Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sins of Omission

Having come of age as a filmgoer long before the appearance of home video, I can appreciate the argument that films belong on a big screen in a movie theater. I was lucky enough to have seen nearly all of the great films of world cinema before I saw the point of getting my first VCR. And some of my most precious filmgoing memories are suspended in that wistful feeling I was left with upon leaving a theater.

But for many reasons, not least of which are the prohibitive price of a movie ticket and the dearth of viewing choices in the hick towns I have lived in over the years,(1) I now find this argument to be snobbish and a little silly. Without home video, to use just one example, I would not have had a chance to see La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928),(2) which is one of the half-dozen or so greatest films ever made. And even if I had had a chance to see it in a theater prior to its restoration in the 1980s, I would have been subjected to one of the many extant bastardized versions. With home video, we are no longer subject to the tyrannous problem that Francois Truffaut posed so poetically in his films La Nuit Americaine (1973): that a film is like a train passing in the night - if one were not there to see it pass by, there is no proof it ever happened. In thirty-five years of filmgoing I have missed too many trains to count. Home video is like owning the train.

Now that the DVD is being phased out and being replaced by the Blu Ray Disc, (3) production companies owning the rights to films will have to redouble their efforts to make many of the hard-to-find titles available to the collector. But it will more likely have the opposite effect and convince them to drop many titles that did not sell on DVD, which would inevitably include most serious films.

But there remains a number of films that either never made it to DVD or quickly fell out of circulation.(4) The reasons were probably legal ones, like copyright ownership. Some of the titles might surprise cinephiles, since they are recognized classics. But many other missing titles are not so surprising, having been overlooked when they were released or forgotten ever since.

The first list would include recognized classics like Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950) and Nazarin (1958), Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942), Bolognini's Il Bel'Antonio (1960), De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951) and Gold of Naples (1954), Ichikawa's Conflagration (1958), Tavernier's The Judge and the Murderer (1973), Jan Troell's half-forgotten masterpiece The Emigrants (1973), Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1952), Carlos Saura's masterpiece The Garden of Delights (1970), Alain Jessua's Life Upside Down (1964), Yanagimachi's Himatsuri (1985), Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele (1962).

But an alternate list, of lesser-known but tantalizing titles, would include: Bresson's Une Femme Douce (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Gianni Amelio's brilliant Open Doors (1990) and Stolen Children (1992), a number of middle-period Bergman films, such as Waiting Women (1952), A Lesson in Love (1954), and Dreams (1955), Troell's Here is Your Life (1966) and Flight of the Eagle (1982) (5), Monicelli's The Organizer (1963), David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952), Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange (1936), Goretta's The Wonderful Crook (974), Jean-Jacques Annaud's Coup de Tete (1979), Olmi's One Fine Day (1969), any number of films by the Japanese masters Susumu Hani (Inferno of First Love - 1968), Mikio Naruse (Repast -1951), Shiro Toyoda (Wild Geese - 1953), Imamura (The Insect Woman - 1966) or Kon Ichikawa (Bonchi - 1960), Emilio Fernandez (Maria Candelaria - 1944), Juan Antonio Bardem (Calle Mayor - 1956), or Claude Autant-Lara (Le Ble en Herbe - 1954).

If I were to add to this the innumerable East European films of the 1950s and '60s and I could go on indefinitely. I fully intend, however, to add further titles as they occur to me. Stay tuned.

(1) Including Denver, which must be the biggest hick town west of the Pecos.

(2) On the brilliant Criterion DVD, of course.

(3) Which will itself be replaced by some other new technology, which is probably already in the works.

(4) Of course, I am referring to DVDs available in the U.S.

(5) Troell has been either completely mishandled or ignored - I don't which is worse - by U.S. distributors.

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