How cool is the Criterion Collection? That's not a rhetorical question, nor is it a question of the company's value, which I've probed from several angles in my Criterion Corner columns and have essentially concluded is profound and inestimable. The matter of worth is settled; I'm asking about cool. I'm asking if the Criterion Collection is stylish, hip and trendy, and I'm asking because a reasonably accomplished filmmaker just took to the Internet and accused it of being all of those terrible things. And it kinda pissed me off.
On March 24, HammertoNail published an editorial by a guy named Noah Buschel. Buschel is the writer and director of four feature films, the most recently released of which was called 'The Missing Person,' starred Michael Shannon and was accepted to Sundance in advance of its limited theatrical run. Buschel's essay, entitled "OBLITERATE THE NEW HIPSTER WITH LOVE," is ostensibly about how today's hipsters are too infatuated with kitsch to get in touch with their true selves and live up to their potential. It's the kind of essay that rails against Tom McCarthy movies for being too tidy (amen), ends with an Allen Ginsberg poem, and includes sentences like "Wildness that can absorb all dull shrillness and help take off the steel of skeleton costumes."
Sure thing. Anyway, I don't really give a hoot about the brunt of this Buschel's piece, which despite what its title might suggest offers a litany of complaints and not a single constructive solution to the familiar problem it so labors to diagnose. The ouroboros of social rhetoric isn't really the concern of this site. But Buschel's lament -- which becomes increasingly involved with the cinema as it sputters along -- eventually looks to identify the forces responsible for the "Preconceived awareness" and "Inorganic vision" that's enervating today's indie scene, and it's when Buschel points his finger at the Criterion Collection that his essay offers an intriguing idea and warrants a response.
Bemoaning his belief that the "outre" films of today are too often as pat and sterile as their studio counterparts, too indebted to their idols to maintain a kernel of truth, Buschel writes: "I'm tired of having the same congealed slickness pounded down my eyeballs from an 'indie film' that I get from an action movie. There's no life, no mess, no mistakes, no affection... We find the younger hipsters regurgitating Woody Allen, Godard, and Cassavetes. It's like a race to see who can get their shit into a Criterion Collection Boxed Set Collection first." Well, fair enough, and let's not forget to damn those filthy physicists who hope to see their work rewarded with a Nobel Prize. But then Buschel takes things a bit too far and begins to tilt at windmills, concluding that "Criterion is key in regards to the deadening hipster movement that is killing American films these days."
Buschel believes that Criterion merely cherry-picks from those filmmakers that the world has already agreed to be significant, and in doing so distills those heartfelt works into mass-produced fetish objects, thus providing hipsters with an enumerated primer as to what they must consume and imitate. Though he never says as much and his prose confuses the matter, Buschel seems convinced that Criterion is an example of the inmates having overrun the asylum -- that the company has provided a solid foundation for its brand by championing the safest auteurs and their unchallenged masterpieces, and is now too precious and revered to distribute films that are a bit more difficult and unpolished. Effectively, he's accusing Criterion of ignoring rougher films that come straight from the heart (like, for example, 'The Missing Person' by Noah Buschel), and being too cool to fail.
So the question becomes, "Is Criterion too cool?" Are they the ultimate hipsters, the movie mother-bird feeding their legion of young? Are they too busy worshiping at the altar of their bygone legends to release anything that espouses a fresh human spirit? Is Criterion part of the problem?
In a word: No. In seven words: What the hell are you talking about?
It would appear that Mr. Buschel has not been paying attention. His accusations mewl forth from a distant half-truth, in that they might have been valid had Criterion developed their brand in a less forward-thinking fashion, but they completely ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, in mistakenly naming Criterion the cause of this supposed epidemic of unoriginality, Buschel has denied himself one of the greatest (and ever-widening) resources any filmmaker could imagine. The truth of the matter is that Criterion's catalog has earned their brand an unquestionable value, but it's the fact that they continue to aggressively confound Buschel's claims that makes them cool.
Rather than suckering the hipster brigade into slavishly mimicking the snazziest filmmakers of yore, the sheer breadth of Criterion's line-up encourages cinephiles to become alchemists. With more than 570 films in the Collection, it's impossible not to be challenged by the panoply of competing approaches and aesthetics. If anything, Criterion encourages its devotees to synthesize their influences into something entirely new, as it's practically impossible to wade through the assembled works of such iconoclastic auteurs and be affected by only one.
And now that Criterion is making the entire Collection available on Hulu Plus for $7.99 a month, their roster is readily available to impressionable minds everywhere for less than the cost of purchasing a single disc. Buschel seems to think filmmakers are so impressionable that any passing image might dissipate their unique vision -- perhaps he's so fitfully paranoid of being impinged upon by outside influences that he's lost sight of how vital artistic legacies can be.
Buschel asserts that "The Criterion Collection only has great taste with 50 years of perspective," and that "They wouldn't have figured out Ozu if he was around now." He posits that Criterion has contributed to such a stultified atmosphere that the mavericks of today go unappreciated because they fail to conform to the tenets of yesterday, and cites Criterion's edition of 'The Rock' -- a set that was released more than ten years ago -- as emblematic of the brand's second-hand cool (conveniently ignoring the notion that Criterion might have released one such slickly enjoyable piece of popcorn to showcase the power of then-nascent DVD technology, or to, um, stay in business). Of course, nothing says "cool" quite like 'Fanfan la Tulipe.'
But a quick peek at Criterion's recent releases proves Buschel's comments to be mightily provincial. Criterion's partnership with IFC Films has allowed them to canonize a number of this young millennium's most daring and idiosyncratic new films -- Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' and Andrea Arnold's 'Fish Tank' alone are sufficiently compelling proof that Criterion can immediately suss out such genuine classics without cow-towing to false modesty. Oh, and not to be a stickler, but Monte Hellman's 'Two-Lane Blacktop' -- which Buschel singles out as a film too unbridled for the likes of A.O. Scott to appreciate, had it been released today -- came out 40 years ago (and it's spine #414).
Criterion is a company like any other, and that their primary goal is to stay in business. It's a goal they've accomplished by cultivating the respectability of their brand and eschewing passing trends for an enduring trust. By choosing to be valuable instead of cool, Criterion has always been both, and they're stronger now than ever. Their cumulative output has become synonymous with the idea that filmmakers who remain true to their voices are the ones who continue to rock the cinema and change the world, and that's something that will never go out of style.