Saturday, April 21, 2007

Franco Upconverted

Alicia Príncipe lollygogs on holiday in Jess Franco's erotic terror opus THE SEXUAL STORY OF O.

Last night I decided to spend some time getting to know my new LG Super Multi Blue Player, the first DVD player on the market able to play both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. The reason this blog is opening with an image from Jess Franco's THE SEXUAL STORY OF O -- a 1984 film to be released on May 1 by Severin Films -- is that part of my study was spent looking at how well various non-HD titles "upconvert" to 1080i resolution.

One of the discs I had handy was MGM's latest reissue of THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, which, like all the recent Bond reissues, was treated to a much-ballyhooed digital process that promised to make them look better than ever. Played on my LG Multi Blue, it was impossible to overlook the prevalence of haloing in the presentation -- every moving figure appeared to be outlined in a bid to gain sharper definition, but it wasn't as defining as it was noisy. It wasn't as bad as the nightmare that is Koch Lorber's LA BELLE CAPTIVE (the worst transfer I've seen of late), but it was noticeable -- especially after admiring the dazzling beauty of the Blu-ray release of CASINO ROYALE. Daniel Kleinman's main titles for that movie are now my high-def demonstration reel. I continued to sample different discs until I remembered that I had received Severin's two latest Franco titles in the mail that morning. What was I doing watching THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH when I could be watching THE SEXUAL STORY OF O? In English!

THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is not a high-definition release, but in a side-by-side comparison to MGM's highly-publicized Bond transfers, THE SEXUAL STORY OF O is almost miraculous. It's a minimalist erotic film, but it delivers Costa del Sol scenery that knocks anything comparable in the Bond film off the map -- especially when viewed as a 1080i upconversion. I'm still educating myself in these matters, but to my eyes, this presentation could easily pass for a high-definition disc. It passes the upconversion test with flying colors -- candy colors, in fact. Image liquidity, depth perception, fine details... all were beautifully enhanced, adding to the tactile pleasures of what would likely be a much lesser film in a lesser presentation.

Mamie Kaplan as she appears in the film's nearly three-minute toe-sucking sequence.

I think Severin Films is doing heroic work in bringing Franco's 1980s work to DVD at all, but the label deserves our recognition and applause for the stellar (some might say unnecessary) quality they bring to each presentation. I have no idea how many units of these titles are being sold, but it can't be many, and that's what makes their level of craftsmanship all the more impressive. It's a company that visibly cares.

I wrote a review of THE SEXUAL STORY OF O today, but I'm going to hold it back for publication in VIDEO WATCHDOG #131. In the meantime, here are links to two reviews already online: one by Robert Monell at his I'm in a Jess Franco State of Mind website and another by Troy Howarth at DVD Maniacs. I would caution you to take Troy's "ranks among Franco's most satisfying works" comment with a grain of salt, but that it ranks among Franco's most satisfying DVD presentations is indubitable.

One thing I will add to their comments is something I noticed about the film's soundtrack. This film would appear to be an experiment in bilingual cinema by Franco. The film's heroine is a young American and all of her dialogue is in English; the film's story is dependent upon her not understanding what her co-stars are saying. I haven't yet watched the film in this way, but it made me wonder if -- like Fellini's "Toby Dammit" in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD -- THE SEXUAL STORY OF O might not be even more winningly disorienting and suspenseful if viewed without subtitles. Fortunately, they are removable.

For the record, I must say I agree with those observers who prefer the look of Blu-ray over HD DVD... but I can't tell if my preference has anything to do with me viewing HD DVD on a player whose primary bias is Blu-ray. What both formats appear to love above all is digital information: CGI detailing, digital animation, that sort of thing -- THE CORPSE BRIDE in high-definition is an unbelievable treat. Which means that the format might not fully come into its own until the film industry fully switches over from 35mm to DV.

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