Instant Classics — Just Add 1s And 0s

January 8, 2010

Interesting piece by Daniel D’Addario in Newsweek about the non “classics” in the Criterion Collection library (The Curious Case of the Instant Classic), including The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonsChe, and A Christmas Tale. Criterion does rightfully have a lot of cache based on the work they have done and people almost inherently trust their taste. Should we step back and review how they spend that capital, or should we just back off and let them do the things they need to do to earn money that will support their other good work?

I remember when I was growing up of always being dubious of the “Contemporary Classic” label on the VHS sleeve of a new release. It seemed obvious even then that it was more marketing ploy than anything else. But do most people notice the cover, label, publisher, or even title of the movie all that closely? I’m also reminded of the local Blockbuster when I was in college that consistently shelved the Danny DeVito / Joe Piscopo hit Wise Guys under their Classics section merely because the cover looked like it had been colorized from black and white.

But can we really critique Criterion’s selection of newer movies just because they are new? I would much rather watch their release of Carnival of Souls than the roughly contemporary 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but that doesn’t mean Godard is unworthy.

Actually, I think the real problem here is the eternal confusion over preservation and DVDs, something D’Addario almost touches on but doesn’t state clearly enough, and his confusion over the issue is partly what seems to be fueling his anger over Criterion’s dealings. To state it most simply, a DVD is not preservation. It is the result of preservation work, but it is not the preservation. That is done with the film which is eventually transferred to DVD for a wider viewing pleasure.

Sorry to be preaching to the choir here, but it’s a point of clarification that we need to be making. D’Addario partly seems upset because these “pristine” new works are being released by Criterion when they don’t need to be preserved or restored. But just because they are being released on DVD doesn’t mean they’re getting the same preservation treatment as The War Trilogy. And maybe more importantly, isn’t it better to create and maintain a preservation master while it’s easy rather than having to go through all of the restoration work 60 years down the road?

— Joshua Ranger