Criterion Days

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

This past Valentine’s Day, my wife gave me one of the most insightful gifts I’ve ever received, a three-month subscription to the Criterion Channel. The Criterion Collection was founded in 1984 with the mission of “publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” Criterion launched the Criterion Channel streaming service in 2018 after the demise of its streaming partner Filmstruck. Criterion’s streaming catalog changes from month to month, but as of this writing (April 2021) they offer about 2,500 films: this includes movies from all over the world, features and short films, and releases from nearly every decade motion pictures have been produced.

A small sample of my Criterion watch list

Criterion’s most appealing feature is that it is about people, not technology. The Criterion catalog is curated by real humans, not algorithms. There are no ads, like the annoying ads for “Amazon Originals” that precede Prime Video selections, and no ads disrupting the end credits, as both Netflix and Amazon continue to do. There are no “recommended for you” lists – such lists on other sites are generated entirely by algorithm and, for this viewer, are almost always wrong. Criterion has no social media aspect: no user reviews or ratings, no “friends,” no private messaging component. This is liberating in freeing us from bombardment with content ranked by quantity over quality; we’re not distracted by clicks and likes. On the other hand, enjoying Criterion requires trust in the company’s selection of content. Think of Criterion as a funnel. All the movies that have ever been produced get filtered through Criterion’s…well, criteria…into the catalog available to viewers, one that still includes thousands of movies. One of those criteria is availability – is a particular filmmaker or studio willing to let their work get the Criterion treatment? – but otherwise I don’t know what those criteria are, and I don’t care. I’m happy to put a little faith in people whose knowledge of filmmaking and movie history are far more comprehensive than mine.

Clearly, it’s a first world problem, but media consumption matters and can have a definite influence on our quality of life, how we think, and how we see the world. Historically, television, magazines, radio, music, book publishing, movies, and about any other media – fiction or nonfiction – has been filtered by others into a limited range of options for us to view. TV was limited to three networks and generally no more than one or two independent stations, and many stations stopped broadcasting at night. Magazines and newspapers filtered all the world’s news and events into a selection of digestible options. Musicians could only distribute their music through live performances or record labels, and if they were lucky their recordings might get airplay on radio stations. Book publishers and national retailers like B. Dalton’s managed our literary options in a similar manner. We consumers at the back-end chose from a range of options managed by professionals at the front-end.

Today anyone can create and distribute content via Youtube, social media, print-on-demand or digital book publishing, podcasting platforms, music distributors like CDBaby and TuneCore, and a myriad of other Web-based or on-demand venues. Historically, it was hard to find an audience because you had to be allowed through the funnel by a publisher, producer, agent, or some other individual or group. That model of front-end management still exists today, but content creators can pursue an alternate path, and associated challenges, of finding their own audience by going direct to consumers. In essence, the funnel has widened to allow a lot more voices through. This model is still biased in favor of large corporations, which have the resources to promote their content, game the relevant algorithms, and overwhelm us with quantity. But what was once a manageable river of content has become a raging waterfall.

Increased accessibility for content creators generates new headaches for content consumers. We have too much to choose from and overall quality has declined: Netflix alone has produced or exclusively licensed over 1,500 “original” titles since it began creating its own content in 2013, and writers self-published nearly 1.7 million ISBN-registered books in 2018. Maybe those gatekeepers were useful, after all. Netflix, for example, reduces us to scrolling through long lists of icons, most of which have no meaning. Amazon’s “also purchased” selections are sometimes interesting, but many of those listings are unrelated and are simply there to promote current releases. Criterion inverts the Netflix-Amazon-big data model: instead of forcing us to sift through endless quantities of substandard content to find anything decent, Criterion instead offers an embarrassment of riches.

What’s a movie watcher/book reader/TV viewer/art lover to do? I have two suggestions:

Exercise front-end control:

First, try being more selective in your sources. Look beyond Netflix or Amazon. Take a break from Goodreads, which used to offer an interesting newsletter with author recommendations that is increasingly driven by data, like so many other sources. Let Criterion or the critics at Roger Ebert’s site select your movies for a while. Let the New York Review of Books or The Guardian’s book reviewers suggest your reading options. Sometimes alternatives are hidden among the giants: IMDb TV has some interesting offerings and it’s available directly from the IMDB site or within Amazon Prime. Reject the algorithm and seek out expert sources. It will take a little more effort – I understand it’s easy at the end of a long work day to turn on the latest Disney+ “comedy” – but how you spend your time is important; you owe it to yourself to invest the time up front.

Give up back-end control:

Once you’ve identified some expert sources, go with the flow. Give the professionals a trial period to prove themselves. The world won’t end, I promise. You may not like all of their suggestions, but I predict you’ll be turned on to content you might never have heard of otherwise. Did you know New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a YouTube channel? Most of their videos are an easy watch at less than five minutes. (I found this overview of a 1957 Gordon Parks photo-essay especially interesting.) Did you know that The Atlantic publishes a “weekly guide to the best in books?” These are all suggestions from real people, not soulless lists calculated by data or ad buys. Again, it’s a given that you won’t always agree with the experts, but simply learning what they have to say, and how they say it, can be an education.

In short, choose your experts, then let your experts do the choosing. See where the professionals take you for a few months. Then if you decide you really want the algorithms, they’ll still be there.

On a final note, I’ll leave you with a human-curated list of my own. Here are my top ten Criterion Channel views so far, in order of release date (the Criterion catalog changes regularly, so these films may be not available by the time you read this):

Enjoy!

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