CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical


Criterion Corner is a Cinematical column dedicated to the wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, running twice at the end of each month -- once for new reviews and once for Criterion commentary.

I couldn't contrive a way to effectively combine the Criterion Collection with my rabid contempt for all things Zack Snyder. Believe me, I tried. With no other topical points of interest, I realized that it's a perfect time for me to go on the record about my favorite Criterion cover art.

Not to sound dramatic, but so far as difficult decisions go, this process is going to make 'Sophie's Choice' look like 'Executive Decision.' You see, Criterion covers are why we're all here in the first place (whether I mean "we" as readers of Cinematical or "we" as a civilization is up to you). It was my abiding love for these sublime and deeply considered examples of mass-produced graphic design that spawned this column.

Criterion Corner is a direct extension of a piece I published last August about the glorious community of fake Criterion covers, in which I wrote that "Criterion's [artwork] can make even the most digitally-oriented among us once again fetishize physical media... most DVDs and Blu-rays are packaged to be purchased, Criterion's are packaged to be treasured." It's the immaculately curated and restored roster of films that's made Criterion so instrumental to my relationship with cinema, but it's the art with which those films have been adorned that has so maniacally spurred me to collect them all.

Gender norms are as original as a new Zack Snyder movie (Got him! How will he ever recover from such a blow!), but in my family there's one strict divide: The men collect things, and the women begrudgingly tolerate that the men collect things. For my older brother it's model airplanes, for our father it's propaganda posters from China's Cultural Revolution (for every baby picture my parents have hanging in their house, there are approximately 10 of Mao Zedong) and for me, it's Criterion discs.

It started one day in the winter of 2000 with a blind Amazon purchase of Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai,' and now you have to pass through a veritable gauntlet of Criterion releases in order to reach my bedroom. In the process of collecting a number of the greatest films ever made, my apartment has inadvertently become some kind of cinephilic nerd Louvre. (It's a Manhattan apartment, so even at 71 Anna Karina could probably sprint from end to end and beat her old record.)

In some cases the illustrations are so beautiful that the discs themselves feel like little more than the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks. However, while almost all of Criterion's covers are easy on the eye (almost all), the best of them also speak to their respective films. The illustrations actually deepen and clarify the movie masterpieces they represent. The greatest designs not only allow Criterion collectors to better display their cinematic classics, but to better understand them as well.

Having said that, it's with a heavy heart that I present to you what I consider to be the 10 best Criterion covers. A wise man wouldn't rank them, but a fanboy wouldn't dream of leaving his opinion that vague, so let's get to it:

10.) 'Ran'
Designed by:
Lucien S.Y. Yang

The next time you pull the word "Chaos" during a game of Pictionary, Lucien S.Y. Yang's cover design for Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran' is what you should draw. No one will have any idea what the hell you're sketching, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that your friends are uncultured rubes, and at the end of the day that's what Pictionary is all about.

Kurosawa's masterful adaptation of Shakespeare's 'King Lear' was among the auteur's most visually resplendent work, despite the fact that he was nearly blind during its production, and Yang's cover immediately recalls the film's melodramatic vibrancy. 'Ran' is the nepotistic nightmare of an aging ruler who abdicates his domain to his three sons with gushingly bloody results, and Yang's trio of sloppy color splotches is a beautifully simple distillation of that havoc. It's a design both austere and wild, the tragedy it represents equalled only by the fact that this disc went out-of-print soon after its initial release.

9.) 'Close-up'
Designed by: Eric Skillman


Abbas Kiarostami's 'Close-up' might be my very favorite film, but upon first blush I was severely disappointed with Eric Skillman's verdant and pastoral design. Green is a fitting color with which to adorn any Iranian film that champions artistic expression, but 'Close-up' is not an especially "pretty" film, and I suppose I'd hoped for Criterion to avoid relying upon an image from the movie.

Of course, few films reward critical attention quite like 'Close-up,' and Skillman's illustration soon revealed its profound efficacy to work in much the same way. 'Close-up' is as much about the tools of cinema as it is their effects, and Skillman's reliance upon large process dots likewise calls attention to the artifice of his image (and that image crystalizes the film's moving emotional core). The design resolves into one of Criterion's most beautiful, achieving in depth what it lacks in immediacy. Check out Skillman's blog post about how this cover came into being.

8.) 'Last Year at Marienbad'
Designed by: Rodrigo Corral Design / Ben Wiseman


Trying to find a static image that contains a film as slippery and transient as Alain Resnais' 'Last Year at Marienbad' would be like isolating every word of 'Gravity's Rainbow' in the hopes that one of them defined its moral. Resnais' incorrigible film -- about a couple who may or may not have once met before in the surreal landscape of a French estate -- continues to confound audiences some fifty years after its debut, enduring as one of the cinema's most sly riddles.

Rather than throwing up their hands and just offering a screen-grab as a testament to the film's inscrutability, Ben Wiseman and the folks at Rodrigo Corral Design opted to stretch the elliptical vibe even further. The white on white nails the film's dreamy tone -- a caution to anyone looking for answers -- while its raised text makes tangible the idea that 'Last Year at Marienbad' is designed to be felt rather than solved.

7.) 'In the Realm of the Senses'
Designed by: Neil Kellerhouse


For a film that includes an unsimulated scene wherein someone sticks a hardboiled egg up her ladybits before feeding it to her partner, Nagisa Oshima's infamous erotic vortex 'In the Realm of the Senses' is actually rather beautiful. The cinematography is livid and painterly, the sexual violence poetic even at its most depraved (and that's pretty depraved).

By recognizing the grace with which Oshima told this story, designer Neil Kellerhouse rescued Criterion's release from the film's lurid reputation. The image of Eiko Matsuda's ecstatically asphyxiating face confronts the taboo element of Oshima's telling, but the delicate lines of text and those wonderful wisps of white breath call vital attention to the human sensitivity with which 'In the Realm of the Senses' so steadily toes the line between explicitness and pornography. This beautiful cover also makes the film that much easier to lend to unsuspecting friends.

6.) 'Viridiana'
Designed by: Eric Skillman


I always found the idea of Luis Bunuel working in black & white to be somewhat perverse, as if he were bluntly mocking the didactism of his characters and any audience that might not appreciate their outstanding hypocrisy. Eric Skillman's decision to present 'Viridiana' sans-color channels the film's social subterfuge, the deceptive chastity of his serene cover art a sly nod to those in on the joke.

The image is both simple and mordantly incomplete, consisting only of Silvia Pinal's virginal profile, her pallid features and the white text that curls above her face providing a stark contrast to the void around them. But it's what Skillman omits -- namely, the rest of Viridiana's body -- that makes this cover so effective, as those familiar with the film will recognize the depravity at work.

5.) 'Army of Shadows'
Designed by: Michael Boland


The evocative image at the center of Michael Boland's 'Army of Shadows' cover succinctly sums up everything you need to know about Jean-Pierre Melville's espionage masterpiece, but it's that pervasive midnight blue backdrop which most immediately evokes the stiflingly tense existence of the film's resistance fighters. That same hue is draped over Melville's long-lost gem from start to finish, effectively covering everything in a soft half darkness from which there's no escape.

'Army of Shadows' is wall-to-wall atmosphere from which Melville carves a fully realized world and a tenuous plot. Lino Ventura leads a clandestine band of freedom fighters through the darkest corners of WWII. The enemy is a vague and ubiquitous threat, and the swastika Boland buries at the bottom of this almost imperceptibly two-tone image cogently speaks to the unclear lines Ventura and his cohorts must navigate between friend and foe.

4.) 'Brand Upon the Brain!'
Designed by: Jason Hardy


Guy Maddin is not the kind of guy who can be approximated. Hiring someone else to convey the singularly eccentric and grainy fantasia of a Guy Maddin film would be like asking someone to map a distant land of which they've only heard campfire stories and scattered transmissions. So poor Jason Hardy, who was given the unenviable task of designing the company's edition of Guy Maddin's most Guy Maddin film.

Wisely, Hardy's artwork adopts the structure from the film, plopping the shadow of young "Guy Maddin" in the center (at the heart of his father's monolithic lighthouse), and surrounding him with the raving words that tether the filmmaker to his youth ("Good for dippin!"). I guess it's always a bit of a gamble to write "Strange holes!" on the front of a DVD and hope for mass appeal, but the water -- fake and rising -- threatens to wash it all away, soothing the art's madness while evincing its tension. Click for a closer look.

3.) 'Modern Times'
Designed by: Sam Smith


So if 'House' was Sam Smith's first date with Criterion, 'Modern Times' is when he moved in, started sleeping over on work nights and commandeered a drawer for his underwear. Criterion has announced plans to distribute a number of Charlie Chaplin classics over the next year or two ('The Great Dictator' has already been revealed as a May release), and by commissioning Smith to handle 'Modern Times' they were effectively asking the newcomer to set the tone for a number of huge future releases. Needless to say, Smith didn't let them down.

Smith's design is direct yet deceptively simple, starting with the iconic image of Chaplin's Little Tramp character, but audaciously screwing with it in a way most artists wouldn't dare. Chaplin's wonky eyes afford this transitional masterpiece a relevance that falls somewhere between kitsch and classicism, but the whole thing retains the quiet authority of a legendary work. Smith's account of his process lays out his process far better than I ever could.

2.) 'Seven Samurai'
Designed by: Neil Kellerhouse


Some movies need to be sold, while others just need to be presented. 'Seven Samurai' is a film that speaks for itself. Kurosawa's treasured jidaigeki is one of the Criterion Collection's signature titles, and it offers so many instantly recognizable moments that it's no wonder Criterion decided to go with a new cover design when they re-released the flick a few years back (the original art was a respectful yet obvious screengrab of the titular ronin).

Neil Kellerhouse was confronted with an embarrassment of riches when hired to approach Kurosawa's seminal work from a fresh angle, and he chose to trust in the film's reputation and eschew the famous faces of its leading men. The cover is entirely comprised of the flag under which the masterless samurai unite to fight off the bandit horde, the gravitas of the uncomplicated design emphasizing the film's indisputable status as a stone-cold classic.


1.) 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters'
Designed by: Neil Kellerhouse


And much to my surprise, Neil Kellerhouse -- a name with which I was unfamiliar before writing this piece -- emerges as my MVP of Criterion cover art. Judging by this list it would seem that my tastes trend towards designs of a spare and muted nature, but Kellerhouse's work on 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters' is as busy as anything Criterion has ever commissioned, and my favorite by a margin wider than director Paul Schrader's mustache.

Schrader's unconventional biopic of iconic Japanese personality Yukio Mishima uses its singularly flamboyant subject as a pretense for exploring the fluid dynamic between art and life. Displaying a complex understanding of Schrader's film, Kellerhouse's dense and garish cover design distills all of Mishima's hysterical dimensions into a single image that appropriately insists upon its own beauty above all else. The colors are a logical extension of Mishima's wardrobe, the rays of his beloved rising sun skewered by the nationalist's unique brand of patriotism. And there's Mishima in the middle, everyone and no one all at once, his entire life finally scrunched into a commodified work of art that fits in the palm of your hand.

True story: I'm writing this up in an unassuming Manhattan cafe, my fingers trying to keep up with my raving thoughts on the greatest film Paul Schrader ever had anything to do with (you heard me), when in walks... Paul Schrader. Or at least a guy who I am 98% sure was Paul Schrader. I tweeted a picture and everything. I was under the impression that he was off in Bombay doing whatever it is that Paul Schrader does with his time, but I guess not. So, yeah, that was the strangest thing that's ever happened to me.

I assume that most of you precisely agree with both the selection and ordering of this list, but the one or two of you who have a different take on the matter should feel free to express yourselves in the comments below.



NEWS & LINKS:

- A filmmaker took a swipe at Criterion, and I swiped back, not as a stooge or an apologist, but as someone who knows his enemies (or rather, knows who his enemies are not).

- Criterion announced a rich and eclectic slate of June releases. I was too busy getting involved in all sorts of harried mischief at SXSW to write them up, but the erudite gentlemen over at Criterion Cast have got you covered.

- Whit Stillman has a new movie on the way (hooray?) and is on Twitter (but not really).

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- Criterion Corner #1: It's Cheaper Than Film School
- Criterion Corner #2: Great Movies Are Chosen, Not Made
- Criterion Corner #3: The Trouble With Women
- Criterion Corner #4: Valentine's Day the Criterion Way
- Criterion Corner #5: 10 Animated Films Criterion Should Covet

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