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Saving London’s Cinema Museum: French Sundaes




By Deirdre O’Neill.

For the next six months as part of its ongoing fundraising effort The Cinema Museum is hosting a season of French films that will, hopefully, provide a snapshot of French cinema over the last 80 years. The programme has been curated by Jon Davies and will screen work from the Lumiere brothers up to the present day. The films will be shown in chronological order each with an introduction contextualising the films and a post screening question and answer session.

This is part of the cinema museums continuing commitment  to sustaining the theatrical experience of cinema going by keeping alive the experience of watching films on a screen as part of an audience.

It is curated programmes such as this that play an essential role in ensuring that certain directors, specific historical periods and national cinemas are considered part of cinemas rich heritage and which have a crucial role in maintaining film history. In these days of downloadable films, streaming and cheap DVDs bought over the Internet it is more important than ever to watch films in ways that encompass the whole of the movie going experience.

Film should be discussed, debated, and argued about.

The French film industry is the most successful in Europe but in Britain we see very few French films. French cinema is generally confined to the art house circuit or late night screening on BBC2 or Channel 4. French films fare worse in the British market than they do in other countries in Europe.

The problem is predominantly one of venue – art house cinemas and subtitles define French films as challenging to audiences. The danger of constructing French films as ‘art’ or ‘high culture’ is their effective ghettoisation as films coded for consumption by the educated middle classes. It is the distribution and exhibition practices that contribute to French films being viewed as difficult that this season at The Cinema Museum hopes to challenge.

Having pointed this out it is as well to remind ourselves that French cinema is often more thematically and aesthetically complex than the average Hollywood blockbuster and demands a more critically engaged spectatorship.

French film has always been at the cutting edge of innovation. Just a (very) brief glance at some of the milestones of French cinematic history reveals the contribution to cinematic art made by the French film industry.

It was the Lumiere brothers who revolutionised our sense of the visual when they screened ten short films in the Salon Indien Café in Paris in December 1895 on their new invention – the cinematographe. Although there were other people working on the projection of the cinematic image at the same time as the Lumiere Brothers this screening was the first truly cinematic experience, the first public film show.

Georges Melies introduced the fantastic into cinema with his 1902 short film Le Voyage dans la Lune generally considered to be the first example of a science fiction film.

The film archives movement originated in Paris in 1936. Today the International Federation of Film Archives has institutions in over 77 countries dedicated to the preservation of the moving image.

The first female director, not really remembered now, was Alice Guy-Blanch who made such films as L’Enfant de la Barricade.

The young generation of film writers who worked with Andre Bazin at Cahiers du Cinema, founded in 1951, transformed the way in which film criticism functioned and its politique des auteurs resulted in Hollywood film being studied seriously and paved the way for an iconoclastic style of filmmaking that became known as the Nouvelle Vague.

The 1990s saw a left turn in French cinema that dealt with the increasing encroachment of neoliberalism into all areas of our lives making some of the most politically astute films of that period such as the Widow of Saint Pierre.

Perhaps because of this history it is French cinema, more than other national cinemas, that has put up the most consistent and sustained defence against the homogeneity of the dominant Hollywood product. In France cinema is not just a cultural product it is also a political issue; during the GATT negotiations in the early 1990s it was predominantly the French who fought the USA who were demanding the inclusion of cultural products (cinema) in the liberalisation of the trade in goods. This would have meant the cinema being treated as a purely commercial product and would have resulted in the quota system in France, where 20 percent of films on French screens have to be made in France, becoming illegal. It would also have prevented the payment of the considerable subsidies contributed by the French government to support the production of French cinema.

The criteria for choosing these films, according to Jon Davies, is that all the films are culturally significant not just to French culture in particular but to film culture as a whole.

Inevitably there will be some disappointments – no Truffaut or Godard – none of the films that were part of the left turn of the 1990s – but this season is in the nature of an experiment and if it is successful there will be other seasons.

To check out the programme for the French Sundaes please visit The Cinema Museum website.

Deirdre O’Neill is PhD student at the University of Ulster. Her 12-year-old son volunteers as an usher at The Cinema Museum.

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