Thursday, February 07, 2008

criterion pt. I

'the janus film icon--the black-and-white image, the lettering, the two faces on the seemingly ancient coin--meant that you were going to see something special, something new, something completely different from anything you'd ever seen before.'
-martin scorsese

when trevor and i were sitting down to see 'fanny and alexander' last fall i saw the 'criterion collection' appear above that thin white line before the movie began and felt that thrill i always feel. i leaned over and said, 'i love seeing that, because it means i'm going to see something amazing.'

i had the same feeling when i got the two-disc set of 'M' in the mail last month.  every package is a stylish design, growing from the style of the movie and its time; the picture and sound quality are pristine and clear, even on prints from half a century ago; the bonus features bring people from around the world to give the greatest insights into the history and influence of the film.  a criterion dvd is the armani, the bmw, the rolex of the film world.  i felt like i was holding a new work of art.  this is what makes me love movies.

janus films is a distribution company that began in the fifties, working to bring international art films to american audiences.  as the notion that moving pictures could be art and not just entertainment began to emerge, janus saw to it that american audiences were introduced to kurosawa, renior, bergman, and the marvelous world of cinema across the oceans.  
nearly thirty years later, the criterion collection was created, very closely related to janus, bringing 'important classic and contemporary films' to the home video market on video disc and, later, dvd.  the criterion laser discs pioneered the ideas of audio commentaries and bonus features with the release of a movie.
criterion's laser disc catalog is markedly different from their dvd library.  they have the expected world classics, 'the seventh seal', 'hidden fortress', and 'grand illusion', but they also have a strong core of american films: 'citizen kane', 'casablanca', '2001: a space odyssey', and everyone's favorite, 'singin' in the rain'.  that makes for a right solid list, and a great syllabus for a film appreciation class.  but what is really cool about their laser disc catalog is that they also have several movies that a neophyte 'film lover' would be embarrassed to admit are great.  'the princess bride'?  'ghostbusters'?  

when i began building my dvd collection to be a worthwhile collection, i was rather frustrated that so many movies i would have loved to have bear the 'criterion' name weren't available on dvd.  getting rights to release a movie on laser disc wasn't too difficult.  i never knew anyone outside the public school system who owned a player, although i have met the odd film student who likes to pick them up.  but when dvd's exploded in popularity [and collectability], the studios weren't so keen about giving out 'dr strangelove' to some company who would slap a $40 price tag on a single dvd, regardless of how clear the transfer was.  a few 'popular' movies made it through, including 'armageddon' [which was also released in a 'non-criterion' edition with different bonus features.  the same was done with 'rushmore'.]
wait, 'armageddon'?  what?  did they throw open the gates and let anyone in now?  
hardly.  seeking out the best movies of their genres, criterion proved they were not snooty/snotty and saw that, just as 'the seven samurai' is the quintessential samurai movie, 'armageddon' is the apex of the popcorn blockbuster.  good for them.  i haven't seen it yet, but i managed to pick it up for $5.

with so many 'standard' american movie classics unavailable, criterion turned back to their roots, and has managed to survive and thrive in way that is far more beneficial to the film community.  they reached deep into vaults around the world and have brought to light movies that have been forgotten and unavailable for years and decades.  movies i never would have known that are amazing, original, fresh, insightful, and inspiring.  'the battle of algiers'?  'army of shadows'?  'f for fake'?  break out-- it's a whole new world.

don't get me wrong, it would be fun to have 'close encounters of the third kind' from criterion.  but sony's new three-disc release is beautifully done, and that leaves criterion room to put out jean renoir's 'the rules of the game'.  i'll take that over the aliens any day.


Marvia said...

I have a confession. I have never seen "Singin in the Rain". I don't know how I missed that opportunity, but I have. I need to make myself rent it and watch it.

-->jeff * said...

true, you can 'see' 'singin' in the rain', but it doesn't really count until you 'experience' it, with people singing and dancing all around you.
next time becky and i are in fargo, we'll give you a call. : )