The New Criterion

Self-Guided Film School, 24/7, on the Criterion Collection App

When I was in college and had a few hours to waste, I’d go to the library’s film archives and watch movies. The librarians brought them out of the stacks on tiny microcassettes, or maybe 8-Tracks. Honestly, I don’t remember the format, only that it was small. I watched these movies in carrels, on 12-inch screens, headphones on. For hours, I immersed myself in the classics, with no smartphone to distract me.

In this way, I absorbed Fellini and Godard. I saw Grand Illusion and The Rules of The Game. I even watched Au Hazard Balthazar, a strange movie about a Christ-donkey who bears the burden of a small French village’s sins. Not once did I take a film history class. I just picked through the canon at my leisure, without direction. That’s how I’ve absorbed movies my entire life.

No Method To My Madness

When I lived in Chicago in the 90s, I went to the Music Box and Facets Multimedia and the Film Center Of The Art Institute, later named for Gene Siskel. They were always showing something. On our first date, I took my future wife Regina to see The Tarnished Angels, a Douglas Sirk melodrama about barnstorming pilots in New Orleans, starring Rock Hudson and Robert Stack. She didn’t love it, but she didn’t complain. And I didn’t pick it for any particular reason. It was showing, and I simply wanted to see every movie ever made.

My approach hasn’t changed. I have no systemic plan. When stuff comes on Turner Classic Movies that interests me, I’ll watch it above anything else on TV. When lost movies from the 70s show up at the local Film Society, I’ll choose that over first-run fare. After I contracted pneumonia back in 2009, I lay on the couch, absorbing everything that TCM had to offer, including the terrifying John Frankenheimer film Seconds, also starring Rock Hudson. Even when I’m in good health, which I usually am, I try to make time to watch every movie ever made.

For my approach, the new Criterion Collection app may be the best thing ever created. Rising from the ashes of FilmStruck, this app lacks the Turner Classic Movies content that made that service such a gem. But this one feels curated, even more than FilmStruck ever was. It’s full of special features and recommendations from connoisseurs. If you want to take a film appreciation course at home at your leisure, this is Cibola, The Lost City Of Film.

I don’t like paying for things and not using them. My $100 investment in Criterion will end up being a bargain if it kills me. I know I’ll watch 100 hours of movies. If I can, I’ll watch 100 hours in a month. 

And so I’ve returned to school.

It Begins
Last Hurrah For Chivalry, directed by John Woo, on the Criterion app.

I’ve had Criterion for two weeks. In that time, I’ve watched six movies, plus a short cartoon. So far, not a very good deal. But my membership doesn’t expire until April 2020.

When I signed on, Criterion offered an opening course that strangely paired Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg with Last Hurrah For Chivalry, a John Woo sword epic from the late 1970s.

I’d watched Cherbourg recently at the recommendation of Lani Gonzalez, who wrote it up as part of her rundown of TCM’s 31 Days Of Oscar. And that was the third time I’d seen that movie, so I figured I could skip. But I was curious as to how it related to the John Woo movie.

Criterion featured a five-minute interview with a very excitable film historian wearing a pink suit. He compared certain color schemes and  shots and said that Demy’s movie had strongly influenced Woo. Both movies featured a narrative about a certain kind of naive romance, even though Chivalry’s was, technically, a bromance. They also both knowingly deconstructed their respective genres. Cherbourg was a musical about ordinary life, and Chivalry dared to present drunken, flawed antiheroes.

Regina and I sat on the couch with Chivalry. The opening battle had some epic, cheesy charm. But once the plot got into motion, I started to grow sleepy. All the women were either mothers or whores. And I just couldn’t get invested in the characters. I could only say “I guess that sort of reminds me of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” so many times before turning on the Dodger game instead.

Some More Movies I Watched On Criterion
Vagabond, directed by Agnes Varda, on the Criterion app.

Next I watched a short animation by a Brazilian guy living in Florida. In it, a schlub working for NASA, informed by his superiors that aliens will destroy Earth in 17 years, has to catalog all of human existence. But after 20 years he decides that only his love for his wife matters. It was cute.  I also watched an interview with the animator, who was also cute. But I needed substance.

I found it with Vagabond, a truly great movie. Director Agnes Varda had recently died, and I felt a little embarrassed that I’d never heard of her. That had to change, so I watched Vagabond, her mid-80s masterpiece, on a Tuesday afternoon.

Basically, Vagabond is about a young secretary who drops out of society and backpacks around a French wine region in the middle of winter. Men mistreat her, she mistreats men, but mostly men mistreat her. She shacks up with a goat farmer and his family until they kick her out for being lazy. A few other bad things happen and then she freezes to death in a ditch. This is not a spoiler, as she’s already dead in the first scene.

This movie is amazing. It doesn’t follow a conventional time sequence. Sometimes minor characters turn to the camera and deliver a monologue. The protagonist doesn’t have clear motivations, and sometimes she just walks down the road for five minutes. Unquestionably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Thanks, Agnes Varda, RIP. Thanks, Criterion.

But That’s Not All

I followed that with Wendy and Lucy, a movie that I’d been meaning to catch for a few years but couldn’t, because once it left the art-house it completely vanished. Director Kelly Reichardt, whose other movies are also all on Criterion, has clearly watched a lot of Agnes Varda.

Michelle Williams plays a woman fleeing Indiana. Who can blame her? She gets stuck in Oregon and then she loses her cute dog. The world proves to be heartless and expensive. Just like in Vagabond she wanders, lost and broke and afraid, because there’s no place in this world for a woman who doesn’t play by the rules. This is just a great movie, loaded with subtlety and depth, made with tremendous attention and care.

Next came Jubal, the kind of movie I used to watch on Turner. Featuring beautiful Montana landscapes, this Western morality play has what I’d consider a 1950s nightmare cast: Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, and Rod Steiger, the most mannered actor who ever appeared on celluloid. I didn’t really enjoy it. Too much Rod Steiger, whose Southern accent made me want to drown myself in a vat of melted butter. But it does feature an early supporting role from Charles Bronson, who knew how to ride a horse, and a couple of smokin’ 1950s babes, including one who later married Jack Lemmon. I chose it because it had kind of a fun retro poster and because I wrote a book called Jewball, which is exactly how they pronounced the title of the movie. This is true.

What I Watched This Week
Ralph Richardson and a weenie French kid in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, on the Criterion app.

I began my second week with Criterion by watching Martin Scorsese give a three-minute introduction to Taipei Story, a film from 1985 by Edward Yang. I tend to have high expectations for movies that contain the names of Asian cities and “Story.”  I figure they will contain moody jazz clubs and high-pitched gun battles and car chases. But I was incorrect in this case.

Even Scorsese he didn’t seem to express a ton of excitement about the “new Taiwanese cinema.” Taipei Story features a lot of scenes of a good-looking woman staring at traffic and a washed-up baseball player trying to navigate life after fascism. I get what the director was trying to do but I found myself nodding off on the couch mid-afternoon so I turned off the movie and did dishes until it was time for Jeopardy!

Today I watched The Fallen Idol, an early collaboration between Carol Reed and Graham Greene, who respectively directed and wrote The Third Man, unquestionably an all-time top 10 movie. I saw some stuff online about how The Fallen Idol is an even better movie than The Third Man. But it is certainly not.

Ralph Richardson, an excellent actor beyond reproach, plays a butler at the French embassy in London. He’s having an emotional affair with a French Ingrid Bergman-type at the same embassy. But mostly, the movie centers on this whiny little blond boy named Philippe, who is like Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone but with a French accent. Someone dies, someone lies, and Philippe loses his innocence. Unfortunately, Philippe isn’t the one who dies. At least he subtly gets what’s coming his way.

Graham Greene wrote the script, so it’s nice and tight and tense. Reed surely knows his way around a mansion, and I also liked the exterior scenes in London. But when your child actor, on whom the movie depends, is “worse than Mark Lester,” well, you’ve got problems.

In Conclusion, I Must Say This About The Criterion Collection App

If you’ve made it to the end of this piece, the only takeaway should be that it doesn’t matter what you watch on the Criterion Collection app. There are many choices, from many decades and a million special features. Just like in college, no one is grading me, and no one is watching me while I watch. If I don’t like a movie, or a series of movies, or if I think Alex Ross Perry’s curated selection is shit, I can just move along. And I can do it from my couch while enjoying snacks.

I am, however, hoping that they add The Tarnished Angels to the app soon. It’s on TCM, but they rarely show it. My 20th wedding anniversary is coming up next year. I’m sure Regina would love to revisit the movie that started it all.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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