Claude Bertemes has been the Director of the Luxembourg Cinémathèque since 1997 and has a PhD in Communication Studies from the University of Münster, Germany. He has served on the Executive Committee of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) and has been a member of the Script Reading Committee of Luxembourg Film Fund. Recently he contributed a chapter, ‘Cinématographe Reloaded: Notes on the Fairground Cinema Project Crazy Cinématographe’ as part of the book Travelling Cinema in Europe (Loiperdinger, Martin, ed.KINtop, 2008).
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Could you give us some background on the history of the Cinémathèque of Luxembourg?
Formally the Cinémathèque was founded in 1977 as a cultural department of the city of Luxembourg. You must imagine however that it was less a kind of deliberate political will that was at the origin of its creation than a reaction to the strong personal will of the founding director, Fred Junck. Basically I think that in the history of cinémathèques worldwide you have two groups of cinémathèques; one the one hand, those which are more born from a political act, a national act, and on the other, those pushed forward by strong individuals, film buffs or collectors such as Henri Langlois in the case of the Cinémathèque française or Raymond Borde in the case of the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
So, 1977 was the year of the institutional birth of the Cinémathèque of Luxembourg, but of course the more important history is its unofficial pre-history – you might call it its spiritual birth. This birth was happening in Paris in the 1960s within a kind of cinéphage triangle between the Cinémathèque française, the cinema MacMahon, and the ciné-club Nickel-Odéon. Fred Junck, who was studying journalism in Paris and who by chance was also in the same school class at Lycée Henri IV as Bertrand Tavernier, was of course one of the frequent spectators of the Cinémathèque française (which is the kind of institutional model for what he recreated later in Luxembourg). But this institutional model had in some way to be filled with a specific cinéphilia. This is the more interesting aspect of the cinéphile erudition of Fred Junck, because for the shaping of this cinéphilia, I think that the MacMahon and the Nickel-Odéon were quite decisive places.
The cinema MacMahon is a film theatre next to the Place d’Etoile, programming since the mid-fifties exclusively American films in their original version as quite close to the MacMahon there were small hotels hosting officers of the US army. And so there was a small group of young, French cinéphiles, such as Pierre Rissient or Michel Mourlet, later called the “macmahoniens”, going regularly to the MacMahon, and after a certain moment they were so engaged in their love for American cinema that they began taking over the programming of the theater.
They were defending a specific aesthetic canon, and so the MacMahon was known for a certain repertoire of famous directors, the “carré d’as” composed by Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh. They also had an adoration of other, more hidden auteurs like Don Weis, Edward Ludwig, Vittorio Cottafavi and so on. Their philosophy of cinema was really like an adulation of the heroic body – they had an immense cult of Charlton Heston for example. It was a kind of right wing dandyism, somehow provocative and full of testosterone. So that was the MacMahon, and Fred Junck was obviously a regular there.
There was another place, the ciné-club Nickel-Odéon which had been created by Bertrand Tavernier and Bernard Martinand, who later was working at the Cinémathèque française for a long period. The Nickel-Odéon was also marked by an unconditional love of American cinema, but it was a more left wing variant of Hollywoodophilia, defending films of Richards Brooks, John Huston or Robert Aldrich.
I think in this effervescent and inspiring dialectic of three cinéphile chapels in Paris, the Cinémathèque française, the cinema MacMahon and the Nickel-Odéon, the Cinémathèque Luxembourg was mentally born. We would see it later on as being very important because it had significant repercussions, not only on the programming philosophy, but basically on the structure of the collection.
What was also unifying both tendencies of the MacMahon and the Nickel-Odéon was a kind of cult of the underrated masterpiece. These film buffs were always hunting for unknown treasures – there were even expeditions from Paris to Brussels, because in Brussels the film theaters of the time were presenting double bills giving the unique opportunity to discover rare B-pictures that you couldn’t see in France. So there was a group of these Parisian aficionados going for a weekend to Brussels and seeing up to 8 films per day. You could say that the fundamental impulse of this cinéphilia was to find the unfindable – that is what they were hunting for. Now, my point is that this establishes an intimate link between a certain type of cinéphilia – the desire to see the unseeable – and the natural reflex of a film collector, because finding the unfindable is exactly what’s catalysing the instinct of an archivist who wants to build up a collection. So, the macmahonian or nickel-odéonian type of cinéphilia has not only been of great influence on the specific film preferences shaping the collection as it has been built up years later in Luxembourg, but it seems to have triggered in a very fundamental, visceral way the reflex of hunting for prints – as a precondition for seeing otherwise invisible films.
So of course what we have after this pre-history is at a certain moment in 1977 the official creation of the Cinémathèque but as a city of Luxembourg institution. Of course before that Fred Junck was lobbying the government and cultural representatives in Luxembourg. Finally the fact that it was subsidised by the city of Luxembourg was aleatory, it might have also been on the national side on the government as in fact in Luxembourg it’s almost exactly the same thing. 100 percent of the funding is coming from the city of Luxembourg, it is a department of the city of Luxembourg.
There was a documentary about Fred Junck L’homme au cigare [2003, Andy Bausch], which we didn’t have the opportunity to see, but on the cover of the DVD he looks like a cross between Orson Welles in Touch of Evil  and Henri Langlois. You can tell from the picture that he has quite a presence, like he could move mountains to do something. Was he like that in reality? Do you know what inspired the creation of a documentary about him?
I think the basic triggering thing that was at the origin of producing a documentary about Fred Junck is that he is a part of this early generation of cinémathèque founders who were all very much bigger than life characters and personalities. I suppose that they were like that because they were still part of the romantic or ‘heroic’ momentum of the cinémathèques. And yes, even physically Fred Junck was developing into a clone of Orson Welles, although I don’t know frankly which part of that was mimesis or mise en scène – I didn’t know him personally. You don’t know what stories are legend and what is just well invented, but it seems to be authentic that he was once part of a French TV quiz show about cinema, and he was the wonder boy from Luxembourg answering all the questions and winning against the French guys!
How did you come to be the curator of the Cinémathèque?
I began in Luxemboug in 1997, more than 10 years ago. My formal CV is a more traditional one, with studies in Communication Science and very much based upon a personal cinéphile biography and rather different from that of Fred Junck. My personal heroes in the 80s, the decade of my cinéphile socialization, were John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch or Jean Eustache, rather than Raoul Walsh – which is probably as much due to a generational than to an individual idiosyncrasy.
The most emblematic moment however, for me and my personal biography as a cinéphile, goes back to a crucial “primal scene”. In Freudian theory, the “primal scene” means the moment when the young boy is observing the sexual intercourse of his parents (or at least fantasizing about it). My personal “primal scene” was quite peculiar: as a child, I was observing the absence of cinema – in a quite literal sense. Over several generations, my family ran a film theatre, the Cinéma du Parc, in the city of Differdange in the south of Luxembourg. It was a real palace, one of these very luxurious auratic places or maybe it’s even in my fantasy more so, bigger than life because it’s just what I recall as a small child. And in the late 1960s, when I was around 7 years old, this cinema was of course more and more in concurrence with the expansion of TV activities, and my guess is that they were playing soft porn in the theatre, German or Swedish soft porn which in the late 60s were very much spread into film screenings. So I wasn’t allowed to enter the screenings but I was allowed to be out in the lobby eating ice cream and also to inspect, after or in between the screenings, what was for me like a magic box of forbidden projections: the cinema hall.
So what I was seeing was basically a white screen. That’s why I say I was literally seeing the absence of cinema, in the form of a white screen. A few years later, I also saw how this cinema was bulldozed and turned into a supermarket. After that I saw in the living room of my parent’s house the red velvet curtains which had been recycled from the film theater. So paradoxically enough, even though I was born into a family of cinema owners, I was constantly living with the feeling of an absence of cinema. That could be the momentum, the original impulse for me.
Another interesting point of the Cinéma du Parc is that it was constructed in the 1920s by my great grandfather, but during the construction, he fell from a ladder and was killed. As a child I was imagining and visualizing this often evoked anecdote quite vividly as a tragi-comical slapstick scene. The Keystone Cops invading the family chronicle. Afterwards the cinema was run by my great grandmother. So in some way, it was the first female run or even feminist film theater in Luxembourg, which I’m proud of. That’s probably the heartbeat of what then in a more classical way led up to me being at the cinémathèque.
What would you describe as the missions of the Cinémathèque?
Well that’s easy to say. “To preserve and to show”, to quote the motto of the 1989 FIAF congress in Lisbonne. Preservation work is a breathless and somehow Sisyphean attempt to struggle against the physical or chemical death of film heritage, basically against the decomposition and ephemerality of anything material. Preservation means of course the archival policy of enrichment of the collections, of conservation and restoration work.
Showing or programming on the other hand is nothing else but mental preservation, struggling against cultural amnesia. Mental preservation needs physical preservation as a prerequisite, and vice versa, physical preservation without mental preservation is pointless. So I think that both are absolutely complementary and the days of endless debates and homeric fights between two wings in the film archival field, the one more focused on preservation, historically represented by Ernest Lindgren of British Film Institute, and the one more focused on programming and represented by Henri Langlois of Cinémathèque française, are definitely gone.
If we are speaking about film archival curatorship, I can easily adopt the famous, almost slogan of Henri Langlois “Il faut tout garder” (We must keep everything). Curatorship means making decisions, that’s how in museums and in film archives it’s considered. Personally, I would say that curatorship as it concerns the policies of archival enrichment should be much more wide range and syncretistic and much less hierarchising than on the programming level because it’s a long term activity, it should go beyond the trends of the moment and beyond my own biography and cinéphilia. That’s my philosophy.
If a film seems not to be corresponding to the established canon or the established cinéphile values, well we know from experience that these values are highly ephemeral, that’s the first point. And the second point is that even if you don’t consider these films as being part of any cinéphile pantheon of the future, they still will be very important social and cultural indicators of their time. So I am very much in favour of this basic idea of the Il faut tout garder enrichment policy. Programming on the other hand is much more about establishing hierarchies. While heads of film collections should obey the law of entropy, the heads of programming should obey the law of negentropy.
Another question of course is: how do we apply this Il faut tout garder principle practically? Of course, acquisition budgets are not endless. So if you structurally analyse our archive you could speak about a vertical and a horizontal axis. The vertical axis corresponds to the specific profile and international prestige of our collection, somehow almost to its cliché: the American B-pictures, the Italian Z-pictures, the rarities on 16mm. So of course the policy of enrichment nowadays tries to develop these strengths, this kind of trademark, and follows these lines somehow. But on the other hand, we are in parallel developing a policy of diversification along a horizontal axis, including a wide range of national cinématographies, genres, periods, filmic movements and aesthetical approaches.
And that’s exactly the principle of Il faut tout garder. Budgets are limited, but at the same time the decisions are quite clear when you have the possibility to acquire a Michael Powell print that you don’t have yet, of course you don’t hesitate one second. It’s less tricky than you might assume, it’s also coming from the gut instinct. There is, of course, room enough for subjectivity within the system of the two axis. And finally, technical quality is nowadays a decisive criterion. You need prints in a pristine condition.
Where do you obtain the films from? Do film collectors offer you films that they own? We imagine, too, the number of films that you are finding these days is getting smaller in number?
Well, it’s more complex even than that. First of all, we have a system of voluntary print deposits from Belgian film distributors as Luxembourg is part of the distribution territory of Belgium – so it’s Brussels based film distributors who are giving us deposits of newly released prints after their commercial life has come to an end, at least in a first stage. In exchange, we are doing cataloging and state of the art conservation work on those prints. These print entries are based upon a curatorial decision of principle, but not on a case-by-case decision, as they are governed by the aleatory automatism of deposits. But again, this logic completely fits into my concept of being open to anything.
Besides voluntary deposits, our enrichment policy is based upon acquisitions that we are making. They are coming from film collectors markets of which we have trusted relationships with or that they have trusted relationships with us. This is a worldwide activity and it’s also a question of keeping these contacts and relationships alive – that’s why we are in a constant dialogue with film collectors. Tracking down rare prints is the more romantic, sometimes slightly romanticized part of work life. But doing so, i.e. migrating prints from the hands of private collectors to film archiving institutions, is an often underestimated part of a global film heritage preservation strategy insofar as the storage conditions of private collections are often more than dubious and as collector’s prints, before entering archival vaults, have a very volatile status without any institutional guarantee.
You mentioned that the Cinémathèque somehow specialises in rare films, are there any particular periods or directors in your archives that are unique and quite important?
Of course we have very rare, or even single prints. For example, we hold a working print of Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin . We have specific and unique material for Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès  and so on. But the general interest of the collection is the rarity of important parts of the collection – rarity notably in a field of film history which is less visible.
It’s again linked to what I was saying before about finding the unfindable. That’s why any Allan Dwan retrospective at any festival or any cinémathèque wouldn’t probably happen without contributions from the Cinémathèque of Luxembourg. Or why any Raoul Walsh retrospective wouldn’t be complete without our help.
In terms of lending the archive’s prints to festivals and other cinémathèques, how does it work exactly?
The key question of the loan policy is: who is asking for prints? What are the screening conditions and how trusted, professional and corresponding to FIAF [Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film] standards are the situations of the projection booths? We may help with demands if they are coming from other film archives grouped into the FIAF or ACE [Association des Cinémathèques Européennes] world, because it gives us a certain security, and that’s exactly the point: getting the print back in exactly the same condition as when it left our vaults. Whereas in the context of unknown contacts of ciné-clubs for example, the chances are great that you will get back a worn out print, which of course is unacceptable.
Has it happened before?
Yes it has happened. I mean, it’s the worst case scenario, but it can happen. Even in a principally trusted projection situation, accidents can happen.
If it’s about the deposited material from the distributors, our loan policy is slightly different. Basically because one of our strategic interests is entertaining relationships of mutual interest – the famous win-win situation- with distributors. I think it’s absolutely okay for us in our trusted give-and-take relationship with copyright owners that prints can circulate in both directions. So, if there’s a festival request for a certain title where we hold deposited material, we are happy to help with a print loan, of course unless there would be strong conservation reasons to say that the print shouldn’t go out, because it’s just too fragile. All this needs of course copyright clearance beforehand.
Does Luxembourg have a national cinema?
There is indeed a national cinema developing since 20 years in a more important way due to the fact that there has been tax shelter legislation here providing incentives for film production in Luxembourg. The basic question though – and now I’m not speaking as the director of the Cinémathèque, but as an ex-member of the reading committee of the Luxembourg Film Fund assessing scripts in view of an avance sur recettes– is the debate over what exactly constitutes a Luxembourg film. Most of the productions are European co-productions. So what could be a genuine Luxembourg film beyond a financial co-production where you have Luxembourg money invested, but no real visibility of whatever it might be, Luxembourg culture, language or artistic input.
I must say though that today, we have a handful of promising film directors who will develop in an excellent way, I’m quite sure. From the young talents, I would name Max Jacoby, Beryl Koltz and Jeff Desom. I have been following and, as a member of the script reading committee, supporting their careers from the very beginning and I have many hopes for them.
Is the Cinémathèque involved in restoring prints? How many people do you have working on this?
In the archival department, we have a staff of four and now very soon five people, as we will hire a new head of film and non-film collections. So it will be a staff of five people doing the classical work that happens in any cinémathèque, cataloging, analysis of the state of the prints, restoration, supervision of the temperature and hygrometric conditions, etc.
We also take part in complex restoration projects. We contributed to the newly restored French version of Lola Montès by unique material that we hold. We also worked some years ago with the Film Museum Munich on the German version of Lola Montès as there have been two original versions. It has been a very tricky restoration, multi-layered in its ambitions: we wanted to recreate the original Cinemascope ratio, which was in fact 2.55 for the original release prints, as premiered in Paris and Munich with 4-channel magnetic sound. Later prints were cropped to a 2.35 aspect ratio due to the use of optical sound, unbalancing in the most awful way the symmetrical sophistication of the cinematography. We also reconstructed the original sound concept which was a multilingual one.
Basically the original release version of Lola Montès was butchered by the producers, because the film was much too radical and ahead of its time, using the circus metaphor as a premonitory critique of the entertainment society and its exhibitionism. On top of that, Ophuls was deceiving deliberately and maliciously the expectations of the French public who was expecting to see another soft erotic film with Martine Carol, the curvy star of Caroline Chérie . The sound concept is also very avant-garde. Lola Montès is basically a subversive film disguised as a flamboyant masterpiece of baroque cinematography.
What are the main problems you encounter in terms of conservation of prints?
For a long time in the history of film archiving and preservation, the big thing was nitrate, how to preserve nitrate as nitrate stock is unstable. So there has been this homeric project of transferring nitrate material to safety support. But ironically safety support didn’t reveal itself to be safe at all, mainly because of the famous ‘vinegar syndrome’ attacking acetate prints. That’s a new ticking bomb for the archives.
It’s called ‘vinegar syndrome’ because the prints start to release a scent of vinegar. What’s happening to the prints is that at a certain moment, there is more and more of a release of acidity from the print, developing into a state which chemists call the ‘autocatalytic’ point, to the point where the increase of acidity gets exponential. The physical state of the print begins to change and in the end it’s completely warped, it’s completely decomposing.
For that we know nowadays, scientific research has revealed that a direct and very important parameter to slow this process down or to stop it, or to not even let it start, are the conditions of temperature and humidity. But there’s always the basic problem of the prints having a pre-history before entering the archive. For example, we have a stock of prints coming originally from north Africa, and of course the pre-history of these prints was devastating. We have notably more vinegar cases from these stocks.
So how do you deal with it?
Well, you can’t reverse the process, you can only slow it down and that’s what we are doing. What we must do, and this is unfortunate, if the process is in the autocatalytic phase: we just have to eliminate the print because the acidity of the print may be contagious to the other prints. So not only is the microclimate in the can a problem for that very print, but also for the macroclimate of the whole vault. So that’s just one reason for establishing a prevention strategy through controlled temperature and humidity conditions. Other problems like the instability of certain colour processes, Eastman colour for example, are also dependent upon these factors.
Has the Cinémathèque been approached for prints to transfer onto DVD?
Yes, we have been contributing to DVD editions, perhaps with prints or just specific material if the editions are restoring or creating a new digital master. But at the same time we are now part of an archival DVD network, which I think is the politically smarter move. The problem is if you are dealing with a commercial DVD producer – even if it is a high brow label like Criterion – we worked with Criterion on the comprehensive version of Mr Arkadin – the identity or visibility of the archive tends not to be as strong than if you had worked within your own production and distribution structure.
As a reaction to that, several archives, mostly German speaking, created the label Edition Filmmuseum. I’m happy to be part of it. So within this network every archive is having its own individual projects, but there is a synergy regarding the technical processes, the distribution and the marketing. The technical work, especially the post-production, is outsourced to technical firms, but the curatorial and conceptual work always lies in the hands of the archives. So far we have released a double DVD about early fairground cinema, Crazy Cinématographe. Europäisches Jahrmarktkino 1896-1916, which, by the way, one of the top sellers of the label, and also contributing to other projects.
You have also organised live representations of the Crazy Cinématographe, could you elaborate on this?
Crazy Cinématographe is a project about early cinema, from 1895 to the very latest 1914, even more so from 1895 to 1906/07. This is a kind of cinema which the world of academia had labeled ‘cinema of attractions’, because it was a non narrative cinema very much based on entertainment values, tricks and visual effects. It’s an extraverted cinema, impure cinema, to use the words of Alexander Kluge, not at all aiming at this kind of contemplative situation that we have later on in cinema.
Early cinema is cinema of attractions basically because it’s a fairground born medium, therefore shaped by standing in concurrence with other forms of fairground entertainment such as freak shows or roller coasters. Later, when cinema tried to become ‘adult’ and Film d’Art, this early cinema of attractions was despised by the film historians, the producers and the new generations of cinema-goers. It had completely fallen by the wayside, even decades later in cinémathèques, it was often considered as material that you just didn’t want to touch. It was as if film history would have started with D.W Griffith and before that, the rhetorics of cinema would have been nothing else but primitive stammering.
Then in 1978 at the FIAF congress in Brighton, early cinema was rediscovered and it became more and more in the focus of film scholars and archivists. They did some great work with it, which ended with the fact that nowadays you can see newly restored treasures of early cinema at specialised festivals, such as Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna or Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone.
Thinking still that the mission of cinémathèques is to recreate the original cinematic experience, I was struck by the fact that even if the prints were brilliantly restored, the mode of presenting early cinema in Bologna or Pordenone wasn’t the original cinematic experience. The context and the apparatus aren’t absolutely corresponding to the historical experience of fairground cinema shows. First of all, you are isolated in a classical cinematic film theater and not part of the synaesthetic tumult of fairgrounds. Within this film theater you have of course a pianist, but you haven’t a film narrator or sound effects person which was part of the original way to present early cinema. So the representational mode isn’t the same. Then, sociologically, an absolute falsification lies in the fact that the audience is exclusively composed by film scholars and archivists, myself included – in contradiction to the historical model of a popular, large audience. I call what happened to early cinema as gentrification.
My aim with the project Crazy Cinématographe was radical de-gentrification: bringing it back to its original popular public, to persons who have never seen a silent film in their lifetime, and in the original conditions, implementing a cinématographe tent on a fairground, the projector standing in the middle of the tent as an attraction factor in its own right, and with barkers, film narrators, sound effects people and a pianist. So with this idea in my mind, in the cultural year 2007 it was a great opportunity to bring this project into reality. In Luxembourg it worked wonderfully. We had 10 000 entries in 2007 and an enthusiastic response. Crazy Cinématographe today is an ongoing project, also going on tour in the spirit of travelling cinemas.
So, why put fairground films on DVD when they exist as a live event? Why should archives be part of DVD productions when they have the live event in their film theaters, which is the original cinematic experience by screening prints? I very much insist on the original theatrical or fairground experience. But even the most puristic archives have their DVD release policy nowadays, because you just don’t pretend it’s the same experience. From François Truffaut you have this famous quote: “I would not like to see a film for the first time on video or the television. One first sees a film in the cinema. Cinema and video – it is effectively the difference between a book one reads and a book one consults. For me as a cinéphile, video overturns my life. Take Lubitch’s Design for Living  as an example. Before, if it was on somewhere, I used to go, knowing I would have to wait maybe two years before being able to see it again. Now I may see it three times in the same week. To have a film on video gives me a much more intimate knowledge of it. As a cinéphile, I am a video fan.” I couldn’t agree more. The most important thing is having no confusion between the different modes of reception.
You just mentioned the different experiences between the film theatre and DVD. Criterion for example, now allow people to watch films on their website via the internet, how do you feel about that direction? How do you see the cinémathèque in the future where technology is concerned?
First of all seeing a film is more than just seeing a film. I’d like to make a comparison between the cinematic experience of a cinémathèque screening and the home cinema situation. Let’s go back to Walter Benjamin and his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Benjamin’s thesis was that the classical aura of the 19th century bourgeois work of art was destroyed by the mechanical reproduction of film.
I think that the real deconstruction of the aura is not being done by the mechanical, but by the digital reproduction of the filmic work. That is to say that with the triumph of the digital, somehow you have the impression that the mechanical gets a new aura, a new glamour, a new ‘religiosity’ – and I think that should be the way of cinémathèques. In contrast, the setting and experience of home cinema is a very daily one, it’s profanation by trivialization, there’s no religion left. You’re not going to church when you are lying on your sofa, but if you’re going to a cinémathèque, you’re going to church, especially if you’re entering our Cinémathèque which is historically and architecturally part of a monastery run by the Pères Rédemptoristes. In the early days of our Cinémathèque, there were even Holy Masses hold on Sundays right in the film theatre, and when the cinéphile audience entered the cinémathèque afterwards for the film screenings, they could still smell the incense. That must have been an archaic form of Odorama technology.
That aside, there is just something about entering a cinémathèque which goes back to this auratic experience that is very specific. This experience belongs to the fact that you have the original projection technique even if the perception might be subliminal in some way. It’s about being respectful to the original as you would be in a museum where they are hanging the original paintings and not a perfect clone of the original. You could imagine that in five or ten years you could clone digitally the original experience in a perfect technological way – even the sharpest eyes in the audience couldn’t tell the difference. But still it would be a kind of betrayal and I must say that my heart goes with the idea of sticking to celluloid based projections – apart of course from films which are digitally born, that’s a different thing. I must however say that there will never be an ideal world and if I had to make the decision between screening a worn out 16mm print or a 4K restoration I’m not sure if I would choose the 16mm. Between a rubbish 16mm and a digital 4K, I’d probably choose a gorgeous 35mm.
How is the film programming decided? Could you give us some examples of what you’ve been doing in the past and what is coming up?
I was mentioning before my curatorial point of view regarding the film collection, the principle of Il faut tout garder. You can keep everything, but you cannot show everything, at least not at the same time. Every act of programming is a kind of Sartrian decision. What I mean by that, is that the subjective factor in film programming is much stronger than in the collection policy. I think that you should deliberately accept and assume this subjectivity and try to create a contemporary, lively film museum by telling stories and transferring passions. It’s about filling a cinémathèque with stories about directors, actors, periods, aesthetical concepts, contexts, it’s about collaging and dialectically contrasting film titles, it’s about building up every month an overall perspective, a programming dramaturgy and narrative. Programming is pretty much an artistic field, it’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
We are now working on a retrospective of Robert Mulligan, who just died in December. In doing so, it’s nothing less than a statement, it’s saying in this case, Robert Mulligan is the American François Truffaut, he’s important and underrated, please see him. So that’s what I mean by curatorial subjectivity.
At the moment of the arrival of the financial crisis we programmed the Marx Brothers. That was of course a statement, because you have this kind of grotesque or Ubuesque moments in the work of the Marx Brothers. In Duck Soup [Leo McCarey, 1933], Groucho Marx as dictator of bankrupt Freedonia very much recalls the megalomania and shamelessness of the traders and bankers of Wall Street. At the same time, very formally, the work of the Marx Brothers is based on the principle of accumulation (of visual gags, of one-liners, of acting bodies as in the famous stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera [Sam Wood, 1935], with 15 people in a tiny ship’s cabin). The groucho-marxist accumulation is nothing else but a metaphor for the hubris in the economic world, before the financial bubble burst. Even if programming is about historically remote films, films are always contemporary.
We are also working on a retrospective of film noir, but we won’t program it in a classical way. We will probably call it ‘Cinema Noir’, which means that apart from the very established genre and body of films noirs stricto sensu from the 40s and 50s, we will pretty much interpret cinematic noirishness in a broader way, going back to expressionist films and poetic realism of the French 30s, flashing forward to the neo-noir films. Seeing it in a broad sense as a metaphysical approach to the world rather than a very precise genre makes it more complex and transversal as an approach, perhaps liberating it out of its confined audience ghetto of film noir freaks. So programming, basically, is about interpretation, reinterpretation and reconstruction of film history.
You’ve invited guests to the Cinémathèque such as Jan Bucquoy and Jess Franco. Is it a deliberate choice to be different from conventional institutions? You talked about how historically the Cinémathèque has some kind of speciality of B-movies before it became kind of a ‘fashion’….
The case of Jess Franco was of course exactly in full respect of the tradition of our Cinémathèque, in the sense that, of course, Jess Franco is the king of the B’s, so it was a quite natural thing to have him as a guest – by the way a humanistically cultivated, not at all ‘B-ish’ guest. There’s a link between the film collection and the programming of course, merely by the fact that a large majority of the prints we’re programming are our own prints. But at the same time, I would claim that there should be an intellectual autonomy in the act of programming, independently from the contingency of the prints in our archive – otherwise we would be too constrained.
Jan Bucquoy was part of our program about Belgian subversive cinema, which has been curated by Noel Godin, the famous person who throws custard pies into the faces of people like Jean-Luc Godard. But of course, we are also programming more classical directors – we don’t pretend to be Anthology Film Archives.
What we indeed try to do in our programming work is to be thematically and formally explorative. We put a lot of effort into constructing multi-layered retrospectives, thematic and complex rather than monographic and linear. For example, we had a retrospective that we called ‘Home Cinema’ about interiors and houses, organized within different thematic subsections. The same approach goes for a retrospective about ‘The Eye of Baroque’, interplaying with the fields of philosophy and art history.
This kind of programming is intellectually ambitious and presents fascinating possibilities for creative input. However, I must confess that I’m getting slightly fatigued with this kind of post-modern tapestry of images, with the mania of delinearisation. I feel more and more the need to emphasize as well a monographic mode of programming. I probably feel this due to the ubiquity and multiplication of films by digital means, everything is everywhere at the same time. The instantaneous accessibility of film history is close to being absolute, via Video on Demand, DVD, Pirate Bay and so on. But what it means is that for the new generations of cinéphiles, it changes radically the structural approach towards film history, because film history is nowadays perceived through a pattern of horizontal simultaneity – everything is at the same level. There is no hierachisation, the sense of cinema is getting two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. The depth of field has flattened out. In a moment like that, programming might be in need for new verticality, for a neo-ligne claire, similar to Hergé’s famous neat drawing style for Tintin. As a reaction to the digital age, the cinémathèques might find a new role of being the pathfinder, the lighthouse in the ocean of audio-visual overkill.
The fact that everything is now readily available, positioned on the same level and accessed via things like cell phones doesn’t seem to be a problem for people, especially younger generations. You mentioned the need to create hierachisation in an age where everything is accessible at once – do you have any strategies for educating younger people with regards to film history and cinema as an art? How can you try to highlight the difference between seeing a film in a theater as opposed to on a TV or computer screen?
Educational work will be a keyword for the future of cinémathèques. I’m always astonished by the fact that even highly educated adults don’t have any audio-visual alphabetisation, they don’t know how to decipher, how to decode cinema. They’ve never learnt the filmic grammar, that’s not foreseen in the educational curriculum. In France the situation is slightly better, but basically film language is not taught at the same level as the language of literature. On top of that, the danger is that in comparison with the written language, it’s less obvious that filmic signs are constructed signs due to the pseudo-similarity between the signifier and the signified. There’s a kind of pseudo-naturalism of cinema which makes young people forget that cinema is just a semiotic construction. And if you don’t understand that you are dealing with a construction, you will inevitably fall into the trap of manipulation.
Film education I think is an excellent tool for audiovisual education in general. If you understand the principles of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory and practice, then you understand everything about montage, construction and manipulation in today’s audio-visual world. Eisenstein will help you understand YouTube as well as virtual wars on TV. Eisenstein would be an excellent paradigm for AV education.
To go back to your point about most people being able to see the difference between a 35mm print and a DVD projection. If you consider the different audio formats for example, younger generations are listening to bad quality MP3s and can’t seem to be able to notice the difference between that and a very good vinyl pressing, yet the difference is obvious to older generations and aficionados. I think that perhaps it’s becoming the same with cinema, going all the way from the technical experience to the question of the language of cinema and it’s signification. Are you worried about this?
I must say I am indeed worried about it. The most striking fact for me is the following: there are in the younger generations people who are very knowledgable about film theory, who have a sophisticated culture of cinéphilia, and yet there is a significant loss of the sense of the materiality of cinema, of what you call the artefact. The artefact is the hand-make object – like a painting. There is a loss of this consciousness which is reducing film from a complex sensorial experience to a simple content written into an exchangeable technical material. Not only the material is considered as aleatoric, but also the frame, the context of how you see a movie, in a concentrated way or not, focused or not.
The reception of films seems to be going in a direction where you have distracted attention on a trivial medium like an iPhone. I think that this new kind of AV socialisation will also colonize more and more the classical film theatres, in the cases where they won’t die. It’s a very complex thing and I don’t think that the project of the cinémathèques will necessarily survive, but we will try hard.
Photos by Christophe Sorro. All rights reserved.