Jean Rouch: A Long-Overdue Homage to a Documentary Maker

Jean Rouch: A Long-Overdue Homage to a Documentary Maker


Both “Jaguar” and “The Lion Hunters” took years to make and found their story lines in the course of their production and editing. “Jaguar,” which both documented and staged the adventures of three migrant workers traveling from Niger to Ghana’s coast, was filmed largely in 1954 and finished in 1967, but was not publicly shown until 1971. Again, Rouch recorded his actors’ spontaneous comments as they watched themselves on film — a device also used in “Chronicle of a Summer.”

An existential quest that evidently required seven years to complete, “The Lion Hunters” is framed as a tale told to a group of children in an African village. It’s a legend, although Rouch’s sense of mythology is closer to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology than to the folklorist approach of the Brothers Grimm: For all the movie’s primal imagery, “The Lion Hunters” is ultimately a study of its subjects’ non-European logical thinking.

The Icarus set also includes two less familiar collaborative documentaries depicting the relations between Europeans and post-colonial Africans, “The Human Pyramid” (1961) and “Little by Little” (1969), as well as “The Punishment” (1962), in which one of the European women from “The Human Pyramid” wanders through Paris, approached by a succession of men.

Shot in Ivory Coast on the cusp of its independence, “The Human Pyramid” is largely an improvised group psychodrama in which African and European students try, with varying success, to break through the informal segregation that separates them. “Little by Little,” originally over four hours in length, but here 96 minutes, was conceived as a sequel to “Jaguar,” in which actors from the earlier film make an ethnographic expedition to Paris. (Jacques Rivette considers the movie the catalyst for his 13-hour opus, “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere.”)

The most narrative of these, as well as the most surreal in its use of chance occurrences, “The Punishment” plays like a distant ancestor of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” An attempt to apply cinéma vérité techniques to a dramatic story, it demonstrates Rouch’s dictum, expressed in “The Human Pyramid,” that “fiction once filmed becomes a reality.”

Photo

Ernie Kovacs hosting his quiz show, “Take a Good Look.”

Credit
Ediad Productions/Shout! Factory

Rouch was influenced by surrealism; Ernie Kovacs reinvented it for television.

Kovacs (1919-62) was both a hilarious lowbrow comic and an artist who intuited and knowingly exploited the nature of his chosen medium. Shout Factory’s six-disc “The Ernie Kovacs Collection,” released in 2011, is close to comprehensive. Filling in that set’s major gap is Shout’s follow-up seven-DVD set, which is devoted to Kovacs’s “Take a Good Look,” a celebrity quiz show that ran from 1959 to 1961 on prime-time TV.

While Kovacs is usually praised for his innovative use of video technology, the critic Donald Phelps cited his gift for “demonstrating to his public the immeasurable crumminess of so-called professional television.” In “Take a Good Look,” a panel — usually made up of Cesar Romero, Hans Conried and Kovacs’s wife, Edie Adams — prompted by their affable, cigar-smoking host, tries to ascertain the source of the mystery guests’ newsworthiness (for example, a couple who spent their honeymoon in a fallout shelter). To that end, Kovacs provides three outlandish skits — clues that mainly serve to render the panel clueless.

While the skits had a leisurely pace, the time allowed for the confused panel to guess their meaning is brutally abrupt, with Kovacs barely allowing time to frame a single question. Beyond funny, the show — which can hardly explain its own premise yet somehow lasted for two seasons — is superbly pointless, except as a platform for Kovacs’s absurdist slapstick and imaginative free associations.

Newly Released Box Sets

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION Designed for desert island consumption, this new 17 Blu-ray set has 15 features, including the five essential ones (“Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds”), as well as 10 episodes from Hitchcock’s TV shows and copious extras, not least the six-minute-plus trailer for “Psycho.” (Universal)

DYNASTY: THE COMPLETE SERIES What goes around comes around. The prime-time soap opera created by Richard and Esther Shapiro that came to define the Reagan era is ready to be relived with all 217 episodes of the entire nine seasons of superrich chicanery available on 57 DVDs. (CBS/Paramount)

100 YEARS OF OLYMPIC FILMS Olympian is the word for this 32-disc box, available on DVD and Blu-ray, of films documenting highlights from the 1912 Stockholm games through the 2012 London Olympics. Feature films include Kon Ichikawa’s eccentric “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965) and Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part “Olympia” (1938), which, as the accompanying booklet explains, is something other than a pure documentary. (Criterion)

PORKY PIG 101 Not as suave as Bugs or as manic as Daffy, the pantless, stuttering pig was Warner Bros.’s first animated star and anchored scores of classic cartoons, particularly after the animator Bob Clampett got hold of his character in the late 1930s. This five-DVD set has 101 restored cartoons, made between 1935 and 1943, some evocative of no-longer-acceptable attitudes, and thus a gift that may be better suited to social historians than kids. (Warner Archive)

THE TAISHO TRILOGY The wiggiest of Japanese New Wave directors, Seijun Suzuki reinvented himself late in his career with three lushly enigmatic supernatural tales — “Zigeunerweisen” (1980), “Kagero-za” (1981) and “Yumeji” (1991) — all set during the early-20th-century Taisho period. The films are available on both Blu-ray and DVD; extras include introductions by the knowledgeable critic Tony Rayns. (Arrow Academy)



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