In February, the video-streaming website Hulu, once best known as a place to waste time catching up on old episodes of Heroes, made a major announcement: they had struck an exclusive deal with the Criterion DVD label to eventually make more than 800 titles from their back catalogue available online, free of commercial interruptions, through their premium subscription service Hulu Plus. The first batch of films to appear included The 400 Blows, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, M, and L’Avventura. (Sadly, this deal will leave Canadian cinephiles out in the cold; Hulu Plus, like Hulu itself, is unavailable north of the border.) The films, Hulu said in a press release, will be presented with the exquisite attention to detail and the carefully curated supplementary features that have made Criterion the most respected and prestigious brand name in home video.
But is a digital version of a Criterion film—intangible,impossible to physically “own” and yet easily available to all—still a Criterion film? Clearly not.
Why? Consider Jean Renoir’s glittering 1939 ensemble comedy/drama The Rules of the Game, a film I adore for many reasons. The precarious balance that Renoir maintains between comedy and drama, between satire and empathy, is a thrilling feat of directorial acrobatics. Renoir’s fluid camerawork, often moving among multiple rooms and capturing as many as three planes of action within a single take, is not only spectacular from a technical standpoint, but it also represents a capacious view of humanity. His ability to portray life teeming beyond the edges of the frame—a benevolent belief that no one person, no one storyline, is any more important than any other—is humane and moving. Renoir is not my favourite director of all time, but his loose style and skill with acting ensembles were clearly an influence on the director who is my favourite: Robert Altman, whose 2001 film Gosford Park is partly an homage to The Rules of the Game.
And yet, I probably would never have bought The Rules of the Game on DVD had it not been brought out in a deluxe package from Criterion. It was not even the voluminous DVD special features included in this release (a high-definition digital transfer, a learned audio commentary from film scholar Alexander Sesonske, numerous new video interviews with actors and crew members, a booklet containing new essays by Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders) that convinced me to shell out $35. No, it was the packaging that clinched it: a foldout case covered with black-and-white images of the film’s main characters arranged into a checkerboard-style grid, the whole thing presented in a transparent blue plastic sleeve. As much as I wanted to watch The Rules of the Game again, what I wanted more was to sit on my couch with that Criterion case in my lap and slide off that blue plastic sleeve over and over again, savouring my purchase and all its outward tactile pleasures (not unlike the child on Christmas morning who gets a big, expensive gift and spends all day playing with the box).
The very first Criterion releases were deluxe laserdisc editions of Citizen Kane and King Kong which came out in 1984, at a time when the rented VHS tape was still the dominant mode for watching movies at home. In that context, it wasn’t the packaging of those Criterion discs—as big as LPs and now just as obsolete—that people found noteworthy; it was the idea that a home-video release could contain special features at all.
In the modern age of DVD, when even a movie as marginal and unambitious as Furry Vengeance comes with a commentary track, it is easy to forget that the idea that people might want to hear a director or a scholar talking about the movie you’re watching while you watch it originated at Criterion, as did options like music-only audio tracks, letterboxing, trailers and deleted scenes. A “film school in a box” became the shorthand term for Criterion’s approach to home video. In other words, content was key, and Criterion’s core market,especially in the nineteen-eighties, consisted largely of consumers who treated film history and their state-of-the-art home theatres with equal seriousness.
Criterion released their first DVD (another Jean Renoir film, the anti-war drama Grand Illusion) in 1998, and have released more than 550 titles since then. They are most closely identified with their deluxe editions of classic foreign films and out-of-print cult classics, but the Criterion Collection has grown to include such unlikely titles as Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, the 1958 drive-in hit The Blob, and two Michael Bay blockbusters, The Rock and Armageddon.
Criterion arrived late to the DVD boom, but they were ahead of the curve when it came to realizing that a certain type of image-conscious movie-lover would respond powerfully to the idea that the enhanced picture and sound of a DVD could also be reflected in the packaging. With its earlier releases, one got the feeling that Criterion design was less an end in and of itself than a way to signal to the consumer that there was something unusual, something significant, about these DVDs (even if, as was the case with many early Criterion releases, they contained very few extra features). The design of many early Criterions—Henry V, The Magic Flute, Mona Lisa, Rififi—resembled Blue Note album covers, mixing playfully cropped and sliced black-and-white photos with boldly coloured typography, one of the easiest ways to make a graphic impact on the cheap. At the same time, other releases from this era were crude or downright ugly; it’s hard to imagine the original Criterion designs for The Lady Vanishes or The Long Good Friday passing muster today.
I can’t pinpoint when exactly when people began coveting Criterion DVDs purely as physical objects, but for me, it was the one-two punch of Brazil and Rushmore. Here was the genius of Criterion: it wasn’t just that the content of these releases had been assembled with such care and intelligence (such as the ninety-four-minute studio cut of Brazil, a powerful demonstration of how editing can invert the meaning of even the most subversive film, or, in the Rushmore box, a whimsical foldout map of the world of the movie drawn by Wes Anderson’s brother Eric). No, here were DVDs that were meant not just to be watched, but displayed as objects of beauty. There is nothing difficult or arduous about waiting around for the Criterion version of, say, Sweet Smell of Success, but it does seem to say something flattering about your standards all the same.
Book lovers can seek out first editions, art lovers can surround themselves with paintings, but until Criterion came along, there was no equivalent collectible artifact that movie lovers could purchase in order to demonstrate their passion. There is something unsatisfying about buying most DVDs. What Criterion has done with the carefully designed artwork of their releases is find a way to make a mass-produced DVD seem, for want of a better word, artisanal. At the same time, with those spine numbers (another marketing masterstroke), Criterions DVDs also become items within a huge, ever-growing collectible set. You can never own the complete Criterion Collection. They are the highbrow equivalent of Pokémon cards: gotta watch ’em all!
Gathering all my Criterion DVDs on my desk and looking at them (which I admit to doing) makes me feel likeAlbert Brooks in Modern Romance, blissed out on Quaaludes and admiring his record collection: “I have so many greatalbums! I love ’em! I love ’em!” Of the fifty-five Criterion DVDs and box sets I own, my pride and joy is the 25-disc AK100 box set brought out to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Akira Kurosawa. I have the out-of-print Criterion editions of Silence of the Lambs, Straw Dogs and Notorious. This degree of fetishism cannot be healthy.
I do worry that Criterion has entered its decadent phase with releases like Paul Schrader’s Mishima (packaged in a box wrapped in imitation gold foil) or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (whose case is designed to resemble a Betamax cassette) or David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (a two-disc behemoth that’s almost as self-indulgent as the film it commemorates). The vigilance with which they protect and promote their image as the repository of good taste is the central joke of Fake Criterions (fakecriterions.tumblr.com), a Tumblr that applies the spare, achingly tasteful Criterion aesthetic to some of the worst films in Hollywood history. It’s a glimpse into an alternate cinematic universe in which Ernest Goes to Jail is marketed as if it were Bresson’s A Man Escaped and 3 Ninjas gets a box that could be filed right alongside Kurosawa’s Sanjuro.
In 1877, Walter Pater famously observed that all art aspires to the condition of music. Nowadays, it appears that all movies aspire to the condition of Criterion—or at least all movie case and poster art does. The intellectual benefit that accrues from using Hulu Plus to stream Godard or Tarkovsky or Bergman is abstract and notional. What do you have to show for it after it’s over (other than that pessimistic dimness now clouding your eyes?). Yes, on one level, a Criterion DVD package is simply a culture-snob fetish object, tangible evidence of the buyer’s willingness not just to sit through a “difficult” film but to pay upwards of $30 for the privilege of doing so multiple times at home.
But on another level—would “spiritual” be the right word for it?—a beautifully designed Criterion edition of any given movie is like that movie raised to its Platonic ideal, which makes the owner feel like the Platonic ideal of a movie buff. And how often do any of us get to feel like the Platonic ideal of anything? That’s the ultimate Criterion special feature.