Despite the shiver it still sends down the spines of many a film purist, each new month brings additional proof that home video has taken the place once held by the art house and the revival theater, preserving the films of the past and promoting the obscure and uncelebrated films of the present. As popularized film culture (in such guises as the recent American Film Institute list) narrows itself to fit the limitations of Blockbuster Video and Planet Hollywood, the real, living, breathing face of contemporary cinema struggles to find an audience.
Consider, for example, recent discussion of a new French New Wave, celebrated in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere. Some critics have even suggested that there are as many as three waves in France, the first led by the stylistic variations of Leos Carax and Olivier Assayas, the second a cinema of ideas in the tradition of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, and the third a dark, nihilistic school staring straight at the desperate lives of the young and the poor. For interested U.S. viewers, the only common point is that all three have, with few exceptions (Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate and Assayas' brilliant Irma Vep among them), been ignored by specialty distributors such as Miramax, who prefer their art-house fare to be exotic, period-piece prestigious and, whenever possible, in English. Those interested in contemporary trends like the above will have to search it out as it slips into the video market, one or two films at a time.
Benoit Jacquot's 1990 The Disenchanted (First Run Features, Feb. 9, rental only) is perhaps typical of the romantic, Rohmeresque cinema of young faces and abstract ideas. The heroine, Beth (played by the enchanting Judith Godreche), is a young girl with a fondness for Rimbaud and an increasing numbness to the emotional demands of the world. Her boyfriend, disliked by all of her acquaintances and left nameless by the filmmaker, challenges her to prove her love by going to bed with the ugliest man she can find. She drops the boyfriend but accepts his challenge, flirting first with a gawky young boy, then a thoughtful 40-year-old writer, and finally, with her mother's approval, with "Sugardad," an older man who has made no secret of his interest in her. Though it sounds like farce, The Disenchanted is more existential than comical, and Beth's restless ambivalence to life takes on an almost tragic weight as the film progresses. Contact First Run at 212-243-0600 or www.firstrunfeatures.com.
By comparison, Manuel Pradal's debut film, Marie Baie des Anges (Columbia TriStar, rental only), is more consciously stylish but also more stultifyingly superficial. The tale of two youths on the Riviera, one a young man drawn to petty crime, the other a very young girl who teasingly accepts the company of the local American sailors, rambles unconvincingly to a tragic conclusion as contrived as it is predictable. The young performers are appealing up to a point, but their pouty angst, like their director's trendy nihilism, is about as profound as a Calvin Klein commercial.
BACK PROJECTION: If new French films are becoming increasingly exotic to American viewers, the new Iranian cinema, only beginning to receive notice, is truly uncharted territory; a film like Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Once Upon a Time, Cinema, one of six new Iranian releases from Facets Video, intrigues and teases as much as it enlightens. Part cinephilic reverie, part Arabian Nights fantasy, Makhmalbaf's film is about a Chaplinesque projectionist who introduces motion pictures to the Persian court, only to have the shah fall helplessly in love with the onscreen heroine. Though most of the film is genuinely witty and charming, a perfect companion piece to earlier film-vs.-reality games such as The Icicle Thief, the references to Iranian films of the past (mostly very broad comedies) are obviously lost on most Western viewers, and by the time Makhmalbaf conjured up the spirit of what appeared to be a fairly recent action thriller, I was hopelessly confused. Nonetheless, Once Upon a Time, Cinema is a fascinating peek at a truly unknown cinema history, a hint of new discoveries to come. Other Iranian titles just released by Facets are Nargess, The Last Act, Zinat, Travellers and The Legend of a Sigh. Contact Facets at 800-331-6197 or www.facets.org.
ON THE FRITZ: Two of the three new titles in Kino's long and invaluable series of vintage film noirs (or should it be films noir?), Jules Dassin's prison drama Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), are already established entries in the noir canon (though I for one find the self-congratulating faux- documentary style and the glimpses of proletarian color of the latter film tiresome). The third, Fritz Lang's 1953 The Blue Gardenia, is less familiar, and probably with good reason. The story may be noir material (Anne Baxter, having just been dumped by mail by her boyfriend in Korea, spends a drunken night on the town with the wolfish and soon-to-be-dead Raymond Burr, then becomes convinced that she murdered him), but Lang's handling is perversely and uncharacteristically light in tone, lacking the intensity of The Big Heat or the poetry of his films with Edward G. Robinson in the '40s. What's most interesting about The Blue Gardenia's sunny disposition is the way the film treats the noir paranoia as just another new frill on the postwar cultural landscape, along with exotic cocktails, long-playing records, Mickey Spillane novels and the atomic bomb.
Also just released from Kino, and an essential part of any film library, are three beautifully restored volumes of The Chaplin Mutuals, 12 shorts made in 1917 and 1918 as Chaplin broke away from the limitations of Mack Sennett's slapstick style and, for better or worse, began seeing himself as a real artist.
Contact Kino at 800-562-3330 or www.kino.com.
JACKIE 007: The likable but unimpressive Rush Hour (New Line) may be the film that finally established Jackie Chan as a presence in American action comedies, but Chan's new fans would do better to check out Jackie Chan's "Who Am I?" (Columbia TriStar, Feb. 2, rental only), one of his biggest hits overseas but heading straight to video in the U.S. after a brief run on HBO. Chan plays a CIA commando who gets amnesia while on a mission in Africa and spends the rest of the film dodging the attacks of his former employers. OK, the story is the usual James Bond stuff, but the action sequences are among Chan's best ever, including a truly spectacular stunt where Jackie slides down the side of a 21-story building.
WHITE-COLLAR CRIME: In her photographic work, Cindy Sherman has re- created an imaginary world of Hollywood melodrama and tragedy, starring the photographer herself, using the form of the movie still to suggest a haunting subtext of loneliness and despair behind the celluloid past. Produced by avant-garde mogul Christine Vachon, Sherman's first movie, the barely released Office Killer (Dimension, Feb. 9, rental only), takes its inspiration from a less predictable source: gory horror thrillers from the '70s like Deranged and Don't Look in the Basement. Carol Kane plays Dorine, a mousy copy editor at a New York magazine who reacts to downsizing at the office by going on a killing spree, then preserving the corpses of her victims in her rec room. Despite a prestigious cast (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Molly Ringwald, Eric Bogosian and Barbara Sukowa) and the occasional reminder of the photographer's fascination with women's faces, there's not a trace of modernist detachment or postmodern irony in sight. Perhaps that's the real joke: Just as Sherman uses photography to create imaginary found objects from Hollywood's past, her first film is a relic of a different kind, a painstaking re-creation of something that might have comfortably fit on a double bill with Alice, Sweet Alice or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 25 years ago.
FAST FORWARD: Recently released: Hal Hartley's Henry Fool*, Susan Skoog's Whatever* and Brian Gilbert's Wilde* (all from Columbia TriStar), Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66* and Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island* (both from Universal), Stephen Soderbergh's Schizopolis and Michael Haneke's Funny Games* (both from Fox/Lorber), Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks* (New Yorker), Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney* (BMG Independents). Coming on Feb. 2: John Cassavetes' Husbands (Columbia TriStar). Coming on Feb. 9: Radley Metzger's The Dirty Girls and The Princess and the Call Girl (First Run Features), Emir Kusturica's Underground* (New Yorker), Brad Anderson's Next Stop Wonderland* (Miramax) and John Carpenter's Vampires (Columbia TriStar). Titles marked with an asterisk are for rental only.