Armchair Cinephile

The long and short of it

Fans of epic - generously proportioned, at least - cinema have a wide array of choices at video stores this month. As the DVD format teaches, too long is never enough; there's always a new edition around the bend with more scenes rescued from the cutting-room trash bin.

Which is certainly not to imply that marathon new discs are necessarily shameless marketing ploys. See this month's cream of the crop, Fanny & Alexander (Criterion) for an example. Ingmar Bergman's autumnal masterpiece was over three hours as released in the U.S., but that was actually a pruned version of what in Sweden was a 312-minute movie made, as with other long-form European triumphs, for TV broadcast. Criterion, naturally, offers both versions on its new five-disc set, along with Bergman's making-of documentary and more background material than you could watch in one sitting.

More welcome still (to me, at least) is Criterion's release of Short Cuts, Robert Altman's interpretation of some of Raymond Carver's fiction. At a mere 183 minutes, it might seem stingy compared to F&A, but look at the cast!: almost two-dozen fine actors, from established thespians to occasional players like Lyle Lovett. It's a lovely film, more intimate than its scope suggests, and it's high time we have it on disc.

Almost as long as Short Cuts is The Seeds of Creation, which is not an obscure new film but merely the behind-the-scenes doc on the new Hellboy: Director's Cut (Columbia/TriStar). I'll leave you to discuss the merits of a making-of flick that's longer than the film it documents, but will use this occasion to note the welcome appearance of director Guillermo Del Toro's earlier film, The Devil's Backbone, in a tricked-out new edition, also from Columbia.

French auteur Jacques Rivette is famous for movies that go on and on; strangely, the home video world has issued many of his lesser and lesser-known works before getting around to La Belle Noiseuse (New Yorker), one of his finest. The story of a washed-up painter and the model who inspires him to (ahem) grasp his brush once more, it is also one of the rare cases in which a filmmaker himself decides to lop his movie in half: Rivette recut Noiseuse and re-released it as Divertimento, which used alternate scenes to completely shift the film's focus. For Rivette lovers, seeing both versions is a must; sadly, the shorter film is not included here.

Returning to America (sort of), this marathon closes with Judgment at Nuremberg, that all-star Stanley Kramer picture about the legal aftermath of WWII. As you might expect with the subject matter, the pedigree, and stars like Spencer Tracy, Bur Lancaster, and Montgomery Clift, the movie was nominated for 11 Oscars in 1961 (it won two); at three hours and six minutes, it may even have run longer than that year's telecast.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, studios are also sympathetic to short attention spans. MGM's release of The Saddest Music in the World, for instance, offers three weird quickies by director Guy Maddin that go along with the feature; each is the length of a song, and they range from sarcastically homoerotic (the outrageous Sissy Boy Slap Party) to genuinely moving.

Speaking of sissies, Todd Haynes devotees should take note of Dottie Gets Spanked (Zeitgeist), an odd mini-film about a kid with a fixation on a Lucille Ball-like television star. Steven Gale, the movie's pre-teen hero, is learning what it's like to have interests that don't jibe with those of his schoolyard peers, and his discomfort is conveyed with a clarity that suggests more than a little autobiography in Haynes' script.

One short I've been wanting to have on disc for a while has arrived: The video for "Sledgehammer," which is probably etched in the memory of every '80s teenager, sits alongside dozens of others on Peter Gabriel Play (Warner Special Marketing). A whirlwind tour of artistic and animation styles, the short features work by the Quay Brothers and Nick Park, two very different but equally brilliant animators.

Finally, readers who have already discovered Homestar Runner will be overjoyed to hear of the release of Strongbad_email.exe, which compiles the first 100 Strong Bad e-mails. Those scratching their heads right now should get over to and explore the strange and cute world of online cartoons there. Those jumping up and down for joy should head to that site and click on "store," where they can buy this outrageous stuff. Word to the wise: This three-DVD package has more Easter Eggs (that's hidden bonus features) than any disc I can think of offhand. Sure, the cartoons are short, but the viewing experience is long enough to satisfy the most ardent fan.

By John DeFore

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