It’s taken me some time to be won over to the Blu-Ray format. Certainly there’s never seemed quite the same necessity to upgrade as there was with VHS to DVD just over 10 years ago, and for those with poor eyesight or without swanky new high-def flatscreens (and equally important, decent speaker systems), it might be hard to detect any tangible improvement over DVD other than that the cases are that little bit smaller so you can stack up more on your shelves. There was also the problem for distributors of what the hell are they were going to fill up all this extra disk space actually with, and the inflated costs of creating an adequate transfer in the first place – all of which meant that there were few niche releases to appeal to more hardcore cinephiles, so unless you were into your big studio productions, there wasn’t much to tempt you over.
Well my mind was certainly changed over the past year. I’ve recently been savouring a number of UK released disks that really benefit from the bright colours and sharp images the format permits – so much so that I’m wondering if I could ever go back to DVD again. The first of these was the BFI’s wonderful release of The Magick Lantern Cycle, the complete works of experimental filmmaker and Aleister Crowley nut Kenneth Anger. Anger might be best known to many for his two wonderful Hollywood Babylon books, which dig the dirt on the various scandals that beset Tinseltown in its early years, but if you’ve never seen such films as The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963) or Lucifer Rising (1972) then, boy, I suggest you get your hands on this while you can. The RRP is £36.99, but I got mine from Amazon UK for £12.99, and its currently listed at £9.19. These luridly bizarre 16mm occult workouts look startling on Blu-Ray – you can see the very grain and texture of the film stock, its the closest one will ever get to seeing these films as they were meant to be seen, projected from film. Moreover, you also get a nice thick booklet about Anger and his films, and a fascinating feature-length documentary Anger Me (2006) about his fascinating life following in the path of the Beast, working at the Cinémathèque Française during the 1950s, and hobnobbing with such luminaries as Mick Jagger.
It seems to me, as DVD once did, that Blu-Ray is really best suited to experimental film, and top of my want list now is a UK release of the films of Stan Brakhage. Criterion put out their 687 minute release By Brakhage: Anthology 1 & 2, but I assume this must be region 1 coded, so no good for my current set up. Oh well, we can live in hope that the BFI will look into getting this out on the market before the coalition government’s cuts debilitate this hallowed institution too much.
In the meantime, I’ll point you to another great BFI release that might have passed you by, which looks similarly impressive on Blu-Ray, which is Winstanley, a real oddity from 1975 co-directed by revered British film historian Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Based on an obscure episode in English history shortly after the Civil War, it portrays a renegade group of known as the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, and their attempts to leave the system by claiming a patch of common land to live on and cultivate for themselves – Britain’s earliest Communists, as you might, whose Reclaim-the-Streets / Grow-Your-Own ethos seems particularly appealing in these times of inflated banker’s bonuses, VAT hikes and public sector layoffs. Brownlow and Mollo also made It Happened Here (1964), about a hypothetical Nazi Occupation of England during the war, although this is only available on DVD. My advice though, to film fans and especially filmmakers, Go Watch Winstanley! This is the perfect example of what independent filmmaking should be. The film is an aesthetic masterpiece, with some beautiful English landscapes shot in wonderful high-contrast 16mm monochrome, demonstrating that just because you’ve got no money, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a gorgeous looking film. Secondly, something so many independent filmmakers seem to forget nowadays – this film is actually ABOUT something. It was made because it says something its makers thought needed saying, not because they just wanted to make a film for the sake of making a film, which seems to be the predominant attitude with most wannabe filmmakers at the moment.
Another film that looks absolutely beautiful on Blu-Ray is Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), one of those films that was widely praised by critics when it came out, but now seems to have faded into memory, and it’s only 4 years old – Amazon have also got this at a knockdown price at the moment, at only £7.99. For the record, I think this portrayal of a young man’s attempt to sever himself from the ties of society and completely absorb himself in nature is one of the best films of the past decade. It’s beautifully acted, but the cinematography is the real star here, with the American landscape from the deserts of Arizona to the wilderness of Alaska shot so beautifully they become essentially the main characters in the film. I could happily keep this disk on all the time in my living room, as moving wallpaper.
This film would make an ideal companion piece to Werner Herzog’s masterful documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), one of the five films included on the Encounters in the Natural World Blu-Ray Boxset, alongside the surreal Antarctic antics of the 2007 title film and one of the directors most hypnotically bizarre, White Diamond (2004). Amazon currently have this down from £54.99 to £16.39, and christ, this was easily the best purchase I made last year. Utterly compelling.
Moving on into more whimsical territory, a quick heads-up on a forthcoming Blu-Ray release which you might be interested in, Third Window Film’s upcoming upgrade of Tetsuya Nakashima’s much-loved Memories of Matsuko (2006), one of the best Japanese releases of the last ten years and a film whose eye-popping colours are sure to be well-serviced by the Blu-Ray format. The extra disk space hasn’t been wasted either – one of the special features is me interviewing the composer Gabriele Roberto, in which you can find out how an Italian musician came to be in Tokyo writing soundtracks for Japanese films.
And this takes me finally to a batch of films put out by Eureka last year. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again, but the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray-only release of Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods was the home-viewing highpoint of 2010, and probably the previous couple of years too. You can read my review of the film on Midnight Eye for why I think this is, but for I wanted to say that for those who felt left out by this Blu-Ray exclusive, 2011 offers some great news – it’s also coming out on DVD in a couple of weeks.
This is the same story for a number of other Eureka releases too, some of which I will cover in due course either on Midnight Eye or this website. Basically, the Blu-Rays of Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, FW Murnau’s City Girl, Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow are all coming out on DVD very soon, so if you don’t have a Blu-Ray player yet, you’ll still get a chance to watch them, and if you do – well, take advantage while they’re going cheap on Amazon!
By the way, I’d like this site to be as much a forum for discussion about films as me thrusting my own views, opinions and tastes upon you, so if you’ve any DVD or Blu-Ray recommendations of your own, don’t be afraid to chime in.