The Criterion Collection saved my life. It's not as if I was shot in the chest only to have the bullet stopped by the 'Grand Illusion' DVD I keep over my heart at all times or anything like that (although everyone knows that the U.S. army used laserdiscs as shields during the Gulf War), but ... Okay, the Criterion Collection never saved my life, but it sure played a role in shaping it.
A chance encounter with their initial 'Seven Samurai' disc some 11 years ago sparked a voracious and domineering appetite for film that -- 500+ Criterion releases later -- has still yet to be fully satisfied. That formative experience spurred me toward a number of film-related pilgrimages, including a quest to Ozu's grave in Kamakura, Japan which became the basis of my college admissions essay. Criterion -- as I would soon discover -- has become a more reliable, expansive and cost-effective education than the most esteemed film studies programs.
With that fanaticism in mind, it's my overwhelming pleasure to welcome you to Criterion Corner, a new monthly Cinematical column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection.
In their own words, the collection is a "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements."
Whereas most home video companies simply squeeze their films onto your TV, the noble folks at Criterion take the slippery and ephemeral experience of cinema and make it something to hold, keep and appreciate. Immaculately restored, beautifully packaged and stuffed with original bonus features, Criterion doesn't license films so much as canonize them. From established classics such as 'Seven Samurai' to rescued obscurities like 'Symbiopsychotaxiplasm' and modern masterpieces like 'Yi Yi,' Criterion gathers the very best of cinema. An enthusiastically fetishistic culture has formed around the distributor, and it's become impossible to understate Criterion's importance to film and fans alike.
Each month Criterion Corner will bring you the latest news, reviews of the month's new releases and a deeper look at Criterion culture, its trends and its resultant fandom. Ideally, this will also become an interactive space where Cinematical readers can come to share their love for all things Criterion, and we encourage you to submit anecdotes, links, questions, pics of your collection, suggestions for the column and anything else you want to CriterionCorner@gmail.com.
So let's get down to it, shall we? And begin with one of the finest months in Criterion's illustrious history ...
#2 'Seven Samurai' (Akira Kurosawa) 1954. PICK OF THE MONTH!
The Film: 'Seven Samurai' has a place in my heart bigger than a valve and smaller than the aorta (but more important). It made me fall hopelessly in love with movies, and it's a work as vital and important as pop art gets. So many cinematic tropes were pioneered here, and 56 years later this is still the benchmark for how to meld action and character -- watching the Blu-ray, I was reminded just how fast and lithe this 207-minute juggernaut plays. From timeless performances by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura to Fumio Hayasaka's blaring score and Kurosawa's impeccable use of spatial geography to contextualize the epic rain-swept finale, 'Seven Samurai' remains one of the most beloved and valuable films ever made.
The Technical Stuff: This is -- without a doubt -- the best that 'Seven Samurai' has looked and sounded since the original negative was lost. Every edition is doomed to inherit certain deficiencies, but Criterion has done a ridiculously thorough job with the film's HD makeover. The b&w contrast is remarkable, the relentless bird chirps are so clear I thought that there was a birch nest on my fire escape and the grain levels strike a beautiful balance.
The Extras: The extras are identical to those on Criterion's three-disc 'Seven Samurai' reissue, which is to say: extensive.
The Best Part: A two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima that was filmed in 1993. There's so much genius and history in this interview that it feels a bit like crossing the streams, but I assure you it's safe for home viewing.
The Package: The svelte package is adorned with the gorgeous and minimal flag of the samurai. It's some of Criterion's classiest artwork, and feels good and dense in your hands (these things are important!). I ALWAYS prefer Criterion's custom Blu-ray cases, but this paper and cardboard pack is solid, and the booklet contained therein (shrunken but otherwise identical to the DVD reissue) is neatly tucked between the two discs.
The Verdict: This is pretty much the best Blu-ray that currently exists on the planet Earth. If you own a Blu-ray player, you need this. If you don't own one, you need this (just to put on your coffee table, frame, sleep with, etc. ...). To settle a political debate that's been raging for decades: Life begins at the moment you get this Blu-ray.
#537 'The Magician' (Ingmar Bergman) 1958
The Film: One of the great Ingmar Bergman's most enigmatic and under-appreciated films, 'The Magician' is a sly slice of illusion and deceit that unfurls like a more playful, angry, and erotic version of 'The Prestige.' A young and towering Max von Sydow is the titular mesmerist, trapped in a backwater Swedish town with his eccentric troupe and forced by the cynical police chief to prove his skills. The most tonally restless of Bergman's films (it's alternately sexy, surreal and scary), 'The Magician' is as crafty as Mamet's 'House of Games,' but brimming with ideas on the power of art and the role of the critic -- it demands repeat viewings, and Ingrid Thulin's transformation from the androgynous Aman to the sultry Mrs. Vogler will take your breath away every time. Also, the movie features a 23 year-old Bibi Andersson, so ... there's that, too.
The Technical Stuff: Another gorgeous transfer. Yawn. Yet another Criterion black & white film that -- in glorious 1080p -- looks as if it were filmed yesterday. The DVD is also as crisp as one could expect.
The Extras: The extras here are particularly important because they provide a means for curious viewers to demystify this utterly beguiling film. Bergman scholar Peter Cowie offers a neat visual essay, and a Bergman video interview from 1967 is a must-see.
The Best Part: The chance to watch one filmmaking titan totally geek out (in the most academic of ways) over another. Olivier Assays is all over this thing -- he interviews Bergman on the disc, and the booklet contains an essay he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema in which he acutely deconstructs 'The Magician' as a searing portrait of an artist and his tools. It's not even 1,000 word,s but it's totally enlightening.
The Package: 'The Magician' arrives in Criterion plastic, but the art -- while appropriately dense and mysterious -- isn't particularly attractive.
The Verdict: What at first feels like a film exclusively for Bergman maniacs eventually reveals itself to be one of meta-cinema's most curious, urgent and rewarding films about art and illusion. Anyone interested in any of that should love this, and it's also a great chance to see a handful of iconic Swedish actors in their prime.
#540 'The Darjeeling Limited' (Wes Anderson) 2007
The Film: I've come to respect this movie a bit more over the years, but make no mistake -- this is third-tier Wes Anderson, and it's only getting the Criterion treatment because the company has an inexplicably huge hard-on for the guy (all grievances will be forgiven if and when 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' gets a Criterion release).
The Technical Stuff: Just because 'The Darjeeling Limited' came out in 2007 doesn't mean that Criterion didn't put some serious care into presenting the film as beautifully as possible. The transfer -- in the words of the authorities over at highdefdigest.com -- packs "An unheard-of level of dimensionality that rounds out an unbelievable visual package."
The Extras: You inevitably get the 'Hotel Chevalier' short, as well as a skyped-in commentary from Anderson, Jason Schwarzman and Roman Coppola. There are docs and bits of audition footage and all the rest, but the crown jewel has got to be that cussing American Express commercial. Remember? With Wes Anderson on set with those birds? It played before every movie you saw for approximately 37 years? Well now you can own it in HD forever. Sometimes the folks at Criterion seem less like people than they do living gods.
The Best Part: Getting this inevitable release out of the way.
The Package: Eric Chase Anderson (I'm just gonna go ahead and assume there's a relation) once again provides the lovely and predictably precious artwork. The pamphlet inside folds out into an impassioned essay by Richard Brody, who will either have you convinced that 'The Darjeeling Limited' is an overlooked masterpiece, or convinced that Richard Brody could make 'The Blind Side' sound like an overlooked masterpiece (and that's the last time that 'The Blind Side' will ever be mentioned in the Criterion Corner).
The Verdict: For Anderson apologists and Criterion fanatics only. Absolutely worth it if you love the movie, but otherwise it's just the kind of release that keeps Criterion in business, and I guess that's not so bad.
#538 'Paths of Glory' (Stanley Kubrick) 1957
The Film: This is Stanley Kubrick's best film. Well, his best film that doesn't involve men tripping on LSD in ape suits (Kirk Douglas agrees). Perhaps the most powerful and tragic anti-war story the movies have ever known, 'Paths of Glory' stars Kirk Douglas as a French World War I colonel forced to confront his army's unforgiving leadership after three of his men are court-martialed for their failure to complete a pointless suicide mission. Kubrick tackles the exceptional (if hyper-functional script) with deceptively complex aplomb -- to study the the framing of the interrogation scenes is to see the legendary director master his medium before your eyes.
The Technical Stuff: Some of the early (and darker) indoor scenes are a bit too heavy on the grain, but once the film hits the trenches, the picture is perfect. Barely perceptible pillarboxing allows the disc to retain the film's 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and the image is remarkably free of nicks and scratches. As the folks over at BigPictureSound point out, the one-channel audio is flawlessly represented here, but might sound a bit off to modern viewers accustomed to being surrounded by the bombastic sound design of recent war films.
The Extras: Critic Gary Giddins reads a droll and informative commentary track. He elucidates the film, criticizes some of Kubrick's failures, and mentions fun tidbits such as the fact that Douglas' contract stipulated that he have one bare-chested scene in each film. There's a brief and worthless two-minute Kubrick interview, the trailer, and a trio of new video interviews (in HD) with key collaborators like wife Christiane Kubrick.
The Best Part: An amazingly candid video interview with Kirk Douglas from 1979, which includes a killer joke about old Hollywood.
The Package: Sleekly attractive (if boringly appropriate) monochromatic artwork adorns the plastic case. The booklet features a really fun essay by James Naremore called "We Have Met the Enemy ..."
The Verdict: Finally 'Paths of Glory' gets the treatment it deserves. Criterion #538 is one of the most valuable discs in the collection, and makes a great double-header with Criterion #1.
#539 'House' (Nobuhiko Obayashi) 1977
The Film: Nobuhiko Obayashi's 'House' isn't just one of the craziest films ever made, it's one of the craziest things to ever happen in the universe. If legendary British actor Derek Jacobi (he of 'Hereafter' fame) knocked on your door, transformed into a purple kitten and began pooping the unabridged works of Charles Dickens on your carpet, it wouldn't even be as strange as the main menu on this disc. One of the holy grails of WTF horror cinema, Obayashi's debut feature is a hallucinatory, grisly, musical, hilarious and thoroughly insane house of pop horrors. I guess it's about a schoolgirl who brings her friend to her evil aunt's country home, but that's like saying that 'Gravity's Rainbow' is about the sky. 'House' feels untamed and random, but there's a masterful method to this madness that's impossible to deny. 'House' isn't just a movie, it's also my anti-drug.
The Technical Stuff: Presented in its boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is kind of a miracle -- this is the rare underground treasure that really benefits from (and demands) the full power of HD. There's a rare artistry and consideration to the psychedelic colors and production design, and on Blu-ray the film is too unrelentingly beautiful to be tossed aside as mere schlock.
The Extras: A package of video interviews and an appreciation from 'House of the Devil' filmmaker Ti West are nice, but the movie kinda speaks for itself in its own way.
The Best Part: Obayashi's 40-minute "experimental" short 'Emotion.' Perfect for those who feel 'House' just makes too much sense. Green-tinted, tingly, and eerily paired with an English-language voice-over, you'll throw this on as a quick laugh and sit paralyzed for the duration.
The Package: Some of the most gloriously wacky and forthright Criterion cover art ever graces the plastic box, and the packet -- printed on fine paper and filled with a written appreciation of the film -- is a work of art in and of itself.
The Verdict: If anyone ever accuses Criterion of being a bit too stuffy or high-brow, 'House' will shut them up real fast. It's a super fun technical masterpiece, and proof of Criterion's breadth and influence. 'House' is a film as important as it is totally nuts, and the Criterion disc manages to simultaneously establish and affirm its unique value.
Every month, Criterion Corner will feature a section in which we explore some facet of Criterion culture. From relevant lists and pics (both mine and user-submitted) to ... well, anything that shows how The Criterion Collection has affected its viewers beyond the impact of a regular home video product (e.g. take a look at an article I wrote about the gorgeous world of fake Criterion covers). This is where I want things to get personal, because at the end of the day, Criterion is what it is because of the impact it's had on individual film lovers, and it thrives because of the service, care and attention it offers (and receives from) its fans.
So for starters, here's my obligatory (and agonizingly restrictive) list of my
15. 'Walkabout' (Nicolas Roeg) #10
14. 'Ratcatcher' (Lynne Ramsay) #162
13. 'The Lovers' (Louis Malle) #429
12. 'Ugetsu' (Kenji Mizoguchi) #309
11. 'That Obscure Object of Desire' (Luis Bunuel) #143
10. 'The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice) #351
9. 'Knife in the Water' (Roman Polanski) #215
8. 'Army of Shadows' (Jean-Pierre Melville) #385
7. 'Seven Samurai' (Akira Kurosawa) #2
6. 'F For Fake' (Orson Welles) #288
5. 'Days of Heaven' (Terrence Malick) #409
4. 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters' (Paul Schrader) #432
3. 'M' (Fritz Lang) #30
2. 'Close-up' (Abbas Kiarostami) #519
1. 'Ikiru' (Akira Kurosawa) #221
NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENTS
Criterion's recently announced January slate promises another year of classic films in glorious high-definition and regular DVD. The slate is heavy on upgrades and re-issues, but the one title new to the Collection is a doozy.
#385 'Army of Shadows' (Jean-Pierre Melville) January 11, 2011.
Jean-Pierre Melville's dry espionage masterpiece gets a spiffy HD make-over. As methodical, slow-burning and drearily gorgeous as anything Melville ever made, this intimate tale of the French Resistance during WWII benefited enormously from Criterion's meticulous DVD, in which every paranoid shuffle and bump in the night was presented pristine.
#404 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' (Byron Haskin) January 11, 2011.
Another Blu-ray upgrade, 'Robinson' is a fan-favorite, and one of the most fun and dazzlingly designed sci-fi films ever made. Astronaut Kit Draper (no relation to Don) crash lands on Mars, a pet monkey and some genius set design his only source of companionship. This trailer should be proof enough that you need to see Haskin's extra-terrestrial fantasia.
#18 & #19 'The Naked Kiss' & 'Shock Corridor' (Samuel Fuller) January 18, 2011.
Two of the first films introduced to the Collection get much-needed makeovers, complete with Daniel Clowes' cover art. Both find Fuller at his pulpy best, and the re-issues aren't just remastered, they're also complete with new video interviews with star Constance Towers and excerpts from Fuller's autobiography (in which I assume Fuller laments not being named Constance Towers).
#552 'Broadcast News' (James L. Brooks) January 25, 2011.
One of the most entertaining and enduring films of the 1980s, Brooks' biting comedy(ish) look at news media comes to us from a magical time when Albert Brooks was a convincing(ish) romantic lead. The love triangle between a producer (Holly Hunter) and her two reporters stands astride the brave new world of entertainment journalism, helping Brooks and co. to acutely capture the discombobulating horrors of a civilization that evolves too fast to ever really change.
Eclipse Series #25 'Basil Dearden's London Underground' January 25, 2011
And finally, January sees the 25th box set in Criterion's Eclipse line, which is dedicated to saving films from the precipice of being forgotten. Basil Dearden is a filmmaker with whom I'm totally unfamiliar, a fact which makes this set that much more irresistible.
Thanks for reading, please let us know what you thought and what you might like to see in future installments, and hopefully we'll see you in November!