“Truthfully, DVD is not the new vinyl,” a reader recently confronted me, arguing that the beloved analog qualities of records (the richer, warmer recording; that nostalgic hiss and crackle) are fetishized in ways that most movies on digital discs are not. Sure, the latter may be closer in spirit to CDs and don’t get any better with age like ye olde phonographs, but tell that to Twilight Time, the below-the-radar, two-man boutique label that has been making cineaste tongues wag over their limited-edition, lovingly remastered Blu-rays of film classics like “The Big Heat,” “Bonjour Tristesse” and “Enemy Mine.” (Come on, what’s not to enjoy about “Hell in the Pacific” recast on an alien planet?) Twilight Time doesn’t host a website outside of social media and a well-maintained Wikipedia page, and their product is exclusively available through the TCM Shop and Screen Archives Entertainment, yet their impressive new high-def edition of Brian De Palma‘s tawdry 1984 thriller “Body Double“—rationed, like all of their releases, to a mere 3,000 copies—was completely sold out as a pre-order. My point isn’t that other distribution enterprises need to step up their game to make the format more viable, or that there’s an underserved market for home video, but that you must be lazily letting Netflix algorithms choose your viewing habits if you’re not seeking out these treasures from the dog days of summer:
BEST OF AUGUST, PART TWO:
1969-1970, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
(Criterion/Eclipse, available on DVD)
At the age of 24, the New German Cinema’s self-destructive, antagonistic figurehead began his insanely prolific career with the austerely deconstructed, merciless gangster drama “Love is Colder Than Death,” inspired partly by Brechtian theory, the formal experimentation of Jean-Marie Straub and Jean-Luc Godard, and the politically charged Antiteater, an avant-garde Munich stage troupe he co-founded. A little more than a year and a half later, Fassbinder already had 10 minimalist “anti-theater” features under his belt, with his masochistically comic unmaking-of-a-movie “Beware of a Holy Whore“ serving as a meta-thematic, self-imposed gravestone to that creative beginning before excelling with more accessible (but no less brilliant or biting) subversions of Hollywood melodramas. Half of those formative films are collected in this vital box set, including the suburban, static-frame xenophobia of “Katzelmacher,” starring Fassbinder as a Greek outsider who alienates the locals while titillating their women. Watch for future German film pioneer Margarethe von Trotta in the sensually composed “Gods of the Plague,” a romantically unsatisfied, shattered saga concerning an ex-con’s bitter re-acclimation,and go all in with the homoerotic contract-killer noir “The American Soldier,” the most disturbing and structurally fractured of the bunch.
The Skinny: Behind the scenes of “Gods of the Plague” was Fassbinder’s thwarted courtship of the biracial actor Günther Kaufmann, whom the director futilely showered with gifts and screen roles. That frustration, ironically mirroring some of the relationship dynamics in “Plague,” was also purportedly the impetus for the crash-and-burn Spanish production of his S&M Western “Whity,” which Fassbinder semi-autobiographically recreated in “Beware of a Holy Whore.”
Bonus Round: The rare exception to the Criterion “film school in a box” rule is their economical, extra-less Eclipse series, but isn’t Fassbinder a significant enough icon to squeeze out one new featurette, or some brief interviews with surviving collaborators? Maybe the late enfant terrible would’ve wanted the films to just speak for themselves.
Makes a “Yes, Even More Early Fassbinder” Triple Feature with: “Whity,” “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?“
“Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp”
2012, dir. Jorge Hinojosa
(Phase 4 Films, available on DVD)
The idea of a legendary pimp is rather troubling, but that’s what flashy Chicago smooth talker Robert Beck (née Maupin, 1918 – 1992) was, as well as a childhood trauma victim, petty criminal, heroin junkie, and fearless chronicler of the disillusioned hustler’s life in such pioneering ’60s pulp as “Trick Baby” and “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” Sensationally and unsentimentally depicting the crime, violence and manipulative abuse of women he knew about firsthand, those outlaw novels also inspired Blaxploitation’s antiheroes and helped put the gangsta in rap (just ask his namesakes Ice-T and Ice Cube). Bringing Iceberg Slim’s gritty pages to life with voiced-over, moving illustrations and a bangin’ soundtrack of big, bassy beats, Hinojosa’s doc portrait may come a little too close to lionizing an influential but cold-hearted Machiavellian, but it’s mighty enjoyable. Chris Rock, Henry Rollins, Bill Duke and Quincy Jones offer up their requisite celebrity endorsements among the talking-head academics, while the rabbit hole of Beck’s history grows both darker and more illuminating once his ex-wife Betty gives her weary, love-hate testimony, and especially in their daughters’ contradictory, “Rashomon“-like perceptions of who their father really was. Even the unearthed ’70s interview footage of Beck shows a suave but hollow soul who was maybe more a guarded construct than a compassionate man, but what could he say? It’s hard out here for a countercultural icon.
The Skinny: How in the world do you get Ice-T to present, executive produce and appear onscreen in your documentary? Try managing him for 29 years, as Hinojosa has been. “[Ice-T] told me he used to read these books in high school and they influenced who he was as a person, and also what he rapped about,” Hinojosa says in a press-kit video interview.
Bonus Round: The disc features extended interviews with Archbishop Don Magic Juan, Snoop Dogg, Betty Beck and Ice-T, who compares the idea of pimping after reading “Pimp” (which he tried to do once upon a time) to doing karate after seeing a karate movie. Leon Isaac Kennedy recalls bringing Mike Tyson to “Berg’s” house, where the boxing legend sat at the foot of the bed and listened to Iceberg philosophize on “life and love and women” before marrying Robin Givens. That one writes itself.
Makes a “Birth of Blaxploitation” Triple Feature with: “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Super Fly”
“Q: The Winged Serpent”
1982, dir. Larry Cohen
(Shout! Factory, available on BD)
Less than a mile uptown from King Kong’s Empire State Building lies the Chrysler Building, nesting home for the eponymous, man-eating, stop-motion animated Aztec god (full name: Quetzalcoatl) in this deliciously oddball, Ray Harryhausen-inspired creature feature by way of lowlife crime thriller. Written and directed by the idiosyncratic, deadpan humored, socially conscious Cohen, an under-acknowledged genre auteur (“It’s Alive,” “The Stuff,” “Black Caesar“) who deserves at least some of George Romero‘s hype, “Q” stars a jittery, motor-mouthed Michael Moriarty (“Law and Order”) as a two-bit thief and wannabe pro pianist who discovers the plumed beast’s skyscraper dwelling. Leveraging his knowledge to get into the good graces of NYC police investigators David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, our hapless, self-serving rogue tries his best to not get murdered by gangsters and the religious cult-invoked fiend who squawkingly beheads window washers and flies away with topless sunbathers to flay and feast on later. TheClaymation F/X (not to be confused with Cohen’s “Special Effects“) are charmingly dated, even as a low-budget throwback to ’50s and ’60s monster movies, but what makes this B-movie transcend its schlock value is its believable, gritty characters, and especially Moriarty’s eccentrically unhinged, heavily improvised performance.
The Skinny: Moriarty and Cohen have had a lucrative collaborative relationship, working together on “The Stuff,” “A Return to Salem’s Lot,” “It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive“ and “Pick Me Up,” a fan-favorite episode of the Showtime anthology “Masters of Horror” that placed Cohen in the same respected camp of contributing genre veterans as John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Tobe Hooper and Joe Dante.
Bonus Round: Cohen’s commentary track starts a bit frazzled but eventually finds its anecdotal groove, with a tangentially shaggy overview of the film’s production (it was put together in a 24-hour scramble after Cohen was fired from an adaptation of Mickey Spillane‘s “I, Jury“) and an early test screening that went awry when the crowds walked out after realizing it wasn’t a preview of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Makes a “Larry Cohen’s Finest Hour” Triple Feature with: “Bone,” “God Told Me To“
WORTH A SPIN:
“Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Volume 1” (1932 – 1937, Olive Films, on BD, DVD) – With doe eyes as big as her puckered lips are tiny, Max and Dave Fleischer‘s cartoon jazz doll “boop-boop-a-doops” her girlish way through 12 early one-reelers, which are surreal and racy and far darker than anything Disney made in that era. Essential, indeed.
“The Big City” (1963, Criterion, on BD, DVD) – With his trademark warmth and wit, India’s greatest director Satyajit Ray explores one woman’s pursuit for independence in then-contemporary Kolkata. Simultaneously, Criterion releases Ray’s 19th-century set “Charulata,” another elegant, progressive, femme-centric melodrama.
“The Painting” (2012, Cinedigm, on BD/DVD combo, DVD) – Looking for meaning in their painted lives, “Alldunns,” “Halfies” and “Sketchies” populate the vibrantly animated world of Jean-François Laguionie’s sweet, sophisticated fantasy “Le Tableau” (as it’s known in its native France), a visual feast for children and adults alike.
“Post Tenebras Lux” (2012, Strand, on DVD) – Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”) regularly delves into the existential and spiritual anguish of his characters, and won Best Director at Cannes for this impressionistic, bizarrely autobiographical drama featuring a family in crisis, bathhouse swingers, and a bright red demon.
“This is Martin Bonner” (2013, Monterey Media, on DVD) – A Sundance award winner, Chad Hartigan‘s low-key but note-perfect drama concerns an ex-con (Richmond Arquette) who is taken under the wing of an aging Australian expat (Paul Eenhoorn). Who knew such a small film could be a smart, profoundly redemptive and devastating character study?