PARIS — With the ubiquity of cinema today — in airplanes, on the internet, on cable movie channels — familiarity may not always breed contempt, exactly, but it does tend to inspire complacency. We are tempted to overlook cinema, to take it for granted. We may even look at it and not register the presence of cinema (irrespective of quality) without an understanding of its history. Waking up to this history is the benefit of Le Musée imaginaire d’Henri Langlois, curated by Dominique Païni at La Cinémathèque française, as well as the documentary film portrait, Henri Langlois (1970) by Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon, screened at the same venue.
Langlois (1914–1977), as we experience firsthand in Guerra and Hershon’s 52-minute documentary, was the extravagant, clever, colorful, resourceful, tenacious, and quintessential European avant-garde film enthusiast who co-founded and ran the Cinémathèque française and the International Federation of Film Archives. I found this passionate film (and Langlois himself, who passed away just seven years later) to be aesthetically and informationally intense while remaining quirky. Langlois appears philosophically inclined and deeply interested in liberatory politics.
In this film we learn of the Langlois legend from talking heads such as Simone Signoret, who recalls that he would halt a film in the middle if he felt the audience was “too stupid” to deserve it. Kenneth Anger, Viva, Lillian Gish, Ingrid Bergman, Catherine Deneuve, Jean Renoir, Jeanne Moreau, and Francois Truffaut all sing, with starry-eyes, his praises. Someone recounted how Langlois secretly screened Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) in his mother’s tiny apartment during the German occupation, at a time when Soviet cinema was forbidden and such screenings harshly punished.
These engaging interviews are mixed in with footage of Langlois talking while walking around the picturesque Paris of the day. This tour is enormously emotive, as he shows us where he grew up poor on a street of prostitutes, the house in which Jean Renoir lived, various locations of La Cinémathèque française, and, in a park lake, a swimming black swan that he loves; something that symbolizes his devotion to film and the artistic freedom to risk.
Of course, one mustn’t overlook the element of posturing that often accompanies such existential narratives. Yet his one-way conversation is riveting; he collides bawdiness with belief. It is clear that for Langlois film is synonymous with some imperative promise of liberation: not only aesthetic liberation, but social, political, and even what I might call metaphysical liberation. So it is not surprising that there is also a newsreel clip with Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol in heated protest against Langlois’s brief dismissal by André Malraux in early 1968, prefiguring the revolutionary demonstrations of May ’68.
Most powerful people in the art world today seem to retain little of the idealism that permeated the power of Langlois and his romantic-artistic morals. Yet this is an ambition that many artists continue, in more routine ways, to embrace. Indeed there is no question that the film itself is idealistic, while being informative. This is a helpful thing when viewed from the post-media critical perspective. By stepping back and considering the art of cinema through Langlois’s eyes, we can perhaps begin to outline a response to the calamities that cinema is suffering today, and the great damage that has been done to public taste evident with the widespread sense of staleness, futility and disenchantment around movies that has a lot to do with the character of today’s celebrity culture.
The syntactic surface of the Guerra/Hershon film is spare, conversational and highly informal. It is intimate and imagistic, yet not overly confiding; just enough to convey a sense of Langlois’s passion for cinema. A passion laced with dada humor, inclusiveness, and double-edged flirtations. It is not a film about a film collector’s life that slips into un-enchanted forms of psychoanalysis.
Rather, the film builds a web of promiscuous images of Langlois in the throes of preserving an art form that will not stand still — images that Guerra and Hershon knew were valuable enough to preserve on film. But not only is the film made with ingenuity and a sense of relaxed ease, it indirectly evokes issues of deception and illusion in direct contact with their counterparts: authenticity and honesty. It questions the very possibility of separating a person from his/her presentation and of establishing a measure of genuineness of that person.
The problem posed by the Guerra and Hershon film is not then simply one of historic being, but of how the chosen is plucked from the chaotic what-else-was. Along with a series of finer distinctions, contradictions, and options, this question of the collecting of possible scattered histories and outcomes seems to me to be the central hub of Guerra and Hershon’s work. Intimacy and connection becomes a matter of short-lived similitude.
These film resemblances, these ghostly presences, are contingent on the moving image itself and its ability to discriminate and liken. The omissions (and continuities) of the rectangular frame that is imposed by the movie camera and cast onto Langlois is the source of both this film’s failure to preserve entirely this preserver of film – and its poignant joy. There are of course great pleasures to be found in the very failure of cinema to accurately imitate life — for example, film’s ability to imaginatively convert absence into presence.
Deception trades partners with dedication in the elaborate dance of representation at Le Musée imaginaire d’Henri Langlois, as the exhibition conveys, through stillness, a sense of a man dedicated to the dreamy flow of moving images conjured up by electricity. The art, photographs, posters, clips, and text presented wall-to-wall here deepen the multiple ramifications of the Guerra and Hershon portrait and emit a lush sensuous coating for Langlois and his archival work.
The content-level of the exhibition is quite dense. Without all of the assumptions of progress that have hexed Western culture, Langlois is put in connection with European avant-garde cultural trophies such as Marcel Duchamp’s eminent “Rotoreliefs” (1935), Francis Picabia’s marvelous “Optophone II” (1921-1922), Gino Severini’s masterful “La danse du pan-pan au ‘Monico’ (Le pan-pan au “Monico”)” (1909–1960) and Fernand Léger’s cute Charlie Chaplin homage “Charlot cubiste” (1924) — along with works by Picasso, Warhol, Chagall, Disney, Matisse, Vasarely and Calder.
Walls are covered with headlines, dates, letters (the one from Joan Miró is very beautiful), newspaper clippings and many photographs.
Unfortunately, it is evident that Langlois has not been re-conceptualized within any coherent discourse of social revision due to the epistemological impact of film as central to the art-entertainment complex. Yet what I appreciated about the exhibit is its almost romantic reference to a deep time, a shadow life of solid nonverbal existence that sits largely outside of the flowing energy of the moving image.
Le Musée imaginaire d’Henri Langlois continues at La Cinémathèque française (51 rue de Bercy, Paris) through August 3; the documentary film Henri Langlois (1970) by Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon screened June 2.