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and film “Henri Langlois” (1970) by Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon
(digitally restored and preserved by La Cinémathèque française, screened
Both at La Cinémathèque française – Musée du cinema
51 rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris
“Le Musée imaginaire d'Henri Langlois” runs from April 9
to August 3
by Joseph Nechvatal
Published at Hyperallergic as
Henri Langlois: Remembering a Titan of French Cinema
“In another moment Alice was through the glass and had jumped lightly
down into the looking-glass room.”
-Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland
The invention of cinema, and the rapidity with which it spread, is closely
connected to the fact that perspective, and its specific corresponding
intellectual configuration, had pervaded visual habit since the Renaissance.
With the ever-present, ever-available ubiquity of cinema today - in airplanes,
on YouTube and Netflix, on cable movie channels (like TCM) - familiarity
may not always breed contempt, exactly; but it does tend to inspire
complacency. We are tempted to overlook cinema, to take for granted what
has become blatantly ubiquitous and familiar. We may even look at it and
not register the presence of cinema (both good and bad quality-wise) without
an understanding of it’s history. Waking up to this history is the benefit of
exposing oneself to the exhibition “Le Musée imaginaire d'Henri Langlois,”
(currated by Dominique Païni) and the documentary film portrait “Henri
Langlois” (1970) by Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon.
Unknown photographer, “Henri Langlois (left) and Georges Franju” DR ©
Collection La Cinémathèque française
Enrico Sarsini, “Langlois transportant des bobines de film” © Enrico
Norbert Huffschmidt, “Dennis Hopper & Henri Langlois at the inauguration
of the Cinémathèque in Nice, July 13
” (1976) © PHOTO Norbert
Langlois (1914-1977), as we experience close-hand in the Guerra/Hershon
52 minute anecdotal 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 powerfully
lavish (i.e., aesthetically-informationally intense) while being quirky.
Langlois appears philosophically-humorously inclined and deeply interested
in liberational politics.
Unknown Photographer, “Portrait d’Henri Langlois” DR © Collection La
We learn of the Langlois legend from very closely cropped talking heads
such as Simone Signoret’s, who recalls that Langlois 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 screened Sergei Eisenstein’s film
“Battleship Potemkin” (1925) secretly in his mother’s tiny apartment during
the German occupation, at the time when Soviet film was forbidden and
such screenings harshly punished.
These engaging interviews are mixed in with footage of Langlois talking
while walking around a picturesque 1970 Paris. This tour is enormously
emotive, as he shows us where he grew up poor on a street of whores, 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.
Man Ray, “Roberto Rossellini, Henri Langlois & Jean Renoir” (vers 1960)
© MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP, Paris 2014.
Unknown Photographer, “Henri Langlois (right) giving the Légion
d’honneur to Alfred Hitchcock, January 14
(1971) © SIPA.
Yet his one-way conversation is riveting, as 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.
Unknown Photographer, “Christiane Rochefort, Jean Rouch, Claude
Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard & Henri Attal lors d’une manifestation de soutien
à Langlois, rue d’Ulm, le 11 février” (1968) DR © Collection La
Unknown Photographer, “Henri Langlois & André Malraux at the exhibition
« Pathé » on June 23
” (1959) DR © Collection La Cinémathèque française.
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
Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Pierrot le fou” (1965) ©
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/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 poised by the Guerra/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/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
“Le Musée imaginaire d'Henri Langlois” installation view (photograph by
Deception trades partners with dedication in the elaborate dance of
representation at “Le Musée imaginaire d'Henri Langlois” (imaginary
museum) exhibition as it 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/Hershon portrait and emit a
lush sensuous coating to 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, Chagal, Disney, Matisse, Vasarely and Calder.
Marcel Duchamp, “Rotoreliefs” (1935)
Francis Picabia, “Optophone II” (1921-1922)
Gino Severini, “La danse du pan-pan au "Monico" (Le pan-pan au
"Monico")” (1909 - 1960)
Joan Miro, “Letter to Henri Langlois, June 19
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.
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