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.

Attached at the Hip: Brian De Palma’s Twin Thriller

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Sisters directed by Brian De Palma was an unexpectedly unnerving and inventive film. The director of Carrie proves with his 1973 film that he possesses an adept hand for the horror genre. This movie is deceptive in its placement within the horror genre, as it seems to be another take on the typical horror topic of the twin mystery. The film exists in the same vein of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers or more recently the horror thriller Goodnight Mommy directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. The film takes the twin trope by storm, however, with some truly beautiful and horrific scenes, and without spoiling anything, there is a birthday cake scene that is truly terrifying to witness. Above all else, the film is a testament to the fragility of a lie, the film hinges itself on the crumbling walls of a lie and refuses to let go, continuously highlighting the fragile line between the truth and the discovery of a lie.

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The film employs an ingenious split-screen technique that makes the story that much more intriguing to watch unfold. Usually this would be frowned upon as it strips the viewer of a bunch of background information and thus, retracts information the viewer could be picking up. However, De Palma uses the split screen technique to give us multiple perspectives of the same room. Due to the split screen technique, the viewer is able to see more on one screen than they would be able to elsewhere. For example, in a critical scene that establishes whether or not the main character has a twin or not, one side of the screen depicts Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) stumbling across a birthday cake with both twin’s names printed on it. While on the left side of the screen, Danielle is seen convincing the cops that she doesn’t possess a twin. As Grace approaches the cops the split screen comes together as Grace trips and drops the cake onto the ground. This short sequence literally breaks the divide between the lie being accepted or the truth being accepted. De Palma’s film utilizes the strange split screen technique to divide the viewers and keep them in suspense about this strange tale about honesty and lies.

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The movie plays with who the viewer supports throughout most of the film. Does the viewer support the good citizen who is simply trying to achieve justice for a wrong she has witnessed? Or does the audience support the mystery enshrouded Danielle who is being preyed upon by her twin sister Dominque (both played by Margot Kidder)? Brian De Palma weaves a taught story about the delicate balance between the truth and a lie. He even has Danielle sit on her lie at one point, while a blood spot slowly grows on the back of the couch with a body inside. This all happens while she is talking with her neighbor Grace and the police in her apartment where a murder has just happened. The entirety of the lie again hinges on one crucial detail. Again, Sisters stresses this line between what the truth is and what a lie is built upon by literally having Danielle sit on her lie for the duration of a scene.

Sisters is a truly horrific film in how sparse it is, there is a limited amount of evidence for the crime and what does exist, if lost, will take the crime with it. De Palma creates a powerful parable on the nature of honesty and lies, he takes Grace and drags her down into the depths of what people will do to protect the fragility of a lie. It’s a meditation on how the biggest secrets can be hinged on the smallest of things.