Reel Streaming: Let’s Get Physical! The Tangible Appeal of Blu-rays and DVDs
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 41
By Laurence Lerman
Even after more than a year of enjoying and extolling the virtues of streaming—of having a century-plus of world cinema at one’s fingertips—the pleasures of physical media, namely Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, continue to beckon. But embracing those formats, the technologies of which came of age more than 20 years ago, feels a little like swimming upstream these days, as it were.
The growing popularity of streaming during the pandemic has accelerated the slow demise of Blu-ray and DVD configurations, whose primary audience today is the collector’s community and diehard cinephiles. What those Blu-ray and DVD aficionados will tell you is that a gorgeous remastered edition of the film is vital, but that a disc’s supplemental materials offering background, context and complementary information on the film are also key.
The major studios continue to release their films on discs, although they didn’t make nearly as much of a splash over the past year as they had prior to the quarantine and shutdown. Back then, mail-order retailers and even the occasional brick-and-mortar outlet would see regular action for the fading formats.
These days, major studios and big releases aside (the Marvel Comics Universe films continue to do bang-up business on disc), it is the smaller, more specialized distributors who are bringing the most interesting and provocative titles to the marketplace. Old films, “banned” films, rarely-seen films, films previously trapped in some kind of legal limbo—there are a million stories in the lost celluloid city. And it often takes the wherewithal and ambition of a hungry, independent supplier to release these titles to an equally enthusiastic if far smaller audience on Blu-ray and DVD. And when the release is adorned with some appropriate bonus features, well, that’s the cherry on top.
The past month I’ve enjoyed new Blu-ray editions of a trio of films from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, each outfitted with supplements that made their viewing even more enjoyable. None of them are scheduled for a streaming premiere (yet), and it was a pleasure to fire up the old Blu-ray player for the first time in many months to check them out.
Following the triumph of his classically drawn 1962 western Ride the High Country, director Sam Peckinpah went large-scale with his next picture, 1965’s Major Dundee, starring Charlton Heston as the titular Union Cavalry officer, a vainglorious hard-ass who mounts an expedition to hunt down an Apache war chief. Putting together a ragged army of criminals, former slaves and Confederate POWs (which includes Richard Harris and esteemed Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson, Warren Oates and Slim Pickens), Dundee takes the action to Mexico, where he aims to achieve a crowning moment of glory.
Major Dundee initially clocked in at an imposing 136 minutes and earned generally negative reviews. Against the protests of Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler, 13 minutes were quickly excised, which tightened up the narrative but didn’t help much in the critics’ eyes or at the box office. Today, the film is best remembered as the first time Peckinpah had a film taken away from him by unhappy producers or a disgruntled studio. It launched Peckinpah’s image as a renegade filmmaker who would encounter similar problems with such later projects as The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
Leading restorer and distributor Arrow Entertainment took Dundee under its restorative wing last month, issuing a handsome Blu-ray edition that includes both the 122-minute theatrical cut and the 136-minute extended version (which was barely seen by the public), remastered from a 4K scan of the original source material. The Blu-ray also offers an overflowing assortment of bonus materials, includes a collection of deleted and extended scenes, archival and newer making-of featurettes, and three separate audio commentaries by film critics and Peckinpah scholars.
These well-researched supplements offer a corral full of information on the famously troubled production, including stories of Peckinpah’s frequent drunkenness on set and his mid-shoot firing of a number of crew members for trivial reasons. Even leading man Heston reportedly found himself on the receiving end of Peckinpah’s renowned wrath, prompting him to threaten the director with a cavalry saber and, at one point, actually charging “Bloody Sam” on horseback in an effort to calm him down.
David Bowie referred to Just a Gigolo, the 1978 seriocomic film in which he stars, as “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.” Still, the film’s bizarre storyline, high-end production values and memorable cast elevate it to more of a curious misfire than a by-the-numbers genre flick, built around a charismatic, distinctive-looking rock’n’roll star.
Set in Weimar-era Germany, Bowie plays Paul von Przygodski, a Prussian WWII vet recovering from a bomb attack, who returns home to a financially distressed family and a series of menial jobs. Things change when he discovers steady work as a gigolo, working out of a ritzy Berlin hotel under a renowned madam (Marlene Dietrich, in her final film role). Przygodski soon finds himself engaging in all manner of escapades with both a revolutionary (Sydne Rome) and a society widow (Kim Novak), while being aided along the way by a fellow veteran-turned-Nazi Party organizer (David Hemmings, who also directed).
Following a poor commercial and critical reception upon its international release, Just a Gigolo was pulled from theaters as the reportedly disorganized and boozing director Hemmings tried to recut it. Bowie essentially disavowing the film and Germany boycotting it for its depiction of Nazi life didn’t help the matter.
Supplier Shout! Factory’s just-released widescreen, uncut Blu-ray edition of Gigolo marks the film’s first U.S. appearance since its VHS release in chopped-up form back in 1989. Bonuses includes a 30-page booklet with production notes by producer/co-screenwriter Joshua Sinclair, a commentary track by assistant-to-the-director Rory MacLean, and a half-hour featurette including interviews with both of them. Taken together, the supplements offer some great insight into the genesis of the film, its production and sublime cast, and how everything went wrong.
The most interesting bits involve screen icon Dietrich, who was wooed to make her first screen appearance in 15 years with an offer of $250,000 (as well as regular deliveries of roses and champagne) for two days of work. Sinclair also notes that it cost an additional half-million dollars to shoot Dietrich’s seven minutes of scenes in Paris since she refused to return to West Berlin. Further, the film’s on-screen meeting between Bowie and Dietrich never actually happened in real life, as Bowie’s scenes were shot in Berlin and the Paris footage of Dietrich was edited into the film, with the director himself standing in for Bowie for their big scene together.
Nutty production tales also pepper the story of the 1988 Italian supernatural horror film Nosferatu in Venice, starring Klaus Kinski, a bizarre, unofficial sequel-in-name-only to Werner Herzog’s 1970 Nosferatu the Vampyre, which also starred the irascible, bordering-on-the-uncontrollable Kinski.
Produced and directed by Italian film impresario Augusto Caminito (who took the director’s chair after a handful of previous helmers dropped out), the film follows a British professor (Christopher Plummer) who travels to The Floating City to investigate the whereabouts of the legendary vampire Nosferatu, whose last sighting was during Venice’s Carnival in the 18th century. Wouldn’t you know that the professor joins a séance that awakens Nosferatu from his 200-year slumber and unleashes him on an unsuspecting Venice?
Last month, Severin Films issued a Blu-ray edition of the atmospheric but scattershot Euro-horror-thriller, marking the film’s first official U.S. release in any digital format. It features a fresh 2K scan and an outstanding new documentary on Kinski’s later career entitled Creation is Violent: Anecdotes from Kinski’s Final Years. Directed by Josh Johnson, it is comprised entirely of interviews with filmmakers, actors and others who worked with Kinski during the last six years of his life (interspersed with some footage of the ranting man himself). The feature-length doc is actually more entertaining than the film it is supplementing.
Creation is Violent’s participants paint an alarming picture of Kinski in the Eighties, whose best work was clearly behind him (Herzog’s 1971 Aguirre, the Wrath of God and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, among them) and whose legendarily demented persona appears to have kicked into overdrive during those final years. Tales of Kinski attempting to sabotage nearly every production he worked on, his verbal and sometimes physical abuse of fellow performers and crew members, and his attempts to sexually assault the actresses he worked with (often while filming sex scenes!) are not for the faint of heart.
The question “What price art?” can certainly be raised when it comes to Kinski, whose unforgettable face and presence were seen and felt in more than 120 films over four decades. His talents and presence may have been palpable, yes, but it’s worth remembering that he was also accused of literally trying to rape his female costars.
That’s not the kind of backstage info one ordinarily expects, but that it’s being furnished as part of a supplemental package on the Blu-ray release of a 30-year-old lesser-known film is very gratifyingly.
The truth will out, digitally or otherwise.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.