The Last Emperor
The Curious Case of the Criterion Newsweek Article
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!
This entry was posted in Art House, DVD, Take One and tagged Akira Kurosawa, Antichrist, Bernardo Bertolucci, Chungking Express, Dardennes, David Fincher, Europa, Following, François Truffaut, High and Low, Ingmar Bergman, La Promesse, Lars von Trier, Lena Dunham, Life During Wartime, Memento, Michael Bay, Newsweek, Rosetta, The 400 Blows, The Criterion Collection, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Element of Crime, The Game, The Kid with a Bike, The Last Emperor, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tiny Furniture, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-Wai.