On June 4, 2020, Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of The Criterion Collection issued an email to subscribers of their Criterion Channel and purchasers of their Criterion discs about how the company was moving forward in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police office:
Black Lives Matter. The anguish and fury unleashed all across the country are rooted in centuries of dehumanization and death. This pattern must stop. We support the protesters who have taken to the streets to demand justice, and we share their hopes. We are committed to fighting systemic racism.
We’ve met as a company and a community to talk openly about the work we need to do to build a better, more equitable, more diverse Criterion, beginning with education and training for our ownership and our staff. We are also committed to examining the role we play in the idea of canon formation, whose voices get elevated, and who gets to decide what stories get told.
As a company, Criterion is a leading voice in international, independent, and classic cinema. Discovering the works of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, and, more recently, Wes Anderson, via their densely packed discs or streaming channels is a right of passage for many cineastes. Many have found their community through the company—which has stimulated cinematic discourse since Criterion’s inception in 1984 as a laserdisc manufacturer. Their first two releases: Citizen Kane and King Kong. Two films that belong so firmly in the film canon that you could use them as the foundation.
From those two, Criterion’s collection expanded by leaps and bound—they will release Defending Your Life (spine #1071) on March 30, 2021—and as a movie is inducted into the collection, it gains a seal of approval. Like a recommendation from a critic you trust, inclusion in the Criterion Collection is enough of a reason to explore a film either unknown or under-appreciated.
It makes Becker and Turell’s email all the more encouraging: They could spend the rest of god-knows-how-long rehashing the greats from Europe and America without ever running out of material. Instead, they committed to the cinematic community to try harder and dig deeper. On the Channel, they are featuring a sidebar dedicated to Black filmmakers and Black stories (Black Lives), and their latest set, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes By William Greaves, renews a would have been a landmark in Black and avant-garde cinema:
When Greaves took Take One to the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, the projectionist jumbled the reels and presented them out of order for the selection committee. As is, Take One is a challenging film. But after a round of reel roulette, it’s incomprehensible.Boulder Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 18, “Notes from the revolution.”
So Take One sat on mothballs until a retrospective of Greaves’ work at the Brooklyn Museum in 1991 gave the docu-fiction hybrid new life. Steven Soderbergh counted himself as a fan — he dubbed the film “the ultimate ‘reality’ piece” — and helped Greaves make Take 2½ in 2005,
As TCM’s 14-week series Women Make Film showed, equity in cinema hinges on a past that first must be reclaimed. And a sparkling new look at Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a good start.