Life grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.
The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.
You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.
I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.
Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.
I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.
As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.
My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.
As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.
(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)
Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.
In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.
Let me tell you about how it started.
July 2004: There Were Warning Signs
If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.
When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.
The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.
I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)
A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.
What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.
The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.
The film’s fairy-tale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.
Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.
It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)
“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.
I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”
“Okay.” She shrugged.
We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.
(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)
August 2007: Tears for a Villain
I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.
Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?
All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.
My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.
February 2009: At the Gate
The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.
That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.
I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.
“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a cult following.
“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.
The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.
Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”
That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.
April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat
Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.
I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.
Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:
“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.
“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”
December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come
My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.
My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.
I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.
One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.
“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”
That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”
He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”
Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.
“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”
“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”
I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.
Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.
As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.
Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.
Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.
Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.
When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.
Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.
After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.
A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition
I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.
Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.
That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.