26 February 2011

THE CRITERION COLLECTION : QUALITY CONTROL and THE DVD MARKET

The famous Criterion logo - Criterion have the set the standard for excellence in the DVD market.

The folks at Criterion have such an envious job; res-discovering, repackaging and revising film history to an audience of eager cine-philes but doing so with a lot of style and finesse. To date Criterion has released 26 series of films under their new Eclipse label including obscure and out of print work by Mikio Naruse, Louis Malle, Ozu and Alexander Korda. However, for the discerning UK cine-phile, a multi region DVD player is a must if one is to tap into such new material. Additionally, ordering through DVD websites as imports makes the whole enterprise a little costly. Hulu, a VOD service, only available in the states, has just started streaming a lot of the Criterion library and I think this might be the way forward in the UK. Most of the Criterion collection is available online but it just seems absurd and counter-productive locking those exact DVDs which were made specifically to challenge issues to do with availability and accessibility. In many cases, films released on DVD in the UK are being given the Criterion treatment in a way that makes one question the approach taken by many UK DVD distributors when it comes to justifying the price they can charge for cult, art-house and independent films.

Fish Tank is a case in point; whilst it was given a standard release on DVD in the UK, in America, Criterion have actually acknowledged the importance of Andrea Arnold by releasing Fish Tank in a glorious edition featuring a plethora of special features. The same goes for seminal films like La Haine and even Gomorrah. Additionally, a quick scurry through Gary Tooze’s wonderful website DVDBeaver illustrates many of my points regarding the exceptional standards of DVD distribution established by Criterion. Comparing the Criterion release to the standard DVD release, Tooze in his technical analysis seems to underline a marked difference in terms of transfer, audio and extras. Also lacking aside from the films released by the BFI and Masters of Cinema is a booklet or pdf with useful essays and articles – Criterion has managed to succeed in continuing the experience of buying a DVD through their online website which offers yet more celebration of film culture. I did intend to write something about Basil Dearden’s 1960 crime film The League of Gentlemen (which has been re-issued as part of a series of Dearden's more obscure films by Criterion) but I seemed to have got side tracked with the current state of DVD packaging and distribution. Admittedly, Criterion does not see itself as part of the mass way in which most DVDs are manufactured by the major film corporations – packaged blandly and filled with useless extras that add little or nothing to the overall educative experience.

Compare this to the diabolical way in which Indian films are released on DVD and one just fills with utter rage and contempt for the distributors and people responsible. With such a sizable South Asian Diaspora audience in the UK one is simply astounded that no one has released many of the great Indian classics like Mother India and Awaara in the Criterion way including commentary tracks, special features and stronger transfers. The Indian government recently announced it is pouring millions into salvaging many of the prints to classic films which are slowly decaying. I hope they have acted in time. Yes, I know, a lot of what I am saying would be explained away quite quickly by pointing to the economics of the film industry. As for Dearden, well, I will have to come back to him later on next week. Here are couple of suggestions for changing the DVD industry and helping the cinephile become even more cine-literate:

1). Get rid of region coding

2). Campaign for Criterion to release their DVDs in the UK

3). Force Indian DVD distributors/labels to release worthwhile prints and think long and hard about packaging including special features especially for classic films

4). Drop the DVD prices of art house, world cinema and cult films

5). Make more of these films available to watch for free online (it might stop piracy)

I hope to return to this debate in the coming weeks to comment further on the Indian DVD market.

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