Couch Trip

Mar 12, 2008 at 12:00 am

Jean-Luc Godard 3-Disc Collector's Edition
Lions Gate

Jean-Luc Godard's career trajectory is like Bob Dylan's. Both had a string of indisputable masterpieces in the 1960s and a couple in the '70s. Then they got all weird on us and tumbled from their Critic's Darling pedestals.

And they've both seen resurgences lately, Dylan with his last two records and a spate of legacy-honoring movies and Godard with his staggering Historie(s) du cinéma miniseries and his most recent feature, Notre Musique.

As a fan of both Godard and Dylan, I'm drawn to their neglected periods, which are ripe for re-evaluation with the clarity of decades of hindsight.

Is Dylan's born-again Christianity phase (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love) really that lousy? And I can only watch My Life to Live and Contempt so many times before I'm ready to explore Godard's difficult period, the titles you don't see in film classes or most libraries.

This four-movie set from Lions Gate delves into just that period. While it's true that Passion, First Name: Carmen, Detective and Oh, Woe is Me are untapped wellsprings of Godardian depth and provocation, they're also generally dull, impenetrable and pretentious.

Detective is a shambling, leaden anti-noir with occasional flits of vibrancy and slapstick that keep it from lapsing into interminability. Its dedication to John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood and Edgar G. Ulmer will give you the wrong idea. At times, it feels like it's a record being played on the wrong speed, like the slow-motion video playback in the opening shot. Oh, Woe is Me is pure inscrutable tedium, a philosophical riff on God, love, cinema and the past whose barrage of conflicting and overlapping aural and visual assaults will tax the patience of all but ardent Godard devotees.

I'd seen Passion and Detective before, and though I liked the latter film even less this time, Passion was negligibly more interesting upon second viewing. This is mainly because of Raoul Coutard's stunning photography and the interesting dialectic between factory-labor drudgery and the equally suffocating but creatively intoxicating world of filmmaking — even if the subject of the movie-within-the-movie, a still series of re-created paintings, is as pompous and aimless as some of Godard's work from this period (mercifully, King Lear and Hail Mary are not included in this collection).

The films do make sense together — it's as large a testament as any to the value of auteurism. Godard was more uninhibited than ever in this period. Say what you want about the bountiful bare breasts and bush in each film here, ensconcing the French New Waver into the "dirty old man" realm currently occupied by Bernardo Bertoulcci. But more significantly, the set further exposes a flaw in Godard's '80s and '90s mechanics, a certain emotional emptiness epitomized by characters who spend less time saying original thoughts than they do quoting allusions in Godard's hodgepodge of intertextuality, peripheral in his '60s masterworks but insufferably foregrounded here.

Such quibbles with Godard's work from this period — and watching the films certainly is work — are outweighed by the pleasure of finally being able to see them, and in such beautiful transfers with enhanced subtitles. Lions Gate even includes a supplement called Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma, featuring helpful Cliffs Notes from critics like David Sterritt and Kent Jones. Yes, audiences are out there for this stuff, even when it seems like Godard is only making these movies for himself. —John Thomason


Warts & All: The Films of Danny Plotnick

In a world of underground cinema defined by the polarity of auteurs vs. retards, it's great to be reminded that there are some filmmakers who manage to be both. San Francico's Danny Plotnick has been mining this middle ground for more than 20 years, applying a punk, DIY aesthetic and an askance sense of humor to his body of work. Well schooled in film formalities, and able to produce exceptional work on Super 8, as well as 16mm and DV, Plotnick has nonetheless made it his life's mission to create out-of-the-ordinary films rich with humor and bizarre perspective. This 100-minute collection of 20 of Plotnick's most notable works has everything from scene-ravaging female skateboarders (and their pet rodents) to dangerous little kids to, yes, sock puppets. The highlight, though, is Plotnick's 1999 tour de force, Swinger's Serenade, which finds him taking a script pulled from the pages of a '60s filmmaking magazine and turning it into an appropriately lurid black-and-white commentary on (barely) repressed sexuality. Throughout Serenade and the rest of the DVD, Plotnick never abandons his devotion to technical experimentation, and makes it abundantly clear that he's well-trained in the rules he's breaking. —Jason Ferguson


O Lucky Man!
Warner Home Video

It's quite a piece of work, this film, and not because of its nearly three-hour running time; the 1973, Lindsay Anderson-directed opus is purely a product of its era. Try fielding a pitch these days that involves a plot that's loose at best, following a hero (Malcolm McDowell) on an unexplained journey from coffee salesman to medical test subject to quasi-movie star as a comment on the evils and vagaries of ambition vs. British society. Actors play multiple roles, and musician Alan Price — late of the Animals — and his band periodically pop up (filmed live in the studio) to act as a kind of Greek chorus for the whole thing.

If all that sounds like a recipe for self-indulgent tedium, it ain't. McDowell, always a fascinating, smarmy actor, is at his best as Mick Travis, reprising the role from 1968's If..., another collaboration with Anderson. The film takes the viewer on a bizarre and utterly unpredictable ride; corny as it sounds, they really don't make 'em like this anymore.

Reissue extras include a separate disc featuring an engrossing doc, O Lucky Malcolm! on the star himself, as well as commentary from McDowell, Alan Price and screenwriter David Sherwin, who worked from an idea by McDowell. —Peter Gilstrap


Criterion Collection

Before there was A Clockwork Orange, there was If... . And back in '68 when the film came out it was, as the saying goes, kind of a big deal. The Lindsay Anderson-helmed take on a student uprising in an upper--crust British boarding academy won the Grand Prix at Cannes in '69 and marked Malcolm McDowell's screen debut.

He creates the role of Mick Travis — one he would reprise in Anderson's subsequent O Lucky Man! — a wily, cocky lad who leads his pals on a revolt against the institution and its hoary traditions.

While If... certainly echoes the turbulent times from which it sprang — the student riots in Paris took place in '68 — the violent climax could just as easily be a quasi-blueprint for what happened at Columbine. For that and many other reasons, including McDowell's commanding performance, the movie still holds up, a completely entertaining piece of surreal work.

Hardcore pop culture fans will notice the third act gun battle which was parodied in a 1970 Monty Python's Flying Circus skit, and McDowell's character's entrance in the film — in which he wears a black hat and black scarf covering half of his face — was copied by no less than Homer Simpson in the "Home Away from Homer" episode. Yes, If... is just that good. —Peter Gilstrap


12 Angry Men (50th Anniversary Edition)

The film 12 Angry Men holds such an inherent reverence for the (literally) life-changing possibilities of our justice system that it's an easy film to love in spite of an idealism that might, under a lesser director's lens, come across as romanticized and naively optimistic. But in then-TV director Sidney Lumet's feature debut, the naturalism of the performances forecasts the realism that would come to define New Hollywood cinema, with pacing so thrilling and camerawork so assured you tend to forget you're watching a one-room teleplay. This not only holds its mustard against the Grisham adaptations of today; it handily surpasses them. Special features include a nice making-of featurette called Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and, even better, Inside the Jury Room, which insightfully analyzes the judicial minutiae of 12 Angry Men in the context of modern-day court procedure, with contributions from Robert Shapiro, among others. —John Thomason