WXYZ - "SEPTEMBER 11TH: MEMORIAL EDITION" (2011. NOT RATED. THE HISTORY CHANNEL. $24.95.)
I approached with skepticism this History Channel collection of four documentaries about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- then found myself watching them straight through.
The highlight of the set is "102 Minutes That Changed America," a minute-by-minute account of the attacks, made up entirely of raw footage shot by people in New York that day.
Also surprisingly good is "Hotel Ground Zero," about the people who happened to be in the Marriott Hotel right underneath the South Tower on 9/11.
To see these documentaries almost 10 years later is to realize that what we knew would be history has now become history, and we now can get an inkling of how people in the future will see these pictures. They will be genuinely sympathetic and yet easily distracted by the clothing, the hairstyles, the vintage cars, the old cellphones, the street signs and the store signs -- all the things that we never noticed before that are just now starting to announce the era.
Barely perceptibly, 9/11 is beginning to become something out of history, something that happened, not to us, but to other people, or to people we used to be. This is not to say that any of this has lost its power to move us. Some of the footage is infinitely sad and much of it is still frightening and disconcerting. And it's hard to break away from the story, an ongoing revelation of increasing horror.
"THE LETTER" (1929. NOT RATED. WARNER ARCHIVE. $19.95.)
No, this is not the melodrama made by Bette Davis and Warner Bros. in the 1940s. This is more like a miracle. Made in 1929, it stars stage actress Jeanne Eagels, in her only surviving talkie performance, as a married woman who kills her lover, then goes on trial and says that the man tried to rape her.
Eagels is astounding. Notice her concentration, how she is always listening and reacting to the other actor, how her thoughts are transparent. It is impossible to take your eyes off her. She seems like she is about to fly apart in all directions at any second -- but is this the actress or the performance? It's hard to say.
She plays this woman in all her limitations and narrowness as someone who has degenerated and fragmented. She doesn't flatter the character in any way. She goes right to the heart of her suffering, confusion and mental distortion. It is such an aggressive performance, histrionic and big-scaled, and yet nuanced and insightful.
Really, I think Eagels is one of the greatest actresses I've ever seen, though I wish I had more to go on. Eagels was a heroin addict and died later that same year, probably at age 38 (though some sources say 35). Had she lived and worked just five more years, there would have been a dozen more movies, and she would probably be as famous as Jean Harlow.
At least we have this film, which for years was thought to be lost, and then for years after could be seen only by appointment at New York's Museum of Modern Art. I had to buy a plane ticket in order to see it in the 1990s, so the $19.95 price is a bargain. It's available only from the Warner archive at www.warnerarchive.com.
"LIFE DURING WARTIME" (2009. NOT RATED. THE CRITERION COLLECTION. $29.95 DVD; $39.95 BLU-RAY.)
Todd Solondz has been honored with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray of his most recent film, the story of several people in the general orbit of a newly paroled sex offender (Ciaran Hinds) who still cannot suppress his deviant desires.
The value of the film is not in the "queasy precision" of its exploration of "contemporary American existence," despite what the back cover tells us. Solondz's vision is no more accurate to contemporary reality or truth than an action movie or a sci-fi fantasy. Its value, instead, is in its elucidation of the director's singular consciousness and the struggle at work within that consciousness.
Solondz offers sympathetic characters, then undercuts them by making them ridiculous. He encourages us to scorn them, then asks us to view them as tortured souls worthy of sympathy -- and as illustrative of human suffering in general.
In Solondz, we see the flight of the cynic from emotion, and the cynic's inevitable return to emotion. It is the vision of a shy person with hostile private thoughts who alternates between fear (and the accompanying anger) and empathy. In other words, what's significant about Solondz's films is not his insight, which is minimal, but his honest willingness to expose his own inner conflict -- a conflict that he seems to be willing in the direction of humanity.
In the fulfillment of this, he is an artist with some skill, capable of holding an audience from scene to scene without much in the way of story. And, true to his own vision, he has a very particular sense of humor, which is as vicious as it is sympathetic.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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