Criterion Files

Criterion FilesIf the Criterion Collection devotes itself to “important classic and contemporary films,” the obvious followup question would be, “What makes each of these films in the collection important?” That’s exactly what Adam Charles and Landon Palmer investigate each week in Criterion Files. Every Wednesday, Criterion Files examines a film in the collection, and assesses its importance and worth based on its place in history, its influence on cinema and society, its place within a director’s body of work, or anything else that may make it important and worth watching. Criterion Files is the place to understand why essential cinema is essential.

Updates Every: Wednesday

Criterion Files

Over the years, we’ve been more than just a little interested in the work of The Criterion Collection. Their mission since 1984, has simply been “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” Their focus has been on important films, both classic and contemporary. And they are so good at it that we have dedicated a regular feature to it, this thing known as Criterion Files. A column that I’m hijacking this week because I wanted to talk about a few things. Notably a slew of recent Blu-ray releases, perfect examples of the ongoing work that Criterion is doing to preserve, highlight, celebrate and archive some of the most significant accomplishments in film history. Today we take a look at some of these things that Criterion does very well, in the context of their recent Blu-ray release. All of these are available in stores now and are certainly recommended. All that’s left is to talk about why.

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Criterion Files

The Criterion Collection is full of great movies, all carefully tabulated and accounted for with spine numbers and easily made accessible through various search means on their website. But besides the 600+ titles (out of print and not) included in The Collection, the extensive variety of special features attended in Criterion discs occasionally incorporate other feature-length and short films not officially enumerated as part of the collection itself. However, several of these films, while “hidden” in special features sections and second discs and placed subserviently to the ostensibly more “significant” featured title, are absolute gems arguably worthy of their own releases. Of course, short films are by no means uncommon in Criterion discs. You can see David Cronenberg’s contemplative short piece Camera (2000) in the annals of Videodrome, or the original short-form Bottle Rocket in Criterion’s release of Wes Anderson’s first feature. But Criterion (a company that has sometimes released short films on their own) also has several notable short and feature-length films in their special features that stand alone as cinematic accomplishments, and serve more a interesting and important purpose than as a supplement of a director’s other, briefer work. Here are four solid films hidden in the supplements of Criterion’s titles…

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Criterion Files

The common, received wisdom about Hollywood during The Great Depression tends to go like this: Hollywood played an important role as a place for escape, or a low-cost brief vacation, for a populace struggling to make it day-to-day. Much of Hollywood entertainment no doubt possessed escapist entertainment value, and the importance of Hollywood’s social role in this respect shouldn’t be dismissed. But the assumption that Depression-era Hollywood worked exclusively – or even mostly – as a purely escapist institution with little reflection on the overwhelming social conditions and problems of the time is greatly misinformed. The Depression-era-escapism argument about Hollywood has significant implications. While the industry’s role as an institutionalized dream factory had been well established by the early 1930s, the early years of the Depression were instrumental in the formation of a Classical Hollywood mode because it was during these years that synchronous sound became solidified with other standardized industry conventions. Genres like gangster films and westerns certainly existed during the silent era, but these genres acquired their shared signatures as sound grew into an expected, important part of the cinematic experience, just as the sonic spectacle of the musical or the rat-a-tat dialogue of screwball comedies became essential defining components of their respective genres after the standardization of sound. So, in short, how we conceptualize Hollywood in the 1930s is instrumental to understanding the foundation of Hollywood’s entire history.

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Criterion Files

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson is known for getting his inspiration from a variety of sources. While Anderson’s signature visual quirks make his films unquestionably his own, the director’s images, themes, and characters also emerge through an amalgamation of materials that inspire him, whether the source be the stories of J.D. Salinger or the pathos of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. But most of Anderson’s references are to other works of cinema, as detailed in this five-part video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, which details Anderson’s particular influence by auteurs ranging from Orson Welles to Hal Ashby. However, certain films anchor their influence more directly than others. For instance, The Life Aquatic was greatly inspired by Federico Fellini’s post-Dolce Vita work, and The Darjeeling Limited is dedicated to celebrated Indian auteur Stayajit Ray. In the weeks since the Cannes premiere and commercial release of Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, several critics have noted that only does the film seem to be directly influenced by a specific director, but one particular film by that director. Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, whimsically anarchistic couple-on-the-run film from 1965 seems to bear a great deal of similarity to Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place the year that Godard’s film was originally released in France (Pierrot’s US release was delayed until 1969, where it stood curiously opposite Godard’s polemical late-60s work). Having read several reviews that cite Pierrot‘s influence on Moonrise, I reflected back on both films, and here are some of the […]

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Criterion Files

Of the 600+ films in The Criterion Collection, almost 200 are listed as from the United States. While not all of these films are explicitly thematically based  around life in the US, the American selections for the Collection do make up a mosaic of diverse perspectives on life in this country, proving that there is no sustainable solitary understanding of what it means to be an “American,” but there exists instead an array of possibilities for interpreting American identity. What the American films do have in common, though, is provide proof that excellent films have been made in the US for quite some time. So, after exhausting yourself with Independence Day Parades, firecracker-lighting, and Budweiser, settle down with a great American movie. Here are a dozen great titles from the Criterion Collection about “America” and “freedom” in the many senses of those terms.

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Criterion Files

First is a precarious position to be in, for in retrospect you stand in for the entire legacy (or, at least, for inaugurating the legacy) of the thing itself. It’s tough being the first, and can be burdensome. And of the first ten movies that were admitted into the Criterion Collection, there are some confounding choices. The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3), for instance, is a great film, but hardly amongst Hitchcock’s best (or even his best British work). It’s an…interesting choice for the first Hitchcock film in the DVD collection that would come to define 21st century cinephilia. But then again, way back in 1998, whose to say that the Criterion Collection had any idea the reputation it would cultivate? Criterion’s choices for its first two releases, however, are pitch-perfect. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film that defined his legacy and had a greater influence on world cinema than even his Rashomon, sits prominently at Spine #2. And Jean Renoir’s anti-war, prewar masterpiece, Grand Illusion, sits deservedly in Criterion’s #1 spot, with the weight of important classic and contemporary cinema resting comfortably on its shoulders. Grand Illusion may admittedly not have the empirical evidence of definitive influence of Seven Samurai (in other words, it has yet to be remade into a Western). But that is perhaps to its benefit. While Kurosawa made tens of samurai films, Renoir never made another movie quite like Grand Illusion, and the film still occupies a singular place in the history of war cinema – […]

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Criterion Files

The Criterion Collection’s motto makes explicit its devotion to “important classic and contemporary films,” but it’s also clear that the Collection has dedicated itself to the careers of a select group of important classic and contemporary directors. Several prestigious directors have a prominent portion of their careers represented by the collection. Between the Criterion spine numbers and Eclipse box sets, 21 Ingmar Bergman films are represented (and multiple versions of two of these films), ranging from his 1940s work to Fanny and Alexander (and 3 documentaries about him). 26 Akira Kurosawa films have been given the Criterion/Eclipse treatment, and Yashujiro Ozu has 17 films in the collection. Though many factors go into forming the collection, including the ever-shifting issue of rights and ownership over certain titles, it’s hard to argue against the criticism (or, perhaps more accurately, obvious observation) that the films in the Collection represent certain preferences of taste which makes its omissions suspect and its occasionally-puzzling choices fodder for investigation or too predictable to be interesting (two Kurosawa Eclipse sets?). And while the Collection has recently upped its game on the “contemporary” portion of its claim by highlighting modern-day masterpieces like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, for the most part attempts at forming a complete directorial filmography via within the Collection has typically been reserved for directors whose filmographies have completed. Except, of course, for the case of Wes Anderson.

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Criterion Files

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is the Network of participatory media. Where Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s celebrated 1976 masterpiece rather accurately predicted televised sensationalism and infotainment, Videodrome’s ideas about media’s dissemination and our relationship with it continues to reveal its incredible foresight nearly thirty years after its initial release. Just as Network is now hardly satire, Videodrome seems less and less a work of science fiction. Sure, digital technology has brought many of Videodrome’s ideas into stark realization more so than the analog technology depicted throughout the film (a disconnect literalized by Criterion’s clever faux-Beta DVD packaging of the film), but the film’s many astute (and foreboding) observations about our evolving relationship to media technology is nothing short of profound.

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Criterion Files

One major misconception about Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is that the films were originally and uniquely conceived as French films, reflecting the color of the nation’s flag through the color scheme of each film and embodying themes which based upon the motto of the French Republic: liberty (Blue), equality (White), and fraternity (Red). But Kieslowski was insistent upon the fact that the stories would have remained the same no matter the national context. The framing of these films through thematics and aesthetics tied to the French flag, the director states, arose as a matter of the trilogy’s source of funding. Thus, the thread which defines the trilogy was a creative accommodation to the circumstances of the film’s production. Kieslowski’s vision for these films, then, was firm, but not rigid – the particular details of this trilogy were not predestined or set in stone. This fact frees the viewer from seeing the themes explored in the Three Colors trilogy as predominately or uniformly based within a national and cultural context. Yes, there are aspects of the brilliant Blue (1993) that are indisputably French, or at least Western European (it’s hard to imagine Americans mourning a contemporary classical composer as a national treasure), but the rather arbitrary circumstances in which the film’s production reflective in the trilogy’s connective framework allows for these themes to permeate well beyond the borders of France itself.

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Criterion Files

Luis Buñuel’s adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) was made at a decisive point in the master filmmaker’s long, dynamic, and illustrious career. The film marked Buñuel’s second foray into European filmmaking after an almost thirty-year hiatus, during which time he made a large number of films in Mexico, contributing greatly to what is now considered the nation’s midcentury cinematic Golden Age. The Spanish filmmaker first returned to Europe to make Viridiana (1961) in Spain (the only film Buñuel ever completed in his native country). Viridiana proved a sensation in every sense of the word: it made a huge splash for international critics and audiences starting with its enthusiastic reception at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and it was met with legendary controversy (no stranger to the filmmaker) in Franco’s tightly-regulated Spain. Viridiana revisits several of Buñuels’ thematic preoccupations from his Surrealist years in France and his pseudo-social-realist films in Mexico, specifically in terms of the infamous atheist’s routine subversion of religious iconography. The now-iconic scene where a group of vagrants sit around a grand dinner table, positioned in a way reminiscent of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-98), proved to be a heretical image for one audience and a brilliant and beautiful inversion for another (By the way, why did nobody in the Catholic community say that critiquing Renaissance art isn’t heretical? Is Da Vinci Jesus?).

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This was a hell of a year in The Criterion Collection. Between films about phantom carriages, angry jurors, beasts and beauties, stranded astronauts, international revolutionaries, and great dictators, Adam Charles and Landon Palmer found their wallets empty and their cinephilic obsessions sated. Here are their eleven favorite releases and upgrades of the year…

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Criterion Files

The 1980s proved to be an interesting and difficult time for auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s. Directors like Copolla, Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, etc. offered works that were far from their classics of the previous decade, but many of these films have aged well and proven to be compelling entries within the respective ouvres of these directors precisely because they aren’t part of their canon. While British director Nicolas Roeg did not play a central part in New Hollywood in the same way as the directors I listed, his 1970s work was certainly part and parcel of this brief countercultural revolution in narrative storytelling. I see Roeg as something of a British equivalent to Hal Ashby: someone who made brilliant entry after brilliant entry throughout a single decade, only to fade out of the spotlight once the 1980s began. But unlike the late Ashby, Roeg has continued making films during these years, and The Criterion Collection has taken one of his most perplexing entries from the era of Reagan and Alf out of obscurity. Insignificance (1985) is a strange film about a strange time. Based on the play by Terry Johnson, Insignificance stages an impossible meeting between iconoclastic minds as the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe (Roeg’s then-wife Teresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Sen. Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis) move in an out of a hotel room as they share a variety of 50s-topical dramatic scenarios.

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Criterion Files

Editor’s note: This week, your tireless Criterion Warrior (oh, idea for a new column!) requested a week off to pursue something literary and intelligent and, well, big-wordy. With Mr. Palmer out, our own J.L. Sosa stepped up to the plate to file his very own Criterion, um, File. Be nice, bloodsuckers! When I first saw Paul Morrissey‘s Blood for Dracula, I definitely felt like I was partaking of an illicit pleasure. A friend of mine with an encyclopedic knowledge (and equally impressive collection) of B-movies was moving to new digs and bequeathed to me, along with many other obscure relics, his VHS dub of the Criterion Collection’s unedited laserdisc edition of the film (LD spine #287, for the digit-obsessed). Based on the rumors I’d long heard, I was expecting copious over-the-top gore. The film delivered on that promise, but also unexpectedly unfolded with the langorous pace of a high-falutin’ costume drama. You know, just like Sense and Sensibility, except with more extended scenes of softcore grinding and vomiting of blood. I later caught a midnight showing of the film at the beloved St. Anthony Main theater, just across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis. This time, the salacious tale of Count Dracula (Udo Kier) and his quest for the blood of a “wirgin” was screened from an authentically scratchy print, and curiously retitled Young Dracula. Although the R-rated Young Dracula had most of its eroticism trimmed, there was still enough suggestive content and bloodletting to draw whoops of approval (and sometimes […]

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Criterion Files

Part of me is in complete disbelief that the release date of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums will have been a decade ago next month. It doesn’t feel so long ago that I was sixteen years old, seeing it for the first time in a movie theater and spending my subsequent Christmas with The Ramones, Elliot Smith, and Nico playing on repeat in my car (two years later, after hearing of Smith’s death, my friends and I gathered together and watched Richie Tenenbaums’s (Luke Wilson) attempted suicide with new, disturbing poignancy). And ten years on, even after having seen it at least a dozen times, and armed with the annoying ability to know every beat and predict every line, something about Tenenbaums feels ageless and fresh at the same time. But when you look at the movie culture that came after Tenenbaums, the film’s age begins to take on its inevitable weight. Tenenbaums was Anderson’s first (and arguably only) real financial success. Previously, Anderson was perceived as an overlooked critical darling following Rushmore, a promising director that a great deal of Hollywood talent wanted to work with (which explains Tenenbaums’ excellent cast and, probably, its corresponding financial success). With this degree of mass exposure, other filmmakers followed suit, establishing what has since been known as the “Wes Anderson style,” which permeated critical and casual assessment of mainstream indies for the following decade and established a visual approach that’s been echoed in anything from Napoleon Dynamite to Garden State to less […]

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Criterion Files

Tune into VH1 Classics on any given day, and this is something you’re likely to see: a rock video of a mid-80s hair band playing on a giant stage, complete with sleek cinematography, wide camera angles, and a stadium-sized audience packed to the brim. At first you might be confused, thinking that this is possibly some Whitesnake or Guns N’ Roses song that somehow escaped your memory. But then the music video ends and in the bottom left corner the band’s name comes up. You’ve never heard of them before, and you’ve definitely never heard this song before. Yet this video depicts monstrous popularity that suggests nothing less than massive cultural phenomenon. While it’s possible for a one-hit wonder to develop this degree of renown for a certain frame of time, it becomes something of a schizophrenic moment when you consider that this hit single both inaugurated the now-forgotten band’s moment of popularity and depicted it simultaneously. With so many hair bands, how is it possible that every single one of them sells out stadium-size crowds? The answer, of course, can only be one thing: an association with mass popularity is, for hair bands, only a reality for the privileged few, but for the rest it’s a fabrication that’s all part of the musical aesthetic – it’s what makes this subgenre of rock that’s reliant on spectacle so spectacular. It’s fitting, then, that one of the landmark mockumentaries of American filmmaking chose as its subject a genre that itself relies […]

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Criterion Files

Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. Island of Lost Souls. The Most Dangerous Game. The Night of the Hunter. The Blob. For a company perhaps best known for releasing pristine editions of international arthouse classics, The Criterion Collection certainly has a healthy amount of cult films in its repertoire. Cult cinema is often a difficult beast to recognize, for such films avoid the roads best travelled in their journey towards recognition and renown. Unlike seminal films in the collection including The 400 Blows, 8 ½, or Rashomon, cult films aren’t typically met with immediate cultural or institutional recognition upon release, aren’t made by internationally-recognized talent, and don’t always have an immediately traceable history of influence. That is, however, what makes cult films so interesting and so valuable: they emerge without expectation or pretense and signal the most populist and anti-elite means by which a film can gain recognition, pointing to the fact that there are always valuable films potentially overlooked between the pages of history. Herk Harvey’s low-budget drive through horror masterpiece Carnival of Souls (1962), like many cult films, emerged into the top tier of film culture in some of the unlikeliest of ways. Harvey was an industrial and educational filmmaker; the $33,000 Carnival was his only feature work. The film had ten minutes lobbed off of it for its drivethru run to fit more screenings, and was largely a non-event when it first graced American screens. Carnival’s success is owed mostly to genre film festivals, late-night television […]

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Criterion Files

The emergence of Pedro Costa’s films into American cinematic consciousness remains something of a conundrum that discerning audiences continue to wrestle with. On the one hand, for those who desire for a radically unconventional cinema as far from Hollywood (geographically, aesthetically, ideologically) as one can get, for those who seek respite from the increasingly conventional American “independent” cinema, and for those tired of “global cinema” and its associated mandate of universal accessibility, Costa seems to be the pill to quell cinematic frustration.

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Criterion Files

One major aspect of the Nazi propaganda machine that gained their support from the German people was their promotion of nostalgia. And like any form of nostalgia (and especially in nostalgia’s frequent political function), this was a selective nostalgia, decidedly exploiting certain tropes and icons of German history and heritage. A major component of this nostalgia was the promotion of nature as the means of returning to pure German identity. Nature provided a convenient contrast to the values that the Nazi party wanted to work against, and it’s opposite – the urban center – was the focal point of all they problems they perceived Germany as having been misguided by, most explicitly centralized in the supposed decadence of 1920s Berlin. The political, aesthetic, and sexual aspirations (not to mention the diversity) of the Weimar period posed a threat to the ideals of tradition, uniformity, and the assumed hierarchy of specific social roles. This nostalgic and romantic preoccupation with nature is readily available in German cultural products of the 1920s and 30s. Anybody who has seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) is familiar with the “mountain film,” or “bergfilme” genre that had peaked by this point. This genre was popular years before the Third Reich took power, and its prevalence speaks volumes to the German peoples’ preoccupation with nature leading up to the Hitler’s rise to power. Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps the most famous of Nazi-era filmmakers, starred in mountain films and went onto make Olympia (1938) and Triumph of the Will (1935), a […]

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Criterion Files

The problem with cinephilia is that eventually one feels that they begin to run out of ‘essential’ films to see. The act of watching movies is continually a process of discovery, but as one continues to watch films not as a hobby but as a part of their life-blood, it becomes harder to find individual titles that are revelatory and profound, movies that shape an alter not only your conception of cinema, but art and life as well. The more you see, the fewer new experiences you have – not only because you may have traversed the corners of whatever canon you’ve chosen to cover, but because individual titles become objects of interest accentuating a larger understanding of the medium rather than individual exploits of incredible worth. To see a truly outstanding film, then, becomes an even more rare and valuable occurrence. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946) is simply one of those films that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen before, not because I have any pretensions toward having anything approaching a “comprehensive” knowledge of film, but because it’s a work of such profound perfection that it seems only natural that this movie would have been made in this precise way. It’s an audacious, incongruous film, exceptional and unmatched. It’s a devastating and beautiful film that I’m not surprised has survived time’s test, for its themes are as insightful and resonant as its storytelling is engrossing and affecting.

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Criterion Files

Andrei Tarkovsky was openly dissatisfied with his Solaris (1972), even though it has endured as perhaps the master’s best-known work, because he felt he didn’t successfully “transcend” the science-fiction genre as he later claimed he would seven years later with Stalker, a film that truly has few directly identifiable ties with the genre it purportedly emerged from. But knowing Tarkovsky, “transcending the genre” here doesn’t mean new interpretations of a familiar formula, but rather implies that Tarkovsky didn’t felt he accomplished what he sought to do in each of his works: make cinema a high art form comparable with the other arts. I respectfully disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment of his own work. In fact, it is the clearly identifiable ties that Solaris has with its genre that helps the film achieve a specifically Tarkovskyan transcendence. While the filmmaker has a gesamtkunstwerk-approach to elevating cinema as an art form by integrating other great works of art into this work of art (an aspect especially apparent here in the film’s library scene), in Solaris Tarkovsky palpably struggles with the legacy of the genre he’s working in, and in doing so, copes with cinema’s own artistic language while putting forth a unique aesthetic that can singularly be experienced in cinema: the controlled experience of time.

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