Twice a year national bookstore chain Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale on all Criterion DVDs and Blu-Rays. For three to five weeks, the aisles of their media section are crowded with an array of cinephiles gaining as much pleasure from browsing as they do buying as they do actually watching their biannual spoils.
The Criterion Collection bills themself as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” and that’s exactly how they’re seen. When a film is added to the collection its esteem rises, its place in the cinematic canon confirmed.
The average Criterion Blu-Ray is $40. The average DVD is $30. Expanded editions and box sets range from $50 to $80 to as much as $400. They are holy cinema objects with beautifully designed covers, guaranteed image and sound quality, and a depth of special features. They are worth their cost. But for many of us a sale is the only time their purchase is feasible.
Before Barnes & Noble started doing their Criterion sale, they had a buy two get one free deal on all DVDs. This was years ago. When I was in middle school. And it was the first time I bought a Criterion DVD.
Overwhelmed with all the titles I’d read so much about, I finally decided on my three: The Seventh Seal, Seven Samurai, and The Red Shoes. My dad asked if I was sure about the last one. The original cover was just a pair of ballet shoes. I felt a wave of confused queer shame before pointing out that Martin Scorsese was in the special features.
The Red Shoes became my new favorite movie of all time.
Last month, Criterion added Céline Sciamma’s sapphic masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire to their collection. I saw the movie twice in theatres and countless times streaming, but none of it prepared me for the Blu-Ray. With a new 4K digital transfer and a 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack, this just might be the best you’ll ever see or hear the film.
The attention to the film’s transfer is matched by every aspect of this release. With gorgeous cover art and interior illustrations from the film’s painter Hélène Delmaire, a thought-provoking essay from Ela Bittencourt, and fascinating special features, this release is a testament to what The Criterion Collection can accomplish.
I’ve spent so much time watching interviews about this film — as well as conducting one of my own with director Céline Sciamma — and I still learned so much from this release. I also got to hear Sciamma refer to the scene where Héloïse reads Ovid aloud as “a Netflix and chill scene.”
But what’s missing in all this perfection is queerness. The discussions in the special features frame the film’s romance as if lesbianism is simply the lack of men rather than its own presence. The interviews focus on the film’s relationship to women and its use of the female gaze. The essay while using the word lesbian is still predominantly focused on women and artmaking in general. There’s nothing incorrect about this — it’s simply incomplete. This is a film made by a lesbian about a lesbian relationship starring a lesbian she used to date. The queerness of the film is not incidental to its focus on women the way it might be in something like fellow Criterion title Mulholland Drive. This is a queer film. This is a queer woman film. This is a lesbian film.
If this were a simple Blu-Ray review, I would briefly mention this complaint before concluding with five-stars! highly recommend! go out and buy it now! But this isn’t a simple review. I care too much about The Criterion Collection, its place in film culture, and on-screen representation of queer women to simply leave it at that.
Because the bigger issue is not the framing of this one work of lesbian art. The issue is how rare it is for Criterion to focus on lesbian art in the first place. The issue is what kind of lesbian art is deemed worthy not just by this institution but by the larger institution of cinema.
The Criterion Collection generally announces their new releases on the 15th of each month. People on Facebook and Twitter and on Criterion-specific forums wait anxiously to complain. When there are delays, people complain. When a desired title isn’t announced, people complain. When the cover art is seen as subpar, people complain. It’s a fandom after all.
By July 2017, when I sat in the theatre to watch the new Criterion/Janus restoration of Donna Deitch’s lesbian classic Desert Hearts, I was no longer a part of this fandom. In fact, I was boycotting.
Between January 2015 and November 2016, the Criterion Collection released zero films directed by women. By this point I’d already gone through several cliché political awakenings in my college years including an examination of the cinematic canon I grew up worshipping. White male-dominated lists from AFI and Sight & Sound that I referenced as a teen were revealed to be incomplete. I began seeking out alternate film histories in work made by women directors and Black directors and queer directors and all their intersections. I started questioning how much I really liked the dozen Jean-Luc Godard movies in The Criterion Collection and how much I was just told to like them.
During that particular drought of female representation, Tina Hassannia wrote a piece about the lack of women directors getting released by DVD and Blu-Ray companies. Criterion president, Peter Becker, wrote a reply where he defended the collection as being representative of film history, as if Criterion has ever been about reflecting the mainstream rather than shaping the arthouse canon. He then listed all of the women they had included — failing to mention how many of those women only had titles they co-directed with men or were simply relegated to the less lauded Eclipse label.
But the fact was that in May of 2016, out of 422 Criterion Blu-Ray releases only 10 were directed by women (2.37%) and out of 723 Criterion DVD releases, 18 were directed by women (2.49%). Abysmal numbers no matter the excuses. The good news? The past four years have brought immense improvement.
Of the 234 new main collection titles 23 were directed by women (9.83%) in addition to an upcoming definitive box set dedicated to my personal favorite filmmaker Agnès Varda. It’s not the overcorrection I would have hoped for, but it’s certainly an improvement. Even if Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season was the only one of those films directed by a Black woman bringing the number of films in the collection directed by Black women to a total of… one.
When looking at those improved numbers and when celebrating the release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire I think it’s important to look specifically at how the collection has represented queer women. It’s bleak.
Out of 1,051 mainline titles there are 18 that feature queer women. Seven of those 18 are only in subtext or subplots. 15 of those 18 are directed by men. That makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire only the third film in the collection to feature queer women that’s actually directed by a queer woman. There are four additional films directed by queer women that do not feature queer women characters.
That doesn’t include certain box sets or the DVD-only, special feature-free Eclipse label. That adds the “Chantal Akerman in the Seventies” Eclipse set, but begs the question why one of the few women directors to be accepted into the mainstream arthouse canon has some of her most famous — and gayest — films relegated to a side label.
Additionally, the only queer woman of color among all these films is Lily Gladstone’s rancher in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. There are no Black queer women characters in the entire collection. There are no films directed by queer women of color in the entire collection.
Included, however, are controversial male-directed works such as Blue is the Warmest Color, Chasing Amy, and Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom.
There is good news if you’re looking to watch some queer women films where the actresses weren’t abused, the lesbian character isn’t wooed by Ben Affleck, and the ending isn’t a bacchanal of rape and murder. The Criterion Channel — Criterion’s streaming service founded in April 2019 — has completely different programming.
As a subscriber to the Criterion Channel you can currently watch The Watermelon Woman, The Owls, and six of Cheryl Dunye’s shorts. You can watch Céline Sciamma’s first three films including Water Lilies. You can watch Jacqueline Audry’s recently restored classic Olivia, Leilah Weinraub’s standout documentary Shakedown, and the film we just called the best lesbian film of all time But I’m a Cheerleader.
Sure, most of these titles were added for Pride month, but since its founding over a year ago the Criterion Channel has consistently centered queer, Black, and female voices far more than the main collection.
Well, then I guess there’s no problem, you might say. After all, only a handful of film nerds buy Blu-Rays anymore. OKAY YOU’RE NOT WRONG. About the last part. You are wrong about there not being a problem.
The reason why film nerds — myself included — continue to buy physical media isn’t just because it looks and sounds better than streaming. It’s also a matter of availability and preservation. Those films may be on the Criterion Channel right now, but there’s no guarantee how long they’ll stay. In fact, But I’m a Cheerleader already expires at the end of the month.
Our recently updated 200 Best Lesbian, Queer, and Bisexual Films of All Time list featured 37 titles currently unavailable to stream. Some of those titles became unavailable after I watched them for the project as recently as last fall. This happens all the time.
There’s also the issue of importance. The Criterion Collection plays a part in shaping the canon. Their inclusion of The Red Shoes among the canon of hypermasculine classics is the reason I was able to see part of myself in the cinema I was watching. Imagine the possibilities if I had more than a cis straight woman created by a pair of men.
Inclusion in the Criterion Collection is a stamp of approval from the mainstream cinematic establishment. This isn’t something we need — it might not even be something we want. But it does impact what films get made, what films get watched, and how our history — film and otherwise — is seen. There is a difference between The Watermelon Woman streaming on the Criterion Channel during Pride month and Portrait of a Lady on Fire getting a place in the permanent collection with an hour of interviews, a gorgeous new transfer, and thoughtfully designed cover art.
It’s true that a company like The Criterion Collection cannot simply release any title they want. There are issues of rights, available materials, and customer interest. But not every film in the collection sells like the Wes Anderson titles. There are plenty of films that are obvious passion projects. And there’s no excuse at spine 1,051 to have one film directed by a Black woman in the collection. There’s no excuse to have a total lack of queer women of color filmmakers. There’s no excuse to have the representation of queer women so overwhelmingly defined by white men.
If it’s too difficult to secure obvious additions like The Watermelon Woman, Good Manners, and Pariah, maybe it’s worth considering why lowkey indies from the 90s by Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman, and Greg Mottola are deemed more important than even something as silly as The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love. They’re the same types of films — the only difference is who’s on screen.
I saw the Criterion/Janus restoration of Desert Hearts at IFC Center in New York. My nails were sloppily painted red. I was wearing a pair of mens shorts that I’d feminized. There were cuts on my legs from shaving. My girlfriend’s blousey top rested on my body two sizes too big. My makeup was somehow both slight and a mess.
I’d only been out of the closet for two months.
In Donna Deitch’s forgotten classic, I felt a connection I’ve only found in a handful of films. On screen I saw people who loved the way I wanted to love. I saw lesbian characters who found romance from each other and comfort in friends and struggles with family. I saw the fear of living truthfully. I saw the necessity.
I walked out of the theatre just a little more confident to get back on the subway to Queens, just a little more prepared to deal with the inevitable harassment, just a little more sure in who I am.
Five months later, I bought the Blu-Ray release from the same Barnes & Noble where a decade earlier I got The Red Shoes. It was a birthday present to myself. I was home for the holidays and it was my first time back since coming out.
A brief reprieve from navigating the difficulties of that first visit was found in Donna Deitch’s audio commentary, in her interview with Joyce Wischnia/Sue Sylvester herself Jane Lynch, in the interviews with the actors, in the conversation between Deitch and her cinematographer and production designer, in the documentary about the source material’s author, in the essay by famous queer critic B. Ruby Rich, and simply in staring at the two cool dykes on the cover.
But it actually wasn’t until I rewatched the film last week that I realized the depth of its influence. I realized that since seeing the film so early in my queer discovery the character Cay Rivers has been my aspiration. That is who I’ve been imitating the way so many queers imitate Shane McCutcheon. And it’s all because Criterion decided this film was worthy of a restoration, revival screenings, and a release.
There’s a moment in Desert Hearts when Cay’s baby gay love interest asks why she has to be so brazen in her queerness. Cay’s reply forever lives in my mind: “I don’t act that way to change the world. I act that way so that the goddamn world won’t change me!”
This isn’t theoretical. This isn’t a customer complaint. This is about who I am. This is about who we all are. This is about what we deserve. Those of us who have long been ignored deserve to be included — no, centered — in film culture. So let’s celebrate the release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And then let’s ask for more. And more and more and more.
I do act this way to change the world. It certainly won’t change me.