Monday, July 26, 2010

Film Yap: The Criterion Collection

Austin Lugar and Sam Watermeier have argued about film for years now. Instead of just keeping it to themselves, they’re bringing it to the Yap. You’re welcome! Today’s topic is The Criterion Collection.

Austin: As I conclude my viewing of the latest edition of Black Narcissus, I can't help but marvel in how awesome The Criterion Collection is. They really are everything a film buff respects. They bring forth unseen and beloved movies onto DVD and Blu-Ray with pitch-perfect transfer. They load the discs with scholarly bonus features and wonderful box art. Their stamp really does hold weight and I know you're a big fan of them as well. So let's start off our discussion by talking about some of the movies you never would have heard of if it wasn't for The Criterion Collection."

Sam: I blind bought Seduced and Abandoned before I even knew it was a hilarious and biting comedy of manners from Italy. That's how much I trust The Criterion Collection and its enticing DVD cover art. Check out the cover for Seduced and Abandoned

Another film I discovered, thanks to Criterion, is Clean, Shaven. It's a trippy journey in the mind of a schrizophrenic as he searches for his long-lost daughter — or a figment of his imagination? It's not a film I fell in love with, but I certainly don't regret watching it. I had never heard of it or seen it in video stores before. It was probably rotting away at the bottom of some $2 DVD bin. So there's a power of Criterion — it takes lost, obscure films and gives them the Hollywood treatment so to speak, with impressive packaging, essays and other special features.

Criterion also gives Hollywood films a certain mystique and weight they never had before. For example, I was inspired to give Michael Bay's The Rock a second shot when it was released on Criterion!

Austin: I still haven't seen Seduced and Abandoned, but I need to. It looks like fun. Now you bring up The Rock. I never viewed the Criterion version of it, but many people cite that and Armageddon for being rather odd titles. They now have over 400 titles of acclaimed and challenging films from all over the globe....and two Michael Bay movies. What do you think of these picks? It seems like they need these in order to pay the rent. It's not as tasteless as Bay, but we're also seeing this with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and every Wes Anderson film. (Sans Fantastic Mr. Fox so far). Does this lessen the label?

Sam: I don't think they lessen the label too much because they are still good movies. The Rock and Armageddon don't tarnish the Criterion label as much as say, Bad Boys would.

However, I wonder how much these more mainstream releases are really helping Criterion "pay the rent". These DVDs still cost $30-$50. If Criterion wants to attract more customers, I think it would benefit more from simply lowering costs than keeping the same costs with the addition of mainstream films. I mean, who wants to buy a $40 edition of The Rock, right? I'd rather buy something like Seduced and Abandoned for $15.

Austin: Well I'm not an expert on economics, but I believe there is a strong reason why the movies cost so much. Like a nice restaurant, the price means a certain level of quality. With a $40 DVD you can expect the best from them in terms of picture quality and impressive bonus features. They don't just have director commentaries, but more often they have esteemed scholars providing commentary tracks, essays, and documentaries. It isn't about providing sound bites from the cast saying "I had a great time working on this feature!" but allowing the audience to have a richer cerebral experience.

In terms of paying the rent, I would say that films by Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson are easily more compelling than Michael Bay.

Sam: You're right about the price reflecting the quality, but I don't think people who are new to Criterion are going to spend $40 on something like The Rock or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you know? So that's why I'm suspicious as to how much mainstream releases are really helping financially.

I agree that more mainstream directors, like Linklater and Anderson, are at least opening people's eyes to The Criterion Collection.

I'll admit that my introduction to Criterion was from more mainstream or well-known films like Rushmore, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dazed and Confused, etc. In fact, I'm still drawn to those recognizable films now. For example, I'm looking forward to the release of The Thin Red Line. I think Criterion fans like us will always have a certain excitement, maybe even a bias, for the Criterion release of films we've already seen or heard of.

Austin: I can't remember my introduction to them exactly besides noticing a difference in some of the DVDs I was checking out at the library. See I guess I'm a different kind of Criterion fan. Sure, sometimes I'm excited about Criterions I've already seen (Chungking Express was a fun one), but I actually like it more when they announce films I haven't seen from directors I love. They just announced The Magician by Ingmar Bergman a few weeks ago and I'm pumped to check that out. Even though the director is dead, it's like he has a new movie out.

Criterion just made a deal with IFC so it's weird seeing more recent movies coming out though the label. Like A Christmas Tale, Summer Hours, Everlasting Moments, and Che. Worthy movies, but it's still odd seeing a 2008 movie next to Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York. Cool range.

Now I don't want to argue with you on how “good” The Rock and Armageddon are. We'll go ahead and say they are both watchable. Now I've mentioned The Criterion Collection has hundreds of titles. (540 to be exact.) Not every one of them can be a masterpiece. What are some bad ones that you have come across? Personally I can't stand Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami or Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg. I get why people like them, but man both of those left me extremely cold. I'm also not the biggest fan of a lot of work by Jean-Luc Godard or John Cassavetes. (Will my snobbery card be revoked from that statement?)

Sam: Well, speaking of Godard, I couldn't stand Pierrot Le Fou. I found it unbearably pretentious. There is actually a scene where the main character talks about death while sitting on the edge of a dock with a parrot on his shoulder, looking out at the beautiful ocean. Give me a break. I gathered that the film was partly satirizing this character's pretentiousness, but it was also pretentious itself.

Another film I didn't like was Secret Honor, the one-man act starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon. The film consists of him madly pacing back and forth in the Oval Office for 90 minutes, pontificating about Watergate and his troubled past. To me, it grew tiresome pretty quickly. It's a dreadfully one-note film. I might have tolerated it more as a one-act play, but from a film, I want something visually dynamic, something rich.

Those are really the only Criterion films I've been disappointed by thus far, though.

Austin: I think we've talked about this outside of this article, but how much Godard have you seen? If you think that is pretentious you may not be able to mentally handle Week End, Alphaville, or Made in U.S.A. I wish you good luck if you are to continue with his canon. I do strongly recommend Breathless, Contempt, and A Woman is a Woman.

Also I love Secret Honor. I think that's a very captivating movie that I would consider one of Robert Altman's underseen films. In that case I think the writing is so strong and the situation is fascinating. You forgot to mention it's the night before he's going to resign. That's great internal conflict.

Now are there any films you wish would get the "Criterion Treatment"? I know they've teased at a definitive Magnificent Ambersons for years now and I would love to see that happen. I would also like them to take on the Three Colors trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski. They've already released Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronica which is brilliant. I know the trilogy has a DVD release already in the States, but I can't testify to their quality. (I originally saw the trilogy on VHS.) But those movies are so beautiful with its use of color and light, that I think it could just look even better with the right digital transfer.

Sam: The only other Godard film I've seen is Breathless. Don't worry, I survived that one. I liked it a lot actually.

Last thing about Secret Honor: I think the history it is based on is richer and more interesting than the film itself. To me, the film was just saying, over and over again, that Nixon was a bitter paranoiac with a troubled past. I just grew tired of it. I can see how one would be engaged by Hall's feverish performance as Nixon, though.

Because I am a huge nerd, I often think of movies that I want to receive the Criterion treatment. I even think of possible cover art for them! One film I saw recently that I would like to receive the treatment is Red Rock West. It's a stark southwestern thriller starring Nicolas Cage as a drifter mistaken for a hitman in a small town. It's a taut neo-western-noir. It also has an interestingly rocky backstory worthy of Criterion. You see, it was well-received at the Toronto Film Festival, but strangely went straight to cable and video after that. Then, after positive word-of-mouth, it was picked up for theatrical release and it toured the U.S. as an art-house hit. Now it seems to be rotting away on a bare-bones DVD. I'd like to see it revived by Criterion the way it was revived at the time of its release.

Another one I'd like to see a Criterion version of is Manhunter, the first film in the Hannibal Lecter series. It seems to be slowly fading from people's memory.

I'd also like to see Criterions for The Counterfeiters, Das Boot the masterful German submarine thriller, Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial debut, Hard Eight, the list goes on and on.

The Criterion DVD artwork alone seems to be enough of a reason to revive these films. That is part of the thrill of Criterion — seeing how films are reinterpreted through beautiful illustrations and photography. The artwork adds a weight to these films, the same weight as the Criterion stamp of approval itself.

Austin: Red Rock West sounds pretty interesting. I'll throw it on my queue. Hard Eight would be a good choice. Manhunter I think is just okay. I remember it being too visually dark to understand what's going on, but I'm not a big Michael Mann fan either. (The book is better!)

I do agree with the artwork. It's uplifting because it's always an original take on the graphic. It's either an underused moment from the movie or original artwork. I think they've only caved once (Benjamin Button!)

As we wrap up, let's give some final recommendations that people can check out. For me, I'm going to say the amazing crime movie Le Samourai, Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece Winter Light and the great 90s independent film The Last Days of Disco.

Sam: I'd recommend Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski's directorial debut — and one of my all-time favorite films. I couldn't leave this discussion without also recommending Wages of Fear and Withnail and I. For those who don't know, Wages of Fear is a French film following four men as they transport truck-fulls of nitroglycerine across extremely dangerous South American terrain. During the trip, a rivalry develops between the two sets of drivers. How cool does that sound?

Withnail and I is a hilarious British black comedy about two unemployed actors living together who leave their squalid flat to go on a road trip to the countryside. It's one of the funniest movies you will ever see.

I still need to see the films you recommended, I'm sure they're great. After all, Criterion films rarely aren't.

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