sábado, 21 de marzo de 2009

The Pied Piper of the Cinémathèque

In a case of the arts as precursor to life, the demonstration against the French government’s sacking of Henri Langlois in February of 1968 led to a small riot that would be the first of many riots in that year famous for civil unrest. The protest and general strike of May 1968 (leading to the election of a new parliament to replace the DeGaulle government in June) were outgrowths of that first protest over the Cinémathèque Française in February.

Not the first cinémathèque in the world, nor the largest, still Langlois’ creation was singular in its depth and breadth – Langlois collected everything (especially early fragile silent films), and saved thousands of films from the Nazis by numerous wily schemes. He has never really been accorded the honor that such a feat deserves, though the protests in the gardens of the Palais de Chaillot were a good start.

The protests over Langlois weren’t limited to the streets – the French press, as well as many famous and influential people, supported Langlois in scathing letters and telegrams to the civil government (Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, among many others). But the fact that the first people to take to the streets were cineastes is, I feel, significant, for in those days, filmmakers were truly perceived as artists, and indeed many were artists and poets as well as writers and intellectuals.

The intersection of politics and cinema – what conservative types have been afraid of for years – had a brief bright moment in 1968, and then failed to ignite, as the entertainment value of film took over the collective consciousness.

No matter what anyone says about political or social uses of film today – Michael Moore and Al Gore notwithstanding – that early hope for political motion has not been fulfilled as many hoped it would be. The intellectual power of film has faded into the background, minimized by an attitude that film ‘artists’ – along with ‘intellectuals’ – are ‘quaint.

But an interesting thing happened… in an odd way, films continued to morph into TV, which took on a role remarkable in its simplicity.

In the seminal work The Art of the Moving Picture, Vachel Lindsay drew a clear comparison between movie houses and saloons, noting that the tone and tenor of public thought is drawn by the gathering-places of people. In Lindsay’s view, the moral tone of a saloon was suspect, while films that showed ‘social ideals’ could have a salutary effect on the body politic:

The shame of the American drinking place is the bar-tender who dominates its thinking. His cynical and hardened soul wipes out a portion of the influence of the public school, the library, the self-respecting newspaper. A stream rises no higher than its source, and through his dead-fish eye and dead-fish brain the group of tired men look upon all the statesmen and wise ones of the land. Though he says worse than nothing, his furry tongue, by endless reiteration, is the American slum oracle. At the present the bar-tender handles the neighborhood group, the ultimate unit in city politics….
So, good citizen, welcome the coming of the moving picture man as a local social force. Whatever his private character, the mere formula of his activities makes him a better type. He may not at first sway his group in a directly political way, but he will make himself the centre of more social ideals than the bar-tender ever entertained. And he is beginning to have as intimate a relation to his public as the bar-tender. In many cases he stands under his arch in the sheltered lobby and is on conversing terms with his habitual customers, the length of the afternoon and evening.

While very few influential producers or directors stand ‘in the sheltered lobby’ greeting audience members, they still hold a certain influence over the thoughts and motivations of those who follow their films. And Lindsay goes farther in his comparison, by alluding to the drain of one on the other: “Often when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy…”

Today’s bars tend to be places dominated by TV sets – often a dozen or more, even in the chain restaurants that line our suburbs. And while sports seems to be the main topic of interest related to these TV screens, still the screens will focus on certain issues that capture the attention of the voracious media. The democratization of TV has come in the form not of programming but of topicality: what the people are talking about is what stays on the screen… until the fickle public chooses another topic to chase. Still, a case of euthanasia in Florida or an uxorcide in our own backyard will capture the national imagination and spawn a host of imitative shows, from magazine-style exposés to movies-of-the-week.

Recommended works on Langlois & the Cinémathèque:

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque by Serge Toubiana, Georges Goldfayn, Françoise Foucault, and Pascal Rogard (DVD - Aug 15, 2006)

A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois & the Cinémathèque Française by Richard Roud and François Truffaut (Paperback - Jun 17, 1999)

The Dreamers (NC-17 Edition) by Bernardo Bertolucci (DVD - Jul 13, 2004)

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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