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To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

Her Sister’s Secret (1946) – A Forgotten Feminist Classic

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Margaret Lindsay and Nancy Coleman in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret (1946)

As the blogger “Laura” wrote on her website Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings a few days ago, “Her Sister’s Secret is fairly unusual for the mid ’40s insofar as it deals at length with unwed pregnancy. There were other films made on this topic in that era, such as To Each His Own (1946), but it was still fairly daring subject matter for the Production Code era. Anne Green’s screenplay was loosely based on a novel by Gina Kaus titled Dark Angel. The title of the film has a double meaning, referring to one sister’s secret pregnancy and the other’s secret adoption of the baby.

Toni DuBois (Nancy Coleman) falls in love with soldier Dick Connolly (Phillip Reed) during a WWII-era Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, but when he ships out and they lose contact she finds herself in a desperate situation, alone, unmarried, and pregnant. Toni’s sister Renee (Margaret Lindsay) is happily married to Bill (Regis Toomey), but they are sadly childless. While Bill is away on military service, Toni secretly gives birth, and the sisters agree to pass the baby off as Renee’s. Bill is told that little Billy (Winston Severn) is his son, although it eventually turns out that the kindly man isn’t quite as unobservant as the sisters believe.

After giving the baby to Renee Toni stays away for an extended period, but as time passes she can’t resist the chance to see the child, triggering territorial conflict with Renee. And when Dick unexpectedly reenters the picture, things become even more complicated. Her Sister’s Secret has many positive attributes, including fine performances and gleaming black and white photography by Franz (Frank) Planer. The film has a great sense of mood, whether the setting is a masked party in New Orleans or a comfortable apartment in New York. Coleman and Lindsay are always very watchable actresses, and this film is no exception. The movie also offers a small but attractive role for Regis Toomey as the likeable Bill.

As Jan-Christopher Horak of the UCLA Film & Television Archive wrote of the film, in Noah Isenberg’s book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, ‘for a B-picture, the film demonstrated an unusual sensitivity for the complexity of human emotions, for the giddiness of great love affairs, for the difficulty of motherhood, and for the barely repressed jealousy between siblings.’ The film is considered by some critics to anticipate Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, such as Written on the Wind (1956).”

About ten years ago, I was given a 16mm print of this film for a birthday present, and I wholeheartedly agree with Laura’s assessment; this is a stunningly beautiful piece or work. For a six day picture shot at the lowest of all Hollywood studios, PRC, the film is not only stylish, but also deeply perceptive, and much more forthright about the position of women during the 1940s, and the social pressures that they faced in their everyday lives. Indeed, the scenario of the film is so progressive that it’s a wonder that the MPAA didn’t step in and censor the film. Her Sister’s Secret is seldom mentioned in conventional film histories, but in many ways, it’s one of the most important films of the era; a film that told the truth in an era of evasions.

The film is now in the Public Domain, but DVDs of it can be found on the web; you can also see it on TCM from time to time.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

Why Pan and Scan Wrecks Films – Watch This Video And See

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Pan and scan wrecks movies when you see them on TV – click here, or on the image above, to see why.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact). I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there is only one basic cable service left that really runs feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Turner Classic Movies, or TCM.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

And one other, very important thing: TCM nearly always runs the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in CinemaScope, you see it in CinemaScope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame. This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Demo: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see this link here), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image. But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more. HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

When you watch a film in pan & scan format, you’re not seeing the whole movie!

The Bounty Killer (1965)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

The Bounty Killer is a little known, but quite effective western, with a lot of history attached.

One of the last films directed by the great action specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Bounty Killer can also be seen as a capsule history of the western, and of the men and women who appeared in them, neatly rolled up into one film, just about the time the western faded from mass popularity. Dan Duryea stars as tenderfoot Willie Duggan, just off the train from Vermont, who rapidly discovers that without a gun, he can’t protect himself in the old West. In his first scrape with a local bully, Duggan is bailed out by Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron), a hired gun who shoots down a man in cold blood who has been threatening Duggan for supposedly moving in on someone else’s love interest. But Duggan rapidly becomes just as vicious as Liam himself, and soon, with the aid of a sawed off shotgun of his own design, builds up a lucrative business as a bounty hunter who shoots first, and doesn’t even bother to ask questions.

What makes the film of interest is not only the all-star cast of  western veterans, including Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Frank Lackteen, Eddie Quillan, I. Stanford Jolley and others, but also the fact that it includes a cameo by the very first western cowboy hero, Broncho Billy Anderson, as “the man in the cantina,” and thus pays tribute to the history of the genre, as well as celebrating the work-a-day actors who worked so steadily in the genre from the 1930s onwards, as dependable leads, second leads, or sidekicks. In addition, the film is astonishingly brutal for the period; the corpses pile up with alarming regularity, and the film’s message – that polite society depends upon people like Duggan becomes to do its dirty work, even as it ostracizes him – is as true today, if not truer, than when the film was first released.

Duryea, who made his name in film noir in the 1940s, arguably gives one of his best performances in the film – convincingly wet behind the ears as the film opens, becoming harder and more brutal as the film unreels, until by the end he’s little more than a drunken killing machine, living by the law of the gun and nothing else. But, of course, there’s a problem with all of this; you can’t see the film in its proper format. Shot in Techniscope – a widescreen process – and Technicolor, there is a legal US VHS tape of the film from long ago, cut down to pan and scan, and just recently a British PAL DVD of the film was released, but, as I found out to my dismay, it simply uses the same pan and scan master as the US VHS release from more thna twenty years ago, chopping off the sides of the frame to reduce the film to standard Academy ratio.

Needless to say, this pretty much wrecks the film, and though there are several YouTube videos of the film available, all are so poor I simply can’t recommend them, nor will I link to them. You can find them if you look around. The British DVD release is your best bet, if you own an all region DVD player — and again, if you don’t by now, why not? – but as I mentioned, by chopping off nearly one-half of the frame (slightly less than a third on the left and right), you’re really not seeing the film. That’s a pity, since The Bounty Killer is a sharp, taut, well acted and deeply allegorical film, which deserves greater attention – just as it paid attention to the history of the the western itself.

As critic Hal Erickson wrote of the film, “Dan Duryea plays a Western bounty hunter, expert in his job, but ill at ease with his conscience. He is shunned by the ‘good’ townsfolk until they need him to track down and kill a criminal; the gratitude doesn’t last long, and it’s back to outcast status for Duryea. At one juncture, the embittered bounty hunter delivers a condemnation against the ‘hypocrites’ who hire him — but nonetheless takes one more job. Ultimately, Duryea meets his end at the hands of a younger man (Peter Duryea, Dan’s son), who becomes a bounty hunter himself, starting the cycle all over again. Produced very economically by B-Western specialist Alex Gordon, The Bounty Killer is distinguished by Dan Duryea’s superb performance and by the presence in the supporting cast of several cowboy film veterans — including Hollywood’s very first Westerner, Billy Anderson.”

It would be nice to see a DVD release of The Bounty Hunter in its proper aspect ratio.

“Ten Commandments” Sphinx Unearthed After 91 Years

Saturday, October 18th, 2014

Hollywood has a unique archaeological history all its own.

As Maane Khatchatourian reported in Variety today, “archaeologists have rediscovered a 15-foot-tall, 91-year-old giant sphinx used as a prop in The Ten Commandments hidden in the sand dunes of Guadalupe, Calif., Live Science reports.The plaster sphinx was one of 21 featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic. The legendary director remade the silent film in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

The unearthed sphinx, which lined the path to Pharaoh’s City in the movie, will be put on display at the Dunes Center in mid to late 2015 once it’s reconstructed following almost a century of weather damage. ‘[The film] was one of the largest movie sets ever made because they didn’t have special effects,’ Doug Jenzen, the executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, told Live Science. ‘So anything that they wanted to look large, they had to build large.’ Jenzen said the facade to Pharaoh’s City was an estimated 12 stories tall and 720 feet wide. The Ten Commandments film crew built the body parts for the sphinxes in Los Angeles then transported them roughly 165 miles to Guadalupe, Jenzen said, where they were assembled into hollow statues.

Despite urban legend that the movie crew blew up the set and buried the sphinxes in a trench once filming wrapped, Jenzen found that the set likely collapsed and was buried in the dunes due to rain and sand exposure. The first excavation of the movie site took place in the 1990s. Archaeologists found the head of a sphinx buried in the dunes during another dig in 2012. The team returned to unearth the body last week, but found another one instead, which took eight days to remove.”

Cecil B. DeMille – still the master of spectacle!

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

With Halloween coming up, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged on this classic horror film.

Please forget the terrible 1999 remake, which many people consider the only version of this film – this is the original, directed in stark black and white by William Castle, starring Vincent Price as an apparently eccentric millionaire who throws a “haunted house party,” where each of the guests will collect $10,000 for attending – if they survive until dawn. As critic Fred Beldin wrote, “cinema showman William Castle’s best films are imbued with an infectious sense of mischief that overcomes deficiencies, and House on Haunted Hill is no exception. An excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price and one of Castle’s most beloved concoctions, this lightweight ghost story is lots of fun even without the director’s trademark theater gimmicks. Price is in prime form, alternating between pure ham and quiet subtlety, able to express a macabre notion simply by arching an eyebrow. Co-star Elisha Cook Jr. has only one task here, to look shell-shocked and mutter predictions of doom, and he performs it with twitchy, sweaty aplomb. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with only ingenue Carolyn Craig standing out via her shrill shrieks and stilted line readings. Castle directs House on Haunted Hill to be spooky rather than frightening, with floating skeletons and flickering candlelight, but a few ghastly images of acid baths and hanged women slide in for the E.C. Comics crowd. Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”

You can see the entire film now, for free, by clicking on the image above.

Ida Lupino Gets A Retrospective – At Last!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Film director Ida Lupino, pictured above, is finally getting a retrospective of her work.

As critic Guy Lodge notes in Variety, “now in its third year, the Lumière Festival’s ongoing Permanent History of Women Filmmakers section isn’t a series of disconnected annual retrospectives — its three editions thus far build a chronological narrative of female innovation behind the camera. In 2012, the festival appropriately began at the beginning, celebrating narrative cinema pioneer Alice Guy; 2013 kept the focus French, as Impressionist filmmaker Germaine Dulac was put under the spotlight.

This year’s Lumiere fest expands the gender conversation beyond its own borders, with Hollywood feminist trailblazer Ida Lupino the subject of 2014’s section. British-born actor and filmmaker Lupino’s onscreen work alone would earn her a place on the historical honor roll of American studio cinema: Her intelligent, decidedly modern star presence was put to memorably flinty use in such films as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner.

Yet it was as a helmer that Lupino did her most influential work. The first actress to seize creative control of her screen legacy by developing and directing her own independent projects, she subverted a studio system that otherwise stage-managed its stars’ careers at every turn. After a decade with Warner Bros. — one that found her frequently on suspension due to her defiant streak — she took the reins from indisposed director Elmer Clifton on 1949’s Not Wanted, an illegitimacy drama that she also co-wrote and co-produced.

Her direction there went un-credited, but that same year, she made her solo helming debut with Never Fear, an unsentimental study of a dancer’s cruelly disrupted career. Both Not Wanted and Never Fear will be screened at the Lumière fest, as well as her landmark 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, in which the erstwhile movie femme fatale strikingly revised the gender norms of the genre.Rounding out the Festival’s selection is another 1953 noir, The Bigamist (the first film in which Lupino directed herself as star), as well as two of her most famous vehicles as an actress, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night and Jean Negulesco’s Road House.

It’s far from a complete retrospective — her seething, still-resonant rape drama Outrage is but one omission — but it’s a valuable snapshot of a career that astonishes today, in an industry where female filmmakers are still forcibly on the back foot. Later this year, another singular screen icon, Angelina Jolie, will shoot for directorial kudos with her sophomore feature Unbroken; whatever the outcome, it’s Lupino who paved the way for Jolie and others to take flight.”

Read more about this important artist in my essay on her work in Senses of Cinema, by clicking here.

Now, how about a DVD / Blu-ray combo box set of Lupino’s films as a director?

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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