Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Insignificant Matter of DVD Distributors

In America we are up to our necks in DVD's from all walks of Movie-dom. We have bootlegs, pornos, tapings of monster truck rallies, public service announcements and how-to's, along with the Harry Potter movies and Godfather restorations. But there are only two companies that have the distinction of putting out quality movies in quality transfers on shiny new DVD transfers. These are the Criterion Collection and Kino on Video.
(The Great Train Robbery, 1902)
What is unfortunate about even this fact, though, is that it seems people forget about the latter. The Criterion Collection is considered, without a doubt, the premier distributor for foreign films, U.S cinema headed for posterity and everything in between. It is the voice of both the forgotten masterpiece (John Huston's Wise Blood) and the Hollywood film that bears reconsideration (Armaggedon?). It covers cult films (Equinox) and formal classics (The Red Shoes). Even despite the fact that the prices for the movies rarely fall below $25.00, who can resist, at least from time to time? All the special features and the crisp transfer make it worth the money.
But what The Criterion Collection can also be judged by is not all the dazzle it does include, but what it leaves out. If a DVD company is to proclaim itself 'A continuing series of classic and contemporary films,' then where is a contemporary film such as Jan Svankmajer's Alice? Where are classics such as The General, The Last Laugh, Napoleon or any of Griffith's films? Where is most of the bulk of silent cinema for that matter? And why are fine contemporary films from the like of Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke ignored in favor of a trendy niche-machine like Wes Anderson (who's every single film has a Criterion release)? 
The immediate answer is: owned by a different distributor. To be sure, some of the classic films are completely un-attainable even for a prosperous distributor like Criterion because their' rights are already owned and will never be sold. Criterion is itself a subdivision of Janus Films, and so they must rummage through Janus's vault. But if Janus doesn't have it, then neither will Criterion. Yet as if to compensate for this deficiency, it seems that Criterion churns out as many films by a handful of coddled directors as possible; these directors include Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, David Fincher and again, Wes Anderson. While most of these directors are titans in the world of movies without question, one gets tired of Criterion's agenda to release possibly all their films (they've almost done it with Kurosawa), as if to say; 'We know we should branch out. But look, here's this lesser Kurosawa film for another forty dollars.' We do not need a television series-- not a film-- made by Altman in the 80's, or a collection of Beastie Boys videos. And the constant reissues and box sets come to seem like even more tinsel being thrown at the consumer.

Kino on Video, by contrast, is a distributor which calls itself, more boastfully, 'The Best in World Cinema.' Obviously, 'The Best' is not literally true, but at least they are more straightforward about their target mission: World Cinema. Unlike Criterion, Kino is a crash course in silent cinema; they have released box sets of early short films by Edison, the Lumieres, Meiles and the like; they are responsible for an excellent double-DVD set of Griffith's short films and many of his features. Kino seems particularly fond of German silent films as well, having released and/or reissued expressionist classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis and Nosferatu. They are responsible for Svankmajer's surrealist masterpieces and, whereas Criterion has always had a preference for Tarkovsky, Kino has released the features of the too-often overlooked contemporary and (mutual) influence of Tarkovsky's, Sergei Paradjanov. (Kino does have DVD's of Tarkovsky's Mirror and The Sacrifice). There are often not too many special features on Kino's DVD's, but this can be seen as a blessing rather than an inconvenience, as it forces the viewer to confront the film in it's bare form. By contrast, a two hour conversation with Akira Kurosawa and two separate audio commentaries on the Seven Samurai are distractions to the point of being dead weight. Criterion likes to pride itself on releases of films by underappreciated, or damned-near unheard of filmmakers, such as Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) or Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I).  Underappreciated, perhaps, but even these films are ones which had an established-enough cult following, played at major film festivals and are not too far removed from the conventions of a certain supposed-movement (the American 'Indie,' for example). Kino, by contrast, is for the true cinephile, the filmgoer who wants to go further in to the rabbit hole and see things he really has never heard of.  Who has ever heard of the recent American independent The Toe Tactic, a mixture of live-action and animation? Who ever knew there was a celebrated Russian filmmaker named Karen Shakhnavarov? Kino enables the dutiful cinephile to discover these sorts of films and filmmakers.
The Criterion Collection does deserve much credit for what they have done for films-- in terms of restoration, they really are the best, and at least they have a DVD edition of the greatest of all silents, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and other movies that are genuinely obscure (W.R: Mysteries of the Organism) or overlooked (Clean, Shaven). Part of my gripe with Criterion may have to do with the fact that they know their audience so well, it's obnoxious; affluent, hip, probably urban dwelling folks who, I am guessing, are by and large younger than forty. But Kino is the more mature distributor, and one which gets directly to the point-- that is the films themselves-- by a less pretentious and puff-piece type of approach. While Criterion is the examplar of cinema conservation-- again, note their restorations and transfers-- Kino's commitment to silent cinema makes it at the least it's equal, just on a somewhat different turf of conservatism. The Criterion Collection is for starry-eyed indulgers; Kino on Video is for practical graduates.