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

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

Goodbye to Language, or, Godard in 3-D

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard’s new 70 minute experimental feature has just premiered at Cannes.

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Goodbye to Language, shot in 3-D (see the image above, with Godard seated at the right of the frame) has just been screened at Cannes. Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis filed a rave review, which reads in part “on Wednesday afternoon, the 83-year-old rock star Jean-Luc Godard shook up the Cannes Film Festival with his latest, a 70-minute 3-D extravaganza, Goodbye to Language. Finally, the competition lineup had something it has desperately needed all week: a thrilling cinematic experience that nearly levitated the packed 2,300-seat Lumière theater here, turning just another screening into a real happening. You could feel the electric charge — the collective effervescence — that can come when individuals transform into a group. ‘Godard forever!’ a voice boomed out to laughter and applause, as the congregated viewers waited for their brains to light up with the screen.

Goodbye to Language is, like much of the director’s work, deeply, excitingly challenging. The thickly layered movie offers up generous, easy pleasures with jolts of visual beauty, bursts of humor, swells of song and many shots of a dog, Roxy, but it will provide other satisfactions with repeat viewings. Divided into alternating sections (nature and metaphor), the movie is a churn of sights and sounds that opens with nods to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a discussion of Hitler and the words ‘usine à gaz’ (French for ‘gas plant,’ as well as an idiom for something overly complicated). A man flips through a book on the artist Nicolas de Staël; someone else blurts out, ‘I am here to tell you no’; Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner smolder in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

That’s just the beginning of this enthusiastic review; you can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Blaise Pascal (1972)

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Yesterday I saw again Roberto Rossellini’s remarkable 1972 film Blaise Pascal, starring Pierre Arditi in the title role, and once again, I was stunned by the sheer beauty and depth of the film.

Rossellini was a master throughout his entire career, and his early films are some of the touchstones of 20th century cinema, but in these last, sumptuous historical spectacles, Rossellini seems to be aiming for something deeper, more mystical, more enduring and ultimately life-affirming. Pascal, born into a wealthy and influential family, nevertheless spent most of his life writing, thinking and experimenting, both in spiritual and scientific matters, and literally worked himself to death with his ceaseless quest for new frontiers on both a personal and professional level. Much the same might be said of Rossellini, who never deserted his vocation as a filmmaker, and whose work might roughly be cast into three periods; the initial Neorealist phase, then the middle section, with such masterpieces as Voyage in Italy, and then the final group of films for RAI, which are his most formal and theatrical works, and yet at the same time, reached the widest audience of his career because of their broadcast on television.

For years, these films were unavailable on DVD in any but the most degraded versions; then a few years ago, Criterion’s Eclipse series began issuing these, and other unjustly forgotten films, in minimalist editions which devote themselves entirely to the films in question, with simple liner notes, and no extras, but offering superb transfers of the films themselves, and faithful English subtitles. To celebrate the release of three of the late Rossellini films, Criterion commissioned Tag Gallagher to write an essay on “Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment” — you can read it by clicking here.

I remember when I first saw Blaise Pascal at the now-defunct Gallery of Modern Art in New York, where the film ran for only a few days; I immediately phoned up everyone I knew and urged them to see it immediately. For a time after that, 16mm prints were available, but then the film seemed to drift into oblivion. Now it’s back, and you can see it for yourself; a transcendent masterpiece that rewrites the grammar of the cinema with a series of exquisite, lengthy tracking shots, meticulous attention to detail, and gorgeous color cinematography. As Tag Gallagher notes, “Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it.”

These films are essential viewing; track them down and see them now.

Above: Roberto Rossellini on the set on Blaise Pascal, Rome, 1971, with his first wife, Marcella De Marchis, far right, and Isabella Rossellini, who worked on the film as a production assistant, Rossellini’s daughter by his second wife, Ingrid Bergman.

Click here to read an excellent piece by Manohla Dargis on Rossellini’s work.

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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