a colonial power. He learns to see–literally–from the indigenous people’s point of view and joins their struggle. It helps that the technical crew has made every effort to render the Na’vi faces expressively, so that we can fully empathize with them. The crude motion capture and dead eyes that made the characters in The Polar Express look like sluggish CGI zombies are thankfully a thing of the past. Avatar’s world is certainly worth the visit; I want to see it a second time, only in 3-D Imax.

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Speaking to Las Vegas…

"Mistress X - Downtown Las Vegas, 2009" Lauren McCubbin, 2009

"Mistress X - Downtown Las Vegas, 2009" Laurenn McCubbin, 2009

Laurenn McCubbin, a professional graphic artist and MFA student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, is developing an ambitious performance and gallery show entitled Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas. The gallery show is scheduled to open in February 2010. Click here for more details.

Laurenn describes the project as follows: “This is going to be an art installation that combines sculptural elements, performance, audio, video, photo documentation, and illustrated portraits of Las Vegas sex workers. The purpose of this show is to investigate the connections between the Las Vegas economy & the legal & illegal sex work that happens there.” Among other things, Laurenn’s project will entail creating her own “hooker cards”–those full color escort service cards that men pass out on the Strip–directing interested parties to a phone number and website which Laurenn is creating beforehand. Thanks to Gary Tognetti for bringing this show to my attention. It’s a shame I’ll be back in Atlanta at that time, because I would have loved to see it.

I have a question for all you Vegas natives: when did “hooker cards” first make their appearance on the Strip? In the Seventies I remember seeing the newspaper dispensers with free black-and-white tabloids advertising escort services, but I don’t recall the cards. Those must have started in the Eighties or Nineties.

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Surviving the Antichrist

I managed  to catch Lars von Trier’s Antichrist on its last night at the Landmark Midtown in Atlanta. Long before the dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky appeared in the film’s closing credits, I spotted any number of visual echoes of Tarkovsky’s work. Lesson: if you want your film to look “important,” imitate Tarkovsky. Just mix together some desaturated color, black and white, slow motion, rain or other objects falling from nowhere, shots of wind blowing curtains, Baroque music on the soundtrack, and you’ve got Art. 

Actually,  Antichrist was neither as bad as the hostile crowd in Cannes seemed to think, nor was it quite as good as Roger Ebert aruges in his review. The performances by Willem Dafoe and especially Charlotte Gainsbourg are remarkable. Gainsbourg more than earned the Best Actress award at Cannes; if I ever watch the film again, it will be because of her. Their reactions to each other and to the tragedy that engulfs them give the film the emotional credibility it needs to work in the face of extreme, at times ludicriously horrific situations. In a couple places the dialogue falls flat, but I think this is due mainly to Trier working in a second language.

Yes, much of the imagery was beautiful, dark and rich. But in some of the darker scenes the photography had that tell-tale, flat video look. Anthony Dod Mantle is a gifted cinematographer, and the smaller camera probably helped preserve the intimacy that the actors needed to pull off their performances, but high definition video still hasn’t caught up yet with good 35mm stock.

Trier’s view of relationships and the gender divide owes much to Strindberg, but I was also surprised to see a deliberate Medieval sensibility running through the film. Yes, the film is misogynistic, but you have to give him credit for taking the whole thing seriously enough to hire a “Misogyny” consultant. That’s one film credit you don’t see very often.

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Comments on Jeanne Dielman

Friday night’s screening of Jeanne Dielman did not disappoint. As a film about psychological breakdown, I find it more subtle and more strikingly conceived than Polanski’s Repulsion, which relies a bit too heavily on obvious visual effects, brilliant as it otherwise is.

I could only admire Jeanne Dielmlan‘s rigorous–but not rigid–construction. The first section very economically tells us about Jeanne Dielman’s daily routine; later we see different portions of the same routines, or variations in her actions. So in its own way, the film is not repetitive though it seems so on the surface. The camera setups and lighting are also remarkable; the entire film is an elaborate play between things shown onscreen and hidden offscreen, light versus dark, focus vs. out-of-focus, indoors versus outdoors, and so on. The film’s visual design becomes so intense that a simple change in angle, or even a sudden cut to a medium shot registers as a physical shock. It’s also very funny, thanks especially to Delphine Seyrig’s brilliant timing and physical grace. I for one will not soon forget the utterly bizarre nighttime dialogues between her and her son.

One bit I found particularly moving was when Jeanne Dielman’s neighbor comes to pick up her baby after Jeanne has been watching it for the afternoon. She talks at length about herself and her frustrations raising her children, while Jeanne listens without interest and with visible impatience. This is echoed later in the film when Jeanne goes looking for a button and tells the shop owner all about the aunt who sent her the jacket from Canada. It really brings home the fact that all these women lack opportunities for meaningful conversations, whether with their immediate family or with other women like them.

Even if you see the film on DVD, I recommend going to see it in the theater if you get the chance. It’s bound to lose a great deal of its hyperintensity on the small screen. But more importantly, watching it with a crowd is great fun. Even after we were all warned that the film is about a housewife’s routines and that it’s 200 minutes long, a number of people stood up and stumbled out as late as two hours into the film. I’d like to know why, if you’ve watched this film for more than two hours and you’ve figured out right away that “nothing” is happening, would you not stay to the very end? Why cheat yourself out of the payoff?

Jeanne Dielman is such a rich film that one could write an entire book about it. I’m surprised no one has done it yet.

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More potatoes, more men…


Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman.  Courtesy Paradise Films.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman. Courtesy Paradise Films.

A new 35mm print of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)–an avant-garde cult hit about a housewife keeping a very tight schedule–is showing this Friday, October 23, 7:00 p.m. at Emory University, in White Hall 205. The running time is 200 minutes. Admission is free. For more details see Andy Ditzler’s Film Love.

I have to confess that I’ve never seen Jeanne Dielman, though it is finally available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. I’ve been waiting instead to see a good 35mm print, since what I’ve read so far indicates that this is one film which demands the finely rendered visual texture and sense of space that only a theatrical presentation can provide.

If you haven’t seen any of Chantal Akerman’s films, her Seventies work is fascinating as an extreme example of the long-take aesthetic. Individual shots often run for several minutes without a cut, unfolding in real time while very little seems to happen story-wise. It’s a calculated challenge to the viewer, but the cumulative effect can be surprisingly moving, especially in News From Home (1977) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).
Criterion is putting out an Eclipse set of Akerman’s other Seventies films in January 2010.

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Brief update

I’m going to be away from my blog for a couple weeks while I finish working on a chapter of my book on Sergei Parajanov. It’s the chapter on The Color of Pomegranates,  most likely the longest section of the book. With any luck, I’ll have a workable draft by the end of the month or the beginning of September at the latest.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969), screen capture

The Color of Pomegranates (1969), screen capture

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New in theaters: Bliss

I just came across Stephen Holden’s review of Abdullah Oguz’s Bliss (2007) in the New York Times today. Holden writes: “[…] this consistently gripping, visually intoxicating film stands as a landmark of contemporary Turkish cinema.” It’s based on an acclaimed novel by Zülfü Livaneli about honor killings in contemporary Turkey. Livaneli is also a composer and wrote the film’s score. The film is distributed by First Run Features; with any luck, it will play in theatrically in Atlanta at some point.

In general, there seem to be quite a few interesting films coming out of Turkey in recent years. Probably the best known figure internationally is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who has won numerous festival awards for his art-house films Distant (2002), Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008). He’s a major practitioner of the long shot/long take aesthetic associated with directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Chantal Akerman. His treatment of emotional isolation (or “alienation,” if you will) is often compared to Michelangelo Antonioni, though in Distant, the one film of his that I’ve seen, there’s also a great deal of humor in the film’s observation of everyday life. (To be fair, Antonioni also had a sense of humor.) Another new Turkish director, Özer Kiziltan, explores the conflict between religious faith and modernity in Takva (2006), which received U.S. distribution on DVD last year. A third figure worth looking at is the Turkish-born Italian director Ferzan Özpetek, known for films such Steam: the Turkish Bath and Facing Windows; I like his sympathetic, open-minded treatment of the complications of human sexuality.

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