Back in the days before the VHS home video market exploded and Blockbuster became the obiquitous rental store, the 16mm film library was still a viable business in the non-theatrical college and educational markets. The decline would begin in the early eighties and by the end of the decade most 16mm distributors would be out of business. But during the peak years, this film format was affordable and easily accessible to all types of organizations (churches, schools, businesses and prisons) and also individuals who ran private film societies. One of the largest distributors was Audio-Brandon Films, which had formerly been two separate companies with Brandon owning distribution rights to hundreds of international films, both acclaimed and obscure. MacMillian Publishers eventually purchased Audio-Brandon and then Films Inc. came along and acquired Audio Brandon (At the time, Films Inc. and Swank were probably the biggest 16mm distributors). In addition to distributing the film libraries of MGM, 20th Century Fox, RKO, Paramount and the Janus Collection, Films Inc. became the owner of Audio-Brandon’s huge library of international films (plus shorts, experimental work and indie cinema) that were not available to the 35mm theatrical market.
When I went to work for Films Inc. in Atlanta as a college sales rep in 1983, I was amazed at some of the holdings in our warehouse. The employees were loaned a 16mm projector for home use and I spent many a night watching movies I had read about for years and always wanted to see. One thing I quickly realized was that the Audio-Brandon film library had not been well maintained over the years. Many prints were in fair to ragged condition. Often there would be only one print of a popular title and there was no option of making a new print because the 16mm master was no longer available. In addition, numerous titles in the Audio-Brandon collection had been leased for a set period of time so when the rights expired, the print would either be returned to the owner or destroyed (which was more likely the case). If you ever wondered why in film collector circles there were 16mm film copies floating around of non-public domain titles like Rene Clement’s Purple Noon, Leopold Torre Nilsson’s Hand in the Trap or Andrzej Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, it was because of film inspectors or employees at companies like Films Inc. who couldn’t bear to shred these treasures for the dumpster and liberated them (they also profited from selling them which was, of course, Illegal).
The following is a short list of Audio-Brandon titles which I either saw while working at Films Inc. and have been searching for every since or were titles in the collection that I never had the opportunity to see and are still not currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S. Some of these may be available as grey market releases (of variable quality) or for sale as imports for those who have all-region DVD/Blu-Ray players. A few may even be streamed on YouTube but I am holding out for legitimate releases of the following through a quality distributor like The Criterion Collection. It might not ever happen, in which case these are truly lost films, and that would be a sad thing for movie buffs and future generations. (For more information on the once thriving 16mm non-theatrical film market, go here – kitparkerfilms.wordpress.com/tag/audio-brandon-films)
THE BUS (1965)
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s first solo effort as a director (he had previously co-directed the 1953 documentary short, The Living City, with John Barnes), The Bus is an intimate record of a San Francisco delegation traveling across the country to participate in the landmark Civil Rights March on Washington in August of 1963. Wexler accompanied the delegation (composed of black, white, Jewish, Christian and non-Christian travelers) and documented this historic event with the aid of a lightweight mobile camera and hidden microphones. The result is a moving, occasionally humorous and dramatically potent time capsule. Other links of interest:
A CAT, TWO WOMEN AND ONE MAN (aka neko to shozo to futari no onna, 1956)
Shiro Toyoda became one of Japan’s top directors during the post-war years but remains a relatively unknown name to Western audiences as few, if any, of his films are available here on DVD or Blu-Ray with the exception of A Cat, Two Women and One Man (which is available for streaming on Hulu). Some of his most famous films are Wild Geese (aka Gan, 1953), Snow Country (aka Yukiguni, 1957), and a 1965 remake of a popular Japanese ghost story, Yotsuya Kaidan but I’ve always wanted to see this madcap sex farce based on descriptions I’ve read over the years. It sounds like a satiric critique of traditional male-female relationships in Japanese society with a plot line that involves a weakling being caught in the middle of a power struggle between his mother, his first wife and his new wife. Unable to deal with any of them, he transfers his affections to his cat. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The tart flavor of the film derives from the familial nastiness: one can’t like any of the them, one can’t even really like the cat…The manner in which these four scheme for affection and power, using the cat as a decoy, is a perverse object lesson in Japanese manners and mores.” Other links of interest:
EL (aka This Strange Passion, 1953)
When I was a journalism major at the University of Georgia, I took an introductory film history course taught by drama professor William D. Perreault. Starting with the silent era and working through the arrival of talkies and the development of the studio system, Perreault showed us key examples from the usual suspects: Griffith, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Chaplin, Renoir, Capra, Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks. But he also introduced me to less heralded auteurs like Samuel Fuller (The Steel Helmet), George Sidney (Scaramouche) and earlier works by famous directors such as Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema). El aka This Strange Passion was my first exposure to Luis Bunuel though I vaguely knew about him from my parents. They had gone to see a screening of Mexican Bus Ride at the Fine Arts Museum of Virginia and hated it (it was one of their few attempts at sampling international cinema; Fellini’s 8 1/2 was the final nail in the coffin).
I was able to revisit El during my Films Inc. days and it remains one of my favorite Bunuel films. Deceptively conventional at first, the movie introduces us to Francisco (Arturo de Cordova), a strict, middle-aged bachelor and devout Catholic, who becomes entranced by a woman he mets at church named Gloria (Delia Garces). A courtship ensues followed by marriage and a honeymoon where Gloria begins to realize her husband has some neurotic tendencies. Francisco’s behavior quickly blossoms into full blown paranoia as he becomes increasingly possessive and controlling toward Gloria.
It’s the little touches in El that stay with you; Francisco thrusting a knitting needle through a door keyhole, convinced he is being spied on by Gloria’s lover (a figment of his imagination) or his wife waking up to see her husband preparing to sew her lips shut with needle and thread. The film works as both a psychological thriller and a black comedy, often at the same time. Unfortunately, it was considered a failure at the time of its release. Bunuel recalls in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, that El “was shown at Cannes, for some inexplicable reason, during a screening in honor of the veterans of foreign wars, who, as you can imagine, were outraged. In general, it wasn’t very well received; even Jean Cocteau, who’d once written several generous pages about my work in Opium, declared that with El I’d “committed suicide.”(He later changed his mind.)”
Other links of interest:
At one time in the early seventies, The Green Wall was probably the best known contemporary film from Peru. A film festival award winner and a popular classroom rental for college film studies, the movie rarely resurfaces today and could easily be in danger of fading into oblivion. I remember being struck by the film’s simple but emotionally powerful narrative and the ravishingly beautiful color cinematography which captured the wild splendors of the Peruvian jungle. Directed by Armando Robles Godoy, The Green Wall is the story of a frustrated salesman in Lima who takes advantage of a government program to give up life in the city and transition to farming in the jungle accompanied by his wife and son. What begins as an idyllic back to nature existence becomes much more problematic than expected and climaxes with a frantic race against time to find an anti-snake bite serum that can save a life. One of the early supporters of this film was Roger Ebert, who wrote, “The Green Wall is beautiful in so many different ways – in its story, its photography, in the construction of its images – that it becomes not simply a movie but an affirmation of life. There is not a false note in it, nothing that lies or is trickery, and we’re reminded of “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Wild Child.” And then we wonder…how could this movie come from Peru, with its “underdeveloped” movie industry? The answer, of course, is that great films have nothing to do with the industry. They come from great filmmakers, who might be found in Peru as well as anywhere.”
IL SUCCESSO (1963)
Initially Il Sorpasso (aka The Easy Life, 1962) was at the top of my list but that long unavailable Italian gem will be coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion in April 2014. Directed by Dino Risi, Il Sorpasso is a tragicomic road trip adventure in which a middle-age extrovert (Vittorio Gassman) befriends a young, introverted student (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and gives him a taste of “la dolce vita” as they take a carefree tour of the Tyrrheanian coast.
Il Successo was released a year later, pairing Gassman and Trintignant again, and although Risi was involved in the production, he was not credited and Mauro Morassi (Il cocci di mamma) was listed as the official director. A modern morality tale, the film follows businessman Giulio Ceriani (Gassman) and his frantic attempts to achieve the sort of financial success and respect that he sees others reaping during Italy’s economic boom of the early sixties. Although Il Successo was not as well received critically as Il Sorpasso, it is nonetheless a compelling character study of a man who abandons his principles and integrity while chasing the almighty buck. The talent in front of and behind the camera is reason enough to revive Mauro Morassi’s final film (he died in 1966); Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Ceriani’s best friend, Anouk Aimee stars as Ceriani’s wife, the music score is by Ennio Morricone and the screenplay was co-written by Ruggero Maccari (Profumo di donna, a 1974 Italian hit for Gassman that was remade as Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino) and Ettore Scola (director of 1974’s We All Loved Each Other So Much and 1977’s A Special Day).
Director Alan Bridges is best known for his British class dramas such as The Hireling (1973), his underrated masterpiece, The Return of the Soldier (1982), based on Rebecca West’s novel, and The Shooting Party (1985) but earlier in his career, he made a low-budget, atypical entry in the sci-fi genre that was atmospheric, mysterious and downright peculiar at times. Two doctors at a rural hospital – Dr. Vernon (Edward Judd) and Dr. Harland (Valerie Gearon) – inadvertently uncover an alien invasion plot when they tend to a man who was hit by a motorist on a fog-ladden country road. Their patient proves to be not of this earth and is being pursued by female aliens who claim he is an escaped prisoner. The fact that the rubber-suited extraterrestrials are played by Asian actresses is just one of the odd touches. As the hero, Edward Judd is no stranger to fantasy films, having appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, First Men in the Moon and Island of Terror, and petite Japanese star Yoko Tani was particularly memorable in the East German sci-fi adventure, Der Schweigende Stern (1960), which was edited and retitled First Spaceship on Venus for U.S. distribution. Invasion is based on a story by Robert Holmes, one of the most popular writers for the British TV series, Dr. Who.
LONG LIVE THE REPUBLIC (aka at’ zine republic, 1965)
One of the lesser known but most important directors of the Czech New Wave was Karel Kachyna, who is probably best known in the U.S. for Carriage to Vienna (1966) and The Ear (aka Ucho, 1970). I was fortunate enough to see his magnificent widescreen epic, Long Live the Republic, while working at Films Inc. but it has gone missing ever since. Told through the viewpoint of a child, the movie chronicles the final days of WWII as the twelve year old protagonist Olda witnesses a number of historic events from the slow expulsion of Germans living in his area to the arrival of Soviet troops. To escape the harshness of his daily existence (he is beaten by his father and bullied by local villagers), Olda often has fantasies which free him from his earthborn existence and provide a visually lyrical counterpoint to the cruelties he suffers and observes.
Strikingly photographed in black and white by Jaromir Sofr (Closely Watched Trains, A Report on the Party and Guests, My Sweet Little Village), Long Live the Republic falls somewhere between Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) in its treatment of childhood interrupted by war and the juxtaposition of the tender and the brutal, the poetic and the horrific.
I’ve always felt that The Nun might be Jacques Rivette’s most accessible film and a good entry point for movie lovers who haven’t encountered his work before. But it might also seem, on the surface, to be his most atypical due to its tight, rigorous narrative and the claustrophobic nature of the subject matter, qualities that are the opposite of the free-wheeling, improvisational spirit of 1974’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, often considered his masterpiece. Based on the novel by Denis Diderot, The Nun follows the travails of Suzanne (Anna Karina), a young woman whose parents force her to enter a convent against her will. What she finds there – abuses of power, sadism, repression of individual thought – becomes an unbearable ordeal but she attempts to free herself by legal means and only ends up being transferred to another convent. Her new “prison” is radically different from the former one in that the mother superior is an aggressive libertine with sexual designs on Suzanne. The only relief offered in this hot house of titillation and desire are occasional visits from a priest (Francisco Rabal) who is sympathetic to Suzanne’s plight and vows to help her escape. But true freedom continues to remain elusive for our protagonist. The Nun is essential viewing for any “nunsploitation” fan and easily the classiest entry in that decidely niche genre.
The Nun has appeared occasionally in recent years on Turner Classic Movies but it remains unavailable as a domestic release on DVD or Blu-Ray and certainly deserves one.
“Rivette is a believer in keeping cinema time as close to real time as possible…and La Religieuse seems slower, more stylized and repetitive, than it needs to be…But the movie is made with high artifice, and there are enough kind, thoughtful characters portrayed within the church and enough cynical idiots outside it so that the message is not so much anti-clerical as anti-repressive-social-contract.” – Renata Adler, The New York Times
“A calculated artificiality marks the film’s progression from austere cruelty to luxuriant decadence. In its relentless portrayal of the doom of the innocent, it becomes a plea for freedom and tolerance far transcending the church issue.” – Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art
“Taken from a novel by Diderot written in 1760, this film was initially banned in France on grounds of anti-clericalism….It is directed with austere detachment and an authentic sense of claustrophobia and pain, with the suggestion that the corruption and cruelty lurking behind the facades of religion is a metaphor for the world at large.” – Ronald Bergen & Robyn Karney, The Faber Companion to Foreign Films
Other links of interest:
I first saw this remarkable film biography of the primitive Georgian artist Niko Pirosmanashvili at Films Inc. (the movie is now distributed in the U.S. by Kino International). Unlike most film biographies of artists, director Georgi Shengelaya’s approach to his subject is poetic rather than informative, depicting scenes of Pirosmani’s nomadic existence in a pictorial style that often imitates the style of his somewhat surrealistic paintings of farm animals, peasants and exotic singers. The painter’s alcoholism, his inability to hold a steady job, forge close relationships with anyone or place any value on his work is never explained but the evidence is there for us to contemplate. At times, the movie exudes a raw, primitive power that is closer in style to an ethnographic documentary from another time period and images from this film are guaranteed to resonate in your memory for years to come.
I was lucky enough to see this again when it was showcased at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008. This retrospective screening was introduced by festival co-director Tom Luddy. His account of how the festival managed to receive a beautiful archival print of the film from the Georgian Film Archives was as fascinating as the actual movie. Originally a rather battered 35mm print of Pirosmani was slated to play as a backup in the event that the Georgian Film Archives couldn’t deliver their vaulted copy. Then when Russia invaded Georgia just prior to the festival and all communication with the archives staff was cut off, Luddy assumed the inferior U.S. print of Pirosmani was the only option and played its appearance down in the program schedule. In a strange twist of fate, the Georgian Film Archive print of Pirosmani turned up at the festival office after the program had gone to press – apparently, it was on the last flight out of the airport in Georgia before the Russians bombed the facility. So, along with a fortunate few (possibly 20 viewers in all), I was able to revisit Shengelaya’s hypnotic and melancholy portrait of the once neglected Soviet artist. I hope Kino makes this available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the near future.
“The main virtue of the film, namely its atmosphere and visual splendour, are largely due to Konstantin Apryatin’s marvellous photography….There are moments of Surrealist explosions such as the one with the artist daydreaming about encountering a black shepherd with a black sheep and a white one, a weird scene enhanced by some strangely beautiful folk music. The dialogue in the film, as one would expect from the Soviets, is very restrained, but its poeticism, unmatched aesthetics and insight into Pirosmani’s mysterious life make it less of a film but rather a fascinating wander inside an art gallery.” – Spiros Gangas, Edinburgh University Film Society
“A restrained film, possibly too-non-involving for some, beautifully shot in muted colors, and composed of studies with the subjects often looking posed and self-conscious, as the artist must have seen them. It’s not often than an artist gets the film he deserves.” – Chris Petit, TimeOut
Other links of interest:
When the six occupants of a sleeping compartment on a train traveling overnight from Marseilles to Paris arrive at their destination, one of them is dead – murdered. None of the survivors admit to being witnesses to the crime or are able to provide much assistance to the police investigation. Then events take a more bizarre turn as someone begins stalking and bumping off the remaining five suspects. I saw this at the Westhampton Theater in Richmond, Va. when I was in high school and I remember it as a suspenseful, often creepy thriller. The Sleeping Car Murders actually prefigures the Giallo thrillers of Dario Argento and others with its vicious killer who wears a raincoat, black hat and black leather gloves. I also remember being disappointed by the film’s resolution but the cast is first rate and reads like a Who’s Who in French cinema.
The film was something of a family affair for Simone Signoret who co-stars with her real life husband Yves Montand and Catherine Allegret (from her marriage to director Yves Allegret). Also on hand are Michel Piccoli, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Charles Denner, Jacques Perrin, Bernadette Lafont and cameos from such Gallic stalwarts as Claude Berri, Daniel Gelin, Marcel Bozzuffi, Jean Lefebvre and Claude Dauphin. Director Costa-Gavras followed this with Shock Troops (1967), a fast-paced WWII adventure about a group of French Resistance fighters with a spy in their midst, and then achieved international fame for his brilliant political thriller, Z (1969).
“It races and pants like “Breathless,” it vibrates like “Alphaville.” And it ends in a chase that screams and screeches like something from the American “underground.” When it finally puts the finger on that mysterious character with the gun, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s not awful. It’s fast, it’s funny. And it’s quite a family film.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
“The plot is pure Agatha Christie…but at least the characters inhabit the 20th century and are beautifully played (especially Signoret as the obligatory aging actress, and Piccoli as a furtive lecher). The ending is one of those ingenious absurdities that haunt the genre, but the lively pace and attention to detail make up for the implausibility.” – Tom Milne, TimeOut
Tinto Brass is not the sort of director who commands much critical respect and is best known as the director of the infamous epic financed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Caligula (1979). But before he turned a corner in the mid-seventies with 1976’s Salon Kitty (which mixed Nazi chic with perverse sex acts in an upscale bordello) and started focusing exclusively on erotic dramas and soft core sex comedies, he was a highly imaginative and offbeat director with an avant-grade edge; Brass’s early work was bursting with social and political provocations like his more celebrated contemporary Marco Ferreri. Unlike the latter director, however, who has several critically acclaimed films to his credit and film festival awards for such films as Dillinger is Dead (1969) and La Grande Bouffe (1973), Brass hasn’t garnered many accolades or box-office success with his early work but I find some of it fascinating.
The Howl (aka L’urlo, 1968) is an anti-establishment barrage of sex, revolution and anarchy that is a crazy quilt reflection of its time and Attraction (1969) toys with black and white stereotypes in a psychedelic fantasy framework. Brass tried his hand at genre films too, directing the sci-fi comedy The Flying Saucer (1964) with Alberto Sordi and Monica Vitti, the stylish and highly entertaining spaghetti western Yankee (1966), which the director has allegedly disowned, and Deadly Sweet (aka Col cure in goal, 1967), a pop art thriller inspired by comic books and set in swinging London with Ewa Aulin and Jean-Pierre Trintignant. But the one I’ve always wanted to see is Thermidor (aka Ca Ira, Il Fiume Della Rivolta, 1964), his critique of 20th century society and mankind through a non-traditional documentary approach. Closer to a historical montage smash-up inspired by Eisenstein’s editing techniques, the film borrows liberally from newsreel footage, mixing up Hitler, Pancho Villa, Lenin, Castro, and others with atrocity footage from the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish Civil War, the Bolshevik uprising and other global demonstrations of man’s capacity for violence and aggression. Thermidor is most likely a lost film at this point but I continue to be surprised at the titles that have been turning up on DVD and Blu-Ray in the last year such as Vinegar Syndrome’s release of The Telephone Book (1971) and Raro Video/Kino Lorber’s I Cannibali (1970).
Other links of interest:
TIME OF ROSES (aka Ruusujen aika, 1969)
A science fiction film from Finland? This sounds like a fascinating oddity and is set in the year 2012. Directed by Risto Jarva, it deals with a utopian society that is unable to maintain its idealistic structure because it is actually based on subversion and the suppression of knowledge. This excerpt for the Audio-Brandon catalog describes the abstract nature of the film: “The main plot is the making of a TV documentary to show how bad life was in the 60’s and 70’s. To represent this period, the producer chooses a story clerk, Saara, who was born in 1946 and committed suicide in 1976. Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the producer finds a look-alike, Kisse, recreates the dead Saara, and because of his manipulation with real life; Saara and Kisse merge into one person.” The stills I’ve seen from Time of Roses bare comparison with the sci-fi visions of both George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).
Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times is a slight putdown but possibly more revealing about the writer than the film’s: “Politics, not gadgets, however, is Mr. Jarva’s principal concern, and his future Finland is one of those brave new worlds that can only be accepted as a projection of the cowardly old one. Class distinctions have disappeared. Everyone contributes according to his capacity and pure, unbiased science has become a repressive political dogma….I suspect that “Time of Roses” might seem a lot more relevant in Finland, a country that has lived on political edge for some time, than in New York, where Mr. Jarva’s view of the future seems not very dark, just dim and rather polite. Although I know it’s wrong, I can’t help but feel wistful about a state in which love is free and strikes are so rare that the very planning of one becomes an act of heroic affirmation.”