In autumn, Tuesdays are exciting as summer blockbusters, Cannes and Sundance films, and straight-to-video horror titles all find their way to DVD. But autumn is still a few weeks away and some weeks, like this one, are pretty dry. Sure, Season Four of The Office is out today, but as much as I’d like NBC to convince me that Jim and Pam aren’t just the Ross and Rachel of the 00s, my busy schedule doesn’t allow for the dedication a TV show requires. Besides, I’m in the middle of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica.
So if you’re not waiting for something to break up Jim and Pam (it’s going to happen, trust me, and I will hate them for doing it), this may be the week you catch up on the Criterion Collection. If you’re not familiar with the Criterion Collection, you are clearly not a cinephile. A self-dubbed “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films on DVD,” Criterion lives up to all of its proclaimed adjectives and modifiers, releasing multiple beautifully transferred discs of excellent and important films each month.
Each film has a spine number and features a rarity in the world of DVD releases: relevant special features. Booklets written by credible academics and critics, documentaries both contemporary to the film and in retrospect, a notable absence of deleted scenes except where relevant to the director’s vision — the Criterion Collection is the only organization which truly took advantage of everything offered by the DVD format when it was introduced ten years ago.
Over the summer Criterion put out a couple films which were long overdue for DVD overhauls: C.T. Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). Both had seen DVD releases in previous years, High and Low in a Criterion edition, but re-releases were necessary. The only extant version of Vampyr on DVD was a poor transfer of a badly damaged print which did not do justice to Dreyer, whose classic The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of Criterion’s greatest DVD releases. High and Low, on the other hand, like most of Kurosawa’s 60s films, was filmed in a wide aspect ratio but when Criterion prepared their original DVD in the late 90s it was not an anamorphic transfer, which in English means it tended to look screwy on widescreen televisions. With their July release of these two films, Criterion fixed the problems: High and Low won’t look all screwy on your plasma TV (I hate you for having a plasma TV, by the way) and Vampyr is something you can finally get ahold of.
Not that you’ll ever be able to get a handle on Vampyr’s plot. Dreyer’s film is something more like a nightmare film than one with a constructed narrative. A good modern analogy might be the films of David Lynch, though the ones with the least plot, like Lost Highway. From the title you’d infer that the film has something to do with vampires, and indeed there could very well be a vampire in the film somewhere. Mostly, however, we follow a young man as he wanders through a series of loosely connected nightmarish situations. It’s not just the outlandish and quite effective scares and characters which make the film “nightmarish”: the form of the film, the way it progresses from one scene to another evokes the form of a dream, wherein unconnected thoughts and feelings are used to construct a narrative which makes little sense to us in the morning. If this sounds like too much to take for very long, don’t worry: the film is only 73 minutes long, but brilliant and even terrifying despite its age.
Like so many other Kurosawa films, High and Low was so appealing to Western audiences that it has been remade in English, as the Ron Howard’s Ransom, starring Mel Gibson. If you’re wondering, High and Low is the superior film. It is as much a heartfelt and thrilling story about an upper-class Japanese businessman whose son is kidnapped as it is a criticism of the businessman and his class; the film’s title refers to the divide between the upper class and the lower class, of which his son’s kidnapper is a member. Kurosawa may be remembered most for samurai films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, but his films dealing with contemporary Japanese society, the best of which include Stray Dog and Ikiru, show the same insight into the human character as well as his unique observations about modern life.
The DVDs are packed with special features if you can find the time to watch/read them and feature, as we can expect from the Criterion Collection, the coolest covers around. Vampyr and High and Low might be found at video stores and video rental houses nationwide, but probably not at Best Buy or Blockbuster. And if you’re interested in this Criterion Collection business, I recommend visiting their website. If you’re not into black-and-white foreign films, shame on you, but rest assured: the Criterion edition of Robocop is the best (and most rare) around. I also recommend stopping by Exile on Main Street in downtown Champaign, where you can browse the Criterion selection in order of spine number and get knowledgeable recommendations from those who work there.