Tuesday, September 17, 2013

MY TAKE ON Criterion

I recently enjoyed watching On the Waterfront, the new edition from Criterion. Having rented it from Wild and Woolly Video, I was provided with the three discs of a set which includes alternately framed versions of the film and valuable extras. There’s even a conversation with Martin Scorsese on the subject of the film’s inspiration. If there is a video label which reminds us of the value physical media still has in an age of internet-accessible streaming video, it is still Criterion.

Since their days of releasing highly priced Laserdiscs, the company has kept a grand reputation. If you’ve never made notice of this label, they are a company that acquires video rights from – or in cooperation – with other studios to release special editions of movies widely considered to be great. Their mission has always been to release the definitive edition of a movie and recognize its unique artistic significance with the guidance of any filmmaker or critic who could be deemed an authority on the given film. Their library represents a long international history of cinema and while the cost of owning one is about ten dollars more than your average disc, I’ve never regretted a purchase.

One of the earliest titles I purchased was their three-disc DVD edition of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Through the commentary by Gilliam, the two-hour documentary and the thankfully unused, yet studio-imposed “love conquers all” cut of the film, I learned a tremendous amount on the struggles between artistic visionaries and the studio system. Recently, I purchased the Three Colors Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski and the Qatsi Trilogy by Godfrey Reggio, both on Blu-ray. I felt rewarded for having the highest quality versions of these gorgeous films available for home viewing.

One of my very favorite things about a Criterion release is the art. Aside from the uniformity of their company logo printed at the top corner of every case, their designs are often full of original and eccentric imagery by commissioned artists. Their work makes buying a movie feel like buying an album. Comic book artist Guy Davis did an original illustration for the new Blu-ray release of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and the cover rivals any poster created for the film during its original 2001 release.

While we may have been warned to not judge a book by its cover, we do anyway. If there is any hope in winning over a consumer’s materialistic desire, it is in good package design, something that the video divisions of major movie studios seem to have little interest in lately. I can’t believe how many Blu-ray releases of great movies have covers that anyone with artistic sensibility would regard as tacky. After all the cool Mondo posters devoted to Pacific Rim, during the summer, I would have ecstatically pre-ordered the Blu-ray if Warner had bothered to utilize that amazing imagery to help sell it. Alas, everything that makes the movie look like a Transformers rip-off will be what we see on the cover when it comes out in October.

There are other companies such as Twilight Time, Kino Lorber, and the Shout/Scream Factory who admirably seek out obscure titles and make a Blu-ray with great design and treatment. They are in the physical media business, so they should. What I want to know is if major studios that can benefit from selling their titles to streaming services like Netflix or Download rental on iTunes, care anymore about selling discs.

The Blu-ray release of the box-office hit Star Trek Into Darkness has angered fans and Blu-ray enthusiasts alike for Paramount’s decision to divide extra features among different retailers (read this). If you want certain making-of segments, you have to buy the movie at Target, if you want the other behind-the-scenes materiel, go to Best Buy. If you want the audio commentary, download it from iTunes. There are some insane Trekies out there but I don’t think most of them are insane enough to buy different editions of the same movie. This ridiculous marketing tactic will only make them lose interest in owning the movie at all. I don’t know what Paramount is trying here, but it’s in poor taste.

In recent years, Criterion has made the leap to streaming media, making many of their titles available on Hulu Plus. I still see such a viewing experience as a mere preview compared to the uncompressed audio/video quality and film-school-worthy extra features that can be found on the Blu-ray version.

I regard the miracle of dependable decent-quality streaming media to be an answer for people who can’t stand the price of their premium cable package or anyone who is reasonably turned off at the idea of browsing through the fluorescent-lit banality of any remaining Blockbuster Video (See the South Park episode, A Nightmare on Facetime). It’s a great replacement for the extra work that went into just finding something to watch.

For those who love a movie enough to enjoy it in a more honorable form, you just have to think of it as something more than data. 

Whether you purchase it or rent it from a local video store that is caring enough to provide even the most obscure titles in the best form (Wild and Woolly), there’s something more special about the things we love when we can touch them. If you love books or records, I think you know where I’m coming from. If you like printed bank statements, you’re weird.

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