They'll always have Paris

The Cinémathèque Française is moving into a swish new home to show vintage films. Why, asks Rhoda Koenig, do we in Britain not value old movies in the way the French do?
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The Independent Culture

For film lovers who live in Paris or plan to visit, 28 September will be a great day. The Cinémathèque Française, that great institution set up to "conserve and exhibit French and foreign cinematographic patrimony", will open its new home, a cartoon-cubist castle, designed by Frank Gehry, with four screens. The building will also house a museum that has, among other prizes, the robot girl from Fritz Lang's Metropolis and a gown worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, and it will hold major temporary exhibitions. The first will be Renoir / Renoir, a tribute to the great Impressionist painter and his director son, Jean.

But the Cinémathèque is not the only Paris theatre showing old movies. The city, which takes them so seriously that it named a square after Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque, also has several others where enthusiasts can watch American films noirs or the French New Wave. Nor are these cinemas tiny, grotty places running films as shabby as the seats. The Panthéon and La Pagode are beloved, century-old buildings, and Le Grand Rex has been declared a national monument. Exhibitors spend the money to strike new, high-quality prints.

In New York, the theatrical showing of old movies is not done with such variety and style, but it is not neglected, either. Several "repertory theatres," thrive, and two theatres at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art show them as well. The Museum of the Moving Image also has a cinema, and is about to expand.

In my New York youth, I spent countless happy hours in such places. During one showing of Les Enfants du Paradis, the great classic about a theatre company in a rowdy neighbourhood, the film juddered to a halt; patrons around me immediately stamped their feet and shouted, "remboursez!" ("we want our money back!"). When the silent romance Seventh Heaven came to an end, no one moved for about five minutes, during which one could hear women weeping, and then men asking, "Can we go now?"

In London now, though, old movies are not held in high enough esteem to support even one full-time repertory theatre. The National Film Theatre shows them in its three auditoriums, of course, but you don't have to go inside to see how the cinema is regarded in this country: a visitor has to walk beneath a dirty overpass, past lorries and rubbish-filled skips, to a small, awkwardly shaped entrance wedged into a corner. The British Film Institute's own Museum of the Moving Image was closed in 1999. (The space it occupied is being transformed into a fourth cinema; and exhibition space plus yet another cinema are promised for the NFT's move into a new building, several years from now.)

Films should ideally be seen in the milieu for which they were created. The scale and sweep of battle-scenes and musical numbers, the passions of lovers, are squashed into insignificance on even a large television screen. Videos and DVDs also trade the power of art for the customers' convenience - the genius of Alfred Hitchcock or Preston Sturges or Vittorio De Sica in pacing his effects and composing his shots takes second place to the viewer's freedom to stop the film while he answers the phone or goes to the loo.

Once the BBC regularly screened vintage films - not only milestones of the art but the likeable sort of movies that build lasting affection for the medium. Now it's rare to find something made earlier than the Fifties and more interesting than a routine Western or detective story. The standard on the commercial channels has declined as well - ITV shows its James Bond films often enough to please anyone planning to make them a specialist subject on Mastermind, and Channel 4 has abandoned its commitment to good movies. You can fork out for the movie channel, but even there the selection will be inferior to what subscribers can see in America.

British TV channels can argue - and, like drug dealers, do - that they are just satisfying a demand. But, while the commercial stations can point to their need for high audience figures, the BBC has no such simple mandate. It does not exist, as the other stations do, to provide distraction but education. And feature films are a compelling instrument of social history - you can talk to your children for a year and not impress them as much with the changes in prosperity, manners, sexual behaviour, and racial sensitivity over the past several decades as you can with a few old movies.

Cinémathèque Française:; National Film Theatre: