Cri Life: A monthly column about the Criterion Collection
Welcome to the first in a regular monthly column dedicated to The Criterion Collection. If the Collection is new to you, here’s a quick primer: Criterion is a distributor specialising in the restoration and release of classic films, and over a thousand movies (everything from The Seventh Seal to Chasing Amy) have been added to their catalogue since launching in the US in 1984. Releases – on Blu-ray and DVD – come with a host of exclusive extras, including interviews, commentaries, essays, and all manner of archive material unavailable elsewhere. This column will focus mainly on the company’s UK output – Criterion are relatively new here, their first Blu-ray-only releases arriving in April 2016 – but will also regularly feature US-flavoured news and reviews.
We’ve picked a pretty good time to launch the column as Criterion’s first three releases of 2020 are all genuine classics and highlight the impressive range of their catalogue. Being There (1979) is a prescient political satire from director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude). Based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, it stars Peter Sellers as a child-like, TV-obsessed gardener who accidentally ascends the political ladder when his simple-minded observations about nurturing flowers and planting seeds are mistaken for profound insight by the Washington elite.
The film’s cryptic ending is what most people remember about Being There but, for me, its finest and funniest moment is the “sex” scene between Sellers’ guileless Chance and frustrated millionaire's wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). It’s an uproarious diversion in a film that is otherwise surprisingly melancholic. Of course, the idea that a man with “rice pudding between the ears”, like Chance, could ever achieve such political power is a notion so fanciful as to be ridiculous, right?
Disappointingly, there’s no audio commentary but the rest of the disc’s extras just about make up for it. A documentary on the making of Being There from 2017 features solid contributions from the movie’s producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor. While we hear Ashby – who passed away in 1988 – in a half-hour excerpt from an audience Q&A about the movie in 1980, this is Sellers’ show and he pops up here in entertaining TV interviews from the US and Australia, in a weird promo reel with Ashby, in deleted scenes (including the film’s alternative ending) and outtakes. Sellers died at the ridiculously young age of 54 only a few months after Being There’s US release and the film remains a powerful reminder of his enormous talent.
George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) is also a comedy and, like Ashby’s film, sees an outsider entering the rarefied domain of the super wealthy. In this case it’s Cary Grant’s Johnny, a hardscrabble young banker keen to make a small fortune before taking a few years off to live a little and find himself. He meets filthy-rich Julia (Doris Nolan) while on holiday and the pair plan to marry, despite her controlling father’s (Henry Kolker) reservations and the fact her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), is clearly a far better match for him. Poking fun at the rich and greedy is always good fun and Holiday takes every opportunity to do just that. The script is sharp, and Grant is dependably terrific, but it’s Hepburn as discontented, rebellious Linda who lights up the film like a Christmas tree.
Edward H. Griffith’s original pre-code version of the film from 1930 is the extras’ main draw. It’s a more faithful adaptation of Philip Barry’s original stage play, with Mary Astor excellent as Julia and Ann Harding equally impressive as Linda. It might lack the sheer star power and comedic energy of the later version but is certainly worth your time. Additionally, there’s a nice excerpt of Cukor talking about his movie recorded in the early ’70s, a stills gallery featuring Robert Kalloch’s exquisite costume designs, and a wide-ranging discussion about Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (also directed by Cukor) between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger.
If you thought laughter was the theme of Criterion's January releases, allow Sansho the Bailiff to swiftly disabuse you of that notion. Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 film is ravishingly beautiful to look at (many of its shots inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e), but it’s also relentlessly bleak. A merciful governor (Masao Shimizu) in 11th Century Japan is sent into exile after clashing with a feudal lord, his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) sold into prostitution, his children (Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyôko Kagawa) to the titular Sansho (Eitarō Shindō), a sadistic local slave owner. Based on a short story by Mori Ōgai, which in turn comes from ancient Japanese folklore, it’s a tough, heart-rending watch but is so rich and elegant, its themes of mercy, resilience and oppression so resonant, that you’re quickly seduced.
Sansho comes with an 84-page book featuring two versions of the story, including Ōgai’s from 1915. Three fascinating interviews – with actress Kagawa, first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and film historian Tadao Sato – shine a light on Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu) and his work. I particularly enjoyed Tanaka’s memories of the director’s perfectionism, going to great lengths to reshoot one of the film’s most important and complicated scenes, despite it looking perfect, because he didn’t like the lighting. There’s also an absorbing commentary from Japanese literary scholar Jeffrey Angles, who really delves into the differences between previous tellings of the Sansho story and Mizoguchi’s rather more enlightened version of it.
Finally, the big news coming out of the US concerns four Netflix titles set to be added to the Collection later in the year. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, Mati Diop’s Atlantics, and the documentary American Factory (the first release from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company) will all be following Netflix stablemate Roma in getting the Criterion treatment.
In the UK, Alfonso Cuarón’s triple Oscar winner will be released only a couple of weeks after it comes out in the States next month and I suspect we won’t have to wait too long for the four new titles after they make their American debuts either. I’m already compiling a wish list for the extras on that Irishman disc…
Come back next month for my thoughts on anti-war thriller Fail Safe, the aforementioned Roma, and a sumptuous six-film boxset featuring the work of Jacques Demy.
Being There – New, restored 4K digital transfer of the film by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Holiday – New 4K digital restoration of the film, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Sansho the Bailiff – High-definition digital restoration of the film, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi | Cast: Eitarô Shindô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Kyôko Kagawa, Yoshiaki Hanayagi | Writers: Fuji Yahiro (screenplay), Ogai Mori (short story "Sanshô dayû"), Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay)
Dir: George Cukor | Cast: Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Katharine Hepburn, Lew Ayres | Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay), Philip Barry (from the play by), Sidney Buchman (screenplay)