Friday, March 07, 2008

Criteria for success

I like the Criterion Collection. Indeed, any serious movie fan should have more than one Criterion release on their shelves. It is hard to imagine a commercial venture that is more serious about art and its preservation and presentation than the 'studio.' There is, though, a side to the business that seems - at best - pretty silly, and - at worst - mendacious.

Let me use two examples, Bertolucci's 1989 film, The Last Emperor, and Huston's 1984 movie, Under The Volcano.

I like films like Michael Cimino's 1980 Heaven's Gate and The Last Emperor. They are bloated, ecumenical messes that labor under their own bulk. Judgment-in-a-nutshell on the latter (the former, too, if you're interested): Beautiful visuals cannot make up for a confused movie. Scott Tobias, of The [Onion] AV Club, though, had this to say:
Because Pu Yi wields so little control over his destiny, his passive nature makes The Last Emperor a difficult epic; it doesn't help that Lawrence Of Arabia himself is around to remind viewers what a more purposeful hero can do. But from The Conformist to The Dreamers, Bertolucci has always been fascinated by characters who are whisked away by powerful forces; that a "son of heaven" and ostensible leader of half a billion people could be among them is one of the film's many rich ironies.
That's generous. Pu Yi is not an entirely sympathetic character. Indeed, it seems that Bertolucci went out of his way to introduce a sour note every time the audience looked like it might like him. There is, to my mind, a serious problem when the Maoist prison governor is more sympathetic than the protagonist. It's like a half-witted attempt to recreate Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, where a second-tier character becomes more interesting and pathetic (etymologically speaking) than the hero. Unlike - oh, say - Heaven's Gate, The Last Emperor is not an unmitigated disaster. It's pretty good, but it seems that a little judicial trimming and some plot-focused drama would have taken a good movie and made it great. I disagree with Mr. Tobias' argument that, "The new four-disc Criterion edition makes an imposing and mostly convincing argument for the film as a truly great epic, one which attempts to capture the political turmoil that gripped 20th-century China without getting too reductive or bogged down in minutiae." The film is not a truly great epic, on the scale of - for example - The Godfather or even Spartacus. It's a big movie, it's pretty good, but it's not a great epic.

My problem is with Criterion's presentation: Does The Last Emperor really need four DVDs? Do we really need a television version, with a Bertolucci-approved cinematic version in the tray to the left? Do we really need two discs of supplemental material? No, no, and no. For contrast, let me give you some intra-Criterion statistics:

Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour and Nuit et brouillard: 1 disc each.
Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups: 1 disc
Carol Reed's The Third Man: 1 disc
Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon: 1 disc
Federico Fellini's 8 1/2: 2 discs
Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle: 2 discs
Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus: 2 discs
Terry Gilliam's Brazil: 3 discs

Those are all 'safe' movies, which is to say that they are all safely better than The Last Emperor. Indeed, Resnais' two entries on my list are - even with we just go with Nuit et brouillard - safely miles ahead of Bertolucci's set. Now, I can understand the case of Brazil, where the studio ruined Gilliam's original vision and forced an 'omnia vincit Amor' (Ver. Ec. 10.69) ending on the director. Even if Criterion is making a case for its film in this case, it doesn't need so much material that the film is given a premature apotheosis. The age of the sweeping historical picture is over, and - in my not-so-humble opinion - it reached its apogee in 1975 with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. The Last Emperor is good and entertaining in most of the right ways, but it torques my gears a little bit to see it given a treatment that not even Citizen Kane received.

But then Criterion redeems itself with the release of a film like John Huston's Under The Volcano.

If you haven't seen it, let me say that, to get a good idea of the movie's general character, imagine if Evelyn Waugh co-wrote A Woman Under the Influence (1974) with John Cassavetes, and set it in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry's book is probably much better than that, but a boozy British ex-consul melting down and hurtling toward the gaping maw of the sepulchral abyss does lend itself to certain comparisons. I won't spoil the movie more than I already have, other than to say that Albert Finney's Geoffrey Firmin is one of the great performances of the 1980s, and the fact that it has been overlooked, more or less, this long is a crime against art. I know: He was nominated for an Academy Award, but - let's be fair - which do you remember from 1984: F. Murray Abraham's brilliant turn as (a heavily fictionalized) Antonio Salieri from Amadeus, or Finney's Firmin?

You remember Salieri.

What makes this release so great, especially compared to the overblown, overloaded The Last Emperor set, is that its extras are confined to one disc and so tastefully chosen as to be exquisite. They have the requisite making-of documentary, which isn't as bad as the genre usually is, an interview with co-star Jacqueline Bisset, an archival interview with John Huston, and the coup de grace, a 1976 documentary: Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, about the author of Under The Volcano. This documentary, directed by Donald Brittain and narrated by Richard Burton, was itself nominated for an Academy Award. It's not Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) or the aforementioned Nuit et brouillard, but it's pretty good. As Larry David would say, pretty...pretty...pretty...pretty good.

I've dawdled around with this long enough. The Last Emperor is a decent movie, but not one that deserves four discs with more features than Spartacus. It's silly and it smacks of mendaciousness. On the other hand, if Criterion wants to keep up its standards, then it should imitate its release for Under The Volcano. That is, it should choose classics - neglected or not - and package them with interesting extras that enhance the movie, not make a Richard Nixon (circa Checkers)-style plea for acceptance and forgiveness. In other words, it should follow its mission statement.

I'm done.


At 8:54 PM, Anonymous peter b said...

Heh heh.. you managed to post that without mention of the two disc set for Armageddon, or one disc for anything by Kevin Smith..

Unlike the laserdisc days, it is pretty tough for Criterion to get the rights for movies of any recent vintage, so maybe that is part of why they indulge movies like Emperor with a big set.

But like Wagner himself, maybe we shrug off the excesses as a a tradeoff for the good things they do.

Anyway, we anxiously await to see if Ben Heppner can make it back for the HD Tristan broadcast..

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