Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Ghost of Henri Langlois


"Since like everybody else, I was full of silly prejudices I missed out on incredible things. Salome with Theda Bara was for sale. I thought, 'Fox, Theda Bara, American spectacle...who needs it?' Now the film is lost forever. It was probably quite good. From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value." -Henri Langlois


Obviously, film archivists (and Langlois was one of the first) are the opposite of film critics. Whatever faculties the critic uses to discriminate good from bad, the archivist must ignore. The result, for the Cinematheque Francaise, was an archive of over 50,000 films. It is simply incredible that Langlois could've watched them all. (1) That he probably did is one measure of the man's devotion to the medium. In my own lifetime, I would guess that 10,000 is the most I could've seen, but that number is probably too high. And the thought of all the horrors I had to sit through before I had seen something that made all that wasted time worthwhile makes me shudder. The problem is, unlike every other medium except music, slumming is too often a necessary part of filmgoing, especially for a critic.

Though it is a little surprising that the idea of preserving films took so many years to take shape, it is not at all surprising that so few people cared about the fate of films that were no longer in circulation. For the vast majority of films, then and now, there was a kind of planned obsolescence, at least in the positive print, just like any other manufactured goods. Because there were so many films in circulation, and a limited number of venues to exhibit them, they were allowed a limited run in which they could be viewed, and then they were either destroyed or shelved with the intention of eventual destruction.

Starting with a film club in 1936, Langlois met plenty of people who saw the need for preserving films but none of them, especially those in government, had a practical appreciation of the logistical problems or were forthcoming with funding. Unperturbed, Langlois managed to convince the right people to help, and his collection was born. During the war years, when the Germans were seeking out and destroying certain significant films, like Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1931), Langlois used ingenious subterfuges to acquire them and then hide them. He used a tiny 80-seat theater to screen three films a day from 1948 on, attracting young people who would eventually become critics for a film magazine founded by Andre Bazin (2) in 1951 that transformed French film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema. And many of these critics, Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, would go on to transform French film itself in the Nouvelle Vague.

What made Langlois so appealing to the Cahiers group was the obvious fact that, like them, he was a fan - a devoted lover not of the art of film but of films - all films whether good or bad. The Cahiers crowd proved that the only thing a bad film needed to be good was a good review. So between them, Langlois and Cahiers du Cinema, they made artists out of time clock punchers like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman and spent entire weeks and months of their lives devouring every film directed by Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. Langlois helped create not a way of seeing films but a way of consuming them. He told his young followers (according to Jean Rouch) that, if they wished to become filmmakers, they should "eat 300 films" a year, sitting smack in front of the screen.

Max Tessier claims "I went nearly every night [to Langlois' screenings] and subsisted on sandwiches. Real life vanished and reel life took over." Raphael Bassan, journalist and director, who, the credits assure us, has seen more than 30,000 films states: "It's always ruled my life, to the exclusion of all else. I've tried to step back the past three or four years to absorb a bit. It was an all-consuming passion. Even if you were with a girl, if a rare film was on at half-past midnight, then you'd leave that woman's bed to see it."

The ideas outlined by Francois Truffaut in his 1954 essay "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français", aren't half bad. But even Andre Bazin saw its excesses, and pointed them out in his own essay "On the Auteur Theory" (1957). It was Truffaut who coined the term "la politique des auteurs" which became the "Auteur Theory" thanks to Andrew Sarris' clumsy translation. Serge Toubiana, current director of the Cinematheque Francaise, put it this way: "The notion of authorship certainly took on visibility [in Langlois' screenings] and became obvious to Truffaut as a critic in the 1950s because Langlois reinforced the auteur theory by showing everything an auteur made, even long-ago artists. The idea was afoot that each individual film contributes to an auteur's body of work. Which differs from the now-current, somewhat mistaken notion of 'the director'. That's not quite right. An auteur isn't a director. It's someone who has a vision for each film, but also from film to film."

Corpulent, epicene, Langlois was a strange sort of midwife at the birth of the New Wave. As Rohmer explained, Langlois "taught us nearly everything we know". So it was only fitting that they should have come to his defense in the absurd events of '68, when the French government tried to pull his creation, the Cinematheque, out from under him. With the most amorphous convictions, aimed at nothing more but those in power, the demonstrations that followed, the tussles with riot police, the passionate and ludicrous public statements, proved just how committed French cineastes could be when their vanity was threatened. Langlois refused to comment - or, rather, stated he wouldn't comment: "I never wanted to talk about the "Langlois Affair". I don't want to go into the subject as long as I live, I'll come back as a ghost and I'll talk about it." Hence, Jacques Richard's title for his film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois (2005).

Considering how many enemies Langlois made in government agencies that he had fought with for so many years to help him run his utterly unmanageable collection, it is surprising to see how peevish his supporters are about the manner of the government's assistance. But it was, after all, such a uniquely French idea - collecting films out of purely personal zeal until the collection becomes too enormous to handle oneself, and then expecting the government to get involved in something it had never considered worthwhile.

Langlois was at work, as usual, when he died, without a sou, at the age of 62 on January 13, 1977. His coffin, since he was by then heavier than ever, was enormous. And at the funeral his widow, the formidable Mary Meerson (3) showed grief to some while arranging to evacuate films from the Cinematheque with others. There was an obscene tug-of-war over his Musee du Cinema until a fire in '97 conveniently settled the dispute. It was moved, its elements intact but without Langlois' spatial design. With Langlois gone, there was no one to stand in the government's way any more.

Jacques Richard closes his film on a sad note: "The 40-year saga of Henri Langlois was carried along by the unchained, voracious and unlimited passion of one man. Will the secret recipe that drew several generations be found one day like the lost alchemy of Jean Vigo? How will tomorrow's youth learn about cinema, its history and essence? Perhaps Langlois' ghost will visit them one day like Nosferatu reconciled with Sunrise. Like a program imagined by Henri Langlois."



(1) 50,000 films would require one to watch three every day for more than 45 years.
(2) Strangely, Jacques Richard's film never mentions Bazin.
(3) Meerson died in 1993.

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