(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...