How Would You Edit a Timeless Movie Into a 2-Minute One?

Criterion's "Three Reasons" videos distill iconic films into a trio of defining characteristics.
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For years, Criterion has brought an art-house sensibility to DVD packaging, rereleasing classic films with new covers featuring striking photography and nuanced typography. The cases are so visually alluring that I've filled my shelves with many of them. Of late, though, Criterion has brought its touch to the trailer business with an entertaining and thoughtful series of online promotional teasers that interpret, rather than simply hype, their films—in less than two minutes.

"We feel a great responsibility to represent the film as the director would want it to be represented. It often surprises me which scenes or moments truly carry the essence of a film."

The idea for this new video format was conceived by the graphic designer Bonnie Siegler, formerly a partner of the design studio Number 17 and now the proprietor of 8½. A veteran creator of motion graphics and title sequences for Saturday Night Live, Will and Grace, and The Late, Late Show, she was asked by Criterion owner Peter Becker to direct and produce one weekly quick-cut summary of a Criterion release.

"I called Bonnie and posed her the question what would a 60 to 90 second spot for a Criterion movie look like in the 21st century," he told me. "She said, 'No one asks why any other company is releasing a particular film ... But with Criterion it's different. People do ask why, and that's what separates your brand.'" Now in its 77th week, the online venture, titled "Three Reasons," answers that question.

Every trailer highlights three conceptual, dramatic, or philosophic scenes or issues in the respective films. "Each release has its own story, and we are trying to make every aspect of our editions reflect the story we are trying to tell about the film," Becker says. "Design, editorial, supplemental features, marketing, even social media—ideally it should all be coherent, continuous, and particular. I don't actually think there is a Criterion look as much as a Criterion approach. If you look at our stuff there's actually a huge diversity of design styles, but the underlying sensibility is what makes it all feel of a piece."

The recent episode for Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, a controversial example of cinema verite that takes place during the police attacks on anti-war demonstrators during the Chicago Democratic Convention, lists its reasons as 1) "Chicago, 1968" (lest anyone forget what happened); 2) "The Debate" (around the tactics of police, demonstrators and media); and 3) That it was made "on the stage of history" (much of the footage was shot during the actual event with real police and blood). The episode for Terrence Malick's Badlands, in which Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play cold-blooded outlaws, lists its reasons as 1) "A visionary director emerges" (Malick's debut); 2) "The girl next door" (Spacek's break-out role); 3) "The charismatic killer" (Sheen's character).

Trailers are meant to trigger audience curiosity, but through this format Criterion also asks the viewer to contribute their own reasons as to why each film has resonance today. "A wonderful thing has happened due to the regularity and simplicity of the format," Siegler says. "People have made their own 'Three Reasons' videos for films they love, and best of all, people have made something called 'For Criterion Consideration,' which also follows the same format but is their pitch to Criterion to suggest a film be acquired and released by Criterion."

"Usually the process of making these videos ends up shaping my own understanding of what the films are about as much as the other way around," Becker adds.

Siegler was given free reign with Criterion editor Mollie Goldstein to cut the classics and rarities as she wants. "We decide on the concepts of the reasons first," she says, "and then edit the piece to essentially defend those reasons and give a sense of the film at the same time. The last step is figuring out the specific language of the reasons."

A favorite of mine is The Tin Drum, based on Günter Grass's novel about how a little boy with an adult's ability to think and reason decides never to grow up. The reasons are 1) "The little monster" (who plays the tin drum and has a glass shattering scream); 2) "His mad, mad world" (referencing life in Nazi Germany); and 3) "Nothing is sacred" (the debauchery that the boy is exposed to and joins in).

With classic films, Siegler says, "we are aware that there are certain moments that must be included ... just like an itch that must be scratched." Anything goes for the rare and obscure gems, but even in those cases Siegler doesn't exercise total abandon: "We feel a great responsibility to represent the film as the director would want it to be represented," she says. "It is essentially a trailer for the film, and we try to make each one feel as unique as the film itself. It often surprises me which scenes or moments truly carry the essence of a film."

But there is one exception where she has taken license. For last April Fool's Day, Siegler made a parody "Three Reasons" for Ivan Reitman's Kindergarten Cop, listing the ironic reasons 1) "Class warfare" (Schwarzenegger's first encounter with six year olds); 2) "The pecs and the poetry" (referring to the star's muscularity and way with words); and 3) "No child left behind" (which reminds me I haven't seen this Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger classic in years).

Becker says that Criterion's goal is to gather great films from around the world and present them in editions of "the highest technical quality" with supplemental features that encourages repeated viewing and adds to the appreciation of film as an art. "We spend at least four to six months on each special edition, which means we really have to care about each story or it wouldn't be worth our time."

After 77 films and 231 reasons, Siegler says, "I think my favorite 'Three Reasons' end up being for films that are new discoveries for me because I fall in love with them and then get to spend a week thinking and talking about them." The list of those movies includes Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard, A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson, Carlos by Olivier Assayas, Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold, and In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai. And were it not for this project, Siegler notes she probably would not have watched many of the old classic films again. Which has to be the measure of success of "Three Reasons." Once you start watching and matching your reasons to Siegler's, you can't help but want to devour the entire movie.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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