Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: The Black Pirate, Night of the Hunter, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Howl, The Elia Kazan Collection

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

In 2010, Kino continued to show their gumption in our troubled home video marketplace by upgrading several more of their silent film titles to Blu-ray, including most recently (as of this writing), Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate. From 1920’s The Mask of Zorro to 1929’s The Iron Mask, Fairbanks formed one of the first Hollywood franchises, producing one wildly popular adventure/romance after another until his career sputtered out with the advance of his middle age and the birth of talkies. Although Fairbanks had found his most potent melding of comic/heroic personas in the first, The Mask of Zorro, all of these films remain entertaining today.

Peering back into the dim corridors of childhood, I remember having yearned for pirate movies, which at the time — mid to late ’50s? — were a scarce commodity, there being a couple of movie adaptations of Treasure Island and little else. I would have thrilled at seeing Kino’s resurrection of Fairbanks’ 1926 Technicolor film, which successfully clicks off every item in a pirate checklist: commandeering and plundering a helpless vessel, burying its treasure on a remote isle, walking the plank, and of course the unchecked violence of pirate venality. Fairbanks, in fact, begins The Black Pirate with a satisfying blast of the latter, as a band of lusty renegades overwhelms a merchant vessel, seizes its assets, and proceeds to blow the ship to smithereens, with all hands on deck, tied to its masts.

Before having the gunpowder lit, however, the pirate leader observes one hapless captive swallowing a prized pocket watch to keep it from the marauders, whereupon the pirate orders an underling to slice open the prisoner’s gullet to retrieve the watch. The gruesome act is performed off camera, of course, but we see the bloodied watch gleefully handed over to the leader. This scene alone would have brought me as a child over to the side of silent film. Indeed, the entire opening sequence holds more inspired excitement than many a period adventure picture I experienced in the tepid decade of the 1950s, or ’60s, for that matter.1

Fairbanks plays a survivor of the disaster, washed ashore on a sandy tropical island with another victim, his dying father, who is already buried by the next scene. Grieving in solitude, the heretofore unnamed Fairbanks character suddenly spots a small party of the rapscallions responsible, come ashore to bury a chest of booty. Unobserved, Fairbanks declares an oath of vengeance on his father’s death, gathers himself up, and goes to face the pirates, his personal anguish masked by the trademark Fairbanks grin.

With little effort, Fairbanks inserts himself into the band of pirates via a sword fight with its leader, who succumbs to Doug’s superior fencing skills. Once out to sea, Fairbanks, now calling himself the Black Pirate, seems to be treating this whole pirate business as something of a lark. When the pirates spot their next victim, he offers to take the ship singlehandedly, which inspires another superb action sequence. Fairbanks’ swift victory through acrobatic cunning wows the whole band of outlaws as much as it does the audience. Raising their cutlasses to the air, the pirates vote Doug their leader.

As a moral man leading an immoral society of criminals, the Black Pirate now finds himself in a quandary, especially when the pirates move to rape a pretty young female passenger and then, as per usual once looting is completed, blow the whole damn ship up — the very idea of which brings up painful memories of the Black Pirate’s own recent victimhood. Doug contrives to hold off both eventualities by proposing a ransom, a concept unknown to these dimwitted hardies but now fully in place among 21st-century Somalian pirates.

The ransomed object is the young princess (a tremulous Billie Dove), who, while presenting an instant courtly love interest for Fairbanks, provides a target of lust for a villainous pirate lieutenant (Sam De Grasse). Underplaying, De Grasse is terrific here in projecting not only his resentment over the Black Pirate’s ascension to leader but also his quiet but combustible sense of carnal entitlement to Dove. Planning for the princess’s rescue and capture of the pirate gang, Doug’s ruse is a play for time that De Grasse does his best to subterfuge, but the Black Pirate has an ally in a crusty, one-armed Scotsman (Donald Crisp), a pirate with a heart of gold.

Kino’s Blu-ray upgrade shows much improvement over their previous DVD in the image’s detail and resolution, but the two-strip Technicolor remains a pallid affair that most often reverts to a pinkish monotone. Personally, I’m really glad they found that third strip in time for Gone with the Wind (1939). That said, however, the film’s elegant lighting design often takes advantage of the process, giving some scenes — as mentioned in a vintage New York Times review — the look of an old painting, like a Rembrandt needing several layers of varnish removed. As with all of Fairbanks’ productions in the ’20s, the film is often quite beautiful.

This edition retains the DVD’s choice for underscore between Robert Israel leading a small orchestral ensemble playing the film’s original score and a more improvisational organ score by Lee Erwin. There’s a bounty of extras, including a 75-minute talkie version in B&W, narrated by Doug, and over 40 minutes of outtakes, a chunk of which comes with commentary by Rudy Behlmer.

USA/1926/Two-strip Technicolor/95 minutes/silent with musical accompaniment/1.33:1. Released on Blu-ray disc by Kino International in 2010. Also available in a previously released DVD edition.

Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Criterion’s recent edition of Night of the Hunter is accompanied by what is easily the best supplement to a home video release I have ever seen, Robert Gitt’s 180-minute compilation of outtakes from Laughton’s masterwork entitled Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter. Gitt, the senior film preservation officer at the UCLA film archive, was lucky enough to obtain from the director’s widow, Elsa Lanchester (before she died in 1986), an enormous pile of film canisters that her husband had never had the heart to throw out.

In them were hours of multiple takes of nearly every scene in the finished cut of Night of the Hunter, in which Laughton, because it was his practice to let each reel of film run on between takes, is heard prepping, coaching, and cajoling his actors before and after you hear “action” and “cut,” the latter command often not given. It took Gitt nearly two decades to shape these snippets into the form we witness here; wisely, he arranged them in the order of the film’s story-line.

The result may be unprecedented in its reveal of a director at work. As one of the foremost screen actors of the 20th century, Laughton clearly knew how to direct other actors; his assurance, skill, empathy with actors, and results — in this, his first and last, directing project — is astonishing to hear and behold, not to say, very moving.

Watching this film — which you must not do until you see the feature itself — you come away with a profound appreciation of Laughton’s accomplishment, plus a heightened awareness of the unusual stylized beauty of the actors’ performances, and a wonderment over how much of this is due to Laughton’s expert direction and how much to the innate brilliance of the performers themselves. There’s a musicality to the actors’ line readings, especially those of Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, and, surprisingly but not least, the supporting actress playing Icey Spoon, Evelyn Varden.

Experiencing the multiple takes, I was struck by the rhythms and varying pitches in their dialog, which through repetition sounded more and more like singing. In their deeply committed collaboration with Laughton, the three actors work tirelessly to perfect their readings, often phrasing the words as if they were melodic lines. Besides its validation of the genius of Laughton’s direction, Gitt’s compilation provides a unique lesson in what great acting is about, and, frankly, I was overwhelmed by it all.

When it comes to Criterion’s Blu-ray of Night of the Hunter itself, the company’s high-def transfer is, true to form, a stunner that restores the film’s original wide-screen ratio. On Blu-ray Stanley Cortez’ peerless black-and-white photography, with its massive range of values, comes through as never before; dark scenes, and there are many in this film, carry tremendous emotional weight. Cortez shot with the high-speed film Tri-X, which picks up gradations of light, from densest black to razor-edged white, with eloquent contrast made only more so by the film’s pronounced grain, appearing on this disc with startling reality.

Criterion includes an interview with an aged Cortez, and the cinematographer, who also shot Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is forthright in taking credit for much of the film’s visual impact — Laughton simply didn’t have the experience and laid the lighting design and photography in his hands, yet the director knew he wanted imagery that spoke louder than the dialog, as it did in the best of silent films, and likely pushed Cortez to the mannerist extremes we see in Night.

Silent film, Laughton said, could reach out and grab audiences; by their very nature, silent film forced people to collaborate imaginatively with the movie they watched. As sound film had gotten bigger, added color, and pushed toward a greater, louder impact of realism, Laughton felt it had left moviegoers jaded and passive. For his film, Laughton wanted the actively involving, emotional intimacy of the silents, and both he and his screenwriter, critic and author James Agee, locked onto the appropriateness of D. W. Griffith’s films to influence Night. For starters, the film’s opening recreation of the small West Virginian town does indeed echo the dusty streets and wisteria-twined porches of Griffith pastorals like Way Down East (1920) and True Heart Susie (1919), not to mention the small-town setting of many a Biograph short.

But Laughton fashioned a sophisticated sound film, too. Even on a first viewing of the feature, one takes notice of how many songs Laughton/Agee have included: Robert Mitchum’s coffee baritone crooning the hymn “Leaning”; Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) lip-syncing the child’s song “Pretty Fly”; a soloist softly intoning the lullaby “Rest Little One, Rest”; and near the film’s end, Lillian Gish and Mitchum duetting on “Leaning.” Here Gish sings a variation of the hymn’s lyric against Mitchum’s: instead of his opening words, “leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting lord” she sings, “leaning, leaning on Jesus,” bringing the New Testament’s salvation to play against Harry Powell’s psychotic Old Testament violence. While Powell relies on a God of hate to direct him to kill, Rachel Cooper (Gish) calls on the God of love to save and protect; ironically, the fraudulent preacher carries the two universal forces tattooed on his hands.

Laughton’s masterpiece needs no championing, by me or anyone else. Unlike any American film of its time, Night of the Hunter stands alone as a personal expression of its director, and it’s a complex film. Visually, thematically, every which way you take it in, it’s a work for a lifetime to view, ponder, and feel.

The best home video release of 2010? Yes, I would say so.

USA/1955/93 min./B&W/Monaural/1.66:1 OAR. Released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD in 2010.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

If you missed seeing this film in the theater, like I did, you might have nonetheless read plenty about it in print and electronic media, but nothing can prepare you for the experience itself, which is hilarious, exhilarating, disturbing, and thought-provoking all at once.

Banksy, a major proponent of street art in the UK, is the filmmaker here — this being his first and probably last film, like Mr. Laughton’s — and he makes it clear early on in his documentary that its subject is not himself but “a much more interesting individual,” Theirry Guetta: a French clothing retailer whose videotaping avocation becomes an obsession of one sort that turns into an obsession of quite another sort. The Frenchman becomes a provocateur among provocateurs, a non-hipster who unseats the hip, a wanna-be who subsumes his idols. If only, instead of concocting something like F for Fake (1973), Orson Welles could have lived to make this film — but it’s just as well he didn’t. Banksy’s film is that good.

On camera, Guetta is a pudgy, bewhiskered man of fast-approaching middle-age who projects an unwavering confidence undercut by a confusion of intent that immediately makes you wary of him. But as a younger — and one assumes more modest — amateur filmmaker, he had no problem winning the trust of a number of camera-shy street artists, making names for themselves throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the new century. Until meeting up with them and their art, Guetta had settled for indiscriminately videotaping anything that might occur to him and his family, enlivened occasionally by a celebrity encounter.

Then, suddenly fascinated with street artists and their work, he found a focus for his lens; following around and filming major art guerrillas like Shepard Fairey — and often aiding them in enacting their projects — he promised his subjects that it all had a purpose, and one attractive to the artists: a documentary film that would capture their intrinsically ephemeral oeuvre for posterity.

Problem was, before meeting them, Guetta had never organized any of all his thousands of feet of footage into a film, nor had he ever intended to. Eccentrically, he was merely a hoarder of captured images, and the capturing was the thing — he rarely even watched anything he’d filmed. A creative process had never occurred to him, but now, finding himself amidst a whirlwind of subversive image-making, a transformation blossoms; Thierry Guetta begins making, not the promised film, but street art of his own.

The film’s turning point is Guetta’s meeting with the ultra-elusive Banksy during the UK artist’s first visit to LA; before long, with the Frenchman providing sites for the artist, the two become friends, even collaborators. A major highlight of the film is of Banksy — aided, abetted, and documented by Guetta — calmly entering Disneyland and planting a head-masked dummy, referencing a Guantanamo detainee, within one of its attractions. Disneyland?! Did anyone tell either of these guys of the extraordinary, police-state level of security at Disneyland? Banksy installing subversive art in Disneyland is like a little girl hosting a tea party for stuffed animals on an LA freeway.

Which is maybe the point. With astonishing laid-back bravado, Banksy manages to secure the dummy beyond a fence and leave the scene without being tackled by guards, but Guetta, staying behind to film reaction to the installation, gets left holding the bag, and ends up being interrogated by Disney security goons for four hours. Guetta gets out alive, and the sequence — a lovely potshot at a corporate monster — is very funny.

It’s Banksy who pushes Guetta into editing his street art footage into a feature-length documentary, but he’s dismayed at the result: an hour-and-a-half pile of disorganized cuts called Life: Remote Control that go nowhere, edited at so brisk a pulse as to induce a petit mal seizure. Without saying a thing about his intention, Banksy sends Guetta away, telling him to make art. He, Banksy, will make the film, which he did, and as we watch it, it goes places in its final third that neither Banksy nor Guetta could have imagined, becoming a cautionary tale about art, commerce, and creative libido run amok.

On the disc, Oscilloscope includes a short documentary called B Movie that expands our knowledge of the mysterious Banksy, whose face we never see but whose street art is a combination of the obvious, the devious, the politically coruscating, and the downright funny. He should make more films because he’s uncommonly good at it. After watching a 14+ minute slice of Life: Remote Control, also submitted here, I felt that it remains an open question as to whether Mr. Guetta should.

UK/2010/Color/86 min./5.1 Surround Sound & stereo/1.78:1 OAR. Released on DVD in 2010 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010)

With Howl, seasoned documentarians Epstein and Friedman (Celluloid Closet, 1995) attempt a hybrid, a sort of dramatized documentary. Celebrating the 50+ anniversary of both the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s resultant obscenity trial (1957), the film features a roster of highly skilled acting talent playing real people and mouthing words that were actually spoken. Ginsberg is played by James Franco, who alternates between a reenactment of the poet’s first reading of Howl at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955 and sequences of a slightly older Ginsberg ruminating on life and art in an interview held in his SF apartment. Coupled with animated sequences illustrating the poem’s imagery, the end result is touching rather than deeply moving, sending you immediately to the disc’s extra features for the real goods: Ginsberg himself reading the poem. Not a bad objective for the film in the first place.

Although he looks tired and fragile, the poet’s performance, recorded live at the Knitting Factory in 1995, nails you to the wall with its incantatory power. Predictably, Franco’s reenactment doesn’t. But, whereas Franco resembles the younger Ginsberg about as much as I resemble the older, the real problem is that the poet, who died in 1997, is still too much with us. Any actor’s mimicry is going to chafe against strongly implanted memories of readings attended, various recordings, or even of a poster hung in a dorm room (Allen famously wearing Uncle Sam top hat).

He was not the reclusive poet composing in solitariness — how many people know what Robert Lowell looked like? Without seeking the distinction, Ginsberg grew into a public person, becoming, after Howl’s eruption in 1956, a symbol of beat holiness, a celebrated curiosity, an example of personal and creative fearlessness, yet, through it all, an accessible human being of unassuming generosity. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s his owl-eyed, bearded countenance was totemic; but just by putting on horn-rims and growing facial hair, no actor can acquire Ginsberg’s intensity — there was after all something shamanistic to it — yet to be fair to the obviously talented Franco, it would be silly to attempt an equivalent anyway, and I’m sure the filmmakers knew it.

Clear from its modus operandi, the film has goals other than a biopic’s, and they’re sharpest in the trial recreations, in which Ginsberg does not appear. As witnesses for prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) or defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), actors like Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels, in what are little more than cameo roles, vividly convey the cultural zeitgeist of the time by inhabiting the actual words of those who were brought in to either defy or uphold the poem’s worth (being “expert” witnesses as such, they were mostly academics). Mary Louise Parker, playing a prim but sexy Gail Potter, has less than two minutes screen time, but inflects such a witty spin on her limited testimony that you wish Hamm had opted to cross-examine her.

Although imaginative and well executed, the animated sequences don’t feel right to me. Eric Drooker, the cartoonist who designed them, got to know Ginsberg in the 1990s, and the poet encouraged him to illustrate Howl, particularly the Moloch sequences, so where I’m squeamish about Fantasia-like visualizations of key moments in the poem — the depiction of Moloch reminds me of the giant demon in “Night on Bald Mountain” — I’m guessing Allen wouldn’t have been. But then I doubt that he was squeamish about much of anything.

Oscilloscope’s extras here are wonderful; indeed, they seem to complete the experience of the film, as in the aforementioned Ginsberg reading; additional Ginsberg readings of the same vintage are available exclusively on the Blu-ray disc. In a short batch of interviews with Ginsberg friends and collaborators, there’s an especially poignant sequence with an aged Peter Orlovsky, who retells the story of how he and Allen got together.

Altogether, the film and Oscilloscope’s supplements make up a timely celebration for Ginsberg’s astonishing poem, but also a reminder, in the recreation of Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial, of America’s chronic commitment to censorship. The second week of January 2011, brought news of a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with all instances of the word “nigger” replaced with that of “slave,” which of course will distort the meaning not only of single passages but of the whole book. We need not fear for Twain’s masterpiece, of course, but Epstein and Friedman make us grateful Howl survived its inquisition.

USA/2010/84 min./Color/1.85:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in 2010 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The Elia Kazan Collection (Elia Kazan, 1943-1966)

Twentieth Century-Fox, publisher of such behemoth DVD sets as Ford at Fox and Murnau, Borzage, and Fox, has released yet another embarrassment of riches in this collection of fifteen films directed by Elia Kazan. Selected by Martin Scorsese, the films are accompanied by Scorsese’s 2010 documentary on Kazan, A Letter to Elia.

My first encounter with a Kazan film was a reproduction of this still from Streetcar Named Desire (1951), published in a 1950s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Many of the images Britannica had chosen to illustrate the history of cinema intrigued me, but my eight-year-old self found this one unique and disturbing. It didn’t look anything like my idea of a movie; it looked more like a snapshot of real life, a grownup world I’d only half-glimpsed. In the still, Brando’s raw specific maleness seemed perfectly locked into what little I could see of the battered, even dirt-streaked, room. What Brando had in mind for Vivien Leigh I hadn’t a clue, of course, but I knew I was staring at something profoundly adult. This unsettling image was one of my first glimmerings of the ominous power of sex. I wouldn’t actually see the film until I was in college.

Introducing his documentary, Scorsese tells of his his first experience of Kazan’s work, in his case a movie-house showing of On the Waterfront (1954), in which he instantly recognized the actualities of the life surrounding his own New York childhood, the kinds of faces he met on the streets.

Right out of the gate, Kazan seized on film’s innate ability to capture the granularity of everyday existence. For his first project, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Kazan provides such a convincing depiction of tenement life in the aught years of the 20th century — including a detailed realization of a Brooklyn street — that art direction and sets are participants in the drama, not just settings and backdrops for it, despite much of the picture being shot on soundstages. With early noir assignments like Boomerang (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950), the director found his preference for the expressiveness of location shooting, which had such profound impact on later projects like East of Eden (1955) and Wild River (1960).

The inclusion in this set of Wild River is especially gratifying; this release is its first appearance on disc. Why isn’t this film better known? It ranks with Kazan’s finest work, featuring, with Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet, a cast that works magic together. Set in the 1930s, Wild River takes place in a poor rural community on the banks of the Tennessee River that is set to be inundated by a TVA-built dam. Van Fleet plays Ella Garth, a matriarch with a spine of steel who refuses to sell her estate, an island smack dab in the middle of the river, to the TVA; Lee Remick plays Ellen Garth Baldwin, her granddaughter and a young widow with two children, who falls in love with TVA agent Chuck Glover (Clift), sent to persuade Mrs. Garth to yield her property to the project.

If anything, Van Fleet’s performance here tops her Oscar-winning appearance in East of Eden, and Remick and Clift provide an astonishingly nuanced portrayal of two very different people navigating an irresistible mutual attraction. The film contains another Kazan hallmark: a scene of intense emotional nakedness. In Wild River, the remarkable Lee Remick ignites a scene with Montgomery Clift when her character realizes that she’s losing a rare chance at happiness. His job completed and preparing to leave the area, Glover watches passively as Ellen struggles to tell him what he means to her. Her passionate outburst — “I love you . . . love, love, love you!” — would make any grown man take stock of the possibilities, and Clift lets you see the amazement spread across Glover’s face as he realizes what a gift this woman is.

The scene is also an example of Kazan giving his actors space. On the set, between the characters, there’s plenty of air, and a goodly amount of time for Remick to ratchet her feelings up to their breaking point. Once seen, this is a moment you can’t ever get out of your head; but then, every Kazan film seems to have at least one similarly charged scene that, once witnessed, is never forgotten.

There’s Brando, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, stumbling in his attempt to make a connection with Eva Marie Saint, as Edie Doyle; as the two walk a wintry urban landscape, Malloy, vulnerable and distracted, tries on one of Edie’s white gloves. There’s Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, naked in a bathtub, becoming hysterical in front of her helpless mother. There’s James Dean, as Cal in East of Eden, throwing wads of cash at a dumbfounded Raymond Massey, followed by Dean and Julie Harris, as Abra, their figures darkened under a tree, weeping together. In the last film included in the set, America, America (1963) — Kazan’s telling (he wrote as well as directed) of a young Greek’s determination to emigrate from Turkey to America — it’s Linda Marsh, as Thomna, the young daughter of a Constantinople merchant, pleading with Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) to be honest with her, as if her life depends on it, which, the actress makes clear, she feels it does.

The Fox set stands, by any measure, as a worthy retrospective for this filmmaking giant, and it’s fittingly crowned by Scorsese’s personal testament to the man.

Films included: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Boomerang (1947), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Pinky (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Man on a Tightrope (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961), America, America (1963). Released on DVD by Twentieth Century Fox in 2010.

  1. With one notable exception: Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), which featured the maiming of both its male stars, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, the latter losing an arm, the former an eye. For this 10 year old, anyway, that gave the film instant pedigree. []