In the Street (James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb, 1948)

Our second stop along the way the MMC!’s next proposal brings us to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and In the Street (1948), a short documentary made by a trio of brilliant American polymaths: critic and novelist James Agee, photographer Helen Levitt, and painter and screenwriter Janice Loeb. The three friends shot the film in 1945 and 1946, near where they lived, with Levitt editing the short into its final version. Originally titled I Hate 110th Street, a phrase captured in an image of children’s chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, In the Street began with footage originally shot by Agee that directly engaged with his subjects, capturing the vitality of children mugging at the camera with gleeful abandon. Levitt’s approach for additional footage mirrored her trickery in still photography. Pointing her camera at Agee or Loeb, her sister-in-law, as decoys, she used a right-angled viewfinder to catch her true subjects unawares. While Agee’s footage anticipates the direct cinema movement, Levitt’s sideways gaze reveals urban life at its most unmediated, save for her expert framing. Theorist Siegfried Kracauer hailed the documentary as “reportage pure and simple,” presenting a collection of seemingly random experiences infused with an “unconcealed compassion for the people depicted” and a tenderness that never converts them into “anything but themselves.” The short was also a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, who never tired of imitating its young participants.

N.Y., N.Y. (Francis Thompson, 1957)

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.

Night of the Juggler (Robert Butler, 1980)

HE’LL TEAR APART A CITY TO SAVE HIS DAUGHTER

When a vicious psychopath mistakes the daughter of tough ex-cop Sean Boyd (James Brolin) for the daughter of a wealthy developer and kidnaps her for ransom, Boyd goes on a city-wide rampage to get her back. Fighting his way through 42nd Street porn palaces and Bronx gang territories, facing street thugs and crooked cops, Boyd’s unrelenting search through the urban decay of New York City is a pulse-pounding, action-thriller in the gritty spirit of Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver.

Based on the novel by William P. McGivern (who wrote the original serial for The Big Heat) and featuring wild performances by Cliff Gorman, Dan Hedaya, Sharon Mitchell, and Mandy Patinkin, Night of the Juggler is a stunningly grimy portrait of the Big Apple at its most fetid and a relentless thrill-ride of brawls, car crashes, dog attacks, and knife-fights!

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Held Hostage, new interview with actress Abby Bluestone
  • Along for the Ride, new interview with actress Julie Carmen
  • At the Peep Show, new interview with actress Sharon Mitchell
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by cult cinema critic Steven Puchalski

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Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Moonstruck.

In this award-winning, romantic comedy, Cher stars as Loretta, a widowed bookkeeper in Brooklyn who agrees to marry a mild-mannered man (Danny Aiello) even though she does not love him. Unlucky in love, she promptly falls for his estranged brother (Nicolas Cage), sparking a torrid affair with the moody, young man while her fiancé is absent at his mother’s deathbed. With wonderfully stylized dialogue by playwright John Patrick Shanley and a brilliant ensemble of supporting performances from Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, John Mahoney, Julie Bovasso, Louis Guss, and Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a modern screwball classic and an operatic fable full of moonlit enchantment and the sweet charm of sugar cubes dissolved in champagne.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interviews with director Norman Jewison, writer John Patrick Shanley, and actors Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, and Danny Aiello
  • Audio Commentary featuring Cher, Norman Jewison, and writer John Patrick Shanley
  • A Night at the Opera, musicologist Marcia Citron on opera, La bohème, and Moonstruck
  • Remarriage Italian Style, scholar William Day on Moonstruck and the comedy of remarriage
  • Moonstruck: At the Heart of an Italian Family, a featurette on the making of the film
  • Music of Moonstruck, a featurette on the film’s score
  • Trailer and TV spots
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Mary Ann McDonald Carolan

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Tougher Than Leather (Rick Rubin, 1988)

UNCONCEIVABLE! UNBELIEVABLE!

Trouble is just a beat away in this action-packed ’80s classic starring the Kings of Rock, Run DMC. The up-and-coming hip-hop trio of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay are signed to Strut Productions, a crooked booking agency laundering drug money for gangsters and aiming to exploit the group’s growing popularity to further their criminal schemes. When their close friend and roadie Runny Ray stumbles upon the illegal operation and is murdered in cold blood, the devastated musicians take the law into their own hands to avenge their friend’s death, facing racist thugs and armed gangsters in their pursuit of justice.

Co-written, co-produced, and directed by superstar record producer Rick Rubin and supported by a hard-hitting soundtrack featuring music by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, the Junk Yard Band, and Public Enemy, Tougher Than Leather is an urban Western that’s too tough to miss.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround Options
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Grammar Like a Hammer: The Making of Tougher Than Leather, a new documentary containing interviews with Darryl McDaniels, Rev Run, Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, Chuck D, and Eddie Murphy
  • Run DMC music videos for “Run’s House,” “Mary, Mary,” and “Christmas in Hollis”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an interview with photographer Glen E. Friedman and a collection of his on-set photographs

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Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921)

I recently watched Redes (Emilio Gómez Mariel and Fred Zinnemann, 1936), from the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project box set, and Kent Jones’s visual essay which makes reference to Manhatta (1921), a documentary short made by photographer and Redes-cinematographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler. The short is not included in the WCP set (although it was included on the now OOP DVD set, Unseen Cinema), and so I thought I would share it here at MMC! The short is inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta” and is considered the USA’s first experimental film. Strand and Sheeler link their respective art forms (painting and photography) to cinema by preferring dynamic angles and compositions over movement, using editing and intertitles to express a monumental day in Lower Manhattan. The result is a visually engaging and invaluable document of the time.