Very few films deserve the almost obligatory “making-of” featurette that’s become standard bonus filler on DVD packages, but Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is the rare film that demands one.
Shot on high definition digital video, with one handheld camera, the film is a single, long take, an hour and a half long, that wanders through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum - once the Winter Palace of the Czars - leapfrogging back and forth through the building’s history.
A film this ambitious needs a fantastic premise, and Sokurov presents one by having our tour led by the ghost of a French diplomat who, unlike the incorporeal camera, finds himself moved to argue and dance with whomever he meets on the way.
It’s a trippy concept, but an inspired one, since a building as rich in history as the Hermitage essentially a haunted house, and the camera eavesdrops on balls and court rituals, as well as private moments in the lives of tyrants like the two “Greats” who built the palace and collected the art that adorns its walls - Peter and Catherine.
Sokurov’s film is heavy with a strange nostalgia for the Czarist era, a time when Russia - or at least the glittering pinnacle of the court - was a European place; his implication is that, with the Revolution and Russia’s political isolation, the country reverted to being an Asian state.
Also includes a short, very watchable, German-made documentary on the eccentric lifelong employees of the Hermitage.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
The Monty Python troupe didn’t immediately set out to make their most obnoxious, offensive film with 1983’s The Meaning of Life, but as they admit in the “making-of” feature included on the bonus-packed second disc, the project ended up being their “punk” film.
No one who’s seen the film will forget the scabrous shots at religion, private schools, military life, the British Empire, or existential philosophy, but almost everyone will recall, before anything else, the gleeful gross-out of the “Mr. Creosote” scene, and the line “But Monsieur, it’s only waf-fer thin!”
One mystery that gets answered is why Terry Gilliam’s inspired sequence - “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”, his dry run for Time Bandits - ended up as a “short feature” preceding the film. Gilliam, allowed a bit of autonomy, went mad, and quite over-budget, producing something that, while brilliant, had no place in the rest of the film - an omen for his directing career to follow.
As an idealistic young man, director Steve James volunteered to be a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding, a troubled little boy from rural Illinois who would be through every foster institution in the southern half of the state before he was able to vote.
Guilt motivated James to re-connect with Stevie years after losing touch, and James is candid enough to show how that same guilt made him lose touch for another two years, before a chance phone call brought him the news that Stevie was in jail, accused of sexually harassing an eight-year old cousin. Guilt again - mixed with other motivations, some noble, some not - prompted James to make a film about Stevie and his family during the long journey to his sentencing.
Stevie Fielding, it becomes obvious, never had a chance. Abandonment and abuse bred a defensive callousness in the boy, a distance from his own life that prevents him from showing remorse for his crimes.
James, it become obvious, was just one of a series of people who might have made a difference, but who left Stevie behind to the indifferent care of institutions, from foster homes and mental health centres as a boy, to the penitentiaries that will, no doubt, claim him as an adult. The director puts himself in a strange position, nowhere stranger than the brittle, stunning moment when he finds himself asking a terrifying ex-con and Aryan Brotherhood leader to protect Stevie in prison. A sad, sobering film.
The Hong Kong action feature - a sloppy but wild art form before it was exported - has devolved to a sorry state with films like Bulletproof Monk. Never known for taut plotlines or believable dialogue, these weaknesses have been bloated under the deliberate production machinery of Hollywood.
The sorriest sight in Bulletproof Monk is watching Seann William “Stifler” Scott waste an obvious talent for oafish comedy mouthing some of the limpest dialogue ever written to fill the gaps between wire-fights and special effects. Includes the usual menu of “making-of” shorts, commentary and deleted scenes.
Indiscretion of an American Wife/Terminal Station
Vittorio De Sica’s first major film with American stars - Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift - was a flop, both as Terminal Station, the De Sica-edited European release, and as the more luridly-titled Indiscretion of an American Wife, drastically cut for American release by David O. Selznick, its producer, and Jones’ husband.
The story is simple: an American housewife and her Italian lover spend an hour and a half wandering through Rome’s train station, trying to steal some time together as she decides whether to stay or return to her husband. De Sica’s version isn’t a bad film, and you end up feeling both sympathy and irritation for the couple as they drift through the crowds and characters who fill the station.
Selznick’s cut, however, is a jittery, prurient mess, so clumsily re-tooled to stress Jones’ disgrace, and its melodramatic potential, that it utterly loses any sense of chemistry between the two leads. Packaged side-by-side on this Criterion release, they’re a great lesson in the narrative art of editing, and how a few seconds here and there, an excised line or two, and an arrogant producer in the wrong place, can make or break any film.
The Outer Limits: The Original Series Volume 2
This early-60s sci-fi TV series is best remembered as the ungainly cousin to Rod Serling’s far more skilful Twilight Zone, but both series are amazing artifacts of the anxious mindset of American liberals at the height of the Cold War.
War, the bomb, the government, and the frightening potential of science are the themes of The Outer Limits, and nearly every one of the seventeen episodes collected in this austere box set features some dark-suited military-industrial complex denizen, or a future Star Trek cast member. Of note are two episodes - “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” - which uncannily anticipate the Terminator films.