“It’s not enough to like this movie”
He has been called the Kissinger of Cinema and the King of Cannes. Quentin Tarantino describes him as “a samurai warrior for films he loves.” He’s cinema’s gadfly captured here in his natural habitat, the rareified world of the international film festival, where his imprimatur can turn aspiring auteurs into bona fide stars. Just ask Hou Hsiao Hsien, Jane Campion, Charles Burnett, Abbas Kiraostami, Rolf de Heer, John Boorman, Olivier Assayas, and Clint Eastwood. All these luminaries join the dazzling line-up in Todd McCarthy’s enterprising new bio-documentary, Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient, testifying alongside Oliver Stone, Werner Herzog, Dusan Makavejev, and other filmmakers to celebrate the cinematic passion of the blunt-spoken but indefatigable Rissient.
Onetime assistant director to Chabrol on Les Cousins and Godard on Breathless, Rissient has directed several features himself, one in Hong Kong, another in the Philippines, but he has so immersed himself in every angle of the business, from history to production to publicity, that he now knows where all the bodies are buried. Hence, there’s no dearth of lively backstage stories here, starting with an account of taking Fritz Lang to see Deep Throat amongst the raincoat brigade on Hollywood Boulevard. Then there’s the ordeal of rolling a drunken John Ford off his flight at Orly and then shepherding the obstreperous Irishman through a weekend of frantically hiding liquor bottles, culminating in Ford’s request to be bathed, a veritable acid test of auteurist commitment.
Rissient’s ruling credo now appears on t-shirts at Telluride: “It’s not enough to like this movie. You have to like it for the right reasons,” a principle he evolved among the ardent band of Parisian cinephiles who gathered at the MacMahon cinema, during the ’50s and ’60s a temple of Hollywood revivals located a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Fellow MacMahoniste Bertrand Tavernier recalls here that the cinema’s manager loathed westerns and refused to book them, but Rissient and Tavernier wanted to see Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, so they conspired to persuade him that it’s really a courtroom drama, despite all the saddles, six-guns, and sagebrush leaping out of the coming attractions.
Nothing if not opinionated, Rissient first championed his “Four Aces” (Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Joseph Losey) during the MacMahon years, but equally scorned his unholy three (Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and Welles), a trio condemned for using flashy effects to hide an inability to convey authentic depth of emotion. Turning their passion into careers, Rissient and the heartily good-humored Bertrand Tavernier became business partners running their consistently successful film distribution agency, named after the MacMahon incubator of cinephilia. One maverick principle they shared was to publicize only films they actually liked, while refusing to release viewers from the screening room until they had discussed the movie.
As words seldom fail Rissient, the subject not only cooperates in this documentary but fills every unclaimed moment. Given the director’s access to and involvement with his subject, it’s not unreasonable to suspect some biographical airbrushing, but as Variety‘s chief film critic (and co-director of 1992’s invaluable cinematography doc Visions of Light), Todd McCarthy is no slouch at maintaining a critical eye and keeps a convincing distance here. Without dwelling on the details, the film readily acknowledges several frosty estrangements from previous followers, notably Joseph Losey, Mike Leigh, and King Hu.
If McCarthy neglects to probe Rissient’s place in the intersecting rivalries and competing aesthetics of Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif, and Trafic (or their American and British counterparts), not many viewers are likely to object. A forthcoming DVD release, instant treasure for cinephiles, promises to include considerably more material, including Rissient’s lightning evaluations of individual directors across the celluloid spectrum. When he suggests that the best translation for the term mise-en-scène is “bringing to life,” Rissient may have this movie in mind.