Saturday, October 19, 2019

Miscellaneous Musings

October 19, 2019

On Six That I Hope Are Not Forgotten

Roger Ebert once wrote that he had forgotten the plot of most of the films he had reviewed over his storied career. I know the feeling. Sometimes I don’t recognize the name of a film I’ve reviewed and have to read a little of my own assessment to jog my memory. So, I think it is significant when we remember a movie years after we sat down to watch it. Sure, we may remember a film because of the circumstances under which we viewed it. Personally, I would like to forget the movie Disclosure, but it was the first movie I saw with a young lady I had a ten-year relationship with, and as such, it is indelibly etched in my memory, even that particularly repulsive moment when Michael Douglas’s character has a nightmare that his boss, played by Donald Sutherland, tries to kiss him. And there are movies that I remember because of the sheer amount of disdain I have for them. (Please, don’t get me started on Titanic or Gladiator.)

However, I’d like to think that the majority of the movies that I can vividly recall are ones that rise above the others in either quality or influence. They struck a cord with me. Many of these I’ve written about before, but with technology changing and physical media in its final years, I fear that many films will simply disappear, once again relegated to the dust bins of history because studios deem them unworthy of being added to their streaming service. The rights to many of these will lapse – if they haven’t already - and who can say for sure what happens after that. So without further ado, here are six films I hope are not forgotten and a short description of their current state.

The Day the Sun Turned Cold – China, 1994

Back in 1994, this obscure film hit a few independent movie theaters, and if you blinked, you missed it, which sadly, I did. Fortunately, it was released on home video, and I could finally watch this interesting tale of a young boy who suspects his mother of murdering his father. The film follows two tracks. First, like The Story of Qiu Ju, it is a legal drama, so there are references to an investigation and several updates by investigators. More interestingly, the film explores the relationship between mother and son as this process unfolds. The son wants to be proven wrong, yet his actions risk setting in motion a series of life-altering events. The film is said to be based on a real incident.

I remember being mesmerized by the film, and it soon became one I intended to add to my collection. There was only one problem. It was priced for rental, which meant it carried a $99 price tag, and it never went down in price. Such was the fate of many films by smaller companies in those days. Alas, despite its distributor, Kino, entering the DVD and Blu-ray markets in subsequent years, this film has never been released in any format other than VHS and VCD, a victim possibly of the film’s relative obscurity or an expired copyright. It is currently out of print. It’s really anyone’s guess when or if we’ll ever see it again in a physical form.

Currently, the VHS sells used for $20 and new for $85. 

The Lizard – Iran, 2004

The makers of The Lizard thought they were in the clear and were being rewarded for a job remarkably well done. They’d made a movie that had been approved by government censors and was playing to packed houses in its home country. There was only one problem: The audience was laughing in the wrong places – at least, according to the clerics. For example, in one scene, the film’s hero, an escaped convict masquerading as a mullah, attempts to hitchhike, only to have water splashed in his face by a series of passing cars. Audiences howled; the government was shocked. In the midst of a successful run, the film was quietly pulled from Iranian cinemas. In Los Angeles, the lone theater showing the film found itself under immense pressure to cease its run. Interestingly, much of this pressure came from the film’s director, who insinuated that he’d made a mistake in making it and wanted it removed from public view. He got his wish.

The film is currently available from and at least one streaming service, although I can’t vouch for its legality or quality, and the film’s Amazon page lists it as “currently unavailable.” There’s even a review that claims that the DVD was made from a print smuggled out of Iran, and this doesn’t surprise me. I got my copy from a seller whose stock consisted almost entirely of pirated DVDs. So be it. The film is a masterpiece.

Red Sorghum – China, 1987

Red Sorghum was a game changer. Perhaps not since the silent era and the films of Ruan Lingyu had audiences of Chinese cinema seen a character like Jiu’er, a woman who embraced both independence and sexuality and was the driving force for justice after an incident of truly inhumane brutality. Add to that the film’s beauty and impressive cinematography, and you’ve got a remarkable achievement. The film made Gong Li and Zhang Yimou worldwide celebrities and a power couple, and it was the start of a remarkable partnership, the first of five remarkable films that challenged long-standing gender roles and broke taboos left and right. It also brought Chinese films into the limelight in a way that no film before it had, and it paved the way for other films from the Fifth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers.

However, of all of the films that Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have made together, Red Sorghum has been the hardest to find, and like The Day The Sun Turned Cold, the reason for that has a lot to do with the company that handled its initial release on VHS, New Yorker Films. New Yorker Films was a small company, and as such, its films were priced for rental and rarely went down in price. I bought my copy for $79.99. Eventually, the company began releasing films on DVD, and although their releases were sporadic and often delayed, a lot of truly great films were available for purchase as a result. Red Sorghum was not one of these, and for quite a significant part of the DVD era, the film was awfully difficult to find. Currently, the film is available in the UK (on PAL), but reviews have not been kind, with many faulting the quality of the print and the subtitles. There does not appear to be a US release. It’s a shame, really.

The Quiet Duel – Japan, 1949

The Quiet Duel is one of Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and it is the only one of his not released by the Criterion Collection (Madadayo is out of print, but rumors are that a release is in the works.). While it is sometimes labeled as “lesser Kurosawa,” I was immensely impressed by the film. It tells the story of an army doctor (played by Toshiro Mifune) who is exposed to syphilis during a life-saving operation. (He has a habit of grabbing knives with his bare hands.) The Second World War complicates his efforts to be treated, and when he returns home, the disease is pretty firmly entrenched in his system. Adding to his plight is the fact that he’s engaged, and this creates a dilemma in him: whether give in to his urges or do the right thing and continue to deny himself love and pleasure. I found the film incredibly moving.

Like so many other films, The Quiet Duel appears to be out of print, and currently sells on Amazon for $80 new and about $35 used.

The Ice Storm – U.S., 1997

My father once described the adults highlighted in Lee Ang’s masterpiece The Ice Storm as being lost in the middle of two impactful generations. Too young to have taken part in World War II and too old to play an active part in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, they were in search of something to give them either the prestige and honors associated with the Greatest Generation or the personal freedoms suddenly available as a result of medical breakthroughs, the Civil Rights Movement, and countercultural movements.

In The Ice Storm, we see two of these families trying hard to combat the monotony they associate with suburban life and perhaps coping with a mid-life crisis or two. One engages in petty theft, another has an affair, and then there’s the party they attend toward the end the film. And they do all of this while their children are going through their own trying times. There’s puberty, their first crush, lust that confuses them, and an immaturity that prevents them from protecting themselves from harm. It’s a situation that can only end disastrously.

The Ice Storm is still available, yet my concern is that time will take it out of people’s consciousness. These days, Lee Ang is making films that often emphasize the latest technology over the narrative, and it’s possible that a generation will only know him for cinematic spectacles like Life of Pi and Gemini Man. I hope people get to know his heart, and that, I believe, can be found in his earlier work, in particular, The Ice Storm.  

Grand Canyon – U.S., 1991  

Like The Ice Storm, Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon is not in danger of disappearing from physical media any time soon. It’s simply not a film that’s talked about much anymore. Perhaps it feels dated to some, offering a simplistic or stereotypical look at race relationships, or maybe some people are turned off by its multiple narratives. I think the film has actually become more relevant over time. Its storyline involving Kevin Kline’s affair with his much younger employee is relevant in this time of Me Too and Time’s Up, and I suspect newer viewers will see it differently than older ones. The friendship that develops between Kline and Danny Glover is much more than just the African-American character “saving” the Caucasian one, and its ending is a reminder to take advantage of the time we’re given, especially the time we have with our kids. After all, we live in a time when children have much less time to be “kids,” and as Glover’s character reminds us, there’s only so much time before children feel too old to go on vacation with their parents. And then there’s the film’s final line, a note of optimism that has stuck with me and that resonates even more in these trying times: I think it’s not all bad.

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