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 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.
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.”
September 30, 2011
General Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was not an immediate hit when it was first published in 1880. But within a decade it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, inspiring a stage adaptation by William Young that the famous theatrical team of Klaw & Erlanger produced in 1889. An unauthorized 1907 film version written by Gene Gauntier and directed by Sidney Olcott led to considerable legal problems, and in the process helped extend copyright protection to motion pictures. The second film adaptation, a troubled production that stretched from Rome to Hollywood, was an enormous hit for MGM when it was released in 1925. One of the many assistant directors on the project was William Wyler, who worked on the famous chariot sequence.
When MGM initiated a remake some 30 years later, Wyler took on the project in part as a dare, to see if he could “out DeMille DeMille,” a master of Biblical melodrama. Wyler also relished a return to Rome, where he and his family had lived while he was making Roman Holiday. Released in 1959, Wyler’s Ben-Hur was an epic blockbuster that went on to win 11 Oscars, a record at the time.
For its 50th anniversary, Warner Home Video prepared a new restoration, released on Blu-ray and DVD earlier this week. And lucky New Yorkers who were able to score tickets will see the movie on the big screen tomorrow at the New York Film Festival.
Ben-Hur has always been marked by excess. It was the largest, most expensive production of its time—on stage, in 1925, and in 1959. Statistics overwhelm artistry: Wyler’s crew went through a million pounds of plaster, 100,000 costumes, 15,000 extras, and 40,000 tons of white sand from Mediterranean beaches, data trumpeted to the world by MGM publicists.
Even the renovation work was epic, costing Warner Brothers $1 million. “We have been working on this extensive restoration for several years, hoping we could be ready with a 2009 release for the actual 50th,” Warner Brothers executive Jeff Baker explained in a press release. After attending a screening, Fraser Heston, actor Charlton’s son and a director in his own right, said, “It was an extraordinary, life-changing experience, like sitting next to Wyler in his answer print screening, only better.”
Wyler’s daughter Catherine was one of the many celebrities and dignitaries who visited the set, and she spoke to me about the impact the film had on her. A college student at the time, she spent the summer and vacations in Rome during the shoot and was well aware of the problems her father encountered during the production. “From having read the script and been on the set and listened to my father talk about it for a couple of years, I knew a fair amount about the film before I saw it,” she said. “I was prepared for it to be large-scale, for the acting to be terrific. But it doesn’t matter what your expectations are, the film was so much bigger and more epic and more outstanding than anything we had seen before.”
Ms. Wyler admits to a slight ambivalence about Ben-Hur, worried because it tends to overshadow the rest of her father’s career, and for the critical response he received. “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film,” she said. “He was someone who was interested in making all kinds of movies, in giving himself challenges, and it wasn’t something that critics were willing to consider. But they should have asked themselves why Ben-Hur succeeded so much better than the other epics of the time. The impact of the chariot race is undiminished, but look at how well the intimate scenes work.”
She added, “My father spent so much time thinking about the project, how to portray Christ, how to portray the crucifixion, being aware that so many great minds through the centuries had taken this on. He used to joke that, ‘It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.’”
Ms. Wyler, who directed a 1986 documentary about her father, Directed by William Wyler, hopes that the publicity for Ben-Hur will help introduce viewers, “especially younger people,” to his earlier movies, including such outstanding titles as Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress.
Wyler had a reputation as a difficult personality, something his daughter attributes to his perfectionist streak. “It’s true that actresses found him difficult,” she admitted. “But he wanted them to come to work with their own ideas. It they didn’t, he could be short-tempered. Some called him inarticulate. But I think he wasn’t inarticulate at all, he just didn’t want to tell actresses, or actors, what to do. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves, show him their ideas. If he didn’t like those ideas he could always offer his own, but he always hoped there might be a better way.”
The perfectionism carried over to Wyler’s home life as well. “He expected a lot of himself and his kids,” Wyler said. But her memories of her father are warm: “He was full of humor and adventure, he was really fun to be with. He was also politically involved, he cared about the world and put his beliefs out there. He was madly in love with his wife. He was just a great guy.”
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 16, 2011
Their fans include Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in Stormy Weather the greatest musical sequence of all time. Over a career spanning eight decades, they starred in vaudeville and nightclubs, on Broadway and television, and made a huge impact in film. And yet the Nicholas Brothers are largely unknown today. And an important part of their legacy is in danger of disappearing.
According to Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum, the Nicholas Brothers—Fayard (1914–2006) and Howard (1921–2000)—were “the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.” Mr. Goldstein put together a compilation tribute to the team that received a standing ovation at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival; he’s repeating that program at the Film Forum on Monday, September 19. Grab any opportunity to see the brothers’ work you can, because not much of it is available.
The brothers grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents performed in the Nicholas Collegiates band in vaudeville houses. As Goldstein told me in a phone interview, Fayard could wander backstage and meet all of the great African-American acts of the time. “He’d watch them and copy them, then went home and taught their steps to his little brother.” Apart from some courses in acrobatics that Harold took later, the brothers had no other formal training. By 1932, with Harold not yet a teenager, the brothers were a featured act at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“We tend to think of them now as stunt dancers because of their acrobatics,” Goldstein said. “But that takes away from the fact that they were incredibly graceful, elegant dancers. They were great comedians, too, with a real chemistry between them, and Harold was also a wonderful singer.”
The Nicholas Brothers were a hit on Broadway in both The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms in part because choreographer George Balanchine was a big fan. “He had them doing amazing things,” Goldstein enthused. “I think Balanchine’s the one who came up with Harold sliding in a split through the legs of like ten showgirls at once. Amazing stuff.”
But the brothers never starred in their own movie, a source of frustration to them over the years. “Being black made them a specialty act in Hollywood,” Goldstein explained. “The Nicholas Brothers got big billing in most of their films for Twentieth Century-Fox, but they never got a featured role. They only made five films for Fox because the studio didn’t know how to use them.”
The brothers’ films at Fox included Down Argentine Way, where they could skirt around racial issues by pretending to be “Latin American,” and Stormy Weather, whose all-black cast also included Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. When Fayard was drafted, Harold performed solo in two movies. At Gene Kelly’s insistence, Fayard and Harold re-united on screen for MGM’s The Pirate.
“Originally in The Pirate they had speaking roles,” Goldstein said, “but the studio cut them out. You can see snippets of them in the background of shots, but basically they had one number, ‘Be a Clown.’ And it’s not their greatest piece because Gene Kelly couldn’t do what they could do.” But Kelly could copy them, and The Pirate features some of his most virile and stunt-laden work. Goldstein believes that Harold helped coach Donald O’Connor, his life-long friend, for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.
Fed up by racism, Harold left the country for Europe in the 1950s. But the brothers’ influence can still be felt throughout our culture. Bob Fosse modeled his first dance act on them, for example, and Joseph Jackson hired Fayard to help train his children, The Jackson 5. Both Michael and Janet Jackson were later students of the brothers. Fayard and Howard also taught at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Goldstein’s compilation clips feature some of the Nicholas Brothers’ best routines on film, a succession of jaw-dropping leaps, flips, and splits executed with flawless style. The tribute also includes selections from their home movies, a source of considerable worry for the programmer.
“I’m very concerned about the home movies,” he said. “No one seems to know where they are. Back in the 1930s, the Nicholas Brothers had a 16mm camera, and they filmed wherever they went. When they got to Hollywood in 1936, they filmed in front of all the studios, they took shots with their friend Joe Louis, and there’s a clip of them dancing behind a soundstage with Fred Astaire.”
According to Goldstein, the UCLA Film & Television Archive made video masters of the footage in the 1980s, but the films themselves appear to be missing. “Twenty years ago I had the 16mm prints in my hands, and now I don’t know where they are. They are such a valuable document, not just of their lives but of the entire era.”
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.”