Full transparency: all Blu-rays and DVDs reviewed were provided by Kino Lorber and the Criterion Collection.
Welcome to another edition of “Physical Media Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells Funny.” While the end of July doesn’t have a movie featuring kung fu, the Shaft theme, and a man getting his head dislodged from his body, it does feature gay subtext (The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender from Kino Lorber), Joe Pesci razzin’ Bobby De Niro (Raging Bull from the Criterion Collection), storywriting during coitus (Drive My Car from the Criterion Collection), and Ernest Borgnine (Marty from Kino Lorber). All of these movies moved me in some special way and I hope upon finishing this post, you’ll be moved to check out of few of them yourself.
What can be defined as a documentary versus what can be defined as a video essay has been blurred ever since Orson Welles unleashed F for Fake unto the world in 1973. Information filtered through analysis, context, and point of view ring true for both formats, but you can tell when one swings harder one way or the other. Mark Rappaport’s 1997 film The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender definitely swings harder in the direction of elucidating its audience on the queer subtext of Golden Age Hollywood films, especially those films and actors displaying more “MLM” (Men Loving Men) themes.
Guided by actor Dan Butler (who I best know from Silence of the Lambs), the essay makes its way through the films of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s and highlights both the subtle and surprisingly overt gay eroticism in them. From highlighting the camp value in actors like Bob Hope and Danny Kaye to exploring the unspoken but clear homosexual motivations present in certain westerns and military movies, the film does its homework to make its case in the late ’90s for something that seems so obvious in 2022. We as a culture are now so used to the idea of queer readings of our media that seeing clips from the featured movies in this doc in the context they’re presented in almost feels silly, but at the time this film came out mainstream filmgoers and cis film critics probably weren’t sold on this idea. It makes sense that Rappaport, the director of Rock Hudson’s Home Movies — a film highlighting and dissecting clips from Hudson’s filmography as gay — would decide to expand on that into something broader. My biggest complaint is that this film does not continue on into the ’60s and beyond to show where that shift from overt and codified camp happens and why. However, outside of some dated attitudes and language, it’s still a great film for subtext seekers to seek out themselves.
Featuring three bonus films, The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, The Double Life of Paul Henreid, and Martin and Hans from Rappaport as special features, you can find The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender from Kino Lorber.
What I love about cinema is its ability to cast a thrall upon its viewer, to suck you into a hypnotic state that allows you a bit more leeway to empathize and experience catharsis even if the journey isn’t one filled with the shock and awe that may be contained in a commercial work. Drive My Car was the probably the most effective film of 2021 at transporting to that state of quiet immersion and unspoken (or sometimes reluctantly spoken) commiseration. Based on my limited experience with other work by Academy Award-winner Ryusuke Hamaguchi, this seems to be where he operates from: people having purifying conversations with some difficulty.
Based on the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, as well as drawing inspiration and elements from other Murakami stories present in the collection “Men Without Women,” Drive My Car focuses on the character Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima), a world-renowned theater actor and director best known for his unique direction of modern plays such as Waiting for Godot. His wife, Oto Kafukum (Reika Kirishima), is a beautiful and evocative screenwriter who dictates her stories while making love to Yusuke, which then Yusuke transcribes due to Oto’s inability to remember them once they finish. One night, Yusuke finds Oto making love to another man and, in shock, drives away and gets into a car accident, which in turn leads to the discovery that he has glaucoma in one eye. Sometime later, Oto dies suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, leaving Yusuke unable to continue performing and directing. Two years later, he is invited to Hiroshima for a residency to put on a multi-language version of Uncle Vanya. The company has a strict policy against artists driving themselves to and from rehearsal, thus they hire a driver named Masaki (a very contained but power performance by Toko Miura). While Yusuke assembles his play and its players, the two begin to get to know each other, fleshing out their pasts one car ride at a time.
I mentioned earlier that I am a novice when it comes to the work of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, having only seen his other film released in 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (which I have to say is low-key just as good as Drive My Car), but I am an even bigger novice when it comes to the works of Haruki Murikami. I’m currently about three-fourth of the way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but besides that I’m mostly familiar with Murakami as a post-modern cultural figure whose style is so immediate. With an almost detached prose, a reverence for 20th-century delights such as food, music, and literature, and a dreamlike horniness that prevails in so much of his work, it’s almost ripe for parody at this point, but it’s perfect material for Hamaguchi to tackle. That detachment leads to some hard-earned, quietly devastating moments between characters. The whole film is built around the difficulty to communicate with others and for me it’s incredibly resonate in a time post-isolation where people are quick to unleash their voice unfettered unto others or decide to keep things buried within themselves. A must watch.
Featuring a new interview with director Ryusuke Hamaguchi; a program about the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with actors Reika Kirishima, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, and others; press conference footage from the film’s premiere at the 2021 Cannes International Film Festival; and an essay by author Bryan Washington, you can find Drive My Car from the Criterion Collection.
I know I’m no Olivier
But if he fought Sugar Ray
He would say
That the thing ain’t the ring
It’s the play.
So gimme a stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I can fight
I’d much rather recite
Above is the monologue that partially opens and then closes Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking 1980 boxing biopic about athlete Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, a soliloquy from a man who had neither the skill nor the talent of a showman, but the bravado to try and be one anyway. An emotionally draining but kinetic and visceral look into the life of a man who was a disciple for punishment both unto himself and others, LaMotta is played in one of many career-defining performances by Robert De Niro and supported by an equally iconic performance by Joe Pesci and the great Cathy Moriarty. The film — in a strikingly non-linear way — chronicles the life of LaMotta from his struggle to take take down Sugar Ray Robinson to become the reigning middleweight champ, to his tragic but pretty deserved downfall, to his troubled interpersonal relationships with this friends, associates, and lovers.
If that at all sounds a little familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen the film Boogie Nights, which heavily pulls from Raging Bull’s dank and dirty rise-and-fall structure as well as having pretty much the same ending (Mark Wahlberg intoning “I am a star” in place of “That’s entertainment”). However, what makes Raging Bull persist after all these years is quite frankly the craft. Scorsese coming off of New York New York almost feels like it’s set him up to be a little more dynamic with his camera than he had ever been up until this point and he pulls this off with the guiding hand of DP Michael Chapman. You can feel Schrader’s fingerprints all over the screenplay, seeing as how this fits right into his canon of troubled men. And of course, this movies lies on the virtuosic editing of the great Thelma Schoonmaker. It may not be a film for someone looking for a relaxing evening in, but if you want a full meal of a cinematic experience, I can’t recommend Raging Bull enough.
Coming with a smorgasbord of special features you can view here on their official website, you can pick up Raging Bull from the Criterion Collection.
From one Marty to the next, my pick of the month was such a “I’m so happy I finally got to see this” affair. With a screenplay by the great Paddy Chayefsky (of Network and Altered States fame), directed by Delbert Mann, and starring Betsy Blair and a personal favorite of mine, Ernest “you should look up this clip of him on Fox News being overly truthful” Borgnine, it’s Marty, the 1955 film about the loveable 34-year-old male spinster Marty (played by Borgnine). Everyone chastises Marty for the fact that all his siblings have been married off and yet he remains single. While affable around friends and loved ones, it isn’t easy for him to open up around the ladies, and when he has, he’s been deemed not good-looking enough to pass muster (are these women blind?). However, that changes when Marty becomes infatuated by a quiet, lonely, and equally “homely” schoolteacher named Clara (played by Betsy Blair, who was so homely she was married to the famously unattractive GENE KELLY — I love Hollywood’s version of “ugly”). It’s then that Marty’s friends and family begin to give him guff for his newfound happiness courting Clara, finding any excuse in the book, but especially her looks, to dissuade Marty and once again assert their control over his life.
This is a piece of cinema of intentional frustration. As my enemy, sometimes begrudging ally, and editor Michaela Owens pointed out, it’s natural to feel like Cara Cunningham shouting “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE,” except it’s Marty and it’s me, Aja, screaming. I think Paddy and Delbert do a wonderful job making you feel the same suffocation Marty feels being judged and poked at. I do view this through my own particular queer, 30-something lens and see the film as queer-coded considering Marty’s relationship to his mother (played by Esther Minciotti) and his struggle to just… love who he wants to love and to feel that void that you try to ignore when you’re single for so long shrink just a little bit. I think those themes, along with its stellar performances (especially Borgnine, who is incapable of not showering us with his unique brand of charm), it’s no wonder it’s only one of three films to win both Best Picture and the Palme d’Or (along with The Lost Weekend and Parasite).
You can find Marty through Kino Lorber with an audio commentary from entertainment journalists and writers Bryan Reesman and Max Evry, as well as both the 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 versions of the film.
That’s gonna do it for me this month. Join me in a couple of weeks for some very exciting titles from Vinegar Syndrome, Fun City Editions, Kino Lorber and maybe a few more 😉
Created in a dark room after being exposed to images from infinite worlds, Aja Essex seeks to engender thought, conversation, and possibility through film. Co-founder of Establishing Shot as well as co-founder and co-operator of Bloomington’s own Cicada Cinema, she has always aimed to spotlight the underseen, underscreened, and underappreciated. She hosts, edits, and produces the IU Cinema podcast, Footage Not Found, with the same haphazard but enthusiastic zeal as her writing. She loves getting lost in a song and despite her namesake being her favorite Steely Dan album, she has probably listened to Countdown to Ecstasy more.