|by The Ultimate Dancing Machine
I’m not a “film critic,” or at least I’ve never been able to call myself one without blushing. It’s a terribly august title, and it doesn’t fit comfortably on me at all. I’d rather remain an amateur enthusiast; that’s what I’ve been these last few years on HBS/eFC, shooting my unasked-for opinions all over the Net at irregular intervals. I’m just a lone gunman, prone to irrational obsessions, and tending to scare the more respectable neighbors who live down the hall.
My filmic preoccupations often take me far from mainstream Hollywood, partly due to a mounting conviction that whatever’s playing down at the Cineplex 500 probably isn’t worth my time (or my ten bucks), and partly because I am weird and therefore am attracted to weird things. I like the obscure, the little-seen, the forgotten, the never-known. Not unconditionally, of course; artistic merit is always welcome, though I would rather watch a movie that fails interestingly over one that succeeds blandly.
Video stores everywhere are loaded with movies nobody particularly wants to see—yesterday’s blockbusters, movies that only seem more ephemeral when they’re released on that nearly imperishable format: the DVD. Films don’t disintegrate in the vaults anymore; digital technology gives movies longer lifespans; but that doesn’t change the fact that Jurassic Park III simply was not made for the ages. And even in the face of this glut, many worthy movies remain unavailable in any form—VHS, DVD, laserdisc, what have you. Small but not insignificant pieces of cinematic history are still out of reach to the average moviegoer. They’re movies that appear occasionally at film festivals, very occasionally on late-night TV, and almost never anywhere else.
This is how it was explained to me. Before the advent of “pre-recorded” videotapes in the late '70s, movie contracts dealt only with television and theatrical rights, which is to say that they included no provisions for home video release, for obvious reasons. But this becomes a problem when a given film contains materials—like pop songs—licensed from outside sources. To get those rights—necessary for home video release—you have to head back to the negotiating table, and in some cases it’s not worth the effort. Or so the perception goes. Two-Lane Blacktop, for example, stayed off the video market for two decades because it contains about ten seconds from a Doors song.
What follows is a highly subjective list of the best movies that, as far as I know, have never been released on any home video format—Beta, VHS, laserdisc, DVD—in the U.S. Some of them are available as bootlegs that can be found on the Internet, but as we at HBS/eFC are respectable citizens, we won’t go into that here. Most of them are major-studio releases that have been sitting uselessly in the film library for a long time.
To repeat, this is very much my top 10; any resemblance to commonly accepted canons of taste is entirely coincidental, and probably to be regretted. A lot of people lust for Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper (1972)—for some, the Holy Grail of not-on-video cinema. I thought it was a crushing bore—Demy straining to make a Big Statement about fascism and losing his magic touch in the effort. So it’s not on the list.
Anyhow, here’s the list:
Deep End (1970; dir.: Jerzy Skolimowski).
Roman Polanski meets J. D. Salinger in a crazy, intense psychodrama about the doomed relationship between a gangly 15 year old (John Moulder-Brown) and the flirty older woman he meets at a public bathhouse (Jane Asher). Simultaneously funny, tragic, and creepy, it’s one of the forgotten classics from the early ‘70s; it holds its own with the best of that era’s productions. Even so, you won’t find it at your friendly neighborhood video store.
Killer of Sheep (1977; dir.: Charles Burnett).
Great slice-of-life drama dealing with the underclass of Watts, focusing on a slaughterhouse worker. Killer of Sheep is a real modern classic, having been inducted in the U.S. National Film Registry, but to this day about fifty people have seen it. The plotless structure gives it authenticity--this is the way life is, you feel--and it achieves the kind of gritty realism that movies like Gummo could only aspire to. Alas, the very extensive soundtrack will probably keep this out of video stores for some time to come.
3 Women (1977; dir.: Robert Altman) and Images (1972; dir.: Robert Altman).
Two strange and compelling explorations into female psychology (abnormal division), these are intimate chamber pieces that could hardly differ more from the Cast of Thousands epics (e.g., Nashville) that made Robert Altman’s rep in the ‘70s. Images is the closest Altman has come to a horror movie; this is his Repulsion, and it benefits greatly from John Williams’ creepy Oscar-nominated score. The better-known 3 Women is one of the classic love-it-or-hate-it films. I’m still not certain whether this is a masterpiece or a pretentious, airless arthouse exercise. But I do know that it should be made more readily available so viewers can judge for themselves. Incidentally, Altman’s oeuvre is in a frightful state: California Split (1974) and H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979) also remain unavailable.
Ice (1969; dir.: Robert Kramer).
Yeah, it’s dated, but this B&W mockumentary look at ‘60s radicalism hits closer to the bone than most attempts to nail down the zeitgeist circa 1969. Ice captures something of the casual nuttiness of the era in its depiction of a pack of wannabe revolutionaries who earnestly run around trying to...do what, exactly? We never find out. Deliberately artless, it anticipates many later experiments in bare-bones filmmaking.
Privilege (1967; dir.: Peter Watkins).
Paranoia has never looked so good. Sometime in a near future, England is fast succumbing to fascism, and only an eccentric rock star (Paul Jones of Manfred Mann) can save us all. Sound silly? Not really--it’s quite interesting. Like Watkins’ Oscar-winning “documentary” The War Game, this film looks convincingly, dazzlingly real, even when it becomes perilously heavy-handed. A pretty good soundtrack helps, too. Watkins, whose off-and-on career tragically resembles Monte Hellman’s, is probably the best filmmaker you’ve never heard of.
Remember My Name (1978; dir.: Alan Rudolph).
Anthony Perkins is being stalked by his ex-wife, who’s just out of prison after twelve years...or maybe there’s something else going on...? An early film from Rudolph, this contains a memorably antic performance from Geraldine Chaplin, practically defining the term “chewing the scenery.”
Mickey One (1965; dir.: Arthur Penn).
Like 3 Women, this is either great stuff or sheer phony-baloney. A hyper-stylized journey into urban paranoia, Mickey One (in B&W) has a not-yet-famous Warren Beatty as a nightclub comedian running from the mob. Perhaps too weird for its own good, but certainly more interesting than Dick Tracy.
The Fox (1968; dir.: Mark Rydell). A three-character drama with a small yet loyal following, this shows up regularly on cable TV, but so far it has remained off the video market. Two lesbians live together in an isolated cabin—then a mysterious stranger (Keir Dullea) threatens to come between them. Quietly compelling, with an unnervingly cynical ending, it stays within its modest boundaries but succeeds impressively within them.
Pretty Poison (1968; dir.: Noel Black).
Anthony Perkins is a pyromaniac. Tuesday Weld is a sociopath. They’re a perfect couple. This is a dark, dark comedy (though the obscenely bright, sitcom-ish sets tend to play against the tone) of the sort that Hollywood has never been entirely comfortable with. Now you know where that ‘80s pop group got their name.
I have to confess that I haven't offered the above list in perfect innocence. It would be fine thing indeed if anyone out there could pull a few strings to get at least a couple of these movies out on DVD. We are living in a world where movies like Bounce get the Special Edition treatment. It's time to redistribute the wealth.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=602
originally posted: 07/27/02 16:12:03
last updated: 07/27/02 16:17:14