The Criterion Channel Is a Great Collection Companion – Review #35

In early 2016, I went to the Criterion Collection offices for a press screening of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s mermaid murder musical The Lure. I was curious about the film, but I attended the screening almost entirely because of its location; getting to walk the halls where *The* Criterion was collection-ed? A dream. And sure, they’re not particularly long halls, but so what? They’re covered in big beautiful 24x36s of cinema’s truest classics.

On the way to the bathroom, I passed through what I assume was the filling room. Discs overflowed the shelves and littered the tables. I was told that there was some overstock and that kids from underprivileged neighborhoods were going to be coming in to take it off their hands.

I wanted so badly to take some for myself.

In case you don’t know what the gosh darn heck I’m talking about: the Criterion Collection was founded back in the mid-80s as a company dedicated to “Deepen[ing] the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.”

If you ever wondered how special features became a thing – Criterion did it first back in the Laserdisc days, then moving into DVD and Blu-ray. And now, their own streaming platform.

But it’s been a long road to get here.

Back when I first started subscribing to Hulu Plus, I did so in part because they had a partnership with Criterion, and many of the Collection’s films were included with the price of entry. It made the already-pretty-good-deal very good indeed, though I didn’t use it nearly as much as I should have. So, when the deal ended and Criterion went over to TCM’s Filmstruck, I didn’t follow.

Folks like me are probably the reason that Filmstruck is dead. Sorry. But from its ashes rose the only thing I cared about, that independent service dedicated to the Collection: the Criterion Channel, which officially launched just a couple weeks ago.

As someone who is watching this video, you have the technology necessary to access the Channel. It’s pretty much everywhere except game consoles. At the time of recording, actually doing so can be an occasionally frustrating experience… but I’m not interested in that here. Bugs get quashed. Features get added. Static video reviews become obsolete.

But not this one!

Because what matters to me is not the execution of The Criterion Channel’s Roku interface but that of its purpose. How well it channels that mission to “Deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.”

Spoiler alert: Pretty well.

See, what makes the Criterion Channel unique is not just the catalog – though that’s at least above average and something we will discuss in a bit – but everything that comes with it. You can feel confident when watching a Criterion release that it is the highest quality transfer available, which can be something of a gamble on other services, particularly when it comes to more niche or foreign films. But even more significantly, many films have extras taken straight from their home release: commentary tracks, interviews, feature-length retrospective documentaries, et cetera.

For example, I inaugurated the service for myself with the 1923 Harold Lloyd vehicle Safety Last! I’m ashamed to admit that I had never seen any of his films before, despite my general appreciation for silent comedies, and this seemed like a good opportunity to right that wrong. If you’ve missed out as well, the film is well worth watching, and not just for its iconic clock-hanging shot. Nearly 100 years later, it is still a hilarious and relatable-ish tale of a man who will go to incredible lengths to convince the love of his life that he isn’t actually a total shmuck.

And how can you watch that without immediately needing to know more? Fortunately, the Criterion Channel was happy to oblige. I went with “Locations and Effects,” a 20-minute documentary about the production of Lloyd’s more harrowing stunts, using Safety Last! as the prime but not exclusive example while also giving some greater context for how others used the same or similar techniques. But I could have gone so much deeper. Also available are a Safety Last! commentary track, a nearly-two-hour-long documentary about Harold Lloyd, three shorts starring Lloyd, and more.

And that’s the value here. Where Netflix et al make decisions based on algorithm, the Criterion Channel is a distinctly human affair. Discovery doesn’t happen by scrolling through buckets of weirdly specific genres based on a complex tagging system: it happens by trusting people who have dedicated their lives to cinema.

The curation takes a variety of forms. Perhaps it’s a full-on series, like the six woman-directed shorts programmed together as part of their ongoing “Shorts for Days” segment, or “Columbia Noir,” a showcase of 11 noirs produced by Columbia Pictures between 1945 and 1962. Or perhaps it’s a more traditional double feature or even a short+feature pairing of the type you only see at festivals or with a Pixar release.

With each, a filmed introduction explains the vision for the collection and how it came to be. A personal favorite from these first few weeks is dubbed L’amour Kung Fu, putting Jacques Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg alongside John Woo’s swordsman-out-for-revenge-r Last Hurrah for Chivalry – a pairing justified by none other than Grady Hendrix, who you may not know but is literally one of my favorite people in the world and I was so excited to see him on my television.

And more are constantly being added, with the plan being that every single day is some new thing being highlighted for you to watch. It may not be programmatically personalized, but it is programmed.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the actual catalog of the Criterion Channel. As I said, this selection is at least above average and I’m underselling it there. Sight largely unseen, I would say there’s probably not a single bad film on the service. Or perhaps that there aren’t any not worth your time.  And for those who may think that it’s a purely pretentious enterprise: don’t. Ten of Ishiro Honda’s Japanese monster movies spanning two decades, from 1954’s Godzilla to 1975’s Terror of Mecha-Godzilla, are available to stream. As are all four films from Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku, which are films I’ve wanted to check out ever since I missed the Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell screening at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

It is awesome that that is all available to me now.

But there are well over 1000 films in the Criterion Collection, and though the Channel claims similar raw numbers, there’s just a lot that’s missing. And there always will be, for two reasons:

  1. Rights are complicated. Just because the Criterion Collection was able to release a special edition DVD of something a decade ago doesn’t mean they have any claim to that film now; and even if they do, that agreement probably doesn’t cover streaming rights.
  2. The Criterion Channel is in direct competition with the Criterion Collection.

To explain what I mean, let’s take, uh, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. It’s incredible, one of my favorites of all time, as evidenced by the fact that I have a framed poster of it. So I have been anxiously awaiting a high-def home release ever since I first saw it back in 2010 and was, of course, ecstatic when it was announced that the film would finally be getting a proper Blu-ray in January of this year. And, of course, I bought it.

But what if I had known it was going to be on the Criterion Channel so soon after release? Would I still have done so? Maybe, but probably not. Criterion discs are expensive, and also the company’s main business; they can’t really afford to completely cannibalize that.

And so every film that is or isn’t available says something. You can stream Guillermo Del Toro’s Kronos, but not The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, despite the fact that the three together formed a box set a couple years back. Though 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days cannot be streamed, Mungiu’s follow-up Beyond the Hills can be.

The first criterion disc I ever bought, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, isn’t available, nor is anything by Richard Linklater.

And while it’s possible that in time at least some of these will pop up on the service, who knows how long any given film will be available; the Channel, as with all things digital, will see films come and go to augment it’s Permanent Collection – whatever that actually consists of.

So, to answer the critical question: No, the Criterion Channel is not a replacement for the Criterion Collection as a whole. And as the ending of the deal with Hulu and the collapse of Filmstruck indicate, there is a level of precariousness to the entire enterprise. Hausu may be on the channel, but I feel good about having just bought a Blu-ray copy nonetheless.

All that said, taken as its own entity, the Channel has already justified its place in the ever-more-crowded streaming space.

Unlike the competition, the Criterion Channel is focused on celebrating history rather than defining the future. It is there to make the film canon accessible by way of a not-low-but-perfectly-reasonable-especially-in-context-with-the-cost-of-their-physical-releases monthly fee. And even in these early stages, it has succeeded. I have no doubt it will only get better from here.

Eight-Point-Two Out of Ten

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