Criterion Corner: “Claudine”, “Parasite”

Claudine Parasite Claudine // Parasite (The Criterion Collection)

Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

#1052: Claudine (1974), dir. John Berry

Claudine
Claudine (The Criterion Collection)

Depiction of realistic Black life are rare enough today; they were even harder to find in the mid-1970s, when John Berry‘s airy, heartfelt Claudine came on the scene. A complicated but fundamentally warm look at the lives of impoverished Black people in Harlem, Berry eschewed the sensationalism found in the then-budding blaxploitation genre, a realm of sex, theatricality and macho posturing. Instead, we find grace, pain, and love in the world of a young single mother (a radiant, Oscar-nominated Diahann Carroll), her six kids, and the garbageman (a young, deeply sexy James Earl Jones) who enters their family dynamic.

Claudine is a revelation for those (like me) who hadn’t seen it before, a rom-com that still treats its working-class characters with humanity and takes their concerns seriously. Threaded throughout the film’s quick-witted dialogue and toe-tapping Curtis Mayfield soundtrack (Gladys Knight effectively serves as Greek chorus) is an overarching sense of melancholy, a feeling that these wonderful people are making the best of a difficult situation.

Fitting with the Black leftist who directed it, Berry’s Claudine is politically minded, keeping a laser focus on the struggles of a poor Black family to hold onto the welfare that keeps them afloat, as the mere presence of Jones’ affable Roop and his meager income is enough to kick them off. The oldest boy flirts with Black activism to shake off the helplessness he feels; Claudine’s teenage daughter explores her sexuality with a reckless partner. The middle son feels “invisible,” like the titular figure in Ralph Ellison’s book. All throughout, the pressures of the ghetto and the white establishment that sets them up to fail linger; the family has a lot of obstacles to overcome.

Claudine
Claudine (Criterion Collection)

But even through those struggles, Berry injects Claudine with infectious joy and enthusiasm, not to mention a fair amount of effortless sex appeal from both Carroll and Jones. Carroll is strong, assertive, but vulnerable – a picture of confident female sexuality. Jones, for his part, is a sly, charismatic charmer, smoldering and beaming with every bright smile and baritone utterance. And yet, it’s not played for lasciviousness — they’re two self-evidently sexy people comfortable in their skins, which makes their scenes burn with a passion most erotic thrillers would kill for.

Luckily, Claudine gets a new lease on life in a 2020 that could sure use some joy, with a stellar Blu-ray package that gives us some modestly fulfilling features for a release from the imprint. The 4k restoration looks lovely, fuzzy and grainy in that ’70s way that improves the picture but without losing the homespun charm of the production. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is lovely, especially when one of Knight’s songs pipes in — you’ll be hard pressed to not get up off your couch and dance.

The features are lovely too, with that rare treat of a modern Criterion with an audio commentary, this time a 2003 holdover with snippers from the cast, the son of the screenwriters, and filmmaker George Tillman Jr. (for whom this film was an influence). It’s admittedly startling to see 2020’s post-COVID environment crystallize in physical media, but that’s what we get with the enlightening half-hour Zoom interview between programmer Ashley Clark and filmmaker Robert Townsend (Meteor Man), who talks about Claudine‘s influence on Black cinema and his own journey.

Add to that some audio excerpts from a 1974 AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar featuring Carroll, and the set makes for not the most robust set of extras. But that’s made up for by Danielle A. Jackson’s heartfelt, personal essay in the booklet (in part about how Claudine reflected her own relationship with her mother) and the mere existence of the set just in time for new audiences to discover it.

You can purchase Claudine from the Criterion Collection here.

#1054: Parasite (2019), dir. Bong Joon-ho

Parasite
Parasite

Can you believe that Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars only nine months ago? While the world’s changed so much in the intervening months, Bong Joon-ho‘s twisty, darkly comic tale of class mobility and deception is as meticulous and delightful as ever. I reviewed it for this very site upon release, and have rewatched it several times; I’ll reserve my remarks on the film itself for that review, opinions which remain unchanged.

However, this is one of the rare ‘commercially accessible’ Criterions that also functions nicely as an entry in the imprint’s self-imposed canon. Sure, Parasite already got itself a mainstream Blu-ray release some months ago, but it’s really nice to see Criterion secure its place early. Fitting for a contemporary movie, the picture and sound is unchanged from its original release. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; the release preserves every meticulous, artful Bong composition and eerie sound effect with incredible clarity.

But it’s in the extras that this one really stands out — the second disk includes the black-and-white version of the film, which lends it an even more mysterious, Hitchcockian vibe, color contrasts working about as well as the Mad Max: Fury Road Black and Chrome version that accompanied it. Along for the ride is a commentary with Bong and critic Tony Rayns, who dig deep into the film’s many symbols (how metaphorical!) while also tying it to the director’s previous filmography.

The featurettes are neat too, including a convo with Bong and critic Darcy Paquet, interviews with DP Hong Kyung Pyo, editor Yang Jimno, and production desaigner Lee Ha Jun; a 2019 Cannes Press Conference with Bong and the cast that’s downright adorable, and even a storyboard comparison of sequences in the film, among others.

If you don’t already have Parasite, or don’t have Hulu (where you can stream it as long as you want, until it goes away), this is well worth the get. If you’re a Criterion completist, it’s a must.

You can purchase Parasite from the Criterion Collection here.

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