The Criterion Collection: A Retrospective in Five Films

 

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Please read the previous five reviews on my blog for: Harold & Maude, Persona, The Darjeeling Limited, Dazed and Confused, and Sisters. These five film reviews are the supporting components for this essay.

 

The Criterion Collection has dedicated itself to gathering the most influential pieces of cinema ever made. Updating their collection monthly they remain on the cutting edge of cinema, adding classic and modern cinema to their repertoire to keep a constantly updated collection of influential movies. Ranging across a wide range of genres, the Criterion Collection has collected films that have been revered by critics, have gained cult status, or are seen as influential within the world of cinema and its creation.  I originally started with five different films than the one’s I ended up watching. This just speaks to the sheer volume that the Criterion Collection is made up of. Regardless if a film is currently in rotation or not, it’s still considered a part of the collection. I also learned that the only thing standing in the way of a lot of films getting added to the collection is disputes over distribution rights, which is why viewers don’t get as many animated films as people would like.

In my analysis, I viewed the films Dazed and Confused directed by Richard Linklater, Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby, Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman, The Darjeeling Limited directed by Wes Anderson, and Sisters directed by Brian De Palma. These films make up only a sliver of the massive catalog that Criterion has in their stock. These films offer a wide range of what the collection has to offer from cult classics to art-house thrillers to outright horror. I picked a range of films from different genres and decades to get a view of what makes the Criterion Collection classify as a critically important film in the canon of cinema.

Let’s start with the cult classic Harold & Maude, which is a heart-warming film. It’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection is without question upon viewing, however it at first seems to be an odd choice. Criterion is not one to take things upon first glance, by putting it in the collection they must’ve seen something important in it. This low-budget dramedy has some incredible shots, has a fantastic script, and best of all it’s funny. Criterion clearly defines cult classics as influential cinema due to their word-of-mouth hype, which can often be more powerful and accurate than any critic. This film being added to the collection is a testament to all independent filmmakers that just because no one has heard of your film, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

The next thing I decided to tackle was a strict genre film. So I watched a film entitled Sisters. I chose this film as it fit into the genre of horror, and as it’s a genre that often lacks respect from most movie goers, I was curious at to why it would be in the collection. I quickly found out when my screen split into two. Criterion keeps an eye out for radical cinematic techniques. The split-screen effect in Sisters is clearly the main draw to the film (as well as generally being well made) and it’s wildly successful in execution. The Criterion Collection doesn’t discriminate against genres, it’s definitely an organization that just looks for talent and creativity.

Criterion also continuously adds films to its repertoire for example The Darjeeling Limited was released in 2007 but is still a part of the collection. This is due to the absolutely stunning color palette of the film. While I personally find the film to be appropriative of Indian culture, it doesn’t change the fact that movie is fantastic to look at. The importance of the film lies in its technique rather than its content in this particular example.

I had to do a double-take when I was scrolling through the list of the movies in the collection when I saw Dazed and Confused. I thought it was it just another high school movie. I was incredibly, stupidly wrong. The movie is a testament to youth, growing up, and leaving your hometown. It’s funny and most of all it’s poignant monologs  always give you something to think about and above all else, it feels realistic. This movie deserves its place in the collection because it is astoundingly good for its genre and content. It’s further proof that the Criterion Collection doesn’t care what your movie is about, it only cares if the movie is good, well made, or brings something new to the table.

I chose a classic for the last film to view; Persona. Ingmar Bergman’s film is a fabulous romp through two different realities and personalities. It’s a mind-bender of a thriller and its tense until the very last scene. My theory as to why it’s in the collection is due to its editing and controversial nature. The film was very controversial upon its initial release due to its explicit description of a woman having intercourse with a young boy. It’s a disturbing scene that’s for sure, but once you look past this tidbit you see a film that edits you into the reality of the film. You as a viewer are a conscious part of the movie, as Bergman continuously references that these characters are within a movie.

The Criterion Collection does not care what your movie is about, it doesn’t care if everyone hated your movie, it doesn’t care if everyone loved your movie. Your movie could have made millions of dollars, one every award, and it still might not end up in the collection. However, if your film brings something new to the table, something that takes viewers aback, then maybe your film is worthy of being included. All of the films I watched to figure out what Criterion describes as a good film point to one thing: uniqueness. There is something individual about each film that I watched that I’ll never forget. The burning out of the celluloid in Persona, the doll house like train compartment scene in The Darjeeling Limited, the split-screen technique in Sisters, the cemetery shot in Harold & Maude, and finally the characters in Dazed and Confused. The Criterion Collection looks for films that you will remember, films that bring new things to the table, and films that flawlessly execute their technique.

Unhappiness is a waste of time: Harold & Maude

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The 1971 film Harold and Maude directed by Hal Ashby is a heartfelt tale about the balance of life and death told through the relationship between Maude (Ruth Gordon) and Harold (Bud Cort). An unlikely romantic relationship forms between the septuagenarian and the young teenager as Maude shows Harold how to live wholly and for one’s self. Maude above all else stands as a ray of sunshine amongst people who are obsessed with saving up their money and collecting things around them, only to forego on the experience factor of life. Harold and Maude may be one of the most enjoyable and faith restoring films ever made. The film offers commentary on the pessimistic and greedy society in which we all live, it’s a commentary on being ignored, feeling insignificant and generally being marginalized. Maude has an outlook on life from the margins, she collects things for herself that remind her of the beauty of a life well lived. Both characters are wholly unique in opposite ways, Harold has an obsession with dying while Maude has an obsession with living. They meet somewhere in between life and death; at a funeral.

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The dichotomy of age between Harold and Maude is the most intelligent character device in the film. It sets up an appreciation of both view-points, someone who is just entering adulthood versus someone who has lived their entire life. They both see each other as moments in time that they have or will experience. The difference in their subsequent obsessions of life and death also sets them as opposites. For all intents and purposes, these people should not be good friends, but they understand one another. Harold’s obsession with death lends him to a friendship with an older more experienced person while Maude’s penchant for living fits her friendship with someone who is just beginning to appreciate life.

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One of the most incredible shots in the film is a slow zoom out from a picnic Harold and Maude are having, as it zooms out it is revealed they are in a cemetery, and it keeps zooming out to reveal that the cemetery is rows and rows of unmarked white graves. This shot is the most striking and upsetting moments in the film when paired with what has just come before it. Where Harold and Maude were talking about the fact that many people allow themselves to only be treated as a number rather than as a fully fledged human being with needs and wants. There is a phenomenal bit of dialogue where Maude tells Harold about the differences between each individual flower in a field, showing how at first glance everyone appears the same, but on closer inspection there’s something special about everyone. This analogy being paired up with the imagery of the anonymous tombstones is deeply depressing, slapping you in the face and saying don’t let yourself be anonymous, don’t let yourself be treated that way.

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This movie is in my personal opinion, refreshing for the soul. It makes you think about the relationships in your life, it makes you question what you surround yourself with and what it’s really for. It’s above all a love song to life, to living and appreciating, to breathing fresh air and to sleeping next to someone you love. Harold and Maude is a good film because it is about being happy, it’s about collecting all of the moments that make you most elated and bringing them together to make them your life. It yells at you to go take an adventure, bring back a story, and then go live some more. Ashby wants his viewers to know that the secret to being happy is doing what makes you happy, a statement that gets complicated a lot these days.