“I’m usually more of an old fogey when it comes to mobile phones that I am about DVDs,” writes film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his newly released essay collection, “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.” He’s not the only one to extol the virtues of the home viewing experience. Jonathan Lethem’s book-length analysis of the overlooked John Carpenter oddity “They Live” revels in the capacity for a close reading of a movie on DVD. One spinning disc can hold a lot of potential, especially if you’re dashing around in search of last-minute holiday gifts. Consider this piece an endorsement of a few possibilities.
More and more, awareness of film history seems both expanded by DVD releases and actively publicized in a fashion that gives new life to old titles. A year that marks the fiftieth anniversaries of “Psycho” and “Breathless” finds them both available in pristine new Blu-ray releases. A DVD double-feature containing Claude Chabrol’s “The Bridesmaid” and “Merci Pour Le Chocolate” prominently (and perhaps somewhat morbidly) displays the first line of the director’s recent obituary on the back of the box. Kino has released a marvelous version of “Metropolis” on DVD like you’ve never seen it before — and “Metropolis” has been released on DVD many times before.
Fifteen years ago, the DVD was introduced to consumers mainly to distribute new releases, but its capacity to extend the lifespan of older material has superseded its relationship to new work. Whereas casual moviegoers may just as easily pirate the latest releases or turn to any number of legal online options, carefully engineered DVDs of underappreciated or hard-to-get movies maintain a distinct appeal: A merging of curatorial and marketplace forces that make movies from earlier periods as attractive to audiences as the ones released today – and sometimes even more so. Cinephilia is closer to a mainstream phenomenon than ever before.
It’s easy now to consider various periods of cinema in a systematic fashion enabled by their DVD releases. Just pick up a couple of box sets and you’re on your way. Consider, for example, two major ones released this fall: The Martin Scorsese-curated “The Elia Kazan Collection,” which contains fifteen Kazan titles in addition to an hourlong documentary co-directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones, and “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” Criterion’s seven-disc set of iconoclastic films from the late sixties and early seventies.
The Kazan set, which includes his moving 1945 directorial debut “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and the stunningly undervalued 1963 immigration drama “America America,” draws attention to the deeply personal nature of Kazan’s work. In Scorsese’s essayistic documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” he teases out the connections between Kazan’s movies, noting the ways they reflect his sense of ostracism – first as part of an immigrant family, and again in the wake of his debilitating HUAC testimony when he chose to name names. The two experiences are not mutually exclusive: As Kazan says in the Scorsese film, many of the movies he made after his testimony, such as “On the Waterfront” and “America America,” speak directly to his growing feeling of alienation.
The BBS set includes a vastly different America: Whereas Kazan’s cinema deals with being an outsider, the six features produced by BBS between 1968 and 1972 express the mindset of the American rebel. Legendary works such as “Easy Riders,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Last Picture Show” mesh nicely with wilder, psychedelic hippy celebrations like “Head,” director Bob Rafelson’s hilariously experimental send-up of his own creation, the Monkees.
Looking at the two box sets together reveals Scorsese as a kind of missing link between the classical, studio-mandated Kazan cinema and the unhinged BBS products. Much of his analysis in “A Letter to Elia” could be applied to the BBS set as well. Discussing Kazan’s “East of Eden,” he praises the way it depicts “the dream of a better America,” adding, “we were feeling that back in the fifties, too.” Scorsese also discusses “an overwhelming sense of freedom to reinvent cinema” that he felt after watching Kazan’s movies, an urge that Rafelson and fellow producers Bert Schneider and Steve Blaunder at BBS surely felt as well. Together, the two sets reveal some of the connections between thirty years worth of cinematic production in the United States.
But on “The BBS Story” documentary included in the package, Rafelson describes their situation in fundamentally different terms from Scorsese’s formulation: “We were just a bunch of lucky motherfuckers,” Rafelson says. “There was a space, a hole, and we filled it.” That quote – the second half of it, anyway – could easily apply to these phenomenal DVD collections as well.