To describe what he does for a living would be akin to listing a dozen other people's résumés. He is curator and detective, scholar and archivist, teacher and cheerleader, salesman and bodyguard. For nearly 20 years, he has gone in movie studios' vaults and dug up cinema's detritus, polishing off the dust until discarded junk becomes priceless artifact. Becker rescues movies for a living -- from the studios' graveyards and, on occasion, from the filmmakers themselves. Without him, our knowledge and understanding of classic and contemporary cinema would be deficient, if not nonexistent.
There are no major awards for the kind of work Peter Becker and his partner Jonathan Turrell engage in, so the two will likely remain in the dark, where all good movie fans are at their most happy anyway. But without them, it's very possible Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion might have been lost to the ruin of old age. Without them, we might have had no idea that hours upon hours of footage were left out of Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap. Without them, we might have missed out on the pleasures of painter-turned-director Seijun Suzuki, whose 1966 pop-noir crime story Tokyo Drifter is less a movie than a cartoon-as-dream. And without them, we might have been spared the expansive director's cut of Armageddon, which is still awful no matter how pretty you dress it up.
Becker and Turrell deserve so much credit for changing the way we watch movies...OK, and a little bit of the blame. The two are partners in the Criterion Collection: Becker is the company's director; Turrell, its CEO. In the early 1980s, both men carried on the work begun by their fathers, who founded the legendary Janus Films in the 1950s as a way to bring the best overseas filmmakers -- among them, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, and Renoir -- into American theaters. The only difference is, Peter Becker and Jonathan Turrell bring the best of cinema into American homes, and allow anyone with access to a DVD player the opportunity to turn their living rooms into the world's greatest art-house theaters. Showing tonight and every night: Grand Illusion, The 400 Blows, The Third Man, M, and Rushmore, all presented in prints so immaculate they radiate off the television screen like three-dimensional holograms.
And you will have company beside you on the couch as you watch these movies. Writer-director Wes Anderson and his writing partner Owen Wilson will join you and explain every scene and storyboard for Rushmore. Martin Scorsese and Willem Dafoe will guide you through The Last Temptation of Christ. The Monty Python troupe, including John Cleese and Michael Palin, will dissect every laugh in Life of Brian. Then, they'll break out the coming-attraction trailers and shooting screenplays, after which they will load up the documentaries and screen tests. They will elucidate and energize their films in such a way you will feel as though you could go out tomorrow and make your own film.
"Criterion has made it possible to go to film school," says Owen Wilson. "Without the tuition."
Peter Becker has changed the way we watch movies, because his company has changed the way in which they are presented to the home audience, a far larger crowd than the theatrical one. He has wrung the mystery out of moviemaking; he has pulled back the curtain to reveal a dozen wizards holding cameras and boom mikes and screenplays. He has unearthed a good chunk of filmdom's history and given it to us for less than 30 bucks a disc. He has turned our home shelves into archives, our television sets into time capsules.
"We just try to leave movies better than we found them," says Becker, who co-founded Criterion just as the laserdisc format was appearing in the early 1980s.
Originally, the company existed only to preserve films as they slowly deteriorated. At the very most, the company -- which essentially leases films from studios -- existed as a sort of scholarly clearing house where critics would come and talk about movies they loved and explain to the viewer (ostensibly a fetishist or a fanatic) why the glowing images on their television screens remained important. But by the mid-'80s, directors such as Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell began laying down commentary tracks about their own films. It began a small, quiet revolution whose effects are only now being felt as movie studios scramble to release cleaned-up, dolled-up versions of their movies as special-edition DVDs loaded down with trailers, making-of documentaries, and director's commentaries.