Director’s choice

The Criterion Collection forges its reputation on director-approved classics

FACE THE FACE Peter Davis’s 1974 Vietnam documentary <i>Hearts and Minds</i> is an impressionistic portrait of its war-torn era.

FACE THE FACE Peter Davis’s 1974 Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds is an impressionistic portrait of its war-torn era.

With many of the DVDs offered by the Criterion Collection, a noted 17-year old series “publishing definitive digital versions of the world’s greatest films,” a small black sticker adorns the cover. On the little sticker is a copy of the handwritten signature of the film’s director—a symbol of consent or authorization of the product within.

The names are unmistakable: Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Cocteau, Hitchcock, Kubrick—some of the greatest directors of the last century and names forever linked with the art of moviemaking.

And the films themselves are essential viewing for students of the form, from Kurosawa’s hugely influential 1950 masterpiece Rashoman—the tale of a rape and murder from four different perspectives that provided an early cinematic inquiry into the subjective nature of truth—to Fritz Lang’s 1931 template for the modern thriller, M, starring Peter Lorre as one of cinema’s first serial killers. These are just two (with coincidentally morbid subjects) that will once again highlight the series, as the Sundance Channel teams with Criterion for the second year in a row to offer the Classic Film Series in July and August (every Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m.).

As the popularity of DVDs soars and videos begin to be phased out by major stores, many still wonder what all the fuss is about.

Although it is generally understood that the digital remastering of these films presents a superior audio and video quality compared to regular VHS, people still ask: Is it really worth spending up to $40 on a film just for some extra features like director commentary, deleted scenes, storyboards, interviews, etc.? Aren’t these minor tag-ons just new ways that companies find to keep increasing profits? The answer, in short, seems to depend on two major factors: how much you like movies and what film you are buying.

The good thing about Criterion is that it offers only the best of world cinema. So far, more than 35 filmmakers have made the “Director Approved” library of DVDs at Criterion arguably the most significant archive of contemporary filmmaking available for the home viewer. Whenever possible, original director and cinematographer supervise the digital transfer.

One of the latest offerings from the Director Series is a powerful and controversial 1974 documentary about the Vietnam War entitled Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis. Winner of the 1974 Academy Award for best documentary, the film is an insightful and emotionally wrenching look at the horrors of war—and though one could argue that it is one-sided in its portrayal of suffering Vietnamese—the film is still worth watching and studying today.

Combining interviews, newsreels and documentary footage of the conflict, both at home and abroad, the film creates an impressionistic portrait of a distraught time. Whether showing old NBC nightly news footage of a hearing for an army deserter or brutal images of gore from fields of battle, it foreshadows films about the Vietnam War yet to come—from Oliver Stone’s Platoon (in Davis’ film, a crippled African-American soldier recounts how he held a body over himself for protection from his plane’s own off-target napalm attack) to Jon Voight’s performance as a paraplegic in Coming Home.

As the story goes, during the 1974 Academy Awards, host Frank Sinatra read a letter from Bob Hope (featured jokingly in the film) disclaiming responsibility “for any political references.” The film definitely touched off a spark about portrayals of the war and our government that continues to this day.

One thing that cannot be denied when watching the film is the immense level of tragedy and disillusionment involved. It appears obvious throughout the interviews that the vast majority of U.S. soldiers were idealistic young men who truly believed in “the cause,” be it checking communism or “helping” the Vietnamese. And what the film does so brilliantly, especially for the time period (being one of the first highly critical exposés of the war), is emphasize institutional forms of deceit levied on these courageous young men by the government.

Well worth watching today.