As streaming boutique networks and oxymoronic Smart TVs have razed the traditional structures of film distribution and erected a strip mall of New Release junk-food joints, it's worth remembering that the home video/cable revolution your parents and grandparents fought back in the old days of VHS wasn't won so that you could watch the latest Adam Sandler vehicle on a five-inch screen during your lunch break. We were promised all of the world's culture, past and present, within our reach, yet somehow it took Netflix five years to realize that I was ignoring its algorithm-driven recommendations and it could keep the Family Guy episodes to itself.
All of which is simply my digressive way of saying that it's always worth your while to look behind the loud and heavily promoted latest releases to see what else is on the shelf. In my case, that means trying to catch up on some of the DVD/Blu-Ray releases that I've allowed to pile up around my desk for the last few months.
You won't find many references to The Daughter of Dawn (coming from Milestone Films on July 19) in film history books. Norbert Myles' 1920 film, shot with a cast drawn from Oklahoma's Kiowa and Comanche tribes, had a sneak preview in Los Angeles and a short commercial run in Topeka, Kansas, before disappearing. Like far too many films from the silent era, it was presumed lost. Then, in 2005, a private investigator contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society with the news that he had received a print as payment from a client.
Newly restored (though rough patches remain) and scored, it's endearingly old-fashioned entertainment worthy of more than just a footnote. Myles, a West Virginia-born actor (IMDB.com shows that he later became a makeup artist in Hollywood, working uncredited on Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and many other films), persuaded more than 300 local Kiowa and Comanche people to rebuild their villages in Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains, giving the film a valuable authenticity. The story involves rivalries between the two tribes and between two Kiowa men, White Eagle and Black Wolf, both of whom have their eye on the title character, their chief's daughter. As the hero and heroine, White Parker and Esther LeBarre are appealing, and the rest of the large cast is amateurishly passable, although the supporting roles sometimes give off the feel of watching a historical reenactment group. Wisely, Myles concentrates on the spectacle and scale of his film, using wide shots that capture the complexity and scope of the villages and devoting a generous amount of time to the rituals and social structures of each tribe. As a Native American genre piece, The Daughter of Dawn is fast-paced and fun; as a historical document (on multiple levels), it's a priceless rediscovery.
Jean Renoir's 1931 La Chienne, released as a Criterion disc a few weeks ago, begins on a puppet stage, where a marionette narrator introduces the main characters, a nod to both the theatrical dimension of the film and to Renoir's embrace — and sly inversion — of a familiar melodramatic triangle. It's the story of Maurice Legrand, a bookish middle-aged man (the great, dog-faced Michel Simon) played for a fool by young prostitute Lulu (Janie Marèse, who died in a car accident before the film was released) and her pimp. Renoir adds an extended glimpse of the art world and a strange, comic subplot involving the former husband of Legrand's shrewish wife, which gives the film its most extended comic sequence as well as its richly ironic ending.
The newly restored print shows the brilliance of Renoir's direction (and the art direction of Marcel Courmes) in the first masterpiece of his "poetic realism" period; every scene, even the real street locations, has a slightly fantastic, theatrical feel to it. As the final shot reveals, we're all just players in the puppet theater.
Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie (Icarus Films Home Video) brings together many of the Belgian director's favorite themes — landscapes, communication, her Jewish heritage, the obsessive need to film her physical environment and, most importantly, her mother — with a deceptive coolness. Compiled from miles of footage (the first assembly lasted twenty hours) and collected over an unspecified amount of time, the film is made up of what seem to be randomly selected moments shot in the apartment of the filmmaker's mother, Nelly.
There's no clear order or purpose to the shots at first; sometimes the figures are obscured or face away from the camera. Nor is it intentionally a biographical portrait. Nelly occasionally tells stories from her life (born in Poland, she moved to Belgium to escape the Nazis, but ended up in Auschwitz after Germany invaded the country). Just as often, though, she's captured eating lunch or walking across her apartment. It becomes clear that the compulsive filming is Akerman's way of preserving a connection to her mother. Spending long periods away from Belgium as a teacher in New York, she records Skype conversations with her mother and films lengthy tracking shots of foreign landscapes, which come to represent her distance from home.
No Home Movie becomes a film that is not just about the declining Nelly (she died in 2014) , but also about absence — the filmmaker's time overseas and the inevitable absence of Nelly from the rooms and hallways that her daughter has so dutifully explored and recorded. No Home Movie is a solemn film, an act of devotion. Sadly, it's also hard not to see it as a final statement from the gifted Akerman. Treated for depression after her mother's death, the director committed suicide last fall, just a few days before the film's U.S. premiere.