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Archive for the ‘Film Preservation’ Category

Manohla Dargis on “The Race to Save the Films We Love”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Manohla Dargis has an excellent piece on the race to save classic films in today’s New York Times;

above, a scene from Lewis Milestone’s Seven Sinners (1925), before and after restoration.

This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.

I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.

Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.

Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.

A British nitrate film projection booth in the 1920s; the same precautions would have to apply today.

Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,

“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”

That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.

And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.’”

With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone who loves films; check it out by clicking here.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

Nitrate Film Makes A Comeback

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

A scene from the film Cinema Paradiso, which celebrated the beauty of cellulose nitrate 35mm film.

As Turner Classic Movies has just announced, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is being retro-fitted with 35mm nitrate projection, an absolute rarity in today’s world, thus giving contemporary audiences a direct view of the shimmering beauty that only nitrate film can provide for viewers.

As the press release notesThe Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), in conjunction with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive, today announced a partnership to ensure that the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood has the capability to screen 35mm nitrate film prints.  This powerhouse collaboration to retrofit the projection booth will make the Egyptian Theatre one of the few public venues in the country with the ability to project these rare and fragile prints.

‘When I was told that one of the most beautiful movie theaters in the country could be retrofitted for nitrate projection, I was overjoyed, moved, and excited by the potential,’ said Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation. ‘I hope that this is the beginning of a trend. The art of cinema developed with nitrate from its beginnings to the early ‘50s, and the silver content gave us a luminosity and a richness that was never quite matched by the safer stocks that followed or their digital reproductions.

I’d like to thank all the partners that came together with The Film Foundation—the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies, the Academy Film Archive and the American Cinematheque itself—to make this happen. Needless to say, I’m eager for the completion of the necessary work so that I can see those glorious images projected in that one-of-a-kind theater.’

‘As actual film disappears from most of the world’s eyes, we should be screening our existing nitrate prints as much as we safely can,’ said Alexander Payne, director and board member of The Film Foundation. ‘Nothing in theaters or on television today matches the thrill of seeing films on nitrate, and we should take full advantage of our being, sadly, among the last humans able to screen them.”

‘The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has long been a supporter of preserving the integrity and history of the art of filmmaking for generations to come,’ said HFPA President Lorenzo Soria. ‘We are proud to partner with organizations whose values are in line with those of the HFPA, and together we will bring to the historic Egyptian Theatre film the way it was intended to be experienced.’

Cellulose nitrate was the standard film stock in commercial use from the earliest days of cinema until it was discontinued in 1951. Widely agreed to possess a uniquely beautiful image quality, the stock is highly flammable and was replaced by cellulose acetate ’safety film.’ Nitrate prints, some nearly a century old, still survive in carefully controlled vault environments, but are rarely seen because only a handful of theaters are equipped to screen them.

‘Film preservation and the ability to share and celebrate all aspects of film history are central to the mission of TCM,’ said Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of partnerships and brand activation, TCM. ‘We’re thrilled to be part of this partnership in order to bring film fans a truly unique opportunity to experience nitrate films.’

American Cinematheque chairman Rick Nicita says, ‘This exciting project will truly make it possible for the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre to show every film format possible. A state-of-the-art digital projector will sit side-by-side with our 35mm/70mm machines – representing the rich history of cinema, as well as the future of the art form.’

As someone who has experienced first-hand the intensity and beauty of 35mm nitrate projection – during a visit to the British Film Institute in the late 1990s – I absolutely applaud this decision. Projecting nitrate is certainly not without risk – it’s highly flammable, and needs to be treated with the greatest care during projection and preservation – but for more more than half a century it was the dominant medium for film production, and for quality of image, it simply is in a class by itself.

Sometimes a return to the past is a good thing – this is excellent news!

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

Glenn Erickson on Cy Endfield’s Try And Get Me!

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Cy Endfield’s noir classic Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury) finally gets a DVD release.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant writes in a guest post on Steve Eifert’s excellent site Noir of The Week, “1950’s Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release [was] a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. [Thankfully, the film has just now been released in a superb transfer by Olive Films, which makes a business of rescuing lost classics before it's too late - so check it out.]

It’s both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM’s 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn. Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child.

Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: ‘Getting any other offers lately?’ Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man.

Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine’s apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark, in one of his finest roles) can’t hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal; he knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here, or on the image above – it’s must see viewing!

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Retro at MoMA

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet finally get a complete retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.

As the program notes for the retrospective announce, “MoMA presents the first complete North American retrospective of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who together formed one of the most intense, challenging, and controversial collaborations in the history of cinema. Straub (French, b. 1933) and Huillet (French, 1936–2006) were inseparable partners from 1954 until Huillet’s death, working intimately on every aspect of film production, from script writing to direction to editing.

Straub-Huillet created highly personal film interpretations of profoundly ambitious art: stories by Böll, Kafka, Duras, and Pavese; poems by Dante, Mallarmé, and Hölderlin; a long-forgotten Corneille play, an essay by Montaigne, a film by D. W. Griffith, a painting by Cézanne, an unfinished opera by Schöenberg; and the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach as told through the (fictionalized) letters of his wife Anna Magdalena.

They sought to make what Straub called ‘an abstract-pictorial dream’ while remaining rigorously sensitive to the letter and spirit of the text, and to the relationship between sound and image. At the same time, all of Straub-Huillet’s films are political, whether obliquely, in reflecting on the lessons of history and advancing a Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle; or overtly, in considering ancient and contemporary forms of imperialism, militarism, and resistance, from Ancient Rome to colonial Egypt to wartime Germany. They aspire to nothing short of a revolution in political consciousness, especially among workers and peasants, the colonized and the exploited.

At 83, Straub continues to make films that never waver from his commitment to the subversion of all forms of cinematic convention, whether through the use of direct sound, disjunctive editing, amateur actors, and a foregrounding of the natural landscape; fragmentary and elliptical narratives spoken in various languages; Brechtian estrangement; on-location shooting of ancient texts in contemporary, anachronistic settings (for example, on the ground where the Circus Maximus once stood); and a privileging of musical and poetic rhythms and structures over the decorative, the spectacular, the psychological, and the satirical. Dialogue is shorn of emotion, and images are deliberately unflashy. ‘The work we have to do,’ Straub insists, ‘is to make films which radically eliminate art, so that there is no equivocation.’

Introductions by noted Straub-Huillet collaborators take place during the retrospective’s opening weekend. Unless they are listed as 35mm, films are presented in new digital preservations overseen by Straub, Olivier Boischot, and Barbara Ulrich. The series is organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.” This once in a lifetime chance to see the work of these master filmmakers, most of which is unavailable on DVD, is simply not to be missed in one is in the New York area.

My own favorites of their work include The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), starring harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach (whom I once had the pleasure of meeting and talking with about the making of the film, after he presented an organ concert in Amsterdam); the 16mm color feature History Lessons (1972), and the 35mm short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968), featuring a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the pimp, but these are just a few of their many brilliant films. A chance to see these gorgeous, transcendent films should not be passed up if at all possible.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire schedule for the series.

Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.”

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

Still Not On DVD – “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947)

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Irving Pichel’s They Won’t Believe Me is a noir masterpiece that still doesn’t have a US DVD release.

As Steve Eifert wrote in part in his blog Noir of the Week way back in 2012, “Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. TCM for all the good it does for classic films – airs a butchered version of the RKO noir They Won’t Believe Me! Instead of the 95 minutes watching a man behave badly we’re stuck with a neutered lead not really doing anything all that wrong. The cut 80-minute one turns a top-shelf film noir into a watered-down flim flam. Cutting 15 minutes from a film can do that . . . the 80-minute cut should be shown before the full version to film students as a lesson on how a bad edit can ruin a film.

[The film] fits nicely with “A” pictures like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but retains that RKO look and feel (slightly cheap and gritty with familiar actors peppering the edges). That would include Out of the Past released 1/2 a year after They Won’t Believe Me! Robert Young plays Larry Ballentine — a young playboy who marries rich. He finds himself bored with is wife and begins an inappropriate relationship with one of his wife’s friends (Jane Greer). When we first are introduced to Larry and Janice it’s in a courtroom with Larry on trial for murder.

It quickly moves to a flashback showing the two on a Saturday afternoon meetup at a New York City bar. They drink crazy frozen drinks that you’d never think about ordering when you’re alone. They’re flirty and touchy – as they discuss their plans to build a boat together. Larry – after downing a few drinks – stumbles home to be confronted by his wife, her aunt, and some friends who think he’s a heel.

Things happen and the next week he tells her he’s leaving her for Janice. Greta (Rita Johnson) convinces him otherwise and Janice is out of the picture. Larry continues to work for his wife’s company. He’s only there because his wife owns a sizable share of it. He is lazy –as expected –and not liked by his partner Trenton (familiar face Tom Powers.)

Underling Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward) catches Larry’s eye one day. Before he can finish a voice over talking about how he’s been ‘too close to the flame and is now power shy when it comes to beautiful women’ he’s asking her what kind of perfume she likes.

I would guess you could credit camera man Harry J. Wild for most of the film’s look – he certainly shot his share of noir including Pitfall, Nocturne, Station West, The Threat, His Kind of Woman and many, many more. Director/actor Irving Pichel didn’t do anything remarkable in the film-noir world outside of this one (which is great), but turned out the enjoyable Quicksand in 1950.

The cast of They Won’t Believe Me! Is strong. Robert Young is remembered by those of a certain age as Marcus Welby, M.D. Here he’s quite good as the playboy with a wandering eye. Jane Greer is only months away before Out of the Past is released. She’s at the height of her beauty. Finally Susan Hayward is given some of the best lines. She’s quite something when she’s trying to reel in Larry by cutting down his rich wife and flashing a smile that is so suggestive it should be illegal – only Gilda’s hair flip is more powerful.”

That was four years ago, and as I wrote in the comments section when Steve’s article appeared, “this is one of the greatest noirs of all time, and you’re absolutely right — the 80 minute cut is a disaster. Luckily for me, I was able to see it uncut at the Thalia Theater in NYC many years ago in 35mm, and it made an indelible impression.

Irving Pichel’s direction is immaculate, and Robert Young is very interestingly cast against type as the ne’er do well husband. It’s sad that this isn’t available on DVD; and you’re right about the Italian DVD – it’s still cut. This truly is, from first frame to last, an absolutely superb film — not just an excellent noir, but a brilliant, tough piece of filmmaking, easily in the same class as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

I can only hope that the WB Archive follows through with putting this out, even with potentially damaged footage. It’s a missing gem in American film history. If anyone out there has a decent copy of the uncut version, I sure would like to hear from them.”

This was when the WB Archive was considering releasing the film, but that came to nought – and so we have only a VHS, and two foreign versions, one of which is out of sync, and another with Castilian subtitles that you can’t turn off during viewing. Neither DVD does the film any sort of justice, to say nothing of the 80 minute cut down job; this deserves a Criterion version all the way, but why on earth isn’t it getting one? I just watched the butchered Spanish version this evening, poorly transferred and with unwanted subtitles, and it still knocked me out.

Another classic “lost in the cosmos” as Jean-Luc Godard would put it – see it uncut if you possibly can.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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