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“But where does imagination end and reality begin?
What is this twilight, this half world of the mind?”

Night of the Demon

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The polychrome portal between the world as it is and the world as we wish it were is the space where all art happens, and all love. Michael Henry Wilson had an immutable love of movies, and his work testified to his relentless desire to occupy that middle zone between fantasy and history. Wilson favored American cinema, probably because it’s the one that most perfectly fulfilled the aspirations of his writing: to paint on a broad canvas yet with minute strokes.

Half American, born and raised in Paris, he quickly became one of France’s leading critics—reviewing for Positif, a magazine known for informed writing and scholarly analysis. In 1973 he wrote a favorable review of a little American exploitation flick, Boxcar Bertha, praising the great potential of its then-unknown director Martin Scorsese. A year later, Mean Streets was shown at Cannes, and Wilson began an enduring tradition: the first of his long series of interviews with Scorsese. Picture after picture, sometimes on set or in the edit, Wilson would dig deep into Scorsese’s intents and process. Though rigorous, the conversations are always friendly and easy-going — all but one (on Hugo) collected in a mammoth coffee table book entitled Scorsese on Scorsese. Wilso also collaborated with Scorsese on two documentaries, A Personal Journey Through American Movies and In Search of Kundun.

I first encountered Wilson two summers ago, when I asked him to participate in a series of published conversations organized by Double Exposure between young critics and established film writers. He replied positively to my request, and chose to discuss Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. A longtime fan who used to know Tourneur, Wilson was one of a handful of critics responsible for the French’s filmmaker’s elevation from genre journeyman to esoteric auteur. (Jacques Tourneur ou la Magie de la Suggestion, his book on the director, was published in 2003.)

As I happened to be in LA later that summer, Wilson invited me to lunch at his house. I met an accomplished expert on cinema, no doubt, but one with humility. He enjoyed conversing, and genuinely listened. This gift shouldn’t come as a surprise. Wilson was an accomplished interviewer, a form he often made appear simple. But read his interviews of the notoriously mum Clint Eastwood (in another huge book, Eastwood on Eastwood) and you’ll see how he delicately, respectfully, gets to the chase of Eastwood’s filmmaking and draws out the director’s inner thoughts. I had a long film talk with Wilson that afternoon, not just about Tourneur, but also about a specific American cinema we both liked: epic in intent—if not always scope—yet character-driven, mainstream but daring, exciting without ever forgetting fun. Titles ranged from Scorsese’s The Aviator to Elia Kazan’s America America, Warren Beatty’s Reds to Oliver Stone’s then-brand new Savages.

We kept in touch by e-mail following that afternoon and met a few months later, closer to my home, in Paris. I had been developing a TV project, and some of its content fell within Wilson’s area of expertise. I asked him whether he’d be interested in joining as consultant, and he said yes. Though the producer (who lives in California too) is the one that saw him consistently over the next year, Wilson and I kept exchanging through e-mails (he was a prompt replier, a quality altogether too rare) and conference calls. He was a very good collaborator: laid-back, curious and altruistic, making introductions when suitable. Even when we didn’t see eye-to-eye, he listened and understood.

I last saw Wilson in May, in Paris again, and, fittingly, in a cinema. He was celebrating the publication of his latest (and last) book. Perhaps the culmination of his film work, A la Porte du Paradis is an epic of film criticism: a subjective survey of 100 years of American cinema. I hope it gets an English translation, because it’s truly dense and instructive. Add to that Wilson’s countless interviews—with old masters like Billy Wilder, Gregory Peck and André de Toth; with contemporaries of his like Scorsese, Eastwood, Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack, Michael Mann, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Meryl Streep, Michael Cimino, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, George Lucas, James Cameron and Brian de Palma; and with the generation that succeeded them: the Coens, PT Anderson, Jessica Chastain, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh—and you’ve got as definitive a study of American cinema as has ever been done. Wilson was also interested in history and made a documentary—with his wife—on South Africa and Nelson Mandela entitled Reconciliation, a theme dear to his heart.

Michael Henry Wilson wrote books and made works that have entertained us and illuminated film as the great American art form. He was—above all—a good human being, or as his earliest comrade would probably say, a good fella.

Theo Zenou’s conversation with Michael Henry Wilson on Jacques Tourneur appeared in the fourth issue of Double Exposure.