Monday, January 4, 2010

You Know...They Make 'Em Pretty Well Today, Too

Look, we all love The Criterion Collection. In a recent New York Times article, David Kehr referred to it as "a national treasure," and honestly I couldn't agree more. Their contribution to awareness of and exposure to some of the greatest films of all time (typically of the foreign persuasion) is unmatched; that it all took place on the home video format became oddly prescient given how much of our cinematic consumption takes place on the couch. And for this, and all the while presenting these films in incredible quality, we are eternally in their debt.

The weird thing that's resulted from it is an odd sense of ownership many feel towards Criterion. A certain "how dare they release that when they haven't released this," always preceded or followed by the notion that CinemaFan21 knows the movies that REALLY matter.

Over the last year, it's gotten much worse, as Criterion has--*gasp*--taken an much more active interest in modern cinema, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film not only not as bad as many would have you believe, but actually quite good in structural, aesthetic, and performance terms (I've rarely seen a good film so quickly and thoroughly decimated largely for bad dialogue). The scourge of modern cinema reared its ugly head more forcefully when a deal was announced between IFC Films and Criterion, in which the latter would have first pick of the former's distribution line-up when it came time for a DVD/Blu-Ray release. A deal that I thought, at the time, made a lot of sense - brings more attention to great, deserving works of modern world cinema (Criterion isn't obliged to release anything IFC has the rights to), and gets Criterion the sort of extra revenue that comes from a New Release title.

Apparently, not everyone feels this way. The latest rant comes from a just-published Newsweek article in which Daniel D’Addario basically calls Criterion out for releasing films that didn't need restoration. What's more, he has an odd bone to pick with recent cinema purely because of the qualifying adjective - describing such films as Gomorrah, A Christmas Tale, and Che, "they're decent enough, and Che's cinematography, [Criterion President Peter] Becker says, may be groundbreaking. But classics? Even if they seem perfect now, they couldn't have passed the test of time in only two years."

I wonder if D'Addario even saw these films. I understand Che isn't for everybody, and I wasn't 100% sold on Gomorrah, but A Christmas Tale? Who really hates A Christmas Tale? And looking at some of the films Criterion will release as the year rolls on, we find Summer Hours, an absolute masterpiece that will, without a doubt, land in my top three for 2009. Never mind that it's been named the Best Foreign Language Film of the year by the Boston Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, South Eastern Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. If critical and academic consensus are all D'Addario is seeking, then that's not too bad. And honestly, I'd take A Christmas Tale or Summer Hours over Charade or Autumn Sonata, both movies from the Criterion Collection I like quite a bit in their own right.

[Note: I realize D'Addario doesn't mention Summer Hours in his article, but given that he's writing for Newsweek, I assume he's done his research and knows some of the already-announced titles]

Is this merely a cash-in for Criterion, or a larger artistic claim long before academic consensus can be made? I like to think it's a bit of both. If it is merely a cash-in, they could do (and have done) a lot worse - it's not as though Che is going to do Transformers 2- (or even Benjamin Button-) level sales, but it obviously has a bit more mainstream appeal than Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (although I think each has a lot for fans of either) or, even moreso, Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve. If this is what it takes to keep Criterion afloat financially, cinephiles can still rest easy. And for the hardcore, old-films-only sect...for God's sake, they managed to restore Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy! There's always something worth celebrating from Criterion.

1 comment:

Jason Bellamy said...

I kind of see this one from both sides. I agree with you that it's silly that so many film snobs (and I'd consider myself one) take ownership of Criterion and suggest that it should remain an elitist club. I didn't like Benjamin Button, but I don't object to it getting the Criterion treatment.

Then again ...

Personally, as I rarely get around to watching all of a DVD's extras, I cherish Criterion for the way it gives dazzling treatments to films that have otherwise been forgotten or mistreated (films otherwise not available on DVD or only available in cheap renderings). And so in that sense I'd rather not see a Zodiac edition from Criterion, even though I love the movie, in the hopes that they'll instead revitalize some endangered film of the past.

Having said that, though, if selling modern editions helps fund the restorations, go for it!