Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Where Are Those China Blues?

Annie Potts and John Laughlin share their sorrows in CRIMES OF PASSION.
Arrow Video recently issued, on both sides of the Atlantic, the best-looking and most revealing version of Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION (1984) we've ever had - but while watching it, I had the persistent feeling that something was amiss. By the time the movie reached one of its most impressive scenes - a 5m 45s tour de force scene of Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) and his wife Amy (Annie Potts) confessing their marital frustrations and dissatisfaction to one another in bed - I thought I understood what was wrong: that the technicians in charge of the film's 2K restoration had somehow neglected to include the film's night filters, which had once suffused this and other night scenes in blue. As I watched the scene pictured above, my sense of the missing blue became acute; without it, the scene was suffused in an admittedly more naturalistic color bias of a weak sea green - and the light outside that imaginary window felt like afternoon light rather than the light of a full moon.

The more I thought about it, I began to remember how the color blue had clung to the film throughout, a chromatic illustration of how Joanna Crane's (Kathleen Turner) fantasy character of China Blue - indeed, how sexual fantasy itself - had permeated so many other lives and relationships. My feelings were further encouraged when, while revisiting the disc's audio commentary by Ken Russell and screenwriter Barry Sandler (originally recorded for the film's laserdisc release), I heard Russell himself pause for a moment to express admiration for cinematographer Dick Bush's work on the film, savoring his use of blue in this shot in particular! 

http://amzn.to/29LaMo5I took my question to James White, who supervised the restoration for Arrow. He wrote back: "What we sourced for this restoration was the original 35mm Interpos struck from the negative, which came with its basic grade already timed/baked-into the material, so I don’t believe there were any circumstances where we wrestled with the material to achieve a certain look, against what the material was naturally giving us once basic settings were applied to the scans. It’s odd as well as we were using reference sources throughout to match/improve upon previous grades from earlier DVD releases and I don’t recall a single situation where we veered away from the basic template provided by these reference sources." 
Determined to get to the root of this, I turned to reference material in my attic: Lumivision/Anchor Bay's DVD from 1998. I was surprised to discover that, apart from being non-anamorphic and far less detailed, the color bias and contrast were otherwise perfectly in tune with the decisions made at Arrow. James was right. Was it possible I had imagined this? But Ken Russell had seen it too!

Fortunately I still own a working high-end laserdisc player and had held onto Lumivision's CRIMES OF PASSION laserdisc, though I hadn't consulted it in more than 20 years. I loaded the disc up and shot ahead to the chapter where the scene resided. You can imagine my bafflement when I saw that here, too, the scene appeared brighter than I remembered it. Contrary to my beliefs, there was no night filter or blue gel lighting in evidence. However, to keep a record I snapped a series of photos off my TV screen, the only handy and expedient means I had of grabbing an image from a laserdisc. It wasn't until I compared the photo side-by-side with my image grab from the Arrow disc that I could actually see how striking the differences were.

Same image as above, from Lumivision laserdisc.

I should preface my comments by pointing out that the light levels seen here are misleading; the scene is somewhat darker when viewed on my TV screen than it appears here, where we are also seeing a certain amount of light pouring out of my plasma screen. Otherwise the image is accurately calibrated. As you can see, the flesh tones are much warmer on the laserdisc, and the shadows are indeed suffused with subtle blues. So: not exactly as I remembered it, but the cause of what I remembered is evident. Though I didn't document the laserdisc images overall, I noticed - as I spot-checked the disc, chapter by chapter - that the transfer was a step darker throughout, which had the effect of making the neon-and-foil colors in China Blue's hotel room pop like hothouse flowers and bringing a more noir look to the interior lighting and pale colors of the climactic scene in Joanna's apartment. The colors are very pretty on the Arrow disc, but the laserdisc coloration and brightness levels feel truer to the story being told. For instance, here is a comparison of grabs from the film's first bedroom scene, as it was respectively presented on an earlier Optimum DVD release of the film in the UK, and the Arrow BD. Notice how the blue drains away from Amy's nightgown.

Though the Arrow's 2K transfer and Anchor Bay laserdisc (and, I assume, the Optimum DVD) were both sourced from the 35mm interpositive struck from the film's original camera negative, their respective results are quite different. Materials age and aesthetic decisions are made, either by technicians or by the pre-settings on their equipment. Arrow's transfer - admittedly beautiful in many respects, and certainly no obstacle to appreciating one of the great American films of the 1980s - seems calibrated to favor on-set realism whereas the original laserdisc transfer ("digitally transferred from Orion Pictures' master interpositive print in consultation with Cinematographer Dick Bush") retains his brushstrokes, as it were, depicting lives more drenched in, and torn by, fantasy. And the record shows which version the director and cinematographer approved. Unfortunately, Ken Russell and Dick Bush are no longer with us, and records of transfers they once endorsed have receded from easy retrieval as we have advanced further into the digital age. So it is important to speak up for their intentions when we become aware of them.

Below is an assortment of grabs from the Arrow disc, which - despite what I believe to be some fundamental inaccuracies - is nonetheless by far the sharpest and best-sounding presentation the film has had to date. One of the many surprising revelations I had from this viewing was the important role played in the film by perspiration: we see it oozing from the pores of the drug-addled Reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins, in the role of a lifetime), we see it on the otherwise immaculate face of China Blue in the aftermath of her first tryst with Bobby Grady (as proof that he's touched something in her that no other man has ever reached), and we see it on the brows of both Gradys as they struggle to hold their failing marriage together. Its shifting of the film's color bias and the brightening of its night scenes also have the overall effect of making Barry Sandler's memorable, sharp-tongued characters feel that much more exposed and the world they inhabit feel more like a stage play.

CRIMES OF PASSION was previously released on home video in its R-rated theatrical and Unrated video versions, but Arrow ups the ante by pairing the Unrated version (106m 46s) with a Director's Cut (112m 35s) that noticeably extends a hostile conversation between Bobby and Amy when she visits him unexpectedly at work. Arrow also complements the film with a fine assortment of extras, including new video interviews with Barry Sandler (22m 7s), composer Rick Wakeman (28m 54s - a really heart-warming memoir of his collaborations with Ken Russell), and the "It's A Lovely Life" music video with vocals by Maggie Bell. The laserdisc release included two deleted scenes, but the Arrow disc bumps the number up to seven (19m 55s) - including one in which we finally see (a pre-blonde) Pamela Anderson, who has always been credited in the end titles as "Hooker" but never actually seen until now. The extra scenes are all welcome satellites to the film, deepening our appreciation of the key characters - particularly Annie Potts' Amy, much of whose fine work had to be cut because (as Sandler admits) the film really isn't her story.

I'll be writing more about the film itself in an upcoming VIDEO WATCHDOG but wanted to make this subtle color issue better known - not to discourage anyone from buying this disc or discovering this wonderful film, but in the hope that something better approximating the film's intended look might happen in the event of a future release.