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Friday, October 05, 2007

Interview with Matthew Dessem of The Criterion Contraption, Part 1

Matthew Dessem is watching every movie in the Criterion Collection in order of release on Criterion and publishing a discussion of each film on his blog, The Criterion Contraption. Since discovering his project, I find that I check his blog at least a few times a week.

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?

Well, with any list or canon, you're gong to have disagreements about what should or shouldn't be included. I think of the Criterion Collection as more of a syllabus than a best-movies-of-all-time seal of approval; in that context, it's easier to see a spot for Armageddon. The only thing Criterion says about their movies is that they're "important," and there are a lot of different ways for a film to be important without necessarily being good. And some of the films I didn't think were very good would not otherwise be available at all ( e.g., And the Ship Sails On), so it's hard to argue that such a film should be banished forever. Now that Criterion is spending a great deal of time on virtually every release, and using the Eclipse label for minimalist releases of films that might not merit a lavish edition, there will be fewer films that seem like they don't belong. I wish that some of the more-difficult-to-defend films had better extras: I always try to figure out what other people see in a particular movie, even if it doesn't speak to me directly.

Dessem has made a solid case for the inclusion of Chasing Amy on Criterion. Let's hear a big hand for Joey Lauren Adams, everybody.

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?

I'm more interested in a discussion than a rating. If you're trying to develop an aesthetic sensibility, one of the worst things you can do is begin with a generalization. In the very first essays I wrote, I included a rating, which was a terrible mistake (those first posts are filled with terrible mistakes). Because I write screenplays, I try to pay more attention to structure and narrative strategies than I imagine most viewers do; my motives here are purely selfish. For me, this is a project of self-education, not some sort of pronouncement from on high about the quality of various films. But in more general terms, I think the best advice on the matter is in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, which I used to hand out to my English classes. Nabokov describes great novels as being both inspired and precise, and recommends that readers approach them with a combination of the artistic and scientific temperament. For me, this means that I watch films with as few preconceptions as possible, take them on their own terms, but pay very close attention to the precision with which their worlds are evoked. At the same time, I try to be in tune with what a particular film accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) on a more subjective level. This means I'm not going to like a movie that has great subjective power but is sloppily made, like The Night Porter. Nor am I likely to enjoy a film that is very precise but evokes very little. (Henry V struck me that way: nearly perfectly made, with an intricate, interesting structure, but except for the Agincourt scene, I might as well have been playing Myst.) In the best movies, the minds and hearts of the creators are in synch. I'm not a great viewer of films any more than I'm a great reader, but I'm getting better.

What movies aren't on Criterion (yet) that you'd like to see make it to the list?

I was pleased to hear Bottle Rocket would get the Criterion treatment, because the current DVD is very minimalist. And I'd like to see Criterion acquire the rights to more films that aren't available on DVD at all ( e.g., Lilja 4-Ever, aka The Reason I Made My DVD Player Region-Free). But it's a difficult thing to have a wishlist for: studios are doing a much better job at restoration work than they used to, and as a result, they're much less likely to make their backlist available to Criterion. I suppose what I really love about the Criterion Collection is that they draw my attention to great films that I never would have heard of otherwise, so I'd like to see them include films I don't know exist.

What kind of feedback have you gotten on the project so far?

When I first started, I posted something announcing the project on one of the Criterion message boards, and I got a lot of criticism for it. One person suggested that I not write about High and Low until I had watched all of Kurosawa's other films, which sort of missed the point. Granted, the first essays I wrote were awful. Some of my readers leave comments, and I try to respond to each of them; it's much more interesting to talk about movies with other people than it is to just toss words into the void, so that's been very gratifying. And I've been lucky enough to get some paid work as a writer from editors who liked the site: I have an essay in the most recent issue of GOOD Magazine, and I've written some brief things for The Vulture, New York Magazine's entertainment blog. So that's the best kind of feedback imaginable. Finally, Criterion recently added a link to my site to their webpage, which gives the whole thing more legitimacy than it probably deserves.

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.

o you have time to watch other non-project-related stuff? Where do your tastes lead you when you're not tackling the project?
I watch plenty of non-project-related stuff; I have a separate Netflix queue for that, and I see a lot of films in theaters. My tastes run toward thrillers and comedies. This summer I most enjoyed Superbad, The Bourne Ultimatum, and King of Kong.

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.


Blogger Ben said...

Hoorah for substantial content!

PS, I think it would be pretty fun to teach a film class for 8th graders.

PPS, Andrei Rublev is awesome if you haven't seen it.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Christopher Zane said...

I will probably watch Andrei Rublev soon, since it's now been double-recommended.

I was once set to teach a history of rock class to kids of an average age of 11. I was really excited about it before it fell through. When I took a history of American music course in community college, I learned a lot, but not because I had a good teacher. In retrospect, she was a retard. Example: She didn't know any Bob Dylan albums. I guess I'm saying that it's lucky that you don't have to know anything about a subject to teach it (poorly).

BTW, thanks for introducing me to Matt's blog, Ben.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Cibbuano said...

great interview, man.

The Criterion Collection makes me excited and hungry. I'd like to stumble upon a shack in the woods, abandoned, but containing 100 Criterion films. Then watch them all while eating pemmican and drinking spring water. Ahhhh...

7:27 PM  
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I was very pleased reading your interview with Matthew Dessem,
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