Those that know me know that I am always 100% objective, never opinionated, try to look at every side of things and have never called someone an idiot for daring to disagree with me. I just think it. So if I slip off the beaten track and suddenly (surprisingly!) begin ranting, forgive me. Just keep that in mind whilst you peruse the following.
Every month, I await with bated breath the announcement of the Criterion Collection’s upcoming titles. I’m the sort of person who gets excited over the release of Antonioni’s Red Desert, complete with archival interviews. I was overjoyed by Polanski’s Cul de Sac and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Criterion DVDs are among the few DVDs I spend money on any more, because they’re guaranteed to be high quality and have mountains of extras, many of them (like the Polanski cuts) supervised by the director.
So why did I get angry with Criterion last week? Was it because they decided, for some reason unknown to God or man, that David Fincher’s The Game needed the Criterion treatment? That they release a bunch of Kevin Smith films or actually did a Criterion of Armageddon, now blessedly out of print? Well, initially, yeah, that was why I got pissed. Bringing personal opinion to bear on this (naturally, I am, as always, 100% objective) I cannot understand why The Game should get anything but a good quality, cheap edition. It is not what I think of when I think of Fincher; I think that many of us can agree that it is neither his most iconic nor his best film. But that’s not really fair, now is it? My apathy towards The Game is not really the issue here; the issue, in my now much calmer mind, is much greater.
There are good films, there are great films, and there are important films. Certainly Citizen Kane is an important film, even if you don’t particularly like it as a piece of entertainment. I’m quite apathetic to much of Godard, but I admit that Breathless is an immensely important work in the history of cinema. There are likewise great films that are not particularly important: Casablanca is an excellent propaganda film, an excellent romance, and an excellent melodrama, but in terms of its importance in the history of cinema, it’s only interesting to those who want to mark a turn in Humphrey Bogart’s career. It’s iconic, but not particularly important. Conversely, Avatar will probably go down in cinematic history as important: it resurrected 3D, is one of the finest uses of motion capture, and is a fairly entertaining picture. It’s important, it’s entertaining, but God save me if it isn’t Dances with Smurfs. The point being that most important films, whether or not you personally enjoy them or find them interesting, are important because they mark a shift in the history of cinema, an advance in technology, acting or cinematography; a marker of the shifting culture. You might be bored in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but you have to admit that it’s an important film. They’re important because they accomplish something that has not been accomplished before.
As much as I dislike Avatar as a work of art (or entertainment, for that matter), I would be far more interested in Criterion preserve it. The Game to me is a marker of a widening gap between what our cinematic heritage is and what it should be. There are hundreds, thousands even, of public domain films languishing, forgotten and unloved, on internet archives and in bargain bins. Poor transfers and maltreated prints of some truly excellent works. There are my pet ones (Why no early Hitchcock, Criterion? Why release The 39 Steps five hundred times but not Murder! or The Pleasure Garden or The Man Who Knew Too Much?); but there are also ones directed by Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, John Ford … argh! Yes, I know that Criterion has to be able to get good work prints, rights, scholars to write essays, etc., but somehow I cannot believe that all of those films are that difficult to obtain. I know also that there’s money and the power of Hollywood to consider and that it won’t be long before they actually do release Kindergarten Cop because Arnold bankrolls it. But really. Is there no shame?
Ahem. Got a little excited there. I am willing to accept that not everyone shares my taste in films (obviously), but an outfit like Criterion or Kino has pronounced their dedication to producing high quality DVDs and Blu-rays of films that deserve the ‘Criterion treatment’. Most of those films – the vast majority, in point of fact – are art house pictures and important works by folks like Godard, Stillman and Brakhage (none of whom, by the way, am I particularly fond of). My problem is not with Criterion releasing The Game, as annoyed as I am that that’s coming out in September and not, say, The Fearless Vampire Killers or The Tenant. It’s rather that more love is being shown to a sub-par Fincher than to a stellar Welles.
Criterion does not market to the regular DVD buying crowd; the prices, the scholarly essays, etc. are all directed at an cinephilic, possibly academic, market. So are we really now to view The Game as somehow an important work of art? No, sorry, no matter how you cut it, The Game is not an important film. Fight Club is, socially and cinematically; you can even make a case for Benjamin Button (which Criterion did release) from a technical standpoint. But The Game is about as important to the cinematic heritage as Alien 3, another Fincher film that had better not wind up as Spine #345 (or whatever we’re up to). I hope that this is only a blip on an otherwise excellent record (Armageddon and The Rock notwithstanding). I hope, but I am not convinced. I still weep for those poor orphaned public domain films, gasping for air on the internet archive. Won’t someone please think of the children?