The Art Behind Art House Films


For film fanatics The Criterion Collection remains one of the few bastions for the preservation of essential films spanning the globe. Besides being the to go-to place for hard to find releases Criterion is also the premiere leader in film restoration, remarkably in-depth DVD audio commentaries, critical essays and countless other features that actually enhance the overall cinematic experience. Many believe that a trip to the library and a viewing devotion to Criterion’s growing collection makes going to film school seem futile.


While presenting each film at its absolute pinnacle edition is Criterion’s true raison d’être, the collection also serves as a haven for some of the most beautiful DVD packaging art around. From revivals of old and often rare film posters and prints to original layouts from up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, Criterion continues to beg its loyal following to judge the book by its cover.

An entire column could be devoted to praising the countless classics–everything from standards to forgotten gems and everything in between–being released annually through Criterion. For devout film aficionados Criterion is a proverbial name. The company’s token logo, ordered spine numbering system, and expensive price tags make the discs a collector’s Holy Grail–DVD fiends pine over particularly rare or out-of-print discs the way literary buffs seek out that pristine first edition to complete their library. From the filmmaking standpoint, a coveted release amidst the cinematic giants–Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Powell & Pressburger, to name a few–generally means an artistic career high.

Running at around $30 per disc, with special box sets running as high as $650 (for a 50 film/disc art house film retrospective collection), Criterion discs are pricy but the general rule of thumb is you pay for the quality, this includes packaging designed with love and care.

Unlike most DVDs, which provide poster art, film stills or the occasional inspired 
“Special Edition” cover for their packaging, Criterion generally goes a step further by designing carefully thought out images to pair up with the film’s content. Sometimes this means taking a preexisting piece of artwork from the film’s past and doctoring it up, other times it calls for a re-imagining of the film’s central themes or characters to be displayed front and center.

ImageTake for example the beautifully crafted cover of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of Criterion’s first releases (spine #4), which was reissued in a two-disc collector’s edition in 2006. A terribly gifted artist named Caitlin Kuhwald was commissioned to paint what eventually became a mini four-panel mural depicting four scenes from the film in a vibrant, jump off the canvas array of colors that is as much a wink and a nod to the golden age of Technicolor film processing, as it is visually stunning. The artwork is not only showcased on the cover but also spans into the DVD inserts. Kuhwald continues to return to Criterion most recently with their release of the beloved, magical children’s classic The Thief of Baghdad.

For Criterion’s massive DVD release of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the art direction team turned to none other than longtime Thompson collaborator and surreal ink blot illustrator Ralph Steadman. The grotesque drawing of Duke and Dr. Gonzo racing through the desert with looming bats overhead and a dark, art deco “Emerald City”esque fortress in the background is the perfect center piece for the film and story’s equally loony content. The company has also gone to great lengths to give Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil a proper release, with the latter’s box-set packaging also serving as the rare example of a literal “box” set.

ImageSometimes Criterion goes the minimalist route featuring a simple film still or photograph behind carefully chosen typeface. The packaging for the five-disc release of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander features nothing more than a series of slightly grainy photographs of the film’s protagonists. The images portray the children as young, innocent, and naïve to their true bourgeois surroundings, perfectly respecting Bergman’s cinematic intentions for the film and subsequent television mini-series.

The cleverly layout for Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, simply presents an orange haired, possibly inebriated David Bowie (the film’s alien star) in front of a pitch black background. The film’s title, placed over Bowie’s face, is in a typographical descent:
 

Image

Simple but effective, the packaging for Earth is as bleak and dark as the film itself.

ImageFinally Criterion continues to be the exclusive home of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging catalogue, with each release and re-release receiving the royal artistic treatment. From Throne of Blood’s black, white and red cartoon of Tohiro Mifune as a pseudo Macbeth, the simple splatter paint and Japanese character inspired cover for the equally vibrantly colored film Ran, the more modern, metropolis driven front for the Bad Sleep Well (the towering white, art deco office building with a single red X on one window is another clever tie into the film, which tells the tale of revenge set inside the corporate world), to the fabulously blurred shot of the central home in Rashomon, an allegory to the blurred reality of the story being told and retold in the film (think Usual Suspects), Criterion continues to pay its respects to this filmmaking legend.

A new Criterion release is an event all in itself. Discovering what buried treasure of a film they’ll take on next is always a delightful moment for film buffs. What they choose to display on the cover is also part of the fun. Not only does this method give up and coming artists and graphic designers a chance to showcase their talent but it opens up a new level of creativity to an old classic. Often times the art is the sole catalyst for checking out a new and unfamiliar title.

Up next for Criterion is the company’s first foray into the High Definition arena with four Blue-Ray releases, including Bottle Rocket, which completes its devotion to the films of Wes Anderson and yet another re-release of The Third Man, which features arguably one of the most beautifully dark, and menacing packaging art design in Criterion’s catalogue. Criterionco.com lists all of the company’s current titles as well as its back stock of Laserdiscs, which served as a starting point for the extras now common on DVDs. There are also a number of Criterion “completist” blogs of buff working their way through every disc in the collection, for example criterioncollection.blogspot.com and criterionconfessions.com.
 

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