Criterion Corner: One Epic August

Criterion Corner: One Epic August

Aug 23, 2011

Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!

I’ve been saying for months now that Criterion’s August slate is their strongest in recent memory, and now that I’ve had a chance to explore all eight new releases I’m happy to say that this is one of those rare but joyous occasions where I don’t come off looking like a total moron (hold for polite applause). I can now say for certain that Criterion’s line-up this month is truly immense -- a deep and impressively varied roster of films, this  panoply of classics is all over the map, but one could make an argument that the releases are unified by a rowdy rebellious streak. From the anarchic schoolboys of Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduit and the older youths of If... they directly informed, to the wayward gangsters of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who refuse to be content with a life of mediocrity, and the broken mother of Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine who isn’t placated by the comforts of religious credo, this is a collection of films in which the status quo is like an itch begging to be scratched, and violently.


#575 The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick) 1956

The Film: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing may not have been responsible for putting the great director on the map -- that honor rightfully belongs to Killer’s Kiss, also included on this disc -- but at the very least it’s the film in which one can first chart Kubrick’s ultimate course. An equine noir with a broken heart and a mess of hollow dreams, The Killing is the exactingly told story of a group of petty criminals tortured by their own mediocrity, convinced that they can escape into self-satisfaction by robbing a local racetrack of $2 million. Their scheme is precisely devised and meticulously detailed, but you know what they say about the best laid plans: They’re always ruined by a greedy woman. Wait, that’s not right... well, it’s a good thing that Kubrick’s jet-black third feature doesn’t rely on its gender politics.

It begins on a note as cold and clinical as Kubrick would ever achieve, as newsreel footage of a horserace is submitted the dispassionate voice of an anonymous narrator: “At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was, perhaps, the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track who felt no thrill at the running of the fifth race.” Marvin Unger is just one of the cogs in Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) plan, all of whom are convinced that a load of dough would somehow satisfy their potential, as if stolen worth might prove their own. It’s on that level of abstract male yearning that the film is at its most powerful and enduringly relevant, as Hayden’s follies speak to a primitive desire for greater glory that hasn’t evolved over the years, only been subject to inflation.

The Killing is the first film in which Kubrick had the budget and studio support to realize his perfectionist genius, and this feels like the work of a matured master rather than a 28 year-old kid. Kubrick -- tickled by the exactitude of Clay’s plan -- is giddy to have material that suits his darkly unreal precision, swooping the camera through the seams of his sets, training its merciless eye on his characters’ every nervous wrinkle, and exploding a story that predominantly transpires in only two locations into an endless dark night of the soul. Kubrick’s script bungles the early goings, laboriously reducing the married couple at the center of this tale into gross caricatures, but Jim Thompson’s hot-poker dialogue keeps things moving, the heist itself is a breathless caper, and the way the film holds together as everything falls apart is as thrilling as anything its director would later accomplish. A criminally under-seen minor masterpiece.

The Transfer: To my eyes, this is up there with Pale Flower as Criterion’s strongest b&w transfer of the year. The picture is steady and razor-sharp, and the film grain is just right, providing the image a steady texture that’s appropriately gritty but never distracting.

The Supplements: No commentary, but producer James B. Harris discussing the production in a new 21-minute interview is the next best thing. There’s also a pair of episodes of a French TV show in which a grizzled Sterling Hayden recalls his career, which are more endearing than they are informative. An 18-minute video piece in which poet and author Robert Polito talks Thompson is essential background info, but a bit dry.

The Best Bit: Well, this is an easy one. Criterion has included a restored cut of Kubrick’s 2nd feature Killer’s Kiss, a pocket-sized romantic noir that packs a punch (read: it’s about a boxer) and hints at the filmmaker Kubrick may have become had he never received studio support. He makes marvelous use of NYC exteriors, practically bending the city to his will and submitting the wild energies of the Big Apple to his perfectionist streak as if the whole place were under his precise control. The script doesn’t hold, but Killer’s Kiss is a major release in its own right, and Criterion has just tucked it into the folds.

The Artwork: Oblique and inescapably dark, the eerie chalkboard glimpse of a heist in-progress is one of the best Criterion covers of the year.

THE VERDICT: 85 / 100

#576 Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-Dong) 2007

The Film: I first saw Secret Sunshine in a half-empty auditorium during the 2007 New York Film Festival, and Lee Chang-Dong’s film tore that room to pieces. When the lights came up the audience bumbled out of their chairs like one hundred people emerging from the paralysis of a half-shared nightmare. The deeply penetrating saga of a widowed mother (Jeon Do-yeon) who moves to a remote village in order to begin a new life with her young son (spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well), Secret Sunshine was immediately understood to be too raw and confrontational for American distributors. Not long after that screening, I was possessed by the rare urge to shoot Criterion an e-mail begging them to grace Secret Sunshine with their unique attention. Their response: “Interesting film...” I held on to that ellipsis with a demented grip long after all hope seemed lost, and now that my embarrassingly nerdy wish has been granted, all I want to do is rave about Jeon Do-yeon.

Jeon’s layered performance is the quiet assault that anchors every scene, her character a heroine worthy of von Trier, but one never offered the security blanket of his excesses. Jeon’s portrayal of a woman waylaid by swells of tragedy and crises of understanding is as impressive as any that can be found in Criterion’s roster, her submission to the part eventually resulting in the kind of transgressively palpable performance that recalls Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s the kind of performance that violates the pact of safe distance that most audiences like to make with their movies, achieving a hypnotic horror against which the MPAA has no sufficient defense.

Bisected by a scene that uproots the fundamental tenets of Christian forgiveness decisively and with irrevocable force, Secret Sunshine is a film that Jeon powers towards an indelible catharsis of its own design, a prickly peace that audiences thankfully don’t have to achieve for themselves in order to feel for the rest of their lives. The knowledge that countless others will now have the chance to see this life-changing work -- a film that may have slipped into oblivion if not for Criterion’s intervention -- is a totally unneeded reminder as to why so many movie-lovers share an overzealous passion for this company, the efforts of which often feel less like business operations than they do answers to the private prayers of their fans.

The Transfer: Unfortunately I was only able to get my hands on a DVD of the film, so I can’t speak to the quality of Criterion’s HD transfer, but given that it’s such a recent film I’d expect the image to look perfectly pristine. The gurus over at awarded the picture quality a perfect score.

The Supplements: This film deserved better, but the extras aren’t necessarily the point on a revelatory release of such a recent film. “On the set of Secret Sunshine” is 7 minutes of E.P.K. fluff, but the Dennis Lim essay included in the booklet is definitely worth a read.

The Best Bit: A 25-minute interview with Lee Chang-dong is a nice come-down from the harrowing experience of watching the film itself, a calm and much-needed reminder that the whole thing is just a work of fiction. Nevertheless, the extras here are really just window-dressing.

The Artwork: The best Criterion cover in a month loaded with instant classics, the stressed and simple picture of Jeon Do-yeon captures the film’s raw intensity (and that of its blistering central performance) in a way that a more abstract image probably never could.

THE VERDICT 86 / 100

#577 Cul-de-sac (dir. Roman Polanski) 1966

The Film: Set in an otherworldly place somewhere between Poland and Hollywood, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac finds the legendary filmmaker marching to the beat of his own drummer, and that drummer is so high he’s somewhere in orbit above Keith Moon. Like "Waiting for Godot meets Straw Dogs" with the moribund urgency of Antonioni, Cul-de-sac picks up where most heist movies leave off, opening with two criminals (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) searching for refuge in the aftermath of a job gone wrong. MacGowran is bleeding to death from a bullet hole in his abdomen, and Stander seeks medical attention (and amusement) in the towering castle that dominates a nearby island, a mass of land severed from the mainland by a rising tide that swallows the roads whole. Stander scales the keep only to find a combative and oddly paired married couple, consisting of a pretty young wife and the older man deluded into thinking she still loves him. There Stander waits to be rescued by his boss, the mysterious Katelbach, more of a name than a man. Ennui reigns.

In a series of willfully insipid dialogues and role-plays, Polanski details the phenomenal boredom that his motley threesome is able to achieve, even on an island that wouldn’t feel out of place in Middle Earth. The lustrous monochrome photography and the self-insistent genius of Polanski’s directing keeps things more interesting for the viewer than it does for his characters -- who cares if the seven minute long-take for which the film is famous was shot out of necessity, it’s stunning all the same -- but Cul-de-sac is waylaid by a third act at once navel-gazing and gleefully violent. Polanski makes his point early and often, extending things only to drag his characters further down the rabbit hole of their own fomenting isolation. And his actors are all too eager to oblige, each one of them hamming up their inner-most ires. If you dig the broad and increasingly hysterical performances you might even be willing to jump down there with them. As for me, at a certain point I get sick of waiting for Katelbach, and would rather go looking for him, myself.

The Transfer: Not quite as sharp as The Killing, but Cul-de-sac looks impressively clear for a film so shrouded in darkness. Contrast is the key here, and nighttime scenes lit by gas lamps and the like are wonderfully rich and evocative. There’s a little banding at times and a ton of grain in the grays, but it’s an impressive presentation, especially if you peep the version streaming on Netflix Instant and see what Criterion was working with.

The Supplements: A commentary track on this thing would have been massively appreciated, but Criterion’s unusually spare release leaves viewers no choice but to find their own way through the madness. “The Nomad” is a 1967 interview with Polanski in which the filmmaker candidly discusses his heritage, his largely overlooked career as an actor, and the success he enjoyed at Poland’s National Film School.

The Best Bit: “Two Gangsters and an Island” a 23-minute package of interviews featuring Polanski (and others), in which the director hints at his intentions and priorities for the film. Polanski discusses the production and his actors -- he goes on and on about how difficult and obnoxious Lionel Stander was on set, but ultimately appreciates the mad performance the tension made possible.

The Artwork: Like a silk-screen made from acid tabs, Criterion’s silhouetted design for Cul-de-sac perfectly captures the film’s dark appeal, snazzy but ultimately unknowable. Looking at the posters that have been made for this thing over the years, no promotional image has ever grasped the film’s proud eccentricity so well.

THE VERDICT: 62 / 100

#578 The Complete Jean Vigo (dir. Jean Vigo) 1930-1934 - PICK OF THE MONTH!

The Film(s): Despite the fact that he only made four films, it can be difficult to know where to begin with Jean Vigo. Where to end is easy enough: Dead of tuberculosis in 1934, only 29 years old and a few weeks removed from the production of L’Atalante, a film often considered to be the greatest debut feature that side of Citizen Kane. Vigo’s brief life is too often conflated with his legend, distracting from the sweet anarchy of his films, or the fact that he looked like the lovechild between a young David Byrne and a young David Schwimmer (it’s all in the hair). The truth is that it’s easy to romanticize his shooting star of a career, but to do so at the expense of his tragedy would be a mistake, as Criterion’s comprehensive set of Vigo’s film work lucidly suggests that he was a slyly methodical artist, rapidly moving along an upwards trajectory with each subsequent effort, burning a trail towards a destination left blank (the traces of which were manifest from the French New Wave to the anxious dystopias of mid-century British cinema).

Vigo’s earliest surviving work is A Propos de Nice (1930), a silent thirty-minute montage of the idyllic French city in motion. Opening with a flicker of helicopter footage before setting towards ground-level for a closer look, the film’s early chapters are vaguely unsettling in how they give way from the quiet yawns of commerce (a restaurant opening in the early morning) to the giddy leisure of the upper class (sailing, racquetball games). Before long, it’s clear that Vigo’s cosmopolitan portrait is anything but nice (sorry, couldn’t resist), as the film begins to interrupt its carefree episodes with footage from the city’s darker and more desperate corners, the contrast eventually recasting the pleasure-seekers as a grotesque caricature of bourgeoise vacuity. Ending on a grim industrial note, A Propos de Nice would endure as Vigo’s most nakedly bitter effort, but the film’s lightly surrealist flourishes and its flirtation with slow-motion would deeply inform his artistic appetites.

Eager to hone his skills and distill his vision, Vigo next accepted a commission to make a very short film (10 minutes) celebrating French swimming champion Jean Taris. Taris is a light and intoxicating little movie, beginning as a thorough swimming lesson and winding down as a fun bit of in-camera fantasy. Rife with gorgeous underwater photography (filmed through swimming pool portholes) and moments that anticipate Jean Cocteau’s “Direct Trickery,” Taris is a filmmaker biding his time with a bite-sized delight.

Zero de Conduit, a 41-minute tale of boarding school rebellion that draws heavily on Vigo’s experiences in such institutions as a child, is a silly slog that erupts so remarkably in its final minutes (and has inspired such a wide array of filmmakers) that the film is often better remembered than it is enjoyed.
And then there’s L’Atalante. An ethereal bride (Dita Parlo) and her stern new husband (Jean Daste) -- practically strangers -- set sail upon his barge from Le Havre to Paris, a bit of cargo delivery disguised as a honeymoon. From that simple premise, Vigo spins a tender and spectral soft comedy, light on plot and thick with poetic feeling, its flippant structure presaging the films of the French New Wave. The titular barge, so lovingly imitated in Emir Kusturica’s Underground, is truly one of filmdom’s greatest and most virile locations, a place at once pedestrian and perversely unreal. Largely limited to this one set, Vigo crafts an elusively profound story of warring passions, mutual need, and the middle ground on which we carve our lives together, making it stick with some of the most indelible imagery the cinema has ever known (how could you ever forget Parlo gliding across the roof of the boat?). The sequence in which Daste plunges into the sea and finds a pirouetting specter of his wife beneath the surface isn’t just a remarkable bit of in-camera trickery, but a sublime synthesis of all that Vigo had worked to express, a moment of raw feeling and sweet invention that he made as a template, only to leave for us as a treasure. Criterion’s best release of the year, so far.

The Transfers: L’Atalante is one of those films that begins with a title card describing the various butcherings, natural disasters, and restorations it’s endured since the negative was struck, so when I say that Criterion’s presentation of Vigo’s sole feature is stunning, I’m speaking relatively. The occasional flicker and warble remains, but here are four films that were previously muddled to the point of impressionism that now -- largely free of the debris that once suffocated these frames -- glimmer with a clarity that doesn’t merely sharpen certain objects, but also reveals entire portions of Vigo’s imagery that were before lost in the shadows. Perhaps Criterion’s most demanding transfers in quite some time, and they nailed it as best as the source materials may ever allow.

The Bonus Stuff: The first thing that jumps out at you is a 45-second animated Vigo tribute by Michel Gondry, which is cute but immediately disposable. A 98-minute episode of a French TV show about filmmakers is much more valuable, a deeply informative peek at Vigo’s life and work that’s full of archival footage and revealing interviews (the unvarnished footage puts into perspective just how much Criterion has improved the look of these films). An 18-minute conversation between Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer is as awesome as it sounds, even if the filmmakers reverence for Vigo occasionally threatens to derail their conversation. Film historian Michael Temple provides a compelling and informative commentary track for each of the four films, a neat bit of consistency that provides viewers with a trusted guide through Vigo’s life’s work. Finally, a 2001 video interview with Otar Iosseliani provides the Georgian-French filmmaker to speak about the influence that Jean Vigo’s work had on his own.

The Best Bit: The Journeys of L’Atalante is a 40-minute doc detailing the film’s journey from 1934 until the present, a tale of survival that’s every bit as harrowing as The Way Back. The doc also manages to be the disc’s most revealing glimpse at L’Atalante’s production, as its early portions are rife with unbelievable behind-the-scenes footage.

The Artwork: At first I wasn’t a fan of the rear-projected rust that stains Criterion’s cover, but it clicked as soon as I saw how that same aesthetic is used in the disc’s menus to unify Vigo’s work. Also, they put Dita Parlo’s face smack in the middle, and that’s half the battle right there. The multi-color booklet included with the disc is a (highly readable) marvel in and of itself.

The Verdict: 94 / 100


#68 Orpheus (dir. Jean Cocteau) 1950

The Film: Jean Cocteau described the endless inventions of his cinema as examples of “direct trickery,” a series of brazen visual deceits that violate the natural world in such a way that viewers have no choice but to question how they were fooled. Cocteau was capable of sleight-of-hand, but he delighted in blowing minds, and the Orphic myth provided him the ultimate opportunity to do just that. As laid out in full at the end of Cocteau’s signature, hand-drawn opening credits, the film follows the trials of the eponymous poet (Jean Marais), as “his Death” -- personified by a princess in black -- drags him into the underworld on several different occasions, the last of which is part of a quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the clutches of hell.

Mining then-fresh imagery of a post-WWII Europe, Cocteau’s Orpheus is a legendary portrait of an artists (or the artist) seduced by the darker forces of the universe at the expense of an interest in the living world, as Orpheus and viewers alike discover that the dark poetry of death is infinitely more inspiring of a muse than the oblivious mortal charms of poor Eurydice. Cocteau severely disenchants his audience from the humdrum world of the living -- perhaps more so than he intended. The sequences on Earth, even those Eurydice shares with a spectral chauffeur, are heavy with exposition and dramatically inert. Consequently, the transitions to the underworld (through mirrors, always through mirrors), are that much more aggressive with their awe. To that end, the underworld sequences -- even those moments which don’t rely upon sophisticated rear-screen projection or forced perspective for their charms -- are still among the most spellbinding the cinema has to offer, and perhaps it can’t be helped that viewers are eager to leap through the mirror time and time again.

The Transfer: Criterion’s 10 year-old DVD of the film still looks pretty great, but their blu-ray approaches perfection. The image isn’t revelatory, and the film’s most eye-popping moments don’t yield any new treasures that they didn’t in standard def, but Cocteau worshippers will feel as if they just brought a 35mm print into their homes.

Should You Upgrade? Owners of Criterion’s out-of-print Orphic Trilogy DVD set are probably fine sticking with that, as $40 is a hefty sum to re-purchase 1/3 of a collection you already own. For others, Orpheus is a film you need in your collection, and this is the best way to get it.

#249 The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo) 1966

The Film: From the top drawer of the “More relevant than ever” file we have Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a ground-level portrait of colonial resistance unlike anything else ever committed to film. Shot in gritty black & white on the streets of the Casbah, Pontecorvo’s film uses the transformation of a politically radicalized criminal (Brahim Hagiag as Ali la Pointe) as his primary means of chronicling the Algerian struggle for independence against occupying French forces that scarred the area throughout the 1950s.
The Battle of Algiers depicts an urban stripe of guerrilla warfare, episodically observing (and arguably championing) a variety of violent methods by which the Algerian people retaliated, from gun drops and hordes of hostile little kids to women smuggling bombs through checkpoints, returning to the face of Ali la Pointe to hold things together. The film is occasionally derailed by some hokey moments (often the result of Pontecorvo’s run-and-gun production as well as his amateur cast), but the mass participation of the Casbah makes The Battle of Algiers feel like the story is coming directly off the streets, and the conviction of all its players makes it hard to tell which of them is fighting the good fight.

The Transfer: Given the nature of its production, The Battle of Algiers is obviously fighting a bit of an uphill battle in the looks department, and the film is never going to boast the most consistent image in the world. Some shots are always going to be pretty muddled, but this 1080p transfer -- supervised by the film’s DP -- allows for a definition not seen since the film’s theatrical debut.
Close-ups in particular are imbued with new immediacy, and the quality is stable enough on a frame-by-frame basis for the overall experience to remain smooth. With the noise of the DVD release all but eliminated, this is the definitive version of The Battle of Algiers.

Should You Upgrade? One of Criterion’s most loaded and exquisitely packaged DVDs gets a spiffy HD sheen. A mandatory purchase for those who don’t already own the film, while others might want to wait for one of the fall’s 50% off sales.

#391 If.... (dir. Lindsay Anderson) 1968

The Film: The most potent of Lindsay Anderson’s angry rebel yells, If.... amplifies the harsh environs of the archaic British boarding school system as the perfect venue to present an uprising in the form of a fever dream. Malcolm McDowell -- in his first film role both introducing and also perfecting the grinning dissident he would later make iconic in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange -- kicks off the Mick Travis trilogy as the man himself, here the Guy Fawkes-ian student whose actions attract the ire of the school’s tyrannical professors and administrative staff. Unfolding like an uneasy cross between Zero de Conduit and Gus van Sant’s Elephant, Anderson’s film is a ferocious portrait of how violence of one kind only begs violence of another, and how oppression -- even when codified and institutional -- is fundamentally against the laws of nature.

The cinema often portrays this sort of rightful insurrection with triumphant swells of music and a hero’s slow-motion, but Anderson’s film is a product of the mad 60s, where rage and rebellion were such all-consuming ideals that they bent the world to their will. It can all feel a bit dated at times, but the film wrings relevance from its boldest choices.
If.... hops between color and black & white as it stews along, a tactic when combined with its penchant for moments of sudden surreality makes the movie feel like an act of inception, imparting its characters with ground-shaking ideas while careful not to wake the powers that be. As a result, the incidents with which the film climaxes are tinged with a whiff of the unreal, as if the violence is less of an ending than it is a prophecy.

The Transfer: The idyllic b&w sections have never looked so luminously dream-like, and the unsettling difference between them and the grittier color portions has never hit so hard. The film’s image is still deliberately soft, but noticeably sharper than Criterion’s DVD.

Should You Upgrade?: Hardcore fans won’t regret the upgrade, but If.... doesn’t quite have the palette to really benefit from the HD boost.
In September, Criterion takes a little bit of a breather before the onslaught of October horrors and holiday must-haves. It might not be the most loaded month of the year, but it's nevertheless filled with some of their most hotly anticipated releases, like Olivier Assayas' 319-minute globe-trotting masterpiece, Carlos. Criterion will also be filling in a huge void in their roster, as they finally welcome the late French legend Claude Chabrol to their impressive stable of filmmakers, releasing his early masterworks Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge on the same day. Rounding out the month is Victor Sjostrom's eerie silent classic The Phantom Carriage -- Sjostrom memorably starred in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and it'll be great to have another chance to see why he was so influential behind the camera, as well. 

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