- This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Sight and Sound.
It was Claude Chabrol who first caught my attention. When I got as far as Youssef Chahine, I had to go back and retrace my steps. I had struck gold in the Spanish sun.
It happened when I was on holiday in València, and forgive me dear cinephiles, but auteur directors were far from my mind as I ambled along the beach promenade. But without noticing we had wandered on to the Paseo de la Mostra, a path marked by tiles commemorating illustrious filmmakers in honour of the city’s film festival, Mostra de València. The walkway was inaugurated by Alain Delon during the festival in 2004, and he has his own tile on the path, along with other such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Yves Montand, Costa-Gavras, Fellini and Buñuel.
I have a fixation with film star and filmmaker graves that I insist is not morbid. And moviemaker memorials are my catnip. It is not just because they become sites of pilgrimage for the kind of lovestruck devotees who leave lipstick kisses on the marble by Marilyn Monroe’s tomb, or bottles of sake at the grave of Ozu Yasujirō. There is something profound about the idea that a filmmaker’s legacy, vast and ephemeral as it may be, can be given a marker in the earth, linked to their physical body and a slab of granite. It’s no surprise that Hollywood, a city built on celebrity and flickers of light, has strengthened its foundations in the form of the terrazzo and brass Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, plus all those famous hands pressed into concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – the ‘forecourt of the stars’.
At another primal site for world cinema, the Institut Lumière in Lyon, there is the Mur des cinéastes, a wall covered with plaques marking the filmmakers who have visited the annual Festival Lumière (the very-much-alive Maggie Gyllenhaal and Édouard Baer are the most recent additions). Perhaps, though, it’s what is sunk into the ground that is more interesting. The Institut, founded in 1982, is built on the site of the Lumière brothers’ former factory, where they shot the first film that they presented to the public, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895). But a path in the garden celebrates the brothers’ fellow pioneers from around the world who were also responsible for the first films, cameras and experiments in the moving image, from Leonardo da Vinci’s camera obscura through to the phenakistoscope (the first animation device), magic lanterns and more. The archaeology of our screens, secure beneath our feet.
Because memorials are more than just graves. And they can be found beyond the established sites of cinephile pilgrimage such as Hollywood and Lyon. There are stone and metal tributes in multiple, sometimes unlikely places. One popular example is a statue of Orson Welles in Split, Croatia, where he spent so much time in the late 1950s and 1960s. Other stars of the Golden Age are even better travelled.
If you want to lay flowers for the American movie star Ava Gardner, you are spoiled for choice. You can do so at her grave in her hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina, where there is also a highway marker and a museum in her honour. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and was one of the first cohort to be invited) while her hands, feet and signature are cast in concrete in the Grauman’s forecourt. You can also find her in statue form in Tossa de Mar, Catalonia, where she filmed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951): a bronze likeness was unveiled in 1998. There’s a blue plaque in Knightsbridge, too, marking the 18 years that she spent living there until her death in 1990, and a more personal urn-shaped memorial to her in the nearby gardens, signed from her housekeeper and her dog. (And that dog, Morgan, has his own memorial, in the garden of a house that once belonged to his next owner after Ava, Gregory Peck.)
Gardner is an especially interesting case. Her blue plaque is the only one of English Heritage’s more than 950 London heritage markers to use the words ‘Film Star’. Plaques to other cinematic greats in London use ‘Actor’ (Richard Burton, Charles Laughton, Robert Donat), ‘Actress’ (Margaret Lockwood, Vivien Leigh) or ‘Actor and Film-maker’ (Charlie Chaplin), for example. Were they not stars? Did Gardner not act? Of course, this anomaly is understandable. Celebrity has less weight than achievement, although I would argue that a figure such as Chaplin, memorialised at locations across London, in Ireland, the United States and with a museum at his former home in Vevey, Switzerland, is remarkable for his phenomenal global stardom almost as much as his artistic legacy.
It’s a thrill, however, to see any attempt to take the ephemeral pleasures of cinema and fix them in one location, or several. We may not all get the chance to meet our idols, but there are places where we can travel to pay our respects, and tread lightly on the names, carved out of rock and steel, that are more usually seen in lights.