August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.
August 26, 2011
One of the towering moments in 20th-century oratory, the speech we now know as “I Have a Dream” was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the turning points in the civil rights movement, a gathering of more than 200,000 people on the National Mall to hear leaders from the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups.
At one point called “A Cancelled Check,” the speech was actually an amalgam of several of King’s previous talks and sermons, including “Unfulfilled Hopes” in 1959 and “The American Dream” in 1961 and 1962. This may not be the best place to discuss the purpose, merits and antecedents of “I Have a Dream,” although I confess that its ending never fails to move me to tears. What’s more germane is how difficult it has become to actually view the entire 17-minute speech.
You can find any number of truncated versions on YouTube, and television networks reliably pull out clips every February for Black History Month. (Smithsonian.com offers the full audio version.) The opening ceremonies marking the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., has provided even more opportunities for more broadcast segments about the speech. (Hurricane Irene has caused the postponement of these ceremonies.)
Some 1,600 press passes were issued by organizers of the March, and it was covered extensively by both print and broadcast journalists. Cameramen were stationed throughout the National Mall, even in the Washington Monument. CBS broadcast the Lincoln Memorial segment live, and the three major networks led with the story on their nightly news programs.
Surprisingly, few of the initial press accounts dealt with King’s speech, focusing instead on the upbeat mood of the attendees and agreeing with the demands for equality expressed throughout the day. Many writers also pointed out the celebrities in attendance such as Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.
But as “I Have a Dream” grew in popularity, it also attracted legal attention. In 1999, the King estate sued CBS over the copyright status of the speech. The dispute centered around the fact that King had not registered his speech with the Registrar of Copyrights. However, the United State Court of Appeals ruled that the King estate did in fact have copyright over the speech. (The parties eventually settled out of court.) The court decision partially explains why video of the complete speech is hard to find online. The audio version, pulled from a radio broadcast, is considered in the public domain.
Two films made prior to that decision incorporated large portions of the speech. Released in 1964, The March was made by the United States Information Agency, the government’s unofficial propaganda arm whose films were shown mostly to foreign audiences. George Stevens, Jr., at the time the director of the USIA, wanted a documentary about the march despite the controversy he knew it would generate. “We hired many 35mm cameramen through Hearst News and covered the event thoroughly,” he told me over e-mail in 2009. “I think it was afterward that I asked [director] Jim Blue to become involved. No one at Hearst could craft the kind of film we wanted.” Stevens was pleased with the results: “It was, for the most part, wonderfully received by USIA posts overseas.” The film is available for streaming or download from the Internet Archive, or split up in three parts on YouTube
Conceived and produced by Ely Landau, the second film, King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis, provided a three-hour biography of King. The film capitalized on the fact that King was one of the first public figures whose entire career had been documented on film. In a way, King… showed how the politician molded his image as he evolved from a small-town minister to national spokesman. King… condenses the “I Have a Dream” speech to eight minutes, with Landau and his crew forced to rely at times on scratched footage.
Watching the speech today shows how sophisticated politicians have become at defining an image. To best get his message across, King had to learn how to control the film or television frame. In his early appearances, he often seems just a face in the crowd. Even while delivering “I Have a Dream,” King is framed with irrelevant and at times distracting figures, including a policeman who adjusts a row of microphones and people in the background who are not always paying attention. In King…, editors John Carter and Lora Hays, assisted by Hank Greenberg, Steve Roberts and Jack Sholder, had to resort to several different film viewpoints in order to present the best available version of King’s oration.
King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis is available for purchase from its associate producer Richard Kaplan.
August 24, 2011
Eighteen years ago filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were alerted to a murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three youths – James Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelly – were accused of raping, murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys. All three were convicted, and one, Echols, was sentenced to death. The film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), made a convincing case that the suspects known as the “West Memphis Three” were in fact innocent.
Berlinger and Sinofksy continued to document the West Memphis Three, releasing Paradise Lost: Revelations in 2000 and completing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory just this summer, which is scheduled to air on HBO in January 2012. When the Memphis Three were released from prison last week, the Paradise Lost trilogy joined an honored genre of advocacy films that helped right injustices.
“When we set out to make Paradise Lost, I don’t think we ever envisioned an epic journey,” director Joe Berlinger said recently. “The goal was not to right a wrong, just the opposite.” He and Sinofsky were tipped off to the story by Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. The story “seemed like an open-and-shut case of guilty, Devil-worshipping teens who had done this rotten Satanic ritual killing of these three 8-year-old boys. We thought, ‘Let’s go make a film about rotten kids,’ kind of like a real-life River’s Edge,” a reference to the 1986 movie about a teen murder.
The case presented by the prosecution was flawed – lost confessions, debunked experts, no physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime – enough that Berlinger and Sinofsky were soon convinced of their innocence. But Berlinger also knew that they would be found guilty. “We experienced a real-life Salem witch trial,” he said.
Berlinger credits thousands of acts, small and large, for helping bring about the release of the West Memphis Three. Lawyers who worked for free, donations that paid for DNA tests and other legal costs, and the support of people like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp all contributed to the cause. But there’s no question that Paradise Lost played a significant role in bringing the case to the public.
Just as there’s no question that The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 film by Errol Morris, helped free Randall Adams from prison. Adams was convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and sentenced to death. Morris, a former private investigator, reconstructed the case on film, in effect conducting his own investigation into the crime. Adams was exonerated the following year when, after twelve years on Death Row, prosecutors dropped charges against him.
“Interestingly, I was very much influenced by Errol’s The Thin Blue Line,” Berlinger said. “Not by the advocacy standpoint—it didn’t inspire in me the feeling that ‘I want to fight for social justice.’ It inspired me to become a filmmaker of a particular type of movie. It made me want to make non-fiction theatrical films for moviegoing audiences, because in the late 1980s you could point to very few documentaries that ever made it to movie theaters.”
The “theatricality” of The Thin Blue Line inspired Berlinger and Sinofsky to make their first documentary feature, Brother’s Keeper. And the success of that film drew the attention of Nevins at HBO.
Berlinger notes, “Stylistically Paradise Lost was very different from The Thin Blue Line – no recreations, pure cinema verite – but I think both films do something many filmmakers are afraid to do: treat the audience like jury members. Viewers are actively engaged, instead of being passively lectured to. You come to your own conclusions.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky came to the case through a particular set of circumstances. In a sense, the Memphis Three were lucky; how many other defendants have film crews following their cases?
“Every time the Paradise Lost movies air on TV, we get inundated with letters from either convicts or relatives declaring their innocence,” Berlinger said. “With the help of The Innocence Project and other organizations, there have been hundreds and hundreds of DNA exonerations, which points to the fact that a lot of innocent people are in prison.”
In September 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court decided that the West Memphis Three deserved an evidentiary hearing that could have led to a new trial. Berlinger believes this is why Arkansas prosecutors suddenly offered the Three the opportunity to accept an “Alford plea.”
“This deal got hammered out in less than two weeks when it became politically and financially important to the state of Arkansas,” Berlinger complained. “Financially because the state worked out an agreement that it couldn’t be sued for wrongful conviction. Politically expedient because an evidentiary hearing scheduled for December was going to be embarrassing for a lot of people.”
The West Memphis Three will no longer be in prison, but in the eyes of the law they are still convicted child killers. “You know Jason Baldwin was very much against doing the Alford plea,” Berlinger said. “Unfortunately the state made it an all or nothing deal. Jason agreed to take it because he was basically saving Damien’s life. The idea of spending another two, three, four years on death row for Damien was untenable. His health had deteriorated, he hasn’t had sunlight on his body in ten years, his eyesight is damaged, he’s physically weak. It was time for him to accept a plea bargain.”
Berlinger understands the choices the West Memphis Three made. “God knows I couldn’t have survived death row under such brutal conditions. But I am extremely disappointed that the state of Arkansas didn’t have the courage to admit what we all know, there were major mistakes made in this case.”
Randall Adams’ exoneration and release from prison after the release of The Thin Blue Line was also bittersweet, as detailed in his New York Times obituary. In Texas, wrongly convicted prisoners receive a lump sum payment of $80,000 for each year of their confinement. But Adams was ineligible for any money, even the $200 traditionally handed out to prisoners who have served their sentences, because his case had been dismissed.
August 19, 2011
News of the discovery of The White Shadow, a 1923 film previously considered lost, drew far-ranging attention from the media, with stories appearing everywhere from the Los Angeles Times to the BBC and in between. Most accounts focused on the fact that The White Shadow is Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest surviving credit, but the story behind its resurrection is just as fascinating. The future “Master of Suspense,” 24 at the time, wrote the scenario, edited the film and was also assistant director and art director. The White Shadow was a none-too-successful follow-up to Woman to Woman, which featured much of the same cast and crew, was also written by Hitchcock, and is still considered lost.
Both films were directed by Graham Cutts, considered one of the more reliable British directors of the 1920s and acknowledged by Hitchcock as his mentor. But Cutts does not have the same recognition factor as Hitchcock, which led some writers, notably David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, to dismiss him unfairly as a “hack.” (Luke McKernan offers an amusing opposing view on his Bioscope blog.)
Finding hints of The Lady Vanishes or Psycho in what remains of The White Shadow (three reels, or roughly the first half of the film) may be tough. Many film historians believe that Hitchcock struggled to find a style until the beginning of the sound era. I won’t comment on what The White Shadow adds to the Hitchcock canon until I see the footage. It would sort of be like finding a tape recording of Bob Dylan playing backup in somebody’s band in 1957 and then, without ever actually hearing it, trying to connect it to “Like a Rolling Stone.” But the other names associated with the project — industry veterans who would connect with each other on future films — should be just as interesting to film buffs.
Betty Compson, the star, played two parts, the wholesome Georgina and her less scrupulous twin Nancy. Both Compson and her co-star Clive Brook would later work with director Josef von Sternberg (in The Docks of New York and Shanghai Express, respectively). Michael Balcon, one of the producers, had the same job on Hitchcock’s international hit The 39 Steps (1935). Victor Saville, another producer, had credits that included Jessie Matthews musicals and MGM’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). The recently discovered film was distributed in the United States by Lewis J. Selznick, whose son David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to America to direct Rebecca.
That any of The White Shadow exists may be because the film went to New Zealand to die. At the time, exhibitors rented the prints they showed in theaters, and were supposed to return or destroy them when the run was finished. New Zealand was the end of the line in many cases. Some projectionists and collectors found it easier to stash the films and “forget” about them. Many of these subsequently ended up in national archives.
A few years ago, the National Film Preservation Foundation began a project to repatriate American films from archives in Australia and New Zealand. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, nitrate expert Leslie Anne Lewis examined the American holdings in The New Zealand Film Archive. She tied two reels with the “convenience title” of Twin Sisters to a third, unidentified reel. (For films without introductory or closing credits, archivists often supply their own titles for filing purposes.) Frame comparisons, edge code numbering, and US copyright records helped confirm that all three reels were from The White Shadow. As Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, described it, identifying a film can be like filling in a crossword puzzle. Cross-referencing filmographies, theatrical release charts, organizational files and, in this case, copyright records that included a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film all helped Lewis reach her conclusions. The crucial step was examining the footage by hand over a light table.
Melville credits the New Zealand archivists for their generosity and expertise in recovering this and other movies. Credit also goes to a grant from Save America’s Treasures, which helped pay for preservation of some 40 films repatriated from New Zealand in 2010. The award operated as a one-to-one matching grant, which meant that the NFPF needed additional help to secure and preserve the remaining films. And that was before Congress stopped funding for the entire program.
What will happen to the other films in the New Zealand collection? “A lot depends on whether we can get sufficient funding to complete all the films in the cache,” Melville said recently. “We’ve been trying to secure funds through private parties, a number of whom have stepped up to the plate to help. Some of the studios who still own copyrights for the films have been really generous because they felt that the films were so important to their corporate heritage.”
Anyone can contribute, and as Melville points out, “A short film is not terribly expensive comparatively speaking to preserve. Last year some bloggers in the For Love of Film project raised over $11,000 on the web to preserve three of the New Zealand films, including The Sergeant, the first narrative shot in Yosemite, and The Better Man.”
Many of the restored films can be seen on the NFPF website. Melville singles out U.S. Navy of 1915, which has received close to 150,000 views. Only recently identified, this eleven-minute fragment from a longer documentary was made with the cooperation of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and features footage of the “E-2″ class submarine in action.
The White Shadow will be shown at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on September 22, prior to screenings at other venues.
Editor’s Note, August 25, 2009: This post was updated to note that Save America’s Treasures did not fund the restoration of The White Shadow.
Welcome to Reel Culture, a blog that tries to place movies in a larger context than what’s number one at the box office. At the risk of dating myself, my earliest movie memories include trips with my parents to watch what were often baffling blockbusters like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, as well as family-approved hits like The Music Man. It wasn’t until years later that I realized other forms of film were making greater impressions on me. Bugs Bunny and Popeye, for example, or The Three Stooges. Even animations in commercials for products like Hertz and Anacin showed me the magic and power of cinema. Fear, too: it took several years before I could watch The Wizard of Oz beyond the tornado scene.
It was film, not television, that drew me, whether it was a Warner Bros. gangster melodrama or a badly duped 16mm print of Renoir’s La règle du jeu. Silents, serials, Westerns, musicals—I tried to understand how they worked, why some succeeded and others failed, why a low-budget film could be hypnotic and a supposed classic boring. A film appreciation course at a community college introduced me to Norman McLaren and Len Lye, journalism school to Frederick Wiseman and D A Pennebaker, midnight screenings to Freaks and Monterey Pop. In recent years I’ve been entranced by home movies, by industrial films, by all-digital works from Pixar. “Orphan films” opened up even more schools and styles to appreciate.
So nothing’s off limits here, and nothing’s sacred either. Today’s classic may have been yesterday’s bomb. The dreadful comedies Buster Keaton starred in at MGM earned more money than the exquisite films from his own studio. Who’s to say that Michael Bay won’t be tomorrow’s Raoul Walsh?
Consciously or not, all filmmakers pull from what came before, and part of my job here will be to show how the past affects the present. But mostly I want to point out films you might not otherwise see, and try to explain why they are important.