The Spool / Columns
Criterion Corner: “Do the Right Thing”, “1984”, “Klute”, “The BRD Trilogy”
Race, control, and patriarchy reign in July's offerings from Criterion.
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Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

I’ve long been a fan of the Criterion Collection — like many a thirtysomething film buff before me, I picked up my first Criterions in college in the mid-2000s, where the campus library (and my own burgeoning love of film) made crafting the basics of a film education easier and more accessible than ever. Even with The Criterion Channel giving a more-than-welcome streaming home to the collection (I’m a Charter Subscriber myself), I still find myself valuing the bespoke curation and tactile appeal of a good ol’ Criterion Blu-ray. They’re basically little film schools in disk form, a tiny little slice of The Canon that (whether its inclusion is merited or not) gives each film the archival treatment it deserves.

With that in mind, the aim of this column is to offer up a sampler platter of Criterion’s new offerings each month, a tasting menu of the distributor’s latest offerings. And July is a hell of a month to start with — two seminal works of American cinema of the ’70s and ’80s, a grim, prophetic literary adaptation, and a trilogy of German melodramas that represent the best of their director’s career.

#97: Do the Right Thing (1989), dir. Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing Criterion

A thrown garbage can. A throbbing boombox. On the one hand, love; the other, hate. And all of it set against the sun-soaked backdrop of Bed-Stuy in the late ’80s. Spike Lee‘s breakout drama hit like a lightning bolt in not just the world of independent cinema, but the already simmering racial tensions that existed in a post-Miami Riots America. Tracking the vibrant personalities that occupy a single block of Bedford-Stuyvesant over a hot summer’s day, it’s impossible to overstate the boldness of Lee’s craft — his rapid-fire dialogue, Ernest Dickinson’s lush, confrontational camerawork, the pounding rhythms of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that punctuate Radio Raheem’s presence and the show-stopping opening title sequence with Rosie Perez.

And fittingly, despairingly, virtually all of Do the Right Thing‘s narrative and thematic concerns ring true today: the butter-thick tensions between white and black communities, the effects of systemic poverty on entire groups of people, the specter of police brutality against people of color. Through it all, Lee refuses to pump the brakes or slow down to explain to white audiences. Simply put, unlike most movies up to that point (and, let’s be honest, since), it wasn’t made for them. It’s wild, experimental, and speaks a language not everyone can hear. But once you’re attuned to its pulse-pounding, instructive wavelength, it’s easy to see how it’s earned its reputation as one of the greatest American films of all time.

As evidenced by its low spine number, Do the Right Thing was one of Criterion’s best and brightest early releases, and given its comparatively mainstream appeal (it’s a studio film, after all), it took a good long while for it to return to Criterion’s shores. And thank God it did, as Criterion’s Blu-ray version comes with a new 4k digital restoration, supervised by Dickerson himself; it’s easily the best this film has never looked. What’s more, you get many of the same features from the original Criterion DVD, like the hour-long doc “Making ‘Do the Right Thing'” and interviews with everyone from costume designer Ruth E. Carter to Robert Cornegy, Jr., who tie the making of the film to its cultural impact.

You can purchase the Blu-ray here.

#203: The BRD Trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lola (1981), Veronika Voss (1982)), dir. Reiner Werner Fassbinder

BRD Trilogy Criterion

“When an actress plays a woman who wants to please a man, she tries to be all the women in the world rolled into one.” So says Rosel Zech’s haunted, washed-up Third Reich actress Veronika Voss in Reiner Werner Fassbinder‘s film of the same name, one of his BRD Trilogy of postwar melodramas about women struggling to survive in 1950s Germany. It’s a principle that applies to all of Fassbinder’s doomed women — the tragically ambitious Maria Braun, beleaguered brothel singer Lola, the Norma Desmond-esque Veronika — throughout these, three of the last (and most commercially successful) films of his career. With Sirkian bursts of emotion and nuanced turns from regular Fassbinder players like Armin Mueller-Stahl, Barbara Sukowa, Gottfried John and others, all three films paint a complete picture of a Germany running from its past, one which pays a heavy human price for its “economic miracle”.

Another early set in Criterion’s history that finally gets a welcome re-release, the Blu for The BRD Trilogy sports suitably impeccable 4K restorations for each film. Maria Braun thrums with the downcast naturalism of its rubble-strewn streets, Lola with the neons of its nightclub; but it’s the restoration of Veronika Voss that’s most striking, its stark black-and-white cinematography cracking with chiaroscuro torment. Each film is stuffed with its own extras, from audio commentaries from film scholars Tony Rayns and Christian Braad Thomsen to interviews and conversations with the cast and crew. The essay booklet provides incredible historical context for the films themselves, pairing an essay on the trilogy by Kent Jones with excerpts from the production history of each film by Michael Toteberg.

You can purchase the Blu-ray here.

#984: 1984 (1984), dir. Michael Radford

In an age of fake news and nearly compulsory nationalism, where our leaders value loyalty and partisanship over facts, 2019’s a hell of a time to remind us of Michael Radford‘s 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. Cribbing from the industrial look of early music videos (with cinematography by the great Roger Deakins), 1984 is a manically despairing motion picture, tracking the descent of dissenting Ingsoc Party citizen Winston Smith (a haunting John Hurt) from vibrant, rebellious love to the gradual breakdown of his psyche by an all-powerful state. From its giant, watchful screens streaming propaganda to the masses, to the greyed-out, spartan walls of its architecture, Radford’s conception of Orwell’s grim future strikes a nerve in the age of Trump just as it did in Thatcher’s England.

Criterion’s treatment of the film (more than its cheeky spine number placement) is a perfect showcase for its stark aesthetic, clearly the film’s strongest suit. The 4k restoration captures all the inky blacks and bleach-bypassed cinematography with despairing immediacy, and you can see the dirt and grime on every surface of the film’s neglected world. It also sports a few neat extras, including interviews with Deakins and Radford, a behind-the-scenes documentary, and an interview with Orwell scholar David Ryan on how the film is the most accurate adaptation of the novel thus far. The most novel inclusion, though, is the choice between two musical scores — the first, Dominic Muldowney’s more traditional score; the second, a more New Wave-inspired turn by Eurythmics. Try it with each, and listen to how each situates the film in different temporal contexts: Muldowney’s feels timelessly orchestral, while the Eurythmics hearken back to the ’80s cultural environment in which this film was first released.

You can purchase the Blu-ray here.

#987: Klute (1971), dir. Alan J. Pakula

Klute Criterion

Alan J. Pakula‘s paranoia trilogy includes zeitgeist-capturing thrillers like All the President’s Men and The Conversation, but sometimes it feels as though Klute gets lost in that conversation. Perhaps it’s because, at times, Klute feels less like a conspiracy thriller than a haunting look at the desperation of a young woman (Jane Fonda, in the role that won her an Oscar) struggling to make her own way in the world, and the depression that comes along with it. As Bree, an escort desperately trying to get out of an unfilling life of sex work, but who doesn’t look on her profession with shame, Fonda’s gripping, frank performance captures the anxieties of feminism in the second wave. And through all that, she might be the key to tracking down a missing person, or so thinks stoic detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland at his most sleekly handsome).

Like most of Criterion’s 4k restorations, it’s impossible to believe Klute could look any better. Gordon Willis’ moody, half-lit cinematography pops with color against black backdrops, and the grainy, grim visage of New York in the ’70s looms over its lost-soul heroes. The usual slate of extras is also quite valuable, but none more so than a nearly 40-minute interview with Fonda by actor Ileana Douglas. Far from the dry discussion of craft these things tend to be, the interview feels like two actresses talking about a film they adore from a place of mutual respect.

You can purchase the Blu-ray here.