Whether they were bred in the musty rep houses of yesteryear, public TV, or video, cinephiles know the coin-on-blue-stucco logo of Janus Films like old explorers knew the North Star. There was a time—from the ’50s to the ’70s, the belle epoque for art film—when scores of imported movies, and virtually any older global classic of significance, bore the company’s insignia. The fest’s golden anniversary homage to this venerable distributor (surviving today as a library distributed to TV and DVD) lists a crash-course Cinema 101 of international masterpieces. Many are available on lovely Criterion DVDs already, but a substantial hunk remains, in this century, rarely screened and all but forgotten in modern film culture.
The 31 films in this New York Film Festival sidebar have only their Janus-ness to connect them, so the range is titanic—from Benjamin Christensen’s Halloween shadow show Häxan (1922) to Dusan Makavejev’s Slavic act of post-Godard transgression W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). At the same time, there’s a certain uniformity in the movies’ risk-taking uniqueness—Janus was apparently never interested in buying up placid audience-pleasers or middle-class echoes of what made an art-house splash the month before. The outfit looked for auteurs, because in the postwar decades, personal vision and substance of statement were what sold in the urban market.
Here’s a raft of films that, though they might not even live up to their august reps today, should be required viewing for any filmgoer to earn the right to praise Quentin Tarantino or impatiently dismiss Abbas Kiarostami: Marcel Carné’s Daybreak (1939), Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). But there are also the gimmes, the oft screened landmarks that have only bloomed with resonance and grace with the years and should belong to the cultural arsenal of every film buff: Jean Vigo’s rebel yell Zero de Conduite (1933), Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), Carl Dreyer’s forbidding wartime witch-hunt saga Day of Wrath (1943), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962).
Personal favorites not to be overlooked, and arguably the retro’s most romantic inclusions: Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a war-torn Soviet love story by the director and wizardly cinematographer of I Am Cuba, and Agnés Varda’s breakthrough film Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), which New Wavishly dances around the lovelorn vacuum of a celebrity beauty (Corinne Marchand, oh my) convinced she has cancer. But as always, the rare and DVD-unavailable should make the headlines. Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), a Swedish gothic variation on A Christmas Carol about a dead lout (Sjöström) taking up the job of the Grim Reaper and revisiting his past sins, is a misty wonder that all but foreshadows the rueful dynamic of Sjöström’s role, 36 years later, in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
A less explicable orphan, Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist
(1955) is a savage interrogation of Franco regime privilege and class abuse that traces the ethical perversions of a pair of adulterous lovers as they decide to abandon a pedestrian they accidentally run down. The Organizer (1963), by Italian populist Mario Monicelli, whose meaty career roped in scores of genres, is perhaps most cinema non grata of all. An ultra-realist, despairing tragedy about a political refugee (Marcello Mastroianni) trying to unionize a Turin textile factory before the turn of the century, the movie was nominated for an Oscar and summarily lost in time.