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Posts Tagged ‘Criterion Eclipse Series’

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

Blaise Pascal (1972)

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Yesterday I saw again Roberto Rossellini’s remarkable 1972 film Blaise Pascal, starring Pierre Arditi in the title role, and once again, I was stunned by the sheer beauty and depth of the film.

Rossellini was a master throughout his entire career, and his early films are some of the touchstones of 20th century cinema, but in these last, sumptuous historical spectacles, Rossellini seems to be aiming for something deeper, more mystical, more enduring and ultimately life-affirming. Pascal, born into a wealthy and influential family, nevertheless spent most of his life writing, thinking and experimenting, both in spiritual and scientific matters, and literally worked himself to death with his ceaseless quest for new frontiers on both a personal and professional level. Much the same might be said of Rossellini, who never deserted his vocation as a filmmaker, and whose work might roughly be cast into three periods; the initial Neorealist phase, then the middle section, with such masterpieces as Voyage in Italy, and then the final group of films for RAI, which are his most formal and theatrical works, and yet at the same time, reached the widest audience of his career because of their broadcast on television.

For years, these films were unavailable on DVD in any but the most degraded versions; then a few years ago, Criterion’s Eclipse series began issuing these, and other unjustly forgotten films, in minimalist editions which devote themselves entirely to the films in question, with simple liner notes, and no extras, but offering superb transfers of the films themselves, and faithful English subtitles. To celebrate the release of three of the late Rossellini films, Criterion commissioned Tag Gallagher to write an essay on “Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment” — you can read it by clicking here.

I remember when I first saw Blaise Pascal at the now-defunct Gallery of Modern Art in New York, where the film ran for only a few days; I immediately phoned up everyone I knew and urged them to see it immediately. For a time after that, 16mm prints were available, but then the film seemed to drift into oblivion. Now it’s back, and you can see it for yourself; a transcendent masterpiece that rewrites the grammar of the cinema with a series of exquisite, lengthy tracking shots, meticulous attention to detail, and gorgeous color cinematography. As Tag Gallagher notes, “Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it.”

These films are essential viewing; track them down and see them now.

Above: Roberto Rossellini on the set on Blaise Pascal, Rome, 1971, with his first wife, Marcella De Marchis, far right, and Isabella Rossellini, who worked on the film as a production assistant, Rossellini’s daughter by his second wife, Ingrid Bergman.

Click here to read an excellent piece by Manohla Dargis on Rossellini’s work.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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