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.

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Where do you begin, and I end?: Ingmar Bergman and Mixed Personality

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POTENTIAL SPOILERS: It’s also from 1966 so I don’t feel bad about this.

There are very few films in my life that have made me gasp in shock from an editing technique. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is one of these films. The editing means everything to Bergman’s 1966 horror thriller, it creates a taught meta film that plays with where reality actually is.

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The film begins in a projection room that begins to flash and burn through reels of footage, a video of the two main characters of the film is projected onto the wall of a small boy’s room. The main characters begin to flash between each other and the movie begins. Part way through the movie the celluloid film burns out and then continues on as if nothing happened. Bergman made sure that the editing within Persona was constantly making the viewer aware that they are watching a film. In this way, it’s an incredibly meta film but I digress from this point. The film’s editing is so stellar and mixes several realities, without the energetic editing of the film Persona would most likely be a mediocre film at best.

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Persona is also carried by its strong female leads and stunning framing. The movie often has Alma (Bibi Anderson) move over Elisabet Vogler’s (Liv Ullman) face, juxtaposing Alma’s head over Elisabet’s own to make it appear as if Alma is Elisabet. The real question of this movie is whether or not Alma is Elisabet, and if you look around you’ll find people are really torn on this. I personally thought that it was spelt out fairly clearly, however it is very much so open for each viewer’s interpretation, and I think that only adds to the malicious spirit of the movie.

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For all it’s worth, the setting of the film is rather sparse, the acting is really what makes this film a stand-out performance. Liv Ullman’s character has next to no lines, and Bibi Anderson has massive monologue after massive monologue. The fact that she could deliver all of these with increasing maliciousness throughout the film is astounding. She ratchets up the intensity from caring to hatred really quick, and it’s very believable. With next to no lines, Elisabet is a fascinating character, as she does all of her acting silently. We get to see her very expressive face fill with horror, deceit, compassion. Persona takes us through the full spectrum of human emotion with Elisabet’s face and takes us through both character’s struggles through Alma’s voice. The two are inseparable as one without the other makes the movie impossible, both are reliant on each other to tell the story. Without Elisabet’s facial expressions and actions we wouldn’t be able to interpret Alma’s own inner suffering, while without Alma’s monologues and probing speeches we would have no idea what was going on inside Elisabet’s head. It’s the fact that they’re perfect for each other that makes the viewer wonder if they are one in the same and if this is actually just a conversation with Alma’s own subconscious.

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Persona in its entirety is an absolutely gorgeous film filled with questions and mysteries to unlock. The lack of complete explanation of all of the imagery in the film makes it all the more intriguing to watch. It’s a film that has inspired the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and David Fincher (I honestly didn’t expect those examples to all be David’s). Especially with Fincher’s Fight Club the inspiration is seen clearly. A movie that is as daring and provocative today as it was when it was first released, Persona is a classic that will continue to haunt viewers for years to come.