The Curious Case of the Instant Classic
D'Addario, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel D'Addario
If a special-edition DVD is the gold standard of film, a Criterion DVD--with its good-as-new image quality, carefully curated featurettes, and striking packaging--is triple platinum. The big guys are all there--Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Hitchcock--with each film assigned a number on its spine, like an encyclopedia volume. Which is precisely the point. These films are Important. They're practically a syllabus for a Ph.D. in film. Cineastes will be excited by two upcoming inductees: Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy and John Ford's Stagecoach. They're being released alongside the holy grail of film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Yes, the 2008 movie most notable for Brad Pitt's makeup job is being granted a spot on the same list as Renoir's Grand Illusion (Criterion's film No. 1) and the rest. Why? Criterion president Peter Becker says the company is really doing a favor for the movie's director. "It was something we did for David Fincher," he says. "That deal is an asterisk in Criterion history." Turns out that the art of the deal plays a bigger role in the Criterion selection process than you'd think. The company has started releasing the first movies it acquired via an agreement with IFC Films: Italian mob drama Gomorrah, French family tragicomedy A Christmas Tale, and Steven Soderbergh's Che (coming out this month). They're decent enough, and Che's cinematography, Becker says, may be groundbreaking. But classics? Even if they seem perfect now, they couldn't have passed the test of time in only two years. Still, they're getting the bells-and-whistles archival treatment, along with a price tag of $39.95 to $49.95.
Naturally, Criterion can't function as a DVD publisher--yes, it prefers the term "publisher"--without access to films. The IFC deal grants the company a good deal of freedom; it's not compelled to pick up any IFC release. But Criterion's methods and standards for selecting what it preserves are somewhat muddled. Becker says the company faces the challenge of "how to reconcile the volume of work that we are doing on classics with the somewhat more urgent needs of contemporary films. …