12 December 2010

From the Streaming


I've been a subscriber of Netflix for quite a few years, and because I've mostly lived in the rural part of a small state where all the cinemas get the same 8-10 major studio movies and the (now rare) video stores don't have particularly rich selections, Netflix has really been an extraordinary addition to my life. This summer, I bought a very cheap, very entry-level Blu-Ray player that allows Netflix's streaming video, and have been enjoying discovering what's available there, because it includes many titles not available on DVD. Through the last few months, the selection has grown significantly, and with the company's recent announcement that they plan to focus their efforts on streaming, it's fun to see all the new things popping up. I'm not convinced Netflix can continue to keep their prices relatively low for unlimited streaming forever, so we might as well enjoy it while it lasts...

Dennis Cozalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (one of the really essential film blogs) recently wrote a post on "10 Buried Treasures from My Netflix Instant Play Queue", and I thought I'd do something similar here.

Thus, below are two lists -- films I've seen and recommend, and films sitting on my queue waiting for viewing. These aren't even remotely complete (there are currently 231 titles in my Instant Queue! I hate making choices...), but are instead lists of some things that particularly grab my attention at this moment.


Films Seen
Big Time -- A movie I've watched many times on an old and very faded videotape, Big Time has not, to my knowledge, ever been released on DVD.  It's a concert movie of Tom Waits from his Frank's Wild Years tour, but with additional surreal film footage amidst the songs and linking them together. If you like Waits's music from the '80s, this is an exciting and essential film. If you don't like that era of his music, watching the movie may feel like someone trying to chew their way out of the inside of your skull.

Black Girl -- Ousmene Sembene's first film, and one of the most interesting and complex cinematic explorations of colonialism that I know. I've seen it probably a dozen times (I show it for lots of classes), and it has never lost its power.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss -- The first bit of writing about film I ever did was a paper for a high school history class in which I wrote about Nazi propaganda movies. My father's interest in WWII meant we had a bunch of videotapes and actual prints of some of those films, including Veit Harlan's Jud Süss. I was particularly interested in Harlan, who was among Goebbels's favorite directors. A lot of that came back to me as I watched this documentary, which looks not only at Harlan's life and career, but at the effect of his work and reputation on his family -- including his niece, Christiane Harlan, who married Stanley Kubrick. The story of Harlan himself is fascinating, but the value of the documentary is the way it shows how much his family was scarred by his ambition being so well used by the Nazis -- it reminded me at times of both Mephisto and Mother Night. I just wish there had been more information about his post-war film Different from You and Me, which apparently attempted to portray homosexuals as people worthy of sympathy.

The Keep -- What Dune was for David Lynch, The Keep seems to have been for Michael Mann (and Jürgen Prochnow was in both films...) Michael Mann is in my pantheon of greatest living directors, so finally getting to see this film was exciting for me. I went in with incredibly low expectations, having heard the movie is awful in every conceivable way, and so was surprised to discover it's not quite that bad. Yes, it's unfortunate Mann's full version has never been seen, but I expect even at its full length it's probably not a great example of his work, which may be why he's stayed silent about it (especially given how many different versions of some of his better films, such as Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and Miami Vice have been released). If you care about Mann as a director, The Keep is worth seeing. (Also, the Tangerine Dream soundtrack is pretty good, for Tangerine Dream.) If you don't care about Mann, then there are plenty of other incoherent sci-fi movies with middling-to-bad effects out there that you could watch instead.

Marat/Sade -- Peter Brook's ideas about theatre were a profound influence on me at a pretty early age, and this, his film of one of his most famous stage productions, was a movie I saw many times on an old videotape I bought for $1 from a store sometime in the mid-'90s. I love two of his other films also available via Instant Play, Lord of the Flies and King Lear, too, but it is Marat/Sade that is forever imprinted on certain pleasure centers in my brain.

Nobody Knows -- Hirokazu Kore-eda's strange, sad, beautiful film about children living in an apartment in Tokyo after their mother just one day doesn't return home. I really can't describe it; it's one of those movies you've just got to watch.

Metropolis (Restored) -- I'd seen Metropolis twice before: once on videotape and once in its previously restored version. It never quite got me the way some of Fritz Lang's crime films do -- I could watch M every week for the rest of my life and still enjoy it, I expect, and the Dr. Mabuse films (two out of three of which are available for streaming) are almost as wonderful. Many of his Hollywood films (especially Fury and The Big Heat) are compelling, too. But Metropolis, aside from some great set design, just seemed ... well, tedious. Watching the new version, though, I finally connected with the film, and it was the additional material that did it. The story is still pretty ridiculous, but the way that story is now recontextualized is revelatory. The new material of Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man is especially effective, giving that character far more purpose and meaning than before, and helping to link various events together.

Trust -- My favorite Hal Hartley movie. A particular kind of off-kilter realism, or kitchen-sink absurdism, that I usually find precious and shallow, but in Hartley's best work hits every right chord for me. Trust seems to me his most perfectly balanced film, the only one where every scene feels essential, every line of dialogue just right. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for any movie where one of the protagonists is named Matthew and carries a hand grenade.

Films Waiting to Be Seen
Born in Flames -- A feminist science fiction movie by Lizzie Borden. I didn't much care for Borden's Working Girls, but I'll give this one a try, since she is certainly important as a feminist filmmaker, so I feel at least a certain obligation to be familiar with her work.

Michael -- Carl Theodore Dreyer's 1924 film about gay angst. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc is just about my favorite silent film, and I've got a soft spot for old movies about queers, so I'll probably watch this fairly soon.

Redline 7000 -- One of Howard Hawks's last movies, and the last one I've ever seen anybody defend, and since that anybody was Robin Wood, I'm willing to give it a try. I love Hawks's best work as much as that of any other American director, and don't even mind his lesser films. He was one of the absolute greats, and I've long been curious about Redline.

Salt of the Earth -- Being constitutionally incapable of sifting and choosing, I stick so much stuff on my Netflix queue that inevitably there are titles there that I have no idea where I first got the idea to watch them. This is one of those. I know I was interested in it because of its historical situation -- it was made by blacklisted filmmakers in 1954 and tells the story of Mexican-American miners on strike in New Mexico -- but I don't know how I first heard about it. No matter; I'm thrilled it's now available for viewing.

Ugetsu -- So many people have said this is one of the greatest films of all time that I've been afraid to watch it. I loved Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, so I expect I'll also like Ugetsu very much, but I keep waiting for exactly the perfect moment. Such moments don't exist, so I'm just going to have to plunge in one of these less-than-perfect days.

XXY -- A film from Argentina about an intersexed 15-year-old. Reviews have called it sensitive and subtle, and so I quickly stuck it on the queue.

3 comments:

  1. John Huston's Fat City is on there too, as are three Tati films (Playtime, Mon Oncle, and M. Hulot's Holiday), and four Jia Zhangke films (24 City, The World, Unknown Pleasures, and Platform). Fat City is available on DVD, I think, but not through Netflix.
    The Lost Moment, a 1947 adaptation of The Aspern Papers, is available and, it appears, has not been released on DVD. I'm really looking forward to watching that.

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  2. I haven't tried Netflix yet, but then I generally don't like watching video at home. I have a library of dvds I've bought of films I love or have heard good things about, but a majority of them sit still wrapped in their cellophane. I tell myself I'll get to them...eventually. (And I do pick one every so often and give it a viewing. Of course, 95% of them I've already seen in the theater or on tv, but still....)

    Two comments: NO period of Tom Waits' music suits me. I've always found him affected and annoying. If I want to hear an eccentric, gravel-voiced white singer, I'll go for Don Van Vliet everytime. I guess his affectations sound natural for him and his music suits me; neither holds true for me with Waits.

    TRUST is the first Hal Hartley film I ever saw, and I think it's still his best. I agree with you that every bit of it seems essential. Hartely seems to have fallen off the radar since HENRY FOOL, which I disliked overall. I came across his NO SUCH THING on tv a year or so back quite by chance, and I missed the beginning, but I found it gripping, strange, and sad. (I checked the reviews on it after I watched it and saw it was not received well. Ah, reviewers...what do they know?!)

    Let me recommend a little known early 60s noir by Allen Baron called BLAST OF SILENCE. It's available now, on Criterion, and probably through Netflix. I saw it at a showing here in NYC 20 years ago at the short-lived downtown THALIA theater, and Baron himself, writer, director, and star, was in the theater and he took questions and made some remarks afterwards. After years of hoping it would be released on dvd, I snapped up the Criteron edition the minute I saw it. It sits now, unwrapped on my shelf, awaiting my decision to choose it for viewing.

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  3. Do you read Louis Proyect's blog? Because that's where I read about Salt of the Earth, in one of his movie reviews...

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