Arts Desk

What Exactly Are the Criterion Collection’s “Criteria”?

The Criterion Collection has been spoiling cinephiles for over 25 years with the bells and whistles that makes home viewing/collecting wonderful: exhaustive extras, nerdy liner notes, and an impeccable curatorial selection. But what happens when even they get it wrong? In honor of the release of its latest hiccup, the well-received but snoozy A Christmas Tale by Arnaud Desplechin out this week, here are a few of Criterion’s rare missteps.

A Christmas Tale
Auteur in Question: Arnaud Desplechin
Criteria Case: A Christmas Tale presents a familiar trope, the dreaded holiday homecoming with enough bemused rancor and cynical self-satisfaction it could have been subtitled “French existential angst for dummies.” Sacré bleu, the French don’t mince words! This excruciatingly long slice-of-life amongst the smug upper class is oblivious to its own artifice, particularly with a relationship plot line that is nearly as ridiculous as the mate-swapping found in The Family Stone. Thanks for letting your freak flag fly, Catherine Deneuve!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Auteur in Question
: David Fincher
Criteria Case: A year removed from the Oscar-bait blitzkrieg, it’s hard to remember when Benjamin Button stirred audience’s curiosity with its promise of A-class actors (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), an acclaimed director (David Fincher), engaging source material (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name) and a well-edited trailer. Turned out, the film was little more than unsettling CGI effects and a ham-fisted clock metaphor as subtle as Big Ben. That Criterion was compelled to honor Fincher is commendable in light of his consistently engaging body of work, but since nobody saw, let alone wanted to buy (or extend) Zodiac, it seems like the brass were in the unfortunate, not-so-curious case of having to pay the bills.

Chasing Amy
Auteur in Question
: Kevin Smith
Criteria Case: Revisiting the, er, oeuvre of Kevin Smith’s is quite sobering. Chasing Amy represents a turning point in Smith’s then nascent career, after he’d scored with the no-budget Clerks before attempting teen comedy (the doomed Mallrats). With Chasing Amy, Smith felt compelled to say “something” about his generation, that message having to do with the latent homosexuality underlying scatological humor, myopic foolishness within the comic book subculture, and the supposed dangers of dating bi-sexual women. While much of Smith’s dialogue has a short shelf life, Chasing Amy’s gender politics are hopelessly regressive even from a director still getting mileage out of Greedo jokes (Scrape away the f-bombs and Smith's work becomes undeniably conservative).  The last ten years have not been kind to Smith creatively, leaving many to look upon Smith’s earlier works with soft eyes. But whereas Clerks and Mallrats played to their director's puerile strengths, Chasing Amy’s misdirected ambition now looks embarrassing in the light of day.

Auteur in Question
: Michael Bay
Criteria Case: In an apologia included in the Criterion DVD, film historian Jeanine Basinger asserts that Michael Bay would be the “darling bad boy of the intelligentsia” had he not become a director. (It’s a confusing assertion, considering Bay’s penchant for flimsy plots and complete absence of directorial style.) Basinger goes on to conclude that at its core, Armageddon is about the bravery of the working class who git-‘er-done while dithering scientists and politicians sit around listening to Aerosmith. To be fair, whatever movie/director Basinger describes sounds interesting. I wonder if she has seen Armageddon?

Sweet Movie
Auteur in Question
: Dusan Makavejev
Criteria Case: Sexual decadence, post-Vietnam malaise, high gas prices—the ‘70s were crazy times! And sure enough, brave new filmmakers channeled the teetering zeitgeist into gritty, challenging pieces of art. Then there’s Serbian director Dusan Makavejev, who funneled our collective nihilism into films wherein characters eat their own vomit and have sex covered in feces. Sweet Movie caused quite a bit of controversy upon its release in 1974, and like a great many intentionally provocative films, the ensuing hysterics are far more compelling than the movie itself. Plenty of highfalutin essays on Makavejev’s work explain away his shock tactics by using impressive sounding academic phrases like “post-Marxist critique,” but 30 years later, Sweet Movie plays like a humorless kitsch-free John Waters film. Need I remind you that humor and kitsch are the two best parts of John Waters' films?

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  • Jonathan L. Fischer

    That Desplechin is a very respected director and that the film earned an 86 percent on the Tomatometer (92 from top critics) seems reason enough for a Criterion release. But in its defense: I haven't seen the film in over a year, but I remember liking how messy it was, in terms of the style, the ideas, the plot (and Desplechin is a master in at least the first category). And I think it was very aware of its characters' pretentiousness, and hilarious for it. The two most self-serious, melodramatic characters (Anne Consigny's and Mathieu Amalric's) were basically the butts of most of the film's jokes, but they were also expertly realized.

    It's true, the spouse-swap subplot was iffy (perhaps it was not nearly messy enough). But I think there's something truly thrilling about an expert director creating something weird and discursive but also familiar--even if, at times, it's also depressing as hell.

  • Danny Gavigan

    I think Criterion's library has more to do with their association with Janus Film and other preservation orientated efforts than some uppity cinephile's perfect collection. Ten years ago I asked the same question about Criterion when I realized they actually had fucking Armageddon in their collection. But shitty movies are just as important to look back on as shitty socio-political standards.

    And come on, I think Zodiac was the most underrated movie that year, if at least for Robert Downey Jr's performance alone.

  • matt

    Danny: You're absolutely right about the associations. Had this been a full-length feature, I would have gone deeper into Criterion's bedfellows, the most recent being a partnership with IFC Pictures (hence ACT, Gomorra and the forthcoming Che). This isn’t to anyway undermine the company (or the films for that matter) but I think it's interesting to shed light on the selection process. As per my Zodiac comment: it is indeed a fine movie but not one many people saw. I have little doubt that its stature will increase in the coming years and a Criterion version will emerge eventually.

    Jonathan: Again, somewhere in this hip shot of a post lies an interesting, longer feature (editors take note!) including interviews with the brain trusts behind the process since there are infinite variables that could warrant the distinction of being an "important classic and/or contemporary film." Certainly, ACT was extremely well-received but for me, it was dull to the touch. I agree with your conceit that a great director can transform rote concepts and illuminate something new and strange (Herzog's latest is a testament to such) but this didn't leave me with the same feeling.

  • Dan

    Well Criterion Collection IS a for-profit company. So while Criterion does appeal to the BFI set which makes them seem holier-than-thou, it is just as much a money making corporation as any other film distribution company like Fox or Time Warner.

    What drives which films Criterion releases has just as much do to with what the film snob community decides is a "worthy" film as much as what they can get the licensing rights to (for example, the lack of a Criterion release of any Coen brothers film) and whether or not they can get a sweet deal from a large production company that wants Criterion to make the film seem a bit more distinguished (I am sure they got something for Armageddon.)

    That being said, Criterion does do a pretty good job of picking out under-seen classic art cinema. Jon, I agree- while there is plenty to critique about Criterion, I am not sure if "Un conte de Noël" is the best example. While I haven't seen it yet, I did really like "Roi et reines" and I think Desplechin is certainly one of the most important contemporary French directors. While his films are based on a lot of overwrought bourgeois melodramatic conventions, his films rise well beyond the genre with his deft and well realized characters and plots. (Matt, if you think a Desplechin film is long and boring, try sitting through some of the other Criterion films like "Jeanne Dielman.")