Courtesy of MGM
With no disrespect to the "special collector's edition" of the latest garish blockbuster, it seems safe to say there won't be a more important Blu-ray this year than Criterion's By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two. It's not just that the three-disc set extends the previous two-DVD edition to more than 11 hours (volume one is available separately in standard-def), but that it's the first significant release of experimental film in the HD realm. Digitally massaged action swill may light up the display models at Best Buy, but by and large, big-budget movies are so worked over that it doesn't make much difference how or why you watch them. The cartoon palette of Transformers 2 will pop on an iPhone the same way it does on a 50-inch plasma.
But with avant-garde film, the texture and tenor of the viewing experience is integral to the film; in some ways, it is the film. Stan Brakhage's films aren't about what you see so much as how you see it, the physical and neurochemical interaction between the light on the screen and your optic nerve. In some of his films, particularly those he made without using a camera by painting directly onto strips of blank leader, were meant to recall what he called "closed-eye vision," the hazy, evanescent impressions generated when you look at a bright light through closed lids and press down on your eyeball. Watch a conventional narrative in an inferior medium and you still get the idea, but with Brakhage's films, there's often no idea to get. They're about the sensual and synaptic experience of watching them, and if the experience is compromised enough, they don't exist at all.
Brakhage's movies themselves are hardly high-definition: Many were shot on 16 mm, and some, like the epic 23rd Psalm Branch, on lowly 8 mm. But they still glow with a special luminescence, each flicker and even every scratch adding to the experience. It's impossible to sum up a collection this wide-ranging, from an artist with so many different sides. How many viewings might it take to understand the connections between Mothlight, composed by fixing the wings of dead moths to blank celluloid, and The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, a harrowing but strangely lyrical collage of footage shot inside an autopsy room (the title is taken from the Greek word from which "autopsy" derives)? There's enough here for a year's study, or a lifetime's.
It's unfortunate that production problems forced Kino-Lorber to cancel the Blu-ray for Alexander Sokurov's The Sun, since the DVD hardly does justice to his magnificent film. Set at the end of World War II on the day of the Japanese surrender, The Sun goes into the darkness with Emperor Hirohito (a magnificent turn by Issei Ogata), whose declared divinity is rapidly coming to an end. Effectively becoming human, or admitting himself as such, he takes in the textures of lace tablecloths and the flicker of candlelight as if for the first time. It's a dazzling movie, shot in daringly low light, often just at the edge of visibility, and perhaps it's not possible that video would ever do it justice. But this blotchy, interlaced transfer isn't even in the ballpark.
Equally disappointing, and without the excuse of marginal profits, is MGM's Man With No Name Trilogy, which slaps a thick coat of digital polish on Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti Westerns. The new Blu-ray set is well-packaged, with commentary by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling, but the textures have been rendered waxy and plastic by broad-brush noise reduction that wipes out grain and replaces it with artificial sheen. At least you're able to switch off the dreadful, overactive surround-sound remix in favor of the original mono sound, which is superior in all ways.
Based on consumer reports, MGM's foray into on-demand DVD production (available via Amazon) is similarly uneven, which is a shame since it includes a number of coveted titles. I've seen Hal Ashby's The Landlord, a fever-pitch satire on race relations that looks perfectly presentable in a widescreen transfer. But François Truffaut's swan song, The Green Room (produced under its American title, The Vanishing Fiancee), is reportedly pan-and-scan — the readjustment of widescreen to full screen — and taken from an unconverted PAL transfer, with the sped-up voices and blurry motion that come with it. Warner Bros. continues to do solid if unspectacular work via its Warner Archives on-demand service, including a disc of Local Hero director Bill Forsyth's ill-starred foray into big-budget filmmaking, Being Human. Starring Robin Williams as a man — five men, actually — scattered throughout time from prehistory to the present, the scattershot film is fitfully diverting but never coheres. It's worth watching, if only to see actors like Robert Carlyle and Jon Turturro turn up in unfamiliar places (as a tribal shaman and a Roman courtier, respectively), but one might as well nourish a vain hope that Warner will some day dig up Forsyth's director's cut, which is 40 minutes longer and lacks Theresa Russell's cloying narration.
Universal's Thanks for the Memories Collection packs six Bob Hope features (with and without Bing) into a modestly priced series. The packaging is unspectacular, but the colors in The Paleface sing out loud, and the standard-def is almost a relief; Jane Russell in high-definition is a frightening prospect indeed. Lost fans mourning the end of John Locke can flash back to The Stepfather , newly out on Shout! Factory's Blu-ray, where Terry O'Quinn made his name as a suburban paterfamilias whose Reagan-era family values express themselves in homicidal fashion. For more uplifting, and more familiar, values, turn to Milestone's Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which reissues the landmark 1977 documentary that was the first to present gays and lesbians as people rather than case studies. The talking-head format is nothing special, but the stories are.