Criterion Corner is a monthly Cinematical column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection. Criterion Corner runs on the last Wednesday of every month, and it will make you poor. Follow @CriterionCorner & visit the blog for daily updates.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was pretty sure that Carol Reed was a woman (he wasn't). Okay, so I may not have been the smartest of kids (the second or third smartest, perhaps), but I wasn't especially familiar with uniquely British first names, and it never occurred to me that Carol Reed simply wouldn't have been a woman. Reed made 'The Third Man' in 1949, and it was virtually unheard of for a British woman to helm a feature until renowned dancer Wendy Toye directed 'All For Mary' in 1951. I was distressed to learn of this inequality, and after years of boldly diligent research on Wikipedia, it's my unfortunate duty to inform you that quite a few women throughout history may not have been afforded the same rights and respects as their male counterparts (I know it sounds far-fetched, but stranger things have happened).
I asked one stereotypical cigar-chewing studio executive about the gender unbalance, and he reasoned that "Clint Eastwood hasn't menstruated once since 1930, and he turns in every picture early and under budget" (note: some quotes invented for dramatic purposes).
Hilarious joking aside, it's no secret that the filmmaking community has always been something of a boys club, one in which the efforts and expressions of female artists continue to be thoughtlessly marginalized by virtue of their sex. Although it's been 96 years since Lois Weber became the first woman to direct a feature with 'The Merchant of Venice,' a San Diego State University study recently found that only 9% of Hollywood directors are women. A greater percentage of American moviegoers saw 'Yogi Bear' in its opening weekend.
I decided that the Criterion Collection, which has made a name for itself by championing film history's most unreasonably neglected voices, might provide an interesting lens into cinema's gender misbalance. What I ultimately discovered is that Criterion makes a much better mirror than they do a window. Of the 559 films Criterion has released on DVD, only 13 have been solely directed by women. If 9% of contemporary Hollywood films are directed by women, the same can be said for only 2.3% of the films in the Collection (a greater percentage of American moviegoers liked 'Yogi Bear' its opening weekend). And that 2.3% includes Marie Nyrerod's 'Bergman Island,' a (wonderful) documentary that's fawningly devoted to preserving the legacy of a male filmmaker.
Dismayed, if unsurprised, to arrive at that figure, my curiosity and agitation immediately took hold in equal measure. Previous installments of this column have established Criterion's pivotal role in mapping the cinematic firmaments for future generations -- spine numbers don't know gender; they've become the cinema's great equalizer, drawing level 'The Seventh Seal' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and they're the ideal way to weave female directors into the tapestry of film history without whitewashing the industry's prejudices. But just because Criterion is uniquely positioned to mitigate film history's gender misbalance, does that mean that they have to? For how much is one little company responsible?
Of course, we must first concede that Criterion is in the business of releasing great films, and if the overwhelming majority of movies have been made by men, then it can't be helped that the overwhelming majority of great movies have likewise been made by men. Even by the time Criterion began releasing laserdiscs in 1984, the damage had already been done. And even though they've spent the last 26 years casually dropping triple rainbows of motion picture majesty on an unsuspecting public, Criterion is ultimately a for-profit enterprise that is obligated only to stay in business.
That being said, the power of Criterion's brand is inextricably entwined with their unflagging devotion to cinematic justice. The allure of their releases only endures so long as people implicitly trust the name behind them, and unless Wes Anderson starts making 4 movies a year they'll only remain financially solvent so long as people feel confident that the occasional blind buy is going to make them a better cinephile / human being. In other words, Criterion's business model requires them to be looked upon as heroes -- if Superman didn't tirelessly fight to keep Metropolis safe, he wouldn't be Superman (he'd be General Zod).
By that logic, it could be argued that they do have a responsibility to shine a light on female filmmakers, but that responsibility is ultimately as much to us as it is to themselves. And so it's beginning to feel as if Criterion must release more films by women not only to level the score, but also in order to maintain the precious integrity of their brand.
But pickings are comparatively slim, what with all the decades of oppressive sexism, and complicated rights issues surely deplete the pool of viable candidates. No one would suggest that they retcon film history into making it appear as if women have always been encouraged to participate (methinks that Collection champion Jean-Luc Godard wouldn't be cool with such an act of practiced forgetting, although he might like the word "retcon"). Likewise, Criterion should never risk diluting their brand with mediocre films simply by virtue of the fact that they were directed by women -- the releases which comprise that 2.3% are all of an unimpeachable quality, brought to you by Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, and other people not named Nora Ephron. Lena Dunham ('Tiny Furniture') shouldn't automatically be stuffed between between Carl Th. Dryer and Julien Duvuvier just because she has a Y chromosome. Still, 2.3% seems a little low, especially when you consider that Criterion has released more films by Michael Bay than they have films by Lina Wertmuller, Marguerite Duras, and Sally Potter combined (to be fair, none of those women ever made a film starring Nicolas Cage).
So what is Criterion supposed to do? Just because Criterion can exert some influence over the landscape, does that mean that they should? Maybe not. Physical media is a tough sell as it is these days, and Criterion might irreparably jeopardize their brand by doing anything that smacks of an ulterior motive. Perhaps this is yet another regard in which Criterion has a latent value far beyond the immediate glory of its discs. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar, it's just too damn easy for people to sit back and believe that one woman's success means that the industry has been purged of this prejudice. Maybe we need a more discerning measuring stick as to how women are faring in the film world, if only to be reminded of the extent to which this particular stripe of sexism endures. The Internet tells me that 1% of Oscar-nominated directors have been women, and that women account for 34% of British film students. But flimsy figures like those just don't seem as reliable indicators as to the influence of women in current world cinema. They're too flimsy, misleadingly weighted by history or arbitrarily pre-determined by committee.
Then I considered that a recent distribution deal with IFC has compelled Criterion to distribute a growing number of contemporary films, and I was curious if more than 2.3% of the post-millennial films inducted into the Collection have been directed by women. Indeed, of the 24 pertinent films Criterion has released, 4 have been helmed by ladies. That's 16.67%, and that number is only going up.
There are all sorts of qualifiers as to why Criterion releases particular titles, but their stringent guidelines lend that 16.67% a unique significance. There's a universe of chintzy statistics out there, but if Criterion adheres to their unparalleled, um, criterion, then 16.67 is a number with value beyond its value. The Criterion brand is a prism through which the world can be more lucidly seen; the culture they've created hasn't merely ensured the best in home video entertainment, it's also provided a meshwork of references for the untold threads of discussion and further study sparked by the the films themselves.
For as long as Criterion exists and adheres to their exacting release model, that percentage will serve as an unusually telling indicator as to what degree women are writing the true film history of the 21st century. Sure, if the next three Best Director Oscars were awarded to women it would be wonderful and of tremendous significance, but I wouldn't hold your breath. In the meantime, keep an eye on that 16.67%. If it dips tremendously over the next few years, I would consider it cause for concern, but the higher that number gets, the more people might assume Carol Reed was a woman, and that's ignorance I can get behind.
LIST OF THE MONTH: The 10 Best Criterion Releases of 2010!
So I thought it might be fun to present this month's list in video form. I apologize in advance for the fact that I can't count (yes, the list seems to have two #3s), and that my hands have to deal with more tremors than Kevin Bacon. A one-man team, I Soderbergh-ed this one as director / D.P., and the whole improvised thing is just so full of... room for improvement. But that's what 2011's there for, right? Right. Enjoy!
#248 'Videodrome' (David Cronenberg) 1983
The Film: James Woods is Max Renn (and Max Renn is pretty much James Woods), the sleazy programmer of a niche Toronto TV network that's desperate for edgier content. One day, his techie "patron" is scanning the airwaves with the station's enormous satellite, and happens upon a scrambled signal called Videodrome. It's a strange bit of smut beamed from a place too insidious to imagine (spoiler alert: it's Pittsburgh), and Renn is soon so entranced by the footage that he determines to uncover the mystery behind the transmission. What unfolds is like a Haruki Murakami novel by way of Hershell Gordon Lewis, a messy movie that rushes headlong into (O')blivion.
'Videodrome' arguably remains David Cronenberg's most exciting and feverishly vibrant film, but it's certainly among his least controlled. It's a meshwork of ideas, a wide-eyed peek at what happens when a species has evolved far enough to provoke their own evolution. Max Renn makes for a grotesquely compelling guinea pig, but Cronenberg had a notoriously tough time figuring out what to do with him. The film retreats into the shell of a conspiracy thriller during its third act, anguishing to resolve silly plot threads exactly when it should be plunging deeper into its madness. That being said, the dimension-shattering final scene ends things on a high note, digging a rabbit hole that Cronenberg continues to explore. Here we are 27 years later and 'Videodrome' still feels ahead of the curve -- a cathode freakout that has yet to bear the full fruit of its slimy prosthetic prophecies.
The Technical Stuff: The 'Videodrome' Blu-ray doesn't just look better than you'd think, it probably looks better than you'd hope. But for those of you who've always wanted to see the individual strands of glistening mucus in James Woods' stomach vagina, this transfer will be a lovely treat. The disc sounds great, preserving every note of Howard Shore's eerie score (Woods refers to him as the "electronic Bernard Herrmann").
The Extras: Identical to the stuff on Criterion's 2004 DVD. The first commentary is shared between James Woods and Debbie Harry and Woods. The actors were recorded separately, and pretty much how it goes is that Woods opines excitedly about whatever for about 10 minutes, and then Harry -- sounding a little bit lost -- pops in to say something like "The more we know, the better off we are." Repeat for 88 minutes. It's actually kind of hilarious, and Woods offers a nifty and energetic take on the film. The commentary track Cronenberg shares with Mark Irwin is a godsend for such an inscrutable film, but it suffers enormously from the fact that it was also recorded one guy at a time.
Also included are some demystifying docs on the film's various effects, an old roundtable interview with Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter, and the super eerie "bootleg" footage of the 'Videodrome' transmissions. Oh, and all 287 glorious seconds of 'Samurai Dreams.'
The Best Part: The interview that reveals how the whole film is actually just a terrifying pastiche of James Woods' home movies. But seriously folks, it's gotta be the short film 'Camera,' which Cronenberg made for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. Centered around a monologue by 'Videodrome' actor Les Carlson, 'Camera' is all of the richly observed sentiment that 'Videodrome' refused to allow, stuffed into 6 short minutes and buttoned up with a powerful wallop. "Children and death are a bad combination." You can actually watch the whole thing right here.
The Package: The Blu-ray is packaged just like the old DVD, which is to say incredibly. Under the paper slip the disc is made to look like a Betamax, with "Long live the new flesh" scrawled on the tag. It'll cause a double-take every time you walk by your video shelf. Tucked inside is a hefty pamphlet with three illuminating essays.
Verdict: A loving and comprehensive presentation of a film that becomes more vital with every technological leap. It's a worthy upgrade from the DVD, but the clarity of 1080p almost detracts from the film's organic formlessness.
#551 'Cronos' (Guillermo del Toro) 1993
The Film: 'Cronos' is the feature film in which Guillermo del Toro first gifted the cinema his uniquely vivid imagination, but his debut is ultimately the clumsy and half-baked work of an unformed visionary. Jesus Griz is an aging antiques dealer, until he finds a golden-fanged device hiding inside one of his wares. The scarab -- a gloriously icky bit of design that hints at del Toro's genius for props and contraptions -- bites into Griz's flesh, and he becomes a de-aging antiques dealer. Griz's addiction to the device is as debased as it is underdeveloped, cut short by a rival party (including Ron Perlman as a cartoonish thug) that seeks the power of the Cronos.
'Cronos' is much too hurried to trifle with subtlety, but if del Toro's pet themes are introduced in a way that's also pungent and deep-seated. Religious allegory abounds but remains malnourished, and del Toro ironically struggles to find the time to dote upon time. What lingers for me is a gothic story of man as mechanism, a species ticking by on the unsolved merits of flesh and blood (in that light, 'Cronos' makes for a fascinating double-bill with 'Videodrome').
The Technical Stuff: A glorious transfer that completely negates all previous releases, Criterion's release finally rewards del Toro's meticulous attention to detail (and snickers at some rather transparent makeup effects). Every strained and intrusive note of the soundtrack is rendered pristine -- del Toro's later films are desperate for this kind of detailed attention.
The Extras: To spend time with Guillermo del Toro is to love Guillermo del Toro, and cracking open this disc is like inviting the gregarious filmmaker into your living room. His commentary -- recorded in 2002 -- is frank, subdued, and hugely illuminating. The film's smallest details pop as del Toro explains the flick, and while he may not have accomplished everything he wanted with 'Cronos,' he certainly did with the future opportunities it earned him. The other commentary track includes the film's three producers -- it's nice to have, but too dry and empty to sustain itself for the full 92 minutes.
And then there's 'Geometria' -- rare is the disc that's topped with icing as gleefully vile as this. A 6-minute short del Toro shot as a film student in 1987, 'Geometria' is the tale of a teen so sick of failing his geometry test that he summons a demon so that he won't have to take it again. A giddy joke with a twisted and hilarious punchline, this Criterion release finally gave del Toro the excuse to finish up his tribute to horror maestros like Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Starring del Toro's mom, a mess of sinewy latex, and entirely dubbed in Italian by the director himself, 'Geometria' is a fun flurry of nascent genius, and a bloody reminder that you should always be careful when summoning the minions of Hell.
The Best Part: I'm not sure if 'Bleak House' is the best part of this release, or if it's actually the best part of my earthly existence (those things aren't really mutually exclusive, if you want to be a stickler about it). A 10-minute tour through del Toro's production office / obsessive museum of immaculately curated awesomeness, no words can accurately describe the full glory of del Toro's nerd-cave. Highlights for me included the Miyazaki case, the puppet props from 'Hellboy II,' and the promise that we're destined for a 'Bleak House II.'
The Package: The plastic case is adorned with appropriately artwork, and includes a booklet that contains an appreciative essay by Maitland McDonagh and -- critically -- del Toro's director's notes.
Verdict: Although I consider 'Cronos' to be one of the least substantial films Criterion has released, it's a joy to see a gifted storyteller like del Toro in his formative years. The actual feature is probably the least interesting thing here, but this disc is so backed with delirious joy that I hope Criterion is just getting started with del Toro.
NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENTS
Criterion's March slate is pretty much the definition of what dreams may come (whatever that means, I never saw that movie). As always, head on over to the blog for a full rundown of the new titles, complete with my breathless and entirely unedited reactions and some crucial trivia about my grade-school acting career.
And for anyone who doesn't receive Criterion's newsletter, click here for a tease of an upcoming release, one that I've been waiting for since I was a wee lad... or at least a painfully immature college student.