An exciting new movie streaming venture is upon us. As Netflix and Hulu increasingly shift their focus to original television, Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection (who, as you may have noticed, have left Hulu) have teamed up to create the much-hyped streaming service Filmstruck.
After a delayed release (it was supposed to come out in October, it came out in November), Filmstruck is up and running and the results are quite satisfactory. Drawing together films from TCM’s extensive repertoire and the largest selection of Criterion material ever streaming, what has made Filmstruck especially exciting is its presentation of films that have rarely or never before been available for streaming in the US (unless, god forbid, you pirated them).
Let’s take a look at six of the best of these previously rare or unavailable films.
Title: The Executioner (Spain, 1963)
Plot: No matter how socially marginalized we are, there is always some other category of humanity for us to hold in greater contempt. In this dark comedy, our protagonist, José Luis, is a mortician who is distinctly weirded out by the elderly executioner with whom he occasionally crosses paths. Which becomes problematic when he impregnates and (this being Spain in 1963) marries the executioner’s daughter. It is not clear where the unlikely new family is going to live, because there is a housing shortage and priority is given to civil servants. As an executioner, José Luis’ father-in-law would have qualified, but he’s retiring. If only José Luis would sign on to replace him…
Context: From 1939 through 1975, Spain was ruled by the far-right wing (and increasingly anachronistic) dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In an oppressive system where overt dissent would have been unthinkable, Spanish filmmakers turned to allegory and innuendo to criticize their reactionary government. Director Luis García Berlanga, whose career spanned the mid-Franco era to the 21st century, uses the grotesque comedy of The Executioner to indict an entire society. In his depiction of José Luis, a man who finds capital punishment revolting and will protest it right up until he carries out his first execution, Berlanga paints a grim picture of the moral compromises, each one trivial when taken in isolation, by which we can become complicit in the greatest evils imaginable.
A similarly allegorical Spanish film from this period (although decidedly less comic) is Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist (1955), also streaming on Filmstruck.
Title: Mississippi Mermaid (France, 1970)
Plot: When Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a wealthy plantation owner on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion, decides to marry, he seeks his bride via a newspaper personal (this is how we embarked on dubious relationships with strangers in the dark days before the internet). When the film opens, Louis is going down to the harbor to meet Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve), who has just arrived from New Caledonia (another peculiar leftover from the old French colonial empire). He and Julie hit it off and quickly marry, and so captivated is he by his new bride that he overlooks several potential concerns, such as the fact that (a) he doesn’t really know her and (b) there are strange inconsistencies in what she’s told him about herself. As Julie’s story unravels, Louis will find himself trapped in a nightmare of deception, conspiracy, and family secrets.
Context: Long overshadowed by his more “New Wavey” films, François Truffaut’s unjustly neglected Mississippi Mermaid finds him at the peak of his engagement with the work of his hero, British master Alfred Hitchcock. Following the misfire of his first botched Hitchcockian suspense film, The Bride Wore Black (1967, rarely seen and also streaming on Filmstruck), Mississippi Mermaid finds Truffaut in fuller command of his subject matter (and of the color palette that had frustrated him in ’67).
Now, while it may not have the hipster bona fides of the Antoine Doinel films or Jules and Jim (and while its classicism seems slightly out-of-date following the revolutionary events of May 1968), when engaged with on its own terms, Mississippi Mermaid is a superb and carefully calibrated suspense film of the sort that Hitchcock seemed to churn out with such ease in his heyday.
Title: Stalker (USSR, 1979)
Plot: In an unnamed, black-and-white country, a strange phenomenon is taking place: a Zone has taken over some of the territory, and within this Zone, the rules that define our reality do not apply. It is rumored that at the center of this Zone lies a Room, in which a supernatural force grants the wishes of those who can reach it. Which is no easy task, because the Zone has been surrounded by troops who shoot intruders on sight. The only way to get in is to hire a Stalker, a guide who knows his way around the soldiers and the Zone.
When the film begins, one such Stalker is hired by two men, Writer and Professor, to take them to the Room. But in the Zone, nothing is what it seems, and these three men carry secrets with them that could destroy their undertaking, or even the Zone itself.
Context: When director Andrei Tarkovsky began his film career in the 1950s, he consulted a medium to find out what his future held in store. He was told he’d make seven films. He said, “Only seven?” The medium said, “Yes, but they’ll be really good.”
Stalker, Tarkovsky’s fifth film and his final project in the Soviet Union, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Adapted from a novel by the Strugatsky brothers (the USSR’s favorite sci-fi writers), Stalker was Tarkovsky’s second attempt at science fiction after 1972’s Solaris and was, to Tarkovsky’s thinking, the more successful film, as he’d finally succeeded in making science fiction without special effects.
Engaged with the spiritual concerns that animated so much of the great Russian director’s work, and presented with his signature hypnotic intensity, Stalker is like nothing you’ve ever seen before (unless you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, which has numerous plot points in common, and a similar use of black-and-white and color), and it’s presence on Filmstruck is one of the first times it’s been available for streaming in the US (legally, that is).
Title: Blood Simple (USA, 1984)
Plot: In a hardboiled Texas that only the Minnesotan Coen brothers could have conjured up, several doomed Americans are drawn into a crime. Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on her husband Julian with her lover Ray. So Julian hires cinema’s least inconspicuous private detective, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh in the role with which he’s most closely associated), to kill the lovers. Now, at about the time that Walsh comes on screen, wearing a yellow leisure suit and a cowboy hat, one starts to realize that this is not going to be a conventional noir, or detective film, or whatever you want to call it (a “neo-noir” is what most people want to call it). Everything that would come to define the Coens’ future work is on display here, including grotesquerie, grisly violence, and regional accents exaggerated just beyond the edge of real-world plausibility.
Context: This was an exciting time to make a movie in the US. The independent film -- cheap, gritty, weird -- was coming into its own. As filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Sam Raimi were demonstrating, you didn’t need a lot of money to make a movie. In fact it was Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), for which Joel Coen served as assistant editor, which provided the blueprint for the financing of Blood Simple. Raimi had made a cheap, proto-Evil Dead and shopped it around to get what financing he could.
The Coens decided to make a trailer for Blood Simple, starring themselves, to raise interest and a little money, which they spent to make the movie. It got distributed after they took it to Sundance, where it won Best Film. For better or for worse, Blood Simple established the basic framework for the next several decades of American indie films. As a side note, if you have a compelling interest in seeing the story of Blood Simple as a Chinese costume drama, you would be well advised to check out Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (2009), which is streaming on Amazon.
Title: Naked (UK, 1993)
Plot: Following an abortive sexual encounter with a married woman (which likely started out consensual before turning into rape), living embodiment of Thatcherite societal breakdown Johnny (David Thewlis, who has never looked less like Remus Lupin than he does here) seeks refuge with ex-girlfriend Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge, who played this kind of role with aplomb several times before her untimely death).
In between grim sexual encounters and despairing adventures with a series of broken people in the London night, Johnny talks. He talks a great deal, mostly about himself, but also about: people (his hatred of them), the collapse of England, science, culture, and the apocalypse. It’s hard to see how Johnny ever won the hearts of the various women whose lives he’s ruined, but it becomes clear that there was a time when Johnny had something going for him, when his talk was charming rather than narcissistic and nihilistic. And it’s still compelling, but in the way that signs of doom are compelling.
Context: Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 through 1990, during which time she: destroyed the post-war consensus, gutted the social safety net, completed the de-industrialization of Britain, waged war on unions, and deprived school children of free milk with their school lunch (“Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”). She famously declared that there is no such thing as society, just individuals. It’s this kind of sociopathy which has brought about the horrors on display in Mike Leigh’s Naked (and virtually every other British art film between the break-up of the Beatles and the advent of Harry Potter). In fact the British are so attached to these squalid stories that they have a name for them: kitchen sink dramas. They’re kind of hard to watch, so if you’re going to watch just one, make it Naked, which is so hypnotically bitter (and witty) that it provides a taste of something like transcendence.
Title: Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994)
Plot: As this is a Wong Kar-wai movie, the plot isn’t particularly important (it’s the feeling that’s important), but here’s the premise: two unconnected storylines about policemen in love.
In the first, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a bachelor cop surviving off of canned pineapple and in love with a woman he doesn’t know is a contract killer. In the second, Tony Leung Chiu-wai drifts apart from girlfriend Valerie Chow as he grows closer to food stall worker Faye Wong (the stall is called “Chungking Express” and Wong is sporting the most iconic pixie haircut since Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby). All shot in the rich, saturated colors of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and to the refrain of “California Dreamin’” which, along with the pineapple, does much of the film’s metaphoric heavy-lifting, emblematic of men longing for women longing to be elsewhere.
Context: As the signature film that secured Wong Kar-wai’s international reputation, it is striking that Chungking Express came about in some respects as an afterthought. Wong had been working for several years on the martial arts film Ashes of Time, an undertaking so elaborate and time consuming that it spawned two other films: The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), a martial arts farce made quickly with the cast of Ashes of Time; and Chungking Express, shot over a few weeks to give Wong a break from Ashes of Time’s seemingly endless editing process.
It was Chungking Express that made Wong (and much of the cast) international stars, while Ashes of Time was more respected than beloved (an Ashes of Time Redux came out in 2008; the plot is just as convoluted as the original, but Wong trimmed the runtime by several minutes, bucking the trend in “director’s cuts,” which tend to restore all the stuff that had been cut out of the original for good reason). After seeing Chungking Express, it will be very hard to listen to “California Dreamin’” (or eat canned pineapple, for that matter) without thinking of Wong Kar-wai’s classic film.