An investigation by inspector Juross

Cahiers du cinéma no. 161-162; January 1965.

Pathé-Journal

I’d written too many articles for issues 161-162 of Cahiers, and so I had to resort to a nickname for some of them, that of my brother, the lead actor in Godard’s Carabiniers.

For long-time Parisians, going to cinema is no big deal. But for provincials and foreigners who come to Paris – sometimes with this sole intention – it’s an even more difficult problem than ours when we go, whether for this purpose or not, to Brussels, Lyon, London, New York or Tokyo. And we set down this guide with the hope that Script, Premier Plan, Movie and Motion will return the courtesy.

Let’s assume the problems of travel, stay, time and money are taken care of.

Choice of season

As a general rule, in Paris, there are a few more good films from September to November; it’s rather difficult to know all the programmes from July to September; festival holidays (Easter and especially Christmas) are to be avoided: cinema halls play the same children’s movies. Except in the suburbs, cinemas are sufficiently warm in winter, but most of them don’t have sufficient ventilation in summer. It’s hence preferable to see hit films in winter – more people, so more exhalation, so greater warmth – and flops in summer when, paradoxically, we’re sure to not feel too warm for the same reason.

One exception: at the Cinematheque, flops have a great success; it’s then preferable in summer to go there scantily clad.

Since, in general, you don’t go to Paris to see hit films that play everywhere, but flops with small audiences, the warm season – normally richer in flops – is the best for the real cinephile. For the reader of Films in Review, on the other hand, it’s the cold season, richer in hit films1.

Choice of programme

Cinema programmes are published every Wednesday and are valid for one week. Anywhere on Wednesday (and at 100, rue de Richelieu on the other days), you must buy Wednesday’s L’Aurore (30F) which gives, from the 10th of September to the 10th of July, the programmes of five-hundred-and-three commercial and non-commercial cinemas. This publicity is all the more gratuitous because I only have the sincerest contempt for this tendentious political rag that extols turkeys and whose nine-tenths I throw away right after purchase. L’Aurore will be usefully complemented by Leconte’s Guide indicateur des rues de Paris and Télérama (100F), which you can find at 24 rue du Colisée (Champs-Élysées) and 3 rue du Pot-de-Fer (Latin Quarter) on Wednesdays, from 11 a.m. onwards, and in all good churches on Thursday evenings, and which has the added advantage of containing the names of the directors of all films playing in Paris. In case of contradictions, L’Aurore always trumps Télérama. If you can’t find these two publications, buy Cinémonde.

The FFCC – 6 rue Ordener – contains programmes of cine-clubs.

Choice of film

You must always give preference to the cursed film: a number of Parisian critics who forgot this rule couldn’t see Olmi’s masterpiece, Time Stood Still, which disappeared after eight days. If an interesting film is playing only in French-dubbed version, you must absolutely go see it unless it’s an ambitious non-Italian novelty, in which case it’ll soon play in original version.

Films of purportedly great aesthetic value, even though they are hardly talkative, should be seen in original version, which benefits from an original print rather than an export print.

Choice of cinema hall

As we know, Cahiers 146 (page 36) and 147 (page 40) assess the projection quality in the fifty cinema halls most frequented by cinephiles in 1963; we can refer to that.

We notice the considerable difference in prices – 155F to 800F – from one hall to another for the same film the same week. In no way does it mean that the projection quality is better in the second than the first.

Warning: unaccompanied women and very young cinephiles who go to cinemas with the sole intention of watching films must be careful in the following halls in central Paris (a non-exhaustive list): Atomic, Bikini, Bosphore, Far-West, Méry, Midi-Minuit, Nord-Actua, Paris-Ciné. Whatever your age and sex, you are always better of sitting in the first row of these halls, two of which play in 16mm format 35mm films that only exist in 16mm without the original colour. They are worth a visit for the sake of information.

Cinema halls far from the centre, known as neighbourhood halls, often have the appearance of a badly transformed theatre, something which deserves a look.

Exclusive cinema halls, which change their look every two or three years, amuse us with their supposedly aesthetic, cultural or pleasant innovative extravagance. Invisible glass is widespread here to the detriment of sensitive foreheads.

Functional cinema halls of good taste are rare: each one has its own ridiculous feature. Extremes meet in rococo (deep red common to all of them – cf. Freud) and the oddities. Special mention to the Pagode, the Ranelagh, the Templia, which are frank about what they are, to the Féerie des Eaux du Rex, to the seats of the Bretagne, to the metro-tremors of the Publicis, to the Atonic and to the Nord-Actua, which we must scale, to the pocket cinema Champollion, to the singers and variety shows of various neighbourhoods.

With a little luck (?), you will be entitled to screenings of reckless piss, ejaculation, exhibitionism, fights, homo and hetero soliciting, noticed by our editors notably at the Bikini, the Méry, the Sébastopol, but also in most of Parisian toilets.

Not to be missed: the arrival of hobos with snacks and wine bottles at the Pathé-Journal at noon. They sleep there in the warm until evening. Contrary to their reputation, the three cinema halls specializing in Muslim films are flawless. What’s more, the noise of peanuts here pleasantly masks the humming of the projectors.

Choice of timing

Avoid cinema halls on Saturday evenings, holidays and at the beginning of all-night screenings of hit films: there’s a queue at the entrance and you’ll not know where to go.

Moreover, in the neighbourhood halls, films are generally cut short on Sundays.

Avoid normal halls playing films for the young on Thursday afternoons: we only hear their screams. Some halls have a reduced price before 1:30 p.m.

In general, permanent halls have screenings at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. The film starts at 2:30 p.m if it runs for 90 minutes, or at 2:40 p.m if it runs for eighty etc. Normal halls have a screening every evening (except Tuesdays) at 9 p.m., on Thursdays, and even Saturdays, at 3 p.m., and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. The programme runs for about a hundred-and-forty minutes; so, it’s easy to find the exact starting time of a big film if we know its runtime. But there are exceptions. Better to telephone in advance if you want to avoid the first part of the film, which – having only one negative point – isn’t the least instructive for the non-Parisian. In the suburbs, the telephone call is indispensable; the cashier will tell you how to get there from Paris.

The entrance

Like everything in France, the best seats (front orchestra) are the cheapest, except in rare, exclusive halls with balcony (Napoléon, Paramount, Wepler). But, in neighbourhood halls, you’ll need to coax the cashiers a lot before getting these seats, which are to be sold at reduced tariffs imposed by the Centre du Cinéma against exhibitors’ wishes. The cashiers will tell you that you’ll have a hard time seeing the film, that you’ll ruin your eyesight, that it’s not healthy, that you must swear on your honour not to ask for a change of seats during the film. And that if you become blind, it won’t be for the lack of warning. They can hold you up for four minutes. And then, say the magic word: “I’m going to report this to the Centre.” But if, by chance, you don’t have exact change, you’ll never have your ticket. Or, they’ll go for the issued-ticket trick: “I thought you wanted a reserved seat; I’ve already issued the ticket: it’s going to go waste…”2

In exclusive cinema halls, a doorman will snip your ticket which the usherette will snip again. Absolutely useless, he’s there to look good, to make you believe you’re entering a theatre or an Opera.

Another useless thing: the usherette, already vanished in England and Italy to the benefit of a discreet lighting on the floor and whom you can even do without by closing an eye fifty to ten seconds before entering the hall. Each person must give her a tip of at least ten francs (twenty in exclusive halls). You can also tell her: “I’ll open the door myself”, but, if you do that, she’s likely to tell you off, disrupt your viewing, or prevent you from stretching out. Although it’s immoral to give ten untaxed francs to this useless thing while giving twenty-seven taxed francs to the producer, it’s better to give her the coin right away.

Warning: don’t ever hand her your ticket in a hall where you enter from the front (or from anywhere else for that matter) for she’ll run fifty metres away to seat you in the back. Some usherettes satisfy their obsession for logic by meticulously filling the hall row by row, left to right or vice versa, and admiring their fine fencing in of paying sheep. In short, annoying and expensive. At the Cinematheque (where you are better off taking your seats at 6 p.m. in view of the previews or hits of the evening), always carry a franc and ask for a ticket starting with AH, AG, AF etc. or say that you prefer a folding seat in the orchestra.

Inside

You can’t smoke inside (except at the Rex, the Féerie des Eaux eliminating all fire hazard, and at the Rotonde) because General De Gaulle agreed to continue the prohibition imposed by his colleague, the Marshall Pétain.

If you are taller than five feet, you are better off sitting on an aisle seat so you can stretch your legs comfortably without having to put up with the narrowness of French seating rows. It also allows you to leave the hall without disturbing anyone if the film is bad (the Godard variation: sit right in the middle to disturb as many people as possible to emphasize your discontent).

Screening conditions are often difficult: the format of the screen rarely corresponds to the format of the film (the superior technical commission of cinema or CST mandates several more or less necessary norms, but doesn’t ensure their effective implementation). At the Napoléon or the Ermitage, which open up from the front, every film is a parade of viewers (go there only after 10 p.m.) that we can tolerate better when sitting in the front at the right. You can’t see the entire screen from some seats at the Atlas or the Saint-Germain. At the Studio de l’Étoile, you can see shadows of viewers in the balcony where the rebellious usherette has seated you, claiming that the orchestra section is closed: pay her and go downstairs. The lighting at the Midi-Minuit reflects doubly on the screen. In front of many screens, a useless curtain crying “theatre” opens well before the film begins and closes well after it ends. Some cinema halls – Paris-Ciné (property of the ex-president of the federation of film exhibitors, Adolphe Trichet), Studio Obrigado – introduce in colour poor copies of black and white films; in such cases, get yourself reimbursed, you have the right to, and say the magic word if needed.

Since 1955, screening quality in France has enormously degraded and the theatre operators, flustered by the increasing complexity of new technology and devoid of references, have laid down their weapons. Lack of sound, fuzzy image, bad framing and darkness abound. Don’t waste a second, cry out right away: “Sound!… Focus!… Framing!… Image!” or simply “Projection!” if you are worried about scaring the public with these technical terms. Never whistle: they’ll think you are whistling at the film or the cameraman.

The screening, alas, is never continued from the point of failure but only much later, in violation of the decree of 18 January 1961 (article 13). Sad state of affairs, chief responsibility for which lies with the indifferent CST, which has just made a fool of itself by defending the intolerable screening conditions at the last Cannes Festival, otherwise irreproachable but compromised by this shortcoming.

Problem and solution

We must understand the passivity of projectionists: their minimum union tariff is 13,400 francs a week, three times lesser than the smallest technician in production, six times lesser than the first assistant camera, twelve times lesser than the director of photography. This is a scandal that must be called out. We can understand a first assistant or an usherette getting paid at the minimum wage, these are optional and often useless jobs not needing precise competence and not entailing serious consequences in case of mistakes. That would be a normal thing despite the massive revenues made by the film industry because, for example, producers pay their couriers at the same tariff as an artisan. But it’s not normal to pay all the collaborators of creation well and pay all the collaborators of exhibition badly (which is what happens in the music industry as well). Collaborators of exhibition must be well paid. We must pay important collaborators in every sector well and pay secondary collaborators less well. Bardot making 5,000 times the minimum wage is normal, but the assistant getting ten times the minimum wage is excessive, and the 1.7 times the minimum wage of the projectionist is ridiculously low.

A projectionist is an artist: he can ruin the work of a technical crew, he can even improve it slightly by his perfection and it’s fair that he be paid in proportion to the enormous responsibility and competence required of him, as a percentage of the gross receipts, or at least more than the assistant and almost as much as the director of photography. There should also be an exchange between the two professions – which will open up new avenues for cameramen who are often unemployed and complement their training – a number of projectionists turning to more lucrative professions. It could be said that screening deficiencies today stem one-fourth from lack of funds (old projectors etc.) and three-fourths from the projectionist and from the theatre owner, who can cobble together his facility and his hall himself, for no cost, instead of waiting for viewers, daydreaming.

In any case, the film industry should not be surprised if our filmmakers prefer artisanship over itself: industrial production is justified only on the basis of its technical and aesthetic quality, which is almost forbidden in artisanship and which comes to pass in only fifty cinema halls out of five thousand (I’m being kind). It’d be stupid to make billion-franc films that can be appreciated only in the Club Publicis…

Instead of needlessly forcing production to increase its costs on the basis of regulatory decisions, we must facilitate a reduction in budgets by the wholehearted introduction of better, ultra-sensitive film stock and lighter material to the detriment of certain other sectors (the CST does the opposite), we must increase the cut to the exhibitor by five percent or give him financial aid to buy new equipment. We must financially encourage the management of cinema halls by projectionists, if they can’t be paid in proportion to the gross receipts, which would be the ideal. The entire industry is capable of evolving. We must transfer capital from one branch to another according to needs, like in America. Our status quo attitude to projection is driving it to ruin and is immorally adding bureaucratic profit to commercial ones. It’s double without quits.

 

1Gibe at this old magazine which praised turkeys and snubbed geniuses.

2All this is in my film Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989)

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]