And Cinema Continues
We all remember that cinema where we discovered cinema. That place where, for the first time, fiction revealed itself to us; that we lived before we learned that we weren’t the ones who were living it. That movie theatre that is now a supermarket. In the style of the tearful ending of Cinema Paradiso, this last 28th of February it was the turn of the Cinémathèque Française de Paris, which closed its Chaillot and Grands Boulevards theatres. But this is not the story of a demolition, probably because the cinematheque is far from being a neighbourhood fleapit.
Established in 1936 by Henri Langlois, Georges Franju, Jean Mitry and Paul-Auguste Harlé for the purpose of disseminating and conserving the cinematic heritage, by the 1950s it was a seat of learning for a generation that lived by and for but especially in the cinema. The mother of cinephilia as we now know it, which made a simple interest in films a way of life, it gave that as yet nameless youth an apprenticeship in creativity. Because Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, before being critics and filmmakers, were cinephiles before they were film critics and film directors. They began in the original venue on avenue Messine before moving on to rue d’Ulm, but neither of these ever achieved the renown of the Palais de Chaillot, unique for its retrospectives with their endless queues, in which even Welles took his place. Added to the inevitable nostalgia is the fetishism of a legendary past that was lost in the move to Bercy, an area under development that still has the feel of a newly unveiled architect’s model, as much promising as evicted.
The building is the old American Center, one of those spectacular monuments that the architect Frank Gehry conjures out of nothing, which will now house three of the most important cinematic institutions in Paris: the Centre National de Cinématographie (CNC), the Bibliothèque du Film (BiFi) and the Cinémathèque Française which, mythicité oblige, has brought its name with it. Presided over by Claude Berri and directed by Serge Toubiana, in the home of the American friend, the cinematheque boasts four screening rooms (one seating 420, another seating 200, and two seating 100 viewers each), two exhibition spaces, one for temporary shows, the other for the permanent collection (of 600 and 1100 m², respectively), several workshops for pedagogical activities, a media library with the BiFi archives and documents on the history of cinema, a bookshop and a restaurant. This luxury space will open to the public in September with an exhibition on the Renoir family, relating the father’s painting to the films of the son, with a retrospective of the latter.
This is a project that brings together and revitalizes Parisian cinema culture, concentrating in a single space today’s more widely scattered and more resigned cinephiles. And although the main ambition is to attract more viewers (from 115,000 to 600,000 a year), the promise is to maintain the traditionally diverse programme.
Let’s hope that’s all it is, a touch of expensive makeup to smooth over the wrinkles of an institution that is almost 70 years old.
Memory yet to come
In its final programme the cinematheque screened the latest films by the great filmmakers. And who are the greats? It seems clear. As the cradle of the young Cahiers du Cinéma critics who changed the way we look at cinema, it had to stay true to its auteur policy, that generational manifesto that equated the status of the filmmaker with that of the writer. So it was that the Cinémathèque de la Nouvelle Vague invited to its funeral those who passed away as it was coming of age (Lang, Ford or Hitchcock), as well as one of its sons (François Truffaut) and others who came later (Fassbinder, Kieslowski). A total of 66 directors, each presented by a different critic and/or filmmaker, although they coincide in seeing in these pioneering works a mix of synthesis, objective and farewell to a whole career, a whole life.
However, to expect the kind of visionary who keeps on directing from his deathbed, immortalised by Marker’s little gem on Tarkovsky at the end of filming Sacrifice, so far removed from Wenders’ pornographic embrace of Nicholas Ray’s last days would have been to mistake the issue. It was not a matter of recalling the final moments of the great directors to see how they lived their death but of glimpsing in their accounts the experience of that boundary, and of observing through their writing the trace of the last look. From the self-declared Testament of Orpheus starring Cocteau himself to Huston’s serene meditation on Joyce in The Dead, resignation in the face of death did not prevent them from continuing to create. With the tempestuous resistance of Visconti’s The Innocent or Monteiro’s astonishing agility in Vai e Vem which is the coming and going of the gaze, of living. Because, for many, it is a time to look back and, despite the solitude to which Eurydice condemns us, to search in the images – in the youth of Gertrud, for Dreyer; in An Autumn Afternoon, for Ozu – for the meaning of a life.
Monteiro’s lifeless eye bids us farewell. A fixed shot of the view he has ceased to see, although the film continues. Henri Langlois claimed that ‘man has learned what cinema is, but cinema existed in its wholeness from the very beginning’. Because dying is not the same as being dead. And cinema – like everything else – dies, as it lives, a little every day. Histoire(s) du cinema by Jean-Luc Godard was the – almost indispensable – last session at the Cinémathèque Française, a synthesis of the paradox that gives form to memory. The Orphic look that manages to resuscitate that which is slipping away. A collage of dates that make of the imaginary past an eternal present, a merging of timeless instants from a plural and unfinished (hi)story (of cinema).