From the ashes of FilmStruck, the streaming site that was the online home of the Criterion Collection, arises a new subscription service, the Criterion Channel, which went live this Monday and, in some ways, improves on its predecessor. The new site’s search function is much more useful; its home page highlights noteworthy movie offerings; and, above all, though its set of films isn’t yet quite as copious as FilmStruck’s at its height, the Criterion Channel is spreading out its attention to broaden (imperfectly but nonetheless admirably) its sense of the history of cinema.
Silent films are still hard to find and Hollywood classics still get short shrift, though a film-noir collection from Columbia presents some rare treasures, including “My Name Is Julia Ross,” “Murder by Contract,” “Drive a Crooked Road” and Blake Edwards’s janglingly ironic “Experiment in Terror.” What’s more, international cinema is more widely represented, thanks to restorations from Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, featuring such films as “Manila in the Claws of Light,” “Insiang,” “A Brighter Summer Day,” and “Touki Bouki.”
The FilmStruck feature that I most enjoyed is one that has been extended anew to the Criterion Channel: it offers, online only, long-sought-after rarities that aren’t available in the collection’s series of DVDs and Blu-rays. One of these, which I’d long wanted to see, is as extraordinary as it is rare: “Something Different,” the first feature by the Czechoslovakian director Věra Chytilová, who, coincidentally, is the subject of a retrospective that begins today at BAM. (The opening-night film, “Daisies,” her second feature and most celebrated work, is also available on the Criterion Channel.)
“Something Different,” from 1963, is radically and thrillingly different from more or less any film that was being made at the time (and is significantly more advanced than most films that have been made since); as a first feature, it’s astonishing. It’s a modernist melodrama that makes its aesthetic audacity obvious from the very first shots, a credit sequence of a female gymnast in a black leotard filmed against a white background, in compositions that fragment the body and abstract the action into sinuously kinetic graphics. That sequence morphs into a shot of such astonishment that I did what couldn’t be done if I were seeing it on the big screen at BAM, namely, I immediately watched it again: Chytilová pulls back to show that the gymnastics is being shown on a TV set that is being watched at home by a little boy, whose mother comes to pick him up and carries him off for bedtime, all in a single roving shot.
The gymnast, Eva, is played by the real-life Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Eva Bosáková; the mother, Vera, is played by the actress Vera Uzelacová; and the entire film—an intricate and teeming blend of documentary and fictional portraiture—is centered on these two women, whose sole point of practical connection is the one seen in the first shot. A veteran gymnast, Eva is preparing for one final competition, but is struggling with physical difficulties imposed by age (she’s said to be nearing thirty) and by new emotional struggles with the dangers and demands of her sport. She confronts inner torments that arise from the rigors of the athletic life, and complains that sports exhausts her time and her energy, leaving nothing for her personal life. Vera, a stay-at-home mother, faces the practical exertions of running a household that’s short of money, of caring for her young son in a system that won’t allow him into nursery school because she has no job, and of dealing with her husband, who comes home from work tired and distracted and exhibits little desire for connection (emotional or physical). Complaining to her husband that his work is done when he comes home but hers never ends, despairing of her solitude, Vera faces a romantic crisis when she encounters a tempting single man (in a meet-cute of exquisitely simple comedy).
The filming of dance is a severe and exemplary test of cinematic artistry, and Eva’s gymnastics, with its blend of dance and sport, grace and strength, provide Chytilová with a thrilling premise for the display of her own deft and daring power. Whether filming the body in analytically isolated parts or multiplying Eva’s floor routines in studio mirrors, whether looking down from the ceiling and showing floors à la Degas or shooting in focus-shifting closeups, Chytilová presents the inner life of sport with a startling and vastly imaginative array of images that exposes, by contrast, the homogenizing banality of televised sports and the emptying of athletic experience that results. The ready availability of “Something Different” now, on the Criterion Channel, is yet more evidence that the history of cinema, as conventionally told and shown, is incomplete; that the possibilities it offers remain largely untouched; and that its real purpose is the future of the art.