Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Henri Langlois

(This one's dedicated to Acquarello.)

I recently read Richard Roud’s 1983 biography of Langlois (A Passion For Films) and watched Jacques Richard’s documentary, Henri Langlois: Phantom Of The Cinematheque. At three-and-a-half hours, the European DVD of the film is almost twice as long as the American release.

Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1936. He was, by all accounts, a complex man: visionary, inspiring, tireless, hilarious, nutty. I thought I’d reproduce, for your reading kicks, a few selected excerpts from Roud’s biography below. All unattributed quotations are by Roud.

— From Truffaut’s foreword to the book:

“[Langlois was] a man as picturesque and as contradictory as a Dickens character, a man who gave his friendship sparingly, and who could withdraw it on a caprice, a suspicion, or an “intuition.”

“In Mr. Arkadin, the title character, played by Orson Welles, recounts a dream he has had: wandering through a cemetery, he noticed that all the tombstones had pairs of dates very close to each other: 1919-1925 or 1907-1913. He asked the cemetery watchman, “Do the people in this country all die young?” “No,” answered the watchman, “these dates indicate the length of time that a friendship lasted.”

[...] “Like all “haunted” men, Henri Langlois divided the world, people, and events into two camps: (1) what was good for the Cinémathèque Française and (2) what was bad for it. Even if you had been friends with him for a decade, he never wasted time asking how you were, or how your family was getting along, because the very notions of health and family could be related only to the health of the Cinémathèque, the family of the Cinémathèque.”

— On the all-encompassing eclecticism of the Cinémathèque:

Rivette: “One could see there successively at 6:30 p.m. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and at 8:30 Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls. And it was fabulous precisely because one could see Griffith and Warhol together on the same night. Because it was then that one realized that there are not two or three kinds of cinema, there’s only one cinema. It was the perceptual interaction of the present and the past of the cinema that was so exciting.”

Roud: “His great joy was to establish an evening’s screenings so that the film shown at 6:30 would have some hidden connection with the film at 8:30 and the one at 10:30—nothing obvious like the same director or the same stars or even the same studio or the same country. He didn’t care whether the audience noticed a connection, for he was sure that unconsciously they would learn from the juxtapositions—a form of montage.”

— Resisting the prison of taste in the interests of the future:

“One great difference between Langlois’s policy and that of the world’s other archives is that he did not believe in selection. Langlois even felt obliged later to take to task his great friend Iris Barry, who, when offered all of Buster Keaton’s films for the Museum of Modern Art, decided that she would save only “the best." How can I choose, asked Langlois, when a film like Feuillade’s Barabbas was considered for so long to be of no interest? Obviously, some element of choice was dictated by the Cinémathèque’s limited budget. But from the very beginning Langlois assumed that all the work of any director he considered to be of interest was worth saving. In that sense, he was the first of the “auteurists.”

[...] “Langlois saved many films, like [Feyder’s] L’Image, in extremis: their producers had already directed the labs to destroy some of these precious negatives. A few days later they would have been gone forever, melted down for their celluloid: “The comb you use every morning might well have been made from a fragment of Broken Blossoms, The Cheat, or Coeur Fidèle.””

— Cinema = Food.

“Langlois had saved for posterity a number of important films, and he had formed a whole generation of filmmakers by showing them the masterpieces of the cinema. As he himself put it, in his inimitable English: “I have never said this movie is good, this movie is bad; they discover by themselves. I have not helped, I have not talked. I have put food on the table and they have taken the food and eaten, and then gone on to eat more and more food. All I give them is food, food, food, food. This is my work, to show films; to save and to show films, nothing more. Henri Langlois does not exist; only exists the Cinémathèque Française….Not exist Henri Langlois, only exists the Cinémathèque Française.””

— On surrealism, Feuillade and the cinema:

“The discovery of surrealism was not a turning point in [Langlois’s] intellectual life; it simply confirmed something that he had already been prepared for since his childhood viewings of the films of Ferdinand Zecca and Emile Cohl—naive pioneer filmmakers who were nevertheless ahead of the whole surrealist movement of the twenties. “I am convinced," he wrote in 1965, “that surrealism preexisted in cinema. Les Vampires was already an expression of the twentieth century and of the universal subconscious.” And indeed, although Feuillade had been thought of as a mere maker of melodramas about stolen documents, kidnapped heroines, and villains who wanted to rule the world, and as such had been despised by the French avant-garde filmmakers of his time, his films—through his visual genius for protosurrealistic images—transcended the genre.

[...] “It was difficult for critics of the twenties to separate Feuillade from the other, less talented directors of melodramas; to judge, one needs time. The French were able to appreciate Griffith immediately only because he was exotic for them—separation by space served the function of separation in time.

[...] “The rediscovery of Feuillade had a double effect: on the one hand, it rewrote cinema history, for Feuillade was a forgotten figure in France and was unknown in Great Britain and America. The other effect was Feuillade’s influence on directors like Resnais, Franju, and Rivette, whose original thirteen–hour version of Out One especially seems to show that influence. Up to 1944, it had often been said that the French cinema had two traditions—Méliès and Lumière, fantasy and reality, or what you will. But Feuillade became, as Francis Lacassin put it, the Third Man, and filmmakers were struck by the mixture of realism and surrealism in his work.”

— On nitrate film:

“In December 1950 the French government had passed a law which would make it eventually illegal to show, transport, or even possess nitrate film. This, to Langlois, was a great tragedy. The first fifty–five years of film history were on nitrate cellulose stock. It is of course highly inflammable; it is also visually superior to the acetate stock that has been used since the early fifties. André Malraux once proclaimed that even if the Mona Lisa were painted on dynamite, he would preserve it. Langlois felt the same way about nitrate. “He loved nitrate,” Kenneth Anger told me. “For him it was a living, breathing thing that could die of neglect.”

[…] “Perhaps because it was impossible to prove the argument for or against transfer to acetate, nitrate film became Langlois’s favorite topic for years. “Whenever there was a lull in the conversation,” Elliott Stein told me, “instead of making some remark about the weather as most people do, Langlois would start talking about nitrate. It was his bête noire—he always had in his mind the fear that the antinitrate forces were closing in on him.””

* * *

Thoughts or anecdotes on French cinephilia, or for that matter, film archiving and preservation? You're welcome to share...

* * *

A few links:

Adrian has an essay on Tsai Ming-Liang (in English) in the new issue of the Spanish publication Tren De Sombras.

Dave Kehr's new post is about studios using stars for nostalgic appeal rather than focusing on filmmakers when deciding what DVDs to release.

Dave McDougall, of Chained To The Cinematheque, on the politics of Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth.

Mubarak, at Supposed Aura, on the use of situational "gags" in Luc Moullet's Parpaillon (1993).

Jason Sperb, at the academic blog Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope, on Laura Marks' The Skin Of Film, a book of Deleuzian film theory.

* * *

Well, the semester is now history, and the summer has begun. I have three months off from teaching and although I'm at work on a couple of projects, I still hope to have plenty of time to do some serious movie-watching and -reading. Last night, at Eastman House, I caught a double bill of two 1940's Westerns: Andre De Toth's Ramrod (a hard, icy gem—my first De Toth film, and a great discovery) and Fritz Lang's Western Union, which I had seen before. My next trip there will be for a double bill of Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (I'm on a quest to see the few studio-era Fuller films that have eluded me so far) and Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. And to top it all off, Killer of Sheep has come to town for a week.

I'm excited about meeting up with Darren in Toronto in just a few weeks to catch some Pedro Costa and Straub/Huillet. It'll be like a warm-up for TIFF. Speaking of TIFF, Olaf Möller's appetizing Berlin report in the new Film Comment has jump-started my list-making for the festival. And beginning today, Cannes dispatches will move that list-making up a notch...


Blogger Daniel said...

Great excerpts Girish, Langlois was one of a kind. Where is his type nowadays?

May 16, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Daniel, I didn't realize until I saw the documentary that because he poured every cent/sous into his passion, he died miserably, and flat broke. The day he died, he had been climbing up and down the stairs to use his neighbors' telephone all day because he didn't have electric or phone service...

May 16, 2007 8:14 PM  
Blogger dave said...

wow, those excerpts are fantastic!

Girish, thanks for the link. I'm proud of that piece and hope it can illuminate the film for those that have seen it, and serve as a primer for those that haven't.

As for nitrate stock, I wonder what the difference in look is...

I am quite jealous of your trip to Toronto to check out those Costa films ("Still Lives" is the excellent title of the series, which makes me think of equal parts Cezanne and Terrence Davies). I just saw the part of the propgram where they mention "Pedro Costa's appearance at some of the screenings in this retrospective," and I've become quite jealous. wow, enjoy, should be a treat!

on a related note - and I'll put out another appeal just before I leave - I'll be headed to Portugal this summer. I'd love to pick up some Costa dvds (or for that matter, some Manoel de Oliveira)... anyone have specific Costa recommendations for me, or know what their availability is like there?

May 16, 2007 11:37 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

In just a few hours, I'm leaving town to go shoot a documentary on a tiny, one-screen independent art house theater in Springfield, MO. My inspiration to make this film? The Langlois doc. I love the idea of people who love cinema so much that they just want to show it, as opposed to making it themselves.

May 17, 2007 3:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Dave and David!

David, I'd like to see your documentary when it's done...!

May 17, 2007 6:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Acquarello on Philippe Garrel's Le Lit de la vierge (1969).
-- Zach on food and hunger in the cinema. (Hey, Zach--If that's what your writer's block can produce, I'll gladly take it off your hands, anytime...! Seriously, lots of good ideas/examples in your post...)

May 17, 2007 6:46 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

I think that "cinema=food" analogy is probably the closest to my heart. My signal to noise ratio for film viewing is pretty low, but still, I agree with the idea that we all learn something just from the experience of watching, even without getting into the subjectivity of taste.

I think your comment about Langlois dying in poverty is really an important point. You don't really see cinephiles like that anymore, people who aren't in it for the fame or name recognition (or to rub elbows with people who have them), but really just exist for this institution of the cinematheque. For me, the saddest moment in the film wasn't so much his death, but the appearance of that cinematheque board member talking head who trivialized his contribution by speaking in generalities about the great work and achievements of the institution. Langlois made the institution personal, after him, it became just another monolithic institution again.

May 17, 2007 11:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great points, Acquarello. Very true...

So many revealing anecdotes in the film. One I remember well is when the Gaumont official talks about flying from Paris to L.A. with Langlois, who told him (in all seriousness) that he was going to sell his return ticket when he got to L.A. and use the money to buy a print of a film. The government would eventually be forced to pick up the expense of sending him home at some point...

May 17, 2007 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Matt M. said...

You’re talking about The Moxie, right, David? Dan is a very funny guy. I can’t wait to check it out!

I pretty much stick to Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema Café, being that I’m slightly closer and generally prefer their selection. But it’s pretty amazing—to me, at least—that two stubbornly independent theaters are thriving in the mid-Missouri region. I’ve been able to watch films like Tropical Malady, Goodbye Dragon Inn, The Inland Empire, Three Times, Best of Youth, Army of Shadows, Werckmeister Harmonies, et cetera, on the—sort of—big screen, and it still amazes me.

May 17, 2007 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Let us know how you like the Jesse James double feature, Girish. The Fuller was the first of his films I ever saw, on television when I was eight years old. I did manage to see the Kaufman film in a little, out of the way theater in NYC not long after it was released.

I'll be moving back to Denver after Memorial Day which will mean more opportunities to see smaller films theatrically. My first weekend there I will be gong to the Aurora Asian Film Festival.

May 17, 2007 6:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt, we have a small, locally owned chain here in Buffalo which runs about 8-10 screens of indie/art cinema. They also run a theater that shows mainstream films, and they use it to subsidize the art films. It's an admirable endeavor and they've been doing it for years now, despite the mostly sparse attendance. Unfortunately, they don't bring in the really adventurous stuff (like Tarr, Apichatpong, Tsai, Hou) but a steady stream of 'middlebrow' (or borderline) films. Although, bless their hearts, they booked Killer Of Sheep this week. I was the only person in the theater for yesterday's afternoon show, and that's not uncommon. I don't know how they swing it economically but they're committed to it.

Peter, in addition to the Fuller Jesse James film which I plan to catch, I just acquired Baron of Arizona on VHS and learned that Hell & High Water is being released imminently on DVD, which leaves just one Fuller that has completely eluded me so far: China Gate!

And one of my recent fun discoveries is the made-for-cable mid-90's item Girls In Prison, by John McNaughton, with Anne Heche and Ione Skye, written by Sam & Christa Fuller...

May 18, 2007 9:23 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Girish, you liked Girls in Prison? Now I'm going to have a nagging feeling in the back of my head to watch it again one day. In 2002 or 2003 I rented it for the Fuller connection, as well as to see if John McNaughton might have that certain something ... didn't like it at all. But now ...

Anyway, the real reason I dropped by this moment was to point to a great mp3 blog I just got tipped off to - Awesome Tapes from Africa

May 18, 2007 9:27 AM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

Yeah, Matt, the Moxie it is!

May 18, 2007 12:02 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

On nitrate, I'm currently reading the wonderful anthology This Film is Dangerous and it's packed with people trying to describe the difference between viewing a nitrate print and an acetate or polyester print. Paolo Cherchi Usai's contribution is called "An Epiphany of Nitrate". (I haven't gotten to that one yet though).

Of course there are also plenty of stories of disasters and deaths cuased by the use of nitrate stock. And other reminders of the messy, dark side of our cinema heritage. The vegetarian in me was disquieted by the description of the importance of slaughtering baby calves to help produce early film stocks. And I'm tempted to forgive the producers who melted down film prints to extract the silver after reading what percentage of the world's silver supply was tied up in the movies in the 1920s.

One interesting opinion given is that in fact the nitrate material has little to do with the luminosity and the accompanying epiphanies modern film scholars and historians have experienced when viewing nitrate prints- it was the reduction of the silver content in the prints, which occured at the same time as the switchover to acetate. Sounds potentially plausible. Actually the only time I've seen a confirmed nitrate print at one of the few theatres able to project them (the Stanford) I had no epiphany whatsoever. It was a scratchy print of a not-particularly-good film (Moon Over Miami), and the color was actually somewhat faded. Though this book implies that it's the black-and-white nitrate prints that are particularly luminous.

I wish I could be a little more specific but it's a huge tome, not exactly portable, and I don't have it with me right now.

Great post and discussion, girish, everyone.

Another wonderful film on passionate exhibitors is Uli Gaulke's Comrades in Dreams, currently on the festival circuit.

May 18, 2007 3:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, guys.

Zach, that mp3-blog is great. And I discovered a bunch more through the blogroll there...

And yeah, Girls in Prison is a good (and very Fullerian!) film...

Brian, fascinating points, and all news to me! I knew precious little about nitrate until I read the Langlois book, and will now put in a library request for This Film Is Dangerous. And thank you also for the links...

May 18, 2007 9:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Chris Fujiwara reviews the new Resnais film, Private Fears In Public Places, in the Boston Phoenix.
-- Darren on Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth.
-- Filmbrain on Friedkin's Bug.

May 19, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Brian, thanks for linking to my review!

May 19, 2007 7:13 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Thank you for this lovely homage, Girish. Especially for the quotes from Roud's biography. I caught Richard's documentary, the European version, when it screened at the Pacific Film Archives in November 2004. It was enjoyable but a long haul I recall. I imagine watching it on dvd would be the way to go and an easier way to pace and digest the documentary's feast of anecdotes. I found it difficult to absorb all that information at the PFA screening and had trouble afterwards remembering anything specific. Only later did select anecdotes bubble to the surface. Like how Langlois saved thousands of prints from being destroyed by the Nazis by smuggling them in a baby carriage; included among that cargo—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Blue Angel. Or how Hitchcock, having promised to donate something to the Cinémathèque, delivered La tete de Madame Bates from Psycho. It was hilarious to watch Langlois present this to documentarian Richard, scarved in plastic!

My Evening Class cohort Michael Hawley visited Langlois' cinema museum before it "burned down" in 1997 (with its attendant controversy over the actual reason why everything got put back in crates and removed from the Palais Chaillot). While in Paris together, we paid a visit to Langlois' grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse, which clearly marks Langlois' passion for film. I don't recall it being shown in the documentary.

We likewise took note that the Cinémathèque Français moved into the Frank Gehry-designed US Cultural Center on the east side of Paris and happened to be there for the Cinémathèque's re-opening. As you can imagine, the place was mobbed and you could still smell drying paint in some of the exhibition spaces. I'll piggyback your entry and post Michael's remembrances of that eventful day over at The Evening Class. I capped off that fortuitous experience with a cup of coffee and crepes sweetened with Bon Maman cherry preserves, waiting for Michael by the Parc de Bercy children's carousel, which--instead of a calliope jingle--offered up James Brown's "Get Up I Feel Like Being Like a (Sex Machine)" and Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Paris is enchanting.

May 19, 2007 2:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Michael, for your delightful Parisian rememberances! And also for linking to your post.

Your Psycho anecdote reminds me of Philippe Garrel in the film, when he talks about the Cinematheque "museum" with all its artifacts being Langlois' way of 'making a film'. Roud speaks similarly of Langlois fretting and sweating over just the right juxtapositions (or 'montage'!) of artifacts in the museum.

Also, I'll never forget the amused (and horrified) Werner Schroeter recalling that when his retrospective was through and he came to pick up his films at the Cinematheque so he could take them home, Mary Meerson told him that under no circumstances was she giving them up; they were now the Cinematheque's!

He sums up his experience with a wonderfully resigned and disbelieving chuckle: "Wacko devotion has always moved me..." And he says this with sincerity, with love for Langlois and Langlois's love of cinema.

May 19, 2007 3:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr posts Cannes coverage, "some gleanings from the French press"...

May 19, 2007 7:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

New releases at Netflix:
(Yay) Hawks's Scarface, Air Force, Ball of Fire; Letters from Iwo Jima, Sansho the Bailiff, Regular Lovers, Hell & High Water, Fay Grim; Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett; King Vidor's The Wedding Night.

May 20, 2007 7:27 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I know that China Gate was available on VHS. I did get to see a widescreen print in Berkeley in 1971.

I was channel surfing this morning and saw the last half hour of Hell and High Water on AMC. The scope print I saw was presented by Jon Davison who later went on to produce Airplane and Fuller's White Dog.

May 21, 2007 12:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I didn't realize China Gate was in widescreen; it makes the anticipation that much stronger!

May 21, 2007 6:10 PM  

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