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

By  · Published on December 22nd, 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

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.

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

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.

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