Criterion 2013

The Criterion Collection is an ever-expanding accumulation of canonical works of cinema. Yet Criterion’s selections don’t only represent deliberate attempts to construct a pristine archive from cinema’s past, but also force a conversation with cinema’s present. These releases (and the cult of anticipation that develops around them) produces a distinctive contrast between the best of cinema history against the spoils of the current moment. And while 2013 did introduce us to some very good films (three of which made it into the Collection), the best selections of cinema’s past always have a lot of instructive lessons to offer the smorgasbord of cinema’s present.

So here are some useful pieces of advice that we think current filmmaking should take from this year’s crop of Criterion releases.

High Concept Isn’t the Same Thing as Mainstream

With bloating budgets and the globalization of the American film market, mainstream domestic movies are getting more stale and homogeneous. Contemporary American movies should inject a healthy dose of weirdness, irreverence, and perhaps even socio-political critique along the way. Alex Cox’s Repo Man shows what can happen if you look at big city alien invasion movies from a canted angle.

A cult hit with a killer soundtrack and perhaps the funniest death scene ever realized in an American movie, Repo Man is the best work of West Coast punk cinema (a surprisingly expansive subgenre) and a not-so-gentle reminder of how often current movies have sacrificed unhinged fun in favor of surgical safeness. By Repo Man’s standards, the closest thing we got to a high concept punk movie was The Lone Ranger.

Leaving Hollywood Might Be the Best Thing for a Movie Star

Ingrid Bergman had a child out of wedlock with Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini, and as a result was effectively banished from Hollywood by self-righteous politicians against timid studios. During that period, Bergman collaborated with Rosselini on eight films, three of which – Stromboli, Europe ’51, and the near-perfect Journey to Italy – were included in Criterion’s jam-packed box set.

This set demonstrates the possibilities that can happen when two incredibly talented artists collaborate both on-screen and off, but the set is also an example of how a movie star can be liberated once freed from the strictures of Hollywood. Bergman’s acting dived to new depths under Rossellini’s neorealist gaze, and in Bergman Rossellini found his muse. Bergman returned to Hollywood at age 42 – the time when studios typically run out of roles for aging star actresses not named Meryl Streep – better than ever.

Franchises Have Always Existed; Quality Depends on How the Myth is Built

Criterion’s Zatoichi set is massive. Seriously, the box looks like it should be for a board game, not a DVD/Blu-ray set. And it’s important to emphasize that the 25 features that comprise this set about the iconic blind swordsman (made throughout an 11-year span) comprises only part of the history of this Japanese mainstay.

We typically think of endless sequels as evidence of a lack of imagination, but when there’s a solid myth undergirding an audience’s identification with a character, then the storytelling possibilities become expansive, not limiting. In such an arrangement, a figure like Zatoichi can continue indefinitely, ever adaptable to new contextual circumstances, moviegoing needs, and even mediums (Zatoichi moved to television in 1974). Zatoichi proves that there’s nothing inherently wrong with serial filmmaking; just do it if there’s a there there. Marvel, meet Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

There’s Guillermo del Toro, Then There’s Guillermo del Toro

The-Devil’s-Backbone

This year Guillermo del Toro released Pacific Rim, which was far more entertaining than the Michael Bay-directed toy adaptations its advertisements made it resemble, and stands as further evidence that not helming The Hobbit was a shrewd move. But as apparent as his directing signature always is, there’s a vast gulf between del Toro’s art cinema passion projects and his gestures toward mainstream entertainment.

Criterion’s release of The Devil’s Backbone was a timely memento for the things that define del Toro’s very best work in fantastical filmmaking: the heart at the center of films like this. That’s not to say the same as sentimentality, as The Devil’s Backbone is easily one of del Toro’s bleakest and most challenging works, displaying little patience for pat romanticizations of childhood innocence. Rather, the film meets the pitch-black ugliness of life with genuine faith in the power of community. A genre masterpiece.

Auteurism is Overrated

Criterion updated their box set John Cassavetes: Five Films to Blu-ray this year, meaning that some of the most quintessential American independent films are now available in HD for the first time. Cassavetes’s work is, amongst so many other things, a useful counterpoint for any Oscar montage that praises the work of Hollywood for tackling social issues. Watch how his 1959 Shadows, for instance, depicts American race relations with more complexity and depth than any studio-funded film until Do the Right Thing.

While Cassavetes is rightly celebrated as an essential director in American independent filmmaking history, his contributions were never solely his own. Cassavetes developed a radically democratic form of filmmaking that challenges the cult of the isolated auteur. Cassavetes’s films are not chronicles of his singular vision, but stand as evidence of a mutually invested collective of artists. As talented as these individuals are, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. Such an arrangement is impossible to imagine in larger scale filmmaking, but from it emerges a type of humanism still too rarely seen in films.

A Prolific Output is Hardly Valued Exclusively by Commercial Filmmaking

Rainer Werner Fassbinder managed a production scale that seems inhuman. In 13 years, he made over forty feature films for the big and small screens, including several miniseries. Of course, such productivity can kill you. When Fassbinder died of an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills in 1982, fans argued that it was his creative drive that drove his drug habits (the need to always make movies) rather than the other way around. He certainly didn’t make so many films out of the desire to be popular or wealthy.

Fassbinder’s films were often misunderstood, maligned, and even booed at during their initial releases, but even from this manic schedule emerged one the most cohesive yet prolific body of work to come out of the New German Cinema. Criterion’s Eclipse series spotlights Fassbinder’s first five features (made between 1969 and 1970!), which jump-started the director’s obsession with several key themes: social oppression, genre subversion, and camp humor. Fassbinder’s work is proof that art doesn’t have to be a laborious task, but can emerge from a one-man assembly line.


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