Sunday, September 30, 2012

#369: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist

(Various, 1925-1942)

OK, here's a quandary. This boxset contains individually numbered films - but only half of the set is numbered. Criterion is uneven when it comes to numbering boxsets. Most sets are like The Adventures of Antoine Doinel or the Rossellini War Trilogy set, where each film is numbered, along with a number for the overall set. However, this is not always the case; the great Rebel Samurai boxset has individually numbered movies but no overall boxset number; the Golden Age of Television set has an overall spine number but no individual numbers for the films inside. But no boxset is more strangely numbered than this Robeson set. Each disc contains two films, but only the first of each gets a spine number. The set is arranged based on a connection between the two films rather than by any consistent order, and the choice to give a spine number to one of the films and not the other seems rather arbitrary - really, the whole set should just be one overall number.

So the question is what constitues having seen this set? There have been plenty of spines that I've checked off without watching all of the supplements, even feature length ones. And on a film like The Leopard, which has a full English version, or The Complete Mr. Arkadin, which has multiple versions of a "finished" product, some might say that unless you've seen all versions of the film, you haven't really seen the full release.

I think there's an argument to be made for both sides - and really is there anything more insider and nit-picky than this dilemma? But for now I'm going with the idea that once you've seen each spine number in a boxset, you've seen the overall boxset. That said, there are still three films in this set I haven't seen, and I plan on circling back around and watching them when I can, even if I didn't particularly enjoy the films I saw (though the Robeson documentary is excellent, and should be the starting point for anyone interested in the set). On the whole, I thought The Emperor Jones was the best film in the set, and I enjoyed watching Body and Soul. But again, this set is mainly relevant for its historical importance within the context of film history. No medium is more tied to the 20th century than film, and within Robeson's catalog many of the most important fights and themes of that century are both intentionally and inadvertently explored. This is a set for historians perhaps more than film lovers, though of course they are often one and the same.

Links to individual reviews:

The Emperor Jones
Body and Soul
Sanders of the River
The Proud Valley

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