Translated from Spanish by César Albarrán-Torres
When we touch each other, we are a bit less of an image. That is the difference between images and living beings. We believe we can touch with our eyes when we can no longer touch with our hands – Jean-Luc Godard
“Film houses were born ten years too late”, so used to lament Henri Langlois. In 1925, big studios’ archives were still intact; in 1935, these same studios devastated the triumphant years of silent cinema. Later, during the Occupation, trying to halt the destruction of hundreds of film rolls, Langlois split up his collection among dozens of European cinematheques. The halt of the German order saved more than twenty thousand films from ending up in flames, but millions of them had already disappeared, before the creation of the first cinematheques dedicated to film conservation between 1935 and 1936 (in Paris, London, New York, Moscow). Most films suffered an “accidental” death, an inconsiderate, physical death even in countries that did not experience war. In 1945, the Cinémathèque had rescued more than 50,000 films from being burnt, but most pre-1917 cinema was already gone.
Marie Epstein often talked about Langlois’ strong desire to identify films when he saw trucks arrive with tons of film negatives. Even if labs were advised not to store nitrate film because the material is flammable, and even if some cinematheques destroyed this format once the film was transferred to acetate film, Langlois called for the preservation of the original nitrate films. Time was passing by, as in a countdown, and he was aware that the only way for cinema to survive was to preserve the negatives. He knew that luminosity was lost with each copy and that transferring the film to a new format needed the original material. Nevertheless, when the film negative was not available, he would keep a copy. It was like saving the Venus de Milo even if its arms have been severed.
Just like Orpheus, Langlois’ excitement was born out of movement, of a precociously retrospective worldview that went back to cinema’s long and primitive history, a history drawn in secret, with no distinct episodes yet. To be a visionary involved not only imagining the future, but above all projecting oneself onto the past. He invented and modified his own rules and quests, because he preserved even before he learnt to preserve. For him, cinema was not a hundred years old, but three hundred: abandoning magic lanterns or chronophotographic devices was a crime.
In 1936 his goal was not to preserve known and found materials that were at risk due to their chemical instability. Neither was it to preserve the best movies. For Langlois, a cinematheque did not have the right to choose. Because value mutates (cinema’s evergreen present!), he considered it to be “un-scientific” that an “infallible” prejudice could condition issues of judgement for future generations. Added to this, a painting by Renoir could very well exist even if it wasn’t housed at the Tate, but such is not the case with, for example, a film by Griffith. As such, Langlois could not collect films as if they were paintings: he had to think of the cinematheque as the equivalent of a national library. That is, everything had to be preserved. He never jumped from what could be understood as primitive accumulation to a rational selection (but can we ever see things from all sides?). Always positioned in the future, Langlois thought of film as something that was already a document.
At the same time that the instruments to preserve the past are more precise than ever, our times have experienced an acceleration of history where past times are no longer put on a pedestal. While years go by and we are farther apart from the Lumière’s experience, processes for digital restoration are sometimes comparable to the gesture of those who threw Nadar’s originals to the rubbish after having made a copy. Nevertheless, in the age of conservative dematerialisation, all that is left is the return of the relative notion of the “original”. Isn’t the return to the film negative still the best solution, particularly for ephemeral digital formats? These particular times, disorderly like the aftermath of a war, invite us to slow down. “The positive was given when we were born, now we need to create the negative”, said Kafka. To safeguard a film involves generating a new matrix, making copies for research and screenings to be possible, as well as the copying, in the case of an accident, of the second-generation matrix. To preserve should never be synonymous with furthering the degradation of the material. When we buy an art catalogue made up of paintings, we judge the quality of reproduction. On the contrary, as Jean-Luc Godard used to say, we no longer think of films as a reproduction (in the odd case we might think of a badly projected original). But all history is contemporary history. Restoration, which now lays in the frantic erasure of time, can also be reversed in a critical manner. The only guarantee of a future is the survival of the past.
Éric Rohmer used to compare films that were still fresh in his memory, titles such as Hitchcock’s 1949 Under Capricorn, with inaccessible wonders such as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. This was a move destined to prolong cinema’s independent survival as a form of unforgettable (and collective) memory. This moment of absolute withdrawal has intensified our obligation to safeguard film history precisely because no one has been able to experience it like us. Being heirs to this history implies a set of rights and obligations. Is there a more extreme act of vandalism that falling asleep when a film asks us to be saved while we have the power to do so?
The screen is still the main attraction in our museum. But unlike painting, film needs to be followed from the beginning to end: it is the parade of an imaginary time, and it demands that each and every single one of its images be seen. This is specific to the film theatre as opposed to, for example, our homes, a warehouse of supposed supplies that cannot even feed us. As long as showing is a way of thinking, and while thinking is not necessary to see, the only thing we will be able to see is a nocturnal phantasmagoria. Film, contrary to canvasses or art catalogues, needs light to break its silence.
But film is not just a series of sequenced images, but one image plus another one that creates a third one (Godard repeats this tirelessly). Langlois’ memory did not make him a cinephile, but an art historian. This is due to the theoretical and political way in which he showed the objects that he preserved. Langlois also demonstrated that no one has been able to think cinema without using montage. And even then, even remembering this, during these past few months we have allowed machines to think for us. The computer is the new seatbelt: we trust it with our memories, we ask for its take on things.
Serge Daney said, “cinephilia is not about watching films by ourselves, in the dark, rubbing against the walls like a rat; it is about being silent for 90 minutes, being forced to listen, to watch, and to recover the time lost for the next 90 minutes.” But we have to talk after watching the film, not while we get there. Then, and only then, does the object-film become a subject. To speak again, to think again, to see again: things are better watched when we are able to enunciate them, when we use language to bring them back.
Through the fortuitous and involuntary poetry involved in programming, Langlois gave birth to new evidence of these encounters and new disparities in similarities. He did not shoot his films with a camera: he did so with a projector. With his diagonal montages film history (which is usually told in a straight line) was violated every time a new form appeared. We shall not forget that programming, then and now, is about “defeating chaos through a drying plain that goes through it” (Deleuze).
Today it is more important than ever to show films so they can rediscover the present of which they are an archive. Cinema is a floating paper flower. It will eventually sink.
Words: H. Langlois, J.-L. Godard, S. Daney, M. Epstein, D. Païni, L. Mannoni, É. Rohmer, M. Dubreuil, M. Orléan, P. Azoury, F. Albera, G. Deleuze, F. Kafka, B. Jacquot, C. Kaufmann and B. Martinand.