Criterion Collection Wishes, In Praise of the Music Supervisor, Run the Jewels & Leonard Cohen
Every month The Criterion Collection announces four to five new additions that will be released on DVD. It’s the closest feeling I’ll ever have to my childhood baseball card collecting days, where I would peel open a pack hoping to get a Rickey Henderson card or whoever my favorite player was at the time.
In April, Criterion announced a brand new 2K digital restoration Blu-ray release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” with tons of amazing supplemental features. As the photo above shows, “The Mirror” was my number one “Criterion Wish” release due to years of watching my number three all-time film on a VHS tape and DVD with terrible quality.
The following “Criterion Wishes” are more recommendations to you, the reader, than actual releases that I think Criterion will pursue.
In the first draft of this piece, I wrote “in my opinion” sentence after sentence… please think “in this one person’s opinion” while reading. I don’t mean for any of these declarations to be definitive. Each statement is just a personal expression of my passion for these specific pieces of cinema that I love.
“Two For The Road” (1967)
I love Audrey Hepburn as an actress, but I don’t always love the movies she starred in. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Hepburn only starred in two-and-a-half films that matched the overall quality of her performance. Films like “Paris When it Sizzles,” “Funny Face,” “Love In The Afternoon,” “My Fair Lady,” and even “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” just aren’t nearly as good as she is.
I’m sure many disagree, but my key piece of evidence would be the lopsided “Sabrina” (the half in my two-and-a-half statement) which features both one of my favorite first acts and one of my least favorite third acts in any film. As always, Hepburn is great throughout, but “Sabrina” just withers away as the beautiful film dissolves into one big shrug.
The greatest overall Hepburn film is “Roman Holiday.” Perfect script, directing, and performances from start to finish. The second film where I believe Hepburn’s talents meet the quality of the film is the lesser talked about “Two For The Road.”
Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in a charming but unpredictable romantic comedy.
A road trip movie in the south of France.
Directed by Stanley Donen (“Singin’ In The Rain”).
An American version of French New Wave (easy to understand time jumps and light on any abstractions.)
Wonderful opening credits from Maurice Binder.
“The Incident” (1967)
My stepdad Lee never misses when it comes to amazing film recommendations. I know I’m in for a real treat when Lee says: “Now… this is a movie.” He said it at our first Christmas together when I opened a present to find the Criterion edition of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (Bergman would later become my favorite director). He also said it before my first screenings of “Sweet Smell Of Success,” “Ace In The Hole,” “The Defiant Ones,” and “A Face In The Crowd.” Among them all, the most shocking and unsettling, “Now… this is a movie,” from Lee -- and ultimately also the most satisfying -- would be my first viewing of “The Incident.”
Surpasses any Hitchcock film (and I love Hitchock) in terms of suspense and terror.
If punk music were a movie… it would be “The Incident”.
Masterful directing within the confines of a train car.
Wonderful ensemble cast with each character given multiple layers of psychology.
A film that stays with you long after watching.
“State & Main” (2000)
A few months ago, someone tweeted out the question: “What is the film you think you’ve seen more than anyone?” I’m pretty confident that nobody has seen “State & Main” (including the cast and crew) as many times as I have.
I was a freshman in the small town of Danville, Kentucky when this film came out and I made my parents drive me to the “big city” of Lexington ten times to watch “State and Main” over and over. I would later buy the DVD/screenplay and watch/read “State & Main” once a week for several years. I would quote the film all the time, with nobody understanding the references (you’re part of the “State & Main” cult team when you laugh at the way Alec Baldwin says the word, “Baseball”).
So... why the obsession with this film? I was a small town kid who wanted to be a screenwriter, and “State & Main” features a personal character hero in Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a playwright going through the process of having his first screenplay turned into a film. Chaos erupts as brash Hollywood egos smash into small town America and Joseph navigates farce after farce in his “quest for purity.”
The cast is spectacular: William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Julia Stiles, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, and many more.
Perfect screenplay by David Mamet (also the Director).
One of the most “quotable” movies of all-time.
A sneaky great love story between Hoffman and Pidgeon.
A film about Hollywood that should be mentioned in the same conversation as “The Player,” “Ed Wood,” or “Barton Fink” (not as “artistic” as those three… but makes the same hilarious statement about the bizarre world of the movie industry).
“Talk To Me” (2007)
Northwestern gave each of their grad students in the MFA writing for the stage and screen program heavy discounts and occasional free admission to any of the films at Century Theaters in Chicago. This was dangerous for me as I saw almost every movie that hit thoses theaters from 2006-2008. There were A LOT of terrible films, but I quickly learned how many movies were destroyed by their trailers/promotion. I went to “Talk To Me” without any expectations and as the end credits rolled, I wrote in my film notebook: “Kasi Lemmons is an amazing director… watch any film she directs.”
The trailer and promotion of “Talk To Me” seems to lean on the “fun” of watching a radio DJ work his way up the ladder… but if you take the time to watch the entire film, there are layers and layers of depth and humanity that make it one of the most underrated films of the 2000s.
Favorite Don Cheadle performance.
Top tier scene work and directing from Kasi Lemmons (specifically the pool hall scene and MLK sequence).
The cast: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Martin Sheen, and Vondie Curtis-Hall.
Great screenplay from Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope” and “The Wood”).
The movie takes a surprising mid-second act turn with Ejiofor’s character and brilliantly moves into a world similar to “Network” or “A Face In The Crowd.”
“Waiting For Guffman” (1996)
“Waiting For Guffman'' perfectly taps into two treasure troves of endless comedy: quirky small town characters and the insane world of “off off off Broadway” dreamers. It’s also the funniest film ever made (it doesn’t get much more subjective than comedy…a laugh is a laugh... but this is my pick).
“Waiting For Guffman” was one of the first movies I fell in love with and it was always weird to me that it was rarely listed or mentioned while discussing the films of Christopher Guest. Friends/classmates would either pick “Best In Show” (which I love) or “Spinal Tap” (which is directed by Rob Reiner but is typically mislabeled as a Guest film due to him being a screenwriter/actor on the project and “Spinal Tap” being a mockumentary). If the criteria for comedy in film is the amount of laughs per minute (including tons of hidden asides/background jokes) I’ll put “Waiting For Guffman” up against anything.
Hilarious and ripe for repeat viewings to catch every great line of comedy.
The cast: Christopher Guest (in his best role), Eugene Levy (co-writer with Guest), Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey (my favorite character), Bob Balaban, David Cross, and many more.
Surprisingly catchy musical numbers.
Once again… the greatest comedy ever made.
TOP THREE PICKS
3. Mikio Naruse Boxset
My journey through Japanese cinema went like this:
Undergrad film school (2003): Akira Kurosawa is the best.
Grad school (2006): Yasujirō Ozu is the best.
Last year: Mikio Naruse is the best.
While browsing the Criterion Channel’s offerings last year, I was extremely fortunate to take a chance on “Floating Clouds” by Mikio Naruse. I watched the film three to four times in a week because it was one of those cinematic documents that was impossible to ignore when it comes to directorial talent. I applauded my great luck and was certain that I had accidently watched Naruse’s single masterpiece… he couldn’t reach that level of quality again, right? Then I went deeper and my mind was blown.
After “Floating Clouds” I watched “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” “Lightning,” and “Sound of the Mountain.” After these four films I thought to myself: “has Mikio Naruse ever made a bad film?” Criterion Channel had twenty-plus Naruse films and I went all the way back to his earliest streamable title (“Flunky, Work Hard!”), and that’s when I knew Naruse understood every aspect of cinema and refused to craft any film not of superior quality.
After devouring every Naruse film I could find, I’m certain he’s one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema. A lot of his films are lost forever, tons are impossible to find or stream, and it makes me wonder what Criterion could do with their resources to preserve and present the works of an all-time cinematic great.
2. “Grand Hotel” (1932)
There are three reasons why I love “Grand Hotel” and think it would make the perfect Criterion release.
“How was this made in 1932?”
Keep the photo featured below in your mind (specifically the size of that camera on the left):
The first full “sound” movie was made in 1927/1928 (depending on the criteria of “all-talking picture” vs film that used sound elements). That means that 1932’s “Grand Hotel” was made about five years into the new experiment of films with sound. In the opening moments of the film, director Edmund Goulding glides over a bank of phone operators (a trope we see throughout cinema to follow) and dissolves into each character of the ensemble talking on the hotel lobby phone, each character establishing their conflict and what they want, and revealing small aspects of their personality. It’s an immediate nod to the viewer that “Grand Hotel” is diving head first into the unexplored world of sound and its magical ability to elevate narrative in film.
It’s another “Twin Peaks” world.
I’ve always been fascinated with those reports that people were suffering from depression due to the fact that the Avatar world didn’t exist. While not being able to live in the world of “Twin Peaks” doesn’t give me depression, I definitely understand the sentiment of loving a fictional world. I watch “Twin Peaks” all the time, even on mute in the background as atmosphere because I love that world… the diners, the characters, the forests, the mountains, The Great Northern Hotel, the waterfall, and the fact that everybody is drinking coffee all the time… I just love all of it.
For some reason, and I truly can’t fully describe why, I feel the exact same way about the world of “Grand Hotel.” It’s a liminal space that almost feels like purgatory… a hotel where all these various characters are emotionally open and connecting on an electric level like the characters that inhabit “Twin Peaks.” Nothing embodies this weird thought more than my desire to one day inhabit the film’s fictional hotel bar “The Yellow Room” (maybe why I make the “Twin Peaks” connection… “The Red Room”?)
I dream of the Criterion DVD extras.
Criterion DVDs always have wonderful packaging and tons of extras like audio commentaries, behind the scenes videos, spectacular inserts that act more like mini-books, and much more. I spend way too much time thinking about the Criterion version of “Grand Hotel'' being stuffed with these amazing lobby cards:
And this amazing video from the premiere of “Grand Hotel” feels not just of a different era, but of an entirely different world -- it would be a perfect Criterion DVD supplement:
I can only imagine all the wonderful “behind the scenes” extras Criterion could dig up to feature on their “Grand Hotel” release. It seems that everything that surrounds this film radiates with cinematic warmth… like this photo of Joan Crawford:
1. Chantal Akerman Boxset
I was introduced to Chantal Akerman with the following statements:
“Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is her masterpiece.
Akerman’s filmic style is defined by her love of long takes that make you feel uncomfortable.
After spending several years studying Akerman, I don’t really agree with either statement. I personally think “Les Rendez-vous d'Anna” is her masterpiece; and Akerman’s films aren’t defined by the use of long takes, but rather, a complete trust in her instincts, her voice, and her spiritual connection to film itself. While my personal favorites Ingmar Bergman/Andrei Tarkovsky are poetic masters, Stanley Kubrick is a technical genius, and Robert Bresson went deeper into the analysis of what film truly is… Akerman stands alone as the purest representation of the relationship between cinema and creator. I would go as far to say that Chantal Akerman IS CINEMA, and her massive filmography proves this due to the wealth of variation across six decades of works.
“Les Rendez-vous d'Anna” is Akerman’s “8 ½,” and “News From Home” is one of the most personal documentaries ever made, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is an extreme study in time/character/space, “Golden Eighties” plays like a “Grease” fever dream, “Dis-moi” revitalizes my love for humanity with each viewing, “No Home Movie” is one of the most devastating and bold documentaries ever made, and after multiple viewings of “Hotel Monterey”, I’m still searching for the magic trick that Akerman used to make simply moving through a hotel feel like the hotel itself is breathing, alive, and occupied by the viewer. One could go on and on about the different styles, themes, and magic tricks Akerman uses throughout her films, and that’s the reason we desperately need an all encompassing release of her work. Akerman’s trust in her voice and vision is the ultimate masterclass for anybody who desires to dream in motion pictures, and you can see it in every film she’s ever made.
In Praise of the Music Supervisor
In the list of jobs that I know I could absolutely kill at if someone gave me a chance, music supervisor is up there. This is the individual who suggests music to a particular TV show’s production team. If you’ve read this far you’ve already shown a dedication to culture that most would find obsessive, so I’m going to assume that you know that feeling when a great song kicks on in a TV show and completely captures the mood. You also know when someone’s just mailing it in and playing Warrant in a strip club because they have zero imagination.
I first got interested in how music supervisors operate when I was asked to write an academic article on the use of music in HBO’s Girls. Like most academic books, the collection that it was featured in, HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race and Privilege, is ridiculously priced. So I recommend your local library if you want to read the whole thing, but I’ll give you a taste here where I highlight the work of Girls’ music supervisor Manish Raval:
With no specific, predetermined style or affiliation, music supervisor Manish Raval describes his process as first attempting to find new tracks before resorting to more traditional selection techniques: “We’re into finding crazy things, stuff that’s really out there. You can’t slack off and you can’t just listen to what’s pitched to us. We have to find great stuff [show creator Lena Dunham] hasn’t heard—I feel like there’s a responsibility there—and if at the end of the process we need a song, we do it the traditional way” 3 Raval’s quotation reveals how music on Girls has become about discovering and popularizing new artists as well as how song choices fit into the show’s storytelling. According to Raval, “If we post a link to a song on YouTube, I would see 15 pages of comments related to the song’s use on Girls. It has captivated [an audience] in a completely different way [than other shows].” The music on Girls has generated a life of its own. In their recaps of the series, for example, The Guardian blog features a “Stereo Watch” section for comments solely on the music used in each episode. Thus, as Raval insinuates, the music on the show is evaluated not only as song selections to aid in the episode’s storytelling, but also as a tastemaker designed to lead its watchers to new music.
The argument that I try to lay out in the essay is mostly that Girls was operating in this post-hipster landscape and that one of the ways you could read this was the use of music.
The position of the music supervisor jumped back into my consciousness watching Mare of Easttown. This won’t give anything away about the show, so feel free to read on. The music supervisor for that show, Gabe Hilfer, has also worked on Ozark (so he’s the one responsible for dropping RTJ’s “ooh la la” at the end of season 3. Chef’s kiss, Mr. Hilfer.) and is currently supervising the music on Underground Railroad. In Mare of Easttown, Hilfer just nails it.
For indie heads, what’s gonna jump out is the music that’s around Sibohan, Mare’s teenage daughter. Her band plays songs by Mannequin Pussy (who also get a shout out from a DJ on the show). There’s also some well placed Phoebe Bridgers. But, the series also makes use of Grouper, Big Thief, Julien Baker, and, of course, Andrew Bird, who contractually must show up in every white people noiry show. What’s most impressive about Hilfer’s work on Mare is how the aural environment so perfectly captures what’s going on in the story and the visual environment.
It’s not an easy thing to do. As that Raval quote that I feature above shows, it’s really easy for a music supervisor to get showy or place the wrong thing at the wrong time. Those sorts of moves are likely to knock you out of a story more than slowly draw you in. Mare of Easttown that has to work hard to do that. Like a lot of other shows, there’s a dead girl, which per Greil Marcus, often exists in stories to draw us into the world. This is a plot device that’s also been well critiqued by the Bay Area-based poet Kim Addonizio. Great music supervisors recognize that the aural is an integral part of our world and that we have to listen to help bring us in.
Hank’s One Thing: Run The Jewels - “ooh la la” (Mexican Institute of Sound Remix feat. Santa Fe Klan)
Zach’s One Thing: Leonard Cohen - “The Stranger Song” (Julie Felix Show / 1967)