October 28, 2014
Late last month, on the outrage machine known as Twitter, Variety tweeted the following: “Most films and TV shows are now available online legally, says a new study”. As with most provocative headlines, it turned out to be incredibly misleading. The “study” was commissioned by NBC Universal and performed by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG. They only chose to track the most “popular and critically-acclaimed” films, which according to them comprises films with the “highest gross box office receipts” and those that won Oscar Best Picture awards. So this is a highly selective, entirely meaningless 808 film sample that overlooks the majority of film history. It’s not surprising then, that 94% of the films in their report were available on streaming platforms. Essentially it is saying that all the films you have already seen are available for you to watch again. 35mm is becoming an archival medium, more stable than digital in its constantly shifting technologies, but that makes archives more reluctant to ship prints to theaters, as Nick Pinkerton reported in his article on the DCP wars in Film Comment. A situation is growing where studios don’t want to ship prints of rare titles, but neither do they want to shell out the money for a decent HD transfer and clean-up, a very expensive proposition to enact on a large scale. Thus my dream of a 127-film 4K-scanned Edward L. Cahn retrospective will never come to pass.
That is why festivals like To Save and Project are so vital. In its twelfth year at the Museum of Modern Art, the series gathers recent restoration projects from around the world, and was organized by film curator Joshua Siegel, adjunct curator Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, and curatorial assistant Sophie Cavoulacos. For years a redoubt of celluloid, it has had to bow to the prevailing winds and present digital scans, including this year’s 4K restorations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and A Fistful of Dollars. But there are also more heroic instances of digital rescue, like the South African blaxploitation soccer-rigging curiosity Joe Bullet (1971, screening 11/8 and 11/13), banned by the government soon after its release but rescued by the Gravel Road African Film Legacy (GRAFL) initiative. I’ve always treasured the festival more for its oddities than its classics, which would emerge elsewhere anyway. Another one is Miss Okichi (1935, screening 10/31 and 11/4), with Kenji Mizoguchi credited as “supervisor”, though elsewhere he is listed as a co-director. It’s a tragic tale of doomed love that feels like a missing piece in Mizoguchi’s filmography, even if more detective work needs to be done about its origins. Then there is the bizarre It’s a Wonderful Life noir Repeat Performance (1947, screening 11/12 and 11/14), in which a murderous dame gets to re-live the year leading up to the moment she kills her husband.
Joe Bullet was one of the first South African films with an all-black cast, a no-budget Shaft that opened briefly in Soweto before being pulled from theaters by the Apartheid government. Though not explicitly political, the image of star Ken Gampu brandishing a gun and enforcing vigilante justice must have struck a nerve. The story revolves around the Eagles soccer team, whose star players are getting attacked by thugs from an opposing squad. When the feud turns violent, the Eagles call on Joe Bullet to even the score. The film has a rough, unfinished quality, with poorly post-dubbed dialogue that was seemingly made up on the spot. But the film has a schlocky energy and DIY vibe, especially in its inventive fight scenes. Mr. Bullet has a sweaty staredown with a King Cobra, opens a door with a bulldozer, and chases the villain up a steel girder in the honest-to-goodness nail-biting finale, complete with a weighted mannequin tossed off the side. Complete with catchy theme song that repeats the main characters name ad infinitum, Joe Bullet has midnight movie screenings in its future. It is also valuable as a document of its own making, capturing the styles, hangouts and cultural scene of black Africans in the early 70s. Gampu sports a checked sportcoat and beige turtleneck ensemble that is the epitome of 70s cool. Gampu was one of the first black African actors to break into Hollywood, he was a “warrior” in The Naked Prey (1965), and later appeared in Zulu Dawn (1979) and The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), again in stereotyped “native” roles. In Joe Bullet Gampu’s unflappable cool was shunted off into shabby locations. The big nightclub scene, with a hard-driving funk band, looks to be shot in a clapboard shack, and the soccer manager’s office looks like that of a custodian’s. There is no physical white presence in Joe Bullet, although their impact is palpable in the economic disadvantages that are etched into every frame.
Miss Okichi (1935) is also about economic imbalance, and the criminal enterprises it encourages. Isuzu Yamada (Throne of Blood) stars as the ill-omened Okichi, whose parents are dead and whose brother is a wanted murderer. To keep her family’s hotel afloat she signs up with a gang in an arranged marriage scheme. The gang targets arranged marriages, and has the beautiful Okichi pretend to be the betrothed. Then they grab the dowry and disappear. Eventually Okichi gets disgusted with all of the deceptions and runs off with one of her marks. It is a dark, necrotic melodrama, steeped in darkness and death. These are the fatalistic lyrics Okichi repeatedly sings to her beloved: “To meet is when parting begins.” The print of the film was housed at Shochiku and presented on Japanese television. David Bordwell writes that Mizoguchi “codirected it with Takashima Tatsunosuke for Dai Ichi Eiga, the production company he formed with Nagata Masaichi.” The MoMA notes list Mizoguchi as “supervisor”, so it’s unclear how much input he actually had in its production. But it features Mizoguchi settings and themes – female self-sacrifice in a patriarchal web, and, as Bordwell notes, scenes of “chiaroscuro melancholy”. Regardless of whether it can be labeled a Mizoguchi film or not, it’s a tough poison pill of a movie, filled with dark beauty.
Repeat Performance is a noir that borrows the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life, though to different ends. George Bailey saw what life would be like without him. For noted actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) in Repeat Performance, she has to live her life over again, only to see that she while she can change the path of fate, she cannot alter its destination (it’s a film noir Final Destination). The film opens with Sheila murdering her husband, the camera pushing into the grisly scene through the flapping front door in a bravura shot. While mounting the staircase to her producer’s apartment, she wishes she could live the previous year over again. With nothing other than a cut – there is no angel to guide her – she is thrust back a year, and so she begins to try to change the adulterous path of her husband, the transgression that led to the crime. But nothing Sheila does can change her destiny. This rather ambitious project was the first big budget foray by the Poverty Row studio Eagle Lion. Director Alfred L. Werker (He Walked by Night) replaced Jules Dassin just before filming, and it’s a workmanlike job that can’t overcome the repetitious nature of the material. Though it retains a chill for its downbeat closing scenes, where nothing has materially changed – for all of Sheila’s effort and foresight. Everyone is either dead or alone, and nothing can be done about it. Repeat Performance will screen in a 35mm print restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the Film Noir Foundation. To Save and Project runs through November 22nd at the Museum of Modern Art, so if you are in NYC make sure to attend and bear witness to some of the fascinating oddities of film history before they escape back into the vaults.