Criterion Corner Vol. 1

Now that we’re officially in lockdown, I’ve been spending a lot of time consuming media: watching films, series, reading books and comics, and playing videos games. I decided to re-watch some of the films I studied in film school and ended up going down a Criterion Collection rabbit hole. I actually picked up a few Criterion DVDs a couple of months back, but the lockdown really got things started as I had more time to re-watch some classics I love, and get around to my first watch of some of the many films on my back log.

So, I decided to share the love with you here, and talk about some of the films in the Criterion Collection that I’ve been watching lately. I’ll publish new volumes of this series as and when I can (and if I’m in the mood), so don’t count on a regular list.

For those of you who don’t know, The Criterion Collection is a company that started in 1984, dedicated to licensing “important classic and contemporary films” and selling them to film aficionados. So yeah, it’s literally a company catering to film nerds and dorks like me, and maybe you.. who knows.

Breathless (1960) – Jean-Luc Godard

Okay, so this is the film I watched recently that formed a big part of my film studies at varsity. There was a whole module on The French New Wave and this was the example used. While it wasn’t the first film of the New Wave characterised by long takes, existential themes, choppy editing, and improvisation (in front of and behind the camera), it was one of the films from the movement that blew up internationally, getting a lot of attention and critical acclaim. There’s another film on this list from the movement that did a similar thing, but we’ll get to that later.

Criterion Corner - Criterion Collection Films - BTG Lifestyle
My Breathless Criterion Collection DVD set

The film follows Michel, a small-time thief who steals a car and impulsively kills a policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy. Pretty romantic, right?

Anyway, Breathless (or À bout de souffle – original title) stars the indelible Jean Seberg, as well as Jean-Paul Belmondo who starred in many of director Jean-Luc Godard’s films. If you love cinema and want to know more about one of the films that defined cinema’s creative freedom from the bounds of the establishment and capitalist notions, this is the place to start.

8½ (1963) – Federico Fellini

Okay, now if you want to talk about a film that has a major impact on many directors, this is the one. If you’ve ever watched a bunch of the Criterion Collection closet picks videos on Youtube, or read the Top 10 lists from industry professionals on their website, you’ll know that this film shows up. A lot. That’s because the film by celebrated Italian director Federico Fellini follows a successful director while preparing for the production of his latest film. The story delves into his memories and fantasies, exploring the relationships with his parents, and the women in his life.

If there’s one thing we know about the movie industry, it’s that it likes films about the industry. We saw that with the praise for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. And coming back round to everyone absolutely loving this film, there’s no doubt that its influence shows up in the works of many directors, including Quentin Tarantino. The famous dance scene between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace is definitely a homage to this moment from .

Paris is Burning (1990) – Jennie Livingston

This is one of two documentaries I’ve included in my first list for the Criterion Corner. This bold documentary provides a chronicle of New York’s drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, voguing and the ambitions and dreams of those who gave the era its warmth and vitality. It’s unbelievable how many words and phrases originated from drag and gay culture in the 80’s (and earlier). I’m not going to spoil that for you, but it’s a lot.  Madonna even made a song about it, and the lyrics captures the creative and inclusive nature of the movement:

This documentary provides a voice for a group of people who were (and remain) underrepresented in modern popular culture. Sure, things have changed over time, but I won’t pretend to have a complete picture of how representation for this community has changed over the last few decades, but I’m just glad this story was old, when it was.

The joy, passion and rivalry that is expressed by the subjects when they talk about the competitions, their Houses, and what the movement means to them, is just inspiring to watch. It’s also pretty ironic and tragic that the people who defined many colloquial phrases, and other elements of popular culture were shunned by society at the time, and many still experience discrimination today.

The 400 Blows (1959) – François Truffaut

This is the other film from the French New Wave that made it big. Even though its production was a bit more orthodox, it still formed part of the movement. Aside from being an acclaimed writer who worked with many great directors in the French New Wave, François Truffaut directed a damn near perfect debut feature film.

Weird story, but In 1958, he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival after derogatory remarks about the festival and other directors. The very next year, this film was part of the festival and won the award for Best Director at Cannes while being nominated for the Palme d’Or, the festivals biggest prize. That is absolutely wild.

The 400 Blows, or Les quatre cents coups follows Antoine Doinel, a young boy, left without attention, who delves into a life of petty crime. The film is widely known to be based more or less on Truffaut’s own life as an adolescent where he had no direction and was getting caught up in similar activities. It’s not surprising that this film is based on a real life; the world built in The 400 Blows feels real; the characters are awake and alive, the city is teeming with noise, adventure and danger, and the classroom and cramped apartment back home where Antoine spends a lot of time getting into trouble feels like the real thing.

At the heart of the story is Antoine’s struggle with his behaviour in class and at home with his family. He just can’t seem to get along with his teacher, or his parents. What defines this character, beyond the writing and direction, is a stunning performance by young actor Jean-Pierre Léaud who was quite new to acting at the time (with one previous role) and actually improvised quite a bit under the direction of Truffaut. If you end up liking this one, you’ll be happy to know that there are five additional films that follow this character through his life, so that’s great.

Crumb (1995) – Terry Zwigoff

With Terry Zwigoff we know we can expect some weird subject matter. His body of work often deals with misfits, antiheroes, and themes of alienation, so obviously controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb was the perfect subject. And man, this is one hell of a ride.

Crumb’s views on life, race, women and virtually everything in society are very unorthodox, and that’s the biggest reason he’s managed to garner success as an artist. His work is often vile, titillating and pornographic in nature, so do yourself a favour and head into this film with an open mind.

Robert Crumb Weirdo cover
Crumb’s Cover for Weirdo Magazine

The film explores a bunch of his relationships with his family, including his mother and brothers; as well as his relationships with ex wives and girlfriends, and his current wife. And let me tell you, all of those relationships are pretty odd, and interesting to watch. The thing that really struck me was how frank everyone was when being questioned about very personal topics relating to Crumb and themselves. The people in Crumb’s life, and the man himself appear to have no filter when it comes to a variety of topics that would generally be considered taboo. It’s not surprising considering that many of them are directly or tangentially connected to the underground world of cartoons in some way; a movement that embraces controversy and the counter-culture.

So that’s it for this volume of Criterion Corner. I hope you enjoyed this list of films I’ve recently been watching on the Collection. Let me know which ones are your favourite from the list and from the collection in general, and I’ll make sure to add them to my ever-growing backlog of media I need to consume.

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Editor-in-Chief at BTG Lifestyle. For cinema.