Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Sub-Criterion Collection?

Speaking of the Criterion Collection is like speaking of God or royalty to the purest of movie aficionados. So sacred and important is the Criterion Collection line of laser discs, DVDs and Blu-Rays that, many months ago, when I suggested that Oliver Assayas' Summer Hours was an odd choice for Criterion to release seeing as it was a minor film, one Sam Juliano got red in the face, threw personal attacks and made an overall ass of himself. Thus is Criterion.

But, as one Tony Dayoub enlightened me, titles like Summer Hours, Everlasting Moments, A Christmas Tale, Gomorrah and Che (none of which I personally think really needed Criterion treatment) were all the product of a joint venture between the company and IFC to release their films. My problem at the time with Summer Hours was not really with the quality of the film but that, with the price tag of a Criterion DVD, at 30 to 40 dollars, being so high, why put out films that are readily available on perfectly acceptable region one DVDs when there are hundreds of other films (both contemporary and classic, foreign and not) that have still never seen the light of day on region 1 DVD and desperately cry out for it? Where, after all, is Richard Linklater's Suburbia, Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Eric Rohmers Autumn Tale and so on?

Now, seeing what Criterion has in it's line-up of upcoming releases, I further question if, just maybe, we film lovers are getting one step closer to losing one of our most valuable resources. At the time of the Summer Hours debate I embraced the pairing of Criterion with IFC because, if the company was releasing more mainstream DVDs and this meant that the prices of their more valuable upcoming releases would go down, well hey, I'm all for that. Now we're just waiting on those valuable releases.

I may be just worrying for no reason. In the past couple months Criterion has gifted us with Antonioni's Red Desert, returned Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and Godards My Life to Live to us and rescued Ingmar Berman's The Magician from obscurity. But then that's four titles amidst a sea of upcoming releases that certainly don't make much sense to me. Sure, they are all great films in their own respect, but all, once again, exist on perfectly acceptable and affordable region 1s. Sure having something with the Criterion brand on it is certainly nice and, depending on what kind of film lover you talk to, may increase the overall value of the film, it just seems unnecessary when there's more important blanks to fill in the world of film history.

Look at the list of new and upcoming releases. Malick's The Thin Red Line, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, Stanely Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, Chaplin's Modern Times, Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos, and the one that really got me scratching my head, James L. Brooks' Broadcast News.

The thing about all of these titles is that, they've all been available in North America at more than reasonable prices. Sure, some of them are out of print but still can be easily found. What's interesting is that they are all films that are associated with big name directors who have considerable pull within mainstream (albeit sometimes independent) film.

Thus begs the question: is Criterion trying to get away from bringing classic foreign and hard to find films to North American shores and instead concentrating on those films that still have enough cred to keep the brand relevant but that will sell more copies off the shelves? Now that Broadcast News (a great film no doubt) will be out on Criterion DVD can the world expect a Criterion version of Terms of Endearment? As Good as It Gets? Spanglish even? Does the world really need them?

Maybe I'm just worrying for no reason or resentful that Criterion is in a stage where they seem to be releasing only films that I already have in some other version on DVD instead of bringing out films that I am dying to get my hands on. But then again, when Criterion starts releasing films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Life Aquatic or Antichrist, that certainly, if unjustly, raises a touch of concern.

What do you think? Is it good that Criterion are expanding their horizons or is this the beginning of the end?


  1. I get why they have started tacking on some more modern films, $$, but the obscure films nobody really knows about, and those who do are indifferent towards, strikes me as an odd move. Personally I'd rather them take on some true to form classics before they start getting into latest cult films (which is what it looks to me like they're aiming towards). Nothing bad about that, especially if it helps knock $5 or off their prices, but as of right now you need two jobs - one for life and one for Criterion.

    I do think you're getting a bit ahead of yourself. It could just be the films they can afford to get, and it could also be the deals companies are offering them. Some may not want to give up rights to certain films they wish to release on DVD (or not cheaply).

  2. Maybe, with the economy being such a bitch lately, they're just trying to get sales up for the time being, get their name and titles to a wider audience, and then they'll start releasing the obscure ones again.

    But I can't be terribly offended at the moment. I finally get to see Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

  3. You are mistaken about many of these titles existing elsewhere on Region 1, Mike. ANTICHRIST, CHE, A CHRISTMAS TALE, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, GOMORRAH, HUNGER, REVANCHE, THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN, and SUMMER HOURS are all titles exclusively available through Criterion. Now while the argument can be made that there is a critical consensus for some of these not appearing to be of the proper caliber for such an honor, one could also argue that many of these were festival favorites, appeared on many top 10 lists for their respective years, and some are only growing in stature as the years go by. SUMMER HOURS may be a personal pet peeve of yours, but the critical consensus stands behind it, especially with Assayas' importance now becoming evident after his recent release of CARLOS, along with a retrospective honoring his career at BAMCinematek.

    I, personally, am not a proponent of such films as ANTICHRIST, GOMORRAH, or BUTTON being singled out for such an honor. But even BUTTON has its esteemed admirers among well-regarded critics, most notably Kent Jones. One could also argue that certain titles fit with Criterion's attraction to certain directors, like Von Trier (ANTICHRIST), Soderbergh (CHE), and Anderson (LIFE AQUATIC), all directors which have multiple titles (some unsung) under the Criterion banner not because the individual film is to be celebrated, but because, for auteurists, they offer a glimpse into an important director's body of work. Often, it is these filmmaker's (arguably) minor work which shines the brightest light on their working methods. Criterion has never been nothing if not educational.

  4. Univarn and Simon - It's not that I have anything against these titles (I will probably be picking up that Broadcast News release) but it's kind of like, really, this is all ya got? I'm not terirbly worried though, just wanted to see if anyone else had thoughts on this.

    Tony- It was a suprise to me to hear you say that those films arn't out on rengion 1 because I''ve rented them all on region 1 DVD. However, I now see that those have only been released in Canada and are available on In fact, there are three other versions of Che, the two individual releases plus a special edition with both halves in one set and then the Criterion on top of that.

    I'm not 100% sure being on top 10 lists or being festival faves justify a Criterion release (Precious and Slumdog Millionaire were both festival favourites, I wouldn't shell out extra for either of those films on Criterion) and yes those filmmakers do have other Criterion releases but do we really need Antichrist when Breaking the Waves is absent. And if Criterion is trying to release bodies of work by their selected filmmakers, how long before we can expect Criterion editions of Oceans 12 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?

  5. Mike - While I definitely agree with you on some of the films I'd love to see Criterion bring out (Ambersons and Autumn Tale in particular), I can understand Criterion expanding their horizons a bit, and even applaud some already available films getting the "Criterion treatment" like The Thin Red Line and the upcoming Paths of Glory - two of my favorite films. You make a good point - it's possible these larger films are generating enough revenue for Criterion to continue on bringing us hard to find fare like as Simon mentioned Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. If that's the case I'm perfectly fine with that - I would be uncomfortable dictating what I feel Criterion should and should not release (though I'm right with you and Tony on Anti-Christ and Button, which I just re-watched in light of The Social Network and still don't care for very much), especially in light of the fact that I've still only seen the smallest fraction of the 500+ movies they've released.

    In the end, I think the biggest takeaway is to remember that Criterion isn't the only company releasing top-tier films, and like everyone else, is hampered by that silly need to make money. For what they've done already and the promise of what they'll do, I cut 'em some slack every time something questionable to my tastes comes out.

  6. Well, in truth, PRECIOUS and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE encountered pretty split reactions at festivals with prominent critics on both sides of the argument. I guess you could lump ANTICHRIST in that group (I hated it myself when I caught it at the NYFF).

    Here in the U.S. we had to wait nearly two years before CHE made it to DVD at all, and then, it was only in the Criterion edition. In some respects Criterion also fulfills this purpose, saving unfairly neglected films from languishing in obscurity.

    As for BREAKING THE WAVES, I'm sure Criterion would die to have that on their label, but sometimes rights issues prevent a film's inclusion (I actually don't think they'd mind including all of Soderbergh's work either, including atrocities like OCEAN'S TWELVE).

    ARMAGEDDON and THE ROCK are anomalies since I have it on good word that the director used his considerable influence to lobby for Criterion to include his films on the label, an ego-boost for Bay,an avowed Criterion collector. At the time, I believe they justified the films' inclusion as curating two films representative of a successful genre of a certain specific era, the 90s blockbuster. But frankly, it was more in line with some of the concerns you raise here.

  7. I don't have anything specific to say about Criterion, in part because I don't know its mission statement well enough to know which films "should" be given Criterion treatments and which "shouldn't," but this IS my forum to communicate with you, Mike, so let me ask this completely unrelated question that has only to do with the logistics if your blog:

    If you are going to approve our comments anyway, couldn't you remove the step that forces us to do word verification?

    So sorry for my total lack of a relevant comment, but that occurred to me last week and I just wanted to fit it in somewhere.