Few organizations have done as much as Janus Films to bring classic and contemporary foreign and art house films to viewers in America. A pillar of film restoration and presentation in America, Janus, along with the Criterion Collection, is almost universally trusted by cinephiles, and much of their success can be attributed to William J. Becker, who passed away on September 12.
Janus Films was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing some of the world’s best directors to American renown, including Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Yasujirō Ozu, and countless others.
Founded in 1956, Janus Films was purchased by William J. Becker and Saul J. Turell in 1965. The duo was largely responsible for the spread of Janus’ influence, epitomized by their first big success: introducing Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal to the U.S.
While Janus may not be familiar to casual film viewers, The Criterion Collection, a subsidiary of Janus Films, likely is. At this point, the two go hand-in-hand. Peter Becker, President of Criterion, called their relationship “symbiotic.”
Criterion’s history is full of twists and turns, dating back to its emergence in 1984. William J. Becker was pivotal in establishing a partnership between Janus Films and the then fledgling Voyager Company in the mid-80s. Voyager saw an opportunity with the emergence of laser discs to provide extra content (like film stills) to viewers. The format also enabled the inclusion of separate mono audio tracks for the now familiar audio commentary feature that supplements the viewing experience. Voyager would eventually become Criterion, and Becker’s son, the aforementioned Peter Becker, would eventually become The Criterion Collection’s president, a position he remains in today.
With the passing of William Becker, it’s worth remembering the company that brought us iconic DVD editions of films like The Grand Illusion, Ingmar Bergman’s epic Fanny & Alexander, and Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, as well as important works of cinematic art like the neo-realist Rome Open City into our homes.
A video from Criterion’s “Three Reasons” series that highlights three reasons a film in the collection is a classic.
This 1999 Cinéaste interview with Peter Becker is an illuminating portrait of one mind behind a company that would make a major impact in the viewing habits of cinephiles. It offers fascinating insight into the process of the company: (e.g., how decisions were made about aspect ration and what technologies they had to adapt to).
An essay in the Journal of Film and Video from 2001, written before Criterion became the behemoth it is today, titled “What is the Criterion? The Criterion Collection as an Archive of Film as Culture” outlines the impact the company had already had on the way we watch films and the kinds of films that we had access to. Though there are many film archives doing great work around the world, The Criterion Collection has created, “a film archive for the home viewer.”
Film is integral to our understanding of modern art and we spend most of our time praising the directorial prowess of a Steve McQueen, the cinematography of a Roger Deakins, the complete vision of a Marjane Satrapi; we talk less about a production company with an artistic vision that helps us better understand a historic film through restoration and insightful supplemental material. This interview and the “What is the Criterion?” essay give praise where praise isn’t often heaped.
A DVD extra from Criterion’s release of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused.