Not everything great is remembered forever, and what we remember forever isn’t always great. This is true of pop culture in general and films in particular.
The further back in time we travel, the more the pool of movies in our collective memories shrinks. From the 90s, we might remember the indie films that became cultural icons. From the 80s, all those famous comedies, teen movies, and action tentpoles that defined the genre. Go way back to the 50s and beyond, and everything gets foggier, so that very few cinematic artifacts remain a part of pop culture.
Even as a self-declared cinephile, I acknowledge that film history is much more expansive than I could ever hope to comprehend. Mainstream America’s mindset towards cinema, up to the end of the 1960s, was one of fear and of censorship. Anything that didn’t fit the rulemakers’ criteria of acceptability was cast aside. Boundary-pushing art was kept out of wide distribution, relegated to independent theaters — giving rise to the term “arthouse” — or out of America entirely.
This isn’t to say that the Hollywood classics aren’t classics. But there’s a wealth of weird, wonderful stuff that existed on the fringes of society. Time threatens to erase that stuff, or at least make it invisible to movie lovers.
Criterion is a home video company founded in 1984. Its staff examines a massive range of old films — classics, foreign, arthouse, experimental and everything in between — and scavenges the best of the best. Criterion’s selections receive a high-end restoration treatment, giving them a previously-unthinkable visual and audio polish and reformatting them for modern technology. It is not just preservation; it is revitalization.
Through this service, I’ve grown as a consumer of films. I watched “Bicycle Thieves,” which is lauded as one of the greatest movies of all time, and was blown away about how strongly its intimate story of a man making ends meet in 1940s Italy resonates to this day.
I watched “Diabolique,” the 1955 French crime drama that reportedly features the first-ever twist ending in a movie, and was surprised to see that it was smarter and more interesting than some of today’s most mind-boggling mysteries.
I watched “Chungking Express,” a Hong Kong sensation that made Quentin Tarantino cry because he was “just so happy to love a movie this much.” Sensual, beautiful and effortlessly dreamy, the lovelorn drama left me entranced days after watching.
The physical versions of Criterion Collection films receive a similarly stunning packaging. The updated cover art always captures the tone and style of the film. Hours of supplemental material — interviews, behind-the-scenes, documentaries and analyses — are included. Booklets feature essays, set photographs, gorgeous stills and even more artwork.
But nothing can be perfect. Restoration isn’t cheap, especially with older and more obscure selections. As a result, Criterion films are expensive: Standard pricing starts at $30 for a DVD version and can skyrocket into the hundreds for substantial box sets. The price is understandable, but prohibitive for many people. On top of that, distribution is limited, and popular Criterion films can go out of print, stopping audiences from owning them yet again.
Criterion are nothing if not problem-solvers, though, and the company’s latest attempt to universalize its important library is coming soon. The Criterion Channel, launching April 8, is a streaming service featuring a rotating lineup of over 1,000 films. It will be available for the same price as a Netflix subscription. There has never been a service so expressly concentrated on creating a massive space for cinephiles to fall headfirst into the best, strangest, and most important movies of all time. The supplemental materials will all be included with a subscription.
Subscribing early grants you access to a curated “Movie of the Week” series. Each Wednesday, the site offers a new film to watch. It’s how I saw “Chungking Express,” as well as the absurd British comedy “Tom Jones” and the beautiful, philosophical sci-fi epic “Stalker.”
I never would’ve watched these without Criterion (or heard of them, honestly). Are they all perfect films? No. But each of them broadened my understanding of the medium in general: its ebbs and flows, its history of experimentation and the lessons learned from the successes and failures.
If you’re at all intrigued by movie history, I can’t stress enough how cool this service is. However, I also acknowledge that most people don’t have the budget for multiple streaming services, and that a few old movies won’t be enough to convince people to cancel their Netflix subscription.
Luckily for Miami students and faculty, there’s a service that combines everything I’ve talked about above, and lets us access it free of charge.
That service is Kanopy. Kanopy is a unique platform — its audience is public libraries and universities. People with memberships at participating libraries (in Miami’s case, the King Library database) get access to Kanopy’s collection of 30,000 movies.
There’s nothing quite like Kanopy’s library. It is a massive pool of documentaries, classics, and indie films along with some enticing newer releases, including “Moonlight,” “Room” and “The Disaster Artist.”
Most interestingly, Kanopy has a huge list of Criterion films. Some of its biggest titles — like “Bicycle Thieves” or the iconic “Seven Samurai” — are available at the click of a mouse, free for Miami students.
Marvelous feats of preservation, insightful history and great flicks — all for free, courtesy of our school. What more can you ask for?