Then came coins. Actually it was just dimes, which I collected in albums for the year or two that I lingered on the cusp of adolescence. Coins seemed more practical than rocks, which had not been usable as currency since the actual Stone Age, though my own collection was never worth more than the sum of its dimes. (All the same, to this day I get a chill any time I find myself around the intersection of Market Street and Dolores in San Francisco, where the U.S. mint sits on a hill overlooking a Safeway supermarket, the very mint that produced, for reasons never definitively established, just 24 dimes in 1894, the fabled 1894-S dimes, one of which sold at auction last year for $1.3 million.) At one point I also made a sustained attempt at a stamp collection. I still have my first-day issue of the three-cent stamp commemorating Teddy's Roosevelt's home at Sagamore Hill, which today is worth about what it was then.
But what has turned out to be my most enduring obsession is DVDs, since it's just the product-line expression of my lifelong fascination with movies. So it was only a matter of time before I found my way to Criterion, the DVD company that grew out of the Janus film collection and Voyager/Criterion laser disc.
It was during its interval as a laser disc company that Criterion virtually invented the DVD as we know it. Over the years the Criterion collection has developed beyond its origins with the Janus inventory to become a very well selected group of more than 300 titles, almost always produced to standards that very few other DVD companies bother with.
It's not just that Criterion focuses mostly on great films that they produce in impeccable transfers or that they have helped to reassemble or restore a host of films by great directors. It's that they surround these films with fascinating extras. It's not unusual for a Criterion set to include radio broadcast versions of the film, interviews filmed especially for the disc, alternate versions, lucid and useful commentary tracks, sometimes more than one, and a printed edition of any published work that a film was based on. (Check out the volume of Raymond Carver stories packaged with Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Eric Rohmer's short-story versions of the films that make up his Six Moral Tales.)
Let the record show that it was a clever marketing ploy for Criterion to number its releases, with the number printed on the spine of the packaging. That lets you know, when you look at your collection lined up on a shelf, where the gaps are. The dedicated collector will feel these gaps like they were missing bicuspids. This plays to his or her worst pathologies and has probably boosted Criterion's profit margins by a healthy amount every year.
The list that follows is not a selection of the greatest films of all time. That list would have to include a number of titles, like Vertigo, Citizen Kane and 2001, that are not Criterion. It's not even a list of the greatest films, like L'Avventura and Jules and Jim, that are in Criterion's inventory. This is a list of the best Criterion releases considered as imaginative products and, if you will, public services the discs that have the most beautifully cleaned up prints, the most desirable extras, the most illuminating commentary tracks.
For the record, I am not associated with the good people at Criterion, and have not, so far as I know, ever met or spoken with any of them. But for a long time it's been obvious to me that they can read my movie-loving mind.
RULES OF THE GAME, directed by Jean Renoir
A perfect example of what Criterion does. Just days after its disastrous Paris 1939 premiere, Renoir cut the film from 94 to 81 minutes. The negative of his original cut was destroyed in World War II bombing raid. In 1959, a time when the film was rising steeply in critical estimation, two Frenchmen reconstructed it, with Renoir's approval, to 106 minutes. This is the version released by Criterion, but in a superb high definition digital restoration that removed thousands of scratches, stains and other defects, and with enhanced subtitles that translate more dialogue than earlier versions. Extras include interviews shot especially for the disc with Renoir's son, with the film's set designer and with one of its stars, Mila Parely, as well as British and French TV documentaries about the director. The audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by director Peter Bogdanovich is a model of how to do it.
REBECCA, Alfred Hitchcock
There are people who will tell you that this is one of Hitchcock's greatest films. So long as there is a world that includes Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho and Marnie, those people will be wrong. All the same, Hitchcock's lustrous American debut, the film David O. Selznick tempted him across the Atlantic to do, is a pleasure no sane person refuses. And Criterion's package is particularly rich with extras. In addition to footage from the 1941 Academy Award ceremony, where Rebecca picked up Oscars for Best Picture and Cinematography, the disc's extras include three one-hour radio adaptations, among them one by Orson Welles, and footage of the screen tests for Joan Fontaine, who won the starring role of the second Mrs. de Winter, opposite Laurence Olivier, as well as for also-rans Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young and Olivier's then-wife Vivien Leigh.
Rebecca is one of a number of Criterion titles that the company no longer produces, frequently because their licensing agreement with the studio has expired. But it can still be tracked down from on-line retailers, and of course on eBay, where there's a lively trade in discontinued Criterion titles like Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo. And anyway, to the real collector, scarcity is catnip.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Whether the Maid of Orleans was really hearing the voice of God is a question I will not attempt to answer here. But one of the indisputable miracles in the history of film preservation was the rediscovery in 1981 of an original print of Dreyer's silent masterpiece. On its release in 1928 the film was cut by censors and condemned by French nationalists and the Catholic Church, who objected to a Danish Protestant director daring to film the story of the French Catholic saint. Later the negative was destroyed in a fire. Dreyer constructed a new version using the negatives of alternate takes from his original filming. That too was lost in a fire. But 25 years ago, in a closet at a Norwegian mental institution, a complete print of the original somehow turned up a mess, but the real thing. This impeccably cleaned-up transfer, a miracle of restoration as well as rediscovery, allows the film to be seen as it has not been since its premiere. The disc also provides a history of the film's various versions, and an optional (that means you can turn it off) but haunting (that means you won't want to) new musical sound track.
PICKPOCKET, Robert Bresson
Bresson may be to cinema what Poussin is to painting: an undeniable master whose supremely reserved style, while not easy to warm to, must be reckoned with by anybody seriously interested in the medium. Yet his work feels most like that of his beloved Cezanne, something like the last word in modernism. He's often paired with Dreyer because of their shared taste for visual and narrative austerity and because of the book Transcendental Style in Film; Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a seminal work of film scholarship by the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader.
If you don't know Bresson's work, this 1959 film about a compulsive young criminal in Paris is the best place to start. Schrader appears on this disc to provide a new introduction to the film and to Bresson's demanding but ultimately captivating approach to the medium. The audio commentary is by the film scholar James Quandt, editor of the best single volume work on Bresson in English. In the way typical of Criterion, which regularly hunts through the archives of foreign television, the disc's producers have also tracked down a 1960 French TV interview with the elusive Bresson, as well as a 2003 documentary about the film's unconventional cast.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI, Akira Kurosawa
On a few occasions Criterion has reissued a film that was already in its collection to produce a higher-quality transfer, offer more extras and dare we suspect? make a buck. A comparison of the original one-disc edition of Kurosawa's 1954 epic and its recent three-disc release shows that sometimes more really is more. Dividing the 3hr.27min. film between two discs allows a much crisper and richer image and a greatly enlarged gallery of extras. Those include a two-hour video conversation from 1993 between Kurosawa and Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, documentaries on the making of the film and on Kurosawa's influences, and a booklet with genuinely useful essays by Kurosawa scholars and tributes from directors Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet.
MR. ARKADIN: A.K.A. CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, Orson Welles
The last word in insanely thorough reconstruction of a much fractured product. Welles' 1955 film, about a shadowy billionaire who hires an American smuggler to look into his past, exists in multiple versions, all of which are collected here, along with a new "comprehensive" version, three radio plays, outtakes and alternate scenes, and the novel "by" Welles, more or less, that the film is more or less based on. Welles' admirers are sure that a man of his genius must have made more great films than he did. They're always combing through his threadbare later output for one more masterpiece. With the beautiful reconstruction a few years ago of Touch of Evil they found one. This DVD set may not convince you that there's another one lurking in Mr. Arkadin. But drop into this fun house of a box and it'll be days before you come up for air.
THE BRD TRILOGY, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Three later films The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola by the dissolute genius of German cinema, who died in 1982 at age 37. The films make an indispensable trilogy that charts the history of postwar Germany in terms set by the vivid melodramas that Fassbinder adored. (BRD stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland German for West Germany.) Among the more than three hours of documentaries and specially produced features on disc four are exceptionally lucid interviews with Fassbinder's three stars, Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech and Barbara Sukowa. The audio commentary on Maria Braun is by director Wim Wenders and Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder's (and now Martin Scorsese's) always brilliant cinematographer.
CHARADE, Stanley Donen
Not every film in the Criterion list is a textbook classic. Quite a few are just hugely enjoyable bagatelles that deserve to be treated with care. As you probably already know, Donen's 1963 comic thriller is about a young American widow (the ever-stylish Audrey Hepburn) on the run in Paris from a trio of criminals who think she can lead them to the fortune her late husband stole from them. The is-he-or-isn't-he-trustworthy stranger who takes her under his wing is Cary Grant. The digital transfer is every bit as lustrous as what Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman get. The sprightly commentary track a feature, by the way, that Criterion pretty much invented when it was putting films out on laser disc in the 1980s is by Donen himself, in conversation with one of the film's screenwriters, Peter Stone.
A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS and FLOATING WEEDS, Yasujiro Ozu
Criterion has a gift for pairing films that belong together. One example is its release of Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths as filmed by Renoir in 1936 and Kurosawa 21 years later. Another is its dual set of The Killers, both the 1946 Robert Siodmak original of Hemingway's story about a man who welcomes his own murder it's Burt Lancaster's sleepy-eyed, long-muscled film debut and Don Siegel's hyped-up 1964 remake that was made for TV but too violent for broadcast.
Another: Criterion's Ozu two-fer is a superb instance of one director revisiting his own earlier work, the way Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much. In 1934 Ozu directed an 86-minute silent (the Japanese were late in making the transition to sound) about an aging actor who returns with his theater troupe and his current mistress to his home town, where he reunites with his former lover and their now grown son. Bittersweet misery ensues. In 1959, when Ozu's reserved style was fully formed, he remade the story as two-hour color film photographed by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer of Kurosawa's Rashomon and Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. The audio commentary on the later film is by Roger Ebert. Donald Richie, the dean of American film scholars of Japanese film, provided the improved subtitles for both.
RATCATCHER, Lynne Ramsay
Maybe Criterion's chief service to film lovers is not its restoration of the titles we all know are classics but its insistence that certain recent titles, especially the ones on the outer edges of the mainstream, are classics of the future movies like David Gordon Green's George Washington, Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl and Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven. Ramsay's 1999 story of a boy's troubled childhood in Glasgow in the 1970s is tender and harrowing at the same time. The disc includes three of her short films, two of which won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.