A simple Internet search for the name Pierre Rissient turns up little more than an assistant-director credit on Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," two director credits of Mr. Rissient's own for films made in the Philippines and Hong Kong, and a host of appearances in documentaries about film luminaries such as Budd Boetticher and Fritz Lang. It's sparse notice for a man revered by filmmakers of all ages around the world, from Clint Eastwood to Werner Herzog to Quentin Tarantino, all of whom exalt Mr. Rissient in Todd McCarthy's new documentary "Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema."
As is evidenced in Mr. McCarthy's film, which will begin a weeklong engagement Thursday at MoMA, the name Pierre Rissient casts a nurturing and influential shadow over more than a half century of film history. Since catching the film bug in his teens, Mr. Rissient — critic, curator, programmer, distributor, publicist, go-between, editor, and filmmaker — has devoted his life to "defending," in his words, films and filmmakers from around the globe. Still going strong at 72, he continues to shepherd films from the past and present to French film distributors and audiences and the world via his longtime connection to the Cannes Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.
"He's like the yeast in the dough," Mr. Herzog says in Mr. McCarthy's portrait.
"He is a samurai warrior for the films that he loves," enthuses Quentin Tarantino, whose "Reservoir Dogs" Mr. Rissient championed at Cannes, setting the stage for Mr. Tarantino's 1994 Palme d'Or win for his sophomore entry "Pulp Fiction." Mr. Eastwood simply dubs Mr. Rissient, who has long championed the actor-turned-Oscar-winning-director, "Mr. Everywhere."
"Clint always shows me his rough cut," Mr. Rissient said recently on the phone from Paris. "Always. He called me three days ago. He wants to show me the first cut of his new film 'Gran Torino.'"
Unfortunately for the artist whom Mr. Rissient describes as "probably the best American director alive today," he is convalescing from an ankle injury and, for the time being, must remain in Paris. One gets the distinct impression in conversation with Mr. Rissient, and from viewing Mr. McCarthy's film, that the aptly dubbed Man of Cinema is largely unaccustomed to enforced downtime.
"I'm very happy with the film because I think Todd succeeded in communicating my passion and goals," Mr. Rissient said. Mr. McCarthy's picture effectively braids first-person praise from an international coterie of filmmakers (including John Boorman, Oliver Stone, Charles Burnett, Sydney Pollack, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jane Campion) with a chronological retelling of Mr. Rissient's life at the movies, intercut with enchanting footage of a recent trip back to the Man of Cinema's provincial hometown in France. "It was an interesting way to look back at things," Mr. Rissient said.
As a sidebar to MoMA's engagement of the documentary, Mr. Rissient will also indulge his very interesting way of looking at movies with six pictures selected from MoMA's archives. Mr. Rissient is as much a cinematic gourmand as critic and historian. His observation that "It's not enough that you like a movie, you have to like it for the right reasons" (shown emblazoned on commemorative T-shirts at Telluride in "Man of Cinema") is clearly the curatorial onus behind his MoMA selections. The selection of Howard Hawks's picaresque 1952 frontier Western "The Big Sky" over Hawks's considerably better-known entries in the genre is a sterling example of Mr. Rissient's desire to "contest the official history of cinema."
Anthology Film Archives' recent "Late Hawks" retrospective overlooked "The Big Sky" in favor of the more renowned Hawks oaters "Red River" and "Rio Bravo," and its unofficial remakes. Yet for Mr. Rissient, even among Hawks's dozens of genre-defining screwball comedies, crime pictures, and Westerns, "The Big Sky" is, "for me, one of the five or six best Howard Hawks films," he said.
Despite the fact that five of the seven films selected for the MoMA sidebar were made in America, Mr. Rissient confessed — his postponed appointment in Mr. Eastwood's cutting room notwithstanding — to a half-decade of waning enthusiasm for contemporary American auteurism.
"I don't think there is a new American filmmaker in the last four or five years who really, really impressed me," he said. Mr. Rissient has instead maintained a lifelong interest in Asian filmmaking, and lately has been particularly influential in the current Western interest in Korean cinema. Nevertheless, Mr. Rissient remains, he said, restlessly on the lookout "for pictures which are extremely good and which represent my conception of cinema." Though he is temporarily hobbled, "my interest," he said, "is always wandering around."
Through September 24 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).