The Criterion Collection’s mission is simple: it’s billed as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films,” that seeks to gather “the greatest films from around the world” and package them in “editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” To that end, the people behind the Collection have been licensing and distributing films on home video since 1984, when their first offering — a LaserDisc edition of Citizen Kane — went on sale. They continued releasing LaserDiscs until 1999, a year after they’d started offering DVDs.
But while they’ve been putting out home video titles for 30 years now, Criterion’s LaserDisc and DVD (and later Blu-ray) libraries have taken very different approaches to curation. Broadly, the company’s earlier offerings consistently focused on Hollywood releases from a variety of eras, while their current titles skew more toward world cinema and independent or cult releases. These are both incredibly important areas of focus, and neither is intrinsically better than or preferable to the other; rather, they’re equally necessary for a well-rounded view of film history. And doing that right means embracing pop cinema.
By pop cinema, I mean the kind of American releases that cinephiles consider canonical when drafting a list of vintage and modern classics. Criterion’s no stranger to these kinds of movies: they recently put out The Big Chill and will soon reissue Tootsie, both carryovers from their LaserDisc days. And many other titles originally issued on those giant platters have since found their way to new life on higher-definition formats. But just as many of their more “traditional” releases have yet to be relicensed, and that’s a shame, because there’s tremendous value in appreciating Hollywood product for what it is.
Part of the problem is distance. Appreciating a film for its construction is often easier when it’s older, foreign, or underground; the work required to get a handle on film history or international cinema can make the film experience a more rounded one. But as Americans, it can be easy to overlook the real power and artistry of great Hollywood films, especially more recent ones. We’re steeped in the culture and well aware of these movies, which means it requires extra work to strip away things like hype and nostalgia to see what’s really underneath.
The Big Chill has been languishing in pop culture limbo for years, brushed off as a Boomer relic notable for little more than a greatest-hits soundtrack. (When a character in High Fidelity mentions “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as an ideal funeral song, another one dryly shoots him down with, “Immediate disqualification because of its involvement with The Big Chill.” On one level it’s just a Gen X-er sticking a pin in a doll shaped like his elders, but on another, it’s the kind of reductive snark and unnecessary indictment that makes this whole thing harder in the first place.) Yet The Big Chill is an important cultural landmark in Hollywood and pop culture history; in addition to a fine ensemble performance and smart direction from Lawrence Kasdan, it came to quantify a sense of bittersweet loss as a generation baptized in the fires of war and civil rights suddenly realized they’d long ago lost the courage of their convictions. It’s a great movie, and it’s been here all along. We just had to look closer to see it.
Those are the kinds of movies that Criterion can help legitimize by reincorporating pop cinema, especially of the American variety, from all eras into its library. Take a look at some of Criterion’s LaserDisc titles that never made the leap to newer formats: The Graduate, Blade Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Princess Bride, The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Some Like It Hot, Ghostbusters, Lawrence of Arabia, Silverado, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Boyz N the Hood, West Side Story, Casablanca, Boogie Nights. That’s an impressively wide range of movies, but they’re all also major titles, and most of them were mainstream hits. They’re staples of American moviegoing in the 20th century, and they all came from gifted directors, which would keep them in line with Criterion’s auteurist drive. That they were popular stateside during their initial theatrical release and home video run does not discount their quality or their importance to modern film history, and it does every viewer a disservice to not consider such movies viable candidates for preservation and celebration by the finest specialty home video distributor on the market. Hollywood as a movie factory is still hugely influential, and Criterion would be remiss not to acknowledge that in a product line dedicated to important contemporary and classic films.
What’s more, striving to preserve pop cinema and celebrate its values and style goes a long way toward legitimizing a Western canon. These movies aren’t just preserved for how they’re executed — they’re hardly the only good movies out there — but for what they say about their filmmakers and the conditions of their production. A film can be many things, including a snapshot of the culture in which it was made; it transports the viewer to the very moment of its making. They’re unconscious ways we tell ourselves what the world was like then, and the manner with which we tell our stories influences how we think about ourselves. The movies become a record of their own creation.
Criterion is no stranger to these kinds of pop releases in the DVD era. Among others, they’ve released versions of RoboCop, The Silence of the Lambs, Do the Right Thing, Spartacus, and 12 Angry Men (RoboCop and The Silence of the Lambs are both regrettably out of print). But maybe no two releases highlight just how broad, inclusive, and revolutionary the Criterion Collection could truly be than a pair of DVDs from the late 1990s: The Rock and Armageddon.
Both directed by a pre-Transformers Michael Bay, The Rock and Armageddon are pure genre pictures — a reverse prison break and a sci-fi melodrama — that look exactly like what you’d expect from a guy who got his start on commercials and music videos. They’re slick, a little dumb, infatuated with sunsets, and unsure what to do with anything approaching complex human emotion. They’re also incredibly powerful and effective, and to watch them is to see a master manipulator at work. Nothing in them feels “real” in a spiritual sense, but you still marvel at the shameless way Bay films an American flag snapping in a slow-motion breeze.
The Rock and Armageddon aren’t based on toy lines or YA novels, and they were made in a window of time when characters and viewers didn’t have to worry about remaining timely by incorporating international terrorism. They are, in other words, quintessential Hollywood action movies from the last decade of the 20th century, as worthy of being studied and understood as the B pictures that preceded them decades before. They’re a part of contemporary film history. You can hand them to someone and say, “This is what a lot of the movies were like then,” or perhaps, “These had a ton of influence on the industry and culture, for better or worse,” and you would not be wrong. Historical value exists alongside entertainment value, and as anyone who’s browsed Criterion shelves at Barnes & Noble only to find Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom snuggled next Rushmore can tell you, those two things don’t automatically overlap.
When they do, though — when you come across a solidly built piece of Hollywood entertainment that’s stood the test of time and influenced countless viewers and filmmakers — you can wind up with something special. Although pop cinema is just one kind of moviemaking, it deserves just as much preservation and protection as anything else. Criterion’s technical presentation and love of the art form are beyond dispute, so it’s time to open the gates a little. Part of this is a logistical battle; quoting Criterion’s FAQ, “Of course we can’t just pick movies and put them out. The process of getting the rights to release a film can take years. Even if we want a film, we can’t work on it unless the film’s owners grant us the rights.” Those are discussions worth having, though, and battles worth fighting. To borrow again from that same response to what’s bound to be the question they get asked the most: “We aim to reflect the breadth of filmed expression. We try not to be restrictive or snobby about what kinds of films are appropriate. An auteur classic, a Hollywood blockbuster or an independent B horror film has to be taken on its own terms.” Indeed.