Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon - The Legacy of Langlois

This is a contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon being led by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, at The Self-Styled Siren.

Henri Langlois was the godfather of perhaps the most important movement in the history of film, The French New Wave.  From 1938-1977, Langlois ran the Cinematheque Francaise, screening movies and educating an entire generation on the history of cinema that had come before them.  But, more important, Langlois saved films and was one of the first film preservationists in the world.

I lived in France during 1994-95 and had many memorable days at the old Cinematheque located at Palais de Chaillot.  I hate that I'll probably never see a movie there again.  The place was absolutely magical.  I swear I'd be watching IVAN THE TERRIBLE and could almost feel the ghosts of Langlois, Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol alongside of me.  In fact, these moments were so formative that I decided to pay homage by naming my film production company after them, Chaillot Films.

Film preservation is an issue that some of the other arts (literature, music) don't really face as much.  For instance, there's footage still lost from Orson Welles' 1942 film, The Magnificent Ambersons, probably the most famous follow-up film in the history of cinema.  It was Welles' second film after Citizen Kane.  Yet, we may never have the opportunity to see it the way that Welles intended.  Think of it this way, this would be the same as several famous Beatles' songs disappearing or half of one of Hemingway's novels being lost forever.

This Welles film is just one of the most famous cases.  There are a countless number of film classics, considered either badly damaged or lost, that need attention.  According to the National Film Preservation Foundation, "fewer than 20% of U.S. feature films from the 1920s survive in complete form in American archives; of the American features produced before 1950, only half still exist."

The cinema turns 115 this year, but much of its early history is under threat of disappearing.  Film preservation is vital to keeping this artform alive.  Let's all do what we can to keep our film history intact for generations to come.

Please donate any amount you can to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing:
 Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.


  1. Thanks so much for your support and sharing your memories of the fabled Cinematheque Francaise. What an experience!

  2. Thanks so much, Marilyn, for organizing this blogathon around such an important cause!

    Yes, those were amazing times at the Cinematheque :)

  3. Someday, when I finally get the chance to visit France (wanna hear something funny? I've never even been out of the country!), I'm going to make it a point to visit the Cinematheque Francaise. I first heard about it when I saw Bertolucci's The Dreamers, a film that also talks a little about how Langois came to the rescue of so many films that could have been lost. I'm jealous that you've been there, Jeffrey. Great topic for the blogathon.

  4. I read a bit of a fascinating interview Langlois did with Alfred Hitchcock about his film Rebecca.

    Huzzah for French cinema!

  5. Hey, Adam, I thought your post on Kubrick was a great topic, too! You absolutely have to go to the Cinematheque when you make it to Paris. The location is different now. It's now in Bercy, just on the outskirts of Paris, but the new space is great, too.

  6. Thanks so much, Kendra! Yes, Langlois is one of my favorite all time figures in cinema. He truly led an absolutely inspired and fascinating life.

  7. Thank you for remembering Langlois. I read many nasty comments about him in his later years, but if he hadn't started saving films, we wouldn't have a lot of what we have now. Funny when talking about "Ambersons" that you wrote "this would be the same as several famous Beatles' songs disappearing or half of one of Hemingway's novels being lost forever". Hemingway's wife lost a suitcase full of almost every story he had written up to that point. I would love to see the missing parts of "Ambersons", especially the real ending, and I would love to read Hemingway's story "Wolves and Doughnuts." What a title.

  8. Joe, thanks so much for your wonderful comments! I had no idea that had really happened with Hemingway. Wow, I'll be more sensitive to that the next time I reference him.

    I've heard that Langlois had his detractors. But it really seems like he did extraordinary things, and I've always had a tremendous amount of admiration for him.

  9. I have to admit I was brought up to hate Langlois almost as much as J. Edgar Hoover by my film-loving aunt who spent much of her time in Paris. It would be interesting to get the scoop from someone impartial about the good and bad aspects of his personality and work. Meanwhile, like you, I love the Cinematheque...

  10. Tinky, that's interesting for me to hear. I always just heard incredible things about him. Why did your aunt hate him so much?

    Thanks for stopping by here. Wow, I can't wait to be at the Cinematheque again! Have you been to the Bercy location?

  11. Hmm ... I wish I could tell you! The only concrete thing I heard, which is not really very concrete (and I hate to repeat sixty-year-old gossip, but what the heck), was that he did some not very nice things when the Nazis were in Paris.

    I had a feeling it also had something to do with the way he chose to preserve (or not preserve) certain films as well, but I don't have details on that. And my aunt, like Langlois, is dead, so we'll probablyl never learn for sure why she and some of her film friends acted as though he was the anti-Christ.....

  12. Tinky, that's so interesting! I know that Langlois was considered a highly opinionated man. But I also heard that he saved many movies during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I've heard of people thinking he could be tough at times, but this is the first I've ever heard of people not respecting him. I guess everyone has their fans and detractors. Wow, that's fascinating!

  13. The one bad thing I've consistently heard/read about Langlois is that he had a habit of chopping out the intertitles from silent films when he preserved or showed them, then chucking the title frames in the garbage — probably some expression of ideas about "pure" cinema or something. What's obvious is that he didn't really care about film preservation in the historically reverent sense we think of now, but had his own more idiosyncratic perspective. There's little doubt, of course, that he nevertheless provided an invaluable service, or that his heart was in the right place.

    And I too am jealous of your Cinematheque experiences. If/when I ever get to visit Paris, along with all the other usual sites, I definitely want the experience of watching a movie in Paris, feeling that spiritual connection to the New Wave, who made watching movies in Parisian theaters one of the highest purposes in life.

  14. Ed, great post!

    It's so interesting for me to hear all of this. I had always heard that Langlois removed the intertitles to force the young turks to focus on the formal aspects of the films they were watching. He didn't want them to read the films and get sucked into their stories. Instead, he wanted them to deconstruct what they were watching so that they would have a better understanding of the artform.

    I also heard that he would screen films with Japanese or other subtitles so that the audience couldn't possibly understand the language. But once again, I always heard of this as a teaching tool rather than as something negative.

    Since posting this entry, it's really the first time I've heard such knocks against Langlois. In France, in most circles he's revered as a legend and as a pivotal figure in the Nouvelle Vague.

    On another note, not if, but when you go to Paris, please let me know. I have much cinephile guidance I could offer (my favorite theaters and such).