The Criterion collection

The browsers ecstasy

The Criterion collection

I’m buoyed that there is still something like a Criterion edition of a DVD available when most people, even ardent cinephiles, are happy to download free movies or buy cheap pirated copies. Luckily, it would seem, that there are still movie aficionados who will fork out good money for a high end, cutting edge edition — or why else would those good folks at Criterion still be around making them? A Criterion DVD, for those not in the know, is the definitive edition of a movie. The Criterion collection began as the definitive editions of world cinema masterpieces, often two discs: One the film, cleaned and restored to its finest, the other a disc full of extras, often commissioned for the Criterion edition. Best of all is the inclusion of a (hardcopy) essay on each film by a scholar or film critic.
Marigold memory: From ‘Monsoon Wedding’. In the sense that it is the ultimate edition. But not merely decorative like those anniversary or deluxe DVD editions (think leather-bound books: Expensive looking but merely ornamental) which look sumptuous with a two disc release but contain worthless extras with no further enhancements to the picture or sound quality of the disc. On the other hand, when Criterion puts out their edition of a DVD (and recently Blu-Ray as well), things have been done to and in the disc so the result of the film to video transfer is as close to the original cinema quality. This month, I’ve had the pleasure of viewing three Criterion editions: Howard’s End, Monsoon Wedding and My Dinner with Andre. 

The sleeve notes inside the Howard’s End package, for instance, inform us that “this high definition digital transfer was created by C-Reality Datacine with Oliver Wetgate processing from the original 35mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTT’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction…The soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the six track magnetic soundtrack. Clicks, thunps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.” 

The edition is dedicated to the late Ismail Merchant, and includes a fine essay by film critic Kenneth Turan asking us to re-consider the film as a modern masterpiece and the trio’s greatest accomplishment. The Criterion edition of other early Merchant Ivory films, Bombay Talkies, Shakespearewallah and The Courtesans of Bombay, feature many short films and docs by them, including the much sought after, Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls. My Dinner with Andre is the original talkfest movie. Just two characters talking. That’s the plot. Two friends, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory (playing themselves) who haven’t met each other in years, talk over dinner in a restaurant. Mostly Andre speaks and Wally listens. Occasionally, the flow of conversation is tentatively interrupted by an ageing waiter who asks them if they want more water. Shawn and Gregory wrote this unusual script together, and even they didn’t expect it to become a successful film.
Only its director, Louis Malle, had the faith and conviction that it could be a movie. This Criterion edition, using a series of interviews with all three, tells the story of how this fantastic project happened. Malle happened to come across the script and urged Gregory and Shawn to let him direct it. He was excited about the plot of the movie: Conversation, and more conversation! And instinctively knew how it could be turned into a “compelling cinematic experience.” I’m now waiting for Criterion to come out with my absolute favourite movie from this trio’s collaborated: Vanya on 42nd Street. Amy Taubin’s lovely essay quotes Vincent Canby’s review: “At times My Dinner with André suggests a reunion of Christopher Robin (Mr Gregory) and Winnie-the-Pooh (Mr Shawn) thirty years after each has left the nursery to pursue separate careers in the theater.

It’s wonderful that Criterion turned its gaze on Monsoon Wedding. It tells you how the reputation of this film has grown over the decades, from just a fun movie to a contemporary masterpiece. It’s a joy to re-live Monsoon Wedding through this exquisite print, and a very special and added joy to the edition is a beautiful essay by Pico Iyer called ‘A Marigold Tapestry’. It is the definitive essay on Monsoon Wedding. With Iyer’s essay the wedding celebration is at last complete. Mira Nair and Sabrina Dhawan must feel so lucky and pleased to have Iyer speak on-and for their film. The essay catches all its rhythms and plays it out beautifully. It’s as if the celebration and the depths of feeling and the music hasn’t stopped with the film’s ending but dances on in Iyer’s essay ‘with unquenchable enthusiasm’.

“It moves, as the best comedies do,” writes Pico, “through disruptions and revelations so terrible you are convinced that it will end up as tragedy. And then, somehow, it all comes together in a jubilant communion so happy that it can outlast even the rains.” (Do yourself a favour and read the whole essay on the Criterion website). The edition’s chockfull of extras alone is worth the price of the disc. Several rare, unreleased documentaries and short films by Mira Nair, including So Far from India (1983), India Cabaret (1985), and The Laughing Club of India (2001), The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), 11’09’01-September 11 (Segment: ‘India’) (2002), Migration (2007), and How Can It Be? (2008).

The Criterion website (http://www.criterion.com/) is a must for every serious cinema fan. There are more than 700 film essays on the site, not to forget detailed information on all their collection with film clips. Most exciting of all is ‘The Auteurs’: An online film club where you can watch and talk film with others. Criterion describes it as “a social network bringing together cinephiles around the world…a place where you can gather and talk about alternative endings, directors’ cuts, and whatever those frogs in Magnolia meant. Heated debates and passionate arguments are welcome.”

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