I asked myself, who is this guy named Matthew Dessem? I'd be doing reading for one of my Great Movies pieces, and I'd encounter an essay by him on a site called the Criterion Contraption. The Criterion Collection is the standard bearer among high-quality DVDs, but he wasn't associated with them, except in an indirect way: He has set himself the goal of seeing and writing about every single film in the Collection!
He started in October 2004. There were then about 250 titles. He has written about 96 of them, and they've released another 250. I wanted to talk with this heroic man. I asked him how he faced the task ahead. "At those rates," he said, "if I live to be 80, I'll end up writing about 902 of Criterion's 2,350 titles. I think I'd be happy with that."
I know what you're thinking. Yes, Dessem has a day job, and he has a Significant Other. He works for MGM in the IT department. Before that, he worked at New Line, where he met his S.O., Yasmin Damshenas. Their first date four years ago was seeing "Gilda" at the Egyptian theater on Hollywood Boulevard. He's also writing a screenplay, but then everyone in Los Angeles County is doing that.
Understand that Dessem's essays are advanced and ambitious. These aren't three-paragraph plot summaries. He watches the extras, reads the literature, provides detailed analysis, find still photos and grabs individual shots from a computer screen. In fact, that's how I got his e-mail address; I'd lifted some of his grabs from Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," and he wrote me mildly pointing out the theft. He didn't own the stills, true, but he'd gone to the trouble of making them. When you find an image with Google, you tend to download it without tracing it back.
So this was the guy. I looked at more of his essays, and realized that Julie, who cooked her way through Julia Child, got off easy compared to Dessem, unless Yasmin was in the kitchen while he watched the movies. But no, "We're both movie lovers, we watch most of the movies together, and she's always the first person I bounce ideas off."
So the Criterion Contraption hasn't led to a split?
"The most drama we've had has come from various harebrained schemes of mine to upgrade our home theater. I'm a compulsive--but untalented--tinkerer; for some reason, she doesn't much like having tools, wires and electronics strewn all over the living room."
Dessem told me he came upon Criterion unaware. "I wasn't consciously seeking the brand, but it just so happened that many of the movies I was interested in were only available from Criterion. Rocket Video had all the Criterions on the same shelf, and I started grabbing titles when I didn't have anything else I wanted to see. Then Netflix dropped their price. I put the entire Criterion Collection into my queue the day I opened an account and haven't touched it since.
"I started writing about the movies to keep myself honest and force myself to think critically, because I had a premonition of dust collecting on 'The Seventh Seal' while I watched 'This is Spinal Tap.' Not that 'This is Spinal Tap' isn't a great movie!"
Later, in listing some of his favorites, he started with Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev" and followed it immediately with "Spinal Tap," so you see his tastes aren't narrow. "I'd recommend a newcomer start with spine number 1 ("Grand Illusion") and go from there," he said. "Just do yourself a favor and don't start with 'Salò'."
Criterion doesn't simply release movies, but goes to great expense to restore them from battered negatives, record commentary tracks, and include supplements: "They used to include a 'restoration demonstration' with some of their DVDs -- Fellini's 'Nights of Cabiria' looks so much better it's ridiculous."
"My absolute favorite commentary track on any Criterion title so far," he said, "is the one with NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allen and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey (as well as the cinematographer, Joe Schwartzman) talking about 'Armageddon.' It's basically two-and-a-half hours of these guys saying, over and over again, 'We told Michael Bay that this scene was completely scientifically inaccurate, but he went ahead and did it anyway'." And Criterion itself? What do they think?
"I've heard from people within the company a few times via e-mail but never met anyone in person."
Coming up next?
"I just wrote about 'All That Heaven Allows' and am planning to write about 'Written on the Wind' this weekend. After that, 'Do the Right Thing,' 'L'Avventura', and 'Gimme Shelter,' so I've got some great movies ahead of me." This is awesome, I said. Looking at that photo Yasmin took of you, all I could think of was, you're scaling Mount Criterion.
"It's not the Everest of film criticism. More like K2. Kevin Lee is working his way through a list of the 1,000 greatest films of all time. That's Everest."
Complete transcript of our much longer Q & A: http://j.mp/6bLKp0
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Dessem's website: http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/
Kevin Lee's site: http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/