4 Great Films Hidden in The Criterion Collection

By  · Published on August 8th, 2012

The Criterion Collection is full of great movies, all carefully tabulated and accounted for with spine numbers and easily made accessible through various search means on their website. But besides the 600+ titles (out of print and not) included in The Collection, the extensive variety of special features attended in Criterion discs occasionally incorporate other feature-length and short films not officially enumerated as part of the collection itself. However, several of these films, while “hidden” in special features sections and second discs and placed subserviently to the ostensibly more “significant” featured title, are absolute gems arguably worthy of their own releases.

Of course, short films are by no means uncommon in Criterion discs. You can see David Cronenberg’s contemplative short piece Camera (2000) in the annals of Videodrome, or the original short-form Bottle Rocket in Criterion’s release of Wes Anderson’s first feature. But Criterion (a company that has sometimes released short films on their own) also has several notable short and feature-length films in their special features that stand alone as cinematic accomplishments, and serve more a interesting and important purpose than as a supplement of a director’s other, briefer work.

Here are four solid films hidden in the supplements of Criterion’s titles…

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books (Richard Linklater 1988), found in #247: Slacker (Linklater 1991)

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books is a case where the film a director had publicized as his first feature wasn’t actually his first feature, but the first one that had distribution. It’s easy to see why Plow didn’t gain the era-defining traction Slacker did – not because the film is greatly inferior, but because it’s even more bare bones in its approach to narrative cinema. In a way, Plow is a more daring film than Linklater’s justifiably beloved sophomore breakthrough.

In following its protagonist (played here by Linklater himself in a way that makes Plow something of apiece with SlackerPlow could be an initial chapter about the life of the character Linklater plays onscreen in his 1991 feature) through grocery shores, in laundromats, and lackadaisically listening to his answering machine, Linklater challenges the forced “eventfulness” of mainstream cinema that would define his early career and in a way that functions in tune with the defining characteristics of 1980s American independent cinema (see Jarmusch below). As a result, Linklater first captured the artistry of inactivity, the peace of purposelessness, and the culture of what would be later known as “slackerdom” in this $3,000 first feature.

The film also offers an inverse of the Austin Linklater began to capture only one year later in Slacker. The Austin of Slacker is virtually unrecognizable now, subsequent the technology and population boom of the 1990s (which resulted, notably, in fewer films being produced there). But the Austin of Plow, a film that Monte Hellman referred to as “both extremely realistic and painfully poetic,” is even further removed from contemporary Weird City: rather than giving us the bustling, quirky, independent-bookstore-and-café laden mini-metropolis populated by intellectuals, hipsters, and transients, Plow depicts an Austin that is virtually unpopulated, a lonely vista where slackerism is not a lifestyle choice, but mandated by an uneventful environment.

Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju 1949), found in #260: Eyes Without a Face (Franju 1960)

Franju was a versatile, if not particularly prolific, French fimmaker. Eleven years before his sophomore feature effort, the still-chilling Eyes Without a Face, Franju challenged audiences with a horror of a different kind. Before Franju entered feature filmmaking, he made non-fiction shorts. Like other French directors who delved into documentary filmmaking around this time, he didn’t approach his subjects as simply documentations of life; rather, the distanced, cold style of the newsreel-brand documentary served instead as a commentary on the relationship between people and the information they encounter.

Blood of the Beasts seems, at first, to be a straightforward document of life in a slaughterhouse. But the matter-of-fact narration eventually feels rather disjointed in juxtaposition with the unremitting slaughter portrayed onscreen. The slaughterhouse is revealed to be a place where death is routinized, mechanized; a man’s hand simply serves to wield an instrument in a way that guarantees death quickly and efficiently. The cold narration style then no longer seems inappropriate, but horrifyingly apt: the plain description of death is disconcertingly apropos to the inhumane execution of it. Blood of the Beasts depicts death as industry, rather than death as a sacred transition or an existentially troubling but inevitable component of life.

Blood of the Beasts existed decades before modern environmentalist, anti-animal abuse, and anti-meat movements. Its filmmaker held no such beliefs publicly. The film’s purpose is not supposed to shock the viewer into a type of action as clear as avoiding the consumption of animals. According to Franju, Blood of the Beasts was meant to find surrealist meaning through documentary form. But regardless of the filmmaker’s specific intent, it’s role in 1949 is all too clear. Years before Alain Resnais revisited crumbling Nazi internment camps with Night and Fog, Franju created perhaps the strongest and shrewdest metaphorical depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust with Blood of the Beasts, a film that is, above all, how living beings can slaughter living beings as part of an evolving project known as modernized industrial life. Franju finds the logic of the Holocaust in the everyday, a revelation that is truly horrifying..

Even at a brief twenty minutes, the harrowing effect of Blood of the Beasts remains potent and profound. This is a film worthy of annals of investigation all its own.

A.K. (Chris Marker 1985), found in #316: Ran (Akira Kurosawa 1985)

In addition to his essay films on topics like globalization and the evolution of socialism as well as that much-celebrated science-fiction short, Chris Marker also made films about filmmakers and other artists. With his typical poetic narration and uncanny approach to the art of movie editing, Marker’s portraits of legendary creative persons were not observations that function as subservient supplements to the artists themselves, but an assessment of one singular aesthete by another. Marker’s films didn’t pretend to be distanced observations of the artistic process; they all unquestionably hold Marker’s inimitable signature.

Marker’s on-the-ground 75-minute documentation of Kurosawa crafting his late-career epic Ran is no different: while the material of the film may appear to simply be the “objectively” distanced capturing of a master’s process, the narration provides lyrical observations that could only have been culled and collection from long stretches of witnessing Kurosawa’s craft in action. That what makes A.K. far more than its position as a behind-the-scenes special feature: it’s not simply a means of accessing behind the curtains of the craft put into a classic film, but a way to understand one artist through the patiently and keenly observant eyes of another.

Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch 1980), found in #400: Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch 1984)

Perhaps better known as the earliest feature entry in Jarmusch’s filmography than Plow is in Linklater’s, Permanent Vacation has still been largely obscured by Jarmusch’s breakthrough sophomore effort, Stranger Than Paradise. The wild-haired auteur, here working in 16mm color in contrast to the black-and-white photography of the films that brought him into indie renown, here captures a place and a mood similar to the one Linklater attempted to capture in his first feature, over 1,000 miles away and eight years later. Permanent Vacation depicts a wandering protagonist named Allie (Chris Parker) who passively meanders through a seemingly dilapidated New York City, encountering a litany of weirdos, outcasts, and misunderstood artists (including John Lurie rocking the sax) while avoiding work and responsibility in a city that seems completely devoid of both such things.

Permanent Vacation was Jarmusch’s feature entry in the No Wave Cinema scene of the late 70s and early 80s, a minimalist no-budget punk rock approach to film that explored a fascination with filth and held a palpable distaste for authority (punk and painting were components of this aesthetic movement, and Jean-Michel Basquiat was reportedly sleeping right outside the frame during the filming of Permanent Vacation’s iconic solo dance sequence). No Wave also flourished during one of the worst economic periods of NYC’s modern history, and Permanent Vacation uses this landscape to the logical end of its aesthetic potential, depicting a post-apocalyptic New York that is, similarly to Plow’s Austin, unrecognizable in the era of Bloomberg and NoLita. Permanent Vacation is more than a curiosity for Jarmusch fans. It’s a fascinating early work by a promising artist that manages to retain the energy and urgency of a subterranean zeitgeist that has long since passed.

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