THE MCCOLUMN: Films Worth Mulling Over

Cambridge is full of surprises. For instance, did you know that art-house cinema was born here?

Well, technically most of it came from European and Asian directors like Jean Renoir (“Grand Illusion”), Federico Fellini (“La Strada,” “8 1/2”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“L’Avventura,” “Blowup”), Ingmar Bergman (“The Seventh Seal”), and Akira Kurosawa (“Rashomon”) in the middle third of the 20th century.

But without Janus Films, a distribution company based at the Brattle Theater, these artistes and their masterpieces might not have reached a broader American audience—it’s all relative, after all.

At the very least, these movies wouldn’t have been shown in art-house theaters across the country, and wouldn’t have subtly introduced so many philosophical issues into modern cinematic discourse.

The Brattle has celebrated Janus’ fiftieth anniversary since mid-October, beginning a month-long series with a newly restored print of Renoir’s send-up of the French upper class, “Rules of the Game”—a film some French critics have called the best ever made.

The Brattle repertory series ends on Thanksgiving Day with Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” But, before you head off to gorge on turkey, consider stopping off at 40 Brattle St. I guarantee it’ll be more culturally enriching than Facebook-stalking your freshman year entryway-mate or reading your friends’ away messages on AIM.

This Sunday, Nov. 19—yes, the day after The Game—a pair of Spanish films will alternate twice throughout the day. They are “Death of a Cyclist” by Juan Antonio Bardem and “Cría Cuervos” by Carlos Saura, both musings on death and guilt.

It’s not exactly a heartwarming way to ease yourself into the Thanksgiving spirit, but it’ll get your brain working again after the previous day’s bacchanalian festivities.

The Brattle ends its celebration of Janus Films with a bang, pairing the Kurosawa crime drama “High and Low” with Roman Polanski’s debut feature “Knife in the Water,” on Monday, Nov. 20 and Tuesday, Nov. 21, respectively.

If you have to see one of the remaining pictures at the Brattle, see “High and Low.” It’s more accessible than other Kurosawa pictures and discusses the human capacity for compassion in terms that will resonate with modern audiences.

After releasing a spate of mostly excellent samurai flicks starring fearless Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa snuck in “High and Low,” a challenging work that raised questions of morality through the stark, visceral imagism of his earlier works “Rashomon” and “Ikiru.”

The film revolves around a misunderstanding. A rich businessman is caught in the middle of a company coup and believes that kidnappers have captured his son. He’s ready to bankrupt himself to ensure his son’s safety. Then, learns that his son is actually safe and that it’s his chauffeur’s child who is at risk. Does he pay the ransom?

The film is gritty—as New York Times critic A. O. Scott ’88 put it in a review, “It’s full of gamey details and a kind of sleazy anxious sweaty mood.”

Mifune’s performance perfectly balances traditional Japanese restraint and righteous anger at the deplorable morality both of his business partners and of the ransomers.

I hesitate to spoil more of the film, but suffice it to say that Kurosawa makes a definitive statement about whether people are inherently compassionate or selfish.

Polanski strings equally palpable tension throughout “Knife in the Water,” a three-person drama about a couple who, out of guilt, invite a hitchhiker who they’ve almost run over out for a day of boating. The anxiety explored in this film is of the awkward sexual variety, as the husband competes to prove his superior virility through a series of contrived tests of masculinity.

What differentiates “High and Low” and “Knife in the Water” from modern attempts to wrestle with the issues they discuss (besides the language gap and the prevalence of color film), is the care with which the directors treat their films. Today, we seem to regard bigger and faster as inherently better, with more dialogue, scenes, and spectacular effects popping up in film after film.

In a New York Times piece on the movie, critic Manohla Dargis quoted Serbian director Dusan Makavejev: “[Yugoslavian filmmakers] had to use artistic means to work around the government so we could tell a story,” he said. “In Hollywood you have to deal with a mass-market society where everything is judged against the best seller and the tastes of the majority are the tyranny.”

This ethos seems to explain the contemporary move away from longer shots, smaller casts, and more thoughtful cinematic construction. So much the worse for viewers.

Still, accomplished modern filmmakers recognize the huge debt they owe to legends like Kurosawa and Polanski even if the average consumer may not.

In an interview with Prairie Miller of the Long Island Press, Allen deliberately prostrated himself before the greats: “You can look at a film of Kurosawa’s and a film of mine, and see the difference,” he said. “There’s just no qualitative comparison. One is a work of art, and even my best film is just a good film, by someone who makes some good films and some not so good films.”

In an age in which we are bombarded with swarms of information and angry noises from a business philosophy of mass marketability, perhaps now is the best time to head to the Brattle, take a few hours, and watch one of these quintessential cinematic masterpieces.

—Columnist Kyle L.K. McAuley can be reached at kmcauley@fas.harvard.edu.