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.


October 15, 2013


For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.Star

Take for example, Stark Love (’27), a Smoky Mountain docu-drama filmed with non-professionals that was thought lost until the export version was discovered in the Czech Film Archives in 1968. Rarely screened since, this favorite of James Agee approaches North Carolina mountain folk with an artful anthropological eye, displaying the influence of Robert Flaherty. As in Nanook of the North, director Karl Brown aimed for staged recreations of their daily lives, although Stark Love is far more melodramatic than its model. His representation of Smokey Mountain life is paternalistic and not without its exploitative aspects , as their “law of the wilderness” , the inter-titles say, “is expressed in the cruel principle MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE.”


Brown started out as a cameraman for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East seems to hold particular sway over the plot, in its tale of an abused young country girl given hope of a new life from an educated young man. In Stark Love Rob Warwick (Forrest James) is the resident nerd, whose reading on chivalry makes him think his community’s attitudes towards women is all wrong. He begins courting Barbara (Helen Munday, a 16-year-old Tennessean discovered in a cafe), but after Rob’s mother dies his father decides to take Barbara as his wife. The two young lovers revolt.

The casting, though advertised as authentically Smokey Mountain, came from all over the South. Forrest was a football player in Knoxville, Barbara a high school student in the same city. Brown was heavily influenced by Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, which recounts his years living among the people of the Hazel Creek region of the Great Smoky Mountains. His images are intensely romantic, using long shots with low horizon lines, the people like underbrush against the grandeur of these landscapes. These are alternated with huge Griffithian close-ups of wrinkled faces, work etched into their brows, ready to be returned to the earth.


It should be noted that the surviving print is the export version, which often used variant, lesser takes. On the NitrateVille message board, film historian David Shephard recalls screening this print for Karl Brown after its discovery, with him dismissing it as “a very poor representation” of what was released domestically. The domestic version will likely never be seen, but even this export print has compositions of breathtaking beauty. One can draw a line from Flaherty and Stark Love straight through to Lisandro Alonso’s influential life of a logger La Libertad (2001, also screening in the festival) and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, Manakamana), which value the visual and tactile rendering of reality over the verbal recounting of facts.


John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945) is also an intensely physical film, thanks to the lumberingly sensitive lead performance by Laird Cregar. It is a film noir about the unknowability of the self and the anxiety of creation. Cregar plays young composer George Harvey Bone, who enters a fugue state after hearing a particular tone in turn-of-the-century London. He loses hours at a time, with no memories of his actions. He is finishing a concerto (a grandiloquent, haunting piece composed by Bernard Herrmann) but is pricked by fears he might be a somnambulist murderer in the Caligari vein. Although he is not directed by a mad scientist, but his own subconscious.

Cregar had urged 20th Century Fox to purchase the rights to Patrick Hamilton’s novel, but screenwriter Barre Lyndon altered so much of the story that Cregar initially refused to appear in it.  Hamilton’s protagonist was a wannabe golf pro in 1939 London – shifting the job and time frame removes much of the wartime allegory. But the studio suspended Cregar until he relented to appear in it. The changes were demanded by Darryl Zanuck, likely wishing to avoid any political blowback, but also because it allowed them to re-use the sets from The Lodger, which Brahm had just finished shooting.

hangover square PDVD_023

This was to be Cregar’s first starring role, and his final performance. His weight was a source of agony to the actor, who had instilled a severe diet to get down to leading man weight. He died of a heart attack following abdominal surgery in December 1944, at the age of 31, one month after shooting on Hangover Square had wrapped. Our own Greg Ferrara wrote more about Cregar’s tragically short career back in July.

A visually extravagant film, Brahm uses every inch of his studio London, craning up and into dingy apartment pads and symphony halls. The fugue state is signaled by woozy POV shots, the lens smeared with vaseline. Cregar, with baby fat still padding his imposing frame, waddles through the film like a wide-eyed infant, too innocent and pure to survive in a mercenary world – embodied by gold-digging dancehall girl Netta (Linda Darnell). It’s all too much for his soul to handle, and the film ends in one of the grandest self-destructive acts in the noir canon, banging out the last chords to his composition as the music hall burns. The camera pulls up and away, as if afraid to look such abject depression in the face.