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Blu-ray Roundup: April in the Park with Criterion

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This past April has seen one of the Criterion Collection’s most esoteric release slates.  The distributor’s new Blu-rays do not offer much in the way of viewer-friendly upgrades or classic-film makeovers; Criterion wants you to work for your April entertainment.  The results have been challenging but not unpleasant, and the following three titles stand indicative of the variety, intelligence, and difficulty powering all the April entries.

For those weaned on Japan’s Samurai and Akira Kurosawa-based film imports, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring might come as a singular shock.  The film deals with family, specifically the relationship between a widowed professor (Chishu Ryu) and his twenty-something daughter (Japanese film icon Setsuko Hara), and neither bloodshed nor court intrigues enter into their arrangement.  Ozu doesn’t even shoot for visceral thrills; the whole film unfolds in a series of largely static, medium-shot tableaus.  Late Spring is quiet and unassuming, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re apt to think its 108 minutes pass without incident.

Not so.  Ozu focuses so intensely on his leads’ minute emotional shifts that we begin to perceive the film as grand tragedy.  Late Spring plays like the negative image of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: you have an unmarried woman, her doting father, and the meddling relative (Haruko Sugimura’s aunt) determined to find our heroine a husband.  However, whereas Pride and Prejudice used that template to create the modern romantic comedy, Late Spring sees only despair.  Both Ryu and Hara would be perfectly content spending their years taking care of one another, and once they decide to pursue the marriage option, Ozu makes it clear that the choice will cripple father and daughter forever.  But custom binds them; in that respect, I’m reminded of the novels of Edith Wharton (Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence), where good people sink in social decorum’s quicksand.

Though Criterion’s Late Spring work isn’t as impressive as the Beauty and the Beast restoration (Ozu’s film suffers from slight scratches and image defects), it still provides a crisp picture better than the previous DVD version.  The LPCM mono track is subtle but effective; the quiet registers, with little audio distortion in the way.  Supplements are an informative commentary with Lincoln Center Film Society program director Richard Peña; Wim Wenders’ brilliant documentary Tokyo-ga, which analyzes Ozu and contemporary Japan; and a twenty-page booklet containing pieces from Michael Atkinson, Donald Richie, and Ozu.

Robert M. Young’s ¡Alambrista! is the second film in the Criterion Collection dealing with illegal immigrants migrating into America, and it makes for a fascinating contrast with the first, Gregory Nava’s El Norte.  El Norte uses through bold melodramatic invention – the sequence where siblings Enrique and Rosa cross the border in a rat-festooned sewer pipe has the fabric of gothic horror – while Young minimizes the cinematic editorializing.  His background was in documentary filmmaking (his 1973 documentary Children of the Fields inspired ¡Alambrista!), and he applied those same techniques to his fiction film, painting a stark, objectively detailed portrait of a desperate Mexican farmer (nonprofessional actor Domingo Ambriz) traveling to America in order to provide for his family.

¡Alambrista! plays out in long, wordless sections where we simply watch Ambriz’s struggle; the gritty 16mm cinematography looks like a nonfiction film from the Maysles brothers.  But labeling ¡Alambrista! as pure fact would also discredit Young’s storytelling abilities. Despite the picture’s neorealist aesthetic, Young gives it the urgency of an epic adventure – it’s Homer’s The Odyssey, writ in the desert sun.  Vivid cameos from Ned Beatty and Edward James Olmos help clarify Young’s political and narrative agenda; he wants us to feel just how precious – and delicate – home truly is.

Criterion has cleaned the 16mm footage without stripping it of grain and texture, and the 2.0 LPCM track has immersive depth.  For features, we get a commentary with Young and co-producer Michael Hausman; an interview with Edward James Olmos; the full Children of the Fields piece with a new Young interview; a vintage trailer, and an essay from Charles Ramírez Berg.

And now we come to A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, and now my film criticism acumen fails me.  My strongest memory associated with experimental art films is of my freshman college year; my film studies professor programmed a series of Maya Deren and Stan Brakage shorts for his classes, and I promptly fell asleep for the duration of Said Series.  As such, I found it hard to judge the twenty-four films included in this set.  Part of that difficulty is not entirely my fault – many of the Blu-ray’s supplements note how Frampton intended for his work to play in art installations, a context that your standard home theater setup lacks – but I’ll fully cop to struggling with these non-narrative (or buried narrative) experiments.

What to say, then: Frampton’s use of the cinematic medium is certainly innovative, whether he’s playing with isolated picture fragments or using a carefully manipulated soundscape to create mood.  His early pieces are a little strenuous to endure; “Manual of Arms” practically dares you to stop paying attention, while his famous “Lemons” could have been lifted—as is—from a “Simpsons” or “Saturday Night Live” sketch satirizing pretentious student films.  However, Frampton’s work grows in stature even if you never fully comprehend the endgame, with his “Magellan” cycle taking on a spooky, hallucinatory allure.

Criterion’s Blu-ray offers solid HD transfers of the twenty-four features (considering the raw source materials Frampton used, the picture quality is a near-revelation) with LPCM monaural audio for his non-silent films.  For bonus features, we get a short 1978 interview with Frampton; his 1968 performance piece “A Lecture”; a sampling of his “By Any Other Name” series; a booklet with film commentaries and essays from Ed Halter, Bruce Jenkins, Ken Eisenstein, Michael Zryd, and Bill Brand; and – best of all – assorted commentary tracks from Frampton himself.

All three films are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Late Spring, HERE for ¡Alambrista!, and HERE for some Hollis Frampton.