director Jacques Richard
There are the things that they teach you in film history and then there are the things that they don’t teach you. And then there are the things that they should teach you.
Case in point: Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française and a man who is or at least ought to be the patron saint of film history and restoration.
Many Americans casually know that it was the French who began appreciating a lot of American popular culture artifacts that Americans would, quite notably the cinema. Cinema may have been invented in France by the Lumiere brothers or in America by Thomas Edison, but in many ways it was Langlois and his Cinémathèque that invented appreciating cinema. Starting even before WWII, Langlois collected film (reels of movies that were otherwise just destroyed, such was the way back in the day) and exhibited films, curated the films, saved and protected films, originating with the quickly nearly forgotten Silent Era.
Perhaps to suggest that he is the originator of such acts is pure overstatement, but his contributions are astounding. And for every single thing that he contributed, how much has echoed and resonated beyond his mere acts of preservation.
And it’s almost impossible in this day and age to imagine the impact of the Cinémathèque in a time before the ready availability of film and films. That he managed to collect and show films that otherwise no one had any way or possibility of seeing. He championed a multitude of directors of world cinema, was even given the Legion of Honor, presented at his request by Alfred Hitchcock.
The 2004 French documentary Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque is indeed a fine primer on the man, featuring copious interviews with him from archival footage (he died in 1977). The film does a fine job of covering the whole of Langlois, his friends, comrades, students, and influence. And it makes me regret to the highest level that I did not go to the Henri Langlois Musée du Cinéma in Paris which was shuttered after a fire in 1997. It was Langlois’ utter construct, a collection of such a wide variety of objects and ideas, the man’s pure vision.
Frankly, I think if I started a film history class, I think it could well kick-off with a significant appreciation and understanding of Langlois and his contribution to the appreciation and preservation of cinema. He signifies so much in what film studies has been all about. He is the patron saint for me.