If you're already an adherent of apparatus theory [kids, ask your parents], it will come as no surprise that one of documentary's purposes is to capture the ideological ghosts in the machine. The cinetrix was fortunate enough to see two films that preserve such secret histories, the out-of-competition Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque and the otherworldly Phantom of the Operator.
Langlois, appropriately enough given its corpulent subject, is an expansive 212-minute tribute to one of the heroes of film history. If you fancy yourself a cinemaphile and don't know Langlois, educate yourself. Founder of the Cinémathèque Française [in 1936], Langlois did more to singlehandedly save our world film heritage than almost any other person you could name [with the exception, perhaps, of the avocacy Scorsese does now, about which more later]. A dumpster diver par excellance, Langlois saved silent films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari that would otherwise have been lost to history.
During World War II, Langlois and his collaborators played a game of cat-and-mouse with Nazi authorities keen to find and destroy films Hitler had deemed dangerous, like soviet films, The Blue Angel, and Chaplin's The Great Dictator, secreting the prints in distant chateaux and moving them around Paris in a baby buggy.
Langlois was a shambolic, controversial figure for the French as well. [Pierre Cardin later cut the notoriously shabby Langlois custom suits for free.] Some accused him of stealing cut and discarded prints [some of which he then restored], while others argued he had at least saved one copy for history. Throughout his career, the Cinémathèque received no state funding to preserve the fragile nitrate prints he scavenged and thus was often accused of neglecting. In the absence of such funds, Langlois would project these films so that they might at least live on in memories.
At the Cinémathèque, Langlois surrounded himself with strong-minded women, from his mysteriously provenanced wife Mary Meerson to print inspector Marie Epstein to collector Lotte Eisner to Irma Vep star Musidora, who worked reception. And he was revered by the young men who made up the Cahiers du Cinema and Nouvelle Vague crowds. They were not so much cinephiles as cinephages, devouring the images that unspooled nightly in what one wag called "the first multiplex" because Langlois would project films on every surface. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl once played in the stairwell. Later, he would project films on the sails of boats, and once presented the history of cinema, in sequence, along sections of a walled city.
In March 1968, Langlois was replaced as director of the Cinémathèque by order of the minister of culture. The ensuing protests, featuring rising as well as leading filmmakers and other cultural figures, kept the Cinematheque shuttered and, in hindsight, provided a dress rehearsal for the student uprisings the following month.
Langlois was forever broke, spending whatever he had on films for the Cinémathèque. When he traveled to the States in 1974 to receive an honorary Oscar, he cracked, "I thought it was like our Legion of Honor," which we had earlier seen him present to Hitchcock in some great archival footage, "But this is much more important." But even that recognition took second place to his relentless mania for preservation: He sold his return ticket from LA so he could buy a print, reasoning, "The consulate will have to repatriate me."
Henri Langlois believed that one must arm oneself with history like a samurai before entering the cinema. The Phantom of the Cinémathèque celebrates the lone man who girded generations of cinephages. Through his revolutionary repertory programs, in which a film might screen once and then not again for 10 years, Langlois was a meta-editor who produced a way of seeing films as part of an ongoing montage of the history of cinema.
The Phantom of the Operator is a project of reclamation very much in the spirit of Langlois. Director Caroline Martel has assembled a history of the invisible, uncovering images of of otherwise ephemeral women telecommunication workers of the past 100 years from industrial, advertisement, and management films. "It takes a lot of girls to keep the telephone business humming a happy tune," a male voice informs us. Together, these anonymous women provided service as the nervous system of the communications age.
Some of the footage is comical. New French-speaking operators in Canada are urged not to roll their "R"s to make calls shorter. Physical examinations are given to aspiring switchboard operators, and on corporate retreats, operators do calisthenics and May pole dances. To connect calls faster, operators wear a single rollerskate. It's easy to laugh at these images behind "The voice with a smile."
But automation eventually replaces these human computers. A great short introduces Bell customers to the scratchy dial tone that will replace that voice asking "Number please." New colors are added to the phones, then touchtone phones are introduced [originally operated using punch cards a la Big Blue], until finally callers reach the operator's voice via satellite technology.
Martel sutures these images together with retro-futuristic animated segments, but it is the film's narrator, Pascale Monpetit, who connects them. Her sonorous voice captures the sorrow of these casualties of their own efficiency in a dreamlike way reminiscent of Florence Delay, the French narrator of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil. Watching The Phantom of the Operator feels like being last in the line of the child's game of operator, receiving a whispered secret message from these women of the past: "Your voice is you."