Category Archives: Collecting Criterion

Collecting Criterion – Mulholland Drive (2001)

There are some filmmakers out there who are best described as acquired tastes.  These are the auteurs; movie directors who unique style is uncompromised in the final product of their films, which may be off-putting to some people who find that style a little dense and impenetrable.  But, these types of filmmakers are also the kind that develop a dedicated following from audiences who are drawn to that kind of bold, un-compromised type of filmmaking.  The Criterion Collection understands the appeal of unique voices in cinema, and they have served these kinds of niche fanbases with excellent home video collections from a select number of auteur filmmakers.  These include movies from Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose body horror features certainly are meant for a certain discernable audience.  There’s also Terrence Malick, whose visual poem style features can sometimes test casual audiences who are looking for more linear storytelling.  And then there is the most notoriously cerebral filmmaker to have made it through the Hollywood machine; David Lynch.  Lynch’s style is very much an acquired taste for many, given his often dark and disturbing directorial vision, but that has been the thing that has turned him into an icon for many die hard cinephiles.  There really is no one else that makes movies the way that David Lynch does; often visually daring and just plain weird from concept to the final shot.  Many say that no one captures the feeling of a dreamlike state, often a nightmarish one, on film better than he does.  Criterion has included seven of Lynch’s most noteworthy films in their collection, including his daring debut Eraserhead (1977, Spine #725), two of his most famous deconstructions of Americana with Blue Velvet (1986, #977) and Lost Highway (1997, #1152), as well as what many see as his most personal film, which is a deconstruction of the myths of Hollywood itself in Mulholland Drive (2001, #779).

The making of Mulholland Drive has a unique story on it’s own.  In addition to making his name well known as a filmmaker, Lynch also managed to break through on the small screen as well.  In 1990, he produced the mystery thriller series Twin Peaks for ABC Television, which became a massive hit for the network.  Lynch’s dark and bizarre trademarks were very much present in the show, and it made the show stand out as very much a departure from the standard network television fare at the time.  However, meddling from the network with regards to the direction of the story and also with it’s time slot placement caused the show to lose much of it’s audience in it’s second season, and ABC pulled the plug soon thereafter.  Still, the 48 episodes that it managed to air on TV left an indelible impact, and it is the thing that cemented David Lynch as a household name.  Lynch tried to put Twin Peaks to rest with a prequel movie that is also included in the Criterion Collection, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992, #898), and twenty years later he would even get to make a third season revival on the cable channel Showtime.  But after the disappointing short run of Twin Peaks, Lynch wanted to try his hand again at creating another television series.  Initially, he imagined a spin-off of Twin Peaks, centered around the character of Audrey Horne.  But, over time he devised a new idea that centered around the dark side of the film industry.  This concept would become the basis for a 90 minute pilot titled Mulholland Drive.  The show would center around several characters living on the periphery of the entertainment industry, with the main character named Betty Elms played by a then unknown Naomi Watts.  Unfortunately, the pilot was never picked up and Lynch was left with another incomplete vision that this time audiences would sadly never see.  That was until he received financial assistance from French based production company Studio Canal to shot more scenes and turn the open-ended pilot into a fully realized feature film.  The resulting completed film is pure Lynchian madness, as it deviates from the straight-forward mystery of it’s original vision and becomes on of the director’s most cerebral head trips in it’s new form.

The film introduces us to the titular road that crisscrosses the peaks of the Hollywood Hills in the dead calm of night. A woman emerges as the only survivor of a deadly car wreck, and she seeks shelter in a nearby apartment complex.  The following morning, an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Watts) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of stardom.  She takes up residence in an apartment loaned to her by her aunt.  When Betty enters the apartment, she is shocked to find another woman there already; the same woman from the crash.  Suffering from amnesia, the woman goes by the name Rita (Laura Harring).  Betty tries to help Rita remember who she is, and to also find out why she has so much cash in her purse as well as a mysterious blue key.  While having dinner that night, Rita suddenly remembers a name; Diane Selwyn.  They track down an apartment address listed to Ms. Selwyn and shockingly find a rotting corpse inside.  Meanwhile, a film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is struggling to cast a lead role in his film, and is being pressured by the mafia connected Castigliane brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti) to chose a girl named Camilla Rhodes for the part over everyone else, including Betty.  After the trauma of finding the corpse, Betty and Rita return to their apartment.  The grow more intimate and end up making love.  In the middle of the night they are awoken and drawn to mysterious theater down the road called Club Silencio.  The performance they watch puts both girls into an intense hallucinatory state.  Afterwards, we meet the woman Diane Selwyn, who looks just like Betty, who is a struggling actress having a secret affair with a movie star named Camilla Rhodes, who looks like Rita.  We watch their relationship crumble and Diane takes increasingly more dark turns in her life before things ultimately fall apart for her, becoming yet another casualty of the broken dreams of Hollywood.

It’s clear when watching the movie where Lynch shifted gears and turned his pilot episode into a fully realized feature film.  The first half of the movie plays out in a Twin Peaks sort of mystery soap opera.  But once the Club Silencio scene begins, the movie pivots and becomes something entirely different.  Lynch dispenses with the story that he had been telling for the last hour and he even makes you question whether any of it was real by the questions posed in the final half of the film.  The theory posed by the second part of the film is that the story we were being told was an imagined dream of the doomed Diane Selwyn, creating a different reality where her life isn’t in shambles and where she is the heroine of her own story.  That’s why Betty comes across as the more traditional heroine, because it’s the kind of cinematic role model that Diane always wished she had been.  Rita, on the other hand, is an imagined version of Diane’s lover Camilla, one in which she is more easily controlled by the possessive Diane.  It’s interesting that Lynch takes this dramatic turn with his film, especially with the knowledge knowing that it was being developed as a TV series.  Instead of completing the story that he envisioned when he originally developed the pilot, Lynch stops the narrative dead in it’s tracks and deconstructs it completely.  The movie as a result becomes far more of a commentary on the nature of the cutthroat movie business.  By showing us the contrast between Diane’s lonely, bitter existence and the imagined heightened reality of the soap opera that Betty lives within, we see how so much of the entertainment business is built upon the tragic rejection of so many people who get used and abused all in the pursuit of the fleeting promise of stardom.

It’s the main reason why David Lynch chose for his title Mulholland Drive.  The street is a winding road that sits atop the Hollywood Hills and marks a bit of a boundary between the rich and glamourous opulence of Hollywood itself and the drab and lower rent San Fernando Valley.  In a way, Mulholland Drive becomes a bit of a metaphorical dividing line between the have and have nots, which becomes central to the theme of the movie.  Mulholland Drive often gets compared with another classic movie named after another famous thoroughfare in Tinseltown; Sunset Boulevard (1950).  Billy Wilder’s acclaimed satire about the broken dreams of the film industry certainly had a big influence on what David Lynch intended for his look at Hollywood, but where the two diverge is in how the depths of humanity are focused on in the story.  In Sunset Boulevard, we witness the madness of Norma Desmond through the eyes of another, but in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, we are brought into the madness itself.  In typical Lynchian fashion, the lines between what’s real and what isn’t is blurred and through that contrast, Lynch is able to deliver his portrayal about the dark side of show business.  There’s also another interesting wrinkle added to this move when you learn about Naomi Watt’s own history with the movie industry.  She has said in interviews that her own experience trying to make it in Hollywood was very much reflected in the characters of Betty and Diane.  She struggled for years trying to break into acting, and even fell into deep depressions during that time.  Right before David Lynch cast her, Naomi was facing eviction from her apartment and had lost her health insurance.  She nearly quit acting before her friend and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman talked her into staying, and sure enough Mulholland Drive would indeed be her big break.  She knew all too well the kind of part she would be playing and that personal experience really carries through in the film.  The role may have hit close to home, but Naomi Watt’s authenticity in the role really helps to elevate the film beyond just it’s eccentricities.

The Criterion Collection edition of Mulholland Drive is an interesting exercise in preservation.  David Lynch shot the movie like most of his films on celluloid.  However, the parts of the film that were supposed to be part of the TV pilot are shot on a different kind of stock than the parts that were filmed a year later to make the movie.  Most people won’t know the difference, but when it comes to restoration, the difference in film quality can be substantial.  Luckily for Criterion, Lynch and his director of photography Peter Deming were deeply involved in the production of this new 4K digital master, making sure the color correction and fidelity of the picture remained consistent throughout.  Lynch’s movies are often very saturated in color, often for thematic purposes and in many cases intentionally antithetical to the tone of the scenes.  The color blue is an especially important thematic element in the movie, and the 4K restoration really helps to make the blue tones stand out in this movie.  The film is available in both Blu-ray and 4K UHD formats, and those looking for the highest quality experience should definitely go with the 4K version.  One of the interesting things about the film’s transfer is that it reflects the preferred framing that David Lynch wanted for his movie.  Film made for television usually runs at an aspect ratio of 1.76:1, but on cinematic screens, films are formatted for 1.85:1 in the same widescreen format.  To account for the difference between screen and TV formats, Lynch actually gave theaters specific instructions on how to show Mulholland Drive, by having the frames manually lowered so the actors’ heads wouldn’t get cut off.  In the restoration for Criterion, Lynch was able to supervise the framing so that it will play in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the image centered the way he wants it.  The film’s 5.1 surround sound track is also boosted with a new DTS restoration that helps to make the film sound exceptional, especially in the more cerebral moments late in the film.

In terms of the special features, this edition of Mulholland Drive is a bit light compared to other films in the Criterion library, including the other ones directed by David Lynch.  The most substantial bonuses are the collection of interviews conducted with David Lynch as well as assorted cast and crew.  These were all filmed specifically for the movie’s original debut in the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in 2015.  One involves both David Lynch and Naomi Watts looking back on their memories of the filming.  Watts, in particular, recounts the aforementioned struggles she faced before she got the role.  Another collection of interviews includes actress Laura Harring, actor Justin Theroux, and casting director Johanna Ray, all talking about what it was like shooting specific scenes.  Other interviews include composer Angelo Badalamenti, cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer Jack Fisk, all of whom are frequent collaborators of David Lynch and they share their different experiences working with the man on set and off.  Another substantial feature is a vintage featurette showing on set footage during the making of the film.  It’s an interesting look at what went into the making of the movie, and it gives us insight into David Lynch’s process behind the camera as well.  A short deleted scene is included, set within a Hollywood police station.  It’s an interesting inclusion, but ultimately the scene is nothing substantial and it’s easy to see why it made the cutting room floor.  Finally, the film’s original theatrical trailer is included.  Overall, it’s a light collection of bonuses, but each one is still interesting on it’s own and well worth pouring through, especially the one’s that give you a good look behind the scenes of the movie.

For a lot of people, David Lynch’s movies may be a bit too weird to fully appreciate.  I myself will admit that I don’t really get him either. He’s not anywhere near the top of my favorite filmmakers, and I am mostly mixed on a lot of his films.  Even still, I do recognize the artistry behind his filmmaking and I do admire his originality a lot.  No other filmmaker makes movies the way that he does, and that certainly is something worth celebrating.  The Criterion Collection understands that too, and that’s why they have been eager to make his movies celebrated additions to their ever expanding library.  Mulholland Drive may not be his greatest work, but it certainly is his most interesting.  Given the backstory of how this movie got made, it is remarkable how he was able to turn lemons into lemonade by repurposing an abandoned TV pilot into a daring cinematic achievement.  The way it shows the bitter downside of the Hollywood dream machine and how it contrasts the dream against a crushing reality is quite a poignant statement to make, especially for someone who has been an integral voice in cinematic history.  Though David Lynch has had his share of success in Hollywood, he’s also experienced his fair share of frustration as well; from the studio meddling that prematurely killed Twin Peaks to the nightmarish production that he endured to make the movie Dune (1984).  It wasn’t an easy road to maintain the purity of his unique style throughout his career, and there was a point where Mulholland Drive wasn’t going to survive either.  For those who find their ideal cinematic experience in the weird hallucinatory worlds that David Lynch creates for the big screen, they will undoubtedly be please with how Criterion treats his filmography.  Mulholland Drive, even after over 20 years, is still one of the director’s latter films.  He hasn’t directed a new feature since 2006’s Inland Empire (#1175), and is spending most of his days recently just working on increasingly bizarre short Avant Garde projects on his website, including delivering weather reports for some reason.  While many would like to see him return to feature films, he seems content in his own creative atmosphere for the moment, and upon seeing Mulholland Drive, it’s easy to see why Lynch is keen on avoiding the cutthroat world of Hollywood.  For the film itself, it gets a beautiful and richly textured 4K restoration via Criterion that will certainly please fans of the film, as well as a nice collection of features included on the disc.  When Criterion is spotlighting a filmmaker of David Lynch’s ilk, they are catering to a very specific and niche audience, but their work on the the restoration of these films is so pleasing to the eye, that they even will please those of us who find David Lynch just a tad bit too weird to fully love. – Mulholland Drive

Collecting Criterion – On the Waterfront (1954)

We are going through a moment here in America where Labor rights have come back to the forefront.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in Hollywood right now.  The Writer’s strike has now entered it’s fourth month, making it the longest labor stoppage in the industry’s history.  The Actor’s strike is not that far behind, now entering it’s third month.  The rights of workers has always been an important issue for most of the creatives within Hollywood, and of course it’s been reflected within the art of cinema.  You can find movies making the call for unionization as far back in Hollywood to classics like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), to more films like Norma Rae (1979), 9 to 5 (1980), and even the Disney musical Newsies (1992).  Pro-labor films more often than not are ideal underdog movies that appeal to the mass audience, many of whom would no doubt identify with the heroes of the story as they take on the fat cats representing Capitalism gone too far.  The Criterion Collection has naturally spotlighted some important films that have stood out over the years as some of the most profound pro-labor movies ever to make it to the silver screen.  There’s the aforementioned Modern Times (Spine #543), which is significant given Chaplin’s involvement in creating the first labor unions in Hollywood during the Depression years.  There’s also John Sayles’ Matewan (1987, #999) which chronicles a coal mining town coming together to form a union.  The Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA (1976, #334) which was an unflinching in the thick of it account of a tumultuous coal miners strike in Appalachian Kentucky is also in the Collection.  And more recently, the collection added Martin Scorsese’s sprawling crime epic The Irishman (2019, #1058),  which centered around notorious union chief Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino.  And while most of the films that Criterion has chosen to be a part of their collection take a firm pro-union stance, they also included a film that runs contrary to the messaging of those films, and surprisingly, it too is deserving of inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

On the Waterfront (1954, #647) is a paradox of a film.  On one hand, it is an apologia for anti-union activities that over time feels highly contrarian and indulgent.  And on the other hand, it is also one of the greatest films ever made.  There is some context that needs to be understood regarding the movie.  The film’s director Elia Kazan was one of the hottest names in Hollywood in the post-War years.  Having made a name for himself on Broadway, Kazan effortlessly transitioned into Hollywood, becoming especially valuable in directing a new type of acting style that was starting to emerge which was method acting.  Where some filmmakers struggled with the new method style and it’s sometimes temperamental performers, he exceled.  He immediately hit it strong with the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which garnered him his first Best Director honor.  He followed that up with a screen adaptation of a Broadway play he had staged earlier called A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which is where he and actor Marlon Brando first crossed paths.  During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a government led witch hunt to weed out all suspected communists in America was in full swing.  Hollywood, with it’s strong history of pro-labor sentiment, was naturally targeted by the Committee and many within Hollywood were called to Washington to name names.  Kazan, a lifelong liberal, was initially critical of the Committee’s overreach, but when the threat of blacklisting started to come his way, Kazan shockingly ended naming names.  Friends and colleagues felt betrayed by Kazan, and though he escaped the blacklist which destroyed the livelihood of countless professionals in Hollywood, it came at a steep cost to his reputation.  Still, he defiantly tried to explain why he did what he did, and he channeled that passion all into a film that over time has been considered his masterpiece.  On the Waterfront’s  origins may be controversial, but there is no denying that it is a master work of cinema from one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers.

The movie tells the story of a former prizefighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando).  Malloy also has been running errands for the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a man suspected of mob ties who has been using his position as a shield for illegal activity.  One night, Malloy witnesses a murder believed to have been orchestrated by Friendly’s thugs.  Terry minds his own business like all the other workers under Friendly’s thumb, but things change when Terry meets the sister of the slain man, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).  The two strike up a courtship, which in turn makes Terry feel guilt over not standing up for men like her brother.  A wedge begins to grow between Terry and Friendly, and the boss man tries to get Terry back in line by making casual threats.  Meanwhile, a strong critic of Friendly’s corruption, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to appeal to Malloy’s growing dissatisfaction with the union leadership, and asks Terry to help him by providing information to the courts that could finally hold Friendly and his men accountable.  Friendly ratchets up the heat on Terry by even send his associate Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry’s own brother, to make the final threat to him.  But, Terry eventually breaks and delivers his testimony to the courts, implicating Johnny Friendly to a number of crimes.  While Terry may have alleviated his conscience and done the right thing in the end, the testimony he gave ends up ostracizing him amongst his fellow longshoremen, who all begin calling him a “stool pigeon” for speaking out.  Despite being left abandoned by his fellow workers, all of whom still fall in line behind Friendly despite knowing about his criminal activity, Terry defiantly tells the union boss that he’s proud of what he did, because Friendly is corrupt and needed to be held accountable, stating no man should be above the law.  After being roughed up one more time by Friendly’s thugs, Malloy still finds the strength to stagger up to the docks seeking work, showing that his will is still not broken, and soon all the other workers begin following him in to, showing that in the end, it’s he who the workers respect more and not the corrupt boss that they’ve been too afraid to challenge before.

It’s clear to anyone familiar with Kazan’s history that Terry Malloy is a self-insert character for the director.  Kazan believed at the time that naming names at the HUAC hearings was the right thing to do, and he is using the narrative here to justify what he did.  It’s the only thing about the movie that over time hasn’t aged well, since the HUAC hearings and the McCarthy trials that followed after it are seen today as a black mark in American history.  Thousands of performers and filmmakers lost their careers because of the Black List, including many who were never able to make it back once the blacklisting ended in the 1960’s, and all because they were suspected of being something that many of them weren’t.  Their only crimes were not cooperating with the farcical witch hunt and refusing to expose their friends and colleagues.  Apart from that aspect of the movie, everything else about On the Waterfront is a master class in filmmaking.  The atmosphere of the film is particularly striking, with Kazan really doing an amazing job of presenting the gritty world that these characters inhabit.  There’s this overall lack of artificiality throughout the whole movie, as the world feels completely lived in.  The authenticity largely comes from the film’s use of actual locations as opposed to studio sets.  Most of the movie was shot in and around Hoboken, NJ at the real dock yards.  Most of the extras in the film are real longshoreman, which adds even more to the level of authenticity.  Kazan even required his actors to wear little to no make-up and wear off the rack clothes instead of being dressed by the studio wardrobe department, helping to strip artificiality even more.  All of this comes across beautifully in Boris Kaufman’s striking black and white cinematography.  Despite what Elia Kazan’s intentions were with making this movie, there is no doubt that he poured all of his artistry and talent into this film, and the end result is a film that certainly stands the test of time visually and narratively.

One of the things that really makes the movie soar is the incredibly humane story at it’s core.  Budd Schulberg’s screenplay matches the grit of Elia Kazan’s direction perfectly, creating characters that have rich histories and personality.  It’s that richness of character that really helps to make viewers forget the real life associations that precede the film.  In particular, the movie creates a compelling protagonist in Terry Malloy, a down on his luck “joe schmo” who has this one opportunity to do something right in his life.  Initially, Marlon Brando refused to be a part of this film since he felt betrayed by his former friend Elia Kazan after his “friendly witness” testimony to HUAC.  But, when Brando learned of other actors being considered for the role like Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and then newcomer Paul Newman, Brando begrudgingly said yes to the role, with conditions of course.  Kazan was glad to accommodate, because he only ever saw Brando in the role, and it’s fortunate for everyone that Marlon said yes.  This is easily one of Brando’s greatest performances, matched possibly only by his other iconic work in The Godfather (1972).  He just embodies this character heart and soul, and you find yourself easily captivated by him on screen.  He’s also backed up magnificently by a legendary supporting cast, with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb all giving magnificent performances.  Of course, one particular stand out is Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy.  The scene in the back seat of the taxi cab with Brando and Steiger is one of cinema’s most iconic moments, and both actors play the moment perfectly.  It was also one of the most difficult scenes to shoot as well, as the two “alpha dog” actors notoriously hated each other and refused to share the set most of the time.  Kazan was able to get just enough shots of the two of them on screen together in the end, with their close-ups all shot separately alone.  You would never know the difference as it is a seamless edit, and the scene is one of the most often imitated in movie history, especially with Brando’s iconic line, “I coulda been a contender.”   Kazan was often known to be an actor’s director, and this movie is a wonderful example of getting the best out of his performers.

The Criterion Collection naturally put a lot of effort into preserving this classic Hollywood masterpiece.  For the blu-ray release, the film received a brand new 4K transfer scanned from the original camera negative.  On the Waterfront, since it’s release, has always been considered an important film, and it’s studio Columbia Pictures has long kept the camera negative well preserved.  Even still, extensive restoration work was done to clean up the original elements and clear out all the scratches and conduct an accurate color correction on the black and white palette.  What is interesting about the restoration for this Criterion release is that the movie doesn’t just restore one version of the movie, but it in fact a restoration of three versions.  The movie’s original release came at a transitionary time in Hollywood, as widescreen filmmaking was beginning to take hold.  Fox’s The Robe (1953) had popularized the widescreen process a year prior, but it was too late to make the same adjustment for On the Waterfront.  Cinematographer managed to find a compromise by filming the movie in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  This enabled the film to retain it’s necessary framing for the new widescreen theater screens at a ratio of 1.85:1, while also being compatible for theaters not equipped for widescreen at the previous standard full frame of 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  While the wider version is the one that played in theaters for many years, the full frame version has been the one that more people have seen on home video releases, as it matched the old television aspect ratio of 4:3.  Criterion has now finally given us the chance to see Kazan and Kaufman’s original 1.66:1 version for the first time on home video, but the other two versions are also included, making this the most complete presentation that this movie has ever received on home video.  The restoration is quite remarkable, bringing out the beautiful authentic detail in every frame of the movie.  The blu-ray also features a restored presentation of the movie’s original mono soundtrack, though an alternate 5.1 mix is included as well.  Given that Criterion went above and beyond in giving us all the different versions of this movie in one set is another reminder of just how great Criterion is at giving movie collectors the best of all worlds.

Most of the blu-ray’s bonus features accompany the 1.66:1 version of the film, with a second disc devoted entirely to the other two versions.  The primary feature is a feature audio commentary by film scholars Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.  Together, the two authors break down the film’s history and themes, share behind the scenes tidbits, and present a very scholarly breakdown of the movie that tells you everything you need to know about the film.  There is couple of new interviews conducted just for this Criterion release.  One is a conversation between director Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones, both long time fans of this film and the discussion talks a lot about the influence this movie has had on them and many other filmmakers over the years.  There’s also a new interview with actress Eva Marie Saint, who as of writing is the last living member of the cast.  There’s also a brand new documentary detailing the making of the film, with new interviews with scholars like Leo Braudy and David Thomson.  Some legacy features are also included, including a feature length documentary called Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982) about the director, as well as a documentary called Contender: Mastering the Method (2001), which is about the famous taxi scene.  There’s also an enlightening archival interview from 2001 with Elia Kazan himself.  There are also a handful of video essays about the real life locations and people used in the film, another about the iconic musical score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, and another about the different aspect ratios and the effort to restore them.  Lastly, there is the film’s original theatrical trailer.  There is a wealth of content included in this Criterion release, including a healthy amount of new material.  The aspect ratio essay is fascinating for people like me interested in the history of widescreen formats in film.  There’s also a great amount of material devoted to the film’s historical context, particularly with regards to the director.  It’s a definite must have for fans of the film, as it really covers all the bases, and anyone coming to the film for the first time will get everything they need to understand everything about the movie.

Elia Kazan would continue to have a modestly successful career after On the Waterfront, directing movies like East of Eden (1955) and America, America (1963) in the years that followed.  But there is no doubt that On the Waterfront was the peak of his career.  The film would go on to win an impressive 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Kazan’s second directing honor, a first Oscar win for Brando for Best Actor (the only one he accepted), and a Supporting Actress win for Eva Marie Saint.  In the years that followed, however, Kazan couldn’t shake the cost of what he had done even with his statement in On the Waterfront.  His attempt to compare himself to defiant bravery of Terry Malloy seems selfish in hindsight.  Malloy was standing up to bullies in order to expose deep seeded corruption that was crippling the labor movement in America.  But in reality, Kazan was the one who gave into the bullies and helped to prop up corruption in the American government.  Over the years, this specter of selfishness followed Kazan to his last days.  When the Academy Awards gave him an honorary award in 2002, it was a controversial moment.  Half of the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation, while the other half sat on their hands and spoke loudly with their silence.  Not all wounds were healed it seemed.  Still, it is undeniable that Kazan was a master filmmaker and On the Waterfront is an undeniably great film on every level.  Divorced from it’s history, the movie is a great underdog story of overcoming your personal demons to stand for something good.  It can even be interpreted as being pro-labor in the end, as the longshoremen in the finale do fall in line behind the purer Terry Malloy rather than the corrupt Johnny Friendly, showing the importance of solidarity.  In the end, workers rights is dependent on being a united front for the benefit of all union members rather than a generator for one person’s self-interest.  Regardless of what you think about the movie’s message, On the Waterfront is filmmaking at it’s finest, and a worthy inclusion into the Criterion Collection.  In the grand history of cinema, it is undeniably a contender.


Collecting Criterion – Malcolm X (1992)

As we reflect on the important figures that come into focus during Black History Month, it is important to also look at the many Black voices that have made an impact in cinema as well.  The Criterion Collection, for their part, have made an effort to spotlight filmmakers of color in their library.  Sure there are the iconic Blacksploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s in the collection, including a Box Set of the films of Melvin Van Peebles, as well as Shaft (1971, Spine #1130).  But, the collection runs through so many genre types that it gives diverse look into the many different ways that Black filmmakers were able to tell their stories throughout film history.  In there you’ll find Westerns like Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972, #1140), Noirs like Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, #1135)  and comedies like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987, #1173).  The collection also has films directed by Black women, like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball (2000, #1097), Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011, #1083), and Regina King’s One Night in Miami (2020, #1106).  But, when we are talking about the history of Black cinema, one of the most obvious names to come up is Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of the most prominent faces of African-American cinema over the last 30 years, and he continues to bring his sharp-edged social commentary to the big screen with recent celebrated films like BlackKklansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020).  He thus far has 3 films that have become selected as part of the Criterion Collection.  One is his blistering media satire Bamboozled (2000, #1019).  Another is a movie that many consider to be his masterpiece, and the one that put him on the map in world cinema; the iconic Do The Right Thing (1989, #97).  Most recently, however, they have added to the collection what may be the most ambitious movie of Spike Lee’s career; the epic scale biopic Malcolm X (1992, #1160).

Spike Lee, apart from being known as one of the most accomplished and skilled filmmakers out there, is also known for being one of the most opinionated too.  From the moment he started rolling film on his first ever movie he was adamant about using the art of cinema as a platform for spotlighting the Black experience in America.  In particular, there is a very charged political outlook in almost all of his movies, and he is not ashamed of the bluntness that he addresses those issues either.  As a result, he has become somewhat of a divisive figure in the world of cinema, though more recently he has been rightly celebrated for his accomplishments by a broad consensus within and outside of the film industry.  While some may be turned off by Spike Lee’s abrasive style, there can be no doubt that he is a one of a kind filmmaker and someone whose daring choices often always makes his movies pop with life and passion.  It’s rather surprising that given the subject matter that he often tackles in his movies, typically regarding the systemic racism that pervades our country, that he has managed to maintain a steady career in Hollywood, even with the support of some major studios.  His movies up through Do The Right Thing were produced independently and with modest budgets, but for his follow-up to Do The Right Thing he was given the full backing of Warner Brothers.  Malcolm X was a major jump for the still young filmmaker.  He was going from a contained, single location drama like Thing to a massive 3 1/2 hour epic story about one of the most divisive figures in the Civil Rights movement.  Convincing a major studio to invest in an epic biopic about the firebrand “by any means necessary” civil rights leader was not going to be easy.  But, with the celebrated Do the Right Thing lifting his profile, Warner Brothers believed it was a risk worth taking, and thus Spike Lee was granted the chance to bring his long time passion project towards reality.  The only question was, would audiences be willing to see it, especially those unfamiliar with the large swath of Black History and the cinematic voices that Hollywood often had pushed to the side for many years.

For his film, Spike Lee would focus on the formative years of Malcolm Little (X)’s life, from his time as a petty gangster, to his imprisonment and conversion to Islam behind bars, to his activism as part of the Nation of Islam, and then eventually to his departure from the same organization that led to his assassination.  All told through a first hand testimonial from Malcolm’s own perspective, we see the many different life moments that shaped the man into the crusader that he eventually became.  One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is that the man we meet at the beginning of the film is so far removed from the man we come to know by the end.  Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) starts off as a zoot suit wearing gangster in 1940’s Boston, working for a gangster running a numbers racket named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo).  After running afoul of Archie, Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) begin committing robberies to settle their debts.  Unfortunately they get caught and end up serving 8-10 years for their crimes.  While in prison, Malcolm befriends another convict named Baines (Albert Hall) who mentors the troubled youth and helps him convert to Islam.  Once his sentence ends, Malcolm pursues a more active role in the Nation of Islam organization, eventually rising up the ranks to be in the company of the organization’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.).  Through his activism within the NOI, Malcolm emerges as a powerful orator and a lightning rod figure in the growing Civil Rights movement.  It also puts him under the scrutiny of law enforcement, who frequently targets Malcolm and his follows as a means of suppressing Civil Rights movements in America.  As he grows older, Malcolm’s activism goes through it’s own transformation, as he begins to retreat from some of the supremacist rhetoric of the NOI  and instead he desires a more humanistic view of civil rights.  This ultimately makes him a target of NOI hardliners, who begin threatening him and his family, including his steadfast supportive wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett).  Eventually Malcolm has to put his own life on the line to continue his crusade for Civil Rights, and this ultimately leads to his assassination from hitmen sent by the NOI.  Though his life is tragically cut short, he leaves behind a lasting legacy which in typical Spike Lee fashion is spotlighted through a montage of civil rights movements that have grown ever since.

It cannot be understated what a monumental piece of filmmaking Malcolm X is.  Spike Lee clearly was inspired by epic biopics made by Hollywood over the years, and this was his opportunity to show that the same ambitious storytelling on a grand scale could be accomplished by a Black filmmaker for a Black audience as well.  In all of it’s 3 1/2 hours, Spike Lee commands a huge multifaceted epic tale of race in America without it ever sagging under the weight of it’s ambition.  It’s frankly remarkable that he made this movie (his sixth overall) at the age of 35.  Most filmmakers often have to work a lifetime in order to make something this grand in scope, and he did it almost fresh out of film school.  What is equally impressive is that he brought along all the same crew that he had worked with before on his other films from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to Mo Better Blues (1990); cinematograhy by Ernest Dickerson, costumes by Ruth Carter, and music by Terence Blanchard, all of whom working for the first time on a period set drama.  The movie shows him and his crew growing by leaps and bounds with their craft, and making a statement for their own place as people of color working in their respective fields within the Hollywood machine.  But what is especially impressive is that they were able to make the subject of Malcolm X, one of the most divisive figures in Civil Rights history, and give him mainstream recognition in a big Hollywood.  For many reasons, Spike Lee needed to be the filmmaker to tell Malcolm X’s story, because most filmmakers would’ve been too afraid.  Given Malcolm X’s violent rhetoric towards whites in the past (something which he later retracted in his last years), filmmakers had largely been reluctant to tell his life story on film, with the Civil Rights movement largely being framed on screen through more peaceful figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Spike Lee was the one and only filmmaker who could form a nuanced portrait of the controversial figure and show us, especially White audiences, that Malcolm X was much more than the firebrand activist with the violent racial rhetoric that he characterized with.

Above all else, what was crucial towards making the movie work as well as it did was the casting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.  By this time, Washington had risen to leading man status in Hollywood, with an Oscar win for Glory (1989) already on his resume.  There was no doubt that he would take a meaty role like this and run with it.  What makes his casting so perfect is that he nails every aspect of the character through his transformations over the course of his life.  From his gangster days to his firebrand activism to his late stage self-reflection, Denzel captures so much of Malcolm X’s journey through his performance.  What he really brings to the character is soul; you feel the weight of history that informs the person that Malcolm X is, both as a black man in America and also through just the personal trauma that he has had to go through.  He is definitely supported with a dynamic ensemble cast around him, including Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, and Al Freeman Jr., but this movie is first and foremost a showcase for his talents as an actor.  Naturally, this would lead to a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, though he would lose out to industry veteran Al Pacino who finally won for Scent of a Woman after losing for so many other iconic performances.  Though the movie was well received in critical circles, it did only modest business at the box office.  This sadly caused Spike Lee to no longer have the unfettered studio support that he once had, and he returned to more low budget fare for a while, with many believing that he peaked too early as a filmmaker.  His more recent resurgence has proven that he still has it as a filmmaker.  But it’s hard to know for sure if he has another movie on the scale of Malcolm X   in his future.  For what it’s worth, he is fortunate to have made the most of the short window that was open to him in order to make that kind of movie with the support that he was afforded at the time.

The Criterion Collection has included Malcolm X in their library with a special 4K UHD release.  Started in 2021, Criterion has entered the 4K market with a few of their high profile releases, and Malcolm X is one of the beneficiaries of this move towards high end home presentation.  The film’s original negative was taken out of the Warner Brothers Archive and was rescanned in 4K resolution.  A team of restorationists worked with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to clean up the film’s picture and sound, and the new digital master was given approval by both Dickerson and Spike Lee for this UHD release.  The film’s 4K presentation is given it’s own UHD disc in the set and features full Dolby Vision HDR picture quality.  Several DVD and Blu-ray releases have done the movie justice in the past, but this new 4K presentation is remarkable in it’s fidelity.  Spike Lee for one thing is a filmmaker known for his bold uses of color in his films, and while Malcolm X is more subdued and muted compared to some of his other movies, the colors that are present definitely pop off the screen with the HDR support.  The fine detail of the picture really stands out in 4K resolution, which really makes you appreciate the period details that went into this movie; especially the costumes from Ruth E. Carter.  The film’s soundtrack is also something to admire too.  It’s almost identical to the 2012 5.1 mix that was conducted for the film’s original Blu-ray release from Warner Brothers, but it does sound even better with the uncompressed UHD disc.  The Criterion set also includes a Blu-ray copy of the movie which was sourced from the same 4K restoration master.  No matter what version you watch, you will be seeing this movie in the best possible version that has been on the market to date, helping to keep the movie looking just as good as it did when it was first released in theaters 30 years ago.

There is also a healthy helping of bonus features here as well, some from previous Blu-ray releases of the movie, as well as some made just for this release by Criterion.  The 4K UHD disc features just one bonus feature and that’s an audio commentary track.  Recorded in 2005 for the movie’s DVD release by Warner Brothers, this track features Spike Lee himself alongside comments from Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and Ruth E. Carter.  Though all were recorded separately, the track is edited together to create a very insightful conversation about the making of the movie from their first hand experiences.  The same commentary track is also found on the Blu-ray version of the movie.  A third disc includes all of the remaining bonus features.  First, there is a featurette called Spike Lee in Conversation, which was made just for this release by Criterion.  It’s a conversational interview with Spike conducted journalist Barry Michael Cooper.  You can tell these two are long time friends as the conversation remains casual as they reminisce about the early years of Spike’s career when they first knew each other, and they eventually touch upon the turbulent times that surrounded the making of Malcolm X.  In addition, Criterion also film two separate interviews with two of Lee’s longtime collaborators, actor Delroy Lindo and composer Terence Blanchard.  Both of them offer their own interesting anecdotes about working with Spike and being a part of Malcolm X.  The bonus disc also carries over some of the features from the Warner Brothers Blu-ray, including the making-of featurette called By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X as well as nine deleted scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.  The most substantial feature, however, is a feature length documentary from 1972 about Malcolm X, narrated by James Earl Jones.  The documentary helps to give more historical insight into the person that Malcolm X was, and it’s a valuable document considering it was made within only 5 years of X’s assassination.  Like most other Criterion titles, this is a bonus collection that does justice to the movie it is complimenting, and any Criterion collector will be please by what they are given here, both with the old and the new features.

There are several movies that should be considered essential viewing when learning about the fight for Civil Rights here in America, and I think Malcolm X is one of those titles.  It is an exceptionally well crafted movie made on a grand scale that bravely puts a controversial figure at the center of it’s story and shows his important contribution to the struggle with nuance and intelligence.  With Denzel’s iconic performance and Spike Lee’s fearless direction, they managed to make a movie that expertly breaks down what kind of a man Malcolm X was, and why it is important to share his story.  You may not have liked everything Malcolm X stood for, but you cannot deny that part of the reason Civil Rights had been achieved to some extent in America is because of his contribution to the movement.  Spike Lee uses his own unique style to drive home Malcolm X’s message in a way that connects with modern audiences, while at the same time drawing upon cinematic inspirations of the past.  You can see echoes of other epic biopics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970) and Gandhi (1982) in Spike Lee’s film, with it’s attention to period detail and the generation spanning nature of it’s narrative.  There’s no doubt that Spike was making this film as a statement for black audiences, but the style of movie also appeals to audiences of all races with it’s epic filmmaking, and that seems to be the ultimate intent of Spike’s purpose for making this movie.  He wanted to put Malcolm X into the same league as these iconic figures that shaped history, and in a sense he had to do that by making his story appear as mainstream Hollywood as it could.  But, at the same time, Spike Lee is not selling out and going Hollywood.  Malcolm X is still a Spike Lee Joint to it’s core and only has the added benefit of it’s grand scope and mainstream appeal to help it endure with audiences of all kinds, black or white.  It’s an ideal choice to join the Criterion Collection and they’ve given it a worthy presentation to boot with insightful bonuses included.  For those who haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, please do yourself a favor and carve out some time to give it a watch because Malcolm X’s activism is an essential chapter to learn in the course of Black History and Spike’s movie is a cinematic event that puts the perfect mythic spotlight on this larger than life figure.

Collecting Criterion – The Last Emperor (1987)

The Criterion Collection has long held the the works of post-war Italian filmmakers in special regard, and the library as a whole includes a big block of titles just of the collective works of the great masters of Italian cinema alone.  One of the first great Italian filmmakers of the Italian neo-realist revolution in the post war era was Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) is a prized addition to Criterion’s library.  There are also the movies of Roberto Rossellini, including a three movie collection he made with his wife Ingrid Bergman, as well as many films made by the most Italian of directors Federico Fellini, including La Dolce Vita (1960, #733), 8 1/2 (1963, #140), and Amarcord (1973, #4).  Later influential Italian filmmakers are also spotlighted in the Criterion Collection, including Luchino Visconti with films like his epic scale family drama The Leopard (1963, #235), as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini with his (to put it mildly) controversial film Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976, #17).  Pasolini’s particular brand of controversial subject matter depicted in his films would go on to influence another Italian filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci.  Bertolucci would make a big splash on the Italian film scene with his 1970 film The Conformist, a hyper-stylized and politically charged movie that won him international acclaim.  He was often a controversial filmmaker too, pushing the boundaries of sexuality to their limit, and as discussed with the making of his film Last Tango in Paris (1972), perhaps crossing the line in terms of consent with his performers.  Despite his beginnings in Italian cinema, Bertolucci eventually branched out into the more global market, with most of his movies in the latter part of his career being in the English language.  He’s not particularly well represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films in the library of titles.  One is his feature debut, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) (1962, #272), while the other is the film that probably marks the biggest success of his career, as well being the movie he is probably most well known for; the Best Picture Oscar-winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987, #422).

It’s interesting that for a filmmaker as identifiably Italian as Bernardo Bertolucci was, his most successful film had nothing to do with anything Italian at all.  The Last Emperor is a movie about the nation of China, and more specifically, it’s about the titular doomed monarch.  The movie tells the story of a controversial and yet at the the little known historical figure named Pu Yi.  Pu Yi became Emperor of China at the age of only three.  As he grew up in the Forbidden City during the early part of the 20th century, the nation of China itself went through a turbulent upheaval.  China became a republic after the decline of colonial influence in the region, but that alliance was soon broken by civil war, between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.  In the middle of the brutal infighting, Pu Yi was forced to flee the Forbidden City and live in exile.  Eventually, the Imperialist Japanese invaded mainland China and set up the Manchurian region as a puppet state called Manchukuo, tapping Pu Yi as it’s figure head leader.  Upon the Japanese defeat in World War II, Pu Yi was arrested and sent to prison in the now firmly Communist China.  He went through re-education, was released after finishing his reformation, and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.  This was an interesting unknown chapter of history that proved to be rather different for Bertolucci as a filmmaker.  He was now stranger to epics, having previously made the 5 hour family drama 1900 (1976), but The Last Emperor would be an even more monumental undertaking.  Bertolucci became the first Western filmmaker to ever be granted permission to make a narrative film in China, and even more historically, he was the first Western filmmaker ever granted to film in the Forbidden City.  Interior China, especially the Imperial City of Peking (later Beijing) had been closed off to much of the Western world, with European colonizers remaining mainly in the coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Post WWII China became further isolationist under the Maoist regime, with the Cultural Revolution turning China into a hermit nation.  Eventually, China did open up to the West and there began to be a cultural exchange taking place, with cinema becoming an important bridge between cultures.  Hence why The Last Emperor was such an eye-opening cinematic experience for people in the 1980’s, because it was our first really expansive look into this once forbidden nation.

The movie itself covers much of Pu Yi’s life through the prism of his reformation while in prison.  In 1950, 44 year old Pu Yi (John Lone) is transported to Fushun Prison in southern Manchuria.  There he is interrogated by the Camp Warden (Ying Ruocheng) and his fierce deputy interrogator (Ric Young).  Pu Yi is asked to write his life’s story in a journal for them to examine in comparison with his fellow conspirators.  Pu Yi first looks back at his childhood, being coronated at the age of three and now making his home in the opulent Forbidden City.  3 year old Pu Yi (Richard Vuu) is worshipped as a God by the thousands of eunuchs and maids who work within the City walls.  But, when he is 8 years old, the Emperor (Tijger Tsou) learns the hard truth, that his powers as Emperor is limited only to the city walls, because outside the walls, the nation of China has become a republic governed by a President.  He continues to grow up realizing he’s just a symbolic Emperor with no real power, shattering his sense of purpose in the world.  Worse yet, he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City, increasingly feeling like a prisoner.  When he turns 15, Pu Yi (Wu Tao) meets an English tutor named Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), who helps to give the isolated Emperor a more worldly education, as well as a bit of a nudge towards a modern perspective.  Upon adulthood, Pu Yi begins to seek reforms in the Forbidden City, which then spells the end of the thousands of years of Imperial rule within the Fordidden City.  Pu Yi, and his two consorts Wanrong (Joan Chen) and Wenxiu (Vivian Wu) leave the city never to return and escape the warring factions in China thanks to Johnston’s contacts at the British Embassy.  While in exile, he is influenced by his cousin Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han) to seek help from the Japanese, who have invaded Manchuria and are turning it into a puppet state.  The exiled Emperor takes up the offer from Japan, and becomes a monarch once again, but soon learns that he has no power at all, with his Japanese handler Masahiko Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto) being the one truly calling the shots with orders from Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Wenxiu has walked out of her life as a consort, and Wanrong descends deeper into her opium addiction.  The allied forces eventually defeat Japan, and Pu Yi is captured by the Red Army.  He spends fifteen years in prison, only reconciling with his crimes after learning of the atrocities that were committed in his name without his knowing about them.  He is released reformed, and lives out the rest of his days as a lonely gardener, a now anonymous face in a nation that once revered him as a God King.

The story of The Last Emperor is a remarkable tragic tale of a fall from grace.  It’s fascinating watching the movie to see how quickly in one lifetime the nation of China changed it’s course in history.  Pu Yi was crowned emperor in the final days of a once mighty empire that remained a force in the Eastern world for thousands of years, and his life would see him witness to the rapid modernization of China to where it is now.  As we see in his early childhood, his way of life is a relic of a more medieval time in Chinese history, existing more as a performance piece in order for the players to continue profiting off of the wealth of generations before.  But as the outside world encroaches, Pu Yi defiantly refuses to believe that he is pawn in the politics of the modern world.  Ultimately that is the tragedy of his character, the delusion that he had any real power at all.  He was born within an illusion, and no matter what defiant motions he made, he would never actually be an emperor the way his ancestors were.  Instead, he becomes a witness to history, as he sees China change in the tumultuous wartime years.  It could be so easy for a character like Pu Yi to be portrayed in a passive, uninteresting way, but actor John Lone brings an impressive amount of weight to his performance as the doomed emperor, especially in the scenes at the prison when the character is broken down by his captors.  The same is also true of the three young actors that play Pu Yi in his formative years, as we see the naiveite of youthful passion become challenged over time.  I think that this is where the strength lies in the film.  Bertolucci and company managed to find near Shakespearean levels of complexity in this often forgotten and passive player in world politics of the 20th century.  He remained a powerless figure all his life, and yet his story is powerful one of a changing world with an a tragic fall from grace found in it’s center.  The way that Pu Yi desperately clings to his past glory is tragic and yet identifiable.  We ultimately sympathize with his plight, despite the fact that he was a cog in a very destructive war machine.  Still, we feel bad as the grandeur of his early life disappears and is replaced with hardship.  Even as Pu Yi’s influence disappears by the end of the film, and he becomes just another average citizen, the movie does leave us on a semi-triumphant note.  An elderly Pu Yi pays a ticket to visit the Forbidden City, becoming a tourist in the place he was once raised in.  And yet, he is the only person there who knows all the secrets, because he was truly the last one to sit on the throne of the Emperor.  And he proves this by showing a young child a special keepsake he hid under the throne’s seat, which turns out to be a jar with a cricket inside, a secret only the Last Emperor of China would have known.

Bernardo Bertolucci was granted the permission to make a the film by the Chinese communist party under special conditions, which obviously limited how much commentary he could make about the Chinese government.  Given that Bertolucci was a lifelong socialist, it was not hard for him to keep the politics of the movie within the line of the Chinese government’s demands, but the movie in essence is not one concerned with taking a side in politics.  It’s about the life of it’s subject, and how he was a witness to world history.  Before Bertolucci, documentary filmmakers from the West had been granted access to film within China’s borders, albeit under tight scrutiny.  But, The Last Emperor was a full blown, Hollywood backed film production that was granted unprecedented access to areas once declared off limits to outsiders before, and this was a definite coup for Bertolucci and his team.  They were the first Western film crew to ever shoot a movie in the Forbidden City itself, and with that they were able to give Western audience an authentic look within this mysterious fortress, from it’s grand courtyards to it’s opulent throne rooms to it’s intimate private gardens.  And, with the help of Bertolucci’s longtime cinematographer, Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, they captured the grandeur of the Forbidden City with amazing visual splendor, including mind-boggling epic scale and a vibrant color palette.  The famous moment when young Pu Yi wonders into the courtyard and is greeted by over a thousand worshipping  servants is a prime example of how well Bertolucci’s visual style was a perfect match for this epic tale.  The same grandeur remains true throughout the movie as Pu Yi’s journey takes him deeper into the upheaval of history.  Bertolucci manages to fill the frame with amazing compositions and splashes of color, reminiscent of the way he filmed his earlier movies like The Conformist.  With the historic nature of the film’s production, as well as the pedigree of talent in front and behind the camera, it was wildly celebrated by critics upon release.  Because it was independently produced, it did not receive a wide release by a major studio; only being picked up later by Columbia for distribution.  Still, it managed to be seen by the right people, becoming the surprise big winner at the Academy Awards in 1988, sweeping all 9 categories it was nominated in, including Best Director for Bertolucci and Best Picture.  Since then, it has grown in esteem among cinephiles and casual viewers as a prime example of the thought provoking and artistic historical epic that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore.

The Criterion Collection delighted many fans of The Last Emperor when they announced that it would be added to their library of titles, though it would also spark a bit of controversy once it was finally released.  The film went through an extensive digital restoration based on a high definition scan of the original camera negative.  Given the good quality of the source negative, it stands that Criterion fans would be excited for a release of the film with an almost immaculate picture in high definition.  However, there was a bit of disappointment that came when we actually saw the final product.  The restoration of the film was done under the supervision and approval of Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, and at his behest, he had the film cropped to an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.  This was a shock to many of the film’s fans because the original film had a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The fact that Criterion was giving us a cropped version of the movie ratter than one reflective of it’s original framing seemed to be a betrayal of their original mission to preserve movies in the way they were originally meant to be seen.  Still, this was an order given by Storaro himself, who made the choice because he disliked how movies lost their picture quality in home video release on standard definition TVs, so he had the film’s framing changed to maintain the integrity of the picture.  Unfortunately, he seems to be in a mindset for a different time when widescreen, high definition television were not standardized across the market like they are now.  He made the same controversial choice as well for another film he shot, Apocalypse Now (1979) when it received it’s “Redux” re-release.  Apocalypse Now has since been re-released again, restoring the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but The Last Emperor still is only available in the cropped 2.00:1.  My hope is that with Criterion’s recent launch of 4K releases in their collection that they may hopefully revisit The Last Emperor and restore it back to it’s original aspect ratio, so that we can full appreciate the full breadth of Bertolucci’s epic canvas.  For what we do have on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the image is still fairly good, maintaining the vibrancy of Storaro’s remarkable color palette, which especially pops in high definition.  The movie’s stereo soundtrack also sounds great as well, especially in the remarkable exterior scenes within the Forbidden City.  It’s a strong presentation, but one that still feels compromised when one knows of the way the movie should truly look.

The Last Emperor was one of the first titles to receive a Blu-ray release under the Criterion banner.  While there was improvement in the image quality, the release at the same time streamlined the truly bountiful 4 disc DVD edition that the film had received earlier.  The 4 disc DVD set included not just the movie itself, but also the 3 1/2 hour long television version.  The longer version is the one that I was introduced to first when I bought the movie on VHS.  It was only when I purchased this Criterion version that I got to see the original cut that played in theaters, and while the longer version adds a lot of extra character moments (particularly for the supporting characters) it is almost identical to the theatrical version in terms of plot momentum, and most people wouldn’t know a difference.  The theatrical version (at 2 hours and 45 minutes) is perfectly streamlined and well paced, but the television version remarkably doesn’t sag at all either, both offering compelling experiences.  Unfortunately, the Blu-ray set only features the shorter theatrical cut, so if you can seek out the DVD set, it’s worth it to watch both versions of the movie.  All of the bonus features are thankfully carried over from DVD to Blu-ray.  One includes a compilation audio commentary, which features snippets from different people involved in the film’s making, including director Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.  There is also a collection of documentaries, including The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci, which details the career path that led the director from his early days in Italian cinema all the way to filming in China; The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, which gives an in depth look at the making of the film; as well as contemporary documentaries made by Criterion with interviews from various cast and crew.  There is also a video diary included from Bertolucci himself, showing is own hands on experience making the movie.  There is also included a BBC interview from 1989 with Bertolucci, a brand new interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma who gives historical context for the movie’s setting, and an interview with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne who co-wrote the film’s score with Chinese musician Cong Su and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also played the role of Masahiko in the movie.  I don’t normally talk about the booklet included in the sets, but the DVD one in particular has an essay that is especially worth a read.  It was written by actor Ying Ruocheng, who passed away in 2003, and he recounts his upbringing in China during the time period that’s depicted in the movie, and how he brought all that experience into his pivotal role as the Warden in The Last Emperor.  It’s an especially insightful read.  Overall, a very strong bounty of extra feature to compliment this monumental film.

The Last Emperor is one of those thoughtful epics that you just don’t see made that much anymore.  It is grandiose and yet intimate in it’s depiction of a world changing before our eyes.  The story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China is a fascinating one, as we see a man who was born into Godhood only to end up spending his last days as an oridinary anonymous gardener.  That trajectory of his life is fascinating to unfold, and almost mythical in it’s own way like the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks.  Pu Yi in the grand scheme of things was nothing more than a pawn in the larger game of world politics, and yet his story reveals something monumental in the grand narrative of history.  His brief, powerless reign marked the end of a dynasty of rulers that shaped the course of human history, and contributed to the world things as long lasting as the Great Wall of China.  The Emperor was at one time to the Chinese people the closest thing to a God on Earth, and they would literally move mountains to serve them.  Pu Yi believed that he was owed that same kind of devotion, but as we see him tragically realize, he was a relic for a world that no longer existed.   As the world crashes down around him, he realizes that the need for power and validation is what has broken him down, and it’s through the guidance of the Warden that he eventually learns that being ordinary is where he ultimately finds peace.  It’s a captivating tale captured magnificently through Bertolucci’s visual splendor, and rightfully is celebrated as one of the greatest epics ever made.  It’s really interesting that the film that opened up the West to the remarkable wonders of China came from a very Italian voice.  But, it really is to Bernardo Bertolucci’s credit that he did not waste his opportunity to film within the mysterious Forbidden City itself, finally giving the Western world a window into it’s unimaginable scale and opulence.  Criterion has given the movie itself a deservingly grand presentation for home viewing, although my hope is that we’ll eventually get a proper restored widescreen restoration if Criterion ever puts out a 4K release in the future.  For now, the Criterion edition of The Last Emperor is the best we have available, and it’s well worth watching for an authentic, extravagant and epic scale look at the wonders of Imperial China.

Collecting Criterion – Andrei Rublev (1966)

Of all the different types of world cinema that has made it into the Criterion Collection’s library, the ones with  some of the most interesting historical context behind them are those from Soviet era Russia.  To say that Russian cinematic history is a bit complicated would be an understatement.  Initially, post-Revolution Russia burst onto the scene as one of the most influential schools of film-making in the entire world.  With the likes of it’s founding fathers including Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film industry pretty much invented the thematic montage as a means of telling a story through editing.  That groundbreaking element alone helped to put Russian cinema on the map, and their revolutionary films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are still celebrated as masterworks that pushed the artform forward.  But, the creative output began to change during the repressive Stalin regime, which saw the flourishing Russian cinematic machine turned to a purely glorifying the new hard-lined leader of the Communist Party.  As a result, many of Russia’s great directors either found themselves heavily censored or those who would not submit could face death or exile.  Many chose the later, including Eisenstein.  Soviet cinema suddenly went from one of the most dynamic schools of cinema to one of the most restrictive.  However, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the propaganda machine of the Soviet film industry evolved once again.  They were still making propaganda, but the focus was instead on glorifying the Soviet people rather than one man.  With the liberalization happening under the reforms of the Khrushchev regime, it became an era known as the Cultural Thaw.  With it, there became a renewed desire to use the power of cinema as a means of breaking past the iron curtain of the Stalin years and showing to the world that Mother Russia could indeed hold it’s own in world cinema once again.  This included a new push to bring forth fresh new talent in the Soviet schools of film, and one such talent to emerge was a burgeoning and ambitious new filmmaker named Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky, to many in the world of cinema, is considered to be the greatest filmmaker to have emerged out of post-Stalinist Russia.  Even during his time, he was hailed as the best filmmaker to have come from the Soviet Union since Sergei Eisenstein, though the comparisons between the two directors couldn’t be more distant.  Eisenstein’s films were intense, fast-paced dramatic pieces intended to inspire fury within the viewer.  Tarkovsky was more contemplative, methodical and visually poetic as a filmmaker.  Tarkovsky’s films are often ethereal and dreamlike, and he was a major influence on like-minded filmmakers such as Terrence Malick.  Though very much a different kind of filmmaker than those of the post-Revolution era, Tarkovsky nevertheless helped to give a very Russian sensibility to what many saw as the New Wave movement of cinema that swept across Europe and over the world.  Like other movies of that era, Tarkovsky’s films were both grandiose in concept and intimate in scale.  Big ideas were at play in his films, but they always had that personal connection to them.  He was a valuable voice for Soviet cinema, and he immediately emerged on the international scene winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival with his first ever film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Spine #397).  However, though he was lauded by his peers outside of Russia, he almost always faced resistance from his native country.  Some in the Russian government found his films decadent and bourgeois and contrary to idealized values of the Soviet regime.  Because of this, his filmography is very limited, limited to only a handful of movies made under heavy scrutiny in the Soviet Union, and only a few more made in Western Europe after his defection in the 1980’s, and cut short by his untimely death in 1986 after a brief battle with cancer.  Still, as few as they were, his films are viewed as some of the greatest works of cinema ever created.  Criterion has included a few in their collection, including the sci-fi epic Solaris (1972, #164) which some have called Russia’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  There are also the previously mentioned Ivan’s Childhood, and the late Russian films Mirror (1975, #1084) and Stalker (1979, #888).  But probably the most interesting Tarkovsky film in their collection is that of what many consider to be Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film overall; the historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1966, #34).

Andrei Rublev as a historical biopic is not the kind of movie that you’d expect it to be.  On the surface it is meant to tell the story of the life of a legendary artist from medieval Russia.  Andrei Rublev was a painter and monk best known for creating religious icons and frescos for the interiors of Orthodox churches throughout Russia.  His work is largely considered to be among the greatest art created during the medieval period.  A handful of his paintings still survive to this day, including what many consider to be his masterpiece, the Trinity.  But, the interesting thing about Tarkovsky’s movie is that Andrei Rublev the man is not the focus of the film at all.  Instead, the movie is more about the world that he lived in.  The film Andrei Rublev finds the man himself (played by frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn) passing through a series of vignettes of medieval life in rural Russia.  Accompanied by his fellow monk companions Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Danil (Nikolai Grinko), heads to the workshop of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), who intends to have Rublev assist him on a commission to paint the new Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Moscow.  Along their journey they encounter a small village that is entertained by a jester (Rolan Boykov) who later is captured by the authorities for mocking their leader.  Later, they find a group of pagans partaking in a clothing optional ritual, who also later are captured by puritanical authorities.  Once at the cathedral, Andrei finds it hard to express his art effectively, seeing how medieval Russia has become so hostile to the acts of free expression.  Later, a raid by invading Tartar barbarians lays waste to Moscow, and the ruling prince is deposed by his traitorous cousin, who then usurps the crown.  In the chaos that ensues, Theophanes is slaughtered, the cathedral is in ruins, and Andrei was force to kill in order to save the life of another.  Because of the trauma, Rublev stops painting and takes a vow of silence, retreating from the harsh new world.  However, his lack of passion for life changes when he witnesses the creation of a massive bell being forged by a craftsman named Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who is just a teenage boy.  Upon seeing such a beautiful creation come from such a young person of humble beginnings, it reawakens Rublev’s desire to create, and the film ends with a prologue showing us all the iconic artwork that has immortalized his name ever since.

Andrei Rublev indeed is a very different kind of epic.  For one thing, it does have all the expected scale and scope of a traditional historical biopic, especially from the same era that gave us the likes of Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, narratively it is completely different.  Like I mentioned before, it’s a movie about multiple stories depicting life of medieval Russia, with only Andrei Rublev himself being the connecting thread.  It is also very much a movie built around imagined history and not actual history.  All the film gets right about it’s subject is that he was a painter of religious icons and that he lived in medieval Russia.  The rest is all fiction.  For the most part, it seems like Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make a movie that was a meditation on the connection between art and the artist rather than historical recreation.  Andrei Rublev is not so much a driving force on the story as he is a cypher; observing the world around him and having that influence the person he will eventually be.  Though the main character remains an enigma as a result, it surprisingly actually works in the movie’s favor.  It’s a movie about exploring the nature of art; why it’s important for the individual and for society as a whole.  You can see this as a definite statement that Tarkovsky wanted to make to his fellow Russians in the middle of the Cultural Thaw, as so many of them were reawakening to the idea of using their cultural works as a means of defining what it meant to be Russian.  The paintings of Andrei Rublev themselves gained a renewed sense of importance in those post-Stalin years, as Russians wanted a better sense of their cultural history to define who they were, rather than just the Revolution.  For Tarkovsky, art was an essential part of cultural awakening.  It’s most clearly stated in the climax of the movie, where the forging of the bell becomes the thing that renews Rublev’s faith.  Great art inspires other great art, and Tarkovsky believed that this was something important to pass down through generations.  The Stalin years stifled the artistic growth of Russian society in Tarkovsky’s eyes, and he saw a connection between the art of the past and the present as key to defining what it meant to be Russian.  Of course, the artistic fervor he shared wasn’t always welcomed by the power of the state.  With a movie that especially questioned authority and even entertained a very positive religious outlook, it was unsurprisingly heavily scrutinized by the Soviet government.  The film’s original 205 minute cut was trimmed down with the supervision of Tarkovsky after it’s premiere, but further edits were made by the government, and it would be many years before Tarkovsky’s true vision would be fully seen by the public.

But, despite the headaches that the Soviet censors were giving him, Tarkovsky nevertheless was lauded from cinephiles all over the world, and Andrei Rublev is largely seen as his masterwork.  Narratively, it is probably his most accessible film, given that most of his later films turned more cerebral and elusive.  But, given that, it’s an interesting film to watch because it does turn the historical epic genre on it’s head a bit.  The episodic nature of the story underlines for the audience that this is less a dramatization and more of parable of art, society, and humankind that just so happens to be based on real history.  Every segment of the film feels like it’s own short story, revealing a variety of different characters that make up the defining attributes of Andrei Rublev’s world.  It’s interesting that Tarkovsky opens his film with a cartoonish prologue of a man taking flight after getting caught in the ropes of a hot air balloon.  It’s silly to begin with, but ultimately it’s implied that the man meet a tragic end as he plummets back down to Earth, perhaps giving us an indication of what to expect through the rest of the film.  The moment otherwise feels unconnected to everything else.  The whole movie is filled with these little asides that reflect little on Andrei Rublev the character other than helping us to see how the world with all of it’s absurdities ends up shaping the man and his art.  The one scene that overall does reveal some character growth in Andrei is the climatic formation of the massive bell.  In that scene, where Rublev witnesses a young boy inspiring a whole community to create something grand and beautiful, we see his reawakening come to full fruition.  But, where Tarkovsky really sells home the point of the film is when Rublev finds the boy Boriska weeping after the completion of his master work.  He hold Boriska in his arms and learns that the boy learned nothing from his master, and that he was just winging it the whole time, making him feel like a fraud.  In that moment, Rublev realizes that he must reaffirm this boy’s faith in his ability to create, and in turn, it reaffirms his own faith as well.  For Tarkovsky, the cycle of creative inspiration was essential for making great things happen.  It’s what he wanted for all cinema in general, that he would inspire other filmmakers to create at the same level as well, both at home and abroad and that it in turn would help inspire him to do more as well.  Tarkovsky was an artistic optimist, believing that the desire for creation transcended national identity and politics, and it’s something that certainly made him stand out in the Soviet film industry.  Though the higher ups did not concur with Tarkovsky’s global view of the artform, he nevertheless made a point that this art is the thing that truly leads to immortality, as evidenced by the lasting impact of Rublev’s centuries old paintings.

For the Criterion Collection, adding Andrei Rublev was key to their drive to preserve the history of cinema all over the world.  It was the earliest film of Andrei Tarkovsky’s to enter the collection, dating all the way back to the days of laser disc.  An earlier DVD edition featured a rather rough looking transfer of the original 3 1/2 hour cut of the movie known as The Passion According to Andre, which they managed to source from a print found in the Mosfilm archives.  This long version itself was a revelation for film fans here in the United States, because all we had for years was a heavily edited down version released by Columbia Pictures.  Here, we were seeing the controversial original version that was especially hated by the censors of the Soviet cultural ministry.  It was a popular title for Criterion for many years, helping to establish Tarkovsky’s reputation as one of the great masters.  But, when Criterion started publishing blu-ray discs, many wanted to not only see Andrei Rublev get an upgraded presentation, but also one that fully brought the film back to a glory that most people never got to see before, other than Tarkovsky himself.  In collaboration with Mosfilm, the Moscow based studio that originally produced the film, a new high definition digital master was created from a restoration of a 35mm internegative struck from the original film.  The results are pretty remarkable, bringing the black and white film back to near flawless clarity, while still maintaining the grainy texture that helps to give it a cinematic texture.  Keep in mind, the Russians didn’t have quite the same quality of film stock that the West did, so there is far more signs of age still found in the picture, but for a film made under those kinds of elements, it still holds up for a movie of it’s era.  The same is true for the film’s soundtrack.  Soviet films do indeed sound very different from most Western film, as most of the dialogue, sound effect and music sound detached from the picture; maybe a side effect of using different equipment.  The sound restoration does the best job it can to help everything sound as natural as it can, with the dialogue benefitting the most from a crisper, clearer refinement.   What is especially impressive is that both Mosfilm and Criterion completed restorations for two different cuts of the movie; the previously mentioned long version, and the shorter, 183 minute post-premiere version that was actually the one Tarkovsky preferred the most.  Both are included on the blu-ray and it’s interesting seeing how different the two versions play.

Also included on the disc are plenty of interesting bonuses, which delve deeper into both the making of the movie, as well as the legacy it has left behind over the years.  One of the most interesting features is a documentary made during the development of the screenplay called The Three Andreis.  Made by a classmate of Tarkovsky’s from the film school VGIK named Dina Musatova, the documentary is about the prep work put into the making of the movie, focusing on screenplay written by two Andreis named Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky, and the actor who would play Andrei Rublev, Anatoly Solonitsyn, getting into character.  It’s a fascinating first hand look at the film in it’s early stages.  There is also another vintage documentary included that actually shows Tarkovsky and his crew on the set, made by Mosfilm itself as promotional piece to spotlight the film during it’s making.  The set also features a newly created documentary that features retrospective interviews from film scholars Louis Milne and Sean Martin, as well as the film’s cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev who played the bell maker Boriska.  One interesting insight revealed by Burlyaev in his interview is that he based much of his performance as a tortured artist on director Tarkovsky himself.  The legacy of the film is also further examined with new interviews featuring film scholar Robert Bird and filmmaker Daniel Raim.  In lieu of a full length commentary track, this edition includes a select scene audio commentary by film scholar Vlada Petric from the original 1998 laser disc.  And for those curious, the blu-ray edition also includes the thesis film that Tarkovsky made in film school back in 1961, titled The Steamroller and the Violin, showing the filmmakers humble beginnings before he was thrust onto the world stage.  Given that Tarkovsky’s body of work was so truncated compared to many of his contemporaries, having his earliest film presented here is important in giving us a more fuller understanding of how he became the cinematic artist that we all know.  In a way, Criterion is doing the same here, showing an the awakening of an artist in his early years before his grander work, that Tarkovsky himself did for the memory of Andrei Rublev.  This in general helps to really make this a very special blu-ray set to own.

Andrei Rublev really is a unique film in the history of Russian and world cinema.  It had all the trappings of a grand historical epic on the level of something out of Hollywood, and yet narratively it was subversive and antithetical to the genre itself.  Andrei Tarkovsky certainly had the vision grandiose enough to stage an epic on the level of some of the greats of that period, with a keen eye for staging big shots and giving his movie an authentic period look.  But, at the same time, he uses his cinematic eye to tell a story different from the one we expect, and tell it in a way that’s more about feeling one’s way through the narrative rather than following it in a linear way.  Rest assured, Tarkovsky’s style is definitely not for everyone.  Most of the movie features long, meandering shots of nature with almost no dialogue at all.  And lots of random shots of horses too (a Tarkovsky tradmark).  Don’t go in expecting to learn a lot about who Andrei Rublev was.  In a way, it’s not really important to the story that Tarkovsky wanted to tell.  It’s a movie less about the artist and more about the world he inhabits.  Tarkovsky said that we learn our history from the artists that observed it, and indeed some of our only insight into what life was like for medieval Russians is through the surviving artwork of Andrei Rublev.  That’s why he closes the film with a montage of close-up views of the master’s paintings, presented in full color (the only part of the movie presented that way).  The art endures long after the man and the society that inspired him has passed away.  Tarkovsky believed too that this was an essential lesson to learn in a society that he believed was loosing it’s connection to the past and how important it was to connect with the rest of the world through the art we create.  Indeed, his work has long outlived him and we continue to talk highly of him as a filmmaker because of how celebrated movies like Andrei Rublev are even half a century later.  It’s truly remarkable to note that Andrei Rublev was only his second feature as a director.  Though he would continue to make more films after, none have the same massive scope as this one does.  Though it breaks many rules of the historical epic genre, it nevertheless still feels big with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious story.  The less ethereal second half, which includes the Tartar sacking of Moscow and the forging of the bell chapters, do liven up the movie and show the director at his most dynamic, but the contemplative first half with dream like moments feel far more personal to the director’s own sensibilities.  It’s a beautifully complex and rule-breaking film to include in the Criterion collection and one that firmly places Tarkovsky as one of the most interesting voices spotlighted within the Collection.

Collecting Criterion – The Graduate (1967)

One of the things that the Criterion Collection spotlights within it’s library are all the various different movements that sparked a change in cinema throughout the years.  These movements, largely sparked by European innovators that broke all the rules of normality in filmmaking, would go on to become part of the mainstream in the years after, and today many filmgoers wouldn’t even know how much the language of film was so drastically changed by the movies of that era.  These included the Italian Neorealism movement and the French New Wave, both of which redefined the kind of stories that you could tell on film and how we are able to put them together through unorthodox photography and editing.  Over time, audiences began to really respond to this change in cinema, and before long, these rule-breakers were beginning to change the rules of the industry as a whole.  This change was also spurned on by a point in cinema history where the old Hollywood system was starting to lose it’s mojo.  The catastrophic runaway productions of movies like Cleopatra (1963) were breaking the bank for the major studios, and they were finding out audiences no longer were interested in the big, lavish productions of the past.  The times were a changing, and with a younger, Baby Boomer generation wanting to see movies that felt truer to their counter culture tastes, the industry had no other choice than to pivot and embrace the new wave that was already prospering across the pond in Europe.  Thus, American cinema experienced it’s own New Wave movement, which would go on to define the next half century of cinema, and also bring to the forefront some of the greatest filmmakers ever to ever work on a movie set.  There are quite a few movies that many can pinpoint as being the film that sparked the American New Wave, and Criterion has a few of them in their library, like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969, Spine #545) or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969, #925).  But, I think the movie that really stands out as the true spark of the New Wave Hollywood is the classic Mike Nichols film, The Graduate (1967, #800).

The Graduate was a watershed moment in Hollywood history.  While there were many rule-breakers made outside of Hollywood beforehand, The Graduate was the first time that a major movie studio actually invested in it themselves.  United Artists saw the opportunity to redefine their output of films for a newer generation and they found the ideal choice in a screenplay written by humorist Buck Henry and co-writer Calder Willingham.  Taking full advantage of the end of the Hays Code restrictions that limited free expression in the Hollywood system for decades, Henry and Willingham’s script was one of the frankest, and fearless explorations of sexuality ever to cross the desks of a major Hollywood executive, and it was even not afraid to make fun of itself either.  It was a story about an married older woman grooming a younger man into having an affair with her, and that younger man later finding himself in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having the affair with.  Suffice to say, this would never have made it off the page and onto the screen in the old Hollywood system, so it’s arrival came at just the right time.  The United Artists executives, seizing on this boundaries pushing screenplay, tapped Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols to bring The Graduate to the big screen.  Nichols was already an acclaimed stage director and had successfully adapted the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to the big screen a year prior in his filmmaking debut.  The Graduate was going to be a gamble even under the changing audience tastes, because no film prior had put people’s sexual activities to the forefront of the narrative.  Though there were no actual sex scenes in the movie, the film still was pretty frank about what was going on, and in contrast with old Hollywood, it didn’t cast any prejudgment on people’s sexual lives.  There are consequences of course, but the way The Graduate handles the touchy subject of sex in it’s movie feels more in tune with a changing world that was trying to shrug off the repressed standards of the previous generation.

The movie focuses on, you guessed it, a recent college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his  first leading role) who has returned home without knowing what to do next with his life.  His father (William Daniels) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson) throw a party to celebrate his accomplishment, with a lot of their friends and neighbors in attendance.  One of the guests at the party is Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who towards the end of the night needs someone to drive her back home.  Benjamin, wanting to escape the party that he’s not quite enjoying, offers to drive her himself.  Once at the Robinson home, Mrs. Robinson offers Benjamin a drink and asks him to stay a while.  It dawns on Benjamin pretty quickly what Mrs. Robinson is trying to do, saying very frankly, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”  He tries as politely as possible to leave her unfulfilled and heads home.  However, after a few aimless days of post-graduate life weighs down on him, Benjamin calls Mrs. Robinson and takes her up on her offer.  Though he awkwardly sets up an initial hotel hookup with Mrs. Robinson in the beginning, the two continue their secret affair for weeks, unbeknownst to Benjamin’s parents and Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton).  However, complications arise when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Kathrine Ross) returns home from college.  It becomes increasingly harder for Benjamin to keep his affair secret and complications arise as he begins to have feelings for Elaine.  In addition, Mrs. Robinson becomes increasingly possessive of Benjamin, and refuses to let him get any closer to her daughter, threatening to expose what both of them have been doing as payback.  Things do go south pretty soon, and Benjamin finds himself alone and wayward once again, but after a while, he finds that pursuing the love of Elaine is worth the risk and he sets out to declare his love.  The only question is, can he overcome his own inadequacies to make it possible.

When The Graduate premiered in 1967, it really became a watershed moment in cinema.  The movie went on to become a box office smash and firmly cemented in the New Wave in Hollywood.  And that’s largely because for the first time, the Boomer generation was seeing themselves finally represented on the screen.  It was a movie that finally ushered in themes that were considered a generation ago to be too taboo for the big screen, like male fragility, women taking charge of their own sexuality, the consequences of adultery, predatory sexual behavior, and even just the frank discussion of sex in general.  The movie was also about breaking out of barriers set up by society and encouraging rebellion against unjust standards, which really spoke to the younger audiences of the day.  For one thing, the movie puts men and women on an equal footing when it comes to sexual activity, with the women of the movie having just as much of an authority over their wants and needs in a relationship as the men do.  Mrs. Robinson is certainly the antagonist of the movie in many ways, in the way that she manipulates Benjamin to get what she desires, but the movie also posits that Benjamin is just as flawed in allowing Mrs. Robinson to go as far as she has, and that his own warped sexual awakening has the potential to be toxic towards any other woman, including Elaine, who rightfully sees the potential danger of letting Benjamin to deeply into her life.  And while there are some heavy themes throughout the movie, it is surprising to find that there is a lot of humor involved as well.  This is, after all, a script co-written by Buck Henry, one of the most celebrated comedic writers of his era.  Making fun of sex itself was also a refreshing thing for audiences at that time, because it was also honest.  There’s a perfect moment that illustrates just how well the movie balances it’s tone: when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in their hotel room, she lifts off her blouse and he reaches to feel her breast.  However, she doesn’t even notice and instead tries to rub out a stain on her collar, which Benjamin instantly recognizes as something his own mother would do.  Suddenly he becomes self conscious and embarrassed and begins banging his head on the wall.  It’s that awkwardness that perfectly sums up what The Graduate  represented, and it’s part of what has made it an enduring classic ever since.

It was an especially monumental film for all involved.  Mike Nichols would go on to win an Oscar for his direction, becoming at the time the youngest winner ever in that category, and it led to a decades long successful film career thereafter.  Dustin Hoffman would of course continue to excel as a leading man, and over the next decade he would become one of the most in demand stars of the 1970’s and 80’s, as well as a beloved character actor ever since.  One of the groundbreaking things about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Benjamin was the fact that he was atypical as a Hollywood leading man.  He was short stature and not exactly a pretty boy matinee idol either.  But, for the story to make sense, you had to believe that Benjamin had an awkwardness around women.  Initially, the studio wanted Robert Redford for the part, but Mike Nichols rightfully argued that it would be far less believable in the movie to have a guy like Redford play the part, because it’s unrealistic that a pretty boy like him would ever have a hard time having women find him attractive.  The movie also changed things dramatically for Anne Bancroft.  She was already a well established star of the stage and screen, and an Oscar winner to boot for The Miracle Worker (1962), but after The Graduate, she could add sex symbol to her long list of accolades.  Mrs. Robinson was an iconic performance for her, and one that allowed her to flaunt her beauty as well as her finely crafted acting skills.  One of her most memorable moments is the first scene where she seduces Benjamin, and the shot under her outstretched leg framing Dustin in the background is as iconic as it gets.  And of course, you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning the now legendary Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.  The folk music duo’s songs are forever tied to this movie and they were indeed one of the things that helped to turn this film into the box office hit that it is.  Whether it’s the haunting refrain of “The Sound of Silence” which becomes the heartbeat of the movie, or the bouncy melody of “Here’s to You Mrs. Robinson,” the soundtrack brings extra weight to the story that in many ways elevates the movie to an almost mythic status.  Sure, a lot of this does make the movie a relic of it’s time, clearly cementing it as a late 60’s film, but it’s a portrait of another time that itself has grown more beautiful with age.

The Criterion Collection certainly benefits when it is able to add a well known, beloved classic to it’s collection, and given that this is coming straight from the archives of a major Hollywood studio, it helps them considerably in their ability to deliver a beautiful looking presentation.  Criterion was able to source their transfer from a brand new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative completed by the MGM/UA archives, allowing them to the ability to work with an image as close to the original as possible.  The restoration was conducted under the guidance of Mike Nichols, who signed off on the color timing of the movie before his passing in 2014.  Given the fact that the movie comes straight from the negative itself, the new transfer looks absolutely immaculate and clean of all the wear and tear of 50 years of aging.  In particular, the colors really pop out in this high definition transfer.  Mike Nichols, working with color film for the first time in this movie, really takes advantage of the color scheme of the era.  The Southern California locales in particular shine in this transfer, with the widescreen format really taking advantage of the wide open vistas, especially in the driving scenes of Benjamin on the coastal highway as he sets out to halt a wedding in the climax.  Even the subdued night time scenes have their own sense of beauty to them.  Nichols also gave approval to the new surround sound mix for the movie.  The original film, given it’s tight budget for the time, was never able to have a dynamic sound mix to them, and the Criterion transfer retains a fully restored, uncompressed recreation of that original monoaural soundtrack.  But, the 5.1 surround mix is absolutely worth listening to as well, and nothing benefits from it more than the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.  The surround mix just gives the songs so much more presence in the presentation.  It’s one of the changes that adds to the film rather than takes away, and I think it’s the preferred mode to watch the movie, given that Mike Nichols signed off on it himself.  With a beautiful looking restoration, and an even more dynamic sound, The Graduate arrives into the Criterion Collection with a presentation that lives up to their high standards.

Of course, Criterion doesn’t hold back on the extra features as well.  Some of them are welcome holdovers from previous DVD editions of the movie released through MGM Home Entertainment.  Two of these holdovers are audio commentary tracks that are definitely worth a listen.  One is from 2007 and it features Mike Nichols in conversation with another acclaimed filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh.  The two discuss the making of the movie, with Mike giving some very interesting first hand insight into what went on during filming.  The second track comes from an earlier Laser Disc release of the movie from 1987, featuring film scholar Howard Suber, who goes into more detail about the movie’s lasting legacy, which at the time of recording was only 20 years after the fact.  It’s interesting hearing a Reagan era perspective on a movie crafted during the Vietnam era.  There are a couple of documentaries also carried over from the previous DVD extras, like a short documentary called “Students of The Graduate” which looks at all the filmmakers influenced by the movie over the years, as well as another making-of documentary called “The Graduate at 25″ which was produced in 1992 to commemorate the movie’s anniversary.  There are also some vintage features that also put the movie in context within it’s era.  These include a 1966 interview between Mike Nichols and Barbara Walters for the Today show, as Nichols was beginning development on the film, as well as an appearance by songwriter Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, discussing the hit music he and Garfunkel wrote for the film.  Criterion did create some new features exclusive to their edition, including brand new interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Buck Henry, producer Lawrence Turman, as well as film historian Bobbie O’Steen, talking about the work of her late husband Sam O’Steen as the film’s editor.  Rounding things out, the Criterion edition also includes an original film trailer, as well as screen tests of the cast.  Overall, it’s a nice, robust blend of bonus features both old and new, and it meets exactly what you would expect an iconic title like The Graduate would get under the care of the Criterion Collection.

Fifty years and change on from it’s original release, it may be hard to see why The Graduate was such a revolutionary movie for it’s time.  Attitudes towards sex and sexuality on the big screen has certainly changed since then, and to some modern day audiences, the movie may even seem quaint in retrospect.  But for it’s time, The Graduate was a revelation for audiences that was tired of the repressive moralization of Old Hollywood.  If this movie wasn’t the spark of sexual awakening in the counter culture movement of the sixties and seventies, it certainly got the conversation started.  In many ways, what really spoke to the audiences of that era was the disillusionment of Benjamin’s place in the world post-graduation.  Distrust erupted across America against institutions that were perceived to be limiting opportunity.  Counter culture was a response to the whitewashed view of civil post-War American culture, something that Hollywood had a hand in propping up over the last couple decades.  With movies like The Graduate, the old barriers began to come down, and people were now finally able to address issues on topics like sexuality, race, and political ideology that they were not able to in the past.  And Mike Nichols was the first of many new voices that would help shape the New Hollywood that emerged out of this change in the culture.  He may not have been the most outrageous voice in the room, but he was certainly one of the most skilled, delivering a story as groundbreaking as The Graduate with such a grounded, humane sensibility.  Seen today, the sexual politics may not be as shocking, but the story itself resonates.  In this #MeToo era, we are still coping with the complexities of sexual relationships, and the lasting effects that a toxic sexual awakening can drive people to do.  What I think is the most poignant thing about The Graduate is it’s final haunting moment.  The movie ends with Benjamin and Elaine running off together, escaping her family in a triumphant moment of rebellion as they ride off in the back of a bus.  But, instead of cutting on that triumphant note, Nichols makes the daring choice to hold on that moment and keeps rolling the scene further.  Suddenly, the tone changes, and becomes less hopeful and more introspective.  It’s in that moment that Mike Nichols brilliantly posits the “What Now?” question into the audiences’ mind.  Is it really happily ever after for these two?  By being vague in that final moment, Mike Nichols asks that question to the audience; what responsibility do we carry after we’ve turned the world upside down.  And it’s in that where the movie finds it’s ultimate poignancy.  The Graduate is a revolutionary story that at the same time asks it’s audience to think a little deeper, and because of that, it is rightfully celebrated as one of the greatest, and most influential movies ever made.  Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.


Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

Collecting Criterion – The Seventh Seal (1957)

Living through the troubled reality of a global pandemic can lead one to feel depressed and hopeless.  That’s especially true when your entire world has been turned upside down within the span of only a couple weeks.  Worst fears were realized in the last couple days as pretty much all social life as we know it was shut down in order to reduce the infection rate of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included movie theaters, which closed it’s doors for an indefinite amount of time in an unprecedented move that really gives you the true perspective of the scope of this crisis.  The entire Spring movie slate, from March to May has been moved off the calendar and some are even bypassing the cinemas altogether now, jumping to any streaming platform willing to pay for the rights.  It’s a devastating blow that will no doubt leave a black eye to the theatrical market in film, but at the same time, what other choice did they have.  Our response to this crisis needed to be broad and drastic in order to avoid an even bigger catastrophe in the form of mass casualties.  So, for the time being, all of us are going to have to get used to living hold up in our homes with our only outlet to entertainment being whatever is available in our digital and physical media libraries.  Thanks to their decades long commitment to curating the finest pieces of cinematic art from the last century, The Criterion Collection thankfully has given us a fairly extensive assemblage of films to choose from.  Some, like me, have delved extensively into collecting their many special edition blu-rays and DVD’s, but for those who haven’t, Criterion also offers their own streaming channel, built off of the remains of the beloved Filmstruck service.  And though it is grim and perhaps too reflective of the time we are living in, there is a film that is worth spotlighting that does touch upon the anxieties of a world overrun with a plague; Ingmar Bergman’s immortal classic, The Seventh Seal (1957, Spine #11)

The Seventh Seal holds a special place within the Criterion Collection.  You could almost say that there wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection without The Seventh Seal.  This is because of the special partner in the film business that has been responsible for providing Criterion with most of the films within it’s library; distributor Janus Films.  The New York based company is a private distributor of international films into the American market, and were the ones responsible for bringing attention to the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, and yes, Ingmar Bergman to American audiences.  Their wide distributions of films from outside the Hollywood machine had a profound impact on the business and went on to influence a whole new generation of homegrown filmmakers.  And to make a name for themselves, Janus couldn’t have picked a better film to make their debut than The Seventh SealSeal developed a cult following almost immediately.  In stark contrast to all the polish and glamour of Hollywood, Seventh Seal was bleak, chilling, and a thorough indictment of a world in denial of it’s own evil.  Bergman’s style was also unlike anything that American audiences had ever seen before.  Instead of soft, natural lighting, here they saw harsh contrasts between light and dark.  Instead of larger than life performances we got cold, emotionless characters.  It was strange, but in an entrancing way.  Though Bergman had already been well established in his native Sweden, this would be the movie that would propel him to international acclaim.  And many years later, when Criterion was blessed with the chance of taking full advantage of the extensive Janus Film library, they naturally made The Seventh Seal one of it’s earliest titles.   And in turn, thanks to Janus’ influence, Criterion would become a brand synonymous with the best of cinema.  By helping Janus films become a success, and in turn leading to their eventual partnership with Criterion, you can say that Seventh Seal is the one movie we have to thank for the Collection in the first place.

The Seventh Seal takes it’s name from a passage in the Book of Revelations, itself a parable of society living through end times.  In the passage itself, it reads, “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”  It refers to an end of calamity that has brought about the Apocalypse, and the final revelation of Jesus’ Second Coming.  But more importantly with regards to the theme of Bergman’s film, is that it marks a point when God’s voice is silent in the world.  That heavenly silence is what marks the despair found in the story of The Seventh Seal.  The movie tells the story of a medieval knight named Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) who has returned home to Sweden from fighting in the Crusades.  Upon landing on the beaches of his homeland does he learn the shocking truth; that the black death plague has spread across the land, killing most of the population.  Accompanied by his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Block intends to brave his way across the Plague ravaged countryside in order to return to his home and wife (Inga Landgre).  Along the way, they run into an entertainer named Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson).  They are hoping to bring spirits up in their travels by playing songs in every town, but their good intentions are often drowned out by the pious flagellants who intend to keep the people god-fearing.  As the knight and squire travel onward, accompanied by the band of performers, Block continually is met by the personification of Death himself (Bengt Ekerot).  Block hopes to preoccupy Death by challenging him to a game of chess, thereby delaying his inevitable fate in this death ravaged land.  It is a game that he knows literally holds his life on the line, as well as those who accompanies him, and it’s one that he willfully accepts in the hopes of it granting him a chance to hear the voice of God before the end.

Pretty much the name Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with this movie more than any other he directed.  The image of Block and Death sitting over a chessboard on a beach has become one of the most iconic moments ever put on screen.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie in total, you know that image, because it is one of the most parodied in all of cinema.  It has been referenced in everything from Woody Allen movies to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), where instead of Chess that film’s version of Death plays other board games like Battleship and Twister in a comedic spin.  The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero (1993) even features the character of Death directly from this movie as a part of it’s own narrative, played by (of all people) the legendary Sir Ian McKellan.  But, apart from it’s iconography, the movie is still a fascinating work of cinematic art.  For one thing, it is one of the most profound depictions of an Apocalyptic landscape ever put on screen.  Though Bergman uses the Black Death as the scourge destroying the human race in his movie, it was meant to be metaphoric of a different kind of doomsday scenario that was weighing on the heads of people in the mid 1950’s; the fear of a nuclear holocaust.  The Seventh Seal came out during the most heated years of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union proliferating their nuclear stock-holds at an alarming rate.  With tensions high, countries caught in the middle, like Sweden (a partial ally of the Western Block that would eventually form NATO) worried very much that nuclear annihilation would become a definite possibility.  That was the feeling of dread that informed Bergman’s creation of The Seventh Seal, and it’s understandable why he chose to re-contextualize that fear into the plague that we see in the movie.  As we learn from the film, Death knows no allegiances, no borders, no personal necessity.  Whether it is through nuclear war or a deadly pandemic, or something more benign, death will always win it’s game no matter what we do, and the scariest thought of all is that that Seventh Seal (God’s Silence) is all we’ll ever hear.

As bleak as it is, Ingmar Bergman still manages to make The Seventh Seal a thing of beauty.  Gunnar Fischer’s stark black and white cinematography would quickly define the signature of Bergman’s style, something that would even continue under the director’s conversion into color with the legendary Sven Nykvist in his later years.  The period detail is also quite good for it’s time, avoiding the polished cleanliness of old Hollywood medieval epics and showing us a time in the past that was dirty, decaying, and almost tomb like.  But apart from the beauty of the movie’s visual splendor, what really helps to make this film the masterpiece that it is can be found in the iconic performances.  It’s ironic that in this same time period where we are experiencing a global pandemic we have also experienced the passing of the late, great Max Von Sydow; bless-fully due to old age and not from any disease.  Sydow was an icon in the truest sense, crossing over into mainstream Hollywood with great ease and becoming one of the most reliable character actors in movie history, with movies as varied as The Exorcist (1973) and Flash Gordan (1980)in his body of work.  He acted all the way up to the end, even appearing recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), capping an over 60 year career in the movies Even at the ripe young age of 28 at the time, Sydow had a weathered look that was perfect for the character of a disillusioned soldier.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons, whose depiction of an outspoken, nihilistic squire is quite different from what you’d expect of other characters of his type.  Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death however is the movie’s primary highlight.  His imposing figure all draped in stark black is chilling at first, but it’s balanced with an almost aloof personality.  It’s rather shocking that some of the movie’s only moments of levity come from the grim reaper himself, including a strange, nearly cartoonish moment where he cuts a tree down to claim another victim.  It’s easy to see why this movie entranced so many film-goers upon it’s initial release and it also launched two icons in Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow to worldwide fame, which in itself is a reason to celebrate the film all these years later.

Given it’s treasured place right there in the early days of the Criterion Collection, The Seventh Seal has received a great deal of care in it’s preservation.  Criterion has carried the film over multiple formats, from Laserdisc to DVD to the most recent blu-ray.  And each time, it made sure to deliver a product that lives up to it’s always high standard.  The film’s original negative thankfully still remains intact at the Swedish Film Archives, and was used for a brand new 2K scan to create a digital master image to source for the blu-ray.  Bergman passed away in 2007, so he couldn’t be consulted for his approval of the new restoration, but he did help consult on Criterion’s DVD edition back in the aughts, and Criterion used his notes on that previous restoration to help inform them on things like color timing and sound mixing to create this new polish of the film.  Suffice to say, the movie looks pretty amazing for a film it’s age.  The clarity taken off of the original negative is superb, removing years of wear and tear and showing the film in the way it originally looked over 60 years ago.  The black cloak of Death’s robes are especially pristine here, revealing details that otherwise would have been lost within a black void in a less clean version of the movie.  The movie’s soundtrack also is freshened up as well.  Like most Bergman films, it’s not the dynamic range of the soundtrack that defines them, but rather the chilling silences.  The Seventh Seal is largely devoid of a musical score, and often the only thing we hear is dialogue and the ambient sounds of nature.  And then there are the chilling moments when all noise leaves the movie, marking the arrival of Death into the scene.  Had the restoration of the movie not removed the hisses and pops that could have filled those moments of silence, it would have robbed the movie of some of it’s foreboding power.  Overall, it’s a reference quality example of Criterion’s great devotion to preserving these works of cinematic art.

Like always, Criterion also delivers a healthy amount of supplements to fill out their presentation.  One is a particularly welcome introduction to the film from Ingmar Bergman himself.  Shot in 2003 for Swedish television, Bergman discusses his inspirations for the movie and what special place it holds for him in his extensive body of work.  Filmed around the same time as the introduction, we also are presented with an extensive documentary called Bergman Island (2006).  Journalist Marie Nyrerod, who also appears in the introduction, was given in-depth access to Bergman’s base of operations on the island of Faro, where the director would spend his last days.  With a series of revealing and introspective interviews, it’s a fascinating look into the life and method of one of cinema’s great masters.  There is also a wonderful English language, audio-only interview with Max Von Sydow from 1988 where the actor talks about his career, and especially touching upon his experience making Seventh Seal and working with Bergman. The interview was conducted by Bergman historian Peter Cowie, who also provides an informative audio commentary for the film, as well as a video essay called Bergman 101, which covers the full filmography of the director’s career through still images.  Perhaps the most surprising feature on this set is a tribute video essay made by one of the unlikeliest disciples of Ingmar Bergman; funnyman filmmaker Woody Allen.  Allen discusses the things that inspired him the most about Bergman’s movies including his innovations, his poetry, and his themes regarding the human experience.  You can see definitely see the influence of Bergman’s films in Allen’s own work, especially films like Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978).  Allen even got to borrow Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist for a few of his own films, like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  It’s a definite statement of one filmmaker declaring his fan-hood for another, and it shows just how much of an effect cinema has in passing down through generations.  Lastly, the original Swedish film trailer is included, itself a wonderful artifact from another time.  It all makes this a fantastic collection of extras that compliments the classic film that it’s packaged with.

In other times, The Seventh Seal would be an easy film to recommend, especially as an introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s filmography.  However, given how the movie’s themes and setting seem so eerily prescient right now, it might not be a hard one to watch for some people.  This is especially the case if you read this purely as the bleak picture of humanity that it often is.  People forced to isolate themselves out of fear of an unseen menace; pious grifters hoping to convert the fearful towards their more extreme views in addition to exploiting them for their own benefit; the sad reality that everything you thought was safe and secure is going to change forever.  But, there is something profound that Bergman finds in the movie’s final moments.  It comes in what is probably the movie’s most haunting image; the “Dance of Death.”  Awaking in the morning, alive and well, the performers Jors and Mia find that they have made it into another day free of the horrible fate that befell all the others.  And in that moment, Jors believes he can see his former companions dancing on a hillside locked hand in hand behind Death, who leads them across into dawn’s first light.  For Jors, it’s a sign of hope, perhaps a message delivered to him by God after the the silence that given to all others.  In that moment, Bergman finds the ray of hope in the face of death.  Though as bleak as the world is, there are the Jors and Mia’s of the world who will carry on after and make the world a better place in the end.  Bergman often said that this was a therapeutic movie for him, as it enabled himself to overcome a crippling fear of death.  In a trying time like this coronavirus outbreak, where ironically, the theatrical movie experience may become one of it’s most tragic casualties, we need that positive outlook in order for us to overcome our worries.  One day, this too shall pass, but not without changing our world forever.  Are we ready to meet that inevitable fate?  Can we ourselves beat our own games of chess?  It’s more important than ever to preserve movies like The Seventh Seal, and Criterion has done another amazing job with this one.  In order to appreciate the colossal influence of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the amazing start of the late, great Max Von Sydow, and even confront our current anxieties over a world thrown into turmoil, there’s no better film to look at than this immortal masterpiece.  Check Mate.

Collecting Criterion – The Rules of the Game (1939)

It’s strange when you see something thought to be old fashioned and classical all of a sudden become the rage once again.  I often think about that when I look at the series Downton Abbey.  The English made television series is a relatively simple show about relations between members of the British aristocracy and the working class staff that labor in their opulent manor house.  Period dramas such as these tend to be a niche genre with a limited audience pull, but to many people’s surprise, Downton Abbey became a phenomenon; not just in it’s native country but across the world too.  I myself got caught up in the hype too and became an ardent viewer of the show over it’s six season run.  There was just something so perfectly fine tuned about the show that made it incredibly appealing, which probably is attributed to the excellent ensemble cast as well as the razor sharp wittiness of show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes.  But Downton Abbey is by no means a fluke either.  It follows in a long tradition of period dramas that focus on the class differences that manifest within the walls of stately manors.  You see it quite a lot in the films of Merchant Ivory, as well as in a series that served as the precursor to Downton Abbey called Upstairs Downtairs, which aired on the BBC (and on PBS here in the States) in the late 1970’s.  Upstairs Downstairs even gave this particular sub genre it’s commonly used nickname.  Julian Fellowes also won an Oscar for writing a movie that many consider now his Downton trial run, called Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman.  But what may surprise many people is that this film tradition didn’t begin in “Merry old England,” like you would assume, but rather in pre-War France.  The Upstairs/Downstairs genre of film can arguably be traced back to the Jean Renoir classic, The Rules of the Game (1939, Spine #216) which also has been graced with a special edition via the Criterion Collection.  Many of the standards of the genre that we still see used today were written in this original satirical dramedy, and surprisingly, for it’s time, these weren’t a stroll back into a bygone era, but in fact a product of it’s time.

Jean Renoir, the son of famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, holds a very special place in the Criterion library.  Not only did they choose to spotlight his work early on in their home video releases, but they even launched their line with a Renoir flick.  Renoir’s legendary anti-war drama, Grand Illusion (1937, #1) was the very first ever film released under the criterion label on DVD.  It’s understandable that this was the movie that Criterion chose to launch themselves onto the DVD format with, because it’s often cited by many as the greatest film ever made; at least in art house circle.  Orson Welles even cited it as the highest achievement in film-making, and this is coming from the guy who made Citizen Kane (1941), which itself is held up as the greatest film ever made by many.  Whether people today still share that sentiment is unclear, but Criterion has certainly help it to maintain exposure.  Because of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir is often referred to as the father of French Cinema, helping to give it notoriety throughout the world.  Renoir was indeed a bit of a Renaissance man in cinema, as he wrote, directed, and produced all of his own movies, and even acted in a few as well.  He was also not afraid to inject his own points of view into his movies, as many of them are often social critiques.  The Rules of the Game in particular became something of a scandal in it’s time with it’s frank social commentary attacking the upper social class.  Eventually, his politics led to his exile from France due to the occupation of Nazi forces within the country, who made his films strictly “verboten” to the public.  Renoir eventually settled in Hollywood where he would make a string of artistic but still compromised films.  Still, he held a special place in his heart for his early French films and their journey towards cinematic redemption in the years after World War II are a fascinating story in themselves.  The Criterion edition of The Rules of the Game in particular does a great job in helping to shed a light on a film that in retrospect stands as an important cultural marker for both French and world cinema.

The Rules of the Game as a title refers to the societal rules that both of the classes must adhere to within a strictly stratified society.  The story centers on a collection of French aristocrats and the servants who wait upon over the course of a night within a palatial countryside chateau.  Over the course of the night, tangled relationships begin to start boiling to the top and threaten to break apart the fragile facade of the “game” that all of them are playing a part in to maintain appearances.  The primary thrust of the story comes from the love triangle between Andre Juieux (Roland Toutain), a beloved celebrity pilot: Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), the woman he’s been having an affair with; and the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband, who also has his own side affair going on with a mistress named Genevieve (Mila Parely).  With the help of Andre’s friend Octave (Renoir himself), an acquaintance of the Marquis, Andre is able to gain an invite to a lavish ball being held at the Marquis’ chateau, with the intent of getting close to Christine in order to share his true feelings for her.  Meanwhile, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is being pursued by a newly hired servant named Marceau (Julien Carette), whom she has a playful little flirtation with, which draws the ire of Lisette’s husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate’s groundskeeper.  As the night’s festivities go on, the various love triangles begin to cross paths, and mayhem ensues.  The Marquis’ scandalous marriage turmoil begins to undermine his rich aristocratic veneer, while the staff’s inability to keep their professionalism on course throughout the night with jealousy running rampant threatens to strip away any amount of dignity they might have had in the eyes of the ones they served.  And thus, the rules end up getting consistently broken by people desperate to keep the game going, despite not seeing the apparent truth right in front of them; that they are all flawed human beings with the same desires and bad judgments regardless of their position in life.  And in the end, misunderstandings and unchecked jealousy inevitably leads down to the road of bloodshed.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself is it’s road to redemption in the years since it’s release.  Even though the movie has gone on to influence so many other films and shows, it may surprise you to know that it was a financial disaster when it first premiered.  At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made in France, costing around 5,000,000 francs, which would be north of $100,000,000 in today’s money.  This was largely due to the lavish interior sets that Renoir had constructed, some of which were so spacious that you could only capture the full breadth of them in wide shots.  Renoir needed a strong showing not just at the French box office but also in the international market to break even, and considering the incendiary nature of the film’s overall message, that was going to be a steep uphill climb.  The film was almost immediately suppressed by influential people in the French upper class, who objected to being portrayed in such a foolish light in the film.  Renoir would continue to tinker with the film in order to attract more of an audience, cutting nearly a third of the film down over time.  And then, the war reached the French borders, and Renoir and his many collaborators had to suddenly flee in order to escape Nazi persecution.  Like I mentioned before, many resettled in Hollywood and even had prosperous careers there.  You may even recognize actor Marcel Dalio who played the Marquis, because he turned up in Casablanca (1943) as the croupier at Rick’s Cafe.  Sadly, Renoir had to leave his original films behind, and as the war went on, many of the original camera negatives to his movies were destroyed, including the original cut of Rules of the Game.  After the end of the war, Renoir sought out whatever he could to reconstruct his nearly lost masterpiece.  Thankfully, copies had been held in vaults across Europe and, in time, he managed to assemble a nearly full reconstruction of the film.  To this date, only one scene remains missing, but Renoir was satisfied with what he had and deemed the missing scene inconsequential.  The film enjoyed a celebrated re-release in the 1960’s and since then has become the beloved cinematic classic that it remains to this day.

There are a lot of factors that have helped to keep Rules of the Game a relevant film throughout the years, and I think primary among them is the humanity that Renoir puts into the characters.  No matter what the person’s social standing was, he treated each person’s story with the same amount of importance.  This was unique at the time, as domestics often were relegated to the background of the story, merely there to be window dressing as the movies spotlighted the glamorous lifestyles of their principle characters.  But here, the characters downstairs are fully fleshed out people as well, with intriguing dramas of their own, which sometimes even mingles in with the upper class itself.  Renoir was interested in the human condition, and found the environment of a palatial countryside estate to be a perfect setting to explore the follies of separating the classes.  It should be noted that Renoir’s film is a critique of the people and not a condemnation.  None of his characters are truly bad, but the system they prop up is indeed the thing that he intends to scorn.  One of the film’s most famous scenes is the Rabbit Hunt halfway through the movie, which is also it’s most controversial.  The movie shows real animals (rabbits, pheasants, ducks) being gunned down by the hunting party in a shockingly frank depiction.  The scene is a not so subtle metaphor to the horrors of war, which Renoir himself experienced during World War I, with the animals being stand ins for soldiers dying in the field.  In this scene, Renoir is pointing the finger at the upper classes of Europe who seem to treated war itself as a bit of sport without ever taking into consideration the consequences it leaves behind on both the lower classes and the country itself.  In many ways, he used this metaphor as a stark warning to the people of France to become more aware of dangerous recklessness of their game of social manners, as it brings danger even closer to their door, which no doubt was on Renoir’s mind as Fascism and Communism were on the rise in Europe.  The movie’s ability to make compelling human drama across the entire social spectrum, both rich and poor, made the film more fascinating in the years beyond it’s release and has been the thing that has remained influential to other films today.

Criterion has given the movie another stellar restoration in order to preserve it for future generations.  As stated before, the original camera negative was a casualty of World War II, and for a time, people were worried that it would remain a lost film, much like Orson Welles’ severely compromised Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  The restoration of the film was a painstaking effort and the condition of each film stock was mixed.  Eventually, enough work was done in order to make it feel like a whole piece once again.  Criterion has gone even further, taking the 1960 restoration as their blueprint and conducting even further clean-up using the digital tools of today.  With enhanced color timing and a thorough washing off of all scratches and warps made to the film over 80 years, Criterion now has a new pristine digital master that helps to bring the movie as close to it’s original look as it possibly can.  Because the original negative is lost forever, we can never have an exact duplication of the film’s original clarity, so the picture can be a little soft at times, but the blu-ray transfer does it’s best to retain the fine detail within each frame.  The contrast in the blacks, whites and grays all look incredible, and help to showcase the lavish sets that Renoir had constructed for the film better than we’ve seen in years.  The movie’s soundtrack has also been given a polish to help it sound up to date.  The famous hunting scene in particular sounds very good, with each gunshot carrying the intended jarring effect.  For a movie this old, and one that has had a troubled history up to now, this is a stellar restoration that is likely to be the best we can ever expect.  And given Renoir’s artistic background, holding visuals up to a high standard, he would’ve probably approved of this restoration himself.

The supplemental features are up to the usual high standard that you’d expect of the Criterion Collection.  First of note is a film introduction by Renoir himself, which he filmed specifically to show in front of the movie before it’s 1960 re-release.  He explains why it’s such an important film to him, especially with regards to the themes.  He also shares a fascinating anecdote about how one angry viewer even tried to burn the theater down that the movie was screening in.  There are a couple excerpts from two television documentaries about Renoir, one from French television and another from the BBC.  They both specifically center on the period in which he was making Rules of the Game, helping to shed context of the movie’s place within his overall career.  A video essay also spotlights the film’s initial, problematic release, as well as the year’s long restoration that helped to resurrect it for a new generation.  A vintage interview with the film’s restoration team on a French television series called Les ecrans de la ville also gives more background to the reconstruction of the film.  Renoir historian Chris Faulkner also recorded scene-specific analyses just for Criterion, where he discusses more about the film’s underlying themes, it’s controversies, it’s history, and even a bit more about Renoir himself.  There’s also a commentary track written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read on the track by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  A comparison of the film’s two alternative endings is also featured, as are interviews both new and archive from people like film critic Olivier Curchod, set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son Alain, and actress Mila Parely.  As usual, Criterion treats all their titles to a wealthy collection of bonus features that are there to please the film buff in all of us and give us the most in depth look into these beloved classics.

It’s hard to watch The Rules of the Game now and not see it’s DNA found in every period drama today that portrays the day to day lives of the fabulously wealthy, and the hard working people behind the scenes there to help keep up appearances.  It’s even more surprising that the genre continues to remain strong even today, with a surprising juggernaut like Downton Abbey continuing to remain popular, even as it makes it’s way to the big screen.  But the remarkable thing is that The Rules of the Game feels even more relevant now than ever.  As the world has again spiraled into political unrest, a story like Rules of the Game once again feels like a dire warning.  Social inequality doesn’t present an ideal society, despite the allure of decadence.  Trying to maintain your place within the “game” eventually blinds you to what’s going on, and eventually the struggles of the lower classes boil up and will eventually break the game apart in total.  For Europe in the 1930’s, it was the rise of Fascism, which the French elite paid no mind towards, until the Third Reich were marching their way down the Champs Elysee.  Today, we are seeing inequality become a factor again, and it in turn is leading to a rise in populist sentiments, which is disrupting political order and is literally splitting nations apart, all the while our entertainment seems to remain distracted by celebrity culture.  Renoir wanted to spotlight the human condition within a decadent world, and pull back the facade to show how little difference there was between the classes, and how corrupt the system was in trying to maintain that lie.  Shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs/ Downstairs aren’t quite as incendiary as Rules, but they do share Renoir’s passion for treating all the characters with the same amount of importance.  Because of that, we find relatable people that we can identify with in each story and imagine where our place might be in this kind of society, which helps us to contemplate where we stand in our own world.  It’s legacy lives on many years later, but The Rules of the Game more than anything represents a fine cinematic representation of art and storytelling coming together in a deceptively simple yet compelling way, with Criterion’s excellent presentation and package, it will continue to inspire more like it in the years to come.

Collecting Criterion – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

February is always marked with a aura of romanticism, mainly due to it being the month of Valentine’s Day.  Typically, this is when movie studios dump a whole bunch of sweet, romantic comedies into theaters, in the hopes of cashing in on all those couples seeking a movie to watch on their Valentines dates.  Strangely enough, however, it is a genre that the Criterion Collection has largely avoided for the most part.  Sure there are romantic films throughout their collection, but they are usually present due to being a part of a filmmaker’s larger body of work.  Because of this, you have romantic movies that span a whole swath of other subgenres in cinema, which goes a long way in helping to broaden the definition of cinematic romance beyond what we the viewers are used to.  There are classic Hollywood romances in there like Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931, Spine #680) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945, #76).  There are also plenty of international romantic movies represented like Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, #445) and Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956, #77).  You also have interesting explorations into other romantic relationships, like the interracial one from Rainer Werner Fassbender’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974, #198), and the same-sex one in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011, #622).  But, the romantic comedy genre as we know it from Hollywood is largely unrepresented, unless you count the few from early Hollywood in the collection.  The only movie in the Criterion Collection that comes close to being a representation of this genre is a weird little film from one of today’s most daring and admired artists in film-making; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  But, it’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection makes a lot of sense because not only is it a marvelously surreal film that fits well amongst all of Criterion’s other cinematic oddities, but also because when stacked up to others within it’s genre, it stands out as probably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time; if not the best.

The movie also holds a somewhat peculiar place within the Criterion Collection.  It is the one and only (and probably will forever be) movie in the Collection to star actor Adam Sandler.  Yes, the much maligned star of movies like Jack and Jill (2011) Grown Ups 2 (2013), and Pixels (2015) actually made a movie deemed worthy enough to be included in the Criterion Collection.  But, before you dismiss Criterion for that, keep in mind that if there ever was a movie of his good enough to be included, it would be this one.  Punch-Drunk Love is first and foremost a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, with all the same quirks and dark edges that has made him one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time.  Made after two back to back hits that firmly put him on the map (1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia), Punch-Drunk almost feels like it was made on a dare.  After some critics complained that his movies were too long and lacked any warmth, he seemed set to prove the naysayers wrong and he made a short, 90 minute romantic comedy, and to show even more that he could make the impossible possible, he cast Adam Sandler as his lead.  And the remarkable thing is that he did manage to get a sensitive, down to earth performance out of the goofball performer.  Dispensing with all the silly voices and the obnoxious wisecracks, we actually see a side of Adam Sandler in this film that we never really thought was possible.  It’s clear that Anderson was inspired heavily by a young Dustin Hoffman from films like The Graduate (1967) when he wrote the character, and Sandler fit the mold he wanted better than anyone else.  This would prove to be one of the unlikeliest pairings in cinema history, but it’s one that sure enough resulted in absolute magic on screen, and made Punch-Drunk Love a career highlight for both (especially Sandler).

Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a troubled supplier of novelty toilet plungers, which he sells out of a warehouse with his business partner, Lance (Luis Guzman).  Though he runs his own business, he lives a solitary life, usually spending much of his free time taking advantage of an oversight in a free air miles giveaway by saving single serve pudding cup lids.  In addition, he suffers from rage issues that manifest every time he is in the company of his over-bearing sisters.  One day, he runs into an acquaintance of one of his sisters named Lena (Emily Watson).  He can see that Lena has taken an interest in him, which he also shares in her, but his insecurities prevent him from taking the initiative and telling her how he really feels.  In a moment of desperate solitude, Barry decides to try calling a sex hotline, where he awkwardly shares an exchange with a girl on the other line called “Georgia.”  In time, Barry comes more and more out of his shell and begins to grow closer to Lena, who keeps re-appearing in his life.  The two find themselves falling deeply in love, with Barry finally opening up and putting aside the childish routines that had kept him isolated.  However, their harmonious courtship is interrupted once the “hotline” girl calls Barry up once again, in the attempt to shake him down for more money.  It turns out, she belongs to a syndicate run by a ruthless con artist named Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is set on getting from Barry what he feels is owed to him, no matter what the cost.  At this point, Barry must confront the mistakes he’s made in his past, if he is ever to have a future with Lena, and find out if love can conquer all in the end; even when it means conquering the monster within one’s self.

All the hallmarks of a great Paul Thomas Anderson film are here in this movie, but it also fits very nicely within the genre of romantic comedy as well.  Chief among the movie’s greatest strengths is the chemistry between Sandler and Watson.  You wouldn’t have never thought that Happy Gilmore himself would have been capable of something tender and heartfelt before, but he manages to do it here.  He plays the character very subtly in comparison to all the other characters he’s been known for, making him very close to a normal human being.  Very much in the way the director wanted, Sandler’s Barry is very Hoffman-esque; quirky and broad when he needs to be, but with a vulnerability that helps to ground him to Earth.  He’s certainly the most relatable character that Sandler has ever played, and it certainly shows that he has more range than we would have ever thought.  But most importantly, he makes it believable that someone like Emily Watson’s character would be attracted to him.  Paul Thomas Anderson devotes the majority of his movie to humanizing his characters and building up their mutual appreciation for one another.  They are typical of the flawed protagonists that Anderson likes to build his movies around, but they also come across as genuine people too. Anderson loves finding the beauty in the mundane as well, and seeing these two (for lack of a better word) outcasts finding mutual admiration together helps to build into this wonderful romance throughout the movie.  The remainder of the movie contains the usual P. T. weirdness, especially in some of the sleazy supporting characters.  The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is especially enjoyable in his brief moments as the morally corrupt antagonist, and the movie builds to a hilariously anti-climatic confrontation between him and Sandler.  You can definitely see that if the love story didn’t work here, there would be no movie worth seeing, and it’s all the more remarkable that Anderson took the gamble he did in giving that responsibility to Sandler in the first place.

The movie is also a stunning visual achievement.  For one thing, Anderson returns to his favorite source of inspiration from his earliest films; the City of Los Angeles.  In particular, he devotes a lot of attention to capturing the look and feel of the San Fernando Valley.  Now, speaking as someone who lives in the Valley, and has for the last 8 years, this is not the first place you’d expect to set a fairy-tale romance.  And yet, the way that Anderson (who was himself born and raised in the Valley; Studio City to be exact) portrays the setting in the movie almost gives it this air of romanticism that really does not exist.  From the early dawn car crash of the opening scene, to the magic hour sunset of the movie’s finale, Anderson finds the inherent beauty that exists in these characters lives, and captures it so elegantly in the lens of his camera, even if it’s something as drab as an empty warehouse in the industrial side of Woodland Hills.  I kind of love that about the movie, which makes it all the more personally enriching for me since I actually live around many of the places that are shown in the movie.  I think I have even shopped at the grocery store where Sandler picks up his cups of pudding in the film.  But, that’s not to say that Anderson doesn’t also indulge his audience with some exotic locales as well.  There’s a point in the movie where Barry and Lena reconnect in Hawaii, and their reunion at the Hotel leads to the movie’s most unforgettable shot.  Silhouetted in an archway facing the beach, the two embrace in a passionate kiss, with passersby criss-crossing in front of the frame.  It’s an absolutely stunning moment of cinematography, choreographed perfectly with the peculiar choice of a song called, “He Needs Me” from, of all places, the movie Popeye (1980), sung by Shelley Duvall.  It’s at that point that Anderson’s romantic comedy crosses into the sublime, and makes this one of the absolute best of it’s kind.

Criterion didn’t have too much trouble making this blu-ray edition as spectacular as it could possibly be.  Anderson, a purist when it comes to shooting on film, personally supervised the digital transfer for this edition, sourcing it from the film’s original 35 mm inter-positive.  With the director’s involvement, there’s no question that this blu-ray perfectly replicates the original theatrical look of the movie.  The colors are vibrant and the presence of film grain is also pleasant to see on a movie that’s still not too old.  The black and white levels also make a large difference, and it’s good to see them retained very well here.  It’s especially important when taking that amazing silouette shot from the archway I mentioned before.  If the balance between the dark shadows and the light background didn’t feel natural, it would have thrown off the artistry of the moment.  Thankfully, everything is lit, colored and sharpened to the best possible degree.  And like most of Anderon’s earlier films, it makes great use of the widescreen format.  Part of the fun of the movie is seeing the kind of absurd things that the director can throw in on the edge of the frame, which includes some of the movie’s most hilarious sight gags.  It’s strange that Anderson has more recently abandoned the wider frame in his last couple films like Phantom Thread (2017), Inherent Vice (2014) and The Master (2012), all shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  They are still beautiful movies to be sure, but Punch-Drunk Love shows just how far he can push his visual artistry when the screen is at it’s fullest.  The surround sound track is of course reference quality, as most newer films are, and it compliments the high definition picture splendidly.  On the visual and aural ends of the presentation, this movie again lives up to Criterion’s naturally high standards.

Though P. T. Anderson does gratefully involve himself in giving his movie the best possible home video presentation, he is however less involved in the development of the extra features.  Indeed, very few of his movies ever reach the video aisle with a wealthy sampling of bonus features.  Criterion does however try to fill in the gaps as best they can.  Most prominent is a fascinating behind the scenes featurette made during the filming of the movie called Blossoms & Blood.  It’s interesting because it allows us to see Anderson at work on the set, and most interestingly, him working with Adam Sandler.  It’s clear that Sandler was very content working this time with a challenging director, and watching him take a different kind of direction is fascinating to watch.  There is a bunch of material related to the film’s soundtrack, which was written by Jon Brion.  We first have a new one on one interview with Brion, who discusses working with Anderson and how he found the soundscape for this particular story.  Then there is a collection of behind the scenes clips of Brion at the soundtrack’s recording sessions.  Both do a fairly good job of breaking down the composer’s method and showing him hard at work, contributing to what we hear in the final film.  Another feature discusses the artwork of Jeremy Blake, which Anderson uses in the background of several scenes in the movie.  A conversation between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano is here where they discuss the artwork in the movie, and a separate gallery is available for us to see the artwork itself.  The are interesting deleted scenes, parody commercials not used in the movie featuring Hoffman’s “Mattress Man,” and even some untouched Scopitones, which were used for the film’s title sequence.  Also of note is the full video of the press conference for the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere, which again is something you would never have seen Adam Sandler be a part of before.  Even with the minimal involvement of the film’s director, Punch-Drunk Love still has plenty of interesting bonus features thanks to the commendable efforts of Criterion.

Punch-Drunk Love may not be everybody’s ideal for a romantic comedy; especially for those more used to the more commercial style that Hollywood puts out.  But, it still fits very much into the mold of that genre and in fact does many of it much better.  It’s extremely funny, whimsical at times, and has a genuine heart at it’s center.  And most importantly, the couple at it’s center has genuine chemistry.  This is made all the more remarkable given that it is Adam Sandler who stars in this.  Sandler had never been challenged like this before as an actor, and it is thrilling to see him rise to the challenge, and show that he indeed was capable of giving a captivating performance.  Sadly, he has spent most of his career thereafter slumming it in the predictable cornball roles that he started his career on.  There are moments when we do see him try a little harder, such as in movies like Funny People (2009), Men, Women and Children (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but they come few and far between.  To this day, Punch-Drunk Love is the screen performance that he has given, and it should be a calling card for every film director out there who believes that Adam Sandler might be the right fit for their film.  He has it in him, it’s just that too many of us are used to seeing the less subtle side of Adam Sandler.  Still, it is kind of a subversive delight to see one of his movies here in the Criterion Collection, especially given that it’s one of the rare romantic comedies represented in the library.  For anyone looking for something light, passionate, and just all around enchanting, than this is the perfect movie to watch this Valentine’s Day.  Watching Sandler and Emily Watson’s on screen chemistry will warm your hear and Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal direction will leave a powerful spell on you as you take in the simple but enriching visuals of romance in the most unexpected of places.  And, as it stands from there, that’s that.