Alex Sitaras: This month is a little different than our usual Most Anticipated column. We only have one film, The Wild Pear Tree (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan), part of this month’s selection that is new to theaters; the remaining four picks are restorations. Nonetheless, The Wild Pear Tree appears to be an immense film, both in its outlook and in its runtime. Clocking in at three hours and eight minutes, The Wild Pear Tree is the product of a director whose name is becoming more and more synonymous with the genre of slow cinema. Like many of Ceylan’s films, The Wild Pear Tree looks at a Turkish family, in particular the clash of culture between Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol), a young student and aspiring writer, and Idris (Murat Cemcir), Sinan’s father, a blue collar laborer and frequent gambler.
Kevin Jones: It is definitely a slow month when it comes to new releases, but The Wild Pear Tree represents one of the few bright spots in the month. Ceylan has, as you noted, become quite the household name in foreign cinema and has become a mainstay at the Cannes Film Festival with this film also debuting there last year. The film seems quite intriguing, especially as it would be my first Ceylan. Plus, the plot sounds quite interesting and relevant to me personally, even if set in Turkey. As someone in the post-grad world, seeing a film where someone tries to achieve their dreams only for some obstacles to come up along the way is quite enticing.
Alex: I was thinking much the same thing in regards to myself. Even though the film is set in Turkey, the lifestyle of those who are white collar workers are also typically very different than the lives of blue collar workers in America. Up until I left for college, I did a good amount of blue collar work growing up (rental house repairs; transporting aircraft parts for the home business) and as I’ve been able to progress in my education, the work, people, culture, and lifestyle I experience is markedly different than in my upbringing.
Some comparisons may be able to be drawn between The Wild Pear Tree and The Apu Trilogy, in particular The World of Apu, a film that also tells the story of a young aspiring writer struggling to come to terms with his place in the world. One last thing to note about The Wild Pear Tree is that it is one of the films Ben was able to see as part of his trip to Cannes last year, and he had a very positive impression of the film, adding it to our Paragon.
Another work of international cinema that is part of our Most Anticipated column this month is Cristian Mungiu‘s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. I was actually able to see the film last night, and it does fall a little bit into the slow cinema umbrella from its naturalistic conversations and glacial pace. Mungiu uses slowness as a sort of suspense in telling the story of a Romanian woman who seeks to undergo a black market abortion in Ceaușescu’s Communist Romania. The Criterion Collection is restoring the film in 4K and the physical release comes with a few interviews on the film as well as a documentary about the film’s reception in Romania.
Kevin: This release was quite a long time coming for Criterion, having hinted at this film being released about three years ago. Now, with Mungiu’s Graduation and Beyond the Hills having joined the collection in the time since, I am sure this release will be very much appreciated by all Mungiu fans. As you mentioned, there is a documentary included as a supplement that seems quite interesting. From doing some reading about the film, it seems quite the controversy in Romania upon its release with many viewers calling it “shocking and disturbing”. Its depiction of abortion, in particular, was controversial. As the documentary will look at the way the film was received in Romania, it will be interesting to see the immediate reactions from viewers and see how Mungiu’s own nation responded upon seeing it for the first time.
Alex: That’s interesting. At least to me, I thought Mungiu did an excellent job of keeping the film as non-controversial as possible. He doesn’t delve into the politics of the abortion or Romania’s history at all and the camera makes you feel present in whichever room the girls are in. It feels authentic. The story also deals with the semantics of arranging a payment and the meeting spot, and not just the abortion. I will say that there is a shot of the fetus that lingers for perhaps an uncomfortable amount of time, but I don’t think the choice to include the frame was intended to be controversial; it makes the gravity of the women’s choices weigh on you.
Kevin: I think it was more than likely just the subject matter as a whole. It seemed controversial in Romania, but caused even more of a stir in Europe as a whole to the point it was nearly banned in France. Abortion was and still is a completely controversial subject, even when a filmmaker refuses to take a stance on it in his film, as Mungiu did.
Also coming from the Criterion Collection this month is Elaine May‘s Mikey and Nicky starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. The film is somewhat of a crime drama with a heavy emphasis on the latter as Mikey arrives to help Nicky out of a tough situation. That situation being that Nicky believes he is going to be killed so he turns to his old friend Mikey to help him.
Given her roots in comedy, it is no wonder that it also often dryly funny but the overwhelming feeling I got from watching it was tragedy. Falk and Cassavetes develop a great rapport with one another, but as the film explores their fractured friendship, it hits like a gut punch. May approaches this friendship like a doctor, identifying every ailment and issue that eventually led to the dissolution of their bond before their encounter in the film. Criterion is giving a 4K restoration with a trio of interviews accompanying the film as special features, including one with Peter Falk that I am especially interested in seeing.
Alex: This restoration looks pretty interesting given the circumstances surrounding the making of the film. May experienced conflict with Paramount after she missed the due date for the film, resulting in the distributor attaining final cut privilege. The production is also notable for going over-budget and May’s unorthodox approach to shooting Falk and Cassavetes. She used three cameras when shooting the film and sometimes left them on in the hopes of catching interactions between the two actors that might not be filmed otherwise. However, her approach and non-compliance with the studio system resulted in the film virtually being buried by Paramount upon its release. Today, the Criterion restoration seems to be a new cut of the film approved by May, clocking in at 106 minutes rather than the 119 minute theatrical release.
The next film to bring up is Alfred Hitchcock‘s Notorious, which will be receiving a 4K restoration this month as well. The film is one of Hitchcock’s many beloved thrillers and stars Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains. The Criterion Blu-ray comes stacked with bonus features including two audio commentaries, a documentary, and even a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film also starring Bergman.
Kevin: Notorious is obviously one of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed and noteworthy films of the era, having achieved a level of notoriety usually reserved for his late-50s/early-60s works. It is no wonder why, as it is one of his best films as he follows the daughter of a Nazi (Bergman) as she is asked by a US agent (Grant) to infiltrate a ring of Nazi spies. It is a tense and typically suspenseful work from Hitchcock who, by this time, had made a handful of spy films but it is perhaps most notable in its romance. There is a bit of a love triangle, though the romance between Grant and Bergman is of course the most memorable, especially in how Hitchcock circumvented the Hays code limit of a three-second kiss. Instead, he managed to pull off an over two-minute long kiss with the pair pausing after every three seconds. It is an ingenious move, something that probably drove Hays insane to boot.
As with any Hitchcock film, it is hard to not see it in the context of his usual themes, but I especially like a specific tie back he makes to Suspicion. This was his second film to star Grant after Suspicion and, in that film, the film ends as he offers his wife (Joan Fontaine) a glass of milk. As she had spent the entire time thinking he was possibly a murderer, it is obviously quite the suspenseful finale. Here, Grant once more offers his lover a glass of milk. It is a small detail, but something I quite enjoyed as an inside joke by Hitchcock.
Alex: The last film up to discuss is In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison). The film stars Sydney Poitier as a black police detective, Virgil Tibbs, from Philidelphia who becomes involved in investigating a murder case in Mississippi, below the Mason-Dixon line. He forms an unlikely partnership with a white police officer played by Rod Steiger after the policeman mistakenly arrests Tibbs for the murder, unknowing at the time that Tibbs was a detective. Released in 1967, the film explores racial issues while being released in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
Kevin: I saw In the Heat of the Night for the first time a few years ago and haven’t found the time to revisit it yet, but this Criterion release will provide a great excuse to do so. Poitier often seemed to find himself in these racial/social justice films whether early in his career with The Defiant Ones or around the same time as In the Heat of the Night with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Yet, of all of his films that touch on race in America – even when the issues remain relevant – few remain quite as relevant and without bits that date them.
In reading about the film, it also struck me how cinematographer Haskell Wexler apparently altered the lighting of the film when shooting Poitier. Apparently he noticed that prior films’ lighting often created significant glare on black actors, dimming the lights a bit to capture Poitier. As the release includes a program that features Wexler, among others, speaking about the film, it will be interesting to see if he elaborates at all on this or touches on it. Either way, it is a unique touch in an overall great film that will be a lot of fun to revisit.
Alex: Very true. In the Heat of the Night was the first Hollywood film (in color) to be properly lit for African American actors and I thought that was interesting as well given that, like you said, Poitier had already been an established actor by the time In the Heat of the Night was produced.