Heartening news from Paris, where the great Josephine Baker is to be granted a rare honour. The dancer, actress, film star, civil rights activist and hero of the French Resistance is to be memorialised in the Panthéon, Paris’s secular temple, after nearly a decade of campaigning.
An inscription at the Panthéon reads: “To its great men, a grateful fatherland” and around 80 notable French people are honoured there, most of them men. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman to be commemorated there.
Her predecessors are Marie Curie, Resistance heroes Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, feminist icon Simone Veil and Sophie Berthelot, the first woman to enter these hallowed crypts, and who was interred alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot “in homage to her conjugal virtue”.
I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.
This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!
When I first began to fall in love with the movies, I watched French New Wave double-bills at my local arthouse cinema. I saw the kids in Quatre Cents Coups and Bande à Part dashing across Paris and thought nothing could be more cinematic, more evocative of youth and passion and adventures in the city of light. Nearly two decades later and I, too, am sprinting down Parisian streets, and all in the name of le septième art.
At Toute la Mémoire du Monde, a sprawling festival of restored cinema hosted by the Cinémathèque Française, there are always far more films playing than you could hope to see, at screens across the city. So occasionally you have to forgo that customary pause and sigh of happiness at a film’s heartbreaking conclusion, grab your bag and leg it like Léaud to catch the Métro.
On my first day at the festival, as Marlene Dietrich ditched her heels and trudged across the desert to prove her devotion to Gary Cooper in the plush new Les Fauvettes rep cinema, I set out on my own speed-march back to the Cinémathèque to catch Fred Astaire getting his shoes shined. Then, of course, as I wandered back to my hotel across the Seine with ‘That’s Entertainment’ ringing in my ears, I had all the more to reflect upon.
I’m trying to explain why this festival offers a rush of blood through the veins, and that I felt ever so slightly light-headed all weekend. Doubtless, the effort of translating French intertitles in my head also gave my brain as much of a workout as my poor old feet. This is a French-language festival – all the sound films are “version originale” with French subs, and for silents, the only intertitles you can guarantee will be French ones. But the good news is that even though I am far from fluent in French, I understood about 80% of the captions just fine. So if you are wondering whether the language barrier would come between you and this festival, well bonne chance!
It’s difficult not to feel close to the cinema in Paris, the city where the projection of moving images first began. The Cinémathèque, and the other screens I visited, are a long way from the upscale Boulevard des Capucines where the Lumières first unspooled their magic. But catching a programme of French shorts from the 1900s and teens gave me a little historical thrill. Not least when Oscar (Oscar au Bain, Léonce Perret 1913) whisked his ladylove around the capital in a taxi. And even the later films I saw, from The River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) to Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), all owe their existence to those first flickers, it’s true.
It’s in the nature of an archive festival to be eclectic, but had I been strictly silent all weekend, it’s a fair bet that I would have seen mostly Swedish films from the teens and early twenties by Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, courtesy of the L’école suédoise strand. I stretched my wings a little further than that, but still made time to see haunting, brilliant films by both directors: Stiller’s Herr Arnes Penningar (1919) as well as Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage, (1921). All three heart-wrenching experiences of the best kind – pitching the viewer into a world that is physically tough and spiritually fraught. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema→
“Over eighty percent of silent films are lost. I’ve always considered a lost film as a narrative with no known final resting place — doomed to wander the landscape of film history, sad, miserable and unable to project itself to the people who might love it. This absence haunts me. I need to see these films. It’s eventually occurred to me that the best way to see them would to make contact with their miserable spirits and invite them to possess me. And with actors quite willing to participate in some para-normal cinematic experiments … Every day my actors will plunge themselves deep into a trance, and open themselves up to possession by the unhappy spirit of a lost film. And every day my actors will act out the long forgotten choreographies that once lived so luminously on the big screen for thousands, maybe millions of viewers.” – Guy Maddin
Last weekend, I visited the set of The Blue Mountains Mystery, which was shot in Australia in 1921. The day before, I dropped by to see the same crew, and largely the same cast, working on an Erich Von Stroheim script, Poto-Poto.
The filming took place, not in another dimension, but in Paris, at the Pompidou Centre, where Canadian film director Guy Maddin has taken it upon himself to shoot an entire film each day, or rather to revive a lost film, in a series of “ciné-séances”. The filming takes place in public, in the basement of the arts centre and I elbowed through the crowds to glimpse the hanging around, whispering and brief bursts of activity that comprise the magic of movie-making. The set of Poto-Poto was very reminiscent of the second half of Queen Kelly, with a large, draped bed, but there was little happening when we swung by. We had better luck with Blue Mountains the next day, somewhere over the shoulders of the crew we may have witnessed a murder, or something that looked a lot like one.
“Every day, Guy Maddin invites visitors of the Centre Pompidou to witness the making of a new film inspired by a long-lost movie. Summoning these wandering spirits of cinema in theatrical “séances”, Maddin and his actors inhabit their ghostly scenarios.” – Pompidou Centre
You can read more about the project, and watch a live stream of the filming, here on the Pompidou website. Spiritismes began on 22 February and runs until 12 March; the schedule includes films by Jean Vigo, Kenji Mizoguchi, Lois Weber and William Wellman as well as a few surprises to be announced along the way. Actors in Maddin’s rep troupe include Isabella Rossellini, Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier. The films will all apparently be edited and finished and made available to view at a later date.
Spiritismes has taken up residence at the Pompidou in the lead up to the French release of Maddin’s new film Keyhole and will apparently be repeated at other venues across the world, including New York. Let’s hope it comes to London. You can read more on this blog by Kim Morgan, Maddin’s wife and another of the actors involved. I leave you with some blurry phone snaps, and some more wise words from the director.
“This project made its way into my head for almost twenty years. During all these years, he moved my heart and even my soul, until I myself am possessed! I learned that there are lost films. Beautiful films, made for a very long, generally silent, popular films, glorified, loved, raised to the level of myth by millions of spectators, some obsessively. Films which, however, dying in obscurity. Since I realized this, I literally haunted. Some of these films were destroyed by the studios, simply because they needed shelves, some were thrown into the sea or burned in a bonfire at picnics countryside. Others were reduced to dust because they were poorly preserved, others perished in the flames in an accident of projection. Some of these films have simply disappeared from history.” – Guy Maddin