by Tony Dayoub
I'll be brief today on the subject of two surrealist DVD releases which debuted in the last couple of weeks. One is based on a cult series of some renown. The other has quickly developed its own small following.
The oft-quoted urban legend in which Jerry Lewis is revered in Europe as a genius while largely dismissed as the goofball half of a venerated comic duo here in the U.S. must have grown more credible with the overseas premiere of Arizona Dream (1991), a movie largely unseen here in America. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Vilko Filac, it is a series of surrealistic non-sequiturs (some hilarious, some insane) episodically strung together to form a bizarre narrative which likely plays better if you're under the influence of an hallucinogen. Magical realism rarely fares well when utilizing distinctly American settings or iconography, and in this way, Arizona Dream is no different. Director Emir Kusturica certainly cares about his characters, a makeshift family of lunatics which in some respects bear a strong resemblance to the cast of Tony Richardson's far better Hotel New Hampshire (1984). But like many directors from abroad, he gets too caught up in his romantic vision of America—its materialism (symbolized by the focus on car culture); and particularly its stars, both future and past (the cast includes Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, and Vincent Gallo), who are forgiven some extreme self-indulgence in their improvisations—to really sustain a consistent tone, a necessity in films that venture so far out from the mainstream. Its cult audience swears by it, though. And it is admirable that the made-to-order Warner Archive Collection has added this to their March release slate to satisfy the hunger from even a few (new releases from Warner Archive continue apace, at the beginning and middle of every month; the next slate of releases premiere on 4/6).
Coherence is definitely not the problem with The Prisoner (2009). New to DVD, this 6-episode AMC miniseries is an update of an intense 17-episode miniseries from the 1960s in which a former secret agent (Patrick McGoohan from Secret Agent) awakens in the mysterious, dreamlike island Village after he resigns; each episode sets up a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game where his wardens interrogate him hoping to determine the reasons why he quit. Like in that cult classic, its complicated antihero is only known by a number, Six (Jim Caviezel); his foil, Two (Ian McKellen), probes him in countless ways to find out why he resigned from his position as an intelligence analyst. The cinematography in this is quite an improvement over that of the old series, which contributed to its undeserved reputation of "cheesiness" in the vein of Lost in Space or Star Trek. Where The Prisoner goes wrong is in its neutering of Six, relegating him to the position of reactor rather than actor or prime mover within his own story. Patrick McGoohan's character (maybe because of McGoohan's auteurial sway over the show, often writing, directing and producing) often achieved an uncomfortable stalemate with his captors, hoisting them with their own petard, as it were. But Caviezel's Six is manipulated by Two, his fellow villagers, and even his love interest in ways that minimize the potential for drama in the show. Ultimately, the revelation as to what this Village represents proves as hollow as the updated character of Six. Sporting great production values and performances, it is the screenwriting that is unequal to the task of contemporizing its thought-provoking predecessor. Of interest only to the most hardcore fans of the original.