Monday, March 18, 2019

Jacques Richard | Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque

eating the screen
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Richard (director) Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque / 2005

How to describe the rotund Henri Langlois? He was a kind of genius, perceiving, with-founder Georges Franju, far earlier than other archivists, just how important it was to save older films, particularly “lost” silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He was a showman who introduced older films to many French directors, particularly those of the New Wave such as Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, as well as later celebrating their work. He was a kind of cultural hero, saving hundreds, if not thousands, of cultural artifacts from destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Actress Simone Signoret reveals that she helped transport the illegal films in a baby carriage.
    Langlois clearly was a kind of charmer, finding finances for his cinémathèque from the most unlikely of sources. And through his regular film screenings, sometimes presenting as many as three showings each night, he might be described as a remarkable educator of an entire generation of film-lovers.
      Yet director Jacques Richard’s documentary also reveals him to be a kind of cultural glutton without the real abilities, desire, or talents to create the cinema he so loved. And French governmental authorities, when finally determined to help fund the organization he had created, found him to be a terrible businessman without proper records and budgetary skills.
      Richard presents this information and much else through the incredible gathering of at least 80 talking heads from Georges Melies’ granddaughter to Pierre Cardin and Alfred Hitchcock. So many voices shot usually head-on does not itself make for great cinematic viewing. But fortunately Richard intersperses these discussants with brief clips from many of the greatest films Langlois collected along with numerous still and video images of the archivist himself.
     As the reviewer from Variety, Todd McCarthy summarizes:

In other words, Richard has filled his 3½ hours with
enormously diverse material that meshes to create a
picture of the man that is satisfying on both the intellectual
and human planes. For anyone with a pre-existing interest
the subject, absorption in the film is so total that the time
passes in a flash; for younger viewers who find their
way to it, pic represents the ultimate illustration of what
devotion to the cinema means, and incidentally underlines
the individual obsession that initiated the now-widespread
effort to preserve the history of the cinema.

      Despite the informative value of Richard’s film, however, I felt that, in the end, I would rather have attended the cinémathèque itself rather watch this documentary about it, and it might have been far more interesting, I suspect, instead of simply reporting what Langlois achieved—as significant as 
that was—why he chose to collect film, particularly films of the past; what led this man to become a sort of state librarian to cinema art? Moreover, since he espoused the idea that all films of equal interest, since they revealed the life of the times, why did he let a film starring Theda Bara escape his hands? What criteria did Langlois have for inclusion? And how did he convince so many people not so very committed to film of the past to finance his purchases.
      Since this was a “collection,” one wonders what he didn’t collect among the 80,000 titles of the cinémathèque? Did he include documentaries such as this one, cartoons, media, highly experimental works such Stan Brakhage? How did he organize them or decide each evening what films he might show?
      Finally, I might ask one of the most important of questions that never truly gets discussed. Did the collector actually comprehend the thousands of films and could he write coherently about them? As a film reviewer, I feel this is one of the most important of questions. It’s clear that Langlois loved the genre and had a fairly discerning sense of what might be significant. Yet Richard gives us little idea about how the collector/archivist saw in the thousands of films he gathered.
     Chabrol does not discuss any conversations he had with Langlois, for instance, but only wonders what the corpulent Langlois and his equally plump partner, Mary Meerson, might had done in bed: “I tried to imagine them in frenzied copulation, but … .”
     If nothing else, Langlois had an enormous appetite not only for food but for “eating the screen.”

Los Angeles, March 18, 2019
Reprilnted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).

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