With home entertainment options the only option for many, this past year’s peculiar circumstances have underlined that sometimes despite a bazillion titles on Netflix and other platforms, it still feels like there’s “nothing to watch.” But that hasn’t been such a problem for people willing to explore the deep back catalogs of cinema—even if they’re a minority. Most people are like the typical customer at Blockbuster a generation ago, who only looks in the “New Release” section and laments there’s “nothing I haven’t seen,” completely oblivious to the older films that comprise 90% of the store’s stock.
Three newly re-released collections of wildly disparate movies—quintessential French seriocomedies, pioneering US independent films, and virtually unknown relics from an overlooked corner of African cinema—provide an opportunity for such exploration.
The best-known group, relatively speaking, is Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons, which is currently streaming in the Roxie and BAMPFA’s virtual cinemas programs. (It’s also available on Blu-ray, DVD and other home formats from Janus Films.) The director, who died in 2010 at age 89, was a key player in the Nouvelle Vague: A critic turned filmmaker (like his friends Godard, Truffaut, et al.) who began editing the hugely influential Cahiers du Cinema magazine in 1956, co-wrote a book on Hitchcock with Chabrol, and made his name as a director in a much more low-key, gradual way than more famous Parisian colleagues of the time.
His first designated series, “Six Moral Tales,” began in modest fashion with sub-feature-length first entries. Their polish and scale expanded until 1969’s My Night at Maud’s could secure star Jean-Louis Trintignant, win two Oscar nominations, and get distributed around the world. The next year’s Claire’s Knee, shot by Nestor Almendros, saw Rohmer’s art at an irresistible apex in which a seemingly near-plotless, trivial progress nevertheless works a magic spell of beguiling human comedy.
Most of his subsequent films would likewise be thematically grouped, with occasional exceptions like the wildly stylized medieval pageant Perceval le Gallois (1978) or ornate French Revolution story The Lady and the Duke (2001). Even his least-characteristic projects sported the same bemused, ironical yet insightful distance from characters often too wound up in their desires and beliefs to realize them. The “Four Seasons” inhabit Rohmer’s familiar territory so snugly that you might be forgiven for thinking their intelligently garrulous, semi-anti-romantic romcoms “business as usual”—he makes it all look so effortless.
If you’re not in the mood for his particular wry ambiguities and disinterest in the broad stroke, this most profoundly French of postwar French filmmakers can seem trifling, with his self-absorbed characters perpetually driven by whim or bad judgment. Yet A Tale of Springtime, A Tale of Winter, A Summer’s Tale and Autumn Tale—the movies that occupied Rohmer in the 1990s—can also be as enchanting and curiously touching as they are evanescent. His cinema may be “smaller than life,” but they also tend to expose the grand gestures and melodramatic bombast of so much standard film storytelling as clumsy artifice.
Also aiming to capture everyday minutiae in a meaningful way were the films of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, two married NYC professional photojournalists of some renown who decided to apply the naturalistic, unstaged principles of their still photography to narrative moviemaking in the early 1950s. The result was Little Fugitive (1953), whose wisp of a plot has 7-year-old Brooklynite Joey (Richie Andrusco) running away to Coney Island when he thinks he’s accidentally killed older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster)—a mean prank by the latter, who just wants to hang out with his pals minus “pain in the neck” Joey.
Using a hand-held hidden 35mm camera without synch sound (dialogue was dubbed later), Little Fugitive caught hundreds of citizen “extras” unaware, making it a particularly rich slice of New York life 70 years ago. Arriving when there was virtually no U.S. independent cinema outside exploitation movies, the film was a considerable success, even getting nominated for two Oscars. It also had a great influence on future filmmakers—Truffaut claimed it as inspiration for The 400 Blows, saying “Our [French] New Wave never would have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production.”
Kino Lorber’s three-disc Little Fugitive: The Collected Films of Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin set brings back that titular trailblazer, long out of circulation, as well as later features. The 1956 Lovers and Lollipops hews a bit too close to its predecessor’s template, as now the heroine is a 7-year-old girl (Cathy Dunn) who exhibits some passive-aggressive hostility when her widowed mother (Lori March) begins a serious relationship with a beau (Gerald S. O’Loughlin). The dedication to child psychology is laudable, but the middle-class milieu is blander than Fugitive’s working-class one; ditto the adult professional actors.
Orkin did not co-direct her husband’s remaining films, returning to still photography and focusing on raising their children. (Although in a solo TV interview that is one of the extras here, she hardly seems the little homemaker type, barely tolerating a somewhat asinine interviewer—she’s intriguingly hard-boiled.) His 1958 Weddings and Babies is another NYC story whose verite elements are undermined by even less narrative drive than the prior films. Though perhaps a self-portrait, his commercial-photographer protagonist (John Myhers) is a pill, alternately insensitive and self-pitying, while Viveca Lindfors as his exasperated fiancee is too theatrically glam a personality for Engel’s “little people” world. These protagonists and their problems simply aren’t interesting.
A continued decline hit bottom a decade later with the almost unwatchable I Need a Ride to California, which went unreleased until after the director’s 2005 death. You can certainly see why: Despite the curiosity value inherent in its view of late-’60s Manhattan counterculture life, this completely aimless feature alternates between time-filling montages and hapless improv to sketch the fuzzbrained reality of one pretty but utterly vacuous blonde hippie chick (Lilly Shell). The cringe factor is completed by a soundtrack of dreadful folk-pop noodlings with titles such as “Life Is Like a Raindrop,” “Hey Mr. Nixon” and “How Can a Flower Grow.” It’s a measure of the film’s cluelessness that our heroine seems kinda strung out much of the time—really, why can’t she get out of bed?—yet Engel doesn’t seem to notice, let alone explain it.
Even though these movies gradually get worse from Little Fugitive’s startpoint of charming ingenuity, they still provide a fascinating historical footnote. Cassavetes is often credited with inventing American independent cinema with 1958’s Shadows—but by then, Engel and Orkin were already on their third feature.
Filmic enterprise in an entirely different context is spotlight in IndiePix Films’ Retro Afrika collection. Since 2013, the label Retro Afrika Bioscope has digitally restored movies made in South Africa under Apartheid for primarily Black audiences. Anticipating Nigeria’s “Nollywood” products of today (as well as U.S. “race films” of the Jim Crow era), these scrappy low-budget features delivered basic genre thrills in none-too-serious forms. They were considered so disposable that very few among hundreds produced in the 1970s and 80s survived, and were so under-radar internationally that the exhaustive Internet Movie Database still doesn’t know most of them exist.
Available on DVD and digital formats, as well as from streaming platform IndiePix Unlimited on Amazon Channels, the thirteen comedies, thrillers, capers and whatnot restored so far now include three new re-releases. All of them are action flicks: Faceless Man (about an assassination plot), Ambushed (kidnapping rescue) and Run for Your Life (escape from a wilderness drug ring).
These movies are anything but slick, roughly equivalent to the output of “Poverty Row” studios during Hollywood’s “golden age”—they provide familiar entertainment tropes as cheaply and efficiently (often at under 70 minutes) as possible. Hopefully billed as “cult classics,” they’re hard to make a case for as anything more than resourceful grade-Z programmers. But they do provide a window on aspects of South African culture that remained strictly off-limits to the world at large until the Apartheid system was finally torn down in the early 1990s.