The Criterion Component: Overlooked Titles #2
The Criterion Collection offers us a plethora of movies from every corner of the world, from the silent era to the current year, and while it would be nice to see every film they have donned with a spine number, we all know that’s not exactly feasible. Ergo, it goes without saying that some titles are going to slip through the cracks, because without a Blu-ray release or re-release from their first generation of pressings it can be easy to overlook some fantastic movies that Criterion has released. Of course, these films aren't any less important, but it’s worth it to look at some lesser mentioned movies in The Criterion Collection.
Make sure to check out the first entry in this Overlooked Titles series.
The recent Blu-ray upgrades of Preston Sturges’ work would have one to think that Unfaithfully Yours should be in line for the same attention and yet it’s plagued with a first generation DVD release. I guess this is in concert with The Lady Eve as that is also in DVD-Criterion limbo, which is strange for the later, as many consider it to be the director’s finest work, while I could make the argument for Unfaithfully Yours. Sturges’ later masterpiece boasts a fiery performance by the ever reliable Rex Harrison, who’s not only an immense presence in his various rants and raves but an excellent hand with physical comedy. Unfaithfully Yours features a wildly innovative script that replays the protagonist's various revenge plots on his fiancée (who he believes is carrying on an affair) while he’s conducting an orchestra; for 1948, Sturges is well ahead of the curve in terms of nonlinear storytelling.
Ingmar Bergman is without a doubt one of the most important filmmakers of all time, and his work is, of course, paramount in The Criterion Collection; that is unless you’re talking about his 1974 title The Magic Flute. Emphasis on “title” because this is more of a concert film/opera than a narrative feature, but Bergman certainly makes Mozart’s opera experiential and immersive. Bergman’s love for the stage is no mystery, and by the mid-seventies, he was edging away from period dramas to the metaphysical mechanics of the human seed. Here his instincts guide us into the merriment of opera, but instead of the lavish projecting we equate with the term, we’re treated to the surveilling low angle of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography guided by a director whose fascination with studying the human face remains unrivaled to this day. It’s understandable why The Magic Flute is a lesser seen Bergman-Criterion movie; can you imagine telling a roomful of your friends, “Hey guys, let’s watch a two-plus hour Mozart show in Swedish!” It’s not the easiest sell in the world, the dumb cover art doesn’t help either. But this lighter side of Bergman deserves more recognition that it's currently getting.
Andrzej Wajda’s brilliantly conceived film reconstructs the tumultuous period leading up the execution of Georges Danton (played with the expected hulking physicality of Gerard Depardieu), and the stormy relationship boiling between him and Robespierre, the two figureheads of The French Revolution. Given Wajda’s political acumen, one might think that Danton would be an allegorical platform for the crumbling Soviet reign over eastern Europe; while it succeeds in being an all too perfect catalyst for the Communist regime, the film is also a richly textured period piece, wholeheartedly invested in both avenues of artistic temperament. Danton should be more of an attraction in overall conservation of world cinema, and yet it seems relegated to academics and completists.
The Criterion DVD is furnished with all of the supplements that make their inventory so endeared: a stacked essay by Leonard Quart, a behind-the-scenes documentary, interviews, etc., and, like Andrzej Wajda's Three War Films collection it’s still yet to receive a Blu-ray release.
As a fan of Powell and Pressburger there’s some culpability in overlooking their many achievements by being spoiled with their colorful epics, thanks to their collaborating cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who gave us The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. While the razzle-dazzle of these technicolor epics is one of the hallmarks of The Archers (the name of their production company), making their work so damn enjoyable, it’s hard to discount movies like I Know Where I’m Going! and of course A Canterbury Tale. Their loosely inspired namesake A Canterbury Tale is a distinctly casual wartime folk yarn; like Chaucer’s narrative, Powell’s film charts the events following a bizarre crime where two soldiers, one English and the other American, become enamored with a small town mystery of the “Glue Man” after he strikes a young women upon their landing, by pouring glue in her hair. Of course, there’s more to the story in this provincial mystery, but this lightly lensed look at international wartime relations has a pace and atmosphere unto itself as well as garnering a devoted following outside the US.
Compared to the varied collection of miscreants, murderers, deviants, and all manner of sordid outcasts that Shohei Imamura (Vengeance is Mine, The Eel, The Profound Desires of the Gods) favors, the oddball characters in The Pornographers are comparatively light. Subu Ogata is happily in the trade of making pornography, while his wife is convinced the soul of her dead first husband has been reincarnated in her pet carp; should we even mention his mistress and step children, one of whom he’s smitten with? Imamura straddles a fine line of tawdry melodrama and quirky eccentricities, decidedly expressed by the director's surreal imagery while humanizing these illogical characters and their inexplicable actions.
It’s strange that The Criterion Collection has invested so much into the director’s other work with the Blu-ray upgrade of Vengeance is Mine and the three-film Pigs and Battleships DVD collection, while The Pornographers is still stuck as a bare bones, first-generation release.