August is looking to be as bleak a month for new DVDs as it traditionally is for theatrical releases. This coming week’s new DVDs are, unlike our theaters, blissfully Brendan Fraser-free, but don’t get excited. Mr. Fraser’s participation in two of the country’s top five movies means that there is a week somewhere in the near future during which we will once again be berated with family friendly one-liners from the immediate classics Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D and The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Crystal Skulls or whatever it’s called. And despite his absence from our video store shelves, not a whole lot else is happening on them.
The numerous people who have recommended the HBO drama “The Wire” to me will be quick to point out that the Fifth Season of that show is due for release on August 12, the date in question. Having seen not more than three episodes of what has been described to me as a “great” and “freaking awesome” show, I can do nought but pass on these accolades. As for “Prison Break,” whose Third Season also sees a release this coming Tuesday, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to you. Don’t get me wrong: like so many people who hate television programs vehemently, I’ve never actually seen it. I do blame it, however, for forcing my beloved “Arrested Development” off the air and have refused to watch it on principle ever since.
Perhaps it would be best if we ignore this coming week’s releases for now, especially since I don’t seem to have seen any of them, and focus on DVDs coming later this month. For example, at the end of the month, two oft-forgotten classics of their respective national cinemas are being released on DVD in America for the first time. Vojtech Jasny’s All My Good Countrymen is a flagship film of the Czech New Wave that was thought lost to Communist suppression until recent years. Originally conceived as a six-hour tribute to Jasny’s home village and its struggles when Czechoslovakia joined the Eastern Bloc after World War II, somebody thankfully talked Jasny into making this two-hour masterpiece. Though produced in 1966 when the Czechs were experiencing a resurgence in personal liberty, the Russians soon invaded to quash growing democratic feelings in its satellite and the film found itself banned along with several other now-classics of 60s Czech cinema.
Beyond its interesting history, the film is actually quite good, illustrating how the laws imposed by the Communist government in the 1940s upended the lives of individuals and the society as a whole. Cooperative farms robbed hard-working farmers of their life’s work and even homes, the Communists’ anti-religious policy made a mockery of traditional social settings and values, and their repression of dissidents encouraged members of communities to turn on each other. Jasny illustrates these points by focusing on a group of friends in a small village whose lives and friendship are gradually shattered by World War II and its aftermath. The film delves into the realm of over-earnestness once or twice and borders on sentimentality, but overall it is an important and thoughtful piece of art.
What do you get when you take Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, translate it to a Scottish mining town, and replace the stylish French New Wave form with an especially bleak derivative of Italian neorealism? Why, The Bill Douglas Trilogy, of course. Like Truffaut did with his character Antoine Daniel in 400 Blows and future films, director Bill Douglas gives us his life story through his alter-ego Jamie, who lives an impoverished life in post-World War II Scotland. His mother gone mad and his father in denial of his existence, Jamie lives with his grandmother and looks for a male role model in German Prisoner of War Helmuth.
Douglas repeatedly refutes the idea of an optimistic story about poverty, as each development that could lead to a happy ending or at the very least a smile is canceled by inevitable circumstance. In the first film, My Childhood, the German POW must return to der Vaterland just as his relationship with Jamie is progressing. Jamie goes to see his mother only to find her unresponsive on a bed in the insane asylum. The father of Jamie’s half-brother Tommy begins to make an effort only to be chased away by their demented grandmother. The second film in the trilogy, My Ain Folk, begins with a beautiful Technicolor shot which turns out to be from a Lassie film Tommy is watching; reality is still in harsh black and white. Jamie’s paternal grandmother, to whom he flees to avoid the orphanage after his maternal grandmother dies, is an abusive old alcoholic who is no more accepting of him than is his father. Life, as Douglas or “Jamie” lived it, is a series of events which is completely out of one’s own hands. Poverty and misery are not just inescapable but irreversible states of being.
The three films are short but each is slightly longer than the last. The weak link is the third film, My Way Home, which is by far the longest at an hour and fifteen minutes and abandons the dirty streets industrial Scotland for a military base in Egypt where Douglas spent his teen years. It is not a bad film, but Douglas abandons the great illustrative fiction of the previous two films in favor of a more straightforward Bill Douglas autobiography. As a whole, the trilogy might accurately be described as a masterpiece, but it would be so with or without My Way Home. Douglas would go on to direct just one more film, the epic-length drama Comrades, before his untimely death at the age of 57 in 1991.
All My Good Countrymen and The Bill Douglas trilogy will be available on August 26, 2008. Until then, you and I are going to have to catch up on “The Wire” and the numerous other TV-on-DVD releases the coming weeks hold.