Five Films from the Criterion Channel

I’ve been looking for new ways to satisfy my movie watching fix. The moratorium on the theater experience has brought me on a quest to find the emotional and analytical investment that in-person experience brings. From the depths of the application abyss, arose the Criterion Channel to quench those needs. I’ve begun a journey in understanding the style and methods of classic filmmaking that set cinema off on it’s creative trajectory. Here are five films that pushed me past the two week trial period and put me on a path to one of my best purchases ever.

Stray Dog (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

This journey started with a dive into the Criterion’s Channel’s Toshiro Mifune collection, celebrating the famous Japanese actor’s 100th birthday. My friend Stephen and I started with a Zoom-viewing of the Kurosawa/Mifune samurai collaboration, Throne of Blood (1957). Mifune’s role as the Macbeth-inspired Washizu was a dramatic introduction to his presence. The faces he gives guilt, action, and despair are immediately captivating. As his kingdom falls around him, his frantic rushes to the camera establish the grounds on which our current action heroes reside.

Any Kurosawa/Mifune study must include the highly influential Roshomon (1950), but in this film Mifune only offers support, and it is Kurosawa’s storytelling that keeps our focus. A early work in the collection, Stray Dog, was actually the one that caught my attention most and shows Kurosawa and Mifune working their equal genius in tandem.

Mifune plays a young cop, Murakami, who loses his gun on the job. The gun weaves its way through Tokyo’s criminal underbelly, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Mifune conveys the desperation of a man, just back from war, trying to make something of himself and resist the depravity of his peers on the streets. His character is guided through this maturation by veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose insight eases Murakami’s conflicted entrance into adulthood.

Kurosawa has his characters baking in the Japanese summer sun, the tensions of post-war society boiling in the heat. Mifune’s refusal to melt from the pressure with a stoic sense of right and wrong provided the skillset used to become one of the most impactful action heroes in cinema history.

Monterey Pop (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)

I remember watching this lesser known 1960s music festival documentary in middle school. Some of the performances are ingrained in my personal relationship with music. Watching The Who obliterate their instruments after “My Generation” opened my eyes at the ability of music to express pent up aggression.

The second watch of Pennebaker’s cinematic time capsule contextualized the many other emotions I now seek out in sound. Whether it’s the self destruction and helplessness in the wails of Janis Joplin on “Ball and Chain” or the earthly serenity in Ravi Shankar’s closing piece, this documentary offers a great historical account of how the music of the 60s began to deeper represent our feelings towards existence.

From a filmmaking aspect, Pennebaker’s best work in the documentary is done through the genuine reactions he captures of the public. As he works his way through the crowds, each shot gives a unique style and a brief glimpse into the lives of a past generation experiencing great cultural change combatted by intense global turmoil. Monterey Pop is frozen in time and the intimate footage preserves a transformational time in society, it’s authenticity no longer replicable due to our overfamiliarity with screens.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (dir. Otto Preminger, 1965)

Preminger takes the film noir genre to a experimental level with Bunny Lake Is Missing, adding a layer of mysticism that has his characters walk the line between reality and fantasy. It results in a mind bending thriller, where our fight with the truth is just as dangerous as the shadows that lurk in the night.

Carol Lynley owns her leading role as Ann Lake, a young mother whose child Bunny goes missing soon after their move to London, organized by her brother Steven. The pressures of motherhood topple onto Ann, her panicked worry is turned on her and used as evidence for her lack of sanity. Laurence Olivier plays the detective tasked with getting to the roots of the mystery, if one actually exists.

As doubt exerts itself over Ann, she takes matters into her own hands and navigates the labyrinth of London. As she begin to encounter elements of the supernatural on her quest, her grasp on the truth becomes untethered. Not until the climatic scene does Ann reach enlightenment and break from the constraints placed on her from the male controlled world. She asserts her influence on her tormentors, using her motherly instincts to beat the police (and one of the best actors ever) to the punch. It’s a master performance from Lynley, who takes the twists and turns of Preminger’s direction and uses her powers to best them at each critical moment.

The Pride of the Yankees (dir. Sam Wood, 1942)

The legendary Gary Cooper gives an all-American performance as Lou Gehrig that provides the template for every sports biopic to follow. Cooper’s Gehrig begins from immigrant origins and with intense work ethic achieves the loftiest of dreams. His humbleness and respect for those in charge are what propel his career forward. It’s no coincidence that these principles are on display for an audience at the brink of war.

The Pride of the Yankees also reflects the early period of movie production and how it differs little from our modern practices. The immediate memorialization of our public figures is often seen as a byproduct of the digital world, but the Pride of the Yankees was released just a year after Gehrig’s death. The film takes extreme liberties with the Iron Horse’s true story, smudging the timeline of his marriage to create more romantic appeal and adds plenty of sugar-coated scenes that hype up Gehrig as the ideal American prototype.

This film is over the top cheesy, which is the exact space you want your sports movie to live in. The dramatized version of Gehrig’s retirement speech that Cooper delivers is the going out on top moment which the genre is built upon. The Pride of the Yankees solidifies the argument that some of our heroes are larger than life and their posthumous transition to folklore preserves their legacy in the country’s conscience. 

The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer, 2015)

From the huge selection of modern independent filmmakers on the channel, Anna Rose Holmer’s poignant debut stood out most. Part harrowing, part whimsical, Holmer narrows in on the complexity of African-American life in the Rust Belt, a message that resonated here in Pittsburgh.

The film contains itself within a community center in Cincinnati. The children at the center are left to face adolescence, and the adult problems it brings, on their own. The boys try to punch their way out in the ring. The girls seek community in a dance team, using their developing connection to their bodies to primitively express a change they can’t fully grasp.

Eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is split between both groups. Despite the bond between her and her brother over boxing, something unidentifiable attracts her to the dance team. Hightower gives an all-time child acting performance, as her character meets the “strange affliction” of the older girls with horror, but also underlying curiosity. She struggles to relinquish control to the natural forces of the world, deeply aware of the sexist and racist human forces looming outside her childhood safe space.

As these neighborhoods are often depicted in film as being without, Holmer makes a deliberate choice to show her characters within. Within the walls of the center, young men and women find their passions, find their community, and find themselves. Because within Toni is a connection to the mind, body, and soul uniquely hers that no one can diminish.


The Platform and the Power of Activism

SPOILER ALERT: Several important plot points are discussed in this article, including the ending. 

It’s hard to find the ray of hope in Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s dystopian thriller The Platform. The Dickensian hellhole in which his characters exist offers a depressing allegory to our dysfunctional political landscape. From its comments on trickle down economics to violent suppression in support of ideology, The Platform mostly argues that our liberties are locked in and narrowed down by any system. However, Gaztelu-Urrutia leaves one tiny crack in the concrete walls where we could attempt to break ourselves free. That comes from his main character Goreng’s adopted role as activist.

As Goreng (played by Ivan Massague) works his way through the tiered prison complex, where the higher levels eat before the lower levels, his individual determination seems the only chance at the system’s collapse. Goreng arrives in his cell already with an empathetic spirit that puts him on course to become prison liberator. Activism requires understanding the needs of others and putting those needs in front of your own desires. When his first supper arrives from above, Goreng’s immediate reaction was to refuse food so those below had a large supply.

While Goreng’s heart is in the right place, his unawareness of the harsh realities of the hole stunt his drive for change. Empathy may help in understanding the problems of the public, but actual experience brings the problem to a personal level and shows the need for urgent action. Important social movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are typically rooted in a collective trauma. A group that has lived through the same oppression can fight injustice more passionately than through the lens of objective morality. The more time Goreng spends in the hole, the more his sense of shared suffering builds. The ghosts of his former cellmates remain with him, pushing him towards a call to action.

One of those ghosts is Imoguiri, who tried her hand at objective reasoning with the other cellmates. She firmly believes in the idea of “spontaneous solidarity,” that over time the cellmates will recognize their shared plight with the other captives, leading to self-imposed rationing that saves enough food for everyone. Imoguiri arrives at the argument, however, from a position of privilege. Having been part of the administration that created the hole, she was able to select her cell partner and found herself beginning on the relatively easy level 33 (the levels go from 1-300). She has no comprehension of the cutthroat nature at the lower depths of the capitalist ladder. Goreng, having seen the darkest sides of oppression, now seems less sympathetic and much more vengeful. There is no possibility at an emotional appeal to a rigged system, you only can attack it.

Goreng’s transformation to a gritty approach in his role as activist shows the painstaking efforts it takes to effect true change. The important social movements of history are typically defined by their seminal moments, but less focus is given to the everyday groundwork that put these decisive events into motion. When Goreng commits with his new cellmate Baharat to collapsing the system from within, they go level-by-level to deliver their message. By the bottom, the two are bloodied, hungry, and mentally drained.

Both were also challenged in their commitment to their end goal and the ethical dilemmas they faced to achieve it. They began to face stronger resistance as they made their way down, and simple persuasion became not enough to change minds. They had to push further. Sometimes, tougher tactics need implemented if a movement is to be successful. The antifa movement are a prime example. As the beliefs of Nazis lie outside the bounds of logic, logical arguments are not effective. Since their ideology is based on a complete lack of compassion, peaceful protest has no chance at getting through to them. The antifa movement found success in driving Nazis back only through aggression. Goreng and Baharat were the same.

Tragically, Goreng’s activist journey ends where a lot do, in sacrifice. Those that gave their lives in defense of justice etch their message into our conscience forever. Education forms the final core component of activism. Even if the efforts made by activists do not lead to direct change, their principles have a better chance at being absorbed by the next generation. That cycle hopefully continues as our modified beliefs begin to advance society.

Goreng reaches the hole’s terminus, all hope gone, only to find a young child awaiting them. New life grows in the most desolate of environments. “The girl is the message,” Baharat tells Goreng in his dream. As a debilitated Goreng drifts off into the abyss, the hole still exists very much as a torture chamber. However, the girl shoots back up to the top level, reassuring that the gears of change are still turning, perhaps a little faster this time.