There will be some real (not imaginary, not hoped for) writing planned for this weekend! Until then, in lieu of actual content, I tip my hat to The Great Listmaker for his idea and offer you my favorite Netflix Instant Play choices, culled from a currently bloated queue of 500-- the numerical limit imposed by Netflix itself to discourage serial queue collectors from gross overindulgence. These films may or may not be ones I’ve already seen, but to a title they are ones I am most grateful for having become available through this service. Yes, I know that the current list of available titles is not as wide-ranging as those available on DVD, but Instant Play affords easy access to a lot of marginal titles or titles of mysterious quality that I might not be so quick to send away for on a physical DVD. (If it's instant play, it's also instant dump if the title is no good.) Also, the quality of streaming image is variable and sometimes unsatisfactory, and I do try to avoid the blurry “Starz Presentations” that look like second-generation dubs off of a DVR. But more often than not the service comes through with visual presentations of at least 720p resolution, which is more than sufficient for these as-yet-not-quite-jaded eyeballs. Here then are my 10+ Reasons Why I Am Thankful for Netflix Instant Play, in no order whatsoever:
1) LAND OF SILENCE AND DARKNESS (1971; Werner Herzog) Really a choice that encompasses four movies instead of one, this haunting film from Werner Herzog—his first feature-length documentary—chronicles the activities of Fini Straubinger, an advocate for the deaf and blind citizenry of Germany who is herself deaf and blind. The amazing story of how this woman wrested herself from the confines of her own disability is certainly the stuff of a solid film, no doubt, but Herzog’s connects on an almost genetic level to Straubinger’s obsession with communication, to the degree that it becomes for the director and us, as David Coursen wrote, the film’s central mystery and driving force. In the same collection, we also get Herzog’s exhilarating portrait of The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, the impish deadpan comedy of How Much Wood Can a Woodchuck Chuck, in which Herzog soaks in the linguistic headiness of auctioneering, and his haunting document of a town threatened by volcanic eruption, La Soufriere.
2) THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDELENA BACH (1966; Jean-Marie Straub, Danielle Huillet) Straub has said that the creative point of departure for his film was the use of music not as accompaniment, aural adornment or commentary, but as the central aesthetic material. And so it is that the movie, ostensibly an inquiry into the life and creative mechanics of J.S. Bach, filtered through the personage of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, holds you with an almost hypnotic spell as it combines formal detachment with historical detail, effectively using Bach’s own voice, his music, as the expressive avenue to tell his “story.” Straub and Huillet use long takes of musicians, shot with precision and acuity, but also anchored in perspectives that accentuate the elements of performance that heighten the music’s seductive power. Through their comparatively cool technique, Straub and Huillet underscore the emotional currents coursing through the music and just beneath the surface of the placid tableaux. The occasional narration from Anna, the obvious avenue for biographical detail in a more conventional biography, emphasizes her devotion to her husband, but the film itself devotes its spare verbiage to observations regarding Bach’s business and musical theories while the music weaves its way into the audience’s collective subconscious. It’s an unsettling, mysterious film that trusts viewers to plummet and soar along the lines of its subject’s complex artistic sensibility by way of a cinematic style diametrically opposed to both Bach’s mathematical, spiritual fulsomeness and the audience’s expectations for the form.
3) DRUM (1976; Steve Carver) Seeing Mandingo as an adult has turned out to be a crucial experience for me, in that the film was revealed after all these years to be not a piece of campy trash, as is the common characterization, but instead a serious look at the roots of racial hatred and exploitation in this country. (I always liked the movie, but as a teenager I clearly misunderstood the level on which it works.) It's probably too much to ask that seeing this sequel again, a movie rushed into production when Mandingo became an unexpected box-office smash, would hold any similar revelations— my chief memory from seeing it on its theatrical release remains John Colicos’, um, overripe performance as a French slave trader with unusual sexual predilections. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Netflix Instant Play for making it available at all, as much for the tantalizing possibilities as the inevitable reality of the thing. It would be a happy surprise if the transfer were anything better-looking than the usual dull VHS-level image I’m used to seeing. But even that wouldn't match the pleasure of discovering that Drum is better in 2010 than the ramshackle exploitation film I remember it to be on its original release. A connoisseur can hope, can he not? (For more on Drum and the whole Mandingo phenomenon, I heartily recommend Paul Talbot’s thorough and thoroughly entertaining Mondo Mandingo: The Falconhurst Books and Films.)
4) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971; Richard Fleischer) There are some stories, some films, in which too much art would get in the way of what makes the whole enterprise work to the degree that it does. For many Richard Fleischer’s is the directorial face of Old Hollywood crumbling at the feet of Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper (Doctor Dolittle or Che!, anyone?). But a close look at 10 Rillington Place proves him to be the perfect director—unassuming, deceptively straightforward, with an unadorned style—for this bleak, kitchen-sink tale of real-life horror ripped from post-war British tabloids. Sir Richard Attenborough, another pleasant, unassuming type, is bone-chilling as John Christie, an outwardly humble and garrulous apartment manager whose own flat, located at the titular address, he uses to murder unsuspecting women lured there by the promise of illegal abortions. When a couple renting another flat in the building become pregnant Christie cannot resist the sexual impulses that propel him toward another crime, one which entangles the woman’s husband (John Hurt, suffering early in his film career, and magnificently) in the killer’s ever-tightening web of improvised lies and deception. Fleischer lets the sickening claustrophobia of the apartment squeeze the audience with dread, all the while leaving Christie’s murderous demeanor up front, barely concealed by his unctuous manner and deadened eyes. Where many an actor might play to the rafters, Attenborough’s approach is, like Fleischer’s, unmussed by tics and affectation—this portrait of evil is relatively quiet and genuinely skin-crawling. Thanks to it and the director’s crypt-still, matter-of-fact gaze, 10 Rillington Place emerges as one of the most ghastly (though not graphic) and wrenching true-crime films I’ve ever seen.
5) BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977; Tom Laughlin) There is no embarrassment (well, maybe just a little) in admitting that my generation composed the target demographic that sent Billy Jack through the box-office roof in the early ‘70s. The character, a half Indian-half white ex-Green Beret first introduced in a biker pic Laughlin directed called Born Losers (1967), tapped into the ‘60s zeitgeist and craftily embodied prevalent and divisive attitudes about Vietnam—pacifism versus the corrective power of violence. Laughlin, under a litany of behind-the-scenes pseudonyms, milked two major hits from the formula-- Billy Jack (shot close on the heels of Born Losers but not released until 1971, and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), a bloated epic which virtually introduced the concept of releasing a single film simultaneously on thousands of screens that is the Hollywood model to this day. But his fourth Billy Jack movie remained largely unseen until it was packaged with the others in a DVD box several years ago. This final chapter remains unknown to me, but there it sits in my queue, with the other three films, in the hopes that I will be able to see it soon and write something about all four. The story of our anti-establishment hero managing to find his way into the U.S. Senate, where echoes of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra ring free, and where our hero redefines, with kicking feet, slicing hands and barbed tongue, the very concept of the filibuster, never found either much in the way of a general release, Laughlin’s special magic in this arena having apparently vanished by the time the movie was finished. BJGTW is a rare instance of a sequel, thought to be awful, which has the luxury of being assessed completely outside its time, apart from expectations or prevailing attitudes about the manifest destiny of its creator’s ego. I’m looking forward to it.
6) 99 RIVER STREET (1953; Phil Karlson) Phil Karlson is a name that has, in the past few years, finally been getting the kind of respect it deserves, for he is responsible for several key works in the American postwar film noir movement. Growing up I knew him from titles like Walking Tall, The Silencers and Ben, the hit sequel to that boy-and-his-rat classic Willard. But as I’ve gotten older it’s been a real pleasure to introduce myself, and even my movie-loving daughter, to some of his hard-boiled cinematic knuckle sandwiches. She’s not ready for the grim documentary realism of The Phenix City Story (1955), but she loved a Karlson double bill we recently took in-- Kansas City Confidential (1952), which served as her formal introduction to Jack Elam, and 99 River Street, a lesser-known treasure starring John Payne as an ex-heavyweight boxer whose shrewish wife is murdered by her jewel thief lover. When he’s blamed for his wife’s death, the boxer goes on a search for the real killer, leading him and a struggling actress friend (Evelyn Keyes) into an ever-murkier underworld populated by some truly memorable fiends. (The supporting cast includes Brad Dexter, Ian Wolfe and, most remarkably, Jay Adler as a fence with a very unflinching attitude about retribution.) The tension Karlson manages to pack into the nasty fabric of this movie is impressive, and it makes me wonder why the movie isn’t more often celebrated as a highlight of its bleak and shadowy genre. Maybe a long stint on Netflix Instant Play will begin to remedy that situation.
7) FALL FROM GRACE (2007; K. Ryan Jones) I think I must have inherited my fondness for watching documentaries whose subject matter tends toward the outrageous and the enraging from my dad. We used to spend Sunday evenings together watching 60 Minutes (the only real time our divergent tastes allowed us to spend together with anything on TV), discussing the stories and often expressing our disbelief at what we were seeing. K. Ryan Jones’ blistering documentary, in which the infamous pastor and head pimple of Topeka, Kansas’s Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, hangs himself in real time with his vicious hate-singed brand of Christianity, made me think of all those Sunday evening discussions and how a single subject could eclipse them all. Phelps and his family of like-minded loudmouths had me screaming at my television in anger, so smug and self-righteous is their campaign of terror against fags and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to their white-hot, biblically-inspired rhetoric of hate. The twisted knot of logic that finds Phelps and clan protesting by burning the flag within sight of military funerals held me rapt with a similar fury, but it’s the delight in which members take in celebrating the fates of gay-related bashing and murders, as well as victims of the AIDS epidemic, that really had me questioning not only the intelligence of these arrogant bastards, but also their basic humanity. Jones simply gives Phelps and his suffocatingly smug followers the floor, and documents with an admirable clarity and calmness I doubt I could find in myself the various events which the group attempts to hijack to their own ends. The result is an American embarrassment, but one for which we should be grateful on grounds of simple free speech— that of Phelps to present his ugly views for everyone to evaluate on their face, and that which results in the kind of film which brings the hate front and center, balanced to a degree by the testimony of disbelieving Topeka citizens and government officials. (These folks surely wish the rapture would just come already and afford their corner of the world if not a little peace and quiet, then at least blessed separation from these dogmatic pit bulls who besmirch their city.) Fall from Grace is one of many great documentaries, well-known and relatively subterranean, that Netflix Instant Play has made available on my queue. My sense of outrage, for better and for worse, is nowhere near being quelled.
(Another documentary on Phelps and his clan, Hatemongers, is available through YouTube and other sources.)
The remaining three blessings from Netflix Instant Play are films I have yet to actually see, three among hundreds that hold that distinction. These, however, are the ones I’m looking forward to most:
8) RED RIDING TRILOGY (2010; Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker)
9) SWEETGRASS (2010; Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
10) HARLAN: IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SÜSS (2008; Felix Mueller)
What are the treasures of your Netflix Instant Queue?