Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Movies of no importance

We tend to think of the proliferation of movie titles on DVD as absolute. If a movie was made at any point in human history, it should be available on DVD, right? There should be someone, somewhere, who had enough of a relationship with the movie to steer it into a pressing of at least a couple thousand copies. Right?

Well, no.

It makes sense that some of the old, obscure titles from the earliest decades of filmmaking would have been lost over the years, or simply never would have been transferred. They made a huge number of movies back in those days. I doubt that it's an exaggeration to say that there are over a thousand movies made in the United States that are not available on DVD, nor were they even available on VHS. There could be a couple thousand.

But it doesn't make as much sense when this happens with a film from the last 20 years. Like a little film I saw and loved in 1995 called A Man of No Importance, directed by Suri Krishnamma and starring Albert Finney.

Let me set the scene for you a bit, to show you part of why it spoke to me so much. It was the spring of my senior year in college. I went to college in Maine, about 30 minutes from Maine's biggest city, Portland. Portland has an old, nautical history, and one of its most charming areas is call The Old Port, which is a district right near the harbor -- and which I only just discovered in the last semester of my college career, to my great chagrin. This district has art galleries, shops, amazing restaurants and cobblestone streets. Just the experience of being there is highly pleasing to all a person's senses, so going to a movie in the single-screen arthouse theater in the thick of it is like paradise for a person with the right aesthetic sensibilities. A friend and I came down from school and went to see A Man of No Importance in the spring of 1995. To cap the experience, we went across the way and got a coffee in the coffee shop, then called Java Joe's. This was also a bit of a revelation for me, since I was, until this point, unacquainted with the concept of the little coffee shop that supplied its own board games, to encourage you to linger and relax as long as you liked.

The movie itself was wonderful. It's about Dublin bus driver Alfie Byrne (Albert Finney), who is hiding a secret -- he feels "the love that dare not speak its name." In other words, he's gay. He's also a theater lover, and he's trying to mount a performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome, using only the passengers who ride his bus as his cast and crew. In the process of this, he develops a close relationship with a female passenger (Tara Fitzgerald) and a male stud with whom he falls in love (Rufus Sewell). However, when his true nature is accidentally revealed, it remains to be seen how those around him -- particularly his conservative contemporaries who oppose the production -- will react. And whether it will destroy his friendship with one or both of his young friends.

Finney's performance in this film is heartbreaking, but it also sings -- I've never liked him more than here. I was also mesmerized by Fitzgerald and Sewell, falling for both, but in the reverse way from Alfie -- he appreciates Fitzgerald as one would appreciate beautiful art, and Sewell as a love interest. I was the opposite. The film also has good performances from Michael Gambon, David Kelley and Brenda Fricker.

So why in the world can't you get this in any format except for the non-U.S. DVD format? All six actors I've mentioned are known from numerous other roles, and the film clearly played arthouse theaters in the U.S., because that's where I saw it. I even saw it a second time, within the next five years, on VHS.

But the advent of the DVD era was when A Man of No Importance ceased to have all importance outside of Europe. It didn't make the leap to the newer form of technology, which even the most artistically suspect of its cinematic brethren were able to make. It has basically become unattainable, at least for U.S. audiences. Which is quite a shame, because I thought of it over the weekend and wanted to add it to my Netflix queue, so I could introduce it to my wife. Alas, the title search returned no results, nor did a search on Amazon.com. On Amazon, only the non-U.S. format was available -- or else VHS.

This is not the only film where this has happened to me. In fact, I have a half-dozen other titles that I requested to review for the website I write for, only to find out later that they simply did not exist. At least, not unless I wanted to dust off my VHS player ... and find a place that still rents VHS. Or, fly to some other country to rent it.

Last year, I wrote a post called "The unattainables," about films I couldn't get because Blockbuster had excluded them from its catalogue on grounds of indecency. However, I've since seen the two main movies featured in that post, The Brown Bunny and Shortbus -- one rented from a different video store, and one borrowed from the library. The following are the really unattainables, reasonably prominent films that got lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way:

1) Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993, Randa Haines). This film was on my radar as the most recent film made by Sandra Bullock when Speed came out and turned her into an instant star. The film also features Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Duvall, and Randa Haines directed Children of a Lesser God among others. Yet for some reason this was not available on DVD until last year -- in fact, up until about two minutes ago, I thought it wasn't available at all, except I now see it's available for purchase on Amazon. However, Netflix still does not have it, and only recognizes a title called Ernest Hemingway: Wrestling With Life when you search for it. I was approved to review this movie probably seven or eight years ago. I'm almost wondering if I should just buy the movie on Amazon in order to review it.

2) The Theory of Flight (1998, Paul Greengrass). Another prominent cast (Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh) and prominent director (Greengrass directed two Bourne movies, among others) get left out in the cold, as this film is available only on VHS and non-U.S. DVD. I've been approved on this one probably only half as long, but it still feels like an eternity.

3) Year of the Comet (1992, Peter Yates). This film was on my radar because acclaimed screenwriter William Goldman wrote about it in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, as an example of a turkey from his own body of work. I thought it would be fun to see it myself and assess its status as a turkey, so I requested to review it. I'm still waiting for a DVD copy to be released. Oh, it stars the less household-namey combo of Tim Daly and Penelope Ann Miller.

Then there are a couple other movies I've been approved to review whose DVDs exist -- I can see them on Amazon -- but neither Netflix or Blockbuster carries them. For the African tribesmen basketball movie The Air Up There -- shouldn't every six degrees of Kevin Bacon movie be available to rent? -- Blockbuster let me add it to my queue, but then just listed it as Unavailable. On Netflix, those search words only bring up Up in the Air. For It's Pat: The Movie, Netflix gives you the option to save it for when it's available -- even though the DVD looks to have been released in 2003. Then there's What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, the sequel to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which isn't searchable at all on Netflix. Then again, that could be because you don't know whether to spell it Bleep or #%?@!. What I find strange, though, is that the original is available -- and searchable -- but not the sequel.

It's frustrating to have movies dangling out there that I can't watch, but I don't really give a flip about any of them except A Man of No Importance. I guess one advantage to eventually moving to Australia, where my wife grew up, would be that I'd finally be able to see this little gem again.


simoncolumb said...

Brown Bunny and Shortbus, for all their 'indecency' area apparently not great films ... i think, if i was to watch them ... it would just be about the nookie.


Derek Armstrong said...


The Brown Bunny is pretentious tedium -- or is it tedious pretentiousness? Don't bother, and you can actually get "the scene" online very easily. As for Shortbus ... well, I found it incredibly moving. I understand that was not everyone's experience of the film, but I thought it was excellent.

Chris said...

Yes, it can be frustrating that blockbuster focus on new releases, and many older, (and often better) films get dropped.

Sometimes the films which the retailers think are not mainstream enough, are the obscure titles cinephiles like us want to get our hands on!

Not to mention the difficulties of buying some American movies in Europe, which are only sold in the US on region 1 dvd. Like "Walking and talking" for example. Or the indie "Melvin Goes to Dinner", you can only buy it from the states.

You can probably find a dozen more obscure films that fit this label from my "to see list" on my blog

Derek Armstrong said...


At least your DVD players will play American movies in Europe. I don't know why this is not bi-directional, except that it has something to do with monopolies and not wanting to give up profits. Still, it's very frustrating that my wife received a DVD copy of an Australian movie that was somewhat recently recovered, where all the prints were thought to have been lost, called Wake in Fright. I don't know when we ever plan to watch it, since laptops only have a minimal number of times you can change the DVD region before it will be stuck on the last choice forever. Maybe we'll watch it right when I'm going to give up my currently laptop -- which is four years old now, so I guess that could be any time now. But now I'm sort of off topic ...

The Taxi Driver said...

Simon - I second Vance on Shortbus, totally worth taking a look at. Goldman thinks Year of the Commet is a dud in his career (I have the book but have not read it)? Did he see Dreamcatcher of A Bridge Too Far?

Derek Armstrong said...

Or The General's Daughter, or Absolute Power. Actually, I'd argue that he didn't write a really great script after Misery. But at least he wrote the book before Dreamcatcher came out. Dreamcatcher is quite simply one of the worst films I have ever seen.

PrairieGirl said...

Feel exactly like you do about AMONI. I wanted to see it so bad (for Rufus Sewell) that I ended up buying it on VHS for an exorbitant $37 plus shipping. It was worth it, and I'll try to copy it to DVD. There a a few other Sewell works that are nowhere to be found in any form, am disappointed, to say the least. Great post!

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks PG. Isn't the film great? I truly fell in love with it. Send me a copy when you make your transfer, will you? ;-)

PrairieGirl said...

Well, actually I have to get to my dad's house, he's the one that has the hardware to transfer from VHS to DVD and says it's successful 85% of the time. So if it works, I'll let you know! Yes, I got AMONI for Rufus, but was surprised I was so enamored with Albert Finney, the rest of the cast and the whole film, actually. Quite a shame it's not more readily available.

PrairieGirl said...

Subject: A movie of no region
Hi again Audient, I have some news for you that I hope you'll be very pleased with. After much research and going round and round, I bought a new DVD player (less than $99) that can easily be changed to be region free and to play PAL (the European equivalent of our NTSC video). Then, I went to Amazon UK and bought A Man of No Importance Region 2 DVD [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-No-Importance-DVD/dp/B000ENUWD8/ref=pd_cp_d_h__0] for less than $5 US (however, it can take anywhere from 6 days to 6 weeks to receive via Royal Mail, I will pay more attention to the way I choose to ship from there, I think UPS would be better next time, but probably more $), and the movie is playing beautifully now on my TV as I type. I've been able to watch a new BBC detective series (Zen-wonderful!) months and months before it will even appear here in the US on Masterpiece on PBS. I am giddy with delight just wondering what treasures I might discover that I could never view before. If you want detail on my DVD player and the region free code, let me know, or just google along those lines and you'll come up more info than you ever thought there could be on the subject.

My next mission will be to get another DVD player for my computer and switch the region so I can play Region 2 and take clips from there.

Anyway, couldn't wait to let you know, good luck!

P.S. BTW, my Dad did make me two DVD copies, the quality is watchable, but the new one is more than twice as good. If you want one of Dad's copies. your welcome to it, just let me know how I can get it to you.

Signed, your AMONI pal, Becky

Derek Armstrong said...

In the wake of Finney's death, I looked at this post again and realized I never responded to your comment, Becky. I don't know I missed it, I would have totally hit you up for one of those copies! You will probably never read this, but eight years (to do the day!) after you wrote this I am finally responding. I'd totally watch this movie today to honor Finney's passing.

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