City Streets opened at the Chicago Theater almost exactly 82 years ago. Here’s the original review from the Chicago Daily News (thanks to Neil Cooper for giving us the article). Check out the mini-reviews for other films on the right!
The Director as Commodity
I couldn’t help chuckling over a poster glimpsed in the Cinemark lobby recently—an advertisement that boasted that only RealD’s 3D system allowed the audience to see the movie exactly “as the director intended.”
You probably don’t need a stereoscopic slogan to recognize that director is routinely and reflexively held up as a film’s author, its artist, and its true voice. Between director’s commentaries and director’s cuts, the fledging auteurism of the ’60s has become commodified and thoroughly unremarkable. Indeed, we’re so inured to the director cult that we often neglect to examine some of the critical assumptions that underpin auteurism.
The official story behind the auteurist upheavals goes something like this: for decades, film was not taken seriously as an art form. When it was taken seriously, the wrong movies were celebrated because the wrong artists were singled out: producers, movie stars, screenwriters, and front office hacks. Critics dismissed all kinds of wonderful films because their silly stories and outrageous appeals did not conform to pretentious literary standards. It took Andrew Sarris and his young acolytes to steer the critical ship elsewhere, towards recognition of the director as the most important contributor to a film—its auteur. Sarris’s articles in Film Culture and his subsequent book The American Cinema taught a legion of young cinephiles to ditch the dialogue and focus on the mise-en-scene. Some old-fashioned critics, like Pauline Kael, resisted the auteurist fervor and became irrelevant fossils. (We’re telling this story from the auteurist’s perspective, remember, so disregard Kael’s enduring popularity and reputation, including last year’s Library of America compendium of her criticism.)
The standard version glosses over some important things. Directors were hardly invisible in the days before Sarris, and film histories published before An American Cinema certainly treated figures like Chaplin, Eisenstein, Lang, Hitchcock, and Capra as artists. More importantly, much as the auteurists frequently lambasted literary tendencies among their colleagues, their own criticism tended to treat films as texts—charting a director’s pet subjects and symbols between works, emphasizing thematic continuity over the course of a career. Rather than outlining a new kind of criticism, they adapted the insular close reading of New Criticism to film.
This literary approach to film criticism has persisted since the 1960s. Talking about a director means treating individual films as isolated systems; they interact with other titles in the director’s oeuvre, but rarely with the wider world. Biography becomes trivia, an irrelevant attempt to venture outside the film itself. In this formulation, the director’s political orientation and private causes occupy a place only slightly above tabloid sex gossip.
An Alternative Approach: Irving Lerner
What would happen if we treated the director differently?
The highly varied career of Irving Lerner provides a fascinating counterpoint to conventional auteurism. Looking for thematic or visual continuity is a fool’s errand—there’s no singular “Lerner style” linking his work across the decades. Compounding the problem is the fact that Lerner often worked under pseudonyms or did not receive credit for his work at all. To even describe Lerner as a director perhaps unnecessarily privileges his relatively few directorial credits at the expense of the other productions for which he performed odd jobs. (Indeed, his longtime collaborator Ben Maddow, who contributed to the script of Murder by Contract without credit, described Lerner as “a very wonderful editor but a terrible director. He just didn’t know where to put the camera.”)
The knotty shape of Lerner’s career is not a barrier to understanding; instead, the twists and turns exemplify the challenges and compromises faced by a generation of left-wing artists working in the film industry—sometimes in major productions, but more often at the margins. In some ways, Lerner’s case is emblematic. He appears, Zelig-like, at crucial moments in the development of non-Hollywood filmmaking.
Beginning as a member of the Worker’s Film & Photo League in his early twenties, Lerner cut his teeth on the League’s radical newsreels. Lerner never contributed to the League’s newsletter, Filmfront, but he did write criticism for New Theatre and New Masses. (In the latter, his articles appeared under the byline of Peter Ellis, a pseudonym that Lerner would reuse for some of his documentaries). His New Theatre pieces include a typically tendentious rejection of pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty:
But nowhere did [Nanook of the North] show the social life of the Eskimo …. Even his Nanook was a Robinson Crusoe in furs. As far as the film was concerned Nanook and his family were the only Eskimos in Canada. And of course there was no class struggle, there was no exploitation, there was no oppression! It was too obvious; too banal for Robert Flaherty.
Lerner’s desire for a class-conscious documentary cinema hardly found better reception at the Film & Photo League. Though everyone affiliated with the FPL was a radical of some stripe, discord and factionalism ran rampant, as they often did on the left in the 1930s. Lerner split from FPL and founded Nykino with Ralph Steiner and Leo Hurwitz. The collective embarked on a series of films that would shed light on right-wing hypocrisies of the day, from religious cant to vigilantism. (One early production, Pie in the Sky, was based loosely on Joe Hill’s anthem and featured the young Group Theatre actor Elia “Gadget” Kazan.) Nykino eventually became Frontier Films, the group responsible (after Lerner’s departure) for Native Land, the feature-length apotheosis of ’30s radical cinema.
Politically-engaged, independent filmmaking was, naturally, difficult to sustain in economically calamitous times. Many left-wing filmmakers—Lerner, Steiner, Willard van Dyke, Paul Strand—eventually wound their way to sponsored productions, taking commissions from city governments and trade associations. A Place to Live, Lerner’s project for the Philadelphia Housing Association, blends fiction and reportage to make a succinct case for urban renewal—a good liberal cause in its day, albeit one whose paternalistic, community-shattering consequences are now routinely (and correctly) decried by latter-day liberals. At least Lerner’s contribution to the urban renewal genre goes about its business in a resolutely color-blind way and looks forward to an integrated society. The same cannot be said for Steiner and van Dyke’s The City, the sensation of the 1939 World’s Fair, which contrasts black urban poverty with the lilly white promise of the suburbs.
As the New Deal gave way to Total War, Lerner found himself working, as many radicals did, for the US Government. On the strength of A Place to Live, he headed up film production for the Office of War Information’s Overseas Unit. He was charged, flatly, with producing government propaganda to sell America to the world. Unlike Capra’s celebrated Why We Fight series, Lerner’s films received no domestic theatrical distribution and thus had little chance of contributing to his critical reputation. Indeed, as made-to-order government propaganda, the films carry titles but no personnel credits—a serious barrier to sorting out who did what. Scholars have attributed the production and direction of The Autobiography of a Jeep to Lerner (it’s a cute film about the superiority of U.S. engineering, narrated by a Jeep), but it’s understandably difficult to establish a full filmography without access to archival sources.
If Lerner lacked a sense of big-time careerism, he nevertheless worked constantly. He knew his way around several different crafts, plying his trade as director, assistant director, editor, and cinematographer. He had an occasional personal project, such as Muscle Beach, which he co-directed with Joseph Strick. Amazingly, Muscle Beach manages to turn a disreputable gay cruising spot into an All-American family playground! Almost totally unknown today (and unnecessarily so, as the Academy Film Archive has done a beautiful job of preserving it), Muscle Beach was apparently the talk of the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1951. The British film journal Sequence reported:
In complete contrast to anything else the evening had disclosed was the already legendary Muscle Beach. Here the poet’s eye strays observantly, ruminatively, amusedly, over a crowded summer beach, where acrobats and weight-lifters are exercising, young people are lying out in the sun, and their children paddle and gape at the strange antics of their elders. So dazzling are the patterns and rhythms of its editing that one can easily miss the shapeliness of the structure of this perfect little film, whose easy transitions from the lyrical to the humorous are so happily enhanced by Earl Robinson’s guitar accompaniment and Edwin Rolfe’s witty and affectionate words.
Lerner’s path was, again, not unique—his choices parallel the changing currents of non-theatrical film. Documentary declined in post-war America and avant-garde film enjoyed a brief vogue, allowing veterans of the left to offer their formalist wares under a new name.
Muscle Beach exists today as a tantalizing abberation. For the most part, however, Lerner was a technician for hire. He photographed The Land for Flaherty and acted as a “production associate” for Robot Monster. (The latter credit is too obscure or too embarrassing for inclusion in Jan-Christopher Horak’s Lovers of Cinema, which otherwise provides the most comprehensive Lerner filmography I’ve seen. It would irresponsible to stress Lerner’s contribution to Robot Monster, but the recovering auteurist in me can’t help but note that Robot Monster and City of Fear describe the perils of atomic annihilation more poignantly than any of their Hollywood contemporaries.)
Careers, Clues, and the Blacklist
With no book or article devoted to Lerner, we can only piece his career together through anecdotes and off-hand citations in memoirs and histories of the documentary. In fact, he seems to have been something of a radical gadfly. He was Woody Guthrie’s conduit to Hollywood as the folk singer tried (unsuccessfully, at least during his lifetime) to bring Bound for Glory to the screen. He established Fritz Lang’s entrée into the left-wing New York intelligentsia and the two became so close that Lerner advised Lang that his wife had become “a little suspicious of our (ahem) relationship.” Lerner compiled the first collection of Harry Alan Potakmin’s criticism and produced the frame enlargements for Jay Leyda’s English edition of Eisenstein’s Film Form. He facilitated off-beat gigs for radical friends, as when he hired Henwar Rodakiewciz, Alexander Hackenschmied, and Roger Barlow for OWI projects or commissioned the artists at UPA to animate the menstrual cycle for a junior high sex ed film. He was briefly consulted to polish up Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s Point of Order, before the filmmakers recognized that Lerner’s professionalism was too tidy and his fee too high.
Allegedly, Lerner was also one of the USSR’s Manhattan Project moles. (Per Venona: Exposing Soviet Espionage in America, Lerner resigned from OWI after a counterintelligence agent caught him photographing UC Berkeley‘s cyclotron without authorization.) Less speculative is the recognition that Lerner’s whole social sphere in the ’30s and ’40s existed on the radical-Communist-Popular Front axis—associations that immediately raise the question of Lerner’s fate during the era of the blacklist.
Lerner is often reflexively described as a blacklisted filmmaker, but the exact nature of his predicament in this period is difficult to substantiate. He received a director credit on some low-budget, independent projects in the early ’50s (Man Crazy, Edge of Fury). Lerner’s name is missing from the indices of such comprehensive blacklist histories as Naming Names and The Inquisition in Hollywood. Nevertheless, his output in the ’50s does have some of the familiar characteristics of careers destroyed by HUAC: minor gigs on low-budget junk and periods of official inactivity. Like many blacklistees, Lerner might have been officially unemployable, but he was still recognized as a professional who could fix disastrous projects for the studios. Phillip Yordan, who acted as a notoriously unscrupulous front for many blacklisted artists, employed Lerner as his go-to fixer.
Even if Lerner himself experienced fewer career setbacks than his blacklisted colleagues, he essentially worked under the same pressures, in the same milieu. His daughter Margery attended the Westland School, a progressive haven for the children of the blacklisted. (“We were definitely guinea pigs,” she recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “Many of us shared the common bond of knowing our dads were blacklisted or in jail, so … we were in the boat together.”) Appropriately enough, Lerner worked as an uncredited editorial supervisor on Spartacus, the unruly superproduction that broke the blacklist. (He would later perform a similar task on Scorsese’s New York, New York; he died during post-production and Scorsese dedicated the film to his memory.)
During the tail end of the blacklist period, Lerner managed to direct Murder by Contract and City of Fear for Columbia. Were these productions simply so cheap that they flew in under the political radar? Neither has any hectoring socialist monologues, but they nevertheless manage to say deeply unsettling things about pax Americana. These companion films are a world away from the stylized, Expressionist tangle of post-war film noir, locating their violence in unassuming, sunny gas stations, barber shops, and bungalows. In some ways, Murder by Contract stands as the logical culmination of the post-war ‘business noir’ cycle (Force of Evil, I Walk Alone, Monsieur Verdoux), but worked over with a post-Beatnik sensibility that’s considerably more nihilistic than its predecessors. (Vince Edwards states early on that corporate prerogatives and organized crime are essentially indistinguishable.) Contra Maddow, both films demonstrate that Lerner did have good instincts about camera placement. Lerner and Edwards also brought out the best qualities in each other, jointly advancing a low-key style that anticipates Jim Jarmusch.
We can call Murder by Contract and City of Fear the summit of Lerner’s work, but such a declaration would impose a linear orderliness on an essentially unruly career. (These low-budget films also received scant recognition in their own time and hardly advanced Lerner’s professional reputation.) Like all of Lerner’s output, they attest to the singular life of a political survivor. As Andrew Sarris would say, Irving Lerner is most assuredly a subject for further research.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society screens Irving Lerner’s A Place to Live, Muscle Beach, and City of Fear in vault prints from the Academy Film Archive and Sony Pictures Repertory at the Portage Theater on March 27. Please see our current calendar for more information. Special thanks to Chris Lane, Jim Harwood, Mark Toscano, May Haduong, Cassie Blake, and Betsy Strick.
FOR FURTHER READING
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Ellis, Jack C. and Betsy A. MacLane. A New History of Documentary Film. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.
Gordon, Bernard. Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Horak, Jan-Christopher, ed. Lovers of Cinema: The First American Avant-Garde Film, 1919 – 1945. Madion: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Kline, Herbert, ed. New Theatre and Film, 1934 – 1937: An Anthology. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
McGillan, Patrick. Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
McGilligan, Patrick and Paul Buhle. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Potamkin, Harry Alan. The Eyes of the Movie, ed. Irving Lerner. International Pamphlets No. 348, 1934.
Rose, Marla Matzer. Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution. Los Angeles: LA Weekly Books, 2001.
Rose, Peter Isaac, ed. The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
Rotha, Paul and Sinclair Road & Richard Griffith. Documentary Film, Third Ed., Rev. and En. Glasgow: R. MacLehose & Co. Ltd., 1952.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. New York: Dutton, 1968.
Talbot, Toby. The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Aside from Pulitzer-winning source material or a dose of Merchant-Ivory patina, subtitles are often judged the surest indication of a movie’s pedigree. Dialogue that would provoke guffaws and catcalls in its native tongue, the truism goes, reads profound and poetic in subtitled subterfuge.
The snobbism cuts both ways, of course. “It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow,” Hollis Alpert advised his Saturday Review readers in 1959, “depending on whether the word Bergman suggests Ingmar or Ingrid.” Snarkier still was Mike Rubin’s contention in the Village Voice in 2001 that “the Osama bin Laden videotape was, for most American viewers, probably their first experience watching something with subtitles.” (Grant Rubin the courage of his hilarious convictions, at least; he went on to compare the aesthetic strategies of the terror tape to recent work of Jacques Rivette and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.)
Subtitles are, of course, also thought to seriously limit a film’s box office potential, restricting play to art houses and specialty theaters. Intouchables, the feel-good French drama that’s earned over $400 million worldwide, has grossed a little over $10 million in the US—which is considered outstanding for subtitled fare these days. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made $128 million stateside thirteen years ago, which was enough for Entertainment Weekly to declare Ang Lee’s neo-wuxia epic the odds-on-favor template for twenty-first-century cinema. By the time, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, the natural successor to Crouching Tiger, appeared on American screens to test this thesis, it was already old news to specialists. (Hero had been circulating on import DVDs for two years.) What’s more, Hero had already been supplanted by the subtitled event of the new millennium (and several millennia before that): Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which proved that even archaic Aramaic was no barrier to wide circulation.
But subtitles were hardly inevitable or instantly indicative of a cultural divide. They were but one solution to the upheavals of the talkies.
During the silent era, films traveled across borders with considerable freedom. Outfitted with a new set of titles for local markets, films could be shown anywhere. (A confusing semantic point for scholars and general readers alike: contemporary accounts often describe the dialogue cards and narrative interpolations of the silent era as subtitles. As near as I can tell, we retroactively began calling them intertitles after the arrival of the sound era to distinguish from the bottom-of-the-screen, simultaneous translation variety.) Thus the Italian and French film industries briefly eclipsed American efforts—at least until the Great War destroyed every production center aside from Hollywood. American stars dominated screens around the world. Even the Soviet Union loved Yankee personalities, as evidenced by A Kiss from Mary Pickford, a romantic comedy built around a stealth recording of a visit from America’s Sweetheart.
The sound transition facilitated corporate consolidation but simultaneously threatened market share. The major studios survived intact and raised the barrier for entry for independents. Theater-owners required complex financing deals to keep the doors open—a ready parallel to the digital conversion of today. But what about international markets? Audiences wanted to hear actors speak the local argot, which opened up the terrifying possibility of indigenous product actually competing with neo-colonial wares. Poorly-capitalized domestic companies could upend the plans of major studios.
Sound recording and mixing were still in their infancy, so dubbing over an entire soundtrack was impractical and difficult. Subtitles required another stage in the printing process, and anyone who’s seen White Zombie or Wild Girl (both 1932) with their almost indecipherable optical effects can attest to the truly meretricious quality of duping stocks in the early talkie era. The subtitling option was adopted by small-time operators but largely ignored by the majors. In the foreword to his collection Saint Cinema, Herman G. Weinberg recounts being cajoled into developing the primitive process by his employers at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse:
[S]omeone said that was a contraption called a moviola, which had been used for editing films all along. It had a footage counter and now a photo-electric cell that made it possible to measure the length of every piece of dialogue in the film. All that was necessary was to figure out how many words could be read in the time it took them to say it. And I was elected to do it.
I began very gingerly, not more than maybe twenty or thirty translations in the form of titles (at the bottom of the screen, that was the logical place) per ten-minute reel; then I watched the audience in the theater to see if they would have to bob their heads up and down to look at the picture, then read the title, etc.—just as in a tennis match the spectators turn their heads from left to right to follow the players. Nope—they didn’t bob their heads, they just cast down their eyes and lifted them up again. Good! I was emboldened to add more titles and more until, if the dialogue of a film warranted it (like the marvelous Marius-Fanny-César trilogy of Marcel Pagnol, for instance), I might have as many as a hundred to a hundred and fifty dialogue titles to each ten-minute reel.
(The gingerly attitude in subtitling survived long after Weinberg grew out of it. Film collectors and seasoned repertory regulars have learned to expect very sparse translation in prints struck in the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond.)
And so the third option—the one that seems the most elaborate and wasteful to us now—was briefly adopted: concurrently filming multiple versions of major productions.
Were the alternatives ever attempted on the same scale? Perhaps, but then, a pedestrian dub job could hardly command the same beguiling interest for us today. A folly that lasted a bare two years in Hollywood, the counterintuitive existence of these shadow films must be answered.
Studio production schedules had already been strangled into something resembling a very efficient science by the dawn of the talkies, and most everyone was under contract anyway—contracts that stipulated nothing one way or another about working seven days a week or long past midnight. And so there was a German Anna Christie and a Spanish variant on Laurel and Hardy. Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail was filmed in no less than five simultaneous versions: a widescreen version in Fox’s 70mm Grandeur process and four standard 35mm versions in English, Spanish, French, and German. (The latter was purportedly revived to some success in Germany following World War II.)
And, importantly, Hollywood was not the only production center attempting to corner the international market through alternate versions. Germany also made significant strides in this area, with three versions (German, French, English) of The Congress Dances. The Criterion editions of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Threepenny Opera present both the German and the French versions for home consumption.
Scholarly interest in Multiple Language Versions has been a long time coming and it’s not at all clear how many of these curios are still with us. Paul Fejos long enjoyed a higher reputation in France than in the US, on the basis of Lonesome, but also the French-language version of The Big House that Fejos shot for MGM. Francophile Andrew Sarris even cited Révolte dans la prison when putting Fejos forward as a ‘Subject for Further Research’ in The American Cinema, but had he seen it? Does it still exist?
Every film archive faces formidable cataloging challenges, and verifying whether their holdings contain variant editions of established classics demands drudgery with little chance of reward. Unique material is the prize that drives preservation priorities. Every respectable archive has a print of Fritz Lang’s M, so it’s neither surprising nor damning that the BFI did not realize that it held a copy of the forgotten English-language version until 2005. This version is now available as an extra on the Criterion and Masters of Cinema Blu-ray editions of M, with the latter including a realistic and edifying account of the discovery of the English version and the archival issues involved.
Universal’s Spanish-tongued Drácula is doubtless the most celebrated and widely-seen of the Multiple Language Versions today. Its fame stems, in part, from its unlikely re-discovery (a full version was finally assembled when the last missing reel was found in a Cuban archive in the 1980s), but also from the perceived creakiness of the Lugosi classic that it remakes. The Tod Browning-Bela Lugosi Dracula is a great film, but one that requires a specific kind of engagement; seen in anything but a pristine print, the subtlety of its staging and cutting is completely lost. Viewed on TV, it’s merely stodgy. Fans instinctively respond to the lively camera movement of the Spanish version, as well as its earthier attitude. The tops on the actresses are shorter and Dracula’s Transylvanian castle has real vermin. (In the English version, we get armadillos instead.)
For all these reasons, Drácula has earned a substantial following in the horror community. Its ready availability on video hasn’t hurt, either. It’s been co-billed by Universal Home Entertainment with the Lugosi Dracula on three DVD iterations since 1999 and was upgraded to hi-def in the recent Blu-ray box set. And although Universal has a 35mm vault print of Drácula, it doesn’t get shown much because, unlike the DVD, it’s not subtitled.
Subtitling works through an economy of scale. Adding subtitles to a single print is expensive, often prohibitively so—especially when the print is manufactured as a matter of routine asset protection rather than mounted for theatrical release. Although tech-savvy cinephiles have proudly synced home-made subtitle files to DVD rips floating around in the torrent backwaters, doing the work for a film print is considerably more complicated. Video can be measured in timecodes, but films are still counted in frames for purposes of printing and subtitling. A list of translated dialogue and timecodes isn’t sufficient to produce a new subtitled print. A laboratory technician needs to produce a spotting list, which assigns each subtitle a frame-accurate footage position. (What happens if the list isn’t accurate? I recall with some fondness an infamous 16mm print of Aguirre, the Wrath of God where every subtitle in the first reel preceded the dialogue by a few seconds. That print was still circulating as late as 2006.)
The art of coordinating perfect and readable subtitles is often handled by specialty outfits unaffiliated with the lab that produced the print. (Titra and LVT are two such companies.) Producing a spotting list represents an upfront investment on top of the expense of subtitling each print. For small jobs, laser subtitles produced from the spotting list are the most efficient vehicle for translating dialogue, but a wide release can justify the cost of striking a subtitlted negative. Of course, once something is added to the negative, it cannot be removed from the negative or from the prints struck from that negative. Assuming that the producer still wants non-subtitled prints for the domestic market, this means paying for a second negative that will be used expressly for making subtitled prints. If the distributor anticipates making only a handful of subtitled prints, the expense of a second negative is difficult to justify.
Some films won’t see returns enough to justify a subtitled negative or even a single subtitled print. In that case, it falls to the exhibitor for a creative workaround. Sixteen-millimeter college film societies produced mimeographed synopses, an opera-derived practice still used on occasion by Anthology Film Archives. (So storied are the Anthology synopses that I’d read about them three or four times as a teenager, long before ever attending a show there.) Some exhibitors, entranced by the possibility afforded by the theater loud speaker, read a translation aloud from the theater floor.
In recent years, soft subtitling has gained popularity. Impractical on a mass release, even on the art house circuit, it’s the exclusive province of cinematheques. This means that the exhibitor prepares or obtains a subtitle list and transfers the content to a PowerPoint presentation, which is run concurrently with the print from a digital projector elsewhere in the auditorium. Though theoretically such a practice could be automated and left to run on its own, film is inherently a riskier (and sexier) medium than that. What would happen to the synchronization if the projectionist misses a change-over? A human operator, preferably a native speaker, is essential for advancing the slides and judging the temperature of the room. The necessity of a full rehearsal is another aspect that brings the soft-subtitled film closer to a high-wire kind of live theater.
If an exhibitor goes to the trouble of running an unsubtitled print and preparing soft subtitles, it’s a big deal and speaks to major faith in the power and importance of the film on the exhibitor’s part. It’s a lot of trouble, but it’s better than letting the film sit in the vault forever because it’s not subtitled. We did it a little over a year ago with Liliom and we’re doing it again this week with Drácula. We can’t say when you’ll next have a chance to see this in a theater, in 35mm, but this print is certainly going back into the crypt at sunrise.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening Drácula in a 35mm print from Universal at the Portage on Wednesday, February 13. Special thanks to Paul Ginsburg and Dennis Chong. For more information about the screening, please see our current calendar. Have you heard that we’re doing the subtitles ourselves?
Nothing But a Man, the independent feature from 1964 about apartheid conditions in the American South, plays in a new print at the Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. It’s worth seeing for many reasons, but let’s focus on one detail. It opens with a peculiar credit, made no less disconcerting by the intervening five decades; instead of announcing itself as the product of a film studio, television station, or the star’s vanity label, Nothing But a Man cites the DuArt Film Laboratories as its putative producer.
This is, of course, literally true—DuArt developed the latent image recorded on the original camera rolls and then struck intermediate elements that facilitated the release prints distributed to theaters. In the most industrial sense, they produced the object to be consumed. (Amy Taubin suggests a less totalizing explanation in Artforum: Irvin Young, brother of Nothing But a Man producer/cinematographer/co-writer Robert M. Young, ran DuArt and probably offered free or steeply discounted lab services to the shoestring production.)
We don’t often talk about film laboratories in such exalted terms, and the opportunities to do so are quickly diminishing. Although 2012 saw no shortage of elegies, editorials, and think pieces about The Death of Cinema, the discussion was mostly confined to cranky complaints about the inanities of the latest blockbuster or the way “kids these days” are content to watch movies on their iPhones. Kodak’s long-anticipated bankruptcy announcement in January occasioned many end-of-an-era pronouncements, but too few attempts to grapple with the bigger picture.
Film historians will likely look back on 2012 as the year that spelled the death knell for film as a mass medium. At the time of Kodak’s Chapter 11 filing, Japanese competitor Fujifilm was touted as a healthy rival whose savvy business decisions had allowed it to weather the industry-wide switch to digital. Talk about savvy: by September, Fuji announced that they would cease production on nearly all their film stocks.
In American movie theaters, the digital conversion continued at startling speed, with all but the smallest and worst-capitalized houses making the switch before year’s end. (Many European territories had already reached total compliance.) Specialty laboratories shuttered, including Amsterdam’s venerable Haghefilm and its parent company, Cineco. (Two weeks ago came news—on facebook, no less—that the lab would re-launch as Haghefilm Digitaal, though its future obviously remains precarious.)
Before wading into the implications of these events, let’s examine the reaction. There were nostalgic laments for vanished perfection of photochemical monochrome, such as Daniel Eagan’s piece in The Atlantic, and photo-essays about the disappearing projection booth in Wired. Programmers tabulated the ratio of DCP-to-35mm screenings at major international festivals and shared the results with colleagues on facebook. Archivists argued privately (and sometimes all-too-publicly) about the stability of digital storage and the quality of digital projection. Our own Rebecca Hall even participated in a panel about conserving analog projection equipment at the annual Association of Moving Image Archivists conference in December.
These conversations assumed, sincerely but somewhat naively, that the future of film was in the hands of those who cared about it most. That is, curators, archivists, programmers, projectionists, filmmakers, collectors, and critics could band together and will a reprieve, or at least stipulate the terms of a plea bargain. Film would remain viable, even if it meant we all had to become machinists or open our own DIY labs or petition the studios to maintain 35mm libraries or order enough raw stock to beat back the red ink in Kodak Park.
• • •
Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was shot entirely on film, including over 70 minutes worth of footage on the gargantuan, 15-perforation, horizontal 70mm IMAX film. Anderson’s The Master was lensed almost exclusively on 5-perforation, vertical 65mm. (The mute 65mm negative becomes the basis for a 70mm print with the addition of a soundtrack, so it will be referred to as 70mm hereafter.) Both were assembled with conventional analog workflows, with parallel Digital Intermediates also made to serve the marketplace.
It’s easy to spout Kodak’s ‘Film—No Compromise’ slogan, but it’s also undeniable that substantial market forces are militating against giving audiences that choice.
Nolan’s clout and the extraordinary anticipation that preceded The Dark Knight Rises were sufficient to convince IMAX to reboot or reinstall 70mm projection systems in select venues, even though the giant-screen company had been converting many of its site to digital exhibition. Anderson was less successful. The Master played an extended 70mm engagement at New York’s Village East Cinema but its large-format play-off in other markets has been spotty. Chicago has so far seen only one 70mm screening—a pre-release show at the Music Box that sold out in twenty minutes. And that wasn’t the distributor’s idea. The Music Box screening was brought about almost single-handedly by the indefatigable Ben Kenigsberg of TimeOut Chicago, whose blog posts on the subject attracted Anderson’s attention.
To be on Southport that night and see hordes of young people photographing the 70mm marquee made one boundlessly optimistic about public awareness of film exhibition. The next day, Michael Phillips reviewed the show in the Chicago Tribune:
Opening this film wide, in conventional projection formats, is a mistake. It’s not “The King’s Speech.” It’s not “The Artist.” It’s not half as “easy” as Anderson’s previous film, the inspired “There Will Be Blood.” Based on last night’s 70mm screening, the question’s inevitable: Why wouldn’t Weinstein go out of its way to treat this exotic bird with care and to maximize interest and availability in experiencing “The Master” in optimum 70mm circumstances? That’s how he shot it (mostly), and that’s how it should be seen (when and where possible).
People do care about the way they receive images. They want to know they’re getting a good look at a filmmaker’s intentions. “The Master” is an analog novelty. It’ll look good when projected digitally, but not this good.
Phillips wasn’t the only one. The internet swelled with 70mm paeans, primers, and pleas. For a whole generation of cinephiles—the ones raised on Pulp Fiction, Memento, Amélie, Anderson’s own Magnolia, and the endless intertextual swirl of DVD commentaries, making-of docs, and director’s cut—this was the first time they’d been called upon to recognize and fight for film exhibition, 70mm or otherwise.
The Music Box has yet to secure a return engagement for The Master in 70mm. The Weinstein Company typically gives first dibs to chains like Landmark for its major releases, effectively shutting out the only public venue in town equipped for 70mm. The Master didn’t even play anywhere in Chicago in 35mm until the Patio booked it as a second-run title.
Reviews of The Master tended to treat it as a referendum on Anderson’s place in the pantheon—was it an exasperating masterpiece that earned comparison to Kubrick or merely exasperating? I suppose it’s only appropriate that The Master spawn a cult of personality, but film criticism might concern itself with more interesting matters. (Is it edifying to walk out of a movie and declare its maker a genius? Or quibble with your friends about the degree of that genius?)
Whatever else it is, The Master is a film of extraordinary and mysterious ambitions with an unusual integration of thematic concerns and formal strategies. The period recreation is expert, and something more: a plausible account of the social milieu of a righteous minority in mid-century American life, cajoling strangers with leaflets and cozying up to tranced-out dowagers. Though pre-release buzz marked The Master as a Scientology éxposé, the film is actually ambivalent, if not outright sympathetic, towards The Cause as packaged by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a cult, but it’s also positioned as one of the few forces of organized pacifism in Cold War America. The Cause’s turgid catechism is equally an instrument of enslavement and liberation—it’s the thing finally allows Joaquin Phoenix to relate honestly to another person.
“Laughing at [Scientology] or being negative, that goes away so quickly when your head is inside it,” Anderson recently told the New York Times “and you see how people are talking about getting better and taking control of their lives.” I don’t like metaphors, but it’s not inapt to ask whether 70mm is Anderson’s Cause. Clarity is its own cult. Composed largely of close-ups, rather than the wide angle spectacles that had hitherto been 70mm’s specialty, The Master is itself a fantastic appropriation and an impossible crusade—a private reckoning in the public square. Can a whole system of consciousness be overthrown? What about a whole system of film exhibition?
• • •
Until the 1960s or so, film critics often took it upon themselves to not only champion individual works but to defend the whole system of cinema as a fertile and substantial medium for serious art. Cinema was not—or at least not always, or not only—a witless form of industrial entertainment, but really a means to personal expression and a playground of submerged dramatic, psychological, sexual, and kinetic insight. Hack directors became invaluable auteurs.
This film-as-art operation was a necessary corrective to a certain snobbish tendency in cultural criticism that endeavored to divide everything into opposing camps: high art vs. low, art vs. kitsch, masterpiece vs. trash. And yet today it’s reasonable to ask whether this wholesale shift to the artist—to his (and, far too infrequently, her) themes, strategies, opinions, and claims to creating lasting masterworks—hasn’t left the medium itself out in the cold. In an effort to disavow the commercial, the industrial, the mass-produced character of cinema, we may wind up destroying the artist as well.
I may want to make films, but what if the means to do that are becoming extinct?
The promise of the DIY laboratory greatly underestimates the craft, expertise, and complexity of modern lab work. Hand-processed film stock often yields startling qualities on-screen (vide Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea), but such effects are not appropriate for every production. Faithfully translating a decades-old negative to a new print often demands the interpretative sensitivity of a medievalist: examining notches cut into the side of the negative or staples affixed to its perforations to determine the proper contrast values in the printer, decoding similar ‘signs’ to assure that fade-ins and fade-outs occur as planned, guiding shrunken material through an optical printer for maximal stability, repairing decades-old cement splices, agitating the developer with attention to the particular eccentricities of a given film stock, achieving perfect synchronization between sound and image. Such skills are the stuff of apprenticeship and further years of trial and error. They cannot be summoned anew overnight.
Labs provide general services, but many also pursue certain specialties, like 16mm blowup, audio restoration, tinting, etc. Up until now, archivists and filmmakers have had the privilege of working with many labs and selecting the right partner for a particular project based on its expertise. The old Haghefilm, for example, boasted of a special 28mm gate that allowed its technicians to transfer the contents of the obsolete non-theatrical gauge to conventional 35mm. (Our friend Dino Everrett would contest the ‘obsolete’ label being applied to his beloved 28mm, but his revival of this special format is the subject of another column.)
The skills passed down through generations of lab technicians are not facing imminent eradication. Some specialty labs, like Cinema Arts and the much larger FotoKem, are still going strong; and should the day come when the last for-profit lab proves unsustainable, America will always have in-house lab facilities affiliated with its two largest film archives, the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Presumably, their insulation from market pressure will act as a bulwark against the complete disappearance of quality lab work.
But even labs operating in the public trust need film stock. Will we need a non-profit manufacturer to go with them?
High-quality lab work requires a diverse array of stocks: black-and-white negative stock differs from black-and-white fine grain (or interpositive) and differs again from black-and-white print stock; specialized formulations and workflows reduce the sibilant distortion of the optical soundtrack; camera stocks of different speeds yield different grain structures.
Over the last decade, Kodak has radically scaled back the variety of stocks on offer. The latest victim is 16mm Ektachrome reversal, the high-quality amateur format. Should the company survive, would it see enough profit to continue producing all these secondary and tertiary stocks? (This much is clear: Kodak CEO Antonio Perez has long touted inkjet printing, not film manufacture, as the company’s salvation—or at least he did until Kodak axed its desktop printer line in September.) Fuji, which never tried competing with Kodak on all but the most popular stocks, has exited the stage entirely.
Can cinema be saved? Not until we acknowledge the character of what we’re dealing with. The tension between personal expression, corporate profit, artisanal craft, industrial economy-of-scale, technological innovation, built-in obsolescence, and physical frailty and decay is what makes film worth talking about in the first place.
Check back soon for Part II.
Can anything else be said about The Night of the Hunter? After a BFI monograph, two book-length accounts of its production, an exhaustive Criterion Collection edition, and numerous critical appreciations, one fears not. Robert Mitchum’s monologues are quoted with giddy abandon and the spectral image of Shelley Winters underwater is recalled with undiluted emotional immediacy. James Agee’s screenplay (long ridiculed by associates who outlived him) is now released under the banner of the Library of America—an honor that the screenplay basically aspired to long before such a collection existed.
By now, this strange picture, roundly rejected upon its initial release, has been overtaken by its own special class of critical clichés. It blends the pastoralism of Griffith with the angular terror of the Weimar Cinema. It’s a horror show with a strong Sunday School message. It’s a great challenge to (or affirmation of?) the auteur theory—the sole film directed by Charles Laughton, at once sui generis and a heartbreaking suggestion of what wonders he may have produced afterward were it not for the film’s box office troubles. (And we’re not exempt from this either: in calling The Night of the Hunter a Christmas classic, we’re hoping to promulgate a new cliché, no ill will towards It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas intended.)
The freshest way to look at The Night of Hunter is actually to listen to it. It’s much more provocative and productive to take The Night of a Hunter not as an directorial outlier but rather as a climax to Laughton’s work across several media. In the early fifties, Laughton’s film roles were few, but he remained an inescapable public presence. The theatrical partnership between Laughton and producer Paul Gregory encompassed a busy lecture tour and three extraordinarily well-received stage productions: Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, Benet’s John Brown’s Body, and Wouk’s The Caine-Mutiny Court Martial. All these events revolved around the special quality of words read aloud, with Laughton literally hauling a stack of books up to his lectern when presenting An Evening with Charles Laughton. The more elaborate productions of Shaw and Benet were not really so much more elaborate—Laughton’s actors would take the stage, rivet themselves to the stools, and perform the texts in a manner that would now be called reader’s theater.
Laughton’s reading talent was already well-known. The popularity of his recitation of the Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap led naturally to a commercial 78 rpm recording of the same. (Those curious about this release can scrounge the junk bins of your local record store or import the British Blu-ray of Ruggles from the Masters of Cinema label, which includes the audio as an extra.)
Regular visits to a Southern California military hospital in 1943 sealed the deal. Per Laughton:
I read innocuous and sentimental things which I thought would please them. I read three times a week, but one day I tried something heavy and tragic, and there was an immediate response. They started to talk about their own problems—being in bombers over Germany, or in foxholes, or how they felt after they had been maimed. And so I found that serious literature was a great help to them because other people in centuries gone and in the present had all the experience that are to be had, and the GI’s felt they were not alone. This resulted in me having to read in a larger room at Birmingham because the first, small room could not contain all those who wanted to come. And then I had to read in a larger hall still. And when I was reading from all the books I loved, I found the business of reading aloud was a matter of making the effort to communicate something you love to people you love.
Laughton’s argument for this intimate brand of performance continued in the pages of This Week, the mighty Sunday newspaper supplement, which offered three pages to ‘America’s No. 1 reader-out-loud’ in a promotional tie-up with The Night of the Hunter:
Moses wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone from divine inspiration. The tablets of stone have long been dust, but the words live. Man’s greatest and noblest works of genius built from brick and mortar crumble and perish, but words do not die…
I was once invited to read the Bible to an audience of ministers at Occidental College. Afterward, one of the ministers told me, “You know, we ministers make a fetish of the Bible. Your turn it into a dramatic, earthy tale of real people.”
I assure you that you can do the same thing if you will try reading the Bible out loud in your own living room, just as our ancestors used to do in their daily Bible readings.
(Is it any wonder that Laughton originally planned to open The Night of a Hunter with a scene of himself reading aloud from the Bible? Or that the film’s soundtrack LP was actually a 35-minute condensation of the story as read by Laughton?)
Laughton’s approach was essentially a more democratic and easy-going rendition of the University of Chicago’s contemporaneous Great Books initiative. While Robert Maynard Hutchins attempted to encyclopedia-ize the landmarks of Western Lit, Laughton promoted the experience of listening as a special kind of engagement. It was primarily emotional, rather than textual, uplift.
Despite its photographic virtuosity, it’s this spoken aspect of The Night of the Hunter that completely sets it apart from its contemporaries. (Its only real companion is The Saga of Anatahan.) Almost every line spoken in the film is delivered with one sort of dialect or another, but it’s never just a gimmick. Laughton and Agee are deeply interested in the patterns of vernacular speech, with each syllable functioning as melody, not rhetoric. It’s pure sound—an unfolding oral ritual that aspires to folk permanence.
Certainly the speech is affected: it’s a boy’s adventure yarn where everyone talks with faux Shakespearian grandiloquence. The deviations and eccentricities are expressive in themselves. The lines carry the odd phrasings and wild cadences of a kid trying to prettify a half-remembered poem until it sounds like a lost verse of the King James Bible. The Night of the Hunter would never be confused with naturalism, and that’s the point: in its adolescent yearning and gawky malapropism, in its living memory of an America that never quite existed, it embarks on a project that’s more delicate and insightful than mere naturalism.
It’s also, notably, a world apart from the approach embodied by contemporary films like Some Came Running and Wild River. Great though these are, you can never quite shake the feeling that the screenwriter has resorted to hillbilly verbiage as a shortcut to characterization. The remarkable performances of Shirley MacLaine and Lee Remick struggle mightily against this sociological strait jacket, with even the most emotionally immediate moments damaged by the insistent reminder that these women are irredeemably uneducated.
There’s no such condescension in The Night of the Hunter, largely because the film refuses to exploit class difference for the sake of melodrama. When Evelyn Varden says that she’s more interested in canning than sex, we chuckle, but we also recognize a real preference delivered without a note of doubt or self-consciousness. This is an important distinction that feeds directly into another of the film’s major achievements—its sober hysteria.
As noted, the original reviews of The Night of the Hunter were generally not sympathetic to this contradiction. One would expect some degree of understanding from a specialist publication like Films in Review—what better audience for a feature-length Griffith homage?—but they complained of arty pretension and over-extended ambition like many other outlets. The Chicago Daily Tribune rejected its violence as simultaneously ugly and laughable. The harshest notice probably came from the Washington Post, which accused Laughton of “cheap taste and apparent contempt for simple people,” resulting in “a hideous travesty on the human race.” (Three weeks after that pan, the Post’s movie critic devoted a column to a new trend of cynicism in cinema, bracketing The Night of the Hunter with The Big Knife and Rebel Without a Cause. All these films willfully contradicted the author’s assertion that “the rightness and generosity of individuals are as strong as they have ever been.”)
These reactions are especially interesting because our own feelings about The Night of the Hunter are largely their opposite. After decades of quotable killers in thrillers like The Godfather, Scarface, The Silence of the Lambs, and No Country for Old Men, Mitchum’s charismatic destroyer seems essentially modern and, in that sense, unremarkable. What makes The Night of the Hunter unique today is the manifest sincerity of its small-town values. Though Laughton and Agee acknowledge that horrible evil can visit West Virginia’s Cresap’s Landing, this is no exposé of the repressed void at the town’s heart. Whereas films like Blue Velvet and A History of Violence construct a parody of America to be disassembled, strawman-like, by kinky second-act revelations, The Night of the Hunter keeps the faith. (Literally. For a movie about religious hypocrisy, The Night of the Hunter can still recall chapter and verse.) Lillian Gish is the embodiment of goodness and wisdom, offered with no irony whatever. This is a film that tastes adult pain, but chooses a child’s moral compass anyway.
Is this a copout? Perhaps, but remember that Laughton viewed tragedy as a form of empathy and as an instigator to empowerment. Recognizing the great darkness of the world affirmed the resilience of the children who abide and endure. Like a live reading or a revival meeting, The Night of the Hunter achieves a trance-like conspiracy between speaker and listener.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society screens The Night of the Hunter in a terrifying 35mm print on Wednesday, December 19 at the Portage Theater. (Note the proximity to The Holiday Season.) Special thanks to Chris Chouinard of Park Circus. Please see our current calendar for more information.
“Film is Dead,” proclaimed one Logan Square art gallery last February, referring not only to the imminent end of film manufacture, but more broadly to moment when ‘film’ lost its currency and accuracy as short-hand for a diverse range of artistic activities. If everybody’s shooting on video/digital/data, then why persist in applying the genteel label of film to anything with the slightest genetic relation to sprocket-and-emulsion-based celluloid?
It’s an important question, albeit one that might be posed a bit less antagonistically. After all, film gains about as much from being associated with gallery installations as video artists do from being confused for 16mm cinematographers. Greater medium specificity and more precise vocabulary ultimately help everybody.
Or so we think. We could be content with these directives if artists themselves weren’t so interested in confounding these distinctions and boundaries. Consider Ken and Flo Jacobs’s recent Nervous Magic Lantern events. The Jacobs presented one such performance at the University of Chicago Film Studies Center last year; I caught a similar one at the Pacific Film Archive in 2009. The experience is akin to being inside an aquarium, or perhaps a particularly languid cabinet of curiosities. Chunky colors and object-like masses float across the screen, accompanied by a selection of unclassifiable records that retain the musk of a certain Greenpoint junk shop.
Manohla Dargis has outlined the importance of the Nervous Magic Lantern concept as well as anyone:
“I have no idea what I’m watching,” I scribbled into my notebook. I was more right than I knew.
What I watched was beautiful, hypnotic, mysterious and as close to a representation of three-dimensional imagery as I’ve ever seen without wearing funny glasses. It was pure cinema. As it happens, it was so pure that no celluloid had threaded its way through a projector. I hadn’t been watching a film, after all, or digital images, only light and shadow. Using an illusion machine of his own invention that he calls the Nervous Magic Lantern — an apparatus containing a spinning shutter, a light and lenses that he hides behind a black curtain when he isn’t performing what he calls “live cinema” — he had taken the experience of watching moving images back to its origins….
Now, with the Nervous Magic Lantern, [Jacobs] is re-asking one of the fundamental questions about the art: What is cinema? Is it celluloid? Digital? Movement? Light and shadow?
Chicago’s own Manual Cinema is posing comparable questions.
Although Manual Cinema’s principals claim no particular familiarity with film history or theory, their latest show, Lula del Ray, engages them all the same. (Like Jon Moses and Albert Birney’s The Beast Pageant, it’s essentially an outsider’s avant-garde film made by artists without the contaminations of influence or the temptations of imitation.) Pointedly called a ‘feature-length’ production and projected onto a Da-Lite portable screen that approximates the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Lula del Ray reconstructs cinema grammar from ground zero. Replete with wipes and superimpositions—all achieved with three overhead projectors, their light often obscured and regulated by hands and cardboard shutters—Lula Del Ray is a shadow-puppet performance told in alternating medium close-ups and wide shots. Its light boasts a solidity and texture that can only be recognized as cinematography. Images are fused together as one might expect from a film by Bruce Baillie, but it’s also a projector performance that recalls works like Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again or Harry Smith’s Mahagonny—but again, almost incidentally.
Ultimately, what makes Lula del Ray remarkable is the organic quality of its ideas. Throughout the show, the silhouettes of live actors interact fluidly with the puppets, miniature props, and projected transparencies; a live band strums alongside a pre-recorded soundtrack; expressive flashes of light burst behind the screen, overwhelming and scrambling the delicate on-screen compositions. These tensions are likewise reflected on the thematic and narrative level, especially when a crucial late revelation turns on the recognition of the puppets’ two-dimensionality as a state of being. Rather than demanding a suspension of disbelief, Lula del Ray exalts the reality of surfaces. It’s about puppetry and, by natural extension, cinema. We’re never less than totally aware of the artisanal craft at work, but somehow the show manages to make a singular case for a very different kind of (mass) cultural experience. Lula del Ray asks us to accept the physical and emotional integrity of machine-art. Cinema becomes a form of empathy—understanding through light.
I interviewed Drew Dir, Manual Cinema member and co-director and co-designer of Lula del Ray, about these issues earlier this week.
KW: You’ve talked about Manual Cinema’s work as an experiment in cinematic time—as if there’s a temporal dimension that is unique to cinema. What distin- guishes it from theater?
DD: Because we’re working exclusively on a screen, and because the overhead projectors stand in for cameras, we’re constructing narrative using editing and montage versus the usual tools of Aristotelian drama (contiguous time and place, etc.). In that sense, we think of time cinematically—I suppose I should qualify that by saying we think of time in terms of conventional narrative cinema. Of course, the audience is also always aware that there are people behind the screen making each and every one of the 233 shots by hand, so that informs the audience’s experience of time in a different way—it combines the lightness of cinema with the heaviness of theater.
KW: The principals in Manual Cinema all come from theatrical and musical backgrounds, but your productions are, of course, also explicitly addressing cinema. Is this a tribute, a corrective—returning the idea of cinema to a more productive origin point—or something else entirely?
DD: I don’t think any of us thought of it in that way when we started. Our company member Julia Miller was the instigator, and her starting point was puppetry. It’s actually been film people who have recognized those ideas in our work and named them for us, and the significance of our name—Manual Cinema—is sort of growing on us as time goes by. In fact, the people most interested in our work tend to be filmmakers and cinema aficionados, and there’s an affinity there that we take seriously and we’re still processing what it means for the work. There’s another group in Chicago we’re friends with called Screen Door who are producing what they call “live movies,” and one of their artists, Jack Mayer, very much thinks of the work he does as restoring or reviving cinema with liveness, but he’s a filmmaker, and he has a different investment in the medium and its fate than we do.
KW: Manual Cinema tends to talk about Lula del Ray as a particular kind of narrative theater, but I found it equally engrossing as an avant-garde film, with strategies that recall the work of artists like Pat O’Neill and Bruce Baillie. Did Manual Cinema have any cinematic reference points during the planning of Lula del Ray?
DD: At least in terms of the cinematography of the piece—if you want to call it that—it’s all based on our own ordinary consumption of Hollywood film: Wes Anderson, Pixar, Spielberg. For the most part our influences are pretty populist. For our previous show, Ada/Ava, which was a kind of fantastical psychological thriller, we did think explicitly of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And many people have pointed us to Lotte Reiniger’s animated films, though I feel bad admitting that I haven’t yet sat down to watch them.
KW: The projectors are part of your performance—and in earlier iterations of Lula del Ray, you’ve allowed the audience to see the puppeteers at work, hunched over these light machines. I think that most of us haven’t given much consideration to overhead projectors since middle school biology class—and certainly few appropriate them as instruments of art. What is it about these machines that prompted Manual Cinema to build a concept around them?
DD: Our first show used one overhead projector; on our second show we added another, and in Lula del Ray we use three. We can’t really claim credit for rediscovering the overhead projector, though. Especially among our generation of Chicago theater artists, they’re actually unusually prevalent. Redmoon Theater, with whom some of our members have worked, were really pioneers in establishing their use in shadow puppetry, and you can find performance artists all over the country using them to make work. We’re perhaps unusual in that we’ve committed our entire artistic project to working with them. The thing is that we already take them for granted; that is, we don’t think of their use as a “concept.” To us, they’ve simply become our weapon of choice, and we take pride in the fact that we’ve learned a lot about what they can do and how to tell stories with them.
KW: Film collectors tend to speak of 16mm and 35mm projectors they trust and those they don’t. (I like Kodak Pageants myself.) There’s a sense of connoisseurship but also a respect for a certain strain of industrial craft. How much care goes into selecting the overhead projectors? How does Manual Cinema procure them?
DD: Our favored model is the 3M 910 overhead projector. We currently own about ten of them. They’re useful for us because they can be adapted for two different lens configurations depending on how large we’d like to throw the projection. They’re also bulky, so there’s a lot of “off-stage” surface, which allows the puppeteers to keep their shadow puppets “in the wings,” and they’re sturdy, so we can put a lot of weight on them in performance. We source them from eBay and craigslist; I’m constantly scouring craigslist for the right models, and by now the collection we have comes from all over the country. The difficult part is sourcing replacement lenses, which we get from an obsolete electronics warehouse outside of Pittsburgh called MB Electronics. I hope they appreciate the shout-out.
KW: I have the sense that we’re living in an age that simultaneously mourns the passing of an analog world and commodifies what’s left. (You can walk up Milwaukee to Urban Outfitters and find a selection of 35mm still camera film promoted as DIY chic, for example.) Is there a progressive, non-nostalgic place for hand-crafted art?
DD: Manual Cinema is actually working with two obsolete but nostalgic technologies: overhead projectors and shadow puppetry. As a result, audiences bring a lot of their own nostalgia to our shows. We acknowledge that it’s part of our appeal, but we also try not to dwell on that in the content of our shows. As I said before, we think of it as the medium we’ve chosen, and we try to respect it in the same way other artists respect film or video or drama. Our hope is that audiences who might be drawn in because it seems like a gimmick or a parlor trick will leave with an appreciation of the craftsmanship and the story and the ideas.
Lula del Rey runs through December 16 at The Den Theater (1333 N. Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Floor). Photos courtesy Katherine Greenleaf and Manual Cinema. For more information, see www.manualcinema.com
What do Upstream, The Devil’s Passkey, Mare Nostrum, The Last Moment, A Woman of Paris, London After Midnight, The Old Dark House, The Case of Lena Smith, and Little Man, What Now have in common?
In 1967, all were included on a ‘rescue list’ issued by the then-brand-new American Film Institute. Collating the 150 or so important American films presumed beyond salvage or in imminent danger of disappearance, the list dictated priorities for scavengers and preservationists alike. With the Library of Congress acting as an on-again/off-again repository for American films and the privately-funded efforts of the Museum of Modern Art and George Eastman House receiving little exposure and minimal scrutiny, the urgency of such an undertaking was obvious. Some evidently important titles were gone outright: Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, Laurel and Hardy’s Hats Off, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot, Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s The Unknown. (The latter would eventually be found in the archives of the Cinémathèque française under the familiar but generic heading INCONNU—as in, Unidentified Film.) Undisputed classics like Stagecoach and Scarface (AFI selections both) circulated in wretched 16mm prints, with considerable doubt that prime 35mm elements even existed anymore. Amateur film scholars held out hope for an extant copy of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed in its complete, unreleased version. As the latter-day Internet Movie Database would advise, check your attics.
The AFI list remains fascinating, largely because roughly half the titles have since been found while the other half have remained elusive. The ready availability of DVD and Blu-ray versions for many titles has diminished our sense that they were ever lost in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine an account of film history without access to key titles like American Madness, Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Front Page, The Penalty, or Street Angel. (Too, the AFI overlooked several titles with considerable contemporary renown, such as George Loane Tucker’s The Miracle Man and Maurice Tourneur’s Prunella. Whether the AFI’s spotlight could have helped turn up complete versions of these films is unknowable.)
Lost films have always held a particular fascination for historians and the general public alike. More than most art forms, the industrial behemoth of cinema left ample traces of its extinct ranks—trade paper coverage, continuities, press books, posters, publicity stills, promotional memorabilia, to say nothing of the memories of the tens of thousands who saw these films when they were new. Whole books have been devoted to the subject—not only painstaking reconstructions of vanished masterpieces (such as Herman G. Weinberg’s coffee table tomes on the unexpurgated Greed and The Wedding March) but volumes that undertook the critically and semantically impossible task of determining the most important films that could not actually be reviewed. In his 1995 survey Flickers, Gilbert Adair selected a hundred emblematic film stills, one for every year since 1895; for 1926, he pointedly reprinted a lovely image from King Vidor’s Bardelys the Magnificent as a tribute to the peerless promise of lost films. (It doesn’t diminish Adair’s case that Bardelys was recovered by Serge Bromberg and re-issued on DVD in 2009; if anything, the irreverent impulses of Vidor’s film look impudent next to the ethereal stills.)
What’s the big deal about lost films anyway? Curator Paolo Cherchi Usai has cannily noted that the sifting, organizing, and recounting of film history necessarily entails the loss of certain titles. It could not be otherwise. (This has a certain logic: by definition, films are lost because no one especially cares about their whereabouts, whether by neglect or by design. Short of a vault fire, it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when a film becomes lost.) Historian William K. Everson trudged further into the weeds of the particular and produced a damning notice in 1978:
Long unseen films from the prestigious directors of the twenties—James Cruze, King Vidor, Henry King, Rex Ingram—invariably prove disappointing as they become available again. They are skilled, slick, and yet somehow lifeless, adding nothing to our knowledge of those directors’ work, and if anything, detracting from their reputations ….
The eternally frustrating aspect of the film output of the twenties is that we know there cannot be many more (if any) formal masterpieces awaiting rediscovery, nor is there much more time available for recovery. The intensive preservation crusades by U.S. and world-wide archives quite certainly unearthed all the sizable caches of lost films, which still face the expensive procedure of copying for preservation. James Cruze’s highly regarded Beggar on Horseback was one of the films thus saved—at least in part, for some of it had already deteriorated. But from the almost consistent stolidity and disappointment which mark Cruze’s work in this, his most accomplished period (The Covered Wagon, The Pony Express, Old Ironsides, The City Gone Mad)—all 1923-1926—one had the right to expect from Beggar on Horseback notable content but rather dull execution—and this proved to be very much the case. But against such disappointments, one can fall back on films like Smouldering Fires [Clarence Brown, 1925] or William K. Howard’s notable White Gold (1927), a film that predates and blueprints the better-known and bigger productions The Wind (by Victor Seastrom) and City Girl (by Murnau).
For Everson, the only filmmaker whose recovered work consistently exceeded expectations was John Ford. For decades, the entirety of Ford’s viewable silent output consisted of The Iron Horse and Four Sons, two commercially important but artistically limited and imitative works. The late 1960s and early ’70s brought a deluge of resurrected Fords: Cameo Kirby, Hangman’s House, and the quite major 3 Bad Men. Miraculously, a print of Ford’s very first feature—1917’s Straight Shooting—was found in Czechoslovokia’s Národní filmový archiv and restored with considerable hoopla and self-congratulation from the AFI. Ford attended a revival at the Montreal Film Festival and segments from the re-translated copy aired on NBC! Richard Koszarski included the film in a 1976 survey called ‘The Rivals of D.W. Griffith’ at the Walker Art Museum —pretty impressive for a piece of accomplished juvenilia that had only resurfaced a few years before.
These days, it’s not easy to see Straight Shooting. It’s not lost anymore, but it may as well be for the frequency of its theatrical screenings. A well-maintained archival negative doesn’t equate with a heavily-booked print. The same goes for many of the other rediscovered Fords, including Kentucky Pride, an eccentric 1925 entry (it’s told from the point of view of its titular horse) championed by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. At best, these films are hauled out once a decade in the context of an exhaustive (and exhausting) Ford season at an elite cinémathèque.
Had Upstream been recovered in 1970, rather than 2010, it probably would have met the same archival fate. Upstream may be a hotly anticipated title at the moment through an accident of history, but that’s no reason to be cavalier about it. Kentucky Pride notwithstanding, this is one gift horse.
Upstream has received considerable press as the crown jewel in an ad hoc collection of seventy-five American films repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive through the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Matching the orphan films to new American archival homes, the NFPF has undertaken a very ambitious project. In the case of Upstream, 20th Century Fox got involved and paid for a comprehensive restoration at New Zealand’s Park Road Post Production. (Because the nitrate copy was unique and justly famous, it was decided to undertake the duplication work in New Zealand, so as not to risk a catastrophic loss during transit.) The preservation negative of Upstream now lives at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles; the Academy hosted the American premiere of the restored version in September 2010 and it’s toured some since, opening the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Many of the New Zealand titles—but not Upstream—are streaming on the NFPF’s website.
The extent to which any of the recent major discoveries, like Upstream or the mostly-complete Metropolis found in Buenos Aires in 2008, were really ‘lost films’ is a matter of some controversy. These were not rusty cans discovered in the proverbial attic of some country bumpkin unaware of the pressing cultural imperative of old movies; these films were sitting in reputed archives with professional inventories, backed by solid, documented chains of provenance. Their survival is not exactly mysterious or random.
Upstream was deposited at the New Zealand Film Archive by the family of Jack Murtagh (1913-1989), a projectionist and glass slide salesman who kept a shed full of films acquired on his travels. (As New Zealand was often the last leg on a film’s tour, oversight of a print’s whereabouts was sometimes lacking; would Fox care much if a print of a minor picture like Upstream was never returned, especially since its useful commercial life in major territories was already well over?) The story behind the cache of repatriated American titles has received limited coverage, but the New Zealand Film Archive’s Newsreel has documented these matters with considerable pride [PDF]:
Morris Jackson of Christchurch was responsible for six titles in the collection. Morris operated Film Services in Matipo Road from the 1960s, selling film equipment, projectors and operating a large 16mm rental library specializing in Fox & MGM titles. In more recent years Morris offered a film-to-video service.
Collections of nitrate originally came from the Auckland wine merchant Assid Corban Snr and Invercargill theater owner Warren Sparks. Small places as well as cities have yielded collections: Opotiki, Rangiora, Otorohonga, Wellington, Masterton, and Blenheim.
Two nitrate collections were salvaged from auction houses and estates. The largest of these was the Helliwell Collection discovered in a Berhampore house when Mr Smiles (aka Glen MacDonald), who ran a second-hand shop in Wellington’s Cuba Street, stumbled upon the cans of nitrate while clearing the contents of the late Mr Helliwell’s house.
Is it an indictment of the archives that these films sat on the shelf so long or a testament to their collection stewardship? These films were hardly unnoticed or neglected, nor were they deliberately withheld from public view. If we misconstrued these films as ‘lost,’ it was largely because we artificially constricted the purview of our search.
The case of Metropolis is instructive. Fernando Peña spent two decades tracking down the longest extant cut of Lang’s spectacle before finally verifying the completeness of the 16mm negative held by the Museo del Cine. Though Peña’s discovery earned considerable international attention, the press was less interested in the precarious position of Argentina’s own film heritage.
Preservation is inherently polemical. It’s about cultural priorities—it literally entails choosing which films to save right now and which ones might stand to wait a little longer, even if that means they might deteriorate further (and possibly irretrievably) in the interim. The challenge is to save not just the Ford films that win headlines, but the unknown pictures that don’t.
Above all, it’s supremely important to show the films to the public. An engaged audience is the best antidote to the apathy that lets films get lost in the first place.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society proudly presents the Chicago premiere of the 2010 restoration of Upstream on December 5 at the Portage Theater. The film has not screened in Chicago in over eighty years. It will be accompanied on the organ by Jay Warren. Special thanks to Caitlin Robertson of 20th Century Fox, Brian Block of Criterion Pictures, USA, and May Haduong of the Academy Film Archive. Please see here for additional information.
Several of the shorts in our Wladyslaw Starewicz program (Screening Sunday 11/2 at 7pm at Cinema Borealis) are coming from film collector and animation historian Tommy Stathes. We exchanged a few questions with Tommy by e-mail about some of his ongoing projects and his role in keeping film alive.
JA: What came first, your interest in film collecting or your interest in animation? How did you first get involved with both?
TS: I was definitely deeply interested in animation as a very young child, well before the moment when I understood that I could collect anything. Growing up in the early 90s, I was seeing most classic animation by way of VHS tapes given to me as gifts by older family members, and less occasionally, on television. As for why I gravitated toward animation so much at such a young age, I’ll never know, although it’s generally accepted that most infants, toddlers and older children simply love cartoons. My fascination and urge to see more and more and eventually learn about their history was the unusual aspect.
My parents and grandparents were all instrumental in seeking out more tapes once I started showing a great interest in the ones I already owned as a toddler. It was probably around 1995 when I realized I could start looking for tapes in stores on my own (with mom’s or dad’s assistance, of course!), and that began a little collecting craze. However, my knowledge was limited as this was before we had a computer or the internet at home, and I was still a very young child. A couple years later, my father happened upon a small collection of 1940s 16mm cartoons in bright, attractive Castle Films boxes and acquired them for me, knowing I would love the packaging. I didn’t have any clue what a reel of film was or how it could be used, though, and it took awhile before an elderly family member dug out a 16mm projector and introduced me to the magic of actual film projection. I was immediately hooked, and the rest is history. I estimate that by age 13 or so, I began seriously collecting film prints and today I own over 1,000 silent and early sound animation subjects in my personal archive.
JA: A lot of film collectors (and collectors in general) tend to only provide “access” to their materials when dealing with other collectors and close friends (e.g. secret basement screenings), but you sort of bridge a gap between the private collector world, the archiving world, and the exhibitor world by maintaining a collection and providing access to it via digital transfers and public screenings. What do you think the responsibilities of a collector are in an increasingly digital world? What’s the mission of Cartoons on Film?
TS: I originally began collecting film prints not only because it was a fascinating medium, but also because in most cases, 16mm prints were the only examples of many of these films that could be viewed–a shockingly low percentage of what survived or was still accessible in the 1980s and 1990s had been transferred to video, and even less than that was available to the average VHS consumer. I was very frustrated to read about early animation history and not be able to go to the video store or look in a mail order catalog and find the films I was reading about. So, once I discovered 16mm, that was also the method by which I could actually see some of these films, and I believe others should be able to see them as well.
As you mention, today there is a necessity for reliance on digital mediums. I’ve provided access to some of my material in the way of unrestored, standard-definition DVD transfers so that any researcher, fan, or historian can watch and own a copy of some of this material. Remember how I mentioned that so little of what survived in 16mm was transferred to video? Even more bothersome is the fact that little of what was available on VHS has been made available on DVD, and I’ve tried to fill that void with my own home-brewed collections. That being said, though, I do have lots more in the way of 16mm than what I offer on DVD. We’re in a transition period, though, and it looks like the trend for video consumption is now moving to the online realm. I will be sharing more of my material with the public, but it’s not clear yet whether to invest in and rely on the DVD market for much longer.
In the meantime, I have the great pleasure of curating occasional 16mm screenings in the NYC area (something I’d like to greatly increase) as well as making some prints available to fellow exhibitors and screening venues. Film is an art form that was meant to be seen and shared and while collectors have every right not to share what they own, I feel that a mutual consumption of film is what benefits us all the most. Viewers are usually very appreciative to see rare film material, and print owners are often celebrated for their collecting efforts in this arrangement.
The trouble with digital anything is the risk for limitless copying and filesharing, so some caution needs to be exercised when circulating rare material that way. Rampant sharing of films on the internet by people other than the collector who generously digitized a film can often downplay that collector’s efforts in the field, and often even cut into any living he or she makes by curating and screening the physical material. Unfortunately, the attitude of some people nowadays is “If I can see a film in low-res on YouTube or the Internet Archive, why should I buy a DVD, attend and pay for a physical screening, or pay a collector and lecturer to show a film in my community?” In other words, digital is a double-edged sword. It’s marvelous for quick access and reference, but can be awful when an intellectual property is exploited in a way that negatively affects someone’s ability to afford food. It’s also not a great archival medium.
JA: You started the Bray Animation Project in 2011. Can you tell us a little about the studio and your goals for the project?
TS: Gladly! In short, the Bray Studios was the first fully-functioning animation studio, and it helped create and also held ground in the new industry for several years. Founded in 1913 by J.R. Bray, the New York City ‘assembly line’ cartoon factory produced animated content throughout the silent era, and helped launch the careers of classic animation moguls like Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz, and Paul Terry among others.
The studio’s films were, surprisingly, better archived than most product of its time throughout the decades, but sadly the surviving material has been largely unavailable and obscured since the 1950s. I’m doing my best to try and amass the largest archive of the studio’s films so they can once again be studied and enjoyed. I currently have just over 200 of their roughly 600 animated comedy and educational cartoons, and my main goal is to keep searching, discovering, acquiring and copying more of them as they turn up in private collections and archives. My second and more long-term goal is to bring the films (and the stories behind their production and archiving) back into public view, especially as I get closer to collecting complete series. Many are lost, but “lost” films do turn up every so often!
JA: You’re in the process of making new 16mm prints of two Walter Lantz cartoons. How difficult is this to do? Do you have any more “film-to-film” (to borrow a phrase from the Academy Film Archive) preservation projects planned?
TS: This is not difficult at all to do. Providing a film element can still run through lab equipment (as these can), there’s a simple process involved: make a new internegative, and then master and reference prints off that new negative. I hope to do this for several other cartoons as funds allow. It’s not immensely expensive, either, but requires some fundraising and creativity since I cannot fund all this out of pocket. As I said earlier, digital is simply not an archival option, at least not in my eyes. If a rare, valuable film exists in a film format, I believe it should be preserved in its native format instead of simply being copied to digital.
Every other week, we seem to get a new lament about the End of Cinema. Usually, the blame falls on modern Hollywood and its infantilizing comic book movies. Never before in the history of movies, claims David Denby in The New Republic, was so much attention and capital devoted to an endless succession of sequels aimed at ten-year-old boys. The eight-decade reign of Adult Movies is a distant memory.
There’s no denying that Disney allocated unfathomable sums to The Avengers, but Hollywood did not become an adolescent assembly-line overnight. Indeed, these industry-wide ambitions stretch back decades. King Kong premiered in March 1933 and RKO managed to release runt follow-up Son of Kong by year’s end. Columns devoted to the lasting eloquence of classic-era adult product like Jezebel rarely acknowledge that these special films existed alongside interminable series pictures aimed squarely at the kiddie matinee trade. A prolific modern franchise like Saw yielded seven entries between 2003 and 2010; by comparison, audiences were treated to no less than forty-eight Bowery Boys features between 1946 and 1958. (Some might suggest that this is a false equivalence, as the average Bowery Boys outing imparts crisper moral education than the torture porn of Saw. These folks have never sat through an entire Bowery Boys movie.)
We cull film history for isolated masterpieces, but the trajectory of the medium can probably be understood better through the typical, repetitive junk that provided producers with steady, safe returns. Sometimes, this product can even intersect with real art.
The films of William S. Hart provide a compelling test case. They’re hardly junk, but even Hart’s partisans must acknowledge that they are repetitive. See them singly over a number of years and each looks like a revelation. Watch a few in quick succession, and the limitations of Hart’s interests and strategies become immediately evident.
Always Hart played the good-bad man and always he glimpsed redemption in an innocent maid. The hostility at the core of civic society never abated. (The exceptions proved the rule: Hart’s deviations from his established screen persona courted instant absurdity, such as his turn as an Aztec chieftain in 1916’s The Captive God.)
This is not a wholly retrospective observation. In 1920, Carl Sandburg reviewed Hart’s latest, Staking His Life, in familiar terms for the Chicago Daily News:
The ingenuity of the studio group surrounding Bill Hart brings fresh admiration with this film. Haven’t they been showing him now for years riding horses, gambling, shooting, getting religion, making sacrifices? And wouldn’t we almost think soon they would run out of fresh plots and fresh air and the wild west would go a little stale? Yes, naturally we might presume just such circumstances. But it would be presumptuous on our part.
These studio workers around Bill Hart seem to be what on Dorchester Avenue they call indefatigable. They either give new stuff entirely, or if they use old stuff they make it more refreshingly antique.
This was not only an American sentiment. If anything, French enthusiasm for Hart—known in Gallic circles as “Rio Jim”—was even greater. Consider Louis Delluc’s review of The Cold Deck from a 1919 issue of Paris-midi:
William Hart, the popular Rio Jim, is the tragedian of the cinema. He mounts a horse like Mounet-Sully descends a staircase….
In his domain, William Hart has the same godlike serenity and the same violent ways. He is no ordinary cowboy of the circus or of a thousand and one dashed-off films. He is the synthesis of that plastic beauty which marks the schematic and almost stylized Far West. Transcending the specific details of his characters, William Hart reveals a profoundness of spirit. They used to call him “the man from nowhere.” What a lovely title! We never know where Rio Jim comes from. He just passes through. He crosses the West—and the West is so huge. He arrives on horseback. He leaps down onto the ground where other men live. Generally, the time that he remains there is devoted to suffering, that is, to loving ….
Never has William Hart been so nobly tragic and so simply grandiose. He emerges in the milieu of the usual crowds and decors of this stylized Far West of the cinema, where the splendid fatalism of Sophocles comes alive for us—but it is still too early to say whether the cinema will have as intense a presence as the great Greek spectacles which whole people attended.
With his 1921 essay “From Orestes to Rio Jim,” Delluc settled this question once and for all. “Aeschylus did not create Prometheus on purpose,” concluded Delluc, “it was forced on him. Rio Jim is the advance guard of the coming great film figures.”
If Hart’s films endure, credit must go to the durability of the craft. Watch almost any Hart film and you’re bound to come away impressed with Joseph August’s top-notch photography, a dusty recall of reanimated frontiers. The efficiency and emotional coherence of the staging is also notable, on par with the complex work seen in such contemporary European imports as Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm. The art titles possess an undeniable graphic beauty, too, enriching and commenting upon the action on-screen. And, of course, we have the immobile but expressive Hart visage above all—a chiseled stoicism that somehow expressed boundless rage and enduring love with the very same tics.
These virtues were not Hart’s alone, but few others insisted upon them with such consistency. The Hart pictures were a brand and a very reliable one for millions of fans.
Yet as technically impressive as many Hart films were and remain, their distinguishing feature lies elsewhere. As Diane Koszarski has observed, “Hart’s characteristic signature as an auteur is the glowing moral intensity of his films; it glimmers fitfully even in a light-hearted piece like Branding Broadway and bursts in apocalyptic glory in Hell’s Hinges and Selfish Yates. No Western stars of his time or later could match Hart’s fundamentalist grandeur (or particularly cared to).”
The Hart films are fiery sermons with no patience for extenuating circumstances or question-begging. He’s a frontier preacher with only one lesson, delivered with slightly different inflections and citations each week. Even more so than his contemporary D.W. Griffith, Hart strives to “show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.”
If we don’t share Hart’s strain of Victorian-Calvinist conservatism, why should we treat the consistency of these themes as a virtue? This is a difficult question, not least because it embodies a kind of sticky Eastern skepticism that Hart would likely meet with a sock to the jaw. One answer might go something like this:
Hart’s screen career lasted a little over a decade, but those years saw a wholesale transformation of the movie industry that can be traced with extraordinary precision through Hart’s films. All bluster aside, Hart’s earliest screen endeavors really did represent a sort of frontier, before commercial moviemaking became regimented and standardized. The early Hart films, like The Disciple and Hell’s Hinges, give us 200-proof Hart—an artist encumbered only by the moral thicket of his own doubts and recriminations.
As the film industry organizes itself with increasing efficiency after 1917, Hart’s films doggedly try to hold on to their primal, artisanal fury. The films from the early 1920s are not entirely successful, but they are moving as artifacts of an ongoing, bodily struggle. Hart’s films had been formulaic, but they had been his formula. Hart’s absolutism had no need of subplots, auxiliary characters, or comic relief (they were distractions from an already-legible moral lesson) and his films strain mightily under the yolk of these impositions. The over-extended plot of White Oak (1921) meanders indifferently. Hart’s final feature, Tumbleweeds (1925) tries to imitate the epic, multi-character mode of The Covered Wagon but plays like a pre-digested spectacle, ambitious but resigned. It’s a sermon with a circus built up all around it.
That Hart persisted in his strident evangelism from the maw of the nascent studio system is not heroic, per se, but it’s notable when most Hollywood features from the period were so shorn of rough edges and personal conviction. Hart’s films offer us invaluable insight into American cinema, religion, geography, and industry in brief, brittle concert.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society screens William S. Hart’s 1920 feature Sand in an archival 35mm print from the Library of Congress on Wednesday, November 14 at the Portage Theater. Jay Warren will provide live organ accompaniment. Special thanks to Rob Stone and Lynanne Schweighofer. For more information, please see our current schedule.
Everyone brings their own personal baggage to the movies, and I don’t think I’m alone in treating them too readily as literature. Much of the vocabulary we apply to film comes from long-ago high school English classes. We assume that every detail is a puzzle piece that leads inexorably to a deliberate display of thematic unity and artistic expression. Analyze this film, we’re asked, and we begin to point out a camera movement like it’s an enjambment in a poem. We’re blessed with a bag of critical tools but we apply them as if every work is a self-contained thing that we can understand without leaving the house.
Luckily, there are some films that demand a different kind of engagement and derive the whole of their meaning and impact from what we do with them afterwards. They can’t exist without oxygen. Every Oscar season we’re inundated with films that we’re assured are ‘inspiring’ in a non-threatening, heart-warming sort of way (witness The King’s Speech, War Horse, or this year’s Flight), but it’s another thing to talk about a film that aspires to instigate its audience to action. (I like especially the card that ends the second part of Hour of the Furnaces, Fernando Solanas’s four-and-half-hour essay film about the history of neocolonialism and resistance in Argentina: “Intermission—for debate.”)
For the past seven years, Amy Heller and Dennis Doros have been working to resurrect a forgotten strand of agitational American political films through the Milliarium Zero imprint of their distribution company Milestone. Winter Soldier, the first Milliarium Zero release from 2005, documents a landmark 1971 hearing organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It’s a film with such unimpeachable moral clarity that it makes every other war film I’ve seen look tremulous and small. (Winter Soldier is also a film record of the short-lived rectitude of John Kerry, who offers sharp testimony about Vietnam atrocities in a cameo; his performance is a universe removed from the uncritical military pageantry that engulfed his 2004 Democratic National Convention.)
Following Winter Soldier, Milliarium Zero handled theatrical distribution for UCLA’s restoration of Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, an oral history of queer Americans who had outgrown, outlasted, and overcome the closet. Long before LGBTQ became a standard acronym, Word Is Out already demonstrated that label’s inadequacy. (And right now, Milestone is also raising funds to restore another cinematic artifact that explodes received notions of queer history: Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, the shaggy dog monologue of a singularly self-contemplating male hustler.)
It only makes sense, then, that Milliarium’s latest release, You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South, charts society’s advance through the self-empowerment of everyday people. Its co-director, Lucy Massie Phenix, who also contributed to the collective productions of Winter Soldier and Word is Out, spoke with us last week about the film and its implications for present-day political problems.
KW: Let’s start out by talking about why you made the film.
LMP: The film was made to be an organizing film. I’m sure that there are many other factors involved, because I wanted it to be a really good film in the time that it was made. But the film was always meant to be a film that inspired people to go out and get involved themselves. I think of it still as an organizing film, even though it’s about a time that is now historical. So when it’s shown, it’s really nice to have it shown in the context of people going out and using it and to find their own role in the change that we’re challenged to make in these times. And that’s the reason I’m so happy that you’re showing it.
LMP: In 1980, I had just finished editing The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. I was learning a lot about propaganda, especially propaganda during the Second World War. A lot about unions during that time. But I also was very aware that we were moving into a different era because of the election of Reagan. I happened to go to a conference organized by the Physicians for Social Responsibility on the medical consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
That was something that was very much in the forefront of our consciousness then. It wasn’t just Reagan. Carter had just signed the First Strike Initiative, which said that we would make a first strike in a nuclear confrontation. I got very, very affected by that conference when I went to it. I was already feeling pretty powerless. I was wondering whether making films was the way I could be most effective in bringing about change.
Shortly after that, Myles Horton came out to lecture for a few days at the University of California at Berkeley. I had been involved with the Civil Rights movement and had gone to the Highlander Folk School back in the mid-’60s, so I knew Myles. It was what he said when he came out here that made me realize that Highlander’s work had always addressed itself to the question of people coming into their own power. It started out with unions in the South in 1932 and even the organization of unemployed workers in Grundy County, Tennessee. Highlander had always addressed itself to people who wanted to move on their own power and also really wanted to feel their own power.
The influence and philosophy behind Highlander really had to do with bringing people together to analyze what their powerlessness consisted of. Analyze what was going on in their communities, and analyze what could be done, who were the forces at work, and what part it is that the people in the community wanted to effect.
I thought, ‘This is worthy. This is what I want to make a film about. How do people who feel powerless come to realize that they are empowered?’ And I had that question because I felt it myself and I think that’s a perennial question. It comes up with all of us from time to time.
KW: In the years since the film came out, do you think these questions have changed? Sometimes our era seems more receptive to this kind of discourse but in other ways, more hostile. Union busting is now a bipartisan political tactic.
LMP: I’m glad you’re showing it now because I think we’re in another place like that. It’s certainly relevant for people looking at what has been happening and what is right now happening with unions. We’ve just come from an election where we have to say we have a very divided country.
KW: It wasn’t an accident that we scheduled You Got to Move for the first weekend after the election. Of course, we didn’t know the outcome when we made the booking. Either people would be very discouraged and have a lot to organize about or be happy and—
LMP: Still have a lot to organize about.
LMP: As soon as the election was over, the work has become for me, and for the people around me, how do we organize now to put pressure on Obama? How do we organize to understand the forces on him so that the pressure we apply can really be creative? How do we move from here? We can’t get stuck by any of this. I’m not at all interested anymore in the election. I could look at it and analyze it, and I’m sure that’s what the pundits are doing, but to me it looks like I learned a lot from what happened with Occupy.
I can’t speak from experience, because I wasn’t really involved in Occupy, but if you’ve been following what’s been going on in Far Rockaway, where Hurricane Sandy was really devastating, it was the Occupy people who really knew how to come in there and help the local people because some of the Occupy people were the local people. How to get organized and deliver what people needed, including food and flashlights and diapers. How to make a relevant response to a real crisis.
We really need to work across the traditional divides and discover the ways that people in communities can come together to make changes. Redefine what the ‘we’ is, as Myles put it.
We also have to redefine what it is that we’re doing. There’s this fiscal cliff that they say we’re on. And we’re not on a fiscal cliff. This country isn’t broke. People are being robbed. But as long as they define it as the fiscal cliff, we’re accepting other people’s definition of our struggle. I think this film has the power to make people see beyond.
LMP: It was never distributed well enough. It was screened at the York Cinema in San Francisco. There were places that it was screened—not big theaters, but university settings and community settings. It’s never been on public television and I think that’s a real shame. At one point, the MacArthur Foundation selected You Got to Move for inclusion in its Library Video Classics Project, which meant that they put copies in every public library with a circulating VHS collection. That’s the way that it was really most widely seen at the time.
As soon as VHS was defunct and before DVD came in, You Got to Move was just not seen by anybody. People would contact me and see if they could use a copy. That’s why it was so wonderful that Milestone wanted to pay for the remastering and get it out on the DVD.
Over the last year, I’ve been talking about new strategies for getting it out to people, too, including streaming it on the web, because that’s how people do things now. But we can’t ignore the old ways of getting it out. It was shot on 16mm and it was always shown in 16mm. That’s how it was. I’m not interested in that for nostalgic reasons.
KW: Right now we hear about how digital is this very democratic medium that allows people from all walks of life with a very small investment to create media and agitate. That’s very true, but at the same time, there’s so much hubbub about that, we get a very skewed sense of the past and how widely 16mm was used and how flexible its use was and how varied its audience was.
LMP: I don’t think young people really get it at all. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is how people are all walking around with their phones and watching YouTube on their phones and everyone is watching it by themselves and they send a link to someone else. It’s wonderful that it can move so quickly through the population, but it takes away the power of an audience.
One of the places that we showed the film that was most effective to me was at the American Friends Service Committee downtown meeting. Maybe six or seven years ago. There were all of these young organizers there from the Latino community who just didn’t know that history. But it wasn’t just what people were learning about the subject, but the fact that they were learning it together in the same room. The room just crackled with people who wanted to tell stories to each other and talk about strategy for organizing. That’s why I made it.
If people in the audience have any ideas about the use of the film now, I want to hear from them. It’s not a historical piece, but about bringing history into the fore to make use of it. I hope it’s useful.
The Northwest Chicago Film Society will screen You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South on Sunday, November 11 at 6:00 and 8:30pm at Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. The 8:30pm screening will be accompanied by a discussion with film critic and Highlander alumnus Jonathan Rosenbaum. The film will be screened in the only circulating 16mm print. Special thanks to Amy Heller, Dennis Doros, and especially Lucy Massie Phenix.