The Curious Case of the Criterion Newsweek Article

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In December of 2009, Newsweek published an article called “The Curious Case of the Instant Classic”, which detailed a brief history of the Criterion Collection, but went on to question its choice of films, specifically David Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of the Benjamin Button. The article revealed that the induction of the film, which is probably one of the “most controversial” of their collection and often their least expensive, was kind of a deal between Fincher and Criterion honcho Pete Becker. Fincher’s film The Game had originally been part of their collection when they released LaserDiscs, but the article seemed to accuse the company that if they kept releasing films like Benjamin Button and other films they could pick and choose from their IFC deal, they’d “get younger and younger until they just fade away”.

The article recognizes the importance and cultural stature of the film publishing company, which, in its enormous 660+ collection, has released such classics by Kurosawa, Renoir, De Sica, Chaplin, Bergman, etc., and that the company has done a great deal in aiding to the preservation and restoration of important films. But, positing that the company’s IFC deal would make the company’s reputation would shake and then lose its credibility? Looking back on it four years later, despite one or two questionable choices that shook up the blogosphere, the article seems silly and very dated. Fade away? Nonsense. Criterion is stronger than it has ever been in its company history.

Dozens, even hundreds of websites devote themselves to Criterion all by itself, my personal favorite being CriterionCast (as well as other art films), even more sites have Criterion based columns (my favorite being Criterion Corner), and there are also dozens of podcasts on iTunes (and beyond). Their future release slates, which they announce three months in advance, are debated over, predicted, and I imagine there are some bookies making money on them as well. Their Facebook page has more than 129,000 likes. They have more than 100,000 followers on their verified Twitter account. So, yeah, it doesn’t exactly look like Criterion has faded away at all.

The “controversy” of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture was eloquently discussed in David Ehrlich’s article on the film, and a point Mr. Ehrlich makes is that our perceptions of how prestigious Criterion is as a company should not change. That, as opposed to being those stiff and stuffy intellectuals who balk at something unfamiliar and “questionable”, it should be accepted as something entirely possible, new, and exciting. So, why did Newsweek not do that? How could they be so wrong?

At the time that the Newsweek piece was written, Criterion was already fairly respectable. They’d made their Blu-ray debut that year with films like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. They had introduced their vamped up website for the first time. They sent email newsletters which teased at future releases. Criterion was hardly a small company and, at the time, if you went to the library looking for something like High and Low or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, chances were (and still are) that they would have the Criterion edition. Because, they are the platinum standard. While having extra features isn’t exclusive to Criterion anymore, how enlightening those features are still might be. So, why acknowledge the company’s importance and then posit that, just because of one film, or one deal, they’ll disappear?

It’s known that the IFC deal was made, primarily, so that the money they earn with the IFC releases is used to restore and preserve the sets and editions that they hold dear to their heart. But saying that the IFC deal was a bad choice is kind of silly. Sure, the films might fluctuate in how “important” they are, but it’s really all semantics when it comes to dissecting Criterion’s credo, which is on the back of each set. Criterion’s IFC releases might, contrary to the article, save films from obscurity: because it has that label. And, again, how deserving a film is totally subjective.

But, at times, IFC’s choices have been incredibly successful. Take a look at Lars von Trier’s psychological nightmare Antichrist. Although, in my opinion, they probably would have picked the film up anyways (they already had The Element of Crime and Europa in their collection prior to the IFC deal), it’s one of the best films they’ve picked up from IFC. There’s Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following. Although the film isn’t as satisfying as Nolan’s sophomore effort, Memento, but seeing his first unlocks some of the ideas and techniques that would make him one of the most profitable Hollywood auteurs in the business. Mind games, non-linearity, etc. IFC’s investment into the film also gave Nolan the chance to go back to his film and clean up the print from the original 16mm negatives. Other notable inclusions that were good consequences of the deal include Wim Wenders’ 3D eulogy Pina and the Dardennes Brothers realist fairy tale The Kid with a Bike. The former film marked the very first 3D release and combo pack for the company (an element I wish the company would embrace fully), and the latter film’s release, though it was lauded at its release, allowed Criterion to snap up the Dardennes’ films Rosetta and  La Promesse. Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s film, is a wonderful romantic drama that doesn’t ghettoize its subject; it just portrays it as it is.

So, sure, you have your Benjamin Buttons, your Tiny Furnitures, your Life During Wartimes, and your endless Wes Anderson films (who I like, actually, and who Criterion just loves; he’s not part of the IFC deal, they just love him), but Criterion’s ability to either predict the longevity or solidify the legacy of certain films is, to me, what loving film is all about: loving it all and championing stuff that you think should be recognized.

So, even realizing how wrong Newsweek’s article was, it’s important, I think, to realize how condescending, disingenuous, and wrong that piece is. Criterion isn’t snobbish about film; it seems more to be a residual effect on its fans or something. So, even if Criterion includes a couple of Michael Bay flicks, Criterion does what the best cinephiles do and what all of the rest should aspire to: love cinema, all of its facets, and power as an art form.

Special thanks to the wonderful Josh Brunsting for being a helpful film encyclopedia!

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7 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Criterion Newsweek Article

    matthewjanovic said:
    April 12, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    And now Newsweek is no more, absorbed into the Daily Beast. They were always a rag anyway, snobs, and the public got tired of them and articles like the Criterion one.

      rots28 responded:
      April 12, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Agreed, very much agreed. The article feels so flippant.

      professormortis said:
      April 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      The public sure took their damned time getting tired of them…almost 70 years. I don’t think they were snobs, actually, they were FANTASTICALLY middlebrow. I think they died because they adapted poorly to trends in how the American public gets their news and information, and because their very format, the glossy magazine, is in deep trouble.

      Now this is not to say I support Newsweek, or mourn their loss. I would actually agree they were more or less a tabloid, at least by the 90s, when I started to read them. They did what Time and others of their ilk do: present short, easy to digest pieces, on current news and events from a white, middle class perspective that generally failed to take a solid position on anything they editorialized on, and hit whatever panic buttons that particular segment of the U.S. population had. They were more useful as bland bellwethers of public opinion on current events than at publishing insightful or investigative articles. Good riddance.

    Garrett said:
    April 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Wonderful post. I really love that Criterion doesn’t shy away from choosing a few films that are controversial.

      rots28 responded:
      April 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      Thank you so much! I definitely think that’s what makes them strong and unique; they don’t just adhere to the canon, they try to expand what the ‘canon’ is/means.

    Alex Withrow said:
    April 18, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Great article that poses several great questions. Although I don’t necessarily love every contemporary film Criterion adds to their library, I certainly don’t fault them for doing so.

    Interesting, though, that Newsweek chose to harp on the Benjamin Button Criterion… Armageddon has got to be one of the more baffling flicks in the collection. But again, it’s all good.

      rots28 responded:
      April 19, 2013 at 1:58 am

      I think they picked on Benjamin Button because a) it was a “favor” (I wish I could ask for favors like that) and b) it was probably the first fairly well known, kind of mainstream film to just go straight to Criterion. There were/are single disc editions of the film out there, but it kind of skipped a few steps (as in waiting years and years for reappraisal/regard) and just went there. Walmart, which I have never known to carry any Criterion films ever, carried Ben Button.

      But according to CriterionForum.org, it was merely a Paramount release with Criterion branding. This is probably most evident in the fact that the Blu-ray has a regular Blu-case, not the clear one that Criterions almost always come packaged in. The special features, interviews, manufacturing all seem to have been done by Paramount, and it just got the Criterion labeling, menus, etc. Even if Criterion had decided to “curate” Ben Button, I’d have no qualms. Not my favorite Fincher, but I admire it a lot.

      To me, the most baffling one is Chasing Amy. I haven’t seen it, but that “doesn’t seem like their fare”. But, I guess that’s the point.

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