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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Janus Challenge Wrap-Up

Just joining us? For a list of all the articles in this series, click the Janus link in the header.

Clips Compilation

We put in so many hours watching these films and writing about them (I’m estimating close to 400 hours or so for me alone) that we felt compelled to do a little something special to commemorate the project’s completion. Hopefully, the following clips compilation will inspire you to add some of these films (IKIRU! IKIRU!) to your Netflix queue.

PARTY GAME: For every film you correctly identify, take a single shot of Strong Irish Whiskey!

Now on to our final comments. For the last year, for all fifty of these films, I wrote the article proper, and Matt was relegated to the “comments section ghetto.” No more, I tell you! Matt’s thoughts are RIGHT HERE (rather, right BELOW HERE), in the main article itself! My thoughts follow his. Which means that I get the last word.

janusmatt

Matt: Reflections on the 2009 Janus Challenge

I don’t think I’ll ever run a marathon. I don’t feel I have the stamina, skill or motivation to do so (Cami may disagree). But one has to look honestly at oneself to see what he (or she) is capable of. I am decidedly capable of sitting on my fat ass and watching fifty films. This isn’t the first time and will not be my last. Yes, I’ve watched 11 films in 7 days, 4 films in one day – I’ve hunkered down with a buttered popcorn – feet sticking to the floor and been awash with images (fleeting though they may be) of aliens from outer-space, of children laughing, of gun fire and bloodshed, of characters both nefarious and noble, women with something to hide, and women willing to show everything (and THEN SOME). I have vivid memories of the gal crying her eyes out before the showing of “Reds” – yelling for the projectionist to focus “Re-Animator” – screaming at the screen during “Rocky Horror” and waiting outside of the Grand Cinemas Alderwood for a friend or family member to pick me up. Never, though, have I sat down purposefully to watch 50 films (40 of which I probably barely heard of and most with subtitles) to go on a journey (albeit an 11 month journey) with my BFF Jason. It should be noted here that Jason put in all the hard work – I just provided half-assed comments that sometimes were relevant more often probably just head-scratching. Still…I sat down and watched all fifty films (52 if you want to be PARTICULAR, one I missed, one I watched that wasn’t on the list – but I digress…) and I wrote about them and posted my comments as instructed. I actually started AND finished something and that, my friends, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Now that this feast of film is done, Jason posed the notion that we write down our top five and bottom five. I will do that in a moment. But then, I plan on taking this one step further (since it’s not my blog, I figure I can fill up Jason’s blog – what the hell).

Matt: Bottom Five

5. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART II

Part I was also terrible. Don’t bother.

4. FISTS IN THE POCKET

Unhappy, unlikable people doing unhappy and unlikable things to each other. I would rather spend time with my in-laws (oh snap)!

3. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

A stage play almost literally put on screen. From the acting to the writing to the boredom – it was ALL THERE! All done with a solid coating of pretentiousness.

2. RICHARD III

Larry Olivier running amok. No cleavage. Battle scenes staged like a shopping trip to Safeway. Another filmed play that should have been left on the stage.

1. RULES OF THE GAME

Though the story was interesting and the acting and mix of comedy and heartbreak was done well, I couldn’t get past the killing of the animals…just left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Matt: Top Five

5. THE FALLEN IDOL

This film was great in its simplicity. Where the constant wondering of when something would be “figured out” was paramount. It kept the suspense at a breaking point. Never has just a balcony caused me more consternation.

4. M

Peter Lorre as a child killer. German film-making at its most cigar smoked. Brilliant film – pushed the envelope in a lot of directions both acting, writing and cinematography.

3. THE THIRD MAN

A film noir classic. Twisting, turning and twisting again. Orson Welles perfect as Harry Lime. Location work adds a layer you don’t see in the CGI world of today’s Hollywood. Just stunning.

2. THE SEVEN SAMURAI

A western to beat all westerns and it’s not really a western. One of those films where you can fault Kurosawa for using clichés then realizing that this film did them first – it’s the films that came after that were loaded with clichés. Nearly 3 hours, this was the longest film in the collection and one of the most amazing. Setting the climax during a rain storm? That took balls.

1. IKIRU

This film could easily be dismissed as the Japanese version of Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” but it’s so much more than that. A story of age and loss, of frustration and triumph. A story of change and promise. To say that Kurosawa directed both this AND the “Seven Samurai” is just another testament to Kurosawa’s brilliance. This is a story for everyone. I’ll never sit on a swing set the same way again.

Now, having thrown out my top and bottom five, I could probably throw in another ten or fifteen, almost – but I don’t want to bore you with that here, better to bore you with other musings. Simply: “How was I affected by this journey of fifty films?” I will tell you.

As an Artist

I was fascinated to see how these various film-makers took film to a more pure and artistic level. In my mind of film-making – I’m constantly bringing Hollywood films down to the level of product. The equivalent to Coke or Pepsi or Pepperoni Pizza. Watching these fifty films reminded me that cinema can, AND SHOULD BE, an art form.

As a Screenwriter

I was constantly amazed at how simple many of these stories were. In this era of adding characters and plot twists, the majority of these stories were stunning in their simplicity. Whether it’s three people on a yacht, an old guy traveling to another town, an old guy and his dog, etc. – you didn’t need bigger and better and more complex stories to get to the heart of just the simplicity of actors acting and reciting words by screenwriters.

As a Film-maker

To piggy-back the screenwriting comment: Simple stories, simply told. Yes, some films had weird camera angles. Yes, there were moments where the director said: “Look at this cool shot and lets not pay attention the story…” but the majority of the films didn’t rely on any cheap graphics or gimmicks to tell the story. I really felt that there was a constant challenge or constant reference to the source material – the written word wasn’t dismissed because it didn’t fit a certain demographic.

As an American

I will admit (as I admitted many times in my reviews) that I didn’t have a real “affinity” for subtitles. I found my typical American boorishness rising to the surface as, yet again, I had to suffer through both watching AND reading a film. But as time progressed it became less of an issue (unless the film was particularly boring or talkative or my patience started to wear thin).

As a Christian

It was interesting to see how many of the films had religious themes or overtones (esp. Bergman). I don’t recall many films of today even barely TOUCHING on something like “Does God Exist?” and, of course, there was the long and involved dialogue that stemmed out of one of Jason’s commentaries that took on a life (and blog) of its own. Still – it was good to see the questions posted. It was good to challenge the status quo. It was good to see the envelopes pushed. Whether it was Haxan, or Viridiana or The Seventh Seal, etc.

As a Friend

Throughout the 25+ years I’ve known Jason – we have planned to do things together. Some of those things came to fruition: “Road to Tacoma” anyone? But most fell by the wayside. Often by my choice. Honestly that came from my deep-seated feeling that I could never hold a candle to what Jason could do. I’m the guy who helps Jason get the wood, he’s the one who draws up the diagrams, buys the tools, hammers it all together and makes the gazebo. My role, though vitally important doesn’t even come close to what he’s capable of achieving. This little excursion to Janus Land is probably the most committed I have ever been to anything Jason and I have set our minds to. And, yes, of course he did most of the heavy lifting (like usual – and brilliant most of the time). I felt, often times, like I was the “color commentator” – he talks 75% of the time about everything that goes on and I toss in a half-assed comment here or there that I hope is marginally entertaining and enlightening. Even if only for the reader to roll their eyes and focus more on what Jason is saying. And even though this journey meant me sitting on my fat ass watching films on a 7″ screen – I was glad to take this journey with him and would love to do it again.

Thank you, Jason, for all your hard work/time/energy. It has truly been an experience.

Jason: Reflections on the 2009 Janus Challenge

Well, that was fun, right? When we first started this project, I had serious doubts about whether we’d pull it off, but: WE DID. Fifty films (technically fifty-two, as Matt pointed out, but I refuse to acknowledge the two extra films snuck in by Saul J. “Cheater” Turell), fifty articles, and untold hours spent combing through Google Image results.

Some scattered thoughts:

I started out telling people that the Janus collection represented the “Best in World Cinema,” but I’ve since re-evaluated that glib summary. For one thing, the Janus collection consists primarily of European films, with a very limited selection of Japanese films. There are no films from any African or South American directors (unless I’m missing something), and only one film featuring a Black protagonist (Black Orpheus), and even that was directed by a (White) Frenchie. None of which makes this group of films any less valid, but let’s be clear about what is included and what is not.

For another thing, the Janus set only includes films which were distributed by Janus, and even then the choices are sometimes perplexing (e.g. fluff like Summertime is included, but there are no films by Tarkovsky).

I was surprised at how many of these films were either directly or tangentially about war.

Robin is always pointing out how few movies are made from a woman’s perspective, and, based on this selection of films, I would have to concede the point.

On the plus side…

We got to see no less than three films starring Machiko Kyo and her crazy floating eyebrows.

The set contained a large percentage of “yeah-I’ve-always-meant-to-see-that” films, and a few of those have now been added to the (highly subjective, wildly inconsistent, and frequently revised) “BEST MOVIES EVER MADE, AS OF TODAY, ACCORDING TO ME” (BMEM,AOT,ATM).

Matt had some nice things to say above, and I don’t want to belabor the mutual admiration society BUT: Thank goodness for Matt. Without his input, this project would only have been half as satisfying. Maybe even less than half. Two-fifths, tops. Plus he’s one of my favorite people.

On to the lists…

I’ve already written long-winded articles about each of the films below, so my comments will be brief. Also, since one of the goals of this project was to see some “important” films that we’ve somehow missed in the past, I’ve selected my Top Five from among the films that were new to me (meaning I left out The Third Man and L’Avventura, which would both have been on my list in any universe created by a loving and omnipotent Judeo-Christian God).

Jason: Top Five

Fallen Idol – Elegant, clever, artfully shot and very British. Crackling dialogue, a gripping plot, and juicy acting. The kid is slightly irritating, but Michèle Morgan is breathtaking and Ralph Richardson can communicate a world of nuance with a cocked eyebrow or a darting glance. The best Hitchcock film not actually directed by Hitchcock, and a new addition to the previously-mentioned BMEM,AOT,ATM.

Ikiru – Possibly the saddest, most profoundly moving film I have ever seen. If you can only see one Kurosawa film, see this one. Oh, and Seven Samurai. Wait…

Le jour se lève – Gloriously doom-laden noir, with nasty banter, lots of cigarette-smoking, and a surprisingly non-judgmental view of adult sexual relationships. Why have I never noticed Arletty in a film before this? In this film, she’s smart, sly, beautiful, wounded but never broken. I wanted Jean Gabin to end up with Arletty, not that simpering flower-girl waif. Of course, I also wanted him to not (SPOILER ALERT) shoot himself in the chest, so I’m 0-for-2.

Il Posto – A simple story, sympathetically told but absolutely devoid of false melodrama, that slowly builds to a final scene that manages to be both devastating and ruefully funny.

Spirit of the BeehiveDays of Heaven as directed by David Lynch.

Jason: Bottom Five

Fists in the Pocket – Unpleasant and morose characters, flat dialogue, meandering plot. Also: visually uninteresting. Yes, I get that there’s a “mordant social critique” lurking below the surface, but I simply didn’t care enough to tease it out, and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

The Importance of Being Earnest – Ninety-five minutes of desperate mugging, absurd plot contrivances, and clumsy double-entendres. Left me feeling exhausted.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – The very few comments I have received from outsiders (by which I mean people that Matt and I don’t know personally) have been angry reactions to our semi-negative reviews of this film. I understand that it is beloved by many Britons, and I even flatter myself that I “get” what they love about it… but I think those people are wrong. I consider myself a Powell/Pressburger fan, but the only bright spot in Colonel Blimp was the witty and multi-layered performance by Anton Walbrook.

Pygmalion – At what point does a film cross over from being about a misogynist asshole to simply being misogynist? Judging by this film, about five minutes in.

The Seventh Seal – Hermetically-sealed and not-as-profound-as-you’ve-been-led-to-believe Swedish navel-gazing at its most suffocating.

SummertimeHow Katharine Hepburn Got Her Groove Back just does not belong in this set, even if it was directed by Sir David Fancypants Lean.

With that, we bring the Janus Challenge to a close. For those of you who followed along or who commented: Thank you for your interest in the fifi organization!

Epilogue

After we finished our wrap-up, I sent an email to the folks at Janus with a link to this series of articles. I hoped to receive a nod of approval or a hearty “well done, chaps!” but half-expected to receive a threat of legal action instead. Much to our surprise and delight, somebody at the Janus offices actually liked what we had done. Better yet, they demonstrated their love by sending us a package full of official Janus/Criterion swag!

Since receiving the package of goodies, Matt and I have been flaunting our accessories at every opportunity, as evidenced by the pictures below.

Thanks, Sarah at Janus!

3 Comments

  1. Well, as you both know, I didn’t follow along, but… I’m surprised about your least favorite picks. The Importance of Being Ernest and Pygmalian – really? I loved the plays when I read them in my 300 level WWU Lit of the Brit Isles. Also, Richard III. It was actually one of my favorites in college. I saw the Seventh Seal in a class, too (I think at EdCC with Jen??). Did my education introduce me to the worst of the worst? What up with that, peeps? In any case, the clips were great and they made me wish that I’d tracked with you two.

    Love you both.
    -C

  2. You did not fail. Excellent.

  3. Jason & Matt-
    Let me join the adoration of you two. I love you both, and I am so happy to see that you put aside the time to work on something this intense, even though you live on different coastlines.
    I always thought you were both cute and smart, and I still do.
    Love
    Jenny

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