• Red, White, and Blog

    By Peter Becker

    We’ve been getting some questions about the three children’s classics from Janus Films. One good customer writes: “I’m wondering what the situation with The Red Balloon, White Mane, and Paddle to the Sea is. They are listed on the Criterion press release as April titles, but they don’t appear on the Coming Soon page. Will they indeed be Criterion titles with spine numbers, or are they being released by some other branch of the Janus family? If it is the latter, can we expect future titles to follow suit?"

    The short answers are: no, the current editions will not have spine numbers or supplemental features; and no, we do not have plans to bring out more Janus Films–branded straight editions at the moment. We are working on Criterion editions of The Red Balloon and White Mane, which we hope to have ready for the fall of this year, but Paddle to the Sea is not currently scheduled for a full special edition.

    So why the different handling? Because these films are different. Yes, they are classics of world cinema, but they also need to reach a broad audience we don’t usually have to consider: children and their families. Most Criterion editions are geared toward a fairly sophisticated viewership, lovers of classic and contemporary cinema who want to explore the making of each film in depth. They are undaunted by subtitles, for example, and they value supplemental features like interviews with filmmakers and scholars that set each film in context. In contrast to the average Cannes Palme d’or winner, The Red Balloon needs to reach an audience that may not even know how to read! Much of what sets a Criterion edition apart will be lost on them. As with our Eclipse line, we didn’t want our own work style (and its commensurate cost) to keep these films from reaching their audience. We don’t expect anyone to go out and buy both editions—we’re not fans of double dipping either—but in this case wanted to make simple editions of the films available, keeping costs as low as possible, to encourage a broader audience of children and their families to try what we think are some of the best children’s films ever made.

    To give another example of how these films need special treatment, consider the recent theatrical release of The Red Balloon and White Mane, which has played across the country. When Janus released Pierrot le fou, it made only a few prints, playing them over a stretch of many months, so that in the end the film had been seen in more than fifty cities. For The Red Balloon and White Mane, the theatrical release had to be collapsed into a mere six weeks, running from the week before Thanksgiving to just after New Year’s. Showtimes needed to be limited mostly to matinees and weekends, and most theaters wanted to book the film during the holiday breaks from school. That meant making more prints than we usually would, playing as many as fifteen cities simultaneously, something we would never need to do for The Rules of the Game or a Kurosawa retrospective, for example. The point being: reaching this audience has meant being a little flexible and being willing to do things a little differently.

    Another customer, watching out for our best interests and the interests of the films, writes: “I am absolutely delighted to learn of the upcoming April 29 release, via the Janus Films catalog, of Albert Lamorisse’s classic short films Le ballon rouge (1956) and Crin Blanc (1952). But I am puzzled and dismayed that you chose to issue them as separate titles, given that they total only 72 minutes combined and they have previously been available together on the VHS medium. I cannot fathom what reason your company had for not offering them together as a single DVD, especially since White Mane is by far the lesser known of the pair and will not receive the wide attention it deserves, and would obviously garner if it were coupled with the world-famous Red Balloon, for which there will naturally be very wide demand. I urge you to reconsider this bizarre marketing decision and promptly offer both titles as one release.”

    Well, this one is a judgment call, and obviously not everyone is going to agree with our decision. I, for one, feel passionately that White Mane (Crin Blanc) has lived too long in the shadow of The Red Balloon. The film is a masterpiece in its own right and, as no less a figure than Pauline Kael said, “one of the most beautiful films ever made.” For decades White Mane has been treated as a kind of B side to The Red Balloon, but it is far too good for that. Cinematically it is stunningly visceral, and it so captured the attention of another of America’s great writers—James Agee—that he took it upon himself to write his own adaptation of the film. Lamorisse’s debut work made such an impression at Cannes that when The Red Balloon was submitted to the festival a few years later, it became the only short film admitted into competition for the Palme d’or. Since then, White Mane has been very poorly treated in the U.S.—rewritten with new narration and cut by about twenty minutes in all its previous video incarnations. All this will be explored in the Criterion edition, but in the meantime we feel the time has come for the rehabilitation of one of the long-lost classics. We don’t feel that force of habit is a good enough reason to keep releasing White Mane alongside its better-known younger brother. We made a similar decision when we uncoupled Alain Resnais’ thirty-one-minute Night and Fog from Hiroshima mon amour. Those two shared a VHS tape as well, but in our view it did both films—and their very different audiences—a disservice. We released Night and Fog separately at $14.95, as we are doing here, and we’ve never regretted that choice. White Mane deserves to stand on its own.

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