LA has a whole bunch of good rental stores, like Vidiots (Pico and 4th St), Rocket Video (La Brea and Melrose), and A Video Store Named Desire (Santa Monica and Federal). Some like Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood the best for hanging onto so many obscure old VHSs, but being a westsider, my favorite is Cinefile, at Sawtelle and Santa Monica (conveniently located next to the Nuart), whose main virtue is a healthy stock of DVD-Rs (shh! don’t say bootleg!) and DVDs from all regions, as well as the remnants of their majestic VHS selection. Where else could I have found Two-Backed Beast (parody doc featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum), Fuller’s final feature (Tinikling), Fassbinder’s TV series “World On A Wire” (in a horrendous unsubtitled version – good luck finding another, though). They are also, incidentally, the good people behind the CineFamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, but the search is still on for a copy of the Sterling Hayden-starring Sweet Hunters which is my personal acid test of movie rental catalogues (there was a VHS once, but no-one seems to have a copy any more..)
Even if one eschews dusty shelves for the virtual world of Netflix, the quality + production-cost equation of the DVD revolution has been a godsend for the fan of obscure movies, with new surprises appearing every month (the latest, for me, being Watkins’ Edvard Munch). But there’s still a lot Netflix can’t provide, which sends us back to those old VHS’s. With so much at our LA fingertips, therefore, I humbly offer a fairly random recommendation:
Docks Of New York (1928): Sternberg’s last silent film, and claimed by Chaplin as proof that Hollywood had perfected the art, just as sound came along and ruined everything. Certainly Sternberg is always more impressive in his silents, where his pictorial skill (and obsessions) flow more easily; he never seemed to comfortable adjusting to the plotting and narrative techniques of the sound era, but abstracted through intertitles and presented as pure action, he is indeed at the top of his form here. The opening engine room scene, with the greasy stokers doing their work, is as beautiful a tapestry of light and shade as one would expect, and the night-time docks themselves are terrifically atmospheric; there’s no denying Sternberg was one of the best lighting cameramen there ever was. Splendidly shot in reflection in the water, Betty Compson tries to end it all by jumping in the drink, only to be rescued by burly stoker George Bancroft; he’s got one night on shore and, determined to enjoy himself, let’s no-one put a dampener on his evening and ends by marrying the waif. Compson is great – hard and despairing – and Bancroft manages an air of intelligent wariness behind a brutish exterior. The wharf-side bar where much of the action takes place is a fantastical den of iniquity, home to Olga Baclanova, the disillusioned embodiment of Compson’s future, hanging onto life by her fingernails. The next morning, of course, Bancroft is ready to get back on the boat, but there is something about that girl.. Uncharacteristically, Sternberg actually seems to care some about his characters, and his usual nihilism plays as world-weariness with a shred of optimism.