13 Important Lessons This Year’s Movies Can Learn From the Criterion Collection

Filmmaking Doesn’t Have to Lag in Topicality

The typical received wisdom is this: film is an archival medium, in which there’s a distance between capturing the event and people watching it, while television is an immediate medium, where event and broadcast can occur at one in the same time. Cinematographer/Director Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool effectively problematizes this distinction as it blurs supposed lines between narrative and documentary, fact and fiction.

Filmed during the protests outside the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, Medium Cool is both an examination of news media’s processes of framing information (the title comes from McLuhan’s Understanding Media) and a fascinatingly complex work of media journalism in its own right, Medium Cool is a necessary reminder in these similarly revolutionary times that cinema doesn’t always have to lag a few steps behind.

A Little Generational Malaise Can Go a Long Way

As popular as country and western music was during the 1960s and 1970s, the most striking aspect of the otherwise reliably hip Robert Altman’s take on Nashville is that the film doesn’t actually exhibit a loving appreciation of the music itself, despite a few stellar musical moments that round out and emotionally support its mammoth running time. Instead, Nashville is Altman’s case study for dismantling of Americana in an era coated with systemic corruption, unjust warfare, and rampant assassinations of a nation’s politicians and poets.

So, what is the connection here? Americana is the layer of myth that prevents an honest engagement with socio-political reality. Yes, Nashville has some amazing musical moments (see: Keith Carradine), but it also has some deliberately awful ones (see: Henry Gibson) because sometimes its better for a filmmaker to choose something he or she doesn’t love or isn’t familiar with in order to depict it frankly and poignantly. And even the best of popular culture can act as an opiate for the masses.

A Lot of Generational Malaise Can Go a Really Long Way

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

That said, there are few films of the post-studio-system era as openly pessimistic as John Frankenheimer’s paranoid political thriller Seconds. Reviled during its original 1966 release, audiences were confused by a film starring Rock Hudson in which he didn’t appear for nearly half an hour; and when he did, things got even weirder and darker. Yet the role turned out to be one of the most layered and revealing of his career, suggesting that Hudson was perfectly cast as a man who was forced to act in both public and private.

Nearly fifty years later, Seconds is the domestic equivalent of La Notte: an incisive portrayal of American (male) post-prosperity existential angst that portrays both “normal” suburban life and the emerging counterculture as a nightmare cultivated by delusional fools. Audiences certainly don’t like it when a movie suggests that there is no way out, but it can make for an experience far more profound than anything easily coat-able sugar can offer.

The Silent Era Ended Far Too Soon

This year, Criterion released two classic silent American comedies: Harold Lloyd’s practical-effects-laden upward mobility metaphor, Safety Last, and Charlie Chaplin’s best film, City Lights. The former is a textbook on visual humor, as Lloyd possessed a unique capacity for everyman subtlety that not even Chaplin or Buster Keaton matched. His nuanced expressions of frustration and confusion generate the richest laughs, even when he’s doing something as spectacular as climbing a department store building.

The latter, meanwhile, stages an open war on the creative limitations of sync-sound filmmaking (City Lights was released in 1931, already well into the sound era) by first mocking the banality of the new technology, and then following these moments with one of the most heartwarming love stories ever put to celluloid. Sure, silent-era cinema is experiencing a miniature revival with post-The Artist curiosities like this year’s Blancanieves, but new silent films struggle to reach beyond gimmick. These classics, by contrast, show that there was so much more yet to be explored in the silent medium before sound made its unwelcome takeover.

We Know Far Too Little About Movies Made Around the World

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project – from which six titles have been selected for a Criterion box set – seeks to restore, preserve, and exhibit great films made all around the world that have been marginalized because of political, economic, or even careless reasons. The majority of the WCP’s work is devoted to restoring films outside of the “1st” and “2nd” cinemas (shorthands given to the American industrial and European arthouse traditions), consisting typically films from underrepresented regions like the Middle East, Africa, Eurasia, Southeast Asia, and East Asian countries outside of Japan.

Our experience and knowledge of world cinema history has been starkly limited by certain privileged circuits of import and export between the US and elsewhere; the WCP and its alliance with Criterion is a necessary and rewarding step towards remedying this problem. After all, how much can we say we actually know about cinema if so many regions of the world have been commercially excluded from our knowledge?

There Isn’t Only One Type of Holocaust Movie

Stanley Kubrick famously said, “Schindler’s List is about success, the Holocaust was about failure.” Yet this story of success has sustained as the tale Hollywood regularly returns to time and again, with the PG-13 The Book Thief as this year’s requisite life-affirming entry. While this practice has made for some great films from several truly incredible true stories, these films do not typically invite prolonged contemplation about what Kubrick refers to as the catastrophic failure that the Holocaust speaks to: a failure of reason, a failure of conscience, a failure of humanity.

Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Shoah contains eons more stories than any selection of Hollywood films on the topic, and for this reason stands as evidence as to why Hollywood largely abstains from approaching the subject in any other way: this nine-hour, catharsis and closure-free film is openly dismissive of the capability of narrative convention to witness to the Holocaust. Yet perhaps Shoah’s true genius lies in the fact that it’s essential to bear witness to the memories of this event in any way one can rather than risk reducing the Holocaust’s history by attempting any definitive claims about it. Never before or since has there been mandatory viewing such as this.

You Don’t Know What Movies Can Do Until You’ve Seen ‘Marketa Lazarova’

Easily Criterion’s greatest surprise this year, Frantisek Vlasil’s epic Czech period piece brazenly defies any presumptions about the limitations of what one can do with form and structure. Utterly abstruse and impenetrable, Marketa Lazarova is a film that should be seen and experienced rather than understood. It’s a moviegoing event that should wash over you in all its confounding glory and aesthetic perfection.

For serious cinephiles only, Marketa Lazarova is the perfect cure for the desperate moviegoer who is bored and uninspired from the limits of cinematic imagination so pervasively evident elsewhere.

More Best of 2013

Landon is a PhD candidate currently writing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture. He enjoys slow films on the beach.

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