18 January 2001

Taking the film school out of the box: The Criterion Collection

PETER BECKER LIKES THE WORD "BUCKET."

Theatrical exhibition of movies, movies on DVDs, "They're all just buckets." What matters to the 36-year-old president of the Criterion Collection are great movies. Collectors of their near-100 special edition DVDs may not know how much time and effort go into producing them, but the multi-supplemented discs bespeak a rare passion.

Criterion, privately held, had its origins in the glory days of theatrical distribution of arthouse movies, through the renowned Janus Collection, which still holds the rights to many movies, including The Seven Samurai, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Ingmar Bergman's 1950s and 1960s classics. Becker and his partner, Jonathan Turrell, are carrying on the tradition established by their fathers. The Janus logo, a two-faced coin, reminds Becker that the movies matter, and not the buckets. "When I look at the Janus-head coin looking at once to the past and the future, that represents the mission that we're on; at once to look toward our film heritage, and to the future, where we have to be constantly and aware of and focused on not only future audiences, but future technology, so that we can keep these films in front of audiences."

In a nondescript brick building in Manhattan's Midtown between an Irish tavern and a sushi storefront, a handful of technicians and producers are making daily incremental progress on DVDs to come. It takes weeks, even months of work, and Criterion has several films that have been announced as "coming soon" for years. If transfers or restoration work isn't up to their high standards, it remains a work in progress, rather than being rushed on the market to quickly recoup costs. "That can mean tens and tens of thousands of fixes over the course of a feature film," Becker says. "It takes weeks and weeks, but it's worthwhile. It doesn't replace restoring the film elements themselves."

Restoration on video masters is a simpler and less expensive prospect than making a movie with a damaged negative watchable on screen. With movies such as Rear Window, it can run into the millions. Yet Becker is interested in the big screen as well as your small one. "Wherever possible, Criterion and Janus together are distributing films today. If the idea is to present every film as the filmmaker would want it seen, that means in the ideal circumstance, it's in a dark room with a lot of strangers," he says.

With DVDs getting the Sexiest Thing Alive treatment on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and with the number of DVD players in use soaring to more than fifteen million, DVDs are the best friend to the big studios' bottom line. But rather than serving as one more stop on the ancillary pipeline, DVDs are Criterion's product. Their high standards ensure a profitable niche market.

Yet their expertise requires further expertise to wind up in the racks at the local Tower or Virgin Megastore. Criterion has an unusually close partnership with Chicago company Home Vision Entertainment, also a privately held family enterprise. Criterion's partners in their conspiracy of taste are located on an equally nondescript street in the Ravenswood neighborhood, in view of a billboard promoting loans en su barrio. Home Vision provides distribution for Criterion, including sales, advertising and marketing, as well as maintaining their own 200-plus performing arts titles and a library that includes a treasure trove of early Kurosawa titles. Founded in 1986, Home Vision was one of the first companies to recognize the potential for cultural, performing arts and documentary material. (Their own DVD line will begin this year with several Merchant Ivory films and BBC documentaries.)

Equally important, Home Vision founder Charles Benton, whose Public Media, Inc. was founded thirty-three years ago, has also recognized shifts in distribution "buckets." Past successes include 16mm feature distribution and television syndication. But the company has occasionally misfired, such as with the laserdisc market, which never took off. Home Vision, headed by president and CEO Adrianne Furniss (and Benton's daughter), remains small and passionate about their work. Carrying on family traditions, the collaboration of the two companies creates that old-fashioned ideal, "synergy."

Laserdiscs were a costly diversion for both Criterion and Home Vision. But unlike many of the now-defunct companies whose film libraries Home Vision draws from, decisions can be made quickly and efficiently. Benton laughs at the idea that they're buying back libraries that were taken from them, from the new owners. "But the films stay on! We're still after those good films. Our failures, as well as our successes, and thank God, the successes have outlasted the failures. People are afraid to fail and won't try new things." "Obviously, within a narrow enough scope it's not going to put you under," Furniss adds, laughing.

Benton remains enthusiastic about Home Vision's mission: "Buying good films that sell, that's our philosophy. We don't want bad films that sell, and we don't want good films that don't sell. That's the fundamental. We don't want to be a mass market business, but boy, is it a good niche market."

Larger companies reward you for being conservative. "If you have passion," Furniss continues, "like Peter Becker's immense passion for classic film, you don't compromise. Charles is an art collector himself and has had a passion for art... If enough of your passion lines up with the passion of others, you have a market. We learned an astounding fact last year: more people go to museums than amusement parks in this country. We've had titles that sell two-hundred units, and others that sell 50,000. Vermeer, he's great, but that's my 200-selling [title]. He doesn't have the paintings in American museums, it isn't like Georgia O'Keefe or Robert Mapplethorpe. But when you have a group of artists who have, I hate to say it this way, but there is a calendar art potential where it crosses over into the mainstream and mega-exhibits come around. But if they collect those titles, we hope they'll cross over to our collection of 200 art titles [that sell well]."

Similarly, Steve Riforgiato, Home Vision's vice president of sales and marketing, believes that with the burgeoning popularity of the DVD format, Criterion's eclecticism will interest collectors in movies they would not have seen otherwise. Armageddon might get someone to buy Hard Boiled, or even [the Japanese ghost story] Kwaidan. Like the others, he disdains film snobbery. Although a large part of Home Vision's catalog consists of arts documentaries, such as a just-released BBC feature on the painter Jackson Pollock. "It's good to be very serious about what you do, but I think being snobby would be the death of any company. You have to just laugh and have a good time with guilty pleasures. A real movie fan has a pretty wide range of tastes. You can't discount kitsch. The Blob is fun. Is it great? Probably not. Is it fun? Sure. You should be able to get a good giggle out of the supplemental material on that disc."

Criterion mingles high and low in its collection. "One thing that does set our work apart is that every Criterion release has a person who is really living with it for a long time," Becker says. "The producer of a Criterion disc will spend a minimum of three months of their life. You feel very strongly the weight of the heritage of that film resting on your shoulders. Because we are a small company and we are all genuine film nuts, and believe in them as art and a form of entertainment." Antonioni's L'Avventura is an upcoming title, and of the disk producer, Becker says, "'The look on her face when she found two essays in our file that were obviously typed up by Antonioni with his handwritten notes on the side! There's an incredible sense of discovery and excitement that comes from having a personal connection with a filmmaker. It's not that we're the only ones able to take this care, but we do take the care. It's not always the most profitable way to handle each and every film, but that's only one of several considerations. You don't work here unless you care about film."

The care goes beyond the shiny discs with the cool extras. "We're trying to do more theatrical releasing as well. In the end, fairly modest theatrical releases give people in a 100 or 150 cities the opportunity to see Gimme Shelter on screen. That's a case where we were able to do some really good work at the film level. As it turns out, all the work we did on the film level is irrelevant to the quality of the video transfer, because we went from the 16mm camera positive for the transfer. We were even a generation closer for the transfer. The video should look even better than the prints did. We try to leave a film in better condition than we found it."

"We're a company that's more driven by mission than media," Becker says, returning to the "buckets" theme. Most of today's transfers are done in high-definition video with an eye to the next technological wave and waves to come. "We'll use any medium that seems to stand a reasonable chance of gaining acceptance with the highest available quality of reproduction. We did release a couple of films on CD-ROM, which was a good move. It gave us a lot of experience with interface before anyone was thinking of interfaces on DVDs. In the end, the content matters, the film comes first. We try not only to come up with a curated collection, but a curated edition."

While studios seem to have a checklist of what you'll get for your $29.95, Criterion doesn't have hard and fast rules. "We spend a lot of time talking about appropriateness. Buñuel [whose Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie lacks a commentary] is not the first or only case where we have been reticent about commentaries. It's like when we were preparing the [three-film Jean] Cocteau boxed set, we were all reading a lot of what he had written. These essays were circulating among the staff, and it's always like that, everyone learning a lot about Cocteau, about Hitchcock, whoever's work is in front of us. We got a distinct sense from these essays that explanation was antithetical to Cocteau's ideal of beauty. So we decided that no one was going to talk about Cocteau's work but Cocteau. We searched for what he said about his work. On a much more reticent front, when we did Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir said, no commentary. He said, This is a film about the unexplained and the unexplainable. that's the whole point! As soon as I try to make sense of it, it's the one thing that could ruin the movie! That was good enough for us. We didn't even put a note on the packaging. I think people respect that."

[Originally published in a different form in Newcity, 18 January 2001.]

11 January 2001

KIDS IN TULSA

LARRY CLARK, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, and in the past few years, as a film director, has studiously cultivated a maverick profile. A former drug user who's had scrapes with the law, he nowadays refers to his earliest era as "the outlaw years... a different life." But its rhapsodies remain in his work. "Tulsa," the book that made his infamy, long out of print but for Japan, has been reissued.

Taken by some to rank in the halls of American gothic alongside Robert Frank's "The Americans" and Diane Arbus' self-titled collection, I think more about Clark's freakishness behind the camera; a determinably creepy fixation on callow male beauty intent on spectacular, yet crummy self-obliteration, an even more sinister voyeurism-of-youth than Jock Sturges' banal iterations of lithe nude girls.

Think of a few emblematic images among Clark's work: the last shot of his 1995 Kids, a nude boy, pubis artfully obscured, exclaiming, "What just happened?" Or Vincent Kartheiser, junkie-thin, bonily angelic, cavorting in sex and burglary scenes in Just Another Day In Paradise, or Clark's notorious photo "Untitled, 1972," in which a nude couple recline, tongues tied in sloppy kiss, his engorging member in her desultory fist. Her nude body is a speed-freak odalisque in the back seat of the car, but foreground is his thin arm, bulge-veined, more revered by the composition than the cock itself. (Clark's regard of the skinny-boy form is less homoeroticism than necroeroticism.)

Then there's "Tulsa," its few pages filled with revolvers, rifles, tattoos, star-fields of flag, gleaming, gorgeous mad eyes and hungry-veined musculature, as detailed as the most rigid erection in porn. The 57-year-old Oklahoma boy shot this album of views in three different years; 1963, 1968, 1971. "Death is more perfect than life," goes one of the few bursts of words in the book. There's orneriness and cussedness in these offhand shots, filled with speed-sallowed features, dancing to the devil's charm of ghastly, beautiful ruin. What matters most is Clark's sometimes artless lack of discernment: Perhaps we could never care about these speed-jacked no-hopers eking their last out of still-walking, young beautiful corpses, but he does.

"Tulsa" by Larry Clark
Grove Press, $24.95, 59 pages


[Originally published in Newcity, 11 January 2001.]

04 January 2001

Figure in the mirror: Malena

Giuseppe Tornatore and reflections of Malena

Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena is a minor masterpiece on the tangled web of unrequited love.

The director of eight features (including Cinema Paradiso) mingles adolescent longing, idealization, transference, slapstick, a sweet Ennio Morricone score and endless glimpses of stranger-to-town Monica Belluci wandering down a small Italian village's streets and seashore promenades during World War II, a smitten young boy named Renato Amoroso (wonderfully convincing first-timer Giuseppe Sulfaro) inventing her in her wake.

Tornatore's lusciously mounted jack-in-the-box fable gets at the willed derangement of a particular sort of juvenile masculine thwarted longing in diverse ways. Imagine everyone talking after the pretty stranger has left the room, or town: we invent the habitations of our greater world according to our own self-reflective need. "There is a universal element in this film. It's happened to everybody," the 44-year-old director tells me in fast volleys between himself, his translator and me. "To desire a woman, who, at the same time, is also the object of desire for others. To fall in love with a woman who's older when we are younger, and to every woman, it's happened at least once in their life, to notice in the look of a small boy, something strange! This was one of the reasons I really wanted to make this film."

Tornatore is certainly no poet of abstraction, but he's good at goonish lyricism—a chorus of smacks, wanks, rumors, grudges, gliding camera, the lubricious canter of a woman's hips against waterside sea-dazzle. There are influences of Fellini and Visconti, but Tornatore is more buffo than serioso. I wondered if he ever feared making an elevated fable merely decorative? That the decors get in the way of the characters? "It's a very important question. With this film, I did not have this problem. This is a very big problem which I had in The Legend of 1900, where the settings and the environment always influenced the actions of the characters. I had to shift some of their motivations so they would suit the environments. I agree that the ambiente and the settings must be well thought out from the point-of-view of the characters who have to breathe within them."

While the boy's adolescent urgency demolishes the lush sheen of the widescreen compositions, Tornatore told cinematographer Lajos Koltai he wanted a certain look. "The dominant color should be this stone found in Sicily, called tufo. Very porous, between yellow and gold." Like sandstone? "Sandstone! I told him I wanted that. When you say this to a director of photography, you know that you're telling him a special atmosphere, especially when I am not framing this stone in any shot! As a boy, the houses of the town I was from were all made of this. The color of my childhood is that color. It's a sensual color. This autobiographical reminiscence gave me the right psychological key."

While based on a short story, Tornatore has liberally added other stories, including his father's recounting of a public humiliation he witnessed much like that which cruelly happens to Malena. It becomes film as an extended oral history, many stories, many childhoods fused into one. "I like this sedimentation [as in] Cinema Paradiso. There are things from my life that I transfigured in time. There was a period of my life when I would follow whatever woman that I liked at the time with my 500 Fiat. When I wrote the film, I realized that the bicycle would be very important because I know how useful my Fiat was to me to follow all the movements, to show yourself always showing yourself to the woman. She would walk, then she would see you, she's walking somewhere else five minutes later, she sees you again. We've all done it."

The cruelty of the mob is shown. Acceptance, if not forgiveness, is hopefully invoked. More than being an outsider, she is mystery itself. "That sounds like an affirmation, but I share it with you. Effectively, Malena remains, in the beginning and the end, a mysterious personage. You never know everything about her. You only know certain things, only the things that the little boy in succeeds in robbing and stealing from her life, mixed with what he imagines. You don't know anything about her! When you're infatuated with a woman that you have no relationship with? When it's over and you don't see her anymore, the things that stay with you about her, it's just a mass of hypotheses. You don't even know if she had existed for real! The film had to be told completely from the boy's perspective. If I had told the story objectively, I would have had to tell the story of the life of Malena, in a logical way, but Malena, every time that we see her? Something's happened to her, we don't know what or how. I really like this. She is always a mystery. She is, even until the final image. She walks away... her back to us... she remains a mystery. The mystery of a beautiful woman who nobody knows, she's walking away, towards her own existential fate."

[Originally published in Newcity, 4 January 2001.]