Among the most noteworthy DVD releases this week are two films with little in common, except that both come from smaller, independent companies that should (and hopefully are, already) on your radar: Brooklyn’s own Benten Films and the Rhode Island-based Sunrise Silents.
From Benten comes The GoodTimesKid (2005), the second feature from Azazel Jacobs (whose latest film, Momma’s Man, was one of the best films of 2008, and is available on DVD from Kino). With the exception of a brief prologue, the film unfolds throughout the course of a single day as the unspoken ennui and anxiety of a trio of alienated misfits manifest themselves through spontaneous relationships and mad dashes for wild, illogical dreams. Their mutual desperation acts as both a centripetal and centrifugal force, pushing Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs) away from his girlfriend Diaz (Sara Diaz), while also drawing another Rodolfo Cano (Gerardo Naranjo), nicknamed Depresso, into the fold. After mistakenly receiving a letter from the military — confirming his enlistment — meant for the other Rodolfo, Depresso leaves his rocky-but-stationary houseboat to track down his namesake, and is magnetically pulled into the turbulent and estranged life of two complete strangers, both of whom ironically feel closer to him than they do to each other.
Where Jacobs excels as a director is in his use of actors’ bodies as an expression of complex emotions that their characters don’t quite know how to cope with or even iterate. After a rejected Diaz pounds her cake-covered fists against the fridge, Depresso follows suit and proceeds to pummel the refrigerator door. By repeating the gesture, Jacobs orchestrates a dialectic of emotion — she’s pissed that Rodolfo left his birthday party, but Depresso’s rage remains enigmatic. It is expression, rather than experience, that the two bond over. Instantly over her grief in an almost motherly manner, she seeks to cheer Depresso up by launching into what is surely one of the most charming dance numbers in recent memory. Evoking Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria, Chaplin’s dinner roll dance in The Gold Rush, and that staple of nouvelle vague coolness, The Madison from Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Diaz’s whimsical solo in a chocolate-stained dress and black Converse is one of those rare moments of fleeting joy whose ephemerality is only enhanced by its capture on film. So sudden and sincere are her movements that we know they cannot be sustained nor ever repeated, and true to form, a ringing doorbell halts a perfect moment just as quickly as it was born.
These are the sort of moments that stick out from The GoodTimesKid: shadow puppets on the wall of a boat while an ex-girlfriend stands outside yelling and banging on the door; late-night visits to diners; bar fights you know you’re going to lose; watching your boyfriend sleep while a broken record of Gang of Four’s “Damaged Goods” spins on the turntable. What makes these scenes work is the film’s courageous lack of resolution, which on the one hand only reaffirms the characters’ aimlessness and desperation, but it also makes those sparse moments of joie de vivre all the sweeter.
Also, just out from Sunrise Silents is a never-before-available silent film, Mantrap (1926), starring that iconic flapper of the silver screen Clara Bow (who was only twenty-one at the time of the film’s release). And while her role as the titular “It” girl from It (1927) certainly defined a bobbed-hair zeitgeist, it has also come to be the sole definer of her career (outside of the cartoon she inspired, Betty Boop). Mantrap‘s arrival on DVD is a welcome reminder of the flirtatious charm and uninhibited sexuality that were the key ingredients of Bow’s comedic style.
Aside from Bow, Mantrap is notable for some of its crew, namely director Victor Fleming (later to direct Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) and cinematographer, the up-and-coming James Wong Howe (whose fifty-plus-year career included such visually diverse films as the monochromatic Sweet Smell of Success and the Technicolor and Cinemascope Picnic). Its lighthearted story finds Bow caught between two men: husband Ernest Torrence (recognizable as Buster Keaton’s father in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and New York City divorce lawyer Percy Marmont. While roughing it in the wild Mantrap river region together, both men try their hardest to steal Bow from one another, though it is her feminine wiles that prove the biggest victor. No man can resist her, and yet no man can possibly restrain her.
The print of this eighty-three year old film used for the DVD is in marvelous shape, and thankfully contains the original intertitles. (Computer-generated intertitles that often appear on DVDs can be distractingly anachronistic.) With no distracting exposure or fading issues or bad splices, this Sunrise Silents edition of Mantrap can certainly hold its own alongside any of the silent releases from Kino, Image, or Grapevine.
Also on DVD this week:
Devil in the Flesh (1987) (MYA Communication, Region 1) – Steamy 80s modernization of Raymond Radiguet’s classic novel centers on Marushka Detmers (First Name: Carmen), who begins a passionate affair with a student while her husband is in jail. Directed by Marco Bellocchio, whose first film Fists in the Pocket is an unsettling portrait of a dysfunctional family with severe violent and incestual issues to work out.
I Love You, Man (2009) (Paramount, DVD Region 1 and Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – This Americanized version of Patrice Leconte’s 2006 film My Best Friend is one of the best to emerge from the Apatow School. Director/co-writer John Hamburg and co-writer Larry Levin understand something Apatow has yet to learn: the importance of brevity over exposition, and that a Rush cameo can really kick things up a notch.
Katyn (2007) (Koch Lorber, Region 1) – The latest from Poland’s auteur of their political past Andrzej Wajda. His latest film investigates the controversial union of Russia and Germany during World War II that resulted in the execution of thousands of Polish troops, an event that both governments denied and refused to even speak of for decades.