The Criterion Collection has been spoiling cinephiles for over 25 years with the bells and whistles that makes home viewing/collecting wonderful: exhaustive extras, nerdy liner notes, and an impeccable curatorial selection. But what happens when even they get it wrong? In honor of the release of its latest hiccup, the well-received but snoozy A Christmas Tale by Arnaud Desplechin out this week, here are a few of Criterion’s rare missteps.
A Christmas Tale Auteur in Question: Arnaud Desplechin Criteria Case: A Christmas Tale presents a familiar trope, the dreaded holiday homecoming with enough bemused rancor and cynical self-satisfaction it could have been subtitled “French existential angst for dummies.” Sacré bleu, the French don’t mince words! This excruciatingly long slice-of-life amongst the smug upper class is oblivious to its own artifice, particularly with a relationship plot line that is nearly as ridiculous as the mate-swapping found in The Family Stone. Thanks for letting your freak flag fly, Catherine Deneuve!
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Auteur in Question: David Fincher Criteria Case: A year removed from the Oscar-bait blitzkrieg, it’s hard to remember when Benjamin Button stirred audience’s curiosity with its promise of A-class actors (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), an acclaimed director (David Fincher), engaging source material (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name) and a well-edited trailer. Turned out, the film was little more than unsettling CGI effects and a ham-fisted clock metaphor as subtle as Big Ben. That Criterion was compelled to honor Fincher is commendable in light of his consistently engaging body of work, but since nobody saw, let alone wanted to buy (or extend) Zodiac, it seems like the brass were in the unfortunate, not-so-curious case of having to pay the bills.
Chasing Amy Auteur in Question: Kevin Smith Criteria Case: Revisiting the, er, oeuvre of Kevin Smith’s is quite sobering. Chasing Amy represents a turning point in Smith’s then nascent career, after he’d scored with the no-budget Clerks before attempting teen comedy (the doomed Mallrats). With Chasing Amy, Smith felt compelled to say “something” about his generation, that message having to do with the latent homosexuality underlying scatological humor, myopic foolishness within the comic book subculture, and the supposed dangers of dating bi-sexual women. While much of Smith’s dialogue has a short shelf life, Chasing Amy’s gender politics are hopelessly regressive even from a director still getting mileage out of Greedo jokes (Scrape away the f-bombs and Smith’s work becomes undeniably conservative). The last ten years have not been kind to Smith creatively, leaving many to look upon Smith’s earlier works with soft eyes. But whereas Clerks and Mallrats played to their director’s puerile strengths, Chasing Amy’s misdirected ambition now looks embarrassing in the light of day.
Armageddon Auteur in Question: Michael Bay Criteria Case: In an apologia included in the Criterion DVD, film historian Jeanine Basinger asserts that Michael Bay would be the “darling bad boy of the intelligentsia” had he not become a director. (It’s a confusing assertion, considering Bay’s penchant for flimsy plots and complete absence of directorial style.) Basinger goes on to conclude that at its core, Armageddon is about the bravery of the working class who git-‘er-done while dithering scientists and politicians sit around listening to Aerosmith. To be fair, whatever movie/director Basinger describes sounds interesting. I wonder if she has seen Armageddon?
Sweet Movie Auteur in Question: Dusan Makavejev Criteria Case: Sexual decadence, post-Vietnam malaise, high gas prices—the ‘70s were crazy times! And sure enough, brave new filmmakers channeled the teetering zeitgeist into gritty, challenging pieces of art. Then there’s Serbian director Dusan Makavejev, who funneled our collective nihilism into films wherein characters eat their own vomit and have sex covered in feces. Sweet Movie caused quite a bit of controversy upon its release in 1974, and like a great many intentionally provocative films, the ensuing hysterics are far more compelling than the movie itself. Plenty of highfalutin essays on Makavejev’s work explain away his shock tactics by using impressive sounding academic phrases like “post-Marxist critique,” but 30 years later, Sweet Movie plays like a humorless kitsch-free John Waters film. Need I remind you that humor and kitsch are the two best parts of John Waters’ films?