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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

"Curious" and Curiouser

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Watching a movie from the Sixties is always a bit of a gamble. Even if you've seen it before, the difference between loving and hating movies as seemingly diverse as The Party, Zabriskie Point or even 2001: A Space Odyssey is totally dependent on your tolerance at that moment for the psychedelic excesses of the decade. It's also perhaps a bit dependent on the quality and quantity of mind-altering substances you've taken beforehand but that's totally up to you. You can probably make the same case for any cultural artifact of the decade, whether it's a record, book, painting or whatever. But this is a DVD site, not a cultural studies site, so if you want to make that case, you're gonna have to do it on your own time.

Keep in mind when I say "movies of the Sixties" in this case, I don't mean what is numerically considered the 60's. I mean the cultural big-S Sixties, which I'd argue ran from roughly 1964 to 1973 or so. As far as movies are concerned, the Seventies probably officially began with the release of The Godfather in 1972.

Theoretically, these movies shouldn't be so susceptible to mood. If a film is made with real artistry and vision -- that should cut through everything else. Well, it does and it doesn't. The first time I saw 2001, I thought it was fine but grossly overrated. In particular, I thought Dave's final journey went on and on and frankly I couldn't wait for it to end. Yeah yeah, I know this is heresy to a lot of you but hear me out. When I finally got to see 2001 on the big screen, I completely changed my tune. Suddenly I was mesmerized by the very same sequence that had earlier made me so restless. So what happened? Is it impossible to truly appreciate 2001 unless you see it in 70mm? Apparently not, because I know plenty of people who love the movie who have only seen it on video. Had I just matured sufficiently to finally be able to appreciate it? Possibly, but then how do you explain that I first saw Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville at roughly the same point in my life that I first saw 2001 and had liked it a lot?

You might also argue (especially if you're a former hippie yourself) that you really had to be there in order to appreciate these movies in the way they were meant. I don't really buy that. We all have movies that we saw when we were younger and view through rose-colored John Lennon glasses today. But if we're really being honest with ourselves when we watch those movies today, we appreciate the nostalgia value but are forced to admit that they're really not very good.

Technically, I was around for at least the last few months of the 60's, but Baby Adam wasn't hanging out with R. Crumb and Janis Joplin at Haight-Asbury or getting down with the Stones at Altamont. Even so, I absolutely love Easy Rider and Medium Cool. And I am equally passionate in my utter loathing of Zabriskie Point and Brewster McCloud. In between these two extremes lie dozens of movies that I either really like or leave me cold and slightly nauseous, depending on my mood. The Monkees' movie Head is a prime example. First time I saw it, I thought, "Wow, this is really cool and different." The second time, I had to shut it off because the combination of trippy music and visuals was making me physically sick.

Not so very long ago, Home Vision/Criterion released a few of the more obscure arty artifacts from the Sixties, at least one of which is making its first home video appearance of any kind. All three revel in the elements that make Sixties movies so distinctive: experimental storytelling, casual nudity and sex, and in-depth discussions of politics, philosophy, sociology, and genuine alternative lifestyles.

I Am Curious - Yellow


I Am Curious - Yellow
1967 (2003) - Sandrew Metronome (The Criterion Collection)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/A

Specs and Features:

121 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), keepcase packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at ???), video introduction by director Vilgot Sjöman, Director's Diary (selected scene audio commentary by Sjöman), Rosset/de Grazia: A Conversation featurette, The Battle For I Am Curious - Yellow featurette, trial transcripts, trailer, color bars, insert with text essay by Gary Giddins, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (35 chapters), languages: Swedish (1.0 mono), subtitles: English


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I Am Curious - Blue

I Am Curious - Blue
1968 (2003) - Sandrew Metronome (The Criterion Collection)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-

Specs and Features:

107 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), keepcase packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at 57:29 in chapter 21), Director's Diary (selected scene audio commentary by Sjöman), deleted scene, excerpts from Self Portrait '92, color bars, insert with text interview with Sjöman by John Lahr, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (32 chapters), languages: Swedish (1.0 mono), subtitles: English


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I Am Curious box set
Criterion's I Am Curious box set

Certain films are better known for their title and a vague sense of their reputation than anything else. I'd wager that more people know the title Ishtar as a synonym for "big-budgeted Hollywood fiasco" than have actually seen the movie. I Am Curious - Yellow is an extreme case of this sort of thing. If you were an adventurous adult moviegoer in the late 60's, you've probably seen it. Directed by Bergman protégé Vilgot Sjöman and imported by Grove Press (already no stranger to controversy thanks to its publication of such books as William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"), Yellow was seized by U.S. Customs and became the center of one of the most famous film censorship trials of all time. Then as now, there's nothing like being told you shouldn't see something to boost ticket sales. I Am Curious - Yellow went on to become one of the highest-grossing foreign films in history. But once the controversy died down, so did interest in the film. I Am Curious - Yellow all but vanished.

And really, that was about all I knew about I Am Curious - Yellow. I was also vaguely aware that there might be a film called I Am Curious - Blue. I say "might" because if information about Yellow was vague and elusive, Blue was a total enigma. I would run across a mention of the title now and again but that was it. For all I knew, Blue had absolutely nothing to do with Yellow and was simply given that title to cash in on Yellow's success in much the same way that there was a flurry of movies with the word Mondo in the title after the release of Mondo Cane. I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that there were I Am Curious - Reds, Greens and Fuchsias running around out there.

With the arrival of Criterion's I Am Curious box, fact can finally be separated from fiction. Yes, there is a movie called I Am Curious - Blue and yes, it is very much connected to Yellow. Yes, I can understand why Yellow became such a cause celebre in 1967 but no, I Am Curious - Yellow is not pornographic (well, I don't think so, anyway). Perhaps most importantly, no, neither movie deserved to fall into total obscurity the way they did. Yes, both of them are worth watching.

The relationship between Yellow and Blue is... well, a curious one. Decades before Krzysztof Kieslowski used the tri-colored French flag as the springboard for his Three Colors trilogy, Sjöman took the two colors of the Swedish flag for I Am Curious. After that, any similarity between Kieslowski and Sjöman is purely coincidental. Like a lot of filmmakers of the decade, Sjöman was interested in developing new ways of telling stories on film. To that end, Yellow and Blue tell basically the same story in different ways, each one emphasizing different aspects. Both films mix fact and fiction to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins (one big reason why the sex scenes in Yellow caused such a stir). Case in point, both films follow three main characters: actress Lena Nyman plays an actress named Lena Nyman who is preparing to star in a new film directed by Vilgot Sjöman (played by director Vilgot Sjöman). Sjöman, however, becomes extremely jealous when Lena begins an affair with her co-star Börje Ahlstedt (played, you guessed it, by Börje Ahlstedt).

That's the basic plot of both movies but that isn't really what the films are about. What they're about comes across in the documentary sequences interspersed between them. Lena repeatedly hits the streets, microphone in hand, to ask Swedish citizens of all backgrounds probing political questions about the existence or non-existence of a class system, the conditions in the prison system, religion, and sex. It's this aspect of the films that sets them apart, presaging later fact-meets-fiction films such as Medium Cool. Neither film is entirely dependent on the other to be appreciated. Obviously a whole lot of folks in America saw I Am Curious - Yellow without having ever seen a frame of Blue. However, Blue does clarify some elements of Yellow and likewise, having seen Yellow will help you better make sense of Blue. But both films are complex and often difficult to follow, so if you wanted to argue that neither film makes any sense under any circumstances, I'd say you could probably make a pretty good case.

Taking all this into consideration, you might be understandably hesitant about venturing into I Am Curious. A pair of experimental Sixties films with non-linear storylines and in-depth analysis of obscure Swedish political figures doesn't exactly sound like many people's idea of a good time. If you've ever taken any sort of film appreciation class, you're familiar with that sinking feeling you get when you're watching a movie that is supposed to be some kind of cinematic benchmark but you just don't like it. It might be good for you but it's certainly a chore to get through it. And, to be honest, I had that feeling once or twice while watching I Am Curious - more so with Blue than Yellow, however. Besides the much-discussed nudity and sex (which is far more pervasive in Yellow), I Am Curious - Yellow is often surprisingly, subversively funny. One recurring joke has an excited voice-over announcer urging the audience to guess what Lena is carrying around in a large black bag. Moments like these are downright Pythonesque. Not exactly what I was expecting from a Swedish socio-political film.

Criterion's digital treatment of I Am Curious is up to their usual high standards. Visually, both films look very good. The prints are maybe a little worse for wear but not bad at all. You certainly never forget that you're watching low-budget movies from 1967 but there's nothing wrong with that. The audio is your usual high-quality Criterion mono mix. Nothing spectacular but there's nothing there that isn't supposed to be there, either.

Not too surprisingly, the bulk of the extras on this set can be found on I Am Curious - Yellow. If you didn't know anything about this movie before picking up these discs, you'll come out of it like an expert. As you might expect, most of the extras on the Yellow disc have to do with the U.S. censorship trial. A general overview of the controversy is provided in the "video essay" The Battle for I Am Curious - Yellow. Those who wish to dig deeper into the case can check out lengthy text excerpts from the actual trial transcripts, with such notables as Norman Mailer and film critics John Simon and Stanley Kauffman taking the stand in defense of the film. Also provided is a new interview with Barney Rosset, the Grove Press publisher responsible for importing the film, and attorney Edward de Grazia on their memories of the trial.

As for Vilgot Sjöman, he's given ample opportunity to discuss his memories of the films, the trial, and his career. He provides a new introduction to Yellow and reads from his on-set diary on a selected scene commentary track during both films. The Blue disc also features excerpts from Sjöman's Swedish television documentary, Self Portrait '92, which provides some insight into his non-Curious work (most of which has never been distributed in this country). I was somewhat disappointed that the documentary wasn't presented in its entirety. As is, it ends somewhat abruptly and we never do find out much about what Sjöman's been up to since 1968. Blue also includes a deleted scene, introduced by the director.

I Am Curious is a strange piece of work and even the most patient film buff might find themselves getting frustrated with the films' deliberate pace and frequent discussion of then topical names and issues. But in the end, their virtues outweigh their flaws. Vilgot Sjöman's films can be seen as a link between the artful theatricality of Ingmar Bergman and the more raw and immediate films of Lars Von Trier. In particular, I Am Curious can be seen as a kind of forefather to Von Trier's Dogme film The Idiots. While neither film is one that you might be compelled to watch again and again, Criterion's thoughtful, well-produced extras make this set a must for anyone with an interest in the history of censorship.

La Vallée (a.k.a. The Valley/Obscured by Clouds)

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La Vallée (a.k.a. The Valley/Obscured by Clouds)
1972 (2003) - (Home Vision)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C+/F

Specs and Features:

105 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, keepcase packaging, single-sided, single-layered, insert with liner notes by Andrei Codrescu, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (14 chapters), languages: French (1.0 mono), subtitles: English


Nothing says the Sixties like a story about a spoiled rich woman finding spiritual enlightenment by hooking up with a commune of freethinking explorers. So even though it was released in 1972, Barbet Schroeder's La Vallée is a quintessential Sixties movie. Another movie that has been difficult to see over the past thirty years, it's very likely that if you know the movie at all, it's as the picture that the Pink Floyd album Obscured by Clouds is supposedly a soundtrack to. Now that it's been released on DVD by Home Vision, stoners everywhere can discover what that music was actually meant to accompany.

Bulle Ogier stars as Viviane, the wife of a French diplomat stationed in New Guinea. Viviane spends much of her time looking for beautiful, exotic feathers that she can sell to designer boutiques in Paris. By chance, she hooks up with Olivier (Michael Gothard), who is part of an expedition about to go in search of a mythical unexplored valley that some say is paradise on earth. Viviane agrees to join the group for part of the trip in the hope that she can buy some rare feathers from a protected bird from either missionaries or tribesmen. But as they journey deeper and deeper into the rainforest, Viviane becomes as obsessed with finding the valley as the rest of her companions.

For as much as the entire first half of La Vallée, I was sure that it would end up on the "hate it" half of my love-it-or-hate-it list of Sixties films. Viviane is possibly the most annoying character in a long line of annoying rich women in such films, simply assuming that she'll eventually get her away if she simply whines long enough. The low point of the movie came as the group drinks some sort of mind-altering concoction and Viviane goes on a tree-hugging, snake-adoring trip. Scenes like this are often deadly in Sixties movies and this one was no exception. But then a strange thing happened. Once Viviane commits to taking the journey to whatever end lies in store for them (she actually gets on an airplane to go home but turns it around within seconds of takeoff), I found myself drawn in.

La Vallée is one of those movies where you're pretty sure the characters are never going to find what they're looking for but it doesn't really matter. Their journey takes them through some amazing landscapes (beautifully photographed by Nestor Almendros) and puts them in contact with remote tribes (fact and fiction merging yet again). In fact, the film's depiction of rites and ceremonies became the most fascinating aspect of the movie to me. While it's not as explicitly political as I Am Curious, La Vallée has not aged quite as well. The theme of abandoning your old life for something that lies unseen ahead has been explored often in better films than this. But it's still a compelling, often mesmerizing film, particularly in its final third.

The disc presents as good a transfer of the film as is possible given the available source materials. A disclaimer on the package's insert warns of an irreparable tear on the print at approximately the 15-minute mark and the scenery may not always look as lush and green as you suspect it ought to. But all things considered, La Vallée looks quite good. The sound is a bit disappointing, considering that even today the big selling point of the movie is the music by Pink Floyd. It all sounds a bit muddy and undistinguished, but is probably as good as it can be without a major remix. There are no extras, apart from a brief text essay by NPR fave Andrei Codrescu.

Like I said at the outset, Sixties movies are a risk and I can't really recommend any of these movies unreservedly. Each of them comes with a built-in cult of some kind and each of them has a mystique around it simply due to the fact that they've been so difficult to see for so long. If you're willing to roll the dice, I Am Curious and La Vallée will either reward or tax your patience. But I Am Curious is the safer bet, with fascinating extras that movie buffs will likely enjoy whether or not they appreciate the films.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Adam Jahnke - Main Page

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