The Criterion Corner



Director: Brian De Palma

Year of release: 1973

by Jericho Cerrona


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Brian De Palma’s stylish 1973 horror thriller, Sisters.

Brian De Palma’s early work was marked by satirical commentary and zeitgeist-defining wit. Just look at 1970’s Hi Mom! starring a young Robert De Niro, which morphs from a sleazy soft-core comedy into a pointed satire on race relations in America, and 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, which takes on corporate greed and dehumanization. 1973’s Sisters was his first legitimate genre film, and the one where the Alfred Hitchcock influences which would unfairly dog the rest of his career really took center stage. In many ways, the film is about voyeurism (one of Hitchcock’s pet themes) and how media can desensitize. This is glimpsed from the very first scene, in which a blind woman Danielle (Margot Kidder), enters a dressing room where a man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is changing. Of course, the woman isn’t really blind, and the whole thing is revealed to be a Candid Camera-style prank show called Peeping Toms (a clever wink to the Michael Powell film, Peeping Tom).

Though Sisters is superficially a horror thriller; complete with Danielle’s stalker ex-husband, Emile (William Finley), the eventual murder of Phillip, and a nosy neighbor/reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) on the case, De Palma layers in social commentary along with genre thrills. Philip is African-American, and the early scenes involving the TV show being watched by an all white audience is telling. Additionally, Phillip wins two tickets to a place called The Africa Room for playing along with the show, and the way he timidly smiles and brushes it off locates the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism.

Though many claim him to be an empty technician, skillful with the camera but out of his element otherwise, what is often missed in discussions about De Palma is his razor-sharp sense of humor. The obvious fusion of Psycho and Rear Window here is intentional, of course, but Sisters is also hip to the understanding that we are familiar with this cinematic language. Therefore, much of the pleasure of the film is not in anticipating the plot twists, but in admiring the finesse in which the picture executes them. To wit, there’s an all time classic split-screen sequence here involving two 9-minute simultaneous shots contrasting the hiding of Philip’s body with Grace’s attempts at exposing the murder that is among the best directing of De Palma’s career.

If Sisters lacks some of the outlandish artistry and auto-critique brilliance of De Palma’s later works such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double, it more than makes up for it with social satire, an antic horror-fused finale, and Bernard Herrmann’s lively score. But perhaps the film’s biggest hat trick is allowing Kidder, best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman series, an opportunity to cut loose; essentially playing dual roles as a woman trapped inside a fractured psyche. It’s her inner trauma that ultimately lingers; along with savage post-60’s cynicism, technical craftsmanship, and the sight of a lonely birthday cake strewn across the ground. Bravo, Mr. De Palma.

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Director: Costa-Gavras

Year of release: 1969

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras' 1969 searing political thriller, Z.

“Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE".

Thus begins Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller/procedural/political diatribe, Z; a film famous for not only influencing an entire generation of politically-minded filmmakers, but also actively engaging in a revolutionary debate as it was occurring. More than simply the story of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) killed by a passing motorist, Z is the work of a filmmaker in peak control of his powers; the camera swooping, the editing jaggedly propulsive, the synth/folk score by Mikis Theodorakis giving everything a sense of playful danger. There's also intentional humor here too--this isn't some self-serious slog even though the subject matter is very serious--especially from side characters like a blue-collar witness (George Géret), who wants to testify against the corrupt powers even after being beaten to a pulp and landing himself in the hospital. 

In terms of plot, Z is essentially a fictionalized account of the 1963 killing of Greek opposition leader Gregoris Lambrakis in front of witnesses and police, but it never feels like a dull history lesson. Montand's sensitive, deeply layered performance as the Lambrakis stand-in certainly helps give the film's second half an air of tragedy after he's clubbed to death in the streets following a political speech. As the Royal Court conspire to cover up the murder as a drunk-driving accident, Gavras ingeniously plays around with the timeline, introducing new characters and incidents; with two particular action set-pieces (one where a Montand ally jumps onto the killer's moving vehicle, and the other where an opposition lawyer is chased along sidewalks and into a park) emerging as highlights.

Though obviously an attack on the fascist-leaning right, Z never descends into parody or leftist propaganda. This is mostly due to Gavras’ adeptness at handling genre elements; if anything, the film moves like a breathless thriller, complete with traditional thug baddies (Marcel Bozzuffi and Renato Salvatori, both having a ball), giving everything a fast-paced energy. Additionally, the gorgeously grainy imagery by renown cinematographer Raoul Coutard, clever time-shifting narrative structure, and Montand's dignified performance makes for a powerful piece of political art. Timely, resonant, and an essential addition to The Criterion Collection  

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Director: Johnnie To

Year of release: 2009

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Johnnie To's masterful 2009 Hong Kong action/crime/western, Vengeance.

To say Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To is a master of framing, tracking, and geometric mise-en-scène is an understatement. The way he choreographs action through clever blocking, long shots/closeups, slow motion, and gliding camera moves is intrinsically linked to the emotional and psychological headspace of his characters. There's a brooding poeticism to his films that makes even the most standard gangster/mob plot invigorating; and his 2009 hit-man thriller Vengeance, is no exception.

While perhaps not as technically virtuosic as Triad Election or as thematically poignant as The Mission, To is still in top form here while giving iconic French rock/ pop star Johnny Hallyday the role of a lifetime as Francis Costello; a hulking former hit-man dressed in black suits and dark sunglasses. Arriving in China after his daughter is injured by thugs and two young grandchildren murdered, Costello goes on a hunt for the perpetrators, but coincidentally runs into a team of killers inside a hotel in a sequence which To stages for maximum drawn-out tension. Moments later, he hires the three hit-men; played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Suet Lam, to avenge his grandchildren's deaths. What follows is a code of honor film reminiscent of classic westerns with a mixture of Hong Kong spectacle and swirling bullets.

Unlike a filmmaker like John Woo, who emphasizes action in a frenzied style of balletic mayhem, To uses spatial distances between characters and a keen understanding of geography in order to derive suspense. A scene where the group roam through Costello's daughter's house trying to figure out how the perpetrators initiated their ambush interspersed with rhythmic flashbacks is breathtaking, while the film's centerpiece sequence in a park where our heroes engage in a slow motion gun battle with a rival gang under the moonlight, is pure action filmmaking of the highest order.

As impressive as such moments are visually, To never loses sight of his characters; giving them amble time to bond over plates of spaghetti, dismantling and loading guns, and sizing one another up through stoic glances. Though Costello is gradually losing his memory due to a bullet in the brain, the film uses this less as a plot device and more to further the contradictions of revenge when the one doling out the punishment cannot remember his actions. It's a notion Christopher Nolan's Memento handled more overtly, but To nevertheless takes this ideology and tethers it to his concrete style, which makes the film a more melancholy affair than one might expect. A thrilling genre picture that often luxuriates more in nor-ish atmosphere than standard action beats, Vengeance marks a fitting entry point to Johnnie To's aesthetic flair and a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection.



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Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Year of release: 1932

Running time: 1 hour 13 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 surrealist horror masterpiece, Vampyr.

It's rather astonishing that Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr was made in 1932. The films of David Lynch would be unimaginable without its influence. The countless vampire genre-plots we've grown accustomed to owe a huge debt to its iconography. Of course, other artists would probably have come along to extrapolate the notions of terror as somehow both mundane and phantasmagoric at some point, but its unlikely the execution would elicit such cinematic poetry. Vampyr isn't simply a grandfather horror film, but a distillation of how the scariest feelings come from something that may happen rather than what does happen. In that way, it's one of the subtlest horror films ever made while also being one of the most terrifying.

Shot on real locations with non-actors and conceived initially as a silent film, Vampyr does contain passages of dialogue, but essentially plays as a mood piece. Plot-wise, it's baffling and enigmatic. Aesthetically, it showcases Dreyer's penchant for astounding tracking shots, erie juxtapositions, and double exposure optical effects. The story, based on “Carmilla,” a 1872 short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, centers on a young man obsessed with the occult named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who stumbles through the small town of Courtempierre before discovering that the residents are cursed by a vampire. Gunzurg's blank expression is deftly attuned to Dreyer's incredible image-making-- shots of coffins, candles, and fog-drenched exteriors abound--as he careens aimlessly through one dreamlike vignette after the other.

Dreyer's fixations here have less to do with the vampire's motives, or really even Allan Gray as a reliable narrator. Instead, he continuously confounds expectations through the idea of multiple worlds converging. The iconic sequence where Gray falls asleep on a bench and his "spirit" arises to go in pursuit of the apparent villains, is not only technically marvelous, but also a way for Dreyer to comment on how as audience members we often have certain expectations when it comes to genre. Vampyr not only eradicates these typical expectations, but also opens up tantalizing new mysteries by not giving us what we think we want from these kinds of stories. Throughout, Dreyer, along with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, concoct one indelible horror image after another-- a man standing by the river tolling a bell, a diabolical doctor suffocating inside a flour mill, Gray's waking nightmare of being buried alive, a young couple inside a boat surrounded by a thick haze of fog--even as the character's dark interior thoughts manifest themselves as surrealistic visual expressions.

Though critically reviled during its day, Vampyr is now considered a modern classic of the genre; something far ahead of its time both technically and thematically. By focusing on what truly scares us--the inclination of madness, of dream and reality becoming blurred, of that gradual realization that sinister forces may be at work beyond our comprehension--Dreyer tapped into the most primal form of psychological horror. Vampyr is an audaciously daring cinematic magic trick, and a sublime addition to The Criterion Collection.

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Director: Alex Cox

Year of release: 1987

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Alex Cox's 1987 misunderstood absurdist satire Walker.

British filmmaker Alex Cox's anarchic satire about William Walker (Ed Harris), a man who led the first American invasion of Nicaragua, feels more prescient today than it probably did upon it's 1987 release. Because our current political climate is so divisive, it's tempting to read Walker through a modernist lens, but let's not forget Cox made the picture right in the middle of the illegal U.S.-sponsored war against Nicaragua. This is all to say that history is stubbornly cyclical, something Cox is keenly aware of as he gleefully skewers American expansion and colonialism throughout. There's no need to apply topicality here because, sadly, not much has changed.

From the outset, it's clear the film is going for a freewheeling comic quality while simultaneously getting at how power and international politics mix to form Westernized ignorance of other cultures. For example, an opening 19th-century battle sequence in Sonora, Mexico where soldiers and peasants are blown to bits by gunfire and cannon blasts is both unflinchingly violent as well as ridiculously farcical, complete with a rousing salsa soundtrack from Joe Strummer.  As Walker strides through the streets with optimistic swagger immune to the carnage and misery all around him, the stage is set for an atypical, and often uproariously hilarious, take on the biopic.

With his 1984 punk classic Repo Man, Cox responded to the capitalistic mindset of the 1980s by satirizing American slacker culture, whereas here, he essentially gives us an inverse of that film's theme of anti-conformity. Walker is a dark, blistering take down of the antihero model set in a world populated by a charismatic leader whose soul is an empty void swallowing up everyone and everything in its path. Played by Ed Harris in a towering, heightened performance, Walker is an anomaly who exists to spew anti-slavery and pro-democracy rhetoric as a mask for overpowering a foreign country. Claiming to work for God and hiding behind Christian sanctimony, he emerges as a figure of duplicitous evil which perfectly encapsulates American arrogance.

During widescreen battle scenes which Cox stages with a sense of breathtaking scope, Walker continues to march onward (even as his most "trusted" soldiers die at his side), giving the fiery destruction happening all around him a carnivalesque absurdity. Harris doubles down on the tics and mannerisms here; giving the central character a twitchy intensity which speaks to the frightening power of unchecked hubris. What emerges is a film which rips open the festering wound of American history and lets the entrails flow down into rivers of gushing blood. It's a piece of work that could be seen only as farce, if the truth wasn't so bewildering to begin with.

Cox understands, more than perhaps an American filmmaker, that historical revisionism speaks to larger truths that are much to painful to reckon with. The film's litany of anachronisms--automatic rifles, helicopters, vehicles, etc--aren't merely there as a way of poking fun at conventions, but are instead a way for Cox to wrestle with the ways in which we distort history to fit into our preconceived ideals. For all it's zany lunacy, Walker is a film that is deadly serious about it's political convictions; making it a powerful and welcome addition to The Criterion Collection



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In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Year of release: 1950

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place.

Although Humphrey Bogart would go on to win the Oscar for 1951's The African Queen, his work as washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's brilliant noir chamber drama In A Lonely Place remains his best and most complex performance. While outwardly a mystery thriller concerning the murder of a young hat-check girl who was last seen alive leaving Dixon's apartment, the film is more fundamentally concerned with irrational male delusion. By placing Bogart in the role of a depressive writer who gets more than his share of attention from women, Ray cannily turns the epitome of cool on its head; revealing the emotionless detachment of someone harboring a general disdain for humanity. 

Of course, there's a love interest introduced in the form of Dixon’s new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is both drawn to and increasingly wary of her lover's apparent disinterest in the death of an innocent young girl. As the cops continue to investigate and suspect Dixon, Laurel herself begins to feel trapped in the embrace of a possible sociopath, which Ray wisely captures by setting the majority of the film inside cramped spaces. Meanwhile, Bogart keeps up the veneer of the damaged romantic by playing on the persona he'd perfected for years up until that point, but then investing that same attitude with erratic bursts of violence and remorseless apathy. In one bravura scene, Dixon narrates a possible scenario to his detective friend where the murdered girl was strangled by the driver of a moving vehicle, and the way Bogart amps up the near orgasmic hysteria is both disturbing and intensely compelling. 

There's this idea of 50's American cinema as being imbued with a sunny, family-friendly disposition as a direct response to the heinous evils perpetuated during World War II. Though made at the very beginning of the decade, In A Lonely Place is surprisingly bleak for it's time, with the entire narrative framework--of whether or not Dixon actually committed the murder--being treated as little more than a footnote to the film's real objective. This objective, by the way, is the inversion of the lone male hero, which Ray himself idealized in films like Rebel Without A Cause and On Dangerous Ground into a sad, defeated loser. Dixon's abject despair; his inability to be a decent human being in a godless world, turns the romanticized anti-hero into the existential coward. When he rehearses a line of dialogue with Laurel while driving in his car; “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me", Dixon's sentiments of love conquering all has an ironic absurdity. In A Lonely Place, too, understands the absurdity of living with hope when human empathy no longer matters.






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Black Girl

Director: Ousmane Sembène

Year of release: 1966

Running time: 1 hour

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Ousmane Sembène's 1966 anti-colonialist picture, Black Girl.

African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl is a harrowing examination of so-called "decolonization" during the late 1960s, but it's also anti-polemical in that a harsh reality is simply presented without the need for the filmmaker to trot out a victim narrative. All of the characters here; including the callous yet oblivious middle class French housewife and her hangdog husband, are byproducts of France/African imperialism which has given way to a certain perspective. Of course, this perspective is skewered by socioeconomic entitlement which blankets over another form of slavery and appropriation, but Sembène doesn't demonize the white characters. They are clueless and unsympathetic to be sure, but the film's real interest is in the gradual dehumanization of it's central black figure, Diouna (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a maid who travels from Africa to France in search of a more glamorous life.

At 60 minutes, Black Girl would seem to skimp on a detailed narrative, but Sembène employs an elliptical style; with very little synchronous sound, Senegalese music cues, and voice over set against scenes where Diouna tediously cleans the house and cooks meals. This technique integrates the audience into this world, allowing us to feel the repetitiveness of Diouna's actions, as well as her growing disdain for the casual racism of her white employers, who treat her either like an indentured servant or a foreign object to be gawked at. In one particularly revealing scene, Diouna is kissed on the cheek by an elderly white man during a dinner party because of his uncomfortable fondness for her otherworldly appearance. Moments like these are disturbing because they illustrate a complete lack of self-awareness, and the polite nature of such bigotry is endemic of an entire system poisoned from the inside out. Tragically, despite Diouna's efforts to fight against this form of oppression, her spirit ultimately breaks under the burden of her "otherness."

What's most remarkable about Black Girl is that it's told entirely from the perspective of a black woman. Mbissine Thérèse Diop's expressive, nonverbal performance is subtle and gracious, and the way she uses her posture to evoke emotion is strikingly pared with stream of consciousness voice over narration. There's also a bit of the French New Wave in Sembène's approach here; with jagged editing cross-cutting between hauntingly realistic black-and-white cinematography, but it's the unrelenting focus on one woman's journey of dehumanization which lingers most. During the powerful final scenes, where the middle class French husband travels to Africa in order to make amends through economic means, the visage of a young child stalking him covered in a tribal face mask, seems to suggest the ghosts of all the disenfranchised and oppressed will never be appeased by the lie of decolonization. Hopefully, a film like Black Girl, newly restored and given the full Criterion Collection treatment, will give such ghosts a startlingly new voice.    



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The Tin Drum

Director: Volker Schlondorff

Year of release: 1979

Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff's 1979 dark comedy masterpiece The Tin Drum.

It's hard to imagine a film like The Tin Drum being made today. A sprawling, semi-satirical, thematically troubling and altogether hilarious adaptation of Gunter Grass's eponymous novel, Volker Schlondorff's greatest triumph here is the juggling of personal, political, domestic, and historical threads. Condensing the novel's more outlandish vision of German's history from the beginning of the 20th Century to post World War II was a near impossible task, and there's no doubt that as a film. The Tin Drum is unwieldy. But it's this bizarre messiness; told from the perspective of a deranged Peter Pan-esque child, which makes it such a singular achievement.

The most fascinating aspect of the film is how its central character, the never-aging Oskar Matzerath, is meant to personify the tyrannical grip of Nazism, even as he remains a detached observer to historical European events. With that in mind, 12-year-old child actor David Bennett gives one of the most chilling, aggravating, and psychotic performances in cinema history as Oskar; a completely self-centered agent of chaos who believes the entire universe revolves around him. His determination to never grow up locates the pervasive banality of evil at the heart of the Third Reich, with his beloved drum and glass shattering screams emerging as his only identifying traits.

Schlondorff structures his film as a series of elaborate set-pieces ranging from the broadly comic (Oskar tricking his nanny into reading pornographic novels), to the strangely moving (perplexing a Nazi youth orchestra with the sound of that titular drum), and every time he lets out an ear-piercing wail to break windows or wine glasses, the effect is hilariously off-putting. There's also moments of shocking violence, sexual trysts with a 16-year-old mother figure, a roving band of circus midgets, and over-cranked slapstick.

At nearly 3 hours, The Tin Drum is a daunting exercise in satirical nihilism which also makes room for whimsy and magical realism. Grotesque, acidicly funny, meandering, and featuring a truly iconic child performance, it's a film whose controversial reputation (it was at the center of a censorship controversy), lends it a cant-look-away quality. It's also yet another example of the The Criterion Collection's deft powers of curation.

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Hearts and Minds

Director: Peter Davis

Year of release: 1974

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is the definitive take on the Vietnam War, Peter Davis's 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds.

Angry, impassioned, and emotionally devastating, Peter Davis's monumental snapshot of the Vietnam War; as it was unfolding and it's immediate aftermath, is one of the most pertinent reminders of the cyclical nature of violence, ignorance, and the ways in which the military industrial complex brainwashes young men into becoming killing machines. Hearts and Minds casts a broad net; including interviews with both pro and anti-war subjects, prominent government officials, and soldiers who made it out alive to tell their shocking stories. Much of the archival footage here has been repeated ad nauseum--images of children ravaged by napalm blasts, the famous Saigon execution where a man is shot at point blank range in the head--but it's the smaller moments that linger most; such as a father weeping as he slams Nixon for allowing the US to bomb his village, killing his young daughter. It's these moments which seer inside your brain. It's these moments which make Hearts and Minds one of the most powerful and infuriating films ever made.

The United State's involvement in Vietnam was atrocious and ill-advised beyond belief, but what's most striking about Davis's picture is that he captures the national tone of the times simply because he was present, camera in hand, to bottle the zeitgeist. This is a film which provoked outrage for it's clear-minded attempt at demythologizing the war, but it also transcends beyond mere political outrage and enters into the realm of deconstructing human nature. In a way, it's more hopeful about the human spirit than one would think at first glance, because it aims to understand how and why racism and hatred for the "other" exists and how such things are nurtured under the guise of "patriotism". Above all else, Hearts and Minds will leave you drained and aghast. It's truly essential viewing, no matter how tough the subject matter, and another indispensable addition to The Criterion Collection.



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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Director: Paul Schrader

Year of release: 1985
Running time: 2 hours

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader's 1985 quasi-biopic of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.  

Paul Schrader's mesmeric examination of Japanese author and enigmatic figure Yukio Mishima, seems like a film lost in time. Part of this has to do with the way this particular story is told; dividing its time between a traditional biopic structure and an unconventional synthesis of Mishima's writings. It's also a film rarely mentioned when investigating Schrader's work, especially seeing as the script for Taxi Driver remains his most celebrated accomplishment. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, however, is his finest hour behind the camera; with elegantly constructed sets, costuming, and rapturous cinematography all throbbing to Philip Glass's piercing orchestral score.

In November 1970, Mishima committed suicide after addressing an army garrison, and the film begins with this fact and works backwards, giving us black and white flashbacks to his younger days as well as stylized interpretations from some of his most famous novels. Mishima's hopes of a prewar society; complete with martial rules and obedience to an emperor, made him a polarizing figure, and Schrader's picture has a rich denseness which holds contradictory impulses in tandem. While the formalism on display here is cold and detached, Ken Otaga's central performance is simmering with humanity beneath the pain and self-righteousness. We may not fully understand Mishima's actions, but Otaga makes us believe he was a tortured individual who was either blindly nihilistic or savagely brave, depending on one's perspective.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is an extraordinary splash of color, sound, and rich narrative construction. It's a film worthy of The Criterion Collection, and one that will hopefully have cinephiles clamoring for a look at Schrader's indelible contribution to cinema beyond God's lonely man.



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A Report on the Party and Guests

Director: Jan Zemec

Year of release: 1966
Running time: 1 hour 11 minutes

Welcome to the first official edition of THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in the The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The first picture up for discussion is Jan Nemec's 1966 Czech New Wave satire A Report on the Party and Guests.

There's a wonderful moment early on in Jan Nemec's damning allegory of nationalism A Report on the Party and Guests, where a bureaucratic figure (Jan Klusack in a brilliant comic performance) stares at a group of blissful picnickers with a broad grin slapped onto his face while looming behind a desk. Of course, what makes the scene humorous is also what makes it distressing; a vision of authoritarian control dressed up in pleasantries set not inside a sterile office building, but instead, outside in a gorgeous forest glade. It's this kind of juxtaposition which forms the heart of Nemec's astute critique on regimes like Communism, which caused the film to be banned in Czechoslovakia after its 1966 release.

The plot is simple; a group of friends lounge around in a park, notice a bridal party in the distance, and toss out notions of joining these strangers in celebration. Eventually, a roving gang of men harass them into standing "trial" before an interrogator named Rudolph (Klusack) separates the men from the women, forces them to stand inside drawn lines, and jots down cryptic notations inside his over-sized notebook. What makes these scenes work, beyond Klusack's impish smile and strange gestures, is that Nemec films them in assured, matter-of-fact simplicity. The tone here may nod toward Kafka and Bunuel, but the film itself is shot in a quasi-realistic style, with crisp black and white cinematography and non-professional actors providing grounded reactions.

Eventually, the seven friends are rescued from Rudolph's authoritarian mind games by an older gentlemen who turns out to be celebrating a birthday party. What follows is a deft rendering of the way seemingly reasonable people can gradually be seduced by a certain kind of ideology hiding in plain sight. By becoming more enamored by the stranger's charms and calls for "brotherhood" and "democracy", A Report on the Party and Guests shows how fascism often joins hands with pleasant conformity in order to lull its members into a state of ignorant obedience. 

At 71 minutes, A Report on the Party and Guests packs a lot of subtext and detail into it's brisk running time. It's a funny, satirical, and disturbing work which goes out of its way to highlight the bright smiles and warm embrace inherent within dangerous methodology. The horror here isn't literal, but spiritual, and Nemec expertly narrows in on the appealing outward nature of systems which seek to suppress autonomy. As part of the "Czech New Wave" of the late 1960's, it's also a perfect edition to The Criterion Collection, and will hopefully be discovered by a whole new audience.