Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – Best of July 2014

Welcome to a new monthly feature at No Ripcord, where we take a look at the best releases each month in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD. In particular, we'll be turning our focus away from the new releases we cover in our Film Reviews section, and instead focusing on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month sees the release of one of the most offbeat comedies to ever come out of Hollywood, a classic British melodrama, and a rediscovered gem from Slovakia.

Harold & Maude (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)
It’s clear from the very first minute that Harold & Maude will be a film that defies easy categorisation. Though technically a romantic comedy, the film breaks away from genre expectations by opening with what appears to be a lovingly shot suicide to the gentle music of Cat Stevens. Harold & Maude is a Hollywood comedy, but one that also embraces jet black humour, counter culture values and Buddhist ideas of impermanence. This morbid humour and eccentricity saw the film panned by many of the most respected critics of the day, and the film didn’t even begin to make a profit until ten years after its release. Harold & Maude eventually became one of those outsider classics that repeated generations seem to stumble upon again and again, leading to its status today as one of the most definitive and beloved of cult films. Watching it again today, it still stands out as a film brimming with charm, wit and eccentricity.

On its simplest level, the film is about a romance between a death obsessed young man and a life obsessed elderly woman. Harold (Bud Cort) is an emotionally lifeless heir with an overwhelming fascination with death. He drives a hearse, sneaks into stranger’s funerals and spends his days planning elaborate fake suicide attempts to disturb his egocentric mother (Vivian Pickles). It’s at one of these funerals that he first meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited and joyful 79-year old woman. Maude’s carefree attitude encourages Harold to embrace life, and the two embark on a week of spontaneity, dancing and car theft. So far we’re drifting worryingly into the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ territory of so many indie rom-coms of the last decade, but what saves Harold & Maude is the sincerity and warmth with which it depicts both its two main characters and their blossoming relationship. It’s also a credit to the strength of the script and the two central performances that there’s never any question about whether or not we believe the authenticity of this relationship, despite the 60 year age gap between the characters. While occasional hints at the darkness in Maude’s past help give the film some needed emotional weight, this never overwhelms the essentially optimistic spirit of the story. For all its critic baiting scenes of death, Harold & Maude is an uplifting film; a sweet, big-hearted romance about two outcasts finding each other.

What really shines through on repeat viewings though is director Hal Ashby’s meticulous attention to detail, and the resulting visual jokes throughout the film. The influence of this, along with the film’s quirky deadpan humour, soundtrack and symmetrical compositions, can be really seen today in the work of Wes Anderson. Both share an ability to invest the exaggerated caricatures that populate their films with a surprising amount of depth and affection. Harold & Maude has had a strange journey from misunderstood box office failure to acceptance into the carefully cultivated Masters of Cinema catalogue (as well as the equally picky Criterion collection two years ago), and it’s great to see the film finally receiving the respectful treatment this release shows.

Black Narcissus (Blu-Ray, Network)
It's hard to think of anything in all of British cinema that can rival the 1940's films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The decade saw the pair working at the very height of their powers, producing a run of remarkable films characterised by their artistic innovation and fearless risk taking. Even among such an idiosyncratic body of work though, Black Narcissus stands out as something out of the ordinary.

The film follows a group of nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), as they leave behind everything they know and attempt to establish a school in the unwelcoming mountains of the Himalayas. Their new home of St Faith stands precariously on a dizzyingly tall cliff top, buffeted constantly by the howling winds that can be heard in almost every frame of the film. Even nature seems somehow unhappy with the nun's presence there. The characters too are buffeted by a force they cannot tame or control – their own emotions. As one character remarks in the film: “There's something in the air here, it makes everything exaggerated”. Black Narcissus is a melodrama of such magnified emotional volatility it feels almost explosive. Barely repressed sexuality and fear lurk behind all of the film's performances, but none more so than Kathleen Byron's intense performance as the unstable Sister Ruth. Byron steals every scene she appears in, and her transformation in the film's horror-tinged final act somehow manages to come as a surprise even on repeat viewings.

Black Narcissus' strongest feature however is its visuals, which confidently places it among the most beautiful Technicolor films ever made. The film's searing colours and imaginative lighting are as important for telling the story as any line of dialogue, and rightly earned the film an Oscar in 1948. It's visual spectacles like Black Narcissus where Blu-Ray re-releases really shines, and thankfully this Network release doesn't disappoint. Much of the film's startling visuals can be attributed to the technical mastery and creativity of cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It's a nice touch then that Cardiff is rightly celebrated on this disc's two documentaries, with the impressively cinematic 'Painting with Light' film being especially worth a look. The film's influence on director Martin Scorsese is also acknowledged in this disc's commentary, which features Scorsese discussing the film alongside contributions from director Michael Powell. Black Narcissus is a masterful and unusual melodrama that still crackles with emotional intensity and visual invention

Birds, Orphans and Fools (DVD, Second Run)
It’s going to be the intention of this column to also shine light on some of the obscurities and oddities being released each month that could easily slip past unnoticed. One such obscurity is Birds, Orphans and Fools, a Slovakian film originally labelled by the Communist authorities as 'decadent and harmful art', and subsequently banned for 20 years. Now the film has been re-released by Second Run as part of their efforts to shine light on the often overlooked cinema of Slovakia.

The film focuses on a love triangle that develops between three bohemian orphans, who live a chaotic existence together in a decrepit building infested with tiny birds. As you'd expect, such a love triangle soon leads to rising tensions and jealousy, and threatens to shatter the bizarre paradise they've built together. The trio decide to reject the cruel realities of the world by becoming fools instead, and now exist in a secluded and absurd world of their own creation. Birds, Orphans and Fools is a film that cares less about plot though and more about immersing its viewers in the irrational universe the characters inhabit. Throughout the film we're thrown into kaleidoscopic sequences depicting games and play that give the film an irrepressible feeling of energy. There's a spirit of exuberant spontaneity about much of the film, and a sense that it must have been a lot of fun to make. In its strongest moments the film captures the anarchic playfulness of Věra Chytilová's Daisies, though admittedly without the sheer inventiveness that makes Daisies so enjoyable to watch.

In terms of extras, the film comes with a booklet written by Peter Hames, the greatest authority on Czech and Slovak cinema working in the English language. This booklet patiently explains not only the film's background but also the many meanings that lie behind its surrealist imagery. This is a great help, because Birds, Orphans and Fools is a complex, multi-layered film, filled with hidden depths that would largely go unnoticed by anybody not immersed in Slovakian history and culture (myself very much included). It'd have been a great shame to see a film as curious and radical as this fade away into history, so it’s a pleasure to see it given another chance to be seen. Any recommendation should probably come with a warning though; this is a bizarre, challenging work that will appeal more to aficionados of world cinema than more casual viewers. Birds, Orphans and Fools is a crumbling carnival of a film – gleeful, delirious and slightly unsettling.