Arch-blogger Girish (if you don’t know his site, stop reading this and get over there now!) was generous enough to send me a copy of the original, 210-minute French cut of HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATEQUE, which is a superb documentary with a fascinating subject. In archive film, Langlois himself commands attention, shambolically dressed, greasy-haired, bulbous-bodied, his arms two tapering tentacles undulating through the Parisian air, his hands two sub-octopi appended to their tips, each finger a fat sausage tendril, a tiny stub of cigarette wedged between two of these, the hand making darting, almost instantaneous trips to those voluptuous Langlois lips to deliver its precious cargo of life-giving nicotine.
But there was one moment that stopped me dead, and forced me to halt the film while I tried to retrieve bits of my sundered consciousness from around the room. It quite literally BLEW THE BLOODY DOORS OFF my mind.
A snap of Louis Feuillade’s great star, the Irma Vep of LES VAMPIRES, Musidora, fills the frame, and an interviewee remarks, quite casually, some words translated in subtitle as “Musidora ran the switchboard.”
The film’s persistent strategy is to hype the Cinemateque de Langlois as a magical, mystical and impossible venue, a place of anarchy where Lotte Eisner read the tarot cards and decaying nitrate stock summoned spectres of the past. The above one-liner did it for me.
When I had retrieved enough fragments of my mental faculties, I was able to reflect on the irony of a silent movie star working the telephones, and then to decide that “Rosemary, your glamorous switchboard operator” from the Hong Kong Phooey cartoons had damn well better MOVE OVER.
Returning to the splendid doc, which mounts a compelling case for Langlois’ anarchic administrative style, and forms a damning indictment of the bloodless bureaucrats who have fumbled his legacy, it has an ending so transplendently beautiful that I hesitate to give it away, but this blog is never what you’d call spoiler-free, so I’m going to anyway.
A story circulated just after Langlois’ death: a member of staff was sitting in on a screening of a Pastrone epic, when he spotted a minor character who looked just like his former boss. The following night, several staff members spotted another lookalike playing a major role in a Sjostrom drama. And so on — Langlois began turning up in every film, and his staff would congregate in the audience to receive their instructions from the screen.
The fable evokes our impossible dream of the Permeable Movie Screen. Something about that speaks to us, and accounts perhaps for Langlois’ injunction to sit in the front row and “eat” the movie. If you run Woody Allen’s PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO again you find that there aren’t as many good jokes in it as you’d expect from ’80s Allen, and his writing of the Danny Aiello-Mia Farrow relationship is startlingly flat (he doesn’t KNOW these people), but the central premise is so compelling that the film plods its way to the human heart anyway. No wonder the film begins with Fred Astaire singing “Heaven / I’m in heaven,” — to get up there and stand IN a film, as Buster Keaton does, with difficulty, in SHERLOCK JNR, is to enter a celluloid afterlife, occupied by little slivers of time, lovingly scraped from the souls of the dead.