Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – August 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. There’s a ‘new wave’ theme to our Blu-Ray releases for August, as we take a look at boundary-pushing films from across three continents.

The ‘new waves’ that swept across cinema in the 1960s saw the young, the radical, and the artistically restless tear up the filmmaking rulebook in search of something new and more contemporary. Most interestingly, each new wave evolved into something different depending on the cultural contours of the country it originated from, as if it were reflecting the idea through a different mirror. We’ll be seeing this in our Blu-Ray reviews for August, which include Vivre sa vie from France, Medium Cool from the United States, and Cruel Story of Youth from Japan

Vivre sa vie (Blu-Ray & DVD, BFI)

In terms of innovation, intellectual restlessness, and just sheer quantity of ideas, the 1960s cinema of Jean-Luc Godard towers above nearly everything that came before or since. In particular, his remarkable run of films between his debut feature in 1960 and his switch to more militantly political filmmaking in 1968 is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in film history. Vivre sa vie is among the most accessible of these films, and perhaps stands out as a stronger introduction to Godard’s work than even the more traditional A bout de souffle, the style of which Godard swiftly developed away from. The film follows the increasingly bleak existence of Nana (Anna Karina), a young woman who falls into a life of prostitution on the streets of Paris. As with all Godard films though, the story itself is only the beginning of what makes the film so intriguing.

Godard tested the boundaries of cinema not only across his films, but often numerous times within the same film. You can see this at work throughout Vivre sa vie as Godard experiments with the very foundations of his film. At times this defies our expectations of storytelling, such as the sudden disappearance of sound from the film’s soundtrack, or the film’s opening, which films an emotionally fraught conversation from behind as if not wanting to get too close to something so private. It feels like Godard is forever asking himself the question ‘how do I film a scene’, and constantly finding new answers. It’s a restless approach to filmmaking, and one filled with intriguing surprises for the viewer. For this reason Vivre sa vie is also a film exceptionally well suited to home video, as deciphering the meaning and influences behind Godard’s stylistic touches actively encourages repeat viewings. What’s all the more impressive though is despite the potentially alienating techniques on display, Vivre sa vie’s story is one that still manages to feel authentic and tender. Much of the film’s feel of emotional authenticity stems from the presence of Anna Karina. Like the finest Hollywood stars of old, Anna Karina at her peak had more than just acting ability, she had a magnetic presence on screen, which was easy to spot but difficult to define. This is evident throughout Vivre sa vie, and forms much of what makes the film’s study of the increasingly lost Nana so captivating. We can probably see it most clearly in the scene where Nana begins a joyous, yet somewhat awkward, dance around a pool table. Here in this brief moment she is transformed into a child once again, carefree despite the sadness that bookends the scene. We know such moments cannot possibly last for Nana, which only adds to Vivre sa vie’s emotional punch.

If Vivre sa vie often feels like a love letter to Anna Karina, that’s because to a large extent it is. Godard and Karina were married at the time, but unfortunately their volatile relationship suffered from infidelity and even attempted suicide. Godard was clearly still besotted with Karina here though, and the camera studies the microexpressions of her performance like a painter enthralled by his muse. Though Godard doesn’t himself star in Vivre sa vie besides an uncredited voiceover, his authorial presence is everywhere in the film, and as such watching Vivre sa vie can feel like you’re watching one of the great cinema couples perform together on screen. This lends the film an additional layer of complexity. When Nana breaks up with her lover Paul in the film’s opening scene, she warns him using the dialogue Godard wrote: ‘if we get back together, I’ll betray you again’. Are we truly watching Nana and Paul talk here, or are we watching Godard and Karina?

Vivre sa vie is undeniably one of the great New Wave films, and as such, its one deserving of care and attention for its first UK Blu-Ray. Thankfully, as with so many of their releases, the BFI have clearly taken plenty of consideration over this disc. The film comes packaged with an alternative cut, insightful essays and audio commentary, as well as a rare archival interview with Anna Karina herself. Perhaps the most welcome feature though is the presence of three of Godard’s early short films. Une historie d’eau and Charlotte et Veronique in particular are youthful and lively shorts, packed with vitality, whereas Charlotte et son Jules in many ways feels like a preview of Godard’s famous feature debut. All three offer a fascinating opportunity to see the French new wave in its infancy, with so much of what was about to transform cinema already evident on screen. Vivre sa vie is a multi-faceted work packed with imagination, and this Blu-Ray package offers one of the finest ways in which you could see it.

Medium Cool (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

“History is written by the people who own the pens, the typewriters, the printing presses, the movie cameras, and TV cameras. In 1968, American history was being written by people who were ignoring history”. These are the words of Medium Cool’s director Haskell Wexler, perhaps best known for being one of the leading lights of American cinematography. Like many at the time, Wexler felt that although America’s culture was rocketing through monumental change, its cinema was lagging embarrassingly behind. While it’s debatable whether America truly ever had a new wave of its own, the ‘New Hollywood’ era bore many of the same characteristics. Here American filmmakers drew on what was happening with the radical filmmakers of Europe and attempted to create a more personal cinema that actually spoke about the society they saw around them. Medium Cool can be seen as one of the early forerunners of this new era, and a film that clearly shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard in particular. Viewed today, it’s a fascinating and difficult to define film that captures the violence of its era like almost no other.

Medium Cool’s deliberately minimal plot concerns John (Robert Forster), a television news cameraman driven by ego and selfish desires. We first encounter him collecting footage of a brutal car crash on the side of a highway. It’s only when he’s convinced that he’s recorded an adequate number of shots of the crash victim that he decides to call an ambulance to assist them. His co-workers in the media are similarly cynical, arguing that even in this era of political turmoil the public only care for violence and distraction, not depth or complexity. Medium Cool doesn’t miss the opportunity to slyly question cinema’s guilt in this regard too. When a young political firebrand is interviewed in the street and begins to sound like he’s about to actually say something with some substance behind it, the film cleverly fades down his words and drifts upwards instead to show two young boys riding the subway. As with the evening news, it often pays more to cut away to another story than it does to linger on nuanced politics. Such cutaways lead us to encounter Eileen (Verna Bloom), a young and extremely poor single mother, struggling to keep tabs on her tearaway son Harold, and the pair begin to play an increasingly important role in the life of our main protagonist John.

While the film’s plot isn’t among its strengths, it works effectively as a vehicle to take us on a tour of an America tearing at the seams. We visit army training camps, where soldiers drill in preparation for clashes with peace activists, and poor ghettos where racial anger feels like it’s always teetering on the edge of something explosive. The storytelling is energised and breathless, rapidly moving between people and places, and building a portrait of an America besieged by complex problems. It’s as though Wexler and his team were so frustrated with how little Hollywood was reflecting what was really happening on the streets that they decided to try and show it all at once. Indeed, it’s tricky to think of many films that capture their time and place as vividly as Medium Cool does.

Appropriately enough for a film so concerned with documenting its era, Medium Cool is also a film with a wonderfully playful disregard for the boundaries between fiction and documentary filmmaking. Most notably, Medium Cool’s fictional characters can often be seen mingling with real world people and settings. It’s as if the fictitious protagonists of Hollywood fantasy have accidentally stumbled out of the sound stage, and now find themselves drifting confused through a documentary. This is most prevalent through the film’s climatic riot scene, where our main characters accidentally head into the centre of a real life violent police crackdown against the largely peaceful protestors. That it’s possible to find such extraordinary non-fiction images at the heart of a (mostly) fiction film, is largely due to Haskell Wexler’s background as a documentary filmmaker. As many new wave filmmakers were doing throughout the decade, Wexler rejected the sluggish pace of traditional filming methods, and instead set off into real locations with a tiny documentary style-crew. Given Wexler’s impressive work as a cinematographer (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s NestWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Days of Heaven to name a few), it’s no surprise too that this is also a fantastic looking film, especially on Blu-Ray.

Given Medium Cool’s fascinating political subject matter and formally inventive qualities, it’s particularly good to see such a strong range of behind the scenes features on offer here to explore it further. In particular the excellent documentary feature ‘Look Out Haskell, Its Real!’ offers plenty of insight into not only the filmmaking process itself, but also the cultural climate behind the film. This is joined by an audio commentary featuring the director, an exploration of the technology behind the film, and a surprising opportunity to find out what happened to one of the film’s youngest actors.

Cruel Story of Youth (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

Cruel Story of Youth’s director Nagisa Oshima has occasionally been referred to as ‘the Japanese Godard’. Though the two were different in many ways, both shared an uncompromising attitude towards their films, resulting in politically driven work that was often among the more experimental of their respective new waves. Oshima was once famously quoted as saying ‘my hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it’, and believed passionately in the need for Japanese filmmakers to break from the past and create a risky and more politically engaged cinema. However, this same uncompromising vision can often make his work an intimidating prospect to explore. Thankfully Cruel Story of Youth presents one of the more accessible ways to get into Oshima’s films, while still including many of the themes he would go onto explore in his more experimental work.

Despite being highly politically aware himself, Oshima’s films tended to focus on characters who were disengaged with politics, and instead motivated by sexual or criminal desires. We see this clearly in Cruel Story of Youth’s main characters Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and Kiyoshi (Yasuke Kawazu), two young delinquents driven by their selfishness. Political change is occurring all around them, but the pair seem largely oblivious, instead drawing ever deeper into their destructive romance and money making schemes. This is contrasted with the older generation of Makoto’s sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga), clearly still in mourning after the hopeful naiveté of their youth only resulted in disappointment. As Makoto’s former lover remarks sadly: ‘we pounded and the walls kept standing’. The portrait Oshima paints is one of a Japan in need of social change, but lacking the passion or interest to actually bring it about.

Cruel Story of Youth could be seen in many ways as an example of the ‘teen delinquency’ film, focusing as it does on rebellious youth disengaged from their society. However, Oshima refrains from either moralising or glamorising the actions of his characters, instead recording everything with a cool detachment. As Makoto and Kiyoshi plunge further into their deeply unhealthy relationship the two begin spending their evenings using Makoto as live bait to lure in lecherous middle aged men, who they subsequently blackmail. There’s little opportunity present for either of them to learn moral values in the Japan Oshima creates though, populated as it is by an older generation who range from the ineffectual to the predatory. Cruel Story of Youth’s characters aren’t so much monstrous as they are unthinking; products of a cynical and disengaged culture.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film that focuses so heavily on the ugly aspects of society, Cruel Story of Youth is also a very beautifully shot film, which looks particularly strong in this 4k restoration. Textures are richer, and the film’s often vibrant colour have been saved here from the washed out fate suffered by so many older films. I’ve seen various Oshima films over the years, but never looking anywhere near as good as this. As with many of Eureka’s Japanese cinema releases, the film is joined by a lengthy analysis from the authoritative film critic Tony Rayns. The depth Rayns goes into on both the film and Oshima here is pretty exceptional for a special feature, and it makes for a very worthy addition to the disc.