The Final Cut

DVDs pull back the curtain on the movies, but do you really want to see the Wizard?

Peter Becker is the most important man in the movie business, even though you have no idea who he is. Becker himself would not cop to such a description; he, like few others in the business called show, does not put himself before the work.

To describe what he does for a living would be akin to listing a dozen other people's résumés. He is curator and detective, scholar and archivist, teacher and cheerleader, salesman and bodyguard. For nearly 20 years he has gone into movie studios' vaults and dug up cinema's detritus, polishing off the dust until discarded junk becomes priceless artifact. Becker rescues movies for a living -- from the studios' graveyards and, on occasion, from the filmmakers themselves. Without him, our knowledge and understanding of classic and contemporary cinema would be deficient, if not nonexistent.

There are no major awards for the kind of work Becker and his partner, Jonathan Turrell, engage in, so the two will likely remain in the dark, where all good movie fans are at their happiest anyway. But without them, it's very possible Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion might have been lost to the ruin of old age. Without them, we might have had no idea that hours upon hours of footage were left out of Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. Without them, we might have missed out on the pleasures of painter-turned-director Seijun Suzuki, whose 1966 pop-noir crime story Tokyo Drifter is less a movie than a cartoon-as-dream. And without them, we might have been spared the expansive director's cut of Armageddon, which is still awful no matter how pretty you dress it up.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil is now available in all its 142-minute glory, thanks to Criterion.
Terry Gilliam's Brazil is now available in all its 142-minute glory, thanks to Criterion.

Becker and Turrell deserve a lot of credit for changing the way we watch movies— okay, and a little bit of the blame. The two are partners in the Criterion Collection. Becker is the company's director; Turrell, its CEO. In the early 1980s both men began the work begun by their fathers, who founded the legendary Janus Films in the 1950s as a way to bring the best overseas filmmakers -- among them, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Renoir -- into American theaters. The only difference is, Peter Becker and Jonathan Turrell bring the best of cinema into American homes, and allow anyone with access to a DVD player the opportunity to turn their living rooms into the world's greatest art-house theaters. Showing tonight and every night: Grand Illusion, The 400 Blows, The Third Man, M and Rushmore, all presented in prints so immaculate they radiate off the television screen like three-dimensional holograms.

And you will have company beside you on the couch as you watch these movies. Writer-director Wes Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson will join you and explain every scene and storyboard for Rushmore. Martin Scorsese and Willem Dafoe will guide you through The Last Temptation of Christ. The Monty Python troupe, including John Cleese and Michael Palin, will dissect every laugh in Life of Brian. Then they'll break out the coming-attraction trailers and shooting screenplays, after which they will load up the documentaries and screen tests. They will elucidate and energize their films in such a way you will feel as though you could go out tomorrow and make your own film.

"Criterion has made it possible to go to film school," says Wilson. "Without the tuition."

Becker has changed the way we watch movies, because his company has changed the way in which films are presented to the home audience, a far larger crowd than the theatrical one. He has wrung the mystery out of moviemaking; he has pulled back the curtain to reveal a dozen wizards holding cameras and boom mikes and screenplays. He has unearthed a good chunk of filmdom's history and given it to us for less than 30 bucks a disc. He has turned our home shelves into archives, our television sets into time capsules.

"We just try to leave movies better than we found them," says Becker, who co-founded Criterion just as the laser disc format was appearing in the early 1980s.

Originally the company existed only to preserve films as they slowly deteriorated. At the very most, the company, which essentially leases films from studios, existed as a sort of scholarly clearing house where critics would come and talk about movies they loved and explain to the viewer (ostensibly a fetishist or fanatic) why the glowing images on their television screens remained important. But by the mid-'80s, directors such as Scorsese and Michael Powell began laying down commentary tracks about their own films. It began a small, quiet revolution whose effects are only now being felt as movie studios scramble to release cleaned-up, dolled-up versions of their movies as special-edition DVDs loaded down with trailers, making-of documentaries and directors' commentaries.

"Criterion set out in the beginning to do something that no one else was doing at the time, which was employing the laser disc medium in an innovative way, trying to make use of all the capacities of that media," Becker says. "I think fairly quickly our mission evolved from just making films available to trying to create a film archive, a film school for the home viewer. The theatrical experience is about total absorption: Either you give over to the magic of the film, or you don't, and afterward, you walk out and talk about it with your friends. When you have a film on your shelf at home, the idea was to start out with movies that would stand up to repeated viewing, that would stand up to more intensive discussion than the kind of discussion you have over a bite of dinner after the movie."

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