Had Henri Langlois not seen fit, in 1936, to co-found (with filmmaker Georges Franju) the Cinémathèque Française, no doubt someone else — or perhaps some government bureau — would have come along sooner or later and done the same. But would that someone have possessed Langlois’ unique blend of poetry, magic and vaudeville, his voracious appetite for cinema in all its myriad varieties? For while there were film archives that predated the Cinémathèque Française, they were largely devoted to the cataloging of then-acknowledged classics, whereas it was Langlois who saw the value in preserving first and asking questions later — lest a “flop” like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise or Erich von Stroheim’s Greed slip through the cracks. These were, after all, years in which it was still commonplace for studios to destroy prints and negatives of films for the sake of recovering silver nitrate and vault space. So, Langlois sought to get his hands on whatever he could, by any means necessary, resulting in a collection that, by the end of World War II, exceeded 50,000 titles. (Consider that, six decades later, there are estimated to be around 30,000 titles presently available on domestic DVD, and the enormity of the effort becomes clear.)
It’s most fitting, then, that Jacques Richard’s Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque is receiving its U.S. premiere this week (with four additional screenings to follow) at Los Angeles’ own American Cinematheque, whose eclectic-bordering-on-schizophrenic programming (Jean Vigo one night, the latest in Korean cult cinema the next) is firmly in the Langlois mold. Tracing the tragic-heroic arc of its subject’s cinephile life, from his early exhibition of films in a small Paris apartment to his death in 1977 (three years after receiving an honorary Oscar for his preservation efforts), Richard’s film unfurls over a remarkably brisk 210 minutes. Along the way, you get the sense that the director has packed his epic — much as Langlois once packed his vaults — with every scrap of available material relevant to the discussion. It’s an exhaustive but never exhausting effort, consisting of new interviews with Langlois acolytes (Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Berri); vintage reminiscences by Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer; other archival goodies, including Langlois’ awarding membership in the French Legion of Honor to a bemused Alfred Hitchcock; glorious clips from some of the films (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Blue Angel, Georges Méliès’ Joan of Arc) Langlois was instrumental in saving; and many appearances by the man himself, taken from interviews filmed at various stages of his career.
Of course, Langlois didn’t merely rescue old films; he made them live again via the Cinémathèque’s revival screenings — three per night, every night — and by working to restore original versions of censored or otherwise edited pictures, long before the term “director’s cut” had entered the vernacular. In the process, the Cinémathèque became a home away from home for the generation of young film buffs that would go on to constitute the French New Wave. Night after night they came, jamming into the coveted front row of the original, 60-seat screening room on Avenue de Messine (and, later, the more spacious environs of the theater at the Palais de Chaillot), receiving their education — as Godard would later say — in “a new way of seeing films.” And when, in February 1968, Langlois was dismissed from service by Culture Minister André Malraux, amid not entirely spurious accusations of mishandling prints and overall disorganization, it was the New Wavers who spearheaded the pro-Langlois protests — events, recently dramatized by Bernardo Bertolucci in The Dreamers, that came to be known as L’Affaire Langlois, and which preceded the more famous nationwide upheavals in May of the same year.
Much of the second half of The Phantom of the Cinémathèque discusses these contentious happenings and how, even after his eventual reinstatement, Langlois was never quite the same, forced as he was to contend with a reduced budget and a staff that had been cut from 75 persons to 15. At the time of his death, his home phone had been disconnected as the result of an unpaid bill. And the ensuing years have done little to help Langlois rest in peace, as the Cinémathèque has increasingly fallen victim to the manipulations of the very government bureaucrats whose influence Langlois fought so strenuously to avoid. (Though the organization now receives upward of 80 percent of its funding from the state, it remains, in theory, an autonomous entity.) Yet Langlois’ legacy is alive and well at places like the American Cinematheque; in the preservationist efforts of institutions like the UCLA Film and Television Archive; in the work of individuals such as film critic and historian Richard Schickel, whose brilliant reconstruction of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One will be shown next month at UCLA; and, of course, in Jacques Richard’s wonderful new documentary.
Not unlike Langlois, late-19th-century biologist Ernst Haeckel was driven by a fervent passion for collection and categorization — only, in Haeckel’s case, the specimens of choice weren’t films but the varied species of a single-celled organism. Specifically, they were radiolaria, a type of protozoan capable of surviving as far as 4,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface. At a time when scientists were only just beginning to acknowledge the possibility of deep-sea life, Haeckel successfully identified thousands of the tiny creatures. What’s more, he didn’t merely document his findings, he drew them — in all their symmetrical, orbicular splendor — in a series of intricately detailed lithographs that he then published, in 1904, in a seminal volume called Art Forms in Nature.
Probably the most dazzling film I saw at Sundance this year, experimental animator David Lebrun’s Proteus (which has its L.A. premiere at the American Cinematheque on September 23) begins as a straightforward investigation into Haeckel’s life and work, using period photographs to illustrate the tale. But then the film spirals off into a broader, free-associative consideration of mankind’s epic aspiration to reconcile art and science, terra and technology, evolution and religious dogma. Coleridge’s fictional Ancient Mariner (beautifully voiced by actor Richard Dysart and represented onscreen by Gustave Doré’s famous drawings) puts in an appearance, as does Cyrus Field, struggling to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin and Charles Darwin pop up in cameos, too. And before it’s all over, the radiolaria themselves spring to splendiferous life through Lebrun’s painstakingly precise animations — made by photographing Haeckel’s original drawings, one frame at a time, on an optical printer. With the added assets of Marian Seldes’ elegant narration and Yuval Ron’s period-flavored score, Proteus fully lives up to its billing as “a 19th-century vision,” but it may be even more aptly classified by the description Lebrun himself affords to Coleridge’s poem: “An inward journey through a sea of imagination woven on a loom of actuality.”
Lebrun’s first feature-length work, Proteus is no spontaneous labor of love, but rather the end product of some 23 years of tinkering on weekends, holidays or whenever else Lebrun (who also enjoys a career as a producer and editor of more traditional documentaries) could find the time. Despite the long interval between projects, many of the animation and editorial innovations of Proteus are directly descended from Lebrun’s earlier films — something audiences will have a chance to see for themselves when Filmforum presents its two-night Lebrun retrospective on September 12 and 26. Of particular note is the filmmaker’s debut short, Sanctus (1966), which was made while Lebrun was on sabbatical from his undergraduate studies at Reed College and which finds extraordinary symmetries of motion and meaning in its juxtaposition of three radically different rituals: a Roman Catholic Mass, a Mexican bullfight and the hallucinogenic-mushroom ceremony of the Mazatec Indians. Better known, but no less worthwhile, the scintillating Tanka (1976) takes us on an eye-popping journey through the Tibetan Book of the Dead as represented by a series of 16th- to 19th-century scroll paintings. Then, for a foray into California’s countercultural past, check out The Hog Farm Movie (1970), Lebrun’s documentary record of the famed Tujunga commune he helped found and its (ultimately failed) attempt to transport one of its pigs to the 1968 Democratic National Convention for a proposed presidential bid. Proof that, while the idea of running a lower life form for our country’s top office isn’t necessarily a new one, it at least used to register as satire.
Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque screens Thursday, September
16. Proteus screens Thursday, September 23, at the American Cinematheque.
Filmforum’s David Lebrun retrospective screens Sunday, September 12, and Sunday,
September 26, also at the Egyptian. See Film & Video Events this and subsequent
weeks for more information on all three programs.