Criterion Corner is a monthly Cinematical column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection. Each edition features an essay, reviews of the month's new releases, and some other fun stuff about Criterion culture. Criterion Corner runs on the last Wednesday of every month, and it will make you poor. Follow @CriterionCorner & visit the blog for daily updates.
When you think about it, the Criterion Collection is a lot like Oprah. Both awkwardly rose to prominence in the 1980s, both fluctuate in size on a monthly basis and both make me weep tears of joy more often than I'd care to admit. Most importantly, both have become hugely influential taste-makers (Criterion with classic films, Oprah with books) whose seal of approval can forever change how a particular work is perceived, or if it's perceived at all. Some releases serve to enshrine established classics ('Modern Times') while others rescue films from the indiscriminate clutches of obscurity and retrofit them with a veneer of importance ('House').
Further still, thanks to a new(ish) partnership with IFC Films, Criterion has recently been distributing a growing number of contemporary movies, thus bestowing stuff like 'Hunger' and 'Still Walking' with an instant significance and cache the moment they first hit store shelves. And so we must raise the immortally stupid question of the chicken and the egg (the egg obviously came first, that's just science): Does Criterion induct films into the Collection because they're great, or are films great because they're inducted into the Collection?
Any simple answer would of course be terribly reductive, but the truth of the matter is that Criterion isn't just celebrating film history, they're also writing it (I remarked in last month's column that "Criterion doesn't license films so much as canonize them"). It's a lofty responsibility, and Criterion owes their continued success to the fact that they approach such a task with ambition, integrity and a curious sense of wonder. The process by which they select their releases is both mischievously mysterious and at the mercy of the distribution rights they're able to acquire, but the weight of their selections demands that we occasionally take a closer look at how they're chosen (the lede is about to be buried deeper than Ryan Reynolds, so I'll just reveal that what follows is a roundabout appreciation of Criterion's Eclipse line).
There are exactly 1.72 million ways that we could approach this topic,
But history is context, and if Criterion deems a filmmaker to be worthy they'll take pains to release his entire output, not just the "masterpieces" (we'll talk about the "hers" of Criterion next month). So while they naturally gave us Kurosawa's eternal 'Seven Samurai' right off the bat, they also later released 'Dodes'ka-den,' a difficult obscurity from later in the director's career so panned by Japanese critics that it prompted him to attempt suicide by slashing himself over 30 times (it didn't kill him, it just made him stronger).
For The Criterion Collection to mean anything as a brand it has to be trusted. As far as the most venerable directors are concerned, it has to toe a fine line between appreciation and blind devotion, and 'Dodes'ka-den' is a film that perfectly illustrates how that works. The bizarre movie complicates Kurosawa's trademark humanism with garishly confrontational elements -- it wasn't just his first color film, it was the first film he made that was too sharp to hug. But part of what makes Criterion such an invaluable resource is that they recognize the difference between minor and esoteric films. What's sometimes lost amongst its eccentricities is that 'Dodes'ka-den' is also the searing, intimate and immaculately controlled work of a master, and the same can't be said of every film Kurosawa made. Early efforts like 'Sanshiro Sugata' or rare misfires like 'The Idiot' are invaluable historical documents, but as movies they're lacking. If Criterion prepped tricked-out releases for lesser efforts such as those, it would diminish the value of their entire label (not to mention their profit margins).
Enter Criterion's Eclipse line, a continuing series of reasonably priced box sets which make rare, related films available to the public without the hoopla of extra features and sparkling remasters. Eclipse sets occasionally serve as a great way to introduce cinephiles to the worlds of half-forgotten artists like Raymond Bernard, but more often than not they exist to neatly assemble the lesser works of filmmakers Criterion has already seen fit to honor. (And in the spirit of the 'Twilight' film from which the line clearly derived its title, the Eclipse boxes contain shirtless pics of the directors they celebrate.) The effect may not have been cynical or even deliberate, but the Eclipse sets allow Criterion to satisfy completionists while simultaneously underlining both how thoughtfully curated the actual Collection is, and also the value of the films deemed worthy of a spine number. If that contributes to a feeling that films are great because they're included in The Criterion Collection, well, that's exactly what Criterion wants. And at the end of the day, who doesn't want more great films in the world?
LIST OF THE MONTH:
The essay above is about the perils of Criterion blindly releasing all of a beloved director's films, regardless of their quality. But there are also a ton of great movies out there by Criterion-friendly filmmakers that have yet to find their way into the Collection for some reason. There are way too many of those to list, but here are 10 of my favorites (the lower the number, the less the chance it'll actually happen). Get to it, Criterion!
10. 'Silence' (Mashiro Shinoda)
9. 'Certified Copy' (Abbas Kiarostami)
8. 'A Brighter Summer Day' (Edward Yang)
7. 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' (Wes Anderson)
6. 'A Matter of Life and Death' (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
5. 'The Life of Oharr' (Kenji Mizoguchi)
4. 'Fury' (Fritz Lang)
3. 'Martha' (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
2. 'The Conformist' (Bernardo Bertolucci)
1. 'La Dolce Vita' (Federico Fellini)
#541 'The Night of the Hunter' (Charles Laughton) 1955
The Film: Charles Laughton's 'The Night of the Hunter' is arguably the greatest directorial one-off in film history, a roguish treasure of the American cinema so otherworldly that it would feel like a transplant from another dimension if it wasn't equally iconic and thoroughly American. A tonally spastic fable about good, evil and the indelibly deranged preacher who literally embodies both (Robert Mitchum as the insidious, relentless and curiously vulnerable Harry Powell), Laughton's only film is the expressionistic fever-dream that Fritz Lang never allowed himself to make. By the time Lillian Gish shows up with history's most emasculating shotgun, there's no doubt that you're watching a film unlike any other, a grimmer than Grimm fairy tale battle for the soul of America itself.
The Technical Stuff: Updating classic films to 1080p is tricky business, and when a negative isn't particularly well-preserved, it can be tough to toe the line between fidelity and clarity. Criterion usually nails that balance, but here methinks the results are less than ideal; grain is important, but as far as picture noise goes the image here is like sticking your head in a jet engine. This is obviously the best that 'The Night of the Hunter' has looked since its debut 55 years ago -- the critical contrasts are sharp and the picture has finally been restored to its 1.66:1 aspect ratio -- but there are grainstorms here unlike anything Criterion has released before.
The Extras: Fans have been waiting years for this set, and it probably took Criterion every one of those years to create and assemble this definitive and definitively fun madhouse of bonus features. For starters, you get one of the best commentary tracks ever recorded. It's a critical, argumentative, and hugely enjoyable conversation between second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt and author Preston Neal Jones, and it's not even the disc's best bit.
The Best Part: There are the usual bunch of interviews, sketches and clips from old TV programs, but the real action can be found on the 2nd disc, which is entirely devoted to a glorious 2.5 hour hodgepodge of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage called "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter.'"
The Package: The DVD gets a plastic case, but the Blu-ray is in a paper contraption, which feels less compact than Criterion's custom Blu-ray cases and -- more damningly -- is more susceptible to damage over the years. Boo hiss! The film offered artist Eric Skillman a crazy amount of choice imagery, but his striking final cover design is perfection, and true to the film.
The Verdict: Quibbles about the grain notwithstanding, this is one of those flicks that needs to be in every American home. It needs more love, and now it's easier to love (and love deeper) than ever before. To quote Samuel L. Jackson in the immortal masterpiece 'Changing Lanes,' "You need this. You need this for your life."
Trivia! To my knowledge there are only 5 other films in the Criterion Collection that remain their maker's only feature. They are: 'Man Bites Dog,' 'The Honeymoon Killers,' 'For All Mankind,' 'Hunger' and 'Equinox.' I look forward to someone proving how wrong I am.
#542 'Antichrist' (Lars von Trier) 2009
The Film: Perversely gorgeous, 'Antichrist' is one of the most fascinating takes on grief since Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There's a lovely story on the Criterion Corner blog about the first time I saw this film.
The Technical Stuff: 'Antichrist' is ironically von Trier's prettiest film, and the transfer -- supervised by both von Trier and his cinematographer -- is as flawless as you'd expect from such a recent film. Fear not, you'll be able to see every spurt of blood, and when the self-cannabilizing fox starts talking it'll sound like he's curled up next to you on the couch.
The Extras: A light disc, candid interviews and segmented making-of featurettes are the name of the game. The "Antichrist at Cannes" stuff is a surreal bit of confrontational fun, and a wild change of pace from the rest of the disc.
The Best Part: The commentary -- definitely the commentary. Von Trier always struck me as one of those guys who would be elusive and reluctant to help viewers solve his films, but then again a commentary track affords him the perfect chance to boast about his work in detail. The track is fascinating both in content and tone, delving into his inspirations (the film is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky and the commentary elucidates why) and his approach to gender relations. Choice quotes include: "We have to enjoy this -- this is the best masturbation scene in film history."
The Package: Adorned with simple yet oblique art, 'Antichrist' comes packed into one of Criterion's custom plastic cases. Of note is the insidiously creepy menu animation... don't fall asleep with this disc playing, cause you'll wake with a scare.
The Verdict: 'Antichrist' is one of the most dangerous blind buys there is, but it's also a profoundly beautiful film in its own perverse fashion, and so sadistically enchanting that fans will find Eden a place they're helpless to revisit.
#543 'Modern Times' (Charlie Chaplin) 1936 PICK OF THE MONTH!
The Film: It's a serious testament to Criterion (and also kind of insane) that their long-awaited edition of 'The Night of the Hunter' isn't even their most essential release of the month. Criterion just acquired the rights to a whole heap of Chaplin films, and they saved the best for first. 'Modern Times' is one of the most spirited and invaluable works of modern times, straddling the silent and sound eras with a wistful finesse that's missing from the mustached icon's later films. It's a movie in which each scene feels innately familiar (it speaks in gestures and set pieces, but in its own way 'Modern Times is as quotable as 'Casablanca') and yet invigoratingly fresh.
By 1936 Chaplin was actively defying the imminent demise of the silent picture, and 'Modern Times'' concessions to diagetic sound are all part of his rebellion. It's the last appearance of the Little Tramp, seen here as a rattled factory worker who is literally consumed by the industrial machine he serves.
The only voices heard are those filtered through fanciful contraptions (video phones, radios, etc...), as the marching beat of progress finds people losing sight of the world they're attempting to solve. Chaplin keenly observes the process by which identity succumbs to function, but does so via the most joyful and visually clever sequences of physical comedy he ever staged. His sense of pace and composition makes earlier landmarks such as 'City Lights' look like flat trial runs, and here Paulette Goddard (Chaplin's lover at the time, here playing the impoverished Gamin) is one of the most beautiful people to ever step in front of a movie camera. Ultimately 'Modern Times' remains so timeless not because it's an effort to preserve our past, but rather because it's an appeal to protect our future.
The Technical Stuff: Mind-blowing. I guess spiffy technology isn't so bad after all, cause anything that allows a 75 year-old film to look this fresh and clear is fine by me. The picture is gritty, but appropriately so. As the tech-savants at Blu-ray.com put it, the transfer features "Traces of mild edge-enhancement and sharpening... but they're difficult to spot."
The Extras: The lesson here is that biographers don't necessarily make for fun tour guides. David Robinson's commentary track is rich with information but dull and ironically mechanical (Robinson reads the entire thing). It's often illuminating in unexpected ways -- choice nuggets include "Chaplin loved bread jokes." Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance provides a neat visual essay, which includes some mind-blowing photos of Chaplin with historical figures like Albert Einstein. Another visual essay uses modern photo tricks to explore how deftly Chaplin intertwined the silent world with the world at large. Composer David Raskin talks writing the film's score with Chaplin, and 'All at Sea' provides some eerily voyeuristic footage of a yachting trip journalist Alistair Cooke took with Chaplin and Goddard. There are also deleted scenes, a few Chaplin shorts and then the Dardenne brothers show up to discuss their love for 'Modern Times.'
The Best Part: Visual effects experts Ben Burtt and Craig Barron lead us through the sneaky bits of in-camera genius Chaplin employed to round out his vision. Each of the feature's 20 minutes are mind-blowing, and it's all especially enthralling given how seldom Chaplin's aptitude for FX is considered.
The Package: Sam Smith's clean, appropriately wonky, and totally awesome cover design spills inside the plastic case as well, as his conceptually linked art adorns both the booklet's super high-quality paper and the discs themselves.
The Verdict: One of the best and most essential pieces of home video ever released, Criterion or otherwise.
#544 - 550 'America Lost and Found: The BBS Story' (Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom) 1968 - 1972
The Films: Yeah, okay, a box set of classic flicks like 'Easy Rider' and 'The Last Picture Show' kinda seems like a shoe-in for "Pick of the Month" status, but what can I say, I really love 'Modern Times.' So this monster is Criterion's big ticket item for the holiday season, the essential yet accessible brick of nostalgic American glory that stuffs stockings just right. Most of these films are (or were) widely available elsewhere, but these are their definitive versions, sandwiched together for canonical purposes. The "BBS" of the title refers to the producing partnership of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner which shepherded these primal and challenging works through the studio system, and, when presented together like this, these 7 films contextually illuminate one another in ways more revelatory than any bonus feature.
That being said, most of this stuff strikes me as valuable Americana rather than mandatory cinema. Click here for my quick rundown of the films included, and find out which one still resonates with me most.
The Technical Stuff: The most important thing here is that these HD transfers enliven and reanimate their respective films more completely than I ever thought possible. 'The Last Picture Show' feels like an artifact and not an antique, and that will make all the difference as it attempts to find a new audience. The color transfers feel sharp and thick -- 'Easy Rider' used to buckle under the weight of its hazy milieu, but now it only bends.
The Extras: Oy. You'd really need a whole post to devote to this, so instead I'd rather defer to Moises Chiullan's thorough, excellent and thoroughly excellent rundown over at Badass Digest. I will say that the extras are many, varied, and historically vital.
The Best Part: The stuff with 'The Last Picture Show' is the clear highlight for me, as it includes the 20 year-old commentary track from Criterion's laserdisc, as well as the late George Hickenlooper's essential 58-minute making-of doc, 'Picture This.' Hickenlooper was always most valuable to me as a documentary filmmaker, and 'Picture This' epitomizes why. Tragically omitted is a Hank Williams soundtrack.
The Package: 'America Lost and Found' is six digipacks and a heavy booklet stuffed into a cardboard box. The art is exquisitely simple and fitting, and the marquee image on the box's front cleanly hammers home that contained within is a glimpse of a time gone by. DVDBeaver has great pics of the whole thing.
The Verdict: One look at the cover of this set should tell you everything you need to know. Regardless of my indifference to some of these films, this set is a landmark for Criterion, and a release that strengthens the Collection as a whole.
NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENTS
Criterion recently announced their February slate, and it more than compensates for what was shaping up to be an unusually paltry winter. Head on over to the blog for a full rundown of the new titles, complete with my breathless and entirely unedited reactions.