Thursday 10 January 2008

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque (2004)

Three things dominate this film, a documentary about the achievement of Henri Langlois. The first is the unique atmosphere of the Cinémathèque Française that had an influence on people that has not and really now cannot be matched. The second is the importance he and it have had on the preservation of film and the lengths that Langlois in particular went to ensure this, even during such trying times as the Nazi occupation and the Vichy government. The third are the names, which are neverending, but give the impression that it would be nigh on impossible to talk about the Cinémathèque without dropping names.

There's substance here for sure but the stories are irresistable for their own sakes. We hear about the scenes Jean Vigo cut from L'Atalante for the sake of simplicity that Langlois put back in to make his own copy. We hear about him trading a documentary on the Maginot Lane with a Nazi officer for a copy of The Blue Angel that Hitler wanted to destroy. Simone Signoret walks past Nazis with underground film reels in her pram. No end of future famous New Wave filmmakers crowd the front rows at film showings so people like Truffaut were forced to lie on the floor and 'eat the screen'. When he presented Hitchcock with the Legion d'Honneur, Hitch responded by presenting it back to Langlois for his unparalleled work.

There are lessons for today, in a world so obsessed with intellectual property and digital piracy equated with global terrorism. Much of the huge stock of 50,000 plus films that comprised the Cinémathèque's collection were stolen from the rightful owners who were busy trying to destroy them. Now in retrospect, the man is a hero, responsible for the existence of key early films. Even Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA, talks about how massively important the man is. I can't help but feel that the equivalent today are the fan subbers, the people who host torrents of silent movies, the people who the industry wants to kill off.

The real deluge of names comes in 1967 when the French state ousted Langlois from his position at the Cinémathèque. This seriously needs to be made into a drama: the world of culture vs the world of politics, the state imposing its will while those who really know rise up in protest. The response to this insult was huge, with filmmakers from around the world like Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Carl Theodor Dreyer writing to General de Gaulle threatening to withdraw their films from the Cinémathèque if he wasn't reinstated.

More dynamically, the filmmakers who effectively learned their business by watching the films Langlois programmed at the Cinémathèque protesting in the streets, to the opposition of the police who went as far as clubbing Jean-Luc Godard. I don't think I've ever seen such a demonstration of people who simply know they're right. There's no religious devotion in what people like Truffaut say, just the unflappable knowledge that Langlois was the Cinémathèque and it was simply insane to remove him. Langlois won.

This is a magnetic documentary about a magnetic man. Just as people in the film described Langlois's museum of film as a place that made people want to watch films, seeing this makes me want to read up further on his work. Incredible stuff.

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