The Criterion Collection is one of those rare institutions I’d write love poetry for (if I wrote love poetry, of course); it shares a place in my heart alongside my dog and eggplant parmesan.  A lot of folks decry Criterion with the dreaded Pretentious label (click HERE for dilettantism at its worst).  Give me a break.  “Pretentious” is watching only Maya Deren’s films or teaching a college course in silent film history.  It’s not showcasing the achievements of both The Rock and Last Year at Marienbad.  You show me a like-minded film historian, and I’ll direct you to Criterion’s offices.

February 2012 has been a particularly fecund month; viewed together, the following three Blu-ray releases illustrate Criterion’s mission in microcosm.  From a distance, their various cinematic road maps couldn’t look more dissimilar, yet there’s never any doubt that each deserves a place in the Collection.

In chronological order…

Anatomy of a Murder:  To this date, director Otto Preminger’s landmark courtroom drama retains its power, although not for the reasons that made the film controversial in 1959.  Back then, Anatomy‘s descriptions of rape-related injuries drew both the ire of the Production Code as well as the commercial adoration of the American public; today, the same language would make for a tame episode of “Law and Order: SVU.”   What…unnerves now is the ambiguous milieu.  We read “courtroom drama,” and we expect moral poles.  Good lawyer/bad lawyer, innocent client/guilty client.

Preminger denies us those certainties.  We sympathize with Jimmy Stewart’s small-town lawyer because he’s more charming that George C. Scott’s ruthless prosecutor and because he’s Jimmy Stewart, but the evidence tells a different story: that Stewart is a shrewd human manipulator (he counsels Lee Remick’s sexpot wife to act more demure in order to sway the jury and fakes a tantrum to gain a courtroom advantage over Scott); that his client’s history of violence belies the impassioned story of a devastated husband murderously avenging his wife’s rape; that the rape itself might not even be rape, given Remick’s come-hither attitude.  We never find an ultimate truth, and Stewart has to win us over the same way he has to win over the jury.

Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a sharp 1.85:1 HD picture and two audio options (restored mono and a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix) alongside many supplements, including interviews with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, main titles designer Saul Bass’ biographer Pat Kirkman, and critic Gary Giddins (Giddins discusses Duke Ellington’s masterful score); archival on-set footage; a conversation between Preminger and William Buckley on the “Firing Line” program; material from the Anatomy on “Anatomy” feature; behind-the-scenes photographs; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet with a modern assessment from critic Nick Pinkerton and a 1959 Life Magazine profile on co-star Joseph Welch.

World on a Wire:  This 1973 miniseries finds the late German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder attempting to blend his thematic and stylistic excesses with the hazy uncertainty of a Philip K. Dick novel.  His subject is the near future, one where cybernetics have grown so advanced that humans are indistinguishable from their digital simulacra.  A beleaguered engineer (Fassbinder favorite Klaus Löwitsch, alternatively suave and manic) uncovers a massive conspiracy…and things get weird.

Almost too weird, I’d maintain.  While Fassbinder’s kaleidoscopic vision of a world gone mad stays consistently intriguing throughout the feature’s 212-minute runtime—the 16mm camera stock gives the picture an otherworldly, paranoid graininess (it looks like the most gorgeous security camera footage ever captured), and the director keeps his actors pitched right on the line of camp melodrama—World on a Wire proves that you can have too much of a good thing.  The excesses become a little much during the last half, and what was once gloriously convoluted becomes maddeningly obtuse.  Still, this is fascinating, challenging stuff, and well worth it for hardcore sci-fi and Fassbinder fans.

The movie is the main attraction, and Criterion has showcased both the restored 1.33:1 transfer and a creepy, electronica-tinged monaural audio track to great effect.  Supplements-wise, this package is deceptively meaty; we get a long interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemünden and the hour-long Looking Ahead to Today documentary that details World on a Wire‘s production history.  A trailer and booklet round off the package.

Tiny Furniture:  This one is stranger than World on a Wire without hitting any of the same outré beats, and all thanks to writer/director/star Lena Dunham.  At twenty-six, Dunham is already being touted as the Next Big Thing; Tiny Furniture got the attention of comedy super-producer Judd Apatow, who helped Dunham develop the upcoming HBO series “Girls.”  What’s unique about her sudden good fortune is how off-putting Tiny Furniture can be—success usually springs from a cuddlier venue.

We meet Dunham’s Aura, a recent college graduate living with her mother and sister, and…that’s about it.  Like Aura, the movie has no drive, following its heroine from one anesthetized exchange to the next.  Tiny Furniture definitely suffers from stereotypical indie quirks (Aura’s relationship with her hamster feels like a Garden State outtake), and the actors perform with such soporific languor as to make Jim Jarmusch movies seem high-intensity.  But the damn thing is funny just the same, and it has a plodding integrity; Dunham doesn’t look away from her quietly tortured characters, even when most filmmakers might do otherwise.

Criterion preserves DP Jody Lee Lipes’ ultra-wide 2.39:1 frame with a quiet 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  The bonus materials act as past and future summations of Dunham’s career—we see her emerge in four short films along with her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, while interviews with Nora Ephron and Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver fame) cement Dunham’s legacy as confessional auteur.  The disc also has a trailer and an essay from Philip Lopate.

All three Blu-rays are now available.  Click HERE, HERE, and HERE for Amazon’s page listings.

Culture Blu-ray Roundup: Catching Up with the Criterion Collection – February 2012