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Archive for the ‘Film Preservation’ Category

Bruce Baillie Finally Gets A Retrospective

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Bruce Baillie is one of the greatest, and yet least known, of all American filmmakers.

As Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, “one of the most perfect films that I’ve ever seen runs a total of three minutes. Shot in 1966, Bruce Baillie’s All My Life opens on a pan of an old picket fence framed by the blue sky above and a stretch of summer-brown grass below. On the soundtrack, you can hear the crackle and hiss of an old record that’s soon filled with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘All My Life’ in a 1936 session with the pianist Teddy Wilson.

In many respects, the image is perfectly ordinary, the kind that you chance on if you’re driving along, say, a California road, as Mr. Baillie was when he popped out of a car, seized by inspiration. Yet, as the camera continues to float left and Fitzgerald begins singing (‘All my life/I’ve been waiting for you’), something magical — call it cinema — happens in the middle of the first verse. As the words ‘my wonderful one/I’ve begun’ warm the soundtrack, a splash of red flowers on the fence suddenly appears, as if the film itself were offering you a garland.

Of course it’s Mr. Baillie, now 84, who, with artistry and sensitivity — to color, nature and a camera movement that unwinds like a scroll — found the precise moment to join that song with those flowers, a union that illuminates the sublime in the everyday. The film’s genesis, Mr. Baillie told the writer Scott MacDonald in 1989, was that Fitzgerald recording and ‘the quality of the light for three summer days’ on a stretch of Northern California coast. After days of admiring the light’s beauty, Mr. Baillie said he decided, ‘No, I cannot turn my back on this!’ By the final day, he had begun immortalizing that light with a camera, a roll of outdated Ansco film stock and a tripod.

You can watch All My Life and other Baillie films online, but don’t. If you really want to see that masterwork the way it was meant to be experienced, you should watch it in the partial retrospective of his work that begins Saturday, April 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Organized by Garbiñe Ortega, this traveling five-program series, All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie, includes 14 of his films dating from 1961 through 1977, as well as 13 short titles by contemporaries like Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson and Chick Strand. In New York, the Baillie screenings, which begin April 9, are part of a larger Film Society documentary series, Art of the Real.”

Baillie has been patiently working on these films for years, and almost studiously avoided the limelight; in addition to the films that Ms. Dargis mentions, I would add several of my own favorites – Quixote (1965), Quick Billy (1968-1969), Have You Thought of Talking to The Director? (1962), Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964), and A Hurrah for Soldiers (1963), one of the most effective and elegiac short films ever made, which Baillie describes as being “dedicated to Albert Verbrugghe, whose wife was killed in Katana by U. N. soldiers.”

Baillie’s films are simply “essential cinema” in every sense of that oft-used phrase, and the chance to see his work in a gallery setting should not be passed up, if you can possibly attend these screenings. As Baillie said of his film work, “there were ages of faith, when men made natural connections between themselves and the place in which they lived, the plants they cultivated, the fuel they used for warmth, their beasts, and their ancestors. My work will be discovering in American life those natural and ancient contacts through the art of cinema!”

Bruce Baillie – an authentic, and undervalued, poet of the cinema.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

BFI Restores Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.

On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964),  a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.

Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.

As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle.

In order to turn the tide, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies.

There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin.

Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be ‘nothing.’ The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”

Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”

While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.

With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.

Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”

The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.

David W. Packard and Film Preservation in the 21st Century

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Film preservation is crucial in the 21st century – without it, cinema history would cease to exist.

As Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “if you care even a little about the art and history of American motion pictures, about being able to see classic films now and forever, you owe a debt of gratitude to David W. Packard.

Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, has never seen a Steven Spielberg movie and takes pleasure in reading Homer in the original Greek. But he cares deeply about film history, and his Packard Humanities Institute has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations funding film preservation.

Now a landmark moment in that cause is nearing completion on 65 acres in the hills of Santa Clarita: a $180-million facility that houses vintage movies in the UCLA Film & Television Archive, including The Maltese Falcon, the Flash Gordon serials, Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West, Cecil B. DeMille’s personal collection and producer Hal Wallis’ own print of Casablanca.

“UCLA was looking for a modest little place to move to, and I got involved and turned it into something monumental,” Packard, 75, said during an extended tour of the facility. “It’s a labor of love and a labor of craziness. I could have just built an adequate facility, but it didn’t cost that much more for it to be something wonderful.”

The campus is designed primarily for storage, research and work related to film preservation, although there may be occasional semi-public events in one of the three screening rooms. The facility is known as the PHI Stoa, for the Packard Humanities Institute and because the exterior resembles a type of classical Greek building known as a stoa, an outdoor colonnade structure supported by an impressive row of marble columns.

The interior is patterned after the 15th century Convent of Saint Marco in Florence, with offices resembling the cells of a monastery. Packard, who rarely grants interviews, acknowledges that the design fits his style. ‘I’m more like a monk; I like to do my work,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a person who goes around boasting about doing things. What’s the point of that?’

For moviegoers who want the classic films they love to be seen on the big screen by their children in the best condition possible, the stakes are enormous. It may seem films are forever, but history tells us this is not the case. Nitrate-based negatives, Hollywood’s choice until about 1951, are notoriously unstable and over time often deteriorated to chemical goo, taking their one-of-a-kind images with them.

Before efforts like Packard’s, so many films were routinely lost or destroyed that it’s estimated that approximately half the films made before 1951, not to mention that more than eight of 10 features made between 1912 and 1930, no longer exist, according to film historians. Talk to anyone in the film preservation world and you hear echoes of the words of James H. Billington, the recently retired librarian of Congress, who says: ‘If you want an analogy to David in American history, Andrew Carnegie would be the best.’

Packard’s institute financed a similar facility dedicated to film preservation outside of Washington, D.C., in Culpeper, Va. Built inside a disused Federal Reserve bunker that once held billions of dollars of shrink-wrapped currency, it includes nearly 90 miles of shelving, plus storage for highly flammable nitrate materials. It was donated to the Library of Congress in 2008 [. . .]

‘Frankly, I can think of no one and no institution which has done more for the cause of film preservation, specifically the preservation of classic American films,’ than David Packard, said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. ‘There are a lot of wealthy people in the film industry, but no one has stepped up to the plate the way David has. The amount of funding he has provided is staggering.’

About 90% of the films at PHI Stoa belong to the UCLA collection. They are stored in 120 nitrate vaults, built at a cost of $48 million. Looking like cells in a 1930s big house movie, these structures are a chilly 38 degrees inside, with contents protected by an elaborate complex of anti-fire technologies, including exhaust ducts and a system called VESDA for ‘Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus.’

‘They’re the most modern nitrate vaults in existence,’ Packard said. ‘This is not just buying five more years; they’re supposed to last centuries [. . .] It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens’ [said Packard],” and of course, they aren’t. And, as the saying goes, “nitrate won’t wait”- this is work that has to be done now.

This is an absolutely essential project; film preservation is the key issue in cinema studies right now.

CBS News Video: MoMA’s Race to Preserve Classic Films

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The Museum of Modern Art has one of the world’s largest film archives - click on the video above, and see.

In this CBS news video, Anthony Mason reports that “important work in film history is being done by Museum of Modern Art in New York. A team of film technicians has earned an Oscar of their own. They find and preserve classic films, many of which were made 100 years ago.” And indeed, MoMA’s work is invaluable, in saving the works of the past, in a format which is becoming increasing fragile.

Here, MoMA works on preserving the silent film Rosita, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1923, restored under the supervision of Katie Trainor, film collections manager at the Museum. In this case, this is the only surviving print of the film, which was recovered from a Russian archive in the 1970s. Trainor supervises the 4K scanning of the film, and then sees that Rosita is returned to film – not stored digitally, so that it can be projected in its original 35mm format.

Working under the supervision of Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film and Dave Kehr, Curator, Department of Film, Trainor and her staff are bringing the film back to life as part of the continuing work of the museum, which has a long and celebrated history.

As MoMA’s website notes, “in 1932 Alfred Barr, the Museum’s founding director, stressed the importance of introducing ‘the only great art form peculiar to the twentieth century’ to ‘the American public which should appreciate good films and support them.’ Museum Trustee John Hay Whitney—who, in addition to collecting modern painting, produced films in partnership with Hollywood’s David O. Selznick—was chosen as the first chairman of the Museum’s Film Library, a distinguished position he held from 1935 to 1951.

Whitney knew the collection could be assembled only by those who made the movies. He sent film curator Iris Barry to Hollywood to persuade industry leaders to donate prints, a radical concept that startled stars and producers alike. At a reception and screening in the Hollywood’s famous Pickfair mansion, Barry illustrated film’s brief but important history, demonstrated the fragility of the medium, and argued that it should be safeguarded. Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century–Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Walt Disney, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and David O. Selznick, among others, soon responded with donations of prints.

In 1936 Barry traveled through Europe and the Soviet Union to acquire international films and meet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. So successful was this initial assembling of the collection that in 1937 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences commended the Museum with an award ‘for its significant work in collecting films . . . and for the first time making available to the public the means of studying the historical and aesthetic development of the motion picture as one of the major arts.’

In 1939, the same year Whitney and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind premiered, The Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home on Fifty-third Street in Manhattan and launched the first film exhibition program in America. With crucial assistance from Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith had been persuaded to deposit his films and papers at the Museum, facilitating the first major retrospective of a film artist—an exhibition that set the standard for the presentation and analysis of the masters of this new art form.

Today the collection includes more than 25,000 titles and ranks as one of the world’s finest museum archives of international film art. Works by the inventors of film language—the creators of its form, genres, and technology—form the cornerstones of the collection. Every major artist of the silent era is represented: Griffith, Porter, and Ince; and the Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph studio filmmakers; Lumière and Méliès from France; Chaplin and Keaton, DeMille and Fairbanks, Dreyer and Stroheim, Eisenstein and Flaherty.

The innovators and masters of the sound era are represented, too: Warner Bros., Fox, and Selznick studios; Walt Disney and Lubitsch; Ford, Walsh, Wyler, and Capra; Sternberg, Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and Renoir; Rossellini and Ophuls; Kurosawa and Ozu; Truffaut and Bergman. Films by artists Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, and Paul Strand enrich the collection, as do the works of animators and contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Jane Aaron, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.

In recent years, directors such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, John Sayles, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton and producers such as Ray Stark, Albert Broccoli, Irwin Winkler, Edward Pressman, and Joel Silver have donated films to the collection. The Turner Entertainment Company has donated original materials of RKO and Warner Bros. films of the 1920s through the 1940s, to the tune of more than 629 features, including Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

American classics like It Happened One Night, Dodsworth, Nothing Sacred, Love Affair, Meet Me in St. Louis, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, On the Waterfront, Bonjour Tristesse, and Taxi Driver have been preserved in the course of collaborations with studios and distributors to safeguard surviving materials and restore damaged films, enabling new and international circulation of major examples of American film.

The collection allows the Museum to sustain an unparalleled study and exhibition program for the public, scholars, and filmmakers. This program in its varied forms has provided an education for modern artists in all mediums, and individual films have been studied by filmmakers at every level, from writers, directors, and producers to costume designers, production assistants, and grips.”

There’s no other museum quite like it in the world; MoMA is leading the race to save film history.

Film Streams in Omaha To Restore Historic Dundee Theater

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Film Streams – one of the finest film rep houses – announces plans to restore the historic Dundee Theater.

When I first moved here from New York City, one of the first things I sought out was The Dundee Theater, a one-screen theater in Omaha that ran a mix of indie and foreign films in a charmingly retro theater, with excellent sound and projection, which in more than one way reminded me of the old Thalia Theater in Manhattan. Then, because of the shrinking market for theatrical outlets, the Dundee fell on hard times, and closed, and it seemed that it would never be reopened, much less restored to its original splendor.

But Film Streams, which operates an excellent theater in the downtown Old Market area in Omaha, have taken up the torch once again for theatrical presentation, and has just announced plans to revive and reopen The Dundee. As their press release notes, “Film Streams is thrilled to announce a major project to restore the historic Dundee Theater and secure its place in Omaha for many years to come. When the Dundee reopens, it will join our North Downtown home, the Ruth Sokolof Theater, as the second venue operated by Film Streams.

In that sense, this isn’t a move for our organization but rather a new milestone that will enable us to expand our programming in exciting ways while saving something dear to our hearts: the last single-screen cinema in Omaha and lone survivor among the neighborhood movie theaters that once existed across our city.

This incredible opportunity to restore and reopen the Dundee has been made possible by a visionary gift from The Sherwood Foundation, which purchased the 91-year-old theater with the intention of donating it to Film Streams. That gift now paves the way for our organization to serve as the new stewards of an Omaha cultural landmark.

There’s a great deal of work to be done over many months. Saving the Dundee will require a multimillion dollar restoration and renovation. Film Streams’ board and staff feel this is a challenge built for our organization. We love film, and we love our community. The Dundee represents both.”

Bravo, Film Streams – this is an excellent idea, and good luck!

Ecstatic Cinema: Romantic Experimental Filmmaking in the 1960s

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I have a new article in Moving Image Archive News on 1960s Romantic experimental cinema.

As I write in the beginning of the essay, “in the era we live in, ecstasy is in short supply. Escape from reality is one thing, and it’s in high demand right now, packaged and sold in a seemingly endless series of comic book and blockbuster franchise films that bludgeon audiences into submission, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m examining a group of films made in the early to mid 1960s that openly celebrated life, and our connection to it, through a strategy of sensory overload that sought to make the viewer almost a participant in the film’s content, to convey, without restraint, the sheer joy of existence in world of seemingly endless possibility. Perhaps it’s impossible to make such films today; perhaps we have lost our connection to the real world to such a degree that only CGI effects and amped-up soundtracks reach mass audiences. But, as I’ll argue, there seems to be a small but growing counter-movement that values these visions of another time and place, and seeks to preserve them — perhaps as signposts to the future of cinema, reclaimed from the past.

But the central problem here is preserving these works — most often shot on 16mm reversal film, and then printed on Ektachrome with an optical track for final release, an option no longer available since Kodak discontinued reversal print stock, and thus necessitating the creation of an internegative from which positive prints can then be struck, consequently introducing an extra “generation” into the image, as well as creating a much harder look than the soft, elegiac patina offered by such film stocks as Ektachrome 7241 (for outdoor filming) and Ektachrome 7242 (balanced for tungsten light indoors). Then, too, there is the very real question of what will happen to “personal” films in a corporate era; even such artists as D.A. Pennebaker, who had significant commercial success with his 16mm documentaries such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) has recently been searching for a home for his original camera materials, in an age in which only blockbusters seem to be getting any sort of real theatrical release, and independent visions increasingly fall by the wayside.

In such films as John Hofsess’ half-hour split screen production Palace of Pleasure (1966/1967), shot in extravagantly beautiful color; Gerard Malanga’s elegiac and deeply Romantic In Search of the Miraculous (1966), a film in which two complete strands of 16mm imagery are superimposed upon one another for the entire length of the film; Ben Van Meter’s enthrallingly anarchic Acid Mantra, or Re-Birth of A Nation (1968), in which waves of superimposed imagery created in the camera compete relentlessly for the viewer’s attention; Paul SharitsRazor Blades (1966), another half-hour split screen dazzler that is seldom screened due to projection difficulties; and Andrew Meyer’s gentle, evocative An Early Clue To The New Direction (1966), I would argue that a certain period of experimental filmmaking came to a crashing end – note the dates of each of these films, all centering around the pivotal year of 1966 – before the introduction of structural cinema with Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) ushered in a new era of personal filmmaking.”

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above.

45th Annual New Directors / New Films Festival

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

The New Directors / New Film Festival is coming, with 27 features and 10 short films.

As reported by the staff of Broadway World, “The Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art announce the complete lineup for the 45th annual New Directors/New Films (ND/NF), March 16-27. Since 1972, the festival has been an annual rite of early spring in New York City, bringing exciting discoveries from around the world to adventurous moviegoers. Dedicated to the discovery of new works by emerging and dynamic filmmaking talent, this year’s festival will screen 27 features and 10 short films.

‘So much of the conversation about the state of cinema skews negative these days. Think of New Directors/New Films as an antidote to that pessimism,’ said Film Society of Lincoln Center Director of Programming Dennis Lim. ‘This year’s lineup is full of new and emerging voices who are taking big risks and pushing boundaries, often against considerable odds, and rethinking the possibilities of the art form, in ways big and small. If this is even a small glimpse into the future of cinema, there are many reasons to be hopeful.’

Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film at The Museum of Modern Art, [noted that] ’sometimes, especially when the industry faces challenges that risk alienating audiences and emerging voices, it’s important to remember that filmmaking is an art form that has the power to inspire, transport as well as entertain. Only when we are allowed to laugh, cry and think at the same time does cinema reach its full potential. I’m thrilled to say that we’ve found a new group of filmmakers firing on all pistons!’

Opening the festival is Babak Anvari’s debut feature Under the Shadow, about a mother and daughter haunted by a sinister, largely unseen presence during the Iran-Iraq War. Brimming with a mounting sense of dread until its ominous finish, this expertly crafted, politically charged thriller was a breakout hit at Sundance, called “the first great horror movie of the year” (Eric Kohn, Indiewire).

The Closing Night selection is Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, a remarkable chronicle of the cinematographer-turned-director’s life through her collaborations with documentary icons Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, and others. A self-described memoir, Johnson’s first solo directorial effort examines the delicate, complex relationship between filmmaker and subject and is one of nine festival features and four shorts directed by women.

This year’s slate includes a number of films that have won major awards on the festival circuit, including Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Sundance Grand Jury Prizewinner Weiner; Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, for which the main cast shared Locarno’s Best Actress award; Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun and Pascale Breton’s Suite Armoricaine, winners of the Locarno Special Jury and critics’ prizes, respectively; and Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues, which took home both the Golden Horse Award for Best New Director and Locarno’s honors for Emerging Artist and Best First Feature.

Among the feature debuts are Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life, executive-produced by Chinese master Jia Zhangke; Anita Rocha da Silveira’s psychosexual coming-of-age story Kill Me Please; Tamer El Said’s Cairo-set film within a film In the Last Days of the City; and Ted Fendt’s Short Stay, the only film in the festival to screen on 35mm.

Previously announced titles include Zhao Liang’s Behemoth, Marcin Wrona’s Demon, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful, Yaelle Kayam’s Mountain, Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, Raam Reddy’s Thithi, and Clément Cogitore’s Neither Heaven Nor Earth.

The New Directors/New Films selection committee is made up of members from both presenting organizations: from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dennis Lim, Florence Almozini, Marian Masone, and Gavin Smith, and from The Museum of Modern Art, Rajendra Roy, Joshua Siegel, and Sophie Cavoulacos.

Film Society and MoMA members may purchase tickets starting at noon on Monday, February 29. Tickets will be available for purchase by the general public at noon on Friday, March 4. To become a member of the Film Society or MoMA please visit filmlinc.org and MoMA.org, respectively.”

This is a stunning lineup – if you’re going to be in New York City, you simply can’t miss this!

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 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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