Each quarter, Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway and critic David Roark have the task of making their way through the new offerings from The Criterion Collection. Nice work if you can get it! For our money, everything TCC does is top notch, but since your time is limited, we bring you our top picks each quarter. For the Spring 2013 releases, Badlands is the featured film. Other picks are discussed below.
“Our sense of the past is always already influenced by our present understanding of the world (we see the past through the present); and yet our present understanding of the world is itself always already influenced and determined by the past (we see the present through the past).” Theorist Leland Poague’s understanding of the “reception theory” provides an ideal framework for Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut feature. It’s impossible to view Badlands outside the lenses of his later work, but it’s also impossible to view his later work outside the lenses of Badlands.
In light of Malick’s succeeding films, particularly The Tree of Life (arguably his masterpiece) and To the Wonder (his underrated meditation on love and marriage), Badlands represents an aesthetic and worldview yet to be fully realized. That’s not to say the film doesn’t make for a unique and satisfying experience; it’s merely to say that, in hindsight, the film only skims the surface of all that Malick was later to become. This proves particularly true in the juxtaposition of Malick’s medium and message. At the core, Malick is a poet. He engages dense philosophical and theological ideas, yet not in the way a traditional scholar might; he engages the objective through the subjective, the rational through the irrational. As Nick Olson points out in his review of To the Wonder, like poetry Malick’s work not only expresses emotions to the viewer, but it actually shapes its hearer. Olson writes, “He seems to me to be pressing for us to awaken our own inner depths of subjectivity and inhabit the outlines he’s setting forth. He wants these grace notes to profoundly shape us—to impress upon us in the most personal way.”
Malick’s content exists as a poem or song, but in Badlands he doesn’t completely match that content with his medium. In the films that followed, even to some degree in his 1978 follow-up Days of Heaven, Malick employs a severer lyrical visual style and non-linear narrative structure to create a cohesive bond between his message and medium. We, of course, get glimpses of these elements in Badlands, like beautiful images of a fire that invoke even more beautiful images of a bigger fire in Days of Heaven, as well as light handheld camerawork, a technique that’s become a staple of the Malick canon. There’s also the lyrical narration of Sissy Spacek, with her youthful country twang; this is an ingredient that stuck with and shaped Malick’s entire body of work. Yet in Badlands the director barely taps into all the possibilities available through voiceover, possibilities that he uncovers more and more with every film. While it would be untrue to conclude Badlands as a straightforward, literal-minded work, because for all its limitations the film does breach new forms of cinematic language, it never accomplishes what Malick’s later films do in marrying his aesthetic to his ideas.
Still, the interesting part of Badlands is that, even while it fails in comparison to other Malick films, never quite attaining the aesthetic acheivement or cohesive worldview of his later films, there would be no later films without it. So, for all its missed moves and failed potential, Malick’s debut at some level embodies the foundation of his great filmography—the stuff from which Malick pulls time and time again, the stuff that sparked the genius in him. For that reason alone, we must see Badlands as something special.
Other Criterion Collection releases of note for Spring 2013:
A Man Escaped
“The reward in watching this film doesn’t come in the moment, as you watch it,” says director Bruno Dumont in an interview among the extras for The Criterion Collection’s edition of A Man Escaped. “The reward comes later.” It’s a counter-cultural notion, but it’s absolutely true. Robert Bresson’s 1956 masterpiece can be slow and difficult at times. He insisted on using one focal length the entire film, and telling a very simple story with few plot points, little dialogue, and long takes. But oh, does the film live on in the viewer’s memory. I actually can’t wait to go back and watch it again, after it marinates for awhile in my mind. Another extras highlight: seeing lead actor Francois Leterrier in a 2010 interview, remembering the filming of the movie over half a century later. Overall, perhaps my favorite of my share of the Criterion titles this quarter. —Michael Dunaway
The story alone that surrounds Pierre Etaix makes this new Criterion film package quite a spectacle. The French comic directed a series of successful films in the early 1960s, but due to a bad distribution deal, his filmmaking career went south, and many of his works became unavailable for an extended period of time, until finally being restored and rereleased. The real spectacle, however, lies in the films themselves. These acclaimed comedies establish Etaix, with all his talent and charm, as the great French comedian whom you’ve never heard of. Whether his Oscar-winning short Happy Anniversary or his first feature film The Suitor, the works of Etaix embody a seamless marriage of physical and deadpan comedy and a dual expression of optimism and sadness—much like the films of Charlie Chaplin. British journalist David Cairns describes Etaix precisely in the booklet essay included in this collector’s set: “But how to define this particular, contradictory genius? A smooth perfectionist specializing in the evocation of disarray, distraction, and frustration? A sentimental satirist, a loving caricaturist, a twinkly-eyed deviser of infernal machines designed to drive his protagonists, usually himself, to despair? He’s a silent clown who talks and uses intricate soundtracks. A modernist whose main satiric target is modernity.” In short, Etaix is buried treasure. —David Roark
Repo Man blurs the line between “cult classic” and “classic.” On the one hand, the 1983 sci-fi comedy (if you could actually sum it up this easily) looks and feels like the former given all its ridiculous quirks. Take the opening sequence, for example, with a motorcycle cop getting obliterated by alien radiation when opening the trunk of a Chevy Malibu. Between the over-the-top special effects and the rough abruptness of the scene, you know you’re in for an unforgettable experience, the stuff that people form subcultures around. On the other hand, _Repo Man _exceeds the norms of a typical cult film through its deliberate craft. The film didn’t form out of a convoluted or futile effort from its director like, say, The Room. Alex Cox, fresh out of film school at UCLA at the time, knew exactly what he wanted from Repo Man, and he accomplished it. The result proves an exciting mash-up of varying genres and ideas, from a punk-rock manifesto, to alien sci-fi, to satirical and absurdist humor. Of course, the whole thing sounds wack, but it comes together nearly flawlessly—and could only be the work of a true artist. For that reason, Repo Man ultimately poses the question: What is the line between a “cult classic” and a “classic”? Perhaps this particular cult classic is simply a classic that Hollywood can’t get its head around. Perhaps it’s both. —David Roark
Gate of Hell
A perfect example of why we need The Criterion Collection. Kinugasa’s 1953 epic _Gate of Hell _was one of Japan’s first color motion pictures, and the first to fully explore the new medium. But because it was produced using Technicolor technology, which was later supplanted by Kodak materials and methods, the original prints deteriorated for decades, to the point that modern audiences really had no real experience of the original film’s effect. Until now. The Criterion Collection supervised a full restoration of the film’s colorful majesty, and it is indeed breathtaking. Gate of Hell features some notable performances, notably from Machiko Kyo, just three years removed from Rashomon. And the story is compelling. But more than anything, it’s a joy to see the pure decadent exuberance the production team pours into the colors of the film. _—Michael Dunawa_y
A good rule of thumb to have as a lifetime cineaste is this one: whenever Olivier is playing Shakespeare, pay close attention. Possibly the greatest actor of our time had a great affinity for the greatest dramatist of all time, and I’ve yet to see the combination fail. Even when the films themselves are less than brilliant, Olivier never disappoints. Richard III is no exception. His supporting cast, including John Gielgud, is strong as well. And Criterion has put together a top-notch collection of extras as well – the audio commentary shines (it helps that it’s a nice back-and-forth between a director and a former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that the both the play and the film have much to mull over), and a 1966 interview with Olivier himself is a delight. Martin Scorsese even shows up to walk us through the restoration of the print. Great stuff. —Michael Dunaway
Band of Outsiders
The director’s opening credit says it all: “Jean-Luc Cinema Godard.” Band of Outsiders, Godard’s follow-up to Contempt, functions more like a mass collection of cinematic references and notions than as a feature film. From the famous Madison dance sequence to a scene where the characters play the part of audience while observing people on a train, which Godard uses to explore the subjectivity of interpretation, it’s as if these characters aren’t characters at all but, instead, just people acting like characters they saw in a recent movie—to borrow from Joshua Clover’s supplemental essay included in the new Criterion print. Such self-awareness certainly boasts the potential to be pretentious and frustrating, yet here it works—it’s charming and funny. Even then, there’s more to Band of Outsiders than mere quotes and gimmicks and a film about film. At points, the 1964 B-movie settles into a pertinent contemplation of French life during the era. Despite never realizing his characters thematically, Godard manages to gets into the core of who they are and personify a conflicting sense of sadness and optimism. In other words, Godard eventually gets to what cinema—and he—is truly about. —David Roark
The first of two Criterion editions of collaborations between director Delmer Daves and lead actor Glenn Ford, Jubal (1956) is probably the slighter of the two, but not by a lot. It’s a classic Western strongly influenced by Shakespeare (especially Othello, obviously, but there are also strains of Lear and even Coriolanus here), boasting a strong lead performance by Ford as the drifter who comes to work on a ranch, and equally compelling turns by Ernest Borgnine as the jolly but clueless ranch owner and Rod Steiger as Pinky, the jealous ranch hand that Jubal threatens to supplant. Uncharacteristically, there are no extras on the blu-ray, but genre fans will nevertheless be satisfied with a great print of a strong genre piece. —Michael Dunaway
3:10 to Yuma
I had actually never seen either this original, 1957 3:10 to Yuma or its 2007 remake. Boy, was I missing out. Critics point out its similarities to the 1952 classic High Noon, and chastise director Delmer Daves for an unrealistic ending, but I don’t buy either criticism. Many great films have similarities to other films, especially in genres where the scope of the story is usually limited. And as for the ending, not every film has to be a gritty depiction of the bleakness of life. Sometimes, as viewers, we get to see the way we’d like things to be. The ending of 3:10 to Yuma feels like a gift to the viewer, not a copout. And the performances are stellar, none more so than Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in each of their best roles of their careers. The extras are strong here too, with Elmore Leonard grumpily castigating 3:10 and other Westerns for unrealistic costuming, and a surprisingly fascinating interview with Ford’s son and biographer. Highly recommended. —Michael Dunaway