November 9, 2011
When I grew up, no one “owned” feature films apart from businesses and eccentric collectors. Many families made home movies, and some companies offered condensed versions of cartoons and comedy shorts on 16mm and 8mm for the home market. But the idea of purchasing individual copies of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz seemed preposterous. For one thing, who had the space to store the eight to ten reels of 35mm stock that made up a typical feature film, let alone purchase and learn how to operate a 35mm projector? And how could the home viewing experience compete with an actual movie theater?
Standards changed after a generation grew up watching movies on television rather than in theaters. Hollywood was wary of television at first, concerned that it would cannibalize the filmgoing audience. But by the 1960s, studios embraced the medium as a new source of revenue. Late-night TV was how many film buffs first became acquainted with classic movies. When videocassettes first became available to home consumers in the 1970s, Hollywood again held back. Concerned about losing control of their product, studios tried to rent rather than sell movies. Vestron Video helped change the rules when it marketed Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller as a “sell-through” rather than rental tape.
The revenue from videocassettes, and later from laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, proved irresistible to studios, despite fears over bootlegging and piracy. For an industry desperate to keep control over its product, streaming is seen as a holy grail. Consumers “use” a product by viewing it, after which it returns to the copyright owners.
Streaming sites are evolving daily as studios and platforms jockey for position. Netflix has made some notable blunders in trying to switch to an all-streaming platform, but the conversion away from hard copies is inevitable. In a sense, storing movies in the cloud is like a return to the past when studios, and not consumers, determined how and when a film could be seen.
In the meantime, here are three sites that offer free streaming. (In case you missed the first post in this series, I outlined some other collections back in August.)
Affiliated with the University of South Carolina, University Libraries Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) combines its holdings under four major umbrellas. MIRC started in 1980, when it received a donation of the Movietone News library from the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Fox Movietone News was one of the most significant producers of newsreels in the early twentieth century, and the University of South Carolina’s Collection is arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture from that period extant anywhere in the world. While not complete, the holdings include all silent newsreel elements (nitrate) from the original Fox News library (1919 – 1930), and all outtake and unused film from Volumes 1 through 7 of Fox Movietone News (1928 – 1934).
MIRC also includes a collection of Science and Nature Films, Regional Films, and a Chinese Film Collection. The Moving Image Research Collections is open to the public at its facilities in Columbia, South Carolina. But you can screen much of the material online—everything from Chinese cartoons to Appalachian music.
The National Film Preservation Foundation also streams films on its site, for example, The Lonedale Operator (1911), a key title in the development of film narrative. Back in college we might have to wait an entire year to see The Lonedale Operator in a scratched-up 16mm dupe copy. Here is a pristine version preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. In The Lonedale Operator, you can watch D.W. Griffith working out the fundamentals of cross-cutting, of building suspense through montage, and see how he learned to define and contrast locations. Filmmakers today are still using similar techniques. Films on the NFPF site include cartoons, naval documentaries, and Spindale, one of the wonderful local titles made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters.
Today’s third site is devoted to films from the Thanhouser Company. In 1909, actor Edwin Thanhouser converted a skating rink in New Rochelle, New York, to a motion picture studio. By the time Thanhouser Films went out of business in 1917, it had produced over a thousand shorts, ranging from slapstick comedies and children’s films to adaptations of David Copperfield and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thanhouser films were distinguished by their excellent location photography, strong story lines, and accomplished actors.
In 1988, Thanhouser’s grandson Ned formed a non-profit organization devoted to restoring and preserving the studio’s output. In an e-mail, Mr. Thanhouser wrote: “As of today, I have found 224 surviving films around the globe at archives and in private collections; since there are some duplicate titles, there are 156 unique Thanhouser titles that survive.”
Mr. Thanhouser has made 56 of the surviving titles available for view on his website. He also sells copies of the original poster artwork for titles, and markets DVD collections of Thanhouser films. “I am working on another three-disc DVD set and online release of 12 to 15 films that is targeted for late 2012,” he wrote. “Of the known surviving Thanhouser films, there are about a dozen to 18 films that still need preservation as they are still on nitrate film stock.”
Thanhouser films can be extremely entertaining, like Her Nephews from Labrador. Because they’re from Labrador, they’re immune to cold, as the youths cavorting in an icy New Rochelle river prove. If you think Shark Week is a new invention, check out In de Tropische Zee, shot in the Bahamas in 1914 and featuring a startling way to bait for predators. I saw Seven Ages of an Alligator a few years back and still have nightmares about it.
October 26, 2011
Critical consensus earlier this year was that the 3-D boom in motion pictures was dying. “Not every movie, in my opinion, should be in 3-D,” director Steven Spielberg said at July’s Comic-Con. “Audiences have now come to realize there are bad movies that can be in 3-D as well and, on top of that, you’re being charged an extra $5 to see a movie that was as bad as one you saw in 2-D,” said Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Spielberg’s producing partner on the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.
The rerelease of a 3-D version of Disney’s The Lion King quickly eliminated the doom saying. After the 1994 film grossed over $100 million (see my earlier posting), the 3-D process took on an air of inevitability. Disney is converting Beauty and the Beast to 3-D, followed by Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Directors as prominent as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Francis Coppola (Twixt) have committed to the process. So have low-budget filmmakers and even documentarians like Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the Chauvet Cave in France) and Wim Wenders (Pina, about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch).
This isn’t the first go-round for 3-D movies. The principles behind stereo photography were known well before the invention of motion pictures, and in the nineteenth century stereoscopic viewers were popular household toys. According to Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, 3-D might have had a more immediate impact in the dawn of cinema if the first moving pictures hadn’t already provided more depth than still photography. “The illusion of the moving image stopped the development of 3D moving image for a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Drössler, one of the world’s leading experts on 3-D, will give a highly anticipated lecture this Saturday, October 29, at the Museum of Modern Art. In 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! An Illustrated History of Stereoscopic Cinema, he will demonstrate the myriad examples of 3-D movies stretching back to the early 1900s. Among his topics: the German inventor Max Skladanowsky, who tried to animate 3-D images in the late 19th century.
Even movies by the pioneering special effects director Georges Méliès can be projected in 3-D, thanks to the fact that he often filmed with two synchronized cameras side by side, the second camera providing a “protection” negative. (Filming with two cameras was a common practice in Hollywood as well; the second negative could be used for European markets or to replace footage once the first wore out.) Méliès didn’t plan to make 3-D films, but with modern technology we can re-synchronize his images to provide a realistic illusion of depth.
I’ve seen some early examples of 3-D movies at previous MoMA screenings, like William Van Doren Kelley’s “Plasticon” shorts from the 1920s, and can attest to their eerie, ghostly power. The sense of depth in the shorts is startling. As captured on lustrous nitrate stock, the images have a haunting beauty as well. They bring the past to life in ways that “flat” movies can’t.
After his lecture, Mr. Drössler will introduce a screening of Robinzon Kruzo (1947), most likely the first 3-D feature. Produced in the Soviet Union, it “was shown exclusively in one Russian cinema for about two years,” he wrote. “You even find reports about it in Sight and Sound magazine.” Robinzon Kruzo was re-released several times in the USSR, and drew a half-million moviegoers during a four-month run in London.
Mr. Drössler’s talk will cover other processes as well, their names evoking the hucksters that helped make movies a commercial success: Zeiss Ikon Raumfilm, Plasztikus Films, Stereokino 70, StereoVision, SpaceVision. He will also address 3-D’s inability, until now, to establish a permanent foothold in the industry.
In the 1950s, when directors like Alfred Hitchcock were experimenting with 3-D, the biggest drawback to the process may have been the fact that it required two prints running simultaneously through two projectors. Lose a frame on one print, and your movie was no longer synchronized. Today’s digital projectors can provide 3-D depth with only one print.
Still, 3-D faces an uphill battle with consumers. As Mr. Drössler notes, “It’s true that today more theaters than ever are equipped for 3-D projection, but the process is still not dominating mainstream cinema: The majority of films in the box-office top ten are not 3-D, hardly any 3-D films have been in competition at the big film festivals, and none has ever won a prize in these festivals.” The biggest problem with the process for Mr. Drössler: “As long as there is no satisfactory 3-D system without glasses for cinema and for TV, it will never become a dominant force in the mainstream film industry.”
October 14, 2011
The 49th New York Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with a screening of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Critical response to the festival has been somewhat muted, perhaps because, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times summary, so many of the scheduled films will receive theatrical releases in the future.
One of the high points of the Festival was the appearance of the West Memphis Three for a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see my earlier posting). Interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, co-director Joe Berlinger described how moved he was to see the Three’s reactions as they watched a sunset from a Manhattan rooftop, free after 18 years in prison. (Disclaimer: my wife is the executive producer of the Leonard Lopate Show.) Paradise Lost 3 is a remarkable film, one that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in justice.
A festival coup was a sneak preview of director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s novel Hugo Cabret. Billed a “work in progress” at the screening, the completed Hugo will be released by Paramount on November 23. (Watch the trailer.) Disney employed a similar stunt during 1991′s Festival when it screened a rough draft of Beauty and the Beast. Scorsese also showed his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World prior to its broadcast on HBO.
Scorsese is making an appearance at a different New York festival that opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation highlights 35 films from 14 countries, as well as a retrospective tribute to filmmaker Jack Smith. On November 7, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will be introducing the uncut, 163-minute version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team behind such classics as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. (Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow.)
Blimp is not too difficult to see, and in fact Criterion offers a well-regarded home video version. The same can’t be said for many of the other films in To Save and Project. Director Joe Dante opens the festival with The Movie Orgy (1968), a unique assemblage of trailers, commercials, training films, and newscasts that he and Jon Davidson screened at colleges 40 years ago. On Saturday, Dante will introduce his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), “It’s a Good Life,” along with Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), an early anti-discrimination film starring William Shatner.
Due to rights complications, The Movie Orgy will most likely never be available to the home market. Many other restored films languish in a limbo of restricted access. It’s been over 20 years since I attended a screening of Under a Texas Moon (1930), the first sound Western shot in Technicolor and an early screen credit for Myrna Loy. Film buffs grumble about being unable to see the restored versions of The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor’s World War I epic, or Wings (1927), the only Best-Picture-winner not legally available on home video. Rights can be a huge stumbling block to museums and archives, making it difficult or impossible for fans to see their favorite movies.
And then some of the films in To Save and Project are just too obscure to warrant distributing to the home market. How about a series of five ethnographic shorts that noted documentarian Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the late 1940s? Or Robinzon Kruzo (1947), considered the first 3d feature-length film? To Save and Project devotes a segment to comedies from distributor Jean Desmet, to film and dance performances by Elaine Summers, and to five CinemaScope and widescreen films from Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of these titles will eventually trickle out to Turner Classic Movies and the home market, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), showcased in last year’s festival. But I am eagerly anticipating the chance to see hard-to-find titles like Afraid to Talk, a 1933 Universal melodrama about political corruption; Hoop-La (1933), a romantic comedy that was Clara Bow’s last screen role; and Les Halles centrales (1927), a documentary of a market in Paris by Boris Kaufman, later a noted cinematographer and the younger brother of Russian director Dziga Vertov. I also plan to attend The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s existential film noir about getaway expert Ryan O’Neal, to see how it compares to Nicolas Winging Refn’s wildly overhyped new release Drive.
October 12, 2011
How important were home movies in your family? Since motion pictures were first marketed in the late19th century, they were available to home consumers as well as professionals. Pathé offered the specifically home-oriented 28mm filmstock in 1912, and by the 1930s, both 16mm and 8mm cameras had entered the home consumer market.
For the next two decades home movies were an expensive and at times demanding hobby. Miriam Bennett, whose delightful comedy A Study in Reds (1932) was selected for the National Film Registry, was the daughter of famous still photographer H.H. Bennett and helped run the family studio in Wisconsin Dells after his death. Wallace Kelly, an illustrator and photographer whose Our Day (1938) is also on the Registry, skipped lunch for a year to pay for a motion picture camera. Their work might better be called “amateur” rather than “home” movies.
But as Baby Boomers matured in the 1950s, and the cost of equipment and film stock dropped, home movies became a mainstay of family get-togethers. A grammar of home movies emerged as filmmakers focused on the same familiar tableaus. Children grouped around the Christmas tree, for example, or seated at a picnic table on the Fourth of July. Birthday parties, new cars, playing at the beach or by a lake, a big storm: home movies became a combination of the unusual and the everyday, with clothes and haircuts marking the passing of years.
Founded in 2002, Home Movie Day celebrates them all: the bizarre and the brilliant, the obscure and the famous. Formed as a sort of outreach effort for archivists, the annual affair gives everyone who attends the chance to screen their films. For a lot of family members without access to working projectors, this is a great opportunity to see what’s in their collection. At the same time, it lets archivists counsel on the need for preservation.
According to Brian Graney, a co-founder of Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the project, the first event took place in 24 locations, almost all within the United States. This year Home Movie Day will take place in 66 sites across 13 countries on Saturday, October 15. (See the full list here.)
Graney, currently the Media Cataloger at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, wrote to me in an e-mail about the need to protect what can be extremely vulnerable films. “All home movies are at risk to some degree,” he explained, “because there’s no negative behind a home movie—the reel on the projector is the same one exposed in the camera. In commercial films you have multiple copies of the same content. Here, there’s just the one, and even for home movies held in archives, keeping that one safe might be the best we can do.”
According to Graney, “The greatest risk is in the widely held and wrongheaded idea that home movies are without interest to anyone but their creators, or that they’re all alike and all equally banal.”
Home Movie Day has helped bring some extraordinary films to a wider public, like Our Day and the Registry title Disneyland Dream (1956), a wonderful travelogue by the accomplished amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow. Each year holds the potential for new discoveries.
Perhaps the best proof of the variety and scope of home movies can be found in Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, an extraordinary feature produced and directed by Dwight Swanson. A compilation of 16 films dating back to 1915, Amateur Night provides an introduction to everything that is important about home movies, from personalities and historical events to sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The celebrities in Amateur Night include director Alfred Hitchcock frolicking with his wife Alma Reville; the real-life Smokey Bear, shown recovering from burn wounds from a forest fire; and President Richard Nixon, mingling with crowds on an Idaho airport tarmac.
Other films in Amateur Night give us new approaches to incidents we think we may already know. For instance, Helen Hill’s Lower 9th Ward (2005, from the Harvard Film Archive) is a first-person account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmed by someone who lived in and loved New Orleans. For me, Hill’s impassioned advocacy is more affecting than the reports of journalists trained to be objective about what they are covering.
Or take Atom Bomb (1953, from the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia Libraries), filmed by Louis C. Harris, a journalist and later editor at Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle. Harris, who served in the 12th Air Service Command during World War II, was invited to Nevada to view the detonation of the 16-kiloton “Shot Annie” on March 17, 1953. His footage captures the awesome, terrifying effects of a nuclear blast in ways that more official accounts don’t.
“In the past two decades archives, scholars, and hopefully the general public, too, have started to develop a deeper understanding of home movies and amateur films,” Swanson wrote to me in an e-mail. “The curatorial philosophy behind Amateur Night is to show the range of diversity that has been found in the universe of amateur film, and to persuade people to think of them in new ways and not dismiss them as purely family records.”
For the past year, Swanson has been screening Amateur Night across the country. Sunday, October 16, he’s showing it in Los Angeles as part of the Academy Film Archive’s Home Movie Weekend. On Friday, November 4, he’ll be at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Do not miss the chance to attend a screening, because you won’t find Amateur Night on DVD. “There are no plans for DVD distribution,” Swanson said, “since we wanted it to be a film preservation project and to showcase the [nondigital] photochemical preservation work being done by preservation film labs such as Cineric, Inc.”
So drop into a local Home Movie Day event, and see Amateur Night if you can. As Swanson put it, “The goal is to show that there are some wonderful and amazing films found both in archives and in homes.”
October 5, 2011
More than most art forms, cinema was founded on science. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison drew on optics, chemistry, metallurgy and neuropsychology in devising and perfecting motion pictures. Edison’s early cinematic developments were covered by Scientific American, while Popular Science and similar magazines devoted articles to film technologies like color and 3D processes.
And yet for over a hundred years, feature films have played with science’s facts and distorted its principles and theories. Think of the astronomers who, after being shot from a cannon, discover beauty queens on the moon in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Or The Thieving Hand (1908), in which the eponymous hand attaches and detaches itself from unsuspecting hosts to go on crime sprees. Rockets that roar through the vacuum of outer space, doctors who turn into insects via electrical pulses, donated eyes that see ghosts: the list of cinematic crimes against science seems endless. Whether bringing dinosaurs to life through snippets of DNA in Jurassic Park or turning robots into assassins in The Terminator, filmmakers have leaned on science to add credibility to their work—whether or not their interpretations made any sense.
Starting in 2005, Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, then the associate director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, and entrepreneur Richard Anders began addressing the disconnect between film and science. The Coolidge (a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts) initiated a series that brought the “top minds in the world of science, medicine and technology,” as Taylor-Mead wrote later, to introduce films that matched their interests. Science on Screen quickly became a favorite part of the Coolidge’s schedule and since 2010 has received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The 2011 season began this week with a screening of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), introduced by Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at Harvard University and co-author of “Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?” Who better to introduce a film about a giant, man-eating plant?
In November, the Coolidge is showing Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, preceded by Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at HMS. No one in cinema handled dreams better than Buñuel, which is why Dr. Stickgold will be talking about the dreaming brain. December’s entry, 12 Monkeys, is paired with journalist Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses. In January, MIT physics professor Edward Farhi discusses the physics of time travel for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Taylor-Mead admits that the series had some growing pains. “Just searching for the closest match in terms of subject matter,” she wrote, “can mean you’re often stuck with a less than stellar example of film art, and that you’re merely attempting to illustrate information already given.”
The key was to find pairings that made sense but were still surprising. For example, Guy Crosby, a professor of food science and nutrition at Framingham State College and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, as well as the science editor for Cook’s Illustrated and the science expert for America’s Test Kitchen, spoke about how our sense of taste works for Babette’s Feast (1987). In my favorite pairing, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, introduced George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Questions he raised included: What explains zombies’ lack of executive function? Why do the walking dead have such lousy balance, and why are they always so hungry?
Starting in January, 2011, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began awarding grants to non-profit art house cinemas to create their own Science on Screen programs. Eight theaters were chosen: The Loft Cinema, Tucson, Arizona; California Film Institute, San Rafael, California; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, New York; Maiden Alley Cinema, Paducah, Kentucky; Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Circle Cinema, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; SIFF Cinema, Seattle, Washington; and Tampa Theatre, Tampa, Florida.
In addition to Science on Screen, the Sloan Foundation has funded a Film Program “to expand public understanding of science and technology.” Since 1996, the Sloan Foundation has offered screenwriting and film production awards, as well as sponsoring science seminars and panels at major film festivals. Over 250 projects have received funding, including such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. The Sloan Science and Film page on the Museum of the Moving Image website offers more information, and you can also stream some of the winning shorts.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”
September 14, 2011
Animator Robert Breer died this past August in Tucson; film distributor Donald Krim, in New York this last May. (And on September 6 came news of animator Jordan Belson‘s death.) Their loss narrows a cinematic world that in some respects is in danger of disappearing.
Born in Detroit in 1926, Robert Breer served in the Army during World War II, then lived in Paris for a decade, where he intended to become a painter. It was while documenting his art with his father’s 16mm Bolex camera that Breer first started working with film. “I’m interested in the domain between motion and still pictures,” he once wrote, and his films are distinguished by their playful, endlessly inventive use of movement.
Breer drew inspiration from animators before him, the wonderful Len Lye, for example, or the New York filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute. But he amplified on their work, hand-painting his film stock, re-editing home movies and found footage, assembling collages, and exploring every corner of animation. In Breer’s films, time repeats, reverses, expands and contracts in on itself with jazzy insouciance. His pieces move with blazing speed, at times at the limits of comprehension. Viewing them becomes more an emotional experience than a rational one.
Breer was admired by his colleagues, but he worked in a narrowly circumscribed world of experimental and avant-garde movies. As a result, it’s difficult to view his movies. Breer’s closest brush with mainstream fame may have been his contribution to New Order’s “Blue Monday ’88″ music video. He also made films for the Children’s Television Workshop. In 2002, his Fuji (1974) was selected for the National Film Registry. But apart from Eyewash (1959), which can be seen in two versions on Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986, Breer’s movies have not been released to the home market. You can purchase or rent them from The Film-Makers’ Coop or Canyon Cinema, assuming of course you have access to a film projector. And the Anthology Film Archives have restored several of Breer’s pieces on 35mm stock. Essentially, you must watch them on a screen.
Donald Krim worked in the “industry” part of cinema, and his career coincided with the shift from projected film to digital media. Born in 1945 in Newton, Massachusetts, Krim started out at United Artists after earning a law degree from Columbia University. He helped form United Artists Classics, a specialty division devoted to niche movies. In 1978 he purchased Kino International, then as now a theatrical distribution company that focused on “classics and foreign language art films.” Kino got on its feet by licensing and distributing titles from Janus Films. Soon the company was handling titles from the Alexander Korda library, Grove Press, post-WWII RKO, David O. Selznick, and Charlie Chaplin. But Krim had something more in mind.
While attending film festivals, notably the Berlinale, Krim began purchasing distribution rights to “one or two films a year,” as he told DVDTalk in 2002. Krim helped introduce works by some of the most respected filmmakers of the past thirty years to American viewers: Shôhei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama; Percy Adlon’s Sugarbaby; André Techiné’s Scene of the Crime; Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild; and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. Just as important, he had an abiding respect for the classics of the past. He released a restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis; when additional footage was discovered in Argentina, Krim helped sponsor a new restoration in 2010 and released it theatrically.
Krim formed Kino Home Video in 1987; today, it is one of the most respected of all home video distributors. It features works by D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, and other cinema pioneers, as well as a panoply of foreign directors. Invaluable as an educational resource, Kino Home Video also brings distinctive, if not especially commercial, works of art to the public. Krim’s taste as well as his conviction have improved cinema for all of us.
In 2009, a holding company for Lorber Ht Digital acquired Kino International Corporation; the resulting merger became Kino Lorber, Inc., with a library of over 600 titles. When Krim succumbed to cancer this past spring, he left behind an enviable legacy.
As Gary Palmucci, Vice-President of Theatrical Distribution for Kino Lorber Films, wrote me in an e-mail: “I was privileged to work with Don at Kino for twenty-three years, during which I saw my own cinematic horizons grow and the company find success helping to introduce filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, Amos Gitai and Michael Haneke to mainstream arthouse audiences, as well as hundreds of classic reissues both in cinemas and on home video. Don was that rare combination in our business: he had an appreciation and knowledge of the whole spectrum of cinema history, unshakeable personal integrity and solid business sense.”
September 9, 2011
If it’s surprising how ephemeral film can be, survival rates for video processes are even more alarming. Primarily to save money, many networks routinely erased programs to re-use videotape. As a result, the roll call of missing television programs includes sporting events like World Series and Super Bowls; episodes of The Tonight Show and soap operas like Search for Tomorrow; and almost all of the output from the DuMont Television Network. The Paley Center for Media devotes this site to “lost” radio and television programs.
While preparing for HBO’s 40th anniversary, archivists found enormous gaps in HBO Sports programming. As Max Segal, Curator/HBO Sports, wrote me in an e-mail, “We have searched multiple HBO libraries and databases and finding much of our Sports programs from 1972-75 are just not there.”
Today Mr. Segal sent out this update:
The big challenge regarding early HBO Sports programming is 1972-75. Most of our sports programs from 1972-77 came from Madison Square Garden. They have no video from this time period. We have reached out to the sports leagues and promoters of our 1970’s programs. They have no video from this time period either.
What we have pieced together so far:
• originally tapes were stored at HBO Studios on 23rd Street, NYC
• in the 80’s, long-term storage was shifted to Bonded
• Tapes went regularly missing at Bonded and a decision was made to leave Bonded
• In 1991, HBO reels were moved to Preferred Media Storage, where they are today
• No one at Madison Square Garden has clues to where there the two-inch reels went.
For added perspective, two-inch reels were very expensive, especially for a start-up network. It was common practice for all networks, including HBO, to either sell-off once used two-inch reels or simply record over them. The positive is, HBO regularly made 3/4 inch screeners of our early 70′s programs, as many as 20 copies per program:
• We were able to recover two 70′s college basketball games from announcer Len Berman this way.
• Sports Director Brad Schreiber had about 10 boxes of these original 1970′s 3/4 inch screeners. He junked them 13 years ago.
• Spencer Ross had a storage unit full of 1970′s 3/4 inch reels. He got rid of them about 7 years ago.
If three people saved early 70′s HBO programs, others must have too.
We need clues of what happened or who may still have any personal copies of 1972-75 HBO Sports programming, either on original two inch or more likely, three quarter inch screeners.
We need help from good detectives.
Help us keep hope alive.
If you have any information, contact Max Segal at Max.Segal@hbo.com. Interested readers can obtain a breakdown of the 1972-76 Sports Programming from him.
The past twelve months have seen some major rediscoveries, including Upstream, a comedy-drama with a theatrical setting by John Ford, and The White Shadow, the earliest surviving credit for Alfred Hitchcock. Now comes word of a newly restored feature from Ernst Lubitsch, a director prized in the 1930s for his sly sophistication.
The son of a tailor, Lubitsch made his reputation in Germany, where he was known for broad comedies and big-budget historical dramas like Madame Du Barry (1919, titled Passion in the US) and Anna Boleyn (1920, Deception in the US). He formed his own production company to make Das Weiss des Pharao/The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), and poured money into the project, in part to impress Hollywood. In fact this would be Lubitsch’s last European film before heading to the United States. After a troubled stint with Mary Pickford, and an expensive one at Warner Bros., he hit his stride in Hollywood at Paramount, where he made ground-breaking musicals like One Hour with You and the romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise. He was the director behind Ninotchka, the MGM hit in which “Garbo laughs,” as well as The Shop Around the Corner, a timeless classic about mismatched pen pals who fall in love (later reimagined by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail).
Although a success on its release, The Loves of Pharaoh seemingly disappeared in the 1930s. A tinted nitrate print turned up in the Russian Gosfilmfond archive, and later a fragment was found in a collection now held at the George Eastman House. Thomas Bakels of Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH spent years assembling and digitally scanning the prints as well as overseeing a new orchestral recording of Eduard Künneke’s original score.
Dennis Doros of Milestone Film & Video saw a sneak preview of the nearly completed restoration and wrote in an e-mail: “Thomas did an exceptional job putting all the pieces together (there were a lot). It is minor Lubitsch if you’re looking for ‘the touch.’ However, as a calling card to Hollywood (Lubitsch showing he can do Reinhardt-Griffith-DeMille-like grand spectacle) and the coincidence that 1922 was the finding of King Tut’s tomb, it’s all pretty cool. I had a fun time watching it.”
Starring Emil Jannings, the first man to win a Best Acting Oscar, The Loves of Pharaoh will screen at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles on October 18 prior to its release on DVD and Blu-Ray.
September 7, 2011
As school boards across the country struggle with budget cuts, parents and students can find themselves fighting over issues more political than economic. Case in point: American Sign Language, according to a recent New York Times article, is the fourth most-popular language taught in colleges. (Read the entire Modern Language Association report.)
But as Monica Davey reported in another Times article, several states—including Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia—are threatening to reduce funding for state schools for the deaf, limiting the available options for deaf students who want to learn A.S.L. From the story:
Some advocates for the schools now worry that financial concerns could push the debate toward sending deaf children to “mainstream” schools, which would, in the eyes of some, ultimately encourage methods of communication other than American Sign Language.
The conflict between A.S.L. and what some refer to as “oralism,” or a listening and spoken language approach, extends back many years. Schools promoting oralism formed as early as 1867, and a 1880 conference in Milan, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, voted to ban sign language. Nebraska passed a law in 1913 outlawing sign language. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most insistent proponents of oralism.
That was the atmosphere behind a remarkable series of films made between 1910 and 1921, under the auspices of the National Association of the Deaf. Formed in 1880, the NAD fought to “preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people,” in particular in the “acquisition, usage, and preservation of American Sign Language.”
“The only way in which this can be done is by means of moving picture films,” wrote George William Veditz. Born in 1861, Veditz lost his hearing at the age of eight due to scarlet fever. Graduating from Gallaudet College as valedictorian in 1884, he became a teacher and later president of the NAD. The Association formed a Motion Picture Committee in 1910 with a mandate to film “excellent examples” of sign language and distribute these movies throughout the country.
The 14 films produced by the committee are now part of the George W. Veditz Collection at Gallaudet University. All of the titles have historical significance, according to Patti Durr, who blogs about deaf issues at People of the Eye. But Preservation of the Sign Language, which records a 14-minute speech by Veditz (above), may be the most moving. “Veditz is my hero,” Durr wrote me in an e-mail. “I totally adore his foresight and fortitude. If he were alive today he would without a doubt be involved in the exact same issues.”
Even if you do not understand A.S.L., Veditz is a forceful and persuasive presence in Preservation of the Sign Language. As Dr. Carol Padden (the first deaf recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship) wrote, “His hair is parted neatly in the middle, so his face can be clearly seen, and he is careful to sign precisely and in large gestures.”
Dr. Padden has translated Veditz’s speech into written English; Veditz wrote out his own version in a letter some years after the film was made. It was only by comparing the two that I began to appreciate A.S.L. Previously I had thought of sign language as a sort of literal translation of spoken English, with a one-to-one correspondence between spoken words and signs. But I now view A.S.L. as an actual stand-alone language, with its own vocabulary, its own grammar, its own rhetoric.
Take the following signed sentence as an example. Padden translates it as: “But for thirty-three years their teachers have cast them aside and refused to listen to their pleas.” “Cast aside” Veditz signs as “grab-hold-forcefully-push-down.” His written English equivalent: “For thirty-three years their teachers have held them off with a hand of steel.”
Watching Preservation of the Sign Language and the other films in the Veditz Collection connects us directly to battles that are still being waged today. It also gives us a glimpse at some remarkable people who found a way to utilize motion pictures for their own ends.
September 2, 2011
It’s one of the most famous films in cinema, a special-effects, science-fiction extravaganza that became an international sensation when it was released in 1902. Almost instantly it was pirated, bootlegged, copied and released by competing studios under different names. And for decades it’s only been available in black-and-white copies.
Now, after a 12 year project that approached a half-million euros in cost, Lobster Films, The Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and Fondation Groupama Gan pour le Cinéma are unveiling a new version of A Trip to the Moon, “resurrected,” in the words of preservationist Tom Burton, from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. For the first time in generations viewers will be able to see the color version of the film that stunned early 20th-century moviegoers.
Le voyage dans la lune, to use its French title, is one of over 500 movies made by Georges Méliès, perhaps the first filmmaker to fully grasp the potential of cinema. The son of a wealthy shoemaker, Méliès was born in 1861. Fascinated by magic and illusions, he left the family business in 1888. Buying the Robert-Houdin theater from his widow in Paris, he developed a successful act with illusions such as “The Vanishing Lady.” Méliès was in the audience when the Lumière brothers held their first public film screening on December 28, 1895, and within months was exhibiting movies at his theater.
Méliès made his first film in November, 1896, built his own studio in 1901 and formed the Star Film brand to market his work in France and internationally. He made movies about current events and fairy tales, replicated his stage illusions on screen and developed a highly advanced technical style that incorporated stop-motion animation: double-, triple-, and quadruple-exposures; cross-dissolves; and jump cuts. More than any of his contemporaries, Méliès made movies that were fun and exciting. They were filled with stunts, tricks, jokes, dancing girls, elaborate sets and hints of the macabre.
A Trip to the Moon had several antecedents, including the 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and A Trip to the Moon, a four-act opera with music by Jacques Offenbach that debuted in 1877. Méliès may also have been aware of a theater show at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, called A Trip to the Moon. Filming started in May, 1902. It was released on September 1 in Paris and a little over a month later in New York City.
At the time exhibitors and individuals could purchase films outright from the Star Films catalog. Color prints were available at an extra cost. Probably not too many color prints of A Trip to the Moon were ever in existence, but it came out right around that time color became a real fad. Within a couple of years, the hand-painting was replaced by tinting and stencil process, so color became more prevalent and less expensive. Several color Méliès films survive, but it was believed that the color Trip to the Moon had long been lost.
But in 1993, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films obtained an original nitrate print from the Filmoteca de Catalunya. The only problem: it had decomposed into the equivalent of a solid hockey puck. In 1999, Bromberg and Lange, two of the most indefatigable of all film historians, began to try to unspool the reel by placing it in the equivalent of a humidor, using a chemical compound that softened the nitrate enough to digitally document individual frames. (The process also ultimately destroyed the film.)
Years later, Bromberg had some 5,000 digital files, which he handed over to Tom Burton, the executive director of Technicolor Restoration Services in Hollywood. In a recent phone call, Burton described how his team approached this “bucket of digital shards.”
“What we got was a bunch of digital data that had no sequential relationship to each other because they had to photograph whatever frame or piece of a frame that they could,” Burton recalled. “We had to figure out the puzzle of where these chunks of frames, sometimes little corners of a frame or a half of a frame, where all these little pieces went. Over a period of about nine months we put all these pieces back together, building not only sections but rebuilding individual frames from shattered pieces.”
Burton estimated that they could salvage between 85 to 90 percent of the print. They filled in the missing frames by copying them from a private print held by the Méliès family and digitally coloring the frames to match the original hand colored source.
“It’s really more a visual effects project in a way than a restoration project,” Burton said. “A lot of the technology that we used to rebuild these frames is the technology you would use if you were making a first-run, major visual effects motion picture. You’d never have been able to pull this off 10 years ago, and certainly not at all with analog, photochemical technology.”
For Burton, A Trip to the Moon represents the beginnings of modern visual effects as we know them today. “Seeing it in color makes it a whole different film,” he said. “The technique involved teams of women painting individual frames with tiny brushes and aniline dyes. The color is surprisingly accurate but at times not very precise. It will wander in and out of an actor’s jacket, for example. But it’s very organic. It will never rival the way A Trip to the Moon first screened for audiences, but it’s still pretty amazing.”
A Trip to the Moon was shown at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in May, and is screening on September 6 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bromberg will be showing it at this year’s New York Film Festival, and on November 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, along “with the world premiere of my documentary about the restoration. An absolute must!” as he wrote in an e-mail. Was this his most exciting restoration? “One of them, of course,” he answered. “The best one is the next one!!”