Buzzing Thru the Pylon: Kurosawa May Be Cake, But Extra Geniuses Are the Icing

Well, I wasn't expecting this at all.

I knew that Jen's mom, Sande, was clued in on my deep admiration for the films of Akira Kurosawa when she gave me a copy of the Criterion Collection set for Drunken Angel last year for Xmas. But I really did not expect her to toss this set my way for the current holiday season:

The Great Directors, Volume 1

Five discs, five films from some of the greatest directors in film history: Chabrol, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Schlöndorff! Oh yes... there's also that Kurosawa guy -- you may have heard of him -- represented here by Dersu Uzala, a film which not only fascinates for its incredible cinematography, but is also remarkable for letting Kurosawa film outside of Japan. Also, no samurai (or the Japanese, for that matter) to be seen at all. What you get is a vigorous though touching story set in the early 20th century of a Nanai hunter and guide who heroically leads a Soviet surveying team through the harsh Siberian wilderness, and how he comes to win the respect and admiration of his charges through his bravery and ingenuity, despite the fact that the Soviets seem him at first as a doddering old man. The film then continues years later through glimpses of the ongoing friendship between the Soviet captain and Dersu the hunter, even as Dersu's senses begin to fail him in his advancing age.

I have had a copy of Dersu Uzala for numerous years on VHS, but naturally, I was anticipating its release on DVD, as I do anytime I hear there is a video being released from one of those whom I, and many, many others, consider the Old Masters of Cinema. Recently, I did notice that Kino Video was finally doing just that -- releasing Dersu Uzala -- and I added the film to the (ahem...) short list of films I wanted to purchase in the near future. But then I noticed it was also coming out in The Great Directors, Volume 1 box set, and I suddenly became torn. Yes, it's true that I had only seen one of the other films in the set, Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes, an odd, kind of dirty little thriller from the early days of the French New Wave, but I saw it quite a long time ago, so I didn't have much in the way of memories of it. I had enjoyed it though, but the fact that I had not seen the remaining three films in the set made it somewhat of a longshot that I would actually go out and spend the $70-90 or so that it would cost me to get the set, especially given that there were other box sets out there for which I would instantly dish out such money, such as either of the Douglas Fairbanks sets still lagging around on my To Buy list. (Sorry, but the silents usually win out for me.)

But then wonderful Sande, of whom it must be said, were I actually legally married to her daughter, would make the greatest mother-in-law in history, made the decision for me. While I did miss Christmas with Jen's family this year due to my trip up to see my brother M'otis, waiting for me when I returned were a handful of presents, and amongst the lot was The Great Directors, Volume 1. I found out later from Jen that Sande had guessed that the recent vintage of the set's release made her pretty certain that I did not have it yet. And she was right. So far, DVD-wise, she has always been right, even with my slightly deserved reputation of being one for whom it is difficult to shop.

So, since I have now bypassed my own purchase of the single Kurosawa, what else do I get besides that and the Chabrol film? A 1974 film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who most would know from the original version of Solaris (which is pretty much what I know him from, that and Stalker) called The Mirror, supposedly (from reading the description) a quite personal WWII drama based on his own experiences in his homeland at that time. From the acclaimed director of The Tin Drum, Volker Schlöndorff, comes a later film called Circle of Deceit (1981), starring Bruno Ganz (a personal favorite) in a story set in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

And finally, in perfect timing with my own current run of Michelangelo Antonioni viewings over the past few months, there is his 1957 effort
Il Grido. The description claims the film as the "missing link" in his career between his earlier "neorealist style" films and what they term his later "more subjectively stylized" films like L'Avventura and Red Desert, certainly two of his most famous films. Me, I'm a Blow-Up guy, and I guess I won't really know how it plays as a "missing link" until I have actually seen his films previous to this one, but I am definitely pleased to have it in the collection, if only because it affords me the chance to get acquainted with it at my leisure.

All told, a decent haul for a set: a couple with which I have history, and a trio waiting for me to discover their hidden secrets. It's nice for once to get a set where I haven't seen everything in it already. And that is how I am going to view it, watching the familiar first, and then taking advantage of what is basically a prepaid excuse to be cinematically adventurous. You should all be so lucky...

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