My cinematic explorations are largely limited to the seemingly endless stream of DVDs that arrive at my door waiting to be reviewed. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to come up with any definitive retrospective on cinema in 2007, since the majority of what I’ve seen has been from previous years. Cinema is never far from my thoughts, though, and here are a few examples of what has ran through my mind this year.
Once people learn I’m a film critic, two questions inevitably follow. The first is usually a roundabout way of asking me what I think of their favorite movie in an effort to gauge my tastes and whether or not they agree with them. The follow-up is the reciprocal: what are my favorite movies? I usually just say something noncommittal on the order of “it always changes” but my two favorite movies are El Topo and The Holy Mountain, both of which are available for the first time legally in this collection.
For some reason Jodorowsky’s films struck a chord with me the first time I saw them. I acknowledge that it was something personal to me, and for that reason I shy away from recommending the films to other people. People should watch these films, however, and now that Allen Klein and the director have patched up their near thirty year feud, they can. Jodorowsky’s surrealist masterpieces are the pinnacle of personal cinema. He transformed his life into a college of metaphors and symbols, some universally resonant, some only meaningful to him. Being able to view the films on beautiful transfers, fully uncut was a personal cinematic highlight of the year for me and probably one for a lot of you out there as well. It’s been at the top of a lot of cinephiles’ “DVD wish list” for several years and one of the few highly anticipated releases that lived up to everyone’s expectations.
Along a similar line of thinking is my next pick. The two Bava box sets are a crash course in cinematic history. A strong case could be made that Bava is horror’s most important and influential director and these collections provide an almost overwhelming argument. Over the course of the two collections you can see the director create the giallo film (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and its offshoot, the slasher film (Bay of Blood), not to mention the seminal Black Sunday and Black Sabbath. Moreover, one could pick any film in these sets and be able to point to dozens of films that were influenced by it. Some notable omissions (No Danger: Diabolik? No Blood and Black Lace?) will hopefully be cleared up in subsequent volumes. I have admitted that I’m reticent to recommend the Jodorowsky set, however, I must insist that you get both volumes of this collection.
Asian and particularly Japanese cinema has become the niche’ cinema de jour for most cinephiles in the past few years. This is both a blessing and a curse for movie lovers; more titles are now readily available to us, yet the market is beginning to become bloated with scores of throwaway titles not worth the DVDs they are printed on. After sitting through far too many of the latter, Sion Sono’s Strange Circus is the film that kept me from completely souring on Asian cinema. The demented story of Taeko and the fictional (?) Mitsuko is disturbing, beautiful, and spellbinding; the type of film that stays with you for days after. Rarely does a film manipulate reality this well. You’re never really sure which one of the multiple realities presented is truth and Sono’s postmodern tale of sexual abuse and schizophrenia is one of the powerful to come out of the Japan this decade. Sono uses cinema’s ability to distort reality against the audience, and I, for one, loved every minute of it.
One filmmaker above all others made me think critically about what cinema truly is this year. I’d wager that few if any of you have heard of Jeremy Isbell and Central Film Company, and far less of you have had the pleasure of watching one of his films. Let me try to bring you up to speed: a comparison to Ed Wood is right out, Wood’s ineptitude is endearing for most people and his films have a certain charm and likeability to them. Isbell’s films aren’t watched as much as they are endured. My opinion of the man and his work changed drastically over the year, however.
Take for example his Angus Valley Farms. A Blair Witch style shaky-cam trip through a farmhouse accompanied on the soundtrack by static takes up the first seventy minutes of the ninety-minute film. We then see a group of teens trekking through a graveyard (again with no sound) where they find a bottle of whiskey that turns out to be cursed, causing them to die in a series of accidents over the next ten minutes. After viewing the film I was convinced that Isbell was perhaps the least talented filmmaker I had stumbled upon and gave him little thought until viewing his follow up: 287th Hour. For starters, the film’s plot is completely different than that which is listed on the DVD box. The first half of the film itself is comprised of two characters walking around a wooden area bickering about having to walk around said area. The second half is comprised of the exact same footage shown again in the same order. After 287th Hour I became convinced that Isbell was in fact a genius, playing with the audience’s expectations of cinema and attempting to make an avant-garde film on a micro budget. Indeed, with the exception of him being credited at the start of his films, Isbell’s work completely conforms to the ten rules of Dogme 95. By his next film, Madman, I was convinced of his brilliance. I won’t spoil the film for you, but the DVD of the sixty minute film contains an eighty minute “making of” featurette which is essentially the film shot for shot, only this time by a second camera about ten yards away. I took this as Isbell’s damning critique of the modern viewer’s desire to see the inner workings of cinema, and a call to a return to the earlier days of “movie magic.”
Words really can’t do his films justice. Isbell’s films are hypnotically awful to such a great degree that I’m convinced it’s intentional and that he must have some meaning behind them. Recommended only for the bravest among you.
I expected that by now my fellow horror fans would have accepted Hollywood’s determination to remake everything, but the announcement of the Halloween remake was met with a chorus of disapproval. Zombie’s take didn’t improve on Carpenter’s, but it still manages to be a damn fine horror film; the year’s best in my opinion. If you’re able to temporarily suspend your knowledge of the original, Halloween 2007 is a striking film, one with an undeniable power to grab the viewer and affect them in a way that has been notably absent from the big screen for too long.
My only problems with the film are the same problems I had with Zombie’s first two films. His insistence on over-utilizing his wife Sheri Moon Zombie (who, to her credit, does surprisingly well here) and his repeated allusions to classic horror films and actors are more distracting than they are enjoyable. The average filmgoer won’t know who Sybil Danning or Udo Kier are, and those of us who do will be jarringly reminded that we’re watching a film and be temporarily removed from the experience. Zombie seems to be continually including these aspects as a sort of apologetic nod to horror fans to remind us that his heart and influences are in the right place. He needs more confidence in his own abilities and instincts which this film proves are strong enough to stand on their own.
This year saw the unfortunate end of several smaller DVD labels dedicated to foreign cinema. Among these were Casa Negra (Mexican Horror), Panik House (older Asian films), and No Shame (Italian cinema). Even more notable labels such as Mondo Macabro and Blue Underground took a few months off during the year before resuming a semi-regular release schedule. I don’t know anything in regards to their financial well-being, but all of these labels have or had an outstanding eye for acquiring titles and releasing them with a wealth of supplemental material. In my opinion, No Shame’s exit leaves the biggest void from a collector’s perspective, but Casa Negra was poised to usher in a reassessment of Mexican horror had they continued. If you have the opportunity to get your hands on any of their releases before they go out of print, I strongly recommend you do so.
2007 saw the end of an eighteen-year institution in cinema: Michael J Weldon’s Psychotronic Magazine. It wasn’t the only ‘zine style film magazine to stop publishing during the year; 2007 also saw the end of the print versions of Cahiers du Cinemart and, in the interest of full disclosure, Film Fanaddict, the magazine I work for. Changes in the independent publishing industry have made it increasingly difficult for self publishers to afford to release magazines with any regularity and the majority of chain booksellers won’t touch a magazine without a set in stone monthly publish date. This, coupled with the closing of indie-friendly chain Tower Records and the gradual demise of the independently owned video and record store, have essentially made the nationally available ‘zine a thing of the past.
Aside from the obvious way that this affected me in regard to my own magazine, the end of Psychotronic was particularly disheartening for me. Weldon’s encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic esoterica was both invaluable to me, and something I aspired to match. Granted, his output was sporadic, but each issue was filled with Weldon’s excited prose about films you’d never heard of; you could tell he loved even the ones he hated. ‘Zines gave cult/foreign/exotica cinema journalism a legitimacy that, frankly, we’ve yet to garner for our work on the Internet.
So we don’t end on a down note, there were several minor bright spots that also deserve mention such as Dusan Makavejev’s debut on DVD (on Criterion to boot) and Flash Gordon, my all time guilty pleasure film, showing up on an outstanding DVD. It was a year of ups and downs but ultimately a good year for film and 2008 is already shaping up to equal or perhaps surpass it.