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 Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates.
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." - 'Moulin Rouge'
"'Need?' That's a bigger word than 'Love.'" - 'Victim'
Can you guess which one of those two films has been released through Criterion? I'll give you a hint, it's not the one in which Ewan McGregor shouts a Phil Collins song at Nicole Kidman on the roof of a Parisian boudoir shaped like a giant elephant. It's the other one. The one about an ill-fated homosexual affair at a time when such a thing was punishable by law as a criminal act, the one in which love is a lamentable and destructive force that serves as an anguished plea for social upheaval. It's easy to tell, because while "Love" is spoken time and time again in a smorgasbord of different languages throughout the 550+ films of the Criterion Collection, in few of them is it ever just a word. "Love means never having to say you're sorry." - 'Love Story'
'Love Story' is not in the Criterion Collection. As far as Criterion is concerned, love doesn't have a definition, only symptoms.
Valentine's Day -- the only holiday worse than 'Valentine's Day.' It's a perennial pain in the ass that thoroughly reduces love -- that most mysterious catalyst of human behavior -- into a one-size-fits-all miasma of crass iconography. Reservations at swanky restaurants, those gross candy hearts... you know how it goes. It's an event that exhausts itself trying to overlook the fact that although love is a universal phenomenon, it's also invariably unique to the people and characters who give it form. To apply the same precepts to almost 7 billion people is like assuming the same pair of jeans will fit both Natalie Portman and Kevin Smith (and somewhere in Hollywood a treatment for 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 3' is born).
Whatever the nature of your relationship, a cursory look at the films in the Collection is proof enough that your romance doesn't have to subscribe to a certain formula in order to be valid.
Over 550 films, and only 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' springs to mind as even kind of evincing a "love is an end to itself" philosophy. It's a movie directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of the German New Wave who once said that "Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression." Moreover, the Criterion film that most outwardly fetishizes normalcy and stock human behavior (Hitchcock's riotously archaic 'Spellbound'), is directly repudiated by the opening scene of Samuel Fuller's 'Shock Corridor,' a flick so beloved by Criterion that they've now released it twice.
Most romances provide ideals, those in Criterion titles tend to provide mirrors. Most of us aren't going to be in the movies, but we can still see ourselves in them. If Valentine's Day has got you thinking that your relationship isn't legitimate or worthy because you don't recognize it in the movies, odds are you just need to watch different movies. So consider this a guide for couples who could use a reminder that they're not doing it wrong, a small selection of Criterion films about lovers who dance to their own beat (a beat that sounds like this). Your relationship is ultimately singular in its dynamics and particulars, but seeing films dedicated to partners of a different stripe should quell any underlying anxiety that there's a way to do it right. And for those of you feeling bummed not to have Valentines of any kind, there's always 'Scenes From a Marriage.'
Happy Valentine's Day.
'That Obscure Object of Desire'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Anyone who likes their romance explosive.
Sexual gamesmanship in a Luis Bunuel film? Surely you jest. Mathieu is an older French gentleman with a hankering for Conchita, a young flamenco dancer he can't quite fit under his thumb. He gives her his money, she refuses to give him her virginity. It's a power struggle for the ages -- surrounded by terrorism and social decay, they mercilessly humiliate each other in a mutual struggle to avoid being owned. Further complicating matters is the fact that Conchita is played by two actresses, a casual swap Bunuel implements at random as if to underscore Mathieu's inability to gain the upper hand. This is one of those romances that's kindled by destruction, the kind of romance that's less like a blooming flower than a slowly dying sun, constantly erupting in order to sustain itself. Bunuel deploys flashbacks, violence, and chastity panties to confuse your sympathies, clear only about the fact that the only thing their war of attrition can't survive is an armistice.
'Wings of Desire'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Couples convinced their love is impossible.
Is the rift between some people so vast that it's just easier (and perhaps more gentle) to call it love than infatuation? It's a cosmic mystery that's hounded humankind for millennia (which is weird, because the answer is obviously "Yes"), and in few films are they so tenderly explored as they are in Wim Wenders' unspeakably gorgeous 'Wings of Desire.' The film follows Damiel (Bruno Ganz!), an angel enamored with a trapeze artist who'd be close enough to touch if only it weren't for that pesky dimensional divide (appropriately, the film's lesser sequel is titled 'Faraway, So Close!'). A meditation on time, post-war Berlin, and the indifferent rhythms of earthly existence, 'Wings of Desire' doesn't depict a forbidden romance so much as one that requires life to be fundamentally re-wired from the ground up.
To the self-loathing types for whom this doesn't sound like sufficiently agonizing Valentine's Day viewing, there's always 'City of Angels.'
'In the Realm of the Senses'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Couples concerned that they're not intimate enough...
And sometimes love is just comes too easy. Sometimes it's not a reprieve so much as it's a rabbit hole, a shared space in which to hide from the world when it can't be escaped. Sometimes that gambit works out just fine -- for Kichizo Ishida, it ended with his lover killing him, amputating his penis, and carrying it around pre-war Japan like a primitive Tamagotchi. Nagisa Oshima's landmark film fearlessly recounts the true enough story of Sada Abe, a servant who in a subconscious attempt to ignore Japan's militarization retreated with her employer into a small room wherein their bodies were remapped as the edges of the world. More titillating and less distasteful than Pasolini's 'Salo,' 'In the Realm of the Senses' is an indelible reminder that commitment is nice, but it doesn't hurt to come up for air every once in a while.
It also makes a great double feature with 'Antichrist.'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Hopeless romantics who could use some more hope.
So this Valentine's Day isn't shaping up as you'd hoped, but every passing moment is a chance to turn it all around. Penelope Cruz said that in 'Vanilla Sky,' and then she proved it by immediately fleeing the set of 'Vanilla Sky.'
'The Lovers' by Louis Malle (pro tip: never forget that second "l" during that Google search) is a gorgeous film, a rather provincial drama bisected by the cinema's most jarring meet-cute. Jeanne Moreau is the kept wife of a newspaper tycoon (Alain Cuny!) less enamored with her polo-playing lover Raoul than she is with telling her friends about her polo-playing lover Raoul. Resigned to a lifetime of quotidian crises, Jeanne seems headed for a fall. But then -- at the eleventh hour -- a slight wrinkle of fate, and overnight she's whisked away from her dreary doldrums and into a gilded reverie from which she'll never return. Lots of films intone that "Love can be born in one glance," but 'The Lovers' makes you believe it.
'Woman in the Dunes'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Couples who feel mutually trapped.
There's always a choice. Until you're stuck in a house at the bottom of a giant sand pit with an oversexed widow who forcefully insists that you marry her and never leave, there's always a choice. An erotic nightmare of a parable in which that very fate befalls a young entomologist, Hiroshi Teshigahara's film is a sober and disorienting adaptation of the Kobo Abe novel, a story in which logic is deliberately undermined in order to foster an atmosphere free of all options. The widow explains that she and the entomologist must live there and dig not just to prevent the house from being buried, but also to spare the other houses that dot the dunes. That doesn't make a lick of sense, but it keeps things in line. It's simple and self-sustaining, and it resolves itself in acceptance. If you're feeling a bit suffocated by your relationship, 'Woman in the Dunes' might serve as a haunting prompt that it's easier to be content than to spend a lifetime searching for bliss.
'The Honeymoon Killers'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Anyone whose partner in life is also their partner-in-crime.
It's never a good sign when your relationship is scored to Gustav Mahler.
Not all relationships are built on trust and mutual respect -- some are built on sociopathic insanity and a growing pile of fresh corpses. In Leonard Kastle's 'The Honeymoon Killers,' Ray is a con artist who swindles lonely hearts for a living, and Martha a lonely heart too smitten to live without her new man. Their love is a sacred union, one that's only strengthened as they join forces to elevate Ray's criminal activity from stealing money with blackmail to taking lives with hammers. Their relationship is rockier than the Aggro Crag, but only through each other are they able to reach their full potential. Perfect Valentine's viewing for couples who swore not only to honor and obey, but also aid and abet.
'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters'
Valentine's Day Viewing For: Anyone spending Valentine's Day alone.
Filmmaker, literary icon, and spirited nationalist figurehead Yukio Mishima engaged in a romance so fierce that it made Romeo And Juliet look like
TOP TEN OF THE MONTH: 10 Great Oscar-Winning Films in the Criterion Collection
So we're back with another video countdown, and this month it somehow seems as if production values have actually gotten worse. One of these days we'll employ fancy industry tricks like "editing" and "professionalism," but for now we offer you Coraline inexplicably (and kinda disturbingly) introducing 10 great Criterion films that have earned Oscar gold. 52 of the films in the Collection have snagged at least one award, and these are my 10 favorites.
#18 'The Naked Kiss' (Samuel Fuller) 1964
The Film: To witness the first 98 seconds of 'The Naked Kiss' is to be formally acquainted with Samuel Fuller, and watching Constance Towers assaulting her pimp so hard her wig falls off is one hell of a handshake.
Except, of course, Towers' wig doesn't fall off so much as it's pulled off by Fuller himself, who briefly lunges into frame in order to get the job done. It's a filmic faux-pas of the highest order, but I doubt he ever gave it a moment's pause. That was just his style: Rough and transgressive, and by the time Towers prepares for the title sequence by staring into the camera lens like it's a mirror, Fuller has made it plenty clear that viewers should prepare themselves for a confrontational flick that's got a jones for the ugly truth.
Constance Towers is Kelly, and the next time we see her she's trying to make a new life for herself in the kind of Utopian suburbia that only exists in the movies. Grantville is so idyllic it makes Mayberry look like downtown Mordor, and it's there that Kelly finds work as a nurse for adorable handicapped children (who have a penchant for staging eerily beautiful musical numbers) and love in a too-perfect husband. But like a pea beneath a princess' mattress, something always feels a bit off. There are dark cracks in the canvas, ghouls under the masks, and the moral morass doesn't fully congeal until Constance Towers has been reborn as a Maria Falconetti for the acid-jazz era.
The Technical Stuff: The image can be a bit soft at times, but it's detailed enough to spy Constance Towers' bald cap -- the film grain is intact but never distracting. The audio is problem-free, but the film's unique vernacular encourages subtitles regardless.
The Extras: An unbounded improvement from the bare-bones disc Criterion releases over 10 years ago, 'The Naked Kiss' is just brimming with that Sam Fuller charm. There are two interview conducted for French TV, one from 1967 that finds the bedraggled curmudgeon waxing poetic about everything from journalism to politics ("I hate politics!"), and one from 20 years later that illustrates his enduring vitality. Elsewhere, Constance Towers pops up to participate in a charming and affectionate video in 2007.
The Best Bit: A 71 year-old Fuller leads a tour of his garage in 1983 that should be compulsory viewing for all cinephiles. Standing amidst his reams of unfilmed shooting scripts he digs into a humidor and unleashes his inner showman, smugly opining that "A woman is just a script, but a cigar is a motion picture."
The Package: Amazing. Criterion contracted 'Ghost World' graphic novelist Daniel Clowes to illustrate both these Fuller re-issues, and his unique style -- a surprisingly perfect compliment to Fuller's cartoonishly sober style. Click here for a gander inside the box.
The Verdict: A lynch-pin of the American cinema, to explore this release of 'The Naked Kiss' is to get acquainted with the film laureate of surly grandfathers on his best day.
#19 'Shock Corridor' (Samuel Fuller) 1963
The Film: Time has been kind to 'The Naked Kiss' -- while no longer revelatory, it's still plenty damning -- but the infamous 'Shock Corridor' isn't quite so lucky. Ostensibly obsessed with psychotherapy, the film tells the story of a muckraking reporter who commits himself to an insane asylum in order to solve a murder. Fuller's film is in line with Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (first published just prior to 'Shock Corridor's' production), in which society is sick and its people merely symptoms, the busted cogs in an extraordinarily broken machine.
Peter Breck -- here looking like the improbable love-child of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Sheen -- stars alongside Constance Towers as reporter Johnny Barrett. Fuller characteristically makes little attempt to mask his true intentions, as the murder plot which supposedly drives the narrative is never more than a flimsy frame on which to hang Barrett's time with the three suspects, each of whom have been irrevocably anguished by American society. The oratories these men retain a palpable rage, memorably interspersed with some of Fuller's own (full-color) travel footage. On the other hand, Barrett's telegraphed descent into madness is a mighty slog, and never metaphorically motivated enough to compensate for the degree to which it flouts basic psychology. Fuller is typically at his best when he's genuinely pissed, but in 'Shock Corridor' his anger outpaces his writing.
The Technical Stuff: Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, he of 'Night of the Hunter' fame, did some of his best work in 'Shock Corridor,' elevating a threadbare production on a single set into an insidious labyrinth of sharp lines and deep shadows. It's mighty praise indeed to say this transfer does Cortez's work justice.
The Extras: Another lovely interview with Constance Towers and an original trailer that's every bit as great as you'd expect.
The Best Bit: It's a bit of an injustice to consider Adam Simon's 1996 documentary 'The Typewriter, The Rifle, and The Movie' as an "extra." This 55-minute gem, co-produced by IFC and the BFI, is as engrossing and thorough a documentary as has ever been afforded a filmmaker. I may not be high on 'Shock Corridor,' but Simon's film makes this disc every bit as valuable to me as that of 'The Naked Kiss.'
The Package: Check it out. Eric Skillman's hypnotic and ingeniously woozy menus will keep this thing glued in your player.
The Verdict: Not my favorite vintage of Fuller, but Criterion presents it in such a way that you need to taste it for yourself.
#385 'Army of Shadows' (Jean-Pierre Melville) 1969
The Film: Back in October I ranked the 'Army of Shadows' DVD as one of my ten favorite Criterion releases, so to say that I encourage you to partake in this HD upgrade would be something of an understatement. Slow-burning, richly atmospheric, and drearily gorgeous, Melville's masterpiece doesn't offer a peek inside the clandestine French Resistance so much as it plunges you deep inside their ranks. Lino Ventura and Jean-Pierre Cassel lead the way, but it's Melville's rewarding patience and Pierre Lhomme's washed out photography that linger. A blissful slice of pure cinema, my latest viewing left me convinced that this is the film Michael Mann so desperately tried (and failed) to recall with 'Miami Vice' -- dislocating from the first frame and constantly tightening the noose, 'Army of Shadows' perverts the traditional narrative of war to the point that words like "Honor" and "Heroism" are obliterated of all meaning.
If that's not enough, a scene which proves that narrow corridors and Gatling guns don't mix is one of the cinema's great action set pieces.
The Technical Stuff: Given this film's history, to see it all on these shores is something of a blessing, but this... they should have sent a poet. The DVD was nothing to scoff at, but the Blu-ray smooths the edges without sacrificing the bedraggled muck critical to its tone. It feels exacting but not pristine, as if there's something threatening but shapeless hiding in the film grain.
The Extras: Identical to the DVD, 'Army of Shadows' remains one of their most
satisfyingly stuffed releases. The features are a bit overwhelming (click here for the full litany), backstopped by a commentary from Ginette Vincendeau, who quite literally wrote the book on Melville. Her track, as you might imagine, is riddled with raw information but ultimately a bit dry and stiffly read. For what it's worth, her book is invaluable.
The Best Bit: An interview in which Academy Award-winning editor Francoise Bonnot ('Z') candidly discusses her formative relationship with Melville, whom she met as a child and who played a pivotal role in both her personal and professional life.
The Package: Crammed into a plastic jewel case and adorned with some of the finest artwork to ever grace a Criterion release, 'Army of Shadows' is as much a joy to hold as it is to behold. The essays included are extensive.
The Verdict: One of the best films ever made presented in its ultimate incarnation. Fans of the DVD will feel considerably rewarded by the upgrade.
#404 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' (Byron Haskin) 1964
The Film: Byron Haskins's sci-fi oddity -- a retelling of the Daniel Defoe novel for the space-age, and a film that was on the precipice of being forgotten before Criterion provided it a DVD release in 2007 -- is a masterpiece of production design, few B-movies of this caliber have illustrated such fleet visual storytelling or elicited such feeling from their kitsch. Paul Mantee is Commander Draper, a MacGyver of a man marooned on The Red Planet with only a pet monkey for company. Most of the film is devoted to Mantee's survival (things become a touch less urgent when he's inevitably provided a supporting cast), but the real stars here are Haskin's impressive sets and lighting, which alchemically marry 'War of the Worlds' with 'The Red Shoes' in a way that's never as tacky as it is transportive. Screenwriter Ib Melchior calls it "total nonsense," but this is the kind of nonsense we need.
The Technical Stuff: The unsparing precision of 1080p should expose the silly deficits of Haskin's sets, but I was surprised to find that the film is so richly devised and committed to its tone that the extra gloss just makes it all easier to appreciate. The close-ups and wide Martian vistas are particularly stunning, amounting to what I'm surprised to admit is my favorite Criterion transfer in months.
The Extras: Unchanged from the original DVD release, Criterion offers a rather decent set for such a relic of a movie. Features include 'Destination: Mars' is a nifty 20-minute doc about Mars in the movies that rocks a lot of Comic Sans, a ridiculous music video to a song about the movie written by character actor Victor Lundin, and a rich gallery of stills.
The Best Bit: Hearing Paul Mantee's voice on the commentary track, recorded in 1994 some 30 years after the film's debut. His voice hasn't changed one iota, and it's great to hear him express the same delightful surprise with the film's keen exuberance that you'll probably experience yourself. Byron Haskin, who died in 1984, is edited into the commentary by way of an audio interview he conducted for the D.G.A. in 1979.
The Package: Nicely nestled in Criterion's custom plastic Blu-ray case, I only wish the cover art was truer to the film's giddy color scheme instead of the dull red of the Mars we know.
The Verdict: Perhaps a bizarre choice to receive the 1080p treatment, 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' is nevertheless joyful surprise made all the more fun in high-def. Essential for anyone jonesing for a hit of nostalgia or a whiff of visual whimsy.
#552 'Broadcast News' (James L. Brooks) 1987
The Film: James L. Brooks' seminal seriocomic glimpse inside the blitzkrieg of a nightly news show is so rich, resonant, and relevant that I forgive it for inspiring 'Morning Glory.' 'Broadcast News' isn't just a romantic comedy, it's a romantic comedy the size of the Chrysler Building. The most textured and assured of Brooks' sprawling fanciful fables, 'Broadcast News' busts out of the gate like a film on fire, overcoming an awkward prologue to match the rocket-fueled verve and anxiety of the world in which it's set.
It's the late 1980s, and the nightly news is beginning to teeter on the precipice of infotainment. Albert Brooks understands the news, William Hurt can read it with a square jaw, and both of them are vying for the affections of their frazzled but fiercely intelligent producer, Jane (Holly Hunter in a star-making performance that somehow manages to sublimate her character's batty contrivances into something charming and unforgettable). Love triangles are nothing new but Brooks keeps changing the angles -- nothing ever seems too pat or comfortable because the film's core triumvirate are constantly re-drawing the battle-lines of their romantic entanglements. The boundaries between personal and professional lives become hopelessly knotted and snarled, and everyone learns the hard way that it's easier to report than it is to decide.
In this age of pundits and talking heads it's tempting to call 'Broadcast News' prophetic, but that might deny how finely attuned it is to its own time and place (or misleadingly suggest that any subsequent film ground to a halt every 10 minutes in order to ogle Joan Cusack).
The Technical Stuff: James L. Brooks movies need Blu-ray about as much as they need Reese Witherspoon. The picture is heavy on grain -- even weighed down, perhaps -- but it's sharp enough to get the job done and doesn't distract from the dialogue.
The Extras: Criterion's most loaded release of the month. A 36-minute doc about Brooks is fluffy but endearing, and a commentary track between Brooks and his editor is wry and revealing if a bit spotty -- his insight into his characters is uncommonly appreciated. A chat with CBS news producer / advisor to the film Susan Zirinsky is brief but provides further context.
The Best Bit: Brooks admits that the film's ending is "notorious for being unfulfilling," and shares with us a very alternate, improvised ending. In a nice touch, Criterion has recorded Brooks watching it for the first time since it was shot some 13 years ago. As Brooks opines afterwards, it's "...Something."
The Package: I imagine this was quite a challenge for Criterion's graphic design crew, but they make 'Broadcast News' feel sleek in spite of itself. The booklet is a bit of a wash, and the clever menu might inspire a twisted 'Broadcast News' / 'Videodrome' double feature.
The Verdict: One of the most fun, accessible Criterion releases in ages, and the perfect reminder to anyone smothered by Brooks' recent output that he was once more than a Clippers fan with studio support.
Eclipse Series #25: Basil Dearden's London Underground
Has a thoroughly mediocre filmmaker ever been so deeply valuable and inspiring? Click over to the blog to see me try and parlay that rhetorical question into a raving, indignant review of these landmark films.
NEWS & LINKS
- Criterion's April slate has been announced, and it's a doozy. Huge Blu-ray upgrades, Claire Denis finally joins the Collection, a legendary De Palma film gets the treatment it deserves, and more. Here's a clip of the Radiohead chaps expressing their excitement.
- Unexpectedly touching video of Orson Welles -- on his deathbed -- reading from Charles Lindbergh's autobiography.
- Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog have finally merged into one superhuman being.
- Criterion Corner #1: It's Cheaper Than Film School
- Criterion Corner #2: Great Movies Are Chosen, Not Made
- Criterion Corner #3: The Trouble With Women