Michel Hazanavicius, the man who directed The Artist, never failed to acknowledge his debt, while receiving the Golden Globe, BAFTA or the Oscar awards, to Billy Wilder. Many cinema critics in Paris point out the simple explanation behind the mind-boggling international successes of The Artist remains the fact that the modern cinemagoer is quite sick and tired of explicit sex scenes, vulgar exclamations, violent sequences and computerized shots that current filmmakers wrongly consider to be indispensible for box-office popularity. “Look also at the triumphs of Midnight in Paris and The Iron Lady this year!” they say.
To have a better grasp of the The Artist enigma, I questioned a Parisian film enthusiast well into his ‘70s who urged me to look into what he termed as the ‘MacMahon Factor’ and on the legend of Pierre Rissient a man variously, but always enthusiastically, described by film historians as the first of the ‘MacMahonians’, as the man credited for his relentless struggle for the recognition of the golden age of Hollywood in France and as the cinema philosopher who famously said: “It’s not enough to like a movie, you have to like it for the right reasons.” Sometimes overenthusiastically, Rissient is also described as the man who discovered Clint Eastwood.
After days of work on the history of Cinema MacMahon that bears the name of the avenue it is situated on near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, I came to the conclusion that nothing would make sense without first encountering Rissient. To my surprise this proved to be the easiest thing in the world, once I had found out his cell phone number.
We met at an Italian bistro in the tenth arrondisement of Paris, not far from the Hotel du Nord along Canal St Martin, famous for the 1938 Marcel Carné film of the same name. Exposing the project for my article I said: “You know, it’s a bit like what Alfred Hitchcock used to say about his work; once he had completed a scenario and had known which actors would be playing what roles, he had the whole film in his head and found it almost superfluous to actually go ahead and shoot it.”
The words were hardly out of my mouth when I knew I had made a gaffe! I had already read somewhere Rissient was critical of Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and had described them as men addicted to using flashy visual effects to conceal their inability to convey authentic emotions. Rissient dismissed my comment with a polite sweep of hand, remarking that some people would say anything just to make themselves sound interesting. I hurriedly took it to mean he was alluding to Hitchcock and not to me.
I posed Rissient the inevitable question: So what exactly is a MacMahonian? Before answering, Rissient took a sip of thé à la menthe, sat back and closed his eyes in concentration.
“The movie house, originally built in 1938, was bought in 1943 by Emile Villion who had just returned from Algeria after winding up his business there. It was a small theatre with a limited number of seats. Movies shown there, mainly French productions, were second runs as Villion could not afford to project new releases. After the war, the noticeable presence of the GIs in the Arc de Triomphe area (the USO was situated at the Champs Elysées), Villion decided to show American war movies to attract them. The idea was a success, commercially at least, despite the fact that his choice of films was at random and he often ended up showing some acceptable American movies and some, well, not so good. I remember it was in 1953 that I and a few friends (we were still in the high school then) decided to approach him and tell him there was a lot of good Hollywood films he was missing. He was not impressed by a bunch of teenagers telling him how to run his business but asked us nevertheless to give him a list of what we considered great movies. He immediately objected to our very first suggestion of They Live by Night (Nicolas Ray, 1949) with Farley Granger in the lead. Granger had become famous since 1951 following Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Villion had no idea of what star power was; actually nobody did in France at that time. Upon our insistence he reluctantly showed the film and our idea was an instant success.
“Emboldened by our modest triumph we suggested The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952) with Kirk Douglas and Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952) with Charlton Heston and Jennifer Jones. By this time Villion had finally started believing in the allure of the movie stars though he was still squeamish about highlighting the directors’ names as an added attraction; when we dared to push forth the idea of The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949) he resisted, at least in the beginning, but finally succumbed to consistent persuasion on our part by putting up the name of Max Ophüls in bright letters at the top of the cinema’s entrance. Once again we were right and the movie attracted a huge number of cinéphiles. From then on the display of the directors’ names became a ritual at the MacMahon. Voilà! that was the initial successful stage of the crusade by a bunch of teenagers that were we, led by yours truly and another cinema buff named Michel Fabre.
“The second phase of our mission, if I could put it that way, started a year later. By December 1954, given our heartwarming triumphs, we were bold enough to pressure Emile Villion into including not only the director’s name but also the genre of the film as an essential element of his choice. This meant venturing into totally unknown territory, not because of the charisma of the stars or the reputation of the directors but simply because those films were good and fell into a certain artistic category; we had by now started to elaborate on cinematic quality from a purely academic point of view, i.e. not merely liking a movie but liking it for the right reasons. We selected films whose directors were either vaguely known or were totally unknown. Our earliest choices were The Prowler with Van Heflin (Joseph Losey, 1951) and Whirlpool with Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer and Gene Tierney (Otto Preminger, 1949).
“Following the success of this experiment, Latin Quarter intellectuals started taking notice of Cinéma MacMahon and began to admire the so far unheard of crusade it had embarked on of promoting good Hollywood movies and cinéma d’art; by and by they discovered the real force behind this movement and we were quickly nicknamed ‘the MacMahonians’. After this recognition, Villion gladly accepted our suggestion of putting up the sign of the ‘Four Aces’ at the entrance to the basement projection hall of the MacMahon, four playing cards bearing the portraits of Joseph Losey, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Raoul Walsh.”
Intrigued about the Eastwood folklore, I asked him directly: Did you discover Clint Eastwood?
“That actually is a bit of an exaggeration. Eastwood has been at it since the early fifties, playing small roles behind the day’s stars like Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler and many others, waiting for his breakthrough. This came, as every Eastwood fan knows, with Sergio Leone’s three box-office hit westerns in the early sixties. Then he made his own directorial debut in 1971 with Play Misty for Me. I had insisted then, against general disbelief as it were, that Clint Eastwood had to be taken seriously as a director. At that point I remember saying “this guy will go far”, but even I couldn’t guess “going far” meant he would continue giving us quality movies, year after year, right up to 2011 and hopefully beyond. So that’s what people mean when they say I had discovered him. Many of them know me for promoting in France the golden age Hollywood, but I have done some other work too; a recent example would be my contribution to restoring a lost copy of the 1963 Sri Lankan classic The Changing Village directed by Lester James Peries, and having it screened at the 2008 Cannes film festival.”
Rissient has the reputation of being blunt, something he doesn’t deny; but during the many conversations I had with him subsequent to our Italian bistro encounter he hardly ever mentioned his deep ties with legendary movie directors and his role in promoting them when they were not so well known. As a matter of fact his career as the enlightened youngster ceaselessly goading the owner of Cinéma MacMahon lasted less than five years and he quickly branched off into various fields connected with the movie industry. By the 1960s he was thoroughly and professionally involved not only in editing films but also in their production and distribution as well as the introduction of unknown or lesser known directors to the Cannes film festival. Typically, it was not from the mouth of Rissient I would discover that he had also played an important role in the recognition of many non-Hollywood filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Dusan Makavejev, Rolf de Heer, Edward Yang, Abbas Kiarostami and King Hu.
These traits of the Rissient lore are fairly effectively brought forth in Man of Cinema –Pierre Rissient (2007), a nearly two-hour long documentary made by American movie critic Todd McCarthy that I saw, in Rissient’s company, at the Latin Quarter movie house Action Christine. Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Jane Campion, John Boorman and Quentin Tarantino acknowledge, among so many others, their debt to Rissient in making them known at Cannes. Eastwood freely admits his uneasiness over exposing shots from his unedited films to anyone else, but says Rissient’s case is very different inasmuch as his comments have always proven to be fruitful. Appearing several times in McCarthy’s documentary the late Sidney Pollack says he was incredulous when Rissient, after seeing the rushes of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), decided to promote the film at Cannes. Rissient dismissed Pollack’s protestations about the movie being no more than an “open space adventure” and insisted on, finally succeeding, entering the work into the festival.
In the same documentary Bertrand Tavernier, another old comrade of Rissient’s later MacMahonian years who finally ended up becoming a well-known movie director himself, recounts how Joseph Losey, who owed his international recognition to Rissient’s efforts, settled down in Paris and helplessly succumbed to the dizzying trance of being an international celebrity. Rissient was critical, saying Losey’s films during this period were devoid of the depth his earlier work had evidenced. The two men were not on speaking terms when one night Losey spotted Rissient during a cocktail party; he approached him wanting to break the ice and said: “Pierre, I think you have gone too far.” This apparently was a noisy evening and Rissient got the wrong message. “You have grown too fat yourself”, he retorted and the two men started arguing violently. “That was the beginning and the end of Losey’s reconciliation effort”, says Tavernier, not a little beside himself with mirth.
As McCarthy’s documentary rolled on, I was becoming growingly conscious of the fact that it was probably his MacMahonian restlessness that had kept Rissient, who had actually rubbed shoulders with such men as John Ford, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin and Howard Hawks, from emerging as a successful movie director himself, though he later worked as assistant director to the late Claude Chabrol in the making of Les Cousins (1959) as well as to Jean-Luc Goddard in A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and made at least two full-length films of his own, both in Asia. I had a feeling Rissient couldn’t easily be persuaded to talk about them. Today, nearing 75, he is as energetically and impatiently involved as ever in what appears to be a lifetime mission of establishing some order and precision in the otherwise rather chaotic and chancy world of filmmaking, distribution and public relations. While I was watching the credits at the end of Man of Cinema Rissient’s dictum about liking a film for the right reasons kept ringing in my head.
When the lights went on in the tiny hall of Action Christine, Rissient turned back in his lonely seat close to the screen in the right hand corner and looked at the audience expectantly, ready to answer questions. From a dozen or so cinéphiles who had attended the screening a few wanted to know more about his own work; Rissient was typically dismissive of this, though McCarthy’s documentary is all about him. He kept coming back to his latest struggle of trying to promote the work of unknown directors at the Cannes festival. Pressed further to explain what happened to his own two full-length films –One Night Stand (1977) and Cinq et la Peau (1982)– he muttered something not too explicit about trying to transfer them on to DVD and then hurriedly moved on, as if drawing a comparison, to one of the greatest regrets in his life of not being able to restore all of the nine films that the late Ida Lupino had made as director, from her Not Wanted (1949) to her last The Trouble with Angels (1966). “She had a great talent and was the only woman directing movies at that time, you know”, he said. I didn’t know it at that moment, but discovered later from Jean-Marie Rodon, the owner of Action Christine, that both McCarthy’s Man of Cinema and Rissient’s Cinq et la Peau were screened at the MOMA in New York in September 2008.
A week after seeing Man of Cinema I met Jean-Marie Rodon in his Action Films office in rue Berger in the Les Halles district of Paris. The walls of the two rooms are plastered with famous, yellowing Hollywood movie posters bringing on remembrances of things past and the names of Cecil B. DeMille, Jacques Tourneur, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Frank Capra, Otto Preminger, John Ford and many, many other greats stared back at me whenever I lifted my head from my notebook. Rodon said he arrived in Paris from his native city Grenoble in the Alps in the mid sixties at age 25. “I acquired a small, dilapidated movie house in central Paris but had no idea as to how I could run it efficiently and make a living. Then I heard about Pierre Rissient and his movement and called on him; when he noticed my enthusiasm for Hollywood we immediately became friends and have been so for almost half a century. I spent all my modest savings on acquiring distribution rights for the movies that he had the patience to meticulously select for me. I never regretted his choice and was soon able to get rid of the old cinema and acquire Action Christine and Action Ecoles, both in the Latin Quarter area, then create my own distribution agency, Action Films.”
Rodon told me neither of his movie houses is equipped with digital technology as it is still possible to get hold of old movies in their original format and have them copied on film. “Digital images fall flat on the screen and the difference is all the more flagrant in black and white than in colour”, says Rodon, who is determined to resist the pressure for modernizing his projection booths. “I know I cannot go on like this eternally and one day won’t be able to find old fashioned spools any more, but we’ll see”, he raises his arms, both in desperation and in hope, and sighs.
Rodon said the idea of organizing a special festival entirely dedicated to Pierre Rissient was his way of rendering homage to the master MacMahonian and of thanking him for his friendship. During this period the two movie houses screened 22 films selected by Rissient himself and a special evening once a week at Action Christine was reserved for Todd McCarthy’s documentary, with Rissient present to answer questions at the end. “Though I was a late comer to the MacMahonian crusade”, says Rodon who is 74 today, “the career I have made in cinema, I owe it to a large extent to Rissient’s movement.”
Bruno Vincent is the master of all trades at Cinéma MacMahon. It is amazing to watch his fast-forward routine of selling tickets at the box office, running downstairs to the projection booth to slug in the hard disk into the Digital Cinema Processor or set the old fashion spools of a classic movie into motion, of dashing to the hall to recheck if the image on the screen is really in focus, then jogging up to the street-level box office once again to cater to the new line of few late-comers, at the same time whipping out his comb for the quite unnecessary gesture of setting his admirably luxuriant shock of hair into his preferred Robert Mitchum bob, then downing the last dregs from an already cold cup of coffee and going out to the sidewalk to have a few puffs of a cigarette, then rushing back to the box office at the sight of a last later-comer or two; this being rare as those who come regularly to the MacMahon, young and old alike, know the show starts on the dot as there never are any commercials, side reels or trailers like in any other run of the mill movie house.
Given his quick-action protean performance it is a hard job capturing Bruno’s attention to answer questions. (Also, it is impossible to refer to him by his last name once you have known him for about 10 minutes as he starts addressing you with an informal French tu and gives you the feeling you are a longtime buddy). He reveals himself to be a virtual Hollywood encyclopedia and his anecdotes about who said what to whom during the shooting of this or that picture are never ending. It is not difficult to see his fascination for Robert Mitchum, whose life and career he remembers by heart; but then he can also recount to you in the same breathe how Gary Cooper, supine on a mountain ledge, dozed off and started snoring while Richard Widmark was still talking to him as the two awaited the cameras to be set for the shooting of Henry Hathaway’s 1954 western The Garden of Evil. Bruno can also tell you about Victor Mature’s self-deprecation and his rebuff to a California club manager who had declined his membership request because he was an actor: “But I have more than 60 films to prove I am not an actor!”
Bruno says his Hollywood education began at age 12 when he lived with his parents in the central French town of Bourges in the early ‘70s. “In springtime I would suffer for weeks from breathing difficulty because of pollen allergy and was allowed to skip classes and stay at home with my grandmother. I would study at home and do the homework brought to me by classmates, but would still have lots of time to watch the golden age Hollywood movies on television.” Later when he came to Paris as an adult to start a practical life, he never had any doubts about working for a cinema house. He has been with the MacMahon for 22 years now and wouldn’t change his job for anything else, though he hardly makes a fortune there. He says when Emile Villion, the cinema’s owner and the man who had unwittingly and reluctantly launched Pierre Rissient’s career, died in 1968 he left his arty business to the care of his widow Madeleine. She later transferred it in 1973 to Mme Yvonne Decaris who in her turn sold it 10 years later to Axel Brucker, a gravelly voiced (and apparently pretty dynamic) retiree who seems to be constantly on the move as my five telephone calls were received by him while he drove his car on some highway or other in some corner of France. We finally never met for a face-to-face interview.
From the bits and pieces I was able to glue together the cinema was acquired in the year 2000 by Vincent Bolloré, the head of a vast international investment and holdings conglomerate. Bolloré who also rules over a media and telecommunications empire among other things, ordered an ambitious renovation job, transforming the old place into a modern cinema house cum cultural centre. To suit the purpose, creating a broad platform in front of the screen necessitated bringing down the number of seats from 180 to 137. As a cultural centre the MacMahon now gets a few government benefits, not to mention a modest annual grant from the City of Paris, and serves as a well-equipped, centrally located venue for business soirées and private screenings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when it is closed to public, though anyone can rent the place for parties and cocktails on those same days.
Though for the past two years he has launched his own agency for distributing Hollywood classics, Bruno Vincent keeps his job at the MacMahon and his MacMahonian principles unhampered. Following the death of actress Jean Simmons in January 2011, Bruno hastily arranged for three of her most representative movies, Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960), Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) and of course, Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952) with Robert Mitchum playing the male lead. Following the death of Tony Curtis, Bruno hastily shortened his vacation in central France to get hold of The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968) and Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) to be shown at the MacMahon.
Much like Jean-Marie Rodon, Bruno Vincent grows wistful talking about the future of cinema. “The possibility the cinéphiles have of coming to places like the MacMahon, Action Christine and Action Ecoles to watch old films and share the pleasure with each other will be gone if modern technology has its way. You saw me inserting that hard disk then the USB key that gets me access to projecting the film on the screen on the agreed time? The process has already started of people getting an incredible list of movies on their computer screens; a few mouse clicks settles the matter of choosing a film and paying the distributer directly through the Internet, and viola! You get whatever you want on your home cinema screen. No need to go to the movie house anymore!”
Every interesting story has its stunning paradox. Though the MacMahon has adamantly stuck to Pierre Rissient’s principle of never showing a movie dubbed in French, it seems to have a special penchant for coming back, every now and then, to the directors Rissient despised by organizing a festival devoted to the Master of Suspense, to Orson Welles or to Eisenstein!
Exceptionally, the MacMahon plans to have a run of The Artist, perhaps to underline the fact that a simple silent film in black and white, without four-letter eruptions, without sexual scenes, without blood and gore orgies and without digital trickery has the real power to pull at the heartstrings of cinemagoers.