The Disc-less is a bi-monthly column exploring films not available on DVD in North America. While physical media is becoming less and less relevant with the advent of online streaming, the best quality for films outside of a theater are still DVDs and Blu-Rays. The release of major and minor cinematic works on physical media has lead to reevaluation of cinematic history. The Disc-less hopes to point cinephiles to films still not available, as well as possible ways one can see them.
On November 19th, Criterion will be putting out the infamous maudit film, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.” The film is a masterwork, a tragedy that is both extremely intimate and expansive in scope, rich in both its visual feast and its emotional narrative. Studio clashes and misguided reviews made it one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops, essentially killing United Artists. However, reevaluation and this new restoration has finally shed light on this great work of cinema. This week, we highlight five more American epics that were dismissed at their release, and hope DVD releases will lead to their reconsideration.
The Movie: “Greed” (Erich Von Stroheim, 1924)
What’s Going On: An adaptation of the classic novel “McTeague” by Frank Norris, in which a San Francisco dentist and his wife grow increasingly perverse and insane after winning the lottery.
Why You Need To See It: “Greed” is perhaps the most lauded film on this list to have never made it to DVD. Von Stroheim’s film is ripe with raw human emotion, stunning visual images, and a brutal and cynical view of America. It features some of the most naked silent acting to ever appear on screen, and Von Stroheim captures it with a lived-in reality, even in the film’s most often screened two-hour cut.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: The original screening of “Greed,” according to lore, runs over 8 hours, and MGM producer Irving Thalberg had that cut destroyed, and much of the footage reportedly burned. As such, a complete “Greed” will never be found, though TCM made a four-hour cut in 1999 using a combination of footage and still photos to hint at the larger epic that was originally produced. As we reported a couple years back, TCM does have plans to one day bring it to DVD, but at that time there were only talks, so who knows when it will actually happen.
How You Can See It: The VHS is still quite popular, and 35mm screenings pop up here and there occasionally in various repertory theaters, but otherwise one must watch it on YouTube (which sadly won’t capture its epic vistas).
The Movie: “Ishtar” (Elaine May, 1987)
What’s Going On: Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, playing the two worst songwriters in all existence, accidentally start a revolution in the fictional country of Ishtar as they travel to Morocco for a gig.
Why You Need To See It: Forget everything you’ve ever heard—”Ishtar” is one of the funniest movies ever made, full stop. This is a Will Ferrell-esque political satire way too ahead of its time, full of some of the dumbest gags (blind camels, made up languages, and more) ever produced, but sometimes dumb comedy is also genius. Too much writing on Elaine May‘s film focuses on its gargantuan budget and its critical shellacking, but Beatty and Hoffman make every terrible song into pure comedy, and the satire is surprisingly fresh (though the references to Libyan leader Gaddafi are finally dated).
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: For many years, nobody has really wanted to revisit “Ishtar” by making a disc of it. Sony announced a Blu-Ray coming out in January 2011, but it ended up only being a R2 release. May commented during a screening in May 2011 that there still might be a release sometime soon.
How You Can See It: The R2 Blu-Ray and DVD are quite good-looking, though bare bones for a film that should have endless special features. Otherwise, torrent sites have continued to spread the film.
The Movie: “Wild River” (Elia Kazan, 1960)
What’s Going On: Montgomery Clift plays a Tennessee Valley Authority administrator who clashes with an aging matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) and her gorgeous daughter (Lee Remick), who refuses to sell their land to create a new dam in the 1930s.
Why You Need To See It: Though his personal life is certainly controversial, there’s no doubt that Elia Kazan is truly one of the greatest American directors. So why did “Wild River” pass into obscurity? Certainly its topic didn’t appeal to audiences, especially given how much Kazan treats the political subtleties of the situation. But “Wild River” is a curious work in which Kazan allows his camerawork to take precedence over the style of his more theatrical films. With Ford-inspired compositional framing and a lyrical vision of a dying era of American landscape, this is truly one of his mid-career masterpieces.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: There’s no stated reason why 20th Century Fox hasn’t put out a proper disc, but it seems like a ripe candidate for their Archive collection. Considering Kazan’s centenary passed in 2009 with a major touring retrospective, perhaps something is in the works to release all his work? Considering Kazan jumped from studio to studio, this is sadly unlikely.
How You Can See It: Thankfully, Amazon Video has the film streaming on it’s website, and the film is currently available on R2 DVD.
The Movie: “The Last Movie” (Dennis Hopper, 1971)
What’s Going On: A Hollywood stuntman who gives up on the business discovers a native tribe in Peru filming their own Western, except they aren’t faking the stunts.
Why You Need To See It: If you watched “Easy Rider” and thought, “this movie could use more drugs,” then look no further than Dennis Hopper’s hugely anticipated follow-up, which proved to be a pretty huge flop. Hopper was given free reign by the studio and a million dollar blank check, and was greeted with some poisonous reviews. But rewatched decades on, “The Last Movie” is truly a fascinating text about Hollywood, not only in its narrative but also its jarring story structure, which employs jump cuts, “scene missing” cards, and more.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: Hopper went and actually bought the rights to the film, as he told Playboy in 2006, and was planning to put together a DVD release. However, the actor/director’s passing in 2010 has stalled the project, and nothing has been announced since.
How You Can See It: Some illegally produced DVDs are out there, and there is a VHS tape. Otherwise the torrent market is your best option. However, if you live in New York City, the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn will be showing it twice in November along with another underseen Hopper classic, “The American Dreamer.”
The Movie: “Song of the South” (Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson, 1946)
What’s Going On: Seven-year-old Johnny, on a vacation to the Reconstruction-era South, hears delightful animated tales from the character of Uncle Remus.
Why You Need To See It: As everyone knows, “Song of the South” is that oh-dear-how-did-that-happen movie of Disney lore that bore one of its most famous songs: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” “Song of the South” isn’t as bad in its racism as, say, “Birth of the Nation,” but it’s also not as cinematically thrilling as Griffith’s epic. Still, ‘South’ is a unique film for the historically curious, especially given the long history of the Uncle Remus character in American culture.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: It’s no secret that Disney doesn’t want you to get your hands on the film, probably ever. A proper release for the film will most likely only be sanctioned if Mickey’s empire were to collapse.
How You Can See It: Because of interest in the film, it is one of the more popular torrents out there, many clips are on YouTube, and quite a few illegally produced DVDs can be found online.