Friday, January 9, 2009

Sins of Omission: Addendum

At the beginning of the film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Francois Truffaut states forthrightly: "To gauge the Cinematheque Francaise's importance, imagine what it would be like in literature if after an author died, you couldn't bring their book home, but had to go to the National Library to read Madame Bovary. Which, I think, may make the Cinematheque even greater than the National Library. Because it was the only place to see or re-see films no longer in commercial theaters."

That statement was made in 1968, and although Truffaut lived to see home video catch on, I have grave doubts that he approved of it or indeed would approve of my contention that his statement is a powerful endorsement of home video, at least in principle.

Langlois, in the above-mentioned film, makes a distinction: "There are cinephiles and cinephages. Truffaut is a cinephile. A cinephage - a 'film nerd' - sits in the front row and writes down the credits." I do not quite see the distinction Langlois was trying to make, since Truffaut and his friends, critics at Cahiers du Cinema and many of them future directors, habitually laid on the floor in front of the screen at the Cinematheque, because the small theater was always packed. And his long-time friend Robert Lachenay recently reported (1) that "around '46, '47, we [he and Truffaut] started keeping files on film directors. Francois started it, and I imitated him. We cut articles out of newspapers we found in the trash everywhere. Articles on Hathaway, William Wellman, etc."

Now anyone who would devote that much time and effort, rummaging through trash cans, "keeping files" on the likes of Henry Hathaway or William Wellman is alot closer to Langlois' definition of a cinephage - what used to be called a "film buff," or what I would simply call a film fan (the word "fan" being short for "fanatic"). I believe I am qualified to point this out because I was once one myself. Although I was keeping files on Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman, like any good reverse parochial would.

But what would Truffaut have done if it were possible as far back as the 1940s to "bring a film home" with him, like a copy of Madame Bovary? Of course, "home" was an unhappy place for Truffaut, from which he found escape at the movies. Was his defense of Langlois, a surrogate father, in the streets of Paris in '68 the act of a cinephile or a cinephage? Or was it the act of a fanatic?

(1) In the commentary he supplied to the Criterion DVD of Les 400 Coups.

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