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:


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. 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 and

Dinner and a Movie

The other day while aimlessly flipping through the channels I came across the opening credits of the wonderful, childhood nostalgia filled, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For pretty much anyone and everyone–young and old–this movie is pure eye candy (seriously have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like this movie? It seems to be one of those universal pleasures joining the ranks of popping packing bubbles and that cool sound champagne makes when it enters the party) with the opening credits wetting the audience’s taste buds. To refresh your memory the beginning shots are set inside the chocolate factory with a kaleidoscope of sweet concoctions dancing across a sea of conveyer belts. While I was unable to finish the movie (I got as far as that useless “Cheer up Charlie” sentimental song bit then switched to the equally mundane ramblings of Lou Dobbs) I started to think of all the other great films and cinematic moments that feature magical culinary creations. 

It’s no surprise that we as people are lured towards the marriage of food and images. Food tickles all our senses. There’s a reason why museum walls are lined with still life paintings of produce, wild game and massive banquets circa pretty much any part of history or why people divulge in hours of The Food Network (can anyone else truly explain the allure of that giggling psycho-minx Rachel Ray). Food and art go hand in hand. With certain films food is as much a character of the story as the actors themselves and cinematic cuisine serves as a tool for setting the atmosphere of the film. Consider this a foodies guide to film.

Big Night
This little gem of a movie was at one point as widely praised and adored as that Big Fat Greek Wedding nonsense but is often forgotten about. Written and directed with care by actor Stanley Tucci (co-directed by Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s underappreciated son) Big Night is a film that embraces the simple love of food, in its case, Italian cuisine. This simple tale of a failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers who host a special feast of all feasts in hopes of salvaging the business and showing people how to eat is an endearing look at the patience, tradition and care given to cooking while at the same time showing that thin line between great food and a prosperous business. While Tony Shaloub’s (TVs Monk) performance as Primo the head chef is beyond noteworthy it is the many dishes, particularly the massive Timpano, served during the restaurant’s big night that are truly the stars of the film. 

Fanny and Alexander
This was a sad year for international cinema with the loss of two greats, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman who, in 1982 directed the epic, Fanny and Alexander. While the film is not about food in general but rather a look at a wealthy Swedish family (particularly the relationship of a brother and sister) in the early 20th period it features some of the finest eye opening, stomach grumbling food visuals out there. While the film is a bit daunting in length (the theatrical version clocks in just over three hours with a six hour television mini series available as well) it showcases one of the most memorable and breathtaking culinary production design moments in cinematic history during the opening Christmas feast. Also see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for similar bourgeois feasts. 

Dinner Rush
This indie film slipped by most movie goers a couple years back but is hands down the most authentic look at the inner workings of a restaurant. While the film dabbles in a clever mafia storyline its main focus is the complexity, the chaos, the absurdity, and the passion for food that is alive in every trendy restaurant out there. From the hot, fast-paced world of the kitchen to the starving artist servers keen on landing that one special table/ticket out of the industry and even the ridiculous politics behind a restaurant’s popularity (comedian Sandra Bernhard is especially good as a sleazy NYC food critic), Dinner Rush leaves no rock unturned when it comes to what goes into dining out. Actor John Corbett’s mysterious bar patron says it best during the film, “When did eating dinner become a Broadway show?”

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Cinephiles aside, most people have probably never heard of this movie and quite frankly this stomach churner isn’t for everyone. That said this British cult classic is a vehicle for some beautiful cinematography of food, in the same vein as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. That kept in mind the film also deals with barbaric violence, nightmarish surrealism, pitch black comedy and a bit of cannibalism thrown in the pot. Still thanks to great performances by a slew of English thespians (Hellen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds) and one of the most bizarre, detailed and curiously fascinating kitchen sets seen on screen, this film is a worthy rental, although one might pair it with some fava beans and a nice chianti. 

European master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has always crafted films that are distinctly Spanish. From his unique use of color, wardrobe, setting and of course food, few films scream Iberia more than ‘Un film de Almodóvar.’ Last year’s Volver may not be the director’s best piece to date but it did a wonderful job at honoring Spanish cuisine, that Mediterranean fare that is often overshadowed by Italy. Penelope Cruz’s character, Raimunda takes over a small café in her neighborhood to cater a local film’s production and the camera follows her every move behind the dishes she prepares. While food is by no means the central plot of the film the scenes in the kitchen are some of the richest in the film. Wanna learn the secrets of crafting a perfect Spanish tortilla, check this out. 

Mostly Martha
This tasty little German film was recently remade (No Reservations) starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta Jones, however, it’s the original that should be sought out. Similar to Dinner Rush this film deals with the pressures behind the kitchen doors of a trendy restaurant. The culinary clash of German and Italian cuisine showcased in the film is also fun to watch. 

Finally, The Sopranos
Ok, ok, so it’s technically not a film but one could argue that any episode of this masterful HBO series bests most films being released today. Everything there is to be said about the show has been said, however, one thing I noticed during the show’s pinnacle season was that audiences stopped discussing one of the show’s most distinct characteristics; it’s use of food. From Dr. Melphi’s psychiatric standpoint food was always a metaphor for Tony Sopranos’ mental anguish, however, the use of food helped culturally define these horrible people and showed that despite their evil doings they were human too. From the baked ziti infused Sunday dinners, to the massive funeral spreads, Artie Bucco’s Vesuvius restaurant, “don’t disrespect the pizza parlor,” and of course the mob hangout pork store, food was as much a signature character as any of the other stars. Best Sopranos food moment, when the gang, specifically Paulie Walnuts, head across the ocean to the boot in season two and are treated to true Italian cuisine only to request pasta and Sunday gravy.