Film history at your fingertips

Never heard of Gus Visser and his Singing Duck (a stage act of the roaring '20s) or seen "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," one of John Cassavetes's greatest achievements of the 1970s? Now's your chance.

One of video's greatest contributions is the way it puts film history at every viewer's fingertips. New releases reminding us of this include the Criterion Collection's boxed set of movies by the late Cassavetes, a founder of modern indie cinema, and the National Film Preservation Foundation's new package of items from film archives.

The biggest news about More Treasures From American Film Archives, 1894-1931 is that its 50 movies (including the one with Mr. Visser and his fowl) have never been on video before. The set is a sequel to the original "Treasures" collection, released on four DVDs in 2000. The new three-disc box (plus booklet) is a little lighter on legendary classics, but it's nothing short of astonishing in the variety of its fare.

This means there's something for literally every taste. Looking for family entertainment? See the first adaptation of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," a 13-minute version released in 1910. Interested in theater and dance? Check out the elegant adaptation of "Lady Windermere's Fan," directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925, and "The Flute of Krishna," choreographed by Martha Graham in 1926 and captured on film (with color tints) by Eastman Kodak Co. If you're a history buff, you can see images of the South shot in 1928 by Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston, and documentary footage of luminaries from George Bernard Shaw to Thomas Alva Edison. More than 9-1/2 hours of film are accompanied by commentaries, new music scores, and more. If that's still not enough for you, don't overlook Kino International's superb "The Movies Begin," five discs of brilliantly compiled silent cinema with snappy program notes and excellent music.

John Cassavetes: Five Films is a somewhat misleading title for Criterion's boxed set, since it contains far more.

Not that more is really needed. Providing the first video of "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" at its full 135-minute length is a major public service by itself. But it's downright inspired to pair this with the tighter 108-minute version, which Cassavetes also regarded as a "director's cut."

Along with that 1976 production are four other films that Cassavetes financed with his actor's paycheck (he starred in such movies as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Dirty Dozen") and directed with total creative control. These are the definitive video editions of the seminal "Faces," the sublime "A Woman Under the Influence," the harrowing "Opening Night," and the semi-improvised "Shadows," which started his filmmaking career in 1959.

The special value of Criterion's set is the encouragement it provides for moviegoers to reassess Cassavetes's unique artistry, which (except for "A Woman Under the Influence," his sole directorial hit) met with financial disaster at almost every turn.

I don't buy Criterion's promotional claim that Cassavetes now stands revealed as "an audience's director," because the challenges he deliberately poses for his viewers - mercurial shifts of feeling, out-of-the-blue plot twists, characters who are hard to understand because they don't understand themselves - are the opposite of the neatly tied, emotionally safe packages Hollywood has trained us to expect. His movies require the same degrees of attention, empathy, and compassion that Cassavetes himself put into them.

If you choose to meet that challenge, though, the rewards are as great as anything in modern cinema. This is an eight-disc set (with interviews and commentaries) that no movie lover should miss.

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