Monday, November 23, 2009

The Criterion Collection: An Appreciation

I'm not sure when it started for me. The sudden, very real infatuation, hinting at obsession, for The Criterion Collection. I've always been a film buff. Ever since I studied cinema as an undergrad, I always wanted to own as many great, life-defining films as I could find. Discovering the Criterion Collection has helped me start realizing this goal.

Criterion restores and releases classic and contemporary films for home viewing. They add a few movies to the collection every month, and give each one thoughtful and loving preservation, packaging, and contextual supplements. They champion forgotten or disregarded filmmakers, like Samuel Fuller and Paul Morrissey. And while you expect such reverance for obvious film study mainstays as The 400 Blows, Wild Strawberries, and Breathless, they also make room for popular commercial movies like Spinal Tap, Robocop, John Woo's Hard Boiled, and Michael Bay's Armageddon. Most editions include inserts or booklets with essays and interviews that make a book collector like me not feel guilty for spending money on a DVD.

Sure, these editions are pricey (most run $20 to $40; more if you buy boxed sets), and they sooner run out of stock then sell at discount. But if a film you love finally gets the full-on Criterion Collection treatment, 35 bucks for a 2-disc version that includes a new, restored high-def digital transfer supervised by the now-aged director who came out of seclusion just for this; well, it's is enough to make you forget your soaring credit card interest rate. I only own nine movies from Criterion, but these are movies I expect to watch more than a couple times, and whose special features I enjoy as much as the film itself.

For example, take The Killers. Based on the story by Hemingway about two hit men on the trail of a doomed boxer, this DVD contains two discs and features three very different film adaptations of the story. You get the 1946 Robert Siodmak version, starring Burt Lancaster in his debut, and a young Ava Gardner. Then there's Don Siegel's 1964 version, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and John Cassavetes. If you just can't get enough, they include a student film version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky from 1956. Tucked away in the case are two essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O'Brien, from which you can garner tidbits of context and gossip. Like how Don Siegel's version was originally shot for TV, but deemed too brutal for prime time and got a theatrical release.

Most editions include beautifully bound booklets or inserts. The 2-disc version of My Own Private Idaho comes with a 60-page booklet that is full of color photos and includes essays by Amy Taubin and Lance Loud, and an interview with director Gus Van Sant by the great literary imposter JT LeRoy. There are conversations between Van Sant and River Phoenix and a joint interview with Phoenix and co-star Keanu Reeves, both from 1991 Interview magazines.

My most recent purchase was Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. This handsome 2-disc set came with a booklet that includes a series of sublime movie stills, many of actress Irene Jacob, essays by Jonathan Romney, Slavoj Zizek, and Peter Cowie, plus an excerpt from Kieslowski on Kieslowski.

Okay, it's not all sunny brilliance. Their version of Fellini's 8 1/2 includes some additional short films that highlight one very over-indulgent filmmaker (beware Fellini: A Filmmaker's Notebook). And it's not like I want to own every movie they release. If I need to see Chasing Amy again, I'll Netflix it. And I can't imagine slogging through Passolini's The 120 Days of Sodom, let alone owning it.

Already a fan of the Criterion Collection? Which of their films are part of your collection? If you're not a fan, check them out. They just might be releasing that long lost classic you've been pining to see again.

Here's a promo of some of their 2009 releases which gives a good overview of the disparate films they offer:


Liz's Mom said...

So interesting ! Great photos and clips.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Liz's mom. Next time I promise to get back on track with a post about writing. Or at least about books. See you tomorrow!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Interesting post, Dell. :) Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

Dell Smith said...

Hey Cyn. We had a very nice thanksgiving. Low-key, good foods. Hope you did too.