The Heyday of Foreign Films

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Confession of a movie-mad youth: I enjoyed seeing pictures of all kinds, and by my early teens had become a little connoisseur of certain actors, directors and genres—all American, since I was an American kid, and since Hollywood product dominated movie theaters. Then one day, at a Philadelphia art house in early 1959, I saw Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and saw the light. The knight playing chess with Death, the panorama of medieval questing and suffering, the clowns and flagellants, all convinced me: this was art! There were movies, I knew, and now... there was film! A thing apart and above. The sacred, rarefied, demanding goddess of cinema.

You'd be surprised how many film lovers my age tell exactly the same story, like a mass-hallucination tale from some '50s science-fiction epic. And with the same film cuing the conversion. The Seventh Seal sparked a generation of young people to make foreign-language films their urgent research project, their obsession, their religion. Our interest spread to other Bergman films, to other European and Japanese directors and the actors who graced their works. Soon enough, we noticed that many of these hallowed pictures were distributed by one company: Janus Films.

From the beginning, Janus Films had two corporate hallmarks. One was great taste in choosing films — or perhaps the company's choice of films shaped the tastes of me and my fellow cinephiles. The other was a sprightly and pliable imagination in showcasing movies. The success Janus had with The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries helped it buy the rights to more than a dozen older and newer Bergman films. But instead of releasing them all separately, Janus packaged the lot in a Bergman retrospective. Theaters would book the program for a two- or three-week run, showing double features for a few days each and making available fold-out brochures on the entire series, with notes by a young film critic named Andrew Sarris. (At least, that's how I remember it.) Janus had turned art houses, for this occasion, into repertory cinemas.

Janus was a company that had become a brand — more than that, a beacon. And not just to American moviegoers. In an interview later in his long career, Bergman complained about the shoddy treatment his early films had received in the U.S., with distributors splicing their own footage of nude women into the prints. Then, he said, two young fellows came to see him and showed him and his films the greatest respect. These were the two heads of Janus: Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey.

Fifty years after their founding of Janus Films, the company has evolved into the Criterion Collection, the foremost packager of DVDs of foreign and specialty films. I can't think of another area of popular art, or commerce, where one brand is considered the standard of excellence, so far above its competitors, as Criterion. Consider: that it's the only label to have its own section in many video stores; that a copy of the out-of-print "white ring" edition of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo has been bid up, last time I checked, to $1,025 on eBay, and the auction doesn't end till midnight tomorrow; and that Criterion's new megabox set, Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films, retailing for all of $850, places an impressive #737 on the best-seller list — higher, for example, than any single DVD edition of Citizen Kane.

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