By Meredith Brody
(November 5, 2022)
I’ve been a film buff ever since I first saw a re-issue of Cinderella at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland when I was just a tot.
I wasn’t able to fully exercise my film buff inclinations for the next decade or so, as I was dependent on my parents for transportation. They made the movie choices, as well. Oddly, since they were both New Yorkers and went to movies weekly or more often as children, there was a joke amongst my siblings and I: “They take us to two movies a year, whether we need them or not.”
And those two movies were either a Disney animated one or a big Technicolor musical (of course, the Disney movies were usually musicals, too).
My later inclinations were visible in an early outing. We were on vacation, visiting friends in Oxnard, and it was proposed that all the kids – there were a number of us – should be dropped off at the movies for the afternoon. There were two theaters nearby – one was playing Old Yeller, and the other And God Created Woman, neither exactly fresh to the marketplace. The dad who was dropping us off was cautioned to go to the Old Yeller theater. But he was absent-minded, and I was thrilled to see And God Created Woman on the marquee when we all got out of the car.
(My nascent Francophilia was already asserting itself; I had lived in Paris for more than a year already, after all.)
“DAD!!,” shrieked everybody but me. And I glumly piled back into the car to be transported to the other theater.
I doubt that our motley crew would have been permitted to buy tickets, anyway. But I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I would go to as many movies as I wanted to.
Which turned out to be a LOT.
I didn’t get into full gear until after my first two years at university – when I went to several movies a week, to be sure, but I was distracted by, well, classes and boyfriends and rock concerts.
But when I moved to Paris for my junior year, it didn’t take me long to discover the Cinémathèque. There were two of them then, one in the bowels of the Palais de Chaillot at Trocadero — that’s the one where crowds including Truffaut and Godard protested the government’s firing of Henri Langlois in 1968, who was then re-instated — which showed four or five movies a day starting at 3 pm and often finishing with a screening at 10 pm, when it was a toss-up whether you could get a ride home afterwards on the last metro of the night; and one in the Rue d’Ulm, walking distance from where I lived during my first year, which showed three movies a day.
And I was soon living at the Cinémathèque. My classes finished early three days a week— and even on the other two I could get there by 6 for the evening screenings. I kept lists of what I saw: literally several masterpieces a day, Shanghai Express followed by Rancho Notorious followed by Grand Illusion followed by Seven Samurai. It’s a wonder I didn’t faint from Stendhal syndrome.
By an accident of geography, I fortuitously became friends with a man who helped shape my film tastes then and later. In those days the rival film magazines had staked out their territory in the Cinematheque theater: Cahiers du Cinema sat on the right (funny if you knew what their politics were then), Positif sat on the left – and film critic/director Jacques Rivette sat dead in the center, his neat little monk’s head visible at nearly every screening I went to for years.
I liked to sit fairly close on the left, and that’s how I happened to meet Bertrand Tavernier, then a film publicist, and Michel Ciment, a professor and author who both worked for Positif. (I also became friends with Jonathan Rosenbaum, still a dear friend, and Gilbert Adair, whose untimely passing more than a decade ago I still mourn. Adair turned our innocent movie-crazed friendship into a novel – not exactly a roman a clef! — The Dreamers, which Bernardo Bertolucci adapted into his movie of the same title. When Gilbert teased me about it, I said “We DID play movie games, but we did NOT sleep together!”)
I was in the clutches of Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, a director-driven view of the movies that was itself a reflection of Sarris’s own reading of the French politique des auteurs. Bertrand had not yet fully articulated his own reaction against Truffaut, Godard, and Cahier’s wholesale rejection of “le cinema de papa,” which fueled the New Wave, but over the years he opened my eyes to a whole other wave, an avalanche, of French cinema. (And other movies as well: he introduced me to obscure titles of obscure directors, incessantly. His serial passions ranged from Robert Hamer to Alberto Cavalcanti to William Witney.)
When I moved to the Bay Area, decades later, the Pacific Film Archive became my local Cinematheque, the calendar I consulted weekly to plan out my evenings. And I became an habitué at many of the local film festivals, especially Eddie Muller’s Noir City, which I’d already attended for many years down in LA, and the wonderful San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a long weekend of bliss that I looked forward to annually.
Often I was re-seeing movies that I had first seen decades earlier, at the Cinematheques in Paris, the American Cinematheque or UCLA’s Melnitz Hall in Los Angeles, and MoMA or rep houses in NYC.
But what I really yearned for was the shock of the new. By which I mean mostly the shock of the old, but new to me: old movies that I hadn’t seen, some that I’d been yearning to see for decades, some that I’d never even heard of.
And miraculously my film savior galloped into town in 2014: Donald Malcolm, an obsessive film scholar who fortuitously for me was embarking on a long quest to expose San Francisco audiences to rare French film noir in his “The French Had a Name for It” festivals at the Roxie.
I learned from the first, as I had with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to attend every movie in Malcolm’s festivals: I was thrilled by the ones I hadn’t seen, but I was also thrilled by the ones I had already seen. The context, the enthusiastic audiences, Don’s scholarship in the beautifully-produced and illustrated program notes all enhanced the experience.
Malcolm’s programming is always generous in its number of movies screened and in its witty pairings. That first year I was introduced to, among others, the paired Manon (1949) and La Verite (1960) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of the better-known and seen-by-me Diabolique (1955) and The Wages of Fear (1953). One of the more outré double bills was I Spit on your Graves (1959), a French movie based on a French novel masquerading as an American one, and The Respectful Prostitute (1952), based on a play by Sartre, both set in America and featuring tensions between whites and Blacks. I had wanted to see The Respectful Prostitute for years, as it was made by fascinating French filmmakers including Alexandre Astruc, Laurent Bost, and Marcello Pagliero, an Italian expat living in Paris. Many of these filmmakers had been introduced to me by the scholarship of Bertrand Tavernier, who frequently worked with the screenwriters Pierre Bost , Laurent’s brother, and Jean Aurenche, the screenwriting duo specifically attacked by Francois Truffaut in his 1954 article “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français” (“A Certain Trend of French Cinema”). Twenty years later Tavernier rehabilitated the screenwriting duo by using them in his first feature, 1974’s The Clockmaker of St. Paul, and numerous films thereafter.
After Tavernier made his 3 hour 21 minute documentary in 2016 about his love for French movies, My Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage a travers le cinema francais), Malcolm programmed a series based on some films Tavernier had cited, at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, at their Aero Theater in Santa Monica, over June 16 through 19 in 2017.
Tavernier attended, and spoke at almost every screening, as well as being delighted to chat with members of the audience in the lobby. I luckily was able to attend.
My favorite memory from that weekend was watching and listening as Tavernier stood by an enormous Family Tree of French Noir that Malcolm had posted on a wall of the lobby, giving an impromptu lecture on which films were worth seeing and why, and which ones he didn’t actually consider noir, as well as fascinating asides about the filmmakers involved. It was a bravura performance, inspired by a bravura feat in both researching and designing the work of scholarship that inspired it.
Malcolm’s annual festivals became my go-tos for revelatory screenings of French noir that I’d either been yearning to see for years or had never heard of. Discoveries included His penchant for designing and printing beautiful programs, calendars, and postcards meant I’ve collected more ephemera from “The French Had a Name for It” over the years than any other source.
The 2022 edition starts Sunday, November 6 and Monday, November 7 with seven films and continues the following on Saturday November 12 and Sunday November 13. It will be at San Francisco’s Roxie.
The full schedule with notes and info on buying tickets can be found at the MidCentury Productions website and the Roxie.
And in my accompanying article, “THE BEST PROGRAMMING IN TOWN: French Noir” I go over the films with commentary.
Gilbert Adair’s The Dreamers is available from booksellers, libraries and can be read online free here.
Vintage footage of the Inauguration French Cinematheque
Watch Inauguration of the exhibition 75 years of cinema Palais de Chaillot.
The Cinémathèque française website has much to explore.
Closing of the cinema at the Palais de Chaillot.
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. A selection of her EDF pieces are found here.
One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year. Somebody has to do it. Read about her journey back to festivals after two years in pandemic mode.