April 27, 2012
As I wrote earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival ends this weekend with a screening of The Avengers, the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation and a linchpin in a marketing plan that now extends to 2016, when The Avengers 2 will be released. The Festival has already handed out its awards, including Best Documentary Feature going to The World Before Her, and a special jury mention for The Revisionaries.
The most intriguing awards went to Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s feature drama about three young Cubans. The film won for Best New Narrative Director (Mulloy), Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature Film (Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder), and Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (Dariel Arrechada and Javier Núñez Florián). Arrechada picked up his award at the Festival, but Florián and a third costar, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, dropped from sight at the Miami airport and may have defected in real life.
CinemaCon, billed as “the largest and most important gathering of movie theatre owners from around the world,” ended its four-day run at Caesars Palace on August 26. The annual trade show of the National Association of Theatre Owners, CinemaCon featured panels on marketing, employee relations, demonstrations of equipment (e.g., “Light Levels: Optimizing Screens and Lamps”); awards to stars like Jeremy Renner, Charlize Theron, and Taylor Kitsch; and corporate suites, cocktail parties, and dinners emceed by the likes of Jack Black.
More important, CinemaCon is a chance for studios to preview their summer blockbusters. Attendees saw excerpts from Pixar’s Brave, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows and The Dark Knight Rises, and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson stirred up some controversy by asking theater owners to project The Hobbit in a version that runs at 48 frames per second, a speed he said would produce greater clarity and be “more gentle on the eyes.” (24 fps has been the standard since the industry switched to sound at the end of the 1920s.)
CinemaCon is targeted toward theater owners and only incidentally to moviegoers. The Orphan Film Symposium, on the other hand, covers films that have no audience, and in many cases no clear owners either. Made to Persuade, the eighth edition of the symposium, ran from April 11–14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, offering almost 100 films and as many speakers. (I also wrote about the 7th symposium for Smithsonian.)
The symposium lets archivists and historians meet and share work, and also screen restoration work before it becomes available to the public. Funding for archives and for preservation work in general is a bigger problem than ever, and several of the over 300 attendees had stories of lost jobs, curtailed projects, and rejected grants. A greater surprise for me was the sharp rise in digital as opposed to film presentations, which I hope to explore in more detail in a future posting.
Some of the highlights of the symposium included a screening introduced by Jay Schwartz of a newly restored version of The Jungle, a 1967 film about gang violence made by actual members of a North Philadelphia gang. A stark, haunting combination of documentary and staged footage, The Jungle is an uncompromising portrait of an urban nightmare.
Walter Forsberg screened a series of computer animation films from AT&T/Bell Labs, highlighting the difficulty in preserving art that began as software code.
Jon Gartenberg showed excerpts from films shot by Tassilo Adam in the Dutch East Indies in the 1920s. Although preserved digitally, the material had the lustrous sheen of the nitrate on which it was originally filmed. Adam filmed with the cooperation of authorities, who staged processions and gatherings for his camera. Nevertheless, his footage shows a considerably more sophisticated vision of Bali than other films of the period.
A session devoted to Sheldon and Lee Dick included School: A Film about Progressive Education, a 1939 documentary that predates cinema verite techniques by some twenty years, and Men and Dust (1940), about the effects of silicosis on mine workers. A publisher and photographer as well as a filmmaker, Sheldon Dick was also an heir to the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine fortune. He is perhaps more famous today for murdering his third wife and then committing suicide.
More lighthearted fare included a series of advertising films I will discuss in a future posting, Presidential campaign ads from 1948, a film produced by several Hollywood studios promoting 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” and Past and Present in the Cradle of Dixie, a silent short from the Paragon Feature Film Company that used romance and the threat of a house fire to promote Montgomery, Alabama as a great place to live.
Sergei Kapterev of the Moscow Research Institute of Film showed the beguiling educational film The Flight to Thousands of Suns, made by Aleksei Yerin at Popular Science Films, a Leningrad studio founded in 1933 as Techfilm Factory #1. The studio released some 4,000 titles. Equally as fascinating was Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated short by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used in psychological studies.
Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash, previous winners of the Helen Hill Awards for animation, hand-drew directly onto a reel of 70mm clear leader to take advantage of the Museum of the Moving Image’s 70mm projectors. The 2012 Helen Hill Awards went to Jeanne Liotta and Jo Dery. In films like Loretta (2003), Liotta builds menacing worlds from strips of film, exposed rayograms, and abstract sound. Dery’s films use cutouts, animation, and a mordant sense of humor to make accessible if unsettling cartoons. Woodpecker in Snow Shoes (2008) was particularly strong.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project, announced that the next symposium will be held in 2014 at the EYE Film Instituut in Amsterdam. Streible just co-edited, with Devin and Marsha Orgeron, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States for Oxford University Press. He also received a 2012 Academy Film Scholar grant for his book proposal Orphan Films: Saving, Screening, and Studying Neglected Cinema.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 20, 2012
This year’s Earth Day has an ambitious theme: Mobilize the Earth. Two new film releases—Disney’s Chimpanzee and Warner Bros.’s To the Arctic 3D—were timed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Earth Day, with To the Arctic 3D taking a strong, even pointed, stance on climate change.
The film industry has a long history of movies with environmental messages, although they are usually tied in with other genres. Early Edison films like The Miller’s Daughter (1905) contrasted corrupt urban lifestyles with the more innocent morals of the countryside, something D.W. Griffith would espouse in dozens of bucolic shorts for Biograph. In part filmmakers were catering to their audience, at the time largely lower- and middle-class patrons who were suspicious of the wealthy. Take 1917′s The Public Be Damned, in which farmers are ruined by a “Food Trust,” or The Food Gamblers from that same year, in which food speculators deliberately oppress the poor.
Environmental issues were often folded into social critique films, movies that covered problems between industry and labor, for example. Mining was a favorite topic, and although plots were usually couched in terms of strikes, titles like The Lily of the Valley (1914) and The Blacklist (1916) showed the negative impact the industry had on the landscape.
The environment became a central factor in documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Grass (1925). The former, directed by Robert Flaherty, showed how the Inuit lived in harmony with a harsh Arctic landscape; the latter, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, covered the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe through the grasslands and forbidding mountains of what is now Iraq.
Scenes of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl filled newsreels in the 1930s, and the subsequent Okie migration inspired novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, later filmed by John Ford with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell as displaced farmers.
The federally funded documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains tried to address the causes of the Dust Bowl. Under the direction of Pare Lorentz, cameramen Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, and Leo Hurwitz began shooting footage in Montana in September, 1935. Lorentz hired Virgil Thompson to write the score, and worked closely with the composer while editing and writing the narration. Released by the U.S. Resettlement Administration on May 28, 1936, the film played in 3000 commercial theaters before enjoying a long life at Army posts, Sunday schools, and cinema clubs.
Lorentz followed The Plow with The River, an even more ambitious film that started out in 1936 as a survey of the Mississippi River. Heavy flooding in January, 1937, changed the focus of the film, which ended up arguing for approval of Tennessee Valley Authority dam and electrification projects. With another score by Virgil Thompson, The River was funded by the Farm Security Administration and released theatrically by Paramount. It was awarded best documentary at the 1937 International Film Festival at Venice, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.
Many of the filmmakers on the Lorentz titles went on to significant careers in documentaries. Willard Van Dyke worked on The City (1939) and Valley Town (1940), for example, two films that dealt with the environment. Power and the Land (1940, directed by Joris Ivens) continued the arguments set forth in The River. The politically provocative Frontier Films released People of the Cumberland (1937), in which Elia Kazan in his directing debut examined an isolated coal mining community. (Later in his career, Kazan returned to the area to make Wild River, a sort of rebuttal to The River.)
World War II changed the focus of documentaries from cautionary to supportive. Produced by Walt Disney, The Grain That Built a Hemisphere (1943) and Water—Friend or Foe (1944) viewed the environment as something that could be channeled to the war effort. After the war, Disney embarked on a series of True-Life Adventures, nature documentaries like The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both Oscar winners. Disney cartoons like Johnny Appleseed (1955) and Paul Bunyan (1958) had implicit environmental messages.
Based on Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us (1953) won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Carson, whose later book Silent Spring (1962) is credited with bringing the problem of pesticides to the attention of the public, did not like the film and would not permit any of her other works to be filmed. The Silent World (1956), directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau, also won an Oscar. Cousteau went on to become one of the foremost spokesmen on the aquatic environment and the creative force behind an entire library of oceanographic movies.
But the most significant environmental films of the period were found on television. Stories like 1959′s “The Population Explosion,” 1960′s “Harvest of Shame” and 1968′s “Hunger in America” (all for CBS Reports) addressed environmental issues that were largely ignored in feature films of the time.
It’s not that filmmakers didn’t want to cover the environment. The problem then and now was finding both funding for projects and theater owners who would show the films. Formed in 1969, Appalshop, a nonprofit arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, addressed these issues by funding and distribution movies, video, books, recordings, and radio shows. Director Mimi Pickering joined Appalshop in 1971, four years before she released The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, which documented a dam failure that killed 125, injured 1,100, and destroyed 700 homes. A year later, Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Harlan County U.S.A.
Apart from the occasional title like the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), television is still the best bet today for finding environmental films. Feature films, on the other hand, tend to tie environmental themes to larger stories. The China Syndrome (1979) is more a political thriller than an environmental one, although its lessons are chilling. Silent Running (1972) and WALL-E (2008) comment on the environment, but have other stories to tell. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) turns its issues into an adventure tale.
For me one of the most powerful environmental films Hollywood ever released is How Green Was My Valley (1941), the film that famously beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Based on an autobiographical novel by Richard Llewellyn, the story ostensibly depicted the decline of the Morgan family, proud coal miners in a small Welsh village. But it is really about the destruction of both a landscape and a way of life for reasons its characters never fully grasp.
There are no answers in How Green Was My Valley. Work is deadly, management and unions corrupt. Religions feud among themselves, authorities are powerless, families fall apart. The downward arc of the film, from its sunny vistas to dank mines, from life to death, is as chilling as any in American film.
March 14, 2012
My post Watching Movies in the Cloud discussed the implications of streaming movies onto your computer. It focused on the end result: how watching movies on your computer compared with watching them in a theater. But commenter Paul Kakert raised a very good point. Where are new movies, in particular documentaries, coming from? Will streaming affect the subject matter of the movies themselves, and not just their sound and image? Can you find worthwhile titles in the cloud that haven’t played in theaters?
Kakert cited his nonprofit, the Iowa-based Storytellers International, which promotes and distributes its titles through DocumentaryTV.com. Documentaries are a chronically underfunded genre, and it’s almost as difficult to get them into theaters as it is to make them.
Several documentary distributors have established online sites, including Appalshop, where you can stream Mimi Pickering’s troubling Buffalo Creek Flood: an Act of Man; Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which offers the Alaskan films by Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling; Docurama Films, covering arts, social issues, and ethnic documentaries; Kartemquin Films, the organization behind Hoop Dreams; Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films; and many others. Independent distributors like Milestone, Criterion, and Kino also offer documentary titles.
What sets something like Kartemquin Films apart from distributors is that Kartemquin also helps produce titles. Traditionally it’s been very difficult to get money to make documentaries. Robert Flaherty, about whose films the critic John Grierson coined the very word “documentary,” struggled throughout his career to finance his projects. Nanook of the North, one of the most famous titles in the genre, was paid for in part by the French furrier John Revillon. Once Nanook became a box-office hit, Flaherty signed with the Hollywood studio Paramount.
Paramount was remarkably adventurous in the 1920s, financing Flaherty and the filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, at the time making documentaries like Grass and Chang, but soon to stun the world with King Kong. Most studios established footholds in the genre, usually through newsreels and short subjects. By far the biggest sponsor of documentaries was the government, both on local and federal levels. The state of Connecticut produced educational films on everything from hygiene to citizenship, while in the 1930s, Washington, DC, became a haven for artists like Flaherty, Pare Lorentz, and Virgil Thompson.
Government involvement in film production spiked during World War II, when the film industry’s top leaders either enlisted or cooperated with propaganda efforts. After the war, documentarians went back to scrounging for money. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1949) was financed by Standard Oil, while John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) received funding from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Many fledgling filmmakers turned to the United States Information Agency, or USIA, the government’s overseas propaganda arm.
Documentarians became adept at freelancing. David and Albert Maysles made television commercials for Citibank. D A Pennebaker worked on ABC’s Living Camera series. Wiseman signed a contract with WNET, the New York City public television outlet.
In fact, public television has become a prime outlet for documentaries. Adapted from the BBC series Horizon, NOVA has acquired or produced scores of documentaries since its inception in 1974. Created in 1984, American Masters offers biographies of artists like Margaret Mitchell and Merle Haggard. Since 1988, POV has screened some 300 independent documentaries, including works by Wiseman, the Maysles, and Errol Morris.
For the past decades, HBO Documentary Films has dominated the commercial front, due in large part to Sheila Nevins, who is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. (Full disclosure: I worked in HBO’s story department back in the 1990s.) Nevins exerts remarkable influence, as director Joe Berlinger told me last fall.
“Sheila Nevins was a big fan of Brother’s Keeper, our first film,” Berlinger said. “After it had a nice run, she sent us a little article, a clipping that had made it to like page B20 of the New York Times, an AP wire service story picked up from a local paper.” That was the basis for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of documentaries Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky made about the West Memphis Three.
HBO and PBS operate like the major leagues for documentarians, suggesting topics, funding research, providing publicity and all-important exposure. But what if you haven’t made a documentary yet? How do you get funding?
In his blog The Front Row, New Yorker writer and editor Richard Brody linked to a fascinating Steven Spielberg interview in which the director claimed that right now is a great time to make movies. The director was quoted:
You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it! If no one hires you, use the camera on your phone and post everything on YouTube. A young person has more opportunities to direct now than in my day. I’d have liked to begin making movies today.
Spielberg in fact worked with the 1960s equivalent of a camera phone, Super 8 film, on which he made a number of shorts and even a feature, Firelight. He also had a preternatural grasp of film technique and grammar and uncanny insight into the culture of his time, skills that made him one of the most successful directors of our time. The problem with his YouTube argument is that while almost anyone can make a movie, not everyone has the same abilities. And finding an audience can be overwhelmingly difficult.
Nurturing and mentoring young filmmakers is one of the goals behind the Tribeca Film Institute’s many development programs. The TFI Documentary Fund provided $150,000 in grants to filmmakers like Daniel Gordon (whose The Race examines a disputed contest in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Penny Lane and Brian Frye, who use the President’s home movies to provide a new look at Our Nixon.
The Tribeca Film Festival also offers the following programs. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund helps filmmakers complete feature-length documentaries with social justice themes. Tribeca All Access pairs new filmmakers with established professionals for intensive workshops and one-on-one meetings. The TFI New Media Fund offers grants to projects that integrate film with other media platforms. One especially intriguing TFI program involves teaching digital storytelling to immigrant students. In Los Angeles, experienced filmmakers team with teachers, community activists and parents to help students script their own stories in an 18-week program. The program has been operating for six years in all five of New York City’s boroughs. This year, for example, a Bronx school will partner with one in Brazil to make a film.
The Sundance Institute offers several programs as well, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which gives up to $2 million in grants to between 35-50 documentary projects a year; Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, a $3 million partnership between the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation; and invitation-only Creative Documentary Labs.
Unwilling to tailor your film to fit the rules and regulations of grant organizations? Kickstarter allows you to reach out to peers for financing. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter currently lists 2715 documentary projects, including films about David Lynch, Simone Weil, and the Oscar-nominated short Incident in New Baghdad.
Girl Walk // All Day is a perfect example of a Kickstarter project. A 77-minute dance video synched to the 2010 album All Day by Girl Talk (sampling artist Gregg Gillis), the project received almost $25,000 from over 500 donors. It’s hard to see how director, editor, and co-cinematographer Jacob Krupnick would have received funding from traditional documentary organizations, but his movie has already been compared to the 3D dance film Pina by Variety. Because of rights issues, it’s unlikely that the film will get a commercial release, but you can screen it online.
November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 18, 2011
Several major film preservation projects have been in the news recently. Back in September, I posted about A Trip to the Moon, restored from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. (Its director, Georges Méliès, plays an important role in the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo.) Dave Kehr just wrote about a $100 Laurel and Hardy collection from Vivendi. And film buffs are eagerly awaiting the January 24, 2012 release of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD, one of the more difficult of the Best Picture Oscars winners to view. (I’ll be writing more about its restoration in the future.)
These are big-budget items that deserve media coverage, but I’d like to draw attention to another set of films that recently received preservation funding. On October 26, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced its latest grant winners. The NFPF targets movies it aptly describes as “under the radar of commercial preservation programs.” Silents, documentaries, independent films, home movies, avant garde pieces—in other words, works that generally wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial marketplace. (Full disclosure: working through the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, I helped secure financing through the NFPF to restore mountaineering footage shot in the Adirondacks in the late 1940s.) You can read the full list of films here, but some highlights are described below.
H. Lee Waters in Burlington (1939–40): Waters was an itinerant filmmaker based in Lexington, North Carolina. Armed with a Kodak Cine Special 16mm camera, he traveled to small towns throughout Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, filmed the inhabitants, then screened his work in local theaters. Waters was a fine photographer but an even better interviewer who managed to meet and film total strangers, putting them so at ease that they came across as warm and comfortable on screen. His films from Kannapolis, NC have been selected to the National Film Registry.
Also on the Registry is Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, a 1988 documentary about the Yup’ik people of Alaska. Made by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, it captures the beliefs and traditions of a passing generation, as well as the beautiful but harsh environment in which the Yup’ik live. The dozen or so dances included in the film have the effect of erasing time, as one observer put it. Just as important, the filmmakers find ways to explain a remote culture, to turn the exotic into something we can understand and appreciate.
An earlier generation knew Lowell Thomas as a globetrotter and journalist on radio and television. (He was also an early supporter of the Cinerama process, and narrated the opening reel to This Is Cinerama.) Thomas’s 1924 book With Lawrence in Arabia helped turn T.E. Lawrence into a celebrity. Six years earlier, Thomas and cinematographer Harry Chase filmed Lawrence and other figures significant in the Palestine campaign of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence toured the world with a show about the Middle East, complete with slides, film clips, dancers and a live orchestra. In 1919, he released With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, a silent film version of his very popular extravaganza. Thomas’s descendants donated 35mm acetate print to Marist College, which, thanks to the NFPF grant, is now being restored.
Halloween fans should be delighted about Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter’s first student film at the University of Southern California. Written and directed by Carpenter in 1969 for an introductory film class at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the eight-minute, black-and-white short was rediscovered by archivist Dino Everett. He sees connections between the protagonist in this film and Michael Myers in Halloween, as well as an early use of Carpenter’s signature strategy of shooting from the attacker’s point of view. What Everett actually found were A/B negative rolls and the sound track, not a positive print. The NFPF grant will help ensure that a viewing print is struck.
In a phone call, Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The American Bank Note Company, a 1924 reprint of a 1915 film documenting the Bronx plant responsible for printing paper money and stamps for the United States and other countries. The company was formed in 1858, and its operations were consolidated in the Bronx in 1911. An early example of an industrial film, the movie examined the plant’s facilities and explained printing processes. It also described the employees’ pension plan, an unusual benefit at the time. This print was discovered in 1923 in a decommissioned plant in West Philadelphia and transferred to the Smithsonian.
The NFPF grants help finance film preservation masters and two access copies of each work. The public can view these films on-site; many also become available through screenings, DVDs, and the Internet. Without the grants, a significant number of these films—most of them one-of-a-kind—might be lost forever. To date the NFPF has saved more than 1,850 films and collections through grants and collaborative projects.
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 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.
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.