Thursday, November 5, 2009

So a drifter, a prostitute, a priest, a miner, and his deaf-mute daughter walk into a South American jungle...

Posted By on Thu, Nov 5, 2009 at 1:05 PM

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A drifter, a prostitute, a priest, a miner, and his deaf-mute daughter walk into a South American jungle. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it happens to be the set-up for Luis Buñuel's anti-colonialist adventure-satire Death in the Garden (1956), just out on DVD from Microcinema International. When Chark (Georges Marchal, of Buñuel's Belle de Jour and The Milky Way) stumbles through a town square past a firing squad, he finds himself in the midst of a revolution. Martial law has shut down the local mine, but its workers refuse to leave without a fight. With violence escalating and Chark and the miner Castin (Charles Vanel, of Clouzot's Diabolique and The Wages of Fear) wanted by the police, the disparate group takes to the jungle in hopes of escaping to Brazil.

Buñuel frequently uses stories of survival (or the lack thereof) as political commentary, and though his targets have spanned the gamut of social classes, his favorite victim by far is the bourgeoisie. Whether it is the party guests that can't even manage to sit down to dinner in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) or the manage to leave the living room in The Exterminating Angel (1962), Buñuel makes clear their lack of resourcefulness even within the limits of their own domain. If they can't survive in the deceptive comfort of their own homes, how could they possibly last out in the jungle, with no food, no guide, no map, and the military on their trail? Therein lies Buñuel's straight-faced humor: taking the adventure scenario absolutely seriously adds to the subversive undercurrents.

If conventional adventure films privilege the characters' ability to triumph over nature's dangerous obstacles, in Death in the Garden Buñuel turns that notion on its head and delights in his characters' submission to the laws of the jungle and gradual loss of propriety. His sadistic pleasure is palpable throughout—when Maria Castin (Michèle Girardon, Bakery Girl on Monceau and Hatari!) is unable to free her hair from branches, or in the group's humiliating discovery of a fire which turns out to have been their own from the night before—but nowhere more noticeably than when the Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli, Contempt) reluctantly tears pages from his Bible to contribute to the fire. Only adding to his impotence, Buñuel even denies him the privilege of contributing to the group's survival by having the priest return the pages to the Bible unused.

Buñuel also subverts the typical use of the physical journey as a soul-searching expedition. Father Lizardi, Maria, and even Chark, revert to their old ways as soon as an end is in sight. Only Castin and Djin (the prostitute played by Simone Signoret) show any signs of long-lasting change, nor are these shifts necessarily positive. In an essay included with the DVD, Susan Hayward (not the actress) speaks of Djin's polar characterization, which moves from "fetishized scheming femme fatale" to "the conforming, constrained, and fetishized exponent of 1950s haute bourgeoisie." By the end, she may be the film's last (and first, for that matter) symbol of humanity, but Buñuel's cynicism runs so deep that he can't allow sincerity to prevail. As we've come to expect from Buñuel's inimitable worldview, it is always corruption and insanity that reign supreme.

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Also on DVD this week:

Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart (2008) (Docurama, Region 1) - Director Sascha Paladino follows the legendary banjoist to Africa, where he explores the roots of his instrument.

The Claudette Colbert Collection (Universal, Region 1) - Three-disc box set featuring six films from the unmistakable cherub face of Claudette Colbert. Of particular note are Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), which was scripted by the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and No Time for Love (1943), directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen. Other films included are Three-Cornered Moon (1933), Maid of Salem (1937), I Met Him in Paris (1937), and The Egg and I (1947).

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (Sony, Region 1) Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) is the obvious draw to this five-disc box set (yes, you do want to watch Gloria Grahame wield a coffee pot and smash it into some guy's face), but the other films are also worth your while. Also included are Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House (1955), Don Siegel's The Lineup (1958), Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1958), and Edward Dmytryk's The Sniper (1952). [Hey, remember when the Lerner and the Siegel played as a double feature at Film Forum's B Noir series? -Ed.]

The Dead (1987) (Lionsgate, Region 1) - Forget all those arguments about how "the book is always better than the movie." James Joyce will always be there, but John Huston's eloquent adaptation has been out of print for way too long, and until now was only available in America in a VHS edition from 1992 or a Region 2 DVD.

Food, Inc. (2008) (Magnolia, Region 1) - The L's Stephen Snart described this as a "level-headed" doc that "distinguishes itself from social awareness ego-trips like Richard Linklater's pedantic adaptation of Fast Food Nation and from the scores of fear-mongering documentaries that criticize without offering solutions."

Law of Desire (1987) (Sony, Region 1) - Early feature by Pedro Almodovar about a filmmaker and his complicated life involving transsexuals, jealous lovers, actresses, and, of course, emotional overload. Co-starring a young Antonio Banderas.

Mother (2009) (CJ entertainment, Region 3) - Missed Bong Joon-ho's fourth feature film at the New York Film Festival and don't want to wait for its US theatrical? First, shame on you, and second, here is your chance to make use of your region-free dvd player. Forgoing sea monsters this time around, Bong returns to the crime fiction territory of Memories of Murder to follow a mother who must prove her son is innocent of murder.

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