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Reeling in the years

The Janus DVD collection is a landmark tribute to classical cinema

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Reeling in the years | This year's model | Next year's model? | Our year in DVDs

Godfrey Cheshire has written the liner notes for eight films by Wim Wenders in a new DVD box set released by Anchor Bay Entertainment. His audio commentary can be heard on the New Yorker Films release of Gabbeh by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His essays "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema" can be found online at www.nypress.com/print.cfm?content_id=243.

M is for murderer and death is for dancing: Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JANUS FILMS

What a Rolls Royce is to car fanciers, the recently released Essential Arthouse: 50 Years of Janus Films is to cinephiles. A collection of 50 classic films on DVD from one of the nation's pioneering art-film distributors, handsomely packaged in a box with an accompanying book introduced by Mr. Cinephile himself, Martin Scorsese, the package retails for $850.

Who would shell out that kind of money for a bunch of old movies, many of which are easily rentable? More than a few film diehards, I would bet. My hunch is that Essential Arthouse will not only sell well initially, and go on selling for years to come, but will blaze a marketing trail that others will follow as cinema's cultural prestige continues to grow.

The collection's choice of titles could hardly be bettered. The foreign-language films begin with Fritz Lang's M in 1931 and continue through such European and Japanese legends as Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Sergei Eisensten's Alexander Nevsky, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Federico Fellini's La Strada, Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, Marco Bellochio's Fists in the Pocket and Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds.

The compendium also reminds us that art-house classics often spoke English. The British titles include David Lean's Brief Encounter, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, Michael Powell's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Laurence Olivier's Richard III, Carol Reed's The Third Man and Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The appeal and commercial viability of Essential Arthouse obviously owes a lot to the DVD format, which was barely a blip on the culturescape a mere decade ago. And there's an unavoidable irony in the fact that the collection appears at a moment when some are predicting the imminent demise of the shiny, lightweight discs.

I would venture, however, that all announcements of the DVD's death are very premature at best, for two interrelated reasons that are well illustrated by Essential Arthouse.

First, people like to watch all sorts of movies, certainly, but they also like to own certain movies, and DVDs provide an attractive way of doing that. Until 30 years ago, films could only be owned in celluloid form, a bulky and expensive proposition undertaken only by a relative handful of obsessives. With the introduction of videocassette players, owning movies went mass-market, yet VHS tapes were of varying quality and had a plastic, disposable feel. The DVD not only offers far superior technical quality, and the possibility of considerable quantities of extra content, but does so in a more compact and durable-feeling form. Given a well-designed package with informative liner notes, owning a DVD has come to feel like owning a book.

A famous shot in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JANUS FILMS

Secondly, classic movies increasingly occupy a place in the culture akin to that of literature. As I argued in my 1999 essays "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," this estimation will inevitably be burnished by the disappearance of celluloid. As film itself vanishes over the horizon, the particular beauties and expressive breakthroughs it afforded the 20th century will more and more be a subject of study and fascination for educated people the world over. Thus, it makes perfect sense to have a home bookshelf that includes, alongside The Odyssey, Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice, the likes of Citizen Kane, The Searchers and Rashomon.

Besides providing a small library of cinematic masterworks in one package, Essential Arthouse reminds us that their renown was the result not only of artistic genius but of a long evolution in the way films—especially ones from abroad—were circulated and perceived in the United States.

I have no idea when the term "art house" was first used, yet Peter Cowie, in his excellent historical essay that's included in the collection's accompanying book, notes that New York had such a venue as far back as November 1928, when the Little Carnegie Playhouse opened, showing Eisenstein's Ten Days that Shook the World. The following decade saw the debuts of other art cinemas including the legendary Thalia at Broadway and 95th Street, as well as the founding of the New York Film Critics Circle and the Museum of Modern Art's film department.

But it was after World War II that the appreciation of film-as-art, and foreign-language cinema especially, exploded. In Boston in the late '40s, two young Harvard chums named Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey bought the Brattle Theater and later converted it into a (still-running) art house. Their success propelled the duo to New York, where they rented the 55th Street Playhouse but soon faced the problem that there were not enough foreign films available to show.

Their solution, in March 1956, was to found Janus Films. According to Harvey, they named their distribution company after the Roman god of open doors to signify its two drives: "One face was facing art; the other, commerce." They did well at both, although providing a smooth linkage between them took time. Janus picked up The White Sheik by a first-time director named Federico Fellini and stuck with him through the less-than-overwhelming commercial showings of I Vitelloni, Nights of Cabiria and La Strada. Bergman's The Seventh Seal—an art-house icon if there ever was one—didn't take off until after they released Wild Strawberries.

By the beginning of the '60s, of course, Fellini and Bergman were established as the twin titans of European art cinema. But Haliday and Harvey's success led them toward financial trouble. Bergman's films The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly won Oscars in 1960 and 1961 respectively, and drew the kinds of offers from major studios that took the Swedish director out of the league of small companies like Janus. After investing in a few flops, Haliday and Harvey sold Janus in 1965.

The new owners, William Becker and Saul Turell, furthered the company's reputation for quality, but added something to its mission: Rather than simply distributing new films to first-run theaters, they also built up a catalogue of great films from the past and started distributing them—often on 16mm—to college classes and film societies, festivals, museums, repertory cinemas and television.

As Becker's son Peter says of the time since: "Janus' role has not been so much the traditional one of opening a film but something much more akin to what we see in the art world—recognizing the treasures and the masterpieces and preserving them."

This change in the business model, perhaps more than anything else, assured that Janus' Roman-coin logo would long be equated with a certain kind of aesthetic value and excitement among people whose early cinematic education came in the 1960s and '70s. People like myself.

Essential Arthouse: 50 Years of Janus Films is $850 worth of movie love. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JANUS FILMS

One critic has dubbed this era "the Golden Age of Cinephilia," a genially romantic term that I find easy to understand. Most classic movies and cutting-edge foreign films weren't easy to see then. Prior to the opening of Durham's Carolina Theatre in 1978, the Triangle had no permanent art house. I helped run a couple of film societies at UNC in the early '70s that specialized in films from distributors like Janus. For the ardent cinephile, the only alternative was to make the trek to New York and see the latest at first-run houses or catch up on classics at rep houses like the Elgin, the Thalia or Eighth Street Playhouse. Such expeditions were like pilgrimages to distant shrines; the whole enterprise had a faintly devotional glow to it.

The advent of the VCR changed all that, and put most rep houses out of business. Yet the cinephilic tastes shaped during the Golden Age effectively defined the cinematic canon and continued to influence audiences, critics and filmmakers—even if the VHS era sometimes seemed most congenial to the kind of geekery symbolized by Quentin Tarantino's days gobbling up King Hu tapes as a video-store clerk.

From my standpoint, the DVD is the best thing to happen to cinephilia since companies like Janus began distributing in 16mm. And in fact, the newer technology marks a huge leap past the older. Those 16mm prints we screened in UNC classrooms were often muddy third-generation dupes of dubious originals. Most good DVDs feature meticulous restorations or transfers from original negatives with results that—especially when screened via top-quality digital projection systems—are sometimes flat-out astonishing, surpassing the quality even of brand-new 35mm prints. (This improvement in visual quality promises to continue with the introduction of High Definition DVDs.)

The other great thing about DVDs are the extras they allow, both on the discs and in the packaging. Janus Films now has a sister company, The Criterion Collection, run by Peter Becker, that, for my money, has become the gold standard in the packaging of classic and modern films on DVD. Criterion releases like its recent box set of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales really do equal the finest editions of books, and some of the critical essays includes in the boxes—which, criminally, Netflix does not send to those who rent the films—are models of their kind. (Disclosure: I've written essays for the Criterion releases of Taste of Cherry and the forthcoming Bicycle Thieves. A further note: The DVDs in Essential Arthouse only contain the movies, not the extras that appear on Criterion releases of the same films as individual titles.)

Even for cinephiles who can't pony up $850 for this splendid collection, it's nice knowing that cinema's greatest masterworks have a vastly extended life and a new reach thanks to digital technology and the expert curatorial skills of companies like Janus Films and The Criterion Collection.

For purchasing information on Essential Arthouse, see www.janusfilms.com. For more on The Criterion Collection, www.criterionco.com.

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