If you consider yourself a cinephile, you’ve probably encountered the distinctive logo of Janus Films, a two-headed icon that resembles a weathered coin from some ancient civilization. And if you’ve seen that image on more than one occasion, you’ve probably come to associate it with a certain feeling, the feeling that something good is on the way, something challenging, something different, something relevant, and, if we can indulge a bit of stuffiness, Something Important. For Janus Films, for 50 years now, has come to symbolize all that is best in arthouse cinema, bringing classic foreign films to American audiences.
Pacific Film Archive is doing its part to help Janus celebrate its golden anniversary as the preeminent distributor of arthouse cinema with a six-week series of classic films from its catalog, from seminal works of the French New Wave to the austere metaphysical ruminations of Ingmar Bergman to the psychological probings of Carl Dreyer. The series starts at 7 p.m. Friday with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and will be followed in December by a series of seven samurai classics from the Janus collection.
Named for the two-headed Roman god of gates, doorways and beginnings, Janus Films grew out of the arthouse film movement of the 1950s. Founders Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey ran the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., originally a legitimate theater. But financial difficulties led them to cease live performances in 1952. Inspired by Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque francaise in Paris, they converted the theater to a cinema and began showing foreign and classic American films to enthusiastic crowds. One of the more popular programs the duo ran was a series of Humphrey Bogart films which ran during finals week at Harvard, establishing the “Bogie Cult,” where moviegoers dressed in costume and recited dialogue during screenings.
Eventually Haliday and Harvey expanded with a second theater in New York before founding Janus in 1956. The fledging company took a chance on a relatively unknown Italian director by the name of Federico Fellini, purchasing the American rights to two of his films, neither of which proved a great financial success for Janus. However, in 1958 the distributors landed the rights to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which elevated the company’s profile if not its profits, and followed with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a financial success. The success of Strawberries allowed them to re-release The Seventh Seal, showing both films concurrently to big crowds and excellent reviews, and Janus was finally up and running, following soon with films by Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Juan Antonio Bardem and Michelangelo Antonioni.
In the mid-’60s, the company became something of a victim of its own success. Major studios had taken notice of the public’s interest in foreign fare and began offering considerable sums for the rights to distribute the work of critical favorites like Bergman and Truffaut, cutting deeply into Janus’ niche market.
Haliday and Harvey sold the company to theater critic and financier William Becker and documentary producer and television pioneer Saul Turell. The pair greatly expanded the company’s catalog, creating a “Gold List” of the most important films in international film history, tracking the legal rights to each film and securing licensing deals for as many of them as possible. The duo managed to secure the rights to such seminal works as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, the European films of Orson Welles, as well as Citizen Kane, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, firmly re-establishing Janus’ reputation at a time when film courses were cropping up at universities across the country and placing the company at the heart of another wave of the arthouse movement.
In the 1980s, Janus partnered with video companies to further expand its reach, and in 1999 joined with the Criterion Collection, releasing high-end DVDs of films from the Janus catalog in editions which include informative and analytical supplemental features, such as commentary tracks (the first company to do so), documentaries and essays by the world’s foremost film critics and scholars.
Today, another generation is holding the reins. William Becker’s son Peter is now president of the Criterion Collection and Saul Turell’s son Jonathan seves as managing director of Janus Films and chief executive officer of Criterion.
“The company has adapted well to video,” says Becker, but the job is ongoing. The two have carried on their respective family traditions by ensuring that the collection adapts and thrives in a market that continues to undergo significant transformations. Each new format and distribution model requires further innovation to ensure that the Janus collection continues to be preserved, seen and appreciated. “These films need to be preserved and presented to new audiences,” Becker says.
To celebrate its anniversary, Janus has struck new 35-millimeter prints for more than 30 of its finest films and made them available for a series of retrospectives showing around the country. Susan Oxtoby, senior film curator at Pacific Film Archive, has selected 16 of them to screen here in Berkeley. Her selection encompasses a wide array of the collection, providing a cross-section of the best of foreign film, balancing the selection by style and geography with films from France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Poland and the U.S.S.R., and of course the Japanese samurai films coming in December.
The series amounts to “a history of world cinema,” says Oxtoby, allowing viewers to “dip into certain styles.”
Most of the films in the PFA series are as yet unavailable on DVD. But some of the biggest titles among them are available from the Criterion Collection. In fact, Criterion is also joining in the celebration with the release of an impressive box set of DVDs. Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films contains 50 of Janus’ greatest films in one album, along with a book with notes on each film, as well as an introduction by film critic and historian Peter Cowie covering the history and influence of the distributor. Thirty years ago you would have to travel the world to see all these films, and now they only take up about six inches of shelf space. The complete set retails for $650 and is available at www.criterionco.com. The book can also be purchased separately for $65.
50 YEARS OF JANUS FILMS
Friday, Nov. 3
7 p.m.: The 400 Blows (France, 1959)
Dir: Francois Truffaut
9 p.m.: Jules and Jim (France, 1961)
Dir: Francois Truffaut
Sunday, Nov. 5:
4 p.m. The Earrings of Madame de…
Dir: Max Ophuls
Friday, Nov. 10
7 p.m.: Knife in the Water (Poland, 1962)
Dir: Roman Polanski
9 p.m.: Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955)
Dir: Juan Antonio Bardem
Sunday, Nov. 12
3 p.m.: Day of Wrath (Denmark, 1943)
Dir: Carl Dreyer
5 p.m.: The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957)
Dir: Ingmar Bergman
Sunday, Nov. 19
3 p.m.: Cléo from 5 to 7 (Francie, 1961)
Dir: Agnes Varda
Friday, Nov. 24
7 p.m.: The Cranes Are Flying (U.S.S.R., 1957)
Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov
9 p.m.: Monika (Sweden, 1953)
Dir: Inmar Bergman
Sunday, Nov. 26
3 p.m.: Kwaidan (Japan, 1964)
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
Friday, Dec. 1
7 p.m.: The Rules of the Game (France, 1939)
Dir: Jean Renoir
Saturday, Dec. 2
5 p.m.: Beauty and the Beast (France, 1946)
Dir: Jean Cocteau
Friday, Dec. 8
6:30 p.m.: Il Posto (Italy, 1961)
Dir: Ermanno Olmi
Saturday, Dec. 9
5 p.m.: La Strada (Italy, 1954)
Dir: Federico Fellini
Saturday, Dec. 16
8:15: The Organizer (Italy/France, 1963)
Dir: Mario Monicelli
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft Way. 642-5249.