Interview with Matthew Dessem of The Criterion Contraption, Part 1
His reviews aren't just reviews. They're the product of an average of 15 hours of work per film. They're filled with penetrating analysis, trivia that you won't find on IMDB, and vivid, revealing screenshots. Reading any given review that Dessem has published in the last three years ensures that you're getting solid information and an experienced point of view. He's also a kick-ass writer.
Like many readers of Dessem's blog, I had questions for him. He's really good about replying to comments, but since I love exploiting the work of others for my own recognition, I thought I'd ask him to do an interview for my blog.
Christopher Zane: So, you're watching every movie in the Criterion Collection and blogging about it. Where'd you get the idea?
Matthew Dessem: In 2004, when I started the project, I was looking for a way to learn more about foreign film. I suppose what most people do is work down a list of directors or genres, but that didn't really appeal to me--I have Attention Deficit Disorder, so the thought of spending a month watching nothing but Fellini was terrifying. The Criterion Collection seemed like a good mix of different types of movies in a close-to-random order, so that's where I started. I began writing about the films simply as a way of keeping myself intellectually honest: thinking about how each movie was supposed to work, paying attention to what was effective and what was not. Given the chance to not engage with a difficult film, I'll usually take it, unless I have to come up with something coherent to say about it. There are other people doing similar completist projects Tara Saylor's Joyful Cooking blog and Christopher Beha's Harvard Classics blog, and at least one other person attempting to watch the whole Criterion Collection (Adam Harvey), but I wasn't aware of their blogs when I started.
What has stood out so far? Favorites, least favorites?
My favorites are the films that I wouldn't otherwise have seen. It was great fun to spend a few weeks immersed in all things Brazil, but I would gladly have done that anyway. That doesn't compare to discovering something like Andrei Rublev or The Passion of Joan of Arc which would undoubtedly have languished in their Netflix sleeves for a few weeks and then been sent back unwatched, if I hadn't made sort of a homework assignment out of them. My least favorite Criterion films are the ones that are held in higher esteem than they deserve simply because they take themselves so very seriously. And The Ship Sails On and The Night Porter both fall into that category. I also loathed Salò, but at least I wasn't bored by it.
What effect does watching these movies in order have? Any?
Mostly, it keeps me honest. If I had the choice to watch the films in any order, I would quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting. That means I'd miss out on a lot of discoveries, which was one of my main goals to begin with. But jumping around from country to country and decade to decade has its own rewards: like any good 21st century citizen, I have a pretty good case of apophenia, so I'll often see connections that don't exist between films. Just to name one: in The Last Temptation of Christ, Satan tells Jesus that there's only one woman in the world: one woman, with many faces. Jay says virtually the same thing in Chasing Amy. I don't know if it means anything, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't seen those films relatively close to one another. So the short answer is: watching the films in order has no effect, unless you're intellectually lazy and paranoid. Fortunately, I am both.
I'm not sure if inter-movie references mean anything either, but it's definitely interesting to see how one film can influence another. I had an idea once that it'd be cool to watch films from newest to oldest. That is, watch Kill Bill and then watch Game of Death or The Matrix and then Drunken Master and Hard Boiled. I'm a huge fan of postmodernism though, and I think having a bit of apophenia is useful in finding those influences.
Yeah, it's definitely fascinating to see where people drew their ideas. My most recent discovery was Gorky Park: I thought the fight scenes in the Bourne movies were brilliant, and something totally new, but there's a fight in Gorky Park that's staged and shot nearly exactly the way Greengrass does his. I still think they're brilliant, but I was surprised to find that Michael Apted was doing the same thing twenty years ago.
So are you buying these or Netflixing? I mean, these things cost a bundle when they're in print, but I'm imagining you getting to Salò, looking up prices online, and finding that it costs up to $1300 and smacking your hand to your forehead.
I'm Netflixing them--when I started, I created a Netflix queue with the first 250 films in it, and I haven't altered it since. I'm also lucky enough to live within walking distance of several video stores with excellent selection, so I use those for the rarer movies: Video Hut is great because they will let you rent movies for 6 days, but I've gotten some films from Video Journeys as well. When I'm willing to drive, Rocket Video and CineFile Video both have a lot of rare stuff (CineFile was the only place I could find that would rent the Criterion version of Hard Boiled). And most of these stores have shelves specifically for Criterion DVDs, which makes the whole process pretty simple. For extremely rare discs like Salò and The Killer I've bought bootlegs, but only from sellers who were upfront that they were selling me a DVD-R, not trying to pass it off as a legitimate copy. I don't really care about it being in the original packaging; I'm not a collector. So for my purposes, an exact digital copy is fine. Of course, if I were able to buy those films for a reasonable amount of money, and if any of that money went to Criterion or the films' creators, I would have gone legit. The movies I've had to buy are the ones where there are readily available non-Criterion editions, because rental places are unlikely to stock the more expensive copy. So I'm the proud owner of Armageddon but not Andrei Rublev, Monty Python's Life of Brian but not The Wages of Fear. I'm afraid my DVD shelf makes me look like more of a philistine than I like to think I am.
You noted in your Chasing Amy review that that movie is second only to Armageddon when it comes to discussions of films that don't really deserve to be part of the Criterion Collection. You've made some good cases for the inclusion of both movies. Is there any Criterion movie that you've seen that--at the very least--could be similarly discussed? Or is Criterion's judgment right on?
Your reviews seem to be more of a discussion than a place to find a rating. It seems fitting, given that we can generally assume that Criterion movies exist because they're important. But what makes a good movie? What are your standards for critique? What kinds of questions do you find yourself wondering as you watch a movie?
What movies aren't on Criterion (yet) that you'd like to see make it to the list?
What kind of feedback have you gotten on the project so far?
Describe your preparation for reviewing a Criterion film.
I try not to do anything until I've seen the film at least twice and had some time to think about it. I think it's best to approach the movie on its own terms as much as possible. Then I watch the extras and commentary (the only thing I skip are the dubbed-in-English audio tracks), read the essay on Criterion's site, read anything else about the film I can find online. Then I go through the film one last time on a laptop, and take stills of anything that I think might be worth including in my essay. Finally, I sit down and write about it.
How long, on average, do you spend on each review?
The writing process takes about four hours. Add to that the time spent watching the film and extras, reading about it, and capturing the stills, and you're looking at about fifteen hours per movie.
I was just reading about the release of Berlin Alexanderplatz on the Criterion blog. The movie itself is like 15 hours on its own! I find myself breaking longer movies up into two or more sittings. It took me like two weeks to watch The Leopard. The movie was great, but as you said--if you're not accountable you get lazy. In terms of discussing the film, do you see a particularly harmful effect in comprehension by watching movies this way?
I always try to watch films in one sitting. Berlin Alexanderplatz is going to be an exception to that rule, but I believe it was a television miniseries to begin with, wasn't it? In general I try to do what I can to duplicate the experience of seeing a film in a theater. I find it can be difficult to get back into the right mental space after time away, especially because I'm interested in structure and pacing. I don't think splitting movies into multiple viewings is harmful to comprehension, necessarily, but it's not good for my concentration.
Do you have time to watch other non-project-related stuff? Where do your tastes lead you when you're not tackling the project?
One of the most effective things you do in your reviews is show readers what you're talking about with screenshots. What method do you use to get them?
Intervideo WinDVD 6 has a good frame-advance feature and will capture stills and save them as JPEGs. I crop and resize those images to a width of 400 pixels to fit my blog's template using Adobe Photoshop. I'm embarrassed to say that I only realized a few months ago that I could record the cropping process for each movie as a macro and repeat it ad infinitum.
[I really do love those screenshots. It's also worth mentioning that in many cases, some of the most arresting images of great movies have no better version on the web than on Dessem's blog. Check it out.]
Part two to follow! For now, check out Matthew's blog here.