October 28, 2011
Vampires thrive in many cultures, from ancient Persia to modern suburbia. They seem especially prevalent now: HBO announced a fifth season of True Blood; entering its third season, The Vampire Diaries has been one of the more successful series on The CW; and November 18 marks the release of part one of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, the fourth entry in the film series adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s books.
Our interest in vampires stems largely from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which the author tried to mount as a stage production soon after its publication. Stoker’s widow Florence fought to prevent bootleg adaptations, almost succeeding in destroying F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921), in which the German actor Max Schreck made a very convincing bloodsucker.
Mrs. Stoker authorized Hamilton Deane’s London stage version of Dracula in 1924, which opened in New York in 1927 and later in a road company production starring Bela Lugosi. The play set down many of the “rules” of the vampire genre, from Dracula’s motives and weaknesses down to his clothes. (His cape, for example, helped disguise the trapdoors necessary for stage disappearances.) Universal adapted the play for the screen in 1931, paying Lugosi $3500 for seven weeks’ work as the lead. His performance—the halting speech, icy expressions, and sinister hair—set the standard for future screen vampires (and forever typecast him). Remnants of Lugosi’s work can be seen in everything from the series of Dracula films Christopher Lee made for Hammer Studios to “The Count” from Sesame Street and Count Chocula cereal.
Vampires took on different forms in Asian cultures. In Yuewei Caotang Biji, the Qing Dynasty author Ji Xiaolan described a “jiangshi virus” that could turn victims into hopping vampires. Jiangshi bloodsuckers operate much like Caucasian ones, only they are afflicted with rigor mortis that causes them to hop with arms outstretched after their victims.
In 1985, producer Sammo Hung (a major screen star in his own right) initiated a phenomenally successful series of hopping vampire films starring Lam Ching-ying as a Taoist exorcist. Mixing comedy and martial arts, movies like Mr. Vampire and its sequels are broad, easygoing fun, full of lighthearted chills and intricate slapstick. They inspired numerous imitators through the years, even as filmmakers grabbed ideas from Hollywood. The Twins Effect (also known as Vampire Effect in the US), for example, used themes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to become Hong Kong’s number one box-office title of 2003.
1987 saw the release of two films that tried to rejuvenate the vampire myth, The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The former, featuring a passel of Brat Pack wannabes and directed by Joel Schumacher, found kid vampires running amok in a California beach town. The latter, featuring much of the cast of Aliens and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, took a darker approach: vampires as bikers terrorizing small towns in a desolate West. Although a commercial failure, Near Dark developed an extensive following over the years. Gruesome, funny, and morbid, it has some of the most vicious action scenes of its time. (Both directors are still working. Schumacher’s Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, just opened; Bigelow won a Best Directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker, and is currently prepping a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)
Vampyr (1931) was also a commercial failure on its release, but no other film has as nightmarish a vision of the undead. Directed by Carl Dreyer as a follow-up to his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr was produced independently on the cusp of the transition from silent to sound movies. Dreyer planned French, German, and English versions; only the first two were apparently finished. It was the director’s first sound film, and he shot on location with a largely untrained cast. The negative and sound elements have been lost; prints today have been pieced together from incomplete copies. All of these factors help contribute to the movie’s sense of unease.
The plot, adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, finds amateur occult specialist Allan Grey (played by the film’s producer Baron Nicolas de Gunszburg) investigating a mysterious illness in the village of Courtempierre. What he uncovers has become the building blocks of today’s horror genre. Consciously or not, filmmakers around the globe have plundered scenes and special effects from Vampyr, but no one has quite captured its spectral tones. Combined with Dreyer’s extraordinary use of screen space, the disorienting cinematography by Rudolph Maté and the deliberately fleeting soundtrack make watching Vampyr the equivalent of being trapped in an inexplicable and deeply menacing dream.
Perhaps vampires affect us so deeply because they fit so many metaphors. Bram Stoker may have been influenced by the rise in immigration rates in London, or the spread of venereal diseases like syphilis. Or he may have been writing about his boss, actor Henry Irving, a tyrant who sucked away the author’s ambitions. Vampires have been portrayed as foreigners, neighbors, villains, clowns, lovers. They are misunderstood, demonic, lonely, noble, evil, both killer and prey. Preserved on film, they have truly become undead.
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 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!!”