Retro Isn't New: Spell of the Steelbook
Steelbooks are just one of those things. You either dig them or you don’t. It either feels right or it doesn’t. I honestly paid them no mind until two summer releases from Minneapolis-based Mill Creek Entertainment sparked my curiosity, and I found myself standing atop a very slippery slope. The first is a rather timely HD upgrade of Honda Ishirō’s original 1961 masterwork Mothra, celebrated in a format that sings of the decade it was made and reveres the wingspan of its titular terror. And on the other hand, we have the spacious, unhurried and unsparing anti-western mini-series Lonesome Dove from 1989, also looking and sounding dapper for its 30 year patina.
Mill Creek, whose partnerships with Sony, Universal, Buena Vista and CBS, follows with quantity as they attempt to output vast libraries on disc at generally low cost, is best known for their multi-film editions as well as their recent line of “retro VHS” inspired blu-rays including Double Team (1997) and Excess Baggage (1998), albeit that these editions are regrettably “film only”, scoring less as collectibles for their lack of heft but scoring big for their slim price point. That said, Mill Creek is dead aiming for quality with their sharp-dressed Steelbook releases, the first of which was Rentaro’s 2001 anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis released back in October 2018. Along with upcoming Fall editions of the original Japanese Ultraman series (only the first wave of their exciting partnership with Tsuburaya Productions to distribute virtually the entire library of Ultraman titles Stateside coinciding nicely with the recent Netflix reboot series), Mill Creek seems to have a clear sense of what works well as a Steelbook and when, which perhaps explains why I suddenly crave the cold steel. Indeed its tactility and heft lend a sense of satisfaction. As a format for retro/repertory releases it skews the notion of artifactuality in the direction of a polished stone rather than the ragged and worn presentations I’ve come to adore from MVD Rewind who lets each film wear its age like a badge if not a brand. Both work.
Steelbook is a subsidiary of Scanavo, a “worldwide group of companies” that specializes in “Premium Packaging Solutions, Creative Services and Product Management & Distribution.” This largely includes home media packaging design for films and games on physical media. The Steelbook is perhaps Scanavo’s most notable contribution to the collectible market as each edition is typically limited run in the true sense and a registered trademark. Their middle-tone foundation, elegant capacity for embossing and debossing make for clean, impactful design. Steelbooks aren’t typically “fun” so to speak, though Mill Creek admirably challenges that opinion with their upcoming Ultraman editions, as does Shout Factory with their Mighty Morphin Power Rangers 25th Anniversary Steelbook dvd set. Fox Searchlight’s startlingly but appropriately pink French edition of The Grand Budapest Hotel also has me wondering if a Steelbook can have a sense of humor and play, but these are exceptions to a more consistent rule of cool. In their refinement Steelbooks usually hinge on a kind of seriousness. In their simplicity, there is nothing to hide behind, yet they are uniquely assertive, thus you can hone an instinct for works as an edition or not. For instance, Arrow Video is poised for a November 2019 release of their brand new 4K Robocop (1987, Paul Verhoeven) remaster on blu-ray (featuring three cuts of the film!). While the newly commissioned artwork of the boxed edition looks a head above the rest, fully embracing its popcorn movie roots, I find myself enviously eyeing the sleek, no frills Steelbook for all the obvious reasons. It’s just too perfect an instance of form-fitting-function. Oppositely, films like Toy Story 4, Jarmusch’s Paterson or Mary Poppins Returns seem less obvious if not ill-fitting choices for the format. Then again, I may be looking at it the wrong way… maybe the Steelbook isn’t a medium to reinforce extant coolness, but rather a means for any film to have its moment of cool.
Steelbooks possess a specific solidity of character. The film may vary but you know to an extent what you are getting: a clean metallic shell that snaps open to reveal a panoramic image, elegantly continuous through the segmented spine. As such, there seems to be a foregrounding of the discs themselves and thus the film feels especially center stage. Mill Creek’s Mothra and Lonesome Dove editions come with an additional clear plastic slipcover featuring all the lettering and copy write, such that it gains attractive dimension as a superimposition when worn, but also leaves the Steelbook to stand on its own when unsheathed.
With a resurgence of the Kaiju genre coming into full swing on the tailwind of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the emerging Pacific Rim franchise, Rampage (2018) and several impending productions not least of which is Kong vs. Godzilla, it is delightful to see a concurrent re-visitation upon the greats. While Criterion’s Kaiju-sized Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 Collectors Set is perhaps the most ambitious and glee inducing of these efforts, containing 15 films and some of the most electric artwork since they gave Zatoichi the red carpet, I held a disproportionate sense of pride that Mothra would receive Mill Creek’s best attention to detail, and the chance to shine on her own as a work of significance.
Mothra made her debut as a stand alone film by Honda Ishirō, yet history seems to remember the mammoth insect mostly in proximity to Godzilla, as in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). Though Honda’s oeuvre is as diverse as any who stood behind the camera, Honda’s penchant for the Kaiju genre resulted in his utter supremacy in that realm, and the proud parent of Godzilla. Although Honda was, from 1954 onward, a relatively successful brand, he would in his waning years emerge from retirement to serve as Assistant Director on four of Kurosawa’s final films (Ran, Kagemusha, Dreams and Madadayo), testament to the enduring loyalty of the Japanese master / apprentice relationship as Honda’s stint as AD on Kurosawa’s noir procedural drama Stray Dog in 1949 preceded his individual career as a reputed director. However these are the lesser knowns of the man who brought us Mechagodzilla, Gidorah and of course, Mothra!
As fellow Cinema76er Victoria Potenza pointed out in her piece Mothra: A Love Letter, unlike the other mainstay of brawling behemoths (Gidorah, Godzilla, Rodan) who oscillate between films as villainous or virtuous, “Mothra is one of the more consistent characters, usually taking on the role of a natural protective force. She seems bound to the Earth and must keep it safe, whereas other monsters were created by science or potentially from another world.” Where Godzilla is firstly the pure instinct of war, born of the atom bomb and embodying the blind malevolence of conflict, Mothra’s is a guardianship, a reaction against the machinations of man, the destruction of the environment, the plight of the people of her island, etc. Albeit that her wrath takes many casualties, it is not a joyous kind of malice, rather a regrettable but instigated one. Mothra has Honda’s unique stamp of sociopolitical undertones and character driven humor throughout. Most of the chaos happens in the last reel, rendering a majority of the set pieces and drama centered around human conflict and emphasizing Honda’s savvy with interpersonal moments. There is also a sense of lament and a heavy mood in many of Honda’s Kaiju films relieved periodically with humor, but predicated on the humanity he’s established in the first acts. Thus one can endeavor to take Mothra, and films of the like seriously, and also enjoy them for their sense of play and dated effects as well as their heart, implicit intelligence, and scope.
Mothra has never looked or sounded as good as it does in 1080p and DTS-HD 2.0. Mill Creek has a lot to be proud of and collectors have a lot to be desirous of. Granted, few things suffer from an HD upgrade, but there are occasions when it truly surprises and surpasses expectations. The scope of destruction, the impression of scale, the wealth of practical production values, the dynamism of Koseki Yūji’s score, the rich lamenting harmonies of Mothra’s beloved twin bipedal familiars (Emi and Yumi Ito, aka The Peanuts), are wearing their pixels per inch and 24-bit Depth Resolution very well. Both the Japanese and U.S. Cuts make their Blu-ray debut here, and the enthusiast stands to learn a great deal from the commentary track by Kaiju cinema experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski who lent their voices and vast knowledge for the magnificent and richly appointed Toho Master Collection from Toho and Classic Media (dvd, 2008). This out-of-print set was reissued in 2014 as a much less aesthetically impressive object, minus the glorious details like the holographic insignia, the elegant multicolor Obi sashes, the substantive shout out to the original artwork and the storybook packaging… minus the facets that made it a celebratory pure-dose retro artifact. Thankfully Mill Creek’s Mothra is possessed of these qualities and of quality.
Why does a western work so well as a Steelbook? Perhaps it has something to do with the reference to industry, to the hardness of life, the sheen of a bullet, the swiftness of life and death that are staples of the better entries of the genre. It wasn’t something I considered until I watched Lonesome Dove, held the case in my hands and marveled at dynamism of an image printed on steel, seeing the particular glint of polished metal on belt buckles and bit-mouthpieces. There is a kind of romance that comes across.
Scarcely a word was changed in the adaptation from book to screen, penned in part by novelist Larry McMurtry, making the nearly 6.5 hr Lonesome Dove a singularly pure and direct representation of the source. McMurtry would start his career as a screenwriter on The Last Picture Show, and would eventually pen the Oscar winning adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain alongside Diana Ossana. His uncanny sense of the air, a sense of the primal rules of a world, the propulsive urgency of an idea even if unspoken, and the quiet seething of a feeling, is evident in the pace of words, the quality of the language, the focus on place, slow expansion of character and progression of set-pieces, the salience of small moments, the capacity of dialogue to deepen but not necessarily propel the anecdotal narrative, and many other qualities besides. Duvall as the aging introspective and instinctual dreamer Agustus McCrae and Duvall as the practical, sharp tongued and uncompromising Woodrow Call are almost problematically good, inhabiting their roles and coming to authentic life in their bromantic tit for tats, where as some of the cast is seen to be “acting” to alternate degrees. This tale of long retired Texas Rangers on an an unlikely, impulsive, late-life cattle drive from Texas to Montana allows for so much fracturing and reuniting, so much sprawling anecdote, so much time and space for paths to eventually cross of this complex found family drama.
Is LD the “best western ever made”, as the Houston Chronicle boasted back in 89’? That is a question for someone more versed than I, with only a handful of carefully and reticently selected titles under their belt. What I can say is that it is as ambitious, introspective, poetic and primal as any western I’ve ever seen, more expansive and expressive than most and more readily cherish-able as a Steelbook than ever before. Perhaps a case of ‘advertising causing need’, but I would have likely gone the rest of my life without seeing LD, grateful now to know it so well because it represents an early highwater mark of cinematic television productions and is arguably an important entry into the canon of anti/revisionist westerns. When speaking of scale, LD finds itself in the company of The Thorn Birds, Roots, Shogun, The Winds of War, North and South, and Holocaust, a lineage of mammoth and ambitious historically-set TV productions spanning from the late 70’s to the early 90’s, which prefaced the reality that TV/Streaming has rivaled if not succeeded film as the primary arena for progressive, challenging, dimensional and inventive visual storytelling. In fact, LD is credited as sparking a revitalization of both “the western” as a genre, and the mini-series as a medium.
Mill Creek preserves a smattering of strong archival special features on LD that reveal something incredibly humble in their unrefined video quality, director Simon Wincer’s (Free Willy, The Phantom) reminiscences as he pours over original sketches that express an incredibly honed vision that ultimately translated to the screen. Best of all is the interview with Larry McMurtry who discusses the process of adapting his own work to screen, and talks plainly about his approach to writing.
LD is a fantastic property to revisit in 2019, to see just how well it holds up after 30 years of weathering and attitudinal shifts at the societal level, reassess what characterizes its perceived transgressiveness, its broader commentaries and revisionist intentions, its approach to diversity (seeing where it breaks or betrays stereotype), etc. These framing questions are what make LD so compelling as a fist-time viewing, as does its poetry.