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 July:
Lost in America
Director: Albert Brooks
Lost in America is the perfect 1980s counterpoint to Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper’s trippy and fairly uneven cultural juggernaut was about the possibly unattainable ideal of “finding America” during the tail end of the 1960s, when the country was going through tumultuous growing pains as the divide between conservative and liberal ideals were reaching a breaking point. (Sound familiar?) The Hopper and Peter Fonda characters had inner freedom and peace—the conflict came from external sources that rejected that freedom: conservatives, hicks, racists, rednecks…
As America became more materialistic and self-centered during the ’70s and ’80s and yuppies replaced the hippies, material happiness became more attainable for average (mostly white) middle-class Americans, as millions of them tried in vain to fill the spiritual hole inside them with cars, homes and any spiffy stuff that distracted from the boredom, akin to dangling a set of shiny keys in front of a baby. In the ’60s, it was the outside forces that got in the way of finding freedom. In the ’80s, such conflict became internal, as the safety blanket of materialism made it hard for the spiritually unfulfilled to take chances and step out of their comfort zones.
David Howard (Albert Brooks), the financially secure but emotionally unfulfilled ad man at the center of Brooks’ quintessential ’80s comedy, finds himself in the middle of such inner conflict. He just got passed over for a well-deserved promotion at a job he hates anyway, so he decides to enact his favorite movie, Easy Rider, and goes on a trip to “find America” with his equally supportive and apprehensive wife Linda (Julie Hagerty in the best performance of her career). As soon as the couple’s spiritual quest begins, their ’60s idealism immediately clashes with their ’80s materialism. Are they too domesticated by ’80s culture to truly free their minds?
Lost in America comes to Blu-ray by Criterion with a 1080p video transfer that’s impressively loyal to the film source, and is sourced from a recent 2K restoration. Lost in America is a character piece, and it doesn’t contain much of a lush and visually impressive cinematography. The flat and matter-of-fact capturing of some famous American landmarks match the bland inner-worlds of the two protagonists. However, this is the best home video release of this terrific comedy you’ll get your hands on. The HD transfer finds a nice balance between digital noise reduction and a grainy look that retains the film’s original look.
The extras are all new, and consist entirely of interviews with Brooks, Hagerty, as well as filmmakers like James L. Brooks and Robert Weide, who mostly comment on Brooks’ career as a director and Lost In America’s place in ’80s film culture. The interviews are candid and loose, and should bring extra joy to fans of this underrated gem. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
“Once, the future was only a continuation of the present. All its changes loomed somewhere beyond the horizon. But now the future’s a part of the present.”
So says the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, somewhere deep in the Zone, contemplating the deeper trenches of his subconscious, of his fears and life and whatever “filth” exists within him. “Are they prepared for this?” he asks.
In Tarkovsky’s last Soviet film, the director seems to be admitting that what he’s feared most has come to pass. What that means is of course nebulous for a viewer not steeped in the director’s life or in the history of the country that was both home and hostile to him and his work throughout most of his life. Based very loosely on Roadside Picnic, a novel by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (who also wrote the screenplay), Stalker imagines a dystopic future not far from our present—or Tarkovsky’s present, before the fall of the Berlin Wall or the devastation of Chernobyl—in which some sort of otherworldly force has deposited a place humans have called “the Zone” onto Earth. There, the laws of Nature don’t apply, time and space thwarted by the hidden desires and wills of all those who enter it. Of course, the government has set up cordons around the Zone, and entry is strictly prohibited.
Guides/liaisons called “stalkers” head illegal expeditions into the Zone, taking clients (often intellectual elites who can afford the trip) into the heart of the restricted, alien area—in search of, as we learn as the film slowly moves on, the so-called “Room,” where a person’s deepest desires become reality.
One such Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) is hired by the aforementioned Writer and a physicist (or something) known only as the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to lead them into the Zone, spurred by vague ideas of what they’ll find when they reach the Room. The audience is as much in the dark, and through Tarkovsky’s (near-intolerably) patient shots, the three men come to discover, as do those watching their journey, what has really brought them to such an awful extreme as hiring a spiritual criminal to guide them into the almost certain doom of whatever the Zone has waiting for them.
Like much of Tarkovsky’s work, the film is difficult to extract from the context of its coming-to-be, and so Criterion includes an excellently detailed essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu, as well as interviews with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, set designer Rashit Safiullin and composer Eduard Artemyev, about the arduous production of Stalker, in addition to musings about the headspace of the director during that time. (He died of cancer, outside of Paris and in a self-imposed exile from his home, in 1986.) Though the film lost its original cinematographer and had to be completely re-shot a year later, more concerning is Tarkovsky’s choice to shoot in Estonia (after elaborate plans to shoot in Isfara were destroyed by an earthquake) which meant the crew spent long hours wading through oil and toxic sludge. According to Le Fanu, some speculate that Tarkovsky’s death—and the deaths of those close to him, who also worked on the film—could perhaps be tied to the making of Stalker in such conditions.
And yet, no context properly prepares a viewer for the harrowing, hypnotic experience of watching Stalker. Between the sepia wasteland outside the Zone (so detailed in its grime and suspended misery you may need to take a shower afterwards) and the oversaturated greens and blues of the wreckage inside, Tarkovsky moves almost imperceptibly, taking the rhythms of industry and the empty lulls of post-industrial life to the point of making the barely mystical overwhelmingly manifest. Throughout that push and pull, there is the mounting sense of escape—of Tarkovsky escaping the Soviet Union and its restrictions on his films, maybe—as equally as there is the sense that escape should never be attempted. Because some freedom, some knowledge, isn’t meant for us.
The future is now, and it could be worse than we ever expected. We aren’t prepared. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Robert Bresson
If L’argent’s structure didn’t hinge on acts of repetition, I’d swear Robert Bresson meant the film as a misanthropic screed against humans’ worst survival instinct: The amoral passage of wrongdoing to innocent, uninvolved parties. For its first act or so, L’Argent operates as a corrupt relay race, with unscrupulous parties handing off a tainted baton from one person to the next, until it ends up in the hands of the unwitting Yvon (Christian Patey), who pays the ultimate price for the sins of others. The content is enough to make us furious, but on the opposite side of the camera, Bresson maintains his composure: L’argent is a methodical and intentional film, a regimented study of dishonesty’s snowballing effects, not on the dishonest themselves but on the random unfortunate sap who happens into their orbit. The film is cool. It’s collected. You may watch it in anticipation that Bresson will intervene on Yvon’s behalf, using his powers as the narrator to spare the poor bastard punishments he doesn’t deserve. But Bresson isn’t that sort of filmmaker, and L’argent isn’t that sort of film: Rather, it’s a mechanical film centered by tragic injustice, and a blistering final salvo from one of cinema’s masters. —Andy Crump
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Year: 1945 (Rome Open City); 1946 (Paisan); 1948 (Germany Year Zero)
Picking your favorite chapter in Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist War Trilogy is like picking your favorite form of interior torture: There’s no relief, no succor, to be found in these movies, nary a moment where something awful isn’t happening to human beings caught in the grinding machinations of global warfare and fascist rule. I’ve always felt strongest about Rome, Open City, a daring, deft movie about brave, everyday folks putting their lives on the line in times of crisis, all in the name of liberty from tyranny and oppression; it’s the kind of film that cleverly portrays history as it happened (such as any historical movie can) and uses its specific history as a universal lens. You don’t need to have Italian heritage to appreciate the barbarities inflicted on Rossellini’s characters. You just need to have a sense of decency and compassion.
It’s appropriate that the trilogy starts with Rome, Open City in that case because you’ll need more of both to negotiate Paisan and perhaps Germany, Year Zero most of all because asking an audience to feel bad for that toothbrush mustache-wearing motherfucker’s countrymen in light of the crimes he committed in his country’s name is a big ask. But Rossellini isn’t the gloating type, and he isn’t an ignoramus, either; he knows well enough who Hitler chose to invade first, and he knows that in the rubble of Berlin, the remnants of Germany’s bewildered citizenry endured an awful struggle in their post-war existence. Germany, Year Zero depicts the consequences of fascism from the perspective of fascism’s unwilling participants. It is, out of pure necessity, the harshest of the trilogy, and one of the harshest films I’ve ever watched.
At least it’s homework; misery loves company, after all, and these movies are an essential part of a well-rounded cinematic education, not just by dint of their place in the medium’s evolution but also by dint of their place in The Criterion Collection. The War Trilogy set hardly feels like a pack of Blu-ray discs. In point of fact, it feels more like a tome, a textbook, a repository of knowledge and guidance on how to resist fascist rule at a moment where many probably feel like they could use one. (It helps that the sleeve for Germany, Year Zero contains not only the film itself but also what amounts to basically an informational pamphlet about all things related to Italian cinema, and neorealism, and Rossellini himself, so if you’re still unlearned about these subjects after digging through this release, it’s your own goddamn fault.) —Andy Crump