The Admirable Criterion
by The Criterion Collection
Criterion Designs must easily qualify as being somewhere amongst the top ten most beautiful film books I own. This hefty tome was brought out in 2014 to celebrate 30 years of the Criterion Collection, one of the most influential home video labels of all time. Criterion are an American company who are partnered with Janus Films and who were also once partnered with HVC (which explains why you can now get such gems as the complete Zatoichi Collection and the six original Lone Wolf And Cub movies in high quality Blu Ray restorations).
It’s a label who were almost legendary in the days of the LaserDisc, with titles such as their beautiful Kurosawa transfers and their unbelievably cool ‘alternate cut’ of Blade Runner (my review here), which is one of the titles that first made me prick up my ears in the early 1990s, even though I would never have the required funds to buy a laserdisc player. I later acquired a VHS NTSC version of this cut which was extremely hard to get to watch at the time on a UK PAL player although, thankfully, this version was finally made available properly by Warner Brothers years later, first on DVD and then Blu Ray as one of the five cuts of the movie on the most recent boxed editions of Blade Runner… it’s still my favourite version of the film. Of course, once they started releasing selected titles on US DVD, that’s when I started buying the Criterion titles. Sure, they were extremely pricey compared to any other video company’s releases (sometimes of the same title) but in the case of this particular label, you really were paying for the quality of transfers from freshly struck prints and, most importantly, presented in the correct aspect ratio. More often than not, they’d have some quite unique extras on their discs too… gaining in number as the company thrived.
Over the years their logo has changed quite dramatically (although I’ve now got used to the newish, minimal design) but one of the quirks that they are noted for and which has stayed with them is the spine number on their DVDs, starting with the release of spine number 2, Seven Samurai, if memory serves (I believe spine number 1, Grande Illusion, was a delayed release?). These spine numbers are something which avid collectors of the range are happy to pursue almost as much as the films themselves although... I don’t have a 'collector' mentality myself so I wouldn’t know.
The covers of their discs have evolved over the years too and, even in the days when they were purely using photos or posters from the titles in question, they were still mini triumphs of design/layout and their brand image put them head and shoulders above the majority of home video labels out there. They continue to release somewhere between 4 and 6 titles per month and many of their older covers, great as they were, have had facelifts as they are reissued with their new logo or re-released in a Blu Ray edition. Some, of course, have gone out of print or the rights to the movies have lapsed back to the original companies... which gave rise to a thriving trade in bootleg/faked Criterion editions, believe it or not. They’re that desirable on the collectors market.
Criterion Designs is a truly gorgeous hard back book which collects some of the artwork of the range together and, in many cases, gives you some insight into their creation. I was surprised that there's no dust jacket for the book but that's because the inside cover spread, full of tiny drawings, is visible through the front of the book via a large cutout of the current Criterion logo. The book then goes on to showcase a number of great pieces commissioned by a load of brilliant designers and artists, reproducing their work on high quality paper which shows them in their absolute best light (even more so than the original covers themselves, in most cases) and also backs these up, a lot of the time, with some of the booklet interior artwork and boxed set design.
As I went through the book I noticed there were a lot of creatives of whom I’d not heard but also a number who I definitely knew, including Eric Chase Anderson whose illustrations for the Criterion editions of his big brother’s films, Wes Anderson, are an absolute joy. I also came across some artists who I primarily knew from comic books of the 1980s such as Jamie Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame or Kent Williams, whose beautifully painted mini series Blood - A Tale made such an impression on me when I was at college.
In addition to beautiful reproductions of some of their favourite covers, many of which are modern icons among home video enthusiasts, there are number of examples of the genesis of these creations, including evolutionary sketches and alternate versions. There are also many fold out pages which act like double gatefold sections where some of the wider artworks for the range are shown in their full glory… for instance some stunning work for Sam Fuller’s movies Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and the wraparound artwork for the dual DVD/Blu Ray set of Zatoichi movies. As a final extra cherry on the top of an already well iced, cinematic cake, the final section is a gallery of pages of thumbnails of the entire history of their covers on laserdisc, DVD and Blu Ray up until the publication of this book, which is a nice resource to have as you are able to see a load of their releases in situ with each other at a glance.
At the end of the day, much of the stuff reproduced or showcased in Criterion Designs for the first time in a collection of this nature (including unused artwork) is truly breathtaking and, though it was an expensive purchase (which is almost a Criterion brand trait but, luckily, I was given some Christmas vouchers a few years ago which saw me in good stead), it was truly a brilliant buy and, while it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it, I’m just so pleased I invested the money for this volume and hope that, someday, they see fit to issue a sequel tome. Truly a gorgeous addition for the book shelf of any lover of cinema or fine art and a solid recommendation from me. Check this one out while you still can.