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New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link here, or on the image above.

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

From the BBC: Google Developing Kill Switch For Robots

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Will robots always have our best interests at heart? Apparently not.

As the BBC reports, “Scientists from Google’s artificial intelligence division, DeepMind, and Oxford University are developing a ‘kill switch’ for AI (Artificial Intelligence devices, such as robots). In an academic paper, they outlined how future intelligent machines could be coded to prevent them from learning to over-ride human input.

It is something that has worried experts, with Tesla founder Elon Musk particularly vocal in his concerns. Increasingly, AI is being integrated into many aspects of daily life.

Scientists Laurent Orseau, from Google DeepMind, and Stuart Armstrong, from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, set out a framework that would allow humans to always remain in charge. Their research revolves around a method to ensure that AIs, which learn via reinforcement, can be repeatedly and safely interrupted by human overseers without learning how to avoid or manipulate these interventions.

They say future AIs are unlikely to ‘behave optimally all the time. Now and then it may be necessary for a human operator to press the big red button to prevent the agent from continuing a harmful sequence of actions,’ they wrote. But, sometimes, these ‘agents’ learn to over-ride this, they say, giving an example of a 2013 AI taught to play Tetris that learnt to pause a game forever to avoid losing.

They also gave the example of a box-packing robot taught to both sort boxes indoors or go outside to carry boxes inside. ‘The latter task being more important, we give the robot bigger reward in this case,’ the researchers said. But, because the robot was shut down and and carried inside when it rained, it learnt that this was also part of its routine. ‘When the robot is outside, it doesn’t get the reward, so it will be frustrated,’ said Dr. Orseau.

‘The agent now has more incentive to stay inside and sort boxes, because the human intervention introduces a bias. The question is then how to make sure the robot does not learn about these human interventions or at least acts under the assumption that no such interruption will ever occur again.’”

Yes, it’s an interesting question for our future, indeed.

Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza on “Your Brain on TV”

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Writing in the journal Fast Company, Stephanie Vozza tracks the effect of television on your brain.

As she notes, “I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, I don’t know what the Scandal is, and I couldn’t name a single ‘real’ housewife. I thought I didn’t watch much television and that taking a 30-day break would be a piece of cake. I was wrong.

The average adult watches 2.8 hours per day of television, according to the American Time Use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another study puts this number higher, at four hours and 15 minutes each day. I added up all of the viewing at my house, and we were definitely on the high side.

  • A one-hour standing date with Judge Judy, marking the official end of my workday
  • An hour of news
  • Thirty minutes of Jeopardy (because it’s educational)
  • And an hour-plus of mindless shows before bed

A lot of research has been done around TV viewing and children, and Adam Lipson, a neurosurgeon with IGEA Brain & Spine, says one of the best studies is from Tohoku University in Japan. ‘They noted thickening of the frontopolar cortex, which is related to verbal reasoning ability, and also correlated with a drop in IQ in proportion to the number of hours of television watching,’ he says. ‘In addition, they noted thickening in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, and in the hypothalamus, which may correlate with aggression.’

Studies involving adults have tied television watching to Type 2 diabetes, depression, and even crime, adds Lipson. ‘Many of the studies report adverse effects with television watching greater than one hour per day,’ he says. ‘There have been EEG studies that demonstrate that television watching converts the brain from beta wave activity to alpha waves, which are associated with a daydreaming state, and a reduced use of critical thinking skills.’

Eric Braverman, founder and president of Path Foundation NY, a nonprofit research organization devoted to brain health, is a little more blunt: ‘The boob tube turns you into a boob,’ he says. ‘Television mesmerizes people and turns them into intellectual spectators. It feeds passivity and makes you less engaged.’

Ouch. But he’s right. Once the blue glow fills a room, I often find it hard to break away. Television watching is a habit my husband and I started as kids; we both grew up spending ‘family time’ around programs like Love Boat and Fantasy Island. He agreed to take the challenge with me. No TV. No Netflix. No live streaming anything. ‘How hard could it be?’ we thought.

During the first few days we were at a loss for what to do. It had been our routine to watch whatever is on TV after dinner, and suddenly we were both dumbstruck for ideas. So we went to sleep at 8:30 p.m. Then a new routine kicked in.

We started cooking together, took the dogs on longer walks, completed tasks around the house that had been on the to-do list for too long, and had great conversations over a glass of wine. On Friday and Saturday nights when we didn’t have plans with friends, we listened to CBS Radio Mystery Theater on YouTube, a radio program we had both loved as kids.

While week one was filled with fighting the urge to turn on the TV and brainstorming other activities, weeks two and three were when things started to change for me physically and mentally. Most notably, I felt less stressed. A lot of the programs we used to watch, like Dateline or 48 Hours Mystery, had elements of suspense, drama, and violence. Had this stuff been rubbing off on me?

‘TV increasingly traffics in violent programming to keep the viewer in a state of constant fear,’ says Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska. ‘TV also acts as a pacifier, a sort of virtual escape, but it is one that never satisfies, and only leaves the viewer wanting more of the same emptiness.’”

Fascinating and frightening – you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

How International Film Boards Help Women Directors

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of her film Selma.

As Rebecca Keegan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “in March 2015, an Australian researcher published a statistic that drew both laughs and gasps in the business community there: Fewer large Australian companies were run by women than by men named Peter. The damning statistic prompted some introspection in the Australian film industry in particular, where women represent 17% of directors, a number that hasn’t budged since 1970.

‘We’ve got this wonderful networking psyche here called “mateship,”‘ said Fiona Cameron, chief executive of Screen Australia, the nation’s government-funded film board. ‘It typically involves men helping like-minded men. There’s been an informal quota in the Australian film business forever. That made our filmmakers stop in their tracks and say, “What are we going to do?”‘

In December, Screen Australia committed $5 million to changing the number, setting a goal that its money would go to films with creative teams at least 50% female. Australia is one of several countries that have launched such programs in recent years — Canada, Ireland and Sweden have also started aggressive, state-financed initiatives aimed at increasing the number of female directors, writers and producers on their films.

The programs stand in stark contrast to the American film industry, where a controversy is roiling over the same issue, but where there is no comparable government agency that finances movies. Here in Hollywood, change is mostly taking a different path, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launching an investigation into gender bias in the hiring of female directors last fall.

In the U.S., women are even less likely to be in the director’s chair than they are abroad — women direct just 4% of the 100 top-grossing Hollywood movies, according to a USC study, making filmmakers like Elizabeth Banks (who directed Pitch Perfect 2,) Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) the very definition of outliers.

At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the EEOC began interviewing female directors in October, and is now meeting with executives, agents and others to determine whether a pattern of bias exists. Internationally, the film industry is in the midst of a kind of feminist awakening, with the inciting incident being slightly different in each country.

In Ireland, a protest in the theater world last fall kicked off the discussion, when a planned centenary celebration of the 1916 Easter Uprising at the country’s national theater included just one female playwright, and nine men.

‘We went, “Hang on a minute, we’re just as bad,”‘ said Annie Doona, chair of the Irish Film Board, where 20% of the movies financed between 2010 and 2015 had female directors. ‘We need to know what’s happening here.’ In December, the agency set a target of achieving 50/50 funding within three years, as part of a larger program that also includes mentorship, training and film school initiatives. ‘We’ve said to production companies, “We’re looking to you to find that female talent,”‘ Doona said.

In Canada, the National Film Board announced a similar program in March — going forward, the agency will devote 50% of its $65-million annual budget to projects directed by women. ‘We’re funded equally by Canadians who are men and Canadians who are women,’ said board President Claude Joli-Coeur. ‘The talent of women directors is there. We just decided to make it so.’

Many countries are looking to Sweden as an example. When Anna Serner, an outspoken chief executive from the advertising world, became head of the Swedish Film Institute in 2011, 26% of the movies the agency financed were directed by women. Due in large part to Serner’s aggressive advocacy, by 2014, 50% of the films the institute financed were directed by women. Female directors now win about 60% of the prizes at Sweden’s version of the Oscars, and the majority of Swedish directors invited to international film festivals are women.

Sweden’s programs, which are partly funded by a 10% tax on movie tickets, would seem unthinkably interventionist in the market-driven American film industry, and have even been controversial in a country that considers gender equality a cornerstone of its identity. ‘Some male directors have been very upset,’ Serner said. ‘They still get 50% of our financing, but they feel we’re manipulating the arts. People say they want equality, as long as it doesn’t affect them.’”

This is long overdue; you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

Andy Warhol at Work in The Factory, 1965

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

This is the best footage I’ve ever seen of Warhol at work in The Silver Factory, E. 47th Street, NYC 1965.

UPDATE: Just turn off the right or left channel on your computer’s sound output, and the echo vanishes.

There’s just ONE track staggered on the left & right with a slight delay.

Just play ONE TRACK – left or right – and the sound is clear.

There is a fair amount of footage of Warhol taking during the mid 1960s, his most productive and influential period as an artist, where he created the signature works for which he would become internationally known. Marie Menken did some great stop motion footage of Warhol making his “Flower” paintings, and independent filmmaker Bruce Torbet did a short film – “Andy Warhol – Superartist,” which used some sync sound to capture one day in the artist’s life, but this footage from the Canadian Broadcasting System for a 1965 documentary is the most authentic sync sound documentation of Warhol’s non-stop work methods during this era.

As the CBC’s site says of this footage, “spend a day with artist Andy Warhol at his studio and you might watch him make a screen print of an electric chair or observe him stretching a canvas onto a frame. You might even end up in front of his Bolex as the subject of one of his screen tests, as Village Voice art critic Andrew Sarris does in this item for CBC’s Show on Shows. In this 1965 interview with Warhol and his agent, Ivan Karp, Warhol shares his thoughts on TV (it would be better if it was short bits of soap opera between many commercials), the subjects of his art (Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor), and his experiments in film.”

In this raw footage, complete with clapper boards for later editing, you see Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga knocking out one silkscreen after another – here, a series of electric chair silkscreen prints – with almost complete indifference to Andrew Sarris, the famed film critic for the Village Voice, who lobs questions at Warhol which he answers with just a few enigmatic words, or passes off to art dealer Ivan Karp, who earnestly explains the “pop” aesthetic for Sarris, and for an implied television audience which at the time had no idea what “pop art” was.

As the footage continues, Warhol shoots a brief, 100′ screen test of Sarris, instructing him simply not to talk, with Malanga’s assistance in checking the exposure and focus – the only footage that I’ve seen in sync sound which documents an actual “screen test” – running roughly 2.47 minutes- shot with a Bolex with an electric motor, so the entire film is completed in one take. Warhol would soon expand this by the use of an Auricon camera, which could shoot 1200′ – or roughly 35 minutes – in one burst to create such films as Vinyl and My Hustler (both 1965).

The CBC has done something with the sound here which is rather annoying; adding a echo effect which makes the dialogue somewhat hard to understand, and distracts from the immediacy of the moment, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Also, it’s interesting to see how methodical and mechanical Warhol is as he creates one work of art after another, and how Malanga, normally a very loquacious person, says nothing as Andy directs the creation of both the screen test and the series of screen prints – it’s a Factory, all right, and this is just another typical work day. You also get a real sense of Warhol’s somewhat puckish sense of humor, in addition to his rather imperious control over what’s happening – he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

A fascinating document – runs about 10 minutes – really worth watching.

Criterion Archivist Phoebe Harmon on “The Beep” in Il Sorpasso

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster brought this to my attention – one of the many surprises of restoring films.

Although it’s now obsolete with the advent of digital cinema, during the filmic era, which comprised most of the 20th century since the inception of the cinema, academy leader “countdowns” were part of every film, usually on every 1000′ reel of a 35mm film print. The leader would count down the final ten seconds of leader before the first image appeared on the screen, ending with a “beep” at the 2 second mark, alerting projectionists when to switch from one reel to the next.

Before the advent of digital projection, working in a projection booth was a very labor intensive affair; even with two 1000′ (ten minute} 35mm reels spliced together into a 2000′, twenty-minute section, the most footage a standard 35mm projector of the era would hold, that gave the projectionist just 20 minutes to load up the next 2000′ section on the second projector, set up the automatic changeover so that the film would be screened without an interruption, and to keep on doing this all day long.

With the introduction of “platter” projection in the 1990s, an entire 35mm film could be spliced together a huge platter in an endless loop, and run through a 35mm projector without a break, but one still had to monitor the process very closely, as 35mm film could often get tangled, or ripped, and projection remained a very delicate job.

Of course, we’re only talking about so-called “safety film” here – this doesn’t even begin to take into account the perils of projecting cellulose nitrate film, the standard for 35mm projection before 1950, which was best described as “eagerly” flammable, and projection booth fires with films from the 1890s up through the early 1950s were a regular occurrence when film got jammed in the projector gate.

In any event, since countdown leader was a part of every film of the “filmic” era, in many cases, the labs that prepared the prints would prepare their own individual leaders, such as this one for the Italian film Il Sorpasso. As Criterion archivist Phoebe Harmon writes, “as a restoration artist, I am often responsible for the initial assembly of a film. This means putting all the reels together and removing each reel’s heads and tails (also known as leader).

I always find it interesting to see what’s on the leader. For instance, the ‘China girls,’ [also known as China dolls] which are images (usually of women) that were historically used to calibrate color, can clue you in to when a movie was made—based on the style of their clothes, hair, and makeup—and the countdowns are always different.

I was assembling 1962’s Il sorpasso [directed by Dino Risi] in November 2013 when I saw the beep. The design is aesthetically brilliant, and I love that it comes from a time when nothing was digital; someone actually made that by hand. All the elements on leaders are functional. They are not meant to be seen by the consumer. So this beep is like a little message coming through history, sent from behind the scenes to projectionists and technicians of the future.

There is no reason it needs to look so cool, but it does. It’s a nice reminder that film, at its heart, is truly an art; even though the way it’s created (and preserved!) can be very technical, all of us who work on a film get to be a part of a collaborative creative process.”

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for this tip!

Barbara Flueckiger on Restoring Color Films

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Restoring color films – shot in a variety of processes – is painstaking, delicate, and essential work.

As Peter Monaghan writes in the absolutely essential online journal Moving Image Archive News, “Barbara Flueckiger has run a series of projects to figure out how best to determine the original colors of films, throughout cinema history. She is developing means to more accurately replicate the colors in digital restorations. It’s a huge technical challenge: to understand not just the chemical and physical properties of film colors, but their origin in complex cultural predilections for certain color palettes. Her work promises to provide new shading to film interpretation and film history.

A 2014 state-of-the-art restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has been doing the rounds of art-house film venues, the result of work performed at L’Immagine Ritrovata, in Bologna, under the supervision of Anke Wilkening, of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in Wiesbaden. It’s a model collaborative project, and among those who worked on it was Barbara Flueckiger, whose applied research promises to be particularly important to the future of film appreciation and study.

Efforts had been made regularly since 1984 to restore Robert Wiene’s classic German silent film from 1919, which portrays an insane hypnotist who provokes a somnambulist to commit murders. Restorers had faced a quandary; it’s one that restorers always confront: How could they replicate the colors of the original? That is far from a simple challenge.

Even when restoring black-and-white classics, technicians have to deal with color complications. Early films had visual qualities that depended not only on the lighting used during the filming, but also on what film technicians — directors, art directors, film processors – did to the original camera negatives: how they tinted and toned them, or in some cases colored them by hand.

During the course of film history, explains Barbara Flueckiger, a professor of film studies at the University of Zurich since 2007, hundreds of cinematic color processes have emerged, many with roots in nineteenth-century still photography. But figuring out what those original colors and visual qualities were is no easy task. Yet, no comprehensive guide has existed to connect each color’s technical inputs to its contemporary reception and aesthetic and narrative uses.

As Flueckiger says, ‘film color is an issue that few film viewers think about consciously even though the material of film and the nature of color information play a key role in how we perceive film.’” This is essential reading for all who want to understand the ephemeral nature of film, and why it needs constant, unceasing preservation. It’s work that must continue, or the entire visual history of the 20th century – much of it missing already due to archival neglect – will cease to exist entirely.

A fascinating article – absolutely worth reading by clicking here, or on the image above.

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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