Cuarón, Almodóvar, and Cassavetes Saved from the Curse of Blockbuster

Due to the time when Blockbuster refused to stock unrated or NC-17 films, many viewers in the States missed out on essential films from directors like Alfonso Cuarón and Pedro Almodóvar.

Above Image: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)

Sometimes even a critically acclaimed movie can be lost in plain sight. Three new Criterion releases are significant not simply for any attraction in the movies themselves, but because it’s been so hard for many viewers to find them.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También created a splash at the beginning of this century for its free-wheeling Mexican road trip of best buddies (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) and a sexy older stranger (Maribel Verdú) whose motives are finally clarified beyond boyish wish-fulfillment. Although it’s been all over DVD before, this marks the first time many Americans will be able to see the complete “unrated” version, with its surprising yet inevitable climactic pay-off.

We can thank the late Blockbuster Video. When it dominated the rental industry, its policy of policing unrated or NC-17 movies required distributors to create a censored R-rated version. You had to search alternative venues to find the unrated cut, and of course you had to know it existed in the first place, since the R cut doesn’t tell you. I patiently explained this to people who sat through the movie and didn’t get the hoopla, like a friend who unwittingly ordered the censored version from Netflix. That’s how Blockbuster’s policy spiraled. So the most important aspect of this new edition isn’t the galaxy of extra interviews, making-of’s, and deleted scenes but simply the fact that you now can’t accidentally watch the R cut, since it’s not there.

A decade earlier, Pedro Almodóvar courted controversy by following art-house favorite Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, in which an obsessed stalker (Antonio Banderas) kidnaps a porn star (Victoria Abril) to force her love. Some feminists weren’t amused, and neither was the MPAA. This film was instrumental in the creation of the NC-17 rating when Miramax sued to overturn its X rating. When the VHS of the film was released, Blockbuster’s policy again interfered with distribution.

The director’s made more brazen provocations than this typically facetious and candy-colored whimsy, which parodies other movies and the institution of marriage by comparing (heterosexual) romance to the Stockholm Syndrome. Now it’s on Criterion with many making-of’s, and people will see it more clearly in the context of his later works (especially interesting to compare with The Skin I Live In ), and they’ll see it as he made it.

The glorious find among Criterion’s recent entries is John Cassavetes’ tender late masterpiece Love Streams, starring himself and wife Gena Rowlands as alcoholic and abandoned siblings. Released by the long defunct Cannon Group in 1984, it won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival at its full running time of two hours and 20 minutes. (By the way, this was one of the first batch of movies to receive the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, introduced the same year.) Alas, most Americans could only see this American classic in a 122-minute VHS tape back in the day; the title was MIA from Criterion’s Cassavetes box of several years ago. It was no good telling people how great it was when nobody could find it.

Even as the callow cinemaniac I was then, I knew this movie was touched by magic during a scene where a music cue cuts off as abruptly as the shot itself; that self-conscious moment signals a mix of delicacy and almost operatic daring that sustains the movie’s hopeful exploration of love’s tenuous strength. Extras include a one-hour making-of from 1984, new interviews, and a critical commentary, but the most significant “bonus” is simply having the complete film, essentially for the first time.

RATING 8 / 10