Reframe the holidays with new Sacha Guitry and Charlie Chaplin DVDs.

Film 2010: Big Pictures Light up the Small Screen

Michael Fox December 16, 2010

It’s considered bad form, in some circles, to give a present that you covet for yourself. I take the opposite view, at least with respect to art and culture: Isn’t it more personal, and more special, to give a film or book or musical recording that you love, or heard great things about, and desire for your own collection? A bunch of titles just popped in your head, I’ll wager, and the past year brought a fresh batch of DVD box sets and movie books to add to your must-have (and, therefore, must-give) list. Try these on for size.

Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22 from Criterion, $47.96)
I was turned on to the remarkable French actor-writer-director Sacha Guitry when the New York Film Festival revived The Story of a Cheat (1936) in the early 1990s.  Here was witty and literate adult fare that embraced the earthy reality of the perennial male-female dance with style, intelligence and winking discretion. It was like stumbling into a recognizable yet lost world, not unlike the experience of watching a Lubitsch film nowadays. But outside of a worn VHS copy of Cheat at the San Francisco Public Library, I could never find a Guitry film in SF.

Finally, almost two decades later, Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse label has collected four of the prodigiously talented Guitry’s late–’30s titles in one sleek set. A successful and prolific playwright, Guitry at first rejected and resisted the cinema. (We forget that serious artists once viewed working in the movies as slumming. For a contemporary parallel, see cable TV.) But Guitry not only relented but embraced film as a unique medium with qualities that transcended the stage.

Guitry was enraptured, for example, by cinema’s ability to skip instantly between the past and the present through visual sleight-of-hand. His clever transitions are part of the fun of The Story of a Cheat, in which Guitry charms us for a rapid-fire 81 minutes as an amiable rake recounting his thieving, gambling and romancing ways. Shifting time frames and an enthusiasm for the art of storytelling are just as central to The Pearls of the Crown (1937), an absurdly ambitious quasi-historical yarn that imagines how the crown of England acquired its four pearls (while another three vanished along the way).

Sex is never far from Guitry’s mind, and Topic A (to quote Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story) is the motor driving the winning rondelays Desire (1937) and Quadrille (1938). All four films in Presenting Sacha Guitry feature the lovely and graceful Jacqueline Delubac, the third of five actresses whom Guitry cast, directed and married.

Chaplin at Keystone (Keystone, $59.96)
Let us leave for another day the debate over who was the greater artist, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and simply acknowledge the creator of the Tramp as a certified genius who’s given more hours of pleasure to more people than anybody in the history of motion pictures. Chaplin at Keystone collects 35 painstakingly restored shorts that Charlie made in 1914 at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. This marked the beginning of Chaplin’s film career after starting out in vaudeville in his native England, and the four-disc set graphically conveys the stunning speed with which the silent clown learned and mastered the new motion-picture medium. It also reveals the Tramp’s evolution from surly reprobate to lovable loser.

20th Century Fox: 75th Anniversary Collection ($499.98)
A real splurge, this one, but everybody loves a greatest hits collection, right? Frankly, I can’t decide if it’s touching or tone-deaf to release a mammoth DVD set on the cusp of the video-on-demand revolution. You get 75 movies, from Cavalcade (1933) to Avatar (2009), although it’s hard to claim that every title is immortal. The Devil Wears Prada is hardly in the same league with The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, All About Eve, The French Connection and Star Wars.

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (Criterion, $79.96)
Peter Biskind’s colorful oral history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls limned the breakdown of the studio system in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and American cinema’s resurgence thanks to a bunch of young mavericks and loose cannons. Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, under the banner of BBS Productions, were right in the middle, producing Easy RiderFive Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, Head and three other films collected in this tasty box.

Left In the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres (Charta, $39.95)
Photographer R.A. McBride and editor Julie Lindlow’s enthralling labor of love, passion and urban sophistication deserves a spot on every Bay Area film lover’s bookshelf. McBride’s ghostly, gorgeous pictures of empty movie houses are perfectly matched to marvelous personal meditations on the essential nature of public exhibition by such local luminaries as Melinda Stone, Eddie Muller, Liz Keim, and Gary Meyer. It isn’t nostalgia that fuels this elegant book but a love of cities, civilization and communal entertainment.

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf, $40)
The just-released fifth edition of David Thomson’s seminal, selective distillation of the great and important (not necessarily the same thing, mind you) figures in film history surely needs no introduction. The brilliant San Francisco (by way of England) critic and historian riffs as long or as short as he pleases about myriad actors and directors, making cases for his favorites and deflating the reputations of sundry others. Jammed with uncommon insights and infuriating one-liners (don’t your buttons get pushed when someone criticizes, let alone dismisses, a cherished movie or star?), the book fulfils Thomson’s stated goal of provoking a dialogue between book and reader. If you’ve somehow managed to live all this time without his magnum opus, now’s the time to pick up a copy. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a guide to gifts for other people? Oops.

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 (University of California Press, $29.95)
Experimental filmmaking has existed as long as the camera, and its influence on mass communication is on par with that of narrative and documentary. Yet it remains essentially unknown and invisible to the general public—even in the Bay Area, where the avant-garde film scene is second only to New York’s. This welcome and wide-ranging history, edited by former San Francisco Cinematheque director Steve Anker and Pacific Film Archive curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, is comprised of we-were-there chronicles by the likes of filmmakers Ernie Gehr, George Kuchar, Yvonne Rainer and Craig Baldwin and essays and interviews by critics Scott MacDonald and J. Hoberman. Recommended for the budding artist on your list, regardless of his or her discipline.

Of course, a gift card to a local theater, or a homemade, personalized coupon book of movie dates, complete with popcorn, Milk Duds and a post-film latte, is always appreciated. Many a friendship has been born, and thrived, through a shared love of the movies.