July 17, 2012
The National Film Preservation Foundation recently announced grants to help preserve 60 films over the coming months. These range from a silent 1913 comedy long thought lost to The Sun Project (1956), a collaboration between sculptor Richard Lippold and composer John Cage.
Many of the grants go to home movies, including some by a Pullman porter; a series about downtown Atlanta in the 1940s; a Hitler youth rally shot by brothers on a European vacation; and the Everly Brothers collection. The latter, being restored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum prior to a 2013 exhibit devoted to Don and Phil Everly, includes footage of performers like Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
Home movies are a particularly vulnerable genre of film, as many families are unwilling to pay for conversion of 16mm and 8mm stock to digital formats, yet don’t have the resources to project and store what can be large collections. [Full disclosure: I worked with a mountaineering group to obtain an NFPF grant to preserve 1950s home movie footage of the Adirondacks.]
But all of the films here deserve to be saved, because losing them will erase part of our cultural heritage. For example, the George T. Keating Home Movies from 1929, in a collection at Washington University in St. Louis, contain the only known footage of novelist Ford Madox Ford.
Film buffs will be excited about Drifting, a 1923 melodrama about opium smuggling directed by Tod Browning. Better known for his work with Lon Chaney, Browning used Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong, at the time fifteen years old, here. The restoration will feature new English intertitles.
Art buffs will want to see the titles made in the 1980s by Beryl Sokoloff, a photojournalist known for his films about artists. Maze documents animated sculptures; Drum City, a bus ride through New York City. Sokoloff made a number of films about his life partner, Crista Grauer, and about artists like Clarence Schmidt, Jose Bartoli, and Carl Nesjar.
Grants were awarded to the Center for Visual Music for two films by the influential animator Jordan Belson, who passed away last year. His Vortex Presentation Reels (1957-59) were part of famous multimedia concerts held at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium.
Jeff Lambert, assistant director at the NFPF, singled out the cult favorite 33 Yo-Yo Tricks (1976), being restored for the Harvard Film Archive. Lambert also pointed out That Other Girl, a 1913 comedy starring Pearl White that was long presumed lost. An archivist going through holdings at the University of Southern California found a can labeled “Niver,” and knew enough to guess it referred to film preservationist Kemp Niver. Inside was the only known copy of That Other Girl.
Lambert agreed that preserving films is becoming more difficult. “There are fewer and fewer labs who can do this kind of work,” he said in a recent interview.
Getting the films to interested viewers is harder too. “The preservation on most of these projects will take almost a year, if not more, so there’s always that lag time,” he explained.
One of the requirements of the grants is that the archives make the grant-funded films available to the public, but not everyone can travel to San Diego or Rochester or Keene to see a movie. “At the NFPF we are continuing to put more of our grant-funded films online,” Lambert said, “and more of the organizations out there are doing the same.”
Lambert encourages readers to apply for grants themselves. The next cycle opens in December. You can find more information here.
There are historical and cultural reasons to preserve these films, but they are just as important for the pure pleasure they bring. Like the delightful 1940 home movies by Slavko Vorkapich, one of the masters of montage. Or Brooke Dolan’s 1934 expedition to the Himalayas. Just for their glimpses into the past, I’m looking forward to the educational films by Tad Nichols about Apache and Navajo life in 1940 and color footage from Wethersfield’s Tercentenary Parade (1934).
Being preserved for the University of Oregon: Adaptive Behavior of Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels, a 1942 educational film by Lester Beck that led to Squeak the Squirrel, a film I wrote about in one of my first pieces.
This will be the last posting for Reel Culture, which is going on indefinite hiatus. You can still follow me on Twitter at @Film_Legacy, and I will be posting periodic articles and updates at my Film Legacy website.
I’ve enjoyed writing these pieces. My main theme over the past year is that what we think is new in movies can usually be traced back to earlier innovators, just like our contemporary novels and songs have antecedents in the past. But in today’s marketplace a sense of history has become a luxury.
May 16, 2012
May 14–18 marks the third annual “For the Love of Film” campaign. Hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand’s Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath’s This Island Rod, and Farran Smith Nehme’s Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon raises money for specific preservation projects.
The first blogathon helped finance the restoration of two Westerns, The Sergeant (1910), which contains the earliest narrative footage from Yosemite, and The Better Man (1912), a Vitagraph short with tinted intertitles. Both films were rediscovered at the New Zealand Film Archive. Thanks in part to the “For Love of Film” blogathon, they were included in the National Film Preservation Foundation‘s box-set Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938.
Last year the blogathon donated preservation funds to the Film Noir Foundation to restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 thriller starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted Cy Enfield. Physical restoration of the film will take place next year, and a repremiere is scheduled for the 2014 Noir City 12 festival in San Francisco.
This year the blogathon has selected The White Shadow, another New Zealand restoration project I first wrote about here. Directed by Graham Cutts, The White Shadow is an important early credit for Alfred Hitchcock, who would later become one of cinema’s most significant directors. Film restorer Eric Grayson wrote this on his excellent Dr. Film blog:
We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed. It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good. Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see! Why? Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director.
To movie buffs, one of the most frustrating aspects of film preservation is the fact that it’s almost impossible to see the finished products. Archives can restore a feature film, but often can’t show it outside of a museum or festival setting. Donor restrictions on materials, rights issues, the costs of making and shipping prints—all these factors can make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to screen restored titles, or make them available to home markets.
That’s what makes this year’s “For the Love of Movies” blogathon so significant. Rather than fund a restoration (since The White Shadow has already been restored), it is funding access. Once it reaches its goals, the National Film Preservation Foundation will host an online version on its website, complete with a new musical score by Michael Mortilla.
Viewing films online has its drawbacks, but at least it enables people to see what preservationists are doing. Coincidentally, to publicize the Casablanca 70th Anniversary Three-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Edition from Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution is hosting a complimentary screening of the film today on the Casablanca movie Facebook Page at 7:00 p.m. ET and again at 7:00 p.m. PT. You must begin watching Casablanca prior to 9:00 p.m. PT through the film’s Facebook Page. Only one screening per Facebook account is permitted.
Films like Casablanca, Ben-Hur, and Gone With the Wind are first in line for upgrading whenever a new preservation format or standard is established. For instance, Warners released an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Casablanca in 2008. But studios and archives are sitting on thousands of other titles that might not get restored. If you love movies, you should jump at the opportunity to actively target titles you want to preserve and protect.
NFPF director Annette Melville reminded me, “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free.’ The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
The goal of “For the Love of Film” blogathon is $15,000, enough to host The White Shadow online for three months. You can donate directly to the NFPF.
Since those participating in the blogathon are supposed to write something about Hitchcock, I’ll add the following. In addition to being one of the medium’s best directors, Hitchcock understood the business of film better than most of his peers. Fairly early in his career, the director obtained artistic control over his projects. For his British titles, he could pick his stories and cast, determine what and how to shoot, and oversee editing. Apart from some budgetary and censorship limitations, films like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) look exactly the way Hitchcock wanted them to.
However, Hitchcock didn’t own the films themselves. They belonged to his producers, which is one of the reasons why so many of his British titles had fallen into public domain in the US, and are available here in cheap, badly duped versions. [Robert Harris points out that copyrights to Hitchcock's British films were restored in 1996 as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. But many distributors still market illegal copies as "public domain" prints.]
When he came to the United States, Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Their relationship gave Hitchcock access to great stars like Ingrid Bergman and writers like Ben Hecht, but it also limited him to what Selznick wanted to do.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was still working under contract to studios like Paramount, but he arranged to have rights for certain projects revert to him after a specified time. Rear Window, for example, was released by Paramount in 1954 and rereleased in 1962. Hitchcock obtained control of the rights and film elements in 1967. Unfortunately, he decided to scrap what was considered to be extraneous film and sound elements, and to store the remaining camera negative, separation masters, and sound tracks in a non-air-conditioned warehouse.
Using these materials, Rear Window was reissued in 1970. But when Universal tried to reissue the film again in 1983, the negatives were faded and damaged, and the optical soundtrack could not be used.
Robert Harris and James Katz undertook a new restoration in 1997, this time resurrecting a Technicolor dye transfer process that had been dormant since 1974. During their restoration they got an appreciation of just how brilliant a filmmaker Hitchcock was. For example, there are no dissolves from one scene to another in Rear Window. Instead, Hitchcock would have cinematographer Robert Burks fade to black between scenes. Amazingly, these fades were performed in the camera, not in a lab. Hitchcock was so confident about his timing, pacing, and rhythm that he felt comfortable risking his shot on the set rather than waiting to use a film lab’s optical process.
Hitchcock went on to establish a media empire of sorts, making feature films, producing and hosting a long-running television series, and even adding his name to books and magazines. By doing so, he remains one of the most recognizable directors over 20 years after his death.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 2, 2012
News that a press screening of The Avengers had to be delayed over two hours because the digital file was accidentally deleted spread through a number of film and tech sites: Slate, Tecca, Y!Tech, etc. For some, it was further confirmation of the warnings raised by Gendy Alimurung in a recent LAWeekly article: “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm.”
Not everyone agrees. For example, Leo Enticknap, a film historian with the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, pointed out on an archivists’ listserv the many times film screenings had to be postponed due to prints not arriving on time, or being spliced together incorrectly, or falling off their platters, or any number of mechanical failures with projecting equipment.
Still, digital failures, as opposed to analog ones, seem to stir up more publicity, perhaps similar to the alarmed newspaper accounts of horseless carriage accidents before the rise of automobiles. For many theater owners, Film vs. Digital has become a moot point. As the March/April 2012 issue of Screen Trade points out, “The pace [of conversion to digital] is fast and the pressure tightening. At a very near point, if you do not have digital, you will not show movies.”
The recently concluded 8th Orphan Film Symposium was not just a chance to see movies from around the world, but an opportunity to catch up with historians and archivists to talk about the state of film preservation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, funding continues to be the most significant factor facing archivists. What surprised me the most in the two years since the previous symposium was how quickly digital has dominated screenings.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project and the author of a forthcoming book about the orphan genre, agreed that more and more presenters “were opting to choose a high definition digital transfer and not even bother with film.” Streible agreed that digital files were easier and cheaper to duplicate. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he went on. “The piece we’re about to watch [The Jungle] wasn’t shown yesterday because a file was missing. And definitely all the examples I have seen here verified for me that film prints are always superior to the digital transfers.”
For Dwight Swanson, a founder of the Center for Home Movies, making 16mm prints, often a condition for preservation grants, is becoming prohibitively expensive. “We were just working on a grant proposal, and it turns out we couldn’t do a project because of the costs of film,” he said. “We could make a digital file, but what then? Our organization has no IT structure. We’d end up with a hard drive on a shelf. Who knows how long that would be viable?”
To screen a 16mm film, Swanson would very likely have to supply a projector and someone who knew how to operate it. “And what is the point of spending thousands of dollars to get a 16mm print that might be projected once?” he asked. “Everyone else will watch it on DVD.”
“Our experience was that a lot of the new 16mm prints we had made for the 7th Orphan Symposium got damaged in their first showing,” Streible revealed. “Was it worth that extra few hundred dollars, or would it have been better for a ten-minute film which never looked very good to begin with to just be satisfied with digital?”
Eli Savada of the Motion Picture Information Service believes that, “Film will be presentable for another few years—it depends on how much equipment can be kept in shape.” David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, told attendees that his staff had to send to Uruguay for a replacement bulb for an Elmo 16mm projector.
Anka Mebold, a film archivist and restorer with the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, Germany, believes that film will continue to serve as a preservation medium. “As archivists, we are in a double-bind. Do you allow film to be projected or keep it on a shelf?” she asked. “Perforated plastic with photographic emulsion is probably the most stable carrier, so I think film is not going to go away. It will probably vanish from exhibition, however. Digital projection doesn’t threaten possibly unique film elements.”
But as Walter Forsberg, a research fellow at NYU Libraries, points out, “Digitization is more expensive than film. The long-term costs of paying someone to be a digital custodian, to exercise the drives, to perform ongoing management files, to migrate from format to format indefinitely into the future, is way more expensive than film, than preserving materials on celluloid.”
Skip Elsheimer, a media archeologist with A/V Geeks, believes that access to materials is key. “Access is the first step toward preservation,” he said. “When films are online, people can access them and identify areas for research. You can say, ‘You know what? That title’s important because it was made by a special company, or it’s the first time a musician scored something, or it’s an early appearance by an actor.’”
Digital answers some of these access issues, but also raises other questions. “Videotape is going away,” Elsheimer pointed out. “The crushing blow was the tsunamis in Japan last year that hit the Sony tape manufacturing plants. A lot of people changed over to file-based formats at that point.”
But what format do you use? “When YouTube came out, it was a pretty big deal,” Elsheimer said. “We’re still talking to archives who want a YouTube channel, so that’s what the bar is. And that bar’s not very high. But a lot of people just want to see something, even if they’re seeing it in the worst possible quality.”
Elsheimer believes how we watch movies determines the delivery format. “With High Definition, video has gotten bigger, but people are watching it smaller—on iPhones and iPads,” he said. “What’s changing now is the software for reading video files. Final Cut was a big thing for a while, but we’re shifting to another format. Are QuickTime files going to be valuable anymore? Probably not.”
Some are still holding onto film, grimly, stubbornly, perhaps out of a misplaced nostalgia. Still, Elena Rossi-Snook, the moving image archivist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, received an enthusiastic round of applause when she delivered this manifesto:
We’re preserving the experience of watching analog film being mechanically projected, and then we’re also preserving the social and cultural role of the public library film collection. Which means that regardless of economy, age, political affiliation, religion, race—you will have access to the mechanical projection of 16mm motion picture film onto a white screen in the dark. That is your right as a patron of the library.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 11, 2012
Opening Friday, April 20, To the Arctic 3D is the 35th IMAX documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. Narrated by Meryl Streep and with songs by Paul McCartney, the film examines how polar bears and other Arctic wildlife are struggling with climate change. But the real draw to the film is the astonishing cinematography by Greg MacGillivray and his crew.
The foremost name in large-format filmmaking, MacGillivray Freeman has been making IMAX documentaries for over 35 years. It is the first documentary production company to earn a billion dollars in box-office receipts. The company began in the late 1960s when surfing fanatics Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman pooled resources to work on documentaries and commercials. They gained a reputation for aerial photography after their 1971 short about Mexico, Sentinels of Silence, won two Oscars.
The company won a commission from the Smithsonian Institution to make a large-format film about aviation as the opening attraction at the National Air and Space Museum (and to tie-in with the nation’s bicentennial). To Fly!, the second highest-grossing large format film of all time, is still regularly screened at the museum. (Jim Freeman died in a helicopter accident two days before the premiere of To Fly!)
With titles like Everest, The Living Sea, and Hurricane on the Bayou, MacGillivray Freeman not only helped legitimize the IMAX process, it helped establish a new audience for films. Dozens of museums and educational facilities have built IMAX theaters, and large-format wildlife documentaries have become a right of passage for a generation of schoolchildren. “And IMAX is growing by leaps and bounds in developing countries,” MacGillivray adds. “Particularly China. In five years there will be over 200 IMAX theaters in China.”
Large-format filmmaking requires different skills than those for feature films and television. “The shots are longer, and you’re shooting wider—wider lenses and wider scenes so that the audience experiences the material in a kind of interactive way,” MacGillivray told me by phone last week from his Los Angeles offices. “In a normal movie, the director controls what you look at. The shots don’t last very long because you’re getting the audience to look at specific things. An IMAX shot, on the other hand, can be twenty or thirty seconds long. The audience has time to look around the frame, see the birds flying in the distance, a flock of geese coming overhead, the wind whipping up in the background. The viewers aren’t manipulated, they’re experiencing it on their own terms.”
The opening shots of To the Arctic 3D, a majestic aerial view of a glacial shelf complete with calving icebergs, puts MacGillivray’s theories into practice. The images have a startling beauty and clarity, and patient filmmaking gives viewers time to appreciate them fully.
The director is coming to grips with inevitable changes to the IMAX process. IMAX offers both film and digital projection systems. Digital is required for 3D projection, but it won’t reach 4K resolution for another two years or so. And according to MacGillivray, 4K is necessary to duplicate the IMAX experience on film.
Most IMAX theaters in museums are film based, and will remain so for at least three or four years. “It will be bad if theaters change over to digital before the quality is there,” MacGillivray believes. “The films could lose their audience.”
MacGillivray still shoots on film for 70 percent of the time, even though an IMAX magazine holds enough for only three minutes of footage. Plus it can take ten minutes to load a new magazine when you’re working in sub-zero temperatures. “That becomes tricky when shooting wildlife,” MacGillivray points out. “You have to plan when you will be reloading.”
Why work in such a cumbersome process? “When you’re capturing on IMAX 15/70 film, you’re getting ten times the resolution of the highest form of digital today,” MacGillivray says. “4K digital, for example, is about 12 million pixels per frame, and IMAX in 15/70 film is over 120 million—some say 150 million— pixels per frame.”
MacGillivray hopes the digital process will eventually reach 8K, at which point it could duplicate or even better the resolution from the film system. But there will still be differences in how each process looks on screen.
The film image, for example, is built from grain that forms when silver halide particles are exposed to light. MacGillivray explains that the grain particles form a random pattern. “Grain isn’t structured like a screen door that you’re looking through, but pixels are. Film-based grain is just all over the place, one frame totally different from the next. So your edges are coolly sharp and have a different feeling, an organic feeling rather than this mechanic feeling you get with digital. A lot of people relate it to the difference between vinyl music and digital music.”
Another difference between film and digital: “Film has far more color shades. It’s called bit depth in digital terms. And most bit depth in digital is about twelve, but film bit depth can be twenty to thirty. And so you just have more shades of yellow and red and oranges and everything. You can get extra shades of color with digital if you had more storage, but then you’re defeating the chief advantage of the process because everything would get bigger and more expensive.”
If the color, organic look, and smoothness of film are superior to digital, why switch processes? “With digital you do have the advantage of having an absolutely rock steady image because there’s no projector gate, no perforations, no film weaving through a machine. And there’s no dust, and no scratching.”
MacGillivray also finds digital easier to work with, “a lot easier until something goes wrong. And then you have to close down for two days so an expert can come in.”
To the Arctic 3D is being presented through the One World One Ocean Foundation. Founded by MacGillivray and his wife Barbara, this new initiative is intended to raise awareness to ocean issues through IMAX and feature films, television specials, YouTube videos, and other social media. The director cites the work of Jacques Cousteau, who in the 1960s would broadcast as many as three or four ocean-related television specials a year. “The ocean needs a voice in the entertainment base, and we’re going to try to bring the same continuity of effort that Cousteau did some 40 years ago,” he says.
Read about how astronauts were trained to use IMAX cameras on the space shuttle on our Around the Mall blog.
March 30, 2012
Many film fans first heard the news in a Los Angeles Times article by Bob Pool, “Storied West Hollywood studio buildings to be demolished.” “The Lot,” a movie studio complex with sound stages and editing rooms, will be demolished by its new owner, CIM Group. As Pool wrote,
[T]he first phase of work involves the demolition of the studio’s Pickford Building—built in 1927 and remodeled in 1936—and Goldwyn Building, which was built in 1932 and is used for sound editing. Later phases will involve the removal of the studio’s Writers Building, Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building and a block-long row of production offices that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Replacement buildings will rise to six stories.
The story spread quickly to LAist (“Historic West Hollywood Studio Lot Will Soon Meet The Wrecking Ball“), The Cinementals (“Save The Pickford-Fairbanks Studios!“), HollywoodPatch (“Developer Plans to Demolish The Lot, Rebuild Studio Buildings“) and other sites. A Save Pickfair Studios! petition went up on Care2, and filmmaker Allison Anders and historians Hala Pickford and Sal Soul-Pilot Gomez formed Save the Pickfair Studios!
A studio existed on the site since Jesse Durham Hampton began construction in 1917. In 1919, four of the movie industry’s most important figures—D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford—formed United Artists, prompting the comment from a rival executive that, “The inmates are taking over the asylum.” Griffith and Chaplin had their own studios, but Fairbanks and Pickford needed a place to work, and renovated the Hampton site.
Their complex has been known by many names, including the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, the Pickfair Studio, United Artists Studios, the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Warner Hollywood Studios, and most recently as simply The Lot. Just about every significant name in the motion picture industry worked there at one time or another: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando. Movies made there (in whole or in part) include Wuthering Heights (1939), Some Like It Hot (1959), West Side Story (1959), and the cantina scenes in Star Wars (1977).
The loss of such a facility would be a significant blow to our cultural heritage, one of the reasons why petition efforts have attracted members of the Fairbanks family as well as filmmakers Guy Maddin, Joe Dante, and Nancy Savoca; actors Gabriel Byrne, Tony Shalhoub, and Rosanna Arquette; critics Roger Ebert and David Ansen; and Antoine de Cazotte, an executive producer of The Artist. But as Hollywood Heritage points out,
[T]his is a case which stretches back a number of years and received approval at that time for the scope of work then submitted. The original development plan was approved in 1993. In 2006, the City of West Hollywood issued a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a revised development plan, focusing on the project’s impacts on historic resources.
Both the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage testified at the Planning Commission and the City Council hearings, focusing on the Supplemental EIR’s failure to consider alternatives to demolition. In May 2007, the West Hollywood City Council approved a revised development plan that included the demolition of some, but not all of the buildings at the site.
In other words, not all of the studio site will disappear. Some of the historical buildings will remain. As noted on Nitrateville.com, the demolition plans were approved more than five years ago. Protests against them should have occurred then.
By coincidence, the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education announced on March 27 that it had lost funding from the Mary Pickford Institute, a charitable trust founded by the actress. Ironically, the coming months will see the release of several Pickford features from Milestone Films, which currently offers Rags to Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection for institutional sale.
In researching this story, I was surprised to learn from film buff Greta de Groat of another studio loss, this one in New York City. As film historian Paul Gierucki informed me, 318 East 48th Street was originally built as a warehouse before it was purchased by Joseph Schenck and converted into a multi-level film studio. It housed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, the Constance Talmadge Film Corporation and Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation.
The sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge were two of the most popular movie stars of the 1920s. Norma started out at Vitagraph, where she worked with comedian John Bunny, moved to Triangle Pictures under D.W. Griffith, then formed her own company when she married Schenck. Constance also started at Vitagraph, had an important role in Griffith’s Intolerance, and specialized in comedies, many of them written by her friend Anita Loos.
Roscoe Arbuckle, probably better known by his screen nickname Fatty, worked on the third floor of the building. It was here that he introduced Buster Keaton to moviemaking in the slapstick short The Butcher Boy, the start of their prolific and creative partnership. Keaton’s first job was to get hit in the face with a sack of flour. As he wrote later, “I said, ‘How am I gonna keep from flinching?’ He said, ‘Look away from me. When I say turn, it’ll be there.’ He put my head where my feet were!”
Arbuckle and Keaton made six films at the 48th Street studio before moving to the Balboa Studios in Long Beach. The Talmadges remained at their studios until 1922, when they moved to California. (Keaton would later marry a third Talmadge sister, Natalie.) Gierucki believes that Lewis Selznick (father of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick) may have controlled the studios for a while, but the building was converted at some point into a parking garage. (For more information on the Talmadges, visit de Groat’s first-rate Norma Talmadge Website.)
Film historian Ed Watz found an undated news release online with this information: “The Republic of Singapore has purchased 318 East 48th St., a 45,000 s/f garage that will be converted to a UN Mission. The sale price was $29.5 million…Singapore will reconfigure the building to house its Mission to the U.N.”
As Gierucki wrote, “Unfortunately, the word “reconfigure” was a bit of an understatement. Not a single thing remains. Another critical link to our motion picture past has been lost forever.”
Thanks to Paul Gierucki, Greta de Groat, and Ben Model for help with this post.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 2, 2012
You can’t say you weren’t warned. A year ago New York Times critic Dave Kehr was proclaiming the end of DVDs: Goodbye, DVD. Hello, Future. Unit sales were down 40%, Blockbuster had gone into bankruptcy, and Netflix was shifting from a mail-order purveyor of DVDs to “a streaming video company delivering a wide selection of TV shows and films over the Internet,” in the words of chief executive Reed Hastings.
Kehr pinned his hopes for home video on Blu-ray, citing that format’s ability to deliver high-definition versions of films. But despite industry efforts, Blu-ray has never really caught on with consumers. Released to the public in 2006, Blu-ray currently accounts for 23% of total disc sales, according to Home Video Magazine. When you examine the Top 20 Sellers last week, that proportion can drop even further—15% of sales for The Help were on Blu-ray, 11% of “Downton Abbey”—unless, like Disney did with Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, you force buyers to purchase a Blu-ray package.
Especially for older library titles, studios are scaling back on disc releases. Warner Bros. (which also controls most of the classic MGM titles), Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Sony are now all offering what they refer to as “MOD” or “manufacturing on demand” titles, essentially burning new discs only after they are ordered. MOD discs lack the extras—and the longevity—of consumer discs, but in many cases they are now the only way to see obscure movies.
The industry seems to be heading toward forgoing discs of any kind, aiming instead for an environment in which viewers stream content to their computers and televisions. Cable companies have been offering “video on demand” options for some time, both at home and in hotels. Also in the hunt for viewers: Apple’s iTunes, Hulu, Wal-Mart’s VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video, Vimeo, and Netflix. Even PBS is into streaming. This week the broadcaster announced its first Online Film Festival.
Search engines want a piece of the action as well. Search for “Harry Potter” on Bing, and you will get an option to “Watch Now.” Google, meanwhile, will be happy to send you to YouTube.
MediaHound, a search aggregator that resembles a Kayak for TV and movie titles, shows some promise. Pop in a title, and MediaHound will give you options for purchasing and streaming. Right now it does fine for recently released titles, but draws a blank for lesser-known items.
Is this good news or bad for film buffs? On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to find and purchase specific titles. I caught the sparkling Pre-Code comedy Havana Widows a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies, but despaired of ever seeing it again. Now it’s available at Warner Archives, and for a fairly reasonable price.
But step outside releases from major studios, and it suddenly gets much harder to pin down a title like Ride the Pink Horse or Under a Texas Moon.
I find watching films on my computer disconcerting. Without a high-speed Internet connection, a film may sputter, skip frames, or stop entirely during playback. Rewinding and fast-forwarding are ostensible options, but in reality they disrupt the feed so much that they are unusable.
The quality of the image suffers as well. Projected nitrate, even that which has been restored and preserved on polyester stock, has a lustrous look and sheen to it. At low resolution on a computer monitor, it can seem pixellated, corroded with digital artifacts, lacking balance and contrast.
But get used to it, because streaming is taking over the home consumer market. It is impacting the archival world as well. As Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, wrote me, “Viewing film online is already becoming the 21st century way to enjoy films that once screened on the repertory circuit. But it also holds promise for revolutionizing access to archival films—films of historic interest that were formerly seen only by scholars who had the resources to travel to film archives to do research.”
The NFPF has assembled five DVD packages under its highly recommended “Treasures” umbrella, 214 titles in all. They range from studio features to home movies, from animation to documentaries. But the NFPF also posts titles for streaming to its website, like these films recently discovered in New Zealand. (Check out comedienne Mabel Normand’s charming Won in a Closet, or the early Western Billy and His Pal, starring director John Ford’s older brother Francis.)
“With the web, we can make available other movies—without costly-to-produce ‘extras,’ such as new music and commentary. We don’t see this web exhibition as replacing the Treasures DVD sets—or the experience of enjoying films in a movie theater—but rather as a way to democratize film access,” Melville said.
Democracy comes with a cost, however. “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free,’” Melville said. “Currently the NFPF is planning two major web premieres for later in 2012. The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
As a consumer, you’ll pay coming and going. Yes, you can watch some titles for free on IFC (like The Larry Sanders Show), Hulu (currently offering six silent titles—with commercial interruptions—from The Criterion Collection, including Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights), and other sites. But most titles cost between $3 and $10.
And now cellphone carriers want to charge you for hogging bandwidth while streaming and downloading movies. As The Wall Street Journal put it, AT&T Ends All-You-Can-Eat.
December 30, 2011
Each year the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films to the National Film Registry. This year’s selections include four silent films, five documentaries, and such popular features as Forrest Gump. I’ve already written about one title, the Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s).
One of the goals of the Registry is to alert the public to the need for preservation. Another is to draw attention to movies that reach beyond features, like Jordan Belson’s experimental Allures. Belson died this year, as did George Kuchar, whose I, An Actress was also added to the Registry.
Several titles mark return visits for filmmakers like John Ford (with the sprawling Western epic The Iron Horse), Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century, an early screwball comedy starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), Frank Capra (the WWII documentary The Negro Soldier), Walt Disney (Bambi), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, an expose of alcoholism), and John Cassavetes (Faces).
This is the first appearance on the Registry for noted filmmakers like Chick Strand (Fake Fruit Factory) and Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street). Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs may provoke some debate, but the selection that has bewildered film buffs the most is Stand and Deliver, a message drama with patently good intentions but not much sophistication.
I will be writing more about the individual titles in the future, but for now I’d like to point out A Cure for Pokeritis, a 1912 comedy starring John Bunny. Bunny and his frequent foil Flora Finch were probably the most accomplished and funniest of the early film comedians in the United States. Bunny was an international star before a cult of celebrity developed; when he died of Bright’s disease in 1915, it was front page news. Had he lived a little longer, he might be more widely known today. But Bunny’s influence stretches on over the decades, in the works of everyone from W.C. Fields to Carrol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson.
Here is the complete list of titles for 2011:
The Big Heat (1953)
A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)
The Cry of the Children (1912)
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
El Mariachi (1992)
Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Growing Up Female (1971)
Hester Street (1975)
I, an Actress (1977)
The Iron Horse (1924)
The Kid (1921)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
Norma Rae (1979)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Twentieth Century (1934)
War of the Worlds (1953)
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”
November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 18, 2011
Several major film preservation projects have been in the news recently. Back in September, I posted about A Trip to the Moon, restored from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. (Its director, Georges Méliès, plays an important role in the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo.) Dave Kehr just wrote about a $100 Laurel and Hardy collection from Vivendi. And film buffs are eagerly awaiting the January 24, 2012 release of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD, one of the more difficult of the Best Picture Oscars winners to view. (I’ll be writing more about its restoration in the future.)
These are big-budget items that deserve media coverage, but I’d like to draw attention to another set of films that recently received preservation funding. On October 26, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced its latest grant winners. The NFPF targets movies it aptly describes as “under the radar of commercial preservation programs.” Silents, documentaries, independent films, home movies, avant garde pieces—in other words, works that generally wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial marketplace. (Full disclosure: working through the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, I helped secure financing through the NFPF to restore mountaineering footage shot in the Adirondacks in the late 1940s.) You can read the full list of films here, but some highlights are described below.
H. Lee Waters in Burlington (1939–40): Waters was an itinerant filmmaker based in Lexington, North Carolina. Armed with a Kodak Cine Special 16mm camera, he traveled to small towns throughout Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, filmed the inhabitants, then screened his work in local theaters. Waters was a fine photographer but an even better interviewer who managed to meet and film total strangers, putting them so at ease that they came across as warm and comfortable on screen. His films from Kannapolis, NC have been selected to the National Film Registry.
Also on the Registry is Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, a 1988 documentary about the Yup’ik people of Alaska. Made by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, it captures the beliefs and traditions of a passing generation, as well as the beautiful but harsh environment in which the Yup’ik live. The dozen or so dances included in the film have the effect of erasing time, as one observer put it. Just as important, the filmmakers find ways to explain a remote culture, to turn the exotic into something we can understand and appreciate.
An earlier generation knew Lowell Thomas as a globetrotter and journalist on radio and television. (He was also an early supporter of the Cinerama process, and narrated the opening reel to This Is Cinerama.) Thomas’s 1924 book With Lawrence in Arabia helped turn T.E. Lawrence into a celebrity. Six years earlier, Thomas and cinematographer Harry Chase filmed Lawrence and other figures significant in the Palestine campaign of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence toured the world with a show about the Middle East, complete with slides, film clips, dancers and a live orchestra. In 1919, he released With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, a silent film version of his very popular extravaganza. Thomas’s descendants donated 35mm acetate print to Marist College, which, thanks to the NFPF grant, is now being restored.
Halloween fans should be delighted about Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter’s first student film at the University of Southern California. Written and directed by Carpenter in 1969 for an introductory film class at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the eight-minute, black-and-white short was rediscovered by archivist Dino Everett. He sees connections between the protagonist in this film and Michael Myers in Halloween, as well as an early use of Carpenter’s signature strategy of shooting from the attacker’s point of view. What Everett actually found were A/B negative rolls and the sound track, not a positive print. The NFPF grant will help ensure that a viewing print is struck.
In a phone call, Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The American Bank Note Company, a 1924 reprint of a 1915 film documenting the Bronx plant responsible for printing paper money and stamps for the United States and other countries. The company was formed in 1858, and its operations were consolidated in the Bronx in 1911. An early example of an industrial film, the movie examined the plant’s facilities and explained printing processes. It also described the employees’ pension plan, an unusual benefit at the time. This print was discovered in 1923 in a decommissioned plant in West Philadelphia and transferred to the Smithsonian.
The NFPF grants help finance film preservation masters and two access copies of each work. The public can view these films on-site; many also become available through screenings, DVDs, and the Internet. Without the grants, a significant number of these films—most of them one-of-a-kind—might be lost forever. To date the NFPF has saved more than 1,850 films and collections through grants and collaborative projects.