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

Bob Rafelson’s highly underrated The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) works as something of an unofficial sequel to his beloved previous film and the rightful centerpiece of the BBS Story, Five Easy Pieces (1970). After the “farcidelia” of Head, Rafelson’s second film could not be further from its opposite in tone, aesthetics, and overall relation to the counterculture, whose narrative absence is used to great effect in the latter film. It wasn’t until Rafelson’s third film as director that his identity as a filmmaker started to solidify through his continued exploration of themes shared between films. Like many filmmakers of the New Hollywood generation, Rafleson possessed symptoms of the self-conscious auteur, but the similarities between Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens go far beyond surface connections that denote a consistent cinematic personality behind the camera in terms of themes and style, but instead point to a rare kind of filmmaker altogether during New Hollywood or any era.

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Criterion Files

To this point in our subjection of the films of BBS Productions we’ve been privy to a handful of boundary-pushing films that we now recognize today as landmark pictures in the furthering progress of New Hollywood from the late 1960′s onward. They were films dealing with contemporary cultural changes and a youthful revolutionary attitude to not necessarily show things as we dream them to be, but more as they are. Life isn’t like the movies, so maybe make some movies that are a reflection of life. Life is imperfect, rough around the edges and occasionally a little disorienting. Thus far, the films in the BBS library discussed these past four weeks have shown us just how the mindset of the transitioning American lifestyle and interest was during that time period with timely and current stories.

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Criterion Files

As I argued in my introduction to our coverage of the BBS box set, this major Criterion release both celebrates New Hollywood and complicates the master narrative informing the way in which the era is typically remembered. Alongside classics of the era like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, the set also includes films that were received badly or misunderstood in their time like Head and The King of Marvin Gardens which can now be reassessed with the benefit of hindsight. But perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition to the canonized works of New Hollywood here is the presence of the absolutely obscure, the completely forgotten, the movies that up until now were lost in time and memory. This set marks the first time Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (1970) and Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place (1971) have been released in any home video format. These films are, in a sense, correlated with New Hollywood because of their themes, narratives, characters, and their temporal and economic contexts, but unlike the three heavy-hitters in this set, watching them now is, by comparison, to see a film with a forty-year-old blank slate – a unique and rare experience when one contrasts watching these films to, say, Easy Rider, a movie inseparable from an ongoing and reiterated forty-year-long conversation about what it meant then and means today. Separately, these are interesting films on their own, but together, Drive, He Said and A Safe Place point to the fact that there’s […]

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Criterion Files

The most difficult thing about watching seminal, groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting movies is that it’s impossible to see them, feel them, or experience them the way they were in the moment, before they became influential enough to seem almost unexceptional by retrospective comparison. It’s difficult to marvel at the audacious camera angles or fragmented narrative of Citizen Kane in an age where Gaspar Noe and Guillermo Arriaga exist, or be shocked by the expertly-crafted profanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a post-David Mamet world. These movies may remain strong and, in other ways, timeless, but even with the very best, the “moment” of greatness is lost by the sheer force of its effect on cinema that came after. Films, after all, aren’t made in a vacuum. They are the constant subject of influence, and rarely anything influences a film more than another great film.

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Criterion Files

As a relatively young person, far too young to speak meaningfully about an important era of American culture, it’s difficult for me to ascribe any sense of value even unto my own words about a picture that encapsulates and represents an alternate ideology of real American freedom than what we consider as being truly “free.” When we think of freedom we think of rights and when we think of American we think of the dream. We have the right to be happy and we have the freedoms to pursue it.

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Criterion Files

For the rest of the summer, Adam and Landon will be focusing on films included in the Criterion Collection released by the legendary BBS Production Company whose anti-establishment films rocked the world of Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So dust of your old LPs, set out on the highway, and embrace your countercultural sensibilities with one of the most eccentric and essential stories of New Hollywood. When rummaging through the Criterion Collection’s available box sets, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the serious and traditional role that authorship has played in forming both the Collection and its reputation. Whether it’s five films by John Cassavetes, Sergei Eisenstein’s sound years, or Truffaut’s cinematic adventures of Antoine Doinel, the Collection places the director as the primary author of the text, just as they do when ascribing possession to individual titles (“Orson Welles’s F for Fake,” for instance). Then came the BBS set, which frames authorship to a group of films not because of the signatures of the directors who made each individual title, but as a group effort through the umbrella of a production company. BBS may refer specifically to Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, but the talent pool that determined the artistic output of this company was hardly exclusive to them, incorporating the then-young talents of Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, and Henry Jaglom. None of these figures solely inhabited clear and exclusive occupational signposts like “writer,” “director,” “producer,” or “actor,” but a combined contributions to […]

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Criterion Files

When I write this column, I typically don’t get the opportunity to write about movies from my teen years. I, like many, came into a cinephilic love for art and foreign cinema during college, and in that process grew to appreciate The Criterion Collection. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), however, is a movie that’s followed me through various changes in my life for (I’m just now realizing as I write this) about half of my time thus far spent on Earth.

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Criterion Files

Much of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic output is inaccessible to American audiences. His most prolific period, the 1960s (in which he made 18 feature films) is almost entirely available, due in no small part to the Criterion Collection’s well-justified infatuation with the cineaste’s important and influential work. The output of much of his later career, however, isn’t commercially accessible in the US including much-lauded work like Nouvelle Vague (1990) and the Histoire(s) du Cinema entries (1988-98). In fact, Tout va Bien (1972 – his most recent title included in the Collection) is to my knowledge the only film he made in the 1970s that’s available on Region 1 DVD. This is all to say that here in the US, what we know of Godard we know mostly the first decade of his career. While it’s unfortunate that cinephiles have minimal access to his later work, this complaint is not meant to undervalue the importance of the work he did in the 1960s. Godard made an unbelievable amount of brilliant and challenging work in an astoundingly short amount of time, and by 1970 he had emerged as a different kind of filmmaker altogether. Godard’s 1960s work is, in a sense, the only logical starting point in order to approach an understanding of this later work. Godard’s films are an ongoing exercise in personal growth, aesthetic experimentation, and political criticism. Each work builds off of what came before. With this weekend’s US release of Godard’s most recent work, Film Socialisme, the gaps in […]

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Criterion Files

Some films represent to many the indefinable expression of a dream. Often times it’s nightmarish, as that’s what we can easily discern as being particularly dream-like because those are the dreams we tend to never forget. They haunt us, indefinitely, and some filmmakers are keen to capture that sense of uncomfortable fear of the odd, or non-understandable. Filmmakers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg seem to know it and are willing to explore and share it.

Then, there are some films that don’t necessarily look a dream, but feel like a familiar one that you don’t fully remember; because it’s too grounded to feel fantastic, but too gorgeously free so as to feel slightly detached from reality. It’s dramatic, but not “dramatic.” It’s not void of human emotional expression, but not entirely engagingly emotional. It’s both wonderful and disturbed. It’s affectingly confusing to your senses. Like a dream.

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Criterion Files

In anticipation of Terrence Malick’s much-buzzed and much-argued-about Tree of Life, Adam and Landon are doing a two-part series on Malick’s films in the Criterion Collection. Part 1 – The Thin Red Line. The Thin Red Line (1998) is a film that accomplished many things. Least of which is the fact that, as the film was released twenty years after his previous completed work Days of Heaven, it established Terrence Malick as still a working filmmaker. While Malick had developed and abandoned several projects in the two decades that straddled his second and third feature films, the notoriously private director temporarily retired to France and workshopped a variety of screenplays and stage plays that, for one reason or another, never manifested. Though Malick’s sparse filmography hardly grants him a persona of being a prolific artist, his twenty-year filmmaking “hiatus” was never a hiatus at all, but was instead brimming with activity for potential projects. The Thin Red Line, then, should be thought of not as a decided return to filmmaking which assumes that the film is either a project twenty years in the making or the only thing he came across in twenty years worth making (as an academic who almost completed his doctorate and as a working journalist before becoming a filmmaker, part of the mystery surrounding the very private Malick is that filmmaking is simply one of several trades that define him – he’s like a far less public James Franco). The Thin Red Line may be more […]

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Criterion Files

“Think they pay you to drive? They pay you to be terrified.”

It’s the line that inspires the title. Four men behind the wheel of two trucks without shock absorbers or any special balancing mechanics and driving across unpaved terrain for hundreds of miles with everything in their path from two-ton boulders in the middle of the road to rotten wood acting as their road extension to pivot over a precipice…all while each truck lugs enough nitroglycerine to reduce mountains to piles of pebble. With the prevention of that much destruction contingent on such undisturbed sensitivity a boulder in the middle of the road is the least of their concern to stay alive. In a case like that a large rock is no match for an invisible pothole that need only be inches deep to separate all of you from the rest of you.

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Criterion Files

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, David Ehrlich, whose bimonthly column Criterion Corner was a favorite at Cinematical, takes on Paul Schrader’s incredible biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Tune in next week as Adam Charles returns Criterion Files to its usual rotation, and in the meantime you can take a look at the previous entries from guest contributors here. Infamous Japanese iconoclast Yukio Mishima once said “I still have no way to survive but to keep writing one line, one more line, one more line…,” a sentiment which suggests that his eventual suicide came only once his creative resources had run dry. Yet, as Paul Schrader’s sublime film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters so fluidly illustrates, Mishima ended his life with a self-administered sword thrust to the chest not because he was out of words, but rather because the page had never been a sufficient canvas for his artistic expression, or one to which he had ever intended to confine himself.

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Criterion Files

Welcome to the fourth and penultimate installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, Matthew Dessem, who keeps himself quite busy writing his way through every single title in the Criterion Collection at The Criterion Contraption, takes on Billy Wilder’s oft-overlooked masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951). Tune in next week for an analysis of a different title from a new author, and you can take a look at the previous entries from guest contributors here. We all know the story: deep underground, there’s been a terrible accident. Lives hang in the balance! Time is of the essence! But if everybody pulls together, if we all really believe, there’s a chance we can bring the lost back, blinking, into the sunlight. The important thing—whether we’re talking about Floyd Collins, Kathy Fiscus, or Jessica McClure—is to pay attention. We all know the story—and apparently we love it. The Wikipedia article about last year’s Copiapó Mining Disaster is 10,500 words long. William Shakespeare only rates 6,800. What on earth is going on? In his breathtakingly cynical masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder suggests some answers—but you’re not going to like them.

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Criterion Files

Welcome to the third installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, Catherine Stebbins, writer for CriterionCast and Cinema Enthusiast, takes on G.W. Pabst’s silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929). Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author. The first time I saw G.W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, I thought I knew what Lulu, the character played by Louise Brooks, would be like. All I knew was that Lulu destroyed the lives of those around her. I expected her to be a typical femme fatale, with perhaps a bit of the vamp in her; sexy, manipulative, cold, calculating, powerful. I expected her to be a scheming woman with a plan for destruction. Lulu is a very complicated character because she is in many ways the direct opposite of the femme fatale despite the amount of damage she inevitably causes. I chose to write about Pandora’s Box because it means a great deal to me. Most importantly, it introduced me to Louise Brooks. I idolize her for all she had to endure, for never compromising and for the enigmatic personality she brought to the screen which has never been matched. By looking at Lulu as a character, I hope to give at least a little insight into her performance in Pandora’s Box and the complicated and ultimately symbolic character she portrays with Lulu.

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Criterion Files

Welcome to the second installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. Each Wednesday for the month of April, a writer and fellow Criterion aficionado from another site will be giving their own take one one of the collection’s beloved titles. This week, Joshua Brunsting, writer for CriterionCast and Gordon and the Whale, takes on Jean-Luc Godard’s beloved musical, A Woman is a Woman. Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author. Sometimes, the splash a filmmaker makes with his or her first feature ultimately breeds a wave too harsh to ride as a career living up to the beginning. While everyone and their mother points to a film like Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, Breathless, as the (in my eyes definitive) auteur’s crowning achievement, it’s almost as common to hear the director discussed as a filmmaker of diminishing returns. However, while his debut is for all intents and purposes a brilliant, all-time classic, it’s not until his third feature, the neo-musical fever dream known as A Woman Is A Woman, that one truly gets a hold of what kind of filmmaker Godard, in all of his feverish style, truly is. Starring a trio of fantastic thespians — Godard staple Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard’s muse Anna Karina, and French New Wave star Jean-Claude Brialy — Woman follows the story of Angela, a sweet and caring exotic dancer, who is not only torn between two […]

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Criterion Files

Welcome to Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. Each Wednesday for the month of April, a writer and fellow Criterion aficionado from another site will be giving their own take one one of the collection’s beloved titles. This week, David Blakeslee, writer for CriterionCast and Criterion Reflections, takes on Jean Painleve’s Science is Fiction set. Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author. With the attendant buzz and ephemeral fanfare that accompanies a new Criterion release now faded after nearly two years and 100 additional spine numbers, I think it’s safe to say that Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé is one of the most easily overlooked DVD sets in the Criterion Collection. Lacking anything in the way of sexy celebrity star power, built around the career of a director unfamiliar to most contemporary movie fans, and mainly because it’s relegated to the seemingly dry and stale category of “nature documentaries,” Science is Fiction probably doesn’t leap off the shelf into the hands of even the bravest blind-buyers. Who can blame them for simply concluding that Disney, National Geographic and the BBC’s Planet Earth and Life series, in all their Hi-Def 1080p glory,  have surpassed these primitive, mostly black & white curiosities? And yet, I think I can make the case that this impressive three-disc set is one of the most entertaining, versatile and rewatchable titles that Criterion has issued. […]

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Criterion Files

Why?

In a sea of some of the most important pictures the world has known to date – why? In a collection spanning nearly one-hundred years of film history and inclusive of a large portion of the greatest filmmakers we’ve ever known…why? With a library containing movies which focus heavily on visual artistry and emotional complexities and probably have a combined budget *possibly* equal to that of this film…why? With another picture released the same year about pretty much the same thing made by a studio from the same country garnering stronger critical reception and sporting an [in]arguably more plausible solution and execution to the prevention of the end of the world via meteors the size of really, really big things…WHY? Why is this mammoth-sized summer blockbuster which is a masterpiece of the color orange alongside some of the most revered pictures of the last (nearly) 100 years?

The answer is simple, concrete, and indisputable:

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Criterion Files

I’ve watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark film The Battle of Algiers (1966) many times. I remember the circumstances of viewing each and every time, because each time I see it, it affects me more profoundly than the last. The film alone is astounding, distressing, exhausting, shocking, beautiful, and it still feels urgent forty-five years after its release and more than fifty-five years after the events depicted in it took place. I’m both surprised and thankful time and again that such a film was ever even able to get made. I rarely write about my personal relationship to a film as I believe it risks obscuring the critical lens that I wish to take to it, but the fact that each time I watch The Battle of Algiers is different than the last speaks rather appropriately to the film’s historical role. As famous screenings and topical revisitations conversantly continue to take place around the film, it acquires new historical profundity and greater relevance as time moves forward, hardly speaking exclusively to the 1957 battle of the film’s title.

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Criterion Files

The documentary feature has a considerably long history of a, most likely, mis-distinction in terms of what it actually is. To many, a documentary picture is something to be believed as veritable truth; or, if not wholly truthful then certainly not a depiction of blatant falsities. It’s the capturing of life, edited to entertain or to inform (if done well then it should be both). The capturing of life portion of the formula may be the most important element in terms of relaying to the audience that they are seeing some semblance of truth. It may have been cut to highlight the area the filmmaker felt most pertinent to their, or cut to remove the section most damaging, but the moment captured and shown was spontaneous and real.

When things can begin to gt interesting is when the spontaneity, or believability in the events onscreen come into question. It’s almost as if a perceived trust has been attacked. Even if that trust was jeopardized for the betterment of the experience; like telling your significant other their hair is breathtaking so you can both enjoy the party and you just hope that good/honest friend of yours doesn’t show up to tell her the truth and burst the bubble of fun.

What’s even more interesting is how the film credited as the first documentary feature was created on just such a lie. With that we present this week’s Criterion Files entry Nanook of the North.

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Criterion Files

John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) is often cited as a watershed moment in American independent film, and Cassavetes himself rather conveniently historicized as our nation’s “first” independent filmmaker. Such historical designations are often used as a way to narrativize precedents to the 1980s and 1990s Sundance-emboldened independent film “movement” and draw historical equivalents to the practices of now and then. This tendency often positions Cassavetes’ undoubtedly important contributions in a way that simplistically juxtaposes his artistic efforts with that of, say, anybody from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Taranatino, ignoring the essential differences in historical context and means of aesthetic expression between them while also conveniently evading the many other American “independent” filmmakers that came before Cassavates himself. While Cassavetes is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind filmmaker (excluding the many he has influenced), perhaps the biggest problem with this conventionally reductive veneration of Cassavetes is the notion that he acted alone, that he was an anomaly in an otherwise dominant system. John Cassavetes is undoubtedly one of America’s most important filmmakers, but seeing him as such an incongruity prevents us from understanding exactly why he was so important.

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