Film buffs weaned in the VHS era can bend your ear with war stories about the movies they've spent years of their lives trying to find. Sometimes the obscure object of their quest is a seventies cult-exploitation flick that is finally spotted in some gray-market mail-order catalogue. Other times, it's a rare Italian epic that they've only ever watched via a horrible copy taped off late-night TV — dubbed and panned and scanned and sliced and diced, naturally. Or it might be just a regular VHS release that, for whatever reason, their local video store didn’t carry. For those of us who've been there, the age of streaming has created a fair bit of cognitive dissonance — not just from the preponderance of so many titles, many of them obscure, but also in the fact that so many lost classics are there to be watched instantly, and for free.
Over the last several years, I’ve been blown away by the sheer availability of random titles — movies I thought I would never see, or never see again — on streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and the like. The numbers keep increasing, too. Even when a film expires on one site, it’s usually soon available somewhere else. I can easily foresee a world where almost every extant movie is available online, for immediate viewing. For a guy like me, who has spent a significant part of his life trying to track down some of these movies, this is downright bizarre — like scouring the Earth for the Holy Grail and then one day finding it at Best Buy, next to the Ark of the Covenant.
As part of our look at subscription streaming services, here are some Holy Grails of mine that I’ve discovered recently hanging out in Amazon's Instant Video section, free to all Prime members. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go feel old.
Anima Nera (1961)
Roberto Rossellini was one of the greatest directors who ever lived, full stop. But it took U.S. home video some years to realize this fact. I spent much of my childhood trying to track down crappy dupes of some of the director’s films, with only intermittent success. (Thanks to Criterion, some of his most seminal works are now available in beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.) One of the absolute hardest to find has been this 1961 film starring the great Vittorio Gassman. It never got a U.S. release. The director himself virtually disowned it. Even many of his most fervent admirers aren’t crazy about it. Perhaps we can blame their indifference for the fact that there’s so little mention of the fact that the once impossible-to-find Anima Nera — a movie that for many years I was sure I’d go to my grave without seeing — is now available on Amazon streaming, and it's a lovely, pristine copy, too.
Might I also add: Those naysayers are kind of wrong about the virtues of this flawed but beautiful film. The story of a newly married used-car dealer whose life is thrown into disarray when his past as a male hustler begins to emerge, it was an uncharacteristic film for Rossellini, to be sure. The director compared his own work here to prostitution — so maybe that’s why Anima Nera’s depiction of the character’s prostitution is so sensitively rendered, with a fine performance by Gassman as the confident, conflicted man with a closetful of wartime skeletons.
One can see why Rossellini wasn’t happy with the film, as it lacks much of the naturalistic qualities of his best work from the period. Anima Nera also seems at times to be trying to cash in on the stylistic touchstones of the New Wave and of films like La Dolce Vita; it’s got lots of scenes of nightlife and a jazzy score that often seem at odds with the director’s matter-of-fact shooting style. But all that tension strangely enhances the film’s overwhelming sense of unease, and echoes its narrative of a man posing as something he’s not. It’s kind of a fake “normal” movie about a fake “normal” man. Plus, it’s got an amazing final scene. It may not be a masterpiece, but this is a film ripe for rediscovery. Thanks, Amazon.
Wild Is the Wind (1957)
George Cukor was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors — he directed The Philadelphia Story, Little Women, A Star Is Born, My Fair Lady, and dozens of other films, including parts of Gone With the Wind — but he’s been no match for the cruel hand of video obscurity, as many of his films are hard to track down, even now. Back in 1957, this melodrama starring Anthony Quinn as a wealthy Italian-American rancher who marries his late wife’s sister, played by the great Anna Magnani, was apparently pretty successful: It was nominated for several Oscars, and it even had a popular Johnny Mathis theme song that was later covered by Nina Simone and David Bowie.
That success was well-deserved. It’s a powerful, and powerfully strange film, in which the physicality of the two stars — Quinn, who could be both a lumbering brute and a fragile wreck, and Magnani, whose wild, unpredictable gestures were often matched by the unreal authority of her eyes – plays off against the physicality of the landscape. (Burt Lancaster apparently once said that if Anna Magnani hadn’t become a great actress, she might have become a “great criminal,” and you can see why here.) Cukor was known for his refined sensibility, but he shines with this decidedly more earthy material. Perhaps it’s because the director was always very attuned to the emotional temperatures of his characters: He bounced different “types” off each other with all the fascination and patience of a scientist, and in Wild Is the Wind, he was working with some of his most memorable specimens. Also, this film features what can only be described as the most suspenseful lamb-suckling scene in all of cinema.
Set in rural Nevada, Wild Is the Wind is also full of remarkable visual touches, so, crappy, Z-generation VHS bootlegs could never do it justice. It’s been available streaming for some time. This was actually one of those titles culled in the Great Netflix Streamageddon of 2013. Luckily, Amazon Prime now has it, so you could watch it right this minute if you were so inclined.
The Shout (1978)
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s extended sojourn in Britain yielded some of the most accomplished films of the seventies and eighties, particularly with Deep End (1970) and Moonlighting (1982). But right in the middle of all that, he made what is certainly his most notorious film, and one of the craziest things you’ll ever see. While ostensibly a thriller, The Shout seems virtually designed to be a cult classic from the get-go. It’s an oblique tale of an apparently happy couple (John Hurt and Susannah York) slowly and surreally being victimized by a mysterious man (Alan Bates) who claims to have mastered the Aboriginal art of killing people with a single very loud and very scary shout. (In case you’re wondering: Yes, we do actually get to hear the shout.) That such a ridiculous idea results in such a mesmerizing and unsettling film is a testament both to the director and to that great cast, which also includes Tim Curry and a very young Jim Broadbent.
For many years, The Shout the movie was something akin to the shout in the film — a mythic, rumored-of thing that sounded too far-fetched to be true, and the evidence of whose existence seemed uncertain at best. (To be fair, for many years this was a fate shared by Skolimowski’s masterpiece Deep End as well, at least until its recent Blu-ray release.) A Region 2 DVD of The Shout did pop up some years ago, but the real find was when Amazon Streaming made it available — in a beautiful copy, to boot.
Firing Line With William F. Buckley (1966–97)
Okay, yes, William F. Buckley’s Firing Line was never lost, and it certainly ain’t cinema. But back when I was a kid, this seemed like the quintessential stuffed-shirt, boring-as-ass talkathon — the kind of thing you happened to pass by and snicker at while switching channels. Now, thanks to Amazon Streaming, which has the show online, it’s my new favorite thing in the world, which is not something I ever expected to say about a show hosted by one of the most prominent right-wingers of all time.
To be fair, there is a Firing Line channel on YouTube, and you can see hundreds of clips from the show there. But why watch five-minute clips of a show, one of the chief values of which was the fact that it let smart, articulate people go on at length? Whatever his politics, Buckley’s power as a host was that, not being beholden to ratings and/or petty demographic needs, he felt little need to promote himself or to cut the others short. He was William F(reaking) Buckley, for crying out loud. So, he could let his guests talk, and talk, and talk. He was also pretty much allergic to soundbites, and to the kind of simplistic, promotional bullshit that virtually blankets today’s talk shows. (And for all his old-world certainty, he often seemed genuinely curious about what these people thought — even though many of them must have seemed like space aliens to him.)
Seriously, I cannot stop watching Firing Line. And neither will you. Marvel at how Buckley engages then-candidate Ronald Reagan in a wonky back-and-forth on oil prices and inflation. Watch and howl at how he lets a young Christopher Hitchens absolutely fillet the founder of The American Spectator over the meaning of the word liberal. And quiver as he lets an extremely drunk Jack Kerouac basically self-implode in a discussion about the hippie generation, with Allen Ginsberg staring him down in the audience. The guests are amazing, and many of them are figures who are still being discussed today: Want to see what the infamous Saul Alinsky really thought? Or the now-much-cited libertarian economist Friedrich von Hayek? They’re both here, going on, and on, and on. Buckley’s show was hardly considered timely; although his audiences were often peppered with young people, his air was definitely that of a man pleasantly behind the times. Back then, Firing Line might have seemed hopelessly square. Now it’s an essential time capsule.