Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lights, Camera, Action!

The symbol of the crowing rooster standing on top of the world has been synonymous for over a hundred and twenty years with...movies and newsreels! Founded by four brothers as the Société Pathé Frères in 1896, it quickly grew to be the world's largest film equipment and production company as well as a major producer of phonograph players and records.

Starting with phonographs, the company moved into the opportunities offered by the fledgling motion picture industry. In 1907, the brothers, spearheaded by the driving force of the eldest, Charles Pathé, acquired the Lumière Brothers' patents and went to work designing a new studio camera as well as making their own film stock.

In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, shown in theatres before the main film began. The crowing rooster began each reel. With a couple of breaks in production, the Pathé news division produced newsreels all the way from 1910 to the 1970s, when television news took over.

Expanding their brand throughout the world, and dominating the market in motion picture cameras and projectors, at one point, 60% of all films were shot with Pathé equipment. The brothers had truly conquered the world!

Alas, after many decades of success, the fortunes of the company began to falter, and by 1929 it had passed into the hands of another owner, followed by another, and another. Financial difficulties and bankruptcies were followed by new owners and new challenges as the company diversified into theatre ownership and television production.  Finally, in 1990, a French conglomerate called "Chargeurs", led by the French business magnate and film producer Jérôme Seydoux, bought the company and changed their own company name to Pathé.

All of which brings us to this building on the rue des Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement, just a few steps from the famous Gobelin tapestry factory. In 2006, the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé  bought this building to house the tens of thousands of artifacts, equipment, and documents that make up the history of Pathé (the actual Pathé films are archived elsewhere). Originally a 19th century music hall theatre, then one of Paris' first cinemas, the building's facade was deemed of historical significance and could not be altered, because Auguste Rodin, as a very young man, had been commissioned to sculpt the figures at the top of each column.  The rest of the building behind the facade, though, was about to undergo a radical transformation.

The celebrated architect, Renzo Piano, was selected to undertake this transformation, no easy task given the narrow confines of the building footprint, and the extremely close proximity of the neighboring apartment buildings. And the front facade had to stay the same. An early sketch of his shows his intriguing mind at work, however.

This side-view schematic gives a glimpse of what was to come. Originally, the back part of the lot was completely taken up with the cinema theatre itself which abutted the walls of the building behind. Piano's design reduces the building's footprint and reclaims a substantial amount of "open" space, with birch trees and a "vinca" ground cover giving light and air. The floors go from a basement screening room to a ground floor gallery space for temporary exhibitions, a first floor permanent display of artifacts, followed by two floors of document archives, and at the very top office space for staff.

And the building shape?  To me, its ovoid, curved shape took on an almost egg-like appearance -- perhaps symbolizing the fact that the archival contents of the building represent the history and legacy of the "birth" of cinema here in France. (Matthew quickly reminded me that roosters don't lay eggs!)

Here, with construction well underway, you can see the underlying framework struts anchored on just a few supports, clad with glass panels on the upper floors, and then -- on the outside -- the whole structure is covered with 5000 perforated aluminum louvers.

It has been dubbed by some as a "glass, armadillo-shaped dome"! On the day we visited -- a grey rainy day last week -- the birch trees stood bare, with just a bird's nest on the upper left tree sending a signal that spring would some day arrive. During daytime, the outer tiles provide privacy to those working within...

...but at night when the lights are on, the whole building emits a soft, warm presence like some giant glow worm sheltering the neighborhood.

The most dramatic way to experience the building, though, is when the elevator stops at the top floor and you step out into a space that is flooded on all sides by overwhelming light. The perforated aluminum louvers disappear and you are left with the feeling that you are floating above the city, with the adjacent buildings "shimmering" through the wooden struts.

Looking down the length of this work space and beyond, you have the impression of being under a ship's hull. In fact, Renzo Piano was born in the Italian port city of Genoa. Its extensive world of ship yards and boat building clearly had an influence.

Half a floor down from the very top, a meeting room takes the "prow" position of Piano's vessel.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the building itself would overwhelm whatever it contained. Happily, that is not so. The day we were there, we were treated to an extensive exhibition of movie posters by the Brazilian artist, Cândido de Faria. 

One of the first artists to design posters for the cinema, he created hundreds of beautiful, enticing advertisements for the Pathé brothers, many of which were on display.

Meanwhile the first floor gallery, which stretches the length of the building, houses the Foundation's permanent exhibition of 500 cameras, projectors, film re-wind machines, film developing machines, lantern slide projectors, etc., dating from 1896 all the way to the 1980s. 

An early phonograph machine reminded us that Charles Pathé's original interest was in phonographs and record production before he moved on to the world of cinema.

I loved the simplicity of this film re-wind machine, and I'm thinking it was also a footage counter.

Believe it or not, Matthew has this exact same "pip-of-a-rig" Baby Pathé projector from 1925 in his office in Inverness. He found it at a flea market in the States many years ago.

This 1912 projector, with its case behind it, looks almost like my old Singer sewing machine, and, indeed, sewing machine covers to this day look exactly like the "coffret" for this projector. 

If you had a Pathé Baby camera and projector, you could also develop your own film, which would have been 9.5 mm at that time.

 One whole corner of the room was taken up with early cameras and tripods. You can just picture all those newsreel cameramen with their cloth caps, cranking away as they recorded the latest "hot news"!

Our final stop was the "state of the art" screening room in the lower level, named the "Salle Charles Pathé" in honor of the founder. Principally dedicated to silent movies (of the 10,000 films in the Pathé catalogue, 9000 are silent films), screenings are regularly scheduled, accompanied always by a pianist.

Our group was treated to a screening of a 1917 German film, "Doctor Hart's Journal", a classic silent movie drama. The piano accompaniment (by a lovely young woman) followed every frame as we were swept along through brutal WWI trench warfare, badly wounded soldiers, primitive field hospitals with the noble Dr. Hart doing his best to repair the wounded, heart-breaking longings from the young heroine, and a final happy ending. The movie lasted 65 minutes and the pianist did not break off once during that time.  A great way to end our tour of this remarkable building and its beautifully preserved artifacts.

But it is now time for me to "break off" the blog for this year. We are scheduled to fly home next week, although that is currently in the hands of Air France which is in the midst of rolling strikes. We have our fingers crossed, but meanwhile, thanks as always for following along, for writing comments, sending emails, etc. As they say in the movie business:


Au Revoir!