Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from The Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, here are our top picks for the month of March:
Director: John Waters
The folks at Criterion understand that not all cinema deserving the “Criterion treatment” need be artifacts of high culture. For proof, look no further than this director-approved, 4K digital restoration of John Waters’ second feature film, Multiple Maniacs. For a film lover used to the likes of Truffaut, Hitchcock, Fellini, Scorsese, Kurosawa and the other usual suspects of auteurs and masters of their craft, John Waters’ particular brand of relentlessly transgressive filmmaking may come not so much as a shock, as something that triggers outright rejection. And, as with most of his films, describing the plot of Multiple Maniacs is pretty much a checklist of scenes that profane that which others hold sacred (or at a minimum, which embrace images and acts that most find distasteful). Nonetheless, for anyone unfamiliar with Waters’ earlier work beyond some vague awareness of Divine, this Criterion edition is a good place—if not the best place—to start. For those who embrace the depravity, there are the usual added goodies—new commentary from Waters, new interviews with cast and crew, and two essays (one video, one traditional) about the film. A Waters neophyte may not emerge a fan afterward—to call the director an acquired taste is an understatement, after all—but he or she will certainly understand his influence a bit better. —Michael Burgin
Canoa: A Shameful Memory
Director: Felipe Cazals
When two prominent contemporary Mexican directors—themselves not only known entities in Hollywood, but representatives of the vast imagination and poignancy of what Mexican cinema can currently bring to international audiences—claim that Felipe Cazal’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory changed Mexican film forever, it’s hard to claim otherwise. Especially without the national context: It depicts a horrifying event in 1968, when a group of Autonomous University of Puebla employees on a hiking weekend were “lynched” by a mob of villagers in the small Mexican town of San Miguel Canoa, mistaken for socialist revolutionaries. It was a tragedy branded on the brains of Mexicans, but one of which a typical American audience would be (probably) totally ignorant. Leave it to Criterion to provide the proper amount of historical backing without burying a newcomer in exegesis; all we truly need is an introduction from Guillermo del Toro and a long conversation between Alfonso Cuarón and Cazal (both fawning and deeply personal), to take and make our own the intimate, visceral connection these two filmmakers feel to this film.
Cazal’s docudrama is a hybrid of pulp thriller, historical drama, faux documentary and horror film. The murders serve as its obvious climax—shown in sickening, almost procedural setpieces—but Cazal so carefully details the political and social lives of all involved, both before and after the events in Canoa, that the violence at the heart of the film is a nightmare to which we’re pushed inexorably. Like experiencing a pitch-perfect slasher flick, we know what’s coming, but that knowledge only heightens the dread of facing what the most grotesque corners of our brains could conjure. Amidst the chaos, juxtaposed with the sheer terror of the victims, is the unknowable, stentorian presence of The Priest (Enrique Lucero), the ersatz leader of the town who more socialist-minded denizens see as a great corrupter (one of whom Cazal calls “The Witness” [Salvador Sánchez], tasked with serving as a kind of narrator for the “documentary” film, explaining the minutiae of Canoa’s quotidian), but who the ardent Catholics, cut off from a more urbane Mexican society already proliferated with the spirit of Civil Rights sparking all over the globe, trust with their souls. Always in dark shades, even during the fieriest of sermons, The Priest convinces the faithful in town to direct their fervency toward driving out all who oppose the Catholic Church. This means the communists, who The Priest tells the town folk—superstitious, poor and barely able to scrape together a livelihood, removed from the progress of society around them—intend to raise a “red and black flag” at Canoa’s cathedral, spitting in the face of their town’s religious tradition. It was always bound to end in violence.
An essay in the Criterion packaging by Mexican critic Fernanda Solórzano draws explicit lines between the “shameful memory” in Canoa and the Tlatelolco massacre, occurring only two weeks later, which left by some estimates 300 students and civilians dead during a protest against the authoritarian government. But in his interview with Cuarón, Cazal is less eager to tie Canoa to a specific metaphor. Instead, the two trade anecdotes about how the film bucked Mexican filmmaking tradition (in the same way that, say, the French New Wave crapped on inculcated cinematic logic, or Italian neorealist cinema refused the tenets of melodrama), not to mention how, due to the system in which Cazal worked, the men who architected the Mexican Dirty War, of which the massacre was a defining event, actually ended up funding Cazal’s damning film. And yet, further removed from that context, Canoa is today a stark reminder of the disastrous dynamic that still haunts politics all over the globe, that a despicable man in power can exploit those suffering at the fringes of society, just by telling them exactly what they want to hear. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Hal Ashby
In terms of directorial output in a decade, Hal Ashby’s run in the 1970s is impressive. Starting with 1970’s The Landlord and ending with the focus of this Criterion edition, Being There, Ashby’s films racked up 24 Oscar nominations and seven wins. But while Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Coming Home compete for the hearts and minds of Ashby fans, it’s Being There that stands out both for its timelessness and timeliness. In the story of the childlike Chance (Peter Sellers, in a role that redeemed a sagging reputation), a gardener whose innocence and simplicity confuses and gets misread by the “savvy” players of Washington, D.C., Ashby shows how gentle humor can express sharp truths about all-too-human foibles. Unlike many of the titles in the Criterion series, Being There is not exactly impossible to find or otherwise critically under appreciated. Still, with its now requisite 4K digital transfer, a new doc on the making of the film, and excerpts from public appearances by Sellers, author Jerzy Kosinski and Ashby from around the time the film was released, this Criterion disc makes a compelling case for being the copy to own. —M.B.
Director: Andrew Haigh
If I boiled Andrew Haigh’s brilliantly, painfully reserved 45 Years down to its final image, would I be doing the film a disservice? In a sense, yes: Haigh’s third feature is about much more than its parting shot, but oh, what a parting shot it is, complex and agonizing with just a touch of isolation so that it cuts all the deeper. Over the course of his career, Haigh has emerged as a master of restrained realism, such that his movies sound unpalatable and dry on paper. With 45 Years, he’s made a mosaic of utterly mundane living that’s overlaid with a mystery of nostalgic proportions; from a distance the movie’s central proposition, that retiree Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) should be the recipient of notice from the Swiss government about the freshly uncovered remains of his old girlfriend, who perished after falling into a glacial crevasse decades prior, appears ridiculous, perhaps even melodramatic. Under Haigh’s assured gaze, though, that conceit echoes with a merciless truth, that no matter how much we think we know the people we love, we can only know them so much, and as much as we’d like to hold that against them, we can’t. Everyone has their secrets. Sometimes those secrets hollow us out. When they do, the only freedom we have is to weep alone as the world blithely dances around us. 45 Years is a sterling showcase for Haigh’s hushed, observational aesthetic, something Ella Taylor gets at in the excellent supplementary essay she wrote for the film’s Criterion disc, but by the time the end comes ‘round, you may well be too devastated to appreciate it. —Andy Crump