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Calum Marsh

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Calum Marsh is a purveyor of essays and criticism and a generally lovable dilettante. He lives in Toronto and was born in Great Britain, though regrettably he lost the accent.

Invisible Cinema: The 10 Most Essential Films Not Available on DVD

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The myth of home video is that everything is readily available for us to consume. We tend to perceive DVD, especially, as an exhaustive catalog of cinematic history, a format upon which even the smallest films have been released. But while Netflix continues to pretend that its users have instant access to everything worth watching, countless essential works both old and new remain unreleased or out of print throughout North America. And as great films languish in perpetual obscurity, their place in the canon inevitable diminishes, woefully unmentioned and undiscussed simply by virtue of being hard (if not impossible) to see.

We like to think that we have complete control over the films we chose to value, and yet basic availability—what’s easy to find and accessible to watch—greatly affects even the most fair-minded conceptions of the canon. The importance of celebrating those films without the privilege of even a simple DVD release can’t be overstated, and they need to be tracked down and championed whether it takes traveling to see a rep-theater screening or finding a bootleg rip online.

With that in mind, here are 10 great films very much in need of a proper home video release:

1.) “From the Journals of Jean Seberg” (Mark Raaport) 1995

As the great filmmaker’s protracted legal battle with Boston University professor Ray Carney continues, Mark Rappaport’s staggering oeuvre is at risk of remaining forever unavailable to the audiences across the world. Though a great many of his films have never been released on home video in any form, any number of which deserve a place on this list—“Local Color”, “Imposters”, “Scenic Routes” and “Casual Relations” would make a superb Criterion Eclipse box set, by the way—it’s his unqualified masterpiece, the 1995 video essay “From The Journals Of Jean Seberg”, that cinephiles need access to most urgently. Perhaps the best American film of the 1990s and one of the most important works of experimental cinema ever made, it demands to be seen and cherished more widely.

2.) “A Brighter Summer Day” (Edward Yang) 

The Criterion Collection unofficially confirmed a highly anticipated Bluray several years ago now, but, though a new Janus-branded 35mm print toured the U.S. in 2011, a once-guaranteed wide release no longer seems like such a sure thing after all. (A rumor suggests that distribution has been held up due to a rights dispute with Yang’s widow.) For the time being, those unlucky enough to miss screenings of the new print have had to settle for a dismal VHS rip floating around online, a poor introduction to Yang’s four-hour dramatic opus if ever there were one. A film this rich in social and dramatic nuance deserves a transfer that does the material justice, so we hope the details are soon ironed out and the film can be seen as Yang intended.

3.) “Out 1″ (Jacques Rivette)

A list of the best unavailable films simply wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of “Out 1”, French New Wave master Jacques Rivette’s nearly 13-hour masterpiece of comic improv and conspiratorial intrigue. For years only a single, nearly unwatchable copy has been known to exist online—a clunkily Spanish-subtitled, atrociously low-res VHS rip of an old TV broadcast—which the most dedicated cinephiles passed around amongst themselves like some dog-eared bible that carries the word of God. It’s well-worth watching even in this form—it’s that good—but it’s not a stretch to say that the film world is desperate for this to be released on Region 1 DVD, where we’ll finally be able to see the breadth of the action without squinting.

4.) “Love Streams” (John Cassavetes) 1977

It’s certainly fortunate that so much of the John Cassavetes filmography is widely available on home video—from the superb five-film Criterion box-set straight down to the recent “Too Late Blues” bluray from Olive Films—but it’s nevertheless a damn shame that his best film, which for that matter is one of anybody’s best films, has for whatever reason never been released on DVD.

“Love Streams” finds Cassavetes working at the very height of his powers, bringing his peerless eye for brutal social naturalism to a brother-sister family drama with truly astonishing results. It’s also among Cassavetes’ best-looking films—as richly textured as any but shot through with a markedly more dream-like quality—a fact that makes its continued unavailability all the more regrettable.

5.) “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (Thom Andersen) 2004

Thom Andersen, a valued scholar and critic, made perhaps the best film of the 2000s with “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, a three-hour video essay that explores how the movies have both represented and ultimately shaped his native city. Andersen’s intellectual rigor, exhaustive research, and acerbic wit make this a work of long-form film criticism par excellence, as much a source of reflective insight as it is a piece of standalone art. But because it’s compiled almost exclusively from preexisting footage—including clips of everything from “Double Indemnity” to “Species”—it’s hard to imagine “Los Angeles Plays Itself” ever clearing the rights required for this to be released on DVD.

We should be thankful that it’s been uploaded, in the very least, to  YouTube in full, but a film this good deserves better.

6.) “Through the Olive Trees” (Abbas Kiarostami) 1994

When it comes to home video, Abbas Kiarostami is a weird case. His career’s major international exports—“Close-Up”, “Taste of Cherry”, “Certified Copy”, and “The Wind Will Carry Us”—have been available on DVD in North America for years, as easily found as they are well-regarded. But everything in between, from his more experimental mid-2000s output to almost every single film he made in the 70s and 80s, has for some reason yet to see the light of day (“Report,” his first feature, is included on the Criterion Collection release of “Certified Copy”). This is somewhat understandable in the case of what might be perceived to be his minor efforts, but the informal Koker Trilogy—“Where Is The Friend’s Home?”, “Life, And Nothing More…”, and finally “Through The Olive Trees”—are almost universally considered masterworks, and hard to imagine there being considerably less demand for their presence on home video than any of those which exist.

7.) “The Mother and the Whore” (Jean Eustache) 1973

At four and a half hours long, Jean Eustache’s obscure but well-loved “The Mother and the Whore” isn’t exactly the most commercially friendly French classic, but its esteem has grown so much over the last several years—it always had fans in Pauline Kael and Francois Truffaut, but more recently it’s been championed by critical heavyweights like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Brody—that one would imagine it about time that it made its home video debut.

A kind of oblique anti-drama in which intellect eclipses action, “The Mother and the Whore” remains as vital as ever, and from a formal perspective its audacity seems remarkably forward-thinking. It’s precisely the kind of film whose influence would be more deeply felt if only it were more widely seen.

8.) “Wavelength” (Michael Snow) 1967

Michael Snow’s “Wavelength”, more than maybe any other single film, is arguable the definitive avant-garde work of the last 50 years, and yet for whatever reason it remains unavailable to curious eyes. In Canada one can actually walk into the national Library and Archives and request a private screening on-site—not a bad proposition, all things considered—but those without such luxuries must settle instead for the low-grade video reproduction of YouTube.

Consisting of a single, gradual zoom from a city loft into a picture on the wall of a room across the street, “Wavelength” is a veritable paragon of formal rigor, a one-shot wonder unlike any other. And while it might not be “The Dark Knight Rises” in terms of marketability, surely it’s as appealing to the arthouse set as middlebrow symphonies like “Koyaanisqatsi” or “Baraka” (not to mention about a million times more interesting than either).

9.) “Four Nights of a Dreamer” (Robert Bresson) 1971

Cinephiles have been lucky, I suppose, to see so many of Robert Bresson’s films on home video at all—not only the canonical classics like “Au Hasard Balthazar” and “Pickpocket” but, thanks to a recent Olive Films bluray, later coups like “The Devil, Probably”—but if there’s still one film that absolutely needs a formal release, it’s “Four Nights of a Dreamer”. Often regarded as one of the great filmmaker’s strongest late-period efforts, it’s an essential part of a filmography that grows in reputation with every passing year.

10.) “Like You Know it All” (Hong Sang-s00) 2009

Given how prolific South Korea’s greatest living director has been in recent years, and given how difficult it has been for his films to secure theatrical distribution in the U.S. despite the wealth of acclaim thrown their way (somehow “HaHaHa”, his masterpiece, never made to these shores at all), Hong Sang-soo has had surprisingly good luck with the home video market in this country, with nearly every one of his 14 films to date available here in some capacity.

Of his recent work, only 2009’s “Like You Know It All” remains unavailable on DVD, not even in the bare-bones DVD-R form on which several others have been nominally released. It’s not clear exactly why—the film, as is Hong’s wont, isn’t much different than the others—but, for completists especially, the absence is frustrating.

Honorable Mentions: “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (Todd Haynes, 1988), “Too Early, Too Late” (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet,1982), “Underground” (Emir Kustirica, 1995), “Napoleon” (Abel Gance, 1927), “Chronicle Of a Chinese Woman” (Wang Bing, 2007), “Providence” (Alain Resnais, 1977), “Sparrow” (Johnnie To, 2008), “The Last Movie” (Dennis Hopper, 1971).

What currently unavailable films do you think need to be available on DVD or Blu-ray? Let us know in the comments.


Categories: Lists

Tags: A Brighter Summer Day, Abbas kiarostami, Calum Marsh, Dvd, Edward Yang, Four Nights a Dreamer, Jacques Rivette, Jean Eustache, Jean Seberg, John Cassavetes, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Michael Snow, The Mother and the whore, Wavelengths