Starting this weekend, as the New York Film Festival begins its annual run of what's meant to represent the best in international films, handpicked by a select (and mercifully smart) group of critics and programmers, the debates over what merited inclusion in such a distinguished showcase will begin. Although often crammed with too many Upper West Side blue-hairs who bought their tix in bulk and have showed up addle-brained and with shopping bag in tow (I recall an altercation I had with an elderly upper west sider, who had dressed up in his Sunday best and then proceeded to stand IN FRONT OF ME during...Tropical Malady), Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall for two weeks becomes a lively arena for strong opinions: bombarded directors at Q&As, loud groans of disapproval, sometimes followed by angry seat-bolters. Whether the films selected for such a small yet prestigious festival deserve their placement will always be beside the point (recent unwelcome infiltrators like Palindromes and Free Radicals keep the fest balanced at least); time-wasting will always be a part of any festival.
Just next door at the gloriously comfortable, vastly more movie-friendly Walter Reade Theater, right alongside the main program, is the official NYFF sidebar, this year honoring the 50th anniversary of the legendary distribution company Janus Films, with all new 35mm prints. There's no chance of seeing a dud here: as any movie-lover knows, that Janus symbol, the two-headed coin that pops up before the film, is an irreducible stamp of quality.
Janus, founded in 1956, was the sole reason that Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut nagged their first U.S. viewers, yet for future generations the company's legacy encompasses even more. For those of my age, inclined towards seeking out quality foreign cinema while sequestered in a suburban town, the Janus coin didn't connote theatrical experience. Rather, more often than not, my stack of weekly library films--my first discoveries of Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman--would be emblazoned with the mark of Janus. My experience of The Virgin Spring, La Strada, and Rashomon was not in some glorious movie house of yore (I didn't make it to the historic Brattle Theatre, the birthplace of Janus, till I was much older, even though it was only forty-five minutes away), but rather on my miniscule, 13-inch television set, while sitting in my creaky rocking chair. Even after watching so many of these classics in their pristine DVD transfers, and even now that I can finally see a number of them in their "full glory" on the wide, intimidating screen of the Walter Reade (and beyond; the series is touring the country afterwards, from Boston to DC to San Francisco...go to janusfilms.com for more information) I cannot envision one frame of any of them without remembering this specific intimacy.
If you're in the area, the series is a must. "50 Years of Janus Films" will be showing a host of films that aren't readily available on DVD, including Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame De..., Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters, and Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism, alongside the tried-and-true classics, none of which I ever tire of, from Truffaut's The 400 Blows to Bergman's Wild Strawberries. So, let's say this Saturday night, you've got a ticket for the latest trendy American indie at the NYFF...do yourself a favor and scalp off that Little Children ticket for some extra cash (yeah, we get it, the suburbs are a hotbed of pedophilia and infidelity...parents are just like their kids.....zzzzzzzz), and waltz over to the Walter Reade for a showing of Renoir's Rules of the Game instead. You'll feel better about yourself in the morning.