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Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, Then and Now

Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, Then and Now

In an unprecedented assemblage, Susan Oxtoby, current Senior Film Curator of the Pacific Film Archive, was joined by Sheldon Renan, the founder of the Archive (which opened in the Berkeley Art Museum in 1971, after several years of peripatetic screenings), along with his successor Tom Luddy, and Oxtoby’s immediate predecessor, Director Emeritus Edith Kramer, to reminisce about Henri Langlois, the founder of the famous Cinematheque Francaise. He lent crucial support to the PFA at its beginnings, on the occasion of the opening of Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute.

Another surprise guest was the venerable 96-year-old Peter Selz, Berkeley Art Museum’s visionary first director, who said “yes” to Sheldon Renan’s proposal of a film archive, after Renan had been turned down at both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Art Museum.

Renan told us he had already assembled an advisory board that included Susan Sontag, Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris and the Berkeley local Ernest Callenbach, longtime editor of the UC Berkeley Press’ Film Quarterly. But Henri Langlois was the only director of an archive who offered concrete aid, back in the days when Renan was still calling his idea “the Berkeley Film Center.” Soon after meeting Langlois, in September of 1968, Renan was invited to an epochal lunch with him, Fritz Lang and Francois Truffaut. (At which Langlois observed that the butler reminded him of William S. Hart.) And shortly thereafter a contract between the two organizations was signed.

In January of 1969, Langlois showed up in Berkeley, and visited three times in support that year. He came once again in 1971 or 1972, Renan said.

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In 1975, Tom Luddy, by then director of the PFA and now co-founder of Telluride, joined Langlois in Los Angeles when Jean Renoir received the Commander of the Legion d’honneur from the French government. Langlois was childlike, Luddy recalled, with a wonderful mischievous smile when he was happy. Luddy was with Langlois in his hotel room when Langlois had to get into formal dress for the event: his one good suit, with pants that were too short, and new shoes. When Langlois discovered a hole in one of his socks, he asked Luddy for a black pen, and proceeded to color the flesh underneath in order to cover up the hole.

On that trip, Langlois abandoned his flight plans to Berkeley and instead drove up the coast with Jean-Pierre Gorin. Upon arrival, Langlois spied, Luddy said, the usual stack of random donated film cans in the halls outside Luddy’s office (some had come from the fire department, who had found them sitting on the sidewalk). Langlois asked “Have you found anything interesting?” Luddy said they usually were of stuff like a 1947 Cal football game, an Oakland St. Patrick’s Day parade, or a naval training film.

But, what the hell, he continued, let’s look at some. They opened the first reel, and could see that it was nitrate, in good shape. It was the tail end: the film had been put back in the reel without re-winding. Langlois held it up, looked through it under the light, and said, “But this is Francesca Bertini in ‘La Tosca,’ shot in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.” He instantly recognized a lost film by one of the greatest divas in Italian film, shot on real locations in 1918.

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“Henri, this can was waiting for you to find it,” Luddy said. Thinking that lightning couldn’t strike twice, they opened a second can, which proved to be a silent Western, beautifully shot. Langlois recognized one actor, Luddy remembered, and the film turned out to yet another lost gem, an early John Ford (the title, alas, was not forthcoming).

“Henri thought I’d salted the mine,” Luddy said, “Not true! Not true!”

The inaugural Langlois program opened with a reel of the self-same “La Tosca,” accompanied by PFA stalwart Judith Rosenberg on piano, followed by three shorts featuring Langlois — “Langlois” (1970); “Chit Chat with Henri Langlois” (1975); and “La cinematheque francaise” (1962), visible here, without subtitles, as it was screened at the PFA. In noble PFA tradition, as Renan reminded us: his first screening at the PFA, in the Brutalist building across the street from where we were sitting, was Akira Kurosawa’s “Dodes’ka-den” (1970), which arrived too late to check, in cans labeled only in Japanese, and proved to have no subtitles. Renan said he vamped with anecdotes until somebody from the Japanese department was hastily summoned to provide a simultaneous translation. He then led a standing ovation for the PFA’s longtime projectionist, Craig Valenza.

The Langlois tribute is part of the last program to be shown at the Archive’s “temporary” location, an eccentrically-shaped classroom (wider than it is deep) where the programming has unspooled since the 1989 earthquake, when Berkeley Art Museum’s stadium-seating auditorium was condemned. Retrofitting the seismically unsound 1970 building, designed by Mario Ciampi, was deemed impossible. Curiously, the museum itself continued its shows until it was closed in December of 2014. Curiouser still, as the museum moves to its new digs — a redesign of an old UC Berkeley printing plant at Center and Oxford Streets in downtown Berkeley — designed by NY architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro, and set to open in January 2016, the old building will be repurposed for academic use.

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The closing, typically eclectic program of the PFA, featuring ten films of John Stahl, films by Spanish director Victor Erice as well as those that influenced him, an early American silent movie serial, “The Phantom Foe,” an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective, and new video art from India, among others, ends on August 2. Susan Oxtoby, touched by the reaction to the reunion of the PFA directors, promised more such events for the opening, including, she hopes, a visit from Linda Myles.

New programming begins in January 2016, when the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive opens. Regulars (like me, who checks its offerings on a daily basis) are already anticipating new traffic patterns and missing the current culinary offerings (grabbing a hot dog from Top Dog, down the block; dumplings from Dumpling Express; or a Chinese pastry from UCafe, all classic cheap eats). You wonder if, and how many, university students will trek the extra mile west to attend the PFA’s screenings — they’re kind of thin on the ground now, despite an all-you-can-eat PFA pass available for $35 a semester.

I dread change. And the five-month lapse in programming. But I’ll be okay — as long as I don’t have to pay for parking. 

(An excellent history of the PFA, by former PFA archivist Lee Amazonas, can be found here.) 

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