Tom Jolliffe takes a look at Janus Films, the iconic distributors of arthouse and World Cinema…
It’s not often we as film goers pay much focus on film distributors. We all know the biggies. Those images that precede the big tent pole blockbusters almost seep into our synapses without much notice. Warner Bros., Universal, Disney, New Line etc. Big names in distribution.
However, this piece will look at arguably the single greatest film distribution company ever. A purveyor of the most thematically engaging and challenging art house cinema from around the world. A celebrator of visionaries, outsiders and auteurs. You won’t find Iron Man here, but certainly if anyone has a thirst for cinematic knowledge and a love of discovering exciting new cinema, then Janus is a company that needs to be looked into.
A lot was made of the Oscars recently. Should ‘x’ have won? Should ‘x’ have been nominated? We’ve often heard the term; ‘Oscar bait.’ Likewise, the inclusion of a film like Black Panther also signifies a potential move further from the Oscars into populism (As the shift from 5 Best Picture nominees per year, to 8-10). The point is, you will always find certain ‘Oscar’ tropes within the Oscars. There will always be nominees and winners that didn’t set the box office, audiences or critics alight that will win. They just strike a chord with the tastes of the board. Likewise, away from that, the yearly multiplex offerings will all be fairly formulaic, and somewhat interchangeable. If it’s what you’re after, then so be it. For someone like myself, who went as far as studying film at university, I want to see more. This is where Janus, probably more so than any other distributor, delivers.
Started in 1956 by Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey Jr in Boston, Massachusetts, Janus Films would become an important outlet for arthouse and world cinema in the US. Historically, the US has been the major world market. If you take an excellent Japanese film and want to break the rest of the world with it, then the US is a good start. Do that, the rest (in theory) should follow. ‘World cinema’ may be niche, but there is a demand there and a need for worldwide availability. Not least because of migration and a desire for people in a new home, to have access to cinema from their homeland. Janus still runs today, and plays a key role in curating the Criterion Collection (a specialist, and almost always impeccably handled outlet for physical media).
The film that really started it all for Janus Films was Ingmar Bergman’s philosophical existential masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. The indelible image of Max Von Sydow playing Chess on a bleak skied beach with The Grim Reaper. Janus would subsequently distribute many more of Bergman’s work. From Persona to Cries and Whispers, to his last great master work, Fanny and Alexander. He’s a master film-maker. One of cinemas great visionaries. You could look also to Japan with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Across the rest of Europe and the UK with Michelangelo Antonioni, Frederico Fellini, Wim Wenders and David Lean to name a few. Likewise there have been many notable inclusions of American cinema too. The Coen Brothers debut film for example, Blood Simple has been distributed by Janus Films.
There are just too many highlights to pick out (because in some regard, probably just about every film they’ve released would be nothing less than engaging). There are a few of my personal favourites attached to the Janus brand though, including Stalker, Withnail & I, the aforementioned Blood Simple, Persona and Paris, Texas. They may be a diverse selection of films, but they have a common thread, with the possible exception of Blood Simple. They all had an odd, unique quality that would, under the normal parameters of what distributors look for (including a few art-house distributors) be a difficult sell. Now Blood Simple, with all the hallmarks of classic noir, would quite easily pop up elsewhere, but how do you sell Stalker? A near three hour film set at snails pace that opts for atmospheric immersion and philosophical introspection, in a setting that is largely plain and sparse.
Or what of the Withnail & I? Two out of work actors go on holiday, moan constantly with some humour that may initially go above the head of its audience. Not least too, that many of these films did not have hugely recognisable names attached during initial release. If there’s a scene from the achingly beautiful Paris, Texas that people generally remember more than any other, it’s the confessional re-uniting of Harry Dean Stanton’s protagonist, with ex-lover Natassja Kinski. Laid out in an odd but imaginative setting where Kinski cannot see Stanton (until she eventually twigs who it is). Without spoiling too much I won’t mention the reasoning or outcome but it goes against conventionality and this is what distributors often look for; the familiar. Janus takes on films with unique beauty and puts faith in finding the audiences. This is why so many of their catalogue which I have seen, tend to stick with me. Even if some may take a few viewings to fully appreciate. These are films with layers.
Further, many of the releases go well beyond being ‘outside the box.’ Some are just down right weird. The Japanese fantasy horror (it actually defies all description, but we’ll say that just for any kind of label) House is a prime example. One of the weirdest films ever made. Lars Von Trier, a director of wilful vision and his odd debut, Element Of Crime. A blending of noir, sci-fi, dystopia, eroticism with a cinematographic vision covered in amber monochrome (perhaps owing nods to the opening sequences in Stalker). Film-makers around the world pushing convention and breaking boundaries are given the platform to break the Western market (or in the case of American directors, their own turf).
If you’re looking to broaden your cinematic horizons then delving around the cinema of the world is a good start. As such a company like Janus films is a good point of contact. You need only look through their back catalogue, or indeed the specially curated 50 that were included in the Criterion Box Set (released to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Janus Films). A browse through their site, loaded with titles, and eye-catching stills which appear to tell a story even as just a millisecond snapshot captured from the film. You could do worse than take a speculative browse and see if anything grabs your attention to watch (I did so myself, and won’t claim to have heard of even half of the films, but so many are now on my watch-list). Youtube is a good resource as you are likely to find films from the likes of Ozu and Bergman on there (to name a couple).
If I had one further suggestion for the film explorer, it would be this. Diversify the cinema. Roam from the best of the UK that Janus may offer (The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa could make a good Bob Hoskins double bill), then France (Le Samourai is one of the coolest films ever made, L’Avventura is ground-breaking as far as resolution expectations), Italy (Bicycle Thieves and anything from Fellini), etc. Work through Europe. Work through Asia, however you wish to, but be sure to hit every corner of the globe. Janus Films have covered it.
Do you have any favourites from Janus Films? Any recommendations? Let us know in the comments below…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.