Let’s take a look at another city symphony while we wait for the next MMC! proposal, specifically Francis Thompson’s wonderfully distorted tribute to life in New York City! Thompson’s short film celebrates the rhythms, geometries, and absurdities of city life through a variety of fanciful lenses, prisms, reflectors, and editing techniques (all of which Thompson was quite secretive about). Originally a painter and an art teacher, Thompson began his filmmaking career with The Evolution of the Skyscraper in 1939 and later won an Academy Award for To Be Alive! (1964). In a frequently quoted comment on the film, Aldous Huxley remarked on Thompson’s ability to escape colour photography’s tyrannical claim to verisimilitude and use the medium to further the voice of non-representational art. Huxley observed:
And then there is what may be called the Distorted Documentary a new form of visionary art, admirably exemplified by Mr. Francis Thompson’s film, NY, NY. In this very strange and beautiful picture we see the city of New York as it appears when photographed through multiplying prisms, or reflected in the backs of spoons, polished hub caps, spherical and parabolic mirrors. We still recognize houses, people, shop fronts, taxicabs, but recognize them as elements in one of those living geometries which are so characteristic of the visionary experience. The invention of this new cinematographic art seems to presage (thank heaven!) the supersession and early demise of non-representational painting. It used to be said by the non-representationalists that colored photography had reduced the old-fashioned portrait and the old-fashioned landscape to the rank of otiose absurdities. This, of course, is completely untrue. Colored photography merely records and preserves, in an easily reproducible form, the raw materials with which portraitists and landscape painters work. Used as Mr. Thompson has used it, colored cinematography does much more than merely record and preserve the raw materials of non-representational art; it actually turns out the finished product. Looking at NY, NY, I was amazed to see that virtually every pictorial device invented by the old masters of non-representational art and reproduced ad nauseam by the academicians and mannerists of the school, for the last forty years or more, makes its appearance, alive, glowing, intensely significant, in the sequences of Mr. Thompson’s film.
The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
In his sole effort in filmmaking, celebrated fashion photographer Bert Stern surveyed the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival to create a now-classic document of ’50s America and capture some of the most stunning images of live jazz ever brought to the silver screen, featuring performances by Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Thelonius Monk, and Dinah Washington, as well as rock and roller Chuck Berry and gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. Stern, with assistance from editor and co-director Aram Avakian and jazz producer and musical director George Avakian, brings onscreen jazz music from smoky nightclubs to the colorfully sunny days of affluent Rhode Island, infusing these images with his distinctively clear and uncluttered aesthetic. Juxtapozing the Festival with footage of its audience, of life in and around Newport, and of the ongoing America’s Cup yacht races, Jazz on a Summer’s Day immortalizes the breezy cool of the era before it was overtaken by rock music and the tumultuous Sixties.
- New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New audio commentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins and radio host Tom Reney
- New introduction to the film by Giddins
- New interview with musician Keith Richards
- A Summer’s Day, an interactive documentary with director Bert Stern with additional scenes
- Jammin’ the Blues, photographer Gjon Mili’s 1944 short film with optional audio commentary by Giddins
- Selection of unreleased performances and footage
- Stills gallery, featuring the work of renowned photographer Bruce Davidson
- Optional captions identifying artists and song titles
- PLUS: An interview with Stern with John Guida and an essay by historian Arik Devens
The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Aboard the Calypso – Sea and Cinema with Jacques Cousteau.
Explorer. Inventor. Author. Conservationist. Filmmaker. Jacques Cousteau was an iconic figure in marine exploration, spending more than sixty years investigating undersea kingdoms and sharing his tales with the world. Over three award-winning feature films spanning twenty years, Cousteau reveals the beauty and dangers beneath the waves of the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the frozen Antarctic, finding seldom seen tropical wonders, describing the pressures of living in an underwater base for weeks at a time, and persevering through the life or death struggle to survive at the South Pole. Both the committed naturalist and the keen showman, Cousteau portrayed his oceanic marvels with the idealism and the spectacle of science fiction and inspired generations to care for alien worlds here at home and no longer hidden from view.
Special Edition Three-Blu Ray Set Features:
- New high definition digital transfers of The Silent World, World Without Sun, and Voyage to the Edge of the World, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
- French and English-language audio tracks
- Introductions by Wes Anderson, James Cameron, and Werner Herzog
- Of Silence and Men: The Pioneers of The Silent World, a 50-minute documentary featuring interviews with Jacques Cousteau, co-director Louis Malle, camera designer André Laban, Cousteau scholar Franck Machu, and Malle biographer Pierre Billard
- Two Men, A Masterpiece, an interview with Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle
- The Silent World’s Legacy, interviews with Jacques Cousteau, Luc Besson, and Jacques Perrin
- Early films of Jacques Cousteau: 18 Meters Deep, Shipwrecks, Landscapes of Silence, Seals in the Sahara, Around a Reef, Off Tunisian Coasts, One sortie du “Rubis,” SCUBA Diary, Danger Under the Sea, Rhythm on the Reef, and The Red Sea
- Station 307 and The Fountain of the Vaucluse, a pair of short films by Louis Malle made in collaboration with Jacques Cousteau
- Edmond Séchan’s Academy Award-winning short The Golden Fish, produced by Jacques Cousteau
- Restoration demonstration
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Luc Jacquet and excerpts from Cousteau’s 1953 book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure
MMC! wraps up its review of the National Film Board of Canada with this penultimate post on the NFB’s first blockbuster, Royal Journey (David Barstow, Roger Blais, and Gudrun Parker, 1951). This 54-minute document of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Windsor’s monthlong visit across Canada and to Washington, D.C., is weighed down by some hokey narration, but it is a stunning record of the era, beautifully expressing the complex regionalism of Canada and standing as the first feature film shot on Kodak’s (then experimental) 35 mm Eastman colour film stock. Its presentation is full of newsreel immediacy, showing Canadian life, in nearly all its forms, in vibrant, shocking colour, yet the film is full of history and alludes to the young nation’s place in a larger geo-political context. And the short feature offers some fascinating moments in Canadiana, such Princess Elizabeth’s visit to the Winnipeg Ballet, an institution she would grant “Royal” status to less than 2 years later. (Admittedly, we Canadians are probably as weather-obsessed as the film would have you believe.) Royal Journey was a massive success for the NFB, seen by 350,000 people in its first week and 2 million people over the next 2 years, winning a BAFTA for Best Documentary in the process.
As per the NFB (with only some inaccuracies):
A documentary account of the five-week visit of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Windsor to Canada and the United States in the fall of 1951. Stops on the royal tour include Québec City, the National War Memorial in Ottawa, the Trenton Air Force Base in Toronto, a performance of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Regina and visits to Calgary and Edmonton. The royal train crosses the Rockies and makes stops in several small towns. The royal couple boards HCMS Crusader in Vancouver and watches native dances in Thunderbird Park, Victoria. They are then welcomed to the United States by President Truman. The remainder of the journey includes visits Montreal, the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, a steel mill in Sydney, Nova Scotia and Portugal Cove, Newfoundland.
When Canadian ambitions toward high culture land on the third art rather than the fourth (sorry Glenn Gould!), attention is frequently given to the Group of Seven, a collection of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s and ’30s that established a Canadian Modernist style and provided a distinctly Canadian aesthetic by which artists could interpret and interact with their national subject. Allan Wargon’s Varley (1953) provides something of an introduction to Frederick Varley, then 72 years old, two decades removed from the Group of Seven’s disbanding, living an impoverished life, and with his best years as an artist now well behind him. Wargon initially envisioned the film as a celebration of the painter “as a hero and a wise man,” but Varley rejected such a portrayal of himself in favour of a reworking by Wargon that approached the film as a psychological study. Without great interest from the National Film Board for a documentary on Frederick Varley, Wargon lacked the necessary budget for Ektachrome film stock until the Director of the National Gallery took pity on him and offered to make up the shortfall, thereby allowing the film to get made. Varley was the only member of the Group of Seven to specialize in portraiture and Wargon’s film seems to emphasize this work almost ahead of Varley’s more renowned landscapes. Wargon’s camera ruminates on the thick “Hot Mush” of the painted canvas and the rough, etched face of Varley, revealing the artist and his art as distorted and weathered in appearance, yet entirely noble in spirit.
Those looking for more on Allan Wargon and Varley should head to the filmmaker’s highly informative blog.
As per the NFB:
This short documentary is a portrait of Frederick Varley, Canadian painter and member of the Group of Seven. In the film, Varley returns to his studio in Toronto after a sketching trip. The camera moves about the studio selecting examples of his canvases and watches him as he begins a new painting.
Another Oscar-nominated NFB documentary, The Stratford Adventure (Morten Parker, 1954) presents Tom Patterson’s efforts in establishing a Shakespearean Festival in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, a Canadian namesake to the Bard’s birthplace complete with its own River Avon. Parker’s little docudrama relies heavily on plucky ’50s optimism and the rallying presence of famed Old Vic producer Tyrone Guthrie who acted as a consultant and director to the Festival’s first season. Now called The Stratford Festival, it remains one of Canada’s major arts events and an internationally celebrated centre for Shakespearean performance. Criterion Collection fans will no doubt appreciate the behind-the-scenes perspective on the Festival’s inaugural production of Richard III and the appearance of Alec Guinness.
As per the NFB:
This short film depicts how a small Canadian city, bearing the name of Stratford and by a river Avon, created its own renowned Shakespearean theatre. The film tells how the idea grew, how a famous British director, international stars and Canadian talent were recruited, and how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival finally became a triumphant reality.