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.

Anderson’s first film to make it to the collection, Rushmore, was the second feature of his career. Since then, his first film (Bottle Rocket) and the three live-action films he made after (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited) have followed. (And word on the street is that Fantastic Mr. Fox would be in the collection if it weren’t for rights issues – I imagine that the same will hold for the home video release of Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom).

Few directors have been as beloved and as despised as Anderson. For 80s-born cinegeeks, Anderson’s work received attention at the time that many of us first started to fall in love with the possibilities of movies, and his forever-adolescent or actual-adolescent protagonists held a mirror to our own reluctant movement between the hope of youth and the disappointments of adulthood. While directors like Jared Hess and Richard Ayoade have, to varying degrees of success, benefited from an imitation of Anderson’s visual style, few have come close to matching the unique comic wit which has become the greater signature of his work. So criticisms of post-Tenenbaums work like Life Aquatic and Darjeeling were not only (partial) components of the knee-jerk criticisms that have since regularly accompanied Anderson’s work (criticisms that seem to be a bit muted, perhaps temporarily, by his two most recent works), but based upon a profound affection for his earlier works.

So, the inclusion of all five of these films permits the Collection to track the ebbs and flows of the evolving authorial style of an iconic filmmaker similarly to the Bergmans and Kurosawas in the collection, except the director in this case is till alive and very much still working. Each of Anderson’s films seem not to be necessarily included because of the standalone importance of each individual title, but in order to construct the complete worldview of an auteur through the interrelations of his total output.

Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums

Rushmore Criterion

At spine #65, Rushmore (1998) is lodged between Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy. With the arguable exception of Insomnia (1997), Rushmore was the very first immediately contemporary film included in the Collection. And it’s an interesting but appropriate title to inaugurate contemporary American filmmaking into The Criterion Collection. While Criterion had by this point already included relatively recent and potentially transgressive Hollywood films (the out-of-print RoboCop and Silence of the Lambs), Rushmore is a film that brings into focus what the advances made in American independent filmmaking have built up to: a clear personal style that’s potentially an expressive and defining cinematic analog to the Great American Novel (and Anderson’s films are deliberately literary) or, at least, New Hollywood.

Though foundational American independent works by Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman, Jim Jarmusch, and Anderson collaborator Noah Baumbach would later be included in the Collection, Rushmore is arguably one Tarantino short of demonstrating on its own the emergence of an American independent style by the end of the 1990s (one that would, admittedly, come to annoy previous supporters of American indie filmmaking years later).

It seems that the favorite titles of most Anderson fans are either Rushmore or Tenenbaums, but Tenenbaums, despite being his second entry in the collection, is clearly the impetus for Anderson’s further inclusion in the Collection. Released in July 2002 as spine #157, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is one of few films in the collection to be released as the initial home video package of a major Hollywood film (besides, erm, Armageddon). As such, the packaging itself seems to be a result of negotiating between Criterion’s tradition of a specialized approach (Eric Anderson’s drawing of a young Eli freeing Mordecai) and one that would more traditionally market the film (the sleeve which resembles the film’s theatrical poster).

Despite the fact that Rushmore had difficulty “finding an audience” in its initial release, Tenenbaums‘s incredible cast indicates that Anderson’s previous film clearly caught the attention of creative talent. The film catapulted Anderson from being appreciated almost exclusively within critical circles to a degree of popularity and renown that made his name (and its idiosyncratic corresponding style) famous enough to be utilized for an American Express ad.

It’s also a damn good movie that elegantly balances a large cast of mostly dysfunctional characters, a soundtrack that invokes mid-60s-late-70s New York City, a nostalgic but anachronistic vision of that city, and complex themes ranging from selfish manipulation to obsessive despair to is-it-or-isn’t-it incestuous desire. It’s like Bergman with a Ramones soundtrack.

The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, and Bottle Rocket

Darjeeling Criterion

Anderson professed prior to the theatrical release of The Life Aquatic (2004, Spine #300) Federico Fellini’s influence on the film. I’m not sure exactly which iteration of Fellini’s varied career Anderson was referring to, but The Life Aquatic (both the film itself and its place in the Collection) feel like late-career (i.e., post ) Fellini.

Quantity-wise, Fellini does not have the place that Kurosawa or Bergman has in The Criterion Collection. However, a great swath of his career is represented, from early works (The White Sheik, I vitelloni) to eternal classics (La Strada, ) to financial failures, a late-career renaissance, and end-of-career curiosities (Juliet of the Spirits, Amarcord, and And the Ship Sails On, respectively). The parallels between Life Aquatic and Juliet of the Spirits are extensive: both were expensive, ambitious follow-ups to career-defining masterpieces that were heavily criticized in relation to the director’s prior work.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Spine #540) was notably more modest in scope than Life Aquatic and was greeted with minimal fanfare, which probably worked in the divisive film’s favor. Nonetheless, the film is a conundrum for followers of Anderson as a result of characters who fall too far into the latter camp of the director’s endearing asshole archetypes, the potentially problematic politics of the film (does a young Indian boy have to die for the brothers to “find themselves,” and where does Anderson stand on his characters’ constant fetishizing of “Otherness”), and its ham-fisted symbolism (we get it; they leave their baggage behind). Though Anderson still somehow feels early in his career, Darjeeling resembles other late-career curiosities made by other celebrated directors whose works span across the Collection – it contains many the signs of the director’s other work, but somehow adds up to less than its counterparts.

Bottle Rocket (1996, Spine #450) is for me Anderson’s laugh-out-loud funniest film beat-for-beat. But I (like, I would venture, most Anderson fans) saw the director’s first feature after seeing his other work. It’s far easier to pick up on directorial traits after a filmmaker has defined her/himself with an entire body of work than through a single film, and such is the case with both Bottle Rocket itself and its inclusion in the Collection. While a solid movie, it’s hard to imagine its inclusion had this been the only film Anderson made. Similarly, its hard to imagine Variety Lights included in the Collection had Fellini not made Nights of Cabiria or . Definitive and later works force us to see earlier works differently. And these earlier works are hardly assessed on their own, but instead come to be read as an indicator of the filmmaker’s later potential.

Final Thoughts

As Anderson’s career continues, it’ll be compelling to see what (if any) of his film’s aren’t included in The Criterion Collection, and how his career will be preserved as it continues to shape and grow. But as Anderson’s Criterion output demonstrates thus far, even the careers contemporary directors can follow the same ebb-and-flow, rise-and-fall, early career/late career narratives as the most celebrated late auteurs in the Collection.

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