A friend and I have a long-running argument about Criterion #40. If you’re one of those cinephiles as addicted to the “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” as we are, you probably already know where I’m going with this.
Nestled in between Seijun Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter” and Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” in the Criterion line-up is Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” sticking out like a sore thumb, and not just because of its bulky two-disc case, popular in the early days of DVD when it was first released.
For the record, I’m no fan of “Armageddon” (if I were to pick only one of Mr. I-Blow-Shit-Up’s films for the Collection, it would be the unrestrained Bayhem of “Bad Boys II”), but I am part of the small minority that believes it deserves its place amongst the Kurosawas and the Truffauts, not because of its quality, but because of that word “important” in Criterion’s mission statement — with “Armageddon” being a film that demonstrates the bloat of the current blockbuster era.
But you can count Newsweek‘s Daniel D’Addario amongst the thousands who side with my friend, disappointed that the Criterion Collection dare sully its good name with the inclusion of films like “Armageddon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and concerned that the addition of contemporary titles like “Che” will keep older one from getting released and threaten to bring the whole enterprise down.
To support his case, D’Addario gets Criterion’s president Peter Becker to offer something of a mea culpa about “Button,” admitting the “deal is an asterisk in Criterion history” since it was done at the behest of David Fincher — which shouldn’t merit an apology, since film students will be learning from the disc’s three-hour documentary for years to come. D’Addario frames Criterion’s recent deal with IFC Films (with whom this site obviously shares a parent company) as a sell-out move since titles like “A Christmas Tale” and “Gomorrah” are “decent enough… but classics?”
While there’s no accounting for D’Addario’s personal taste, there’s far more accounting of another kind that he doesn’t allow for. The DVD boom was a mixed blessing for Criterion, which was able to blossom beyond the roots of its forebear, the world cinema distributor Janus Films, and their incredible collection of Bergman and Ozu movies, among others. Criterion was able to evolve and champion new filmmakers like Wes Anderson, David Gordon Green and “Ratcatcher”‘s Lynne Ramsay while putting together killer packages for canon-approved titles like “Rules of the Game” or the first American home video release of Visconti’s “The Leopard.”
Meanwhile, other studios realized the value of their back catalogs and were more reluctant to license their films — in the laserdisc days, Criterion was able to give their full treatment to Warner Bros.-owned titles like “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane,” with the latter boasting an incredible collection of interviews with 35 filmmakers and collaborators that has yet to be replicated on any format since. (And don’t even ask about “The Magnificent Ambersons” laserdisc, the only place where Welles’ original vision of his butchered classic could be deciphered, still not available on DVD.)
Articles like D’Addario’s and Maclean’s writer Jaime Weinman’s would have you believe “Ambersons” and others of their ilk are getting bumped in favor of Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2007 drama “The Secret of the Grain” (one of my personal faves of the decade), but I’d argue just the opposite. Now that DVD sales have receded, it’s likely more studios will come to the table to license out films that will require a more specialized release and will find a comfort zone with Criterion.
It’s probably no coincidence that Focus Features inked a deal with them for a proper release of Ang Lee’s director’s cut of “Ride With the Devil” (as well as the recent, brilliant “Monsoon Wedding” disc with all of Mira Nair’s shorts), and their parent company Universal finally gave the go-ahead to a Criterion version of Leo McCarey’s long-neglected “Make Way for Tomorrow” (due out in February).
Just thinking of this makes me envy the years ahead for Matthew Dessem, an IT guy recently profiled by Roger Ebert who’s working his way through the Collection in order (he’s up to #95: “All That Heaven Allows”) and writing about it on his blog The Criterion Contraption.
It’s going to be a long time before he reaches titles like 2008’s “Revanche” (#502) and “Hunger” (#504), but something tells me when he does, he won’t be disappointed. Even if he is, he’s got Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montès” at #503 to keep him happy.
[Photos: Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in “Armageddon,” Touchstone Pictures, 1998; Criterion DVD cover for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Criterion laserdisc cover for “The Magnificent Ambersons”]