How binging the Criterion Collection provided me with purpose during the pandemic

One of our writers reflects on her experience of watching the Criterion Collection during the pandemic.

The Criterion Collection is accessible through the streaming service Kanopy, provided through NYU. The Criterion Collection, along with other services accessible through NYU’s Cinema Studies databases, has provided a community composed of both film lovers and scholars. (Staff Illustration by Manasa Gudavalli)

Like many people over the past year, I found myself with extra time on my hands. I was tired of scrolling through TikTok and baking absurd loaves of bread. It was at that moment when I realized that I could use this time to pursue an additional hobby.

While I’ve always loved film, I never watched the masterpieces I felt were necessary to call myself a cinephile. Certain movies were prioritized on streaming services over others. While mindlessly searching through the internet one day, I happened to find NYU’s Cinema Studies databases, which had over 1400 movies. The Criterion Collection (accessible through the streaming service Kanopy) and Swank Digital Campus, all provided by NYU, allowed me to enter a longed-for community of both film lovers and scholars.

With these databases, I’ve had the opportunity to watch films that had eluded me for years — “Seven Samurai,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Citizen Kane,” half of Andrei Tarkovsky’s output, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” to name a few.

My first introduction to the films of the Criterion Collection was “Stalker,” made by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. The movie follows three unnamed characters through a forbidden area of rural Russia known as “the Zone”. Throughout the Zone, mystic, enigmatic and sentient forces of nature test the three men to deem if they are worthy of reaching “The Room,” a place that grants the visitor their deepest desire. 

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Tarkovsky keeps the viewer captivated for nearly three hours through hyper-realistic yet otherwordly landscapes, startling uses of color and sparse but powerful use of dialogue confronting mankind’s deepest desires. After my first watch of “Stalker, I felt like I finally made it into some unnamed, elite group of indie, foreign and historic movie-goers. I could not help but be fascinated and humbled by Tarkovsky’s dense and labyrinthine themes. Luckily, I found I was not the only one.

It did not take long for me to discover that these so-called indie films are anything but independent blimps of thought. In fact, “Stalker,” as cerebral and slow-paced as it is, is actually a substantial touchstone in popular culture today. I still remember the familiar still shot of a black dog watching over a man laying in a quasi-fetal position in a river more and more often.

Through the simple act of watching a movie, I became intrigued with film reviews, analyses, critical podcasts, Soviet history lessons and a craving to watch all of Tarkovsky’s films, as well as the films “Stalker” influenced. I found myself among a vast community of individuals who had fallen under the same spell I had. Although I was secluded at home during the pandemic watching an independent film, the space provided by the Criterion Collection and Kanopy created a deeper sense of connection with the film community than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a paradigm shift in our culture’s relationship to the arts. How can obscure films from decades ago possibly be relevant in 2021’s heightened state of modernity? 

Indeed, it is the exact complexity of our current society that makes the necessity of these movies critical. Whether it is a deeper understanding of social classes highlighted in “Citizen Kane,” “Dr. Strangelove’s” satire of government officials or a look into the mental health of young girls in “The Virgin Suicides,” cinema exposes us to, and offers a reconciliation with, today’s unfortunate truths. 

Now that I have a place and time to watch thought-provoking films, I have a renewed sense of validation and purpose, something scarce during the pandemic. Criterion, Kanopy and Swank Digital Campus graciously opened the door for someone with a passion for movies to develop a true reverence and increased understanding of the craft. When I decide on the next independent, foreign or influential movie to study next, I feel as if I am in my own personal “Zone,” traveling a few steps closer to my own desires and aspirations.

Email Victoria Carchietta at [email protected]

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