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Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy
Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy
Colin MacCabe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
456 pp., $29.00

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By Michael Leary


Turning the Lens on Itself

Jean Luc-Godard, agent provocateur.

The history of contemporary film began in a bathtub. Not with the grainy short films of D.W. Griffith, the stark black-and-white epics of Sergei Eisenstein, or the choppy comedies of Chaplin, though there is historical merit to prizing these technological achievements as the worn celluloid heralds of a new art form. But from the perspective of a different sort of history, one which traces the history of film as the emergence of a new way of creating and participating in culture, we need look no further than the visionary hobbies of the first film buffs. Here is where film as we know it today really began—in the Parisian bathtub of Henri Langlois.

In 1936, Langlois established the Cinémateque, a theater designed simply to be a place where people could experience important moments in the history of film. The introduction of sound on film in 1929 had posed a major setback for the acceptance of film as an art. While the mass audience quickly welcomed the "talkies," most of the intellectuals and aesthetes who had begun to rally around this new visual art regarded the advent of sound film as a commercial corruption that fundamentally perverted the medium.

And what happened to all those reels from the golden age of silent film? Theaters had no use for them. Many were recycled for their silver content. But Langlois managed to lovingly salvage a goodly number. They ended up in his bathtub, the only space he had to store them. Out of this storehouse of treasures was born the Cinémateque and a new generation of film appreciation that influences us to this very day.

One of the ways in which this generation influences us is in the importance Langlois placed on the preservation and screening of classic film. (Preservation is not merely an issue for the early days of film history—it applies to the work of filmmakers like Antonioni and Tarkovsky.) Another, fortuitously related, is in the wave of directors and theorists it inspired to make and talk about films, electrified by the scratched ...

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