When I first started reading classic literature, I got to know the indispensable Norton Critical Editions. These wonderful volumes contain the text of the work with copious footnote. In addition, they provide supplementary material like criticism contemporary to the work and from today, original source material, etc. The Norton version of War and Peace contains the text with footnotes, a ton of maps, letters by and to Tolstoy which shed light on the novel, along with a wealth of essays from the time the novel was published and later. Armed with the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace, you are ready with for a thorough and completely satisfying encounter with Tolstoy’s epic.
Criterion appeared in 1984 with the advent of laserdiscs. While several of the great ‘art house’ classics had appeared on VHS, now a huge number of previously unavailable classics of world cinema were now available in breathtaking editions. The random-access capability of the laserdisc was conducive to the concept of ‘extras’, and the Criterion editions really went to town with them. In addition to beautifully restored prints of the film, we got the option of additional soundtrack, often a running commentary on the film by the director or a film expert. Relevant shorts, storyboards, poster art and other goodies were crammed into these discs, providing for film the same kind of experience for films that the Norton Critical editions provided for literature.
When DVDs replaced laserdiscs, the amount and quality of the ‘extras’ grew exponentially. Multiple soundtracks, full-length documentaries, shooting scripts, production stills, interviews with the directors, stars and/or technicians who worked on the film provided a treasure chest for the film lover. You could now encounter Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, for example, armed with an apparatus similar to that which the reader of the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace had. Needless to say, the arrival of Blu-ray kicked the storage capacity through the roof. You could now have a disc featuring a film that would also have a complete two-hour documentary as well as various historical TV interview, alternative soundtracks, music scores and the like all on one little disc. The learning these discs afford you is seemingly infinite.
In addition to the Criterion label, the company has two subdivisions:
1- Essential Art House offers the quality Criterion prints of the films, but in a bare-bones presentation, i.e., no ‘extras’. So, you can buy the super-duper editon of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with all the goodies, or just get the film itself without the frills in a beautiful print from Essential Art House.
2-Eclipse offers bare-bones editions in box sets of films that aren’t featured on the main label or Essential Art House, but that the company feels should be out on DVD. This gives us wonderful editions like a 5-disc edition of Late Ozu featuring films by that master not available anywhere else.
To give you a taste of the Criterion selections I have particularly loved, I went to my shelf and pulled off the first five that jumped out at me.
1- The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini)
Perfection. Gem-like. Hilarious. Reverent. Gorgeous. Raucous. Meditative. All this in only 87 minutes. A good example of Criterion preserving a film that might otherwise have been forgotten. Should be pretty relevant viewing nowadays considering all the hub-bub surrounding the new guy in the Vatican.
2- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)
The greatest film ever made? Many say so. Definitely one of the most exquisite looking and most heartbreaking. The Criterion edition is an embarrassment of riches. The two disc set comes with the film, another disc with wonderful interviews as well as a 2-hour plus documentary about Mizoguchi. There is also a 72-page booklet with essays on the film as well three stories that the film is based on.
3- Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Do you also feel that the 3-hour theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander was way too short? Then this is the set for you! Along with the disc of the theatrical release, there is a two-disc set featuring the original 5-hour version that Bergman made for Swedish TV. Five hours of pure heaven! In addition, you get a disc with a documentary on the making of the film, countless interviews with the stars and crew of the film as well as introductions that Bergman give for 11 (count ’em 11!) of his greatest film. That should take care of you!
4- The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)
The service that Criterion provides was brought home to me last week. I had watched this DVD a few weeks ago and for some reason our local PBS station showed it in a very old, beat up print. Because the film is so magnificent, its greatness came through even in the bad copy. But then reviewing the DVD I realized that we can’t take Criterion’s curator role for granted!
5- When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Mikio Naruse)
This single disc had the greatest effect on me out of all the Criterion discs I have watched. This came to me via a Netflix suggestion (‘If you liked The Seven Samurai why not try……’). It was a revelation. It set me off on my obsession with Naruse’s films and Japanese film in general. Naruse is a master, up there with Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Unfortunately this is the only one of his sound films available in Region 1 (US) format. There is a 5-disc Eclipse set of Naruse silents. We can only hope that more of this master’s work will be available soon from Criterion!
And while we’re at it, how about a Criterion edition of Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating?