Judge Jesse Ataide wears his bolero with pride.
"Allan Miller is America's foremost filmmaker of documentaries on
Two bold statements on bright blue bands run across the cover of First Run Feature's DVD pairing of the two short films The Bolero and In Search of Cézanne. "Academy Award Winner" the band across the top proclaims in capital letters; "Two Films by Allan Miller" says the bottom band in a slightly smaller font. The first statement refers to The Bolero, which did indeed win the Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1973, the bottom, on the other hand, seems to be a little more problematic, as Allan Miller seems to be a hard name to track on IMDb. Surprisingly, he's not even credited as director on The Bolero's IMDb page (William Fertik, who is given co-director in the film's closing credits takes that spot), and an IMDb page for In Search of Cézanne is nowhere to be found. Not that I'm accusing First Run Features of false advertisement; quite the contrary, actually, for it might actually be the case that the DVD company is bringing to our attention a cinematic talent that deserves more credit than what he has previously received. Is this indeed the case?
At first, The Bolero doesn't seem much different than a lot of the scratchy-looking, 70s beige-hued classical music clips on PBS that one quickly clicks past when scanning through TV channels late at night. But appearances are deceiving with this film, an examination of how conductor Zubin Mehta and Los Angeles Philharmonic pieces together a performance of Ravel's instantly recognizable classic (cinematically, it's been used in films as diverse as 10, Allegro non troppo and Brian de Palma's Femme Fatale). Ravel's piece, sometimes jokingly referred to as "the world's longest crescendo," is not one I care much for, but with just a few minutes of interviews (with Mehta and several Philharmonic members) directors Miller and Fertik manage to elicit some real insight and foster a lot of interest in the piece. Then, 10 minutes in, when the screen goes black and the performance begins, one can't help but be drawn in by the opening flute and be strung along, hooked, as the camera follows as the melody is passed from instrument to instrument.
The great innovation of this film, which has since become the standard for this form, is that it actually dares to show the musicians close up, not consigning the camera to a faraway, anonymous audience view or (much, much worse) cutting away to idyllic nature scenes. Setting the camera close enough to see the beads of sweat and minute facial expressions of conductor and the instrumentalists create a fleeting but intense bond between musician, instrument, viewer and music as the music climbs and climbs rapturously toward the crescendo. The Bolero is model of marrying music, image and editing into an emotionally-charged experience, and how to modulate a film for maximum effect. It's a stunning film.
Unfortunately, In Search of Cézanne isn't nearly as impressive. A mix of documentary and fiction that stars Jacqueline Kim (Charlotte Sometimes), it's more or less a fictional depiction of a documentary filmmaker setting out to find what it is that draws her to Cézanne's paintings. As she visits museums on both sides of the Atlantic and locations from Cézanne's paintings, all the while talking with scholars, professors, historians and even Cézanne's great grandson, she grapples over whether or not to give more precedence to the power of her emotional reactions or the tempered analysis of scholarly study. Admittedly, this is a fascinating pair of topics—and one dear to my own heart—but a half hour short is not the ideal medium for this type of examination, and not allowing for enough time to really dig into the topics at hand inevitably results in rather superficial analysis. Not helping is that Kim isn't particularly good, either. Not for a second does one believe she's really working on a documentary. Still, there are many luscious shots of Cézanne's work to savor and, not surprisingly, Miller's integration of classical music is simply superb. Otherwise, In Search of Cézanne is not a film of much interest.
The image quality of both films is adequate. The 30-year-old Bolero, which was shot on film, is rather grainy and has that slightly washed-out 70s look; the digitally-shot and much more recently shot In Search of Cézanne, on the other hand, is much more sharp and crisp. Considering how important music is in these films, particularly The Bolero, it is wonderful that the audio track is presented in Dolby stereo, and the Oscar-winning film in particular sounds great. Otherwise, there are a few bonus features provided on this disc, including a few brief but insightful paragraphs provided by Miller himself as well as Miller's biography, which is rather nice considering information about him is so hard to track down, even in this age where it feels like anything can be found with a few keystrokes punched into Google. Several trailers for other First Run Feature DVDs are also included.
So we're back to our opening question: does Miller deserve more credit, and a more comprehensive presence on the IMDb? On the merits of The Bolero alone, I'd say yes. First Fun Features didn't include that New York Times quote on their cover for no reason.
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