Holing Up for the Holidays

A critic's guide to getting away from the multiplexes.

The Patsy (1964, LIVE Home Video) So-called "art cinema" has always been concerned with dismantling the safe distance between the viewer and the screen--with making you aware that you're watching a movie. In this sense, the French are correct in hailing Jerry Lewis as an auteur; the six films he directed between 1960 and 1965 are astonishing examples of in-your-face provocation. The Patsy is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, with Lewis playing a jittery, slurring, dimwitted, highly emotional Hollywood bellboy who's hired to impersonate a dead comedian. The film is excruciating, its director a genius who dares you to consider him a sick, sick man. Jim Carrey has nothing on him.

Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992, Water Bearer Films) As a documentary history of queerness in the movies, this is far more illuminating and adventurous than The Celluloid Closet. Director cum movie lover Mark Rappaport takes a VCR remote and a voiceover mike to nearly every film in the Rock Hudson oeuvre, finding moments that effectively out the actor beloved by '50s audiences as a consummate ladykiller. Thus revising (and reviving) ancient texts, Home Movies assembles a Hudson highlights reel composed of unconsciously resonant dialogue ("Why aren't you married?") and unconvincing hetero romance (interrupted kisses and awkward pauses). Meanwhile, Rappaport uncovers a healthy measure of homoerotic energy in the most conservative of sources; for instance, it's possible now to see Tony Randall, not Doris Day, as Rock's real partner in the Pillow Talk movies. From a critical standpoint, this is a liberating piece of work, suggesting that art can be as rich and empowering as we're able to make it.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, Elite Entertainment laserdisc) Since this carnivorous horror classic about flesh-eating ghouls has been in the public domain for many years, most video copies have looked pretty raw. But Elite's ultra-sharp laserdisc version has succeeded in restoring guts to glory, and in making it clear that director George A. Romero never set out to make a drive-in movie. Rather, Night of the Living Dead is avant-garde all the way--from the canted angles in the opening graveyard scene ("They're coming to get you, Barbara!") through the dank claustrophobia of the middle hour and the finale's TV news-style allusions to Vietnam. (The disc also features a digitally remastered soundtrack, which grants an almost unbearable clarity to the zombies' lip-smacking antics.) This being the gift-buying season, you might also want to check out Romero's shopping center-set sequel, Dawn of the Dead, in order to prepare for real-life megamall horrors; the director's vision of all-out military fascism in the final chapter, Day of the Dead, is still forthcoming.

Love Streams (1984, MGM/UA Home Video) John Cassavetes didn't make "real" movies. Collaborating for two decades with his soulmate, the brilliant actress Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes instead made what he called "truth-telling movies," which found the languorous rhythms of real life within the supposedly dull moments omitted from conventional dramas. Loosely modeled on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the director's last film examines the point at which romance has given way to alcoholism and endless divorce proceedings; the main characters are a middle-aged brother and sister (played by Rowlands and Cassavetes) who are even less emotionally evolved than their neglected kids. There are some loopy passages in Love Streams that suggest screwball comedy, but the dialogue is consistently original and profoundly bleak. "Life is a series of suicides," one character concludes. "Divorces, promises broken, children smashed, whatever." That's for sure. Daring to achieve honesty no matter what the cost, Love Streams disturbs and exhilarates in equal measure.

Pierrot le Fou (1965, Interama Video Classics) Besides being one of the greatest filmmakers ever to walk the planet, Jean-Luc Godard was also the cinema's original pomo nihilist. Twenty-five years before Quentin Tarantino, this lovers-on-the-run road movie put a pair of gorgeous actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina) in the center of a "rotten world" and watched as it spun beautifully, violently out of control. Pierrot le Fou has to be one of the most romantic films ever made, less for its actual story--a married man and his family's babysitter flee to the south of France after killing a Parisian gangster--than for Godard's overwhelmingly sexy mood of sustained melancholy. The widescreen frame is packed with primary colors, the soundtrack broods exquisitely, and the script includes gratuitous references to every high- and low-brow artmaker from Velázquez to Sam Fuller. After two delirious and exhausting hours, what's left for Godard to do but kill off the characters?

Ordet (1955, New York Film Annex) It would be hard to find a more spiritual movie than this austere Danish melodrama about two rural families who are forced together by an impending marriage, despite their opposing religious views (one is fundamentalist Christian; the other is more liberal). I wept uncontrollably the first time I saw it, and every time since have still felt overwhelmed by its quiet force. While managing the details of his very simple story, director Carl Theodor Dreyer (who also made The Passion of Joan of Arc) is equally committed to capturing the minimalist qualities that enhance the film's gentle tone: long periods of silence broken by seemingly magical gusts of wind, the slow movements of characters across the frame, their subtle changes of expression signifying love and hope for the future. Ordet is an impossible movie to describe, but you might say it's about faith: in people, in art, in a higher power. Regardless of how one reads the film's climactic miracle, it's guaranteed to convert the viewer in one way or another, making it a good antidote to the cynicism of the season. Happy Holidays.

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