Sunday, March 24, 2013

OUT OF AFRICA: Blu-ray (Mirage/Universal 1985) Universal Home Video

By the time Karen Blixen undertook to write her most romanticized and personal recollection of the time she had spent in Africa she was already a fading bird of paradise; her exoticism usurped by a re-occurrence of syphilis acquired from her husband so many years before, staved off and later still, gone into remission, only to return in the twilight of her elder years. Blixen, who wrote under the non de plume, Isak Dinesen, had given her all to this story and in the end it took what little spark of her youth remained as its remuneration. Indeed, her life would have been nothing at all without this one great adventure – a genuine pity and even greater tragedy for Blixen herself, who would come to regret, yet long for that moment in time when all of her most daring exploits still lay ahead. She had grown up in a time and a culture where the repression of women’s dreams and fantasies – sexual or otherwise – were the norm, and had defied the conventions of this epoch by remaining a single ‘free’ woman dedicated mostly to the fulfillment of her own life’s destiny.
She knew two men in her youth – one her lover, the other her friend, who would marry her for her dowry, then whisk the free-spirited girl to the uncharted territories of Kenya. That Blixen should have come to know love – real love – with a man other than her husband is itself an extraordinary achievement. That she would also discover her purpose in life, as well as come to terms with herself as a woman unlike those she had known and never wished to emulate within herself, is an even more startling revelation; one readily explored with breathtaking clarity and introspection in Sydney Pollack’s lush and romantic epic, Out of Africa (1985).
I miss Sydney Pollack, a film maker who deftly understood, and probably felt the poignancy of Blixen’s unbridled tale in his own soul, but who was also able to speak in the authoress’ words, bridging the chasm between the literary and cinematic worlds by using the distinct language of the movies to tell what is, arguably, Blixen’s story as she would have wanted it told. Karen Blixen had a genuine love of Africa – a continent and a culture she regarded with far greater reverence and affection than her own. But Sydney Pollack has done more than simply fall in love with the authoress or her printed pages. He has wrought a sublime movie epic in the first person sense that so completely encapsulates Blixen’s free spirited heroism, her high ideals for the promise and untouched splendor of this world apart and unlike any other she had ever known, that to view the film is to be magically teleported to that other time and place – to experience and generously live out the euphoric saga that became the middle chapter of Karen Blixen’s own life and afterward, never truly left her soul.
Out of Africa is, or rather ought to be, a paradigm for all Hollywood film makers aspiring to tell a true to life story in the visual medium. The absolute symbiosis between Pollack’s visuals, John Barry’s sentimentalized underscore, and the peerless performances from its central cast exhibit a quality far beyond good storytelling. They endure as a tangible record of a near intangible pursuit – to relay with honest affection an emotional experience that quite simply is as stirring, lyrical and uncompromisingly profound as any ever put on the screen.  Out of Africa is an elegant old-fashioned Hollywood love story in the very best tradition; robust and full blooded, with all the vista-sweeping arrogance of a David Lean epic. Dinesen's book covers a seventeen year sojourn from Mombassa to the Ngong Hills where she and her husband initially intended to set up a dairy.
First published in 1937, the novel was one of the first lyrically vivid snapshots of the Dark Continent. It captivated an international audience. Even today, Dinesen's frank writing style and astute perceptions of colonization continue to resonate with a profound wonderment for Africa's visceral beauty and its’ even more poetic way of life. The film's screenplay by Kurt Luedtke incorporates as much of Blixen's own voice, her tale told as one gigantic flashback that begins as an aged Karen (Meryl Streep) has a nightmare in Denmark. We briefly glimpse the silhouette of a great white hunter on safari; hear the distant roar of a lion and Mozart playing on an old gramophone.
From these first hypnotic and lyrical sights and sounds we are immediately plunged into the midst of a very cordial shooting party in Denmark - Africa's unspoiled beauty juxtaposed against the strained European glamor of this stately gathering.  It is here that we are first introduced to the youthful Karen who has just learned that her aristocrat lover, Hans Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) has been unfaithful. Hans has no intention to marry, or rather, no intention of marrying Karen, whom he has exploited purely for his own pleasure and at the expense of her already precariously perched reputation. At 26 Karen is a spinster and likely to remain so in this claustrophobic atmosphere of stuff elegance and refinement.
Bitter, though hardly surprised, Karen recoups her losses by bribing Han's twin, Bror (Brandauer again) to marry her instead. The arrangement is as follows: Karen gets Bror and Bror gets Karen's money. At first Bror balks at Karen’s forthright proposal. “I have to marry a virgin…” he teases her, “I can’t stand criticism.” However, the offer of a considerable dowry is quite simply too good to pass up. For Baron Blixen, despite his charm, is penniless and off seducing servant girls on the strength of his title. So, Bror goes on ahead to establish a dairy in Kenya. It is not until after Karen’s arrival in Mombassa, immediately swept into their marriage of convenience, with the rest of the colonialists in observance, that she realizes Bror has changed their plans to establish a coffee plantation instead, exploiting workers from the nearby Kikuyu tribe to man the farm. When Karen protests, Bror simply tells her that he has changed his mind. “The next time you change your mind,” she vehemently replies, “You do it with your money!”
After installing Karen on the plantation, Bror bolts for the open freedom and adventure of the African countryside, leaving Karen to struggle as best she can to acquaint herself with the reluctant natives who work her land. She soon gains their confidences, as well as the respect of Farah (Malick Bowens) her most trusted man servant. While Bror is away, Karen rekindles a relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford); an ivory hunter she first met only briefly on the train to Mombassa, but with whom she will eventually fall in love. Denys' untainted view of the natives is in direct contrast to how the rest of the colonials perceive African society. Karen and Denys realize that they are kindred spirits cut from the same cloth, a union that is placed in danger when Bror unintentionally infects Karen with syphilis, thus forcing her to retreat to Denmark for lengthy and perilous arsenic treatments. After much rest, Karen returns to her farm but soon discovers that her fortunes have been squandered.
Political unrest threatens to shatter the tenuous peace Karen has found with Denys. Despite his obvious and genuine attraction to her Denys resists Karen's repeated attempts to tie him down. Their romance continues to evolve, but increasingly with bouts of melancholy and mutual dissatisfaction at hand. Denys is more frequently away, establishing himself as a tour guide of sorts, using a biplane to chauffeur clients high above the dramatic plains and valleys that are ever-changing with the advancement of mankind - and not necessarily for the better. The farm's coffee processing mill is mysteriously torched and burns to the ground and Denys dies in a plane crash. At his funeral, Karen symbolically takes a handful of the earth near Denys’ casket and runs it through her hair rather than throw it upon his grave: the African way for paying homage to the dead. The film ends with Karen's return to Denmark where she begins to write her memoirs.
In every way Out of Africa remains a superior entertainment. As the lovers, Redford and Streep strike just the right chord – driving the narrative with an enduring sense of romantic friction behind closed doors. Much has been made - elsewhere - of the fact that Redford’s Denys has no English accent (playing an Englishman) while Streep's attempt at the great Dane is too pronounced. For my tastes neither 'shortcoming' has ever detracted from the performance or distracted me in my enjoyment of it, because Redford and Streep are 'stars' in the classical sense. One can forgive a star almost anything. And Redford and Streep are so solid and sure of themselves that together they make the heart of this passionate couple throb with a smoldering, moody and occasionally, genuinely erotic magnificence.
Luedtke's screenplay has been criticized as lumbering. It is hardly that, but rather a methodically detailed account of Blixen's life, concise and moving in all the right places. We are invited to celebrate Karen's joys and share in her sorrows, shedding more than a few tears along the way but mostly through bittersweet smiles. In the years since Out of Africa there have been too few 'would be' epics that have lived up to such high expectations. Yet Out of Africa does and we are forever richer for experiencing the film. Superficially, the film is grandly mounted and spectacular in its visual presentation. But there is so much frankness and warmth emanating from within that one need only look a bit closer to find a more sublime craftsmanship at work. The beauty of Sydney Pollack’s film is undeniably captured in David Watkins’ cinematography. But its strength of character and sentiment lie elsewhere; evoked and evolved throughout – though never distilled – from the passionate testament of Karen herself.  
Pollack's direction captures the majesty of this landscape, yet somehow makes the vast expanses seems intimate and revealing. We're never concretely tied down to the earth but experience Africa as through a novice's eyes – Karen’s eyes – with bright-eyed wonderment and an even greater exhilaration. John Barry's sweeping score augments this stark, fragrant beauty with a resoundingly full bodied orchestral sound that continues to haunt long after the houselights have come up. This is not Africa as it is - or probably even was, but Africa as a forgotten, romanticized fable or dream has made it, a la the literary styling of a Rudyard Kipling – or much more to the point, a Karen Blixen: a revisionist lay of the land that is all to the good and serves the story and its characters with impressive maturity. In the final analysis Out of Africa remains an epic love story. Yet like all great art, meant to be experienced rather than simply observed, in the case of Out of Africa, one journey through the hours is never enough.
Universal's newly remastered 100th Anniversary Blu-ray rectifies a bounty of sins committed on their first Blu-Ray/DVD release from two years ago. For starters, the Blu-ray and the DVD do not share the same 'flipper disc' - thank heaven! And although Universal has retained the identical menus from the aforementioned combo disc, almost everything else we experience is brand new! WOW! What a difference! Where the first Blu-ray's colors were pallid and 'off' with an exaggerated leaning toward cool tones and oddly pink flesh, this new Blu-ray exhibits a lush and vibrant palette that will surely blow your mind. Colors are appropriately warm. We get accuracy times ten, a superb rendering of natural flesh tones and vibrant greens that are super saturated. Fine detail is very satisfying throughout. Contrast is bang on. But the image is occasionally softly focused. However, I do believe this is in keeping with David Watkins' diffused cinematography, to add that certain romantic 'glow'.
The DTS audio has also been improved, with John Barry's score even more evocative and gushing from every channel. Universal adds nothing new to the extras - all direct imports from the Collector's Edition, including the poignant documentary ‘Song of Africa’ that comments on the real Karen Blixen, as well as the making of the film, with vintage cast and crew interviews and a lot of behind the scenes footage. Regrettably, none of the extras are presented in hi-def. But Universal has also given us a very nice booklet brimming with biographical information and other nice tidbits. I don't usually recommend repurchases because I find that studios like to 'pad out' movies we already own with plush filler just to get us to double dip. But in Out of Africa's case, with a brand new 1080p transfer that is 'night and day' ahead of its predecessor, plus the booklet, I have to pause and say "By God, yes! Get it today! You won't be disappointed!" Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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