The New Yorker – March 24, 1975
The Decoy Fanatic
“If the history of film is fifty thousand films, then Chartres is fifty thousand stones,” said Henri Langlois, onlie begetter of the great Cinematheque Francaise, eating ginger marmalade with a teaspoon in Paris and afterward signing for an ordinary lunch for five other people, resting the bill on the jutting waist of his brown polo-neck-sweater. The history of film at his Cinematheque, in Paris, is much more, and also many more, than fifty thousand films. In any event, Henri Langlois, master celebrant of movie archivism, the Cerberus, saint, and spy of world cinema, is never quite sure how many prints he has. His passion for the preservation of film and his passion for particular kinds of marmalade eaten with a spoon both require a vagrant special knowledge. He would agree that the marmalade expertise has the less importance, hut he takes it with equal seriousness.
It is his dedication to cinema that has built the Cinematheque Francaise. The edifice is without heirs, since there is no one at all like him. Through the Cinematheque, Langlois is the father of the middle generation of directors all over the world, and the grandfather of New Wave filmmakers like: Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol. The famous historian and collector, without whom the cinema might hardly know that it has a past, is completely devoted to film. He will raid the flea markets of Paris for a can holding part of a lost Buster Keaton two-reeler, he keeps the hours of a true eccentric, and he store everything he can find. Films that other archivists had despaired of he used to restore by cleaning them frame by frame and drying them on a clothesline. The current headquarters of the Cinematheque, which is in part privately supported and in part subsidized by the government, is the Palais de Chaillot. The Cinematheque consists of three cinemas – two cinemas in the Palais and one on the Left Bank and a museum, in the Palais. The films would take years to show end to end, and the attention that Langlois gives to each one is infinite; of himself he is careless to a degree that makes one think he may be cultivating the behavior of a fanatic bohemian to draw attention away from his craze for film, which has made him a center of government controversy. In February of 1968, French bureaucrats unwisely, and unsuccessfully, tried to unseat this hero of cineastes all over the world – his fierce allies included Renoir, Kurosawa, Visconti, and Chaplin – for some less troublesome leader ; they brought down upon themselves riots and protest marches that many of the political-minded believe to have been an unconscious training period for the events of May, 1968.
Langlois never forgets a film, but he often forgets to pay his own telephone bill. The phone is forever being cut off. When that happens, there are six or seven other possible numbers for finding him. Two of them are the numbers of restaurants. The rest are for phones in various nooks of the Palais de Chaillot. At one or the other of his cinemas there, he will often sit at a desk serving as an ad-hoc ticket booth and take admission fees himself, his gentle, film-soaked brown eyes benevolently watching out for some boy sitting round program after program for the price of one, as Truffaut did when he was a boy. “There is the new Francois, perhaps. Or there,” Langlois will say, missing nothing, his huge bulk overflowing his little wooden chair. One thinks of him as a natural sitter; his body looks permanently bent into chair angles because of his having seen so many films. He has the daintiness of many heavy men. When he moves, he seems to have bulk without weight. It is as if he were filled with hydrogen, and he leaves companions racing far behind in his museum until he stops to pant against a table, gazing at a still of Marilyn Monroe or an early camera shot of Melies – panting more out of some revived excitement than out of fatigue, which is probably the one human response he doesn’t understand. His trousers seem innocent of ironing, and his polo-neck sweaters look as if they had been dug out of a schoolboy’s trunk crammed with toffees and old magazines and football boots. His shape is roughly an oval, poised on a tip and slanting forward. He walks like a dolphin balanced on its tail, often raising its head to send out messages. His character leaps to lack of order. He is too busy for system – too busy saving film. He spends as few hours of the day as possible on himself. It seems entirely epical of him that he once confused sleeping pills and vitamins, taking a sleeping pill after every meal and a vitamin pill at bedtime. No consequence, observers report Marmalade and films kept him awake. “I could have been a marvellous madman,” he whispered to me confidingly in Paris. “I could have contained my madness.”
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