PARIS —I knew that Lamar University was running a study abroad trip to Paris, but running into my colleague Clinton Rawls was unexpected. Clinton teaches film studies and during our chat he suggested a visit to the Musée du Cinémathèque in the Bercy district. A short metro ride later we found ourselves surrounded by all we could ever want to know about the history of film.
The museum, which is housed in the Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Francais, contains an impressive array of moving picture artifacts — from old-school zoetropes to vintage cameras to posters and memorabilia. At first glance it does not seem to be very large, but an impressive amount of film history is packed into the facility.
The Cinémathèque Française’s mission is to preserve and film heritage, especially French cinema, and contains 18,000 posters, 10,500 costume and set drawings, 17,500 press reviews, 450,000 photos of shootings of more than 20,000 films and 6,000 directors, 18,700 books about movies, 467 periodic collections, 2,600 videos and 1,350 DVDs.
Visitors are led through the complete history of moving images with interactive vintage zoetropes that can actually be operated by the visitor. Zoetropes, which mean “wheel of life,” feature multiple images on a drum that turns, giving the impression of movement. After a while, a light and mirrors was incorporated to enable projection, moving the image from an individual experience to one that could be shared with an audience.
It is fascinating to think that despite advances in technology we are still following the same concept.
The French are rightly proud of the pioneering exploits of the Lumiére Brothers and Georges Méliès, and their contributions are well represented. The collections includes props, posters, costumes and scripts, as well as featuring filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut (check out the HBO documentary of the Frenchman interviewing the master of suspense), Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Fritz Lang.
The biggest thrill, surely, has to be the costume for Lang’s robot Maria from “Metropolis.” Clinton’s students said they laughed as he bowed down before it but I almost followed his lead.
The museum, and the Cinémathèque Francais, was created by Henri Langlois in 1972 and moved to its current location in 2005. The idea began in the 1930s out of Langlois’ desire to screen and preserve movies. During WWII, the Nazis tried to destroy all movies made before 1937 and the collection was almost eliminated except that Langlois’ and his friends smuggled large amounts out of occupied France.
The museum is fascinating and I recommend getting the English audio guide as it offers a wealth of information beyond what is on the signage (and which is exclusively in French). Anyone with any interest in celluloid history will be in heaven.
When your visit is over, plan to stroll along the nearby Promenade Plantée which was built on top of a defunct railway. It is a wonderful example of urban green space, and the Viaduc des Arts houses arts, crafts and shopping at the former railway station.
The Musée du Cinémathèque is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays. Admission is free. For movie screenings, check the Cinémathèque Francais website.